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“What will THEY say?!”

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Return of Spies” by David Ascalon

Within our Torah portion this week is a remarkable exchange between Moses and God. We remember that Moses sends twelve scouts, one from each of the tribes, to scout out the Land of Israel. The scouts return with fruits of the Land, but ten of them bring reports of doom and gloom: “It is a land that devours its inhabitants. . . There were giants in the land, and we were as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in theirs.” (Numbers 13.32-33) But the other two, Joshua and Caleb, dissent: “The Land is an exceedingly good land; a land filled with milk and honey. . . Let us by all means go up, for we will surely conquer it.” (Numbers 13.27, 30) Unfortunately the crowd sides with the naysayers.

At this God becomes exasperated with the Children of Israel. Virtually since they left Egypt they have whined and complained, and rebelled against the divinely appointed leadership of Moses. Even after the marvels and miracles, they have little faith in God’s power. God is ready to zap them into oblivion. But Moses intervenes. Ever the loyal buffer, Moses tries to mollify the Almighty. And he does it with a little “psychology,” if you will. To paraphrase: “Almighty, You went to all this trouble to free these people from the bondage of Egypt, and deliver them into the Land. And now you’re going to mess it all up? How would it look, especially to the Egyptians? Do You want them to think You’re a phony, or a turncoat, or that You don’t actually have the power that You claim to have? What will THEY say?!”

Many of us generally try not to fall into the trap of worrying about “what THEY will say,” whoever “THEY” happen to be at any given moment. If we second-guess our every action, our every word, our every decision in life based on what THEY will say, we risk paralyzing ourselves in the fear that nothing will ever be good enough.

On the other hand, there just might be some usefulness, on occasion, for us indeed to worry about what THEY will say. We do not live in isolation from one another. Our words and actions, even our appearance at times, can and do have an effect on other people. We represent ourselves, so to speak, as we present ourselves to those around us. Often, we represent others as well: our families, our organizations, various groups with which we are associated. On certain occasions then, it might not be all that harmful if, before we speak or behave, or appear, we consider how this will be perceived in the eyes of others, and how it will reflect upon ourselves and others whom we care about.

What will THEY say? Not the end-all and be-all, but a question worthy of consideration.

Welcome New Student Cantor Benjamin Harris

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Student Cantor Benjamin Harris

We are delighted to announce that our new Student Cantor for next year will be Benjamin Harris, who will be entering his second year at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music of the Hebrew Union College (DFSSM) in September. A native of Atlanta, Ben is a graduate of the Boston University School of Music. During this past year of studies at the DFSSM in Jerusalem, he has sung with Nava Tehila, a progressive community that has amassed a significant following all over Israel in recent years. Ben has a wealth of experience as a NFTY song leader, both in the Boston and Atlanta areas. He served as the Music Educator and Youth Advisor at Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA, Head Song Leader and Assistant Director of Judaic Programs at Camp Micah in Bridgton, ME, Song Leader of NFTY-SAR (South Atlantic Region), and as a teacher at Temple Sinai of Atlanta, GA, his home congregation. In addition to English and Hebrew, Ben speaks fluent French, and is an accomplished guitarist and pianist. He has a beautiful baritone voice and a warm smile, and we very much look forward to welcoming him into the Union Temple family.

Ben will be with us for Shabbat Services on Friday, June 17, when we also will welcome the members of the Introduction to Judaism Class that is meeting at Union Temple this semester. He also will be with us for the service on Saturday, June 18, when we will celebrate the Aufruf of Ben Halioua and Natalie Roth, who will be getting married this coming July. We hope you will join us at some point during this Shabbat.

On The Attack in Orlando

President Obama Speaking about the Tragic Shooting in Orlando FL

President Obama Speaking about the Tragic Shooting in Orlando FL

There are no words to sufficiently express the depth of our shock and sadness at the horrifying massacre in Orlando, FL, early Sunday morning. This was a hate crime of unimaginable magnitude, deliberately perpetrated upon the LGBT community, resulting in the senseless death and serious injury of over 100 innocent young men and women. The Pulse night club was built as a safe place for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and straight people as well, particularly young people, to gather together for music and dancing, relaxing and socializing, in an atmosphere of celebration. There was no judgment at Pulse, only acceptance and friendship, openness and celebration of life. We extend our embrace of sympathy and support to the LGBT community, in Orlando, and around our country and our world

This is a complicated case. It will take a long time to sort out the involvements and activities of the seriously disturbed individual who perpetrated this crime. There is, however, some indication of “lone wolf” sympathies with ISIS and Islamic extremism. On this count, as American Jews we must extend the hand of peace and solidarity to our fellow Americans who are Muslim, as they struggle against the stereotypes about all Muslims and mainstream Islamic faith that would prejudice our society against them.

My heart sank as I listened to President Obama’s statement to the nation, realizing that since he first took office, this is the 16th time he has had to deliver such a statement to the American people. And yet, the NRA continues to hold the entire nation hostage, as significant gun legislation in the halls of Congress cannot find the light of day. It absolutely defies reason as to how it is possible for any of us as Americans to be able to walk into a gun shop and purchase assault weapons and ammunition that are designed to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. This is an ongoing fight for us as Americans and we cannot afford to relent.

Terrorism is exactly what it says it is – the intent to terrorize – people, communities and nations. Its purpose is to get into our heads and make us afraid. Obviously, it could have been any of our kids in that club, or that school, or that movie theater. It could have been any of us in that house of worship, or community center. It’s true – our sense of vulnerability in the randomness of these acts is chilling. But we simply can’t shut ourselves up in our homes and delude ourselves into thinking that we are impervious. We have to be able to live our lives, and go about our business within our communities and within our world. And most critical, we have to continue to embrace and promote the values of democracy, humanitarianism and peace.

We pray that those who have been wounded will be restored to health and strength, and that the memories of those who have been murdered will be for a blessing. May God comfort their families and friends, especially now, in the hour of their grief.

The Anti-Racism of Ruth

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Naomi and her Daughters-in-Law. Marc Chagall

In this contentious campaign season we continue to be bombarded by unbridled anger and malicious invective against foreigners, immigrants, Muslims and Mexicans, and anyone else who might fall into the category of “other,” in the eyes of Mr. Trump. As Americans, we must reject this pernicious xenophobia. As Jews, we view this mindset as particularly repugnant, and our approaching celebration of Shavuot, this Saturday night and Sunday, makes that palpably clear.

On this holiday we will read the Scroll of Ruth, along with the Ten Commandments of the Torah. We recall that Ruth was a young Moabite woman, who married a Jewish man in Bethlehem. But there was a famine in the Land, and Ruth’s husband died, along with his father, and brother, and many others. Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi released her from any obligation she may have felt to remain among the Jews, and tried to send her back to Moab to rejoin her people. But Ruth refused. Instead, she chose to remain with Naomi and her community, and thus cast in her lot with the People of Israel. In so doing, Ruth became the paradigmatic convert – the first official Jew-By-Choice. Her reward was to remarry within the Tribe of Judah, and ultimately become the great-grandmother of none other than King David. And since tradition held that the Messiah would hail from the House of David, Ruth, the Jew-By-Choice, became the progenitor of the Messiah.

This Saturday night, on Shavuot, we will join together with Jews all over the world as symbolically we return to that moment when we stood together at Sinai. Once again we will take upon ourselves the Torah, and its teachings of justice, fairness, honor and compassion. Among the most oft-repeated of our ethical obligations regards our treatment of those who are not native-born among us – gerim – “strangers.”

(Exodus 22.20) You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

(Exodus 23:9) You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

(Leviticus 19:10) You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal am your God.

(Leviticus 19:33-34) When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each on as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I the Eternal am your God.

No fewer than 36 times does the Torah admonish us to treat the strangers in our midst with fairness and kindness, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The majesty of the Scroll of Ruth, even though only four chapters long, consists in its eloquent testimonial to the humanity of those who are newcomers to our community, and the humanity that we ourselves possess. My teacher Rabbi Professor David Hartman, z”l, characterized the Scroll of Ruth as “anti-racist,” reminding us of “the sacredness of human life. . . . God believes in the capacity of humanity to live by values. . . .” Further, Rabbi Hartman taught, “We have certain demands upon us; an obligation to values that are intrinsically worthwhile.”

And so on this coming Eve of Shavuot, as symbolically we stand together at Sinai, we remember those demands and return to those values; and optimally, go on to teach them and promote them, so that the world will be lifted up by them.