A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 5.14.2020

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

-Emily Dickinson

I was first introduced to this well-known poem many years ago, when I read Woody Allen’s book Without Feathers.  The book title, of course, is his jocular way of expressing his own sense of hopelessness and despair.  But Dickinson’s image of hope as a bird that “perches in the soul” always resounded with me.  

The idea of “hope” is central to this week’s parasha and to the book of Leviticus in general, and sits at the very heart of Jewish religious thought.  The parasha puts in in starkly theological terms.  At the end of chapter 26 of Leviticus, after a frightening list of curses that will be the consequence of abandoning God’s ways, God assures us that there will be an end to suffering: “…at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity.  Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.” Though it may appear that God has abandoned us, there is always the hope and the promise of restoration.  This is a theme revisited again and again by the prophets; God will never forget God’s people.

I will say, though, that “hope” in the Bible tends to take the long view; it offers national hope, but not always personal hope (which isn’t to say that that notion is absent from the Bible – it isn’t).  When Naftali Herz Imber, the poet who penned Hatikvah, wrote Od lo avda tikvateinu – “Still, our hope is not lost” in the 1880s, he was at the tail end of a 2000 year old yearning.  

Which is why, perhaps, the Dickinson poem has been “singing” in my heart these last days; Most of us are still “sheltering in place,” filled with anxiety about Covid-19, the economy, and other long-term effects of this historic pandemic.  We grasp at any news of a vaccine or a cure, or even of a testing protocol that can facilitate a “re-opening” of our economy and our cultural institutions.  But spring is in the air, and I am happy to think about the closeness and immediacy of the little bird that asks nothing of us except, perhaps, the warmth of our own hearts.  

Here are some upcoming events to keep an eye out for:

This Shabbat: Shabbat Katan at 11:00 am!  Calling all little ones! Warm and welcoming parent-led Shabbat service for kids and families.

On Sunday, the Interfaith Coalition will be holding another Abraham’s Table event.  These wonderful gatherings bring together representatives of three faiths to discuss a topical theme.  This Sunday, we will be sharing Stories from our Faiths in the Time of Covid-19: Where we turn for Hope and Resilience in Crisis. . I will be presenting the Jewish perspective, in case you were wondering…

This Monday, plan to join Audrey and Aliza for a women-only conversation over Zoom. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like they’re planning a combination of reflection and light-hearted chatting. It’s at 8:00 pm. Contact Audrey at roomj@emjc.org for the link.

Also, don’t forget the Annual Membership Meeting on Tuesday night!

One last thing: Talking about Naftali Herz Imber, 72 years ago, on this very day (May 14), Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed.  Many of you have seen the footage of the swell of voices on the streets outside the hall as people spontaneously broke into a tear-filled and impassioned singing of Hatikvah. It is an endlessly fascinating exercise to reflect on how Israel has developed over the past 72 years.  I include a section from the declaration that outlines the aspirations of the founders:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

-David Ben Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, 1948

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach – a peaceful and blessed and hope-filled Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine