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.
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.
A Plague Upon Our Houses?Read Now
Parashat Tazria 5779
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Lilly definitely struck gold when it came to the Bat Mitzvah parasha lottery. I mean, who doesn’t get excited when they find out they get to speak about contagious skin diseases in front of a large crowd of family and friends? Lilly did a great job giving us a contemporary perspective on this vis-à-vis inclusion and exclusion from community, so I’m going to spend a few minutes on a related theme that emerges towards the end of this parasha and appears in similar form in next week’s parasha of Metzora, and this is the issue of what happens when this same disease referred to as “tzara’at” manifests not on human skin, but instead contaminates fabrics and leather or even plastered or mud-covered building stones in houses. Most of our rabbinic commentators on the Torah tend to see the spread of these contagious diseases to inanimate objects such as clothing or houses as something natural, as if the object were just falling prey to a fungus or rot. But there are a few commentators who look at this somewhat differently, including Nachmanides from 13th century Spain. Commenting on the infection of clothing in this week’s parasha and on the “house plague” in next week’s parasha, Nachmanides says, “When the Jewish people are at one with God, God’s spirit is always upon them, keeping their bodies, clothes and homes in good appearance. When one of them happens to sin, however, an ugliness appears on his flesh, his clothes, or his house, to show that God has departed from him.” Nachmanides goes on to say that this only occurs in Israel, because only there could we be fully prepared to know God and have God’s Shekhinah, God’s presence, dwell amongst us.
Rashi, our medieval biblical commentator par excellence, from 11th century France, offers us a different explanation for the house plague right out of the Midrash, rabbinic legend—that the Amorites dwelling in Canaan, ultimately the land of Israel, had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses throughout the period of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, which the Israelites would find when they knocked down the ugly, moldy, “infected” houses upon their arrival in the land. Needless to say, the Israelites would be very pleased at the results of their cleanup effort.
That’s a fascinating midrash—and an outlandish one. Maybe instead of focusing on Rashi’s take that God infecting the houses was a roundabout way to reward the Israelites (and punish the non-believing Amorites,) we should instead think about a common thread between Nachmanides’ and Rashi’s comments. Nachmanides suggests that our clothes and our houses, if infected, would testify to the moral decay of the person wearing them. And if we look a little closer at Rashi’s take, perhaps he’s also criticizing the Amorites for hoarding and hiding wealth, seemingly prioritizing saving and protecting their wealth at all costs. Furthermore, if we set aside Rashi’s fanciful midrash altogether and just focus on the biblical text itself, we see that if an Israelite’s house is afflicted with this plague, then all the property within must be removed from the house, and the house must be diagnosed. Then a Kohen, a priest, tries to assure its ritual purity, and if that fails, the infected stones must be removed. And if that doesn’t work, then the entire house is supposed to be destroyed. Maybe we can’t picture this literally, but metaphorically this could be teaching us that our homes can theoretically decay morally to the point of destruction, to the point of holiness departing from their midst. That kedusha, holiness, should ideally find expression in our homes, should not surprise us on any level. Our ancient sages liked to encourage each of us to make our homes a “mikdash m’at,” small sanctuary, a sacred space for our family and for anyone else who enters into its confines. By the way, this is why we traditionally take the step of salting our challah every Shabbat, because in the times of the Ancient Temple, we used to salt the sacrifices that were brought to the altar, and now we salt our challah as a stand-in, helping transform our Shabbat tables into sacred altars. We can also think about the symbolism of the chuppah, the wedding canopy, which is open on all sides, reminding us not only of the importance of inviting others into that space, but also that we have the responsibility to fill in the walls of our home, so to speak, to frame our home symbolically with the values that we want expressed both within the house and outside of it when we interact with the world.
