Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Few first days of the month in the Hebrew calendar serve as milestones of significance as does this date. Since the second evening of Passover, over six weeks ago, we have been counting the Omer, marking the beginning of each Hebrew day (in the evening) with a blessing and a ritual counting of the day. Like marking off days on a calendar in anticipation of a great event, counting the Omer is our Jewish anticipation-builder . . . for at the end of the counting we will have arrived at the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot, the festival marking the paradigm-creating revelation of Torah at Sinai. From the moment that our Israelite ancestors looked back at the Sea of Reeds behind them and found their pursuers drowning in the waters that God had held back for them, until approaching the wilderness of Sin (please don't get caught up in the coincidence between the English word "sin" and the Hebrew geographic term, there is really and truly no connection save coincidence) the Israelites had already experienced some elevating and some challenging moments: They had faced the uncertainties of food and water in the wilderness and learned to rely on God to sustain them; they had been introduced to Shabbat as a day of rest for God (who did not produce manna on Shabbat) and for themselves (they did not collect manna on Shabbat); they withstood a fierce attack by Amalek and his troops and were defended by Joshua and the Israelite troops sustained and inspired by God; Moses, advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, established a system of self-governance and dispute resolution . . . all before arriving at Sinai.
Although the walk to Sinai was through uncharted territory, the wandering of our ancestors was not random. The Israelites arrived at the third new moon . . . today's date, the beginning of the month of Sivan . . . guided by God's pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire by night and there they prepared themselves for the most extraordinary event they could not possibly anticipate.
I took a look at the challenges our walk from Passover to this first day of Sivan has involved as we, too, prepare to re-experience the revelation of Torah on Shavuot this coming week. We have mourned the victims of the Holocaust and shuddered when notes bearing Nazi rhetoric were handed to Jews attending Passover services in the Ukraine. We have found compassion and the conviction to speak out on behalf of the abducted schoolgirls of Nigeria, a compelling contemporary parallel to our own slavery story. We have organized to lobby for poverty-alleviating legislation here in Rhode Island. We have mourned both the troops who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the State of Israel and those who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the United States of America in two Memorial Days. Even in these GPS-guided days, our wanderings take us through uncharted territory.
We know that something great is going to happen next week. We have the advantage over our wilderness-walking ancestors in knowing that the revelatory moment awaiting us can bring wisdom and guidance, inspiration and challenge. The Sinai revelation was not a one-time event . . . our tradition teaches us that revelatory moments happen throughout time. When we come together as a community on Shavuot this week, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder ready to accept the renewal of covenant with God which is the glue that binds us together . . . binds us to God and binds us to each other.
Letting the eternal and eternally renewing teachings of Torah into our daily lives will guide our walking and provide us with goals and aspirations and the tools to navigate the complexities we encounter in life.
This past Wednesday our Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island gathered for our 6th Annual "Fighting Poverty With Faith" Conference. A clear consensus among us all, clarified and beautifully expressed by our keynote speaker, Sister Simone Campbell of "Nuns on the Bus", is that wishing, complaining, even sermonizing isn't enough. We must act.
In that spirit, I bring you two resources. The first is an introduction to being a proactive citizen: how to communicate with your elected leaders to tell them what you want them to vote for. The second is a link to the legislative agenda set by the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island. We hope very much that you will use these materials to convey your concern for Rhode Island's most vulnerable residents and encourage our elected officials to fulfill their responsibilities as the elected officials of all Rhode Islanders.
A Beginner’s Guide to Letting Your Legislators Know What You Want Them To Vote For*
"The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. A third (33%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every major region of the world except the Americas. The sharpest increase was in the Middle East and North Africa, which still is feeling the effects of the 2010-11 political uprisings known as the Arab Spring.1 There also was a significant increase in religious hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region, where China edged into the “high” category for the first time." (www.pewresearch.org)
It is inexpressibly tragic that religion is the catalyst for or the target of violence, hostility, hatred. It is a perversion of every true faith to turn the adherents of other faiths into targets of bias and hatred. There are so many factors that go into creating these lethal mixtures of restriction and hostility and faith . . . but they are not theological factors, they are economic and political and ethnic factors. Those who contend that religion divides people, creates barriers between people, take the name of religion in vain . . . and those who use the terminology and institutions of faith to create hatred and bias and violence take the name of religion in vain.
People of faith, people in whom the awe of God instills humility and gratitude and respect for all humanity know better.
I did catch a glimpse of a curious discussion about Jesus during the last few weeks triggered by Megyn Kelly, a news announcer for Fox News, who asserted, on the air, that Jesus was a white man...
Although Jesus was a historical figure, there are no contemporary images of him . . . but my guess is that he looked much like other people populating the Mediterranean Basin a couple of thousand years ago: dark hair and eyes, a rather swarthy complexion . . . .but his appearance is probably the least important characteristic of the man.
I was, admittedly, not the most enthusiastic student of history in college and rabbinical school, but the one course that did engage me was a course on the history of the Land of Israel during the Second Temple . . . part of which includes Jesus' lifetime.
Judea (as the Land of Israel was called at this time) was a fascinating, cosmopolitan region. Judea, with a few good harbors, was an international hotspot where Europe, Asia and Africa all touched. The region had been ruled by an independent Jewish regime, and was then under Syrian, Greek and Roman rule . . . so there was a myriad of cultural influences woven into the intellectual, economic and theological structures of the time.
The region, especially the beautiful northern area of Israel, the Galilee, was peppered with small towns which held weekly or bi-weekly market days so that farmers from surrounding areas could sell their produce and animals. Those market days also became days for the "pirka," the lesson taught by whichever itinerant scholar/rabbi happened to arrive in town on market day when people were gathered in one spot. Some of these rabbis, who travelled and taught throughout the region, were apparently quite charismatic and developed devoted followings. There were some who felt that the Kohanim, the priestly caste who were in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem and all connected with the sacrificial cult, were growing too powerful, too unilateral, too uninvolved in the lives of the people. Some who felt this way, promoted the study of Torah from the grassroots and formed the foundation of the rabbinic Judaism we practice to this day. Others criticized the Temple cult and sought a more spiritual path. Jesus was, apparently, one of these charismatic rabbinic figures.
So, thought a Jewish lens, Jesus was a rabbi, preacher and teacher. Quite human. Quite effective. Not of divine origin (or no more of divine origin than any other human being) and not a savior.
Certainly, this man's legacy has inspired a compelling faith. As a Jew, I admire the best of Christianity . . . which I suspect doesn't have much to do with Santa . . . and remain deeply nourished and inspired by my own tradition, rooted in the Torah, anchored by rabbinic teaching, which directs my attention to God more than any human being.
We are going to witness and relive some of the greatest moments in our history as we read our way, parasha by parasha, portion by portion, through this second book of Torah.
Right at the beginning of the parasha we see the Israelites referred to, for the very first time, as עם "ahm," "nation". This is in contrast to the Israelites at the end of the book of Breishit/Genesis who were an extended family related through Jacob's progeny. Now, in Sh'mot, the Israelites are a confederation of twelve tribes and are considered by their Egyptian neighbors to be a force to be reckoned with.
We will quickly become engaged in the quagmire and heartbreak of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the evolution of Moses from foundling to prince, from prince to refugee, from refugee to shepherd and from shepherd to national leader and God's collaborator. The sea will part. The Torah will be revealed at Sinai. The Golden Calf will emerge and enrage. The Tabernacle/Mishkan will be constructed in the wilderness and preparations will be made for the establishment of the first stage of Israelite religion: the sacrificial cult.
We will emerge at the end of the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, as a people bound to God through the salvation of Israel from Egypt and through the brit, the covenant forged between Israel and God at Sinai. Our lives will be informed by ethical, ritual, spiritual and moral mitzvot/commandments . . . through this second book of Torah we revisit our roots and our core values. By examining our beginnings as a people our appreciation for the wisdom and the richness of our tradition deepens.
Twice a day our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to recite the following verse (part of the compilation from the Psalms we call "ashrei"). As I contemplate the spiritual journey that awaits us in the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, this verse comes to mind:
Ashrei ha'am she'Adonay elohav אשרי העם שה׳ אלהיו
Blessed are the people whose God is Adonay.
With so many founding principles and themes in this Torah reading, we often don't focus on an interesting dynamic of these early Breishit/Genesis chapters: God is changing or determining the names of everybody in the nuclear Avram/Sarai family. Avram becomes Avraham. Sarai, his wife, becomes Sarah. It is God who determines the name of the child Hagar will bear to Avram (Ishmael) and it is God who determines the name of the child Sarah will bear to Avraham (Yitzhak/Isaac).
