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Clergy Column by Rabbi Jeremy Morrison


At the Congregational Meeting on February 2, I described the excitement and joy that I experienced upon encountering your community’s warmth and creativity for the first time. I spoke of the revelatory experience of discovery, of having my eyes opened to the dynamism of your congregation. Since then, as I have begun forging relationships with your clergy, staff and congregational leaders, my sense of anticipation has only grown. I am thrilled and honored to embark on my tenure as your new Senior Rabbi, and feel tremendously fortunate that my wife, Molly, our children, Ezekiel and Poppy, and I are becoming participants in the unfolding life of Congregation Beth Am.
For me, these have been quiet but purposeful months of learning and planning. The migration of the congregation’s activities to the web enabled my virtual participation in your community from afar. I have engaged in Torah and Talmud Study; experienced the spiritual uplift of your Shabbat services; and celebrated the accomplishments of your B’nei Mitzvah. Leaders of the Executive Committee and of the Crisis Response Team included me in their discussions of communications, finances and personnel. With graciousness and generosity, the Program Staff quickly incorporated me into its planning for the upcoming High Holy Days and school year. Importantly, Rabbi Marder and I entered into a dialogue about the needs and aspirations of your congregation: I have learned much from her and value her counsel. I am excited to intensify and expand, with all of you, this collective process of teaching and learning about the congregation’s values, customs and programs, in the months to come.
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter Balaam’s blessing of the Israelites’ encampment in the wilderness: its opening words of praise — Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov — well known from our morning liturgy. With “uncovered eyes (g’lui einei’im),” Balaam surveys the tribes arrayed before him and declares:

How lovely are your tents (ohalecha), Jacob,
Your dwellings (mishkenotecha), Israel!
Like flowing wadis,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes (ahalim) that God planted,
Like cedars beside the water:
Water streams from their boughs
And its seed (or roots) have abundant water.
                                                                        — Numbers 24:5-7

Balaam’s use of 2nd person, possessive pronouns — your tents, your dwelling places — indicates his status as an outsider, a non-resident observer of the Israelite encampment. And yet, as with all blessings, Balaam’s words effect transformations: he transmutes what is, narratively, a dusty, temporary, wilderness settlement into an enduring Eden. The figurative, ecological language of Balaam’s poetry refracts onto the Israelite encampment the characteristics of strength and longevity (cedar trees and their roots), interconnectedness (interwoven channels of flowing wadis; gardens irrigated by a river), and emphatically, the life-giving, restorative properties of water. In a subtle wordplay, the biblical writer fuses the healing power of aloes (Ahalim) with the Israelites’ tents (Ohalim). This is God’s camp and these are aspirational images of a sacred community living in fulfillment of its covenantal obligations: a community flourishing by the water’s edge, dwelling in peace with its neighbors, interconnected with its surroundings.
Joyfully, I am no longer observing, from afar, the magnificence of Congregation Beth Am. After months of anticipation, and having recently moved to Palo Alto with my family, I am delighted to merge my “I” with your “you”: to join my tent to your encampment, and to dwell with my family in what is now our Mishkan. Together, as we journey through the wilderness of this pandemic, I pray that our homes — each of our tents — be dwellings of healing and of nurture. And with eyes wide open to the oppression of black and brown people in America, may we, as a synagogue-community ever aspiring to sanctity, strive to do better, to do more. Let us channel our outrage and our privilege, our learning and our abundant resources, into a stream of justice: a mighty river of compassion and righteous action that sweeps away dams of racism and bigotry, and engenders, in the Bay Area, a restorative floodplain of shared prosperity and of equal opportunity.


Rabbi Jeremy Morrison

Sun, August 9 2020 19 Av 5780