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.
This week I'm writing about what the weekly parashah/Torah reading is not about! This final passage in the book of Sh'mot / Exodus describes the finishing touches to the priestly vestments. Moses checks that everything has been prepared according to God's instructions and God's presence fills the Tabernacle for the first time. All is ready for the establishment of the sacrificial cult, kohein/priest-driven, which will serve as the focal point of Israelite worship until the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.
If ever there was Jewish clergy, in the sense of an intercessor between God and the people, who facilitated atonement, who held exclusive authority to perform rites and wear specific vestments it was the kohanim, the priests, the male descendents of Aaron. If all of Israelite experience, up until the destruction of the Second Temple, had centered around the sacrificial cult, there would be no Judaism, which is rabbinic Judaism, today. The Temple would have been destroyed and without the focal point of that sacrificial system, the Israelites would easily have been dispersed and absorbed into the surrounding cultures of the Roman Empire around them.
So what saved us? What was the safety net that caught us when the Temple fell?
The saving grace of our people was a populist movement that had begun to develop almost two centuries before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem: the rabbinic movement had begun. The existence of scholars who were not kohanim/priests is extraordinary in a general culture in which the leaders of pagan cultic worship held the esoteric texts and practices of their faiths in closely guarded, limited circles. The general population had no access to the most sacred texts and instructions.
But in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses decrees that everyone, men, women, children, will all have direct access to the Torah, the Instruction of God:
Everyone needs to learn, everyone needs direct access to the Torah. Extraordinary.
Those who came together to study and discuss Torah, while the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, were a populist movement. The Torah describes these men: wealthy and poor, landowners and shoemakers, with one thing in common: a commitment to exploring the depths of the Torah and making sure that the precepts of the Torah were being faithfully followed in a location and culture and economy significantly different from the place and language and culture and economy of the nomadic wandering generations who were present at Sinai. These scholars asked each other questions: What does this word mean now? How do we fulfill this mitzvah in this time and place? How do we integrate this piece of new realia into the framework of the Torah?
It is a conversation that continues until this very day on many levels . . . including, and most important, among "the men and the women and the infants", not just the scholars, not just the rabbis, but everyone who is part of the community.
There are lots of Jewish "things to do" . . . pray, give tzedakah/charity, support the institutions of the Jewish community, support one another through illness and bereavement, chose to keep the dietary laws of kashrut . . . but the Mishnah (the earliest layer of rabbinic text redacted in the 2nd century CE) declares that תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם / Talmud Torah kneged kulam / the study of Torah stands equally with all the other Jewish practices and observes combined. It's a bold statement. The traditional understanding has been that it is through the study of Torah that we will learn how and why and be inspired to pray, give tzedakah, support the community, take part in the community and deepen our individual Jewish identities.
The world of Jewish learning covers as wide a spectrum as the human experience itself . . . jewish learning leads to Jewish living. And Jewish living also covers a wide spectrum of identity and lifestyle and commitment.
It is for these reasons that the members of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island is offering our first public event: an evening of eclectic Jewish learning. Drash and Dessert. "Drash" is the Hebrew term for the exploration and interpretation of Torah. "Dessert", well that's self-explanatory: Jews come together and there has to be food, yes?
We are proud and inspired by the wide variety of topics on offer at our Drash and Dessert event tomorrow evening after Shabbat. Whether you have sent in an rsvp or not, we hope you will join us. Click here to see the full program including time table and descriptions of our 14 different study sessions involving 16 members of our Board of Rabbis!
After the austerity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah provide color and noise and joy . . . and, as the name implies, there is no greater joy (simchah) than our joy in having the Torah.
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.
Here we are on the eve of Shabbat, the eve of the Days of Awe, and the eve of Labor Day. Calendar coincidences like this give us the opportunity to contemplate familiar subjects from new vantage points.
The opening verses of this Shabbat's double parashah establishes the eternity of the connection between our people and the covenant forged at Sinai and reaffirmed at Moav:
"You are standing before God in order to enter into the Covenant of God and take the oath that God makes with you, so that God may fulfill God's promise to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is not with you alone, but with those who are here and those who are not here that God makes this Covenant and oath."
No matter where we Jews have lived, no matter when, we have with determination and commitment and creativity kept this Covenant with our God.
On the eve of this weekend, which is meant to honor laborers who built and continue to build this country, who have maintained and continue to maintain our infrastructure and homes and workplaces . . . indeed honoring all those who have and do work and seek work . . . and in this season of reflection and this Sabbath that affirms our connection to our covenant and our history as slave laborers, the findings of the Tannenbaum Institute's survey of the American workplace is most relevant: "What American Workers Really Think About Religion: Tanenbaum's 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion."
In the introduction to the survey, the Tanenbaum staff writes:
If there is one conclusion to take away from Tanenbaum’s 2013 Survey of American Workers and Religion, it is that religion is relevant in the workplace. Not only is it a problem when a person feels unfairly treated on the basis of his or her beliefs – whether religious or non-religious – but tensions around religion are occurring, and are increasingly likely to occur, in our ever more diverse global workplaces. That said, it is important to recognize that the issues raised in this survey are complex and nuanced.
One-third of respondents have seen incidents of religious bias in their workplaces or have personally experienced them.
More than one-third (36%) of workers say they have personally experienced or witnessed some form of religious non-accommodation4 in their workplace.
It is sad and frustrating to see that religious affiliation (or the lack thereof) divides and marginalizes people at the place where we spend most of our time aside from home with our families . . . or perhaps even more than the time we spend home with our families! Perhaps the time will come when the Tanenbaum survey will reflect a small single digit percentage (I vote for 0%!) of workers experiencing or witnessing religious discrimination or "non-accommodaton" in the workplace. Until that time comes, it is our task to speak out, to ask for help and to try to find a way to bring this kind of redemption to the world ourselves.
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.
This was an exhilarating week at Torat Yisrael: we held four Open House events this week and welcomed a steady stream of prospective members interested in touring our new synagogue building, meeting our members, learning about our school, our services, our adult education and social service programs.
This is an excellent week to contemplate the significance of synagogue: why do hundreds of us so willingly and loving contribute our precious resources of money and time and good will and expertise to sustaining our congregation?
I found a thought-piece published in the Huffington Post this week rather inspiring. It was written by Tara Woodard-Lehman, Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton University. Her piece begins:
Not long ago I was having a conversation with a college student. Like many young adults, this guy was a religious "none." He wasn't some sort of jaded post-religious person, but he also wasn't actively trying to find a religious home.
Despite his state of self-described religious none-ness, this student pursued conversations about spiritual things. And, as expressed by many students I talk with, he found my commitment to "traditional religion" quite curious.
He asked, "I mean, I get why you're into 'being spiritual' and 'helping people' and everything, but why bother with Church? I just don't get that part. Do you really think you need it?"
He went on to describe how irrelevant the Church was. In his view, all the Church once provided can be found elsewhere in civic life. From community service projects to book clubs; from outreach to the poor to potlucks; from meditation groups to support groups, he described the many other places that provide much of what the Church used to (and occasionally still does) provide.
I did my best to listen.
And you know what I concluded? He was, at least in part, right. If the Church is only what he described (a sort of glorified community center or service provider), it is a wonder anyone shows up.
I thought: If the synagogue is only a sort of glorified community center or service provider, it is a wonder that anyone shows up, too!
Reverend Woodard-Lehman, of course, provides her answer to why she needs church:
After giving it much consideration, I've decided that there is at least one very good reason why I need Church: I have a really bad memory.
It's true. I have a terrible memory. Especially when it comes to remembering who I am as a child of God. . . .
