Shabbat T’rumah 5774 / January 31, 2014


By: Rabbi Lisa Edwards

I went to college in the height of the folk song era, during the protests against the Vietnam War.  When I was a freshman in LA at Occidental College (long before Barry Obama went there), I climbed on to the folk singer “craze” by acquiring a five string banjo with what was called a “long neck” or sometimes referred to as  a “Pete Seeger neck” because Seeger had added several frets to the standard banjo.  The long neck someone had added to my banjo was made out of a baseball bat cut in half the long way.  I loved it even though I never learned to play more than a few songs on it and those not very well.  My lack of musical talent was well established even way back then.

Of course it wasn’t just the music that drew me to be a Pete Seeger fan.  It was his politics and the way he seemed to move in the world —  always pushing for the causes of justice and peace, and pushing back against hatred and prejudice wherever he found it.

I assume you’ve heard by now that Pete Seeger died this week at age 94.  While it’s true that I didn’t think of him everyday or listen to his music all the time, he was one of those people that made me feel better just by knowing he was still in the world.  The good news, I suppose, is that his legacy will long remain in the world — he made a mark.  How many of us sang “If I had a Hammer,” the song he wrote with Will Hays in 1949, from childhood on as though it were Torah?  Well, especially its last lines, it certainly has a “ring” of Torah to it:

Well I’ve got a hammer, and I’ve got a bell

And I’ve got a song to sing all over this land

It’s a hammer of justice, it’s a bell of freedom

It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land

President Barack Obama in writing about his death this week called Pete Seeger “America’s tuning fork” who believed in “the power of song” to bring social change. “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”[102]

We lost another “tuning fork” this week, former Israeli Knesset member Shulamit Aloni died at age 85.  In 1988, just a year before Tracy and began our sojourn in Israel, Knesset member Aloni gained notoriety by bringing down the sodomy laws in Israel.[1]  1988.    When Tracy interviewed the many Israeli lesbians who became part of her oral herstory/history called, Lesbiot: Israeli Lesbians Talk about Sexuality, Feminism, Judaism and Their Lives [Cassell, 1995]  Shulamit Aloni was a national hero to most of them.

Aloni fought in the war for Independence, and served Israel’s government from 1965 – 1996, helping found two of Israel’s most liberal parties — Ratz, the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace, and Meretz (“energy”), a blend of 3 liberal parties (Mapam, Ratz and Shinui), that emphasized a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, social justice, human rights (especially for ethnic and sexual minorities), religious freedom, and environmentalism.[5][2]

Her youngest child, Udi Aloni, an important filmmaker in Israel (“Forgiveness” is one of his films), delivered a gorgeous eulogy for her, which included these remarks:

“It seems it wasn’t for nothing that you so loved God’s response to Job (Job 38:8): “Who shut up the sea with doors.” You, Mother, were also a sea of emotions and the Leviathan of creation and freedom, but you were also the one who put law, wisdom and boundaries around this raging ocean in order to protect the weak, the orphan, the stranger and the widow.

“You worked with all your might to introduce a constitution in Israel, but at the same time you called for conscientious objection and you supported the conscientious objectors….

“You always told me you were a divided soul, and I did not understand. But then, we always think of the radical as the one who is undivided, who must aim for the target without swerving to the left or the right. We always thought the radical arose from the attribute of judgment, but you taught me a radicalism that was born of the attribute of grace. …You succeeded in teaching me radical grace, how to have conviction and doubt at the same time.”

In 2000, Shulamit Aloni was awarded the Israel Prize for her lifetime achievements and contribution to Israeli society, despite protests from Israel’s religious establishment. [The Israel Prize (Hebrew: פרס ישראל‎) is an award handed out by the State of Israel and is largely regarded as the state’s highest honor. It is presented annually, on Israeli Independence Day, in a state ceremony in Jerusalem, in the presence of the president, the prime minister, the speaker of the Knesset (Israel’s legislature), and the Supreme Court president.  []

In awarding her the prize, the committee of judges praised her for being a voice for citizens, for “struggling to repair injustice and hoist the flag of equality between the different peoples and faiths in Israel.”

Despite many who want to claim him, Pete Seeger was not JEWISH. In an interview a few years ago, he was

asked about his religious or spiritual views, and Seeger replied:  “[I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”.[16][3]

The title of this week’s Torah portion is T’rumah, which means “gifts” and comes from the root meaning “to elevate.” Da-ber el b’nei Yisrael v’yik-khu li t’rumah mei-eit kol ish asher yidvei-nu li-bo tik-khu et t’rumati.  God says to Moses: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is moved to do so.”[Ex. 25:2]  And with these gifts, says God, “Let them make Me a sacred place [mikdash] that I may dwell among them.” V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham

BCC is not the only synagogue who has put those two verses of Torah on their walls, somewhere near a hopefully long list of people who donated in order for a congregation to build a mikdash — a sacred place — in which to gather as a community, as a kehilah kedosha/ kahal kadosh,[4] a sacred community.

And we like to joke — although it’s not really a joke — that God was the first chair of the first synagogue capital campaign and building committee, because what follows in this Torah portion are God’s very specific instructions for the materials and design of the sanctuary to be built v’shakhanti b’tokham — that I may dwell among them.

But this week, as we remember two giants — each of whom has been called “a voice of conscience”[5] for their respective countries — I want to invite us to consider a different way to understand God’s invitation to bring gifts, and to build a sanctuary, and in so doing to “elevate” a community.  I remind us every year, I think, and I am not alone, that when God asks them to build a sanctuary, God does not say “that I may dwell in IT,” in the sanctuary we will build, but “that I may dwell among them” — v’shakhanti b’toekham — that is, among the people – within the people — whose hearts were moved to make room for God, to invite God into their community, their congregation, their country.  Shulamit Aloni and Pete Seeger were NOT builders of buildings, but they were builders of sacred places, for their hearts moved them to bring the most sacred gift of all — to try to turn the countries they loved into safe havens — sanctuaries; a home that treasures and protects, honors and holds dear, any and all of God’s creations who might come “to dwell among them.”

Their memories will forever be a blessing — may we follow in their paths and continue the work they began.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Aloni was first elected to Knesset in 1965 on the ticket of Labor Alignment (Ma’arach), the predecessor of the Labor Party. On the eve of the 1974 election, Aloni defected from Labor and founded Ratz, the Movement for Civil Rights and Peace, which secured three seats in the eighth Knesset.

Aloni was appointed a minister without portfolio in Yitzhak Rabin’s first government in 1974, but resigned after the National Religious Party joined the coalition. In the 1984 election, Ratz won five parliamentary seats after Peace Now members Ran Cohen – and later Yossi Sarid – joined the party.

Aloni was among the founding members of Meretz during the 12th Knesset, when Ratz formed an alliance with Mapam and Shinui in 1991. The new party won 12 seats in the Knesset election a year later. Aloni, who led the party, joined Rabin’s coalition and was appointed minister of education and culture.

She served as education minister in Rabin’s cabinet between 1992-1993 and as science and arts minister between 1993-1996.

Aloni retired in 1996, after Sarid was elected Meretz chairman.

from her obituary in Ha’aretz

[2] Meretz was formed in 1992 prior to the 1992 legislative elections by an alliance of three left-wing political parties;Ratz, Mapam and Shinui, and was initially led by Ratz’s chairwoman and long-time Knesset member Shulamit Aloni. The name “Meretz” (מרצ) was chosen as an acronym for Mapam (מפ”ם) and Ratz (רצ). The third party of the alliance wasn’t reflected in its name, but was instead mentioned in the party’s campaign slogan: “ממשלה עם מרצ, הכוח לעשות את השינוי” (A government with vigor [Meretz], the strength to make the change [Shinui]).

[3] // Wendy Schuman. “Pete Seeger’s Session”. Beliefnet, Inc. Retrieved 16 August 2013.

[4] Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim  in Charleston, S. Carolina is the 2nd oldest synagogue in N. America.

[5] LA TIMES, pg. 1  called Seeger “America’s Voice of Conscience”

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