AMONG THE BOUNDARY-CROSSERS

Sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5778

(September 30, 2017)

Last night I spoke a bit about the introductory paragraph before the Kol Nidre prayer, in which we proclaim: “Anu matirin lehitpalel im avaryanim”  -- “We grant permission to pray with transgressors.” 

As I also mentioned last night, the word עברינים  / avaryanim  (“transgressors”) is linguistically related to the word  עברי / ivri – (“Hebrew”).  Both words come from the verbal root ע.ב.ר.  )ayin-vet-resh( – the basic meaning of which is “to cross over” or “to pass.”

I mentioned the midrash about how Abraham was called “Ivri”/ “Hebrew” -- because he was proud to stand up for his beliefs even if that put him mey’ever echad/ on one side of a philosophical divide while the whole world stood mey’ever echad/ across from him on the other side of the philosophical divide.

Another explanation about why Abraham was called “ha-Ivri” (“the Hebrew”), taken from that same midrash passage in Bereshit Rabbah, simply says: 

וְרַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי שֶׁהוּא מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר, וְשֶׁהוּא מֵשִׂיחַ בִּלְשׁוֹן עִבְרִי.

But the Sages say – that he was “mey’ever hanahar” (“from across the river”), and he spoke Hebrew.[1]

(The river being referred to there is the Euphrates River.[2])

Fast forward a few centuries and the latter books of the Torah talk a lot about crossing over the Jordan River as, for example, in Torah portion Nitzavim, where Moses refers to

הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹבֵר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן, לָבוֹא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.[3]

All this reminds us that, as Jews, we are boundary crossers – like Abraham and Sarah when they left their native land to go forth to a land that God would show them; and like the generation that grew up in the wilderness of Sinai after their parents had gone forth from Egypt.

If our Jewish identity is bound up with the idea of being boundary crossers, so much more so for our identity as Americans.  If you go back far enough (and for some of us you don’t have to go back very far at all) none of our families originated within the borders of the United States.  And that’s even true for American Indians in the sense that anthropologists tell us that they came to North America across a land bridge from Asia a few thousand years before everyone else came along. 

Speaking of Parashat Nitzavim, many Reform and Reconstructionist congregations read from Parshat Nitzavim (starting in Deuteronomy chapter 29), for their Yom Kippur morning Torah reading, instead of the traditional reading from Parashat Acharei Mot (starting in Leviticus 16) that we read in our own Torah service this morning.

Let’s all turn to page 443 right now and read the English translation of that first paragraph of Parashat Nitzavim out loud together:

You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every man, woman, and child in Israel, the stranger in the midst of your camp, form the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, that you may enter into the sworn covenant of Adonai your God which Aodani your God is confirmeing with you this very day, for the purpose of establishing you as the people whose only God is Adonai, as you have been promised, and as God swore to your father, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  But it is not only with you that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before Adonai your God, and with whoever is not here with us today.[4]

From just this first paragraph, we can readily see why the Reform and later the Reconstructionist movements included this passage as an alternative Yom Kippur morning Torah reading.

The reading from Parashat Nitzavim emphasizes the idea of inclusion, of everyone being part of the process, not just an elite few.  While the traditional Torah reading in Leviticus focuses on one High Priest making atonement on behalf of everyone else in the community, this alternative Torah reading has a much more democratic focus.  Look at the way it starts:

“You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God”

and the passage then goes on to include every single person in society – men, women and children; community leaders and common folk; citizens and resident aliens; present attendees and future generations. All are to be included in the transmission of Torah and in the establishment of a covenant with God.  

This emphasis on democratic inclusion is particularly appropriate for liberal Jewish movements like Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism which reject the continuation of special honors for Kohanim and Levi’im, the descendants of the priestly castes.  Also, this inclusiveness naturally leads to our contemporary advocacy for equal opportunity for all --- without invidious discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, physical disability or other factors. 

But getting back to the idea of boundary crossers – its’ especially noteworthy in the Torah’s language in Parashat Nitzavim that it explicitly includesגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ “gerkha asher bekerev machanekha --  meychoteyv eytzekha ad sho’eyv meymekha”/ .  “the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.” 

The traditional rabbinic interpreters identify these woodchoppers and water carriers as Canaanites who came to the Israelite camp claiming that they wished to convert to Judaism.  Rashi, following the lead of the Talmud, argues that Moses doubted their sincerity, yet agreed to let them stay and assigned them menial labor tasks like chopping wood and drawing water.

It would behoove us not to gloss over the implications of this:  We seem to have here a recognition that mistrust of foreigners has a long pedigree in Jewish tradition.  This is a trait that we ought to combat within ourselves even as we recognize how easily we can succumb to it.  

Let us remember the contemporary counterparts to these ancient woodchoppers and water carriers: The people from Mexico, Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere who struggle for a secure foothold for themselves and their families in a strange new land. 

For many, the Rio Grande crossing to El Norte has become the modern equivalent of the Jordan crossing to Eretz Yisra’el.

And remember:  As Jews and as Americans, whether or not we have United States green cards or passports, we are still all boundary crossers or the descendants of boundary crossers.  We are still all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Americans of goodwill may, and do, differ on the specifics of how best to construct a fair immigration policy for our country. 

Nevertheless, our tradition calls upon us to remember the strangers in our midst --- the choppers of wood and drawers of water who stood with us in our journey to freedom.  Responding to that call today, we must make sure that our legitimate concern with protecting our borders does not lead to the oppression of resident aliens within our borders who are struggling for existence.  And this is especially true in these times.  For it would be easy to succumb to xenophobia as we continue to be on the defensive against international terrorism even now, sixteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

I know that we’re not serving lunch here at Temple today as we do almost every other Shabbat of the year.  But it’s worth recalling the words with which we begin the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals, those stirring opening words of Psalm 126:

שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב ה' אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃

Shir hama’a lot beshuv Adonai et shivat tziyon hayinu ke-cholmim

“A song of ascents. When the Eternal returned the fortunes of Zion —we were like dreamers.”

On this Shabbat Shabbaton – This Sabbath of Sabbaths[5] which is Yom Kippur – we remember today’s cholmim – todays’ “Dreamers” – the undocumented young adults who arrived in this country as children and know no other home but the United States of America.  We hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – that Congress will rise to the task of setting the DACA program on a firm legislative footing.

And we hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world who are desperate to reach our shores. 

The United States does not have the capacity to absorb all of the potential immigrants of the world or all of the potential asylum seekers of the world or all of the potential refugees of the world.

But our faith as Jews, and our heritage as Americans, impels us do our part – and to advocate that our country does its part.

That we not sit idly by in the face of discriminatory travel bans, or heartless forced family separations, or miserly refugee limits.

May God be with all of us boundary crossers --- nitzavim hayom lifney Adonai – standing today in the presence of the Divine – today and in the days to come.

Gmar chatimah tovah/ May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.

And Shabbat Shalom!

© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 42:8 

[2] See Joshua 24: 1-4

[3] Deuteronomy 30:18

[4] Deuteronomy 29: 9-14 as translated by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, in On Wings of Awe (revised edition),  KTAV Publishing House in Association with Hillel: The Foundation of Jewish Campus Life (2011), p. 443

[5] Leviticus 16:31

Posted on October 3, 2017 .

AMONG THE TRANSGRESSORS

Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5778

September 29, 2017

Just before we sang Kol Nidre this evening, we included a short Hebrew paragraph (on p. 252 of our machzorim) to which the editors of our machzor have given the title “Permission.”

The key phrase in that “Permission” paragraph is “Anu matirin lehitpalel im avaryanim”  -- which literally means “We grant permission to pray with transgressors.” 

An old legend exists that claims that the word avaryanim/transgressors was code for Iberyanim – Iberians or Spaniards-- and that the idea was to permit the participation of those conversos during the Spanish Inquisition who had gotten baptized under duress but who still secretly identified as Jews. 

As it turns out, that story is not historically true.

In fact, the paragraph was introduced into the High Holiday liturgy some two centuries before the start of the Spanish Inquisition by a German rabbi, Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg

Scholars tell us that Rabbi Meir based his liturgical invitation to pray with transgressors on a Talmudic teaching found in Tractate Keritot, page 6b, where it says:

כל תענית שאין בה מפושעי ישראל אינה תענית שהרי חלבנה ריחה רע ומנאה הכתוב עם סממני קטרת

Any fast that doesn't include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast. For behold galbanum has a foul smell and yet the Scripture counts it among the ingredients of [the] incense [used in the Temple].

Or to put it another we --- We think you stink but you belong here together with us all the same.

The specific context for Rabbi Meir’s introductory paragraph before Kol Nidre was to invite back into the congregation any Jews who had been previously excommunicated by the local Jewish community for disobeying communal regulations.

As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains:

Such people, presumably, would already have been put into cherem (“excommunication”), declared outside the pale so that no one could have anything to do with them; [but] the Yom Kippur fast was declared an exception to that rule.[1] 

***

I have been thinking lately about how this principle might be applied to American society at large.

Rabbi Meir back in the 13th century was urging us to make our community open enough so that we could include even those who had violated communal norms.

But for us in the American society of the 21st century, it seems more and more difficult to engage with those of whom we disapprove.  I cannot recall a time when our country has seemed so divided. 

And that’s not just because Russian bots have been trolling Facebook and Twitter.

It seems like our political and cultural schisms are so sharp that we are unable to claim a common bond with those with whom we disagree.  To those on one extreme of the political spectrum, those on the other extreme are avaryanim/transgressors beyond the pale. 

The biggest shame of it all is that President Trump himself has gleefully sought to exacerbate these societal fissures.

The latest iteration of this trend came last Friday night when the President was in Alabama on a campaign swing on behalf of Alabama’s junior U.S. Senator Luther Strange.  Sen. Strange had been appointed to his seat as a mid-term replacement for Sen. Jeff Sessions when Sessions became Attorney General.  And now Strange was running for the Republican nomination for a term in his own right.

And the President chose this venue to talk about football. 

I’ve seen the video clip.  It looks like President Trump was just trying to entertain the crowd because, really, the state of professional football would not appear to be a relevant issue in the Alabama senatorial campaign.

But he chose this venue to complain that NFL players who were going down on one knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner should be fired.  And he called them s.o.b’s.  --- though he didn’t abbreviate that epithet as I did just now.[2]

This for me was the last straw in my dogged attempts to cut him some slack. 

For months I have been trying to focus on the things that President Trump has said and done that are not stupid and hateful. 

For months I have been trying to focus on the times he did manage to seem presidential.

But how are we supposed to deal with a President who curses out and demeans thoughtful individuals who were peacefully and – yes – respectfully --demonstrating their concerns about American society.  They were not interrupting the game.  They were not interrupting the singing of the Anthem.   They were showing their profound RESPECT for this country’s ideals of freedom, justice and equality but reminding us with their stance that our country is not living up to those ideals.  They were showing RESPECT for the flag by bearing witness that they took the ideals that the flag stands for seriously.  

But for Trump, the N.F.L. players’ kneeling was a transgression calling for communal ban – for cherem – for excommunication from the American quasi-religious spectacle of professional football. 

I still tried to understand.  Maybe there IS a reasonable argument to be made that the playing of the national anthem before the start of the game is not the appropriate time or place for protest – even for quiet, somber, respectful protest. 

But no, I’m sad to say it, but this was about racism.  Most of the NFL players are black.  And the motivation of those who kneeled, following the example set last year by Colin Kaepernick, was specifically to protest the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers in recent months and years.     

I know that one could still argue that this was about decorum and not about race. 

But what clinched it for me was how Trump mixed in with those remarks another complaint about recent NFL rules designed to limit brain injuries.  

Here’s what he said:

"Because you know, today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game. They had that last week, I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom! 15 yards. The referee goes on television, his wife's so proud of him. They're ruining the game! They're ruining the game," he said. That’s what they want to do.  They want to hit? It is hurting the game.”

What these remarks tell me is that, for our President, the entertainment value of watching violent tackles is more important than the health and safety of the players.  And what that tells me is that he sees those men, whether or not they are taking the knee during the National Anthem, as mere tools for the amusement of the spectators.  

But the fact that the players are highly paid doesn’t mean that they forfeit their humanity.[3]

The fact that the President saw fit to sneer at NFL rules designed to lessen the danger of C.T.E. -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy, was in my view of a piece with his remarks to police officers earlier this year that they shouldn’t try to keep criminal suspects from having their heads bashed in when being shoved into police cars.[4]

And it reminded me of his encouragement at his campaign rallies for protesters to be beaten up.[5]

And it reminded me of his encouragement of so-called “Second Amendment People” to take out Hillary Clinton.[6]

This President is a thug.

I cringe at saying this.

Indeed, I have felt annoyed and even disgusted for months at those who have gone around saying that Trump is “not my President” and who have termed opposition to his politics as “the Resistance” – as if we were under foreign military occupation.  No, to the contrary, although I voted for Hillary Clinton (in case you were wondering…), and although I was sad that she lost the election, I still feel that it’s part of being a good citizen to accept the results of the election, to continue to advocate for one’s preferred policy positions, and to pray for the health of our elected leaders and representatives including this President.

And I do.

Yes, Donald Trump is still “my President” because I’m an American and he won the election. 

And yet, I cringe at the harm he has done and is continuing to do to this country. 

I knew we had turned a corner when even my father, who is sometimes on some issues more conservative than me, posted the following on Facebook earlier this week (and I did get my Dad’s permission to quote him here):

He wrote:

[I] AM COMPLETELY DISGUSTED WITH TRUMP DIVIDING THIS COUNTRY RATHER THAN UNITING IT. I TRULY HOPE WE DON'T HAVE A REVOLUTION BECAUSE OF HIS IRRATIONAL THINKING AND ACTIONS, LET ALONE A WAR. TIME FOR IMPEACHMENT IS NOW!!!!!!!!!. 

To which I responded:

Dad, I knew that Trump had really gone over the deep end when I saw your post. Like you, I have definitely been trying hard to give Trump the benefit of the doubt even though I disagree with most of what he stands for and even though I find most of his actions and statements to be insensitive and foolish. And even then, I have tried to temper my expressions of disgust with some sense of respect for the office he represents even when I couldn't respect him as the person filling that office. But it ain't easy! And I think with his attacks on serious-minded concerned citizens as S.O.B.'s, he has really gone too far. I don't think we have yet seen grounds for impeachment. But I hope […] in the interim, [that those] in Congress will develop enough backbone to oppose Trump when he pursues policies that are stupid and unjust.

So, that’s (a somewhat edited version of) what I replied on my Dad’s facebook page. 

I’ll tell you – when I was in Israel earlier this year one of the weirdest things to contemplate was that Israeli society seemed calmer than American society when it’s usually the other way around. 

As a rabbi, I’ve generally tried not to be overly partisan on the bima.

But when “my President” --- “our President” --- goes after thoughtful protesters as S.O.B’s --- he shows me that he just doesn’t get it about what being an American really is all about.

And for us, as American Jews, it’s especially important for us to remember from whence we come.  We are spiritual descendants of Avram Ha-Ivri --- Abra[ha]m the Hebrew[7].  Why was he called “Hebrew” (or “Ivri”) in Hebrew?

I’ll tell you why – because he was an iconoclast.

The word “Ivri”/ “Hebrew” comes from the same root as “Avaryanim” – The “Transgressors” whom we invite to pray together with us on Yom Kippur.

Abraham was an idol smasher.  He transgressed from the status quo. And God approved.

Abraham, in the words of the classic midrash, was called “ha-ivri”, the Hebrew, because he stood “meyever”/ “on the opposite side”.

As it says in Bereshit Rabbah:

רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד וְהוּא מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד.

“Rabbi Yehudah says, all the world [stood] on one side while [Abraham stood] on the opposite side.”[8]

Whatever our own individual politics are, as Jews we respect the value of principled dissent – a tradition that goes all the way back to Avraham Avinu, Avraham Ha-Ivri.

Whatever our own individual politics are, as Americans we respect the value of principled dissent – a tradition that goes all the way back to the Boston Tea Party.

You don’t have to agree with our President that there were ANY fine individuals among the fans of Confederate statues who marched in Charlottesville.

And you don’t have to agree with our President that the football players who have taken the knee are s.o.b.’s.

There are people in this society whose morals, whose beliefs, whose behaviors stink like the galbanum of the Temple incense.

Some (including me) would include in that group the Tiki-Torch carrying white nationalists in Charlottesville. 

Some (not including me) would include in that group those who take a knee when the national anthem is played.

But, our challenge, our calling, our mission, is to find a way to coexist in one nation. 

As the Talmud teaches: “Any fast that doesn't include the sinners of Israel is not a true fast.”

And as the Machzor beseeches:  “Beshivah shel malah, uvishivah shel matah, al da’at hamakom, v’al da’at hakahal anu matirin l’hitpalel im ha'avaryanim.

By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of the earthly court , with the permission of God the Ever-Present, and with the permission of the congregation, we grant permission to pray alongside the transgressors of this world.

Tzom Kal/ May our Yom Kippur fast be an easy one.

Because our tasks ahead as a society sure aren’t easy.

And yet, may we be grateful for the progress that has been made, hopeful for the progress that can be made, forgiving of ourselves, and forgiving of one another   --just as God is forgiving of us all.

Amen.

 

© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)

 

[1] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, “Kol Nidre: Translation and Commentary,” in All These Vows: Kol Nidre, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, editor (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011), p. 92

[2] http://time.com/4954684/donald-trump-nfl-speech-anthem-protests/  

[3] See http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-nfl-criticism-concussions-brain-injuries-cte-2017-9

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/29/nyregion/trump-police-too-nice.html

[5] http://mashable.com/2016/03/12/trump-rally-incite-violence/#ODoXKPqhWiqu

[6] http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/aug/09/context-donald-trumps-second-amendment-I’ll tepeople-comm/

[7] Gen. 14:13: וַיָּבֹא֙ הַפָּלִ֔יט וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאַבְרָ֣ם הָעִבְרִ֑י וְהוּא֩ שֹׁכֵ֨ן בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֜י מַמְרֵ֣א הָאֱמֹרִ֗י אֲחִ֤י אֶשְׁכֹּל֙ וַאֲחִ֣י עָנֵ֔ר וְהֵ֖ם בַּעֲלֵ֥י בְרִית־אַבְרָֽם׃

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 42:8 רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד וְהוּא מֵעֵבֶר אֶחָד.

Posted on October 3, 2017 .

MY FRIEND ZUSYA

Sermon for First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5778 (September 21, 2017)

We’ve all heard about the stereotypical homework assignment that many kids get assigned each fall when the school year begins.  You know -- the old, “What I did on My Summer Vacation” essay.

That’s sort of what I’ve assigned myself to do in this talk today.  Except that this is my “What I did on my Six-Month Sabbatical” essay. 

In the Torah  “sabbatical” is first introduced as an agricultural concept:

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.[1]

My recent sabbatical, during my seventh year as your rabbi, was indeed a “fallow” time for me in that I had a much-appreciated break from my day to day work of teaching, writing, counseling and generally representing the Jewish community.  It was a wonderfully rejuvenating experience for me.  I am so grateful for the support of the congregation in enabling me to have a sabbatical and in welcoming me back so warmly at its conclusion. 

So, what did I do on sabbatical?  From the time that I was ordained 20 years ago I always had hoped that someday I’d be at a congregation for an extended enough tenure that I could be eligible for a sabbatical in Israel.  In particular, I wanted to live in Tel Aviv – my favorite place in Israel – and get an extended experience of life there and get closer to fluency in modern Hebrew.

So that’s what I did.  After a few days off as I prepared to leave the United States last December, I spent five months in Israel, followed by a few weeks of travelling in Europe on my way home.  If you’ve been following the monthly bulletin articles that I wrote while I was away you already know about some of the experiences I had during those travels.

With respect to my educational endeavors:

I attended an eight-hour per week advanced modern Hebrew immersion class or “Ulpan” at a public institution called Ulpan Gordon.

And I attended a six-hour per week course on parshanut (that is, classical Torah commentary through the ages) at the “Bet Midrash Tel Aviv” program run by a pluralistic organization called Bina: The Jewish Movement for Social Change. https://bina.org.il/en/ .  That course was taught in English but we studied the texts in the original Hebrew.

I also engaged an individual tutor for modern conversational Hebrew through a private Ulpan program called “Citizen Café.”

Other learning that I did on a more limited basis included attendance at study groups that were conducted totally in Hebrew including the Talmud group at the Alma Center for Hebrew Culture and the Bet Midrash that met weekly at the Tel Aviv LGBT Center.  I also had lots of other informal opportunities for trying to improve my Hebrew and general understanding of Israeli culture.

It was just so great reconnecting with family and old friends whom I had not seen in years, and making new friends – including native Israelis, recent immigrants and other foreign visitors.

Of course, I missed all of you, and it was especially challenging to be away from Liam (who is sitting over there).  For those of you who don’t know, Liam and I had started dating in April of last year, when I had already committed myself to going to Israel on sabbatical.  But we had a wonderful time when he visited me in Israel in February, and when we travelled together in Europe during my last few weeks before I returned to Duluth.

During my time in Israel I really enjoyed being a “Jew in the Pew.”  I enjoyed studying the Torah portion each week without the responsibility of sermonizing or teaching about it.  But I did participate regularly in various pluralistic congregations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and several times accepted invitations to share in the musical and liturgical leadership of various Shabbat services as Torah and haftarah reader, cantor and instrumentalist.

In June, after my return to Duluth, I spoke at our monthly Learner’s Lunch about my general impressions of Israel.  Those impressions included:    

---  How Tel Aviv has lots more “pluralistic” and “non-charedi” religious options than in the past.  

---  How significant numbers of young immigrants from western Europe have been arriving in recent years.

---  How there are construction projects everywhere, including a new Tel Aviv light rail system and the renovation of historic Dizengoff Square.

---  How Tel Aviv is an LGBT Mecca.

---  How great are Tel Aviv’s beaches and parks and the outdoor gyms that dot the landscape.

---  And how wonderful it was to experience some of the traditional Jewish and modern Israeli holidays in a place where they were ubiquitous.

When rabbis or lay people write divrei torah it’s standard practice to try to connect our thoughts to a relevant Biblical verse or line from the liturgy. But, really, who needs to find a specific textual link in order to talk about our relationship to Israel.  As I see it, our entire identity as Jews is tied up with our connection to the land and people of Israel.  To quote from the opening lines of the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence –

"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

"After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom."

As I’m sure most of you know, this return on a mass scale began with the rise of the modern Zionist movement, starting in the late 19th century, though small numbers of Jews had lived continuously in the land of Israel throughout the intervening centuries.  The re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient Jewish homeland is no small thing.  How different is our standing and place in the world since 1948 as compared to the previous centuries of exile when we were at the mercy of foreign governments who, to put it mildly, did not always have our best interests at heart.

In the decades when our grandparents and great-grandparents were young, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Europe.  We know what happened to millions of them.

In the decades when people of my generation were young, the largest Jewish community in the world was in the United States.  

Today, the largest Jewish community in the world is in The State of Israel.  According to the Jewish Virtual Library[2], as of 2016, out of a global Jewish population of about 14 and a half million Jews, 44% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and 39.5% of the world’s Jews live in the United States.  The next largest Jewish community is in France, with 3.2% of the world’s Jews. 

As a percentage of national population, 73.7% of Israel’s population is Jewish and no other nation on earth has a population that is more than 2% Jewish.

What this tells me is that, now more than ever, to be a Jew means to have a relationship with what is going in our Jewish homeland, the State of Israel.

As you can gather from what I’ve said so far—I loved being in Israel.

But it’s a complicated relationship.  I knew that before I started my recent sabbatical and I know it even more now that I’m back home in Duluth.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it never occurred to me to think of Israel as anything other than a safe haven in case, God forbid, a new holocaust might ever arise; or as the birthplace of Judaism which would be interesting to visit at least once in my life --- just like Muslims try to go on Hajj to Mecca once in a lifetime. 

When I was growing up, Jewish was my religious identity and a mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Polish was my ethnic identity.  The idea of Jewish as a “national” identity was foreign to me. 

All that changed for me when I spent my junior year of college as an exchange student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I expected to be homesick for Americans and I didn’t expect to be homesick for Jews.  And, as it turned out, the opposite was true.  I found myself homesick for fellow Jews and totally fine with not having other Americans to hang out with.  And then, during the December 1981 holiday break, I flew from Britain to Israel – meeting up with extended family there, and taking a 10-day tour of the country organized by ISSTA – the Israel Student Travel Agency.  (This was before “Birthright” so it wasn’t free…)

During the course of that first short visit to Israel in December 1981, I fell in love with the country. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of being “at home” even though I had never been there before.  And I was moved by the ubiquity of Hebrew, by the nationwide Chanukah celebrations, and by the incredible geographic diversity within such a small area.  When I got back to Scotland for the second half of my junior year abroad, I started getting involved in the Edinburgh University Jewish Society and I started thinking about going back to Israel is summer 1982 to volunteer on a kibbutz.  And I started thinking about making Aliyah a year or two after that once I would have finished up my American undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

My parents were horrified.

And, yes, I was an impressionable 20-year-old at the time.

By the time the summer rolled around, I had decided that – no, I wouldn’t emigrate to Israel – but I’d still go back that summer for the experience of volunteering on a kibbutz, learning some more modern Hebrew, and seeing more of the country.

To this day, I remember one of my Israeli relatives that summer of 1982, telling me that I was a “goyishe kopf”  (Yiddish for someone with a non-Jewish head --- it’s not a compliment) for thinking that I or anyone else could possibly live an authentic Jewish life anywhere but in Israel.  Now, mind you, none of my Israeli relatives were particularly religious.  They looked at me like I was from the moon when I expressed interest in attending Shabbat services.   But what my father’s cousin in Haifa said about herself was this: “I’m a good Jew.  I love my country.”  As if Zionism and Jewish identity were simply synonymous.

The Israel I experienced this year on my sabbatical was a lot different from the Israel I had experienced back in 1981 and 1982.  Two of my Israeli-born second cousins left Israel decades ago to live in the United States and England.  And my subjective sense is that most Israeli Jews have long since recognized that the Jews of the free world are not going to make Aliyah en masse.  There will be no universal ingathering of the exiles anytime soon. But meanwhile, construction cranes were everywhere.  The city of Beersheva, where I spent the 1995-96 academic year, was barely recognizable to me as it had tripled in size during the past two decades.  And in Tel Aviv, I heard lots of French on the streets in Tel Aviv from recently arrived immigrants.

Yes, we can experience rich Jewish lives outside of Israel – even here in our beautiful Zenith City on the Unsalted Sea.  And we can all give ourselves a little pat on the back about how active we are as a Jewish community here in Duluth where there are so few of us and where we are such a small minority. 

But I have to admit, it’s a pale imitation of what Jewish life can be in a Jewish country.  And I’m also increasingly convinced that without a strong connection to the vibrancy of Jewish life in Israel, our own American Jewish identity will become more and more attenuated and more and more distant from knowledge of our Jewish heritage. 

The result of all this is that I had somewhat of an identity crisis while I was in Israel this year.  There were times that I felt embarrassed to let people know that I was a rabbi.  I mean, how could I be a rabbi when my Hebrew is not fluent.  How could I be a rabbi when I know so little Talmud.  When I don’t plan to make Aliyah.  When my personal ritual practice is so inconsistent.

But then I remembered the classic Jewish story of Reb Zusya, which Martin Buber retold in his collection “Tales of the Hasidim.”  It goes like this:

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:

"Zusya, what's the matter? 

And he told them about his vision; "I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life."

The followers were puzzled. "Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"

Zusya replied; "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?' and that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?"'

Zusya sighed; "They will say to me, 'Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"[3]

So, really, this is not after all a sermon about Israel.  It’s a sermon about being ourselves.

And who are we?

We are Jews (and those who love Jews). 

The ways in which we express Jewish identity and live out Jewish values are all over the map --- but we treasure that diversity.  And though we live thousands of miles from the global center of Jewish life, our own Jewish identities are nevertheless valid, authentic and life-affirming.

We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds --- who live in a Republic which has many imperfections and in which much work needs to be done to turn it into a more just and compassionate society.  But as someone who for many people I know is best thought of as “He who shall not be named” recently said: 

"[N]o 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 discover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator, we are equal under the law, and we are equal under our constitution.”[4]

We are Jews (and those who love Jews). 

We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds

And we are existentially connected to the State of Israel, a society still trying to define itself almost 70 years after its establishment.

Among those still pressing issues:

What will be the relationship between the Jewish religion and the institutions of the State of Israel? 

What will be the status of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism there --- or even of liberal streams within Orthodoxy?  

What needs to be done to eliminate all vestiges of discrimination within Israeli society, and. in particular, to guarantee civil equality for non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state?

And what can be done to achieve the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living in peace next to the State of Israel?

We are Jews (and those who love Jews). 

We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds

We are existentially connected to the State of Israel

And, yes, we are individuals.

Each of us here in Temple today – though we are all Jews (or people who love Jews), though we are all Americans, though we are all existentially connected to the State of Israel ---

We are also, each of us, like Reb Zusya, unique; each of us with our own bit of Torah to teach’ each of us with our own capacity to heal the world--- even if just a little bit.

That’s what I learned on my sabbatical.

And all I have to add to that is simply to say, Happy New Year 5778!

Shanah tovah u’metukah/ May it be a good and sweet new year for us, for our loved ones, for our congregation, for our city, for our state, for our country, for the State of Israel and all its inhabitants, for the entire Jewish people in all its dispersion, and for all who dwell on earth.

Amen.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)

 

 

[1] Exodus 23:10

[2] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-population-of-the-world

[3] Quoted in http://talmudictreasures.blogspot.com/2012/12/be-true-to-yourself-ask-susiyas-question.html

[4] https://qz.com/1053270/full-text-donald-trumps-statement-on-charlottesville/

Posted on September 26, 2017 .

L'CHAYYIM!

Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778 (September 20, 2017)

 

“L’chayyim!” – “To Life” – That’s what we Jews say whenever we raise a glass in celebration.

But with each Rosh Hashanah on the 1st of Tishri,

just as with each secular New Year on January 1st,

just as with each of our own birthdays whenever they happen to fall ---

we notice how quickly the years of our life fly by.

The older one gets, the more quickly time seems to pass. 

And once you reach an age when it’s likely that your life has at least reached its midpoint, you become more reflective about the overall contours of your life, about the overall narrative arc of your existence.

I know at least that that’s true for me.

I chuckle to think that, though I’m 56 years old now, I thought I had it all figured out 50 years ago. 

Fifty years ago, when I was only six years old, all of us in my first grade class in P.S. 100 in Brooklyn, New York were being introduced to the concept of poetry. Apparently, I liked the subject so much that I started telling people that I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. 

I actually went ahead and scribbled out my own book of poems – which I imaginatively titled “David Steinberg’s Poetry Book.”  My parents kept that book in a cabinet in their house for many years though I’m not sure I can find it now.  But I still remember that one of the last poems in the collection was called “What Life Is.” 

And so, here is that poem, written by six-year-old David Steinberg in 1967:   

***

“What Life Is”

 

When you’re a kid, you go to school

and you learn spelling and math.

And then when you come home from school

your mom says “take a bath!”

 

When you grow up you’ll have a wife

 and your towels will say “hers” and “his”

What I have just told you,

is what I think life is.

*** 

Fifty years later, my understanding of “what life is” has evolved.

Especially the part about having a wife.

And I wonder about the rest of you:  What do you think life is?  What story do you tell yourself about yourself?  What are the narrative themes of your life?

 

******

At Rosh Hashanah we speak of being inscribed “bsefer hachayyim” / “in the book of Life”.

This image of a “Book of Life” comes from Masechet Rosh Hashanah, the Talmudic Tractate on Rosh Hashanah:

As we read in Masechet Rosh Hashanah page 16b:

א"ר כרוספדאי א"ר יוחנן שלשה ספרים נפתחין בר"ה אחד של רשעים גמורין ואחד של צדיקים גמורין ואחד של בינוניים. צדיקים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר לחיים. רשעים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר למיתה. בינוניים תלויין ועומדין מר"ה ועד יוה"כ. זכו נכתבין לחיים לא זכו נכתבין למיתה.

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah — one with the names of the completely wicked, one with the names of the completely righteous, and one with the names of those who are neither completely righteous nor completely wicked. The completely righteous: their verdict — life — is written down and sealed at once. Those neither completely righteous nor completely wicked: their verdict is suspended between New Year’s Day and the Day of Atonement. If they are deemed to deserve it [by resolving to repent], they are inscribed for life; if [they fail to repent] and therefore deemed not to deserve life, they are inscribed for death.

You could give yourself an anxiety attack if you took this too literally.

But, of course, this is poetic, metaphorical language.   

Yet it’s still powerful poetry.  It’s meaningful metaphor.

What does this come to teach us?

I believe that what the idea of being inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah teaches us is that our actions have consequences. 

That how we live our lives affects the lives of others. 

I think the Hebrew language itself hints at these interconnections. 

In English, the word “Life” is a singular noun.  If we wanted to make it plural we would speak of “Lives” rather than “Life”

But in Hebrew, what do you notice about the word “chayyim?” Is it grammatically singular or is it grammatically plural?

Those of you who know even a little bit of Hebrew grammar will recognize that it's plural.  Thus, the word "chayyim," depending on the context, can be translated as either “life” or “lives”. 

What might we make of this?

I can think of three possibilities.

The first way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives” (plural) is that it implies that each person’s actions affect the lives of others.  No person is an island.  All Israel are responsible for one another.  All humanity are brothers and sisters.

In Genesis 4:10, after Cain kills his brother Abel, God challenges Cain: 

  מֶה עָשִׂיתָ; קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן-הָאֲדָמָה

(Mah asita; kol demey achikha tzo'akim eylay min ha'adamah)

“[...]What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground.

But just as “chayyim” is grammatically plural so is “demey achikha”. 

Idiomatically, "demey achikha" is generally translated as “the blood of your brother” but grammatically it’s plural so that the literal translation would be “the bloods of your brother”.

As the Talmud in Tractate Sanhdedrin page 37a explains: 

שכן מצינו בקין שהרג את אחיו שנאמר (בראשית ד) דמי אחיך צועקים אינו אומר דם אחיך אלא דמי אחיך דמו ודם זרעותיו

“And so we find with Cain that he killed his brother but the Torah says the “bloods of your brother ("demey achikha") cry out.  It doesn’t say "the blood of your brother" ("dam achikha")  . But rather “the bloods of your brother” ("demey achikha") -- [What does “thebloods” of your brother mean?] -- His blood and the blood of his descendants ("damo vedam zarotav")"

L’chayyim!/ To Lives!

Our actions in our own lives affect the lives of subsequent generations – including whether or not those subsequent generations will even be able to exist.

As it says just a few lines later on that same page of Talmud:

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered as if they had destroyed an entire world, and whoever preserves a single life is considered as if they had preserved an entire world.”

How we live our lives affects the lives of others.  The consequences may be subtle or they may be dramatic.

And so, on this Rosh Hashanah, we ask ourselves:  How have my deeds impacted others?  How have my deeds affected the world at large? 

--------------------------------------------------

A second way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives” (plural) is that it implies that there exists not just the life of this world (“olam hazeh”) but also the life of the world to come (“olam haba”). 

And so, the 13th century commentator Shlomo Ben Avraham Ibn Adret (a student of Nachmanides) commented that when the Talmud talks of being inscribed on Rosh Hashanah in “the Book of Life” or the “Book of Death”:

ואי נמי יש לפרש דחיים ומיתה דקאמר בעולם הבא קאמר

“one should understand that the ‘life’ and ‘death’ referred to here is [life and death] in the world to come, while in this world there are cases of a righteous person perishing though he or she performs righteous acts and of an evil person who lives a long life though he or she is evil. “ [1]

On the other hand, my colleague and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College classmate Rabbi Margot Stein, in the aftermath of the devastating loss of her college-aged son to cancer, wrote in a 2015 High Holiday sermon:  

I think I saw this on Facebook, that source of great spiritual wisdom: ‘We each have two lives. The second one begins, when we realize we have only one.’

Let this be that moment.  Let now be when you wake up to this one precious life.

Let this be when you choose to live like you mean it.”[2]

So, is there an olam haba?  A world to come?  And, if so, what is the nature of the life after this life? 

Jewish tradition includes many opinions on the subject.  I always told myself that I believed that there is an eternal life force that we are a part of both now and after our earthly deaths, but that our individual personalities and consciousnesses don’t survive our physical deaths.

But then last December when I was in synagogue in Tel Aviv on the morning of Shabbat Chanukah, we came to a verse in Hallel that I’ve sung many times in my life and that we’ve sung in this sanctuary every time we’ve sang the Hallel service, Psalm 115, verse 17. 

  לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ;    וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה

The dead cannot praise the Eternal, neither any that go down into silence.

And I had this sudden strong feeling, that brought me to tears, that I can’t possibly believe this claim of the Psalmist is true. 

  לֹא הַמֵּתִים, יְהַלְלוּ-יָהּ;    וְלֹא, כָּל-יֹרְדֵי דוּמָה

The dead cannot praise the Eternal, neither any that go down into silence [??!!??]

No!  I don’t believe it!

My mother had died just six months earlier but sitting there I suddenly had this feeling that --- despite what the words of Psalm 115 said – that nevertheless my mother was still praising God in the next world just as she so often did in this world.

Lechayyim!/To lives! – The life of this world and the life of the world to come. 

-----------------------------------------------

Finally, a third way of understanding why “chayyim” means both “life” (singular) and “lives”(plural) is that it implies that an individual’s life is a collection of experiences not just one long, undifferentiated slog from the cradle to the grave.  Maybe my life is NOT a unified narrative.  Maybe, on the contrary, my LIFE--  is – are --- LIVES --- A collection of discrete moments that don’t have to add up into a coherent whole….

I used to think that we had to combine all the discrete moments of our lives into one logically coherent story.   I no longer am so sure that that is true. 

I remember just before my ordination from rabbinical school my academic advisor, Adina Newberg gave us this advice:  Surprise yourself.  Don’t limit yourself to your stereotype of yourself.  Don’t be a slave to routine.

On Rosh Hashanah we sing “Hayom Harat Olam”/ “Today the world is conceived”.  And in the daily Shacharit prayers throughout the year we chant “uvetuvo mechadesh bekhawl yom tamid ma’aseh vereysheet”/ “with divine goodness God renews each day, continually, the work of Creation.

So may it be with us –That we be inscribed in Sefer Chayyim/ A book not just of life but of lives. 

With each new day bringing new possibilities.  

With each sorrow in this life tempered by a faith in an eternal salvation. 

With each of our actions informed by our care for the web of connections in which we are tied to others.  

הרחמן, הוא יחדש עלינו את השנה הזאת לטובה ולברכה.

Harachaman, hu yechadesh aleynu et Hashanah hazot letovah veliverakha.

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

Lechayyim!

 

 

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

 

[1] Rashba on Rosh Hashanah 16b

 ואי נמי יש לפרש דחיים ומיתה דקאמר בעולם הבא קאמר, אבל בעולם הזה יש צדיק אובד בצדקו ויש רשע מאריך ברעתו

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-arthur-waskow/we-each-have-two-lives_b_8252184.html

Posted on September 25, 2017 .

SIGNS AND CONSTELLATIONS

Thoughts on Parashat Shofetim

(Deut. 16:18 – 21:9)

Last Shabbat our community celebrated the bat mitzvah of a young woman named Lillian.  And next Shabbat we’ll celebrate the bar mitzvah of a young man named David.  I know it’s an overused cliché, but I do feel and I know that many of you feel, that our congregation is like an extended family.  So that it wasn’t just Lillian’s biological family last week and it won’t be just David’s biological family next week who rejoice on their Simcha, on their happy milestone.  All of us rejoice as well.

On happy occasions, like bnai mitzvah or weddings or baby namings, one of the traditional things we do is break into song.  And what do we sing? 

“Siman Tov u Mazal Tov yehey lanu ulekhawl Yisra’el”.

Some of you who know the words of that song well may not know the literal translation of those words, so let me share that with you.

The words literally mean, “A good sign and a good constellation, may it be for us and for all Israel” (“all Israel” in this context meaning “All the Jewish People”).  

This seems to have astrological implications, right?

How many of you will admit to looking at the horoscopes? I know I do.  Some days I dismiss it as irrelevant nonsense.  But some days it makes sense and carries lots of meaning for me.  In fact, though I’ve long since lost it, for many years I used to carry around with me my “today’s birthday horoscope” that I found in the newspaper on July 26, 2005.  It said:

"Just because a mountain is there does not mean you have to climb it.  Some people feel that they have to prove themselves constantly, so they go out of their way to do extraordinary things, but you are pretty extraordinary just as you are, so there is really no need to do anything special this year."

Let me tell you --  that’s a message I often need to hear. I wouldn’t take it to any extremes --- I DO think it’s important to have goals and to set challenges for oneself, but the idea that we each have intrinsic worth – indeed, intrinsic “extraordinariness,” is probably a message that we could all benefit from taking to heart more often than we do.

However, it would seem that this idea of “siman tov u’ mazal tov” – “good sign and good constellation” – conflicts with the rules, or at least the spirit, of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shofetim, where it says in Deuteronomy 18: 10-11:

"Let no one be found among you who passes their son or their daughter through fire, or anyone who practices enchantment, or who is a soothsayer or a diviner or a sorcerer. Or one who casts spells, or consults ghosts or familiar spirits or who inquires of the dead."  

The Conservative movement’s Torah Commentary “Etz Hayim” helpfully informs us that “Magic for purposes of entertainment is permitted.” (Halakhah l’ma’aseh commentary on Deut. 18:10, p. 1095).  So, reading the horoscopes, or watching Harry Potter movies are probably okay.

In any event, what I get out of the Torah reading is that trying to predict the future through supposedly magical or supernatural means implies a lack of faith in God.  And so the warnings against those practices are followed with the admonition:  תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ / “You shall be ‘tamim’ with Adonai your God. (Deut. 18:13). 

“Tamim” is translated in a variety of ways in different Torah commentaries and even within the same Torah commentary at its different occurrences.  Translations include: “wholehearted,” “perfect,” “simple,” “upright,” “blameless,” “above reproach” and “pure of heart.”

Elsewhere in the Torah, the same word תמים “/”tamim” is used to describe Abraham (Gen. 17:1) and Noah (Gen. 6:9), both of whom are models of faith in God. 

And, as the Plaut Torah commentary notes, the word “תמים “/”tamim” is also related to the word “tam” meaning “simple” – which you may recall as the description of one of the four types of children that the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah says are present at the seder meal.   Our Torah commentary says:  “Israel is to have simple, undivided loyalty to God, unsullied by magic practices.” (Note to Deut. 18:13, Plaut Torah Commentary, 2nd ed, p. 1298)

Why does the Torah make such a big deal about soothsaying, sorcery and the like? 

The idea of a “jealous God” does not really resonate for me.

Rather, for me the underlying issue is fatalism.  If you feel like you can predict the future, you can get weighed down by inertia, as if nothing really matters because all has been predetermined.  On the contrary, Judaism seeks to focus on the here and now, and teaches us that we CAN make a difference in the here and now as we work to create a just society.   That’s the spirit characterized by perhaps the most famous phrase in this week’s Torah portion צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף / “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice you shall pursue….”) (Deut. 16:20).

Are the practices of psychics, astrologers and fortunetellers “true?”  Actually, there’s a debate over this among the classic Jewish sages and commentators.  In the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat, Rabbi Chanina says

מזל מחכים מזל מעשיר ויש מזל לישראל

("Mazal mechakim, mazal ma'ashir, ve-yesh mazal le-yisra'el")

“The influence of the constellations (i.e., “mazal”) gives wisdom and Mazal gives wealth; and Israel has “mazal” – i.e., Israel is under the influence of the constellations.”  But Rabbi Yochanan responds אין מזל לישראל ("eyn mazal le-yisra'el") “There is no influence of the constellations for Israel.”   (Talmud, Shabbat 156a).

Maimonides (writing in the late 12th century) is among the naysayers.  In his Mishneh Torah he adamantly declares: “All who give credence to any of these things and imagines that they are true, but only forbidden by Torah, are nothing but fools and weakminded… But scholars and enlightened thinkers are convinced that all these things prohibited by the Torah are not matters of wisdom, but mumbo-jumbo by which the gullible are misled, and for the sake of which they abandon all ways of truth.  Therefore, the Torah, in admonishing to beware of these vanities, declares – “Tamim Tiheyeh Im Adonai Elohekha”/ “You shall be wholehearted with Adonai your God.”  (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 11, 16 as cited in N. Liebowitz, Studies in Devarim, p. 185 [adapted])

What Jewish tradition tells us is that, instead of consulting the stars, we should have faith in God who controls the stars.  As it says in Psalm 147:  “Monim mispar lakochavim, lchulam sheymot yikra” (Ps. 147:4) (God “counts the number of the stars, giving names to each of them.”)  This to me is a metaphor for the idea that just as each star is unique and special, so is each person, and so is each element of creation.

 Finally, another way of defining the word “tamim”.  The medieval writer Bachya Ibn Pakuda writes that the word “tamim” in Deuteronomy 18:13 means having our inner and outer actions in harmony.  Not just thinking about being good and virtuous, but also speaking and acting in the world in accordance with our ethics and morals (cited in N. Liebowitz, Studies in Devarim, p. 181)

May this month of Elul, this last month before the High Holidays, be a time for each of us or becoming more “tamim”/ “wholehearted” with God.  A time for examining whether our words and deeds have been in harmony with our ethics and values.  A time for strengthening our faith both in God and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg Elul 5777/ August 2017

 

Posted on August 28, 2017 .

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 .