Mazal tov to Abby Bushell, who becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning. Abby's mitzvah project is Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. These dogs are taught Hebrew and trained to assist disabled vets and other Israelis needing assistance. See their website and find out how you can send a dog to Hebrew School. And join us this Shabbat morning to learn more about this fabulous project. On a week when we read in the Torah about the ritual sacrifice of animals, check out the Jewcology website, which this week put out a superb source sheet on animal rights. Upload it here. I've also uploaded recent B'nai Mitzvah speeches by Rachel Fein and Anya Castle and photos from lasts week's family Ellis Island Trip.
This Shabbat has been declared a National Day of Unplugging, a good chance to turn off those demanding electronic devices and reconnect with your most human side. Join us all weekend long as we take an introspective journey with Rabbi Ira Stone, learning about the greatest Jewish self-help system ever invented: Mussar. See all the details here, as we learn how to be more cheerful, patient, humble, giving, loving, tolerant, generous and just all-round better people. A weekend with Rabbi Stone is guaranteed to enhance all your relationships, or your money back. Of course, all sessions are free of charge (thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, Penny and Michael Horowitz).
Good news! The Israeli Network is now being offered locally on Cablevision as part of its tier of international channels, at a cost, I hear, of about $15 per month. At a time when Israel is so often in the news, Cablevision customers will now be able to see Israel's most popular nightly newscast with English subtitles and gain a greater understanding of the complex issues that confront the Jewish state. Several news and entertainment programs will include subtitles, and others (sports, music) speak in a universal vernacular that all can understand. Although much of the programming has yet to be subtitled in English, American Jews will be able to engage with Israeli culture in a manner never before so accessible to those not as proficient at Hebrew. Read more here.
I've recently become an admirer of "The Hunger Games" phenomenon and went to see the local premier of the film last night - really, early this morning. In a macabre sense, the release of a film depicting the senseless, ritualized murder of children was timed perfectly for a week where the senseless murder and abuse of children has been a most disturbing reality, in Toulouse, France, among Kony's oppressed legions of Africa and, allegedly, in Sanford, Florida. This is also the week when Jews begin reading the book of Leviticus, which focuses our attention on that now-defunct ritualized killing known as the animal sacrifice system.
In "After Auschwitz," Richard Rubenstein writes: "Sacrifice is the drama of man's hatred of God and his ultimate submission to him ... Men achieve catharsis by symbolically acting out that hatred through ritual violence against the sacrificial victim, without being consciously aware of what they're doing ... In sacrifice, we overcome God, and, at the very same moment, we submit and recognize His inevitable victory....With dramatic force ... the terrible lesson is born in on the community that it has only the choice of controlled, regulated violence or irrational and uncontrolled violence." He says sacrifices allow us to channel our natural drives toward violence, hatred and subsequent guilt into an organized, contained ritual.
The short story "The Lottery" places these urges in a more modern context, as a community brings random, ritualized death on an innocent in order to placate the gods and channel their own destructive inclinations.
Several years back, I wrote about channeling violent urges toward children in an article describing the circumcision of my son: No parent should be denied this experience, even vicariously, of inflicting upon his child a ritualized blow so intense as to make him both shake and recoil, yet so controlled that no damage is really done, to signify that this will be the worst the child will ever know from his parent's hand. For it is from the father's hand that Abraham's knife dangles, every moment of every day.
So there is something innate in us that seems to crave violence, a drive piqued especially by brutality toward children. That's why the Torah, before teaching almost any other lessons, makes it clear that God does not desire child sacrifice. Abraham learns that lesson when he binds Isaac to the altar and the Torah explicitly distances itself from Molech worship, which involved the killing of children.
In "The Hunger Games," God takes the form of a totalitarian government ruling what was once called North America - there is no religion, per se - and the leaders of Panem are sadistic in their normalcy. (See a plot summary here) The level of their evil is so banal, so commonplace, as to barely be noticed. The people's spirits have been beaten to a pulp after 73 years of ritualized child murder, or so we are led to believe. This is what the Third Reich would have looked at had it lasted another half century. Its leaders no longer strike fear - the President is played by Donald Sutherland, not Ralph Fiennes; the fashions are more bizarre than scary. No one screams in horror at the prospect of children being thrust into a nationally televised killing field. No one flinches when the kids are tortured with fire, starvation and genetically altered creatures that would have made Mengele proud. Only the snarls of the killer dogs sound remotely Nazi.
