Crowns and a Small Aleph

Vayikra

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.

Generations later…

“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.”

 

 

 

Come Forth O Bride: A CAMP STORY

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.

 

Installation Sermon: Har Sinai Congregation

Har Sinai Congregation

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.

Thank you.

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.

Truth

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Ha’azinu – Rock and Roll to Peace

 

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)”

Image result for Moses

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. “

Image result for bibi netanyahu

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.

Image result for bob dylan

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.

Neighborhood bully.

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”.

 

The Meanings of Elul

 

Image result for elul

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.

 

 

Angels At A Distance

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

Boachem L’Shalom

To bless us

Barchuni L’Shalom

And to leave us with their work completed

Tzeitchem L’Shalom

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.

 

The Kotel Decision: The Parties at the Table

 

psc_e1980i010I remember going to visit Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party” long ago at the Brooklyn Museum. This iconic feminist art piece sits in a mood-lit room, in the middle a triangular table upon which are 39 place settings, using mixed media, to highlight thirty-nine women: goddesses, historical figures, and women of importance in Western Civilization. The tables stand on a large porcelain-tile floor containing the name of 999 other important women. Judy Chicago’s intention in her well-known work was placing women back at the table of history, celebrating their contribution. Her-story is highlighted so that it might become one again with his-story.

Our Torah portion also speaks about including all parties at a table. In Mishpatim, just after Moses has finished relating all the various laws to the Children of Israel,and the people have agreed “to do all the things that God has spoken” (Ex. 24:3); Moses arises early the next morning and builds an altar, a type of table, resting on 12 pillars, representing every tribe of Israel. (Ex. 24:4) The message in the construction of the altar is clear. The Torah rules and relationship with God that has been elaborated in this week and last week’s Torah portions is for each and every one.

I remember going to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem two years ago, to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. I was with a group of women rabbis and one male rabbi from the Americas. We arose early that Rosh Chodesh morning to go to the small section reserved for women in the northern plaza of the Western Wall, to mark space for the crowds that were expected at that significant anniversary. We knew that their might be some violent and vocal resistance to our bigger-than-usual gathering at the beginning of the new month. The message by the ultra-orthodox for 25 years, since that first Rosh Chodesh gathering by women, attending a conference in 1988 was clear. They objected to women praying together as a group. For them, they denied its halachic validity and it was an anathema brought in by female Jews from the Diaspora. This orthodox gathering of prayer was not kosher – they declared that there was no room at the table for women’s public worship.

2013-11-04 09.10.09

In my hallway at home, sits another piece of art, a photo that for me is a foundation text. Nested in a wooden frame and burgundy matting, the picture depicts an earlier time, before the first Western Wall plaza was built. A time my Egyptian grandfather remembered clearly in the stories of my childhood.

Side by side, at the wall, men and women are praying together. Each gender having an equal place at a site which for generations has been deemed as sacred by our people. Side by side are men and women at the outer western retaining wall, that bolstered the hill upon which the Temple once stood. The Kotel, the Wailing Wall was a place where all were welcome to pray according to their own custom regardless of gender, practice or belief.

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Over the years, as the plaza has been twice renovated, the women’s section has become smaller. Those who control the wall have become more extreme in their views. They view this symbol of Jewish unity as an Orthodox synagogue, but not just any orthodox synagogue, but “their” type of Orthodox synagogue, understanding their practice to be the true expression of Judaism. A national symbol, if not the national symbol, of the Jewish people hijacked by one strand of Judaism.

Meanwhile, especially in the Diaspora, Judaism has changed. The largest numbers of Jews are worshipping in more liberal movements – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and more. The Western Wall that belonged to all Jewish people, felt like a place of alien practice for many.

As a compromise overseen by Natan Sharansky, on the southern section of the Western Wall over an archaeological dig, a temporary wooden platform was raised for mixed prayer. Some of you may know someone who was Bar or Bat Mitzvah there.  It was makeshift. Not big enough. It looked like the wooden porch you added on as an afterthought to the back of your house. You had to pay to get in because it was in an archeological park. And the underlying message to Jews who value gender equality and diversity is that we were second rate in the land of Israel and among the Jewish people.

