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.
This Shabbat before the celebration of Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. As you know, this year Purim is Saturday night and Sunday, and our celebration at Union Temple will take place this Sunday, 12:30-2:30 PM. It will be an intergenerational celebration, with drinks, food, costumes, the Reading of the Megillah, groggers, prizes, games, music, and an opportunity for all of us to give ourselves two hours of joy. As Americans, we have very serious problems with which to concern ourselves at this troubling time. But, whatever generation you identify with, I hope you will come to the temple on Sunday, and take the opportunity that Judaism gives us to release some tension, even if only for two hours on a Sunday afternoon.
We associate Purim with costumes, hamantaschen, and lots of drinking – and I don’t mean just club soda, assuming we are of age! But perhaps the most recognizable custom is twirling our groggers to blot out the name of Haman, the evil Persian governor who had hatched the plan to annihilate the Jews of Persia. Haman represents not only himself, but in fact, all the evil power grabbers who have focused upon the Jewish people and directed venomous hatred toward us in one form or another throughout our history.
Swastikas on Jewish property, bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and institutions, gunshots through synagogue windows, skinheads and Neo-Nazi fervor. These and more are not merely remnants of days gone by, before America had matured beyond the anti-Semitism and bigotry that were undercurrents within our society. These are the new reality of today – right now – in America.
It is particularly ironic that one of the latest bomb scares came to the ADL in New York – the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL was founded in 1913 as an organization dedicated to stopping the defamation of the Jewish people, and securing justice and fair treatment for all people, and fighting against prejudice in all forms, for the benefit of all who would ever be subjected to it.
This year, we can look at all the noisemaking on Purim with an added significance. We can blot out the name of Haman, of course. But we can also symbolically blot out all hatred and bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, which are blights upon our nation, and which threaten our dream of freedom, democracy, security and respect for all people.
We took a congregational trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History. The message of the museum is clear. Virtually from our arrival on these shores, Jews have been in the forefront of every movement of social, political, and cultural change in this country. America without the Jews, and Jews without America, are both unthinkable equations. This is our country, and will not let hate mongers and bigots take it away. On Purim this year, we will stand up, we will dance, we will shout, twirl our groggers, and eat as many hamantaschen as we can stand, in our ongoing defiance of hatred, and our ongoing quest for justice and right.
Our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, sets forth a framework of laws whose purpose it was to create a fair and just society, within which everyone could live a good life, in security and peace. It is perhaps with a note of irony that we are reading this portion during this week, when, virtually all over our country, Americans have been gathering in auditoriums, houses of worship, colleges and meeting halls of all kinds, for “town hall” meetings with their Senators and Congressional Representatives, to demand that America live up to the American dream of a fair and just society for all. On Wednesday evening, Union Temple was filled to the gills with people of all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, to hear from Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and a panel of experts on the environment, immigration law, the ACLU, health care, and Planned Parenthood, for a reaffirmation of our democratic values as Americans, and how to go forward during this oppressive administration, to make sure that we are protected and that our values are promulgated. We were delighted to be able to offer our congregation as a venue for this important gathering.
I was honored to be asked by Representative Clarke to deliver the invocation. These were my remarks:
“The portion of the Torah that the entire Jewish world is reading during this week includes one of the foundational precepts of our entire tradition: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than thirty-six times does the Torah repeat this admonition: “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
For Jews, it is out of our historical experience of bondage, of degradation, of being outsiders, that we are commanded to stand up, now as a free people in this world, and do better; to pursue justice, to create a society of fairness, to treat other people with compassion and respect, no matter what they look like, whom they love, or where they come from. And I needn’t remind you, my friends, that if there is one people who should know the feelings of the stranger, the outsider, the disadvantaged, it is we, the Jews – the driven of the earth. And thus it is we who are charged with the responsibility to do better. And we believe that not only we, but every human being, regardless of our religious beliefs or affiliations, regardless of our station in life; that every one of us has the capacity to do better. It is a fundamental optimism with which we approach our responsibilities in this world.
We are here this evening – all of us, of different backgrounds and traditions – we are here out of our belief that our country has the capacity to do better; to create a more just and compassionate society. This is our mission – to create a society of fairness and equality, of kindness and compassion, of justice, and of peace.
