Monday, December 13, 2010

Who's Serach? A D'var Torah for Parashat Vayigash in Honor of Sylvia Eisenberg's 80th Birthday

One of my favorite biblical characters, a matriarch of sorts – though not a familiar one as those made famous by their roles in the patriarchal history and their association with Abe, Isaac, and Jake – is Serach daughter of Asher. Serach. Who’s she, you might ask.

Serach, according to the biblical text is quite simply, the daughter of Jacob’s son Asher. Serach is far from a major character in our biblical text which frankly makes her all the more interesting to me, and to the Rabbinic mind, makes her mention significant. Recall, the traditional rabbinic approach to Torah study views every detail, not matter how small or seemingly insignificant as vital to our proper understanding of Torah. Serach thus calls attention.

Serach is mentioned twice in Torah – included in family listings with no additional detail, no additional narrative. In this week’s parashat Vayigash, Serach appears in a genealogical listing of Jacob’s progeny. Amongst all of Jacob’s grandsons listed as entering Egypt is Serach, his one named granddaughter (see Gen 46:8-26, spec. 17). According to the biblical narrative, Jacob will be blessed with another granddaughter born while in Egypt, one of whom we are very familiar: Yocheved sired by Levi who grows up to be mom to Moses, Aaron, & Miriam. Serach is thus not unique in her role as granddaughter to our patriarch Jacob; however, remarkably Asher’s daughter Serach is remembered here in this listing of those who enter Egypt AND again later among those counted in the census taken bamidbar, in the wilderness, some 400 years after descending into Egypt! Moreover, the way in which she is listed in this second accounting is striking. This census is taken by clan, למשפחתם (Numbers 26:4 ff). Everyone is listed per their group identity, by family, save for Serach. She alone is remembered as an individual, ושם בת אשר שרח (Num 26:46) – by name.

On the one hand, we can scold the hand that authored the Torah for failing to give us the back story to this extraordinary remembering of Serach; but, at the same time this lack of detail here leaves open a wonderful opportunity for the Rabbinic imagination. And the Rabbis don’t let us down. Serach is imagined to be the longest living individual of our Jewish history. Longevity a reward for sensitive honesty; for according to midrash, it is Serach who delicately informed Jacob through song that Joseph was still alive. Talmudic legend imagines that it was Serach who showed Moses were Joseph was buried at the time of the Exodus from Egypt so that his bones could be returned to Canaan (B. Sotah 13a). Serach is viewed as a font of wisdom as well as compassion in Rabbinic literature. The medival Midrash Rabbah (Genesis Rabbah 94:9) places Serach in role of Secretary of State negotiating with David’s army chief, Joab. Another midrash imagines Serach, not unlike the prophet Elijah, as a reconciler of disputes. Though, whereas we must wait for redemption in order to hear Elijah’s judgements, Serach offers astute resolution in the moment to Rabbinic disagreements. You see, Serach is generally consulted to resolve conflict over past events. Remember she apparently was there to witness these events and thus is able to provide wise and insightful comment. Even our mystical tradition elevates Serach to great heights. The Zohar, that great mystical work that came out of medieval Spain to serve as a spring board for later Kabbalism, particularly Lurianic Kabbalism, teaches that Serach is among the few who have entered heaven alive where she remains teaching Torah.

Serach is an extraordinary figure, almost too extraordinary. Perhaps because there aren’t many female biblical characters, Serach’s shoulders get burdened by the full weight of creative possibility. She is wise, independent, and capable of rendering a serious and accurate judgment in a world not generally inhabited by women. She is at the same time nurturing, caring, and always present giving – teaching – to others. Indeed, the Rabbis have burdened Serach with being that 'superwoman', multi-tasking exemplar that we thought only stood as an unattainable role model since the mid- late 20th century.

Our biblical and rabbinic literature needs Serach! There simply aren’t enough strong female characters in our ancient and medieval literature to serve as inspiration for our young students studying Torah today. Too often, we have trouble finding those figures even in our modern history for their stories, like Serach’s, haven’t been documented in primary accounts. But strong, wise, and capable women have always been present in our history.

Sixty-seven, sixty-eight years ago, it wasn’t customary to celebrate a young girl’s coming of age with the kind of educational and leadership demands with which the majority of Jews do so today. Be clear, Rabbinic literature discusses a girl’s coming of age in the same detail as a boy’s – it is a maturational milestone; but due to differing gender roles of the ancient and medieval periods, the celebration of this milestone took on very, very different qualities. This Shabbat, we celebrate an important milestone for one of those strong, wise and capable women, and that milestone is far more than the 80th birthday of a beloved and remarkable member of our congregation. Sylvia’s journey to the bema this morning serves as exemplary a model of wisdom and compassion as our rabbinically imagined Serach, and even more so, because we know Sylvia is real! She is right here.

It is not for me to share details of Sylvia journey, that is for her to share as she pleases, but her kindness, her dedication to pursuing her education when and how she did in particular, her generosity of spirit which she brings into the congregation every time she steps into worship, study, and/or volunteer, her strength of character which has served her through challenge, and her ongoing and steadfast commitment to Torah -- these qualities serve as a continual inspiration to me personally and should to all of us blessed to know her. Thank you, Sylvia, for sharing your special birthday with us in the manner in which you have. Thank you for inspiring us to Torah.

As Reform Jews, it is incumbent upon us to continually grapple with text and tradition even when it challenges, perhaps all the more so when it challenges our modern sensibilities. How do we understand an ancient text that at first glance places women at best on the margins of community? As exemplified by Serach, Rabbinic tradition, even early medieval Rabbinic tradition already starts the process of challenging tradition. As exemplified by our modern midrashic poets, such as the one whose work I will share in a moment, that process continues. I conclude with a poetic midrash included in the 2008 URJ publication of The Women’s Commentary, a book that inspires the women’s Torah study group that Sylvia helped to organize in our community. This poem furthers the voice and discussion of Serach and ultimately challenges all of us to model both Serach and Sylvia as we work to find our voice in Torah and Jewish tradition.

Serah bat Asher, by Hara E. Person
Entranced by the swirling colors of his tunic
I crept behind Joseph when Grandfather sent
him to find his brothers.
Hidden behind a bush,
I watched my father and Reuben and the others.
Young and female and powerless
I could do nothing to stop them
But I saw the cruel truth behind the lie.
Trapped between the responsibility of a
daughter’s loyalty
and the heavy guilt of my secret knowledge,
I could not bring forth the words
That would have revealed my father and his
for what they became that day
and released my grandfather from his suffering.
Instead I withdrew into the safety of silence,
learning to whisper through the music of my
while my refusal to speak
mocked my father’s now empty authority.
They were relieved to let me stay with Jacob
in his tent,
hearing only the endless anguish of an old man
and the stubborn silence of a useless girl.
I played and he remembered,
recounting the travels and wanderings of our family,
the pains and joys and dreams of each
He spoke of love and treachery and
and I created a soothing idiom of song.

It was I who was chosen to tell Jacob that
Joseph lives still.
Upon hearing the news he granted me eternal
Endless life, for Joseph’s life.
I became the family historian,
the keeper of tales,
the finder of bones,
the weaver of loose ends.
That is my gift from my grandfather,
to revisit the sufferings and joys and wanderings
anew with each generation,
to observe endless cycles of loss and hope and
of births and deaths,
never to rest, never to finish, only to witness,
to drag these weary limbs through epoch after
and to wonder until the end of time
if this gift is a blessing of thanks for solace in
his loss
or a curse for having kept the truth from him all
those long years.
(Ezkenazi, Tamara Cohn & Weiss, Andrea L., eds. The Torah A Women's Commentary. NY: URJ Press, 2008, p. 280)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Responding to Israel's need... Shabbat Message 12/10/2010

One of the most extraordinary stops during my recent trip to Israel with the Maryland Clergy Initiative was the Yemin Orde Youth Village. Founded by visionary educator, Haim Peri, Yemin Orde is an absorption and educational center devoted to making sure every child in Israel has a safe environment within which to live while having access to education. Be clear that I did not say “Jewish child.” Yemin Orde is committed to providing resources to any child in need. One of their largest populations is orphaned Ethiopian children, but they strive to take in any child who is orphaned, abandoned, or simply in need. Haim Peri’s vision, which is still central to the values of the center, encompasses providing “trusty representations of parental roles” so that the students learn to feel safe, cherished, and able to rely on adults. This foundation of care and trust enables these students to move forward becoming functional and productive members of society. At the same time, Yemin Orde always remains home for all the students who have spent time there.

Tragically, due to its geographic location, Yemin Orde suffered horrific devastation during the fires that have just struck northern Israel. Luckily no one was killed, yet over 500 children have been displaced, children for whom this was not their first displacement. I expect that you have already received requests for aid to Israel to help offset the costs of this devastating fire. I ask you, if you are planning to make a donation to Israel at this time, please consider sending your donation directly to The Yemin Orde Youth Village in order to help them rebuild and continue to provide the extraordinary services they provide to the youth of this region.

Yemin Orde’s website is below. Please explore the website so that you can learn about them. Specifically, I encourage you to look under the “News” menu tab and compare “snapshots from the village” with “Israel wildfire update.” Thank you for considering this act of tzedakah!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Comment on the Rally for Fear &/or Sanity, Parashat Toldot, 11/6/2010

Yes, I’m going to talk about it. The Rally for Sanity &/or Fear. How can I not? Here we sit reading parashat Toldot the tale of sibling rivalry that was so fundamental that it started in the womb; a rivalry that can easily be likened to partisanship due to the striking differences in their core values; A rivalry that sadly serves as too familiar an example of the level of animosity that exists in our country between the right and the left.

We could dismiss this rally as entertainment. A comic display presented by two very adept performers joined on stage (or at moments by satellite) by a myriad of big name musicians and actors. They even gave out crowd pleasing awards! It was an organizational feat of production from assuring security, sound, visuals, and the plethora of necessary porta-potties that added to the hundreds already present but on reserve for the Marine Corps Marathon scheduled for the next day. And, thankfully, they succeeded in this feat -- it was thoroughly entertaining and went on without any serious glitches, a few clogged subways and a lot of crowds, but all in all, a peaceful and well executed event.

Of course, entertainment was the vehicle, the guise if you will for a rally that was planned with a clear and and very serious (and well organized) political agenda. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were not two random comedians seeking an audience and a laugh on a beautiful Shabbat afternoon to boost their ratings. Satirists, they each host shows that while aired on Comedy Central offer at least as much news and far more pointed commentary than many of our mainstream news outlets.

In character last Shabbat, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert could be likened to our biblical pro - and antagonist. Mr. Stewart to the peaceful Jacob seeking a reasonable, calm, even studious way in which to function in the world and Mr. Colbert to the quarrelsome and rancorous Esau determined to make his way fully armed and ready for battle. If we trust the biblical story, we know that reason will win out. Jacob, not Esau, earns the distinction of patriarch in our tradition. But, biblical narrative while sacred, it is still story. Are we confident, particularly after the anger displayed on both sides of the political table in the days leading up to Tuesdays election, that our country won’t fall victim to Esau’s (or Colbert’s) hostility and overt animosity?

When I first heard of this rally for “Sanity &/or Fear” marketed on their respective shows during the days immediately following Beck’s luke warm Tea Party rally, I assumed it was a well- executed joke. This was the comedy channel after all, and well, Beck left himself open to be the brunt of at least a few jokes. I doubt I was alone in thinking they were just after a laugh; and yet, clearly this wasn’t a joke. Stewart and Colbert have touched on a very real and open nerve in our society. Many of our politicians are behaving badly, and they often work to incite and divide the public rather than working towards bringing us together. Moreover, we are getting fed up and frustrated with this status quo. As the New York Times reported, “Some in the crowd expressed regret that it was comedians, not politicians who were able to channel [our] frustration.” America needed this rally, and its timing just days before an important election in our country couldn’t have been better chosen.

We must not fall victim to our politician’s and the media’s attempt to divide us into angry camps motivated to action primarily by fear of the other. Rather, we must continually remind ourselves that when we get down to it, we all are seeking the same results: a healthy economy, equitable access to health care, a safe, clean, and decent living environment, good schools. Ensuring these and other expectations requires not fear laden and quarrelsome behavior but rather compassion and, to quote the rally’s writers, ‘reasonableness.’ Based on the attendance, the reaction by the media, and the number of people I know who tuned in on TV, we Americans are doing just that – living, doing the best we can, and most importantly respecting each other’s opinion. And, let’s hope our politicians were paying attention!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Living Fully - the Lesson of Chaye Sarah, the life of Sarah, delivered on 'New Member Shabbat' 10/29/2010

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה
It is an interesting start to this section of Torah that spends a so much time narrating death. Sarah’s and Abraham’s death both are accounted for within the verses of parashat Chaye Sarah.

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה
Sarah lived - 100 years and 20 years and 7 years…These are the years of Sarah we are told. But then, despite the fact that this is the only time a matriarch’s age is reported at the time of death, and it is done so in such an unusual and elongated manner, no other details of her life are reported. That’s it. After that first sentence, the text continues immediately to her death, the arrangements Abraham makes for her burial, and perhaps more significantly the arrangements he makes to ensure – as best as he is able - his (and Sarah’s) future progeny.

There is no shortage of Rabbinic commentary on this opening verse and specifically on the unique notation of Sarah’s age (100 years & 20 years & 7 years). Midrash Rabbah, for example, explains that her life span is notated as such because Sarah’s years on earth were unblemished. Accordingly, “at the age of twenty she was as at the age of seven in beauty, and at the age of a hundred she was as at the age of twenty in sin.” In this scenario, youth is the gold standard for measuring a good life: Sarah’s life is exemplary because even in old age, she exuded youth in appearance and behavior. In contrast, and in my mind far more satisfying, others explain that her life span is expressed in this extended manner, in this additive equation, 100 + 20 + 7, to underscore not only the length but the richness of her years – in short, this presentation is used to highlight Sarah’s ability to live fully through each stage of her life, so fully that to compact the years into one number would somehow diminish her life and the goodness she brought to the world.

Common to both of these midrashic explanations is a desire to get to know and understand Sarah beyond a simplified number. To state that her life was simply 127 years may have been too easily passed over by the reader, rather, 100 years + 20 years + 7 years makes us stop and take notice. It makes us consider the person, the human being behind the number.

Despite a Jewish reticence to counting people directly, the Jewish community seems obsessed with numbers. Tradition has us go to extremes to avoid counting or pointing out individuals using, for example: ‘not 1, not 2…’ or the words of Mah Tovu when counting a minyan for worship instead of the far more direct, “1,2,3…” ; yet, for all other purposes, we are intent on taking a numerical count. Not so unlike the biblical or national census, we too implement demographic surveys of our community. We count the number of families on our congregational rosters and take pride in increasing membership numbers. We count the number of students in our religious schools rejoicing when the numbers swell. But I wonder,how useful is this celebration of quantity?

There are many good reasons to know how many of us there are. Certainly we need to know the size of our community so that we can ensure that resources are in place for the proper care and support of each and every member of our community. But, far too often, our numbers are used instead to make a judgment of quality or success. 127 years - Sarah’s life was, at least according to our modern reckoning, long. But the text coupled with our rabbinic understanding of the text makes it clear, the number of years – the quantity – is far less important than how she lived them.

This Shabbat we celebrate and welcome our new members including the number of whom could not be present this evening. Of course, we are excited when our numbers increase. But, far more than being happy about in increase to some numerical tally, we are thrilled to have each new member family become a part of our Temple Emanuel community. We take in being a small and caring congregational community devoted to Torah, worship, and social justice. We have to count our numbers. Like any organization, we can’t avoid the business of numbers. The building, the staff, the programming and materials we use – all of this requires the counting of numbers in order to ensure survival; but as best as we are able, and perhaps to our detriment when it comes to finances, the leadership of Temple Emanuel is far less interested in the size of our congregation than in the human beings that join and participate together in our synagogue community.

As I noted at the start, Parashat Chaye Sarah, this portion known in hebrew as, The Life of Sarah, narrates paradoxically, the deaths of both Abraham and Sarah. At the same time, the portion also offers a glimpse into the future. Isaac is paired with Rebecca – literally, in Sarah’s tent no less – before the end of the narrative and Abraham’s progeny with his other wives is listed. Noteworthy is that numbers are not offered in this tally of future progeny, rather individual names are listed. The Torah is clear. Sarah and Abraham’s legacy will continue; but, numbers will not ensure that legacy, people and their actions will.

As new members of Temple Emanuel, you have a choice. You can remain counted solely as a listing on the congregation roster, as part of one lump sum, remaining virtually anonymous; or, you can get involved and be counted by the fullness of your actions. It is my and the Temple leadership’s hope that you will choose the latter, for in that way, we get to know you, you get to know us, and together we can ensure a long and extended legacy of Reform Jewish life here in our community.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Starving in a Environment of Abundance, delivered Erev Yom Kippur 5771

The choice to fast. A choice many of us feel compelled to make as we observe this yontif of Yom Kippur. Fasting goes hand in hand with the observance with Yom Kippur, a biblically rooted and weighty expectation of this holiday. The Levitical hand reminds us that this should be a day in which ועניתם את נפשיכם, we practice “self affliction.” (Lev 23:27) According to the Mishnah, fasting is but one of five ways in which we are to practice ‘self-affliction.’ We are also to abstain from bathing, the use of soaps and perfumes, wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations. (M. Yoma 8.1) Yet, for most of us, fasting has become the primary and most identifiable way in which we put ourselves in that temporary state of self denial intended to help us focus our full attention on the task of t’shuvah, of repentence. How fortunate we are to be in such a position that we can choose such self affliction!

Fasting has always been associated with religious expression and can be found as a form of ritual observance in all mainstream religions. In the ancient world, fasting was considered a direct means to spiritual enlightenment -- to God. In his critique of unintentful fasting, the prophet Isaiah (as we will hear tomorrow morning) forwards fasting as a vehicle for self-improvement. It should lift us and propel us towards working for the betterment of the world!

Fasting as a tool for spiritual enlightenment has now become popular outside of mainstream religious life, so popular that it became subject matter for journalist David Rokaff who experimented with fasting for a segment of National Public Radio’s This American Life. Despite its Norman Rockwell-esque title, Baltimore born Ira Glass’ This American Life offers a far more realistic peak into the corners of our American quirks and obsessions.

Fasts are marketed and popularized on the notion that the human body requires detoxification, an eradication of the apparently unavoidable build-up of toxins in our systems. Self improvement perhaps, but far from the type of t’shuvah our Biblical Isaiah envisioned! Many who embark on such fasts are motivated not only by the physical purge, but also by the role that fasting has played in most religions – namely that promise of spiritual enlightenment - that sense of physical and spiritual uplift not so different from what many of us seek over the next 20 hours or so.

Mr. Rokaff’s journey was enlightening for sure. Not in the way in which we might expect, yet in a way that can help us approach our Yom Kippur fasting with appropriate purpose. First, Rokaff noted the narcissistic elements of fasting. “[it] was one of the most self-obsessed things I’ve ever done in my life, and I say that as a first person journalist,” he remarked. This is a man who, as he reminds us, makes his living by being self-obsessed - experiencing life and reporting on it from the vantage point of “I”, the self. For him to acknowledge the potential for self-absorption in the exercise of fasting should serve as warning to us.

His second relevant observation surfaced after encountering a woman begging for food on the subway. Not money, mind you, but specifically food. Mr. Rokaff had no food in his bag; but, as he noted, though he might not have had food on him anyway, "no clarity or serenity in the world gave [him] the chutzpah" to admit why he didn’t have food on that particular day. His encounter underscores how fortunate most of us are that we are indeed in such a position that we can choose such self affliction.

Many are not as lucky; and the irony of the situation is that while some of the wealthiest members of our society are striving for enlightenment through the purposeful avoidance of available and plentiful nutritious offerings, the poorest members of our nation are starving in an environment of incredibly shallow abundance. The US Farm Bill’s over-funding of and prioritizing of certain crops (a result of placing corporate America over and above the needs of the consumer) has created and fostered a market saturated by an over-supply of nutritionally depressed foods in our nation and an abundance of what have been termed ‘food deserts’ in many urban areas including Baltimore.

A ‘food desert’ is a large geographic area with either no or extremely limited access to grocery stores. The residents in these areas generally have an imbalance of food choices available to them due to their dependence upon fast food outlets, convenience and liquor stores for the bulk of their shopping; they have virtually no access to affordable fresh or whole food. Public health studies have documented that residents of such ‘food deserts’ suffer physically and are at significantly increased risk of documentable diet-related health concerns such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and ultimately premature death. And, I’d bet they are as susceptible to a variety of other diet related stresses that are less documentable such as compromised immune systems and depression.

Those of us who have access to and thus can choose to eat, not to eat, and what to eat from a wide-range of options, may not fully comprehend the seriousness of this situation. One can argue that there is no supply in these areas because of a lack of demand. If the residents would buy it, it would be there. Yet despite the seemingly simple logic of this economically grounded argument, there are those who would remind us that the continuous lack of supply of healthy food to these areas has created a situation where the conscious ‘demand’ for anything other than nutritionally compromised foods has been virtually erased.

Anthropologist Sidney Mintz, a research professor at Hopkins who has devoted the bulk of his long career to the study of food systems, notes that we, that is human beings, are the only animal species that no longer naturally knows what to eat and moreover consciously eat foods that have the potential to do us harm. In other words, we are easily susceptible to adapting to changes in what’s offered, what’s supplied. Of course, such ‘food domestication’ as scholars call it – the fact that our mind can trump biology, is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And for all of its challenges, doubtful any of us would trade in this hallmark of our humanity. We can eat both for survival – for pure nutritional needs; but we can also savor our foods and take delight in them. Who would give up that rich chocolate bar that has little useful value beyond sheer pleasure? Those who are privy to the various chocolate stashes in my office know that I’m no advocate for removing joy from eating. But when offered only certain options, such as inexpensive, overly processed foods saturated with sugar, fat, and salt as the mainstay – what’s offered in the corner markets in these ‘food deserts’, we humans adapt quite quickly to fulfilling our hunger with food that simply won’t sustain us physically or emotionally in the long run. Our urban neighbors dwelling in these food deserts are fasting with no awareness of the magnitude of their hunger.
Awareness is the first step in challenging this complex cycle that dictates the utter lack of wholesome options in these areas and in turn distorts demand for such options. And my goal in this sermon is just that – to raise awareness about this issue, an issue that in my opinion should be on the forefront of our consciousness as liberal Jews. It is not to judge anyone’s dietary habits (I’m certainly in no position to do that: has anyone seen the chocolate stashes in my office?), but rather to help us become aware of the food options being offered to us and to our urban neighbors, the business behind those offerings, and the ultimate impact such offerings make on our society as a whole.

Awareness. “Agribusiness” -- the business behind farming and an extremely powerful lobby that greatly impacts the supply side of our food offerings due to its influence on the Farm Bill an important piece of renewable legislation that dictates government subsidies to US farmers. Under the current Farm Bill, 80% of farm subsidies go to grains that can easily be made into inexpensive, not necessarily healthful, foods; 80% goes there as opposed to fruits and vegetables. It is precisely these unbalanced food subsidies that dictate the relatively high prices of fresh food as opposed to the inexpensive prices of packaged processed food. And it is these unbalanced subsidies (and our demand for inexpensive food) that create an environment where wholesome options become simply too expensive and unavailable to many in our society. Our most nutritious food offerings have become a luxury instead of the necessity that they are.

The impact of agribusiness on the nation’s farm bill ultimately impacts our nation’s health care industry as well. To quote Journalism professor, author, and New York Times Magazine contributor, Michael Pollen, “The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care.” (NYTimes 9/10/2009) Yes, our first lady has committed herself to planting an extraordinary garden on the property of the White House and to educating our nation’s youth about the importance of whole foods (kol hakavod to her for her efforts), but food system reform has not formally entered the conversation about health care; and it should. The government’s gross subsidy of convenience over whole foods leads to a situation where our tax dollars are in a very real sense contributing to the high costs of health care. As Mr. Pollen writes, there’s a ton of money to be made selling an over abundance of fast food and then treating the resulting disease that this over abundance causes.

Perhaps most frustrating is the historical lack of interest in changing the system. As an older colleague of mine reminded me this past winter when we were studying together, the lack of equitable access to wholesome food is far from a new problem. Certainly the issue gets more publicity than in the past (most likely due to our nation’s gross obsession with diet in general), but it is a problem that dates, as she recalls, at least to 1969 (to put that year into perspective, I was 3 yrs old in 1969!). One would think we’ve made some significant progress by now.

An example of how little progress has been made on the public need for affordable wholesome food? Our public school subsidized meal programs. The ideal behind government sponsored meals in our nation’s public schools can be summarized by Napoleon’s motto, “An army marches on its stomach.” Literally. America’s school lunch program began in 1946 under the tenure of President Truman in response to malnutrition in young people who were enlisting into the armed forces. Paradoxically, today’s subsidized meal programs, which now include breakfast and after school snacks in many schools, might be causing or at least reinforcing malnutrition in many cases.

I had the less than tantalizing experience of sampling a typical subsidized breakfast offered in our Baltimore city schools recently at a study session on this issue in which I participated. Every item made available to us was an example of a pre-sweetened, processed food. Not a single fresh fruit or vegetable– whole or in juice form - was offered. It was all beige: cereal, pre-sweetened waffles, sugary muffins, pop-tarts, and either chocolate or strawberry milk. No white milk. When asked why white milk was not served? We were told there was no demand for it by the students. An example of the complex cycle of supply and demand – which really comes first? And what’s our responsibility to challenging it and making sure there is white milk available to our kids, particularly the very kids who may need it most because they ain't getting it elsewhere?

Poverty is certainly a factor. “There will never cease to be those in need,” the Deuteronomist reminds us. Poverty, however, is not the entire problem, an easy scapegoat perhaps; yet, the biblical text makes it clear that we are not to accept these circumstances as unchangeable. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to identify those in need and to address the situation with an open and generous hand.

The production, preparation, as well as the eating of food is a holy occupation that impacts our very sustainability. It is not enough to approach food solely as consumers. Perhaps the ideal of kashrut can be informative. Few of us give much thought to kashrut – we either routinely accept or more likely dismiss the minutia of the ritual standards, standards codified for the most part in the middle ages and accepted as immutable due to the Orthodox hold on the institution. But the idea of creating a modern expectation of sanctity and wholeness – a sense of kasher, of fitness - surrounding the production and marketing of food is compelling.

To do so, we must recognize the impact of agribusiness and our role as consumers. We must do our part to pressure the food industry towards considering what is best for humanity by demanding healthy, sustainable options that are as available and as inexpensive as those supported by the current Farm Bill. We must support those farmers who remain committed to growing produce not currently valued by our Farm Bill while pushing for changes in future Farm Bills (the current Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2012, by the way). We must celebrate small advances such as the fairly recent innovation which allowed recipients of food vouchers to purchase fresh produce at neighborhood farmer’s markets. We must support local efforts at education and community gardening such as those currently being made in Baltimore by the Food & Faith Project of the Johns Hopkins Center for a livable future.

On this Day of Atonement, a day when so many of us are choosing to fast, let us be sure that our fast not become a narcissistic, self-absorbed occupation. As Isaiah demands, “הלוא זה צום אבחרהו” : “Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to loosen the ropes of the yoke…” Indeed, let us not take for granted how easy it will be for us to break our fast. Not everyone has that choice. Tzom Kal – an easy -- yet thoughtful & intentful fast to you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Does the 21st century Synagogue Need God? Delivered Rosh Hashanah morning, 5771 by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

A palpable paradox exists in our nation. As the religious right grows more powerful, or at least more vocal, in their desire to impress the masses with their theologically based and often rigid political views (at least IMHO), there is a growing move towards secularism and atheism among many that is often blamed for the lack of religious affiliation among young Americans. Evidence of this trend appeared late last fall in four billboards strategically placed and marketed by the nascent Baltimore Coalition of Reason that read: “Are you good without God? Millions are.” The Baltimore Coalition of Reason is part of a National Coalition of Reason that has sponsored similar marketing campaigns nationwide. This past June, for example, commuters in Austin, TX were treated to this slogan on their ride to work: “Don’t believe in God? Join the club”. Philadelphians and Floridians: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”

The existence of non-theists is nothing new – there are and always have been those who actively and publically reject the notion of a God, and there are those who do so even though they are intimately connected to religious organizational life, even synagogue life. As the research of Daniel C. Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts University underscores, personal belief does not necessarily go hand in hand with organizational and denominational commitment. In a study summarized in a recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly, Dennett identified and investigated what he calls, “the invisible phenomenon” of non-believing ministers, ministers who expressed skepticism over religious doctrine and at times outright atheism yet who still remain committed to their respective church institutions. Such a coordinated and well-funded organizational attempt (by an anonymous Philadelphia based businessman, by the way) to raise awareness and increase acceptance and visibility of atheism, of non-belief independent of political ideology on such a wide scale perhaps is new. This isn’t Marxism mind you, which demanded liberation from religion as part of its social and political agenda. What is striking to me is this Coalition’s reliance on reason as their mantra – that is, reason replacing God and theology as the movement’s unifying tenet.

As an inheritor of the values of Reform Judaism, a movement birthed in the social and intellectual atmosphere of the European Enlightenment and nurtured during the 19th and early 20th centuries when the critical historical method was first being applied to biblical and liturgical studies, I view reason as central to religion. The application of reason, from the Latin ratio, to judge, to think – understood in its European context as wissenschaft – was and is still critical to discerning the difference between, as well as, the intersection of history and theology. What claims are our religious texts making? What was the agenda of our Biblical writers and editors, and how do we reconcile that agenda, particularly the declaration and promulgation of a singular God, with modernity? These questions require the application of reason.

Despite, however, my rationalistic, academic sensibilities and the fact that as so many in my generation I too vacillate between periods of agnosticism (that is doubt in the ability to understand God), atheism (that is doubt that there even is a God), and theism (faith in a supreme and transcendent God), I view both God and reason as necessary ingredients to religion, particularly Judaism.

Do you? As we embark on a new year, when we are tasked with the introspective work of t’shuvah, how many of us are taken by a billboard that not only reassures us that we are not alone in our theological doubts but more importantly in our frequently all-too-ready desire to shed the burdens of responsibility to our religious faith and institutions? Let’s be honest with ourselves. It isn’t easy to support a synagogue: to make the time and commitment to attend worship services, to prioritize religious instruction in our lives, whether for our children or for ourselves, among all of the other activities available to us, to pay dues and support Temple fundraisers particularly in economically trying times. These tasks require conscious commitment as does carving out the time to gather together here in order to pursue social justice through a Jewish lens. Yet, we do it! Those of us who are present today celebrating the beginning of 5771 within the context and embrace of our synagogue community do it.

Why? Is God part of our motivation? Is God a necessary factor to our commitment to synagogue life? The popular punch line is familiar, shared from this pulpit on a number of occasions: “Max comes to shul to speak with God; Sam comes to speak with Max” Does the synagogue depend on us believing in God, or is being a Beit K’nesset, a place simply to gather enough? No question that the social connections we form within these walls are vital, but I wonder, if that conversation ‘Sam’ seeks to have with ‘Max’ is enough to keep synagogue life thriving well into the 21st century.

According to a study reported a year ago in The New York Times Magazine, a study by the Pew Forum, a non-partisan research think-tank that strives to understand the juncture between religion and public affairs, 75% of Americans report that they pray at least once a week while only 39% attend a worship service on a weekly basis. Now prayer doesn’t necessitate a belief in God; however, arguably this interesting statistic suggests that most Americans believe in something greater than themselves, something toward which to pray. Call it God, a Higher Power, The Divine, Adonai, Elohim, Shechinah, Jesus, Allah – whatever ‘its’ name, there is something towards which prayer can be directed for most Americans. Yet only a minority of those who believe in and actively pray towards some form of deity seem to require an organized communal outlet for this God seeking. At first glance, this study seems to suggest that God trumps the social connections we make within these walls.

It isn’t our lack of faith or our doubts about God, our atheistic and agnostic tendencies if you will, that keep us from connecting more fully, more actively to the synagogue. Clearly, as the Pew Forum’s research indicates, there are many who believe in God but still choose to remain outside the institutional walls of organized religion. And I’d bet, that a number of those who choose to come inside and engage in organized religious practice have a belief in God that is far less secure.

So if it isn’t our theological doubts that prevent us from connecting more fully to religious life, what is preventing so many? One possibility is our insecurity regarding our ability to pray and engage despite theological struggles. Prayer is a skill. As the Rev. Daniel Henderson, a Baptist minister and former head of a suburban mega-church in Minneapolis who now leads a non-profit organization that runs how-to worship seminars, notes “…people just assume they know how to pray. But … Prayer is a lot more than reciting words. It requires a [mastery of] both theory and technique.” Few of us are cognizant of the level of skill development required for prayer which leads us instead to assume that we can’t or don’t want to engage in liturgical recitation. The comparison between prayer skill and physical fitness, one I make often, offers a useful metaphor. One cannot expect to run a 10-mile race without skill and endurance training. The muscles, particularly the brain, need to be prepared for the activity. We know this; we expect to have to work towards physical goals, yet we have difficulty transferring this understanding of preparation to less physically demanding, more mindful goals such as prayer. Instead, we grow quickly impatient and give up assuming there is little or no meaning in the task.

One of the greatest challenges of Reform Judaism, frankly, is our overall liturgical illiteracy. We may balk at the keva, the routine and fixed nature of the traditional liturgy. We liberals emphasize kevanna, that is spontaneity over rigidity, but here is an area in which we could learn a few pointers from our more traditional brethren. It is that adherence to the structure of the siddur that enables Orthodox Jews to at least know what to do when they walk into the doors of their synagogues and to have the endurance to focus on the task at hand for an extended period of time regardless of whether they fully understand what they are saying or why, for that matter. The skill set is in place; it’s rote. Mind you, I wouldn’t trade our tendency toward kevanna or our responsiveness to modernity for that skill set, nor would I relinquish our movement’s commitment to the highest aesthetic expression of worship; yet, it would behoove us to learn from that commitment to skill development by acknowledging that prayer requires a certain level of literacy and skill.

The development of prayer skills need not be all that difficult, but it requires attention and mindfulness. To quote Rabbi Marc Gellman, a Long Island Rabbi made famous by his appearances on ABC’s Good Morning America throughout the 90’s, “when you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers: Gimme! Thanks! Oops! And, Wow!” “Gimme” - expressions of petition; “Thanks” - expressions of gratitude; “Oops” - requests for forgiveness; “Wow” -- wondrous expressions of praise. I’d bet we all can and have used these expressions of prayer often in our daily lives. The challenge for the modern synagogue is helping each other to recognize and then communicate these colloquial (and comfortable) expressions of prayer through the language of our siddur within the context of our congregational community – a community comprised of many generations with rich yet incredibly diverse backgrounds. Far easier said than done, for sure. Communal prayer requires that we set aside some of the individualism for the sake of communal cohesiveness -- again, no small task, but one that is vital to the sustenance of communal prayer and the synagogue community.

Communal prayer demands a bit of vulnerability and perhaps unreasonableness. To recite prayers that may indeed challenge our own personal theological struggles, and to do so in a public setting among friends and acquaintances, seems counter to our modern desires for individual integrity. Our fear of being vulnerable, our fear that we have to check our reason at the door, these may be more likely factors that keep some from entering those doors than issues of belief. Our fear of fundamentalism on the one hand – unchecked theology that leads to unbridled religious passion; and our resistance to using our reason thoughtfully, that is taking the time and effort to formulate for ourselves a workable and well-reasoned theology on the other (in other words using our brains), both of these extremes can prevent us from taking steps that would connect us to the very community that could support us in so many significant ways through the valleys, heights, and plains of life.

God & Reason – both are necessary for worship and for the sustenance of synagogue life, and both can be found in the sense of community that gathers here whether around Torah, worship, a TESCA event, or even a highway clean up. Perhaps the joke about Sam coming to talk with Max isn’t far off the mark. God isn’t necessarily found in some tightly held theological belief system. God can often be found simply in our presence, our actions, and our willingness to bring our modern sensibilities – including reason – into our religious pursuits.

The Hebrew word for face offers us a beautiful and compelling metaphor. Panim, face – those familiar with the rules of Hebrew grammar will note that it rests in the plural. Indeed, it only appears in the plural form, panim. In theory, it has a singular root ( פ-נ-ה ), though, in practical usage, the singular is non-existent: ‘face’ never appears panah; it always appears as panim – ‘faces’, plural and inclusive. The Hebrew implies that our ‘face’ ceases to exist in the singular. For all our post-Enlightenment interest in the sanctity of the individual, our humanity still requires us to interact with others. Moreover, the Midrashist adds, in a commentary to the Priestly Benediction, that only when we greet each other directly פנים אל פנים ‘face to face’ is God’s countenance lifted upon us (Numbers Rabbah Naso. Accordingly, God becomes present in Sam’s conversations with Max even if, and perhaps all the more so because Sam isn’t consciously seeking God. It is within our effort to connect with others, to honestly engage with each other, what 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber identified as our I-Thou moments, that Divinity, that God, even has a chance of entering.

The rhetoric of the Religious Right in our country gives us plenty of reason to want to avoid God completely. And, there is no question that God without reason has the tendency to lead to fundamentalism on the right and at the same time, untamed mysticism on the left; yet, let us not be so quick to throw out the baby with the bath water. A willingness to at least contemplate God’s existence coupled with the activation of our hearts and minds is required in our modern day synagogues. Recall that in the ancient world the lev, the heart was understood as the seat of our intellect as well. We need both heart and mind to fully activate our intellect, and we need our reasoned intellect in order for us to develop a well-honed and flexible theology, God-system, that can help us navigate through our daily lives.

Israel: Tourist Destination or Homeland, Delivered Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

play just before sermon:

As long as deep in the heart,
The soul of a Jew yearns
Towards the East
And eye looks to Zion
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free people in our land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

‘Our hope – tikvatenu – is not lost!’
Allow me to share a story about which I read recently. Perhaps you’ve heard or read about it too. It’s about two girls who have attended the same school and have become good friends but who are now required by a locally sanctioned order to be separated. In school, they are required to wear uniforms of (to be marked by) different colors, and they have been forbidden to come into contact with each other. In order to make the prohibition concrete, a fence covered with an opaque cloth (a michitza of sorts) has literally been stretched between them. They preserve their friendship by passing notes through a hole in the fence. These girls did nothing wrong. This forced segregation is no punishment for bad behavior; rather, this segregation, which was reported and discussed by Israeli author and civil rights activist Sami Michael in Haaretz this past June in an article entitled “The Colors of Racism,” is one that is now impacting an entire community and perhaps, tikvatenu, our hope as well.

