Va-Yelekh: Passing the Torch (Deut. 31:1-30)

Va-Yelekh: Passing the Torch (Deut. 31:1-30)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Listening provides a space for thinking new thoughts.

As the Torah – originally taught orally and only written down much later — instructs us, “Shema!” Listen. Listen and do good things.

This week’s parsha is called Va-yelekh (coinciding in 5779 with Yom Kippur), the shortest portion in the Torah. Usually it is combined with the prior week’s portion, Nitsavim (coinciding with Rosh Hashanah), which includes the famous passage reflected in the liturgical Un’ Taneh Tokef prayer: “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.” We are advised is to choose the former — life and prosperity —by following God’s commandments. This year, however, “Va-yelekh stands alone. It refers to the fact that Moses “went and spoke” what was on his mind to all of Israel. And what was on his mind? He was announcing his retirement and had put a lot of thought into who would succeed him so that the Israelites would, indeed, listen and do good things when they entered the Promised land.

Moses retiring? Impossible. He had guided the Hebrews out of Egypt and through 40 years in the desert. But he was now 120 years old, a long time to be actively in the work force, let alone its leader. (That’s why when we bless someone, we Jews still say, “You should live to be 120!” We don’t think about 55 + or even 65 + as being the gateway to senior status. If you’re a Jew — or at any rate, a biblical Jew, you keep going.) And Moses understood — because God firmly told him so— that he could not be the one to cross the Jordan and enter Israel as the Jewish leader. It was time for a new generation, “strong and resolute,” to take over. “in the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them.” Time to step down.

So, with God’s instruction in mind, and undoubtedly with a sigh of relief, Moses passed on the leadership torch to his chosen leader, Joshua, whom he considered strong and resolute, a star pupil well equipped to carry on. “It is you {Joshua], who will apportion [the land]to them,” to the people (31:7), Moses instructed.

However, with a skillful continuity in mind, Moses had prepared the way for Joshua with written instructions. The Torah portrays God as appearing to Moses in a pillar of cloud and enjoining him to write down this instruction, this Teaching in the form of a poem, so that the Teaching would never be lost. If the people went astray and worshipped other gods – and indeed idol worship abounded in Canaan, the land they were about to enter, this poem would serve as a witness to the way they were supposed to behave.

Moses therefore instructed Joshua, to first give the Teaching to the priests and the elders of Israel (thus developing consensus, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and then to read it himself aloud (thus letting the people know who was in charge) every seven years in the presence of all the gathered people of Israel, including the strangers in their communities, and in the holy place that God would determine. In turn, the people were instructed to listen, “to hear and learn to revere the Lord your God and, along with their children, to observe faithfully every word of this teaching.

And then Moses, the retiring leader, eloquently “recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel” (31:30). What he had to say, this Teaching, is told poetically in next week’s parsha, “Ha’azinu.” They were his last words as the leader of the Israelite people.

Listen in to next week’s portion, Ha’azinu, for biblical poetry that has survived almost 6,000 years. Essentially, it is a love poem to God.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Memory of Things Past: Independence, 1948

Memory of Things Past: Independence, 1948

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Shalom everyone!

Image credit: Vintage Westinghouse Wood Table Radio, Model H-157, 6 Tubes, Broadcast Only (MW), Circa 1947 – 1948

One of the most precious gifts granted to the elderly is a detailed memory of things past. I was 12 years old in 1948 when Israel was proclaimed an independent state. I remember hearing the brand new Declaration of Independence read by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, on the radio. Three generations of our family – parents, children, grandparents – clustered around the crackling radio in our Montreal living room. Such excitement filled the room as we strained to listen to every word broadcast to us from so far way. From Eretz, from the Promised Land.

In 2018, I cannot expect the generations that did not experience this literally awesome moment – and the events that led up to it — to feel those same Diaspora vibrations of pride and joy when they read about Israel, an established country now with many amazing attainments. But at least the dwindling number of those who remember its beginnings can try to communicate what it meant to us as Jews to have a homeland at last. Not only a spiritual homeland, but, after 2,000 years, a physical homeland – to which we could flee if we were persecuted for being Jewish. No longer could our schoolmates taunt Jewish children at Easter, “Go back to Palestine” (even though we couldn’t), because now there was an actual place where we could go.  At the same time, we understood that it was our obligation to help the young Israel grow in every way we could.

