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Vayetze Sermon - Kislev 2019

12/30/2019 10:13:58 AM


Rabbi David Barak-Gorodetsky


This last Yom Kippur, we held a full service at Midreshet Ben-Gurion, the central hub of my community, which is the larger Ramat Hanagev Regional Council. Our Hazan was orthodox, originally from the settlement of Tkoa, home to one of the most renowned peace activists in Israel, Rabbi Menachem Fruman, of blessed memory. Our Kol Nidrei was performed by a female singer from the Mitze Ramon music school, and we introduced early morning yoga as part of the service. Spontaneously, as Israelis often do, we decided to hold the last part of the service, the N’ilah prayer, in the outdoors. As we gathered at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Zin riverbed, not far from the grave of David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of the state of Israel, many local residents gathered around us, including some that would self-admittingly "never set foot in a synagogue". And as the sun was setting, we chanted the line פתח לנו שער, בעת נעילת שער, כי פנה היום (p’tach lanu sha-ar, b’eit n’ilat sha-ar, ki fanah hayom) – "Open for us the gates, in the hour of the closing of the gates, for the day is turning". Then, after the sun had set, we took out the Shofar and blew it into the star-spangled night sky, to signify the end of Yom Kippur and the last-minute attempt to have our prayers met. Many kids of all ages joined us in trying, and often succeeding, to blow the shofar. It was a joyous moment.

In our weekly Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob embarks on a journey from Beer-Sheba to Haran. The sun sets, and he stops for a night's sleep, setting his head on one of the stones of the place. In his dream, he sees a ladder set on the ground and its top reaching to the sky, and angels of God going up and down on it. He then sees the Lord by his side, saying to him: "Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants". When Jacob wakes from his sleep, he cries: “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” and then goes on to say: " How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

As prescribed by God to Jacob, we the Jewish people have indeed spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. The two main centers of Jewish life in the world today – Israel and North America – are currently charged with the promise that they be a blessing to themselves and to all families of the earth. So just how "awesome" are we? are we meeting the expectations set forward by Jacob's vision of God? 

I want to start by acknowledging the virtues of American Jewish life, sometimes taken for granted and often obscure to eyes of Israelis. American Judaism has succeeded in adapting Judaism to modernity, in that it meets the moral sensibilities of modern life. Egalitarianism and a wider sense of gender equality are at the core of its practice, turning around centuries of the oppression of women in traditional Jewish communities. It has evolved into a Jewish strand in which all are made welcome, and has developed a robust component of social action, Tikkun Olam, that makes sure we reach out to those in need outside the Jewish community and keep our eyes, minds and hearts on the bigger picture of society at large and the betterment of the world. 

I want now to address the "awesomeness" of Jewish life in Israel. First and foremost, there is a huge diversity of Jewish expressions, not always apparent when viewed from the outside. Israel is not a black-and-white caricature of Orthodox vs. Secular (or for that matter, Reform) but rather a complex tapestry of Jewish identities, that had evolved in the four corners of the earth, later to find a meeting place in Israel. This convergence has also brought into being many creative and hybrid Jewish projects and communities, across a spectrum of traditional and non-traditional expressions, that challenge the boundaries of denominational Jewish life typical of the US. In that historical sense, Israel is post-denominational in that it never was denominational. 

This has implications for the meaning of Reform identity and identification in Israel. I am a Reform Rabbi, but my congregants would not necessarily identify as reform, not because they refuse to, but rather because they don’t feel a need to. For Israelis, as in Jacob’s dream, Jewish identity is intrinsically tied into the locality of the land, the "stones of the place,'' so to speak. My region is the origin of old-school liberal Zionism, the home in the desert to which David Ben-Gurion moved in order to realize a self-sufficient Israeli society. Likewise, Israel was founded by people who willingly broke away from Jewish tradition and the world of their fathers, so that the dream of the state of Israel could be realized. It was often a painful spiritual experience. They held endless debates about whether their kids should have a Bar Mitzvah or not, and stood silently at the feet of freshly dug graves, refusing to say "Kaddish". 

Nowadays, when they are again seeking to renew their connection to the tradition of their forefathers and mothers, they want to do it on their own terms. They are often hesitant, and stand both physically and metaphorically at the outskirts of the community circle, debating whether to step in or not. Many would prefer joining a learning group than a prayer. And contrary to the Jewish American experience, I get to work with kids that needed to convince their parents they actually want to have a Bar Mitzvah, and not the other way around… but at the bottom of it all, there is a genuine yearning of Jewish souls for a connection with their Jewish heritage, and ultimately – with the divine.

But the word "awesome" in Hebrew – מה נורא המקום הזה – also has another meaning in modern Hebrew, and that is – "terrible". We are reminded not to become complacent in the splendor of our awesomeness, and acknowledge the deep concerns we have, some specific and some shared. In the US, concerns about Jewish continuity and rising Anti-Semitism cast a shadow on the success of the Jewish-American project, whereas in Israel, there are serious concerns regarding the misuse of religion to promote bigotry and xenophobia, and misguided political theologies that undermine the Jewish age-old commitment to the promotion of peace. We also both share current worries about the stability of our political systems, together with more global concerns, regarding climate change and the future of this planet, and what can be done on both the technological and spiritual level to address this issue. We are reminded that is our duty to make sure Jacob’s words do not turn sour, and that the "awesome" overcomes the "terrible".

So, how can we address the relationship beteen of our two communities? The vision of Jacob's ladder reminds us that the world is constantly in flux, moving between spiritual and material highs and lows, between the profane and the divine. The view from above is not the view from below, and vice versa. That is to say – both communities need to develop a better understanding of the other, and also cultivate humility regarding their perceived relative positions on the ladder of Jewish life and peoplehood. What does that mean?

Understanding one another better means that we need to surrender the idea that harmony can be achieved by pointing to similarities, rather than differences, between our communities. In my view, we can achieve a higher level of unity by acknowledging the differences between us.

The Kabbalistic and Hassidic idea of the “unity of opposites” is based on the theological concept of God’s unity and totality. The idea of God’s unity and all-inclusiveness requires a conception whereby the duality that assumedly exists in the world is only partial when related to the conception of divine unity. The human role in the world is therefore a constant process of creating unity between opposites and revealing their shared roots. From this perspective, the first act required of both sides embodies the value of modesty and humbleness before God. It is necessary to recognize that and that the existence of differences between us is the will of God, and “these and these are the words of the living God” (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 13b). 

We need to acknowledge that the roots of the differences between us lie in the two diverged roads of Jewish history upon which we both travel, a divergence which is the outcome of two different Jewish responses to modernity. American Jews cast their lot with the liberal project and its values, whereas Zionism relied on nationalism and sovereignty. We both have travelled quite a distance on each road – but the source of our journey is one, that is: the commitment to Jewish perseverance, and to living a Jewish life which is worthy in the eyes of God and man. That is our "unity of opposites", the shared root that transcends our current differences. It is out of the commitment and humility required to embark on this joint path of unity, that we can rise together to fill the promise of God to Jacob, and to realize the vision of a Jewish people abiding together in harmony, in service of the greater good, and all the families of the Earth.

Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784