Our Jewish Journeys
Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel
This Shabbat we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar. Bamidbar means ‘wilderness.’ The Israelites are still at Mt. Sinai but in two-weeks time, the Israelites will continue their journey (of 38 + years!) as they make their way to the land of Israel, promised first to Abraham and then throughout the Torah to the people of Israel as their inheritance.
On Saturday night (through Monday night) we observe the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate the ‘giving’ of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk asked his disciples, “Why is Shavuot called ‘the time of the giving of the Torah’ rather than the ‘time of the receiving of the Torah?” He answered for his students, “the torah was given once, but each time we read it, we are ‘receiving the Torah and gaining new insights.”
Together, our Torah reading on Shabbat and our holiday of Shavuot help us realize that as Jews we are always on a journey. For the Israelites at Sinai, they are about to embark on a physical journey. Our celebration of Shavuot is about our spiritual journey. Each day of our lives we have the opportunity to create meaningful Jewish experiences and add a new page in our spiritual search for meaning, for holiness and for wholeness.
Melissa and I returned on Monday from a meaningful Jewish journey as we explored the rich history of Jewish life in Germany in smaller communities such as Bamberg, Rothenburg, Regensburg and Sulzbach. Over the years, numerous congregants have mentioned to me that they would never step foot in Germany or Poland. Many others have travelled to both countries to learn of the rich Jewish history that took place there and the Holocaust which wiped out Jewish life. There may not be a right answer. It is a very personal decision.
But, I can say for Melissa and me, that spending last Shabbat in Regensburg and reciting the Anim Zemirot hymn before the Torah was taken out of the ark, in the city in which it was composed, to visit the town of Sulzbach which last had a synagogue service in 1910, but in the 1700’s was a center of Jewish publishing and printing, and to visit the towns of the great rabbis of the Middle Ages and the creators of a branch of Judaism known as Hasidei Ashkenaz, a sect of very pious and spiritual Jews living in communities that were centers of Jewish life enriched our knowledge of Jewish life, thought and practice.
In Amos Elon’s history of the Jews of Germany, The Pity of It All, Elon writes: “We must understand the triumphs to understand the tragedy.” Melissa and I had the opportunity to learn about German Jews in the context of their time and the vibrant Jewish life created there at a time of emancipation, integration and nation-state building. Visiting Dachau Concentration Camp and the Nazi Documentation Center also reminds us of the vigilance necessary to make sure that what happened in Europe cannot happen again.
As we celebrate Shabbat and the giving of the Torah on Shabbat, may we each cherish both our spiritual and physical journeys to enrich our Jewish lives and be proud transmitters of Jewish life, practice and learning.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel