Our Torah portion focuses on Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact the portion itself bears his name. Korach foments rebellion among the people, because he resents Moses’s leadership, which of course, was assigned by God. Korach is the paradigmatic troublemaker, because he deliberately tries to break the unity of the Children of Israel. His reward, along with the 250 who joined him in his rebellion, is to be swallowed up within the earth, and die in ignominy.
As the Jewish People has evolved throughout history, we have come to understand that unity does not mean uniformity. History has taught us that our people can maintain our ties with one another, even across continents, while at the same time, tolerating and even embracing our differences with one another. This holds true with regard to theological perspectives, ethnic expressions, political positions, and diversity of all kinds. The modern description for this embrace of difference is pluralism: one people, different approaches.
This coming Monday, Steve and I are heading to Israel for our regular study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Last year was a highlight for us, as I became a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute. After the intensity of the three-year program, I will rejoin the wider Rabbinic gathering for a shorter, but still quite intense program. For two weeks every summer, some 170 rabbis of all denominations gather in the Beit Midrash – the study hall – of the Hartman Institute, literally elbow-to-elbow, to study from morning to night with the finest scholars in Israel, and with each other as well. The Hartman Institute is devoted to promoting pluralism within unity as the ideal for the Jewish State, and indeed, for the Jewish People around the world.
We at Union Temple have studied with some of the Hartman scholars through the iEngage series. We also have met and heard from a few of them in person at the Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues, including our own. Those of us who traveled together to Israel in 2015 visited the Hartman Institute and spent a remarkable hour with Tal Becker, one of the luminaries of the Hartman faculty. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Before any trip we make to Israel, I remember the beautiful poetry of Psalm 122 as it resounds in my mind and in my heart. It is a prayer for those going up to Jerusalem, and for the city of Jerusalem itself. So, as we prepare for our journey this summer, I offer the words of Psalm 122 – “A Song of Ascents.”
א שִׁיר הַֽמַּֽעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵֽךְ: ב עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלָֽם: ג יְרֽוּשָׁלַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּהּ יַחְדָּֽו: ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים שִׁבְטֵי־יָהּ עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָֽה: ה כִּי שָׁמָּה ׀ יָשְׁבוּ כִסְאוֹת לְמִשְׁפָּט כִּסְאוֹת לְבֵית דָּוִֽד: ו שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ: ח לְמַֽעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּֽךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּֽית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָֽךְ:
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.” Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD, as was enjoined upon Israel – to praise the name of the LORD. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.
Those of us who traveled to Israel together in May of 2015 spent part of our last day there up north in Tzefat – the highest city in Israel. Tzefat was the center of Jewish mysticism in the 16th century. Even now we have a taste of the mystical tradition that was born in Tzefat every Friday as we usher in Shabbat. The beautiful hymn Lecha Dodi, which we know in a variety of musical settings, was written by Shlomo Alkabetz, one of the luminaries of this community. You will note that at the last verse of this hymn, we follow the custom of standing up and facing the entrance. This is in remembrance of the mystics of Tzefat, as they went out into the fields every Erev Shabbat, dressed in white, to greet the Shabbat as the sun set. The imagery of our liturgy portrays Shabbat as the bride of Israel. The final verse of the hymn is: Bo’i v’shalom – Enter in peace, O crown of your husband; enter in gladness, enter in joy. Come to the people that keeps its faith. Enter, O bride! Enter, O bride! At this verse, we turn to the entrance as if to greet the “bride” at a wedding – a mystical wedding, if you will. We bow to the left and the right at Enter, O bride, Enter, O bride. Is this emblematic of the rationalism that characterized Classical Reform Judaism? Not on your life! Nevertheless, it is a sweet custom that has found its way back into standard Reform practice. When our congregational travelers stood gazing at the extraordinary vista in the hills of Tzefat, it became clear as to how the 16th century mystics became intoxicated with the beauty and inspiration of the expanse, and developed the ritual that Jews the world over have adopted into our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy.
Today – Friday, May 26 – is Rosh Chodesh Sivan. So first I must wish you a Chodesh Tov. Then I must note that in six days we will celebrate the Festival of Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – the 6th of Sivan, on Tuesday night and Wednesday of the coming week. In the Torah, we are commanded to observe this festival as the time of the presentation of the first fruits of the barley harvest. This harvest time, of course, is more immediately observable in the fields of the Land of Israel than it is between the brownstones of Brooklyn. Nevertheless, that is the nature-linked significance of this seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot. But, as is the case with all three Festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – there is both a universal, nature-linked significance, and a historic, particularistic significance as well. In this dual pattern, Shavuot is both the time of the presentation of the first fruits of the harvest, and also the Time of the Giving of the Torah to the People of Israel – Z’man Matan Torateinu.
*A brief reminder. When we have lost an immediate family member (parent, child, sibling, spouse) we remember them on the anniversary (yahrzeit) of their death by lighting a yahrzeit candle at sundown the evening before, which will burn throughout the day. We also come to services for Kaddish. But there are 4 additional times for us to light these candles (at sundown the evening before) and come to services for Yizkor. They are: Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesach, the morning of Shavuot, and the last day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret). Another jewel of Jewish tradition. While we must live our lives to the fullest, we also honor the memories of those we loved who are no longer with us. Judaism helps us to remember, as we light candles 5 times a year.
We are reading this week the “Holiness Code,” in the Book of Leviticus. It is the same portion that we in the Reform Movement read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, because it contains some of the most fundamental values of ethics and decency that are embodied in Biblical teaching. “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind. . . You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19.14,16). The “Holiness Code” implores us to protect the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the stranger. This is a core value of Judaism.
As American Jews, we bring this core value into the public sphere in the demand we make upon our government – that its policies and precepts reflect this basic human decency. But yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, the US House of Representatives flagrantly ignored this most basic concept of decency, as it voted to vacate the Affordable Care Act, and place millions of Americans in jeopardy – the poor, the elderly, the weak, the sick and disabled, at the top of the list.
One of the primary targets of the House was Planned Parenthood. The excuse is abortion. But this is a smoke screen. In fact there already has been a ban on public funds for abortion. But Planned Parenthood provides the gamut of health care services for women, and for men: breast cancer screening, pap smears, colon, prostate, and testicular cancer screenings, birth control, infertility treatment, HPV tests, and the list goes on. For many women and men around the country, Planned Parenthood is the only source of treatment and preventative care that they have. This cut in funding to Planned Parenthood is vicious, and could have deadly consequences.
If I may admit to it, I have to say that have never been able to understand this dynamic in American politics during the election cycles of the past several decades. With regard to health care in particular, it has always seemed as though the very people who stand to lose the most in our country have repeatedly voted against their own best interests. Latest estimates put some 24 million Americans in jeopardy of losing their health coverage. Those with various “pre-existing conditions” will be running up medical bills that will threaten their very stability, and that of their families. It simply defies reason.
As a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I proudly stand with the statement it issued yesterday in its condemnation of the “American Health Care Act.” Please take a moment to read it.
The Passover story is one of miracles and marvels: the parting of the sea; the plagues that struck Egypt; the protection of the blood on the doorposts of our people’s houses, as the Destroyer struck down the Egyptians; the miraculous redemption of our people from slavery.
Did these miracles really happen exactly as described in the Book of Exodus? I leave that to you for this particular moment. But here is a miracle that did happen, and happens every single year as we tell and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. It is the miracle that is described in this speech by David Ben Gurion, , exactly 70 years ago, before the UN Commission on Palestine (the “Peel Commission,” established by the British as they tried to extricate themselves from the Arab-Jewish quagmire).
300 years ago, there came to the New World a ship, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?
More than 3,300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt; and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows on what day they left: the 15th of Nisan. And everyone knows exactly what food they ate: matzah. And to this very day, Jews all over the world eat matzah on the 15th of Nisan. And they tell about the Exodus from Egypt, and the sorrows the Jews have experienced from the day they entered into Exile. And they conclude with two declarations: “Now we are slaves, next year we shall be free; this year here, next year in Jerusalem!”
What is the real miracle of Passover? Even now, over 3,000 years later, we – all of us – all over the world – still gather on the night of Passover, to tell and retell the story of our miraculous redemption from Egyptian bondage. Whether here in the United States and Canada, in the State of Israel, South America, in Europe, or Asia, or around the Pacific Rim, we tell it. In so doing, we remind ourselves as well of the core values of our history: our mandate to establish a more just and compassionate society, from the lessons we learned in the bitterness of slavery and oppression.
And so, in our celebration of miracles, and our hope for the coming of a better day on this Earth, I wish you and your families a Chag Sameach and a Ziessen Pesach – a sweet and joyous Passover to all.
This week we begin our reading of the Book of Leviticus, much of which focuses on the ancient system of animal sacrifice. Within the context of the ancient world, this system was the primary modality of vicarious atonement for sins. The priests (Kohanim) would serve as divinely-appointed intermediaries. They would dash the blood of slaughtered animals upon the altar in the inner sanctum (Kodesh Kodashim – the “Holy of Holies”), and through this blood, the people would be cleansed of their sins. A bit gorey sounding, I admit, but in the ancient mindset, very serious business, which had to be carried out with utmost precision. Out in the desert wilderness described in the Torah, this took place in the Mishkan – the “tent” that was erected by the people. Eventually, according to the Biblical chronology at any rate, this of course was replaced by the magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem called the Beit HaMikdash – House of Holiness. In the outer courts the Levitical choirs would sing and the instruments would play, suggesting a grand spectacle of pomp and circumstance. The actual sacrificial act in the Kodesh Kodashim, however, would be carried out in complete silence.
Fortunately, once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish community was ready to move on from this system of vicarious atonement. Rabbis replaced the Kohanim as the leaders of the community, and prayer and mitzvot replaced animal sacrifice. But, just as the minutia of the sacrificial rites had to be observed absolutely according to prescription, lest we incur further guilt, so too subsequently did the words of our mouths have to be uttered with great precision. Otherwise, they would go unheard, or even worse, rejected. Prayer, then, is a serious business. And its evolution and development through the ages, particularly as our community and our reality has evolved and developed, has always been a very serious business.
This past Saturday we were blessed with a brilliant and fascinating presentation by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, our guest scholar for the Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus Memorial Lecture. Rabbi Kahn gave us an extraordinary glimpse into the development of three specific prayers of our liturgy, particularly concerned with the changing status of women, non-Jews of one description or another, and those with some sort of disability, in the eyes of those writing and/or funding the prayer books. As the adage goes, “history is written by the winners.” Well, that goes for prayer books as well! In his book, Rabbi Kahn identifies some of the “winners,” and what their various agendas really were. Rabbi Kahn’s book is: The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy. He offered to personally autograph copies at the reduced rate of $30 (the list price is $45) to any of our congregants and friends who would like one. If you would like to order a copy from Rabbi Kahn, please send me an email, along with whatever dedication you would like, and he will be delighted to send it to the temple for you.
This Shabbat before the celebration of Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. As you know, this year Purim is Saturday night and Sunday, and our celebration at Union Temple will take place this Sunday, 12:30-2:30 PM. It will be an intergenerational celebration, with drinks, food, costumes, the Reading of the Megillah, groggers, prizes, games, music, and an opportunity for all of us to give ourselves two hours of joy. As Americans, we have very serious problems with which to concern ourselves at this troubling time. But, whatever generation you identify with, I hope you will come to the temple on Sunday, and take the opportunity that Judaism gives us to release some tension, even if only for two hours on a Sunday afternoon.
We associate Purim with costumes, hamantaschen, and lots of drinking – and I don’t mean just club soda, assuming we are of age! But perhaps the most recognizable custom is twirling our groggers to blot out the name of Haman, the evil Persian governor who had hatched the plan to annihilate the Jews of Persia. Haman represents not only himself, but in fact, all the evil power grabbers who have focused upon the Jewish people and directed venomous hatred toward us in one form or another throughout our history.
Swastikas on Jewish property, bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and institutions, gunshots through synagogue windows, skinheads and Neo-Nazi fervor. These and more are not merely remnants of days gone by, before America had matured beyond the anti-Semitism and bigotry that were undercurrents within our society. These are the new reality of today – right now – in America.
It is particularly ironic that one of the latest bomb scares came to the ADL in New York – the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL was founded in 1913 as an organization dedicated to stopping the defamation of the Jewish people, and securing justice and fair treatment for all people, and fighting against prejudice in all forms, for the benefit of all who would ever be subjected to it.
This year, we can look at all the noisemaking on Purim with an added significance. We can blot out the name of Haman, of course. But we can also symbolically blot out all hatred and bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, which are blights upon our nation, and which threaten our dream of freedom, democracy, security and respect for all people.
We took a congregational trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History. The message of the museum is clear. Virtually from our arrival on these shores, Jews have been in the forefront of every movement of social, political, and cultural change in this country. America without the Jews, and Jews without America, are both unthinkable equations. This is our country, and will not let hate mongers and bigots take it away. On Purim this year, we will stand up, we will dance, we will shout, twirl our groggers, and eat as many hamantaschen as we can stand, in our ongoing defiance of hatred, and our ongoing quest for justice and right.
This coming Shabbat is “Shabbat Across America.” Every year the National Jewish Outreach Program assigns the first Shabbat in March as “Shabbat Across America.” The idea is to encourage all the Jews in our country to symbolically join hands and celebrate Shabbat together, at least on this one Shabbat during the year.
This year the notion of joining hands with our Jewish sisters and brothers seems particularly critical, in light of the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the country – something we thought we had long left behind. In recent weeks, Jewish community centers all across our country, including a number in New York and New Jersey, have received bomb threats, striking fear in the hearts of all those who have had to evacuate these centers at a moment’s notice. In addition, swastikas have been spray-painted on Jewish property and in Jewish neighborhoods, including Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and just this week, a fence in South Mountain Reservation in West Orange, NJ, in the neighborhood where Steve and I lived for several years when Steve was at B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. All this, of course, is in addition to the cowardly and hateful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, just in the past week. And in Evansville, IN, my colleague Rabbi Gary Mazo discovered a bullet hole on Monday morning in the window of a classroom at his congregation, Temple Adath B’nai Israel.
I place the blame for this at the door of the White House. The rhetoric of intolerance and hate-mongering all year long has been outrageous and out of control, and those miscreants who would be inclined to carry out hateful acts of this nature have interpreted this rhetoric as a permission slip to act upon their evil inclinations. Mr. Trump and his surrogates have been spewing forth inflammatory hate speech all year long, and it took fully six weeks into his presidency for him to denounce it, finally, in his address to Congress on Tuesday night. But it was long overdue.
The rabbinic community of Brownstone Brooklyn is in the process of formulating a response of solidarity in the near future, against these, and all acts of bigotry and threats of violence. I will keep you apprised of our progress.
In our Torah portion for this Shabbat, God instructs Moses to direct the people: “Make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” In principle, America has stood as a sanctuary against the forces of hatred and violence that were unleashed upon Jews throughout the centuries, particularly across Europe, but elsewhere as well. While our country has not been immune from the scourge of anti-Semitism, as Americans we have tried to rise above it and purge it from our midst. Sadly, it would seem as though we still have work to do on this front. I applaud Governor Cuomo’s announcement this week of his authorization of $25 million for increased protection of religious schools and day care centers throughout New York. If indeed we are “one nation under God,” we cannot tolerate the re-emergence of such bigotry now, or ever again.
On this Shabbat Across America, we will join hands as Jewish Americans with pride, and in peace, as we reassert our American ideals and make a true sanctuary of our beloved country.
Our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, sets forth a framework of laws whose purpose it was to create a fair and just society, within which everyone could live a good life, in security and peace. It is perhaps with a note of irony that we are reading this portion during this week, when, virtually all over our country, Americans have been gathering in auditoriums, houses of worship, colleges and meeting halls of all kinds, for “town hall” meetings with their Senators and Congressional Representatives, to demand that America live up to the American dream of a fair and just society for all. On Wednesday evening, Union Temple was filled to the gills with people of all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, to hear from Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and a panel of experts on the environment, immigration law, the ACLU, health care, and Planned Parenthood, for a reaffirmation of our democratic values as Americans, and how to go forward during this oppressive administration, to make sure that we are protected and that our values are promulgated. We were delighted to be able to offer our congregation as a venue for this important gathering.
I was honored to be asked by Representative Clarke to deliver the invocation. These were my remarks:
“The portion of the Torah that the entire Jewish world is reading during this week includes one of the foundational precepts of our entire tradition: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than thirty-six times does the Torah repeat this admonition: “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
For Jews, it is out of our historical experience of bondage, of degradation, of being outsiders, that we are commanded to stand up, now as a free people in this world, and do better; to pursue justice, to create a society of fairness, to treat other people with compassion and respect, no matter what they look like, whom they love, or where they come from. And I needn’t remind you, my friends, that if there is one people who should know the feelings of the stranger, the outsider, the disadvantaged, it is we, the Jews – the driven of the earth. And thus it is we who are charged with the responsibility to do better. And we believe that not only we, but every human being, regardless of our religious beliefs or affiliations, regardless of our station in life; that every one of us has the capacity to do better. It is a fundamental optimism with which we approach our responsibilities in this world.
We are here this evening – all of us, of different backgrounds and traditions – we are here out of our belief that our country has the capacity to do better; to create a more just and compassionate society. This is our mission – to create a society of fairness and equality, of kindness and compassion, of justice, and of peace.
Yet above all, we understand that the responsibility of bringing our mission to fruition rests squarely upon our shoulders. And so we stand this evening, shoulder to shoulder, together with Congresswoman Clarke, and all her of colleagues – to realize the full promise of the American dream. May we go forward with courage, and strength, as we walk together in peace.”
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Eternal your God is assigning to you. (Exodus 20.12)
A conceptual observation and a personal reflection, if I may, both of which you have probably heard from me before. But I would ask your indulgence, as both seem to be quite apt at this moment in history.
The Hebrew the word for “parent” and the word for “teacher” derive from the same root, y-r-h (י-ר-ה), which means “to point.” It derives from a reference to an arrowhead – an object that clearly comes to a point, and generally is aimed in a specific direction. And indeed, is this not one of the most fundamental roles of any parent, and any teacher? To point the way; to guide our children in the right direction, whether our students or our own kids. Ultimately their decisions must be their own, and they need the leeway to possibly make mistakes as they navigate their own paths. Of course, allowing leeway sometimes can be agonizing, and as a parent, I can testify to that. But at least we try our best to set them on the right path, so that they will figure out how to live a good life when they’re on their own.
Today I am marking the 20th yahrzeit of my mom, Jeanette Henry, z”l. From the time she was a little girl, Jeanette wanted to be a schoolteacher. She would line up her dolls in her room, and “teach school.” When she became an adult, and a teacher for real, she did not line up her students. In fact, they often flocked around her in what some may have interpreted as an occasionally chaotic atmosphere in her classroom, at PS 64, on 9th Street/Ave. B in Manhattan. But I assure you that it was expertly controlled chaos. My mom had studied the art of teaching. Throughout her life, even as she was lauded as being at the top of her profession, she continued to take courses and workshops, to continue to grow and expand her skills. Yes, teaching is an art. Not everyone can do it, nor should they.
Some of you with whom I am connected on Facebook have likely read a comment I posted in response to the Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. While it may be a bit presumptuous to speak on behalf of someone who is not here to speak for herself, I strongly suspect that my mom would have been utterly scandalized by this decision. From very early on in the American Jewish experience, our community has been in the forefront of embracing, supporting, and fostering public education. It’s no accident that three of the past four presidents of the American Federation of Teachers have been Jews: Albert Shanker, z”l, Sandra Feldman, z”l, and Randi Weingarten. All three were advocates for children’s education both here and around the world, and as well, advocates in all areas of social justice. Even from the Talmudic period, Jewish leaders have been proponents of public education. We learn from the Talmud that technically the responsibility for educating one’s child rested with the father. But suppose a child had no father, or had a father that was simply not equipped to teach his children? Thus, even the earliest Jewish communities of the Common Era supported systems of public education, for the benefit of all children. Modern Jews inherited this deeply held tradition, and have been committed to high quality public education. Of course, the dynamics of contemporary society have changed significantly, and many Jews, liberal Jews included, have chosen to send their children to Hebrew day schools, or, in the case of Orthodox Jews, yeshivot. A number of Orthodox Jews see the voucher system as a way for them to help pay for their children’s yeshiva attendance. But the contention of the community for the most part is that private education, whether religiously based or not, should not be the responsibility of the community. Rather, our community should be laser focused on improving the quality of public education for all the children in our country. And this commitment remains an important Jewish American value.
As American Jews, it will be even more critical in the next few years for us to stand up for quality public education. We will have to do this in the spirit of all we have learned about our responsibilities as parents and teachers, which, as we have seen, are really one and the same.
One additional word derives from the root y-r-h (י-ר-ה), “to point.” That is “Torah.” Ultimately our Torah teaches us the values of justice, fairness, and educating our children. If we do this, hopefully they will understand the implications of the fifth commandment, so that they “will long endure upon the earth.”