Friday, June 26, 2015

Idolatry and the Confederate Flag - Huqqat 5775

About a month ago, I was in Budapest with my family to celebrate my sister’s having given birth to a baby girl, her first child. We did not have a lot of time for sightseeing, but I did do something there that I had not done before: I went to the municipal flea market. It was a weekday and deep into the afternoon, so not many stalls were open. But of the handful that were, several had Nazi items on display for sale: SS pins, swastika rings, standard-issue helmets, a soldier’s jacket. Some of these items were, perhaps most jarringly, for sale alongside Soviet memorabilia and Judaica items as well.

Now I suppose that finding WWII-era military paraphernalia is nothing unusual, particularly at flea markets. But the fact that these things were casually, non-judgmentally on display, merely for sale next to Jewish odds-and-ends was particularly jolting, since it suggested that Hungarians do not quite appreciate how deplorable these symbols are, how they stand for hatred and killing and the worst that humanity has to offer.

I found it utterly fascinating this week that in the wake of the horrible killings at the Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a number of southern states are finally, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, moving to remove the Confederate flag from their public spaces. Yes, it is “only” a symbol, and removing symbols means nothing if it does not change the content of our hearts and minds. Taking down the flag at the South Carolina capitol building will not cure the problem of white supremacist activities in that state or anywhere else. But it is a step, and, at least with respect to Jewish tradition, a significant one. Allow me to explain:

We read today in Parashat Huqqat that might give us some insight into the scourge of hatred.

God was angry at the Israelites for complaining their way across the desert, speaking out against God and Moshe, and so, for inexplicable reasons, God sends serpents to bite them. What do the Israelites do? They apologize, but then ask for Moshe to intercede with God to get rid of the serpents. So God has Moshe build a seraph / winged serpent figure out of copper and mount it on a flagpole, and when anyone is bitten by a serpent, he or she is instantly cured.

But later there is a problem. This seraph-on-a-pole stays with the people for hundreds of years, and they forget its original purpose, but it continues to be revered. So later, as recounted in the book of II Kings (18:4), King Hezekiah destroys it as part of his anti-idolatry reforms.

Idolatry is one of the biggest no-nos of the Torah. The Talmud counts it among the three biggest sins, the three that Jews are forbidden to violate, even to save a life (the other two are murder and sexual impropriety). We are told in our halakhic codes that we must stay far away from anything that is in any way connected to idolatry. (The Hebrew term is avodah zarah, “foreign worship”).

So for example, we cannot eat foods produced by idolaters, or drink wine made by idolaters, lest these items may have been used in some idolatrous ritual. We cannot enter a temple containing idols. We cannot have business dealings with idolaters in the days immediately before one of their festivals because we may make them more happy and hence more likely to praise their idols. And so on. (It’s worth noting that true idolaters are hard to find today: Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and many contemporary pagans do not fall into this category.)

Why is avodah zarah / idolatry so reviled by Jewish text and tradition? Why must we avoid it so zealously? Because it corrupts us, it leads us astray. When the Israelites are told that they will enter the land of Canaan to possess it, one of the first obligations they are given is to destroy the bamot, the unholy altars of the Canaanites, lest they be tempted to worship. Throughout the Prophetic books, the Israelites struggle with the influence of Canaanite gods. And our tradition teaches us that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians due to the Big Three transgressions identified earlier. Idolatry is an infection that proves hard to remove, even though King Hezekiah tries valiantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because in the public discourse this week surrounding the church shooting and the removal of Confederate flags, all I could think about was avodah zarah. That flag is a symbol of a particular kind of idolatry: the idolatry of institutionalized racism.

Symbols are used precisely because they have the power to inspire for good or bad.  But hatred corrupts, just like idolatry. It leads people astray, to do things that are violent and disgusting, acts which damage people and society. And although defenders of the Confederate flag might claim that it is merely a symbol of Southern pride and/or culture or the principles of “states’ rights,” we know better. The flag is a symbol of slavery, of racism, of hatred.


Confederate Flag protest in South Carolina (16 images)

And furthermore, it is clear that even if all the Confederate flags in America were to magically disappear, it would not cure the pernicious problem of racism. It might drive it further underground. (Think of the worldwide collective guilt inspired by the Shoah; it drove anti-Semitism into the shadows for decades, but we see it now begin to re-emerge in all its insidious forms.)

But our tradition teaches us something very important here: that the way to eliminate a problem is to distance yourself physically from all of its trappings. We the Jews are still around, thousands of years after the idol-worshipping Canaanites, Babylonians, Hellenists and Romans are all gone. The strategy worked; you don’t find too many Jews today seduced by the appeal of Ba’al or Zeus.

And that brings us to an essential principle in Jewish tradition: that symbolic acts ultimately lead to a change in one’s behavior and/or beliefs. That idea is encapsulated in the following passage from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצווה, אפילו שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה - בא לשמה. שבשכר ארבעים ושתים קורבנות שהקריב בלק, זכה ויצאה ממנו רות.
Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name: One should always occupy oneself with Torah and good deeds, though it may not be for their own sake; because when one does something not for its own sake, eventually it comes to be for its own sake. For as a reward for the forty-two sacrifices offered up by Balaq, he was privileged that Ruth should be his descendant.
To explain, a midrash suggests that Balaq, the Moabite ruler who appears in next week’s parashah, and, by the way, is also mentioned in today’s haftarah. Balaq hires Bil’am ben Be’or to curse the Israelites, but Bil’am blesses them instead. So Balaq makes restitution by offering sacrifices to the Israelite God.  After doing so symbolically 42 times, his heart had truly changed, and thus he ultimately became the grandfather of the Moabitess Ruth, who is largely considered the first convert to Judaism, and is the subject of her own book of the Tanakh.

Judaism has always highlighted deeds over beliefs, because the performance of a deed, even without the proper kavvanah / intention, will ultimately change one’s motivation behind it. Do we all necessarily understand why we pray daily, wear curious ritual items during prayer, eat only kosher foods, abstain from certain creative or destructive acts on Shabbat? No. But we encourage fellow Jews who do not do those things regularly to do so. Why? Because after doing something 42 times, you will come to understand how the act improves your life, how it makes you a better person.

Our tradition teaches us that symbolic behavior, even if there is nothing behind it, leads one to change.

That is why we teach our children tefillah / prayer, or how to sing Shabbat songs, or how to participate in the Passover seder, etc. Because although we know that they will someday make their own choices about whether or not to be involved with Jewish life, the basis of having done something at least a few times will make the chance that they will embrace these rituals as adults much greater. Furthermore, the more often our children have participated in these rituals, the greater their chance of embracing their heritage for the rest of their lives.

If Rav Yehudah were here to counsel us on how to end the scourge of hatred, he would probably suggest that the way to cure racism is to compel everybody to seek out somebody of a different racial group, or even a different ethnic group, each day, and talk to that person, to spend some time getting to know him/her, to hear his/her story, to try to understand. You all know that each of us carries with us a certain amount of prejudice, a modicum of opinions that we form about people that are different from ourselves. But when we meet and get to know people from another group, those prejudices break down. The individual relationship outweighs any other opinions. And at first, while these inter-group conversations would be entirely symbolic, soon the symbolism would be replaced by genuine trust and admiration.

Now Rav Yehuda’s (theoretical) plan of action might be a little impractical. But we have to start somewhere, and the disappearance of the symbols of slavery might be a good start. Although, as many commentators have observed, taking down the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building will not change what is in people’s minds, it will certainly change the perception of what is tangibly acceptable, and what is not. And that will go a long way toward changing people’s thinking and behavior.

Hatred is idolatry. Racism is idolatry. We have to distance ourselves from the trappings of racism and hatred. Only that will cure us as a society.

Perhaps only with the coming of the mashiah / messiah will we eliminate hatred, racism,  anti-Semitism, and any other form of “my-people-are-better-than-your-people-ism.” But we CAN purify our hearts by working harder to lead more haters away from their idolatry. Let’s take down those Canaanite bamot. Remove the idols.

Shabbat shalom.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 6/27/2015.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Identity: Today's Heavenly Controversy - Qorah 5775

There is an ancient rabbinic story that goes something like this:

Reuven Goldstein walks into the New York Athletic Club, circa 1962. He approaches the clerk at the front desk, and announces, in a thick Yiddish accent, “I vant to join your club.” The clerk, stern-faced, says, “I’m very sorry, sir, but we do not admit Jews here.” Mr. Goldstein stomps out furiously, and vows to convert to Christianity so he can join. He promptly moves to England, starts going to church, changes his name to Stevens, takes diction lessons to improve his accent, and learns the ways of the polished upper class.

Three years later, he returns to the New York Athletic Club, walks in, and announces in the Queen’s English, “My name is Richard Stevens, and I would very much like to join your club.” The clerk says, “Very good, sir. Please fill out this form. And there is one small formality, really nothing, but I have to ask, sir, what is your religion?”

“I am of the goyish persuasion,” says Mr. Stevens.

Among the onslaught of news from the past couple of weeks have been two individuals who have changed or attempted to change, fundamentally, who they are: one famous athlete who has very publicly become a woman, and one president of her local NAACP chapter who, although born to two white parents, has spent a decade or more passing as black.

Rachel Dolezal is accused of pretending to be African American (Rachel ...

The public discourse on Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal has been uproarious. What they have shown is that now more than ever, we have the ability to change our identities. We might very well be able to become something totally different than what we were at birth. This is an essential question for us today as Jews, because of where we are as a people: who we count, who we do not count, and what it means to be Jewish.

Certainly, there are some among us who are perhaps confused or troubled by these cases. Why would a grown man want to become a woman, and do it so publicly to boot? Why would a young woman want to change her race?

Both have been criticized by voices on the left and the right for a whole range of reasons. The Dolezal case is particularly infuriating to a large segment of black Americans, because of their history, and understandably so: Ms. Dolezal may have claimed to be black, but at least one commentator I read on the subject wondered what race she would claim if she were stopped by a white policeman. She chose to present herself as black, but she has the choice; most black people cannot change how they present themselves to the world.

Really, what Rachel Dolezal is guilty of is not trying to be black. That is not a crime, and, as I heard another African-American commentator put it (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the quote, although I heard it on WNYC), “We like white people who admire us so much that they want to be black.”

What she is clearly guilty of is lying. It’s one thing to darken your skin and wear a hair-weave of tight curls and sign up to work for racial justice. It’s another thing entirely to claim black ancestry when you have none. I imagine that some of us in the Jewish world would be a little miffed to discover that there are people walking around, calling themselves Jewish and joining synagogues when they actually 100% “of the goyish persuasion.”

Of course, it is really only within the last few decades that such things would have happened at all. In the 1950s, there were not too many American Christians who wanted to be Jewish. (That has changed. A Pew Research study from 2014 showed that Jews are the most admired religious group in America.) And I suppose that there were far fewer white Americans (Jewish or non-) who fancied being black. And although there have probably always been men who desired to be women and vice-versa, it’s only very recently that this became possible. Or visible.

Caitlyn-Jenner-Vanity-Fair-Magazine-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLO

Meanwhile, self-described feminist Elinor Burkett’s commentary on Caitlyn Jenner in the New York Times calls out the inconsistencies surrounding our reaction to Ms. Jenner’s “coming-out” as a woman. She notes that former Harvard president and Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers was skewered for suggesting that men and women think differently, but when Jenner made a similar statement to justify her transition, she was lauded. Furthermore, says Ms. Burkett, Ms. Jenner’s transformation and glamour shot on the cover of Vanity Fair only serve to reinforce gender stereotypes, something that women like Ms. Burkett have always fought against.

So the opinions have flown fast and free. But the bottom line is this: our identities are today far less fixed than they used to be, and this is a challenge to our sense of how the world works. Like it or dislike it, the concept that identity is fluid is a phenomenon that is here to stay. We have to grapple with this challenge.

(After reading the sermon to this point, my wife said to me, “I can’t wait to see how you’re going to tie this to the parashah.”)

And this is what brings me to Parashat Qorah. The rabbis see  Qorah’s uprising against Moshe and Aharon (Num. 16:1ff., Etz Hayim p. 860ff.) as the archetype of a mahloqet she-einah leshem shamayim, a controversy that is not for the sake of heaven (Pirqei Avot 5:19). Why? Because Qorah and his gang of distinguished rebels are struggling for their own personal benefit.

By comparison, a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven, like those between Hillel and Shammai, is one where both sides are united by a single, holy purpose: to further our knowledge and understanding of the Torah, and how we interact with God. Only such a mahloqet will stand forever, says the mishnah.

We might be inclined to dismiss the over-played news items about Ms. Jenner and Ms. Dolezal as only so much tabloid fodder. But looking past these individual cases, the contemporary controversy of identity is a mahloqet leshem shamayim.

We may be on opposite sides of these identity issues - some of us might insist that Caitlyn Jenner will always be Bruce, no matter how many Vanity Fair covers she graces in her lingerie. Some of us might feel that Rachel Dolezal should be able to call herself black or white or Alaskan native or whatever, since race is merely a social construct anyway with no basis in biology.

But the question of identity - what does it mean to be a certain race or ethnicity or gender or yes, religion - will be with us forever, and we cannot ignore it. (I have often thought about becoming Sephardic, especially around Pesah.)  

If our identities are truly fluid, if we can in fact switch genders or races with ease, all the more so religion! Jews can more easily become non-Jews, and vice versa. And while Judaism has always set the bar relatively high for entry, the bar to leave is set much lower.

Many of us will be uncomfortable with this idea, including me. But that is where we are today.

The highest value of American society, like it or not, is choice. Just check out the selection of salad dressings at any supermarket if you need proof. “Have it your way,” a treyf restaurant chain once touted. “America,” I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein say, “is choice on steroids.”

But let’s face it: personal choice is not the highest value in Judaism. We (the Jews) have a vested interest in maintaining our identity as Jews, in perpetuating our tribe, in upholding our legacy, in passing on our ancient tradition. Many of us know and understand the value of what has been passed down to us. And yet, when society tells us that we can be anything we want to be, what will guarantee a Jewish future?

We must respond to this mahloqet by being knowledgeable and committed to our tradition. But more than that, I think that the best way to respond to these concerns is to:
  1. Make sure that we are the best ambassadors for Judaism that we can be, and
  2. Trust that the richness and value of our tradition will ultimately prevail.

Some of our children and grandchildren may decline their heritage; they may not choose to live Jewish lives. But we who are dedicated to the Jewish future have to hold them tight while we can and demonstrate to them the value of maintaining the connection to the generations that came before them. And we better be prepared with the right language for when they challenge us, because they will.

There is one piece of good news this Shabbat: tomorrow is Father’s Day, an opportunity to fulfill one of the greatest mitzvot of Jewish life (and one of the Top Ten): kibbud av (va-em) - honoring your father (and mother).

I heard a wonderful piece on This American Life this week about an Israeli immigrant father who had never told his children that he loved them. He is advised by his cantor’s wife to try calling each of his children every day for a month to tell them that he loves them. He tries it, but fails after day 3. But even those three days had a palpable impact on both the father and his family.

Our identities are forged with love, and the stronger that bond of love, the more likely that our children will recall fondly what we have given them.

And so, while you remember to reach out to your father this weekend, let me suggest something to all the fathers (and mothers) here: Tell your children how much you love them. Do it more often. And tell them that you will trust them to make good choices about their lives, and that you will support them in whatever they do. And mean it.

There will always be Jews, and there will always be Judaism. And we have to be secure enough in our heritage to not be anxious, and even while we struggle with this heavenly controversy, to hold our children close and tell them how much we love them, we trust them, and we hope that they will be part of the same Jewish nation that produced us, and live the same values.

Shabbat shalom, and happy Father’s Day.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered on Shabbat morning, 6/20/2015, at Temple Israel of Great Neck.)




Friday, May 22, 2015

The True Value of Torah - Shavuot 5775

A curious news story crossed my computer screen last week. My rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which some of you may know that I truly love, has been in a difficult financial position for some time, and has decided to sell off some assets for the sake of easing their budget deficit. Among the items that they are selling is a treasure from JTS’ vaunted Rare Book Room: a fragment of an original Gutenberg bible.

It’s eight leaves of one of the first books ever printed by Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, in the year 1455. This fragment was donated to JTS in 1922 by the Schiff family, Jewish-American financiers of the early 20th century, who purchased it from a rare-book dealer who broke the original copy into pieces to sell it for more money. This particular fragment is the Latin translation of the Book of Esther, and it’s in excellent condition. Sotheby’s expects that it will fetch between $500,000 and $700,000.



Dr. David Kraemer, the librarian of JTS and a former Talmud professor of mine, says that selling the item is not a real loss to JTS because, since JTS is primarily focused on Jewish studies, these pages from a Christian translation are not of much use in the JTS library, and that this fragment has more or less been sitting on a shelf, “collecting dust” for more than 90 years.

The story is interesting, but I think it opens up a wider question that is entirely appropriate for Shavuot: What is the value of Torah? (And, just to be clear here, I’m not limiting the discussion to merely THE Torah, i.e. the five books of Moses, but all the Tanakh and all the interpretation that flows from it).

When I think of studying Torah, which is, according to the Mishnah, the most important mitzvah of all 613, I don’t think of dusty scholars in rare book rooms handling ancient texts with tweezers. On the contrary: you can go into any Judaica shop in the world and purchase brand-spankin’-new editions of the Tanakh with contemporary commentaries, which will be sitting right alongside the ancient and medieval interpreters, volumes of the Talmud and midrash and halakhic works and bookshelves upon bookshelves of perspectives on Jewish text, all reprinted and reprinted. There are, as the Talmudic maxim goes, shiv’im panim laTorah, 70 faces to the Torah, meaning that there are many ways of reading every word, every verse. But really, we have only yet uncovered maybe 28 of those 70. We have not even found half of the perspectives on Torah.

We continue to interpret for today. The Torah is a living document, both a testament to our historical roots as well as a contemporary perspective on our lives. While we in the Conservative movement have traditionally understood that to mean contemporary approaches to halakhah (e.g. As when the movement permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, even though doing so is a clear violation of the long-settled traditional halakhah / laws of Shabbat observance), there are other, less circumscribed ways to read Torah for today. These ways may be far more valuable to the average Jew than academic discussions about the details of halakhic observance.

So let me give you an example of the real value of Torah. Last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, Danny Mishkin and I spoke about an idea that should be obvious when we are talking about Torah: immediate relevance.

Why is this important? Because we are living in a world of limited time, limited focus, and the ubiquitous sentiment that if it’s not relevant and/or beneficial to me, I’m not going to invest my time in it. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that each of us has only 140 characters in which to make our point, but it’s not too far from the truth. Long form is getting to be a harder and harder sell, particularly to our children. And this is a challenge for Jewish tradition, particularly for tefillah / prayer.

But it is a challenge we must face boldly. Times change, and Torah has never been left behind; it is an eternal tradition. (By the way, Gutenberg and others were printing books for a couple of decades before the Jews decided to accept printed works. The first Jewish printed books were volumes of the Talmud produced in Italy in the 1470s, but we soon got over our skepticism about the new technology. That is happening once again as part of the paradigm shift which we discussed last night. Judaism is catching up with the rest of the world. Ein kol hadash tahat hashemesh, says Qohelet. There is nothing entirely new under the sun.)

Here is an item of immediate relevance, one which we discussed on Saturday evening. We study Torah because it helps us make decisions and guide our lives (Pirqei Avot 1:14):
אם אין אני לי, מי לי; וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני; ואם לא עכשיו, אימתיי.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Take a moment to reflect on these words.

What does it mean to us? Is it about the balance of personal commitments vs. communal contributions? Is it about trying to make a living in a dog-eat-dog world? Is it about balancing family and work? Is it about the natural give-and-take of human relationships? Is it about managing one’s anger? Is it about monetary charity, or donating your time?

Each of us might see something different in this mishnah. But I would suggest that this is one of hundreds, or maybe thousands of quotables in Jewish tradition that would be worth keeping on a mental index card, and pulling out whenever you are faced with the challenge of choosing yourself over others, or vice versa. And these decisions come up every day, many times a day for all of us.

Hillel’s words are a mantra of balance, of figuring out where to put our energy and focus in this time-poor, over-stressed, over-stuffed world. This piece of wisdom is immediately relevant. I can use it to improve myself and my life, particularly if I refer back to it in the moment of need.

You cannot put a dollar amount on any word or page of Torah. It is truly priceless. OK, so some pages are worth more than others. But it is possible to glean personal meaning and yes, value from every page of commentary, halakhic analysis, midrash, and so forth.

This is the true value of Torah; it reflects back to us who we are, and compels us to change our behavior for the better.

So, while JTS might be selling off rarities for a few quick bucks, the real worth of those eight leaves, which tell the story of the Jewish woman who challenges authority, maintains her identity in a potentially hostile, non-Jewish environment, and leads her people out of danger, is not to be found at Sotheby’s. The intrinsic value is not the impression of the Latin words by the world’s first printing press. It is in the content, the meaning, and the lessons that we learn from Esther and Mordecai and the Jews of ancient Persia.

What makes Torah valuable is that every word means something different in each person’s mouth, mind, heart and hand, and that it brings those things together to improve our lives and repair this broken world. Furthemore, what makes it truly priceless is that it is completely ours, and every perspective it gives us is true. As we chant after a passage of the Torah is read in the synagogue:
… אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּורַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עולָם נָטַע בְּתוכֵנוּ.
… asher natan lanu Torat emet, vehayyei olam nata betokheinu.
… who gave us the Torah of truth, planting within us life eternal.
Our Torah of truth gives us eternity as a people because Torah itself is eternal, and as long as we continue to (in the words of Ben Bag Bag, Pirqei Avot 5:24) “turn it over and over,” we too will continue to reap its benefits forever. It is both immediately relevant and timeless. And that is its true value.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, the first day of Shavuot, May 24, 2015.)

The Desert Still Speaks to Us - Bemidbar 5775

One night in 1999, while I was living in the small Israeli city of Arad, I took a hike in the desert by the light of the full moon with a few friends. We had no flashlights. Maybe one of us had a cell phone. But that was truly one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever taken (and I’m an avid hiker, so that’s saying a lot), over the rolling hills of Judea and through a wadi, a dry riverbed. The moon provided ample light, once our eyes were adjusted, and I had the sense of ancient-ness, the primitive nature of this moonlit walk, in which the desert landscape stood out in bold relief against the dark blue shadows.

Was it dangerous? Maybe. Foolhardy? Probably. We had been given clear directions by our madrikh, a fearless young man from Arad named Yoni, who was skilled in guiding hiking, climbing, and camping trips of all sorts. But Yoni could not join us that night, so we were just a bunch of naive Americans twenty-somethings marching silently through the eerily powerful light, quietly challenging ourselves and hoping that nobody tripped and fell or got stung by a scorpion or ambushed by one of the seven remaining Arabian leopards in Israel.


No such horror occurred. But it was a transformational experience, one which I will probably never be able to repeat.

The desert speaks to me. Really, it speaks to all of us.

We started a new book of the Torah today, the fourth book: Bemidbar Sinai (in English, it is Numbers, which is a very poor title, since the numbers are really only found in the opening chapters. Then it gets much more interesting). Bemidbar is entirely set in the desert, as the Israelites are between the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival in Israel. The story of our wandering in the desert is as essential to who we are as the Exodus. We are a desert people. We received the Torah in the desert. Our patriarchs lived in the desert. Our prophets received their prophecy in the desert.

In the desert, you need stories to connect you to civilization. You need to connect where you have come from to where you are going. This is an essential part of who we are as Jews - we need those connective stories, which bring us together, which keep us committed to who we are.

The Torah is a desert document. Not only did we receive it in the Sinai desert, but we also actually had to leave the fleshpots of Egypt (see Exodus 16:3), the lush green of the Nile delta, and prepare ourselves as a people by purifying our physical and spiritual selves for three days in the desert before receiving it.

The story of Moses concludes in the desert; Moshe Rabbeinu, our Teacher, never enters the Fertile Crescent. And the prophets who follow him are desert-dwellers; Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the whole gang drew all of their prophecy from the power of the wilderness. For example, the haftarah we read on the Shabbat after Tish’ah Be’Av, known as Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, includes the following (Isaiah 40:3, Etz Hayim p. 1033):
קוֹל קוֹרֵא--בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה'; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵא-לֹהֵינוּ.
Qol qore bamidbar: panu derekh Adonai; yashru ba’aravah mesillah leloheinu.
A voice rings out: “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!
And what does this Heavenly voice say? (Is. 40:6-8)
כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה... יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.
Kol habasar hatzir, vekhol hasdo ketzitz hasadeh… Yavesh hatzir, naval hatzitz, udvar Eloheinu yaqum le’olam.
“All flesh is grass / All its goodness like flowers of the field… Grass withers, flowers fade - / But the word of our God is always fulfilled.”
What I felt as I was walking through the desert in the moonlight, listening to that quiet wind, was the eternality of that scene. The desert is the same as it always has been, as it always will be. Just as the desert is eternal, so too is God eternal, so too is the Torah eternal, so too is the burning fire of desert heat; the unconsumed, flaming bush that Moses found in the desert is still burning. A hint of it is in that light up above the ark.

You may know that the logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the primary rabbinical school and teaching institution of the Conservative movement, is a stylistic rendering (!) of the burning bush.

http://jtsa.edu/images/jts_nav_logo.png

One idea that this symbol suggests is the eternal nature of God’s revelation, of God’s voice coming through to us. Our movement grew out of a group of 19th-century German-Jewish scholars known as the Positive-Historical school, and among the principles they espoused was the idea that history is an essential player in Judaism, that our traditions, our customs, our law - in short, our Torah - have continued to develop and change throughout the centuries. We have never read our text devoid of its historical context. And we continue to hear God’s voice, in our contemporary context, as we strive to interpret the Torah for today, acknowledging that although the ancient voice still comes from the desert, the rest of the world has changed

As contemporary Jews, with an eye toward history and the continuous unfolding of revelation, we continue to draw on the inspiration of Abraham, who pitched his tent near Be’ersheva, and welcomed in visiting angels in the desert. We continue to learn from the complaints and misbehavior of our ancestors as they trudged across the wilderness for forty years, driving Moses to the point of anger and thereby denying him from ever leaving the desert.

Once again, Isaiah tells us (12:3):
וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה.
Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’ayanei hayeshu’a.
Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.
That is, the desert wells, from which spiritual nourishment continues to flow.

And hence the need for those ancient stories. Without our desert connection, we would be rootless. Hence the power of the State of Israel for us today. This is, perhaps, why David Ben Gurion insisted that he be buried in Sde Boqer, south of Be’ersheva, deep into the Negev.

Another brief memory: When I visited Israel for the first time at age 17, I remember being on a tiyyul in the desert south, hiking through Wadi Tzin, just south of Sde Boqer. Our teacher told us that this was the place where Moses struck the rock in anger to placate the Israelites, who were dying of thirst. I was positively blown away. How cool is that?

Did it really happen that way? I cannot say; I wasn’t there. But the very presence of this story, the residual vibrations after thousands of years, crept into my soul and have lodged there since. The desert stories are timeless and powerful.

And here’s another: not far from that location, at the “Bedouin tent” lodging for tour groups called “Khan HaShayarot,” Danny Mishkin and I took our Youth House group outside of the camp under the stars when we were there last year for a ma’ariv service in the desert that blew them all away. The desert is powerful, mystical; it resonates with stories. Its very emptiness enables you to hear yourself in the quiet wind.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, taught that the reason the Torah was given in the desert is because we can only merit the true acquisition of Torah when we have canceled all of our attachment to material things.

That is why we stay up late tomorrow (Saturday) night for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, a night of dedication to our history, our textual heritage. The first night of Shavuot is a time that we put our physical desires aside to listen for that still, small voice emanating from the desert, calling to us from the wilderness.

Shavuot is not just a celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is a joyous time, on which we eat sweet, rich dairy foods to recall the sweetness of Torah and its connection to the land flowing with milk and honey. But it is also a sober festival, a reflective stretching of the mind to reconnect with our national tales, to bring us back, in some sense, to Mt. Sinai.

I hope that you will be joining us as we consider new perspectives on the Torah, which will connect our ancient words with who we are today. Come with us as we return, just for an evening, to the moonlit desert, to the burning bush, and to our unfolding tradition.


~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 23, 2015.)