Moses and the Israelites move closer to the Promised Land, preparing to cross the Jordan and conquer the Land. But two of the tribes, Reuben and Gad, approach Moses and tell him they do not want to cross over. They want to remain in the region of Gilead, where the land is more favorable to the cattle they have acquired. Moses is incensed at the thought that they would abandon their kinsmen to potential danger during the conquest. But they mollify his anger: “We will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home. . . we will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.” (Numbers 32.27-18) So we read in our Torah portion this week.
On our last full day in Jerusalem for this summer, Steve and I had a bit of free time before dinner, so we decided to take a drive up to Har Hatzofim – Mount Scopus – “Mountain of the Watchers,” as translated – to revel in the breathtaking views. We had been there many times before, and while the vistas were not new to us, they never get old.
One of the views looks out over the nearby community of Ma’ale Adumim. But farther in the distance is the Dead Sea, with the reddish glow that often emanates from it. And even beyond it, on a very clear day, one can just about make out the Jordanian hills. It is extraordinary to behold.
The second vista is of the Temple Mount – the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Arab village of Silwan. The mountain over which the Dome of the Rock is built is the one from which the prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. Jewish tradition, however, identifies this place as Har Hamoriah – Mount Moriah – where the binding of Isaac took place, as we read every Rosh Hashanah. Later, it became Har Habayit – the Temple Mount. In that place was the Kodesh Kodashim – the Holy of Holies – the Inner Sanctum – where the sacrifices were offered by the Kohanim, the Priests of Israel, every single day.
To the east of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, upon which there are several Christian churches, and the Augusta Victoria Hospital and Church of the Ascension, built in the 19h century by the German Templars. There is also one of the most revered Jewish cemeteries. As one casts one’s gaze further to the west, the new city of Jerusalem comes into view: the King David Hotel, the YMCA, Hebrew Union College and the campus of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, the Russian Compound, and beyond. Absolutely extraordinary.
Up on Mount Scopus is a campus of Hebrew University and a branch of Hadassah Hospital. There is also a campus of the Brigham Young University – of the Church of Latter Day Saints – a prime piece of real estate. In 1948, the Arabs gained control of the only road leading up to Mount Scopus, effectively isolating it from the rest of Jerusalem. During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel regained control of the road, and Mount Scopus was reunited with the rest of the city.
Mount Scopus is fully ½ mile high, and the views from there are indeed breathtaking. But during that afternoon, there was something else that struck me up there, that in its own way, is also majestic. At both lookout points, there are beautiful stone monuments with names, upon names, upon names, of Jews from different parts of the world who donated money to construct these observation points, to give visitors the maximum views of these vistas, and also to help build the community on Mount Scopus. The monument at the lookout toward the Dead Sea records donations primarily from Jews, or in memory of Jews, from all over Canada – Montreal, Winnipeg, Owen Sound, Calgary, and so on. The monument at the Temple Mount lookout bore the names of Jews from all over the United States, and elsewhere in the world. All those Jews, I thought – our people – all over the world. They may live or have lived in far-flung places of the world, but their hearts were pointed toward Jerusalem. Now their legacy is there as well, and their names are remembered among the builders.
The Gadites and the Reubenites said. . . “Whatever the Eternal has spoken concerning your servants, that we will do. We ourselves will cross over as shock-troops, at the instance of the Eternal, into the land of Canaan; and we shall keep our hereditary holding across the Jordan.” (Numbers 32.31-32)
The Psalmist wrote:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.
With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”
Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.
One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.
Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.
Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.
As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
Our Torah portion explains that the mabul – the flood – that God sent to destroy the world was as a result of the hamas that had filled the earth. In Biblical translation, this word hamas is usually translated as “violence.” Rabbinic commentaries further explain this “violence” as “economic corruption.”
But violence in the raw, physical sense, is very much with us to this day in our world, particularly with our people in Israel, as the current wave of attacks has risen in recent days, especially in Jerusalem, but elsewhere as well.
A little earlier today (Thursday) I participated in a conference call cosponsored by the New York Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Federations of North America, with Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem. He said that one of the most helpful things for us to do at this moment is to communicate information to our communities. In keeping with that request, here are some of the salient points of his conversation with us.
1) Members of the Palestinian Authority and Arab leadership in Israel are lying to their people with regard to Israel’s intentions on the Temple Mount. Though it is a holy site both for Jews and Muslims, the fact is that Israel has no intention of changing the status of the Temple Mount that would weaken Muslim control over the area in general, and particularly over the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques. This is a lie that has been spread by those who are interested in inciting violence, and has no basis in fact.
2) Israel’s government, and particularly the Municipality of Jerusalem and its police force, are committed to tightening security for the people of Jerusalem, whether Jewish or Muslim, and will not tolerate a spread of this violence. Those who attempt to perpetrate acts of violence are warned that in all probability they will not return home.
3) Mr. Barkat himself has personally conferred with school principals, particularly high school principals, in the Arab sectors of East Jerusalem, to discuss measures of quelling the current wave of violence, since the majority of perpetrators seem to be teenagers. One intention that the principals have is to lengthen the school day for the high schools to at least 5:00 in the afternoon. Whether it is through programs in sports, or computers, or other areas of concentration, they are going to do what they can to lengthen the school day of this age group.
4) In addition, the principals made a request of the mayor, which he will honor. They asked him to please move the policemen away from the schools a bit at the beginning and end of school days, in order to reduce a bit of the tension. But also, the principals requested that police come into the schools to talk with the kids, and bring materials to show the kids that there is another side of the story. Help them to help the kids, in other words, as they attempt to speak the kids’ language so that the kids can understand that violence is not the answer.
5) While Mr. Barkat does not like restricting the points of access to Jerusalem, this is a measure that he is forced to take until the current wave of terror has ceased.
6) There are, indeed, moderate members of the Arab community, both among the police and the school authorities, who are seeking to work together with the Jewish community to end this wave of violence. They feel that they are often overpowered by those determined to incite violence and enmity, but Mr. Barkat and other members of the Jewish community are in close touch with these moderate leaders, in order to put an end to the current violence. No one wants to see Jewish kids, OR Arab kids getting hurt, and potentially killed. The leaders know they must work together to accomplish that goal.
7) While there is admittedly tension in the streets of Jerusalem at this particular moment, life does go on. People go to work, kids go to school, and the Mayor’s Office has not canceled any events in the city. “If terrorists succeed in stopping us from doing what we want to do,” Mr. Barkat observed, “then they have succeeded.” To Jerusalemites as well as to visitors from other countries, Mr. Barkat says unequivocally, “Continue your plans. Help to fight terrorism by not being terrorized.”[Read Mayor Barkat’s full message here.]
During this Shabbat – October 16/17 – the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations of North America has called for a show of solidarity with Israel and a call for an end to the violence. Those who have committed to this Solidarity Shabbat include: the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, the National Council of Young Israel and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.
In keeping with this Solidarity Shabbat, we will include prayers during our services for peace in Israel, and between Arabs and Jews.
שאלו שלום ירושלים ישליו אהביך – Sha’alu sh’lom Yerushalayim; yishlayu ohavaych. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper. (Psalm 122.6)
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 is The Night of Tishah B’av… the 9th day of Av, a day of mourning, as Jews all over the world remember the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonians, and then the Romans, in 70 CE. Services are characterized by sitting on the floor in the dark, a 24-hour fast, and wearing canvas or rubber shoes instead of leather – kind of like a mini-shiva. In addition, the Scroll of Eichah (Lamentations) is intoned, with its mournful timbre reflecting the poetry of bereavement.
The Stones of Destruction … This year, instead of going to synagogue on this night, Steve and I did something different, that one can only do here in Jerusalem. We spent the evening at Robinson’s Arch – the archaeological site of the remains of the Temple. There we gazed upon the huge stones, strewn about just as they have been, since they toppled to the ground some 2,000 years ago. This is what is left of the magnificent structure that once stood towering above Jerusalem, now reduced to a pile of rubble. From there we walked a bit further uphill to the main Kotel area – the Western Wall – a section of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount. It is perhaps the most iconic symbol of our deep roots as Jews in the Land of Israel. The plaza was filled with people tonight, as was the entire city, as Jews devoted this night to memory and prayer.
As New Yorkers, unfortunately we can relate all too well to a place of destruction such as this. The devastation at Ground Zero is seared into our memories forever. We remember the The Twin Towers, once rising above all New York, gleaming in the sunlight. And we watched them as they fell to rubble and ash over over a huge area of Lower Manhattan. Every year on 9/11, solemn memorials are held all over the country; the most significant in New York, at Ground Zero.
The Difference, of course, is that even in the face of this horrific destruction, we New Yorkers did not lose our city, nor our freedom or national identity as Americans. Twelve years after the catastrophe, our businesses are back, and the new towers are on their way up, though the losses of loved ones are permanent. For us as Jews, however, the destruction of the Temple meant the destruction of Jerusalem itself, exile from our land, and loss of our sovereignty. For some two millennia, our people dreamt of our homeland and restoration of our independence. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we have echoed through the centuries. Finally, in the late 19th century, we began the process of reclaiming Jewish sovereignty, which culminated in May of 1948 when the State of Israel was born. Now, 65 years later, Israel is a nation seething with excitement; with scientific and high tech advances, a rich and profound cultural and intellectual life, an animated political and philosophical discourse, and economic progress and creativity, all of which far exceed her size. Yet with each year we understand more acutely that the responsibilities and challenges of sovereignty are manifold. There is much work yet to be done, so that Israel can evolve into all that she is capable of being, as a modern democratic nation. Yet we give thanks that the State of Israel is alive and flourishing, and that the process of rebuilding that state is ongoing, and continuously evolving. We will remember that during this coming Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we begin the anticipation of our rejoicing in the New Year.
The Reform Movement, historically, has distanced itself from observing Tishah B’av, on the ideological grounds that we do not mourn the Temple, nor the Priesthood, nor its sacrificial cult. While that is still the case, there can be no doubt that Reform Judaism in recent years has sought to link itself to the shared history of ALL the Jewish people. The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, along with the Exile that ensued, is a seminal moment in our people’s history, and thus we have much more willingly embraced this memory. As I beheld that pile of rubble tonight, I felt this link most profoundly.
This Coming Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, as we read words of consolation from the Prophet Isaiah:
Nachamu, Nachamu Ami – Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God,
And declare to her that her term of service is over. . . (40.1)
Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall.
But they who trust in our God shall renew their strength.
They shall run and not grow weary, they shall march and not be faith. . . (40.30-31)
Fear not for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God;
I strengthen and I help you, I uphold you with My victorious right hand. (41.10)
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