This week, we read the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This is a clear case in which meaning is lost in translation: The book is entitled "Numbers" in English based on the census that is related in the opening chapter of the book, but in Hebrew the title "Bamidbar" means "wilderness" . . . as the book relates the saga of the Israelite journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
This is also a week in which the whole world is watching the spiritual wanderings of the residents of modern Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor, The Arab News as well as The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and every other Jewish news source has covered the turn of events at the Western Wall this week.
One month ago, at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar, police arrested (for the umpteenth time) women who were participating in a participatory women's service celebrating the new month . . . for disrupting the peace. Following these arrests, a series of Israeli justices have ruled that it is not the praying women who have disturbed the peace of this significant historic sight (the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the height on which the long-destroyed First and Second Temples stood).
Today, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, saw a new development in the wake of the court decisions. This month the women returned to pray . . . but instead of arresting the women, as ultra-Orthodox Jews threw chairs, water and worse at them, the police restrained the outraged onlookers.
Since 1948, with Jewish sovereignty over Israel established, a significant dynamic of wandering came to an historic resolution. We are, in the words of Israel's national anthem: am chofshi b'artzeinu . . . a free people in our land.
But in other profound ways, we have not yet arrived.
The tendency to self-righteousness and even contempt between Jew and Jew is not limited to the conflicts within Israel around the Western Wall. Although generally less violent, there are those within the Jewish community who label other Jews as violaters of Torah, abductors of innocents, sabotagers of our tradition.
In my view, we will remain at the very beginning of our spiritual growth as a people as long as we foster theological one-upsmanship and self-righteousness. I await the spiritual milestone at which all of us who identify with our Torah and our people and our God and our tradition will be able to address each other with theological humility and say: your path may not be mine, your interpretation of Torah may not be that which is practiced in my community, but we are all the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and we share the same God, the same values and deserve the same respect.
On Wednesday afternoon, I had the privilege of walking in procession to our Statehouse as part of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island. A band of drummers from a number of different faith communities led us from Gloria Dei Church to the Statehouse . . . I walked with ministers and rabbis and imams, Quaker community leaders, a Swami and Buddhist priests. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of theology, that divides us. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of our regard for the human spirit created by God (however we conceptualize the divine) that draws us together.
We came together, as we have done every year for the last four years, at the opening of the legislative session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, to stand together to convey our prayer that our elected officials will raise the needs of Rhode Island's vulnerable residents to the top of their legislative priority list.
Maxine Richman, co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition, stood shoulder to shoulder with Governor Lincoln Chaffee and acknowledged with pride that our Governor became the first in the United States to sign into law a Homeless Bill of Rights
Clergy, advocates, shelter residents, food pantry clients and compassionate neighbors all filled the Statehouse rotunda and the surrounding balconies to demonstrate that the momentum of our General Assembly must continue to build to address the needs of so many within our state who are vulnerable: children and adults who do not have a roof over their heads, are deciding weekly whether to buy medicine or heat their home, eating breakfast in rotation through the course of the week because there is not enough food in the house for everyone to leave for school and work with food in their stomachs . . . Naming the Need
This Shabbat we read the opening chapter of the book of Sh'mot. The word "Sh'mot" means "Names" and the text goes on to name those descendants of Jacob who went down to Egypt and whose progeny would ultimately be enslaved there.
This week, in Rhode Island, we recall the names of the needs which bind our neighbors all over our state*:
- In 2011, 148,00 of our neighbors (14.7% of the population) lived in poverty and close to 69,000 lived in extreme poverty.
- In 2011, 47,127 children (21.9% of our youngsters lived in poverty.
- Around 7,000 families relied on the RI Works program for assistance. The monthly payment of $554 for a family of 3 is 60% below the poverty level. Close to 33,000 elderly and disabled Rhode Islanders received Social Security Insurance benefits. the monthly payment of $738 is 21% below the poverty level.
- Between 2010 and 2011, 120,000 (13.6%) of Rhode Islanders under the age of 65 did not have health insurance.
- Between 2009 and 2011, an estimated 13,000 (5.6%) of children under the age of 18 did not have health insurance.
- In 2011, more than one in seven Rhode Island households (15.5%) were food insecure (did not have access to enough food for an active, healthy life).
- In August, 2012 there were 175,590 Rhode Islanders receiving SNAP (food stamps).
- An average of 66,000 people permonth were served at emergency food pantries in 2012 . . . like the Edgewood Food Pantry and the Chester Kosher Food Closet supported by our Torat Yisrael community.
- During 2011, 4,410 people used emergency homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing.
- One-quarter of the people experiencing homelssness in 2011 were children.
- In October 2012, the unemployment rate in Rhode Island was 10.4%, the highest in New England.
*Statistics released by the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty
We Jews tend to be a little territorial about the Torah. After all, on a daily basis we acknowledge that the gift of Torah was an expression of God's love for the people who entered into the covenant of Sinai.
But the Sinai covenant is not the first in the Torah: in this week's parashah/Torah portion, we read of the covenant God forged with Noah: the waters of the flood had receded, Noah and his family and the animals they had saved in the ark had emerged. God paints the sky with a rainbow and declares:
12 God said, This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. 17 And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9
This is a covenant between God and "all flesh". . . not just Jews, not just human beings either. God's commitment is to "all flesh that is on the earth."
At this moment, the horizons of the Torah are as broad as the horizons of our world: we are encouraged to drill down to the core of our identity: yes, we Jews are the descendants of Jacob and the Jewish tradition we practice today is rooted in the relationship between Jacob and his progeny and God. We are the descendants of Abraham and through our first patriarch we share common ground with our siblings-in-faith, those who practice Christianity and Islam. And we are all, ultimately, the children of Noah . . . we are all the sentient "flesh of the earth" and are thus, in all our diversity of appearance and practice, created in the image of God.
Rabbi Brad Artson concludes, in an essay on this week's Torah reading in his wonderful book The Bedside Torah:
"A righteous Gentile [anyone who is not Jewish] is a full child of God, to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we, too, are "Children of Noah."
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Yes, I do. I love Torah.
If you know me at all, or if you peruse my writings over the years in this blog, you know I am not a Torah-thumping fundamentalist. But I do love Torah.
That makes Simhat Torah one of my favorite holidays.
So, why do I love Torah so much?
Here's my big 5 countdown:
5: Genesis/Breishit 9:16-17 -- "And the rainbow will be in the cloud, and I [God] will see it, to remember an eternal covenant between God and every living being of all flesh that is on the earth." And God said to Noah: "This is the sign of the covenant that I've established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth." Torah teaches us that every human being stands before God on equal footing . . . no human soul is holier than any other or is created any differently than any other. All living creatures are treasured as creations of God.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
This week's parashah reviews the animals whose meat is "kosher", that is, "proper" for consumption by those who seek to maintain the brit/covenant with God. It's a list that is familiar to many: mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud (cows, sheep, goats, deer, bison, buffalo . . .); water-bound creatures must have both fins and scales (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, cod, scrod, tilapia, sea bass, trout . . . ); and birds must not be birds of prey (turkey, chicken, geese, ducks . . . ).
Clearly, those who commit to following the guidelines of kosher eating have plenty to eat!
When it comes to mammals and birds, however, meeting the criteria described in our Torah reading this week is not sufficient: in other words, a Big Mac, even without the cheese, is not kosher even though the burger is beef (meaning meat cut from a mammal with a split hoof that chews its cud). There is a further step that is required: kosher slaughter / shechita.
Kosher slaughter is designed to render the animal unconscious before it has time experience pain or panic from an inability to breath. In one forceful, smooth, pass of the knife, the trachea, esophagus, carotid artery, jugular veins and vagus nerve are all severed. In order to be certified as a "shochet", a ritual kosher slaughterer, people go through rigorous training and supervision before they are allowed to work on their own.
As the shochet stands before the animal to be slaughtered, he (usually he) recites the following blessing:
“Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with God's commandments and has commanded us concerning ritual slaughter.”
The elaborate process of producing kosher meat is meant to keep us mindful of the fact that we are taking a life that God created.
This process of producing kosher meat is elaborate, which is one of the reasons why kosher meat is more expensive per pound than meat slaughtered in conventional slaughter houses.
Why, though, does this process have to be so elaborate? Isn't it time to dismiss this whole structure and say that laws of kosher eating are outdated?
Eternal values cannot become outdated. And there are a number of precious eternal values that the system of kosher eating is meant to remind us of every time we open our mouths.
The shochet's blessing, our extra effort to locate and purchase kosher meat, the blessing we recite before we eat that meat ("Baruch atah Adonay, eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehakol nihyeh bidvaro." Blessed are You, Adonay our God, for everything exists by God's word.), are all meant to keep us mindful of the fact that a life God created has been sacrificed for our nourishment and pleasure.
These days, we find our meat packaged in neat little plastic packages: it is so easy to lose the connection between the ground beef in the package and the animal from which it was cut. (Hence, the cuts of beef chart, above.)
These days, we are inundated by packaging, advertising, expert advice of all kinds, all funded by huge food-producing corporations. How easy to fall into the trap of believing that cookies come from Nabisco, chips come from Wise and fish sticks comes from Gorton's . . . . our tradition, our framework of kosher eating keeps fresh in our minds the truth that our nourishment comes from God. Conagra, Kraft, all those huge food-producing corporations would be out of business without the nourishing plants and animals God placed on this earth to sustain us.
So, no, there is nothing anachronistic about the laws and observance of kosher eating . . . I'd say we need them now more than ever!
I just got returned from three weeks in Israel. Israel is where I spend quality time with my kids and their significant others, with friends who have been part of my life since my 20 years living in Israel, and it is where I re-charge my spiritual batteries.
It is often the case that my annual summer visit to Israel coincides with the observance of Tisha b'Av, the fast commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans in turn.
Traditional sources put some of the responsibility for the destruction of the Temple on the shoulders of the Israelites themselves, for our ancestors were guilty of the flawed behavior "sinat hinam" / senseless hatred. It seems that even two thousand years ago, people lashed out and condemned each other in the name of self-righteousness. Jew condemned Jew. Non-Jew condemned Jew. Jew condemned non-Jew. You get the idea...
Actually, it's not hard for you to "get the idea" because these scenarios are so familiar today among the polarized and polarizing religious communities that plague every Abrahamic faith tradition. Jews have religious fanatics. Christians have religious fanatics. Muslims have religious fanatics.
Intolerance in the name of God is such an oxymoron....
It seems that no matter which side of the Atlantic I find myself on, the toxicity of religious self-righteousness is there to be dealt with. I have often commented on the irony that the only country in the world in which a marriage I conduct is not recognized is "my own" country, Israel. Earlier this year, a nine year old girl from a religious family was spat upon my ultra-Orthodox fanatics because she was "dressed immodestly." ....Really?
In Israel I was brought close to tears by the horrific murder of innocent, peace-loving Sikhs in their own house of worship and then came home to learn of the vandalism suffered by our friends in the mosque in North Smithfield.
There are a lot of things of which we have too much in this world, like pettiness and selfishness and self-righteousness, and hunger, and homelessness. And there are a lot of things of which we have too little in this world, like theological humility.
How dare anyone limit the capacity of God to respond to sincere expressions of faith? How dare anyone claim that they know the will of God better than any other human being? Even Moses, the human who was most intimate with God, is described as "anav m'od", as very humble. Indeed, I would posit that the closer one is to God, the further one is along the path of one's spiritual journey, the more humble one would feel . . . for how could we feel anything but humble if we are truly in awe of God?
Our congregation's move to East Greenwich engages us in the life of the greater East Greenwich community more fully than in previous years, when we were still rooted in Cranston. The faith community here in East Greenwich is a mutually respectful and supportive coalition of houses of worship in town. We saw this ourselves when the clergy of several East Greenwich churches wrote letters on our behalf to the East Greenwich Zoning Board and came to testify at a number of Zoning Board meetings as well. My clergy colleagues in these churches have told me that together their congregations sustain and maintain an Interfaith Food Cupboard housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church on Peirce Street. This is a model of community cooperation with which we are familiar through our participation in and support of the Edgewood Food Pantry housed at the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street in Cranston. East Greenwich enjoys a reputation as a beautiful town with affluent residents and a superb public school system. This is a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation. There is another side to East Greenwich from which many of us are sheltered: there are hungry adults and children in town who the professionals call "food insecure." That means they do not always know if there will be a next meal, let alone where it is coming from. Chris and Steve Bartlett, who run the EG Interfaith Food Cupboard at St Luke's have reported that in July alone 256 individuals received food from the Cupboard, and this includes 21 new families who had never turned to the EG facility for this support in the past. This coming Shabbat is referred to in our calendar as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. The consolation is God's response to us on the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD at the hands of the Roman Empire. The loss posed a fundamental theological challenge to Judaism, as it was through the korbanot, the sacrifices at the Temple that Israel drew closer to God and atoned for their transgressions. In an early rabbinic gloss on the Mishnah (Avot d'Rabi Natan 4:5) Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai consoles a colleague who is mourning the loss of the Temple. Rabbi Yohanan says: Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written (Hosea 6:6): "Lovingkindess I desire, not sacrifice."
Our consolation, at this distance of two thousand years, should also be expressed through acts of lovingkindness. I hope you will all take a moment during the summer weeks that remain to drop off non-perishable food at our TY house for all three of our food-support projects: the Edgewood Food Closet, the Chester Kosher Food Pantry, and our East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. You can designate where you want the food to go, or you can leave it to Beverly Goncalves, our Social Action Chair, to divide up the food and pass it on to those who deliver it.Here is some basic information about the EG project:
East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard
The Interfaith Food Cupboard, located in St Luke’s Parish house on Peirce Street, is open from 10:30 AM -12:00 noon
each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The service is available to any East Greenwich resident, member of an East Greenwich congregation, referral from a clergy or someone in need of emergency food.
