Parashat Bamidbar Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
Over the course of time, Memorial Day Weekend has come to signal the beginning of the summer season here in the United States. Rhode Islanders will, no doubt, be heading for the beaches, hitting the sales, breaking out the barbecue grills. It's a weekend many look forward to.
I would like to take a moment, as this weekend begins, to Memorialize. My children, as many of you know, served in the Israel Defence Forces. As a baby boomer growing up in New Jersey, I don't think it ever occurred to me that I would be the mother of soldiers. I became the proud mother of soldiers.
In Israel, Yom HaZikaron / Israel's Memorial Day is a solemn day. The entire country pauses at the sound of a siren in the morning, to remember those who gave their lives to secure the existence and continued security of the State and citizens of Israel.
We here in the United States owe those who fell in the course of duty establishing and defending the security of the United States that same solemnity. Whether we agree with the political decisions that send our troops into harm's way is irrelevant. That they served our country with pride and honor and never came back to enjoy a summer barbecue with their loved ones is very much relevant.
In this spirit, I am proud to share with you a prayer composed by Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, a colleague of mine in the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly:
A PRAYER FOR AMERICA'S MILITARY PERSONNEL
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik The Forest Hills Jewish Center
Ribbono Shel Olam!
Sovereign of the Universe!
We invoke your blessings upon the members of our American military forces, those brave men and women whose courage and commitment to that for which this country stands protects us all.
Whether by air, land or sea, in the mountains of Afghanistan, the cities and deserts of Iraq, or wherever their orders take them, we ask, dear God, that they be protected within your sheltering presence.Shield them from harm and from pain, assuage their loneliness, and sustain their faith in the face of the formidable enemies that they confront on a daily basis.
May all of their efforts be crowned with victory, and the assurance that we who depend on their courage appreciate and understand the great difficulty of their work.
Most of all, we pray what for all soldiers is the ultimate prayer- that they be privileged to return to the loving arms of their families and a grateful country safely, speedily, and in good health.Because of their courage, may we all be privileged to know and savor the blessings of true peace and security.
Parashat B'hukotai Torah Reading: Leviticus 26:3-27:34
This week's parashah/Torah portion is B'hukotai, the last portion in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. It is this final section of Leviticus that we read on Shabbat morning.
Congregations that meet for minchah on Shabbat afternoon also read from the Torah . . . and the Torah reading for Shabbat afternoon is the next portion of Torah, not a repetition of what was read in the morning.
So, on this particular Shabbat we are taking leave of Vayikra/Leviticus and moving forward to Bamidbar/Numbers.
Just as we begin and end chapters and books of Torah, we as individuals and as a community end chapters and books and begin new chapters and books.
No congregation knows that better than ours!
Over the course of the next few days, Torat Yisrael is saying a formal "Thank You" to our Education Director, Ronni Guttin. Ronni has served as our Education Director for a few short years . . . and has taught the children in our congregation for decades. There are many chapters and books to be appreciated recounting all that Ronni has taught our children and our adults; all the warmth and encouragement Ronni has showered on the students in our education programs; all the guidance, wisdom and support Ronni has provided the members of our faculty; all the warmth and sensitivity with which Ronni has supported our school parents. For me, Ronni has been a wise, creative and collaborative professional partner.
If you are not busy with other commitments on Sunday morning, come to our school year closing program for the Lawrence G. and Frederic G. Cohen Religious School at 9 am at our school venue at The Village Lower School (2220 South County Trail, East Greenwich). There you will have the opportunity to express your thanks to Ronni personally and enjoy our students shine at the end of the academic year.
You are also invited to share your favorite Ronni story or express your thanks to Ronni on line on our Torat Yisrael website. Click here to write a few words to or about Ronni!
I don't know about you, but I am always reading at least two books at the same time. It's not a matter of closing one book and opening another, but rather enjoying a few books simultaneously.
That is how we at Torat Yisrael will both watch Ronni move on to greater commitments at Camp JORI and embrace our new Education Director, Donna Tarutz. We will enjoy a bit of overlap in the last chapter of our school's journey with Ronni Guttin and the first chapter of our school's journey with Donna Tarutz. We will begin to write the newest chapters in our Torat Yisrael education programs over the next few months as Ronni Guttin, Donna Tarutz and I plan a smooth and fruitful and invigorating transition in school leadership.
Parashat B'har Torah Reading: Leviticus 25:1-26:2 As we approach the end of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus, we read a thought-provoking verse:
"I am Adonay Your God. It is I who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to give you the Land of Canaan to be your God." (25:38)
We are not often given a glimpse into God's intent. We are invited to ponder the motivation behind God's act of creation in the first place; we can only guess at the reason God reached out to Avram to seal the first covenant/brit; and the questions only multiply as we witness the stories of the Genesis/B'reishit families and ultimately the saga of Israelite slavery in Egypt.
There are other verses that offer similar insights into God's intent. Perhaps the most familiar is the verse we read twice a day in the liturgical unit of biblical excerpts of the Sh'ma and the following paragraphs: "I am Adonay your God. It is I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I am Adonay your God."
But it is in this Leviticus verse that God includes the gift of the Land of Canaan to the Israelites in this statement of motivation. These verses indicate that God redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery in order to "be" the God of the Israelites and their descendents (us!).
What does this mean? For centuries, since God first tapped Avram on the shoulder and instructed him to leave home, God has been "the God of the Israelites.? Right?
Well, yes and no. Avram, who would be transformed into Avraham . . . the father of a multitude . . . would ultimately serve as the patriarch for Jews, Christians and Muslims. So the God to whom Avraham was devoted was the God of several faiths.
During the centuries of Israelite slavery (that is the servitude of the descents of Israel/Jacob) it seems as though God was not "shochein" not dwelling among the people. It is through God's messenger, Moses, that God will, in effect, reintroduce the relationship with the Israelites.
As Israel leaves Egypt they are lead by the God who had seemingly abandoned them for generations, but then crossed all borders and broke all conventions to redeem them from slavery.
And the first major event of their journey back to their geographic home in Canaan is the only collective revelation of the Torah at Sinai. It is there that the unique relationship between God and Israel is forged. It is at Sinai that Adonay becomes the God of Israel irrevocably. "It is I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God."
And in Leviticus, in the verse we read in this week's parashah, we learn that God also wanted to bring together the people of Adonay and the land of Adonay: the land of Israel and the people of Israel. It is with this statement that we learn how central this love triangle of God, people and land is to the core identity of our people.
In the past week, we celebrated Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Israel Independence Day, and we will soon be celebrating Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day (celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem after the 6 Day War). This is a propitious time for each of us to address the issue of Land and People and God for ourselves. Some of us, of course, visit Israel. Some of us make "aliyah" and choose to settle in Israel. Some of us don't feel drawn to make that "pilgrimage" visit. Some of us are knowledgeable about Israel and some of us don't know much more than what we absorb through our usual news sources.
This week's Torah reading challenges us to try to complete the sentence: "As a Jew, Israel means ______________________________ to me."
I'd love to hear what you come up with!
Parashat Emor Torah Reading: Leviticus 21:1-24:23 Friends,
This has been a complicated and dramatic week. Since late Sunday night we have struggled to understand the facts, comprehend the implications, and process an avalanche of emotions, commentaries, judgments and predictions in the aftermath of the elimination of Osama Bin Laden.
In a situation such as this, I believe that our tradition guides us to circumspection and the integrity of embracing conflicting emotions. When Pharaoh's troops were drowned in the sea as they pursued the escaping Israelite slaves, our ancestors turned around, saw that they were safe and burst into a song of praise to God who had redeemed them from Egytian slavery. At the same time, the Midrash teaches us, God would not allow the angels above to sing along with the Israelites . . . because in the drowning of that murderous Egyptian army God's own creatures lost their lives. So let us acknowledge the justice of the taking of the life of Osama Bin Laden. Let us mourn those whose lives he destroyed. And let us accept the sad reality that one of God's creatures used the free will given to him by God to choose a life of evil.
I was deeply moved by an essay written by a colleague of mine. Rabbi Arnie Resnicoff His military career began in the rivers of Vietnam's Mekong Delta, followed by assignments with Naval Intelligence in Europe, before his decision to attend rabbinical school, at the urging of a Protestant Chaplain in Vietnam. Following ordination as a rabbi, he served with the Navy for almost 25 additional years as a U.S. Navy Chaplain. After retiring from the military, his positions included appointments as National Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee and Special Assistant (for Values and Vision) to the Secretary (SECAF) and Chief of Staff (CSAF) of the United States Air Force, serving at the equivalent military rank of Brigadier General.
Rabbi Resnicoff generously granted me permission to share with you a few excerpts from the essay he posted to the closed e-mail list of Conservative/Masorti rabbis:
I would say that looking for one man, hidden by others, who could be anywhere in the world, is not just like looking for a needle in a hay stack, it is looking for a needle in some haystack among many haystacks, with all those haystacks actively taking steps to hide the needle (among other needles) and putting out "needle disinformation" at the same time. President after President used our forces to find this man, and I praise them all for their efforts, and I praise them -- along with President Obama -- for showing that despite those who believe that America will never be there for the long haul, we have the courage, the know-how, and ultimately, the heart, to continue the fight despite the odds -- and ultimately to win. In some ways, finding Bin Laden was more difficult that achieving President Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon. We should not be taken in by TV shows and films that give false images to the contrary, just as we should not be taken in by those TV shows or films that show war as clean or romantic.
I praised the Israelis whose courage and expertise touched our hearts during the Entebbe raid, and I am grateful that our leaders, beginning with President Obama, are praising the Americans in our military -- and in organizations like the CIA, who worked alongside the military -- to make this operation a success. I knew nothing of this operation until the news broke last night, but it is obvious that our leaders, beginning with the President, exercised an almost unbelievable amount of patience, waiting to be sure that the mission would be a success. When the Seals learned that their rescue helicopter had crashed -- and so, if they continued with the mission, they might not have any escape route -- they did not hesitate, and continued to bring Bin Laden down. We will hear further stories of heroism and courage -- physical courage and moral courage -- as the story of this mission is shared. It is a time to be proud of our military today, even as we recognize that it is far from perfect. We can rejoice today, and continue to work on the problems tomorrow.
When I went from Naval Intelligence to JTS, I used to joke that I had traded in my clearance from "top secret" to "top sacred." As a former Intelligence officer, I take special pride in the role of intelligence officers in this success. But as a former chaplain -- and still a rabbi -- I do offer a blessing for what has happened. Perhaps the blessing should be one as simple as the shehekhiyanu, giving thanks that I have lived long enough to see even a portion of justice done when it comes to a monster like Bin Laden, and perhaps -- because I know enough about the military and the intelligence world to understand the difficulties involved -- at least an echo of the Hanukka blessings, where we remember both the miracles of the past, and the miracles we witness today.
Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff
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.