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.
It is not just the stories and laws and words of the Torah that have meaning. We are taught that each-and-every letter, each crown or tagin on the letter, of the Torah is significant.
“Rabbi Yehuda, quoting Rav, said: `When Moses ascended to receive the Torah he found God sitting and tying crowns to the letters. He asked, “Master of the Universe, for whom are You delaying the Torah’s granting on Mount Sinai by adding these crowns?” God replied: “A person who will appear a few generations from now and who will be called Akiva, son of Joseph. He will explain each-and-every crown on these letters and will generate mountains of laws from them.”
Moses said: “Master of the universe, please let me see him.” God answered: “Walk backward.” Moses went and sat in the eighth row of benches in Rabbi Akiva’s academy. He could not understand what the others were saying. He felt weak due to his sadness over not understanding anything. When Rabbi Akiva reached an item Rabbi Akiva’s students asked their teacher: “Rabbi, how did you reach that conclusion?” He answered: “The source of my statement is that Moses received this law at Mount Sinai and passed it on to succeeding generations.”
Moses felt relieved because he heard Rabbi Akiva citing him.
Moses reappeared before God and said, “Master of the Universe, if you have such an individual as Akiva, why are you giving the Torah to me?” God retorted: “Silence! That is my decision.”
Tomorrow we begin the portion Vayiqra.
Generations have commented on the first word which ends with a miniature Aleph in the scroll. Why the small Aleph? There are countless explanations.
One explanation is that in calling out to us, God had to contain God’s voice to a silent tiny letter. By doing so, this would allow room for nature and humans to operate in the universe.
“When Rabbi Akiva, son of Joseph, ascended to the heavens, and he found God sitting by the Torah, painstakingly pouring over its letters. Drawing close Rabbi Akiva noticed that God was carefully erasing the Holy Name in the text.
He asked, “Master of the Universe, what are You doing? Isn’t it one of the greatest profanities to erase Your name?” God replied: “Sometimes it is necessary for Me to Tzimtzum/withdraw my name.” Akiva asked: “Master of the Universe, you have already done so in the tiny aleph at the beginning of Vayiqra. What good can come of you withdrawing your name even more so?
God answered, “Walk backward.” Akiva walked backwards and find himself in a dark room, a huge screen on a wall, the moving light and sound like nothing he had seen before. In front of him were people holding hands crying tears of joy.
The talking picture fascinated him. And he sat down to watch what they were witnessing.
He watched the stories unfold on the screen. He understood not as much as he liked and the situations were confusing.
Israeli Jews sitting with Moslem Palestinians negotiating peace. People of races and colors reaching out to assist each other. Republicans shaking hands with Democrats about policy they could work on together. Leaders of countries dealing with each other fairly and with transparency.
Akiba heard the word “messianic” being uttered by the people watching the moving picture – the “Mashiach” was something he well understood. He too alongside the people in the room began to cry tears of joy. He felt relieved that the old age prophecy might come true – a time of peace and wholeness ahead.
Rabbi Akiva reappeared before God and said: “Master of the Universe, with the time of the Messiah nigh, You choose to erase Your name?
God retorted: “Silence! For the sake of peace it is my decision.”
Vayiqra. And God called out to Moses. Ending in the miniature Aleph. A small Aleph representing tzimtzum withdrawing Godself. Making room for humanity to operate in the universe.
Too much ideology and too many ideologues hear a God that calls out and embodies and emboldens their positions. They expand the small Aleph of Tzimtzum replacing it with a huge letter of enormous proportions. God is made so big by their stance and certitude that God gets in the way.
Rabbi Akiva reappeared before God and said: “Master of the Universe, with the time of the Messiah nigh, You choose to erase Your name?
God retorted: “Silence! For the sake of peace it is my decision.”
IN HONOR OF JO-ELLEN UNGER
Like an apparition, she came walking down the dirt road. A young woman making her way to a camp-site on a late Friday afternoon. Dressed in jeans and a colored, ragged t-shirt, her hair in loose curls. She stopped at Security.
The young man and woman in the security box by the gate asked “Who are you?” And she smiled.
With that smile a feeling of peace, of warmth, of love enveloped them both. It was inevitable… they just let her on by. As she passed, they suddenly realized what they had done.
She had entered the camp without being stopped. They pulled out their walky-talkies to let the office know.
“We think we let a stranger into camp.”
The office staff sat up when they heard the message. A stranger! They ran into the Camp Director’s office to warn her but before they could get the words out of their mouths… the young woman entered the office.
“Will you show me around?” she said with a smile. With that smile a feeling of peace, of warmth, of love enveloped them. The Camp Director stepped forth. “I will show you around myself,” she said.
The woman smiled and nodded in agreement.
They started on their way around the dirt roads of the campsite. The passed the camper’s cabins. Clattering sounds of cleaning up and showers, melodic sounds of readings being practiced, and prayers being chanted could be heard inside the thin walls. “This is where our campers live” said the Camp Director.
The woman laughed with joy. It seemed to the Camp Director that the woman’s clothes became less ragged than she first remembered seeing them. But perhaps that was just her imagination?
The Camp Director and the woman kept walking. As they passed the Art Room, counselors and campers came forth with decorations for the Shabbat table. Hand-made flowers and beautiful banners. “These will decorate our Shabbat tables” the Camp Director said.
The woman looked so happy. It seemed to the Camp Director that the woman had walked in wearing jeans and a colored t-shirt. But wait! The shirt was now white. Perhaps she just did not remember well?
The Camp Director and woman kept walking. The maintenance crew were putting away their tools and the kitchen staff were returning to the Dining Room readying to serve the Shabbat meal. The glorious smells of which wafted down the hills. “Shabbat is almost here,” the Camp Director said.
The woman smiled. Her shirt and jeans a white color. “I must be seeing things, maybe the light turned them from blue to white,” the Camp Director thought.
The Camp Director and woman kept walking. They passed some huts by the lake. There, song leaders were practicing Shabbat melodies for a song session. As they sang the words “Shabbat Shalom.” The woman did a little dance and twirl.
The Camp Director thought, “I don’t recall our guest having her hair braided like a crown, full of flowers.”
The Camp Director said hospitably: “Come join us for a Shabbat Walk. We meet at the Office and walk through the camp. Each Cabin comes to join us on the trail till the whole camp is together. You will stay for Shabbat Services?” The woman laughed and nodded yes.
The Camp Director looked more closely now. Her clothing was made of fine cloth and lace. Why hadn’t she noticed that detail before?
The counselors and song leaders were standing by the office. The song leaders started their melody and the group began their walk through the camp. As they walked, campers, counsellors and camp employees emerged freshly cleaned and sweetly dressed with their best clothes.
They sang Shabbat Songs as they paraded through the camp: Hiney Mah Tov. More campers joined from more cabins… Bim Bam… and more campers came out the door… Niggunim… na, na, na… until a stream of singing, dancing, laughing folk were winding their way to the outdoor chapel by the lake.
They took their seats singing songs of rejoicing. Their voices carrying sweetly and far in the late afternoon air.
Lecha Dodi likrat Kallah, Pnei Shabbat N’Kabalah /Go forth my love to meet the bride, Shabbat’s reception has arrived, they sang.
Following them all at the rear was the Camp Director and their guest. From the rear they could see the campers singing as one. They could see the campers celebrating as one.
As they got to the final words of their song
Boi V’Shalom. Aterret Ba’alah/ Come forth, in peace the husband’s pride.
The campers stood and turned to the chapel entrance.
Eyes transfixed on the woman at the side of the Camp Director.
A young woman wearing a white dress, braided hair like a crown adorned with flowers… a feeling of happiness and joy flowing forth from her being. When she smiled a feeling of peace, of warmth, of love enveloped them all.
It was at that instant they all knew. They just knew. The bride had arrived.
Boi Kallah. Boi Kallah/ Come forth, O Bride. Come forth O Bride.
She ascended the chapel’s steps, a Shabbat Queen floating down the aisle.
They heard sung so sweetly in their inner ears a Shabbat Shalom.
They just knew the bride had come. Joyful, happy gratified, into the midst of the tribe.
Then with a communal blink she disappeared as mysteriously as she had entered.
Maybe she was a desire. Maybe a figment of their imagination? Maybe she was real? Maybe she had other camps, in other time zones to visit? Maybe she had other synagogues to enter? Maybe, maybe… who knows.
They knew they could debate this. But why?
Lecha Dodi… go forth my love…
All they needed to do was to pray and celebrate for the rest of Shabbat.
Our Shabbat bridges a borderline between Torah tales.
Morning will speak the story of Jacob.
Last week, Jacob sights angels ascending and descending a ladder at a place he names Beth-El. This week, at the transit-point of Jabbok, he struggles with a “being”, and transitions in name from Jacob, “the heel” – to Israel, “one who struggles with the Divine”.
Did he dream it or did it actually happen? With Jacob, even his dreams are liminal. It is never clear if his visions are those of full-rem sleep, or half-waked moments.
If Jacob dreamt in semi-realized black-and-white, Joseph, his son, who debuts on Shabbat afternoon, at the transitional moment between Torah portions, dreams in full-multi-color. Prophetic thoughts.
Joseph’s own boastful visions – the dream of sheaves of harvested grain and the dream of the celestial firmament, forecast his rise to greatness. And in coming weeks, we will learn he possesses the God-given ability to interpret the dreams of others. Beginning with the dreams of those incarcerated with him in jail, and culminating with the prediction of future-plenty, and famine, in Pharaoh’s kingdom.
Our congregation, this Shabbat, bridges a boundary moment in its history. Rabbi Freelander, I am so moved and touched by your words of address at my installation as Har Sinai Congregation’s rabbi. You eloquently mark this moment of shift and change, as I officially, and joyfully, transform as the rabbi in this very pulpit.
In the black-and-white words, on the pages written by Rabbi Abraham Schusterman, in “The Legacy of a Liberal”, which tells of “The miracle of Har Sinai Congregation as it is recounted on the One Hundred and Twenty Fifth Anniversary” and in words of the brief history of the last fifty-years, found in Har Sinai’s employee manual; in the beautiful reminisces, shared by our multi-generational Har Sinai members; to the recollections of those who joined more recently; the visions and values, of the last one-hundred-and-seventy-five years, reverberate from the past, through these walls of Har Sinai Congregation’s fourth home.
Predictive dreams, that began with our first rabbi, David Einhorn.
Dreams of mutual respect, and strong partnership, between rabbi and lay leadership. Dreams of moral conscience and social action. Dreams of intellectual curiosity and search for spiritual meaning. This has been the heart of Har Sinai Congregation from its beginning.
These are the values, which have sustained us throughout our proud history, furthered by great rabbis such as Samuel Sale and Charles Rubenstein, Edward Israel, Abraham Schusterman and our beloved emeritus, Floyd Herman, and so many others. I am beyond humbled to be chosen as the eighteenth Senior Rabbi of this community, building on the beautiful vision of so many “greats” of Reform Judaism who have come before me.
Our father Jacob dreamt at transitional moments – at his escape from his parent’s home, and as he returned to his parent’s home a changed man. Joseph, my sur-name-sake, dreamt predicate to the border moment of his outcast into Egyptian slavery.
Like Jacob and Joseph, I too have lived transition and dreams, been changed by them, outcast by them, and elevated by them. Each stage has been at the time, or in hind-sight, a blessing.
Wonderful memories from my growing up in Australia in a committed Progressive Jewish household; my studies as a World Union for Progressive Judaism student at Hebrew Union College; serving in my home-city of Melbourne as a rabbi; alongside my varied experiences in four congregations here in the United States; and the chance to serve our American Reform Jewish community through the Union for Reform Judaism.
My lived dreams, have bestowed upon me the privilege of being teacher, and student, of Jewish life and text. Each period in this series-of-dreams, enhanced with experimentation, learning, growth. Each phase in this series-of-dreams, improved deeply by partnership. Each moment in this series-of-dreams, forming and igniting new passions in me, that I bring to this new era at Har Sinai Congregation.
As Joseph’s Torah narrative continues in coming weeks, he moves beyond his dreams of self. He brings his expertise as dreamer, and becomes the interpreter of other’s dreams, at threshold moments in their lives.
He becomes known in jail for his predictive abilities, that he shares with inmates and jailers, with butler and baker, and ultimately, upon commendation, with the Pharaoh. By partnering in the decipher of dreams, Joseph fulfils the initial dreams of his own elevated destiny.
Like Joseph, I began with my visions. I interviewed with our thoughtful Rabbinic Search Committee at Har Sinai Congregation, articulating my desire for a partnership that takes seriously Jewish text, Jewish prayer, and Jewish community.
Like Joseph, in your midst I now move beyond visions of my own to become the interpreter of a merged vision which has begun to coalesce over the last five months.
Our time together must honor Har Sinai’s historic values of moral conscience and social action, intellectual curiosity and spiritual meaning. Our time together will speak of my expressed passion for text, prayer and community.
Our coming together creates a determinant moment to launch a future to dream a dream in vivid color that we will co-own together. We will vision, we will play, we will experiment: what makes Har Sinai congregation unique in Baltimore and in Reform Judaism?
We will dream into being, a distinctive voice, a creative soul, a Jewish neshama, for ourselves, and this generation, and the next. Not the stuff of full rem sleep or half-waked moments, a murky vision of our subconscious, to remain in sublimation. But a clear dream that will take root in reality.
Our congregation, this Shabbat, bridges a threshold moment in its illustrious history. An exciting moment. Oh, to dream!
Our task: to bring the Torah of Har Sinai down the mountain, (or in the case of the physicality of our building – out of the valley!), to the Jews of Owings Mills, Baltimore, it’s surrounds, and the Reform Jewish world, in a way that creates and compels excitement and meaning.
Such dreaming is the continuous ever-changing vision of Sinai, a purpose that has always been ours from the time of our founders, until today. Together, we will dream the black and white words I utter from this page, into a vivid, full-multi-colored actuality. Oh, to dream! Jewish meaning for the generations… together.
Our Cantor just sang the beautiful words of Psalm 34 with a melody I had not heard since my teenage years. Mi Ha’ish…
Whoever of you who loves life and desires to see many good days/ Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies/ Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.
Our Jewish tradition is one that reveres the telling of truth as an act of goodness. I am reminded on this Shabbat of Parashat Noach, of an aggadah, a story that our rabbis told about a lie:
In the time of Noah, the Lie tries to sneak aboard the Ark with the animals. But Noah stops it by telling the Lie that he is only allowing pairs to come on board. So the Lie goes about seeking a partner so that it may come aboard the boat that Noah is building.
The Lie approaches Beauty but Lie is found to be too ugly. The Lie tries to pair up with Truth but is found to be incompatible. The Lie then goes to visit Wickedness who was in the midst of worshipping an idol. Wickedness asks the Lie, what he will give to come as Lie’s partner? The Lie answers: “I will give you whatever I get from lying”.
Wickedness loves that answer and pairs up with Lie. Together they go to Noah, who, now they are two of a kind, has to let them board the Ark. So the Lie survives the flood. And we are taught, whenever a Lie is told, even to this day, Wickedness grows.
The Psalm just sung tells us: “Keep your lips from telling lies.” Truth is regarded as a virtue in a human being, something that not only adds to the beautify of life and soul, but a trait which promotes the trustworthiness of an individual.
Which begs a question I have been pondering this election cycle. Are truth and trustworthiness equatable?
Because of the ability to use search engines for fact checking nowadays, the candidates of this election, more than any other I remember, have been subject to having every word they utter verified. The media asks constantly are they lying? Are they to be trusted? Equating truth and trustworthiness closely together. Character is measured by each candidate’s ability to accurately speak words to the finest nuances of truth.
The question of truth and trustworthiness was raised for me in another context last week. In the recent, based on a true-story, film “Denial,”, we watch the events around the Court Case between Holocaust Professor Deborah Lipstadt, and Holocaust Denier David Irving. Deborah Lipstadt is accused by David Irving of libel when she declared him a Holocaust Denier. Under the English legal system, the burden of proof was for Dr. Lipstadt’s legal team to prove that David Irving knew he was lying when claiming that the Holocaust did not occur. The trustworthiness of Irving had to be denounced completely, for Deborah Lipstadt to win the case. Lies and wickedness are linked in the plot. Truth and trustworthiness linked hand-in-hand.
What is fascinating about this link of truth and trustworthiness, is that we know from scientific studiesis that no individual can be 100% truthful all of the time. Our memories distort with distance and sometimes with re-telling of events. And there are cases, one might argue, when the near truth is good enough.
Once when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing a speech, he needed some economic statistics to back up a point that he was trying to make. His advisers told him that it would take six months to get accurate figures. “In that case,” FDR said, “I’ll just use these rough estimates.” And he wrote down some numbers in his text. “They are reasonable figures and they will support my point.”
“Besides,” he added as an afterthought, “it will keep my critics busy for at least six months while they prove me wrong!”
In other words, the ideal of complete truth, for FDR did not matter. It was the “truth” of the point he was trying to make that was the focus.
Likewise, as I was watching the film “Denial” in the movie theater, it occurred to me that this story about the importance of truth in a libel case, was ironically based on a true story. But it was not true. Adjustments had been made. Those of you who have met Deborah Lipstadt, a wonderful force of nature, maybe a little dubious that she is quite the jogger portrayed in the film. But does it take away from the essential plot and message which teaches truths about the case, the English legal system, and most importantly the Holocaust?
The story of Noah is another case, where 100% accuracy in truth is not found. Ancient Near Eastern texts bring us the Epic of Gilgamesh from the Sumerian tradition. Another flood story. Was the Noah just an updated rendition of that widely-popular myth? Does it matter if there really was a world flood or not? Or whether an Ark was built? Or where Mount Ararat, the landing place of the Ark is? The truth of the story is not found in history, but in what can be learned theologically from the Biblical story – the promise to humankind that God will never destroy the world again – in other words that God cares for us and is forgiving of humanity.
So are truth and trustworthiness always equatably linked? Perhaps to some extent. Sometimes the amount of lies, like in the case of David Irving, lend itself to what we would define as wickedness. Sometimes, when a politician has been caught in lie after lie, we start to ask serious questions as to whether they are worthy of our trust.
However, Truth I would suggest is in our tradition an ideal virtue. Something we strive towards rather than are humanly able to uphold all the time. Our tradition holds many virtues out as ideals. Rabban Simeon Gamliel says in Pirke Avot: “The world endures on account of three things: Justice, Peace and Truth. He is referring to these as traits and attitudes towards which we need to strive, for the world to be a place in which all can live.
In the Talmud we are taught that the letters which make up the word truth – emet: aleph, mem and tav, rest on two legs. However, the letters which make up the word lie- sheker: shin, kuf and resh rest on one leg. This suggests that when things are done with the intention of truth they have a firm base, while if they are done with the intention of falsehood, they are not on a firm base.
The Talmud continues the analogy of these letters of the alphabet. The letters of truth – emet are far apart in their order in the Hebrew alphabet, one being the first letter of the alphabet, one being the middle letter of the alphabet, and one being the final letter of the alphabet. The letters for lie-sheker are close together one following the other. We are taught from this that is always difficult to act in truth, while falsehood is always close to one’s ear.
Suggesting that to be 100% truthful all the time is not as easy as being 100% false all the time.
When Lies and Wickedness snuck upon the Ark according to our Midrash, I like to think that Truth, who had been approached by Lie to be a partner, and rejected Lie for incompatibility, then went off to find its own partner. Truth and Effort linked up, and as soon as they saw Lie and Wickedness climb into the Ark, they approached Noah to be allowed inside as well. Noah opened the door of the Ark wide to make sure that that pair made its way into the ship’s hold.
Whoever of you who loves life and desires to see many good days/ Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies/ Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.
Says the Psalm. It is presenting us with a behavior to strive towards.
May we and those people around us, always be the “Ish,” the human beings that put Effort alongside the ideal of Truth, so that our days are good, our actions are good, and the pursuit of peace is always sought. And if we are not 100% in truth, that our Effort is recognized as an endeavor that makes us trustworthy.
In an interpretation of our tradition it is said that on Har Sinai, Moses received all of Torah. Torah past and Torah future. He wrote down Bereshit the first Torah portion, and he wrote down V’Zot HaBracha, the last Torah portion.
I imagine that when Moses chanted the words of Ha’azinu, the beautiful biblical poem that starts and occurs in the Torah reading tomorrow, our penultimate Torah reading, part of his last speeches to the Children of Israel, that he might have been thinking to himself:
“I wonder if I have any more words to say or songs to sing? Here I have been telling this long, long, story to the children of Israel, the words I received on Mount Sinai… is there more to say at this point? Haven’t I pretty much covered it? I have pretty much exhausted all I have to say for now. But there is still one more Torah portion to go… oh well, let’s begin: “Ha’azinu – Give ear, you heavens, and I will speak, Let the earth hear the words of my mouth…” (Deuteronomy 32:1)”
I identify with what I imagine must have been his challenge in the second-to-last Torah portion. For just when a rabbi and cantor think, after Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, that there is no more to be said… no more to be sung… Shabbat arrives! And we have to speak again and sing again! (Right, Cantor?)
Oh well, let’s begin:
A blessing for the news cycle which offered two significant items for myself and other rabbis and cantors to consider post the High Holy Days.
The first was the news that broke yesterday. UNESCO voted 24 votes for, 6 votes against (including the USA vote), and 26 countries abstaining, denying a Jewish and Christian connection to the old city of Jerusalem. The Palestinian backed-measure declares that the Temple Mount only has a Moslem connection. The motion passed.
Really? Have your read history? Have you read the Torah?
Along with the outrage of many Jewish organizations and Christian organizations, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a press statement that pointed out to the ridiculousness of this resolution. “To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids…. I believe that historical truth is stronger and that truth will prevail. “
Indeed, such ahistorical statements and resolutions are not peace-making, as ironically is the mission statement of UNESCO, but such statements serve to undermine and fuel the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It creates myths that do not allow for dialogue, listening, and hearing, and reconciliation, today and in the future. We must understand each other’s history and story if strides are to be made in the Middle East. Such resolutions are not just false in their basis, but counter-productive to peace.
Prime Minister Netanyahu made another statement, less official, on another literary form. Twitter. A literary form where you have to get your point across in 120 characters of less! His tweet was a little more humorous than his press statement. He wrote: “What’s next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and Roll?”
No connection between rock and roll? Really? That is impossible! Which brings us to the second significant Jewish news item of the week. A literary achievement for Rock and Roll.
As well as a literary achievement for the Jewish people. One of our own, Bob Dylan, born Robert Alan Zimmerman, brought into the covenant as Shabbatai Zissel ben Avraham, received the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. And we are all kvelling.
Firstly, this gives kavod, honor, to a previously unrecognized miniature work of literature – the rock song – the melodies which many of us grew up on or listened to in our adult years. There are many fine songwriters who articulate beautiful song poems that are easy to dismiss, well – because they come out in a popular form. In acknowledging Bob Dylan and his writing, the Nobel Commission has legitimized a relatively new form of literature (though not quite as new as tweeting).
Secondly, as my colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin points out in his Martini Judaism opinion article, Dylan is the 15th Jew to win the Nobel prize in literature whose work is not just literarily profound, but also contains Jewish themes from which he does not restrain himself from expressing. (Now granted – Dylan left Judaism for a moment in his career, became Christian, but his Teshuvah/return to the Tribe has been well documented.)
Yes, we are kvelling. This is good for the Jewish people.
So one disappointment, and one rejoicing in our news cycle for the Jews.
In my imagination, Moses and Bob Dylan are having a conversation over what has happened between Yom Kippur and Shabbat. Moses is telling Dylan how he promised to bring the people into our historical homeland. In Ha’azinu, our Torah portion – Moses says: if you follow God’s ways “you shall prolong your days in this land, when you go over the Jordan River to possess it.”
Moses is telling Bob Dylan that he is anticipating going to see the land from the top of the mountain, but how he will not be able to enter it.
Bob Dylan, in his raspy voice replies to Moses. It is not going to be easy for your people in that land. He sings to Moses a new song, a little bit of prophecy in her lines. A song he entitled “Neighborhood Bully” a reference to how Israel is demonized by others, characterized as a neighborhood bully, when all that Israel is doing is protecting herself.
From the second and third stanza of our Nobel Laureate’s song:
The neighborhood bully just lives to survive
He’s criticized and condemned for being alive
He’s not supposed to fight back, he’ supposed to have thick skin
He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in
He’s the neighborhood bully.
The neighborhood bully has been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth and exiled man
Since his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He’s the neighborhood bully.
In my imagination, Bob Dylan, this week, on a high from his achievement (you can read that as literal or metaphoric my friends!), is standing with Moses, shaking his head as they read the weekly news together. In the light of the clearly anti-semitic, counter-productive UNESCO decision, using the last stanza of his song, Dylan is singing once again:
What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers? Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill
Running out the clock, time standing still.
The imaginary Dylan says to my imaginary Moses: “It is only when people understand that Israel is not a neighborhood bully, but a people with a legitimate story and cause, that the prize of peace, will be theirs in the land that they inherit.”
In an interpretation of our tradition it is said that on Har Sinai, Moses received all of Torah. Torah past and Torah future. He wrote down the beginning of history of the Jewish people and the end of our history at the time of redemption.
I imagine Moses hears our Nobel Prize Winner’s angst, and gives him a big hug. “Let us pray for the final redemption together,” he says. “Speedily and in our own day.”
And they both sing – “Amen”.
Elul. Aleph. Lamed. Vav. Lamed. Elul. This month is our soul time. This is the time that the hard work begins. A time of self-examination and accounting in preparation for the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Selichot prayers, prayers for forgiveness are traditionally recited daily, in the hope that our destinies might change because of God’s Divine Grace. Tomorrow night, we recite the Selichot in the evening, when there are no distractions of our daily activities, and in the darkness of night the intimacies with the Divine can be most keenly felt.
Our tradition teaches that during this month of Elul, Moses was spending the last 40 days on the mountaintop, praying for God’s Divine Grace. For the Israelites. For himself. Elul is also known as the “Days of Grace” or “Days of Compassion” because during this time God was open to listening to Moses. And through Moses sincere intervention and appeal, God showed Divine mercy and forgiveness.
The spiritual energy of this month, we are taught is found in the name of the month itself. Our rabbis and our mystics taught that the letters of the Hebrew word given shape and definition to the month’s purpose.
The letters of the name of the month are read as several different acronyms, each of the four letters standing for a different verse of the Bible which identifies a different aspect of Elul’s spiritual energy.
Most commonly known is that Elul is an acronym for the verse from the moving love poetry of Song of Songs: “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li”, meaning: “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.”
Elul is the month of love. We yearn to find our way back to God to repair the spiritual destructions of mistakes and transgressions. We feel God’s love as God responds to our reaching out. We say: We are for our beloved” and God responds “My beloved is for me.”
