Continually Becoming a Sacred People: Parashat Vaera – January 8, 2016

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by Rabbi Heather Miller

Happy New Year! Reading this week’s Torah portion, though, one might think that it’s Passover since this week’s Torah portion revolves around the Passover story– you know:  When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt land and God tells Moses to ask Pharaoh to LET MY PEOPLE GO!
Next week, the Israelites finally escape and in the week after next they cross the splitting waters of the Red Sea into the Promised Land. (Should I have given you a spoiler alert?!)
Some say that the Passover story is the story of the individual Israelite slaves becoming a nation.  The exit through parted waters is a metaphor for childbirth as the walls of water represent the birth canal.  What is being born? This is the story of the birth of our national consciousness; our nationhood.
Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk, a Lithuanian Rabbi of last century notes that in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, God promised the Israelites that God would do four kinds of liberating– in fact, these four kinds of liberations are from where we derive using FOUR cups of wine in the Passover Seder… listen to the verbs… the actions that God will take with regard to the Israelites:
Exodus 6:6b-7a:
“I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and save you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And, I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.”

I will take you…I will save you…I will redeem you…I will take you to Me as a nation.

Rabbi Simcha shares that each of these phrases have meaning– they each address a different facet of our liberation.

“I will take you” means that God will pluck the people from the surrounding community in the manner of “to take a nation from the midst of [another] nation.”

“I will save you” refers to God saving them from the murderous designs of the Egyptians.

“I will redeem you” suggests that God would free them from their forced servitude.

“I will take you to Me as a nation” means that God would craft them into a cultured people, a nation with order and structure.1

On this last point, where God intends to build the Israelites into a nation with its own structure, I contend that our entire history since has been a story of continuing to live up to the ideal and become the nation that God has taken.  Our entire history since has been a struggle to create ourselves and to forge the Jewish community to become a people with rules and order that maintain and support holiness.  We have and continue to challenge ourselves to become a sacred people, with values and morals and ethical imperatives.

Cantor Juval and I just got back from Palm Springs where I met with other rabbis and Cantor Juval met with other cantors, to continue to do just that.  The latest chapter of Exodus, if it were describing this contemporary experience, might read: and all of the heads of assemblies in the west journeyed to the desert to continue to work out the questions of how we ever evolve into the nation that we were destined to be.

And you better believe that we got into it– we got into some of the most challenging discussions of our day.
For instance, we rabbis thought more deeply about our social justice activities:The professor who came to speak with us asked: What does it mean to be Jewish? What race are we and how much does that matter if race is socially, not biologically, constructed? Did you know that 10% of the Jewish community can be identified as people of color? The number inflates to 20% when Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are included. But largely, we became seen as “white” in America- when did that happen and how? If we are seen as white, are we complicit in a racist system? Is Jewish upward mobility more a result of our hard work ethic or for some of us, our white privilege? How has our history shaped us? With these contours of our identity, how can we engage in racial justice activities in useful and respectful and effective ways?
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism continued the conversation and inquired when we, personally, were awakened to racial disparity?  Many colleagues shared childhood experiences seeing friends beaten up, being chosen to drive in high school because it was safer if the white friend did so, noticing drinking fountains that prohibited “colored” folks from drinking there, and signs that said “no Jews, no dogs” on country club properties.  We asked how is our experience like our Black friends’ experiences? How isn’t it? How does that impact our coalition building and work?
We explored our relationship with Israel.  The consulate general of Israel spoke with us about threats to a safe Israel that many long for which heightened our fears– such as Hezbollah, the PLO, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Queda, ISIS an others. How do we respond to these realities?  And, as Progressive/ Reform Jews, we asked: how do we respond to threats to a progressive, egalitarian Israel that we long for such as ultra orthodox lobbies, discriminatory policies, sexist practices, and racism? How do we both love Israel and push it to live up to the ideal that it might be?
Participants at the Women’s Rabbinic Network convening, together, thought more deeply about our experiences as women rabbis.  We noted that women clergy’s experiences still differ wildly from men’s experiences not only with regard to comments on wardrobe, but also in terms of unequal pay, expectations about child rearing, behaviors during negotiations.  How is our movement, which professes equality among the genders, addressing these questions? How will our movement expand its understanding of equality as gender is expanded from binary to an understanding of the gender spectrum? How do we effect change in these areas?
Rabbinic students pushed us to think personally, about our experience both as mentors and as people who have benefitted from mentoring.  They noted that in the Exodus narrative, Moses succeeded in his mission through help from his brother Aaron.  When do we ask for help? How do we or don’t we acknowledge God as the source of our talents?
Cantor Juval shared with me that the cantors discussed how to best convey an interpretation of the text through music– through emotion or technical skill or some balance of the two?
They asked one another how to best build sacred partnerships between themselves, other clergy, staff and lay leaders to make a difference in their communities.
And, they shared and evaluated musical pieces that personally inspired them as a way to engage one another and share with their respective congregations.
Each of us enjoyed being on campus, in a kind of pop up community where people share ideas, best practices, perspectives, and inspiration.  We were able to question one another and the tradition thoughtfully and deeply.
But this process of questioning and sharing answers to these questions does not only rest in minds of the clergy– in fact, these are the questions that we all face in one form or another.  So, as we have these discussions on a regional level, these conversations are also taking place at a national level and need to likewise be discussed here, at the local level.  We are all shaping and reshaping the Jewish community.  We are all shaping and reshaping BCC. I am glad that you are here to help us be as thoughtful and intentional as we can all be.  Shabbat shalom.
1 Email from Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein to Rabbi Heather Miller, Subject: Meshech Chochmah – Parshas Vaera.  January 7, 2016.

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