Thursday, January 29, 2015

Groundhogs and Almond Trees

What  do they have in common? Both are harbingers of spring!

As I peer out over the mountain of snow in my front yard, I am comforted by the approach of Groundhog Day and Tu B’shvat in the coming week.

Groundhog Day, February 2, promises us that spring is just around the corner, or at least it’s no more than 6 weeks away.

Tu B’shvat, the 15th of Shvat, comes on Tuesday-Wednesday, February 3-4, as a reminder that the first signs of spring are appearing in the land of Israel. With the full moon above, the sap is rising in the trees as they drink in the winter rains. The almond trees are the first to open their soft white blossoms.  If it’s not too cold and not too wet, Israeli children go out to plant trees.

We can get through the winter, knowing that soon spring will arrive. March will be here before you know it, and flower bulbs beginning to poke out of the earth.

In the Jewish lunar cycle, the month of Shvat (already nearly half over) will be followed by the month of Adar, the most  joyous month of the year. Planning for Purim festivities are already well underway.

So much to look forward to. And yet, let’s not rush things. Try to be in this moment, cold and snowy, slushy and slippery. Skiing and skating. And, ah yes, the Patriots are in the Superbowl.

I don’t know of many rituals surrounding Groundhog Day (except, perhaps, watching the movie “Groundhog Day” over and over). But there’s plenty of ways to honor and enjoy trees (and their fruits).

Take a hike! Our Chaverim School students will be taking a hike in the Arboretum (weather permitting) on Wednesday the 4th. But you can go anywhere, anytime, and enjoy the trees’ wintry array.

Eat fruit! The Jewish mystics created a special seder ritual for this holiday, involving eating 15 different fruits, symbolic of various experiences of divinity in our world. Can you name 15 fruits you’d like to eat? Even if they are not in season locally, consider dried fruits and nuts (nuts count as fruit in the seder). Hazon provides a haggadah for adults and one for children, so you can hold a Tu B’shvat seder in your home.

Plant a tree! Maybe you can’t actually dig a hole in the ground this week, but thanks to the internet, you can take part in tree planting elsewhere.There’s no denying it: our planet needs trees.

  • Some of you may remember giving to JNF to plant trees in Israel. You can still do that, and get or give a classic Tree Certificate.

 Planting a tree in Israel can also be a gesture of peace and hope.

 Watch Honi make it rain! Well, virtually. A fun video for everyone.

On Tu B’shvat, I will be eating dates, figs, nuts and pomegranates, and contemplating the need for us to take care of our trees and planet, as they sustain us, even through the frozen winter.  And remembering that each day is a choice fruit to enjoy.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Charlie, Je Suis Juif

Wednesday evening, I attended the communal gathering in solidarity with French Jews. Upon entering the sanctuary at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, I was moved by the names and faces that appeared on the screens above us.

They included the four Jews who were murdered in the kosher supermarket:

Philippe Braham
Yohan Cohen
Yoav Hattab
Francois-Michel Saada

The slides also included the names and faces of all seventeen victims of terror last week.

Those images reflect two important themes of Jewish life: commitment to our own people as well as to all of humanity. I spoke of this tension on Rosh Hashanah this year, urging us to find a way to hold both commitments at the same time. The Jewish people is our family, wherever they reside, whatever their ideology or religious expression. As Rabbi Joel Sisenwine reminded the gathering last night: Kol Yisrael arevim ze lazeh, each Jew carries a responsibility for other Jews.

Yet the Torah begins with a universal vision, the Creation of all humanity. The pinnacle of the Creation story is expressed in a statement of our equal status and unique individuality: we are each made b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image. From that first chapter of our holiest Book, we derive the obligation to care about all human beings and to treat each one with dignity.

How do we make sense of this tension when we believe that our people are threatened by others? How can we find the goodness in others who seek to deny our humanity and take the lives of Jews for no other reason than we are Jews?

One can look at France and see growing anti-semitism. One can also look at France and see a democratic society committed to respecting and protecting the Jewish population. While these ideas seem to be in tension, the truth requires accepting both realities.

Jews have lived in France since the time of the Roman Empire. In the past 1500 years, we can find instances of good relations between Jews and Christians as well as periods of persecution, massacres and expulsions. Since the establishment of the French Republic in the 18th century, the situation for Jews improved considerably. All anti-Jewish laws were abolished. Jews were made citizens with full rights. The Jewish population increased and Jews achieved success in the professions and the arts.

The Nazi occupation of France brought deportations of Jews and tens of thousands were sent to concentration camps. However, both the French Catholic and Protestant churches opposed anti-Jewish measures, and many Christians saved Jewish children, in body and soul. An entire village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (population 5,000) and the villages on the surrounding plateau (population 24,000) provided refuge for thousands of Jewish children, risking their own lives.

Today, France is home to the largest Jewish population in Europe and is the third largest Jewish population in the world (after Israel and the United States).

My good friend and colleague, Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz, spoke to us a year ago about anti-semitism in France today. He made the point that France is not an anti-semitic country. Most French people are not anti-semitic.  When I reached out to him this week, he wrote about increased fear among French Jews since last week’s attack.

And yet, we need to ask whether the actions of these three young terrorists represent a larger trend, particularly in the French Muslim community? And what is the response of French society to the targeting of Jews shopping for Shabbat dinner?

We can be grateful for the actions of a 24-year old Muslim employee at the supermarket, Lassana Bathily, an immigrant from Mali, who saved the lives of several Jews by hiding them in the store's freezer.

We can take heart from the words of Malek Merabet, the brother of Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was killed outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He declared,

“My brother was French, Algerian, and of the Muslim religion. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the French police, and to defend the values of the Republic: liberty, equality and fraternity….Devastated by this barbaric act, we associate ourselves with the pain of the families of the victims….I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites. One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Madness has neither color nor religion. I want to make another point: stop painting everybody with the same brush, stop burning mosques or synagogues. You are attacking people.”

These words represent the multi-cultural aspirations of the French people.

The slogan Je Suis Charlie united the French people in defense of liberty and freedom of speech. The slogan Je Suis Juif demonstrates the compassion of the French people for the Jewish victims. As French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, said after the attacks, "Without the Jews, France is no longer France.

What is the future of Jews in France?

I believe the future of Jews is tied to the future of democracy. It is too early to see what direction the French government and French people will take to combat terror and to protect Jews and all citizens. Likewise, it is too early to determine whether these events will lead to mass aliyah to Israel. As Rabbi Berkowitz emphatically stated, “Most of secular, non- affiliated Jews who are not physically threatened and feel confident that the govt is doing everything possible to fight ant- semitism will continue to stay in France.”

Our hearts go out to the French people. Our prayers go out to the families of all the victims. May the Jewish community of France, which has endured so much in the past, continue to thrive.