I love Jewish books. I attribute this to my fourth grade Hebrew School teacher, who regularly banished me to the synagogue library. I wasn’t a bad kid. On the contrary, I loved Hebrew School. But after a full day of quietly paying attention to the lessons of “regular school,” Hebrew School provided an ideal environment to meet people and to mix. And after being told three or four times “Sheket, Yitzchak, Sheket!” I would find myself sent to the library. Where I learned to love Jewish books.
One time, the teacher caught me on the way out the door.
“Yitzhak, go to the Library!” she shouted, “But I want you do something there…write a book report.”
“Ok, fine. A book report. I can do that. Any particular book?”
“Yes,” she smiled with conspiratorial glee, “write a book report….about the Bible.”
“The Bible?!! How can I write a book report about the Bible?!”
“It’s a book, right? Then you can write a book report about it.”
So off to the Library I went. I found a copy of the Torah, took a piece of paper and a pencil and began my book report.
Title – The Torah. So far, so good.
Author – uh oh. Just write, Unknown.
Publisher – Jewish Publication Society.
Describe the book: What is the setting? Who are the main characters? What is the plot? What happens in the book? What is the climax? How is it resolved?
And finally, the all-important, Would you recommend this book to your friends?
The Setting, the Main Characters, especially, the Plot. I’ve thought about these question a great deal since the fourth grade. Does the Bible have setting, character, plot? Does the Bible, have a narrative arc? Does it tell a story? We don’t typically read the Bible that way. We read for individual nuggets of wisdom. We read a Biblical story, or a weekly portion, or a particular law. We don’t read the whole expanse of the Bible for its narrative.
For that matter, we don’t read Judaism that way. We don’t ask, what’s the narrative arc of Judaism? What’s the grand story that supports all that we do as Jews?
We don’t ask these questions, because the truth is, we don’t ask enough of our Judaism. We cherish the sense of belonging. We enjoy the ethnic warmth of Jewish culture. We pick up a few Yiddishisms, bits of ancient wisdom, customs and foods to punctuate the year, the rituals that mark to passages of life. But we don’t really ever ask: Is there a deep truth at the foundation of the Jewish experience, a grand narrative that unites all of Jewish life?
It’s time that we did. In 1964, Look Magazine offered a cover story entitled, “The Vanishing American Jew.” The article predicted that with low birth rates, high rates of intermarriage, and with the trends of cultural assimilation, American Jews, just like every other American ethnic group, would disappear by the end of the third generation, about the year 2000. Well, Look Magazine is gone and we’re still here. And now we’re into our fourth and soon our fifth generation. So much for the predictive powers of sociology. But the article was right in this: Ethnic cultures do not survive in America. The farther we get from our immigrant ancestors, the more tenuous our ties to their ethnicity. Our kids don’t speak the language of our grandparents. They don’t like the ethnic foods….unless you count sushi as a Jewish food. They don’t cherish the old melodies and the old folkways. And they don’t bear the deep sense of belonging that so many of us grew up with. If they’re going to be Jewish, it’s going to be a choice they make. If they’re going to be Jewish, it’s because being Jewish provides a sense of personal significance, a way of articulating life’s meaning, a world-view that inspires self-sacrifice and devotion. Human beings seek meaning. Every one of us looks to attach our personal story to a grand narrative of transcendent value. If Judaism is to succeed in this culture, we must be able to articulate a Jewish narrative with passion and in the first-person. “It is because of what the Lord God did for me when I went out of Egypt.” It is because of what living Jewish does for me, what it contributes to my existence, how it elevates me as I struggle with the challenges of living.
We need to write the book report. Each of us.
Describe the book. Its setting, characters, and plot.
The main character of the Bible, the central character of Jewish existence, is called God. What is most interesting about the God of the Bible isn’t God’s power or dominion. What’s unique is that this God dreams. In the Bible, we are told nothing of God’s origins, God’s background or back story. We know nothing of God’s essence. All we know are God’s dreams. And what does God dream of? A world of wholeness, a world that is one.
In Genesis, God creates this world, and blesses it. It is good. But God wants more than an inert, unconscious world. God wants a partner to enjoy this world, to share it and care for it. So God creates the human being. Unique among all creatures, the human being bears the divine image, so that like God, the human being dreams.
As a gift, God creates a remarkable place for this human creature, a Garden. The Garden of Eden is the epitome of God’s dreams- a place of oneness, peace, coexistence, tranquility, beauty. Consider the image -- a Garden. Not a palace. Or a temple. Or a city. A garden is an exquisite balance of nature and artifice. A garden is shaped by knowing hands, but it is animated by the energy of nature. A garden is dynamic, it is always growing and changing. It is always in need of care, cultivation, work. A Garden is itself a model of oneness: In a Garden, every plant and animal is connected to every other aesthetically and organically. They depend upon one another. They each have a role.
The human being is placed in this most perfect place, this Garden, and charged with the task of maintaining its dynamic perfection: l’shamra, ul’ovda, says the Torah, to nurture and protect God’s creation. The human role in God’s world is to nurture and protect the oneness, the balance, the growth.
But the human isn’t content with all God gives him. He wants a different role in the world. So he disobeys. He wants his freedom, his independence. He wants to be his own god, to create his own reality, to determine his own destiny. So he betrays the partnership. God, disappointed, expels him from the garden and give him that freedom.
But here is an interesting detail of the story: God banishes the human being, but God doesn’t destroy the Garden. The Garden becomes inaccessible but not invisible. It lives, very visibly, at the very center of the human world. It lives at the very heart of human dreams. This is our faith: somewhere, far from the brokenness and frustration of daily experience, there is a place of oneness, peace, and harmony. It is not inconceivable, it is not impossible. But it is always just out of reach.
Outside the Garden, man turns away from God’s dream. Over the next ten generations, humanity descends from disobedience to murder and violence until God give up on him altogether and decides to destroy it all, and wipe the world clean. Just then, God’s eye catches sight of one man, a man of goodness. God finds Noah, ish tzadik. So God decides to start again. Act 2, If God can’t create a good man, perhaps God can choose one, choose a man committed to sharing the divine dream of a good world. But Noah disappoints God as well, and his children turn from God’s dreams and fill the world with corruption and violence, and again God is disappointed. With all God’s power, God couldn’t create a good man, God couldn’t choose a good man. Perhaps, he can teach a man to be good.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
2I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
3I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.”
God’s curriculum: Lesson One: Take a man and remove him from his culture. Strip him of his identity, his power, position, prestige, patrimony. And remake him into a vessel of Divine blessing. Be a blessing. Bring blessing to all the families of the earth.
Pay careful attention to the commandment. God doesn’t say: be a blessing to Me. God doesn’t demand Abraham’s reverence, worship or submission. God only asks: share my dream. Bring blessing back into my world. Jews don’t have to worship or submit or obey God. God never asks for that. What they have to do is share God’s dream, and pursue it, and fight for it.
Lesson Two: The human heart is ruled by jealousy and fear, by lust for power and greed for gain, and projections of ego. If God is to turn the human being into a partner, God needs a radical pedagogy. So God sends this people to a place which is the diametric opposite of Eden. Eden was a place of life, oneness, peace. Egypt is the place of slavery, brutality, and death. Egypt is God’s classroom. To understand and cherish the dream of Eden, we must experience Egypt – we must feel its hopelessness, know its humiliation, taste its bitterness. What is slavery? It is the condition of total social invisibility. It is to walk the world unseen, unheard, unrecognized, unacknowledged, unvalued. And what is redemption? It is to be resurrected as a being of worth, of significance.
B’chol dor va’dor In every generation, a person must see him/herself as if he or she were redeemed from Egypt. Why? Because this experience defines our identity, our ethics, our faith.
(Exodus 22:20 ) You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. (Exodus 23: 5) You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes. ... You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the soul of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33) When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I the Lord am your God. Deuteronomy 10:17 -- God shows no favor and takes no bribe but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
We are always escaping from Egypt. We are always striving toward Eden. That’s who we are. We read the Torah over and over again each year, because this is the eternal journey of our history. Four of the five books of the Torah are about a journey. The trek from Egypt to Eden. From the place of degradation, dehumanization, destruction, to the land of milk and honey – of nurturance and life. This is so obvious, it escapes notice. Ours is a story of the road, of the journey. There is a dynamic built into the heart of Jewish life. We are all about movement. There is no such thing as “being Jewish.” It is always about becoming – becoming a partner of God, bringing the word to oneness, creating a moment of Eden right here right now, becoming the bearer of God’s dreams in all moments of life. Hebrew is not a language rich in nouns. Hebrew is all verbs. Because Jews speak the language of aspiration, of ideals, of dreams.
