For All You Vermont Jews

APRIL 1, 2016 // 23 ADAR II 5776

Isn’t this amazing?
To be together?
To pray together?
To be joyous together?
To sing together?
To make this inspiring, prayerful music together?

We are all here from across Vermont, from so many different places.
We come from miles away for Jules Gershman’s Bar Mitzvah,
we come together for the Jewish Communities of Vermont
Shabbaton and Summit!
Let’s pause for a moment and take in who is here in the room.
I’d like to invite people to call out where you are from in Vermont.
Where are you all from?

It’s just inspirational to be in this diverse community together!
Let’s say the shehecheyanu for the blessing of gathering together
for this Jewish Communities of Vermont weekend,
in Stowe for the first time.
(Sing) Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam Shehecheyanu Vekiyemanu Vehigiyanu Lazman Hazeh!
This weekend is such a gift.

Part of the power of this weekend is our shared history.
For this Shabbat is not the first time that Jews
from across a spectrum of age and place
have come together to celebrate and to raise the sparks.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shemini,
we learn about the dedication of the mishkan,
the wilderness tabernacle where the Israelites offered sacrifices to G-d.
We also hear about the seven days
when Moses acted as the High Priest,
offering sacrifices and ultimately anointing
his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons as the tabernacle priests.

And after those seven ceremonial days,
we come to the Shemini day, the eighth day,
our Torah portion’s namesake.
On that day, Moses was done ordaining the priests.

Again, this weekend is not the first time
we Jews gather together for celebration.
For on that eighth day, the rabbis tell us that
over a million people gathered together!
All the Israelite tribes came together,
with all of the Levites, as well as the newly ordained priests.
Young children and elders, women and men,
leaders and common Israelites.

And Moses told them all to offer a sacrifice to G-d.
ד …כִּ֣י הַיּ֔וֹם יְהוָֹ֖ה נִרְאָ֥ה אֲלֵיכֶם:
For today Hashem will appear to you.
For today G-d will appear to you!!

Imagine yourself surrounded by scores of your brothers and sisters,
your own tribe and all of the tribes of your people.
And Moses, your leader, asks you to prepare to receive G-d’s Presence,
that G-d’s Presence is coming right into the tabernacle,
the place where you are gathered together.
How awe-inspiring. And how completely terrifying.

ה… וַיִּקְרְבוּ֙ כָּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה וַיַּעַמְד֖וּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹה:
But instead of being scared of this incredible prospect,
We are told that the people drew even closer to the Holy of Holies,
And they stood before G-d.
כג… וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־כָּל־הָעָם:
The Presence of G-d appeared before the entire people.

And when they drew nearer,
a miraculous fire went out from the Presence of G-d, (9:24)
and consumed the sacrifice that the people had offered up.
And when the people saw this, they sang out in joy, וַיָּרֹ֔נּוּ.

They cried out in joy…
for the miracle of G-d’s fire that consumed their sacrifices;
for the miracle of being together among their people,
for the miracle of feeling G-d’s nearness,
G-d’s palpable Presence.

The Israelites knew exactly how to capture that moment.
They sang out in joy!
You see, tonight is not the first time that
a group of Jews has come together to sing out in joy!
We may not be ordaining any priests tonight,
at least that I know of.
But, just as our ancestors once did,
we come together tonight
to bring what we each uniquely offer to each other;
and to feel the presence of peoplehood,
to feel connection and interconnectedness,
and to feel, in celebration, the Presence of G-d in our midst.

Now, only a few verses after
Moses ordains his brother and sons to the priesthood,
we come to what the early Masoretic rabbis
count as the very middle of the Torah itself,
the famous words דָּר֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ.
דָּר֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ are two words with the same root,
repeated in different grammatical forms,
to join together as an emphatic Biblical imperative.
The first דרש, we are told, completes the first half of the Torah,
and the second דרש begins the second half of our Torah.

The root word can be variously translated as
‘to inquire, to seek, to search, to interpret’.
Or put together in their joined imperative,
‘inquire, yes, inquire!’, ‘seek out! seek out!’, ‘search deeply’.

Just when you think you have ended one half of the Torah,
one half of the inquiry,
we are told to continue our inquiry and seeking.

While these words come in the context of
how the priests are expected to properly sacrifice an animal,
the words themselves demand of us to seek even further afield.

And on this night, when we come together
with Jews from across the state and beyond,
as we face the Presence of our people and G-d,
we are called upon towards inquiry,
both within ourselves and together in community.
For when we gather together in the Presence of G-d,
what do we, as Jews, do? (What do we Jews do best?)
Yes, when we get together as Jews, we eat. A lot.
And we plan on doing a lot of that this weekend.
But we also study. And we investigate.

No matter how secular you are,
Over the course of thousands of years,
we have cultivated a level of inquiry,
of probing into life’s reality,
of asking the most profound questions,
whereby it is a part of us
to use the deep inquiry model of דָּר֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ.

Over the course of this weekend,
through learning sessions, prayer and outdoor experiences,
we will be doing some deep investigation.
We will be doing inquiry into eldering,
and the blessings of our changing body and soul.
We will be seeking out our physical place in Vermont,
and in nature and creation.
We will be learning how we might engage our youth,
how to create sustainable organizations and effective websites,
and how to make interfaith families a full part of our communities.
We will look upwards to Jews in Space,
and we will study about Elijah The Prophet,
sex in the Torah,
and epigenetics and transgender through the prism of Judaism.
We will seek through
Social Painting,
Art, Soul and Kabbalah,
Klezmer and dance, music and theatre,
the Song of Songs, and walks in nature.
We will explore different forms of prayer,
the Many Faces of the Divine,
how to host an adult Passover seder,
and how to sing and chant with joy.
We will pursue liberty and freedom.
And last, but far from least, we will host Jules’ Bar Mitzvah!

Tonight, and throughout this weekend,
we must go within, and ask ourselves to seek more deeply;
to see with new eyes;
to reach out to others and to listen and to learn;
to discover new opportunity for holiness, life and connection.
to gather together among our sisters and brothers,
in order that we might draw nearer to the Holy of Holies.

And so, a simple blessing for the Jews of Vermont:
Blessed are You, Master of All Worlds,
Who creates the valleys and the mountains,
the rivers and brooks,
Who gives us Vermont’s six seasons, not four,
as well as our own Ben & Jerry.
In your infinite wisdom,
You have fashioned us,
A people among people,
A people among a beautiful rural landscape.
This Shabbat and this weekend,
help us embrace each other in the age-old practice
of fellowship, gathering, and loving inquiry.
And as we draw deeper into community
so may we feel G-d’s Presence among us.