Getting to Know You - Shabbat Inspiration Re’eh
by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, August 18, 2017
As we start this journey, I’d like to take the opportunity to for you “get to know me” a bit more.
My basic information is that after graduating from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon with the plan to become a reform rabbi, I took a detour into ultra-orthodoxy. I spent the better part of 4 years exploring Israel, studying in different women’s yeshivot (seminaries), living in Jerusalem, leading summers tours for American Jewish teens, running a weaving studio, solidifying my Hebrew and studying art history at Hebrew University.
When I came back to the States I had gained a deep appreciation for text study and traditional life on one hand, and a renewed respect for the liberal, pluralistic values with which I was raised, on the other. I have carried these two aspects of my Jewish identity with me as I worked my way through the Bay Area Jewish community including time at Stanford Hillel, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, heading a small day school, directing a JCC, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and my current position at Hebrew Free Loan* in San Francisco where I actively build community and raise the necessary funds to support it.
On a more casual note, I love to cook, I love to socialize, and I love to build community. I am an out-of-the-box thinker and as long as it doesn’t involve bungee jumping or exiting a plane at 20,000 feet, I am usually up for anything that brings our community together under the umbrella of Jewish values. That might take the form of a bike ride with Torah study at the rest stop; or maybe a pop-up Shabbat dinner in the garden of a home with lovely sculpture; or standing in unity with fellow clergy in troubled times; or taking a long walk with you and talking about whatever comes up.
So why did I decide to become a rabbi at this stage of life? The answer is that after such deep involvement across the spectrum Jewish life, I was tired of other people telling me what Judaism had to say about any given topic. The reform community in which I grew up gave me an incredible sense of identity, and belonging and community but it did not embrace text study and all I really knew about Judaism until I graduated college was “Be a good person” and “Never Forget.” We never explored the textual and philosophical ideas that lead to the development of the reform movement. And in truth, I had no idea WHAT we were reforming or conserving or reconstructing and renewing. We never discussed ideas of God, what God is, what it means to be created in the image of God; and what it means to be in covenant.
The orthodox world I explored was warm, vibrant and full of text study and ideas, but observance was based on belief in a God and lots of laws that were new to me. Observance was black and white and I couldn’t blindly live within those strict lines without have fully explored the ideas upon which Jewish law is derived. As my life unfolded, I wanted the knowledge, the background, the depth. I wanted the keys to the castle. And now I know that my life, how I act in this world, though not orthodox, is an authentic expression of Jewish life in modernity; the words that I speak are grounded in knowledge and understanding of Jewish texts. Our Jewish world is varied and diverse, and I respect and embrace that diversity. If you keep kosher or you don’t, I invite you to share with me why. How did you come to your conclusion? I will respect your journey.
On another note, I am a huge Ben and Jerry’s fan. Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey have been my good friends for a long while. But while my thighs like their ice cream, my soul embraces their motto “think globally, act locally.” Think globally, act locally has been my modus operandi as I work to affect change. “Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor… it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, but you can’t ignore it either…”
I change the world in every way I can. I recycle. I use green products. I give tzedakah, and more and more, in these troubling times, like many of you, I raise my voice and to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “I pray with my feet,” standing my ground for what I believe.
With this in mind, we would be remiss if we did not take notice of this weeks’ disturbing events in Charlottesville, neo-Nazis with lit torches, marching in the streets, spouting hate. And now we see, it was not limited to Charlottesville.
This past year saw alt-right demonstrations in Whitefish, Montana, at UC Berkeley, and active anti-Semitism playing out on the campus of San Francisco State. And just this morning, it was discovered that the windows of a synagogue near my home had its window smashed. And now a permit has been approved for an alt-right march on Chrissy Field, in the heart of San Francisco.
Is it just a bunch of crazy’s or has the scab been picked off something seething just below the surface of the veneer of civilized society? As this unfolds, I think of my relatives in Europe 75 years ago and I wonder at the parallels as the civilized world around me appears to deteriorate. But then I am heartened by the differences.
We live in a country where standing up for what we believe is possible. Where denouncing hate, and bigotry, and discrimination in all its’ forms is possible. My relatives in Europe felt powerless to take to the streets and make their voices heard. We need not. I feel it is my moral responsibility to help create the world in which I want to live, to protect and strengthen the country of which I am proud to be a citizen. And this time, we Jews are not alone.
Earlier this week, 60 interfaith clergy representing the major religious institutions and every branch of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism in San Francisco signed their names in solidarity to denounce hate, intolerance and bigotry.
All over the country, people of faith are signing petitions and holding vigils. Here in Las Vegas, many of you joined voices from around the country and participated in the community vigil at the AME Church.
This weeks’ Torah portion, Re’eh, recounts the way the Jewish people is to be in covenant with God. It lays out “how” to be a light to the nations, the course of action needed to build a just and righteous society. The portion begins “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon this day; and curse, if you do not.”
Through our actions, we can bring about blessing, or we can bring about curse. The future is not a forgone conclusion dictated by God. It is something we actively work to build.
The American constitution is a covenant of sorts between the Federal government and the people. “We, the people”, breathe life into the words “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish the constitution of the United States of America.”
The constitution sets out to build a society that embodies the values in which we believe. But again, the future is not a forgone conclusion. If we don’t guard and nurture and stand up for the values we hold dear, our future can bring a blessing or it can bring a curse. The time is now to stand up and be counted and be heard.
Lastly, it says in Pirkei Avot, “the Ethics of the Fathers”, a section of the Mishna,
עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:
“Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.”
As we come to know each other better, I hope to be there with you “b’smachot” – in happy times. But life isn’t always happy and so I pray that we may be together in all the times that come this coming year, happy and sad.
As a student rabbi, here at P’nai Tikvah, I have acquired a mentor in Rabbi Mintz from whom I am learning much. With all of you, I am acquiring friends and study partners and with God’s help, from each other I know we will all learn much and grow.
*We provide zero-interest loans at no cost to the Jewish community of Northern California to help them achieve their dreams and meet life’s challenges. For information about similar programs in Las Vegas, please visit www.Jewishnevada.org.