Rosh Hashanah Morning 2020: “The Story of Us” and Revelation

Deep in the recesses of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem stands a small chapel, called the Latin Chapel, revered by Christians around the world as the place of Jesus’s Tomb. On the south wall is a mosaic depicting one of the most hauntingly memorable scenes from the Bible.

It is not, as you might expect, a scene of the crucifixion. It is the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Torah reading from Genesis 22 that we read this morning.

In this mosaic, Abraham has his arm raised, knife in his hand, prepared to slaughter his most beloved son Isaac, God’s gift of his and Sarah’s old age. Below him, Isaac lies bound on the altar, staring up at his father. In front of him, an angel has his hand raised to stop the slaughter. And behind him is the ram caught in a thicket by its horns, which God has sent to be the substitute sacrifice.

In a 16th-century manuscript from Ottoman Turkey, a colorful miniature image also shows Abraham sacrificing his son. But the son here is not Isaac but Ishmael, his first-born son by the handmaid Hagar. Muslim tradition substitutes the younger for the older, although the name of the son is not mentioned at all in the Quran.

Both of Judaism’s daughter religions have adopted and adapted this story to fit their own religious narratives. For Christians, the story is one of ultimate sacrifice. For Muslims, it is one of ultimate submission.

For we Jews, the binding of Isaac is only one part of a lengthy narrative of the life of Abraham – only the last of ten trials beginning with God’s call.

For us, Abraham’s is not a story of an “ultimate” anything. It is, rather, the beginning of Judaism and of the character of the Jew: Complex, brave, incomplete, inspiring.

In this series of sermons that I’m calling “The Story of Us,” I draw this morning on Bari Weiss’s words about Abraham in her “No Hate, No Fear” speech in New York last winter:

“I am a Jew because of the audacity and iconoclasm of Abraham, the first Jew of all. The whole world was awash in idols and he stood alone to proclaim the truth: There is one God.”[1]

Think of just how astonishing the whole concept is! The world into which Abraham was born was one of pantheism: a belief that different gods controlled different forces in nature. Ancient peoples worshiped and fed the gods of the sky and the sea, the dew and the harvest. It was their way to explain the miracles of nature that make it possible for us to exist on earth.

Abraham knew differently. He had been called to serve by a God who vowed to him: “I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). Only a God that controlled everything in the universe could make such a promise. And only Abraham could see such a God.

But the one-ness of God was not all that Abraham understood. Implicit in that first promise – and all the promises that followed – was not ultimate sacrifice or submission, but something a lot more complex. Something more human.

God had a plan for Abraham and his descendants: to make them a treasured people who would live a life based on kindness and ethical decision-making.

We see this first in the welcoming of the three strangers by Abraham and Sarah, who promise these wayfarers a morsel of food and some water, and who deliver an enormous feast. Nobody demanded, or even asked, for them to go to so much trouble. It was clearly in their natures to do so.

And we see it most explicitly in what follows – in God’s “aside,” as God muses with God’s self before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

 “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do – since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט to keep the way of the ETERNAL by doing what is just and right, in order that the ETERNAL may bring about for Abraham what has been promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19)

God went ahead and told Abraham everything – allowing Abraham to actually argue with God (!) to spare the lives of at least some of the people of these cities of sin.

Even this early in the Abraham story, here’s what we know: Abraham and Sarah are naturally kind and generous people. And through them, God is creating a people of justice and righteousness.

As the great Bible scholar Jon Levensen put it, “As the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.”[2]

For generations, this mandate has been described as “chosen-ness” – that we Jews are God’s “chosen” people. And while it may a valid way to describe our mission, it has gotten us into trouble. We have been persecuted in both the Christian and Islamic worlds as heretics and parasites. We have endured exclusion, blood-libel, exile and genocide.

And yet, we are not a people who have shed the blood of others in return. Yes, there are times in the Tanakh when God calls the Israelites to war and commands them to slaughter every person and burn every building. And, yes, there are times in modern Israel’s history when Jewish behavior toward non-Jews has been arrogant, discriminatory, and even deadly. We are troubled, to say the least, to acknowledge that this, too, is part of our history.

But in general, we are a people just trying to get along. Whether under submissive terms in medieval Christian and Muslim lands, or free in our own land after two-thousand years of exile; whether in the Jewish homeland or in the lands many of us Jews call home – we are a people who hold ourselves to a high moral standard. A standard founded in the mission of Abraham, structured in the mitzvot of Torah given to Moses at Sinai, and re-stated 27-hundred years ago by the prophet Micah:

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the ETERNAL requires of you: Only to do justice. And to love goodness. And to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

And as Bari Weiss declared in her speech last January: “I am a Jew because our God commands us to never oppress the stranger.”

Abraham was not a perfect human being. He’s not supposed to be. Human beings are not perfect creatures. We have failings and flaws and we make mistakes.

But we, like Abraham, rely on our faith. And our faith teaches us that we must turn – in this season of turning – toward a life that is kinder and gentler and more honest; that respects the dignity and unique worth of every human being; and that calls on us to speak up for those who are not treated with the dignity they deserve. A life in which we are commanded to stretch out our hand to the poor, the needy, and the stranger. A life in which we never take for granted that, as Jon Levensen wrote,

“God’s singling out of the Jews, foreshadowed in the call of Abraham is irrevocable . . . their specialness and uniqueness in the eyes of God do not depend on their fulfilling any mission, but they do have a mission to fulfill nonetheless – namely, to share the universal and transcendent truth that has graciously been disclosed to them alone.”[3]

To them – to us – is Abraham’s bequest given. And that’s true whether we are born among the traditional descendants of Abraham and Sarah or choose to become so, making Avraham v’Sarah part of our names as they are forever part of our lives.

We, like Abraham, will be forced to endure trials in our lives. If it weren’t for the trials we are undergoing right now, we’d all be in the sanctuary together this morning. Trials like these may temporarily scare us, or isolate us, or sicken us. But if we brave them together, as the heirs to Abraham and Sarah, they will not defeat us.

In this moment, we are living in a world of great tumult. There isn’t a neighborhood in this country where people are free from fear and confusion and frustration. There isn’t a family in which parents don’t worry over their children, and children for their parents.

We know very well from our history the danger that fear will turn to anger, and frustration to violence. We know very well from our history that innocent victims will suffer.

And we know very well from our history that every single one of us can and must be the voice of reason, and calm, and compassion. Like Abraham and Sarah – and like every generation of Jews since – we, too must heed God’s command לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט – “to do what is just and right.”

As Bari Weiss closed her speech in January:

“The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

Ken Yehi Ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. As we say together: Amen.

###

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[2] Jon D. Levensen, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 24.

[3] Levenson, p. 33.

Erev Rosh Hashanah: “The Story of Us” and God’s Creation:

Illness. Isolation. Fear. Separation. Conspiracy theories. Lockdowns. Death.

For many people, at least some of these plagues have defined life under the Coronavirus pandemic for the past six months. Here at Temple, we, certainly, did not anticipate this. When we were forced to cancel our Purim celebration at the last minute back in early March, we thought – well, by mid-summer, everything will be okay. We’ll be back together. This, too, shall pass.

But it didn’t. There are a lot of reasons why we are meeting on Zoom tonight, and for the rest of our holy days and fall festivals. Some of them are out of our control. Some of them could have been controlled but weren’t. But the consensus of our Temple family at our annual meeting was to prioritize everyone’s safety, and that’s what we’re doing.

As a congregation, we actually have held up pretty well, all things considered. We have used all the technology available to us, to bring our congregational family and friends together almost every Friday night since March, with prayers, Torah, and just sharing how we’re doing.

We were privileged to call Isaac Rubinstein to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah just a few weeks ago. And despite the challenges of speaking to empty pews in the sanctuary, Isaac did as beautiful and mature a job as I’ve ever seen in one of my students.

We have marked each other’s happy moments, mourned each other’s losses, and celebrated the little triumphs that make every day a little bit easier and happier than it otherwise might have been. We’ve reminded each other to just breathe.

We’ve done it because we are a strong community. And we’ve been able to do it, I think, at least in part, because we are Jews.

Let’s face it: Throughout the ages and within our lifetimes, Jews have persevered where others have disappeared. We have faced exile, pogroms, anti-Jewish laws, and ingrained antisemitism. We have wandered the world, settling where we can, when we can, figuring out how to make a living however we can.

Isolation? Been there. Conspiracy theories – well, they seem to have been invented to persecute Jews. Ghettos? Death? Try the pogroms in central Europe generations before there was a Holocaust.

And we are still here. Not Amalek. Not Haman. Not any of the Hamans that have arisen in every generation since then. We’re still here. Though not in the numbers we ought to be.

Some people say it’s a miracle. I say: it’s because of who we are. We are Jews. We have learned to persevere. To survive and to thrive.

Of course, we’re not the only ones who have found strength and survival mechanisms during the pandemic. But I think ours are somewhat unique, because they are ingrained in our history and in the very existence of our communities.

And that’s what I’m going to be talking about throughout these Days of Awe.

I call this: “The Story of Us.” And I was inspired by a remarkable, and very under-reported, speech that was made back in January by the Jewish author and ardent Zionist, Bari Weiss. She gave the speech in front of 25-thousand people at a “No Hate, No Fear” solidarity march in New York.

She based it on Edmund Fleg’s famous essay, “I am a Jew…because.”

And through these High Holy Days I am drawing from her speech to inspire us all with who we are, and what we can become. Which after all — is what the High Holy Days are all about.

Tonight: “The Story of Us” and God’s creation:

Bari Weiss declared:

“Today, as in so many times in history, there are many forces in the world insisting that Jews must disappear or die. Some say it bluntly. Some cloak it in the language of progress.

“But I am a Jew because I know that there is force far greater than that. And that is the force of who we are and the force of our world-changing ideas.”[1]

Tonight, at the dawn of our New Year, we celebrate one of these world-changing ideas: the Jewish story of Creation.

Now, it’s true, that every people of the ancient Near East had a version of the Creation myth. And the one that appears in the Jewish Bible is just one version. But ours comes with something extra: the idea of a mission. The notion that we were put on this earth for a purpose that is grounded in the Torah’s concepts of morality and goodness.

And nobody outlined this idea better than the 16th-century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria. Luria’s idea is based on three concepts:

  •  
  • Tzimtzum, or contraction
  • Shevirat ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessels
  • And Tikkun, restoration.

Luria referred to God as the Infinite – in Hebrew, Ein Sof, that which is without end. The Torah describes how God brought the material world into being from nothingness with words: Let there be light. But what’s important, according to Luria, is what happened before that. After all, God being God – infinite and without end – there wasn’t room for a material world.

So God did something remarkably humble for, you know, God. God withdrew into Godself to make room for Creation. God restricted God’s own presence through tzimtzum so that the universe and all that fills it could live.

And then, when there was room outside of God, God sent that beam of Divine light into the space that was void and without form. The Divine light allowed the universe to be organized – day and night, air and water and land. And God, as Torah tells us, saw that it was good.

But it wasn’t all good – not God-good. The Divine light was so powerful that we couldn’t have survived it. So it was enclosed in Kelim, vessels. But the vessels weren’t strong enough, and they shattered into tiny shards. Sparks of that beam of Divine light went everywhere. The shards of the vessels embedded themselves into everything, shredding things as they went. And God’s constriction allowed disharmony and aggression and evil and death to come into the material world. By its very nature, the world became imperfect and inconstant.

This world of chaos and illness and confusion – this is the world that we Jews were born into. And this is the world that gives us purpose.

As Howard Schwartz writes in the book Tree of Souls,

“This is why we were created – to gather the sparks no matter where we are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles – to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way, the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.

“And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete.”[2]

Tikkun olam: We use this phrase most often to describe social justice projects. But its cosmic significance is most important, especially on the day that we celebrate God’s creation. Tikkun olam literally means the repair of God’s world.

But, guess what? God cannot do this. Only we can do this. Only we have the power to search the world for those sparks of Divine light and bring them together to create order, harmony and peace.

These sparks of light could be anywhere and everywhere. In plants and trees; in animals of the land, the sea and the air. In rocks. In water. But I believe we find them most often in other people.

Sometimes they are hard to spot. Because when those vessels shattered and threw the world into chaos – the nature of humanity also changed. Remember Adam and Eve: they chose to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their action assured that all human beings would now have free will, freedom to choose how to behave.

When Samuel Goldman wrote about this last month in The New York Times, he was promoting the fusion of two concepts that are often seen as incompatible: freedom and virtue:

“People need constraint to develop moral habits,” Goldman wrote, “but also freedom to make mistakes, change their ways and assume responsibility for both failures and achievements.”[3]

Goldman attributed the idea to the likes of Aristotle and Greek philosophy. But we know that it is the foundation of Torah.

In our High Holy Day readings, Torah lays out the choices for us and urges us to lead lives of ethical behavior, kindness to those most vulnerable in our society, honesty in our business dealings, and humility before God. But in doing so, Torah acknowledges we have the right and the power to do otherwise: to cheat, to steal, to lie. To threaten, to discriminate, to persecute. To be selfish.

And, let’s face it, a lot of people do make those choices. We all know them. In a chaotic and sometimes dangerous world, they choose to perpetuate chaos, fear and bigotry. In a world that is already hard to navigate, they put icebergs in the sea routes and nails on the road.

In these days of pandemic, they refuse to mask or social distance, cause scenes at Wal-Mart, and promote wild conspiracy theories and unproven (or even dangerous) quack remedies.

The selfish people often suck up all the oxygen in the room, because everything is always about them. So they make it hard to adjust our focus, and pay attention to those who often do not draw attention to themselves. The selfless and the sensitive. The compassionate and the caring. The people whose divine spark glows brightly, if we choose to open our eyes and see. Behind a mask, from six feet away, you watch, and you know.

Those are the people whose nature we must cultivate and whose work we must support. They are the ones who will freely share their sparks and unite them with others who are like them. They are not afraid that sharing means they lose something precious. On the contrary, they see what the great Torah sage known as Rashi saw in the kindling of the Shabbat lights: When one flame lights another, neither one is diminished, and their shared light burns more brightly – lighting the way for us all.

The selfish people are often the loudest voices in the room, but they don’t necessarily represent the majority. Back in March and April – when the pandemic was sweeping across our country, The New York Times commissioned a study about what Americans thought about the crisis. They wanted to know: Are you focusing more on your personal problems, or on those of society – the people around you? Overall, the share of responders who emphasized society’s interests at least as much as their own increased by 3.3 percent, from 37.6 percent to 40.9 percent. And that’s a very significant jump in this kind of survey.

And the survey results were the same regardless of political affiliation, gender, age or geography.

We may be obsessed by the mask-less guy standing six inches behind us in the checkout line at Martin’s. But he represents a smaller proportion of the population than he’d like to think.

Then again, maybe he might not always be so selfish. After all, the whole point of these Days of Awe is that they offer us an opening to acknowledge the mistakes we’ve made in our attitudes and our behavior, and to change them. Maybe that guy will literally see the lights in others and follow those lights to a more caring and responsible life. It’s clearly happened for other people, as the Times article reported on that survey:

“The past weeks have put a spotlight on community engagement and, in particular, on the personal risks nurses and doctors are taking to treat their communities. The increase may also reflect growing recognition of our mutual dependence and the fact that we sacrifice our own desires, such as going outside, in the spirit of keeping one another healthy.”[4]

We have called these people heroes – these people on the front lines. The doctors and nurses and custodians in hospitals and nursing homes. The stackers and check-out clerks in pharmacies and grocery stores. The people who donate food to foodbanks, and the people who distribute that food. I call them sparks.

Sparks of divine light, shining most brightly when our world is most dark, lighting the way for us and making the world brighter with the power of their combined radiance.

This pandemic has been a microcosm of the stages of creation: Tzimtzum, the contraction of the world that has brought humanity together as we have not seen in our lifetimes. Shevirat ha-keilim, as the vessels of community, faith, and trust in one another are broken. And Tikkun, as people around the world – and within our own communities – actually become the sparks of Divine light that bring us back together in the common cause of healing and unity.

The celebration of this ongoing work of tikkun is the celebration of the world itself – the world that God created for us. The world that is as imperfect as we are. The world that can only sustain itself from generation to generation if we bring our sparks together as one. 

We Jews have taught this to the world. As Bari Weiss declared in concluding her speech in January:  

“We were put on Earth to be Jews.

“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.

“We are the lamp-lighters.

“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.

“The people of Israel lives now and forever.

“Am Yisrael Chai.”

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our ongoing mission. And let us say together: Amen.

######

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/

[2] Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 122.

[3] Samuel Goldman, “Republicans Have Another Option. It’s Not Trumpism,” The New York Times, August 31, 2020. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/31/opinion/trump-conservatives.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

[4] Alexander W. Cappelen, Ranveig Falch, Erik O. Sorensen, Bertil Tungodden and Gus Wezerek, “What Do You Owe Your Neighbor? The Pandemic Might Change Your Answer,” The New York Times, April 16, 2020. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/16/opinion/coronavirus-inequality-solidarity-poll.html

“See This Day”: Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage Shabbat R’eh Friday August 14, 2020

Imagine that this is the year 1848. The first women’s rights convention has just been held in Seneca Falls, New York – which produced a “Declaration of Sentiments” that included a demand for American women to have the right to vote.[1]

Imagine that you are attending a women’s rights rally in the days that follow Seneca Falls – maybe in New York, maybe in Boston or Philadelphia.

You are there, of course, to see the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who already is famous for her passion and her idealism. And of course you’re hoping to get a glimpse at her famously radical bloomer dress, which consisted of pantaloons tucked under a scandalous knee-high dress.

A century and a half before there was any such thing as a “social media influencer,” you’d be able to spot Susan B. Anthony in a second. Anybody would.

But you might be overlooking that slightly older woman standing next to her. Like Anthony, she was also an abolitionist – championing enfranchisement for both blacks and women. Unlike Anthony – and most of the other more famous suffragists – she was Jewish.

Ernestine Rose was actually born to a traditional Jewish family in Poland – the daughter of a rabbi, no less.

But she rebelled against the customs and strictures of her family and community, and migrated to Western Europe and then to the United States in search of her own freedom.

Ernestine Rose was by no means the only Jewish woman who was a leader of the suffragist movement. There was also Hannah Greenbaum Solomon, who was the first president of the National Council of Jewish women, and Maud Nathan, who got involved in women’s issues through her work in progressive activism and labor movements. And many more.

With all that, however, there wasn’t a single Jewish women’s organization that took the lead in demanding or endorsing suffrage. According to Melissa Klapper’s article on American suffrage in the Jewish Women’s Archives, “Neither the Ladies Auxiliary of the socialist Workmen’s Circle nor Haddasah formally endorsed suffrage until 1917 and the National Council of Jewish Women never did so.”

Now, that’s pretty shocking to those of us who know the impact these organizations have had on women’s lives.

But Klapper, in her article, suggests three reasons this was the case. First: These groups held a lot of local programs in the south, where white women – as well as men – feared the enfranchisement of Black women. Second, many women might have opposed their organization taking on an overtly political agenda. And third: antisemitism was rife in the women’s suffrage movement and had been for decades.

Like modern-day leftist coalitions that single out Jews for criticism and isolation under the guise of intersectionality, elements of the supposedly progressive women’s movement of the late 19th and early 20th century publicly despised Jewish women.

This was especially true during the mass migration to America of poor eastern European Jews who flooded the streets of New York and other large cities.

Within the organized Jewish world, there was quite a bit of support for women’s suffrage, based often on the Biblical examples of the prophetess Deborah and of Queen Esther, who put herself in danger to save the lives of her fellow Persian Jews.

And so it was with the Jewish leadership of socialist parties, trade-unions and working-class communities – who saw and adopted women’s suffrage as another facet in the struggle for power and dignity for every person.

As Klapper points out, the Jewish tradition of social justice – of equal treatment for every human being – also played a role here. It’s a tradition that plays a prominent place, as well, in this week’s Torah portion.

The parashah – R’eh, the fourth portion in the Book of Deuteronomy – is ostensibly about communal worship and the annual cycle of the ritual calendar. But, tellingly, the portion both begins and ends with a command that is powerfully and intentionally inclusive.

R’eh! – the parashah begins.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God.

The first few paragraphs adjure the Israelites not only to reject the pagan worship practices of the Canaanites on the other side of the Jordan river, but to actively destroy their altars.

The rest encourages joyous celebrations of accepted worship practice throughout the Israelite community, starting with this command:

“And you shall rejoice before Adonai your God with your sons and daughters and with your male and female slaves, along with [the family of] the Levite in your settlements” (Deut. 12:12). The parallel command at the end of the parashah adds in “the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities” (Deut. 16:11).

Male and female, young and old, Jewish and not, those of means and those without, those with families and those without. Everyone is to be included.

Now: I should point out that there is one oddity – one omission – that’s common to both of these verses: Neither one of them explicitly mentions wives in the celebration. Were wives automatically included? The Hebrew makes it hard to tell. The first verse is written in the plural and the second is in the singular – but both are written in the Bible’s default mechanism of masculine language. [2]

There is, however, one hint: This phrase that appears earlier on, at the very beginning of the portion to introduce the notion of festive celebration:

You shall feast there before your God Adonai, together with your households אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם  – happy in all the undertakings in which Adonai your God has blessed you. [Deut. 12:7]

אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם  That’s key phrase here:  “you and your households.” Who all is in the household? And why would the wife specifically not be mentioned when daughters, female slaves and widows are?

In an essay to the Women’s Torah Commentary, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert[3] points to a rabbinic tradition that when the Torah says “household” in these situations, what it actually means is “wife.”

In the Mishnah’s description of the laws of Yom Kippur, for example, Rabbi Judah himself cites Scripture (Lev. 16:6) this way:

As it says, and he shall make atonement for himself and for his house – and “his house” refers to his wife.

And she points to this quote in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 118b):

Rabbi Yosei said that he always spoke euphemistically: In all my days, I did not call my wife, my wife, nor my ox, my ox. Rather, I called my wife, my home – בֵּיתִי, — because she is the essence of the home, and my ox, my field, because it is the primary force in the fields.

Yes, there are – in traditional Judaism – time-bound mitzvot like the offerings given for the altar that only apply to men, based on this same section of Torah. But those are the mitzvot that don’t even apply in a post-Temple world. And the predominant mitzvah of celebration includes us all.

I think that this parashah is not just about festivals. It’s really about the bayit, the Jewish home – the essential building block of Jewish community and Jewish history. And its goal is to establish, from the bayit outward, equality and inclusion as building-blocks of Jewish life.

One hundred years after the passage of the 19th amendment – an anniversary we celebrate this coming Tuesday – we marvel at the strength and the courage of the women who battled for most of their lives to achieve women’s suffrage. We marvel, especially, at the Jewish women – who not only had to face down the power of the patriarchy, but also of rampant hatred against them – even among other women. Because they were immigrants. Because they were Jewish. Because they didn’t fit someone else’s definition of what it meant to be a true American.

And we recognize that these battles are still being fought a century later. Women still are not fairly represented in government or in business; women are still not promoted at the levels men are; women are still not paid anywhere near what men are.

So we continue to fight this millennia-long Jewish battle for social justice and individual dignity that is rooted in the Torah itself. We fight for legislation. For education. For equal pay.

We fight for ourselves. And we also fight alongside so many others who also don’t fit into narrow, and narrow-minded, definitions of what it means to be a true American.

We Jewish American women take pride in our foremothers – those of the 19th and 20th centuries and those thousands of years ago – Miriam and Deborah and Esther and all the unknown women in unremembered Jewish communities who demanded attention, and justice, and equality.

We know we deserve it. And we know that the Torah says so.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will – and our continuing mission. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

 

 

 

 

[1] Much of this material comes from the Jewish Women’s Archive’s article “Suffrage in the United States” by Melissa R. Klapper, accessed at https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/suffrage-in-the-united-states

[2] See The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), in the footnotes to both of these verses on pages 1119 and 1133.

[3] See “Post-biblical Interpretations” in The Women’s Commentary, pp. 1134-1136

Getting What We Deserve? Shabbat Eikev, Friday, August 7, 2020

So this is where we are: The weirdest weather we can remember. Partners falling ill – some in constant pain, others only with vague memories of who we are. Parents remembered at the graveside – some gone way before their time. All this and more happening as we try our best to cope with an international pandemic that has us praying and learning from afar every week for months on end – a dangerous disease that has forced children from their classrooms, parents from their places of work, merchants struggling to survive, and a lot of people afraid to go to the store or the pharmacy because not everyone is respectful enough to put on a mask.

Welcome to the life of our congregation in the summer of 2020.

As we learn the painful stories of those whose lives have been devastated by the coronavirus and the economic destruction it has wrought– we fall back on the age-old question of WHY? Why, God? Why do bad things happen to good people?

It is, unfortunately, a question for which there is no answer.

But why should that be? Is God not all-powerful? Or all-good? Or: Is God—if you believe in God’s existence—simply removed from the world? More than three decades ago, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner deliberately titled his book about theodicy When Bad Things Happen To Good People, not why, because, he came to believe, based on his own experiences, that pain and tragedy are simply part of the world as God created it. Rabbi Kushner wrote:

“God does not cause our misfortunes. . . . Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.”[1]

But the fact remains that bad things do happen to good people. We have seen that every day of this pandemic: On this past Tuesday alone, more than 13-hundred people in the United States died of the Coronavirus. Nearly 160-thousand total. Almost five million people in this country have become infected. And countless millions of others are stretched to their limit – or beyond – financially, emotionally, socially.

Feeling each day like we’re caught in a vise, making it hard sometimes to breathe, or think, or plan – it’s natural that we would turn to Torah for help and relief. But then we come face to face with what we read this Shabbat in Eikev, the third parashah of the Book of Deuteronomy.

Here the so-called Deuteronomic theology is in full display: If you obey God, you will be rewarded; if you disobey, you will be punished. This concept has underscored the study we’ve been doing for months now on Saturday mornings, first from the Book of Judges and now in the Book of Samuel, which are thematically (and theologically) tied into Deuteronomy. And we’ve struggled with it a lot.

And all comes from here, as God, through Moses, lays out the choice in language that people who live off the land will understand:

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I also will provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down to them. For the Eternal’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

These words are familiar to anyone who davens regularly from a traditional or Conservative prayer book, as they comprise much of the second paragraph of scriptural verses that immediately follow the Shema. They do not appear in American Reform prayer books. We Reform Jews have trouble praying what we do not believe. And our experience tells us not to believe in Deuteronomic theology.

We are not the only ones troubled by it. Two millennia ago, the early Sages, who witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple, and the death and desolation that accompanied it, formulated the notion of the olam haba, the “world to come,” as the place where people would finally get whatever is due them in this world. The Mishnah teaches us: “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come,” with the exception of heretics who reject Torah itself.

Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, in his classic fifteenth-century Mishnah commentary, gave a beautiful description of the ultimate reward of the good people who might have suffered in this world: “The righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and enjoy the brilliance of the Divine Presence.”[2]

That’s a lovely image. And the olam haba may give some comfort to those who struggle with theodicy and the question of God’s place in our lives. But the fact remains that we all still must live in the olam hazeh, in “this world.”

The pandemic may well be, as Rabbi Kushner wrote, an inevitable consequence of “living in a world of inflexible natural laws.” But our response to it is not fixed. It is not inevitable. And this may be where we look for the answers to the troubling questions raised by this Torah portion.

What we’re given here, on the surface, is a very rigid concept of good and evil, of reward and punishment. And it’s a concept that, as we know, does not play out in real life. But let’s look below the surface. And let’s look at it in the context of the rest of Torah portion. Because it is introduced by this call by Moses’s to the Israelites:

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul . . .” (Deuteronomy 10:12)

And how do we do that? Moses tells us that, too:

“Cut away, therefore, the thickening of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Eternal is God Supreme . . . who upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing – You too must befriend the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Deut. 10:16-19)

This is the context into which Moses now places the promise of the blessings of rain in its time, and new grain and wine and oil.

So, I’m thinking: Maybe all of that isn’t a rigid notion of Divine gifts and retribution after all. Maybe – if we read it in context — the examples that Moses gives of God’s gifts to us are meant to be a metaphor for the gifts we ought to be giving one another, if we are acting in God’s image and following God’s example.

Maybe the reward of goodness comes from the good we do for others, the way we spread God’s kindness through life, through our families and our communities. Maybe the reward of goodness is a natural outgrowth of loving and serving God with all our heart and soul. Upholding the cause of the weak. Treating the stranger with respect. We can’t always identify the people who are vulnerable. But we don’t need to. The food banks and shelters in our area always need financial support. And spreading God’s kindness doesn’t even require money. Maybe it’s as simple an act as wearing a mask out in public, and socially distancing, and washing up properly. We never know who that might help.

Rabbi Kushner also writes: “we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes.” But we should never be in a position where we are hurt or betrayed by others. And we certainly don’t want others to feel hurt or betrayed by us.

The answer to this dilemma of good and evil, of reward and punishment, may be as simple as Moses’s added personal appeal to each of us:

“Love the Eternal your God and keep God’s charges, laws, judgments and commands, every single day.” (Deut. 11:1)

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will, and our mission. And let us say together: Amen.

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People (NY: Schocken Books, 1981), p. 134; also excerpted on www.myjewishlearning.com. All the Kushner quotes come from this source.

[2] Mishnah Sanhedrin: A New Translation with a Commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1994), Chapter 10, Mishnah 1, pp. 137-138 in the paperback edition

 

So That You May Live: Shabbat Va’etchanan, Friday, July 31, 2020

According to Jewish tradition, and the well-known Debbie Friedman song, there are 613 commandments that Moses handed to us in the Jewish Bible. Our earliest record of this tradition is in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Makkot 23b), where Rabbi Simlai is quoted as saying:

“There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs.”

Rabbi Simlai didn’t lay all 613 of them out for us, and I don’t know where he got the 248 limbs (or parts) in the human body. But the great philosopher Maimonides, who was also a renowned physician, must have been down with it. Because in the law code he wrote in the 12th century, he outlined every single one of them. And his list is the one that we pretty much follow even today.

These mitzvot guide Jewish living in every way: How we marry, raise children, and bury our dead. How we conduct business. How we pray and when we pray. How we build community structures that respect our neighbors and support the needy and the most vulnerable.

The mitzvot are scattered throughout the Torah. But many of the key elements appear in this week’s Torah portion.

Moses is now into the meat of his farewell address to the people. After getting a few frustrations off his chest and re-telling the tale of the past forty years, he’s now teaching the people how to behave when the get to the land where – as we talked about last week – they will be on their own to take Torah into their hearts and their lives. So now he gives the Israelites – the first generation born in freedom — as much hard information as he can.

This week’s portion contains what one of my colleagues calls Torah’s greatest hits: The Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), which binds us to God eternally and exclusively. The reiteration of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-18), the big categories from which all of the mitzvot flow.

And Moses ties them to the past and to the future, with a reminder to the people of their parents’ divine redemption from Egypt (Deut. 6:20-25), and a command to the people to teach their children of their history and the heritage of Torah (Deut. 6:7).

But tucked into all of this is also a call from Moses to the Israelites to pay heed to their present (Deut 4:9), to the here and now:

רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר־רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ וּפֶן־יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ

Only take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.

It’s crucial, God is telling the people, that you operate in reality – the reality of being the generation responsible for decisions that will shape not only your destiny, but the destiny of your children and the generations who will follow them.

Nothing is more important than dealing in reality and doing it together – not the mythology of history, not the parochial disputes among the tribes, and not the petty squabbles that may arise among families. Keep your eyes on the prize, he tells them – and the prize is crossing the Jordan River, together and united, into the Promised Land.

Reality, truth-telling, facts, cooperation, collaboration, and caring for one another. These are the tools that the Israelites will need to succeed.

The truth is: It’s no different for us today than it was over three thousand years ago. And when we forget, or neglect, what’s most important – that’s when we get into trouble.

Back in March, when we had to suddenly shut down our Religious School and move worship and study out of our beloved Temple building, many of us hoped and believed we’d be back by mid-summer. It didn’t really occur to us that we might need to shelter at home, avoiding contact with anyone but immediate family, for months on end.

It’s quite possible that if everyone – or at least the vast majority of everyones – had dealt in reality, facts, cooperation and caring for one another from the beginning, we wouldn’t be in the position we are now, with High Holy Days on Zoom, long quarantines for people like us who travel from one state to another, and so many parents and teachers terrified at the prospects of live schooling. But that’s not what happened. And look where we are.

A week ago, the number of people in our country known to have been infected with the virus passed four million, with hospitalization rates  rising as well. This week, we passed 150-thousand deaths.

There are still no national mandates for masking and distancing. There’s still no national program for acquiring protective gear and distributing it where front-line workers need it most. There’s still no national program helping state and local government to open schools safely, or to do the testing and tracing that everyone has known for months has to happen.

But there sure are a lot of Americans who think that masks are for sissies and social distancing is for losers. Who reject the scientists and medical professionals who are giving us the facts and dealing in reality, but accept the claims of quack physicians assuring them they need do nothing at all, if those claims appear in the right social-media accounts.

People who refuse to cooperate and do the right thing for the sake of anyone else. Who verbally abuse, physically accost, and occasionally pull a gun on retail workers making minimum wage, when they ask them to follow the rules and put on a mask for everyone’s safety.

There are people who’ve contracted COVID who spend weeks on ventilators. Five minutes in a mask to get your latte and sandwich at Sheetz isn’t an infringement of your constitutional rights. It’s common sense, and common decency.

It’s also inherently Jewish.

The first five of the ten commandments reiterated this week speak to our direct relationship with God. The second half of the list directs us on our treatment of one another. So the way we show just how much we care about each other is a reflection of how much we care about God. Now, with Torah in our hands, it’s all on us. But we have to understand how our choices – to follow God’s path or not – impact everyone around us.

As my colleague Rabbi Max Chaiken wrote in this week’s Reform Judaism commentary:

“Perhaps most importantly, Va-et’chanan reinforces the idea of our own free will: While we cannot always control our circumstances, we are responsible for the ethical and spiritual choices we make as we walk our path through life.”

We cannot control the fact of the pandemic. But we can and must control our response to it. Deal in facts and truth and reality and common sense and kindness – and follow the best advice that the scientific community has to give us.

That, too, is Moses’s message to us in the parashah: O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live.

   לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ.

Moses uses the plural here – and not just because he’s speaking to the entire Israelite nation. He uses it as a clear message that our lives are dependent on one another. And that the life of the community – of the nation – depends on what each of us is willing to do for us all.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be the message we take into our hearts and our lives every day. And let us say: Amen.

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin