“Mah tovu–How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5, from this week’s parasha, Balak).
The Bible’s poetry often appears as a parallelism, where elements of a sentence are identical in construction and meaning. On a first reading, we might understand the quote above, spoken by the prophet Balaam, as an example of this technique. Traditional rabbinic commentaries, however, attempt to show that this verse is more than simple repetition of an idea for the sake of poetry, that “Jacob” and “Israel” are not parallels, that “tents” and “dwelling places” carry different connotations.
According to the Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic commentary by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, “Jacob” is the Jew who wanders (in tents) outside the Land of Israel (in Poland, in his case); “Israel” is the Jewish People in the Land, connected to the home of the Temple (the dwelling place). “Beauty” (or holiness), he argues, attaches to both.
We can also draw a distinction in the blessing between the temporary (tents) and the permanent (dwelling place), the fleeting and the fixed. Whether we are on the move or settled at home, out in public or in the privacy of our space, we have the ability to evoke a sense of holiness by virtue of the ways in which we interact with the people and the world around us.
For me, the tent represents the physical and tangible things with which we surround ourselves–our homes, our clothing, our financial resources–even as we struggle like Jacob to discover our true identities. These things may be impermanent, but they are necessary, and they can be put to use in a way that garners appreciation and evokes a sense of holiness.
The dwelling place, in contrast, is where the soul resides. It represents the intangibles of our lives–our values, character traits and relationships–that lie at the heart of what it means to be connected with one another as the People of Israel. These things are always part of us, no matter where we find ourselves, no matter where we wander. We welcome beauty and holiness into our lives when we learn to access this dwelling place, this internal sanctuary.
Can we live in two places at once? Can we create for ourselves both a house and a home? Can we open to others both our doors and our hearts? When we are finally able to do so, no matter where we find ourselves in life or in the world, we will find the blessing of God’s presence.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
We faced each other on the bima of Park Avenue Synagogue before a beit din of three rabbis. Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, announced her to those gathered as a new rabbi of the people of Israel: HaRav Penina Bracha. I took her hands in mine to offer my personal blessing to her, “May your Torah reflect your soul: joyful, honest and pure.” In that liminal moment, I was keenly aware of a holy transformation as Paula Rose became Rabbi Paula Bari Rose, my new colleague.
Rabbi Rose states that she began her journey toward the rabbinate because of her deep love of continuously experiencing God’s revelation through learning Torah. In the Ordination program, she wrote: “I feel humbled by the study yet to be done, and nonetheless hope to share the learning that has been so beloved to me by teaching Torah that is personally relevant and eternally meaningful.” All of us at the Orangetown Jewish Center who came to know Paula Rose as our rabbinic intern one year ago know that she will be an excellent rabbi. It starts with her certainty about why she became a rabbi in the first place.
As I prepare for Shavuot in just a few days, I find myself thinking about Rabbi Rose’s attachment to the ongoing revelation of Torah and about the ideals which led her to become a rabbi. I have been reassessing my own motivation, my sense of purpose as a rabbi. For the first time in quite a while, I have been asking myself why I became a rabbi. It is an exercise of my soul that is valuable and humbling.
It is a question that rabbis seem to answer all the time for the first several years in the rabbinate. When everything is new, every class begun with trepidation, each hospital visit monumental and each prayer service filled with wonder, the question of motivation arises every day. And then the question recedes to the background. We tend to become busy with the busy-ness of building Jewish community.
On the eve of Shavuot, it is time to bring the question to the foreground. I begin my consideration in the verses of Torah. In these first weeks of entering the Book of Bamidbar, we read about the Levi’im, the tribe that is encamped closest to the Tent of Meeting and surrounding the Mishkan, the holy ark that is carried through the desert. The Levites’ task is to guard the boundaries of Godliness, ministering to the people. They are the interpreters and protectors of holiness, the mediators between the Israelites and the Divine Presence.
Here in the opening parshiot of the Book of Bamidbar, I find ideals that inform my purpose as a rabbi. Like the ancient Levites, I want to be a conduit between God and the Jewish people. But there is more: I want to connect Jewish people to each other in real, meaningful relationships. And I want to connect our Jewish community to the greater community for the purpose of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We no longer have a singular holy ark or a priestly cast with a hierarchical responsibility. Judaism as we know and practice it, is democratized with equal access for all. And yet rabbis are given a referential authority by Jewish people in our communities who seek to draw close to God.
When I was ordained as a rabbi, my Dean, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, told my class something that I will never forget. He acknowledged that we had worked hard to earn the title Rabbi. But now that we had become rabbis, we needed to work every single day to continually earn the right to that title. Once conferred, the title was no guarantee.
Why did I become a rabbi? It’s a question I must never stop asking if I want to merit the title. I pray that I will find answers every day for the rest of my life.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
During the week before leaving for the AIPAC Policy Conference, I received several e-mails from progressive rabbinical organizations, asking me to protest AIPAC in one way or another. During the first day of the conference, my worried son texted me: “Have you seen a large group of INN activists protesting outside? There’s stuff all over Facebook about it.” (If Not Now is a social- media-fueled group of Jewish millennials who stage protests against the occupation of the West Bank.) I did not sign any petitions against AIPAC. I did not see the protesters outside. I was busy inside, participating in a conference that welcomed disagreement and civil discourse in true Jewish fashion.
AIPAC this year reminded me of Talmud. The rabbis on the pages disagreed with each other across generations and locations, but they argued together, on the pages of our common text, the Talmud.
The Israel advocates who gathered at the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center represented the plethora of opinion that is Judaism and American politics today. Among the 18,000 participants who support a strong alliance between America and Israel, there were Jews and non-Jews. Progressive, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular Jews gathered. 3,000 college students participated. Five hundred rabbis representing the spectrum from Ultra-Orthodoxy to Reform ate lunch together. Jews who support the current government in Israel and Jews who do not were present. Jews who support the current administration in America and Jews who do not were also present.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Anti Defamation League invited the leaders of If Not Now to a conversation when they protested in the lobby of the ADL building last year. The protesters rejected his offer, and Greenblatt responded: “It’s nice to get attention but it’s better to get things done. Protests are nice but proposals are better. Slogans are easy but strategies are hard. If you really want to move the needle you’ve got to make things happen.”
I agree. I spoke this past Shabbat about today’s world fueled by high levels of knowledge but low levels of understanding. Information is easily accessed with the touch of a smart phone, but grabbing the buzz words off headlines does not mean that people with very strong opinions actually understand what they are protesting. As Dr. Zohar Raviv of Birthright Israel says, “We have become surfers without diving licenses.” Young Jews standing outside the AIPAC Conference to protest the settlements in the West Bank meant well, but they could have had a bigger impact if they had participated in the conference itself. They would have learned new ideas and ways of understanding the crazy Zionist idea of the nineteenth century that became the modern State of Israel. They would have gleaned ways to conceptualize the cauldron that is the Middle East from voices of the left and of the right. And they would have been heard. We follow rules of courtesy and civility at AIPAC, but every voice is heard.
I yearn for the day to come soon when we will find a two-State solution. I disagree with a policy that includes building more settlements. I would certainly love for my son in the IDF to serve Israel in a time of quiet. I did not go to AIPAC to support either the Prime Minister’s government in Israel or the current administration in the U.S. I went to AIPAC to ensure that the strong alliance between Israel and America, necessary to both countries I love, will be preserved via strong non-partisan support on Capitol Hill.
This past week, the courageous ones came under the roof. If Not Now protested outside. I wonder how many of those idealistic young Jews know the complete quotation from Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers from which they coined their name: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Deep diving would require the protesters to consider the entire thought, not just the convenient last phrase. Next year, perhaps we’ll all be able to talk together, unafraid and willing to learn.
With blessings and prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
To grapple with my limited visual world, I make greater use of hearing and touch, and occasionally, even a bit of sight. While many people presume that blind people have enhanced levels of these senses, that is often not the case for me. My tricks using these other senses are successful because of my increased focus, not greater capability. Some of these skills develop through instinct, more through notable attentiveness. Listening for sounds is important. Individuals have different footsteps. Among those with leather soles, men are always heavier- sounding than women, and children are in a class by themselves. If I hear you walk on a hard floor first thing in the morning, I’ll probably recognize you at lunch time. Rubber soles? Forget about it. Voices and speech patterns are also clearly distinctive. If you introduce yourself to me often enough, eventually, I recognize your voice; a pleasant thing for both of us. One of my new mottos, pertaining to the fact that I cannot, with confidence, discern the words or symbols “Men” or “Women” on a restroom door, is “thank God for urinals!” 😉 In fact, finding the restroom is at times a bit of a challenge, especially in a place where I have never been before. Even though there are many amusing stories about my escapades finding the right restroom, the question “Where is the restroom?” is easily answered by plenty of friendly waiters who are happy to direct me. Good luck asking the ensuing question on the return trip- “Where is my table?”! The important thing to remember, I’ve learned, is always look around and count the number of tables along the route to the restroom. Counting is always a very important tool. Most notably, counting the number of steps on my way up a staircase and remembering that number on my way back down, is a great way to help keep me on my feet. If my companion leads, counts, and announces the number of steps, that is truly, as long as it is precise, very helpful. Another strategy that often leads to amusing outcomes is using my sense of touch. For example, it is not unusual to see me tapping my fingers around on the dining table until I find the salt shaker. Touch, in circumstances like this works quite well. I’ve learned however, that an important area in which I can get in trouble using this technique is when “looking” at a woman! 😉 I can go on and on with anecdotes; hopefully, you have gotten at least a bit of the picture.
So, how can you be most sensitive to my needs? I think that the following observation applies to most all physically challenged people: remember we all want to work on our feelings of independence. Saying “Can I help you?” is always a thoughtful thing to do. When you hear “no” in response, don’t push. On some occasions, I don’t just say “no,” but rather “I don’t know,” followed by “if I can do it myself, I’d much prefer that. If I find I need help, I’ll ask you.” You can always help me most by using words, not by grabbing or otherwise touching me to guide me, and remembering that your words should not include gestures. “Over there” is rarely helpful. “Watch out” or “look out,” are for obvious reasons, not useful phrases when communicating with me. I feel least “exceptional” when I can be most like everyone else.
I write this post from Ben Gurion Airport at Gate C-9, waiting for the flight home to be with our OJC community for Shabbat. I look forward to sharing with everyone the depth of learning I experienced during the past four days in Israel.
Thirty committed Jewish lay leaders and professionals from Rockland County sat in a beautiful room overlooking the Mediterranean in the ancient town of Jaffa for many hours each day. We represented twelve different Jewish organizations and with the assistance of SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking), we learned to innovate, discuss, plan and activate. But most of all, we learned to weave.
The purpose of our seminar was to weave the Rockland Jewish community together with enough strength and beauty to last m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation.
How exactly were we weaving? What did we hook onto the wood and anchors of our loom? How did we interlace the warp and weft of the threads? Our warp was our call, our strivings, actions and teaching. Our weft consisted of our anchors, the safe people and places, our Jewish homes, our synagogues and schools and organizations.
The trick about weaving is that from where we stand below, it looks like chaos. There are knotted threads, frayed or cut, mistakes, uneven spots, mismatched colors. But on the front side, the top side, the side that is hidden from our view, perhaps even the side that God sees, there the weaving is perfect. The patterns are clear, the colors blended, the stitching precise. Our work thus requires just a little bit of faith.
We went to Israel to learn how to weave because our homeland has been the wellspring of Jewish inspiration for thousands of years. We were inspired indeed by start-ups and innovators and programs for social justice . We learned to pull out the essence of the ideals undergirding the innovation and collaboration and imagine putting it to use in Rockland.
We heard from the company SpaceIL that is building Israel’s lunar rover and from TOM, Tikkun Olam Make-a-thon. We learned about Dror Yisrael, urban educational kibbutzim and Ruach Chadasha, program to revitalize young artistic life in Jerusalem. And so much more…
Inspired by the innovation all around us, I look back across the ocean toward home just before boarding and start thinking about ways to make the life of our Rockland Jewish community strong and vibrant. I am grateful to my OJC partner on this journey, Matt Schiering as well as fellow OJC congregants representing Federation, Carol Blau and Andrea Weinberger. We all invite all of you to join us!
The weaving work has only just begun…
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
If someone were to ask me to describe the Orangetown Jewish Center, I might say to them, “Let me tell you about a group of people who traveled to Israel together. We are a microcosm of the greater synagogue community.”
We are a diverse group of people from age 6 to 89 who related to each other as one family. We are curious, ready to learn, and easily moved. We look out for each other and we sought the best in each other. Over the course of 10 days, we found it.
We love Israel with our eyes and our hearts wide open. We are proud Jews who accept that the Jewish people practice our faith in many different ways. We are proud Zionists who know that Israel is a complicated place, but overall, it is our home.
We have a lot of fun! And it goes without saying, we love to eat!
Today, Zalman asked us, “What did you come with and what are you taking with you?”.
I know that the pilgrims on this trip will continue answering this question for a long time to come. All of us are changed. We know more about Israel than when we first arrived, and we most certainly know something new about ourselves.
Coming here to Israel is a privilege. Our ancestors yearned to come to this land for 2000 years but could not and so we carry them with us whenever we come to Israel.
Maybe the next time OJC comes will be your time?
As the sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea, we are packing and getting ready for our final dinner before heading to the airport. We hope to see you at services at the OJC on Shabbat so that we can share our pilgrimage experience with you and celebrate the end of Chanukah together.
Chodesh tov and (almost) Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As the tumultuous last days of the year 2016 unfold and unravel around us, here in Tel Aviv, Israel, we were focused and anchored, spending the day energized by this city. We saw a place where Jewish life is lived with diversity and creativity, where secular identity is steeped in Torah and religious identity is shaped by universal realities.
We learned about the establishment of this new city literally carved out of the sand by seashell lottery.
And we learned the history of what happened in 1948 to make this country, our homeland, a reality.
Hertzl said: “All the deeds of men are dreams at first, and become dreams in the end.” What a powerful description of the founding of the state of Israel.
At Independence Hall, when we stood to sing Hatikva, many of us cried. Even those of us who have experienced the presentation multiple times cried. In the recording of the 1948 Declaration of the State, one hears the orchestra play without any voices singing the words. Why? All of those present were weeping with a combination of joy and anxiety after Ben Gurion read the Declaration of Independence and Shehechiyanu was recited. Those present could not find their voices. Today, voices from all over the world sing Hatikva every hour on the hour. In so doing, we take our place in the history of Israel, singing on behalf of those here on May 14, 1948 who wept instead of singing.
We left Independence Hall to walk the streets of Tel Aviv and explore the Carmel Market.
A visit to Ayalon, the underground bullet factory in Rehovot, brought us full circle to the miracle and the sacrifice that was the War of Independence.
Our day together was capped off by candle lighting for the fifth night of Chanukah and dinner with the members of Kehillat Sinai, a Masorti kehillah (synagogue community) in the center of Tel Aviv. Rabbi Eliahu Peretz greeted us and shared a bit about this small egalitarian community.
How fortunate we are at the Orangetown Jewish Center to be well-versed in the complexity of Jewish life and the challenges of pluralism and acceptance here in Israel. Our visit was one of being graciously hosted, but more importantly, bringing the strength and commitment of our synagogue to a sister synagogue in Israel.
As people set off to explore nightlife in Tel Aviv, we have a great deal to think about. What is most important, I think, is to love Israel and support her… and see her with a realistic perspective. There is much work to be done here, and as our congregation continues to volunteer here, visit, advocate, get educated, support financially, and see some of our children make aliya, we fulfill our obligation (each in our own way) to our homeland.
From the lights of Tel Aviv to the lights in your windows, happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill