The terrible killings at the AME Church in Charleston captured national attention on a grand scale. All of us can relate to it because as Jews, we have experienced, through the centuries, what it feels like to be a target of hate. I would like to relate the Charleston tragedy to a big theme in our parashat: “Making space.” I am struck by how much space has been made by the Charleston community, church members and even victims' family–space of compassion, space for love and support, space even for forgiveness, which was stunning and even jarring to me, so close to the moment. But clearly they restricted space as well. They closed ranks and their doors to hatred and malice, and showed us a community that proudly built bridges of care and of love. I will suggest three concrete and symbolic ways that we can make more room for one another as well.
Before this though, in the parashat chukat, Moses is told to be “the rod” and told to assemble the people and talk, so that water will come out of the rock. Why, asks a commentator, does God tell Moses to bring THE STAFF when He might have understood that it would trip Moses up and he would use it to strike rather than to speak to the rock? Because, we learn, it was to used for the first miracle. The first miracle was to conjure space so that all might be included. Millions of people gathered before the rock. The staff expanded the spiritual space that allowed all to be included–millions of people fit and stood before the rock!
Space, says the old Star Trek prelude, is The Final Frontier! Our lives, on so many levels, are comprised of, and our tradition is about, the making of space. The Kabalists tell us that tzimzum, the contraction of God and His expansion of space, was how material reality came into being. Where would we be if God hadn’t expanded the space? When we marry, we join two souls together as one. We make room for our spouse so that our souls and our lives intersect. We cannot neglect the self and become the other, but we must let the other in. Those of us who send our kids off to camp sense how the house seems to expand, which allows us to throw away some of the debris of the year to make more room for them when they come back!
Charleston is not just a tragedy, but it is also an opportunity. How do we make more space in light of Charleston–as a nation, as a community, and as individuals? There are two concrete and symbolic acts that immediately come to mind. South Carolina has “made it right” with their minority community by lowering that confederate flag and confining it to a museum. The confederate flag was a part of their past, no doubt, but not a part of their future. Homage to ancestors should take the form of visiting the cemetery or observing the date of death in personal ways. Short of this, flying their flag is idolatry; it’s idolatry of ancestor worship. And it is greatly selfish. The honored and genteel history of the South cannot be remembered without the stain of evil of institutionalized slavery. That flag stands for the bartering and owning of human lives. To maintain otherwise is to attempt to put lipstick on a a pig. It is good to see that some politicians in the state move in that direction–in the direction of expanding space and reaching out to include.
I composed a reading to respond to the horrific church killings at AME Church in Charleston this last week. I have enclosed it for your reading and prayers as well.
The Talmud holds that the Holy Temple was destroyed by excessive gratis hatred.
Rabbi Kook deduced, therefore, that the Holy Temple and Redemption will come only with excessive love.
The Blessing for peace asks for the Maker of Peace to make peace upon all of Israel.
The Siddur of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon reminds us too to pray that God make peace “in the world.”
The truth is that God can only help those who help themselves.
Peace begins with one’s forgiving one's self and then being open to others. Loving others is a tall order when we don’t love ourselves.
Peace or love does not "break out." It must be tended and cultivated. It begins with an open heart. It begins with empathy for another’s distress. It begins with not holding grudges. It begins when one doesn’t prejudge. It begins when we begin to transcend the selfish and the blind within ourselves.
An act of terror and White Supremacy in Charleston was intended to divide us. It appears that is has united us. An act of terror near Modiin, Israel by Palestinian terrorists yesterday also will bring us together.
We extend out condolences to the families of the victims and their families. May the fallen be remembered for blessing.
We pray for the recovery of the injured. May they find healing from physical and emotional trauma.
May a time soon come when the words of Isaiah ring out in truth: "They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea." May our love one day be excessive enough to build the heavenly temple and to bring redemption nearer, and let us say AMEN.
