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The Meaning of Our Bible

On Shabbat Behar-Behukotai we presented our sixth graders with their own Tanakh.  What follows is my sermon marking this occasion.

This evening we will present our sixth graders with a Tanakh.  Each will receive a beautiful Hebrew Bible, containing the Torah, Prophets and Writings.  This will become the foundation for their future studies.  I am not of course only talking about bar/bat mitzvah studies.  I am speaking about their future Jewish lives.

Our lives as Jews revolve around two books.  Most people of course think that our Jewish lives revolve around one place, the synagogue, or maybe around one person, the rabbi or the cantor.  But this is not the case.  Although we are overjoyed to be sharing this sanctuary with our Jericho Jewish Center friends, this is not what makes us Jewish.

This is the place where we might feel most comfortable asserting our Jewish identity.  This is the place where we learn more about being Jewish, and where we of course pray, together, to our God.  This is where we feel most keenly the power of community.  But if our Judaism ends here, if it ends when we leave these doors, then it offers us nothing.

For our Jewish lives to have greater meaning it must be carried out of these doors.  It must be taken to our homes, to our businesses, to even the most mundane of activities, like greeting others on the streets.  This is why two books are central.  It is because these can be carried.  These two books are: the Siddur and the Tanakh.  The Siddur you received in fourth grade.  Tonight you will add to your Jewish backpack, the Tanakh.

These are meant to be carried.  They are not intended to collect dust on your shelves.  They are meant to be used; they are meant to be taken with you.  They are meant to accompany you.

While you can of course write your own prayers, and offer any prayer of the heart, sometimes (and Judaism would say, more often) it is better to offer the familiar.  It is better to stand on the shoulders of those who traveled before us.  There are many prayers for peace, for example.  But it is easier, and more comforting, to stand on the shoulders of Shalom Rav.  Then we are connected with previous generations, and future generations.  Then we are connected with Jews throughout the world, who like us offer this prayer in the evenings.

It is the same with the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.  Recently one of my students asked me about our different Torah scrolls.  I began by explaining the differences in calligraphy styles.  But he was curious about something different.  He wanted to know if there are different Reform and Conservative versions.  Of course not, I exclaimed.  But a good question nonetheless.  We have different prayerbooks so why not different Bibles.

Sometimes the differences in the Jewish world make one think that we are reading different Bibles.  It certainly appears this way at times.  But the point of being Jewish and calling the Jewish people our own is not the interpretations we arrive at but where we start.  And we start with Torah; we begin with the Bible.  That has always been the opening, the beginning, the gateway to a Jewish life.

People too often think that the gateway is the door to a synagogue.  But in truth it is one book, even more than that second book.  The Siddur varies from community to community, from country to country, from generation to generation.  It would not be Jewish prayer if the Shema was absent or the Amidah.  There have to be those landmarks so that all of us can find our way through Jewish prayers.  Still there are differences depending on who you are praying with.

But this book, the Torah is the same for everyone.  Jews throughout the world are concluding the Book of Leviticus this Shabbat.   All are reading Behar-Behukotai.  That is what connects us to Jews throughout the world.  While I might say that a certain verse means one thing and someone else another, we begin with the same verse, we begin with the same portion.  We begin with the same book.

The secret to our success, the secret of our survival is this book.  The fact that we could carry it with us from place to place, that it could be  handed literally from one generation to another, and that it could be interpreted differently for different times and different circumstances ensured our survival.  If everyone had to shlep to one holy place we could never have made it.  So instead we carried this Bible with us.  That more than anything else sustained us.

Two books hold the secret to our survival.  One, the siddur, we rewrite in each and every generation.  The other, the Tanakh, we reinterpret in each and every generation.  Carry them both in your backpacks and our Jewish future will be guaranteed.

Then you can stand anywhere.  And anywhere can become your Jewish home.