Feeding the Wolf – Rosh Hashanah 5776

Every year, as I prepare for the High Holidays, I struggle with how to make our experience here together transformational in some way.  Because I know that, for myself, and probably most of us, we come back year after year with mostly the same sets of issues and concerns.  So I ask myself :  What can I, as a Rabbi on Rosh Hashanah, say that will help us to become the human beings we would like to see ourselves as?

The great prayer which the Cantor chants during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah, Unetaneh Tokef, creates an impression of human powerlessness.  We appear before God on Rosh Hashanah, described as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment.  God is judge, prosecutor. expert, and witness.  God knows all, every forgotten thing, reading it out of the Book of Remembrance.  The imagery shifts, and now God is a shepherd, and we are sheep, passing underneath the staff.  A final shift, and God is decreeing the fates of every living thing in the coming year.

These three scenes convey an impression of our utter lack of control.  There is nothing whatsoever that we can do to determine our destiny.  Everything is in the hand of God.

As frightening as this imagery might seem to many of us, it does convey a truth of human existence.  So much of who we are, our personality and characteristics, are pre-determined.  Whether by genetics or the family and community into which we were born, i.e. nature or nurture – we do not get to decide our core personalities, our innate strengths and weaknesses.

Even the ability to make choices is something of an illusion.  Much of our mental activity takes place on a subconscious level, determined by neurohormonal loops that regulate our emotions.  While it seems to us that we have free will and are making choices for ourselves, in reality the outcome is predetermined by our biochemical makeup.

Religious language that speaks of our utter lack of control over our fate and our total dependence on God would seem to reinforce this notion.  Drawing upon biblical imagery, our machzor describes human life as insignificant, using terms like “a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a vanishing dream,” in contrast to God, who is “the sovereign, living God, ever-present.”  All that we can do is appeal to God to be loving and merciful with us.

We come into the new year wrestling with ourselves.  We have spent the past month inspecting our deeds, focusing on where we have gone off course, and striving to make amends with each other, with ourselves, and with God.  And it is hard work.  To approach someone we have wronged with openness and honesty takes tremendous courage.  Our tradition provides us this annual opportunity to face our imperfections.

However, even when we have bravely performed real teshuvah, there is little we can do to change our core personalities, to affect the neuropathways in our brains that regulate all behavior.  Pathways that we have spent a lifetime establishing.  It is not a simple thing to rewire the brain.

The fact that we return annually to recite the same prayers and make the same confessions would seem to reinforce the notion that from year to year, most of us are the exact same people, struggling with the exact same character flaws.

So how can we make the celebration of the new year personally transformational?

A Cherokee legend teaches of a boy who got in a fight.  His parents send him to go speak with his grandfather.  The two of them go for a walk on a path through the forest.  The leaves of the trees and the soft breeze protect them from the heat of the noonday sun.  The two walk in silence, holding hands.

After a time the grandfather interrupts the silence.  “Grandson, there are two wolves fighting in my heart.  One wolf is good and does no harm.  He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended.  He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.  But the other wolf!  Ah!  He is full of anger.  The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper.  He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason.  He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great.  It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.  Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

Hearing the words of his grandfather the grandson is filled with fear.  With a tremor in his voice he asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the battle of your heart?”

To which he quietly responded, “The one I feed.”

We have Jewish terms that mirror these two wolves: the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra – the good inclination and the evil inclination.

A Talmudic sage teaches a similar lesson about what happens when we continue to feed our yetzer ha-ra.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri taught:  A person who tears his clothing in anger, or who breaks his utensils in anger or who throws coins in anger – consider him like someone who worships idols, for such is the art of the yetzer ha-ra.  Today it says, “Go do this.”  And tomorrow, it says “Go do that.” until finally it says “Go worship idols,”  And he goes and worships them.  (BT Shabbat 105b)

For the Rabbis, idol worship is the paradigm of evil and immorality.  It is the ultimate sin towards which the yetzer ha-ra drives us.  This midrash draws a causal connection between simple, everyday expressions of anger and the ultimate descent into depravity.

Another midrash teaches that Adam and Eve were created today, on Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah describes this moment using the verb vayyitzer ha-adam.  (Genesis 2:7) “God formed Adam.”   A Rabbi in the Talmud noticed that that the word vayyitzer is written in the Torah with two letter yud‘s.  This hints at the creation of two yetzer‘s.  Two inclinations, one for good and one for evil.  (BT Berachot 61a)

Thus the two inclinations, the two wolves, are part of us.  In both the Cherokee legend and the Jewish concept of two yetzarim, we have outsourced agency.  It is not we who personally direct our behavior.  External forces, which happen to reside within our hearts, are at fault.  But those forces cannot be eliminated, for as soon as we did so, we would cease to be human.

A another midrash teaches that after forming humanity, God looks at all creation and declares v’hinei tov me-od.  “Behold, it is very good.”  “Good” refers to the the good inclination.  “Very good” refers to the evil inclination.  “How can this be?” asks the midrash.  Because without the yetzer ha-ra a person would not build a house, get married, have children, or engage in commerce.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

From a Jewish perspective, our goal must be to harness and control our inclinations, not to destroy them.  We are not expected to deny who we are, to utterly eliminate aspects of ourselves.  Neither are we allowed to complacently say, “this is just how God made me.  There is nothing I can do about it.”

Short of brain damage or a lobotomy, we cannot ever banish parts of our core personality, but we can encourage certain traits and discourage others.  As the grandfather acknowledges, while both wolves are always with us, it is we who feed them.

Let’s carry this metaphor a little further.  For each one of us, our wolves have unique appetites.  Some of our evil wolves feed on anger.  We are quick to lose our temper, to shout at family members or friends, to swear at drivers who do not signal before merging, or to judge others harshly without first pausing to consider their perspectives and motivations.

Some of our wolves feed on jealousy.  We compare our lives to others, and hold ourselves to unrealistic external standards.  We want what our neighbors have: their homes, cars, families, bodies, full heads of hair.

Some of our wolves feed on low self-esteem.  We downplay our successes and dwell on our failures.  We strive too hard to be liked.

Some of our wolves feed on lust, or addiction, or greed.

What do our good wolves like to eat?

In the middle of Unetaneh Tokef, in just seven words, the Mahzor hints that our fates may not be quite as out of our control as we thought.  Uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah ma-avirin et roa ha-g’zeirah.  “But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can turn aside the severity of the decree.”

Although the decree cannot be erased, it can be redirected.  Perhaps therein lies the answer to our quandary – three actions that feed the good wolf, that can encourage our yetzer ha-tov to take control and direct our yetzer ha-ra.

First:  Teshuvah, repentance.  The path of teshuvah begins with being self-reflective, being willing to admit our weaknesses without blaming others and do the work that is necessary to repair our brokenness.  Teshuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that our loves ones can take us back, and that God will allow us to return.

Second:  Tefilah.  Prayer, but I would suggest that it is really about humility.  We are asked to recognize that there is more to existence than our own egos, to acknowledge the typically ignored blessings in our lives with a sense of gratitude, to turn to God with a sense of wonder and awe at a world that is simultaneously both accessible and unfathomable.

Third:  Tzedakah.  Translated alternately as justice, righteousness, and charity.  We act with the knowledge that what we typically consider to be our possessions do not fully belong to us.  Tzedakah asks us to be generous to others with our time and our resources, to accept that we have obligations to one another, a duty to bring justice and righteousness into the world, and ultimately, to place the needs of others ahead of our own.

Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah:  three feasts for the good wolf.

So although our personalities and characters may be sealed, our strengths and weaknesses determined for us by some complicated mixture of nature and nurture, even our fate in the coming year out of our control, our tradition teaches us that we have a say in the outcome of the battle taking place in our hearts.

It is about conditioning.  Through the small, seemingly insignificant choices from day to day, we in fact have the ability to train our characters.  We can cultivate qualities that make us better people and redirect qualities that separate us from each other and from God.

So as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and enter the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, let’s each ask ourselves: What do my wolves like to eat?  How have I been feeding them?  And what can I do in the year ahead to give the good wolf the upper hand in the battle for my heart?

For the Love of Israel – Rosh Hashanah 5776

I am a lover of Israel.  And so it is with great love that I share the following:  This summer has been a tough one for Israel.  I am not talking about the Iran deal.

