A Message on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

I am angered by Vladimir Putin leading a Russian invasion of Ukraine. My great grandparents are from just outside Kiev and I have briefly visited that city. Unfortunately, Putins rhetoric and actions feel eerily similar to that of Adolf Hitler. Let us not forget Putin’s takeover of Chechnya and his annexation of Crimea under false pretenses, the latter which is Ukrainian land. Putin’s rhetoric and systemic attempt at dismembering Ukraine region by region reminds me of Hitler and Czechoslovakia: first the Sudetenland and little by little the entire region. He is obviously a very different person from Hitler (Yemach Shmo) with completely different goals and objectives yet his spoken desire to recreate the Greater Russia that existed with the Soviet Union reminds me of Hitler establishing greater Germany. Putin’s false claim of the need to “deNazify Ukraine” and of Ukrainians persecuting Russians are eerily reminiscent of Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

To those who ask why should we care let us remember the wise words of Pastor Martin Niemoller-especially “then they came for me and there was no one to stand up for me.” Let us also not forget George Santayana’s words “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” First the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, leading to a rapid reassertion of Taliban rule. Now if Russia is allowed to retake Ukraine what will stop them from moving on to Poland? Would NATO really rise to the test if that occurs? How about Xi Jingping taking over Taiwan?

My heart goes out the Ukrainians who are making gutwrenching decisions as to whether to flight or flee as hundreds of thousands of Russian trips bear down on them. Those who are fleeing don’t know if they will be able to return to their homes. Those who are fighting know that they are severely outnumbered with over 200,000 Russian troops on the border. I pray for the families of those of the 137 Ukrainians killed, the 316 wounded. I pray for those abroad who have family in Ukraine who are uncertain how or if they can get them out. I pray for the welfare of President Vladimir Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, who is Jewish, as well as for all the Ukrainian people.

May we see the day when the Russian invasion is repelled and the Ukrainian people can return to self-determination as they choose. Unfortunately I doubt that sanctions in and of themselves will accomplish this objective.

I applaud the Rabbinical Assembly for its statement yesterday-this is part of it:

Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine is only 100km from the border with Russia, and has been hit the hardest so far, experiencing explosions in the early hours of this morning. Entrances and exits to the city, as well as schools have already been closed, and the Russian army is getting closer. We are trying to get all of our communities in Ukraine to our western-most community in Chernivtsi, as it is the safest option right now, where Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov, our shlichim in Ukraine are currently with their family. This means organizing immediate transport, and reserving accommodation for refugees fleeing from other cities. In the meantime, we are also arranging for 150 packages with cookies, chocolate and juice, to be brought to the children, to try and lift their spirits in this challenging time.

Turning Towards Each Other

One of the challenges with Parshat Ki Tisa is that it deals with turning away from the proper path rather than turning towards it. After our ancestors made the golden calf, G-d said to Moses “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them.”[1] Because they turned away from G-d, G-d turned away from them, proclaiming “I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them…”[2] Moses, however, intervenes, refusing to let G-d destroy Israel. He says words which we repeat every fast day: שוב מחרון אפך והנחם על-הרעה לעמך; “Turn away from Your blazing anger and renounce the plan to punish Your people.”[3] In so doing, Moses makes two very important points: Israel remains G-d’s people as opposed to a “stiff-necked” people independent from G-d, and G-d does not need to turn away from Israel just because they have turned away from Him at this particular moment.

The term “turn away” struck me because of the work done by marriage therapist Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman writes that the married couples he see who turn towards one another at times of conflict stay together 86% of the time, whereas those who turn away from each other stay together only 33% of the time.[4]  In our tradition, G-d and Israel are a couple, bound together by a ברית, or covenant, just as a married couple is bound by a Ketubah. In our portion because Israel has forsaken its end of the bargain, worshiping other gods, G-d is going to follow suit and strike them from the earth-that is until Moses intervenes. He says to G-d, ‘calm down; take a chill pill,’ and he gets G-d to refrain from forsaking the covenant. וינחם ה על-הרעה אשר דבר לעשות לעמו, “G-d forsook the evil that G-d had said he would do to His people.”[5]

There are two reasons to speak about this today. First we are celebrating the dedication of Robin Schaffer, who is always willing to step up at Bet Shira, from leading the Tu B’Shvat Seder to Sisterhood Shabbat. She is a hallmark of dedication, a regular at morning minyan, often from work. She has taught the Bet Shira minyan so many new tunes over the years.

The second is to celebrate Robin and Ed’s aufruf in honor of their marriage tomorrow here at Bet Shira. Marriage is a brit, a sacred covenant between two people in a relationship. Each relationship is a give-and-take, whether the work-family balance, the public-private life or the sacrifices versus benefits. Robin and Ed model an essential truth of Judaism-that we get up each and every day attempting to grow in our relationship with G-d while concurrently striving to make the world into a better place.

Marriage is one of if not the most important relationship in life, a partner with whom one forms a team. There are benefits as well as responsibilities with marriage, many of which are detailed in the Ketubah. I know that in continuing to grow together in your Jewish observance you will also grow in your relationship with one another.

My prayer for you, Robin and Ed, is that you always turn towards each other, recognizing that your relationship supersedes any specific issue at hand, and in so doing may you strengthen your true love each and every day. Mazal Tov on the celebration of your aufruf. As we are at Bet Shira, House of Song, let’s sing siman tov u’mazal tov again.

[1] Exodus 32:8

[2] Exodus 32:9-10

[3] Exodus 32:12

[4] https://www.gottman.com/blog/turn-toward-instead-of-away/

[5] Exodus 32:14

Imminence or Transcendence: Finding the Balance

         As we continue to read about the Mishkan, I ponder the divide between transcendence and imminence. God said in Parshat Terumah ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them.”[1] The medieval rabbis view this as God’s Shechinah, the feminine, most earthly part of God, will come to dwell in the Mishkan.[2] Later commentators, however, take a different stance: that each of us should take engage in an active process of making God manifest in us-that the goal is to experience the Divine residing within oneself.[3] The medieval view, exemplified by Sforno, is of a transcendent God who descends from on high to dwell in the Mishkan. The later view, exemplified by Malbim, is of an imminent God who resides within us, and our job is to bring out God through our actions in this world. This includes physical actions (those who describe our body as a temple), spiritual actions (actively conversing with God through prayer and study) and relational actions (deeds of lovingkindness for those who need our help).

         The modern view, largely influenced by the mystics, of bringing out the Divine from within us rather than seeking God out from the external, is one with which I resonate. However, the truth is one must find a balance between the two. At the beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh, Aaron and his sons can find God through the imminent act of beating olives to consecrate them for the Menorah, as well as through the transcendent act of taking a step back and reveling in the bright lights of the Menorah immediately following its lighting.

         Rabbi Shai Held writes about the need for balance between imminence and transcendence in his book The Heart of Torah. He states, “Wherever the Israelites go, God will go with them. But as inspiring as having God close by can be, it is also fraught with peril. If a sense of God’s immanence is not amply balanced with robust awareness of God’s transcendence, we run the risk of thinking we can domesticate God. We run the risk of thinking we can truly know who God is, or worse, we come to think that we can simply get God to do our bidding. Under such circumstances religion becomes about God serving us rather than us serving God. Faith very quickly descends into idolatry.”[4]

         The balance between imminence and transcendence is essential, and it is fitting to speak about it today when Ellen Gall chants her first Haftarah in a long time, tutored by Hagit Simkovic. Ellen is someone who demonstrates the importance of transcendence. She is at our daily minyan every day, praying to God. Joe and she have a beautiful backyard filled with the most gorgeous palm trees and plants, expressing the wonder of nature and the great gifts of the one above who gave them to us. At the same time, she understands the role of an imminent God in her everyday actions. Through Caring Kehilla she reaches out to congregants in need, seeing what can be done to help them. By chairing our congregational Torah Fund campaign, she helps ensure that Bet Shira congregants help students at Conservative institutions who need financial assistance. Ellen always made sure we had lunch on Yom Tov, and she has provided a Kiddush this morning in honor of this simcha She exemplifies holding the balance between God up high and God in our hearts, ready to help those in need through the performance of Mitzvot. Mazal Tov Ellen! May your joy increase each and every day as you shine God’s presence on everyone you touch.

[1] Exodus 25:8

[2] See Sforno on Exodus 25:8

[3] See Malbim on Exodus 25:8

[4] Rabbi Shai Held, The Heart of Torah (JPS, The University of Nebraska Press, 2017), pg. 196.