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.
Every few years (the algorithms of the Hebrew calendar are beyond me), Yom Kippur and Shabbat coincide, as is the case this year. It's an interesting contrast of themes and dynamics: Shabbat is supposed to be a day of עונג/oneg/delight. On Shabbat we are supposed to enjoy the best food of the week, wear the best clothes of the week, sing and relax and, yes, pray with our community. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of עינוי/inu'i/self-affliction. On Yom Kippur we are supposed to fast, to wear white (the traditional color of mourning), reflect, look past physical pleasures and, yes, pray with our community.
These seem to be mutually exclusive. So how do we understand this potent day of Shabbat and Yom Kippur together?
I found some inspiration from Ariana Huffington, the editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. Ms. Huffington is developing an initiative, The Third Metric, which aims to redefine success beyond the first two metrics of money and power to include well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and to give back.
Huffington said she personally uses mindfulness and meditation to help achieve those goals.
"Silence is an amazing way to recharge ourselves," she said.
Making time to incorporate this third measure of success can not only change your life, but transform the workplace, Huffington said, by helping people become more creative, productive and connected.
"Olympic athletes get naps. When performance really matters, taking care of yourself is key," she said.
In a speech to more than 800 women at the Women Of Influence luncheon that included Twitter Canada CEO Kirstine Stewart, Huffington stressed that the "hurry-up culture" is not working, and that the whole concept of multitasking is a myth. (Huffington Post, 9/11/13)
On Yom Kippur, the day of the year during which we are given the opportunity to take stock of our priorities, review our relationships with our families and friends and community and God, we should take God as our role model. God, ultimately, has "rochmones"/mercy on us when we approach life with integrity and good intention. Why shouldn't we be as kind to ourselves and those we love?
The underlying thread of the delight of Shabbat flowing under the challenges of Yom Kippur are the best of that Third Metric of Ms. Huffington's. Breath. Let go of that "hurry-up culture." On this ultimate Day of Awe, give yourself permission to feel that awe.
Ask yourself: What are the observances and practices that most say "Judaism" to us? I'd imagine that somewhere at or near the top of your list would be: Shabbat.
Celebrating Shabbat in Jewish community has been a core experience for millennia. Indeed, one of the most profound statements about Shabbat was penned by a an early 20th century Jewish essayist who wrote: "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."
One of the striking things about this statement is that it was written by Ahad Ha'am (the pen name for Asher Ginsburg [1856-1927]) who was a secular Zionist thinker! Shabbat reigns in the imagination even of the non-observant Jew.
The roots of Shabbat are found in the creation story of Genesis. After a day-by-day account of what God created each day, Breishit/Genesis relates: "God had finished, on the seventh day, the work God had made, and then ceased, on the seventh day, from all work of creating. God gave the seventh day a blessing and hallowed it, for on it God ceased from all work, that by creating, God had made." (2:2-3)
The initial model of this seventh day is that of a day of rest. This was a groundbreaking concept in the ancient world, in which no concept of a weekly day of rest existed.
Since that first concept of a day of rest, our Jewish people have embroidered on, deepened, enriched the concept of our day of rest. Our great theologians have waxed poetic about our Shabbat:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (The Sabbath):
"Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else."
Shabbat, teaches Rabbi Heschel, is the opportunity to step back, slow down, appreciate the mystery and the holiness that surrounds us. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to savor our own holiness, by virtue of the soul implanted within us by God.
Almost two thousand years ago, a midrash (homiletic text) related:
"Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed One: 'Master of the world, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?' God said to them, 'The world-to-come.' They said: 'Show us its likeness.' God showed them the Sabbath." (Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva).
The world to come: In Judaism, this is a time that will be free of strife, free of struggle. We will no longer be plagued by disease or fear or insecurity. Shabbat is meant to give us a glimpse of just such a time.
Jews who savor this imagery will save their best clothes and best food for Shabbat. Friends will gather around each others dining room tables, enjoy generous meals, sing, talk about Torah and life, laughter and indescribable warmth.
As we cross the threshold into the sacred time of Shabbat this evening, we at Torat Yisrael will gather together for social community (at Shalom to Shabbat this evening before services), for a unique prayer experience (with our unique Friday evening service designed for the month of Elul preceding the High Holidays) and for multigenerational, interactive study (at tomorrow morning's Torah at the Table). These are the ways we here create for ourselves a glimpse of the world to come.
On my first day at Torat Yisrael, in the summer of 2004, I sat myself down at the desk in the rabbi’s study and started opening drawers to see what “treasures” my predecessors had left for me.
I opened a file and found a memo, written in 1985, by my
predecessor, Rabbi David Rosen, making the case that the congregation’s most
promising future could be fulfilled through a move to East Greenwich.
Here and now, with the leadership spearheading our congregation now, with all the complicated realities of economics and demographics and the very human aversion to risk. Here and now, when congregations around the country are closing their doors, it is now that we are dedicating our new synagogue building in the very promising land of East Greenwich.
Over and over I have had occasion to marvel at the commitment, the perseverance, the determination, the generosity, the selflessness of the
members of our congregation. Over and over, I have witnessed delays, resistance, barriers, and I’ve thought, “please God, let them not lose heart.” And over and over the leaders of this project rolled up their sleeves, regrouped, got creative and got it done.
It is our privilege to dedicate this beautiful building לשם ולטפארת / l’sheim
ultiferet, for the Name and the wonder of God. Within these walls, generations of our people will come together to delve into the infinite richness of our Torah, to embrace each other as a community of Israel, to find guidance and inspiration from our traditions and practices, to ponder and to attempt and to explore new avenues of Jewish life.
During the mindful process of designing this building, it has been our goal to embody or to facilitate some of our most cherished, eternal Jewish values:
בל תשחית / Bal Taschit: Our commitment to the mitzvah of avoiding unnecessary waste of resources is expressed in our investment in a unique LED and fluorescent lighting system that barely sips electricity.
מכשול בפני עיוור /You will not throw up a stumbling block before the blind: Through this mitzvah we are instructed
to anticipate and facilitate safe and accessible movement for all. In this spirit, one of our first decisions regarding the new building was to build all on one level, making every space in the building accessible to every person coming in. In that same spirit, one section of the coat rack in the cloakroom will be at a height comfortable to both the wheel chair bound and children to hang up and retrieve their own coats.
הזן את הכל / Who Feeds All. In the blessings recited after a meal, we praise God as “hazan et hakol,” the One who feeds all. Our tradition encourages us to internalize the values embodied by God’s own actions. In that spirit, our congregation supports two food-security programs: the Edgewood Food Closet in our former neighborhood in Cranston, and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry maintained by the Jewish Seniors Agency of Rhode
Island. We have literally built our commitment into our building: the benches lining our lobby under the windows are actually bins in which we collect non-perishable food items for these programs.
העם: האנשים והנשים והטף / The people: the men, the women and the children. Towards the end of the book of D’varim/Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses to gather together the people and readthem the words of the Torah. In
that text, the “people” , the body of Israel, is defined as “men, women and children.” Our commitment to making sure that all men, women and children are welcome and comfortable in our sanctuary is expressed through the unique wall of windows separating our sanctuary from our library. Shades reaching from the bottom of the windows upwards will provide privacy for nursing moms while still seeing and hearing what is happening in the sanctuary. Bins of quiet toys will keep little ones occupied while their supervising parents can still be part of the service. A parent, or grandparent!, who needs to “walk” a baby or comfort an unhappy toddler can do so without being cut off from the community.
מה גדלו מעשיך / How great are Your works? The Psalmist exclaims “mah gadlu ma’asecha?” How great are Your
works, O God? With the gift of conservancy land along the eastern border of our property, constructed an
eastern wall that is almost entirely of glass. As we sit in our sanctuary, our social hall and our library, we are free to simultaneously enjoy and praise God’s natural world.
