There is so very much to be said about the religious significance of Passover: indeed, the event we mark during the festival, יציאת מצרים / y'tziyat mitzrayim / leaving Egypt, is such a core concept that we recall this moment of redemption at services every single day.
We pray that God will reach out and replicate that ultimate moment of redemption which saved us from Egyptian slavery and made possible the moment at Sinai during which we entered into the still in force covenant/brit that informs our daily relationship with God and with each other.
The seder experience reaches so deeply into the Jewish soul that everyone, secular, religious, affiliated and not affiliated, all seem to find themselves at the seder table. It is telling that the secular kibbutz movement has its own Haggadah, it's own source book for the seder night that reflects the significance of the journey from Egypt to the wilderness, from slavery to freedom, from the ideologically driven approach that there are Jews and there is no God. Search "haggadah" on Amazon and you'll find a bewildering variety of offerings: contemporary and traditional, feminist and interfaith and for kids and for scholars. Everyone has an investment in making the seder their own.
Jews who are far from their families, or who have lost their loved ones and are alone, find Passover particularly difficult, much more so than Hanukah or even Yom Kippur. We are all meant to be gathered around a table with the generations of our family to be sharing the story of who we are, how we came to be and hopefully, with children at the table, where we are going. It can be isolating to be a lone Jew on the eve of Passover.
Observant or not, the conclusion of Purim, a month before Passover, launches of flurry of seder placement activity: who is doing the inviting? who is being invited? who needs a seat at a table? It's like a game of musical chairs except that, God willing, there is a chair for everyone who needs one.
The principle of revisiting and re-experiencing that journey from slavery to freedom is compelling and the seder is brilliant because it is so experiential: we dab away the tears of slavery brought to our eyes by the bitter herb, we contemplate the cement-like charoset that, in its sweetness, hints at the promise of redemption, we chew the dry matzah and are humbled by the plenty that surrounds us and that little that so many others survive on.
But I think that what brings us to the seder table year after year is the need to touch base with who we are, to find that deeply-buried core of Jewish soul that needs nourishment once a year. I have attended and led seders in Israel and in the States, with family and with friends and as part of communal experiences, but if you say "seder" to me in a word association sort of exercise, the only place I will go is back to our family seder growing up. Listening to my grandfather sweetly chant the text of the Haggadah (which I try to replicate in at least one passage at every seder I go to), watching my grandmother toggle between the kitchen and my grandfather's side, the tiny little silver kiddush cups kept especially for my brother and me for the seder night . . . I need to revisit those seders to restore my soul.
Most of us have cherished seder recipes and aromas and melodies and stories that we bring to the table. And if we don't, then may we come together this year at seder to start creating them. The seder is a touchstone experience for us as Jews, a Jewish-soul-confirming journey that moves us to the core whether we are observant or affiliated or secular or engaged.
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.
Yesterday morning, The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island gathered for our monthly meeting. We received an intelligent, moving, informative briefing by two representatives of The Jewish Genetic Diseases Consortium, a coalition of ten organizations dedicated to the issue of genetic disease.
Shari Ungerleider, the Coalition's Project Coordinator, and Randy Glazer, the Coalition's Chair shared their personal stories of giving birth to children with genetic disease and the dearth of testing and/or mis-reading and misdiagnosis involved in their respective pregnancies.
There are a few points in Ms. Ungerleider's and Ms. Glazer's presentation that were compelling new information for me. Although I do always think it would be nice if readers of this blog liked what I've written so much that you'd be moved to share the blog with your family and friends . . . this week I am specifically asking you to. Please use whatever sharing techniques you have at your disposal.
Here are some of the things I learned:
Thanks to our TY member and Cohen School teacher, David Wasser, I had the pleasure and challenge of speaking at the Moses Brown TEDx event last night. My mission: to sum up some aspect of my journey to Israel with Imam Farid Ansari and Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson . . . in 12 minutes! This is my TEDx talk . . . an apt topic, indeed, for this week's Torah portion as we contemplate the significance of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their offspring for our own lives.
A rabbi, an imam and a minister get on an airplane: sounds a bit like a joke . . . mostly we three companions have been on a journey of exploration and bridge-building and assumption blasting that has literally taken us places we never expected to go . . . . together. So, not a joke, but a lot of laughing has been involved.
The imam is Imam Farid Ansari a six-foot-something American born black guy who is an ex New York City cop and now serves as the spiritual leader of the Muslim-American Dawah Center of Providence and is the head of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement.
The minister is the Reverend Dr. Donald Anderson, a few inches short of six foot American white guy from a family of Swedish immigrants who is a born and bred Rhody, an American Baptist Minister and is the Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.
I am Amy Levin, a nice, short, middle-aged Jewish lady from New Jersey.
We three learn from each other all the time . . . we meet for diner breakfasts and scheme together and debate with each other and inch by inch have edged away from assumptions and caution to trust. Through the friendship and integrity of these two men have taught me that it’s ok to question my long-standing assumptions and to step out of my safe space.
My first ten years of life, my family lived in a mixed catholic and black neighborhood of East Orange, New Jersey. On my way home from elementary school, the Catholic kids from the parochial school that lay between my public school and our garden apartment, used to chase me into the neighborhood alleys calling me "dirty Jew" and scaring the bejabbers out of me. Christmas and Easter were not happy associations for me, they were, instead, reminders of my "different-ness."
My husband, baby daughter and I moved to Israel in September 1981. The first week we were there, I walked past the main department store in downtown Jerusalem. The window display declared in huge letters and lots of sparkle: Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year! Referring to the impending holy day of Rosh Hashanah . . . . Not the secular calendar date of January 1st. I wasn't in Kansas anymore. I wasn't in suburban New Jersey anymore. I was part of the majority culture for the first time on my life! I relaxed in a way I never had back in the States. Now the people around me were going to be celebrating my holidays, school vacations were going to coincide with my festivals, restaurants were going to be kosher wherever I went . . .
Being not-the-minority was a revelation. Through the twenty years of living in Israel, which included lots of economic and social challenges, I never lost the sense that I was where I belonged, I was in my place and the people around me were my people.
. . . . For the most part . . . I was living in a rather siloed culture, in the middle of western Jerusalem. But I did have a few encounters with my Arab neighbors ... Before the first intifada (which began in 1987), my daughter and I would encounter Arab moms and kids from the Arab village across the road at the playground that lay between a Jewish and an Arab neighborhood. The kids played together. One day, a young Arab mom offered me a fresh almond from a little bag she brought to the playground. But encounters like that disappeared . . . a fence was built alongside the Arab side of the playground . . . when the intifada began.
After the intifada began . . . our apartment building was at the edge of our Jewish neighborhood. Across the street was a bare hill and in the valley over that hill was an Arab village. And one evening, coming home late from work, I got out of my car and a rock came sailing over the hill at me. And another one. It took me a minute to realize what was happening . . . and then I ducked behind my car and yelled (in Hebrew) “I didn’t do anything to you!”
So, my inclination was to stick to my Jerusalem: the part of the Jerusalem that speaks Hebrews and closes school for Hanukah and empties the bread shelves during Passover. For the girl that used to be chased home being called “dirty Jew,” it was a whole new experience being surrounded and protected by “my own.”
And then a dozen or so years after leaving Israel, I’m sitting at a Providence diner with a minister and an imam . . . not my natural comfort zone people. We began with the premise that all three of our faith communities are co-existing in Rhode Island and we should try to deepen the interfaith conversation since we’re all here anyway.
Our diner conversations led to join press conferences where we have stood together for mutual respect between our communities, compassion and peace in the Middle East. We brought an exhibit about the history of Islam in the United States to Rhode Island.
And then we we were invited to speak at a symposium in Jerusalem about green and sustainable pilgrimage. We were billed as the “collaborating clergy” . . . as we planned our presentation we began to realize how far we’d come, how much trust had grown between us and how odd it seemed that our collaboration was such an extraordinary thing that we had to be imported to Jerusalem from Rhode Island to explain how we do it.
Rhode Island, with Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty, is a very conducive place to build bridges between religious leaders and religious communities like those that Don and Farid and I have built.
The first place we visited was a baptismal site on the western bank of the Jordan River . . . As we followed the slope down toward the river we came to a wooden boardwalk on which several groups of Christian pilgrims from Africa and Asia and Latin America and Europe were each gathered, readying themselves for immersion in the Jordan. As an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I would note the turn from winter to spring by the sudden spurt of tour busses on the streets . . . including those carrying Christian groups . . . but I’d never witnessed the reverence of Christians for the Holy Land that I had only experienced as my Jewish Holy Land.
We then moved on to the mosque of Nebi Musa . . . which is Arabic for mosque of the Prophet Moses . . . which should sound a bit like the Hebrew the Navi Moshe . . . . and Don and I watched as Farid reverently bathed his feet and disappeared inside the mosque to pray. Farid emerged from the mosque, and we returned to Jerusalem.
Even though I am the one with the Israeli ID card, each of my travel buddies had connected to places in my land to which I could only be a visitor. I had been so focused on our role at the symposium, our travel arrangements and accommodations, that I really hadn’t thought that much about what the experience of moving through Israel with a faithful Muslim and a faithful Christian would be like. That first day, I gained an appreciation for the significance of this land in the faith traditions of my friends . . . but I still held on to a sense of ownership, I felt as though I was offering the gifts of unique experiences to my friends.
Over the next few days, as we engaged with the participants of the symposium, I became the humble tourist: Don and Farid were embraced and welcomed by the Christian and Muslim communities of Jerusalem’s Old City and villages on the West Bank of the Jordan River . . . they went to places I could not go and they came back with beautiful stories about warm welcomes and meals at family tables. I wasn’t the only one welcoming them to Israel and showing them around any more . . . I was sharing the privilege and watching their spiritual enrichment from the sidelines.
Don and Farid showed me facets of my own country that I had totally missed because of politics and wariness and my own enjoyment of being part of the majority for a change.
Abraham, the biblical Abraham. His name, translated from the Hebrew means “father of many peoples.” We keep forgetting that. I was trying to own Abraham in a rather exclusive deal until I travelled to the land of Abraham with two other of Abraham’s children: there is so much more truth in the expanded family of Abraham’s children, of Jews and Christians and Muslims. The Torah recounts the moment of God’s blessing to Abraham: the original Hebrew is: vnivr’chu b’cha kol goyei ha’aretz . . . all the nations of the land will be blessed through you. All the nations of the land . . .
It’s more than ok to let go of the assumptions that you may think are providing you with a sense of security and a sense of place. Find yourself some out of the box true friends and give yourself the gift of a new perspective and a new humility.
There are a number of hugely significant moments in this week's parashah/Torah reading: from Avram's stunning act of faith in response to God's literally out-of-the-blue call: "Lech l'cha" / "Take yourself off to the place I'll show you . . . " to the first iterations of the covenantal promises of progeny and land. This is a touchstone parashah.
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.
Every few years (the algorithms of the Hebrew calendar are beyond me), Yom Kippur and Shabbat coincide, as is the case this year. It's an interesting contrast of themes and dynamics: Shabbat is supposed to be a day of עונג/oneg/delight. On Shabbat we are supposed to enjoy the best food of the week, wear the best clothes of the week, sing and relax and, yes, pray with our community. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of עינוי/inu'i/self-affliction. On Yom Kippur we are supposed to fast, to wear white (the traditional color of mourning), reflect, look past physical pleasures and, yes, pray with our community.
These seem to be mutually exclusive. So how do we understand this potent day of Shabbat and Yom Kippur together?
I found some inspiration from Ariana Huffington, the editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. Ms. Huffington is developing an initiative, The Third Metric, which aims to redefine success beyond the first two metrics of money and power to include well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and to give back.
Huffington said she personally uses mindfulness and meditation to help achieve those goals.
"Silence is an amazing way to recharge ourselves," she said.
Making time to incorporate this third measure of success can not only change your life, but transform the workplace, Huffington said, by helping people become more creative, productive and connected.
"Olympic athletes get naps. When performance really matters, taking care of yourself is key," she said.
In a speech to more than 800 women at the Women Of Influence luncheon that included Twitter Canada CEO Kirstine Stewart, Huffington stressed that the "hurry-up culture" is not working, and that the whole concept of multitasking is a myth. (Huffington Post, 9/11/13)
On Yom Kippur, the day of the year during which we are given the opportunity to take stock of our priorities, review our relationships with our families and friends and community and God, we should take God as our role model. God, ultimately, has "rochmones"/mercy on us when we approach life with integrity and good intention. Why shouldn't we be as kind to ourselves and those we love?
The underlying thread of the delight of Shabbat flowing under the challenges of Yom Kippur are the best of that Third Metric of Ms. Huffington's. Breath. Let go of that "hurry-up culture." On this ultimate Day of Awe, give yourself permission to feel that awe.
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.
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.
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.
Our seder night is a brilliantly crafted experience: we are surrounded by evocative smells and flavors, melodies and pictures, all designed to draw us in to the journey from slavery to freedom. Horseradish brings to our eyes tears like those of our slave ancestors. We conclude with joyous verses of praise to God for reaching into the black hole of Egyptian bondage and pulling us to the safety of the far shore of the sea of reeds.
One sentence in the Haggadah expresses the soul of this night:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In each and every generation, each person is obligated to see him/herself as if he/she came out of Egypt.
In North African Jewish communities and in India, it was customary to pass the k'arah [seder plate] over the heads of everyone at the table in a circular motion. Encompassing all gathered in the historic experience. It was an acknowledgment that as the world turns, first we were slaves, then we became free. www.myjewishlearning.com)
The most moving collection of seder customs I have ever experienced was in Jerusalem. One year, I was asked to lead the seder at a battered women's shelter in the neighborhood in which I lived and led a congregation. Women and children from Russia and Morroco and Israel and England and Ethiopia and the United States and France and Argentina all sat together at the same seder table. Only the common denominator of having suffered violence at the hands of husbands and boyfriends and fathers could have created such a miscellaneous and yet homogenous group of people. The women had prepared the seder meal in the shelter's communal kitchen. Each woman had volunteered for a dish: soup, desserts, main dishes, side dishes . . . a Morrocan woman had said that she wanted to make her grandmother's special "seder soup." Everyone was delighted, until an Ashkenazic housemate strolled by the pot, lifted the lid and stirred and asked: "aifo hak'naidlach?" (Where are the matzah balls?). The Morrocan soup-chef asked "What's a matzah ball?" and that started a whole rebellion! All the Ashkenazic women ganged up protested: How can there be a seder without matzah balls? They came to a perfect solution: one of the Ashkenazic women taught the Morrocan woman how to make knaidlach and when we got to the soup course, our Morrocan soup-maker proudly ladled us each a bowful of her grandmother's seder soup with an Ashkenazic matzah ball floating in the middle!
Passover is absolutely about the journey: for these women and children, on their own journey from oppression to a new life of self-determination, that seder night was particularly evocative. We all saw ourselves as if we each had left from Egypt . . . and found some very moving milestones along the way.
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.