Tag Archives: Am Yisrael

The legacy of the Exodus

Crossing the Red Sea
by Yoram Raanan

We are in the midst of that transformational epic Jewish creation myth known as the Exodus. This is the beginning of the discussion of our core identity a God who has freed us from bondage so that we may serve. There is an inherent tension in this idea freedom and service juxtaposed. But also at play is our meaning relative to this Eternal One. When do we actually count? Are we only meaningful in a corporate existence in the arc of history, or do individuals matter?

The narrative begs the question by leading with being remembered after 210 years sojourning in Egypt. Then God remembers and 600thousand with their families are lead out. We cross into the wilderness and begin a two-week trek to the Promised Land that takes 40 years, a deliberate amount of time so that the entire generation that was freed will not survive to reach their goal. What about those poor souls who suffered during 210 years of deteriorating conditions in Egypt? What about those poor souls who would have found satisfaction with enough food to eat and water to drink and would have returned to bondage just for those basic needs? There are many who did not make it along the way. What about them?

For so many of us, living in this new Promised Land came at the expense of untold millions who suffered harsh lives and died ignominious deaths at human hands that practiced hate. How do we remember them properly, with respect and the knowledge that were it not for them, we would not be here. Can we simply say “there but for the grace of God Go I” that we are merely the lucky ones? Aren’t we compelled to practice an active gratitude acknowledging and cherishing those who have come before to make our lives possible and using our blessings and positions to help those who continue to struggle, who have not experienced full redemption? Our tradition suggests that it is our responsibility, not God’s.

When we say goodbye to someone we grieve the loss as we should.   The tradition says Zichrono Livracha- May their memory be a blessing. Our task is to fulfill this aspiration and continue to journey.

Miracles can happen when you don’t forget about me

For something truly extraordinary to happen, we must include the people already inside the tent.

In Vayeira I see an important message about inclusivity, but it’s not what you think. Everyone looks at Abraham’s hospitality, running to the three men and offering rest, food and drink, and honor. But it is only when Sara comes from the tent that the great miracle of prophecy occurs. This is a most important message for us in these changing times.

We properly reach out to people outside our tent in an effort to practice inclusivity and outreach. But as we reach out we must also reach within to make sure that those already within the tent feel equally honored and valued.

People regularly leave the synagogue community because they no longer find anything there for them. Parents leave once the child has been “Bar-Mitzvahed” and Boomers leave because they do not see value in belonging. But helping to develop a child’s value system and sense of community has only just begun with Bar-Mitzvah, and finding support in a caring community is never more important than when we confront the challenges of middle age and beyond. Our synagogues are as important as ever, but destined to struggle with membership (and finances) if we do not find ways to communicate a value proposition that resonates for those already in the tent. Those front doors we want to fling open to welcome newcomers are also open to those looking to leave. We need to help them understand why they would want to stay.

Sara prepared the cakes to serve the messengers and standing at the tent’s opening, she scoffed with incredulity at the vision the men proclaimed. Our congregants too find the future difficult to accept, but it is our sacred task to give them a vision of an extended family and the caring community they are unable to imagine for themselves. As we seek to evolve and broaden our reach, we must always remember to continuously nurture those who have already aligned with us so they continue to embrace our important values and keep our tent full.

The Kotel Compromise- A win or pyrrhic victory?

kotel-black-and-white-0The Kotel is a special place. As a remnant of the Temple, we have gravitated to it to feel a special closeness to our history, to a Divine place, the home for the Almighty that we built. We feel a deep emotional and often mystical connection that draws us into the space. Otherwise it is nothing more than a large brick wall.

 I recall arriving in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. I got off the plane, hopped into the sherut to Jerusalem dropped off the bags and then headed to the Wall. It was late. I had traveled for what seemed like days and although exhausted, I was compelled to go to the Wall. The emotions welled up from deep inside. I stood in the plaza gazing upon this place. With the kind of intense reverence and awe that happens rarely, I slowly approached the Wall. It was powerful. The thing that happened to me was an extraordinary moment, an encounter between my history, my people, my God and me. But the Kotel is not the sole place of my Judaism. The Makom or place of my Judaism extends beyond time and space and includes the idea of a Jewish people. This vision of Judaism however is compromised by the very compromise announced to create separate spaces for different kinds of Jews to pray.solitary wall prayer

 The arrangement for the space at the Wall has in many ways undermined what the space itself means for Judaism. Each denomination of Judaism now has a place it can call its own. The Wall of the Temple has been segregated, sliced and diced so each sect has an area where it can feel comfortable. The gain of a place for egalitarian Jews at the wall however is also the loss of the symbol of the Wall for us all as a place of unity; for these partitions are along the fault lines of Ashkenazic observances segregating us from each other instead creating a place accessible to everyone. The remnant of where God dwelled amidst the Jewish people has become a place of division and discord within God’s people.

 We have all seen the photographs of the wall at the turn of the century. Men and women were 1891amonthinpalestineandsyriathere together. The Wall was a private space to connect individually in a public place. How you practiced or the community with which you identified did not matter. In the early post-1967 days that sense of Klal Yisrael permitted a similar experience. It was fleeting, and sadly, it has devolved into staking territory in a turf war. Although liberal Judaism may have won something important in getting a place at the wall to pray, we must regretfully acknowledge that in this agreement something else important continues to elude us, namely the unity of the Jewish people.

 Perhaps we should re-focus the issue as one regarding the kind of ceremony and ritual that are generally permitted in this public private space. The kinds of rituals that permit us to be together could be more important in the grand scheme of things than the particular observances that create schisms among us. In my experience I was solitary but in communion with Am Yisrael. Under our current circumstances an experience at the Wall might require we visit both areas, one to be among those who share our beliefs and practice and the other to be with another part of our people, to taste their experience and ponder the ideas of the Judaism values that guides us all and strive to create a Judaism that connects us all.

