One of the key elements of this week's Torah reading is introduced in the opening passage. God instructs Moses: "Send men and let them scout the land of Canaan that I'm giving to the children of Israel...." From that moment to this very day, Jews have examined the Land from outside her borders and used the culled information to sustain our bonds to that place.
This past week was one of the times when diaspora Jewish communities all around the world were focussed sharply on Israel. The Knesset was voting to appoint the 10th president of the State of Israel.
Many of us regretted, but reluctantly accepted the inevitability of , President Shimon Peres' retirement. Over the course of his decades of service to the State of Israel, the people of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, Shimon Peres has been much more a statesman than a politician. He has proven to be an insightful and wise leader and innovator.
After months of conjecture, lobbying, speculating and commenting, the members of Israel's Knesset have elected Shimon Peres' successor, Ruby Rivlin. Mr. Rivlin is a controversial figure from the point of view of Jews living outside the state of Israel.
I invite you to follow the link I've provided to read an insightful "Open Letter" to Israel's new president by Times of Israel blogger and president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Yehuda Kurtzer. You'll find a balanced and intelligent review of Mr. Rivlin's career and an intelligent presentation of the concerns raised here in the American Jewish community. I join Mr. Kurtzer in hoping that our most dire predictions about Mr. Rivlin's presidency will prove baseless:
I was listening to a TED talk recently, given by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. You may have heard about her book about women in leadership, Lean In and about her "Ban Bossy" campaign. No small wonder that I'm interested in the leadership philosophy and wisdom of a successful female leader.... One of the points Ms. Sandberg makes is that men have no problem giving themselves credit for their success and that women are much more self-deprecating. A man's message might be: "Yes, I'm great and I accomplished this task." A woman's message might be: "Yes, we did great work together to accomplish this task." The difference might not be in the actual work of leadership exercised by the male or female leader, but in the way each leader describes, and ascribes, his or her success.
All of this was still percolating in my mind as I tracked, with great interest, President Barack Obama's visit to Pope Francis this week. This visit was of particular interest to me because I have such deep admiration for Pope Francis. I share the same points of disagreement with the pontiff that President Obama has expressed: contraception, abortion and the consequences of these policies as they affect the health care options of employees of the Catholic Church in the United States. But there are so many ways in which I admire Pope Francis: There seems to be no factoring of political (even church-related political) consequences when Pope Francis speaks. He speaks out, and follows through with his actions, because there are truths that need to be aired. His humility is inspiring because it is integral to his being. There is no other way for him to be.
President Obama gave an interview on CBS after his visit with the pope. Commenting on the experience of standing in Pope Francis' presence, President Obama observed: "...nothing is more powerful than someone who lives out his convictions." This was a perceptive remark that I appreciate very much, for I, too, hold deep respect for those who move through this world guided humbly by their ideological convictions. And I find that the most powerfully impressive people are the most soft-spoken and yes, Sheryl Sandberg, the most self-deprecating. The message that reaches the deepest into the consciousnesses of those around us is: "it's not about me."
Perhaps President Obama and Pope Francis are admirably in touch with their feminine sides . . . but I find myself drawn to the leadership of those who are guided by that which is greater than human scope and who have the strength and self-confidence to acknowledge that our greatest attainments are never reached in a vacuum of our own effort and vision.
I am impressed by another quality shared by President Obama and Pope Francis, which was also shared by Nelson Mandela. I wrote about Mr. Mandela a few months ago and remarked on his extraordinary capacity to focus on the qualities of the human being and the nuances of the issue before him without pre-judgment or bias. I had a sense of the exercise of humility and perspective at work in the meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis: the whole world knew about every issue on which these leaders disagree, substantive issues. And yet, both leaders seemed to approach the opportunity of their discourse not to convince the other of the error of his ways, but rather to explore the possibilities of advancing their shared visions and goals.
I don't think that the words "humility" and "leadership" are often appear in combination . . . except, perhaps, as conflicting dynamics. That is definitely worth re-thinking. I'm all for "leaning in" when the opportunity arises to take on a substantive leadership task...as long as that opportunity is embraced with humility. That leads us to powerful leadership.
I used to be a folksinger . . . through high school and college I played guitar and sang the songs of Tom Paxton and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Judy Collins and Pete Seeger. I saw all of them perform live and they all moved me and inspired me, but there was something unique and authentic about Pete Seeger.
His death this week brought on a moment of sadness for me, although I hadn't thought about him for quite a long time, his music, his ethos, his example constituted one of the building blocks of who I am today.
Many of us know his songs . . . as sung by him or by other artists: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "This Little Light of Mine," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Rambling Man," "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," "If I Had a Hammer." Those were all in my coffeehouse repertoire back in the day. The values expressed in those songs . . . humility, patience, compassion, hope, and the imperative to speak out against the opposite of those values . . . spoke to me as a teenager in the 60s and a college student in the early 70s (yes, I'm dating myself . . . do the math if you must).
One of Seeger's many gifts to me was his appreciation of all sorts of ethnic folk music. He sang Irish folk melodies, Appalachian songs . . . and even Yiddish and Hebrew folk melodies. His expansive appreciation of music from many cultures and many ethnicities gave me "permission" to delve into the world of Jewish music even as I built up my coffeehouse-protest-song-folk-ballad repertoire.
In a remembrance of Pete Seeger by Arlo Guthrie this week, Guthrie wrote about one of Seeger's most compelling qualities:
Sitting in the audience at a Pete Seeger concert, I felt that charisma . . . we all wanted to sing with him, to express the emotions and values of those songs with him. There was nothing flashy about Pete Seeger on a stage. He spoke quietly. Told gentle jokes and stories. Dressed simply. I actually remember him wearing that sweater you see in the photograph above. All of that added up to an undeniable, compelling presence that brought out the best in us.
Pete Seeger was not a flower child . . . he was a man of simple tastes and deep convictions who showed us that speaking truth to power with humility and perseverance was the dignified way to protest: the environment, the Vietnam War, prejudice were all causes Seeger stood up for.
I have found no evidence that Pete Seeger was familiar with the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but Seeger's response to a question about his own belief and faith links these two great sages:
Seeger speaks of awe, I think . . . .
Pete Seeger was an iconic figure for America: he taught us to embrace our culture and our values and he taught us that our voices are essential, raised in song or prose, to the endeavor of living in a value-inspired society.
This week's Torah reading, Yitro, includes the definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. There is so much to be learned from this passage, there is an infinite amount of inspiration to be gleaned from this passage . . . and it is so powerful that we rarely look elsewhere in the parashah / Torah reading. So, this year, I direct your attention to a different moment in the parashah, the opening verses . . .
The methodology of naming our parshiot / Torah readings, is a practical one. Instead of serving as a title that summarizes or characterizes the parshah, the name of the parshah is basically a keyword. In a world of text, where so many paragraphs begin "Vaydabeir Adonay" (God spoke), or "Eilah" (these are) or "Vayomer" (He said), there needs to be a way to identify the opening verse of the passage in question, the parashah. Thus, the name of both the book of Exodus and the first parashah of Exodus is "sh'mot", "names." The opening words are "v'eileh sh'mot" . . . the word "sh'mot" is going to be more identifiable than the word "v'eileh" . . . and so the book and the parashah are named "sh'mot." The same is true of this week's parashah, which begins with the words "vyishma yitro" "And Jethro heard..." "Vayishma" is not going to serve as effectively as a keyword as "Yitro", therefore this week's parashah is named Yitro.
But in this case, Yitro is an excellent name for the text to come because it helps flag a passage that is so often dwarfed by the iconic revelatory moment encompassed by the parashah.
The parashah begins with an explanation: apparently, Moshe's father-in-law, Yitro, took his daughter and grandchildren back to Midian as God's campaign to free the Israelites intensified. Yitro hears the news that God has delivered the Israelites from slavery, redeemed them from Egypt and that they are safely encamped beyond the reach of the Egyptian army. So Yitro packs up his daughter and grandsons so they can be reunited with his ostensibly less-burdened son-in-law. The Torah relates:
And he said to Moses, "I, your father-in-law, Jethro, have come to you, and your wife and her two sons with her." And Moses went out to his father-in-law, and he bowed, and he kissed him, and they asked each other how they were, and they came to the tent. (Sh'mot/Exodus 18:6-7, Friedman translation)
So much to note, right here: there is clearly a warm relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law, a relationship of mutual respect and affection. Jethro, we have been reminded a few verses before, was "kohein Midyan", priest of Midian...so both men served as religious leaders and had that common denominator to bind them as well as their familial tie.
There is a parenthetical note to be made about the absence of an account of the reunion between husband and wife, father and children . . . and there are more than one possible ways to understand this. Perhaps for another year's Yitro blog!
In the following verses, Moshe tells his father-in-law about everything that had happened in Egypt: the plagues, the confrontations with Pharoah, God's ultimate redemption of the people. Jethro, priest of Midian, replies:
"Blessed is God, who rescued you from Egypt's hand and from Pharaoh's hand, who rescued the people from under Egypt's hand: now I know that God is bigger than all the gods because of the thing they plotted against them." (18:10-11)
And goes on to make a sacrifice to his son-in-law's God and to break bread with Aaron and the other elders.
