Today we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. We began this morning with a rousing Hallel led by Stuart Rossman in minyan, and a meaningful tefila for the State of Israel chanted by Marty Lurie. Early this afternoon, our Thursday Torah study group finished its 17 year "Tourah" - that is, its "tour through Torah." The group began with the opening verses of Bereshit, and finished today with the closing verses of D'varim: Moses dies while overlooking the Land of Israel. How did we mark this occasion of completion? Of course through food and reflection, known as a siyyum, (a special thank you to Carol Stollar for organizing such a special day!)
Then, as we do on Simchat Torah evening, we "completed" Torah and began again. This time, however, we didn't return to the opening verses of Bereshit, but rather, we continued forward in history by beginning the Book of Joshua, which tells the story of the settlement of bnei Yisrael in the Land of Israel under their new leader, Joshua.
This was a powerful (though unanticipated) connection. As we celebrated Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, this morning, we began our study of the complex story of Eretz Yisrael, the Biblical, historical Land of Israel, this afternoon. We noted this connection between the ancient and modern as a group, leading to an interesting question: what was God's role in the Biblical story of the Israelites' settlement of the Land of Israel? And what was God's role, if any, in the founding of the modern State of Israel? Does the founding of the modern State Israel have religious significance? Is it a fulfilled aspiration of redemption, as our liturgy suggests it would one day be? Should we sing Hallel, which includes psalms that call out praise for God's hand in miracles, on Yom Ha'atzmaut?
As you might imagine, there are various opinions within the Jewish world about this (and these opinions don't follow the religious/non religious ideological breaks you might expect). The focus of this particular debate is not on whether Israel should be celebrated at all, but rather, whether our understanding of the nature of God supports the idea that there is religious significance to historical events. While still contemporary, this is not a new question. Our ancient rabbis asked the same question about Hanukkah: should we say Hallel during Hanukkah, a post-Biblical holiday that celebrates an historical event?
What do you think? Ask your Shabbat guests or hosts. Or come sit with me in my study at Reyim or during kiddush on Shabbat. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and share with you the responses of our modern rabbis and scholars, from Rav Soloveitchik to David Hartman and many more. As for me, my religious life depends on the constant act of striving for holiness. This is primary mitzvah: not "you are holy" but "may you become holy!" We actually never reach the end. If we stop striving, we will lose our religious soul. Ritually (in distinction to our learning group), when we complete reading Torah each year, we start back at the opening verses of Bereshit, asking once again how chaos (tohu v'vohu) somehow becomes the beauty of the world.
As long as we continue to aspire to fulfill the Divine's qualities in Torah such as patience, kindness, generosity, and peace, then I can say, Oseh Shalom Bimrovav. May God bring peace from above.
May this Yom Ha'atzmaut be a day of celebration and reflection.
Like so many of you, I feel shaken by this past week's events in Charlottesville.
While I am comforted by the firm and strong response from many community leaders who have reaffirmed our higher moral purpose, rooted in generosity of spirit and compassion, I approach Shabbat with a broken heart, angry, shuddering from hearing the voices of such devastating hatred so close to us. "Blood and soil," they called out, echoing Hitler's "blut and boden," which meant only Aryan blood belonged on German soil.
I try to preserve this space for brief insights into the Torah readings, and blessings for our community. This space does not lend itself well to broader discussion. But what we saw and heard this week forces a religious response to be broadly conveyed. Judaism is built on one foundational belief: every person - every person! - is made b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That's it. Everything else is commentary.
Developing this foundational religious insight, our ancient rabbis then insisted: whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. How our world felt a little more destroyed this week.
Our Torah reading, Parashat Re'eh, begins with these words: "See this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you observe the mitzvoth, curse if you do not." These words demand that we fill the world with a radically different voice than we heard recently, restoring the earth with compassion and loving kindness. We have some work to do. Let's come together and begin.
On the second night of Pesach, we began the practice of counting the Omer. In Torah, this counting connects the first grain offering to the offering made at the peak of the harvest. When our later rabbinic tradition identified Shavuot with the giving of Torah, the Omer transformed, coming to symbolize the passage of time between Passover and Shavuot, and the experience of a people from attaining freedom to receiving Torah.
In Jewish mystical sources, the counting of the Omer became a time for spiritual elevation and the cultivation of personal middot, meaning attributes or spiritual qualities. Based on the seven lower "sefirot," which, in Jewish mystical sources, represent the unveiling of manifestations of the Divine Presence into the universe, the Omer became a map for the cultivation of 7 cycles of 7 spiritual qualities.
This Shabbat, Friday evening through Saturday night, is called "netzach she'b'gevurah." We might define the qualities that we are asked to put into practice on Shabbat as "ambition" or "endurance" within "discipline."
You might ask: aren't these qualities sometimes in conflict? This is precisely the point! Spiritual elevation lives in tensions among different emotions and qualities that we feel all the time. There are rarely moments of purity in our lives. Our feelings and experiences are complex, often in tension. Naming the experience of "ambition within discipline" leads us to consider whether we are truly giving ourselves over to the discipline, or boundaries, that we need in order to be healthy and feel spiritually alive.
Further, as we conceive the relationship between these qualities, we might also begin to discover the corollary: the importance of the limitations of our ambition. (This Omer practice falls on May 2 this year). On that day we begin to cultivate acceptance, peacefulness, and even forgiveness of ourselves and others.
Take this opportunity to consider how this Omer period can bring meaning to you and your family, helping you feel uplifted as we travel the path towards Sinai.