On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: On The Road Again - Parashat R'eih

When are the times that you knew you needed to show up and be present? This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses Parashah R’eih, the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, and how our pilgrimages can connect us not only to each other and our ancestors, but our friends and partners of other faiths as well.

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[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to "On The Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat R'eih, asking what it means to take a pilgrimage. Where do you go and what do you learn?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat R'eih from the book of Deuteronomy. And we're going to look at the last paragraph in the parashah. Now of course, the Torah scroll itself doesn't have paragraphs per se. Sometimes there's a break. But these are the last verses. So we're in chapter 16 of Deuteronomy, verses 16 and 17. And amazingly, we have the commandment of the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, that we know in the Jewish tradition. So see if you can name those three pilgrimage festivals. Those were festivals in ancient Israel when if you were a Jewish person you were asked to go to Jerusalem, make pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Now, some of the people lived just a few miles from Jerusalem, so it wasn't such a big thing. But if you lived in the north or you lived even beyond, making this pilgrimage could be a really big journey that you would take often with your whole family sometimes with an animal that you would use as an offering.

So what are those three really huge holidays that for our ancestors were the ones that you had to actually go to Jerusalem? If you said Passover, you got one of them for sure. If you said Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall, you're definitely saying one. The third may be the hardest which is Shavuot, which for us happens just weeks after Pesach in the late spring. And it raises for me the whole notion of what it means to be a pilgrim, a person on a religious pilgrimage.

First of all, the text is really very powerful because it basically says three times a year, you shall be seen. [SPEAKING HEBREW] All of your males should be seen not empty-handed in the house of the Holy One. I love it for a number of reasons because it's kind of a biblical way of saying there are times in your life you've got to show up. We all know those times we've got to show up. Think of your own personal life. Your daughter's in the class play in elementary school. That's a mandatory show-up moment. Maybe it's a graduation or a bar or bat mitzvah-- a show-up moment. We don't always think of a pilgrimage as one of those. But we're told here three times, make the pilgrimage. Now, the word pilgrimage is the same word as the word for holiday, chag in Hebrew, chet, gimmel. Now, if I soften the gimmel, as you can often do in Middle Eastern Languages, "chag" becomes "Hajj." Now you may know that it is part of the Islamic tradition that once in one's lifetime you are to make pilgrimage not to Jerusalem, but to Mecca to join with pilgrims from all over the Islamic world to make these multi-day pilgrimages around the Kaaba-- the central object of spiritual focus in Mecca. Now it occurred to me because I just was with a friend of mine who is an amazingly inspiring imam. And he said last week that-- and again, this is a few weeks before you're listening to the podcast. He said, well, "I'm off on Thursday to the Hajj. I'm leading a group of people for my community, and we're going to go on this pilgrimage." He said it's the most spiritually edifying trip that he has ever taken. And it both distills and purifies and focuses his faith and the faith of those who come with him.

Turns out today, as Jewish people, we don't have the pilgrimage mandate of showing up in Jerusalem. Many of us travel regularly. I'm in Jerusalem multiple times during the year, and it's always an inspired blessing to be able to be in Jerusalem and very often to get close to where the Temple stood, which today for us is the Western Wall, both the egalitarian section and the traditional section. And for us, it's a good thing to make pilgrimage to Israel and to Jerusalem. But it's not part of our holiday. We can observe Passover wherever we are, Sukkot wherever we are, Shavuot. So in many ways, we've lost this dimension that existed in antiquity which is very different than, frankly, taking a trip. Being a tourist is not being a pilgrim. And I think of a teaching from my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who wrote a book called "Israel, A Spiritual Travel Guide-- A Compendium for the Modern Jewish Pilgrim." And what he realized was that people went on trips to Israel, and they thought they were going as tourists. And they got to certain places where historical memory was so powerful like the old city of Jerusalem, or the Western Wall, or the tomb of David, and they realized that they weren't tourists at all. They were pilgrims. So he wrote a guidebook how to awaken those pieces. So Rabbi Hoffman writes, "Pilgrims come because being in this place is part of who they are-- a necessary segment in the story of their lives. If they are on a journey not to leave home, but to come home to a deeper place in their soul, than they are pilgrims." So even if we might travel to Israel, today we may be traveling on commercial airlines, but we can still be pilgrims. People are going in a sense for a deeper discovery, a journey of remembering who we are and what matters most. And of course, in Islam, that pilgrimage is very active. I think there'll be 4 million-plus pilgrims in Mecca over the days of the Hajj. And there are pilgrimages in almost every faith tradition. Hindus make pilgrimage to the Ganges, the river. There are rituals that you perform when you reach the place of pilgrimage. There are people who make pilgrimage to certain sites where miracles have occurred hoping that miracles would occur again.

It turns out while the Temples stood, the First and the Second Temple, we know that thousands upon thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, would descend on or ascend to Jerusalem for the festivals, the three pilgrimage festivals. It must have been overwhelming just to see thousands of people camped out around the Judaean Hills and coming, as the commandment in Deuteronomy commands, not with empty hands but with an offering. Very often it could be an animal to sacrifice. Sometimes it could be grain. Sometimes it was just hopes and prayers and thoughts that would be offered up.

I also remember, I was in Israel returning home just before Rosh HaShanah a couple of years ago. And I saw all of these people filling the airport. And they weren't going to New York or to Paris or to Buenos Aires. They were going to Ukraine. And I remember I was talking with a few and I said, why are so many of you going to Ukraine? You live in Israel. Wouldn't you want to stay in Israel for the holiday of Rosh HaShanah? And they said, well, we're going to the tomb of Nachman of Breslov. And they weren't only traditional Breslovers or Orthodox observant Jews who follow the Hasidic master. There were also people who looked very secular and were going with the hopes that they would have a spiritual pilgrimage of discovery. And the city is the city of Uman. And sometimes as many as 40,000 to 50,000 Jewish pilgrims would go and spend the days of the Jewish New Year there praying, spending time at the tomb of Nachman of Breslov, reciting his teachings and his stories, and bringing alive the passion and the inspiration of his life. So I tell you these different stories-- the pilgrims going to Ukraine for Nachman of Breslov, the Muslim observant pilgrims going to Mecca for the Hajj-- and I think there's something so incredibly powerful about the similarities of our faith traditions and the notion that on these journeys, we don't just cover a lot of miles but we, in a sense, we are able to learn and grow and experience things that we couldn't back home. And I love that we share in common, I love that the word chag is just like the word Hajj. And think of all the tension sometimes that exists between Muslims and Jews and think, you know what? We've got a lot of commonality. And there are a lot of things that we share. In fact, I think there is more that we share than that divides us. But I hope that many of us who will sometimes take a pilgrimage to maybe our home community, maybe at this time of year, approaching the High Holidays, will make a pilgrimage to a cemetery where a member of our family, a beloved member of our family, is buried, and just spend time remembering and taking in the inspiration of that purpose of this person's life. So I love that we all are pilgrims if we do it in a deep way. And I love that our ancestors have it built into the very fabric of what it means to observe a holiday-- to end up in a different place than you started. That's part of what a pilgrim is, someone who begins thinking and believing and acting one way, but in their growth and discovery end up in a much deeper place. 

So whether you are going to travel far on a pilgrimage or maybe it's an inward pilgrimage as we approach the High Holy Days, I hope that we'll have this category not of tourists but of one who journeys to discover. It's one who journeys that we oftentimes discover our innermost self and our, in a sense, innate sense of home while we're away when we're traveling. So whether we're a Breslov or Hasid, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, it ultimately is part of the same tradition. And I love that there are times in spiritual lives when showing up matters-- showing up in a house of mourning. Somebody you knew well, someone you didn't know well but you work with. Showing up in a house of mourning for shiva says something so powerful to our friends. To show up at a time of injustice in the world, maybe a protest. To show up and raise our voices.

I think the notion of showing up in the holy place of Jerusalem was a teaching not only about holidays and not only about pilgrimage but about being present where it matters and when it matters most. So I hope all of us will not just hear that challenge, but we in our own lives will know the people for whom we need to show up for, the moments when we will make pilgrimage to do so. And when sometimes there are differences between our various faith traditions, let's also work as best we can to find those commonalities. So we journey forth with that deep understanding.

I'll close as I began with Rabbi Hoffman's teaching. "Pilgrims come because being in this place is part of who they are, a necessary segment in the story of their lives. If they're on a journey not to leave home but to come home to a deeper place in their soul, then they are pilgrims." I hope today and tomorrow and in the coming weeks and months and throughout the year ahead, each of us in our own way, in our authentic faith tradition's path, will be pilgrims to our deeper, more profound self.

[URJ OUTRO] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of "On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah" Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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And until next week -- l'hitraot!