Friday, March 30, 2012

A Night of Vigil: Why We Need to Keep Our Eyes Open - Shabbat Hagadol, 5772

I will never forget a piece of advice that my childhood rabbi, Arthur Rulnick, gave at my Hebrew School graduation, before advancing to Hebrew High School.  He said that as we grow up and move through the teen years and into adulthood, to keep our eyes open, to watch for trends, things to pursue, things to avoid, and so forth.  Looking back, I don’t think I had any idea what he was talking about.

But hindsight, as they say, is not as astigmatic as I am, and I think I have a better sense today of what he meant.  Vigilance is a Jewish value, one that we invoke on Pesah in particular.  And Jewish history is filled with reasons to be vigilant.

There are few Jewish traditions that extend deep into the night; the Pesah seder is the most notable one.  Pesah is meant to be a night of vigil -- in Hebrew, “leil shimmurim”.  The Torah (Ex. 12:42) describes the night of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, the first night Pesah, as follows:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם.
That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.

The Hebrew term, “leil shimmurim,” a night of vigil, is a curious construction, since the shoresh shin-mem-resh appears in this type of conjugation (Pi’el) in only one other place, and it’s not entirely clear what it means.  Lishmor, to guard or keep, is a common verb.  The form here is leshammer, which in modern Hebrew means to preserve or watch, suggests something more active, in accordance with our translation of “being vigilant”.  “Watching,” a fairly passive verb in English, does not quite cover it; “shimmur” suggests a component of action, or at least readiness to act.

But language aside, what is this “leil shimmurim,” this “night of vigil” about?  What did it mean in the context of the Exodus, and what does it mean to us?  

Rashi sees this night as an example of God’s vigilantly protecting us, both at that time and on an ongoing basis.  Ibn Ezra and Ramban say that this night was about the Jewish requirement to keep this night vigilantly throughout the ages to recall God’s works.  Some stay up all night on Pesah, says Ibn Ezra, to demonstrate this vigilance.  

The original night of vigil was about being ready to act, being ready to pick up and move, which is of course what the Israelites had to do when the signal came.  And Jews throughout history have drawn on this vigilance.  We are a watchful people, primarily due to our historically precarious position as strangers residing in strange lands.

And it is only in America, and particularly the last third of the 20th century, that Jews have begun to feel comfortable enough to lose their sense of watchfulness.  In the wake of the Shoah / Holocaust, there was heightened uncertainty among Jews worldwide - a palpable precariousness that infused Jewish life.  The goal was to blend in, not to call attention to ourselves.  Religious Jewish men rarely wore their kippot in public.  Anti-Semitism was present and visible.

Today, we are well-integrated, well-established, unafraid.  And with that we have grown, I think, less vigilant.  Hence the disengagement from Israel that some see among younger American Jews.  Hence the decline of the American synagogue, and the rise of post-Modern Orthodoxy, with its growing rejection of modernity and integration with the wider society.

Add to that the many distractions of pop culture, and you can see that there are myriad reasons why we have let our guard down.  But Pesah, the holiday that 80% of American Jews show up for -- is the one time of the year that most of us are paying attention.  For many, it is the ONLY opportunity of the year that we engage with Jewish life.  This is the time to talk about what we should be looking out for.  Pesah reminds us that we have to watch our step as we walk through the Sea of Reeds on the way to freedom on the other side.

Here are three examples of things to which we should be paying attention today:

First: the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, affectionately known as BDS.  I have mentioned this before as one of “existential threats” to the State of Israel, to use the language of Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.  BDS has targeted Israel with economic actions for the purposes of (according to their website) ending the occupation of the West Bank, promoting the rights of Israeli Arabs, and allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.  

Whatever their actual goals are, the most infamous and outspoken Jewish critic of Israel, Prof. Norman Finkelstein, recently blasted BDS for being deceptive, in a video interview that went viral.  Their ultimate goal is not peaceful co-existence, said Dr. Finkelstein, but rather destruction of the Jewish state, and they should say so.

We need to be vigilant, because there is a segment of the world that is hearing the BDS message and responding to it.  It is a seductive humanitarian message that appeals to our most fundamental Jewish values:  freeing the bound, feeding the hungry, and so forth, the very themes that we invoke on Pesah.  They have successfully wooed pro-Israel leftists like the well-intentioned, if misguided, City University professor Peter Beinart to promote boycotts, as he did in the pages of the New York Times last week.

