Thanks to our TY member and Cohen School teacher, David Wasser, I had the pleasure and challenge of speaking at the Moses Brown TEDx event last night. My mission: to sum up some aspect of my journey to Israel with Imam Farid Ansari and Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson . . . in 12 minutes! This is my TEDx talk . . . an apt topic, indeed, for this week's Torah portion as we contemplate the significance of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their offspring for our own lives.
A rabbi, an imam and a minister get on an airplane: sounds a bit like a joke . . . mostly we three companions have been on a journey of exploration and bridge-building and assumption blasting that has literally taken us places we never expected to go . . . . together. So, not a joke, but a lot of laughing has been involved.
The imam is Imam Farid Ansari a six-foot-something American born black guy who is an ex New York City cop and now serves as the spiritual leader of the Muslim-American Dawah Center of Providence and is the head of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement.
The minister is the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, a few inches short of six foot American white guy from a family of Swedish immigrants who is a born and bred Rhody, an American Baptist Minister and is the Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. I am Amy Levin, a nice, short, middle-aged Jewish lady from New Jersey.
We three learn from each other all the time . . . we meet for diner breakfasts and scheme together and debate with each other and inch by inch have edged away from assumptions and caution to trust. Through the friendship and integrity of these two men have taught me that it’s ok to question my long-standing assumptions and to step out of my safe space.
My first ten years of life, my family lived in a mixed catholic and black neighborhood of East Orange, New Jersey. On my way home from elementary school, the Catholic kids from the parochial school that lay between my public school and our garden apartment, used to chase me into the neighborhood alleys calling me "dirty Jew" and scaring the bejabbers out of me. Christmas and Easter were not happy associations for me, they were, instead, reminders of my "different-ness."
My husband, baby daughter and I moved to Israel in September 1981. The first week we were there, I walked past the main department store in downtown Jerusalem. The window display declared in huge letters and lots of sparkle: Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! Referring to the impending holy day of Rosh Hashanah . . . . Not the secular calendar date of January 1st. I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I wasn't in suburban New Jersey anymore. I was part of the majority culture for the first time on my life! I relaxed in a way I never had back in the States. Now the people around me were going to be celebrating my holidays, school vacations were going to coincide with my festivals, restaurants were going to be kosher wherever I went . . .
Being not-the-minority was a revelation. Through the twenty years of living in Israel, which included lots of economic and social challenges, I never lost the sense that I was where I belonged, I was in my place and the people around me were my people.
. . . . For the most part . . . I was living in a rather siloed culture, in the middle of western Jerusalem. But I did have a few encounters with my Arab neighbors ... Before the first intifada (which began in 1987), my daughter and I would encounter Arab moms and kids from the Arab village across the road at the playground that lay between a Jewish and an Arab neighborhood. The kids played together. One day, a young Arab mom offered me a fresh almond from a little bag she brought to the playground. But encounters like that disappeared . . . a fence was built alongside the Arab side of the playground . . . when the intifada began.
After the intifada began . . . our apartment building was at the edge of our Jewish neighborhood. Across the street was a bare hill and in the valley over that hill was an Arab village. And one evening, coming home late from work, I got out of my car and a rock came sailing over the hill at me. And another one. It took me a minute to realize what was happening . . . and then I ducked behind my car and yelled (in Hebrew) “I didn’t do anything to you!”
So, my inclination was to stick to my Jerusalem: the part of the Jerusalem that speaks Hebrews and closes school for Hanukah and empties the bread shelves during Passover. For the girl that used to be chased home being called “dirty Jew,” it was a whole new experience being surrounded and protected by “my own.”
And then a dozen or so years after leaving Israel, I’m sitting at a Providence diner with a minister and an imam . . . not my natural comfort zone people. We began with the premise that all three of our faith communities are co-existing in Rhode Island and we should try to deepen the interfaith conversation since we’re all here anyway.
Our diner conversations led to join press conferences where we have stood together for mutual respect between our communities, compassion and peace in the Middle East. We brought an exhibit about the history of Islam in the United States to Rhode Island.