The next day, Jethro watches as his son-in-law conducts the daily business of leading the people: from morning to evening, a never-ending line of people are coming to Moses asking for guidance from God and from the newly revealed tradition. Jethro, an older, experienced religious leader, watches this and then challenges his son-in-law: "What's this thing that you're doing for the people? Why are you sitting by yourself, and the entire people is standing up by you from morning until evening?" (18:14)
Moses replies like any other clergy person you'd ask today: it's my job; they need me; I am familiar with the content of God's revelation . . . . Jethro replies: "You'll be worn out, both you and this people who are with you, because the thing is too heavy for you." (18:18) . . . and then goes on to teach the newly minted religious leader how to delegate authority and how to create a system that works for the people, for Moses and for God. And perhaps Moses will have more time for his wife and children this way, too!
Jethro's respect for the God of his son-in-law is deeply moving. He is, after all, entrusting the well-being of his daughter and grandsons to the God of the Israelites who he has never served. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Jethro brings a sacrifice to Adonay after hearing of the love of God for the Israelites and the intelligence and humility of his son-in-law. We should not interpret Jethro's sacrifice as a "conversion" to the faith of the Israelites. Let's be mindful of the cultural assumptions of this time and place where polytheism was a cultural assumption and where "gods" were most often associated with specific geographic territories. Jethro, serving the gods of Midian, would have been impressed by the power of this Canaanite God to manipulate events in Egypt and would be acknowledging, as his words suggest, the unique power of the God of the Israelites. This is a milestone on the road to universal monotheism.
In his turn, Moses, touched by his father-in-law's words and actions, is able to hear the criticism as constructive and wise...rooted in love, respect and experience.
We who are leaders, we who are not leaders, we can all learn from Jethro's compassion, respect and wisdom. More often than not, there are those around ready to help us share the burden. More often than not, there are those around us who love us more than we are aware. It's ok to pick up our heads, look around and learn to share our burdens and our love.
January 8th 1964: President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed Congress at his first State of the Union address . . . just a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In his predecessor's memory, President Johnson pledged to continue JFK's plans and programs, "not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right."
LBJ was a compelling speaker who described the realities of a United States burdened with 19% poverty:
"Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.
It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. ...
Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them."
January 8th 2014: 100 Rhode Island faith leaders and social justice activists gathered in the rotunda of the State house. The Co-Chair of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, Maxine Richman, connected our contemporary efforts with those of President Johnson 50 years ago to the day:
"The Food stamp Act, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, Community Action programs, VISTA and The Job Corps were some of the historic legislation created as a response to the War on Poverty
With these important programs still in place today, our interfaith coalition asks:
How can it be that 50 years later, here in RI, 13.7% of our residents, 19.5% of our children and 9.2% of our seniors live in poverty?
How can it be that nearly 180,00 Rhode Islanders depend upon SNAP or food stamps to supplement their nourishment and that the General Assembly ‘s community grant to The RI Food bank has been reduced by half since 2008 ?
How can it be that 6000 people waited in line, some all through the night, to put their names on a waiting list for affordable housing in East Providence. and that it could take years before they would be called for an apartment?
How can it be that 370 Head Start slots in RI for low income preschoolers were cut due to the sequester, when early childhood education is imperative to help lift these children out of poverty?"
How can it be?
As I read President Johnson's State of the Union Address and I contemplated the questions posed by Maxine Richman on behalf of our Rhode Island Coalition to Reduce Poverty, I was struck by the overlap between President Johnson's agenda and the legislative agenda advanced by our Coalition for the Rhode Island General Assembly's new legislative session:
President Johnson wrote of the pressing need for "better schools, better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities. Our Coalition Legislative Agenda, circulated at the Statehouse this past Wednesday states:
All Rhode Islanders have a warm place to live, food on the table and adequate health care:
Affordable Housing and Just Cause (eviction). (RI Coalition for the Homeless)
State appropriate for the RI Food Bank (RI Community Food Bank)
Affordable health insurance for seniors (Senior Agenda)
If you work you should not be poor:
Increase the minimum wage and the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EPI)
Reform Pay Day lending (Pay Day Lending Coalition)
Allow working parents who can’t afford child care to keep their child care assistance as income rises. Provide child care assistance to parents who want to go to job training. (EPI and RI Kids Count)
Allow parents with limited literacy and/or English language skills who receive RI Works cash assistance to gain the skills they need to be successful in the workforce by lifting the 6 month limit on work-readiness programs targeted to this population. (EPI and RI Kids Count)
Education, healthcare, housing, job training . . . 50 years after President Johnson's declaration of war, these battlegrounds are still hotbeds of contention. 50 years after President Johnson's compassionate acknowledgement of Americans "living on the outskirts of hope" we are still pulling together as faith communities united in the determination to instill hope.
