Jacob now settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 37:1)
So begins our Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev. There is no doubt that our people have lived in what ultimately became known as the Land of Israel for well over 3,000 years. Historically, we always have identified Jerusalem as our people’s capital city. Nevertheless, I must voice my agreement with the leaders of the Reform Movement this week, as I denounce President Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and begin plans to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While we maintain our attachment to, and identification of Jerusalem as our spiritual center, in the practicality of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, this was a poke in the eye of the Palestinians, and in my view, creates an even greater obstacle to achieving the hope of some sort of equitable agreement between our two peoples. There is no greater dream than for Jerusalem to realize its own self-definition as “the city of peace.”
I would offer for your consideration statements by two of my rabbinic colleagues. The first was issued earlier this week by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, and endorsed by the entire Reform Movement, represented in the list of organizations at the end. The second is from Rabbi Jill Jacobs (no relation), Director of T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Boston, MA; December 5, 2017:
“President Trump’s ill-timed, but expected, announcement affirms what the Reform Jewish Movement has long held: that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Yet while we share the President’s belief that the U.S. Embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process. Additionally, any relocation of the American Embassy to West Jerusalem should be conceived and executed in the broader context reflecting Jerusalem’s status as a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
The President has said that achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is “the ultimate deal.” Just this weekend, his advisor Jared Kushner noted the importance of such an agreement to regional stability overall. While the President took the right step in announcing that he would sign the waiver, as have his Republican and Democratic predecessors, the White House should not undermine these efforts by making unilateral decisions that are all but certain to exacerbate the conflict.
We urge the President to do everything in his power to move forward with efforts to bring true peace to the region and take no unilateral steps that will make that dream more distant. We welcome the opportunity to work with the White House to realize the day when Jerusalem truly becomes a beacon of peace.”
American Conference of Cantors
Association of Reform Jewish Educators
Association of Reform Zionists of America
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Men of Reform Judaism
National Association for Temple Administration
North American Federation of Temple Youth
Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Union for Reform Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism
Women’s Rabbinic Network
World Union for Progressive Judaism
Rabbi Jill Jacobs:
“Jerusalem has been the spiritual and political center for the Jewish people since King David established his throne there thousands of years ago. Even after the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from the city, Jews have continued to pray three times a day for a return to Jerusalem. In our prayers, Jerusalem embodies the peace and wholeness suggested by its name. As Jews, we do not need a political declaration by any head of state to affirm our connection to this sacred place. And we also affirm its sanctity for Christians and Muslims.
Despite the rhetoric about the ‘eternal, undivided capital of Israel,’ Jerusalem remains a deeply divided city. Although Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six Day War, the international community has not recognized this annexation. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, most of whom are not citizens of Israel, do not have the same access to building permits or municipal services as residents of West Jerusalem do. Palestinian East Jerusalem residents are subject to curfews and raids similar to those that take place in the West Bank. The separation barrier cuts off part of East Jerusalem from the rest. The current parameters of Jerusalem, as understood by the Israeli government, include a far greater swath of land than that which David declared as his capital.
T’ruah supports the establishment of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. In order to be acceptable to both parties, this resolution will necessarily include a capital for each state in Jerusalem. But today, we find ourselves very far from this resolution.
President Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel constitutes a symbolic gesture that serves no useful purpose, moves us no closer to a peace agreement, indicates his lack of understanding of the complexities of the region, and will likely lead to unrest and even violence.
This unilateral move sends a strong signal to the world that the United States is relinquishing its position as a peacekeeper and choosing instead to appease those on the far Right who have no interest in finding a path toward peace.
Jerusalem is among the most complicated of cities. An ancient midrash declares,“There are ten measures of beauty in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. There are ten measures of suffering in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of wisdom in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world. … There are ten measures of flattery in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 48). Rather than exacerbate the suffering of Jerusalem, the United States should support both Israelis and Palestinians in bringing their collective wisdom to bear on creating a lasting peace.”
This is a sermon I wrote a number of years ago, and delivered at our temple on Sisterhood Shabbat, back in November of 2004. During that Shabbat, the Sisterhood made a point of honoring our mothers and grandmothers, as is mentioned at the beginning of the sermon. The sermon is based on this week’s Torah portion, “Chayei Sarah.” I entitled it “Laughter and Tears.” In these very strange and disturbing times, I found that it has once again struck a chord of poignancy for me, and if you have a few minutes to read it, I hope it will for you as well.
Laughter and Tears
This is a sad day in the story of our ancestors. Sarah Imeinu, Sarah our mother, has died, and now her husband Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father, must accord her the final respect of burial. We read that Abraham comes to mourn and bewail his wife: Vayavo Avraham lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah…Lispod–to eulogize–an opportunity to speak well of the dead. So on this day, as we gather to honor each other, and especially our mothers and grandmothers, we offer our own hesped–a eulogy for Sarah Imeinu.
As you know, a eulogy involves looking back on the life of a person, and pulling together elements of that life that will portray who and what that person really was. But how can we find adequate words to describe a woman who herself spoke so very few? After all, from what we can glean from the text, Sarah did not speak much at all; not with her family, nor with anyone else, for that matter. But perhaps it is in this very silence that we might gain a clue as to who Sarah was, and what she felt in her heart.
Think back to our earliest memories of Sarah. The first time we meet her we are told 3 things: (1) Her name was originally Sarai; (2) She was the wife of Avram, the original name of Avraham; (3) She had no children. Is this the kind of introduction that a woman of such stature deserves? “This is Sarai, she has no children.” Is that the sum total of a human being’s significance? Later on in the Book of Numbers, when Moses was taking a census in the wilderness, God specifically instructed him not to ask how many children each person had, but instead to remember that his or her worth as an individual was paramount. Yet here in Genesis, in our first meeting of Sarah we hear, “This is Sarai, she has no children.” How did this kind of presentation affect the heart and soul of Sarah Imeinu? Let’s ponder this, as we turn momentarily to other chapters of her life.
Immediately after Sarai is introduced to us, God tells Avram to leave Haran: Lech lecha mei’artz’chah–Go forth from your native land, from your father’s house, and go to the land which I will show you. And, in an instant, Avram takes his belongings, his nephew Lot, and Sarai his wife, and picks up to leave Haran–without so much as a word to Sarai! How could this happen? Can any of us imagine being treated that way? Was this not also her land–the place of her birth? –her father’s house as well? But this does not phase Avram. So together they leave, lock, stock, and barrel, without a single word passing between them.
Not long after this move, as we recall, the two find themselves in Egypt. But Avram is frightened. Sarai is a beautiful woman; her name, after all, means “princess.” He fears that when the king of Egypt sees her and lusts after her, he, Avram, will be killed. Thus the very first words we hear him speak to his faithful wife were: “Look, you are very attractive. Please–say you are my sister–so that it may go well with me.” And, perfectly in character, Sarai does as her husband asks, sacrificing her virtue; giving herself to another man; without so much as a word.
But now, back to the issue of her childlessness. Regardless of what it says in Numbers, this issue is indeed a serious one; both within the context of the Ancient Near East, and within the relationship between Avram and Sarai. If we think about it, the fact that her childlessness is the first thing we learn about her really is not so surprising. This issue often exists first and foremost in the mind of a woman such as Sarai, and in the soul of the relationship between husband and wife, between spouses, not without its measure of anguish. And sure enough, the problem eventually does play itself out in the triangle that forms around Avram, Sarai, and the Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. Sarai, still true to the role of the self-sacrificing helpmate, offers Hagar to Avraham so that he might not be deprived of an heir, and the experience of fatherhood. Kind of like a modern-day “surrogate mother,” if you will. But once the deed is done, and Hagar becomes pregnant, the scene very quickly deteriorates. Hagar becomes haughty, and Sarai’s pain is exacerbated as she is reminded of her feelings of inadequacy. The confluence of emotions is more than she can bear: guilt, hatred, self-recrimination, anger at the whole predicament. And then, after all she has done for Avraham, when finallyshe cries out to him for help, how does he respond? “She’s your handmaiden, do with her as you please.” Imagine Sarai’s frustration and feelings of helplessness. Imagine her fear that Avraham would lose all interest in her in favor of Hagar. Not much encouragement for her to express herself in the future. And Avram, we might say, with 21st-century hindsight of course, was not very helpful to her when she needed him. Not very understanding. Not a very comforting husband.
Just by way of comparison, we can find another model in the Bible of the exchange between husband and wife experiencing the same kind of problem–Hannah and Elkanah, parents of the prophet Samuel. Elkanah had 2 wives, Hannah and Pnina. Pnina had children, Hannah did not. Pnina, like Hagar, used this to taunt Hannah–a convenient, but vicious way of demoralizing one’s rival. But Elkanah responds in a different way. When Hannah comes crying he implores her: “Why do you cry so? Is not my love for you enough to take the place of 10 children?” True, Hannah certainly was happier once she had Samuel. But her real happiness might well have come from the comfort and security offered her by her beloved husband Elkanah–comfort and security denied to Sarah. Is this to say that Abraham was a horrible and unfeeling person? Not necessarily. It is just an observation–of how much better the relationship functioned for Hannah and Elkanah.
The happiest moment in Sarah’s life came when she learned that she wasdestined to give birth, even at the age of 90. Remember that some time earlier, God had told Avram that he would be the father of many nations–av hamon goyim–and thus his name would be changed to Avraham. “And God then said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her…” And Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed–vayitzhak–as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at 90?…” And God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, Isaac.” So it was Abraham who laughed out loud at God. But God does not respond to his laughter, except to name his son because of it. But what happens when Sarah hears the news? First of all, she is not told about directly! She happens to overhear it when the 3 “visitors” are talking with Abraham at the tent. “Your wife, Sarah, shall have a son.” And she laughed within herself saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” “And Sarah laughed beqirbah–within herself.”
Sarah did not laugh out loud, as Abraham had before her. But what was God’s response to Abraham? “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for God?”
Why was Sarah blamed for laughing? And even if she had laughed, what would have been so terrible? What’s so bad about laughing? God seems to be worried that she doubts divine power. But how was she supposed to know that these 3 “visitors” were divine messengers? They never talked to her! The 16th-century commentator Sforno says that Sarah made a category error. She couldn’t be expected to know what was going on here. We would expect her to laugh. The text itself says that she merely laughed within herself. Remember that it was Abraham who laughed out loud. But he was not reprimanded at all! And why did he withhold it from Sarah to begin with? Where is the communication between these two?!
But even after that triumphal moment of joy, Sarah’s trials continued. The crowning blow soon followed, as her husband took her son Isaac, and went riding off into the early morning sun, without a single word about it to her. And she never saw either of them again. For the rest of her days on this earth, Sarah our mother lived, bereft of her son, and apart from her husband–perhaps the final blow to a marriage that was never all that close to begin with.
So here we are, “after these things,” still faced with the challenge of finding words for our mother Sarah. But we might take our lead from the Torah itself, as it begins on this very day: “Sarah’s lifetime–the span of Sarah’s life–came to 127 years.” 127 years–when the blessing for which we all pray is a mere 120! Sarah not only lived a complete life, she merited completeness and then some. Even more interesting is the way in which this total is expressed in the Hebrew: “And the span of Sarah’s life was 100 years, and 20 years, and 7 years.” This, we learn from the commentators, is because of the righteousness of Sarah Imeinu. Rashi says that she was such a virtuous woman that when she was 100, she seemed like 20. Add to this the sacred number of 7, and Sarah becomes the most honored woman of the Bible. Age did not diminish her beauty, and all her years were goodness. Remember, her very name means “princess.” But perhaps her age is expressed as it is to recall a note of sadness as well. Perhaps in Sarah’s own mind, it was as though she already had lived 3 lifetimes. Perhaps the words of the spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” are words that Sarah could have sung herself. But despite the trials, and the sadness, Sarah Imeinu never relinquished her grace, her courage, her determination, and her loyalty.
Sarah was indeed the mother of us all. Her laughter and tears are our laughter and tears. Her family is our family, and the heritage she initiated is ours. She was a righteous woman and a beautiful soul. May her memory live through us, her children, and may it be a blessing forever.
This week began with the tears that we all have shed as Americans, in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell the people of Sutherland Springs, TX, who had gathered in church for Sunday morning prayer. As people of faith, our hearts are heavy with grief as we think about the innocent victims, mercilessly and brutally gunned down in their house of worship. Our sadness is deep as we contemplate the sorrow of those they leave behind. We pray that their loved ones may eventually find some way to go on with life, comforted in their own understanding of God’s loving embrace.
But, my friends, we are forced once again to confront the reality that our tears, our prayers, and our sorrow are simply not enough. Nor are they enough from all the members of Congress who expressed them this week. No. It is time for them to act. It is time for them to act with courage. It is time for them to overcome the hold that the NRA has on them. How many lives will it take? How many children? How many tears? How many prayers? It is time for them to find some integrity, even at the possible cost of the seats they hold. Enough…enough…enough….
And so, we are here again. A horrifying week. Senseless loss of innocent life. Pain, fear, trauma. Such a sad week for us as Americans, and particularly as New Yorkers. In the very shadow of Freedom Tower—our tribute to the World Trade Center, and our will to go on in the face of terrorism—we endured yet another act of terrorism, and depraved, wanton murder. But, as a city and as a people, though we were shocked and traumatized, we did not, and will not, allow terrorism to shut us down. Our mayor, our governor, the police commissioner, and representatives of the incredible police force and anti-terrorism units that we have built up in this city, spoke strongly and informatively to all of us, and also with profound sympathy to those who lost loved ones. They did this because they are leaders; and that is what we need from them at such a time, and have every right to expect.
While I am not particularly fond of Mr. Trump (just in case any of you might have been in doubt), I actually do wish that, at the very least, he had some ability to understand and fulfill this role of leadership as President of the United States. That is my wish for sake of the well-being of our people, and the safety of our country. Unfortunately, our president is utterly incapable; both of understanding, and fulfilling. On the contrary. Mr. Trump immediately used this tragedy to jump onto his Twitter feed and accuse our own Senator Chuck Schumer of having caused this horrific act, because of a particular immigration policy that in fact was a bi-partisan effort, enacted during the first Bush administration in 1990, and which Schumer then participated in reversing in 2013, again in a bi-partisan effort. But on Trump’s part, this was just one more chapter in the fear mongering that he has fomented since he invented the “birther” nonsense, all of which has been directed against immigrants, and home-born Americans whom he deems to be “different,” and thus “not one of us.” Trump is obsessed; consumed by xenophobia; driven by his own hatred of anyone he considers to be “the other.” And the circle seems to be widening by the day.
Our Torah portion opens as Abraham sits by his tent in the heat of the day. Three men approach, and he welcomes them with open arms. Immediately, he invites them to sit down and share a meal with him. This episode becomes our paradigm for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—welcoming the stranger. Beginning with Abraham’s journey that we read about last week, continuing on through the Book of Genesis, on through our entire Torah narrative, and indeed, throughout our history as a people, we have become all too well acquainted with the plight of the stranger, because it has been our plight. We have been strangers in strange lands throughout the millennia of our existence as a people. And here in our sidra, we also learn to welcome and care for others who are in that same position.
Our government officials and counter-terrorism intelligence experts will have to work overtime, in these dangerous times, to ferret out the type of “home-grown radicalization,” as it has been characterized, that drove this terrorist to act this past Tuesday. But the knee-jerk impulse on the part of the president to shut down immigration is wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That is not what we have been about as a nation, or as a people. Losing our cherished freedom is a dangerously high price that looms before us. Losing our heart is an even higher one. We cannot let that happen.
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! (Deuteronomy 25.17-19)
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16.18-20)
Our Torah portion this week contains one of the most well-known commandments concerning the formation of a just society. The leaders whom we, the people, set in authority, are charged with the responsibility to govern impartially, and not allow themselves to be influenced by the promise of personal financial gain, or swayed by personal prejudice.
Last week, the President of the United States tried to present a façade of impartiality—at least some may think that’s what it was—in condemning violence and hatred “on all sides” in Charlottesville, VA. But this case, as it were, has already been tried and settled. Nazism is the very embodiment of evil, and has wrought nothing but hatred, violence, brutality and genocide. This was not a time for impartiality. In this case, justice required clear and swift condemnation from the leader of the free world. But when it finally came, it was too little, too late.
The pursuit of justice is not the interest of this president. Because of this, the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Rabbinic bodies of North America have jointly arrived at a painful and sad decision. Every year before the High Holy Days, we arrange a joint conference call with the President of the United States. Whether Republican or Democrat, presidents have understood the importance of addressing and speaking with Rabbinic leadership of this country, particularly at this solemn and sensitive time of year. This year, however, in light of the outrageous and unacceptable behavior of this president, our Rabbinic organizations have jointly decided to forego this phone call. We are not interested in speaking with this president, and must make this joint statement of opposition to his behavior and his words over these past eight months, and particularly in light of these most recent ghastly events.
The statement of our organizations appears below. This is a sad day in America.
The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come.
In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holy Day greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.
The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.
The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuvah for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.
Central Conference of American Rabbis
The Rabbinical Assembly
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day. . . (Deuteronomy 11.26-28)
So begins our Torah portion this Shabbat. Blessing or curse—the choice is ours.
Oh, my dear friends—what a horrible week this has been—A lovely young woman was buried on Wednesday; a resident of Charlottesville, Heather Heyer, z”l. Heather was a paralegal by profession, and as an individual she stood up against hatred and bigotry. That is what she was doing on Saturday when her life came to a violent end in a mindless act of domestic terrorism, perpetrated by a 20-year-old from Ohio. Having intentionally traveled to Charlottesville to march with the Alt-Right, according to his mother, he deliberately rammed his car into the crowd, killing Heather and injuring 19 other people. 20 years old, and already so poisoned; so damaged. He will spend his life in prison, and Heather’s life is over. And our country is wounded and bleeding.
On Tuesday, I participated in a webinar co-sponsored by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. We heard from several of our colleagues; most notably, Rabbi Tom Gutherz, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. He explained to us that the synagogue is located right in the thick of things in the downtown area of the city—one block away from Emancipation Park in one direction, and one block from Justice Park in another. I looked up these two parks. Apparently, “Emancipation Park” used to be known as “Lee Park,” after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose statue was at the center of the maelstrom last weekend. “Justice Park” used to be known as “Jackson Park,” after Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general. This is the reality of the history of the South, and there are statutes, parks, streets, towns, and monuments throughout the South that commemorate the Confederacy.
An excellent account of what Rabbi Gutherz and his congregation experienced may be found in this fine article by the president of his congregation, Alan Zimmerman. Though some of you have already seen this article, I would commend it to all of you. It appeared in Monday’s edition of the Reform Judaism Blog: In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On. Of particular note is not only the response of the congregation and clergy, but also of their non-Jewish neighbors who came to stand with them in support. We will be discussing additional initiatives of the Reform Movement in the coming weeks.
On Monday, August 28, Stephen and I will be marching in Washington, DC, in the “Ministers March for Justice.” It is co-sponsored by the National Action Network and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Early in the morning, the RAC will hold a prayer session for rabbis, after which we will join our colleagues of other faiths at the Martin Luther King Memorial, for the 1.7-mile march to the Department of Justice, where we will present a list of demands concerning voting rights, healthcare, criminal justice reform, and economic justice. The hope is that we will be 1,000 strong. But in the current atmosphere of open, blatant, unabashed racism and bigotry, aided and abetted by no less than the President of the United States, I hope and expect that we will far exceed that number.
On August 28, 1963, The Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., z”l, sent out a clarion call for justice to this country, founded upon the ideals of freedom and liberty for all human beings. While we have made progress since that day, it is excruciatingly clear that we have a long road ahead of us to realize these ideals, particularly as Dr. King so eloquently expressed them.
Our Torah puts before us a choice between blessing and curse. There are those in our country who have chosen the curse. We must stand up and demonstrate that the blessing is far more powerful. I know that our hearts are united in praying that this coming Shabbat will be peaceful for all of us, and for all who live within our borders.
The following is the statement issued yesterday by the CCAR, of which I am a proud member.
Central Conference of American Rabbis Condemns President Trump’s Response to White Supremacist Domestic Terrorists
Thursday, August 17, 2017
The Central Conference of American Rabbis is outraged that the President of the United States has repeatedly equivocated in condemnation of the white supremacists who rained terror and violence upon Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. The President’s failure to differentiate Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, and white supremacists of the self-proclaimed “Alt-Right,” on the one hand, from those who stood up to that threat and an imaginary “Alt-Left,” on the other, only encourages racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic hate-mongers to continue their reign of terror.
Reform rabbis across America and around the world join in solidarity with our colleagues in Charlottesville and the community they serve. We are grateful to Alan Zimmerman, President of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, for eloquently sharing the congregation’s story with the world. That community bravely gathered on Shabbat to serve God and humanity in an atmosphere that no Jewish community has ever faced in this country, reminiscent of Germany as Nazis were coming to power.
We grieve with all who mourn the death of Heather Heyer. May her memory be a blessing to the loving family and community she leaves behind. We pray for the healing of all who were injured. We pray for our country, that it may once again reflect the words of its first President, George Washington, who wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Rabbi David Stern
Rabbi Steven A. Fox
Last Saturday evening, Motza’ei Shabbat, Steve and I attended an outdoor Havdalah ceremony, as part of a demonstration of protest against the latest insult to liberal religion on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The demonstration took place in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. Called together barely 48 hours earlier, the demonstration drew almost two thousand people, mostly Reform and Conservative Jews, but also Modern Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and anyone who understands the danger of this most recent decision.
On Sunday, June 25, the day before our flight over here, Mr. Netanyahu announced his decision to rescind an agreement regarding a separate area at the Kotel Hama’aravi—the Western Wall—for egalitarian prayer. You will remember that I wrote to you while Steve and I were here in February of 2016 regarding this agreement, which had been reached a few weeks earlier, on January 31, 2016. This agreement was the culmination of almost five years of careful negotiations between Women of the Wall, the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israel Movement for Progressive (Reform) Judaism, the Masorti (Israel Conservative) Movement, Attorney General Mandelblit, Jewish Agency Executive Director Natan Sharansky, and others. According to the agreement, the men’s and women’s sections of the Kotel would remain unchanged. But a third, separate section at the Kotel would be constructed in an accessible, modern, comfortable modality, to provide an area for egalitarian prayer, accommodating men and women together.
In a stunningly brazen move, the Prime Minister caved in to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox power bloc, and decided to sacrifice a large portion of the Jewish world, both in Israel and North America. In addition to nullifying the Kotel agreement, Mr. Netanyahu also will be kowtowing to this same power bloc with regard to conversion. Consequently, conversions performed by Reform, Conservative, and many Modern Orthodox rabbis, both inside and outside of Israel, would be disqualified. On Saturday night, it was clear that if Mr. Netanyahu thinks that a large portion of the Jewish world will allow itself to be thrown under the bus for the sake of his ability to hold together his coalition, he is sadly mistaken.
In our Torah portion, the prophet Bylam looks down upon the Children of Israel from the heights of Mo’av, and observes an am l’vadad yishkon—a people that dwells apart (Numbers 23.9). Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to isolate the majority of the Jewish world, in order to maintain his political power. But he will end up isolating himself instead. He will cause irreparable harm to our people. We will not let this happen. There’s an expression in Hebrew, ad kan, v’lo yoteir—this far and no farther. The Prime Minister has crossed the line. He has violated a trust by abrogating an agreement, and double-crossing people who have negotiated in good faith for years. One of them is, if you will, a “rock star” of the Jewish world—no less a figure than Natan Sharansky—the symbol of the Refusnik Movement of Soviet Jewry – someone who is no stranger to demanding the recognition of his human dignity.
Mr. Netanyahu has crossed the line of ad kan. He has violated the construct of Klal Yisrael—the worldwide Jewish community. The vociferous outcry of Jews, both in Israel and in North America, has already resulted in a postponement of the decision on conversion for some six months. I encourage you to access the remarks made at last Saturday night’s rally delivered passionately by Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who is also an attorney, and the Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (Reform). URJ.org/blog/2017/07/05/we-have-not-yet-lost-hope
In his soliloquy, Bylam also voices a blessing with which we begin our morning prayers: Mah tovu ohelecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael! – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24.5) Bylam saw the Children of Israel as they dwelt together in peace. We can still dwell together in peace, if we are mature enough to accept and accommodate our differences.
This morning (Friday) at the Hartman Institute, we studied poetry of the Six Day War with Dr. Rachel Korazim, whom many of us were privileged to hear when she came to our temple in 2014 for Kristallnacht. Those of us who have traveled to Israel together also heard from her before visiting Yad Vashem. She ended hershiur today with an admonition to those of us who live outside of Israel. “Keep nudging us, ” she said, “we need you to keep nudging us and help us to do the right thing.” Admonition heard, Rachel. We will keep nudging. And I will wish you all a Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem, the City of Peace.
We open the Torah this week on our ancestors out in the Wilderness. They are in crisis. They are wandering, without much sense of where they are headed. They are hungry, without much assurance that they will find sustenance. They are frightened, without much confidence that they will be comforted. They complain to Moses. He has stood up to the Pharaoh, and led the people from Egypt to this Wilderness. But now even Moses is at his wit’s end. He doesn’t know how to comfort the people, and cries out to God in utter frustration: Did I give birth to this people. . . that they whine and complain to me? I cannot carry this people, for it is too much for me! (Numbers 11.12-14) God’s advice? Don’t try to do this alone. Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them: they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone. (Numbers 11.16)
The Israelites had been enslaved and beaten down by ruthless tyrants for 400 years. Now they were free, but they still had no sense of what that meant. They didn’t understand that with freedom comes another set of burdens—of responsibility, of sacrifice, of thoughtfulness and creativity, of working with leadership to form a consensus. In this exchange between Moses and God, our Torah seeks to convey this message of personal responsibility and group responsibility, if indeed, we want to exercise our freedom responsibly.
My thoughts this week, and perhaps some of yours, have focused upon the 49th anniversary of the assassination of NY Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in the Ambassador Hotel of Los Angeles, as he inched closer to the Democratic nomination for President. Bobby Kennedy evolved dramatically over his life, particularly in the five years between his brother John’s death and his own. He understood more deeply the pain in this country, and how he believed he could help us to rise up as a nation, to try to alleviate it together. While there are many statements he made that are particularly apt in this regard, perhaps this one is particularly emblematic. Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed on June 6, 1968.
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Our Torah portion this week is Naso. In the context of this episode, Moses and Aaron are told to take a census in the wilderness. The census of last week’s portion was for the purpose of counting up the male Israelites of age 20 or older who were able to bear arms. The census in this chapter, however, is to count up specifically the members of the tribe of Levi between the ages of 30 and 50, for the purpose of serving the sacred tasks of worship within the Tabernacle, to assist the Kohanim (priests).
The term “naso” is an interesting one in this context. While the meaning here is for counting, the more common meaning of the root is “to lift up.” One of the Hebrew terms for marriage is “nissuin,” because of the elevation in status of the woman as she becomes a wife, as it was viewed in the Talmudic period. In another form, the word becomes “nasi,” which means “prince,” or in modern vocabulary, “president.” The head of the Sanhedrin of the early Rabbinic period was the “Nasi.” The redactor of the Mishnah was Yehuda HaNasi, commonly translated as “Judah the Prince.” This great rabbinic leader wasn’t a royal prince, but rather, the rabbinic head of the Sanhedrin—President of the Sanhedrin, if you will. The Nasi of the State of Israel now is Reuven Rivlin. In Israeli government, he is less powerful than the Prime Minister, now Benjamin Netanyahu. But he is a head of government nonetheless, and often serves as the visible representative of Israel on the world stage.
This past week I have thought a great deal about this word “nasi,” as it pertains to our own country. Since the word comes from the root “to lift up,” the President of the United States holds the most elevated political status in our nation. While we do not assign royal or religious status to our presidents, we do ascribe to them an extra measure of respect and admiration—or at least that is our aspiration. Optimally, our president is an individual with superior intelligence and wisdom, whose obligation it is to protect and promote our interests, at home and around the world. I recall the words of the Union Prayer Book, which are rooted in many of our memories to this day. They were read just before the Torah was returned to the Ark:
Fervently we invoke Thy blessing upon our country and our nation. Guard them, O God, from calamity and injury; suffer not their adversaries to triumph over them, but let the glories of a just, righteous, and God-fearing people increase from age to age. Enlighten with Thy wisdom and sustain with Thy power those whom the people have set in authority, the President, his counselors and advisers, the judges, law-givers and executives, and all who are entrusted with our safety and with the guardianship of our rights and our liberties. (Union Prayer Book, p.148)
This past Memorial Day was a doubly auspicious observance, as we noted that it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, z”l.In his private life, as is now well known, of course, he was beset by physical and emotional frailties. Nevertheless, he had a brilliant mind and an expansive intellect. He had a profound appreciation and respect for history, and a deep understanding of how history needed to inform our decisions as a society. He understood the political process, and had significant personal experience within that process, as a Congressman and a Senator. He was a war hero, yet he demonstrated extraordinary restraint as he and his cabinet tried to keep us out of the potential nuclear conflagration that threatened the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He stood strong against the economic and political totalitarianism that the Soviet Union sought to impose upon the world. He and Jacqueline were patrons of the arts, and promoted the spark of human creativity in all areas of the arts. He had a vision for human progress. No, he was not a perfect person. Such a person does not exist. But as Americans, we were justified in looking up to him for those attributes that he did possess which were benevolent and admirable. We trusted him with our very lives, and his ability to grow was demonstrated even in the all too short time that he spent in the White House.
We now are witnessing a travesty that is being wrought upon our nation by the individual who currently holds this revered title, and it grows worse by the day. Our will as Americans to accord to the President respect, admiration, and even exaltation, has been completely dashed and pummeled. What an irony, that Russia once again looms so large in our national consciousness. No, it is no longer the Soviet Union. But its government rules with an iron fist, and its behavior on the world stage has been opportunistic and brutal. We have a “nasi” in our country who has promised to “make America great again.” Instead, the German chancellor, their “nasi,” has proclaimed in the wake of Trump’s recent visit, “Europe can no longer completely depend upon America.” Now our commitment to cleaning up and protecting our environment has been suspended. Mr. Trump has literally taken our lives, and the lives of future generations, into his hands, with reckless abandon and complete disregard of the reality that is staring us all in the face. While many of us look to 2018 to gain the upper hand in Congress, we can’t wait until then. There is much work to be done. One immediate step is to support a new alliance, formed as of today, by Governor Cuomo of New York, Governor Edmund Brown of California, and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State. This is the United States Climate Alliance, to take aggressive action on climate change. If you would like to sign on as a supporter, you may do so here. Sign the petition now.
Our tradition teaches us to lift up our leaders, and accord them respect of their positions. But our leaders must earn and merit that respect. The office of President is a sacred trust between the one who holds it and American people. I have no faith in the will or ability of this “nasi” to uphold that trust. Now the welfare of our nation is in our hands. Our “nasi” is dragging us down. We must lift ourselves up, and not relent.
Today is March 17th, known to most of us as St. Patrick’s Day. It is also our congregant Howard Simka’s birthday – Happy Birthday Howard! For many of us in the orbit of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR], however, March 17th is significant to us the birthday of one of our esteemed past presidents, Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise, z”l. Rabbi Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1921. Hebrew Union College was founded in Cincinnati in 1875 by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise (no relation to Stephen). In 1950, the two institutions merged to become the premier institution for the training of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and Jewish communal service workers.
The birthday of Isaac Mayer Wise, appropriately considered to be the “father” of American Reform Judaism, was March 29, 1819, in Bavaria. Because March 17th and March 29th are only ten days apart, HUC-JIR designates a day each year that falls in close proximity to both birthdays as “Founders’ Day.” This year, Founders’ Day was celebrated yesterday, on March 16th. In keeping with his unparalleled wit, Stephen Wise always wrote all his documents in green ink as a nod to St. Patrick, perhaps the more famous of the two (though I suppose that depends on whom you’re talking to). And, as an homage to his teacher Stephen Wise, Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l, the dean of modern Jewish theology, also wrote in green ink. I remember the papers I wrote for Dr. Borowitz that were returned with Dr. Borowitz’s characteristically clear and carefully thought out commentary, all laced in green!
Since we marked Dr. Borowitz’s first yahrzeit a few weeks ago, this Founders’ Day was dedicated to his memory, and a retrospective of the innovative hermeneutic he formulated in 1948 as “Covenant Theology,” just as the world was coming to grips with what had befallen our people in the War, and the astonishing opportunity that awaited us on the eve of statehood. The two speakers at yesterday’s ceremony were Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson, Chancellor Emeritus of HUC-JIR, and Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, National Director of Admissions and Recruitment at HUC-JIR. Both are outstanding scholars of Jewish theology, Dr. Sabath having earned her Ph.D. on “Freedom-in-Covenant: The Gifts and Challenges of Eugene B. Borowitz’s Theological Quest.”
Rabbi Ellenson included in his remarks an excerpt from Dr. Borowitz’s 1990 publication, Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility (Wayne State University Press, 1990). In this contentious political climate, particularly amid the battle on Capitol Hill over the Affordable Care Act and/or its replacement, these words seem particularly apt, as Rabbi Ellenson noted. Dr. Borowitz articulated his primary “criterion for measuring the adequacy of a political arrangement.” He wrote:
“Being a Jew who, against the odds, has rather regularly been in synagogues for most of his post-bar-mitzvah life, I have had it drummed into me by repetitive Torah and prophetic readings that a social order is judged by the text cases of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . Or the poor. The Bible believes that we are positively obligated to one another. Hence when people have special needs it is our duty to help them. . . We must not pervert justice for the poor or prevent it from functioning for the stranger, the orphan or the widow. The weak and powerless must not become disenfranchised. But the Bible goes far beyond structural entailments. It prescribes our substantive obligations to others less well-situated or competent. We must plead the case of the widow and the orphan. We must give food and money to the poor. (The nearby poor are our first but not our only responsibility.) We must leave the corner of our fields and what fell in the harvesting for the poor and the stranger who dwells in our gates. We must separate a tithe for the poor. These are not options, warmly recommended to the good-hearted. They are commandments; religious laws of the state in that odd theo-political situation (to borrow and re-direct Buber’s term) which the Bible describes.”
I was particularly moved by Dr. Ellenson’s choice of this passage in particular, out of the extraordinary body of writings that Dr. Borowitz bequeathed to us. The reason, in part, was a short, yet stunning statement earlier this week by Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, son of Former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and grandson of our own Former New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, z”l. Mr. Kennedy responded to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s characterization of the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act as “doing an act of mercy.” At this, Congressman Kennedy ripped into the Speaker, saying:
“I was struck last night by a comment that I heard made by Speaker Ryan, where he called this repeal bill ‘an act of mercy.’ With all due respect to our speaker, he and I must have read different Scripture.
“The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick.
“It reminds us that we are judged not by how we treat the powerful, but by how we care for the least among us. Defined in purely secular terms, compassionate treatment for those in distress. It is kindness. It is grace. There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill.
“This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
Joe Kennedy is Irish Catholic. No doubt, today he will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We are Jews, and we honor the memories of two of our great teachers who wrote in green ink. But the Torah and the Prophets that we study and cherish are the same. So are the values. So too, are the responsibilities that all of us bear – for each other, and for our country.
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