Into this world gone mad lands Katniss, the heroine, whose moral compass was set far from evil's ground zero, the Capitol. Put in the most extreme situations, Katniss makes all the right moral choices and never let's that madness change her. She is forced to kill but never murders. She risks her life to save others, rising above the "Lord of the Flies" jungle into which she has been thrust. In a world where Jews seem to have become extinct, she is a worthy heir to Judaism's most lofty values. If there are Jews in Panem, we don't them crying out against the evil. Therefore, there are no Jews.
The theater last night was packed mostly with young adults and teens, primarily girls. No surprise, although the books have had much more crossover demographic appeal than the "Twilight" series. What I liked was how the film's positive moral message was reflected in the behavior of the crowd. Some wore Katniss pony tails or t-shirts representing the various districts ruled by the Capitol - but there was none of the weirdness of costumes worn at other cult mega-hits. There was some cheering and hooting at the beginning and the expected oos and aahs at Katniss's first kiss. But for most of the film, there was silence. The viewers were rapt - dare I say, reverential, as they watched kids killing kids. When Cato, the most vicious of Katniss's opponents, met his bloody demise, there were no cheers of the sort you might hear when the Wicked Witch melts or Voldemort is finally overcome. There is something deeper going on here than a simple victory of good over evil, and the young people present were tapping into that. I've been to jingoistic political events where adults were far less attuned to the banality of bloodlust. It made me wonder just how much this group saw Katniss as fighting their fight and bleeding their wounds. Whatever the reason, this room filled with several hundred young people was as quiet as a cathedral at the end.
There was little reason to cheer. Katniss is not so much a victor as a survivor. The evil apparatus remains in place. The gods of the government will demand the blood of more children next year, as expiation for the sin of rebellion. The ritualized deaths of the innocent will once again be the price for staying alive. The controlled, abuse of the young will keep chaos at bay. The kids seemed to intuit that, to an extent, what they saw on those killing fields of the Capitol goes on around them every day. Not just in Toulouse or Uganda, but everywhere, everywhere where children become invisible and human life becomes expendable.
In the end, "The Hunger Games" celebrates the indestructibility of the human spirit and the unquenchable thirst for freedom. Just in time for Passover.
(See a nice article from Tablet Magazine exploring Jewish connections to the series, and another tying it to Holocaust themes.)
Horrified by the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, it is natural to wonder whether we are entering a period when Jews will be intimidated from gathering with other Jews. With Iranian threats and well-publicized security alerts, people might be reluctant to come to synagogue. Let me explain why we need to resist the temptation to detach. Several days back, a congregant reminded me of sentiments I expressed a decade ago (written around the time of Sept. 11), words that seem equally appropriate now.
Just when we thought we could begin to overcome all the negative reasons to be "proud and Jewish," history has conspired to throw us back in a funk. Now, not only does everyone call us terrible things, but also we're afraid to go to our synagogues to discover the more positive truth. The alerts have singled out Jewish places of worship as a possible terrorist target. So how can we find that comfort that we all seek, right here in our sanctuaries?
To that I have but one response: Come here and find out. More than ever, we need you here. We need a Miracle Minyan, not to wallow in our misery, but to lift us from our woes. Yes, we need your presence here to show defiance in the face of terrorist threat, but not merely for that purpose. We need you here to celebrate (and this week we do have lots to celebrate), to partake in the wonder of simply being alive. We need you here to help us all transcend the week that that we have just gone through, and the trying weeks that are sure to come. We need you here - and you need to be here.
So be here, this Friday night and Shabbat morning. Through the horrors we have experienced over the past few years, and in the forecast of an uncertain future, I invite you back to a place of comfort and respite: the synagogue. Come here and you'll quickly discover that Judaism is at its best in a foxhole. Our prayers remind us, now more than ever, that all of life is precarious, and that any semblance of control is illusory. There simply is no excuse for boredom. Angry at God? Fine. Despondent? Understandable. We'll all be struggling to find meaning in the words we utter. But if you are bored, you're on another planet.
The uncertainties of the moment do test our faith, but the Jewish spirit has always soared highest when put to such a test. Hold a neighbor's hand. Wipe a stranger's tear. His son might be headed toward the front. Her nephew might live in harm's way. Come to think of it, don't we all? Imagine the poets of the prayer book, who endured similar traumas when composing their masterworks. Hear their pleas, amidst the fire, the hated massacres. Hear the bombs. Hear the cries. Here their psalms. And make their words our own.
Then maybe, just perhaps, from the pit of the foxhole, you'll hear yourself praying.
Finally, Passover. Join us next Thursday for our Interfaith Seder, as we welcome the world to TBE. We're expecting lots of people. Read the Interfaith Council's press release and please RSVP so we order enough food. And here is my updated collection of Passover Guides and Seder Supplements, including a downloadable form for selling of Hametz.
SHABBAT SHALOM!Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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