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.
I 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.
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.
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 approaches with December.
We 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.
They 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?
“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
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? …When Freddie Gray dies in police custody from a spinal cord injury.
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as the death toll in Nepal exceeds 4000, and the injury told beyond 7,500.
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as protestors become violent on the streets of Baltimore, less than an hour away.
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as a teenage girl being attacked by amorous men is thrown from a bus to her death.
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … as the young die of diseases not cured.
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when things go awry in our lives or those of our friends.
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when natural disaster wreaks havocs on lives.
And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when our environment succumbs to vulnerabilities.
Where’s the hand of God?
The easiest way to answer when bad things happen is in the negative… for we recognize intuitively where the metaphorical hand of God is not.
God is not in the violence, God is not in the hate, God is not in the earth’s tremors or the earth’s winds, God is not in the lust, God is not in the ego that does not venture beyond id, God is not in power struggles, God is not in the politics that play with people’s lives, God is not in bad things that happen to us, others or the world.
Where is then the hand of God to be found? Such a deep question with so many complex answers.
One answer –
The hand of God is in our tears, in our compassion, in our caring. When we are moved by the troubles of others, when we empathize with the pathos of their suffering, when we pray for them in our hearts, we manifest the love of God into the universe. When we love our neighbors as ourselves we bring the hand of God into this world. When we weep, so does God.
One answer –
The hand of God is in our movement towards action – when we make a donation to help our brothers and sisters, when we work for equality for all peoples whatever their skin color, when we sponsor research, when we comfort the mourner and feed the hungry, when we raise awareness, and address society’s ills. We become God’s partners, God’s hands in repairing the world.
One answer –
The hand of God cradles us with love so that we can endure what is beyond endurance. When we let the spirit of God support us and know that there is life beyond pain, endurance beyond suffering, and that through will and support there is nothing we cannot forebear. We feel the hand of God on our shoulders, the touch of God in our hearts.
One answer –
The hand of God is in in the path of goodness. God is found in universal values of peace, justice, love, compassion, equality, humanity. When we manifest the positive into our environment God’s presence is strengthened for us and for others. God’s hand’s hover over all of us like a parent blesses a child.
One answer –
The hand of God is felt in community that comes together and is there for each other. It is in the prayers they lift up with one voice. It is in the discussions of the holy that happen in their midst. It is in the study and the struggles that they share. God’s hand links each of their hands as they journey in life.
One answer –
The hand of God is in radical amazement when we know that miracles abound. As beautiful as a sunrise and as glorious as an ocean vista. They can be found in the little small details of existence– the fact that our hearts beat and our eyes open in the morning, the little bud on a tree in spring or the fact that water sits at the base of our cups. The sky is blue. The trees are green. The hand of God is in all of creation – if we choose to widen our eyes clearly enough we can feel.
When we ask: Where is the hand of God as we confront all that goes awry, it is too easy to forget in the randomness of existence, that so much of our world works, that is right and good and wonderful, where God is to be found.
Our ancestors believed that God had a strong hand and a mighty arm. Limited by their understanding of the world and the inadequacy of words, they spoke of God in human terms. We too have words unable to express the wonders of the Spirit that Unites us all, but just because the one that is Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, the One that is Becoming is beyond our grasp, does not mean that we are cannot recognize or see or feel or intuit the touch of God in the universe and in our souls.
When we ask – Where is the hand of God? The answer is by necessity beyond our reach but at the same time able to be known. God’s metaphorical hand is as real as an ever present touch in our hearts and souls and minds.
(Or so they were called in my family. Others call them Matzah Kleis – matzah matzah balls – whatever you call them: they are delicious!)
I swore I was going to break the mold this year. I wasn’t gonna make and roll them. But it is not Pesach until I have made my grandmother’s knaidlach (matzah balls) from scratch. Soaked matzah, onion, celery, ginger, parsley, cinnamon, salt, pepper, egg and a little meal oh my! Vegetarian broth on the 2 hour boil. I think it’s lunch.
Ingredients to taste (as all good old recipes are)
- 6 matzah soaked 2-12 hours
- A little onion chopped fine
- 1 stick celery chopped fine
- Few sprigs parsley finely chopped
- Shake of cinnamon
- Shake of ginger
- 2 large eggs
- Superfine (cake) matzah meal
Method to feel (Yep. Shown the feel by Grandma and Mum as a child and I just know when they are right).
Soak Matzah in water in a bowl.
Place celery and onion in pan and brown in oil. Drain very well.
Strain and squeeze matzah in a fine mesh colander. Place in bowl. Add egg, cinnamon, ginger, salt, pepper, parsley and sauté mixture.
Stir in matzah meal till right consistency is attained for rolling balls.
Roll in matzah meal and stand in tray in fridge.
Cook in soup for 10-20 minutes.
Can be pre-boiled, frozen or not, and reheated in soup.
As Passover approaches, our minds turn to the Haggadah, the book of “retelling” our people’s mythical history, our experience of when we were slaves in Egypt. The Haggadah tells of our enslavement 400 years from the time of Joseph, the injustices that happened to us in servitude to Pharaoh, and of the miraculous events that lead to our liberation from bondage.
The traditional Haggadah tells not just the biblical story of m’avdut l’cherut, from slavery to freedom, but uses the bible story as a template for the many times in our history when we were enslaved and worked towards independence.
Have you ever wondered why the story of five rabbis holding a Seder in the town of B’nai B’rak appears in the Haggadah? The legend tells us that the rabbi’s Seder went on all night until their students interrupted the Seder with a call to morning prayers. Tradition has come to teach us that these rabbis were not discussing Egyptian slavery but their own struggle against the Roman oppression.
Have you ever wondered why we sing a song about a goat that our father bought for two Zuzim, and all the unfortunate circumstances which occurred to everything that comes into contact with that goat? Chad Gadya, the one goat is a metaphor for those who are oppressed who will be ultimately redeemed by the Holy One.
The Haggadah is certainly foremost a Jewish story with a particularistic paradigm. It speaks to the creation of our identity as Jews. But it is also a universalistic story that makes us aware that we are part of humanity. The Haggadah is symbolically the retelling of the story of anyone and everyone who is oppressed, enslaved, and who longs for freedom. Hence the tradition of including readings in the Haggadah or writing whole Haggadot that speak of specific injustices – topics such as environment, Holocaust Darfur, African American oppression, LGBTQ rights and so much more – have found their way into our Pesach Seder for contemplation.
In its’ particularism and universalism the Haggadah is a metaphor for our own lives. Bottom line, our identity should be a Jewish identity. We form our own and our children’s identities through a Jewish lens. That does not make us impervious or indifferent to that which is not Jewish. The presence of other religions and secular society is part of our reality. However our approach to that which is not Jewish should be appreciated by us through our Jewish paradigm.
We are Jews visiting the Christmas celebration of others. We are Jews lighting candles on the side lines of our child’s Friday night soccer game. We are Jews eating Pesachdik at our families’ Easter tables. We are Jews who seek to understand and learn from Buddhist meditation. We are Jews who are involved in social causes because our tradition demands that we are God’s partners in Tikkun Olam, world repair.
Like the Haggadah which is a uniquely Jewish story that allows for the embrace and understanding of various other narratives within its context, Judaism should be and must be our basic paradigm of our personal narratives in the midst of our modern lives.
Passover is the time of our retelling the tale of freedom and formation as a Jewish people. Let it be a time also to contemplate how Judaism underlies the telling of your own life.