Living With Hope – Haftarah for Parashat Behar 5776

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.

V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge, a very narrow bridge…

But the main thing to recall, is to have no, have no fear at all.

This is possibly the most famous teaching of the great Hassidic Rebbe, Nachman of Bratslov.  It is so famous that Baruch Chait turned it into a song which any Jewish child who goes to summer camp or youth group learns by heart.

To be honest, until this week I never really thought about what it means.  “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.”  Ok.  I get that.  It is a metaphor for the precariousness of life.  It is difficult to know what the best path is, and we are constantly forced to choose between options that could plunge us over the side, not necessarily to literal destruction, but perhaps to spiritual oblivion.  A bit dramatic, but I can accept that.

“But the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.”  Stop.  That is ridiculous.  Despite the constant danger we face, we are supposed to banish all fear?  Is that really what Rebbe Nachman is saying?  Not only is it a virtually impossible ideal for most human beings, fear is a good thing.  Fear saves lives.  Come on, any ten year old who saw Inside Out knows that.

What is Rebbe Nachman talking about?

The problem is that the person who translated the song into English wanted to make sure that it would rhyme – “the main thing to recall is to have no hear at all.”

Conveniently, it also rhymes with the Hebrew.  Lo l’fached k’lal.  What does k’lal mean?  To be fair, it can mean “at all.”  But I don’t think that is what it means here.

The Hebrew of the verse is quite clever.  The word is repeated three times.  Listen carefully:  Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.  V’ha-ikar lo lefached k’lalKol, Kulo, and K’lal are all from the same root.

Let me suggest a more accurate translation: “The whole world in its entirety is a very narrow bridge.  And the main principle is not to be afraid…”

It could have ended right here.  But then we add the final word.  K’lal.

What is a k’lal?  A k’lal is an all-inclusive principal.  It is a synonym for ikar.  Here, I think it means “And the main principle is not to be afraid entirely.”  We should not be overwhelmed by fear.  Because fear can overwhelm us.

Fear can prevent us from taking action.  It can cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing things as they truly are.  Fear, if we are “entirely” afraid, destroys hope.

But fear also leads us to take risks.  It causes us to reach out to each other.  It inspires religious yearning.  Many of us respond to fear by turning to God.

This morning’s Haftarah, from the Book of Jeremiah, takes place during an extremely fearful time.  Jeremiah is a Prophet who lives during the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, through the reigns of its last four monarchs.  He witnesses the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and ultimately flees to Egypt with some of the other refugees.  He prophesizes a seventy year period of exile, followed by a return to the Holy Land and a restoration of Israel.

Throughout his career, Jeremiah is a reluctant Prophet.  The people hate him for his pronouncements of doom and destruction and his critique of their behavior, but they are never able to witness the deep love and compassion he feels for them.  The other Prophets ridicule Jeremiah, and the King cannot not stand him.  Along with his external challenges, Jeremiah lives with constant internal struggles.  He argues with God continually, lamenting his plight.  His is a truly tormented soul, but he is unable to prevent the Prophetic message from bursting forth.

As the reading begins, Jeremiah is languishing in prison in Jerusalem.  He is there for speaking truth to power.  Unlike the other court prophets, who are all “yes men,” telling King Zedekiah exactly what he wants to hear, Jeremiah speaks the word of God.

At the time, Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians.  Jeremiah issues a pronouncement that God intends to deliver the city into the enemy’s hands.  King Zedekiah himself will be taken captive and sent to Babylon, where King Nebuchadnezzar will triumph over him in person.

Needless to say, the Judean King does not like the message.  He expresses his displeasure by “shooting the messenger,” so to speak.  Jeremiah is thrown into prison.

Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel comes to visit him in prison, as Jeremiah has prophetically foreseen.  Hanamel, it seems, has fallen upon hard times and is no longer able to keep possession of the land that has been his ancestors’ since ancient times.

As we read about in the Torah portion, in ancient Israel, land is supposed to remain in the family.  If property must be sold off temporarily, it will be restored every half century during the Jubilee year.  Until the Jubilee year, however, other members of the family have the right to redeem the land themselves.  In fact, if they have the means to do so, it is an obligation to buy it back.  That is what Hanamel is asking Jeremiah, his heir, to do.  Hanamel cannot keep the land, so he asks his goel, his redeemer, to buy it from him.

It is not really a good time for Jeremiah.

First of all, he is in jail.  His future is uncertain.  Second, the property in question is in Anatot, which is a few kilometers north of Jerusalem.  By this point, the entire country has been ravaged by the Babylonians.  Many Israelites have already been sent into exile, and Jerusalem is under siege.  Finally, Jeremiah knows that he is going to personally go into exile.

Generally speaking, these are not good conditions for real estate speculation.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah purchases the land for seventeen shekels of silver.  He weighs out the money, writes up a contract, and has it witnessed and signed.  Next, he deposits the contract with his personal secretary, Barukh ben Neriah in front of his cousin and the witnesses.  He instructs Barukh to place the document in an earthen vessel so that it will remain safe and unharmed for many years.

Is Jeremiah crazy?  Or is he just a terrible businessman?

Perhaps his statement at the conclusion of the business transaction explains what is going through Jeremiah’s mind.  He declares, “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.'”  (Jer. 32:15)

What could possibly explain Jeremiah’s decision?  In a single word: hope.  Tikvah.

Jeremiah knows, better than anyone, the direness of the situation.  He knows that God has chosen the Babylonians as a Divine instrument to punish Israel for its sinfulness.  He knows that he and many of his brothers and sisters will be forced to leave their land.  He also knows that they will remain in exile for generations – seventy years in all.  But in those seventy years, the Babylonian Empire will fall.  The descendants of the exiles, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be restored.

Jeremiah’s hopeful realism contrasts with the foolishness of the rest of the nation.  The people, the prophets, and the King do not want to hear Jeremiah’s truth.  Instead, they would rather hear false assurances that things are about to turn around.  The Babylonians will fall and Israel will be made great again.  This is not hope, but wishful thinking.  This is fear blinding the masses from the reality of their situation.

In the second half of the Haftarah, Jeremiah offers a prayer to God.  He recounts God’s power as the Creator of the world, extols God’s compassion, and recalls how God freed the Israelites from slavery and brought them to the Land of Milk and Honey.  Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the people have persisted in not following God’s instructions, leading to the current  crisis.  Jeremiah ends his prayer with a statement that is either a question or a challenge.  “Yet you, Lord God, said to me: Buy the land for money and call in witnesses-when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans!”

God’s response:  “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too wondrous for Me?”  The Haftarah ends here, but God’s response to Jeremiah continues, explaining how the people will eventually return and the land will flourish once again.

While the present situation is bleak, Jeremiah has not given up hope.  He redeems his family’s property now, knowing that he will never personally set foot on it.  But he has hope that his descendants will, one day, make their return.

We are a people that has lived with hope for thousands of years.  Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, “The Hope,” expresses it beautifully.

Od lo avda tikvateinu, Hatikvah bat sh’not alfayim.  “Our hope is still not lost, the hope of two thousand years.”  Through thousands of years of exile, during some very bleak times, the Jewish people has always had hope.

This is what Rebbe Nachman, living in his difficult times, might have been thinking about.  Despite the darkness, despite the narrowness, the seeming lack of options, we must not be overwhelmed by fear.  We must keep hope.

This is a powerful message for us not only as a nation, but as individual human beings.

We each face a lot of difficulties over the course of our lives.  Sickness, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, deaths of loved ones.  Some of us have lived through war and persecution.  We have faced financial struggles.  The difficulties we experience sometimes persist for many years.  And some people seem to face more than their share.

Do we have the ability, like Jeremiah, to redeem land in the face of despair.  Can we maintain our hope during dark times?

Can we heed the encouragement of Rebbe Nachman?  Even though the world is a narrow bridge, sometimes vanishingly narrow, can we avoid being consumed by fear?

 

Yitro: The Anti-Amalekite, Yitro 5776

The Torah can be a confusing book.  Sometimes, the confusion jumps right off the page.  Other times, it only becomes apparent when we start to pay close attention to the details.  But it is the perplexing parts that make our holy book so interesting.  In seeking explanations, we sometimes discover the most profound of God’s lessons for us.

Parashat Yitro is comprised of two major sections.  Chapter eighteen describes Moses’ reunion with his father-in-law Yitro and the establishment of a hierarchical court system.  Chapters nineteen and twenty describe the Israelites’ preparations prior to and receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.

But there is a problem.  These events seem to be out of chronological order.  Is this surprising – the notion that the Torah might have been intentionally written out of order?  Nearly two thousand years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud considered the possibility.  (BT Zevachim 116a)

The parashah begins, vayishma Yitro – “Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people…”  (Ex. 18:1)  “What was it, exactly that he heard?” the Talmud asks, adding that whatever it was, it led him to come immediately to the Israelite camp and convert.  As expected, there is a disagreement.  Rabbi Yehoshua claims that he heard about the Israelites’ victory, with God’s help, over the Amalekites, prompting him to come right away.  Rabbi Elazar Hamoda’i disagrees.  He claims that it was the news of God’s revelation to the Israelites at Mount Sinai that prompted Yitro’s visit.

The first rabbi holds that the story is chronological, and Yitro’s appearance is connected to the preceding battle against Amalek.  The second rabbi holds that the story is out of order, and that Yitro actually arrives some time later, although he does not explain precisely why the text appears this way.

The twelfth century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra describes the numerous inconsistencies in the Torah which leads him to the same conclusion, but he offers a reason why.

First of all, chapter eighteen describes Yitro coming to meet Moses at the Israelite encampment at the base of Mount Sinai, but the Torah does not indicate their arrival there until later, in chapter nineteen.

Two.  As part of the reunion Yitro brings burnt offerings and freewill sacrifices to God, but so far no altar has been built.  That will not happen until chapter twenty four, after the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Three.  On their second day together, Yitro observes Moses sitting in judgment of the people all day long.  They are coming to him to inquire of God and settle their disputes.  When asked, Moses describes what he is doing:  v’hoda’ti et chukei elohim v’et Torotav – “I make known the laws and teachings of God.”  (Ex. 18:16)  The only problem is, the Torah has not been given yet, so what laws and teachings exactly is Moses making known to them?

Four.  In the Book of Numbers, we again read of Yitro spending time in the Israelite camp.  There, it describes how he declines Moses’ request to travel with them and serve as their guide.  Then, he departs in “the second month of the second year after the Exodus.” (Numbers. 10:11)  It would seem that the account of Yitro’s departure in this morning’s parashah describes the same thing, meaning that it took place some time after the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Further support for this claim appears in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Moses retells the story of the establishment of the judicial system, he describes it immediately before telling how the Israelites set out on their journey from Mt. Sinai after have encamped there for over a year.

Taking all of these inconsistencies into consideration, Ibn Ezra concludes that this morning’s Torah portion is not in chronological order.

But he does not have a problem with that.  According to Ibn Ezra, interrupting the narrative serves an intentional purpose.  At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we read of the evil perpetrated by the Amalekites.  They attacked Israel from the rear, targeting the weak stragglers.  Israel has to go to war.  Through God’s miraculous help, they are victorious.  Afterwards, God announces that God will forever be at war against Amalek.

Chronologically, the Israelites then travel from here to Mt. Sinai, where they prepare to receive God’s revelation.  But first – to us as readers – a point must be made.  The out-of-place story of Yitro makes this point.  Yitro, a Midianite Priest, is juxtaposed to the Amalekites.  Ibn Ezra explains that the Midianites and the Amalekites come from the same place.  They grow up together.  And yet, they develop radically different national characteristics.  Amalek becomes the embodiment of evil, while Midian embodies wisdom and kindness.

Internal biblical evidence supports this.  The Midianites have good relations with the Israelites, as evidenced by several stories that appear elsewhere.  In the Book of Samuel, for example, before King Saul attacks the Amalekites, he first instructs a Midianite tribe called the Kenites to evacuate the war zone because they had shown “kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.”  (I Sam. 15:6)

This contrast emphasizes that not all non-Israelites are bad.  In fact some of them can be quite good.

This might seem obvious to us.  But remember, we are living in a post-Enlightenment era, in which values of humanism and universal ethics are broadly accepted.  In Ibn Ezra’s time, and in Biblical times, one could not say the same thing.  A person’s group identity was existentially important.  The notion that an individual should be valued on his or her own merits, rather than based on his her membership in a group, is a modern concept.

But there still exists in us much of the pre-modern.  How often do we paint people with broad brushstrokes, making assumptions about others based on their religion, or ethnicity, or birthplace, or where they went to school?  One need only read the paper or watch the news to find our most prominent national figures doing just that.  I suspect that if each of us examined ourselves, we would also find that we are not immune to stereotyping others.

It is significant that, immediately after reading God’s declaration of holy war against Amalek, we encounter Yitro, a non-Jewish priest who gave his daughter in marriage to our greatest prophet.  He is depicted as generous, kind, and wise.  And, he grew up side by side with the Amalekites.  This should serve as an important reminder about the need to check our anger, our suspicions, and our assumptions about others and not allow them to overwhelm us.

After all, our Torah delays the story of God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai in order to tell us about this man: Yitro.

Pesach or Granola Bars – Bo 5776

Imagine that you are an Israelite in Egypt.  You were born a slave.  Your parents and their parents were also slaves.  But that is about to change.

This man, Moses, has recently appeared with his brother Aaron insisting that God remembers the promise made to your ancestors long ago, and that the time has come for to go free from Egypt and travel to the land of Canaan to fulfill your destiny.

With a healthy dose of skepticism, you tentatively go along with the prediction.  But after Moses and Aaron come back from their first trip to the palace, the Egyptians double your workload.  Thus begins a series of plagues that strike the Egyptians but miraculously leave you and your fellow Israelites alone.

Nine plagues pass: blood, frogs, lice, and so on, all the way to darkness.  The Egyptian people are beaten down.  Rumors abound that Pharaoh’s court is in an uproar, with his closest advisors begging him to finally give in to Moses’ demands.  But Pharaoh persists in his stubbornness.

Finally, Moses enters the Israelite slums and instructs you to get ready.  There is going to be one more plague, and it is going to be a nasty one.  God will release the Angel of Destruction against Egypt, and it is going to kill every first born creature, from the lowliest slave to the heir to Pharaoh himself.  The Angel will strike at night, and you will be on your way out of Egypt the next morning.

He tells you how to get ready.  On the tenth day of the month, each Israelite household must select an unblemished one-year-old lamb.  Four days later, you have got to slaughter and roast it whole.  You must collect the blood and use it to paint the doorposts and lintels of your homes.  That way, God will protect your own first born from the Angel of Destruction, who tends to get carried away whenever he is released.

You’ve got until sunrise the next morning to eat the roast lamb.  No leftovers are allowed.  Anything you cannot manage to finish must be burnt up.  That is why, for those of you with small households, Moses tells you to join together with other households to share.

By the way, you’ve got to eat it in your traveling clothes, loins girded and staff in hand.  This is a Pesach to God.

And to make sure that you remember what is about to happen, you’ve got to celebrate this festival every year going forward throughout the generations.

Everything happens as Moses has said.  Early the next morning, you are on your way out of Egypt, and you realize that you have not managed to gather any provisions for the journey.  Other than the unleavened bread that you are carrying on your back, you and your fellow Israelites have not even packed a lunch!

What are you thinking about now?  Possibly something along the lines of: “Should not Moses have given us more practical instructions instead of a ritual barbecue?  Our time might have been better spent packing some granola bars.”

Rashi sees their lack of preparedness as exceedingly praiseworthy.  Israel’s faith in God is so complete that they are willing to embark on a journey into the desert with no supplies whatsoever.

Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, always a practical commentator, disagrees.  They did not prepare any provisions for themselves, he says, and consequently, they ended up complaining about the lack of food and water.

Given that Moses insisted they not spend their final night packing supplies for a trip into the desert, we have to assume that this final meal in Egypt was pretty important.

A midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:2) explains that the Israelites, living for centuries in Egypt, have been influenced by the dominant culture and have begun worshipping the local gods.  As the time for the Exodus approaches, God turns to Moses and says, “As long as they continue to worship idols, they cannot be redeemed.  You’ve got to tell them to change their evil ways and atone for their idolatry.”

So Moses instructs the Israelites to offer a lamb on the night before the redemption is to take place.  Why a lamb?  According to the midrash, the lamb is venerated and worshipped by the Egyptians.  By offering it as a sacrifice to God and personally eating it themselves, the Israelites make a formal symbolic break with the practices of Egypt and make themselves worthy of redemption.

The medieval Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, believed in the power of astrology to both predict the future and to intervene in worldly events.  It was forbidden for Jews to do so, but it worked.  To the midrash, Nachmanides adds that the 10th of Nisan, when the Israelites are instructed to select the lamb, coincides with the ascension of the astrological sign of Aries, whose symbol is a ram.  By offering a young ram as a sacrifice, the Israelites symbolically declare that their redemption is not due to the influence of any astrological phenomena, celestial beings, or other gods.  God, the Lord of the Cosmos, who set all of the heavenly hosts in their places, is the One who personally redeemed Israel from Egypt.

This final meal is important psychologically for the Israelites.  They need to make a break from their past enslavement to Pharaoh, so that they can embrace their future as a free people in service to God.

It is especially poignant that while they are conducting their sacred meal, the Angel of Destruction is being let loose upon the  rest of Egypt, demonstrating once and for all that God is God and Pharaoh is not.

