Friday, June 19, 2015

Close enough to holy - D'var Torah - Parashat Korach - June 19, 2015 - Reflections on Mother Emanuel and other places of and paths to holiness

[A note....this was a difficult piece to write, to know just what to say especially in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston, but also to discuss, almost in the same breath, an act of arson that also reflected hatred, along with pronouncements of major Israeli government officials that denigrated the attempts of good people to practice their Judaism.   My heart goes out to Mother Emanuel Church, and to others who have be victimized by violence and prejudice in today's world.] 

Two churches. 
An open synagogue. 
These sites are sacred places filled with people seeking holiness.  
In the Torah reading for this Shabbat,  Korach, a Levite, approached Moses
along with Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On.
The member of a priestly family and descendants of the first born son of Jacob
challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, each for their own reasons.
The text we have before us has Korach and his loosely-connected accomplices speaking first: "You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is inside them and in their midst.  Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Eternal?"
    Yes, the Israelites were called a holy people - by God, not by themselves.  Scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz pointed out the flaw in Korach's declaration.   In the same chapter where we hear the words "Love your neighbor as yourself," the beginning verses declared, "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal God, am holy."   Leibowitz explained that if the people already saw themselves as holy, they were already like God and  nothing more needed to be asked of them.   "You shall be holy" means that we are always in a state of "becoming holy."  We are continuously striving for holiness in what we do.   A place can be holy.  A moment can be holy.  We are, if we choose to be, traveling along the road to holiness, trying to make our lives, in the words of Alvin Fine, "a sacred pilgrimage."
     There were two holy places--two churches--attacked this week.  One is closer to us geographically.  Maybe you have friends in Charleston, South Carolina.  Maybe you have visited Beth Elohim, the Reform congregation with a classic building dedicated in 1840 that is just several blocks away from Mother Emanuel.  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston has a long history directly related to the struggle of slaves to become free.  This worshipping community organized early in the 1800s, building on the current site in 1872 after years of gathering in secret due to laws prohibiting free religious assembly for the church's members.   It was noted today by the president of HUC-JIR, Aaron Panken, that Reform Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Beth Elohim in Charleston had engaged in pulpit exchanges and coordinated community efforts with State Senator and Mother Emanuel ChurchPastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the shooting.  Pinckney and other church members had gathered for study on Wednesday evening.  Dylann Roof had joined them without sharing the purpose of his presence. Roof later told police that his violent act, which was designed to start a race war, almost didn't happen because everyone in the church was so nice to him.  We join Mother Emanuel church in mourning the nine victims of this unprovoked attack on a quiet evening in an AME house of worship.   Felecia Sanders, the mother of one of the victims, Tywanza Sanders, made this statement today while addressing Roof along with relatives of other victims: “We welcomed you in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know.” 
    The second church was half a world away.  At the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha in the Galilee – on the site where Christians believe Jesus performed a miracle by feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish – a room was gutted by a fire set early Thursday morning.  The police believe it was a case of arson due to the Hebrew graffiti scrawled on the wall outside of the church:  V'HAELILIM KAROT YIKARAYTOON - Idolaters will be eliminated."    In response to this incident, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin reiterated the freedom of religion and protection of holy sites that are fundamental to life in the State of Israel.  Both leaders did what they could to reassure Christian clergy and leaders in Israel that they would continue efforts to end this wave of attacks on sacred places that deserve to be preserved and respected by all Israelis. 
     Women of the Wall held its Rosh Chodesh service in the Women's section of the Kotel yesterday morning.  They prayed with a small Torah scroll, but their attempts at equal opportunities for all to worship at the Kotel have again been characterized in a negative light.  
 This week, Minister of Religious Affairs David Azulai called any women praying with a Torah and a tallit a "provocation."  He added that all Reform Jews are a "disaster to the Jewish nation."   Member of Knesset Yisrael Eichler called Women of the Wall perpetrators of hate crimes.  Speaking about the vandalism at the church in Tabgha and the Women of the Wall service this week, Eichler declared in a letter to the Prime Minister, “Vandals in both places are to be condemned since they can bring hate crimes in Israel and the entire world. Whoever condemns, and justifiably so, hate crimes against Christians and understands it can bring bloodshed, must condemn the hate crimes against ultra-Orthodox Jews, for the holiness of the Torah scrolls in the Western Wall”.  What was the hate crime?  Simply, it was, in his view, the Women of the Wall Rosh Chodesh service.
     In the Torah reading for this week, Moses heard the accusations from Korach and his protest partners.  The Torah said that Moses "fell on his face," demonstrating his characteristic humility.   I believe that Moses was trying to teach that a leader isn't someone who believes he or she is always "right" or holy.  A leader is someone who takes on the difficult mantle of responsibility to guide a group of his or her peers into the future.     The result of the eventual judgment from God in this parashah was that Moses and Aaron were vindicated, but not because of an attitude of superiority.  They would have described themselves as "becoming holy,” attempting to attain a goal they might never reach, but one that they did, nevertheless, keep in their sights.
    This week, we saw a young man with a plan to murder people with skin color different from his own carry out his act because he believed only his views were right.  All of a sudden, vandals saw an ancient church as idolatrous, believing that they could make that judgment for everyone.   A minister in the Israeli government saw fit to term, in one fell swoop, Jews like us sitting in this sanctuary as a disaster.   A member of the Knesset made himself a victim, not of violence, but of a group of women peacefully lifting their voices and hearts in prayer.
    Meanwhile, a humble bible study group met at an historic church for discussion, guidance and support, not yet feeling holy but moving on that path.
    An ancient community seeks still to preserve the memory of a story contained in their scripture, hoping to inspire people to believe that they can make miracles of their own.
    Women join together monthly at another revered historic site to express the love of God and of Judaism in their souls, attempting to gain even a brief glimpse of the holiness life can offer.
     And we gather here, in this sanctuary, named for a place where Jacob realized God had been present, to do what we can to create sacred moments. 
     May we be humble like Moses and Aaron, and like all people who seek holiness, knowing that all we can do is come close.  In this case, close is enough.   We don’t need to be among those who are so certain that their position is the only right perspective that they would condemn others to relentless, judgmental criticism and rejection or sentence others to death by their own hand. 
   We can make a different choice: to strive to be holy.    Let us move towards that holiness together through remembrance, compassion, understanding and hope.  


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