This Shabbat, we embark on our annual reading of the book of Bamidbar, in English, the book of Numbers. The English name for this fourth book of the Torah is taken from the opening verses in which Moses is directed to conduct a census . . . "Add up the heads of all of the congregation of Israel by their families, by their fathers' houses, with the number of names of every male by their heads. From twenty years old and up, everyone going out to the army in Israel: you shall count them by their army units, you and Aaron." (Bamidbar/Numbers 1:2-3)
It is of profound significance to me that the United States Memorial Day and our reading of the opening passages of Numbers / Bamidbar coincide this weekend.
There are so many ways a God-ordained census of the Israelites might have been structured: There could have been a count of each woman and her progeny; there could have been a count of each household within each tribe; there could have been a count of each head of family . . . but this was a count of each male, twenty years old and up, able-bodied and serving in the army. God was instructing Moses to prepare for wandering through a wilderness, an intermittently populated wilderness in which it was going to be necessary to defend the column of trekking Israelites: men, women, children, elderly, ill and well. From a military point of view, it is, of course, important to know how many troops are at your command. From a community's point of view, it is, or should be, crucial to know the name of every single individual placing life on the line for the sake of the safety and integrity of the community.
In my close to 20 years living in Israel, I became part of a population protected by a citizens' army: our sons and daughters were drafted after high school, trained superbly, served honorably and then came home, or didn't. Every single military death in Israel is honored by the entire country: every fallen soldier's name, photograph, rank are shared on the national evening news. The entire country mourns, for every fallen soldier is a child of ours. Israel is a small country, so we feel these losses in a very immediate sense. Every family has someone who has served, is serving or is about to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, so we feel these losses in a very immediate sense. There is meaningful counting, census, acknowledging each individual in Israel, not just on the Shabbat we begin the reading of the book of Numbers.
When I came back to the States, I found the distance between the general population and our military losses to be disturbing, wrong, unhealthy. So it has been my practice to share not the just the numbers, but the names, ranks, ages and home states of those killed serving our country since the previous Memorial Day each year. We should enjoy the weekend's barbecues and family gatherings . . . but let us spend more than a moment acknowledging that we are enjoying this leisure because our children have served honorably and many have lost their lives serving our country.
Yes, we may have differences of opinions about the policies that have brought our troops into the range of fire; but our support and appreciation and mourning for our children who have died in military service is not a political or policy issue, it is a sacrifice we must humbly acknowledge.
Please do not skip over the rest of this blog.
Please read each and every name.
These are the US troops who died serving in Afghanistan since last Memorial Day . . . יהיו זכרם ברוך: May their memories be blessed; may their families be blessed with healing and peace of mind.
Date of death Name Rank Age Service Home State
5-17-2014 Perkins, Adrian M. Specialist 19 U. S. Army California
5-13-2014 Barreras, Martin R Command Sergeant Major 49 U. S. Army Arizona
5-11-2014 Rasmussen, Deric M. Chief Warrant Office 33 U. S. Army California
4-28-2014 Chandler, Christian J. Private 1st Class 20 U. S. Army Texas
4-28-2014 Farrell II, Shawn M. Sergeant 24 U. S. Army New York
4-15-2014 Danyluk, Kerry M. G. Specialist 27 U. S. Army Texas
4-01-2014 Chaffin III, James E. Captain 27 U. S. Army South Carolina
2-28-2014 Poirier, David L Master Sergeant 52 U.S. Air Force Rhode Island
2-28-2014 Erickson, Caleb L. Lance Corporal 20 U.S. Marine Minnesota
2-15-2014 Torian, Aaron C. Master Sergeant 36 U. S. Marine Kentucky
2-12-2014 Pelham, John A. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Oregon
2-12-2014 Skelt, Roberto C. Sergeant 41 U. S. Army Florida
2-10-2014 Landis, Christopher A. Specialist 27 U. S. Army Kentucky
2-10-2014 Gray, Joshua A. Private 1st Class 21 U.S. Army Kentucky
1-20-2014 Balli, Edward Chief Petty Officer 42 U. S. Army California
1-17-2014 Sipple, Andrew H. Specialist 22 U. S. Army North Carolina
1-15-2014 Lee, Daniel Tyler Sergeant 28 U. S. Army Tennessee
1-10-2014 Scobie, Drew M. Sergeant 25 U. S. Army National Guard Hawaii
1-10-2014 McAdams, Andrew L. Chief Warrant Officer 27 National Guard Wyoming
1-04-2014 Lacey, William K. Sergeant 1st Class 38 U. S. Army Florida
1-01-2014 Hess, Jacob M. Sergeant 22 U. S. Marine Washington
12-27-2013 Lyon, David I. Captain 28 U. S. Air Force Idaho
12-23-2013 Vasselian, Daniel M. Sergent 27 U. S. Marine Massachusetts
12-17-2013 Billings, Randy L. Chief Warrant Officer 2 34 U. S. Army Oklahoma
12-17-2013 Silverman, Joshua B. Chief Warrant Officer 2 35 U. S. Army Arizona
12-17-2013 Bohler, Peter C. Sergeant 29 North Carolina
12-17-2013 Forde, Omar W. Sergeant 1st Class 28 U. S. Army Georgia
12-17-2013 Gordon, Terry K. D. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Mississippi
12-17-2013 Williams, Jesse L Staff Sergeant 30 U. S. Army Indiana
12-11-2013 Smith, James L. Petty Officer 1st Class 38 U. S. Navy Texas
12-11-2013 Rodriguez, Matthew R. Lance Corporal 19 U. S. Marine Massachusetts
11-17-2013 Viola, Alex A. Staff Sergeant 29 U.S. Army Texas
11-13-2013 Vazquez, Richard L. Staff Sergeant 28 U. S. Army Texas
11-03-2013 Robertson, Forrest W. Sergeant 1st Class 35 U. S. Army Kansas
10-20-2013 Grant, Christopher O. Lance Corporal 20
10-18-2013 Turnbull, Lyle D. Sergeant 31 U. S. Army Virginia
10-13-2013 Quinn, Patrick H. Sergeant 26 U. S. Army Pennsylvania
10-06-2013 Moreno, Jennifer M. 1st Lieutenant 25 U. S. Army California
10-06-2013 Hawkins, Patrick C. Sergeant 25 U. S. Army Pennsylvania
10-06-2013 Peters, Joseph M. Sergeant 24 U. S. Army Missouri
10-06-2013 Patterson, Cody J. Private 1st Class 24 U. S. Army Oregon
10-05-2013 Lopez, Angel L. Specialist 27 U. S. Army Ohio
10-05-2013 Collins, Jeremiah M. Lance Corporal 19 U.S. Marine Wisconsin
9-26-2013 Baysore, Jr., Thomas A. Staff Sergeant 31 U. S. Army Pennsylvania
9-22-2013 Gibson, Jonathan S. Chief Warrant Officer 32 U.S. Navy Oregon
9-22-2013 Jones, Landon L. Lieutenant Commander 35 U.S. Navy California
9-21-2013 Nevins, Liam J. Staff Sergeant 32 U. S. Army Colorado
9-21-2013 McGill, Timothy R. Staff Sergeant 30 U. S. Army New Jersey
9-21-2013 Strickland, Joshua J. Specialist 23 U. S. Army Georgia
9-20-2013 Wickliffchacin, James T. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Oklahoma
9-19-2013 Brown III, William D. Sergeant 44 U. S. Army North Carolina
9-13-2013 Thomas Jr., Robert E. Staff Sergeant 24 U. S. Army California
9-05-2013 Lobraico Jr., Todd J. Staff Sergeant 22 U. S. Air Force Connecticut
8-31-2013 Bowden, Joshua J. Staff Sergeant 28 U. S. Army Georgia
8-28-2013 Ollis, Michael H. Staff Sergeant 24 U. S. Army New York
8-28-2013 Young, Ricardo D. Sergeant 1st Class 34 U. S. Army Arkansas
8-26-2013 Togi, Jason 1st Lieutenant 24 U. S. Army American Samoa
8-23-2013 Alvarez, Kenneth Clifford Specialist 23 U. S. Army California
8-23-2013 Hostetter, Jonathon Michael Dean Private 20 U. S. Army Missouri
8-20-2013 Banner Jr., George A. Master Sergeant 37 U.S. Army Virginia
8-11-2013 Hicks, Jamar A. Sergent 22 U. S. Army Arkansas
8-11-2013 Grace Jr., Keith E. Specialist 26 U. S. Army Texas
8-11-2013 Herrera, Octavio Staff Sergeant 26 U. S. Army Idaho
8-06-2013 Welch, Nickolas S. Specialist 26 U. S. Army Oregon
7-30-2013 Burley, Nicholas B. Specialist 22 U. S. Army California
7-28-2013 New, Stephen M. Sergeant 29 U. S. Army Tennessee
7-27-2013 Lawson, Eric T. Sergeant 30 U. S. Army Georgia
7-27-2013 Nouv, Caryn E. Specialist 29 U. S. Army Virginia
7-23-2013 Russell, Jonam 1st Lieutenant ?0 U. S. Army Arizona
7-23-2013 Smith, Stefan M. Sergent 24 U. S. Army Georgia
7-23-2013 Nichols, Rob L. Specialist 24 U. S. Army Colorado
7-22-2013 Maddox, Anthony R. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Texas
7-16-2013 Zimmerman, Sonny C. Staff Sergeant 25 U. S. Army Ohio
7-14-2013 Tuttle, Benjamin W. Lance Corporal 19 U. S. Marine Arkansas
7-04-2013 Milliard, Errol D.A. Private 18 U. S. Army Alabama
7-03-2013 Stapley, Tracy L. First Sergeant 44 U. S. Army Utah
7-02-2013 Clayton, Hilda I. Specialist 22 U. S. Army Georgia
6-28-2013 Rogers, Justin R. Sergeant 25 U.S. Army New York
6-23-2013 Garver, Corey E. Sergeant 25
6-23-2013 Sanchez Jr., Javier Specialist 28 U. S. Army California
6-19-2013 Johnson, Justin R. Sergeant 25 U. S. Army Florida
6-19-2013 Alt, Ember M. Specialist 21 U. S. Army South Carolina
6-19-2013 Ellis, Robert W. Specialist 21 U. S. Army Washington
6-19-2013 Moody, William R. Specialist 30 U. S. Army Texas
6-16-2013 Brown, Jared W. Lance Corporal 20 U. S. Marine Florida
6-10-2013 Thomas Jr., Jesse L. Staff Sergeant 31 U. S. Army Florida
6-08-2013 Leonard, Jaimie E. Major 39 U. S. Army New York
6-08-2013 Clark, Todd J. Lieutenant Colonel 40 U. S. Army New York
6-03-2013 Sisson, Justin L. 2nd Lieutenant 23 U.S. Army Arizona
6-03-2013 Pierce, Robert A. Specialist 20 U.S. Army Oklahoma
6-02-2013 Mullen, Sean W. Warrant Officer 39 U.S. Army Delaware
6-01-2013 Stoeckli, Kyle P. Specialist 21 U.S. Army Virginia
6-01-2013 Ramirez, Ray A. Specialist 20 US Army California
6-01-2013 Raymundo, Mariano M. Private 1st Class 21 U.S. Army Texas
5-30-2013 Nunezrodriguez, Joe A. Staff Sergeant 29
Not a week goes by when there is not some news item about Israel or the middle east. This week, as we commemorate Israel's fallen defense forces during Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and transition into the celebrations around Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Independence Day), I think it's worth taking a few moments to reflect on the beginnings of the State of Israel.
Israel is a unique mixture of ancient roots and modern formation: Through much of the book of Breishit/Genesis, we witness God's promise to Abraham and his progeny that their relationship with God's land will be part of an eternal covenant. This element of our brit/covenant with God is so essential to our being, we have turned daily to face that land as we pray no matter where in the world we are: South African Jews face north, the Jews of Scotland turn south, Jews in Tokyo face west and we here in Rhode Island face east during prayer. The element of The Land is so central to our brit/covenant with God, that our rabbinic literature has embroidered and elevated the nature of The Land in order to foster this ongoing love for God's Land: the fruit is sweeter, the animals healthier, milk and honey (actually date syrup!) flows with abundance. These images inspired us during millennia of exile. Jews in Europe would leave a small patch of wall unpainted in the upper corner of a room in their homes to show that life is incomplete as long as we are living anywhere but The Land.
Since 1948, the Land of Israel has transformed into a modern polity, the State of Israel. In 66 short years, a breathtakingly beautiful and raucous and fragile and steadfast and ground-breaking and brilliant and bewildering and inspiring democracy has emerged. For a moment, let us put aside the contentious issues of the day and remember how the State of Israel took shape. What follows is the proclamation issued in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, the 5th of Iyar 5708. So much has happened since that day, and with the support and pride and involvement of Jews all over the world, the State of Israel will continue, with God's blessing, to thrive, grow and contribute as a respected nation.
Provisional Government of Israel
Official Gazette: Number 1; Tel Aviv, 5 Iyar 5708, 14.5.1948 Page 1
The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.
Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, defiant returnees, and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.
In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.
This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people--the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe--was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.
Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.
In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.
On the 29th of November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.
Accordingly we, members of the People's Council, representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.
We declare that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th Iyar, 5708 (15th May, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People's Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People's Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called "Israel." The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
The State of Israel is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.
We appeal to the United Nations to assist the Jewish people in the building-up of its State and to receive the State of Israel into the community of nations.
We appeal--in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months--to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream--the redemption of Israel.
Placing our trust in the Almighty, we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional Council of State, on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel-Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the 5th day of Iyar, 5708 (14th May, 1948).
Daniel Auster Mordekhai Bentov Yitzchak Ben Zvi Eliyahu Berligne Fritz Bernstein Rabbi Wolf Gold Meir Grabovsky Yitzchak Gruenbaum Dr. Abraham Granovsky Eliyahu Dobkin Meir Wilner-Kovner Zerach Wahrhaftig Herzl Vardi Rachel Cohen Rabbi Kalman Kahana Saadia Kobashi Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin Meir David Loewenstein Zvi Luria Golda Myerson Nachum Nir Zvi Segal Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Fishman David Zvi Pinkas Aharon Zisling Moshe Kolodny Eliezer Kaplan Abraham Katznelson Felix Rosenblueth David Remez Berl Repetur Mordekhai Shattner Ben Zion Sternberg Bekhor Shitreet Moshe Shapira Moshe Shertok
This Shabbat, immediately preceding Purim, is Shabbat Zachor / the Shabbat of remembering. The root of this special Shabbat is in the association between the notorious Haman of the Scroll of Esther who aspired to wipe out the Jews of the Persian Empire and the biblical Amalek who attacked the Israelite convoy at its weakest point in an equivalent attempt to destroy our wandering ancestors. Both Amalek and Haman are associated with unbridled, random and terrifying violent aspirations.
In the special additional Torah reading appended to tomorrow's Parashah/Torah portion, we are enjoined:
If you read this passage closely you may very well emerge confused: we are to remember what Amalek did, we are to wipe out all memory of Amalek from under the skies, and we are not to forget.
Amalek is the embodiment of violence and I would suggest that we can read the key phrase from Deuteronomy as a command to wipe out all memory of Amalek's actions. How can this be achieved? By erasing every act of violence that threatens security and safety. Anyone's security and safety. To make violence a distant, barely conjurable memory.
Recently, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined the newly-formed Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. This is not an "anti-gun" coalition, but rather a collaboration of faith leaders from around our state who share a vision of Rhode Island as a "violence-free zone." Violence takes many forms and those who perpetrate violence use many instruments . . . from guns to knives to fists to words. Our premise is not that guns and knives and fists and words must be eradicated from society: for their are legal and legitimate and non-violent uses for guns and knives and yes, even fists, and certainly words. But the force of these instruments must not be directed against any human being. That is our contention.
As a first step toward achieving this vision, our Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island is joining with other non-violence bodies in our state for our rally this coming Tuesday, March 18th at 3:30 pm at the Rhode Island Statehouse. I will be speaking at the rally along with other leaders engaged in bringing the reality of life in Rhode Island closer to the ideal of our vision.
We will then proceed to testify at the General Assembly's House Judiciary Committee to address the pressing need of that body to act and bring to the floor pending legislation that will help create the violence-free Rhode Island we all crave.
The specific bill under discussion is HR7310 determines that a person who has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor will be banned from owning a gun in Rhode Island. In the state of Rhode Island, every child who has been killed in a domestic violence scenario has been killed by a firearm. Although we recognize the general principle that individuals have a right to own guns and keep them in their homes, that right, like many others we enjoy, need to be subject to parameters and guidelines. In the case of domestic violence, there is a sad record of violence perpetrated against family members . . . including family members who are bystanders, like children. When guns are taken out of the equation, the survival of victims and bystanders in cases of domestic violence rises.
Thousands of years after God enjoined us to wipe out violence to such an extent that acts of violence are just a faint memory, we are still struggling to achieve modest steps toward that vision.
I hope you will feel moved to join us at the Statehouse rally this coming Tuesday, and let our elected leaders know that you share our Religious Coalition's vision of a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
I used to be a folksinger . . . through high school and college I played guitar and sang the songs of Tom Paxton and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. I saw all of them perform live and they all moved me and inspired me, but there was something unique and authentic about Pete Seeger.
His death this week brought on a moment of sadness for me, although I hadn't thought about him for quite a long time, his music, his ethos, his example constituted one of the building blocks of who I am today.
Many of us know his songs . . . as sung by him or by other artists: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "This Little Light of Mine," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Rambling Man," "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," "If I Had a Hammer." Those were all in my coffeehouse repertoire back in the day. The values expressed in those songs . . . humility, patience, compassion, hope, and the imperative to speak out against the opposite of those values . . . spoke to me as a teenager in the 60s and a college student in the early 70s (yes, I'm dating myself . . . do the math if you must).
One of Seeger's many gifts to me was his appreciation of all sorts of ethnic folk music. He sang Irish folk melodies, Appalachian songs . . . and even Yiddish and Hebrew folk melodies. His expansive appreciation of music from many cultures and many ethnicities gave me "permission" to delve into the world of Jewish music even as I built up my coffeehouse-protest-song-folk-ballad repertoire.
In a remembrance of Pete Seeger by Arlo Guthrie this week, Guthrie wrote about one of Seeger's most compelling qualities:
Sitting in the audience at a Pete Seeger concert, I felt that charisma . . . we all wanted to sing with him, to express the emotions and values of those songs with him. There was nothing flashy about Pete Seeger on a stage. He spoke quietly. Told gentle jokes and stories. Dressed simply. I actually remember him wearing that sweater you see in the photograph above. All of that added up to an undeniable, compelling presence that brought out the best in us.
Pete Seeger was not a flower child . . . he was a man of simple tastes and deep convictions who showed us that speaking truth to power with humility and perseverance was the dignified way to protest: the environment, the Vietnam War, prejudice were all causes Seeger stood up for.
I have found no evidence that Pete Seeger was familiar with the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Seeger's response to a question about his own belief and faith links these two great sages:
Seeger speaks of awe, I think . . . .
Pete Seeger was an iconic figure for America: he taught us to embrace our culture and our values and he taught us that our voices are essential, raised in song or prose, to the endeavor of living in a value-inspired society.
I'd like to suggest, though, that a more meaningful tribute to the memory and meaning of Nelson Mandela finds expression in the acknowledgement of the fact that the relationship between the Jews, Israel and Nelson Mandela were not always the most amicable.
Indeed, it is no more than historical fact that Israel long supported, and sold arms to, the South African regime that oppressed and imprisoned Mr. Mandela and that Israel was among the last nations of the world to join in isolating South Africa at the end of Apartheid. For many of us in Israel, this policy was disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were publicly staunch supporters of Mr. Mandela and the ANC. The two liberation movements were drawn together by the parallels they perceived in their respective experiences.
Given this background, Mr. Mandela's attitude toward Israel and toward the conflicts in the Middle East are very impressive: rather than being drawn into a partisan relationship with the Palestinian people, Nelson Mandela assessed the parties involved through the lens of his own wisdom and experience. Indeed, according to an article published today in the Times of Israel, Mandela had the clear vision and presence of mind to use the occasion of his own presidential inauguration to bring the warring parties of the Middle East together.
In other contexts, Nelson Mandela publicly expressed his support for a secure and stable Israel, acknowledged personal ties with South African Jews who had stood by his side in his youth, and had even commented, on the eve of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, that Yitzhak Rabin was more deserving of that prize than himself.
In our culture of growing polarization, in politics, in economics, in religion . . . a voice of balance and integrity like Mr. Mandela's should be exalted. And the loss of such a voice should be deeply mourned.
Jewish immigrants in line at Ellis Island.
The opening words of this week's Torah reading are:
"And it shall be, when you'll come to the land that Adonay, your God, is giving you as a legacy..." (D'varim/Deuteronomy 26:1)
What follows are instructions about specific agricultural practices and ethical behaviors that constitute the conditions under which the Israelites will maintain possession of the land.
But this week, as our country's leadership considers pending immigration reform, it is time to consider the implications of those very first words . . . "when you come to the land . . . ."
In fact, the very beginning of the story of God and our people begins with immigration: God turned to Avram, out of the blue (literally!) and said: Lech-l'cha meiartz'cha . . . go, take yourself out of your land . . . and from that moment on we have been involved in immigrating and wandering and journeying: Ur to Sinai to Egypt to Canaan to Egypt to Canaan (no, not a typo) to Babylonia to the Land of Israel to the Mediterranean Basin and on beyond: Europe, America, Asia, Australia . . . . not for nothing the iconic term "wandering Jew."
Closer to home, I would imagine that all of us need only look back one, two, maybe three generations before we find the courageous immigrant matriarch and/or patriarch whose journey rooted our family in the United States. One of the few cliches that conveys a deep true is that the United States is a country of immigrants.
For this reason, today I proudly joined over 1000 rabbinic colleagues around the country in signing the following open letter to Congress:
Dear Members of the 113th Congress,
We write during this High Holy Day season as Jewish clergy of all streams to add our voices to the call for the swift passage of comprehensive immigration reform. From Abraham’s journey to Canaan, to our Exodus from Egypt, to today, we are a people that has over millennia continuously been expelled, been rejected, been freed, and been welcomed. This history of migration, coupled with the most-often repeated Biblical commandment to love the stranger inspires our advocacy for immigration reform that is common-sense, compassionate and reflective of America’s history as a nation of immigrants.
Today, over 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the shadows of our communities. Families face up to decades long backlogs in acquiring visas, workers are left without protections, and children are left behind as parents are deported. Our domestic security is undermined when people live in fear of cooperating with law enforcement, and our economy suffers when we do not safely and legally acknowledge and employ millions of our country’s workers. We can, and we must, do better.
In particular, we support:
• Above all, bringing undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows” with opportunities to regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue citizenship;
• Family reunification policies that significantly reduce waiting times for separated families;
• Border protection policies that are consistent with American humanitarian values and effective against illegal migration;
• Legal avenues for both high- and low-skilled professionals and their families to enter the U.S. and work in a way that protects their safety while meeting employers’ needs; and
• Creating safe, welcoming, and humane avenues for refugees and asylum seekers who have fled persecution in their homelands to find safety and freedom in the United States.
During this Jewish High Holy Day period, we assess individually and as a community our strengths and shortcomings and commit ourselves to doing better in the future. It is in this spirit that we write urging Congress to address the shortcomings of the past and strive to do better in swiftly passing comprehensive immigration reform in the next few months.
I am proud to have submitted the following Op-Ed piece to the Providence Journal with Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, President of the Governing Board of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
Op-Ed: Keeping the Experiment Lively: The Case of Marriage Equality in Rhode Island
Rabbi Amy Levin, Temple Torat Yisrael, East Greenwich.
President, The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, West Warwick
President of the Governing Board, Rhode Island State Council of Churches
“That it is much on their hearts … to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained … with a full liberty in religious concernments….”
- The Rhode Island Charter, Granted by King Charles II, July 8, 1663
As a state, we should feel significant pride in our recently-passed Marriage Equality legislation which came into law this week. Years of respectful public debate, with passionate advocacy on both sides of the issue, have led to the fact that here in Rhode Island there is now officially recognized civil marriage between people of the same gender. We are thoroughly engaged in the "lively experiment" to maintain the "flourishing civil state" mandated 350 years ago in the charter granted by King Charles II.
As a state, we should feel significant pride in the explicit provision of the legislation that protects the theological discretion of every faith community in Rhode Island to create and perform religious marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples--or not. In so doing, Rhode Island's marriage equality legislation embodies the "full liberty in religious concernments" that is equally at the heart of the charter that created Rhode Island.
The commitment to experimentation in order to foster thriving civil society along with fidelity to the principle of religious liberty makes Rhode Island a stimulating and inspiring place to live.
How extraordinary that the ethos of experimentation is a foundation stone of our state. By virtue of our lively experiment, Rhode Island’s civil culture is, and has always been, diverse, inclusive, pluralistic and aspirational. Our continuing lively experiment requires openness and a sense of responsibility and imagination and a streak of practicality. That these qualities continue to shape the civil life of our state should most certainly be a source of pride.
The spiritual leaders, the clergy, of an impressively broad spectrum of faith communities in Rhode Island share in our own engaging, mutually respectful and lively community. We who serve people of Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Unitarian and Buddhist and Hindu and Bahai and Quaker faiths enjoy relationships of mutual trust and respect that are strong enough to weather the times we find ourselves on opposite sides of an intense issue like civil marriage for same-gender couples. "Some of our best friends" are clergy whose religious commitments obviate religious marriage for same-gender couples. "Some of our best friends" are clergy whose religious commitments require religious marriage for same-gender couples.
No matter where we stand on the comprehensive theological map of Rhode Island, we are all committed to sensing and cherishing the spark of the sacred in each other and in every human being.
Mazal tov, congratulations to those of us who live in this state which recognizes civil marriage for same-gender couples. May our civil experiments remain lively and our religious liberties flourish!
4th of July Parade, Bristol RI
Through a sauna-like haze, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahai, Quakers, Secular Humanists . . . everyone of every stripe celebrated American Independence yesterday. Our own Steve Shapiro marched in yesterday's historic Bristol July 4th parade representing the Jewish War Veterans.
There are many things we celebrate when we come together on the 4th: beyond the burgers and the fireworks, we are celebrating American democracy . . . a fractious, deeply-rooted, clunky, impressively reliable system that has protected the free speech, free electoral system, free economy, free practice of faith and free public debate which enriches our lives and supports the aspirations of so many of our citizens and new immigrants.
Demonstrators fill the streets in Egypt, July 4, 2013
How different was the mood in the streets of Egypt this same week: just as hot (but much less humid), wall-to-wall demonstrators and flags pushing back as the hopes of the Arab spring have deeply disappointed, and deeply divided, the citizens of Egypt.
It is early days to predict whether Egypt is ever going to enjoy a system of democracy as extraordinary as our own . . . personally, I wish for them the level of frustration we experience here from time to time from our political system. We have learned to trust the system; we have learned that as much as we may be "underwhelmed" by the views, methods, commitments of any given elected official our system of checks and balances will prevent the most egregious government steps. We've learned that we'll have a chance to vote again before too long and express our opinions in the most effective ways possible.
We've learned that democracy is not perfect. Indeed, 237 years after winning our independence, we are still tweaking the system, instituting course corrections, applying new knowledge and values to make sure that the foundational principles of democracy remain viable as our culture, technology and economy continue to evolve.
I hope you all enjoyed a steamy, but joyous, 4th of July . . . and I hope that next year, as we celebrate our 238th year of independence, we'll witness the people of Egypt celebrating becoming a step closer to a real democracy for themselves.
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.