Mind you, Michael was not reporting on the days of South African apartheid, pre-civil rights America, or even the segregation and discrimination pointed directly at the Jewish community throughout much of Europe during World War II. Rather, he was reporting on what is becoming a disturbing trend within Israel today. The two schoolgirls wearing uniforms of different colors are both Jewish girls from the Israeli settlement of Immanuel in the West Bank. Immanuel (spelled w/ an ‘I’ and double ‘m’), a religious settlement populated by both Ashkanic and Sephardi Jews is, as Michael reminds us, flourishing under the Israeli flag and armed protection of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the school these girls attend is a public school. It was at this public school that a significant number of parents of Ashkenazic descent refused to allow their children to attend classes while those of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent were allowed to study together. They demanded that the school, a public, government funded school, be completely segregated along these lines, and shockingly, they took the case to the Israeli Supreme Court in an effort to have their 'religious freedom' protected.

A reminder -- the only difference between an Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jew is one of regional descent: Ashkenazi, a term used to refer to those hailing originally from the regions of the German Rhineland that was later extended to those from areas of Eastern and Central Europe as Jews migrated out from Germany after the Medieval period; Sephardi instead refers to those whose ancestry can be traced to countries in and around the Iberian peninsula. Differences in custom and practice have certainly developed over time between these two groups, but let’s be clear, the distinction being made in Israel is ultimately one of race as well as practice.

Thankfully, Israel's highest court did not rule in favor of the parents’ demands and insisted that the integration of Ashkenazi and Sephardic students continue at this school. However, in response to the Supreme Court’s action, not only did the Ashkenazi parents proceed to reject the court’s decision, refusing to allow their children to return to school, but they organized a mass demonstration which, according to Militant Ginger, an admittedly left wing blog…perhaps rant), drew 100,000 supporters of such forced segregation within the Jewish community, that’s a lot of people for this small Jewish state.

I can only imagine the outrage Michael feels, an Israeli whose own grandchildren are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi at the same time, a product of the integration of both of these rich cultures that exist and thrive in Israel. But, we should feel outrage too. Just imagine our reaction if such a large assembly gathered here in defense of any type of formally imposed public school segregation! Would any of us be anything less than appalled?

It might be easy to dismiss the situation in Immanuel – a town whose name is as is ours despite the difference in spelling, inspired by Isaiah’s prophetic imagination: “God is w/ us,” -- as simply a reflection of the geographic hot bed of ultra Orthodox haredi attitudes that have settled into the West Bank; but sadly, Israel is increasingly becoming less welcoming of democracy and more hostile to liberal and pluralistic values. And this should concern us.
Perhaps we should have expected that it would only be a matter of time when the forced segregation of men and women based on a fundamentalist reading of Jewish Law would extend now to the creation of mechitzas, ritual barriers, based on other criteria such as race. As I shared on earlier occasions this year, forced segregation is no new phenomenon in Israel. The government backed expropriation of the Western Wall by the ultra-Orthodox, for example, lead to the arrest of a woman last November whose official crime was wearing a tallit, a not entirely uncommon feature of women choosing to daven together at the Wall but one which violates the Orthodox mandated and government enforced dress code of the Kotel area. Of course, the real issue of contention between the Women of the Wall and the Orthodox establishment is less about clothes and far more about who gets to define the parameters of Jewish expression. But when those in leadership roles call women “stupid” for coming to the wall to pray with a tallit as did Shas party spiritual head, Ovadia Yosef in November, any prospect of open dialogue between liberal and traditionalist factions seems far, far off on the horizon if not sheer fantasy. And, are we surprised then at the level of vitriol Yosef and those of his ilk express towards the Palestinians in his region when he levels such indignations to his fellow Jews.

So far, despite the success of those Ashkenazi parents in the West Bank community of Immanuel to rally support among their own, the government has wisely refused to submit to their pressure. But, with the growing influence of the right wing fundamentalist faction in Israel, can we be so sure that the Israeli government will remain on the one hand, so level headed, but even more importantly, effective in implementing this expectation that the public schools in this Haredi conclave remain integrated?

The case of Israel’s public bus system stands as an uneasy case in point.

Beginning in the 1990s, Egged, Israel’s primary mode of public transportation, began offering segregated bus service to areas heavily populated by Haredim, the most fervently Orthodox, in order to encourage their use of public transportation. What started as a limited practice to accommodate a minority population has expanded to the extent that, according to IRAC, Israel’s Religious Action Center, there is no choice but to use segregated buses on at least 5 intercity routes. Moreover, where there are still options, the segregated alternative is often the cheapest and fastest. As I shared in a sermon on this issue this past February, a trip from Jerusalem to Petach Tikva (a trip I took regularly 20 some odd years ago w/ no challenges) now requires two buses with a 15 minute layouver between and a fare of over 28 shekels, that is unless I don’t mind a segregated bus. The segregated bus still offers a non-stop ride costing under 20 shekels. Travelling from Ashdod to Arad? The segregated choice offers a 2 hour ride for 24 shekels. The non-segregated option demands a 4 hour ride at a fare of 60 shekels! (is that a choice?)

While the High Courts in Israel scolded the transportation minister last February for not following committee recommendations that segregation be fully voluntary and not at all compulsory on any public bus, no attempts have been made by the Israeli government to outlaw or even curb this practice. As long as there are options, the government’s resistance to enforce integration may seem harmless; but, we know better. We’ve experienced segregation in America. A reminder of what a segregated bus looks like: separate entrances in this case for men and women with women seated squarely at the back of the bus. And for those Rosa Parks of Israeli society who resist such degrading treatment, there are those who have taken it upon themselves, using physical force when necessary, to enforce this supposed ‘voluntary’ segregation.

The Israeli government claims to be a democracy and as such has a responsibility to protect the rights of all of its citizens, yet, as in this case, it far too often allows its hand to be forced by the religious right. How can we remain confident that despite official censure, the demands for religious and racial segregation in Immanuel (or elsewhere ba-aretz) won’t succeed in practice? And perhaps a question being pondered by many of us as we sit comfortably in our American, liberal congregations, why should we care? We live here, in America – by choice… the difference in spelling may be no accident: our vision of Emanuel is clearly different than theirs.

The most recent conversion bill raised in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, this past summer by a leader of the right wing Yisrael Beitenu party reminds us that we must care and we must remain full of hope. Such divisive efforts to further empower the Chief Rabbinate in Israel in their attempts to define who is a Jew by their limited yardstick impacts not just Israeli Jews, but American Jews and all of world Jewry and could frankly have disastrous implications for the relationship between Israel and the diaspora. This bill which was actually originally aimed at expanding conversion rights in order to help the multitude of Russian immigrants in Israel gain legitimacy quickly became a political lightening rod with the ultra-Orthodox objecting to any leniency or broadening of power and the American Jewish community then fearing invalidation.

The bill has been tabled until winter – sent to a committee tasked with finding compromise between factions. In the meantime, there has been no dearth of commentary in the dense world of blogosphere. In his anger over the controversy that arose over this bill, for instance, former Knesset member and Israeli peace activist, Avraham Burg, pointed to us, the American Jewish community as having some culpability in the growing authority of the religious right in Israel, a powerful force that is beginning to threaten the values of democracy which we hold dear not only as Americans but as liberal Jews. Burg may often spout seemingly radical ideas –if you’ve read any of his literature: his vision of Zionism involves replacing the ideal of Israel as a “Jewish State” with Israel as a “state for the Jews,” and he is passionate in his concern for the Palestinian agenda (one could argue overly-passionate). However, whether we choose to agree with him on these sensitive hot-button issues or not, we must take significant note of his accurate observation regarding the lack of involvement and concern for the future of Israel among most liberal American Jews. That’s us by the way!

Several studies over the past number of years have revealed that support for Israel is declining among non-Orthodox youth in America. While these studies have generally focused on college age cohorts, I doubt the outcomes would be all that different taking a look at not so youthful non-Orthodox Jews in America. Peter Beinart, a not too young, but not so old (I believe nearing 40 years old) journalist and former editor of The New Republic wrote a compelling analysis of the situation for The New York Review of Books this past June (6/10/2010) noting that “ …fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; [and] fewer and fewer America Jewish Zionists are liberal.” Rather than actively engaging with the many challenges that face Israel – both religious and political – most liberals have opted out thus allowing the Orthodox to define American Zionism. Beinart, himself an Orthodox Jew is, as we should be, gravely concerned about the future if such a trend continues. He imagines all too clearly an American Zionist movement that does not even, in his words, “feign concern” for the for the impact of a fundamentalist religio-political agenda; and, he fears a broader American Jewish population that does not even “feign concern” for Israel.

Certainly, we must not check our modern sensibilities or our liberal values at the door when it comes to supporting Israel. We must demand of her what we expect in our own country namely a fully democratic state that recognizes the validity of Progressive Judaism and the plurality of Jewish life. Religious pluralism has marked Jewish life since its inception and has enriched Judaism leading to the growth of a wealth of literature, differing point of views, and cultural expressions. As Reform Jews in particular, we must, as Rabbi Amy Perlin so eloquently expressed in a recent URJ commentary, “…be the voice of social justice and fairness, [teaching] and [defending] the values of Torah, promoting gender equality and communal civility…" in Israel. At the same time, we cannot simply abandon Israel when it doesn’t meet our ideals and expectations.

Tikvatenu - we must remain hopeful, and we must speak out with the confidence in knowing that our voice matters. Yes, our American Jewish voice matters. As Americans, we may feel un-entitled to a voice when it comes to Israel. True, what happens there doesn’t impact us in nearly the same manner it does to Israelis. We don’t live there. Yet, even as we make our homes here in America, Israel is far more than simply a tourist destination for us. We do have a stake in this land – in part because we are Jews and have an historical connection to (as do others), a covenantal relationship with, the land. In part because we know too well from experience that there is a need for a place that will open its borders to any Jew in need. But also, we must care about Israel because despite Hezbollah’s opinion to the contrary, as Theodore Herzl reminded us in the 19th century, the world benefits from Israel’s participation in international dialogue.