We are celebrating a tremendous milestone in the history of our congregation. Let us remember that a milestone marks a significant stop along a path, not the end of the route. Yes, indeed, our geographic wandering is over, but there are many more paths for us to follow as a congregation. This is a building that we are turning into sacred space by our presence as a kehillah k’doshah, a holy congregation. How will we express our sense of the sacred here? How will we pray? How will we learn? How will we celebrate? What kind of communal goals and aspirations will we strive for?
TY members have contributed so much time and concern and skill as members of our Building and
Dedication Committees. Thank them when you see them. A project like this only comes to fruition when a few people throw themselves, body and soul, into the project. Our president, Susan Smoller and the chairman of our building committee, Andrew Sholes, and the chairman of our capital campaign, Marc Davis are those “body and
soul” leaders who have inspired us and brought us to this day.
Our Building Committee and our contractors and our architects and our painters and electricians and plumbers are done. Now it is our turn to fill this beautiful space with the joy, the challenges, the richness, the comforts, the spiritual horizons of the Judaism we love.
The site of Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in June 2012
This week, we read a double parashah, two Torah portions are linked together: Behar and Behukotai. These two readings are comprised of the final chapters of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. Vayikra has been a bit of a hiatus from the Sh'mot/Exodus narrative flowing from leaving Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle . . . and leading to the book of Bamidar/Numbers in which we will journey along with the wilderness generations of our ancestors to the end of the Torah itself.
The final verse of the first of this week's parshiot/portions reads thus:
"You shall keep my Sabbaths and honor in awe My sanctuary, I am Adonay."
Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in May 2013 on the eve of our first Shabbat service.
This coming Shabbat, our Torat Yisrael family will gather in our new sanctuary for the first time. We will carry our Torah scrolls from our interim space in the accommodating TY Middle Road house (we've been a "close-knit" community this year, for sure!) with song and praise and will deposit our scrolls in the temporary ark lovingly constructed for us by instructor Bill Scott and the Amos House Carpentry Class.
This is most certainly a week to contemplate how to honor God's sanctuary in awe.
Through all the many meetings and conversations and consultations and impossible-to-count volunteer hours that have been devoted to the goal of bringing our Torat Yisrael congregation to this moment, we have always kept in mind the purpose of this building. For the purpose of our beautiful new synagogue building is not just to exist for its own sake, but to provide foster the Jewish learning, worship, celebration and community growth of the members and friends of Temple Torat Yisrael.
The contemporary Jewish scholar and theological, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: "What does it mean to identify oneself as a Jew? The most obvious first answer is that a person is a Jew by religion. In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as that may seem. There is no basic set of meaningful principles on which all Jews would agree. And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.
Are Jews members of a race? This is clearly not the case. Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.
Do Jews belong to a nation? Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit.
Even linguistically, we are splintered. Hebrew is our official language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.
What we are is a family. We are the biological or, in the case of converts, the spiritual children of the House of Israel.
We are connected to one another, whether or not we agree with one another, whether or not we even like one another.
We are not a perfect family, but we are a real family." (Pebbles of Wisdom)
I find Rabbi Steinsaltz's image of the Jewish people as a family very compelling . . . . As an international family or a nuclear family or a communal family, like Torat Yisrael, we will always have differences of opinion, shared aspirations, a variety of talents to contribute and the desire to turn to family at times of challenge, grief and joy.
When we walked out of our 60 year old Torat Yisrael home on Park Avenue thirteen months ago, I spoke about how wrenching it is to leave the "family home" in which so many of us had celebrated, found spiritual inspiration, shared and forged close friendships, learned and grown as Jews.
Now the doors are opening to our new spiritual home and beginning this Shabbat we will again have a home in which to embed new "family" memories.
How do we honor God's sanctuary in awe? By filling this space with our presence, by coming to learn and play and pray, by coming to thank God and support our friends and "kvell" over our growing children. As much as the wilderness Tabernacle was treasured by our ancestors because God's presence among the people was so deeply a source of honor and promise, I'd suggest that our presence in Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary is our most effective means of honoring God in awe. Our family's journey to East Greenwich is complete. . . . and that, to me, is a source of awe and pride and gratitude.
Our seder night is a brilliantly crafted experience: we are surrounded by evocative smells and flavors, melodies and pictures, all designed to draw us in to the journey from slavery to freedom. Horseradish brings to our eyes tears like those of our slave ancestors. We conclude with joyous verses of praise to God for reaching into the black hole of Egyptian bondage and pulling us to the safety of the far shore of the sea of reeds.
One sentence in the Haggadah expresses the soul of this night:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In each and every generation, each person is obligated to see him/herself as if he/she came out of Egypt.
We eat the "bread of affliction," we chop up apples and walnuts until they look (but thank God, don't taste) like mortar. We steel ourselves for the bite of the maror and swear that "Dayyeinu", if God had only done half of what God has done for us, we would have been more than grateful. We are trying to throw ourselves into the experience of leaving Egypt.
Our experience in the United States is generally pretty "Ashkenazic." Most of us descend of Jewish immigrants who came from eastern and central Europe. Other Jewish communities have their own evocative moments that help the seder participant to feel the leaving:
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In some Sephardic [Mediterranean Jewish] communities, the cloth-wrapped afikoman [the broken middle matzah that is hidden early in the seder] was tied to the shoulder of a child, who left the company and then reappeared
knocking at the door. In the ensuing scripted dialogue, he identified himself as an Israelite on his way to Jerusalem carrying matzah. On entering the room, he looked at the specially arranged table and asked "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
In North African Jewish communities and in India, it was customary to pass the k'arah
[seder plate] over the heads of everyone at the table in a circular motion. Encompassing all gathered in the historic experience. It was an acknowledgment that as the world turns, first we were slaves, then we became free. www.myjewishlearning.com
The most moving collection of seder customs I have ever experienced was in Jerusalem. One year, I was asked to lead the seder at a battered women's shelter in the neighborhood in which I lived and led a congregation. Women and children from Russia and Morroco and Israel and England and Ethiopia and the United States and France and Argentina all sat together at the same seder table. Only the common denominator of having suffered violence at the hands of husbands and boyfriends and fathers could have created such a miscellaneous and yet homogenous group of people. The women had prepared the seder meal in the shelter's communal kitchen. Each woman had volunteered for a dish: soup, desserts, main dishes, side dishes . . . a Morrocan woman had said that she wanted to make her grandmother's special "seder soup." Everyone was delighted, until an Ashkenazic housemate strolled by the pot, lifted the lid and stirred and asked: "aifo hak'naidlach?" (Where are the matzah balls?). The Morrocan soup-chef asked "What's a matzah ball?" and that started a whole rebellion! All the Ashkenazic women ganged up protested: How can there be a seder without matzah balls? They came to a perfect solution: one of the Ashkenazic women taught the Morrocan woman how to make knaidlach and when we got to the soup course, our Morrocan soup-maker proudly ladled us each a bowful of her grandmother's seder soup with an Ashkenazic matzah ball floating in the middle!
Passover is absolutely about the journey: for these women and children, on their own journey from oppression to a new life of self-determination, that seder night was particularly evocative. We all saw ourselves as if we each had left from Egypt . . . and found some very moving milestones along the way.
"The Song at the Sea"
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is referred to, in the Jewish calendar, as Shabbat HaGadol / the Great Shabbat.
With so much time and energy devoted to preparation for Passover, one might wonder why we need a Great Shabbat right now. What makes this Shabbat so great?
Historically, when the role of the community rabbi was conceived differently, Shabbat HaGadol was one of very few Sabbaths during which the rabbi would give a major D'var Torah, a major sermon. The subject for this particular Shabbat was meant to be the ins and outs of Passover observance, in order to ensure that there would be no chametz found anywhere within the defined boundaries of the community.
Today, a Great Shabbat might be one in which the rabbi does not give a major D'var Torah! Sermon or no, I suggest that there is still something Great about this Shabbat.
Many of us are engaged in preparing for Passover. We're finishing up the crackers and vacuuming behind the couch. Those of us who are hosting seders are polishing the silver and hunting out last year's hit recipes.
All of this physical preparation is very absorbing, and it's pretty easy to get fixated on the small details of cleaning, shopping, switching out dishes and cooking. The huge spiritual gift that is Passover can easily get lost among the kugels.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol is Gadol, this is the greatness of the Great Shabbat: the essence of Shabbat as a day of rest provides us with a well-deserved hiatus from the shopping and chopping. Shabbat HaGadol is a day to anticipate the spiritual high of the seder. Anyone who has planned a wedding or a bat mitzvah or a fiftieth wedding anniversary party knows that the profound simchah at the heart of the celebration can easily get lost as we focus on the logistics.
The simchah of Passover is much too important; Shabbat HaGadol helps us shift our focus back to the reason for all the preparations: the simchah we celebrate on Passover is the unique, momentous moment of "yitziat mitzrayim." God, "with an outstretched arm" reached across the borders of the ancient world to scoop us up out of slavery and set us down on the safe side of the Sea of Reeds. We looked back and, like the young couple in the painting above, we rejoiced. We sang, we danced, we thanked God for this profound act of love.
When we gather this week at the seder table, amid the shining kiddush cups and the steaming matzah balls, we will, God willing, revel in the love around the table shared with our family and friends . . . and we will, because God willed it, sing and rejoice and remember that the core of our identity as a people is rooted in God's love.
This opening verses of this week's Torah reading / parashah present a core principle of Jewish tradition that, truthfully, has confused many people for a long time:
"And Moses assembled all of the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, "These are the things that Adonay has commanded, to do them: Six days work shall be done, and in the seventh day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Adonay. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death. You shall not burn a fire in all of your homes on the Sabbath day." (Exodus / Sh'mot 35: 1-3)
The passage then continues in a direction we would not expect. Instead of continuing to define "work," instead of listing the activities that are "holy enough" for Shabbat, we move on to a mitzvah/commandment directed to our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness to collect certain rare and expensive items to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle: the walls, the accessories, the priestly garments, the food items to be sacrificed . . .
The effect of this "turn without signalling" has been to spark the rabbinic imagination. A 2nd century rabbinic text, the Mishnah, connects the two passages and concludes that the "work" that is prohibited in verse 2 is defined by the human activities required to construct and create all of the pieces of the Tabernacle described in the ensuing verses. Thus, building, hammering, planting and sowing, creating fire, cooking, carrying items back and forth, weaving, cutting to measure . . . all of these become prohibited as "work" on Shabbat.
There is another derivation of "work" that is hinted at in verse 2: just as the seventh day was a day of "ceasing" to God--in Genesis/Breishit God rests on the seventh day after creating light and dark, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, stars and moon and humanity--so the seventh day should be a day of "ceasing" from creating for human beings as well.
What is it that we humans create? Our human endeavors, over the ages, have largely been focussed on providing food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. It is certainly the case that today, few of us are directly engaged in wielding a hammer, weeding a vegetable garden or cutting a sewing pattern . . . and when we are, it is more often a hobby or personal passion than a direct, compelling imperative to put clothing on our backs, food on our tables and a secure roof over our heads.
In today's complex economy, we provide food, clothing and shelter for our families by going to work and earning a paycheck and by shopping.
It may be physically challenging to carry a carton of books from the basement to the attic, but it isn't "work" in the Shabbat sense . . . that act of "shlepping" is not contributing to the creation of food, clothing or shelter. It may provide a sense of peace and accomplishment to pull out our knitting on Shabbat afternoon . . . but knitting is a human activity that literally creates clothing and, as such, is an activity proscribed by this definition of Shabbat.
For the majority of us, who have not made the commitment to turn to Jewish law / halachah to guide our actions, why should we turn the week's most convenient errand day into a day that produces no progress in the "food, clothing, shelter" department?
The rabbis of 2000 years ago suggested that Shabbat can be "a taste of the world to come." If we were to project ourselves into an existence where all that toil and worry about food, clothing and shelter were no longer necessary, what would our lives look like? No wallets. No watches. No ATMs. . . . an existence infused with peace and health and security and time to bask in the presence of our loved ones.
That is the potential of a "work-free" Saturday . . . a weekly opportunity to taste the world that might be.
Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.