We are currently asking for donations of the following food products: canned ham, chicken or fish, cereal, oatmeal
, canned fruit, soups, pasta sauce, juice and juice boxes, jam/jelly and crackers.
Other products that we always need include staples like cooking oil, mayonnaise, salad dressing, mustard, sugar, flour, coffee, tea, etc.
If you would like to make a cash donation rather than food, your check can be sent to your clergy or directly to the EGIFC. We have a very dedicated volunteer staff and on their behalf, we thank you for your support of the East Greenwich Interfaith Food Cupboard. Chris and Steve Bartlett
In this week's parashah/Torah Reading, Joseph reveals his identity to his beleaguered brothers and with the Pharaoh's blessing moves his brothers and his father, Jacob, to Egypt. The Torah relates that Jacob’s sons carried their father in the Pharaoh’s wagons and Joseph went to greet his father in Goshen, flinging himself upon his father’s neck to weep. Jacob was 130 years old when he was reunited with his beloved Joseph in Egypt.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "The test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture." (The Insecurity of Freedom)
With ceremony and respect, Jacob was carried to Egypt in the Pharaoh's own wagons. Joseph's brothers are presented to Pharaoh who questions them briefly and assents to their settling in Egypt. Apparently, Jacob, the patriarch of this family, is presented to Pharaoh after his sons are dismissed.
When we read these passages attentively, we see that Jacob is always treated with great respect by his sons . . . all his sons . . . and even by the sovereign of the country in which he seeks a haven.
I wonder if we would pass Rabbi Heschel's test today: would our attitude toward our elders attest to a culture of compassion or of impatience?
Rabbi Ron Isaacs, in his book Kosher Living: It’s More Than Just the Food asks: Is it kosher to visit a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s who doesn’t even know who you are?
Rabbi Isaacs continues: Yes, it certainly is right to take time to visit a person who has Alzheimer’s disease. Though cut off from society, he or she is till a member of society, deserving of care and attention. The Talmud is very explicit in recognizing the dignity of persons with dementia: “Rabbi Joseph learned: This teaches us that both the tablets and the fragments of the tablets were deposited in the ark. Hence, we learn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning through no fault of his own must not be treated with disrespect” (Talmud, Menachot 99a).We who constitute the community of Torat Yisrael need to take an honest look at how we treat our own elderly, incurable and helpless. This past week, I had the sad duty of conducting the funeral of Rosalind Herman. Roz and her husband were among the founders of our congregation. Roz had served as Secretary of our Board for a decade and was President of our Sisterhood for many years as well. We are quickly losing this elder, wise and experienced generation of Torat Yisrael and because those who remain with us are largely homebound or living in a variety of care facilities, they are out of our sight, and therefore, beyond the scope of our vision and awareness.Our Kesher social worker, Andrea Epstein, is a wonderful, caring presence reaching out to many of our housebound, but we should truly not be relying on Andrea to care for and about our elders. They are the elders of our community and without them we lose depth, history and wisdom. I invite you to look for opportunities to embrace our elders and homebound and help organize efforts to weave our elders back into the fabric of our community.
Shabbat Hanukah 5771 Parashat Miketz Torah Reading: Genesis 41:1-44:17
Parashat Miketz is often the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hanukah. In his rich and insightful book, The Everyday Torah, Rabbi Brad Artson characterizes the the themes of the Torah reading and the themes of Hanukah as "Dedication, Transformation, and Cleansing." He writes: "The miracle of the human capacity to refocus, to begin anew, to reconsecrate our deeds to a path of mindful compassion is a cause for wonder and real celebration...."
This week, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Hellenistic Seleucid invading forces in 165 b.c.e. Everything within the precincts of the Temple grounds was cleaned and rededicated to the exclusive service of the God of Israel. Rabbi Artson encourages us to internalize that dynamic of cleansing and transformation so that we may dedicate our resources, our priorities and our actions to mindful compassion.
I am so engaged by Rabbi Artson's phrase, "mindful compassion." Among the meanings and associations that come to my mind is the principle that help is really only help when we understand the needs of the person we are helping. Mindful compassion compels us to enter into the world of the person we are encountering, and to offer them resources that will address their own perceived needs, not the resources that will bring them closer to a goal that we think they should aspire to.
There are also moments when mindful compassion pushes us to forgo intellectual exercises and simply act to relieve acute suffering.
This Hanukah, this season of re-dedication, well over 200 Rhode Islanders are facing the appalling reality of sleeping under bridges. There are enough shelter beds in Rhode Island to provide a warm, clean, dry place to sleep for just about everyone in need, but the state lacks the funds to open, heat and staff those shelters.
For this reason, the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis have come together to organize "A Call for Compassion During Hanukah," our communal response to the crying need in our state.
There is a collection box in the lobby at Torat Yisrael, and there will be one at my Open House this Sunday afternoon, as well as Sunday morning at the Cohen School. You may donate cash or a check to this emergency appeal. Checks can be made out to: Rhode Island Board of Rabbis with "emergency shelter fund" on the notation line.
You can also donate online directly to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless at www.rihomeless.org
Mindful compassion also compels us to use our imaginations to understand the realities of someone else's life. Please be generous.
Parashat Ki Tissa Torah Reading: Exodus 30:11-34:35
Rabbi Erica Seager Asch of the American Jewish World Service writes of this week's Torah Reading:
This week's parashah contains the well known episode of the Golden Calf. Our ancestors eagerly gave their gold for its construction. That gold became an idol and the people made sacrifices before it. Their misuse of the gold was so grave that God sought to destroy the entire nation. Yet a few weeks from now we will read of our ancestors using their gold for good by eagerly offering it to create the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Israelites brought many gifts, including gold, to build a Mishkan. In this instance, the people gave freely of their possessions for a divine purpose.
The gold of the Israelites was used in two very different ways, prompting Rabbi Abba bar Aha to declare: "You can't understand the character of this people! When asked for the [Golden] Calf, they contribute. When asked for the Mishkan, they contribute." The gold was the same--it was what was done with it that gave it the quality of either idolatry or of holiness.
The question of how we use our limited resources is not just a question for ancient Israelites or for modern Jews, it is a question for every human being. How can we be good neighbors? How can we improve our own quality of life as well as the quality of life of those with whom we share this world?
Yesterday, I had the privilege of addressing the Rhode Island House of Representatives Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources. The Committee was accepting testimony on upcoming legislation that is referred to colloquially as "Right to Dry." This legislation, if passed, would protect the rights of Rhode Island residents to hang laundry outside, mount solar panels on their homes or small wind turbines on their property and would render illegal local regulations from prohibiting these actions.
Here is my statement to the Committee:
Mr. Chairman, honored members of the committee,
I am Rabbi Amy Levin. I am the rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in Cranston and also serve as the vice-president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis.
It is an honor to have the opportunity to bring a Jewish sensibility to today's discussion . . . for the legislation you are considering today touches upon two values cherished by Jewish tradition:
The first is "kvod habriyot": respect for every created being.
The second is "tikkun olam": repair of God's created world.
The Jewish ethic of k'vod habriyot, of respect for every created being, compels all those in leadership positions on every level to do our utmost to respect the realities and support the most fundamental aspirations of everyone around us. The legislation before you is a means to just such an end. A family struggling to cover the monthly commitments of utility bills, rent or mortgage and food bills, can find substantive relief in an act as simple as hanging laundry in the sunshine instead of paying for the electricity or gas to run a clothes dryer. In our state, this should be low-hanging fruit. I would hope that legislation from this body protecting everyone's latitude to take such a step would be a self-evident value. It is a step that would be applauded by the constituents of Rhode Island as an act of intelligence, vision and compassion.
The Jewish ethic of "tikkun olam", of repair of God's created world, also informs today's discussion. By acknowledging that we are all in the same boat . . . and that that boat is the natural world . . . we take on a tremendous burden of mutual responsibility. The actions of one have an influence on us all. The unbridled consumption of the natural resources that currently supply the overwhelming percentage of our electricity have implications for those of us alive today, in this place; for generations to come, God-willing, in Rhode Island; and for generations to come all over the world. Passage of this legislation would express to Rhode Islanders and our peers in other states and other countries, that here we take our responsibilities seriously. That here in Rhode Island we understand that making way for individual commitments to sustainable energy through small wind turbines and solar panels is really the least we can do to encourage the sustenance of the natural world God has left in our hands.
If we have people in our state who are willing to pay the premium to generate sustainable energy, we should thank them, we should remove all barriers to their commitment and their vision. You and your colleagues are in the unique position, with this legislation, of bridging the gap between theory and practice, between ethical talk and moral action. I and many others in our state would feel blessed to be led by statesman who embrace the opportunity to nurture the financially vulnerable and to encourage the environmental pioneers of Rhode Island with the passage of this one, sound, simple piece of legislation.
Thank you and God bless you.