We may not be Israeli citizens. Few of us will ever make aliyah. Yet, still, despite our frustration with much of what we read, we must continue to care and engage. And, we must continually work to remind ourselves of all that this young country has to offer despite its current challenges – all that never makes headline news. Tikvatenu. We must support our Jewish homeland. There are a myriad of ways in which we can support Israel from here. Three stand out:

• First and foremost, remain or if not already, become informed. Read, pay attention – seek out information, take note of what is happening in Israel and form an opinion. Be capable and more importantly willing to speak intelligently and lovingly about Israel even when disagreeing with her actions. Like our own children, we must not abandon Israel when we disagree with decisions and policies made; rather, it is incumbent upon us to work harder at trying to understand so that we can help inspire compassion and change.

• Two: include Israel in your Tzedakah budget - give, generously as able, but wisely. We must do our homework and research the organizations to which we give, so that the monies we send to Israel don’t serve to further a right-wing religious or political agenda. As Reform Jews, we must be careful to support institutions that forward, as oppose to silencing, the progressive voice in Israel.

• Three: support Israel’s economy. Whether through buying Israeli products – of which there are a plethora available in various American retail outlets and on-line - or by picking up and travelling to Israel. Tourism is one of, if not the major, industry in Israel. Israel needs us to visit. But, as importantly, we need to visit. Supporting Israel requires activism on our part. It requires of us – the diaspora Jew, the liberal diaspora Jew – to not just pay lip service to Israel, but to make the commitment – financially and physically to get on a plane, and take advantage of all that this rich country has to offer. It isn’t about making permanent aliyah, but it is all about showing Israel that not just the Orthodox are willing to visit and spend time there. We must also. It is imperative that Israel be more than a region about which we read about in the paper or in textbooks – we must experience the land, taste the food, try out the language, meet those who live there – engage with the land and the people.

I hope there will be enough interest in our congregation so that we can again travel together to Israel in June of 2012. Whether for the first or umpteenth time, visiting Israel is a remarkable experience and to do so in the context of a congregational family trip is nothing short of a treat. There really is no other way to fully appreciate the incredibly rich history and culture of this land that Theodore Herzl dubbed, The Promised Land save by going and experiencing it firsthand among friends and family. I hope you’ll join me in going – please look forward to an informational meeting in early spring and in the meantime, please feel free to talk to me personally about your interest in going or about any questions you may have.

Hope. How fitting that the words penned by Naphtali Herz Imber in the late 19th century in a poem entitled Tikvatenu, our hope, became the foundation for Hatikva, a song universally accepted despite the fact that it has never been officially sanctioned as such by the Knesset, as the national anthem of Israel. Its haunting folk melody and hopeful lyric stirs the heart of almost all who hear it. Though it was originally written and set to music with the ideals of national restoration in mind, on this eve of a new year, 5771, may the lyrical strains of our beloved Hatikva remind us that despite the difficult challenges contemporary Israel presents for the liberal American Jewish community, we must remain committed to the possibility – the Tikva - the hope - that Israel can become an example of a more perfect democratic and pluralist state.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Yamim Noraim - The Fear - full Days, delivered Erev Shabbat Ki Tavo, 8/27/2010

Erev Shabbat Ki Tavo – 18 Elul, 5770

One of the feature articles in the most recent Reform Judaism magazine discusses the challenges of reading ancient text in translation. Joel Hoffman, the author and an expert on semitic languages, encourages us to think twice before accepting the pshat, the simple meaning, of the English placed before us even in our valued Plaut translation and commentary and to consider the context and nuances of the original language – Hebrew. A challenge for most of us even those among us with a certain facility and comfort level with the Hebrew language. A challenge made all the more interesting, as Dr. Hoffman points out, by the fact that Biblical Hebrew is no longer a living language…it is strikingly different from the modern Hebrew spoken freely in Israel today.

Reading through this article this past week – during these final days of preparation leading to our yamim hanoraim and when we are reading parashat Ki Tavo in our Torah cycle – caused me to ponder on the word Nora…this word for AWE that we use to describe these days ahead of us.

Awe: Nora – is drawn from the root yarei ירא – to fear, to dread. ירא is not the only Hebrew word for fear, however, pachad פחד also connotes fear or dread.

So why are the upcoming days understood in Hebrew asימים נוראים and not פחדים ימים ?

The difference in meaning between these words for fear is subtle yet significant, and our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and indeed the entire work of the Deuteronomist, can give us insight into our task during these days.

Now,I have not done a detailed lexical study – that is comparing the use of these two words throughout the biblical text; yet from my initial perusings, I sense that a primary difference in these words has to do with our behavior in response to whatever is provoking fear. Pachad appears to imply a paralyzing fear, one that can be so thoroughly overwhelming that that it cause physical symptoms of dread, but at the same time, sticks us to our place/immobilizes us. And, used as an adjective, pachadim can imply terrifying and unfit for action.

Yarei, on the other hand, appears to be used in situations that on the contrary require action. The fear – most often used in connection with God – is to inspire doing!

The author of our Deuteronomic text understood the motivating power of fear. The litany of curses contained in this week’s portion, as dreadful as they are, were not intended to paralyze the community with trembling, but rather were intended to inspire proper behavior and commitment to the centralized leadership of the day (expressed through commitment to God).

Yamim Noraim – These days of Awe, these fear filled days, should be difficult and perhaps cause fear. The process of tshuvah of looking inward at ourselves and evaluating how our actions have impacted others is challenging; it can freeze us in our places. Recognizing our faults and that we have hurt ourselves and others can cause us so much pain and fear, that we are prevented from moving forward. But that is precisely NOT the point of this holiday season, rather the goal is for that ‘awe’ that ‘fear’ yarei, to propel us to action – to seek repentance from those we hurt, to recommit ourselves to communal goals even at the risk of trumping a few of our individual ones, to strive to do better.

Nothing wrong with a little fear as long as we use it and respond to it wisely - may the upcoming ‘Days of Awe’ be a little 'fear filled' - just enough to inspire us to meaningful action and change.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Right to Choose: A VIew on Intermarriage

Parashat Re’eh opens with an interesting imperative:
ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה

Take note!! I am placing before you today blessing and curse: blessing if you obey God’s commandments and curse if you do not obey. The imperative expressed by the verb ראה – literally, see or look here! – is in actuality the implied message “choose!” A rigid system of divine retribution is presented, but free will is always present - ultimately the choice is ours.

Let’s be clear that the biblical author was most concerned with idolatry. As we’ve discussed before, when viewed in light of historical events that took place at the time when scholars believe the Deuteronomic tradition was written down, the text can be read as a “how to consolidate the masses” manual. The centralization of the worship cult and the eradication of all idolatry were the primary and necessary goals; so much so, that this understanding of the text has endured over time. Even as late as the medieval period, Rashi understood the verse, if you do not obey the commandments of God as referring specifically to one who serves idols.

Today, the word “choose” when used within the context of Jewish tradition and תשמעו אל מצות יהוה אלהיכם ‘guarding God’s commandments’ rarely conjures up images of idolatry or any form of the cultic worship described in our portion; yet, still the word “choose” particularly when used within the context of the Reform movement’s mandate of informed autonomy, compels us to consciously formulate our public and private expressions of Judaism. No one can be Jewish for us – it will not be mandated for us - the free will is ours; yet, we must be cognizant of the consequences of our actions. And, in a very real sense, for Judaism to remain compelling in the 21st century and beyond, we must all become Jews by conscious choice.

This past week, our nation has been fixated to a large degree on the marriage of former President Bill and current Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea to Marc Mezvinsky. It was dubbed by the Huffington Post (among other media outlets) as “America’s Wedding.” Now perhaps the marriage of a former President’s daughter is always big news (particularly when said daughter has dealt so gracefully with the less savory events of her dad’s presidency), but it seems to have consumed our attention – particularly our Jewish attention - in part due to the fact that Chelsea’s beau is Jewish and she, of course, is not.

Intermarriage has always been a touchy subject among us Jews. How many of us were raised with warnings of getting too involved with a non-Jew…ok to be friends, maybe to date, but to marry? Shame, shame. Two messages seem to be contained in that sense of shame. One, ‘they’ will never truly accept ‘you/us’, and two, ‘your’ action may bring ruin, albeit slow painful ruin, to the entire Jewish people. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), the self subtitled Global News Service of the Jewish People, echoes such sentiment in its commentary this week on the Clinton wedding with what reads to me like a scolding tone of concern, “Is it possible that the first iconic Jewish picture of the decade is of an interfaith marriage?”

Honestly, isn’t it time we get over it? Choice. The power to choose. In the 19th century period of European enlightenment that followed on the heels of the French revolution, Jews worldwide demanded the rights of national citizenship. We chose and fought hard to leave the ghetto, and we succeeded! We chose to be a part of mainstream society even when others didn’t want us there. When we came to America, we consciously liberated ourselves from the constraints of the Gemeinde, the state sponsored body of authority over religious matters. As contemporary Reform Jews, we demand the right of informed choice in all religious and ritual matters both here and abroad, and we expect the separation of church and state to protect this right to choose. And yet, when we discuss the prospect of intermarriage, there still often arises a swell of panic. Yes, we want to participate fully in American society and culture, but if we intermarry, we fear we may be swallowed up whole (not unlike Jonah) by that same choice.

Our Torah portion is clear, choices have consequences. No debate here. But the choice to intermarry need not be followed by choices that lead to the evaporation of Jewish life. There are more choices to made after that brief wedding ceremony, and it’s those choices that the Jewish community should be concerned about not only for those who chose to marry non-Jews, but also for Jews who marry Jews. Far too often, we view marriage as an end point. A Jewish wedding marks success, and interfaith wedding, even if unspoken,feels on some level to be some sort of failure. On the contrary, if we are truly concerned with Jewish survival and the opportunity to pass on the blessings of Jewish life to future generations, then we should be less concerned with condemning marriages that frankly are a natural outgrowth of our choice to live and participate fully in an integrated and pluralistic society and instead provide welcoming and supportive opportunities for those couples to get involved. Every marriage that involves a Jewish partner should be viewed as an opportunity to create a new and vibrant Jewish household. A marriage should be viewed as the start – an open door, not the end.

Choices have consequences. Our choices and the choices of those who come before us have enabled us to live well and with little persecution (particularly when compared to state-sponsored anti-semitism of previous generations). Indeed, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s very public wedding can be viewed, as sociologist Steven Cohen notes, as marking “the full acceptance of Jews by the larger society…” In what other generation could such a wedding take place with really so little fanfare, and as far as I can tell virtually no criticism accept from the far religious right (the Jewish righ)?

The tough choices are still ahead for this young couple, as they would be for any young couple – Jewish, non -, or as in this case, one of each. Hopefully, they will approach the choices they have in front of them with sensitivity, reason, and a look both to past history and future posterity. To quote the Union of Reform Judaism’s head Rabbi Eric Yoffe, with whose sentiment I most fully agree with regard to all couples married under a chuppah, “I hope they will make a choice to raise their children in a single religious and tradition, and second, as a Jew and as a Rabbi, I hope it will be Judaism.”

Re’eh – Look! We have choices. Those choices demand thoughtful, open, and informed conversation – only then will we and our future progeny be blessed with the opportunity to choose a life of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut chasadim.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

In honor of Richard Fishkin on the Occasion of his Retirement, delivered Erev Shabbat Naso 5/21/2010

וזאת תורה הנזיר ביום מלאת ימי נזיר יביא אתו...

This is the ritual for the nazirite on the day that his days as a nazirite are fulfilled: The person shall be brought to the Tent of Meeting, and shall make an offering לחטאת as an atonement offering.

Why, we might wonder – as plenty of Torah scholars before us have – would the nazirite be required to bring an atonement offering on the occasion of his retirement from service? A thanksgiving offering would be understandable, a general, all-purpose olah perhaps, but atonement? Why after a period of dedicated service would an individual need to make atonement?

In his trying to understand the perplexity of this seemingly odd requirement, Moses Maimonides, that well-known Medieval commentator who hailed from Cairo, in his Guide of the Perplexed comments on the difference between the nazarite, about whom we read in this week’s parashat Naso, and the sage. Separating themselves from the community and consciously refraining certain basic pleasures and comforts, the nazirite chooses an ascetic form of divine service. Such dedication to self-denial might be viewed as commendable, exemplary even (particularly in our Western culture of over-abundance), but as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, notes in his comments on the text (cited in this week's Dov-Ray Torah compiled by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins), such pursuit of self perfection is not at all exemplary in the context of community.

In stark contrast, the sage remains fully engaged with society in his effort to perfect it. The sage, as Maimonides explains, recognizes and remains involved with others as he seeks to serve: he remains involved with members of one’s own family; he works together with his colleagues; he participates along with the fellow members of his community; he recognizes the need to defend and serve his country in addition to his own people.

Accordingly, one could argue that the nazirite requires atonement upon the completion of his days of service because of his eager willingness to pursue such a solitary life exclusive of family and community. Mainstream Judaism demands that we serve God by actively participating in the world. Liberal Judaism adds to this model that by doing so, we naso, we lift ourselves up as God’s partners in the ongoing creation of our world. To do so requires that we strive to create a balance among the conflicting pressures on us, working not to focus on some while neglecting others. To do requires a valuing of communal cooperation over and above the solitary pursuit of perfection.

There is no question that Richard exemplifies Maimonides’ sense of a sage. Did anyone notice that even in his remarks this evening, Richard drew attention not to [excuse the Kennedy-esque language] what he has done for Temple, but what our community has done together. He draws pride not from his solitary achievements but from that of which he has been an integral part. One of Richard’s greatest strengths is his loyalty and devotion to the Jewish community; and we should be so grateful that for the past 8 years, Temple Emanuel – both the building and its people – staff and congregants, we have been recipients of his steadfast devotion.

More significantly, the lesson that we can all learn from Richard is that like the sage model, he expresses his commitment to his task without secluding himself from the very people who form that community. Yes, he loves his work, his professional activity. As those of us share office space with him know, Richard is not eager for a leisurely retirement, he wants to work and to be involved. But, work alone does not define him. A devoted husband, father, and in more recent years, grandfather, Richard balances both family and vocation. Actively involved in Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, his home congregation, where I understand he will be installed as member of the Board for an upcoming term, active in Brotherhood – the Men of Reform Judaism, not just at his own congregation, but in quad-Temple activities and on the regional and national levels, a regular giver of blood and platelets – these are just a few of the many ways that Richard eagerly extends his hand out far beyond himself and into the community.

The Psalmist, in his quest to define מי האיש החפץ חיים, "who is the man who desires life?" notes, אהב ימים לראות טוב...ועשה שלום ורדפהו, "one who loves days so that he may seek good…seek peace, and pursue it.” One traditional understanding of this text is that the author was urging the community to do just that – to use one’s days towards the pursuit of goodness, peace, and the betterment of their lives. I don’t think the Psalmist had a better model than Richard Fishkin. Indeed Richard is one who, at least from my vantage point, uses his days to pursue goodness, to foster community, and to strive towards making this world a better place. Mi ha-Ish he-chafetz chayim - to you Richard, in honor of all that you have given us in your pursuit of goodness.
Temple Emanuel's volunteer choir, Kol Zemer, concluded my presentation by singing Mi Ha-Ish (music: B. Chait/arr. C.Heller)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Congratulations to the Temple Emanuel Confirmation class of 5770 - Remarks delivered Erev Shavuot

Swimming, swimming in a swimming pool, when days are hot, when days are cold, in a swimming pool…
The Talmud teaches, gentlemen, that among the obligations a father, and by extension at least I’d argue in the modern world at least, both parents have towards their sons is to teach them to swim. Yes, to swim. In a fairly well-known passage in tractate Kiddushin of the Babylonian Talmud it states, האב חייב בבנו למולו, ולפדותו, וללמדו תורה, ולהשיאו אשה, וללמדו אומנותֹ וי״א: אף להשיטו במים “The father is bound in respect of his son, to circumcise him, redeem (him if first born), teach him Torah, to get him wife, and teach him a craft; and there are those that say, to teach him to swim.”

While the Talmud then goes on to provide fairly detailed commentary and explanation of each of the other obligations, obligations that may on the surface seem more self-explanatory, the text provides just two Hebrew words regarding the command to teach our children to swim, “חיותיה הוא” ‘it may indeed save his life.’

There has been much discussion throughout the ages regarding why the Talmud choose swimming from a number of other very useful skills upon which to focus. One could argue that our lives may depend on a number of physical skills or test of endurance. If someone is pursuing us on foot, running – indeed sprinting - would be a far more useful skill than swimming, no doubt. So why the specific mention of swimming?

It is quite possible, that our sages were referring to the actual physical skill of swimming. I learned to swim as a very young child. I was taught by my mother – well she actually took me to the local Y - indeed because my physical existence may have been threatened otherwise. No, both my mother and father were hardly familiar with the Talmudic injunction regarding swimming, rather, my parents had just bought a house with a pool in the back yard that went up to 10 feet deep. There was a concern about my physical safety. While the geographical region of the middle east is surrounded by various bodies of water, no archeological evidence has shown that there was a sudden rise in pools or watering holes in Babylonian neighborhoods of the 2-4th centuries that would have made parents feel like mine did. It seems much more likely that our Talmudic sages were offering a metaphor for living.

Swimming is one of those rare activities that takes us fully out of familiar territory (it is one of the reasons I still love to swim) – surrounded and literally suspended solely by water, we have to teach our limbs an entirely different set of tools for mobility and survival. Moreover, swimming is a skill that requires a range of skills beyond sheer athleticism; it requires balance, trust, endurance, and consistent & steady rhythm - all necessary skills for successful living. Certainly there are basic tools, a skill set that is required to swim – how to cup one’s hand so it functions efficiently as a paddle, how to turn or lift one’s head for a good breath, how to kick in useful manner that actually serves to propel and not just splash, … but what really makes someone a confident swimmer is the ability to trust the density of the water and allow oneself to balance or float instead of panic and to pace oneself in a consistent and confident rhythm that enables one to get where they are going even if they can’t always see the way through the murky water.

You have been given a skill set – it’s called Torah! You have learned the basics over these many years of religious school and synagogue involvement that can serve to keep you afloat if you nurture them and use them. There may be times in your life when you feel like you are drowning. One of the first rules of swimming is to replace panic in those moments with a calm use of learned skills. Draw on the skills that you’ve been taught. Use Torah as a resource. Draw on the Jewish community to support you and to provide you continual skill development and nourishment.

There is no question that a good swimmer must continue to work on those basic skills – in swimming they’re called drills. They can, frankly, seem dull and cumbersome, but they are necessary for continued growth. So too with Jewish learning. You’re not done. You have each reached an incredibly important milestone of which you should take a great deal of pride. This evening’s Confirmation ceremony is an opportunity to pause, reflect upon, and celebrate your achievements, but it is not a time to stop. It is incumbent upon you to continue learning. Don’t stop practicing the skills that will enable you to not only be confident in your Jewish identity in future months and year, but that will also help to keep you afloat as you venture further and further out into the world.

You have each expressed the ties that you have to our congregational community, so I invite the entire congregation to rise and join me in offering blessing from our tradition upon you. Words to the priestly benediction can be found on the back cover of your supplements, please join me in these ancient words of blessing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

BaMidbar: The Need to Plug-in, delivered Shabbat morning 5/15/2010

I love my iPod. That’s probably no surprise. As a music lover I simply can’t imagine living without it. It keeps me motivated at the gym during those indoor workouts when I don’t have the scenery, sounds of nature, or my running buddy Alan, to inspire me. It keeps me company in the car when the talking heads on NPR have tried my patience. It provides me a convenient way for me to keep up with various podcasts that no one else in my living or work space really cares to listen to. It really is an ingenious invention. Do parents today ever have to yell at their kids for having their stereos too loud? And, like, I’m sure, many sitting in this sanctuary this morning, my ipod allows me to always have tons of music and information (perhaps way more than I ever really need) nearby whether tucked in a small pocket of my purse, jeans, or gym shorts. No records, no CD holders, no bulky players and accompanying components that were so popular a generation (or two) ago when those battles over music volume and style were so commonplace.

But as an article in Monday’s New York Times noted, there is a significant cost to all of this digital portability and the cost isn’t just the reduction of friction between parent and child over music played in the house. As the article noted, “the ease of loading songs onto a computer or iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity (aesthetic quality) for portability and convenience.” Perhaps more troubling is that our ears have been trained to accept such mediocrity – we are, generally speaking, no longer interested in having the quality restored. Audio engineers have found that portability is a far more revered quality than sound quality. In other words, we consumers will pay big bucks for convenience and compactness far more than we will for increased quality. Pity, really. And it is not just the aesthetic quality of sound that is lost in our desire to perpetually be on the move; portability of our music has greatly impacted the quality of the listening experience itself. How many of us just sit down and make listening to music its own activity (outside of a concert hall). I for one am someone who treasures music, listens often and considers myself a critical listener, yet more often than not I’m doing something else while listening: cooking, running on a treadmill, driving,… I am old enough to recall when just listening to music, perhaps while analyzing and perusing the album covers and lyrics was an activity all to its own. Ok – it was the late 70’s -early 80’s, maybe we got up and danced, but you get the idea. Gathering around our music was not saved for the public concert hall or stadium. We gathered with our friends in our homes where daily music appreciation was far from the private ear plugged affair it is today. And while we 21st century parents may rejoice in the peace and quiet, there just may be a vital aspect of relationship building that is lost along with those conversations, even arguments, over sharing musical space in the household. A disturbing down side to the digitization of music is that so much of music listening has become an activity for not only for the individual, but for the individual who no longer needs a home to plug into.

Bamidbar. This Shabbat we begin recalling our journey through the wilderness. Scholars who study the bible from a critical, scientific lens argue that the Book of Numbers/Bamidbar was originally the final book of a canon known as the Tetrateuch. According to this theory, parts of the original Numbers were moved to the end of Deuteronomy by the final editor in order to make the entire canon a seamless literary unit after the addition of the Deuteronomic text. This is a compelling editorial hypothesis (particularly if we accept its assumption regarding dating); for, at the end of the book of Bamidbar we are eager for, we expect the Israelites to get to Canaan – that Land of milk and honey they’ve been promised and for which they’ve been waiting. Let’s face it, nobody would read all of the regulations of Deuteronomy if the fulfillment of that land promise was placed at the end of Bamidbar. What would be the point? The drama would be over. This period of wandering in the desert of which we now read for a number of weeks is a temporary destination, the goal is Canaan; the goal is to make permanent roots – to get some place and stay there. Yes, Abraham was instructed to lech l’cha, to go forth, back in Genesis, but that command had the full intent of propelling Abe and his family to a settling place.

How ironic -- now that we are so settled, that we have established roots not only in Israel (that historic land of which the text speaks) but also in communities throughout the world - that we seek to fight against that which roots us. We want to unplug, to go wireless – to free ourselves from what we define as the burden of permanence.

The opening portion of the Book of Bamidbar, about which our Bar Mitzvah, Matthew, will speak in a moment, gives us a glimpse into the desire for roots, a desire for a sense of connectedness and home during a period when in a sense the entire community is unplugged – in a state of wandering with nothing more than a verbally stated – one could say ‘wireless’ promise of future rootedness. In truth, we, as humans, require a balance. Even as we strive to cut the cords that connect us to our homes and offices, and perhaps all the more so, we demand to be connected – I’d say even hyper-connected. Who among us doesn’t feel even a mild sense of frustration or anxiety when our wireless gadgets are disabled for whatever reason or when we simply choose to turn them off.

The example of the current state of the music industry underscores that the ability to free ourselves from that which keeps us rooted is not without consequence. As we continue to seek those wireless conveniences that free us from being bound to our homes, offices, and physical structures, let us allow the wanderings of our Israelite ancestors to remind us of the value of seeking a grounding place to settle and establish roots…even if it means plugging in every once in awhile.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Parashat Behar: A Lesson in Materialism, delivered Shabbat Behar/Bechukotai 5770- 5/8/2010

Of all our readings in our cycle, particularly our Levitical cycle, its the earlier chapters of Leviticus with their emphasis on the sacrificial cultic system that we so often think of as providing the greatest affront to our modern sensibilities. The idea of schlepping animals to and slaughtering them on the Temple altar as a form of worship or spiritual cleansing ritual certainly flies in the face of our modern concepts of worship. We certainly don’t think of Parashat Behar containing the well known verse וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ, ‘Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof’ as its translated on the Liberty Bell as offensive to our modern values. On the contrary, this verse’s appearance on such an icon of American history has made this biblical mandate a symbol of the American values of liberty and democracy.

Yet, I’d argue that the rules of the shmita and yuval outlined here force us to confront our modern sensibilities as readily if not more so than the details of the Temple worship system, specifically with regard to the American values of materialism and capitalism.

Parashat Behar recognizes the inherent value of work. שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָֹדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ: “Six years you may sow your fields, and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather its yield.” Recall, this was an agrarian society, a society fully and directly dependent on the land; our biblical ancestors’ survival depended on their agricultural skills, skills applied in a manner in which made them and the land productive. Yet contrary to our contemporary capitalistic notions, parashat behar places clear limits on material productivity. וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיהוָֹה שָֹדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמר ….. “but in the 7th year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Shabbat to Adonai; your field, you shall not sow, and your vineyard, you shall not prune.

We are commanded to stop, to stop working the land. Remarkable in and of itself, but all the more so when read in context with that verse that appears just before it: שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָֹדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ: “Six years you may sow your fields, and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather its yield; but in the 7th year, you must not sow or prune.” Note the pronouns (you know from my passion for such details that the grammar matters). While the text refers to the field and vineyard as being ‘ours,’ (שדך\כרמך – your field, your vineyard), the yield, the product, of our field and vineyard is not. It would have been far more poetic to continue using the 2nd nominal pronoun: תבואתך (read it aloud) but rather our writer chooses to break the poetic pattern and uses the 3rd person: תבואתה. The use of the 3rd person stands out in this sentence that otherwise is fully personalized by the 2nd person: you shall sow your field; you shall prune your vineyards, so that you can gather ITs yield. No matter how much work and effort is place in tilling the land, its produce remains beyond ownership. It isn’t ours, it belongs to its source – the land and by extension, ultimately God.

Now, doesn’t the first story of creation in Bereshit tell us that we have dominion over the earth? “Look,” the first chapter of Genesis imagines God saying, “I have given you all the seed-bearing plants on the face of the earth, and every tree that has in it seedbearing fruit.” (Genesis 1:29) It’s all there for us, for our taking, no? The Levitical hand reminds us that dominion has limits, and these regulations outlined in parashat behar not only underscore these limits, but offer a vital even if seemingly counterintuitive lesson to our capitalisitic, material based, 24/7 mind-set that has become normative in America.

We can stop. Despite our fears that we may no longer be able to sustain ourselves without constant effort, we can. I imagine the text telling us to take a deep, cleansing yoga breath! Of course, it isn’t all about taking the break. There is a vital unspoken message in the text. The unspoken message of the Sabbatical year is that consumption must be monitored in the years leading up to the Sabbatical year in order to insure our sustainability during our work stoppage. This requires of us conscious planning and conservation during the productive years in order to make best use of the resources available during the land’s rest. The land has not been given to us for reckless use. Working it and deriving sustenance from it are privileges that require accountability and care.

Perhaps the text is warning us also against the dangers of taking too much pride in our work, our productivity, so much so that it bleeds over into the domain of undue proprietorship. Pride in our labor is a wonderful and important motivator, yet this prohibition against working the land for a full year every 7 years can serve to remind us that the world will keep revolving without constant attempts at controlling or manipulating it towards our goals, no matter how lofty those goals may be. We are not commanded to refrain from taking advantage of what the land offers; we are commanded to refrain from working it toward our advantage. Eleventh century French commentator Rashi imagines God telling us through these regulations, “I do not forbid you to eat it [the produce during the Sabbath year ] or otherwise benefit from it. What I am forbidding you is to treat it as if you owned it. Rather everyone should be equal with respect to it.”

Immediately on the heels of the regulation regarding the shmitah, this Shabbat for the land that comes every 7 years, comes the mandate perpetualized on the Liberty Bell, the mandate of the yuval, after 7 weeks of 7 years – 49 years, we are to:
וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ, ‘Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof’. This King’s James translation fits our modern American sensibilities with regard to freedom, a freedom we equate with being able to pursue what we want, when we want – to be able to work as we wish and claim ownership over all that we produce. The Hebrew implies a different connotation. Dror at its essence refers to ‘release’ or ‘emancipation’ from that which makes a claim on us or from that which we claim as our own. Capitalism values work and productivity, and as Americans we are incredibly fortunate to be free to be able to pursue any occupation, and we are accordingly taught that hard work rewards us with well- deserved material plenty. U’kratem Dror ba-aretz, however, offers an equally valid lesson that is necessary for our modern world – it teaches us the importance of releasing ourselves from this sense of material entitlement.

The lesson of parashat Behar is to work, to put forth our full effort – this is necessary for us to sustain ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually; but then to also to pause and remind ourselves that we are not to be defined by what we produce but rather how we care for the land and this earth that has been but lent to us.