Our Torah portion begins, Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . After two years’ time. . . . The two years are those that presumably have passed since the end of last week’s parashah, as the cupbearer of the Egyptian court had told his dream to Joseph, and Joseph interpreted it with astounding accuracy. This time, “after two years’ time,” it is Pharaoh himself who is dreaming. The cupbearer tells him of Joseph’s astonishing powers of dream interpretation. Pharaoh orders Joseph’s release from the dungeon, and thus begins Joseph’s rise to power.
It is fortuitous that we are talking about miketz sh’natayim yamim, the end of two years, now at the end of this year of 2016. While in actual time it has only been one year, it has felt like one of the longest years in history. Donald Trump steamrolling over sixteen opponents in the Republican primaries; the often irritating rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the bruising, often outrageous presidential campaign; the unforgettable election night that most of us would prefer to forget; the devastating massacre at Pulse Night Club in Orlando; the police shootings of all too many African American young men, and likewise, the targeted shootings of all too many police officers; Brexit; Nice; Berlin; natural disasters; Russian hacking; escalated tensions between the US and Israel – close friends who are clearly rather irritated with each other at this moment – and the deaths of all too many celebrities whom we felt like we knew personally – from Mohammed Ali, to Gene Wilder, to Prince, to John Glenn, to Eli Wiesel, to Shimon Peres, and just this week, not only Carrie Fisher, but her mother Debbie Reynolds as well, among many more.
Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . . This may have been one year that felt not even like “two years’ time,” but more like twenty. I suspect we won’t be sorry to bid farewell to 2016. But 2017, of course, will present us with many challenges. While we may still be feeling down in the dumps, we will have to redirect our energies into mobilizing for what are sure to be struggles ahead.
This Torah portion, Miketz, is almost always read during the Festival of Chanukah. While it is actually just a calendrical coincidence, perhaps we might find some hope in the metaphor of light, which is such a prominent feature of our Festival of Lights. The last night of Chanukah this year is also the last night of 2016. But the festival reminds us of the strength and eternality of the Jewish People, and of the values we derive from our tradition – the values of justice, and fairness, of compassion and the pursuit of peace, and the teaching of fundamental respect for the dignity of all human beings.
So, Miketz HaShanah HaZot – at the end of this year – I wish all of you in the coming year renewed strength, and fortitude, hope and peace.
The year was 2010, and the Senate Judiciary Committee was carrying out its Constitutional responsibility of conducting a confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for the US Supreme Court – a responsibility, I might add, which the Senate has now defiantly shirked for the better part of this past year. But in 2010, the nominee was Judge Elana Kagan, a New York jurist. In an exchange about the shoe bomber airplane incident, which happened over Christmas in 2001, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Judge Kagan in a rather off-handed way, “Where were you at on Christmas?” And in an equally off-handed way she replied, “You know, like all Jews I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” Great laughter ensued.
During the laughter at Judge Kagan’s response, Senator Chuck Schumer explained that Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas Eve. And while that may be part of the explanation, there may be a deeper one as well, offered by Jennifer Lee, producer of The Search for General Tso’s Chicken. Lee explains that at the turn of the century (19th-20th), two of the most populous immigrant communities in New York were the Eastern European Jews and the Chinese. There were Italians and Irish too, of course, but on Christmas Eve, they were usually at home celebrating Christmas. And if an isolated restaurant happened to be open on that holy night, it most certainly would contain Christmas trees, images of the Virgin Mary, of the Christ child, and mangers galore. But the Chinese stood as much outside these traditions as did the Jews, according to Lee. So, in a natural coming together of outsiders, the two groups just kind of came together, to share being “inside” on Christmas Eve.
But what began out of practicality has grown into a beloved tradition for many Jews on Christmas Eve. Christmas is a sacred time for our Christian friends. It’s a time for families and friends to be together. As Jews, we recognize and respect the sacredness of that time. For some of us, though, in an effort not to feel left out, we have figured out this rather wonderful alternative: Chinese food, often coupled with a movie. What could be bad?! Of course this particular year provides us with a built-in reason to gather together – the first night of Chanukah! So, we can have our latkes, and Chinese food too, and as we will do at the temple, we’ll gather together for a movie as well!
An important note. . . Often I have been asked about the propriety of interfaith families celebrating Christmas Eve with their non-Jewish relatives. I have always made it clear that it is vital for families to gather together for beloved celebrations. While it’s much less confusing for Jewish homes not to have Christmas trees themselves, I would never tell anyone not to spend Christmas at the homes of their relatives who have trees, as long as the distinction was made clear. Certainly, the reverse is also true. I would hope that non-Jewish families and friends would be delighted to come to their Jewish relatives’ homes to celebrate Chanukah. This year, of course, is quite anomalous in the confluence of the first night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve. What I would urge us all to remember is that the only similarity between the two holidays is that they both occur around the winter solstice, the darkest and coldest time of the year. It is understandable then, in an anthropological sense, that festivals involving lights and fires gained popularity in the ancient world. For Christians, the Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. For Jews, the Festival of Chanukah celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian oppressors, and the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel. Add to this historical event the folklore of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, and we’ve got a magnificent celebration that has always been one of the most popular of our entire liturgical calendar. As Chanukah holds deep historic and religious significance for Jews, so does Christmas hold deep historic and religious significance for Christians. For us, the challenge of the season is to rejoice with each other, while not confusing the two.
Ultimately the aim for all of us during this season of celebration is to realize and assert our own integrity and uniqueness, even in the pressure of all the hype that surrounds us. This will be particularly important as we head into a time of great uncertainty. The forces of bigotry and intolerance have already begun to rear their ugly heads, and we will have to stand strong and resolute. And so my wish for our community is a Chag Urim Sameach – a joyous Festival of Lights. And my wish for all of us and our families – most of which probably are multicultural to one degree or another – is a season of love and warmth, and mutual respect, and a future of security and peace, for us, and for our world.
I have told many of you about a close friend of mine in the Rabbinate who is a collector of antiques. Among his collection are a number of gorgeous menorot from different places and time periods. One was an 18th century German menorah. Just before the pogrom of Kristallnacht, someone who had an inkling of what was about to happen brought the beautiful menorah to the Bishop of Ulm, a German city on the Danube. The Bishop hid it in the church crypt. At the end of the war, the menorah came into the possession of Otto Frank, who survived the war, though his wife and daughters (Anna and Margot) did not. Otto Frank went on to become quite active in the Reform Movement of Europe. My friend was interning for a time in Europe and spent an evening in Frank’s home. Frank saw him staring at the menorah and understood that this was someone who appreciated the value of good art. Frank decided to give him the menorah on the condition that he would see to it that Kaddish would be recited for his daughters in the United States. My friend agreed, and the menorah found a new home.
Another piece in my friend’s menorah collection was black, fashioned out of shrapnel that was collected from one of the battlegrounds in the aftermath of the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. (“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares….”)
One Chanukah a number of years ago, I sat in my friend’s apartment in New York, along with a several other friends. The apartment was ablaze with light from the vast menorah collection. This time he focused on another incredible piece in the collection. He shook his head and opined, “If that thing could only talk!”
And so, my friends, I bring this story to you now, and hope you will take the opportunity to make it your own. If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say? Maybe it has been passed through generations of your family. Maybe it is brand new. Maybe it has a child-centered theme, or came as a gift from a special person in your life. Whatever it may be, the story of your menorah is ultimately a story about you; about you, your family, and your relationship to Jewish life.
This Sunday, during our Chanukah celebration, instead of lighting all our menorot (because it isn’t actually Chanukah yet), our menorot will tell their stories to all to come to celebrate with us. Bring your menorah, and we will provide a card and a pen for you to write your menorah’s story to share with all of us. And we look forward to sharing ours with you.
Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.
The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.
This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.
Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.
I have to admit that I have been agonizing over what to write this week for the past three days. I even wrote a long epistle to you, pouring out my own feelings. I have decided however, that for just now, it would not be the most helpful thing for me to send it to you. I suspect that most of you can pretty much imagine what they are. But at this moment, it seems more important for all of us together to assert our humanity, and to remember that we are fundamentally strong, as individuals, as a community, and as a democratic nation.
Some among us may be happy with the outcome of this election. I respect all of our congregants, and it is important for all of us to respect each other, even when we disagree. I very much hope that this will be in evidence within our congregation. And of course, we all need to hope that our new president will lead our nation well. All of us have a stake in his success.
Nevertheless, many of us might be feeling disappointment, shock, or utter devastation and despair, and perhaps a combination of all of these, and more. For those of us who are feeling this way, I would suggest that it might be helpful to look to Jewish tradition for a model of how to cope, particularly at this most difficult time.
Though we need to remember that in this case, no one has died, this is, in a sense, very much akin to a death – the death of a dream and a vision, the realization of which was within our grasp. As Jews, when an immediate family member dies, we mourn. We sit shiva. We ponder our loss and allow others to comfort us. In this way, we honor our pain and sadness, and feelings of loss and bereavement. Our tradition is very wise in teaching us to honor these feelings. But it is also very wise in insisting that at a certain point, we must move ourselves out of the deepest depths of mourning. “Shiva,” or more correctly, “shiv’ah,” is Hebrew for “seven.” The traditional time of shiva is seven days. After seven days, we are obligated to get up, put on our shoes, return to work, and, little by little, in a time-structured manner, get ourselves about the business of living. Our lives are changed, of course, and have become exceedingly difficult. Many of us need help in learning how to live without our loved ones; and indeed, we would do well to avail ourselves of such help. But we do so in the knowledge that our loved ones themselves would not have wanted us to mourn forever. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to figure out how to go on, and live.
It is important to reiterate here that in fact, no one has died. Hillary Clinton is very much alive, and she will go on as well. And, WE are alive, and so is our country and our democracy. As we heard Hillary herself express so eloquently in her concession speech, the LAST thing she would want for any of her supporters would be to become paralyzed by sadness for too long. Yes, we have to honor our sense of loss. And eventually, we will need to get up and move on. We will need to do this for the sake of our country, and the values that we believe to be fundamental to the ideals of our democracy. We will need to do this for the sake of promulgating the values of our Jewish tradition as we understand them: the values of justice, compassion, peace, fairness, and respect for all people, regardless of who or what they are, where they were born, what they look like, whom they love, or what their abilities, disabilities, inclinations and aspirations may be in this life, provided they are based in the pursuit of humanitarianism and human progress.
For us, these values may be summed up in the notion of TIKKUN OLAM, the reparation of the world. This is our mission as Jews. In the weeks, months, and years ahead, we will have to take this mission into our hands and fight for it harder than ever before. Like Avram at the beginning of our Torah portion this Shabbat, we are now headed into a new place, and we don’t know what lies ahead. But we will walk nevertheless – because we are strong, and our faith is strong.
For just now, perhaps the best words, as usual, are to be found in our Torah, as God spoke to Joshua: “Chazak Ve’ematz – Be strong and of good courage. . . and I will be with you.”
A number of Biblical stories are intended to provide an etiology of how certain things came to be. Within Parashat Noach is such an etiology in the story of the Tower of Babel. We may wonder why it is that there is a profusion of languages within the human family. The story of the Tower of Babel provides a response which, even if fantasy-driven, is nonetheless compelling.
Genesis, Chapter 11
1] All the earth had the same language and the same words. 2] As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3] Then people said to one another: “Come, let us make bricks and fire them hard.” So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. 4] Then they said, “Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” 5] Then the Eternal came down to look at the city and tower and people had built, 6] and the Eternal One said, “Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! 7] Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.” 8] So it came about that the Eternal scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9] That is why it was called Babel, because there the Eternal confused the speech of all the earth; and from there the Eternal scattered them over the face of the earth.
The fundamental implication of the story is that, left to our own devices, we humans all too easily fall prey to our own worst instincts – arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, the narrative suggests, if we humans were prevented from understanding one another, our arrogance and self-aggrandizement would be thwarted.
Thus the story of the Tower of Babel provides an etiology for the profusion of languages. But if we were to stretch that notion a bit, we might also find in it an explanation of ethnic and cultural diversity in general, offering the commentary that this diversity is a good thing. When we are all the same, whether it is through language or anything else, we humans are prone to arrogance. Recognizing the benefits of diversity, however, will help us to acquire humility, as we recognize that other languages, ethnic backgrounds, and cultural surroundings, though different from our own, are equally as interesting, and need to be understood and celebrated.
To state the obvious, this is a time of profound concern and anxiety for us, as we face a national election of monumental consequence. One of the issues that has been discussed often during this campaign is diversity. One side has made significant efforts at celebrating our diversity as Americans, and as members of the human family. The other has portrayed our diversity as a threat to America. But the reality of our country is that it is not the same country as it used to be. The picture of a white Christian majority in America is no longer an accurate reflection of America. But, one might surmise, many of those who latch onto the slogan of making America “great” again are actually very much afraid that they will be left out of the new, more diverse America that already is our reality. This, of course, completely ignores the reality of all those people and groups who were left out before! But the fault in this thinking is the belief that the realization of the American dream has to be a zero-sum game. If we widen our tent to include other people, why does that have to mean that we lose our own place in the tent?
We can delude ourselves by building towers of self-aggrandizement. Or, we can plant our feet firmly on the ground, and work to create a fairer, more compassionate, more inclusive society in our own midst. But, as we all know, whatever our perspective on the direction our country ought to take, we won’t have any part in the decision making if we don’t get out on Tuesday and vote – and encourage everyone we know to vote as well. As Americans, we dare not squander this sacred right.
The conflict. . . . For the past four years, we at Union Temple have been presented with what I have called a “conflict of positive values.” There is profound meaning and good will informing each of these values, though together they present us with something of a conflict. By way of explanation, I will take the liberty of borrowing from my own words, which I originally wrote for a Bulletin article in October of 2012.
As the Brooklyn Jewish community has come together for Selichot services for the past five years, so too have we joined together in celebration of Simchat Torah, under the Arch at Grand Army Plaza. These have been wonderful events that we have shared with hundreds of our fellow Jews in the community. This year the celebration is Monday, October 24. So what’s the problem? The problem, or shall I say, the “conflict of positive values,” exists in the fact that for the Reform Movement, the celebration of Simchat Torah is SUNDAY night, October 23, not Monday night.
Here’s the story. . . . In the days of the Sanhedrin – the High Court in Jerusalem – Festivals and New Moons were officially declared by the Sanhedrin itself. The Court would base its declaration upon the testimony of two witnesses each month that they had observed the new moon. The declaration would be communicated by a series of torch signals beginning on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, proceeding to Mount Sartaba in Jericho, and on through the Jewish world. The chain would continue until the entire Diaspora; particularly the Jews of Babylonia, received notification. Eventually the system broke down because of mischief caused by the Samaritans, who began to wave torches on hilltops at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin sought to remedy the situation by instituting an additional day of observance for the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the ancient mindset, if the Festivals weren’t observed on the correct day, supplications to God wouldn’t work.
In the middle of the 4th Century of the Common Era, the Jewish calendar was fixed on the basis of astronomical calculations, and thus everyone was able to determine the exact days of New Moons and Festivals without being dependent upon the Sanhedrin. But many in the Diaspora communities maintained the practice of celebrating these extra days in deference to the previous custom, and in its own self-perception as being in galut – exile, outside of Eretz Yisrael. The custom remained this way until the 19th Century, when the early Reformers cast aside this practice, not only because of the reality of the calendar, but also in rejection of the notion that Diaspora communities are in “galut.”
Contemporary practice. . . . In our time, the Jewish world observes along the following lines. All Jews in Israel – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and what-have-you – observe these Festival days for one day. These include: The first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret), the first day of Passover, the seventh day of Passover, and Shavuot. Reform Jews outside of Israel also observe one day. Conservative and Orthodox, and other non-Reform Jews outside of Israel still observe that extra day of the Festivals. For the Sukkot Festival, it works out in the following way. Israeli Jews and Reform Jews both in and out of Israel celebrate the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei) as a holy day. Sukkot is celebrated for seven days. We also celebrate the eighth day after as a holy day. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, on 22 Tishrei. Eventually an additional holiday which is not technically part of Sukkot was been added to this day. This is Simchat Torah, Rejoicing in the Torah. It is characterized by circuits (hakafot) with the Torahs, and much dancing and rejoicing. The end of the Torah is read, and immediately the beginning as well, to begin the yearly cycle of studying the Torah. For Israelis and all Reform Jews, these two are conflated into one day of celebration: Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah. For non-Reform Jews outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on an additional ninth day (23 Tishrei).
Specific values in conflict. . . . For us at Union Temple, as a Reform congregation, our custom, as with the vast majority of other Reform congregations, has always been to celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on the 22nd of Tishrei (this year, Sunday night/Monday, October 23/24). However, many of our friends in the community will celebrate Shemini Atzeret on Sunday night/Monday, and then Simchat Torah on Monday night/Tuesday, October 24/25. That has always been the case. But these past few years, there have been public gatherings of Jews in our neighborhood at Grand Army Plaza to celebrate Simchat Torah, this year on Monday night, October 24. For us, the two values we considered were (1) remaining steadfast in our convictions as Reform Jews, and (2) K’lal Yisrael – participating in the larger Jewish community and pursuing solidarity with our Jewish friends and neighbors.
Our decision. . . . After deliberating this “conflict of positive values” with our Board of Trustees, we at Union Temple will go ahead and celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on Sunday night, October 23, with 7:00PM reception and 7:30PM service, including the Hakafot with the Torahs – circuits and dancing. Monday morning we will hold our Festival Morning service as usual, including the recitation of Yizkor. And then, on Monday evening at about 8:00, we will join our friends for additional dancing out at the Grand Army Plaza. We hope that you will attend BOTH these celebrations, as there can never be enough rejoicing in the Torah!
Please note that in keeping with our policy of inclusion, there will be chairs around Grand Army Plaza for those who prefer to sit down during the hoopla.
Sunday, October 23
7:00PM: Reception in our Sukkah
7:30PM: Festival Evening Service with Hakafot
Monday, October 24
10:30AM: Festival Morning Service, Yizkor
7:00-11:00PM: Hakafot with the Community at Grand Army Plaza. (Union Temple’s Hakafah will be approximately at 8:15PM.)
By the way, weather permitting, please feel free to come by between now and Tuesday to visit our beautiful new sukkah, put up by our Brotherhood, with members of our Sisterhood participating. It is just adjoining our building. In keeping with the commandment, bring a bite to eat in there too. And, our Friday evening after our Shabbat service, join us for the Oneg in there as well.
Union Temple Food Drive: Each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened cann