It started in June, when the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, one of the holiest sights in Israel for Christians, was burned down in an arson attack.  Spray-painted on the wall were the words, in Hebrew, v’ha-elilim karot yikareitun – and their gods will be cut down, lifted out of our siddur from the prayer Aleinu.

On July 30, at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people, one of whom, a teenage girl named Shira Banki, died.  The murderer had been released from prison just three weeks previously after finishing a ten year sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005.

The next day, Jewish arsonists firebombed the home of the Dawabsheh family in the Palestinian town of Duma, killing 18 month old Ali, and both of his parents.  Four year old Ahmad is the only survivor, with burns covering 60% of his body.  Hebrew graffiti was found on a nearby wall with the spray-painted words nekamah – “revenge,” and y’chi hamelekh ha-mashiach – “long live the the king, the messiah.”

These are not just stand-alone incidents.  Over the last several years, there has been a rise in Jewish extremism and terrorism.  Although often cloaked in religious garb, it is classic right-wing nationalism.

Without a doubt, these actions do not represent the attitudes of the vast majority of Israelis, or of Jews around the world.  Politicians and national leaders from all parties, as well as leading Rabbis, were quick to publicly denounce violence, call for the criminals to be brought to justice, and pay condolence calls to the families of the victims.  The Israeli public was appropriately outraged.

But when it comes to taking action, it is a different story.  Israel has been slow to address the problem of Jewish extremism and racism.

Over the past three and a half years, more than forty churches and mosques have been burned in Israel, usually accompanied by biblical passages scrawled on a nearby wall.  Until this past June’s attack, Israeli security services had not arrested a single person.  No arrests have been made for the murder of the Dawabsheh family.  Not a single Rabbi was detained for encouraging students to commit violence.

Do any of us have any doubts whatsoever about the capabilities of Israeli security services to take these kinds of Jewish hate-crimes seriously?  Where were the task forces and undercover informants?

Just this summer, under pressure, the Shin Bet began using “Administrative Detention” to apprehend Jewish terrorist suspects.  It is a tool that has been using against Palestinians, with great success, for many years.  Why did they wait so long?

It did not happen earlier because there was no political will to do so.  Policies by every single Israeli government for the past thirty five years to settle the West Bank with 400,000 Jews has quietly fanned the flames of Jewish nationalist extremism.  The perpetrators are widely known to come from extreme religious nationalist settlements which often have a lot of political clout.

We cannot complain about moderate Muslims’ failure to take on Islamic extremism while we ignore our own Jewish extremism.

I know that some of us are thinking, ‘but what about all of the Islamic fundamentalism around the world?  How can we even compare what a few religious wackos are doing to what is going in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and many other parts of the Muslim world?’  You are right, there is no comparison.

But they are not our own people.  We are talking about family.

How do we, the American Jewish community, react when we hear about Jewish racism and Jewish terrorism?

There are some in the Jewish community that will never say anything critical of Israel, at least not publicly.  Others have bought in to the anti-Zionist rhetoric that portrays Israel as a gross violator of human rights.

These two groups tend to be made up of the people who yell the loudest, creating what I suspect is a false depiction of a divided American Jewish community.

Anyone who says that Israel has a perfect human rights record is either blind or does not know what ethics is.  Anyone who claims that Israel is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world is either naive or antisemitic.

Both extremists are guilty of the same assumption – that Israel must be perfect.  Those who don’t see the blemishes and those who only see the blemishes are both blind.

But we can admit it: there are blemishes.  Israel has some serious challenges.  It struggles with poverty and unaffordable housing costs.  It faces sharp social divides between different ethnic and religious streams.  It has a problem with large numbers of immigrants trying to cross the border illegally.  There is deeply-felt racism, conflict, and distrust between ethnic and religious groups.  Hundreds of thousands of people who had lived on the land for generations were displaced when new immigrants arrived.

These problems should all sound familiar, because these are all challenges that are faced: here in America, as well as in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.  In other words, nations, by definition, struggle to balance the pursuit of security and prosperity with the pursuit of justice and morality.

We don’t give up on America because it is not perfect.  Nor should we give up on Israel because it is not perfect.

The Torah reading for this morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, begins with Isaac’s birth.  Abraham circumcises his son on the eighth day, and then, at his weaning a few years later, throws a party on his behalf.  At the party, Sarah, Isaac’s mother, sees Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, playing – m’tzachek.  Something bothers her, and she tells her husband to banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household, “for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Abraham is distressed, but God reassures him that all will be okay.  ‘Do what your wife tells you to do.  I will make Ishmael the father of a great nation as well.’

Sarah and Abraham represent two distinct parental concerns.  Sarah looks at Ishmael and sees in him a threat.  One midrash explains that Ishmael was bragging that he, as the eldest son, would receive a double inheritance.  Other commentators suggest that the word m’tzachek implies that Ishmael was involved in idolatry, and that Sarah was concerned that he would be a corrupting influence.  Sarah is the mother who will protect her son from any perceived outside threat, regardless of collateral damage.

Abraham, in contrast, is concerned about the effect that favoring Isaac will have on Hagar and Ishmael.  He knows that that there will be a personal and moral toll if he defends Isaac at all costs.  He understands Sarah’s desire to protect her son, but he also sees the suffering that will ensue on the part of Hagar and Ishmael.  So he is paralyzed, unable to take action until God breaks the stalemate in his conscience by assuring Abraham that Ishmael will not only survive, but will thrive.  In the end, God affirms both Sarah’s protectiveness of Isaac and Abraham’s concern for Ishmael.

When I think about Israel today, I hear Sarah and Abraham’s voices arguing in my mind and in my heart.

We have got to look out for the Jewish people, because if we do not, nobody else will.  And, we have to be concerned with morality in our treatment of the other.

In a perfect world, there would be no contradiction between these two values.  In a perfect world, Sarah and Abraham would be of one mind when it came to matters affecting their son.  In an almost perfect world, God would step in to offer a solution when our self-protection conflicts with our ethics.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world, or even a near-perfect world.

As I said earlier, I am a lover of Israel.  But there are different kinds of love.

Any good love affair begins with infatuation.  Our beloved glows.  Everything she does is perfect.

After Israel gained independence in 1948, Jews around the world were infatuated.  Israel could do no wrong.  What was the narrative?  Israel had risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust.  The New Jewish soldier-farmers fought a scrappy war of Independence against all odds to enable the Jewish people to come out of exile and reclaim our place in history.

In 1967, Israel’s sneak attack and victory against menacing Arab armies created an illusion of invincibility.  It was David against Goliath, and we were David.

In 1982, that image began to crumble.  Israel invaded another country in a war that was optional.  It was not, like the others, a fight for survival.  The IDF found itself an occupying power in Southern Lebanon.  Atrocities were committed.  While Israeli soldiers looked the other way, Lebanese Christian Phalangists murdered over two thousand civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.

International condemnation followed, and the Israeli public was furious.  Ariel Sharon, the Defense Minister at the time, was found to be personally responsible by an Israeli commission of inquiry, and was forced to resign.

The Lebanon war was followed a few years later by the First Intifada, Oslo, the Second Intifada, The Gaza pullout and subsequent wars with Hamas.  You know the stories.

It has been a complicated thirty years in which Israel is no longer David to the Arabs’ Goliath.  Israel has struggled to balance security and morality as a powerful nation with dangerous enemies and sovereignty over people who refuse to accept it.

And all of this occurs in the spotlight, under a magnifying glass.  I do not need to tell you this.  So what kind of love do we bring with us?

For those of you (I do have to exclude myself) born before 1967, your foundational memories of Israel are of a nation that can do no wrong.  The American Jewish community, especially after the Six Day War, was infatuated.

But for those of you born after 1982 (again, I have to exclude myself) – the only Israel you have known is one that has struggled, in the most public way, with being depicted as an immoral aggressor.  You never had a chance to experience infatuation and fall in love.

In recent years, the rise of the BDS movement on many college campuses has created such an oppressive atmosphere for Jewish students, that some feel the need to hide their identity, and not get involved in Jewish life altogether.  The rest are put in the position, as 18-22 year olds, of defending Israel on behalf of the rest of the American Jewish community.  It is a tremendously unfair burden.

Some American Jews are so turned off by all of the attention that they check out.  Why should I care?  Why should I get emotionally invested in something that attracts so much conflict?  For those Jews, Israel does not play much of a role in their identity.