And then we we were invited to speak at a symposium in Jerusalem about green and sustainable pilgrimage. We were billed as the “collaborating clergy” . . . as we planned our presentation we began to realize how far we’d come, how much trust had grown between us and how odd it seemed that our collaboration was such an extraordinary thing that we had to be imported to Jerusalem from Rhode Island to explain how we do it.
Rhode Island, with Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty, is a very conducive place to build bridges between religious leaders and religious communities like those that Don and Farid and I have built.
The first place we visited was a baptismal site on the western bank of the Jordan River . . . As we followed the slope down toward the river we came to a wooden boardwalk on which several groups of Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe were each gathered, readying themselves for immersion in the Jordan. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I would note the turn from winter to spring by the sudden spurt of tour busses on the streets . . . including those carrying Christian groups . . . but I’d never witnessed the reverence of Christians for the Holy Land that I had only experienced as my Jewish Holy Land.
We then moved on to the mosque of Nebi Musa . . . which is Arabic for mosque of the Prophet Moses . . . which should sound a bit like the Hebrew the Navi Moshe . . . . and Don and I watched as Farid reverently bathed his feet and disappeared inside the mosque to pray. Farid emerged from the mosque, and we returned to Jerusalem.
Even though I am the one with the Israeli ID card, each of my travel buddies had connected to places in my land to which I could only be a visitor. I had been so focused on our role at the symposium, our travel arrangements and accommodations, that I really hadn’t thought that much about what the experience of moving through Israel with a faithful Muslim and a faithful Christian would be like. That first day, I gained an appreciation for the significance of this land in the faith traditions of my friends . . . but I still held on to a sense of ownership, I felt as though I was offering the gifts of unique experiences to my friends.
Over the next few days, as we engaged with the participants of the symposium, I became the humble tourist: Don and Farid were embraced and welcomed by the Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem’s Old City and villages on the West Bank of the Jordan River . . . they went to places I could not go and they came back with beautiful stories about warm welcomes and meals at family tables. I wasn’t the only one welcoming them to Israel and showing them around any more . . . I was sharing the privilege and watching their spiritual enrichment from the sidelines.
Don and Farid showed me facets of my own country that I had totally missed because of politics and wariness and my own enjoyment of being part of the majority for a change.
Abraham, the biblical Abraham. His name, translated from the Hebrew means “father of many peoples.” We keep forgetting that. I was trying to own Abraham in a rather exclusive deal until I travelled to the land of Abraham with two other of Abraham’s children: there is so much more truth in the expanded family of Abraham’s children, of Jews and Christians and Muslims. The Torah recounts the moment of God’s blessing to Abraham: the original Hebrew is: vnivr’chu b’cha kol goyei ha’aretz . . . all the nations of the land will be blessed through you. All the nations of the land . . .
It’s more than ok to let go of the assumptions that you may think are providing you with a sense of security and a sense of place. Find yourself some out of the box true friends and give yourself the gift of a new perspective and a new humility.
There are a number of hugely significant moments in this week's parashah/Torah reading: from Avram's stunning act of faith in response to God's literally out-of-the-blue call: "Lech l'cha" / "Take yourself off to the place I'll show you . . . " to the first iterations of the covenantal promises of progeny and land. This is a touchstone parashah.
With so many founding principles and themes in this Torah reading, we often don't focus on an interesting dynamic of these early Breishit/Genesis chapters: God is changing or determining the names of everybody in the nuclear Avram/Sarai family. Avram becomes Avraham. Sarai, his wife, becomes Sarah. It is God who determines the name of the child Hagar will bear to Avram (Ishmael) and it is God who determines the name of the child Sarah will bear to Avraham (Yitzhak/Isaac).
Anyone who has been blessed with the opportunity to name a child has felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. as well as promise for the future and the potential of this new life. There are so many elements we want to weave into the names we choose for our children: our hopes for their future; qualities we hope will be integrated into their personalities; channeling the memories and the love of relatives who have not lived to see and hold this new child . . . .
There is something endearing about this image of God as the "namer" in this family. Not since the Eden generation, has God claimed the role of "namer." Indeed, God tasks Adam, the human, with the task of naming much of creation. (Breishit 2:19 "And Adonay God fashioned from the ground every animal of the field and every bird of the skies and brought it to the human to see what Adam would call it. And whatever the human would call it, each living being, that would be its name.")
