Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Power of a Visit

When we call upon the stereotypes our people, one of the most frequent characters is the Jewish mother, who, even if she lived in Idaho her whole life, says in a New York accent: “you never call, you never visit! I’m your mother!”

Now, there is something important embedded in this exaggerated, but often true, caricature. The questions come up: what does it mean to have an older folk who requests our presence, who perhaps makes us feel guilty but needed? What is so special about a visit with them?

We can’t underestimate the power of our presence. A professor at HUC, Rabbi Maggie Wenig, wrote an amazing sermon about this many years ago. I want to share pieces of it with you now. It’s called "God is a Woman and She is Growing Older.”

God is a woman and she is growing older. She moves more slowly now. She cannot stand erect. Her face is lined. Her voice is scratchy. Sometimes she has to strain to hear. God is a woman and she is growing older; yet, she remembers everything.

On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the day on which she gave us birth, God sits down at her kitchen table, opens the Book of Memories, and begins turning the pages; and God remembers.

"There, there is the world when it was new and my children when they were young." As she turns each page she smiles, seeing before her, like so many dolls in a department store window, all the beautiful colors of our skin, all the varied shapes and sizes of our bodies. She marvels at our accomplishments: the music we have written, the gardens we have planted, the stories we have told, the ideas we have spun.

"They now can fly faster than the winds I send," she says to herself, "and they sail across the waters which I gathered into seas. They even visit the moon which I set in the sky. But they rarely visit me." There pasted into the pages of her book are all the cards we have ever sent to her when we did not bother to visit. She notices our signatures scrawled beneath the printed words someone else has composed.

Then there are the pages she would rather skip. Things she wishes she could forget. But they stare her in the face and she cannot help but remember: her children spoiling the home she created for us, brothers putting each other in chains. She remembers seeing us racing down dangerous roads—herself unable to stop us. She remembers the dreams she had for us—dreams we never fulfilled. And she remembers the names, so many names, inscribed in the book, names of all the children she has lost through war and famine, earthquake and accident, disease and suicide. And God remembers the many times she sat by a bedside weeping that she could not halt the process she herself set into motion…

…God is lonely, longing for her children, her playful ones. Her body aches for us. All that dwells on earth does perish. But God endures, so she suffers the sadness of loosing all that she holds dear.

God is home, turning the pages of her book. "Come home," she wants to say to us, "Come home." But she won't call. For she is afraid that we will say, "No." She can anticipate the conversation: "We are so busy. We'd love to see you but we just can't come. Too much to do."…

…[But] what if we did? What if we did go home and visit God? What might it be like?

God would usher us into her kitchen, seat us at her table and pour two cups of tea. She has been alone so long that there is much she wants to say. But we barely allow her to get a word in edgewise, for we are afraid of what she might say and we are afraid of silence. So we fill an hour with our chatter, words, words, so many words. Until, finally, she touches her finger to her lips and says, "Shh. Sha. Be still."

Then she pushes back her chair and says, "Let me have a good look at you." And she looks. And in a single glance, God sees us as both newly born and dying: coughing and crying, turning our head to root for her breast, fearful of the unknown realm which lies ahead.

In a single glance she sees our birth and our death and all the years in between. She sees us as we were when we were young: when we idolized her and trustingly followed her anywhere; when our scrapes and bruises healed quickly, when we were filled with wonder at all things new. She sees us when we were young, when we thought that there was nothing we could not do… It was from her we learned how to comfort a crying child, how to hold someone in pain…

…It has been a good visit. Before we leave, it is our turn to take a good look at Her. The face which time has marked looks not frail to us now—but wise. For we understand that God knows those things only the passage of time can teach: that one can survive the loss of a love; that one can feel secure even in the midst of an ever changing world; that there is dignity in being alive even when every bone aches…

…God would prefer that we come home. She is waiting for us, ever patiently until we are ready. God will not sleep. She will leave the door open and the candles burning waiting patiently for us to come home.

**

There is more to this beautiful sermon - and you can read the rest here. The take away for us tonight, I think, is what it means to be one of God’s children and what it means to have a visit with our Creator. Like a relationship with a parent, depending on where we are in our lives, we may feel connected or we may feel distanced. We blame our Creator for our neuroses and our habits. We honor the shared values and moments of intimate laughter together.

To be God’s child is to be a human being, formed from the simplest cells – or the dust of the earth – and shaped into a work in progress. As we develop, mature, and assert our independence, it is important to still visit with our Creator. In those visits, we remember how to be better to one another and better to ourselves. Those visits with someone who has known you your whole existence provide important context that can impact our futures.

In those moments at God’s table, we may understand why the angels in the Torah are always appearing out of nowhere and visiting our ancestors and prophets. If we would just learn to show up like they do – to be present and to listen – if we would just make it our business to visit with one another and with the Divine – we’ll find the strength, comfort and love that innately we all crave. Then we may learn how not only to be God’s children, but to be God’s messengers; to take the lessons God taught us and enact them out in the world.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Shabbat Shekalim: What Should We Give?

There’s a really interesting story that appears in this week’s special haftarah portion. Little Yehoash becomes king at the tender age of seven. Years go by and Yehoash notices that people are making donations to the ancient temple. They bring their money and deliver it to the priests for temple purposes. What to put the money towards? Yehoash decides to earmark the money for repairs to the temple’s walls.

Well, years go by and Yehoash discovers that the priests hadn’t repaired the temple walls. Concerned, Yehoash takes the task of collecting the money and the task of repairing the temple walls from the priests. He orders the priests take a chest, bore a hole in the top and set it beside the altar. When it’s full, their new job is to count the money and put it directly in the hands of the carpenters who fix the walls. We’re told explicitly that the money did not go towards other ritual objects like gold and silver bowls, but only to the walls of the temple.

Who knew that our temple budget with all its funds and stipulations has its origin in the Second book of Kings?

Not only that, but we’ve got an ancient tzedakah box here. It’s not in the shape of a synagogue in Florence Italy (the tzedekah box we give our b'nei mitzvah), but its a tzedakah box nonetheless. Incredible.

It is Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat that investigates proper giving. Shabbat Shekalim is all about communal funds; but not just establishing such funds, it is about the proper appropriation of these funds.

We read this haftarah just before Rosh Hodesh Adar. That is, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, the month in which the holiday of Purim occurs. Membership dues to the Jerusalem temple (to use an anachronistic term) were due on the first of Adar. The rabbis happily investigate why this was dues day. Not surprisingly, they tie it to Purim.

According to the rabbis, the text of the Megillah seems to indicate that Haman was in charge of the royal treasury and was going to use the funds to help him destroy the Jews. In Talmud (Megillah 13b), Reish Lakish says: “God knew that Haman was destined to weigh out shekalim for the purpose of destroying the Jews. Therefore, God caused the Jews to weigh out their shekalim before Haman’s shekalim. That is why the payment of the shekalim to the Temple is on the first of Adar.”

This is all to mean that the Jews’ righteous use of communal funds preceded Haman’s evil use of similar communal funds.

In linking the temple dues and the story of Purim, we get a clear sense of right and wrong; a clear sense that money can be both a blessing and a curse. We don’t read the stories in II Kings or Purim because it is history. We read these stories because they are moral memories. This Shabbat we learn that just giving is good, but giving appropriately is even better.

The question is not how much you’re giving, but are you giving to the right places? Unfortunately, good-intentioned organizations fail to deliver on their promises. Our tzedakah dollars get caught up in bureaucracy and personal gain and are never delivered to the intended needy. Think of organizations like Wyclef Jean’s relief group that supposedly squandered millions of supposed aid to Haiti after the earthquake. The accusation is that only about a third of the donations went to direct aid.[1]

Whether this is true or not, this brings up an important question of where the money goes and to what.

In his book, Human Rights and Development, human rights expert and Tufts University professor Peter Uvin writes: “It is worth nothing to have laws and policies—even if these laws and policies conform to human rights standards—if they are not implemented, if certain groups are excluded from them, if the relevant facts are not known to most people, if channels of redress do not function, if laws are systematically circumvented, or if money, guns, and political influence always tend to get the better of them.”

We can extend this to funds. They mean nothing if they aren’t channeled correctly. So then what becomes our guidelines for giving to charitable organizations.

Uvin gets us started. Transparency, accountability, evaluation and willingness to change are important values in an organization you give to. Communication is also essential. Are the voices of those receiving the funds being heard? Are the individuals you are helping an essential part of the giving structure?

We have to ask why King Yehoash didn’t discover the funds had been misused until well into his kingship. Well, it became pretty clear when the walls started crumbling down. But by the time the walls were crumbling, years of misappropriation had gone by. Good, foundational work that could have been done was lost.

I don’t think the Biblical text indicates that the ancient priests were embezzling the temple funds. It seems to indicate that they were indeed using it for temple purposes, they were just out buying other things for the temple – shiny, expensive objects that probably looked nice, but were not as essential as holding the walls up.

As we give of our own funds to this temple, communal organizations or non-profit groups, let us take a moment to consider the essential needs our money can meet.

Also, think about how many steps lie between the cause and you. The more direct the service, the better.

On this Shabbat, I think particularly of the Food Bank for Westchester. Every February, the sitting rabbi at WCT puts out a hunger appeal. In it, we ask you to make a donation to the Hunger Fund here at the temple. At the end of the month we’ll take all the monies and put it directly in the hands of the Food Bank for Westchester who will then purchase and distribute food to 200,000 hungry people through Westchester. This is a communal fund you can feel good about. It’s local, it’s direct and it’s essential.

In a few weeks time, we’ll celebrate the holiday of Purim. Purim is a raucous holiday of drunken merriment, but it is also at Purim that we are commanded to send gifts to the needy. The most bizarre thing about Purim is that God’s name is not mentioned at all, not even once, in the Megillah. Rabbi Sharon Brous puts it all together this way: “We make up for God’s absence in the Purim narrative by redoubling our capacity for God-like living in our own. We respond to the threat of emptiness by pouring more kindness and sweetness into the world.”

You can do this by contributing to this year’s Hunger Appeal and you can do this by giving thoughtfully throughout the year. May our contributions be received with the love with which we send them.

Ken yhi ratzon.

You can make a donation to the Hunger Appeal here




[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/28/wyclef-charity-squandered-money_n_1116197.html

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Around the Tu b'Shevat Seder Table

I saw a headline about Tu b’Shevat that read: Tu b’Shevat is not just for hippies anymore.

That was never the association I had with the holiday, but come to think of it, I see the hippie-appeal. Love the earth, celebrate the trees…Tu b’Shevat really does speak to the neighborhood tree-hugger.


But what is the New of the Trees to your average Jew? It used to have everything to do with the land of Israel and tithing. The fruit that blossomed after the 15th of Shevat was considered next year’s fruit and was tithed as such. Think of it as dividing the ancient trees’ fiscal years.


Fast forward to the 16th century. The kabbalists of Safed, the mystical mountaintop town of in northern Israel, expan
ded the customs of the holiday. It is not a surprise, really. Since the holiday is so bound to the land and fruits of Israel, it had little meaning to the Jews living outside of the land. But sitting in their blue-domed houses in the highest city in the land of Israel, the kabbalists lived, breathed and ate of Eretz Israel. They expanded the symbols and gave the holiday a new meaning.

And there began the Tu b’Shevat seder. The custom has been growing in popularity over the years. Our second graders and their families partook in one last Saturday. But many of us here did not, nor have some of us ever been to a Tu b’Shevat seder. So let’s go on a mystical journey this evening. Wander with me through the four sections of the Tu b’Shevat seder. The seder finds it’s order by exploring the four mystical worlds we live in simultaneously.


The first world is assiyah; the world of action, the physical world around us. Here in our seder we eat nuts and fruits with a tough skin to remind us of the protection the earth gives. Represented by the element earth, this is the world where creation never stopped, where things are born and die, where we build and tear down.

Yet, while we live in this world of action, we do not experience it unmoved. When we pause for silent prayer, we beckon to the second world we live in, the world of yetzirah. This is the world of feeling and emotions. We eat fruits with a tough inner core, a nod to the heart. Yetzirah’s symbol is water, which gives shape to all matter. Our emotions pour forth and shape all of our experiences. Wha
t we feel is truth.

But do we feel with no purpose? No. From our feelings of hurt, joy or awe we enter the third world of b'riyah, the airy world of creative thought – the world of knowing. This is the world where our most passionate thoughts become action – where we partner with God. Because we partner with God, we eat fruits that are completely edible. Boundaries are blurred.


The fourth world, the one we seldom feel is the world of atzilut, of pure emanation and spirituality – the world of the element fire. This is the world we reach for on Yom Kippur – when we let go of all earthly desires and bounds. No foods are consumed in this world or in this part of our seder.


On our journey through the four worlds, we move upward and onward from the physical to the emotional to the in
tellectual then to the spiritual.

A beautiful portrait of spiritual attainment. Thank you, sages of Safed.


But let’s put a wrinkle in this thinking. Hazon operates a blog called “The Jew and Carrot.” One piece just appeared by Rabbi Noah Farkas that challenged this idea of the four worlds and the hierarchical movement towards the great, ethereal, spiritual world. He writes:


“The problem with the totemic thinking of Tu B’Shvat is that it ignores the underlying structure of the human-eco balance on which this day relies. [The kabb
alists’] seder is a ritual journey that elevates the soul up and away from the physical to the metaphysical, from the body to the spirit, from this world to the world beyond. Notice, the subtext: the world we live in is nothing but a beginning—a way station to the real world of God’s essence felt in the undiminished mystical union. Understood this way, the purpose of the seder is to elevate ourselves away from the physical, turning our backs on this world, and on our responsibility for it, for a chance at a mystical union with God."

The problem Farkas highlights is that Tu b’Shevat is really about the earth, not necessarily the spiritual realm. Like the tree roots itself in the ground, Tu b’Shevat is our opportunity to take a concrete look at how we relate to the earth. We need not be na├»ve tree huggers, nor should we be disconnected mystics. What is the middle ground…literally?


I believe we can find it in this week’s Torah portion – Mishpatim. At the end of the portion, Moses and the elders of Israel walk part of the way up Sinai to see God. In a very anthropomorphic depiction of the Holy One and in a detailed account of how Sinai looked, we get this strange description: “They saw the God of Israel, and under God’s feet it was like pavement of sapphire, clear and like the h
eavens in it’s appearance.”

What’s this business with a pavement of sapphire?


Well, sapphires are a bright blue, not too unlike the sky. The fact that God stands upon bright blue geological gems that look just like the sky, the fact that here on Sinai, heaven and earth cannot be distinguished from
one another, is the middle ground we seek. God is in the space where heaven and earth meet. The point of revelation is where the two come together. Creation, emotion, knowing and spirituality all occur in that nexus, all at once.

To this, Farkus writes that instead of pursuing an other-worldly experience:


“Let the ritual [of the Tu b’Shevat seder] bring you into this world and inspire you to rise from the seder table to work with the widows, orphans, and strangers to build a better world. As Jews, our songs and praises find their meaning when we act on their messages to address the broader challenges facing our community. This year, we should mark this day with its original intention. More than planting trees or attending a seder, we must commit ourselves to a day of service and advocacy for the food policies that affect everyone especially the most vulnerable. And if we do, the Torah teaches that God will bless us, instead of the other way around.”


At Woodlands we sought this social action aspect of the day. Through your efforts, we collected five cars worth of food and delivered it Tu b’Shevat evening to ARCS
- AIDS Related Community Services. Standing in the dark parking lot, schlepping the food from the cars to the loading dock, perhaps we were standing on sapphires. Now, I don’t think last Tuesday was as significant as Sinai, but maybe, just maybe, we can see a sapphire or two twinkling in those moments where our actions meet God’s expectations.

And this brings us back to tithing. While we no longer give some of our fruit to the priests, we most certainly can give of ourselves to our earth, our community and our God. We can do this not only this Tu b’Shevat, but in the “fiscal year” of the trees that follows. May we be ever mindful of the opportunities to stand on sapphires and reflect the heavens in all that we do.

Kein yhi ratzon.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Shabbat Shirah

For Shabbat Shirah this week, we welcomed Taro Alexander, the founder and director of Our Time to our bimah. The theme of the evening was the redemptive power of song and the freedom to express oneself (inspired by the Song of the Sea).

Below are iyyunim I shared with the congregation:


Miriam's Song (before Mee Khamokha)

Considerable historical and literary evidence indicates that while the Song of the Sea is attributed to “Moses and the people of Israel,” it is very plausible that the song should really be attributed to Miriam. In fact, there are ancient manuscripts that call it the Song of Miriam. The most convincing theory is that songs of military triumph and victory (which the Song of the Sea is) were typically composed and performed by women. Sure enough, immediately after the Song of the Sea, we are told that Miriam picked up a drum and the women sang with her. What did they sing? Incidentally, the first two lines of Shirat Hayam. Plus, this is the part of the Torah where Miriam is first called a prophet. What more evidence of her prophetic voice could we receive than this beautiful piece of poetry?

Amongst us it is not that important for me to highlight Miriam’s role in this holy moment of song. All of us at Woodlands sing loudly and proudly.


But on this
Shabbat, there are female voices being silenced around the globe. I think particularly of Susan G. Komen’s recent strike against Planned Parenthood by withdrawing funding for the 750,000 clinical breast exams the organization does yearly. Well, today, after a barrage of letters, emails, petitions, tweets, and prominent figures speaking out, Komen reversed its decision. By raising our voices, by singing out in the name of women’s rights, a change was made.

The Mee Khamokha, a prayer gleaned from the heart of the Song of the Sea, is a song of Miriam. It is the song of women’s voices worldwide that will not be silenced. In solidarity, we sing it together.


Mr. Ro
dgers (before the Amidah)
I didn’t know until very recently that Mr. Rodgers was more than a TV personality. Turns out that Fred Rodgers – of Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood that is – was a Presbyterian minister and a vegetarian. Who knew?

But then again it seems to explain a lot. Wisdom floated out of him effortlessly. Here’s one example:


“Music is the one art we all have inside. We may not be able to play an instrument, but we can sing along or clap or tap our feet. Have you ever seen a baby bouncing up and down in the crib in time to some music? When you think of it, some of that baby’s first messages from his or her parents may have been lullabies, or at least the music of the speaking voices. All of us had the experience of hearing a tune from childhood and having that melody evoke a memory or a feeling. The music we hear early on tends to say with us all our lives.”

I believe this is the case for synagogue music as well. When we rise for the Amidah, we naturally ease into its familiar chant. Quite the opposite of being rote, chanting with such familiarity roots us in a deep tradition; it plants us in the lullaby of our ancestors. Even if we don’t sing the words, the natural rhythm of the entire congregation chanting may be the thing that moves you.


Miriam (before Silent Prayer)

Midnight gripped the air

As I ran with bundled bread on my back

Sand stung my legs as I hurried toward the water.

Not a word amongst us, just panic in our eyes

as we heard the 600 hundred chariots

whips slapping the hides

like they used to slap on our backs.


All I could offer was a panting breath

A heave of my chest.

When we stood at the sea, still we said nothing

Hands on knees, mouths open, gasping for air –

Gasping for words

But the salt of the waters sucked dry our mouths.

As I looked into the black mirror before me
My lips were silenced but my heart sang.

My faith unwavered, my determination pounding like the blood in my veins

Knowing, knowing it would happen.


And in that moment my heart swelled with words and melodies

Prayers of knowing and blessings of love

With each heavy breath the sea bubbled

It frothed and heaved and it lifted.

As the walls rose higher, my heart grew larger

I was drowning in the miracle.


Dawn warmed the waters from blue to golden orange

The mist on my cheek began to roll off with the heat.

As a new shore firmed under my feet

I ran into the sand and collapsed.

My heart pumped to capacity, it burst within me.

And I sang.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Israel: In Our Hearts and On Our Minds" Weekend

written and delivered by Lisa Kingston, rabbinical student at HUC-JIR and Woodlands alumna.

I want to start off by thanking you for inviting me to your bimah. It feels like I’m right at home, on the same bimah where I became Bat Mitzvah and was confirmed. But I’ve spent some time away…in that far off land of Manhattan, (with some time in Israel too) at Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. So tonight, I also feel like a guest.
And it as a guest, that I am going to offer you a derasha about a field that I have spent some time at school studying: Israel education. I emphasize that this is only a derasha, an interpretation of a topic that tends to cause disagreements among Jews everywhere. Instead of being a unifying force for Jews around the world, Israel arouses controversy and sometimes, even confrontation among Jews. Although Jews have worked and dreamt about a land of our own, the reality of the State of Israel has proven to be a challenge and not only for us. My role tonight is not to cause offense, nor to affirm what you already know. Hopefully it is to think about how we teach and talk about this challenging part of Jewish life that we call our homeland of Israel.[1]

In parashat Bo, our Torah portion of this week, the Israelites have not yet encountered anything even close to the land of Israel. They are still enslaved in Egypt, crying out to God for freedom. It’s in this parasha, that God brings on the final plague to the Egyptians, when, at the stroke of midnight, God strikes down the firstborn in every Egyptian household. At last, as all of Egypt wails in the darkness, Pharaoh “summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up! Depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!’” (Exodus 12:31). Finally, our cries have been heard. Finally we get to leave Egypt! But…Pharoah’s outcry is troublesome. Did we leave Egypt on behalf of our determination for freedom, while our God showed Pharoah his might and power with plagues? Or did we leave Egypt as cowards, narrowly escaping slavery at the last minute when Pharoah finally said Enough of God’s morally questionable antics? How we choose to read the central story of our redemption is important to how we understand Jewish identity. Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform asks, “Are we Jews essentially pioneers, working for freedom, and establishing our home in all the new lands which fate and faith have brought us? Or are we essentially victims, perpetually fleeing the next Pharoah, Hitler, or terrorist organization who would seek our destruction?”[2]

You may think that we Jews have gone beyond defining ourselves through only these two modes, but I want to argue that when we talk about Modern Israel we still rely heavily on these two Master narratives- of the Pioneer and the Victim. To be Jewish today requires a consciousness of the question, “Where and why do I belong? Israel education can help us look into the very core of Jewish belonging…but only if that engagement with Israel speaks to a contemporary Jewish identity.[3] These old narratives actually limit the ways we connect to Israel and prevent us from building a nuanced relationship with our Jewish homeland. We have used the Pioneer or Miracle Narratives to teach about the founding of our state. We have seen pictures of the blooming desert. We’ve danced and sung the songs of the kibbutznikim celebrating after a hard day’s work. We have sustained ourselves on a diet of milk and honey. The fledging State of Israel needed our love and our unconditional support, but this saccharine approach cannot help us deal with Israel’s current complexities. What happens when we are confronted with challenges facing Israel that don’t fit within that miraculous story?! The other narrative that we still use when referring to Israel is that of the Victim. It’s easy to draw a direct line between our lachrymose history of Anti-Semitism and the refuge of our modern state. We think about the numerous enemies that have sought to destroy the state and the ones that still harbor this hope. Israel to us is like story of David and Goliath- an underdog who prevails against larger enemies. Arnie Eisen and Michael Rosenak describe a number of factors for why the Victim Narrative is unfavorable. A new generation that has never experienced persecution and is distanced from the Shoah has arisen in both Israel and North America. Our generation has not personally experienced the State’s establishment and we have not known an Israel confined to pre-67 borders. We ask questions about our Jewish identity and see it as both connected to and disconnected from Israel and the notion of Jewish peoplehood. Israel is simply a fact of our lives- and one that seems complicated, western, high tech and affluent.[4] The narrative of Jewish victimhood that felt natural to many Jews of the past strikes most of today’s young American Jews as disingenuous or, as Peter Beinart has called it, a farce.”[5] But while it is generally agreed that these traditional Zionist narratives are not connecting young people to modern day Israel, there is also fear that teaching complexity might not lead to identification with Israel. Lisa Grant and Ezra Kopelwitz address this idea in their upcoming book, saying that “making learning open-ended without asking for or providing clear answers to every question, allows learners to grapple with difficult issues, appreciate diversity and complexity of different points of view, and reflect critically on what Israel means to them in their own lives.” Struggling with Israel is not a middle of the road compromise- it is a “spark-flying technicolor ongoing interchange of ideas and passion.”[6] The more we approach Israel from varied angles, the more responsibility we will take for our relationship with Israel. When our relationship with Israel becomes one that we own and whose volatility no longer frightens us, then our relationship will move from an awkward inheritance to a living choice.”[7]

Think about someone you love. You love the way she can say just the right thing to make you feel better. Or you love the way he can tell a joke that only you find funny. But even the best relationships have challenges. That woman you love isn’t always on time. And that guy you love leaves dishes in the sink and the seat up in the bathroom. Israel is that relationship. I may hate the narrative of Beit Shemesh- about Haradeim who would spit on an 8 year old girl because of the way she was dressed. But Israel is still something I love. I love it because I’m a Jew and I know it’s just as an important part of my tradition as God, Torah, and Tikkun Olam. I have to feel comfortable loving a tainted Israel.

But this doesn’t mean we have to settle. It is our own stories and experiences in the land of the Israel that we must share. These are the stories that will build upon our grand narrative; these stories include all people, and allow us to hear all voices.

What are the Israel narratives that we want to share?
Maybe it’s the story of a new Russian immigrant, struggling to learn Hebrew in Ulpan.


Maybe it is the story of a gay man in Tel Aviv, marching for pride among his community.


Maybe it is a story of a Palestinian living in the West Bank, hoping for independence.

Maybe it’s the Israeli scientist, working towards a cure for a terminal disease.

Or maybe it’s Us- Reform Jews, praying with friends and leaders at the Kotel in peace.

Israel is all of our stories and it is all of ours to share. It is all the symbols, beliefs, expressions, and actions out of which Jewish belonging is knit.
These are the narrative strands that weave together the nation we call Israel and give us hope for its future.

As we read the beginning of the Exodus story in the Torah, we are reminded that all Jews that share an ethnic, religious, and cultural heritage with one another and the modern State of Israel is the crossroads of our connection. No matter where we are, we are connected through our common history and shared narratives.
This evening I pray that each of us can find within ourselves our personal Israel narrative. I hope we can search to find the stories we want to share, to set aside the narratives of old in exchange for the stories of the new. When we discover the story meaningful to each of us, we affirm Israel’s role in Jewish life and help foster a sophisticated love, ahavat tzion, for the next generation.


[1] The idea of framing the conversation around a derasha is from Jan Katzew and used in his sermon “From Arab Spring to Arab Fall” Yom Kippur, 2011.

[2] Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake, “The Fugitive Aramean and You” Ki Tavo, September 20, 2008/ 20 Elul 5768. Torah Commentary Archives www.urj.org

[3] Lisa Grant and Ezra Kopelowitz: Israel Matters: A 21st Centurary Paradigm for Jewish Education (Book Proposal)

[4] Arnold Eisen and Michael Rosenak “Teaching Israel: Basic Issues and Philosophical Guidelines”

[5] Beinart, Peter, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”, NY Review of Books, June 10, 2010 (from RH 5771)

[7] Robbie Gringras, Makom