Anyone who has been blessed with the opportunity to name a child has felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. as well as promise for the future and the potential of this new life. There are so many elements we want to weave into the names we choose for our children: our hopes for their future; qualities we hope will be integrated into their personalities; channeling the memories and the love of relatives who have not lived to see and hold this new child . . . .
There is something endearing about this image of God as the "namer" in this family. Not since the Eden generation, has God claimed the role of "namer." Indeed, God tasks Adam, the human, with the task of naming much of creation. (Breishit 2:19 "And Adonay God fashioned from the ground every animal of the field and every bird of the skies and brought it to the human to see what Adam would call it. And whatever the human would call it, each living being, that would be its name.")
The fact that God has taken back the role of "namer" at this moment signals the uniqueness of the relationship with this family. Even though we first encounter Avram and Sarai with perfectly serviceable names, God wants to mark them with names of God's choosing. There is a sweetness in these acts of naming. We are witnessing God's hopes for each one of these family members, the qualities they will display, their relationships with God and with other humans, are all rolled into these new names: Avram as Avraham will establish many peoples to carry on the tradition of this new relationship with God; Sarai (meaning "princess") becomes Sarah . . . the meaning of her name does not change, but the letter "hei" added to her name is understood to represent the name of God, thus making her a partner in the covenantal enterprise; Hagar's son is blessed with the name Yishma-el, promising that God will hear him throughout his lifetime; Sarah's son is to be called Yitzhak which evokes the joyous (and incredulous) laughter of his parents as they contemplate his birth.
We and our Christian and Muslim friends in the "Abrahamic faiths" are the legacy of these four people, named by God. May we, too, embody those hopes of God to be treasure our common ancestry as the descendants of spiritual royalty, and be blessed with God's listening ear and bring joy to those who love us.
Our joy in the Torah comes from the unique place this text holds in our tradition: it is through the Torah that we find our collective identity as a people; we learn our history, our values, insights into the human character and insights into God. The Torah constantly challenges us with spiritual and behavioral goals which can engage us for a lifetime. The Torah provides us with hope in our future as long as we have a community with which to study and live with and provides comfort to us through the Torah's many assurances of God's love for us and commitment to our covenant, our brit, with God.
One of the Torah's greatest gifts to us is itself: unlike many other ancient faiths, the knowledge of, engagement with our quintessential sacred text was never reserved for an elite few . . . just weeks ago, as we read the book of Deuteronomy at Shabbat services, we were witness to Moshe commanded that the Torah be read aloud as the entire people were gathered together: men, women and all those old enough to understand. Every single Jewish soul has a direct connection to our Source . . . to God and to sacred text God has put into our hands.
This is one of the reasons why Simchat Torah is so powerful: each of us holds a scroll in our arms . . . we dance and sing and rejoice in our identities as Jewish individuals in a thriving Jewish community . . . . and it is the Torah we embrace that makes us possible.
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.
Rabbi Levin lived in Israel for 20 years and was the second woman to be ordained by the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel.
Aaron / Kohanim
At Times Of Tragedy
Bar / Bat Mitzvah
Bring Back Our Boys
Community / Kehillah
Covenant / Brit
Deuteronomy / Dvarim
Exodus / Shmot
Exodus / Shmot
Genesis / Breishit
Halachah / Jewish Law
Holiness / Kedushah
Holocaust / Shoah
Isaiah / Yeshayahu
Israel And Jewish Observance
Jewish Fast Days
Kiddush Hashem / Sanctifying God
Korban / Sacrifice
Leviticus / Vayikra
Masorti: Israeli Conservative Movement
Memorial Day / Yom Hazikaron
Mitzvah / Commandment
Month Of Sivan
Mourning / Aveilut
Numbers / Bamidbar
Passover / Pesach
Pidyon Shevuyim / Redemption Of Captives
Power Of Speech
Privacy And Security
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rabbi Avraham Soltes
Rabbi Brad Artson
Rabbi Laura Geller
Reverend Martin Luther King
Song Of Songs / Shir Hashirim
Tabernacle / Temple
Western Wall / Old City Of Jerusalem