Liberty, Humanity, Community – An All-American Sermon for July 12, 2019

We haven’t been together to pray since before the long July 4th holiday weekend, so let’s catch up.

I usually love July 4th. Because whatever is going on in my life, your lives, and the world in general, it’s one time in the heat of the summer that we can just breathe a little easier. We relax, grill out, go to parades, and watch the fireworks. A few hours amidst the toils and tribulations of life when we can revel in the joy of our American experience.

And that SO didn’t happen this year. July 4th was, for a lot of us, full of invective that was unpleasant and unnecessary, and fully contrary to what we think the spirit of July 4th ought to be. So thank God we had July 7th. Remember July 7th? Last Sunday? The tail-end of the holiday weekend, and the day of all-American joy and celebration that we so badly wanted and needed. That was the day that the U.S. won the Women’s World Cup.

The Women’s Team members are brash and mouthy, but they back up their bravado with immense skill and power and pride. They are what we Americans strive to be: winners in our own right, working hard and playing by the rules – well, maybe pushing the envelope a bit but doing it with style, grace, humor, and, above all, unity. That’s why, in the words of Lauren Peace writing this week in the New York Times, ‘They’re the most American thing we’ve got going right now.”[1]

The teamwork the women displayed was impressive. The way they lifted each other up was heartwarming. The way they each took turns hoisting the championship trophy was a two-tissue tearjerker.

But here’s what caught my attention.

Before they got to the winner’s stand, each of them exchanged their game jersey for a new one – one that had a fourth, gold star embroidered on to signify the fourth such world title for American women. But instead of having their individual names and numbers on the back, every one of these jerseys said, simply, “Champions” with the number 19.

For all that we often laud America as the land of individual achievement, in the end we know that what really makes us great is what we achieve together.

We children of immigrants understand this. Like many of your families, mine didn’t come all at once. My great-grandmother was sent here at the age of 16 by her family, hoping to get her out of the poverty and oppression of Poland to live under the protection of Lady Liberty’s torch. With hard work and the support of a sponsor, she brought her family over, one by one, the last one arriving at Ellis Island just before the outbreak of the First World War, when the gates to freedom closed.

Family-based immigration – what is now derided as “chain migration” — is the way many of our families got here. It works because religious and ethnic groups provide all kinds of support to their members, physically, financially and emotionally.

And one generation helps another. The masses of Eastern European Jews who fled persecution – sometimes whole shtetls at a time – found support from the German Jews who had come before them and wanted their co-religionists to succeed.

They had set up places like the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in Pittsburgh, to help their fellow Jews acculturate into American life. Today, newer immigrant communities create similar support systems to welcome members, for everything from job creation to English education to child care.

WE children of immigrants understand this power of WE the people. Not a melting pot, as our nation once was envisioned, but what anthropologist Frederik Barth called a “plural society” – one in which defined ethnic communities live side by side, interdependent on one another, each with a unique contribution that supports and enriches us all.

That’s the WE of America. That’s the strength of America. And nobody has said it better than US Women’s World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, as she danced her way through the ticker-tape parade through New York’s “Canyon of Heroes””

“There’s nothing that can faze this group,” she said told the enormous crowd.

“We’re chilling. We got tea-sippin’, we got celebrations. We have pink hair and purple hair, we have tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between. Straight girls and gay girls. . . It’s my absolute honor to lead this team out on the field. There’s no other place that I would rather be.”[2]

That’s the America I love – and there’s no other place that I would rather be. An America that’s a land of opportunity for all, where there’s respect for differences and avenues for doing the hard work together, no matter the color of our skin or the color of our hair. A place where we pull each other, not just ourselves, up by the bootstraps.

I want every day in America to be July 7th, 2019.

When I saw our women that afternoon, one by one, hoisting the championship trophy above their heads, I really imagined them holding up Lady Liberty’s lamp. I saw them the way Emma Lazarus described the welcoming statue, as “a mighty woman with a torch.”

Alexandra Gold, in an essay some years ago in Lilith Magazine on the Jewish nature of the Statue of Liberty, commented that “Lazarus imagines the Statue’s torch as an enduring reminder of a tradition passed down through the ages, the light (and strength) of the Jews.”[3]

But not just for the Jews. We know what it means to come from oppression to freedom, from a sense of exile to a place of welcome, from a land of darkness to one bathed in liberty’s light. We live that journey in every generation – just like the one that took us from the exodus from Egypt to the glory of the Promised Land.

And like that journey of ancient days, we know that we can reach the goal only by walking as one, with all the difficulties and concessions and cooperation and mutual support that this demands.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” cries Lady Liberty at the conclusion of The New Colossus. This lamp, and its message of welcome, is the gateway to America. Not just for our ancestors but for us and for all who wish to be part of WE THE PEOPLE. Every purple-haired, tea-sipping, arm-waving, unapologetically and irreplaceably celebratory one of us.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/womens-world-cup.html?searchResultPosition=1

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2019/07/10/megan-rapinoe-speech/?utm_term=.d295d500f31a

[3] https://www.lilith.org/articles/is-the-statue-of-liberty-jewish/

We Are A Family – for Shabbat Shelach Lecha[1], Friday, June 21, 2019

You may remember that a few weeks ago, as we were beginning this year’s reading of the Book of Numbers, I pointed out a distinct change in the approach of the text to the condition of the ancient Israelites. Rather than looking backward at the legacy of slavery, Numbers began with God’s plan for the people’s future by commanding a census of all the young men who would be eligible for military service.

And the book, I noted, is filled from beginning to end with mitzvot that would guide the people when they settled in the land that God had promised to them, and to which Moses was leading them.

This week’s Torah portion provides an important example of how ready the Israelites were – or were not – to fulfill God’s plan for them.

Shelach lecha, God says to Moses: “Send you men to scout out the land of Cana’an, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” And then God instructs Moses to “send one man from each of their ancestral tribes each one a chieftain among them.”

On the surface, this would indicate that God wanted to make sure that each of the 12 tribes had buy-in to the plan. That each would feel included and empowered. But there’s some indication in traditional commentaries that the plan was inevitably flawed.

Don Isaac Abarbanel, a 15th-century Portuguese commentator, sees this clearly. “Why,” he asks, “did God tell them to ‘send one man from each of their ancestral tribes’ for a total of 12? Two men would see just as much as 12 – or 100 – and arouse less suspicion.”

And don’t forget, that’s exactly what Joshua would do when it came time to actually cross over the Jordan into the walled city of Jericho – as though he learned the lesson from the disaster that’s about to befall his predecessor Moses here.

But our tradition teaches that this wasn’t just a tactical blunder. We read:

“Each tribe sent its own representatives. No tribe trusted any other, and each group chose its own person. There was no unity among them, and they were divided into separate tribes and groups. However, when Joshua sent the spies, he sent only two. That showed the unity of the nation and their mutual trust, and that was the reason for the mission’s success.”[2]

So God and Moses are preparing the Israelites to battle their way into the Promised Land. But the Hebrew text itself also gives us clues that, while the people, while they may no longer think like slaves, still don’t look at themselves as one nation with a Divine mission.

In many English translations, Moses charges them with this task: “See what kind of country it is, are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many, is the country in which they dwell good or bad?” The language is in the plural – are they strong or weak? Is the country where they dwell good or bad? But that’s not what the Hebrew says.

The Hebrew refers to “ha-am” – the nation, in the collective singular:

מַה־הִוא וְאֶת־הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב עָלֶיהָ הֶחָזָק הוּא הֲרָפֶה הַמְעַט הוּא אִם־רָב

“And what of this people which dwells on the land: Is IT strong or weak; is IT few or many. . . . Are ITS towns open or fortified?”[3]

Moses acknowledges by his own language that the Israelites – who still identify by their tribes and their ancestral houses – will be up against a true, unified nation in the Canaanite people. And the spies use the same language to report back:

אֶפֶס כִּי־עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד

“Wow, the nation that dwells there IS mighty and the cities are fortified and large. . . We cannot attack that am – that people, that nation — for IT is stronger than we.”[4]

The Hebrew tells us something really important that is missing in the English. The spies first describe the inhabitants of the land – the Amalekites of the Negev to the south, and the Hittites and Jebusites and Amorites of the hill country of the north, and the Canaanites along the sea and the Jordan river – but then they refer to them as am – one people, one nation, united by the fact that they all see themselves as am.

And that is something that, clearly that the scouts themselves lack. They think of themselves as sons of Levi or Judah or Benjamin. They are not yet Am Yisrael, the People Israel, as we know it today.

The people who left Egypt relied completely on God to see them through the forty years of existence in the wilderness: God gave them everything they needed from clothes to food to the protection of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. So they could afford to stick with their families and their tribes. Even God recognized this when they were commanded to muster by tribe when they traveled. It wasn’t until Joshua led them across the Jordan and they were responsible for their own self-care and their own decisions that they realized what it meant to be Am Yisrael.

A community’s self-identity, then, is the key to its success, to its ability to prosper where others fail, to sustain itself – again using the singular – in the face of challenges and even existential threats. Which means that the existential threats to Am Yisrael today aren’t just from Iran or Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza; some of them must lie within our community.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the head of ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America – brings us a teaching this week from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the retired chief rabbi of Great Britain and a great scholar of both traditional Jewish text and contemporary Jewish life.[5]

Rabbi Sacks, he says, wrote that, in classical Hebrew, there are three different ways to describe community: Edah, tsibbur, and kehillah.

Edah means witness, and it refers to people who stick together because they came from the same place. But identifying a place of origin doesn’t tell us anything about their personalities, their opinions, or their politics.

Tsibbur comes from the word for heap or pile; a group of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time for the same purpose, like the tsibbur that comes together to pray, but otherwise may have little in common.

And then there’s Kehillah. As Rabbi Weinberg writes:

“A kehillah is different from the other two kinds of community. Its members may be diverse (like a tsibbur). But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. In short, a kehila has a mission. When we identify as part of a Kehila, it is not only the place we pray as a Tzibbur but a shared sense of mission to which we adhere.”

I think it’s easier to identify in and with a Kehillah on a small scale, like we do here at Temple Beth Israel. In fact, we don’t see ourselves just a kehillah kedoshah, a holy congregation, but as a mishpacha kedoshah, a sacred family. Yes, we identify a collective undertaking, a collective contribution to make. But our mission is internal as well as external. We take care of our own, as Bruce Springsteen sang. We feel each other’s joys and sorrows. No one is anonymous in a small family like ours. And no one is ever alone.

I often wonder what it would be like if Am Yisrael thought of itself as one big family. Not always happy, not always getting along. But cognizant of the real responsibility we have to the mishpachah as a whole. In the State of Israel today, they’re about to embark on a second round of elections because petty rivalries and power trips meant nobody could get together and form a new government.

In the American Jewish community, many national organizations based in major cities have far less reach and influence than they used to – but also no longer make a point of staying connected with small-town Jews like us.

And even here in our small town, where we maintain strong links through Eidah and Tsibbur, through where we came from and how and where we pray, we often have to remind ourselves to be sensitive and inclusive of our mishpachah on one side of town or the other. I think we’re doing better with that, because we can see what happens elsewhere, when those family ties break down.

From the universal concept of Am Yisrael to the intensely personal need for mishpachah kedoshah, unity is what makes us strong. Not dismissing our backgrounds, our political differences or our choices on observance as insignificant – but acknowledging them and accepting them as we would the differences in any extended family. The Torah’s story of the twelve scouts helps us understand the power of how we see ourselves as one.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

 

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©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

[1] Note: As a Reform congregation, we follow the Israeli calendar rather than the traditional Diaspora calendar that is based on additional days for festivals. Therefore (and because the schedule for Passover this year meant we concluded our seven days on a Friday night while traditional congregations observed through Saturday and thus are a week behind on the Torah reading cycle) on the Shabbat of June 21-22, we are reading “Shelach Lecha,” while traditional congregations are a week behind in Beha’alotecha.

[2] Torah Gems, ed. Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Volume III, p. 60, citing “various sources.”

[3] Numbers 13:19

[4] Numbers 13;28, 31.

[5] Rabbi Josh Weinberg, “Let Your [Old] Guard Down.” https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxwChJnSGTjtSJGQVlNZNlppcPTk

Watch Where You’re Going, Not Where You’ve Been – Shabbat Bemidbar, Friday, May 31, 2019

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. This was one of Grandmom Freda’s favorite phrases. Probably because I was (and still am) such a klutz, that otherwise I’d do some serious damage to myself. Trip over an uneven point in the sidewalk. Smack straight into a lamp-post. Get run over by somebody else’s basket at the supermarket.

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. Our little Beagle puppy Freddie should have heeded that advice this week on one of our frequently rain-soaked walks. He was so obsessed with the big chocolate Lab behind him down the street – the one that’s eleventy-thousand times bigger than him and would squash him with one swipe of a paw – that he completely missed the bunny rabbit that scurried across the street right in front of us. Addie, the shepherd, spotted it. But bunnies are supposed to be a Beagle thing. And Freddie missed the very first one of the spring.

Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. That should be the grandmotherly theme of the Book of Numbers, Bemidbar, which we begin reading tonight. Genesis took us back to the hoary origins of humanity. Exodus took us back, too, to the foundation of our people Israel. Leviticus harkened back to a long-ago time of priests and incense and oils and sacrifices pleasing to God. And, coming up, the Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’s rewriting of all this history from the perspective of a man who was never permitted to see the land that held the promise of Israel’s future. All four of them are reminiscences of times past – combinations of mythology and wishfulness and wistfulness.

But not the Book of Numbers. Of the five books of the Torah, this is the only one that starts out looking where we’re going, not where we’ve been.  The Book of Numbers essentially picks up the wilderness narrative where the end of Exodus left off. But the end of Exodus left us dealing with internal issues within a community still forming, still catching up with the idea of freedom. Here, at the beginning of Numbers, there’s a 180 degree turn.

Two years and one month into the Exodus from Egypt, God summons Moses to the Tent of Meeting and commands him to take census of the Israelite community – tribe by tribe, clan by clan – to identify those young men who would form the Israelite army. The army that would protect the women and the children and the elderly as they moved into unknown territory. As they moved farther from Egypt, farther from Sinai, farther from anything they knew.

In Exodus chapter 13 we learned that God did not take the people along the sea route, by the land of the Philistines, ki karov hu. That’s usually translated as although it was near – that is, although the sea route to the Promised Land was a quicker journey, God chose otherwise. But a more insightful translation of the phrase ki karov hu is BECAUSE it was near:

“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, because that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.”

In Exodus, God didn’t want the Israelites running scared, back to Egypt, back to slavery and probably to their deaths. But by the first verses of the Book of Numbers, God sees that the Israelites are no longer drawn to the past. God now can focus their attention on where they are going, and not where they’ve been.

The striking about-face in these first verses of the Book of Numbers doesn’t just mark a literal turning point for our ancestors. It gives us some important insights about our lives today – about the pull of the past, maybe as it was or maybe as we imagine it to have been. About moving forward with our lives based, not on what our lives might have been, but on the choices that life presents us today. Try as we might, we cannot turn back time. We cannot, so to speak, go home again.

Did anybody else watch the re-produced episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” this past week? ABC brought series creator Norman Lear back and re-staged two episodes in front of a live studio audience.

All new casts – including Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei and Anthony Anderson – didn’t just re-create the episodes. They didn’t just use the original scripts as they aired 40 years ago. They took on the character traits of the original actors: Archie’s cigar-infused Bronx bluster that belonged to Carroll O’Connor, Edith’s screechy vocal quality that forever will be identified with Jean Stapleton.

I wanted to enjoy this. I really did. Norman Lear’s shows – “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” – I grew up on them. They were the programs that influenced my social views throughout my adolescence.

They laid bare the social upheavals of the 1970s and the struggles that communities and neighbors across America had with integration, the empowerment of women, and the specter of the Vietnam War. They were of that time and of that generation. These shows were unlike anything anyone had ever seen on television. Norman Lear used television as a mirror on his audiences, forcing us to look at ourselves in a way that nobody had before. That’s what made them so powerful.

And that’s why this re-boot didn’t work.

When the most significant moment of the entire hour is Jennifer Hudson in a humongous Afro owning the stage with her rendition of the theme song to “The Jeffersons” – you know something is amiss.

I don’t know if these characters would work today under any circumstances. We aren’t “All in the Family” as much as we are “Modern Family.” “The Jeffersons” was about the first black family on the block, the first inter-racial couple in the neighborhood. But CBS, the network that originally aired so many of Norman Lear’s shows, is now running “The Neighborhood,” where it’s the white family from the Midwest who are the interlopers in a very not-white neighborhood in L.A.

It’s not that people like Archie Bunker don’t exist anymore: Bigots who don’t even realize they are bigots. Anti-semites who will insist they can’t be, because one of their best friends is a Jew. Working-class white people who are conned into believing that black people moving ahead in society must be gaming the system or getting something that they’re not.

It’s not that strict gender stereotyping or the denigration of the work and worth of women is a thing of the past. Not when the #metoo movement has painfully laid bare the cost of saying no to a powerful man. Not when millions of women around this nation are now realizing we must fight the same battles we thought our mothers won forty years ago, when these shows first aired, including the battles for control over our own bodies (as anyone who remembers that episode of “Maude” knows well).

And it’s not that television cannot or should not hold up that mirror to our country today and make each and every one of us take a good long look at ourselves untouched and unfiltered, rather than in the photo-shopped way we would like others to see us. In fact, I think we need that more than ever.

One critic wrote: I’d like to see Archie Bunker deal with today’s issues, not those of 40 years ago. And maybe that would work, I don’t know. Norman Lear is a genius. What he did in the 1970’s was new and honest and astonishing and uncomfortable – for its own time. And maybe he could do something equally astonishing and honest for our time.

But, my friends, we have to watch where we’re going, not where we’ve been. Nostalgia will not touch us, or disturb us, or inspire us to face today’s challenges. Like the Israelites of old, we cannot yearn for what life was – or what we now imagine it was, distorted, as that may be, by our own fading memories.

In these first few verses of the Book of Numbers, God is making sure that the Israelites will be looking in the right direction.

They will be armed with the mitzvot that shape their years in the wilderness — the same rules and ethical values that guide us today.

The laws about how we wage war, for which the census sets the stage.

The laws of our feast days and fast days that have shaped our national character from generation to generation.

Care of the land that has been entrusted to us.

Care of our neighbors – those who work and eat and pray alongside us – regardless of where they come from or what they look like.

Care of the strangers who come to our communities, in the full knowledge that we are now the ones with power over other people’s lives.

Aaron will die, and life will go on. Miriam will die, and they will still move forward. One generation will take over from another. And the generation that had not known slavery – that had no reason to look where they’d been – will be granted the gift of completing the journey to where they were going.

We must be that generation. We must be honest enough to withstand that scrutiny in the mirror. We must be brave enough, and kind enough, to build a world – one block, one neighborhood, one community at a time – that reflects the values the Torah gave us thousands of years ago.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin