Shalom Aleichem. I am the “New guy in town,” so I want to introduce myself. I am a retired Navy officer and disabled veteran. After I retired from the Navy in January 2001, I attended Gratz College near Philadelphia to study Jewish Studies and Jewish Education. Subsequently, I attended the Academy for Jewish Religion (http://www.ajrsem.org) in Riverdale, N.Y. AJR is the country’s first and oldest pluralistic, non-denominational seminary for rabbis and cantors. Many Jews are not so easily categorized by a denomination, and so we set out to serve K’lal Yisrael in whatever way we can. If you are curious about pluralistic Judaism, or in finding out more about an alternative to one of the big seminaries, please visit AJR’s Web site for more information.
I grew up as a disaffected Jew and only got the “spark of Judaism” about 15 years ago. There are myriad Jews in our communities who feel disaffected like I was, and it is our job to bring them together. Our tradition teaches that all Jewish souls, whether embodied or unborn, stood together at Sinai for the receipt of Torah. So it is very important for us to revisit Sinai in each generation.
This Shabbat we will be reading parashat Mishpatim, arguably one of the most important sections in Sefer Shemot, The Book of Exodus. This parashah includes many laws dealing with how to treat people. Hillel, the great Talmudic sage, pointed out that how we treat others is Torah, and the rest is commentary which we should go and learn. Thus our parashah can be seen as getting to the very heart of Torah.
While there are many fascinating and surprising things in our parashah, I would like to explore a very strange thing happens toward the end. To put it into perspective, we must skip ahead to Shemot (33:20) where God says to Moses: “You cannot see my face because a person cannot see me and live.” Yet, in today’s parashah, we see, (24:9ff) “Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up (the mountain); and they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the appearance of something built of sapphire, and it was like the essence of the purity of the Heavens.”
So, how do we understand this? God has said that no one can see God and live, yet here, Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the 70 elders of Israel actually did see God? Most of the commentaries say this was a vision of prophecy. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, takes it head-on. He said they deserved death, but God did not want to destroy the festive mood, so they all died later on in other incidents. We certainly see the record of their later deaths, starting with Nadav and Avihu with their strange sacrifice and ending with Moses himself at the end of Deuteronomy.
The number 70, in biblical studies, represents an approximation of a large number. We had a large number of elders go up with Moses, Aaron and his sons. The number 70, in Jewish tradition, has another meaning as well: The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15/16) states the Torah has 70 faces. This is interpreted to mean that there are myriad ways of understanding Torah. If we apply this meaning to our 70 elders, the result is that in each generation we have myriad Jewish leaders, all with different ways of understanding things.
This is the heart of pluralistic Judaism — that we have many Jewish traditions. Some of those traditions are well defined, others less so. The job of a pluralistic rabbi is to reach out to those Jews not being served by the boundaries we find in our modern Jewish denominations. For instance, I have felt through my journey that I am a Conservative Jew. But at the same time, I am not comfortable with everything the Conservative movement stands for. This ultimately led me to the academy. I am quite sure many out there would feel the same way I do.
I should point out however, that dissatisfaction with a movement is a small part of why Jews are alienated. Many people, some of whom I know very closely, have asked me the question, “Where is God now?” We had all the trials of the Middle Ages, only to then suffer the Holocaust as well as September 11, Darfur, and on and on. How could a just God allow these things to happen? Why didn’t God “put His foot down” and stop these people from doing their horrible acts?
I think it is clear that God does not look like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. I don’t believe in that God; I believe in the God that has given us freedom of choice. It is our responsibility to act decisively when we see something wrong going on. How many of us walk past a homeless person on the street, uncomfortably shifting our eyes to avoid making contact, instead of giving him a dollar? When we do, we miss the opportunity to see God. But when we stop and hand the person a little money and greet that person with a smile, we have made God appear.
So, let’s make God appear for us. Let’s reach out to disaffected Jews, and take action when people are being hurt or oppressed. Only when we all do this will God appear for us. One tradition teaches that if every Jew would just keep one Shabbat together, Mashiach would come. I think we need to look at this differently. So my blessing is that we get new glasses that allow us to see and correct the ills being done to society, and to bring in the disaffected Jews. Only then will we re-join Moses, Aaron and the rest, seeing God through the sapphire.