The Big Bang Theory and the Biblical “Son of an Israelite Woman”: Helping Outsiders Fit InRead Now
Parashat Emor 5779
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Friends, Thursday night marked the end of an era. No, unfortunately I’m not talking about Dirk Nowitzki’s last game after 21 seasons, since the Mavs didn’t manage to make the playoffs, so that was over a month ago already. Actually, I’m talking about the end of another memorable 12 season run, one that was marked by stellar performances week after week, consistently entertaining the fans. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. Now, I have to confess, for the first 6 seasons I watched the show religiously either live or on DVR and was always laughing throughout. Then, through no fault of the show, just a matter of life getting in the way, I stopped keeping up with the show, and haven’t watched in the last several seasons, but when I noticed that Thursday was going to be the series finale, I made sure to record it and watch it when I came home from work. I promise I won’t provide any spoilers, but I will say that I jumped right back into the feel of the show and found the conclusion very satisfying even after several years away.
I also listened to an interview on NPR with Mandalit Del Barco the other day about the show and found it quite interesting as well. One of the executive producers of the show, Chuck Lorre, noted that the show was always for and about geeks and nerds, and that’s why it worked. He said: “The characters were outliers and felt somewhat disenfranchised from the world and clung to each other—they created a surrogate family.” He added that he is proud that the show connected with viewers who didn’t always fit in, commenting “this is for the rest of us who weren’t the king and queen of the prom”. His co-creator of the show, Bill Prady, who used to write computer software, once talked with Lorre about how brilliant his coworkers were at programming, but how bad they could be interacting with people, and women in particular. When Prady told him about a programmer who could do amazing calculations in his head but couldn’t manage to tip the waiters in a restaurant, Lorre said, “Hang on, I’ve never seen that guy on television”. Then they made their protagonists scientists instead of programmers, and they were off to the races in creating a successful show. In the NPR interview this week, Prady became emotional and commented that “all of the people who have said that they see themselves in the show because they were outsiders and people who didn’t fit in—that was me”.
The disappointment and frustration of those on the fringes of society, those who feel like they don’t fit in or are marginalized, is not a modern-day phenomenon. It is a problem almost as old as, dare I say it, The Big Bang, or at least since human community began in ancient times and in the Bible. Take the disturbing narrative of “the blasphemer” as recounted in this week’s Torah portion, Emor: A man came out among the Israelites whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. This man, for reasons unstated in the text, gets into a heated argument with another Israelite and blasphemes the name of God. He is brought by witnesses to Moses for adjudication, after which God instructs the people, “V’samchu kol ha-shom’im et y’deyhem al rosho”, all those who heard the man curse God must lay their hands upon his head, and then the whole community must stone him to death.
Why did this man, known as the Ben-Isha Yisraelit (literally “the son of an Israelite woman”), instigate a fight with another Israelite? A 5th century C.E. Midrash [Leviticus Rabbah 32:3], rabbinic legend, imagines a vivid picture of the events preceding this altercation. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit, who as I previously mentioned had an Egyptian father and a mother from the Israelite tribe of Dan, attempted to pitch his tent in the quarters of Dan. He is rejected by his presumptive tribesman and told that since tribal affiliation is determined through the father, he has no place amongst the tribe of Dan. Even though the Ben-Isha Yisraelit clearly saw himself as an Israelite, others were unwilling to accept him. In fact, according to the medieval rabbi and commentator Rashi, he was the first child of intermarriage in Israelite or Jewish history. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit takes his case to Moses, thinking that perhaps because Moses also grew up as an outsider in Egypt, he will have empathy for his predicament. However, Moses ruled in favor of Dan, and the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, angry and dejected, responds by blaspheming God’s name.
Imagine this man’s utter disappointment in what he believed to be, wanted to be, his community. He had a religious crisis and lashed out with a religious response. As a sympathetic reader, we cannot help but feel troubled by this narrative. This is not to trivialize this man’s offense per se— after all, the Ben-Isha Yisraelit violated the prohibition of desecrating God’s name, a law stated explicitly just a few verses earlier. But what are we to make of the community’s seeming lack of compassion? As my colleague and friend Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, NY, points out, a careful reading of this narrative suggests that the Torah seems unsettled by this as well.
In announcing the punishment of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, God commands the Israelites: “Let all those who heard [the blasphemy] place their hands upon his head, and let the entire congregation stone him.” Generally, the placing of hands is a symbolic gesture whereby one transfers sin onto another; such is the case with sacrifices such as the burnt offering listed at the beginning of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, and also with the Yom Kippur ritual enacted by the High Priest back in ancient times, when he would place both his hands on the head of a live goat — the scapegoat—and confess the sins of Israel onto its head before it was sent off to die in the desert. The people who witnessed the blasphemer, most likely the very people who banished him from their midst, were obligated to atone for their lack of compassion by means of s’micha, placing their hands on his head. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit died for his transgression, but he also became the scapegoat, sent to his death because of the sins of his neighbors.
That the community was at least partially responsible for the sin of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit is further evidenced by the juxtaposition of this story to the upcoming portions of the Torah that describe our responsibility to help integrate the lonely and downtrodden. The Torah emphasizes our obligation to take care of the impoverished, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
The Ben-Isha Yisraelit is the paradigmatic outsider. He is someone who does not fit in, someone out of sync with societal expectations, a newcomer who cannot find his place in the community. The genesis of the Big Bang Theory show and the biblical story of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit remind us that in our society, ancient and modern, it’s often hard to connect and find a way to fit in and become “accepted”. Sometimes it’s because we are newcomers to a country or community, school or house of worship. And sometimes we may already be settled in and yet are still having trouble finding kindred spirits who accept us for who we are without judging our background, parentage, skin color, sexual preference, gender, religion, or interests. I would reasonably guess that many, if not all of us, in this sanctuary have experienced this feeling of disenfranchisement at some point or another in our lives. It’s never a good feeling to be an outlier to a group or a community. But sometimes all it takes is one person, or a small group of people, to help break down those barriers and obstacles to connection. And remembering that we’ve experienced moments like these may be just the push we need to keep an eye open for others who may be struggling on the periphery.
In a synagogue or church community, or in a school setting, a sense of belonging should mean more than just pitching your tent like the Ben-Isha Yisraelit attempted to do on the land of the tribe of Dan, saying you want to be a part of the community; it should mean that people INVITE you to pitch your tent and even lift up the flap periodically to check on you and see how you’re doing. Perhaps had the Israelite community embraced the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, rather than pushed him away, he would not have felt compelled to blaspheme God’s name. How would this man have felt here in Shearith Israel, or in the houses of faith of others present here today, or in the schools of our students here in the room? It’s a question that merits serious reflection. Do we treat these various settings as our home, and anyone in it as our personal guest? While we’re in these settings, who are we talking to, and who AREN’T we talking to? Who are we stopping to greet in the hall, or sitting next to in services or at kiddush lunch or in a cafeteria at school, and who are we passing by and ignoring? Are each one of us taking a share of the responsibility for making OUR communities—faith or school—more inviting, or are we leaving that job for someone else? Our actions and inactions, kind words or harsh ones, truly do make an impact on others whether we realize it or not.
Can we step up to our responsibilities to be pleasant, friendly, inviting, and concerned, to do our part to help more people in our respective faith and school communities feel like insiders instead of outsiders? Individuals’ feeling of belonging and sense of self-worth, and the vibrancy and even the very essence of these types of communities and our society is what’s at stake.
A 19th century Rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda of Berlin (the Netziv), once taught that each individual has immeasurable potential and excluding the outsider or the outlier means the world may miss out on untapped greatness. He wrote, “Never underestimate the human potential of the stranger. Never forget that he or she could also be destined for greatness and, hence, never be responsible for the suppression of another’s potential. Rather, open your heart to the stranger in love so that you can enable him to flourish and realize his potential.” Maybe that’s why Sheldon and Amy won the Nobel Prize in Thursday night’s Big Bang Theory finale (oh shoot, that was a spoiler): they reached their maximum potential because they were surrounded by a group of friends and surrogate family who embraced them for all of their quirks and loved and supported them all the same. It’s all any of us can ever ask for from others, and something we can give freely in return if we only choose to.
By Rabbi Adam Roffman
Thank you all, so much, for the good wishes and the joy you’ve shared with us after the birth of our new daughter. As today is the eighth day of her life, we’d like to share with you the names that we’ve chosen for her as she enters into the Covenant of the Jewish people—Rebecca Joelle, Rivka Yael bat HaRav Shira Esther vHaRav Avraham Elimelech.
Rebecca is named for Adam’s mother’s cousin, Ruth Ginsburg, or Ruthie as everyone called her. She was a kind, deeply spiritual, unapologetically eccentric woman who just happened to be a highly respected professional advocate for women, patron saint of progressive causes, and all-around fun-to-be with, easy-to-love soul. One year, on a visit to her home in Boston, Ruthie and Adam spent the day whale watching. He was maybe eight or nine years old, and yet, his mother trusted Ruthie to keep Adam occupied through the five- or six-hour cruise on the Atlantic. They spent the time chatting about how whales poop, counting the number of baby teeth Adam had left, and snapping photographs with his disposable camera. In other words, the kind of conversation any eight- or nine-year old might share with a buddy, except in this case the buddy was three decades older than Adam. No matter what they talked about, Ruthie was absolutely fascinated by the smallest details, each one a jumping off point for a conversation that could last minutes or hours.
We pray that Ruthie’s memory will inspire and remind Rebecca that the best way to earn someone’s trust, and respect, and love is to be deeply invested in them—in what they fight for, in what they care about, in what makes them laugh, and think, and wonder, and smile—no matter what those things are. Ruthie taught us that if something is important to someone you care about, you have to make it important to you. If you do, that person will never leave you, not even after they’re gone.
Rebecca’s middle name, Yael in Hebrew, Joelle in English, honors two remarkable rabbis.
First, Shira’s zaydie Rudy Adler, Yosef in Hebrew. When Shira reflects on his life, she marvels at his strength and perseverance, his sustained faith, and the drive that led him to touch so many lives, bringing as many people as he could closer to the Torah. She wonders how he survived with his relationship with Judaism and God intact as he traveled north from Nazi Germany to Liverpool, England with his yeshiva, leaving his parents behind, how he endured during the tumultuous voyage over the Atlantic Ocean to Toronto, eating only pickled fish and gasping sea air. She can’t fathom what it does to a person to finally make it safely to North America, only to be thrown into an internment camp for German nationals and always having to sleep with one eye open.
But through all of this, Shira’s zaydie kept his faith in God and in people. In Germany, in 1933, which was the year Hitler rose to power, he celebrated his bar mitzvah. In Liverpool, England, he learned to be a brilliant student of Talmud and earned semicha, rabbinic ordination. In the internment camp in Canada, he kept pages of Talmud folded in his sock so that he could retreat to a secluded part of the forest and study. And when he was finally released, he met Shira’s bubbie, Rose, at a young Judea meeting in Toronto, and she took on his life so whole-heartedly that his relationship with faith turned into a team effort. With her by his side, he moved from pulpit to pulpit until ending up in Orlando, with three beautiful children in tow. He lived to see his kids grow up, he spent wonderful quality time with his grandchildren, and near the end of his life, he met his great-granddaughter Hannah Rose, who we named for his beloved.
We pray that Rebecca experiences Shira’s zaydie’s long life and many joys. We also pray that she is inspired by his deep commitment to faith, to optimism, and to light. He always believed that blessings would come to him.
We also hope that she will take after Shira’s zaydie in his humor and lightheartedness. One of the best photographs ever taken of him is Rudy sitting next to Shira’s mom, when she was pregnant with her, each of them with tea mugs comfortably balanced on their round and buoyant tummies. We recreated the photo this Pesach with Shira’s dad, Hannah and Rebecca’s zaydie. When Shira was three years old and loved dancing around in her ballet tutu, he dressed up with her and did his best to keep up with her plies, arabesques, and jetês. And each year in his shul, he gave an annual sermon on Jewish humor—he would start a joke, remind himself of the punchline, and start laughing so hysterically that the rest was completely undecipherable as he dissolved into a mess of giggles. People would come from all over to watch this.
Rebecca's middle name, in English, changed from what we had initially decided on the night she was born, after we realized that she came into the world on the same day as Shira’s childhood rabbi’s 5th yartzeit. Unlike Shira’s zaydie, Rabbi Joel Wasser wasn’t given the opportunity to live out his days, but his legacy shines just as brightly.
Joel came to Tampa when Shira was 9 and brought with him a version of Judaism that centered around wholehearted passion and delight, unbridled faith and commitment to torah. His favorite teaching was from psalms: ivdu et hashem besimcha, serve God with joy, which soon became emblazoned in shining gold letters above the ark at Shira’s shul. When he entered a room, he would bellow “Shalom my holy friends,” in a way that made each person feel important, part of a sacred encounter. His charisma bounded off the walls on Purim, his voice carried all of the hakafot on Simchat Torah, his spirit filled the sanctuary on Yom Kippur. He spent his summers at Camp Ramah Darom and though he could have chosen the nicer staff housing (which his family would have appreciated), he insisted on rooming in the dilapidated shack with no AC in the middle of camp so that he could run into everyone as they were huffing and puffing up the hill. You wouldn’t expect it, but being short of breath was a great condition to insist that someone stop for a while, have a drink, and discuss whatever esoteric Jewish idea Joel was thinking about at the time. Or more often, he’d look right into your soul and ask: how’s your neshama?
Instead of traditional bat mitzvah lessons, Joel taught Shira how to study Mishnah. You can probably imagine that in 6th grade Shira was used to knowing everything and being right all the time . . . so after reading their first passage together, he asked Shira if she had any questions. She said “no, of course not, I understood everything.” And in the next 30 seconds, he asked Shira 50 questions to which she had no response. A perfect introduction to rabbinic literature, a perfect representation of how Joel illuminated Shira’s path forward.
We pray that Rebecca Joelle learns these lessons from Rabbi Joel Wasser:
Don’t do anything half-assed. If you care enough to do something, throw your entire self into it. And if you can throw in a couple of SAT vocabulary words, even better.
Figure out who you are and live out loud. Then, create space for others to do so.
Believe in the possibility of holiness. If you don’t see it around you, it’s your job to kindle it.
Understand that strength and fragility often go hand in hand. Don’t be afraid to give someone permission to have both.
And finally, ivdi besimcha. Do your life’s work, express and receive love, and envelop it all in joy.
Before we were married, we each insisted that the other share in an experience that reflected an essential part of who we are as individuals and what our life together would look like. Naturally, for Adam, that meant taking Shira to his favorite sacred place, his most beloved sanctuary—Oriole Park at Camden Yards, so that we could watch the Red Sox throttle the Orioles. Shira insisted that we do something she could not believe Adam hadn’t done—watch the movie version of the Sound of Music. He was pleasantly surprised by the movie, but even more surprised by what happened last week, the afternoon we brought Rebecca from the hospital. Adam swaddled her in a blanket, and fulfilled his life-long dream of putting his newborn daughter in his lap as he sat at a grand piano in the music room of his own home. When he reached for the sheet music, it wasn’t “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler or “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd that he instinctually took down from the shelf. Instead, it was a score from a show he never really understood until he held Rebecca Joelle in his arms and gently played his heart out on an instrument that we hope will echo in her soul and her children’s soul forever, just as it echoes in ours.
Somehow, despite the emotion of moment, his fingers found the right keys, and his voice clearly whispered the words—with a few, small changes:
Our home is alive with the sound of music
With songs we have sung for four thousand years
These walls fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears
My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds
That rise from the lake to the trees
My heart wants to sigh like a shofar that flies
From a shul on a breeze
To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over stones on its way
To sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray
I go to my home when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I've heard before
Your heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And together, you and me and your mother and your sister, will sing once more.
Welcome to our home, Rebecca Joelle.
Responding after the deathsRead Now
Sermon--Acharei Mot 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
The title of our parasha today, Acharei Mot, literally “after the death of,” refers to the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were struck down by God a few chapters earlier in parashat Shemini for bringing an “esh zarah,” a strange fire, to the sacrificial altar. There Aaron reacts with stunned silence and he and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are unable to mourn their loved ones formally and ritually because they must maintain their pure sanctified state to be able to fulfill their priestly duties for the Israelite people. Instead, the rest of the Israelite community mourns on their behalf. Ultimately Moses instructs Aaron and his two other sons to resume their sacred work as priests. Here in our parasha the reference to the deaths from several chapters ago serves as a warning to Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, not to enter the innermost part of the sanctuary improperly in the context of his fulfilling the annual Yom Kippur atonement ritual for the community. The words “acharei mot” here teach that, after we’ve experienced death and loss, we have to take something away from that devastation. To say we could justify death or explain away loss by saying we can “make the loss worth it” or “make someone’s sacrifice worth it,” is itself an overstatement that potentially trivializes the depth of the loss or suggests a direct connection between a death and something positive that comes about in its aftermath or is allowed to continue by virtue of a person’s or people’s ultimate sacrifice. And yet, it’s also true that, when we’re in pain and have a permanent hole in our heart that cannot be filled because of a loss or losses we’ve suffered, we may find at least some measure of comfort in knowing that something positive came about as a result, some kind of silver lining to carry us forward.
Friends, the idea of “acharei mot” could not be a more appropriate parasha for today in light of the shooting at Chabad of Poway last Shabbat morning, that claimed the life of Lori Gilbert Kaye and wounded three others, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. A congregant was gunned down on Shabbat and the 8th day of Pesach in her synagogue, just as 11 congregants were gunned down in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on a Shabbat in October. Both shootings were perpetrated by anti-Semitic murderers, and last week’s shooting was carried out by a 19-year-old. How do we respond “after the death?" We can seek inspiration from Rabbi Goldstein, who, after he had already seen his beloved congregant lying dead in the synagogue lobby, and with his hands bloody from being shot, managed to help evacuate children from the building and then, amazingly, after the shooter had fled, even spoke to his community outside the building. In his opinion piece in the New York Times this week, he wrote that he didn’t “remember all that [he] said to [his] community, but [he did] remember quoting a passage from the Passover Seder liturgy: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And he remembered shouting the words “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!” He commented, “I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.” And then Rabbi Goldstein added:
“I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish. From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue—especially this coming Shabbat.”
Rabbi Goldstein powerfully teaches us that, “acharei mot,” after Lori Kaye’s death and the deaths at Tree of Life Synagogue and after so many other deaths at the hands of anti-Semites throughout history and into modern times through the Shoah, the Holocaust, which we coincidentally also commemorated this week, and even in the 70+ years since, we must continue to say to anti-Semites and to the world that you are not going to erase us from history. You are not going to erase our story or our narrative. And you will never stop us from living as Jews and proudly carrying forward our traditions and our peoplehood.
This theme of acharei mot carries forward into next week when we will observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, on Tuesday evening, immediately followed the next day by Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. When the government of the State of Israel established the date of Yom HaZikaron in 1963, they deliberately and intentionally placed it immediately before Yom Ha’Atzma’ut on the calendar, starkly reminding us of the “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter of which renowned Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote, referring to the men and women who sacrificed their lives so that the modern State of Israel might be established and so that it would survive in the face of any and all threat that has come its way since. As we celebrate the miracle of Israel’s independence, we can never forget the price that was paid, and continues to be paid, to secure a homeland for our Jewish people. In this vein, I was shocked to learn yesterday that a prominent synagogue in Washington, D.C., the 6th and I Synagogue, will be observing an “Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day” this coming Tuesday night on the evening of Yom HaZikaron, describing it on their synagogue website as a “memorial based on the values of hope, solidarity, and non-violence” in which people will “hear from Israelis and Palestinians as they share their families’ stories of loss." When I learned about this event at 6th and I, I dug a little deeper and found that sadly this is not the only example of dilution of sacred Jewish days and ceremonies into something that obscures or devalues the Jewish heart of the commemoration itself. For example, Jewish Voice for Peace has created a Pesach Haggadah that makes equivalences between the Israelite experience in Egypt and the Palestinian experience, and a Tisha B’Av ritual that compares the Palestinian reaction to the establishment of the State of Israel to the Jewish people’s reaction—and millennia-old day of mourning—for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, expulsions from European countries in the Middle Ages, pogroms and other tragedies throughout Jewish history.
Now, let me be clear—I do very much hear and recognize the narrative of loss experienced by Palestinian Arabs, and I very much want to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And there is an appropriate time to focus on those sentiments and hopes. But on Yom HaZikaron, Pesach, Tisha B’Av? Sacred days of our people are NOT that time. We deserve our day, or days, to have them be just about our unique experience, our narrative. When we water down that narrative, as 6th and I Synagogue is doing this coming Tuesday night, it makes it harder for us to stand up to anti-Semites like the murderers in Poway and Pittsburgh because we are devaluing ourselves and we are devaluing our own story and our own right to exist! Why are we doing the work of the anti-Semites for them, making it easier to say our story doesn’t matter, our religion doesn’t matter, our people doesn’t matter, the State of Israel doesn’t matter? Like Rabbi Goldstein said in his opinion piece, we need to proudly stand up for ourselves and assert our right to exist, our right to gather safely and securely and practice our rituals and traditions here in the U.S. and in any country, and our right to have a national homeland in the land of Israel, “lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, eretz tzion Yerushalayim,” to be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem, as the words of Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikvah proclaim. This is us, the Jewish people. We will not back down from anti-Semites or from anyone who would seek to devalue us or the sacrifices we’ve made or eliminate us from history.
Acharei Mot. After the deaths. How do we respond to the deaths of Lori Kaye, the 11 Pittsburgh victims, the multi-thousand Israeli soldiers fighting to establish, secure and defend Israel, the countless victims of anti-Semitism throughout the ages, and the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of the Shoah? We respond by living proudly as Jews, by testifying through our actions that Judaism, Jewish peoplehood, and Jewish statehood is somehow worth the unimaginable and impossibly high cost we’ve paid and still pay to this very day. I hope you’ll join me in our Dallas Jewish community’s commemoration of Yom HaZikaron this coming Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm at Anshai Torah, as we gather and remember some of these sacrifices that have been made in the name of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People. May the memories of those who have paid this price for us, our “magash ha-kesef,” the silver platter for our Judaism, continue to bless us and inspire us to treasure the Judaism and the Jewish state that meant so much to them. AMEN.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share