Ask yourself: What are the observances and practices that most say "Judaism" to us? I'd imagine that somewhere at or near the top of your list would be: Shabbat.
Celebrating Shabbat in Jewish community has been a core experience for millennia. Indeed, one of the most profound statements about Shabbat was penned by a an early 20th century Jewish essayist who wrote: "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."
One of the striking things about this statement is that it was written by Ahad Ha'am (the pen name for Asher Ginsburg [1856-1927]) who was a secular Zionist thinker! Shabbat reigns in the imagination even of the non-observant Jew.
The roots of Shabbat are found in the creation story of Genesis. After a day-by-day account of what God created each day, Breishit/Genesis relates: "God had finished, on the seventh day, the work God had made, and then ceased, on the seventh day, from all work of creating. God gave the seventh day a blessing and hallowed it, for on it God ceased from all work, that by creating, God had made." (2:2-3)
The initial model of this seventh day is that of a day of rest. This was a groundbreaking concept in the ancient world, in which no concept of a weekly day of rest existed.
Since that first concept of a day of rest, our Jewish people have embroidered on, deepened, enriched the concept of our day of rest. Our great theologians have waxed poetic about our Shabbat:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (The Sabbath):
"Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else."
Shabbat, teaches Rabbi Heschel, is the opportunity to step back, slow down, appreciate the mystery and the holiness that surrounds us. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to savor our own holiness, by virtue of the soul implanted within us by God.
Almost two thousand years ago, a midrash (homiletic text) related:
"Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed One: 'Master of the world, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?' God said to them, 'The world-to-come.' They said: 'Show us its likeness.' God showed them the Sabbath." (Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva).
The world to come: In Judaism, this is a time that will be free of strife, free of struggle. We will no longer be plagued by disease or fear or insecurity. Shabbat is meant to give us a glimpse of just such a time.
Jews who savor this imagery will save their best clothes and best food for Shabbat. Friends will gather around each others dining room tables, enjoy generous meals, sing, talk about Torah and life, laughter and indescribable warmth.
As we cross the threshold into the sacred time of Shabbat this evening, we at Torat Yisrael will gather together for social community (at Shalom to Shabbat this evening before services), for a unique prayer experience (with our unique Friday evening service designed for the month of Elul preceding the High Holidays) and for multigenerational, interactive study (at tomorrow morning's Torah at the Table). These are the ways we here create for ourselves a glimpse of the world to come.
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.
Passages of this week's parashah/Torah reading are so graphic and brutal, that a tradition has arisen that instructs the Torah reader to race through these passages of curses in a half-whispered undertone because contemplating them is more than we can stand.
Biblical scholarship identifies the structure of the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy with the structure of ancient near eastern covenants or treaties between [human] lords and vassals. These treaties would begin with a history of the relationship between the two entities in question, would then lay out the responsibilities of each of the parties involved and would continue to outlining the blessings the vassal will receive if he lives up to these responsibilities and the curses that the lord [again human] will rain down upon him should the vassal not live up to his responsibilities.
Understanding this ancient tradition helps us to approach the horrific set of curses threatened in Ki Tavo with some equanimity . . . but it is still a hard text to read and a harder text to ponder.
Rabbi Jessica Marshall, a Hillel rabbi, focusses our understanding of these blessings and curses on the nature of the covenant forged at Sinai (www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/kitavo_ajws.shtml). She writes:
"Within the narrative of blessings and curses in Parashat Ki Tavo, God sets out expectations for how we should behave, making it clear that this is not a covenant of faith, but one of deeds."
Rabbi Marshall cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in this context: "It is in the deeds that human beings become aware of what life really is, of their power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of their ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others…The deed is the test, the trial, and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense." (God in Search of Man)
There is something empowering about Rabbi Heschel's teaching. It is true . . . many of us have experienced the pain of random illness, tragic death, destructive natural phenomena . . . that we humans are too often at the mercy of forces that seem to follow no rules, are subject to no moral valence.
But Rabbi Heschel comes to teach us that there are situations in which our deeds, the large and small decisions we make regarding our actions, that can often determine whether we bestow, or experience curse, or whether we bestow, or experience, blessing.
Rabbi Heschel's teaching also instructs us on a kind of self-awareness that is often difficult for us to internalize: that our words and actions matter, have affect, carry consequence.
I had a conversation today that intensely brought home to me, not just Rabbi Heschel's "What we perform may be slight, but the aftermath is immense" . . . but also what we fail to perform may be slight and the aftermath of the omission may be immense . . . for ourselves or for others.
A first reading of the curses of Ki Tavo may drive us into a corner of helplessness and a victim mentality . . . but the deeper reading of this passages drives us back into the world, inspired and determined to turn ourselves into sources of blessing rather than sources of curse.
This Shabbat is particularly joyful as we are celebrating Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. The beginning of every month on the Jewish calendar is observed as a special day, but this particular month holds special significance for us.
Indeed, the first Shabbat of the month of Nissan (whether it is also Rosh Hodesh or not) is celebrated as a special Shabbat . . . it is called "Shabbat HaHodesh" / The Shabbat of THE Month.
THE Month: the best of months, the paragon of months, our favorite month. What is so "THE" about Nissan?
A hint lies in the name itself: ניסן (Nissan) includes the word נס (neis).
Those of you who are dreidl aficionados, may recognize this powerful little word. Remember the letters on the dreidl?
נ = neis / miracle
ג = gadol / great
ה = hayah / was
ש = sham / there
"A great miracle happened there!"
So נס (neis) means "miracle!" And the word נס (neis) is the basis of the name of this month of Nissan.
There are a lot of miracles associated with Nissan . . . we learn in the Torah that this month is also referred to as חודש האביב / hodesh ha'aviv / the month of Spring.
My dear Rabbi, teacher and friend, Rabbi Neil Gillman, recollects a powerful moment he experienced when still a rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in Manhattan. One spring, student Neil Gillman was walking in Riverside Park with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (one of modern Judaism's greatest theologians). Suddenly, Rabbi Heschel stopped short, pointed to a tree and declared: "There is God in that tree!"
Understandably, Mr. Gillman was a bit disconcerted and confused, until Rabbi Heschel continued: "look at the buds on that tree, there is God, generating new life right in front of us!"
Hodesh Ha'aviv / Nissan, the month of Spring, is full of miracles for us to savor if we just stop to notice them.
Our month of miracles, ניסן / Nissan, also contains Hag Haheirut / the Festival of Freedom. Passover, of course. There are so many miraculous events involved in our people's redemption of Egyptian slavery: Moses' very survival as an infant was miraculous. Our people's survival as a functioning ethnic community in the face of centuries of slavery was miraculous. The intervention of the Israelite God in the natural order of Egyptian life was miraculous. And, of course, the miracle of miracles: the actual Exodus . . . our redemption from slavery and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. A miracle so vivid, so awe-inspiring, so breath-taking we revisit it every single day in our liturgy.
No wonder Nissan is referred to as THE month, a month packed with large and small miracles . . . what other month could possibly compete?!?
Fifty years ago, two visionary religious leaders from two very different communities, developed a profound friendship. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel emerged from two very different cultures and faiths and came together to make history.
Rabbi Heschel's daughter wrote of this friendship in 2006:
The relationship between the two men began in January 1963, and was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes. As King encouraged Heschel's involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel encouraged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Heschel's sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker they invited was King. When King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.*
Every year, the calendar conspires to reunite these friends: Reverend King's birthday, and Rabbi Heschel's yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) fall within days of each other. I could easily have written this message on the Shabbat of Martin Luther King weekend . . . but I feel that the greater tribute to these two great religious visionaries is paid by writing about them this Shabbat: For the Torah reading for this Shabbat B'Shallah is the long-anticipated, eternally evocative "yitziat mitzrayim" / the exodus from Egypt.
Reverend King witnessed the moment when the British colonial Gold Coast became the independent nation of Ghana. This nation's journey from subjection to independence inspired a sermon in which he concludes:God is working in this world, and at this hour, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism. To break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. And then we will be in Canaan’s freedom land.
Moses might not get to see Canaan, but his children will see it. He even got to the mountain top enough to see it and that assured him that it was coming. But the beauty of the thing is that there’s always a Joshua to take up his work and take the children on in. And it’s there waiting with its milk and honey, and with all of the bountiful beauty that God has in store for His children. Oh, what exceedingly marvelous things God has in store for us. Grant that we will follow Him enough to gain them.**
Every single day, our tradition guides us back to the moment of "yitziyat mitzrayim", of leaving Egypt. We rise daily and chant the highlight of this week's parashah/Torah reading "Shirat HaYam" The Song of the Sea . . . the poetic and passionate paean of praise to God for redeeming our Israelite ancestors, us, from Egyptian bondage. We speak of the exodus from Egypt twice a day when we recite the biblical passages of the "Sh'ma." We sing of the Exodus from Egypt when we sanctify the Sabbath through the chanting of the Kiddush over the wine on Friday evening. That journey was arduous: it took forty years, it took courage to wander through the wilderness, it took vision to keep going forward (and often that vision flagged). We revisit that moment every day, because we need to remind ourselves every day that God loved the descendants of Abraham enough to venture into Egypt and redeem us. It is humbling to consider that the moment of redemption experienced by the Israelites enslaved by Egypt has inspired innumerable peoples in innumerable places and innumerable generations to persevere through tyranny and to patiently, with determination and vision, journey step by step to freedom.
* Praying with their Feet: Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Peacework: Global Thought and Local Action for Nonviolent Social Change, From Issue 371 - December 2006-January 2007** "The Birth of a New Nation", April, 1957.
In this week's parashah/Torah Reading, Joseph reveals his identity to his beleaguered brothers and with the Pharaoh's blessing moves his brothers and his father, Jacob, to Egypt. The Torah relates that Jacob’s sons carried their father in the Pharaoh’s wagons and Joseph went to greet his father in Goshen, flinging himself upon his father’s neck to weep. Jacob was 130 years old when he was reunited with his beloved Joseph in Egypt.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "The test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture." (The Insecurity of Freedom)
With ceremony and respect, Jacob was carried to Egypt in the Pharaoh's own wagons. Joseph's brothers are presented to Pharaoh who questions them briefly and assents to their settling in Egypt. Apparently, Jacob, the patriarch of this family, is presented to Pharaoh after his sons are dismissed.
When we read these passages attentively, we see that Jacob is always treated with great respect by his sons . . . all his sons . . . and even by the sovereign of the country in which he seeks a haven.
I wonder if we would pass Rabbi Heschel's test today: would our attitude toward our elders attest to a culture of compassion or of impatience?
Rabbi Ron Isaacs, in his book Kosher Living: It’s More Than Just the Food asks: Is it kosher to visit a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s who doesn’t even know who you are?
Rabbi Isaacs continues: Yes, it certainly is right to take time to visit a person who has Alzheimer’s disease. Though cut off from society, he or she is till a member of society, deserving of care and attention. The Talmud is very explicit in recognizing the dignity of persons with dementia: “Rabbi Joseph learned: This teaches us that both the tablets and the fragments of the tablets were deposited in the ark. Hence, we learn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning through no fault of his own must not be treated with disrespect” (Talmud, Menachot 99a).We who constitute the community of Torat Yisrael need to take an honest look at how we treat our own elderly, incurable and helpless. This past week, I had the sad duty of conducting the funeral of Rosalind Herman. Roz and her husband were among the founders of our congregation. Roz had served as Secretary of our Board for a decade and was President of our Sisterhood for many years as well. We are quickly losing this elder, wise and experienced generation of Torat Yisrael and because those who remain with us are largely homebound or living in a variety of care facilities, they are out of our sight, and therefore, beyond the scope of our vision and awareness.Our Kesher social worker, Andrea Epstein, is a wonderful, caring presence reaching out to many of our housebound, but we should truly not be relying on Andrea to care for and about our elders. They are the elders of our community and without them we lose depth, history and wisdom. I invite you to look for opportunities to embrace our elders and homebound and help organize efforts to weave our elders back into the fabric of our community.
In a parasha/Torah reading of extraordinary events, there lies one verse which I find a true source of wonder: Jacob is fleeing his home land of Canaan on the way to his mother's homeland and safe haven from his (ostensibly) enraged twin, Esau.
There was no Amtrak, not even a stagecoach, to facilitate this journey: Jacob made his journey on foot and was required to make camp at night in the middle of nowhere on his way. It is in this vulnerable night that Jacob dreams: a ladder stretches from earth to heaven and angels are ascending and descending this ladder. And then we read:
And Jacob awoke ... and said: Surely, God is present in this place, and as for me, I did not know it!. (28:10,16)
That's the amazing verse to me: Jacob did not know that God was in that particular place.
Isn't the first lesson in Torat Tots (our pre-school program) that God is everywhere? For all that we cannot see God . . . despite the cartoons and the Renaissance paintings, God has no corporality, no arms or eyes or beard . . . God is omnipresent, in every place. Jacob, who may or may not serve as a paragon of virtue or faith (that's another d'var Torah!), apparently left home without the assumption that the God of his grandfather, Abraham, would be with him wherever he went. It took a divinely inspired dream to establish that truth for our ancestor.
We, who were raised with that basic premise of "God is everywhere," have our own difficulty with grappling with that reality. My rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, Professor of Theology at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, tells a story about one of his early encounters with his own teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The two of them had attended Shabbat services on a spring Shabbat at The Jewish Theological Seminary and were walking home together through Riverside Park. Suddenly, Rabbi Heschel stopped, pointed and said to the pre-rabbinic Neil Gillman: "There is God in that tree!"
Others might have taken that same walk and commented: "Oh how nice, the trees are budding again." or "Isn't that a pretty shade of light green?" But Rabbi Heschel had a very well-developed "awe radar system" . . . he had the capacity to sense and appreciate God's presence in the most prosaic as well as in the most elevated moments.
Our ancestor, Jacob, was able to appreciate the significance of that message God sent him in the dream "you are travelling far from home and I am with you wherever you go." Rabbi Heschel taught Neil Gillman that God is there for us if we would only open our eyes to God's presence.
All our lives can be richer, more fulfilling, less anxious--all we need do is fine-tune our "awe radar" and let God in to our prosaic and our elevated moments.
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.