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The Fifth Commandment

israel-arrowhead

Iron arrowhead that was found in Israel.

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.”

The Voice of a Woman – Again!

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 All Come From Somewhere

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“Abraham Goes to the Land of Canaan,” Gustave Doré, 1866.

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.

In the Footsteps of Heroic Women

Last week we began our reading of the Book of Exodus, and the beginning of our enslavement in Egypt. Moses is undoubtedly the most preeminent figure in the story as it unfolds, and indeed, henceforth through to the end of the Torah. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the most heroic figures of last week’s portion are women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses; Miriam, Moses’ sister; and the two midwives, Shifra and Puah. The cruel and despotic Pharaoh orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to drown, lest someday they rise up in combat against him. Shifra and Puah carry out their own personal resistance to this brutality by deliberately saving the Hebrew baby boys. When Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy, she hides him for a short while, but then takes desperate measures to save him. She places him in a wicker basket, wraps him in swaddling cloth, and enlists her daughter Miriam to follow him and watch over him as he floats down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who pulls him out of the Nile and adopts him. Miriam volunteers to “find” her a wet nurse, and “finds” Yocheved, making it possible for Moses to live with his own family for a time. And thus in addition to the four women I have mentioned, we must mention the daughter of Pharaoh, known in the Midrashic tradition as “Bityah.” While she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she participated in saving him, and went on to raise him as her own beloved son.

The salvation of the Children of Israel begins with women – women who are not afraid to stand up to the power and brutality of Pharaoh.
This past Saturday was a remarkable day indeed. On the very Shabbat when we were reading the stories of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Bityah, a great “Women’s March” took place all over our country, and all over the world – millions of women, and men as well, marching shoulder to shoulder – to rise up against the intimidation and wrong-headed policies of the newly-installed Trump presidency.

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Women’s March in Washington D.C. 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia

(There were even 30 people marching in Antarctica!) A group of us left together from Union Temple after services and took the subway to East 14th Street in Manhattan, where we met up with several hundred Jews from the Downtown Kehilah, a consortium of liberal congregations in Lower Manhattan. We marched together up 2nd Avenue to 42nd Street, where we joined some 400,000 of our fellow New Yorkers in an unbelievable throng that stretched all across 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. While we may have lost an election, we have not lost our values. The message was clear: we intend to uphold our values and our rights, and fight tooth and nail against those who would seek to undermine them.

Lest we forget, the day after the march, Sunday, January 22, was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. The decision put an end to underground networks and back-alley butchers, unwanted pregnancies, and risks to the physical and/or mental well-being of women and girls all over our country. Decisions over women’s reproductive lives were no longer the domain of elected officials, but rather the domain of women themselves – in consultation with their doctors and medical professionals, and, when appropriate, with their families and members of clergy. But the government is once again taking aim at the gamut of women’s health issues, particularly when it comes to reproductive choice. And while now the federal government is key, the state houses are critical as well, regarding the statutes in the health codes and criminal codes of individual states.

Here’s one way we New Yorkers can stand up to this now more imminent threat to women’s rights and integrity. As I have announced previously, on Monday, January 30, I am going to be in Albany at a Day of Action coordinated by Family Planning Advocates (FPA) in cooperation with Planned Parenthood of New York. I am a member of FPA’s Concerned Clergy for Choice. There is still a small window of opportunity for you to attend this important day of education and lobbying the members of the Assembly and State Senate. The information follows. I hope you will decide to attend, as we walk in the footsteps of the heroines of our people.

Tzedek U’mishpat – Righteousness and Justice

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At the 1963 March on Washington, left to right: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Walter Reuther and Rabbi Joachim Prinz.

The Prophets of Israel raised their voices in the name of righteousness and justice. In fact these two concepts appear as a word pair numerous times throughout the Prophetic books of the Bible. In Hebrew, the word pair is צדק ומשפט – tzedek u’mishpat.

This week began with our celebration of the birthday of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., surely one of the greatest prophets of our time, or any other. His soaring oratory and his clarion call for צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice – inspired the hearts of all who heard it, and it is a message that continues to resonate around the world. The Jewish alliance with Dr. King was born out of that message that resides in our shared Biblical tradition and historic experiences.

This week will end with the inauguration of a new president, one who made it his obsession to delegitimize President Barack Obama – an obsession motivated by racism and xenophobia. Now he has publicly and brazenly insulted and denigrated one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Lewis, a man who has devoted his life to the cause of צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice.

It is perhaps fortuitous, perhaps ironic, or perhaps a little of both, that on this coming Shabbat we will begin our reading of the Book of Exodus and the story of our people’s enslavement in Egypt by a cruel and despotic leader. In our Passover Haggadah we read the litany of our troubled history, as we repeat the refrain, “many tyrants have risen against us.” It will be incumbent upon us, out of the foundational narrative of our history as a People, and our more recent history as champions of tzedek u’mishpat, to stand up and speak out to uphold these values in the face of pressure that we can only now anticipate with great alarm.

In this spirit, I offer an extraordinary speech that was given at the March on Washington as a “warm-up,” if you will, to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I have sent it to you in years past, but it is worthwhile for us to listen again. The speech was delivered by Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, z”l, the then Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ. He was on the podium alongside Dr. King at the march in his capacity as President of the American Jewish Congress. Read the text and listen to Dr. Prinz. He refers to the experience of Egypt as our spiritual and historic motivation.