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Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Poem I Wrote While In Israel 2010/5770

I wrote this poem while in Tzfat, one of Israel's four cities that are holy to Judaism. The mikveh -ritual bath- of Rabbi Isaac Luria is a pool inside a cave at the lower end of the old city of Tzfat, that I presume is fed by en underground spring. I go there to immerse myself every time I am in the city.

Isaac Luria (Egypt and Israel, 16th century) was one of the most important figures in the history of Jewish mysticism, whose greatest contribution to religion is a creation myth that explains the existence of evil and imperfection in a radical way.

Put in very simple terms, Rabbi Luria’s teaching seeks to understand the hidden reality behind the story of creation that is found in the book of Genesis and cherished by Western religions. In his view, God, who is endless in time and space, (Ein Sof--"without end") “pulled back” to open a “space without God” in which some “thing” other than God could be created. God then sent God’s light (or creative energy) into that space by placing that light into vessels --kayleem-- in Hebrew- which could contain and organize it. The original divine plan of creation was for the light in those vessels to bring about a perfectly created world modeled upon God, who is infinite and perfect. But a terrible thing happened. Because God’s light is so powerful and overwhelming, the vessels were unable to hold it and they shattered. After this cosmic accident, God reorganized the creative process and brought the universe into existence. However, the universe as God finally ordered it was a mixture of sparks of creative light and shards of the broken vessels blocking and trapping those sparks: a tangle of light and dark, life and death, ugliness and beauty, good and evil. This is the world that we have inherited in nature as well as human affairs: broken and beautiful. Luria believed that human beings have the power to release those original sparks that are still trapped, to repair those original vessels for God’s light, and to return the sparks to their source in God. For instance, when a Jewish person performs one of the mitzvot –the ritual and ethical commandments of Judaism- that action releases some of those sparks and brings us closer to perfection and redemption from evil. Thus, human beings are important actors in the great cosmic struggle for healing and wholeness that began before there was reality as we know it and that will only end when we and God heal and perfect that reality.

My poem draws upon Luria's ideas as well as the simple beauty and mystery of the mikveh where he would purify himself.

IN TZFAT (At The Mikveh Of Isaac Luria)

The bulb, dim and naked,
-A weak, dying emanation of Ein Sof-
Hung over the frigid, murky water
Of the damp stone pool.

Standing naked and cold,
I briefly considered my options:

Let the light fan its pallid rays
Over the still,
Perfectly dull liquid surface?

Or create a wet commotion with my body
That dispersed the light and the dark water
In endless jagged directions
Until they came to rest, trapped,
In the enveloping blackness
Of the shell-like cave?

I was freezing;
I had places to go.
I reasoned: anything is better
Than stagnating in static serenity.

Banking on a moment of purity
Before the long trek back
To inevitable dirt,

I plunged in.

© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Purim In Jerusalem


The end of our congregational mission to Israel was close at hand. After our tour bus came to a halt in the midst of the post-Shabbat pandemonium at Ben Gurion Airport, I bid farewell to all of our participants as they rushed to grab their bags and begin the long trek back to America. We had all ridden the euphoric wave of an intense Israel mission that deepened us as people, Jews and Zionists, and now it was time to return to the realities of life at home. However, for the first time since I began taking congregants to Israel in 1999, I was not going back with the group. Because my son, Joe, is participating in Nativ, USY’s Israel gap year program, I was staying in Israel for an extra week of study and travel that would include spending time with the Nativ community.

Nothing compares to reconnecting with your college age child after he or she has been away for a while. From the first to the last embrace during our visits, I marveled at how much Joe had matured even more into a young man with thoughtful opinions and a life that began with our family, but was now truly his. A number of times during the year, he had thanked my wife and me for giving him the opportunity to be part of Nativ, and live in Israel at the tender age of eighteen. During the last Shabbat of our synagogue trip, he joined us in Tel Aviv, and spent the weekend telling me wonderful stories about his travels, studies, and friends. I looked forward to meeting them all and watching Nativ in action. First, I would spend a long awaited week alone, walking the streets of Jerusalem, searching for new wisdom and new words to write.

