What a week for us to be celebrating Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song! The name of the Shabbat derives from our reading of The Song of the Sea, in Chapter 15 of Exodus. Moses begins the song by leading the Children of Israel in praise as they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land. But the song ends with Miriam, who specifically leads the women in song, as she takes up her timbrel and sings. Particularly because of this, the song is also known as The Song of Miriam. Miriam the prophetess of Israel raises her voice in praise and in leadership. The voice of a woman is thus elevated and revered.
Unfortunately, there are many who have attempted to silence the voices of women through the ages. I’ve written on previous occasions about the way in which this has played itself out at the Western Wall for almost three decades now. On January 11, the Israeli Supreme Court challenged the ultra-Orthodox authority of the Wall, bringing women one step closer to establishing full rights to hold prayer services, wear talitot, and read the Torah at the Women’s Section of Western Wall.
This week, however, we witnessed the voice of a woman being silenced in a different, yet all too similar, context. On Monday evening, Senator Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans publicly silenced the voice of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she rose to bring the voice of another woman to the floor, as the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jeffrey Sessions for the office of US Attorney General ensued. That woman was the late Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter some 30 years ago, testifying as to manifestations of racial bigotry implicit in the actions and statements of Mr. Sessions. This was during the confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, for which he was ultimately voted down. This time, Senator McConnell invoked a little-known rule that is virtually never used, to silence the voice of Senator Warren, who was unceremoniously told to sit down and be quiet by Montana Senator Steven Daines, who was presiding over the Senate at that moment.
For the moment, I will leave aside the content of Coretta Scott King’s letter. While it is still relevant, the fact is that the issue is now moot, in light of the Senate’s confirmation of Mr. Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. What I will react to, however, is the appalling behavior of Senators McConnell and Daines, who, for all intents and purposes, told a woman senator on the Senate floor to sit down and shut up. There was little doubt in my mind that the ultimate effect of the ruling was driven by an undercurrent of misogyny. Oh yes, partisan politics came into play as well. But the optics of a woman on the floor of the Senate challenging the majority, and ultimately, challenging the President, being silenced in the middle of her statement and told to sit down, I believe, spoke louder than any statement could. Subsequent to this outrage, no fewer than four of Senator Warren’s male colleagues stood up and read Coretta Scott King’s letter.
The voice of a woman, as it channeled the voice of another woman. . . two women, strong and resolute, standing up to power. . . I believe that both Senators McConnell and Daines understood the power of these women’s voices, and that is precisely why they resorted to this cowardly tactic to silence them. But these women will not be silenced. Neither will women all across America, who understand and embrace the values of fairness and equality; of justice; and respect for human dignity.
Senator McConnell offered this by way of explaining his actions: “(Senator Warren) was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted.” Yes, Mr. McConnell, she persisted. This morning Sec’y Hillary Clinton tweeted: “She persisted. So must we all.”
Thank you, Senator McConnell, for our new battle cry. No, we will not sit down and shut up. We will stand up, and continue to raise our voices!
We are following the painful story of our people’s enslavement in Egypt, and the resistance that Moses and Aaron will now begin to mount against Pharaoh, as messengers of God. One of the most common designations of our ancestors in the Bible, particularly here in Exodus, is Ivrim – Hebrews. Here is the “short answer,” as it were, for the meaning of this term, particularly as it pertains to this chapter in our people’s history. While it also becomes a specific linguistic designation, the root עבר – ‘a-v-r – actually refers to someone from “the other side.” In the Book of Genesis, Avram is referred to as Avram Ha’Ivri – Avram the Hebrew, or more literally, Avram, the one from the other side.”
We know, of course, that as Joseph arrived in Egypt generations earlier, it was known that he was an Ivri, but he was elevated to a position of great power in the Egyptian court because of his prescient abilities, and ultimately saved Egypt from the famine that had engulfed Canaan and the surrounding area. Joseph’s family – his brothers, his father, and all their descendants – were welcomed into Egypt and lived there in peace. But then, as we read two weeks ago, “a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph,” and set about to oppress and enslave his descendants. But then God sent Moses and Aaron to warn Pharaoh, and eventually saved our ancestors from Egyptian bondage through a great Exodus and eventual Redemption.
But in fact, the cold reality is that we left Egypt as refugees. Our life was embittered and intolerable, and we had to leave that place and set out with the hope of a new life ahead.
I needn’t belabor the point. Of all people who are excruciatingly well acquainted with the plight of refugees in the world, it is we – the Jews. Virtually throughout our long history as a people we have suffered through dislocation, disorientation, and loss, which generally accompany the experience of fleeing from one place and seeking refuge in another. The United States of America has been a haven of protection and comfort for those seeking protection, and a better life for themselves and their families. Now, we are witnessing an assault upon that which our country has always represented as a country of immigrants. The assault is coming from the highest office in our land – the Oval Office. It is intolerable, and we will have to continue to rise up against it until it stops.
At our Shabbat service this Friday evening, we will celebrate our lives as descendants of immigrants, and in some cases, as immigrants ourselves. We will remember our ancestors, and where they came from, as we echo the theme “We All Come From Somewhere!” I hope you will join us for First Friday Family Shabbat, 6:30PM, followed by pot luck dinner, to celebrate the “gorgeous mosaic” that we are as Americans.
Some of you may have seen the Golden Globe Awards on TV last Sunday night. Meryl Streep was awarded the 2017 Cecil B. DeMille Award, a special award for her astonishing range, skill, and depth as an actress, and for the profound impact she has had upon all of us through her extraordinary gift. During her acceptance speech, she leveled stinging criticism against President Elect Trump, specifically for his public and unabashed mocking of a disabled news reporter, who had called out Trump for lying when he accused the Muslim community of New Jersey for cheering in the streets after the attack on the World Trade Center. Surely, we all will remember the sight of Trump’s “performance,” if I can characterize it as such, when he did this nasty imitation. Many have said that under all normal circumstances and expectations, his campaign should have come to a halt right then and there. That is essentially what Ms. Streep said as well, as she described it as a moment that broke her heart.
We all know that in past years some of Ms. Streep’s colleagues have been sharply criticized for using awards ceremonies to make political statements – Vanessa Redgrave and Marlon Brando, two of the more notable. But this is no ordinary actress, this is no ordinary year, this was no ordinary election, and this is no ordinary future president. No, there is nothing ordinary about any of this. So, Meryl Streep leveled her attack upon Mr. Donald Trump, and everyone paid sober attention. One of the MSNBC commentators – I think it was Chris Hayes – suggested the next day that Mr. Trump could have used the event to show that he possessed even an ounce of graciousness and personal maturity, by inviting Meryl Street to meet him at the White House in a conciliatory gesture. But this is Donald Trump, remember, and graciousness and maturity are not part of whatever he’s about. So instead, true to form, early Monday morning he sent out a tweet calling Streep “an overrated actress and a Clinton flunky.”
But in addition to the tweet Monday morning, Kelly Anne Conway appeared on CNN’s “New Day” with Chris Cuomo, and told Cuomo that we needed to look into what’s in Trump’s heart. Conway complained, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
I have one word for that: baloney. How are we supposed to know what’s in a person’s heart when what’s coming out of his mouth is as coarse and mean-spirited as anything I have heard anywhere, let alone from the highest levels of government. As an American citizen – an American patriot – I don’t think it’s too much to expect that the President of the United States be able to express himself in a thoughtful and sophisticated manner. That is what I expect from my President, no matter what part of the electorate sent him there.
A contrast in every possible way. . . . Yesterday, President Obama paid tribute to Vice President Joseph Biden, surprising him at the end by presenting him with the highest American civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Honor. And he added an extra honor by presenting it “with distinction.” Toward the end of his extraordinary remarks, Mr. Biden quoted a verse based on a teaching from Talmud Berakhot 6b. The actual expression in Hebrew is: דברים היוצים מין הלב נכנסים אל הלב – “Words that come from the heart [of the speaker] penetrate the heart [of the listener].” Joe Biden brought this verse as a commentary on the strength and kindness that has always flowed both ways in the relationship between himself and President Obama, and the dignity with which President Obama has conducted himself in the White House.
All this is based on a simple fact: words have power. What we say, and how we say it, is a powerful thing. But in addition, we have to remember that our hearts are within us and are invisible. We cannot see into each other’s hearts, so we have to take the words of our mouths as the points of entry. “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” WORDS – that come from the heart [of the speaker] penetrate the heart [of the listener].
Taking this into consideration, there are three words with which we conclude our reading of the Book of Genesis this Shabbat, and indeed, with which we conclude every book of our Torah: חזק חזק ונתחזק – Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek – Be strong; be very strong; and we will strength each other. In this time of uncertainty and trepidation for so many of us, perhaps these words are the most important for us to carry in our hearts. It is by joining our hearts and speaking words of kindness and encouragement to each other that we will help to buoy ourselves and each other.
This past Tuesday morning, a swastika was spray-painted on a sign at the entrance of the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College. Here is the notice that was sent to the HUC-JIR community by President Aaron Panken. A photo of the sign, as it appeared on the Facebook page of a colleague of mine who serves a congregation in Cincinnati, appears below Rabbi Panken’s message.
This morning, the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was vandalized. The sign at the entrance to our Cincinnati Campus was defaced with a swastika. The paint was easily removed and the sign quickly repaired. The incident is under investigation by local police.
For more than 140 years, HUC-JIR has been devoted to the values of pluralism, open dialogue, and the pursuit of knowledge. We pride ourselves on being a vital and engaged part of the Cincinnati community. Our academic institution of Jewish higher education lives, teaches, and brings the values of diversity and tolerance to the community, the nation, and the larger world. Our faculty, students, staff, and alumni, proudly representing all faiths and backgrounds, work together to build a just and humane world.
We will not let this act of hate alter our important work. We are indebted to the people of Cincinnati who have stood by us for generations and who have offered their support again today. Tomorrow, a new day will dawn and the values we hold dear will continue to light the way.
Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.
It is not known at this point who perpetrated this act of hateful vandalism. I’m not accusing our incoming president of instigating or condoning this particular act. Nevertheless, the reality is that hateful sentiments were stirred up during the many months of the U.S. Presidential campaign, and those inclined to express personal bigotry were emboldened by a good deal of the rhetoric and mayhem that occurred. It’s as though the social norms of decency that tried to drown out the echoes of racism and intolerance were stripped away with total impunity.
We New Yorkers are accustomed to living in a highly pluralistic atmosphere, with HUC-JIR as one of numerous Jewish institutions in our midst. For those of us, however, who may not be familiar with the Cincinnati community, I can say that HUC-JIR occupies a position of great prominence in the history and contemporary life of the community, and has occupied a significant place in the acculturation of the Jewish community in that city from the beginning. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise, the “father” of American Reform Judaism. The Jewish Institute of Religion was founded in New York in 1922 by Rabbi Dr. Stephen Samuel Wise – no relation to Isaac Mayer Wise. HUC merged with JIR in 1950. HUC-JIR is the professional training ground for the rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal service workers of the Reform Movement. In addition to the campuses in Cincinnati and New York, there are campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. This brazen act on Tuesday is particularly shocking and insulting, not only to HUC-JIR, but also to the entire Cincinnati community, which has accorded great friendship and respect to the institution, and to the Jewish community, from the very beginning.
Those of us who are alumni and supporters of HUC-JIR are outraged and saddened by this act. Union Temple has had an ongoing relationship with the College-Institute through the rabbis, cantors and educators who have served, and are serving the congregation, and also through the support of our Sisterhood, by way of the Women of Reform Judaism, and Brotherhood, through the Men of Reform Judaism. In addition, our former Rabbi Emeritus, Dr. A. Stanley Dreyfus, z”l, served on the HUC-JIR faculty in New York for a number of years. We echo President Panken’s assertion of “the values of diversity and tolerance,” which we will continue to promote, now, and in the years to come. It is clear that America is entering a new reality. But the values we espouse as American Jews are very old, and are as strong now as they were in the beginning. The responsibility for their perpetuation now rests squarely on our shoulders.
Our Torah portion begins, Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . After two years’ time. . . . The two years are those that presumably have passed since the end of last week’s parashah, as the cupbearer of the Egyptian court had told his dream to Joseph, and Joseph interpreted it with astounding accuracy. This time, “after two years’ time,” it is Pharaoh himself who is dreaming. The cupbearer tells him of Joseph’s astonishing powers of dream interpretation. Pharaoh orders Joseph’s release from the dungeon, and thus begins Joseph’s rise to power.
It is fortuitous that we are talking about miketz sh’natayim yamim, the end of two years, now at the end of this year of 2016. While in actual time it has only been one year, it has felt like one of the longest years in history. Donald Trump steamrolling over sixteen opponents in the Republican primaries; the often irritating rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the bruising, often outrageous presidential campaign; the unforgettable election night that most of us would prefer to forget; the devastating massacre at Pulse Night Club in Orlando; the police shootings of all too many African American young men, and likewise, the targeted shootings of all too many police officers; Brexit; Nice; Berlin; natural disasters; Russian hacking; escalated tensions between the US and Israel – close friends who are clearly rather irritated with each other at this moment – and the deaths of all too many celebrities whom we felt like we knew personally – from Mohammed Ali, to Gene Wilder, to Prince, to John Glenn, to Eli Wiesel, to Shimon Peres, and just this week, not only Carrie Fisher, but her mother Debbie Reynolds as well, among many more.
Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . . This may have been one year that felt not even like “two years’ time,” but more like twenty. I suspect we won’t be sorry to bid farewell to 2016. But 2017, of course, will present us with many challenges. While we may still be feeling down in the dumps, we will have to redirect our energies into mobilizing for what are sure to be struggles ahead.
This Torah portion, Miketz, is almost always read during the Festival of Chanukah. While it is actually just a calendrical coincidence, perhaps we might find some hope in the metaphor of light, which is such a prominent feature of our Festival of Lights. The last night of Chanukah this year is also the last night of 2016. But the festival reminds us of the strength and eternality of the Jewish People, and of the values we derive from our tradition – the values of justice, and fairness, of compassion and the pursuit of peace, and the teaching of fundamental respect for the dignity of all human beings.
So, Miketz HaShanah HaZot – at the end of this year – I wish all of you in the coming year renewed strength, and fortitude, hope and peace.
The year was 2010, and the Senate Judiciary Committee was carrying out its Constitutional responsibility of conducting a confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for the US Supreme Court – a responsibility, I might add, which the Senate has now defiantly shirked for the better part of this past year. But in 2010, the nominee was Judge Elana Kagan, a New York jurist. In an exchange about the shoe bomber airplane incident, which happened over Christmas in 2001, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Judge Kagan in a rather off-handed way, “Where were you at on Christmas?” And in an equally off-handed way she replied, “You know, like all Jews I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” Great laughter ensued.
During the laughter at Judge Kagan’s response, Senator Chuck Schumer explained that Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas Eve. And while that may be part of the explanation, there may be a deeper one as well, offered by Jennifer Lee, producer of The Search for General Tso’s Chicken. Lee explains that at the turn of the century (19th-20th), two of the most populous immigrant communities in New York were the Eastern European Jews and the Chinese. There were Italians and Irish too, of course, but on Christmas Eve, they were usually at home celebrating Christmas. And if an isolated restaurant happened to be open on that holy night, it most certainly would contain Christmas trees, images of the Virgin Mary, of the Christ child, and mangers galore. But the Chinese stood as much outside these traditions as did the Jews, according to Lee. So, in a natural coming together of outsiders, the two groups just kind of came together, to share being “inside” on Christmas Eve.
