“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)
Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.
On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.
When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.
As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.
I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?
The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.
As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.
We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.
We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Do I turn to God more often from a place of distress, or from a place of contentment?
For three weeks in January, Lindsay Goldman, a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time member of our synagogue community, challenged her students (that includes me!) to consider their relationships with God. In her third session, she posed the question above. Nearly all the participants, not so surprisingly, responded that they turn to God most often when they find themselves in need.
These past months have presented so many painful moments, and I can certainly understand why people would be moved to prayer for Divine intervention, healing and equanimity. Our traditional liturgy reassures us that “God is near to all who call, to all who call upon God in truth” (Psalm 145). In those moments of distress, we are given words to use when “Help me, God” doesn’t come so easily: “From the narrowest places I have called out to You; answer me in your Divine expansiveness” (Psalm 118). And the tradition reassures us of God’s presence: “God is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Psalm 34).
As we call to God from our pain, we are told that God is near us, embracing us in our pain. Yet, while we may be assured that God hears our prayers, God’s reply is more difficult to discern. Does God intervene to relieve us of our suffering? Does God bind our wounds? Or is God’s answer to be found in our knowing that we are heard, that we are not alone, that our “healing” at some level will emerge from the relationship we share with God?
I have revisited my response to Lindsay’s question numerous times in the last days. And on a snowy day in February, I return to my answer again. Safe and warm, with a stocked refrigerator and a phone that can connect me to the other side of the globe, with family and friends who offer voices of support and comfort, I turn to God in gratitude.
Personally, I rarely call out to God from a place of distress. When I am in need of strength or comfort, I turn first to the other people in my life—my family, my friends, my community. They are my strength, my comfort, my healers. Their presence lifts me, and their love is the source of my resilience. I don’t call out to God in need, perhaps because I recognize that God has given me—in the form of the people in my life—everything I need to endure, find meaning, heal and persevere.
Perhaps I choose to put my faith in others in my times of need because my personal experience has been one of others putting their faith in me. In my role of rabbi, I have been charged with the responsibility, and have been granted the privilege, to step into many of those moments when others find themselves in pain. Although even friends and family are left wondering what they can do, I am empowered by the ritual of our tradition, the wisdom of our sages and the trust of a community to be among the primary responders to people’s crises. My experience has reinforced my belief that, in the midst of hardship, people must step into the breach to bring relief. God’s listening ear brings one measure of comfort, but the work of our hands will deliver God’s love. Especially for those who feel alone in the world, it is incumbent upon each of us to offer those hands in care and kindness.
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, God expresses the hope that we will be to God “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The Hebrew word for “priest” is kohein, and is more accurately translated as “minister.” Like that English word, the Hebrew word carries the connotation of service (as in “to minister to the needs of others”). God, then, expects us to be a community of individuals who minister to each other’s needs. In doing so, we become holy. In my mind, being holy means that we carry with us God’s presence. It is this holiness I choose to make note of in my world, day in and day out, in the simplest of kindnesses and the most common of beauties.
It is this practice of gratitude—acknowledging God in moments of peace and thanking God when I recognize blessings—that has conditioned me to see the presence of God through the goodness of others.
In the Talmud, we are taught: “And I shall pray to you God at a time of favor. When is it a time of favor? When the community prays” (Berachot 7b).
I find my comfort, contentment and calm in community. I find my energy, uplift and inspiration in community. I thank God for you all every day, whether we connect personally, virtually or at the level of the soul. From a place of love, appreciation and joy.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
OJC’s Rabbis are happy to offer this space for the words of our JTS Resnick Intern, Jesse Nagelberg
I lay my clothes on my bed – jeans and shirt with a collar.
I put in my contact lenses, brush my teeth, shave, and shower.
I put on cologne – yes, every day – and then my rings, my watch, and my kippah.
I finish getting dressed, including matching socks and shoes.
I am ready to begin the day.
This is my early morning routine and it has not changed – not even during the ten months since COVID-19 upended our lives and most of my days have been spent in my apartment. My routine may seem excessive since, typically, no one is going to see the details of my outfit, let alone smell whether I used cologne! But I want to feel prepared to conquer whatever the day will bring, just like I did when I left the house every day. Whether my day has involved working at OJC or Camp Ramah, studying, teaching, or chatting with friends; whatever the day has had in store, for me, being fully dressed for these daily activities has helped me to feel wide-eyed and alert.
The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah is that we can amplify our mitzvot by beautifying them. Shabbat Kiddush can be more special when using a cup made of metal or carefully constructed out of glass. Lighting Chanukah candles takes on more meaning when using a family heirloom or a Chanukiah we have a personal connection to. We can turn the mundane into a mitzvah when we dress it up a bit – literally and figuratively. We can not only show up; we can show up dressed nicely, organized and attentive. In that vein, we can be ready to notice the smallest details that enhance and beautify our lives.
If the last months have taught me anything, it is that there are small gems of learning to be found everywhere. We just have to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts and embrace them.
In his book The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.”
Picking my head up out of my many rabbinical school books and papers has enabled me to notice many “textpeople” in recent weeks:
- During a Prayer through Music and Movement elective with OJC’s 6th and 7th graders, we have swapped songs that feel prayerful to us. Watching the students discover and introduce each other to music from different genres and decades has infused my life with new music and new ways to connect to the words of the siddur.
- After using an app on my phone for an extended period of time, I received a notification advising me, “It seems like you’ve been scrolling for a long time. Now is a good time to get away from the screen for a few minutes to breathe and relax.” It is amazing that the automatic intelligence function on this app actually prompted me to take a much-needed pause.
- The 8 year old child of a classmate unmuted his mom’s computer during a class about Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush and engaged the professor in a discussion about Moses’ anxieties and intentions. I marvelled at the wisdom of this precocious child and how seriously my professor took his question and made it a part of the day’s learning.
- One of my family’s dogs, Callie, is on hyper-alert all day for stray geese, Amazon deliveries, and Zoom events to join. She is almost always “on”; but when she takes a break, she curls up on the couch and instinctively lays her head on the nearest pillow, literally sleeping like a person. Callie reminds me that at the end of the day, or at the end of a busy or stressful time, it is important to find a soft place to rest your head.
As we move ahead in 2021, children are back in school, either in person or virtually, after a well-deserved break from the screens and Zooms that have become the focal point of their day. Perhaps it is time for all of us to go back to “school” and be more alert to the teachings that surround us. We can show up, even from home, by getting dressed up. We can return to learning from all of the teachers in our lives — our friends and neighbors, our children and pets and even, occasionally, AI technology.
So what did you put on this morning, and how is it helping you recognize the gems to learn from in your life?
Jesse Nagelberg, OJC-JTS Resnick Intern
Way back at the end of August, I wrote in this blog:
“The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 20/20 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.”
Now, as we have endured the summer and fall, ridden out their lows and highs, and taken note of their dark clouds and silver linings, we stand ready to greet the secular new year of 2021. Winter has indeed arrived, yet we are bolstered by the new perspectives on life we have gained, the relationships we have fostered, and the hopes for an effective vaccine that will allow us to come together physically to a greater degree in the year ahead. But of all the lessons taught and learned during these ten unforgettable months of 2020, there is one that I was particularly glad to have internalized personally and professionally almost twenty years ago. Stated most simply by our tradition: Tovim hashnayim min ha-echad, “Two is better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).
For the past two decades, I have advocated that a hierarchical model of religious leadership does not serve the best interests of religious communities or the clergy who serve them. Long before our communities were facing a pandemic, our synagogue community amended its constitution to delete the language of “senior” rabbi, “assistant” or “associate” rabbi, and “cantor.” Instead, the organization consciously chose the broader language of “clergy” with the understanding that the success of our community was dependent upon the ability of our religious leaders and professionals to establish and deepen personal relationships, regardless of their titles.
Moreover, the ability of individual clergy to play to their strengths and to use their diverse talents and skills to cultivate connections would ultimately accrue, we believed, to the benefit of the organization and the entire professional staff. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the individual professionals and our organizations, we acknowledged that it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, for leaders to be true partners when one is expected to answer to or be judged by the other. I am proud that our JTS Resnick Interns, through our Debbie Steiner Mentorship Program, have moved into the Jewish world building partnerships and leading vibrant and growing communities with this model in mind.
This pandemic has reinforced my belief that the partnership model provides professionals the opportunity to shoulder equally the burdens, to process the challenges and opportunities, and to share the personal and professional stresses. Partnership maximizes the potential of each professional to acquire and share skills, to broaden vision and reach, and to establish the relationships that will connect more people to each other, the institution and its mission. Finally, partnership models behavior for professional and lay people alike. The stronger the partnership, the more we generate in each other a sense of empowerment, ownership, and investment in a shared vision. The success of one is the success of all.
As we find ourselves in the midst of a time when communities cannot operate by bringing people into regular and consistent physical proximity, it is all the more important that our organizations have professionals who can connect people by facilitating intimate gatherings and cultivating meaningful connection. Some of us have acknowledged (and the forward thinking leaders knew this prior to the pandemic) that certain modes by which we have been operating must become a part of our business-as-usual way of doing things. For example, aging populations who can be served by virtual connection must be given the opportunity to connect from their homes to spiritual, educational and social opportunities as Jewish law permits. Our communities and leaders require partners to share the professional burden of the work and to share the personal burden of the stress that these new modes of operating generate.
In hindsight, we may look back on 2020 as the year that helped us envision the future of our community more clearly. Perhaps 2021 will be the year in which the steps we must take to realize our finest aspirations come into sharp focus!
Wishing us all a happy, healthy and safe 2021 in which we feel connected, cared for, and empowered to partner with those in need,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. It throws a/ shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no./ Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of/ the fence—and my wife, in tousled hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the/ carnage, mid-limb. It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide./ She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. The/ worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of/ view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two/ young daughters now alone. I want no trouble. Must I/ fight for my wife’s desire/ for yellow blooms when my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade?/ Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love./ Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not/ me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they/ lower the chainsaw again.
The poem, One Tree by Philip Metres, is about conflict at the local level. The struggle is neighbor against neighbor and the battlefield is the back yard. The fence that separates properties cannot keep out the tree’s shade cast from one lot into the next. The conflict, however, is not a two-sided affair. The narrator-husband is a bystander who is sympathetic to both claims. The worker is a combatant by proxy, a participant without an expressed conviction. The poem reminds us that while the sides to any confrontation might be seen from the outside as monolithic, divisions within the opponents might, and invariably do, exist. And unwitting players are bound to get caught in the conflict as well.
The rivalry between Jacob and Esau as described in this week’s parsha, Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9), begins in Rebecca’s pregnant belly. Their conflict is founded in their nature and fed by their nurture. Their methods and their goals couldn’t be more divergent. And their struggle is intensified by the fact that they are family. Neighbors may disengage or move. Siblings remain enmeshed by a shared history, a common bond of blood, and a character dynamic that replays (perhaps subconsciously if not overtly) at every encounter. While the men may grow like branches in opposite directions, they remain attached to the same tree.
In a 2010 interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth who passed away on November 7, discussed the dynamics of political and religious conflict. In addressing conflict between faiths, he offered the following: “We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.”
How much more does this teaching apply to us as a human family? Our diversity–of ideologies, of political philosophies, of beliefs, of values, of behavioral patterns–can be traced back to the same singular source. When we ignore how interconnected we are, we “throw shade” across our fences, depriving one another of light and the accompanying growth, and we fail to see ourselves in the other. In recognizing our shared code, we can find common ground between siblings, neighbors and ideologies. In understanding how nature and nurture have shaped the many permutations of that code, we can begin to understand and appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of every human family member.
In the ongoing struggle for recognition, for love, for resources, for power, we might make the same mistake as the poem’s narrator. “It’s not me,” they wish their neighbor would know. But, of course, it is me. And it is you. The tree is ours; it is us, our history, our heritage and our responsibility. But it is not ours alone. It belongs as well to our siblings, cousins and neighbors. It belongs to our friends across the aisle and across the oceans. The tree is ours.
In memory of Ruth Ignatoff z”l, mother of Jonathan Drill and his four unique and loving siblings,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
I love origin stories.
I don’t care what the critics say. Give me Henry Cavill, Tom Welling or Christopher Reeve as Superman. Give me Christian Bale, Val Kilmer or David Mazouz as Batman. Give me Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire as Spiderman. Give me Richard Donner or Zack Snyder. Give me Tim Nolan or Christopher Nolan. Give me Sam Raimi or Jon Watts. Give me any of these actors and directors, so long as they are giving me an origin story, and I’m hooked.
And I don’t even mind if the origin stories they deliver are competing in details or factually different. So long as the origin story offers me an insight into what drives my hero‘s motor, I’m hooked. And I can go back for more, again and again.
I find myself far more sympathetic to a character when I know that character’s origin story. I want to understand their roots of insecurities, their foundations of confidence, their source of aspirations. The beauty of the origin stories for me is that the creative interpreters—the writers, actors and directors—are ultimately responsible for dictating how we understand what motivates our favorite characters to act. No choice can made, no action can be taken in the foreground without the origin story hanging in the background.
Adam and Eve, in the Book of Genesis, get two (!) origin stories juxtaposed against each other. I imagine the writer and director getting together to offer two different vantage points from which we can watch the story unfold.
Moses, in the Book of Exodus, is given a detailed origin story, one depicting the harrowing circumstances surrounding his birth, the fateful moment he asserts independence from his assigned station of royalty, and the transformative event that calls him to God’s service.
When it comes Noah and Abraham, —the father of the post-flood human race and the father of the Jewish people, respectively—however, the Torah gives us no origin story. Instead, we’ve relied on the artistic and creative storytelling abilities of rabbis through the centuries to propose the origin stories that would provide greater insight into, understanding of, and appreciation for these towering characters. These origin stories are collected in the body of literature we call The Midrash.
My issue with The Midrash is that, while we have attributed some of these proposed origin stories to great and authoritative voices from our past, we all too often rely on them as if they were written by God God-self or discovered in the text of the Torah. In so doing, we relinquish the opportunity to connect the origin stories of these characters with our own experiences. While at some point in my life I may have smashed my father’s idols on a metaphoric level, I would much rather relate to Abraham‘s story of hearing God‘s voice in his life in the context of my own experience.
It is said of the Torah that she has 70 faces. I prefer that one of those faces be a reflection of my own. In studying the stories of Noah and Abraham, I can wrestle with what it means to be sufficiently righteous in this world to merit saving. I can ponder what sacrifices I would be willing to make in order to perpetuate goodness in this world. I can picture children, parents and spouses struggling to discern God’s willing voice in this world.
In the absence of origin stories for Noah and Abraham, the Torah makes room for my own. This origin story is mine.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
On the eve of a new year, I offer this prayer on behalf of my colleagues and religious leaders of every faith, who are striving to connect people in community in new and creative ways while maintain an authentic sense of tradition. And I offer this prayer in thanksgiving for a community who has told its faith leaders in a myriad of ways that they trust us, despite our flaws. The Hineni prayer (“Here I am”) is the prayer leader’s plea that God look past the shortcomings of the one appointed to pray on the community’s behalf. What follows is my interpretation of the original text.
Perhaps they don’t see that I am
to confront current circumstance,
Shaken and uncertain
In the face of forces that threaten to overwhelm me.
Yet I must present myself to be heard
on behalf of a community that has entrusted me to represent.
I don’t claim to be worthy or sufficiently informed.
So I seek balance in the Source
of my ancestors’ resilience
In the breath between
Adonai and Adonai,
Compassion and Grace,
Tradition and Self-Sufficiency,
Reverence and Awe.
Carve me a path to success
As I seek the welfare
Of all those who have sent me.
Hold blameless those who trust me despite my shortcomings now exposed.
Guide me to speak with wisdom,
sensitive in tone,
considerate of all needs.
And may the love in my heart make up for the flaws in my actions.
May acknowledging the mistakes of our past transform our futures into joy and celebration,
life and wholeness,
with truth and peace as our guides.
Don’t let me falter on this path.
May it be Your will—
God of Israel and Sonia
God of Stan and Hannah
El, Unfathomable, Powerful,
Source of my resilience
Yet to be known—
That my words will resonate
Until they are understood
For their sincerity
And their intentions
And their justice
And their humanity
And for the way they honor Your Name,
Unfathomable and Beyond Understanding.
Attend to my prayer for compassion.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This tumultuous year is far from over, though so many of us sadly are wishing it away. Hurricane Isaias was just the latest in what feels like a growing list of events that have drawn down our reservoir of resilience. As we find ourselves in the weeks leading to the Jewish community’s season of reflection and joy, it is an appropriate time to look back at 2020 with clearer vision and sharper focus. Seeing these past months through a Jewish perspective on time, specifically in the framework of transitioning from the years 5780 to 5781, might allow us a way to reframe our view of the first 8 months of the calendar year vis a vis the 4 months remaining.
The Jewish process of teshuva—reflection, atonement, return— reminds us that we have a choice. We can allow the challenging moments of our lives to deplete us, to shorten our tempers, to consume our patience, to sap our energy. Or we can recognize these natural consequences of stress and, instead, build on the unexpected yet fortifying outgrowths of our circumstances.
As we prepare for a “hybrid“ approach to our holiday celebrations—combining communal in-person and at-home opportunities to experience the essential and intended messages that present the opportunity for personal transformation—the liturgy of the holidays can offer a useful vehicle for navigating these days with direction and meaning. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the pages of the mahzor present a progression of themes that we expand upon in the hours of structured prayer. Whether we are in the sanctuary or in the privacy of our homes, we can rely upon these themes as a personal “seder” (order) that will help us in creating our own unique ritual for this holiday season and provide a much-needed perspective for this unusual time in our world.
For Rosh Hashanah, we may reflect on:
Sovereignty (Malkhuyot) – In the last months, what has ruled my priorities? How has the hierarchy of my priorities changed? In the months to come, will I live my days passively, or will I rule my choices?
Remembrance (Zichronot) – In the last months, what have been my losses? How have I grieved? In the months to come, how will I honor and celebrate the people and events that transform my life?
Wake-up calls (Shofarot) – In the last months, what have I discovered as our “silver linings”? Where have I found meaning and hope? In the months to come, what are the things that will refill my reservoir of resilience?
For Yom Kippur, we may reflect on:
Confession (Teshuva) – In the last months, where have I willingly fallen short of the mark as a friend or family member? How have I unintentionally contributed to another’s suffering? In the months to come, what can I do to relieve my burden and those of others?
Connection (Tefilla) – In the last months, what connections have made me feel relevant? What connections have been my support? In the months to come, what connections will I pursue that I have yet to explore?
Community (Tzedaka) – In the last months, from whose kindnesses have I benefited? Have I given of my blessings to assist others? In the months to come, what will I do to sustain the communities that have been there for me when I have needed them?
Some of us may be wondering and worrying how we will make meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without sitting in synagogue this year. The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 2020 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.
Join your community in the weeks ahead as we prepare for the arrival of 5781 by cultivating a new outlook on the last months of 2020.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Over 3000 years ago, on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases the Israelites from centuries of bondage as all of Egypt cries out in the wake of God’s deadly plague. They march out in song and jubilation before their masters. The brutalities and indignities of slave life finally come to an end. The Israelites are free to follow their God into the wilderness.
Over 150 years ago, on the 1st day of January, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared, after two centuries of African American enslavement, “that all persons held as slaves” within the states that had seceded from the United States “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” The brutalities and indignities of slave life, the whippings and sexual assaults, the selling and forcible relocation of family members, the denial of education, wages, legal marriage, homeownership, had finally come to an end. African Americans celebrated their newfound freedom both privately and in public jubilees.
When Pharaoh changes his mind and his armies give chase to the Israelites, God divides a sea for safe passage, and closes it to drown their pursuers. God provides water and bread from heaven along the way. Within a few months, they arrive at the mountain of God.
Two and a half years later, on June 19th, 1865, the slaves of Galveston, Texas received their emancipation from their masters. Some emancipated slaves quickly fled from their owners, while others who couldn’t imagine any feasible alternative remained to become wage laborers for their former owners. As the Civil War came to a close, Southern states began to pass a series of discriminatory state laws collectively known as ”black codes.” Slavery had been a pillar of economic stability in the region before the war; now, black codes ensured the same stability by recreating the antebellum economic structure under the façade of a free-labor system.
At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive their constitution from God, a roadmap for building community, for establishing law and order, for promoting equality, equity and justice, and for creating a physical, social and spiritual space worthy of God’s presence.
The newly freed slaves were treated by some of their former masters with fair wages. Many former slave owners treated the freedmen with contempt, disdain and fear. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”
When the time comes to realize God’s promise, ten of the twelve scouts who had gone into the Promised Land report to their community that the plan is not feasible. The residents, from their perspective, are giants. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”
The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.
God and Moses are deeply disappointed, to say the least, that the community chooses to heed the report of the ten, as opposed to the more optimistic report of Joshua and Caleb, who believe that it is within their power—with God’s help—to take what has been promised. God decides to punish the Israelites for their lack of faith to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, such that the generation of slaves will die before they enter the Promised Land.
In 1877, the “Exodusters,” blacks who fled the south, established the settlement of Nicodemus on the arid plains of northwestern Kansas. However, because of several crop failures and resentment from the county’s white settlers, all but a few homesteaders abandoned their claims. A rising population of 500 in 1880 had declined over the next 40 years to less than 200.
Forty years later it is the Israelites’ children, raised in the wilderness within the parameters of the new constitution and under the eyes of a protecting God, who enter Canaan to reclaim their ancestral homeland.
In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places. The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904. The children born to former slaves may not have known the whip as their parents did, but they suffered continuing marginalization and dehumanization at the hands of those who did not consider the 14th amendment to the Constitution–that “all men are created equal”–to include black Americans.
We, in our mostly white and Ashkenazi-centric (“Ashkenormative”) Jewish communities love to assert how we have fought for the civil rights of Black Americans through the decades, and that we are uniquely equipped to understand the experiences of people of color. There is no doubt that Jewish Americans have disproportionately supported progressive causes with their presence and their resources. But neither our historic experience of enslavement in Egypt nor our experience of anti-Semitism in all its forms through the centuries have given us unique insight into the suffering of Black Americans at the hands of a society that was created by whites for whites, and only begrudgingly made space to incorporate the “others” already in their midst. Moreover, even our immigrant experience as seekers of religious tolerance in a new world, as fraught as it may have been and continues to be, fails to educate us sufficiently to the historic and institutional inequities faced by people of color in this country.
Claims that we are not racist–that we can relate, that anti-Semitism is a problem too, that all lives matter–only serve as impediments to ridding ourselves of the systemic racial injustices and the privileges that benefit us. If we are to be ANTI-racist, allies to those who are disproportionately negatively impacted by too many systems in our country, we must listen to and we must believe the voices of those who say that they face a daily exhausting battle. We must turn within our own communities to hear the voices of Jews of color and how they have been marginalized. And we must face ourselves and our loved ones and friends honestly to confront uncomfortable truths, to engage in hard discussions, about our own attitudes and biases.
“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”
—Birmingham, Alabama, 1930
Our most senior community members were born into a world where humans were marginalized for the color of their skin. Many of our parents were raised in communities where such attitudes persisted. There are those of us who felt the sting of the word “shvartze” in our homes, even if we would never use it ourselves. Few of us knew that Jews of color existed. And if we did, we questioned the authenticity of their experience or chalked them up to being Sephardic, an “otherness” of a more acceptable yet still not-as-authentic Jewish ilk.
When a person of color walks into our synagogue, do we think “What’s their story? What are they doing here? Are they Jewish? Did they convert?” These questions reflect a racist bias, regardless of our intentions. Yet, as we remind those who equate Jewish with whiteness, we are a multiracial people and we are becoming more so. We must thus begin by asking ourselves the question: As a Jewish community that is almost exclusively white, where are we? Why are we? What must we do to enter the 21st century, to create an environment where Jews of color are comfortable and safe with us? Can we assert to Jews of color that, indeed, Black lives matter, so that they no longer need to feel marginalized or denigrated in their own spiritual homes?
Perhaps home is where we can and must begin to do the arduous work of becoming anti-racist allies. I welcome the difficult conversations that will hopefully follow.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
More accurately, I recall those occasions when I was old enough to appreciate the question as a recurring joke. After all, at that point of my life the signs along the way had become familiar: the Howard Johnson’s off the Merritt Parkway; the Charter Oak Bridge bypassing Hartford; the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike; the ramp onto Route 128. Even as a child, I knew how long was the trip, and what was the time of our estimated arrival. And I’d certainly recognize my grandparents’ driveway on West Roxbury Parkway to know we had arrived.
In the second month of the second year of the Israelites’ wandering, they do not yet know that they will be destined to wander forty years. I can imagine the children asking with each leg of the journey, “Are we there yet?” Even with the commandments as a guide, new rituals for drawing near to God, and the structure of a community that encamped as one, I imagine a lingering uncertainty that gnawed at even the most faithful. After all, so many of those commandments were given to be observed in the Promised Land; when would we get a chance to put them into practice?
In these days of confusion and uncertainty, I am reminded of that child in the backseat, before the question was posed for a laugh. Impatient, cooped up, unable to measure the passage of time, his anxiety is compounded by the fact that there seem to be no lanes on the road; that every driver is traveling at a speed of their own choosing, changing lanes at will; and that we are all supposedly heading towards the same destination with no one actually knowing its address.
As we approach the holiday of Shavuot and the celebration of receiving Torah, I appreciate more than ever the teaching of the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague, 1550-1619), who offered that the Torah avoids explicitly naming Shavuot as the occasion of the Torah’s giving so that we may view every day as the day of revelation. Reflecting from the backseat of this journeying vessel, I question whether the destination does in fact lie somewhere ahead of us. What if this pandemic signifies a moment in time when we are asked to redefine the priorities of our lives, to reexamine the use of our resources, and to reconsider the distribution of our wealth? What if this is the moment of revelation to prepare us for future pandemics and crises that will confront humanity more than once each century? What if this is the time to which Torah speaks with more meaning and relevance than ever before?
Perhaps this is not a grim view of the future. Perhaps it is the opportunity to see Torah operate more fully in our lives. Perhaps it is our chance to shape a world of compassion and caution, of empathy and equality; a world that necessitates the constant navigation of risks and benefits, of conscious living; a world of respect for personal boundaries and concern for the boundaries set by others.
Perhaps we are already there.
Rabbi Craig Scheff