An Upside Down World
(this sermon may or may not reflect the view of management)
The portion this week, tezaveh, introduces us to the most beautiful of all accessories that the High Priest would don over his garments–the choshem mishpat, made up of twelve different precious stones, each mounted on a gold frame. In each of these sectors, the gems had one of the twelve tribes etched into it. According to the Bible, the choshen was arranged in four columns of three.
I have always depicted the gems in my Parasha pictures in this fashion, but found, to my distress, that English translations don’t correspond to my depiction. Oddly, the Hebrew word “tur” was translated as rows, whereas I had always translated “tur” as columns. Four rows of three on the choshen isn’t the same as four columns of three; the gems are arranged differently. “What?” I said to myself. “I know that the Modern Hebrew translation of “tur” is column, and a column is vertical! Except that when I checked the Hebrew dictionary for “tur” it states, “generally a column but can also have the meaning of row!” Oy! I frantically checked the Art Scroll Bible, which depicts the Temple and the vestments, and indeed, they were arranged in rows. Then I checked other sources and they seemed to interpret “tur”as rows too. I was about to redo my picture when I came across this commentary in the Aryeh Kaplan Torah commentaries: “According to some authorities, the names were ordered downward in columns rather than across in rows.” Kaplan cites the famous Minchat Chinuch 99, a legal commentary on the Sefer ha-Chinuch, written by Yosef Babad ("Rabbeinu Yosef"; 1800–1874). Therefore, I again was on solid ground! Phew! I didn’t have to change it, and here it stands.
Upwards or sideways is not the only discrepancy in Jewish tradition. There are times, in the Hebrew calendar, like at Purim, when we make the case that everything can be turned upside down. Hafuch! Totally upside down. Purim, which comes in the second Adar this year, reveals that every evil thing Haman intended for the Jews was actually thrust the heads of their enemies. Thus, Purim is a time we can do things topsy-turvy, like men dressing as women and women dressing as men (not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say), and no one, even in frum communities, would bat an eyelash. That is the basis behind the Purim obligation that a person becomes so drunk that he doesn’t know the difference between the curse of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai. On Purim, you can do things not just upwards or sideways, but you can do things topsy-turvy– just for a little bit of craziness. (Our sages implore us not to take this too literally.)
Unfortunately, today’s world shows us a constant Purim–a topsy-turvy world. For instance, Fox News shows footage of Sports Illustrated. Now I am no prude, but this is not news—it’s exploitive! It’s a network’s cynical calculation for holding on to market share during their morning program. Or maybe it’s just me– But what about this: political debates used to be respectful opportunities for candidates to agree to disagree and point out the larger or more nuanced differences with one another’s view and philosophy. But in today’s world they have devolved to food fights and mutual recrimination; calling one another liars and, gads, “Canadian”. This insulting behavior may have engendered a gun duel a hundred and fifty years ago. Dignity and reputation used to mean something! Now candidates threaten litigation. Years ago, good leaders would calm and channel anger and frustration into constructive and productive ends. Called to mind are phrases like “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Or “it is not for you to ask what can your country do for you.” Candidates spoke to ennoble the masses. Now they aim to mirror and magnify the worst tendencies in their constituency and compete for the most intolerant of postures.
G-d's message is a tolerant message–no religion is an island. In today’s day and age, it is easy to believe that certain peoples and certain religions are abhorrent. The path of least resistance is to distrust and to put up walls of intolerance, suspicion and prejudice against Muslims, as we see currently expressed in the presidential campaign. Many folks, jarred by recent events such as the growth of ISIS and home-grown terrorism, take the position that certain quarters cannot be trusted in any way, shape, or form. But it is important to keep channels open, and not paint and condemn whole communities based on the barbaric acts of those who hijack religion.