I forget who I am. I forget who God is. I forget God's Epic Story of Redemption and Liberation and Renewal and Beauty and Hope.
I forget. A lot.
On top of that, there are a gazillion other demands and voices that are vying for my attention all the freaking time.
So I admit it. I get tired. And I get distracted. And more often than not, I forget.
I need Church, because Church reminds me of everything that's important.
Yes! So does shul! We come together in our Jewish community, certainly to enjoy our Sisterhood Book Club and our end of summer barbecue (August 25th, don't forget to sign up!) and our support of the Edgewood Food Closet and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry (bring non-perishables to the barbecue, please!) and sharing wine and munchies at Shalom to Shabbat . . . but there are non-Jewish, secular versions of all these activities.
We need "shul" to remind us of what's important . . . and to come together with others who also want to be reminded of what's important.
In the context of the secular world outside our congregation we're "on our own." There is no way to be reminded that God is an ever-present, consistent source of strength and inspiration accessible to us any time, any where. But we walk into our synagogue and our Torah study and our liturgy and our discussions around all kinds of tables recharge or spiritual batteries, so we can take that assurance out into the world.
In the context of the secular world outside our congregation, there is no humility. Where, at the public library or the shopping mall or the gym are we going to be reminded that life itself is a gift from God? But in our synagogue, through our Torah study and our liturgy and our discussions around all kinds of tables, we come together from all sorts of backgrounds and motivations and learn to appreciate the Godly in each of us and we are given the opportunity to savor just being one sacred part of God's creation instead of moving through the world assuming we are each the center of the universe.
At Torat Yisrael, our congregation is the place where we can grow into these truths: that God never leaves us along, that we are part of something greater. At Torat Yisrael, these truths are sources of joy: we sing, we laugh, we build and grow as Jews because our tradition gives us so much to celebrate.
That's why we need shul!
Ask yourself: What are the observances and practices that most say "Judaism" to us? I'd imagine that somewhere at or near the top of your list would be: Shabbat.
Celebrating Shabbat in Jewish community has been a core experience for millennia. Indeed, one of the most profound statements about Shabbat was penned by a an early 20th century Jewish essayist who wrote: "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."
One of the striking things about this statement is that it was written by Ahad Ha'am (the pen name for Asher Ginsburg [1856-1927]) who was a secular Zionist thinker! Shabbat reigns in the imagination even of the non-observant Jew.
The roots of Shabbat are found in the creation story of Genesis. After a day-by-day account of what God created each day, Breishit/Genesis relates: "God had finished, on the seventh day, the work God had made, and then ceased, on the seventh day, from all work of creating. God gave the seventh day a blessing and hallowed it, for on it God ceased from all work, that by creating, God had made." (2:2-3)
The initial model of this seventh day is that of a day of rest. This was a groundbreaking concept in the ancient world, in which no concept of a weekly day of rest existed.
Since that first concept of a day of rest, our Jewish people have embroidered on, deepened, enriched the concept of our day of rest. Our great theologians have waxed poetic about our Shabbat:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (The Sabbath):
"Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else."
Shabbat, teaches Rabbi Heschel, is the opportunity to step back, slow down, appreciate the mystery and the holiness that surrounds us. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to savor our own holiness, by virtue of the soul implanted within us by God.
Almost two thousand years ago, a midrash (homiletic text) related:
"Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed One: 'Master of the world, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?' God said to them, 'The world-to-come.' They said: 'Show us its likeness.' God showed them the Sabbath." (Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva).
The world to come: In Judaism, this is a time that will be free of strife, free of struggle. We will no longer be plagued by disease or fear or insecurity. Shabbat is meant to give us a glimpse of just such a time.
Jews who savor this imagery will save their best clothes and best food for Shabbat. Friends will gather around each others dining room tables, enjoy generous meals, sing, talk about Torah and life, laughter and indescribable warmth.
As we cross the threshold into the sacred time of Shabbat this evening, we at Torat Yisrael will gather together for social community (at Shalom to Shabbat this evening before services), for a unique prayer experience (with our unique Friday evening service designed for the month of Elul preceding the High Holidays) and for multigenerational, interactive study (at tomorrow morning's Torah at the Table). These are the ways we here create for ourselves a glimpse of the world to come.
Olim celebrate new Israel ID cards.
Israel is an exciting place: Just as I arrived about ten days ago, a plane load of new immigrants (olim) from the United States landed at Ben Gurion airport. Over half of those on board were children. All kinds of people were on board: Orthodox families, secular singles, retirees and students.
Watching the news that day brought me back to my own arrival in Israel as a new immigrant: I stepped off the plane with my husband and my 16 month-old daughter. I knew some rudimentary Hebrew and had visited Israel a number of times over the last few years. My husband's parents and grandparents and sisters had moved to Israel, so we had the benefit of immediate family, as well as extended family all over the country. With all that, I still had a tremendous amount to learn, and a tremendous amount to assimilate.
The magic and the privilege of living in Jerusalem never really wore off. But every day sights that would stop me in my tracks ... like a glimpse of the Old City Walls while standing at a city bus stop ... became part of the unnoticed everyday landscape. Getting on that bus and hearing Hebrew and Spanish and French and Russian and English and Amharic and Hebrew used to elevate the ride, bringing home to me the face that Israel is home to Jews from all over the world. Then, I stopped seeing my fellow bus passengers so much, engrossed in figuring out how to get my errands before and still be on time to pick up my kids from pre-school.
Watching the news of this plane load of new olim brought it all back to me. I was happy for them, thinking of all that awaits them: the magic of those glimpses of the old and the new, of breathing in the air of the one place on earth that is our place. I was even happy for them for all the challenges that await: learning the Israeli children's stories and songs, figuring out how to navigate through the Israeli bureaucracy of Ministry of the Interior and the municipal tax office.
This week's Torah portion, Eikev, includes Moses' exhortations to our wilderness-wandering ancestors on the eve of their entrance into the land of our matriarchs and patriarchs: remember God's gifts of Torah and manna; keep true to the commitments and inspirations of Torah no matter what distractions and temptations your neighbors may offer you; don't forget to stop and enjoy the beauties and blessings of our land; be prepared for lots of difference of opinions and public debate ... just don't lose sight of the essentials.
If you've never been to Israel, perhaps it's time to plan a visit to experience this for yourself. If you have been to Israel, then think about coming back to recharge your spiritual batteries. It will work during the week we read Parashat Eikev, or any other time!
There is a length of retaining wall supporting the western side of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that is probably the most iconic piece of real estate in the Jewish world: The Wall / The Wailing Wall / The Western Wall / The Kotel . . . there is not a bus tour of Israel that does not include a stop at this place. Every Jew around the world engaged in prayer faces north, south, east or west in order to face this spot.
Instead of serving as the focal point of tranquility and spirituality and mutual respect throughout the Jewish world, we have witnessed repeated clashes between the ultra-orthodox and almost every other segment of our people acted out on this spot. Almost twenty years ago, involved in leading the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) Movment's Tisha B'av service (commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples . . . according to one tradition because of senseless hatred among Jews) I was removed from the Kotel plaza by Israeli police. Over the last several months, news reports have documented Israeli police alternately (depending on the month and the latest court ruling) either removing women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh (the new month) or restraining angry ultra-Orthodox protestors who were outraged by the women praying at the wall for Rosh Hodesh. The Israeli paratroopers--iconic in themselves within Israeli society--used to be inducted into their units at the kotel . . . until the ultra-orthodox succeeded in prohibiting the ceremony because female Israeli soldiers sang at the ceremony.
This seems to be one place where we do not seem able to separate religion from politics.
