This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Balak, is one of the oldest pieces of text in the biblical canon. It tells the story of the ancient Moabites, unfriendly neighbors whose territory our foremothers and forefathers had to traverse on their way home to the Land of Israel. Fearful of our ancestors, the Moabites were intent on inflicting some kind of harm.
Biblical literature is filled with numerous examples of ancient near eastern peoples who sought to hurt the Israelites by way of physical violence. In the Torah itself, the Amalekites are infamous for a sneak attack from behind that resulted in a massacre of Israelite women and children.
But here, in the heart of the Book of Numbers, the Moabites choose a different course of action. The Moabite king, Balak, hires the magician and prophet known as Balaam. Balak pays Balaam a considerable amount of money to use his renowned skill to put a verbal curse on our people. The rest of the narrative is filled with the details of Balaam’s ultimate failure to do the job that he was hired to do.
But here we should pause, and ask ourselves: why is it that Balak and the Moabites would resort to such a strange way of harming our ancestors? Why try to do it through speech and words, rather than through brute force and violence?
Rashi, our great commentator from 11th century France, imagines that Balak – before hiring Balaam – reaches out to the other near eastern peoples of the region to get the dirt on Moses and the Israelites….on who they are, and what they are about. And according to Rashi, the report that Balak receives is summarized in one sentence: ein kocho eileh b’fiv – the power that the Israelites have – literally “the only power that they have” - is centered around their words, and their speech. Rashi’s implication is clear. Balak hired Balaam to use the Israelites’ most effective weapon against themselves.
There are all sorts of theological lessons that we could derive from Balak and Balaam’s folly. But those will have to wait for a future sermon.
I’m most interested in the actual statement that Rashi makes about the Jewish condition. Again, he writes: ein kocho eileh b’fiv – their might is derived solely from their lips….from the words they use in the world.
Our Tradition has always exhibited an extraordinary awareness of the power of our words. Indeed, Rashi’s statement about Moses could just as easily be applied to the classic Jewish understanding of God: ein kocho eileh b’fiv – God’s might is derived solely through the use of words. Thus, the Torah opens with the story of the creation of the world, a feat that God accomplished simply by virtue of the power of God’s speech. As Genesis 1:3 makes plain:
Vayomer Elohim – And God said…
Yihi Or – Let there be light.
And just like that….Vayehi Or – there was light.
We learn from this that all words bear meaning, and that those meanings are equated with power. The words we speak out loud can spread love, or inflict pain – they can literally create or shatter universes – for the people who hear us.
But there are also political and historical overtones to Rashi’s statement. We read the words ein kocho eileh b’fiv and we cannot help but think about the emasculation of our people, from the time that true Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel ended in 586 BCE when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple and sacked Jerusalem, until the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.
For 2500 years, the Jewish people had no standing army… no real physical or political power. The force that sustained us during all of those centuries of exile around the world was our words. Words of Torah and Talmud, of midrash and commentary, words of legal literature and philosophy. Words and words and words. Inscribed in scrolls, printed in books, orally passed down, and now pixellated in blog entries and Tweets from generation to generation. Words that fill entire libraries today. Ein kocho eileh b’fiv – All we have are our words and our values. They are the essence of what it means to be a Jew. For 2500 years there were no tanks and fighter planes. No rifles or nuclear submarines. All we had to defend ourselves…all we could rely on to keep the Jewish People alive was our words.
Parshat Balak is all about blessings and curses. And so it is perhaps appropriate to observe that the creation of the State of Israel 64 years ago was both a blessing, and a curse. A blessing in the sense, of course, that the homeland we had yearned for for so long was now our’s – and is now our’s. Particularly in light of the horrors of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State, and the creation of the Israel Defense Force which came with it, was a reassuring guarantee that there would be at least one place in the world that Jews would be safe in, and safe from the kind of anti-Semitic persecution which has been an endemic reality of Jewish history and existence.
And yet, I would respectfully and humbly suggest that the tremendous power that came along with the establishment of the State and the IDF, has also been a sort of a curse. A curse in the sense that…with great power comes great responsibility.
What I mean, here, is that if Rashi was right….and that ein kocho eileh b’fiv – if the only kind of power that Jews have really ever known has been the power of our words, our speech, and our writing….then that means that the power that Jews have created and claimed for themselves through the Zionist enterprise – an enterprise that I 100% proudly subscribe to and support – then it is a kind of power that we are unfamiliar with. Never before in our history have we known what to do with weapons, and with real, brute force. We speak of Jewish ethics, and more particularly of Jewish military ethics….but if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that such a notion is paradoxical….because in the entire history of Jewish ethics, we have never before had occasion to apply our values to the battlefield. When and where would our ancestors have had occasion to explore what that would even mean?
In that sense, the modern state of Israel – even after 64 years – remains an evolving experiment.
What are our authentic obligations – as Jews – to the Palestinians? Admittedly, that is a loaded question. I don’t have to tell you that the Israeli public, and its politicians are not of one mind on the subject, even as we witness the beginning of an unexpected coalition government under Prime Minister Netanyahu at this very moment. I won’t be so bold as to attempt to answer that question this evening. But I absolutely believe that tonight – this first night that you and I have the chance to study and pray together – is the time to begin asking that question. To put the question of our relationship with the Palestinians on the table - to raise it, and to suggest that regardless of how each of us individually answers that question – we should acknowledge that there is certainly no more pressing ethical question that we as Jews should be wrestling with at this moment in Jewish history. And so…wrestle we shall…
And even as Jewish Power has changed dramatically in Israel over the last 64 years, we have witnessed a parallel change in Jewish identity right here at home in America. These last few decades have witnessed the disintegration of most of the institutionalized anti-Semitism that at one time did mar the American Jewish experience. Quotas at universities, discrimination at country clubs, and restricted neighborhoods are all by and large a thing of the past. Anti-Semitism has not disappeared completely. And we still have not witnessed the inauguration of a Jewish president. But surely we would agree that things have changed.
We have made it in America, so to speak, and we exercise an extraordinary amount of power and influence over different segments of industry, government, and culture. We should celebrate our accomplishments. But like the State of Israel, we should be….or to say it a different way….we are Jewishly obligated to be constantly aware, and self-reflective…about the way that we use our power and authority.
This week’s Torah portion dares to challenge us: Are we using our abilities for good, and for the betterment of our community? Or to put it another way: may we re-commit ourselves to Rashi’s teaching….and his implication that there will be something fleeting about the tremendous power and authority that exists in the Jewish world today – unless that power…..our actions…the influence that we exercise….the way that we treat others…is done in such a way that it is grounded in, and shaped by, the very words and the very values of our Tradition.
Well….here we are. For the very first time, it is my great privilege to be able to say: Shabbat Shalom.
I cannot begin to express how honored and humbled I am to be standing before you this evening, and to set off on this incredible journey with you. I am excited for all that the future holds for us, and I pray that our partnership is a meaningful one that is rooted in a shared desire to deepen our commitment to Jewish learning and living, and that the end results of our work will be a reinvigorated sense of progressive Jewish identity in the 2st century, coupled with a heightened awareness of our connection and responsibility to all of those in need - here within our own Scarsdale Synagogue family, in surrounding Westchester County and the New York metropolitan area, in Israel, and around the world.
I bring greetings this evening from my wife, Amy. She and our two children, our almost six year old daughter Siona and almost two year old son Avi are home together, but they are all anxious to meet you and begin getting to know you, as I am, in the coming weeks and months.
If you’ll excuse the formality of this, I do want to make a point of thanking a number of people who have made this moment possible. To Ellen Baken and Steve Eigen, the co-chairs of the Search Committee, and the other members of the search team: all I can say is – you showed incredible wisdom and discernment in making your choice! I can only hope that I live up to the potential that you saw in my candidacy.
To Ellen Plum Rosenberg, our Past President who is travelling in Europe at this very moment, and Ellen Baken, our new President: thank you for your incredible friendship and support over these last few months as we have worked together to begin to forge a vision of how we will bring the next chapter of SSTTE’s history to life.
I want to thank the entire staff for their patience and encouragement over the last few months, and this past week. I want to particularly thank Cantor Becker, Gary, Jody, Becky, and Ivy for the many phone calls and emails in which they have kindly begun to brief me on the state of the congregation. I am so looking forward to working with all of you.
I want to thank Rabbi Gordon, who was so very menschy during these last few months, as he shared the details of his portfolio with me. I know that you join me in wishing him much luck as he and Brian begin their next chapter on Long Island.
Finally, a brief word about Rabbi Klein.
As you may know, it is exceedingly rare in the synagogue world today for a rabbi to spend more than three decades with a single congregation. The length and breadth of his tenure speaks volume about who he is as a person and as a rabbi. And it also says a great deal about who you are as a community. It is impressive…and as Rabbi Klein’s successor, it is indeed humbling. To say that I have substantial shoes to fill would be the understatement of the year. I join all of you in congratulating Rabbi Klein on his many years of service to you, and Amy and I wish him and Joanne good health and much fulfillment in all of their days ahead.
As some of you know, Rabbi Klein has decided to create a little bit of space and distance – to allow me to get situated, particularly here in the sanctuary – over the next six months. I am most appreciative of his generous and compassionate understanding of the challenges associated with being the new rabbi, and I – like you – look forward to being able to greet him and welcome him back to this sanctuary in January.
Our lives are marked by a cycle of transitions. In our family lives, our work spaces, and here in our synagogue: we are regularly faced with change.
Mourning the loss, or ending, of anything in our lives is never easy. Saying goodbye to the people, things, or institutions that we associate with our past is disorienting…and breeds anxiety because we have no idea what the future holds. That which is new is frightening.
But new beginnings are also filled with new potential and possibility.
At its essence, this is what Shabbat is all about. It’s the reason that we gather together every single week. With a certain amount of sadness, we say farewell to the week that is ending. But with hope, and optimism, we set this one day aside each week in order to renew ourselves, and prepare ourselves, for the new week, and the new chapter, which lies before us...
"New Beginnings" by Gertrude McClain
It's only the beginning now
...a pathway yet unknown
At times the sound of other steps
...sometimes we walk alone
The best beginnings of our lives
May sometimes end in sorrow
But even on our darkest days
The sun will shine tomorrow.
So we must do our very best
Whatever life may bring
And look beyond the winter chill
To smell the breath of spring.
Into each life will always come
A time to start anew
A new beginning for each heart
As fresh as morning dew.
Although the cares of life are great
And hands are bowed so low
The storms of life will leave behind
The wonder of a rainbow.
The years will never take away
Our chance to start anew
It's only the beginning now
So dreams can still come true.
After six months of anticipation, Day One of my tenure at SSTTE arrived this morning. It's a Sunday during the summer, so the temple calendar was quiet today...a small gift to me and my family as we continue our transition to New York.
Amy and I decided to "play tourist" with the kids, and so we wound up at South Street Seaport in the City, and soon thereafter on a boat tour around New York Harbor. Although a sail past the Statue of Liberty hadn't been a focal point of our thinking behind the adventure, I found myself incredibly moved during a day which was just supposed to be fun.
Although it admittedly sounds corny, it struck me as remarkable that my family and I were experiencing the very same welcome to New York City that all eight of my great-grandparents had one hundred years earlier. And as I realized that, I began thinking about what brings each of us to New York in the first place.
Some of us move here as adults, because of professional opportunities, or because of the allure of living in THE CITY.
But many of us are here (or in my case: return here) because our families are rooted here. And, for so many of us: we are rooted here...because this is the place where our great-grandparents (or other relatives) first arrived in this country. This place....this city...is our home - because a hundred years ago, our relatives didn't have any other place to call home. Except for this country. And except for this remarkable city, which by its very nature (as expressed via the statute who is the goodwill ambassador of New York) seems to radiate a sense of welcoming to all who seek a new life here.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
- Emma Lazarus, 1883
Though living in New York is a privilege that perhaps some of us take for granted - as Jews I would humbly suggest that our connection to this city is something sacred...something that we must acknowledge from time to time...in order to express humility, and remembrance of the fact that our forbears came to these shores with nothing but the clothes on their backs. And we should offer up gratitude that this City welcomed them anyway.
Okay...so I won't be residing in New York City proper. But today, I am immensely proud to be able to call myself a New Yorker.