Jerusalem is home to myriad hotels and hostels for the pilgrims and tourists who come from all over the world to be part of its mystique. As a Conservative Jewish traveler, I found a simple, but excellent home and spiritual respite at our movement’s Fuchsberg Center in the heart of the city. The center houses a well maintained hostel along with the Conservative movement’s main Israel offices, Kehillat Moreshet Yisrael –a thriving Masorti (Conservative) shul-, ongoing educational programs, and our movement’s Conservative Yeshiva. The Yeshiva attracts Conservative (and a number of formerly Orthodox) Jews from all over the world to Jerusalem, where they can have a fully observant, egalitarian Jewish life and learn Torah. I regret not having enough time to really get to know the students of the Yeshiva and to learn with them. My time in Jerusalem was far too short and filled with too many commitments. Still, the spiritual energy and genuine warmth of the Yeshiva community was immediately apparent to me, as was their level of seriousness about learning Torah and applying it to their lives. Praying each day from the balcony of my room at the Center, I would look out over Jerusalem, and be able to glimpse the very top of the beautiful golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. While the Dome, the Al Aksa mosque, and the entire Temple Mount have become holy to the worldwide Muslim community, we Jews continue to venerate this site and its powerful symbolism. It is part of what the prophet Isaiah was referring to when he declared: “For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Cradled in the arms of our holiest city, and knowing that just a couple of hundred feet below me our Torah students were making God’s word come to life, I was pleased that our Conservative movement in Israel was making its small but precious contribution to fulfilling Isaiah’s words.

Having the time to be alone is a blessing, but being alone can also be disconcerting. While I was with our synagogue mission, I was so focused on our group that I had little time to miss everyone back in Albany, New York too much. The people with me were my congregational family on-the-go. Yet, as I walked (actually, hiked with a heavy backpack) the streets and neighborhoods of Jerusalem during my extra week’s stay, no matter how busy I was, I felt alone, even lonely, at times. Though every Jew belongs to the Jewish people and is always walking with God, my closest friends, family, and congregation were in America, not at the corner of King George and Agron Streets. I felt this most explicitly that week, because it was the week before Purim. Purim is an all encompassing communal holiday: it celebrates our people’s redemption from evil. This celebration is given concrete expression through four mitzvot that are all about community, friendship, and common fate. We read Megillah in public, we give gifts to our friends, we help the poor, and we eat a huge meal together with the people we love. All around me, the friends and families of different communities –even the most secular Jews- were joyously preparing for the holiday. I felt a part of it all…and apart from it all. As busy as I would be back home preparing for Purim at shul as one of its rabbis, at least I would be an integral part of a community I knew. Not so in Jerusalem. I worried a bit. Even though Purim in Israel is far more rich and intense than anywhere else in the Jewish world (a strange paradox, given that Purim is the ultimate diaspora holiday!) would the Purim I was about to spend with Nativ wind up being an uncomfortable encounter with strangers absorbed in their own tight, somewhat insular community of late adolescents, my son among them?

My concerns were put to rest from the very beginning of my stay. My son had grown so much in the five months since I had seen him, not only because he was ripe for growth (and because, I am proud to say, my wife and I raised him to be a mensch). He had grown because Nativ strongly emphasizes the best Jewish values of kehillah (community), hesed (kindness), and ahavat Yisrael/Habriot (loving one’s fellow Jew and one’s fellow human being). From the moment our spirited and very musical Kabbalat Shabbat began, until the last hug and warm goodbye that I gave to Joe and his friends on that Sunday, Purim afternoon, the Nativ community embraced each other, and found room for this middle aged rabbi in that embrace. Praying, learning, singing and joking around with this very special group of young, committed Conservative Jews, I got a very potent taste of what Jewish community is and what Conservative Jewish community can be at all times. I feel truly blessed to have been with them and their madrichim (group leaders) during the celebration of the holiday.

Conservative Jewish community as it can be is a great concern for at least some of the “Nativers” with whom I spoke. Like their older counterparts in the Conservative Yeshiva, these young people like being Conservative Jews. They respect and appreciate the appeal of Orthodoxy for religiously serious Jews, but it is not for them. However, at least a couple of the Nativ participants mused sadly about needing to find religious community outside of the Conservative framework if they returned to the United States and were given no support for spiritually progressive and halakhically serious Jewish life in our synagogues. Our movement is painfully aware of this phenomenon. We debate almost incessantly (and we even joke about) the ongoing exodus of young, committed Conservative Jews to Orthodox synagogues. These are the young people who learned to take traditional Judaism seriously when they were in USY and the Schechter schools, at Camp Ramah, on Pilgrimage, Wheels, Nativ, and in the Yeshiva. They often return to their campus Conservative communities and their local Conservative shuls and they truly feel alone spiritually. The students I met were not threatening me with talk of defections. They were merely telling the truth about what they would need to do for themselves and their future families to find spiritual homes where they belong.

Admitedly, I am one more rabbi bemoaning one of our greatest challenges as a movement. I have no brilliant solutions, nor would I say that my congregation (as wonderful as it is) always gets this aspect of our Jewish life right all the time. We all have work to do in this regard as we chart the course of Conservative Judaism in the 21 st century. However, let me conclude with one simple insight that I had as I spent time with Nativ and our Yeshiva. Apart from creating even more elaborate outreach efforts and expending much money on alternative programming, what if we simply got the names of any Yeshiva or Nativ graduates living near us, invited them to our shuls, gave them a free membership for the duration of their college or grad school stints, and put them on a committee or on our boards? What if we asked them (given whatever time they had) to teach one course to a group of people who wanted to learn more about Judaism, Hebrew, Shabbat songs, or Israel? Would this simple act of inviting these core members to our community and giving them the power to shape us from the ground up make a difference? I believe that it would, it could cost little, and it could require even less in terms of personal investments of time and energy. If a religiously active and Jewishly knowledgeable laity matters to us and we recognize it as the basis for Conservative Jewish renewal, then these graduates of our best denominational programs will need us to provide them with a welcoming spiritual home. What they will give back to our communities will transform us for the better, if my interaction with these young Nativ students is any indication.
No one wants to be alone, and everyone needs a sense of supportive Jewish religious community to live a full, meaningful Jewish life. The students of the Yeshiva and of Nativ taught me this quite powerfully and quite naturally. We have resources as a movement that can be replicated again and again, here and in Israel. My time with my son, my people, and my Conservative movement in Eretz Yisrael showed me how wonderful community can be, and how it can truly build the world, one traveler on this earth at a time.

(c) 2010 by Rabbi Dan Ornstein

So, Who Really Did Take Us Out Of Egypt?


Dvar Torah For Parshat Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5770.

At times in the Torah, we encounter lead words and phrases whose repetition is so explicit and unsubtle that, in the words of our sages, they appear to be screaming: “interpret me!” Ki Tissa contains one such phrase that is used in three different contexts. I believe it is a critical key to understanding the meaning of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their relationship with God, and the importance of their journey to the promised land.

Ki Tissa opens with five sets of directions and commands that are part of God’s instructions to Moses concerning the mishkan, the desert sanctuary: the half shekel poll tax to be given by every male twenty years and older, the copper laver for the priests to wash in before performing sacred service, the anointing oil for the sanctuary items and the priestly vestments, the incense for burning before the holy ark, and the commissioning of Betzalel and Oholiav, the master craftsmen of the building project. God then reminds Moses and the Israelites that Shabbat, the sanctification of time, takes precedence over the building of the mishkan, the sanctification of space. This portion of Ki Tissa closes God’s instructions to the Israelites with a tone of cosmic order and peace. God finishes speaking to Moses and gives him the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. All is right with the world, above and below.

Then, all hell breaks loose. What follows, of course, in Exodus, ch. 32 is the infamous story of the building of the golden calf by the Israelites who, in their frenzied longing for Moses’ delayed return from his encounter with God, force his brother Aaron to build them “a god who shall go before us.” Aaron does this with the people’s gold that was supposed to have been used for the holy purposes of building the mishkan. They tell Aaron to do this because, “That man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” Note, of course, the total absence of God in the people’s statement. Having forgotten so quickly that it was God, and not Moses or some other power, Who performed miracles for them at the Sea of Reeds and who gave them the Ten Commandments, the people look at the golden calf and exclaim: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” How ironic and terrible that the Israelites would so quickly forget what the true God of Israel had done for them just months before, and that they would replace their allegiance to God with exclusive allegiance to Moses or to a piece of molten gold. Even more ironic is the way in which they turn God’s introductory words to the Ten Commandments –“I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt”- on their heads. A more emphatic misidentification of their true divine savior there could not have been.

What follows is the whole messy story of God, in God’s fury, seeking to destroy the entire people, Moses staying God’s hand, Moses burning the idol, forcing the Israelites to drink water mixed with its ashes, the slaying of 3,000 Israelites, and God’s begrudging reconciliation with the people. What I want to look at is the way in which this phrase “bringing the people out of the land of Egypt” continues to be used in the story, and the possible message that its use has to teach us. The first two uses of the phrase we noted above. However, now turn to Exodus 32:7, p. 531 in the Humash. While the people are engaged in their debauched and idolatrous revelry, God tells Moses: “Hurry down, for your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.” Once again, note the bitterly ironic appropriation by God of the Israelites’ own incendiary language to describe Moses as the sole redeemer of the people from Egypt that we saw above. We almost imagine God saying to God’s self, “Well, you folks want to rewrite history, with My redemptive efforts struck from the record and Moses as the center of this drama? Fine…Moses, you deal with your people whom you delivered from Egypt. I have nothing to do with them anymore.” But Moses will have none of this. After God threatens to let God’s anger blaze forth and destroy the people altogether, Moses engages in a kind of deferential conceit to stay God’s hand. Notice Moses’ words in Exodus 32:11, p. 532 in the Humash: “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people whom You delivered from Egypt with great power and a mighty hand.” Moses not too subtly shifts responsibility for the people’s redemption from Egypt back onto God’s shoulders, as it were. But this bit of political and spiritual ping pong is not yet over. After the great massacre of the people that Moses and his fellow Levites execute, God tells him, in Exodus 33:1, p. 536 in the Humash—“Set out from here, you and the people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘To your offspring will I give it…’” In a state of extended rage against the sinful Israelites, and in an apparent attempt to disown them and all responsibility for them, God continues to turn this language back onto Moses. However, note the transition that has taken place in the verse we just read. Despite the rage and almost willful disownership, God is still willing to look to the future that is the Israelites’ raison d’etre, and the reason for their leaving Egypt in the first place: to enter and settle the land promised to our ancestors, Canaan, or what we call the land of Israel. Only after God calls up this ancient promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, can Moses move God –as it were- to reclaim shared responsibility with Moses for moving the people forward to the promised land. God then promises Moses to help him lead the people, and reveals to Moses God’s 13 attributes of mercy and compassion.

