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AchrayMot 5782    April 30, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

 Shabbat Shalom

     In Judaism we like to think we have a blessing for everything. There is a blessing when you meet a great Torah Scholar. There is a blessing to recite when you meet a person with worldly wisdom. There is a blessing to be recited when you meet a head of state. There is a blessing to recite when you meet someone of exceptional beauty. And then there is the blessing to be recited when we meet someone “unusual.” Yes, the Rabbis have a blessing for meeting someone who might be ugly.

     I always found this blessing to be awkward. Blessings are our way of thanking God for all that we may find in the world. But I wonder what a person might think or say if you recited this blessing in their presence. The embarrassment would be off the charts and that would be entirely forbidden to recite it because of the personal hurt it would inflict.

     But the blessing itself, is an interesting blessing even if it is awkward to say. The proper blessing is “Praised are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who has created diverse creations.” It is a mark of the miracle of creation that all creatures are not alike. That each person in the world is unique and still created by God in the divine image. What is even more important is that this diversity is counted as a good thing; it is the mark of a benevolent God.

     Most of the text in this week’s parsha has to do with the ritual in the Temple for Yom Kippur. But just before that intricate ritual is described, there is another mitzvah that is more important than we might think at first glance. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein in Jerusalem wrote this week in his blog, Parshat Aharei Mot contains what many might consider the most difficult of all of the mitzvot of the Torah: “The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rule alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws; I the Lord am your God.”  (Leviticus 18:1-4) In sum, what we have here is an obligation to be different and, for a minority people, this is one of life’s biggest challenges; for on the one hand, the temptation to be like everyone else and to fit in is great, while, on the other hand, it is tragic to forfeit one’s identity on the altar of uniformity.”

     If there is any Mitzvah in all of Judaism that is harder than this, I cannot imagine. It is the most painful part of being a minority in a foreign land. We work so hard to try and fit in with our new community. We want others to see us as if we really belong. And yet we hesitate to give up what makes us unique and different. It is as if we are killing off a part of ourselves. 

     This has been a Jewish problem for centuries. In the days of the Maccabees, some Jews decided that they did not want to rebel against the Greeks but wanted to be just like them. They dressed like them and studied their philosophy. The Rabbis of the Talmud co-opted many aspects of Roman culture and incorporated them into Jewish ritual. But they also decried those who would cut their hair in the Roman style and gave up their faith for Roman idolatry. During the Emancipation, Jews were given freedom to live outside the ghettos, but the price was their children, who all too often decided that staying Jewish was too hard and so they converted to Christianity. Many times in history, Jews did better when they were segregated from the rest of the non-Jewish population. Once they became part of an open society, they often left their religion behind.

     Not everyone sees this decision as a problem. There are those who are extremely happy to leave their past and become part of the “future.” I remember when Major League Baseball expanded their leagues and Miami was awarded a baseball team. Baseball fans had a difficult choice to make. Since everyone in South Florida is from somewhere else, they had to ask the question; “Do I become a fan of the new team, or should I stay loyal to the team of the place where I am from?” When our ancestors came across the ocean to this new world of America, they faced a similar question. “Do I become an American or do I remain true to the place where I was born?” It was a tricky question. Jews from Eastern Europe understood that America was a “godless” country. It would be easier to be a Jew in America, far easier than dealing with the pogroms and random violence of Poland and Russia. Still, there was discrimination here. Jews were closed out of entire parts of the American economy; denied entry into professions, schools, and public institutions.

     Some Jews, as the saw the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor, took their tallit and tefillin and threw it overboard the ship. Some people said that the bottom of the harbor was lined with the ritual objects rejected by many of the Jews who came here. They were determined to be “Americans” not Jews. Others who came here held on to what they knew. They came and tried to be Jews in a new world that did not know from Shabbat and Jewish holidays; where Kosher meat could be difficult to find. In the end it really did not matter, both groups faced the same discrimination.

     I should also add that every other ethnic group in this country has faced the same choice. Should Muslim women wear a head scarf or not? How should a Sikh man dress? Families from Pakistan allowed fathers to pick a good match for their daughters. Asian families expected children often to join the family business. For many immigrants, what would happen to their language? What would become of recipes from the old country? What would happen to their religion if the children married into some other faith?

     And yet, the promise of this new land was an economic and social freedom they had never experienced before. A life here could be prosperous and successful if they were willing to give up some of the customs of the old country. Second generation immigrants often ran away from their heritage. Fourth generation immigrants, often looked to get back to the ways of the old country.

     Even being in Israel where they live by the Jewish calendar, where there is a synagogue on every corner and Hebrew is the chosen language for everyone, there are still some who wish to be more “European” than Jewish. The differences between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are wide. Sometimes it is hard to believe that they are both part of the same small country. Some Jews are still rebelling against their daati backgrounds and wish to live a more secular life than the Israeli Rabbinate promotes. In a free world, we are always free to decide what should stay and what must go.

     Rabbi Silverstein is correct. The terrible choice all immigrants face is how much do we want to fit in and how much of our identity has to be “sacrificed on the altar of uniformity.” The fact that we are here on Shabbat morning is due to the decision that every one of us has made that part of Saturday must be spent with our community in Synagogue. There are Jews around us that believe that Saturday is for the mall, for visiting family, for watching one of the hundreds of movies on cable television or for just sleeping in. We, who are here understand that there is something more to our lives than self-interest. There are parts of our lives that are fully American, and we would not want to give them up, but we also treasure the Jewish parts of our life, and we are not willing to give them up either.

     Rabbi Silverstein writes, “The sages were quite aware of how difficult it is to swim against the stream and maintain a positive self-identity as a minority no matter how precious that identity might be. To be a serious Jew is to walk a tight rope between one’s Jewish identity and one’s national identity. It is tragedy to lose something so precious just to conform.”

     How do we balance our new culture with our ancient one? What is the correct balance that will make us good American and good Jews? Each of us has to find the kind of balance with which we can live. If we lean more heavily on the American side, we are in danger of losing our Judaism. If we tilt more to our Jewish side, we still should be accepted by this “melting pot” we call the United States. There is no designated penalty for being “too Jewish” in this country. Maybe we should be always looking to expand our participation in our religion. We should wonder why we often do not look to expand our Jewish commitment. What keeps us from the simple things like learning more about the Torah or about Jewish History? Why do we not look to learn more about Jewish prayer? We are here for Shabbat, why not take a day to try out our weekday evening minyan?

      There is no blessing to be recited for seeing a good Jew or seeing a “bad Jew.”  There are all kinds of people in this world and in this country and we all have to make way for how everyone lives their lives. Let us bless each other with a blessing of diversity. That each of us can practice our Judaism in a way that makes us comfortable with who we are and what we are doing to support the Jewish People. Praised are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has created all of us as diverse and different from each other.

     It is really not a prayer for those who are different. It is a prayer that all of us can say, for all of us are stamped in the image of the divine, and yet each of us is always different and unique.

      May God make us comfortable with what makes us different, and may we find unity in our differences as we say….. Amen and Shabbat Shalom 

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783