Friday, May 20, 2011

Rabbi Gary Creditor: The Land May 21st, 2011

The Land

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

May 21, 2011


The Torah along with the book of Joshua can be summed up in the following way: While we begin the Jewish journey outside of the Land of Israel the goal is to establish Abraham's family in the Land of Canaan. Isaac never leaves. Jacob goes on condition to return. Joseph's brothers go to Egypt only to get food and must return. Jacob is again permitted to leave but tells his sons: "You are eventually going back. Take me too." After the exodus from Egypt the rest of Torah is about getting back to the Land. Moses will lead them to its doorstep, see it from afar, and his successor Joshua will lead the people back. The land is used as the platform for our origin and initial history. The enslavement is but a detour in the journey. We have to get back and there establish the people covenanted with God. It is the platform for the existence of our religion. The syllogism is simple: no land, no people, no faith :: no faith, no people, and so the land is irrelevant.


This morning's Torah portion is also focused on the Land of Israel. Like individuals, the land is to be respected through observance of the Sabbatical year which is essentially a moral issue. If we treat both the people and the land immorally, we will lose the land. Loss of land is a punishment for sinning. The chastisement section of Behukotai explicitly connects the exile from the land and our terrible existence as the consequence of breaking the covenant with God and calls into question its existence at all. The books of Genesis and Joshua make evident that other people live on the land of Canaan. In the Torah God enunciates a theology and ideology that permits the Israelites to have this land instead of the original inhabitants: their idolatry was essentially the basest immorality. In Torah language, the land "spit them out" because of their idolatrous immorality which then permitted the Israelites to possess it as their own.  The book of Leviticus with its Holiness Code is the substance of the contract that enabled this ideology. As long as Israel will live morally, they are entitled to live on that land. I think that this is matchless in the annals of human history. Which people have ever used moral behavior as the basis for acquisition of the land of others? Was that what manifest destiny in America was about? Was that the basis for Nazi Lebenstraum, living space? Were Greece and Roman moral empires? I don't think so. This is the unique, exquisite Jewish philosophy, to link the right to exist on a specific piece of land with obedience to a moral code which then enables certain claims; one was to the land of Israel.


Yet it is also clear from the Prophets that the land is not to be an idol to be worshipped. Confronting the paganism of its ages, prophet after prophet demanded from Israel obedience to the covenant which required complete faith in the One God, and moral behavior according to the standards in the Torah. The land was not to be worshipped. Possession of the land by Israel was conditional and not absolute. The ultimate Prophetic vision had less to do with the land than it did with fidelity to God and living holy lives, which could be done anywhere in the world. Ezekiel in Babylonia foresaw that the exile from the land might last a long time and that they needed to reinforce themselves as Jews covenanted to God without the land. While they might dream of returning, they would only warrant that if they atoned for their sins of idolatry and immorality.  The prophets created a new era in our journey: people in faith and obedience to God remained covenanted with Him no matter where they were.


After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.C. and the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 132 C.E. the Rabbis extended the Prophetic vision as they created the Judaism that we live out of the Temple-based cult. Especially for Babylonian Jewry, Judaism was not a land-based faith. It was rooted in the people, the family, the synagogue, the Torah, the Bible. We could go anywhere, anytime and be 'in faith' with God. As the years extended, the land remained a vision, a history, a memory and we lived in the Anatevkas, in the Richmond's of our lives, vibrant, meaningful, faithful, and moral. We read the Torah and for the most part oriented our synagogues eastward. Our journey lasted two thousand years with a growing, deepening, expanding faith without a land. The Rabbis created the mythology of the land intertwined with the ideology of faith.


Zionism was born fifty years before the Holocaust as Herzl and others understood that the past 2,000 years had been filled with physical danger, and would continue to be so, because of our landlessness. It was not connected to faith, God and covenant. It was a political movement that recognized our existential condition of persecution. They believed that if we could have a homeland and, for the most part, get out of everyone else's, they wouldn't hate us any more. It would end the pogroms. It would end the church forced conversions. It would end persecutions.


Perhaps if the State of Israel existed before the Holocaust, either it would not have happened or at least there would have been a place to which to run. We will never know. The leaders of Zionism wanted to build a country like any other country, but where the Jews could be safe. There were arguments over what kind of country it would be, what would be its language and the role of religion. I wonder what they would think of Israel if they could rise from the grave today. With all that has been achieved they would still bemoan the truth that Jews are not safe. That has not changed.


There are three pressing questions for the global Jewish people today:

            Will Jews define their identity with religious content or enable its crumbling away through secularism and amphorphousness? Will there be specificity to the title "Jew?"

            Will Jews feel a sense of peoplehood in a world that stresses the autonomous self, independent and unattached? Will Jews feel in their lifeblood the need of community, or will they use bits and pieces wherever and whenever they wish, in effect destroying the broadcloth of Judaism and the Jewish people? Will the Jews of the world care about Israel?

            Will the leaders of the State of Israel insure the destiny of the State of Israel or make their political parties and the land into idols? In our history, that approach insured our destruction. What will be holy? The people? Our destiny? The land? Our moral fiber? How will now the largest part of the Jewish people in the 21st century be safe? Or in our idolatry will we miss the mark, miss the boat and miss the moment to insure that the State of Israel, the Third Commonwealth of the Jewish People, will last until the coming of the Messiah?


With my life I believe that I have the right to say these words. Our daughter lives there. I have walked the land, east to west, north to south. I have lived there. I give my money there. I think of Israel every day. My computer homepage is the Ha'aretz newspaper. It is the first thing I see, the first thought I have. I cannot imagine my life, our lives, the Jewish people without the State of Israel. In my dreams I rewrite history by shooting Hitler dead before he could implement the Holocaust, or that the State already exists with open arms to embrace every Jew. Those dreams are of the past. They are dead.


 I want our leaders, I demand of our leaders, of America and of Israel to forgo their idolatries, relinquish blindness and secure our destiny. Make our people truly safe! Make all peoples safe!


I want to dream of the future.


Shabbat Shalom.



Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Friday, May 13, 2011

Shabbat Sermon: For Whom The Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia

May 13, 2011


When I was in seventh grade in public school we took a trip to Philadelphia. With a box camera I took a series of black and white pictures of the Liberty Bell. I was old enough and aware enough to feel a quiet pride that a verse from my Bible was inscribed on such an important piece of American history, not that I really understood the verse, nor how that verse came to used instead of any other. Today, removed from seventh grade by a series of decades and with a deeper understanding of Torah, I have a few answers about a most critical verse from tomorrow's Torah portion: Leviticus 25:10: "And proclaim 'd'ror' throughout the land and to all its inhabitants." I really wish they might fix that bell, for this verse still needs to ring out across the land and around the world.


The official website is It was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's Charter of Privileges, which had served as their first constitution and was remarkable for the framing of liberties, including that of religion. As the verse refers to proclaiming d'ror in the 50th year, and d'ror was usually translated freedom, it seemed like a fitting verse for the commemorative bell. I really couldn't appreciate at Larson's age that this big hunk of metal before me was part of a process that enabled me as a Jew to be an equal American and go to public school without being coerced into being a Christian. I now realize how remarkable and phenomenal that is. There is a direct line from William Penn to the American Revolution and to the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.


I have resisted translating d'ror into English though on the bell it says "liberty." The dictionary uses a synonym for definition of liberty: "freedom; the right to do as one pleases, power or opportunity to do something." That misses the point and lacks the punch of the original Hebrew language of the verse. Therein lies the tale.


Our Hebrew d'ror has its antecedent in the ancient cognate language of Akkadian. In that context the word "designates an edict of release issued by the Old Babylonian kings and some of their successors….issued by a king upon ascending the …(which) declared a moratorium on debts and indenture." In the Babylonian world the king owned the people. They were his slaves. They owed him everything. It was only he who could release them from their servitude to him and annul the debts they owed him. This word d'ror is a very specific, very precise word. It defined the relationship of the people to the king. By its very use it specified their lowly and subservient condition.


In the Torah God uses this word, with this language and background and commands the Israelites to religiously institute its proclamation throughout the land. By transposing the language this verse decrees: no human being is king over another; no one is the enslaved subject to another. It is the cornerstone verse to democracy. That is why it is really engraved on that bell. Instead of the colonists being subject in an abject manner to the British King, rather than imbuing him with Divine right, William Penn and the Founding Fathers employed our Torah's understanding that no one owns us, no one enslaves us, no one demeans our humanity, no one controls our holiness. In the history of the Israelite people, this idea was a revolution. In borrowing it, the American colonists used it for their, for ours. Democracy, the entire concept of voting to elect leaders who do not inherit their place nor rule over us is based on this teaching in the Torah. Only God has Divine Right. Humans are not divine. They don't have this right; they do not yield such might, over others.  This is what makes America different. This is what makes Israel different. This is our unique contribution as Jews to America and to the world.


This verse needs to ring out in America.


This economy had indebted more people than ever before. I try to understand the concept of foreclosures. How many families, adults and children, young and old have lost their homes? Where did they go? How do they go to school? How do they have a sense of normalcy? How do they take care of their health? Does this democracy proclaim d'ror? Where is the protection from greed and from criminality? Whatever was done was too little, too late, and unless you were affected, we turned our backs.


How many people use the emergency room as the primary care while congressmen who serve in one term have the most exquisite health care for free? Most of us are concerned about how much we will pay, not whether we will have it. Most seniors might have to pay a little more each month, but will have their Medicare and Medicaid. What about those who have nothing? What about those who will lose what they have? The debt of this country must be lowered, but they must use wisdom and never forget the d'ror inscribed on the bell.


I could embellish the list, for there are many, from issues of the rights of workers, of gender discrimination, of forced child labor to sex-trafficking that occurs in this country. But we are a good country because at least we know that d'ror must exist, that in its silence the bell still tolls, that while not perfect, we demand from our leaders keep on trying to perfect our country. I am proud to be a Jew, of the people who wrote the verse. I am proud to be an American, the country that enshrined it.


This verse needs to ring out to the world.


I would be extremely careful to misread the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria as the birth of democracy. They are not necessarily proclaiming d'ror to their people. It would be nice if they were truly fighting for democracy, but then the Muslims would not be killing the Copts in Egypt. Then the atrocities of Darfur and the Sudan would not be happening. Then women and children would not be smuggled across the Middle East to be slaves even as the fighting is going on. Then children wouldn't be working in old fashioned sweat shops across Asia so that you and I could buy cheap clothing and shoes, and we don't have a choice because there is nothing more made in America! If there was true d'ror in the world this wouldn't be happening.


As a Jew I am proud that Israel is a democracy. It, too, is not perfect, yet the heart of the legal system is based on the value in Torah that each person is holy, is free from the tyranny of any other, and is entitled to d'ror, complete release, liberty, to live only under the rule of God, to whom we owe our lives, and endows us with holiness.


Perhaps it is because the United States and Israel proudly proclaim this verse that we draw the ire and hatred of others. Both countries are checker-board, multi-colored, patch-work societies that proclaim the holiness of each citizen, and through their political systems, strive to make a more perfect union. I am proud to be a Jew that brings this verse to the world. I am proud that Israel is our homeland, a country that implements it.


So if you are looking for a car trip that won't use too much gas and for a religious, national meaningful place to go, I suggest Philadelphia. Stand at the Liberty Bell. Look at its crack. See the verse from Leviticus inscribed in its metal. In its silence the bell still tolls.


Shabbat Shalom.





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Friday, May 6, 2011

What Blessing Said Upon Hearing That Osama Bin Laden Was Dead?

What Blessing Said Upon Hearing That Osama Bin Laden Was Dead?

May 6th, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Richmond, Virginia 23221


Judaism has several practices to help us heal after a death. There is the initial isolation from the outside world called shivah, followed by the gradual re-entrance called sheloshim. Subsequently is the extended recitation of kaddish for eleven months for a parent, and then the close of one cycle with yahrzeit. No time frame is an absolute cure, but it helps guide our vision and our steps.


I/we have been living like that since 9/11. There was the initial period of intense grief, pain and disbelief and anger. [Someone should write a thesis on the music composed in the following days and months.] That was followed by a slow reemergence: we had a community service here in this Sanctuary and the Thanksgiving Interfaith Service. The next phase was observed on the fifth year anniversary. The "yahrzeit" has been in the planning stage, namely, the tenth anniversary to be held here this September 11th. I finally had been able to put the pictures particularly of the Twin Towers in the recesses of my mind. Ruby and I took down the black & white picture of them from our bedroom wall. It has been nearly a decade of healing. In the metaphor of a scab over a wound, the scab over our hearts has gown thick, enabling us to gain a measure of balance and restoration. Ground Zero is being rebuilt with the Freedom Tower.


The events of the past week have evoked the anguish and agony of ten years ago as if it was yesterday. The TV clips and the sirens have nearly undone all the healing and leave my soul red and raw. There is no emotion left untouched.


I did not rejoice with the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. Instantaneously I was transported to 9/11. I am glad that he is dead. But "Getting him" did not even the score. His death did not execute justice. No fist heavenward raised equated to the thousands of dead from that day and subsequent days and terror attacks. We will still have to go through the screening at the airports. We will still be creating new technology to discover other weapons of evil. And numbers and/or colors will indicate the state of alert. The dead have not returned to the living.  I did not rejoice when hearing that Bin Laden was dead. I said a blessing, and the next day at minyan, by random occurrence or by divine intervention, recited a Psalm.


The beracha that came to mind comes from the middle section of the weekday Amidah. It has a history of its own which accounts for some of its language. But late Monday night, early Tuesday morning I said the following:                                                       


Whœ†c±hIt kŠf±u 's‡ct«T g³dœ¤r‰F vŠg§J¦r¨v kŠf±u 'v²u§e¦, h¦v§T k©t oh°bh¦

‹ghœ°b‰f©,±u r¯D©n§,U r‡C©J§,U r¥E‹g§, v¨r¥v§n oh¦s¯Z©v±u 'U,œ¥rŠF°h v¨r¥v§n

/oh¦s¯z ‹ghœ°b‰f©nU ohˆc±h«t r‡c«J '²h±h v¨T©t QUrŠC /Ubhœ¥n²h‰c v¨r¥v§nˆC

"And for the slanderers let there be no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all Your enemies be cut down speedily. May You speedily uproot, smash, cast down, and humble the wanton sinners – speedily in our days. Blessed are You, Adonay, Who breaks enemies and humbles the wanton sinners."


I meant every word of it. I said it with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might. But not with joy. There is a staccato drum beat in the Hebrew text that is not reflected in its translation. It is almost like a fist pounding on a table demanding of God that He rectify the imbalance of the dominance of evil over us. The scales must be balanced. I like the literal translation and not the poetic ones that try to mollify and temper its language. The prayer is raw. Personal tranquility has been an illusion created by time and distance. That protection now stripped away, I am still raw, for nothing can return the dead; nothing can restore our innocence; nothing can change history. The scales have just been tilted a little better.


It was completely by accident – or was it? – that in our custom to recite the following day's Psalm after Mincha, that last Monday we recited Psalm 94 with its ending from the first three verses of Psalm 95.

God of retribution – Adonai, God of retribution appear!

                        Judge of the earth, punish the arrogant as they deserve.

                        How long, Adonai, how long shall the wicked exult?

                        Swaggering, boasting, they exude arrogance.

They crush Your people, Adonai, and oppress Your own.

Widows and strangers they slay; orphans they murder.

                        They say: "Adonai does not see;

                        The God of Jacob pays no heed."

Think clearly, you simpletons;

When will you fools be wise?

Surely the One who shapes the ear can hear.

Surely the One who forms the eye can see.

                        Surely God who disciplines nations will chastise,

                        Teaching mortals to understand.

                        Adonai knows human schemes, how futile they are.

Blessed are those whom God disciplines and teaches Torah,

Training them to wait calmly in adversity

Until a pit is dug for the wicked.

                        Adonai will not abandon His people;

                        God will not forsake His very own.

                        Justice will return to the righteous;

                        All the upright in heart will strive for it.

Who will stand up for me against the ungodly?

Who will take my part against evildoers?

                        Were it not for Adonai's help, I would be in my grave.

                        When my foot slips, Your love, Adonai, supports me.

                        When I am filled with cares, Your comfort soothes my soul.

Will the immoral claim You as their partner,

Defending evil under the mantle of law?

They conspire against the righteous;

They condemn the innocent to death.

                        But Adonai is my refuge;

                        My God is my sheltering Rock.

God will turn their own evil against them

And destroy them with their own guile.

Adonai our God will destroy them.

Let us sing to Adonai.

Let rejoice in our Creator.

Let us greet God with thanksgiving, singing psalms of praise.

            Adonai is exalted, beyond all that is worshipped.


Perhaps it was the divine hand that caused that Psalm to intersect with that day, and with my heart. Its text articulated many themes that were percolating within me and shaped my thoughts and feelings.  Perhaps you have felt this way, too.

            God doesn't ignore injustice in the world. Allowing our human freedom which makes room for evil, God will at some time in some way using some one as His instrument bring about an accounting for evil that is done.

            The evils ones should not think that they will get away with it forever. On 9/11 that thought was beyond imagination. We were in abject agony; they in their glory. We might have asked or questioned: was God going to ignore all of this. The Psalm says "No!"

            God does not abandon us. Our faith gives us strength to endure the terror of the night and day, because we have His surety that the wicked will be ultimately punished. God is our strength, our true tower of shelter, our support. He will comfort us.

            When we have survived the evil, we give thanks to God.


Of all the possible emotions I ever had, the one that never abated was the desire that the deaths on 9/11 and subsequently should be avenged. I wanted God to set aside His quality of mercy and only use His quality of strict justice and not to spare the evil. On late Sunday night, that came true. I give thanks to God and praise to the U.S. military, the instrument of His justice.


In following the string of Rabbinic conversation on my Rabbinical Assembly Rabbis' listserv, Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Alpharetta, Georgia referred to the observance that when hearing bad news we say "Baruch Dayan HaEmet" and when we hear good news we say "Baruch HaTov v'HaMetiv" "Blessed is the One Who is Good and does Good." This short phrase is reflected in the Birkat HaMazon and is the fourth beracha. According to the Talmud it was created after the catastrophe of Beitar, the last defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans. When they allowed the Jews to bury their dead instead of leaving them to rot, the Rabbis coined this beracha. By its language it turns us away from the evil that was perpetrated, from the calamity and ruination, to acts of goodness, deeds of loving kindness, and feats of restoration. Ground Zero is being rebuilt. The subway runs past it on time. The Pentagon has been rebuilt. A memorial park exists in Pennsylvania. The White House or whatever was the target of the third plane stands unharmed. "May those who suffered at the hands of evil find some measure of solace in the fall of the wicked." "May God continue to comfort their souls."


And now Osama bin Laden is dead. According to Jewish tradition, when mentioning Amalek, its king Agag, its descendant Haman and his metaphoric descendant Hitler, and now, for such as Osama bin Laden, one says "Yimach Sh'mo v'zichro." May his name and his memory be blotted out."


May we never see such evil again.


Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152