We Jews tend to be a little territorial about the Torah. After all, on a daily basis we acknowledge that the gift of Torah was an expression of God's love for the people who entered into the covenant of Sinai.
But the Sinai covenant is not the first in the Torah: in this week's parashah/Torah portion, we read of the covenant God forged with Noah: the waters of the flood had receded, Noah and his family and the animals they had saved in the ark had emerged. God paints the sky with a rainbow and declares:
12 God said, This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. 17 And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9
This is a covenant between God and "all flesh". . . not just Jews, not just human beings either. God's commitment is to "all flesh that is on the earth."
At this moment, the horizons of the Torah are as broad as the horizons of our world: we are encouraged to drill down to the core of our identity: yes, we Jews are the descendants of Jacob and the Jewish tradition we practice today is rooted in the relationship between Jacob and his progeny and God. We are the descendants of Abraham and through our first patriarch we share common ground with our siblings-in-faith, those who practice Christianity and Islam. And we are all, ultimately, the children of Noah . . . we are all the sentient "flesh of the earth" and are thus, in all our diversity of appearance and practice, created in the image of God.
Rabbi Brad Artson concludes, in an essay on this week's Torah reading in his wonderful book The Bedside Torah:
"A righteous Gentile [anyone who is not Jewish] is a full child of God, to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we, too, are "Children of Noah."
Shabbat Hanukah 5771 Parashat Miketz Torah Reading: Genesis 41:1-44:17
Parashat Miketz is often the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hanukah. In his rich and insightful book, The Everyday Torah, Rabbi Brad Artson characterizes the the themes of the Torah reading and the themes of Hanukah as "Dedication, Transformation, and Cleansing." He writes: "The miracle of the human capacity to refocus, to begin anew, to reconsecrate our deeds to a path of mindful compassion is a cause for wonder and real celebration...."
This week, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Hellenistic Seleucid invading forces in 165 b.c.e. Everything within the precincts of the Temple grounds was cleaned and rededicated to the exclusive service of the God of Israel. Rabbi Artson encourages us to internalize that dynamic of cleansing and transformation so that we may dedicate our resources, our priorities and our actions to mindful compassion.
I am so engaged by Rabbi Artson's phrase, "mindful compassion." Among the meanings and associations that come to my mind is the principle that help is really only help when we understand the needs of the person we are helping. Mindful compassion compels us to enter into the world of the person we are encountering, and to offer them resources that will address their own perceived needs, not the resources that will bring them closer to a goal that we think they should aspire to.
There are also moments when mindful compassion pushes us to forgo intellectual exercises and simply act to relieve acute suffering.
This Hanukah, this season of re-dedication, well over 200 Rhode Islanders are facing the appalling reality of sleeping under bridges. There are enough shelter beds in Rhode Island to provide a warm, clean, dry place to sleep for just about everyone in need, but the state lacks the funds to open, heat and staff those shelters.
For this reason, the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis have come together to organize "A Call for Compassion During Hanukah," our communal response to the crying need in our state.
There is a collection box in the lobby at Torat Yisrael, and there will be one at my Open House this Sunday afternoon, as well as Sunday morning at the Cohen School. You may donate cash or a check to this emergency appeal. Checks can be made out to: Rhode Island Board of Rabbis with "emergency shelter fund" on the notation line.
You can also donate online directly to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless at www.rihomeless.org
Mindful compassion also compels us to use our imaginations to understand the realities of someone else's life. Please be generous.
Parashat Emor Torah Reading: Leviticus 21:1-24:23
In this week's parashah, God tells the Jewish people, "You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel." This verse is the source of a mitzvah/commandment called "kiddush hashem/the sanctification of God's name."
Rabbi Brad Artson, in his wonderful book, The Everyday Torah, explains:
Life presents us with a simple choice: how we live our lives can either heighten a sense of God in the world, or it can diminish it. There is no neutral, middle ground.
By treating our fellow human beings with generosity, we bear witness to God's generosity. Acts of greed and selfishness make that bounty harder to perceive.
By speaking out against oppression and bigotry, we affirm God as the righteous judge, the One passionate about justice. To remain silent in the face of such suffering is to eclipse God's justice.
In everything we do, we can help other people to know that there is a God; we can bring credit to the God of Israel and to God's Torah. As the great nineteenth-century rabbi Israel Salanter said, "Compassion is the foundation of belief. For a person who isn't compassionate, even the belief in God is a kind of idolatry."
I imagine that most of us who are blessed to be parents have experienced a twinge or two of embarrassment at something our progeny have said or done: our two-year-old might decide that climbing on a table is a great challenge . . . at a restaurant; our teenager might emerge from the bathroom with purple hair . . . just as we're leaving for the airport for a family vacation; our seven-year-old may have a meltdown at the supermarket when told that the tempting, neon-colored breakfast cereal will not be making an appearance in our shopping basket. (Disclaimor: my kids have done none of these things, but I'll spare them the embarrassment of telling you what they have done!)
What this week's Torah reading provides is the wonderous insight that our actions might embarrass or disappoint God. If our actions will sanctify God's name, then our actions can do the opposite as well. Not only has God created us with free will, with the capacity to discern right from wrong and the self-determination to decide which we will pursue . . . but God has also created us with the capacity to bring Kedushah/Holiness to the world through the great and small decisions we make every day.
Right now, with the simplest of decisions, we can make God proud. That is awesome!
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.