Friday, April 3, 2020

Working Miracles: Passover 2020

Working Miracles: Passover 2020
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

In less than one week’s time we will be celebrating Passover.

The irony is inescapable, and if you’ve spent any time on the social media recently, you’ve seen the jokes about how Jews will celebrate this year, in the midst of a dreadful plague, as a reminder of how we escaped the ten plagues that were inflicted on Egypt. Or the one about guests being invited into your house by appointment, one at a time, to do a specific reading of the Haggadah and leave. Or the table set beautifully, with the Seder Plate in the center, only instead of guests we have laptops…

Yet this isn’t the first time that we’ve had to deal with extraordinary times and their implication for our holidays. In fact, the Torah (Numbers 9:1-14) specifically permits us to celebrate Passover a month late due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness or extended business travel.

Without a doubt, this will be a sadder Passover for many of us. The Seder is always an opportunity for families to come together for delicious meals and traditions that go back generations. Passover is a time to recall family stories and histories, to contemplate how fortunate we are today, a time to welcome not only the spirit of Elijah, but also the memories of loved ones at whose tables we once gathered as children or grandchildren.

But with the Corona virus still raging around the world, this year we are forced to break this tradition, whether by common sense or state law. 

This year we can add a fifth question to the famous four, the Mah Nishtana. Why is this Seder so different from all other Seders? Why are there so many empty chairs around our table this year? I am sure that as we sing this part of the Seder, all our voices will tremble in acknowledgment of this year’s gloomy reality.

Technology might help us connect virtually with our loved ones, but it just isn’t the same as being there in person.

So what answer do we give our children this year, when they ask the Four Questions? Perhaps, from deep wells of collective memory, recollections will arise of even darker times. But will that be dayenu—enough—for today’s children, who have never known want or deprivation?

Yet what better opportunity than this, to understand better the teaching of the Haggadah? We are told that in each generation, we should all see ourselves as though we ourselves had been redeemed from Egypt. How, this year, can we fail to feel the dread, the fear and anxiety that our ancestors must have felt? Our children will remember this night, of this I have no doubt. But they also need to remember the vital lessons of Passover: compassion for the disenfranchised, the alienated and excluded; empathy for those who are confined by sickness and hopelessness; gratitude for the sacrifices made by doctors, nurses and caretakers; and most importantly, the real meaning of freedom.

Freedom is not chaos. Freedom is the ability to make choices. Every day we make dozens of choices. Some are silly and even frivolous—what clothes to wear, what to eat for lunch (and how lucky that THESE are our choices…).  But there are also some choices that require more thought and reflection. Some even that might make a huge difference in our life: To stay at an unsatisfying job; to leave a broken or abusive home; to give a relationship a try, even if it means overcoming our fear of rejection.

Only weeks after their redemption, the Israelites learn an important lesson: God didn’t release them from bondage to carouse in luxury. Along with freedom comes a heavy responsibility. In Exodus 19:6, God tells them, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Judaism defines holiness as the requirement to help the needy, to free the slaves, to feed the hungry and heal the sick. To me, this is the entire purpose of our existence as a People.

In this light, the Exodus from Egypt is nothing but a huge lesson.

For millennia, people looked to the miracle of the Exodus as a symbol of God’s power to intervene in history. Sadly, Jewish history has put this vision to the test many times. 

And God’s answer to all our questions?

I empowered you to do it yourselves! I showed you how to do it! I gave you a road map; I endowed you with imagination and the ability to reason and create. What else do you want?

This is what we should tell our children this year when they ask Mah Nishtana, why is this Seder so different from all other Seders.

I would tell them that the story of Passover is like the boxtop of a huge jigsaw puzzle. On all other years we get to look at the picture of the way things happened back then. Now we learn how they must be from here on. Then it was God. Today it’s up to each of us to put the pieces together. 

We free ourselves when we free others. We free ourselves when we rid the world of bigotry, ignorance and oppression. We don’t have to wait for miracles: We are the miracle workers!

We won’t forget this year’s Pesach. Not for as long as we and our children live. But we must also never forget its lessons. And next year, with God’s help, may we all celebrate a new age, a world and time rid of sickness, fear and anxiety.

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Sacrifice And Ethics During Pandemic Times: Vayikra.20

Sacrifice And Ethics During Pandemic Times
D’var Torah by Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Shabbat Vayikra
March 28, 2020

In each of our lives, there are moments that define who we are and how we got to be that way. There are of course the individual lifecycle events—births, coming-of-age, marriages—and other, less happy events.  And then there are historical moments, times that we share with our community, with our nation, and even with the entire world: The Great Depression; the World Wars; 9/11; the HIV-AIDS epidemic; and now, COVID-19.

Events like this have been around since the dawn of humanity, and each not only took its own course, leaving behind a trail of pain and devastation, but also managed, each in its own way, to change the course of history.

The Torah describes at least one epidemic outbreak: leprosy. For thousands of years, this terrifying disease was associated with stigmas, legends and accusations. The carrier of the disease was often blamed as having brought it upon him- or herself. Thus, as told in the book of Numbers in the Torah, when Miriam, Moses’s sister, was diagnosed with leprosy, the cause of her illness was understood to be the harsh complaints which she had directed against Moses.

For millennia, disease and illness were seen as divine retribution for immoral or sinful behavior.

So too, today, ignorance and prejudice have led some people to blame COVID-19 on the Chinese, the Gay community, or—naturally—the Jews.

Most of us know better, of course, than to blame any individual, group or nation, for illness or disease. It’s all a part of the world we live in, an imperfect world filled with dangerous fault lines, variables and unknowns.

But beyond that, Jewish tradition has taught us even greater lessons.

If nothing else, it has taught us that research and preparedness—not scapegoating and incrimination—are the proper paths that we must follow.

The fear of leprosy—and its great incidence among the Israelites during our early days in the Wilderness—have taught us about patient care, and about searching for cures. While it was essential to quarantine the sick outside the camp, they were not abandoned or left to fend for themselves. Rather, food and water were always brought to them, and the priest, on top of being in charge of their spiritual well-being, was given the extra responsibility of going outside the camp on an almost daily basis, to visit the sick; to check up on them; to see to their needs; to pray with them and for them; and to encourage and give them hope.

Thankfully, curing the sick isn’t the priest’s duty anymore. Though rabbis do make sick calls, and while visiting the sick is considered a great mitzvah—a holy commandment—finding the treatment and cure is now up to the medical profession.  Thank God!

Aside from caring for the sick, the priest had other functions at the Temple. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1—5:26), we learn about his most important duty: Offering sacrifices.  In ancient days, sacrifice was seen as the most direct way for human beings to interact with God. Though often accompanied by prayer—whether for forgiveness, for strength, or for thanks—it was the actual ritual itself that assured us that our prayer would be heard and accepted.

And in truth, sacrifice works, though perhaps not in the same way that it was understood in ancient days. Parents know about sacrifice. Teachers, who come up—in their “spare” time at home—with lesson plans and innovative ways to reach their students, know about sacrifice.  Those who serve in the military know about sacrifice; as do first responders; and doctors and nurses, who don’t flinch at the sight of blood or suffering, who without fail present themselves at epicenters of disease outbreaks, who work tirelessly to find treatments and cures, never giving up hope or falling into despair.

The truth is that no society can exist without some form of sacrifice for the common good.

Yet, even as the Temple rituals became more and more detailed and exacting, their value was questioned by others, by Prophets who saw how people behaved towards one another as more important than the number of bulls or sheep that they offered at the altar. The prophet Isaiah scorns strict adherence to the sacrificial rules while greed and injustice prevailed in society. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals,” Isaiah calls out in the name of the Almighty (Is. 1:11). Rather, we must comprehend that what God really wants of us it to, “Learn to do right; seek justice; defend the oppressed; take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Is. 1:17).

At times of trouble, though prayer helps, and though our own personal sacrifices—of time, effort, money and food—are important, what we need to do no less, is to look at our own ways and behavior and conduct ourselves by the highest standards of ethics and principles.

Too many of us have become short-sighted and selfish. Among many, arrogance and narcissism have replaced generosity and kindness  As a society, we have become obsessed with immediate gratification. We consume far more than we actually produce. We have become dependent on the cheap labor of others, while turning a blind eye to the injustice of major corporations and conglomerates amassing huge fortunes.

Ultimately, both the Torah and the Prophet Isaiah are right. The ancient words that we heard today prove their eternal wisdom yet again. Our sacrifices and rituals are indeed part of who we are, and they provide us with much of our strength. But then, so does our ethical behavior towards one another. Through these recent days of fear and anxiety, we have learned that physical distancing is crucial for our well-being, but that emotional closeness, and spiritual caretaking, are just as important. The lives of all human beings matter, regardless of color, race, religion or creed, regardless of gender or sexuality, nationality and ethnicity.

We live in extraordinary times. If, with all the opportunities for self-reflection that have suddenly been thrust upon us, we don’t learn to evaluate and appreciate what is really important in life, then this history-shaping pandemic will have come and gone in vain, leaving behind nothing but sadness and hopelessness. If we don’t emerge from this crisis—and may it be soon!—with greater empathy for one another’s pain and need, with deeper understanding of the need for all peoples and nations to cooperate, then all our sacrifices will be in vain.

May the lessons we learn from the past help us cope with the anxiety and fear that surround us today. May the ancient words of Torah and our Prophets grant us not only hope, but also direction and guidance for tomorrow and for all the days, weeks and years ahead.

God bless us all with strength and health, along with serenity and peace. Amen.

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, March 20, 2020

God’s Presence In Our Lives: Vayak’hel-Pekudei.20

God’s Presence In Our Lives: D’var Torah for Vayak’hel-Pekudei
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
March 20, 2020

This Shabbat, with a powerful double portion (Va-yak’hel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1—40:38), our weekly cycle of Torah readings reaches the end of the second book of the Torah, Exodus.  

Exodus! The very title awakens powerful images: the parting of the Red Sea, the ten plagues, the burning bush, the Ten Commandments! And above and beyond all these, the very notion—the revolutionary concept—of human liberty, and its glorious affirmation in the defiant stance taken by Moses, whom the Torah describes as the humblest of men, before the mightiest, most arrogant, and most self-delusional man in the world—Pharaoh.

And yet, amazingly, all of these wonders take place in the first half of the book; the rest of Exodus is devoted to something quite different and much less cinematic: the building of the Mishkan, a.k.a the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, God’s dwelling among the Israelites.

“Let them make Me a sanctuary,” God tells Moses, “that I may dwell among them.”  In this double portion we learn about the rare and expensive materials that the people donated for the building of this portable temple; the intricate design, structure and decorations that made it so beautiful; the many instruments and tools, made of gold, silver and copper, that would be used there. 

Every culture, all over the world, seemed to be obsessed with building temples. From the ziggurats—the towers—of Babel, to the pyramids of Egypt and South America; from the Parthenon of Athens to the magnificent cathedrals of medieval Europe, these were the most stunning structures, meant to represent not only the philosophies, but also the grandeur and pride of the civilizations that  produced them. The difference between them and the Tent of Meeting was that the Mishkan built by Moses was nearly empty. Instead of statues and idols, it contained only God’s words, carved on a set of two stone tablets. It was words, not an image, that represented God in this dwelling. 

Three hundred years later, King Solomon built a more enduring temple in Jerusalem, the city that his father, King David, had established as his capital. Viewing the splendid edifice that he had created, Solomon ponders the question of how any physical dwelling—no matter how grandiose or lavish—can contain God’s presence.  In his speech of dedication he asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27, NKJV). 

It was a question Jews have never stopped asking. When, 500 years later, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and then, after yet another 500 years, following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, the ensuing crises of faith took centuries to repair. For the Jewish People, the Mishkan in the Sinai Wilderness and the Temples in Jerusalem represented much more than God’s presence: They stood for the ongoing relationship between God and Israel. With them gone, how were we to reach God? Was God’s Presence still in our midst? Was the Covenant between God and the Jews still valid and binding? Was God still our God, and we, God’s People?

In the Midrash a story is told of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his pupil, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya, both of whom witnessed the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  Seeing the ruins of the Temple, Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Woe to us, for this—the place where all of Israel’s sins are forgiven (through sacrifices)—is destroyed! Answered Rabbi Yohanan: “My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of loving kindness” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5). 

This message has been our people’s guiding light throughout history. Exiled from one land after another, driven to secrecy and hiding places, seeing our shuls and synagogues torched in riots and pogroms, wherever we went, we carried within us the knowledge that these were just buildings, edifices made of wood and stone. Yes, they were sanctuaries; it was there that we went to find comfort, wisdom and company. But the truth was that God’s presence was always within us, as long as we studied the words of Torah and practiced acts of loving kindness. 

This year we find ourselves once again unable to enter our beloved houses of worship. True—Zoom, Facebook and other social media are fine, but they aren’t quite the same as a compassionate hug or a dignified handshake. And there’s little to match the feel of an ancient and well-worn prayer book in our hands. And yet, there’s a real link, not merely a virtual one, that still connects us. God’s presence needs no physical house: As much as it exists in the heavens, so it dwells within our hearts. Just as the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting, housed nothing but God’s words, so do the words of Torah still abide within us. Acts of love and kindness have always nourished us; our traditions have always shone light into the deepest abyss, and conveyed comfort to those who felt the anguish of loneliness and isolation.  That’s what Moses knew as, seeing the Tent of Meeting up in all its glory, he blessed his people. That was the certainty that outweighed any doubts within King Solomon’s mind when he dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. And that knowledge is what still sustains us today.

Tonight, housebound by a virus we do not yet understand, we can build our own Mishkan, our own Temple. As we bring Shabbat and its blessings into our homes, we let God’s Presence suffuse our spirit, God’s holiness pervade in our lives.

May the light of our Shabbat candles shine not only for us tonight, but for anyone who sees them through our windows. May their glow bring happiness and hope into all our homes. May they dispel fear and anxiety, and instead inspire us with the certainty that God still dwells amongst us, as God has since the days of the Mishkan in the Wilderness, through all our days and nights.

Shabbat shalom; may this Sabbath be filled with the promise of peace and health.                                            

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Deal Of The Century: Is There Any Reason For Optimism?

The Deal Of The Century: Is There Any Reason For Optimism?
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

With his acceptance of President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan, Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the sixth prime minister to agree to the principle of transferring  land for peace with the Arabs.

Will he be the first to see this policy accomplish anything? I doubt it. 

Starting with Israel’s acceptance of the Nov. 29, 1947 UN Partition Plan, which divided “Palestine” into separate Jewish and Palestinian States, the principle of land for peace has been one that Israel has consistently accepted. Six Israeli Prime Ministers have since demonstrated their commitment to this principle: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Arik Sharon, Ehud Olmert and now Netanyahu.

And while the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt by Menachem Begin did result in a fragile peace agreement, no such happy ending came after Sharon agreed to Israeli withdrawal from Gaza—which resulted in the Strip’s takeover by Hamas—or the withdrawal from Lebanon—which permitted another terrorist organization, the Iranian military proxy Hezbollah, to take over that nation.

There are many reasons to be less than hopeful that the Palestinians will agree to the latest plan. It is true that, for the first time, several Arab countries are supportive of the Century Deal (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), and this in itself offers a glimmer of hope for some agreement down the line. However, the key “partner” to the peace negotiation, the Palestinian Authority, has rejected the plan out of hand (as have the even more militant nations and groups such as Iran and its proxies, as well as the Islamic Caliphate, aka ISIS).

As predicted, Trump’s plan is hated by nearly everyone.

And there are good reasons. Following are some of the key ones.

The West Bank (Judea and Samaria):  In the plans agreed to by Barak and Olmert, the Palestinians would have gotten much more land than under the current, Trump-Netanyahu plan. In past talks, Israel was prepared to cede more than 94% of the West Bank and compensate the Palestinians for the remaining 6%. In 2008, Israel offered to withdraw from the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and put the Temple Mount and Old City under international control. Under the current plan, the Arabs would get only 70% of the West Bank, far less than they would have gotten (and rejected) in previous offers.

Jerusalem’s holy sites: The Palestinians want to exclude any non-Muslim prayer at the Temple Mount. President Trump’s plan states that, “People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.” Considering that the Second Intifada as well as other acts of terrorism acts were instigated after what Arabs perceived as Jews attempting to pray on the sacred Temple Mount, there is no reason to believe that the Arabs will change their minds this time around.

Right of Return: The first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 resulted in some 700,000 Arab refugees. About 1/3 of them fled to Jordan (which assumed control of the West Bank); 1/3 fled to the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip; another 1/3 fled to Lebanon and Syria. None of those governments made any attempt to absorb the refugees. Denied citizenship, the refugees were instead confined to impoverished refugee camps, with little or no infrastructure, electricity, basic hygiene or running water. The camps were (and still are) maintained by UNWRA and other international organizations. 

During this entire time, the Arabs have insisted on the right of all refugees to return to lands now controlled by Israel. Israel has consistently rejected this claim. Trump’s plan states, “There shall be no right of return by absorption of any Palestinian refugees in the State of Israel.” It also stipulates that refugees should be resettled in the Palestinian state or in another country.  Here too, if history offers any hint of what’s to come, the Palestinians will reject this clause of the plan. 

Demilitarization: Trump’s plan calls for an end to acts of terrorism and the demilitarization of the Palestinians both in the West Bank and in Gaza. There is almost nil chance that this will happen. On second thought, forget the “almost” and leave the “nil” in place. That’s the probability of this ever happening. Look at how some Americans react to the calls to ban automatic weapons, magnify it a thousand times, add generational hatred, religious narrow-mindedness, daily incitement, and the expansionist designs of the Iranian ayatollah regime, and you begin to see things as they realistically are in the Middle East. 

Prisoner exchange: The Arabs insist that all security prisoners held by Israel be released. The Trump plan calls for the release of all but those convicted of murder, attempted murder, or conspiracy to commit murder, “including within the framework of terrorism activities.” Simultaneously, the plan calls for the release of two Israeli citizens and the remains of two IDF soldiers still held by the terrorist organization Hamas. Hamas, of course, has never agreed to this, and probably won’t do so in the foreseeable future.  

Israelis have their own reservations, too.

Hardline fanaticism:  While this is a vocal (and sometimes obnoxious) camp, there is historical precedent proving Israel’s ability to enforce legal and political decisions and to compel this extremist group to abide by government decision (see the withdrawals from Sinai and the Gaza Strip). If the Trump Plan succeeds, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that even the most militant right-wing groups in Israel will ultimately give in and obey. The scene will probably be ugly, but the rule of law does prevail in the State of Israel. 

Jerusalem: Many Israelis want Jerusalem to remain Israel’s undivided capital. Trump’s plan would make some neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, as well as other areas further to the east, the Palestinian State’s capital, to be called “Al-Quds,” the name Arabs give to Jerusalem. Furthermore, Trump has promised to validate this new capital by opening a US embassy there.

Land Transfer and Israeli settlements: Under the proposed plan, several areas in the western part of the Negev Desert would be handed to the Palestinians. Additionally, 15 Israeli settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) would remain under Israel control but be surrounded by the Palestinian State. Quite reasonably, residents of these settlements see this as unacceptable and dangerous.

Political pragmatism: While there are many hardliners who are opposed a priori to the establishment of any Palestinian State, there are also those who are concerned that should such a state arise, it would soon be taken over by militant Muslim groups such as Hamas and IS, turning the region into a third active front in the war against Israel’s existence.

Surprising reactions: In an interesting and telling view from yet another Arab perspective, in a region known as “The Triangle” (an area that protrudes precariously close to the coastal cities of Netanya, Hadera and even Tel Aviv), residents of 10 Arab cities and villages that under the Trump plan would be handed to the Palestinian Authority have expressed resentment and even anger at the idea that their homes would become part of a Palestinian state. “We will turn into refugees there,” is their commonly held belief—again, one backed by history. Not unlike many other Arabs who live in Israel, they prefer to retain their Israeli citizenship. 

These are but some of the forces and politics that are active in this perennially explosive region. Nor does this general overview take into consideration the political and military interests of Iran, Turkey, Russia, and the Western superpowers. Considered together, however, there is little reason for optimism regarding this latest peace plan.

Support and opposition to the plan in the United States: Opinions in the US predictably follow political affiliations. The Republican Jewish Coalition endorses the plan. AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conditionally supports it, seeing the plan “as the basis to restart negotiations with the Palestinians” and urging “Palestinians to rejoin Israelis at the negotiating table.” The AJC—American Jewish Committee—tweeted that it “welcomes President Trump’s serious effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein said that the group “hopes this will be a step towards a better future for both peoples,” but that “it is ultimately up to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to resolve their conflict through direct negotiations.”

Not unexpectedly, harsh disapproval of the plan was voiced by the Jewish Democratic Council of America, J Street, Peace Now, IfNotNow, and Jewish Voice for Peace. 

These are the immediate reactions. If history has anything to teach us, it’s that the initial response from the Palestinian Arabs probably will be violent. This tragedy has been going on for 100 years now, and there’s little reason to think that anything will change any time soon. 

And yet, if leaders of both the Jewish State of Israel and the Palestinian people ever want to benefit from peace—and the boons are enormous—they will have to sit down with one another and work things out between themselves. That—short of a decisive war, which in this case would be disastrous for the entire world—is the only way to establish and maintain enduring peace. If down the line the “Deal Of The Century” proves the basis for such negotiations, then history will judge it a huge success. Otherwise, it will prove to be yet one more failure in a long series of missed opportunities.   

Sources for this general overview include interviews and opinions aired on various Israel media, as well as the highly informative article, “The Trump Plan: What’s Next?” by Amos Yadlin, INSS Insight No. 1254, January 28, 2020, accessed January 29, 2020. 

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, January 24, 2020

Then Sang Moses: Shabbat Shira 2020

Then Sang Moses
Remarks for Shabbat Shira 2020
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Shabbat Shira, The Sabbath of Song, is the name we give to the Sabbath on which we read Miriam’s Song, also known as The Song of the Sea, from the book of Exodus in the Torah. Miriam’s Song is the song of liberation, commemorating the end of one of the earliest and darkest chapters of Jewish history: the years of slavery in Egypt, along with the genocide of male infants, the attempted suppression and murder of an entire people.

That this evil intention did not come to final fruition does not mask the fact that it did, in fact, happen; that male infants were thrown into the Nile River, to be drowned or devoured by beasts; that a brilliant culture was beaten into the dust. It did happen, and we are commanded to remember that, not only as an historical fact, but also as a warning for all time: That we human beings are capable of the worst horrors, of committing the most unspeakable atrocities against one another.

When the Israelites, led by Moses, Aaron and Miriam, went through the parted Red Sea and  emerged into liberty and world history as a new-born nation, they burst into song. Mi chamocha a’elim Adonai, they sang: Who is like You, Adonai, among all the gods worshipped on this earth.

It is a song we still sing, repeating it daily during our prayer service, as part of the Sh’ma and its blessings, as well as once a year, when we read it in context of the weekly Torah portion in which it appears 

In the Torah, the Song Of The Sea stands unique, immediately recognizable by its formatting on the scroll. Unlike most other passages, it forms a visual representation of the path our people took between the two walls of sea water standing upright to either side of us, held back by a power no one can comprehend, a power beyond the wildest imaginings of minds restrained by logic, reasoning and rationality.

It is impossible to understand this miracle, futile to explain it as some seismic or other natural phenomenon, just as it is impossible to understand how the Jewish People have survived for more than 3000 years since then. The Jews account for less than one percent of the world’s population, and yet in the entire world we are the third longest-surviving, still extant, civilization. Despite oppression, persecution and dispersal, despite ghettoes, pogroms and the Holocaust of our own time, we are still here, still present to sing our song of exultation and survival. 

How is that possible?

The actual date of Shabbat Shira this year is not for a couple of weeks yet: February 8th in the world calendar.  And yet, how appropriate that we celebrate this powerful song tonight, even if it is a couple of weeks early by our calendar. For this week we have been commemorating yet another miracle, a more recent one—the liberation of Auschwitz, 75 years ago this week. 

Out of the more than 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million were murdered there, all but perhaps 100,000 of them Jewish men, women, children. Tragically, many died after being liberated, victims of disease, deprivation, and loss of faith and hope. Yet the majority of those who did survive went on, somehow, to begin new lives, new families, and, miraculously, a new state of their own in our ancient homeland—the Land of Israel. 

This week we saw a gathering of 47 world leaders at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, to observe and commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz 75 years ago. Many spoke of the accomplishments of their own people in saving Jews, in liberating the camps, in freeing Europe from the tyranny of the Nazis. Yet one of the most moving speeches of all came from the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Of all the speeches that were delivered, each in the language of the nation its leader represented, Mr. Steinmeier alone did not speak in his own native tongue, as though he somehow understood that German words would resound very weirdly in this hall of memory. But for two words, the entire speech was delivered in English and in Hebrew.  The two German words were “Nie wieder,” Never Again.

However, for all their awesome power and meaning, these words are not yet established fact. They are only a pledge, a promise. They are only as meaningful as the people who attempt to fulfill them, each in their own capacity, each to his and her own ability.

For we still see unspeakable horrors in the world today. Prejudice, human trafficking, and even genocide are still here.  As is anti-Semitism, a disease that still rages unabated, transmitted through misinformation and outright lies, through stories, folk tales, and even jokes. In the most recent past we have seen anti-Semitism turn to violence; desecration of synagogues and cemeteries; mass shootings and seemingly random beatings of Jews on streets and private homes, in the most civilized cities and cultured towns, in the most progressive of countries. It is na├»ve not to see the calls for annihilation made against Jews, against the State of Israel and its supporters, as anything other than anti-Semitism.  

And yet we, the Jewish People, still sing our song. 

‘Az yashir Moshe, “Then Moses sang.” Even at the end of his life, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our greatest rabbi and teacher, despite what he had seen—the strife, the tragedies, the horrors, the meandering in the wilderness for forty years—still found strength in his body and soul to sing.  This phrase, ‘Az yashir Moshe, found at the conclusion of the Torah, can be understood as the one supreme metaphor for all Jewish existence. The common saying is: they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat. But that’s not accurate. What we should say is, they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s sing. 

In 1965, the Israeli newspaper Ha-aretz sent a young reporter named Elie Wiesel to Russia, to investigate and report on the state of the Jews in the then-Soviet Union. In the seminal book that emerged from this visit, The Jews of Silence, Wiesel relates his impressions and experiences. One of these took place while visiting a Hassidic community in Leningrad. It was during the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the rabbi of the community commanded—not asked, commanded—a man named Moshe to sing. “I want our guest to tell the Jews of the world that in Leningrad we know how to sing!... Let him go home and report that the Jews of Russia live under such and such conditions, but they still know how to sing.” As commanded, Moshe sang. And then he sang again. He repeated his song nearly a dozen times, until his voice gave, proving to all that the Jews of Silence were not silent after all, that their voice carried forth loud and clear, that they still sang the song of Jewish existence.

‘Az yashir Moshe. Then sang Moses. 

‘Az yashir Yisrael. Then sang Israel.

It is a song of sadness, loss and tragedy, yet also a song of faith, hope and redemption.  It is a song of power and majesty, a song of endurance and survival despite all odds. A song that describes the improbable and seemingly impossible miracle of our ongoing life and existence.

Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, may refer to one specific day in the year. Yet the shira, the song, is eternal. We have been singing it for 3,600 years now, and we still sing it today.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, shehecheyanu v’key’manu v’higi’anu lazman hazeh.  Blessed art Thou, Adonai our God, Eternal Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, sustained it within us, and enabled us to reach this season and time.  Amen.

Now let us sing.

© 2020 by Boaz D. Heilman

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

To Bring Holiness Into The World: Seasonal Holiday Wishes.19

To Bring Holiness Into The World
Seasonal Holiday Wishes
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Recently a clever child in our religious school asked me, “Why do we need God?” It’s definitely a question that in my book qualifies as a “rabbi stumper,” and I rewarded the child with the promised pizza party as well as with an appropriate certificate. 

At first I thought it was a simple enough question. In my 70 years I have learned from both personal experience and from many excellent teachers. The first answer I came up with then was, “We need God to be there for us when our parents no longer can be.” 

The child seemed satisfied, and yet I was not.  The question remained active in my mind for many days, and I kept coming up with more and more answers.

It turns out that human beings may actually be wired to believe in supernatural beings. How else explain the superstitions that add color to our behavior, no matter how rational we think are, or our need for God during stressful times (as illustrated by the adage, “there is no atheist in a foxhole”).  Studies in human neurology and psychology seem to indicate that there is a neurological basis for religious behavior. For one thing, we rely for our survival on group strength as much as on individual effort; the larger the group, the more secure we feel. Nothing acts as powerfully to bind diverse individuals into groups and nations as does religion.  

Further, these studies show that spiritual or religious practice such as prayer, meditation or rituals enable us to think more clearly and to feel our emotions more intensely! Belief in God makes us smarter and more compassionate—again, qualities that help us remain valuable members of society.

But belief in God gives us much more that that. 

Religion gives us a training regimen for knowing the difference between right and wrong. Ever since Abraham, we have looked to God to provide and exemplify the highest standards for right and wrong, for holy and evil. 

Religion gives meaning and purpose to our life, and even to our death.

Prayer provides comfort and guidance when we feel lost, anxious, worried or confused.

God gives us strength when we are weary or fearful

God provides us with companionship when we are lonely. 

But beyond all that, God gives us hope. 

Hope is one of the most powerful tools in our survival kits. Without hope, we might as well just lie down and never get up. It is hope that keeps us going despite the difficulties and challenges that we face every day. It is God’s light—hope—that shows us the path when we are surrounded by darkness, when we “walk in the valley of the shadow of death.” 

This is why all humanity seeks light at this darkest season of the year. Each of us may find it through unique and different means—but all paths involve, in one way or another, faith and hope.

We need God because God is the ultimate source of hope, and it is faith that keeps our connection with this awesome force alive. 

