Anti-Semitism Interview 4/21/2014

The following link takes you to a short interview on WHSV about Anti-Semitism in light of recent events.

Interview Appears Here

Mo’adim Le’simchah,

Rabbi Joe

 

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Hebrews wouldn’t recognize our Passover

Column as published in The News Virginian
The News Virginian

The following is an article I wrote for a monthly column appearing in The News Virginian. This appeared on April 4th, 2014.

Hebrews wouldn’t recognize our Passover

Posted: Friday, April 4, 2014 6:45 am

Rabbi Joe Blair

Editor’s note: Rabbi Joe Blair from Temple House of Israel in Staunton will run a column with us on the first Friday of each month, one of several local religious leaders that have been asked to contribute. In this article, the letter ‘o’ has been intentionally left out of the word G-d. Some members of Reform Judaism refer to Deuteronomy 12:3-4 and feel that people, when possible, should avoid writing the name of God.

April this year is a good time to start something new from a Jewish viewpoint. The evening of April 14 at sundown is the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew, the source of the word ‘pascal’ in the phrase ‘pascal lamb’). It is a time for new things, because it is recognition of the impending arrival of spring and the renewal of the cycle of life that represents. It is also known as a new year on the Jewish calendar, because it is the first holiday with which the calendar cycle is described in the Bible. So it is appropriate that here we start something new – this column!

Passover is the Jewish celebration of two major things.

First, it is a celebration of liberation, based on the events told in the book of Exodus about the Hebrews (the children of Jacob) being freed from slavery. This is certainly a big deal, and worth remembering forever, but even this pales in comparison to what happened next!

The second aspect of the celebration is that this is a remembrance of G-d’s redemption of the Hebrews from the bonds of slavery, under the yoke of a cruel master. This is a miraculous salvation, taking them out from the midst of a powerful people who would have easily held them in captivity, but for the might and power of G-d. Only by means of the miracles that G-d wrought through his agents Moses and Aaron were the Hebrews able to flee.  No one, not even the mighty Pharaoh, himself a god among the pantheon of gods, could deflect or stand before the power of G-d. This was most abundantly clear in the final plague, the death of the first born sons. The children of the Hebrews were spared when they did as instructed and sacrificed an animal, placing a portion of the blood on the doorposts of their homes to indicate that this was the home of a G-d-fearer and should be bypassed when the plague was visited on those who did not hold G-d in awe. These are the (short form) reasons for this festival.

At first Passover was a form of re-enactment of the events of the Redemption for the purpose of remembrance. The details of the celebration began very modestly. The commandment in the Torah (5 books of Moses) was to continue those same actions as a form of remembrance. While the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness, and then later in Israel, and when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the celebration was to offer the best ram of a certain age one had for a sacrifice to G-d, with all of the blood removed, the animal roasted, and then consumed by the family, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs – the three major symbols of this holiday (offering, matzah, and bitter herbs).

Only much later, after the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70 C.E. by the Romans did the ceremony of the ritual change. Without a Temple at which to offer a sacrifice, all Jewish sacrifices stopped. Instead, the Hebrews, who were now called the Israelites (after their ancestor Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel) and who were by this time again living in the land of Israel, replaced these animal sacrifices with the sacrifice of the heart – prayers. That is the way we have done it ever since.

Of course, without an animal sacrifice the form of the remembrance of the Redemption had to also adapt. Instead of a lamb barbecue, we had prayers, and we moved the ritual from the Temple to the home. That was the beginning of the Passover Seder.

Seder is a word that means order, and refers to the ‘order’ of the ritual, which includes the meal in the midst of the order as a part of the ‘offering’. The meal is itself structured to be a part of the retelling of the story of the Exodus by incorporating symbolic items and actions as part of it. That is where we include the use of the matzah – the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs, the salt water, the roasted egg, the lamb shankbone representing the sacrifice, and the greens. The entire seder is an elaborate teaching tool – it focuses on the events of Exodus, tries to stimulate questions, and teaches that we should each envision our self as if we were there and part of the story. In this way, we recall the story, tell it, enact it, and consume it, all at one time, and thus embody it literally (you are what you eat and do). Other symbols were added over time (I named a few above), and more came, including the use of the four cups of wine, the cup of Elijah, the cup of Miriam, the orange on the seder plate, and many more. The seder we have today would be unrecognizable to one of the Hebrews, but it is how we remember and retell the story of the Exodus. Oops! I am out of space. More next month!  – Rabbi Joe

 

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Rabbi Joe Blair’s ‘Drash’/Sermon to Emmanuel Episcopal Church

Rabbi Joe Blair’s ‘Drash’/Sermon to Emmanuel Episcopal Church

Staunton VA    March 2, 2014/Adar 1 30, 5774

[This drash was delivered to the Congregation by Rabbi Joe as part of a "pulpit exchange" with Rev. Shelby Owen at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton.]

Shalom! Good morning to you!

Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.

Rev. Owen – Shelby – my thanks to you for agreeing to our ‘pulpit exchange’. I hope that both our communities find it a rich concept and worth repeating in future. I am approaching this ‘drash’ from an informal perspective; if that is not suited to your community, please accept my apologies in advance. I also am limiting my remarks to the Hebrew Scripture reading from Exodus in the lectionary for today. I know I won’t do it justice, and I can’t imagine having enough time to do more!

The scripture reading for today includes a section from Exodus chapter 24 verses 12-18.  

I have taken the liberty of asking Sarah Grove-Humphries, your organist, and our Cantorial Soloist, to chant the reading from Exodus in the Traditional Trope so you can hear what it sounds like. [Sarah Chants here]

In this very brief reading we see that Moses is being called up onto Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the ten sayings (sometimes called the 10 commandments), the teachings of the Torah – the five books of Moses, also called the ‘torah’ or ‘instruction’ – and the ‘Mitzvot’ or commandments by which we are to live a good and godly life, in order to teach all of them to the Hebrews. Moses rises, and tells the 70 elders to stay where they are, and that should anyone present a question or conflict that needed resolution, Aaron and Chur would be there to handle them.  Spoiler alert – this doesn’t work out all that well – we will be hearing about the failure and episode of the golden calf shortly!

Then, we read, Moses goes up, and the cloud of the glory of G-d covers Mount Sinai, and remains there for six days. On the seventh day, G-d called to Moses from inside the cloud, and Moses entered, and met with G-d. At that point the sight of the glory of G-d appeared to the people as a consuming fire on top of the mountain; and we read that Moses remained atop the mountain for forty days and nights.

Let’s just picture this from the viewpoint of the people. They are camped around the foot of the mountain, and Moses has told them not to set foot on the mountain or to touch it, lest they die. The elders have ascended partway with Moses and are still on the mountain – perhaps visible, at least from time to time, but perhaps not. And Moses, who has led them here, has ascended the mountain, and entered the cloud where G-d is found – and then the cloud of the glory of G-d turns into a devouring fire!

“No way,” they think, “could Moses survive that! G-d has become angry and killed Moses. Moses is no more.” And it is in that mindset that they turn on Aaron and demand that he do something! Make something that we can pray to that will make G-d less angry! So the golden calf comes about…. In that light, it is easier for us to imagine the motivations and the concerns that drove the people.

But that is not what I want to talk to you about today.

Instead, I want to do a bit of a close reading, to focus on the details to see what they may reveal for us.

Going back to the beginning, we know that Moses was reluctant to take on this role. “Not me, G-d. Pick someone else, G-d. They won’t believe me. I am slow of speech, and heavy of tongue.” Moses, known as the most humble of men, argued with G-d! He must have felt pretty strongly that he didn’t want to do this. But here, Moses utters not a word. G-d calls, and Moses goes. This time is different for some reason.

Is it because Moses has seen what G-d can and will do? Is it because G-d already told Moses that any objection raised would be met? Or is it because Moses has grown to accept that what G-d instructs will occur? Has Moses come to a realization of the power of G-d? Does he grow and learn to have faith in G-d? All of these questions, and more, come to mind here.

And now I share with you a very important aspect of life as a Jew. We have lots of questions, but we don’t necessarily have answers. We are called to ask questions, to search and to seek, but often we are left to live with ambivalence, uncertainty, and unclarity. There are many things to which there are no answers provided, and even a few where the ‘answer’ is simply that this is too hard to answer, so we will leave it until Elijah comes to announce the start of the messianic age, and can respond – until then, as they say, just learn to live with it!  And so with our questions here.

The next step in our reading is even more interesting. Moses goes to the elders and instructs them in what to do. Now you will have to trust me on this, but the two most common phrases throughout the Torah – the five books of Moses – are, ‘And G-d said to Moses’, or ‘And G-d spoke to Moses’. Moses gets a LOT of instructions, directions, advice, counsel, and information from G-d. But here, no such thing – G-d doesn’t say a thing. Moses simply instructs the elders. Apparently Moses already knows what needs to be done, and he takes the initiative to make it happen. The questions this begs are, ‘How did Moses know what to do? Is Moses acting with intiative because he is ‘on board’ – perhaps even looking forward to, or anticipating the opportunity for his close encounter with G-d; a chance to be alone and converse with the Divine? Is this really the same Moses who whines and complains that he is the wrong man for the job?’
Again, no answers, just the echo of our own questions.

And then Moses ascends the mountain, and the cloud covers it, and we are told that NOTHING HAPPENS. Moses goes up into the cloud, and he waits. And he waits, and he waits, and he waits. He waits for a total of SEVEN DAYS and NOTHING happens. What is that about? Why is it part of this story? What does it mean?

Perhaps it will help us to recall that seven is what is called a typological number in Jewish thought, a number that implies wholeness and completeness. It tells the number of the days of the week, it is the length of the biblical festival holidays (Sukkot and Passover), it is the time of the celebration rituals for the couple following a wedding, it is the number of Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Israelites. Seven appears over and over again in Judaism. So we can readily imagine that Moses waiting for seven days has significance in some way.

We don’t know how, really, but there are some suppositions put forth. For example, perhaps Moses, as a human being who had been in Egypt, met with Pharaoh, encountered the Egyptian Magicians, had contact with the Egyptian priests, worship, and gods – including Pharaoh, remember – for Pharaoh was considered a god by the Egyptians – perhaps as a result Moses was not in a sufficiently ritually pure state to encounter G-d when he ascended the mountain, so the seven days might have been necessary for him to be cleansed and purified spiritually and ritually in preparation for the meeting (just as we read that Miriam must wait seven days after her punishment following gossiping about her brother’s wife). Or perhaps Moses was tainted ritually by having encountered death – the ultimate source of ritual impurity in Hebrew, Israelite, and Jewish practice – when he called down the final plague – the death of the first born on the Egyptians, or perhaps it was for the death of the Egyptian military in the Reed Sea. Again, we don’t know, but we can’t help but wonder – and leave it an open question.

And then, G-d calls to Moses from the midst of the cloud. This can only call to mind other images of G-d calling: G-d as the voice within the fire of the burning bush calling Moses in the wilderness. Here on Mount Sinai, and then soon again, when we read of G-d as he will be seen by the Hebrews leading them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and hovering over the Ark in the Tabernacle. God is not said to BE the cloud or the fire, but to be in its midst, just as we are told in Job that G-d was not the whirlwind – G-d appeared as the small still voice.

So Moses enters a thick, impenetrable cloud, and is lost from view. The cloud then takes on the appearance of fire, and thirty-three days pass, more than an entire month! No word, no sign, nothing.

While in the cloud, G-d is speaking to Moses, instructing him, teaching him, showing him, giving him all the rules, laws, teachings, ethics, values, and behaviors that are contained in the Torah and the related texts.

In the cloud things are busy, buzzing, and happening. Moses and G-d are communing, communicating, embraced in an encounter and a relationship.

Outside, it is silence and apartness, all cut off from G-d and Moses.

That is a short look touching on what the Torah says in this reading, and what it causes us to ask and imagine.

I feel the need to finish up the story by jumping ahead a little bit. When Moses descends from the mountain, carrying the tablets and ready to teach, we read that his face is suffused with a glow, and that light emanates from him in rays.  [A side note: the word in Hebrew for rays is the same word as horns – so in some translations of the Torah, Moses is described as having horns. That is where Michaelangelo, for example, got the idea both for his frescoes in the Sistine chapel and his later statue of Moses.]

Moses is so filled with light from his encounter and interaction with G-d that he radiates that divine light afterwards, and must wear a veil to protect others. Think of the glow that we see in the face of a lover who has just been with their beloved, and we have a possible parallel.

Now, as we run out of time today, we have to ask the larger question: what does it all mean to us?

We can’t answer all the questions raised, but we can pull out some general thoughts that may help us on our way. Here is my brief attempt to do that. I came up with five points.

1. Moses has come to accept, have faith in, and even trust G-d since the day at the burning bush. G-d already knew Moses, and accepted him as he was. G-d and Moses are a team. So when G-d calls Moses to come in for a pow-wow, Moses goes. More, this is closer to a retreat for the two of them. It is a time alone and apart from everyone else. Moses goes when G-d calls, and does what he knows G-d would want, because there is a relationship between them. G-d knows what Moses needs and offers it, but doesn’t overwhelm Moses by doing it all for him. And it would seem that there is not just a working arrangement, but a mutual sense of respect, even love, that permeates the interaction. Isn’t this the model of a partnership or a loving relationship?

2. Moses changes and grows – we see that because Moses learns stop thinking of himself, and to anticipate what it is that G-d will need or want from him. On the other hand, G-d is immutable and unchanging, but G-d changes G-d’s behavior to suit what Moses needs. At first G-d is directive, then G-d is instructive, and here G-d is collaborative. G-d doesn’t change, but G-d adjusts the means and the tools used to accomplish G-d’s ends. People can grow, and G-d will recognize that and act accordingly in relationship with them.

3. Both G-d and Moses understand the power and meaning of ritual and intentionality, and accept the limitations that it may impose. Moses doesn’t complain or whine about waiting, and G-d doesn’t cause things to happen more rapidly. Each patiently waits, eagerly anticipating the encounter with the other, as two close friends or lovers wait for the time they may be together.

4. There is trust between G-d and Moses. Moses asks no questions, doesn’t hesitate, and expresses no qualms. G-d has no concern that Moses will come when asked to do so. Each knows the other, each believes and trusts the other. They are in a relationship of mutual trust and acceptance.

5. G-d provides Moses with a gift that is meant for Moses and all the Hebrews, and through them, for the whole of humanity. That is, of course, the teachings, including the Torah. At the same time, G-d gives this gift to Moses personally, face to face, as it were, lovingly. And that is how we should receive it, and pass it along to others.

So we see that in this story the heart of it (and I choose that word intentionally) is that it is all about creating and nurturing our relationships. We all wish to find love in life, and this teaching from the Torah tells us that we are also able to find love and relationship with G-d. We must want it, we must seek it out, we must bring it into existence, and we must work at it – just as with any other loving relationship. Knowing that it is possible, and that we have the ability to make it real in our own life, we pray:

May we each find our loving relationships in life and with the divine. May G-d grant us gifts and love as G-d did with Moses. And may we each grow and change to be more attuned to G-d and what G-d wants from us in the world, so that our relationship with G-d will also grow and be strengthened.

And Let us say, Amen. 

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Sermon: Encounter with the Holy by Rev. Shelby Owen

Sermon: Encounter with the Holy

Reverend Shelby Owen

Temple House of Israel

Exodus 38:21-40:38

February 28, 2014

[Rev. Owen addressed the members of Temple House of Israel as part of a "pulpit exchange" with Rabbi Joe Blair. ]

In today’s reading from Exodus we find ourselves somewhere in the desert busy, busy, busy.  There is a lot of construction going on.   We have engravers, designers, and embroiderers making materials for the tabernacle, the portable house of worship.  You can hear the commotion if you just listen carefully, men moving things around (sorry there is no mention of women here), hammering gold, bronze and silver into new things used for worship.  You can picture gorgeous cloth being woven out of blue, purple and crimson yarn and fine linen. You can see beautiful priestly vestments being created out of onyx and gold filigree, with rows of brilliant stones such as carnelian, emeralds, sapphires, beryl and amethyst.  The description of the materials for the tabernacle comes to us with great detail.  And again and again we hear these things were done, “as the Lord commanded Moses.”  And “When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.” (39:43)

And after Moses blessed them they moved into a new frenzy of activity, moving the ark of the covenant into the tabernacle, setting up lamps on lampstands, anointing the tabernacle, washing, anointing and consecrating Aaron and his sons to serve as priests, putting the golden altar inside, and then finally “Moses finished the work.”  The Israelites were able to see the fruit of their labor. They had worked hard, no doubt; maybe they felt some kind of satisfaction in their diligence.  They had finished this stage of their journey.  They had essentially prepared a place for God.

And did God ever show up!  In brilliance and radiance, God showed up!  Exodus (40:34-35) reads “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”  I wonder if the writer repeated those words so close together (“the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle”) because words are so hard to come by when one experiences the living God?  Here we have gone from a detailed account of things that are relatively easy to describe, easy to picture, such as gold lampstands and ornate vestments, concrete things that are easy to touch, to an ethereal account of an ultimate experience of the Almighty.  God himself.  God herself.  This theophany, this showing or appearance of God, is one of Scripture’s best efforts at describing the indescribable holiness of God.  How do we articulate our own experience of God?  How do we explain in words to ourselves, much less to other people, when we have encountered the holy?

“The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”  This was an ultimate experience.   How can we possibly imagine this occurrence?  Words are insufficient to describe the God that goes beyond our image of God; words are insufficient to describe the God who refuses to stay in the box where we might want to keep God.  And what on earth (or what in heaven) does “glory” even look like?

This is not one of those passages in Scripture which would support the notion that God is your ole’ buddy, God is your close pal, who is just like you!  This is a passage that suggests that God is some kind of “unutterable otherness.”  And you need to be alert! The holiness of God is more dangerous and powerful and bigger than anything we can imagine.  And yet this dangerous, powerful and huge God is choosing to dwell with his people.  The omnipresent God has taken up residence right here in the midst of this community of faith.  This uncontrollable God wants to be involved with his creation.  While the cloud represents God’s presence with his people, the cloud also represents God’s hiddenness.  For God is not the cloud. God is not the fire. And yet, in this most holy moment the cloud is a way to understanding, or if not understanding, at least a way through which one encounters the holiness of the Almighty. The cloud gives us a visible manifestation of an invisible God. And here we are reminded that this God chose to dwell with his people.

It seems that most people I encounter these days would describe themselves as busy, busy, busy.  It seems that with exponential strides in technology, we as a society are ever increasing our activity level, and while in our busyness we may not actually be using real hammers to construct tabernacles or buildings, the hammers in our heads are constantly on the move.  Information is coming at us at an alarming rate at times.  One study suggests we make 5000 decisions per day.  What does all of this busyness point to?  At the end of the day, what do we have?   Why are we doing all that we do?

For the Israelites, at this point in their story, their busyness is in an effort to prepare a place for God.  In the midst of our own busyness is there a dwelling place for God?  An ultimate experience of the divine at its heart? At the heart of all that we strive for and all that we are, do we KNOW that there is an abiding presence of the holy?  Do we notice the divine cloud in our midst?  Are we willing to bear witness to the holiness of God that we may then know our true selves as holy, too?  So often we live as functional atheists, living independently, keeping God at a safe distance, choosing not to let the holy disrupt our lives.  Rather than submit to anxious thought, exhaustion and despair, are we willing to submit to the holy in our midst that we may be transformed by the divine presence and may know ourselves as loved children of a Holy God?

This cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey. God was with the Israelites by day and by night. There was not one moment when God was not dwelling with them. Not one moment when they were denied an opportunity to encounter the holy.  God was with the Israelites in their stillness and in their moving. This pillar of cloud was the bellwether for all that they would encounter in the days and years to come, leading, guiding, protecting. This encounter with that which cannot be named (although we have done our best to name God) helps the people of God to become who we they are called to be.  Brushes with the holy are at the core of people of faith.

The Israelites made a space for God and look what happened! God showed up and chose to dwell with them.   God’s glory filling the tabernacle provided a glimpse into God’s beauty, brilliance, radiance and majesty.  We open ourselves to the Holy when we surrender to God, when we yield to that amazing brilliance and radiance of God’s love, the same brilliance and radiance that was seen in the cloud.  For at the heart of God’s holiness is an inexhaustible love ready for the taking.  Ready for the sharing.

I’d like to share a prayer by Walter Brueggemann, a scholar of Hebrew Scripture:

And then you

We arrange our lives as best we can.

            To keep your holiness at bay.

                        With our pieties,

                                    Our doctrines,

                                    Our liturgies

                                    Our moralities,

                                    Our secret ideologies,

Safe, virtuous, settled.

And then you—

            You and your dreams,

            You and your visions,

            You and your purposes,

            You and your commands,

            You and our neighbors,

We find your holiness not at bay,

            But probing, pervading,

                        Insisting, demanding,

And we yield, sometimes gladly

                        Sometimes resentfully,

                        Sometimes late…or soon.

We yield because you, beyond us, are our God.

            We are your creatures met by your holiness,

                        By your holiness made our true selves.

            And we yield. Amen.[1]

May we yield to God’s holiness this night and be transformed by his brilliant light and love.

Amen.



[1] Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p.3

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