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.
We open the Book of Exodus this week upon the cruel and despotic king of Egypt, who abuses his title of “Pharaoh” in all the worst ways. He is self-absorbed, power-hungry, narcissistic and paranoid. He has enslaved an entire people to build cities for his own glorification, and then he fears that their baby boys will someday grow up to overpower and defeat him. In his mind, of course, the world, and everything that happens in it, revolves around him.
I needn’t belabor the comparison. We have a president in the White House who has shown sure signs of narcissistic, paranoid, power-hungry self-absorption. The difference, of course, as we have been reminded often, is that Mr. Trump is not a king, he is President of the United States. His powers are limited, and he was, theoretically, at least, elected in a democratic election by the people of our country, albeit given the now painfully obvious flaws in our electoral system. But he does not seem to understand that distinction. He has referred to the Department of Justice as “his” Department of Justice. But it is not his; it is a government agency, belonging to the people of the United States—not to him. He has referred to the military as “his” military, and its leadership as “his generals.” But he is wrong. In an attempt to create as many distractions as possible from the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, he has continuously thrown accusations and threats at Secretary Clinton and many members of her team. But this is not our way in the United States. Dictators may be in the habit of incarcerating their political opponents and exacting vengeance, but not United States presidents. That is one of the things that is supposed to distinguish democracies from dictatorships and oligarchies.
From the latest bombshell excerpts from Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, it is apparent that the erratic and narcissistic behavior that we have come to expect from Donald Trump after all these years, has now become the overriding characteristic of the White House environment over which he ostensibly presides. It is a common characteristic that a disturbed person within an organization will tend to generate a maelstrom of craziness around him/herself, throwing the entire organization into disarray. Nevertheless, what we need to remember during this new calendar year and beyond, is that we are not the ones who are disturbed and dysfunctional—he is. And, in fact, our governmental structure is strong enough in principle to help us maintain our democracy and prevent it from being usurped by a narcissistic individual who doesn’t understand the nature of that democracy, or the arms of the government designed to protect it.
As Jews we remember the terrible enslavement imposed upon us by a cruel and despotic king. As Jewish Americans we always have risen up in defense of our country to protect our democracy. I have full confidence that our community will uphold that historical record. This is our country, sure as it is anyone else’s, and we will not allow the likes of Donald Trump to trample upon it.
Rabbi Charles S. Sherman is Senior Rabbi of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park, PA. He has written a book called The Broken and The Whole, Discovering Joy After Heartbreak: Lessons from a Life of Faith. (Scribner/Simon and Schuster). His son Eyal suffered a brain stem stroke at the age of 4, and for the ensuing 30 years, lived as a quadriplegic, with numerous cognitive difficulties and the inability to speak. Eyal died not long ago. Rabbi Sherman posted this on his Facebook page this past December 7. I was so moved that I asked his permission to share it with you. He granted it unreservedly.
My wife and I just returned from a week’s vacation to Los Angeles, visiting two of our kids. We did the whole tourist thing, Warner Brothers studio tour, a walk down Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica pier. But what made it noteworthy was that it was the first time my wife and I were able to vacation together for almost 30 years. For those 30 years, we always made sure that one of us was with our profoundly-challenged son Eyal, who, after a stroke as a little boy, was a quadriplegic and required around-the-clock care. Eyal passed away a few months ago.
The vacation was bittersweet. It was great to get away, we enjoyed ourselves, and the bright warm sunshine was delightful. Still, it was difficult. We faced a dilemma, a contradiction—were we somehow being disloyal to our son by having a good time? I know a lot of people find themselves at that same poignant intersection.
There’s a natural feeling that people experience—you may feel guilty having a good time, and feel that you are not being faithful to the person you have lost. That is a very tough emotion to deal with. People may expect someone who is grieving to “move on.” I would suggest that instead, we concentrate on “going on.” Moving on sometimes sends a message that the past is all behind us, and we should try not to think about the loss. Going on means we incorporate the loss into our new life.
It is true that things will never be the same without your loved one. Crying and feeling sad is natural and helps us heal. And other things can help us heal, as well—a bit of relaxation, a hobby we enjoy, a trip we have always wanted to take. While missing our loved one will forever be a part of our lives, that loss does not mean that our days can never be joyful again.
As we close the Book of Genesis this Shabbat with the deaths of the patriarchal/matriarchal generation; and indeed, as we close out this calendar year, I offer Rabbi Sherman’s insight for your edification. Some of our own congregants have faced overwhelming challenges in life during this year. Many of us, thank God, have maintained relatively good health, but have faced other types of challenges. Nevertheless, Rabbi Sherman reminds us of the wisdom of our tradition. After this bizarre, and in many respects, rather horrifying year, we have no choice but to gather our strength for a new year, and resolve in earnest to keep working to make things better. Even amid anger, and sadness and frustration, we cannot allow ourselves to lose hope, lest we hand our adversaries a victory they do not deserve. And with this, I wish you all renewed strength and hope in the year ahead. And this Shabbat, upon finishing the Book of Genesis, together we will proclaim: Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek! Be strong; be very strong; and we shall strengthen each other!
Between 167 and 164 BCE, the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus IV, who was politically and militarily in control of Judea at the time, imposed a series of decrees upon the population of Judea, effectively banning the observance of Judaism. Though throughout the preceding centuries there had been many wars for territory and military and political hegemony in the Ancient Near East, this was the first pointed and deliberate religious persecution imposed by one people upon another.
These were the decrees handed down by Antiochus:
During the time that these decrees were imposed, a priest named Mattathias lived in Jerusalem, but moved to Modi’in. Mattathias had five sons: John, Simon, Judah (called “the Maccabee”), Elazar, and Jonathan. But Antiochus’ officers traveled throughout Judea, trying to persuade the Jews to abandon their religion and offer sacrifices to the Greek god Zeus. Mattathias refused. When he witnessed a Jew in Modi’in step up to the altar to offer the pagan sacrifice, he was overcome with anger, and he rose up and slaughtered the Jew on the altar. Then he and his sons fled into the hills.*
Eventually, Judah created a fighting force, returned to Jerusalem, and defeated the army of Antiochus. It was a stunning military victory
This is history.
Now, for the miracle.
Several hundred years after the Maccabean Revolt, the Rabbis wrote the following story into the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, from Megillat Ta’anit:
“Our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Chanukah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by th
e High Priest. It contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit [with that oil] for eight days. The following year they were established as a festival with Hallel (Praise) and Thanksgiving.”
For Jews around the world, Chanukah is one of the most beloved and celebrated of all times during our Jewish year. Nevertheless, Chanukah is not ordained in the Torah, nor does it even appear anywhere in the Tanakh—the entire Hebrew Bible. In fact, most of what we know about it comes from the Books of Maccabees, which are included in the canonical Jewish Bible, though they are included in the New Testament.
Chances are, if you were to ask many Jews in our time what Chanukah is about, the “knee-jerk” answer would be, “the miracle of the oil,” or “the oil lasted for 8 nights,” or some permutation thereof. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in and of itself. But in fact, this tale of the miracle of Chanukah is just that—a tale. Not that celebrating miracles is a bad thing, necessarily. In fact, on a daily basis, we Jews recognize and give thanks for a whole host of miracles, including our very lives, our health and families, and the world around us. On the other hand, our celebration of Chanukah also demands that we remember our history as a people.
On the other hand, as a people, we have witnessed countless events that we might justifiably characterize as “miracles” throughout our history. But in fact, most of them have come about because we have refused to relinquish our faith and our strength, both physical and spiritual, despite the challenges, both internal and external, that we have endured and overcome throughout our history.
And so, as we celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, we also celebrate the miracle of our history as a people, which is ongoing even on this day. And we pray for a long, vibrant, and peaceful future.
A Chag Urim Sameach to all—a joyous Festival of Lights!
*The material on the decrees of Antiochus and the actions of Mattathias may be found in A Different Light, a brilliant compendium on Chanukah by Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.