Big, Beautiful Tents

Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall.

I remember the first time I saw you. It was the summer of 1978 and the whole family was traveling to Israel to celebrate the b’nai mitzvah of my older sister and brother. We’d only just met and I didn’t know your story yet, but I recall feeling impossibly small in your presence. Despite the heat, you were cool to the touch. I stood right next to you, holding my father’s hand as he gently rested his forehead against you, whispering a prayer.

Although both of my siblings had participated fully in the ceremony we’d celebrated at our synagogue in Omaha, Neb., a few months earlier, only my brother was given the honor of chanting Torah in your presence. My sister, my mom, my grandmother, my aunt and all of the other women stood on chairs on the other side of the divider as the men (and 8-year-old me) gathered around my brother to hear him recite the ancient blessings.

I don’t remember how I felt at the time about my mother having to stand on a chair to watch from a distance, but when I think about it now, almost four decades later, it makes me sad.

Over the years, I’ve visited you more times than I can count. I’ve stood before you with some of the people who matter to me most. I cried in your presence as I watched my grandfather lean against you to write a final letter to my deceased grandmother, telling her that he’d see her soon. I’ve introduced you to hundreds of people, from teenagers on summer tours to families on synagogue missions.

I’ll be with you again in just a few days. This time, I’ll bring two young women to stand beside you as they chant these words from our tradition: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael!  How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5).

Parashat Balak is the perfect text for such a time as this. A prophet is sent by our enemy to curse Israel. He explains that he can say only the words that God puts into his mouth and out comes a blessing instead. It can be read as a prayer, too: “May it be Your will, O God, that we might have the courage and wisdom to pitch big, beautiful tents like Abraham and Sarah, open on all sides, welcoming all who would enter.”

We magnify and glorify our tradition when we find room in our hearts for our entire community: women and men; secular and religious; Orthodox and Reform; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; gay, straight, and transgender; Jews by birth and Jews by choice along with non-Jewish friends and family members who have cast their lots with our People. This week’s reversal by the Netanyahu government of its previous agreement to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and its views on conversion diminish our tradition and weaken our community.

There are congregations throughout Israel and the Diaspora that continue to support a broad, inclusive Judaism. Every day, I am grateful to be part of a synagogue that consciously and intentionally tries to celebrate the big, beautiful diversity of our contemporary Jewish community.

Next week, as I travel to Jerusalem and approach that ancient Wall, I won’t hear those young women chant Torah in the same place where my brother stood. Women’s voices still aren’t welcome there, so we’ll go a hundred yards farther south where, for now at least, we can join together as a community to worship, to give thanks, and to celebrate what it means to be part of a People called Israel.

And when those two young women raise their voices in prayer and song, proudly adding their links to our chain of tradition, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved to offer a simple prayer: “May all of Jacob’s descendants, all Israel, soon come to agree that each and every member of our diverse community deserves a place of honor within the tents of Israel.” 

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple.