A Place Called Al Yahudu

On a visit to the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I learned about a place called Al Yahudu. Al Yahudu was a village in Babylonia (now Iraq) where Jews exiled from Israel by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia settled some 2,500 years ago. The story of the village is told in a special exhibit at the museum using fascinating artifacts that were excavated in Iraq, along with a multimedia presentation that tells the story of the destruction of Jerusalem, the difficult journey to Babylonia as captives and the lives of the exiles in captivity (Click here to see the video). The artifacts on display in the exhibit include clay tablets on which are inscribed the names of Jewish families and individuals who rebuilt their lives in Al Yahudu after experiencing the catastrophe of destruction and exile.

From these tablets and other pieces of archaeological evidence, the story of the march through history of the Jewish people becomes vivid. The exhibit connects the finds to Biblical verses, making them come alive. It’s clear that after exile, the Jews built meaningful and productive lives. Most were farmers, but some were involved in trades and crafts. Some even held positions in the local administration of their region. Within a little more than a century, King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Israel where they built the Second Temple, but many remained in what became Persia, reinforcing that the Jews would develop their unique religion and culture in the Diaspora, outside of the Land of Israel.

On a map of Babylonia displayed in the Bible Lands exhibit, Al Yahudu is located in the south east of the country, about 200 miles distant from another Babylonian (later Persian) city- Shushan. Yes, that’s the same Shushan that we’ll read about in the Book of Esther on Purim next week. The Purim story is historical fiction, a farcical story told to make a point. There probably was no King Achashverosh or Queen Esther, but there was a place called Shushan, and it was located not far from Al Yahudu, the village where the Jews first arrived from Israel. The Purim story, aside from being hilarious, was written to encourage and uplift the Jews living in Persia that they would be safe and could have a prosperous future even if they lived outside of the Land of Israel. It’s a tale of survival, with the quiet, hidden hand of God guiding His people to safety even in dangerous places.

That’s one of the messages I see in the story of Al Yahudu, and the story told in Megilat Esther. Our survival as a people results from our determination to carry our traditions forward, on our dedication to our way of life, and perhaps even on the quiet, hidden hand of God guiding us to safety. The Jews who were exiled from Israel back in the 6th century BCE to Babylonia established the village of Al Yahudu and there they survived, even flourished. We might ask how that was possible. Indeed, how is it possible that the Jewish story continues in the world more than 2,500 years later? That’s one of the hidden questions in the Book of Esther as well.

Given the odds against our survival across the centuries, why is it, do you think, that we have survived and thrived?

P.S. I do hope you will be at Oheb Shalom to celebrate Purim on the evening of Wednesday, March 4. Check www.ohebshalom.org for details.

You’ve Made Partner

Among the most familiar of all the blessings we recite as Jews is the “motzi,” the prayer recited before eating bread. The youngest of children learn to say it, and often the oldest and most cherished family members recite it at a simcha. Actually, the motzi is an inaccurate statement of the facts. In fact, what the blessings says, “God brings forth bread from the earth,” doesn’t happen. God brings forth wheat from the earth and we make it into bread. Whenever I say the motzi, I ponder the idea of partnership between God and human beings. Bread would not exist without that partnership. We couldn’t have bread without wheat, but God wouldn’t have bread unless we ground the wheat into flour.

In this week’s Parasha, Terumah, we begin to read about the commandment given to the Israelites to build a synagogue in the desert. The Mishkan, or God’s dwelling place, was supposedly an engineering marvel, a structure that was meant to be assembled and disassembled over and over again in each new location the Israelites made camp. The Mishkan was the first synagogue in our history. Its design and construction are described in intricate detail in the Torah, including all the pieces of sacred furniture it contained such as the altar, the table of showbread, and the Menorah, the golden lampstand that is remembered in every synagogue in the world in the form of the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light that is suspended above the ark.

The Ner Tamid is a constant reminder of our partnership with God. In order for the Ner Tamid to burn, people had to keep it burning. Olives for the oil had to be crushed, the cups on the lamp had to be filled and refilled with the oil, the wicks had to be replaced. Without our continual human efforts that lamp would burn out. The Ner Tamid was a partnership that required regular, consistent and dedicated effort to maintain.

From the beginning of creation, we were meant to be God’s partners in continuously improving the world. We are “shutafim shel ha-kadosh baruch hu,” full partners with God in making the world a better place.

In the ancient world, before the invention of window glass or hi tech windows that keep heat in our homes and filter dangerous rays from the sun, windows were cut into the stone buildings of the age on an angle. That is, they were cut to be narrower on the outside and wider on the inside in order to allow light to enter and diffuse into the building while keeping out some of the dust and dirt of the outside world. But the windows of the Temple in Jerusalem were cut in the opposite way, narrower on the inside and wider on the outside, to allow the light of the Ner Tamid to shine out into the world.

The Ner Tamid speaks to us of partnership with God. Its light does more than bring warmth and illumine the space we occupy. It symbolizes our potential to brighten the world.

Our teens experienced that potential over the long Presidents’ Weekend. Our USY chapter, under the leadership of Andrea Fleishaker and Jamie Mittleman, spent four days in Philadelphia celebrating Shabbat, having fun, and, most importantly, giving of themselves to make a difference. Working with Jewish Relief Agency, Repair the World and Boys and Girls Clubs of America, our teens invested themselves in issues of poverty, hunger and caring for the needy. In partnership with the Divine, they helped to shed the light of the Ner Tamid on a small corner of the world.

We should emulate their example.

Time for the Land, and Us, to Rest

I’ve just returned from being in Israel for a week, and I feel refreshed. I can’t claim to be physically refreshed, as, like most people, I tend to feel the effects of jetlag. But I certainly feel spiritually refreshed, which is how a person feels after spending time in Israel. My step quickens when I am in Eretz Yisrael, as I’m eager to get to places quickly. I see things with eyes especially wide open, as I’m eager to take in all the sites before me at once. My mind and heart are even more open, as I feel that I am enriched by the people I meet and the Torah I learn on the streets of Jerusalem.

I always hope to gain some new insight when I’m in Israel. On this visit, I sensed a focus on the fact that this Jewish year is a Sabbatical, or “Shemita” year in the Land of Israel. One might think that observing the Sabbatical year would be one of those things that only the strictly observant do. Certainly, those who observe Jewish law strictly follow the laws of the Shemita scrupulously, as they do all other Jewish laws, both major and minor. On this visit, I could see that the notion of the Sabbatical has been embraced by a wide cross section of Israelis, including those whom we would consider “secular.” The Shemita year is impacting Israelis in numerous, interesting ways. There are educational initiatives being developed, social service projects being undertaken, and even children’s books being written, all inspired by the fact that 5775 is a Sabbatical year.

The origins of the Sabbatical year are found in the Torah in, among other places, this week’s Torah portion. The parasha, Mishpatim, presents numerous laws governing Israelite society in matters both civil and religious. After two chapters of laws concerning such things as the proper treatment of slaves, women’s rights, business ethics and self-defense, the parasha describes the obligation to allow the land to lay fallow every seven years. These laws remain in force today, and pertain exclusively to the Land of Israel according to its Biblical boundaries. These verses from Parashat Mishpatim describe the obligation to observe the Shemita year:

And six years you shall sow your land, and shall gather in its fruits. But the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie still; that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive trees. Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your maidservant, and the stranger, may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:10-12)

Why does the Torah instruct us to leave the land undisturbed every seventh year? Here are a few possibilities:

  • To inspire gratitude – Observing Shemita can lead people to see the yield of the land as a precious, finite resource that must be appreciated. Indeed, the original intent behind the Sabbatical year may have been to remind people that we owe thanks to God for being able to harvest crops and put food on our table. Ask a child where a loaf of bread or a vegetable comes from and they’ll likely say the supermarket. The Shemita year urges us to give credit where credit is due.
  • To encourage generosity – The Shemita year meant that there was less food produced, which hopefully led not exclusively to securing one’s own needs for food but to greater generosity and outreach to the poor. In modern times, especially in Israel, the Shemita year is sparking new initiatives to feed the hungry, and it should have the same impact on those of us living in the Diaspora.
  • To increase environmental awareness – What if the land couldn’t produce sufficient food for the world’s population, or produce what we need at all? The Sabbatical year is sparking a necessary, broad focus on caring for the earth around us. Israel, long known for brilliant advances in agricultural technology, is discovering new ways to grow food efficiently and cheaply and, in the process, helping to solve the monumental problem of managing the potential of the earth to sustain all its inhabitants.
  • To suggest personal renewal – Notice that the verses in our parasha link the Sabbatical year to the Sabbath (they are, of course, born of the same concept). By mandating that the land “rest” one year out of seven, the Shemita year urges us to seek personal renewal by resting on the seventh day. Nothing could be more logical or necessary for human beings. When God created the world, the seventh day was a day of rest. If God is all-powerful, why would rest be necessary? The answer must be that God wished to emulate to each of us that personal growth and continued creativity are the result of periodic, regular renewal. God wanted to model for each of us the practice of working for six days and resting on Shabbat. Throughout time, Shabbat has been a magical time devoted to family and communal gatherings, to prayer and reflection and, yes, rest. If you haven’t already adopted a personal practice of taking Shabbat off, use this Shemita year to begin (and be sure to include Oheb Shalom in your day of rest!).

I had the privilege of being in the Land of Israel last week, and I came back inspired. This week’s parasha shows each of us how we can enhance our lives and those of others. That’s “food for thought,” in a manner of speaking, another yield of the Sabbatical year.

Out of Many, One

I’m in Israel this week, visiting with my family and enjoying this beautiful country. I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport late Monday night and got into a “sheirut,” a shared taxi, for the ride to Jerusalem where I am staying. A sheirut is an inexpensive way to get where you’re going from the airport. Each vehicle seats 10 people and leaves only when it’s full. When you exit the airport, it’s common to be greeted by the driver asking if you need a ride to Jerusalem in a sheirut, or even by other passengers eager to depart. The disadvantage of traveling in a sheirut is that once it arrives in Jerusalem it makes stops along the way and your stop might be last on the line. But the advantage is the opportunity to meet new people and hear their stories.

On this trip, the sheirut was filled with two Israeli businessmen returning from a trip to the USA, three Americans (including me) visiting Israel, and five ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis. The businessmen were clearly secular people who don’t wear a kippah or participate in any form of organized religious life. The two other Americans were Reform Jews from somewhere in the Northeast, affiliated with a synagogue but not practicing Jews. The ultra-Orthodox Jews were young men headed back to their families and their routines of study in the Yeshiva (I don’t know what they were doing abroad). I wondered what I have in common with my fellow passengers.

Clearly, we have a common heritage. We share an identity of being Jewish, though the three types of Jews in the sheirut express their Jewish identity quite differently. I think I have a reasonably common language with the secular businessmen, and certainly much in common with the couple affiliated with the Reform Movement. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox lead a very insular life, virtually shutting themselves out from the influences of the outside world. It’s common for ultra-Orthodox Jews to prohibit watching television or connecting to the world through the internet (though most seem to use a cell phone for communication). The ultra-Orthodox stress the study of the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrash and the codes of Jewish law, while minimizing the study of secular subjects like math and science (the majority of kindergarten students in Israel are ultra-Orthodox, raising fears about the next generation of Israelis preparedness to continue Israel’s success in developing a technological society). There is little or no interest on their part in discussing the diversity of the Jewish world. I’m a Conservative Rabbi—what on earth would they want to talk about with me? I was curious about their lives and their values. But I was reluctant to strike up a conversation, mostly because I sensed no interest on their part to talk, a veneer of distance between us. What would I say? “Hi, I’m Mark Cooper, the Rabbi of Oheb Shalom Congregation, a place that practices Judaism in ways that you regard as sinful and a desecration of God’s name. How was your flight?” And what would they say to me? “So, how is the Triennial Cycle for reading the Torah working out for you?” We see the origins of Torah from vastly different perspectives, and we practice Judaism in vastly different ways. What do I have in common with the ultra-Orthodox?

There is no doubt that the Jewish people possess great depth and diversity, a consequence of being exiled from the Land of Israel and living productively in the Diaspora (on this trip to Israel I saw a thrilling new exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum on the Jewish community that developed in Babylonia 2,500 years ago…but more on that in a future post). Can we create a unified whole out of the disparate parts? Do the various segments of the Jewish people see themselves as part of a greater whole?

This week’s Parasha, Yitro, gives us a hint and some encouragement toward that goal. Spanning chapters 18-20 of Exodus, Yitro describes God’s revelation to the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, a foundational moment in our history. Rabbi Neil Gilman, one of the great Jewish theologians of our time, taught that all of Jewish theology and everything practical that flows from it, turns on how one interprets these passages of Torah. Early in chapter 19, we read that “Israel encamped at the foot of the mountain.” Interestingly, the Hebrew uses the singular form of the verb (he, not they, encamped). Rashi, the great medieval scholar, notes the odd use of the singular verb to describe a multitude of people, and says: “In that moment, the Israelites were united with one mind and one heart.” Apparently, the experience of meeting God united everyone.

Can we make one out of many? Do we, progressive, Conservative Jews, have anything in common with the ultra-Orthodox? Do we have any common language? Is there such a thing as one Jewish people? Being here in Israel, observing this colorful, multi-faceted Jewish society, it’s hard to believe otherwise.