Israel and Palestine: Come and Learn

Jewish? Ready to see the real Israel, ask any question, face every reality?

Join hands with children learning to love in the face of trauma in a Palestinian School; link arms with Israeli activists working for a more just world. See for yourself ,and transform your feelings of inadequacy to know with the understanding born only of first-hand experience.

Go to https://www.daattravel.com/ShirTikvahPR2020 and click on “register now.” Trip limited to 20 people.

 

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Shabbat Hukkat: I Have Seen Outrage

This parashat hashavua, this Torah reading of the week, chronicles a time of terrible crisis for our people. The leaders we rely on are disappearing; the path is lost in a cloud of doubt and fear; the G*d of justice feels very far away.

 

The relevance of parashat Hukkat is profound and somewhat unnerving to those who believe that human nature forces us to repeat our mistakes unendingly. I’m grateful that Judaism offers a more hopeful answer to our existential questions: we are capable of learning from the past, and doing better.

 

In this parashah, Miriam dies, shortly followed by Aaron; in between, Moshe makes the fatal mistake that dooms him to die before the end of the journey. For the people of Israel, we are losing our parents. In these moments we see them for who they really are – flawed and precious human beings – and realize that it is now our turn. Old certainties die with the elders who knew more than we, and we see that there is no one else to lead us forward in these times but us.

 

And these times: the Psalmist offers a striking description of our situation.

 

Listen to my prayer, do not ignore my plea

I sway and moan

From the crushing force of the wicked

My heart quails within me

And death-terrors fall upon me

Fear and trembling enter me

And horror envelops me

I say “would that I had wings like a dove

I would fly off and find rest.”

I have seen outrage and strife in the city

Day and night disaster upon the walls

Guile and deceit never far from the square.

Tehillim 55.3-12 (excerpted)

 

In these times there is no one who can say with a voice we innately trust, as a parent might, that everything will be all right; many of us find ourselves following one voice, then another, as if jumping from rock to rock to cross a stream. This, too, is progress of a sort, and it can even be constructive, if we are choosing well where to put our feet.

 

Our Jewish tradition offers support for our feet as well as our tired hearts in an obscure story at the end of our parashah. It records that our people found themselves in a wilderness called by the Torah’s narrator Be’er, a word for “well” in Hebrew.

 

The people sang a song to the well:

Spring up, O well – sing to it!

The well which the leaders dug,

Which the generous of the people started

With their own hands.

BaMidbar 21.17-18

 

For Jewish tradition, a well is a common symbol for Torah. Even as water is life, for Jews, Torah is life-giving. Not the scroll itself, but what it represents: the Jewish community gathered around it to together puzzle out our responses to the mysteries of our lives; the source of the Jewish ethics and history that reassure us that we are not the first to struggle.

 

The leaders we seek – the leaders we must ourselves become – are those who dig for that sustenance; they are those who are generous with their time, the fruit of their study, and their resources that support our Torah study. Each one of us has a role to play in making sure that we all have access to life-giving, passionate Torah – the supportive source of that which sustains our ability to survive in these times of wandering and fear.

Shabbat Korakh: A Time To Rebel

There is a time for every purpose under heaven – Kohelet 3.1

 

This week’s parashah recounts a familiar place to we who are living the nightmare of what the United States has become. As our ancestors in parashat Korakh, we find ourselves in the middle of a long wandering. As then, we are lost, with no clear end to the frightening uncertainty in sight. Friends are irritable with each other, fights break out, people use unkind words. Those with selfish motives take advantage of the confusion.

 

Out of the general misery, some step forth and offer the clarity of their leadership – and just as now, our ancestors were faced with the question of whose voice to heed. Was it right to continue to follow Moshe, Miriam and Aaron? Or was another Levite, their cousin Korakh, correct in his assessment that those who led us out of Egypt had lost their way?

 

The Rabbis of antiquity experienced the oppression of the Roman Empire, out of which Jewish voices such as that of Bar Kokhba, the leader of a great rebellion against Rome, promised release. Then as now, rebellion against unjust power may be called for, but how are we to discern the best way, the proper time, the reason and the rationale?

 

They developed an effective way to judge which of the charismatic voices clamoring for our attention might be the right ones to follow:

 

Makhloket l’shem shamayim, “strife for the sake of heaven,” according to the Talmud, refers to honorable dissent. Its opposite, makhloket which is not for “the sake of heaven” is that which is self-centered, indulges in ad hominem attacks, and is doomed to fail.

 

Korakh is the classic case of the wrong kind of strife, teach the Rabbis: he failed because his words showed that, in essence, he did not care about the best leadership for the Israelite people. He simply wanted to be leader himself, and resented having been relegated to a supportive role in the community structure.

 

The doctrine of makhloket l’shem shamayim is still a Jewish ethical ideal today, encouraging us to engage with our opposition respectfully when we disagree. We are commanded to use just weights and just measures in our communal interactions with each other; just ends require just means.

 

As for the right time, and the right way, to rise up against power, rabbinic Judaism teaches that the highest value is that of preserving life: both the lives of the oppressed and the life of one who would act for justice. Martyrdom is not a Jewish value; living to fight another day is.

 

You are not required to complete the work, yet neither are you exempt from doing your part. – Pirke Avot 2.16

 

The wandering is long and uncertain; the work is piecemeal and slow.

 

True voices of justice are full of patient compassion, true arguments leave room for learning and growth, and true leadership rallies the best of the entire community. May we find it within ourselves to step up with our best when we can, despite the stress of fear, and may we never forget that kindness toward each other is the only firm grounding upon which we may expect to build a more just world.

Parashat Shelakh L’kha: Not So Close

This struggle is harder, and taking longer, than we thought

This week’s parashah tells the story of how, in the old Yiddish expression, mahn trakht und Gott lakht, “people plan and G*d laughs.”

Our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, expected that the journey to the Land they were promised would be their new home would be just a few days of hard hiking and lack of water. For a Rohingya family fleeing persecution in Burma, Venezuelans migrating to Ecuador, and a family standing on the other side of a river separating Mexico from the United States, it can seem so heartbreakingly close: that freedom and safety are just over the hill, around the bend, across the river.

Human migration for the sake of survival is as old as the species homo sapiens and the walk out of Africa that took place 100,000 years ago and more. We do not stay in one place for long – another reason why the idea of owning land and refusing to share it for the sake of another human being is inherently unethical. Seen from this perspective, anyone without a haven might confidently assume that they can pitch a tent or erect a lean-to on any available and promising piece of ground, and it would be hard to gainsay them.

As our Torah tells it, our ancestors’ arrival, finally, to a safe haven they can call home is delayed because of their own lack of ability to trust each other. The brutalization they experienced as slaves in Egypt impeded them just as surely as lack of documentation or hostile border patrols. It took our ancestors a full generation to overcome their trauma, and informs our urgent sense that what was done to us should not be done to anyone.

We as Jews know that treating the migrant as the home-born is a primary ethical imperative of our tradition: “the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you” (Num.15.16) appears in this week’s parashah, one of thirty-six times we are commanded not to oppress a stranger, but to respect them as we wish to be respected.

We also know that to speak out is not enough; we must also act. This week I offer you opportunities to act on behalf of the wandering refugee who traces the steps we once trod:

  1. support Refugees International with a donation
  2. contact your elected representative (even if you know that they agree with you) to express your opposition to the camps in which the Trump administration is incarcerating innocent children

It is human to long for a better, more secure life. It is Jewish to help make that possible. In our supportive community we can take turns acting, then resting, then despairing, then acting, in hope, once again.

 

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: We Need More Light

The days are as long as they get right now, yet we need light desperately: the light of hope, the light of healing, the light of happiness, all obscured in the horror of realizing that our own Federal government is operating concentration camps full of children and adults who are innocent of any crime.

 

For us Jews with our community history, this particular transgression of the current administration is the most traumatic of all the long list of the sins it commits. Our help will come from the same place: our history, our culture, and our community. We know more than anyone that when the world becomes a chaotic and frightening place, individuals who hold on to their integrity and continue to do the right thing are the shining lights that save our sanity and inspire us to hold on.

 

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha begins with light, that of the menorah in the Mishkan, the sacred space at the center of the Israelite wilderness encampment.

 

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר֖ ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

HaShem spoke to Moses, saying

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Tell Aaron: “When you set up the light, let the seven lamps shed their light at the front of the menorah.”

BaMidbar 8.1-2

 

This simple instruction seems obvious – set up the light so it best illuminates the room – yet it must be stated. Our ancestors read such mitzvot carefully, looking for the deeper symbolic meaning that would justify an otherwise simplistic and easy to overlook command. What they found is a metaphor for our Jewish community.

 

The menorah symbolizes the Jewish people. It has seven branches, symbolizing different paths to G*d, but is made of a single gold piece. The various differences and qualities do not detract from the unity. This means that diversity need not lead to division Each individual talent should lead to a synthesis of different views and behavior. – Rabbi Menakhem Mendel Schneerson

 

Throughout our history, community is central to Jewish survival. Yet Jewish community does not move in lockstep, but in as many directions as there are menorah branches, if not more:

 

  1. different spiritual practices: some love Torah study, some love prayer, some love service to others.
  2. different expressions of belonging: some give money, some in-kind, some make a visit or volunteer to fill a community need.
  3. different personal needs
  4. different perspectives and ways of knowing
  5. different expressions of self
  6. different Jewish backgrounds
  7. different feelings about Israel

 

It is obvious that there are many differences among us, and that these differences are part of what make us so special as a religious community.

 

What is not so obvious is how to fulfill the mitzvah of making sure that each of our lights is carefully centered toward the front of the space we share.

 

Are we patient enough to hear out someone who thinks differently? are we respectful of other’s sense of self and need? Most of all, do we remember to give each other the benefit of our doubt before judging?

 

During the summer our Talmud class studies Pirke Avot, a selection of ancient rabbinical ethical “sound bites.” Among them we find this:

 

Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.

 

I am proud that our congregation is not only a member of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, we are 25% LGBTQIA+ identified. During this month when we are offered the opportunity to consider more deeply what it is like to be queer (Pride month), or what it is like to be a person of color (June 19th was Juneteenth), the real significance of the mitzvah of the menorah seems to be this:

 

Be like Aaron, noting how each member of our beloved community shines their light. Do what you can to make sure each light shines clear and bright.

 

If you are extroverted and passionate, this means being quiet and assuming that the quiet person will say something that you need to hear.

If you are a cis person, it means graciously offering your personal pronouns so that a trans person won’t feel awkward in their need to do so.

If you are a man, it means thinking carefully about whether you let women be people.

If you are smart, it means remembering that according to Jewish tradition, the truly wise are those who learn from others.

If you are white, it means remembering that not every Jew is.

If you are a born Jew, it means never asking anyone whether they converted.

 

We cannot heal the world, but while we do what we can, our history, our culture and our religious tradition demonstrate the power of acting according to our ethics anyway. Especially under stress, it matters so very much that we still are able to hold hands and face the world together, compassionate and gentle with each other.

 

Let your light shine! and look carefully to help others shine as happily as possible. In all this darkness, we need more light.

Shabbat Naso: Queering Your Torah Study

Shir Tikvah’s greatest contribution to the Portland Jewish community is our vibrant, provocative weekly Torah study. As scholar Judith Plaskow put it:

 

Given the centrality of Torah study and interpretation to Jewish self-understanding, it is not surprising that many contemporary Jews continue to grapple with Torah as a way of defining their Jewish identities. Whether they turn to Torah out of a simple desire to learn, deep commitment, puzzlement, or passionate anger and dissent, they continue to understand the acts of reading and interpretation as crucial to who they are.[1]

 

This is the way we see Torah study at Shir Tikvah. Women and LGBTQIA+ Jews are examples of  the marginalized communities within Judaism which have felt distanced by Torah in one way or another. Walking away is one answer, but it is a spiritual dead end. It was only when we took the altar by the horns and insisted on our ability to read more deeply, using the traditional tools themselves, that we began to see the traditional interpretation of any given verse as only one possible aspect of a Torah that can truly belong to all of us.

 

Feminists began to insist on our right to center existing teachings that had been, like us, marginalized. Queer perspectives on Torah uncover new meanings by “insisting on the fluidity of all seemingly fixed boundaries.”[2] When we engage and struggle to find meaning within this central text of our people, the gift we give to the entire Jewish community is that of renewal, a refreshing of well-known stories with new depths of meaning, of relevance, and of exciting inspiration.

 

This Shabbat’s parashah is called Naso, from the Hebrew idiom naso et rosh, which means “lift up the head.” The meaning in this context is to count the people, but look at the richness of perspective in the actual wording: to lift up the head is to look each individual person in the face, to see them and to account for them. It is the essential act of loving kindness we can offer each other, and in so doing, to welcome each other at our Torah study table. Welcome to you, and to your questions and thoughts, and to the unique, holy and absolutely necessary sense of meaning that you bring when you are known, and named, and seen in your face for who and what you are. In this way we lift up the Torah’s face as well, and look for the place where we can hold on to it, that the words of Proverbs may be true for us:

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר

Torah is a tree of life to those who hold on to her,

whoever holds on to her is enriched

– Proverbs 3.18

We give thanks on this Pride Shabbat for all those over many years of Shir Tikvah Torah study who have helped us queer our learning, and in so doing bring marvels of meaning and relevance to all of us, at the table we share and beyond.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

 

On being an orthodox Jew who believes queer people deserve complete equality:  https://hevria.com/elad/not-waiting-halacha-queer-rights/

 

 

[1] Judith Plaskow, “Foreward” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (2009) xi

[2] ibid, xii