Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

ז
  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

….

טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.
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Shabbat of Sukkot 5778: the sukkah as reminder of the wilderness Mishkan

Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur. In the maftir Torah readings for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we have seen (in Numbers 29) a list of the holy days in chronological order, and what sacrifices our ancestors brought to mark each one. Numbers 29.1-6 refers to “the first day of the seventh month,” which is Rosh HaShanah, and the next verses, 7-11, describe the ritual for Yom Kippur.  Numbers 29.12 begins the description of the sacrifice to be brought on the 15th day of the seventh month – which is the beginning of the week-long harvest festival of Sukkot.
On this Shabbat, which occurs during the Intermediate Days of Sukkot*, the reading is quite different, and seems completely unrelated to Sukkot:
Moshe said to HaShem, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. 
Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’
Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. 
Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.”
HaShem replied, “If I go in the lead will that lighten your burden?”
Moshe said, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.” (Ex.33.12-15)
In order to understand why we study this Torah text on the Shabbat of hol haMo’ed Sukkot, you have to employ the interpretive principle of juxtaposition. What was happening during the days that are now before or on Yom Kippur?
It was on Yom Kippur, we are taught, that Moshe brought down the second set of Tablets of the Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Words) from Sinai; the first Yom Kippur, then, comes about as an expression of the atonement our ancestors achieved with G*d after the betrayal we remember as the incident of the Golden Calf. The Covenant between us and G*d was re-affirmed and finalized on Yom Kippur. In the Torah, we are reminded that G*d had told Moshe that intimate contact between G*d and the people Israel was no longer possible.
It’s often true; when someone hurts us, lets us down, doesn’t show up in the way we depended on, we may find ourselves emotionally withdrawing from that person. Close contact may seem as if it will never be possible again. Yet Moshe pleads, and G*d is reconciled.
In this light, the Sefat Emet shares an insight into the nature of the sukkah:
[It] was a dwelling given to the people of Israel after they had repented of their sin [the Golden Calf]. RaSHI interprets “Moshe assembled the people” [Ex.35.1] to have taken place on the day after Yom Kippur, when he came down from the mountain…it was then that they began to contribute to the Mishkan, on those days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Torah records that the people gave joyfully of all they had to the Mishkan, giving until they had to be told to stop. This was the joy of relief, and of a new optimistic determination to do better, to be better. The Sefat Emet suggests that this is the reason that Sukkot is called in our tradition “the time of our rejoicing.” It is perhaps easier to understand the command “you shall have nothing but happiness” in this way: you shall have no doubts that full and complete forgiveness is possible – for you and for those who have disappointed you. Your first attempts at reconciliation and wholeness may feel as tenuous as the sukkah is temporary, but atonement is possible, and so is joy.
And so every year we are invited to remind ourselves of this truth not only through sitting and studying and thinking and praying about it – but also by the practice of building our sukkot, little individual reminders of the great Mishkan we once built together. One day may we be privileged to all together find shelter in the great sukkat shalom, the Sukkah of Wholeness that we will someday learn, once again, to joyfully build together.
________________________________________
*The intermediate days of Sukkot are called Hol haMo’ed, “the days of the Festival which do not carry Shabbat-like Festival status.” The first and last days of Sukkot are such sacred days – as you’ll find out if you attempt to call any Jewish organization on the first two or last two days of Sukkot, which are called hag, plural hagim, “Festivals.” All the other days are hol haMo’ed, literally “the non-sacred days [hol] of the appointed time [the mo’ed].” Then there is the Shabbat that will occur once during this 8 day period (never twice, since the Jewish calendar was carefully engineered to ensure that Yom Kippur will never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday because it would create tirkha d’tzibura, too much of a burden of the community). The Shabbat of Sukkot this year falls during the Intermediate Days.

Yom Kippur 5778: Who Shall I Say Is Calling?

 In the late 1990s I had the opportunity to teach Jewish history to Jewish high school students. When we came to the part on anti-Semitism, every student in the class insisted to me they had never experienced anti-Semitism personally. I went around telling adults about it all over Portland’s Jewish community. Oh, yes, they all said, anti-Semitism is a thing of the past.

 

Then came the year preceding the most recent presidential election. During the campaign, expressions of hatred toward Jews were dismissed as “the crazy fringe.” It will all subside, we reassured each other, after someone sane is elected.

 

After the election, we reassured each other: look, there are Jews in the inner circle. Perhaps it will be just like the Purim story – a bumbling and dangerous but easily manipulated ruler, with Jews undercover in the Administration – sorry, I meant to say Palace – bravely saving the day.

 

After the inauguration, we joined forces with others, seeking to protect those who were truly threatened. We reassured each other that we were safe, and we dedicated ourselves to using our safety and our privilege to support others.

 

And then came Charlottesville, where white nationalists were heard to chant: “Jews will not replace us.” Anti-Semitism, it turns out, is not a thing of the past.

 

In parts of Europe there’s a saying: when someone reaches a realization that is already obvious to everyone else, the answer is “congratulations, you’ve discovered America!”

 

Anti-Semitism, it turns out, is not a thing of the past. Congratulations; you’ve discovered America. But in the United States of the twenty-first century, just exactly who is its target?

 

What defines a Jew today? Ironically, in 1946 Jean Paul Sartre wrote that because of the attraction of assimilation, Jews would have ceased to exist if it were not for the anti-Semites who would not permit that assimilation, and kept on identifying Jews, in order to blame us for their misfortunes.[1]

 

Anti-Semitism is the modern political form of an ancient religious hatred, hatred for Jews, that was taught by Christianity. It caused horrific forms of persecution of our people everywhere in our Exile, and especially in Eastern Europe.

 

Here’s the thing, though: scientific studies of normal population growth patterns indicate that there should be something like 60 million Jews in the world, not somewhere around 15 million. It’s clear that even with pogroms, inquisitions, the Holocaust, and of course other kinds of mass murder without a formal name, there should be a lot more Jews than there are. Where did they go?

 

It has been suggested that many simply disappeared because they ceased to become Jewish, and stopped practicing in any way, and much less did they pass anything on to their children. Thus we hear stories of hidden Jews, half-Jews, and people who find out that they are Jewish because of a cotton swab and a DNA analysis. Some of you in this place have told me stories of an older relative who admitted just before death that, by the way, your mom was Jewish, or that your grandfather’s name was actually Yankele.

 

You may have noted recent reporting on “Jewish tourism” that allows us modern, privileged, safe American Jews to trace their roots in Eastern Europe. A recent article[2] described a tourist’s realization that the icy parking lot where her bus had stopped in a remote Eastern European location was most likely located directly on top of her ancestors’ graves.

 

It has been observed that such tourism is depressing, and rather backward-looking. Such exploration of the Jewish past does not necessarily build its future – there used to be a strong argument that you should be Jewish so as to deny the Nazis the final victory, but that reasoning is not very compelling for today’s Jews.

 

That tourist in the icy parking lot, the one who is seeking her past in that Eastern European shtetl, describes herself as the descendants of Jews who gave up religion and became communists. It is true that many Jews, not long after emigrating to the United States, did not daven daily, but expressed their urgent sense of Jewish ethics by rising up against labor conditions and other capitalist predations, helping to establish new national norms such as labor unions, shorter work weeks, and safe working conditions. They also kept kosher homes, observed Jewish holy days, gave tzedakah, and supported Jewish communities and organizations both locally and worldwide.

 

Now, according to a story in the New York Times just this morning, there’s no real definition of a Jew any more, and everyone is sort of Jew-ish, since so many people feel “uprooted, wandered and dispersed.” The writer suggests that being Jewish “no longer corresponds to anything fixed. It’s not necessarily an identity. Better to call it a sensibility: the sensibility of whoever feels a bit unsure of who they are — a bit peculiar or out of place, a bit funny.”[3]

 

So tonight I find myself wondering just how this particular Jewish tourist, seeking her Jewish roots, might identify herself as Jewish. What is her Jewish observance? Does she practice? Was she born Jewish, so that she can trace a personal connection to ancestors who escaped the mass murder of their families? Does she keep kosher? give tzedakah? Or is she just feeling uprooted, wandered and dispersed”? How and on what basis does she define herself as Jewish when meeting the local Jewish communities over there, in the land where our ancestors lived and died because of their identity?

 

In other words, as our tradition asks us to consider on this night of nights: when she visits, who shall they say is calling?

 

  1. modeh Ani l’fanekha” – the Kotzker: but who is the “ani”?

 

You are standing at the door, and you knock. Someone asks “who is there?” and you say “I am.” And so this is the first question: who is the “I”?

 

“I” is an interesting word. It designates me alone, but it cannot be said by me alone unless you also share the definition of the word. Think about that for a moment. If I say yah, what do I mean? In Russian, I mean “I”, but in German, I mean “yes” and in Spanish I mean “already.” It’s a delicious irony that unless I am part of a community that shares a language, I cannot in words assert either my independence from, or my belonging to, community.

 

In Jewish tradition this existential question arises from some of the first words of the first of our morning prayers: modah ani l’fanekha, “I give thanks before You.”

 

A story: in 19th century Eastern Europe, the Kotzker Rebbe was known as a teacher and spiritual guide who insisted on honesty. He was fearless in his openness. Kotzk during his lifetime was not a place where you would go to hide from the truth you needed to learn.

 

It is said that one morning he joined the group praying in the shul and opened his own siddur. He began in the usual way with the opening words, modeh ani l’fanekha, and then stopped. For a long time he was silent, until his students noticed that he had stopped praying, and was simply standing there, lost in thought. Finally he looked up and said, “this ani, this ‘I’ – who is this? and what is the ‘before You’?” and he stopped, and prayed no more that day.[4]

 

Interestingly, in Hebrew you do not ask someone “what is your name?” you ask “how are you called?” To answer this question is not only to give your name; it is to know how you are named by others.

 

The lesson of the Kotzker Rebbe’s interrupted prayer is that you have to know who you are, or we might say, what you are called, before you fully exist in the world. A midrash suggests that the first human beings were partners with G*d in the act of creation, demonstrated in our Book Bereshit by G*d’s bringing the animals to the human beings so that the humans might name them. The message is that the animals did not fully exist until they were named. The implication is that this is also true for us. We do not fully exist until we know the answer to the question “who shall I say is calling?”

 

  1. Who is the Jewish ani?

 

How do you define a Jew? how do you define yourself? how do those definitions converge? How do you know?

 

The famous Israeli poet Zelda Mishkovsky wrote about names, in a poem included in our prayers on this Kol Nidre eve. In part, it reads “each of us has a name / given by the stars / and given by our neighbors.”[5]

 

For those born Jewish, that identity is a kind of destiny; for those who grew up in a Jewish family, there is a sort of low-key radar regarding who is Jewish. The person may do absolutely nothing in the way of Jewish practice, but yet that person is MOT, a “member of the tribe” and two Jews finding each other, whether on a mountain trail or at a downtown demonstration, know that somehow, they have something in common. You’re part of what is called amkha, a Hebrew word which literally means “Your people.”

 

When you grow into Judaism, having realized that you weren’t born that way but you are supposed to be a Jew, it’s all about the name “given by our neighbors.” Amkha again. So to become a Jew is to adopt the norms that Jews – your neighbors – will recognize in you as Jewish.

 

Story: “By you you’re a captain, by me you’re a captain, but sonny, by captains you’re no captain.”

 

It’s fascinating to consider the Talmud’s instructions for the case in which someone seeks to be Jewish. Two millennia ago it was written:

 

With regard to a potential convert who comes to a court in order to convert, at the present time, when the Jews are in exile, the judges of the court say to him: What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them? If he says: I know, and although I am unworthy of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so, then the court accepts him immediately to begin the conversion process.

 

The judges of the court inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot, and they inform him of the sin of neglecting the mitzvah to allow the poor to take gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and produce in the corner of one’s field, and about the poor man’s tithe. And they inform him of the punishment for transgressing the mitzvot, as follows: They say to him: Be aware that before you came to this status and converted, had you profaned Shabbat, you would not be punished by stoning, since this prohibition does not apply to gentiles. But now, once converted, if you profane Shabbat, you will be punished by stoning….

 

And they do not overwhelm him with threats, and they are not exacting with him about the details of the mitzvot, i.e., the court should not overly dissuade the convert from converting. ….

 

If he accepts upon himself all of these ramifications, [if it is a male], then they circumcise him immediately. … When he is healed from the circumcision, they immerse him immediately, and three Torah scholars stand over him at the time of his immersion and inform him of some of the lenient mitzvot and some of the stringent mitzvot. Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a born Jew in every sense.[6]

 

Have you noticed what’s missing from this series of requirements for conversion? There is no requirement to believe in the One G*d. That does not mean that belief doesn’t exist in Judaism; only that how we treat each other is held up as more immediately urgent in this time and context. Our actions in community are vital – how you think and what you believe should vary and waver as you go through your life, your experiences, your challenges.

 

That’s not to say that Judaism did not develop a series of beliefs, of course we did when the need presented itself. The great scholar Maimonides created Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were set to music as the Yigdal, which we will sing to conclude our Tefilah this evening.

 

But Jews know each other by what we do, not what we believe – except of course for the belief that what we do matters. Who is a Jew? Not one who davens, necessarily, but one who supports the Jewish community’s ability to daven – ideally, that means that even if you’re not a davener, you understand the power of making the minyan for those who need to daven.

 

A prayer minyan – our way of expressing critical mass – is a community symbolically made of ten Jews. They don’t necessarily all love the Rabbi, or the tune chosen by the prayer leader for the Ashrei, but they take for granted that Jews support Jewish community. The community holds our common sense of who we are and allows us to affirm each other. It also keeps track of time for us, guarding our memories and reminders and teachings, all that we need to know and couldn’t possibly keep track of alone.

 

Who shall I say is calling?

 

Zelda’s poem also includes this line: “each of us has a name / given by our celebrations.” How we mark time – how we celebrate it – is also, for Jews, a calling card. As we saw in the Talmudic text, you can tell a Jew by what they do – and don’t do – on Shabbat.

 

If you as a Jew know what to do on Shabbat, or on a holy day, in shul, or at home, think about how secure in your Jewish identity you feel. After a meal someone hands you a bencher or offers you another honor, and you can accept it, and feel honored.

 

But how uncomfortable it can feel to be in a place where everyone else knows what they are doing – except for you. There is a certain stress in knowing that no one there is going to mistake you for someone who belongs. That, in turn, may put a certain stress on your spiritual growth.

 

And the irony is that there’s no secret Jewish handshake, for Shabbat or anything else. This congregation’s entire reason for existence is to help us help each other to engage, explore, enjoy – and so grow spiritually.

 

The challenge, as Jewish tradition teaches it, is that coming to know myself actually requires getting out of my own way. The more I focus on myself, how I feel, what I know – the less I can focus on what I need to learn from the experience of us together.

 

  1. each of us has a name

 

In the days after last November’s election, our office received random phone calls from people who just wanted us to know that they supported us Jews. My first reaction was “who me?” No, really, others are far more endangered than I am.

 

Then last November I sat down with a couple that wanted my help to think about how to raise their children. One was Jewish, one Christian – and I do mean committed, active Christian. The Jew, on the other hand, told me that it was feelings of guilt that caused the meeting: how will my grandparents and parents feel if my kids aren’t Jews? but there was no real sense of commitment on the part of this Jew to Judaism, and no current practice.

 

A few years ago I would have encouraged this couple to explore Jewish practice before giving up on it. But this past winter another reality emerged: raising your kids as Jews now requires you to be aware that you are raising them to be noticeable, different, and vulnerable. That takes á priori commitment. If it ever was, choosing Judaism is not now simply choosing an attractive flavor or fashion or fad.

 

If we Jews are going to be singled out as we were in Charlottesville and will be again, shouldn’t we know what for? If we are going to be oppressed or persecuted or G*d forbid killed, should it not be for something we believe in deeply, and are fully committed to?

 

It was when I lived in Jerusalem that I first saw people living the teaching that life is not worth anything unless it is lived with a sense of purpose. It was there that I first heard people say that they refused to change their personal behaviors, such as riding the bus to work every day, even though buses were a favorite target of suicide bombers. To stop riding the bus would be “to let the terrorists win.”

 

Someone wiser than me has already said it: if there is in your life nothing worth dying for, then really, there is nothing worth living for. And if one is a Jew, the way to define that sense of self really has nothing to do with ancestors, and everything to do with the choices we make for ourselves and in our communities.

 

We have all day tomorrow to consider how we identify ourselves as Jews, and to consider how others identify us, as individuals and as part of our Jewish communities – here at Shir Tikvah, in Portland’s larger Jewish community, nationally, and also, of course, over there in Israel.

 

This makhzor of ours is a carefully developed entry into an intergenerational conversation, for us to engage with other Jews who have prayed these same prayers for centuries. Throughout the book there are kavvanot, “intentions,” bits added here and there to help us focus on the meaning of the prayers. Our own minhag is to continue adding kavvanot in the form of poetry and prose that we take turns reading, so that we may more deeply experience the sense of being part of this day. So let’s use it fully.

 

On this Yom Kippur of 5778, I invite you to set your own intention for your existence, just as if it were a somewhat mysterious and ancient book that nevertheless contains the story of your life. You know, like that book in which we hope to be sealed for life after this day. The thought of that symbolic book usefully reminds us that none of us knows how much time we have. As it is said in our tradition, “do not say when I have time I will study. Perhaps you will not have time.”

 

Seize the day while you have it: to find your way to more deeply and meaningfully to explore the name and identity of Jew (or as one who loves a Jew) as you bear it, through celebration and learning.

 

Take the time while you have it, to re-organize your life so that you spend more of it meaningfully and purposefully doing what defines it. There is still time for you to decide that you want your life’s identity to be shaped by you, not by social media, public advertising, or applicable affinity groups.

 

There is even still time for you to join me in visiting Israel next spring, where you can learn more about being a Jew in a week than you can anywhere else in a year.  I urge you to consider it.

 

My hope and prayer for you and me here today is that there is still time in our lives to discover what we mean when we answer the question. Who shall I say is calling?

 

(finish with Zelda poem – p. 240, green sticker)

[1] Jean-Paul Satre, Réflexions sur la question juive, 1946

[2] Charly Wilder, “Seeking the Shtetl: a Writer Looks for her Jewish Past” New York Times 9/24/17

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/opinion/sunday/we-are-all-jewish.html?mcubz=0

[4] Emet v’Emunah, Menakhem Mendel of Kotzk, 101 n.647

[5] Zelda, L’kol Ish Yesh Shem, Translation: 2004, Marcia Lee Falk, The Spectacular Difference Publisher: Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 2004, 0-87820-222-6

[6] BT Yevamot 47a-b

After Another Tragedy, Remembering Dawn and Mary

Once again we find ourselves silenced by the horrified recognition that once again this has happened, as we all knew that it would happen, again. We who are alive today, who so recently chanted the words “who by fire, who by water,” we once again see that the world we live in is punctuated by random and lethal violence.

Here is a reading that I could not find room for when we gathered together on Yom Kippur. Now I know why: it was meant for you and me to read today.

Especially today, let’s be there for each other. Take a moment to breathe away from the news and the computer, and go hug someone you love. Feel love. Feel alive. Then let’s get back to it. We need you, and we need to be together – kol yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, “all Jews are reliable, each for each other.”

May we never forget them, and all like them – and may we soon see a day when their heroism is a thing of an incredible, unbelievable, faraway past.

 

Dawn And Mary

Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a Connecticut grade school were in a meeting. The meeting had been underway for about five minutes when they heard a chilling sound in the hallway. (We heard pop-pop-pop, said one of the staffers later.)

Most of them dove under the table. That is the reasonable thing to do, what they were trained to do, and that is what they did.

But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs and ran toward the sound of bullets. Which word you use depends on which news account of that morning you read, but the words all point in the same direction — toward the bullets.

One of the staffers was the principal. Her name was Dawn. She had two daughters. Her husband had proposed to her five times before she’d finally said yes, and they had been married for ten years. They had a vacation house on a lake. She liked to get down on her knees to paint with the littlest kids in her school.

The other staffer was a school psychologist named Mary. She had two daughters. She was a football fan. She had been married for more than thirty years. She and her husband had a cabin on a lake. She loved to go to the theater. She was due to retire in one year. She liked to get down on her knees to work in her garden.

Dawn the principal told the teachers and the staffers to lock the door behind them, and the teachers and the staffers did so after Dawn and Mary ran out into the hall.

You and I have been in that hallway. We spent seven years of our childhood in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing, and when someone opens the doors at the end, a wind comes and flutters all the paintings and posters on the walls.

Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies — bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger — must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day. That’s how you stay alive to paint with the littlest kids and work in the garden and hug your daughters and drive off laughing to your cabin on the lake.

But they leapt for the door, and Dawn said, Lock the door after us, and they lunged right at the boy with the rifle.

The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings.

They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and

if we ever forget their names,

if we ever forget the wind in that hallway,

if we ever forget what they did,

if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children,

if we ever forget that all children are our children,

then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too,

and what good are we then?

What good are we then?

–   by BRIAN DOYLE

Rosh HaShanah 5778 – the Shofar’s call: Get Woke

 Shanah Tovah!

 

Tomorrow we will gather to experience one of the most important spiritual moments of this day that we call Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. That experience is the sounding of the Shofar. Although it may not seem to us to be the ultimate purpose of our sacred gathering, the sounding of the ram’s horn (or antelope, or kudu) is actually the oldest ritual associated with this day.

 

The Torah calls today shabbaton zikhron Teru’ah, mikra kodesh, which we translate as:

  1. a Shabbat-day, meaning a day of rest no matter what day of the week it is
  2. a day to remember the sound of teru’ah, one of the three Shofar sounds we will hear tomorrow
  3. a day for a holy gathering

 

 וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying:
 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן–זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ. Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, the first day of the month shall be a holy day of rest for you, a remembrance of the teru’ah, a day for a sacred gathering.[1]

 

Interestingly, today is not the first day of the Jewish calendar year. When we call it Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, we are asserting the significance of this day. But we get the emphasis wrong: we don’t sound the Shofar because it’s the beginning of our spiritual year: it is the beginning of the year because we s0und the Shofar on this day.

 

Our tradition[2] declares this the day on which the world itself is born, and born again, and born anew. That’s not because we can calculate the physics back to the big bang, but rather, it’s an aspirational statement. An ancient Talmudic story promises us that this day can be the beginning of the world for each of us, and for all of us – if we learn to listen to what we must be able to hear in order to bring about such a blessed renewal – and, apparently, also manage to remember what we have heard. Zikron teru’ah, the remembrance of the sound of the Shofar.[3]

 

But what are we to remember? Our Tanakh attests to the importance of the Shofar at peak moments such as this in our history. Its different sounds all demand attention. The Shofar is a sound of alarm; it declares a moment of great intensity. The sound of the Shofar accompanied the great moment when we became aware of the presence of G*d at Sinai[4] – and according to one old story about that day, the Shofar served, literally, as a wake-up call, since our ancestors had fallen asleep in the meantime.[5]

 

The great Jewish scholar Maimonides, or, as we call him, Rambam, teaches that meaning of the shofar is this: WAKE UP. Or, as it is said on the streets of the United States in these days, it’s time to “get woke.”

 

This term, which is associated with the Movement for Black Lives, is defined as “a cultural push to challenge problematic norms, systemic injustices, and the overall status quo through complete awareness….the phrase itself is an encouragement for people to wake up, and question dogmatic social norms.”[6]

 

Rambam would have agreed. He writes that the shofar calls to each of us saying: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep! Consider your deeds…do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows, and waste their years seeking after that which is empty.” (MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

 

The Shofar calls to us to be sensitive to what is true and what is not. It calls us to wake up to see how we can be socially manipulated, and how our acts, thus influenced, participate in oppression of ourselves and others. The Shofar calls us to wake up to our own potential to act to heal the world.

In short, the Shofar is calling upon us to get woke, to act woke, and to stay woke.

 

  1. Shevarim: Get Woke

 

It is written: * The Presence of G*d was manifest upon Mt Sinai, and the voice of the shofar was heard, sounding louder and louder through the thunder and smoke.[7] *

 

Consider the voice of the shofar, this strange and harsh sound. By Jewish law we are not allowed to mellow the sound by affixing a mouthpiece to the simple animal horn; there is to be no artificial barrier between breath and lips and horn and sound.

 

It’s not easy to make a clear, clean sound come from this simple instrument. It would be so much easier with a mouthpiece, like that from a bugle. But when this horn sounds, it is a sound like no other – it is a sound like the sound of the truth, when you hear it.

 

Sometimes the truth we need to hear is terrible to hear. Ancient midrash describes the shevarim notes of the Shofar, three “broken” notes, as yelalah: a Hebrew word describing the sound of unanswered anguish. This is a cry that echoes in a silent, cold, uncaring void. It is a wail of hopelessness.

 

The midrash offers a painful interpretation of what our people remembers when we hear the shevarim call of the Shofar. This interpretive midrash relates to the Torah reading, the one we find so terribly difficult to understand: the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The Torah relates that Abraham hears G*d commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and at the last moment, his hand is stayed by a messenger of G*d, an angel. A ram is sacrificed instead. The story is terrible enough, but of course there’s more – we need to know where was Sarah? As it is, the next story the Torah relates is that of her death. The midrash fills in, using the figure of the satan, the personification of the evil among us:

When Abraham came from Mt Moriah, the satan was furious that he had failed to realize the sacrifice of Isaac. What did he do? he went off and found Sarah. “Ah, Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world?” She replied, “no.” He said, “your old husband has taken the boy and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness.” Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She …wailed three times, corresponding to the broken notes of the Shofar. Then she died, and Abraham came home and found her dead.[8]

 

In this midrash, the satan creates fake news, causing Sarah to imagine this horrible scene, and as a direct result, she dies, in agony. Sarah imagines Isaac’s death cries, cries of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces. The shevarim is the sound of the living creature that cannot be saved from death. Sarah, also held by an anguish that she cannot survive, echoes his cries.[9]

 

According to the midrash, it is these cries that we re-enact in the ritual of the Shofar. The text concludes that “the Shofar blasts on the New Year transform Sarah’s death into atonement, because the broken Shofar tone is a sound of groaning and wailing.”[10]

 

This atonement comes through hearing, and through remembering. The Shofar calls in the voice of the murdered. The shevarim reminds us that we have heard the hopeless wail of the tragically bereaved – it challenges us to remember that we have heard it, in the world, and in our own community.

 

The Torah’s version of the Akedah seems to offer some veneer of comfort over the horror of the story, since Isaac was saved and a ram was sacrificed in his place. But Sarah was not saved, and in her mind Isaac is not saved, and thus the cry of her despair, and his, is retained in this ritual, as “atonement” for her descendants.

 

The requirement of atonement is that we get woke to the terrible truth: children are dying. The hand that holds the knife is not being stayed. There is no comfort for this pain, and there can be no atonement that allows us to turn away from it.

 

  1. Teru’ah: Act Woke

 

The second sound of the Shofar is the teru’ah. According to Jewish tradition,

 

* It was because of the sounding of the Shofar that the wall of Jerikho fell, as it is written, “when the people heard the kol shofar, they shouted a teru’ah gedolah, a “great teru’ah,” and the wall fell down flat.”[11] *

 

In this account of the fall of Jerikho, the Shofar is sounded, but it is the people who make the sound called teru’ah, the staccato blast that is the second sound of the Shofar. Just as Sarah gave voice to the shevarim, so do her descendants call out the teru’ah. The voice of a mother who died helplessly in a cry of pain is answered here by children who remember that pain, and who call out their response, their connection.

 

Our makhzor includes this line from Psalms about the teru’ah: “happy is the people who know the joyful sound.”[12] In our so far rather horrifying investigation of the meaning of Shofar sounds, we might well be justified in asking WHAT joyful sound? So far the voice of the Shofar seems to evoke nothing but death and destruction.

 

But the teru’ah is a call quite different from the brokenness of the shevarim. The shevarim is a cry of anguish, and the teru’ah, in our tradition, is the sound of a cry of two states of being, both a shriek that knows loss, and a cry that seeks connection despite loss, through the experience of loss.[13] Rather than a cry of helpless hopelessness, it is a cry of pain and outrage. Outrage is, after all, the first step toward changing one’s situation – or the world’s.

