The Passover story is one of miracles and marvels: the parting of the sea; the plagues that struck Egypt; the protection of the blood on the doorposts of our people’s houses, as the Destroyer struck down the Egyptians; the miraculous redemption of our people from slavery.
Did these miracles really happen exactly as described in the Book of Exodus? I leave that to you for this particular moment. But here is a miracle that did happen, and happens every single year as we tell and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. It is the miracle that is described in this speech by David Ben Gurion, , exactly 70 years ago, before the UN Commission on Palestine (the “Peel Commission,” established by the British as they tried to extricate themselves from the Arab-Jewish quagmire).
300 years ago, there came to the New World a ship, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?
More than 3,300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt; and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows on what day they left: the 15th of Nisan. And everyone knows exactly what food they ate: matzah. And to this very day, Jews all over the world eat matzah on the 15th of Nisan. And they tell about the Exodus from Egypt, and the sorrows the Jews have experienced from the day they entered into Exile. And they conclude with two declarations: “Now we are slaves, next year we shall be free; this year here, next year in Jerusalem!”
What is the real miracle of Passover? Even now, over 3,000 years later, we – all of us – all over the world – still gather on the night of Passover, to tell and retell the story of our miraculous redemption from Egyptian bondage. Whether here in the United States and Canada, in the State of Israel, South America, in Europe, or Asia, or around the Pacific Rim, we tell it. In so doing, we remind ourselves as well of the core values of our history: our mandate to establish a more just and compassionate society, from the lessons we learned in the bitterness of slavery and oppression.
And so, in our celebration of miracles, and our hope for the coming of a better day on this Earth, I wish you and your families a Chag Sameach and a Ziessen Pesach – a sweet and joyous Passover to all.
This week we begin our reading of the Book of Leviticus, much of which focuses on the ancient system of animal sacrifice. Within the context of the ancient world, this system was the primary modality of vicarious atonement for sins. The priests (Kohanim) would serve as divinely-appointed intermediaries. They would dash the blood of slaughtered animals upon the altar in the inner sanctum (Kodesh Kodashim – the “Holy of Holies”), and through this blood, the people would be cleansed of their sins. A bit gorey sounding, I admit, but in the ancient mindset, very serious business, which had to be carried out with utmost precision. Out in the desert wilderness described in the Torah, this took place in the Mishkan – the “tent” that was erected by the people. Eventually, according to the Biblical chronology at any rate, this of course was replaced by the magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem called the Beit HaMikdash – House of Holiness. In the outer courts the Levitical choirs would sing and the instruments would play, suggesting a grand spectacle of pomp and circumstance. The actual sacrificial act in the Kodesh Kodashim, however, would be carried out in complete silence.
Fortunately, once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jewish community was ready to move on from this system of vicarious atonement. Rabbis replaced the Kohanim as the leaders of the community, and prayer and mitzvot replaced animal sacrifice. But, just as the minutia of the sacrificial rites had to be observed absolutely according to prescription, lest we incur further guilt, so too subsequently did the words of our mouths have to be uttered with great precision. Otherwise, they would go unheard, or even worse, rejected. Prayer, then, is a serious business. And its evolution and development through the ages, particularly as our community and our reality has evolved and developed, has always been a very serious business.
This past Saturday we were blessed with a brilliant and fascinating presentation by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, our guest scholar for the Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus Memorial Lecture. Rabbi Kahn gave us an extraordinary glimpse into the development of three specific prayers of our liturgy, particularly concerned with the changing status of women, non-Jews of one description or another, and those with some sort of disability, in the eyes of those writing and/or funding the prayer books. As the adage goes, “history is written by the winners.” Well, that goes for prayer books as well! In his book, Rabbi Kahn identifies some of the “winners,” and what their various agendas really were. Rabbi Kahn’s book is: The Three Blessings: Boundaries, Censorship and Identity in Jewish Liturgy. He offered to personally autograph copies at the reduced rate of $30 (the list price is $45) to any of our congregants and friends who would like one. If you would like to order a copy from Rabbi Kahn, please send me an email, along with whatever dedication you would like, and he will be delighted to send it to the temple for you.
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
As happens sometimes in the natural course of events, we are dealing with two ends of the emotional spectrum at the same time.
First, we join with the rest of the Jewish community, and the world community as a whole, in expressing our profound sadness at the loss of Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, z”l. Of the founders of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres was the last. The town in Poland in which he was born disappeared, as did many in his family, during the Shoah. He left when he was a teenager, and threw himself into the building of his new home, the national home for the Jewish People. He served in the Israel Defense Force, which he himself helped to build. He held virtually every public office that exists in Israel, including two terms as Prime Minister. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and accolades on the world stage too numerous to mention. While he led his people in war, he also became a pursuer of peace. His ultimate aspiration was for the peoples of the Middle East to live side by side in peace, security, and mutual respect. He was a friend to the Reform Movement, and in fact his daughter Tzviah and her family are members of Kehillat Beit Daniel, the largest Reform congregation in Tel Aviv.
Of all my memories of Shimon Peres, perhaps the one that has affected me most profoundly is of a speech he gave to a large Jewish group out on Eastern Long Island. He concluded his remarks with the following midrash. I believe it encapsulates the extraordinary humanitarianism of the man.
A rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when the night is over, and the day has begun?” One student said, “When we can distinguish from afar between a goat and a lamb, the night is over, the day has begun.” Another student said, “When you can distinguish between an olive tree and a fig tree, the night is over, the day begun.” The rabbi kept silent, and the students turned to him and asked, “Rabbi, what is your indication?” He looked at them and answered, “When you meet a woman, whether black or white, and you say, `You are my sister;’ when you meet a man, whether rich or poor, and you say, `You are my brother,’ then, the night is over, the day begun.”
Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
But now, as I am certain President Peres would have wanted, we also turn to the Days of Awe, which are virtually upon us. As we move into our New Year on Sunday Evening and Monday, Rosh Hashanah, I know that I speak for the entire staff and leadership of Union Temple in wishing all of you, and your families and friends, good health, much sweetness, and all good things in the New Year of 5777. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’teichateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.
This Shabbat immediately following Tishah B’Av is known in our tradition as “Shabbat Nachamu,” “The Sabbath of Comfort,” after the first few words of the Haftarah portion from Chapter 40 of Isaiah: Nachamu, nachamu ami – Take comfort, take comfort, O My people.
During the Winter Study Retreat of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative of the Hartman Institute this past January, my colleagues and I stayed at a residence on Derekh Bet Lechem (the Bethlehem Road) in a neighborhood in southern Jerusalem called Baka, not unlike Park Slope, where many “Anglos” reside. (“Anglo” is the term applied to olim – immigrants – from English speaking countries. In Baka, many of them are from the United States.) In order to get to Hartman every day, we would proceed down Derekh Bet Lechem, and then turn left onto Lloyd George Street, which leads to the next “main drag,” as it were, Emek Refaim, in the neighborhood known as the Germany Colony. From there, we would proceed further uphill to Hartman.Also this winter, I joined some colleagues for dinner one evening in a nice Tel Aviv restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean called Herbert Samuel. There is also a Herbert Samuel Hotel in Jerusalem, in Nachalat Shiv’ah, an active club district with lots of restaurants and fine gift shops, and the Hebrew Music Museum. One more road to mention today, Ruppin Boulevard, takes us to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, one of our favorite places.
All over Israel, streets, hotels, businesses and historic sites are named in honor of builders of Judaism and the Jewish State, from antiquity through the present day. And so, with a nod to streets I have traversed many times, of restaurants and hotels that serve the public regularly, and mostly, in recognition of this Shabbat Nachamu, I would like to bring you this article by Larry Domnitch, the author of “The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History,” published by Jason Aronson. It is an interesting note of history, accompanied, as are so many things about Israel, by a note of touching memory and pathos.
