Our Jewish Journey

Our Jewish Journey
October 15, 2010

We finally have experienced a bright, crisp, and clear autumn day, enabling us to enjoy the best of a Baltimore fall. This is a taste of what we expected the weather to be like during the High Holydays. It was hard for us to feel the season’s passage on Rosh Hashanah when the temperature was well into the eighties. Now, two weeks after our last holiday celebration, we feel like our Jewish year has finally started. Now, instead of progressing from summer to fall, we journey directly to the beginning of Jewish history. After a brief genealogy, we delve right into the story of Abraham in Parashat Lech Lecha which we read this Shabbat. “The first eleven chapter of Genesis are about the relationship between God and the entire human community. That relationship does not go well and after ten generations God decides to destroy the mass and start over with a single virtuous man’s family. Another ten generations pass and humans are not a planet full of Noahs. So once again the focus narrows to a single virtuous person, Abraham.”

God commands Avram to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house and journey to the land that God will show him. Then God promises this sojourner that He will make him into a great nation, will bless him, and will make his name great. God then forcefully tells Avram “to be a blessing” and says that He will bless those who bless him and that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him. The idea that Avram and his descendents should be a blessing is emphasized twice more in the Book of Genesis (chapters 15 and 17). What does this mean?

“In some way, at some time, the result of the divine choice of Abraham is supposed to be some good for all humanity. We are never told what this good is supposed to be. Is it that Abraham’s descendants are supposed to bring blessing by being “a light to the nations,” setting an example, showing how a community can live, such as caring for one another, not cheating, enslaving, and killing? Are we supposed to bring blessing by doing things that benefit all human beings, such as creating inventions, cures, literature, music, and learning? The text does not say. At minimum, however, it must mean that the people of Israel do not live alone or apart. Our destiny, from the very beginning, must be bound up in the destiny of all human beings.”

So Abraham begins his journey, one which we, his descendants, have continued to this very day. Abraham did not begin this journey by himself. His wife, Sara, was his partner in all that he did. His nephew, Lot, accompanied him and shared the rigors of this journey. Our text (Genesis 12:5) also tells us that, in addition, the “persons they had acquired in Haran” went with them. Who were these people? The Torah does not tell us. The Hebrew gives us a clue for the words, “v’et hanefesh asher asu v’charan” literally means, “the persons they had made in Haran.” “The Midrash understands this anachronistically as referring to converts whom they had led to believe in the one true God (Gen R 39:14). For that reason, when converts to Judaism are given a Hebrew name they are called “son or daughter of Avraham and Sarah.” According to the sages, “One who brings a person to the Torah is regarded as having given birth to him or her (BT Sanh. 99a).”

While God chose Abraham to be the first Jew, the world’s first person to believe in the one, true God, Abraham and Sarah sought out others who shared their faith. These people were the first garei tsedek, the first of thousands upon thousands of righteous gentiles who have found a spiritual and communal home within the Jewish community. Our Jewish journey over these last almost four millennia is replete with instances of entire communities and thousands of individuals who, of their own free will, have joined with us to proclaim the oneness of God. They have shared not only our faith, but our fate. Many have died because of their choice, burned on the stakes of the Inquisition or thrown into Nazi built crematoria. While there was one deplorable instance of forced conversion in the first century before the Common Era, when the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea forcibly converted the Idumeans, other peoples have chosen to become Jews. I speak of the Adiabenien dynasty in Mesopotamia, whose ruling family converted to Judaism in the first century C.E. and the Khazars, whose ruling family became Jewish in the ninth century. In recent days, there are many peoples who trace their ancestry back to Jews of old and who desire to re-enter the covenantal community. Over the last two years we have met Rabbi Gershom Sizomu of the Abuyadaya in Uganda, a tribe that embraced Judaism over a hundred years ago and which, in the last decade, formally converted to Judaism and Shi Lei of Kaifeng, China who has been instrumental in breathing life into what we thought was a long lost Jewish community. There are many more such communities that are striving re-join the Jewish journey. There are the Lemba in Southern Africa, an entire tribe that traces its roots back to the ancient Jews. In fact, “DNA research carried out in the labs of University College, London University, confirmed that Lemba ancestors were from the Middle East and likely to be Jewish. And most intriguingly, the Buba priestly clan, the first ones to leave Israel according to their traditions, had a particular genetic signature which was characteristic of the Jewish priesthood. Indeed, the Buba and the Cohanim shared a distant ancestor who lived somewhere in the Levant about 3000 years ago, about the time of Moses and his brother Aaron, the founder of the priesthood.” Then there are the Igbo in Nigeria, a tribe with millions of members which is thoroughly Christian yet traces its origins to ancient Israel and is undergoing a Jewish resurgence. There are Jewish communities in India, Portugal, and even Surinam in South America that are re-asserting their ties to the Jewish people. They all want to join Abraham’s ancestors and be a blessing to humanity. If you would like to learn more about these burgeoning communities, just go to the website of Kulanu, which means “All of us” in Hebrew. You can read for yourself about those who are desirous of re-joining our people.

This presents us with challenges. We have to change our assumptions about who is a Jew? Can we open our arms to Jews who do not look like us and speak our language? Can we drop our parochialism and accept those who are so different? Will we enlarge the Jewish tent to accept all those who want to walk with us? Dear friends, we live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society in which color is fast becoming irrelevant to achievement and acceptance. We must be welcoming to all those who want to join us. Just look around- there are still many empty seats in our synagogue and in all synagogues. We have room for many more Jews. The entrance of these disparate peoples into the Jewish tent proves once and for all that we are not a race but a religious civilization composed of people of many differing ethnicities. All are Abraham’s children. All are part of the Jewish journey. All will be a blessing to humanity.

May the day come when so many choose to join us that there is standing room only at our services.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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