Rabbi Gurvis’ May 13th Sermon

Shabbat Behar
May 13, 2011
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Shabbat Shalom! This Shabbat we read one of the shortest Torah portions of the entire year. Parashat Behar, which in a non-leap year would likely be combined with next week’s portion, Bechokkotai, may be short – barely more than a single chapter in Leviticus, yet small does not mean unimportant. In fact, there are facets of this week’s portion, consisting mostly of Leviticus chapter 25 which are not only a part of universal agrarian practice, such as the concept of allowing field to lie fallow after a certain number of planting seasons; we also read of the concept of the Shabbaton, the sabbatical year; the jubilee year. And we read words that have found a cherished place in American history and values. In Leviticus 25:9-10 we read: “Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” The words “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all the inhabitants thereof,” are enshrined on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell remains one of our nation’s enduring symbols as we dream of and work towards the fulfillment of those words for all Americans and indeed all humanity.

The concept of the Shabbaton, the Sabbatical year of course derives from the very concept of Shabbat, the seventh day for which we have gathered on this evening. You know, there are just some weeks when I feel the need for Shabbat more than others. I always welcome Shabbat – be it quietly at home with my family; or with our 8th graders last week as we took our annual 8th grade retreat to NYC; or here in our sanctuary or Rothman Chapel with you, my community.

This Shabbat I especially feel the blessing of Shabbat’s arrival. I know that many of you think of the High Holy Days as the time that most tries the professional staff of a synagogue. I’ll let you in on a little secret – it’s not. The most challenging time is the Purim to Shavuot sprint – and having tested this little theory out on my colleagues – rabbis, cantors, educators and others, I find I am not alone. This week I find myself especially in need of the peace of Shabbat – and it’s barely because of the pace of recent weeks. For months we have been watching with curiosity and, at least for some of us, no small measure of concern, the events that have come to be known as the “Arab Spring,” as one Arab country after another is roiled in revolution and conflict. As some of you know, I arrived in Israel for a week of study on the very day in January when the events in Tahrir Square began in Cairo. By the time my Hartman classmates and I left Jerusalem a week later, I mused that we were not leaving the same Middle East in which we had arrived a week earlier. From the vantage point of 3½ months, and thousands of miles, and as I anticipate my return to the Hartman Institute for some weeks of study in July, I struggle to comprehend the events which continue to unfold across the region.

During these same months we have witnessed a devastating earthquake in Japan; a crippling wave of tornadoes in the South and in recent days the widespread flooding of communities along a considerable length of the Mississippi River. The stretch of natural disasters in recent years has left us breathless. We have and must continue to reach out to bring relief where we can to those whose lives and communities have been torn asunder by these devastating natural phenomena. The events ripping through the nations of the Middle East are of a different nature. They are not natural disasters. They represent, in some cases, the awakening of the human spirit and its thirst for the liberty of which our Torah portion this Shabbat speaks. In other cases, the responses, especially at the hands of some governments have been stark reminders of the lack of value for human life and dignity. These too, take our breath away, as we witness the capacity of human beings to tear at the very fabric of humanity and the value and dignity of human life, which at least for us, as Jews, we reckon as a reflection of Tzelem Elohim, the Image of God. We each relate to that concept differently. But no matter where we are along the spectrum of belief within our community, the core value stands – human life is sacred; and as this week’s portion reminds us, it is our responsibility to sanctify, respect and nurture every precious life – both those who we call kinsmen and those who are strangers to us, who are, nonetheless, equally reflections of the Divine Image.

Friends, there is another destructive wind blowing in these days; it is gathering steam and it carries I fear a massive capacity for destruction. Unlike the tsunami, the earthquakes, the tornadoes and the flooding, this wave is also a human phenomenon, like those unfolding across the Arab world. It is a dangerous wave of which you may be only vaguely aware. But I have to tell you, that with all that is happening, and which is stirring my soul, it is this other wave of turmoil that is keeping me awake at night, and tearing at the very fabric of my soul. It is also tearing at the fabric of our Jewish community to a degree that we may not have the capacity to mend the rift left in its wake. It is taking many forms. It is pernicious and ugly.

