Friday, September 7, 2012

Ki Tavo 5772: More Light, More Selihah

One of the things that connects us most to the High Holidays is the set of melodies that we associate with this time of the year.  

From “Kol Nidrei” to “Avinu Malkeinu” to “BeRosh Hashanah Yikkateivun” and so forth, these tunes are strongly associated with the themes of the holidays: teshuvah, tefillah, tzedaqah (repentance, prayer, and charity), malkhuyot, zikhronot, shofarot (kingship, remembrance, shofar), and of course the opportunity to seek atonement, purity, and redemption for the coming year.

An often-overlooked melody that is nonetheless widely known is what we referred to in Cantorial School as the “selihah” mode.  Selihah means “forgiveness.”
Usually, selihah mode is used for passages that have to do with selihah or selihot, that is, asking for forgiveness.  Starting tonight, when we begin the recitation of selihot, and continuing particularly on Yom Kippur, when we recite the selihot prayers several times during of the course of the day, we assume the musical posture of asking for forgiveness from God to complement our obligation to ask for forgiveness from those around us.

As such, this melody should ideally serve to remind us about the need to think about teshuvah, about repentance (insert Pavlov joke here).  It should help “get us in the mood” for the start of the New Year, which we want to enter pure, with a clean slate.

There is only one more week before Rosh Hashanah.  That’s right!  One week! I hope that everybody has already put some thought into those things for which we need to seek forgiveness, and not just the lunch menu for Monday afternoon.  But while much of the focus of this period is on individual teshuvah, there is also, I think, an obligation to national teshuvah.  Teshuvah for the Jewish people for things that we have done this year.

Usually, a sermon draws on the day’s Torah reading and connect it to us, our lives, our families, and so forth.  I am going to take a little diversion from that pattern and instead draw on today’s haftarah, the prophetic reading that followed the Torah reading.

One major theme of today’s haftarah is light.  As you may have noticed, today’s was the sixth haftarah of consolation, the sixth of seven such haftarot that fall between Tish’ah Be’Av and Rosh Hashanah that trace the redemption of Israel after the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.  The themes of these haftarot, all drawn from the book of the prophet Isaiah, hint at the coming High Holidays - they attempt to reassure us that God has not forgotten us, that we can be redeemed, that our return to God will herald a new age with new opportunities.  

The opening verse of the haftarah invoked the theme of light with a clause that we know from the Friday evening piyyut, Lekha Dodi (Isaiah 60:1):
ק֥וּמִי א֖וֹרִי כִּ֣י בָ֣א אוֹרֵ֑ךְ
Qumi, ori, ki va orekh
Arise, shine, for your light has dawned.

This is but one of several references to light in the haftarah.  Light is also a common theme in rabbinic text and particularly kabbalistic text, and in tefillah, in Jewish prayer.

But light is also a theme in everyday Jewish life.  In particular, something that Isaiah points to in the third verse of the haftarah (Isaiah 60:3):
וְהָֽלְכ֥וּ גוֹיִ֖ם לְאוֹרֵ֑ךְ וּמְלָכִ֖ים לְנֹ֥גַהּ זַרְחֵֽךְ׃
Vehalekhu goyim le’orekh, umlakhim lenogah zarhekh.
Nations shall walk at your light, and kings at the brightness of your rising.

The “you” here is us; our light is meant to inspire others.  We refer to this principle as Or Lagoyim, a light unto the nations.  As Jews, we must be Or Lagoyim. We must behave in an exemplary manner in the eyes of the rest of the world.  

Why? Because we the Jews are meant to be an inspiration to the world. Because God gave us a template, the Torah, for living properly.  And because we cannot afford to fan the flames of anti-Semitism. We cannot give our enemies support/fodder by giving them examples of our bad behavior to cite.

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, seized upon the principle of the Jewish people and the Jewish State as being Or Lagoyim.  He said:

History did not spoil us with power, wealth, nor with broad territories or an enormous community lot, however, it did grant us the uncommon intellectual and moral virtue, and thus it is both a privilege and an obligation to be a Light Unto the Nations.
This is one reason that the symbol of the State of Israel is the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that was used in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It is incumbent upon all of us, kelal Yisrael, the totality of all those included in the Jewish fold, to be Or Lagoyim, to fill the world with light.  As such, we have all the more reason that in this season of teshuvah / repentance, we as a people need to be asking for selihah.  

I mentioned in this space a few weeks back the incident in downtown Jerusalem where a gang of Jewish youths attacked Arab teens, seriously injuring one.  A crowd of as many as 100 bystanders watched, and nobody attempted to stop these boys, even from kicking the victim when he was down and already clearly injured.

On the heels of this, just this past Monday, vandals set fire to the main entrance of the Trappist monastery at Latrun, right on the main highway to Jerusalem, and spray-painted on the exterior wall, “Jesus is a monkey,” and the names of recently-evacuated settlements.

The monastery dates to 1890, and the twenty monks that live there produce wine and live mostly in silence.

Now of course, we do not yet know who perpetrated this, and certainly Israeli police are investigating.  But it seems likely that this crime was committed by radical members of the pro-settler movement, and particularly part of a series referred to as “price tag” attacks. The most prominent of these attacks, you may recall, was the burning of the mosque in the Israeli Bedouin town of Tuba-Zangariyya last October; in June, there were several incidents, including the burning of another mosque near Ramallah, and vandalism in the mixed Jewish/Arab coexistence village of Neveh Shalom, also near Latrun.  The so-called “price tag” label has been found spray-painted on some of the sites; it is a threat from the radical fringe that Israeli and Palestinian society will have to “pay” for the evacuation of settlements for the sake of peace.

If the vandalism at the Latrun monastery was another in the series of “price tag” attacks in retribution for evacuation of illegal settlements, we as a people have much for which to atone.

Ladies and gentlemen, they are us.  Those on the fringe, those vandals, they are our cousins. And this is not acceptable.  

Yes, all of these incidents have been condemned by everybody, left and right. Yes, there are bad apples in every barrel.  But these bad apples are ours, and the damage they do to the image of Judaism and Jewry to those outside of our tradition is irreparable.  This is a classic example of what my grandparents would have called in Yiddish a shanda fur di goyim - a shameful act in the sight of the non-Jews.

In this season of teshuvah, in which our collective repentance is as essential as our personal repentance, we have to ask ourselves, in this time of reflection and teshuvah, what have we done to enable these criminals?  What have we said? What have we thought?  What have we left out?  What are we doing that has allowed them to think they can get away with it and that it is even honorable?

Our tradition teaches us that the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE was brought upon our nation due to our having committed the sin of sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred.  The innocent, God-fearing Christians and Muslims who have suffered at the hands of our people are victims of this same transgression, and we cannot tolerate such grave injustice in our midst.

The prophet Isaiah predicted that our redemption would make us Or Lagoyim, a light unto the nations, not a shanda.  The perpetrators of these “price tag” attacks, and their ideological supporters, should be cut off.  This is not us.  And right now, as we close in on the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, we need to be chanting in the mode of selihah.

After all, shouldn’t the world hear about the good things that Israel and the Jews have brought?  Shouldn’t the nations hear about the culture, the technology, and the academic achievement with which the State of Israel nourishes the world community?  Shouldn’t the anti-Semites of this world be required to answer to the democratic principles upheld by the Jewish state, its protection of personal liberty, its free and critical press, its commitment to the rights of everybody in Israeli society, including Israeli Arabs, women, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups?

How can we, as a people, offer up the absolute worst offenses against others, attacking the holy places of other religious traditions, for the entire world to see?  Ladies and gentlemen, we must maintain the upper hand by maintaining our respectability, by not sinking to the level of the enemies of peace.  We must uphold Isaiah’s vision of Or Lagoyim, of being the nation to which others look for inspiration.

Tonight begins the recitation of the selihot prayers, and with that the onslaught of musical hints at the coming potential for repentance and redemption.  We will hear tonight an intricately-crafted musical experience that is designed to get us in the mood for teshuvah

And we should all be chanting in selihah mode.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, Sept. 7, 2012.)

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