Some of us don’t see our holiday practices as particularly religious. And yet, whether they involve lighting a hanukkiah (the menorah, the nine-branch Hanukkah candelabra) or trimming a Christmas tree, our traditions are formed by religion and are designed to set alight within us the power of faith, love and hope.            

As we gather with family and friends to partake of the joy of this season, may we find what we truly are looking for: the strength to keep up our daily tasks; the meaning and purpose which give our days and nights path and direction; and not least, hope. Hope—for a time when fear, hunger, sickness or need will no longer exist in the world.

On this Christmas Eve and Day, on this third night and day of Hanukkah, may we all sense the light and holiness of God that shine brightly within each of us. 

And let us surely not forget to share the love that exists within our hearts with those who live every day without love, without joy, and without hope. That is how we increase the light for all the world at this season of darkness. 

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all, and best wishes for joyous holidays to those who light yet other candles of faith and hope.

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman


Saturday, December 14, 2019

Are Jews A Nation? Vayishlach.19

Are Jews A Nation?
Sermon for Shabbat Vayishlach
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Dec. 14, 2019

Observers and commentators claim that in recent months and years, politics have become more divisive than ever. However, I am not sure that this perception holds true when held to the light of history. The only time that politics have not been divisive is under tyrannies and dictatorships. And even then, the fissures remain, waiting to blow up at the first opportunity.

Still, maybe because of the proliferation of social media today, and perhaps because we live during what might possibly be described as the freest of times and places, divisiveness prevails, with each side vying to proclaim its stance and opinion in the loudest possible voice.  

The latest contentious issue that has come up world-wide is Israel and anti-Semitism. This has become so prominent that the recent national election in Britain was seen not as a referendum on Brexit—which is how it began—but on Corbyn and the anti-Semitism that is so rampant in the Labour Party, which he represents and currently leads.

The ancient disease we know as anti-Semitism has taken many forms throughout its history.  At times cultural, religious, political, or racial, it now seems to revolve around the legitimacy of the Jewish State—Israel.

The violent forms this ancient hatred has taken are known to us all. The Shoah is new and surprising only to those who have never studied history. And yet, for several decades, anti-Semitism, perhaps out of shock at the sheer extent and magnitude of the Holocaust, has lain almost dormant, relegated to the elements of society we have called the lunatic fringe. Recently, however, this societal boundary has been shattered, and we are witnessing a new rise of the vicious hatred, both from the left and right wings of politics. The one thing that unites people as diverse and opposed to one another in every possible way as white nationalist David Duke and the spokesperson of the Democratic Party’s extreme left wing, Rep. Ilhan Omar, is hatred of the Jews. Israel may be the lightning rod, but the violence is clearly directed at all Jews.

On college campuses throughout America today, Jewish students are finding themselves targets of hatred and violence even if they aren’t politically minded, simply because they are Jewish and therefore somehow tainted. 

For various reasons, our Jewish youth never learned to fend for themselves. First to protest discrimination directed at other groups, first to take a stand against social injustice and all manner of cultural and environmental dangers, we have been strangely reluctant to stage sit-ins and demonstrations on our own behalf. The Jewish Defense League, formed in 1968 by the late, murdered, Rabbi Meir Kahane in response to a mounting wave of crimes directed primarily against Jews, has been called a terror organization both by the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the FBI. It is still reviled by a majority of Jews all over the world.  Jewish response of violence against violence is somehow seen as taboo, proscribed, anathema to Judaism itself. 

Take, for example, the holiday of Hanukkah, which we are about to celebrate.  Hanukkah started out as a celebration of a major military victory against the Greek Empire, but somehow ended up as minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, celebrating not our strength and survival against all odds, but rather as a fairy-tale about a small can of oil that somehow lasted for eight nights instead of just one. Relegated to the Apocrypha—books that for one reason or another never made it into the Hebrew Bible—are the heroism and self-sacrifice shown by the Judaeans in their desperate war against their oppressors. Forgotten is the story of the beautiful widow, Judith, who used her beauty to lure the Greek general Holofernes into her tent, only to behead him while he was drunk and sleeping. Such stories are considered distasteful, not fit for children and other sensitive souls.

We have a similar reaction to violence in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4—36:43).  We are fond of telling the story of Jacob’s wrestling with a strange being through the night; we are proud to recall how the angel finally blesses Jacob as dawn breaks, calling him Israel, a survivor of fierce battles with people as well as divine beings. But the story of Dinah, only a few verses later, is one we cringe at. It is Jacob himself who recoils with repugnance at the extreme violence shown by his sons Shimon and Levi against the people of Shechem. It was, after all, indiscriminate, collective punishment for the crime of one person—the prince of the town, who had raped their sister, Dinah. When reproached by their father for their bloody actions, the brothers respond, “Should he have treated our sister like a prostitute?” 

Ever since then, Judaism has forbidden collective punishment. Our model is Abraham, not Levi or Shimon; our standard of justice is the one set by God after Noah’s Flood: only the guilty are to be punished.  The extreme self-restraint this standard demands of us has resulted in the tragic deaths of many of the defenders of Israel today, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Force, who take extreme caution NOT to harm innocent civilians, even if it means putting their own lives at risk.