This is the month in which we re-create, re-dedicate a loving partnership with our Maker. The High Holy Days will feel different and more intimate if we have consciously worked on our relationship with God through this period. It will be a sincere discussion with our beloved who loves us.
Elul is also an acronym for a verse in the book of Esther: “Ish Lere’eihu U’Matanot La’Evyonim” meaning “each man to his fellow and gifts to the poor.” Elul is the month of acts of lovingkindness and charity. We do not only show love to God, but we show our love to other people through acts of mentschlekeit Tzedakah.
Tzedakah is one of the means through which God’s mercy is shown to us as we repent. As it is written in our Machzor: “Repentance, Prayer and Charity temper God’s severe decree.” We begin our financial generosity during this month with donations to Jewish institutions, like the synagogue or Jewish causes or charities.
A third acronym taught in relation to Elul is a verse from the book of Exodus. It is in the section that speaks about the cities of refuge – a place where one who committed unintentional murder might find sanctuary from the wrath of a victim’s family. It is written: “Inah Le’Yado veSamti Lach” meaning “…deliver into his hand, I shall establish for you…”
Our rabbis taught that every transgression against God is a type of “killing”. “Our souls are lessened each time we do not follow God’s will for us. Our misbehavior like killing is a violation of our purpose in life. Like the unintentional murderer, our mis-actions are also unintentional because our souls are intrinsically pure. Our misdeeds are a lapse from our true will.
Elul is thus a refuge for us all in the calendar just as the cities of refuge are the safe place for the unintentional murderer. How do we take refuge at this time? The rabbis teach “words of Torah are a refuge.” Elul should be our time of return to Torah and mitzvot. The month is our inner sanctum for atonement and rehabilitations and return to the goodness of our soul.
Another interpretation. Elul stands for the verse in the book of Deuteronomy which speaks of the Jewish people returning in repentance to the land of Israel after exile as punishment for their transgression. The acronym is rendered “Et levavcha v’et Levav” meaning, “your heart and the heart [of your children]” [shall return/repent]. The verse we are taught hints at Teshuva, a time or regret, forgiveness and reconciliation, a time of return and repentance. A time to go back home to your true self and rediscover the sparks of God at the core of our soul.
A final rendering of Elul as an acronym. When read backwards the letters are found in the verse from the book of Exodus, in the song the Israelites sang at the Red Sea, a song of redemption that alludes to the final redemption. L’Adonai V’yamru Leimore Ashira” meaning [this song] to God and said, saying, I will sing…” Our repentance which we begin during the month of Elul, will be our redemption.
The Midrash tells a beautiful story that even if our repentance is tiny, the size of an eye of a needle, God will open that smallest of openings, and send repentance the size of huge horse-drawn chariots through that hole. We will be redeemed.
The acronyms of our month Elul are the scene setting for the Ten Days of Repentance. They urge us to form a love relationship with God, to be charitable, to strive to return to the words of Torah and the pureness of our soul, and to prepare ourselves to be redeemed.
Elul. Aleph. Lamed. Vav. Lamed. Elul. This month is our soul time. This is the time that the hard work begins.
Our service begins with welcoming. We welcome each other with a Shabbat Shalom. We welcome the Shabbat bride as we rise with respect with a bow left and right. We welcome the Shabbat angels into our presence.
Shalom Aleichem – Welcome
Malachei Hasharet -Angels of God’s squad
Malachei Elyon – Angels from High
We ask them to come join us
To bless us
And to leave us with their work completed
Some of us feel the spirit of angelic presence through the words and music. For others this concept is more distant. Can there really be angels? Are we to understand these images literally?
Yet whether we are within the spiritual moment of the melody or we are spiritually struggling, we understand the song’s intent – it is about asking angels to touch our lives.
Around sixteen years ago I walked into a welcoming community as their new rabbi. I moved into my Associate Rabbi’s office in Boca Raton. The walls had been painted post-it yellow as I had requested, but my boxes had yet to arrive and be unpacked. The pale gray shelves and desk looked a little empty… except for the top shelf. On the very top, a teddy bear sitting staring down at me, the rooms new inhabitant.
My first thought was: I wonder what child left this bear behind? Whom do I return it too? I went to my Senior Rabbi, bear in hand showing him what had been left “by accident” on my empty shelves.
He told me a story:
South Florida was reeling from the impact of Hurricane Andrew, an event 24 years ago this week. The like of this hurricane was devastation unexperienced. 25,000 homes were destroyed in Miami-Dade County and 100,000 more were damaged. Mile after mile of the area around Homestead had been flattened.
When it was deemed safe enough to traverse the roads, the clergy of Temple Beth El had gotten into their cars and driven south. Hoping to be angels. Hoping to be able to find ways on the ground to be of help.
The devastation they witnessed, for those of you who remember the pictures, was beyond words. Homes turned to rubble. Power lines down. The wind had whisked away lives and livelihood.
On the road, in the middle of nowhere, they pulled up their car. Sitting in the middle of the asphalt was a teddy bear. No child or home in proximity to return it too. They brought that bear back with them, as a reminder of the precariousness of life, placing it on the top shelf, on what was to become my rabbinic office.
They had hoped in their drive to find some way to be of assistance. When we hear of disaster, many of us have the same thought: how can we can be angels? What can we do when an earthquake kills as in Italy or when rains pour down and destroy in Baton Rouge?
The task of providing angelic help seems easy when we are close in proximity to the disaster zone.
Last year, my rabbinate took me as an interim to Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina. I was just becoming acquainted with the community at-large over Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Sukkot was coming. It started to rain. One day of rain you think nothing of it. The meal in the Sukkah became the meal in the Social Hall.
But then it continued to rain. And rain. And rain. And rain. Each and every day through Sukkot. It came down in sheets. The ground became mud beyond mud, slush beyond slush. It continued to pour. A once in a thousand-year flood.
The synagogue was vulnerable as between two dams, it had a history of flooding. Suddenly my interim rabbinic year was in the middle of a disaster zone. The synagogue miraculously was spared destruction but at the cost of people’s homes and places of business.
However, the building became our cloud to be angels in heaven. It allowed us as a congregation to be active because of our proximity to the disaster. We cooked Spaghetti Dinners for those who were displaced by water and destruction, we packed lunches for those who were working for disaster relief. We helped distribute water. We gathered household items to distribute to those in need.
Easy on the ground.
However, our desire to be angels can feel impossible when we are so far away. How can our angelic wings, our angelic intentions stretch across the miles to help? And more than that, it seems like we hear of a disaster every other day in news. Explosions in Lyon. Syria. Afghanistan. We want to be angels – but can we extend ourselves everywhere?
Bleeding hearts that reach out all the time to everyone, are in the danger of bleeding out. If we extend ourselves too much, our impact is less, or our intention to help is overwhelmed. We must find a way to ensure that our bleeding hearts do not destroy us, and have us leave the intention of angelic action.
But how do we choose where to focus our angelic wings? Where do we start? This week’s Torah portion tells us:
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19)
The word for stranger in Hebrew is “Ger”. However, we are not actually told to reach out to strangers. A Ger is someone you are acquainted with, someone you already know, one who is connected to your circle in some way. Our Torah portion tells us to begin with those who dwell among our community. We are commanded to make an impact in our little part of the world. We are given a place to start our angelic work and to circumvent the attitude of burn-out.
This week the Union for Reform Judaism sent out a blog authored by Anna Herman, director of URJ Jacob’s Camp in Mississippi. As Reform Jews, we are connected one to the other through values and beliefs and attitudes of Jewish practice. Let me share with you some of Anna Herman’s words. This week she is an angel on the ground.
As we began to hear from our extended camp mishpacha (family) in the area, we knew we needed to get to Baton Rouge as soon as we could.
We began by contacting the presidents of the two Reform congregations in the area. They told us they’d spent the previous days compiling spreadsheets of which of their members had been most severely impacted, which meant they could quickly point us toward the families in need of support. …
At least 30 Jewish families have lost their homes, and many more face damage to their homes, cars, and other property.
She appeals to us, her squad of Reform Jewish angels to help her in her mission. How far can our angel wings stretch to help those 30 Jewish families? We may not know them personally, but through our Reform Jewish community these strangers are our Gerim. We know them. We are them.
Anna has made some concrete suggestions for us that I wish to share with you as I encourage you to help. Ways that the tips of your angel wings might cross to just one disaster amongst so many.
- Donate:The Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge is collecting funds to help local Jewish families start rebuilding their lives.
- Volunteer: NECHAMA, a nonprofit organization that provides natural disaster response and recovery services, is seeking volunteers to help on the ground in Baton Rouge. Volunteer to join them.
Their are links to she provides in her blog to help. They are like the angels of art; on a cloud. You can find them on the Union’s website, on my Facebook page with Anna’s article, or send me an email through the virtual heavens and I would be happy to provide them.
Welcome – Shalom Aleichem
Angels of God’s squad – Malachei Hasharet
Angels from High – Malachei Elyon
This week, find your inner angel, extend your wing tip across the miles to touch a life in need of help…
Boachem L’Shalom – Come join us
Barchuni L’Shalom – Create Blessing
Tzeitchem L’Shalom – And let us leave the world a little more complete.