I delivered this Devar Torah (also pasted below, but without much formatting and sans footnotes) at the inaugural Hartman Rabbinic Students Engaging Israel Conference on January 27, 2012.
About two weeks into settling into Israel, a cab driver asked me what I do.
“סטודנט,” I replied.
Curious to know what I’m studying, he asked me, “מה אתה לומד?”
I broke the news to him that I’m a rabbinical student. “אני לומד להיות רב.”
“Ahhhhh,” he said. “נווה שכטר?”
I was surprised that he guessed correctly. “כן. מכון שכטר.”
“קפלן!” he said.
Not quite understanding, I repeated: “קפלן?”
“כן. קפלן! מרדכי קפלן!”
Not expecting an Israeli cab driver to know about Mordechai Kaplan, I told him there was a connection between Kaplan and the Schechter Institute.
“לפני הרבה שנים,” he said, “אני נסעתי אותו לאיירפורט!” I was astonished. I had no clue that איירפורט was a Hebrew word. More importantly, something in that one cab ride with Mordechai Kaplan somehow moved or changed this cab driver. Otherwise, why would this guy remember this one ride with some American rabbi affiliated with some tiny American movement and even more marginally affiliated with some Israeli movement whose membership comprises less than 1% of the Israeli population? Driving קפלן was somehow an extraordinary experience for this cabbie.
I told the cab driver that I had no idea I was sitting in such a holy cab. But this cabbie definitely knew.
At JTS, I hear a lot about “myth”—that we can appreciate Torah even if none of it is historical or real or even necessary. But, to me, a myth is something I have been fooled into believing, so the language of “myth” doesn’t work for me. My own approach is slightly different: Judaism is an epic poem, and I am eager to live it everyday. The metaphors of poetry are code for reality, and these symbols become the way I articulate real life. In that sense, I want to believe that just about the whole Torah did happen and does resonate with real life. And I’ve gotta get better at understanding the poetry of the Torah: To what do the metaphors allude? How can I interpret these metaphors to uncover the layers of reality beneath each story—beneath each word? I want to become a better reader because Judaism is the most beautiful poem I know.
Yet some things we associate with Judaism are very ugly.
Each month, I pray with Women of the Wall. I’ve been getting the feeling that there is nothing inherently holy about the Kotel. Whatever sanctity it has must come from what we are willing to bring to it. Some days, when all’s quiet on the Western Wall front, I can contemplate the history and holiness of that Wall. Some days, when the Women of the Wall and their allies are called “pigs” and “infidels,” I struggle to see the sacred. Kedushah is never inherent. We must bring kedushah to wherever we want to see it.
So, I believe there is great potential for kedushah in the Land of Israel, and the Land of Israel holds great potential for ways we can concretize the metaphors of a promised land, or of redemption. And I could find meaningful ways to incorporate these same religious concepts spiritually and internally, entirely independent from the existence of the State of Israel. But, the State of Israel’s here now, and a good chunk of the Jewish people has chosen to embody their religious ideas into this land. For me, because it is a physical entity, there is no choice but to work towards an Israel that must embody a vibrant and reputable Judaism.
In my own daily life, the greatest threat I know to Israel is internal: the religious tensions between the binary of secular Israelis and religious Israelis. This wound becomes severely painful when anyone who is neither chiloni nor charedi becomes negligible. Can the Jewish State host a Judaism that is critical, thoughtful, and religious? Or is this a State whose greatest pride in progressive Judaism is driving Mordecai Kaplan to the airport, only to fly him back to the United States—sending liberal Judaism back to Galut where that sort of mishegos belongs? If Jerusalem is Tziyyon, then, to me, it must be metzuyyan, “remarkable” and “noteworthy.” But if the Jerusalem of Tziyyon represents a Judaism devoid of nuance and moderation, that’s not “remarkable,” and we’re not in Tziyyon. We’re in Mitzrayim: a state of mind so צָר—so narrow—that all we feel is צָרוֹת, tzuris, troubles, woes. In Mitzrayim, it can feel too narrow to escape. But in the epic poem of Judaism, our exodus from Mitzrayim is an essential narrative.
Introducing Shemot, they say the Ba’al Shem Tov said:
וְהִנֵּה הָאָדָם הוּא עוֹלָם קָטָן,
Every person is a small universe,
וְיֵשׁ בּוֹ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן וּמִצְרָֽיִם.
And within every person, there is a Mosheh, an Aharon, and a Mitzrayim.
You and I are all little universes. In my little universe, Mosheh is not a person named Moses. His name Mosheh, meaning “to draw” or “to pull” renders him the Tanakh’s name for that force in the universe that seduces us towards religion: Divine persuasion, Divine love, or what Rabbi Brad Artson calls “the Divine lure.”
In my little universe, Mosheh is a great force, but sometimes Mosheh doesn’t do the trick. Mosheh is “כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן”—of impeded mouth and impeded tongue. Beautiful and persuasive as the Divine lure may be, when Mosheh is no good, you gotta send in the sibling Aharon. In my little universe, Aharon is an Aron, an ark, a sacred home and decorative covering for the ineffable Mosheh who cannot speak or even be heard or understood by others. Aharon takes the words of Mosheh and embodies them as he dresses them nicely, presenting the words of Mosheh just as any ark or any home to our sacred words should. Without Aharon providing an elegant home for the Divine voice that Moses trembled to replicate authentically, some might have never heard that still, small voice of the Divine Lure, for Mosheh was not a great speaker.
Mitzrayim is easy for me to find in my little universe. I know what tzuris stresses me out. I have to listen carefully to my Mosheh, and, when I don’t hear the Divine voice, sometimes I need to look at nature to remember that God is emanated in the universe in ways other than Mosheh’s words, which, without a little help from Aharon, I can rarely hear. When Mosheh and Aharon work within me and when I let myself listen, I can eventually find myself freed from my Mitzrayim within.
In No’am Elimelekh, the 18th Century Chasidic master Elimelekh of Lizhensk examines the beginning of this week’s Parashah, Bo. One could say it’s chutzpadik for God to tell Mosheh to ask Par’oh to free the Hebrews and then for God to harden Par’oh’s heart over and over. But, No’am Elimelekh says that this is a healthy model for expressing and recognizing God’s greatness. Noam Elimelekh’s take is that the righteous Mosheh confronted the evil Par’oh on a regular basis. Evil people are not persuaded to serve God upon seeing or hearing about God’s wondrous acts. But, if you badger a rasha like Par’oh frequently enough on a regular enough basis, eventually that rasha will have a change of heart—a softening, not a hardening. Additionally, coming by so regularly with his predictable promise of a new act of God for Mitzrayim to witness, Mosheh is drawn ever closer to God; Mosheh—in the heat of his passion for the Divine—has to tell the progeny of his people of God’s wonders.
No’am Elimelekh says that, by engaging with the other, you inform or remind yourself, your kin, and your so-called “enemy” what wonders you see and what good your Divine self brings to the universe. It’s really a win-win for everybody—even when it feels like loss after loss.
About two months ago, a cab driver argued with me over whether liberal Judaism was legitimate. A kippah on his head, this cabbie was familiar with Orthodox life. He explained to me he doesn’t understand all of the laws he follows and doesn’t always like following them, but rules are rules. Yet, a freezing Shabbat devoid of heat is an uncomfortable way for him to spend his day of rest. I told him that it was a bizarre invention of the rabbis when it was determined that how we feel and experience ritual and the lessons we learn from aggadah and Jewish narrative must be completely divorced from the factors that determine our rulings in halakhah. For about 10 minutes, we talked about how difficult it is to balance what we need spiritually and what tradition has asked of us. The conversation was deep and honest, and, when I arrived at my destination, I thanked him for the chat. As I left the cab, he said, in Hebrew, “I don’t know who is right, but may it be that that one day we will know the truth.”
His hope might be Messianic, but, in my opinion, it is only this kind of serious and engaging dialogue that can build a Yerushalayim: a yerushah—an inheritance or heritage—of shalom—of wholeness. But we’re living in an age where Yerushalayim is not just a metaphor for a nice religion. Today, we need to be willing to determine when we live in Mitzrayim, what the words are of our Mosheh, and how our Aharon can articulate these words. We must be prepared for daily confrontations with our Par’oh. It is only through this earnest and honest religious dialogue that we can leave our Mitzrayim and work together to repair a fractured Jewish State, turning it into a wholesome heritage—a yerushalayim. If Israel must embody Judaism, we must strive for Tziyyon, for notability, and for diversity. We must work towards turning the Jewish State into a far more nuanced and articulate Jewish Statement.