We were all shocked at the senseless attacks at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Here is a thoughtful essay by our friend Rabbi Floriane Chinksy
Editor’s Note: Mentschen.org has asked FJMC to develop some questions for conversation based on the weekly “Unraveller”. Please keep these questions in mind as you read Rabbi Schonbrun’s commentary, we look forward to hearing from you:
What is your favorite Jewish text or your favorite Jewish story?
What is the message that this text or story is trying to teach?
What is one way that this message applies to you your daily life?
Having the distinction of being the longest Haftarah, this week’s selection Parsha Beshalach Judges 4:4-5:31 from the book of Judges recounts the heroism of the prophet Deborah and the bravery of Yael. Set in the mid-twelfth century B.C.E. and telling the tale of a battle between a group of Northern Israelite tribes and Cannanite armies in both prose and poetic form, the Haftarah describes the tactical advice and support that Deborah offers Barak as she convinces him to go to battle with the Cannanite army commander, Sisera. It also describes the cunning and clever actions of Yael, who lures Sisera into her tent as he is attempting to escape from the battle, and kills him while he is sleeping.
This Haftarah is read on Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, and one reason it was chosen is the parallel poetic style that is found between the Song of the Sea in the Torah and the Song of Deborah in the Haftarah. While this explains the stylistic rational for why this particular selection was chosen, we may ask why the Ashkenazi tradition has us read both the prose and the poetry versions of the Deborah narrative. Why do we need to hear the same story told twice?
Dr. Michael Fishbane offers an answer to understanding the different messages that can be taken from the two different tellings. In his JPS commentary on the Haftarah he explains that:
Take a look at this video. Mentschen would be interested in your reactions.
I was born in England during the Second World War. I didn’t know I was Jewish for many years. My parents were refugees from Vienna, Austria. They were friends in Vienna, who like many other young Jews, were influenced by the artistic, cultural and intellectual movements of the times. Apparently, wanting to assimilate in Vienna, they repudiated their Jewish roots, each in their own way. For example, my father registered with the authorities as an atheist. and my mother told her mother not to speak Yiddish to her in public. And, supposedly they made a point of going to a public cafe during Kol Nidre services. They were able to escape the Nazis through different routes and were reunited in England in 1940. Had Hitler not come along, they probably would have not been married, since they were from very different backgrounds. However, the war brought them together and they were married in Oxford in 1940. I was born in Birmingham in 1944. A few years later we moved to London.
I was given the name Michael Stephen. When I was older, I was told that I was named Michael after my maternal grandmother, Malka, who was missing during the war and presumed to be dead. However, after the war ended, she was found to be alive in an institution for Jewish seniors in Brussels created by the Belgian Queen Mother Elizabeth. Apparently sometime in 1939 Malka had missed the last boat out of Antwerp and had to fend for herself. At that time, she was already 73 years old. We don’t really know how she survived. She probably gained some survival skills growing up in a shtetl in what is now the Ukraine. When she was found in Brussels, she was brought to England to be reunited with her two daughters and her grandchildren. How often does a Jew see someone who is named after them? Here’s a photo of a family wedding attended by Malka and me after the war. She is the little woman wearing a hat and I am the boy, lower left, looking up at the group.
My middle name had been my paternal grandfather’s name. He was an assimilated Jew who taught Roman Law at Vienna University. Although he and his wife had affidavits to come to America, they were unable to leave and they were deported to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Concentration Camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. They weren’t exterminated, but died of illnesses caused by the deplorable conditions at the camp. My wife and I have visited the site of the camp. I have prepared a video presentation about Terezin (Theresienstadt) and have presented it in Jewish day schools.
At some point during the 1950’s my parents separated and eventually divorced. My mother and I emigrated to the United States where we first lived in Reading, Pennsylvania. It was there that I started developing a Jewish identity. We joined Kesher Zion Synagogue where I attended Hebrew School and had my Bar Mitzvah. It meant a lot to me that the rabbi, cantor and teachers took an interest in my welfare.
I met my wife at Temple University and once we had children, we became full-fledged members of the Northeast Philadelphia Jewish community. We sent our children to a Jewish nursery school, joined a synagogue and then sent our children to the local Solomon Schechter day school. We became very involved in both institutions, feeling that we should set an example for our children. We practiced many of the Shabbat rituals and had regular Shabbat dinners with friends and their children.
We were very active at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre, my wife in the sisterhood and me in the men’s club and congregation. I became men’s club president in the 1983, regional president in 1990 and then held various positions within the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs for over a decade. My experiences within the men’s club movement were significant influences on my journey to finding my Jewish identity. The sense of being part of a dynamic, innovative Jewish organization as well as the camaraderie were very gratifying and fulfilling.
These events and experiences have contributed to the development of my Jewish identity. I have no doubt that I am a Jew and I am proud that I have fulfilled my responsibility as a “link on the chain” of Jewish continuity. Our son and his family belong to a conservative synagogue in Florida and our daughter’s family is connected to the local orthodox movement.
However, I am still trying to figure out the religious aspect of my Jewish identity. I went to college in the 1960’s where we were taught to not accept anything without questioning its validity. As many others, I am still searching for my place on the religious spectrum.
Everyone has a different journey. Some are straightforward. Others are circuitous. This has been my journey and apparently it’s not completely over!
Editor’s Note: Mentschen.org has asked FJMC to develop some questions for conversation based on the weekly “Unraveller”. Please keep these questions in mind as you read Rabbi Schwab’s commentary, we look forward to hearing from you:
You may have noticed that on occasion Sephardim and Ashkenazim recite different haftarot. Such is the case this Shabbat for parashat Sh’mot, when Ashkenazim read from Isaiah 27-29 while Sephardim are covering the first chapter plus three verses from the prophet Jeremiah. Clearly different communities got to make their own decisions concerning what to read as the haftarah, and the split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim that was put in place by the division of the world between Christian and Muslim empires fixed those different decisions in place. The amazing thing is how often the two communities agree on the same prophetic passage.
So what about this week’s difference of opinion? If the idea is for the haftarah to have some thematic connection to the Torah reading for that week, it would seem that the Sephardim have the most obvious candidate for a close match. The beginning of the book of Jeremiah describes the prophet’s call to prophecy, his commissioning as a messenger of G-d to the people. That description almost exactly parallels the call that Moses gets in our Torah reading. In contrast, the Ashkenazi haftarah gives us Isaiah blasting the people for ignoring G-d and G-d’s word and ripping into G-d’s prophets and priests for deserting G-d amidst their drunken debauchery. To uncover a link between the passage from Isaiah and the Torah reading, one has to connect the word “ha-ba’im” that appears in the first verse of both the Torah reading and the haftarah and the word “b’kirbo” at the end of the haftarah with the same word in the middle of the Torah reading. (See Dr. Fishbane’s wonderful commentary on the haftarah in Humash Etz Hayim.) Seems to me to be a real stretch.
So why didn’t the Ashkenazi rabbis just go with the Jeremiah passage? Personally I would like to think that their reason has to do with the same verses in Isaiah that caught my eye when I was preparing this haftarah for my Bar Mitzvah, verses that I insisted be included in my speech, which, in my congregation back then (my grandchildren are convinced that my Bar Mitzvah was so long ago that a stegosaurus was invited to my ceremony) was written by the rabbi. “Tzav l’tzav, tzav l’tzav, kav l’kav, kav l’kav, z’eir sham, z’eir sham” proclaims the prophet, not once but twice!
In context all of the commentators, both medieval and modern, are convinced that Isaiah is alluding to the people’s mocking of G-d’s commands as childish mumblings – the JPS translation goes “Mutter upon mutter, murmur upon murmur, now here, now there.”. But the 13-year-old Bar Mitzvah student saw in this verse an allusion to the way he – living in a home not attuned to observance or to G-d – could bring G-d and observance into his life. Intuiting the word “tzav” from the same root as “mitzvah” and the word “kav” as referring to “tikvah“, “hope”, he saw the building of a G-d-centered life as created one mitzvah at a time, mitzvah following mitzvah, one hope after another, hope leading to more hope, little by little, a little at a time. The prophet was telling him that it was not necessary to do everything at once, that turning 13 did not mean he had to follow every halakhic requirement in our tradition at that very moment, that he could assimilate one thing at a time while aspiring to add yet another mitzvah in the near future and yet another following that one. And so he did.
I would love to think that those Ashkenazi authorities determining the choice of haftarah for this Shabbat saw the same hidden message as well. It is a message that that child, now become a rabbi, believes is crucial for the spiritual life of many Jews today, whether that was Isaiah’s intent or not. It’s not all or nothing. It’s one mitzvah at a time, with the hope that soon another can be added, and another after that. A little at a time, just a little at a time. And soon enough observance of G-d’s expectations will become a way of life.
This week’s Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Joel Schwab. Rabbi Schwab has served as the religious leader of Temple Sinai in Middletown, NY for 28 years. He co-founded and served as the first chair of the Jewish Family Service of Orange County and is on the Board of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. He was the first rabbi to serve as the president of the Middletown Interfaith Council, has remained active on the council and is now the chair of the Interfaith Clergy Group. As the senior rabbi in the county, Rabbi Schwab is the convening chair of the county Klei Kodesh, the organization of rabbis and cantors in the area.
I just finished listening to the podcast of a wonderful sermon given by my friend and teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous. Starting with the theme of loneliness, Rabbi Brous invoked texts both ancient and modern that demonstrated the key role that community plays in our lives. It is through community that we offer and receive support when it is needed. Using the Mourner’s Kaddish as an example, Rabbi Brous explored the power of the simple “amen” as a sign of community support. Indeed, the first “amen” is recited by the community even before the mourner has a chance to complete the first sentence!
I was moved and inspired by this important lesson. Yet at the same time as I thought about community, I wondered if the central community in our lives is still our kehillah; our synagogue. I realize that this may be true for most readers of this column because you are active in your Men’s Club or synagogue. Yet take a look around you and ask yourself-“where do your friends go to seek community?” I daresay that the synagogue and our extraordinary traditions and liturgy may not be the top of their list.
Why is that?
How can we, as men and leaders challenge the disappearance of this sense of community? How can we make the sanctuary a place where those who are in pain turn for support?
Rabbi Brous cited a Mishnah that described the path that pilgrims took as they visited the Temple in Jerusalem. Everyone entered and departed through the same doorway. Virtually all turned to the right as they made their way through the courtyard. Yet those who were hurting turned to the left. This way they needed to come face to face with fellow Jews who then would offer support and comfort.
As we look to enhance the sense of community, I look to you, the readers of Mentschen for ideas that will return our “Temples” back to a central place in our lives. A place of joy, a place of comfort and peace. A place where we are ALL there to say “amen”.
What would it take to enhance our community of prayer?
The Haftarah assigned to this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is Ezekiel’s vision of a future reconciliation and reunification of the Northern and Southern tribes of Israel. The Northern tribes had been dispersed and exiled from their land by the end of the eighth century B.C.E. With the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., the Southern kingdom of Judah met its end. Ezekiel preaches from exile in Babylonia in the years following that destruction, and his vision of a time when the tribes will be united and a single monarchy will lead the nation in its land must have been a comforting and hopeful buoy for a community on the verge of total extinction. Ezekiel holds two sticks, one inscribed with the name of Judah (representing the southern tribes) and the other with the name of Joseph (representing the northern tribes). God instructs Ezekiel to bring them together so that they will become one stick. The symbolism of the sticks serves to tell the world that the Israelites will again be one nation, with one king, in their land, serving the one God and sanctified by God.
It would be wonderful if we could write our names on stick, hold them together, and cure all that separates us. But that’s not the way it works. Ezekiel’s vision, however, does offer us some guidance. With one God, with one mission, with one sense of direction, we are made whole despite our differences. We don’t need to agree on all things to be one people. In fact, according to our sages, when two sides argue over an issue, and each side is truly dedicated to serving God in their position, the argument is worthy of being preserved! Such disagreements, however, are not meant to divide us. They are meant to bring us closer because of the passion and dedication we see in each other. Imagine how different our political or religious discourse would look, both in Israel and here in the United States, if members of every party or movement trusted that their opponents’ sole interest was the serving of the greater good. Perhaps compromise would more easily be reached if we didn’t have such a terrible track record of self-interest; perhaps more common ground would be explored. Within our own family structures, imagine how much better we would get along if we forgave insult, if we believed that we all want to be loved and accepted, if we opened the door to reconciliation and allowed two to dwell as one for a while.
This week’s Unraveller was written by Rabbi Craig Scheff of the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York. After practicing law for 3 years, Rabbi Scheff decided to enter the rabbinate. In the fall of 1995, he arrived at the Orangetown Jewish Center. Just having commenced his third year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Scheff took the position of Cantor at the OJC, and was determined to make the OJC his home. After serving the OJC for 2 years as Student Rabbi, he was ordained in 1998.