This past June 25, I was invited along with several other Colorado mountain rabbis to participate in a Shabbat morning service in the Leadville synagogue to dedicate a newly acquired Torah scroll to be housed in that temple's ark. Below are my remarks from that service. Hope you'll join us at next June's Leadville Cemetery Clean-up Weekend!
Temple Israel, Leadville, CO • June 25, 2011
We gather for this morning’s dedication during an uncomfortable Torah portion. Korach is a story of a power struggle, between miffed Levites on one side, and Moses & Aaron on the other.
I’m not going to talk about the revolt of the Levites or the attempt to “dethrone” Moses. After Korach’s band of 250 gets swallowed up by the earth and consumed by fire from Adonai, Moses and Aaron scramble to tend to the deadly plague God has sent to decimate the people, as punishment. Aaron took the requisite fire pan and incense to make expiation on behalf of the people, check God’s wrath, and end the plague.
The description of Aaron’s behavior is what caught my attention:
Vaya’amod bein ha-meitim u-vein ha-chayim / “He stood between the dead and the living...” (Num 17:13).
This phrase is striking, for me, for two reasons.
First, we learned in Leviticus 21:11 (Emor), “[A priest] shall not go anywhere near a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother.” The Torah is deeply concerned with ritual purity, and keeping separate things separate. Priests serve the living; they are not to risk defilement by being near the dead.
And yet Aaron stands here, between the living and the dead, seeking an end to this horrific plague. Perhaps when the stakes are that high, i.e. when life is at stake, the priest is called to step over the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit, and continue ministering to the living.
The second reason this phrase is striking is how it resonates with where we stand in this moment.
We stand in a newly restored sanctuary, ready to dedicate a Torah, as proxies for the Jews who lived and died here. Their ghosts share the pews with us. The light mountain air is heavy with their memories.
In this moment we inhabit the present. In light of the spirits of the past, and our hopes for a bright future, we ourselves are thrown into sharp relief as a conduit, a way-station, into eternity. Restoring this holy space and setting a Torah within it are inherently hopeful acts. We’ve reclaimed the neglected Jewish remnants of earlier days. At the same time, we affirm our belief in a thriving Jewish future.
Let me share with you three echoes of Leadville’s Jewish past that I believe speak to us about who we are today and where we should guide our future.
The first echo:
The 1879 edition of the Leadville Chronicle included a description of that fall’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. An excerpt:
. . . last night nearly all places of business in this city belonging to Jews were closed, and they are all closed today. This is the Jewish new year, the same as the first day of January begins the Christian new year. The Jews believe that God finished the world five thousand six hundred and forty years ago today, and consequently this to them is the year 5640. Immediately after closing their stores and shops yesterday evening they assembled in the [Shoenberg] Opera House on Chestnut street, and held religious services appropriate to the going out of the old year. At nine o’clock this morning they reassembled in the same place. The hall was filled with as well dressed and as intelligent appearing assemblage as has ever been witnessed in Leadville. Many of our leading merchants with their families were there. On all being seated one of the brethren wearing a white cloth over his shoulders approached the stage and began to read from a book printed in Hebrew. The reading was a sort of chant, something after the style of the Episcopal or Catholic Christians, and every little while the large assemblage would arise and join in the chant. Each person was provided with a book. A member told the reporter that it was the book of the new year and was only used on these new year occasions. The services were the same here in the Opera House today as they were in the Jerusalem temples five thousand years ago, only of course not so imposing. It was according to the orthodox faith in which the reformed wing joined. The white cloths or shawls which some of the congregation wore, were in imitation of the apparel worn by the Israelites when they were driven out from Egypt. These cloths are worn by the orthodox Jews on all religious occasions. They even wear them to their graves. The chanting corresponded to the Christian prayers for a prosperous new year, and thanks to God for the blessings of the year just passed into oblivion forever. All things considered, the Jews and the Christians are alike in their new year observances, with the exception that after prayers the Christians make calls, customary on such occasions. The Jews, after their prayers in their synagogues, go quietly to their homes and do nothing but read their Bibles and pray till the great anniversary is over.
Of course you have to laugh at some of the observations of the non-Jewish reporter. There is a sense of being different as Jews, of trying to make their way as immigrants in America, while not necessarily fitting into the ways and customs of the dominant culture, nor being fully understood by their neighbors.
The second echo:
In 1880, the Leadville Chronicle published an interview entitled “A Chat with ‘Cheap Joe.’” The subject was Joe Shoenberg, of the early Leadville family.
To be a Shoenberg in Leadville is to be a clothier and a man whom the whole community respects. The Shoenbergs, who are in that trade in Leadville, are numerous. . . .[Earlier in the year a reporter had quipped "If any more Shoenbergs come to town THE CHRONICLE will have to enlarge again."] Joe--or "Cheap Joe," as he is called--everybody knows, or thinks they know, all about him. They have seen him, talked with him, bought goods at his store [16 West Chestnut Street] and are prepared to swear by him. There is something, however, they don’t know that THE CHRONICLE reviewer found out a few days ago, and that is that "Cheap Joe" was born a clothier. A chat with him the other day revealed a portion of his early history, which will be of interest to the reader. His parents, who were well-to-do in the world, sent him to school at an early age, and they were very proud of his attainments. Joe had one habit, however, which his parents objected to--he would trade or sell his coat or vest with any boy who had a spark of speculation about him.
I include this story because it shows a different reality than the first. It’s a picture of a Jewish man who is fully integrated into the community, a man with a good name, and respected status. He’s not a stereotype: the story humanizes his individuality with the vignette about his childhood. He’s an integral part of the social landscape of Leadville.
The third echo:
In May of 1883, the Letter Carriers of Leadville placed an announcement in the paper. After thanking the newspaper, it said:
Resolved, That the thanks and regards are hereby tendered to Messrs. May & Shoenberg [both Jewish], clothiers of this city, for their prompt and generous action in furnishing uniforms for the carriers at lower rates than the same could be obtained in the city of Philadelphia.
From difference, to integration, to this: a story of generosity. Of giving back to the community that had taken them in. Ultimately, it’s a story of hope, and a very American story: of Jews and non-Jews living, working, investing in their community, together.
It’s the legacy we continue to inherit from our immigrant ancestors, who were pioneers whether they moved to city or country, to flatland or mountains.
• • •
Circling back to the Torah portion... Korach’s sin, according to Yeshayahu Liebowitz, resided in his inflated sense of completion: “All the community are holy!” he hurls at Moses as an indictment of Moses’ raising himself above the congregation of Adonai.
Look carefully at the verse in Leviticus (19:2), says Liebowitz, and you’ll find something different there:
Kedoshim T’HIYU / “You SHALL be holy,” says Adonai, “For I, your God, am holy.”
As Liebowitz understands it, only God is truly, perfectly, presently holy. For us humans, the command is in the future: “Become holy!”
Korach’s mistake was confusing human holy striving with God’s holy completeness.
Let our rededication of this space and dedication of this Torah scroll today remind us not to make Korach’s mistake. Like the wise individual who renamed human beings, “human becomings,” let us remember: As Jewish souls, as a Jewish community, we are always heading toward holiness.
Today’s ceremony is not an end, but another milestone on our way to living out God’s command, Kedoshim t’hiyu, “You shall become holy!”
Standing in the present, between the dead of our past and the living of our future, we rededicate ourselves, as we dedicate this holy space and holy scroll, to being a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” always striving to be pioneers of holiness.
May this be a Shabbat and weekend of rest and restoration, of wholeness and holiness.