November pivots into the heart of autumn and all of its many symbols and feelings of transitions. It's a time of "catching up to ourselves" at Shir Ami, navigating so much that's unfolding in the world around us, and seeking ways to truly count our blessings in gratitude for what is and what yet may be.
It's another Torah portion ripped from the headlines, with plot twists, dubious behaviors and vexing moral quandaries all evoking recent Mideast events. We are called to confront not only how we navigate hard times, but also how we understand and judge behaviors arising amidst hard times.
Torah seemed to know what psychologists learned thousands of years later – and it matters a whole lot right now.
It's another "ripped from the headlines" Torah portion. This one introduces Avram (later, Avraham) as spiritual history's first monotheist, and a God who promises both the giving of blessing and becoming a blessing. But Avram quickly learns that blessing doesn't mean ease or instant gratification. With eerie relevance to current events, Torah teaches of blessing through experiences of refugees, kidnappings and battles to redeem captives.
So, what does it mean to be a blessing amidst all this strife?
In these turbulent days of Mideast news – the shock, the spiral of despair and death, the worry that worse may yet be to come – it all can feel overwhelming, as if the torrent is all but sure to destroy the innocent along with the rest.
Facing his own torrent of overwhelm and destruction, Noah built an ark – with a skylight. Yes, a skylight open to the torrent.
So must we.
Torah begins again, and "in the beginning" – or maybe Torah's words mean something else? – we encounter more a cascade of questions than clearly reliable answers.
That means we're doing it right.
Dear Members and Friends:
This special message, responding to fast-breaking world events, is my first as rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami. I wish it were on most any subject other than the one we and our world face today and in the days ahead.
On Kol Nidre night, our Shir Ami community gathered on our spiritual calendar's 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. In our core commitment to community as a core Jewish value, we discussed the cellular importance of strengthening and fulfilling our mutual connections as people, seekers, Jews, and citizens of a shrinking world.
Now on the Yom Kippur War's 50th anniversary on the secular calendar – and, yet again, on a Shabbat and Jewish holiday – global news reports confirm that Israel came under a coordinated surprise attack from land, sea and air. During celebrations of Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah, Hamas authorities in Gaza launched thousands of missiles into Israel, breached the border, took positions inside Israel, killed noncombatants, and took dozens of hostages.
The region is again at war, and parallels to the 1973 Yom Kippur War are striking. Some news reports have compared the public mood in Israel to our September 11, or Pearl Harbor.
For ethics reasons, my judicial role strictly restricts what I may say publicly about matters of substantial public controversy – specifically including the overall Mideast political conflict, long one of the world's most complex geopolitical challenges. In Mideast matters, most everything seems to have a backstory, and narratives and identities tend to be far more layered than most Americans can easily intuit from personal experience. Especially during times of "hot war," it can be particularly difficult to sift fact from fiction, proof from propaganda, news from narratives.
About most of them, there's little that ethically I am allowed to say publicly. As I must, I commend everyone to their own sources of news and commentary, and to their own ways to support worthy causes of the heart.
Some things, however, I can and must say.
Now is exactly the time for community.
In the attack's first hours, Israel's pro-democracy movement, which steadily has brought hundreds of thousands into Israel's streets to stand up for Israel's constitutional separation of powers, called off protests and urged everyone receiving military orders to immediately report for duty. Israel's opposition proposed a unity government, in keeping with Israeli tradition during times of war. Israeli civilians have been racing to give blood. Neighbors have been helping each other. In moment of crisis, Israel intuits cellularly the core existential and spiritual truth to which we recommitted ourselves on Kol Nidre night: כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה / ”All Israel are mixed together, responsible for each other” (B.T. Shevuot 39a) – a maxim we aspire to apply to all humanity. And nowadays especially, so very much about our world demands that we all do exactly that.
I believe that most Israelis do not want war, and I believe the same of most Palestinians whether governed by Hamas in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. I believe that innocents far outnumber warmongers and provocateurs. So it is especially tragic that the coming days are likely to bring so much more suffering, anxiety, grief and fear.
While there is much I cannot say publicly, please know that I am fully present for each of you and for our whole community together. I invite anyone wishing to connect to please be in touch.
I also invite the Shir Ami community to join an online gathering at 6:00pm Sunday, October 8, in my zoom room, so that we can be together in care, solidarity, grief and hope. Please join for whatever time you can in solidarity and support of each other, especially for those of us having family or friends affected by the fast-changing situation.
Someday, the words of the Prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled: "Nation will not lift sword against nation, and will never again learn war" (Isaiah 2:4). For now, may these days of violence quickly end and lead, at long last, to a durable peace worthy of the highest values of our cousin battle weary peoples – all of us children of God.
Shalom / שלום, Salaam / سلام –
Welcome to October. The High Holy Days are history. Our gloriously warm, clear days have a limited shelf life. The leaves are soon to turn. After a last burst of vibrant color, the natural world will shift into the darker months of laying fallow. Browns and grays will temper the diminishing light further until the season of freeze and snow begins.
October is our climactic pivot, and our spiritual pivot into what's next.
What do Torah, a crown, inheritance and collective unity have to do with one another?
The answer of this week's Torah portion – Torah's very last one, and also prelude to Torah's very first one – derives from Moses' very last words to the Children of Israel before he died. These words equally herald the end and the beginning, the ends and the means, the endless cycle of time, and our collective first purpose in a world lurching forward.