Sign In Forgot Password


03/25/2022 04:43:49 PM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

I'm curious how many people in this room currently live more than 200 miles from where you grew up. If that describes you, and you feel comfortable doing so - stand up, so we can all get a sense of the numbers. (In Power Hour, nearly everyone stood. 2-3 people remained sitting.) Remain standing for a moment if you grew up out of state. (Less than half the room sat.) Remain standing for a moment if you grew up in a different country (most of the room sat.)

It's AMAZING how mobile our generation is. When our oldest child, Zev, started at Gunn Highschool, my husband David and I attended the parent orientation night. As a sort-of ice-breaker, the principal asked us to stand up or sit down in response to various questions. When she said: "Stand up if you attended high-school outside the United States," 2/3 of the auditorium stood. My husband and I were among the few that were still sitting.

Not all moves are the same. Moving within the United States is not the same as immigrating from another country. Choosing to move for some exciting opportunity is very different from being forced to leave your place of birth because life there is no longer tenable.

I want to acknowledge those differences, but they are not what I want to focus on this morning. What I want to ask you to think about this morning is something more abstract. What is the impact of this mobility on all of us? Our unrootedness from any specific land, what I'd call the landlessness of our generation?

I want to start with the story of Chief Standing Bear. It's a famous story, but I only encountered it recently in a book by David Treuer, called "The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee." The book is excellent, I almost feel it should be required reading for all US citizens.

Standing Bear was the Chief of a small tribe called the Ponca. They lived by the Niobrara river in modern day Nebraska. In the mid 1800s, the Ponca were caught between their historical enemy - the much larger and powerful Lakota tribe - and a new enemy - white settlers who were taking land from both tribes.

The peaceful Ponca did not try to fight back. But the Lakota did fight, and they were fierce. In 1868, they won a sound victory against the United States, and, in a reversal of the usual story, the US was forced to the treaty table with the Lakota having the upper hand. The United States signed over a large territory to the Lakota, which included...the Ponca's land. And then US soldiers forcibly moved the Ponca to Oklahoma - without supplies, when winter was coming on, too late in the season to plant. By spring, a third of the tribe had died of starvation. 

Standing Bear's eldest son was among those who died there in Oklahoma. As his child lay dying, the chief promised to bury him in their ancestral homeland on the Niobrara river. So he and a few dozen followers began the long trek home, on foot, carrying the body with them. On the way, they were stopped by a dispatch of the US government and put under arrest. It's hard to believe there was a time in the United States when people were not allowed to travel freely. But at that time the US government wasn't so clear on the fact that Native Americans are people.

Standing Bear and his followers were put on trial. It was a trial that changed history. For the first time ever, a Native American was allowed to properly defend himself in court, and Standing Bear delivered a speech that brought the judge, Elmer Dundy, to tears.

He won the case, and they were eventually able to return to their land. And - this is an aside to my main point this morning, but I have to say it - do you know what was the essence of the judge's revolutionary ruling? Judge Dundy decided - and this is a direct quote from ruling, that "An Indian is a person". And, because he is a person, an Indian has the right of habeas corpus - that is, the right to not be imprisoned without a proper trial. 

What did Standing Bear say to convince the judge that he was indeed a person?

 He did not speak about the material injustices done to his people. He did not speak of starvation or the death of his son or forced relocation. He spoke of his spiritual connection to the land:

"The swift-running water, the Niobrara, pours down between the green hills. There are the graves of my fathers. There again we will pitch our teepee and build our fires. I see the light of the world and of liberty just ahead."

When people fight wars to control land, they are fighting for a material resource. Who gets to plant the land and harvest the crops? Who gets to collect the taxes of the people living there? Who controls the power plants and the oil fields?

But, often, they are also fighting over a spiritual connection. An abstract sense, not of who owns the land, but who belongs to it. Whose identity does the land hold? The Ukrainians see themselves as a people, Ukraine is their land and they are of Ukraine. Putin sees that land as part of greater Russia, to horrific effect. 

Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik wrote that there is a part of every human being that is like, "a villager that belongs to the soil that fed him as a child and to the little world into which he was born." Speaking from my personal experience - my family has no roots in Skokie, Illinois, the Chicago suburb where I grew up. And yet, because I was blessed with overall a happy childhood, part of me always feels connected there. 

When a family's roots go back generations in a place, the connection is much deeper. It grounds them. A contemporary of Standing Bear, Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce Indians, said of his ancestral land: "I buried my father in that beautiful valley of winding water. I love that land more than all the rest of the world. A man who would not love his father's grave is worse than a wild animal."

When Native Americans were removed from their lands, their cultures were disrupted in a way that could never be repaired with money. But, Treur emphasizes in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, Indians are resilient. They survived and adapted. Many are reviving religious ceremonies that had been banned for decades as part of the attempt to "tame" the Indian. Some are reviving languages that had nearly died - reminiscent of what Eliezer Ben Yehudah did for Hebrew as a spoken language. And they are forming new identities, more abstract. As Indians - rather than as Ponca, or Lokata, or Ojibwe, or Hopi. And as Americans.

We Jews have been landless for 2000 years. My grandparents were buried in New Jersey, my great-grandparents in Eastern Europe. When the time comes עמו’ש, I expect my parents will be buried in Chicago, and I in California. 

I have another book recommendation for you, though I would not call this one required reading. The Jewish Century by historian Yuri Slezkine. Slezkine documents the unbelievable successes of Jews in the 20th century in Europe. In science, medicine, journalism, business - Jews skyrocketed to the top of nearly every field. Slezkine claims that our success was in part because the 20th century began the shift to a global culture. Europeans were leaving their villages and moving to the cities. Landlessness was becoming the norm. And we Jews were already experienced hands at this way of living. 

But HOW did we cope with landlessness? That's not really Slezkine's question, but it is mine.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel offers part of an answer in his famous book, the Sabbath. We Jews build palaces in time, not space. When we were exiled from Israel to Babylonia or Persia, to Africa or Europe, to South America or North America, we took Shabbat with us. We took the Jewish calendar with us. These markers in time ground us, much as a connection to the land once did.

But another part of the answer, I believe, is in our Torah reading this morning, and in our bar-mitzvah boy's beautiful drash, and in other drash's like it. Why do we spend so much time reading and reinterpreting rituals that we haven't practiced in 2000 years? During our study sessions, our bar-mitzvah had a clear, intuitive answer to this question: studying these rituals gives a connection to our past.

Chief Joseph and Chief Standing Bear connected to their past through the land that they inherited from their ancestors. We connect with our past through the stories we inherited from ours. But not just any stories - stories that are based in a land. The sacrifices could ONLY be brought in the Temple in Jerusalem, the one where the western wall still stands. Every time we read and study the laws of those sacrifices, we are reorienting towards the land where the sacrifices were once brought.

The prayer service was - and for many, still is - a crucial part of that connection. The structure of praying three times a day - four on Shabbat and holidays - is meant to mirror the structure of the sacrificial services in the ancient Temple, tying us to a past when we were rooted in the land. We face Jerusalem when we pray. And the words of our prayers are filled with the longing to return to the land.

We live at a time when the abstract is king. Some of us still work with our hands, actually creating things. But most of us, in our primary work, create with words.

We Jews have always been masters of the abstract. It started with being the first to worship an invisible God. And then we learned to nurture a connection to a land that most Jews never saw with their own eyes. We do all of it with words.

What we are doing this morning - what we do at synagogue every Shabbat morning - what we do around our Friday night tables when we say the blessing over candles or sing kiddush - what we will be doing next month at the seder when we read the haggadah - these are a BIG deal. We are creating a people, a groundedness, a sense of being held and connected to one another, all with the abstraction of words. Amazing how real words can be!

But I hope that we will not forget that it all began with actual land. That we will not forget that the land nurtured us, that our words come from there. Land provides material resources, but it is far more than that. Land is precious, and just as it centers us and grounds us, it deserves our protection.

May the land of Ukraine be restored so it is safe for its people to return. May the land of Venezuela be restored so that it is safe for those who wish to return there. May all people find the words and connections they need to feel grounded and held, no matter where they are living. 

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784