Our Torah portion this Shabbat was Trumah. Trumah is often taken as “to contribute” but the root of the word is reysh-vav-mem which means “to elevate.” The contributions given in our portion were used to build a sanctuary so that God could dwell among people. The process of building the sanctuary brought the people together for a unified purpose to create the society in which they wanted to live. We must follow their example. We each have the power to change the world in which we live. With our voices. With our votes. Silence is complacency.
Wednesday our country suffered the 18th school shooting in 46 days. We in Las Vegas know too well the pain and suffering of this event to be silent.
Yesterday, Rabbi Joe Black of Temple Emanuel in Denver read the following opening prayer Colorado State House in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Our God and God of all people, God of the Rich and God of the poor. God of the teacher and God of the student. God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks. God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways. God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right. God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers. God who does not answer.
On this tragic day when we confront the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets. Our prayers have changed nothing.
Once again, a disturbed man with easy access to a death machine has squinted through the sights of a weapon, aimed, squeezed a trigger and taken out his depraved anger, pain and frustration on innocents: pure souls. Students and teachers. Brothers and sisters. Mothers and fathers- cut down in an instant by the power of hatred and technology.
We are guilty, O God. We are guilty of inaction. We are guilty of complacency.
We are guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics. The blood of our children cries out from the ground. The blood of police officers cut down in the line of duty flows through our streets.
I do not appeal to You on this terrible morning to change us. We can only do that ourselves.
Our enemies do not come only from far away places. The monsters we fear live among us.
May those in this room who have the power to to make change find the courage to seek a pathway to sanity and hope.
May we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable. Only then will our prayers be worthy of an answer.
There was no cocktail hour, no chicken dinner, no teary-eyed mothers and fathers, and no beaming grandparents. But this was a grand Jewish wedding celebration, which took nine months to plan, in one of the largest synagogues in the United States.
Three couples, each denied Jewish wedding ceremonies in Israel for various reasons, were married on Dec. 3 in a ceremony at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.
Gady Levy, the executive director of the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center, and Rabbi Joshua Davidson, the senior rabbi at the temple, began planning the event last March. “We met with people from the Israel Religious Action Center in Israel to find a way to make a change in the marriage laws there, and we decided that having a real wedding in New York was the way,” Mr. Levy said.
In order to produce the wedding, Mr. Levy said with a smile, “I became a part-time wedding planner.” The event he arranged was a stunner: Three couples were married in a traditional ceremony with klezmer music, violins, flowers, white wedding dresses and cupcakes. It was an event he called “Three Weddings and a Statement.”
The festivities started at the Friday evening service at Temple Emanu-El, where Rabbi Davidson spoke, beginning the pre-wedding ceremony for the couples with a traditional blessing.
“We love Israel and wish it to be the spiritual homeland for all Jews,” he said. “We wish for all Jews and non-Jews alike to be treated equally there. The events this weekend are about religious and civil liberties in Israel.”
The three couples had no bridesmaids, no groomsmen, no parents attending. But there were more than 1,300 guests, six rabbis leading the ceremony and about 40 more who stood with them to bless the newlyweds at the closing of the Sunday wedding ceremony.
It was produced flawlessly, like good theater, set in the sanctuary of the Romanesque Revival building with its 60 stained-glass windows and an altar built of marble flanked by sturdy columns of golden mosaics that soar. It might have seemed like theater (tickets, which were free, were needed for admission), but the message and the messengers were very serious.
Since there is no separation of church and state in Israel, there is no going to city hall to be married. And for a Jewish wedding in Israel, a couple must fulfill the Orthodox rules of marriage. Those rules include the fact that same-sex unions are not permitted; the acquisition whereby the groom pays a bride price as is reflected in the wording of the traditional marriage contract (ketubah); and if the marriage does not work out, only the man is allowed to initiate a divorce.
However, in New York City any couple, gay or straight, may obtain a marriage license; have a legal, civil ceremony; or ask a rabbi or other person who is certified to sign the license.
