Among the trips that I have taken in the months since Rosh Hashanah that stand out vividly was the “Mission to Pittsburgh” that Sue and I took over the Presidents Day holiday, in order to meet our future family.
It was a joyful, yet overwhelming experience to meet the parents and siblings of our son Elliot’s fiancée, Chaya Miriam. There are nine children in all, with seven of them still living at home. After a full day of airplanes and navigating the bridges and construction zones of Pittsburgh, we arrived to a warm welcome, as each sibling greeted us, all looking alike yet in possession of different names! I am proud to say that, after settling in and getting a good night’s sleep in the midst of our visit, both Sue and I could identify everyone!
The experience was a dramatic reminder of how family cultures can vary from one household to the next. And while I do not know how many children the Nimchinsky’s were set on originally, I am quite cognizant of the fact that our family size is less than what had originally been envisioned. Indeed, it takes great courage and forbearance to have a big family, not to mention lots of planning!
I remember with great fondness a pastoral visit to our beloved, now deceased, Rodef Shalom member, Louise Kazzaz, during which we spoke about our two families. In a moment of great intensity, Louise looked at me and said, with conviction, “You should have had more children, Rabbi.” As I reflect back on this interaction, I now view Louise’s words as less of a personal chide and more of a prophetic voice, rooted in the great concern for the future of the Jewish people, who know their strength through the ability to reproduce and populate communities around the world. The Jewish birth rate is a powerful tool in our hands, with which we have the ability to affect the future, by, literally planting seeds.
This message is brought home on a horticultural scale in the portion of Terumah, which provides us with God’s detailed instructions for building the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that will journey with Israel in the wilderness. One of these instructions concerns the planks for the walls of the mishkan - they are to be built from acacia wood (Exodus 26:15). But this command is mysterious; after all, acacia wood is not naturally found in the Sinai. How then could Israel fulfill this commandment?
Midrash Tanhuma teaches that when Jacob went down to Egypt, he commanded his children to plant acacia trees. “My children, in the future you will be redeemed from here, and the Holy Blessed One will, in the future, say to you, ‘When you are redeemed, make me a tabernacle.’ Rather, stand and plant acacia trees, so that when God tells you to make a tabernacle, the acacia trees will be ready in your hands.” Immediately, they stood and planted acacia trees.”
Jacob’s words to his children demonstrate three qualities. The first is that of imaginative foresight – an ability to envision a future different from the present. Jacob knows that his children’s descendants will become slaves, but he also knows that they will one day go free. The second quality is that of concrete planning - an ability to imagine what that different future will demand and to lay the foundations for that future in the present. Jacob knows that one day Israel will not build for Pharaoh but for themselves and their God. They must plant trees now in order to be able to build later. The third quality is that of trust – Jacob trusts that his children will plant the trees, that their descendants will tend them, and then four hundred years later, will harvest those trees and carry them into the wilderness. And, as we know, Jacob’s trust pays off. The Israelites leave Egypt and build the mishkan, using the trees that their ancestors planted.
The ability of Israel to fulfill this Divine commandment about the mishkan does not stem from a heavenly act. It is built on human miracle - the ability to imagine the future, to plan carefully to build that vision, and to work with others to achieve that goal. Much as Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom needed Jacob’s vision and planning, our current day human rights work takes similar vision and careful planning. Change does not simply happen. As Jacob shows us, we have to imagine that the future can be different than the present.
Discussions about the future of the Jewish community are everywhere today, sometimes leading us to disagreements about how to carry out our mission of continuity, and sometimes bringing us to the threshold of controversy.
I could not help but notice the recent remarks made by Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to a gathering of the South Florida Jewish Federation. In a moment of unexpected candor, Wasserman Shultz gave her co-religionists some truth about the future of the Jewish community – that assimilation and intermarriages were both a “problem.” That this is self-evident is more than obvious, given the data produced by the Pew Center’s historic survey of American Jewry that showed that assimilation and intermarriage have reached levels that call into question the future of non-Orthodox Jewry in this country. But the fact that Wasserman Schultz felt she had to almost immediately walk back her remarks with liberal Jews showering her with the opprobrium they usually reserve for Republicans tells us exactly why these problems are so intractable.
Wasserman Schultz wasted no time in disavowing her seemingly heartfelt comments, saying that were made in a context of concern for the community and that she “does not oppose intermarriage.”
If you will permit me to say so, this controversy is so “twentieth century.”
With intermarriage a reality that is here to stay, given our acceptance in American culture, I choose, instead, to look at it from the much broader perspective of how we use all of our relationships – marriage, domestic partnership, and congregational membership, to name a few, for the purpose of driving our destiny.
Most people use fate and destiny interchangeably, but they aren't the same. Fate is the life you lead if you never put yourself in the path of greatness. That's the direction your life moves in without any effort on your part. That's your fate. Fate is a negative and is defined as the expected result of normal development. Normal development. Never taking a risk is your inevitable fate.
Destiny is your potential waiting to happen. It's the top tier in the grand scheme of possibilities and where your dreams come true. You have to be willing to take that first step to reach your potential, even if it's a risk. With great risk comes great failure. Let's flip that phrase around. With great risk comes great reward. Ultimately, that means there's no greater risk than no risk at all.
We are about to celebrate the festival of Passover, and to re-tell the story of our people’s liberation – one in which they had a “bit part” (all kudos belong to God, of course, for this “masterpiece theater” known as yetziat mitrayim), but a part that was crucial nonetheless: they embarked willingly upon the journey. Let us not minimize that determination to move forward, in spite of the uncertainty entailed by doing so. In that spirit, may we find ways in which to discover and own our destiny, and to brace for the challenges that come with driving it!
Kanarek, Rabbi Jane PhD. A D'var Torah for Parashat Terumah 2013/5773, issued by T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights
Scott, SL. Are You Living Your Fate or Creating Your Destiny? Huffington Post 11/26/12