This Shabbat as part of our Torah reading cycle we read the end of Genesis, which concludes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph has reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his father, and now everyone is settled in the land of Egypt, having moved down from Canaan in search of opportunity, and where Joseph continues to serve in his capacity as an advisor to Pharaoh.
This weekend at Temple Beth Hatfiloh we are also marking Human Rights Shabbat. It is a contemporary designation made by an organization called T’ruah (formally known as Rabbis for Human Rights-North America). T’ruah designates the two Shabbatot closest to Human Rights Day-the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN-as Human Rights Shabbat, an opportunity to reflect on the connection between Judaism and Human Rights. Over 170 congregations are observing this day.
This year, we are using this opportunity to reflect on the issue of immigration. Our guest speaker will be Michelle Muri from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, who will talk about that organization, and some of the issues facing immigrants in our state and nationwide. This promises to be a powerful presentation.
Today (Friday) is also a minor fast day in our tradition. Today is the 10th day of the month of Tevet, and tradition associates this day with the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King. A year and half later Nebuchadnezzar breeched the wall of Jerusalem, an event commemorated by a minor fast day the 17th of Tammuz. Then a few weeks later, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, an event marked by the major fast day of Tisha B’av, or the 9th of Av.
The fact of a fast day in Tevet is found in the Bible in the book of Zechariah, which speaks of the “fast of the 10th month.” The rabbis in the Talmud make the connection to the siege of Jerusalem and affix the fast on the 10th.
There is, however, another Talmudic tradition which associates the words of Zechariah with the 5th of Tevet, and claims that is the appropriate fast day. This opinion is based on the verse in Ezekiel (33:21): “And it came to pass in the twelfth year of our captivity, in the tenth month, in the fifth day of the month, that one that had escaped out of Jerusalem came unto me, saying: ‘The city is smitten.’” In other words, according to one opinion of the Talmud, the “fast of the 10th month” is actually the 5th of Tevet, and commemorates not the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, but rather the date when those who were already exiled heard of the Temple’s eventual destruction.
While this opinion is not followed nor codified into our law and practice, it is interesting to consider. The value underlying the opinion is that what is worth commemorating is not just the event itself, but the hearing of the news of the event.
When something happens it is an isolated event. When we tell and retell the events, it becomes something of much greater import. The immediate destruction of the Temple affected those closest to it. The transmission of the news to the community made it an event which affected the entire Jewish people. It is “hearing the news” that makes an impact on us. Think of how, with the recent commemoration of the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, much of the individual reflection was “where were you when you heard the news?”
So too with our contemporary issues of concern. When we gather for services, we do many things. We connect, we pray, we reflect, we learn, we study. And sometimes we bear witness. That will be our role this Shabbat, as we turn to our weekly Torah reading for one, and see how this is a story of migration and immigration. And we will bear witness to stories and issues of immigration in our day. We will “hear the news” of what is happening.
These stories may not be our stories. Events and narratives are particular. But telling and retelling them make them universal, and by their telling-and by our hearing-they become our stories.
And when they become our stories, we can not ignore them. Part of our kavannah (intention) around Human Rights Shabbat–and indeed any time we engage with issues of social justice–is that we listen in order to learn, and learn in order to do.
May this be another opportunity for listening and learning, and may we be filled with the spirit of doing.
[This weekend also marks the anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That mass shooting was unfortunately not an exceptionally rare event, but the severity of the massacre, and the fact the primary victims were young children in a place that is supposed to proved safety, awakened our eyes in a new way to the need for comprehensive gun legislation and the fact the culture of guns and violence can lead to disastrous ends. We continue to tell this story as well.]