The fact that God has taken back the role of "namer" at this moment signals the uniqueness of the relationship with this family. Even though we first encounter Avram and Sarai with perfectly serviceable names, God wants to mark them with names of God's choosing. There is a sweetness in these acts of naming. We are witnessing God's hopes for each one of these family members, the qualities they will display, their relationships with God and with other humans, are all rolled into these new names: Avram as Avraham will establish many peoples to carry on the tradition of this new relationship with God; Sarai (meaning "princess") becomes Sarah . . . the meaning of her name does not change, but the letter "hei" added to her name is understood to represent the name of God, thus making her a partner in the covenantal enterprise; Hagar's son is blessed with the name Yishma-el, promising that God will hear him throughout his lifetime; Sarah's son is to be called Yitzhak which evokes the joyous (and incredulous) laughter of his parents as they contemplate his birth.
We and our Christian and Muslim friends in the "Abrahamic faiths" are the legacy of these four people, named by God. May we, too, embody those hopes of God to be treasure our common ancestry as the descendants of spiritual royalty, and be blessed with God's listening ear and bring joy to those who love us.
Long before Sigmund Freud, readers of Breishit/Genesis understood that dreams convey meaning and messages . . . that the dreamer is the recipient of the message, not the source of the message and the interpreter of the message is guided by inspiration. Joseph declares this with clarity when he offers to interpet the dreams of his fellow prisoners: Joseph said to them, "Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams." (40:8)
I shared a dream recently . . . I can't claim credit for its content and I certainly felt guided by inspiration from God as I came to understand how to make my dream real.
My dream was to issue a joint statement of compassionate concern for the residents of Israel and Gaza and a rejection of the connection between terrorism and faith with my Christian and Muslim colleagues here in Rhode Island. My fellow dreamers were the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of The Rhode Island State Council of Churches and Imam Farid Ansari, the President of The Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement. I am, as many of you know, in addition to being Torat Yisrael's rabbi, also privileged to serve as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.
On a Thursday in November, as the ink was barely dry on the Israel-Gaza cease fire, the three of us gathered with additional colleagues and together forged the statement below on the left. I had the privilege of following our joint statement with my own personal statement at a press conference on December 3rd. My statement is on the right:
Three Faiths: One Vision for Peace
“They shall sit, every person under their grapevine and under their fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has so declared.” (Micah 4:4)
As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we followed with tremendous apprehension and compassion, the conflict which recently rocked Israel and Gaza. We are grateful that, to date, the cease fire holds and pray that it will serve as the starting point for a more permanent peace.
The common denominator of care for every human soul which binds our faith communities together compels us, as spiritual leaders, to cry out against the fear, the disruption of daily lives, the trauma to young and old, the injury and death raining down on Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations alike.
As faith leaders, we reject the possibility that an act of terror can ever be the legitimate expression of Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
We offer the wisdom of each of our Abrahamic faiths in the hope that our sacred texts will promote an atmosphere of mutual respect, humility and peace among us:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the Children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
Take not life, which Allah (God) has made sacred. (Holy Quran, chapter 6 Verse 151)
Consulting Clergy: Reverend Donald Anderson Imam Farid Ansari Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, Warwick Imam Abdul Hameed, Providence Rabbi Amy Levin Rabbi Peter Stein, Cranston Mufti Ikram Ul Haq, North Smithfield
Statement: Rabbi Amy Levin
Thank you all for coming . . . I am Rabbi Amy Levin. I am the rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich and I have the privilege of serving as president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island . . . and the further privilege of counting as colleagues the Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy who join me today. Today’s joint statement is a milestone in an ongoing journey in which we have been clearing an unprecedented path of dialogue and spiritual exploration, a journey in which we are building bridges of understanding and appreciation among all our faith communities. These are extraordinary faith leaders.
From Rhode Island . . . the state with the deepest, most explicit roots in mutual respect for all faiths, rabbis, ministers and imams stand before you in a coalition of faith and peace.