Yet above all, we understand that the responsibility of bringing our mission to fruition rests squarely upon our shoulders. And so we stand this evening, shoulder to shoulder, together with Congresswoman Clarke, and all her of colleagues – to realize the full promise of the American dream. May we go forward with courage, and strength, as we walk together in peace.”
Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that Eternal your God is assigning to you. (Exodus 20.12)
A conceptual observation and a personal reflection, if I may, both of which you have probably heard from me before. But I would ask your indulgence, as both seem to be quite apt at this moment in history.
The Hebrew the word for “parent” and the word for “teacher” derive from the same root, y-r-h (י-ר-ה), which means “to point.” It derives from a reference to an arrowhead – an object that clearly comes to a point, and generally is aimed in a specific direction. And indeed, is this not one of the most fundamental roles of any parent, and any teacher? To point the way; to guide our children in the right direction, whether our students or our own kids. Ultimately their decisions must be their own, and they need the leeway to possibly make mistakes as they navigate their own paths. Of course, allowing leeway sometimes can be agonizing, and as a parent, I can testify to that. But at least we try our best to set them on the right path, so that they will figure out how to live a good life when they’re on their own.
Today I am marking the 20th yahrzeit of my mom, Jeanette Henry, z”l. From the time she was a little girl, Jeanette wanted to be a schoolteacher. She would line up her dolls in her room, and “teach school.” When she became an adult, and a teacher for real, she did not line up her students. In fact, they often flocked around her in what some may have interpreted as an occasionally chaotic atmosphere in her classroom, at PS 64, on 9th Street/Ave. B in Manhattan. But I assure you that it was expertly controlled chaos. My mom had studied the art of teaching. Throughout her life, even as she was lauded as being at the top of her profession, she continued to take courses and workshops, to continue to grow and expand her skills. Yes, teaching is an art. Not everyone can do it, nor should they.
Some of you with whom I am connected on Facebook have likely read a comment I posted in response to the Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. While it may be a bit presumptuous to speak on behalf of someone who is not here to speak for herself, I strongly suspect that my mom would have been utterly scandalized by this decision. From very early on in the American Jewish experience, our community has been in the forefront of embracing, supporting, and fostering public education. It’s no accident that three of the past four presidents of the American Federation of Teachers have been Jews: Albert Shanker, z”l, Sandra Feldman, z”l, and Randi Weingarten. All three were advocates for children’s education both here and around the world, and as well, advocates in all areas of social justice. Even from the Talmudic period, Jewish leaders have been proponents of public education. We learn from the Talmud that technically the responsibility for educating one’s child rested with the father. But suppose a child had no father, or had a father that was simply not equipped to teach his children? Thus, even the earliest Jewish communities of the Common Era supported systems of public education, for the benefit of all children. Modern Jews inherited this deeply held tradition, and have been committed to high quality public education. Of course, the dynamics of contemporary society have changed significantly, and many Jews, liberal Jews included, have chosen to send their children to Hebrew day schools, or, in the case of Orthodox Jews, yeshivot. A number of Orthodox Jews see the voucher system as a way for them to help pay for their children’s yeshiva attendance. But the contention of the community for the most part is that private education, whether religiously based or not, should not be the responsibility of the community. Rather, our community should be laser focused on improving the quality of public education for all the children in our country. And this commitment remains an important Jewish American value.
As American Jews, it will be even more critical in the next few years for us to stand up for quality public education. We will have to do this in the spirit of all we have learned about our responsibilities as parents and teachers, which, as we have seen, are really one and the same.
One additional word derives from the root y-r-h (י-ר-ה), “to point.” That is “Torah.” Ultimately our Torah teaches us the values of justice, fairness, and educating our children. If we do this, hopefully they will understand the implications of the fifth commandment, so that they “will long endure upon the earth.”
What a week for us to be celebrating Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song! The name of the Shabbat derives from our reading of The Song of the Sea, in Chapter 15 of Exodus. Moses begins the song by leading the Children of Israel in praise as they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land. But the song ends with Miriam, who specifically leads the women in song, as she takes up her timbrel and sings. Particularly because of this, the song is also known as The Song of Miriam. Miriam the prophetess of Israel raises her voice in praise and in leadership. The voice of a woman is thus elevated and revered.
Unfortunately, there are many who have attempted to silence the voices of women through the ages. I’ve written on previous occasions about the way in which this has played itself out at the Western Wall for almost three decades now. On January 11, the Israeli Supreme Court challenged the ultra-Orthodox authority of the Wall, bringing women one step closer to establishing full rights to hold prayer services, wear talitot, and read the Torah at the Women’s Section of Western Wall.
This week, however, we witnessed the voice of a woman being silenced in a different, yet all too similar, context. On Monday evening, Senator Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans publicly silenced the voice of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she rose to bring the voice of another woman to the floor, as the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jeffrey Sessions for the office of US Attorney General ensued. That woman was the late Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter some 30 years ago, testifying as to manifestations of racial bigotry implicit in the actions and statements of Mr. Sessions. This was during the confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, for which he was ultimately voted down. This time, Senator McConnell invoked a little-known rule that is virtually never used, to silence the voice of Senator Warren, who was unceremoniously told to sit down and be quiet by Montana Senator Steven Daines, who was presiding over the Senate at that moment.
For the moment, I will leave aside the content of Coretta Scott King’s letter. While it is still relevant, the fact is that the issue is now moot, in light of the Senate’s confirmation of Mr. Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. What I will react to, however, is the appalling behavior of Senators McConnell and Daines, who, for all intents and purposes, told a woman senator on the Senate floor to sit down and shut up. There was little doubt in my mind that the ultimate effect of the ruling was driven by an undercurrent of misogyny. Oh yes, partisan politics came into play as well. But the optics of a woman on the floor of the Senate challenging the majority, and ultimately, challenging the President, being silenced in the middle of her statement and told to sit down, I believe, spoke louder than any statement could. Subsequent to this outrage, no fewer than four of Senator Warren’s male colleagues stood up and read Coretta Scott King’s letter.
The voice of a woman, as it channeled the voice of another woman. . . two women, strong and resolute, standing up to power. . . I believe that both Senators McConnell and Daines understood the power of these women’s voices, and that is precisely why they resorted to this cowardly tactic to silence them. But these women will not be silenced. Neither will women all across America, who understand and embrace the values of fairness and equality; of justice; and respect for human dignity.
Senator McConnell offered this by way of explaining his actions: “(Senator Warren) was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted.” Yes, Mr. McConnell, she persisted. This morning Sec’y Hillary Clinton tweeted: “She persisted. So must we all.”
Thank you, Senator McConnell, for our new battle cry. No, we will not sit down and shut up. We will stand up, and continue to raise our voices!
We are following the painful story of our people’s enslavement in Egypt, and the resistance that Moses and Aaron will now begin to mount against Pharaoh, as messengers of God. One of the most common designations of our ancestors in the Bible, particularly here in Exodus, is Ivrim – Hebrews. Here is the “short answer,” as it were, for the meaning of this term, particularly as it pertains to this chapter in our people’s history. While it also becomes a specific linguistic designation, the root עבר – ‘a-v-r – actually refers to someone from “the other side.” In the Book of Genesis, Avram is referred to as Avram Ha’Ivri – Avram the Hebrew, or more literally, Avram, the one from the other side.”
We know, of course, that as Joseph arrived in Egypt generations earlier, it was known that he was an Ivri, but he was elevated to a position of great power in the Egyptian court because of his prescient abilities, and ultimately saved Egypt from the famine that had engulfed Canaan and the surrounding area. Joseph’s family – his brothers, his father, and all their descendants – were welcomed into Egypt and lived there in peace. But then, as we read two weeks ago, “a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph,” and set about to oppress and enslave his descendants. But then God sent Moses and Aaron to warn Pharaoh, and eventually saved our ancestors from Egyptian bondage through a great Exodus and eventual Redemption.
But in fact, the cold reality is that we left Egypt as refugees. Our life was embittered and intolerable, and we had to leave that place and set out with the hope of a new life ahead.
I needn’t belabor the point. Of all people who are excruciatingly well acquainted with the plight of refugees in the world, it is we – the Jews. Virtually throughout our long history as a people we have suffered through dislocation, disorientation, and loss, which generally accompany the experience of fleeing from one place and seeking refuge in another. The United States of America has been a haven of protection and comfort for those seeking protection, and a better life for themselves and their families. Now, we are witnessing an assault upon that which our country has always represented as a country of immigrants. The assault is coming from the highest office in our land – the Oval Office. It is intolerable, and we will have to continue to rise up against it until it stops.
At our Shabbat service this Friday evening, we will celebrate our lives as descendants of immigrants, and in some cases, as immigrants ourselves. We will remember our ancestors, and where they came from, as we echo the theme “We All Come From Somewhere!” I hope you will join us for First Friday Family Shabbat, 6:30PM, followed by pot luck dinner, to celebrate the “gorgeous mosaic” that we are as Americans.
Some of you may have seen the Golden Globe Awards on TV last Sunday night. Meryl Streep was awarded the 2017 Cecil B. DeMille Award, a special award for her astonishing range, skill, and depth as an actress, and for the profound impact she has had upon all of us through her extraordinary gift. During her acceptance speech, she leveled stinging criticism against President Elect Trump, specifically for his public and unabashed mocking of a disabled news reporter, who had called out Trump for lying when he accused the Muslim community of New Jersey for cheering in the streets after the attack on the World Trade Center. Surely, we all will remember the sight of Trump’s “performance,” if I can characterize it as such, when he did this nasty imitation. Many have said that under all normal circumstances and expectations, his campaign should have come to a halt right then and there. That is essentially what Ms. Streep said as well, as she described it as a moment that broke her heart.
We all know that in past years some of Ms. Streep’s colleagues have been sharply criticized for using awards ceremonies to make political statements – Vanessa Redgrave and Marlon Brando, two of the more notable. But this is no ordinary actress, this is no ordinary year, this was no ordinary election, and this is no ordinary future president. No, there is nothing ordinary about any of this. So, Meryl Streep leveled her attack upon Mr. Donald Trump, and everyone paid sober attention. One of the MSNBC commentators – I think it was Chris Hayes – suggested the next day that Mr. Trump could have used the event to show that he possessed even an ounce of graciousness and personal maturity, by inviting Meryl Street to meet him at the White House in a conciliatory gesture. But this is Donald Trump, remember, and graciousness and maturity are not part of whatever he’s about. So instead, true to form, early Monday morning he sent out a tweet calling Streep “an overrated actress and a Clinton flunky.”
But in addition to the tweet Monday morning, Kelly Anne Conway appeared on CNN’s “New Day” with Chris Cuomo, and told Cuomo that we needed to look into what’s in Trump’s heart. Conway complained, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
I have one word for that: baloney. How are we supposed to know what’s in a person’s heart when what’s coming out of his mouth is as coarse and mean-spirited as anything I have heard anywhere, let alone from the highest levels of government. As an American citizen – an American patriot – I don’t think it’s too much to expect that the President of the United States be able to express himself in a thoughtful and sophisticated manner. That is what I expect from my President, no matter what part of the electorate sent him there.
A contrast in every possible way. . . . Yesterday, President Obama paid tribute to Vice President Joseph Biden, surprising him at the end by presenting him with the highest American civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Honor. And he added an extra honor by presenting it “with distinction.” Toward the end of his extraordinary remarks, Mr. Biden quoted a verse based on a teaching from Talmud Berakhot 6b. The actual expression in Hebrew is: דברים היוצים מין הלב נכנסים אל הלב – “Words that come from the heart [of the speaker] penetrate the heart [of the listener].” Joe Biden brought this verse as a commentary on the strength and kindness that has always flowed both ways in the relationship between himself and President Obama, and the dignity with which President Obama has conducted himself in the White House.
All this is based on a simple fact: words have power. What we say, and how we say it, is a powerful thing. But in addition, we have to remember that our hearts are within us and are invisible. We cannot see into each other’s hearts, so we have to take the words of our mouths as the points of entry. “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” WORDS – that come from the heart [of the speaker] penetrate the heart [of the listener].
Taking this into consideration, there are three words with which we conclude our reading of the Book of Genesis this Shabbat, and indeed, with which we conclude every book of our Torah: חזק חזק ונתחזק – Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek – Be strong; be very strong; and we will strength each other. In this time of uncertainty and trepidation for so many of us, perhaps these words are the most important for us to carry in our hearts. It is by joining our hearts and speaking words of kindness and encouragement to each other that we will help to buoy ourselves and each other.