But I was present at one unique moment of blessing standing before the Kotel. I stood with Imam Farid Ansari, Reverend Donald Anderson, and representatives of the Hindu and Confucian faiths. Ringed by quiet but curious ultra-orthodox youth, we each prayed in our own way as part of the First International Jerusalem Symposium on Green and Accessible Pilgrimage. These few moments changed forever my associations with the Kotel and set me to dreaming once again about a spiritual center of tranquility and inclusivity and universal blessing:
The site of Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in June 2012
This week, we read a double parashah, two Torah portions are linked together: Behar and Behukotai. These two readings are comprised of the final chapters of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. Vayikra has been a bit of a hiatus from the Sh'mot/Exodus narrative flowing from leaving Egypt, the revelation at Sinai and the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle . . . and leading to the book of Bamidar/Numbers in which we will journey along with the wilderness generations of our ancestors to the end of the Torah itself.
The final verse of the first of this week's parshiot/portions reads thus:
"You shall keep my Sabbaths and honor in awe My sanctuary, I am Adonay."
Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary in May 2013 on the eve of our first Shabbat service.
This coming Shabbat, our Torat Yisrael family will gather in our new sanctuary for the first time. We will carry our Torah scrolls from our interim space in the accommodating TY Middle Road house (we've been a "close-knit" community this year, for sure!) with song and praise and will deposit our scrolls in the temporary ark lovingly constructed for us by instructor Bill Scott and the Amos House Carpentry Class.
This is most certainly a week to contemplate how to honor God's sanctuary in awe.
Through all the many meetings and conversations and consultations and impossible-to-count volunteer hours that have been devoted to the goal of bringing our Torat Yisrael congregation to this moment, we have always kept in mind the purpose of this building. For the purpose of our beautiful new synagogue building is not just to exist for its own sake, but to provide foster the Jewish learning, worship, celebration and community growth of the members and friends of Temple Torat Yisrael.
The contemporary Jewish scholar and theological, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: "What does it mean to identify oneself as a Jew? The most obvious first answer is that a person is a Jew by religion. In fact, that is a hard argument to make, as odd as that may seem. There is no basic set of meaningful principles on which all Jews would agree. And there are huge variations in both practice and belief.
Are Jews members of a race? This is clearly not the case. Jews come in every color and exhibit every combination of ethnic features.
Do Jews belong to a nation? Following the involuntary exile inflicted on us many centuries ago, the notion of Jews as a people living in one place, speaking one language, or even sharing one culture does not fit.
Even linguistically, we are splintered. Hebrew is our official language, the language of the land of Israel and of our sacred texts, but many Jews have no knowledge of it at all.
What we are is a family. We are the biological or, in the case of converts, the spiritual children of the House of Israel.
We are connected to one another, whether or not we agree with one another, whether or not we even like one another.
We are not a perfect family, but we are a real family." (Pebbles of Wisdom)
I find Rabbi Steinsaltz's image of the Jewish people as a family very compelling . . . . As an international family or a nuclear family or a communal family, like Torat Yisrael, we will always have differences of opinion, shared aspirations, a variety of talents to contribute and the desire to turn to family at times of challenge, grief and joy.
When we walked out of our 60 year old Torat Yisrael home on Park Avenue thirteen months ago, I spoke about how wrenching it is to leave the "family home" in which so many of us had celebrated, found spiritual inspiration, shared and forged close friendships, learned and grown as Jews.
Now the doors are opening to our new spiritual home and beginning this Shabbat we will again have a home in which to embed new "family" memories.
How do we honor God's sanctuary in awe? By filling this space with our presence, by coming to learn and play and pray, by coming to thank God and support our friends and "kvell" over our growing children. As much as the wilderness Tabernacle was treasured by our ancestors because God's presence among the people was so deeply a source of honor and promise, I'd suggest that our presence in Torat Yisrael's new sanctuary is our most effective means of honoring God in awe. Our family's journey to East Greenwich is complete. . . . and that, to me, is a source of awe and pride and gratitude.
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.