Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Evening Service (with guests from the Southern Jewish Historical Society and the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina)
Shabbat Shalom. I have to admit, I’m fairly intimidated to have so many historians with us in the congregation tonight. Historians by vocation and avocation; historians specifically of Southern Jewish history, or the broader scope of Jewish history, or areas that go even further and more widely afield. It’s truly an honor to have this opportunity to share a word of Torah with everyone here tonight, albeit a daunting one. But I suppose the reality is our pews here at KKBE are often filled with those drawn to history, especially the historical stories and discoveries in which we recognize ourselves.
For years now — even through parts of the pandemic — KKBE has been privileged to welcome thousands of visitors to our historic campus each and every year. Our docents can attest to how frequently they come with the name of a relative or ancestor that had some connection to our congregation — someone who was once a member, was married or Confirmed here, or might even be buried in our Coming Street Cemetery. And they are so grateful for any and every story we can share. Not because they learn more about their relative, or at least not entirely; but because in learning about their ancestor’s history, they learn something about themselves.
My colleagues can attest to another phenomenon we’re seeing throughout the Jewish community, and not only at historic congregations like ours. With the proliferation of genealogical study and DNA tests, we increasingly hear from people reaching out having learned that they have previously-unknown Jewish ancestry. And so they want to learn about Judaism, or, in some cases, are even interested in pursuing conversion. Again, the primary impetus is not to learn about a relative they hadn’t known anything about — but rather to claim what they’ve learned is a part of their own history, which they now want to carry forward into their present. In several cases, I’ve had individuals tell me they’ve always, for unknown reasons, felt drawn to Judaism. They feel their historic discoveries have made sense of that calling for them, and they come wanting to learn more about themselves.
If you’ve had the chance to travel to Israel, you’ve probably experienced these feelings of recognition especially strongly. In Religious School and in our sacred texts, from the bimah and in our liturgy, we’ve heard so frequently about the ancient Temples in Jerusalem; the mystics welcoming Shabbat in Tzefat; the first public institutions of ancient Israel, the beginnings of the modern state, and everything in between. And then to be at these historic places… by them, in them… These are moments when our present intersects the past, and their power can be so overwhelming, they take our breath away.
This summer I had the very special opportunity to indulge my own interests in history with a research fellowship in the personal archives of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. As you could imagine, immersing myself in this treasure trove of documents provided any number of incredible moments. But there were some that stood out from the others: Holding the text of Isaiah from which Heschel read at the funeral of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and finding it marked up in the same way I often mark the pauses and inflections of a text from which I’m publicly reading or preaching. Learning how Heschel cared about issues I care about, not just generally, but specifically — reproductive justice; criminal justice reform; equity in education and housing and voting. Reading the mail Heschel received when he publicly engaged in those issues — “Rabbi, stay in your lane;” “But, Rabbi, what about Israel?” — and encountering the same tropes my colleagues and I so often hear in response to our advocacy today. These were the moments I found to be most powerful.
Heschel’s theology has always spoken to me, deeply. But these moments of recognition that tie together past and present, that create the through-thread of history, they capture us in a different way. They are the ultimate proof that even when our experiences seem to be ours and ours alone, none of us are ever alone. To the contrary: We’re always in good company.
This Shabbat begins a new cycle in the reading of Torah. We often look at the Hebrew Bible as a history book — stories of migrations and conquests, the building of a nation and its sacrificial cult. But few of us look to the stories we encounter this particular week as “history.” The Torah and B’reishit begin with a series of stories we can easily imagine starting: “Once upon a time…”
• The Creation of the world
• Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
• Cain and Abel — the first sacrifice, the first fratricide
• Marriages and progeny and lifetimes that lasted hundreds of years
• Giant half-men/half-god Nephilim appearing on Earth
Where are the links that connect us to these kinds of text? Is there any way for us to recognize ourselves here?
The Hebrew Bible is not a history book in the sense of textbooks that teach us a chronology of events that transpired through the actions of historical figures in key and significant moments. At least not always. But the Hebrew Bible is a history book in the sense that it preserves a collection of human thought throughout history. If we take a bit of a Jeopardy approach, where we consider the Torah a document of proposed answers, we find that underlying each story, chapter, and verse lies a series of questions that read a lot like our own inner dialogues and curiosities — the “big picture” questions that are far from settled and with which we continue to wrestle today.
Just in this week’s parashah alone we can hear the text wrestling with the questions:
• How did everything that we see come to be?
• What is humanity’s place in the world? Are we the center of existence? Is everything here for our use and enjoyment? Or are we here to care for all that’s around us and preserve it for those who will follow us in the generations to come?
• What is our purpose in the world?
• What makes us different than animals and the rest of nature with whom we share so much common substance and material?
• Is it better for humanity to be alone, or in relationship or community?
• Is it better for humanity to be knowledgable or ignorant? Is ignorance bliss? Is knowledge divine?
• Why is childbirth — the foundational miracle of existence — so gosh darn painful?
• Why does that which we need to do to cultivate the earth in order to survive take so much hard work?
• Which is more important in what we offer to others: Originality or exceptionality? Is it the thought that counts, or the gifts themselves?
• How should we handle disappointment? Is it possible to move on or return from sin? How?
• Are we our brother’s keeper? Our sister’s keeper? For whom are we responsible and to whom?
• Who were the heroes of old? Who should be considered the people of renown today?
We can say what we want about the Torah’s stories that answer these questions. Some may resonate deeply; others may seem quaint, or antiquated, or incomplete. Even within this one sanctuary, much less throughout the entirety of the Jewish community, we don’t have to agree. But the fact that for thousands of years, humanity has been asking the same questions we have — has been wrestling with the same existential quandaries we wrestle with — that discovery in and of itself is powerfully affirming.
As Rabbi Dr. Amy Eilberg has written: “I do not expect the Torah to be a source of accurate historical or scientific phenomena. Rather, I view the Torah as the humanly recorded account of our people’s early encounter with God, conveying their best understanding of the nature of life and the vision for living that flows from that encounter.”
And so in the Torah’s text, this ancient record of answers to life’s biggest and most enduring questions, we encounter our people and the Divine.
As we begin a new cycle of Torah this Shabbat, and in the spirit of the stories in its first chapters, may we each spend a little longer this week with the questions we know to be at the root of existence. Instead of suppressing our “big questions” as secondary to the more pressing and practical concerns of day-to-day life, may we lift them up, take them to our journals, maybe even raise them aloud with one another instead. As we reflect upon them, may we feel a kinship both with those in the community today and our spiritual ancestors who lived decades, and hundreds, and thousands of years ago. And even as the search for answers will perpetually continue, may we understand the questions themselves as a means for encountering the Divine — in our minds, our spirits, and our lives — each and every time we ask them. Amen.