Shabbat Inspiration –  B’shelach

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Student, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, January 17, 2019

Shabbat shalom,

As I stand up here tonight it is such a joy to see everyone as we begin a new phase of P’nai Tikvah’s journey.  Thank you to everyone who has helped to make this move a reality – our board, clergy and volunteers, and the Adelson staff and community.

Year ago, in New Orleans after the levies breached, a reform synagogue was badly damaged.   In the aftermath of the flooding, a local orthodox synagogue offered them space in their building as a temporary home.  As the two communities got to know each other, they found they had much in common and it was a good match for everyone, and in the end, they ended up building a new facility together and they both flourished. May it be so for us too.

As we began our service tonight, the first thing we did was to welcome our Torahs into their new home. Our Torahs embody many things.  Continuity with the past, both ours as a community as we have moved from home to home over the years, and continuity with the Jewish people.  These Torah scrolls have been a part of Jewish communities for a long, long time.  The smaller of the two comes from Hungary and survived the war.   But it isn’t just the physical scroll that is important, it is the ideas that are written within it that lead to discussions and practices and discernment of the that kind of people we want to be.

This coming week we will celebrate Tu b’Shvat.  Tu B’Shvat or the “birthday” of all fruit trees, is a minor festival. The name is Hebrew for the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat.

In ancient times, Tu B’Shvat was merely a date on the calendar that helped Jewish farmers establish exactly when they should bring their fourth-year produce of fruit from recently planted trees to the Temple as first-fruit offerings.  In the 16th century, mystics of Tzfat created a new ritual to celebrate Tu B’Shvat called the Feast of Fruits. Modeled on the Passover seder, participants would read selections from the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature and would eat fruits and nuts traditionally associated with the land of Israel.   In recent years the Jewish environmental movement has embraced the holiday to open discussions on our responsibilities to protect our planet.

The Torah makes two specific references to the role of Man toward the planet.

In Genesis 1:28 we read

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ׃

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it;

In these verses, we are to conquer/master the environment.  It is from here that we get the idea of dominion over the planet, that the earth’s resources are ours for the taking.  Ideas of dominion lead to clear cutting forests and strip mining and polluting of the oceans and the air.

But there is another vision of the roll of Man toward the environment.  In Genesis 2:16 we read

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃

The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.

This is the stewardship model, that the planet is ours to guard and to protect, to tend and to till.  From this vision spring ideas of sustainability, recycling, low carbon footprints and zero emissions; of leaving the earth in better shape that how we found it.  These ideas of dominion over the earth and stewardship of the garden are seemingly in conflict with each other but not all ideas in the Torah are resolved nicely with a red bow on top.

How do we come to know who we are as individuals and as a people?  That is where our Torah scrolls come in.  It is the ideas that are written on scrolls that are sacred.  By opening our Torah scrolls and by exploring these texts, by discussing ideas and contradictions and troubling passages as they arise, we work through underlying questions of philosophy and doctrine.  We come to know ourselves and what we stand for as a people.   In our struggle with text, we engage the divine.     As my teacher Rabbi Bouskila pointed out, “the study of text is considered more important that prayer, for by engaging text, you engage with the divine/with God.”

It is not lost on me that we have found our new home on a day school campus.  This is a place that in addition to excellence in science and math and the arts, is where ideas in all their diversity are explored daily; where Jewish life is nourished and where community is built.

As we plant our roots here, and our Torah scrolls settle into the ark, may we grow together; may we come to know ourselves, and may we be a part of this growing and thriving community for many years to come.

Shabbat shalom