 

To cry out in teru’ah is to hear a call of helplessness and to respond; it is to act woke. Acting “woke” is to behave in a way that, according to one source, “is radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”[14] But not so as to sit back in cynical detachment – no, for Jews, acting woke must mean to act.

 

This does not necessarily mean that all will rise up to act together as one. As the teru’ah is made of nine separate notes, so we, as we raise our voices, do not all sound the same. That is why there is such a diversity of organizations that have formed to lift up the voices and concerns of different groups in our society. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts it, there are (at least) four ways of acting woke, just as there are four children of the Haggadah. There are: (1) the one who is overwhelmed, (2) the one who laments, (3) the one who negotiates, and (4) the one who resists. All four face the same reality: “Right now in America, we’re living in dangerous and unacceptable times. It’s precisely in times like these when we discover who we are as a people, as a society, as a nation. We don’t get to choose the historical moment we live in, but we do get to choose how we respond.”[15]

 

To learn from the Jerikho example, to act woke is to do what is necessary to tear down walls. There are stubborn personal walls of believing too much of what we read and hear in our media, in our government institutions, and in our own circles that we call progressive, and just. There are strong political walls built of our assumptions regarding the responsibilities of citizens for the acts of government. And there are massive social walls built out of our habits of work and play, of consuming and discarding, of comfort and convenience.

 

To act woke as an act of teru’ah is to find a way to hear and to remember the terrible shevarim that shatters our comfort, and also to be able to hear “the joyful sound.” It is at one and the same time to seek a compassionate balance between our understandable desire to live happy lives, and the understanding that some are denied that basic human desire. That is the teru’ah, the sound that responds to shevarim with recognition and affirmation, and yet insists on the hope that we can find a way to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, according others the respect and freedom of choice we seek for ourselves. In so doing we are woke if, in the Rambam’s words, we do the work to look beyond the shadows, toward the truth.

 

  1. Tekiah: Stay Woke

 

Now, you may be one of those who is annoyed by the halakha which directs that the Shofar is not sounded on Shabbat. After all, you might say, if the Shofar’s sound is so integral to the meaning of the holy day, it should be sounded no matter what day of the week it is.

 

It is the poignant truth that it was only after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple that the sounding of the Shofar was restricted. According to a 14th century source, there was one place where the Shofar was still sounded on Shabbat until the 11th century, and that was in the community of the great Rabbi Isaac Alfasi. The 19th century Rabbi of Kotzk explained this based on a Talmudic teaching:

 

From the day of the destruction of the Temple, the Holy Blessed One has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakha. The four cubits of halakhah take the place of the Temple, in which the Shofar was sounded on Shabbat; and in the days of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the entirety of the four cubits of Jewish meaning in the world were concentrated in his community.[16]

 

The voice of the Shofar hasn’t been heard on Shabbat since. For us to assert that we ought to blow off a millennium of tradition and sound the Shofar on Shabbat, then, we would have to have the hutzpah to say that the four cubits of meaning in our day are concentrated in our community. Better, maybe, for our hopes for atonement, to maintain the humility of a tradition that reminds us that the world is not yet redeemed, and that we are not yet all woke.

 

It’s not all humility, brokenness, and sin on this day, though. On this day of Rosh HaShanah we hear one more sound, and that is the Teki’ah. Teki’ah is a term used for celebration, as in another Psalm quoted in our makhzor: tik’u bakhodesh shofar, bakeseh, l’yom hageynu, “sound the Teki’ah at the new moon, in its hiddenness, for the day of celebration”[17]

 

It is interesting to note that this verse is not talking about something we can see and celebrate, such as a full moon, but rather the celebration of something which is hidden – a moon mostly lost in darkness because it is yet new. We can’t see it yet, but it is there. Jewish mysticism teaches that “there is an outcry within the heart that the lips cannot speak….this is the meaning of the verse ‘sound the shofar on the new moon, in the hiddenness of our celebration’.”[18] The Teki’ah calls us to celebrate something new, something hidden that cannot yet be fully seen – the answer we do not yet have, the happiness we have not yet seen, the justice we have not yet known.

 

There is a source cited in search of the earliest antecedent for the term woke. In 1940 the Atlantic Monthly ran an interview about a mineworkers strike in which an African American United Mine Workers official said to a reporter, “Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.”[19]

 

At this time of renewal for the world and ourselves, it might well be said that for Jews to stay woke is to be newly open to the horror, as well as the beauty, of this world – to hear the terrible grief in the shevarim, and the teru’ah of responsive hope, and the teki’ah of celebrating that which can yet be. On Rosh HaShanah the Shofar urges us to see that the way to atonement is not through forgetting, nor turning away from pain and discomfort. There’s a reason why most Jewish legends are in the form of quests, and difficult ones at that: justice and wholeness do not come easily to us. Yet these quests all have miraculous moments, when it seems as if all the forces of good support our efforts, if only we make them.

 

There’s a final Shofar sound that we will hear during these days of Awe only twice, once on Rosh HaShanah and once to end Yom Kippur: the Teki’ah Gedolah, the great Teki’ah. * It is said that, at the End of Days, this sound will announce the end of homelessness in the world: “a Teki’ah gedolah shall be sounded, and they shall come that were lost in Assyria, and those who were dispersed in Egypt, and they shall all come home to Jerusalem, and give thanks.”[20]

 

On this Rosh HaShanah let the Shofar call you to remember the joyful sound of being able to respect the reality of both sadness and hope, and to respect their rightful places in your life’s beliefs and practices. Let the Shofar’s call awaken you to rededication to the vision of a world in which everyone is home, everyone is safe, and everyone is free to seek the birth and flowering of the holy potential of each of our lives.

 

It will take a lot of wakefulness to get there from here. There are a lot of walls to bring down, and many tears yet to dry.

 

The Shofar calls to us: wake up. Get woke, act woke, stay woke.

 

Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu, may you be written for a good year.

 

[1] Leviticus 23.23-24

[2] BT Rosh HaShanah 27a, among others

[3] BT Sanhedrin 98a

[4] Exodus 19.19

[5] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 41

[6] Raven Cras, “What does it mean to be Woke?” Blavity https://blavity.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke/

[7] Exodus 19.19

[8] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 32, cited in Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, 124

[9] Zornberg, ibid.

[10] Midrash Aggadah Bereshit 23.17

[11] Joshua 6.20

[12] Psalm 89.16

[13] Yalkut Tehillim 89.16

[14] David Brooks, How Cool Works in America Today”, New York Times, July 25, 2017 //www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/how-cool-works-in-america-today.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

[15] http://www.jewishaction.us/sites/default/files/bend_the_arc_-_4_responses_to_unacceptable_times.pdf

[16] S.Y. Agnon Days of Awe (NY 1948) 80-81.

[17] Psalm 81.4

[18] Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, 345

[19] Redding, J. Saunders (March 1943). “A Negro Speaks for His People”. The Atlantic Monthly171, p. 59

[20] Isaiah 27.13

Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Looking Back to See Ahead

What a year 5777 was. Do you remember back, past last November? The presidential election came as such a tremendous surprise to so many that it makes last High Holy Days – only a year ago – seem as if that time belongs to another world.
Interestingly enough, if we look farther back, we may be able to discern more clearly. Jewish tradition teaches that the farther back one looks, the clearer our perspective becomes on the way forward.
“You have to understand the ways in which you are an heir before you can become a pioneer,” said the Jewish theologian Dr Byron Sherwin ז״ל. This teaching resonates more deeply than it has for years with for many Jews who, since last fall, find ourselves seeking a rock of certainty on which to depend in this time when American identity – and the Jewish place within it – are under attack. And indeed, the identity of a Jew living in the United States is not more than 150 years for most of the American Jewish community (392 years at most, since that’s when the first documented Jews landed in New Amsterdam from Recife of Brazil).
400 years tops, more likely 200 or less, is only a blip on the radar of Jewish existence. Almost everything we do is older than that. For example, the practice of kabbalat Shabbat, the singing of special songs to welcome Shabbat (such as Lekha Dodi),is older than that (created in Sfat, Israel in 1579).
It is really only in the past century that Jews have developed a sense of being part of the United States, even less than that since we began to feel our American-ness more prominent than our Jewishness. We only have to look around at our communities to see just how American we have become (and so quickly). We’re so comfortable that we laugh at those who warn that this comfort may only be temporary. We’re Americans, after all!
The shock of not being fully accepted is painful, whether it’s because our holy days are ignored (a difficulty which unfortunately many of us have abetted) or because when we seek to practice the values of our Jewish social ethics in support of American social justice, we are not always welcomed – and sometimes are greeted with anti-Semitism.
On the last week of Torah study for 5777 our Torah offers us the chance to seek perspective further away from us – all the way to the mountains of Moab, where Moshe stands and, one more time, invites the people of Israel to understand the Covenant of which they are a part. Moshe attempts to get our ancestors to consider a longer perspective than simply their own lives. What they do will reverberate through time to come.
וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי, כֹּרֵת אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת-הָאָלָה,הַזֹּאת Not only with you do I make this covenant and this promise today,
כִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹקינוּ וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם with those that stand here with us this day before HaShem our G*d, but also with those who are not here with us today (Deut.29.13-14)
On this Shabbat we are urged to consider the ways in which our actions will reverberate forward and outward, of course – that is a perennial Torah teaching. But on this Shabbat in this year it is also useful to consider the perspective from which we have come. When all about us is chaotic and the American democratic compact is under such stress, there is a far more ancient plumbline which hangs nearby for you to measure your life by, and a far more ancient Covenant to which you belong: the social justice vision of our prophets, the ethical teachings of our Torah, and the living wisdom of our people.
This too is Torah, and we need to learn it.