At our Torat Yisrael annual congregational meeting last evening, I had the privilege of installing the officers and board members who will lead our congregation through the 2013-14 / 5774 year. This is one of the rabbinic tasks that gives me the greatest pleasure year after year.
Our congregation is led by an extraordinary group of committed lay leaders. I've said this for as long as I've been at Torat Yisrael, but now their accomplishments truly speak for themselves as we held an annual congregational meeting for the first time in our beautiful new synagogue building.
The booklet that is distributed at each year's annual meeting includes a list of the officers and the board members and the terms for which they are nominated to serve. About a third of our board has one year left in their term, another third has two years left, and the newest "class", of course, has three years left in their term. We designate new board members with an asterisk.
As I looked over the new list, I could not help but noticing that almost half of the group of board members who are beginning their three-year term are new to our board. That may not strike many of you as anything more than "expected." For our congregation, this is actually a very significant development. Our board includes many people who have served multiple terms: this creates an experienced leadership who bring a rich collective communal memory to the table as we plan for the future. Now, we are succeeding in reaching out and bringing new leaders to our board table. This will energize our discussion, broaden our horizons and help us develop the strong and experienced leadership that will be key to guiding our congregation in the future.
Happily, this week's Torah reading emphasizes the importance of just this dynamic of growing leadership for the future. Moses, elsewhere described as ענו מאוד [very humble / anav m'od] turns to God with concern for the welfare of the people after Moses himself will no longer lead. Moses says: "Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." (Numbers/Bamidbar 27:15).
Exhibiting perceptive understanding of the vulnerabilities at times of transition of leadership, God not only indicates to Moses that the "heir" who will next lead the people will be Joshua, son of Nun, but further instructs Moses to bring Joshua before the people now, before the crisis in leadership arises, and make it clear to the people that Joshua is both God's and Moses' choice to serve next as leader of the people.
We witness, at the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of the book of Joshua, that this very contentious and irritable people, the Israelites, experience the transition from Moses to Joshua seamlessly. They mourn Moses, of course, but they are supported and led through challenging times by Joshua with complete confidence in the young leader's capabilities. Joshua was designated early on. Joshua was "trained by the best." Joshua was known and respected and had earned their trust before ever he was called upon to lead the people on his own.
Of course, our situation here at Torat Yisrael is not analogous to the transitions in leadership from Moses to Joshua. But as we laud our current leadership and look to the faces of our newest leaders, we can learn much from this week's Torah Reading about leadership development and planning transitions for the future.
Let there be no doubt that the Torah is eternally a relevant and profound guide to the lives we lead today: That we are reading the Torah portion Balak during the week that I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of legislation that will establish a new fund to establish programming to prevent domestic violence in Rhode Island.
What is the connection to the Torah portion? Bilam, the prophet who is retained by the Moabite king Balak to curse Israel, overlooks the Israelite encampment and, as instructed by God, intones: מה טוב אהליך יעקב, משכנתיך ישראל / mah tovu ohalecha yaakov, mishk'notecha yisrael / how good are your tents [people of] Jacob, your dwellings, Israel...
How good are the dwellings of Israel? Domestic violence, which includes physical, emotional and verbal abuse is the hidden shame of the dwellings of Israel . . . in urban and suburban, wealthy and modest Jewish homes, here in Rhode Island, across the United States and the world.
The proposed legislation in support of which I testified reads as follows:
It is enacted by the General Assembly as follows:
SECTION 1. Chapter 15-2 of the General Laws entitled "Marriage Licenses" is hereby
amended by adding thereto the following section:
15-2-9.2. Additional fee for domestic violence prevention. -- For each license the town or city clerk shall charge and receive an additional fee of forty-six dollars ($46.00), of which he or she shall retain two dollars ($2.00) and shall transmit forty-four dollars ($44.00) to the general treasurer to be provided to the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence to fund domestic violence prevention programs.
How good can our dwellings be if spouses and partners are afraid to turn the key and walk into our own homes? Will we be greeted with a hug or hostility? Is a smack across the cheek or a kiss on the cheek waiting for us? Our Jewish tradition establishes "Shalom bayit" / "Peace in the home" as a fundamental building block of the family and the community. We may struggle for shalom bayit, but we may not always be able to attain that domestic tranquility without help, counseling, intervention and, in the most drastic cases where there is no hope of shalom bayit, we need safe shelter.
It may seem ironic that at the most optimistic moment in a couple's journey, as they are applying for a marriage license, that they will be handing over a fee that includes funding for programming designed to prevent domestic violence in our state. I think it's a great cautionary moment. I think it is a very fine thing to point out to loving couples that it is those who are closest to us who can hurt us the most and that if abuse and pain should find its way into your home, you will find help and support nearby.
May the dwelling places of Israel . . . and the dwelling places of Rhode Island . . . be truly good. May every dwelling be a place of "shalom bayit" and let us do all that we can to make this possible.
Please contact your state senator and let her or him know that you want this legislation to pass.
Over twelve years after our American complacency was shattered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we are still finding our way through a forest of security and privacy issues. As we take in the revelations about the Obama administration's collection of data on phone calls made, these issues are raised afresh. President Obama and our national security leadership have denied absolutely that calls were listened to without appropriate judiciary warrants. We are listening, too, and are probably inclined to believe or doubt those denials based on our own political leanings and proclivities . . . for none of us in the general public really have any way of knowing how this data has been processed.
What sort of guidance does Judaism provide in this existential conflict of interest between protecting innocent populations and protecting the privacy and anonymity of citizens of a democracy?
Jonathan Stein, a PhD in Near Eastern Studies, and an attorney, writes in an article on Judaism and Privacy (www.myjewishlearing.com): "However, there is evidence from [classic Jewish] sources that privacy is not in fact a value in and of itself, but an instrument for achieving social harmony and religious welfare. Thus, the general duty of confidentiality gives way when it clashes with issues of communal import. Court witnesses may not claim a confidentiality privilege to avoid testifying. Concerns of justice override any privacy interest. This is in contrast to American law, where doctors, lawyers, ministers, and spouses can often avoid testifying about information they received in confidence."
In the United States, we have become socialized to assume a constitutional "right to privacy" of which we are more protective than a mother bear with her cubs. Whether there actually exists such a constitutional right is a matter of debate, in fact. In Judaism, however, there is no debate. An individual's "personal space" must give way when matters concerning the well-being of innocents in the community are in question.
In an article published in 2002 (Living Words IV: A Spiritual Source Book for an Age of Terror), Alan Dershowitz recounts the changes of heart he underwent after 9/11 regarding the issue of "roving warrants" (which attach to an individual instead of a particular phone or phone number) and national identity cards. He wrote: "Terrorists should never make us give up our liberties or change our values. But experiences of all kinds--whether they are natural disasters or the horrors wrought by criminals--inevitably provoke thoughtful people into rethinking attitudes and values. This process is a healthy one. It is part of what Socrates called "the examined life."
In Israel, the country that is in constant arbitration between protecting the privacy of individuals in a democracy established with protections for free speech and human rights and protecting a population under almost constant threat of military and/or terrorist attack, the public debate sounds similar to ours, but the background premises are rather different. In Israel, it is the most routine of procedures to have one's bag opened and examined, go through metal detectors, etc., when entering a movie theater or a shopping mall or a coffee shop. To object on the grounds of invasion of privacy would be absurd in a setting where such a lapse might provide the opening for a pizza parlor to be blown to bits.
In Israel, we see, on the ground, the principle Dr. Stein described in theory: in Judaism, privacy is not a value in an of itself . . . it is a luxury we enjoy when circumstances permit.
Many of us enjoy many luxuries here in the United States. Whether we must eschew this particular one in order to maintain public safety or not is a matter of public, crucial public, debate. But our tradition encourages us to keep an open mind and look at the issue not only as citizens of a democracy, but as Jews informed by our tradition as well.
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.
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.