Hearing the Echo


trumpets_spacel    Shabbat B’ha-alot’kha

In this week’s parasha, B’ha-alot’kha we learn that once the Tabernacle is set up, a cloud covers the sanctuary during the day and a cloud of fire covers it at night. When the cloud lifts, the Israelites break camp and journey onward through the wilderness. The Holy One instructs Moses to create silver trumpets to be blown by Aaron’s sons, the priests, on four occasions: 1) signaling the beginning of a journey; 2) gathering the people; 3) calling them to battle; and 4) announcing the celebration of a sacrifice, a festival or a joyous occasion.

Today, when we send our sons and daughters to battle, we do so without a visible Divine intervention system. And yet, avodat ha-kodesh – God’s sacred work – still takes place in the unlikeliest places. Several years ago, I was reminded of this while leading services at the Great Lakes Recruit Training Center. That night, over thirty-five young men and women, self-identified as Jews, non-Jews and seekers, gathered together for worship. Most striking, beyond how young they are, is their openness and lack of apologetics for openly seeking a spiritual connection and a living God.

It so happened that one of the eight Jewish Navy chaplains came to services. Chaplain Cutler, who also served a congregation in Philadelphia, was a reservist who just three months prior had returned from a fifteen-month tour of duty in Iraq. Yes, that meant that he had left his family and his congregation for 1¼ years to serve as the only Jewish chaplain for western Iraq – a personal sacrifice he made in service to Jews serving in the armed forces and to our country. He shared with the recruits what lays ahead – a loneliness of faith. They will find no community such as the one in which they grew up or the one they help create during their time in recruit training. Rather, they should expect to be the only or one of a couple of Jews in a unit. That’s it. And, there is no way the limited number of Jewish chaplains can personally serve them all. He challenged these recruits to accept responsibility for seeking out other Jews, which is not easy, and with becoming “lay leaders” in order to provide some connection to Jewish life for one another.

How do these “lay” servicemen and women become trained? There is no Hillel as in the lofty setting of a university or seminar offered in the comfort of a hotel conference center. And, to complicate further, those they are charged with serving represent a spectrum of religious practice from secular to orthodox. Rabbi Cutler and those like him, identify Jews, one by one, and then travel through the war-torn country to meet and train these volunteers in person. This sounds simpler than it is.

When Chaplain Cutler traveled across western Iraq to train one Jew, he arrived as a woman suicide bomber had just blown herself up in the effort to kill Iraqi police. Instead, she killed three civilians and injured a young boy. The boy’s father was among the victims. The scene was typical – and grotesque, for the Iraqis only remove the bodies of the victims, leaving the scattered human remains of the suicide bombers to be eaten by the dogs.   Leaving the horror of this war outside, the Chaplain entered to train his lay leader. The goal was to prepare this young man to lead services, Jewish rituals such as Seder, etc., while keeping in mind that a minyan of Jews (men only or egalitarian) would never be likely. While they conversed in Hebrew, also inside were a number of Iraqi police, speaking to one another in Arabic. Sound surreal?

Everything about Jewish life, whether or not we are “believers,” is intended to build and sustain life through learning(Torah), establishing intimate and meaningful relationships(Chuppah) and acts  of goodness(Ma’am tovim).  Beautiful sentiments, but there is war going on in the battlefront of the Jewish people, as well as within our great nation.  No one is listening to one another.  Prophetic voices are being drowned out by the masses raging over disruptive religious, social political and economic change.  Where can we look for order and purpose?

Ironically, by looking to those serving in the armed forces who, though often off our radar, find the discipline and courage to bring their faith, values and commitment to the battlefield. Grateful, those from the Jewish community nourish themselves through what little access they have to Jewish life.  And, speaking directly about the Navy, feel comfortable with themselves and proud of their heritage within an exceptionally culturally, racially and religiously diverse community.   Would that each of us sought out and experienced such connection and meaning.

As we enter Shabbat, may we stop long enough to listen to the world around and within us.   Are we open to the call to engage fully in the battle for human rights and, in the midst of turmoil, act courageously to use this disruption in service of the greater good and not just ourselves?  Will we open ourselves to inspiration from our ancient tradition, which survived the destruction of the Temple as its central institution because the rabbis recreated Jewish life with openness to on-going interpretation as an ever-changing world unfolds?

These ancient blasts still echo within us, awakening those in despair and calling for all to journey toward overcoming what separates. To embrace what unites, using personal and communal sacrifice as an offering for our future. And ,with gratitude, to speak these words:

Blessed is the One, eternally of and beyond time and space, for enlivening us, for helping us endure, and for this very moment, which compels our minds, hearts and bodies to respond to this calling with courage, discipline, and cooperation.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

24 June 2016/ 18 Sivan 5776



Seeking Leaders with Ethical Clarity


Note: I touched on this topic in a previous post, but feel compelled to underscore this source for the kind of ethical leaders sorely needed today

A few years ago I read an article in the New York Times, which spoke to the military as future leaders for our country. Having helped to build and sustain the volunteer chaplaincy program at the Great Lakes Recruit Training Command in Illinois for over a decade, I continue to feel blessed by this unique and inspiring chaplaincy. Where else do 18-30 year-olds come together for Shabbat eve and participate whole-heartedly?

Who are these men and women? They represent every race, faith, and demographic from around our great nation. Some have immigrated, others are first and even seventh generation American-born. Some are in the process of converting, others messianic Jews, Jews from all of the mainstream movements, seekers, Christians looking to learn more about the “Judeo” part of their Judeo-Christian heritage. Others have a sibling, parent or grandparent who is Jewish. On any given Shabbat, it is impossible to know who will attend. But all are welcome. Following services a few weeks ago, one recruit told me the service “felt like home.” Others fall in love with Shabbat.   They sing, pray and participate fully in discussions. A rabbi’s dream!

I recently learned that recruits who have participated in the Jewish program (which also includes a “Jews in Blues Sunday morning program) and who have graduated and moved on to continue their training in “A” school, are telling other sailors about their experience. Yes, Jews and non-Jews are talking about the impact this Jewish program had on them! This is music to our ears in a world fraught with hateful acts motivated by prejudice, intolerance, and ignorance. This underscores the urgent need for local, national and global leadership that will bring healing, hope and peace to a world increasingly living in physical, emotional, and spiritual anguish.  And, requires we understand some of the disconnects between civilians and the military.

At West Point, the Army’s class of 2011 was warned by its highest ranking officer that “the armed forces risk being misunderstood by a civilian population that is isolated from military service and cannot grasp the rigors, and horrors, of combat.” Another officer told the Class that “it was not only their obligation to lead Army units but also to help narrow a widening and worrisome divide between the American public and its military…I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle” (NYT National, 5/22/11, p.18).

it is still true that most civilians remain distant from the horrors of the battles and work in which our military is engaged. In the past few years, however, more recognition has been given to our troops. Hopefully we will come to see them as a significant resource for leadership. There are young men and women who, if given the chance and mentored, could emerge as leaders who already possess a deep-rooted sense of honor, morality, equality and inclusivity.   Even as they are disciplined and loyal, they are intelligent and inquisitive. And, perhaps most importantly, they value human life and peace.

The Book of Exodus describes how at Mt. Sinai God revealed to Israel its basic laws. The Book of Leviticus further instructs Israel on the laws, rituals and ethics the Israelites are expected to follow in order to remain on the Land, as the fulfillment of the covenant. Numbers, which we begin this week, chronicles Israel’s journey from Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land, where the people will live as they have been instructed. The parasha begins with taking a census in order to organize the people into a military camp. This would provide protection from any hostility, natural and human, which they might meet along their journey. Jacob Milgrom (Eitz Hayim p. 768)

On Saturday night, we will begin the Festival of Shavuot, where we celebrate the giving of Torah. This ancient text continues to guide us concerning the sacred acts and obligations needed to create a moral society. As each generation receives this directive, we are compelled to consider the nature of these sacred obligations in the context of our own generation.

The United States constitution levies a span of responsibilities upon all Americans, those serving in the military and those who are civilians. And “Torah,” however we define Revelation/revelation, represents our sacred obligation to learn from our heritage how to shape our experience of time and the foundation of our ethics. In politics as in religion, it is not that we all have to share the same beliefs and practices, rather that we work together toward fulfilling the vision of creating a world at peace.

May all who fight for every kind of freedom be kept safe in these “battles” and be honored as the heroes, role models and leaders of our people.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

10 June 2016/ 4 Sivan 5776