It’s on this point that the midrash about the Amorites hoarding gold and treasure in their walls again becomes useful to us. Thinking about the recent college admissions scandal that rocked—at least in the short term—the confidence of many in the college admissions process, we have to ask a crucial question, which is, “How did this happen?” And by that question I don’t mean how did these specific individuals cheat the system and take advantage of wealth and access, because for that, we can all read the many articles on the details of the case and perhaps be surprised, and perhaps not, at the brazenness of the scheme. No, I’m asking a different question, which is, “How did our society get to this point where parents are demonstrating to their children that the only thing that matters is getting ahead of others, getting what you want, and “winning,” not whether you got there fairly and on your own merits?” And while I don’t presume to say there’s only one answer to this troubling question, I’ll offer one now. Over a period of time too many people have succumbed to this temptation to cut corners and game the system, perhaps because they are convinced that what matters most in our society is THAT you get ahead, and that money can solve any problem. But even if it may be tempting to go down that path, our Jewish tradition reminds us that there is always another path, even if it runs counter to what others in society may be doing at the time. We always have a choice when we frame our home and shape the character of the space inside. At our dinner tables, sitting on the couch watching TV, or on our patio having an iced tea or another beverage on a nice spring evening, we can share our values with our children, our grandchildren, and our friends and neighbors. Yes, we could emphasize that anything goes as long as you end up getting ahead and getting what you want, or we can instead choose to frame things differently: that how we act matters. That dedication and hard work yields fruit. That happiness in life is not just about getting ahead professionally or financially. That kindness and generosity and helping others should not be an afterthought, but where it begins and ends for us. We have tremendous power to impact society and its values by way of first laying a strong foundation within the walls of our own houses. And while Nachmanides may have believed that both holiness and its absence, brought about by the decay of our morality and values, were limited to the land of Israel, I’ll respectfully disagree with him and say as clearly as I can that, going forward, what happens in our homes here in the U.S. can either validate the moral decay suggested by the occurrence of the college admissions scandal, or serve as a counterweight of kedusha, of holiness, that can inspire us and those around us to be our best selves and our best society and invite God back into our midst. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it soon be so.
Planning for the futureRead Now
Sermon--Parashat Terumah 5779
Tiny Treasures Shabbat, 2/9/19
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
According to a teaching of Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kappar in Pirke Avot (4:22), the Ethics of our Fathers, a collection of rabbinic wisdom and maxims included in the Mishnah some 1800 years ago, when we are born, we are actually born into the world against our will. Which is to say that no one consulted with us or asked our opinion before our arrival on this earth. And, moreover, we were also born into a world that had already benefited and suffered many times over because of choices our predecessors had made for us. We had no say in the matter of where our parents lived, how they made their living, whether they were compatible, or whether they provided us with food, clothing and shelter, even though every one of these factors had an impact on our lives when we began to live them. This idea that our world and some of our options and circumstances have already been shaped and constrained by decisions others have made seems to run counter to our society’s insistence that a persistent individual can determine his or her own destiny. While it’s true that there is certainly much that we can accomplish owing to our own individual initiative, we are also enmeshed in a larger context that is not of our own creation or doing that impacts our lives.
In that way, we are often dependent on the foresight of those who came before us, in much the same way that our children will ultimately face the consequences or reap the benefits of the choices we make—or don’t make—today. This week’s parasha, Terumah, speaks to this interconnection of the generations quite clearly through an interesting and surprising detail we encounter in the parasha. In the early stages of the Israelites’ wandering through the Sinai wilderness, God instructs them to gather material with which to build the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that will serve as the symbolic home for God’s presence in their midst. Among the specific materials listed in Shemot, Exodus 25:4-5, we find “gold and silver and brass, and blue and purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen and goats’ hair, and skins of rams dyed red, and skins of seals, and acacia wood.” While I realize too much goats’ hair might have required the invention of the world’s first lint brush, it’s not the inclusion of the goats’ hair that particularly puzzled the rabbinic sages. Rather, it is the mention of the atzei shittim, the acacia wood. Rashi, in his 11th century commentary, asks the obvious question, “From where did they obtain this in the wilderness?" After all, there are no acacia trees in the desert! How could God expect the Israelites to be able to obtain this type of lumber? Gersonides, the 14th century French philosopher and commentator also known by the acronym Ralbag, suggests that the Israelites might have cut down this wood in one of the places they passed through on the way in order to make furniture, and now donated whatever of it they had for the purpose of constructing the Mishkan. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the 15th century Portuguese commentator, explained the disconnect by noting that most probably this wood, like the oil and spices, was purchased from the neighboring peoples who came to the Israelite camp to sell things. But Rashi in his day offered up a different explanation, which he brought from the Midrash Tanhuma, which was that our patriarch Jacob prophesized through God’s Divine Spirit that his descendants the Israelites would one day build the Tabernacle in the wilderness. So Jacob brought cedars—he believed the acacia was a kind of cedar—down to Egypt with him, planted them, and instructed his children to take them along when they left.
According to Rashi’s answer, our ancestor Jacob showed foresight and anticipated the needs of a future generation and then went out of his way to plan for and provide for those needs. He did not personally have any need for cedars or acacia wood, nor did he personally reap any benefit from them. Moreover, schlepping wood and trees along may have seemed like an unnecessary encumbrance to his family and contemporaries. Yet Jacob knew that his descendants would need it—and for a sacred purpose, no less—so he went the extra mile to provide it for them. This kind of selflessness and foresight is not always common, so it’s not surprising to see that the Midrash attributes Jacob’s foresight to ruach ha-kodesh, Divinely inspired prophecy.
In a similar vein, some of us may be familiar with the oft-cited Talmudic legend of Honi ha-m’agel, Honi the circle maker, and the story of his encounter with a man planting a carob tree. Honi asks the man how long it takes for the tree to bear fruit, to which the man replies, “70 years." Honi, puzzled by this response and thus the seemingly illogical action this man is taking, asks further, “So, are you sure you’ll be living for another 70 years?” And to this inquiry, the man responds, “I found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my children.” Honi then sits down to a meal, finishes eating, gets tired, and falls asleep for 70 years—according to the legend, no one found him in all that time because a rock formation grew around him and hid him from view. When he finally wakes up, sure enough, he sees a carob tree near him and a man picking fruit from the tree, prompting Honi to ask the man if he was the one who planted the tree. The man informed Honi that he was, in fact, the man’s grandson, to which Honi replies that now he knows he must have slept for 70 years. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a)
In our own day and age, there are multiple parallels to Rashi’s midrashic explanation for how the Israelites obtained the acacia wood cited in our parasha and the Talmudic story of Honi and the man who planted the carob tree. First of all, the unnamed man in the story planted a carob tree so that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have fruit in their lifetime, and Jacob planted trees that his children would need some 400 years later. Thus, like Jacob in the midrash and the concerned carob-tree planter in the story, it is important that we remember to measure our choices and actions by their consequences that extend forward multiple generations hence, not just by our short-term wants and needs. This approach most certainly applies to taking care of our society, our environment, and our planet.
But this parallel is also apt for Judaism and our Jewish communities. Specifically, when we “build” our own Judaism and our synagogue communities, we need to be forward thinking and not reactive, avoiding the trap that I know I’ve paraphrased here before in the name of Rabbi Ed Feinstein—one of the rabbis here at Shearith back in the day--that American Jews are really good at building synagogues that their parents and grandparents would have loved. We have an unfortunate habit in the modern Jewish world of either looking backwards at “glory days” gone by or being content to tread water in the present. We should be satisfied with neither if we are really intent on creating a vibrant Jewish future. Yet it is important to note in this vein something that we also often lose sight of: our children and grandchildren can only inherit what we ourselves possess. If we don’t plant and cultivate nourishing trees of life, as it were, meaningful Jewish experiences for ourselves that engage and inspire us regularly through the weeks of our year, then what exactly are we passing on to our children and grandchildren? We want to bestow on them values and guidance that will help them in their Jewish journeys when they are ready, and Jewish memories they would want to hold on to and cherish like a treasured possession.
So this is the challenge we face, the delicate balance we must strive for: creating a living and evolving Judaism and synagogues and Jewish communities that both resonate with us AND will resonate with our children and grandchildren. And this week, and today in particular, we are witness to the nexus of this balance, with the presentation of Shearith’s Strategic Plan, “Ma’alot: Ascending New Heights” and our celebration in a few minutes of our Tiny Treasures, many of the new babies who have been born in our Shearith community during these last 12 months. The general focus of Ma’alot is to push us to build on the solid foundation we have already established at Shearith and move forward and upwards from here in all the broad areas of our congregational life and culture, inviting more participation and engagement and inspiring others to join in and rally around our mission, vision and values. This upward push towards creating an even more sacred community than the one we are already part of means involvement of all demographics in our congregation, from our eldest seniors, even 101 year old Alex Jonas who recently told his son Hylton how excited he was to see how much was going on at the shul, all the way down to our littlest babies and their families who we’ll be welcoming into the sanctuary momentarily. And, regardless of what demographic each of us fits into, it is these beautiful little babies and their sweet faces—well, when they’re not crying, anyway :) —that remind us what is at stake in the long run with the work we’re doing. We want these Tiny Treasures—our tiny treasures—to treasure the Judaism and the community that we are building and re-shaping for us and for them—and then, one day, to have that same foresight as our ancestor Jacob and the carob tree planter did and bequeath a compelling legacy, mission, and framework for living to their children and grandchildren. This is the holy responsibility we are holding in our hands at this crossroads. May we be worthy stewards of our tradition and our congregation for ourselves and for the generations who will follow us. AMEN.
D’var Torah for Strategic Plan Rollout Meeting 2/6/19
Congregation Shearith Israel
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Is anyone here familiar with the Talmudic debate between Hillel and Shammai about how to light Hanukkah candles? The school of Shammai believed that we should start off with eight candles on the first night and then take away one candle per night until we’re left with only one candle plus the shamash, the helper candle, on the last night, whereas the school of Hillel opined that we should start with one candle on the first night and gradually increase by adding a candle a night until we have eight candles plus the shamash on the eighth and final night.
Well, I think we know how that one worked out—as was the case with all but a handful of the several hundred Talmudic debates between Hillel and Shammai, with Hillel coming out on top. But how many of us know the reasoning behind Hillel’s position for the Hanukkah candlelighting? His explanation is “ma’alin ba-kodesh, v’ein moridin”—when it comes to matters of holiness, we only increase or ascend, we don’t decrease. In the hanukkiah-lighting context it certainly intuitively makes sense that it would be more impressive and climactic to build to the finale of the full hanukkiah with eight candles plus the shamash burning brightly to illustrate the miracle of the oil that our sages said should have lasted for only one day but instead lasted for eight. But in his explanation Hillel doesn’t focus on that logical rationale that would be specific to the hanukkiah; instead, he focuses on this general principle, that when we’re dealing with sacred matters we want to keep reaching higher.
We do see other examples of this principle in play in our tradition, like in the symbolic choreography of the kedusha in the Amidah when we go up on our tiptoes three times as we pronounce the words from the prophet Isaiah, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tzeva’ot; M’lo kol ha-aretz K’vodo”---“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the earth is full of God’s glory,” like in the scripting of 15 Psalms, Psalms 120-134, with the introductory words, “Shir Ha’Ma’alot," “A song of ascents,” linked by the early rabbis to the ascent up the 15 steps where the Levites sang on their way up to the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps most well-known to all of us here today is the use of the term “Aliyah,” “going up.” to refer to someone who chooses to move from the Diaspora to Israel to make their life there, thus making a spiritual ascent to a different kind of life in our Jewish homeland.
It is in this same spirit of sanctity and holiness that we decided to title our new Strategic Plan “Ma’alot," “Ascending New Heights.” During this last year and a half our Strategic Plan Chairs, along with our Committee, Foundation chairs members, Klei Kodesh and staff have invested hundreds of hours of thought and effort in helping us hone in on and sharpen our focus and priorities for this next chapter of our congregation’s history. In doing so we have emerged with a Strategic Plan that we think you will find to be worthy of its aspirational title. We hope this plan will challenge us to build on our successes and what we’re already doing well, strive to live up to our new mission, vision and values statements, and also serve our congregants’ needs even better. We’ve already been making steady progress in revitalizing our congregation in recent years, but there are new and different heights for us to climb still as we rise to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of 21st century American Judaism.
We invite you to be our partners in this vital, and holy, effort as we push ourselves to be the type of Kehilla Kedosha, sacred community, we yearn for and are excited and energized to be a part of. Please click HERE if you are excited about our future and wish to help.
Todah Rabbah (Thank you!).
Everybody CountsRead Now
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
One of the most oft-cited passages from the Talmud is the text from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 which focuses on the significance of God creating all humanity from Adam, a single human being. According to the text, this teaches us that all people have a common ancestor, that no one can claim “my ancestor was greater than yours,” and that destroying a single life is akin to destroying the entire world, while saving even one single life is as if we have saved a whole world. This profound message, that every person matters equally, is one that, even today, close to 2000 years after the Mishnah was compiled, we still often struggle with putting into practice.
Good evening, and welcome to Congregation Shearith Israel! It is a great honor and privilege to be hosting all of you here at our congregation for this first of what we hope will be an annual Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, rotating in venue from year to year amongst different local houses of faith. I’m also honored to have been asked by my friends and colleagues on the planning committee for this service to present some remarks this evening on our theme of “Diverse in Faith, United in Gratitude”.
Feeling GratefulRead Now
Last night we had a beautiful evening here at Shearith as we hosted the 1st Annual Greater Dallas Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Beck Family Sanctuary was filled with 400 people from Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations all over the area who came for a celebration of community and to reflect on the evening’s theme of “Diverse in Faith, United in Gratitude”.
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
This past weekend was an incredible high for our family as we celebrated our daughter Elana’s Bat Mitzvah. We were so proud of Elana, the wonderful job she did, the poise she displayed, and her warmth that shone through. Moreover, we were so delighted and honored to be able to share this simcha with so many of you in addition to our out of town family and friends. Your presence and the outpouring of your love and support for Elana and for our family added so much to this experience and elevated our Shabbat and our weekend.
Following in our FootstepsRead Now
Sermon/Bat Mitzvah Charge for Elana
Parashat Chayei Sarah
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
At the end of last week’s parasha, Vayera, we experienced the harrowing and traumatic story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. The narrative relates to us, the readers, of God’s test of his faithful servant Abraham, demanding the sacrifice of Isaac, the beloved son of his old age and the key to the continuation of the lasting covenant that God had promised Abraham. Hearing God’s command, and despite any apprehension or doubt he may have felt at the incongruity of this demand with the covenantal promise, Abraham zealously gets up early, saddles his donkey, and sets off with Isaac on what Abraham initially can only assume will be a journey that will end in personal heartbreak, even if it simultaneously affirms his faith in God. And what does Isaac know or understand about this journey? Not much, it would appear, until the third day, when Abraham and Isaac separate from the two servants who were travelling with them and take the wood, the firestone, and the knife and continue their trek alone, with Isaac himself bearing the burden of the wood while Abraham carries the firestone and the knife, “vayelchu shneyhem yachdav”, “and the two of them walked on together”. It is only at this juncture that Isaac begins to wonder what is happening here, as he notices that they have the instruments necessary for a sacrifice, but they are missing the most critical element of all: a sheep.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share