Lech lecha mei-artz’cha – Go forth from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12.1-3)
Thus begins our Torah portion for this week, and thus begins the unfolding of our destiny as a people, which continues to unfold to this day, and will continue on, we pray, for all time.
On this particular day, the 7th of Cheshvan, there is a celebration among our people that may go completely unnoticed by many of us. It is called “Diaspora-Israel Day,” and grows out of the “Domim-aLike Project,” a relatively new joint initiative of the Reform Movement and the Israeli Government. Its aim is to express and celebrate the unique, ongoing, and complex relationship between Jewish people wherever we live: in Israel, in the United States and Canada, in Europe, in South America, everywhere. The word domim itself means alike. Wherever our people have lived throughout our long and amazing history, we have maintained a bond with each other that, despite a number of intense strains, remains intact to this day. We often hear the term “Jewish Peoplehood.” The term generally refers to the sense of belonging that we share with Jews around the world. Of course, it has taken many forms throughout our history, and on a certain level is an intangible; yet it remains one of the dominant components of Jewish identity and culture.
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. This principle has been a driving force of our connection as a people, and our working to maintain our ties throughout history. It has been a primary motivator to help our people wherever they live, whether in times of trouble, or in times of great celebration. If you should have the occasion to visit the headquarters of UJA-Federation in New York City, you will see this principle emblazoned starkly upon the walls throughout the building. It is a short, yet powerful statement of the organization’s reason for being.
For us in Brownstone Brooklyn, one of the most wonderful developments of this bond is the Sh’lichut Program—the program of emissaries from Israel. One of the initiatives of this program is to bring young shinshinim to our area to become a part of our community each year. The term shinshin is an acronym for sh’nat sheirut—a year of service. When Israeli students graduate high school, they generally begin their mandatory service in the Army. Many, however, choose to delay their service by a year, and embark upon a voluntary year of community service. Many of the programs are structured within Israel.This particular program, however, funded by UJA-Federation, brings a small group of these wonderful young people to different areas within the US and Canada, both to learn about the vibrancy of North American Jewry, and to teach our students about the vibrancy of Israel. This is now Union Temple’s fourth year of participation in this program. Our kids, and we as well, have been blessed by Ido, Paz, Naomi, and now Aviv, in this extraordinary demonstration of domim—a learning experience to teach us that even though we are different in some ways, in many fundamental ways, we are alike.
Ayelet Zioni and Gili Liber formed a band in Israel in 1997 called Gaya. A Song for Love is perhaps their best-known song, and has become an unofficial anthem representing Jewish hope and connection.
A song for love
Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up and see the light in the sky
Together, heart to heart
We’ll open up with hope for love.
As the heart opens up
It embraces the world
And with a great shout
To sing for love.
Say everything’s possible
It’s not too late
The dawn has already broken
It’s time for love.
And only if we believe
Without any mucking around
In the road rising up
It’s a song for love.
This is our second week into the final soliloquy of Moses at the end of the 40-year journey through the Wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy features a recapitulation, and in some cases, a reinterpretation of the events leading up to this moment, as the Children of Israel stand at the Jordan, preparing to cross into the Promised Land.
Within this week’s parashah is an admonition that we are compelled to look at with complete honesty:
And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4.1-2)
As we study the development of Jewish belief and practice since this text was written over 2-1/2 millennia ago, we certainly see that the commandment not to add or take away has been taken with a grain of salt by every generation. Many Orthodox Jews see this process as an interpretative one, with each generation deepening its understanding of the original intent of the text, and honoring that intent while responding to the ever-changing world around us all. On a certain level, Reform Jews respond much in the same way, but also forthrightly stating our desire to embrace the “spirit of the law,” even if at times we cannot, or will not, embrace the “letter of the law,” whether it be on practical or ideological grounds.
Yesterday (Thursday) the Gay Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem. The sign in rainbow colors was the official sign of the Israel Reform Movement. It bears one of the most fundamental precepts of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18). We read it on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
A cantor friend of mine posted a photo on his Facebook page of the black and white sign that he saw at the parade. The block print is the verse above from Leviticus. The written addition in Hebrew script across it that someone thought to insert into this precept reads: “even if he is not.” The entire statement in a workable translation is: Love your neighbor—even if he or she is not exactly like you. It is an eloquent expression of the need to “add” to the text from the perspective of our own time and understanding.
It has taken us a long time as a society to evolve to a better understanding and embrace of LGBTQ life. The transformation of the Reform Movement in this regard really only began in the 1980’s. That’s just shy of 40 years ago. 40 years is the amount of time that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert. Now in our text, they stand at the Jordan River, preparing to cross over into the Promised Land. While this Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem yesterday, it is safe to say that the LGBTQ community has not yet fully arrived in the Promised Land. But the fact that almost 25,000 people marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem yesterday represents a giant step in that direction.
This past Sunday evening, Steve and I attended a most enjoyable concert at the Jerusalem YMCA— known to Jerusalemites as “Imka.” It was a joint concert of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, and the Yale University Whiffenpoofs. Of course we already knew the music of the Whiffenpoofs. This was the first a cappella all male college choir, founded at Yale in 1909. Steve played violin in the Yale Symphony while he was a student there, and also played trumpet in the Yale Precision Marching Band. But he never sang with the Whiffenpoofs, even though he has always loved them. The members of the Whiffenpoofs take a full year off from their studies in the senior year, and devote all their attention and time to the group. They travel all throughout the United States and the world. This week they were in Israel. In September, they will resume their studies and look forward to their graduation next June.
The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is made up of about 25 high school kids, both Jewish and Palestinian. They also are an a cappella choir, though occasionally they are accompanied by keyboard and/or drum. They sing in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French. Whereas the Whiffenpoofs all wear white ties and tails, the kids—girls and boys—dress more informally, in shirts and pants. At this concert they made it a point to all wear different colored shirts, I suspect to stress their individuality within the remarkable ensemble that they have. The group is conducted by Micah Hendler, who himself was a member of the Whiffenpoofs six years ago.
This is the stated mission of the YMCA Youth Chorus:
“The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus is a choral and dialogue program for Israeli and Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem. Our mission is to provide a space for these young people from East and West Jerusalem to grow together in song and dialogue. Through the co-creation of music and the sharing of stories, the chorus seeks to empower youth in Jerusalem to become leaders in their communities and inspire singers and listeners around the world to work for peace.”
I have to tell you that the sound that these kids produce together is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. It is a pure sound, the pitch is spot on, and the kids themselves are clearly delighted to be there, singing and making music with one another. Their singing was so beautiful that at one point Steve and I both were moved to tears.
This is harmony at its finest.
Sunday night and Monday were also Rosh Chodesh Av—the first day of the month of Av. As happens on every Rosh Chodesh except for Tishrei (which is Rosh Hashanah), Nashot Hakotel—Women of the Wall—gather at 7:00 in the morning in the women’s section of the Kotel to pray the Rosh Chodesh Morning Service. This Monday was no exception. Steve and I got up early and joined them, both with our Women of the Wall Talitot. (Yes, Steve has one too, which he wears frequently.) Incidentally, you might be happy to know that we were joined by Cantor Lauren Phillips, who was there with her husband Dan Fogelman on vacation.
This was the first Rosh Chodesh since Prime Minister Netanyahu nullified the agreement that took some 5 years to hammer out regarding a new egalitarian platform along the Wall that would be designated specifically for liberal, egalitarian prayer. The case itself, of course, has been dragging on for 28 years. But, as I wrote earlier this month, even after reaching a carefully negotiated agreement, Mr. Netanyahu caved in to pressure by the ultra-Orthodox power mongers, and reneged. So not only are the women of Nashot Hakotel subjected to the taunts and terrible noise of the Haredim, we are now segregated even further behind an additional barricade within the women’s section, mostly for our own protection.
