By Rachel Rubin Green, May 5, 2021
I embrace the concept that God and the people Israel are partners in the maintenance and improvement of our world. In his current commentary on this week’s Parsha, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg cites a Rabbinic interpretation of Chapter 23 Verse 2 that supports this view. As an introduction to the holiday calendar, God says to Moses, “These are the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as Sacred Occasions, they are my fixed times.” The Etz Hayim uses the term “Fixed times.” Rabbi Greenberg uses the term “Feast Days” instead.
As Rabbi Greenberg explains:
The Rabbis break up the Torah verse into three stages.
- Until Israel entered into covenant— literally, became God’s people, “the feast days… [of, or are set by] the Lord.” For example, the Shabbat was sanctified and ordained by God before the Jewish people even existed.
- Once Israel became people of the covenant, God said: “Which you shall declare [these] to be days of holy gathering.” This refers to the rabbinic courts declaring the date of the New Month (Rosh Hodesh) and thereby setting the dates of the holidays/feast days.
- By Israel’s actions, “these are [or become] My [God’s commanded] feasts.”
Rashi, in particular, asserts that, “From this verse we derive the law that (it is the responsibility) of the Sanhedrin (to) proclaim a leap year.” Rashi qualifies this assertion by explaining that, (it is) “for the sake of those living in the diaspora who have left their homes to go to Jerusalem for the festival but have not yet arrived.” Still, God requires the Rabbinic Court to set, and to update with leap years as necessary, the timing of our annual festivals.
This notion that scheduling and keeping the festivals is a human responsibility, part of our end of the divine-human partnership, is consistent with an interpretation of a difference in the Shabbat and festival Kiddush that I learned from our son Stevie some years ago. On Shabbat, we say “Mekadesh HaShabbat” that God has made the Shabbat holy without us needing to do anything. On Yom Tov, however, we say “Mekadesh Yisrael v’ Hazmanim.” God made the people of Israel holy who in turn made the festival holy. The festivals remain holy only because we keep them. Rabbi Greenberg essentially states that God needs us as partners in all earthly activity, including, but not limited to, festival observances.
Later in this same commentary, Rabbi Greenberg quotes Rav Joseph Soloveitchik as saying,
(we as Jews), “received the Torah from Sinai not as a simple recipient but as a creator of worlds, as a Partner with the Almighty in the act of Creation.”
Rabbi Greenberg continues: “This partnership gives humans the task to apply the Torah in new or changed conditions. We have the responsibility to find new ways of living properly, as are necessary. This includes when there is new evidence and new understanding and the inherited Torah is having destructive effects, the human partner has the responsibility to adjust the Torah to make sure that it is (as it wants to be) on the side of life and world repair.”
Greenberg mentions his own efforts in keeping the Torah on the side of life and world repair. One project is that he works with leaders in other faith communities to increase mutual respect among members. Another is to affirm the dignity and inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in Jewish life. In arguing for the critical role of human actions as God’s partners, Greenberg again quotes Rav Soloveitchik, “It is as if the Creator of the world Himself abides by man’s decision and instruction.” Rabbi Greenberg concludes this commentary with, “God and the Torah depend on later generations to be responsible partners. It is the partner’s task to ensure that the Torah is humane and life affirming in all its applications.”
In addition to Rabbi Greenberg’s commentary, there is another, more obvious, reason that I wanted to discuss the calendar section of our Parsha today. Our Library Minyan community has not met in person for prayer in more than one entire holiday cycle. From just after Purim in 5780 until now, right after Lag b’Omer 5781, we have met online or as part of our greater Beth Am community, but not distinctly as the Library Minyan. I have missed you. Each of you and all of you.
Before going any further, I want to extend profound gratitude to all of you who work in the technology sector. Your professional expertise enabled us to connect electronically when it was medically hazardous to meet in person. We are forever in your debt.
How did you spend your Shabbatot during the pandemic? Maybe you davened with our Beth Am clergy online. Maybe you attended a small, socially distanced backyard minyan. aybe you drash-surfed the internet, trying to hear as many different drashot and interpretations of the parsha as possible. Maybe you did something else entirely.
My pandemic Shabbat pattern became first; online Mishnah study, followed by a long walk with my friend and neighbor Hannah Kramer, usually returning in time to hear either Rabbi Kligfeld or Rabbi Schatz give a drash. Not bad, but I did feel something missing in this pattern. You. Each of you. And the moments of ascension I sometimes experience in the prayer space we create together.
One thing I learned about myself during the pandemic was that I learn well online. I loved learning online. The minimal commute time was great. Over the year, I attended classes and discussions provided by our Beth Am clergy and also by teachers at Hartman Institute, Hadar, JTS, RA, CA, The Forward, Limmud UK, Limmud North America, UCLA Hillel, and our own AJU, among others. My new best friends are Barbara Breger and Renne Bainvoll, who spend 4 hours each week in Zoom classes with me. The most emotionally satisfying online class was attending Kid’s Parsha Club, sponsored by Hadar and taught by Rabbi Aviva Richman, with my grandson Archer each week. All in all, my pandemic year was exceptionally rich in Jewish learning.
I also learned that the rich learning experience did not transfer into prayer. I found it difficult to reach towards God via my computer screen. Without the cushion and bounce of community energy, I felt that my attempts praying online highlighted my isolation, rather than relieved it. This was entirely different than what I felt and still feel while learning online. On the days I joined an online minyan for Yartzeit, I found the communal recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish helpful. But not the same. I still missed you, each of you and all of you. This community.
The contrast between what I feel learning online and what I feel attempting to pray online reminded me of one of my favorite of Rabbi Rembaum’s teachings. “My theology is my community.” Maybe I focused on that saying because I was feeling it’s inverse – that in the physical absence of community, I could not reach towards or grasp my theology. In preparing this drash, I asked Rabbi Rembaum to elaborate on this particular saying.
Here is what he said:
“It is in the human interaction in a community that I see Tzelem Elohim manifest. We define God as loving, caring, compassionate, just, healing, and strengthening. When I see people acting out these essential elements of divine activity in their relations with others, my faith in God, creator of all creatures and eternally true principles, is affirmed.”
I agree. And the qualities that Rabbi Rembaum mentioned continue to infuse our interpersonal interactions. For that, we continue to be intensely grateful. However, without seeing each other regularly, it felt like creating these interactions required additional effort, often more than I could summon.
In another 15 days, we will finish counting the Omer for 5781. The actual quantity of the daily Omer offering, which we recall in this annual Mitzvah of counting days, was small enough to not create an economic burden. This pandemic year has certainly been a year of counting. How many times did you change flight tickets this past year? I think Norm rescheduled his flight to visit our New Jersey family 4 times. And now that they are moving to Arizona, the newest reschedule is to fly there instead. How many family simchas (smachot), or sadly, funerals, did you attend on Zoom instead of in person? How smachot were cancelled or rescheduled? And how many times? For much of this year, we counted days between a COVID test and seeing our results. In just the last few months, we counted the days until our age cohort or profession became vaccine eligible. We counted the hours we waited in line to get our shot or shots, and then the days after that until we felt it was safe to be in each other’s company. We have had a great deal of practice in counting this year. Our routine lives have required immense patience.
I leave you with three challenges. First, in the model of Rabbi Greenberg, I challenge you to be full partners in creation of our post-pandemic intimate community and larger world. Second, in the model of Rabbi Rembaum, I challenge you to continue, or to increase the presence of Tzelem Elohim, the overlap of community and theology, in the way we treat each other. And lastly, as our time of counting concludes, I challenge you to do something small each day, like the Omer offering, to make yourself, and this community, count.