Torah from around the world #115
By Rabbi Rich Kirschen,
Director of Israel Programs,
Union for Reform Judaism
I could never refuse writing for this week’s Parsha because “Behar-Bechukotai” was the my Bar Mitsvah parsha in 1976 (yes, complete with a leisure suit…but to get a better understanding of leisure suits see old re-runs of the Six Million Dollar Man). At the time I had no idea what I was reading for my Bar Mitzvah and neither did anyone else. But back then, or a least in the Holy city of Woodmere, Long Island at my Conservadox Shul (I don’t know if these hybrids exist any more) this is how it was done: you would chant the Hebrew (and later go to the Lawrence Country Club). In my shul (we didn’t say Temple) men and women could sit together while there was a separate section for the older men (who were probably the age I am now) who would sit and make strange “geheking” sounds.
In addition to the strange chorus coming from the older men’s section, the sounds of Hebrew were also utterly unintelligible to me. To me Hebrew was this special secret language saved for when you were praying to God, kind of like Yiddish which was a special secret language saved for when I was getting in trouble. Ironically now that I live in Jerusalem – when I hear Yiddish it still means that I am in trouble. But back to being 13 and chanting in Hebrew, I remember the pride in mastering Hebrew and… the disconnect. I could master the vowels but not the meaning. And for some reason the next time Hebrew had a similar impact on me was when I was in Israel at the age of 16 and I saw the word Pizza written in Hebrew. It felt impossible …how could such a mundane object be written in Hebrew, the language reserved for God?
We know there are two Jerusalems – the heavenly and the earthly Jerusalem. There is the Jerusalem that we pray for that is found throughout our liturgy; and the Jerusalem where I have to pay my parking tickets. At age 16 I was suddenly hit with the “Heavenly Hebrew”, and the “Earthly Hebrew” in the form of “Pizza.” Of course, raising my teenagers in Jerusalem today has given me more “Earthly Hebrew” than I care to know and suddenly Yiddish isn’t the only Jewish language that makes me think that I might be in trouble. All I can say is that there was something perhaps primordial about being 16, coming to Israel, and hearing Hebrew in a setting that was outside of synagogue; and that memory connects me with this week’s Haftorah for Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (Jeremiah 16:19–17:14).
This week’s Haftorah (and not “half Torah” like my friends and I thought when we were 13), tells the amazing story of when the Babylonian army is about to destroy Jerusalem, it looks like the people are about to be exiled; and davkah Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, asks the prophet to redeem his portion of land in the Jerusalem suburb of Anatot. Real-estate is plummeting but Hanamel acts on one of the most important Jewish values: understanding that ”it’s not over until it’s over and even then…. it isn’t over.” (I think that might be Yogi Berra as quoted by Michael Brooks.). But the incredible message of the story in the Haftorah is that no matter how bad the situation looks, there is something built into Jewish tradition that is incredibly optimistic; yes we like to kvetch, and we like to whine…but in the end there is something deep within us that knows that if we work hard enough we can accomplish our dreams.
I am now fortunate enough that I am in a position where every year I get to bring 2600 young North American Reform Jews to Israel on educational programs for the Union for Reform Judaism (many who are 16 years old themselves). And when I meet them and talk with them, one of the questions I always ask is, “why are you called Jews?” And the answer is usually one of silence and confusion. One of the answers I share with them is that somewhere, somehow, someone in their family came from the place they are visiting right now: Judea (Yehuda). And I explain that the reason we are called Jews, is that someone from Judea/Yehuda is called a Jew/Yehudi. And for many of us, our people moved (or were moved) from Judea to Babylonia to Spain and some to Poland and from Poland or Ukraine some to New Jersey or Florida and now here “you” are back where your family started from and it really doesn’t make sense. It’s simply not logical that we have held on to this people as long as we have. Only a people that doesn’t give up easily, like in the Haftorah, would hold on this long. So here we are thousands of years later still calling ourselves Jews and we have come back to the land of Judea. For us this Judea discussion usually happens at 13 King David Street outside the “NFTY in Israel” office. For me, it was a philologistic slice of pizza but there is something about being young and Jewish and arriving in a Jewish country that speaks Hebrew which is miraculous. And it proves that Hanamal, Jeremiah’s cousin in the Haftorah, wasn’t a fool investing in Israel; he knew this would always be our homeland and during their visit to Israel I see that these young people know that too.