In Honor of Tu B’Av – When in Doubt Dance!

When in Doubt, Dance!

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for God has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea. [Exodus 15:20-21]

And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, ‘this is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’…Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance. [Exodus 32: 3-6]

…David went and brought up the Ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David, amid rejoicing…David whirled with all his might before the LORD…Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the LORD with shouts and with blasts of the shofar. As the Ark of the LORD entered the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the LORD…[2 Samuel 6:12-16]

Halleluyah! Sing a new song to Adonai; where the faithful gather, let God be praised.

Let the people of Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion delight in their Sovereign.

Let them dance in praise of God, let them celebrate with drum and harp.

For Adonai cherishes God’s people and crowns the humble with triumph. [Psalm 149:1-3]

Halleluyah! Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in God’s awesome heaven.

Praise God for God’s mighty deeds, for God’s infinite greatness.

Praise God with trumpet calls, with harp and lyre.

Praise God with drum and dance, with flute and strings.

Praise God with clashing cymbals; with resounding cymbals sing praises.

Let every breath of life praise God. Halleluyah! [Psalm 150]

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Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: there were no happier days for Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement. On those days the daughters of Jerusalem used to go out in white garments. These were all borrowed so that none would be ashamed who did not own them. Therefore all the garments needed washing before use. The daughters of Jerusalem went out to dance in the vineyards. What did they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what maiden to choose for yourself. Don’t set your eye on beauty but on family background, for ‘grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord shall be praised.’ In addition, it is written: ‘Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her works praise her in the gates.’ [Proverbs 30:30-31] It is also said: ‘Go forth, you daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon with the crown with which his mother has crowned him in that day of his espousals and in the day of the gladness of his heart!’ [Song of Songs 3:11] ‘In the day of his espousals,’ this is the giving of the Torah. ‘And in the day of the gladness of his heart,’ this is the building of the Temple. May it be built speedily, and in our days! Amen. [Mishnah Taanit 4:8]

Rabbi Helbo said in the name of Ulla of Bir’ia who said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: in the future the Holy One of Blessing will arrange a dance of the righteous in the Garden of Eden. God will sit in the center and each of the righteous will point toward God as it is said: ‘And it shall be said on that day – behold, this is our God for whom we waited, the God might save us; this is the Lord for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation.’ [Isaiah 25:9] [Taanit 31a]

In the future the Holy One of Blessing will be at the head of every dance troupe, for the righteous ones in the future. [Talmud Yerushalmi, Megillah, 2:4]

jakob-rosner-gathering-and-dancing-the-hora-kibbutz-1949_0People point to this statement and say that it is against all reason to suppose that there could be young maidens and men dancing in a holy place like the world to come, detached as it is from corporeality. One must, however, understand that these words come to reveal a great blessing reserved for the righteous in the Garden of Eden, hinted at with words of deep wisdom.

The dance is especially suitable for young maidens, as it is written: ‘Then shall the maiden rejoice in the dance, both young men and old together.’ [Jeremiah 31:13] The dance is joy expressed through action, not joy remaining in the heart. Women, especially young women, are less intellectual than men, and intellectual thought, which stands diametrically opposed to joy, holds back the full expression of active joy. One day, joy will find full expression in the Garden of Eden; joy itself is the dance of the righteous.

This will be the joy in God, as it is written: ‘Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous.’ [Psalm 97:12] Therefore it is said that God will sit in their midst and each will point a finger toward God. This means that the righteous have no other joy except in God. God is the perfection of themselves. So far, this is a simple explanation of the words of the Sages.

One must understand what is really meant by the dance. Joy is a spiritual category, it is the expression of wholeness in man which belongs only to the soul but not to the material body. The body has only potential power, but no independence. Without this there is no wholeness. The body is kept down by the weight of nature; it is oppressed. Thus when a man dances he experiences a greater joy, because he feels the wholeness of the soul as power. Therefore it is said that God arranges a dance of the righteous in the Garden of Eden, because all that is depressing and material is taken from them and only the soul has power. When it is said that God is in their midst, it means that they are freed from the material, which formed a barrier between them and God.

The dance spoken of is not any kind, but a round dance, in a circle. Every circle has a center, equidistant from any point of the circumference. Therefore it says that God sits in the center of the righteous, as all points of the circumference are joined to the center by the radii turned towards it and attracted by it. And just as the center is apart from the circumference, so the Holy One remains apart, although in their midst.

The dance has to be a round one, so that no one can say that every righteous person adheres to God in his own manner. As the dance proceeds round and round, every righteous one is joined to God not from one place only, but from all places. Pointing a finger at God means that one points out something that is separate from the rest. The righteous learn to know wherein lies God’s Oneness and God’s distinction from all else that exists. Pointing recognizes this truth.

One can only write little about such weighty matters. The wise one will add to it out of his own wisdom and knowledge. May God forgive us and make us the last participants in this holy dance. [Maharal of Prague, Judah Loew ben Bezalal, Be’er Ha’golah, chapter 4]

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There was a musician who performed on a very fine instrument with great sweetness and pleasantness, and all who heard it could not restrain themselves and danced with great abandon. The closer one stood to the music the greater the pleasure and the more enthusiastic the dancing. Amidst the tumult came a deaf person who could not hear any sound of the pleasant instrument. Seeing the people dance mightily, he thought them mad, and wondered, ‘what can joy accomplish?’ Truly, were he wise and understood that all this was due to the great pleasure and loveliness of the instrument’s sound, he too would have begun to dance then and there.

Now the meaning is clear, and one may apply it to the verse, ‘and all the people saw the sounds.’ They saw that the Holy One appeared before all in the unity of the Divine Light, which they all together perceived. When they saw the great joy – for ‘the angels of the hosts were dancing about’ [Psalms 68:13] – they understood that it was because of the sweetness and loveliness of the light of the Holy Torah, and strained forward to hear its sound. For though they were still deaf, and did not ‘hear’ the sounds, their minds and eyes were illumined when they saw the great happiness and joy. They then understood that this was due to the sounds; that is, to the loveliness and pleasantness of the sound of the Torah. Thus: even though they did not perceive the loveliness of the Torah, they understood from the joy that this was due to the great loveliness of the Torah – and so they pressed forward to hear the sound itself, in the hope that they might even perceive and understand the loveliness of the light of the Torah. The enlightened will understand. [R. Moshe Hayyim Ephraim of Sudlikov (1737-1800) Degel Mahaneh Ephraim]

Concerning joy, consider this parable: sometimes when people are rejoicing and dancing, they grab a person from outside – one who is sad and depressed – and press him against his will into the circle of dancers, and force him to rejoice with them. So it is with joy: for when a person is happy, his depression and sufferings stand off to the side. But the higher level is to strive and pursue that very depression, and bring it into joy…For there are types of sorrow and woe that reflect the Other Side, and do not want to be bearers of holiness; hence they flee from joy, and one must force them into holiness – namely, joy – against their will. [Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Mohoran 2:23]

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Troubled Water – Shabbat Hukkat 5778 (2018)

 

Paul Simon’s farewell tour got me inspired. It was a beautiful evening, and since his music – and most notably his 1986 album ‘Graceland’ – forms a a significant part of my life’s ‘soundtrack’, a memorable and nostalgic one as well. Somewhere in the middle of his set, Simon shared some reminiscences about his hit song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. It’s been covered dozens of times, most powerfully by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. But for me, it’s the original Simon and Garfunkel version that is most resonant. It’s been running through my head all week.

 

We live in a time of truly troubled waters. The Rio Grande, marking the border between Mexico and the United States, is only the most obvious example. And the scenes from that border – of migrant families sleeping on a bridge over the Rio Grande’s troubled waters, and of crying children being separated from their parents upon crossing into the United States – have broken our hearts and outraged and infuriated us. Can it really be the policy of this country of immigrants to so badly mistreat those seeking asylum here? Can it really be the policy of our democracy to so demean people who desire nothing more than a better life for themselves and their children?

 

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Parashat Hukkat revolves around the well known story of Moses hitting the rock in order to provide water for the people of Israel. The place where that event occurs is Mei merivah – Waters of Contention. The people have quarreled with Moses (and with God) and so the water that quenches their thirst is troubled in the extreme. That place, according to the Torah, is simultaneously the spot where Moses (and Aaron) failed to sanctify the Divine Name AND the locale where God is sanctified.

12But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” 13Those are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity.

Places of outrage and the desecration of God’s name are also, perhaps of necessity, places where God’s name can be sanctified. True for the Wilderness of Zin; true as well for the Rio Grande. Troubled waters stand on one side of that equation. Bridges stand on the other. It’s time – now, right now – to build bridges of compassion, of understanding, of welcome. The troubled waters won’t disappear anytime soon. They can, however, be transcended. That’s our work.

Shabbat Shalom.

Enjoy the music –

 

 

 

The Cracks Remain Open – Shabbat Korah 5778 (2018)

Here’s the dramatic denouement of the Korah story. “… the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”

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Three brief reflections, each tied to a popular song lyric from the 70s or 80s.

First – Carole King’s great classic:

I feel the earth move under my feet,I feel the sky tumbling down, I feel my heart start to trembling, Whenever you’re around…

The image of the earth moving, and even opening its mouth, along with that of the sky tumbling down, describes the loss of control associated with being in love. Korah, whom the Midrash labels a ‘taker’ loves himself and his possessions, and not much else. The earth, perhaps, reciprocates.

Second – ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ (the first song on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’):

These are the days of miracle and wonder, This is the long distance call, The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, The way we look to us all, The way we look to a distant constellation, That’s dying in a corner of the sky, These are the days of miracle and wonder, And don’t cry baby, don’t cry…

Says Pirkei Avot (5:8), Ten things were created at dusk on the eve of (the first) Shabbat, and these are they: the mouth of the earth (that swallowed up Korah and his band)…Says the Maharal of Prague (16th century) commenting on that teaching, “they are not entirely natural but they are close to nature, they are all physical objects and as such are part of nature, but insofar as they are unlike other physical objects they also stand outside of nature.” In other words, these are the days of miracle and wonder.

Third – Midnight Oil’s 80’s classic ‘Bed Are Burning’:

How can we dance when our earth is turning 

How do we sleep while our beds are burning

How can we dance when our world feels upside down, when we are confronted with dizzying twists and turns on a daily, no, hourly basis? How can we sleep when it feels like the earth regularly – and not just to show Korah and company who’s boss – opens it mouth and swallows people and ideals and deeply held commitments alive? Ramban differentiates between the earth’s opening for Korah and more ‘normal’ occurrences like earthquakes. Normally, “the cracks remain open.” They feel wide open right about now.

Shabbat Shalom. 

A Different Spirit – Shabbat Sh’lah L’kha 5778 (2018)

Calev ben Yefunneh, the hero of the story told in Parashat Shlach L’cha, possesses ruach acheret – a different spirit. (Numbers 14:24) What does that mean? Different from what/whom? And in what way(s)? In its context, the words ‘different spirit’ separate Calev from the other scouts; he, indeed, differs from them in his assessment of Israel’s ability to enter into the land immediately. The Torah itself spells that out in its next phrase – (Calev) remained loyal to Me. The others break faith; Calev keeps the faith. The phrase – ruach acheret (different spirit) – is striking. No other Biblical hero receives that designation. Only Calev; and only here in the story of the scouts and their reconnaissance mission in the Land.

 

A number of early Hasidic masters unpack our phrase and dramatically expand its range and meaning. R Zev Wolf of Zhitomir (18th century), the Or ha-Meir, describes the different spirit as one that knows that God doesn’t come to people with arguments and proofs. Rather, one with a ‘different spirit’ is one whose heart is truly and fully with God, and whose very being rises to the level of ‘avodah – Divine/Sacred work or service. One possesses ruach acheret, writes R Zev Wolf, “as long as one’s heart inclines toward heaven.” R Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (late 18th/early 19th century), the Ma’or va-Shemesh, adds, a ‘different spirit’ describes one whose heart is on fire for Divine service. And for Rav Nahman of Braslav (late 18th/early 19th century) this ‘different spirit’ “not found in the rest of the masses” has an extraordinary effect. “Whoever draws close to her/him is strengthened and the true faith of holiness is repaired for him/her.”

 

Pride-flags

 

On this Pride Shabbat, I have the concept/category of ruach acheret – different spirit – very much on my mind. Today, a quarter of a million people participated in Tel Aviv’s 20th annual Pride Parade. And on Sunday many members of the Beth Am Israel community will take up the march as part of Philadelphia’s 30th annual Pride Celebration. There’s much to celebrate and there’s much to be done to raise awareness, to make our world a safer and more welcoming place for all, and to advocate for the diverse needs of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m deeply proud of our congregation’s commitment to the different spirit of our time, and I hope to see many fellow Beth Am Israelites at PhillyPride on Sunday.

 

Calev’s different spirit is associated with another big theological claim. All of the members of the desert generation have seen and experienced the Divine Presence. Only Calev fully absorbs and integrates that experience. Uniquely, he understands that “the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world.” The theological corollary is the belief that all – gay, straight, bi, unsure, a, trans, cys – are created in the Divine Image. We, all of us and each of us, reflect(s) the Presence that fills the Universe. Calev’s difference points the way to a deeper and more enduring truth. We all are “imbued with a different spirit.” And so we all have the opportunity to enter the land, to feel, sense, and experience God’s enveloping Presence which gave birth to the Universe and fills it still.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Run Away! – Shabbat B’ha’alot’kha 5778 (2018)

The ancient Israelites are so eager to get on with their journey to the land of Canaan that they run away from Sinai, the very place where they’ve met God and received the Divine commands. That, at least, is how a number of ancient interpreters read this momentous verse from Parashat B’ha’alot’kha: “They marched three days’ distance from the mountain of YHVH, with the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant marching ahead of them < three days’ distance > to scout out for them a place to encamp.” [Numbers 10:33, translation B. Levine]

 

Midrash Vay’khulu offers a particularly pungent telling. “It is like a school student (tinok) leaving school who flees and goes (she’boreah v’holeikh lo); that is the way in which they fled (hayu borhim) from Mount Sinai, a three days’ journey, for they learned much Torah at Sinai.” Ramban (R Moses Nachmanides, 13th century Barcelona-Eretz Yisrael) has our school student add: ‘Perhaps God will give us more commandments (if we stay)!’ To which he adds “their intention was to remove themselves from there because it was the mountain of God.”

 

I actually understand how the Israelites feel, particularly at this time of the year. The heat and humidity have me humming James Taylor’s great song

Summer’s here, I’m for that. Got my rubber sandals, got my straw hat.
Drinking cold beer, man, I’m just glad that I’m here.
It’s my favorite time of the year and I’m glad that I’m here, yeah.

Summer’s almost here, school’s almost out for the summer, and the temptation to get out/get away/get going grows by the hour.

 

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[Illustration from the 13th c. Morgan Bible of David bringing the Ark into Jerusalem.]

 

The Israelites, however, don’t make a clean break. The Ark of YHWH’s Covenant comes with, according to another midrash – Sifre Bemidbar – carrying the broken first set of tablets inside. Sure, leave Sinai; but don’t forget what happened there. In fact, take the consequences of your first running away from God with you. The past, as William Faulkner famously put it, isn’t actually past. Indeed, we keep learning even after leaving school! We carry our broken tablets (‘sacred fragments’ in my teacher Neil Gillman’s lovely phrase) with us wherever our journeys take us. And, to follow the metaphor all the way, we each have our own unique Ark in which our fragments, holy and profane, travel.

 

Beginning with the Torah itself, our tradition preserves a number of ‘Ark Songs’ – poetic odes to the containers of our pasts and our tablets, broken and intact. The Talmud’s poem is especially stirring –

Be exalted, be exalted, acacia-Ark! Loom high in your great beauty! Overlaid with embroidered god, Glorious in the shrine of the Temple, Majestic with many ornaments. (Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 22b)

May our Arks loom high in beauty and remain majestic with many ornaments.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy June!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Loosening the Hair’ – Shabbat Naso 5778(2018)

This time of the year especially I remember having a full head of hair. Warm days in May and June summon up for me the feeling of  wavy locks on the back of the neck. The only thing about it that I don’t miss is the sweat! Near baldness, in temperate terms at least, is significantly cooler than the long shag I sported as an 18 year old. Back then, however, the hair was cool.

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The image of a loosened head of (long?) hair shows up twice in this week’s parashah, and in both instances it seems to symbolize disorder. At the start of the ordeal faced by a wife suspected of infidelity by her husband, we read that “the priest shall bare the woman’s head and place upon her hands the meal offering of remembrance, which is a meal offering of jealousy. And in the priest’s hands shall be the water of bitterness that induces the spell.” [Numbers 5:18] A chapter later, in its description of the Nazirite’s oath, the Torah indicates that “throughout the term of his vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch his head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of his term as nazirite of the Lord, the hair of his head being left to grow untrimmed.” [Numbers 6:5]

 

Bible scholar Stephen Geller offers the possibility that “this element of emotion or spontaneity is precisely what links the laws of the sotah ordeal and the nazirite oath. Both involve feelings a person cannot contain. From the point of view of the priestly tradition, which valued regularity and order, both unbridled jealousy and the perfervid emotions that might lead one to make an oath precipitously, were dangers that had to be controlled and fit into the ritual system. The quasi-magical ordeal might still a husband’s suspicions and the list of required sacrifices might prevent a nazirite’s hasty oath.” Geller adds: “The loosening or lengthening of hair symbolizes not only indeterminacy but also uncontrollability.”

 

The root that means ‘loosening of the hair’ – p,r,’a – while uncommon appears in two notable contexts in the Bible. The Book of Proverbs uses the verb to describe the throwing off of good counsel and appropriate behavior. And in the Book of Exodus (32:25), the word parua’ a participle derived from the same root, describes the wildness and out of control quality of the people in the midst of their rebellion at the Golden Calf.  In the eyes of the Biblical authors, nothing good comes from loosened hair.

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Many days it feels as if we live in a time of ‘loosened hair’ and it is profoundly unsettling. Indeterminacy and an absence of control and order seem to be the order of the day. Unbridled jealousy and perfervid emotions dominate public discourse and drive public policy. I get the distress felt by the priestly authors of Numbers 5 and 6 at the prospect of profound disorder. The same priestly authors gave us the antidote in the form of the blessing that centers and anchors this week’s parashah. The geographic middle of Naso is inhabited by Birkat kohanim – the famous priestly blessing which concludes with the hope that God will lift the Divine face and grant us peace. Short hair and shalom, evidently, have a great deal in common!

 

Shabbat Shalom.

‘Wave that Flag’ – Shabbat Bemidbar 5778 (2018)

“Wave that Flag, Wave it Wide and High!”

Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah teaches that the flags – degalim – displayed by each of the tribes when they encamped in the wilderness carried great symbolic meaning. Playing with the letters in the word for flag – dalet, gimmel, lamed – the Midrash reads the flags as indicators both of grandeur (gedulah) and of separation (geder). Flags, grandeur, separation: “the flags (degalim) were grandeur (gedulah) and separation (geder) for Israel.”

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This has been a week of flag waving for Israel, a week both of grandeur and separation. It has also been a week of conflicting emotions, ranging from ecstasy to agony, and of disturbing juxtapositions. A fine line distinguishes grandeur from grandiosity on the one end, and the Hebrew word geder means both ‘separation’ and ‘fence’ on the other. Flags flew this week in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, and on the Gaza-Israel border, all of them carrying great symbolic meaning.

On Saturday night, Israel won the Eurovision Song Festival. Netta Barzilai’s performance of a song called ‘Toy’ carried the day. Tel Aviv’s streets immediately filled with joyful Israelis, singing, dancing, and waving flags. The party lasted until dawn and featured Israel’s flag and the internationally recognized rainbow pride flag. Regardless of what one thinks about Netta’s song, it’s fair to say that this week began with a beautiful display of gedulah – grandeur/greatness – Tel Aviv style.

Sunday marked Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary on the Hebrew calendar of the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. In recent years, Yom Yershalayim has been marked by an event known as the ‘March of the Flags’ – a parade into and through the Old City undertaken by young Israelis carrying Israel’s flag and waving it with pride and self-assertion. The march winds through the Old City’s central markets with special emphasis on the Christian and Muslim quarters, culminating in a joyful gathering at the Kotel. Grandeur for some, grandiosity and triumphalism for others (I’m in that second camp), the Jerusalem Day march quite clearly designates who’s in charge and who isn’t; as an act of self-assertion, Sunday’s flag waving signifies a certain kind of separation, a metaphorical fence that divides as much as it unites.

Then came Monday, May 14th, the 70th anniversary on the civil calendar of Israel’s proclamation of independence. The United States Embassy in Jerusalem was formally dedicated on May the 14th and the ceremony put the national flags of Israel and the USA on prominent display. Gedulah without doubt, depending on one’s politics either grandeur or grandiosity, Monday’s flag waving meant to convey pride and self-assertion, and, as speaker after speaker reminded the audience, a commitment to the truth of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s deep and enduring connection to the city of Jerusalem. Wave those flags, wave them wide and high.

At precisely the same moment, Palestinian protests along the border fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel reached a bloody and horrifying climax. For weeks, Gazans have been gathering at the separation fence to highlight their desire to return to the villages and towns where their families once lived, all places within the State of Israel. Palestinian flags and Hamas banners have figured prominently in these protests, more than a few of them attached to kites carrying explosive materials that protestors have flown over into Israeli territory, on a few occasions setting fire to fields in Israel. Across the fence sit the Israel Defense Forces, including sniper units, arrayed under the flag of the State of Israel. Their job is to protect the border and to prevent breaches. The flags separate and this week they witnessed terrible violence. There are many questions in the wake of Monday’s death toll. Was live fire necessary? Are there less lethal ways to protect the border? To what degree and in what ways has Hamas manipulated and choreographed these protests? Such questions and more are already up for public debate in Israel. Now, it seems to me, is a time for grief and sadness over the loss of innocent life and the seeming insolubility of this conflict. The flags bespeak separation; they also symbolize grief.

One more thought from the Midrash. The banners and flags are meant to symbolize longing and love. The prooftext is a verse from Song of Songs in which the maiden proclaims of her lover “his banner over me was love.” (Song of Songs 2:4) Longing for the Divine Presence, love for humanity and for one another, just love. At the end of this emotional roller coaster of a week, the flag I wish to wave is that banner of longing and love. I hope you’ll join me in that prayer – “Wave that flag; wave it wide and high.”

Shabbat Shalom & Hag Sameah