If you have read my column in the most recent Mishpachtenu, our quarterly magazine, you know that I have already announced the theme for High Holiday sermons this fall. That theme is Ahavah / Love. I think that, in the wake of recent events, we all recognize the need for more love in this world. So we’ll derash (interpret) that out from four perspectives: love of self, love of family, love of community, love of world.
The Jewish world in which I grew up did not speak so much about love. Rather, Judaism was about scholarship and law. To be sure, that is a significant component of what it means to be Jewish. I have even had teachers who suggested that speaking about love (as some religious groups often do) suggests a certain neediness, an almost shameful instability that we Jews have left to others. It is true that ours is a heady tradition; we are academic; we are interested in discernment and hermeneutics and argument. Judaism, in this line of thinking, is an ongoing study in havdalah – separating this from that; drawing lines; delimiting boundaries.
Perhaps you have noticed a tension in the way that I speak about these things. I have often pointed to the value of boundaries in a completely open world – keeping kashrut (dietary laws) and Shabbat keeps us not just Jewish, but human. It reminds us that true holiness is derived from maintaining the distinctiveness in our lives, in understanding that some things are permitted to us and some things are not.
But Judaism also speaks of love. Consider the second verse of the Shema, the essential statement of Jewish life: Ve-ahavta et Adonai elohekha (Deut. 6:5). You shall love the Lord your God. Or the paragraph right before the Shema recited every morning: Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu – with great love you have loved us – that equates love with Torah. Consider that some Jewish groups recite Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, on Friday evening before Shabbat. It’s love poetry, erotic even. We don’t recite that at Beth Shalom of Friday evenings, but we do sing Yedid Nefesh, which speaks of our yearning for God as one of love. “Nafshi holat ahavatakh,” we chant. My soul is sick with love for You, O God.
But love is not only something that happens between us and God. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the famed 15th-century kabbalist of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi parentage who is most strongly associated with the northern city of Tzefat, taught that each morning we should restate our commitment to “mitzvat ha-borei,” the essential obligation of our Creator, which is “Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha.” Love your neighbor as yourself. (That’s a quote from Vayiqra / Leviticus, 19:18.) By the way, Rabbi Luria’s morning prayer is in our siddur on the bottom of p. 102). Although we usually begin with Modeh Ani or Mah Tovu (we’ll come back to that in a moment), our tradition teaches us to re-emphasize our love for each other every single morning.
The loving, human relationship with God is understood to be a template for relationships between people. The prophet Hosea speaks of his own marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. We are not only a people of justice and law; we are also a people of love. And that brings us to Bil’am.
Bil’am, the non-Israelite prophet we met in today’s parashah, is seemingly in denial of his own love of Israel. When called upon to curse the Israelites by Balaq, the king of Moab, he can only bless them. He sort-of agrees to Balaq’s request, but Bil’am acknowledges that he can only do what God wants him to do. So it is no surprise to him that what emerges from his mouth is a blessing.
Bil’am is a kind of bumbling character. He certainly does not handle his donkey very well, beating her for misbehavior that is not her fault. He seems to lack a certain self-awareness. And embedded in that self-awareness is his actual love of Israel. Of course he cannot curse Israel; he acknowledges that it is the Israelites’ God that gives him his power. Had there been somebody around to make him an Israelite, Bil’am would have wanted in. He would have signed up.
So perhaps it is no great surprise that the words that we say when we enter a synagogue first thing in the morning are Bil’am’s words: Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov, mishkenotekha Yisrael. How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. (Numbers 24:5).
We follow those words a minute later with Rabbi Luria’s exhortation to state explicitly the fundamental mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself.
How are they connected?
The essential act of loving our neighbors, ladies and gentlemen, is welcoming them into our tent. This is our tent; this is our communal mishkan, dwelling place. A midrash about Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, describes his tent as having four doors, entryways in each direction, as if to welcome all who would come by. And that is our obligation as well.
Some of you may be aware of the fact that we recently conducted a survey about inclusion here at Beth Shalom. Now, inclusion means many things: it often is used to refer to incorporating those with various physical and/or cognitive disabilities into our environment. It can also refer to welcoming those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and so forth, and of course we should be working harder to include all of the above.
But a few people understood inclusion to speak not necessarily about those individuals, but about whether they had been personally welcomed into the synagogue. And as a referendum on being welcoming, ladies and gentlemen, this survey was somewhat damning. A few people characterized this congregation, characterized us, as not being sufficiently friendly or open, or as being cliquishly exclusionary. Here are some of the quotes taken from the survey results:
- “People are not always friendly.”
- “Some prominent members seem very insular and not welcoming or inclusive. They need to be more aware of their actions as key members of Congregation Beth Shalom.”
- “Cliques on surface are initially friendly. People stay in their own zones. Leadership does not go around to say hi.”
- “I attend kiddush and services. It is up to me to introduce myself.”
- “There is a feeling of “in-group” and “out-group” which we cannot have.”
And this did not turn up in the survey, but I have even heard a couple of recent reports of people being told by members of this congregation that if they are looking for a synagogue, they should go elsewhere – to Tree of Life or Rodef Shalom, particularly if they are in interfaith relationships.
That is not just wrong, ladies and gentlemen. It’s downright offensive.
Shall we read Bil’am’s statement as an interrogative? “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov?” Are your tents good, O Jacob?”
No. Everybody is welcome here, period.
Now, I think that we actually do a pretty good job of welcoming people here. And I put in a whole lot of effort in personally doing so. But we can still work harder to make sure that people feel welcome. We are all ambassadors for Beth Shalom; please think about that when you greet people, in or out of the building. Nobody should walk into this building to be offended, insulted, or encouraged to go elsewhere. On the contrary: when you walk into Beth Shalom, you should be embraced. Almost literally.
Because our tradition, ladies and gentlemen, is about love. OK, yes – it’s about law and justice and boundaries and mitzvot and so forth. But it’s also fundamentally about loving your neighbor as yourself, as Rabbi Luria taught us to reaffirm verbally each morning. And we are all neighbors. Particularly here in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
What will make our tents good, our dwelling places beautiful? That when you enter Congregation Beth Shalom, that you can feel the love. That every person – black, white, brown, LGBT, Jewish or not yet Jewish – can walk in and feel, “Ah! I belong here.”
And how can we do this? Just please make sure, my fellow ambassadors, that you greet warmly all those who enter the building. If there is somebody here you do not know, say “Shabbat shalom,” and engage them in conversation. Please don’t just say hello and chat with those whom you already know. Reach out. Extend your hand. Share some love.
Think love, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll talk more about love over the High Holidays. But in the meantime, let’s each of us think a little about how we can increase the love.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/30/18.)