As I turn the pages of the Passover Haggadah I reflect on the wonders that allowed my ancestors to go free from slavery in Egypt. I often reflect on the line we read in the beginning pages: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
This is a powerful message which rings strongly for all who care for the hungry, but particularly to me as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Most of our Jewish holidays are associated with the joy of eating, Passover in particular since so many of the foods we eat are also symbolic to the order of the Seder itself. The food is symbolizing both the bitterness of slavery and the sweet enthusiasm of freedom.
At the Passover Seder we remember and celebrate when a family of tribes became a nation of people, and when a body of slaves became the soul of freedom. We also remember and celebrate God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. Every year, Jews all around the world sit with family and friends to remember and retell the Passover story. In this story our prophet Moses is not mentioned at all, but rather God is the “Main Actor” in taking our people out from slavery to freedom. Furthermore, we are commanded in the book of Exodus to tell this story to our children and their children’s children.
Passover is THE most celebrated holyday in the Jewish calendar, even more than the High Holy Days. It is a holiday of freedom in which we are required to remove all ego. There are many family traditions in which we search the house to make sure that there is no bread, crumbs, crusts, or morsels left around. Then we can sit down to the Seder, eat the Matzah, drink the four cups of wine, and tell the story of our journey towards freedom. Questions are everything, as are children. We are all children and we all ask questions. There is a Seder plate and there are fifteen steps to our journey towards freedom.
In the beginning of the fifteen steps of our Seder, a special invitation is sent out to the Jewish community. As a matter of fact, this special invitation is NOT only to the Jewish community, but also is a universal invitation for social justice to come together. As Jews, we are asked to speak on behalf of the voiceless, those children and adults who do not know when or where their next meal will come from.
Each one of us, as we sit to eat our Passover meal of plenty, needs to listen to the traditional Four Questions and reflect on a current question: why, in a country as wealthy and as bountiful as the United States, are there still children and adults who are hungry?
I am not alone in my question. Jews across the USA, emphasize this question, rewriting the Seder and the Haggadah to highlight specifically the incidence of childhood hunger and malnutrition, and in general, hunger in the USA.
According to the USDA, more than one in five American households, 49 million individuals, including 12 million children, struggle to have enough to eat. Wow!!!
Why this year? Because the key Child Nutrition Act that funds the federal government’s child nutrition programs could expire. Because if we do not act, Congress’ inaction could jeopardize access to quality meals for millions of children. Because if we do not act, those who depend on these programs will go hungry. Because if not us, then who?
Please write to the congress representative of your area. Also, please continue to support our Ahavat Torah Social Action Committee’s commitment to provide cooking oil, or monetary donations to the Sova Food Bank. Thank you for all your help. I look forward to the day when we can proudly proclaim at our Seder table, “Next year there will be no child hunger.”
May that day be soon! Amen.
This week’s parsha is Vayera which in Hebrew means “and I appeared.” God speaks to Moses and Aaron telling them to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be set free. They go to Pharaoh but he refuses to free the Israelites from slavery. God then sends a series of plagues upon the Egyptians. Pharaoh promises to free the Israelites if Moses will stop each plague. Moses does so but each time God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he refuses to let the Israelites go. The parsha ends with the plague of fire and ice which combined to cause a devastating hail upon Egypt. Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go if Moses ends the hail. Moses and Aaron stop the plague and once again Pharaoh changes his mind.
Sunday (December 6) was a day, “Beyond any Expectations!” Wow, I may even describe it as an overwhelming day. I would not. I would like to share with you just two human stories of many.
One of the rules the Veterans’ Organization had was that we were not allowed to open our space before 1PM. They wanted the veterans to be entertained ﬁrst, fed a hardy turkey lunch, and then come to pick out clothes for themselves in our space. We were sad when we had to repeat this line of “authoritative regulations” to many veterans.
At one point, Sherry Levitt, an AT member and volunteer, came to share with me that a little girl who was walking away holding her tall father’s hands, had wanted a particular doll and Sherry had to ask her to come back later. I immediately asked Sherry to please run after the girl and give her the doll. The little girl and her father were so grateful for our present.
Another time I saw a veteran in a wheelchair sitting at the entrance to our space. It was only 11:45AM. He understood that we could not open the doors before 1PM. He explained that at his shelter he can get food, but can not get clothes, and therefore he prefers to be the ﬁrst in line and go to get the food later. Tears welled up in my eyes. I asked him? “Would you like a pair of pants? What color and size? A sweater? A jacket? How about a blanket?” His tired eyes looked at me with hope as I went looking for exactly what he wanted. When I returned with double the amount of everything he had asked for he was so grateful.
I suddenly felt an uncontrollable need to cry. I left our hanger. I took a walk so as not to cry in front of people I know.
I saw men, women and children waiting in long lines for their food. By the time I returned about 15 minutes later, there was a long line forming at our hanger also. I could not handle it well. It reminded me of pictures from the Great Depression and the Holocaust.
Why? Why do these veterans who gave us so much have to suffer like this? Yes, I understand, some have physical and mental issues. Yes, the government and many professionals are now helping more, thank God.
But there is still soooooo much human suffering that is so hard to handle. By the time I got home, I was truly wiped out, yet somewhat satisﬁed that just for a little while we made a difference in the lives of over 1,000 souls.
“Whether righteous or unrighteous, all shall pray as one community.”
At this moment, when we should be forgiving,
when we should be most concerned for the judgment we deserve,
we remain unable to forgive,
we remain unable to feel forgiven,
we are even unable to feel deserving of forgiveness.
All these thoughts isolate us.
We are stubborn in our own righteousness, and
we despair if we can ever be righteous,
All these thoughts isolate us.
We cannot still and calm our minds,
cannot stop ourselves from judging others, or,
cannot stop feeling being judged.
We cannot connect with those among whom we sit,
Sadly, we cannot even reach out past our isolation.
All these thoughts isolate us.
This one small thing I ask:
whether I am righteous or unrighteous,
whether my neighbors are righteous or unrighteous,
Just please, let us pray for forgiveness as one united community.
Shared by Ellen Dannin
Modified by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell
The Parshahs of Tazria and Metzora continue the discussion of the laws of Tumah v’Taharah, ritual impurity and purity.
All male infants are to be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Tzaraat is a type of leprosy that can afflict people as well as garments or homes. When patches appear, the person has to dwell alone outside of the camp until a Kohen has pronounced him and/or his belongings as Tamei (impure) or Tahor (pure).
An afflicted person must be healed and purified by the Kohen, with special procedures that involve birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop.
Ritual impurity can also happen through various discharges in a man, and in a woman, necessitating purification through immersion in a Mikvah.
Question for the week: The laws of purity are discussed in this portion. Are these laws important today? Why?
Portions were taken from chabad.com
The month that was reversed from grief to joy. -Esther 9:22
When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy. -Talmud, Taanit 29a
There are many joyous dates on the Jewish calendar, but only Purim affects the entire month, causing it to be auspicious and joyous. What is the intrinsic connection between Purim and Adar?
