We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
I've been wanting to get this down for weeks.... I’ve been very affected since March by Torah time – by how the cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue has mapped onto our experience of the pandemic since its one-year anniversary.
The first anniversary of the formal declaration of the pandemic and the massive shut-downs coincided with Jews’ reading the end of the book of Exodus and the start of the book of Leviticus. The Torah itself says that one year passed between the instructions Moshe received for the night of the Exodus, and the final assembly of the mishkan, the desert Sanctuary that would be a focal point for the Divine Presence. During that year in the Torah there had been war and thirst, a complete reorientation of the food distribution system to adjust to (i.e. manna), the new laws and covenant at Mt. Sinai, the in-fighting around the Golden Calf. Then finally a process of calming and reconciliation, and a collective project of building the “tabernacle.” Everyone gave something unique, with its own texture or color, from their life of that year – to be repurposed into a symbol of their unity. When the mishkan was finally assembled, the Divine Presence visibly infused it, with the cloud and fire that was going to lead the people ahead toward their new land and their new life.
That was what we read more or less on the first anniversary of the shut-down, as we were entering a new phase too – the ramping up of Covid-19 vaccination. I expected a turn toward dealing with the new ethical challenges of moving forward, the project of reconnecting and rebuilding a reality better than the one pre-pandemic.
But Leviticus opens with a cloud around the mishkan, and Moshe himself hesitating to approach it to hear these kinds of teachings. The cloud and fire do not in fact move forward. Something is not – was not ready.
Leviticus, the book that was the backdrop of our spring, is not actually a book of moving forward in the desert. And it’s not directly a book of society and ethical teaching, at least not for the first eighty percent or so. Leviticus does open with travel – but it does open with movement. It’s the motion of individuals coming one by one mostly, in a process the Torah calls korban or coming-closer, with offerings. People coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Something got my attention in March, when I looked at the Torah and realized that it was telling me not to expect people to be ready to plunge ahead. Especially I shouldn’t expect people to be ready to engage in discussion about ethics and society fully just yet.
For a while, the Torah says n Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Leviticus doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong, sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
The commentaries on the opening verse of Leviticus focus on the last letter of its first word Vayikra. In the Torah scroll, the last letter alef is written as a small superscript. That alef has two dimensions. Its presence or absence changes the word from calling to happenstance. The letter alef signifies ani or anochi, “I” – which can stand for the ego in a strong sense or the Divine, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Leviticus opens with a cloud around the tabernacle and a spiritual teetering between calling and being just tossed around, between a sense of our own “I” and not having it. Reclaiming what “I” feel like, who “I” am, is what a lot of us were doing as the pandemic hit its first year and we contemplated the next phase ahead. We were, and surely still are, disoriented. Leviticus gives that spiritual state a name and a picture and a pacing.
That was most of Leviticus, and it turned out to be not just accurate but for me soothing.
By the time the book of Leviticus turned to its code of ethics in chapter 19, and its social vision in chapter 25, things had in fact changed around us quite profoundly. The accelerating progress of vaccination in many places led just at this time to the CDC’s revision of its mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people. It was time to open the book of Numbers – the book of the march forward, the organization of people toward the battle for the new land, and the conflicts and delays along the way. But at least it’s the book of moving together, even if together is starting and stopping, and quarreling among ourselves.
Leviticus and Numbers share the perception that not everyone is spiritually ready to move in the same direction at the same time. But at some point, there is something you could call movement of the group, catalyzed by leaders or critical mass. Numbers acknowledges that deciding to move is hardly all there is. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to grind to a halt. In the Torah, these include questioning leaders and their motivations; people getting focused on immediate ease vs. longer-term goals; issues of justice and inclusion; people defining the end of the road in different ways. This last particularly struck me when we read about the tribes of Reuven and Gad who wanted not to go all the way to the new land with the other tribes, but settle where they were. To declare the journey and the fight were over. They and Moshe had it out, and eventually figured out a way for the tribes to work on setting up the common future together, even though tribe by tribe they would separate and live differently both economically and culturally. We should be so fortunate. In Numbers, some 38 years pass and if you read the book you can’t see where they went.
That’s more or less where we got in the Torah by early/mid-July. Now it’s time for Deuteronomy. What’s coming is preparation for the new year – the Jewish new year which starts this year in early September, as does the new school year. The new Torah year starts a few weeks later. Deuteronomy is about getting to the cusp of the new land, the future. It is a book of review of the teachings, going over them for the first time in a long time. At long last, Moshe gets to focus on the ethics and laws and teachings. He gets to talk about them, and also to remind people to continue to learn and study and talk about them from the moment they enter the new land. The time for putting that off – for delaying our ethical conversations, or pushing them to the side or to a small group of interested people – we’re being asked to consider that time over. To be fully human, ready to live, is also to be accountable ethically and intellectually and spiritually. That is what the Jewish new year is all about, and the intellectual explorations in Deuteronomy coincide in the Jewish year with weeks of spiritual introspection. And since this is hard any year, and especially this year, the rabbis of our tradition long ago paired Deuteronomy with (Second) Isaiah, with words of comfort and encouragement, with a welcome of people back to the Divine, back from exile toward home and each other.
I’m waiting to see how Deuteronomy maps onto the end of the summer. But I wanted to get this spiritual journal of the Torah cycle down now, because I am so grateful I had the Torah in this way these past few months. I’ve had more than the Torah’s specific teachings, each verse or each week – I’ve had this structure. It has helped pace me, and see the moment I’m in and some weeks ahead. I have always paid attention to the seasonal flow of the Torah readings, but this year I have seen in the Torah’s pacing through the desert so much I hadn’t seen before. I am grateful, and hope I’ll be attentive to the same things in the weeks and months ahead.
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This was my Dvar Torah on Parashat Pinchas from July 3, 2021.
ותקרבנה בנות צלפחד -- Vatikravna Bnot Tzelophechad, they came up close, the daughters of Tzelophechad son of Chefer son of Gilad son of Machir son of Menashe of the families of Menashe son of Yaakov, and these are the names of his daughters: Machlah, Noah, Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah. Va’ta’amodna, and they stood in front of Moshe and in front of Elazar and in front of the tribal leaders and in front of the community at the entrace of the tent of meeting, and said...
ותקרבנה, ותעמדנה Vatikravna va’ta’amodna -- it’s important that they came up close and that they stood together, and it’s important to know their names and their back story even though the Torah is leave them and focus on a specific issue. I want to explore ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna v’ta’amodna, they came up close and they stood.
A few weeks ago, Marsha Feder and I spent an hour at the Bronstein Apartments, which is public housing a few blocks west of Main Street in Nashua. This is in the middle of my city and I drive there all the time now that there’s the Broad Street Parkway. I should say, I drive past there; I can’t really say I drive through there. Bronstein is on my way to my daughter’s middle school and it’s along my shortcut to the Court Street Theater or anywhere downtown south of the Riverwalk Cafe. But in thirteen years I don’t think I had ever walked the neighborhood there until now.
ותקרבנה vatikravna-- they came up close. The reason we were there, with Aron DiBacco of the Granite State Organizing Project, is because the Bronstein Apartments are going to be replaced with even more affordable apartments on the same site. About 50 are there now and about 200 will be there. 200 is more than 50, so that part is great.
If you work a few blocks away from Bronstein at City Hall, 200 affordable apartments is more than 50, and that’s great. I imagine that’s how it looks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in DC, and it’s easy to see it that way if you are informed enough to read the local newspaper, or even attend a meeting of the Board of Aldermen or the Nashua Housing Authority.
But for the 48 families living there now, the project with the good numbers also means uprooting and dispersing a community. Disrupting patterns of getting kids to school, and relationships of helping each other out. Separating people from others you’ve gotten to know in a city or a country that for some is still new to you, who you can communicate with maybe if you don’t speak English well yet. It means finding a place to live, yes with assistance from the authorities which is being provided -- but it’s not easy to find a place in Nashua that’s right for a large multigenerational family, for instance.
So we went to talk to people up close, ותקרבנה vatikravna, to find out if people are getting what they need from the government. You can’t do this just by letter, or e-mail; it really requires one-to-one contact, up close, and even why would would I assume that someone would see me, a stranger, and open if I knock on the door? But going there and knocking is better than not doing that at all.
I won’t speak for Marsha, but in addition to talking to people, and for the most part being reassured by what I heard, I also saw a lot more by being up close. I met a mother of young kids, who said sure the city has helped them find a new place, but the prospect of packing and relocating the kids is daunting, and she was grateful someone heard that, even though none of us can do anything about it. Or perhaps we can; maybe the Interfaith Council should be there to help pack or schlep of keep the kids entertained on moving days. I don’t know.
I saw what the green area between buildings looks like, how bare it seems. It’s hard to put my finger on the difference between a nice patch of grass and one that’s not so inviting, but it’s there. There’s little flavor to Bronstein as it exists now; it doesn’t look like a place that’s home-y but I didn’t ask so who am I to say. One hour doesn’t really make for getting up close. You think of downtown Nashua as a place people walk around and walk through, but there are little physical suggestions like the black fence along Central Street that don’t exactly say walk through here if you don’t live here, on your way to the Allegro Dance Studio or the Crossway Church. Bronstein is just a few blocks from the river, but you really don’t feel like that walking through there on their way to the riverfront paths.
Somebody has to get up close and stand there, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, for a lot more time. You can’t make good policy if no one does that; you miss a lot of the picture that makes not just affordable housing but an affordable community. You end up saying 200 units is more than 50 full stop, and you don’t take account of the fact that living is neighborhood and relationships and culture, and those things have value. They have concrete civic value, public health value, economic value. You can’t just count on those values being maintained when the community is scattered for a time, and bouncing back when they return. Those values have to be integrated into the numeric equation of 50 becoming 200. To improve that policy, to make an increase on more than a numeric dimension at the same time, requires getting up close.
I have to find a way to get up close more, because for almost three years I’ve been working with other local clergy on affordable housing and even we have been largely about numbers -- adding 2,000 more units over a decade that a typical working person could live in without paying more than 30% of their income, and developing a city capital fund to spark more building on the order of five million dollars. I’ve been at a lot of meetings, some of them a few blocks from Bronstein, but none of them right there.
The part of our parasha with the five daughters of Tzelophechad is about an economic problem, related to land ownership and inheritance, a structural problem of discrimination against women. So Machlah, Tirtzah, Milkah, Choglah, and Noah come close and stand in front, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, and they present their story. Moshe had just right then learned about the distribution of property among families in the new land and the laws of inheritance. As a result of this up-close advocacy at that moment, Moshe went to God and God told Moshe to adjust the law because the five daughters had spoken honesty and correctly -- כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלׇפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ -- give them what they are asking. The midrash imagines that God says to Moshe: the law was not ready to be completed until they came up close to you and you saw up close what was missing.
The work of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, of seeing up close, and advocating face to face with authorities, and standing, confidently and respectfully and together -- it’s hard work. Hard for those who have to ask for things they shouldn’t have to ask for, and hard for allies who want to stand by them. But without doing as the Bnot Tzelophechad did you can’t have good policy and good law. You can do the numbers but you can’t do community and you can’t do covenant that way, and then even the numbers will end up not working out right.
And I think our parasha heightens this insight by contrast with the opening story of Pinchas. Pinchas sees a problem, a crisis of idolatry and sexual immorality, and he jumps up, ויקם vayakom, and he takes matters into his own hands and he kills the people at the center of the injustice. He seems to be rewarded from God -- with a ברית שלום brit shalom, a covenant of peace, and a ברית כהונת עולם brit k’hunat olam, a covenant that his descendents will always be priests.
The midrash says two kinds of things about him. One is that the rabbis envy Pinchas, for being able to turn his outrage into effective activism that works in an instant. It actually seems to work. Pinchas is their secret fantasy. Especially as they were under the thumb of the Romans and other empires.
The other thing is that the rabbis are terrified of Pinchas. He needs a covenant of peace because he’s not any good at covenant. He needs to be forced to be a priest because otherwise he’ll be a dangerous, violent loose cannon and think every problem in society or Torah can be solved with force based on his own read of the situation in the moment. So the rabbis look at Pinchas and say: individual action, or violent action out of outrage, is a card you can play at most once in your lifetime. Then you require a covenantal approach even to what’s difficult and unjust in the here and now.
The rest of the time it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna. That’s not about settling for gradualism vs complete solutions, but about hanging together, working together, exploring up close and telling stories and histories. It’s about trusting what happens when you come up close to people who disagree or to people haven’t seen it right yet, who have power. It’s about timing; the five women had a sense of when Moshe was ripe for their pressure, when he was starting to think about what they needed him to do more on.
And the impact of their work was broader than one law of inheritance. They weren’t actually just gradualists -- it is right after this passage that God tells Moshe his tenure as leader is up, and it’s time to find someone else. Moshe gets it, and he pleads with God to find the people a shepherd who cares for every sheep, who can account for every person. A leader who would know what the laws of property should have been even before the five daughters came to tell him.
So many of the hero stories we tell about change and activism are more Pinchas than Bnot Tzelophechad. But when we really look into those stories -- whether it’s the American Revolution, the Zionist movement, the civil rights movement -- it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad pattern we see everywhere. Let’s see and lift up those kinds of leaders. Let’s be leaders like that, on whatever plane we operate in. Let’s do that so we make better public choices together, and grow close and stand with each other as citizens in that process of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna.
This was my D'var Torah for Saturday, June 19, 2021, Parashat Chukkat. The article I reference at the start is really good, in ways that somewhat connect to my theme and also jump off in another important direction.
I was in the middle of thinking about the parah adumah -- the red heifer with its potpouri of potion parts that would be very at home in a Harry Potter book -- when I came across an e-mail from The Forward titled, “Has Shabbat become just another form of #self-care?” In one corner is the idea that Jewish practices are good for us in a self-care sense, on secular terms -- we need rest, we need to unplug, we need not to let seven days go by without calming and resetting. In the opposite corner is the red heifer, the most inscrutable practice in all of Torah.
In Midrash B’midbar Rabbah, we learn that a Roman pagan asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai specifically about the parah adumah: "These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. If one of you is impure by the dead, two or three drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!" Rabban Yochanan said to the pagan, "Has a restless spirit ever entered you?" He said to him, "No!" "Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?" He said to him, "Yes!" ..."And what did you do for him?" He said to him, "We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and poured water and the spirit fled." Rabban Yochanan said to him, "Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity...They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and the spirit of impurity flees." After he left the rabbi's students said, "You got rid of him with a skimpy response, a thin reed. What will you say to us?" Rabban Yochanan said to them, "By your lives, a dead person doesn't make things impure, and the water doesn't make things pure. Rather, God said, 'I have engraved a rule, a chok -- I have decreed a decree and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as the parasha begins: ‘This is a chok [rule] of the Torah.’
To the Roman pagan, Rabban Yochanan says: You and I know that certain things work, and maybe what Jews are doing seems like magic to you but we’ve all got a common language of self-help. The red heifer is a kind of medicine; it makes us better. But to his own students, he says: There’s no explanation in this case, but we have to do it anyway. It is one of the chukkim, one of the inscrutable laws that are mitzvot just because the Divine has commanded, no other reason.
I do not think that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai believed that everything in Torah is like the red heifer, the parah adumah. Not everything is one of the chukkim, the impenetrable laws. But I admit I like his answer to the Roman. Not the outdated medicine part, but the idea that there’s a function to the practice that we could figure out, and it’s good for a person. In fact, in spite of what Rabban Yochanan says to his own students, Jewish tradition does try to interpret the elements of parah adumah potion -- the cedar, the hyssop, the scarlet -- to try to find a purpose for each element. Something for us to meditate on that will help us heal our souls or something that symbolizes how to become better people.
But at the same time, we have this phrase that is familiar from many prayers and the Torah -- chukkim u’mishpatim. In Jewish thought, chukkim are those practices that are or seem beyond our comprehension, while mishpatim are practices or rules that are socially valuable or valuable to our personal lives. Chukkim come first in this phrase -- the irrational laws before the functional ones. Some would say it's the chukkim that define religion as religion.
But trying to make most things in Judaism like the red heifer, something we do to prove that we can serve something other than ourselves -- that can lead in absurd directions and dangerous directions too. We here wouldn’t buy that. The Torah itself says later that other peoples look at Israel and our ways and say that only a wise and understanding nation could live in such a way. Wisdom, meaning wisdom to apply to life -- not just awe and obedience.
So, some Jewish philosophers have suggested that the Torah of revelation is a short-cut, because most of us don’t have the time or energy or wisdom to figure out for ourselves what is good for us.
And yet -- the problem with Shabbat as #self-care is that if we can explain Jewish practices always in terms of a purpose, is that really Judaism? Isn't that just looking back at ourselves? Surely we could design from scratch a weekly rest and even some rituals that give us rest, build community, and even move us toward kindness and justice that are more direct and easier, without the mumbo-jumbo and the details we don't get.
So where does that leave us, as far as chukkum u'mishpatim? Can we have both the red heifer and #Shabbat-as-self-care?
A big part of me thinks that if Judaism can be taught in terms of self-care -- dayenu. We certainly don’t suffer from a lack of self-care and grounding in our lives and this current world. If Judaism can be a vehicle for that, even if it’s for reasons that aren’t completely coherent intellectually, that’s not bad at all.
But my real answer comes sort of from the red heifer. It comes from magic -- specifically, the magic of Harry Potter world.
To me the genius of Harry Potter is not that it takes place in an alternative universe, although it’s true that Muggles can’t go to Hogwarts. To me, the big khap is that the magical world is layered on top of our world. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited the capacity for magic, you can see things others in London don’t see, and you have special powers too.
And my favorite locale in the universe of Harry Potter is Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. To get from the regular city onto the train to Hogwarts, you have to run into a brick pillar. It really is a brick wall, and you run at it and into it. It looks impenetrable -- like trying to understand the red heifer. But your propensity for magic, even before you are well-trained in it, allows you to get through it, to the train that will take you to the special school, where you learn where you fit into the magic world layered on top of the world most people see. Where you struggle with how to make the potions that work and rescue, and you complain about the teachers, and you wonder whether it all makes sense.
Judaism, all its practices and rhythms and even the ethics that you could pick up elsewhere, are a magical world layered onto our world. To get there does require flinging yourself at brick walls -- red heifers, practices that aren’t obvious, Hebrew words, sometimes Aramaic -- but when we do go at them full speed, we see that we are connected to a bigger story. Our daily lives, our friendships, our rivalries even, our powers are all connected to a bigger story -- the Torah story, the Exodus, the story of redeeming and completing this world. Every Shabbat is part of that story, every word of our Siddur is, every specific ritual is. They don’t all make sense one by one; yet each is a piece that whole tapestry.
Being part of that story involves taking care of ourselves. Because being the person or the people who deserve care and rest and joy is itself one of the main points of the story and of Jewish history. Because Shabbat rest and ritual celebration are what allow us to glimpse where the story is heading. Our individual acts and each piece of the Torah, even the strange parts, are part of a much larger book we are playing a part in.
So whether it’s the parah adumah, the red heifer, or Kashrut or Shabbat or the Hebrew language, fling yourself at the brick walls of Judaism. Believe that the grape juice at kiddush is a magic potion, more than just the sugary chemicals in it, and enjoy the sweetness too. Keep flinging yourself, and don’t settle for easy but incomplete explanations on this side of the wall. It’s not bruises or intellectual brick walls ahead, but a deep care for you, and special powers for you and us together. It’s not just sensible; it’s magic.
This was my D'var Torah on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Shabbat Ha-Chodesh is the name for the Shabbat that precedes the start of the month when Pesach occurs. These are some of my reflections on the past year of the Covid-19 pandemic; one piece can hardly say it all.
Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, this day in the Jewish calendar, is a set of bookends for both a year in the Torah narrative, and a year in our lives. The parasha (Torah reading) concludes with the final touches on the setup of the temporary, portable Sanctuary -- exactly one year to the day from when Moshe and Aharon were given the instructions for the night they would all leave Egypt. And it was this same Shabbat Hachodesh one year ago that was our first Zoom Shabbat service, with almost all the congregation at home and a minyan of us here celebrating Madeline Lee’s Bat Mitzvah. We have been once through the Torah since our last regular Shabbat service.
What a year was that first year in the Torah – begun in slavery; between the plagues, of darkness and death; then the hurried preparations for the first days of a new life; crossing that Sea; a whole lot of new teachings to take in. Failing at first, badly, with the Golden Calf. Then building the mishkan, the spiritual center, out of everything valuable the people had -- everything valuable they might not even have realized they had -- putting something holy in the center of their camp amidst all the fear and emptiness of the midbar, the desert.
What a year has been this past year of Covid-19.
This morning I want to look back a bit, and next Shabbat to look ahead a bit. I’ll talk from the point of view of us as a whole, but this year hasn’t been the same for each of us and one person can’t presume to tell the story of everyone. People in our community have died of Covid-19, have been sick, have lost family members – at least a tenth of the households in our membership have had someone in their family who has died or been sick, and many more of us have lost friends to the disease. I haven’t asked everyone if they want their loved ones’ names said out loud, but I can say that the first person in our congregation who died from Covid-19 was Joshua Stern, Diana and David’s son, Jessica’s brother, who died during Pesach last year. For many months, the only times that members of the shul would actually see each other officially was at funerals.
Another tenth at least of our congregation has at one point of another lost jobs or hours or income this year because of the pandemic, or had retirement or transition plans disrupted. And I don’t know how to describe the strain and pain this year has contained for so many people who live on their own, as one or two people; who have been confined in elder living communities or long-term care; who are children, and parents of children at home, and parents and grandparents and others separated from their families; who had already been dealing with other physical and emotional challenges and illnesses and family challenges, that are difficult in regular times and even more disrupted this past year.
We have built this past year a mishkan, many mishkenot, a set of holy places and practices, out of our own materials. We have discovered together what it is that we had on hand to build with, what we brought with us hastily into this year.
Most of all we have had mitzvahs. I make a point of noting, most Shabbatot at the start of services, the line we sing as we start, v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha – all the ways we have adapted to gathering and staying apart in repeated fulfillment of the mitzvah of “loving our neighbor as ourselves”. I say it out loud to remind us that in these hours on Saturday morning we are holding each other’s lives in our hands; we are holding the lives of the people who live around us, who we don’t know, as our own responsibility. And not just in services but throughout the days of our weeks.
Time has been so amorphous, and a lot of us have been trying recall exactly what the first days of these twelve months were like. For me, it revolved around Purim. On Monday morning, March 9 of last year, I went to Shirley’s apartment at Langdon Place and we recorded our second annual Esther rap. That night we gathered here, in smaller numbers than usual for the Megillah reading. I think we had food even -- we were trying at that time to have one person serve so we wouldn’t all be handling the same serving utensils -- and I remember wondering even then if the Megillah gathering was the right thing to do.
For most of the next few days, our team recreated the upcoming Purim carnival at least once a day. Let’s cancel the Kitah Zayin (7th Grade) pie- throwing booth, and let's also wipe down each ball and fishing stick between participants. No let’s use only disposable balls and sticks, and we’ll just hand out prizes for tickets and not let kids rummage through them. No, let’s not have any of the booths but we’ll just gather in a circle for some songs and have a costume parade.
No, we can’t do it at all. Probably fifteen hours of work just to decide to do nothing.
Let’s bring everyone mishloach manot (Purim baskets), very carefully -- and here, driver, are plastic gloves for you to wear and please put each box in a bag, contact-free, and say hello in person to everyone who answers their door and make sure to stand far enough away, and promise that we’ll see each other soon.
Everything was like that at the start – every decision not to do something took hours, before we even got to figuring out how to do the all-new things or the necessary regular things like shopping for food in a new way.
The day after we delivered mishloach manot in person and said L’hit’raot (“until we see each other”), we sent out a note to whole congregation that we would for the time being gather only online, starting that night, Monday, March 16. I took a bunch of screenshots of that minyan. 24 screens and regular phones all together, most of us named but some identified still by number or e-mail; we were still figuring out Zoom. I must have asked everyone to smile, because in one photo Stan is smiling and Larry is smiling, and Richard and Carol are smiling on different screens in the same home,, and Carlos and Joy and Jessica and Jerry and Laura and Gordon and Nancy and Elliot and Daniel are smiling. And Ira I think is smiling but you can’t really see in the dark of his room. Very quickly we added minyanim for Saturday and Sunday nights, and there hasn’t been a single day we haven’t had a minyan of ten. That Thursday was our first online Religious School class; our triumph was getting Rina Scharf online.
At our best we have been full of mitzvot. We’ve been building a capacity to check in with people by phone; we’ve connected people to resources and support, in personal conversations and what we can put up online. On the fly, we’ve had to figure out how to safely do bikkur cholim, to visit people who have been sick, and dying; how to gather safely for burial; how to comfort people during shiva. Without hugs and with masks; with iPhones streaming and Zooms instead of living rooms. All the extra burdens on those in mourning to stare into that screen at everyone all at once, rather than having people come up to you one by one. I worry about the pent-up and incomplete grief of our mourners.
I am so proud to be connected to the caregivers -- nurses and doctors and elder care and home care workers -- who from the start went into dangers known and unknown, and many of whom volunteer now on their off hours to give vaccines. I am so proud to see in the news and at local meetings members of this congregation who work in public health, in professional roles and on governing boards. I am so grateful to the teachers, and everyone who has had to or who has chosen to go to work in places with known or unknown risks.
In the daily life of Beth Abraham for a year, we have had online gatherings every day and often more than once a day. I believe we have saved at least one life through these gatherings, and we have made other lives more bearable.
So many of our members early on became mask makers. Some sewing by hand, some working for hours after their regular jobs, some converting their slowed-down businesses into mask manufacture, some joining up with calls to action from individual leaders or town organizations. Making masks for frontline workers, who were so short of them at the start. Masks for anyone they worried about, particularly older people but even for my family, so people could go shopping safely. Many of you did that work, to help bridge the weeks it took for an entire industry to get up and running.
At our best as a society scientists and technicians and engineers, and the companies and universities and labs that organize them, have been working nonstop on lifesaving discovery and creation and manufacture and distribution on a huge scale. At our best as a society, we reengineered a system for holding democratic elections, and cried out against continuing racial injustice even as we cried out about everything. At our best, our elected representatives to the Congress in a poisonous political environment worked several times to come to the aid of all of us in massive ways.
Here in the wilderness of New Hampshire, our shul built its new mishkan out of everything we had. We have our Betzalels and their teams-- our tech designers and operators, our Zoom supervisors, our people who know their way around a soundboard and a camera and networking equipment. We have our Aharons and other equivalents to the Kohanim and Levi’im, who organize and lead our services so we could do far more than go through the motions. These things we do, to interact and hear each other and see each other, to create a live service from so many locations -- it’s amazing and I’m proud that we’re toward the forefront. We have our Miryams, who provide inspiration and joy, every week through singing and over coffee and yarn, and cooking and Torah and Hebrew language for adults and for children.
We have been building a mishkan out of things we have. Our fabrics and threads and animals skins include our wires and plexiglass and donated monitors. And of course the money contributed toward this mishkan, the Temple itself. At a time of economic contraction, the synagogue has been stable and we just raised the most money from the Purim baskets we ever have. Incredibly, new people have joined the congregation since a year ago today.
And if I might say something about the Moshe’s, the rabbis. Not just me, but the rabbis of congregations all over North America and the clergy of Greater Nashua who have drawn so close to each other. A year ago, I thought that innovators in American Jewish life were leaving synagogue jobs or never even thinking of coming to work in shuls, all of them off starting their own ventures to do Jewish learning or spirituality. It turns out there are at least a few hundred of us, talking the same language and inventing the same things in parallel, sending around the concept papers and how-to guides, asking each other over and over what do our congregants need, how can we do more than just hold the line. I have personally met at least a dozen amazing colleagues through this grassroots work, people who you’ll never read about in the Times of Israel or the Forward, amazing partners and teachers. All of us know it’s not about the techniques, it’s not about preserving the shuls and our jobs -- it’s about taking care of you.
The pandemic has challenged the practice of Judaism and the reality of Jewish community. I haven’t been in a hospital or an assisted living place or a nursing home, or even inside a shiva home, in this past year. I made that decision with other clergy in town all at once. That was the hardest thing to decide a year ago, and holding back from you at hard times has been the most awful part of my year personally as a rabbi.
We decided, consciously, to change the character of our relationship to computers in the shul on Shabbat. It is absolutely the right decision but it doesn’t work for everyone. Our second or third Shabbat morning on Zoom something was wrong with the setup or people didn’t have the right link, and as I led services by myself I was also checking e-mails and texts from people right here on the bimah. Now we’ll decide what it means to integrate technology into Shabbat the way a previous generation integrated the automobile. Most of all in services, we just miss each others’ voices and spiritual energy.
I have joked occasionally that there is a warehouse somewhere full of all the gefilte fish and pastries that have not been eaten in our shul and other shuls for a year. There was an article a couple months ago in The Atlantic about the loss of Kiddush, the time after services. Actually the word “Kiddush” never appears in the article by Amanda Mull about the loss in our lives of the people we don’t have a good name for -- the relationships of standing around together after services or sitting at a table, deciding to talk for a minute or five or for an hour just on the spot. The conversations that aren’t prearranged but just happen, the intergenerational moments, the moments that breathe with volume and quiet, with interruptions and not just turn-taking, where people sit down and get up in the middle and come back later. A community is supposed to be a place where connections and conversations don’t only take place when they are scheduled or work-oriented or agenda-driven. The loss of Kiddush is profound, the loss of Shabbat dinners and Shabbat lunches and holy days together too.
As a symbol of some of these losses and challenges, I have stubbornly kept our Shabbat service different the past year in a few ways. I have held us back from some of the rituals of reading the Torah and Haftarah -- not only because you are not here and not only because it would not be safe yet to walk around with the Torah if you were. I've insisted on using the not-perfect aspects of Zoom. I’ve done this because our prayer experience itself needs to have some of the not-smoothness and the chaos of our lives, or it won’t be real. I know no one likes the moments when we try to be a minyan together singing or reciting something on Zoom. It doesn’t sound great, but the cacophany has to be here, in the mishkan, a brokenness we bring when we are before the Divine.
What a year since Shabbat Ha-Chodesh twelve months ago. We have brought everything we have to create the mishkan that is our lives; we have been building it for a year and we are still in the desert. I am so grateful for this Shabbat community that has stayed together. I miss you and worry about you. I want to sing with you and just linger with you, with no hurry to get out. I am grateful that you have wanted something for yourself on Shabbat morning, and wanted to be with others when this is not easy. That you have wanted to hear Torah from me, that you have wanted Shabbat to be still somehow a time of joy and a time of mutual support.
Let’s not forget of course that each of us has our own story of this year, and let’s not forget the losses that can never be recovered and especially the people who you have lost and we have lost together.
It is a whole year, an important year we are concluding. We are still in the midbar, still on our way, and may the mishkenot, the spiritual centers of every sort we have built help guide us on our desert journeys ahead -- just like the daytime cloud and the nighttime fire that began on the first day of the first month of the second year, and guided the people on their journeys and never went out. Baruch she-hecheyanu v’kiynmanu v’higiuyanu lazman hazeh – how blessed we are to be alive, to be kept alive, to have arrived at this time. Chazak chazak v’nitchazek -- may we each find strength and continue to give our strength to each other.
Posted at 02:09 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Health Care, History, Holidays, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Parashat Hashavua, Pekudei, Prayer, Shabbat, Shabbat Hachodesh, Spirituality, Synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Vayakhel, Web/Tech, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
Here are a few of my pieces related to this week's reading in the Torah on the first days of the Exodus, escaping from Pharaoh and crossing the Sea and heading into the desert toward Mt. Sinai:
What Is a Miracle? (why miracles are not about natural/supernatural but the relation of real/ideal)
Hope (about finding Joseph's bones)
The Torah contemplates something parallel to the national leadership dynamics situation we are judging right now, about the relationship between the president’s words and acts and the actions of the rioters. Thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for directing my attention to a source on this. I’m linking his shiur (lesson) on the text, but I haven’t listened to it yet (I will, but it’s an hour!). So the take on the text here is mine and we’ll see how it tracks Rav Klapper’s.
This week’s Torah reading in Jewish communities is the beginning of the book of Exodus. Chapters 1-2 are about the progression from Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites to slavery to the murder of baby boys, and then about resistance. Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (medieval Spanish commentator) lays out an interpretation of what the Torah text presents us.
Nachamides taught that Pharaoh had the whole project of enslavement and murder in mind at the start. But he did not begin that way specifically because his people would have recoiled at that, and Pharaoh was constrained by the willingness of his people at a given moment. So first he proposed a corvee, a small forced-labor tax, because his people would have regarded that as common and acceptable behavior toward foreigners.
Then according to Nachmanides, Pharaoh approached the midwives serving Israelite mothers behind closed doors about killing newborn boys, so that even mothers giving birth and arranging for a midwife wouldn’t know what might happen. When that didn’t work, Pharaoh next move was to say to his whole people that they should throw baby boys into the Nile. The Torah says Pharaoh commanded, and Nachmanides says Pharaoh spoke in a more common way, because he didn’t want to assign the task to any specific official. He did not want the act to be associated with his regime specifically, but with the people as a whole. By now they were willing to do things publicly they were not willing to do at first. Nachmanides posits that Pharaoh was also preserving his right to disavow any specific act. If an Israelite father would come to a local official about his own baby, Pharaoh would invite the father to offer proof and then punish the killer himself.
But Nachmanides says that eventually this set of winks became impossible and Egyptian mobs began to storm Israelite homes in search of babies. That was the situation in which Moses’ mother Yocheved knew to give birth in secret and hide the birth and the child, and that’s what led eventually to the acts of resistance involving midwives, Moses’ sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Nachmanides is pointing out that there is more to leadership responsibility than accountability for explicit orders. There is more than what is said out loud, clearly, or publicly. There is a complex feedback dynamic between the leader and the group. The group sometimes constrains the leader; the group can amplify the leader’s general direction in ways of its own that are sometimes predictable and sometimes not; the group has its own reality that is not the same as the regime; there are resisters both inside and outside. It’s worth sitting with the Torah’s story and this kind of interpretation on its own, and then thinking and talking about how it might speak to us right now.
What is the moral responsibility of the leader? Is the group responsible only for its own actions, or for anything about its leader as well? These moral responsibilities of leader and group aren’t identifical but overlap in some way. These are what we should be thinking about, from each of our positions as Americans, partial or substantial supporters or opponents of the president, citizen-judges of what happened this week and what ought to happen going forward.
A Facebook post by a congregant highlighted a controversy around an initiative called #DisruptTexts, and my response to it was going to be much longer than a typical FB comment. #DisruptTexts as a specific project isn't something I had heard of, but as I skimmed the website the other day it certainly doesn't seem brand new. This is an initiative for literature education in schools that aims to "challenge the traditional canon" both by bringing in more representative texts and by putting new texts and perspectives into dialogue with "traditional" ones. I'm posting partly because the congregant said she wanted all her child's teachers to be involved in this kind of pedagogy, and I am/hope to be one of those teachers.
I don't know why this approach would be controversial at all. I mean I do, of course. But I would think even people with suspicion ought to be cheered by the idea of critical thinking about texts and literature, and by the idea of pairings and conversations centered around both traditional and new literary texts.
Anyway my mind went immediately to an experience I had as a first-year rabbinical student in just this kind of pedagogy at an adult level. As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I had access to the Protestant institution across the street, Union Theological Seminary. I enrolled there in a course about the book of Hosea taught by Professor Phyllis Trible, one of the pioneering feminist critics of the Hebrew Bible. I had read from a couple of Professor Trible's books. One of them was called Texts of Terror, to give you a sense of her work. Her scholarship there was about women such as Hagar, Tamar, and the brutalized concubine of Gibeah in the book of Judges. Professor Trible was looking both to document the treatment of women by the (male) authors and editors of the Bible and to listen for women's voices somehow in the same texts.
I had studied the opening chapters of Hosea in religious school during high school with my terrific teacher Earl Schwartz. Hosea takes to heart the prophetic metaphor that images Israel's straying from God as an unfaithful wife. So he marries a prostitute and his book opens with a graphic revenge fantasy put in God's mouth/mind, leading to reconciliation. It's pretty horrifying.
That's where Professor Trible opened the course. I figured, based on what I knew of her, that the course would critique Hosea and unearth all the factors behind taking an already-problematic metaphor too far back in his time. Instead, she opened by saying even so, she wanted to see whether there was a way to reclaim Hosea and to have his book in the canon. It was a generous and tentative opening -- Professor Trible presented this as an open question. We would work through the text of the book and see.
The students were paired off and each group had to prepare a particular section in depth to present to the class -- to translate, analyze, and suggest issues and interpretations. I asked for or ended up with a passage that is read traditionally in the synagogue as a haftarah, a section of the prophets paired with the week's Torah reading. My partner was a Southern female Protestant seminarian who was also lesbian and married (this was the first half of 1991).
I am sure we compared Hosea to other places in the Torah and prophets that talk about Israel's unfaithfulness or betrayals, straight up or in metaphor. Hosea was also an innovator in the idea of teshuvah or "repentance"/personal change in Jewish thought. How do we hold both sets of his words?
My engagement with Hosea continued. A number of years ago, I was in the synagogue and listening to the chanting of the first couple chapters of Hosea by a thirteen-year-old girl on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah. I was horrified. How had I let that happen? Somewhere in between that moment and Professor Trible, I had sat in horror while the students in the Jewish day high school I worked at presented "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" as the school play. So much leering at women in the play, being staged by young girls being watched by young guys, and we the faculty had somehow let that happen. Here it was again, and just as bad even though I'm sure relatively few people were paying close attention to the English translation of Hosea in front of us in the synagogue.
I resolved that one way or another, no girl would chant this passage in the synagogue again. I thought about this for a few months and learned that the haftarah readings were not as fixed as our Bibles in the pews would lead us to think. Then I remembered too a section of the Mishnah, the early code of Jewish law that is the foundation of the Talmud, that lays out a series of texts that are not to be publicly read and/or not to be publicly translated in the synagogue, even though they can be encountered in a process of Torah study. (Before print, during services biblical readings were in some places translated out loud into the vernacular.)
I proposed not just that young girls would not read this for Bat Mitzvah, but that no one should hear this passage read out loud in the synagogue. We would substitute another reading for the opening of Hosea. The first year, I took time the week before to explain what I was doing and why. I taught a bit about Hosea, and both Earl Schwartz and Professor Trible. The next week I gave out xeroxes of an alternative text. In succeeding years, I make note of what we are doing and why. This is how I keep Hosea in the canon. He's there, not as loud as he once was, and always now framed by and along with other voices including new ones, including my own.
This is hardly the only example of its kind in my own life of texts and canons and teaching literatures. A whole section of my very first education course at the Seminary was about "difficult texts." But I describe all of this about Hosea to say that there are many dimensions to encountering texts, and all kinds of ways of staging or framing those encounters. We read privately or with others; we listen or we debate; we study intimately or we share ritually. There is more than canon-or-cancel. #DisruptTexts is about the classroom, the place where students and teachers read together and learn how to read. It's part of what we should be doing as teachers and parents, sharing stories and literature with our students and children.
Posted at 12:09 PM in Abuse, Books, Current Affairs, Education, Ethics, Feminism, Foregiveness, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Numbers, Parashat Hashavua, Prophets, Ritual, Study, Teacher-Student Relationship, Teens, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This is the Dvar Torah I gave on Saturday, December 19, 2020. It was the Shabbat immediately following Chanukkah.
Today is what I call the ninth day of Chanukkah. What do we see after we have finished lighting a full chanukkiah? Do we keep an afterimage, do we see in our mind’s eye the next candle, or do we see only what’s not there?
This is the question of Pharaoh’s dreams in today’s parasha.
I want to give credit to our congregant Mara Friedman, who taught some amazing Torah at the start of the week to the Ritual Committee and made some observations that have been bouncing in my mind all week. Mara noticed a few things about the story that begins with Pharaoh’s dreams about cows and grain, and his search for an interpreter that leads him to Yosef and to Yosef’s proposals for Egypt. And she pointed out where some parallels are or might be to today.
The parasha begins with two vivid dreams told from the perspective of inside Pharaoh’s head. In one, there are seven beautiful and healthy cows -- and then seven thin and gaunt cows rise up from the Nile and eat the first ones. In the second dream, Pharoah sees seven beautiful and healthy ears of grain, and then seven skinny ones sprout up behind them and swallow them up.
Mara drew the comparison between Pharaoh’s situation and ours: a society that is prosperous looking at a period of shortage, for some period of time -- for us a shortage of medicine or medical supplies or vaccines, among other shortages and economic hardships.
Mara observed that Pharaoh surely knew what these dreams meant, but for some reason he couldn’t complete the thoughts in his mind or express them out loud in front of his advisers.
She noted that Pharaoh was willing to turn outside his usual group of advisors and listen to someone very different -- an immigrant she said, and I would add an immigrant detained in prison.
She wondered what it was about Yosef that got Pharaoh to listen to him. Where did Yosef’s credibility come from?
And the point that particularly struck me -- Mara noted that the solution Yosef proposed for the upcoming famine did more than just feed Egypt as it had been fed before. It went a step beyond and provided food even for people from other lands, like Canaan where Yosef’s own family was in danger of starving.
I want to build on Mara’s insights and questions, to suggest some 9th day of Chanukkah, Shabbat thoughts for we should approach the months that are coming.
There is a phrase I have been hearing a lot lately: back to normal. Now that the vaccines are getting approved, and manufacturing and distribution is ramping up, when will we be back to normal. That framing is bothering me, and I think Pharaoh and Yosef are there too and have a response for that.
What’s bothering me is that when things were normal here early in 2020, normal wasn’t good enough. Yosef won over Pharaoh was because Yosef didn’t just clarify the subject of Pharaoh’s dreams. As Mara said, Pharoah didn’t need that. Yosef outlined a plan that would get Egypt through the famine in a way that would leave them better than they were before. Not just better off, but a better nation.
Yosef said to Pharaoh: You have a land of plenty, and you should view it that way even when you are thinking about a particularly challenging year or seven difficult years. If you organize with trust in that fact, the plenty will still be there for the years when the Nile is not full to overflowing for crops and graizing. And the famine years won’t just be holding the line, but they will also be years with good in them too. As Mara obsered, during the famine Yosef wasn’t hunkering down and just feeding Egpytians; he could feed people from beyond as well.
That’s what Pharaoh deep down wanted to hear. He had been stuck seeing only the darkness after the night of eight candles. I think Pharaoh had had other dreams during previous nights, dreams where seven beautiful cows were just the start and they were multiplying, dreams where seven ears of grain were seeding more and more fields and feeding more people -- and when those dreams stopped is when Pharoah became afraid.
Anyone could see that Pharaoh was worried about the upcoming shortages. Yosef was graced by God with the ability to see that Pharaoh’s fundamental dreams about his realm were on the line. Back to normal wasn’t going to be enough. Pharaoh’s existing group of advisors were trapped in normal. Pharaoh was like a god -- this was the relatively good Pharaoh we’re talking about -- and it must have been hard for him to show himself worried and frustrated. But thank God for his cupbearer, who saw Pharaoh take that risk and met him there, recalling his own time in Pharaoh’s doghouse as a prisoner of state and mentioning that he had met this Hebrew in prison who could help them forward.
Yosef was the master of dreams. Ba’al ha-chalomot. Obviously, there were things we wish he had known when he was young and dreamed of glory -- and Yosef for sure did want to seize this moment for his glory. But in the moment, he knew that dreaming itself and talking about dreams was part of the practical need of the moment. Yosef knew that the only thing harder than getting through a famine, would be getting through it with self-doubt and without national self-confidence, without a vision of something more than the missing food.
I’ll speak for myself -- my work of operating the synagogue during the pandemic has included wearying and worrying work and also rewarding and energizing work. The hardest work for my own soul has been the time, on average once a month and sometimes more, when a group of us spends an hour or two discussing plexiglass, or formatting all the new forms and spreadsheets that are required to keep track of things that we used to just see and know without effort. This is absolutely necessary, and it’s not inherently difficult, but the weeks when it feels like it’s all I am doing are hard weeks.
My work is easier when we are reaching beyond just the extra steps it takes to do what used to be easy. When we’re talking about going the extra mile to call people we haven’t seen, and then doing that, for instance. It’s actually more work, objectively harder, but it’s lighter and it’s better even so, and it makes the next thing easier even while the pandemic continues.
Yosef and Pharaoh clicked in a shared realization that working at better than normal would actually be easier than working at back to normal.
When things were normal in early 2020, it wasn’t good enough. If you’ve been working for tikkun olam, you didn’t think the normal of last January was good enough. If you’ve been wondering about isolation in our society and people left out even within our shul, last winter wasn’t good enough. No one engaged in any way in the election campaigns a year ago and through our New Hampshire primary thought normal was good enough. If you believe that as part of the shul’s mission there should be more Torah in the world as a wisdom for the age we live in, back to normal wouldn’t be enough.
Normal isn’t enough. But it is a lot, and Yosef said: Let’s use what we have in normal times to make the time after the famine better than normal. Let’s even starting doing some of those things during the famine. It will still be a famine and that will be incredibly hard, and even when things start to ease up the transition back will be stressful. Yosef figured out that it would be important even during a famine to feed new people, and in the same spirit we have found ways to nourish new people, and even nourish ourselves in new ways while we struggle with what is short and what is missing. There are storehouses of grain. There are animals that generate and feed and extend our own power, even now.
When we are able in the future to gather, to sing, to have the casual joys of Kiddush together, it will build on what was and it will be better than it was. When we have restored the basic resources and gatherings so we can take care of more people and work on justice issues, those will build on what was and be better than what was. It will take some work now and in the coming months, to nourish even more and to plan for how we will nourish and be nourished “after”, whenever after is. Just aiming for back to normal would be all kinds of work, and hard work. If we’re going to work that hard, let’s use the same energy for better than normal, and then the work can even be light and energizing.
Today we read in the Torah of the morning after Pharaoh’s dreams of seven disappearing cows and grains. Today is the 9th day of Chanukkah, the day after, and like one time in ten the day following Chanukkah is Shabbat, a day both to rest and to taste the World to Come. Keep the afterimage of the shining, blazing chanukkiah. Let’s try to see nine lights today. Let’s see ourselves as those lights ready to light more, and that lighting will be so much easier than letting it be dark and having to starting with just one sometime later on. Let’s dream together of back to better than normal.
October 29, 2020 is by the Jewish calendar the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin z"l, by a Jewish religious extremist opposed to Rabin's peacemaking with the Palestinians. This is the D'var Torah I gave five years ago for Rabin's yahrzeit.
This is the week of the 20th yahrzeit for Yitzchak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel who was assassinated by a Jewish religious religious fanatic. By the Jewish calendar it was last Sunday, and by the secular calendar next Wednesday. His murder took place in the first hours of the week of פרשת וירא, this morning’s reading, and I will never forget one of the headlines in an Israeli paper the week of his funeral: עקדת יצחק, the sacrifice of Yitzchak.
There is a particular story told about Yitzchak Rabin in all the biographies and memoirs from Israel’s War of Independence. It was June of 1948, only about a month after the State of Israel officially came into being. The Jews of Jerusalem were under siege, living truly near starvation, because the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was cut off around its midpoint by the Arab Legion, which was holding a police fortress in a place called Latrun. The Israelis had already tried several times to storm Latrun without success. The fortress was on ground just high enough to see the plain around it, and the Israelis did not have enough troops to take it by overwhelming force. The battles for Latrun had been some of the costliest in the war in terms of lives lost; many of the soldiers had been refugees from the Holocaust, just liberated from displaced persons camps, with almost no training and no language in common to hear instructions in battle.
As dire as the siege was in Jerusalem, there were Arab armies threatening Jewish areas all over the country. The Israeli commanders felt they had to make choices about where to deploy their limited number of trained forces, and they knew that attacking Latrun again would be futile But David Ben Gurion was obsessed with Latrun and had summoned his army leaders repeatedly to demand an attack on Latrun to open the road to Jerusalem.
The commanders responsible in early June for the area of the road to Jerusalem included Mickey Marcus, an American Jew and experienced solider who had come to volunteer. Some of you may know him and this part of the war through the film “Cast a Giant Shadow”, where he was played by Kirk Douglas. Also Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach, the most elite and well-trained Jewish fighting group. Yitzchak Rabin was the young commander of the Harel Brigade of the Palmach. Ben Gurion summonded his commanders, and Alon and Marcus knew they would be asked to divert their scarce resources to Latrun, and when they would object they would be subject to Ben Gurion’s fury.
So they decided instead to sacrifice Yitzchak. The 26-year-old Rabin went by himself to talk to Ben-Gurion, to present an alternative proposal. By accident, one of Rabin’s underlings had discovered a way to go around Latrun, out of sight of the Arabs, and create a path for supplies to get to Jerusalem. Rabin would propose that they pave a new supply route and avoid Latrun altogether.
When Rabin came to Ben Gurion, the prime minister lived up to his name, son of a lion cub, and flew into a two-hour rage. Yitzchak was astounded as Ben Gurion at one point threatened to shoot his own commander, Yigal Allon, in the head, but Rabin stood his ground. Where other times Ben Gurion had overruled a more senior commander and ordered an attack on Latrun, not this time. The attack did not take place, the road was built, and the siege of Jerusalem came to an end just in the nick of time.
For people who knew Rabin or wrote later about his life, that confrontation with Ben Gurion exemplified a couple key things about the man. His wife Leah wrote in her memoir that as a commander and a statesman, Yitzchak was fanatical about his goals and but always looking for the least costly way to achieve them. He tried to minimize risk to soldiers in battle -- by doing his own detail work of intelligence and reconnaissance to outmaneuver his enemy, by considering creative alternatives, rather than relying on superior force alone which could lose more more lives. After Ben Gurion, Rabin was probably the most detail-oriented and methodical prime minister Israel has ever had.
The confrontation with Ben-Gurion also showed how little Rabin was interested in ingratiating himself with anyone if those things put the mission at risk. He didn’t care overly about the feelings of his peers or his superiors, but about the many people he knew less well, the men who served under him. So Rabin didn’t bother to join Mapai, Ben Gurion’s political party, even though he would have advanced much faster if he had. He had no hesitation when he was prime minister about cutting his own mentor, Yigal Allon, down to size when he disagreed with him.
Later on, as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and then as prime minister, Rabin could be plenty sharp and critical. He could seem detached. But at the same time, and this was key -- as long as he could win he had no need to demonize the people who disagreed with him.
These were not the things we call people skills. Rabin was not a jolly man, and in no way a glad-handing politician. Leah reprints a letter she received when they were dating in the mid-1940s and Yitzchak was imprisoned by the British, and it was more like a business letter than a love letter. Rabin was not beloved or revered, the way his peers like Moshe Dayan would be. He didn’t unite his country when he was prime minister or when he signed the agreement with PLO on the White House lawn. It seemed ridiculous to me when Bill Clinton called Rabin his friend.
Yet without the typical people skills, Rabin was able, at key times, to surprise people and earn their trust. How could Rabin have possibly negotiated with the Palestinians? For fifty years, he had not only defeated them in battle -- he had out-organized and outwitted and outsmarted them. He had every reason to have contempt for them, as soliders and leaders, and therefore to doubt their ability to do the things they were promising -- but he chose to see them simply as opponents. Just as in 1948, Rabin was willing to fight only the battle that was necessary, in the 1990s Rabin was clear about exactly how much he needed to be the PLO’s opponent and in what ways he could be their partner.
Rabin knew that in order to bring Israelis along with the peace process, he would have to teach through his example how to balance peace ahead with justice and grief looking back. At first, he wasn’t going to go to the White House to sign the Oslo agreement, but eventually he figured out that if he didn’t, Israelis would write it off as a ridiculous dream cooked up by Shimon Peres. Rabin managed every step so carefully, relating just as in 1948 not to his fellow leaders but to the average Israeli. So he opened his speech at the White House by talking about Israeli families who would never stop grievning, he shook Arafat’s hand in the only way he could, politely but not enthusiastically.
At the White House and in later ceremonies to sign agreements with Arafat, Rabin put on his non-Israeli-style suit and looked like an adult, and made Arafat look like a child who could not take off his costume. Rabin made sure to have a working relationship with Arafat and to show that when they appeared together, but he was also carefuly not to portray to Israelis that he and Arafat were becoming friends. He was perfect for the role; he wasn’t big for smiling or scolding, his natural face and voice were holding back even when he tried to do revolutionary things.
Rabin understood that leadership is not like other relationships. He didn’t try to use on the people skills he didn’t have, because that’s not what leading his people is only about. And Rabin could lead because he was aware that he was modeling a new way of being a Jew in a new world. Not just modeling, but maybe inventing it as he went along.
In 1994, at an award ceremony honoring Israeli writers just a year after the White House handshake, Rabin said: “These days we are in the midst of a battle without cannons in a war without fire, which may turn out to be perhaps one of the most significant and decisive battles in the annals of the Jewish people in recent generations.” In that speech, he said:
Let us admit the truth: the atmosphere of siege, the hostility, and the war have elicited tremendous energies from us for almost five decades. Much of what has been achieved in the State of Israel in all areas is a direct or indirect outcome of the necessity to defend our existence, of the atmosphere of siege from which we are so glad to free ourselves these days. Ours was a productive unity, a healthy unity, standing shoulder to shoulder against the manifestations of enmity and facing a hostile world. Just between us, we have become accustomed to this lifestyle, and, already, we think we cannot do without it. Perhaps we have even come to love the pleasant warmth of power and the encircling siege.
And now? What are we to do now? What message should we deliver to our people these days? How should we avoid becoming entangled in delivering a double, and contradictory, message: are we on the brink of peace, or do we expect another war? How do we change the atmosphere that has characterized our state for generations? What should we choose – should we declaim again and again: "a state under siege," "the whole world is against us," "all the Arabs are the same"? Or perhaps we should bear a new message: "the new Middle East," "the peace of the brave," "nation shall not lift up sword against nation," "He who makes peace in heaven above..."?
How do we become accustomed to a world of new concepts, to a different culture, a different style, and at the same time not completely abandon the old world, just in case, God forbid, we might need it again? How do we maintain the invigorating rhythm of our lives, the Jewish mind, all those tremendous energies of ours, our unity – without the sword hanging over our heads?
This is the Rabin who was taken from us by his assassin. How do we become accustomed to a world of new concepts,.... and at the same time not completely abandon the old world, just in case, God forbid, we might need it again? This is who the Jewish people lost on the 12th of Marcheshvan 5755. Not necessarily the man who signed the Oslo agreement, which may well have stalled even had he lived. We lost the man who fought wars until the moment he thought they were not necessary, and was prepared to fight them again if necessary. We lost the one who hoped we might figure out how to live as Jews in the world we are in and not in the mythic worlds of dreamy peace or eternal Jew-hatred.
Rabin’s assassin took the worst message from the Akedah -- that to be Jewish is to live as though you were always just escaping a knife at your throat; and that extreme atrocities are beloved to God. That is a Judaism of no joy and no hope, an impossible Judaism -- and in the square 20 years ago a desecration of God’s name.
Yitzchak Rabin was the truer heir of the biblical Yitzchak. He lived through the wars of survival and knew they were over for his people, and he didn’t pretend to know for sure what was next or how long it would take.
We would honor Yitzchak Rabin’s memory most if we could find a way as Jews of being comfortable with our power, and with taking responsibility for how we use it. We would honor his legacy if we could take the proper measure of the threats to Israel, and to Jews, and fight them rather than our ghosts, and take satisfaction when we are defeating them That is the true spirituality of Zionism. To know the perfect place between the smile and the scold, to scowl appropriately while trying revolutionary things.
Yehi zichro baruch -- May Yitzchak’s memory be a blessing.