That is unfortunate.  Israel has been central to the Jewish people throughout our existence.  When God first spoke to Abraham, it was to send him to an unknown Promised Land where his descendants would one day constitute a nation that would serve as a blessing to the world.  When our ancestors left Egypt, their destination was Israel.  At the Covenant at Mount Sinai, we committed to accepting the Torah and the mitzvot and God committed to settling us in the land of Israel in peace and prosperity.

And so, Ahavat Yisrael, the love of Israel, both the people and the land, has been central to Jewish identity from our formation as a family, as a religion, and as a nation.

But what kind of love?

Not infatuation that blinds us to seeing our beloved as she truly is.  Real love is not blind.  Real love requires our eyes to be wide open.  Real love is conditional.  I love you because of who you are, not regardless of who you are.

So what would a mature, lasting love of Israel look like?

On Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the beginning of the new year, we engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, taking stock of our souls – not just as individuals, but also as a people.  What does Cheshbon HaNegesh mean on a national scale?

It means lively and respectful debate about where we are as a Jewish people, here in our local community, in America, and as a global Jewish community.  Israel, as our eternal homeland, must be part of that debate.

Unfortunately, so many aspects of Israel have become polarized.  If you are a Republican, then you are against the Iran deal, against Obama, and for Netanyahu.  If you are a Democrat, you are for the Iran deal, for Obama, and against Netanyahu.  We have to reject this kind of “issue packaging.”  A person can be against the Iran deal and still like Obama.  A person can be for the Iran deal and against the settlements.  It is possible to be disappointed in both Netanyahu and Obama, or to be fans of both (not very likely).  We have allowed the loudest voices to polarize the Jewish community in a very unhealthy way.

Let me tell you about the Israel I love.  As you may know, my family and I recently returned from a five month sabbatical, most of which we spent living in Israel, so I’ve had a lot of time recently to think about this.

I love that Israel provides an opportunity for the Jewish people to bring the values of our tradition into the real world.  When we read the Bible and pay close attention, we realize that Jewish sovereignty in the Bible ultimately failed.  The Torah presents a model of a society that, in addition to an elaborate system of ritual worship, emphasizes justice, ethical social and economic interactions, and righteous treatment of all members of society, including resident non-Israelites.  The biblical Prophets are constantly railing against both the leaders and the populace for failing to live up to the standards established by the Torah.

The modern State of Israel, as a democratic Jewish State, offers us an opportunity to bring Jewish values into the world, with all of the messy challenges that are entailed.  And while not perfect, I think Israel’s record is pretty strong, especially considering how many challenges it faces.

I also love the expansion of interest in Jewish life that has been taking place in Israel in recent years.  More and more secular Israelis are turning back to our religious tradition and our texts for spiritual fulfillment.  In contrast to a shrinking non-Orthodox Judaism in America, the liberal movements in Israel are growing.

I love all the ways that usually go unreported that different groups interact with each other positively.  In June, Dana and I participated in the Zarzir Night Run.  Zarzir is a Bedouin Village in the Jezreel Valley close to where we lived in Kibbutz Chanaton.  Our kids drove through Zarzir every day on their way to and from school.  On full moons during the summer time, a running store on the outskirts of Zarzir hosts a night run on paths through the fields.  Well over a thousand men and women showed up, including religious Jews, secular Jews, and Arabs.

I love that Israel is expanding it’s national parks, and making them more accessible.  I love that Hebrew has been revived as a spoken language.  I love that Israel has an entire month dedicated to books.  I love Israeli pop music.

There are also ways in which I wish Israel did better, and it is love that makes me care so much about where Israel is off the mark.

I am horrified that there are racist Jews, and even more so that there are members of our people who commit terror.  And I am disappointed that Israel’s leaders have been so slow to do anything about it.

I wish that the government supported education equally for all Israelis.  Currently, there are different funding levels depending on which public school system a child is learning in.  Arab Israeli students receive far less education spending than their Jewish counterparts.  That is wrong.

I cannot stand that the Rabbanut is allowed to impose its will on the rest of the country in matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, and conversion.  I wish the Israeli government recognized the rights of non-Orthodox movements so that, for example, a wedding officiated by one of my Masorti colleagues would be recognized by the State.

I wish the government did not continue to encourage new Jewish settlement in the West Bank.  I think it makes peace more difficult and sends unspoken messages that encourage extremist behavior.

Israel is a complex country that is far from perfect.  And yet, to me, it is special and unique.  I think it ought to be that way for all Jews.  So I am not asking any of us to love everything.  I am asking all of us to find what it is that we love about Israel, and love it even more.  And if we can identify aspects of Israel that we think are off the mark, it is ok to disagree, as long as we are not disagreeable.

Melakhah and Avodah: Work of the Hands and Work of the Heart – Vayakhel – P’kudei 5775

Finally, the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites build so that God’s Presence can be with them in the wilderness, is finished.  After all of the Torah’s detailed descriptions of the building project, the time has come for a final inspection.  The workers bring each of the various parts of the Mishkan forward for Moses’ approval.

Imagine the scene:  One by one, each of the parts of the Tabernacle appears: the planks, the posts, the coverings, the furnishing, the menorah, the clothing of the priests.  All of it must pass inspection.  Each work crew waits its turn.  When called, the foreman steps up in front of everyone to present the result of his team’s labor to the boss.

That must have been a tense moment.  After all, this is not just any building.  This is the mishkan, a dwelling place for God.  Did all of the work crews pull their weight?  Did anyone cut corners, or get lazy?  How is the Chief Building Inspector, Moses, going to react?

The Torah tells us:

“Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).  And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah) – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.”  (Exodus 43:38-39)

This is probably not the reaction they are expecting.

I get the impression that this blessing is kind of spontaneous.  Moses is so overjoyed with what he sees, that he cannot contain himself.  He bursts out in praise.

But what does he say?  What is the blessing?

According to a midrash, Moses pronounces these words:  Yehi ratzon she-tishreh shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.  “May it be his will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”  (Tanhuma P’kudei 11)

What a wonderful blessing!  The entire nation has been occupied in this project for many months.  Our commentators teach that every single person had a part to play – some as designers, others as builders, craftsmen, weavers, and yes, some as donors.  Each person is invested.

It is conceivable that after expending so much effort to build a building, one might be tempted to focus on its physical aspects – such as it’s beauty and sturdiness – and pay less attention to its spiritual function.

And so Moses’ blessing reminds the people of the Mishkan‘s purpose – to be a dwelling place for God’s Presence, the Shekhinah.  “May the Shekhinah rest on the work of your hands.”  Use this beautiful edifice for holy purposes.  Don’t let it feed your ego, or symbolize greed.

But what is it that triggers Moses to offer this blessing?  Why is he so inspired?

The Chatam Sofer, an Ashkenazi Rabbi from the early nineteenth century, suggests an answer.  He notices that the Torah seems to be repeating itself.  The Torah states:  “Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work (avodah).”

And then immediately afterwards says “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (melakhah)…”

They did all the work, they performed all the tasks.  Why does the Torah need to say it twice, but with different words?  Those two words, avodah and melakhah, says the Chatam Sofer, are two different things.

The second term, melakhah, refers to physical work.  The work of our hands.  It is the same word that is used at the end of the creation of the world to describe the work that God had done.  Melakhah is also the word that the Torah uses to describe the kinds of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat.  Melakhah is “creative and destructive labor.”  It is the activities we perform which demonstrate our conquering, or mastery, of the physical world.  It is what we do during the six days of the week.

Avodah is a different kind of work.  It is internal.  Nidvat halev, says the Chatam Sofer.  “Generosity of the heart” without any concrete action.

“What is the avodah that is performed in the heart?” asks the Talmud (BT Taanit 2a)  “Prayer.”  And so, the term avodah is used to describe the worship of God in the Temple through the sacrificial system, and later to prayer as we understand it today.

In fact, the Chatam Sofer explains, the Torah is not repeating itself at all.  The melakhah that the Israelites perform – the physical work that they do in building the Mishkan – is infused with avodah, with generosity of heart and spirit and with a desire to carry out God’s will.

But how could Moses have known this?  How can he see into the hearts of every single Israelite?

Moses knows what is in their hearts because he has seen the final product that their hands have produced.  He sees that it is pristine, without a single mistake or blemish.  Moses knows that such a perfect result can only be achieved from pure hearts.  The love and purity that the Israelites bring to their work infuses the very fabric of its creation.  It is both melakhah and avodah.

