Parashat Terumah 2017 – Finding Joy In Difficult Times
Mi Shenichnas Adar, Marbim L’simcha. When you enter the Hebrew month of adar, our joy should increase. This past week we celebrated Rosh Chodesh and ushered in our most joyous of Hebrew months.
Why is this month joyous? Purim, of course! That moment of celebration where a diaspora Jewish community was able to overcome threats of anti-semitism from the country in which they lived and feel safe and at home. This story, one that we tell each year, is far from just a story for children.
It is in fact, a serious story that we think about, b’chol dor v’dor, in every generation
Now, mine is a generation, like Melissa’s parents, Amy and Steve, who were able to grow up and feel totally at home as Jews. Might we have heard about anti-semitisim in certain areas of the country, or the world, yes, but we never felt it close to home.
And yet, over the past 6 weeks, there is no question that the Jewish community has been on edge (though fortunately an arrest was made yesterday), and I find that the confluence of the coming of adar, shouldn’t be missed, because I hope that, despite the anxiety that many might be feeling feeling, we can anticipate joy-I will get back to that.
What have we seen in recent weeks:
Over the past six weeks there have been hundreds of bomb threats-both as robocalls and as real people-into Jewish day schools, JCCs, and more. Just this past week cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester were vandalized, and on Tuesday there were gun shots fired into a synagogue in the heart of Indiana.
My colleague and friend, Rabbi Josh Heller asks: What sense can we make of this challenging time? This week, we will read Parashat Trumah, which describes the design of the Tabernacle, and all its implements. They were made of gold and other precious materials. Each item had gold rings through which staves would be passed so it could be carried. In fact, we are told (Exodus 25:15) that the Ark of the Covenant, the gold-covered carrier of our most sacred items, could never have its poles removed. It had to be ready to be mobile at a moment’s notice. Even though it was in a privileged position, surrounded by opulent furnishings, it was never truly at rest.
Some commentators have suggested that the Ark’s lack of permanence is symbolic of the state of the Jewish people. Throughout our history, we have always been prepared to leave our physical structures at a moment’s notice. Even when surrounded by opulence and comfort, even in our own land of Israel, there are always times when we found that we were not as welcome as we thought.
America’s Jewish community occupies a paradoxical position. On the whole, we are among the most financially successful and socially accepted Jewish communities in history. We dwell in a very comfortable tabernacle. According to a recent survey (http://www.jta.org/…/pew-jews-are-best-liked-religious-grou…) we are currently the most liked religious group in America. And yet, we should not be surprised by this wave of hate. Given the fractured nature of American society, whatever some love, others will hate even more. We live in a time when distrust or dislike of minorities, often held in private, has become easier to express in the open.
Further, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, a former refusenik who was persecuted in his native Soviet Union, expressed his deep concern about the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents and threats in the United States.
“If ever there was a line between the anti-Semitism of the far right and the anti-Israelism of the radical left, the demonization of Jews and the demonization of their state, it no longer exists,” Sharansky said in a statement released Wednesday. “These two ugly phenomena feed on one another and both run counter to the foundations of democratic societies in Europe and America.
“It is high time that all who hold democratic values dear put their political differences aside and band together to combat these expressions of hatred and violence.”
Sharansky expressed confidence that U.S. authorities would work to find those responsible for the wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers and schools since the start of 2017 and two recent cemetery desecrations and bring them to justice, “and prevent such incidents from reoccurring.”
Now, let me state. I am actually not scared. I walk into this building, this sanctuary, every day feeling safe and secure. Why? Because we are in partnership w/our local police precinct, the counterterroristm unit, and we have an Israeli security firm. But more than that, I believe that the calls being made are there to threaten our joy just as much as threaten our security.
So the question is-how do we acknowledge and rail against the reality of what we are seeing as an uptick in anti-Semitism, and at the same time, find joyous moments in this month of adar?
Here is what I would suggest:
1) Let us examine how community partnerships are contributing to our joy
2) Let us celebrate deeps of bravery and kindess
3) Let us find moments of affirmation of Jewish identity
Let’s start with Community partnerships-As I mentioned there was a synagogue in Evansville Indiana that was shot at earlier this week. Fortunately no one was in the building. “The response from near and far has been astounding, said the rabbi. Local interfaith leaders called, offering to encircle the modern synagogue building in a show of love and protection. Several people have made unsolicited donations on the synagogue’s website, wanting to pay for the window’s repair. Local faith leaders and Evansville’s mayor will be at Friday night’s services, and they may speak.”
Further, in response to the desecrated cemeteries, The LaunchGood.com campaign, titled “Muslims Unite to Repair Jewish Cemetery,” has brought in $115,000 as of Thursdaymorning for repairs to the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri. On Monday, over 170 gravestones were found to have been toppled there by vandals.
Vice President Mike Pence and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who is Jewish, both stopped by the cemetery on Wednesday to help volunteers in the cleanup effort. In a speech, Pence condemned the recent bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country and “this vile act of vandalism and those who perpetrated it in the strongest possible terms.”
There have been scores of tweets from Muslim Americans in support of our Jewish communities, including:
I’m a Muslim in #Harrisburg. If your synagogue or community center needs someone 2 stand guard, I will stand guard 4 you. Islam requires it.
And yesterday, Rabbi Rob Scheinberg shared that At the Tenafly JCC, listening to Senator Menendez, Governor Christie, and others standing in solidarity with the Jewish community and speaking out against antisemitism and all bias crimes and incidents. Menendez:”Today we are all Jews.” Christie:”We are the most ethnically and religiously diverse state in the nation…. Diversity makes us so much better as people, and as parents…. This diversity is part of what makes this place so special.”
SO you see, this is the first reason to be joyous.
The second reason, is to act with bravery and kindness to others.
I would like to share this story by the daughter of a friend of mine, a jr in highschool in LA.
Noa Kilgfeld shared that
Last Monday, the Westboro Baptist Church decided to protest my school. When asked about why they had chosen Shalhevet, the leader of the group said that it was only because we were Jewish. They picketed outside the building, carrying signs reading things like “144K Jews will repent!” and “God hates Christ-rejecting, apostate Jews!’ while also singing their parody of Matisyahu’s “One Day” (some lyrics include “Despite all your scheming/Think you may evade your doom/It’s coming fast for a reason”). These people are filled with senseless hate, sinat hinam. It was truly terrifying and eye-opening for me. I had known, of course, that there are anti-Semitic people in the world, but for some reason I didn’t really understand it until they chose my school. Sometimes we don’t fully comprehend the awful things in the world until they personally affect us.
A bunch of my classmates wanted to be at school for the protest. There was talk of shutting down their arguments, of singing our own songs, of just plain punching them in the face. But Shalhevet decided to go a different direction. Instead of fighting back and stoking the fire, which would only lead to increased sinat hinam both on their part and on ours, we chose to do something “particularly Jewish,” as my principal put it. So while members of this fringe hate group were trying to anger and incite, we gathered as a community to pray, learn, and sing. Representatives from other local Jewish high schools, such as Milken, de Toledo, and YULA Girls joined us to show their support. In the face of sinat hinam, we spread our message of ahavat hinam, senseless love.
The day of the protest happened to fall on Rosh Chodesh Adar, the first day of the month of Purim. One of the main themes of Purim is “venahafoch hu,” meaning “and we will overturn it.” By facing this awful moment with t’fillah and tikkun olam, we were able to overturn it and change the narrative, literally acting out the verse from the Scroll of Esther that describes the Jews’ turning the 14th of Adar from a day of mourning to one of rejoicing. We used this day as a force for good in the world. The Los Angeles Jewish community can be divided at times, but we were all able to come together as one united Jewish people. Haman accuses the Jews of being “mefuzar u’meforad,” “scattered and dispersed,” and we flipped the narrative that day. We all have the power to flip that narrative every day. From fear to hope. From disjunction to unity. From threat to peace. From hate to love.
The third way to find joy is by affirming our Jewish identity and that is what is being done today by Melissa.
Melissa has worked very hard to be here but it is not hard work for her to be proudly Jewish. She is the product of two amazing peole, Amy and Steve, who are deeply connected to their Judaism, through their practices in their home and their community affiliations. I have been blessed to have not only Melissa as a student but Amy has taken a number of my adult education courses, and Steve is an active member of the SPS leadership. Through their commitment, Melissa, Eliza, and Drew are being raised to be proud Jews and strong community members-there is no greater way of affirming Jewish tradition than by celebrating a bat mitzvah today.
So we are one week into adar. Next week we will commemorate Shabbat zachor where we will acknowledge that there are still those in our midst that might try to destroy us. But then we will celebrate Purim. And we will realize that we can come to a sanctuary, this sanctuary, and find sanctuary. We can experience joy and create sanctuary as a way of standing up to the moments of darkness that we are experiencing when we read or listen to the news.
So in anticipation of this, I will conclude with the following-Purim is coming which means that we will be hidden in masks and then we will proudly reveal ourselves through our actions and our values.
What will be revealed this month about us?
What kind of neighbors will we be to the myriad of faith communities that will need our support just as we have needed theirs? What kinds of citizens of humanity will we be? How will we offer sanctuary to those who need it? What partnerships do we need to create so that we can feel the sense of permanence we all seek?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but we cannot remain alone. We must reach out to others, we must be brave, we must affirm our identity. For finding positive answers to these questions will ensure that despite the news, we can made Adar a truly joyous month.