But it seems that we have turned a corner here.  Last week, the largest urban food co-operative in America, the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, voted against considering a boycott of Israeli products, by a tally of 1005 to 653.  John Ruskay, head of UJA - Federation, released the following statement about this yesterday:

“[T]he diverse community of the co-op — Jews and non-Jews, young and not so young, liberals and not so liberal — came together to reject the de-legitimization of Israel taking place on its turf. I take this as but the latest indication that despite the hyped rhetoric, Americans affirm the right of the Jewish people to a Jewish state. The victory in Park Slope follows many others, for notwithstanding years of organized efforts, the so-called BDS movement... has consistently been defeated. Not one university, corporation, or community has voted to sanction, divest, or boycott Israeli products or the Jewish state. Not one.”

BDS has not succeeded this time, but its voice is still ringing in Brooklyn and elsewhere.  We need to be vigilant.  Tell our children on college campuses to watch and listen carefully.  Be wary of those who seek to exploit our devotion to Jewish values to turn our fellow Jews against each other.  We cannot let this happen.  There are signs that this movement may have passed its peak of influence; nonetheless, let’s keep watching.

The second point of vigilance is of concern to us both as Jews and as Americans, and that is the Iranian nuclear threat.  I reported in this space a few weeks back about the AIPAC Policy Conference that I attended in Washington, along with a select group of members of this community.  The message from AIPAC, and indeed from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and all the other politicians who addressed the conference was, “Be vigilant regarding Iran.  They are almost nuclear, and we need to keep all options on the table.”  By “all options,” they meant, we reserve the right to bomb; some speakers stated this more clearly than others.

If Rashi were here to interpret this, I would like to think that he would tell us that “all options” should really mean, let’s exhaust all other options before we resort to war.  And I have a powerful ally in Rashi’s corner: His Imperial Highness, Crown Prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah and heir to the Peacock Throne, who spoke here at Temple Israel on Tuesday night as the keynote speaker for the 20th anniversary gala of the Sephardic Heritage Alliance, Inc., also known as SHAI.  Mr. Pahlavi spoke passionately and eloquently on behalf of the people of Iran, for whom he cares deeply.  And, by the way, he is not positioning himself to be reinstated as Shah; he is working to help establish a secular democracy in Iran.

The Main Ballroom was packed wall-to-wall, standing room only, with members of this community, Jews who mostly emigrated from Iran in the wake of the 1979 Revolution.  To this adoring crowd of ardent Zionists, Reza Pahlavi said, unequivocally, please don’t bomb Iran.  Try every other avenue first -- diplomacy, sanctions, and so forth -- and let’s give the Iranian people the support they need to throw off the yoke of their oppression.  Bombing will alienate the Iranian people, strengthen the regime, and make Israel’s neighborhood that much more hostile.

(And, by the way, I encountered something fascinating this week.  You should check this out:  It’s a website where ordinary Israelis, Iranians in Iran and in their diaspora, and other supportive people from around the world are placing friendly messages to each other.  It’s genuine, and it’s beautiful.  After Shabbat, take a look.)

Vigilance is called for here because although a nuclear bomb in the hands of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a very real and a very serious threat, the long-term price that Israel and America would pay is much higher if we chase after war before giving all of the alternatives time to work.  Let’s keep our eyes open, and pursue that middle path.

There is one final area in which I want to urge vigilance, and this one is closer to home.  Rabbi Stecker and I taught an evening class this week that touched on the question of helping our children maintain a Jewish identity in a world that is increasingly secular and increasingly polarized between fundamentalists and everybody else.

We all want our children to be happy, well-adjusted, integrated, engaged, and of course successful.  We also want them to be Jewish -- committed to Jewish values and Jewish tradition and willing to impart those things to THEIR children.  So how do we accomplish all of these things, especially given that everybody’s free time to devote to Jewish pursuits seems to be on the wane?

There are no easy answers here.  One approach that we discussed is to make Judaism part of the conversation at home -- Jewish learning, Jewish values, the desire to raise Jewishly-knowledgeable grandchildren.  Our willingness as Jewish adults to commit to participation in Jewish life and model that involvement for our children and talk about it at home will pay off in subsequent generations.  

And here is the thing to watch: there is a slippery slope here.  On the one hand, we in the Conservative world in particular want to be engaged with secular America, but we need to balance that with deeper commitment to Judaism.  If we do not, our children will learn that it is not important, and each following generation will be less anchored in the Jewish values that we endorse.  

To circle back around to Pesah, this night of vigilance is prime time to talk about being Jewish -- our relationships with tradition, with community, with history, with Israel, and with the future.  Don’t let this leil shimmurim pass without addressing why we need to watch carefully!  Ask more questions, enjoy the meal, and keep your eyes open.

Shabbat shalom, and hag kasher ve-sameah.  

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 3/31/2012.)

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