When I was growing up, my family belonged to an Orthodox shul on East 20th Street in Manhattan, just across from Stuyvesant Town, where we lived. A number of our friends belonged there too. The congregation identified itself as “Modern Orthodox,” and it was called Congregation Zichron Moshe. (Today the shul is owned and operated by Chabad.) I went to elementary school just next door to the shul—PS 40—where many of my friends also attended. The Jews in the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper/Gramercy Park area generally attended one of three local congregations: Zichron Moshe, Town & Village Synagogue (Conservative), and East End Temple (Reform).
The rabbi of Zichron Moshe at the time, and for several decades in fact, Rabbi Newman (z”l), lived in our building in Stuyvesant Town with his wife and three children. We saw them all the time, and we greeted each other warmly. As it happened, Rabbi Newman was a kohen—a priest—according to the caste system of Ancient Israel, as elaborated upon in the Torah. This didn’t make much difference to me, and frankly, I was oblivious to it—until a pivotal, devastating moment in my life. When I was 13 years old, and just completing the 9th grade, my father Philip died of pancreatic cancer. And because Rabbi Newman was a kohen, he was unable to officiate at my father’s funeral.
Our Torah portion begins:
The Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself. (Leviticus 21.1-4)
At the time that I was growing up, the relationships between the rabbi and the kids in the Hebrew School were rather different from today. I didn’t particularly feel as though I had a personal relationship with Rabbi Newman, though on a certain level I did, because I saw him so often in the building, and knew his wife and children. And while my mom and Mrs. Newman engaged in conversation, in my recollection, Rabbi Newman wasn’t a big schmoozer—at least not with us. But I suppose that when you’re a kid, you’re not quite as conscious about the realities of congregational life. When my father died, I was so engulfed in grief that it never occurred to me to wonder why Rabbi Newman wasn’t at the funeral. Yes, he certainly came up to our apartment during the week to pay a shiva call, which was greatly appreciated by my mom, and all of us. But the funeral was conducted by a rabbi I had never seen before, and whom I did not know at all.
About 25 years later, during the years that I was serving a congregation in West Hempstead, I got a phone call from someone I had known quite well in Stuyvesant Town. She was a close friend of my mom’s, and I was good buddies with her younger son, who was in my class at PS 40. She and her family had always belonged to Zichron Moshe. She was calling because her husband had died, and she was asking if I would do the funeral. “You know that I’m a Reform rabbi,” I said. “Yes, but you knew (my husband), and I would feel better having you there.” “What about Rabbi Newman?” I asked. And then, suddenly I remembered. It all came back in a flash. Rabbi Newman was a kohen, and thus could not officiate at the funeral! I did suggest a Modern Orthodox rabbi I happened to know in Lower Manhattan, who was the Jewish Chaplain at the time at Beth Israel Hospital, and his wife worked in the administrative office of Hebrew Union College. And in fact, he had filled in on numerous occasions for the members of Zichron Moshe, since Rabbi Newman couldn’t officiate at the funerals. But neither he, nor virtually anyone other rabbi in Lower Manhattan, would be available for this funeral the next day. At any other time, I would have done it in an instant. But, wouldn’t you know, just that particular day I was already committed to officiating at the funeral of one of my own congregants, and the scheduled times were hopelessly in conflict. And I had no choice—I had to give priority to my congregant. Eventually another Orthodox rabbi was located. But I wished I could have helped her. I would have been honored to do that for these old friends.
Our Torah portion discusses the “pollution” that a kohen would incur from contact with a dead body. The concept of tamei is a difficult one for the modern mind to understand. First, we don’t even have a particularly helpful way of translating the word into English. Tamei is an adjective. In the noun form, tum’ah is rendered as “pollution” or “taint.” Sometimes the translation of tamei, particularly when applied to menstruating women, is “unclean.” This last application has been particularly off-putting and, in my personal opinion, potentially destructive, in its cumulative psychological effect over the centuries. For kohanim, priests, the issue was particularly critical, because they were the ones charged with performing the cultic sacrifices upon the Temple altar in Jerusalem. Any taint; any impurity, would not only render them ineligible, but render the sacrifices invalid as well. And since they functioned as intermediaries between the people and God, it was the people’s well-being that would be jeopardized.
In this light, I came across a beautiful insight by my friend Rabbi Avi Weiss in an article for JewishPress.com from April 25, 2013. Rabbi Weiss is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary for the training of those in the liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy. He also shepherded Yeshivat Maharat, for the training of Modern Orthodox women for the Rabbinate.
The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis.
Rav Ahron Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms “The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever” (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.
A dead body is considered a primary source of tumah, for it represents decay in the highest sense not only because the corpse itself is in the process of decaying but also because the living individual who comes into contact with the corpse usually suffers emotionally and endures a form of spiritual fragmentation, a counterpart of the corpse’s physical falling away.
Very early on, the Reform Movement cast aside identification with, and adherence to, the needs and practices of the ancient Temple and its priesthood. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the sacrificial cult ceased to exist, and the priesthood ceased to function. The notion of tum’ah as it applied to the kohanim and Ancient Israel is not operative within our daily lives as modern Jews. Nevertheless, perhaps we would do well to reconsider these concepts in terms of spiritual purity and taint. The notion of preserving and protecting our own human dignity, both from physical and spiritual taint seems completely relevant, and even urgent, in the very difficult and coarse time in which we live. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, commented in an article last May in The Jewish Week:
Even as we do have problems with priests, we dearly yearn for the priestly. We properly dismiss the idea that God works only through them, but in expelling the priesthood, we risk losing the priestly, the sense that we can access the holy altogether: bringing blessing from on high and becoming incomparably more than the mundane selves to which our everyday routine condemns us.
We might recall the exhortation that God delivers to the People of Israel just before the theophany—the Revelation of Torah—as we read in Exodus 19.5-6: Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…. For us as Reform Jews, while this does not negate the special domain of the kohanim in the ancient Temple, it does place upon all of us a responsibility for ethical behavior, particularly as it is outlined in the Torah, and as later Rabbinic and contemporary teaching elaborate upon it.
Regardless of whether we identify as Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, or what-have-you, there can be no question that the ultimate concern when we lose a loved one is according honor to the deceased. The rituals and practices regarding the treatment and burial of bodies grow out of this overriding concern in Judaism: Kevod HaMet—honor to the dead. Ultimately, however, if we try to understand what underlies this concern for Kevod HaMet, it is this: if we are so concerned with paying honor and respect to one who is gone from this life—who can no longer feel, or think, or respond— then how much the more so ought we be concerned with the respect and honor that we accord to other people while they are alive! And that goes for ourselves as well, in having to remember the inherent dignity that we possess.
While the Biblical realities of priestly purity may no longer be relevant, perhaps it is the respect for others, and respect for ourselves, that should be our central concerns, as a people charged with being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Next Wednesday night and Thursday we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of independence of the State of Israel. For the Jewish people, the establishment of the state was a modern miracle. And, even while dealing with serious internal and international problems, like any modern nation, Israel’s life continues to be miraculous. For my commentary this week, however, I’d like to focus briefly on a miracle within the miracle, which is possibly one of the most extraordinary of all. That is the transformation of the ancient Hebrew language into a living, spoken, ever-evolving organism. For several millennia, Hebrew existed in the Bible, in Rabbinic writings, in liturgy (the language of prayer) and in literature. It was spoken as an ancient language even before these bodies of literature evolved. But along with the development of modern Zionism came the realization that a new, modern nation would need a common language for communication between its citizens.
In this light, I offer a salute to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, z”l, who may rightly be called the Father of Modern Hebrew. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Lithuania. He studied in cheyder, and after his bar mitzvah, he was sent to his uncle in Polotsk to study in a yeshiva. The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, was secretly a participant in the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment Movement. Bloyker introduced young Eliezer to Enlightenment literature, and also to Hebrew grammar, which was forbidden to learn at the time. Ben-Yehuda became a journalist, but also adopted as his mission, the revitalization not only of Israel itself, but also the revitalization of the Hebrew language.
After founding several preliminary committees, in 1889 Ben-Yehuda and several colleagues founded the organization Safa Brura (“clear speech”), and in 1890, the organization formed the Literature Committee charged with the goal of “instilling in all the residents of our ancestral land one clear language, the tongue of our early ancestors, which is of utmost sacristy.”
What grew out of the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues was the Academy of the Hebrew Language, founded in 1904, and still flourishing today. At the dizzying pace of modern social, political, and technological development in our time, we can only imagine the gargantuan task of the Academy, and appreciate the seriousness with which it studies the development of new words, based upon the solid foundation of Hebrew grammar.
Here is an excellent example, close to home for us, of how new modern Hebrew words evolve. Take the word shinshin, for instance (accent on the 2nd syllable— shinSHIN). This is a word that many of you have probably heard around Union Temple for the past few years, because we have had a shinshin in our midst. A shinshin is a person, and our shinshin this year is named Aviv Kurnas. (It’s a good name for this time of year, because aviv means spring.) Here is how the word evolves.
As we know, in Israel, when young people graduate high school, generally at the age of 18, the expectation is that they will begin serving in the Israeli Army. However, some young Israelis choose to defer their army service for a year, and voluntarily embark on a service project of some sort. There are numerous opportunities in Israel. For instance, the Reform Movement there has a mechina program which is excellent. (Mechina means preparation.) Young men and women live and study in a common residence. They prepare their meals and assume full responsibilities of communal life. They generally devote their mornings to the beit midrash—the house of study. They study together, both with teachers from the Reform Movement, and also in hevruta —partnered study. Then in the afternoons, they fan out to the various projects in which they have committed to work. Some serve in senior centers. Some work with children who are disabled in one way or another: physically, emotionally, socially, etc. Some work on alleviating social distress in the neighborhood. When our own congregants journeyed to Israel in 2015, we visited the kids in the Reform Mechina located in Jaffa—a diverse neighborhood with a mixed population and a number of social and economic challenges, but also with an exciting tenor of progress. But this is only the Reform Mechina. In fact, there are similar programs in many communities all over Israel. The name shinshin emerges from this voluntary year of service.
Some of these young people devote this year to volunteer for an overseas adventure through the Jewish Agency. Their mission is to come to various neighborhoods in the United States and work in American Jewish day schools and religious schools, JCC’s and college Hillels, to help foster a more personal and helpful dialogue between Israelis and American Jews. (This program exists in Canada and elsewhere as well.) Union Temple in now concluding its 4th year in the program that exists in Brownstone Brooklyn. Our shinshinim have become integral members of our Religious School community, and while they have taught us a great deal about Israel. But in return, we in turn have taught them a great deal about us, and about the vibrancy of a pluralistic Jewish life in the United States.
As you may know, the “sh” sound is represented by the Hebrew letter shin (ש) . This letter begins both Hebrew words for the year of service, which is shnat sheirut—שנת שירות. So, since both words begin with shin, the volunteers of this program are known by the acronym that is formed from the first letters: shinshin, and in the plural, shinshinim. A small, but wonderful example, of the ongoing evolution of modern spoken Hebrew.
Israel, and those of us who are connected to her and love her, have embraced as our mission as well, to one degree or another, the learning of the Hebrew language. In my studies all these years, I can say without a doubt that the inter-relationships and conceptual connections of modern Hebrew words and expressions is indeed—a miracle. One of my goals in life is to keep improving my knowledge of Hebrew, and my ability to communicate within it. A formidable task, of course, sometimes overwhelming, but always infinitely rewarding.
As I was growing up, there were two highlights of Passover Seders for me—the reading of the Four Questions and opening the door for Elijah. My family followed the tradition at the time of assigning the reading of the Four Questions to the youngest son—never the daughter. So even though I was younger than my male cousins, I would always listen patiently as they read the Four Questions. And yes, of course, I very much enjoyed their renditions and I was proud of my cousins. I did wish, though, that just once, I could have taken center stage for that central moment in our family Seders. Then again, I got my moment too. Yes, the girls got to open the door for Elijah! And with the door open, my uncle would encourage us all to sing Eliyahu HaNavi at the top of our lungs.
One could safely argue that opening the door for Elijah is the most climactic moment in the Seder ritual. But it has only been through my intense study of the Haggadah over the years that I have come to appreciate the true centrality of this moment, even though it did not find its way into the Seder text until the Middle Ages, over a millennium after the core of the Haggadah text was put together.
A little bit about Elijah himself… Elijah was a prophet in the kingdom of Israel—the Northern Kingdom—during the 9th century BCE. No, he was not one of the actual Prophets whose writings and pronouncements are included in the second section of the Tanakh called “Prophets,” or “Nevi’im.” He was more of a magic man, as I have often described him. He was a healer, a miracle worker, a tireless opponent of the Canaanite god Baal. According to the Book of II Kings (2.11), he never really died, but ascended into Heaven in a fiery chariot. “As such,” the late Rabbi Neil Gillman observed, “he is the ultimate liminal personality who has mastered the threshold between life and death.”
As the “liminal” character described by Rabbi Gillman, z”l, Elijah goes on to occupy a critical place in later Rabbinic tradition. At a B’rit Milah—a circumcision—a chair is set aside for Elijah. In addition, when legal arguments arise among Jewish scholars, Elijah is said to appear and settle the halakhic dispute. According to tradition, Elijah is said to be the herald of the Messiah. We evoke this messianic quality every Saturday night at the end of the Havdalah ceremony. Shabbat, of course, is thought to be a foretaste of what it will be like for us in the Messianic Era—a time of peace, and joy, and security. At Havdalah, as Shabbat departs, we sing Eliyahu HaNavi, to try to hasten the coming of that idyllic time.
In Medieval Europe, Passover was often a difficult time for Jews. Because of its proximity in time to Easter, blood libels were rampant, and Jews were often subjected to harassment and attacks. Against the backdrop of the Crusades, the ritual of Elijah’s Cup is thus paired at this time with three selected verses from the Tanakh, expressing our own frustration and anger toward those who pursue us. It is unclear as to how the opening of the door ritual developed. There are some who place it in Medieval England, when Jews began opening their doors during their Seders so that their Christian neighbors could see into their homes, and realize that there was no black magic going on inside; but rather, a celebration of freedom from slavery, and an expression of hope for the future. Others speculate that it was so the Jews themselves could look out from their homes into the future, as it were, hoping that they could catch of glimpse of our messianic hopes coming to fruition. Eventually, probably as late as the 15th Century, the fifth cup of wine that had appeared not long before at the Seder became identified as Elijah’s Cup, and was linked to the opening of the door. We open the door for Elijah, not only as a figure who has saved our people from many previous disasters, but also hoping that he will come to herald the Messiah—in liberal terms, the Messianic Age. And thus, we might say that Elijah’s Cup, and the rituals surrounding it, are in fact the central, and most important piece within the entire Seder. Yes of course, we have gathered to remember and retell our redemption from slavery to freedom, from degradation to glory. But ultimately, these are in the past. With Elijah’s Cup, we voice our hope for the future—for the coming of a better day on this Earth—for the fulfillment of our vision of Tikkun Olam, the reparation of our broken world.
In this light, I would like to reference a wonderful perspective expressed by Abigail Pogrebin in her new book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew (2017: Fig Tree Books). Ms. Pogrebin spent many years as a producer at PBS. She now serves as President of Central Synagogue of New York. Her “take” on the ritual of opening the door for Elijah is that it requires a positive and deliberate act on our part. In order for Elijah to come, we have to get up and open the door. In short, the prophet Elijah needs us. He needs us to open the door. The realization of our messianic vision as a people, then, rests squarely upon our shoulders, and in our hands.
This Shabbat before the Festival of Passover is Shabbat HaGadol, The Great Sabbath. The name comes from the Haftarah of the day, taken from the Prophet Malachi—the last of the Prophetic books in the Tanakh. The end of the Haftarah, and indeed, the end of the book (Chapter 3), reads:
22 Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God. 24 He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. 23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you “lifnei bo yom Adonai HaGadol v’HaNorah”. —before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.
As we prepare for our Passover Seders, I wish you all peace and reconciliation, justice and compassion, as we contemplate our responsibility to bring them about. Can we do the work required? Only we can answer that—before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of God.
After our celebration of Purim last week, we are now full on in our anticipation of, and our preparations for, Passover. I have spoken often about an ancient custom at this time of year, and now I will speak about it again, because it is that important. The custom is known as Ma’ot Hittin (money for wheat). In the Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud), Tractate Bava Batra 1:6, we learn about a 3rd-century custom to provide wheat to the poor so that they could bake matzah. The residents of a community were subject to a special Passover tzedakah tax, in order to provide assistance to the poor. The recipients of the collection would then take the wheat to the mill, grind it to flour, and bake their matzah.
In addition, the Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud), Tractate Pesachim 99b, speaks of a mandatory distribution of wine to the poor, so that they could fulfill the obligation of drinking four cups of wine at the Seder. The mitzvah is for every person to be able to proclaim and celebrate the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt.
Throughout the past 2,000 years, the principle has remained the same: everyone is obligated to share in the joy of Passover. Thus, the fund of Ma’ot Hittin has remained a time-honored tradition in the Jewish community worldwide. While the administration of the fund has varied from place to place and from one generation to the next, the principle has remained essentially the same: anyone who did not need to take from it was required to give to it.
The American Jewish community, for instance, sent packages of matzah all over Europe in the years following World War II. In the 1970’s, American congregations sent matzot to refusniks in the Former Soviet Union. More recently, the American Jewish community has sponsored the construction of new matzah bakeries throughout the FSU.
Now, we have a convenient opportunity to participate in this time-honored Jewish tradition of Ma’ot Hittin. It is by contributing to the Annual Passover Appeal, conducted year in and year out by the New York Board of Rabbis. Through our contributions to this appeal, the chaplains of the NYBR have been able to provide matzah and other Passover food and supplies to thousands of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the New York Metropolitan Area who are in need. I have always been most grateful that our congregation has responded to this appeal most graciously each year. I hope that you will join me again this year in fulfilling this great mitzvah.
To contribute, you may either write a check to “Union Temple” for whatever amount is comfortable, and then write in the memo note “Passover Appeal.” Or, you may contribute online on our website at: PassoverAppeal@Union-Temple.org. The temple will put together the contributions and send a collective check to the NYBR.
On behalf of my colleagues at the New York Board of Rabbis, I offer my heartfelt thanks to all of you for participating in this great mitzvah.
Toward the end of January, I received a call from my good friend Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis. He was calling on behalf of a synagogue in Bedford Stuyvesant that suffered a construction fire in late November, which rendered the building uninhabitable for the time being. The congregation is B’nai Adath Kol Beth Israel, located on Patchen and Greene Avenues. You may read a bit about the history of the congregation here: http://bnai-adath.org/about-us/ The current spiritual leader of the congregation is Rabbi Baruch Yehuda. Rabbi Yehuda told Rabbi Potasnik that since the fire, his congregation has been traipsing from one place to the other on Shabbat, and really had no place to call home and come together as a congregation since that awful morning. Rabbi Potasnik called me and asked if we could help. That afternoon I discussed the matter with Bea and Ross. We then quickly put the question to the officers, and then to the Board of Trustees, via an E-mail poll. We asked if they would approve our hosting the congregation, made up of Jews of Ethiopian, African American, Caribbean, and other ethnic backgrounds, on Shabbat mornings until just after Passover. We said that it would be fine for the congregation to meet in our sanctuary and hold Kiddush in the lobby. We could extend this offer until after the Passover holiday, when our Bar/Bat Mitzvah schedule would start up again, and we would need the sanctuary. I am grateful and pleased that the Board answered this E-mail virtually within an hour, and by the beginning of February, Rabbi Yehuda and his congregation began their Shabbat observance in the Union Temple sanctuary on a weekly basis. In addition, Rabbi Yehuda and his friend Asher joined us at the Rabbis’ table for the Dreyfus Memorial Lecture on February 10, for dinner, and then for the outstanding lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson.
Our Torah portion begins with the words “V’atah Tetzaveh,” “You shall command…” God charges Aaron to instruct his sons regarding the duties and ritual requirements of the priesthood. “Tetzaveh” is the future tense of the noun “mitzvah.” A mitzvah, of course, is a commandment. We often hear it translated as “good deed,” because most commandments are, in fact, good deeds. (Of course, there are so-called “negative” mitzvot as well—“do not steal,” “do not commit murder,” etc.) So in its real meaning, a “mitzvah” is a commandment—a holy obligation which we as Jews take upon ourselves. Sometimes we can only do what it possible, and not what is impossible. But in this case, it was clearly possible for us to perform this mitzvah of welcoming our fellow Jews into our congregational home in their hour of need.
There will be some future interaction between our two congregations, and we will apprise you of that opportunity. Meanwhile, here is a photo taken at the Dreyfus Lecture. Rabbi Yehuda is standing in back of me. Those in the photo, from left to right, are: Rabbi Stephen Wise Goodman, Rabbi Joshua Minkin, Rabbi David Ellenson, Rabbi Baruch Yehuda, myself, Mindy Sherry, Student Cantor Ben Harris.
Camp Coleman is located in Cleveland, GA. It is the Union for Reform Judaism camp that services the communities in the Southeast region of the United States. It is the equivalent of Camps Eisner, Crane Lake, and Six Points, which are our URJ camps here in the Northeast.
Alyssa Alhadeff was a camper at URJ Camp Coleman. She was looking forward to returning there this summer. The staff at Coleman describes Alyssa as being “like an angel,” and “always happy to help out and quick to adjust to a new environment.”
Alyssa was 15 years old. On Wednesday, she was brutally and mercilessly shot to death as she sat in her classroom at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Sixteen other children and teachers were also killed in the rampage of a mentally unstable 19-year-old who was able to walk into a store and purchase an AR-15 assault rifle.
They were all innocents, looking forward to school dismissal time on Valentine’s Day. I mention Alyssa specifically only because of the URJ Coleman connection—because she was a member of our URJ family. Like my son, who attended Camp Eisner for six years. Like many of your kids, who have gone to Eisner, or Crane Lake, or Six Points. Like those of us who have worked and taught at these camps.Like thousands upon thousands of other kids, who are part of the URJ camp community all over the country. In this way, Alyssa was part of our family. Yesterday, her mother had to arrange for her funeral. And our hearts are broken for her in her grief.
There is an interesting area in the Old City of Jerusalem, deep down into the lowest level of craggy earth and hard rock—a ravine known as Gei Ben Hinnom—The Valley of the son of Hinnom—or more commonly, just Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom. Hinnom was probably the name of the family who either once held title to the area, or who at least had enough authority over it to establish a shrine there, at least 3 millennia ago. Down in this valley, Canaanite sacrificial rites included ecstatic rituals of passing children through fire to a statue of Molech—the underling of the chief Canaanite god, Baal. Those of us with even a smattering of Yiddish have probably heard the expression, Gei in gehenna. It means go to hell. It is a combination of the Yiddish gehen—go—and Hebrew Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom. So of all the possible imaginings of what Hell must be like, one of the most prominent is Gei Hinnom—the Valley of Hinnom—the place of greatest abomination—the ritual of child sacrifice.
Our society seems to be locked in an ongoing cycle of child sacrifice. Does this mean that we are in Hell? I’m willing to leave that question to you. But I’m not willing to leave it to our national leaders who have sold their souls to the devil, and are more concerned with their support from the NRA than with rescuing our country from Hell.
After a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR in 2015, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation, as he had had to do all too many times before, including after the massacre at Sandy Hook. In part, he said:
“America will wrap everyone who’s grieving with our prayers and our love. But as I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America—next week, or a couple of months from now.
“We don’t yet know why this individual did what he did. And it’s fair to say that anybody who does this has a sickness in their minds, regardless of what they think their motivations may be. But we are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses or want to do harm to other people. We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months…
“And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic.
“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.”
As Americans, we owe it to our children to unlock the gates of hell and free ourselves from the tyranny of the NRA and its supporters. As Reform Jewish Americans, we remember Alyssa Alhadeff, and all the innocents who were sacrificed to gun violence in this latest national abomination. On this Shabbat we will need to pray that God may comfort their families and friends, and that they may somehow find the strength to go on from this devastation, that now has changed their lives forever. And after Shabbat, we must find the power we have to take back our country from the depths of hell.
Zecher Tzaddikim Livrachah—May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, so-called because the Torah portion, Beshallach, contains Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15.1-21), a beautiful paean of praise that Moses led the Israelites in singing as they walked through the Sea of Reeds on dry land. It is also called The Song of Miriam, because it concludes with Miriam’s leading the women in the song, as they took up their timbrels and danced. Our Haftarah is the Song of Deborah, taken from the Book of Judges.
In celebration of Shabbat Shirah, this evening for “Fourth Friday,” Student Cantor Ben Harris and Dr. Shinae Kim will team up with Student Cantor Alexandra Kurland for a Kabbalat Shabbat service of glorious music. I hope you will come, 6:30 as always, followed by Shabbat dinner.
In addition, tomorrow morning I will have the pleasure of chanting Shirat HaYam with the special trope reserved for this song. As some of you know, I got in the way of the virus that has been making its way around New York this month, and I couldn’t speak for a few weeks. But thankfully, though not 100%, there’s enough voice there now to chant this song. I have to say that having had the opportunity, virtually each year, to chant this song, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. And I will relish the opportunity this Shabbat.
As you know, the Hebrew calendar only approximately coincides with the Gregorian calendar. In the year 2009, the Torah portion we are reading this week, Beshallach, was being read during the week of January 9th, and concluded with the chanting of Shirat HaYam on Saturday, January 15.
I recall that particular date because in the midst of a week of praise and song, we also we lost one of the sweetest angels of song that ever graced our world. Early in the morning, on Sunday, January 9, 2009, Debbie Friedman died.
It is almost as though it were pre-ordained—that Debbie Friedman’s name will forever be recited for yahrzeit on the Sabbath of Song, along with the names of Miriam and Devorah, about whom she sang so resolutely….
In tribute to Debbie, I would like to recall for you a portion of the sermon I delivered some nine months after her death, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, 2009…
Debbie belonged to a women’s group in Jerusalem, led by several well-known feminists, chief among them, the outstanding scholar and social activist Alice Shalvi. At Debbie’s funeral, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College, read a letter that Debbie wrote to Dr. Shalvi not long before. Debbie wrote:
“I hardly ever made it to the Rosh Chodesh group. Most of the time it was because I was out of the city and sometimes it was because I was too frightened to be amongst so many people. Given who I am and what I do, one would think that would not be the case… These few comments about my fears, though self-indulgent, are relevant to what I think to be the subject of one’s own death. I think we are frightened of our own death for a few reasons.
“First of all, we wonder if we have given anything to the world—enough that we will be remembered. Then, we are terrified that we are going to be forgotten—that we will have lived and worked hard to make a difference in the world and it will all have been for nothing because it is forgotten, and we are forgotten; that, in fact, we are nothing more than dust and ashes. Another reason is because death is an unknown…and I like to plan my day for the most part. I like to know what is waiting for me. I don’t mind a bit of spontaneity, but I would prefer to know more about Olam Haba.
“But I think the thing I fear most about death is my fear of life. I haven’t yet mastered the art of living. How can I leave this world when I haven’t yet learned to live in it and manage it? If I don’t know how to live with openness and without fear, how will I ever be able to look at death’s face when we meet? How can I possibly be gracious? It would seem that before I die I must learn to live life without fear. I must learn to live with chen and chesed (grace and mercy) and a loving and open heart. Once I accept this, embrace the beauty of this world, both life, and the way in which I see death will be transformed. This is not an intellectual exercise that can be remedied by a passage from text. The answers will come from the text of our experience. This is clearly a matter of the soul with which we all must struggle.”
Dr. Ellenson’s response to Debbie’s thoughts?
“How could you, Debbie, ever think you would be forgotten, or that your life would be for nothing! Your soul will not perish, and your spirit and your voice, your being, will touch and comfort us in moments of sadness and joy forever.”
And indeed, the School of Sacred Music—the Cantorial School of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion—the same school that once rejected Debbie’s application for admittance as a student—now has been renamed The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
Most of us live less public lives, and do the best we can with the talents we have, and also, within our limitations. Most of our names will not be known throughout the world, and we will live our lives within more limited spheres of influence. Nevertheless, our tradition goes to great lengths to teach us that the meaning of our lives is not derived from extraordinary accomplishments known the world over, nor is it derived from the size of our bank accounts, or the length of our CV’s. Rather, it consists in the relationships we have forged, one with the other: with our families, our close friends, our colleagues and co-workers; and the satisfaction of knowing that we did what we did in this life in the best way we could. Maybe we even have made someone else’s life better because they knew us, and because they know that we loved them.
If there is one thing that perhaps we ought to take away with us on this Day of Atonement, it is what Debbie Friedman, I dare say, would have wanted us to take away. It is that each of our lives is infinitely valuable, and that each of our lives has meaning. That is what our Jewish tradition teaches us. Thus we are commanded to value each other, and to value ourselves.
And we shall be a blessing.