But it wasn’t only the violation of Dinah that Shimon and Levi protested. It was the delegitimization of the entire tribe of Jacob. 

And this is what we are seeing throughout the world today. The delegitimization of the entire People of Israel. 

So what should our response be? The issue of open or concealed carry [of weapons]  is a contentious issue among many congregations. And in one vote after another, it is defeated. We live in a lawful society—we must rely on the law. That is the consensus, and I agree with it.

But what if the law is insufficient? The rising tide of anti-Semitic violence is an alarming trend, with no end yet in sight. BDS, the anti-Zionist movement sweeping across colleges all over the United States, has resulted in discrimination and physical assault, and also shows no sign of abating.

That is what the President’s recent executive order on anti-Semitism addresses, and yet the issue is as upsetting and disturbing to some as if he had suggested that we actually take arms to protect ourselves.

The order that President Trump signed on Wednesday defines Jews as a nationality. The purpose of this wording is to enable the use of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect Jewish students from boycott, harassment and physical assault. As it reads, Title VI states: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program receiving Federal financial assistance.”[1] Religion is not part of this statement. Anti-Semitism, defined as hatred of Judaism as a religion, is thus not addressed by the very law meant to protect American citizens from prejudice and discrimination.

If Jewish students—be they Zionist or a-political, religious or secular—on American colleges and universities that receive federal funding are to be protected by the law just like any other group or minority, it seems that defining them as a nationality is a viable way of doing just that.

But that raises all sorts of objections, not least among us American Jews, and in particular Reform Jews.

Since its earliest days, the Reform Movement has shied away from defining Judaism as a nationality. Israel, Jerusalem, along with any mention of Messianic hopes for a return to Israel, were eliminated from our prayer books. Fearful of the anti-Semitic libel of dual-nationalism and slurs of being disloyal and untrustworthy, Reform Jews have insisted on seeing ourselves—and on being seen by others—as loyal citizens of our home countries first, and as Jews second. Jews went out their way to prove their loyalty, including running for public office and enlisting in national armies. The President’s attempt to define Jews as a nation has awakened deep-seated fears within us, and our initial and instinctive response is one of horror.

A second line of opposition to this executive order comes from those—Jews and non-Jews—who oppose Trump’s presidency a priori.  This group sees Trump as willing to do anything and say anything for a vote. They will quote Trump’s statements about White Nationalists as being good people; they will also point to his reference to Jewish Americans in real estate as being “brutal killers” and “not nice people.” There can be no doubt that Trump is a highly divisive factor in American politics, and anyone opposed to him will oppose any political move he makes.

A third group still has criticized the President’s order as putting a chill on any attempt to criticize the State of Israel. Yet, since even before it became a State, Israel has been criticized for any number of reasons, and chances are that this will not change any time soon, either among ourselves or among our many detractors.  At the same time, however, there is no doubt in my mind that today’s anti-Zionism is yet another form of anti-Semitism. It is the denial of Israel’s very legitimacy; it is the denial of Judaism’s legitimate claim to the nation and state that gave it birth, and that historically, physically and spiritually has been the home of the Jewish People for more than three and a half thousand years.

Like Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, Israel is once again being violated, treated by those who wish to see it gone as an illegitimate daughter—or worse—of western colonialism. 

Yet, though we Jews will not allow ourselves to behave as did Shimon and Levi in olden days, we do have a right to exist in freedom, along with a good measure of well-deserved pride for our accomplishments and many contributions to civilization. The consensus among American Jews is that open or concealed carry is not the way. Practically all synagogues, temples and other Jewish organizations have had to hire outside protection (at our own expense). So what else is left? Shall we, in Jacob’s sons’ words, be treated as a prostitute? 

I think not.

We Jews have every right to demand—and to receive—equal protection under the law as any other citizen of the United States. Freedom of speech cannot be, and must never be, used as defense for incitement, for calls to violence, intimidation, or delegitimization of Jews anywhere.  And if defining Jews as a nationality will give us access to the protection guaranteed  by Article VI of the Civil Rights Law of 1964, then I say, without any equivocation, I am fine with that.

The question of whether Jews are a nation or merely adherents to a religion has vexed the world for centuries, and still defies clear answer. Judaism is commonly defined as a culture, a way of life, a religion—but also as a nationality. Our name comes from the tribe and land of our origin: Judah. Our history, our fundamental texts, our culture, our entire heritage, are anchored in our homeland, today called Israel. The State of Israel may be a relatively new political entity, but history, tradition and archeology prove the Jewish People’s legitimate claim to our land. Today, Jews may live in every land, come in all varieties of skin color, practice our faith and culture in every possible form and manner. But at the end of the day we are still one people. We can’t sing Am Yisrael Chai—the People of Israel lives—and not recognize that we are indeed a people. To deny our nationhood is to deny our very existence, past, present and future. No one has the right to take that away from us. At this point in our history, we have earned every right to define and defend ourselves. Am Yisrael Chai—the People of Israel—miraculously, still lives, and it is us.

May God give us with strength, may God bless us all with peace.  

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman