There is a great old joke about a guy who is determined to learn the meaning of life from the greatest spiritual authority in the world. He travels thousands of miles, spends a fortune, interviews spiritual leaders of every conceivable tradition and finds no satisfaction. All along the way, he keeps hearing about this one guru who lives in an inaccessible cave high in the Himalayas who is purported to truly know the meaning of life. Our guy is determined to get there. He travels to the Himalayas. He finds a guide who says he knows upon which mountain the guru resides . . . Three mountain treks later, they finally identify the right mountain. They are pinned down to the side of the mountain for two weeks because of blizzards and then finally, finally reach the mouth of the guru's cave.
Our searcher is informed that the guru only steps out of the cave to encounter spiritual searchers on alternating Thursdays . . . And this Tuesday of the "off" week. Finally the great day has arrived, the attendants announce that the guru is about to emerge from the cave and our spiritual seeker dusts off his clothing, slicks down his hair and prepares to learn the meaning of life. He hears a bit of a shuffling noise and a tiny little bald guy wrapped in saffron colored robes comes blinking out into the sunlight. He contemplates his visitor and asks: "My child, what do you seek?" our friend straightens up and responds: "I've searched the world over, explored every spiritual tradition, I am driven to learn what life is...". The guru sits cross-legged on the ground and goes into a trance. Three hours later he opens his eyes and declares: "Life......life is a fountain."
The spiritual seeker stares aghast at the guru and exclaims: "Life is a fountain??!!!?!!?"
The guru focusses on his visitor and asks: "You mean, it's not??!?!?!"
All of that is to say that I don't believe that life is meant to be a fountain, either. I believe that our tradition teaches us that life is a journey.
Our annual cycle of biblically-ordained festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) steep us in "journey":
This time next week we will be putting the finishing touches on our family sedars, Passover is upon us. This is, of course, the festival during which the journey begins. We begin the journey feeling the bitterness of slavery as we bring tears to our own eyes by eating the maror/bitter herb. We experience the urgency of the rush from Egypt as we eat the dry, unrisen matzah. We wonder at the miracles of the plagues and join in Psalms of praise to God as we contemplate our gift of self-determination as a people and set off for the uncharted journey through the wilderness.
In seven weeks, we will mark the encampment at Sinai and stand together once again to accept The Torah as God's greatest and most loving gift to us.
In the autumn, we will gather within the trembling walls of the sukkah to experience the vulnerability of our ancestors' journey through the wilderness and acknowledge the same vulnerability as we journey through our own lives.
It's all about the journey: from where do we draw our values and inspiration? To whom do we make and keep commitments? How can we find unconditional love and an eternal source of strength? We are meant to grow in soul as well as in cognitive knowledge and maturity as we make our way through life's journey.
May this Pesah to come next week serve as inspiration for us to keep our hearts and souls moving and growing in our life journeys.
This Shabbat is particularly joyful as we are celebrating Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. The beginning of every month on the Jewish calendar is observed as a special day, but this particular month holds special significance for us.
Indeed, the first Shabbat of the month of Nissan (whether it is also Rosh Hodesh or not) is celebrated as a special Shabbat . . . it is called "Shabbat HaHodesh" / The Shabbat of THE Month.
THE Month: the best of months, the paragon of months, our favorite month. What is so "THE" about Nissan?
A hint lies in the name itself: ניסן (Nissan) includes the word נס (neis).
Those of you who are dreidl aficionados, may recognize this powerful little word. Remember the letters on the dreidl?
נ = neis / miracle
ג = gadol / great
ה = hayah / was
ש = sham / there
"A great miracle happened there!"
So נס (neis) means "miracle!" And the word נס (neis) is the basis of the name of this month of Nissan.
There are a lot of miracles associated with Nissan . . . we learn in the Torah that this month is also referred to as חודש האביב / hodesh ha'aviv / the month of Spring.
My dear Rabbi, teacher and friend, Rabbi Neil Gillman, recollects a powerful moment he experienced when still a rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in Manhattan. One spring, student Neil Gillman was walking in Riverside Park with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (one of modern Judaism's greatest theologians). Suddenly, Rabbi Heschel stopped short, pointed to a tree and declared: "There is God in that tree!"
Understandably, Mr. Gillman was a bit disconcerted and confused, until Rabbi Heschel continued: "look at the buds on that tree, there is God, generating new life right in front of us!"
Hodesh Ha'aviv / Nissan, the month of Spring, is full of miracles for us to savor if we just stop to notice them.
Our month of miracles, ניסן / Nissan, also contains Hag Haheirut / the Festival of Freedom. Passover, of course. There are so many miraculous events involved in our people's redemption of Egyptian slavery: Moses' very survival as an infant was miraculous. Our people's survival as a functioning ethnic community in the face of centuries of slavery was miraculous. The intervention of the Israelite God in the natural order of Egyptian life was miraculous. And, of course, the miracle of miracles: the actual Exodus . . . our redemption from slavery and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. A miracle so vivid, so awe-inspiring, so breath-taking we revisit it every single day in our liturgy.
No wonder Nissan is referred to as THE month, a month packed with large and small miracles . . . what other month could possibly compete?!?
Vayak'heil-P'kudei 5772: Sermon Delivered at Congregation Moreshet Israel, Jerusalem, Israel in celebration of womens' leadership in Jewish life
In a progression of verses that is in no way unusual, this week's parasha comes to remind us that at the time of the revelation at Sinai, God, Moshe, and, apparently the people, all assumed that a patriarchal societal structure was the norm: in Sh'mot 32, the people, panicking at Moshe's prolonged absence, crowd Aaron: And the people saw that Moses lagged. The people. In the next verse, Aaron responds: take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters. In other words, "the people" are the men.
Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky, z”l, in the introduction to her book, Reading the Women of the Bible, pointed out that the Torah does not challenge the patriarchy of the society to which it was revealed, just as the Torah does not challenge the institution of slavery. The Torah does not conceptualize such cultural revolutions as an egalitarian society or the eradication of the institution of slavery.
Biblical thinkers, as Frymer-Kensky refers to biblical authorship, were very aware of social problems, trying to emeliorate the suffering of the downtrodden, curtailing abuses, helping runaway slaves stay free, redeeming those sold into slavery, and calling for a limit to capitalist aggrandizement.
Today, we might turn to the Torah, the foundation document of our faith, and feel disappointed or embarrassed by what seems to be the biblical embrace of patriarchal structure, not to mention a sanguine acceptance of slavery.
I think we err in the reading of the Torah if we lapse into embarrassment and disappointment at these junctures. Indeed, I see in the Torah's challenging, incremental, insistent pushing back on societal assumptions the key to the deepest values of our tradition and the key to the eternal vibrancy of Judaism.
It is easy, too easy, to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that women simply do fulfill the same spectrum of roles in Jewish community as do men. It is too easy to sit in this sanctuary today and look with disdain on the poor primitive creatures of the past who didn't "get it" that a mitzvah observed by a gay guy is a mitzvah that has been observed by an obligated Jew.
In a drash on the parashah Mishpatim, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks a perceptive and challenging question:
"...after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?"
The key phrase, in Rabbi Cohler-Esses' question is: "an institution that is simply presumed by the text." In other words, the institution of slavery was a common and integral part of ancient economies and societal structures. As common as salaries and taxes are today.
These passages in Mishpatim make it clear that the slave held by an Israelite master was never to be treated with the harshness and cruelty that the Israelite slaves experienced at the hands of Egypt's taskmasters.
For certain, there are also passages in the Torah about the treatment of slaves that seem brutal to us and repugnant in the document we embrace as revealed sacred text. All this is a reflection of the reality of the time and place in which the Torah was revealed.
I recently saw a TV advertisement in which a person in very authentic-looking medieval dress hands another person a gift: something wrapped in the folds of a cloth. The recipient carefully opens up the folds of the cloth and a very modern-looking television remote control is revealed.. The gift is received with very understandable confusion and incomprehension.
If the Torah reflected our 21st sensibilities towards slavery, toward the basic economics of debt service, toward women and even employer-employee relations, the response at the time and place of revelation would have been even more profound confusion and incomprehension. There would have been no collective of people to accept the Torah and declare "na'aseh v'nishma" / "we will do, we will obey" because there would not have been a human alive at that time capable of understanding and committing to such a covenant.
Even a sacred revelation rooted in the cultural assumptions of the day was ultimately responded to with the golden calf. Can you imagine what the response would have been to a Torah unilaterally and with no warning casting aside patriarchal society, abolishing slavery, prohibiting capital punishment? Crickets. Instead of a heartfelt na’aseh v’nishmah (“we will do, we will obey,” our communal response to the revelation of the Torah) you would have only heard the chirping of crickets...
The power of our tradition, right from the very beginning, has been our commitment to connecting our faith, our religious commitments, our observances to the myriad of times and places in which we have lived. We have demonstrated, time after time after time, that the covenant, laws, mitzvot of our tradition travel with us, reflect and inform the realities of our lives wherever and whenever we live in Jewish community.
This makes looking back confusing at times . . . as if we, in our 21st century culture, mindset and dress were to unwrap a present and find chain mail armor. These anachronistic moments, though, serve to remind us that our faith, our brit/covenant with God, has always been about the lives we are leading right now. Whenever and wherever right now might be.
In this season of “nahafoch hu” (Turn things on their heads / referring to the irreverent spirit of Purim) it behooves us to remember that profound change does not happen . . . or does not happen well . . . when we begin by overturning tables and standing things on their heads.
Indeed, it is our Torah...that sacred document steeped in patriarchal and slaveholding assumptions that models for us the path to the kind of change that made this Shabbat in this place possible. We need to start where people are, not where we expect them to get to. Really, there is little that is more irritating than having someone approach from the heights of enlightenment to say: "you poor misguided thing, follow me and you'll get it right.". How much more effective, as the Torah models, to say: "here's where we are. Look what's ahead. We can figure out together how to get there!"
Profound change comes from modeling, suggesting, teaching, persevering, relying only on the eternal, sacred values that reflect profound truth. Having faith. And a little humility.
We, the Masorti community here in Israel, as well as the American Conservative community, need to do a little remembering.
Here are a few things I remember from the not-distant-enough past:
I remember being all but frog-marched out of the daily minyan at my own (pre-rabbinical school) Masorti kehillah in Jerusalem and being told that I was not welcome in the room if I was going to wear my tallit and Tefillin.
I remember members of the Israel Rabbinical Assembly standing up at meetings
and insisting that Israel was not ready for women in the rabbinate.
I remember a high-ranking member of the Machon Shechter administration informing me that women belonged in the rabbinate as much as an orange belongs on a Seder plate.
I remember: here's a little back story to this memory: when I began my studies in the rabbinical program at Shechter, I was actually registered as a student of JTS while studying in the Israeli program. JTS had been ordaining women since 1983, but then, in 1991, Schechter was not yet accepting women. Therefore, I ... and a few other women ... were in the unique position of studying in a program that did not officially accept us. The other women at that time were studying at Shechter as Masters students. So...back to remembering: I remember a fellow student gave a d'var Torah one day at minyan urging the Schechter faculty and administration to change their policy and to accept women. A high-ranking member of the Schechter administration came up to him immediately and within hearing of several of us said: “atah bogeid,” you are an iconoclast, you are a traitor.
I've had a moment or two like that myself: I had been davenning in minyanim at shul and at school as the only woman in the room wearing Tefillin for close to a year before I finally walked into a minyan where there was another woman wearing Tefillin. I watched her wrap up and I remember saying to myself: Wow! That looks really weird!
All of that is to say that we need to have a little rachmonis (compassion) for those who don't quite get it yet. We need to acknowledge that the kind of change that addresses the way people engage in society and community is complicated and frightening and confusing. Obviously that does not mean we don't proceed with change, it does mean we must manage change with wisdom and compassion and allegiance to sacred values.
For all that the Torah assumes a world that marginalizes women and condones slavery, the most sacred principles which will ultimate overthrow those assumptions are embedded in that same revealed text and have served as the basis for the revolutions which overturn those institutions:
And God created the Adam in His image. He created it in the image of God; He created them male and female. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it . . .”
Adam is male and female, a type of gendered creature, like so many others. Both genders of this Adam are created simultaneously and equally. Both genders of this Adam are blessed equally and charged equally with reproducing and with managing the rest of creation. This first relating of the creation of humanity considers both genders equally blessed, equally in partnership.
How many times have we heard that we are partners with God in completing and perfecting creation? How often are we uplifted by the concept of Tikkun Olam? The idea that God needs our collaboration to bring ultimate completion and peace, to the act of Creation?
The blueprint for our collaboration are the "first principles" of the Torah: Tikkun Olam is the enterprise of integrating these first principles of Torah into the world.
God had the chance to foster a homogeneous, uniform humanity . . . all speaking the same language, all building towards the same goal: the destruction of the Tower of Babel is the signal that God expects diversity, creativity, the exercise of our various intelligences from us. Humanity begins with one language, one set of words, and ends the passage dispersed and speaking many tongues. Yes, perhaps, as is expressed in Genesis 11, humanity would have been more formidable were we to speak one language and see one vision...but if that state of affairs reflected God's aspiration for the Adam we would, today, be speaking but one language and aspiring to one goal.
Hence the blueprint for our collaboration with God must include the embrace of diversity within the Adam / humanity.
It's rather exhausting, isn't it, to contemplate how many millennia it has taken to achieve just a few steps forward in establishing God's first principles. After all, the catalyst for this awe-inspiring Shabbat is the rejection of the equality of genders within the Adam among certain misguided groups within Israel. Really, what on earth could a little orthodox girl be wearing to school that could possibly be deemed inappropriate by anyone save a truly misguided soul?
So let us, today in this sanctuary, respond to Professor Frymer-Kensky's concerns and Rabbi Cohler-Essess' probing question with pride and reassurance: the Torah does not abandon 21st century Jews, the Torah provides us with the wisdom, perspective and inspiration to understand the scope of the challenges and to be compassionate and focussed as we pursue those first principle truths that shine through the cultural anachronisms of the text.
In this season of nahafoch hu, I suggest there are times when up-ending tables is the order of the day: most effectively when grassroots support for change wells up against an authoritarian loathing to abandon long-held assumptions.
In place of disappointment and embarrassment, let us be guided by both patience and determination. The patience to inspire those around us with the challenging and uplifting first principles of the Torah: equality, inclusivity, diversity--and the determination to up-end each table of bigotry, narrow-mindedness and intimidation in their turn.
As we take the Torah scroll from the ark we sing "Ki mitzion teitzei Torah" ... For Torah will emanate from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem." Part of the cache of our Holy Land is the unique relationship between God and this Land. For all that the original revelation of Torah was not in the Land, we Jews have looked to the Land for the wisdom and insight of Torah for millennia.
This makes recent events emanating from Israel all the more disturbing: Ultra-orthodox Jews have intimidated and attacked females from school-age girls to professional women visiting Orthodox neighborhoods on business.
Make no mistake: This is not the Torah of 90% of the Jewish world.
But it's easy to draw attention to negatives. Congregation Moreshet Israel on Agron Street in the center of Jerusalem has decided to walk the talk of another kind of Torah . . . a truer Torah, from Jerusalem. Led by Dr. Naomi Sarig (a member of the congregation), Rene Feinstein (president of the congregation) and Rabbi Adam Frank (spiritual leader of the congregation), Moreshet Israel has decided to celebrate this year's confluence of Purim and International Women's Day with a Shabbat led entirely by women.
I am deeply honored that the congregation is flying me to Jerusalem to serve as "Rabbi in the Congregation" for Shabbat. I will have the pleasure of welcoming a series of formidable, inspiring Jewish women to Moreshet Israel's bimah to teach, to lead prayer, to preach: Professor Alice Shalvi, founder of the Israel Women's Network, Naomi Sarig
Project Coordinator, Jewish Art and Visual Culture Research Project at Tel Aviv University, Rachel Azaria, a member of the Jerusalem City Council, Emily Levy-Shochat, Chair of the Masorti Movement in Israel . . . and me!
When I was a rabbinical student, I was studying in the Israeli rabbinical school at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. But Schechter was not officially accepting women at that time, so I was officially registered as a student of The Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. During the first few years of my rabbinical training, Schechter was undergoing a process of studying and examining and contemplating the ordination of women as rabbis. I was privileged to be a student of Rabbi Zev Falk, z"l ... a brilliant and committed and inspired professor of halacha (Jewish Law). At one of our very intense school-wide discussions of women's ordination at Schechter, Professor Falk got up and said that the Jewish people had been robbed of the teaching and insights of Torah for too long. We have the Talmud of the men, Professor Falk declared, it is time to train women so that we can also embrace the Talmud of the women.
Professor Falk used to be a member of the daily minyan at Moreshet Israel, he would have been so proud of the Shabbat we are about to celebrate there this week: It will be a Shabbat of women's Torah, Talmud, prayer and inspiration.
This week is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat in which the maftir aliyah begins with the word, in the imperative form, "remember!" In the context of the verses from Deuteronomy that comprise this aliyah, we are enjoined to remember . . . in order to never emulate . . . the unethical acts of Amalek perpetrated against the most vulnerable of the wandering Israelites in the wilderness. In this context, it is collective memory that provides a spiritual background and ethical standard for the choices we make as a people.
This past Yom Kippur, I examined the nature of remembering on a personal level. I share with you an excerpt from my sermon on Remembering. You can read the entire sermon by clicking here.
My mother, as some of you know, had a profound cognitive dementia that expressed itself most strikingly in a complete loss of short term memory. As this condition rooted itself in my mother's mind, I began to appreciate what short term memory means to us on a day to day basis:
I moved my parents to the Renaissance Unit of Tamarisk (that’s the Alzheimer’s / Dementia unit) in March of 2005. Tamarisk was a godsend for my parents, and gave my brother, my aunt and uncle and me real peace of mind about the way they were cared for every single day. As I watched my parents try to orient themselves in their new surroundings at Tamarisk, the void left in their personalities by the absence of their short term memories screamed out to me. My mother walked around in a constant state of agitation. She did not know where she was. She did not remember how she got there. She could not recognize any of the people around her unless my brother, my aunt (her sister) or I were visiting. For all my mother knew, she was locked up in a place that had no identifiable location. It must have been like living in a Kafka novel.
Every single time I went to see her, which was pretty much daily in the beginning, my mother would ask "how did you know where to find me?" and "when am I going home?" and "how long are you staying?" (she thought I was visiting from Israel.). Without her short-term memory, my mother was unable to orient herself in the world or come up with a plausible script in her head that would give her peace of mind. My father was becoming increasingly frail and was walking unsteadily. I discussed a certain kind of physical therapy for him called "gait training" that helps the elderly walk more securely. My parents’ geriatric psychiatrist explained why it was no use: "we need our short term memory in order to learn. Your father has no short term memory so there is no way for him to participate in the progressive learning that gait training requires." that insight was like a physical blow. He can't learn anymore... one of the joys of my father’s life had been learning.
My mother's prolonged struggle to orient herself in an incomprehensible world demonstrated to me that remembering is not just an intellectual exercise, it is the only way we can know who we are. The early rabbinic sage Hillel asked in Mishnah Avot: אם אין אני לי מי לי? (Im ein ani li mi li?)
This is most often translated: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?". I would like to posit a different, to my mind, deeper more meaningful translation: "If I am not 'me' to myself, who am I to me?". If I cannot recognize myself, orient myself in the most basic way because my short term memory has abandoned me, than I truly do not know who I am.
Then there is my Aunt Gladys. In life and in death there were never two sisters so profoundly different and so emotionally close to each other than my mother and her sister. They were each others’ best friends.
Advancing age robbed my mother of her memory. Advancing age prompted my aunt to revel in memories. Gladys was the family archivist, social historian and repository of all our best family stories. That she was a bit of a revisionist when it came to her stories bothered no one, for Gladys' version was consistently more entertaining and more reflective of her world view (or her sense of humor) than the actual course of events. She'd pull a comic huff when we'd call her bluff and then laugh her huge, life-embracing laugh. Gladys was very attached to her memories and no one held a grudge better or longer than Gladys if anyone offended or hurt any of her "loved ones."
There was something ritualistic and even liturgical in Gladys' storytelling. She instinctually understood that she was passing down the heritage and founding legends of our family when she would tell us (for the umpteenth time) about how my quiet, modest grandfather closed up his candy store, put on his hat and went to see the neighborhood priest when some local kids called him a Kike. "And believe me," Gladys would conclude, "that priest made sure that never happened again!" Another seminal family story that Gladys loved to relate was how she and her girlfriends would play mah Jong in our apartment when my brother and I were little so my parents could go out, and how they'd wake me up (because I was fun and cute) take me out of my crib and feed me junk food until just before our parents came home...then they'd pop me back in my crib and I'd go off to sleep just like a little angel just in the nick of time.
Though I doubted the historical accuracy of these tales, I never tired of listening to Gladys relate them time and time again. They were a verbal hug, an affirmation of my roots and my identity, and the death of their storyteller has left a huge gap in my life. Hillel went on to ask:
וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? (U'chshe'ani l'atzmi, mah ani?)
And when I am for myself, what am I? The common translation poses a traditional challenge to narcissism. But I can read my aunt's wisdom about memory in this stage of Hillel's question: and when I am only looking at myself alone, what am I? Without the collective memories of my family and my people I cannot know who I am. Looking in the mirror, listening only to the inner voice of my own self-awareness is not enough to comprehend my place in the world.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.