No Longer A New Darshan!
By Gregg Alpert
November 25, 2017
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving.
The last time I stood before this Kahal, this community, was on July 1st, when I was heralded as a “new darshan,” a title I had waited for, for 14 years. You might ask, “...What took him so long?” At the time I was commuting from Los Angeles where we lived and only able to make it a couple of times a year when I came for work and to visit Sarra, our eldest daughter, who was a teacher and tutor here at Kolot, and the Alpert that started our family’s migration East. In fact last Friday night, at the wonderful and inspiring evening we had with the Immokalee workers, we met a very grateful father of one of Sarra’s Bat Mitzvah students, who is now in college!
Merrill and I joined as members of Kolot in November when we moved to Prospect Heights, so this month is our one year anniversary. And as a shout out to Rabbi Lippman, it's a good opportunity for me to remind you that it’s not too late to renew your membership or to become members like we did! It's one of the best financial and spiritual investments you can make!
Even though we joined in November, I couldn’t get a drash spot until July! This year I was on the drash list when the date signups went out. But I hesitated, pondering which parsha I wanted to La’asoke, to engage with, and within a blink of an eye, there were only a couple of slots left - mostly vacation weekends. I settled on this Shabbat as I knew most of our daughters would be around for our Thanksgiving gathering. Little did I know that this parsha, Vayetzei, would have such a meaningful familial connection and that it would coincide with the 24th anniversary of my mother’s yhartzeit, whose memory is being deeply honored today by 3 of her 4 grandchildren reading Torah this morning.
Vayetzei is a story of promises and bargains, great beauty and weak eyes, spontaneous strength, familial deception, and very prominent, a sister competition or should I say sister wars, and even some sisterly cooperation, thanks to the mandrakes.
As tempting as it is for the father of 4 daughters to focus on Leah and Rachel’s sister relationship, (a) I know better, and (b) I have been pulled into the opening verses, by one of our daughters, the only one not here today, as Alana, who was with us for several days this week and for Thanksgiving, needed to fly back to Detroit yesterday to tend to her community.
For the last 4 years, Merrill and I have traveled to Detroit to be with Alana and Justin on Rosh Hashana. Alana and I have a ritual of working together as she prepares the service outline for the Yamim Noraim, the days of awe, but her sermons are her own struggle. She enlists the help and support of her colleagues, her sisters, and friends to carve out and refine each of her messages. This year, on Yom Kippur, she spoke about ladders, and in particular the sulam, the ladder of Jacob’s dream in this week’s parsha, and shared a beautiful piece of Talmud about resistance that I had never learned before. Coincidence? Small miracle? I’ll let you be the judge.
I’ll also let you be the judge of whether a darshan should be sharing mostly the words of another (especially if she’s not Aviva Zorenberg) but I’ll offer you some further context at the end.
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב And Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.
He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃
He had a dream; a stairway or ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.
With these verses as our context, I now share with you, b’shem am’ra, in the name of who spoke, part of Alana’s words from this past Yom Kippur:
I love the image of a ladder -- especially Jacob’s ladder. So much so that I’ve been desperate to get a tattoo of it. I won’t do it (bli neder), don’t worry -- I figure I’m pushing enough other rabbinic boundaries. I suppose that is why I love the story, and the image, since I see in it the power of boundary-crossing. Jacob has left the only home he has ever known to escape the wrath of his brother. The text says “vayifga bamakom” - the verb insinuates a kind of collision with the place. When he sleeps he dreams of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth, and angels are ascending and descending. To me this moment represents the in-between, the blurring of the boundary, the border-crossing.
I have long considered boundary-crossing to be a primary spiritual practice of mine. I experienced boundary-crossing as a spiritual practice when I visited inmates in a Massachusetts prison, during the countless times I have crossed checkpoints in Israel and Palestine, and when I cross 8 Mile Rd. [in Detroit]. To be boundary-crossers is our lineage. The word “ivrim”, Hebrews, can be translated as “the ones who cross”.
My love of ladders and boundary-crossing come together in a remarkable piece of Talmud in Taanit 28a:
“Once, the evil kingdom of Greece issued a decree of apostasy against the Jews, that they may not bring wood for the arrangement of the altar and that they may not bring first fruits to Jerusalem. And they placed guards on the roads,[...], so that the Jews could not ascend for the pilgrim Festival.
What did the worthy and sin-fearing individuals of that generation do? They brought baskets of first fruits, and covered them with dried figs, and took them with a pestle on their shoulders.
And when they reached the guards, the guards said to them: Where are you going? They replied: we are going to prepare two round cakes of pressed figs with the mortar that is down the road before us and with the pestle that we are carrying on our shoulders. As soon as they passed the guards, they decorated the baskets of first fruits and brought them to Jerusalem.
[What about the wood?...] They brought their pieces of wood and prepared ladders [sulamot], and they placed the ladders on their shoulders and went off to Jerusalem. When they reached the guards, the guards said to them: Where are you going? They replied: We are going to bring down doves from the dovecote that is located down the road before us and with these ladders that are on our shoulders. As soon as they had passed the guards, they dismantled the ladders and took them up to Jerusalem. [...]
Isn’t that amazing?! When the Greeks tried to stop the Jews from carrying first fruits and wood for the altar to Jerusalem, they used figs and ladders to trick the border guards. So not only are ladders a bridge, a tool for border-crossing, they are also mechanism for thwarting empire. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Arundhati Roy. In 2003 at the World Social Forum in Brazil she said,
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories.”
And Alana ended...
I tell this story of the figs and ladders because it’s our story. The Jews do not respect the artificial border that has been constructed - we refuse to be kept from our sacred duty. We hide our first fruits and we shapeshift our altars, undermining empire. I can hear my ancestors say: you can stand here and pretend to control us, but we will outsmart you. Perhaps, in addition to being the People of the Book, we are also the People of the Ladder.
So what does it mean for us to hold onto this new piece of resistance in our tradition? What does this tell us about the relentless struggle to fight, to undermine empire? And what does this tell us about fighting with hope, with a sense that another world is possible and that together, we can help bring it about?
Which bring me to my final piece of context of what is means for us to be able to share the words of our children, of the next generation, of those whom we have taught who now are our teachers.
Moving to NY has not been a piece of cake but many of you struggle with much harder decisions than how to pack up and downsize. But being here and being part of Kolot, has been both an inspiration and a little bit of a relief. First the inspiring.
Inspiring because of the powerful teachers and leaders that make up this community. I’m not just talking about our amazing clergy, a City Council member (although he too is pretty awesome) or the board (which are pretty remarkable), but also from the darshanim that hold this makom, this place of the prophetic voice, to the hosts and leaders of our house meetings who make us feel special and heard.
And what about all of the incredible Social Justice doers in this community? Who do it whether part of, or apart from any committee, who are great role models and inspire us in so doing (and can even be a little intimidating at times given how invested and knowledgeable they are).
All we can do is do our part - whatever we can do. I joined the Social Justice committee. I have the privilege of representing Kolot on the Jewish Resistance Table, an ad hoc group of organizations and synagogues convened by Bend The Arc, to help inspire and coordinate our efforts to thwart empire. And two weeks ago, I attended a Faith in NY convening thanks to a Facebook post and a request from our Rabbi and now I’m on two of their working groups.
Yes, in LA, we were involved in social justice and protest but nothing like this. We have crossed not only a state border - we have crossed a boundary. But that boundary has also proved to be intimidating. So much to do! So many people to help! We can only carry so many ladders! But these Social Justice leaders and organizers in general, and our four daughters in particular, have also helped to provide me with a sense of relief.
And so it was during this past year, on one Shabbat in particular, I don’t remember which one, that a wave of relief swept over me, that there are so many ladder carriers and boundary crossers in our community and in our nation. And I thought of our four daughters, who not only inspire Merrill and me daily, but inspire the people they lead and prod and cajole out their comfort zones and across the boundaries that need crossing. They are not only the boundary crossers - they are the guides who navigate those crossings.
You see, it’s not just that we need to be intergenerational - that one of us is at one end of the ladder and that a younger person is at the other - it’s that we need to see and appreciate the incredible power and wisdom that they have, and know when to lead and when to step back so they can.
I’m not talking about retirement or taking it easy - I’m talking about recognizing what Jacob sees in the final verses that our daughters will read this morning:
וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the divine is present in this place, and I did not know it!”
וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃
Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
We should be shaken not just by the threat of empire but by power that we and the next generation of boundary crossers, who are nothing short of no’rah, of “awesome,” have, lest we awake and say, that divine power and potential was here and we didn’t even know it, or see it, or recognize it.
Together, all of us, we are the ladder carriers, and the ladder knows there is another way -- that what once seemed unreachable, is within our grasp.
That is what Jacob meant, that is what Jacob saw - not just a gateway to heaven but to another world. Or as Arundhati Roy teaches us...
"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."