Our Parshat Ha Shavuah, the Torah portion of the week, is one of the many stories within our Torah in which the early characters serve as prototypes for us in our lives today. The challenges they face and the way that they deal with them are models to help us with similar problems in our lives. There are many elements within this story, beginning with a discussion about vows and how they can be annulled; Pinchas leads a massive army of Israelites to conquer the Midianites and sends the spoils back to Moses and the Israelite camps; part of these spoils include the women who he claimed seduced the men into sin, causing a plague which killed many. An enraged Moses claims that the women alone caused this plague because they seduced the men who were killed and orders that they are also killed immediately; the soldiers then learn the laws of purifying themselves after battle, and then how to kasher the food utensils.
To me, much of this sounds troublesome, and truthfully, I have a hard time accepting Moses’ claim that the women were the ones who seduced the men. It feels very wrong, misogynistic, and unfortunately reminiscent of much of what is going on within our political climate today. But this is the beauty of Judaism: the name of Israel means “to wrestle with God.” Therefore, it is not only acceptable to wrestle, argue, and disagree with these texts, but it is actually encouraged, even required to do so.
The latter part of this story, however, resonates very strongly within my own life. The tribes of Reuben and Gad seem to feel worn down, tired of the fighting, and ask Moses if they can remain, along with their plethora of cattle and families, in the lands of Og and Sichon, which are in East Jordan, instead of continuing on to Israel. Moses once again becomes angry, accusing them of being like the spies we read about last month in Sh’lach L’cha, who were spreading rumors that Canaanites who were inhabiting Israel were dangerous giants, and that it was unsafe to live there. Reuben and Gad agree to leave their cattle and families behind in Jordan and go on to conquer the entire Land of Israel, after which they will return to Jordan for their wives, families, cattle, and everything that is dear to them.
I can relate to this latter part because when I decided to become a cantor, my husband Ross and I felt strongly that because I was coming into the cantorate completely “green,” without any cantorial experience, thatseminary was the absolute best path, even though it meant that I, like Gad and Reuben, had to go to a land completely foreign to me, that I had heard many scary things about, that I did not grow up having a relationship with. It meant leaving the things most important to me, in this case my sweet husband Ross, behind in New York, as he was working and supporting my endeavors to become a cantor. We were married just over a year, and the day of my departure to Israel was one of the three most difficult moments we faced during our marriage (of 10 years in November). However, I, like Reuben and Gad, accomplished what I sought out to do in that year, and had amazing experiences while doing so. Ross and I missed each other terribly, but thank goodness for Skype!
During that year, I made it my mission to immerse myself in Israeli culture as much as possible. A passion arose inside me which I had no idea existed: for justice and religious pluralism. I volunteered at a Reform Congregation, Ohel Avraham, the synagogue of the Leo Baeck school in Haifa. This is a cutting edge public school in which Jews study alongside children of many other faiths, including Druze, Christian, and Muslim. Representing Ohel Avraham, I had the privilege of leading them for High Holy Days services, chanting the Megillah and participating in their Purim Schpiel (where I dressed up as an Orthodox man, complete with payes), and during Passover, I co-led a Seder at a battered women’s shelter in Haifa. What a powerful experience that was! I also had the privilege of organizing a fundraiser with my classmates, which was a concert of Broadway music to raise money for Ohel Avraham’s B’nai Mitzvah families with financial needs. I have remained very close friends with Rabbi Gabby Dagan of Ohel Avraham and the members of this community who so generously housed me, and became my family in Israel. As a matter of fact, when Ross, Abigail, Zev, I, and Ross’ entire extended family are going to Israel in August for my nephew Zachary’s Bar Mitzvah, the four of us are staying with Elana and Hillel Kolodner, our family in Israel. We will reconnect with the members of Ohel Avraham and Rabbi Dagan, introducing them to our beautiful children, and making music with them.
While the year away from Ross was one of the most challenging of my life, as Reuben and Gad were needed to go and “conquer the land” of Israel, I too was needed to go and “conquer the learning” in Israel. That year was just the beginning of what shaped my cantorate today. It also showed Ross and me what we were made of, strengthening our marriage, and making us strong for the greater challenges we would face in the years to come.
I am so grateful that you have chosen me as your cantor, that I am able to serve you, and that I can draw upon the knowledge and strength I received from that year in Israel, in cantorial school and beyond, to serve you with my whole heart. I wish you Shavuah Tov, and I look forward to connecting with all of you and getting to know you. Please know that my door is always open to you, especially for singing!