A Message was Captured in Jerusalem One Shabbat Morning
By Larry Domnitch
The Haftorah (prophetic portion) read on Shabbat Nachamu, the ‘Shabbat of Comfort’ which follows Tisha B’Av, expresses the message of conciliation expressed by the prophet Isaiah to a nation that would endure a prolonged exile. In the Old City of Jerusalem in 1920, a particular event on Shabbat Nachamu captured the essence of its theme.
During the First World War, the British government foresaw their victory over Turkish forces in Palestine forces as imminent and issued the Balfour Declaration supporting Jewish aspirations for a Jewish Homeland. Not long after the declaration was issued, opposition mounted from members of Britain’s government and military administration who were against Zionism. However, the British government was under the leadership of the staunch Zionist Lloyd George, who was determined to stand by the Declaration. George appointed a Jew and a Zionist, Sir Herbert Samuel, as the first British High Commissioner of Palestine. Samuel’s appointment signified the beginning of the British mandate over Palestine.
On July 1, 1920, Samuel disembarked a British battleship at the port of Haifa as the new commissioner or, as his biographer John Bowle put it, “the first Jewish ruler in Palestine since Hyrcanus the II,” whose reign ended 40 B.C.E. Samuel seemed to be the answer to the Zionists’ prayers. A Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin, described in his diary the ceremony held nine days later on the Mount of Olives in honor of Samuel’s appointment. “Until now, pronouncements about a Jewish National Home…had only been words on paper; but now they rose before us embodied in a person of a Jewish High Commissioner…Many of the Jews present had tears in their eyes.”
Just a few weeks later, on the morning of Shabbat Nachamu, Samuel set out on foot toward the famous Churva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Surrounded by an entourage of advisors and guards, he entered the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and headed toward the Jewish Quarter. As he entered, spectators gathered on the streets, which were adorned with flowers, to glimpse the man who represented their highest hopes and dreams. As he passed by, the onlookers cheered and expressions of joy resonated. A sense of euphoria quickly came over the crowd.
Samuel entered the Churva Synagogue where there was not an empty seat. He had arrived prepared to chant the Haftorah. Soon, the gabbai (sexton) summoned him to the Torah, calling out the words Ya’amod HaNasi Ha’Elyon (may the High Commissioner arise). As Samuel stood up, the entire congregation also rose to their feet in a show of respect and admiration. Samuel made his way to the bimah (platform from which the Torah is read) and proceeded to recite the blessings over the Torah and then the blessings over the Haftorah. The British High Commissioner began chanting the Haftorah, echoing the words of Isaiah, which expresses the hopes and dreams of the nation. “Comfort, comfort My people, says the Lord. Speak to her heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled, that her iniquity has been conciliated, for she has received for the Hand of God double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2) The entire congregation shuddered upon hearing the words that embodied their greatest hopes and dreams. It was a moment of intense emotion. An aid to Samuel described the scene as ” a golden moment where the Jews in the Synagogue felt as if the hour of redemption had arrived.”
Unfortunately, Samuel did not live up to the people’s hopes and expectations. Despite his devotion to Zionism, he was caught between two sides. As Arab riots increased and pressure against the Zionists intensified in British circles, Samuel made concessions to the Arabs and their British sympathizers. Jewish immigration restrictions were imposed and Haj Amin Al Husseini-a vehement anti-Zionist and later a staunch supporter of Nazism-was appointed by Samuel to the position of Mufti (religious interpreter) of Jerusalem. A British policy of appeasement was set into motion. The restoration of the Land to the Jewish people would be a slow arduous process fixed with obstacles.
However, the course of events did not change the impression of that Shabbat morning. That morning was a special moment that would live forever in the memories of those present. It was a moment that belonged not to the messenger, but to the age-old message of hope brought on Shabbat Nachamu.
This coming Shabbat is the 9th of Av – Tishah B’av. Because Tishah B’av is a day of mourning, our tradition prescribes that when it falls on Shabbat, we delay its observance until Sunday, because no mourning is permitted on Shabbat. Thus the observance will be on Sunday this year. Tishah B’av commemorates the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem: the first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, and the second in 70 CE by the Romans. The first destruction was bad enough, followed by years of exile in Babylon. The second was almost more than the Jews could bear, and for generations the Rabbis tried to make sense of it. The following is from the Talmud, Tractate Yoma. (Yoma is Aramaic for the Hebrew HaYom, The Day, referring to Yom Kippur.)
Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b
מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב? מפני שלשה דברים שהיו בו: עבודה זרה, וגלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים. . . . אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם. ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, hatred without rightful cause prevailed. This is to teach you that hatred without rightful cause is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.
The three mortal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed, are those for which capital punishment could be imposed. While this virtually never happened, it was, in theory at least, the law of the Torah. According to Yoma, the Jews of 6th-century BCE Jerusalem had been committing all three of these sins, weakening the very foundations of their community and of the Temple itself. That is why the First Temple was destroyed, according to this passage.
But with the Second Temple it was different. The Jews were not committing the mortal sins named in the Torah. Instead, they fell into a far worse pattern of behavior, according to the Rabbis. They allowed themselves to be taken over by baseless hatred of one another. Thus the Rabbis taught that so destructive is the sin of hatred without cause, that it is equal to all three of the mortal sins put together. The explanation for the destruction and dislocation that was foisted upon the Jewish community with the Second Destruction was sinat hinam. We brought down our own house, as it were, through baseless hatred.
Fellow Americans: The Talmud was addressing internal Jewish relations, and the warning is as relevant for the Jewish community today as it was two millennia ago, whether in the United States, in Israel, or wherever Jewish communities exist. But for the moment, I am concerned about us as Americans. Perhaps it would behoove us to look around at our country, listen to the rhetoric, and consider the destructiveness of sinat hinam. Of course we hold different perspectives on the specifics of policies that would achieve economic, social and political well-being for the United States, and for the world. All us are entitled to hold our perspectives and advocate for them. What we cannot afford to do is engage in destructive and hateful actions and rhetoric. It is difficult in a heated campaign season such as this one; since in fact, never before has there ever been a campaign season such as this one, marked by bigotry, violence, incitement, xenophobia, mistrust of those with opposing points of view, and so on! Nonetheless, every one of us, no matter where we find ourselves along this strange spectrum, needs to be on our guard, lest we ourselves fall into the trap of sinat hinam.
“Sinat hinam, hatred without rightful cause, is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.”
Moses and the Israelites move closer to the Promised Land, preparing to cross the Jordan and conquer the Land. But two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, approach Moses and tell him they do not want to cross over. They want to remain in the region of Gilead, where the land is more favorable to the cattle they have acquired. Moses is incensed at the thought that they would abandon their kinsmen to potential danger during the conquest. But they mollify his anger: “We will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home. . . we will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.” (Numbers 32.27-18) So we read in our Torah portion this week.
On our last full day in Jerusalem for this summer, Steve and I had a bit of free time before dinner, so we decided to take a drive up to Har Hatzofim – Mount Scopus – “Mountain of the Watchers,” as translated – to revel in the breathtaking views. We had been there many times before, and while the vistas were not new to us, they never get old.
One of the views looks out over the nearby community of Ma’ale Adumim. But farther in the distance is the Dead Sea, with the reddish glow that often emanates from it. And even beyond it, on a very clear day, one can just about make out the Jordanian hills. It is extraordinary to behold.
The second vista is of the Temple Mount – the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Arab village of Silwan. The mountain over which the Dome of the Rock is built is the one from which the prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. Jewish tradition, however, identifies this place as Har Hamoriah – Mount Moriah – where the binding of Isaac took place, as we read every Rosh Hashanah. Later, it became Har Habayit – the Temple Mount. In that place was the Kodesh Kodashim – the Holy of Holies – the Inner Sanctum – where the sacrifices were offered by the Kohanim, the Priests of Israel, every single day.
To the east of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, upon which there are several Christian churches, and the Augusta Victoria Hospital and Church of the Ascension, built in the 19h century by the German Templars. There is also one of the most revered Jewish cemeteries. As one casts one’s gaze further to the west, the new city of Jerusalem comes into view: the King David Hotel, the YMCA, Hebrew Union College and the campus of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, the Russian Compound, and beyond. Absolutely extraordinary.
Up on Mount Scopus is a campus of Hebrew University and a branch of Hadassah Hospital. There is also a campus of the Brigham Young University – of the Church of Latter Day Saints – a prime piece of real estate. In 1948, the Arabs gained control of the only road leading up to Mount Scopus, effectively isolating it from the rest of Jerusalem. During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel regained control of the road, and Mount Scopus was reunited with the rest of the city.
Mount Scopus is fully ½ mile high, and the views from there are indeed breathtaking. But during that afternoon, there was something else that struck me up there, that in its own way, is also majestic. At both lookout points, there are beautiful stone monuments with names, upon names, upon names, of Jews from different parts of the world who donated money to construct these observation points, to give visitors the maximum views of these vistas, and also to help build the community on Mount Scopus. The monument at the lookout toward the Dead Sea records donations primarily from Jews, or in memory of Jews, from all over Canada – Montreal, Winnipeg, Owen Sound, Calgary, and so on. The monument at the Temple Mount lookout bore the names of Jews from all over the United States, and elsewhere in the world. All those Jews, I thought – our people – all over the world. They may live or have lived in far-flung places of the world, but their hearts were pointed toward Jerusalem. Now their legacy is there as well, and their names are remembered among the builders.
The Gadites and the Reubenites said. . . “Whatever the Eternal has spoken concerning your servants, that we will do. We ourselves will cross over as shock-troops, at the instance of the Eternal, into the land of Canaan; and we shall keep our hereditary holding across the Jordan.” (Numbers 32.31-32)
The Psalmist wrote:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.
With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”
Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.
One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.
Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.
Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.
As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to the Eternal, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15.20-21)
These are the last verses of the Song of Miriam, as the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land. The song is also called the Song of the Sea, and it begins with Moses as he leads all the Israelites in this song of praise to God. This Friday morning at our Service for the Conclusion of Passover, our cantor, Emma Goldin Lutz, will chant this song for us. I am grateful for every opportunity I have each year to either chant this song myself, or hear someone with as beautiful a voice as Emma’s chant it. I hope you will give yourselves that opportunity as well this Friday at 10:30AM. The text of Mi Chamocha, Who is like You, O God, that we know from all our evening and morning services, comes from this song.
There is a poignant irony, and for many, a bitter one as well, in this Song of Miriam. The irony is known to us by the phrase Kol Ishah Ervah. It is Talmudic shorthand for the concept that if a man hears the voice of a woman (kol ishah) raised in song, it is tantamount to his committing sexual impropriety, ervah literally meaning nakedness. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron and Moses, would have blanched at such a law – a law written over a millennium after she led the women in song. This is the law that has driven, at least in part, the opposition to Women of the Wall, who have sought for 25 years now to hold morning services together at the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Read a fresh look at this Talmudic prohibition by Professor Aharon Amit, a scholar of the history of the Talmud at Bar Ilan University.
This past Sunday, on the second day of Passover, thousands of people flocked to the Kotel for the traditional Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. On the Festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, those men who are descended from priestly families come to the Kotel, stand in the men’s section, and raise their hands and voices to pronounce the blessing upon the people. When they raise their hands, their fingers are separated into 3 groups to form the letter shin, for Shaddai, one of the divine appellations. They also cover their heads with a tallit. For his portrayal of the character Spock on “Star Trek,” the late great actor Leonard Nimoy reached back into his experience as a child in synagogue, and brought this hand formation to accompany his own “Vulcan Salute.”
But this particular Sunday was a bit different in Jerusalem. In a move by Women of the Wall, those women who traced their ancestry back to priestly families, planned to raise their hands and cover their heads, as they too raised their voices to pronounce the Birkat Kohanim from the women’s section of the Kotel in a Birkat Kohanot. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, prohibited the women to raise their hands and voices, and the Kotel police cordoned off the women into a holding area, so they would not be seen or heard by other worshipers. Funding for the effort mounted by WOW for the Birkat Kohanot was provided by Leonard Nimoy’s estate. Read a news report of this incident.
If Miriam the prophetess had suddenly appeared at the Western Wall, I wonder what Rabbi Rabinowitz would have done. I suppose we’ll never know. What we do know is that those of us who are committed to equality for women in Jewish life, no matter where we live, will never relent in this ongoing movement.
Come to services this Friday and raise your voices with us.
This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance – just preceding the celebration of Purim, which falls next Wednesday night -Thursday, March 23/24. Shabbat Zachor takes its name from three extra verses of the Torah that we read this Shabbat, in addition to the regularly scheduled portion at the beginning of Leviticus. These verses come from Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, verses 17-19:
Zachor – Remember – what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.
Memory is a core value for Jews. We are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the Creation of the World, the Revelation at Sinai. We weren’t there, of course, yet we are commanded to remember as though we were, and transmit this memory to our children and all future generations. We are commanded to remember our parents and teachers. And, we are commanded to remember Shabbat and observe it every single week. In the post-Holocaust world, our people have embraced the responsibility to remember, wherever we may live. Zachor – Remember.
But we also understand two basic realities of memory. First, memory is selective. We remember what we choose to remember because it is important to us. If the commandment to remember seminal events of Jewish heritage is important to us, then we engage in perpetuating the memory of them. We remember what it is important for us to remember. (Of course now we have any number of devices in our lives that help us to remember what we need to, and far more as well.). But memory is also interpretive. We look back at events with the specific perspective that we have developed over time. Our world view comes into play when we look at events of the past and try to figure them out as we look back.
The ongoing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians is complicated by conflicting interpretations of the events leading up to situation in which we find ourselves now. Was the declaration of the State of Israel a triumph of the spirit and a redemption of the Jewish People out of the ashes of the Shoah? Or, was it a naqba – a disaster of untold proportions, as the Arab world characterizes it? Is the Israeli presence in the West Bank territories an ongoing destructive Jewish occupation of a subjugated people? Or, is it a realization of the promise that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that their descendants would live on this land, Judea and Samaria, for all time?
The reality on the ground in Israel and the territories exists in and of itself. But there are many narratives about what exists that come into conflict with one another, and at the moment, are responsible for the continuation of the stalemate.
Is there a way out? Can we – all of us – accept and honor each other’s narratives and still find a way to get past them so that both groups can arrive at a peaceful and secure compromise, and live on the land side by side, in peace and acceptance of the other?
I don’t know the answer to this question, but I fervently hope the answer is yes. And now for my “shameless plug.” This Wednesday, March 16, one of the most significant insiders of the ongoing negotiation process since Oslo is going to be speaking in Brooklyn, as part of our Shalom Hartman series. Tal Becker, international lawyer, key member of the Israeli negotiating team, and Senior Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute, will be speaking at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue at 8:00PM. The series is being funded by UJA-Federation of New York, and cosponsored by ourselves and our sister congregations in Brownstone Brooklyn. I urge you to come and hear Tal, and ask him questions, which you will have the opportunity to do. While there is no admission fee for members of the congregations of Brownstone Brooklyn (including Union Temple, of course), it is important for UJA-Federation to be able to track the registration and the response. Please register HERE and use the registration code UT16.
While memory informs our perspectives, we have the power to shape and reshape our vision of the future. Ultimately it is our values and ethics that need to guide us as we seek to carve out a future of peace for ourselves and our children.