Friday, February 19, 2016

"What if the lights go out?" - D'var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh - February 19, 2016

"You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps continually...L'HA-ALOT NEIR TAMID."
Aaron and his sons, the Israelite priests to be, would set up the lampstand of gold - M'NOROT ZAHAV - on which the lights would be kindled. 
 And, as the Torah tells us, so they did.
And there was later a menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem, also with seven branches, that was kept lit with the same dedication and commitment.
That Temple did not endure, nor did the second Temple.
The Arch of Titus in Rome shows someone - likely a Jew from vanquished Judea after the failed Revolt - carrying the Temple menorah in Rome as one of the spoils of a difficult war.
So what happened when the lights went out?
And they did go out - at least, the lights on the Temple lampstand (and lamps designated as perpetual lights in the Temple) did. 
Yet, there were other lights that took their place.
Mosaic Floor, Beit Alpha Synagogu
There was the menorah image that began to grace the walls and floors of ancient synagogues.  The menorah, as well as the Eternal Light, the Neir Tamid, became standards symbol in Jewish houses of worship.  
There were also physical candleholders or lamps and real lights that became part of each Jewish home, in the form of Shabbat and holiday lights.
     There were no priests to kindle those candles or lights, but the responsibility fell upon each family, especially the woman of the household, to be sure that those lights burned every week. 
Menorah - The Temple, Congregation
B'nai Jehudah, Kansas City 
     Where the Torah said that the Israelites would be a dominion of priests, that designation comes true at every Shabbat dinner.  When Shabbat blessings are recited at home on Friday night, the family members are like the priests of old.
    There are other lights that could have gone out.
But they didn't.
    The light of faith in God continued because we learned that God's presence need not be confined to a Temple - it could be anywhere.   We realized it was possible to approach God through prayer wherever we might be, including when we gather in synagogues as a community.  Prayer, the rabbis explained, was the offering of our hearts.  
Menorah - Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka, Kansas
      The light of learning could have stopped 2000 years ago, but it didn't.
    Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who escaped Jerusalem under Roman siege during the revolt of 66-70 CE,  was granted the right to set up a house of study, a BEIT MIDRASH, in Yavneh on the Mediterranean sea coast.
His persuasive powers enabled Jews to continue to discuss, debate, and develop their heritage, a practice that has come down to us today.   Classes for members of all ages in modern congregations are a tribute to the rabbis who sustained our tradition against great odds so long ago.
There is a light of hope that could have been extinguished many times throughout history, but it wasn't. 
So many places where Jews have lived were inhospitable to some degree.  The communities survived because their traditions of prayer, celebration, study and performing acts of lovingkindness strengthened them throughout the centuries.   If one country sent members of its Jewish community packing, they almost always found a new home and thrived once again.  That would include, among other places, the United States and the State of Israel.
    There is a light of freedom that has inspired members of Jewish communities to work for liberty wherever they have lived.
     There are scholars and leaders who claim that freedom may serve for some as a chance to leave Judaism behind. 
    Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University noted that, in 1818, the United States Attorney General, William Wirt, declared that no Jews would be left in our country in 150 years, or by 1968.   In 1964, Look Magazine featured a cover bearing the title "The Vanishing American Jew. " The article of the same title by Rabbi Max Schenk suggested that the American Jewish community would disappear in a generation or two.   The last time I checked, we are still here.  
     Some predictions today claim that all liberal forms of Judaism will die out in the next 50 years due to issues of commitment and demographics.  Will our light, in fact, go out?
Not if we continue to gather as a community.
Not if we find new ways to learn from one another and teach each other.
Menorah - Temple Beth-El,
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Not if we celebrate holidays and special life moments that demonstrate an infusion of new ideas and revitalized spirit.
Not if we remember that the principles of "loving our neighbors" and "loving the stranger" as ourselves direct us to act with kindness towards one another and to engender partnerships with people of all faiths and backgrounds. 
Our light will not go out as long as we pray, and sing, and sustain the ideas and values that lead us along a path of creating a community, a nation, and a world based upon justice and peace. 
    May we keep these lights burning continually as preservers of our faith and tradition and as compassionate members of the human family. 

(This D'var Torah was inspired by a session on prayer led by Rabbi Ed Feinstein at Songleader Boot Camp in St. Louis, Missouri on Tuesday, February 16, 2016)

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