t was almost two months ago that I wrote about #bringbackourgirls, lamenting the kidnapping of a school full of young girls in Nigeria and talking about the sad relevance of the mitzvah of pidyon sh'vuyim / redeeming captives.
Here we are again, two months after the Nigerian girls were captured by the Boko Haram terrorist group. Some of those girls escaped, some are still in captivity and are being held prisoner until they can be exchanged, apparently, for Boko Haram activists being held in Nigerian prisons. We do not know the fate or state of those girls. Let us not forget them as each news cycle brings us fresher causes for concern.
We must, though, protest, voice our outrage, yell into the wind: the new vogue in terrorism seems to be the capture of children. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by the Hamas terror organization just over a week ago.
There is little sense in asking why when discussing an act of terror. The "why" is to generate terror. And now, apparently, with the well-oiled mechanisms of social media, a new "why" is to draw the world's attention to the terrorist cause. Free publicity. Had you ever heard of Boko Haram, or knew what it meant before mid-April? Had you grown complacent about Hamas as it took its place in the government of the Palestinian Authority? The horror of children in captivity is too painful to contemplate for more than a moment or two . . . but those children, the remaining captive Nigerian girls and Israel's three boys, are living that horror every single moment of every single day.
This week's Torah reading, Korach, opens with one of the Torah's most difficult passages. A leader from the tribe of Levi, Korach, stirs up a crowd and pushes into Moses' face challenging Moses' authority and therefore challenging God's choices and leadership as well. The fate of the rebels is brutal: they, their homes, their families are all swallowed up by the earth. This is, of course, a cautionary tale against challenging God's authority and decisions. At a time like ours, as we look with helpless outrage at the faces of terrorist-abducted children, we wish some of that biblical justice could be meted out right now while the children are whisked safe and sound back to the embrace of their families.
God has adjusted the parameters of divine intervention in human affairs since the days of Korach and, I believe, is a source of strength, wisdom and guidance for us in the face of events we cannot fathom alone. We will pray for Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach . . . and their parents and all those who love them at Shabbat services here at Torat Yisrael.
For those of us who find that music helps express what is deepest in our hearts, here is a video of a song by two Israeli musicians:
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!
This week's parashah/ Torah reading, Ki Tissa, doesn't offer much tranquility . . . as we have gone from meteorological storm to meteorological storm this week, our ancient ancestors in the wilderness underwent emotional storm after emotional storm.
Moses, descending from Sinai, shatters the Tables of the Covenant just created by God. Fury, frustration, incomprehension are all packed into this moment.
In the aftermath, God tersely instructs the Israelites that they will embrace and adhere to the following:
For you shall not bow down to another god---because Adonay: His name is Jealous, He is a jealous God--that you not make a covenant with the resident of the land . . . .You shall not make molten gods for yourself. You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, which I commanded you . . . Every first birth of a womb is Mine, and all your animals that have a male first birth, ox or sheep. You shall redeem every firstborn of your sons. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Six days you shall work, and in the seventh day you shall cease: In plowing time and in harvest, you shall cease. And you shall make a Festival of Weeks, of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Gathering at the end of the year. . . . You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice on leavened bread. You shall bring the first of the firstfruits of you land to the house of Adonay your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (excerpted from Sh'mot/Exodus 34: 14-26, Friedman translation)
This has a ring of the Aseret Hadibrot / Ten Utterances / Ten Commandments of course. Especially in the opening strictures of not bowing down to another God and not making molten images. Clearly, at the moment, these commandments needed repeating: the people had just contravened exactly these commandments in their building and worshipping the golden calf.
The rest of the list is interesting and does depart from the familiar Ten Commandments list:
The unique place of the firstborn of animals and humans as dedicated to God.
The stricture against blood sacrifice.
The first fruits offering.
The prohibition against cooking meat in milk.
The list is quite different from the Ten Commandments list in that the theme of mitzvot guiding the relationship among humans is missing, the "mitzvot bein adam l'havero" commandments between one person and another: there is not "you shall not steal," "you shall not murder," "honor your father and your mother," . . . Every mitzvah on this post-golden calf list is in the category of "bein adam lamakom", "between a person and God." These are mitzvot about our relating to God.
In contemplating this list, it strikes me that this is a list of mitzvot that place our consciousness of our relationship to God before us on an ongoing basis. These are mitzvot that are scattered throughout our day, our week, our year, guiding us to constantly keep in mind that we are in relationship with God at all times.
God has learned, the hard way, that among the frailties of human beings we must count short memories and lack of confidence. After the glory of the redemption at the Sea of Reeds, the awe of the revelation at Sinai . . . within weeks we were building an idol and looking to worship it. Anathema to God and a complete dismissal of the commitment (na'aseh v'nishma . . . we will do, we will obey) we had made at Sinai.
Ours is a tradition that puts our relationship with God before us all day, every day, in a multitude of ways. Ours is not a one-day-a-week tradition or a tradition that can easily be pigeon-holed. Judaism is at its richest and most meaningful and most inspiring when we engage with it every day.
The Pew Research Institute conducts invaluable research on many aspects of religion around the world. Their recently published survey of the American Jewish community triggered more than a flurry of reflections, condemnations, soul-searching, re-prioritizing around the American Jewish map of organizations and institutions.
This week, Pew published another study that touches on a subject that troubles me deeply: the dynamic of hostility targeting religion and hostility targeted by religion:
The study examines government restrictions on religion and religious groups and social hostilities involving religion . . . two fields of inquiry that simply should not exist. Title of the rubric under which Pew published the study is "Restrictions on Religion." Appallingly, the title of the published study is "Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High."
The opening words of the study are:
The issues around religious hostilities include government policies restricting religious practice in different ways; the existence of state-sponsored religion and the attitude toward other religions; state funding of religions and religious education. Social hostilities involving religion relate to violence, damage to property or person directed at the adherents of specific faiths, mob violence, violence perpetrated by one religious group against another religious group, and threats of violence and acts of violence to enforce religious norms,
It is inexpressibly tragic that religion is the catalyst for or the target of violence, hostility, hatred. It is a perversion of every true faith to turn the adherents of other faiths into targets of bias and hatred. There are so many factors that go into creating these lethal mixtures of restriction and hostility and faith . . . but they are not theological factors, they are economic and political and ethnic factors. Those who contend that religion divides people, creates barriers between people, take the name of religion in vain . . . and those who use the terminology and institutions of faith to create hatred and bias and violence take the name of religion in vain.
People of faith, people in whom the awe of God instills humility and gratitude and respect for all humanity know better.
This Shabbat our weekly Torah reading brings us to the very beginning of the second book of the Torah: Sh'mot/Exodus.
We are going to witness and relive some of the greatest moments in our history as we read our way, parasha by parasha, portion by portion, through this second book of Torah.
Right at the beginning of the parasha we see the Israelites referred to, for the very first time, as עם "ahm," "nation". This is in contrast to the Israelites at the end of the book of Breishit/Genesis who were an extended family related through Jacob's progeny. Now, in Sh'mot, the Israelites are a confederation of twelve tribes and are considered by their Egyptian neighbors to be a force to be reckoned with.
We will quickly become engaged in the quagmire and heartbreak of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the evolution of Moses from foundling to prince, from prince to refugee, from refugee to shepherd and from shepherd to national leader and God's collaborator. The sea will part. The Torah will be revealed at Sinai. The Golden Calf will emerge and enrage. The Tabernacle/Mishkan will be constructed in the wilderness and preparations will be made for the establishment of the first stage of Israelite religion: the sacrificial cult.
We will emerge at the end of the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, as a people bound to God through the salvation of Israel from Egypt and through the brit, the covenant forged between Israel and God at Sinai. Our lives will be informed by ethical, ritual, spiritual and moral mitzvot/commandments . . . through this second book of Torah we revisit our roots and our core values. By examining our beginnings as a people our appreciation for the wisdom and the richness of our tradition deepens.
Twice a day our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to recite the following verse (part of the compilation from the Psalms we call "ashrei"). As I contemplate the spiritual journey that awaits us in the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, this verse comes to mind:
Ashrei ha'am she'Adonay elohav אשרי העם שה׳ אלהיו
Blessed are the people whose God is Adonay.
Each of our patriarchs has an iconic moment which has become a key element of his personality and his spiritual legacy: Avram responds with unquestioning alacrity to God's call to leave all that is familiar and embark on an uncharted spiritual and physical journey. God renames him "Avraham" -- father of multitudes.
Isaac, never re-named, never journeyed beyond the borders of his homeland Canaan, married his "love at first sight" match Rebekkah, and faithfully received and transmitted the covenant to his son, Jacob. God named Isaac before his birth: Yitzhak -- he will laugh.
In this week's Torah reading, Jacob is also re-named, mid-life, like his grandfather Abraham.
The event around Jacob's renaming is also centered around an iconic moment: Jacob has packed up his extensive extended family of wives and concubines and children and servants and flocks and is on his way back to Canaan to re-settle in the land of his birth. His reunion with his twin, Esau, looms large in his consciousness. Jacob has prepared for this reunion carefully. He does not know if Esau will meet him with aggression or affection. So Jacob divides up his travelling estate into two camps so that, worst case scenario, Esau will only be able to attack half of Jacob's family and belongings.
Perhaps out of anxiety, Jacob separates himself from all the rest of his convoy and sleeps isolated out in the wilderness. The Torah relates: And Jacob was left by himself. And a man wrestled with him until the dawn's rising. And he saw that he was not able against him, and he touched the inside of his thigh, and the inside of Jacob's thigh was dislocated during his wrestling with him. And he said: "Let me go, because the dawn has risen." And he said, "I won't let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name won't be said 'Jacob' anymore but 'Israel,' because you've struggled with God and with people and were able." (Breishit/Genesis 32:25-29). Jacob receives the new name "Yisrael" -- who struggled with God.
Each divinely-named patriarch adds another layer to the legacy of our tradition: the eternal generations of the progeny of Abraham; the laughter of Isaac who partnered with one woman in one place; and, most fascinating, Jacob's emergence whole and blessed from his struggle with God.
How extraordinary: one who struggles with God emerges blessed. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is encouragement to question God, explore God's strength and balance our own against it. Our legacy from Jacob/Israel is not just permission, but a challenge to forgo passivity and find our own best grasp of God in our lives. Like Jacob, who failed to elicit the name of his Adversary, we will never know God completely, but it is clear that we will emerge from struggle blessed.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.