Every Sunday, my parents, my sister, and I packed clothes for immigrants to Israel – “Aid to Israel.” My family helped displaced immigrants. I took a leading part in a Jewish Federation play created to train volunteers to fund-raise. My father, a dentist, equipped two mobile dental units in Israel. On my wedding day, my in-laws contributed the money to plant one hundred trees in my name and one hundred trees for my husband in an Israel reclaiming itself from the desert. My cousin went to Israel to help. That was a long time ago. Of course, I have visited since and once gave a Drama Therapy Workshop on preventative drug education at the Jerusalem Theatre.

Now I live in California, close to my children and grandchildren. It is hard for young American Jews, who have grown up in freedom, with a firm appreciation of their rights as American citizens, and with a true love of their country of birth, America, to understand that maybe, just maybe, “it could happen here.” Something we must not allow to happen. And Israel must be more to our young people than an insurance policy.

A variety of articles in Jewish weeklies or on the Internet have recently been questioning whether Jews can be Jewish without God – or even without Judaism. [1]

In my humble opinion, such questions verges on being oxymorons. Can human beings truly be human, one might ask, without having at least a spark of humanity? In that sense, can we truly be Jews without holding Judaism or at least Jewish Peoplehood, if not religion itself, at the core of our belief system? I am aware, of course, that many Jews define themselves in limited ways: as secular Jews, cultural Jews, historical Jews, humanistic Jews, and even anti-Israel Jews. We come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Many of us are intermarried. Some of us simply don’t believe, or at least not without reservations, in the God of the Torah and its teachings, nor the moral covenant that has bound us together for thousands of years. Nor in the promise of Eretz Israel, even though the Jewish People are indigenous to Israel, a fact recorded in history.[2] How do we pass on such a weakly brewed tea of Jewish peoplehood and all it implies to our children? This is a subject discussed in detail in Religion or Ethnicity: Jewish Identities in Evolution, a group of essays edited by Zvi Gitelman [3].

In the light of the displacement that took place during and after World War II, with its consequent unavailability of identity papers, David Ben Gurion proclaimed that anyone was a Jew who said that they were. Anyone who was a Jew could come to Israel for a new beginning. That was the immigration policy of the new state of Israel.

I realize that fewer and fewer Jewish people are still alive who remember what else was happening at the United Nations in 1947, when the UN approved partition of the land called Palestine (after the Romans had destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., they renamed Israel “Palaestrina”). The boundaries of what would once again be Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arabs were defined. (Before that name change took place, however, a silver platter was awarded to my late father by the Canadian Jewish community to honor his devoted service to “Palestine.”)

However, there was another partition taking place in 1947. The partition of India into two parts – India for the Hindus, and Pakistan for the Muslims. The two religions, it was bloodily evident, could not live together without persecution and violence. Better they should separate and live peaceably as two states side by side. Better they should pray to their own deities.

And the same logic was applied to the separation of Israel into two homelands: one for Jews and one for the predominantly Muslim Arabs. (It was Arafat who coined, years later, the term “Palestinians.”) Today we speak of a “two state solution.” That was the original concept!

However, it was not to be. The day after the new state of Israel declared Independence, all the surrounding Arab nations attacked. It was bloody war, and the world expected the Arabs to win. With assurances from the new state, Israel, that those who wanted to could stay, many Arabs did (now Israeli-Arabs), but many others fled from Israel to join the Arab brothers who had broadcast for them to come; sadly, in other cases, they were pushed out of their homes or killed by Israelis soldiers fearing their attacks. Yes, it was war. At least an equal number of Jews fled Arab lands in desperate fear of their lives. By some miracle, propelled by knowledge there was nowhere else for Jews to go, Israel won what Israelis have since celebrated as the “War of Independence.” The Arabs, by contrast, glumly call what happened the “Nakba,” the “Disaster.”

Seventy years have since passed. Other wars have transpired between Israel and its adversaries, and peace is still to be found. But people get tired of perpetually killing one another. I believe that, with eventual good will and plenty of common sense (and maybe a little help from God), peace will come. Shalom/Sala’am. That is what I hope will both “happen here” and “happen there.” That is what Jews everywhere, even if they are not firm believers, will pray for at Rosh HaShana.

L’Shana Tova!

 

[1] See the diverse opinions expressed in the Jewish Journal’s round table, for example. www.JewishJournal.com/daily-roundtable/se[t-4-2018.-can-jews-without-judaism

[2] “The Jewish people area are indigenous to Israel, the birthplace of their identity and unique culture, and have maintained a documented presence there for over 3,000 years. Half of modern Israel’s Jews returned home to Israel from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Jews who came from Europe were not colonialists. They did not represent a foreign power and rejected any identification with European nations. They were idealists who sought to restore and preserve their unique heritage and fought for the same rights that are granted to all peoples: self-determination and independence in their ancestral home. Over 150 years ago, Jews returned in ever-larger numbers, again became the majority in Jerusalem in the 1860s, and established Tel Aviv in 1909. In 1920 the international community officially recognized the indigenous rights of the Jewish people and endorsed the restoration of the Jewish homeland”(“Answering Tough Questions About Israel,” Los Angeles: Stand With Us: Supporting Israel Around the World, 2015, p. 7). See www.standwithus.com for booklet.

[3] Zvi Gitelman, Ed. Religion or Ethnicity: Jewish Identities in Evolution. (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part 2

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part 2

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Image credit: http://www.roguesportal.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/semiosis-featured-rp-800×388.jpg

Do you enjoy science fiction? I find that it often provides a thought-provoking commentary on the society in which we live at present. And yes, on our own participation in creating the society we’d like to have. It requires a lot of patience and perseverance.

I have been reading a science fiction novel called Semiosis by Sue Burke, in which it takes seven generations of space settlers with an idealistic, pacifistic philosophy to develop a truly mutual relationship with the sentient but aggressive plant-life on their new planet.[1] In fact, just about everything on planet Pax (Latin for peace) seems to have a thinking, feeling capacity. Unfortunately, things go awry from the start. First of all, their spaceship’s super-intelligent computers decide to think for themselves and land the settlers on a planet very different from the one they were prepared to inhabit. As they learn to survive in an environment radically different from life on earth, the space settlers sense the presence of something beyond human knowledge and experience, perhaps beyond our imagination as a species.

“Grateful for this opportunity to create a new society in full harmony with nature, we enter into this covenant, promising one another our mutual trust and support. We will face hardship, danger, and potential failure, but we aspire to the use of practical wisdom to seek joy, love, beauty, community, and life. (From the Constitution of the Commonweath of Pax, written on Earth in 2065.”) [2]

The new settlers slowly learn that, as a human species – as invasive aliens on an inhabited planet – they will continually encounter diverse animal forms outside their earthly experience, as well as a dominant, intelligent plant life. Some of the hybrid animals (the lions, for example, have sharp digging blades for claws, helpful in planting crops) become domesticated aides to the humans. By contrast, their relationship with the infinitely superior plants slowly becomes antagonistic. Plants like the fast-growing rainbow bamboo and the enticing, flowering vines subtly and sometimes aggressively manipulate the humans to do their bidding. Eventually both humans and plants achieve a desirable “Duality” of co-existence. Simply stated, that means they agree to get along! Meanwhile the mysterious glassmakers who create and then then desert magnificent architecture turn out to be nomads fiercely protective of their land. Their breath-taking work in tune with the planet’s environment complements the awesome beauty of creation – and its essential importance to humanity. By the end of the novel, the human settlers no longer think of themselves as Earthlings; they are proudly from the planet they named “Pax,” and, as they enter their seventh generation on this planet, their moral ideology and way of life seems to be in synch at last. Seven generations (7 x 25) is not that long – it’s only 175 years, considerably less than the history of the United States and many other countries that certainly have moral room to grow!

“The name of this Planet and Commonwealth shall be Pax as a reminder to ourselves for all time of our aspirations. (From the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pax.)”[3]

Finally, the knife symbolizing the murderous intent of one person toward another, one species toward another, is placed in a museum for all time.

Good reading for contemplation of what is important to our own societies as we approach the High Holidays! And time to consider what values are most important to ourselves and our loved ones in our own life span.

[1] Sue Burke, Semiosis. (New York: Tor Books), 2018.

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

[3] Ibid., p. 223.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Image credit: https://www.draper.com/news/next-trip-inside-sun-s-atmosphere

As we approach Rosh HaShana 5779, endeavoring to wipe our slates clean before the mandated behavioral change deadline, Yom Kippur, I find myself turning to the first pages of the Torah, Bere’shit, the beginning, the creation of the world we know.

In Bere’shit, the first chapter of the Torah, creation seems so awesomely simple, so beautiful. An all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient, Divine force, whom we Jews call Adonai or HaShem, simply “speaks” our world into being from the vast nothingness of the tohu va bohu, the watery void. In a timeframe of only six “days”(on the seventh day, God sees that the creation is good – tov—and thus rests), the first thing God does is to create light, separating it from darkness, so that Day and Night became new concepts. Then God separates the waters so that we have both dry land (“Earth”) and “Sky.” The next step is to create vegetation on the earth, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees. And then comes the creation of the sun and moon, which brings set times of light and darkness (as well as years) into what is to become our world.

“God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day, and the lesser light to dominate the night and the stars” (Genesis 1:16).[1]

Told biblically in prose, this cosmic story of the world’s creation is echoed so movingly in poetry in Psalm 136. 

Who made the heavens with wisdom

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who spread the earth over the water,

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who made the great lights,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The sun to dominate the day,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The moon and the stars to dominate the night,

His steadfast love is eternal.” [2]

 

Now this beautiful world needs living creatures, so fish (even including great sea monsters) are brought forth to swim in the waters and birds to fly in the sky. Next come all kinds of animals ranging from creeping things to wild beasts to roam in the land — and finally Man. Adam, made in God’s image.

“And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”(Genesis 1:26).

Modern science has supplemented the Torah in showing that we all descend from one progenitorall living creatures start from the same basic cell. But what about Eve, the first woman? Was she really created at the same time as Adam, as Chapter 1 tells us, or, in Chapter 2’s differing account, was she made instead from Adam’s rib, which would make her the world’s first clone? Some biblical scholars think that the two accounts were written by different authors in different time periods and pieced together by skillful editors. Others believe that both accounts are true and simply augment one another, the first concentrating on the cosmos and the second on humanity. I prefer to think that man and woman were created equal from the get-go. In any case, whether we choose Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 as our preferred account (or a combo of both), once males and females were created, the divine goal of populating the world proceeded. [3]

There is also the question of how long a period a day actually was before the set times were created. So, if we consider the biblical account as occurring in indeterminate stages of time (rather than 24-hour days), it actually coincides with the much later developed scientific time frame of our world’s evolution. While our modern society craves scientific proof for something so mystical, so infinite, so powerful as creation itself, surely that process goes beyond being “proven” to the satisfaction of our limited human intellects. Certainly, our earthly mathematicians know that numbers are infinite; why not the limitless energy of the Divine? What we call God. To wax kabbalistic, underneath every letter of the Hebrew Torah is a number. Ironically, we speak in numbers.

Like the once ubiquitous slates in the schoolroom, our ideas about creation have moved light years from from the world we earthlings know into infinite territories. We no longer think about earth as unique among the planets and stars, although it is unique to us. We explore the concept of many universes. We search for other planets where life may be possible. Surely, as humans, we are not alone in a universe so large our human minds strain to encompass it.  

Traveling to the moon has already been accomplished. Now we talk about terraforming Mars so that human beings can live there, and already, as I write this D’var Torah, we are sending a probe to the Sun to better understand its energy. Unlike the mythical Icarus, who flew so dangerously close to the sun that his wings melted, today’s astro-scientists are unafraid, even as they speculate about multiple universes. For civilians, space tourism is becoming a possibility, provided they have the large pockets to afford it. For those who dare, will space settling become a reality? I am awed by what might be.

Awe, of course, is not a monopoly of religion nor of creative artists. Scientists experience awe too, as “a motivation to push them further,” explains Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) in a recent interview with Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman on the website “Sinai and Synapses”:

Awe is traditionally seen as our reaction to things that cannot be reduced or explained…

[T]he  process of accommodation, in which we adjust our beliefs in light of surprising new information, is felt just as often by scientists as by people who experience awe in other situations. [4]

Of course. Scientists are human beings with wide-ranging human reactions. It is religion’s job to interpret.  In the awe-inspiring Torah account of creation, according to Richard Elliott Friedman, “the divine bond with Israel is ultimately tied to the divine relationship with all of humankind.”[5]. On a more mundane, current earthly level, we have do more than worry about over-population and feeding the planet in an era of climate change, we have to do, we have to work to make things better, all the while we continue to strive for an elusive peace between nations. I believe that, with God’s help and our own efforts, we will make progress, although it may take at least a couple of generations or more to see the results.

[1] Stein, David E. (ed.).  JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed.,  (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 1-3.

[2] Psalm 136. Quoted in Gunther Plaut, Ed. “Essays,”The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 2100.

[3] “The Torah begins with two pictures of the creation. The first (Gen1:1 – 2:3) is a universal conception. The second (2:4-25) is more down-to earth. The first has a cosmic feeling about it. Few other passages in the Hebrew Bible generate this feeling. The concern of the Hebrew Bible generally is history, not the cosmos, but Genesis I is an exception. There is a power about this portrait of a transcendent God constructing the skies and earth in an ordered seven-day series. In it, the stages of the fashioning of the heavenly bodies above are mixed with the fashioning of the land and seas below.”– Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text. (New York: HarperOne, 2001) 5.

[4] Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) and Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, Interview. “Awe As A Scientific Emotion,” www.sinaiandsynapses.org.

[5] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.

 

Everything is Cyclical: Listen

Everything is Cyclical: Listen

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

It’s a truism that just about everything is cyclical; eventually it all comes back into fashion, or history, or politics, or interest in who created the cosmos and what is there. Revival, recycling, regeneration: it’s a law of living. So I am not at all surprised at the new societal passion — in the midst of abundant visual imagery that has overwhelmed entertainment, merchandising, and education — for audio learning and entertainment, for audio books. Now once again, there is a thirst for hearing, for listening. Once again, individual imagination can exercise itself to see what isn’t there. Audio allows its audience to focus on the presentation to a greater extent, I believe, than when everything right in front of our eyes on a television or computer screen.

Television came to Canada (where I was born and lived most of my life) later than it did in the U.S. Up until then radio had been king, with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) the only national radio (with lots of local affiliates) heard across Canada. Everyone everywhere in Canada listened to the well-articulated, well-researched national news. In fact, the reliability of the C.B.C. was a source of national pride, a Canadian icon like the Mounties or the national railroad that connected the Western reaches of Canada with the Eastern ones.  From sea to shining sea.

If you were to take a trip across Canada in the still golden radio years, every house that could would be tuned into the CBC. In the days before television and later the Internet, it was a national connector. When, as a teenage actress, I performed in CBC International’s “School Broadcasts,” I was thrilled that the scripted words I was enacting (very slowly for comprehension by an overseas audience just learning English) were heard by people so far away. For example, in a “Western” sequence, I might be stretching out the emotional content and enunciation of the words “No-o-o, d’o-o-o-n’t SH-O-O-O-T!!!”

 

Most people don’t know that, in my salad days, I was a professional radio actress on many CBC dramas. I actually began my radio career at the age of ten on “Calling All Children,” produced weekly on CFCF, a local Montreal station, by the Montreal
Children’s Theatre (directed by Dorothy Davis and Violet Walters with an all-kid cast). I got my first professional role on the Lambert Cough Syrup Hour (CKVL, pre-union, it paid $5 for a 15-minute show), and by the time I was 12, I was auditioning – and getting cast in multiple roles – on the CBC (I was one of the first actors (#67) to sign up for ACTRA, our first professional actor’s association in Canada – and once we had a “union,” we got paid a magnificent $18 for a 15-minute radio broadcast, with an hour and 15 minutes rehearsal). Five days a week x $18 was good pay ($90) then for only one 15-minute radio serial when a man (not a woman) who was not an actor might be bringing home $25 for a week’s labor. Half-hour and hour shows (which we usually did on the weekends) were, of course, much better compensated. That’s how I got through university

The radio scripts were all accompanied by an organist live in the studio. Buddy Payne (who kindly played liturgical music at my wedding) led us musically from scene to scene, fading in the music for narrations and fading it out during the subsequent scene, or providing dramatic highlights to the script. For special radio productions – like “CBC Wednesday Night,” a much-listened to weekly show that produced quality scripts (more often from Toronto than Montreal) – a full, live orchestra accompanied the actors in the studio. What a great time we actors had with the fun-loving musicians in the CBC lounge we shared before the show!

But my radio and theatrical (I was active in local theatre too) career came to an end as, to our joyful surprise, my husband and I produced identical twins to augment the two young kids under five years old we already had. Wow, four kids under five! Acting had to take a back seat. Completely immersed in a joyful motherhood, I “retired” from show biz at 28 — for the first time. Radio would soon give way to television anyway, almost fading into the history books as visual entertainment and learning took over. Who knew that one day, so many years, and so many wide-ranging experiences later, I would become a rabbi, and that theatre experience is very useful in preparing and giving sermons?

 

In 5778, I wrote a D’var Torah for each weekly parsha and published them all on my website (www.rabbicorinne.com), where they can be individually accessed under the heading “D’var Torah”. You’ll find it on the home page’s sidebar.

Enter the Podcast.

In 5779, I plan to record these Torah commentaries as podcasts for, as they used to say in old-time radio, “your listening pleasure.” It was bound to happen. It’s cyclical, right? And people like to feel connected. So much of life in Los Angeles and other large cities is spent feeling isolated, non-productive, wasteful of time – on highways and congested streets. You can’t look at a screen and drive. The folly of text messaging has taught us that.  So listening to something worthwhile, something ofyour choice, perhaps educational, or funny, or just plain entertaining reduces the tension of “getting there.” It can also be a motivational experience.

Listening provides a space for thinking new thoughts.

As the Torah – originally taught orally and only written down much later — instructs us, “Shema!” Listen. Listen and do good things.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.