It is also significant that the Israelites share the meal together.  Entire families sit down to eat the special food.  Children ask their parents about the significance of what is happening.  Those without large families, or who cannot afford their own lamb, are invited to join the households that are larger and more prosperous.  Nobody is left out.

It must have been an incredibly emotional night, which is why the Torah instructs us to continue observing it throughout the generations.  It describes that night as leil shimurim, “a night of vigil” for both God and the children of Israel.  A night on which God protected the homes of our ancestors, God’s people, the Israelites.

Should the Israelites have spent their final night packing supplies for their journey?  If they had, they would have left Egypt still slaves, still immersed in the corrupt culture that surrounded them.  Their bellies might have been full for a while, but their spirits would not have been free.  The Israelites needed a powerful symbolic action to begin the process of becoming the Jewish people.  The first seder, conducted on the night before our ancestors left Egypt, was that action.  It is an action that, to this day, we continue to reenact each year.

Migrations – Lekh L’kha 5776

Lekh L’kha  Go forth!  Parashat Lekh Lekha is a parashah of migrations.  From beginning to end, its characters leave behind their past and set out for the unknown.  They are driven to do so by the same causes that lead people today to become immigrants: religion, culture, economic opportunity, famine, war, and persecution.

The story actually begins at the end of last week’s parashah, when we first encounter Avram.  (He has not yet had his name changed to Avraham).  His family hails from a place called Ur Kasdim.  We are not exactly sure where it is.  It is either the major city of Ur which is located in Southern Iraq on the coast of the Persian Gulf, or it is a smaller town in Upper Mesopotamia.

Avram’s father, Terach, moves the entire household – including Avram, his two brothers, and their respective households – intending to eventually settle in the Land of Canaan.  For some reason, they stop in a place called Haran.

Haran was a major station along the caravan route between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Sea.  It is located about ten miles North of the present border between Syria and Turkey.  The Torah does not tell us what prompted Terach to move the family from Ur Kasdim, nor do we know why they interrupt their migration in Haran.  We do know that the rest of Avram’s family remains in Haran.  Only he completes the journey that his father had begun.

This morning’s parashah begins with God’s revelation to seventy five year old Avram.  Lekh L’kha – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God has big plans for Avram.

Avram responds with alacrity, setting out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and a rather large but unnamed retinue of followers that they managed to acquire while in Haran.  It is not a short journey, and Avram does not stop when he reaches the border.  Rather, he continues his migration until he arrives in Shechem (known today as Nablus).  This is the physical center of the land that God has promised his descendants as an inheritance.

Soon after arriving in Shechem and building an altar to God, Avram continues moving south for another 20 miles, pitching his tent in the hill country east of Beit El, where he builds another altar.  He then continues south by stages until he reaches the Negev, probably near Beer-Sheva.  By now, Avram has traversed the entire length of the Promised Land, from North to South.

How might we describe this migration?  What is Avram abandoning, and what is he hoping to find when he reaches his destination?  The Torah’s emphasis on leaving behind his native land and his father’s house suggests that there is something culturally or morally unsavory about his birthplace.  Although we know nothing about Avram’s first seventy five years of life in Haran, many midrashim fill in the gaps.  Legends abound describing Terach’s idolatry, the deviousness of the local King Nimrod, and the rampant idolatry of Babylonian culture.

Remaining in Haran will subject Avram and his progeny to bad influences which will prevent the realization of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation.  To fulfill his destiny, Avram needs to make a clean break with his culture of origin.

We might describe this move as a religious migration.  But perhaps it also might be akin to moving to a better neighborhood, where Avram’s family will have access to higher quality schools, less crime, and a more cohesive communal environment.

It does not take long for a new situation to arise which will force Avram to pack up his tent and move his household once again.  The land is struck by a famine.  Israel is dependent on seasonal rains.  Several years of poor rainfall, therefore, are disastrous and result in famine.  In contrast, Egypt receives its water from the annual flooding of the Nile River, which is a much more reliable source.  While the text only mentions Avram, it is safe to assume that his household is just one of a deluge of refugees fleeing south to Egypt for food.

The typical experience of refugees is not a pleasant one.  They usually find discrimination in their host countries.  If refugees end up settling permanently in their new countries, it often takes several generations before full assimilation and acceptance is reached.

Avram somehow defies the usual pattern and acquires great wealth during his time in Egypt. In 1848, a Potato Famine prompted the massive immigration of nearly one million Irish to the United States.  In the mid 1980’s a massive famine and war in Ethiopia caused the deaths of over one million people.  Six hundred thousand fled Ethiopia for Sudan, where they remained in refugee camps for several years before finally returning home.

One of the factors in the current Syrian refugee crisis is a famine that has been exacerbated, or even perhaps caused by war.

When the famine ends, Avram returns with his family to his former home east of Beit El.  There, his situation seems to stabilize for a short time.  At this point, Avram has huge flocks.  His nephew Lot has also managed to become wealthy.  Both of them send their herds out into the surrounding fields each day.  Soon, their respective shepherds are quarreling with one another over access to grazing land.

Avram recognizes that the status quo cannot continue, so he offers his nephew a choice.  “This is a fertile land, with plenty of room for both of us.  We just can’t stay here in the same place.  Pick where you want to go,” he says.  “If you go right, I’ll go left.  If you go left, I’ll go right.”  Lot chooses to settle in Sodom, where he has access to the lush Jordan River plain.  Avram stays put.

This migration is not the result of a crisis.  Quite the opposite.  Avram and Lot have become too wealthy, and they need to expand their markets.  Lot moves so that he can have access to better economic opportunities.

God appears once again to Avram, reiterating the blessing.  Afterwards, Avram moves his tent to the terebinths of Mamre, near Hebron.  Again, the Torah does not give us a specific reason for Avram’s move, but like his original journey into the Land of Canaan, it seems to be a religious migration.

Lot, meanwhile, gets caught up in a war when the cities of the Jordan Valley, including Sodom, rebel against their vassal overlords to the east.  The rebel cities are defeated and the conquering armies plunder them and take their residents as spoils of war.  When Avram hears that Lot has been taken captive, he assembles a small army and launches a rescue mission.  His risky venture takes him all the way to Dan, which is located at the far northern point of the Land of Israel, on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  He then goes on a night raid to a location north of Damascus.

The mission is successful, and Avram manages to defeat the enemy armies and rescue his nephew, along with all of the other prisoners who have been forcibly removed from their homes.

We see in this story another kind of migration – one prompted by war.  In this case, residents are taken and enslaved by their conquerors.  As we are seeing vividly right now with the millions of Syrian refugees, people tend to flee from war-torn areas.

The final migration occurs towards the end of the parashahSarai is unable to get pregnant, and so she gives her handmaiden Hagar to Avram to bear a child in her name.  When Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise in the household, and Sarai begins to treat Hagar harshly.  We don’t know how bad the mistreatment was, but it was enough to cause Hagar to flee.  She heads south, embarking on the Road to Shur, which leads eventually to Egypt.  Along the way, an angel of God appears to Hagar and reassures her that God will bless her son.  In the meantime, she should go back to Sarai and “submit to her harsh treatment.”

This is not an optimistic text, but it illustrates another cause of migration: persecution.  How many millions of Americans came to this country fleeing religious persecution?!  It is what brought the original Pilgrims.  The rise of modern Zionism came about when Theodore Herzl and the other early leaders realized that the persecution of the Jewish people in the Diaspora was not going to go away.  The Jewish people needed a homeland where Jews could immigrate.  Sadly, Herzl’s prediction that the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel would eliminate antisemitism in the Diaspora has proved to be incorrect, and Jews continue to immigrate to Israel because of persecution.

The reasons that compel a person to leave his or her home and move to a strange new place have not changed in four thousand years.  We immigrate because we want better lives for ourselves and our families.  We want to provide our children with safer environments in which to learn and play.  We move to find better economic opportunities.  Sometimes, we flee dangerous situations like war and famine.  And we leave places in which we face discrimination in favor of communities that will accept us as we are.

All of these factors lead the characters in Parashat Lekh L’kha to become immigrants, just as they lead people in our world today to seek better lives in new lands.

While the reasons to immigrate may be the same, in our world, some of the barriers have changed.

Globalization and technology have made it much easier to travel from one place to another.  A journey that once might have taken an entire year can be accomplished in less than a day.  Images of drowned children vividly demonstrate how dangerous the world can be for someone who is fleeing their homeland in desperation.

While antagonism towards immigrants is certainly still with us, multicultural attitudes in many countries in the world allow for an easier welcome and integration than in earlier centuries.

And yet, legal bureaucracies and quotas place significant obstacles before immigrants.  I doubt Avram was asked to produce his passport and visa when he crossed the border into the Land of Canaan.

Let us each think about our own family history.  How did we get to this country?  On my father’s side, my family immigrated to the United States after surviving World War Two and the Holocaust.  My mother’s ancestors arrived a generation or two earlier with millions of other Jews from Eastern Europe who were fleeing persecution.  My parents migrated from Southern California to the Bay Area, to Atlanta, and finally to Seattle as they sought better economic opportunities and a healthy environment to raise my brother and I.

Illegal immigration is a serious challenge in our world.  There are currently over eleven million undocumented people in the United States.  European countries are facing hundred of thousands of Syrians crossing their borders.  Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon.  Huge influxes of immigrants has the potential to be destabilizing for a country, especially when that country does not do a good job of assimilating the newcomers.  I don’t have answers to these challenges, but as a people whose founders are immigrants, we ought to approach the issue with compassion and understanding.

Memory, Gratitude, and the Promised Land – Ki Tavo 5775

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Israelite.  Your parents, along with their ancestors, were slaves in Egypt.  Nearly forty years ago, God freed them and brought them out into the wilderness.  You were born in that wilderness, and have spent your entire life living a precarious existence: in-between, dependent on God for food, water, and protection; no longer enslaved, but not truly in control of your destiny.

Finally, you are within striking distance of the final destination, the Land of Israel.  The Jordan River flows in front of you, and on the other side you can see hills rising up into the distance

Your leader, Moses, old and weathered, called the entire nation together to hear a series of final speeches, which you have been listening to for the past several days.  He reviewed the history of the previous forty years, taught about God, and listed commandment after commandment.

At this point, it’s enough already.  You’re exhausted.  You’re bored of eating manna for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  You’re sick of living a nomadic existence.  You want to settle down.  You’ve bean hearing about the Promised Land your entire life.  It’s time that someone made good on that promise.

This morning, you roll out of your tent to hear yet another speech.  But today, Moses shifts gears.  He leads you through a mental time travel journey.

‘Right now,’ he begins, ‘you are about to enter the land that God has promised you.  You will settle it, and you will begin to build your lives.  You will construct homes, and you will plant seeds.  When the first harvest comes in, you need to do something.  Gather samples of the first fruits from everything you plant and bring them in a basket to the Priest.  And then, recite the following speech:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26: 5–10)

It looks like it’s finally about to happen.

Notice there are three distinct time periods in this narrative: the present, in which Moses is speaking to the assembled Israelite nation; the not-too-distant future, after the Israelites have settled the land and gathered their first harvest; and the distant past, beginning with the first Israelites who made their way down to Egypt and were enslaved.

Present, future, and past – all existing in a single moment.

In the current reality, the Israelites can imagine themselves in the Promised Land.  They can see it, just ahead – across a river and over the hills.

But Moses, who will not be joining them there, is not content to let them simply arrive.  In fact, he knows that if they just show up, the Promised Land will slip through their fingers.  Two more things are needed – memory and gratitude.

The Israelites will not be able to appreciate the full extent of what they have achieved unless they keep the memory of where they have come from alive.  They need to express that memory with gratitude.  Only then can the achievement of the Promised Land be real for them.  So Moses prescribes a thanksgiving offering of first fruits to be accompanied by the performance of a historical narrative.

And here we are, thousands of years later, in yet a fourth time period.

Let’s think about this in personal terms.  Our lives are comprised of a series of journeys with numerous destinations.  We have had struggles on our way.  Successes, failures, disappointments, and surprises.  But hopefully, we have managed to articulate goals for ourselves.  Some of them we achieve.  Others remain elusive.

There are the big life goals: Have close friends.  Fall in love.  Get married.  Have kids.  Have grandkids.  Get a degree.  Build a career.  And so on.

And there are character goals – Be a kind person.  Be a supportive friend.  Be generous.  Contribute positively to the world.  Develop expertise in something.

Often, when we finally get what we want, we find that it is not the same as what we have built up in our minds.  The hype overshadows the reality.  Or, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for our successes.  We are disappointed.

We are asked us to put ourselves into the sandals of our ancient Israelite ancestors.  Partially-redeemed, able to imagine a Promised Land that is full of blessing, but required to recall the past with gratitude before we can fully experience that future in a sustainable way.

Rosh Hashanah is just over a week away.  It is a time when we consider the journeys that we are on.  Where are we headed?  Do we need to perform a course-correction?

Let’s also consider where we have come from.  Who do we have to be thankful to?  What blessings that we had nothing to do with have made our lives and the lives of those who have come before us better.  What can we offer as an expression of gratitude?

Only by taking the time to remember where we have come from, and how truly blessed we are, can we fully appreciate what we have to gain in the future.

The Origin of the Hebrew Calendar – Bo 5775

Parashat Bo continues the story of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, demanding that the King of Egypt allow the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship God.  As he refuses, they announce each calamity that God is about to bring upon the Egyptians.  The devastation wrought by the plagues on Egypt worsens, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness begins to show cracks.  He offers to let just the men go, but then he changes his mind.  Then he agrees that the children and the elderly can go as well, but he backtracks once again.  Finally, Moses announces that the entire nation is simply going to leave with all of their belongings.  Furthermore, Pharaoh himself will supply the cattle that will be used as offerings to God.

Moses declares the upcoming tenth plague, the death of all first born humans and animals in the land of Egypt, and then the Torah takes a break.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying the following:

Hachodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lakhem l’chodshei hashanah

This chodesh shall be for you the head of the chodashim, it shall be first for you of the chodashim of the year.  (Exodus 12:2)

Our tradition understands this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.  Because of its position as number one, and because it interrupts this dramatic story, we can assume that it is telling us something highly significant.

Indeed, this verse is the origin of the Hebrew calendar.  The Rabbis do some very close reading to explain how the Hebrew calendar, which came into existence long before they came along, is rooted in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron are told that this chodesh will serve as the first chodesh of the year.  But what is a chodesh?

Chodesh is from the same root as chadash, meaning new.  The chodesh is something that is mitchadesh, that experiences renewal.

The appearance of the moon changes from one day to the next, such that it renews itself once per month.  The sun, on the other hand, appears the same each day.  Thus, the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Megillah 5a) explain that we count the year by months, rather than by days.  The term chodshei hashanah, the months of the year, illustrate this requirement.  This is why our calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar.

But this leads to several problems.

A lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.976 seconds, approximately.  Twelve months is 354 days and a fraction.  This would make a lunar year about 11 days shorter than a solar year.  If we were to follow just a lunar system, the months, and the Jewish holidays, would float across the seasons, taking about 33 years to return full-circle to the season in which they started.  That is, in fact, how the Muslim calendar works.

Deuteronomy states shamor et chodesh ha-Aviv v’asita Pesach.  “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your God freed you from Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 16:1).  Aviv is the only named month in the Torah.  It literally means “new ears of grain” because it is the month in which the ears of grain first appear.  If the calendar were to float over the course of the seasons, then we would not be observing Passover during Aviv.

Furthermore, with regard to Succot, the Torah says b’asaf’cha et ma’asecha min hasadeh – “when you bring in your produce from the field.”  This means that Succot must always take place at the time of the fall harvest.  Therefore, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain, we have to occasionally make an adjustment by adding a thirteenth month.  (BT Rosh Hashanah 7a)  In this way, we will be able to celebrate Passover and Succot in the appropriate seasons.

In ancient times, the adjustments would be made based on the observance of spring-like changes.  If the trees had not yet begun to blossom or barley had not yet started ripening, then the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court that met in the Temple, would delay the beginning of the year by adding a thirteenth month.  The additional month, following Adar, we now refer to as Adar Bet.

Now that we have a fixed calendar, the addition of the extra month happens on a predetermined schedule, seven times out of every nineteen years.

But there is another problem.  When is the Jewish new year?

In the Mishnah, we read that there are actually four, or maybe even five new years, each marking something different.  Nisan is the New Year for counting holidays and for kings.  Tishrei is the new year for counting years, sabbatical and jubilee years, and for several other agricultural purposes. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The Talmud records an argument between two rabbis about when the creation of the world occurred.  One Rabbi says that it happened in Nisan.  The other says it happened in Tishrei.  So we seem to have some ambiguity.

In the Torah, the new year occurs on the first day of the month we know as Nisan.  This is the same month as the month of Aviv I just mentioned.  The Torah, indeed most of the Bible, does not have names for any of the months.  Instead, it references the month number, always referring back to the month in which the Israelites went out of Egypt.

For example, what we refer to as Rosh Hashanah, occurring on the first of Tishrei, is instead name Yom Teruah, a Day of Blasting, and takes place on the first day of the seventh month.  When the Israelites get to Mount Sinai and camp out around the base, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah states:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.  (Exodus 19:1)

The Book of Numbers begins as follows:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…  (Number 1:1)

Centuries later, the Bible continues to look back to this moment.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the month of Ziv―that is, the second month―in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.  (I Kings 6:1)

Throughout the Bible, whenever dates are referenced, it is by a number counting back to the first of Nisan in the year in which the Israelites left Egypt.

What we know as the Hebrew months (Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet…) do not appear until later books of the Bible, such as Esther.  In fact, the “Hebrew months” are in fact Persian names which were assimilated into the Jewish calendar at some point late in the Biblical era.

Why is all of this important?  Couldn’t the Israelites haves simply taken the Egyptian calendar with them, or adopted the Canaanite calendar?  Why did our ancient ancestors need to have a different calendar?  Why is it important for us to continue to keep a different calendar?

How we measure time is extremely important.  Having a Jewish calendar, and marking our years according to it, distinguishes us, especially when we are living in a society that counts time differently.

The twelfth century Torah commentator Rashbam explains that the calendar is oriented in this way so that we always have the Exodus from Egypt in our consciousness.  The Exodus is the formative moment of the Jewish people.  Its memory is supposed to have a profound effect on our lives, both individually and collectively.

As we read in the Haggadah for Passover, we are instructed to recall the Exodus all the days of our lives, and even the nights.  We mention it in our daily prayers.  We connect it to Shabbat by calling it zekher liztziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, when we recite Kiddush.  And, our calendar itself also reminds us of that formative event.

Nachmanides points out that when the Torah states “this month shall be for you…” it puts things into a relative context that is particular to the Jewish people.  While Tishrei might be the universal month of creation, and the month from which we count the earth itself, we are also to think of time in its relationship to our particular story.  Our story began when our ancestors first became free.

Being conscious of Jewish time offers great meaning for our lives.  We count our week from Yom Rishon, the first day, up to Yom Shishi, the sixth day, keeping ourselves oriented towards the day of rest throughout the week.  We mark our months by the waxing and waning of the moon, and experience renewal every 29 or 30 days.  We remember our exodus from Egypt, and express our gratitude for freedom by caring for those who are suffering.  And we mark the yearly birthday of the world, marveling at the miracle of Creation and committing ourselves to do better and be more.

That is what it means to live in Jewish time.

Va’era 5775 – France Without Jews is not France

We are still in shock over the murders by Islamic terrorists a week and a half ago of Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and François-Michel Saada as they were doing some last-minute shopping before Shabbat.  Those killings, along with the attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been a wake-up call.  Much soul-searching is taking place in France, and around the world.

It seems that some people outside of the Jewish community are finally recognizing that there is a connection between antisemitic attitudes and rhetoric and terrorism – that ignoring the former will invariably lead to the latter.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared last week that “France without Jews is not France.”  To back up this sentiment, he announced on Monday that 10,000- military troops would be deployed to protect sensitive sites, and that 4,700 police officers would protect Jewish schools and synagogues.

At the rally in Paris last Sunday of a million and a half people, in addition to signs declaring “Je suis Charlie,” there were some that read “Je suis Juif.”  I am Jewish.

I imagine it must be at least somewhat reassuring to French Jews to have both the leaders of the country as well as some of its citizens taking their safety seriously and making commitments to protect them because they recognize that French Jews are citizens of the country who make up an important and integral part of the national fabric.

Not everyone is so hopeful.  On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, attending the rally in Paris, explicitly invited the Jews of France to move to Israel.  “Israel is your home,” he said.  This was not the first time that an Israeli leader urged French Jews to make aliyah.  In 2012, at a joint press conference with President Francois Hollande, Netanyahu said:  “In my role as Prime Minister of Israel, I always say to Jews, wherever they may be, I say to them: Come to Israel and make Israel your home.”

It has not only been Netanyahu.  At a ceremony in 2004 welcoming new immigrants from France, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advised French Jews to “move immediately” to Israel to escape “the wildest antisemitism” in France.

The French were not pleased then either.

There is something of a rhetorical tug of war going on here between those who say that “France without Jews is not France,” and those who claim that there is no future for Judaism there.

This is not the first time the Jewish people have faced this question.  In this morning’s Torah portion, Va-era, there is also a tug of war over the future of the children of Israel.  At the opening of the parashah, they are enslaved in Egypt.  God has identified Moses as the prophet who will carry the message “Let my people go” to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery and to the Promised Land.

Not everyone wants to see the Israelites leave, however.  Pharaoh and his court, certainly, do not want to see their enslaved workforce disappear.  The Israelites themselves are skeptical of Moses’ insistence that God is going to lead them away.  They prefer an enslaved life that they know to an uncertain life of freedom.

God knows, however, that there is no future for Israel in the land of Egypt.

God hears the groaning of the Israelites and remembers the commitment made to their ancestors generations before.  God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that their offspring would be as numerous as the stars and would one day inherit the land of Israel.  They would be a blessing to the world.  This is a destiny that cannot be fulfilled by slaves in a foreign land.

God tells Moses:

Say… to the Israelite people…  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:6-7)

These four verbs – “I will free you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will take you” – are the four stages of redemption that our Passover Seder identifies as the basis of the four cups of wine.

In this redemption, freedom is only part of God’s promise.  God also means to build a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people.  Central to that covenant is the establishment of a Jewish society in the Promised Land.  Only then can the Jewish people become what God has intended for them to become.  Only then will they realize their potential and flourish.

This tug of war in the Torah between slavery and freedom, between Egypt and Israel, is black and white.  In the millennia since our ancestors first became free, the question of where the Jewish people can best flourish has been more complicated.  Maimonides, fleeing persecution in Spain and then Morocco, made his way to the land of Israel.  There, he found a backwards Jewish community in which he did not see a future.  So he kept going South and settled in the thriving Jewish community of Fustat, Egypt.

We are a people that is both rooted in our Promised Land, and capable of bringing our faith and identity with us wherever we go.  We have been successful at it, developing tight-knit communities whose members support one another and are a force for good in their surrounding environments.

Part of the importance of the State of Israel today is that it truly functions as the homeland of the Jewish people.  Robert Frost said “Home is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  Israel is that home for Jews, wherever we happen to be living right now.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, it has opened its doors to refugees from the Holocaust, masses of Jews fleeing pogroms in North Africa and the Middle East, Jews of the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.  “Welcome home,” Israel said.

So what of the Jews of France today?

The Jewish community in France is significant.  There are an estimated 500,000 Jews living in France.  The is the largest community in Europe and the third largest in the world.  It is a diverse, cosmopolitan community, comprised of Jews across the religious spectrum – from secular to ultra-Orthodox, and everything in between.

The last few years have seen a rise in acts of antisemitism.  This has led to increasing numbers of French Jews deciding to move to Israel.  Last year, nearly 7,000 French Jews made aliyah, more than double the previous year.  With continued anti-Jewish violence, that number is expected to be even higher this year, perhaps as many as 10,000.

When we consider the long history of Judaism in France, it is particularly sad that the community finds itself facing so much pressure now, because France has really come a long way.

The first Jews probably arrived about 2,000 years ago.  Attracted by economic opportunities, they did well in the early middle ages.  Charlemagne embraced the Jews, seeing them as a blessing to his kingdom.

The Crusades brought new attitudes across Europe.  Rulers stoked antisemitism, and peasants took out their frustrations on their vulnerable Jewish neighbors.

The persecutions began around the year 1000 CE.  Jewish communities were often confronted with the choice of conversion to Christianity, death, or exile.  Several waves of expulsions took place in 1182, 1306, and 1394.  Jews often had property and assets seized, or debt owed to them cancelled.  Blood libel accusations were frequent.

Don’t think, however, that it was all bad – that the middle ages were centuries upon centuries of pure suffering.  Also during this time, there were Jewish communities that thrived, enjoying prosperity and cultural flowering.  Some of the most important Jewish leaders and thinkers in history came from France.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, more commonly known as Rashi, is the most important commentator of the Torah and Talmud in Jewish history.  He lived and taught in Troyes, in Northern France in the eleventh century and gave rise to a school of innovative Jewish thinkers that flourished for several generations.

As the years passed, the Jews of France, as they were everywhere else in the world, were seen as other, and treated as second-class citizens, at best.

By the 1780’s there were approximately 40-50,000 Jews living in France.  They had legal status to be there, but with extremely limited rights.  They were basically restricted to the money-lending business.  Things were changing in Europe, however, especially in France.  The Enlightenment had taken hold, and there were finally some Christian voices that were calling for tolerance and acceptance of minorities.

The French Revolution of 1789, with its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, introduced the notion that all residents of a nation could be considered citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The change was sporadic and haphazard, as the chaos of the revolution proceeded and the Reign of Terror took hold, but the Jews of France recognized that something new was happening, and they were excited about the possibilities.  Jewish communities helped fund the revolution, and Jewish soldiers joined the Army of the Republic in its battles against other European countries.  Many Jews patriotically gave their lives for the sake of their French homeland.

When Napoleon came to power, he wanted to finally resolve the Jewish question.  In 1806, he convened the Assembly of Jewish Notables, naming it the Grand Sanhedrin.  Twelve questions were posed to it members, the answers to which would determine the future status of the Jews of France.  Those questions included:

• May a Jewess marry a Christian, or [May] a Jew [marry] a Christian woman? or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

• In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or strangers?

• Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

• What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?

The answers the Assembly gave essentially declared Jews to be French citizens first, and Jews second.  Intermarriages would be considered binding.  French Jews would consider non-Jews to be their brethren.  Jews would consider France to be their fatherland, and would defend it when called upon, etc.

When asked if they wanted to be citizens, with all that it would entail, the Jews of France answered with a resounding “oui.”

In 1807, Napoleon added Judaism as an official religion of France.  As his armies moved across Europe, Napoleon liberated Jewish communities of other lands from the ghettos to which they had been restricted.

Emancipation was not yet complete, however.  In 1846, the Jews of France became fully equal when the French Supreme Court found the More Judaico, the Jewish oath, rooted in medieval antisemitism, to be unconstitutional.  Legally, the Jews of France were now fully French, with rights equal to Catholics and Protestants.

The social reality, however, was quite different.  Despite tremendous efforts by Jews to assimilate into French society, antisemitism was still widespread.  At the end of the nineteenth century, a traditionalist faction of army officers concocted a plot to frame a young Jewish Captain named Alfred Dreyfus for treason.  The subsequent trials were a major political scandal in France that lasted from 1894 – 1906 and that divided the country between the anticlerical, pro-republic Dreyfusards and the pro-army, mostly Catholic anti-Dreyfusards.

Theodore Herzl was a secular Jewish journalist who had grown up in antisemitic Austro-Hungary and moved to France due to what he perceived as its progressive, humanist values.  He was a strong proponent of Jewish assimilation into European culture as the solution to the Jewish problem, which had become “an obsession for him.”  (Dictionary of the Dreyfus affair, Nichol, p. 505.)  Herzl’s coverage of the Dreyfus Affair in 1895, however, led him to conclude that Jews would never be accepted by the non-Jewish world.  As much as Jews had given up to become citizens, they would never be seen as equals.

In his book, Der Judenstaat, Herzl writes:

If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated.

Herzl subsequently founded the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, creating Zionism as a political movement and laying the foundation for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.  If the Gentile world is incapable of accepting Jews as equals, Jews will have to establish a land of their own where they constitute a majority and are free to determine their own fate.

At the beginning of World War Two, there were 350,000 Jews living in France, a number of them having fled Germany in the 1930’s.  During the Holocaust, one fifth of France’s Jewish population were murdered by the Nazis, often with the collaboration of French officials and citizens.  There were also many enlightened French who saved Jews.  France has the third highest number of people honored as Righteous Among the Nations among any country.

Between 1948 and 1967, France was a strong supporter of Israel, with close military ties.  The Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona was built with significant assistance from the French government in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Israeli Air Force pilots flew French fighter jets in the Six Day War in 1967.

By the end of the twentieth century, France’s population had among the most favorable attitudes towards Jews of any country in Europe.

The resurgence of anti-Semitism over the last fifteen years has come from a non-traditional  source.  While there are still antisemitic attitudes from those on the far right and the far left, the rise in anti-Jewish activity has been attributed mainly to increasing violence by people in the French Muslim community.  Flare-ups have tended to occur especially when there is political tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to the terrorist attack on the Hypercacher grocery store, there have been other murders, acts of vandalism, attacks against synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, anti-Jewish demonstrations and chants, and more.

That is why French Jews are increasingly nervous, why French emigration is up, and why real estate prices in Israel are soaring.

I am not French, but I doubt that we are going to see a mass Exodus of the entire Jewish community of France to Israel.  I hope and pray that there is a thriving future for the Jews of France.

Like you, I am extremely concerned for our Jewish brothers and sisters who had to cancel Shabbat services at some synagogues last week and who require police and military presence at all of their institutions.  I hope that this wake-up call to the French people will lead to action, will help them realize that the Jewish people are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, because the Prime Minister is correct when he says “France without Jews is not France.”

Shemot 5775 – Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God

When I was in college, I had an opportunity to attend a talk by the the famous Israeli author and peacenik, Amos Oz.  Something he said has stuck with me.  “I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor.”

The wisdom captured by this insight was on display in France this week.  Islamic terrorists, upset about cartoons that insulted Muhammad attacked the offices of the French weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve people.

Ironically, it is the fanatic who is the funniest of all, and who most needs to be satirized.  It is the fanatic who most urgently needs to understand the joke, but on whom the punchline is lost.

Charlie Hebdo is a rude, satirical magazine that is an equal-opportunity insulter.  As Jews, we might get offended at how it depicts our coreligionists, but then again, when we consider that  Christians and Muslims receive the same treatment, perhaps there is something going on here other than antisemitism.

As we gather together this morning to pray, to celebrate Shabbat, to be together, and in a little while, to eat, we cannot help but also reflect on the terrible events of this week in France.  First, the murder of twelve souls at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  Then the shooting of a police officer.  And right before Shabbat, the taking hostage and murder of Jewish shoppers in a kosher grocery store.

The sad thing is that we knew this was coming.  The Editor of Charlie Hebdo even had a bodyguard, who was among the victims.  The Muslim terrorists who committed these terrible acts received training by Al-Qaeda in Yemen and were heavily armed.  It seems that there was really no stopping this tragedy from happening.

Consider other recent events around the world, including the beheading of Western journalists in Syria and Iraq, the killing of 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan, the murder of a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, the taking hostage of diners in a cafe in Australia – all were committed by Islamic terrorists in the name of their religion.

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah, Taliban, Boko Haram, and the list goes on.  It is impossible to deny that we are facing a global epidemic of Islamic fundamentalists whose interpretation of religion compels them to fight anything to do with the West: democracy, women’s rights, freedom of the press, religious pluralism, the list goes on.

How is it possible that religious people could have such a perverse interpretation of what God wants from humanity?  It is mind-boggling.  Comical even.  ISIS would make a fantastic comic book villain if it was not real.

How does religion become totalitarian?  This phenomenon is so antithetical to how our Jewish tradition would have us see the world.

This morning, we begin reading the Book of Exodus.  Parashat Shemot introduces us to the major characters in this drama: the Israelites, Pharaoh, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and of course, God.

The English title of the book captures what we usually think of as its major theme: Exodus.  In Hebrew, we refer to this event as Yetziat Mitzrayim, the leaving of Egypt.  This is our formative story as a people.  It is a story which is embedded into our consciousness individually and collectively.  We were once slaves.  God saved us with an outstretched arm.  Now we are free, and we are in a covenantal relationship with God that, among other things, requires us to care for the downtrodden.  We know this story well.  We tell it in our daily prayers.  We reexperience it every year during Passover.

It is not only our story.  Martin Luther King, Jr. used the story of the Exodus as a biblical paradigm BFranklinSealin the Civil Rights movement.  Abraham Lincoln turned to the Exodus for inspiration in the fight to end slavery.  Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Israelites safely on the far side of the Sea of Reeds while the Egyptian army drowns in its depths.  The motto surrounding the seal would have read: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

That is the other message of the Book of Exodus.  Pharaoh is a tyrant.  He is a fanatic.  He has no sense of humor.  Just as God brings the Israelites into freedom to convey a universal concern for human freedom, God also set out to overthrow Pharaoh as a sign to the world that despotism is never to be tolerated.

God’s problem with Pharaoh is not that he is an idolater.  In fact, the Torah is ambivalent with regard to other nations’ religious beliefs and practices.  The Jewish people are never commanded to rid the world of idolatry or to force the rest of humanity to worship God.

Pharaoh’s sin is that he, a human, claims to be divine.  And further, he allows for no possibility of anything else.

At the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh looks at his kingdom, sees the Israelites, and notices that they are different.  He cultivates a sense of fear among the Egyptian people, convincing them that the Israelites pose a threat to Egypt.  The regime of slavery begins, but Pharaoh’s paranoia only gets worse.  Still fearful of a rebellion, he orders the execution of all male Israelite children.

The Torah, in its wisdom, is articulating the steps of how a totalitarian dictator consolidates power by demonizing foreign elements.  It is setting the stage for God’s overthrow of a tyrant.

When Moses first comes to Pharaoh as God’s Prophet, he does not ask for freedom from slavery.  He asks only for a three day break so that the Israelites can go out into the wilderness and worship God.  Three days.  Pharaoh cannot tolerate even that.

What is he so worried about – three days of lost work?  No.  Pharaoh cannot accept that these lowly people refuse to acknowledge him as divine.  The worship of God is a threat to Pharaoh.  How does he respond – by increasing the workload.

This guy takes himself way too seriously.  Pharaoh has no sense of humor, no capacity to see things from another’s perspective.  He is so stubbornly fanatic that he brings his entire nation down to hell rather than give up an inch.

God has two objectives in Exodus.  One is to free the Israelites.  The other is to demonstrate to Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the other nations of the world, that Pharaoh is Pharaoh and God is God.  God clearly is on the side against totalitarianism.

The Book of Exodus is about the preciousness of freedom and the evils of arrogance.

This is a message that is sorely needed today.

What we are facing today is not a war between Islam and the West.  What we are facing is a totalitarian fundamentalism rooted in the Islamic religion that seeks nothing less than total domination.

To be clear, Islam is not inherently violent.  There are plenty of peaceful, tolerant Muslims.  But let’s not be naive and pretend that the numerous terrorist attacks all over the world committed by Muslims in the name of their faith are not part of a broader trend.

Islamic fundamentalist groups are fighting to create societies that are governed by Sharia courts.  Infidels must convert, die, or in some cases live as second-class citizens.  Moderate Muslims must convert to this extreme brand of Islam.  It is why so much of the killing in recent years has targeted other Muslims.  If this was really about a war between East and West, why is there so much Muslim on Muslim killing?

There may not be anything that we can do to change the minds of those who have already committed to Islamic fanaticism.  Force may indeed be the only way to defend ourselves from people without a sense of humor.  In the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh is not capable of teshuvah.  The only outcome for this tyrant is total defeat.

But a ray of light emerged last week from a more contemporary Egyptian leader.  Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, delivered a speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on January 1, which on the Muslim calendar this year coincided with the birthday of Muhammad.  In the audience sat leading Egyptian Muslim clerics, as well as the Minister of Religious Appropriations.  President Al-Sisi made forceful, honest comments about Islam that are the kind of words that could get him killed.  Here is an excerpt from his speech:

It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world.  Impossible!

That thinking—I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.   It’s antagonizing the entire world!

Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!

I am saying these words here at Al Azhar, before this assembly of scholars and ulema—Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.

All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.

I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands.

Notice a few things.  Al-Sisi specifies that it is not the Islamic religion itself that is so violent, but it is the way that it has been interpreted over the centuries that has caused so much destruction.

I agree.  Our Jewish texts have some brutal passages that, if taken literally, would make us fanatics as well.  But we have a more than two thousand year old interpretive tradition that has found ways to address those difficult passages.  Al-Sisi is calling for Islam to develop similar interpretive traditions.

Also, he does not claim that “Islam is a religion of peace,” nor does he state that the terrorists are not really Muslims.  Al-Sisi does not blame the West, or point his finger at colonialism.  He takes responsibility as a Muslim.

He calls for a change in the way that Islam is understood and practiced, and he acknowledges that it will not be easy.  Islam has been interpreted in fundamentalist, triumphalist ways for so long that those modes of thinking have become fully embedded.

But it does not have to continue that way.  Islam, he argues, is “in need of a religious revolution” that comes from within.  Who has to lead it?  Al-Sisi places responsibility where it belongs – on the Imams seated before him.  It is they who must take the lead on changing Islamic thinking about its role in the world.

Until that happens on a widespread and sustained global level, I fear, the clash between tyranny and freedom that our world is experiencing will continue, and this week’s events will be repeated somewhere else, sometime soon.

On this Shabbat, our prayers extend to the families and communities who lost loved ones this week.  We pray that more people in the world will embrace the core lessons of Exodus: that freedom is precious, and that tyranny is intolerable.  We pray for all those around the world who risk their lives to protect innocent people from terror.  And we pray for strength and offer solidarity to our Muslim brothers and sisters who are courageously raising their voices and calling for change from within.

Black Lives Matter Because All Lives Matter – Miketz 5775

Recent months have seen the tragic killings by police of young African-American men: Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in Staten Island.  The decision by Grand Juries to not indict the police officers in these cases has sparked a massive public response in our country.  The expression “Black lives matter,” which first came to represent this movement after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted, has been reawakened.

More recent shootings by police of African Americans Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, twelve year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and John Crawford III in Dayton have further exacerbated civil unrest around the country.

Discussions taking place in many communities about whether police officers should be required to wear body cameras reveals the degree of distrust that exists in our society.  How sad that many feel the need to constantly watch those who are entrusted to keep us safe.  How frustrating it must be for police officers, who dedicate their lives to protecting people and put themselves in harm’s way every day.

This is not a problem with the police.  This is a pervasive issue across all levels of society that happened to have been sparked by the recent shootings and Grand Jury decisions.  Nobody wants to not trust the police.  What will it take to achieve reconciliation?  This is what the Black Lives Matter movement is addressing.

This is a difficult topic for me to discuss in the format of a sermon for a few reasons:

1.  I am not African American

2.  I am not a police officer.

3.  People in this room have vastly different opinions about this topic.

But it is undeniable that we have an issue in our country and our society.  That thousands upon thousands of people of all races and backgrounds have been taking to the streets for months is a pretty good indication of that.

As a Rabbi and as the spiritual leader of this community, I struggle deeply with how to address a topic like racial inequality.  I have my personal feelings, but those are just one man’s opinions.

My job is not to tell you things that you already know or take positions that you agree with.  My job is also not to tell you that you are wrong.

I am not here to make statements that you could read in an Op/Ed column in the newspaper.

I am a Rabbi, and my job is to teach Torah.  And hopefully, to teach Torah in a way that challenges all of us to look at ourselves, our experiences, and our values from a new perspective, regardless of where we happen to stand on the religious, political, or socioeconomic spectrum.

As you can imagine, this is a fine line to skirt, but I deeply appreciate those who offer their  gentle critiques when I teach something with which they disagree.  I learn from being challenged and I welcome it.

It is significant that the protests and anger have not been only by the black community.  We have seen protesters from people of all racial backgrounds, including some who work in law enforcement, expressing their outrage at what they see as entrenched racism in American society.

Many people in the Jewish community have been heavily involved in this movement, marching in protests, signing on to statements of solidarity, and being arrested.  There has also been a push to incorporate the message of Black Lives Matter into Chanukah observances, and thousands of Jews have responded, including special readings and activities in their nightly Menorah lightings.

We cannot deny that a large portion of the American Jewish community is deeply concerned about issues involving systemic racial inequality in our society and the distrust that exists between police and civilians.

What is motivating Jews to protest?  What in our Jewish tradition has compelled so many of our brothers and sisters to get involved in this cause, and to do so explicitly as Jews?

The Torah’s expression of the golden rule appears in Leviticus, chapter 19.  V’ahavta L’re-acha kamochaAni Adonai.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.”  (Lev. 19:18)  What does the Torah mean by “neighbor” in this verse?  Is it a universal statement of how we ought to treat every human being, or is it a particular statement, to be understood as only how we treat our fellow Jews.  I suspect that, despite how it is often used in contemporary times, the Torah’s original intention was the latter.  It is about how we treat people who are part of our own community.

But this reading does not undermine the universal message, because it does not end there.  Just sixteen verses later, in the same chapter, we read “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens…”  And then the Torah uses familiar language:  V’ahavta lo kamocha.  “You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”  And then it ends exactly the same, invoking God’s name to underscore the point:  Ani Adonai.  “I the Lord am your God.”  (Lev. 19:34)

These two verses need to be read together.  Not only does the Torah challenge us to treat people from our own communities as we would have ourselves be treated, it tells us that we have have to do the same thing for the stranger.

Then, a few chapters later, the Israelites who are on their way to the Promised Land where they are going to build a society, are warned that all residents must be treated equally under the law.  “One law shall there be for you, for stranger and citizen alike shall it be, for I the Lord am your God.”  (Lev. 24:22)

There are some core Jewish values here.  We are asked to treat members of our communities, and people outside of our communities as we would want to be treated.  All residents of a land must be treated equally under law.  These are Jewish values.

There is one more Jewish value that was mentioned.  The Torah commands us, over and over again, that we must care for the least powerful members of our society because we know what it was like to be in their position.  The memory of having been slaves in Egypt obligates us to not stand idly by while others are suffering among us.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Jews in the world today, with the notable exception of many living in Europe, have basically reached a point of full acceptance in society.  But one does not have to go back very far in our national past to find a time when this was not the case: when Jews were demonized, accused of being inferior, kept out of positions of authority, and denied permission to live in certain areas or enter certain professions.  This has been true at various times in pretty much all of Europe, the Muslim world, and even in the United States.

We know what it is like to be denied opportunities, to have the authorities treat us differently, and to have those charged with protecting citizens turn their backs on us.  At least, we should know what it is like, because it is undeniably our history.

When we were the victims of persecution, we cried out, and nobody came to our aid.  Now that the roles are reversed, are we really going to be silent?

The Torah’s message of remembering the Exodus from Egypt forbids us from being indifferent.

We cannot claim to be the victims of persecution and discrimination for thousands of years, and then do nothing when our neighbors suffer a similar fate, when we have the power to do something about it.

That is why so many Jews in America have gotten involved.

The motto of this movement, “Black lives matter,” is a fitting expression.  Black lives matter because every life matters.

Unless you are African- American, you cannot know what it is like to be black in this country.  So when significant majorities of African Americans report feeling discriminated against when it comes to their treatment by law enforcement officials, acccess to educational opportunities, and ability to compete in the jobs markets, it is not ok for someone who is not black to deny that experience.

It is the equivalent of someone who is not Jewish denying our own historical claims to being the victims of persecution and hatred.  Who are you to tell me that how I see myself is wrong?

And then there are the facts.  The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with nearly 1% of our population currently behind bars.  This is true both in absolute terms, as well as in per capita terms.

Of those prisoners, in 2009, 39.4% were non-Hispanic blacks, even though they comprise only 13.6% of the national population.

Now there are a lot of factors that might explain why people of color are so much more likely to be incarcerated, but I think we can agree that there are systemic problems that need to be addressed if those disparities are going to be reduced.  There is tremendous distrust between communities of color and those whom we entrust to keep the peace.

I don’t think anyone wants a continuation of the status quo.  We have to find a way to change it, restore trust, and create better opportunities for communities that have experienced generations of poverty and discrimination to finally break the cycle.

So what can we do about it?  First of all, peaceful protest has been an incredibly effective method of raising awareness.

Perhaps we can find wisdom from the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers.  This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, opens with a famine.  Jacob sends his sons down to Egypt, where careful planning has resulted in food to spare.  The brothers arrive, and are taken to appear before the Vizier, who happens to be their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery many years earlier.

When Joseph sees them, he recognizes them immediately, but they do not recognize him.  Think of how psychologically difficult this must have been for Joseph.  His brothers had nearly murdered him, instead sending him into exile as a slave.  Now, when Joseph has the power to do whatever he wants, what does he do?

Maybe we should first consider what he does not do.  Joseph does not immediately reveal himself and tell his brothers that all is forgiven, nor does he have them executed on the spot or arrested.  Instead, Joseph pretends to be cold and cruel, accusing them of espionage.  He eventually sends them home with grain, but he secretly has their money put back inside their bags as if they had stolen it.

All of this is a ruse on Joseph’s part to determine whether his brothers have changed.  He knows that for real healing to occur, they must confront their past openly and honestly.

In the course of their interactions, the brothers express regret for what they did to Joseph many years earlier.  They indicate their concern for their father’s well-being, and their try to protect Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin, who is now their father’s favorite.

At each expression of remorse and brotherliness, Joseph is overcome with emotion and is forced to turn away so that he can weep without revealing his identity.  When he is finally convinced of his brothers’ sincerity in next week’s parashah, Joseph knows that the cycle of hatred and distrust has broken, and that the time has come when he can safely reveal his identity and reunite with his family.

This is a story of a family that is plagued by a history of discrimination that manages somehow to reconcile. To break the cycle of hatred, each side needs an opportunity to move forward.  Despite all of his power, Joseph is incapable of wiping away his brothers’ guilt.  Only they can do teshuvah.  Similarly, Joseph begins this story as a spoiled brat, bragging of his superiority and ratting out his older brothers.  He also needs time to mature.

We face a similar situation today.

The problems of racial distrust in our country today go back many generations.  We have made great progress, but it seems clear, both from the statistics as well as from the real life experiences of black individuals, that we have a ways to go.

Our communities tend to be separated rather significantly along socioeconomic lines, which in many cases are also racial line.  This means that we tend to interact mainly with people with whom we have a lot in common.  Our society, however, involves a great deal more diversity than most of our daily experiences would indicate.

As Jews, we must consider how our own experience of persecution sensitizes us to the plight of our neighbors when they experience persecution.

Inclusivity and Pesach Sheni: Be-Ha’alotekha 5773

Judaism is a religion of memory. All of our holidays, including Shabbat, have a central component that orients us back to some past event – whether the Creation of the World, the Exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, the saving of our people in ancient Persia, the victory of the Maccabees and subsequent rededication of the Temple, the destruction of the Temples… and the list goes on. When we observe these holidays, we don’t just remember what happened once, a long time ago. It is always a reenactment. We continually re-experience the formative events of our predecessors. The ancient stories of our people become renewed through us.

This has two complimentary effects. The first effect is a (lower case “c”) conservative one. Our observance of Jewish holidays roots us in the history of our people. We perform the same traditions that our forebears have performed since ancient times. This establishes and strengthens our connection not just to the actual people who were redeemed from slavery in Egypt, but to every generation since that has remembered and re-enacted the Exodus since.

Alongside the conservatism implicit in an ancient tradition, we also innovate. In every generation, every single year, in fact, we have to be creative to make ancient traditions relevant to our lives today. That is why our holidays have layers of observance and meaning that have expanded over the centuries, and continue to expand today.

We see this conservatism and innovation expressed in the Torah from the very beginning. This morning’s parshah is set in the second year after the Israelites have left Egypt. On the fourteenth day of the first month, what we call the month of Nisan, the Israelites observe Passover. And what is remarkable is that only one year after the Exodus itself, they are already performing the ritual of remembrance. They are already making the transition into a people of memory.

But there are some folks, even then, who are left out of that first Passover after the Exodus. They had been in a state of ritual impurity, and the Torah says that in order to offer the Passover sacrifice, a person must be in a pure state. When everyone else is eating roast lamb with matzah and bitter herbs, they have to just watch.

This group of people is eager to celebrate Passover, and they are not content to sit on the sidelines. So they turn to Moses: “Yeah we’re impure, but why do we have to be left out?”

Moses does not have an answer for them, so he tells them: “Stand by, I’m going to ask God,” which he promptly does.

And God issues the ruling: “Anybody who can’t present the Passover offering because he is ritually impure or on a long journey should offer it exactly one month later, on the fourteenth day of the second month. But don’t think this is a free pass. A person who could have offered it at the right time but didn’t… is guilty.”

This has come to be known as Pesach Sheni – “Second Passover.” It is a rather unusual law in the Torah. Most of the Torah’s mitzvot are just given. This is one of only a handful of laws that comes as the result of a particular case.

One other example in particular, shares some similarities. Towards the end of the Book of Numbers, the five daughters of the deceased Zelophehad come to Moses. As in this morning’s case, the existing law leaves them out. The sisters point out that because only sons can inherit, their father’s land will be lost to their family. So they make the case that their father’s land should pass to them.

Again, Moses does not have an answer, so he turns to God. God affirms the sisters’ claim, and the law changes to allow daughters to inherit from their father when there is no male descendent.

Both stories, Pesach Sheni, and the daughters of Zelophehad, feature groups of people who are left out of the normative social structures. In the first, it’s a group of impure people who really want to celebrate Passover. In the second, it is women, who are ignored by the law.

They both make their case to the leader, Moses, who doesn’t know what to do. He understands what the law says, but he also knows that there are human beings in front of him. He turns to God. In both cases, God recognizes that the point is valid. These groups have been marginalized, left out, and so God changes the law to be more inclusive.

That these cases are codified in sacred scripture should tell us something. The Torah could have just presented the ruling. But it didn’t. It wanted us to know about the real, human situations behind the law. It wanted us to be aware that the rules of society in those particular times was excluding people.

It illustrates the tension between conservatism and innovation. Moses was lucky. He could just say: “Hold on a minute. Let me go ask God.” It’s not so easy for us. We are the ones who must negotiate often competing values. With an ancient tradition that is rooted in sacred scripture, but that also values inclusivity, how do we account for change?

This has been a constant tension in Judaism. To what extent do we preserve Jewish law and tradition as we have received it, on the one hand? And on the other hand, how much can we innovate to respond to new situations, new technologies, and new understandings of human experience.

This tension, between conservatism and innovation, is an identifying feature of Conservative Judaism: a movement that affirms halakhah, our commitment as individuals and communities to Jewish law; and a movement that also embraces the best of what modernity has to offer.

As for issues around inclusivity, this has meant that the Conservative movement has moved slower than some elements in the Jewish world, and faster than others.

Over the last century, the Conservative movement has embraced women’s equal involvement in religious life, it actively embraces Jews by choice, it has recently made greater efforts to reach out to intermarried families, and over the last decade has created new laws and traditions to welcome gay and lesbian Jews into mainstream Jewish life.

As in any established movement, the pace of change is slower than some would like, and faster than others would prefer.

But the overall direction in which we are moving is clear. We have made great strides in making our communities more welcoming to people who have been historically marginalized, whether due to gender, sexual orientation, wealth, ethnicity, etc. aBut we still have a long way to go to remove the walls that keep out those who would find a home in Jewish community.

I have learned that in many cases it is not enough to just say: “We are a friendly community. Everyone is welcome.”

At Sinai, we pride ourselves in being a fairly traditional, friendly, and heymish community – and that is by and large true for anyone who is courageous enough to walk through our doors. But with limited resources, we don’t do a whole lot to reach out beyond the walls of our synagogue.

It is one thing to say, “anyone who wants to join us is welcome.” It is something else to go out of our way to personally extend the invitation.

Our Torah, and our Jewish tradition, points us in the direction of inclusion. What can each of us do to make our community even more inclusive than it already is?