When the Ordinary Becomes Tragic, and the Tragic Becomes Ordinary

A d’var Torah on parashat Terumah, in response to this week’s shooting in Parkland, FL. For the Jewish texts, I relied heavily on Dena Weiss’s “From Table to Grave.” Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Terumah, which means “gift,” and it refers to the gifts that God requests from the Israelites for the purpose of building the mishkan. The mishkan is a dwelling place for God, also called a mikdash, or holy place. The Torah tells us:

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved….and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:1-9).

The instructions that follow deal with the interior furnishings—the ark, the table, and the menorah—as well as the external structure—the coverings, frames, and textiles, the altar and the enclosure.

The juxtaposition of the instructions for the aron, the Ark of the Covenant, and the shulchan, the table for the bread of display, caught the attention of 14th century Spanish Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, and reminded him of a peculiar custom of his French neighbors:

“It is the practice of the pious in France that they make their casket ([also called an] aron) for burial out of their table. [They do this] to show that a person will not take anything in his hand and nothing of his labor will accompany him, except for the tzedaka that he did in his life and the goodness he bestowed at his table. Therefore the Rabbis said, ‘One who sits at his table has his days and years lengthened’ (Berakhot 54b).”

At first glance, this custom reminded me of a story I told last month at Tisch Shabbat, in which a miserly man finds himself poor and hungry in olam habah, the afterlife, because he didn’t send anything ahead for himself (except for a piece of cake that had fallen on the ground). Whether we believe in such a model for the afterlife or not, stories like this remind us to share what we have while we are here, because we can’t take anything with us when we go.

This custom is, in a way, one step beyond the humility normally required in a Jewish burial. While our custom is to bury our loved ones in a plain pine box, here the aron must not only be plain, but recycled.

While for Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, the connection between ark and table signifies what awaits us after our death, forDena Weiss of Mechon Hadar, this custom might impact how we live our lives. An aron is a place of storage, whether we are talking about the Ark of the Covenant, our household closets, or our final resting place. As such, an aron has a sense of permanence and stasis, rather than of change and movement. A table, on the other hand, is “the domain of the temporary,” and as such, items—and people—are in constant motion, coming to the table, and being cleared away. Weiss writes:

“If your table becomes your coffin when you die, every time you see your table, eat at your table, set something upon it, or remove something from it, you are reminded that you are still alive. So long as your table is still a table, it is not a coffin, and you still have the option to do what you want and need to do with the days that remain. Yes, life is short, but it is not over.”

I had this realization myself about a year ago, when I asked the funeral director for a ride to a graveside burial during a snowstorm. He ended up putting me in the hearse. Someone later asked me what it was like, and I said, “Well, if you’re in the front seat, I guess there’s nothing to complain about.”

Sometimes it takes riding in a hearse, having a near miss, or realizing that your table will be your coffin, to shake us out of the fog of routine that keeps us from seeing clearly.

Weiss tells us that, if we let habit control our lives, our table can easily become a coffin in our lifetime. However, she adds, the reverse is also true: “You can look at your life’s course, look at your habits, and decide to revive what feels dead, hopeless, and irrelevant.”

When I initially read this interpretation of the Torah portion, I planned to give a lovely, upbeat little drash on how we can transform our coffin-like ways to a more table-like existence of movement, possibility, and generosity. And I hope that you do take that message away with you. I hope you take time this Shabbat to think about how you can make sure you are living your life fully present at the table, and not with one foot already in your coffin.

But this week, in the wake of the 18th school shooting in 2018, I can’t help thinking about how easily one’s table can become one’s coffin. On Wednesday morning, thousands of high schoolers in Parkland, FL woke up, probably reluctantly, checked their social media, showered, got dressed, did their hair and makeup, grabbed something for breakfast as they rushed out the door. It was Valentines’ Day: maybe they were engrossed in some romantic drama, their own or their friends’. It was Ash Wednesday: Maybe some of them stopped at Church on their way to school, felt the priest’s thumb on their forehead as they said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” How many of them fought with their parents over hugging or kissing goodbye, since, as far as they knew, it was just going to be an ordinary day?

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What ordinary coursework were they studying—or not studying—when the fire alarm went off? How many of them were staring at the clock, willing it to be the end of the school day, as they always did, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered the campus, armed with an AR-15, and began shooting?

Nearly 3,000 students went to school that morning, thinking it was an ordinary day. As of this writing, 17 of them will only come home in a coffin. Many others have been injured, and for everyone at that school, their family, their friends, and their neighbors—life as they know it has been changed forever.

All of these children are our children, but particularly close to our hearts in the Reform Jewish community was Alyssa Alhadeff, a fourteen-year-old freshman who spent her summers at URJ Camp Coleman. Her cousins go to synagogue with my cousins, at the Reform Temple of Rockland, just over an hour from here. She is part of our family.

Her mother, Lori Alhadeff, wrote on social media:

16victims-alyssa-master180“My Daughter Alyssa was killed today by a horrific act of violence. I just sent her to school and she was shot and killed. Alyssa was a talented soccer player, so smart, an amazing personality, incredible creative writer, and all she had to offer the world was love. She believed in people for being so honest. A knife is stabbed in my heart. I wish I could [have] taken those bullets for you. I will always love you and your memory will live on forever. Please kiss your children, tell them you love them, stand by them no matter what they want to be. To Alyssa’s Friends honor Alyssa by doing something fabulous in your life. Don’t ever give up and inspire for greatness. Live for Alyssa! Be her voice and breathe for her. Alyssa loved you all forever!”

Alyssa’s death, and the death of her classmates, is a painful reminder of how quickly our table—our ordinary routine—can become our coffin. But it is also a disturbing reminder that our coffin has become our table.

This is the 18th school shooting in the first six weeks of 2018. That means that, on average, children are being shot in our schools three times a week. We have allowed the tragic to become the ordinary.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As long as we are still alive, we owe it to those who have died to use our voices and our votes and our resources to bring about meaningful change.

This might take many forms. We can advocate for safer schools, not just with the presence of metal detectors and law enforcement, but with funding for social workers and psychologists who can address mental health issues, at school and at home, before they lead to tragedies like this one.

We can advocate for better mental health care in our communities, something that is always on the chopping block in state and national conversations about health care.

And we can and should demand sensible gun laws, particularly regarding background checks and the sale of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons. Many recent shootings have been carried out with AR-15s, what some call a consumer version of a military-grade weapon. It is lightweight, affordable, and capable of penetrating a human body and the wall behind it. It can quickly fire off multiple rounds, particularly when modified with a bump stock, which is also legal, despite attempts to ban them following the Las Vegas shooting in 2017.

An AR-15 is not a handgun. An AR-15 is not a hunting rifle. An AR-15 is designed to kill people, quickly and efficiently, and it can legally be purchased many places in the United States. AR-15s, as “semi-automatic assault rifles,” were part of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Now they part of the epidemic that is killing our children, nearly three times a week on average. We have allowed them to become ordinary.

But as long as we are alive, we can still, as Dena Weiss suggests, “look at the priorities that [we] have stored away in [our] closet and restore them to [our] table.” After Shabbat, I encourage you to visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Everytown for Gun Safety to learn more about what you can do to remove the stain of gun violence from our table.

I offer, in closing, the words of Rabbi David Wirtschafter:

“It is the word gift, t’rumah, … that this Torah portion, Parashat T’rumah, takes its name. The slaughter of more young people, the squandering of yet more gifts, constitutes a level of grief that we cannot accept. The spilling of innocent blood can never become acceptable. It can not be tolerated, rationalized, trivialized, marginalized, or stoically endured. No one should have to endure it. So, may every person, whose heart so moves us, consider the cost of our current state of affairs.

May we be moved to ask if this is how God intended us to use the gift of life.

May we be moved to go beyond thoughts and prayers.

May we be moved to act on behalf of our children, our students, our neighbors, and our communities to demand a more responsible use of our most precious resource.

Children are among God’s greatest gifts to us.

Our ability to cherish, protect, nurture, love, and value them, is among the greatest gifts we have to offer in return.

To receive a gift is to accept the promise that comes with it.

To give a gift is to express the expectation that it will be received with gratitude and utilized responsibly.

For the sake of our children, past, present, and future let us become better guardians of our gifts. May this be our blessing, and let us say:

Amen.”

 

 

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#MeToo: Dinah’s Story

Rabbi Berkowitz’s drash on this week’s Torah portion. Cross-posted to the This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Genesis 34 is the ultimate revenge fantasy. After the son of a local tribal head assaults Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, concoct a plot to retaliate. The attacker, Shechem, professes his love for their sister, and his desire to marry her, no matter what bride price they ask. Simeon and Levi respond that it would be disgusting for their sister to marry an uncircumcised man. “Only on this condition will we consent to you: if you become like us by having everyone of your males circumcised. Then we would give you our daughters and would take your daughters and settle among you and become one people” (Gen. 34:15-16). Poor Shechem, he must really have wanted to marry Dinah. He convinces all the men in his clan to be circumcised. Then, three days later, while the men are still recuperating, Simeon and Levi attack. They kill all of the men in Shechem, and take their women, children, property and livestock as spoil. Their father Jacob is horrified, fearful that this will make it impossible to live peacefully among their neighbors. But Simeon and Levi are unrepentant. Nobody treats their sister this way and gets away with it.

In light of recent events, it wouldn’t be wrong to indulge ourselves in a little revenge fantasy. How much would we enjoy seeing the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore go under the knife for what they’ve done? Sadly, it is still somewhat of a fantasy to imagine even Simeon and Levi’s bold statement: that their sister’s honor is worth fighting for.

Genesis 34 is a revenge fantasy, but unfortunately, it is also a mirror, and we aren’t going to like what we see when we take a look in the glass.

First of all, we see that the impulse to “take” women is as old as the Bible. Three times in this narrative, the word lakach is used, the Hebrew word for “take.” First, Shechem “takes” Dinah sexually (34:1). Then he asks his father to “take” Dinah for him as a wife (34:4), perhaps thinking that a high bride-price will undo his previous wrongs. Later, after killing all the men in Shechem, Simeon and Levi “take” Dinah back home (34:26).

Even Jewish texts that discuss the consequences of sexual violence do little to dispel the notion that a woman is an object to be “taken.” The punishment, in all but a few cases, is either marriage to the victim—clearly not a desirable outcome for her—or a payment to her father, who now has the burden of marrying off a daughter whose value has depreciated. The woman’s suffering is not addressed. She is only her father’s property, until she is her husband’s, even if her husband became so by assaulting her.

Shechem’s offer to pay for what he’s taken reinforces the idea that she is property of her family, not an independent individual. We may think we’re past that, but how many times in recent weeks have we seen a price put on the suffering of a woman, after she was violated. Is $100,000 enough? A million? The price is immaterial.

This idea of “taking” is still prevalent in our culture today. Even in benign settings, we often portray women as prizes to be won, commodities to be traded, or worse, territory to be conquered. This strips women, not only of their dignity, but of their agency. When a woman is an object to be “taken,” she is not an individual capable of self-determination.

In fact, there is only one place in the biblical narrative where Dinah has any agency at all. At the very beginning, we learn that Dinah, “went out to see the daughters of the land” (34:1). There is a subtle implication that this is not the proper way for a good Israelite girl to behave. She is leaving the safety of her family compound, and mingling with the common folk in Canaan. Maybe if she’d stayed at home this wouldn’t have happened. Even in the Bible, we already have the propensity to blame the victim.

This line of thinking is still common today. How often do we ask the victim, “What were you wearing?” or “Why did you invite him into your house?” or, “Why didn’t you leave when he started acting strange?” How many of the women in this room have gotten the email forwarded list of “safety tips,” telling us not to wear our hair in ponytails, or sit in our car in a dark parking lot, because this makes us easy prey?

There is a story about Golda Meir, the first female Prime Minister of Israel, in the wake of several sexual assaults during her tenure. When asked if she would impose a curfew on women for their safety, Meir replied, “But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.”

Unfortunately, Meir’s thinking is still in the minority. While it is good to teach women how to protect themselves, the only way we are ever going to bring an end to sexual violence is by addressing the behavior of men. And we need to start very young.

I’d love to say I’m delighted to see that powerful men are finally being held accountable for decades of harassment, intimidation, and sexual violence. However, as the rash of accusations grew and spread, I began to feel queasy. Not only because it revealed the bad behavior of people I admire and respect very much. But because I don’t think that firing every accused news anchor, actor, or politician will do one iota of good.

This isn’t to say that I think this people deserve to keep their jobs. I want every single one of them to be held accountable for what they did, through a thorough investigation, a fair trial, and appropriate consequences. But at this point, we are just playing whack-a-mole. We know that for every powerful man we topple, there is another man behind him about to fall. And for every powerful man revealed to be a threat to women, there are dozens more, harassing and even attacking women and going unpunished, often in lower-status positions that don’t make them newsworthy. We have created—or at the very least, permitted—a culture in which this kind of behavior is normal.

Roy Moore likely knew what he was doing was wrong. But he also is the product of a culture that didn’t bat an eyelash at a 30-year-old man dating a teenager, hence he thought he could do if only her mother gave permission. Harvey Weinstein probably also knew that his actions would be considered disgusting by most. But he is also the product of a culture that allows powerful men to prey on vulnerable women, and then to pay to make their problems go away. Dozens of people enabled him, and it’s impossible that none of them knew what was happening.

Both men were also part of a culture that silenced women who spoke up against powerful men, such that many women were, and still are, afraid to come forward and tell the truth. Even though the proclivities of these men were an open secret, women who spoke out against them were not always believed, or their accusations were laughed off as typical gross male behavior, endemic to the profession they had chosen. Which meant that a lot of women chose to leave their profession. And that’s not fair.

So what do we need to do? We need to change the culture. I would argue that, no matter how many politicians and producers there are still to be voted out or fired, changing the culture is going to be harder.

Changing the culture means holding people accountable for their actions, giving both accuser and accused their day in court. It means breaking down the wall of non-disclosure agreements and making it easier for people to report harassment and assault. It means believing women. But it also means teaching our children to think differently about sex, about their bodies, and about their relationships.

It means teaching our children that harassment is not a form of affection. Saying, “He teases you because he likes you,” teaches girls (and boys) to tolerate bad behavior, and honestly, it teaches both genders that it’s okay to make someone uncomfortable in the pursuit of pleasure or love.

It means teaching our children about consent. I now have this talk with students prior to bnai mitzvah, telling them that I will ask if it’s okay to hug them because they are in charge of their bodies. I realized the other day that it starts much younger. I was visiting my friends and their children and I started tickling their five year old’s belly. He squirmed and giggled hysterically. But the minute he said, “Stop!” I held up both hands and said, “You said stop, so I’m stopping.” Because learning about consent and bodily autonomy starts that young.

It means teaching our children that sex is not a conquest. It is not progress for women to become more like men in this regard. Both genders need to understand that sex is something that should be desired, and enjoyed, by both parties. This means that both parties have the right to say, “No,” if they aren’t enjoying themselves. It means that both parties have the obligation to secure an enthusiastic “Yes,” to any physical contact.

In the Talmud, the rabbis have an argument over the phrase zeh dor dorshav m’vakshei panecha from Psalms (24:6). “Such is the generation [and] its leaders that seek Your face.” One said that this means, “The character of the generation parallels that of its leader,” while the other says, “The character of a leader parallels that of their generation.” Finally, they agree that both are true. The leader is responsible for setting an example for the people, while the people are responsible for holding their leader accountable for their actions. If one of these were to fail to do their part, they are to blame when the other is not righteous (Arakhin 17a, as interpreted in Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, “Making a Window for the World,” IJS Torah Study Vayishlach, 2017).

If we are to root out harassment and assault in our communities, we need to take a good look in the mirror. Only when we, personally, take responsibility, can we hope to see any change. We need to be the ones who hold our leaders accountable, and we need to be the ones who raise up the next generation to be righteous.

 

Uprising
By Rabbi Annie Lewis

Me too, Dinah,
me too.
If only you could
see us now,
all the great men falling
like the idols of your
great, great grandfather,
egos slain
like the men of Shechem.

If only you could
see us now,
your sisters
taught to make nice,
take care –
shouting,
me too.
No more.

All your sisters trained
to harbor shame
for going out,
claiming space,
craving more.
Because we asked for it
so we deserved it.

If only you could
see us now, Dinah,
our truth
rising up like song.

 

 

 

The Story Begins When the Stranger Arrives

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera, in observance of Immigrant Justice Shabbat. Cross-posted to This Is What A Rabbi Looks Like.

The story starts when the stranger comes to town.

This is one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. The arrival of a stranger can be a breath of fresh air, a new love interest, a source of tumult, or, in most plot-lines, some combination of the three.

The arrival of the stranger is also a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in this week’s parasha. This week, we read several stories that start with the arrival of strangers: the most famous of which are the announcement of Isaac’s birth, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Parashat Vayera opens with the arrival of three strangers in Mamre, where Abraham lives with his wife Sarah. Seeing three men approaching from a distance, Abraham leaps into action: preparing—or having his wife and servants prepare—food, drink, water to bathe, and a place to rest for his guests. Abraham doesn’t know that the strangers are there to bring good news—that Sarah, long barren, will finally give birth to a son. The story gives the impression that this is just what Abraham does for all weary travelers.

This act of hospitality will result in a tremendous reward, but Abraham has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Cut to Sodom and Gomorroh, where two strangers have just arrived at the city gate. Here they are explicitly described as “angels,” whereas in the previous story, it is not clear whether the strangers are human or divine. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, doesn’t want the men to sleep alone in the city square—he knows his neighbors aren’t the most hospitable people. Indeed, no sooner does Lot invite the strangers in, than the townspeople come pounding on the door. They want Lot to surrender the two strangers for their own nefarious purposes, but Lot refuses, offering his own daughters instead. The townspeople reject this offer, and are about to attack Lot, when the angels intervene, blinding the townspeople and rescuing Lot’s family from the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Lot’s hospitality temporarily endangers his entire family, but Lot has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Later in the parasha, we see the tables turned, and Abraham’s family become the strangers: Abraham and Sarah, sojourning in Gerar, find themselves in a vulnerable position as strangers in a strange land. Hagar and Ishmael, once an integral part of Abraham and Sarah’s family in spite of Hagar’s foreign origin, are banished from the household and nearly die of thirst.

The story begins when the stranger arrives. Sometimes it turns out for the best, sometimes it leads to something traumatic. But we have no way of knowing, until we see how the story unfolds.

The rabbis tease out of this parasha two very different approaches to welcoming strangers. Abraham is what we would probably today call an outreach and engagement specialist. According to rabbinic legend, Abraham kept the four sides of his tent open, so that strangers coming from all directions could enter right away. But he also went out in order to find strangers and bring them home with him. Moreover, he set up well-stocked way-stations all over the desert, so that he could serve the stranger even when they weren’t going to cross his path (Avot De Rabbi Nathan 7).

Taking the opposite approach were the people of Sodom and Gomorroh. Legend has it that these cities held unimaginable wealth: the roots of their vegetables were literally encrusted with gold flakes and jewels. But this led them to take a protective stance, putting up barriers to keep strangers out, and harshly mistreating them if they dared to come in. They attackedthem physically, robbed them of their property, imposed ridiculous tolls and fees for entry, and even executed those who dared to help them (Sanhedrin 109a-b).

The Jewish tradition praises Abraham’s behavior, which we call hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. But it’s not difficult to see why we often take a more protective approach.

This week, we watched in horror as the news unfolded, regarding a terrorist attack in New York City. Eight people were killed and 11 injured when a man plowed a pickup truck into the bike path along the Hudson River. As the story developed, we learned that the man had been radicalized and committed this heinous crime as a purposeful act of terror. Some voices are choosing to emphasize that the man was an immigrant, and that incidents like this wouldn’t happen if we had higher walls or closed borders.

But that is just untrue. Putting aside how many acts of terror originate from native-born Americans, we must remember that, for every person we let into this country who ultimately hurts another person, there are thousands of people who come here to live peacefully with their neighbors, and contribute positively to the country we all live in. Like Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, each of these immigrants took great risks coming here, sustained by their dreams of a better life. And when that better life is threatened, it falls on our community to speak up.

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism has marked tonight as an Immigrant Justice Shabbat, with a particular focus on DREAM-ers. Dreamers are immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31, who have been in the country for at least five years. There are currently 800,000 people in this program, 87% of which are currently in the workforce. Their average age upon arrival was six and a half. The 2012 DREAM Act, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, made it possible for young immigrants to get work permits and attend school without fear of deportation.

Just two months ago, it was announced that this program would be terminated in six months. The only hope for DREAM-ers now is for Congress to pass a Clean DREAM Act, which would grant conditional permanent resident status for all DREAM-ers, as well as lawful permanent resident status and a path to citizenship for those Dreamers who attend college, work in the US, or serve in the U.S. military.

The Religious Action Center has also declared this Monday, November 6th, as a call-in day, to encourage our senators and representatives to co-sponsor the new DREAM Act. After Shabbat, I encourage you  to learn more about this legislation, and how you can help turn these immigrants’ dreams into reality.

Because our news cycle is so often dominated by stories of immigrants who do harm, let us consider the stories of immigrants doing good:

Benita Veliz came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents in 1993, when she was 8. Benita graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class at the age of 16. She received a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University, where she graduated from the Honors program with a double major in biology and sociology. Benita’s honors thesis was on the DREAM Act. She dreams of becoming an attorney. In a letter to Senator Durbin (IL), Benita wrote: “I can’t wait to be able to give back to the community that has given me so much. I was recently asked to sing the national anthems for both the U.S. and Mexico at a Cinco de Mayo community assembly. Without missing a beat, I quickly belted out the Star Spangled Banner. To my embarrassment, I then realized that I had no idea how to sing the Mexican national anthem. I am American. My dream is American. It’s time to make our dreams a reality. It’s time to pass the Dream Act.”

Sometimes the stranger brings something bad…and sometimes the stranger brings something good. But, like our biblical ancestors, we don’t get to know that in advance. This leaves us with two choices: do we take an Abrahamic approach, letting everyone in in hopes of doing good? Or do we follow the example of Sodom and Gomorroh, shutting people out, even when it means committing an act of cruelty, even when it precipitates our own downfall?

Thirty-six times the Torah tells us to welcome the stranger, to live with our doors and our hearts open. We see in tonight’s stories how doing so can make us vulnerable. But let us not forget how opening our doors to the stranger can also open doors for us: doors of possibility and doors of blessing.

Lech Lecha: Walking Each Other Halfway

This week’s sermon on parashat Lech Lecha. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Go forth from your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you…”

Imagine you are hearing these words for the first time, and that they are directed at you. Imagine they come from a voice that you’ve never heard before: a voice claiming to be the one true God. What is your next move?

I posed this question to our seventh graders, whose first response was, “New phone, who dis?”

But immediately afterwards—with only a brief interlude into “What do I wear?” and “What do I pack?”—came what is possibly the most important question: “Who do I get to take with me?”

Abram doesn’t ask any of these questions. In fact, he says nothing at all. He just listens, and starts walking. It is the text that provides our answers: “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5).

If we truly want to answer the question of “Who do I get to take with me?” we also have to address the question, “Who am I leaving behind?” To answer that inquiry, we have to flip back a few pages to last week’s Torah portion.

At the end of parshat Noach, we find out that, although God has not yet called Abram to “go forth,” his entire family has already started the journey. We read: “Terach took his son, Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. And the days of Terach were two hundred and five years; and Terach died in Haran” (Gen. 11:31-32).

Why is it that they started on this journey in the first place, prior to God’s call? And, having done so, why did they stop in Haran?

This was no quick jaunt across town. Ur to Haran was essentially the Southeastern most corner of Iraq; Haran was located at the Northernmost tip of Syria. It is quite possible that Terach and his family were simply exhausted. As modern readers, we might read a bit into the word “settled”: he was comfortable, so he stayed where he was. Or Terach might have fallen ill, and died before he could continue on to his original destination.

But the rabbis point out that there are 65 years between when Abram left for Canaan and when Terach died at the ripe old age of 205. Why then, does Abram’s departure appear AFTER Terach’s death in the Torah? Rabbi Isaac says that, “the wicked, even during their lifetime, are called dead.” This hints at the rabbinic tradition that paints Terach as an idol-maker, who clashed with his son, the monotheist, at every turn. Terach couldn’t go forward. He was stuck in his old ways.

But Rabbi Isaac isn’t finished. “For Abram was afraid,” he says, “saying, ‘Shall I go out and bring dishonor upon the Divine Name, as people will say, ‘He left his father in his old age and departed’?’ Therefore the Holy One, blessed be God, reassured him: ‘I exempt you from the duty of honoring your parents, though I exempt no one for this duty. Moreover, I will record his death before your departure” so that no one will think that you left him alone to die (Gen. R. 39: 7).

Whether Terach was physically dead, or spiritually dead, when Abram left for Canaan, most rabbis agree that there was no way Terach could have completed the journey with Abram. My teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen, suggested that it was psychologically and spiritually necessary for Abram to lose his father before answering God’s call. Many rabbis translate lech-lecha as “go to yourself,” become your own person, pursue your own destiny. Abram, Rabbi Cohen supposed, could only begin this journey of self-discovery after his father’s death.

The rabbis have many reasons for why Terach couldn’t complete the journey. But I wasn’t able to find any answers regarding why he started it. How did he know that he needed to move in this direction? Why did he undertake such an arduous journey, knowing he couldn’t complete it?

I hadn’t paid much attention to Terach before: he’s kind of an afterthought at the end of parshat Noach. But this week, I found myself thinking that, rather than deride Terach for not being strong enough to reach Canaan, we might instead give him some credit for walking his son halfway.

As some of you know, my great-uncle Billy passed away last week, and I went up to Albany for his funeral. Billy lived a long, full life: he was 92 years old, and was married for 69 years to my great-aunt Muriel. He danced at a few of his grandchildren’s weddings and met a great-grandchild. It was a good life, and a reasonably good death. But it was still hard on his family, and ours.

Though I hadn’t seen him in awhile, Billy was a fixture of my childhood from our annual pilgrimage to Albany. His snoring was audible throughout their ranch house. He made us Mickey-Mouse and Star Wars themed pancakes like we were his own grandchildren.

The loss was particularly difficult for my mother. She grew up spending family holidays going from house to house on the one street where her aunts, uncles, and grandmother lived. On Passover, she would eat three breakfasts so she could have matzah brie in every kitchen. The cousins all slept on rollaway cots in one basement. She attended college in Troy in part to be near them, and even changed her wedding date so that all of them could attend. When her own mother died young, her aunts and uncles took care of her as if she were their own child.

Their love was expansive. There was always room for one more.

The morning after Billy died, my mom told me a story she had never shared before. She was traveling by bus from New York City to Utica, so that she could visit her dying father. The bus made an hour-long stopover in Albany, and all of her aunts and uncles drove downtown, just to sit with her in the bus station, and then wave goodbye to her as the bus pulled away.

That is a special kind of love. It is a rare person who is with us on our life’s journey from beginning to end. Sometimes, all we can do is walk them part of the way. And sometimes, all we can do is sit in one place with them for a stretch of time.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether I could attend the funeral, given my own full schedule of meetings about other families’ life-cycle events (one great irony of the rabbinate). But when my mom told me this story, I decided to make it work, and I’m grateful that the community was so supportive. I hadn’t been able to spend much time with my Albany family over the years. I don’t even see my immediate family as often as I’d like. But for these few hours, I was given the opportunity to be with my mother while she was grieving. I couldn’t do anything to make it better. But I could sit with her, just for that hour.

Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

We might say that Terach got too comfortable, or stuck, or was too weak to go the distance. We might posit that Abram could only achieve his full potential when he left his father behind. But we might also see Terach’s journey, incomplete as it was, as an act of love.

The text doesn’t say that Terach and his family set out for Haran. It says that they set out for Canaan. Even though God had not yet called to Abram to tell him where to go, his father knew to start moving the family in that direction, even if they wouldn’t make it all the way there.

Maybe he was there to wave goodbye to Abram as the caravan pulled away, and maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Terach started a journey with Abram that he knew he might not be able to finish. Perhaps he loved his son so much that he decided to walk him halfway, and then sat with him, as long as he could, so that Abram could prepare himself to move forward on his own.

The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said that, in life, “We are all just walking one another home.” And sometimes, we only make it halfway. Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

 

 

 

The Stranger Within Your Camp

havdalah crane lake camp panoramaMy sermon this Shabbat on parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

After each of the four summers that I attended URJ Camp Harlam, I’d get a terrible case of laryngitis. By my final summer as a camper, it was so bad that the only noise I could make for a week was a honk. This wasn’t just from screaming cheers during color war, or staying up all night talking with my bunkmates. It was actually because I, previously the quietest child in my family, talked for the entire two-hour drive home to Philadelphia. I told my parents every last detail, stories that I thought were hysterical, and that they likely didn’t understand, many of which I still remember today.

For example, one summer, we had a British counselor named Sarah, and there was a running joke where campers would try to get her to say “to-mah-to” so that they could make fun of her accent. By the end of the summer, she would say, in an exaggerated American accent, “to-may-to.”

One evening, while we were camping, our counselors decided to make banana boats: basically a s’more, stuffed in a banana, wrapped in tin foil, and cooked over an open fire. They got really hot, and Sarah was put in charge of warning us. She made each of us raise our right hand and repeat after her, in a proper English accent, “I will not touch my hot ba-nah-nah boat because it will buhrn my tongue.”

I don’t know why I still remember this, but it still makes me laugh, every single time I think of it.

Now, you are probably thinking: Rabbi Berkowitz has run out of sermon ideas, and is now just telling silly camp stories. I assure you that is not the case. I told this story because I wanted to explain to you tonight how international staff have become an integral part of the fabric of URJ summer camps. This is important for you to know, because the current administration is considering doing away with the J-1 visa program, which would affect international au pairs, as well as international staff at summer camps.

The attack on the J-1 visa program is part of a “Buy American, Hire American” initiative in the White House. Encouraging us to spend our money on American products and American workers is a noble and admirable goal. However, doing away with the J-1 visa program would be detrimental to our summer camp programs, are an essential component to fostering Jewish identity and a relationship to Israel in our young people.

For starters, I’m not sure how many camps would be able to stay open without hiring international staff. Sadly, with the rise of the unpaid internship, fewer and fewer American college students choose to spend the summer being a camp counselor, let alone work in the kitchen or tending the grounds. But there are plenty of international candidates who would happily make thousands of gluten-free pancakes a day, teach arts and crafts, or supervise 12 eight-year-olds for eight weeks, in exchange for a subsidized trip to the U.S.

More importantly, however, having international staff at camp provides an important opportunity for cultural exchange. As the Jewish community becomes increasingly diverse, it can be incredibly moving for campers to relate to Jews from all over the world. It helps both sides to see that Jews around the world are very different, or in some cases, very similar, to them. Last summer, Crane Lake Camp hosted two Jewish girls from Uganda as counselors. How incredible it must have been, on both sides, for these counselors to interact with campers of color, who rarely see an adult Jew who looks like them?

Not every international staff member is Jewish, which means that often, we are teaching young adults from around the world about Judaism and Jews. As we experience global spikes in anti-semitism, one of the best things we can do is give people from other faiths and other nations a positive experience with American Jews.

For those staff members who are members of the tribe, meeting Jews from around the world gives both campers and counselors a different perspective on what it means to be Jewish, whether the staff in question comes from Europe, Australia, Africa, or Israel.

Having Israeli staff on camp is particularly important, and not only for the reasons you would think. Yes, Israeli staff teach our campers about real life in Israel, and introduce them to the language and culture of their spiritual homeland. They teach Israeli music and dancing, and design celebrations for the camp-only festivals such as Yom Israel Day. They also spend eight weeks with our children, building relationships that can long outlast the summer. One of our Israeli counselors at Camp Harlam later served as a staff member on our NFTY in Israel trip, and we came to know him as our protector. When there was an incident of hate near the camp in Pennsylvania, he kept watch on the porch all night so that we could feel safe. When there was an attempted bombing during our travels in Israel, he gave us a very real perspective about what it means to live in Israel and to be constantly under threat.

But there is yet another side to the Israeli staff coin. As a rabbi on faculty, I now realize that, as much as we want our American Reform Jewish kids to meet real live Israelis, it is imperative that Israelis meet real live American Reform Jews. Reform Judaism is often disparaged, and even discriminated against, in Israel. This may not seem like a big deal here, where there is friendly competition between all the denominations. But in Israel, where the line between synagogue in state is blurred, this distaste for Reform Judaism can have far-reaching implications. Israel is a country where many secular Jews allow an Orthodox rabbinate to dictate what is permissible in both public and private spheres. The rabbinate controls not only what goes on at the Kotel, but also marriage, divorce, and conversion, all of which have implications for citizenship, the equality of women, and the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals.

You might be aware that, for nearly three decades now, Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center have been fighting for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In 2016, a plan for this space was agreed upon by all parties. But in June, the project was suspended. The rising tension came to a head when the chief rabbi of Jerusalem reacted to protests by calling Reform Jews, “evil,” an “abomination,” and “worse than Holocaust deniers.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs warned that such statements had the power to incite violence, as just over a week ago, he and two major Reform leaders in Israel received death threats from an Orthodox man in B’nei Brak.

We need secular Israelis to see—and to tell their families and friends—that Reform Judaism is not an abomination, or a joke, but rather a valid and vibrant way of practicing Judaism. And I would argue that that is something that happens at URJ summer camps more than it happens anywhere else. It doesn’t always mean that they stop being secular—in fact secular Judaism in Israel can look very similar to Reform Judaism in America—but it might mean that the sight of a woman in a kippah or holding a Torah scroll won’t seem foreign to them anymore. It might mean that they see a positive Jewish identity blossoming in a child of intermarriage–something the Orthodox rabbinate currently renders legally impossible, such that an interfaith couple could only be married abroad. It might mean that they decide to read from the Torah for the first time themselves, and realize that doors that the Orthodox rabbinate closes for them might yet be opened. And that might mean a change in how they think, feel, speak, and vote.

Whatever it means, it won’t happen if the J-1 visa program is canceled. There is so much going on in the world right now, and we are all fighting battles big and small. This is an opportunity for us to make an impact. After Shabbat, and after Selichot, I hope that you will contact our senators, the President, and the Secretary of State to let them know how important it is for us to continue the J-1 visa program, so that we can continue to have international staff at our summer camps.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the famous passage listing all the people that Moses is speaking to in his final address: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11).

While clearly Moses was speaking about a different kind of camp, his words remind us that, when something really matters to us, we need all hands on deck, regardless of status. Whether they are scrubbing pots in the kitchen, teaching our children to swim, or making sure they don’t burn their tongues on hot banana boats, the stranger within our camp is an essential piece in the summer camp puzzle. And when we welcome them into our home and our hearts, we give ourselves the opportunity to become a part of their Jewish story as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

Torah Study Notes 8-26-17

August 26, 2017

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Discussion of Zionism and the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state.

In Israel, one cannot marry without the cloak of a religious organization. There is no civil marriage. The only form presently recognized is orthodox Judaism. It is unlikely that this will change without violence. It is the only country in the world that has existed without stable and recognized borders – with the possible exception of Kashmir.

Page 1294

16:18 the appointment and standard of conduct for magistrates. What is justice in this context? The standard is no partiality and no bribes. Society must be organized on an impersonal basis. Rhode Island is a good example of a small polity where everyone knows everyone else. Result: frequent corruption. It is recognized that there is a tendency to corruption but how is it to be contained? Jacques Derrida http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/

pointed out that most gifts are given in expectation of something in return.  Marvin Fox http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/25/us/rabbi-marvin-fox-professor-73-led-school-at-brandeis.html?mcubz=0    – writing about Jewish organizations and fund giving pointed out the importance of peer pressure. The scales of justice balance punishment and mercy in the context of criminal law. Where was justice in Les Miserables?   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Mis%C3%A9rables

Jean Val Jean and Jabert clearly had different notions of justice. One of the over-arching themes of Deuteronomy is that the people are entering a land that they have no right to other than that G has given it to them. They are displacing another people. Where is the justice? This is saying that there is no natural right to the land without the establishment of a just society.  The forensic evidence suggests that the people of Israel actually organized indigenously within Israel itself. The flight out of Egypt is a construct. A group coalesced into a political unit about 1000 BCE around the time of David.  Until the Assyrian invasion there were primarily border conflicts with the Edomites, Moabites etc. Deuteronomy is a retelling of “back history.” For example we know virtually nothing about the history of Vassar Temple? We know the names of the founders from the articles of incorporation but not where the Torah scrolls come from. What did the composers of this scripture know about what occurred before the year 1000? Probably very little so they constructed a back story. See Noah Harari and Sapiens as well as Homo Deus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuval_Noah_Harari

This is mixture of retrospective constructs and some traditional “facts.” The notion of the displacement of an indigenous people is a particularly odd construct – but it is what led them to be forced out that is the theme here of Deuteronomy – idolatry.  In Leviticus the land is even more important in terms of establishing the identity of the people.  The term “Zion” meaning “…a marked place.” does not appear in Deuteronomy. It is a weaker term than a “promised land.” See David Aaron in Cincinnati   http://huc.edu/directory/david-h-aaron

who is very skeptical of anything that is pre-exilic. But we have actual evidence of a Davidic monarchy that cannot be ignored. The Redactor was active about the year 500 – after the exile to Babylonia. There is a built-in dialectic in Torah about what makes the people a people – is it the land or is it inherent in the people. It is unresolved. PG: the various forms of Judaism are not “denominated” as they are in Christianity – they are movements. Some are organized and some are not – like JewBu’s. But they are not denominations. They are informal aggregations.     We identify by association with the Jewish Federation. Jews for Jesus is not included. BN is shameless when it comes to staying in power – using demagoguery. We may see some riots and violence when the time comes to change administrations in Israel.

Torah Study Notes 8-5-17

August 5, 2017
Page 1188
3:23 Moses here describes the negative things that have happened during the exodus – including G’s injunction that Moses shall not enter the promised land. LL Note the recent report in NYT about the people of Lebanon being genetically identified as descended from the Canaanites. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/science/ancient-canaanites-bible-lebanon.html
Why is Moses being “punished?” This refers to the incident of drawing water from the rock – where he struck the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed. Moses here blames the others for all of this as he passes leadership to Joshua. Is there a connection here to the notion of original sin as it is viewed in Christian theology? This is clearly not a Jewish idea – in Judaism there is no community responsibility for the sins of ancestors. Each person is born with their own propensity to sin. What is our responsibility as a society for the “sins” of others? Mental illness has alternatively been seen as either externally induced or internal – consider the Dybbuk. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dybbuk
3:28 Moses recalls the incident at Ball-peor; sacrificing to alien gods in concert with the Midianite woman. All were wiped out in a plague as punishment. The injunction that one should not “add or take anything away…” from the Torah. However, consider the Talmud – which is extensive commentary and contains many rabbinically created rules. This instruction as to not adding or subtracting is more likely a reference to pagan rituals. Even today the Hasidim have been adding new regulations to the conduct of woman as a way of control. AF: There is an analogy to computer architecture that stays the same. LL: How are the various sects of Judaism dealing with transgender and LGBT issues? RB: The Reform movement has tried to be adaptable – the ultra orthodox have greater difficulty. Modern orthodoxy is different and likely to be more adaptable.
4:5 A light unto the nations. Make these words known to your children and your children’s children. The Ten Commandments etc. Make no sculpted images and don’t bow down to them. LL This seems to enjoin keeping and creating human or animal images of any kind – as is the practice in Islam. CL It is almost impossible to suppress the human urge to create images. LL: Do we not worship art? SF: The impulse to create is divine inspiration. The muse is the Eternal. See footnote 8 and Essay page 490.
4:21 Now the Eternal was angry with me on your account and swore that I would not cross the Jordan… A warning as to what happens when and if they worship idols. RB: The notion of a God that one cannot see or touch is original but divine feminine imagery is effectively suppressed by this idea. Has anything as grand as this ever happened… heard the voice of God? See: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/God.pdf for an analysis on the development of monotheism in ancient Israel. Consider the brief reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton as well who tried to introduce monotheism in Egypt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhenaten
4:41 Then Moses set aside three cities to the east side of the Jordan to which a killer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow… without being hostile to the victim. LL: This notion of cities of sanctuary is still referenced today on the issue of immigration.
LL//

Torah Study Notes 7-29-17

July 29, 2017

Page – 1161

Starting Deuteronomy – the second telling or Hebrew D’varim meaning “words.”

This entire book is a statement by Moses to the Israelites. They have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. There has been a reiteration of where they have been and a statement of laws       ( 70 new ones dealing with living in the land.) “Deuteronomic Theology” is the notion that our continuation in the land is dependent on our good behavior – the punishment will be communal. Rain will be the most common form of blessing. See maps on page 1158. This is thought to be the work of two authors.

1:1 Wandering in the same space for 40 years? See footnote 2. A character building exercise and a way to enter with the new generation that had never been slaves. A spiritual wilderness. Note that “Teaching” is capitalized as an editorial choice as a translation of “Torah.” The description of the land as recited appears to be a large geographical area. It has been suggested that there is an effort here to deny any divinity to Moses. That would be inimical to monotheism. Q -what does it mean here to “take possession” of the land? A system of deeds and land records? Or just military occupation? PC: If this is the land promised to Abraham 40 generations ago the current occupants were squatters. Note the role of the Rothchild family and others in buying up land in Israel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_land_purchase_in_Palestine Purchases by “foreigners” were essentially forbidden by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire.

1:9 “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.” This is resonant of Jethro and his father in law who used similar language. The fact that Jethro is not mentioned essentially erases the Midianite origins.  See footnote 16.

1:19 A recap of what led up to entry into the land – the spies etc. “You sulked in your tents…”  Their sin is lack of faith. Joshua shall attend you.  “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too…”

1:39 A recitation of the initial attack on the Amorites – that was not authorized by the Eternal. Thus they marched back into the wilderness via the Sea of Reeds. Note that there is detail here that does not appear in Numbers 14. See page 986. Suggestive of a different author with different oral memory. See page 991 discussion re two traditions.

LL/

Torah Study Notes 6-24-17

June 24, 2017

Page 1003

16:1 Korah raises a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Note that K is of the line of Rueben. His argument is that everyone should be equal before the lord. LL This has socio-political elements – almost a form of proto communism. Who can encounter God? Why should a small group enjoy all of the emoluments of leadership? But there are also the burdens of leadership. We cannot just look at the glory and benefits. This very issue was one of the key bases of the Protestant Reformation. And is more in accord with the attitudes of rabbinic and modern Reform Judaism. Moses argues that he is God’s choice. He urges them to make fire to divine the truth. See essay page 1001.

Moses remonstrates by arguing that K and the others have jobs as Levites.

16:16 The theory is that we have two stories of the rebellion here – that are weaved together. One reads as a rebellion against Moses and the other against Aaron.  The presence of the Eternal appeared before the community and threatens to annihilate them all. But they cried out “when one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” Communal responsibility is an essential tenet of Judaism. LL note: There is a recurring theme in the Torah on this issue. We have Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah and this. In each instance the question is presented as to the liability of all for the transgressions of a few – or even the preservation of the few where the society at large is guilty.

16:23  Moses again says that he is just obeying the Eternal. The earth opens up and swallows them and their household. They went down into Sheol. There is a suggestion here however that rebellion is necessary and justified at a certain level.

17:1 et sec. A plague kills 14,000. God indicates that He can fix this. Moses supports and serves the people. He sees his job to protect the people. But note that it is Aaron who saves the people – denoting a shift in power. It is not until Ezekiel that parents and children are seen as separate from their father – they and wives were merely property.

Torah Study Notes 6-17-17

 

June 17, 2017

Page 979

  • Numbers 13:1| Spies Sent into Canaan

 

Multiple authors. Note that the chieftains are sent – indicating the seriousness of the mission. More of a tour rather than espionage? Why is G giving us the land occupied by others? Seems ethically wrong. A problematic precedent for Israel today. But we should not look at this through a modern lens.  Note that these translations are constantly “updated” – often to become more gender neutral. All translation is interpretation. The use of the word “representative” here instead of “man” is interesting because it implies responsibilities to the group. The Hebrew word used is “man.” “Anashim” is translated as “notables’ rather than “people.” See Deuteronomy 120:2 on page 1154. The latter suggest that “you” or the people have decided to reconnoiter. Later it is implied that the whole sending of spies was problematic – not just the peoples reaction.  Why the name- change to Joshua? It endows him with more gravitas.

13:17 What they are to look for. They scouted the land. It does indeed flow with milk and honey but the people are powerful. See map on page 997. LL I see a problem with consistently positing an omniscient God. It would eliminate free will. Maimonides argued that there must always be mystery.  Consider the philosophy of Star Trek. https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetstemwedel/2015/08/20/the-philosophy-of-star-trek-is-the-prime-directive-ethical/#287b2f462177

 

13:30 Caleb wanted to proceed but the others were negative. See a Wrinkle in Time as a midrash on the Noah story. There was likely hyperbole here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Wrinkle_in_Time

 

 

14:1 The whole community broke into loud cries… “Let us head back to Egypt.” Can also be translated as “let us choose a new leader.” Note that Caleb’s message is not accepted until Joshua stands with him.