This is a very lightly edited transcript of my remarks on Simchat Torah. Any errors are mine.
Simchat Torah, as it currently exists, came about 1,000 years ago. There’s roots before that, but the Ashkenazi Jews were trying to figure out how to get people to come out on the 8th day of a festival that is supposed to be 7 days. So they said, “If we have a big party with the Torah, maybe they’ll come out and dance and we’ll have a celebration.” And it’s worked more or less for the last 1,000 years. It’s a time of joy, a time of gladness, of simcha at the end of this season of rejoicing. And yet, in this moment, it’s hard to be joyful. It’s hard to rejoice when we know what happened to our brothers and sisters in the middle of their time of rejoicing, because in Israel they don’t have two days, they have one day. So Shabbat was wearing three hats, because it was Shabbat, Shemini Atzeret, and it was Simchat Torah. And people were on their way to Shul. They were on their way home from Shul, they were on their way to celebrate. And suddenly it’s no longer a celebration.
I’m thinking about the name of our community. The name that we share with many communities around the world. Kehillat B’nai Israel. The Congregation of the Children of Israel. And we find it in other forms, sometimes it’s called Temple B’nai Israel. I still don’t understand how they got that name after we had it for 50 years before them, but there’s no trademark on it. We got it from other places too. There’s B’nai Israel in Turkey, Israel, all over Europe. And why is it when we could find a creative name for a synagogue, that we all end up with “B’nai Israel.” Because sometimes the simplest answer works! Occam’s Razor. The simplest answer works, because who are we? We are the children of Israel. And that name itself, “Israel” is one that means a lot. It’s the name given to our ancestor Ya’akov after he wrestled with the angel and was called “the one who wrestles with G-d and man,” you are now Israel.
And we’ve been this people, from generation to generation. We’ve taken other names. A couple hundred years ago, when we came here we often were happy to be called the “Hebrew nation” That’s why before it was the “Union for Reform Judaism” they were the “Union of American Hebrew Congregations” because that was one thing we’ve called ourselves. In English, we've often called ourselves “Jews” from “the people of Judah.” For many years we had the “northern kingdom” and the “southern kingdom.” Before 722BCE there was the northern kingdom called “Israel” and the southern kingdom that was called “Judah” and since the 10 tribes of Israel were mostly lost, and were just the Cohenim, the Leviim and everybody else, we called ourselves “Yehudim”, “Jews.”
But I think there’s something very powerful about calling ourselves “B’nai Israel”, “The Children of Israel”, “The People who Wrestle with G-d and Humankind” We are the people who wrestle. Who struggle. Who look for blessing in everything that we do because one of the greatest struggles we’ve had as the people, is the struggle to find simcha, to find joy, to find happiness. And no matter where we have been, no matter what has been in front of us, we have been the people that celebrate. We’ve been the people that celebrate in concentration camps. We’ve been the people that celebrated in programs. We’ve been the people that celebrated after the destruction of the Temple. When everything in our life, every way we imagined we related to G-d and the world was gone, we did not say, “We’re gonna pack up our things and move on.” We didn’t assimilate and disappear into Babylonian culture, into Roman society, into Syrian/Greek traditions. We’ve called ourselves French, we’ve called ourselves German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Libyan, Moroccan, but all along, we’ve always called ourselves “B’nai Israel.” And the people in all those countries never let us forget that. We’ve called ourselves American. I remember when I was a kid, the question was do we call ourselves “Jewish Americans” or “American Jews” I don’t really care. I don’t care what anyone else calls me, I am “B’nai Israel.” I am a child of Israel. And we saw in this week’s parsha, in the Torah that we read today, the very last word of the Torah is “Israel.” And then, in the sixth day of creation, we were created, we didn’t have the word Israel yet. But we were created in the image of G-d. All of us. Israel or not, we are created in the image of G-d.
So we have this struggle. It’s a struggle that’s been around since the dawn of time. Between the desire to be part of all the blessing and challenge the world around us, and also to remember who we are. What is central to our existence, that unique nature. I talked about this on Rosh Hashanah, I won’t repeat that sermon, but we have to be proud to be a Jew. We have to be glad to be a Jew. No one else is gonna let us forget that we’re Jewish. They’re not gonna let us disappear into the night. But we can’t want to be a Jew simply because someone else is not gonna let us forget it. We have to be a Jew because it is in our neshama, it is in our soul, it’s in our heart, we have to love it, live it, share it with our children, make it part of each and every day. And part of what is means to be a Jew is that in the midst of great sorrow, we still dance with the Torah. And it was wonderful and joyful to be together last night knowing the challenges that our people faces around the world. Knowing that the land of Israel’s security is complicated. And I was moved by the words that I shared from Rabbi Al Luv, bless his memory, of remembering that we can build a building that we think can outlast anything (and remember in Florida we know that nothing is truly permanent) but if we remember that the Sukkah because of the Ananei kavod, of the clouds, of divine glory, that is in truth the strongest structure that there is. Abraham Joshua Sheseel spoke about Shabbat, and he said that Jews have not had the blessing of building palaces in space very often. And even when we did, sometimes we had to abandon them at a moment’s notice and go somewhere else. But there was one palace that we could bring with us wherever we were, and that was the palace in time. That we could build each week with Shabbat, a day that was different than every other. A day that was focused on G-d and Torah and Israel.
So what I’m angry about, not only the violence and the destruction and the evil of attacking children on their way to Shul, I’m angry that my palace of time was broken yesterday. Because for the last 24 hours and beyond, I’ve not been able to entirely be present in this room in the way that I want to be present in this room. Because when I am here, when it is Shabbat, when it is Yom Tov, I want all that is going on in the world to disappear. To let this space be a sanctuary for us where we can give thanks to G-d for the blessings in our life. Where we can look ahead to dream and imagine and fill this space with joy. And yet, over yesterday and today, we created holiness in space, we try to build the palace, and we succeeded in building a palace. We had dancing, we had singing, and we had prayer. And the kittel, we put on the robe yesterday and called out for geshem for rain, and we were reminded of our Gashmiyut, our physicality, and our need to connect with the world. The physical world. But I have a wish for Hamas against Hamas. A wish for violence against Hamas. And I hate that! That’s not the person I wanna be. Because they broke my palace in time this week. Because I was wondering what’s going on in the world. And I was distracted and not present in the way that I wanted to be. So I have an al cheit before Yom Kippur, but I’m not quite fully formed today. My words are not formed, there’s nothing in front of me.
We are B’nai Israel. We are the people of Israel. We are the people that sometimes struggle, and if this week our palace in time was not as beautiful, as intricate, as fully formed as we wish, as we go into the next Shabbat, next week we have another chance. And the week after that, we have another chance. And the week after that, we have another chance. And my prayer for us on this Simchat Torah, on this Zman Simchateinu in the season of our rejoicing, that as we close the book on that High Holiday “season,” as we go into more ordinary time, that we continue to build those palaces of time. That we continue to find the blessing. That we continue to find the sacred each and every week. And let us not allow the interruptance, the pain, the frustration, let’s not live there. But let’s build a world where that pain and that frustration and that violence truly, truly disappears.
We have some more praying to do this morning. I want to wish you, hazak v’emet, as our haftarah concluded today. We have to be strong and be resolute. Be this B’nai Israel. That we look out for one another wherever we are, today and every day.