How does one summon love for the stranger?
At a place called Love (Ahava), the stranger offers love, creating a safe space for the vulnerable; the stranger receives love, and the reassurance that they will not always be rejected; and we are inspired to give enough love to effect a slight change for the better in our world.
My first visit to Kfar Ahava was in 2007. And even in my eleventh year I am so deeply moved and inspired by the experience. Perhaps more so because once again I got to see this remarkable and unique place through the eyes of the newcomers.
After our annual reintroduction to Ahava by Executive Director Yoav Apelboim, the group gathered in the memorial corner we created in memory of, and dedicated to, Danny Klein and Rob Katz. We remembered, cried, and blessed together. Today was Rob’s birthday, so the moment was particularly poignant. We dedicated today’s acts of love to their legacies.
Next, I gave our newcomers—Ellen, Sharon and Andre—a tour of the residential facility, the school and the emergency shelter. The bright skies, cool breezes, colorful mosaics, peaceful gardens and quiet grounds belied all the brokenness and pain that lay behind so many of the closed doors around us.
But what could not be hidden away was the love. The newcomers saw it in the way the 17-year veteran social worker talked about the children she received in the emergency shelter. Every child brought in through her doors, she explained, deserved to be love, especially considering the conditions they had suffered at home, the one place that was supposed to guarantee love.
At lunch, Amy Nelson and I witnessed an eight year-old boy trying to bond with us by insisting that his father was a professional soccer player who played in New York. He just wanted to be loved. A twelve year-old oppositional girl challenged him to stop lying, so clearly lashing out in the pain of her own brokenness. An eighteen year-old doing his year of national service at Ahava subtly shook his head in disapproval of her insensitivity, and her anger was quieted. The foster mother overseeing their care, in her first year of service, turned to us to offer that she was here to change the world for the better in some small way.
Tonight, first-timer Sharon, a stranger to Ahava, reflected to the group that the experience of Ahava stripped away her armor. With the permission to be vulnerable, she felt more authentic. And the more authentic we are, the more capable we are of giving and receiving love.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Hevel: vanity, futility, meaninglessness, pointless striving. We may acquire wisdom; we may amass physical comforts and playthings. We may seek pleasure in food and drink; we may build palaces and establish monuments to our accomplishments. It’s all hevel, however, because ultimately everything has its season, and every person has his or her own time. This is the message of the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the megillah (scroll) that we read in conjunction with Sukkot, our festival of joy.
What if we read Kohelet as a treatise on love? After all, the megillot that we read on our other two major festivals are love stories! On Passover, the corresponding megillah we read is the Song of Songs, a story about unrequited love. On Shavuot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ruth, a story about consummated love. Moreover, Passover celebrates God’s courtship of the Jewish People; Shavuot celebrates the wedding of God and the Jewish People. I see this parallel progression from courtship to consummation as intentional. If so, what can we deduce about Sukkot and its relationship to Kohelet? How can we read hevel into the next stage of this relationship, into our attainment of joy?
Perhaps Kohelet’s conclusion–that life “under the sun” is meaningless–refers to the temporal, fleeting, finite pieces of ourselves and our relationships. The purest joy, however, is not connected to pleasures of food or wine, acquisitions or edifices. As exemplified by our experience of the sukkah, our greatest joy is found despite—if not in—our vulnerability, our authenticity, our simplicity. On Sukkot, we build a sukkah aware of its fragility, porousness, and temporary nature; we embrace it, love it and live in it anyway.
On Sukkot, the corresponding megillah we read is the Book of Ecclesiastes, a story about enduring love. Sukkot celebrates the journey the Jewish People took through a desert, with God as their ultimate shelter. We remember that the love at the heart of God’s relationship with the Jewish People is not sustained by the fireworks of courtship or by the pageantry of a wedding night. It is the love that emanates from a relationship that is resilient, that withstands the highs and the lows, that survives the wilderness wanderings, that thrives without necessarily reaching a promised land.
This season of our joy is rooted in a deep, enduring and timeless love that transcends what we build or acquire. It is the kind of joy that brings us peace and tranquility, and provides us the resilience and strength to go on dwelling in the midst of a tumultuous world.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
As this Hebrew month of Av draws to a close in the week ahead, leading us into the reflective month of Elul, I am reminded of a teaching by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of pre-state Israel: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred – sinat chinam, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324). The destruction to which Rav Kook refers is that of the Holy Temple; but his teaching is as equally valid today as we experience again and again the destructive force of baseless hatred all around us.
These times demand moral leadership. The actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacy groups in Charlottesville–marching with torches, toting guns, chanting hate-filled slogans, intimidating Shabbat worshippers, and ultimately inciting deaths and injuries—or anywhere else, for that matter, cannot be countenanced without a response. In the moment, we cannot afford to be bystanders, though we are not required to put ourselves in harm’s way; in the aftermath, we call for moral leadership. We demand swift and unequivocal condemnation from those elected or appointed to positions of power. Over the past few days, we have read many such statements from organizations and individuals representing our communities. Frankly, I am underwhelmed by all of them.
Statements are important; but they are nothing compared to actions. Of course, we should call out—or expect our leaders to call out—that which we find despicable, abhorrent and unacceptable. But how have we truly changed our world in relying on someone else to speak what we are feeling?
Moral leadership must indeed be demanded; Judaism, however, dictates that we demand it of ourselves. We must be the moral leaders of our day; others may speak for us, but only you and I, individually, can change the landscape. And Judaism tells us how in this week’s reading of R’eih: “Do what is right and good in the eyes of God.” Feed the poor, care for the stranger, let the land regenerate, show gratitude for what you have, don’t take time for granted. Love (the verb).
Love. We’ve been reading all about love in the Torah weekly throughout this month of Av. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your essence.” “Love the stranger.” In response, I commonly hear expressed the struggle with the notion of being “commanded” to love. How can love be commanded?
If I had to define “love” in the context of what the Torah tells us, it would be the feeling we experience when we give to another at our own expense. The Torah wants us to serve the Other–and others–through our choices and with a generous spirit. (A moral leader is defined typically as a leader whose purpose is to serve, as opposed to be followed.) But we aren’t born with that desire to love. We are taught how to give love by being loved and by loving. Love may be an emotion, but it is also learned by experiences and actions.
“But hate is stronger than love,” I hear. My response: Hate is taught, just as love is taught. Perhaps hate is taught more easily, because hate appeals to our base instinct of self-preservation. Teaching love through our actions demands self-sacrifice, vulnerability and risk-taking. Teaching love means overcoming our reticence, our fear of the stranger, our complacency.
Moral leadership means accepting these challenges for ourselves, and not giving in to insecurity, fear and despair. Moral leadership means embracing and living by the notion that there is a shared code of conduct or set of values, that calls upon us to serve one another and “do what is right and good.” Moral leadership is the constant and intentional endeavor to behave morally and to love.
Some of you struggle with the idea that, as Jews, it is our mission (calling? obligation? command? responsibility? — call it what you wish!) to pursue love in the world, just as we are taught to pursue justice or peace. Love needs to be practiced, exercised and cultivated, just like any other discipline, muscle or character trait. And the more we love, the easier it gets. Trite? Perhaps. But when was the last time you went about your day consciously choosing to give love beyond your friends and family circle? To your neighbor? To a stranger? Try it, and you will soon discover that love is stronger than hate.
What does God/Judaism want of us? To live with a consciousness of our connection to others that guides our choices and our behavior. This is what God hopes will shape the kind of love we experience and bring into the world, the kind of moral leadership you and I provide for the world of tomorrow.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Day Three of our 10th annual mitzvah mission proved to be an emotional roller coaster. We returned to Ahava, anxious to finish our projects, determined to dedicate a final product at the end of the day. We worked hard and fast, skipping lunch. As we waited for the cement stools to dry and the tile mosaics to set, a young girl by the name of Efrat entertained us with her exuberant dancing, magnetic personality and charming smile. We danced and laughed as the final touches were completed. Finally, the work of our hearts and our hands was permanently memorialized. Efrat and her friends quietly stood with us as David Klein spoke of his son and Rob, and of the significance of our community shoveling soil together once again, this time for the purpose of planting. Two ficus trees now stand side by side, one in memory of Rob Katz and one in memory of Danny Klein. They will grow together and ultimately become intertwined. They will spring large leaves that will offer shade to those who seek shelter sit in “Rob’s Corner.” We charged the children to care for this corner of their lives, always remembering how they witnessed a group of adults sharing raw emotion, love, respect, comfort and care. We had come to Ahava to offer comfort, but in the end, amidst our tears, these children comforted us.
Driving into Jerusalem, we stopped atop Mount Scopus to see the city from afar. We stood next to Christian pilgrims who sang songs of praise. The Muslim call to prayer rang out atop their song, and we stood quietly in a tight circle for a moment to take in the significance of these three faiths in momentary peaceful coexistence. We then offered our own pilgrim’s prayer, thanking God for the ability to give of ourselves and appreciating the opportunity share the moment together.
Day Four began with a morning service at the Masorti Kotel. We were completely alone in the archaeological park. We celebrated several “firsts” as Miriam led Shacharit, Linda and robin read Torah, and Lesley received her first aliyah. Once again, the ability to pray together and stand side by side at the wall was not lost on any of us. We drew together in a circle of prayers for peace, comfort, healing and gratitude. The sentiments pulled us closer to one another, and the prayer became one.
The final stop before our closing lunch was Hand in Hand, a school in Jerusalem where 600 Israeli Arab and Jewish children learn together. As the children grow through their high school years, they engage one another openly in confronting the difficult challenges that their conflicting national narratives present. They come to recognize that hearing each other’s personal family narratives, and appreciating each other’s suffering, is the most important lesson if they are to be able to move forward constructively. They recognize that there are many extremists (and not-so-extremists) from their respective communities who don’t support their decision to coexist in this fashion. A year ago, the students saw their school set afire by Jewish arsonists. Graffiti on the walls of their school is not uncommon. Their response: We may disagree about the past, but we have a shared future whether we like it or not. The teens with whom we met were not idealists; they recognize the many challenges they face. But they are determined–even in a time of fear and anxiety–to continue living their shared lives. We thanked them for their courage and determination, and we prayed that their glimmer of hopefulness would carry them bravely into the future. Perhaps their voices will one day proclaim peace in the land.
A final lunch gave each of us the ability to reflect on what we had accomplished and on the gifts we received from one another and from being the community that we are. Due to the intentions we bring to this experience, our circle is one that is able to expand easily, and to welcome those who are similarly committed. We invite you to join us, next year in Israel.
As I finish writing this entry, I am watching news about 2 more attacks today, one in Tel Aviv this morning and one in Gush Etzion this evening. The second hits closer to home than any of the attacks thus far. It is suddenly harder to leave than it was before. I want to remain in a place of hope, and I want to do my part to bring hope to others. And I don’t want to have to wait until next year to do it.
Perhaps Mitzvah Dy this Sunday back at the OJC will restore a measure of the hope we have felt all week long.
Rabbi Craig Scheff