Friday, May 25, 2012

Shavuot

During the days of early spring we were awakened at sunrise by a knocking on our window. It was a bird that was banging his beak on the glass. At first I thought it must be because there were some bugs on the windowsill. I investigated to see if I could remove this food. I discovered no such enticement. Then I learned that he was fighting with the bird he saw in the window. That other bird was in fact his reflection in our newly cleaned windows.

I shouted, “Stupid bird! You are fighting with yourself. You gain nothing in these efforts. You impress no one by your incessant pecking.” The bird failed to heed my advice. I began to regret cleaning the windows.

The holiday of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It begins on Saturday evening. The Torah is likened to a mirror. In it we can perceive a vision of our better selves. The Torah is not a reflection of what we are but instead an intimation of what we can become.

Too often we look in mirrors and see only our imperfections. How much time is spent tending to our appearances? We scan Facebook for new pictures of our tagged selves. “Wow, I look great in that picture. Damn, I am so bald.” We look again and again in the mirror, at this angle and that, to glean our most flattering pose. We fight with our reflections.

The bird finally stopped its pecking when I placed a piece of white paper on the outside of the window. It was not a particularly attractive option. The paper appeared to diminish our home’s sheen. Nonetheless it proved effective. I reasoned, aesthetics are secondary to sleep.

There is a tradition that the white spaces of the Torah are even more important than the black, calligraphed letters. Why? It is there that we discover our truer selves. It is there that we write our destiny. We are guided by the beautiful letters. But we find ourselves in between the writing. We discover our path in the white spaces.

Now the bird does what birds are intended to do. He flies.

The choice is ours. Do we look at ourselves in the mirror and see only our imperfections. Or do we see what we can become? Do we imagine that we too can fly? And then see a vision of our truer selves.

This we discover every time we peer into the unfurled Torah. And it is that reflection we should always hold before our eyes.

Bamidbar

This week’s portion begins the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers. The English name comes from the Greek and Latin translations and has to do with what occurs in the opening chapters. The first chapter begins with a census, with a counting of the Israelites. The Hebrew name in contrast comes from one of the first words, Bamidbar and means “in the wilderness.”

According to the accompanying Haftarah, Hosea, wilderness has both a positive and negative meaning. It can be the place where we hunger for food, and seek to quench our thirst. It can mean the desert. It is also the place where two lovers can be alone, where God and Israel can be joined. The prophet Hosea uses both of these images.

Hosea first chastises the Israelites, accusing them of disavowing their relationship with God. “Else will I strip her naked/And leave her as on the day she was born:/And I will make her like a wilderness,/Render her like desert land,/And let her die of thirst.” (Hosea 2:5) Later, the prophet offers a promise of redemption. “Assuredly,/I will speak coaxingly to her/And lead her through the wilderness/And speak to her tenderly./I will give her vineyards from there,/And the Valley of Achor as a plow land of hope…” (Hosea 2:16)

The wilderness can be a place of thirst, of wanting. It can also be a place of renewal and hope. There we can struggle for survival. In the wilderness we can as well discover our destiny.

The book’s English name suggests nothing of this dual meaning. It suggests nothing of the importance of this place, of the significance of the wilderness. But it is in the wilderness that we find meaning. Place is open for interpretation. There, in the wilderness, we can see little water, or the miraculous wells that sustained the people Israel. There we can see the desert’s daytime sweltering heat and its evening chilly air, or the Torah we received on Mount Sinai and the bonds of community strengthened by our journey.

This wilderness that might be called in English a God-forsaken land is transformed by our tradition into a place of promise and hope. It is a place where the unexpected and miraculous occurs. Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?, the rabbis ask. It is because this place belongs to no one. A midbar is by definition not part of any state, it is within no country’s borders. Therefore the Torah belongs to everyone.

The question remains. When we venture into the wilderness of our lives, will we see the miracles that continue to dot our landscape, or will we only see the mountains’ harshness? Will we see that there is so little water or instead the promise that we can be alone with those closest to us? Any place is what we make of it. Will we see the wilderness as a place of distance or a place of nearness?

The prophet reminds us, it is often such a distant place that can bring us closer to our God.

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.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Behar-Behukotai

The Book of Leviticus that we now conclude is filled with details about the sacrificial cult, the establishment of the priesthood and the maintenance of the sanctuary.  Even in ancient times maintaining the temple was an expensive undertaking.  Thus scholars suggest that the final chapter (Leviticus 27) was an addendum to the book, saying in effect this is how we are going to pay for the preceding.   Everyone was asked to make votive offerings of silver or animals to help support the temple.  In this spirit I want to thank all who participated in last night’s dinner and fundraiser.  As in ancient days we as well depend on such offerings.  Thank you!  Most of all I continue to remain grateful for our spirit of friendship and community.

Within our portion we also find details about land ownership.  “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” (Leviticus 25:14)  The Talmud expands this rule to apply to more than real estate transactions and suggests that egregious overcharging is grounds for canceling any agreement.  (Baba Metzia 47b)  Even more interesting the Midrash expands this ruling further saying that you must not wrong another with harmful words. (Vayikrah Rabbah 33:1)

Thus you are not even supposed to ask a merchant the price of something when you have no intention of buying it.  Why?  First of all you might then deceive yourself into thinking that you can afford to purchase the item.  Most important you might raise the hopes of the merchant.  He or she might come to believe that you intend to buy the item.  In fact you might just be gathering information so you can buy it for less on the Internet.   While many stand guilty of doing this (including me!) we might be better served to heed the tradition’s caution.  Piety begins with our words.  It extends to each and every situation, each and every setting.  We cannot leave our sacred words in the synagogue, or even in our homes.  They must find their way to the streets and the stores as well.

Judaism has long taught that words matter.    With them we can raise someone’s hopes.  With them as well we can ruin someone’s day.  Even when it comes to business transactions our tradition believes that words must be used fairly and wisely.  We cannot say whatever we want, bending the truth, in order to make a deal.  Words are a priceless commodity.  Our culture trades them as if they do not matter, as if their valuation is zero.  Our Jewish tradition in contrast believes that their value is beyond measure.

We cannot use our words in one way in our personal lives and another in business.  In all contexts our words must reach for holiness.  They can break another’s spirit, or lift them out of despair.  The Midrash offers a metaphor: “Ben Sira said, ‘A glowing coal is before him.  He blows upon it and it burns; he spits upon it and it goes out.’”  Such are the power of our words.

We must always remember that with our words we can both ignite and extinguish.  In the synagogue, in our homes, in our businesses, in every situation our words matter.  With them we can wrong another.  With them we can right another.

Emor Sermon

This week’s Torah portion contains details about the priests.  There were extra requirements to serve as a priest.  It was not just a matter of birth.  An example: “The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.  No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye…” (Leviticus 21:16-20)

This appears objectionable.  Of course we welcome the disabled to the bima.  I believe all, for example, should have a bar mitzvah.  Jewish law of course suggests that only someone who has the requisite understanding can recite the prayers or read from the Torah.  Therefore someone who is mentally incapacitated is prevented from these rituals.  But in our congregation we make sure that every child has this opportunity.  I believe that even an autistic child should have a bar/bat mitzvah.  This bima is open to all.

On the surface I therefore disagree with the Torah’s strictures.  Why should the priest have such stringent requirements? No touching the dead, marrying a divorced woman, no shaving in addition to the above.  The list goes on and occupies two chapters.

Then again, if we look not at the specifics of the list and instead at the principle, perhaps we can uncover meaning for ourselves.  We should expect more from our leaders.  Our leaders should live according to more stringent standards.  Since I focused on surgeons in my email let’s look at that again.  While we should not care if they shave their beards, we should care if we ran into them drinking and partying the night before our mother’s surgery.  Those who have extra responsibilities must live according to more exacting standards.  That is the point of the Torah’s restrictions.  For the ancients the priest was as important to a person’s and the world’s health as a surgeon is in our own age.  Extra responsibilities means extra standards.  That is the message in a nutshell.

This is why I do expect more from our politicians.  I expect them to live by higher standards.  While I am not surprised when powerful people go astray—we need only think of the Edwards trial or a past president’s indiscretions to illustrate this point. Or we can look at King David’s sinful behavior for a biblical example.  The Bible’s disappointment in David should mirror our own.  Just because we are not surprised by such behavior does not mean that it is permissible.  More responsibility means more standards.  That is the message.

It is why I also expect more of my country than of other countries.  The mission of America is not just to protect us, its citizenry, but also to rescue those in distress; we are to help the world.  Later we will look at Elie Wiesel’s speech about this mission.  In his eyes the lesson of the Holocaust is that we must reach out to those who are suffering; we cannot, we must not remain indifferent.

This is also why even though I am bothered when others, most especially our newspapers’ op-ed columnists, hold Israel to a different standard than every other country in the world, I remind myself that Israel should be held to a different standard.  If it sees itself as a leader of the Jewish people, as representative of the Jewish people worldwide, then it has responsibilities that transcend its protection of its citizens.  Both Israel and America argue that their meaning extends beyond their borders.  If we see ourselves as having more expansive responsibilities then we must live by more demanding standards.

That is the message of these lists of strictures regarding the priests.  But it is not just about our country, or about our leaders, or even our doctors.  It is actually about all of us.  When God first spoke to the Israelites at Sinai God said that the entire people must be a kingdom of priests.  That means that everyone must live by these more exacting standards.

You can object to the specifics of the Torah.  And we might as well have different specifics to add.  But I hope we will not object to the overriding message.  Every single one of us must live by higher standards.  We must live by more exacting strictures.
Our everyday moral choices really do matter.

We never know who might be watching—and who might be following us.  Each and every day every one of us is a leader.  We never know if our lives might depend on it.  We never know—the world could very well depend on us.  Everything could really depend on each of us living by these exacting standards.

That is this week’s message.  Let’s step up and not shy away from these exacting standards. Let’s do the more demanding.  Let’s live by the most stringent ideals.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Emor

Sunday’s Times featured an interesting article entitled “The Outsourced Life.”  Noted sociologist Dr. Hochschild argues that we seek professionals for more and more of our personal decisions.  “As we outsource more of our private lives, we find it increasingly possible to outsource emotional attachment….  Focusing attention on the destination, we detach ourselves from the small — potentially meaningful — aspects of experience. Confining our sense of achievement to results, to the moment of purchase, so to speak, we unwittingly lose the pleasure of accomplishment, the joy of connecting to others and possibly, in the process, our faith in ourselves.”

Years ago when I went to my first bar mitzvah there was no such thing as party enhancers.  My friends and I made the party.  It did not matter if we danced expertly or not, as long as we danced.  (There were no give aways as well, only sweaty hugs of joy when the evening ended.)  As the article makes clear, years ago there were no life coaches offering personal direction for a fee.  To help answer our questions of what we should do there were instead parents, siblings, spouses and friends.  Granted sometimes the advice and counsel was not solicited.  Still it was always free and offered with our best interests at heart. 

Hundreds of years ago many Jewish rituals were performed in the home and not in the synagogue.  To be certain these rituals were expertly observed the lighting of Shabbat candles and morning blessings for example were moved into the synagogue.  With this move from the home into the synagogue, more fell on the hands of rabbis and cantors. We turn to professionals to lead our rituals and celebrations.  We turn to experts for the most intimate of advice.  We are hesitant to dance if not led by the hand of experts.  

The Torah portion opens with details about the requirements of the priesthood.  In ancient days they and they alone performed our rituals. Only someone descended from Aaron, only a person without any perceived defects could offer a sacrifice.  “The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.”  (Leviticus 21:16-17)  These priests were trained in the intricacies of the sacrificial rites. 

The reliance on these experts was because the ancient Israelites believed that the world would collapse if the sacrifices were performed incorrectly.  They were in effect the surgeons of their day.  For such important and intricate work only experts would do.  Lives depended on their expertise.

There are of course those in the Jewish world who view today’s rituals in a similar manner and perceive them likewise as surgery.  A misplaced word, an incorrect blessing, a forgotten candle lighting and the world tumbles toward destruction.  Such is not my view.  Life is not surgery.  Prayer is not akin to the ancient sacrifices sacrifices. Rabbis are not priests.  Cantors are not the descendants of Aaron.  Our spiritual lives need not be left for surgeons.

I would rather we stumble and offer these prayers ourselves.  I would rather we join with our cantor and sing our tradition’s songs.  I would rather we dance—even when it appears out of step.  Let joy be our own.  Let our people’s rituals and prayers not be left to experts. 

Let living our lives not be left to surgeons.  Let our lives not be lived by experts.  There are times when life appears as hard and demanding as surgery, but in the end our lives should only be lived by ourselves.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Yom HaShoah Sermon

My sermon delivered on Friday, April 20, when we observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration  Day.

“Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”

I am, for many reasons, quite inspired by Gino Bartali’s story. In truth I remain inspired by so many of these stories of bravery and heroics. These stories comprise those of the Righteous among the Nations, Hasidei Umot Ha-olam.

There are many stories of course that help us remember the Shoah. Far too many of them are stories of death and murder. There are as well many stories of survival. Each year our students are privileged to hear Annie’s story.

I wonder, how many stories cannot be told by the six million Jews murdered. There are fewer stories still of those who saved Jews, of those who risked their own lives for neighbors and even strangers. On this evening I choose to recount another story of the righteous among the nations. I urge you to visit Yad VaShem’s website and read more of these stories.

Why did these people risk everything? Why did they endanger their own lives, their family’s? They were by and large simple, pious, everyday people. They were not for the most part university educated. The movie Schindler’s List captures this, portraying Oskar Schindler as an accidental hero. Schindler did not set out to be a savior. Thus all these righteous were the embodiment of that Italian cyclist.

Nearly 24,000 people have been officially recognized by Yad VaShem as righteous. The criteria are exacting. They must have risked their own lives; they must have done so not for financial gain. Furthermore Jewish witnesses must testify to their acts. Rather than offer a sermon interpreting the meaning of the Holocaust, I want to tell one more story. It is the story of Gertruda Babilnska.

Gertruda was born in 1902 in Belarus to a Catholic, working family. When she was 19 years old she went to Warsaw to find work. She found a job there with a wealthy Jewish family working as their nanny. The family decided to leave for Palestine and offered to take Gertruda along but she decided to stay in Poland. Soon she found work with another Jewish family, the Stolowicks. She took care of their baby daughter. Sadly the baby girl died at a young age, but Gertruda stayed with the family now helping to care for the mother, who was stricken with grief and despair. In 1936 they had a son, Michael, and Gertuda became his nanny.

In 1939 the Germans attacked Poland. Mr. Stolowick was in Paris on business and was never able to rejoin his family. Mother, son and nanny decided to leave Poland and make their way to Vilna. After a harrowing journey on bombed out roads they finally made it to Vilna. There they lived among the Jewish refugees. Gertruda managed to make a little money, helping the family to survive. Her command of German was apparently extremely helpful in finding work.

The mother, Lidia, soon fell ill and died in April 1941. She was buried in Vilna’s Jewish cemetery. Before her death she asked Gertuda to take care of her child and take him to Palestine after the war ended. Two months later the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. Now Vilna was also in occupied territory. Gertruda said, “I was left alone with a circumcised 5 year old child.”

Soon the killings began and the ghetto was established. Gertruda managed to live outside of the ghetto, securing false papers for Michael stating that he was a Christian and her nephew. The situation was to say the least extremely dangerous and difficult. On one occasion when Michael fell ill she was forced to go into the ghetto to find a Jewish doctor because she was afraid that a non-Jewish doctor might reveal their secret.

When the war finally ended Gertruda decided to fulfill her promise to Lidia and take the boy to Palestine. First she went with the child back to Belarus to see her family. They tried to deter her but she was adamant about fulfilling her pledge. She and Michael joined the Jewish refugees seeking to make their way to Palestine. They lived in a DP camp in Germany until finding a ship to set sail on. Since immigration to Israel was illegal they arranged passage on a Hagganah ship. Again despite assurances from the Hagganah that they would care for the boy, Gertruda insisted that she accompany Michael. They secured passage on a ship called the Exodus. It sailed from France in 1947 (Michael was 11 years old by then).

As we know the British refused to allow the Exodus passengers to disembark in Palestine. The boat was forced back to Hamburg. And Gertruda and Michael again found themselves in a DP camp. Still undeterred she made the journey again, arriving in Israel with Michael in 1948. She settled in Israel where she raised Michael as her son. She lived in a small room and made a living cleaning houses.

Although Gertruda remained a devout Catholic until her death, she fulfilled her promise to Lidia. She continued to raise Michael as a Jew. In June 1962 Gertruda helped to plant a tree in her honor at Yad VaShem.

At Yad VaShem the avenue of the righteous is flanked by trees honoring such heroes. It lines the walk to and from the museum. In coming to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust, if that were ever possible, we must always speak about the extraordinary evils that were perpetrated by one person against another. We must pledge never to become naïve to these evils. We must remember that such evils can be found within the human heart. But we must also speak about the extraordinary good that same heart is capable of. Ordinary, everyday people can risk everything to save another.

On this Yom HaShoah I look to that heart, the heart capable of extraordinary good. I remember Gertruda Babilinska. I remember Gino Bartali.

“Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”

Yom Haatzmaut Sermon

My sermon delivered on Friday, April 27th when we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day.

I have often wondered why sympathy is more compelling than joy. Why does Yom HaShoah appear to be more observed than Yom Haatzmaut? Why does our people’s suffering draw us in more than our celebrations? We appear to respond more to the call of Jewish suffering and victimhood than to our joys and celebrations.

A friend could be a case in point. He will respond to my posts about the Holocaust with comments such as, “That was an amazing video.” Yet about my love of Israel he will say, “You are going there again!?”

I worry about American Jews’ ongoing commitment to Israel. About remembering the Holocaust I have less doubt given the extraordinary number of Holocaust museums that dot the American landscape. We live in an age where high school students across this land read Anne Frank’s diary and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Even in school districts where there are no Jews, students learn about the Holocaust. That was part of the power of the film “Paper Clips.”

My friend Reverend Hart could be more evidence of this truth. He read these books growing up in Holland, Michigan. Yet the first Jew with whom he had a lengthy discussion about these events was with his friend the rabbi. How many have read Shai Agnon, Amos Oz, AB Yehoshua or David Grossman in their schools? Such Israeli authors are relegated to college classes on Israeli literature.

And so seeing the Jews as victims, even seeing ourselves as victims still holds greater appeal. This is what the Zionist revolution was intended to cure. Its goal was to end Jewish victimhood and replace it with Jewish power. But these days we appear offended by Jewish power. We recoil when we see images of Israeli soldiers hitting protestors. We should of course be offended by such abuses of power. We are upset when we see Prime Minister Netanyahu wave his finger at President Obama and lecture him on Jewish history. We should be upset by such a lack of diplomacy. It would be better to offer such lectures in private. But this should not mean that Jewish power is offensive.

One should not confuse one soldier’s mistakes with the Israeli army’s mission; one should not confuse its leaders’ occasional missteps with the legitimacy of history’s first Jewish democracy. Israel has succeeded in restoring the Jewish people to history. Because of Zionism we are writing our own history—for better or worse.

The reality of Israel is messy and imperfect. A story. Only yesterday I joked about Israeli brashness with our sofer. The Torah scribe was at our offices to repair our scroll. For me it was also an occasion to learn more about his craft. We spoke about a computer program that checks the Torah scroll for errors. He shared with me that when he first used the program it kept telling him that he was making his koof wrong. Apparently his are more curved than the program’s programmed angular dimensions. Every time it saw his koof it would scream, “Mah zot—what’s this?” I joked, “It must be an Israeli program.” If it was made here it would say, “Please check your koof.” It was of course made in Israel.

Our American sensibilities are uncomfortable with Israeli brashness, with its vigorous debates, with its yelling and screaming, its imperfections. The reality of Israel cannot be so easily packaged.

Israel is no longer some idealized memory of a distant past. While it is tied to ancient Israel and its kingdom, it is not a memory, it is not a dream, it is no longer only a prayer. This is part of the dilemma. The Holocaust is a memory. And memories can be fashioned. Israel is a living, every day, reality. And realities can not be packaged. This is why more often than not our support for Israel is couched in terms of portraying Israel as a victim in need of our support. That is appealing—that fits into our programmed packaging. We receive letters asking for our support of Israel because it suffers Hamas rocket attacks—still, and is threatened by Iran’s nuclear weapons. I am not trying to suggest that Israel does not face grave threats. I am not trying to minimize the need for the IDF to remain strong and vigilant, and for us to advocate for the US to continue its unwavering support of Israel.

I do however object that these appeals strike this note of suffering and victimization. I think it only feeds Palestinian rejectionism. For decades the Palestinians and their leadership have portrayed Israel as a European transplant in the Arab Middle East, as Europe’s guilt offering for the Holocaust. Our continued use of this language of suffering and victimization undermines the very support we seek to engender.

We speak of Israel as a victim in need of our saving. And then we are saddened when Israel does not fit into this image, when it does not live up to its highest ideals. We are embarrassed when we see it fall short of our idealized visions. We grow distant when its leaders speak more like conquering kings intoxicated by the holiness of the land rather than compassionate prophets intoxicated with the sacredness of the pursuit of justice. I find such occasions to be instead moments to engage even more with Israel; I find them to be moments not of distance but of nearness. I believe it is my duty to support Israel and to help it live up to its self-proclaimed vision.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence states: “Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…” We desperately want it to be perfect, to fit into some neat packaging. When it does not, we grow distant. Too often we then revert to a language of victimization. We cry, “Israel is under attack.”

We are then presented with two apparently conflicting and opposing choices: either justice for a better Israel or security for a safer Israel. Support AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) or NIF (New Israel Fund). Why not both? Why must they be in conflict? Why can’t I advocate for a more secure Israel and a better Israel?

When Ben Gurion was prime minister there was the infamous White Paper that Britain issued limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Some argued that the early Zionists should not therefore fight alongside the British against Hitler’s Germany. Ben Gurion observed that he would fight the White Paper as if there were no war and the war as if there were no White Paper. Leon Wieseltier reminds us of this story and then states: “To be sure, the settlements are a terrible blunder, but centrifuges are spinning in Iran. To be sure, centrifuges are spinning in Iran, but the settlements are a terrible blunder… We should fight the centrifuges in Iran as if there are no settlements and the settlements as if there are no centrifuges in Iran.”

The Jewish community appears organized around these two choices. We are presented with what we are told are two conflicting choices. Choose one. Choose security or justice. I however forever want both. I want a more secure Israel and a more just Israeli society.

We are left with an Israel that is not neatly packaged. It has its flaws. This should not distance us from the state. It should be occasion for us to engage even more. Yes Israel faces threats. This does draw our support, although not our visits. And so we must visit even more.

I believe these two days of Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut mark the twin pillars of a modern Jewish identity. Both must be observed. We must remember the Holocaust and celebrate Israel. Israel is a nation of real people; it is not perfect. It is loud and boisterous. Most important it is not about being victims. And I refuse to compel my support by such portrayals. I want only the living reality—with all its achievements and all its imperfections.

I can celebrate Israel—even though it does not comport to all my dreams. There is much for us to continue to work on. That should be the case with every dream. Everything requires continued refinement.

I will continue to work to better Israel. And I will defend Israel. I will clamor for a more secure Israel. And I will advocate for a more just Israel.

Most of all I will sing, and I will celebrate Israel, because no imperfections can ever deter me from this love. No risks will distance me from this place.

We live in an unparalleled age. We are indeed a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

The holiness code detailed in Leviticus 19 opens with the command: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The chapter then goes on to describe in exquisite detail the means to achieving holiness.  Surprisingly these laws are not by and large about rituals but instead about ethical precepts.  Do not steal.  Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.  Love your neighbor.

Throughout, the words of neighbor and fellow, stranger and poor are repeated.  We are commanded to love the neighbor. Do not hate your fellow in your heart.  Leave the gleanings of the field for the poor and stranger.

In ancient times it was not only a mandate to give tzedakah to the poor but to allow them to gather their own food.  Farmers were commanded not to pick their vineyards bare or gather the fallen crops.  These were left for the poor and stranger.  This not only allowed them to gather necessary food but preserved their dignity as well.  It is this command that is one of the opening dictates of chapter 19 and therefore creates the framework for the entire holiness code.  Concern for others is this chapter’s overarching theme.

Curiously there is also an introductory command about the shelamim offering.  On the surface one would think that this is about rituals and not ethics.  However the Torah also commands: “[The offering] shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire.  If it should be eaten on the third day, it is an offensive thing…”  (Leviticus 19:6-7)  One might surmise that the basis of this law is a concern for health.  In an age prior to refrigeration it would be disgusting to eat meat that was sitting on the table for three days!

This however is not the intention of the law’s prohibition.  The shelamim offering was a voluntary sacrifice that was offered by individuals or families in order to thank God.  Much of the sacrificial animal was eaten and enjoyed in a grand feast.  Wine was of course served.  The Torah deems it offensive if it was not a shared meal.  It was not acceptable for there to be leftovers.  That could only mean that not enough people were invited.  In a chapter that mandates the gleanings of the field be left for the poor and stranger how could even portions of a festive meal likewise be left uneaten?

This shelamim offering was meant to be shared.  The circle must be enlarged on occasions when we offer thanks.  One’s gratitude is expanded by sharing it with others.  The framework of this chapter and its fundamental teaching are that all the laws come to solidify our commitments to the larger community.  The chapter opens: “Speak to the whole community of the children of Israel…”  Edah, community, is its primary concern.  Every detail contained in its verses comes to strengthen the bonds of community.  We reach out to the neighbor and fellow.  We welcome the stranger and poor.

Even if a sacrifice emerged from private gratitude it only gained its true meaning by being shared with others.  It is not a proper thank you if it remains private.  Joy and gratitude must be surrounded by neighbors and fellows.  Even the poor and the stranger must be invited in.

Holiness is about sharing.  It is about drawing others into community.  And that is why the shelamim offering shares a root meaning with shalom, peace.