The biblical book of Mishlei/Proverbs teaches: "One who oppresses the poor disdains their Maker;
whoever is gracious to the needy honors God." (Proverbs 14:31)
This is a call to both compassion and action. Perhaps 50 years is not long enough to win such a war . . . but we are not allowed to lose heart, for so many are depending on this war being won. God-willing it won't take yet another 50 years. For the honor of God, for the sake of our own humanity, let us advance on these battlefields, let us urge our legislators to move forward . . . . because it is the right thing to do.
I'd like to suggest, though, that a more meaningful tribute to the memory and meaning of Nelson Mandela finds expression in the acknowledgement of the fact that the relationship between the Jews, Israel and Nelson Mandela were not always the most amicable.
Indeed, it is no more than historical fact that Israel long supported, and sold arms to, the South African regime that oppressed and imprisoned Mr. Mandela and that Israel was among the last nations of the world to join in isolating South Africa at the end of Apartheid. For many of us in Israel, this policy was disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were publicly staunch supporters of Mr. Mandela and the ANC. The two liberation movements were drawn together by the parallels they perceived in their respective experiences.
Given this background, Mr. Mandela's attitude toward Israel and toward the conflicts in the Middle East are very impressive: rather than being drawn into a partisan relationship with the Palestinian people, Nelson Mandela assessed the parties involved through the lens of his own wisdom and experience. Indeed, according to an article published today in the Times of Israel, Mandela had the clear vision and presence of mind to use the occasion of his own presidential inauguration to bring the warring parties of the Middle East together.
In other contexts, Nelson Mandela publicly expressed his support for a secure and stable Israel, acknowledged personal ties with South African Jews who had stood by his side in his youth, and had even commented, on the eve of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, that Yitzhak Rabin was more deserving of that prize than himself.
In our culture of growing polarization, in politics, in economics, in religion . . . a voice of balance and integrity like Mr. Mandela's should be exalted. And the loss of such a voice should be deeply mourned.
At our Torat Yisrael annual congregational meeting last evening, I had the privilege of installing the officers and board members who will lead our congregation through the 2013-14 / 5774 year. This is one of the rabbinic tasks that gives me the greatest pleasure year after year.
Our congregation is led by an extraordinary group of committed lay leaders. I've said this for as long as I've been at Torat Yisrael, but now their accomplishments truly speak for themselves as we held an annual congregational meeting for the first time in our beautiful new synagogue building.
The booklet that is distributed at each year's annual meeting includes a list of the officers and the board members and the terms for which they are nominated to serve. About a third of our board has one year left in their term, another third has two years left, and the newest "class", of course, has three years left in their term. We designate new board members with an asterisk.
As I looked over the new list, I could not help but noticing that almost half of the group of board members who are beginning their three-year term are new to our board. That may not strike many of you as anything more than "expected." For our congregation, this is actually a very significant development. Our board includes many people who have served multiple terms: this creates an experienced leadership who bring a rich collective communal memory to the table as we plan for the future. Now, we are succeeding in reaching out and bringing new leaders to our board table. This will energize our discussion, broaden our horizons and help us develop the strong and experienced leadership that will be key to guiding our congregation in the future.
Happily, this week's Torah reading emphasizes the importance of just this dynamic of growing leadership for the future. Moses, elsewhere described as ענו מאוד [very humble / anav m'od] turns to God with concern for the welfare of the people after Moses himself will no longer lead. Moses says: "Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd." (Numbers/Bamidbar 27:15).
Exhibiting perceptive understanding of the vulnerabilities at times of transition of leadership, God not only indicates to Moses that the "heir" who will next lead the people will be Joshua, son of Nun, but further instructs Moses to bring Joshua before the people now, before the crisis in leadership arises, and make it clear to the people that Joshua is both God's and Moses' choice to serve next as leader of the people.
We witness, at the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of the book of Joshua, that this very contentious and irritable people, the Israelites, experience the transition from Moses to Joshua seamlessly. They mourn Moses, of course, but they are supported and led through challenging times by Joshua with complete confidence in the young leader's capabilities. Joshua was designated early on. Joshua was "trained by the best." Joshua was known and respected and had earned their trust before ever he was called upon to lead the people on his own.
Of course, our situation here at Torat Yisrael is not analogous to the transitions in leadership from Moses to Joshua. But as we laud our current leadership and look to the faces of our newest leaders, we can learn much from this week's Torah Reading about leadership development and planning transitions for the future.
This week, our Torah portion contains the opening chapters of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. In Leviticus, we will generally be taking a hiatus from the engaging narratives of Genesis / Breishit and Exodus / Sh'mot . . . and we will take up the narrative again in a few months when we embark on the book of Numbers / Bamidbar.
In the meantime, we will immerse ourselves in a book of the Torah that is refered to in our traditional sources as "Torat Kohanim" . . . basically an instruction manual for Aaron and his descendants, the Israelite priests / kohanim. What kind of sacrifices need to be brought to the Mishkan / the Tabernacle? Who shall bring those sacrifices? When?
The Kohanim function with the absolute authority of God behind them and their role in the community is established by birth: Aaron, his sons, their sons for all generations constitute the priests, the kohanim of Israel.
Rabbis, as you see from my photograph above and the photographs of my three immediate predecessors at Torat Yisrael, come in all shapes and genders. We have no garments which embody the sanctity of the tasks we perform. We wear kippot and tallitot as do the members of our congregations because our role is not established by birth, we are not the descendents of anyone chosen by God.
In fact, the roots of the rabbinate can be found in something of a populist revolution beginning in the last century or so before the Common Era. Through the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly caste had evolved into a sort of Israelite aristocracy . . . a closed circle with an essential power base, the Temple and its sacrificial cult. To be a priest, a kohein, your father had to be be a kohein. That was the only way in.
In houses of study around the Land of Israel, scholars were gathering to study the Torah and ask existential questions about the nature of Jewish practice in an economy and a cultural setting that was fundamentally different than life in the wilderness during forty years of wandering. These sages began to ask a question that we are still striving to answer today? "What is our 'best practice' as Jews in this time and this place?"
Unlike the kohanim, the only thing you needed to become a rabbi, one of these sages, was a good head on your shoulders, the willingness to study Torah with an open mind and a profound commitment to the survival of the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
These are the roots of the rabbinate which I share with Rabbi Parness, Rabbi Bloom and Rabbi Rosen . . . it has nothing to do with who our fathers were, it has nothing to do with being invested with esoteric divine powers like a priest . . . or a pope . . . it is about dedicating our lives to keep alive the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. And that, my friends, is a privilege.
Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.
The photograph on the left is of a street sign in Jerusalem. As is the standard in that holy city, every street sign bears the name of the street in Israel's three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Only in the Hebrew does there appear a short explanation of the street name, or a short description of the person for whom the street has been named. In the case of Martin Luther King Street in Jerusalem, the epitaph appears: An American Leader. A warrior for equal rights in the United States.
This past Monday, people all over the United States, and, indeed, people all over the world, came together in celebration and remembrance . . . and appreciated the confluence of . . . President Obama's second inauguration and the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. There is no question that Reverend King would have been bursting with pride had he survived to enjoy the sight of Barak Obama taking the oath of office of President of the United States. The fact that President Obama's hand rested on Reverend King's bible . . . and Abraham Lincoln's bible . . . acknowledged with humility that President Lincoln and Reverend King made it possible for his hand to rest on their bibles.
I think, though, that Reverend King would also have acknowledged that, although we have come a long way from slavery, we have not yet reached the Promised Land. For Reverend King, visionary that he was, looking into the Promised Land in which race will be a non-issue, was also a clear-eyed leader, engaged in the real-world struggles that shackled innocent people of integrity.
For Reverend King, this week's Torah reading, Beshallach, was profoundly resonant: the people may have left slavery behind, but there is a long way to go before we reach the Promised Land. There are milestones along the way: manna and water, civil rights legislation and a black President of the United States, the attack of the Amalekites and the inordinate percentage of people of color living in poverty . . . . We are still wandering.
The Jerusalem street sign standing at the corner of Emek Refa'im and Martin Luther King Street is a banner of tribute to a man of courage who drew inspiration from the text originally written in the Hebrew of the street sign, and the Jerusalem street. That Jerusalem street sign, proclaiming Martin Luther King street, in the city at the heart of the Promised Land, also stands as a warning against complacence: Jewish sovereignty over the State of Israel does not mean that the journey is over. The inequities within Israeli society: economic, ethnic, educational must also be resolved before we can declare that the journey is over.
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.