Am I my Brother’s Keeper?- Israel and Me

The haunting question from Cain’s lips in response to God was the rhetorical non-answer when asked of Abel’s whereabouts. Cain and God both knew what had become of Abel and Cain’s response has been read as a guilt-ridden deflection from the true answer: Yes.connection

 As a Diaspora Jew, so too, I am responsible to my Israeli brothers and sisters. The understanding of our relationship as family contextualizes the obligation. I cannot force my sibling to act, but I am certainly invested in her welfare. I do not walk in my sibling’s shoes, but if I see him appear to go astray I am duty-bound to voice my concern. Whether my perspective is accepted or rejected, I am compelled to share my thoughts because I care. This is harder to do however when I feel my voice is rebuffed or my views disrespected, when it feels as though my sibling acts with the arrogance of the prodigal son.   But my love for my brothers and sisters obliges me to speak nonetheless.

PeoplewithJoinedRaisedJoinedHands It is in that tension that we find ourselves now. Chemi Shalev, the eminent Israeli journalist, is right to express his concern that we in the United States are not speaking up forcefully enough. But an Israel Prime Minister that foments the political divide among American Jews and a Chief Rabbinate that expressly refuses to acknowledge my practice of Judaism are but two ways my voice is repressed.   And yet I must speak.

 I care deeply about Israel, both the state and the aspirations it represents. Israel is a homeland to my people. It is deeply rooted in my narrative creating profound meaning. Israel is also a refuge for my people from a hostile world. Equally important, Israel is also a place where Jewish values might live and thrive. These values include belief in the sanctity of human life and a system of laws that guide just behavior. These principles guide a place where they can be lived and realized, no longer the province of a powerless people. Rather than a nation like all other nations, Israel is a light unto the Nations.Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 1.04.44 PM

 Israel can be a beacon of hope, striving to better herself through the proper treatment of her citizens and the protection of the weak. She is to be a nation of laws equally applied, a country striving towards the highest moral standards internally and externally in her treatment of friend and foe alike. Sometimes Israel falls short. It is our responsibility to lovingly speak out when she does, based on our deep caring for Israel and what Israel means to us and to the world. And we must continue to speak up undeterred by those who might find us an annoyance or at odds with their particular worldview.

 I am my brother’s keeper.

Klal Yisrael- Unity against hatred and bigotry

BOR letterFortunately there is pushback

 The rise of Islamophobia in our country is deeply troubling. All people who embrace American Ideals should be troubled, speaking out and pushing back against this racism. Only those overwhelmed by fear or hatred can find the anti-Islamic message comforting. We Jews find this particularly problematic because our history is rife with persecution of the most horrific kinds.

 Klal Yisrael is speaking out. All our denominations, all of our respected institutions are renouncing acts of hatred and the perpetrators. Whether it is the desecration of a mosque in Philadelphia or the vitriol of hate mongers, Jewish values do not abide the despicable acts that are eerily similar to those historically experienced by our people.

 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Reconstructionist College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Aleph, just to name a few, have spoken against xenophobia and hatred.   Our own Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and our Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s JCRC under the leadership of Adam Kessler have also expressed support of the Moslem community in response to the Mosque desecration.

 I am heartened as an American, as a Jew and as a Rabbi that we reaffirm our Jewish values at this time. Regardless of how we practice, our Judaism commands us to take this principled stand. Although Chanukah has passed, the miracle of light continues to shine for all of us.

Kavannah for Shabbat of Unity with the People of Israel

Wolpe

One of our great teachers, Rabbi David Wolpe, shared the following Kavannah, prayer, for this Shabbat.  I am honored to share his eloquent and thoughtful words below:

We invite people around the world to recite this kavannah in unity with the State of Israel this Shabbat, October 17, 2015

El Maleh Rachamim — Compassionate God,

We pray not to wipe out haters but to banish hatred.

Not to destroy sinners but to lessen sin.

Our prayers are not for a perfect world but a better one

Where parents are not bereaved by the savagery of sudden attacks

Or children orphaned by blades glinting in a noonday sun.

Help us dear God, to have the courage to remain strong, to stand fast.

Spread your light on the dark hearts of the slayers

And your comfort to the bereaved hearts of families of the slain.

Let calm return Your city Jerusalem, and to Israel, Your blessed land.

We grieve with those wounded in body and spirit,

Pray for the fortitude of our sisters and brothers,

And ask you to awaken the world to our struggle and help us bring peace.

What’s good for the Goose is good for the IceGander (Icelander)

What’s good for the Goose is good for the IceGander (Icelander)

Or

Fighting fire with Ice

Or

Boycott Iceland!

 I recently read of those advocating a boycott of Icelandic products in response to Iceland’s decision to boycott Israeli products. I set off to find out what that might mean and after substantial time searching, I do not think it means a lot.

 Iceland imports a lot of stuff, but does not export all that much to the US. In fact, about the best we can do is deciding not to buy Icelandic Cod or Haddock. However, the total value of those imports was a measly $142million*. And that was the largest category of imported stuff. We also import about $12million worth of fats and oils*. So we will need to spend a great deal of time just to find the things we decide we will not buy.

 Better we invest our time in promoting a society in Israel that is dedicated to civil rights, a society that protects everyone through a system of laws developed in a democracy. Better we work to heal the rifts within our community. Better we remember we are brethren sharing a history and value system that withstands the test of time.

 And by the way, I prefer Nova Scotia Salmon with my bagels anyway.

Shabbat Shalom!

*Statistics are from 2013, from the Office of the United States Trade Representative