The regional Rabbinical Assembly–a group of rabbis along with the LI Board of Rabbis–has reached out to colleague black ministers with whom we have formed a group, and sent the following message, composed by our RA Region President, Rabbi Art Vernon:
Dear Bishop White,
My colleagues in the Rabbinical Assembly of Nassau, Suffolk and Queeens join me in expressing our sadness and our outrage at the attack on the Bible Study Group at the AME Churche in Charleston, South Carolina. It is inconceivable that a house of worship, a place of peace and prayer, devoted to faith in God, would be desecrated by such an act of violence. We are heartened by the coming together of both black and white people in Charleston to express support for the victims and their bereaved relatives, and to condemn this inexplicable act. We join with you and all good people of faith in offering our condolences to the bereaved and our hope that soon we shall all learn to live together as brothers and sisters in faith. Please share this note with your colleagues and let me know if there is anything else we cando to bring people of faith together in good will. May God bless the families of those who perished, bless the good people of Charleston, SC, and may God bless America.
Yours in solidarity, faith and prayer,
Rabbi Art Vernon, President
Rabbinical Assembly of Nassau, Suffolk and Queens
There are so many wonderful and exciting events that took place during the month of May, making it very difficult to single out the most outstanding ones during this period. I will highlight just a few:
LAG BAOMER CELEBRATION
On Thursday afternoon, May 7th we celebrated an amazing Lag Baomer event, which was simply fabulous! At approximately 5:45 pm, while everybody present was enjoying a sumptuous BBQ, I actually counted 156 children and parents in attendance. WOW! Due to the superb success of this event, we will obviously do it again with a few "tweaks" in the activities. There are so many individuals who were involved in the planning and orchestration of this event. As a result, I will thank EVERYBODY who assisted, as it was a team effort that guaranteed the success of this celebration. I would like to just mention a few people and arms of the ENJC.
This event was a partnering of our Ritual and Education Committees, Men's Club and Sisterhood (both of whom contributed financially) Joe and Alex Fingerman, who did most of the food shopping, Men's Club, Sisterhood members and parents, who so skillfully handled the BBQ, and a special todah rabah to some adults who have no children in our school and yet they were there to help–Nina & Steve Levine, Robin Kain & daughter Emily, Steve Hardy, Wendy Isaac and Lynn & Mark Slovin. I'd also like to thank Rabbi Silverman, who appeared as Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Bruce Katz, an amazing professional guitarist, who entertained our children, Karyn Tyl & Evan Axelrod, who arranged all of the custodial help necessary to pull off this event, and our amazing Religious School secretary Jill Riemer, as well as 7 of our teen tutors/class assistants who were present.
A special todah rabah to Frank Brecher (ENJC President), Melisa Kurtz (our dedicated Education VP) and Robin Kain, who assisted with the logistics regarding the food etc. Kudos to Mark Infald, who partnered with me in the planning and orchestration of this event! Todah to Morah Evelyn, who was so helpful with the games and activities.
If I have omitted anybody, my apologies! The success of this event was absolutely based upon "team work" and thanks to all. Most importantly, thanks to all parents and children who were present, thus ensuring the absolute success of this unique celebration.
ADULT BAR & BAT MITZVAH CELEBRATIONS
On Shabbat Saturday, May 2nd, we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of Bart Ayres and the Bat Mitzvah celebrations of Lisa Green, Rachel Friedman and Linda Hametz. What a wonderful, joyous and meaningful service it was. Mazal tov to all!
OUR APPRECIATION TO OUR TALENTED CONGREGANTS
During the past couple of months, we have had a number of our teenagers and adults chanting Torah portions or Haftarot. Todah rabah and thanks to the following:
Mikayala & Lara Berman, Shelby Maldavir, Kevin Stubing, Hayden Roth, Barri & Ethan Feuer, Evan Keiser, Eric & Jen Vladimir, Ralph Wertheimer, Marc Schweitzer, Howie Lewin and Eric Loring.
TZEDAKAH: The opportunity that giving of charity presents us
Summertime, and the living is easy
Fish are jumping and the cotton is high
Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good looking
So hush little baby don’t you cry.
The pleasures of summer are upon us. We play and we vacation and we try to forget about the world’s problems. But of course we see problems all around us–Earthquakes in Nepal and Ebola in Africa. Disasters both natural and man-made– train wrecks, plane crashes and war ravaged countries, which summon us to respond with our generosity. When disaster strikes we are driven by altruistic impulses to help in any way we can to lessen pain and to limit the damage. But our tradition advises us that tzedakah is something that must be given consistently and reflexively, not just in crisis but as a moral imperative and as a constant.
Tzedakah is a mitzvah that requires a person to give charity to the degree they are able. A person violates a negative commandment when he ignores a specific need for giving charity, but he violates the positive mitzvah if he or she doesn’t give at least a little bit yearly toward the benefit of others. There are degrees of tzedakah. The higher degrees of tzedakah are when we give eagerly and anonymously; the highest degree when we get someone a job or an interest-free loan to become financially stronger. Tzedakah must be given by everyone, even the poor, but not to the extent that they then need to panhandle for tzedakah themselves. Tzedakah is limited, on the high end, to 1/5 of one’s wealth, generally, and 2/5, in the case of the super wealthy. But of course that is the highest degree of generosity allowed, yet not required. Our sages tell us that Tzedakha mekarevet et Hageula, charity brings redemption near. Jerusalem is redeemed by tzedakah, and tzedakah is equal to all the other mitzvoth combined. One Hasidic sage reminds us that in the “atbash" method, in which letters are equated with others from the opposite side of the alphabet א-ת,ב-ש, tzedakah הדקצ is equal to its adbash analogue, צקדה, telling us that giving to tzedakah is as wonderful for the receiver as it is to the giver!
SHAVUOTH: THE HOLIDAY OF THE RECEIVING OF THE TORAH
Our rabbis wonder why Shavuoth, the major festival that occurs seven weeks-and-a-day after Pesach, is never referred to in the Torah as Hag Matan Torah, the holiday in which the Torah is given. Instead, it is referred to as Shavuoth "weeks" or Hag HaBikurim, the "holiday of first fruits." One answer is that the Bible is set in an agricultural society, with the beginning of the harvest as a major event. Another answer is that we need a constant reminder that our freedom is given to us not by our own hands but by God, who brought us out of Egypt. As we bring our first crops to the Temple, we should remember and give gratitude to the God of Israel for bringing us into this fertile land to be His people.
Two other very important reasons are given for the Bible not focusing on Chag Matan Torah, the holiday of the Giving of the Torah. The first is that to receive Torah, one must be humble. The Torah, like water, travels to the lowest place, and one must rid oneself of pride (know-it –all-ness), if one is to receive it. Therefore, the Torah models this humility by not trumpeting it's own importance!
The other is THAT THE TORAH WAS AND ALWAYS IS BEING GIVEN. The Torah is always available for those who are open to receive it. God himself referred to it when He created the world! It was there thousands of generations even before the creation of the world. It's just that humanity, until the time of Abraham and Sara, and later, in a collective fashion at Sinai, did not have a 'spiritual antenna' sufficiently strong enough to RECEIVE IT. And perhaps that is why it is not referred to in the Torah as the “Holiday of the giving of the Torah.” From the Torah's point of view, it was being constantly given, but sadly not being noticed. And so tradition has it, it was treasured by the angels, but not applied until the time of Sinai.
The Midrash adds that the Torah continues to radiate out from Sinai to beckon us; to reveal its truth every single day. A bat kol–a voice from Sinai, continues to thunder from Sinai saying, "my children, oh obtuse ones, come home, return to your God.” Humanity and the Jewish people, distracted in their many day-to-day pursuits, are also not “tuned in” to the ever undulating fountain of insight that our Torah continues to offer us. The Torah, therefore, was, is, and continues to be given, and so the name “The Day of the Giving of the Torah,” would be a misnomer.