TOPPLING THE STATUES

Thoughts on Re’eh (5777/2017)

(Deut. 11:26 – 16:17)

[Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday, August 18, 2017]

One of my favorite Shabbat zemirot is “Ki Eshmera Shabbat” with which we opened our service.  We sang the chorus of that song:  Ki Eshmera Shabbat El Yishmereini – “When I guard Shabbat, God guards me.”  Ot hi le’olma ad beino uveini. – “It is an eternal sign between God and me.”

What this all boils down to then is just this:  Shabbat makes everything better.

I should mention, however, that the editors of our siddur didn’t include the rest of the song Ki Eshmera Shabbat.  What really does it mean to say ki eshemera Shabbat, that I will keep the Sabbath?  The song, composed in Spain in the 12th century by Abraham Ibn Ezra goes on to explain:

Asur mtzo cheyfetz, asot derachim,

Gam miledaber bo, divrei tzerachim,

Divrei sechora, af divrei melachim,

Ehgeh betorat eyl, utechakmeinu…

 

“It is not permitted to pursue weekday activities,

Or to talk about matters of necessities;

Neither business concerns nor political talk;

I will reflect upon God’s Torah, and it will make me wise.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done after such an eventful week as the one that we have just experienced.

And, as is often the case, merely encountering the words of the weekly Torah portion is likely to evoke connections to current events.  For me this week it’s Deuteronomy 12: 2-3, early on in Parashat Re’eh, that bring me back to the news of the day:

ב  אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ-שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹרְשִׁים אֹתָם--אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם:  עַל-הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל-הַגְּבָעוֹת, וְתַחַת כָּל-עֵץ רַעֲנָן.

2 You shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that you are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree.

ג  וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם, וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם, וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן; וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת-שְׁמָם, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.

3 And you shall tear down their altars, and dash into pieces their statues and burn their sacred posts with fire; and cut down the graven images of their gods; obliterating their name from that place.

In the Torah, this refers to statues of Canaanite gods.   The whole Canaanite culture, Moses tells us, needed to be uprooted entirely so that the scourge of paganism would be eradicated from the Land of Israel, and so that our people would not be tempted to go down that path of apostasy.

Funny thing is – such passages in the Torah have always troubled me.  We live in a pluralistic age.  We live in an age in which progressive people, among whom I would include myself, usually strive to protect freedom of speech and thought, even thought that we don’t like.  

That’s why one of the most progressive organizations of them all, the American Civil Liberties Union, defended in Court the right-wing extremists who sought to rally in Charlottesville at the site of a statue of Robert E. Lee.  A statue which, like many other such monuments around the country, has triggered intense debate.  Some see such monuments as historical tributes to a noble cause.   Others see them as no less obscene than the Canaanite altars that so offended the God of the Hebrew Bible.

But the intellectual arguments about the pros and cons of removing Confederate monuments are, of course, just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The problem for Moses was not the Canaanite statues per se.  The problem was the ideas that they represented.  The same is true for statues honoring the Confederacy.

Ultimately, the Civil War was about defeating the evil of slavery.  And, ultimately, our current domestic strife is about defeating the evil of racism that has never ended, even one and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War.

And, of course, we had the added element of anti-Semitism.  The Neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville shouting “Jews Will Not Replace Us”.  And the local Jewish congregation hid away their Torah scrolls off site because they had received threats that their shul might be torched.

The heavily armed White Nationalists claimed that they did not advocate violence, but violent clashes between them and armed left-wing “Antifa” counter protesters erupted nonetheless.

And the day culminated with the hit and run killing by a low-life neo-Nazi thug of a brave young woman, Heather Heyer, who had come to counter protest against the white supremacists.

I think President Trump has been given somewhat of a bum rap by the mainstream media this week and by spokespeople on both sides of the political spectrum.  He said that there was violence on both sides.  And that is true.

He did not say that White supremacists, racists, and neo-Nazis are morally equivalent to those who oppose them. To the contrary, he condemned hate in all its forms.  Saying that both sides committed violence in Charlottesville is not the same as saying that the ideas espoused by either side are of comparable value.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the President failed to inspire us this week.  Failed to soothe our national pain this week.  Failed to bring us together. 

I must admit that earlier this week I was feeling like I felt after 9-11.  When the foreign terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon sixteen years ago, I felt unsafe and disoriented.

And when the domestic right-wing fanatics marched through Charlottesville preaching hate one week ago, I also felt unsafe and disoriented.

But, as I said at the outset, Shabbat makes everything better.

And the expressions of communal solidarity we have witnessed in the past week --- the candlelight vigils, the memorial tributes, the reaching out of neighbor to neighbor – these have also made everything better.

Truth be told, things are not substantively different than a week ago. 

Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia and sexism – to name just a few of our society’s ills – existed before Charlottesville and exist after Charlottesville. 

What needs to be done?

Donald Trump has said a lot of stupid, hateful, ill-informed, juvenile things in his short tenure in office, but for the moment I choose to focus on these words from our President:

“No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws. We all salute the same great flag and we are all made by the same almighty god. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.”[1]

To which I would say – Keyn Yehi Ratzon/ May this indeed be God’s will and may we soon see the day when this becomes a reality.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg

August 2017/ Av 5777

 

[1] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trumps-remarks-melee-charlottesville/story?id=49205629

Posted on August 22, 2017 .

PUT TO THE TEST

Thoughts on Parashat Ekev

(Deut. 7:12 – 11:25)

[Revised version of Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 8/11/17]

Tests are no fun.

Okay – I did have a college professor once who said that we should enjoy writing our final exam because it would give us an opportunity to consolidate all we had learned in the course. 

And, I have in fact met a few people over the course of my life who were academically even nerdier than me – if you can believe that --- who enjoyed taking tests.

But not me.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, Moses asserts that the forty-year-long slog through the wilderness --- that this too was a test:

“Remember the long way that the Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, in order to test you by hardships, to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not.”[1]

On the other hand, the prophet Jeremiah sees that trek as a sort of extended honeymoon, portraying God as saying:

I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”[2]  

Still, the Deuteronomy version strikes me as more realistic when it uses the language of :

לְמַ֨עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֜ לְנַסֹּֽתְךָ֗ / lema’an anotekha lenasotekha (“in order to test you by hardships”)

The verb לנסות/“lenasot”/”to test” has its most vivid appearance in the Torah back in the Book of Genesis in the opening words of the story of the Binding of Isaac. 

וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם/ “Vayehi achar hadevarim ha’eyleh veha’elohim nisah et Avraham.” (“And it came to pass, after all these things, that God tested Abraham.”)[3]

Some commentaries exist that portray Abraham – and even Isaac – as being eager to be subjected to that extreme נסיון  /nisayon/ “ test” of faith.  But the words of our traditional shacharit liturgy strike a more responsive chord in me when they invite us to beseech God: 

וְאַל תְּבִיאֵנוּ לֹא לִידֵי חֵטְא. וְלֹא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה וְעָוֹן. וְלֹא לִידֵי נִסָּיוֹן. וְלֹא לִידֵי בִזָּיוֹן.

“Ve’al tevieynu lo lidey chet, velo lidey averah ve’avon, velo lidey nisayon velo lidey bizayon.”

 “Lead us not into error, transgression, iniquity, temptation or disgrace”

That’s actually Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ translation.

But the word he translates as “temptation” -- נִסָּיוֹן   (“nisayon”) – literally means “testing.”

So, we could translate it as “Lead us not into error, transgression, inquity, NISAYON/TESTING or disgrace ---   from the same verb לנסות  (lenasot) that we find in Parashat Ekev concerning the 40 years of testing by hardships – and  in Akedat Yitzkhak (the “Binding of Isaac” episode in Genesis 22) concerning God’s testing of Abraham when God commands him to sacrifice his son. 

To give you one more example of NISAYON/TESTING, in Psalm 95, traditionally recited every Friday night as part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, we find the admonition:

אַל־תַּקְשׁ֣וּ לְ֭בַבְכֶם כִּמְרִיבָ֑ה כְּי֥וֹם מַ֝סָּ֗ה בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

אֲשֶׁ֣ר נִ֭סּוּנִי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּ֝חָנ֗וּנִי גַּם־רָא֥וּ פָעֳלִֽי׃

“Don’t be stubborn as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah, in the wilderness,

when your ancestors tested Me, tried Me, though they had seen My deeds.”[4]

So, God, it would seem, doesn’t like being tested either.

As we gather here this Shabbat, we find two famously volatile world leaders testing each other.

And just as being put to the test was no fun for Abraham at Mt. Moriah, or the Israelites in the wilderness, or generations of students at semester’s end –

It’s no fun for us either.

To say the least.

As with any issue of global import, the issues are not as cut and dried as we might like to imagine.

One can be horrified by the charged rhetoric of President Trump.

But one might also reasonably wonder whether that’s the sort of rhetoric that is needed when dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong-un

One might view the North Korean President as an irrational aggressor. 

But one might also remember that when Muammar Gaddafi of Libya gave up his weapons of mass destruction, he was rewarded with a NATO-led invasion that ousted him and led to his death at the hands of his own people.

Although the rhetoric coming from Trump and Kim Jong-Un is alarming, my sense is that we are not heading for a return of  the guns of August 1914; or the mushroom clouds of August 1945; or the missiles of October 1962.

Wiser heads will prevail.

Trump and Kim Jong-Un will be satisfied with rattling their respective verbal sabers.

And everyone will declare victory and walk away.

At least let’s hope and pray that this is indeed the case:

Shabbat shalom.

[Postscript:  The diplomatic flare-up over North Korea was quickly overshadowed this past weekend by the demonstrations and domestic terrorism that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. Amidst those tragedies and crises, the one possible silver lining is that it provided face-saving “breathing space” for the Trump and Kim Jong-Un administrations to tamp down their threatening rhetoric. See:  https://www.vox.com/world/2017/8/15/16150412/trump-north-korea-charlottesville ]

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg

August 2017/ Av 5777

 

[1] Deuteronomy 8:2

[2] Jeremiah 2:2 (This is one of the zichronot/”remembrances” verses featured in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.)

[3] Genesis 22:1 (This is the Torah reading for the second morning of Rosh Hashanah.)

[4] Psalm 95: 8-9 (The reference to “Massah and Meribah” refers to the incident described at Exodus 17: 1-7)

Posted on August 15, 2017 .

DISCORD AT THE WALL

Thoughts on Matot-Mas’ei (5777/2017)

(Numbers 30:2 – 36:13)

[dvar torah given on Friday, July 22, 2017 at Temple Israel, Duluth] 

The title of the first portion of our double Torah portion for this Shabbat is “Matot” which means “Tribes”. 

As it says in the opening of our parasha –

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃

 “Moses spoke to the heads of the TRIBES of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing that Adonai has commanded”:[1]

When I was in Israel during the summer of 2014 for a study mission of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, I attended a Shabbat morning service at Bet Daniel, Tel Aviv’s main Reform congregation.  It was Shabbat Matot and an Israeli 13-year-old there was marking the occasion of his becoming a Bar Mitzvah.  I recall vividly how he related to the idea of “Matot”/”Tribes” of Israel in his bar mitzvah speech.  In the Torah, the idea of course refers to the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob.  But in his bar mitzvah speech, the young man reflected upon how various modern “matot” exist in the State of Israel among the Jewish population --- Religious/Secular/Ashkenazi/Sephardi/Ethiopian/Rich and Poor.  This was during the Gaza War, and the young man spoke of how, even as we were all sitting comfortably in synagogue, all of those different modern tribes were working together in the Israel Defense Forces to protect the nation from terrorist attacks.

Nowadays, we might also speak of Israeli followers of “Pluralist” Judaism as being a tribe unto itself as well.  “Pluralisti” (פלורליסתי) was an adjective I heard a lot this past year in Israel in reference to all streams of Judaism that are open to and respectful of diverse expressions of faith.  This includes Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative (aka “Masorti”) and even Modern Orthodox.

As Judaism has developed throughout the centuries, our interpretations of our sacred texts have evolved.  Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are explicit and pro-active about this.  But even in the Orthodox world, this evolution takes place – if not explicitly – then under the guise of applying supposedly eternal teachings to new factual situations.  That’s a modus operandi that goes back to the Talmudic period if not earlier. 

When we consider current controversies in the State of Israel over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall [Hebrew: הכותל המערבי / “Hakotel Hama’aravi” or “Kotel” for short], over adoption of children by same-sex couples or other elements of Israeli life currently pitting Jew against Jew --- what’s really going on here is usually more about politics than about theology.

The ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel are currently exercising their weight because they can.  If Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t need their support to hold up his narrow coalition government, we can rest assured that he wouldn’t have reneged on carrying out the provisions of the Kotel agreement that had been painstakingly negotiated 18 months ago.

In keeping with the ideal of “One Kotel for One People,” the January 2016 agreement provided that:

·        The Kotel would have a single entryway for two prayer plazas:  a northern plaza (about 1,800 square meters, in the Orthodox tradition) and a southern plaza (about 900 square meters in the egalitarian tradition). 

·        A governing commission would be chaired by the Jewish Agency Chairperson under the appointment of the Prime Minister, with representatives of the Conservative Movement, the Reform Movement, and "Women of the Wall", alongside representatives from the Israeli government; and

·        Government budgets earmarked for the establishment and administration of an egalitarian prayer plaza would be designated and managed through the governing commission[2]  

Ironically, the very THING, the “DAVAR” about which Moses speaks to the heads of the Tribes of Israel is the matter of keeping one’s word.

אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

“If a man makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”[3]

Supporters of religious pluralism are waiting for the Prime Minister to make good his promise.

The various arms of the Reform movement are currently lobbying for this and other expressions of religious pluralism in Israel.

Here are some excerpts from a resolution issued this week by the North American Board of the Union for Reform Judaism:

The Israel governmental preference for the ultra-orthodox at the expense of the vast majority of Israelis is not new. But the depth and breadth of attacks on religious equality have increased tremendously in recent years.

This dynamic is manifest in the increased encroachment of the coercive ultra-orthodox monopoly on all aspects of Israeli life from cradle to chuppah to grave.   It is evident in matters of personal status (conversion, marriage), education, and the governmental rules prescribing what business can and cannot be conducted on Shabbat.  Though many Israelis do not feel much attachment to the Kotel, they are increasingly incensed at the ways in which their lives are negatively impacted by the ultra-orthodox religious-political establishment.

This summer, attention has focused on the questions of access to pluralistic prayer at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem and legislation that would enshrine all matters of conversion in the hands of the ultra-orthodox chief rabbinate. The Israeli Prime Minister walked away from a painstakingly- negotiated agreement concerning not only physical access to the Kotel, but, critically, changes in the way the entire Kotel area is managed. After 18 months of promising to implement the agreement, the government turned its back on the agreement and, in doing so, on World Jewry.

[…]

Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism Resolves to:

·         Provide leadership for a large-scale campaign to end the ultra-Orthodox monopoly in Israel;

·         Commend the senior professionals of our Movement -- especially Rabbis Rick Jacobs, Gilad Kariv, Noa Sattah and Joshua Weinberg, and the remarkable Anat Hoffman – for their wise and courageous leadership;

·         Acknowledge the unprecedented support we have received from across the North American Jewish community in recent weeks;

·         Use this crucial moment to redouble our efforts to end the ultra-Orthodox religious monopoly in Israel, including

·         Advocating directly to Israeli officials, including Israel’s Consuls General, to ensure that the Government of Israel is aware of the priority we place on these issues;

o    Encouraging all Reform-affiliated missions to Israel to not only visit the Kotel, but to participate in egalitarian worship services in the upper plaza to demonstrate that we will not be silent or sequestered at the far less accessible and virtually invisible Robinson’s Arch;

o    Continuing to build and strengthen the coalition relationships in North America with ARZA and our Movement partners, and with the Conservative Movement, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, ADL and dozens of others;

o    Supporting the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism and our other partners to significantly expand the number of Reform synagogues and other religiously progressive institutions in Israel, to broaden their reach and to strengthen their work;

o    Working directly with leading funders to provide the resources necessary for this vital work;

o    Developing marketing campaigns in North America and Israel to ensure that our objectives resonate with both North American and Israeli Jews;

o    Encouraging our congregations in North America to become educated about and involved in this campaign, with involvement ranging from participation in specific events to financial support for boots-on-the-ground organizations in Israel that work on these issues;

o    Working with the World Union for Progressive Judaism to use the North America/ Israel partnership as a model of collaboration for Reform/Progressive communities in other countries around the world; and

o    Exploring the most effective ways to ensure that our voice is heard loudly and clearly by the Israeli government, including the best approaches to North American financial support for Israel and Israeli organizations.

·         Authorize appropriate funding for calendar year 2017 to implement this resolution.[4]

From my perspective, ultimately, this is all about politics.  If enough Israelis voted for political parties that respected the values of religious pluralism, then the current impasse would not be taking place.

But in the meantime, even those of us who do not hold Israeli citizenship, and so do not have the same amount of “skin in the game” can still make our voices heard so that the vision proclaimed in Psalm 122 might be realized:

א  שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד:
שָׂמַחְתִּי, בְּאֹמְרִים לִי--    בֵּית יְהוָה נֵלֵךְ.

1 A Song of Ascents; of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me; 'Let us go to the house of the Eternal.'

ב  עֹמְדוֹת, הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ-    בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ, יְרוּשָׁלִָם.

2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem;

ג  יְרוּשָׁלִַם הַבְּנוּיָה--    כְּעִיר, שֶׁחֻבְּרָה-לָּהּ יַחְדָּו.

3 Jerusalem, built up, a city knit together;

ד  שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים, שִׁבְטֵי-יָהּ--עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל:    לְהֹדוֹת, לְשֵׁם יְהוָה.

4 To which the tribes went up, the tribes of the Eternal, as a testimony to Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Eternal.

On this Shabbat Matot/ this “Shabbat of Tribes” – ancient and modern – let us all pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the well-being of all who dwell in the thriving modern State of Israel.  And, really, considering the state of the world, the presence of a mechitza[5] at the Kotel is not the worst of the challenges that face us.

Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (July 2017/ Tammuz 5777)

[1] Numbers 30:2

[2] See http://masorti.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Milestones-Kotel-Masorti.pdf

[3] Numbers 30:3

[4] https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/resolution-religious-equality-israel

[5] A mechitza (Hebrew: מחיצה‎, partition or division, pl.: מחיצות‎, mechitzot) in Jewish Halakha is a partition, particularly one that is used to separate men and women.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechitza

Posted on July 25, 2017 .

THE NEXT GENERATION

Thoughts on Pinchas (2017/5777)

(Num. 25:10 – 30:1)

[dvar torah given on Friday, July 14, 2017 at our annual "Shabbat on the Range" service at BnaiAbraham Synagogue-Museum in Virginia, MInnesota]

Since I’m the only rabbi in the Duluth area, I regularly get called on by the local hospitals to visit patients who indicate on their admission forms that they are Jewish. Sometimes I’m visiting members of my own congregation. Sometimes I’m visiting unaffiliated Jews who might live in the area, or who might be simply passing through.  Recently I had the occasion of visiting someone who was very elderly and immediately thereafter visiting a mother of a newborn baby. Same building – different floor.  Not fifteen minutes after I had been holding the hand of the old man in one hospital room, I was holding a one-day old infant in my arms in another room.

Maybe this is just a commonplace feeling, especially for those of you who, unlike me, have kids of your own.  But for me, I was just suddenly struck by the awesomeness of the passage of one generation to another. The old man doesn’t know the newborn kid.  But, assuming things run their natural course, at some time in the future that man will no longer be around but that child will be.  And some time further in the future that child will have grown up and gotten old and died, but others not yet born will be around.

There’s a sense of utter disconnection in all this. 

Those who came before us are no longer with us.  Reach back far enough, and we might not even know anything about their lives.

But there’s also a sense of continuity in all this.

We say in our synagogue liturgy that, through the gift of Torah, vechayei olam nata betocheinu, that God "has planted eternal life within us."

And we know this to be true in our personal lives as well – we retain a connection to our loved ones who have died through all that they have taught us and shared with us when they were here with us in the flesh.

For the past couple of months our annual Torah reading cycle has been taking us through Sefer Bedmidbar/ The Book of Numbers.  The English name of the book highlights the various censuses taken during the course of our people’s forty-year trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel.  The first censuses take place in the second year after the Exodus, when the generation that had left Egypt is still camped at the foot of Mount Sinai.  That generation, the Torah tells us, had experienced up close the strong hand and outstretched arm of Divine intervention in history.  They had witnessed the plagues that fell upon Egypt; they had escaped from slavery; they had crossed the parted Sea of Reeds; they had received the Ten Commandments.

But they had proved to be unsuited for the life of free people in the Promised Land.

Now, in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas, God commands that a new census be taken.  It is now thirty-eight years after the earlier census. 

The head counts of the various tribes and clans generally make for dry reading, as official reports tend to do.  But the postscript to those updated census reports has a haunting, resonant quality.  As we read in Numbers 26: 63-65:

סג אֵ֚לֶּה פְּקוּדֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה וְאֶלְעָזָ֖ר הַכֹּהֵ֑ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר פָּֽקְד֜וּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּעַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֔ב עַ֖ל יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ׃ סד וּבְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ לֹא־הָ֣יָה אִ֔ישׁ מִפְּקוּדֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֖ן הַכֹּהֵ֑ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר פָּֽקְד֛וּ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃ סה כִּֽי־אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ לָהֶ֔ם מ֥וֹת יָמֻ֖תוּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וְלֹֽא־נוֹתַ֤ר מֵהֶם֙ אִ֔ישׁ כִּ֚י אִם־כָּלֵ֣ב בֶּן־יְפֻנֶּ֔ה וִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ בִּן־נֽוּן׃ {ס}

[63] These are they that were numbered by Moses and Elazar the Priest, who numbered the Israelites in the plains of Moav by the Jordan near Jericho. [64] And among these there was not one of them whom Moses and Aaron the Priest had numbered, when they numbered the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai. [65] For the Eternal had said of them – “They shall surely die in the wilderness. And there was not one of them left, except Caleb son of Yephunneh, and Joshua son of Nun.”

An entirely new generation is being counted. 

It seems that the new census is being undertaken as preparation for land distribution among the various tribes and clans once they get to the Land of Israel.  The new census also could be understood as a way of preparing for further military battles that they may need to fight on the way or after they get there. 

But what does it mean for, for them and for us --- emotionally --- viscerally, to encounter this second census?  

The first generation that left Egypt is generally portrayed as being somehow inferior to the subsequent generation who merited entering the Land of Israel. The earlier generation, we are taught, had a slave mentality unsuited to a life of freedom.  

For us too, we can sometimes fall into the trap of minimizing the merits or accomplishments of our ancestors.  We might think we are so much more progressive than them.   We are so much more sophisticated and worldly than them.  We are so much more sensitive and moral than them.  

However, it’s always a good idea to temper our judgments with compassion and humility.  They did the best they knew how.  And even if we have albums filled with photos, and boxes of memorabilia, we surely can’t know the half of what they went through.  

Think of the generations that built and maintained this synagogue in which we are sitting.  What a great accomplishment it was for them to maintain a semblance of Jewish tradition in an area so remote from the main centers of Jewish life.

Think of our own ancestors, and of the earlier ages.    

As the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

And when the time will come for the generation of the future to be counted, and none of us are left, we hope that those who follow us will remember us for our better selves.  Indeed, we hope they will remember us at all!

Still, as Ecclesiastes observes: 

(1:4) One generation passes away, and another generation comes; and the earth abides for ever. …

(1:9) [and] that which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.

But the sages declare that God is "Hamechadesh bekhawl yom betuvo ma’aseh vereyshit” “The one who renews each day in divine goodness the work of creation”

And the psalmist calls on usShiru Ladonai Shir Chadash – Sing to the Eternal a NEW song…  (Ps. 96:1)

And so we do.

 

Shabbat shalom.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (July 14, 2017/ 21 Tammuz 5777)

 

Posted on July 19, 2017 .

OF STICKS AND STONES

Thoughts on Chukkat (5777)
(Num. 19:1 – 22:1)

(dvar torah given at Temple Israel on 6/30/17)

One of my favorite Far Side Cartoons by Gary Larson is called “Cow Philosophy.” 

It shows a beautiful mountainside scene with puffy clouds and green hills.  A cow in meditative contemplation sits upright wearing a monk’s robe and serenely advises another cow who has come up to the mountain to obtain philosophical wisdom.

The wise cow says:

“And, as you travel life’s highway, don’t forget to stop and eat the roses.”[1]

Of course, this is a play on the well-known adage that one should take time to stop and smell the roses.  And we might expand this to the idea of stopping to look at the roses.  Indeed, to stop and soak in the experience of the beauty of the world. 

As it says in Psalm 34:9 

 טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ, כִּי-טוֹב יְהוָה

“Taste and see how good is the Eternal.”

And this is, indeed, what Shabbat is all about.

I was reminded of that Far Side cartoon while studying this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat.  It doesn’t mention roses but it does mention blossoms that Moses apparently fails to truly see.  And maybe his failure of vision can teach us something about our own limitations.

Parashat Chukkat is the first Torah portion to have as its setting the final stages of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.  Between last week’s Torah portion and this week’s Torah portion there is a gap of some thirty-eight years.  Korach’s rebellion, in last week’s parasha, took place during the second year after the Exodus. And in this week’s parasha, when Moses berates the community at large as “rebels”, we are in the fortieth year after the Exodus. A new generation – but is it the same old rebellion? 

Well, that’s what Moses appears to think.  The rebellion of Korach and his followers was only the last in a long line of incidents in which the people had been complaining to Moses about the hardships of the wilderness journey and calling for returning to Egypt.

As you’ll recall from last week’s Torah portion, God causes the earth to open up and swallow Korach and his two-hundred and fifty co-conspirators. A mighty impressive show of force on God’s part.

And one might reasonably presume that this would put an end to the challenges to Moses and Aaron’s leadership. 

But that’s not what happens.  To the contrary, after Korach and his 250 followers are swallowed up, the opposition to Moses just gets more intense.  As we read in Numbers 17:6 – “The next day the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have brought death upon Adonai’s people!”  

And this more widespread uprising leads to a plague that kills 14,700 people before Aaron is able to use his priestly powers to stop it.  (See Num. 17: 6-15)

After this, God, as it were, learns an important lesson.  Violent force may temporarily quell unrest, but it won’t lead to unity and harmony. And so, the rebellion in Parashat Korach is ultimately assuaged not by the opening of the earth, not by the plague, but rather by an invocation of beauty. 

And here’s where we come back to the blossoms.

God tells Moses to collect one staff from each tribal leader and to place them in front of the stone tablets in the Tent of Meeting.  Alone among those staffs, the staff of Aaron miraculously sprouts, producing blossoms and bringing forth ripened almonds (Num. 17:23).  And then God commands that this staff be preserved as a sign for generations to come.  

So, that was last week’s Torah portion.

In this week’s Torah portion, thirty-eight years later, near the entrance to the Promised Land, the people lack water and complain to Moses. God commands to Moses that Moses should “Take the staff” and, in the presence of the community, speak to a rock at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting so that it will bring forth water (Num. 20:8).

Moses instead berates the people, saying: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:9). And then he strikes the rock twice with the staff and water gushes forth. 

Surely it can’t be such a big deal that he struck the rock instead of speaking to it.  After all, what was he supposed to do with the staff that he was commanded to take?

But, nevertheless, God immediately thereafter declares to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Num. 20:12).

What’s going on here? Thirty-eight years earlier, back in Exodus, chapter 17 in Parashat Beshallach, there had also been an incident when the people lacked water.  And at that time God had indeed commanded Moses to take his staff and strike the rock. 

Reasonably enough, Moses thought that history was repeating itself. Back then he took his staff and struck the rock.  So, now too, he would strike the rock.  How significant could it be that God was telling him now to speak to the rock rather than strike the rock? 

But Moses didn’t really understand that this was a different staff, with a different symbolic meaning.

It was the medieval commentator Rashbam who emphasized that the staff with which Moses wrongly strikes the rock in the Book of Numbers was not the same staff with which he rightly struck the rock in the Book of Exodus.  In the earlier incident, Moses was using what a contemporary commentator, Rav Chanoch Waxman, calls “the Staff of Power”.  This was Moses’s staff that had turned into a snake and back before Pharaoh’s magicians, and which had turned the Nile into blood during the first of the ten plagues.[2]

By contrast, Rashbam observes that the staff that Moses was commanded to take thirty-eight years later was the blossoming staff of Aaron, which Rav Waxman calls “The Staff of Life.” (See Rashbam on Numbers 20:9).  This was the staff that had sprouted and produced blossoms and brought forth ripe almonds --- thus signaling the final reconciliation and healing after the end of Korach’s rebellion.

That’s a staff that represents peace and fruitfulness and harmony.  It’s not a staff that represents brute force and destructive power.

But Moses didn’t stop to smell the flowers – or eat the almonds…

Moses was living in the past. He didn’t recognize that the people before him were not the hopeless and cynical former slaves of the previous generation. In an insightful contemporary commentary[3], Rav Elchanan Samet observes that the people who were complaining now, thirty-eight years later, were not pining for the fleshpots of Egypt.  Rather, they were upset that their seemingly imminent arrival to the Land of Israel was being delayed.  They were ready for freedom in a way that their parents had not been.

They were the people who needed to be led by a shepherd wielding the staff of life – not by a rabble rouser wielding the staff of destructive power.

But Moses didn’t see it – and so it became clear to God that it was time for new leadership.

We, like Moses, sometimes make the same mistakes in our personal lives.

And political leaders, like Moses, sometimes make the same mistakes in the affairs of nations.

We sometimes fail to distinguish the challenges of the past from those of the present that may superficially resemble them.

And we sometimes lash out destructively in situations where we would be better served by empathetic engagement with those with whom we are in opposition.

But if we remember to stop and smell the roses.  If we learn from the past without being immobilized by it --- we may just yet succeed in getting to the promised land of our dreams.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg

July 2017/Tammuz 5777

 

[1] https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=YZm7fVvV&id=814333FFFF86EEDA301BFBE30019C20019243D6C&thid=OIP.YZm7fVvV_e8nmo46zn9u_gDpEs&q=cow+philosophy&simid=608027152894068174&selectedIndex=0

[2] “Of Sticks and Stones,” Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach – Bemidbar (Maggid Books, 2014), pp. 263-273.

 

[3] “The Waters of Contention,” Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach – Bemidbar (Maggid Books, 2014), pp. 253-262.

Posted on July 6, 2017 .

PARTISAN SPLITS

Dvar Torah on Parashat Lekh Lekha (Gen, 12:1 - 17:27)  given at Shabbat evening service at Temple Israel on November 11, 2016

[Dvar Torah on Parashat Lekh Lekha, (Gen. 12:1 - 17:7), given at Temple Israel on Friday, 11/11/16]

Our Torah portion this week famously begins with God’s call to Abram (later known as Abraham): 

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ 

“Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.”  (Gen. 12:1).

He didn’t go alone.  Rather, as the Torah reports a few verses later: “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan...” (Gen. 12:5)

But later in the parasha, some sort of a crisis develops between Abram and Lot.  As the Torah recounts:

"Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram's cattle and those of Lot's cattle. — The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land. —"  (Gen. 13:5-7) 

What exactly was this quarreling about?  Midrashic tradition says that Lot’s shepherds were wicked people who would allow their sheep to graze in land belonging to Abram’s and Lot’s Canaanite and Perizzite neighbors.  Then Abram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherd’s would get into fights because Abram’s shepherds would scold Lot’s shepherds, calling them “robbers.”  (See Rashi on Gen. 13:7)

One can imagine Lot’s shepherds’ annoyance at the dripping condescension of Abraham’s shepherds.  And one can imagine Abraham’s shepherds’ revulsion at the low ethical standards of Lot’s shepherds.

And, of course, the Torah, which basically takes Abram’s side in the way it tells the story, can’t resist throwing in the side comment that Lot and his people would prefer to hang out among the sinners of Sodom rather than stay put in the promised land of Canaan.

As it says:

"Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Eternal."  (Gen. 13: 12-13)

If we were to try to read this story in the light of this week’s national elections, our interpretations would probably vary based on our political leanings.  Who are the condescending know-it-alls? Who are the robbers?  Who are the wicked sinners? Who are the bad neighbors?

Do we see ourselves in Abram’s party trying to "Make Canaan Great Again?"

Do we see ourselves in Lot’s party trying to be "Stronger Together?" 

Or is it the Lot Party who are trying to "Make Sodom Great Again" and the Abram party who are "Stronger Together" in Canaan?

What isn’t in dispute is that our nation has become divided just as Abram’s and Lot’s retinues had become divided.  There is even geographical separation in both cases.  Hillary Clinton’s supporters were concentrated on the coasts and in the cities. Donald Trump’s supporters were concentrated in the rural heartland.  The voting population was almost evenly divided and, though Secretary Clinton narrowly won the popular vote, the electoral vote (which gives disproportionate weight to states with small populations) gave the win to Mr. Trump.

Probably the most important aspect of the Torah’s account for our purposes is that Abram and Lot resolve their differences peacefully, for, after all, as Abram tells Lot --- “Anashim Achim Anachnu” / “We are kinsmen”  (Gen. 12:8).

The same is part and parcel of the ideals of the United States of America – E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One. 

No doubt this is a tremendous challenge.  Emotions are intense.  Feelings are raw.  And the stakes are high.

And so, whether we are mourning our side’s loss or cheering our side’s win --- the next step is to proceed peacefully and productively – as Abram and Lot did back then, and as, so far at least, the incoming and outgoing Presidential administrations seem to be doing now.

We pray on this Shabbat that our elected leaders and representatives, and we ourselves, will rise to the occasion. 

And we resolve to remain engaged citizens, advocating for a just, compassionate, prosperous, secure and united society--- even as we recognize that we don’t all define these terms – or balance these goals – in the same way. 

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg

November 2016/ Cheshvan 5777

 

Posted on November 18, 2016 .

SAME TIME NEXT YEAR

Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5777

October 12, 2016

Now that we’re well into Yom Kippur, and we may be starting to get a little woozy from hunger, I think it’s a perfect time to sing some Gershwin. Don’t you agree?!  Please join me if you know it:

It ain't necessary so
Ah, it ain't necessary so
The things that you're liable
To read in the bible
Ain't necessary so

[Let’s repeat that chorus again]

It ain't necessary so
Ah, it ain't necessary so
The things that you're liable
To read in the bible
Ain't necessary so

[And now we’ll skip ahead to the Yom Kippur verse.  Oh you didn’t know there is a Yom Kippur verse?  Well….]

Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
That man made his home in that fish’s abdomen
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale

[And one more time for Jonah]

Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale
That man made his home in that fish’s abdomen
Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale

Yes, the Book of Jonah, which Linda Eason and Kathy Levine will present for us this afternoon [as the haftarah for the Yom Kippur mincha service], does have its fanciful elements.  Living inside a big fish for three days? Uh, I don’t think so…

And yet Jonah is a powerful book because it teaches stark and profound lessons even in the midst of its folktale-like elements.

For me, the first of these is the lesson we learn from God’s charge to Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go preach teshuvah (repentance) to the inhabitants of Nineveh.  And what does Jonah do?

Jonah hightails it in the opposite direction. 

To be sure, after he has had a chance to think and pray during those three days he spends in the belly of the fish, Jonah does realize that God is not really giving him a choice in the matter.  So, when God renews the call to Jonah to go to Nineveh and to call on them to mend their ways – this time Jonah does answer the call.

But Jonah’s first inclination had been to think to himself – “Nineveh, shminiveh – This is not my problem.  This is not my job. Those people are not my people.  What do I have to do with them?”

What I mean to say, is that one way of looking at the Book of Jonah is to see it as teaching the opposite message. The message, as I see it, is that if there is a crisis in another part of the world, even if it’s not a part of the world that we personally have much connection with, sometimes God will command us (or, if you prefer, our conscience will compel us) to concern ourselves with it.

There are a number of areas in the world today in crisis, but I think modern Syria is our contemporary analog to Biblical Nineveh.  (And, indeed, though Biblical Nineveh was located near present day Mosul, Iraq --- back in Jonah’s day it was the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire which included most of modern day Syria.)

When we gathered here a year ago on Yom Kippur morning, I also used my sermon to talk about Syria.  At that time, there were already hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions displaced and widespread destruction.

Last summer, the world responded emotionally to a photo of the dead body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as his family tried to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece in their search for a safe new home.[1] 

This summer, our hearts have been pierced by the image of the shocked and bloody visage of five-year-old Omran Dagneesh, besieged in a rebel-occupied East Aleppo under attack by Syrian and Russian bombing raids.[2] 

Last year the situation was horrific. 

This year it’s worse.

Let me share with you some excerpts from a September 2016 fact sheet[3] published by the European Commission: 

**********************

The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in Syria with intensified fighting, high levels of violence, widespread disregard for the rules of international law and the obligation to protect civilians, and major human rights abuses committed by all parties. The open conflict is increasingly hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid especially in Northern Syria: supply roads are often disrupted or closed and humanitarian organisations have been forced to downscale or suspend operations in several areas due to insecurity.

The situation in and around Aleppo city and Idleb governorate is dramatic: heavy bombing and intense fighting caused countless civilian casualties and damages to critical infrastructures, leaving more than 2 million people without water and electricity and in fear of besiegement. Aid delivery to the eastern part of Aleppo remains extremely difficult due to ongoing airstrikes. The targeting of health facilities continues unabated, hindering the access to healthcare for all citizens.

The Syrian population is highly vulnerable and 13.5 million of people are in need of humanitarian assistance: 6.6 million are internally displaced, 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas, including over 480 000 besieged. Civilians continue to be the primary victims of the conflict. Rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances, forcible displacement, recruitment of child soldiers, summary executions and deliberate shelling of civilian targets have become commonplace. 

The magnitude of humanitarian needs is overwhelming in all parts of Syria. The main priorities are treating and evacuating the wounded, providing food aid, water, sanitation and hygiene, health, and shelter. Prices of basic commodities continue to rise and the availability of food stocks in many parts of Syria is at risk. With over 11 million people having fled their homes both inside Syria and to the neighbouring countries, shelter needs are high. Children, women and the elderly are most at risk. 

[…]

Refugees from Syria are now the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation with over 4.8 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and the wider region. Countries bordering Syria are reaching dangerous saturation points, particularly Lebanon, which hosts around 1.1 million Syria refugees and has, along with Jordan, the largest per capita refugee population in the world. Turkey is currently hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees, the largest number of Syrian refugees in one country in the world.  

**********************************

In Avinu Malkeinu, we ask God --- Avinu Malkeinu, kaley dever vecherev vera’av ushevi umashchit mibnei veritekha. / "Our Parent, Our Sovereign – remove from all the children of your covenant disease, war, famine, exile and destruction."

Perhaps Jonah interpreted that covenant narrowly -----  that our concern should be only for Israelites whose covenant was with God at Sinai --- rather than concern for all humanity who are part of the Rainbow covenant with God from the time of Noah. 

His interpretation envisions Jonah as viewing the fate of Nineveh as, so to speak, "Not my problem.  Not my fault.  Not my job.  Not my concern."

However, there’s also a line of classical Jewish commentary on Jonah that says that Jonah’s disobedience was not out of apathy.  Rather, according to this alternate interpretation, Jonah initially fled God’s call out of concern for his own people.

The key thing to note here is that the Book of Jonah was probably written centuries after the time period in which it is ostensibly set, namely mid-8th century B.C.E. 

The Portuguese Jewish commentator Isaac Abarbanel experienced the expulsion of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490’s and ended up in exile in Italy.  In Abarbanel’s commentary on Jonah, he notes that Assyria was the enemy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  And, as he well knew, in 722 B.C.E. (just a few decades after the time period in which the Book of Jonah is set), the Assyrian Empire would conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and disperse its Ten Tribes who would be lost to Jewish history.

So Abarbanel asserted that God, using Jonah as God’s messenger, wanted to cause Assyria to turn from its sinful ways so that God wouldn’t destroy Assyria.  Thus, Assyria would subsequently be able to fulfill its own role as God’s instrument to destroy Israel for Israel’s sinfulness….[4]

That’s why Jonah, according to Abarbanel and other commentatories who followed him, initially fled and was even willing to drown in the sea.  He was doing so in order to protect his fellow Israelites from future danger at the hands of the Assyrians.   And yet, despite all the future danger that might await Israel --- the Book of Jonah concludes with God chiding Jonah for not caring enough about Nineveh.

I find a parallel here to contemporary politicians who want the United States to turn its back on Syrian refugees out of fear that some of them might be terrorists who would harm Americans. 

Jonah, thinking of his fellow Israelites, was afraid of Assyrians later attacking his own country.  And we, thinking of our fellow Americans, today are afraid of ISIS infiltrating the refugee population and attacking us.

Of course it’s a complex situation.

However, as we learn from a blog entry posted just this week on the website of HIAS (the refugee relief organization originally known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society):

The truth is, the U.S. Refugee Program includes extensive security vetting from five government agencies. Refugees are screened at higher levels than any other entrants to the country, including students and tourists. More importantly, refugees, by definition, are the victims of violence, not its perpetrators. A recent study by the Cato Institute calculated that “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”[5]

Near the conclusion of my Yom Kippur morning service last year I wrote: 

"The Syrian refugee crisis is, of course, not identical to the plight of the Jews who were attempting to flee Hitler.  But the images coming out of Syria and Europe today are close enough to be chilling.

"Our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading […] includes the imperative “Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha” / “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  (Lev. 19:16) The Torah’s message resonates in the face of the current crisis.

"The tangled mess of opposing forces in Syria today are challenging to sort out.  […]

"But meanwhile, the simple humanitarian need should rise to the fore."

So – now it’s a year later.

Let us hope and pray there will be relief and safety for many in Syria and many who are trying to escape it by the time we gather here same time next year.

Let’s back up our hopes by donating to organizations like HIAS or Unicef.

And let us support efforts to provide sanctuary for those in need and assistance to those in harm’s way.

And let us back up our hopes by electing leaders who will have the wisdom and judgment to play a positive force on the international scene to untangle the mess that exists in Syria today.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah/ May we all have a good sealing in the Book of Life on this Yom Kippur as we pray for all who are in distress and for ourselves as well.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg October 2016/ Yom Kippur 5777

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/world/europe/syria-boy-drowning.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/world/middleeast/omran-daqneesh-syria-aleppo.html

[3] http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf

[4] See Rabbi Steven Bob, Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives (Jewish Publication Society, 2016), p. 6

[5] http://www.hias.org/blog/what-you-should-know-when-candidates-talk-about-refugees

 

Posted on October 18, 2016 .

THE WIND AT OUR BACKS

Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5777

October 11, 2016

One morning last spring, Tuesday, June 7th to be exact, I was going for a run on the Lakewalk, heading from 36th Ave. East towards Canal Park.  It was a beautiful day, I felt great and – to be honest with you --- I was feeling somewhat self-congratulatory about how well the run was going. 

But then, after I turned around and started the run back towards home I found myself running against the wind, and, of course, the run became more difficult. 

Nothing unusual about all that. 

And yet, it seemed different to me that morning.  For suddenly, it struck me that,

during the whole first half of the run, I hadn’t noticed that the wind was at my back.  I hadn’t noticed that the wind at my back had been helping me along and making things easier for me.

I’m not sure what was so special about that particular moment, but it felt like an epiphany.  The next day I wrote in my journal:

“[…] I had been crediting myself for a great job but not realizing that I literally was being benefited by a ‘push’ that I had not necessarily merited from my own work.”

And I concluded that June 2016 journal entry with the advice to myself: “Okay.  drash that!”

And so, hineni, here I am, on Kol Nidre night doing so in this sermon.

So, my meaningful though admittedly oh so bourgeois experience out there on the Lakewalk reminded me that there are many aspects of my life concerning which, so to speak, I get to run “with the wind at my back” without realizing it. 

So many aspects of my life concerning which I don’t start out from scratch, but instead, start out with an advantage, with assistance, with resources, with privilege – which I may acknowledge intellectually but not really internalize in my gut. 

While others in society, those who do not have the same advantage, assistance, resources and privilege are, as it were, running against the wind --- no matter which direction they travel. 

Some of my privilege comes from being male in a society in which sexism exists. 

Some of my privilege comes from being cisgender – which means that I feel that my biological gender comports with my subjective gender identity --- in a world in which transphobia exists.

Some of my privilege comes from being middle class in a society in which classism exists. 

Some of my privilege comes from being able-bodied in a society in which many obstacles face those who use wheelchairs or are otherwise physically handicapped.

But a whole big chunk of my privilege that I often take for granted and don’t consciously notice comes from being white in a society in which racism exists.

Yup, I’ve experienced prejudice for being gay.  Yup, I’ve experienced prejudice for being Jewish.  But, oh, the advantages I have enjoyed for being white – advantages that I can easily fail to acknowledge –  just as I failed to acknowledge that I had been running with the wind at my back. 

In an influential 1989 paper[1], Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley College, made a list of twenty-six ways, drawn from her own life experience, in which she felt that she benefited from white privilege.  While I’ve used the metaphor of running with the wind at my back, Dr. McIntosh used the metaphor of having a backpack stuffed with goodies available only to white people like her who possessed those metaphorical backpacks.  Here are of few of the privileges she included in that backpack of white privilege:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  • I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  • I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.

In an op-ed piece earlier this year[2], Washington Post columnist Christine Emba writes: “The thing about white privilege is that it tends to be unintentional, unconscious, uncomfortable to recognize but easy to take for granted. But it’s that very invisibility that makes it that much more important to understand: Without confronting what exists, there’s no chance of leveling the field.”

Yom Kippur is a time of year when those of us who are Jewish are particularly focused on ways in which we can seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have failed to live up to our highest values.  And it’s a time when we can pray for the ability to do better in the year to come.  To be sure, as imperfect people, we will invariably fail to achieve total success in these resolutions.  The text of Kol Nidre --- in which we admit in advance that we can only fulfill our resolutions incompletely at best -- is stark acknowledgment of this.

And yet we must try.

This year those of us who are not persons of color, have been challenged to recognize our white privilege.  And all of us --- including those of us who identify ourselves as people of color --- have been challenged to acknowledge our implicit racial biases. 

Our society has faced these issues throughout its history.  However, these issues have become especially prominent of late in the wake of an epidemic of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers.

In a particularly stark fashion, columnist Ed Raymond in this week’s Duluth Weekly Reader writes: “We used to have a reign of terror by lynching --- Now

we have a reign of terror by shooting.”[3] 

And the racial implications of these killings has further brought to mind the many ways in which racism permeates our society. 

Earlier this year, an umbrella group of civil rights organizations disseminated a massive document presenting what it calls “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, & Justice.”[4]

The policy demands in this Movement for Black Lives Platform are grouped into six categories: 

·        “End the War on Black People”

·        “Reparations”

·        “Divest-Invest”

·        “Economic Justice”

·        “Community Control”, and

·        “Political Power”

Within those six categories there are dozens of specific demands, backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and to organizations working on those issues. It’s breathtaking in its depth and in its passion.

However, one particular section of one of the six categories has caused controversy in the Jewish community.  It’s in the category entitled “Divest-Invest.” There we find language labeling the State of Israel an apartheid State and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people. 

The accusations sting.  They may be inaccurate and tendentious, but we still can’t honestly say in response that the State of Israel is free of discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens who comprise over 20% of the population within the Green Line. 

Nor can we honestly say in response that the State of Israel has done its utmost to pursue wholeheartedly the creation of a Palestinian State in areas that have been under its administrative control since 1967.

It’s tragic that the Movement for Black Lives coalition went out of its way to alienate Jews who might otherwise support many elements of its platform.

However, we should still put this into some context.  We may disagree with the arguably anti-Semitic tone of its characterization of Israel.  However, that defamatory language is part of a category of the document --- “Divest-Invest” – which is not primarily focused on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Rather, here’s how the category of “Divest-Invest” is summarized in the platform:

“We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.”[5]

In August, I joined in as a signatory of a Minnesota rabbinic response to the controversy over the characterization of Israel in the Movement for Black Lives platform.  The statement is entitled“Minnesota Rabbinic Statement On Working For Racial Justice and Speaking Truthfully About Israel.”

It opens with a quotation from Pirke Avot: "Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata bein horin libatel mimena”  -- "One is not obligated to finish a task, but one is not free to disengage from it" (Pirke Avot 2:21)

And here’s the text of the rabbinic statement:

“We write this reflection with sorrow. Our commitment to Israel and to truth is being tested in the public square against our commitment to racial justice. Calling Israel genocidal and an apartheid state is offensive and grossly inaccurate. It also indicates a failure of dialogue about Israel in progressive circles. This reflection is meant to help our community talk about how to continue the work for racial justice in the United States, stand clearly against falsehoods about Israel, and commit ourselves to opening doors to partnership when possible.

“As rabbis we are often asked to offer moral clarity.  We stand on the side of racial justice and racial equality.  That fight has been something that the American rabbinate and the organized Jewish community have been engaged in for the better part of a century.   National and local Jewish organizations and countless numbers of individual Jews continue to engage in myriad ways to address the systemic causes of racism. Indeed the American Jewish community has a long and treasured history of standing shoulder to shoulder with the African-American community [Note: These are not mutually exclusive categories - DS] in countless numbers of actions designed to address the root causes of inequality in our society. It is a moral issue that we as rabbis today continue with renewed responsibility. Torah and the voice of generations of rabbis teachthat human dignity is non-negotiable and that the indignity suffered by any one person or group pains our entire community and nation.

“At the same time and with no apology, we reject any statement that suggests that the Jewish people in our national homeland are engaged in genocidal acts against anyone.  That lie must be denounced in the strongest language possible.  There are many Israeli governmental decisions with which each of us take issue. And indeed we have been vocal in our communities about them.  We have all worked for and promoted a two-state solution where the legitimate aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis are realized. Labeling Israel as a genocidal state, when the facts counter this completely and the effect is to render truth meaningless, is shocking. Endorsing calls to end foreign aid and to engage in economic boycott and divestment hurts Palestinians even more than Israelis and makes the dream of a two state solution even more complicated. 

“For us as rabbis, we look to the coming New Year with profound concern and with hope.  We are concerned that Jews will forget that the battle for inclusion in our society is one to which we must remain committed.   Our own fight to address anti-semitism in our society and to find allies with whom we could work to eliminate it, mandates that we now must also work even stronger to fight to eliminate racial bias in society writ-large as well. Hate is hate and it must stop now. And we stand firm and united in opposing those voices who seek to denigrate either or both the Jewish people and the Jewish State.  These causes are not mutually exclusive and we will continue our work and our commitment to both.  We pray that the coming year is a year of peace and reconciliation.” 

The list of signatories includes:

Rabbi Morris Allen

Rabbi Norman Cohen

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Jeremy Fine

Rabbi Avram Ettedgui

Rabbi Sim Glaser

Rabbi Tamar Grimm

Rabbi Hayim Herring  

Rabbi Harold Kravitz

Rabbi Lynn Liberman  

Rabbi David Locketz

Rabbi Cathy Nemiroff

Rabbi AviOlitzsky

Rabbi Debra Rappaport

Rabbi Adam Spilker

Rabbi David Steinberg

Rabbi Sharon Stiefel

Rabbi Aaron Weininger  

Rabbi Marcy Zimmerman

***********************************************

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur versions of the Amidah include a number of liturgical additions and alterations as compared to the versions of the Amidah used during the rest of the year.

One of those High Holiday Amidah passages that always sticks in my mind is this one:

וְּבְכֵן צַדִּיקִים יִרְאוּ וְיִשְׂמָֽחוּ, וִישָׁרִים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ, וַחֲסִידִים בְּרִנָּה יָגִֽילוּ. וְעוֹלָֽתָה תִּקְפָּץ־פִּֽיהָ, וְכָל הָרִשְׁעָה כֻּלָּהּ כְּעָשָׁן תִּכְלֶה -- כִּי תַעֲבִיר מֶמְשֶֽׁלֶת זָדוֹן מִן הָאָֽרֶץ.

“Then will the righteous see and be glad, the upright rejoice, and the pious celebrate in song. For the mouth of injustice shall be shut, and all evil will vanish like smoke --- when you remove the dominion of arrogance from the earth.”

It would be arrogant indeed to deny that there is not a great deal of work to be done to heal ourselves, to heal our country and to heal our world from the scourge of racism. 

But we thank God for the drive that God has implanted within us to continue the struggle against it.

Gmar chatimah tovah.  May the soulful confessions and prayers of this Day of Atonement lead us to be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

And may the wind be at everyone’s backs.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg  (October 2016/ Yom Kippur 5777)

[1] "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"  http://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/01/16/white-privilege-explained/?utm_term=.1ed977bef3b6

[3] http://duluthreader.com/articles/2016/10/05/8075_a_country_divided_by_money_and_colors

[4] https://policy.m4bl.org/

[5] https://policy.m4bl.org/

 

Posted on October 18, 2016 .

VOICES

Sermon for First Morning of Rosh Hashanah 5777 (October 3, 2016)

Last night, in my Rosh Hashanah evening sermon, I spoke about the meaning of teshuvah --- How the word is often translated as “repentance” but how it might be more meaningful for us to translate “teshuvah” as “return”

But there’s another definition for “teshuvah” – which, outside of the context of sin and atonement, is probably its most common definition.

Teshuvah in its most general application means “answer” or “response”. The plural form of the word teshuvah is teshuvot.  And there is a whole genre of Jewish texts called “she’eylot u’teshuvot”(questions and answers… inquiries and responses…).  In English we often put fancy Latin endings on that latter word ---- using the singular form “responsum” and the plural form “response.” 

All through the middle ages esteemed rabbis would receive she’eylot from questioners near and far, and their teshuvot/responsa would sometimes be preserved for posterity. 

In modern times, we also have collections of responsa from the various modern Jewish movements.  In the Reform movement, for example, there is a Responsa Committee within the Central Conference of American Rabbis that produces such documents. 

In any event, I would venture to guess that for most of us, we consult the responsa of another authority much more often than we read up on the latest responsa of the law committee of the Conservative movement, or the Responsa committee of the Reform movement, or of any traditional Orthodox Responsa.

I refer here, of course, to the she’eylot u’teshuvot/ the inquiries and responsa that we see in the Duluth News Tribune every day in the column “Dear Abby.”

I’ve cut out the following “Dear Abby” column (or teshuvah or responsum, if you will) from my copy of the DNT in which it appeared last month.  I’ve been carrying it with me since then because it seems so relevant to what must be on many of our minds as we gather here today on Rosh Hashanah:

DEAR ABBY: I can’t wait until election season is over. One side of my family is liberal; the other side is conservative. At my request, they don’t argue when we are all together. There are occasional disagreements, but fortunately, they never escalate.

The problem is, when I spend time with any of them separately I am lectured nonstop about the “evils” of the other side. They don’t quit. I just want to scream, “Shut up! Shut up! I don’t care!” I am at the point that I no longer want to vote. I don’t know what to do. There’s no way I can avoid my family completely. Please advise.

“SHUT UP!” IN NEW MEXICO

DEAR S.U.: Please don’t allow your family drama to stop YOU from voting. Try this: The next time your relatives inject politics into the conversation, smile, look them in the eye and say, “Let’s talk about something pleasant, shall we?” and change the subject.[1]

Dear Abby’s advice to “’SHUT UP!’ IN NEW MEXICO” is often excellent advice for congregational rabbis. 

For just as there are multiple voices within the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, and just as there are multiple voices within the Talmud, and multiple voices within the world of medieval and modern Jewish philosophy --- so there are multiple voices within any Jewish congregation. 

We don’t all relate to the concept of God the same way, we don’t all practice Judaism in the same way --- and we don’t all agree on all of the political issues of the day.

But in Judaism this is generally considered a strength.  Our goal is not uniformity of opinion but rather a sufficiently open community that we can accommodate diversity.  As it says in Isaiah 54:2 in one of the haftarot we’ve read during the seven Sabbaths of consolation leading up to Rosh Hashanah ---

 

 הַרְחִיבִי מְקוֹם אָהֳלֵךְ, וִירִיעוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתַיִךְ יַטּוּ--אַל-תַּחְשֹׂכִי; הַאֲרִיכִי, מֵיתָרַיִךְ, וִיתֵדֹתַיִךְ, חַזֵּקִי.

"Enlarge the space of your tent, and let them stretch forth the canvas of your habitations, spare not; lengthen your ropes, and strengthen your tent pegs."

So, as strongly as I personally or you personally may feel about a particular issue or candidate in this heated electoral season – we must find a way to encourage, metaphorically speaking, a big tent, embracing one another amid our differences.  And that’s true whether were divided 51 per cent to 49 per cent or whether we’re divided 90 per cent to 10 per cent.  That’s true within our congregation and that’s true within our nation.

And in this contest of ideas, the loudest voice in not always the most profound voice – as is expressed in the words from“Unetaneh Tokef” that we sang and read earlier this morning:

“Uveshofar gadol yitaka, vkol demama dakah yishama”/ “A great shofar sounds --- and a still, small voice is heard.”

This evocative imagery seems intended to remind us of a famous tale of Eliyahu Hanavi/ Elijah the Prophet, in chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings. 

Elijah has escaped to the wilderness after his life is threatened by the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  He reaches Mt. Chorev (a.k.a. Mt. Sinai) where he goes to sleep inside a cave.  And then scripture recounts:

The word of the Eternal came to him. [God] said to him, "Why are you here, Elijah?" He replied, "I am moved by zeal for the Eternal, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life." "Come out," [God] called, "and stand on the mountain before the Eternal."

And lo, the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind--an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake--fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire—kol demamah dakah/ a still small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice addressed him: "Why are you here, Elijah?" He answered, "I am moved by zeal for Adonai, the God of Hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and have put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life."

And Adonai said to him, "Go back by the way you came, [and] on to the wilderness of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet.

(1 Kings 19: 9-16)

You know, sometimes the barrage of political ads, the figurative and literal shouting matches, and the bitter feelings of an election season can seem as loud as earthquakes.  They can seem as destructive as a blazing fire. 

The loud blast of the shofar is indeed an attention getter. 

As are big campaign rallies and warring internet memes. 

But when it comes down to our own solitary moment in the voting booth, we still must listen to the kol demama dakah, the still small voice, the voice of conscience within us, which ultimately must guide us.

For Elijah, that kol demama dakah told him that he should anoint Hazael as King of Aram.  Yehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel and Elisha son of Shaphat as his prophetic successor.

As for us, it’s the sum of our many individual kolot demamot dakot/ our many “still small voices” that will determine our next President as well as determine the results of other election contests taking place on November 8th.

How shall we choose?  I’ll echo Dear Abby’s advice here and implore you not to let family arguments --- or, I might add, ---  apathy or cynicism or logistical inconvenience --- keep you from voting. 

And I’ll follow the advice of Dear Abby and the Internal Revenue Service by not using my pulpit to tell you whom to vote for:

But we can look to the Torah portion that we read just this past Shabbat, Parashat Nitzavim, near the end of the parasha at Deuteronomy 30:19, to give us all the advice we need.  That’s where Moses sums of his long series of farewell admonitions by teaching us:

וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים

Choose life!

That sums it up. 

Today, with the help of our friend Maureen O’Brien, who served as our Ba'alat Tekiah, we have fulfilled the paradigmatic ritual mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah – the mitzvah of “lishmoa kol shofar” – which literally translates as “to hear the voice of the shofar.” 

May that kol shofar – that loud, commanding voice of the Shofar ----- as well as the kol demamah dakah --- that still small voice of conscience within us --- remind us of the importance of expressing our own kolot – our own voices --- on election day and throughout the year.

Shanah tovah u’metukah/ May 5777 be a good and sweet year for us, for our nation, for all Israel, and for all the world--- and may we do our part in making it so.

 

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)

 

 

[1] https://www.abqjournal.com/845930/headline.html 

 

Posted on October 6, 2016 .

Return and Renewal

Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 (October 2, 2016)

 

With the arrival of Rosh Hashanah tonight, we begin the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah/ The 10 Days of Teshuva.  But what does “Teshuvah” mean?  We most commonly translate “Aseret Ymey Teshuvah” as the “Ten Days of Repentance.” However, “Repentance” is just one possible translation of the Hebrew word “Teshuvah.”

The noun “teshuvah” and the corresponding verbs “lashuv” and “lehashiv” are more closely equivalent to the English “return”.

That translation definitely resonates for me more than “Repentance”.

When I hear the word “Repentance” I think of a big, booming Cecil B. Demille-ish voice proclaiming “REPENT YE SINNERS!!!!”

And, truly, that style of preaching totally turns me off.  It sounds so hackneyed, so tele-evangelist---ish, so judgmental.

Sure, I suppose that a thundering tone like that is appropriate for confronting the worst of the worst – the terrorists of the world. 

But my sense is that none of us gathered here tonight are, God forbid, terrorists.  We’re just regular, imperfect folks, trying our best to navigate the moral choices that face us each day of our lives. 

And so, to guide our actions, we look to our tradition. 

And we look to the examples of those we respect. 

And we look within our hearts and consciences.

Some of us might say that there – within our hearts and consciences -- is where we find God. 

Some of us who are less theologically inclined might say that there – within our hearts and consciences --  is where we find the human traits that have naturally evolved in our species so as to help our species to survive.

Personally, I don’t think those two approaches are mutually exclusive.

But no matter how any of us may understand the source of our ethical impulses, Judaism teaches that we should be exercising those ethical impulses every day.  Torah teaches:

רְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

 (Re’eh, anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom berakha u’kelalalh)

“See, I set before you today, blessing and curse.”  (Deut. 11:26 – I always remember that verse because it’s the opening verse of my Bar Mitzvah portion).

And the word “Hayom” (“Today”) of course implies each and every day.  As we learn in Masechet Shabbat 153a in the Babylonian Talmud:

  רבי אליעזר אומר שוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך שאלו תלמידיו את ר"א וכי אדם יודע איזהו יום ימות אמר להן וכל שכן ישוב היום שמא ימות למחר ונמצא כל ימיו בתשובה

“Rabbi Eliezer teaches – do teshuvah one day before you die.  His students asked Rabbi Eliezer --- does anyone know the day they will die?  -- He said to them, all the more so --- let each person do teshuvah today (hayom) lest one die tomorrow; and may each of us be found – on each of our days -- in a state of teshuvah.”

If you’re a regular (or even occasional) davvener, the words of the fifth of the nineteen blessings of the weekday Amidah – recited throughout the year --- are there as a reminder of this mitzvah:

Hashiveinu avinu letoratekha, vekarveinu malkeinu la’avodatekha, vehachazireynu biteshuvah sheleymah lefanekha.  Barukh atath Adonai harotzeh biteshuva/  “Return us, divine source, to your Torah, bring us nearer, our sovereign, to your service, and restore us, ‘biteshuvah sheleymah”/in complete teshuvah, into your presence.  Barukh atah Adonai harotzeh biteshuvah. Blessed are you, Adonai, who desires TESHUVAH.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah – The 10 Days of Teshuvah that connect them --- thus are merely an intensified version of what Jewish tradition would encourage us to be doing all year long.

I don’t think this is all primarily about groveling and putting ourselves down, though such language and choreography does have its place in our High Holiday liturgy.

Rather, in my own life and in my observations of others in all my years, I have found way more people who struggle with not having enough ego than those who have too much of it.    

By all means, repent as you need to, but remember to still love yourself.  That’s often so much harder to do than berating yourself. 

TESHUVAH is not just repentance.  TESHUVAH is “return.” 

And so we ask ourselves:  How can we return to the unjaded, idealistic, open-hearted versions of ourselves that were there once upon a time?

Once upon a time before we experienced loss, or heartbreak, or illness; before we succumbed to cynicism?

The basic Jewish metaphor for this state is “Gan Eden” – the Garden of Eden.  Gan Eden in the Torah is a paradise vision of the infancy of humanity.  But “Gan Eden” is also the way the sages described the heavenly world to come. 

Which is to say --- Teshuvah/Return is about envisioning and moving towards an ideal that has elements of both nostalgia and progress.

In doing teshuvah, we seek to return to God --- but we strive for this journey to be a forward journey, not just a trip down memory lane.

I think this is what Megilat Eicha/ The Book of Lamentations is saying in its famous penultimate verse:

כא  הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.

21  Cause us to return to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

We sing this verse not only on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the ancient Temples when we chant Megillat Eichah in its entirety.

We also sing it whenever we return the scroll or scrolls to the ark after a Torah service.  

I’m always moved by the dynamic tension in that verse.

We ask God ---- Hashiveinu --- Cause us to return…. It’s as if I’m an automobile whose engine has stalled and I’m calling on the divine version of triple A to give me a jump-start.

V’nashuvah ----    And we will return ----   O God, give me that spiritual jump start and then will I follow your ways. 

We pray for a jump start --- But after that we can – and we swear that we will --- persevere from our own effort.

Or, perhaps our prayer for the jump start is – in and of itself – the jump start.

And what about the second half of that verse --- Chadesh yameinu kekedem –

“Renew our days as of old.”

Which is it?  A hope for a new world or a hope for the return of an old world?

It’s neither – and both.

It’s the hope for a future to which we can bring the best of what was good about the past. 

At the end of a recent Shabbat morning Torah service, I felt myself carried away while singing that verse: 

  הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.

"Cause us to return to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old."

On that recent Shabbat morning I was thinking about my mother, who died on June 26th, after a tumultuous back and forth between severe illness and relative health over the previous eight or nine months.

The words --- “Chadesh Yameinu Kekedem” --- prompted me to pray in my heart  --- O God, may you give me the ability to take all the fond memories I have of my mother from those “ymei kedem” – those former days.  And may the comfort of those memories --- and the Torah she taught me --- help me --- lechadesh yamai (to renew my days) ---  to bring renewal and a continued embrace of life in the days, months and years to come.

As far back as I can remember, my mother always taught my brother and sister and me never to hold grudges.  “Don’t stand on ceremony,” she would say, “because life is too short for that.”

I’m eternally grateful for having been in this same earthly existence as that of my mother for almost 55 of my mother’s 77 years.

I’ve now joined that club of people who have lost a parent.  But all of you who are in the same boat know that life does go on.  And life is with people.  And renewal is not just a pipe dream.

Harachaman, hu yechadesh aleynu et Hashanah hazot letovah veliverakha.

May the All-Merciful One, renew this year for us with goodness and blessing.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)

 

Posted on October 6, 2016 .