Whether we evoke Adonay, God or Allah . . . whether we trace our ancestry back to Avraham, Abraham or Ibrahim . . . we are bound by our faith in the same God and our roots in the same family.
We look east from this place to a land of spiritual significance to all three of our faiths and pray for the peace, security and well-being of all those just living in the middle east . . . parents raising children, simple people going to work, shopping, going to school, visiting grandchildren . . . all those every-day acts we engage in here can be threatening to life and limb if you live near the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
My colleagues and I, the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, serving synagogues, educational institutions and communal institutions, representing Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities in Rhode Island and south-eastern Massachusetts are proud to stand with our Christian and Muslim colleagues and say to you: do not lay the blame for conflict at the doors of our faiths . . . our God, our prophets, the weight of our traditions compel us to seek peace. Do not confuse politics and territoriality and terror with the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many have done so in the past, but we are united in our conviction that our respective faiths teach us to come together in mutual respect and peace. May we soon see the day when our Jewish, Christian and Muslim co-religionists in the Middle East will be able to stand together as we do today.
May it be Your will, our God . . . Adonay . . . Allah . . . the God of our ancestors, to remove war and the shedding of blood from the world, may You inspire us to embed peace throughout the world and bring to fruition the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” May all who dwell on earth acknowledge and know that we did not come into this world for contention and or hate or jealousy or bloodshed. We have only come into this world in order to acknowledge You, who is eternally blessed. Therefore, we ask that You have mercy on us and that You establish through us the words of the Torah in Leviticus: “…and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid.” (26:5-6)
This week's parashah / Torah portion opens with the rather peremptory divine command: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ "God said to Avram: get yourself out from your country, from your homeland and from your father's house to the country I will show you."
No, "hi, my name is . . . ." No, "I've got an interesting opportunity for you." Not even an "Ahum, let me introduce myself . . . ."
Just "get up and go."
As stunning as God's opening to Avram is, the patriarch's response is even more breathtaking: So, Avram got up and went as God commanded . . . and took with him his nephew Lot and his wife Sarai and all their possessions . . . .
For this tremendous act of faith, our tradition lauds Avram (at the end of this week's Torah reading, re-named Avraham / Abraham) as "the faithful servant of God." In this week's haftarah, God refers to Avram as "my friend." Over and over, we will see Avram/Avraham respond unquestioningly and with alacrity to every command of God's save for one: to warn the residents of S'dom and Amorrah that they are facing destruction. At that moment, Avraham, the faithful, unquestioning servant, challenges God's judgment.
But at this moment of "you don't know Me, but get up and leave everything and everyone you know and I'll make you a great nation" Avram simply does. And we hear no protest from his wife, Sarai either. The text leaves room for us to posit that they may have been of one mind. Getting up, going, not knowing to where.
We need to pause for a moment in the narrative to appreciate the depth of courage this took: My son and daughter-in-law, both raised in Israel in bi-lingual homes, moved to the States over the summer so that my son could go to graduate school. Aryeh and Michal both speak and read English. They've both visited the States to meet American relatives. They knew before they landed that they had a maternal back-up-system in place should anything go awry. and yet, I watch the irm confront all sorts of cultural challenges. Things are just done differently. Organizations work differently. People's expectations of exchanges are not the same.
Aryeh and Michal are way ahead of the game of cultural transition compared to Avram and Sarai: Aryeh and Michal spoke the language, could look up New Hampshire on a map, had a welcoming committee at the airport . . . Avram and Sarai simply left home and had no idea where they were going and what would happen to them. And yet they left.
Lots of people have faith. Few of us who describe ourselves as people of faith would be willing to simply place our fate and future, and the well-being of our families in the hands of the Unseen.
When I moved into a new neighborhood in Beit HaKerem, Jerusalem, when I became the rabbi of the Masorti congregation there, I became friends with my upstairs neighbors: the American basketball player Billy Thompson, his wife and young children. Billy was playing basketball for the Jerusalem Ha'Poel team at the time. Having a 6ft. 7in. upstairs neighbor was very handy when it came to building my Sukkah!
Billy and his wife are passionate Christians. Their faith is very deep. When Billy's unrenewable contract with Ha'Poel expired, he and his wife prepared to return to the States. He had no offer from his previous NBA team or any other. We were having coffee one day and I asked: "Aren't you nervous? Just packing up and going back to the States with no job? No means of supporting yourselves?"
With perfect calm and tranquility Billy replied: "God will show us where we are to go and what we are to do." This wasn't a sound byte for a Christian radio station, this was the way these people lived their lives. I found myself wondering if, under similar circumstances, I would be as sanguine about placing my life and the lives of my family members in God's hands.
Avram and Sarai (and Billy and his wife, for that matter) found that stepping out into the unknown and trusting to God to show them the way to a fulfilling and meaningful life worked out just fine. Perhaps opening ourselves to a little of that kind of faith will enrich and deepen our own lives . . .
The implications of one verse in this weeks's Torah reading are vast: D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:30 Justice, you shall pursue justice, in order that you will live. דברים טז, כ צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙
The verse is phrased to convey emphasis and focus: the repetition of the word צֶדֶק / tzedek draws our attention to the importance of the word and also to the possibility of understanding that word more than one way: tzedek can be translated as "justice" and tzedek can be translated as "righteousness." The verse, therefore, exhorts us to pursue both justice and righteousness by virtue of this repetition.
Then there is the choice of verb: תִּרְדֹּ֑ף / tirdof / you shall pursue. There are so many other verbs that might have worked here. We might have been commanded to advance justice and righteousness, to elevate justice and righteousness, to embrace justice and righteousness . . . but instead the verb driving this mitzvah leaves no room for any passivity: we are to pursue justice and righteousness. And we are to pursue justice and righteousness in order that we might exist.
It is in response to the challenge of this mitzvah that I approach the campaign to eradicate circumcision taking place now within the German court system. For all that German government leaders like German Justice Ministry spokeswoman, Anne Zimmerman, have pledged to prepare legislation protecting religious circumcision in German (practiced by both Jews and Muslims), the fact is that this week a legal complaint was filed against a rabbi in Germany who serves as a mohel, for perpetrating bodily harm on an infant by performing a circumcision.
In the meantime, circumcisions continue to be performed within both the Jewish and the Muslim communities of Germany. Indeed, we might conjecture that this move is more an anti-Muslim than an anti-Jewish effort since there are so many more Muslims living in Germany than Jews (estimates put the Muslim population of Germany at something over 4 million people and the Jewish population of Germany at a bit over 110,000 people). Nonetheless, the court action in Hof was directed at a mohel. There is no equivalent of a mohel in the Muslim world: circumcisions are generally performed by doctors.
The German legal process is following standard procedures and the prosecutor's office in Hof, Germany, will devote a great deal of time in the next few weeks determining whether they should press charges. In the meantime, pressure on official levels is being levied on the German government to move quickly to protect ritual circumcision within their borders and government leaders are not unaware of the concern felt all over the world.
Two days ago, the AP reported: German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle weighed in while on a trip to Liechtenstein, saying that "Jewish and Muslim traditions must be allowed to be practiced without legal uncertainty." "We cannot risk Germany's reputation in the world as a country of religious tolerance," he said. "From my perspective it's necessary now to rapidly come up with clear regulations."
But the Torah does not command us to sit back and wait for justice and righteousness to unfold, it commands us to pursue justice and righteousness. To that end, I encourage you to write a short note to Germany's Ambassador to the United States and let Mr. Ammon know that we Jews in the United States are concerned that this issue be resolved in a just manner very soon. You may write to:
The Honorable Peter Ammon Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany 2300 M Street NW Washington, DC 20037
You should, of course, phrase your note to reflect your own understanding or and concerns about the matter, but here is a draft of a note which you may use "as is" or edit to your own taste if this is helpful:
Dear Mr. Ambassador, One of the blessings of being an American Jew is the fact that I and the rest of my co-religionists are able to observe the tenets and practices of our faith here without fear or self-consciousness. The Jewish practice of circumcising our newborn sons at the age of eight days has been observed by every generation of our people in every place we have lived for over 3000 years.
To posit that we, as a people, have been perpetrating bodily harm on our precious sons for millennia is absurd. To allow German citizens to threaten the religious practice of Jewish and Muslim adherents within your borders should be anathema to your government and your people.
I write to you in the hope that you will find a way to convey my expressions of concern to your government and to let them know that we in America, individuals, communities and national organizations, are all waiting anxiously to hear that the religious practice of circumcision will be protected within your borders by irrevocable Germany legislation.
With blessings of peace, "l'shalom" ___________________
"If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him--sojourner or resident--and he will live with you." (Leviticus 25:35)
This past Wednesday, I attended the fourth annual Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty Conference. Each year at this conference, we receive the most up-to-date statistics available on Rhode Island's poor: adults and children. We also are given the opportunity to learn from experts in the field of fighting poverty in order to make more effective our own state-wide efforts.
This year's topice was: Why Are People Poor? The Systemic Nature of Poverty in Rhode Island. A panel of three leaders in the fight against poverty on the national level spoke: Reverend Peg Chemberlin, Immediate Past President of the National Council of Churches, Rabbi Steve Gutow, President and CEO of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Imam Mohamed Magid, President of the Islamic Society of North America. Reverend Chemberlin's presentation included encouragement to act despite the prevalence and the momentum poverty has gained: "Pick something and do it. Don't be overwhelmed. Have a work plan."
I learned Torah from Imam Magid: He taught a midrash from the Muslim tradition in which a poor man comes to Abraham. Abraham asks the man, "Do you believe in God?" And the man responds, "no." "In that case," answers Abraham, "I cannot feed you." The man turns away and God says to Abraham: "I've fed that man for forty years even though he does not believe in Me. I send him to you for one meal and you turn him away?" Abraham ran after the man, apologized and invited him to a meal. The poor man turns to Abraham: "You say God sent you to run after me to apologize to me and to feed me? That is a good God. I will believe in such a God." Imam Magid challenges us: "If you want to say you believe in God, show me what you have done to take care of God's creation!"
Rabbi Gutow shared with us the shocking trend that poverty is decreasing in the developing world and increasing in the developed world. In other words, it is in the societies with the greatest resources that the numbers of those living in poverty is increasing. Rabbi Gutow concluded: "The world will be a better place if we do this work. The world will be a worse place if we don't do this work."
I am sickened by the realities of poverty right under our noses here in Rhode Island: In 2010, there were 142,000 Rhode Islanders (14% of the population) living in poverty. The poverty level is defined as around $11,000 of income per year for a single individual and approximately $18,000 dollars of income per year for a single parent and two children. Of those living in poverty, 43% were living in extreme poverty . . . which means people living on an income less than half of the poverty level figures above. In 2010, there were 42,221 children in Rhode Island (19% of our State's children) living in poverty.
This week's Torah reading, all the force of our tradition, God's expectations of us, all compel us to do more than read about the poor. We cannot click our tongues and make compassionate noises. We must all act. I invite you to contact me if you are ready to move beyond heartfelt compassion to action.
In the meantime, here are two opportunities for involvement: Join the Interfaith Advocacy Project and become a Legislative Ambassador. You will be trained to be an effective advocate, you will learn about Rhode Island's legislative and budget processes and about poverty-related issues being considered in the current legislative session. Contact Reverend Donald Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches if you have the time and the communication skills to take on this kind of role.
Sign a petition. The federal government is seriously considering cutting funding for SNAP, the newest food stamp program for families. This is happening at a time when more and more vulnerable citizens are losing their food security (literally not knowing where there next meal is coming from). A third grader recently told her teacher that she did not have breakfast one schoolday morning because "it wasn't my turn." Please follow this link and add your name to mine: www.bread.org/snapworks.
Parashat B'har Torah Reading: Leviticus 25:1-26:2 As we approach the end of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus, we read a thought-provoking verse: "I am Adonay Your God. It is I who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to give you the Land of Canaan to be your God." (25:38)
We are not often given a glimpse into God's intent. We are invited to ponder the motivation behind God's act of creation in the first place; we can only guess at the reason God reached out to Avram to seal the first covenant/brit; and the questions only multiply as we witness the stories of the Genesis/B'reishit families and ultimately the saga of Israelite slavery in Egypt.
There are other verses that offer similar insights into God's intent. Perhaps the most familiar is the verse we read twice a day in the liturgical unit of biblical excerpts of the Sh'ma and the following paragraphs: "I am Adonay your God. It is I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I am Adonay your God."
But it is in this Leviticus verse that God includes the gift of the Land of Canaan to the Israelites in this statement of motivation. These verses indicate that God redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery in order to "be" the God of the Israelites and their descendents (us!).
What does this mean? For centuries, since God first tapped Avram on the shoulder and instructed him to leave home, God has been "the God of the Israelites.? Right?
Well, yes and no. Avram, who would be transformed into Avraham . . . the father of a multitude . . . would ultimately serve as the patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims. So the God to whom Avraham was devoted was the God of several faiths.
During the centuries of Israelite slavery (that is the servitude of the descents of Israel/Jacob) it seems as though God was not "shochein" not dwelling among the people. It is through God's messenger, Moses, that God will, in effect, reintroduce the relationship with the Israelites.
As Israel leaves Egypt they are lead by the God who had seemingly abandoned them for generations, but then crossed all borders and broke all conventions to redeem them from slavery.
And the first major event of their journey back to their geographic home in Canaan is the only collective revelation of the Torah at Sinai. It is there that the unique relationship between God and Israel is forged. It is at Sinai that Adonay becomes the God of Israel irrevocably. "It is I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God."
And in Leviticus, in the verse we read in this week's parashah, we learn that God also wanted to bring together the people of Adonay and the land of Adonay: the land of Israel and the people of Israel. It is with this statement that we learn how central this love triangle of God, people and land is to the core identity of our people.
In the past week, we celebrated Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, and we will soon be celebrating Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day (celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem after the 6 Day War). This is a propitious time for each of us to address the issue of Land and People and God for ourselves. Some of us, of course, visit Israel. Some of us make "aliyah" and choose to settle in Israel. Some of us don't feel drawn to make that "pilgrimage" visit. Some of us are knowledgeable about Israel and some of us don't know much more than what we absorb through our usual news sources.
This week's Torah reading challenges us to try to complete the sentence: "As a Jew, Israel means ______________________________ to me."
Immediately before sitting down to write this message, I had a deloghtful experience. a class from a Brown University adult education program came to Torat Yisrael as part of a course on the Abrahamic faiths.
I spoke about Judaism's roots in the relationship between God and Abraham. We opened up the Eitz Hayyim Humash and discussed the seminal moment in Chapter 15 of Genesis in which God creates the first covenant with Avram/Abraham, I talked about our basic concepts of Covenant and Commandment, of revelation and what Torah means to us.
The group was very appreciative, and i enjoyed revisiting these basic premises of our faith through the eyes of those who are new to these ideas.
As I walked back into my office, after the group left, I realized that there is a whole area of discussion I could not engage in because not everyone in the room was Jewish and because our discussion was meant to be an academic exercise: What does it mean to be following this faith?
That's what I feel moved to share with you, and I am grateful to my colleague Rabbi Harold Kushner for stating this so elegantly in his book To Life!:
"Judaism has the power to save your life. It can't keep you from dying; no religion can keep a person living forever. But Judaism can save your life from being wasted, from being spent on the trivial....Judaism is a way of making sure that you don't spend your whole life, with its potential for holiness, on eating, sleeping and paying your bills. It is a guide to investing your life in things that really matter. It comes to teach you how to feel like an extension of God by doing what God does, taking the ordinary and making it holy."
We do, at times, lament the "high bar" we need to meet in order to understand services conducted largely in Hebrew, and there is certainly a series of skill sets we are challenged to acquire as Jews to increase our literacy. But the holiest task of all, of bringing holoness to the world as Jews, most often requires no expert knowledge, just a commited heart.
That's the most important thing to know about being a Jew.
Parashat Hayyei Sarah, is a parasha of transition. Each of the members of Avraham's family is transformed during the course of these few chapters: Sarah dies, Yitzhak and Rivkah meet and marry, Avraham dies, Yitzhak is acknowledged as the next in the chain of covenanted patriarchs, and Yishmael comes to bury his father and himself becomes the father of nations.
The most powerful moment of the entire parasha is contained in one verse: "His [Avraham's] sons Yitzhak and Yishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . . . (25:9). How significant, after all the jealousy, banishment, and competition, that these two half-brother are named in the same breath -- and come together to bury their father.
The moment is fitting tribute to Avraham -- for aside from his unshakeable faith in God, his other great attribute was as a seeker of peace and compromise. He made peace with Lot (13: 7-9). He bargained for the lives of the inhabitants of S'dom and Amorrah (18: 23-33). He made peace with Avimelech (21: 22-32). He wanted to resist sending Hagar and Yishmael into the wilderness (21:11). Aside from his successful military campaign against the kings who invaded from the east, we see Avraham as a gentle man, avoiding conflict and treasuring life.
I cannot help but sense the spirit of Avraham inspiring his two sons to seek peace themselves -- between the two of them, and in their relations with others. For all the animosity that their births and subsequent histories could have engendered, we hear of no conflict between the brothers themselves -- and according to the Torah itself, they came together in quiet dignity to bury the father who loved them both.
In these times, when peace between the children of Yitzhak and the children of Yishmael seems so tantalizingly close and then so heartbreakingly far, we should all emulate our ancestor Avraham, the seeker of peace and compromise.
The Birkat Hamazon (Blessings After Meals) is one of the most beautiful pieces of liturgy we have. We express our gratitude for the abundance of blessings God has bestowed on us -- sustenance, land, a spiritual center, hope for the future. There is a section of the Birkat Hamazon in which we ask God to provide us continued guidance, an honorable living, freedom of spirit, and ultimate deliverance. There is room here, I think, for one more request -- one that expresses the ethic demonstrated by the sons of our peace-seeking patriarch, Avraham:
Harachman, hu yashkin shalom bein b'nai Yitzhak uv'nai Yishmael.
May the Merciful One cause peace to dwell among the children of Yitzhak and the children of Yishmael.
In this week's parashah/Torah reading, God renames two people: Abram becomes Abraham and his wife Sarai is renamed Sarah. This act of renaming expresses the reality of a deeper relationship between God and these two people. What profound shift is marked by these renamings?
[Breishit/Genesis 17:1-4] When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him: I am El-Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous. Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, "As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations."
Abram and Sarai were wanderers . . . geographically and spiritually. With the establishment of the covenant [brit] with God, they now have both a geographic and a spiritual home in the Land of Canaan and in the God called El-Shaddai (one of dozens of names of God that appear in the Torah]. They are profoundly changed and God's act of renaming them marks the moment that changes their personal life journeys and human history.
I am not on expert on pagan religion, but it occurs to me that in establishing this covenant with Abraham, Sarah and their offspring, God has blessed humanity with unprecedented respect. In the pagan world, there is no covenant. Human beings placate the gods of their imaginings, hoping that gifts, offerings, actions might avert anger or might spare humans from the pagan equivalent of a drive-by-shooting in which humans suffer because they are in the way as pagan gods fight it out amongst themselves.
But the God of Abraham and Sarah establishes a partnership . . . offers values and goals to be shared, offers eternal commitment and infinite potential. It behooves us to remember that Abraham and Sarah are the progenitors of "a multitude of nations," that we share the blessings of this brit we all those who acknowledge and worship the one God: El-Shaddai, Adonay, Elohim, these are all names of the God we cherish and share with the other monotheistic faiths of the world. The brit that will be forged at Sinai between God and Israel will be the particularistic covenant that establishes Judaism for all time, but here, in Genesis, this first brit with Abraham and Sarah, expressed through the changes of their names, casts a wider net.
Let us pray for the time when all those who share the blessings of this covenant with us -- Jews, Christians and Moslems -- all descendants of Abraham and Sarah -- will be ready to embrace as siblings.
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. Rabbi Levin lived in Israel for 20 years and was the second woman to be ordained by the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel.