Friday, February 15, 2019

The Grammys and the High Priest: Tetzaveh.19

The Grammys and the High Priest
Shabbat Tetzaveh, Feb. 15, 2019
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

I have an admission to make: I don’t watch the Grammys. I don’t watch the Oscars. I don’t watch any of the countless other awards show that are such a staple of America’s entertainment industry. It isn’t that I am an elitist, though some might think otherwise; it’s that I find these shows to be over-the-top, self-congratulating ads for yet more things to buy, collect and hoard. At best, they make us feel good about the choices we make, about our own taste and how that fits in with the rest of society. At worst, they are no more than publicity stunts.

It isn’t that movies, TV, music and other media aren’t an important part of our culture. They are, and always have been. Art, in all its forms, is an expression of the human soul. It provides diversion, escape and comfort; art stimulates our imagination and inspires us;  It serves to connect people across time and distance. Art often leaves us feeling wonder and awe, and at times it moves us to tears or laughter—sometimes even both at once.

As such, art deserves recognition, as do the artists who work tirelessly to create their masterpieces.

But art and awards shows are not the same thing. More often than not, even when I used to watch, the awards shows have left me feeling empty, like eating over sweetened whipped air. Though the entertainment part may be fun—and admittedly, you can see highlights of shows you rarely get to see otherwise—what invariably the cameras and commentators focus on is the clothing people wear. 

The next day, the papers and glossies are all about the clothing. Who wore what; who glittered and who bored; who was classy, and who, outrageous.   

I suppose it’s all part of what Joni Mitchell called in one of her songs, “the star-making machinery.” That’s entertainment, an industry that in America alone is said to be worth close to 700 billion dollars. 

A dozen or so years ago, a movie came out that was a sharp satire of this industry. Starring Anne Hathaway and the incomparable Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada is actually a smart and entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes activity at a Vogue-like high fashion magazine. How ironic, especially in light of this week’s Torah portion and its description of the clothing worn by the Priests at the Temple, that Meryl Streep’s character was named Miranda Priestly.  Priestly is the goddess of the fashion industry, and if maybe not actually the goddess, then at least the High Priestess.

This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20—30:10)  is part of the lengthy description of the materials and designs used in the construction of the Tabernacle in the Sinai Wilderness. At first reading, it seems repetitious and even boring. Compared to the breathtaking and grandiose visions of Pharaoh’s Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Ten Commandments, the narrative in this portion is downright minimalist: So many yards of this, so many pounds of that. In explaining what God wants Moses to do, no detail is omitted, and in fact is repeated several times, just to make sure. “You got that Moses? Let’s go over it one more time.”

Lost in all these details is one thing, however: The High Priest himself. He might as well be a mannequin. The man who is about to become priest, in fact, disappears. All aspects of his prior being—his personality, his qualities, his features—are of little or no importance in the narrative. His very identity seems to be taken away from him; at the entrance to the Tabernacle he is washed in water, physically and symbolically stripped of anything he might have been prior to this moment. Then, layer by layer, garment by garment, the priestly clothing is placed upon him, redefining him in light of his new role.

In this new role, the Priest becomes part of the Sacrificial ritual. He is brought forth to the Tent of Meeting; Moses lays his hands on Aaron’s head, much as Aaron himself, as High Priest, will soon do to the animals he will be offering as sacrifice to God.

If the clothes worn by the stars at the Grammys and Oscars are meant to display their bodies, the High Priest’s garments are meant to hide his. The show isn’t about him; it’s about the role he plays—not in a staged movie or play, but rather in the very personal, very real and extremely meaningful interaction that must exist between God and the People of Israel.

For despite the beauty and riches associated with the priest’s clothing, and despite the detailed instructions given for creating these garments, the focus isn’t on the clothing. Yes, over his fancy turban the High Priest wears a gold tiara, but it isn’t the gold that matters. It’s the words engraved into it: Kodesh La-Adonai, “Holy unto God.” The priestly garments were created of the most expensive yarns and interwoven with the rarest colors. Yet the real message of this portion isn’t about the riches on display.  It isn’t about the twelve precious stones embedded in the breastplate that the High Priest wears over his robe. 

It’s about the words engraved upon them. 

Carved into the gems were the names of the twelve Tribes of Israel. One stone per tribe. No stone is bigger than its neighbor, none richer or poorer, each set in its own gold frame. As the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, that’s what was upon his heart; that was his role: to bring a memory of the Children of Israel before God, and to bring back to them God’s message, God’s word. 

Ultimately, beyond the glitter and the gold, Tetzaveh is really about the relationship between God and Israel. Imagery is important, and as such no expense was spared in creating the High Priest’s garments. Seeing is believing, after all. Yet what really stands out in this story is not the brilliance of the gold, nor the glory of the priest himself, but rather: ordinary words; the everyday pleas and requests of the people, the prayers and petitions which it was his task and duty to bring up to God. 

In the Hollywood movie, the devil may have worn Prada. But in Tetzaveh we find the truth behind the saying that God is in the details.

Unlike the clothing worn at the Oscars and Grammys, the function of Priest’s clothing isn’t to make him special; rather, it’s about the people he represents. Like the Tent of Meeting—glorious but in fact only a tent, built to represent God’s Presence and to be home for God’s Covenant with the People of Israel—so is the Priest’s clothing only symbolic of the function played by the person who wears it: A spokesman for humanity and for God.

May we find God’s glory in every detail of our lives, and may God’s holiness be engraved not only upon our clothing, but on our hearts, in our souls and in the good work we do.  


© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, February 8, 2019

Flickering Lights: Jewish Movies That Have Impacted Us

Flickering Lights: Jewish Movies That Have Impacted Us
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
February 8, 2019

Festivals have always been community-wide events meant not only for entertainment, but also for celebrating any number of the community’s traditions or cultural aspects. Jewish Americans today have music festivals, arts-and-crafts festivals, religious festivals, and of course, food festivals. These are wonderful occasions for rejoicing or reminiscing, for seeing what is new and beautiful, and for tasting a variety of fares from different countries and cultures. 

Additionally, however, Jewish festivals also serve yet another important function: to bring together Jewish people; to let them interconnect, exchange ideas and thoughts. 

In the past few years, a new kind of festival has become popular: the Jewish Film Festival.  More than other festivals, the Jewish Film Festival serves an additional function: to let us see ourselves the way others do. As we sit there, in the dark, watching and listening, we can recognize ourselves, both individually and as a community. Simultaneously, we also decipher the trends, the direction, and in general, the current state of the Jewish People.  Movies are a powerful medium.

An end-of-the-year tradition among literary pundits is to list the most important events of the almost-over-year. In a similar vein, knowing that the New Hampshire 2019 Jewish Film Festival will be coming to theaters in just a few weeks, I would like to put forth my own, very personal and very opinionated, nominations for the most influential Jewish movies that I have seen—not only in the past year, but actually over the past few years.

I will focus on movies that came out after the Holocaust, categorizing them by topic or era.

First, the Holocaust—which, along with Hiroshima—is the most cataclysmic event of the 20thcentury, the one that changed us all forever, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Diary of Anne Frankbrings—with both sensitivity and a growing sense of impending doom—the famous story of the young girl and her family who spent 25 months in hiding in an Amsterdam attic. Adapted from the actual diary, it was first staged as a play on Broadway. Filmed in 1959, The Diary of Anne Frankis one of the first Hollywood movies to bring the subject of the Holocaust to the large screen, and the first to win Academy Awards.

 Judgment At Nuremberg, a movie filled with star power and gripping performances, doesn’t flinch from displaying in gruesome detail some of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Yet another movie that highlights the Holocaust—but doesn’t stop there, moving instead to the creation of the modern State of Israel—is Exodus, the 1960 film that gave hope to, and inspired, an entire generation.

Since then, many more Holocaust movies have come out, most importantly Schindler’s Listand The Pianist. Among European movies, Au Revoir Les Enfantsstands out, along with Europa Europa, the harrowing and true story of a young Jewish boy who survives by pretending to be German, at one point even joining the Hitler Youth!

As the actual historical events recede into the past, and with survivors becoming fewer in number, yet more Holocaust movies have come out in the past few years, portraying not only the larger, almost incomprehensible picture, but also the smaller, more personal stories, focusing on the day-by-day choices that had to be made: choices that meant not only physical but also moral survival; the survival not only of the body, but also of the Jewish spirit. In this category I would list Life Is BeautifulThe Grey Zone, and the dark and terrifying Son of Saul.

Beyond destruction comes rebirth. The renewed Israel experience can be seen in many films. After a series of “bourekas” or ethnic comedies, Israel has recently enjoyed a sort of renaissance in the artform.  For me, however, several movies stand out from all the others: first is Sallah Shabati, the 1964 film that paints with biting humor the chaos of immigration and resettlement during the early years of the State. With humor and wisdom, the film portrays the struggles that characterized the new, turned-upside-down lives of newly-arrived immigrants. Additionally, however, Sallah Shabati also reveals the emerging class and cultural conflict between European Ashkenazi Jews, and Sephardi Jews from Arab lands. 

Among newer films from Israel, Fill the Void and Ushpizin give us insight into the life of Israel’s Orthodox and Hassidic communities; both films examine the way Jews try to maintain their beliefs and traditions while facing the various crises that life and modernity bring about. Still other movies examine the secular, social and political aspects of life in Israel today. (There is, of course, an Israel Film Festival, held annually in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel).

The American Jewish experience is almost as multi-faceted as its Israeli counterpart, and it can be examined through various movies. Fiddler On The RoofThe Frisco Kid, and the animated feature An American Tale offer interesting takes on Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Hester Street, Avalon and School Ties shed light on the challenges faced by Jews as they try to integrate into American society and adapt to the American way of life. 

The films of Woody Allen offer a bitterly sarcastic view of how some Jewish Americans  see themselves. Crimes and Misdemeanors and—of course—Annie Hall are representative of this perspective, if one can get past the massive amounts of guilt and self-hate (some would even call it anti-Semitism) that fill Allen’s films.

Finally, an outstanding example of Jewish movies, unique and special in many ways, is Barbra Streisand’s Yentl. I point to this one not only because I love the gorgeous music (by Michel Legrand, who, sadly, died only a few days ago; and Streisand is at peak form in this movie! Just listen to how long she holds that last note in “Papa Can You Hear Me”). But above and beyond its artistic merits, Yentl is on my list because of the huge impact it had on American Jews, and particularly on Jewish women.  In its time, Yentl empowered thousands if not millions of American Jewish women, for the first time ever, to enter the “rooms within rooms” of Jewish learning. In this sense, Yentlhas had—and continues to have—lasting and essential influence on the American Jewish experience.

Obviously, this list is highly personal and incomplete. My apologies to all those that I left out. I am sure that there are huge gaps that can be filled by each of you. Hopefully this year’s Jewish Film Festival will add even more samples to this important new genre of Jewish culture. Who knows, some might even become classics. 

Movies free our imaginations and fantasies. They also let us see ourselves as we truly are.  But just as importantly, the Jewish Film Festival strives to gather, at least for a couple of hours, an audience that covers the entire spectrum of the wide-spread and deeply divided Jewish American community. No doubt one of the results will be a great many heated discussion, as we view ourselves through the interchangeably tragic or comic, rose-tinted or realistic, visionary or all-of-the-above, camera lens. It should be interesting.

Here is to the success of the 2019 Jewish Film Festival! Happy viewing!

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 25, 2019

Strength and Peace: Serving In Israel’s Defense

Strength and Peace: Serving In Israel’s Defense
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Shabbat Yitro, January 25, 2019

My great-niece Opal enlisted in the Israel Defense Force last week. That makes four generations of my family who have served in the IDF during my lifetime.

Military service in Israel is compulsory for both men and women, with some exemptions offered for religious or other reasons. There are some who refuse to serve, while some others, particularly Orthodox young women, opt for community service. But on the whole, almost everyone serves.  It’s more than a rite of passage. It’s a responsibility as well as a privilege, fundamental to the People and the State of Israel.

The IDF is the great equalizer in Israeli society. No matter your ethnic, religious or economic background, when you’re in basic training and have to carry a fellow soldier on a stretcher for several kilometers, keeping an insane pace and trying not to stumble on a rock or sand dune, it doesn’t matter what your buddy’s skin color or social circumstance might be. All that matters is that everyone shoulder the responsibility equally. The result is a community that one can rely on in war or peace, a group of friends bonded for life.

The IDF provides other great lessons, too.  In the US, after high school many graduates go on to college, trying to find themselves and their life’s purpose in-between parties and hazing rituals. In Israel, more often than not you find that purpose and vocation in the IDF. In fact, chances are the army has had their eye on you and your education for years, looking for the best candidates for specific jobs—at the moment it’s cyber and high tech. 

While training you to be at your physical peak at all times, the IDF teaches you some real-life lessons, such as safety, responsibility and ethics. It teaches you to trust and act on your instincts—while at the same time expecting you to uphold the highest morals and ideals. Not an easy balance to maintain in the supremely challenging conditions that these 18-year-olds find themselves in for the first time in their lives.

I remember when I joined the IDF. I had received my call-up notice a few months earlier—and I have to admit, had nightmares up to the last night. I am not exactly what one would call military material. Would I find my place? Would I meet the physical and psychological demands of military service?

Yet within days I realized what a privilege was extended to me. Basic training, though not exactly fun, turned out to be one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had. Even when I was assigned to my permanent base—and it was the pits! One of the least desirable posts anyone could ever hope for—I found meaning in my service.

I remember one day in particular: July 4th, 1976. America’s bicentennial.  I woke up as usual at 5:15 AM, stood at the outdoor, broken sink, shaving, listening to the morning news on my little transistor radio (OK—no laughing! Personal computers were not yet a twinkle in their inventors’ eyes in those days!). So here I am, my brain not yet engaged, barely seeing my reflection in the mirror, half-hearing the news, trying not to nick myself in the early morning light, and what I’m hearing on the tinny speaker just doesn’t sink in. Something about the Israeli Air Force and Uganda. Uganda?—that’s like on the far side of the moon, no? What happened?

Little by little the import of the news sank in. The Israeli Air Force had just carried out one of its most astounding missions ever. A few days earlier, an Air France plane carrying 248 passengers was hijacked by terrorists on route from Tel Aviv to Paris. Diverted to Entebbe, the capital of Uganda, at the time ruled by the monstrous dictator Idi Amin, Israeli and Jewish passengers were segregated from the non-Jews and held hostage at gun-point. Flying literally under the radar, under cover of darkness, the rescue unit reached Entebbe undetected, and within 90 minutes had completed its task. All but four of the passengers were rescued. Also lost was the commander of the unit, Yoni Netanyahu, Bibi’s older brother. That was the news I woke up to on that July 4th.

By breakfast time, and now fully alert, I finally internalized what had happened. I remember the sense of wonder that pervaded my whole being: I may have been the least significant cog in the machine, but I was part of this incredible experience—a first in nearly 2000 years—of Jews defending themselves. Prior to the 20th century, the last time this happened was during the second revolt against the Roman Empire, in the year 135. I could not imagine feeling a greater sense of fulfillment. 

Some think that Judea was destroyed with the fall of the desert fortress, Masada.  For years, “Masada shall not fall again” was the oath taken by almost all newly-recruited soldiers in the Israel Defense Force. But the truth is that the rebellion of the Judeans against their Roman oppressors did not end with Masada. It went on for another sixty years, ending only with the fall of Bar Kokhba’s last stronghold, Beitar. Hailed as the messiah by many, including the famous Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kokhba’s defeat was the last time armed Jews were able to defend themselves. Until, that is, modern times.

For centuries, the Jews had been at the mercy of their European or Muslim overlords, shielded or exiled in turn, locked in ghettoes or burned at the stake at the political whim or religious zeal of a monk, a baron, duke, king or pope. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 was no different. Following the pogrom, the Hebrew national poet, Hayyim Bialik, was sent as head of a delegation to witness and document the results of the vicious attack on Kishinev’s Jews. Bialik, however, could only register in words his shock and horror, not raise an army. While inspiring some Jews to organize into self-defense units and others to make Aliyah (immigrate) to Israel, the rest of the world remained silent. For Hitler, Kishinev was the very sign he was looking for: the world would continue to turn a blind eye to his plans for a “final solution” to the “problem” of the Jewish people.

It remained for Israel, and the IDF, to rise up in defense of the Jews, and the year was 1947, a mere two years after the end of the Holocaust.

To be sure, during the 2nd World War, there were Jews who fought. Some famously resisted the Nazis at the ghetto uprisings in Warsaw, Sobibor and Kovno. Others fought as partisans, taking direction from the Russian Army, or the Polish or French underground. In 1944, with victory nearly accomplished, the British finally allowed Jewish soldiers from the Land of Israel to join what became known as The Jewish Brigade.  It too, however, was led by others—by Anglo-Jewish commanders serving in His Majesty’s Royal Service. But there was no independent Jewish defense force. That dream became real only after the establishment of the State of Israel. Then, for the first time since Bar Kochba, Jewish soldiers were assembled, trained and sent to battle under Jewish commanders, under the flag and banner of the Jewish State of Israel.

In 2006, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that if the Arabs ever laid down their weapons, there would be no more war; but that if Israel ever laid down its weapons, there would be no more Israel. The sad truth of this statement has been proven time and time again since 1948. 

But it isn’t only Israel that the IDF is protecting. It’s all Jews, wherever they live. The IDF is one of Israel’s chief sources of pride and strength. Its soldiers are trained not only in the use of the most modern and sophisticated weapons, but also in ethics and morals. Quite simply, there is no other army in the world that is as powerful, yet also compunctious and empathetic as the IDF.  It has empowered Jews all over the world, inspiring us all to stand up for our rights as human beings, rights that for too long were denied us, chief among them the right to self-defense.

The Israel Defense Force bears its historic responsibility seriously. It understands what it stands for; it rises to the highest expectations—not without the occasional mistake or failure, yet always striving to be better, to do better, to mitigate collateral damage—either to the enemy or to its own fighters. 

In Psalm 29 we read, “The Lord gives strength to His people; the Lord blesses His people with peace.” We may wonder, why does the Psalmist ask first for strength, and then—and only then—for peace? The answer is clear. It was made clear to the Jewish People throughout the last two thousand years. The way this world is, you can’t have peace without strength. It would be nice—very nice—if no one had resorted to strength or violence; if the entire world agreed to live in peace and dignity, and mutual respect, without relying on its militaries and weapons. But it just isn’t so, and the Jewish People has learned its history well.

Still, our ultimate prayer is for Peace. The vision of the prophet Isaiah is for a time when “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” It’s a beautiful and inspiring vision.  But until that day, we need to be strong.

My prayers and thoughts are with my great-niece Opal and with the unit she serves, as well as all those who wear the uniforms of the Israel Defense Forces. May they be strong, and may God bless us all with peace.  

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Legacy of Moses: Bo.2019

The Legacy of Moses
January 12, 2019  Shabbat “Bo” 5779
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

When they first arrived, there was shame.  And silence. What they had seen, what they had lived through, what they had to do to survive, were unspeakable. The shame came from inside; but it also came from others, who weren’t there, and failed to understand. 

And it didn’t matter what country they came from, whether from the east, west, south or north. Europe had destroyed its Jewish communities, one after another.  In Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, violence broke out against the Jews, forcing survivors to escape with only the shirts on their backs, their passports stamped, “Exit, with No Return.”

They left by the hundreds of thousands, all remnants of what had once been glorious communities, centers of learning and culture, forced to leave behind any material goods they might still have had—today estimated in the billions of dollars. Many, however, had nothing to leave behind.  Not even memories. Children who had been orphaned; some who were adopted or hidden by Christian families, or in convents and monasteries, raised as Christians and taught to forget their Jewish roots. 

In the renewed Land of Israel the survivors were encouraged to Hebraicize their names; to submerge and abandon whatever elements of the past they did manage to bring with them, and bring new life to an old land. To begin writing a new history, for a new people. If you spoke Yiddish, the traditional language of Ashkenazi Jews, you were shamed: Yiddish was the language of the Diaspora, of the people who allowed themselves to be led to the slaughter like so many sheep.  If you spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardi Jews, the Jews who came from northern Africa, the Balkans, from Greece, you were told to forget your native tongue and learn modern, living Hebrew, not the language of the long-gone past. If you came from Morocco, Tunisia, from Iran or Iraq, you were shamed as backward, primitive, na├»ve, even stupid.

The horrors you had lived through gave you nightmares, from which you awoke screaming, until you learned to push the memories deep enough into your subconscious so that you could actually go through a day without seeing ghosts.

Slowly a new people did emerge in the renewed Land of Israel. They awoke to a new day, started new families, raised their children to be fearless—and ignorant of the past.  Yes, here and there a mother couldn’t help telling her children of the hell she survived. Some of the older folk still listened to radio broadcasts in the language of the countries they had left behind. Some never managed to overcome the intricacies of Hebrew and thus never learned the language their own children and grandchildren spoke fluently.  I still wonder at how well I communicated with my grandmother, whose knowledge of Hebrew was limited to a few words, yet who managed to transfer intense love to my brother and me, all the strength of a courageous survivor who only a few years earlier had helped dozens, perhaps hundreds, of refugees escape the clutches of their Nazi hunters.

David Ben Gurion, one of the founders of the new State of Israel, was determined that a new chapter would begin for the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. The extent of his success is immeasurable.  Everywhere you go in Israel today, you hear Hebrew. The beggars beg in Hebrew. The singers sing in Hebrew. Soldiers swear in Hebrew.

But then, some time later, something new happened. Young people began to return and discover their old, forgotten roots. Today in Israel you can see these old cultures and traditions revived and flowering again.

It isn’t that the many communities which combined to make up the modern Nation of Israel, are breaking down today, as that they are uncovering the cultures that made them who and what they are: The foods, the music, the language. The memories of the past are unearthed and are reborn, finding new life, forming new branches, giving forth fresh flowers and fruit that enrich the land, life and culture of modern Israel.

The incredible achievement that Israel is today is nothing short of a miracle—a miracle no less wrought by a supernatural God as by the hands of men and women whose will to survive is as powerful as any force of nature. The State of Israel in the 21stcentury isn’t only the result of a modern-day Exodus, but also of a transformation that weaves the past and present, creating a new, multi-colored tapestry.

Yet such a miracle is not new in the history of the Jewish People. Two thousand years ago, a rabbi named Yochanan ben Zakkai transformed Judaism, a religion centered in the Temple in Jerusalem, and turned it into a world-wide faith, where prayer, study and acts of kindness were the new pillars of a new sort of temple, one not unlike this one, and all other temples and synagogues that Jews worship in today.

Similarly, after the destruction of the Spanish Jewish community, five hundred years ago, new rabbis and community leaders restructured the remnants of their ancient traditions, creating what is known—and is still practiced today—as Sephardi Judaism.

But none of these amazing transformations even comes close to the unparalleled achievement of the man we know as Moses, who, more than 3000 years ago, first set the Jewish people on its historical path.  

Stories, myths and legends surround the birth of Moses, his youth as a prince of Egypt, his maturation into a man who stood up to power and demanded freedom for his people.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo (“Come,” Exodus 10:1—13:16), we hear Moses’s demand of Pharaoh, to “Let my people go!” It is in this portion that we read of the last three of the ten plagues that God in turn inflicts upon the Egyptians—locust, darkness and the death of all the firstborn. We recall the dabbing of blood on the Israelites’ doorposts, to ward off the Angel of Death, even as the cries of agony coming from within Egyptian homes continue ringing in our ears to this very day. 

It is in this portion that we witness the end of the four hundred years of slavery in the land of Pharaoh, and our emergence into freedom.

But even as the Israelites leave Egypt, even as they begin their long journey into the Promised Land, Moses manages to turn the chaos and confusion that must have characterized the Exodus, into order and purpose. It isn’t easy to leave everything behind—the homes and neighbors, the old way of life. And so Moses instructs the Israelites not only to remember this day, but also to tell and retell the story of the Exodus, from generation to generation. “Tell your children, and their children…. How with a mighty hand did Adonai take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” We must never forget our past, Moses warns us.

History is more than a random collection of relics and artifacts. A people’s history is its lifeline, a thread that extends into the past, going back to the very soil that first gave it birth. Our history tells us much about ourselves, who we are, where we came from and how we became what we are today. It gives meaning to our existence today, and also direction and purpose as we move forward. 

For while supportive, and nourishing us both physically and spiritually, our past cannot tell us what we must now become. That is up to each of us, based on every individual’s own story and background.  It is through our interaction with the people we live with, with the environment and culture that surround us today, that tomorrow is created. 

Israel today is at a new beginning, a new chapter in our history. There, as well as in many other places around the world, Jews are experiencing a renaissance. Having escaped yet again from the hands of tyrants, the Jewish People still follows Moses’s instruction. Parents are still telling their children, and their children’s children, about the past, about the path they took to reach this place and this day. The exodus that Moses led more than 3000 years ago is reflected in the journey that our parents and grandparents took. The transformation he brought about so long ago is anchored in the changes we see around us today. 

The Exodus from Egypt is a story repeated and recreated throughout our history. And just as it was 3000 years ago, it is a story not only of escape, but also of redemption. It isn’t only about suffering and misery, but also about victory and joy. 

And our story is not yet over. We take the past with us, our traditions, our music, our customs, and we weave them into a new pattern. The past gives us the strength to continue. And the future is still unfolding, created every day by each one of us.

This is Moses’s legacy to us: a role in our history, our lifeline; a never-ending story of escapes and survival; of miracles and courage; of love, faith—and, above all, perseverance.

May our journeys forward always be filled with joy and wonders. May the stories of the past we tell our children, and our children’s children, always be told with love, music and pride. They are all—our stories, the stories of our people—the story of the Jewish People.

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, December 21, 2018

Blessings of the Past, Blessings of the Future: Va-Yechi.18

Blessings of the Past, Blessings of the Future
D’var Torah for Parashat Va-yechi
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

This week’s Torah portion, Va-yechi(Genesis 47:28—50:26) brings to a close the first book of the Torah, Genesis.  With this portion we reach also the end of the saga of Jacob’s life. A new eon in Israel’s history is about to begin, along with a transformation that transcends time and tradition.

Knowing that he is about to die, Jacob calls in his sons for his final blessing, promising to tell them their future. It is one of the most poetic and beautiful of all portions in the Bible—and also one of the most difficult to understand. Many of the words have multiple and esoteric meanings. The writing relies on poetic devices such as alliteration, word-play and symbolism rather than literalism and clarity. What emerges is a mysterious reckoning in which past, present and future intertwine. Rather than fortune telling, what Jacob actually does is show his sons a path—a road map if you will—into the future, giving them direction, goal and purpose. The future, Jacob seems to say, is based on our past; at the same time, however, if it is to emerge and take shape as we would wish, it will depend in no small measure on our own actions and behavior going forward.

As his twelve sons approach one by one, Jacob reminds them of things they themselves may have forgotten. There’s Reuben, the first born and therefore—at least by ancient tradition—first in line for leadership. Jacob, however, admonishes Reuben; he is hasty and impatient; he is overzealous and fails to carry through even the best of intentions. At his worst, he is immoral and unethical. He will be passed over for the position of leadership. Next come Simeon and Levi, but they too have serious hurdles to overcome: past experience proves that they rely too much on their sword and are too given to anger, excitement and violence.  Even Judah, the fourth son—and here Jacob seems to tell Judah that he knows fully well how he had betrayed his brother, Joseph, and sold him to slave traders—has much of the blood-thirsty animal in him. Yet Judah, unlike his brothers, has repented for his misdeeds; he has accepted responsibility not only for past sins, but also for the future well-being of the entire family. In his blessing, Jacob portrays Judah as a lion, fierce not only in the pursuit of food, but also in defense of his pride and people. It is Judah, Jacob foretells, who will become the leader of the Israelites, and who will show them the path forward through strength, courage and faith.

Each of the brothers is recognized for specific abilities; each is empowered by Jacob’s blessing to persevere in his path; each is encouraged to retain his uniqueness and individuality while yet continuing to contribute to the welfare of the entire people.

In this respect, Jacob’s blessing transcends that of his fathers. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, who bestowed their final blessing on only one of two sons (Abraham had exiled Ishmael, and Isaac has little to offer Esau after giving Jacob the birthright and blessing of God), Jacob offers his blessing to allhis sons, forging a bond between them that even history will not be able to break.

Biblical scholars and commentators argue over the specific content and meaning of Jacob’s blessings. Yet what does emerge as clear as light from this beautiful portion is the image of Jacob’s humility, of his ultimate humanity. Of the three Patriarchs of the Jewish People, Jacob is the one most like us. Maybe that’s why in this portion he is referred to almost exclusively as Israel, the name given to him by God and the name by which we, his descendants, will be known, rather than as Jacob, the name given him at birth.

In his own story, Abraham appears almost superhuman. He walks with God, he talks with God, he even argueswith God. A man of powerful faith, Abraham’s heroism and prowess make him legendary in his own time, a figure of astonishment and admiration. Even today he is seen as the founder of three of the world’s major faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Isaac, on the other hand, is wounded; he is a damaged hero, long-suffering, malleable and acquiescent. He does not rebel; he does as he is told, fully aware that he is no more than an instrument in the hands of God and people. 

But Jacob comes off as the most realistically drawn of the three. He has his strengths, to be sure, but also weaknesses. We can identify with his evolution, his transformation from youth to old age, from self-sufficiency to dependence, from doubt to faith. The journey that is Jacob’s life is one that each of us must traverse.  He is not without faults, yet he learns from his mistakes. He attempts to repair any damage he may have caused. At times he succeeds, yet at other times he can’t help but pass down deep-seated habits and traits. Having taken advantage of parental preference (his mother always didlove him best), he continues this unfair practice, promising both Joseph andJudah a royal and even messianic future, thus practically guaranteeing that the rivalry between them will continue well into the future. Old habits are hard to break.

Jacob is the eternal Jew, an everyman for all seasons. At his deathbed, he is overcome by the emotion and love he feels for his family; and then, sensing his vitality slipping away, he prays to God for just a bit more time, for sustenance, for deliverance. 

Jacob’s final blessing is the blessing of strength. He has learned that God is the ultimate source of courage and hope, yet he also knows that true strength must come also from within the individual, as well as from his surrounding community. In order to survive, he tells his sons, they must be strong.

From his own experience, he knows that the flip side of success is jealousy. Years earlier, he had seen hatred directed at him because of his own talents and abilities. Later, he wasn’t blind to the loathing that Josephs’ brothers felt for the son he had favored. At this point, at the close of his life, even with Joseph at the pinnacle of his career, Jacob senses the resentment that the Egyptians feel toward Joseph and his brothers. Power is fickle, he knows: here today, gone tomorrow. Jacob’s message, his living will to his family and people, is to remain strong and unified. Only so will they overcome the dangers that loom ahead. The people’s survival may depend on God’s grace. Their strength, however, will come from their unity, from their single-minded purposefulness.

It is to that end that Jacob bestows his final blessing on allhis children, even going so far as to include Joseph’s two children, born in the Diaspora and shaped by their life as young princes, carefree, culturally assimilated and spoiled by power and riches.

Israel’s endurance as a people is a promise made by God to a lonely and aged visionary, long ago on top of a bare mountain. Repeated and reinforced countless times since then, this promise still holds true. Yet history has proven to us that our survival does not depend only on God. Nor is it guaranteed by our good deeds. Righteousness carries into the future, yes, but perseverance is as much the outcome of strength and unity as it is the fulfillment of misty-eyed visions. It is up to us, as individuals and as a people, to fulfill not only our spiritual duty to God, but also our physical obligation to Life. Our continuity depends on our strength and our unity.

Jacob’s last moments represent the end of an era in our People’s life. A new stage of our history is about to begin. Israel, the man, is about to become Israel, the People. Inspired by the principles of justice and compassion, this nation will forever be guided by an image of life not only as it is, but also as it canbe. The messianic ideal envisioned by Jacob will always be there before our eyes, teaching us to see the potential implanted in every living being; to recognize the ability within each of us to fall—and then to rise again; to overcome failure—and find ourselves stronger for it, always and forever reaching for the highest ideals. 

Chazak chazak v’nit-chazek: May we be strong and of good courage. May we continue to  strengthen one another with the blessings of the past and the blessings of the future.

KYR, may this be God’s will.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, December 7, 2018

Living Lights: A Hanukkah Story

Living Lights
A Hanukkah Story
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

“Our eyes register the light of dead stars.” So begins one of the most powerful books I ever read, The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart. What the author meant, of course, is that when we look up at the beautiful night skies, the lights we see up there—the stars in their constellations, the galaxy our own planet resides in, and other, more distant stars and planets—are nothing but reminders of what once was, but is no more. What we see is light that has traveled for eons before it finally reaches our eyes.

These tiny lights that pierce the darkness are actually all that remains of huge, mega-explosions that, because of their great distance, seem no more than tiny pin pricks in the dark cover that surrounds our own planet, Earth.

The little Hanukkah candles that we lit tonight are a bit like that. We see little lights, each burning for perhaps twenty minutes.  Yet when we put them all together, as we did here earlier tonight, how brightly they shine—how much light they actually shed! Their tiny flames join together into a great light, spreading warmth and happiness all around.  Sometimes, sitting around the menorah and looking at these dancing lights, we can almost hear them tell their stories, tales of wars and heroes, of darkness and light, of fear and redemption.

The first Hanukkah, more than two thousand years ago, didn’t start out a holiday. It was a war. A terrible and cruel war in which people did terrible things to one another.  It was the middle of winter, a cold winter at that, and throughout the land, oil—used to cook and provide light—was getting scarce. Many of the trees had been cut down, both to serve as fuel and to make weapons out of.  The meager few trees that remained weren’t watered or nourished properly, and many died because of disease.  Food was in short supply. It was a difficult time for all.  From the higher hilltops you could see villages all around that had been set afire by the Greeks. Everywhere, you heard stories of how it was forbidden to teach Hebrew, to sing Hebrew songs, to learn Torah.

Little by little, the people of Judea began to lose hope, and one by one, lights went out. First it was that window that remained dark at night, then another, and another, until in the end every village was dark, and quiet, and hopeless.

It wasn’t only the Greeks that Judah the Maccabee had to fight. It was also the hopelessness he saw all around.  “You can’t win,” people said to him.  “The Greeks are giants! They ride elephants! They have armor that arrows cannot pierce! There are too many of them!”

And everywhere he went Judah tried to convince the Jews that they should never lose hope, that God will yet lead them to victory and to freedom.  Perhaps here and there a person would stop and listen.  A child would not her head and say, “We can do it, Judah, I believe in you.”

There were many tough battles. Many brave Jews were badly injured and had to be carried off the field. Some luckier ones limped back to their homes, leaning on the stronger arms or shoulders of their still-standing fellow soldiers.  Still, little by little, Judah made his way to Jerusalem, leading his brave brothers and the small but dedicated army they were able to gather around themselves.

One dark, moonless and starless night, Judah set out by himself to spy on the Greek armies that had occupied Jerusalem.  He left his horse tethered to a tree a few hundred yards back, walked as quietly as he could until he had to stop, not wanting to be seen by guards. From afar he could tell that the Temple wasn’t in good repair.  On a good day during peaceful times, you could see all the way from Modi’in, Judah’s home village, the smoke cloud that hovered over the Temple. It was the smoke of the many sacrifices the priests were offering day and night. This night, however, from his hiding spot behind some rocks, the only smoke Judah could see was from the many campfires the Greeks had set on the Temple mount.  Some time ago already, they had used up the last of the Temple’s precious supply of pure olive oil.  Now they were burning looted furniture from abandoned homes—empty cupboards, broken tables, chairs left behind in a panic.  Creeping ever closer, Judah could hear the sound of breaking glass, the raucous laughter and lewd songs of the drunken soldiers.

At one point Judah had gotten dangerously close to one of the guards the Greeks had posted around the city. At that distance, he could have easily picked him off. But the sentry’s absence the next day would have been noticed, giving warning to the Greeks that all was not as secure as they had deluded themselves into believing.

Judah knew his small army wasn’t ready yet for the big battle.  Yes, God was on our side, but that wouldn’t be enough in facing the two full garrisons of heavily armed Greeks that Antiochus, the mad Syrian king, had placed in the Temple compound.  If Judah and his Maccabees were going to win this one—and it was essential that they did—they would have to rely on the element of surprise.  So Judah held his breath while the Greek guard walked by, just a few yards away.  There were others, Judah knew.  From his nightly vigil and from the reports of other spies, Judah knew that the guards were posted in groups of four or five; that every few minutes they huddled together for some warmth, then would resume their watch.  And so he crouched silently behind the craggy rock, quiet as a mouse.

Just for fun, he picked up a stone, measured in his mind the distance between him and the guard now pacing away from him, then threw it towards the Greek.  The stone flew the measured distance and landed in a small bush just a few inches away from the soldier. Two birds that had taken refuge in it for the night took sudden flight, crying out in their panic.  Judah saw the Greek soldier jump and practically faint of fear.  He held back his laughter, watching as the Greek swore, took out his sword and started waving it at the darkness, cutting nothing but air.  Two of his fellow guardsmen ran to him, making a racket with their clattering shields and swords, scattering rocks and mice along the way. Judah felt nothing but contempt for them.

When the three soldiers were satisfied that there was no danger there, they laughed in some embarrassment. Then they decided they had had it for one night.  They sat down under a tree and took out a skin of wine, passing it from one to the other.  They talked a little bit about how boring this war had become.  Then one of them began to sing softly a song of the home country.  It told of the quiet hills of Greece, where their homes and families were waiting for them, where a pretty young girl was standing at the shore of the sea, looking out toward the horizon, hoping to see the white sails that meant her sweetheart was coming home to her.  Pretty soon, soothed by the wine and the song, they fell asleep.

Judah stood tall.  For a moment he thought whether to leave a sign that he was there.  Something small—perhaps just take some of their armor or weapons so that, when they woke up the next morning, they would wonder whether any of it had happened, who was there, and whether they might be in trouble with their captain.  But he decided not to do even that.  The less they knew, the less prepared they would be for the battle when it came.

Many days later, when Judah had entered Jerusalem at the head of his army, when he proudly lit the Temple menorah with that last can of untainted oil that he had found, he thought of that night.  He remembered the darkness and the cold he had felt hiding behind the big rock. For a moment he felt ashamed.  A man shouldn’t have to hide who he is or what he is.  No man named Judah, no proud daughter of Israel, must ever hide in fear again.  Looking at the bright lights dancing over the menorah, Judah took an oath.  Never again would people be afraid to study Torah. Never again would Hebrew be a forgotten language.  Never again would Jews cower like mice in the dark and cold.  Not the lights of long-dead stars, but rather the great light of the menorah would remind them.  Tomorrow, the next day and the day after that.  As Judah watched the flames and the halos that surrounded them, he knew this:  That year after year, century after century, Jews will remember this night, when the Temple menorah burnt bright again.  That thousands of years from now, they would celebrate this night with family and friends, with songs and good food, and that they would never be afraid again.

The war wasn’t over yet, Judah was well aware of that.  There was much to do yet before the last Greek soldier was chased out of Judea. But Judah’s heart was filled with gladness and hope.  Jerusalem was in the hands of the Jewish People again.

Judah lifted his voice in prayer and song, thanking God for always being there for us.  

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Hot Meal At The End Of The Day: Vayeitzei.18

A Hot Meal At The End Of The Day
D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeitzei
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
November 16, 2018

When my children were young, we loved reading books together.  One of our favorites was Where The Wild Things Are, by the wonderful author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. When we got to the page where Max commands, “Let the rumpus start!” we would let loose with a five-minute cacophony of jungle calls and cries. Only then, exhilarated and completely out of breath, would we go on and read the rest of the story. Somehow that brief jungle interlude made the ending even more satisfying, as Max returns into “His very own room where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.”

Sendak’s book is wonderful fantasy, one that enables children to experience escape, adventure and safe return, all in context of a story line that begins with rebellion and ends happily with reconciliation.

As such, Where The Wild Things Are shares much in common with this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“And Jacob left,” Genesis 28:10—32:3). This portion begins with Jacob packing up hurriedly and leaving the safety of home after tricking his twin brother, Esau, out of the blessing of the firstborn. Fearing Esau’s violent rage, yet braced by the blessing of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, whom the Torah describes as “a dweller in tents,” faces his first night away from home. 

That night, sleeping alone on a barren mountain, with the cold earth as his bed and a rock replacing his soft feather pillow, Jacob has his famous dream of the ladder with its top in the heavens. He sees angels going up and down the ladder and has a vision of God, who promises always to be there for Jacob, to protect him and see to his safe return home. Jacob awakens with awe in his heart, but he is only partially reassured by God’s promise. Jacob does not yet know the power of dreams, nor is his faith fully formed yet.

Yet, as Jacob is about to face the uncertainties and dangers of reality, all that is about to change.

Life, as they say, is the best school of all, and Jacob is a fast learner. He almost immediately falls in love, and soon finds himself at the head of a bustling household. Jacob becomes a successful entrepreneur, but along with success he also encounters treachery, jealousy and hatred. His father-in-law and brothers-in-law accuse Jacob of unfair business practices and of taking more than his share of the family wealth. Jacob’s reaction, two decades after his first flight from danger, is to flee once again. Taking all his possessions and his family—now consisting of two wives, two concubines and twelve children—Jacob sets out on his return journey, back to his family home in Canaan.

In light of the future history of his descendants, it isn’t hard to recognize the seeds of anti-Semitism in the accusations that Laban and his sons direct at Jacob. 

Anti-Semitism has always been intricately interwoven with societal change. Invariably, throughout Jewish history, economic and political upheaval resulted in massacres and expulsions. However, along with pain and misery, each disaster also brought about reflection and evaluation. Each new conquest, each revolution and pogrom caused Jews to examine and redefine our relationship with God. The Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple resulted in the writing of the Torah; the second destruction, by the Romans, brought about the Bible and the Talmud. The Zohar, the most important work of Jewish mysticism, came about following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.  

Though we now have statistics by which to measure these seismic convulsions, we really cannot call the latest anti-Semitic episodes—including the murders in Pittsburgh—new or unexpected. That, however, does not diminish their effect, the horror and shock that they evoke within us. The Jewish world is small and closely connected, and many of us feel personally affected by each and every attack, whether it be in Tel Aviv, at a kosher supermarket in France, on the streets of New York, or on a college campus just about anywhere in the United States.

The mass murder at the Tree of Life Synagogue elicited warm support from the larger non-Jewish community. The countless messages of love and sympathy that many of us received provided comfort—but little consolation. The Jewish People are too familiar with the long and painful history of the hatred directed at us. To our dismay, what we have now come to understand is that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

What did surprise me, however, was the number of people who, following the Pittsburgh tragedy, have approached me for spiritual guidance. It was mostly, though not exclusively, young people, college students or recent graduates, for whom this was the first, and most disturbing, example of a phenomenon they had never witnessed before. Swastikas scratched on bathroom walls is one thing. Jewish blood, shed during Sabbath prayer in a synagogue, is another matter altogether.

Maybe, in the relative calm that followed the Holocaust, we have grown too comfortable; maybe the protection promised us by the ADL and other watchdog organizations made us feel too safe. Sadly, we grew accustomed to hearing about violence in Israel; but instead of seeing it as another form of the global war waged against the Jews, we came to accept the terror and the wars as no more than a regional conflict. Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe were also distant from us. Europe, after all, was “the old world.” America was different. 

Or so we thought.

What I have perceived in the many questions that were addressed to me is the shock of awakening to a new-old reality. Young or old, many of us have come to realize the hard truth that Jews in America are not isolated from the rest of our people anywhere else in the world. We are one people. We are not privileged witnesses of the dawning of some new, miraculous age of love and tolerance. The Messiah is in fact still a long way off.

The truth is that we have been deceiving ourselves all along. And it was all so easy to do.

Young men and women have approached me in tears, anger and disbelief. Not unexpectedly, they are wondering about their future and deliberating their choices. They are questioning their faith and pondering their relationship to God and the Jewish People. Like Jacob in Haran, they are wondering if the time has come to go back home to Israel—the national, historic home of the Jewish People. 

Reexamining our Judaism and pondering our path forward is nothing new for our people. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Vayeitzei—the story of Jacob’s many travails and close escapes—is the story of the entire People of Israel. Each new chapter, each murder, pogrom or street beating brings about questions about what it means to be Jewish. Some of us inevitably will try to hide or reject their identity. Others, on the other hand, will turn to tradition and explore ways to combine new and old, looking for new meaning in the ancient customs and rituals of our people. 

Jacob’s journey toward God and faith is an evolving and unending process. At every step, after each tragedy in his life, he questions God’s purpose—and finds new answers, new meaning to life and faith. So too, do we, Jacob’s descendants. Jacob’s journey is our journey; his story is our story. It is our history. 

Hopefully, like Max in Where The Wild Things Are, we too will find our way back to our room, where we will find our supper waiting for us, and, like Max’s it too will still be hot.

© 2018 by Boaz D. Heilman