This week, marks a historic moment for all Jews. After two-and-a-half years of quiet and difficult negotiation with the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, the Women of the Wall, the Israeli Government, the Archaeological Trust – it has been agreed to enlarge the Western Wall Plaza by the Israeli Government, on a vote of 15 in favor and 5 against.

The Israeli Government will finance an enlarged plaza, with one main entrance, which will contain three space-options for worship. The Orthodox men and women sections will remain on the northern end of the Western Wall; and in the southern end of the Western Wall there will be a beautiful and egalitarian sacred space overseen by movements and organizations that value pluralism and equality.

You will enter and have a choice on which part of the Western Wall you will go to pray. The new part of the plaza will be a national site. A place where men and women can worship together. Where female Israeli soldiers may speak and be honored. Where a woman can sing HaTikvah at National Events or stand on the same stage as a man. Where people of many faiths will be welcome on their own terms. No Pope will be asked to remove the cross they wear. Where male and female Olim can be naturalized together. Where no dress police will demand that women cover every inch of their skin to touch the holy stones that will be reachable from the Herodian roadway.

This decision is indeed a Shehechiyanu moment, a first time moment to celebrate!

In many ways this is a miraculous decision. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center and a founder of Women of the Wall, who will surely go down in her-story and history as one of the great leaders and game changers of our people, speaks of this miracle. She did not think that Avicahai Mandelblit, the black kippah wearing, lawyer, red headed Orthodox cabinet minister, who would not shake her hand, who had been assigned to negotiate this deal, would have the integrity to see through the compromise. She did not believe in a coalition government, that Prime Minister Netanyahu would risk political capital to let this happen.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, was also skeptical that the government would make a deal. He knew that any changes for the egalitarian and liberal movements of Judaism in Israel have always come through the Supreme Court after much back and forth.

But the miracle happened. Partly because of the wide coalition of women across the movements of Judaism, from Orthodox to Reform who for 27 years have consistently added their voices and persons to this cause.

Partly because of the good will of the Israeli Government who came to see this as an issue of Jewish peoplehood and unity.

Partly because of the support of Natan Sharansky, a consistent voice for Jewish peoplehood and inclusion, who was part of  and supportive of the negotiations.

Partly because of the consistent lobbying and agitation of the Reform Movement, especially Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Conservative Movement, and the Federations of North America.

And mostly because the right people of good will were around the right table at the right time.

What now? Well celebration of course! We will recite Shehechiyanu.

But also an awareness that this decision comes with some resistance – from the Elad NGO, Islamic Groups, a small number of Israeli Archaeologists and of course, Rabbi Rabinovich who controls the northern end of the Western Wall Plaza. We must continue to answer objections with reason and love  and by making sure that people understand that the new area will be one of tolerance and respect in its building as well as its administration. That those behind the new southern section of the Western Wall implementation are committed to “getting to yes” in making this happen.

As for the Orthodox Women who feel that we have abandoned their cause to change Orthodox in agreeing to an Egalitarian Plaza, we are saddened that this historical decision was not their ultimate dream. The new section of the wall will offer them a segregated part to prayer in Orthodox custom whenever they desire. They will have the liberal movements support for equal access within orthodox Judaism, but their fight must be fought within and we pray, won for them and Judaism at another time.

In the Diaspora, we have a role to play in continuing the pressure to see that the plans are not thwarted and that the new part of the Western Wall plaza comes to fruition. We must make sure that every visit to the Western Wall by like-minded liberal individuals and by Federation and Synagogue tours includes celebration, visits and ceremonies to the site of the new egalitarian section. so people can envision what can be.

We must continue to support people on the ground – the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements financially and spiritually and make sure the money we send to Israel is used in causes that speak to our Jewish values of inclusion.

We must support Women of the Wall, who will continue to nudge the issue with their monthly Rosh Chodesh meetings in the Women’s Section, in order to encourage the new part of the plaza to be built quickly. We must send them money, watch their streamed services, and pray with them in the Holy Land.

In Mishpatim, Moses build an altar that includes all the Israelites with its 12 symbolic pillars. In our time, we seek to create an Israel and a Western Wall that is also inclusive of all. I am reminded of the words of Judy Chicago’s beautiful poem which originally accompanies her installation of “The Dinner Table”:

And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind.
And then both men and women will be gentle.
And then both women and men will be strong.
And then no person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and free and varied.
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many.
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

This week a step in that direction to that Messianic vision within Jewish peoplehood, when all will live in harmony with each other and the earth, and then everywhere will be called Eden again. A Western Wall for all of us.

Shehechiyanu, V’ki’y’manu, V’hig’y’anu La’zman HaZeh.

 

 

Chanukah: Our Religious Freedom to Touch the Jewish Soul

Chanukah approaches with December.

latkes-stack-690-150x150We are readying our lives by buying candles and dreidels, dewaxing and polishing our Chanukiot, planning eight nights of gifts, grating our Latkes, looking up recipes for Ponchkes (Yiddish)/Sufganiot (Hebrew)/ Donuts, and planning festive celebrations and meals with friends. For us and our children Chanukah in this day and age is a big deal.

This minor holiday has become quite a Jewish winter gathering in the United States in response to the other December holiday that surrounds us. It looms large in the consciousness of the American media (and hence the non-Jewish and Jewish public) as society desires to demonstrate ecumenical inclusivity around the enormity of Christmas.

The story of this winter equinox holiday lies in the apocryphal book of Maccabees and in Judith. These books did not make it into the Biblical Canon. The story of the Maccabees was too close in time to the fixing of the Bible’s contents. While the victory of the Hasmonean’s over the Syrian Greeks and the restoration of the Temple was something to celebrate, recent memory at the turn of the millennia of the disastrous reigns of the Hasmonean dynasty, was a more than good reason to downplay the holiday.

In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud who were surely familiar with the apocryphal works ask the question: “MEI CHANUKAH? What is Chanukah? Chanukah was already a festival that the people were celebrating with the lighting of lights. But the rabbis were searching for a reason outside of military victory and a short-lived badly-ruled Jewish state to celebrate.

sdfdvazyrzwd2sy7d54xruxngxaThey offer various reasons. The House of Hillel argues for increasing light and holiness in the world over eight nights. The House of Shammai, knowing that the Hasmonean’s fought through Sukkot, argue for diminishing candle lights over eight days corresponding to the eight days of sacrifices through the festival of booths. It is from this same Talmudic passage that we first find the story of the pot of oil that lasted for the unexpected eight days and a reference to the miracle.

Most Chanukah customs are developed in Rabbinic Judaism as a back-and-forth negotiation between the people and the rabbis. What happened on the streets and in the homes of Jews eventually is given greater ritual meaning. The eating of oily food to recall the miracle of the oil. The playing of dreidel which has its origins in a medieval betting game is given significance by inferring that the letters on the top refer to the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a Great Miracle Happened There). The eating of dairy food to honor Judith on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month) of Tevet that occurs in the middle of Chanukah.

Chanukah is a festival that celebrates not just the religious freedom won by the Maccabees, but perhaps also, our religious freedom to create Jewish celebrations that have meaning and significance for each generation of Jews. What new customs will our generation develop that will touch the Jewish soul?

THE 4TH JULY DREAM

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud[i].

We Jews have long been dream interpreters. From my famous namesake Joseph who dreamed of his rise from the depths of a pit to a high command in Egypt, and who was able to interpret the dreams of his guards and baker and butler inmates, as well as the dreams of the Pharoah of Egypt – to the prophets whose sleeping and waking dreams spoke the words of God – to the rabbis of the Talmud, like Ben Hedya, who was known to give positive interpretations of dreams to those who paid him and negative interpretations to those who did not pay!

We have such a rich tradition of dream interpretation. The Talmud teaches:

If an ox kicks you in your dream, a long journey awaits you. If you see a male chicken in your dream you will have a son. If you see a fig in your dream, you will remember all you who have learned. If you see an egg that breaks in your dream, your dream will be fulfilled. If you are in chains in your dream, you will be protected. If you see a well in your dream, you will behold peace and become a great Torah Scholar.[ii]

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud. We are a people who believes a dream needs interpretation.

Our Torah portion this week, Balak, tells of the prophet Balaam who is sent by King Balak to curse the people – although the words Balaam speaks can only come through God. The three times the prophet opens his mouth to utter the commissioned curses, he is only able to give the Israelites blessing, as this is God’s will.

In another Talmudic passage there is a beautiful prayer offered in regards to dreams which is linked our parsha. It is recommended as a prayer to say when in a traditional synagogue, the priests do duchanan, when they offer their priestly blessing over the congregations, Tallitot over their heads, their arms out wide and hands shaped in the priestly Vulcan “Live long and prosper” formation. It is a time when it is believed that the conduits between here on earth and the heavens above are made most open through that holy moment and hence the words of our hearts and souls are most effective.

Such a beautiful prayer. It reads –

“Master of the World! My dreams and I belong to You. If the dreams are good — bolster them like the dreams of Joseph. And if they need to be remedied — fix them like the bitter waters that Moses sweetened. Just as You transformed wicked Balaam’s curses into blessings, so too, make all of my dreams be for the best.”[iii]

We are celebrating this weekend the 4th July, American Independence Day, when our country celebrates its dream – the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson and his cohorts wrote –

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[iv]

It is a dream echoed in the words by the Reverend Martin Luther King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech which had become also part of the American experience.

When I became an American citizen just last High Holy Days, I fulfilled a waking dream of making myself not just a permanent and participating citizen in this country, but part of a society that dreams of honoring all: no matter their origins, gender, color of skin, sexuality. I became part of this American dream that believes in tolerance and as Australian’s would say: “Giving everyone a fair go!” What a beautiful dream that has made this country great.

But not always are our dreams fulfilled. So too with our American dream. The events of the last few weeks so fresh especially here in South Carolina has bought to the fore of national discussion where our American dreams have fallen short.

Rav Kook, an early Zionist, orthodox rabbi and spiritual teacher teaches us about bad dreams, dreams that have gone awry. He suggests that like the prophecy of Balaam which started out bad and turned to good, there are two ways we can transform evil dreams into good outcomes.

The first way is turning the evil around towards good. He examples that when Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he ultimately he rose to greatness, and was able to prepare a region to sustain itself through famine. Out of the nightmare we can refocus and realign to see the good that has come from misfortune.

So we see how the pundits comment on the way that people on both sides of the political spectrum have joined forces to ensure that the Confederate Flag is taken down from the State House close by. Or how the American community has come together to support and mourn with the people of faith at the Emanuel African Methodist Church with expressions of national grief. We refocus to make the best of the nightmare.

Rav Kook teaches that an even more impressive way of dealing with nightmarish situations is when the causes before realized are transformed into positive ones, so that our dreams become sweet because of our actions. This is the proactive approach of turning the bad to the good.

He writes as his sample that God could have let Balaam curse the people of Israel, only later turning the curses into blessings. But instead, God controls Balaam’s mouth so that only blessings are uttered.

Rather than waiting for the ills and injustices of society to fester and foster an incident… this more impressive approach asks us to take our American dreams and values and ask the question – is our society living up to our aspirations? And if not, how can we make this happen? We must examine who we are as Americans, we must focus our sensitivities towards other people’s pain, we must address inequalities before the bad dream takes on true nightmare qualities. We must affirm not just with dreamy words but in waking reality, equality for all and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all working towards a favorable American world.

The men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, had a vision, a dream for a society better than the one they had known under British rule. When I became an American, I was inspired by this dream of a country with great opportunity.

“An uninterpreted dream is like a letter that is not opened” says the Talmud. We are a people who believes a dream needs interpretation. Let us dream for the good. For the auspicious. For the beneficial. So that all may live and American sweet dream.

[i] Berakhot 55a

[ii] Vanessa Ochs: The Jewish Dream Book pp. 29-31

[iii] Berakhot 55b

[iv] The Declaration of Independence