Haman successfully pinpointed the moment when the Jews were at their lowest point and chose to take advantage of it. After nearly a millennium of freedom, independence, and constant reliance on miracles, Jews were now banished from their land, helpless and seemingly at the mercy of the laws of nature. This was a completely new experience for the Jewish nation. The Temple in Jerusalem laid in ruins. Jeremiah's prophesy that after seventy years of exile God would return the Jews to their land and rebuild the Temple. had not happened. "The timing has never been better," Haman thought.
"Surely the Chosen People have lost their exalted status. Now is the perfect moment to implement the Final Solution."
Haman needed one more sign indicating the Jews' vulnerability.The lottery provided the exact sign he anxiously awaited."My lottery fell on the month when Moses died," he exclaimed. The demise of Moses, the "head" of the Jewish nation, was surely a metaphor for the demise of the
entire nation. The Talmud tells us that Haman was overjoyed by this favorable omen. He designated Adar to be the month when his nefarious plan would be put into motion. But Haman and his plan still did not succeed.
We were exiled and downtrodden due to our wrong doings and God still intervened on our behalf, as was demonstrated by the Purim miracle. This phenomenon demonstrates the durability of our relationship; the ability of our essential identity to survive no matter our external state.
It seems like our perpetual relationship with God is more evident when we are exiled and downtrodden. The same is true with our nation. We have ups and downs, both spiritually and materially, but our very identity, is never affected.
All other holidays celebrate the "highs" of our nation. Purim celebrates a time when we were at a low point in our history – but our relationship with God remained intact. Its joy is therefore greater than the joy of any other holiday, because it demonstrates the essential nature of our relationship with God, and that is a constant.
This Shabbat we will be celebrating the New Year for Trees, Tu-B’Shvat. Since the Torah compares Man to “a tree of the field,” our tradition collected nine lessons from the mystics that we can learn from trees.
1) Always Grow Towards the Light - As we go through life, we must always move towards holiness and light, reaching ever higher for that which is beyond us.
2)Even the Smallest Scratch Can have Lasting Effects - A seemingly small scratch on a young sapling can leave a lasting scar on the fully grown tree. Think, then, about how critical the formative years are, and how careful we must be when educating our children to do good.
3) Grow Deep Roots - As we grow, we must remain connected to our source, God. How do we bind to God? By doing Mitzvahs! When we perform a Mitzvah, we are creating a bond with God. The Mishnah says: “One whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches, which all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place.”
4) Provide Refuge for Others - Just as a tree selflessly provides shade and shelter, be a source of comfort for others and provide resources for those in need.
5) Grow Sweet Fruits for Others to Enjoy - Beyond providing shade, a tree also bears fruit. Proactively reach out to others; bring sweetness and sustenance into their lives.
6) Let Your Leaves Return to the Earth - Just as the leaves of a tree fall to the earth to enrich the soil, we must give back to the world to sustain others.
7) Be Limber in the Wind - Only a tree that can bend in the wind will survive a storm. Likewise, we must be accepting of what God sends, never breaking or giving up hope.
8) Grow Stronger Through Your Life Experiences - Just as the rings of a tree record its growth, through years of drought and rain, fire and calm, so too, must we continue to grow, always adding another level of wisdom learned from the experiences of life.
9) Be Impactful - Trees don’t only provide immediate benefits like shade, wood, and food, they enrich the ecosystem, filter the air, and give off oxygen. Give oxygen to the world by making a lasting impact on the people around you and the world .
Love. It is the most powerful of human emotions. We all crave it. We cannot live without it. And yet it is so overwhelming, so all-encompassing, that there is no way to measure it, prove it, define it, or even describe it. When we speak of the intellect, it is represented by the mind. And when we speak of the emotions, specifically of love, the heart represents them.
The month that we are now in, Elul, is the key to unlocking the inner and most potent meaning of the heart.
As is well known, the Hebrew letters that make the word “Elul,” aleph, lamed, vav and lamed, are an acronym for the phrase, from Song of Songs, ani l’dodi v’dodi li, which means “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” This beautiful and romantic phrase is that which represents our relationship with our Creator, which is often paralleled to that of a husband and wife, a bride and groom, in our individual lives. May love grow for us all in the month of ELUL.
In last week’s parsha Re’eh, Moses continues to prepare the Nation of Israel for the responsibilities that lie ahead in the land that was promised to our fathers. “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse."
”In what has come to be called “Deuteronomical Thinking,” he presents the idea that blessings and curses result from our adherence or divergence from Mizvot. Some criticize “Deuteronomical Thinking” as childish Santa Claus-like thinking: if I am good I get rewarded by God, if bad, I get punished by God. Torah and Moses teach something very different. They present the idea that blessings and curses are the consequence of individual and community behaviors – that we, individually and collectively have the power to bless and to curse.
Re’eh is a call to “see” and pay attention to our actions and to take responsibility for their consequences. Moses is particularly concerned about idolatry. I doubt any of the readers of this newsletter are bowing down to, or making sacrifices to “carved images”. However, this does not mean that we are not worshiping idols, and thereby, bringing curses upon ourselves and our
Certainly, it’s easy to see the consequences of society’s lusts for the false gods of “gold and silver.” More difficult is for us to “Re’eh” the idols in our lives. Idols can be defined as “anything which is put before God (Mizvot, Hesed, or goodness), ”We bow down to the idols of the ego: money, property, prestige, self-image, body image, comfort and convenience.
Every time we overcome these idols and practice Mizvot, Hesed, or goodness with our families, or in our communities, we bring blessings upon them. Every time we succumb to these idols, we bring curses upon ourselves, our families, and our communities. As we approach the High Holidays, I encourage you to perform a “Heshbon ha’nefesh” , an accounting of the soul.
Review the prior year, and “see” for yourself the actions you took which resulted in blessings and those you took or failed to take that resulted in curses. Find for yourself the idols to which your eyes are drawn – those that you prioritize above God, Mizvot, Hesed, or goodness.
As a daily reminder, our tradition has us recite a prayer when we wash our faces upon awakening: “Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the universe, who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. May it be Your will, God, my God and God of my fathers, that You accustom me to Your Torah and Your commandments and do not accustom me to sins or transgressions. Cause the positive inclination to rule over me and not the evil inclination. Strengthen me in Your commandments and grant my portion in Your Torah. Allow me to find favor, lovingkindness, and mercy in Your eyes and the eyes of all who see me and bestow upon me benevolent kindnesses. Blessed are You, God, who bestows benevolent kindnesses.”
Torah teaches us that individuals and communities have the power to bless. However, we must “Re’eh” with our eyes and our souls that which will be a blessing and that which will be a curse. This prayer helps us keep our eyes open. With the power of reflection and prayer, we can overcome the idols in our lives. Our holy calendar and rituals help us to transform the ordinary and overcome the idols and bring blessings into our lives, our families and our communities. It all begins with “Re’eh”, to open our eyes and “see” that we, individually and collectively, have the power to bless and to curse.
“Blessed are You, God, who opens my eyes and allows me to be a part of your benevolent kindnesses.”
From Rabbi Miriam Hamrell
This Torah portion has been close to my heart for many years. Thirty-three years ago, when I celebrated my adult Bat-Mitzvah, this was my portion.
My great joy was when my grandfather, Ze’ev, Z”L, revealed to me at the reception, that this portion was also his Bar-Mitzvah portion 60 years earlier, back in Hungary, amazing coincident, “b’shert.” I dedicate my teaching to him, Ze’ev ben Natan Ve’Miriam.
Right in the beginning of our portion we read that Moses is saying, “I entreated (VaEt’hanan) to Adonai at that time…” There are a few interpretations to the word VaEt’hanan. Some of my books describe that Moses was appealing, imploring, beseeching, begging, pleading and praying for God’s compassion and merciful attributes to let him enter the Land of Israel. God answers Moses with a defiant, “No!” If this was not clear enough for Moses, God adds, "It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter,” 3:26.
When we look at the root for the word VaEt’hanan, we find the letters Hanun. It expresses a strong form of prayer. We find the word Hanun and its derivatives throughout the High Holy Days prayer book. While I meditated on this powerful word it left me with the feeling of intense prayer. I was wondering, does God listen to my prayers only when they are intense? Does God listen to my prayers only when I beg, implore and plead? Do I need to “put God into the corner” and beseech Him for my prayers to be heard? When I am praying to God from a meditative, quiet and serene space, God does not hear me?
Why does Moses need to VaEt’hanan to God? God knows Moses very intimately, after all Moses is described as the most humble and loyal Servant of God. Does Moses think if he would plead with God, God would hear him better and say, “Yes?” After all what does Moses only want to do? He wants to conclude the journey he began in Egypt, by letting him enter the Land of Israel with the People of Israel. If Moses VaEt’hanah to God, what do we need to do to encounter God’s merciful attribute?
May our heartfelt prayers find a “Yes” answer with God. Amen
From Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan . . . ”Devarim 1:1
Rabbanu Yonah teaches “Keep your sins before you always.” It is important to remember the mistakes of your past. This is relatively easy. What is more difficult is remembering the mistakes of a common past, perhaps mistakes, and possibly adventures we did not even experience personally.
In the first chapter of Devarim, it would seem that Moses is sharing this lesson as he relates to the assembled Jewish nation the “sins” of the past. But the lesson he teaches and the challenge he faces is so much greater than that.
Devarim is a different book from the prior four books of Torah. The first four books describe events as they unfold and the characters in those books experience the events as they occur.
Devarim, however, recounts events to an audience with no personal memory (except Joshua and Caleb) of slavery, redemption or even the revelation at Sinai.
Moses’ goal on this day, the day he recounts this story to the Children of Israel, is the same goal and challenge we face today:
• How to make someone else’s story, your story
• How to make an ancient story as meaningful to you today as if it occurred today.
Judaism’s interest in creating a vibrant future is rooted in our reverence of the past – good and bad. This is evident in our liturgy and our rituals. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in our holiday customs, particularly Passover, where it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we had gone out of Egypt. Tisha b’av is coming soon. This holiday of dark reflection asks us to face the destruction of the past and see our part in the destruction of our common future. Without looking honestly at the “sins” of our past and the damage they cause, we are less able to see the future impact of our current behavior.
It is no secret that I love stories. The ones I love the most are the stories of how we came to be here in America. For some of you, the story is yours. For others, it is a parent or grandparent’s story.
As we begin this first reading in the final book of Torah – this summary of hardships faced, obstacles overcome, mistakes made and lessons learned, I ask you to re-hear the story of how you came to be here today. Share the story with your children and grandchildren and make sure to include a summary of hardships faced, obstacles overcome, mistakes made and lessons learned.
From Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath imposing some prohibition upon himself, he shall not break his word, but he must do all that he has said. (Num. 30:2 – 3)
A “vow” is an obligation that a person takes on freely to either perform some action, or to avoid doing something, or to forbid oneself from things that are PERMISSIBLE.
Vows typically take two distinct forms:
a. vows of generosity: to make a donation to the Temple or to give charity to the poor, or for any other good purpose – over and above Torah requirements
b. vows of denial: taking on extra strictures and for bidding oneself from things that are permissible.
Our sages expressed opposition to vows. They said: “One who vows is one who has placed a collar around the neck”. Rav Dimi said, “anyone who makes about, and even one who keeps it, is called a sinner.” (Nedarim 77b).
Our sages believed that the Torah was complete. The 613 Mitzvot contain sufficient demands of generosity in an appropriate amount of restriction. There are 248 “restrictions” corresponding to 248 body parts – to remind us that unkosher acts and unkosher items are harmful to our mind, body and spirit. There are 365 positive “offerings” corresponding to 365 days of the year – reminding us that by giving of ourselves and our property we bring Holiness into the “ordinary everyday” every day.
Although the word “sinner” is rather harsh, I think the sage’s comments are instructive. In seeking spirituality and a connection with God and ourselves, we often accentuate one practice over another. We sometimes even completely exclude other “standard” practices to allow us time to focus on those we like, or those with which we are more comfortable.
It’s the same with diets, exercise plans, Self-help programs and programs for financial and career success. We tend to want to make these “our own.” Eating more of some foods and excluding others that are permissible. Doubling up on one set of exercises while completely omitting another suggested. Some love praying in community, but don’t see much point in offering the blessings over food and daily life when they are alone. Some favor meditation over acts of loving-kindness; while others favor charity over prayer or study. This may seem great as it feeds our sense of self and individuality. However, it denies us the results that come from following the “Whole Program”.
Our sages believe this is most true with Torah. Perhaps their use of the word “sin” comes from their conviction that the Torah represents a perfect balance. Anyone who seeks to offer more than the Torah, or to restrict further than the Torah would thereby be an idolater – one who believes their ideas are greater than God.
Our Rabbi is consistent in her teaching: we should seek a balance. Not an exclusion of one over the other. May we be blessed this week with the ability to follow our understanding of Torah. May we be blessed to allow ourselves the full measure of the permissible, both in our offerings and are restrictions.
May our actions and restrictions bring harmony to our mind, body and spirit. And may this blessing bring peace and wholeness to the world.
“The people who dwell in the land are extremely fierce and the cities are fortified and very great, and we also saw the children of Anak there… we are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” 13:28, 31). The spies report was appropriate to a point. They were told to see the land and report back on the condition of the land and of the people who lived there. But their task was just to observe and report what they saw.
However, the spies’ mistake was in making a decision that Israel should not attempt to enter the land. It was not up to them to interpret and come to any final conclusions, they only had to report the facts they saw. They were wrong about their conclusions not being able to conquer the land of Israel. The Torah teaches that they did not take Gods’ power and will to help the people of Israel into consideration, even if the odds were against them.
However, in the spies’ minds they did not think it was possible for them to successfully win the war against Anak the giants, and take over the land of Israel, and that is what they reported. What do we learn from this?
This is called Lashon Hara, the Evil Tongue, and the Torah absolutely prohibits it because it can cause incredible harm to the one speaking it, to those who hear it, and to the one they are speaking about. When dealing with darkness, there are two options: you can attempt to sweep it out the door with a broom, or you can light a candle, and the darkness will vanish. When dealing with spiritual darkness that Lashon Hara causes, the best remedies are empathy and respect.
Very often, just like the spies, people see certain facts in a situation and come to some mistaken and wrong conclusions based on their own perceptions and interpretation of what they see. At times, even if someone’s observations are correct, there could still always be factors that he did not take into consideration or that he was unaware of. It is truly a special ability to be able to reach correct decisions based on all the gathered facts first.
This thought is especially true when having to make judgments or decisions about other people. Some people have a strong tendency to reach negative conclusions about others that are inaccurate. Even if what he sees about another person is basically true, one always has to keep in mind that his conclusions could be wrong. Therefore, our tradition always teaches us that when it comes to judging others, one always has to take time to do a careful investigation first, and always has to do his best to judge the other person favorably, assuming that there could be some misunderstanding. Then do something wild and wonderful… approach the person as a friend and speak to him in a positive tone. God willing, one can sort the issue out and bring more light into the world, and renewal of a friendship. Amen.
Rabbinic Intern Gregory Metzger
I am writing this message from Washington DC where I am standing up for human rights by lobbying congress on issues of great importance to girls and women throughout the developing world:
- end violence against girls and women
- stop hate crimes against LGBT people
- empower girls to end child marriages
Here I am Standing Before You, Hineini
A poem written by the AJWS community as we prepared to meet with senators and members of congress advocating for the INTERNATIONAL VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT (IVAWA). This poem is the response to the question, "Why are you here?" This poem is about our response to God's call to us as Jews to stand up for justice. Our response is HINEINI, Here I Am! In this poem, we translate Heneini into the language of the peoples we serve and the women whose human rights are not being realized.
Here is the poem:
Here I am standing before you, Hineini.
Here I am standing before you, je suis ici
To advocate for those whose voices are silenced.
And use the might of our nation to help.
To make my citizenship matter.
To teach and to be inspired.
Live my values.
Dive deep into change making
To create a better world,
Share my light with others.
To say I did not stand idly by.
To honor the divine in all people.
To pray with my feet.
Here I am standing before you, Hineini.
Here I am standing before you, estoy aqui
My children; my grandson; my mother;
Beatrice in Kenya and Aie San in Burma
This community of like-minded souls
Here I am
Because I’ve never felt unsafe,
I am blessed, privileged, responsible,
Because it’s urgent
As an ally, as a witness,
Because I am called and commanded.
Because long ago in Odessa,
When my grandmother was 15 years old,
she was pulled out of school and married
and had seven children before she was 25.
She couldn’t sign her name;; Rose.
For rape victims.
For the 300 kidnapped Nigerian girls
For the LGBT freedom fighters in Uganda.
For my children, so they inherit a better world,
so they know how to make their world better
I stand before you because
I must do this before I die.
I feel sick about the suffering of women and girls
Because I see myself in every woman I meet.
Because my mother said there was another way.
I stand before you,
Because I know what it feels like to live openly and hidden
I stand before you
Because I am a survivor of sexual violence.
I am a woman,
I am gay,
I am a feminist,
I am a man,
I am a mother,
I am a Jew.
I believe this is what it means to be Jewish.
to comfort the stranger and the orphan
to make room for difference
Because my world is blessed with sweetness, but the greater world is broken.
Because I Believe that advancing the rights of women, girls and sexual minorities will change the world
that one life is not more precious than another.
that everyone has the right to choose.
I believe in we need pass the International Violence against Women Act.
Here I am standing before you, Hineini.
Here I am standing before you, mein hun na.
Because social justice is more than sharing on Facebook
Because I fought to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Because the girls I met in India are afraid of being married off
Because AJWS boldly advocates for issues that can change the world.
Here I am standing before you, mein hun na.
Here I am standing before you, estoy aqui
Here I am standing, je suis ici
Here I am, Hineini.
Two weeks ago there was a big model Passover Seder at the Corona Women’s Prison. I was also honored on that occasion for my seven years of volunteering there. I was very touched to see about 150 people from the larger Jewish community in the area, family and friends present in the big prison’s auditorium.
Many of you were there. I thank you from the deepest part of my heart for being the witnesses to one of the most Magical Days of my life. A day I experienced God’s miracle and enchanted miracle in the world.
First Rabbi Moshe Halfon & Eli Lester were chanted many parts of the Haggadah, while inmates choir were helping them. Then, we had a hot catered Kosher lunch. Shortly after that, some inmates I counsel and teach got up and shared some sweet words about me. My heart was filled with deep gratitude and I cried… I thanked the audience and spoke to the women about hope and never loosing their dreams.
Many of you have asked me to share my speech I delivered on that day. The following is a part of it:
Before I say anything, I would like to thank the people who made this event happen. PLEASE just look around you. It takes many months to plan this event. It takes many people to make all this happen. Please remember what it took for most of you just to get approved to enter the prison, get your reservations in for the food, having to remember the rules and regulations of your clothing and what you are allowed to bring into the prison area and what you are not allowed. Just look at the smallest details on your tables, or the decorations, and know that it is very special and the women devoted many hours to it.
I would like very much for all the people who had a hand in making this very SPECIAL event come true to please stand up.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is just one example of the many people it takes to coordinate this event, to make "The Impossible Dream" come true! Toda Rabbah. Thank you VERY much.
The mission of each of us who volunteers here; each of us who are here with Rab Moshe, is to be like… a true knight. We do it with love, and personal duty. We do it out of sense of responsibility. We do it out of a sense of accountability. Each of us volunteers are here, because we are COMMITTED to our Jewish ladies! We are committed NOT TO FORGET our Jewish sisters who “missed the mark” and slipped off the road of their lives. Please know dear ladies, that this prison,God willing, is ONLY a temporary place.
Yes, now, as you well know, you are in MITZRAIM, in Egypt. We understand Mitzraim to be a “Narrow Place. A place where misery dwells.” But you are not alone. We the volunteers are coming to Mitzraim on our own free will, in order to: Support you. Support you like a parent to his/her child.
We the volunteers are coming to Mitzraim on our own free will, in order to sustain you emotionally and spiritually, like God’s angels. We are here to carry you through this MITZRAIM as an eagle carries it eaglets. Therefore, I would like you to know that volunteering here is NEVER a burden… it is a great privilege and honor. For me, I feel, that more than I give to you (Torah, Talmud, Mishnah, Song of Songs, Holidays, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, etc.) you give to me. I love you.
I have lived nearly 65 years, and I have seen life as it is. At times life is wonderful, and at times life is miserable. I have heard the singing from concert halls, and the moans from the filthy streets of India. I have been a soldier and experienced my friends fall in battle.
At times, when life just gets the best of us, we ask, “Why?” We ask, “Why does life seem at times so crazy? Why is the world filled with so much insanity and pain? I do not know the answers - they are far too difficult and complicated to try to figure them out. But…my ladies…
· Do not surrender your dreams! To surrender your dreams is to seek slow death - this is NOT Jewish.
· To seek treasure where there is only trash - is Jewish.
· To seek sanity where there is only madness - is Jewish.
· To be a good human being where only evil exist -is Jewish.
· To be kind where there is no kindness - is Jewish.
· To be moral where there is no morality - is Jewish.
· To seek the tiniest light where there is only darkness - is Jewish.
· To have and keep hope when one is chained - is Jewish.
My dear ladies, please treasure your hopes and dreams, NEVER give them up!
For our beautiful grand finale, I asked Ahavat Torah’s Cantorial Soloist Gary Levine to sing, “To Dream the Impossible Dream” from the musical, The Man of La Mancha.
Gary was amazing! When he sang this tremendous song, he filled the huge auditorium with his fantastic voice. The walls were trembling. There was no dry eye in the room, including the tough guards. THANK YOU GARY.
LETTERS RECEIVED AFTER THE EVENT
Thank you in advance for your devotion to the women of B’ not Or. (Daughters of Light). What you missed and would have really appreciated was Rabbi Hamrell's speech to the assembled group. It was a very powerful talk about the journey of the inmates on the one hand, and about why our volunteers do what they do. I will get a copy of it (on computer) to share with you and the Administration. It also speaks a great deal about the unique Jewish spirit and our tradition's approach to incarceration, healing, hope, and recovery, which I think the Administration might appreciate. Lynda Malerstein
Our AT members who had never been to the prison before were really moved as were those of us who had been out there before. B'shalom, v'brahot, v'ahava - Judy Kollack
Last night as I fell asleep the events of the day at the prison rocked me to sleep. The women are so holy and so much of it thanks the you, Rabbi Miriam - all of you and what you have brought to these women who indeed have found liberation within the walls. I felt like the whole reason I came out besides talking to the women who train the dogs - was to dance with the blonde lady. We never touched but our contact was very deep. In entering into an ecstatic state. Yes, I am ready to come out and share dance with the women -It can be Jewish women or anyone who wants to find connection in the spirit of the dance. - Paulette Rochelle-Levy
My heart is filled with love and gratitude for the wonderful experience of being at the California Institute for Women's Passover Seder, along with many of our AT members. Our own Rabbi Miriam was honored for her Torah teachings and support for the women in prison for the past 7 years. Many of the inmates gave their personal testimony for her support to them. It truly was a rich experience filled with love, joy and music. - Bernice Brown
Our Torah portion seems to talk about skin diseases and bodily infections. It is hardly a redeeming topic to share with you. However, looking a little deeper into the reading we learn that our ancestors felt that these skin diseases were a sign that the inflicted had done something wrong, mostly, Lashon Hara, was a gossiper, and is considered cursed by God. One of the methods of “cure” was isolation. Rejecting a person from being with a community out of fear that he could “infect” the community also. This person would be isolated until the Kohen, priests, will examine the infected person or home with a special ritual and will declare him “pure” or clean of infection. That was the point at which the “infected” or “cursed” be able to rejoin the community.
Isolation or rejection is one of society's most powerful tools for regulating and restraining undesirable behavior. As children, we knew that misconduct carried the risk of a parental glare of disapproval, and perhaps banishment to our bedrooms. As adults, the rod of imprisonment hangs over would be criminals as a deterrent for all sorts of illegal behavior.
But how effective is enforced isolation in preventing crime, and perhaps more importantly, invoking a feeling of regret in the offender? Psychologists and social researchers are reevaluating this age old method of dealing with crime. Banishment and imprisonment may remove the criminal from our midst, thereby limiting the risks to the rest of us from being “infected” by his wrong behavior.
The Torah also has its proscribed system of isolation for certain offenses. Tzaraat was a divinely ordained affliction that came upon an individual who was guilty of slanderous talk against his fellow man. Upon being declared impure, the leper was sent out of all three camps and kept completely secluded from the rest of society. His punishment corresponded to his crime. His slanderous talk resulted in friction and disunion between people; his penalty was enforced separation from the community.
Yet, it is important to note the process whereby the leper was declared impure. One who discovers a suspicious spot on his skin must have it inspected by a learned scholar. If the sage determines that the spot does indeed have all the symptoms of tzaraat, he then presents it to the Kohen, who declares him impure. The Kohen may be completely ignorant of the details of the laws regarding tzaraat, yet the individual is not declared impure unless the Kohen pronounces him as such. Even if the Kohen merely echoes the decision of the learned scholar, it is his affirmation rather than the scholar's learned opinion that finalizes the person's status.
It is puzzling why the Torah places the declaration of impurity upon the Kohen. The Kohen, after all, was distinct in his special status of purity. The Kohen performed the most dignified and gracious tasks in the Holy Temple and was obligated to refrain from defiling himself through any contact with ritual impurity. Why must the Kohen be the one to declare him impure?
The Kohen's mandatory involvement sheds light on the Torah's view of societal isolation as a punishment and deterrent for wrongdoing. The Kohen's function aside from his service in the Temple was to serve as a conduit of blessings for the Jewish People.
The Kohanim have maintained this role throughout Jewish history through their recital of the priestly blessing in the synagogue. Before starting the Priestly Blessing, the Kohanim recite a benediction concluding with the words: "Who has commanded us to bless the Jewish people, with love." At the beginning of the Torah Service, when we circle with the Torah, I greet each person in the synagogue. When I get to the Kohanim, quietly I ask them if they are fit to bless us? If the Kohen feels that he is lacking in a measure of love for even one member of the community, he is obliged to step down and refrain from uttering the Priestly Blessing. Only the Kohen, known as a "man of kindness," has the authority to declare a person impure resulting in his banishment from the camp of the Jewish people.
The Kohen's pronouncement is based upon the opinion of the learned scholar well versed in the myriad laws of various skin conditions and their ritual status. Nevertheless, it is the Kohen who is given the final say over matters of impurity. The Kohen's heart overflowing with love for his fellow man will not allow him to make such a declaration lightly.
Isolation and rejection are almost completely ineffective means of ameliorating criminal behavior when there is an absence of one critical ingredient: love. Once an individual feels cast out of his society, he loses his greatest source of motivation and encouragement to lead a wholesome and productive life. The Kohen is there to teach us that even when censuring and condemning improper behavior, we must never lose sight of our primary role which is to extend a helping and supporting hand to every member of society, no matter what his or her status may be.
An individual who is able to utter a condemnation of another human being must carefully examine his or her own heart. Those who are lacking in love and compassion are incapable of coming to a true conclusion regarding another person's status. Instead, they will succeed only in driving others further away with their unrelenting critical attitudes. In fact, one who is not qualified to render someone "impure," and does so anyway because of bitterness and a heart full of condemnation is guilty of slander, the very offense that incurs the penalty of tzaraat.
There is no telling how deeply we can impact and influence all of society when we keep our hearts open to all with kindness and compassion. The Kohen, a man of kindness, guides us in attaining this exalted level of sensitivity. It is this form of unconditional love that will obliterate the primary cause of isolation.
May God guide us next time we encounter a form of imperfection in another human being, not to turn away. In the manner of the Kohen, let us look beyond the external blemish into the soul. Our kind eye and loving heart will accomplish far more than our most severe isolation. These small acts of unity and acceptance have the power to change the landscape of society from a cold and vicious jungle to a place where peace, serenity, and harmony will reign. May it be so. Amen.
A portion of this D’var Torah was taken from, “Rejection” by Chaya Shuchat.
By Rabbinic Intern Gregory Metzger
“Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering: That is the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night . . . And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning . . . A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” - Leviticus 6:1-6.
It is not easy to keep the fire alive – to maintain passion in the pursuit of our careers and our lifes’s works; The pursuit of self improvement; and the pursuit of peace and social justice. The Torah understands this and not only commands us to keep the flames burning, but also guides us on how to do it.
“And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning, and upon it, he shall arrange the burnt offering and cause the fats of the peace offerings to [go up ] . . . upon it.” - Leviticus 6:5
Our pursuits require energy. They require constant renewal. This flame is kindled initially by Love, by Desire, by a bright vision of the future. They may otherwise be kindled by another vision: by anger and outrage at the injustice, the violence, brutality and suffering. Were this SPARK enough to keep the fire burning, it would be easy. We could just dream, or read the paper, watch the news and study current events. There is enough fuel to burn and burn and burn. But Love, Desire, Anger and Outrage are not enough – in fact, when talking about “Expanding the boundaries of Justice in this world” anger and outrage alone, will put the fire out. Our efforts produce results that spirit us forward, but we also burn out.
“. . . And he shall lift out the ashes into which the fire has consumed the burnt offering upon the altar, and put them down next to the altar. He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments, and he shall take out the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.” - Leviticus 6:3-4
The Sfat Emet says that “according to the burning of the refuse, so is the measure of the holiness of the person.”
He suggests that we can offer our negativity and transform it, make it holy through fire. However, the energy of desire, of anger and of outrage produce toxic residue – ashes that will suffocate the fire. We must find a way to remove this negativity, to purify ourselves from the toxic ashes that come from confronting evil.
“And this is the law of the peace offering, which he shall bring to the Lord. If he is bringing it as a thanksgiving offering . . . the flesh of his thanksgiving peace offering shall be eaten on the day it is offered up; he shall not leave any of it over until morning.” - Leviticus 7:12-15
The way to purify ourselves from the toxicity of the negative that builds from pushing forward on the power desire, the fuel of anger and outrage is to eat of the joy from the offerings of thanksgiving. This flame may be kindled by our loving desires or our response to injustice, the violence, brutality and suffering, but it is stoked and made brighter by offerings made in gratitude. It is easy to fall prey to the negative.
We have been working to better the world for a long time and there is so much left to do. We are bombarded by messages that would tell us that we are failing. These messages are ash and they are lies. The truth is our thanksgiving.
The truth is that your participation in Tikkun Olam makes a difference. I have amazing experiences as an advocate and activist for Social Justice. I get to see casual and committed people JUST LIKE YOU come together and make a difference in the lives of thousands and of individuals.
Witnessing the “good works” and being inspired by the lights that I see in you and others shine is the gratitude that stokes the fire! It is said that in the World to Come, there will be no negativity and no war and no guilt and no need to make the Korbon (the sacrifices), yet we will continue to bring the thanksgiving offering!
Burnout and toxicity are replaced by joy and vitality when we make our offerings in community and with an open heart. I ask you to support our social justice committee and co-chairs, Renee and Vivian and offer your self - heart and soul." Witness and celebrate all the “good works” and inspired actions they and this holy community are leading.
The new PEW survey on the decline of Jewish life in the U.S. paints a bleak picture of our future. Among the discoveries were the fact that 58% of Jews now marry non-Jews, two-thirds of Jews don’t belong to a synagogue, and 32% of Jews born after 1980 say they have “no religion” and lack of interest in organized religion.
In response, Jessica Grose, a Slate Magazine contributor married to a non-Jew, wrote an article saying that she does want to teach her baby daughter about her Jewish background. She is at a loss as to what exactly her religious life will or should look like. She ended her article by saying, “The notion that American Jews are eschewing religion so broadly makes me a little sad, or worried for Jewish continuity (or guilty for being part of the problem). But I can’t see myself bringing my daughter to temple every Friday to honor a God I don’t believe in. What’s the solution?
Mark Oppenheimer, a religion columnist for the New York Times, offered Grose a few solutions. He tells Grose that in spite of some young Jews “liberal consumerism”, it is clear that Jewish affiliation means something to her. Otherwise, why would she feel so guilty? She should see her guilt as a call to explore her Jewish community and traditions. Ultimately, he recommends a deeper and more thorough engagement with Jewish tradition, culture, and thought which will give her the ability to live Judaism on her own terms.
Oppenheimer says, “It may be Torah study, if only to learn the stories that will give you cultural common ground with other Jews. It may be regular, inquisitive synagogue attendance, not to “pray to a God [you] don’t believe in,” which is not at all why most Jews attend synagogue, but to try to learn over time why Jewish routine and ritual can be comforting and inspiring. It may be celebrating more Jewish holidays than the two you grew up with.”
I agree with Oppenheimer on a theoretical basis, but really if there was ever something easier said than done, this is it! The advice is really not terribly useful for someone without a pre-existing Jewish background or community. The words “Torah study” alone are likely to make more than a few assimilated Jews’ palms sweat. So what can be a comfortable re-entry level to Judaism? Gandhi said, “The longest journey begins with the first step.” Start, by taking a Judaic class from a tolerant, non-judgmental and understanding teacher.
On my trip to Israel in November, I went to visit ELUL in Jerusalem. It is the first pluralistic Yeshivah that was created by Knesset Minister Ruth Calderon in 1989. We at Ahavat Torah have also created a pluralistic yeshivah, one that offers its members a fantastic learning opportunity. Our motto is, “One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community”. We have our monthly Midrasha program, weekly Ethics class, Torah Portion of the week classes for the past 10 years. Other classes include Ethics of our Fathers, Mishnah, Talmud, Holidays, Philosophy, Song of Songs, Psalms, and more.
At ELUL in Jerusalem, I met with the Executive Director, Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz and her Resource Development Manager, Leah Goeppinger-Levy. It was a wonderful and very stimulating meeting. At the end of the meeting I invited Shlomit to come to Los Angeles and be an AT’s guest, and give us a taste of “Jerusalem learning”. We are not part of the PEW survey. We are the antidote to Generation-X’s problem. We do not have sweaty palms when we learn. Please plan on coming to AT and learning with Shlomit.
PLEASE SAVE THURSDAY, MARCH 20th @ 7:00PM for a fabulous learning, over coffee and dessert. Please plan on bringing some friends.
A portion of this article was taken from, “Give Us Our Gen-X Judaism,” by Elissa Strauss.
By Rabbinic Intern Gregory D. Metzger
I love time-lapse photography! It is the filming technique that gives us a glimpse into a world we otherwise would not see. With time-lapse, we get to see skyscrapers erected in minutes. We see plants go from seed to flower in seconds. We see the 405 actually move! Watching these films gets me wondering: can we see God, if we just slow the world down enough?
Moses was very attentive; he slowed the world down enough to notice that the burning bush was not being consumed. He saw miracles. He saw signs and wonders. But he wanted to see God face-to-face. Moses said: “If I have truly gained your favor, pray let me know Your ways that I may know you. . .Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” Exodus 33:15-18
God responds: “I shall cause to pass all my goodness before your face, and I shall call out the name ׳הוה before you. I shall show favor to whomever I choose, and I shall show mercy to whomever I choose. And . . . you will not be able to see My face for no man can [see It] and live. And he said, there is a place near Me on the rock. When My glory passes, I shall place you in a cleft in the rock; I shall shield you with My hand over you until I have passed. Then, I shall remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face may not be seen.” Exodos 33:19-23
There is a teaching of the Chatam Sofer, Moses Schreiber, a leading Orthodox rabbi of the 19th century. He taught that a period of time may only be understood once we are able to view the entire context of events and happenings.
When I take the time to look back at moments in my life, it is not hard for me to see that self-will alone did not bring me to the place (ha-Makom) where I stand today. A larger Force is at work in my life. As much as I seek to see this Force working “in the moment”, I, like Moses, must struggle to content myself with knowing that the “Ever Present” is truly ever present even though it can only be truly apprehended in retrospect.
As a person active in the Holy task of advocating for justice, human rights and the relief of suffering, the task for me, is to act as if I have True Faith that God is with me in this moment. Faith is therefore the ACTION not the belief. In G-d in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The deed is the test, the trial and the risk. What we perform may seem slight, but the aftermath is immense. ”
This is how I understand our Rabbi, when she encourages us to plant trees whose fruits we may never see. Faith and God are present with the seed and the planting. There is “much greater” at work in the present than can be seen in the moment. This is so true in this great work of living a life of blessings. We can see this "Much Greater” in the lives of those we serve and in the souls of those who walk and work alongside us.
What is the deed you will perform this week? What is the risk that you will take this week, not knowing what fruit it will bear, where and to whom it will be made manifest? You have been given the seed, is up to you to plant it and encourage others to join as you nurture it.
Whether or not we will be fortunate enough to be able to look back as if with time-lapse photography and see the true beauty and power of our deed, we can all rejoice in the recognition of the great blessing that we have been invited to become a part of something awesome!
After the construction of The Mishkan, the building of which brought the community together and made space for God to dwell in the midst of the people, we are instructed, in this week’s Parsha to focus on what we bring into the holy space and who should be entrusted to create the objects that will be come sacred.
“And you shall command the Children of Israel that they shall bring to you olive oil that is clear, crushed to illuminate and to kindle a lamp, to light an eternal lamp.” - Exodus 27:20
We are instructed not just to light the lamp, but to kindle an eternal flame with olive oil. The first, most important thing to bring into our holy space is not an object, but an idea, a principle – the principle of peace. The Torah is teaching us that we need to make peace primary and central within our innermost selves and at the core of our communities, lest we invite corruption and become unable to care for the needy, stand up for the powerless and cry out for the voiceless.
Building peace takes time. I am told that for an olive tree to grow from a seed to bearing fruit is six years. How precious is the fruit of a tree that we have nurtured for so many years - How sweet the fruit. The fruits of peace are all the lives that grow within it and the connections that flourish beneath.
We are command to create light with the fruits of this tree of peace- a light that will kindle – a light that will create more light. For us, a people who have known genocide, this light is not just a symbol that we keep in our sanctuary. We are called to carry this light with us as we work to see that “never again” shall this happen to us or anyone else. If we carry this light, ignited by a true passion for peace, it will kindle the flame in others. From action-to-action, we make space for the light to expand. From person-to-person we expand the peace and spread God’s grace over the darkness that engulfs too much of our world.
Who is trusted with this sacred task?
“And you shall speak to all who are wise of heart, that I have filled with a spirit of wisdom.” Exodus 28:3
Who are the people God has chosen to build and preserve this holy space? This peace? To whom has He entrusted the sacred responsibility to spread this light and kindle these flames? This answer is you. You my friends, with wisdom in your heart - It is up to you to make this principle visible. It is up you to “light these lights”.
Please speak out about this …. V’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam b’shivt’cha b’veitecha uv’lecht’cha vaderech uv’shochb’cha uv’kumecha. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.
May you be blessed to catch fire and may your sparks kindle the flame and may it spread the light of peace upon all.
On October 27th, 1988, the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital launched Stuart House, a child abuse treatment program. It was the first in the world that had medical, police and child protective services under the same roof. It was a "one-stop center" where children were and still are given immediate assistance.
Chuck and I were at the opening of the center. It was a hopeful and heart wrenching day all at once. Chuck worked for many years as a volunteer physician, and I worked for fifteen years as a volunteer in the waiting room, making rape victims feel a bit at ease before being seen by a professional.
Our Torah portion today reminds me the important laws that were already set so many thousands of years ago by our ancient ancestors to protect the vulnerable in our society. This Torah portion is particularly interesting because it refers to an amazing number of laws that are applied particularly to women, for example:
1) What shall be the status of the wife of a Hebrew debt slave (21:3-5)?
2) What is the status and rights of a daughter who was sold into slavery to pay off her family's debt (21:7-11)?
3) What would happen with one who, verbally or physically abuses his mother (21:15, 17)?
4) What are the rights of a Hebrew female slave, who is physically abused by her master, (21:20-21 & 26-27)?
5) Who takes responsibility in a fight when a pregnant woman gets hurt, has a miscarriage, and her un-born child dies, and she herself is in a life and death situation (21:22-25)?
6) What happens to an ox who gores a woman to death (21:28-32)?
7) What are the consequences of a man who lies with virgin, and who did not ask her father formally to get engaged with the girl (22:15-16)?
8) How to treat a sorceress (22:17)?
9) What are the upshots to our society if we fail to protect the vulnerable like the widow or the orphan, (22:21-23)?
There is a unifying promise to all these verses. God promises that if any of these vulnerable people will be mistreated and they would cry out to Him, "My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword (22:23)... I will pay heed, for I am compassionate,"(22:26).
Sadly, many of us are all too familiar with the epidemic of women and children's abuse. Women worldwide, suffer abusive relationships in silence that can be potentially fatal. Shocking statistics tell us that every nine seconds a woman is physically abused in the US. It is astounding that about one out of every four girls and one out of every eight boys are sexually abused before they reach eighteen years of age.
Our ancestors knew already that the vulnerable in our society, the poor, the widow and the orphan needed to be protected. They created these compassionate laws to shield the voiceless, to strengthen them and defend them. Do we hear their cries? Does our anger burn as a blaze? Can we pay heed by being an active supporter of various anti-violence legislation?
Let us in 2014 continue the work our ancestors started in our Torah portion this week. If you wish to volunteer you may contact http://therapefoundation.org/stuart-house, or, if you wish to donate some money contact http://www.every9seconds.com
May each of us never be complacent or take for granted the health and safety many of us enjoy. May we be able to fulfill a covenantal relationship not only with God, but also with the needy and deprived all around us. Amen.
This week’s parsha, BeShalach, chronicles the events immediately after the Israelites leave Egypt and go into the wilderness. In summary: Pharaoh has a change of heart and sets his armies out to kill or recapture the Israelites who become trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea of Reeds. The Sea is split and allows the Israelites to pass through to safety while the Egyptians who give chase bog down in the mud and drown as the waters turn back. The Israelites break out into celebration with song and dance. While safe from Pharaoh, they enter the wilderness, the unknown, where danger lurks in the form of Amelek – pure evil.
A revolutionary wave of demonstrations swept across the world beginning in 2010 and continuing to this day. Many took the first steps into the unknown place on their way to freedom. Since then, rulers have been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Protests and civil uprisings took place in Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Syria - All these in the name of freedom.
As you read this, I am on the Thai/Burma border working with refugees from a civil war that has been raging since the end of WW2. I will be witness to the hopes, joys, pain and suffering of people living under oppression of biblical proportions. Week -by-week as I read about the exodus in Torah, about the Israelite struggle and their path to freedom, I am struck by the parallels and differences in today’s changing world. They have “pharaohs” who don’t want to let them go. They have “Amalek” , the unrestrained evil which thrives when there is no “Torah” – no rule of law. The liberation of a people is a brilliant display of God’s hand in the affairs of man. The initial wave of light is so bright the whole world can see it. It moves all of humanity to lift the fallen; and the fallen to stand with hope and purpose.
When the Israelites saw the miracles the Lord had performed for them they broke out in celebration. Miriam led the women in dance and song. We too celebrate - but with caution, as the hearts of the pharaohs of the modern world are hardened.
“The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh”. (Shemot 14.8)
We learn from Torah that the light of the Lord is a shadow to the wicked. Despotic leaders, our modern Pharaohs, do not rejoice with the masses as they mark their moment in history with celebration. Their “chariots” and armies are not stopped by miracles.
“Amelek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim.” (Shemot 17.8)
Within Pharaoh is a shadow - a darkness in which evil can flourish. Amelek exists in the evil of opportunists who do their work in the dark, exploiting uncertain situations and preying upon the weak and the vulnerable. Evil and Amelek attack the weak and flourish in darkness. We, therefore, must bring our light, the light of freedom, the light of God to illuminate the shadows.
We can take an action today that will increase the light. We can let our voices be heard. Today, call your elected leaders and let them know that you support freedom for all peoples. We can also support organizations in our community that seek to provide comfort and healing to the victims. It is only when we take action that we become part of “the great miracle”. Take action now and join together to dance and sing in celebration! Call the White House at 202-456-1111 and ask the Obama administration to use its financial as well as global political resources to end to the atrocities being perpetrated on the ethnic minorities in Myanmar.
It was interesting this week to look at various pieces of artwork based on biblical narratives. I found three pieces based on the miracle of Aaron’s staff turning into a snake. The artists differ widely in how they imagine the snake and in the way they understand the miracle as a whole.
Image from the Sarajevo Passover Haggadah (Image #1 above)
This Haggadah is considered to be a national treasure. It has illuminated manuscript, and it’s artist is unknown, and is dated to 1350. It use to be housed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Since the last war this treasured Haggadah is hidden away out of fear that it would be stolen. The Haggadah's illustration is the simplest of the compositions. It depicts just six static figures, Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron, and three Egyptians. The snake, depicted as a lizard-like creature, lies on the table, calmly swallowing the other snakes, whose heads peek out from his mouth.
This vibrantly colored tapestry is based on an oil painting by Nicolas Poussin ((Image #2 above). It places the scene of the miracle inside the palace. The various characters are arranged in a line across the image, with the staffs-turned-snakes wriggling on the floor before them. Pharaoh is distinguished only by the fact that he is the sole seated figure. Moshe and Aaron face him, fingers pointed heavenward, presumably saying that the miracle is the work of God.
LaHaye Engraved Bible (1728) - Moses and Sorcerers (Image #3 above)are turning their staff into snakes. This engraving, in contrast, sets the miracle outside the palace. It is filled with figures and movement, as many onlookers besides Pharaoh's courtiers approach to view the site. Moses and Aaron are placed in the left foreground, backs to the viewer, while Pharaoh towers over them, looking at the snakes below. The creatures are pictured here as winged dragons, fighting and biting each other.
The snake is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. They have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and to their dual expression of good and evil. In some ancient cultures snakes were symbols of fertility, or the spirit of the Underworld. In other cultures snakes symbolized the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. In Eastern traditions Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. The snake is identified with wisdom when he appears for the first time in the Torah in the Garden of Eden when it lured Eve. Snakes are also connected with poison and medicine. The Nehushtan was a sacred object in the form of a brass snake on a tall pole when Moses used it to cure the Israelites from snakebites in the desert.
May you see the intertwined snakes on the Caduceus, the symbol of Medicine, as a source of healing to you. Amen.
By Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
The wisdom of peace and brotherly love are among the blessings to be found in this last parsha of the first book of the Torah. Since the very first parsha, this book of Torah chronicles our attempts and failures to act as our brother’s keeper.
As Jacob prepares to die, he offers the blessings of his wisdom to his children beginning with Joseph and Joseph’s children. “. . .God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day, may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths. . .in the midst of the land” Breishit 48:15-16.
Jacob, who began by viewing life as a zero-sum game and took his brothers birthright, stole his blessing and ran away…Jacob who wrestled with beings human and divine, prevailed by gaining wisdom through the successes, failures and struggles – his own , as well as those of his children. In the end, he learns that true abundance does not come from violence, but from brotherly love and that these blessings are available even in the midst of great material scarcity. And he teaches that the future depended on brothers being brothers, on sharing blessings, not stealing them, on coming closer, not running further away.
Jacob witnessed terrible violence and great loss during his life and was able to see that violence does not make up for loss. The slaughter of all the men of Shechem by Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, in response to the rape of Dinah, haunted Jacob. He made a connection that we often fail to see today. Acts of violence, no matter the motivation, leave profound scars on everyone, even the perpetrators. Whether in defense or vengeance, the act changes them forever. Many, especially children develop an unnatural cruelty and perform equally brutal acts on others. The innocent are struck down along with the guilty and new victims become new perpetrators.
In blessing each of his sons, Jacob admonishes Shimon and Levi and condemns their use of violence. “. . .when angry they slay men, when pleased they maim oxen.” ( Breishit 49:6) Jacob recognizes the problem, but it is not until the time of Moses that God reveals a solution. In Bamidbar, the tribe of Levi is given a new and higher purpose –a way to serve and make a positive contribution to the community. Helping people transition from violence involves reorienting from destroying to creating, from taking to giving, from cursing to blessing. The tradition of blessing our children on Shabbat has its origin in this parsha, with the blessing of Efraim and Manasseh – The blessings that they live like brothers who are their brother’s keepers.
From this we learn that for blessings of peace to be truly impactful and transformative, we must offer blessings that provide opportunities to serve each other and our communities – blessings that restore purpose, meaning and dignity. We must offer more than just a handout that leads to a cycle of poverty, violence and reliance on ongoing charity. We must present people with a way to be a blessing in their community and to elevate themselves and lift up others, creating new and positive cycles.
This Shabbat let us recommit to the Torah’s vision of unity and service to the greater community. Let us each take an action to bless all the children of the world with purpose, meaning and dignity. And may we be blessed to recognize our power to be God’s partner and to bring blessings and miracles to those we serve.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.