While our Torah portion, Shofetim – Judges – is indeed about judges, and their responsibilities for maintaining judicial integrity in Ancient Israel, I’d like to focus for a moment on another type of leader in Ancient Israel mentioned in this portion. That is the king. We know that beginning around 1,000 B.C.E., kings did exist in Israel, beginning with King Saul, and moving subsequently to King David, King Solomon, and beyond. We read about the kings in the early Prophetic books of the Tanakh, Kings and Samuel particularly. But with the exception of this brief mention here in Deuteronomy Chapter 17, there is not a single word about an Israelite king anywhere in the Torah. There are leaders in the narrative, of course: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Miriam, and groups of people as well: judges, lawgivers, tribal heads, and the like. But no king. (No, no queen either.) Except here.
If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17.14-20)
A few things to note about this. First, the appointment of a king is not obligatory, but a matter of choice on the part of the Israelites. But if they were to go ahead and make this choice, then there were certain requirements that both they and the king had to fulfill.
1. They would have to choose a king from among the Israelite people. A foreign-born person was ineligible. (We in the United States have a similar Constitutional restriction on the Presidency.)
2. The king may not own many horses. How many is too many? We don’t exactly know. But the point is that many horses would lead to military might. This was something that a king should avoid, at least according to this narrative.
3. The king should not have too many wives. How many is too many? Later generations of Rabbis interpreted this to mean eighteen. Any more than eighteen wives would be too many wives for a king of Israel. What is particularly interesting about this is the consequences of the king’s reach. In the ancient world, international relationships were often effected through marriages. If the king was restricted in the number of marriages, he was also restricted in the number of potential international alliances that he could form. So there seems to be an attempt here to “keep it in the family” to a great extent.
4. The king should not amass too much silver and gold. One might venture a guess that this was to keep the king from becoming corrupt by an overabundance of wealth.
5. Perhaps the most remarkable? The king was obligated to have a copy of the Teaching of Moses (the Torah) written personally for him by the priests, and he was to study it throughout his life. So what was the king’s primary responsibility? To study Torah!
What should pop out at us immediately, given these restrictions, is the case of King Solomon. Not too much wealth? Not too many wives? Not too many horses? Uh-oh, looks pretty bad for Solomon! But as we remember, Solomon’s indulgences in all these areas ultimately led not only to his own downfall, but to the breakup of his kingdom, and the division of the Jewish people into two separate kingdoms within the Land of Israel, one in the north, and one in the south. Maybe the Deuteronomic author knew what he was talking about!
My teacher at The Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Micah Goodman, characterizes the restrictions here as a “paradox of power.” All these restrictions, Dr. Goodman deduces, were designed to prevent the kings of Israel from becoming too powerful. Because, as Goodman says, “only giving up your power enables you to stay in power. Only by giving up control can you remain in control.”
I will leave any suggestion of parallels to our current political leaders, and those who aspire at this particular moment, to you for just now. Nevertheless, for every one of us, it would seem that Dr. Goodman’s observation is important and relevant. We all walk a fine line, one that is often difficult to discern, between taking the reins of control, and building consensus; and at times, doing both at once. And for sure, the admonition of Deuteronomy that has steadied us as individuals and as a people throughout our history, and continues to this day, is our embrace and study of Torah. Our tradition has always centered us and helped us to understand the ethical framework within which we can build our lives in the best way possible. Ki hem chayeinu, v’orech yameinu, for they (the Torah’s teachings) are our life and the length of our days. We recite this verse in our evening prayers. May we remember it always.
This Shabbat immediately following Tishah B’Av is known in our tradition as “Shabbat Nachamu,” “The Sabbath of Comfort,” after the first few words of the Haftarah portion from Chapter 40 of Isaiah: Nachamu, nachamu ami – Take comfort, take comfort, O My people.
During the Winter Study Retreat of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative of the Hartman Institute this past January, my colleagues and I stayed at a residence on Derekh Bet Lechem (the Bethlehem Road) in a neighborhood in southern Jerusalem called Baka, not unlike Park Slope, where many “Anglos” reside. (“Anglo” is the term applied to olim – immigrants – from English speaking countries. In Baka, many of them are from the United States.) In order to get to Hartman every day, we would proceed down Derekh Bet Lechem, and then turn left onto Lloyd George Street, which leads to the next “main drag,” as it were, Emek Refaim, in the neighborhood known as the Germany Colony. From there, we would proceed further uphill to Hartman.Also this winter, I joined some colleagues for dinner one evening in a nice Tel Aviv restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean called Herbert Samuel. There is also a Herbert Samuel Hotel in Jerusalem, in Nachalat Shiv’ah, an active club district with lots of restaurants and fine gift shops, and the Hebrew Music Museum. One more road to mention today, Ruppin Boulevard, takes us to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, one of our favorite places.
All over Israel, streets, hotels, businesses and historic sites are named in honor of builders of Judaism and the Jewish State, from antiquity through the present day. And so, with a nod to streets I have traversed many times, of restaurants and hotels that serve the public regularly, and mostly, in recognition of this Shabbat Nachamu, I would like to bring you this article by Larry Domnitch, the author of “The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History,” published by Jason Aronson. It is an interesting note of history, accompanied, as are so many things about Israel, by a note of touching memory and pathos.
A Message was Captured in Jerusalem One Shabbat Morning
By Larry Domnitch
The Haftorah (prophetic portion) read on Shabbat Nachamu, the ‘Shabbat of Comfort’ which follows Tisha B’Av, expresses the message of conciliation expressed by the prophet Isaiah to a nation that would endure a prolonged exile. In the Old City of Jerusalem in 1920, a particular event on Shabbat Nachamu captured the essence of its theme.
During the First World War, the British government foresaw their victory over Turkish forces in Palestine forces as imminent and issued the Balfour Declaration supporting Jewish aspirations for a Jewish Homeland. Not long after the declaration was issued, opposition mounted from members of Britain’s government and military administration who were against Zionism. However, the British government was under the leadership of the staunch Zionist Lloyd George, who was determined to stand by the Declaration. George appointed a Jew and a Zionist, Sir Herbert Samuel, as the first British High Commissioner of Palestine. Samuel’s appointment signified the beginning of the British mandate over Palestine.
On July 1, 1920, Samuel disembarked a British battleship at the port of Haifa as the new commissioner or, as his biographer John Bowle put it, “the first Jewish ruler in Palestine since Hyrcanus the II,” whose reign ended 40 B.C.E. Samuel seemed to be the answer to the Zionists’ prayers. A Zionist leader Arthur Ruppin, described in his diary the ceremony held nine days later on the Mount of Olives in honor of Samuel’s appointment. “Until now, pronouncements about a Jewish National Home…had only been words on paper; but now they rose before us embodied in a person of a Jewish High Commissioner…Many of the Jews present had tears in their eyes.”
Just a few weeks later, on the morning of Shabbat Nachamu, Samuel set out on foot toward the famous Churva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Surrounded by an entourage of advisors and guards, he entered the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and headed toward the Jewish Quarter. As he entered, spectators gathered on the streets, which were adorned with flowers, to glimpse the man who represented their highest hopes and dreams. As he passed by, the onlookers cheered and expressions of joy resonated. A sense of euphoria quickly came over the crowd.
Samuel entered the Churva Synagogue where there was not an empty seat. He had arrived prepared to chant the Haftorah. Soon, the gabbai (sexton) summoned him to the Torah, calling out the words Ya’amod HaNasi Ha’Elyon (may the High Commissioner arise). As Samuel stood up, the entire congregation also rose to their feet in a show of respect and admiration. Samuel made his way to the bimah (platform from which the Torah is read) and proceeded to recite the blessings over the Torah and then the blessings over the Haftorah. The British High Commissioner began chanting the Haftorah, echoing the words of Isaiah, which expresses the hopes and dreams of the nation. “Comfort, comfort My people, says the Lord. Speak to her heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled, that her iniquity has been conciliated, for she has received for the Hand of God double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2) The entire congregation shuddered upon hearing the words that embodied their greatest hopes and dreams. It was a moment of intense emotion. An aid to Samuel described the scene as ” a golden moment where the Jews in the Synagogue felt as if the hour of redemption had arrived.”
Unfortunately, Samuel did not live up to the people’s hopes and expectations. Despite his devotion to Zionism, he was caught between two sides. As Arab riots increased and pressure against the Zionists intensified in British circles, Samuel made concessions to the Arabs and their British sympathizers. Jewish immigration restrictions were imposed and Haj Amin Al Husseini-a vehement anti-Zionist and later a staunch supporter of Nazism-was appointed by Samuel to the position of Mufti (religious interpreter) of Jerusalem. A British policy of appeasement was set into motion. The restoration of the Land to the Jewish people would be a slow arduous process fixed with obstacles.
However, the course of events did not change the impression of that Shabbat morning. That morning was a special moment that would live forever in the memories of those present. It was a moment that belonged not to the messenger, but to the age-old message of hope brought on Shabbat Nachamu.
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.”
The highlight of this past week for me was the graduation of the fifth cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative (fondly abbreviated as “RLI V”) from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. We are now officially Senior Rabbinic Fellows of the Institute. For the past three and a half years, I have joined 26 other rabbinic colleagues for a journey in learning, understanding, and deepening friendships, both among ourselves, and with the extraordinary Hartman faculty. We are women and men; Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative; different lengths and types of rabbinic experience; from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Teaneck, Great Neck, Princeton, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Austin, Miami, Toronto, Sydney, and Jerusalem. We have studied sources from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Maimonides, Zohar, and contemporary Hebrew literature. We have listened to each other’s thoughts about the Jewish community, and to each other’s personal stories as well. We have tried be helpful when there were personal crises among us, and rejoiced when there were simchas. And, we helped each other through the Gaza War, with the comforting leadership of Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute. Praying together was rather challenging, as you might imagine, but we did find in music a modality of shared spiritual experience that touched us all very deeply. (I would note parenthetically that in general at Hartman, when there are people saying Kaddish, we consider it a mitzvah to help them form a minyan for Mincha, regardless of our individual prayer preferences.)
Our Torah portion records the death of Miriam the prophetess in the Wilderness of Zin. We remember that it was Miriam who led the women in song as the Israelites crossed through the Sea on dry land. We remember that it was Miriam who watched out for baby Moses as he floated in the basket down the Nile before being rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh. Tradition tells us that a miraculous well followed the people as they trudged through the scorchingly dry desert, and kept them from dying of thirst. But at the moment that Miriam died, the well disappeared and the Israelites suffered greatly.
On a metaphoric level, RLI has served as a well for those of us who lived it together. We have watered each other’s souls, along with the renewal and enlightenment provided by the extraordinary Hartman scholars. And we sang together often. At the moment when we realized we had reached the end of this particular journey, we experienced a great sadness. Would we suffer from stifling thirst? No, we concluded, of course not. We will always have the impulse to grow through study. But we know as well that we will also have each other, and the learning of Hartman, to find ongoing refreshment and growth.
We at Union Temple have experienced Hartman learning on a number of occasions now. I look forward to more of it this year, and in the future as we study together.
So I wish my colleagues MAZAL TOV, and YESHER KOACH, and I wish all of you, SHABBAT SHALOM.
I am in Israel this week, as of today (Thursday) safely ensconced with my colleagues at the Shalom Hartman Institute. But I spent the first part of the week with seven of my rabbinic colleagues from Brownstone Brooklyn, and five Jewish professionals as well. We came on a mission with UJA-Federation to explore issues of pluralism here, but also to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a number of different vantage points. The rabbis among us took turns offering brief teachings relevant to our discussions. This is the teaching I offered this morning. It is the locus classicus, if you will, in Talmudic teaching, regarding not only the validity of different opinions, but our obligation to HONOR them as well.
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the one school asserting, “The Halakha (law) is according to our views!” The other school asserting, “The Halakha is according to our views!” Then the Bat Kol (Divine Voice) came forth and said: “Eilu v’Eilu divrei Elohim Chayim – These and these are the words of the Living God, and the Halakha is according to Beit Hillel.”
Since both are the words of the Living God, what entitled Beit Hillel to have the Halakha fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kind and humble, and they taught both their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai. And even more, they taught the rulings of Beit Shammai before their own.
Developing the ability to tolerate, and yes, even honor divergent perspectives is a lifelong process for all of us. I do believe that in many situations, there comes a point at which we absolutely must articulate our position and stand by it. Remember that ultimately the community did accept the rulings of the School of Hillel. Nevertheless, the process of deliberative and open discussion, and acknowledgement of the validity of other opinions, became part and parcel of Jewish tradition. Perhaps the point of greatest agreement on our mission this week has been our willingness to respectfully disagree. It has brought us closer as colleagues and as friends.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, on November 4th, a tangible and trustworthy peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems, still, a pipe dream at best. Yet we remember that peace accords between Israel and parts of the Arab world have indeed been achieved, and continue to hold.
The Camp David Accords of September, 1978, sealed the agreement of a land-for-peace deal between Israel and Egypt, in which Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula, which it had conquered in its victory over Egypt during the Six Day War. The iconic image of the 3-way handshake between US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, was seared into our memories as a triumph of the human aspiration for peace over the all too familiar instinct for war. And while there have been tensions between Israel and Egypt, to be sure, the fact is that since that handshake in 1978, not a single shot has been fired between these two nations.
Likewise, just this week, October 26, marked the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Jordan Peace Agreement, at the Arava Crossing between the two countries, which was renamed “The Yitzhak Rabin Crossing,” connecting Eilat and Aqaba. There too, we remember the table that was set up, in the expanse of the Arava Desert, with the big books containing the texts of the agreement, being signed simultaneously by Prime Minister Rabin, Jordan’s King Hussein, and President Bill Clinton in the middle. This peace has brought both a cessation of fighting and economic advantages, especially to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Tensions? Occasionally. Fighting? None.
This is a portion of the account of the night that Rabin was shot, written by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, North America. Yehuda had spent a number of years living in Israel when he was younger, during the time that his father Daniel served as US Ambassador there, and also to study. I learned of the murder when I was 18 years old, as I rode a bus back from Ra’anana to Jerusalem after a weekend spent with dozens of other kids under the auspices of the Religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva. Strangely enough, that Shabbat we had read the Torah portion Lech Lecha. Genesis 12 marks the first promise of land to the Jewish people, a promise which, translated from opportunity to idolatry, led to the tragedy of biblical proportions that came to pass that Saturday night.
Of all the chaos and confusion of that memorable bus ride, one incident stands out. A few kids on the bus — Americans in Israel, with strong opinions about the Jewish state’s political situation but little understanding or empathy for its people — cheered and celebrated the news that Rabin had been shot. The climate was so toxic; I suppose it was reasonable for them to believe such news would have been welcome in the country. This account is particularly poignant for me because of my husband Stephen’s personal recollections of the day that President Kennedy was murdered. In his junior high school in Columbus, GA – his then legally segregated junior high school – when the announcement came over the school’s intercoms, while some students were shocked, others did indeed send up cheers and clapping. John F. Kennedy was utterly despised by many in the South, primarily because of his support of the Civil Rights Movement, and his efforts at desegregation. So the news of Kennedy’s assassination came as cause for celebration to some segments of the population in our great nation, America. Nevertheless, eventually the South was desegregated, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed, and the South became a very different place. On the other hand, the past year especially has reminded us that racism and social pressures are still very much with us, and as a nation, we still have much work and soul-searching to do.
September 13, 1993 was another one of those extraordinary days in history. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat stood on the left of President Bill Clinton, and Prime Minister Rabin stood on his right, there in the gleaming sunlight on the White House Lawn. Another iconic image – a gentle nudge from the President, and perhaps a reluctant, yet determined handshake between the two leaders whose peoples had lived with so much hatred and pain. Peace was so close….
On Motza’ei Shabbat, Saturday night, November 4, 1995, PM Yitzhak Rabin stood with his colleagues on a podium as Israelis from all ethnicities and walks of life filled Kings Square (now Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv, with waving arms, glowing flashlights, and songs of peace. Moments later, he was shot at point blank range by a 25-year-old Jewish extremist, who believed that he was protecting Israel from Rabin, who, in his understanding, was going to “give Israel to the Arabs.”
Dr. Kurtzer: Here we are now 20 years on. While we learned from the assassination about the existence of fundamentalism in our midst, and while those kids on the bus (hopefully) learned that such treasonous violence is not to be celebrated, not much else has changed. Jewish militant fundamentalism is as strong and self-confident today as it has been since the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. And though its outbursts of violence still remain largely isolated incidents, and though we know collectively to condemn and mourn those incidents, the assassination of Rabin did virtually nothing to damage — much less dismantle — the ideologies that would give birth to such behavior. . .
But the biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, I am not sure that message can be heard today. . . .
Kurtzer’s thoughts of Rabin’s ultimate legacy:
I see Rabin’s primary legacy in the character of his leadership, in his relentless pursuit of a revision of the status quo (in spite of his own personal reservations about the very process in which he was engaged), and in the belief that such a process was ultimately vital to Israel’s long-term safety, security and stability. Rabin — in deed, if not in temperament — was heroically hopeful. In retrospect, he occupied a place very few Israeli politicians have been able to inhabit — a place located between Shimon Peres’ ultimately unrealistic utopian universalism and much of the cynical pragmatism that has characterized the Israeli political leadership of the right for the last generation.
Last May the group of us who traveled to Israel together spent a morning at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem with Dr. Tal Becker, a Senior Fellow at the Institute, and a member of the Israeli negotiating team since the time of Oslo. Tal explained the quagmire that seems to have stalled any realistic hopes for a peace agreement just at this moment. Nevertheless, he reminded us that this cannot let us off the hook from the aspiration for peace, and for creating a just society for both of the parties involved. That is the essence of the Jewish vision, in his view, and the current stalemate need not, and indeed, cannot, paralyze us from continuing to move forward. Perhaps that is the most important observation at this 20-year mark since the death of Rabin.
This week we read Parashat Vayera. We are reminded that just as Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Abraham, are brothers, so too are we, their descendants. Ultimately, after great trauma and separation, Isaac and Ishmael reconcile, as in next week’s parashah, they will bury their father together. Yitzhak Rabin was a man of war. Yet he was able to embrace a vision of peace, and took brave and significant steps to achieve it, particularly with those who are our brothers and sisters. We can and must find a way, eventually, to do the same.
We all know the expression “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Here is a bit of a different slant.
This past Sunday Steve and I attended a small gathering at the home of a rabbinic colleague in New Jersey for a send-off, if you will, for one of our colleagues who is loved and respected by all of us, Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, who, along with his wife Sheila, will be moving to Hollywood, FL this August. At that time he will assume the pulpit of Temple Solel. Rabbi Salkin, of course, came to teach us at Union Temple last year during one of our Fourth Friday programs on his midrash on Abraham and his generation from his book, “The Gods Are Broken.”
As he thanked us all for being there and for our ongoing friendship over the years, Rabbi Salkin brought us a little teaching from the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, about friendship. He reminded us that the Rambam outlined different kinds of friendship. Rabbi Salkin pointed to two in particular. One is the chaver l’davar – the utilitarian friend, if you will – the friend who befriends you because he/she needs something from you. The other is the chaver lid’agah – the stalwart friend; the true friend – the friend who is there for you in good times and in bad, and sincerely cares about you and your life. When Rabbi Salkin looked around the room at those of us assembled there, he remarked that all of us, both individually and as a k’vutzah, a group, have been for him all through the years as chaverim lid’agah – true and stalwart friends.
In our Torah portion this week, we find the trouble-maker Korach trying to foment rebellion against Moses. He befriends Datan and Aviram, and other members of the Israelite community, for the purpose of enlisting their help in usurping the divinely-appointed authority and leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach was a chaver l’davar – a friend who needed something, and manipulated other people to get it. As we read in last week’s portion, however, Joshua is a shining example of a chaver lid’agah – a stalwart friend to Moses, and helped him in the task that had been placed upon him by trying to buoy the Israelites’ spirits and personal courage. In the end, because of their guile and motivations of self-aggrandizement, Korach and his rebels destroyed themselves, and a number of other people along with them. But Joshua and his comrades ultimately marched into the Promised Land to realize the destiny that God had appointed for our people.
I’m glad to say that those of us in the Rabbinic community are never completely removed from one another, even by miles. Steve and I will have the pleasure of continuing to study with Rabbi Salkin – Jeff – this July at the Hartman Institute, where he also has been a “regular” over many years. And of course, we will see him at meetings and conventions, and whenever he comes back to New York for any reason (since he grew up on Long Island, and has family here). And, as we all know, the Internet brings ALL of us closer, virtually every minute of every day! But at this moment I am grateful that he took those few moments to remind us, his circle of friends and study partners (in Jewish circles, often one and the same), about the aspirations of true friendship within the Jewish tradition.
So what kind of friends do we want to be, and indeed, ought we aspire to be: chaverim l’davar, friends only when we need something from someone, or chaverim lid’agah, friends who will be there for each other, no matter what? It is an important question for all of us.
The central story of our Torah portion, Lech Lecha, the story of the scouts, is familiar to most of us. Moses was charged with assigning twelve scouts, one from each of the tribes, to go ahead of the people and scout out the land of Canaan, in order to prepare the people for the conquest as they made their way up through the desert. When the scouts returned, two of them, Joshua bin Nun and Caleb ben Jefunneh, were confident that the Israelites could move on and take control of the land. The other ten, however, brought back reports of doom: “There were giants in the land, and we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and thus we must have looked in theirs!”
Those of us who spent last year studying the Book of Deuteronomy in the Shabbat Morning Hevre will remember that for the Deuteronomic author, this astounding show of cowardice was the worst transgression that the Israelites committed during their entire forty-year trek through the Wilderness; worse even than the building of the Golden Calf. And indeed, according to the Deuteronomist, it was this incident – the incident of the scouts – that ultimately kept an entire generation, including Moses himself, from entering the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael. It was their lack of faith that did them in – faith in themselves, in God, in their destiny as a people, and their destiny tied up with that land. Joshua and Caleb described the land in all its fullness: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If the Eternal is pleased with us, the Eternal will bring us into that land – eretz zavat chalav ud’vash – a land flowing with milk and honey. . . Have no fear, then, of the people of the country, for the Eternal God is with us. . . .”
This week we at Union Temple take particular note of the yahrzeit (according to the civil calendar) of one of our own, Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus, known to the fighting forces of the Hagganah whom he helped to unify as Aluf Michael Stone. This level of leadership, “aluf,” had been known only to a few before him in the history of our people. One was Judah the Maccabee, over 2,000 years earlier, as he led the assault against the army of Antiochus V in 165 BCE. The other was Joshua himself, as he led the Israelites across the Jordan to settle the land that God had promised to our people for all time.
Those of us who traveled to Israel together last month stood on the bank of the Jordan River at Qasr ‘el Yahud, the spot which tradition identifies as the crossing point of Joshua and the Israelites. We also climbed down to the very foundations of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, as we recalled the heroism of Judah the Maccabee and his liberating army. And indeed, we visited the town of Abu Ghosh, where Mickey Marcus was tragically killed by friendly fire, the night before the Jewish forces he led made the final push into Jerusalem.
Our history and roots in the Land of Israel are deep and long. It is a land for which we have fought hard and often. Much Jewish blood was spilled there, and no matter how literally or non-literally we may look at the texts of the Bible, we know clearly that this land has occupied a place of centrality within Jewish existence for some 3,000 years.
I believe in the centrality of the land and experience of Israel to the entire Jewish world, wherever we may live on this earth. Whether we speak Hebrew, or English, or French, or Russian, or Ge’ez; whatever our political opinions may be; whatever our religious persuasion may be; to think of Jewish existence without Israel as a central focus is, in my understanding of Jewish history and tradition, UNthinkable.
As you know, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, with which I am involved, has constructed its programming the past few years around the theme “Engaging Israel.” For the Deuteronomic author, the inclination to stay away, the refusal to engage, was the greatest transgression of all. And indeed, all but two of them did not survive to participate in the building of our people’s future. Whatever our position today: socially, politically, or otherwise, it is incumbent upon us at the very least to engage – in study, in discussion, in cultural familiarity, and on the ground, visiting Israel itself. It is integrally a part of us, and God willing will remain so in perpetuity. And that is up to us.
Chodesh Tov! This is our greeting to each other today on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month. Today begins the month of Kislev, during which, of course, we will celebrate Chanukah (25 Kislev) – our festival of light and freedom.
The number 25 for this particular Rosh Chodesh Kislev is most auspicious indeed. Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall. For 25 years now Jewish women of all denominations, nationalities, and social strata, have come together to hold Morning Prayers for Rosh Chodesh. Month after month, Rosh Chodesh after Rosh Chodesh, legal case after legal case, Supreme Court decision after decision, arrest after arrest — for 25 years. But the past year has been an extraordinary year. After the crackdown by the Rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, leading to an increased number of arrests of women at the Kotel for the “crimes” of raising their voices in prayer together, and wearing tallitot, the citizens of Israel, and Jews around the world stood up and said, ENOUGH! And indeed, as of last Spring, an Israeli court handed down the decision that women were NOT breaking any laws by holding services at the Kotel, and wearing Talitot and Tefillin.
While this represented a gigantic victory for Nashot Hakotel, the summer months were quite chaotic and difficult. At the urging of Rabbi Rabinowitz, thousands of Ultra-Orthodox women and yeshiva girls flooded the Kotel plaza to prevent the members of Nashot Hakotel from getting near the Wall itself, and there was loud and depressing heckling and shouting back and forth.
But today, on the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall, there was no such blockade. I just heard from Noam Zion, one of the faculty members of the Hartman Institute, who went to the Wall with the group, that the abbreviation of the group, “WOW,” would be a great way to describe the goings-on. A delegation of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues, and congregants as well, are in Jerusalem today for this anniversary. Together with Jews from all over Israel, they went to the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, about 1,000 strong. And indeed, “WOW” is the word. Noam said the dovening was wonderful. And while there were some cat calls and whistles from the Ultra-Orthodox hecklers, it really was pretty mild, and didn’t throw any sort of damper on the elation of WOW, and particularly of Anat Hoffman, leader and driving force of the group. The police, of course, are now charged not with harassing WOW, but keeping the hecklers and opponents from throwing chairs and other objects, and exerting any sort of physical violence upon the women.
Social progress often takes longer than we would like. There is still much to accomplish for WOW. It is still not possible to actually read the Torah at the Wall, because the women are still barred from bringing one in (a lingering punishment in place since Anat’s first arrest in July of 2010). But the time will come, if we keep the pressure on. In addition, the Scharansky proposal for constructing a third section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer is still far from any realistic materialization. But just for today, we won’t worry about that. Just for today, we will revel in the progress that WOW has achieved. And once again, we wish each other Chodesh Tov!