Archive for the ‘Torah Portion’ category

Family Feud

September 18, 2012

Every year on Rosh Hashanah morning I base my sermon on the text of the Torah portion; the story of the Binding of Isaac.  Every year, I attempt to look at the story from a different angle and draw a different lesson from this remarkable account.

Two years ago, I focused my remarks not on Abraham and Isaac but rather on the “na’arav,” the servants or youths who accompanied them to Mount Moriah.  At that time I pointed out that the rabbis who wrote the commentaries and the Midrash were in general agreement that these two special young people who had the privilege of accompanying Abraham and Isaac were none other than Eliezer – the servant Abraham ultimately would send to acquire a wife for Isaac – and Ishmael – Isaac’s half-brother; Abraham’s older son from Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.

As I did two years ago, I wish to turn our attention to Ishmael, for Ishmael is a unique and very important character in the story of our people, not only then in our early days, but today as well.  For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Abraham through Isaac, the Arab world traces it lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael.  Arabs and Jews, we are family.  We are all the children of Abraham.  While we Jews have followed the path of Isaac, the Arabs have followed the path of Ishmael.

As we all know, in this world there are families and then there are families.  There are families in which their members are bound one to the other by indestructible bonds.  Then there are families in which their members each go their own separate ways, acknowledging their connections, one to the other, but not really feeling those connections in their hearts.  And then there are families in which their members are steeped in bitterness and anger one toward the other because of old wrongs, both real and imagined; families at war with themselves.

Sad to say, our family is just that; a family at war with itself.  Arabs and Jews, we find ourselves caught in the midst of a family feud, the roots of which are thousands of year old.  The roots of which go back all the way to the days of Isaac and Ishmael.

In the very same Torah portion in which we find the text of the Binding of Isaac, we find another account as well; an important text in understanding the roots of our family feud.  According to this text, Sarah saw Ishmael doing something, and it distressed her greatly.  Indeed, she was so distressed that she went straight to Abraham and insisted that he send Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away and do so immediately.  And so he did.

One of the questions the rabbis ask is, “What is it that Sarah saw?”  The Torah text simply states that she saw Ishmael “metzachek,” which in modern Hebrew simply means “playing.”  As you can imagine, it is the meaning of that term, “Metzachek” over which the rabbis have struggled throughout the ensuing years.   We do not have to look very far to get a taste of their debates.  We only have to look to the trans­lation or translations of the Torah most popularly accepted by the English speaking Jewish world; those published by the Jewish Publication Society.  Many synagogues, mine included, provide copies of the Torah translation for the worshipers to refer to while the Torah is being read.  Those translations more often than not are the most recent one published by the Jewish Publication Society.  It is the most recent but it is not the first.  Rather it is the third.  The translation in those books was first published in 1962.  Prior to that, the Jewish Publication Society published two other translations; one in 1884 and the other in 1917.  In the 1884 translation, “metzachek” was translated as “mocking” while in 1917 it was translated as “making sport.”  It was not until 1962 that it was translated as “playing.”

Why is the translation of “metzachek” so important?  Because it is the key to understanding why it was that Sarah insisted that Abraham tear his family apart and create the rift which is the foundation of the family feud which we experience to this day between Arabs and Jews.  The 1884 translation reflected the interpretation that Sarah witnessed Ishmael “mocking” Isaac while the 1917 reflected the interpretation that Ishmael was making fun of Isaac.  While the 1962 translation does use the word “playing” still in the Midrash and commentaries that support the use of that interpretation, there is found the opinion that while Ishmael may have been befriending Isaac through play, he was also using his friendship to exert an undo influence over him.  Whichever way the rabbis fell in the debates over the meaning of that one word, where they all came together was that whatever Sarah saw, in it she saw that Ishmael posed some significant threat to Isaac’s well being, and therefore needed to be expelled from the camp; ousted from the family circle.

