Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Christmas Shabbat

So, what do you do on Christmas if you're Jewish?  Enjoy the day off, go to the movies, go out for Chinese food, yes.  But what if Christmas falls on a Friday, like it did this year?  And what if yours truly was called upon to be a lay leader for Friday night Sabbath services at Congregation Adas Emuno once more?

Well, I did lead services, and in addition to the regular service in the tradition of Reform Judaism, I opened with the following:

Shabbat Shalom!

While so many of our fellow citizens, so many people all around the world, have been worshipping and having a merry old time this past day, we return this evening for our simple, modest weekly celebration of the Sabbath.  We return, as we have so many times before, as our ancestors have done so many years, centuries, and millennia before.  For ours is an amazing story of survival over four thousand years.  But it is also an amazing story of storytellers, telling stories that have captured the imagination of the world.  Stories about how God created the world in six days, about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, about Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons, Moses and the Exodus, Joshua and Jericho, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lions' den.  And we also are the storytellers that gave the world the story about the birth and death of Joshua of Nazareth, who the Romans called Jesus.

We come from a great tradition of storytellers that also include Karl Marx and his stories about workers rising up against oppression, Sigmund Freud and his stories about drives and repressions, and Albert Einstein and his stories about riding on top of a beam of light.  The Jewish imagination has also given us so many novelists that we would be here all night if I were to name them all, and that is not to mention all of our storytellers making movies and television.

Our stories help us to understand our world, and our place in it.  They help us to bring order to chaos, and coherence to what often seems like the randomness of existence.  Stories may be true or false, but stories can also contain different kinds of truths.  Some give us scientific truths, some give us historic truths, and some metaphorical truths.  As Reform Jews, we understand the traditional stories told by our people in light of the stories told by our scholars and scientists, and we recognize that, no matter what, our stories do contain valuable truths, moral and ethical truths have brought light to the entire world.

We then proceeded with the lighting of the Sabbath candles, and from there to the rest of the service.  Later, during the sermon part of the service, I explained that this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, was the same parsha that my son read when he was Bar Mitzvah, and while we wouldn't be actually reading from the Torah, I called him up to read an excerpt from his Bar Mitzvah speech about Vayigash;

The name of my Torah portion is Vayigash, which means "And he approached." 

The portion begins with Judah, the eldest son of Jacob.  And it was Judah who approached the prime minister of Egypt, and said:  "Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh."  Judah and his brothers had come to Egypt to procure food in a time of famine.  But a silver cup belonging to the Prime Minister was found in the grain sack of Jacob's youngest son, Benjamin.  As punishment, the Prime Minister said that Benjamin would have to remain with him as a slave.  Judah approached the Prime Minister, and said that his father Jacob would die of sorrow if he lost another son, like he lost Joseph many years ago.  Then, Judah offered himself as a slave in the place of Benjamin.  Hearing this, the Prime Minister burst into tears and revealed the fact that he was Joseph, the brother that they had sold into slavery.  Joseph then invited his brothers and their father Jacob to live in the land of Egypt as the guests of Pharaoh. Finally, God spoke to Jacob in a vision at night, and said to him, "I am God, the God of your father.  Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes."  And so, Jacob went down to Egypt with his entire household of 70 persons.  My Torah portion ends with Joseph saving the people of Egypt by coming up with a plan for them to trade property for food during the time of famine.

My Torah portion has three important themes.  The first theme is taking care of family.  When Judah offers himself as a slave instead of his brother Benjamin, he says:  "For how can I go back to my father, unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father."  Judah loves his father and his brother, and is willing to sacrifice himself to protect his family.  When Judah approached the Prime Minister, he was taking responsibility for his entire family.  And when Joseph brought his brothers and their father Jacob to Egypt, he too was taking care of his family.  As the Prime Minister of Egypt, Joseph took care of the Egyptian people and all those in need of food as if they were his family.  Taking care of family begins with your parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, but it also means caring for all the people of the world, just like Joseph.

The second theme of my Torah portion is justice.  Joseph hid the silver cup in Benjamin's grain sack to test his brothers.  They had sold him into slavery, and deserved to be punished.  As Prime Minister, Joseph could have taken his revenge.  But when Judah approached him and offered himself as a slave in the place of Benjamin, Joseph did not seek vengeance, he granted his brothers forgiveness.  He gave them justice, but he also gave them mercy.  And when the Egyptian people needed food, he gave them a way to buy food, he didn't make them beg for charity.  He gave them justice, but didn't sacrifice their dignity, which is a form of mercy.

The third theme of the portion is reconciliation.  Joseph forgave his brothers for wronging him, and their family was united again.  Similarly, in my Haftarah portion, a selection from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, he predicts that someday all of the Jewish people, and all of the people of the world, will become reconciled and live together in peace, and in justice, and as one family.

 Then, I read this week's Haftarah from Ezekiel (37:15-28):

15. And the word of the Lord came to me, saying: 16. "And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write upon it, 'For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions'; and take one stick and write upon it, 'For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.' 17. And bring them close, one to the other into one stick, and they shall be one in your hand. 18. And when the children of your people say to you, saying, 'Will you not tell us what these are to you?' 19. Say to them, So says the Lord God: Behold I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim and the tribes of Israel his companions, and I will place them with him with the stick of Judah, and I will make them into one stick, and they shall become one in My hand. 20. And the sticks upon which you shall write shall be in your hand before their eyes. 21. And say to them, So says the Lord God: Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side, and I will bring them to their land. 22. And I will make them into one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be to them all as a king; and they shall no longer be two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms anymore. 23. And they shall no longer defile themselves with their idols, with their detestable things, or with all their transgressions, and I will save them from all their habitations in which they have sinned, and I will purify them, and they shall be to Me as a people, and I will be to them as a God. 24. And My servant David shall be king over them, and one shepherd shall be for them all, and they shall walk in My ordinances and observe My statutes and perform them. 25. And they shall dwell on the land that I have given to My servant, to Jacob, wherein your forefathers lived; and they shall dwell upon it, they and their children and their children's children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever. 26. And I will form a covenant of peace for them, an everlasting covenant shall be with them; and I will establish them and I will multiply them, and I will place My Sanctuary in their midst forever. 27. And My dwelling place shall be over them, and I will be to them for a God, and they shall be to Me as a people. 28. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, Who sanctifies Israel, when My Sanctuary is in their midst forever."
After reading these passages, I provided the following commentary:

The sticks represent the idea that the Jewish people are many different people united as one.  We were twelve tribes, we were two ancient kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah, and today we are the Ashkenazi, the Sephardim, the Misrahim or Eastern Jews whose ancestors never went to Spain or Germany, and others who came from Greece, Italy, India, China, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere.  Even within the Ashkenazi, there are the German Jews, Polish Jews, Hungarian Jews, Lituanian Jews, Russian Jews, etc.  And we are also divided into Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Chassidism, and other denominations.  And we are divided between those of us who are Israelis and those of us who are not.

But we recognize the essential unity of our people, bound together by a common tradition, a common faith, a common sense.  Sometimes we may be divided, but we emphasize our divisions at our own peril.  Leonard Cohen put it this way, "Anyone who say I'm not a Jew is not a Jew.  I'm very sorry but this is final."  And we would do well to recall the wonderful words of one of this country's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Binding is theme of one of our defining moments, the binding of Isaac, which results in God establishing a binding covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the Jewish people, one that doesn't involve human sacrifice.  And that covenant is formalized at Mount Sinai when Moses receives the Law, which binds our people to justice. 

The word religion comes to us from the ancient Latin, and its root meaning has never been established, but it is commonly believed to come from the word for binding.  A congregation is a community that is bound together, and that binds itself to its conception of the sacred and the divine.  Another possible derivation of religion is to reread, a religion is organized around a sacred text, as we are around the Torah.

For us, the two fit together quite well.  We are bound to one another by our texts, our laws, our prayers, our history.  We are bound together by our stories.  As members of the Jewish community, we are bound like the pages of a book, bound together in our ancient and every evolving covenant with God.

Binding is about unity, and the theme of oneness is central to our services, the oneness of God, the oneness of His creation, the oneness of our community, and the oneness of humanity.

We then returned to the service, and before the closing hymn, I read the lyrics to Bod Dylan's song, "Forever Young," which is based on the traditional priestly benediction from Deuteronomy:

May God bless and keep you always,

May your wishes all come true,

May you always do for others

And let others do for you.

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung,

And may you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,

May you grow up to be true,

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you.

May you always be courageous,

Stand upright and be strong,

And may you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,

May your feet always be swift,

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift.

May your heart always be joyful,

May your song always be sung,
And may you stay forever young.

And with that we closed out the service and proceeded to the Oneg, having a very merry little Shabbat indeed!

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