These are days of great concern for Jews around the world. The rise of anti-Semitism is a real and alarming concern, yet, this past weekend I was able to put those concerns on hold.
In What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, I point out that the carefree world of the Garden of Eden is a world from which we’ve all been expelled. But this weekend as the guest of my dear friends, Elaine and Sheldon Kramer, I came close to an actual visit: Shabbat Eve services and the privilege of leading Torah study at Temple Isaiah in Maryland, the Bar Mitzvah of 79-year old Milt Kline, whose family I have known for 41 years, and yesterday morning cheering at the finish line of the IRON GIRL TRIATHLON for the Kramer’s daughter Missy, at whose Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation and wedding I officiated. This, coupled with the opportunity to discuss, sell and sign some books, has me feeling blessed, indeed!
During his Bar Mitzvah service Milt read a passage from the book of Deuteronomy (7:12-17) reaffirming the centrality of our Covenant with God. That Covenant, as God charged Abraham in the book of Genesis requires us to:
- Be a blessing in our lives (Genesis 12:2).
- Walk in God’s ways and be worthy of them (Genesis 17:1) meaning, we must embrace and exemplify God’s teachings.
- Fill the world with צדקה ומשפט Tzedakah u’Mishpat, righteousness and justice.”
The rest of the Torah concerns itself with expounding on and elucidating the details of those Covenantal imperatives.
At Milt’s Bar Mitzvah, it was my privilege to address the congregation through him. Milt’s simcha also provided the opportunity to illustrate the parallels between the passage Milt read and the key Covenantal details about which his children, David and Lisa, read during their respective Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies nearly 40 years ago.
David’s Torah portion emphasized one of the most important of all Covenantal principles: לא תוכל להתעלם Lo too-chal l’heet-ah lame You must not remain indifferent.” You see, in Judaism there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. When we see injustice, we must acknowledge it, and then take the necessary measures to eradicate it.
At her Bat Mitzvah, Lisa examined the early observance of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16). In that passage, the Israelites symbolically transferred their sins onto a scapegoat that carried them into the wilderness. Today, as Lisa taught, we have no scapegoats. We must take responsibility to examine our lives with the intent of repenting for deeds of which we are not proud, with the resolve to do better going forward.
My late Ulpan (intensive Hebrew language training) teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, taught us that it is not just a credit to the Jewish people to have invented a day like Yom Kippur. It is a credit and gift to all humanity to take a full day each year to engage in solemn חשבון הנפש (Heshbon ha-nefesh) introspection. We are commanded to eschew all earthly pleasures (i.e., eating, drinking and sexual activity) to focus entirely on the duty of self-improvement.
I also noted that Lisa’s Haftarah (portion read from the prophets) was an angry rant from the prophet Ezekiel proclaiming that the people of Judah would suffer hardship and exile because they abandoned the covenant. (See Ezekiel 22:29-31).
It was wonderful to observe, then, that Milt’s Haftarah, 36 years later, brought the journey full-circle with a message of forgiveness, return and hope. “For the Eternal One has comforted Zion …and has made her desert like the Garden of Eden … joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of joyous song!” (Isaiah 51:3)
Yes, there is a real world of pain and suffering out there that invites pessimism and despair, but our tradition exhorts us—commands us—to look with hope toward the future. No matter how bleak things appear, we trust in the promise that the wilderness in which we live can be transformed into an Eden, in which joy and gladness negates suffering and pain.
That is the hope I embrace and cherish as I return to ‘the real world,’ strengthened by my glorious respite in Eden.