Ishmael’s supposed threat, along with Sarah’s & Abraham’s very painful rejection, sowed the seeds for the animosity we experience today between Arabs and Jews.  For 4,000 years we have each looked at the other, with anger and with hatred, as the enemy; as the one who has done us harm in the past and will do us harm in the future.  This has become so ingrained in us that even if we seriously looked back to the roots of this hostility, seeking to understand its genesis, still there are so many years of ill will that it seems near impossible to repair it.  Here in America we look to the Hatfields and the McCoys as a classic example of a family feud, but when compared to the Arabs and the Jews, they were mere novices.

Now reason dictates that we should be able set aside our differences and seek a peaceful resolution to our conflict.  However, reason plays a very small role in what goes on in the Middle East.  Indeed, much of the hatred which exists is pure mindless hatred.  It is hatred based upon generations of hatred.  While we American Jews would like to believe that Israel is more open to seeking reasonable solutions with its neighbors, still there are many in Israel who hate the Arabs as virulently and as blindly as the Arabs hate us.  Literally a month ago, on August 16th, there was a despicable incident in Zion Square in Jerusalem, in which a mob of Jewish teenagers beat a 17 year old Palestinian boy to within an inch of his life while hundreds of Israeli merely looked on, doing nothing to intervene.  While 8 teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 19, have been arrested for this attack, one of them, a 14 year old whose name has been withheld because he is a minor, and who is considered to be the one who delivered the critical blow to the victim, shortly after his arrest, said to reporters, “For my part, he can die; he’s an Arab.”

In addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict, we Jews have always been quick to point an accusing finger at all those Arab imams who week after week preach bloody hatred of Jews from their pulpits, and we have been completely justified in doing so.  However, in the aftermath of the beating of this Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, our attention has been turned in another direction as well.  It has been turned toward rabbis who likewise preach hate.  Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of Reform Judaism’s Israel Religious Action Center, has challenged the Israeli government to take criminal action against some 50 state-employed Israeli rabbis, not the least of whom is none other than Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of S’fat (Safed), who regularly preach anti-Arab hatred from their pulpits, in blatant disregard for Israeli law which clearly states that racist incitement is a criminal offense.  But what else can you call it when these rabbis deliver messages such as “don’t rent or sell apartments to Arabs” or “All Arabs have a violent nature”?  So blind hatred is not exclusively the purview of the Arabs.  The Jews have enough of it to go around as well.

All that being said, in the Jewish world, and in Israel in particular, we do hear more voices of moderation.  There is more hand-wringing and soul searching after events such as what happened in Zion Square than when the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.  For there are those who recognize that this cycle of violence, this cycle of anger, this cycle of hatred has to be broken.  If only there were more in the Arab world that shared such a recognition and were courageous enough to be outspoken about it.  But even if there are, the anger and the hatred is so deep-seated in the Arab world that to so speak out is to literally put one’s life and the lives of one’s family members at risk.

So more often than not, Israel finds itself with no choice but to act defensively in the face of unmitigated hatred.  Their desire for peace does not, nor should it, require them to commit any act of national suicide.

Such is the situation in which Israel finds itself today when it comes to Iran.  While Israel would prefer peace; would prefer to put an end to this family feud, the political leadership of Iran will have none of it.  For years now, the Ayatollah leadership of Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab have spewed upon the world their messages of antisemitism and hatred of Israel.  Time and again, they have not threatened but promised to wipe Israel off the map; to utterly destroy what they call “the Zionist entity.”  True to a history of deep seated prejudice, you never hear them explain why they feel this way.  They just do.  Hatred of Jews – hatred of Israel – is simply a given in their lives.  When it comes to Israel, they see no alternative but to seek out its destruction, for they are lost in the family feud; caught up in the cycle of hate.

It has been to this end that the Iranian government has avidly pursued the development of nuclear weapons and they have made it abundantly clear that they have one goal in mind; to use those weapons in their quest to wipe Israel off the map.  This goal they have never kept secret.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, just last month a member of the Iranian Parliament announced, “This nuclear weapon is meant to create a balance of terror with Israel, to finish off the Zionist enterprise.”  Echoing those same sentiments, President Ahmadinejad said, “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.”

As we all know, the Iranians are not the first to proclaim as their goal the desire to wipe out the Jews.  There is a laundry list of others who have preceded them: the Crusaders, the Cossacks, the Nazis.  And each of them tried their best to accomplish their goal.  So for us Jews, when there are those who threaten to destroy us, we have good cause to take their threats seriously.  How much the more so should Israel take Iran’s threats seriously, taking into consideration that they are born out of our 4,000 year old family feud!

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Washington, D.C., attending a conference of 120 rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish religious life, sponsored by AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  As you can imagine, the main topic for consideration was the immediate tangible threat which Iran poses to the continued existence of the State of Israel.  That day we heard from many speakers, both from the left and from the right – speakers of note such as William Cristol and Dennis Ross, not to mention Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.  What was remarkable was that despite their varying political orientations, with nuanced differences, they arrived at the same conclusions.  And their bottom line was that unless the Iranian leadership can be convinced to break out of this lockstep mentality of hatred for Israel – unless they can be convinced to break out of the family feud mind set – there will be a war and it will be soon, perhaps even before our November elections.  For no matter what the United States chooses to do, Israel will never and can never permit Iran to take its nuclear development to a point beyond which Israel will no longer be able to take actions to stop them.  The frightening reality is that today in Israel, those who make plans are planning for several scenarios, all of which include the likelihood that no matter which way Israel turns, she will have to endure a significant number of civilian casualties.  For if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will have to conduct a counter-strike.  Yet if Israel doesn’t strike Iran, and Iran is permitted to continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions, the cost in Israeli casualties will be phenomenally higher.  As the cycle of violence continues, both sides may find themselves drawing blood and bleeding as the result of a 4,000 year old family feud.

As hopeless as the whole matter seems, our meeting closed with an excellent presentation and a ray of hope brought to us by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic.  Wieseltier reminded us of a statement once made by David Ben Gurion.  Back in the 30’s, when Ben Gurion was asked what the Jewish community in Palestine was going to do about the British White Paper, which eliminated Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when European Jews desperately needed to flee from the Nazis, Ben Gurion responded: “We will fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler, and we will fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper.”  What he was saying was that we Jews do not have the luxury to face one issue at a time.  We have to face and juggle them all.  In other words, as long as this family feud presents us with fundamental threats to our continued existence, we must confront those threats.  However, even as we confront those threats – militarily, if necessary – we still must commit ourselves to make every effort to bring to an end this family feud and break through the walls of hatred, on both sides, which have been erected over 4 millennia.

May God help us find a way to transform age old anger into peace.

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Counting Jews

May 30, 2012

This past Shabbat, we began the reading of another book of the Torah.  In Hebrew that book is called BAMIDBAR, which means “In the Wilderness” but in English it has another name – NUMBERS.

Why the difference between the Hebrew and the English names?  It is a matter of culture.

In the ancient culture of the Jewish people, books, and indeed weekly Torah portions were named after the first significant uncommon word in the text.  Tonight’s text begins with the statement “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe bamidbar Sinai” – “Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”  While, of course, the words “Adonai” and “Moshe” are unquestionably more significant than “bamidbar,” still since so many sentences in the Torah begin with the phrase “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe” we skip it and go to the next significant word.  Ergo “Bamidbar.”

The English title of Torah books follows the Greek tradition of giving them names which are more reflective of their content and theme.  Indeed, with the exception of the book of NUMBERS, the more familiar names of the other books of the Torah are actually their Greek names – GENESIS, EXODUS, etc.

So why is the book of NUMBERS called the book of NUMBERS?  Because it begins with a taking of a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness.  This census is taken in the second year of their sojourn in the wilderness and it is taken tribe by tribe, and included all males twenty years of age and older.  According to the text, the total count was 603,550.

This is not the first time in our history that Jews were counted.  There is an earlier census in the book of EXODUS which comes up with an identical number.  Then, of course, we see in the very beginning of the book of EXODUS that the number of Jews accompanying Jacob into Egypt were 70.

It would appear that counting Jews is a longstanding practice among out people; one which we still seriously engage in today.  It remains very important for us to know the numbers: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?  6 million.  How many Jews live in Israel? – 5,931,000.  How many Jews live in the United States? – 6,588,065.  How many Jews live in the Quad Cities? – approximately 800.  How many Jews belong to Temple Emanuel? – Approximately 155 households.  How many Jews attend our religious school? – 63.  How many Jews attend Shabbat services – sadly usually under 20.  There is no question but that in Jewish life we are always playing the numbers game.

But perhaps for all these millennia, we’ve had it all wrong.  Perhaps rather than focusing our attention on counting Jews we ought to be focusing it on whether or not our Jews count.

This, my friends, is both a private concern and a community concern.

Privately, each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, “As a Jew, how much do I count?  Have I made my life into a Jewish presence?  Have I consciously applied my Jewish values in the daily conduct of my life?  As a Jew, have I stood up and been counted, when it really counts?  When my days on earth are over and I am physically gone, will my presence on this planet have counted for any good?”  It is simply not enough for us to be counted among the Jews.  If our lives, as Jews, are to have any purpose whatsoever, then we need to be counted on as Jews.  We need to be there, living our lives as lives of mitzvot, both the ethical mitzvot and the ritual mitzvot.  We cannot just talk about Torah.  If we are to count as Jews, we need to live Torah.

Just as we need to make sure that we count as individual Jews, we also need to insure that our Jewish community also counts, and counts as a Jewish community.  Just as we as individuals need to be there, our Jewish community needs to be there.  As a community, we need to be up front and visible, presenting to the world around us a model of what it means for a community to operate according to Jewish values.  We need to make of our community, a community which is proud of its Judaism; not just privately or secretly proud but publicly proud.  As a Jewish community, we have nothing to be ashamed of.  Quite the contrary!  We should wear the badge of our Jewish identity with pride.

Just as we, as individuals, must have our every action influenced by our Jewish values, so should we as a community have our every action influenced by those values.  Our community should be driven by those values.  We should not wait for others in the general community to signal for us what is the right thing to do.  Our Jewish tradition informs us as to what is the right thing, and as a community we should act upon that information, even if it means that sometimes we stand and act alone.  By conducting our Jewish communal life in this way, that is how we make our Jewish community count for something; count for something good and something truly Jewish.

When Jews come to the synagogue to observe Shabbat, by our very presence in the sanctuary on Shabbat, we have not only been counted in our minyan, but more importantly, we have made ourselves count as Jews.  We have made ourselves count as Jews because our very presence raises up the sanctity of Shabbat; this day declared holy by God from the very first week of Creation.  We have made ourselves count as Jews by actively affirming our intimate connections with the Jewish people, our Jewish heritage, and our special Jewish relationship with God.  Accomplishing all of that – taking such actions as to help us to better count as a Jew – is far more important and far more meaningful than merely being counted as a Jew; being considered Jew number 13 of 21 who happen to have attended the Shabbat service this week; than being Jew number 35 on the Temple membership roster.

And just as our presence in the synagogue on Shabbat is a demonstration of how we can count as Jews, more that merely be counted, so is our presence at such Jewish values activities as adult education and Tikkun Olam activities also demonstrations of how we can count as Jews.  For when, for example, in the Fall, the members of my congregation walk in the CROP Walk Against World Hunger, while the numbers of our congregants who walk are impressive, still it is not so much the numbers who walk but rather that all of us who are walking, are walking for a cause; are walking for a cause very much in consonance the teachings and values of our faith.  In so walking, we are demonstrating those Jewish values in action.  In other words, in that moment, as Jews, we count.