So, who was responsible for bringing the people up out of Egypt, and into the promised land? Certainly not the mute, inanimate golden calf that symbolizes the most infantile, slavish impulses of an immature people. I suggest that what emerged from this extended dialogue between Moses and God was the recognition that both of them –the human leader and the divine Leader- were responsible. It is not that God and Moses were equals, but that neither of them alone –as it were- could fulfill the necessary criteria for redemption from slavery and possession of the promised land. Without God at the helm, the mission would have no spiritual energy. Without Moses at the helm, that spiritual energy would lack a channeled, human focus, and would hemorrhage uselessly.

Having just spent three weeks in Israel –our modern promised land- I am once again amazed at just how true this insight of the Torah is. From the beginning of our Israel pilgrimage until its end, our Ohav mission group experienced almost non-stop the vital energy flowing through our Jewish homeland and the awe inspiring, world class Jewish society that our people has created there. The great quantities of great food that we sampled daily were paralleled by the rich expressions of the Jewish past, present and future and the rich varieties of diverse Jewish backgrounds and experiences that we encountered as well. Even those of us who knew no Hebrew or Bible quickly immersed ourselves in a highly compressed and emotionally intense embrace of Jewish knowledge and experience: as it were, we became the Israelites entering the promised land, we entered into dialogue with God near the Holy of Holies, we lived through the horrors and heroism of the Holocaust, the terror and the triumph of the War of Independence, the prosaic banality of ancient Jews living their daily lives in the Holy Land, and the poetic bliss of Jews achieving our greatest dream: to be a free people in the land of Zion and Jerusalem after two thousand years of homelessness and hope in the face of despair. Here is what we learned there, and what I learn there time after time that I visit: the Jewish people, the great Zionist enterprise to assert our right to freedom, dignity and sovereignty, and the creation and continuation of the State of Israel continue to flourish because of a powerful partnership between us and God. This partnership brought us out of Egypt and into the promised land; it brought us out of Auschwitz and into the founding of the Jewish state; it brings all of us out of the diaspora and into an utterly transformative encounter with our destiny each time we visit Israel, each time we support Israel, each time one of us makes aliyah. Almost all Israelis, from the most idealistic to the most cynical, from the most religious to the most secular, from the most right wing to the most left wing, are bound together by the simple Hebrew phrase, yihiyeh tov, it will be alright, everything will turn out ok, I have hope. That is more than just a phrase: it is a whole way of life, a massive leap of faith forged in the crucible of time, vision and spiritual energy, and given distinctive shape by a lively people who express it in myriad ways, great and small, every day. It binds together and lifts up the people of Israeli society who are often deeply divided and plagued by difficult internal and external problems, yet who refuse to give into despair.

Walk down the streets of Jerusalem before Shabbat as our group did, or walk those same streets in the week before Purim, as I was privileged to do by myself, and you feel it. Talk, as I did, to the students and faculty of the amazing Hand In Hand School For Jewish-Arab Education who are trying to create a civic space for dialogue and peace, and you feel it. Plant a tree in the Kennedy Memorial Forest, listen to the words of David Ben Gurion proclaiming Israel a state in the actual place where he made that proclamation, or sing Hatikvah –the Jewish National Anthem- on the beach in Tel Aviv at sunset, and you feel it: you feel God, however you feel God, very much alive and present in this place called Israel, but especially among this people called Israel.

Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land? God did and Moses did. Who does this today, time and time again, when we are open to it happening? God does and the people and State of Israel- do. It is great to be home, but already I miss our imperfect, pock marked, crazy, beautiful Jewish home, our promised land, our Israel: partnership of God and Man, old/new miracle, sign of God’s eternal covenant with us and with the world.

(c)2010 by Rabbi Dan Ornstein