Our tradition has always embraced disagreement.
One might think that the most famous rabbis of disagreement were Hillel and Shammai.
In the first century BCE the Babylonian Hillel migrated to Israel and worked as a woodcutter as he studied. He lived in such poverty that he was unable to pay the fee to study Torah. It is said, because he was known for his kindness, gentleness and concern for humanity, (in other words he was a mentsch), it was decided to abolish the Torah study fee.
His contemporary was Shammai, born-and-bred in the land of Israel. He worked as a builder, was a man of some wealth, and was also a teacher of Torah. His views on everything were strict, usually because he worried about the assimilation of the Jews into the Roman world. He was considered dour, quick-tempered and impatient.
Two more different personalities would be difficult to find. But at the end of the day, they served on the same Sanhedrin and mixed in the same intellectual cohort. Colleagues. They agreed on many basic issues of Jewish law, though they came at the law from different perspectives.
So why might one think that they are the most famous rabbis of disagreement?
Perhaps because their disciples were often in conflict. They followed the philosophies of their founders. Hillel based his rulings on his concern for every individual’s welfare, while Shammai was concerned with the strictures of the law. The Talmud records 300 cases of disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai.
A disagreement is also the central theme of our Torah portion Korach. Korach, Datan and Abiram stage a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of raising themselves above the community. All of Israel, argues Korach, Datan and Abiram, are holy. Moses responds by suggesting that God will decide who is holy, who is worthy of leadership, by accepting or rejecting incense offerings that they bring.
Our portion does not hide that the Moses and Aaron’s leadership, did, endure its challengers. The rebellion, the arguments against our esteemed Biblical leaders, are there for us to struggle with, argue over and see. Our tradition has never been one that glosses over disagreements or writes them out of history.
This week at the National Assembly of the United Nations, the United States, represented by Nikki Haley, laid bare a disagreement with the most recent resolution condemning Israel for excessive force at the Gaza Border. The resolution, Nikki Haley articulately pointed out, was biased against Israel, and did not take into account, or condemn, the irresponsibility of Hamas not looking after its own population in Gaza nor did it condemn Hamas’s constant attacking of Israel through rockets and terrorist attacks.
In Haley’s words: “The nature of this resolution clearly demonstrates that politics is driving the day. It is totally one-sided. It makes not one mention of the Hamas terrorists who routinely initiate the violence in Gaza….”Advancing peace is not the goal of this resolution … (It blames everything on Israel.”
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was arguing for an acknowledgment of dual narratives. That neither side was totally blameless. But to ignore the rockets and attacks on Israel by Hamas was to present a bias towards only one part of the story. As such, the U.S. could not support or vote for this resolution.
Like Nikki Haley’s words this week, our tradition has always embraced duality. And in doings so, it has always acknowledged the counter-argument along with the argument. We know both the positions of Hillel and Shammai. We know Korach’s objections, Moses response and God’s judgement.
I recently finished Yossi Klein HaLevi’s new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor”, free for download in Arabic. I opted to pay full price for the English version on Amazon!
This book is a follow up to Klein HaLevi’s less-well-known volume he wrote years ago, where he journeyed and documented the narrative and story of Palestinians. In between books, the intifadas, and dashed hope for peace. He has finally reached a psychological place where he can pick up the dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian once again.
The book’s purpose and structure is just as its’ title suggests. It is 9 letters to his Palestinian neighbor who lives across the protective wall that divides Jerusalem and deters terrorists. The wall that he can see out his window from his home.
There are many striking things about this short volume. One of the best books I have read in a long while on the dispute.
First, how beautifully Klein HaLevi details our Jewish history, our physical and spiritual connection to this land. This book is written to create an understanding in the Arab world, to ask them to look beyond their biases, to understand that the Jewish people have a right to Israel that is true and just. In doing so it does not shy away from condemning Arab anti-semitism but also asks for an openness of mind and for a consideration of the truth he has to articulate.
The second beautiful thing that Yossi Klein HaLevi does in this volume, is acknowledge that the Palestinians also have a narrative. And that it is not, an either one narrative is true or another narrative is true. He advocates that two opposing narratives can exist and both be true. And that is a place that Jews and Palestinians need to arrive at for productive peace talks, for a two-state solution to happen, for our peoples to live together, legitimately, in our land.
Our tradition has always embraced disagreement.
One can move forward in disagreement when one has a great purpose in mind. Rather than becoming rooted and stuck in one’s narrative versus another’s narrative – keeping an eye on a higher goal can create a productive dialogue.
For three years there was a dispute between House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, the former asserting, “The law is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “The law is in agreement with our views.” Then a bat kol, a voice from heaven, announced, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, “These and those are the words of the Living God,” adding, “but the law, it is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”
At the end of the day, when the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai disagreed, they were both right and they would go home and break bread. A way forward was found that could be lived with. But both had truths.
Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim. When we finally realize that being right does not necessarily make the other person wrong, we can truly listen to each other and move forward in productive creativity, onto new and beneficial realms, that is somewhat fair and will benefit all.
Prior to Shabbat, we celebrated the last day of Pesach. The seventh day Torah reading is Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, the victory melody the Israelite’s chanted when the sea closed over their Egyptian pursuers on the escape from Egypt. This is a war victory song – singing of God’s triumph over the Egyptian army – part of which you know from the “Mi Chamocha” found in the text which has made its way into our morning and evening prayer services.
Following the Shirah, the song, is another very short victory song. Just two lines. The Song of Miriam:
“Sing to the Eternal, for God has triumphed gloriously
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Ex 15:21)
While you may not be familiar with those exact words, through Debbie Friedman’s melody which we sang this evening you are familiar with the context.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them…” (Ex 15:20-21)
Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam Song” written in 1988 and its popularity, brought to the fore the story of Miriam and how it was written out of so much of our Jewish history. It became popular in the 1980’s just as Chabad women were popularizing Miriam’s Tambourines and with the advent of the Women’s Seder which included the Miriam’s Cup.
As I wrote in the Women’s Seder Haggadah we produced last year, compared to Moses and Aaron, we know little of Miriam’s story:
“Our Torah is sparse. All we really know is that Miriam watches baby Moses hidden in the bulrushes and suggests to the Egyptian princess, that Yocheved should nurse the baby. All we really know is that her victory song at the sea is cut short to two lines. All we really know is that her speaking out against her brother marrying the Cushite woman is punished with leprosy while her brother Aaron goes unchastised. All we really know is that she is mourned by the Israelites when she dies. Nevertheless, the Torah’s dismissal of what was her immense role as a prophetess lives on: “… I brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4)”
What happened to Miriam, herself, is a leitmotif for how our culture has traditionally treated women. It is too easy to think that because this congregation has a woman rabbi and a female cantor on staff, or because women have run for president and vice president of this country, or because there are some female CEO’s out there, that the time of women and men as equals has arrived. It is too simple to believe because we now read female authors and poets, that some of our most popular musicians and composers are female, or that there are some households where men share in the domestic duties, that there is no patriarchy.
April 10th is Equal Pay Day. This date symbolizes how far into the working year women need to work for women’s earnings, on average, to catch up to what a man earns for the same job . In other words, if women could add to their working week, a work period from January 1 through April 10, they would then be earning the same amount as men. On average, women are paid 80% less of what men are paid for similar work. And while the gap is narrowing, at the current rate, women will not receive equal pay until 2059.
Recently our own Reform movement led by a collaboration of the movements professional organizations for rabbis, cantors, educators, early childhood educators and administrators, documented the wage gaps between men and women throughout our own congregations. For a movement that is dedicated to egalitarianism and justice, it is shocking to see that Reform Jewish women professionals are routinely paid less than their male counterparts. So recently our Movement formed an association called the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, to address the need to narrow the wage gap, provide the Reform Movements female employees with resources and training, and to educate the employers, professional and lay leaders of our synagogues and organizations about the wage inequity, Jewish ethical employment and the interventions that can be used to counter this injustice.
Equality and equity is not just about pay. Miriam’s prophetic words are rarely recorded into the annals of Torah or traditional rabbinic texts. Studies show that women’s words are often consciously or unconsciously not “heard” or are “dismissed”.
It is a well-known and documented phenomenon in the business world which has analyzed women’s experiences in the work place, that often when a woman suggests an idea, it is not given validity by management (whether they be male or female), until the same idea is expressed by a man. Likewise, it is not uncommon for men to feel the need to mansplain to women their own experiences, or to feel the need to have the “last word” in a conversation, or to “decide” to usurp a role that is not their job description, because they perceive that a male will be more effective. Speak to most women who have been in the workplace with men and they can share such personal experiences.
Feminist commentators have wondered, whether the scant mention and the lack of words of the prophetess Miriam in our text is because of the perception that a woman would not make as an effective prophetic role model. There seems to be a double behavioral standard for women and men in society. Women wrestle with these unconscious biases as they navigate their lives. A woman standing her ground is seen as stubborn, while a male standing his ground is viewed as having integrity. Women showing emotion are understood as weak, while a man showing emotion is seen as sensitive. A woman who brings who changes her child’s diaper is doing her job, while a man doing the same task is lauded as a good father.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them…”
The inequity that today is still pervasive in our society has reached a tipping point… and we are beginning to see women using their voices and their voices to speak out against this injustice. The Women’s Marches and the #MeToo movement are indicative of female led chants for a more equal world.
In her December Op Ed in The Forward, Rabbi Jody Gerson added her voice by speaking out about her recent experience at the URJ Biennial.
“All attendees wore name tags which gave our congregations and locations. For Rabbis, these tags included our title, but not our positions (i.e.-Assistant Rabbi, Associate Rabbi, Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Educator or Solo Rabbi).
My tag read: Rabbi Jordie Gerson, Greenwich Reform Synagogue, Greenwich, CT. It seemed simple enough, but the conversations that would follow were jarring. Over and over again, my nametag prompted the same discussion.
“So, where are you?” Someone would ask. “I’m the Rabbi in Greenwich, Connecticut,” I’d say, gesturing to my tag. And then, almost immediately, they would ask, “So who’s your senior [Rabbi]?” or “You’re the Associate?” or, in its most frustrating iteration, “So — you must be [your older, male predecessor’s] assistant?”
I am none of these things. I am The Rabbi. The Only Rabbi. The Solo and the Senior Rabbi; The Rabbi, Ha Rabbah, the Big (Kosher) Cheese. But, apparently, I don’t look like it.[i]
There is so much more that we could and should be doing to ensure that the time will come when men and women are regarded as equal in talent, in voice and in leadership in our society. Even amongst ourselves here in the Reform Movement, here in Baltimore, and here at Har Sinai Congregation.
My colleague Rabbi Kari Hoffmeister Tuling made some concrete suggestions about where we might consciously start in that process in synagogue life.
She suggests that we refer to every colleague as Rabbi last name or Cantor last name – no matter how cute/young/approachable/bubbly or fun they are. That we pull out our adult education brochure, and count, how many male experts versus female experts we have. If women are not hitting the 50% mark, notify those in charge of choosing that from now on your expectation is 50%, starting with the 2018/2019 year. Make sure every hiring committee and every personnel evaluation committee has specific training in spotting gender bias. Women routinely get evaluated more negatively than men. Educate ourselves others regarding the latest in feminist thought in your various forms of communication. Never have all-male panels or celebrations. And always consider a woman or women are on the list to be considered for a task in leadership. Point out female credit when credit is due: if a man repeats an idea or point originated from a woman, nicely point out who the true originator of that idea is so that the woman’s voice is heard as her voice. Rabbi Leana Morritt adds to this list: To constructively call out comments that marginalize, objectify or minimize women. They may seem innocuous, unconscious or even well meaning, but shining a light to this dynamic is the only way to begin really tackling this pernicious problem.
Timbrels and chants. Let us examine our ways of operating, seek a new melody of which will create a world that is equal. Where women are acknowledged for the work they do, the ideas they bring and are treated as talented partners in the world we are making. In doing so we will: “Sing a son to the One whom we’ve exulted.” And like Miriam and the women by the shores of the sea, our celebration of equality between genders will be worth dancing the whole night long.”
Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.
As Jacob lies on his deathbed, Joseph brings him his sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Jacob blesses Joseph through his children, prophesying that both will be the progenitors of great descendants, but as is oft the case in the biblical narrative, the younger will be more eminent than the older.
To this day we mimic his words when we bless sons: “Yismach Elohim K’Ephraim vKi’Menashe – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” (48:20) Ephraim and Menashe, the first brothers in the Biblical narrative, who did not quarrel, but lived in Shalom. Joseph merits a double inheritance, extra prosperity, through both his sons.
This becomes our aspiration for our boys, when we bless them with the same words. That they are men of peace and prosperity. “Yismach Elohim K’Ephraim vKi’Menashe – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”
Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.
As Jacob lies on his deathbed he calls forth his other sons. He offers them too a final blessing. “Come together and I will tell you what will befall you in days to come” (49:1). The blessings seem to take on a prophetic tone, some of them are so negative, these blessings are really akin to curses.
The Midrash (Gen R. 98:2) teaches it is at this very moment of Jacob’s blessings, that foresight of God leaves Jacob. What seems like prophecy is not prophecy at all. The commentator, Rashi, alludes to this in his commentary: Jacob is so filled with the “I,” that the blessings are Jacob’s own, and not infallible predictions of God.
From the biblical story’s perspective, Jacob’s blessings of his sons and their future progeny, are predicated on each of his son’s behaviors and traits. Each child’s individual virtues and flaws are illustrated in Jacob’s words, and written as predictions that will speak of their later tribal identity.
These are prophetic blessings (or curses) based on his stereotypical view of each of his sons.
The danger of stereotypes, of any kind, is that they can become self-fulfilling prophesies in themselves. Think of the under-achiever at school, whose teachers and parents expect lack of effort, and who consistently receive it. Think of the musical phenom, whose talent is nurtured, and who grows up to be the great artist that everyone predicted. Stereotyping can thwart free will. It can spoil our ability to change. It stops us in our tracks.
Along that line, the Hasidic commentator Or Ha’Meir on this very passage, suggests that in the absence of free choice, a complete revelation of what the future holds, would bring about the end of history – our story. Without choice, without awareness, without making our own stories and narratives, there is no point to living. He writes: “What good is it, if a great sage comes along and tells us each our own secret, that which we were supposed to discover of our own free will?”
Rashi writes of Jacob: “He sought to reveal the end to them, but God’s presence departed from him.” If Jacob’s predictions of his son’s behavior had been God-filled words of prophesy, they would have been irrefutable statements of the future. They would not allow for free choice and change of behavior and future narrative.
Our tradition speaks of the power of blessing, the power of our curses, the power of our words. Yes, they can be predictive. But when we offer them, when others offer them to us, they are not God inspired prophecies.
Each of us has free will to shape our own future, to forge our own path, to become who we might be. We can choose how to understand the circumstances of our own lives – as a glass half full or a glass half empty. We can choose how to respond to life itself – with positivity or negativity. We can choose the paths and byways we traverse.
Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.
Blessings. Predictions. Our lives are filled with the words of how other’s see us. But they cannot be prescriptive. For if they are, they are restrictive.
Va’y’hi, the opening words of our Torah portion mean: “and it was”. Jacob then proceeds to offer blessings that speak of the future – how it will be for his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, and his other sons. How it was, does not always tell us how it will be.
We are blessed. Not just with the words people offer us – for how others see us can be both blessing or a curse. Our ultimate blessing is in the path we choose for ourselves.
You may have caught the news story on NPR this week of the female inmates of an Indiana prison who had been taking a class on public policy. Vanessa Thompson, 17 years incarcerated, was watching a news story about the over 10,000 abandoned and neglected homes in Indianapolis. She brought a proposal to her public policy class:
“It’s a double restoration — not just of the house but of the person…. “What does Indianapolis need? A solution to this housing crisis. What do women in prison need, more than anything? Ownership. Of our minds, of our bodies, and of our physical homes.”
The idea she and her classmates developed is that the inmates would rehabilitate the houses, and when they finally left prison, would be given one of the homes they had restored to live in. The women of the class networked with organizations and individuals that could help them, set up a Go-Fund-Me page, established an Executive Board with a Director by using technology for communication. In early April this year, via video, they put their proposal before the State Legislator. In unanimous approval the Assembly approved their “Constructing the Future” proposal.
Getting the idea off the ground, meant the women had to learn and understand a cultural context different to their lives and living conditions so to advocate for themselves.
Our father Abraham, in the Torah portion tomorrow, is placed into a position where he needs to learn the cultural context of what is happening around him to succeed. God decides to reveal to Abraham God’s reasoning for eradicating the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorah. 
“Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing? … For I have selected him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him what is right and just, so that the Eternal may fulfill for Abraham all that has been promised to him.”
Abraham becomes aware of what was about to occur and why. With a sense of injustice Abraham tested the waters of arguing with God. No-one prior to Abraham had entered into a dispute with the Eternal. Will you save the cities for 50 innocents, 40, 30, 20… 10? Abraham also did not know the boundaries of what he was undertaking in untested waters. Would he be sidelined, would he succeed?
Figuring out the boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking change. We can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand its ethos.
Earlier this week I was on a conference call with Rabbi Andrea Weiss who teaches at Hebrew Union College Institute of Religion. Concerned about the tone of rhetoric in the last election, she approached 100 theologians to write a set of letters for the first 100 days of the new Administration speaking to American values. You can read all the letters online at valuesandvoices.com
The 100th letter was written by Dr. Elsie Stern, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Bible at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She wrote on the 100th day of this new government:
… Some contemporary Jews use the Omer to focus our attention, one day at a time, on the attributes that we share with God—attributes that enable us, as individuals and communities, to live up to our highest potential and to move toward our highest and holiest aspirations.
In essence, this has been the aim of the 100 letters we have sent you over these past 100 days. We have called you to enact in your leadership the crucial American values that are our greatest strength as a nation. The American Values Religious Voices letter writers provide a snapshot of the America that you have pledged to serve. We are men and women, from red states and blue states. We identify as African-American, Asian, Latinx, Native American, and White. We are Buddhists, Christians of varied denominations, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Some of our families have been in this country since before it was “America”; others are immigrants ourselves.
Yet, despite this diversity, our letters call attention to the same values: justice, compassion, protection of the vulnerable, hospitality, equal rights, and respect for all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, or status. Our writers have prayed that you will govern with wisdom and humility, putting the common good above individual concerns. In our diversity, we agree that these are the American values that must guide us as a nation.
In their writing, the 100 theologians suggest that there is a consensus among a majority of Americans as to the values that make America great. An aspirational cultural context. For can any cultural context be fully known?
There are times when the cultural norm is clearly unclear. A few chapters after the Sodom and Gemorrah incident, within this parasha, Abraham finds himself in Gerar. He tells the King of Gerar that his wife Sarah is his sister, and the King kidnaps our matriarch, to have relations with her. It is revealed to the King in a dream, that Sarah is in fact Abraham’s wife and calamity will befall if he harms her. As moderns, this narrative is confusing. Why would Abraham lie? Why would he put Sarah in danger? Or himself and his entourage, should his lie be discovered?
However, if we research the history of political liaisons in the ancient near east, and learn that a wife who was also a sister is revered and given status, or wives were sometimes offered as political gifts, we might have a sense that there is more to this incident than meets the eye of us moderns who read Bible. What is really going on is unclear. The narrative reflects a variety of cultural patterns and the developing new Hebrew ideals. Poor Abraham, trying his best to survive in a changing and developing system!
There are times when the cultural norms are quickly and radically changing. My day off this week was on a mission to visit and speak with some of our elected officials – Democrat and Republican – in Washington DC with a group gathered together by The Associated. The impetus of this mission was to thank our elected officials for the work they are doing on security for the Jewish community here in Baltimore, their work to combat anti-semitism and their advocacy for Israel.
A take away from our conversations was an awareness that here is constant change in the culture of Washington, the culture of the parties, contributing to the challenge of concensus across the aisle.
Reality is that shift happens constantly in culture, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes as undercurrent, sometimes as a tidal waves. Culture is complex and multiple cultures can clash or interact or undermine each other. Even when you think you understand…you learn you do not understand…
The women who were incarcerated in Indianapolis who developed the “Constructing the Future” program, and who learned the political rules to achieve their programmatic goal, are concerned about the execution of their proposal. Post the legislatures unanimous resolution to adopt the program, Correction Commission Robert Carter wrote to the students congratulating them for their “out of the box” idea, but that he could not guarantee he would implement it as they proposed. The women are concerned that this will become a program for the state’s male inmates, and not for them as the vocational programs offered to women in the prisons, are gender divided. The culture of politics butts up against the culture of patriarchy.
Even when one learns the system and operates within it, shift can happen, resistance can occur, other cultural pieces can clash. Just as it is true that figuring out the boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking change, it is also true that we can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand that culture is a changing target and not monolithic but complex.
There is a story that when Harry Truman was speaking at a Grange convention in Kansas City, Mrs. Truman and a friend were in the audience. Truman in his speech said, “I grew up on a farm and one thing I know is that farming means manure, manure, manure, and more manure.”
At this, Mrs. Truman’s friend whispered to her, “Bess, why on earth don’t you get Harry to say fertilizer?”
“Good Lord, Helen,” replied Mrs. Truman, “You have no idea how many years it has been that it took me to coach him to say manure.”
Ah, change is slow. Change is complex.
But we forge ahead, piece by piece, towards our aspirational values in a context that is ever-developing. Sometimes achieving advancement, sometimes retrograding only to advance again. Figuring out the permeable boundaries to cultural context is a necessary step in undertaking evolutionary progress. We can only succeed in changing the status quo if we understand its transient character. It is a challenging ongoing mitzvah, as individuals and communities, so that we can live up to our highest potential and move toward our highest and holiest aspirations.
 Genesis 8
 Genesis 18:17-19
 Genesis 20
A true story. Sort of.
Grandpa Solomon put up the Mezuzah hanging it straight up-and-down.
“Look Jacob. See how straight I place the Mezuzah.
At Passover, we remember how in Egypt when we painted blood on the doorposts of our house God guarded us from the angel of death. The Mezuzah reminds us of that night.
Have I told you the story about a king who sent a pearl to a rabbi and and asks for a present of equal value in return? The rabbi sent him a mezuzah but the King was angry. He felt that a Mezuzah could be purchased by anyone. So, he wrote an angry letter to Rav.
The rabbi wrote back to the King: You sent a pearl. Now I require guards at my house. I sent you a Mezuzah. Surely that is more valuable? The Mezuzah guards your house!”
“This Mezuzah” said Grandpa Solomon, “guards our house!”
“Grandpa really? A box on the doorpost guarding us from harm? Do you believe that?” said Jacob.
His grandson always seemed to question everything.
“Ah little one, now in real life you disagree with me! I dream about you disagreeing with me! We have traditions little one. Ours are not to change the traditions.”
“But what if they don’t make sense? What if they don’t mean something to me? countered Jacob.
“Shush! Jacob. It is tradition!”
Jacob grew up to be a great scholar whose teachings were so beautiful that they touched people’s hearts. He was always looking for meaning and a way to love God.
One day he was putting up the Mezuzah with his daughter Fleur.
“Look Fleur, see how I place the Mezuzah on the door lying flat.”
“Why Papa? Everybody else places the Mezuzah up and down! Why do you need to be creative? Why do you lay it down?”
“Little Fleur. You ask such good questions.
When we carried the Ark in the desert we placed the Ten Commandments and the teachings flat on the bottom of the Ark. That way they could not fall as we carried them around the wilderness.
I love putting up the Mezuzah this way. It makes sense to me. It shows how much we love God and God’s teachings. We give the Mezuzah a kiss each time to remind us how much we love Torah.”
“But Papa, everybody else hangs their Mezuzah up and down. Why do we….”
“Shush, Fleur. We must play with Judaism so it makes sense to us. It should be beautiful.”
Fleur grew up. She and her children and their children’s children loved being Jewish because Jacob had taught them creativity beauty. To honor her father, she hung the Mezuzah flat to remind them of the love of God’s teachings.
Others in their family followed the tradition of Grandfather Solomon. Tradition! They honored the idea that God guarded their door.
Who do you think was right?
What is more important?
Creativity and a a love for Judaism?
The members of Solomon, Jacob and Fleur’s family followed different customs down the generations.
One hundred and fifty years later they took they went to a Rabbi from outside their family and asked: Which practice is better? Should the Mezuzah be up and down – guarding tradition? Should the Mezuzah be flat – displaying creativity and love?
The Rabbi came up with a great solution.
Both ideas were right!
He suggested that we place the Mezuzah slanted, pointing forwards into the room. Rooted in tradition but pointed to creativity and love.
That way the people could choose, Sometimes, they could see the Mezuzah as upright, honoring the tradition. Sometimes they could see the Mezuzah as lying down, reminding them to be creative to find ways to feel their love of God and God’s love for them. Sometimes they could see both as important.
The Mezuzah teaches us that we can choose.
We need both tradition and creativity that expresses our love for being Jewish to be true.
Let us say a blessing. A blessing for affixing the Mezuzot of our lives on a slant. Rooted in tradition. Searching for meaning. Searching for love. Towards the future.
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, asher qideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu liqboa’ mezuzah.
We bless You, Adonai our God, Channeler of Universes, who gives us awareness of holiness through Mitzvot and directs us to affix a mezuzah.
Note for our adults in the room.
I began by telling you that this is a sorta true story. The people of this story were real people in Jewish history and rabbinic texts. RaSHI, Rabbenu Tam, Fleur de Lis Kolonymos, the Tur. The argument is a real Jewish argument.
If you want to know the emet, the truth, the multiples sources, the midrash, and more behind this tale… feel free to come and study it with me! An open invite through the door of Jewish learning!
Let’s open the door with a story.
(open the door)
A true story.
Grandpa Shlomo placed the Mezuzah on the door vertically.
“Look Yaakov, see how straight I place the Mezuzah.
Grandpa put on his rabbi-yalmuke. After all Reb Shlomo bar Yitzchak was known for his teachings. Everybody read RASHI. “The Mezuzah, little Yaakov, represents the blood of the lamb smeared by our ancestors on that night when they stood between the doorway of slavery and the doorway of freedom. God guarded us from the Angel of Death as we went forth from Egypt.
The Mezuzah continues to guard all of us who put it on the doorpost. It stands upright. It reminds us that the God up in heaven, protects us here down on earth.
Once king of Parthia once sent a pearl to Rav and asks for something of equal value in return. Rav sent him a mezuzah but the King was not pleased with this strange gift. He felt that a Mezuzah could be purchased by anyone. It could not be of equal value.So he wrote an angry letter to Rav.
Rav writes back to the King that the pearl he sent requires him to set up protection at his house at great expense. But the Mezuzah he gifted the King, is actually a more valuable treasure, as it will offer protection to the King when he is at home.”
Shlomo felt especially proud that he could tell a midrashic story his grandson Yaakov would understand and remember…. “The mezuzah, my Yaakov, guards us from harm.”
“Grandpa really? A box on the doorpost guarding us from harm? Do you believe that?” said little Yaakov.
His grandson always seemed to question everything.
“Ah little one, now in real life you disagree with me! In my dreams, I held you as a baby and you touched the Tefillin on my head and I saw that in the future you would disagree with me about the order in which we place passages in the boxes on the Tefillin. We have traditions little one. Ours are not to change the traditions.”
“But what if they don’t make sense? What if they don’t mean something to me or to my generation? Shouldn’t we make them meaningful?” countered Yaakov. “Are we to be guards, standing firm in a tradition that does not mean anything, resistant to change?”
“Shush! Yaakov. It is tradition!”
Yaakov grew up to become a great scholar like his grandfather Shlomo. Like his mother Yocheved, his father Meir and his brother Shmuel. He was called Rabbeinu Tam by those who knew him. Rabbeinu Tam meaning “our straightforward teacher” because his teachings touched the heart of those in his generation. His reputation spread far and wide.
Once, Rabbeinu Tam, also known as Papa Yaakov, was standing outside the door of his house with his daughter Fleur de lis.
“Look Fleur, see how I place the Mezuzah on the door horizontally.”
“Why Papa? Everybody else places the Mezuzah vertically! Why do you do we do it differently?”
“Little Fleur. You ask such good questions. Fleur de lis, in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, we showed our love of God, by laying God’s teachings flat in the Ark, the Torah scrolls and the Ten Commandments. Flat to keep them safe, so they were less likely to fall or be harmed. When we affix the Mezuzah horizontally on our doors, we remind ourselves of our love of God’s teachings in the Temple, how much we cared for them, and the preciousness of God’s teachings in our lives. As you enter the door, give it a kiss each time to show your love of God and God’s teaching.”
“Why Papa, why do you always need to be Jewish differently?”
“Not differently, little Fleur, we need to make being Jewish meaningful. The horizontal Mezuzah teaches us about God’s love for us and our love for God. Isn’t that a beautiful thought?”
“Yes Papa, it is beautiful like your poems that everyone recites, but what about tradition? Everybody else says that we are changing Judaism!”
“Shush, little Fleur. It is important for Judaism to make sense and mean something.”
Fleur grew up. She and her children and their children’s children loved being Jewish. And they always looked for meaning in their practice. They affixed the Mezuzah horizontal for love, as Fleur’s Papa had taught.
Others in their family felt that the rules of tradition came first. Like their father and grandfather and great grandfather RaSHI, they affixed the Mezuzah vertically to remind that God is the guardian of our door. They’d always done it that way. Without rules, without boundaries, Judaism would not be the same.
Who do you think was right? Is the tradition more important than touching the heart? Is touching the heart more important than the tradition?
- What is more important? (Some examples… if you need to draw them out)
- Keeping the rules of Shabbat or finding things that feel Shabbastik to you?
- Eating Kosher or being aware that eating is holy?
- “MiSinai melodies” that remind us of Jewish history or contemporary tunes that you identify with?
- Reading Hebrew or praying in a language that you understand?
- Reading the Haggadah or making the story your own?
A hundred and fifty years later, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher also known as The Tur, asked the same question. Some people were hanging their Mezuzot vertically. Some people were hanging their Mezuzot horizontally. Is the tradition more important than touching the heart? Is touching the heart more important than tradition?
Which will open the door to our Jewish continuity?
He could not decide… the tradition gave Judaism roots and authenticity. The creativity and touching the heart allowed Judaism to speak emotionally.
So the Tur split the difference. He wrote in his book that we should place the Mezuzah on our doorpost slanted, pointing forwards into the room.
Our Jewish continuity always stands at that place. The Mezuzah hangs on our doorway between tradition and meaning. We incorporate tradition for roots and authenticity. We search for heart-soul connection for Judaism to have a meaningful future.
Let us say a blessing. A blessing for affixing the Mezuzot of our lives on a slant. Rooted in tradition. Searching for meaning. Towards the future.
Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha’olam, asher qideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu liqboa’ mezuzah.
We bless You, Adonai our God, Channeler of Universes, who gives us awareness of holiness through Mitzvot and directs us to affix a mezuzah.
 The first name of Reb Shlomo bar Yitzchak (RaSHI) who ruled that the Mezuzah should be applied to the doorpost vertically.
 The first name of Rashi’s grandson, Rabbenu Tam, son of Rashi’s daughter Yocheved.
 Sefer Haagadah (check reference
 Traditional legend
 This tradition is according to the opinion of Rashi, Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch. It is still the custom among Sephardic Jews to hang the Mezuzah vertically.
 Meir ben Shmuel
 Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), 15 years his senior. His other borthes were Isaac (Rivam) and Solomon the Grammarian)
 The children of Rabbenu Tam were: Yitzhak Tzarfati; Shlomo Tzarfati; Moshe Tzarfati; Fleur de lis Klonymos, of Falaise and Yosef Kalonymus-Tzarfati. You know I picked the daughter because of her gender! We need to write women back into history.
 The origins of the custom of kissing the Mezuzah are obscure. It may have been introduced much later by the Arizal. It is custom recommended by some rabbis and vilified by others. I have taken the liberty here of attributing it to Rabbeinu Tam.
 Arbaah Turim, Yoreh Deah, 289
Is it a professional hazard, or personal interest, or a bit of both? I am not sure. However, I watch a lot of Jewish YouTube videos. People send them to me in emails and messages, they are found in the scrolling on my Facebook page, and sometimes I seek them out for a program, lesson or sermon. Several years back, around this very time of year, I was sent a Rosh Hashanah YouTube video made by Jewish Impact Films.
Scene one: shows a young man seeking to open his garage door with an automatic door-opener, attached to the sun- visor of his car. He tries and tries, but the garage door refuses to budge. He then takes the door-opener off the sun- visor, pushes the button in the car, out of the car, shakes it while pressing the button, in vain attempts for the garage door to open. Humorously, he tries licking it, banging it on top of his head, and makes noises of frustration. Finally, with a countenance of despondence he seems to be giving up hope.
Scene two: The young man notices a second car pulling into the driveway. In this car, a traditionally dressed Hasid in black garb takes out his Shofar, blows a multi-note Shevarim, and the garage door miraculously opens!
Scene Three: The Hasid drives by the frustrated man, gives him a nod and a thumbs-up. The young man looks perplexed, but gives an acknowledging grateful nod back.
The YouTube flashes then to a caption… “These High Holy Days stick with what works.”
Next scene: the young man is blowing a Tekiah on a large Shofar to open the trunk of his car and smiling with joy at his success!
A banner ends the short movie with the saying “Shofar, So Good.”
Our Shofar Service is one of the highlights of the our Machzor. It is divided into several captions preceding scenes.
Shofarot, Shofar Blasts.
Each caption is an existential door opening a scene of High Holy Day reflection and prayers, culminating with a Shofar blast, a door-opening reminder to link our reflections and intentions into the scenes of our own life.
Scene One. Malchuyot. This is the door that opens our relationship to God. The Shofar blast calls us to pay attention to God’s divinity or divine power. This is part of the construct of authority in the ancient world.
A parable from our tradition tells of a King who enters a province and asks: “May I be your King?” The people respond: “What have you done for us that we should have you rule over us?” What did the King do? He built a city wall, he provided the infrastructure for a water supply, and he fought wars in their defense. Then when the King asked for a second time: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”
Likewise, the parable concludes: God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, divided the sea for them, sent down manna for them, brought up a well of water for them, provided them with quail to eat, and fought a war with Amalek on their behalf. Thus, when God asked: “May I be your King?” the people responded “Yes!”
Our Malchuyot prayers ask us to accept a hierarchical relationship with an infallible, divine sovereign who controls all. Yet in most modern countries today, kings and queens are symbolic, or have limited powers. In England, Queen Elizabeth does not dictate laws, Queen Margerethe of Denmark has her role limited by the country’s constitution, as does King Abdullah of Jordan. Moderns balk at a supreme authoritarian construct. It brings discomfort, and is discordant with our conceptions of relationships both human and Divine. Thus, the Shofar calls of Malchuyot are, for many of us, jarring on this day.
Yet there is also opportunity in dissonance. The calls of the Shofar can be reconfigured as the door-opener to struggle with our relationship with the Holy One, and what it means for our lives. As I often teach, we are called Israel, God-wrestlers, for a reason. Let the Shofar calls of Scene One, impel us to question and wrestle with God, like our ancestor Jacob, who famously wrestled with a being Divine.
The first Tekiah of Malchuyot begs us ask the question of ourselves: What is our relationship with God?
Scene Two is Zichronot, the scene of our service that arouses our historical memory. Our prayers have us reflect on Jewish history. The relationships of God with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are evoked. We consider how Moses, and David, and the prophets connected and spoke to the Holy One, and how they evolved their understanding of Judaism and God, through history.
Our Zichronot reflections should have us ask how we are connected to the Jewish story l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation?
At this very moment, my brother and sister-in-law are taking my nephew Jake on a pre-Bar Mitzvah trip to Poland, England and Israe,l to research his Jewish family roots. With a written explanation of the origins of my father’s family, dating back to the time of the Inquisition in Spain, he will relate to his ancestors by viewing a large Kiddush cup once donated to the London Great Synagogue in the early 1800’s, and take part in the search for a Torah that was gifted by my family there.
He will view the denization papers given to my family by King George III, and visit the graves of our ancestors centuries old, and ancestors not-so-old. Including a great-great uncle who was a pilot in the English air-force and downed in World War Two.
Jake will learn details of the lives of his Polish family through letters now featured in the Jewish Museum in Poland, found in the attic of his Australian grandfather, the Polish correspondents who perished too-soon in the Holocaust.
He will visit the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, where pictures of my mother’s Egyptian family are on display – a Seder in Egypt before their 1956 exile.
The prayers of Zichronot, are the door opener asking us to consider making our own connection to Jewish history, theological or actual, whether it be an old or recent, whether it be mythical or documented. The Shofar calls us to consider our rapport to the chain of tradition from its beginning, to our day, and how we can work to continue that chain of tradition in the generations beyond us.
The second set of Shofar calls, Zichronot ,ask us: What stories and history do you wish to perpetuate into the future of Judaism, to ensure that Jewish life is rooted in the past, but remains relevant for today?
Our final scene, Scene Three, is Shofarot, the call to us to return to Jewish revelation and Jewish practice, part of the process in bringing about redemption. As Reform Jews, we are asked to consider the Covenant and the Mitzvot, the gamut of Jewish tradition, and work to shape Jewish lives of meaning and relevancy for ourselves, our families, our communities, so that we can look back with a sense of fulfillment.
This requires attention. This requires intention.
“A knock on the door and a man selling Shofars…” begins a story by my friend Mitch Chefitz.
The salesman says to Gabriella, the girl who answers the door: “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“How much?” asks Gabriella who had just received seven dollars and seven cents for her seventh birthday.
“Seven dollars and seven cents.”
“That’s good then because that’s all I have,” she replies. “Give me a Shofar to make me strong.” And she hands over the money, for what else is she to do with such a strange amount?
The next day Gabriella tries to blow the Shofar and not a peep. But day after day she tries again and again, different angles, different breaths, and eventually eek! A sound is made. Slowly steadily she expands her strength to blow and eventually a squeak becomes a Tekiah! A Teruah! A Shevarim! A Tekiah Gedolah!
As Gabriella grows, her lungs become stronger and stronger from her Shofar blowing. It enables her to become an athlete that can run the field like the wind itself. At seventeen she has a party where she blows out the candles with one breath.
Then, a knock at the door. The man selling Shofars is on the other side. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“I remember you,” says Gabriella, “you have not changed.
“But you have changed,” said the man. “You have grown up nicely.”
“So how much to buy a Shofar?” asks Gabriella.
“More than you can spend,” said the man, “but you could trade.”
“Well, I have had this one to make me strong for a long time, so I’ll swap it for one to make me pleasing.”
Gabriella does not try the new Shofar right away, after all she had her blowing technique down! But when she gets around to picking it up, she hears that she had underestimated how difficult a new Shofar could be.
She practices and practices, day after day after day. She finally learns to sound a sweet Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim and Tekiah Gedolah. She even learns how to fashion her lips to play different notes to create sweet melody. People are fascinated by her skill and come from far and wide to hear the mistress of the Shofar!
She keeps this Shofar safe and clean. Thinking one day soon, she might swap it for another, and learn yet a new skill.
Ten years pass. But the Shofar salesman does not come.
Twenty years pass. But the salesman does not come.
Thirty years pass. A knock at the door. The man selling Shofars on the other side.
“I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“I expected you to be back years ago,” Gabriella said, “I am ready to trade, I have been keeping this Shofar in good shape for you. This time I want the Shofar to make me wise.”
“Sure,” said the Shofar salesman. “But this Shofar comes with a task! You will need to paint its inside.”
Not so hard, thinks Gabriella. I will just fill the Shofar with paint. And she agrees.
When she finally looks at her new Shofar, she notices it is almost closed at the mouthpiece. She pours in blue paint, but it just slides right out, the horn on the inside still clear of color. The paint store suggests she try different colors, different types of paints, different techniques. Nothing works.
She went to consult a scientist who suggests multiple experiments.
She went to a biologist who examined the horns DNA.
She sought out a mathematician at a college who taught her calculus.
But nothing could teach her how to paint the Shofar with color. She went to all types of teachers looking to learn the answer. Along the way she learned cosmology, relativity, string theory, chemistry, literature and so much more.
Decade after decade passed, and at age ninety-seven, after gathering much wisdom, and trying in vain to color her Shofar, a realization came to her in a flash.
She held the small tip of the Shofar to her mouth. Even a large breath would be too much. Gentle. Gentle. She sighed a sigh through the small opening. Slowly, steadily, her heart and soul, streamed into the horn to color it with her spirit. The Shofar proclaimed more than a sound. It called out understanding and redemption. Love and acceptance. Grace and beauty.
At that very moment, the salesman of Shofars appeared. “You reached me,” he said. “I have Shofars to sell and Shofars to trade. One to make your strong. One to make you pleasing. One to make you wise. One to draw you out of the world.”
“I am happy to see you, said Gabriella, “I am ready to trade up…”
And she held out her Shofar for the next one.
In Scene Three, Shofarot, we are called to shape our Jewish lives through strengthening Jewish skills, by making Jewish life pleasing, by learning Jewish teachings, to create a long-lived Jewish life. The Shofar calls out to us to recommit ourselves to Jewish doing and knowledge. The Shofar calls of Shofarot, are the door-opener for you to question, what should you be doing to create that Jewish life around you?
With each blast of the Shofar service, we are reminded of the existential choices that form the key elements of our Jewish existence.
In the YouTube short film, the Shofar is blown by a Hasid and opened the garage door. “These High Holy Days stick with what works,” proclaimed the caption. The Shofar is the door-opener that calls to us to ask the questions, to figure out what will work in our modern Jewish lives:
Malchuyot – how do we shape our relationship with the Holy One?
Zichronot – how do we connect ourselves, and generations to come, to Jewish history?
Shofarot – how do we connect our lives meaningfully to Jewish doing and knowledge?
The Shofar miraculously opens the doors of these important questions for us. We choose whether the Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim, Tekiah Gedolah, will resound inside of us, speaks to us at this season, if they will be “Shofar, so good,” Shofar calls for good.
 Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh, Chapter 5.
 “Gabriel’s Horn” from the Curse of Blessings by Mitchell Chefitz. It was suggested by the author to use Shofar rather than horn. I have changed the child to a girl for my sense of providing some gender balance to this sermon.
When you visit Jerusalem, the white limestone buildings of old and new, rise out of the hills of the Judean desert. Buildings that are rooted in centuries of history. That have weathered wind and storm. Buildings that glisten with golden hue in the hot desert sun. Buildings which create a uniform vista of cohesion, that belies the religious and political tensions that have permeated eons.
Amongst the judiciously assembled stone-block upon stone-block, each structure, whether it be a house, a shop, or an office, is bestowed personality by perhaps a few architectural features. To my mind, none are more attractive than the doorways of these edifices.
Jerusalem doors are quite remarkable. Often photographed for their variety and beauty, you can find them on posters, on cards, in travel brochures, because of their individuality and craftsmanship. They are set in door frames – square or domed or arched. Sometimes the entrances are single doored. Sometimes two doors meet side-by-side.
Some doors are plain wood. Others are painted in Mediterranean hues of blues and greens and turquoises. Some are a mixture of middle eastern color.
There are doors adorned with intricate carvings of flora and fauna, others carved with swirls and scrolls, some with the infinitude patterns of Islamic art, others with a biblical scene or story. One passes doorways with simple black or copper metal work. One sees doors with intricate iron patterns and nature scenes, which could only have been welded by an expert craftsman.
There are doorways plastered with posters containing announcements in black Hebrew, Cyrillic, English or Arabic script on white paper– a meeting, a death, a proclamation. There are the metal roller-doors of the Shuk, the market, covered with graffiti and art that close at night to reveal their imprints. And there are wooden doors purposely painted with a picture or pattern.
Such are the beautiful entranceways into the buildings of the capital city of Israel, Ir HaKodesh, the holy city, Jerusalem. Beautiful doors that beckon us entry into their insides, just as Israel has always beckoned the Jewish community towards her midst.
Israel is an inextricable part of the Jewish conversation.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera we are told, was desperate to enter the Holy Land, and he searched with no avail to find a ferry to cross a river to make his way there. Finally, he grasped a rope bridge, and crossed the water, in order to reach the land at the center of his soul. Rabbi Abba loved Israel so much that he would kiss the cliffs of Akko. Rabbi Hanina would take time away from his studies to repair Israel’s roads. Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi, when they would learn together, made it their custom to move from the sun into the shade, so they could avoid complaining about Israel’s weather. And, Rabbi Hiyya ben Gamda, rolled himself in the dirt of the land, because he took so much pleasure in her stones and dust.
There are multiple unique doors through which we connect to Israel. Some doors open easily for us. Some doors open slowly for us. Some doors need a good, steady push. And sometimes, a door is so stuck, that we feel it may never open for us, or it would take a miracle to unlock it. These Israel doors line the streets of Jewish experience through millennia, till today.
For some, the door of love of Israel comes from Religious School or Hebrew School experiences. There we learnt about the land tracing her waterways – the Mediterranean, the Kinneret, the Dead Sea, the Jordan– marking out her cities – Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazereth and Eilat, on maps we colored. We sang the songs of her pioneers and her musicians, emphasizing the beauty of the land and the specialness of her history. Strains of the melodies of Zum Gali Gali Gali and Yeruslayim Shel Zahav, can be melodically recalled in our musical cortex. Our hands remember building the model Kibbutz out of popsicle sticks, and tasting Jaffa Oranges, and those “foreign” falafel balls. We learned a few modern Ivrit words as a lure to make the Hebrew of our prayers more relevant: Echad, Shtayim, Shalosh…
For others that door of learning about a Jewish homeland, in the black and white, either/or, concrete-operational world of childhood, evoked feelings of disloyalty to the America we loved. Could we be patriots if we felt an emotional bond to a land that was not the United States? The relationship to Israel tore into our young conscience.
For some of us, a door was opened to love of Israel in youth group activities or camp. We re-enacted Biblical history alongside our friends. We played out the arrival of the pioneers, as they fled to Israel’s shores to find freedom. We visited a supermarket using Hebrew words for food items. In youth groups and camps contemporaries learned Israel dances. We built bonfires out of wood collected from the surrounding landscape like they do in the land of Israel on Lag B’Omer. On Tisha B’Av we mourned the historical destruction of Jerusalem.
For other members of the Jewish community, whose teenage years were a time of angst, the enthusiasm of peers relating to a country so far away made them feel all-the-more distanced, not part-of the group. For idealistic teens who held values high, and were being bombarded by stories of an Israel that was not ideal on their TV sets, questions about the land arose, and were struggled with. Could they be in relationship with Israel, a land that did not seem to live up to the ideal of being “a light to the nations”?
For some, a door which opened a love of Israel was a trip to the modern State – Birthright, NFTY in Israel, a planned congregational tour, or a visit to relatives. As their plane landed, a demonstrative outburst as El Al passengers clapped, setting the scene for emotional connection. Suddenly they were immersed in the guttural sounds of Hebrew which they vaguely recognized – Shalom! Baruch HaBa!
In the land of Israel, they were surrounded by people who have our body shape and hair and faces, who use Yiddish phrases in amongst the Hebrew, and have a wry Jewish humor. Connection was created with their tour guide, and bus driver, and the young Israeli guards who accompany them.
For others though, such a trip caused hesitation. Jews carrying guns, lots of guns. Soldiers stopping mothers and children at borders. Governments that do not treat the inhabitants in the land with full equality. Witnessing of religious Jews intolerant of secularism or other streams of Judaism. The door opened on difficult scenarios that alienated rather than attracted.
For some in our Jewish community, the entrance way to Israel is through the door of history. Israel is replete with where we came from, who we are, values and our conundrums. As we found ourselves at the road dating to the time of our patriarch Abraham, leading up to Abraham’s Gate at Tel Dan, we realize our feet may be standing on the same stones as our father when he was there to rescue his nephew Lot. In Hezekiah’s tunnel under the city of David, the Siloam inscription provides archaeological proof that David was the King of Israel. At Masada, the Jewish spirit to live a Jewish life with integrity is emphasized in martyrdom. At the tombs of Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides in Tiberias, we know that our rabbinical tradition loved Israel so much, that our rabbis could not bear to be buried anywhere else. In the Ari Synagogue in Tsfat, we understand that the mystics believed they were closer to the Shechina, by relocating to the Holy Land. In the Kibbutzim, we hear the struggle of the pioneers who made Israel bloom again. And in the center of Tel Aviv, we visit Independence Hall, and put ourselves into that historical moment of the UN vote, and the signing of the declaration of the new Jewish state.
For others, that door of history is marred with doubts, because we are unsure about the veracity of biblical claims, we find distaste of the multiple accounts of conquering and reconquering, beginning with Joshua, continuing in the stories of the corruption of the Hasmoneans, and in our learning that the re-establishment of a modern state is in a land, once inhabited by Palestinians and other groups. Do we have rights? Have we been right? Have we done right?
For some, a door of myth and prayer is the entrance that opens their hearts to Israel. Our spiritual literature talks of an ideal Jerusalem, Zion. In the Psalms David cried: “by the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion… If I forget you Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning…” In our daily central prayer we pray for the return to the land of our ancestors, not just a physical return, but a return to a spiritual ideal: “Blessed are You God, who builds Jerusalem.” And Judah HaLevi in his beautiful poem, Songs to Zion, sings out this yearning for return to the Jewish homeland, even if its physical reality is not that hospitable: “My heart is in the east, and I at the furthest west”, bemoaning our exile.
For other members of the Jewish family, these prayers and these mythical yearnings seem like an extension of a story that does not speak to us. Some of us born into Judaism, and some of us who become part of the Jewish community later in life, struggle with such a connection to the homeland. We are willing to forgo this line of thinking because it is not part of the spirituality we innately feel in our own lives. What has Israel got to do with our connection to the Holy? Isn’t holiness everywhere? Surely Judaism, should be more universal, than a particularistic loyalty to a land in this modern day and age?
Some find a door to Israel because it is the native environment for Jewish religious expression. There, in the land, the agricultural resonances of our Holy Days finally make sense, as the first rains fall at Sukkot, or the almond trees blossom at Passover. How wonderful it is to be in a place where everyone celebrates Chanukah with menorahs burning in window boxes by the door. And on no place on earth can you find more of a variety of Jewish religious expression than in the land of Israel, with the multicultural mix of diasporas that fed it, and the richness of the cross pollination of that Jewish expression.
For others, the intolerance of religious pluralism alienates. Where Orthodox does not acknowledge Reform, or Conservative, or Reconstructionism. When women are tormented for wanting to pray at the Wall wearing Tallit and reading Torah. When instruments cannot be played on Shabbat. When restaurants must be closed on sacred days to maintain their Kashrut license. A door is created that is closing or slamming on their connection.
Some in the Jewish community find their door to Israel through Jewish pride. The amazing technologies that have been developed by our people, such as machines that can extract water from the air, cures for cancer, or upright wheelchairs that allow greater mobility. They appreciate the strategies of the Israeli government and army, that is committed to protecting a Jewish people and keeping Zion safe for all Jews. They beam with a broad smile when an Israeli, Gal Gadot, acts on the screen as Wonder Woman, a symbolic representation of female strength and, (for the Jew) Jewish power in the world.
Yet others see in Israel a door of shame, because the land does not live up to the ideals of humanitarian needs that we would want from a Jewish state. The Knesset is not always motivated with our ethics. The soldiers of the IDF sometimes act questionably. Our social conscience begs us ask difficult questions about the placement of settlements. Arab towns located within Israel borders do not receive enough money for basic infrastructure such as roads and water and basic health. And we question the oppression of others even though we acknowledge that the safety of each Israeli and tourist is important too.
Some Israel doors open easily for us. Some Israel doors open slowly for us. Some Israel doors need a good, steady push. And sometimes, a door is so stuck, that we feel it may never open for us or it would take a miracle to unlock it.
Through some doors, one of us notices one detail and others of us concentrates on another detail.
As we walk through the alleyways of our Jewish life, what is certain, is that the doors of Israel are ever present. We cannot avoid them in the streets of Jewish life and existence for they are evident at every turn. They are part of Jewish tradition. They are part of Jewish reality.
As a Jewish community, we need to engage and open the beautiful doors, the scarred doors, the welcoming doors, the scary doors. We cannot choose to ignore the doors for they are a stunning architectural feature of who and what we are.
At the end of this High Holy Day season, at the final service of Yom Kippur, Neilah, we are told that the door closes on our repentance, yet the door is never truly locked. The multiple, varied doors on our connections and disconnections to Israel should never be locked.
What if we used the opportunity of this season to share the view from our door with others and extend that opportunity throughout the year? What if we were to engage in respectful conversation of the details which we see, and seek to understand the opinion of those who see the details in a different light? What if we were to listen to the multiple conversations outside the door, under the doorframe, and inside the doorways?
The discussion on Israel needs the fullness of each of our stories, each of our views, each of our joys, and each of our concerns. We must be impelled to examine the lines, the carvings, the decorations, the ironwork, the handles, where the doors lead, where the doors shut. And figure out, which doors can we walk through with comfort? Which doors can we walk through with discomfort? What doors must we push open so that the conversation includes all individuals as part of this Jewish conversation? What doors do we need to enter and speak our truths to impel change?
In listening to the fullness of our dialogue, we might just begin to open new doors. New doors for connection to each other and new doors for connection to the state of Israel. Doors which might bring the ideal Israel, closer to actuality, in the world in which we live.
That would be a door worth opening.
 Ketubot 112a
 Psalm 102:15
 Isaiah 49:6
 Psalm 137
There were rules to how things operated at Disney.[i] Walt Disney had an Advisory Board. The early days of the studio were difficult, but Disney refused to give up on his creative visions. You can imagine, that there were those on his advisory board that agreed and disagree with him.
There was a cultural and social norm at Disney around these disagreements. Walt Disney would present some creative, imaginative dream that he was thinking about. Often the members of his advisory board would look at him with a gulp of disbelief and resist his dream with intense arguments.
You would think that their disagreement would stop Disney in his tracks. But no. Walt Disney’s rule was, if every member of his advisory board resisted the idea, he would pursue it! Yes! You heard right! In the face of majority disagreement, he saw opportunity. If the challenge was not big enough, Walt Disney, felt it was not worth the while.
What an interesting way to operate! All organizations have their cultural and norms of operation.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, meaning, “you shall go forth,” contains a great number of commandments that teach us how society should operate. Out of the 613 Mitzvot of our tradition, nearly an eighth of the rules are found in this Parashah. Maimonides numbered the commandments of this portion at 72, Sefer Chinuch (an anonymous medieval work) 74. In the most oft used Torah Commentary in the Reform Movement, “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, he labels this segment of the Torah: “The Social Weal,” emphasizing the structural society that is created by all these Mitzvot.
Rules and norms of society can create a cohesive social weal. As the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it – a sound and healthy and prosperous community; a place of well-being. As human-beings we feel comfortable knowing what rules and norms exist… it puts us in a place of security.
As we continue to watch the tragic pictures of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we see folk not just struggling with the tragic loss of property and livelihood, but living with the reality that the rules and norms of lives are all disheveled around them. What was once clear has morphed into unclear. Work. School. Housing. Insurance. What will the near future hold? What will the distant future be? The storm has bought them to a place of insecurity. So many affected. Including our own. Federation estimates, 71 percent of the city’s Jewish population, 63,700 lives in areas have experienced high flooding, including 12,000 Jewish seniors, have been effected. When life is so deconstructed it is natural that psychological disarray follows. We look at what they are facing and with empathy and hold them, hold them, in our prayers and Tzedakah.
The security of rules and norms stems from our childhood Our parent’s gave us boundaries. Our schools gave us rules.
We are about to begin our Religious School JEM year. One of the first things our teachers in our JEM classrooms will do is sit down with the students and devise the classroom rules, so that teacher and child are all on the same page of behavior. Setting parameters allows fun and productive learning to happen. If the rules are not set, the classroom will most likely have behavioral problems that will require intervention. The creative and joyful classes that we pride ourselves on at Har Sinai Congregation will not be realized.
It is natural to us as dreaming to desire behavior and operational boundaries. The rules and norms don’t always remain constant. However they can change or transition. William Bridges, in his reknown book “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change” talks about the difference between change and transition.
He likens change to just moving about chairs. It is situational. The move to a new site. A turnover of staff. The revision of a pension plan. The merging of two businesses. The destruction of a Hurricane. It is the movement of the physical or an actuality into another place. It is concrete.
On the other hand, transition, is psychological, the creating of a new way of operating. This is the process that that has the greatest possibility of creating a new social weal. Transition tends to be messy. They are an organic process.
Managing transition, creating a new social weal, involves providing space for people to let go of the old ways and identity and allowing for the loss of the past.
Then comes an in-between time when the old is gone, but the new is not yet in operation. William Bridges calls this “the neutral zone.” It a time of experimentation and often discomfort when things are in disarray and the dream or vision is articulated.
Finally, people come out of a transition into a new beginning. People in organizations, society, and life do this all at different paces and times, two steps forward and one step back, as it is a psychological process that cannot operate on a set time frame.
Recreating a new social weal is not easy, it requires a lot of listening and reframing, experimentation and risk taking, because it is an emotional, psychological process.
This last week Cantor Rhoda Harrison and I participated in the 1000 Minister March on Washington DC. 1000 Ministers was an underestimate, because ultimately 3000 Ministers marched to commemorate the 54th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.
I and so many other Jewish professionals became aware that the beginning of the march was a pinpoint of a major psychological transition. We knew we were present to advocate a vision of a society filled with tolerance, justice and love. We also knew that the Rev. Al Sharpton was the instigator of this event. Being there felt like we were taking a risk. After all, Rev. Al Sharpton, has been a highly controversial figure for decades within our Jewish community. He has not come across as a friend of the Jews.
Rev. Sharpton in the spirit of Teshuvah, has in recent years privately expressed regret for anti-semitic statements of the past. It still must have taken Christian Chutzpah, to appeared amongst the 300 rabbis and cantors gathered at a pre-march meeting organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. There he demonstrated repentance publicly, in word and deed, as he and Martin Luther King Jr III, visited with the rabbis and cantors present in that hotel hall.
Invoking those murdered in the Freedom Summer of 1964 he said: “We should never forget that it was Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner that died together – two Jews and a black – to give us the right to vote.” He spoke of how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed with his feet marching alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And he said: “When we see people in 2017 with torches in their hands, talking about ‘Jews will not replace us,” it is time for us to stop praying to the cheap seats and come together.”
Many in the room said: “Amen” and gave him a standing ovation. What he did was not easy walking into a room of Jewish leaders wary of his agenda. Yet he also walked into a room of clergy who know, that transition is hard, the importance of forgiveness, and the imperative to find allies in a shared vision. Creating a vision of a new social weal – a sound and healthy and prosperous community; a place of well-being, means stepping into that messy neutral zone.
The 1000 Ministers March had been planned before Charlottesville. The change management at our governmental level, the moving about and removing of chairs, the creation of chaos that we witness daily on our TV sets, was and is, fostering this not-so quiet counter-revolution of transition.
On Monday, it found evidence ministers and people of faith who have not marched together in a long time, aligning with a mutual dream – tolerance and love and a better society. Rabbis and Cantors, black Ministers and white Ministers, Buddhists in saffron, black robed monks, Sikhs and Imams.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a social weal as – a sound and healthy and prosperous community, a place of well-being.
Our transition to that place is a dream. We have a dream. When Martin Luther King gave his “I had a Dream” speech 54 years ago, he knew the march ahead to transitioning the social weal was hard and long, but he kept his eye on that dream. When Walt Disney had a creative idea, he pursued it despite the nay-sayers on his advisory board because he understood that the big challenges were the most worthwhile.
To create a society of tolerance and love and fairness, that multiple religious traditions yearn for, means that we look for partnership in the multi-faith places that before we may have resisted.
Together in this neutral zone of transition we will march towards a new social weal that supports the best visions of our faiths. Ki Tetzei, we will go forth, we must go forth, towards a dream that will, to co-opt an interesting phrase, make America great again[ii].
[i] Charles Swindoll, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, p.107.
[ii] Donald Trump
The lecturer and author, Dan Millman, reflected on an experience that taught him courage.
Liza was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance to recover was a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked if the boy would be willing to give his blood to his sister. Dan saw him hesitate for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save Liza.”
As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as they all did, seeing the color return to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?”
Being young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor, he thought he was going to give her ALL his blood in this transfusion.
Faced with a dying sister this little boy had beyond immense courage. The urge to be helpful beyond measure – to the point of even giving ALL his blood and facing his own death.
Like many of us who live with loved ones with illness, the young boy wanted to do all that he could to ensure that Liza became well, thrived and survived. In our less literal willingness to help our sick loved ones, we act as well. We send them wishes on Facebook, we deliver them chicken soup, we call to ask how they are doing, we look for the best doctors, we research disease and treatments. We call our synagogues and places of worship and have their names in English, or the more traditional Hebrew, placed on Mi Sheberach lists. Or we mention their names out-loud, or under our breath, in the middle of the service, and we sing with heartfelt desire, a Mi Sheberach prayer that asks for healing.
Most well-known of these is the Mi Sheberach we sang tonight by the late composer Debbie Friedman, a melody that has transcended congregational affiliations.
You may have attended Debbie’s concerts and will remember that she sang with the lights up in the audience, and no flash photography was allowed. In the last two decades of her life she lived with a chronic, often debilitating, and never conclusively diagnosed neurological illness, that could be set off by flashing lights.
This health struggle adds poignancy to her words which we sang:
May the Source of Strength,
Who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage
To make our lives a blessing…
Debbie was courageous in the way she lived her life. She put herself before us, her audience, despite the risks to her own health, providing us with the blessing of her melodies and special soul.
When Debbie finally died of complications to pneumonia at the age of 59, many asked how could someone, so talented, die so young? They asked the theological question that comes so naturally to us, when our friends or family are taken ill, or when a young person passes before their time. How could God let this happen? Why did God not listen to our prayers for healing, and intervene, and restore wellness to the one we love?
Debbie’s Mi Sheberach sings the words:
Bless those in need of healing
With r’fuah sh’leimah
The renewal of body
The renewal of spirit…
We hear the English words “renewal of body”, and there is the yearning childlike part of us, that understands, or wishes that God is all powerful, and can bring such a healing as result of our prayer. Like Liza’s brother who gave his blood to his sister, we understand the prayer literally. God can choose to renew the body, just as God can choose to renew the spirit. And we get angry when God does not remedy our own or our loved one’s physical ailments.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad, along with advertising Executive Michael Shevack, wrote a short tongue-in-cheek book called: “Stupid Ways and Smart Ways to Think About God”. The idea that God is going to jump to our every desire and whim they call: “God the Cosmic Bellhop.”
They write to highlight the ridiculous: “Just ring the bell, and God becomes your Pavlovian puppy. Eagerly He goes to work, gratifying your every desire, indulging your every whim.” Of course, as they point out, if we expect God to literally answer all our prayers with a “Yes, Sir!”, when we make God our Cosmic Bellhop… it’s we who end up carrying the baggage.
We get angry because our prayers for renewal of body are not answered with a “Yes”.
An all-powerful God who can heal with the click of Her fingers, who can override the natural course of nature, is, I would suggest, also another stupid way, or in my preferred parlance, a limiting way, to think about God. Miracles can happen, but they are exceptions in nature, not the rule of God.
Tomorrow morning, we will read prayers that thank God and wonder at the miracle that our body operates – that our blood flows, our bodily functions work, that we can breathe, that we can get up, and get ready, and get out in the morning. It is part of our morning blessings. Health is a miracle because our bodies are complicated, complex and spectacular systems.
However, our bodies are not infallible systems. I would suggest, when things go wrong in this marvelous body we are given, God has nothing to do with it. We can hope, accompanied by a God who metaphorically holds our hand, for the renewal of body. Sometimes that wish is granted for God, and for us… and sometimes not.
Debbie Friedman begins the second stanza of her healing prayer with the plea: “Bless those in need of healing with a Refuah Shlemah.” Refuah is the Hebrew word meaning healing. Shlemah is the Hebrew word meaning wholeness. Put the words together, and we have an appeal for a “healing of wholeness”. A sense of unity of mind and spirit with one’s state of ill-health or the health of our loved ones that has gone awry.
Rabbi Simkha Weintraub writes about “Forgiving Those Genes”. He lists all his inherited health problems from diabetes to thyroid to acne and then proclaims “But that’s not fair to you, genes of mine! For I have also drawn on you… for some remarkable treasures – familial love, Jewish neshamah.., a tendency to hope, quirky sense of humor… Why impugn my gene package by highlighting only certain angles?… When I look at the whole picture, the big picture, which isn’t enough, I surely come out way ahead in the trade-off. That’s my prayer. To look at the whole picture. Thank you, God for giving me these genes. Your explanation will follow someday, I hope.”
Rabbi Simkha Weintraub puts into words written with good humor, the true sense of Refuah Shlemah, a healing of wholeness. He has come to terms, accepted, the genes he has been given, the illnesses it brings, alongside the blessings they have gifted him, and in reconciling the two, he has found a sense of whole in his soul. Ultimately what we pray for is that one who struggles with not being whole, physically or spiritually, finds Shlemah, wholeness with themselves and their situation. That we, who accompany them on their journey of illness, find a way to support them, and find our own healing of wholeness for their situation in our souls.
Illness is a time which tests our courage. It tests the courage of the one who is sick. It tests the courage of us who care for the sick. Our prayer, our Mi Sheberach is not a demand for the miraculous from an all-powerful God. It is a prayer that asks for wholeness, while not extinguishing the hope for healing of body and a healing of spirit, a hope that God shares with us.
May the Source of Strength,
Who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage
To make our lives a blessing
And let us say: Amen.