While it’s not unusual for cat calls, whistles, and obscenities to be hurled at the women who gather together by the Haredim, both men and women on their respective sides of the mechitza, this particular Rosh Chodesh seemed particularly loud. And, at one point, the Sheliach Tzibbur in the men’s section got hold of a microphone that is only legal to use during public commemorative events. But no one made any attempt to take the microphone from him. As he chanted the service in the men’s section, his voice bellowed over the loudspeakers, in an effort to drown us out. The one positive effect this did have is that the whistles and cat calls stopped for awhile, because they did not want to drown out the sound from the men’s section. As though only the prayers of men may be heard on high.
This was discord at its most irritating.
Rosh Chodesh Av ushers in a 9-day period leading up to Tish’ah B’av, the 9th of Av, which commemorates the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem. The huge stones of the Roman destruction some 2,000 years ago, still lie in the rocks and concrete, as they tumbled randomly and violently to the ground. Tish’ah B’av is known to Jews as the saddest day of the year. This is not only because of the destructions and additional calamities themselves which befell us on this day. It is because of the discord and infighting that accompanied these catastrophes. Sinat Chinam is the term—
hatred without cause.
Within a 12-hour period we experienced the melodious sounds of harmony and the distressing cacophony of discord. The harmony, from a group of high school kids, Jews and Palestinians, seeking to create understanding and a better world for themselves and their peers. The discord, from a plaza full of Jews, some of whom are so rigid and closed-minded that they are unable to tolerate differences among us.
About two weeks ago, there was a news report in New York that a man in his 60’s was bitten by a poisonous snake in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. He was taken to Jacobi Hospital, and then was well enough to be released. So, how does a poisonous snake come to an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen? Apparently, this man had been keeping it there as a pet. I think there may be an eviction notice in his future. . . Perhaps he would do well with some psychotherapy as well!
As it happens, poisonous snakes are among the topics in our Torah portion this very week. Virtually all through our reading of the Book of Numbers we hear nothing but bitter complaining from our ancestors in the Wilderness. They have no faith in God’s power to save them, and rebel against the leadership of Moses, as God’s appointee. To punish them, here in Parashat Chukat, God sends poisonous serpents to bite them, and many of them die. But then, Moses offers them a lifeline: not a real serpent (nachash), but a serpent made of copper (n’choshet). Moses was to mount this copper serpent (nachash han’choshet) on a pole, and raise it above the people. If those who had been bitten raised their eyes and looked upon it, they would be cured and they would live.
Really? Looking at a piece of copper on pole—a cure for snake bite? Sounds just about as ridiculous as keeping a poisonous snake as a pet in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen in New York! But according to our sidra, it worked, and the people were cured.
Of course, the whole thing smacks of idolatry, forbidden to the People of Israel. Yet snake-like figures were found throughout Israel at what had been idolatrous Canaanite shrines, and also, early Israelite shrines. There was even a god-like figure called N’chushtan, taking the idolatry of the copper serpent to its logical, though idolatrous conclusion. King Hezekiah campaigned against these figures, and did his best to abolish them from Israelite practice.
The Rabbis understood the problem here, and, as always, tried to put a more favorable spin on this strange story in the Torah. An interpretation in the Talmud posits that the people actually looked past the nachash han’choshet, and upward toward God: “When the Jewish people turned their eyes upward, and subjected their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; but if not, they rotted from their snakebites.” (Rosh Hashanah 29a)
In its beginnings, Reform Judaism bent over backwards not to assign magical powers to objects and amulets, or to make ritual items in our tradition objects of idolatry. A perfect example is the Torah Scroll. As you know, it is customary before our Reading of the Torah, to march through the congregation holding the Torah—a ritual known as the hakafah—and for people to extend a tallit, a book, or simply their hand, and kiss the Torah. The early Reformers eschewed this ritual, because, in their eyes, it smacked of idolatry, and risked making our sacred Scripture an object of magical power. Nevertheless, during the past generation or so, the Reform Movement has taken back the ritual of the hakafah. It has proven to evoke an emotional connection between the people and our sacred Scripture, particularly as we reach out to kiss the scroll. The hope is that through making an emotional connection during this ritual, we will be inspired to study the contents of the Torah, and perform the mitzvot—the commandments—that will help us to live out and practice the values of Jewish tradition.
As thoughtful, modern Jews, we are constantly re-thinking and re-evaluating our relationship with and practice of the array of rituals within our tradition. The aim is to promote our knowledge and practice of the values of our tradition, as the rituals enhance our affective experience of Jewish life.
I wrote the D’var Torah above before we left for Israel on Monday. But as we sat in Kennedy Airport waiting for our flight, we tried to absorb the impact of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to abrogate the agreement regarding the Egalitarian Platform at the Kotel, the Western Wall. After some five years in the making, the agreement was finally reached, or so we thought, in February of 2016, with plans underway for the construction of a beautiful area designated for egalitarian, pluralistic prayer. One of the primary brokers of this deal was Natan Scharansky, head of the Jewish Agency. Now, in an obvious move to kowtow to the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has double-crossed Mr. Scharansky, and non-Orthodox Jews all over Israel and all over the world, in nullifying this agreement.
From the moment our feet hit the ground on Tuesday, our e-mail server was bombarded with statements of protest from virtually every fair-minded person and organization we know, protesting this cowardly move on the part of the Prime Minister. I would encourage you to access the statements of ARZA, the WUPJ, Women of the Wall, and Natan Scharansky. But since we are preparing to begin our studies next week at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I will insert this particular link for responses by Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, and Hartman faculty member and journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi.
Our Torah portion this week contains the commandment concerning the wearing of tzitzit—fringes.
Numbers Chapter 15:
37) The Eternal said to Moses, as follows: 38) Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 39) That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. 40) Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and be holy to your God. 41) I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Eternal your God.
These verses are included in the traditional recitation of the Shema at services. (In the Reform Prayer Book we omit verses 37-39.) The tzitzit are the fringes on the bottom of a tallit, and practically speaking, the tallit is the very garment that enables the wearing of the tzitzit. The purpose of the tzitzit is to remind us of the mitzvot—commandments—when we look upon them. For this reason, the tallit is generally only worn at morning synagogue services because the light of the morning enables us to see them. The exception is Kol Nidre, when it is customary to wear a tallit even though it is at night. However, it is also customary for the rabbi, cantor, or leader of prayer to wear a tallit at all services to distinguish him/herself as the Sheliach/Shelichat Tzibbur, the Leader of Prayer. That is why you see the cantor and myself wearing tallitot at all services that we are conducting, both morning and evening.
Virtually from its inception, and then for many years to come, the Reform Movement rejected the wearing of the tallit. Aside from a dismissal of the custom as “fetishism,” the early Reformers believed that one should not need outward reminders of spirituality and one’s loyalty to Jewish teaching. But within the past 40 years or so, the wearing of the tallit, though still optional in most Reform congregations, nevertheless has become fairly standard across the Movement.
And perhaps more significant even than the wearing of tallitot by Reform Jewish men, is the adoption of this custom by Reform Jewish women, and subsequently, Conservative and Reconstructionist women as well. Initially the mitzvah of wearing the fringes was restricted to men. But in the expansion of the tradition, and the equalization of roles within the liberal movements of Judaism, the tallit became standard for women as well. The same holds true for tefillin—phylacteries—though this is far less common within the Reform Movement.
My family belonged to a Modern Orthodox shul across the street from Stuyvesant Town, where I grew up. One of the things I wished in my heart all the time I was growing up was to be able to wear a tallit, and extend it to kiss the Torah as it came around. I could not do either of those, of course, because women and girls had to sit upstairs, and played no part in the service at all, except to sit and talk to each other; and occasionally, to pray as well. Thankfully, halfway through college, I found my way to the Reform Movement, which by that time had embraced women’s equality head on. Nevertheless, when I first entered Rabbinic School, and went through the year in Israel with my class, I was reticent about putting on a tallit. It wasn’t particularly about being a woman, but more that I was conflicted about taking on some of the traditionalism I had intentionally left behind when I became a Reform Jew. I felt as though I had progressed too far, and putting on a tallit just didn’t feel right. In fact during my entire five years of study at HUC, I was one of the few “holdouts” in my class who never wore a tallit. Only on the day of my ordination did I wear an atarah—a tapered tallit—over my ordination robe. My mom had bought it for me, and I still wear it from time to time when I wear a robe. In fact I wore it just last week at an interfaith Pride service at a local church. All the time I have been at Union Temple, however, I have been completely comfortable with wrapping myself in the fringes, and by extension, in Jewish tradition. As my connection with Jewish women around the world, particularly in Israel, has broadened, I have come to love it. And as you probably have noticed, I am lucky enough to have built up an array of tallitot, all different, but all beautiful and meaningful in their own ways.
This of course brings us to what we might call the politics of the tallit. As you know, I am a member of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall—women of all denominations, feminists of all backgrounds, who assemble each month on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month, to pray together at the Kotel—the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Aside from women’s voices raised in prayer and in the reading of the Torah, perhaps the most identifying marker of Nashot Hakotel is the tallit. Women’s tallitot are generally smaller, and shaped a bit differently from men’s—for obvious reasons. And, they have taken on the broad array of colors of the spectrum, just as women can celebrate being different from one another, even as we come together in unity. There are several “official” tallitot of Nashot Hakotel, two of which I own and wear frequently during services.
In this spirit, I would remind the women of our congregation—and men as well—that the wearing of a tallit is a privilege for which we have had to fight for a very long time. I would never try to force it on anyone. Remember, as I said, I went all through Rabbinic School without one, even as most of my classmates donned them. But if you are at morning services at temple, every so often, try one on. It is a symbol of the embrace of our tradition. I have grown to love it. Perhaps you will as well.
Israeli artist Michal Gavrieli made this for me last summer in Israel. (See photo.) It was a gift from Steve upon my graduation as a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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.
We are reading this week the “Holiness Code,” in the Book of Leviticus. It is the same portion that we in the Reform Movement read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, because it contains some of the most fundamental values of ethics and decency that are embodied in Biblical teaching. “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind. . . You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19.14,16). The “Holiness Code” implores us to protect the poor, the weak, the elderly, and the stranger. This is a core value of Judaism.
As American Jews, we bring this core value into the public sphere in the demand we make upon our government – that its policies and precepts reflect this basic human decency. But yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, the US House of Representatives flagrantly ignored this most basic concept of decency, as it voted to vacate the Affordable Care Act, and place millions of Americans in jeopardy – the poor, the elderly, the weak, the sick and disabled, at the top of the list.
One of the primary targets of the House was Planned Parenthood. The excuse is abortion. But this is a smoke screen. In fact there already has been a ban on public funds for abortion. But Planned Parenthood provides the gamut of health care services for women, and for men: breast cancer screening, pap smears, colon, prostate, and testicular cancer screenings, birth control, infertility treatment, HPV tests, and the list goes on. For many women and men around the country, Planned Parenthood is the only source of treatment and preventative care that they have. This cut in funding to Planned Parenthood is vicious, and could have deadly consequences.
If I may admit to it, I have to say that have never been able to understand this dynamic in American politics during the election cycles of the past several decades. With regard to health care in particular, it has always seemed as though the very people who stand to lose the most in our country have repeatedly voted against their own best interests. Latest estimates put some 24 million Americans in jeopardy of losing their health coverage. Those with various “pre-existing conditions” will be running up medical bills that will threaten their very stability, and that of their families. It simply defies reason.
As a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I proudly stand with the statement it issued yesterday in its condemnation of the “American Health Care Act.” Please take a moment to read it.