As always, I prefer to use these blasts during July to bring you thoughts and experiences from Israel. I have one more observation to share with you from my last day in Israel for this summer. But, it will have to wait until next week. It is impossible for me to let this particular moment go by without remarking upon the extraordinary events in Philadelphia last night, as, for the first time in history, a major party nominated a woman as its candidate for President of the United States. And wouldn’t you know, our Torah portion for this week is practically screaming to me, “Darsheini!” – “Comment upon me!” And so I will, for this singular moment in history.
Within Parashat Pinchas is the episode of the daughters of Tzelophechad ben Hepher, of the tribe of Menasseh, who died in the Wilderness. In preparation for life in Eretz Yisrael, Moses reviews the laws of the Torah for the Children of Israel, as they stood together on the Steppes of Moab. One of these was the law of inheritance. When a man dies, his property goes to his sons. But if he has no sons, his property should pass to the husbands of his daughters. If they hailed from a different tribe, then the land would pass to their ancestral tribe. But the daughters of Tzelophechad would not sit still for such a law. “The daughters of Tzelophechad. . . came forward. . . They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. . . and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!’” (Numbers 27.1-4) It would seem that Moses could not find anything objectionable in their claim. So “Moses brought their case before the Eternal. And the Eternal said to Moses, ‘The plea of Tzelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.’” (Numbers 27.5-6)
The story of Tzelophechad’s daughters is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is a demonstration of women asserting what they considered to be their moral and inherent rights, even in opposition to the law of the Torah. The modern feminist movement takes pride! But also, within the context of Torah law, it is something of a mini-demonstration of the flexibility of the law, to accommodate changes that must come about as the result of expanded thinking and practice. Things change – they must. Societies cannot live in their own time with the mores of former times that are no longer appropriate. The daughters of Tzelophechad were bold enough to suggest a new understanding of the law, informed by their own ethical sensibilities, and the changes that they knew had to be brought about. Thus they stand as role models for all of us.
And now, back to events of last night. It is no secret that I have always been an admirer of Secretary Clinton’s. But the significance of this nomination transcends personalities and party affiliations. It is an historic moment. There have been many contexts in which various groups of people have elected female leadership for the first time, the clergy, of course, the one I know most intimately. But it holds true for women across the board. Yes, some glass breaks easily. Not so when it’s on the ceiling. And while of course the shattering of the “glass ceiling” has been a goal, I assure you that the fundamental aspirations of women have not been born out of having to break that ceiling. Rather, they have been the pursuit of learning, serving, achieving and accomplishing, in whatever fields our interests have taken us.
A moment of personal reflection, if I may. When I was little girl, there were no women rabbis. There were no women cantors. There were only a precious few women lay leaders. It had not even occurred to me that such a thing was possible. And in the particular synagogue my family belonged to, I couldn’t even be down there among the men, wearing a tallit, reading from the Torah, pursuing knowledge of the tradition I loved. But one of the greatest accomplishments of our movement, and of my small part in it, is that no little girl now at Union Temple would ever even have such a thought, nor would any little boy. And there are almost a thousand of my female colleagues around the world who can say the very same thing. It may seem like a simple thing to say now. I assure you that arriving at this point was not, and is still not, a simple thing.
That is why I sat in front of the television last night, crying, and cheering, and listening intently. I cannot adequately express the gratitude that I feel at this accomplishment. And while I will reserve comment at this particular time about the months of campaigning ahead, and on my beliefs regarding what the outcome should be, nevertheless I will not reserve my joy and relief that this glass ceiling finally has been shattered. Congratulations to Secretary Clinton, and to all women everywhere for whom, in my own vocabulary, this moment was sacred.
In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.
With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”
Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.
One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.
Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.
Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.
As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
The highlight of this past week for me was the graduation of the fifth cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative (fondly abbreviated as “RLI V”) from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We are now officially Senior Rabbinic Fellows of the Institute. For the past three and a half years, I have joined 26 other rabbinic colleagues for a journey in learning, understanding, and deepening friendships, both among ourselves, and with the extraordinary Hartman faculty. We are women and men; Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative; different lengths and types of rabbinic experience; from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Teaneck, Great Neck, Princeton, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Austin, Miami, Toronto, Sydney, and Jerusalem. We have studied sources from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Maimonides, Zohar, and contemporary Hebrew literature. We have listened to each other’s thoughts about the Jewish community, and to each other’s personal stories as well. We have tried be helpful when there were personal crises among us, and rejoiced when there were simchas. And, we helped each other through the Gaza War, with the comforting leadership of Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute. Praying together was rather challenging, as you might imagine, but we did find in music a modality of shared spiritual experience that touched us all very deeply. (I would note parenthetically that in general at Hartman, when there are people saying Kaddish, we consider it a mitzvah to help them form a minyan for Mincha, regardless of our individual prayer preferences.)
Our Torah portion records the death of Miriam the prophetess in the Wilderness of Zin. We remember that it was Miriam who led the women in song as the Israelites crossed through the Sea on dry land. We remember that it was Miriam who watched out for baby Moses as he floated in the basket down the Nile before being rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh. Tradition tells us that a miraculous well followed the people as they trudged through the scorchingly dry desert, and kept them from dying of thirst. But at the moment that Miriam died, the well disappeared and the Israelites suffered greatly.
On a metaphoric level, RLI has served as a well for those of us who lived it together. We have watered each other’s souls, along with the renewal and enlightenment provided by the extraordinary Hartman scholars. And we sang together often. At the moment when we realized we had reached the end of this particular journey, we experienced a great sadness. Would we suffer from stifling thirst? No, we concluded, of course not. We will always have the impulse to grow through study. But we know as well that we will also have each other, and the learning of Hartman, to find ongoing refreshment and growth.
We at Union Temple have experienced Hartman learning on a number of occasions now. I look forward to more of it this year, and in the future as we study together.
So I wish my colleagues MAZAL TOV, and YESHER KOACH, and I wish all of you, SHABBAT SHALOM.
Our hearts go out to the people of Nice, and to people of good will everywhere. We pray that God will comfort the families of those who were so mercilessly cut down in this barbaric disregard for the value of human life. We pray for a Refuah Shleimah for that those who have been injured. And we pray for the strength and determination to uphold the values of peace, kindness, and humanitarianism, even in the face of hatred, extremism, and violence.