Rabbi Eshel's Shabbat Message - May 24, 2024

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Rabbi Eshel's Shabbat Message - May 24, 2024

One Torah portion to another… one experience to another. 

From last week: Emor…Leviticus 23: 5-6
5. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a Passover offering to Adonai, 6.  and on the fifteenth day of that month יהוה’s Feast of Unleavened Bread. You shall eat unleavened bread for seven days.

To this week: Bahar…Leviticus 25: 3-4
3. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. 4. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of Adonai, you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 

The world seems so, so dark and so, so broken… As Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything…” 

Last week’s Torah portion set the days and the month for Passover, our most celebrated Jewish holiday. Most years we are here in Los Angeles, celebrating with family and friends in our home. But this year was different. This year we were spending seder in Rome! There is a reform synagogue in Rome celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. I know one of the families very well as they are deeply connected to Wilshire Boulevard Temple and our Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps. One partner in the family grew up at our camps and subsequently sent their daughters every summer to Malibu. I’ve known them both since they were each 8 years old and today they are 20 and 17 respectively. They were so excited to have us and we were more excited to be with them. As the day approached we received an email from the synagogue with directions to the seder and rules to follow before entering. “Please do not wear any overt Jewish symbols and if you will be wearing a kippah please do not wear it until you enter the building.” We were first confused and when the realization of what was being asked finally hit us, we were sad, a bit scared, and feeling very alone. As we walked through the neighborhood, making our way to the community center, we passed graffiti of swastikas and anti-Israel slogans. My kippah was in my pocket. We were greeted at the door by two Italian soldiers standing guard… 

Fast forward a bit and my family is on a plane back to Los Angeles and I am on a plane to Tel Aviv. This week’s Torah portion teaches that farmers in the land of Israel need to give their land rest in a seven-year rotation so as not to deplete their soil of its nutrients. I am on my way to spend a week in Israel volunteering specifically on farms. After October 7th farmers were sort of thrust into a forced cessation from working their land. From evacuations, the flight of foreign workers, to the fear many Bedouins felt coming to work, farmers could not work their land. Entire crops, vineyards, and orchards, were lost while others would soon share the same fate if the farmers could not find help. The entire agricultural industry and food supply of the country were in danger. When I showed up with a friend on the first day we were met with overgrown orchards and empty fields. It was overwhelming and paralyzing. It seemed to me at that moment, all would be lost. 

And still, there is hope. And still, I have hope… As Leonard Cohen continues,
“... that’s how the light gets in!”

Back in Rome… we enter the community center and are immediately met by our camp family! After all the hugs and smiles and sweet words of welcome we entered the main hall and were greeted to the sight of a hundred people seated on the outside and inside of multiple rectangular tables arranged as if they were a picture frame. We are introduced to the woman leading the seder, also an expat, as well as so many from the community. The sedar was split fifty/fifty. Half, local Italians and half Jews from all over the world! How do I know this? To start our seder, our leader went around the room and had us all introduce ourselves. We had Jews from England, Spain, Argentina, Germany, the US, Canada, Portugal, Israel, and I am sure I am forgetting a few. They were families on vacation, people visiting friends, students studying abroad, young 20-somethings traveling through Europe. The warmth, connection, and gratitude was palpable. From Ma Nishtana, to children searching for the afikoman with giggles and joy, Dayenu, and next year in Jerusalem, I have never felt so connected to world Jewry as I did that day. I will never forget it and I will never forget them. They are all forever a part of my family story. 

Back in Tel Aviv… The challenge is daunting but I am not alone. I am working side by side, planting and picking, and pruning with a cross-section of the people of Israel. A young, secular couple from Tel Aviv laughing and chatting away as they plant celery. Two large families speak a mix of English and Hebrew with thick Brooklyn accents even though the adult parents have been in the country for over 30 years. They are religious from Jerusalem and the children pay no attention as their skirts and their tzitzit are getting dirty from working so close to the ground. There is a group of four women from the north, friends from childhood, these 70-somethings sing the pioneer songs of their youth as they laugh and reminisce. The farmers’ fears of an unknown future are tempered for the moment. Day after day volunteers from all over the country, from every demographic are showing up to help. Countless WhatsApp groups are filled with daily opportunities and it gives new meaning to the phrase, all Israel is responsible for one another. As I plant orange tree saplings in a new orchard the river of metaphor is not lost on me. Farmer after farmer thanked me with near tears in their eyes, saying “without you, all would be lost.” At home, I feel helpless. On the farm, sweaty, dirty, muscles aching, body tired, I feel hope.

So again, as Leonard Cohen teaches, “There is a crack in everything… that's how the light gets in" 

Shabbat Shalom and Am Yisrael Chai

Rabbi David Eshel