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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.
The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.
This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.
Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.
The conflict. . . . For the past four years, we at Union Temple have been presented with what I have called a “conflict of positive values.” There is profound meaning and good will informing each of these values, though together they present us with something of a conflict. By way of explanation, I will take the liberty of borrowing from my own words, which I originally wrote for a Bulletin article in October of 2012.
As the Brooklyn Jewish community has come together for Selichot services for the past five years, so too have we joined together in celebration of Simchat Torah, under the Arch at Grand Army Plaza. These have been wonderful events that we have shared with hundreds of our fellow Jews in the community. This year the celebration is Monday, October 24. So what’s the problem? The problem, or shall I say, the “conflict of positive values,” exists in the fact that for the Reform Movement, the celebration of Simchat Torah is SUNDAY night, October 23, not Monday night.
Here’s the story. . . . In the days of the Sanhedrin – the High Court in Jerusalem – Festivals and New Moons were officially declared by the Sanhedrin itself. The Court would base its declaration upon the testimony of two witnesses each month that they had observed the new moon. The declaration would be communicated by a series of torch signals beginning on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, proceeding to Mount Sartaba in Jericho, and on through the Jewish world. The chain would continue until the entire Diaspora; particularly the Jews of Babylonia, received notification. Eventually the system broke down because of mischief caused by the Samaritans, who began to wave torches on hilltops at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin sought to remedy the situation by instituting an additional day of observance for the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the ancient mindset, if the Festivals weren’t observed on the correct day, supplications to God wouldn’t work.
In the middle of the 4th Century of the Common Era, the Jewish calendar was fixed on the basis of astronomical calculations, and thus everyone was able to determine the exact days of New Moons and Festivals without being dependent upon the Sanhedrin. But many in the Diaspora communities maintained the practice of celebrating these extra days in deference to the previous custom, and in its own self-perception as being in galut – exile, outside of Eretz Yisrael. The custom remained this way until the 19th Century, when the early Reformers cast aside this practice, not only because of the reality of the calendar, but also in rejection of the notion that Diaspora communities are in “galut.”
Contemporary practice. . . . In our time, the Jewish world observes along the following lines. All Jews in Israel – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and what-have-you – observe these Festival days for one day. These include: The first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret), the first day of Passover, the seventh day of Passover, and Shavuot. Reform Jews outside of Israel also observe one day. Conservative and Orthodox, and other non-Reform Jews outside of Israel still observe that extra day of the Festivals. For the Sukkot Festival, it works out in the following way. Israeli Jews and Reform Jews both in and out of Israel celebrate the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei) as a holy day. Sukkot is celebrated for seven days. We also celebrate the eighth day after as a holy day. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, on 22 Tishrei. Eventually an additional holiday which is not technically part of Sukkot was been added to this day. This is Simchat Torah, Rejoicing in the Torah. It is characterized by circuits (hakafot) with the Torahs, and much dancing and rejoicing. The end of the Torah is read, and immediately the beginning as well, to begin the yearly cycle of studying the Torah. For Israelis and all Reform Jews, these two are conflated into one day of celebration: Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah. For non-Reform Jews outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on an additional ninth day (23 Tishrei).
Specific values in conflict. . . . For us at Union Temple, as a Reform congregation, our custom, as with the vast majority of other Reform congregations, has always been to celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on the 22nd of Tishrei (this year, Sunday night/Monday, October 23/24). However, many of our friends in the community will celebrate Shemini Atzeret on Sunday night/Monday, and then Simchat Torah on Monday night/Tuesday, October 24/25. That has always been the case. But these past few years, there have been public gatherings of Jews in our neighborhood at Grand Army Plaza to celebrate Simchat Torah, this year on Monday night, October 24. For us, the two values we considered were (1) remaining steadfast in our convictions as Reform Jews, and (2) K’lal Yisrael – participating in the larger Jewish community and pursuing solidarity with our Jewish friends and neighbors.
Our decision. . . . After deliberating this “conflict of positive values” with our Board of Trustees, we at Union Temple will go ahead and celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on Sunday night, October 23, with 7:00PM reception and 7:30PM service, including the Hakafot with the Torahs – circuits and dancing. Monday morning we will hold our Festival Morning service as usual, including the recitation of Yizkor. And then, on Monday evening at about 8:00, we will join our friends for additional dancing out at the Grand Army Plaza. We hope that you will attend BOTH these celebrations, as there can never be enough rejoicing in the Torah!
Please note that in keeping with our policy of inclusion, there will be chairs around Grand Army Plaza for those who prefer to sit down during the hoopla.
Sunday, October 23
7:00PM: Reception in our Sukkah
7:30PM: Festival Evening Service with Hakafot
Monday, October 24
10:30AM: Festival Morning Service, Yizkor
7:00-11:00PM: Hakafot with the Community at Grand Army Plaza. (Union Temple’s Hakafah will be approximately at 8:15PM.)
By the way, weather permitting, please feel free to come by between now and Tuesday to visit our beautiful new sukkah, put up by our Brotherhood, with members of our Sisterhood participating. It is just adjoining our building. In keeping with the commandment, bring a bite to eat in there too. And, our Friday evening after our Shabbat service, join us for the Oneg in there as well.
Union Temple Food Drive: Each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened cann