Our Torah portion focuses on Korach, a member of the tribe of Levi. In fact the portion itself bears his name. Korach foments rebellion among the people, because he resents Moses’s leadership, which of course, was assigned by God. Korach is the paradigmatic troublemaker, because he deliberately tries to break the unity of the Children of Israel. His reward, along with the 250 who joined him in his rebellion, is to be swallowed up within the earth, and die in ignominy.
As the Jewish People has evolved throughout history, we have come to understand that unity does not mean uniformity. History has taught us that our people can maintain our ties with one another, even across continents, while at the same time, tolerating and even embracing our differences with one another. This holds true with regard to theological perspectives, ethnic expressions, political positions, and diversity of all kinds. The modern description for this embrace of difference is pluralism: one people, different approaches.
This coming Monday, Steve and I are heading to Israel for our regular study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Last year was a highlight for us, as I became a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Institute. After the intensity of the three-year program, I will rejoin the wider Rabbinic gathering for a shorter, but still quite intense program. For two weeks every summer, some 170 rabbis of all denominations gather in the Beit Midrash – the study hall – of the Hartman Institute, literally elbow-to-elbow, to study from morning to night with the finest scholars in Israel, and with each other as well. The Hartman Institute is devoted to promoting pluralism within unity as the ideal for the Jewish State, and indeed, for the Jewish People around the world.
We at Union Temple have studied with some of the Hartman scholars through the iEngage series. We also have met and heard from a few of them in person at the Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues, including our own. Those of us who traveled together to Israel in 2015 visited the Hartman Institute and spent a remarkable hour with Tal Becker, one of the luminaries of the Hartman faculty. Learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Before any trip we make to Israel, I remember the beautiful poetry of Psalm 122 as it resounds in my mind and in my heart. It is a prayer for those going up to Jerusalem, and for the city of Jerusalem itself. So, as we prepare for our journey this summer, I offer the words of Psalm 122 – “A Song of Ascents.”
א שִׁיר הַֽמַּֽעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד שׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהֹוָה נֵלֵֽךְ: ב עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרֽוּשָׁלָֽם: ג יְרֽוּשָׁלַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה־לָּהּ יַחְדָּֽו: ד שֶׁשָּׁם עָלוּ שְׁבָטִים שִׁבְטֵי־יָהּ עֵדוּת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם יְהֹוָֽה: ה כִּי שָׁמָּה ׀ יָשְׁבוּ כִסְאוֹת לְמִשְׁפָּט כִּסְאוֹת לְבֵית דָּוִֽד: ו שַֽׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרֽוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹֽהֲבָֽיִךְ: ז יְהִֽי־שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ: ח לְמַֽעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּֽךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּֽית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָֽךְ:
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
I rejoiced when they said to me, “We are going to the House of the LORD.” Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built up, a city knit together, to which tribes would make pilgrimage, the tribes of the LORD, as was enjoined upon Israel – to praise the name of the LORD. There the thrones of judgment stood, thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace. May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good.
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.
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.
When I joined you for this past Shabbat I had just returned from some two weeks in Israel. (Yes, I made sure to bring along the inevitable halva from The Halva King in the Machane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem!) This particular trip was a mission sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, for the rabbis of Brownstone Brooklyn. There were twelve of us in all: seven rabbis, two lay directors of the Kings Bay “Y,” two lay directors of the Hannah Senesh Day School, and Orly Nitzan, the director of the Brownstone Brooklyn Shlichut program. We spent four remarkable days together.
My own stay in Israel continued, however, for an extra week, for my annual Winter Study Retreat at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This is the third and final year of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at Hartman, in which I have been privileged to participate. It has been an intensive course of summer and winter onsite study, bi-weekly webinar learning, and weekly hevruta study (paired study with colleagues). My hevruta partner is a rabbi is St. Louis. (What did we do before Skype?!) This summer, as this intensive program concludes, my 26 colleagues and I will become Senior Fellows at the Hartman Institute, which is a singular honor for all of us, and we are all grateful for having been afforded this opportunity.
The primary purpose of the UJA Mission was to help us as religious leaders of Brownstone Brooklyn to engage each other in a deeper and more candid and meaningful dialogue about conflicts in Israel, so that we can more effectively address these issues as a group and as individuals with our congregants and the wider community.
In this endeavor, which will be ongoing, UJA-Federation is sponsoring a collaborative series of three lectures , beginning next week, emanating from the Hartman Institute. I can’t say enough to encourage you to attend the Images of Israel lectures at CBE, Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, and Union Temple, all of which begin at 8:00PM. They are free of charge for members of the various Brownstone congregations, but UJA-Federation and Hartman need to track the attendance. I know you understand that a robust attendance will encourage them to fund future lectures of this caliber. I hope you attend as many as possible. Universal agreement on content is not the intent; engagement is. Use the code UT16 when registering.
A word about the speakers:
Dr. Ruth Calderon (at CBE on Wednesday, February 17) is a former Member of Knesset in the Yesh Atid party, where she was Deputy Speaker. She earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from Hebrew University. A teacher and novelist, she is the founder and director of ALMA, a pluralistic, egalitarian yeshiva in the heart of Tel Aviv, and is also a faculty member at the Hartman Institute.
Dr. Tal Becker (at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue on Wednesday, March 16) holds a Ph.D. in International Law from Columbia University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Hartman Institute, and one of the driving forces of the iEngage program, now in its third segment. Tal has been a key member of Israel’s negotiating team since the Oslo Accords.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer (at Union Temple on Wednesday, April 13) is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Harvard University and along with Tal Becker, is one of the architects of the iEngage program
Thanks to the efforts of our wonderful congregant Peter Gomori, a group of us will soon treat ourselves to a performance of Di Goldene Kale (The Golden Bride) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. It is being presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and is one in a series of performances this week in Lower Manhattan celebrating Yiddish song, dance, theater, culture, history, food, neighborhood tours, and more, called YIDDUSH NEW YORK (click for schedule of events). For at least fifteen years, there was a huge gathering during this particular holiday week called “KlezKamp” at a hotel up in the Catskills. Of course, it was a play on the word “Klezmer,” the name for the type of music characteristic of the street musicians of Eastern Europe, and has become such a beloved medium, both within the Jewish community and out in general culture as well. (The word “Klezmer” is actually an amalgamated pronunciation of “Klei Zemer,” “instruments of song.”) But this year, the gathering upstate has moved its format and venue to Lower Manhattan, which of course has been the seething hub of Yiddish culture from the time it arrived here with the massive Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century.
During the Holocaust, some 80% of the Yiddish speaking population of Europe was brutally murdered by the Nazis. And, truth be told, the first generations American Jews made every effort to learn English, speak it with their children, and cast aside the Yiddish language and culture of their parents and grandparents, along with the baggage of ostracism and persecution in the Old World. In the years after the establishment of the State of Israel as well, the early generations of Israelis also rejected Yiddish as the language that was spoken on the way to the gas chambers. Nevertheless, history is like a pendulum in a number of respects, particularly as it has swung back and forth through successive generations of Jewish life. In the case of Yiddish, it has been the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Yiddish speakers, whether here, in Europe, or in Israel, who have virtually jumped onto the pendulum themselves and swung it with determination back to reclaim the treasures of an almost vanquished world. And, they have succeeded. The revival of the language, music, literature, politics, and cultural activity of this world, has been nothing less than miraculous.
As we know, Yiddish has a particular “ta’am” – a flavor, if you will, that is hard to duplicate exactly in translation. And we in New York particularly are fortunate that Yiddish language and culture still float in our air, if you will, to a much larger extent than elsewhere. Yiddish words and expressions have found their way into common parlance here in a way that most of us, whether Jewish or not, have come to take for granted.
In light of this, I must ask for a moment, my friends, to register my deep resentment at the crass remarks coming from Donald Trump this week, even though he is by no means the first in this regard. Politicians in past campaigns have also used such words through the years. I understand that Yiddish slang, particularly in its colorful array of words referring to male body parts, seems to punctuate certain conversations more satisfyingly than ordinary English vocabulary. Nevertheless, when this slang is used in public settings by those running for public office – President of the United States, no less – it takes on an even more offensive cast. Yes, Mr. Trump is from New York, and I’m sure he has come to think of Yiddish slang as nothing unusual. But in fact, there is a serious problem with it in my view. First, it is indeed crass language, and someone aspiring to hold the most powerful position on the world stage needs to figure out a more respectful and dignified way of expressing himself. But in addition, it smacks of an abuse of the richness and creativity of Yiddish language and culture itself; an abuse which portrays this culture with the vulgarity that has all too often been ascribed to Jewish people for over a thousand years now. (Not to mention the disrespect of these remarks to women AND to men.) In short, it is completely repulsive and unacceptable, and Mr. Trump, and anyone else who abuses their public notoriety in this way, should be roundly called into account.
With this said, I will now redirect our attention away from the crassness of Mr. Trump and others, to the more constructive and sophisticated activities going on in New York this week, and to the importance of kindling and rekindling our interest in the richness and vibrancy of Yiddish. Indeed, it is our rightful inheritance. And thus I say to one and all, Sholom Aleichem, and Aleichem Sholom!
This past Thursday was Lag Ba’omer, and here in Israel, there was great rejoicing – bonfires, weddings, and music. By pure coincidence, our tour group struck a lucky, unplanned moment by happening upon a great celebration. We had spent the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, as we stepped back through some 3,000 years of Jewish history, here in the layers of the City of David. The excavations that have been conducted, and the structures and artifacts that have been found, are nothing short of extraordinary, all shedding light upon the period of the establishment of the Jewish kingdom under Kings David and Solomon, and periods following. Then we strolled a bit through the Jewish Quarter, and ate lunch in the Quarter Cafe, as we gazed out over an extraordinary panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. Later in the afternoon, it was time for us to visit the Western Wall for some personal reflection. Then, by dumb luck, as we approached the Western Wall – the Kotel Hama’aravi – we arrived exactly as a major celebration was taking place at the Wall, scheduled for Lag Ba’omer. It was a “moving up” ceremony for the Israel Defense Force, particularly for the units of the Tzanchanim – paratroopers. They had completed their basic training, and just as we arrived at the Kotel Plaza, the soldiers were gathering in formations with their commanders to receive their red berets, and be officially welcomed into these elite units. In addition, each received a Tanakh, which they keep with them at all times.
Here in Israel, as you know, upon graduation from high school, everyone is required to serve in the Army, men and women alike. There are many different kinds of assignments, several very elite combat units. In order to be accepted into the Tzanchanim, if a young man is an only son, he must bring written permission from his parents to serve in this capacity, which of course carries with it the potential for great danger. In fact the same holds true to any unit of active combat. For us in the United States, for whom military service is strictly voluntary, the relationship that most of us have to the military is markedly different from that of Israelis to the Israel Defense Force. Every Israeli has an intimate relationship with the Army. They have served in it themselves, their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends, all serve in the Army. The Army, in fact, is the great leveler of Israeli society. It is there that Israelis of different ethnicities and socio-economic strata come together, serve together, grow together, and entrust their very lives to one another. It knits together what ordinarily would be very disparate threads of Israeli life.
Sometimes even the most carefully planned itinerary must make allowances for moments of spontaneity such as the one we experienced on Thursday. It was a very special moment indeed, one that none of us will ever forget.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey from Egypt; how he cut down the stragglers in your rear; those who were famished an weary; and he did not fear God. . . Therefore it shall be that when Adonai your God has given you rest from your enemies round about you, in the Land that is to be your inheritance. . . that you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget.” (from Deuteronomy 24.17-19)
These verses conclude our Torah portion for this week, Ki Teitzei.
During the time that we are in Israel I prefer to bring you vignettes about people and events there that are significant to me in some way. Though we have been home for over a week now, I still would like to tell you about a particularly moving experience that Steve and I had last month – something that had never occurred to us to do before, in all the time we have spent in Jerusalem over the years. With a free morning to ourselves at one point, we decided to take a drive around to the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion, and visit the grave of Oskar Schindler. Since the area is quite steep, the cemetery is terraced on a number of levels, with steps leading from one level to the next. Except for a small sign on the front gate, there are really no other signs or tourist markers pointing the way to the grave. You just walk down the various levels, and eventually, you come to it. But as soon as you reach that level, it’s clear which grave is Schindler’s. It is covered with small stones, placed there according to Jewish custom upon visiting a cemetery. The grave itself is rather simple – just a horizontal slab, similar to many other graves in Israel. On the top is written “R.I.P.” Then there is a cross, and then his name and dates (1908-1974). And then, two inscriptions. The first, in Hebrew, reads: “Righteous Gentile.” The other, in German, reads: “Unforgettable lifesaver of 1,200 persecuted Jews.”
Steve and I happened to strike a quiet moment when no one else was there, so we had a very peaceful opportunity to pay our respects, and place a stone on the grave. I have spoken about Oskar Schindler on previous occasions, so I won’t repeat much of it now. We simply recalled to each other that he was, in a number of ways, a rather unsavory character, who originally saw his munitions factory as nothing more than a money-making opportunity. But at a certain point, most probably as he witnessed the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, he experienced an “epiphany” of sorts, and realized that he needed to step outside of himself at that moment, in pursuit of simple human compassion. Of the 1,200 “Schindlerjuden,” there are now some 7,000 descendants who are alive today. A very ordinary individual did an extraordinary thing, beyond what anyone might have expected of him, and what he ever could have expected of himself.
We read in the Mishnah: In a place devoid of humanity, be a human being.
Oskar Schindler was surrounded by Amalakites, and he even walked among them for a little while. Then, he became a human being. Zichrono Liv’rachah, may his memory be for a blessing. Rest in peace, Oskar Schindler.
This has been an extraordinary week here in Jerusalem, and it’s only Wednesday! Since Sunday we have heard from three extraordinary people heavily involved in the ongoing debate over religion in the public sphere, which has now become a higher-pitched debate than ever before during the entire 65 years of Israeli statehood. Last night’s guest speakers were Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (of Reform Judaism), leader of Women of the Wall, and former member of the Jerusalem City Council; and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, graduate of Yeshiva University, Talmud Professor at Hebrew University, Rabbi of Ohr Torah Stone, and Chief Rabbi of the City of Efrat, Israel. A Modern Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Riskin grew up in Brooklyn, and served for twelve years as the founding Rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, introduced the program by articulating the great challenge to Jews and Judaism in the Jewish State. Is it possible for Jews of different religious perspectives and groups to build a democratic nation together, in a pluralistic environment, respecting each other’s rights as citizens? (The question, of course, also pertains to non-Jews, but for now I will confine my remarks to Jews.). The clashes at the Western Wall on Monday (Rosh Chodesh Av) reached fever pitch, and the previous day, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill for Haredi military service. Thus this discussion was particularly apt at this extraordinary time.
While Ms. Hoffman and Rabbi Riskin hold different personal perspectives on religious observance, they agreed on virtually every issue that was discussed during this forum. The crux of the matter is not that Judaism is a state religion. Israel is, after all, the Jewish state. The problem, as both agreed, is that the power brokers and arbiters of how Judaism is lived and practiced have been, for far too long, the small group of Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have co-opted the Torah and held the entire country as hostage.
What is clear now is that Israelis have had enough, and this phenomenon is about to change. On Sunday we at Hartman heard from new Member of Knesset Dov Lipman. Dov Lipman is an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Silver Spring, MD. He holds seat #17 in the Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid. This party represents an unlikely conglomeration of people, men and women, from all points along the religious and (non-religious) spectrum. Rabbi Lipman advocates a separation between religion and state in matters of personal status and observance. Sound familiar? Both Rabbis Riskin and Lipman are American olim, and Anat Hoffman spent a number of years in the States, and holds an undergraduate degree from UCLA. It is not surprising that the principles of American democracy inform the sensibilities of all three, as they work to establish a fairer and more reasonable society in the Jewish State.
Since the confines of time and space require that I not go on too long at this time, I will ask that you access this video of the goings-on at the Kotel on Monday for Rosh Chodesh Av. It was a madhouse, but it needs to be seen in the perspective of this transitional time in Israel, and in the arc of an historic movement regarding Women of the Wall. At a certain point, I think you’ll recognize me, even with the sunglasses. I am confident that at some point a more workable compromise will be reached, and all Jews will have unfettered access to the Western Wall, the most iconic locus of Jewish historic significance.
Shalom Uv’rachah Mirushalayim – peace and blessings to all from Jerusalem