I am privileged to have signed a clergy petition against terror, circulated by Ransaq, that reads, “We, the undersigned clergy, representing a diversity of religious backgrounds and organizations, are deeply pained by all acts of terror, and especially those acts committed in the name of G-d. Our faiths are designed to promote peace and mutual understanding, not terror or indiscriminate death. Those who believe that such acts are in any way heroic or noble, are the victims of insidious deception. Such acts do not guarantee entry to heaven. To the contrary, those who commit such atrocities walk a road that is divorced from our sacred traditions and alien to G-d. The clerics who convince others to give their lives and take the lives of others are charlatans. They have abused their power and influence, recruiting others to advance their own personal political and military objectives with false promises of eternal bliss. We unequivocally condemn their actions and demand that they cease from further profaning God’s name. We dare not be silenced by those who have distorted G-d’s great message to all of humanity. That is why we have signed our name to this petition.”
This petition was penned by Yousuf U. Syed, Trustee, Islamic Association of Long Island, The Selden Mosque, who also wrote the following in an “Open Letter of Muslims to fellow American Citizens,” The Selden Mosque (The Oldest Mosque of Long Island) stands in solidarity with all our fellow Americans. We send our heartfelt condolences to all the families of the victims, who were murdered and injured in San Bernardino’s mass shooting. The Prophet of Islam said: “A strong person is not the one who throws his adversaries to the ground – a strong person is the one who controls and contains himself when angry.” Such are the teachings of Islam–for those who can understand. Rev. Wes Granberg Michaelson, from The Reform Church in America, has called the Paris incident an “Identity theft of the Muslim Faith.” Islam, in fact, is indeed a peaceful religion. The true blasphemers are those who ridicule and insult other faiths. The killers and others like them who do not understand that by forcing their false and murderous distortion of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace, do great damage to the image of Muslims and Islam. Islam requires that Muslims possess “ upright character” and deal justly with the entire human race, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality, creed, and whether they are friend or foe. These are the teachings of Islam. How could a man like the San Bernardino killer, claim to be Muslim, when he has no respect for his own one-year-old innocent baby child, whom he left behind without mercy. I cannot call him an animal, because it would be an insult to animals. They would not abandon their offspring like that, they will fight to death to protect them.”
A happy and healthy 2015 to all congregants and their loved ones!
The new secular year brings with it resolutions for more vital and engaged living. That is as it should be. As we say in our prayers each day, “Praised are You G-d, who fashions the world anew each day.” That means that every day is an opportunity for transformation. One such transformation should be our involvement with the State of Israel. We accomplish that by writing and speaking out against those who are overly critical of Israel and hold her to a double standard. And we can do that in a more direct way by becoming members of the World Zionist Congress. We can truly have an impact on her religious directions and Jewish Peoplehood by becoming members of MERCAZ. Every Jew outside of Israel and over 18 years of age may become a member of MERCAZ by registering through their website WZO.org.il. There is a small fee for registration but a very good payout–The proportion of the Conservative Masorti Delegation at the Congress relative to the other organizations helps determine the appropriation of the Zionist Congress monies both in and out of Israel. In short, there is no more effective organizational influence we can have than becoming delegates to the World Zionist Congress.
As an arm of the congress, MERCAZ garners additional financial help through its TALI school curriculum, which is making huge inroads in the public school system in Israel. TALI promotes peace, pluralism and exposure to the beauty of Jewish text in these schools. It provides a “non-orthodox” approach to our traditional sources and offers choice to Israel’s youth population. MERCAZ’s numeric strength can also help determine funding for its growing synagogue system in the State of Israel. There are now 60 or so Kelliot Masortiot across the land of Israel. Your numbers will help direct more shekels toward these synagogues. Soon, the Israeli parliament will debate and craft a Jewish National Law which speaks of Judaism as the underpinning of government and policy developments in the Knesset and in Israel education. Masorti Judaism, no doubt, has something unique to say about this law and the religious direction of the State of Israel into the future.
I caught wind of the sad outcome of the kidnapping of the three teens, Naftali, Gil Aad and Ayyal, on may way from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem. I am currently at the Hartman Institute attending a Rabbinic Training session along with 120 other rabbis from various streams of Judaism from Israel and the entire diaspora. We, too, have been going through various stages of grief along with all of you. The truth is that to some of extent all of us understand, through these boys, that this could have happened to our children, and of course that is heightened in manifold fashion to every Israeli parent and grandparent. There is grief, identification, anguish and anger. Above all there is an understanding of the nature of the enemy that Hamas represents and even beyond, in the present precarious direction and societal turn of the Palestinians in general. Nonetheless Israelis are resolute. Resolute in uprooting, by military force, the threat against it to the degree possible. Resolute in the extirpation of the support networks and commanders that are encouraging these terrorists. Resolute in arguing diplomatically for the dismantling of this new hybrid regime of the PA that is basically adding Hamas to its decision making process. Resolute in showing restraint against civilians that are non-combatant. And resolute in its appreciation of seeing a unity among Israelis, secular and religious, outraged and pained by senseless brutality, not to be squandered by actions that aren't carried out without due process that befit civilized society.
It is fitting that these lads were laid to rest together side by side. It is fitting that the families have connected with one another in friendship and support. In a sense that support is spread across Israel, among all Israeli Jews in a massive extended family. That is something that a Jew feels keenly in Israel as in no other society. Because that is what Zionism is all about: the realization that as Jews, our primary responsibility is to look out for the welfare of the Jewish people and to protect it with vigilance and steadfastness. May we too learn these lessons and support the State of Israel and it's people through this challenging time in any way we can muster, politically and financially.Then and only then do we properly do honor to their memory.
May the souls of the departed be bound up in the bonds of life...tehi nishmatam tzerura betzror Hachayim.
Although New Years Eve is beyond us now, one of the beautiful sentiments expressed is in the lovely song Auld Lang Syne, a poem composed in 17th century Scotland and enhanced by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. It has become fairly pervasive over the English-speaking world.
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine† ;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.
This is a song I like because I believe it tells us of the importance of good friends and to not forget one’s friends. Time has a way of erasing even the most intense friendships due to neglect, failure to nurture them, or simply geographical separation, but this poem reminds us that love and friendship are stronger than time. Friends are essential to human happiness. As perkei avot tells us, “O charvuta o mittuta”–friends are a must, or we will simply wither and die.
The Jewish Encyclopedia advises that the essential characteristic of friendship is disinterestedness. That is, the service one wants to provide a fellow, irrespective of the benefit we derive from it. It’s the classic “I- thou” relationship, which Buber tells us is a holy relationship–perceiving the other not as object but as central subject–the expansion of the self and the spirit to go beyond oneself and one’s family. Friendship is the building–block of community, but of course, it’s more than that as well. Friendship is destroyed by selfishness, but, says Avot, a friendship not based on selfish motivation will never come to an end. The classic example of friendship in the Bible is the relationship of Jonathon and David. Jonathon so loves David that he acts to surrender his kingship rights and monarchical claims to his friend.
The Talmud offers many examples of fierce friendships. One is the relationship between Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappach and Resh Lakish. Resh Lakish was a gladiator who was discovered by Yochanon. Yochanan promised Resh Lakish his sister’s hand in marriage if Resh Lakish would channeling his strength into learning Torah. Resh Lakish flourished, becoming Yochanan’s equal. Resh Lakish was never afraid to take issue with his friend and his former mentor. Such an attitude could have led to rivalry and resentment. But their friendship remained intense. Many times Yochanan changed his opinions as a result of his friend’s opinions. When Resh Lakish died, Yochanan was inconsolable. The rabbis send him the very nice scholar Eliezer ben Porat, who found reasoning to support Yochanon in his opinions, hoping this would cheer him. Instead, Yochanon cried “disagree with me like Resh Lakish. Only then can we grow in our understanding. Don't agree with me... " We learn from our true friends. We are challenged by them, and they by us.
Say our sages, “It is easy to gain enemies, much less so a friend.” Ben Sirach says, “We should choose our friends carefully and be discriminating. Many are those who like you when you're smiling but abandon you in your distress. A faithful friend is a strong defense and he who has found one has found a treasure. The best friend is one who can guide and reprove as well as support and love.” Says Avoth d’Rabbi Natan, “Love him who corrects you and hate him who only flatters, because a true friend wants you to grow in life and be a grander person, a better soul.” May we treasure our friends always and never let the hands of time cause us to forget them. May we never become closed to new friendships when they present themselves because each has the potential to enoble us. May we understand our synagogue and its service opportunities and programs as a place where friendships can expand and deepen, and
Let’s lift a lechayim to them my friends,
lets lift a lechayim or two.
So in our haste we not forget
the beautiful things they do.