Rigorous debate in the Jewish community around issues related to Israel, the policies of the government of Israel, the question of the formation of a Palestinian state; and related issues is not new. We are keenly aware that the debate is hot here in our own community, especially with the turmoil some months back surrounding the invitation for J-Street to hold an event at one of our sister congregations, and the subsequent rescinding of that invitation. In the months since that moment, the tension in our community has continued to ratchet upward, and you may or may not be aware that it is about to reach fever pitch in the coming two weeks, which will lead to a potentially fateful meeting which will coincidentally take place in our Social Hall across the hall where we will soon gather for Oneg Shabbat.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, on whose Board I serve has been working in recent years on a strategic plan to strengthen the organization’s effectiveness in bringing our Jewish community together for common cause and to represent our Jewish community within the broader community fabric of the Greater Boston interfaith community. As part of that strategic planning process it was decided that it was important to take a look at various policies and structures of the Council, including membership. In recent months a Membership Committee has been meeting. I am also a member of that group as part of my work within the JCRC. One challenge that our committee, and ultimately the larger Council, is confronting is the reality that the face of our Jewish community has changed. There are groups who are listed as members of the Council, which have long since ceased to exist within our community; and there are newer organizations that have entered Jewish communal life, not only here in Boston but on the larger stage of American Jewish life. As the JCRC moves towards voting on its new membership policy, and attempts to apply that policy to the myriad organizations that dot our communal landscape the issue of how various groups support Israel and/or take positions which support the government of Israel, criticize the government of Israel; and interact with our own American government over matters pertaining to Israel is shaping up as a battleground over which some are prepared to shed blood. I am not talking about real blood, but rather the metaphorical blood, that courses through the veins of our community and which keeps our heart beating as a community. In the halls of Congress, as the parties square off over matters on which they are deeply divided we occasionally hear talk of “the nuclear option.” Here too, no one is speaking of a physical reality but of a metaphorical reality in which our nation’s government could be rendered inoperable because differing factions are prepared to hold out for their respective positions to the ultimate detriment of the greater whole. Fortunately, each time we hear talk of such a divide in DC our leaders seem to find a way back from the brink. I can only hope and pray that the same will hold true as our community – here in Boston, under the JCRC Banner, but also on the larger American Jewish scene. But I am not so sure that the players, or the larger community, truly realize what is at stake. One manifestation of this debate is over whether J-Street should be granted a seat at the table of the JCRC of Greater Boston. Detractors argue that J-Street itself is a lion in sheep’s clothing and that it is dangerous. They argue that J-Street is not the pro-Israel; pro-Peace organization it professes to be; and that it has taken positions, especially in its lobbying efforts with leaders of our American government which are anti-Israel and which support the efforts of those who are out to delegitimize and ultimately destroy Israel. On the other hand, we have those in the community who decry the power and positions of AIPAC as it presents itself as the broad tent voice of pro-Israel support before our government.

Add to this the turmoil over and attacks on the New Israel Fund which was founded over one-quarter century ago as an alternative vehicle for supporting Israel and projects in Israel outside of the traditional UJA-Federation channels. Add to these the growing panoply of BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movements which are, for many, myself included, completely outside the camp of acceptable discourse viz-a-viz Israel as the larger BDS Movement is an attempt to discredit Israel as a nation among the nations. And, add the recent spate of attacks on our Reform movement and the Union for Reform Judaism which, in recent months, has concluded its search process for a new president to take the helm of the URJ beginning in the Summer of 2012. Rabbi Richard Jacobs, or Rick as I have known him for over 30 years since our days together at HUC, in our work together within the URJ, ARZA, ECE, and our summers studying together at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem is an exceptional rabbi. Rabbi Jacobs has taken positions with which some take extreme exception. My friends – Rabbi Jacobs is not an extremist – he is a committed and passionate Zionist. He is a person deeply committed to Tikkun Olam – whether it is in the Darfur region of the Sudan, in the fight for Religious Pluralism in Israel; in the struggle for economic justice in Westchester County where he lives and serves as a Rabbi; and as he understands our Jewish responsibility to pursue peace, security and justice in Israel and in the neighborhood in which Israel lives.

The attacks on Rabbi Jacobs; the attacks on J-Street, New Israel Fund, AIPAC – the attacks on our fellow Jews who may travel a different road in expressing their love for and commitment to Israel are deeply distressing to me. In face of a vicious campaign to delegitimize Israel as a nation, we can ill afford a campaign to delegitimize one another as lovers of Israel. Yet in my eyes, that is precisely what is taking place – here in Boston, and across the North American Jewish landscape. And it makes me ill.

Earlier this week we celebrated the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the modern State of Israel. Some of you have stood with me in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv where the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was issued and signed on the 5th of Iyar, 5708/May 14th, 1948. I cannot hear the tape of David Ben Gurion’s voice and the sound of the Israel Philharmonic playing Hatikvah from the roof without getting misty eyed. But each time I hear the voices and the music, I offer a prayer for the realization of the values enshrined in that document – which states in part:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the Ingathering of the Exiles from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions . . . WE EXTEND our hand of peace and unity to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East. WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the task of immigration and development and to stand by them in the great struggle for the fulfillment of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”

An echo of the values enshrined in our portion – and I pray, a clarion call to awaken us, like the sound of the shofar, as we move into the days and weeks ahead, our words, our deeds, and our ability to open our hearts – to our fellow Jews and to all who inhabit God’s earth with us.

Shabbat Shalom!

2 thoughts on “Rabbi Gurvis’ May 13th Sermon

  1. Judy Solomon says:

    I fear you are a voice of calm & reason in a sea of tsunami proportion unrest. I hope that in the new year which comes after a restful summer, our Israel Committee will raise its voice and engage other such comittees in the Jewish community in an education campaign so that many will not remain ignorant of the strife within our community and that many will work toward returning Jew’s historic infighting back to a civil, respectful plane.

  2. ravherber says:

    Eric, your call for a political discourse framed by the values of respect and tolerance is so vital to the welfare of the Jewish community and the State of Israel. Kol hakavod lekha!

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