My prayer for all of us is that as we continue to travel the course of our lives, we will forever strive to live Jewish lives that count.

Sacred Sites

December 9, 2011

Last Shabbat, the Torah portion, “Vayetzei,” included the very famous passage of Jacob’s Ladder.  According to the text, in his flight from the wrath of Esau, his brother, Jacob reached a point at which he could travel no more and decided to spend the night.  So he went to sleep, taking a stone and used it as a pillow.  While asleep he had an amazing dream.  He dreamt that where he slept there was a ladder, with its foundation in the earth and its top reaching heaven.  On this ladder he saw angels, going up and down.  God stood next to him, speaking to him of grand promises for the future. When Jacob awoke he was filled with awe, declaring “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”  He was certain that this place was none other than the house of God – in Hebrew, Beit El – and the gateway to heaven.  And so he named the site Beit El, or as some may be more familiar with the anglicized version, Beth El.

As I was pre­paring my D’var Torah, pondering how filled with awe Jacob was when he awoke, I found my thoughts drifting to the very concept of sacred sites; places which seem more conducive for spiritual experiences; places which seem to offer a special connection between heaven and earth.  Some might think that humbug but I truly believe that such sites exist.  For example, I know that when I have been privileged to be in Jerusalem, and I have prayed at the Western Wall, I have felt especially connected to God.  I felt that there, for whatever reasons, heaven was more open to receiving my prayers, and that there, for whatever reasons, I was more open to hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence.  Don’t ask me to explain why, for I cannot.  I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those experiences were real.  I also know that I am not alone in having such experience.  People of faith across the globe have identified hundreds of such sites.  It is to such sites that so many of the faithful make pilgrimage.  Beit El is but one of them.

When it comes to Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the rabbis were quick to note an oddity in the text.  For according to the text, the angels were going up and coming down.  Since angels are believed to reside in heaven, logic would dictate that the angels would be going down and coming up, not the other way around.  As you can imagine, this inconsistency gave rise to countless rabbinic interpretations.  So I wish to add mine to the list.

Perhaps what makes a site sacred is that on it the search for sanctity must start here on earth and reach up toward the heavens.  Only then can that sacred connection descend down the ladder and touch the earth.

If that be the case then we human beings have it within our power to create sacred sites and not just stumble upon them by happenstance, as did Jacob.  Indeed, for millennia we human beings have been engaged in the quest to create such sites; the Jerusalem Temple, Stonehenge, the Ka’ba in Mecca are just some of the more famous ones.  There are countless others, as we continue to create them today.

Not as famous, but potentially as spiritually powerful, can be any church, any mosque, any synagogue.  Indeed, that is why so many synagogues are named Beth El, or as in the case of my own congregation, Emanuel, which is the anglicized version of the Hebrew Imanu El – “God Is With Us.”  Yes, a synagogue can truly become a powerful sacred site.  Within its walls, God can truly be felt to be “with us.”  But, as with the angels and Jacob’s ladder, in order for the sanctity to be realized, it has to begin here on earth, with our reaching upward toward heaven.  Then, and only then, will we begin to feel the effects of heaven reaching downward toward us.

How is this accomplished?  It is accomplished by many individual acts of will.  It is accomplished by each and every one of us actively choosing to make our site a sacred site.  We do so by acts of kavanah – acts of spiritually focused intention.  We do so by consciously deciding that within these walls everything we do or say must be done or said in the service of God.  Before we act, before we speak, we need ask ourselves: How will our words, how will our deeds serve to bring God closer to us and to those around us?  Most certainly, if we dedicate our every word and our every deed to reaching up toward heaven, then heaven will lovingly descend upon us.  Then we, like Jacob will be able to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place!”