This Week in Torah
Lekh Lekha 5775 (2014)
“A wind shall carry them off, a whirlwind shall scatter them…” (Isaiah 41:16), thus states the closing verse of our Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) for this week’s Torah portion. To whom does this statement refer?
In general, our Rabbis say that this refers to those who are scattered to the winds and distanced from God’s Presence and salvific powers. The Raibal is more specific, stating that this verse alludes specifically to the Jews who are not cut-off, but who may be distant from the corpus of the Household of Israel in one or more of many ways.
This separation is not limited to, but includes, those who whose lives are geographically far away from a Jewish community large enough to support the synagogues, schools and other institutions that, historically, have been necessary for continuity. This category includes those who do not live hundreds of miles from Jewish life, but who are in distant enough places as to make attendance at worship and participation in Jewish programs inconvenient or worse.
The concept of a scattered Israel can be unrelated to propinquity. Even Jews who live in or near relatively densely Jewish neighborhoods have the option of whether or not to be personally involved in Jewish life. (“Relative” is important here because, although we think of some neighborhoods as ‘very Jewish’; in reality, outside of Israel, majority Jewish communities have not existed since pre-World War II Europe.) Some who live in so called, “Jewish areas” may be less likely to get involved while those who, situated far from other Jews, are compelled to reach out for Jewish engagement.
The most insidious scattering is cultural. This refers to Jews whose lives are devoid of any Jewish context or rhythm. There are no Jewish symbols, books or ritual items in their homes. This is the one who, in an encounter with an involved Jew, will say “Oh, it was Rosh HaShannah last week?” Such a person can live between a shul and a yeshiva and still be totally oblivious to Jewish holy days, Shabbat or communal needs.
The bulk of North American Jewry lives in a state of Jewish flux, on a continuum, somewhere between the categories described above and continually navigating between Judaism and the rest of the world. Modern Reform and Conservative Judaism are, in large measure, attempts to respond to this tension by giving us ways to keep from being scattered away from Jewish life while being engaged in greater society. Simple examples are the non-issue of driving to worship services and, at least in Reform, the inclusion of non-Jewish spouses, partners and parents in the life of the congregation. In truth, Modern Orthodoxy, following the spiritual lead of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch z”l (d. 1888), also addresses the same goals.
The oversimplified difference between the movements is Modern Orthodoxy’s contention that it is possible to be completely Jewish and totally modern at the same time. Reform, as practiced – as opposed to ‘as preached’ – is more likely to expect Judaism to retract and “get out of the way” with Jewish practice taking a back-seat to cultural assimilation.
Today, more than ever, Jewish families face the same choices that confronted Abram and Sarai in this week’s Torah portion. Can we, along with our careers, businesses and daily worldly struggles, find time and space in our lives to, along with our children, walk on the spiritual path toward a covenantal relationship with God by making the choices that strengthen our bond to Judaism and, thus prevent us, and future generations, from being scattered to the winds?
By doing so we will “… rejoice through God and glory in the Holy One of Israel”. (Isaiah 41:16)
Rabbi Steve Denker
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