But what began out of practicality has grown into a beloved tradition for many Jews on Christmas Eve. Christmas is a sacred time for our Christian friends. It’s a time for families and friends to be together. As Jews, we recognize and respect the sacredness of that time. For some of us, though, in an effort not to feel left out, we have figured out this rather wonderful alternative: Chinese food, often coupled with a movie. What could be bad?! Of course this particular year provides us with a built-in reason to gather together – the first night of Chanukah! So, we can have our latkes, and Chinese food too, and as we will do at the temple, we’ll gather together for a movie as well!
An important note. . . Often I have been asked about the propriety of interfaith families celebrating Christmas Eve with their non-Jewish relatives. I have always made it clear that it is vital for families to gather together for beloved celebrations. While it’s much less confusing for Jewish homes not to have Christmas trees themselves, I would never tell anyone not to spend Christmas at the homes of their relatives who have trees, as long as the distinction was made clear. Certainly, the reverse is also true. I would hope that non-Jewish families and friends would be delighted to come to their Jewish relatives’ homes to celebrate Chanukah. This year, of course, is quite anomalous in the confluence of the first night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve. What I would urge us all to remember is that the only similarity between the two holidays is that they both occur around the winter solstice, the darkest and coldest time of the year. It is understandable then, in an anthropological sense, that festivals involving lights and fires gained popularity in the ancient world. For Christians, the Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. For Jews, the Festival of Chanukah celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian oppressors, and the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel. Add to this historical event the folklore of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, and we’ve got a magnificent celebration that has always been one of the most popular of our entire liturgical calendar. As Chanukah holds deep historic and religious significance for Jews, so does Christmas hold deep historic and religious significance for Christians. For us, the challenge of the season is to rejoice with each other, while not confusing the two.
Ultimately the aim for all of us during this season of celebration is to realize and assert our own integrity and uniqueness, even in the pressure of all the hype that surrounds us. This will be particularly important as we head into a time of great uncertainty. The forces of bigotry and intolerance have already begun to rear their ugly heads, and we will have to stand strong and resolute. And so my wish for our community is a Chag Urim Sameach – a joyous Festival of Lights. And my wish for all of us and our families – most of which probably are multicultural to one degree or another – is a season of love and warmth, and mutual respect, and a future of security and peace, for us, and for our world.
I have told many of you about a close friend of mine in the Rabbinate who is a collector of antiques. Among his collection are a number of gorgeous menorot from different places and time periods. One was an 18th century German menorah. Just before the pogrom of Kristallnacht, someone who had an inkling of what was about to happen brought the beautiful menorah to the Bishop of Ulm, a German city on the Danube. The Bishop hid it in the church crypt. At the end of the war, the menorah came into the possession of Otto Frank, who survived the war, though his wife and daughters (Anna and Margot) did not. Otto Frank went on to become quite active in the Reform Movement of Europe. My friend was interning for a time in Europe and spent an evening in Frank’s home. Frank saw him staring at the menorah and understood that this was someone who appreciated the value of good art. Frank decided to give him the menorah on the condition that he would see to it that Kaddish would be recited for his daughters in the United States. My friend agreed, and the menorah found a new home.
Another piece in my friend’s menorah collection was black, fashioned out of shrapnel that was collected from one of the battlegrounds in the aftermath of the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. (“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares….”)
One Chanukah a number of years ago, I sat in my friend’s apartment in New York, along with a several other friends. The apartment was ablaze with light from the vast menorah collection. This time he focused on another incredible piece in the collection. He shook his head and opined, “If that thing could only talk!”
And so, my friends, I bring this story to you now, and hope you will take the opportunity to make it your own. If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say? Maybe it has been passed through generations of your family. Maybe it is brand new. Maybe it has a child-centered theme, or came as a gift from a special person in your life. Whatever it may be, the story of your menorah is ultimately a story about you; about you, your family, and your relationship to Jewish life.
This Sunday, during our Chanukah celebration, instead of lighting all our menorot (because it isn’t actually Chanukah yet), our menorot will tell their stories to all to come to celebrate with us. Bring your menorah, and we will provide a card and a pen for you to write your menorah’s story to share with all of us. And we look forward to sharing ours with you.