23 April 2010
9 Iyar 5770
This week began with two powerful ceremonies—an emotional commemoration of Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and a spirited celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). While I always find it difficult not to be in Israel on these days, I was inspired by our school’s programs this year, which included Israeli songs and poetry, the lowering and raising of the Israeli flag, reflections from our students’ experiences in Israel, festive Israeli dance, and a movie about the tragic story of an American Jewish high school alumnus who moved to Israel to fight in the Israeli army and who was killed in battle.
During our Yom HaAtzmaut ceremony, a Gann student shared one of her most poignant memories from her three months on Gann’s Junior Year in Israel program this past fall. She vividly described a nameless woman, with whom she “danced crazily at Mayanot, a small Jerusalem minyan, the night of Simchat Torah. Circles of whooping women spun around our side of the mechitza, as my best friend and I joined as many as we could. Not once had I (ever) spent such a festive chag (holiday) . . .” Our student described how she almost fell while dancing in the circle but caught herself and was helped up by the arm of the nameless stranger who, almost like an angel, propped her up in the midst of the whirling women. She did not know her, nor did she ever see her again, but for that moment, it was if they were seamlessly connected by the circle of celebratory dancing.
I was struck by our student’s association of Israel and Jerusalem with this Simchat Torah memory of dancing, joy, and an almost transcendent sense of unity, at least with the dancing women of Mayanot. The image of dancing in circles is also a perfect metaphor for one of the spiritual messages hinted at by the opening of the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Parshat Kedoshim. “And God spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Daber el kol adat B’nei Yisrael – Speak to the whole congregation of the Children of Israel and say to them: kedoshim tiyhu – You shall be holy . . .’” (Vayikra – Leviticus 19:1-2) Rashi, quoting a midrash, points out that the words “kol adat – the entire community” are added here to teach us that the fundamental teachings of the Torah are dependent on community. Building upon this, the Ma’or va’Shemesh, a Hassidic work by Rabbi Kalonymus Epstein, teaches that, in Judaism, one does not attain holiness primarily as an individual by isolating oneself or pursuing a personal connection to the divine. Rather, we find kedusha, indeed, we create kedusha and invoke the divine presence when we join together in community. God, so to speak, dances with us in the circle.
It was this image and other students’ powerful stories that helped make Yom HaAtzmaut so meaningful for our community this year, not because everyone’s connection to Israel is through Jewish ritual or even spirituality, but rather because our student’s vivid memories of Jerusalem were brought to life for all of us. As I think back on the spirit and joy with which we whirled and danced after hearing these stories, I realize that what was so meaningful about these days for me was that we cried together, and we sang and danced together. We did more than acknowledge or pay lip service to these special days or to our relationship with Israel—we experienced them, we felt them, and, in the process, we affirmed that we are a kehillah kedosha (holy community).
Rabbi Marc Baker