Devarim – sticks and stones

This  week we begin the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim which means words in Hebrew.  We are standing at the Jordan, waiting to cross over and enter the promised land.  Moses will never make that crossing, and he chooses to prepare the people by recounting the stories of the trials and hardships that brought them to this moment.  We are called the people of the book, we should be called the people of the story; the people of words.  We recount our history at every chance, for good reasons.  We say of the Holocaust’s racism, bigotry and murder “never again”.  How to avoid it if it fades from memory?  How will our children remember our history if we don’t retell it?

It is all about communication, though, isn’t it? And we strive for the right words to contain our feelings, to express our desires, to describe our history.  And this week a Jewish girl named Aly Raisman did her brilliant Olympic floor routine to Hava Negila on the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.  Her own re-telling, her own “never forget”.

In our daily lives we use words carelessly, we toss them around with little thought.  But when we have strong feelings, we struggle to find the right words, words that are adequate.  And nowhere do words seem so careless as in our current presidential politics.  Things are being said that would have previously been unthinkable, and should be still.  The words reek of that racism and bigotry and give rise, as historically, to violence.

Moses chooses his moment to recount, to use words to prepare the people, for building, for memory, for empowering them, for providing rules/structure.  Shouldn’t we take this moment to disavow the childhood admonition about sticks and stones? To remember that words can hurt us, can be destructive? We should take Moses’ example and use our words, and our recounting, to  empower each other.  In our national politic we should use our words to disavow ignorance and hate, deception and lies.  In our personal lives we should use our words to strengthen and honor each other.   We need all our strength as we stand ever on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to enter the promised land hand in hand, a people of words.

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Bo ~ Identity & Identification ~ Shabbat January 11, 2014

So, we are in the middle of the exodus.  And we are at the last of the plagues.  Moses has made his demands of pharaoh, to no avail; the other plagues have come and gone, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail!  Then G-d sends the utter darkness, and still pharaoh is not convinced.  You wonder here who is the more stubborn, but I will address that momentarily.  Finally, G-d is going to kill the first born sons of Egypt.  This threat ultimately moves pharaoh and he virtually drives the Israelites out of Egypt so fast that we are all commanded, or should I say condemned, to eat nothing but matzo for seven days to commemorate the occasion for all eternity.

As to stubborn, I read a wonderful midrash about a fat man and a donkey.  There was a very fat man riding on a donkey.  As they go along the donkey is thinking “I will be so glad when this fat man is off my back” and the fat man is thinking “I can’t wait to be off the back of this donkey.”  When the fat man finally alights, it is impossible to tell who is happier, the fat man or the donkey! As with pharaoh and the Israelites, after the plagues and the killing of the first born, we can’t know who was happier when the Israelites finally left Egypt, them or pharaoh.

Last week I called it the Passover portion because the ritual is commanded there.  This week is literally the Passover portion because it is here that Passover gets it’s name.  In this portion the slaughter of a lamb is commanded of the Israelites and the blood is to be sprinkled on the doorways and lintels of their houses so that when G-d comes for the first born of Egypt he will literally “pass over” their homes, not killing their sons.

In the commentary on this portion, there is much talk about the darkness and the journey and how those might be metaphors for us.  There is a lot to think about in those metaphors.  What spoke to me most, however, was the idea of the marking of the homes of the Jews.  This is a moment of both identity and of identification.  As was the “marking” of Jews by the application of spray paint to their homes and stars to their clothes and finally numbers to their very skin during the holocaust.  Are identity and identification the same?  Or are they different?

The question is, is it necessary for us to identify ourselves as Jews in order t feel the completion of our identity as Jews.  The answer, as always, is probably different for different people.  And in order to complete our identity as Jews, do we need identification with others in our community?

Taking the idea of the metaphors in the portion, if we think of the exodus itself as a metaphor, if we all have our own internal Egypt, then how do we come through the wilderness of our feelings into the light, into spiritual and emotional freedom, if not through and with other people, if not through identification with others.  The Jews were not commanded to, nor did they, march through the wilderness one by one; they did not survive alone – leaving aside for a moment the question of divine intervention.  They survived the plague of the killing of the first born sons only through their identification with the group.  They survived the wilderness, in large part, because they were together one imagines.

The philosopher Michael Walzer wrote (and is loosely quoted in our Mishkan Tefillah Prayer book) that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; that we imagine or believe that there is a better place, a promised land; and that the only way through the wilderness is by joining together.

So what of Jews who are not religious but who identify themselves as Jews?  How many of those do you know?  Have you been to New York, or Boca, lately?  There are many more “cultural” Jews than religious.  I think of my dear friend Sylvie who was Israeli and who was by her own admission what they call entirely secular, but she still identified herself as Jewish.  To be Jewish, many of us would proudly say, is a culture, a cultural identity, in a way that most religions are not, crossing boundaries of nationality.  Jews tend to be Jewish and whatever else they are.  I would identify myself, for instance (accurately or not) as English on my mother’s side and Russian/Polish Jew on my father’s.  It would not occur to me to identify my mother’s family’s religious affiliation.

The rituals of our faith, in many instances, have become the rituals of our identification, of our culture.  These rituals stay with us despite our intransigence regarding formalized religion or affiliation.  My grandmother did not belong to a Temple during my lifetime, nor did she particularly profess to prayer that I can remember. But she always lit Yahrzeit candles in her home, where else would I – the daughter of a shiksa – have learned to burn them safely on the stove.  She attended family seders, she buried my grandfather in a Jewish cemetery and she hummed Ein Keloheinu when she was unobserved.

So what matters more, culture or religion? Identification or identity?  Perhaps it depends on the context, is it personal or is it communal?  Is it inward or outward?  My identity is personal, my faith is part of that identity.  Identity is at our centers and is who we most basically are.  Identification is by its nature communal, when I want to make a statement to the world about who or what I am.  When I wish solidarity with a principle, idea or nation.  Or when I simply wish to be a part of a greater whole.

Religion and religious ritual seem to me to be, to some extent, where identity and identification intersect.  I am here because I practice my faith, my spirituality here in the sanctuary, among other places.  But I am also here because it is important to support the community, the whole, and the identity of the community through my identification with it.  In the end, they intertwine I think.  The ritual symbols of our faith sustain us personally but, just as we burn our chanukiah in the window because it is a symbol of our freedom to do so, so too the mezuzot on our doors proclaims our identity and identification, our freedom, our exodus from Egypt, wherever that might be, through the wilderness to safety, to home.

Shalom

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