Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Few first days of the month in the Hebrew calendar serve as milestones of significance as does this date. Since the second evening of Passover, over six weeks ago, we have been counting the Omer, marking the beginning of each Hebrew day (in the evening) with a blessing and a ritual counting of the day. Like marking off days on a calendar in anticipation of a great event, counting the Omer is our Jewish anticipation-builder . . . for at the end of the counting we will have arrived at the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot, the festival marking the paradigm-creating revelation of Torah at Sinai. From the moment that our Israelite ancestors looked back at the Sea of Reeds behind them and found their pursuers drowning in the waters that God had held back for them, until approaching the wilderness of Sin (please don't get caught up in the coincidence between the English word "sin" and the Hebrew geographic term, there is really and truly no connection save coincidence) the Israelites had already experienced some elevating and some challenging moments: They had faced the uncertainties of food and water in the wilderness and learned to rely on God to sustain them; they had been introduced to Shabbat as a day of rest for God (who did not produce manna on Shabbat) and for themselves (they did not collect manna on Shabbat); they withstood a fierce attack by Amalek and his troops and were defended by Joshua and the Israelite troops sustained and inspired by God; Moses, advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, established a system of self-governance and dispute resolution . . . all before arriving at Sinai.
Although the walk to Sinai was through uncharted territory, the wandering of our ancestors was not random. The Israelites arrived at the third new moon . . . today's date, the beginning of the month of Sivan . . . guided by God's pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire by night and there they prepared themselves for the most extraordinary event they could not possibly anticipate.
I took a look at the challenges our walk from Passover to this first day of Sivan has involved as we, too, prepare to re-experience the revelation of Torah on Shavuot this coming week. We have mourned the victims of the Holocaust and shuddered when notes bearing Nazi rhetoric were handed to Jews attending Passover services in the Ukraine. We have found compassion and the conviction to speak out on behalf of the abducted schoolgirls of Nigeria, a compelling contemporary parallel to our own slavery story. We have organized to lobby for poverty-alleviating legislation here in Rhode Island. We have mourned both the troops who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the State of Israel and those who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the United States of America in two Memorial Days. Even in these GPS-guided days, our wanderings take us through uncharted territory.
We know that something great is going to happen next week. We have the advantage over our wilderness-walking ancestors in knowing that the revelatory moment awaiting us can bring wisdom and guidance, inspiration and challenge. The Sinai revelation was not a one-time event . . . our tradition teaches us that revelatory moments happen throughout time. When we come together as a community on Shavuot this week, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder ready to accept the renewal of covenant with God which is the glue that binds us together . . . binds us to God and binds us to each other.
Letting the eternal and eternally renewing teachings of Torah into our daily lives will guide our walking and provide us with goals and aspirations and the tools to navigate the complexities we encounter in life.
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.
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 Economic Progress Institute. www.economicprogressri.org
For the fifth year, I participated in the Annual Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition's conference, "Fighting Poverty With Faith."
For the fifth year, I walked out of the Conference with so much frustration, I did not know what to do with it. It is appalling to listen to the statistics and translate those numbers into the reality of people's lives:
In 2011 (the year for which we have the most recent statistics), there were 148,800 Rhode Islanders living in poverty. That means that 148,800 of our neighbors and fellow Rhode Islanders were subsisting on $11,000 a year for a single individual and around $18,000 a year for a family of three.
Those are the people who are merely "poor."
68,800 people in Rhode Island are living in "extreme poverty" with income less than half of the poverty level: $9,265 for a family of three.
It is too easy . . . and way too inaccurate . . . to label the poor as those who do not work, whose lives are tainted by addiction, as criminals or parasites on the public.
The poor could be any of us in a blink of an eye: lose a job; get a divorce; become chronically or critically ill . . . and any of us can join the ranks of those who struggle to keep a roof over their heads and need to decide any given week between heat or food.
As a congregation, we are proud of our continuing and consistent support of the Edgewood Food Closet in our old Cranston neighborhood and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry run by the Jewish Seniors Agency. We continued to collect food for both food security projects all during our interim stay in our TY house on Middle Road and we have designed built-in bins in our new TY synagogue lobby (just lift the benches under the windows!) to accommodate our donations of non-perishable food. We hear over and over again that most of the people who come to the Edgewood Food Closet for help are working . . . at minimum wage jobs . . . and are still making that heart-breaking decision between paying the electric bill or buying food.
The minimum wage in Rhode Island is $7.40 an hour.
In 2012, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Rhode Island was $1,176.
A cost burden exists when more than 30% of a household's income is spent on housing.
A worker would have to earn $22.62 per hour and work 40 hours a week year-round to afford this rent without a cost burden (meaning without the average rent taking up less than 30% of the worker's income).
We do need to continue or unflagging support for our two beneficiary agencies: The Edgewood Food Closet and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry.
But I suggest we need to do more.
I think there are projects we can take on as a congregation that could help to assure a more viable future for some of our state's poorest children, young people or even adults. Can we tutor children to read? Can we offer basic information in any of the fields of endeavor in which many of us work? Can we teach someone how to use a computer? Can we show someone how cook inexpensive, nutritious meals?
We cannot do all of these things. Perhaps what we can do effectively is not even on my short brainstorming list. But our neighbor, Newport, is the fifth poorest city in our State and we can sit down with those who are involved in the specific challenges of Newport and devise a project that will help a few people out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Call me if you would like to explore ways to help: 419-5577.
Write to me if you would like to explore ways to help: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Star Thrower (Loren Eiseley)
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
"Young lady," he asked, "Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"
"The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die."
"But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference."
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, "It made a difference for that one."
The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
This week, we read the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. This is a clear case in which meaning is lost in translation: The book is entitled "Numbers" in English based on the census that is related in the opening chapter of the book, but in Hebrew the title "Bamidbar" means "wilderness" . . . as the book relates the saga of the Israelite journey through the wilderness from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.
This is also a week in which the whole world is watching the spiritual wanderings of the residents of modern Israel.
The Christian Science Monitor, The Arab News as well as The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and every other Jewish news source has covered the turn of events at the Western Wall this week.
One month ago, at the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Iyyar, police arrested (for the umpteenth time) women who were participating in a participatory women's service celebrating the new month . . . for disrupting the peace. Following these arrests, a series of Israeli justices have ruled that it is not the praying women who have disturbed the peace of this significant historic sight (the Western Wall is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the height on which the long-destroyed First and Second Temples stood).
Today, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Sivan, saw a new development in the wake of the court decisions. This month the women returned to pray . . . but instead of arresting the women, as ultra-Orthodox Jews threw chairs, water and worse at them, the police restrained the outraged onlookers.
Since 1948, with Jewish sovereignty over Israel established, a significant dynamic of wandering came to an historic resolution. We are, in the words of Israel's national anthem: am chofshi b'artzeinu . . . a free people in our land.
But in other profound ways, we have not yet arrived.
The tendency to self-righteousness and even contempt between Jew and Jew is not limited to the conflicts within Israel around the Western Wall. Although generally less violent, there are those within the Jewish community who label other Jews as violaters of Torah, abductors of innocents, sabotagers of our tradition.
In my view, we will remain at the very beginning of our spiritual growth as a people as long as we foster theological one-upsmanship and self-righteousness. I await the spiritual milestone at which all of us who identify with our Torah and our people and our God and our tradition will be able to address each other with theological humility and say: your path may not be mine, your interpretation of Torah may not be that which is practiced in my community, but we are all the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and we share the same God, the same values and deserve the same respect.
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.
This opening verses of this week's Torah reading / parashah present a core principle of Jewish tradition that, truthfully, has confused many people for a long time:
"And Moses assembled all of the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, "These are the things that Adonay has commanded, to do them: Six days work shall be done, and in the seventh day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Adonay. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death. You shall not burn a fire in all of your homes on the Sabbath day." (Exodus / Sh'mot 35: 1-3)
The passage then continues in a direction we would not expect. Instead of continuing to define "work," instead of listing the activities that are "holy enough" for Shabbat, we move on to a mitzvah/commandment directed to our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness to collect certain rare and expensive items to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle: the walls, the accessories, the priestly garments, the food items to be sacrificed . . .
The effect of this "turn without signalling" has been to spark the rabbinic imagination. A 2nd century rabbinic text, the Mishnah, connects the two passages and concludes that the "work" that is prohibited in verse 2 is defined by the human activities required to construct and create all of the pieces of the Tabernacle described in the ensuing verses. Thus, building, hammering, planting and sowing, creating fire, cooking, carrying items back and forth, weaving, cutting to measure . . . all of these become prohibited as "work" on Shabbat.
There is another derivation of "work" that is hinted at in verse 2: just as the seventh day was a day of "ceasing" to God--in Genesis/Breishit God rests on the seventh day after creating light and dark, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, stars and moon and humanity--so the seventh day should be a day of "ceasing" from creating for human beings as well.
What is it that we humans create? Our human endeavors, over the ages, have largely been focussed on providing food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. It is certainly the case that today, few of us are directly engaged in wielding a hammer, weeding a vegetable garden or cutting a sewing pattern . . . and when we are, it is more often a hobby or personal passion than a direct, compelling imperative to put clothing on our backs, food on our tables and a secure roof over our heads.
In today's complex economy, we provide food, clothing and shelter for our families by going to work and earning a paycheck and by shopping.
It may be physically challenging to carry a carton of books from the basement to the attic, but it isn't "work" in the Shabbat sense . . . that act of "shlepping" is not contributing to the creation of food, clothing or shelter. It may provide a sense of peace and accomplishment to pull out our knitting on Shabbat afternoon . . . but knitting is a human activity that literally creates clothing and, as such, is an activity proscribed by this definition of Shabbat.
For the majority of us, who have not made the commitment to turn to Jewish law / halachah to guide our actions, why should we turn the week's most convenient errand day into a day that produces no progress in the "food, clothing, shelter" department?
The rabbis of 2000 years ago suggested that Shabbat can be "a taste of the world to come." If we were to project ourselves into an existence where all that toil and worry about food, clothing and shelter were no longer necessary, what would our lives look like? No wallets. No watches. No ATMs. . . . an existence infused with peace and health and security and time to bask in the presence of our loved ones.
That is the potential of a "work-free" Saturday . . . a weekly opportunity to taste the world that might be.
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.
This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
In Psalm 119 (verse 126) we read:
עֵת לַעֲשׂוֹת ה', הֵפֵרוּ תּוֹרָתֶךָ
It is a time to act for Adonay, for they have violated Your teaching.
When 1 in 4 renters in Rhode Island spend 50% or more of their income on housing, we have violated God's teaching.
When 275 veterans in Rhode Island are homeless, we are violating God's teaching. http://www.yeson7.org/HousingFacts/ForHomes/tabid/202/Default.aspx
When Rhode Island's homeless shelters need to accomodate growing numbers of people in need: families, singles, children, we are violating God's teaching.
Question 7 on our Rhode Island Ballot this coming Tuesday will provide the resources for our state to provide 600 new, affordable, respectable housing units. The construction of those housing units will provide jobs for Rhode Islanders. People moving into those housing units will support the local businesses in their new neighborhoods--grocery stores, gas stations, laundromats and more.
In my estimation, this is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of principle: Our tradition elevates the care for the needy in our community to a mitzvah, a commandment: "When there is among you a needy person from any one of your brothers, within one of oyur gates in the land that God is giving you, you are not to toughen your heart, you are not to shut your hand to your brother, the needy one. Rather, you are to pen, yes, open your hand to him, and are to pledge, yes, pledge to him, sufficient for his lack that is lacking to him. You are to give, yes, give freely to him, your heart is not to be ill-disposed in your giving to him, for on account of this matter Adonay your God wil bless you in all your doings and in all the enterprises of your hand! For the needy will never be gone from amid the land; therefore I comman you, saying: You are to open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted one, and to your needy one in your land! (Deuteronomy/D'varim 15: 7-11).
Republican, Independent, Democrat: we can all vote "yes" on question 7. This is an issue that goes deeper than any political affiliation.
I have downloaded a basic information page from the "Yes on 7" website. Please read on. Please vote for the candidates of your choice. And vote "yes" on question 7.
Yes on 7
What is a Bond? Ballot Question 7 requests voter approval for the State of Rhode Island to issue General Obligation Bonds to finance the construction of affordable homes. Financing long-term capital assets, like homes, over the long-term is more feasible than paying for it all in the year of construction. The bonds will likely be repaid in less than 20 years and the homes will remain affordable for more than 30 years.
What Does Approval of Question 7 Do? Approving this critically important ballot question would provide for $25 million to finance the construction of long-term affordable homes for Rhode Islanders. It will likely be matched by $125 million from other public and private sources generating over $150 million for the construction of more than 600 affordable homes and supporting more than 1,000 construction jobs over the next few years.
How Will the Money Be Spent? The $25 million in bond funding will be allocated over two years. The funding decisions will be made by the Housing Resources Commission (HRC), a 27-member housing policy-making board that includes representatives from a wide range of public, philanthropic and private sector housing and business organizations. The HRC sets program priorities, solicits applications and makes decisions through a competitive and transparent process. The funds will be administered by the Department of Administration with technical assistance provided by Rhode Island Housing.
Why do we need a bond issue now?
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.