This summer, there was a demonstration in Israel. It wasn’t about the conflict. It had nothing to do with Palestinians, settlements, war and peace. It had to do with rent. A young filmmaker named Daphna Leef lost her lease on her Tel Aviv apartment. When she went out to find a new place, she discovered that rents in downtown Tel Aviv had so skyrocketed, she couldn’t afford to live there. It struck her as symbolic of much that is profoundly wrong in Israeli life.
Israel was once a socialist society, founded on the principle that working collectively, sharing and caring for one another, was the most efficient, the most ethical and the most Jewish way to build the new State. When I was a student in Jerusalem in 1973, apartments were small and drab, food was plain, you waited years to get a phone, and the Prime Minister was driven around in a Dodge Dart. No one in Israel was rich, but no one was poor. Beginning in the late 70’s, the Israeli government began a program of economic reforms, privatizing and deregulating industries and banks, dismantling the welfare state, and encouraging free enterprise. It worked. Israel is now an economic powerhouse.
While Greece, Spain and Italy struggle economically, Israel has found itself in the rare position of being a beacon of economic stability. The Israeli economy continues to expand by more than three percent annually, and Israel’s technology sector is a major force of innovation in the world. Every citizen in Israel has access to health care. Israeli universities are world-class. In the past decade alone, Israeli scientists have received ten Nobel prizes. There are in excess of 7500 millionaires and 12 billionaires living in Israel. But a fourth of all Israelis live below the poverty line. As many as 40% live in economic insecurity. Many Israelis feel that their country is deteriorating at its core. Corruption has reached alarming levels. The peace process with the Palestinians is going nowhere. And the government’s policy of lowering welfare support while allowing a hand-full of rich families to dominate broad sectors of the economy, has forced even members of the educated middle class, like Dafna Leef, into poverty.
Dafna Leef pitched a tent on the grassy median in the middle of Rothschild Blvd. Rothschild Blvd, lined with fine apartments, cafés and sushi restaurants is one of the nicest street in Tel Aviv. It is named for Baron Edmund Rothschild of the famous Jewish banking family and is home to most of Israel’s largest banks and insurance companies. It is the site of Israel’s Independence Hall, where the state was first proclaimed. In one week, Leef was joined by 5000 others. By midsummer, there was full tent city on Rothschild -- thousands living peacefully, cooperative, in a sort of seven-week long Woodstock. Each week, a formal demonstration was held, and each week it grew bigger until early September, when the rally attracted half a million. The demonstrators’ struggle went well beyond economic demands. Israel’s fundamental character became the question.
Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, believed that a State would make Jews a normal people, a people like all others. He was wrong. Because there is nothing normal about this people. There never has been. Any other people would be satisfied with the prosperity and security Israel enjoys. But at the heart of Zionism is an aspiration to do more – to build a redeemed society and to change the character of human life. At the heart of this people is the aspiration to bring the dream of Eden into reality.
What will come of it? No one knows. But a fire has been kindled among Israelis. The old/new Zionist dream has been awakened. During a street concert in Tel Aviv, Shlomo Artzi, the old, popular musician, sung a tune that resonated well: “We are dreaming of a new country.”
The dream of Eden. Everything we do as Jews can be traced back to the dream. Every ritual, every custom, every belief, every element of culture. When we ask our kids to live as Jews, we’re asking them to becoming partners in pursuing the divine dream.
Come with me on a field trip. We’re going to walk down Ventura Blvd until we come to the corner of Ventura Blvd and Eden Avenue. You all know where that is, right?
And at Eden Avenue, we’re going to turn and look to the end of the street, where the gate to the Garden of Eden still stands. That gate is guarded by a fiery, fearsome angel. But just beyond the gate is the Tree of Life – the spreading branches of the tree of immortality, the symbol of the oneness and peace of the Garden. What ever happened to that Tree? Once we left the Garden, where did it go?
Now from where we’re standing, it’s going to look as though the fire of the angel is superimposed onto that tree. So the tree will appear to be burning, but it will never burn up. Where do we know that from?
The Burning Bush, the same miracle from which God called Moses to free his people from Egypt. It’s the Tree of Life, turning into the Tree of responsibility and liberation.
When Moses brings his people out of Egypt, they arrive at Mt Sinai, where God gives them Torah. And included in Torah are the instructions for building the Mishkan, the shrine that will accompany this people on their journey to the Promised Land. The Ark, the Tent, the Alter, and in front, a Menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum, made of gold, and decorated with leaves and flowers and fruits. An eight-branched golden candelabrum with leaves and flowers, looks like what? A tree. And when we light it, it looks like the tree burns, but is never burned up.
And that symbol, the menorah, is the perennial symbol of the Jewish people. (The six-pointed star is very late, perhaps 17th century, and borrowed from outsiders.) In the catacombs beneath Rome, we can identify Jewish graves, sarcophagi, because they are marked with the menorah. Medieval Jewish manuscripts always bear the symbol of the menorah. In the 11th century Alta-Neua Synagogue in Prague, the keystone over the door is marked with the menorah. Across the street from the Knesset, the symbol of the State of Israel, is the menorah.
The menorah is the Tree of Life, the symbol of the oneness and wholeness of the Garden. The Menorah is the perennial symbol of the Jewish People, because t is the eternal mission and purpose of the Jewish to bring the world back to that Garden, and to bring the Garden’s oneness, wholeness and peace to the world.
Freed from Egypt, the people Israel stood and Mt Sinai, and God spoke to them. Mamlechet kohamin, v’goy kadosh. You will be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Kedoshim tiy’hu, ki kadosh Ani Adonai Elohechim. You will be holy, because I, the Lord Your God am holy.
What does it mean to be holy? What is the word, Kadosh? It is the highest spiritual virtue, the very quality we share with God. You know the word. You use it all the time.
When we gather around a table, on Shabbat or on a holiday. And we hold close our family, our friends, our community. We raise a cup of wine and recite a blessing. It isn’t the wine that is blessed. It is the circle of intimacy, of sharing, of oneness. That prayer is called…..Kiddush.
Two loving friends pledge to share life together, laughter and tears, challenges and dreams. A ring is placed on the right forefinger and a promise is uttered: Harey at mikudeshet li. You are mine, soulmate, lover, friend. Marriage in Hebrew is Kiddushin.
When a loved one dies, we come to realize that what we loved never dies. We never let go. They live with us, their wisdom, their love, their kindness. So we stand up, in the presence of community and recite a prayer, a declaration of loyalty, and that’s called Kaddish.
Kiddush. Kiddushin. Kaddish. It’s always about bonding, about bringing the discrete piece of reality into wholeness, into oneness.
Kedoshim tihyu, Your bonding is holy because in each gesture of bonding you bring to reality a bit of the divine dream, a world made whole, a world made holy, a world returned to the Garden.
Look at the two windows that adorn this synagogue. One says “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad,” Listen Israel, God lives, and God is One. God lives in oneness. The facing window says: From the Torah, just a few verses after Kedoshim tihyu: Va’ahavt L’re’acha Kamocha. You will love your neighbor as yourself. They are one message. God is one whenever we perceive our oneness with the other. And when we love the other, we make God one in the world. It is the eternal mission and purpose of the Jewish people is to bring the world back to that Garden, and to bring the Garden’s oneness, wholeness and peace to the world.
A rabbi once asked his students: “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”
The students thought they grasped the importance of this question. There are, after all, prayers and rites and rituals that can only be done at nighttime. And there are prayers and rites and rituals that belong only to the day. It is important to know how we can tell when night has ended and day has begun. It is important to get the rites and rituals correct.
So the first and brightest of the students offered an answer: “Rabbi, when I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
A second student offered his answer: “Rabbi, when I look from the fields and I see a house, and I can tell that it’s my house and not the house of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
A third student offered another answer: “Rabbi, when I see an animal in the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow or a horse or a sheep, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
Then a fourth student offered yet another an answer: “Rabbi, when I see a flower and I can make out the colors of the flower, whether they are red or yellow or blue, that’s when night has ended and day has begun.”
Each answer brought a sadder, more severe frown to the rabbi’s face. Until finally, he shouted, “No! None of you understands! You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from your neighbor’s field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all the others. Is that all we can do – dividing, separating, splitting the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough? Isn’t the world split into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for? No, my dear students, it’s not that way, not that way at all!”
The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi. “Then, Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?”
The Rabbi stared back into the faces of his students, and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded: “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun.”
The rabbis of the Talmud asked, what will it take to bring the Messiah, to bring the ultimate redemption?
They answered, when every person sees himself, herself, in the eyes of the other, when we are one, connected and responsible for each other, God will send the Messiah.
The rabbis ask: But if that happened, the world would be whole, at peace, it would be perfect. The world would be Eden, and we wouldn’t need the Messiah.
The rabbis answer: Yup.
Would you recommend this book to your friends?
Yes. And now more than ever. Because God isn’t finished with this people yet. Because the divine drama hasn’t yet come to its conclusion. Because there is so much more to do. Yes, now more than ever.