Sunday evening, our lush, colorful, joy-to-the-senses festival of Sukkot begins. We will gather in our Torat Yisrael Sukkah (erected last Sunday by a great group of three generations of TY members; to be decorated this Sunday morning by our Yeladon and Cohen School students!). With Jews all over the world, we'll recite blessings thanking God for this season of joy and for the natural world that sustains us.
While we are literally counting our blessings on Sukkot, a growing number of Rhode Islanders are struggling to do with less and less. This morning, I attended a meeting of the steering committee of The Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. We were greeted with sobering statistics recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
My friends, this is a reality on our doorstep, our tradition, our God, expects us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are barely (or falling short of) providing food, shelter and health car for themselves and their families:
More than 1 in 5 (47,127 / 21.9%) of Rhode Island's children was living in poverty in 2011.
In 2008, 34,816 children in Rhode Island (15.5%) were living in poverty.
In 2010, Rhode Island's child poverty rate of 19.0% was ranked 6th in New England and 22nd nationally.
In 2011, Rhode Island ranked 6th in New England and 27th in the country for child poverty (where 1st is best).
The Providence Journal reported on Friday, September 21st that in August 2012, 175,590 Rhode Islanders used the federally financed plan, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That's a nearly 6% increase from August 2011.
This is a season for compassion.
This is a season for action.
I ask you to join me in organizing ourselves as a community to explore how me might bring some small relief and modicum of hope to our struggling neighbors:
1. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to our Sunday morning Cornerstone Dedication Ceremony.
2. Please bring non-perishable foods of all types when you come to Pizza in the Hut on Tuesday evening.
3. Please contact me directly if you are interested in being part of a TY team to explore further what kind of projects we might want to pursue in the realms of food, shelter or other types of basic needs or in education and training pathways out of poverty.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read the following passage from Isaiah as part of the haftarah:
"Share you bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home;
when you see the naked, clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.
Then shall your light burst through the dawn
and your healing spring up quickly.
Then, when you call, God will answer; when you cry out, God will say: 'Here I am.'
If you banish the yoke from your midst; the menacing hand, and evil speech,
and you offer compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature--
then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday."
Parashat Ki Tetze Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19
Every Shabbat morning, two different texts are read: the parashah, the Torah portion taken from the first five books of the Torah (Breishit/Genesis through D'varim/Deuteronomy) and the haftarah, taken from the second section of the Hebrew bible, Nevi'im/Prophets.
This week, the haftarah is a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It concludes with these verses:
In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer.
"To Me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.
Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed," says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
Since the very first moment of divine revelation, prophets, poets, and psalmists have attempted find adequate imagery to convey the quality of the relationship between God and us. It's an elusive goal, especially when you consider that we barely understand ourselves, never mind having much real knowledge of God!
In these few verses, we witness God struggling with overwhelming emotion: "In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment . . ." As we have succumbed to our own human weaknesses, a wave of anger and disappointment wash over our Creator . . . who then recovers, remembers, and promises: "my unfailing love for you will not be shaken."
A challenge to us lies behind these words: what have we done (or not done) that brings our Creator, who loves us eternally and compassionately, to the brink of such overwhelming emotion?
A consolation for us is offered to us in these words: no matter how outrageously we may behave, God will recover, will unfailingly love us, will stand by our eternal "brit shalom", our covenant of peace.
We may approach these coming Days of Awe with solemnity and humility . . . but there is no need for dread. Our God waits to embrace us, strengthen us and inspire us . . . and that's a promise.
Parashat Va'et'hanan Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
I have not been alone in my fascination this week with the aftermath of the arrest of Harvard Professor Gates. Yesterday's conference during which the four gentlemen mentioned above each imbibed his favorite American brew was a brilliant move in terms of leadership, of walking the talk, of role-modeling conflict resolution on a human scale and a lot more.
But it was also a very Jewish moment, impressive considering that there weren't actually any Jews at the table!
This past week, we observed the fast of the 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av) which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem centuries apart but on the same date. One rabbinic response to this calamity which appears in the Talmud is an admonishment to Israel: the Temple was destroyed because Israel forgot God's values and principles by indulging in bias and senseless hatred . . . or, in a parallel text, by indulging in libelous and destructive speech.
Some human foibles, apparently, never go away.
This Shabbat we read the very moving passage from Isaiah "Nachamu, nachamu ami" / "be comforted, be comforted My people." The healing process begins after the wounds have been opened up by prejudice and slander.
I don't know if life imitates art . . . but this week, life is imitating Torah.
How does this kind of healing take place? By reversing the forces of hatred and bigotry and replacing them with openness, courage and respect. The New York Times reported on the White House "beer summit", emphasizing that the press was not allowed within earshot of the table under the magnolia tree. But Professor Gates reported on a "pre-summit" exchange that, to my mind, reflects those healing characteristics:
"The two men [Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley] and their families first encountered each other in the White House library while each group was on individual tours of the White House on Thursday afternoon.
'Nobody knew what to do," Professor Gates said. "So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you.' That broke the awkwardness.'"
Nachamu, nachamu ami . . . that's how it's done.
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.