And so, there in the huge, majestic Emanu-El sanctuary, under a wedding canopy, and dressed in a strapless wedding gown designed by Danielle Caprese, stood Ori Berwald Shaer, 30, ready to marry her best friend and the love of her life, Alona Livneh, 26, who wore a blue pantsuit and a pink bow tie. Both women, who live in Tel Aviv, are activists in the gay and lesbian community in Israel.
The couple arrived in Manhattan on Friday morning, went to City Hall — where they obtained a marriage license in 30 minutes — and were off to find a wedding dress for Ms. Shaer to wear. (Kleinfeld Bridal donated the three wedding dresses.)
“The ease of getting a marriage license here was very exciting,” Ms. Shaer said.
Ms. Livneh said: “The dream is to get married in Israel, in our language, in our culture, with our family and friends. But with that not being possible we’re going with the next best option.”
Dani Dayan, the consul general of Israel in New York, said in a text message that it is “no secret many members of the American Jewish community disagree with existing Israeli legislation on civil status issues. Israelis pay serious attention to the positions of our brethren across the Atlantic, and ultimately the Israeli Knesset — elected democratically by the Israeli citizens — legislates. I wish a heartfelt Mazel Tov to the couples married today in New York.”
(The Israeli Ministry of Religious Services and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel did not respond to a request to comment about the event.)
But legally recognized weddings abroad — whether civil, or any other form — are recognized by the Interior Ministry for the purposes of being registered as a married couple in Israel.
Gali Geberovich, 29, and Alon Sela, 30, met seven years ago on a kibbutz. Both finished their military service and were working, without pay, he in a cowshed, she in a factory.
“We smelled really bad after a day of work, but it was very romantic,” Ms. Geberovich said. They now live in Tel Aviv, where she works for the reform movement while studying for a master’s degree in Jewish education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Mr. Sela is an analyst in an investment banking consulting firm with an interest in high technology and renewable energy.
“We didn’t want any ceremony that doesn’t reflect our beliefs and values as a couple,” Ms. Geberovich said. “We have a really respectful and equal relationship, and the ceremony of the Orthodox does not reflect it.
“We didn’t want to use our privilege and be part of an institution that doesn’t recognize other couples. We have in our family, we have our friends, same-gender couples and they don’t have the right to get married and it’s unbelievable. And also, I didn’t want to be part of that institution.”
For Valentine Boldovsky, 29, and Elizabetha Komkov, 27, students at the Technion in Haifa, a wedding in the United States was also a solution to a spiritual problem they have in Israel, a country they both emigrated to with their families for reasons of oppression where they were born.
Ms. Komkov and Mr. Boldovsky, both born in St. Petersburg, Russia, met as young teenagers at a Jewish Sunday school run by the Jewish Agency in St. Petersburg. Both families immigrated to Israel; hers in 2004, his in 2005. The two had lost track of each other but became reacquainted five years ago on Facebook.
Even though Ms. Komkov was raised in a Jewish family, she decided to convert in Israel with a reform rabbi in order to have proof of her Jewishness. She did not have proof, she said, because her maternal grandmother was given to a Christian family during Stalin’s time in Russia, when many Jewish families were persecuted. Therefore, Ms. Komkov had no documents to prove maternal religious heritage. A reform conversion is not recognized by the strictly Orthodox religious authorities in Israel.
Mr. Boldovsky said, “It’s really important for Liza to bring this heritage and the memory of her grandmother.”
He said that because Ms. Komkov is not considered Jewish enough for the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel they wanted to make a statement. “So someone will hear it, so people will pay attention, so they will know that there is a problem,” he said. “And that this problem will not go on for our children and so on and so on. I’m not separating the marriage from the political aspect, I am separating my vows to my wife from the political aspect, because it’s about love, not about any of this mess.”
On Sunday, before the ceremony, while guests were taking their seats in the sanctuary, a klezmer band led by Michael Winograd entertained the audience and set a joyful, foot-stomping mood.
Then at 11 a.m., as the ceremony was about to begin, 10 violinists strolled down the center aisle of the temple playing “Sunrise, Sunset” followed by “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” a Hebrew love song often played at weddings.
When the music ended, each couple entered from side aisles, one partner from each side, joining in the center to walk up the steps to the altar, taking their places under three wedding canopies that were on the stage. Each canopy had one of three words printed on the front: “Equality,” “Justice,” “Love.” Under each canopy were a couple and two rabbis, one female, one male.
The traditional ceremony included drinking wine from silver goblets, the chanting of the seven blessings by Cantor Mo Glazman of the temple and the breaking of glasses (both brides and grooms stepped on glasses, which is not traditional but served as a nod to feminism and equality; historically only the groom breaks a glass). Afterward, about 40 rabbis from all denominations, including Modern Orthodoxy, joined the couples on the stage for concluding prayers, songs and spirited circle dancing.
The klezmer band started up again as the now married couples happily pranced back up the center aisle to a loud, collective yell of “mazel tov” from the crowd.
And just outside the temple doors on Fifth Avenue, there were 1,400 white wedding cupcakes waiting, each with a tiny plastic solitaire ring atop the shiny frosting.
I am sitting on the BART train writing my sermon for yizkor on Yom Kippur. Yizkor, meaning “he will remember” is the service where we remember our loved ones who have passed away. Traditionally those who still have their parents do not stay for the service. And I have an admission to make… I am blessed that both my parents are alive and I have never been to a yizkor service. This is my first. And so, I ask myself, what can bring to this moment that won’t be trite or off the mark, coming from someone who has not had to confront that finality of death?
I am afraid of death. Not so much for myself but I have been afraid of losing my father for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it is a remnant of the loss that I experienced as a child of divorce but I don’t have the same inner voice of panic when I think about the other losses that, if life unfolds in the natural order of things, must come one day to those for whom I care deeply.
My parents are both at the stage where they are cognizant of their mortality. My father tells me “you live on through the good deeds you do while you are here on Earth”, and my mom tells me “the dead never leave you, it’s the living who move away.” My mom’s comment is a “glass half-full, half-empty” statement about independence, about the power of love, and the power of memory but it is true, the dead never leave you because they are a part of you. Both my parents are right. We are imprinted upon by those who came before us, good or bad. In studies of the brain, powerful events form physical imprints in the brain structure. While we cannot yet translate those imprints to reveal their secrets, we can see that they exist. And so, the memories of our departed really do live on in the minds (and bodies) of those whom they have touched.
I am not the first person to have grappled with the inevitability of loss or with what happens when we die. Do we simply cease? Do our souls continue while our body returns to the earth? Do we have souls? I have found comfort in several ideas that are a bit varied and perhaps unconventional in their sources.
I was a huge fan of the TV show Star Trek Voyager which has a lot of Jewish themes running through it. In one of my favorite episodes, the starship Voyager encounters a people who believe that when they die they will be transported to their moon, a sacred place which is situated within a band of rings that surround their planet. There, after their lives on the planet are completed, they will join their ancestors and live for eternity. As the Voyager crew explores said moon, all they find are the mummified remains of the dead which have been transported from the surface below. The Voyager crew can see there is no afterlife, no eternity with relatives on the moon. Through a transporter mishap, one of Voyager crewmen, Harry Kim, lands on the planet and as the story unfolds, he tells the people on the planet what the Voyager crew now know – that when the inhabitants of the planet die, there is no afterlife with their relatives as their tradition teaches. This knowledge challenges and threatens the way of life on the planet. The ruling powers do not want this knowledge to get out and they try to kill Harry. Ultimately Harry trades places with someone who is about to die and he escapes taking the knowledge of what really happens on the moon with him. Harry survives and the way of life on the planet is preserved. As the Voyager crew is getting ready to leave the planet, they analyze the rings that surround the planet of which the moon is a part, and they find that they have an unexplainable bio-energy signature. They find that rings are alive and they themselves house the energy of those who have died, and this energy in turn is nurturing the planet. I love this story. It incorporates the mystery of what happens when we die with the possibility that our desire to live and to be in contact with our loved ones who came before us, may be a reality.
Jewish tradition has a strong vision of a soul that is separate from the body. Jewish practice in burial rites recognizes this and respects the soul’s process of departing from the physical world. An example would be that after a person has died but before the body has been buried, it is not permitted for the attendants or mourners to eat, drink or perform a mitzvah in the presence of the dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead because the dead can no longer do these things, and until the departed is buried, there is a sense that the soul is still “hanging around.”
This idea that the soul, or the life energy remains for some period, can be found in the Jewish Kabbalistic mystical idea of רצו ושוב. Ratzo V’Shov is a Chassidic term; literally meaning “run and return.” Ratzo is a state of longing to cleave to G-d; the passionate desire of the soul to transcend its material existence, to “run forward” and cleave to its Source. Shov is the soul’s sober determination to “return” and fulfill its mission in the body, the resolve to live within the context of material and physical reality, based on the awareness that this is G-d’s ultimate intent. In the Voyager story, the souls of the people on the planet longed to cleave to their source, to the energy and souls of their ancestors who now resided in the planets’ rings… and the souls of the ancestors were determined to return, to fulfill their mission to the body and to nurture and infuse the planet.
The idea that we are a part of a closed system of energy that recycles itself is not new. I found the following reading intriguing from Aaron Freeman, as heard on National Public Radio. “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him/her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”
Today as I look out from the bima, I see friends and family. My mother is here and so is one of my sons. It is a beautiful thing to see your children grow and flourish and become adults. And as they do, I look in the mirror and I can see the passage of time. Each time I look in the mirror, more and more I see the face of my mother looking back at me. And when I see my mother drive up to my house, more and more I am struck by how much she resembles my grandmother. We can’t stop the passage of time. It is an on-going cycle of renewing and recycling of which we an integral part.
And so now, when I think about the inevitable, I am less afraid. I am comforted by the knowledge that we really do live on in the good deeds that we do on earth, and the memories of those whom we have impacted; that we are part of a closed system that recycles itself; and that “according to the law of conservation of energy, that when death comes, not a bit of me will be gone; I will simply be less orderly.”
G’mar hatimah tovah – may you be sealed for a good year.
If you are looking for something different for the upcoming High Holidays, please join me and Congregation P’nai Tikvah in Las Vegas where I will be co-leading the services.
High Holidays – Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur
High Holiday Services and Programs – A sweet New Year is sweeter WITH YOU! The High Holidays are just around the corner. Join us for our profound, meaningful Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur Services. We offer our services for FREE, to the public, but deeply appreciate your optional donations so that we can continue to serve the community with our religious and educational programs.
Featuring: Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Cantor Marla Goldberg, and Rabbinic Intern Jamie Hyams, along with the Congregation’s choir “Voices of Hope” under the direction of Dr. Ellen Royer with musical accompaniment by William Chenoweth for a deeply spiritual, reflective, and meaningful program. Jeremy Woolstenhume, cellist with the LV Philharmonic and the orchestra director for Hyde Park Middle School will accompany the religious services on Kol Nidre.
P’nai Tikvah translates as “Faces of Hope.” Serving the broad Las Vegas Jewish Community (we have members from Henderson, Green Valley, Summerlin, North Las Vegas, and greater Las Vegas), Congregation P’nai Tikvah is a warm, welcoming spiritual home for all who are seeking a meaningful Jewish life—blending creativity and innovation with tradition.
With a foundation deriving practice from the progressive Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, Judaism is seen as an evolving civilization—a relevant, meaningful way of life that is rich with tradition—where the past has a vote, but not a veto.
Join with the Congregation Beth Emek Sisterhood for an evening exploring women’s rituals to support the modern lives we lead today. What is different today from the past that has led to the need for something new? We will consider rituals for weddings, adoption, miscarriage, fertility and abortion. How and why are these new rituals created and what is the thinking behind them?
When: Thursday, October 19th, 2017
Where: At a private home in San Ramon. Ping me for the address and to RSVP.
Who: This women’s evening is sponsored by the Beth Emek Sisterhood. There is no charge to attend and you do not have to be a Beth Emek member.
Learning and discussion will be led by Jamie Hyams. Jamie is a third-year rabbinical student at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles and she serves as the Rabbinic Intern at Congregation P’nai Tikvah in Las Vegas.
‘But do Israelis even care?” asked my friend, a leader of an international Jewish organization, on Monday.
It was the day after Diaspora Jews had learned that, once again, the prime minister had slapped them in the face and had broken his word. In response to haredi pressure, he refused to block legislation that would grant all authority regarding conversions to the Chief Rabbinate (which detests non-Orthodox Judaism) and was freezing plans to dedicate a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, where Reform and Conservative men and women could pray together. Both of these moves were cowardly steps by a prime minister who was, as always, loyal to the one principle that always animates him – that principle being his own political survival. They were moves that people like Natan Sharansky had begged the prime minister not to take. Sharansky understood the rupture this would cause in the Jewish world. But the prime minister doesn’t care about the Jewish people nearly as much as he cares about himself.
Employing his now characteristic obfuscation, Bibi will insist that this is just a delay and that construction on the promised space will continue. His health minister (whom he appointed), however, was more honest. Ya’acov Litzman minced no words, saying that the cabinet’s decision “sends a clear message to the entire world that Reform Judaism does not and will not have access or recognition at the Western Wall.”
Do Israelis care? Not one little bit.
The vast majority have no idea what Reform Judaism is. They know little about any non-Orthodox form of Judaism. Most also have little regard for religious pluralism, a value that most American Jews see as fundamental to a decent, democratic society. Whatever Bibi has done, they say, is a problem for American Jews. They are wrong. It is a problem for the Jewish people.
So, if American Jews want to win (and preserve Israel as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people at the same time), they have to make this Israelis’ problem. They have to create a coalition crisis larger than anything Litzman can precipitate.
How? Here, with apologies to Jonathan Swift, is a modest proposal.
First, it is time to educate the Israeli public about the values of pluralism and Jewish peoplehood. One person needs to pick up the phone and in 45 minutes raise $10 million (it would take less than 45 minutes) to give to leaders like Rabbi Benny Lau and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Orthodox rabbis who understand pluralism and value Jewish peoplehood.
They should be told that the money is theirs to use to promote their vision of Judaism. Billboards. Signs on buses. Educational materials distributed everywhere.
Television appearances. Radio.
Support for their own students who can join the chorus. And, they should be told, when that money is used up, there will be more forthcoming.
Then, Netanyahu, his party and anyone in his coalition must become toxic.
No meetings with American Jews, not in Israel and not in the US. Delegations that would normally meet with him should stop. Israel’s consuls-general in the US should be shunned and disinvited. Birthright mega-events? Netanyahu (and Naftali Bennett, who cleverly managed not to be present for the vote) should be disinvited. Can’t be done? Then cancel the event.
Ultimately, though, if American Jews cannot use financial pressure, they cannot create a coalition crisis, and they will lose. There has to be a price to having appointed Litzman to the Health Ministry. Israeli hospitals survive in part thanks to American Jewish philanthropy. The flow of money should stop. Meetings with hospitals’ fund-raisers should be canceled.
The hospitals did nothing wrong, but when they start running out of money, Israelis will start to care. That is the kind of coalition crisis the prime minister does not want. You don’t feel comfortable doing that? That’s fine and decent. So prepare to lose.
Don’t forget El Al.
The last thing that American Jews should do is to sever their relationship with Israel. To make it clear that they are committed to the Jewish state and that it is this prime minister and his government that they detest, they should come to Israel now more than ever before. En masse. But not on El Al.
They should cancel every El Al ticket they have already purchased and fly United or Delta.
Why? Isn’t El Al a private airline? Yes, but it is critical to Israel’s security, and Israel cannot afford to let it fail. El Al survives on a thin margin; American Jews shunning it for half a year could break it. There will be layoffs, terror in the industry. Netanyahu will have a massive problem.
Then, Israelis will care. When their hospitals (which are also my hospitals, I hasten to note) begin to falter, when their airline faces bankruptcy, when their prime minister is a publicly humiliated pariah, Israelis will begin to notice and will start to care. Only then will American Jews and the religious pluralism they represent have a chance of winning. Only then, actually, will a decent (non-haredi) Judaism in Israel have a chance of winning.
Are American Jews sufficiently united to pull this off? It’s hard to know. Do they have the stomach to play hardball? I doubt it. But this is the Middle East, and that’s how things work here.
American Jews have to decide whether they want to complain, or they want to win – and in so doing remind Israel that it is the state of all the world’s Jews. Those are two entirely different enterprises.
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 Book of the Year.
Tuesday, May 30th from 7:30 until the week hours at a home in Danville. We’ll study a little, shmooze a little and nosh a lot! You can drop in any time and stay as short or as long as you wish.
Teachers include Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, Jamie Hyams, and Jenifer Santer. For the address and to let us know you are coming, email me at email@example.com.
*What is a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot? Shavuot commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. A Tikkun (repair) is a study session based on the 16th-century mystics of Safed, Israel, under the leadership of Isaac Luria. The mystics had the idea that at midnight the heavens open and favorably receive the thoughts, study, and prayers of those who remain awake on the anniversary of the Revelation.
When: Tuesday, May 30th, 7:30 pm ’til the wee hours
Where: A private home in the Tri-Valley
Session topics to be posted in mid-May. Teachers include Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, Jamie Hyams and Jennifer Santer (list in formation).
Shavuot commemorates both the wheat harvest in the Land of Israel, and the giving of the Torah to the assembled Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. *The practice of staying up all Shavuot night to study Torah – known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot has its source in the Midrash, which relates that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead. They overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this perceived flaw in the national character, many religious Jews stay up all night to learn Torah. (Wikipedia)
Contact us to let us know you are coming and for the address.
Every morning when I awake, I do a quick read of the news on my cellphone to make sure that the world is still spinning and that there hasn’t been a nuclear incident the night before that I somehow managed to sleep through. My news sources consist of the New York Times, the LA Times, East Bay Times, and a smattering of stories my friends have posted to Facebook. Lately, with all the talk about “alt-facts”, fake news, “news spin” and flat out lies, I don’t know who to trust.
Because I no longer trust the media, I feel less inclined to weigh in on the issues of the day. I am fearful that my personal analysis is based on “alt-facts”, or spin. Spin is nothing new. All stories have two sides. I’ll bet you that Hagar would tell the story of her life with Abraham and Sarah in a pretty different light than we read in Genesis. And what if we heard the Akkedah from the perspective of the ram caught in the thicket who became the sacrifice? Grappling with issues from a variety of perspectives broadens us and deepens our understanding.
Today we are celebrating Purim, which in most shuls is a time of frivolity and Purim carnivals, and schnapps… lot of schnapps… In the megillah we read of the feminist Vashti, the heroine Esther, the ingenious Mordechai, and the evil Haman. It is a simplistic narrative in many congregations but what about the parts of the story that we sweep under the carpet? At the end of the story, after Esther and her king have sailed into the sunset, when Mordechai has risen to power, we read:
“Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples. So, the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies. The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil. That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking.”
When the whole thing was over, more than 75,000 people had been killed. How do we feel about the execution of 75,000 people at the hands of a mob? How do we feel about the Mordechai and the Jews of Persia acting vengefully? Are these the values that we want to blithefully pass on to our children today?
Yes, I recognize that the Jewish community had just been threatened with extinction and it is to be expected that they would react against their would-be attackers.
Perhaps this narrative teaches the listener “don’t mess with us, we can hold our own?”
And yes, I know there is commentary that says that Haman was a descendent of Amalek and we are repeatedly told “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget it!”(Deuteronomy 25: 19; also see Exodus 17:14and Numbers 24:20)
And yes, I recognize that the entire Megillat Esther could be a fantasy tale of retribution written by a powerless author akin to “Inglorious Bastards.”
But grappling with the issues raised at the end of the story is the most important part of processing our yearly megillah reading. The answers to these questions shape who we are as individuals and as people today. As clergy, it is our role to bring folks into the community but to not give them a lightweight admission ticket. How does one balance power with compassion? Are Vashti and Esther feminist role models? Is Mordechai really the “good guy” in the story, a conniving schemer willing to use his niece as a pawn to gain access and power; or a “strategic thinker with the big picture in mind?” It is our role to use these texts to bring forth the questions that shed light on the questions of our day; to elevate Purim above Hamentaschen and Purim carnivals. It is our role to help stamp out pediatric Judaism.
As I lie in bed in the morning reading the news, thinking “how am I going to stay grounded” with all the turmoil of the times swirling around me, wondering if Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are our modern-day Esther and Mordechai, our weekly Torah portion gives me a game plan for action.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read among other things about the taking of a census and the ½ shekel tax, and to observe the Shabbat. What are 3 take-ways that will can keep us grounded this coming week and combine our Jewish and civic values?
The first is the census. When the important issues that shape our world are in front of us, stand up and be counted. Use your voice.
Secondly, the ½ shekel… Pay your taxes and most importantly, donate to causes you believe in.
Lastly, regarding “Keeping the Shabbat.” It says …שבת וינפש – shabbat v’yinafash. “And God rested and was refreshed.” Wow, God needed rest and to be refreshed! If God is exhausted at the end of the week, I am in great company. If God needs some downtime, then so do I.
I started this post by saying “Every morning when I awake, I do a quick read of the news on my cellphone to make sure that the world is still spinning and that there hasn’t been a nuclear incident the night before that I somehow managed to sleep through.” If I slept through a nuclear incident, bad news will find me… I think it is time to chuck the cellphone first thing in the morning and to say the prayer “Modeh ani (I offer thanks)” instead. I am grateful that my soul returned to me and I don’t take it for granted. It’s a much better way to start the day.
A friend of the family emailed me that she had a friend who wanted to have an unveiling for her father in Los Angeles the following weekend. Could I help? As luck would have it, the unveiling turned out to be on the one Sunday all year that I was flying rather than driving to LA for school; moreover, the request was to meet at Hillside Memorial which is right by LAX. My grandparents, aunts and uncles are all buried there so it was familiar ground. Karen*, who lives in Sacramento, rose at 4 am and drove down to meet me at 10:30 am. She and I had never met but we hit it off right away. It took us 30 minutes to find the grave and the extensive, slightly humorous search allowed us to get to know each other. When we finally found the spot, we saw that the cemetery personnel had set up a semi-circle of five chairs in anticipation of other people attending.
Karen’s family is not religious but she was intent on marking the day in a Jewish way. We had planned that her husband and siblings would join us, but when the day arrived, it was just she and I. Her husband was recovering from an illness and her sister and brother-in-law were not able to make the journey. As we settled in, Karen was feeling a bit lonely and so she Facetimed her husband to show him the setting. I could see that she was intent on including him in a meaningful way and I suggested we also Facetime with her sister. Within a few minutes we had her husband on her phone and her sister and brother-in-law on mine. We faced two of the chairs opposite us on the other side of the grave and propped each of phones up on a chair so we could all see one another. Our circle came alive as we began. Karen and her sister told stories about their father, a famed designer and artist. They read poems they had written to honor the moment. We framed our gathering with prayers and readings provided by the cemetery and closed with the Kaddish. As I recited the Kaddish, my eyes closed, I could hear all of us in recitation together, sharing the moment as one. Our gathering was sacred and profoundly moving.
While at first glance, the idea of facilitating an unveiling via IPhone might seem strange, in today’s world, where we are much more mobile and where we often live great distances from where we were raised, this technology made a profound, memorable family gathering possible. When our oldest son moved to Southern California nine years ago, we thought our Friday night family Shabbat dinners would be a rare occurrence. But many Friday nights for the past nine years, at 7:30 pm on the dot, there he is on Skype. Sam leads us in Kiddush, we bless our children as a couple, and my husband leads us in Hamotzi. Frequently my father and stepmom Skype in from Idaho. Our multi-generational observance has strengthened over the years. What matters most is aided by the use of technology; spending time together as a family; living our lives by the rhythms and traditions of the Jewish calendar; and the transmission of Jewish values and heritage from one generation to another.
Whether it is Skyping the blessings as a family on Friday night, or coming together for an unveiling via IPhone, I am all for using technology to come together in community when we otherwise would lose the opportunity; to strengthen the bonds of family and friends; and to facilitate Jewish life and the milestone moments in our lives.