When Moses sees this, he is overcome with emotion.  Proud of these people whom he leads, he prays that the spirit which has motivated their efforts up to this point will remain with them so that the Mishkan can fulfill its function as a dwelling place for the Shekhinah.

It was eight years ago almost to the day that I first came to Congregation Sinai.  At the time, I was here to interview to become its Rabbi.  The synagogue still had that “new shul smell.”  The building was brand new, having been constructed within the previous year.

I remember a story that was told to me during that interview weekend.  Barry, our congregant who generously gave a year of his time to become the contractor for this wonderful building, stood before the synagogue and told the Sinai membership: “I have built it, now go and fill it.”

He knew that, as beautiful and well-designed a structure as this is, unless we infuse it with spirit, it is simply walls and a roof.  Our community collectively makes it worthy of being a beit k’nesset, a house of gathering, a synagogue.

I would say that we have filled out these walls nicely.  Congregation Sinai is a place in which we celebrate life’s joys and mourn its sorrows together, in which we express our connection to Israel and to Jews around the world.  It is a sanctuary in which we come together to worship God.  It is a center in which learning takes place by students of all ages.  It is a shul in which the ancient values and practices of our people are lived and made relevant to modern life on a daily basis.

Our community has grown larger, with more people attending Shabbat services, more children in our Nursery School and Religious School, more programming, and more classes.

The reason for all of this is because we have so many people in our community who are willing and eager to work on behalf of this congregation.  And I mean both kinds of work:  melakhah and avodah.  The physical work that has to be done, and the generosity of heart that is an expression of the love we have for each other and for God.

I feel so blessed to be the Rabbi of this community.  And I am so grateful to have the opportunity to begin a shabbaton, a sabbatical, tomorrow.  As this date has approached, people have been nervous – and that is understandable.  What are we going to do without our Rabbi?

I am confident, however that Sinai will thrive in my five-month absence.  We have worked hard to plan for all of the various contingencies that may arise, and to cover all of the responsibilities that generally call for a Rabbi.

Our religious services will continue.  Limmud La-ad classes will take place.  Celebrations will occur.  There will even be some new initiatives, such as the Kabbalat Shabbat musical ensemble that will be leading services this coming Friday night.  We are so blessed to have a community with so many knowledgeable and talented members who are willing and eager to give of themselves.  That is why I am not especially worried.  And it is why I am really looking forward to seeing all the ways in which we have grown when I come back at the end of the summer.

I really cannot fully express how grateful I am to everyone who has already stepped forward to plan for the next five months.  I am especially appreciative of Joelle and the rest of the Sinai staff, who will be taking on numerous additional tasks during the time that I am away.

I can think of no better words to say than Moses’ blessing to the Israelites after they presented the completed Mishkan to him after months and months of melakhah and avodah, work of the hands and labors of the heart.

Yehi ratzon she-tishreh Shekhinah b’ma-aseh y’deikhem.

“May it be God’s will that the Shekhinah will rest on the work of your hands.”

It’s Impossible To Be Present Through A Lens – Ki Tissa 5775

I love going into the Nursery School.  It is always such a breath of fresh air.  These little human beings express themselves so honestly, without the inhibitions which they will acquire soon enough.

Every year, the nursery school celebrates the morning of Purim, and I get to join them for a visit.  I usually tell them the abridged story of the Megillah, and then join them in a Purim parade.  Loads of fun.

By the time I got to them this week though, they were out of control.  I walked into the social hall and they all jumped up and swarmed around me, announcing themselves and their costumes.

“Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m a firefighter.  I’m a princess.  I’m Darth Vader!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!”  There were a lot of Elsa’s and Batman’s this year.

I was really struck by their desire to be seen and recognized.  It was contagious.  Once one of them announced herself, the rest soon followed, and I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of screaming preschoolers.

In just a few years, they will not be shouting out “Look at me!  I’m Elsa!”  But that innate need to be acknowledged will not go away.  These kids will find other ways to call out for recognition, some constructive, some destructive.

It is a core human trait.  We want to know that we matter.  We want assurance that the people in our lives see us.  In religious terms, we want to know that God cares about us.

The Israelites want the same thing.  They want to know that they matter.  They want to know that Moses, their leader, sees them, and is not going to abandon them.  They want to know that God is with them.

As this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, opens, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for approximately forty days – depending on who is counting.  The children of Israel, encamped at the bottom, have been waiting patiently for their leader to finish talking to God, come back to them, and tell them what to do next.

But something goes wrong.  Day follows day.  Week follows week.  Still no Moses.  The people grow impatient.  Rashi explains that when Moses told the Israelites that he would be gone for forty days, he meant that they should start counting that night.  But the Israelites started counting right away, and so they were a day off.

In any event, the Israelites gather in front Aaron and ask him to make them a god to go before them, because “that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”  (Exodus 32:1)

Aaron gathers gold, melts it, and casts it into a mold, producing a golden calf.  The people, overjoyed, announce “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4) and then plan a celebration for the next day.

This episode, the Sin of the Golden Calf, is usually depicted as one of the worst catastrophes in the Torah.  Right after leaving Egypt amidst signs and wonders and receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites have already violated the fundamental mitzvah of not worshipping idols.

But let’s think about it from their perspective for a moment.  The Israelites do not know where they stand.  Moses is gone.  He had been unclear about precisely how long he would be away.  When he does not show up after the allotted time has passed, the Israelites feel abandoned.

And God?  God is terrifying.  Brings plagues, splits seas, and drowns armies.  Creates earthquakes and thunderstorms.  Invisible.

So it is understandable that the Israelites are feeling a bit lost by now.  They want something tangible that they can see and interact with to lead them on in their journey.  They want to know that they matter, and that they have not been forgotten and abandoned in this wasteland.

What better thing to reassure them than a shiny gold cute little baby cow.  Remember what they say after it comes out of the fire: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  They are not worshipping another god.  To the Israelites, this is the Lord and Moses all rolled up into one.

But God is not sympathetic to the Israelites’ fears.  For making a statue, God wants to destroy them in an instant.  Moses talks God down, and then hurries to see what is going on.

Moses’ reaction to the Israelites seems almost feigned.  He already knows what they have done and has even spoken up on their behalf.  He waits until he is actually within sight of the Golden Calf before he turns on the anger and shatters the Tablets of the Covenant.

Perhaps Moses recognizes what the Israelites are going through at that moment.  Consider what he says to God afterwards when God threatens to wipe out all of the Israelites and start over with Moses.  Moses refuses point blank, instead delivering God an ultimatum:  “If you don’t forgive them, then You can erase me from Your book!”  Why would Moses go to bat for these people unless he empathizes with them?

What God does not seem to understand yet is that the Israelites are emotionally fragile.  They really do need to be reassured.  Moses gets it.  He understands that, as a Prophet, the intermediary between the Israelites and the Lord, it is up to him to teach God how to relate to the people.

After a bit of negotiating, Moses makes two important requests.  One, he asks God to reveal God’s self to Moses.  Moses wants to have a better understanding of with Whom he is dealing.  The second request is on behalf of the people.  “Unless You go in the lead,” Moses instructs God, “do not make us leave this place.”  (Exodus 33:15)  Moses knows that the Israelites need more recognition than God has given them so far.

God, scolded, agrees to both of Moses’ demands.

While no human can be exposed to God’s Presence and survive, God makes an accommodation.  God summons Moses up to Mt. Sinai once again, and instructs him to hide in the cleft of a rock.  The Divine Glory passes by, and Moses is able to see God’s back (whatever that means).

From then on, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, travels with the Israelites through the wilderness as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Thanks to Moses’ insight and boldness, the Israelites finally have the reassurance they seek.  They know that God is with them, because they see signs of God’s Presence.  They know that God speaks to their leader, Moses, on a regular basis, because Moses himself has been permanently changed by the experience.  Plus, God’s Presence descends upon the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses goes inside to commune.

In our world that is full of distractions, it can be difficult to be fully present.  Gone are the times when families and friends would have to talk with one another because there was literally nothing else to do.

Nowadays, we are surrounded by electronic devices, guaranteeing that we are never bored, and offering us excuses so that we never have to be fully present with another person.

But the need to be seen and acknowledged is buried deep inside of us.  It is a need that is not replaced by technology.  Indeed, technology provides a lot of distractions that interfere with our ability to see one another and to interact with the world.

As I prepare to depart with my family on my sabbatical in a little over a week, I have been thinking a lot about a particular electronic device which I expect will feature prominently in my experiences – a camera.  Nowadays, pretty much everybody has a camera in their pockets at all times.  We have the ability to record every moment of our lives – in high definition.

Think back to a vacation you once took.  Try and remember what happened.  The people you were with.  The sites you visited.  If you are like me, you have photographs of most of those memories.  It is because the photograph itself reinforces the experience.  We are far less likely to remember vacation experiences for which we do not have the pictures.

Why is that?  Is it that those experiences are less real, or less significant?

Not at all.  Cameras have changed our brains.  They have altered the ways that we store memories.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a camera person.  I like to take pictures.  I think I have taken some pretty good ones.  The most practical class I took in high school was photography.

But for me, a camera often interferes with the experience itself.  I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be fully present through a camera lens.

I suppose that for some really talented photographers, a camera can actually become an extension of oneself.  When such an artist looks through the lens, he or she is indeed fully present with the subject.

But when I look through the lens, I am thinking about other things:  Do I have enough light?  What image do I want to focus on?  How much do I want to zoom in.  Is my subject backlit, or washed out?  The camera then becomes a barrier to being fully present and in the moment.

This is true if I am out in nature somewhere, looking out at a gorgeous valley.  It’s also true when I am with my kids.  I can interact with them, roll around on the floor, cheer them on at a sports game.  Or I can create a permanent record and view the experience through a glass lens.

While the camera may create a lasting image, it often comes at the forfeiture of genuine experience.

As I prepare to live in Israel for the next four months, I expect to take a lot of pictures.  But I also am reminding myself that the experiences that really matter in life are the ones in which we are fully present with our environment, and the people in it.

Judaism offers us many opportunities to be Present.  Right now, we are here together celebrating Shabbat.  One of the blessings of Shabbat is that it forces us to pay attention to one another.  To be Present, in this moment, and to not let the distractions of the week get in the way of our relationships.

Because whether it is Nursery School students clamoring for the Rabbi to acknowledge them in their Purim costumes, Israelites longing for a sign of God’s Presence to reassure them that they have not been abandoned, or our own quests for meaning in life, we human beings are hard-wired to seek opportunities to be Present.

It is those intangible moments when we truly connect with the essence of the other which matter most.  May we have the courage, and the privilege to see and be seen clearly.

Where is God? – Terumah 5775

Where is God?

I learned the answer when I went to Camp Gan Izzy, the Chabad Day Camp, in the summer before third grade.  Sing along if you know this one:

Hashem is here, Hashem is there,

Hashem is truly everywhere!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

Up!  Up!  Down!  Down!

Right!  Left!  And all around!

Here!  There!  And everywhere!

That’s where He can be found!

So there is the answer.  God is everywhere.

Once, Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, walked up to a group of scholars and asked them a simple question:  Where is the dwelling of God?”

They laughed at him.  “What a silly question!  Is not the whole world filled with God’s glory?!”

To which the Kotzker answered his own question:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

Two diametrically opposed answers to the question of where God is:

The first answer:  Everywhere.  God is big!  Nothing can contain God’s Presence.  God fills all of Creation, and then some!

The second answer:  God is small and lonely.  God is outside, knocking on the doors of our hearts, waiting to be invited in.

The first King of Israel is Saul.  When he loses God’s favor, Samuel the Prophet is called upon to anoint his replacement, and so God sends him to Beit Lechem to find a man named Jesse, one of whose sons will be anointed as the next King of Israel.

Samuel arrives, and sees Eliav.  Tall, strong, and handsome, he is Jesse’s eldest.  Samuel takes one look at him and says to himself, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed.”

But God has other plans.  “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him.  For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.”  (I Samuel 16:7)

So Jesse brings up his next son, Avinadav.  “Nope,” says the Lord.  Shammah.  “Next!”  And so on, down the line.

After rejecting seven sons, Samuel asks him, “You got any more?”

Jesse looks at him, shrugs, and says, “Well, there is my youngest son.  He’s out tending the flock.”

“Well hurry up, man” Samuel urges, “bring him to me.”

Samuel takes one look at the kid and hears the Divine voice saying “This is the one.”  So Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel.

Where is God?

God peers into young David’s heart, and finds an opening.  We are told that after Samuel anointed him, “the spirt of the Lord gripped David from that day on.”  (I Samuel 16:13)

As this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, opens, Moses is on top of Mount Sinai and the Israelites are encamped below.  God instructs Moses to launch a capital campaign to raise money for a new building.  This is in the days before money, so they are going to have to collect raw materials:  gold, silver, copper, wool, fabric. precious woods, animal skins, and so on.  The gifts start pouring in.  The people respond so enthusiastically to the fundraising campaign, that Moses has to end it early – before the big donors can even come forward.  The first – and last – time in history that has happened.

They are going to use all of these materials to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle or Sanctuary, that the Israelites will take with them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness.

This and next week’s Torah portions are filled with detailed descriptions of how to build all of the furniture, make the clothing, and construct the building.  At the end of the Book of Exodus, the final two portions will repeat much of these details as Moses passes on the instructions and the Israelites build it.

This Mishkan will enable them to install the Priests who will perform all of the special sacrifices and rituals, thereby maintaining the relationship between God and the Israelites in its proper balance.  Moses will confer with God in the inner precincts of the Mishkan.  It will also serve as a physical location for God’s Presence among the Israelites – a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night hovering to let the Israelites know that God is with them.

So where is God?

In the Mishkan, it would seem.

But, wait a second.  I thought God was everywhere, or waiting for hearts to open to be let in!  Now we are describing God’s Presence materializing in a physical location.

The truth is, God has no need whatsoever for a house.  God is way too big for that.  To suggest otherwise, that God’s Presence can somehow be contained in a physical space, is blasphemy bordering on idolatry.

It is we who need a Sanctuary.  Sefer Hachinukh teaches that it is the act of building the Mishkan which is transformative, not the building itself.  It is the journey, not the destination, which matters.

But why a Mishkan?  Why is it so important for the Israelites to build this thing in the first place?

Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish Rabbi, connects the Mishkan to the Israelites’ encounter with God at Mount Sinai.  The Revelation at Sinai was a glorious, indescribable moment.  The challenge for the Israelites after such a supremely spiritual experience is what to do the day after, and the day after that, for the rest of their lives.  Everything else will be a let down after Mt. Sinai.  Nachmanides notices that there are a number of similarities between the Torah’s description of the Mishkan and the Revelation at Sinai.

God speaks to Israel through Moses from inside the Holy of Holies just as God spoke to Israel through Moses on top of the mountain.

The Tablet of the Covenant that the Israelites carry with them in the Mishkan was given on Mt. Sinai as a symbol of the covenant that was struck there.

The cloud of smoke created by the incense offering in the Tabernacle recalls the cloud that covered Mt. Sinai.

Similarly, the fire on the altar symbolizes the fire that descended on Mt. Sinai from the heavens.

The building of the Mishkan is meant to capture the essence of what happened to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai and enable them to take it with them on the road.  The Mishkan will serve as a kind of portable Mt. Sinai.

A Talmudic teaching (BT Sanhedrin 16b) takes it a step further.  The building of the Mishkan is not a one time project.  It is timeless.  We are to constantly build a Tabernacle in every generation.

So does that mean that we should launch another capital campaign tomorrow?  I think we might be able to get it to fit in the parking lot.

Just kidding.  Our tradition understands the Mishkan as a metaphor in and of itself.

God tells Moses, v’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  These words appear in many, if not most synagogue, usually on donor plaques.  We have it in a beautiful mosaic right there in the foyer above the names of those who contributed significantly to the building of this sanctuary.

V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham.  “Make for me a Tabernacle, and I will dwell in… ” – finish the sentence. It should say b’tokho, “in it.”  But it doesn’t.  It says b’tokham, “in them.”

“Make for me a Tabernacle so that I can dwell within them.”  The Israelites build this beautiful, expensive building, and now God is not going to even move in?!

This leads many commentators to suggest that each human being corresponds to the Mishkan.  The eternal command to build the Tabernacle is as relevant to us in this moment as it was to our ancestors in the wilderness thousands of years ago.

The purpose of building the Mishkan is to transform those who are building it.

The 19th century commentary, the Malbim, teaches that “each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.”

How do we transform ourselves into holy vessels worthy of God’s Presence?

The answer is quite straightforward: by doing mitzvot, we not only alter the world around us, we also transform our inner selves.  And then, God has a place in which to reside.

So where is God?

Everywhere? Waiting outside the door? Or in the mishkan?

The three answers merge.  The potential for God’s Presence to enter the mishkan of our hearts is with us at all time and in all places.  We return to the Kotzker Rebbe:  “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

But when we look inward, do we truly see ourselves in this way?  Are our hearts capable of becoming holy vessels that can house the Divine?  While these concepts are embraced in our tradition, notably by some of the Great Hassidic Masters, it seems to me that many of us struggle to see ourselves in this way, if we even consider it at all.

Our lives are so busy, our society and economy so material-driven, that the inner life is easily silenced and ignored.

Transforming the self into a holy vessel, a sanctuary for God, a Mishkan, requires kavannah, the intention to do so.

We approach an act with the mindset that its performance can open up our hearts, draw in sparks of holiness, and possibly even let God in.

We can introduce this kind of kavannah into our lives at any moment.  We just have to slow down, alter our perspective, and consider that our actions can have cosmic ripples beyond the physical world that we see around us.

The next time we give tzedakah, say a blessing before eating a meal, or study something, let us consider that what we are doing can transform our hearts in a profound way.

Right now, we are all here together in this physical sanctuary.  This is an opportune moment.  Let’s push the distractions aside, and make this an opportunity for holiness.  What better time and place is there than right here and right now?

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.

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.

Why Doesn’t Christmas Violate the Separation of Church and State? – Vayiggash 5775

I hope everyone had a wonderful time on the national holiday of the Twenty-Fifth of December.  I sure did.  It’s one of my favorite days of the year.  The shul is closed.  The streets are empty.  No responsibilities.  I get to sleep in.  We usually go on a family hike.  This year, it was a beautiful crisp, sunny day.

Growing up, I was always pretty sensitive this time of year.  When I was in first grade attending public school in Atlanta, our music teacher had us singing gospel songs that were certainly of a religious nature.  I told my parents, and my dad was on the phone with the principal that night.  The next day in music class, the gospel songs were gone, and a token Chanukah song had been added to our repertoire.  So yes, I was the Jewish kid who destroyed Christmas.

I think this was a pretty common experience for Jewish kids growing up in a largely Christian society.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there is a great deal more sensitivity to these kinds of issues, and in a part of the country that is especially diverse.

But the dominance of Christmas is still inescapable.  How is it possible that in a country like the United States, which prides itself on having a separation between church and state, one of our national holidays can be Christmas?

Let’s take a look at the First Amendment.  It begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The separation of church and state is understood to have two clauses.  The first is the anti-establishment clause, which is summarized quite well by Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education.

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another … in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’ … That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

Simply put, the government cannot establish or favor any particular religion, or even religion in general.

The other aspect of the First Amendment is known as the free exercise clause.  The government is not allowed to curtail the beliefs of any individual or group, nor can it restrict a person’s religious actions unless those actions are “subversive of good order.”

How is it possible that Christmas could be a federal holiday?  Is not this a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Probably not.  But maybe.

When did Christmas become a national holiday?

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill passed by Congress creating the first federal holidays in the United States.  Most of the states had already established state holidays, but this was a first for the national government.  Initially, it only applied to employees of the federal government in Washington, D. C.  Several years later, it was expanded to include all federal employees.  There were five days.  The bill’s title was:

An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays, within the District of Columbia.

It went like this:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia…

Notice a couple of things.  First, the title of the bill does not mention the word “Christmas.”  It says “the twenty-fifth day of December.”  The bill itself also uses that expression, adding, almost as a sidebar, that the day is “commonly called Christmas Day.”

In 1870, just five years after the end of the Civil War, there were still deep divisions between the North and the South.  Northerners tended to get really excited about Thanksgiving, while Southerners made a big deal about Christmas.  One impetus behind the federal holidays bill was to create national unity.

As you can imagine, there have been cases brought to the courts, usually regarding Christmas displays on public property.  The courts have basically drawn a line between what they see as secular symbols and what they define as religious symbols.  For example, a nativity scene in which an angel is holding a banner with “Glory to God in the Highest” written in Latin was seen as religious.  Images like Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, or a menorah, for that matter, are typically seen as secular.  In a court case involving Jersey City’s public holiday display, the presence of symbols from different traditions like a Christmas tree, Kwanza symbols, a Menorah, Frosty the Snowman, and a sign expressing the city’s intention to “celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its people” was accepted by the 3rd Circuit in 1999.  As long as minority traditions are also included with the majority, the courts tend to permit it.

As a people, we have had to deal with being a minority in the midst of a dominant culture for most of our existence.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Joseph is finally reunited with his family.  He invites them to join him in Egypt, where they will thrive under his protection and favored status, but it is clear from the beginning that they do not in.  Joseph instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are breeders of livestock, because that is a profession which is abhorrent to Egyptians.  By telling this to Pharaoh, Joseph’s family receives rights to settle in the fertile land of Goshen, and to receive a special commission to care for the royal flocks.

On their way down, God appears to Jacob with a message of assurance:  “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back…”  The commentator Ha-emek Davar explains that God is reassuring Jacob that his descendants will not forget who they are.  They will maintain their distinctiveness first as a family, and eventually as a nation.

Initially at least, we see tolerance on the part of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  They permit this tribe, with its strange customs, to live in Egyptian society, and to maintain their cultural and religious practices.  In next week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dies, the Egyptian dignitaries participate with Joseph and his brothers in the mourning rituals as they bring their father’s body back to the ancestral burial site in the Land of Canaan.

Unfortunately, this tolerance does not last, and a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph, and who does not share his predecessor’s generosity and open-mindedness.  So we understand well how important it is to protect the religious freedoms of others.

I have always felt that, as a Jew, I had a greater awareness of the experiences of minorities than those who were in the dominant culture.  Being a minority prepares us to better respect religious diversity.

But what if Jews were in the majority?  How would we deal with issues of religious freedom then?

In 1948, Israel was established as the nation state of the Jewish people.  The Declaration of Independence, issued shortly after the United Nations Partition Plan passed, “declare[d] the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

It went on to declare certain freedoms which should sound familiar to us:  “…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

So how can Israel, on the one hand, be “the Jewish State” while also ensuring equality and freedom for all, irrespective of religion?

To be fair, many, if not most of the world’s democracies have official state religions, or offer certain favorable status to one particular religion while still protecting religious freedom.  It is the United States which is unusual in not favoring any particular religion.

In building a new nation in 1948, Israel’s founders had some important decisions to make.  Most of them were fiercely secular Jews, yet they looked to Jewish history, traditions, and customs to determine some of the core aspects of the State.

One basic question they had to address was: when is the weekend?

In the U.S., the weekend was originally just Sunday.  The two day weekend developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Would Israel follow the example of the rest of the Western world and go with Sunday, or would it copy its Muslim neighbors and choose Friday?

Of course, you know the answer.  Shabbat has been the weekend of the Jewish people for thousands of years, not just in religious terms, but in national terms.

What about holidays?

Again, Israel’s founders looked to Jewish tradition and established the Yamim Tovim, the holidays on which work is religiously forbidden, as national holidays.

In the Ordinances of Law and Government, Section 18a, subsection 1, paragraph a, it states:

Shabbat and the Jewish holidays—the two days of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, the first day of Succot and Shmini Atzeret, the first and seventh days of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—are the fixed days of rest for the State of Israel.

What about non-Jews?  Israel’s founders were emphatic about ensuring equality and the right to freely practice religion.  This brings us to paragraph b.

For those who are not Jewish there is reserved the right to observe their days of rest in accordance with their Sabbath and holidays. These holidays will be set in accordance with each community by the government and published in the public records.

To summarize, the law states the following in subsection 2:

The laws of work hours and rest of 1951, which apply to weekly periods of rest, will apply:

a. To Jews—on their holidays

b. To non-Jews—on the Jewish holidays or on the holidays of their community, whatever is acceptable to them.

In other words, if you are Christian, you can take your weekend on Sunday, and celebrate all the Christian holidays when they occur.  If you are Muslim, you can take your weekend on Friday, and celebrate all the Muslim holidays when they occur.  And those are not considered to be vacation days, but rather national holidays.

While it can get kind of complicated in the workplace, and I imagine that it is a nightmare for Human Resources departments, this is practiced and taken very seriously in Israel to this day.  Every religion gets its own weekends and national holidays.

We had a taste of something like this when we lived in New York.  Ostensibly to keep the streets clean in the five boroughs, but really to discourage car ownership, the city imposes alternate side of the street parking rules.  Pretty much every day of the work week, car owners have to get in their cars and move them to the opposite side of the street to make room for the street cleaners.  Failure to do so results in a fairly hefty ticket.

But what if you are an observant Jew (and there are a few of those in New York) and it is Rosh Hashanah, when it is forbidden to drive a car?  To deal with that situation, there are holiday suspensions of the alternate side parking restrictions.

“Wait,” you say.  Isn’t that a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Not if you make the holiday suspensions available to everyone.  Here are just a few examples of holidays on which alternate side parking restrictions are suspended:  Yom Kippur, both days of Shavuot, Purim (driving is technically allowed, but you can probably guess why the city doesn’t want Jews getting in their cars on Purim), Good Friday, Holy Thursday, Ash Wednesday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, and the newest entry in the list, the Asian Lunar New Year.

So I guess having a national holiday on the 25th of December does not bother me as much as it once did.  I can accept that for many Americans, as well as the U.S. courts, it is seen as a secular holiday.

So to all of us, Happy National Holiday of the 1st of January, coming up in just a few days.

 

Dinah, The Yatzanit – Vayishlach 5775

There is a current trend in Hollywood of making epic movies based on stories from the Torah.  Earlier this year, we saw the release of Noah, by Darren Aronofsky.  Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings opens next weekend.  This Sunday night is the premier on Lifetime of a mini-series adaptation of Anita Diamant’s biblical-historical novel, The Red Tent.  I can only assume that it has been timed for release with this morning’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, in which we read the story of the book and mini-series’ central character, Dinah.

I saw the trailer for the miniseries.  It is what I would have expected: stunning desert scenes, dramatic music, beautiful actors, violence, and quite a bit of skin.  According to the journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “the miniseries provides Lifetime’s heavily female audience with gauzy love scenes that verge on soft porn.”

When the novel, The Red Tent, was first published in 1997, it had no advertising budget and did not attract much attention.  Anita Diamant, however, wisely hit the synagogue lecture circuit, and by 2001, it had become a New York Times bestseller.  It has since sold over 3 million copies.

It also pioneered a literary trend of Jewish female-centered novels set in times in which women’s voices have rarely been recorded.  Maggie Anton wrote her Rashi’s daughters trilogy, and is now two thirds of the way through her Rav Hisda’s daughters trilogy, for example.

Anita Diamant was prompted to write The Red Tent by Dinah’s total silence in the biblical text.  Dinah does not get a single word in the thirty one verses that describe her ordeal.

Many readers have described The Red Tent as a modern midrash, an effort to fill in the gaps and thereby describe what happened then in a way that also connects with our view of the world today.

Interestingly, the author disagrees.  She writes the following:

The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus—by and about the female characters—distinguishes it from the biblical account, in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text.

Simply put, The Red Tent is a novel based on a biblical story.  But for the millions of people who have read it, especially Jewish women, it has been a powerful and religiously meaningful suggestion of what life might have been like for the women who lived in our Patriarchs’ households.

The Red Tent makes significant, and intentional, departures from the text.  It describes what the Torah depicts as Shechem’s rape of Dinah instead as a consensual, loving marriage that Dinah freely enters.  It presents the women of Jacob’s household as idol-worshipping pagans.  And of course, it gives Dinah voice and volition, both of which are absent in the text itself.

The language in chapter 34 is extremely deliberate.  Let’s focus on some of the verbs.  Dinah is the subject of exactly one verb in the entire story.  Ironically, her verb is the opening word of the chapter.  Vatetze Dinah.  “And Dinah, Leah’s daughter,whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land.”  (Genesis 34:1, Translation by Robert Alter)

For all other verbs in this story, Dinah is an object to be seen, taken, slept with, abused, defiled, and given away.

The medieval commentator Rashi records a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 80:1) that asks why Dinah is described as Leah’s daughter rather than Jacob’s daughter.  It is because her “going out” is similar to something her mother, Leah, had done a few chapters earlier.  After making a deal with her sister and co-wife Rachel, Leah goes out into the field to inform their husband Jacob that he must sleep with her that night.  Thus “going out” is associated with wantonness and promiscuity.  “Like mother like daughter,” as the Prophet Ezekiel states (Ezekiel 16:44).  Dinah, says Rashi, is a Yatzanit.

While there are other commentators that do not find fault with either Dinah or Leah, and indeed praise them both, we see in the midrash that Rashi chooses to cite the sexist and dangerous attitude that seeks to blame the victim.  “She was asking for it.”  “She should have known better than to go out looking like that.”  And so on.

How sad that the one verb attributed to Dinah in the entire Torah is interpreted so horribly!

Indeed, the verbs in the rest of the story also reflect the classic misogyny in which women are not seen as agents who can determine their own fate, but rather as property to be owned and traded.

Two verbs that occur numerous times are lakach and natan – take and give.  There is nothing unusual about these two words.  Both are ubiquitous and among the most common words in Hebrew.  In this story, these words are used almost exclusively to describe the transferring of possession of females by males.

Here are a few of the many examples:  Shechem takes Dinah and rapes her after he sees her.  Later, in love with Dinah, Shechem begs his father Chamor to “take for me this girl as a wife.”  When Chamor speaks to Jacob about it, he asks him to “Please give her to him as a wife.”  Chamor then suggests that the two tribes should intermarry with each other.  “You give your daughters to us, and our daughters you shall take for yourselves.”

When they hear about it, Dinah’s brothers are unhappy.  “We cannot do such a thing,” they say, “to give our sister to a man who has a foreskin…”  Negotiations go back and forth.  Eventually, the men of the town agree to be circumcised so that their respective daughters can be given and taken accordingly.  As per the agreement, Dinah is sent to Shechem’s house.  But it is all a ruse.  Shimon and Levi sneak into town and slaughter all of the men.  “Then they take Dinah from the house of Shechem and they leave.”

While incredibly upsetting, it should not surprise us that this ancient text presents women as passive chattel.  That was the social structure in the Ancient Near East.

These texts are part of our holy Torah, however.  Our tradition considers these words to be sacred, and insists that they contain ultimate Truth.  As Jews, we have to find how these words speak to us today.  In some cases, as in this story, there are elements both of the story itself and of how it has been traditionally understood, which many of us find deeply problematic.

That does not mean there is not a Truth that can speak to us from this text.

At this moment, a national conversation is taking place, primarily on college campuses, about what constitutes consent.  The old adage was “no means no.”  Now there are those who advocate a higher standard of “yes means yes.”  In other words, if both parties do not verbally consent, a sexual act may be considered rape.

In the course of this national conversation, attitudes are emerging that suggest that the clothing a person chooses to wear, or the decision to attend a fraternity party, for example, makes a victim at least partly responsible for the sexual assault she suffers.

While we as a society have come far in terms of promoting gender equality, and creating equal space for women’s voices, it is clear that we still have a way to go.  The way that we speak about gender and equality in religion is a central part of that progress.  Religion both reflects and, in some cases, leads the progress that society makes.

Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent has been a very important step that is both symbolic of and has inspired the embrace of women’s experiences and voices in Jewish tradition.

I am not suggesting that we should all go out and watch the Lifetime miniseries.  It will probably be entertaining, as well as “gauzy,” but I am not expecting any fabulous new insights.  Personally, I will not be watching it because I do not subscribe to cable.  I will just have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

But I see the trend of creatively considering how we might understand the voices of previously-silenced Jewish women to be an important one, whether in a miniseries, in a novel, or even more importantly, whenever we read our ancient holy texts.

Building Our Singing Community

The most profoundly meaningful moment of prayer in my life occurred on the day that I did not get in to Rabbinical School.

Growing up, I was about as involved in my childhood Conservative synagogue as you could be.  I was a leader in USY.  I was first a teacher’s assistant and then a full teacher in the Religious School.  I came to services just about every Shabbat throughout middle school and high school.

So naturally, everybody who knew me, from the members of the congregation, to the Rabbi, to my non-Jewish public high school teachers, told me that I should become a Rabbi.

While I was a well-behaved teen-ager, I still wasn’t about to do what a bunch of adults told me to do, so I did not give it too much thought.

As I went through university, however, I stayed Jewishly connected, and by the time I graduated, becoming a Rabbi had become a very real possibility.  I spent a couple of years working outside of the Jewish world, just to be sure, and that helped me make my decision.  It was now time to apply.  And this is where I made my big mistake.

I believed what everybody had been telling me.

I figured I was a shoe-in, but I did not really understand what I was in for.

There is a legend about rabbinical school entrance interviews at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  The stories go like this:  There is a panel of 6-7 esteemed professors and Rabbis sitting around a table, with the candidate alone on one side.  The table is glass.  At some point they offer the candidate a glass of water and watch to see whether or not he or she recites a blessing before drinking.  They ask the candidate what the current date is on the Hebrew calendar.  And so on.

The Seminary was under renovations at the time of my interview, so I didn’t experience the glass table, the water, or the calendar question.  I was asked about faith and practice.  What do I believe about the origins of Torah, and how are my actions expressions of that belief?

These are certainly important questions about religious authenticity for a prospective rabbinical student, but I had never considered them for myself, and certainly did not have the language to discuss the matter.  I totally bombed the interview.

A certain member of my interview committee was not pleased, and he let me know it in no uncertain terms – so much so that the Dean of the Rabbinical School, Rabbi Alan Kensky, had to intervene and gently tell him to back off.

I was allowed to attend a preparatory program, but I would have to re-interview at the end of the year to begin Rabbinical School.

That experience was crushing to me.  At the time it felt terrible, but in retrospect it was one of the most important experiences in my religious life.

All of this took place on a Friday.  Shabbat was beginning that night.  I didn’t have any close friends in New York City at the time, so I walked by myself to a modern Orthodox synagogue on 110th Street, Congregation Ramat Orah.

My ego having been deflated that morning, there was an empty space in my heart that night for true prayer.

I still remember it.  The wooden-pew lined sanctuary was packed with people who were all strangers to me.  Chandaliers hung from a tall ceiling, lighting the room with a warm glow.  And everyone sang.  I still remember the melody for L’cha Dodi.  It was slow.  It took a really long time.  And it was perfect.

In one of the rare true-prayer experiences of my life, my usual barriers were stripped away.  I was vulnerable.  My emotional state, combined with an atmosphere in which it felt safe to let go, provided an opportunity to pray to God in an honest way.  To recite words which were familiar, but infused with kavanah that could only come from a place of brokenness.

Those moments have been rare in my life.  I suspect that moments like this are rare for many of us.

Last Shabbat, our community had a unique prayer experience.  Joey Weisenberg, a musician and ba’al tefilah, prayer leader, introduced us to the idea of building a singing community.

While Joey spent some of his time with us talking about what makes prayer “work,” the most profound lessons came when we experienced it first hand.

I learned a few things last weekend:

1.  We can sound really good.  [Listen to this brief recording of our pre-Kabbalat Shabbat session]

2.  The physical space in which we are praying matters.  Singing in the chapel, close together, is very different than singing in the sanctuary when we are spread much further apart.  The acoustics of the social hall, with its sound dampening ceiling tiles and carpet, is radically different than the reflective tile and glass surfaces of the foyer.

3.  How we are configured matters even more.  To be a singing community, people have to hear and see each other.  It is hard to do when we are far apart.  It is easy when we are close together – and as we found out when we crammed together around the podium, that means really close.

4.  The melody is secondary to all of these other factors.  When we came together in the center of the room and sang the exact same niggun as when we were spread out to the edges, people were brought to tears.

And finally, the last point, which is the most crucial of all:

5.  To build a singing community, the members of the congregation are at least as important as the person leading it.

That means that it is up to all of us.  If we want to continue our transformation into the singing community that we experienced last Shabbat, we have to do things differently than we have been doing them.  We have to break patterns.  We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  I promise:  It will be uncomfortable.

But isn’t that kind of the point?

So many of our people say that they don’t find services to be spiritually meaningful.  American Jews report that they are more likely to feel God’s presence in the woods than in a synagogue.  If that’s the case, then we are doing something wrong.  Where else should a Jew expect to find God than in a synagogue?

Listen to these words describing the synagogue in America:

Services are conducted with dignity and precision.  The rendition of the liturgy is smooth.  Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony.  But one thing is missing: Life.  One knows in advance what will ensue.  There will be no surprise, no adventure of the soul; there will be no sudden outburst of devotion.  Nothing is going to happen to the soul.  Nothing unpredictable must happen to the person who prays.  He will attain no insight into the words he reads; he will attain no new perspective for the life he lives.  Our motto is monotony.  The fire has gone out of our worship.  It is cold, stiff, and dead.  True, things are happening, of course, not within prayer, but within the administration of the temples…

When do you think this was written?

Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered these words to Conservative Rabbis at the 1953 Rabbincal Assembly Convention.  He later incorporated them into his beautiful book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God.  (pp. 49 – 50)  In it, he offers a poignant critique on Jewish worship that is as relevant today as it was then.

But don’t conclude that the problem lies in the rote nature of the prayer itself.  Don’t assume that by changing the words of the siddur and introding flashy innovations, we will suddenly be able to feel something when we pray and have real kavanah.  Heschel suggests otherwise:

The problem is not how to revitalize prayer; the problem is how to revitalize ourselves. (p. 77)

I first read this book in Rabbinical School, and it has stuck with me.  One section in which Heschel discusses the role of the sermon has particularly resonated.  The sermon, he says, was never of primary importance during Jewish worship.  And yet now, as he speaks to his rabbinic colleagues in the mid-1950’s, it is given “prominence… as if the sermon were the core and prayer the shell.”  (p. 79)  Then he complains about sermons that are indistinguishable from editorials in the New York Times, popular science, or the latest theories of psychoanalysis.  Or, that Rabbis deliver scholarly, intellectual discourses that identify the historical pre-Israelite pagan roots of various Jewish holidays.  All of this misses the point entirely.

“Preach in order to pray.”  Heschel urges.  “Preach in order to inspire others to pray.  The test of a true sermon is that it can be converted to prayer.” (p. 80)

Heschel’s plea is always present for me.  Always.

“Preach in order to pray.”  I find it to be a tremendous challenge.  My default mode is “intellectual.”  I do not think of myself as the kind of person who expresses a sense of deep spirituality.  I am not someone who would be comfortable leading meditation.  I am very comfortable discussing the various traditional interpretations of a biblical phrase, and then comparing them to modern biblical scholarship.

“Preach in order to pray.”  That would require me to be open, honest, and vulnerable.  That is scary.  On the other hand, the times in my life when I have allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of others – times when I have been honest about my mistakes, my fears, and my doubts – those are the times when I have been able to pray with the greatest kavanah.  But to bring myself to do that every week is not easy for me.

But this is not about me.  It is about our community.  Heschel’s challenge, and Joey’s, is to us not as individuals, but as a community.

Do we want this to be a place in which tears can flow?  Do we want to be surprised when we pray in this room?  Do we want to find God in our synagogue?

There are numerous ways in which to build a community in which these kinds of things can happen.  Heschel doesn’t have anything specific in mind.  He writes:

“My intention is not to offer blueprints, to prescribe new rules – except one: Prayer must have life.  It must not be drudgery, something done in a rut, something to get over with…”  (p. 76)

Singing together is a powerful way to give prayer life.  It has been an important part of Judaism ever since we crossed the Sea of Reeds.

So here is what I suggest.  And again, it is up to us.  It will be different, and possibly uncomfortable.  When we return the Sefer Torah to the ark in just a few moments, we’ll bring the Torah around the room.  Today we’ll go around the back and come down the aisle on the other side so that we cover more ground.  As the Torah passes you, if you like, join in the procession behind it, continuing all the way up to the ark, where we will sing Etz Chayim Hi together.  It’s a Tree of Life – but only when we give it life.

Then, we’ll go straight into musaf.  Again, you are invited to stay up front and stand close together around the podium, joining all of our voices in song and prayer together.

If we are going to become a singing community, we’ve got to commit.  If we make that commitment, I am confident that it will happen.