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From the Rabbi's Desk:

From the Weekly e-blast 9/14/17:

President Ronald Reagan’s popularity in the polls rose and fell like a roller coaster.

Shortly after an attempt was made to assassinate him, his ratings soared to nearly 90%, the highest on record.

But one year later, when the United States economy was still mired in recession, his approval ratings had plummeted to a low of 30%.

Every other week, Richard Wirthlin, the president’s pollster, reported the ratings to the president and now had the unhappy task of telling Reagan the disturbing news.

          Reagan asked, “How are they? What do the figures look like?”

          “They’re pretty bad, Mr. President.”

          “How bad are they?”

          “Well, they’re as low as they can get.”

          “So, what do you mean?”

          “Well, they’re about 32%.”

          Reagan thought and then asked, “Has there been anything lower than that in the second year of the presidency?”

          “I think that’s the lowest,” Wirthlin replied.

           Just then Reagan’s face brightened and he smiled, “Richard, don’t worry.  I’ll just go out there and try to get shot again!”

President Reagan had a knack of bringing humor into his difficulties, and it is said that humor has a way of helping us find hope, and hope has a way of helping us solve problems, which we look for during these High Holy Days.

Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of hope, no it is the Holy Day of Hope and Optimism.

Hayom Harat Olam! Today is the birthday of the world!” – We say in the Shofar blowing prayers, right after the Shofar is sounded, in fact. A birthday is a time for hope!

A new day, a new year for opportunities, growth and change. 

A year to solve problems and find happiness.

On behalf of my family I extend to all of you best wishes for a Shana Tova, anyada Buena, muchos anos y dulces. Peace upon the world and upon Israel.

Amen-        

Rabbi Hayyim J. Kassorla

 

From the Weekly e-blast 8/17/17:

"See this day I set before you blessing and curse."  (Deuteronomy 11:26) This week’s Perasha of Re’eh.

This portion begins a long, legal section of the Torah.  Moses retells many of the laws and rituals which the people Israel must obey.  If they obey them, they will receive a blessing; if they do not obey them, they will receive a curse.  The people have a choice.  This leads to one of the most fundamental principles not simply of Judaism but of almost all religions - people have free will.  They are absolutely free to choose, and the future is open to them.

The notion of free will raises numerous questions, even among religious thinkers.  For example, classical theism teaches that G-d is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient).  If G-d knows everything, that G-d even knows the future.  G-d knows what I will eat for breakfast tomorrow.  And G-d knows whether somebody will commit murder or steal.  In a similar way in the Torah, G-d knew that Pharaoh would harden his heart and not let the Israelites go.  Therefore G-d chastised Egypt with the plagues, punishing them for a choice that G-d knew they were going to make anyway.

There are answers to this problem given in Jewish tradition which are beyond the scope of this brief message.  But at times Judaism simply leaves it as a paradox.  The Ethics of the Sages quotes the words of Rabbi Akiba, hekol tzapui v'harishut n'tuna - "All is foreseen yet freedom of choice is given."  (Avot 3:15)  It is a paradox, an unanswered question.

Religion is about making choices how we choose to live our life.  It is about ethical choices regarding how we choose to treat other people.  And it is about spiritual choices such as do we fast on Yom Kippur.  The High Holiday liturgy writes that even if G-d has written our fate in a book, teshuva (repentance or returning to the right path), tefila (prayer or opening our hearts to G-d), and tzedaka (charity or acts of loving kindness) can avert the severe decree.  Religion is based on free will; we have a choice.

How do we understand this question of free will?  Today there exists a great interest in an approach to the universe called process philosophy, founded by Alfred North Whitehead and others. At the center of process philosophy is an open ended view of the universe; free will is not only a gift to humans but permeates everything in the universe.

Something to think about over Shabbat-the notion of free will – which permeates this week’s Torah reading.

Shabbat Shalom

From Rabbi Michael Gold, Do We Have a Choice: thoughts on Parshat Reeh (5774)
 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 8/10/17:

There are a zillion different definitions of G-d.  You can find them in the writings of philosophers and poets, medievals and moderns, Jews and Moslems and Christians. The literature of the world is full of these definitions, and, after all the definitions, G-d is still beyond our ability to describe or define. Yet, there is evidently something inside us that makes human beings keep on trying to capture G-d's essence in one more definition.

One of the shortest simplest definitions of G-d is the one that Moses gives in this Perasha of Ekev. It is a two-part definition.  The first thing he says is that G-d is, "Ha-el, Hagadol, Hagibor, Vihanorah" - that G-d is "The Great, The Mighty, and the Awesome."Chapter 10 verses 17-19 in the fifth Book, Devarim.

I think it is a commentary on the definition of G-d that Moses gives us in this week's portion.  "G-d's greatness," says Moses, "lies not in that He is Great, Mighty and Awesome; it is in that He uses His Greatness, His Might and His Awesomeness, in order to care for the widow and the orphan, in order to see that they have food and clothing, and so should we, if we wish to be like G-d.

The Hebrew word "almanah," the word for widow,  according to Ibn Ezra,  comes from the word "eleym," which means to be mute.  A widow, according to Ibn Ezra, is a woman who is mute, who cannot speak up, or, if she does, who is not heard, because she has no husband to speak up for her or to defend her.  And therefore, if Ibn Ezra is right, if this is what it means to be a widow, then it becomes our obligation - individually and as a congregation - to hear their cry, to feel their pain and to make sure that they have 'lechem v'simlah,' food and clothing, at the least, and to make sure that they have more than that, that they have dignity and companionship and respect and attention as well.

According to the definition of G-d that Moses gives us in this week’s Torah reading this is what G-d does, and this is what G-d role models, and this is what G-d wants us to do.

In a letter I received sometime ago from a widow who was recovering from a long illness she wrote that she had almost no relatives, at least none who lived near her.  But she said the synagogue, and especially the sisterhood, had really reached out to her and had become almost a substitute family to her.  She said many people from within the synagogue reached out to her, and kept in touch with her, and visited her, and offered to drive for her or shop for her, and showed concern for her.  And so she wrote and said, in simple truth, "How glad I am that I became a member and worked for this synagogue! I have been paid back a hundred times for whatever I have given to the synagogue, by all the devotion and attention that I have received in my time of need."

That is a very special letter, is it not?  And yet it also was a letter of hope and reminder to us all to let this matter of how to pay attention to the widows in our midst be on the agenda of our synagogue and on our own personal agendas in this coming year. And the orphan and the stranger too.

For even those who have bread and clothing still have needs.  They have a need for friendship and attention. They need someone to speak for them and someone to speak to them.

 

For this, according to the definition of G-d that Moses gives us in this week's Torah portion, THIS is what G-d wants us to do.

Amen.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 8/3/17:

In the aftermath of the bleakest day of the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, we look for comfort. That is the theme of the haftara starting with that word, comfort, nachamu, and then repeating it, we are told by Isaiah to feel comfort. Is it that easy to feel comforted that all we need to be told is to feel that way?

Varied responses can be found in the Torah reading.

For one example, the Torah teaches the power of saying the Shma. A part of the Shma is the command which follows, v’ahavta, and you shall love. How do you love? You love by doing, not by feeling. Sure, love starts with a feeling but without tangible evidence, is it truly love? Faith has little to do with this religion. It is all about translating what happens in the heart to the hands. We love God by expressing that love demonstrably.

Furthermore, love acted upon is love felt internally. Emotion translated into motions of the feet, tongue and hands is felt at least in equal measure in return. Perhaps part of the idea of comfort is reflected by what we do to feel the embrace of forgiveness and comfort.

A great luminary and founder of the Hasidic movement was known to have devoted his early years to educating children. The Baal Shem Tov was a helper to a teacher. He devoted these nascent years of his life to teaching the foundation of Jewish prayer to tots. Beginning with the modeh ani, the Baal Shem Tov sought to instill the idea of holiness from a young age.

The Baal Shem understood that the greatest thing of life is simple thanks, another way of expressing and feeling love.

In the Talmud 1 Rabbi Simlai reacts to Moses wanting to enter into Israel. Told he would be barred entry, Moses contested the Divine decree and argued with God to go to Israel. Why would Moses actually argue this point with God? What did Moses want?

Moses debated with God about entering into Israel because many commandments relate solely to the Land and could only be fulfilled there. Moses wanted to do more.

To compound the gravity of his complaint, remember that this request of Moses takes place forty years after the Exodus from slavery! After all the events of the past - the golden calf, the bitter waters, the disappointment of the people with their food, the rebellion of Korah and much more - Moses has not lost hope or desire for doing more mitzvot. Moses understands the most vital secret of life: Do not give up!

Rabbi B. Melchior describes the tradition that if the Jews would only keep two Shabbatot, God would unleash the anointed one, the Messiah. Further tradition states that the two Shabbatot are specific, Hazon and Nachamu, last week and this week.

Melchior quotes hearing a student provide his understanding of why those two weeks are the pivotal ones to observe. If you can withstand the tragedy of pain, if you can look at the breadth of laws that Judaism contains, if you can accept what is difficult for you and still remain faithful on the next Shabbat there will be the final and absolute consolation of the Messiah.

Love keeps hope and trust alive.

Shabbat Shalom

 

From the Weekly e-blast 7/27/17:

Tisha B’av is here, Monday evening and all day Tuesday of next week, but for most people in the contemporary Jewish community it will pass unnoticed and unacknowledged.  It’s the most unlucky holiday: because it falls in the summer, the only people who seem to observe this day of fasting and mourning with enthusiasm are young people who attend Jewish summer camps. Imagine what Jewish life would be like if Passover fell in the middle of the summer and Tisha B’av was in the spring!

Of course, there are arguments to be made for downplaying the observance of this day of mourning and sorrow. With thousands of Jews traveling to Israel, it is hard to wrap our minds around the destruction of the Temple or even the exile of the Jewish people from Spain. Sure we can stand at the kotel and witness the ruins of the Temple but what we also witness is a vibrant Jewish community coming to pray from all corners of the world.  Do we really think of ourselves as living in exile? We are the Jewish Diaspora, not the exile forced to leave our land and pining away for Jerusalem.

So what do we do with Tisha B’av? Why should we observe it today?

I’d like to offer several reasons why I believe we need to observe Tisha B’av today. Whatever the theological truths of Tisha B’av may be, we cannot deny the historical truths of this day of sorrow. Jews have suffered throughout the ages and we can no more forget this fact than we can forget who our parents are. With that in mind, let me suggest several reasons why we need Tisha B’av now more than ever.

1) We need Tisha B’av today because Jews have still not learned to love one another enough. The Talmud is very clear about this. The second temple was destroyed not because of idolatry or bloodshed, but because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred, between Jews. When we hate one another, when Jews defame one another, we threaten our very existence. Tisha B’av, then, is a warning. As Rav Kook taught, redemption will come not when one truth or another prevails but when Jews learn to show one another "ahavat chinam", complete and unconditional love.

2) We need Tisha B’av because we are no less vulnerable today than we were 2000 years ago. At a time in history when terrorists can fly a jet plane into The World Trade Center, there is no way that we can see ourselves as safe from the dangers of zealotry and hatred. That’s not to say that we have to live in a state of panic and fear, but neither should we let our guard down, nor should we assume that everything will be OK.

3) We need Tisha B’av because it’s just as important to learn how to cry as it is to know how to laugh and celebrate. Sorrow is a part of life and no one is immune from tragedy. Tisha B’av is an opportunity for us to learn how to mourn, how to share our tears, and how to express our vulnerability with one another On Tisha B’av we allow ourselves to cry.

4) We need Tisha B’av today because history is made up of both triumphs and failures, and we need to acknowledge both. As Jews we have much to be proud of. But it is more important for us to understand why we have failed and what we can learn from our past. In fact, I would argue that there are no failures – only lessons to be learned that can help us address the future.

5) We need Tisha B’av today because we need to remind ourselves that Jerusalem is the heart and soul of Jewish life. Tisha B’av is a powerful reminder to us that Jews never forgot their land and that Jerusalem was never far from the consciousness of the Jewish people. Whether it was breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding or saying, “Next year in Jerusalem,” on the night of the Passover Seder, we have survived because Jerusalem has always been our home and our heart.

6) Finally, we need Tisha B’av because it is a powerful reminder that we are interconnected as a people.  We gather together on this day not as individuals but as a community. We feel each other’s pain, and we are reminded that when a Jew suffers in one part of the world, his or her anguish is shared by Jews in every other part of the world.

 

Tisha B’av is not about being victims. Just the opposite; if we were, in some way, responsible for the destruction of the Temple, then we also have the power and potential to rebuild it. And if we can rebuild our Temple, then we can rebuild the world as well.

 

Monday evening July 31st with services at 830 pm, as we observe Tisha B’av, let us consider how our actions make a difference. Each word, each act of kindness, each act of devotion makes a difference in the world. Let us remember the words of the psalms: “We may plant with tears but in the end we will reap with joy.”

 

May Tisha B’av teach us to renew our resolve to rebuild and renew our world. Shabbat Shalom

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 7/20/17:

Perhaps the bane of any parent's existence is that dreadful, horrible, incessant, annoying thing children do called whining. Several years ago, this dreaded whining was incorporated as a character trait in a cartoon figure that became the role model for some  children.

Bart Simpson, who coined the phrase "Don't have a cow, man" seems to plod through life avoiding every challenge and every responsibility placed before him. If there's homework to be done, he avoids it. If there are chores to done, he escapes on his skateboard. And if somebody is in need, he's the first to cross the street and walk in the opposite direction. It would be one thing if Bart Simpson were a lone character in world's corpus of literature. Instead, literature is rife with examples of the Bart Simpson type.

As you might have guessed, Bart Simpson finds his emotional ancestors in our very Torah. Think back to the incident when Moses decides to send Joshua and Caleb along with ten additional men to scout out the Promised Land. When they come back bearing on their staff the enormous fruit that comes from the land, the initial reports are filled with how the land is a goodly land, one that is flowing with milk and honey. However, one of the ten scouts begins to say "yes, but...it may be flowing with milk and honey but the inhabitants are so big that we look like grasshoppers compared to them." It would be easy to imagine Bart Simpson as one of those scouts whining and fussing, saying "why bother going into a promised land when we'd have to fight big, burly guys in order to get this land. Let's just stay here."  And it is just Joshua  and Calev who speak up to allay the fears of the crowd overhearing this report from this scout, and soon from the other nine.

Now we turn to this week's parashah: the final chapters of the Book of Numbers. Moses is arranging the troops to take over the Promised Land and all of a sudden there's a knock on his office door and the head of the clan of Reuben and head of the clan of Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe, are asking for a special appointment. They enter Moses’ headquarters and they begin to explain that they're just simple farmers and shepherds and where they are currently residing, provides sufficient sustenance for their sheep and goats. Why, then, they ask, should they have to go across the Jordan in order to fight. They're happy as they can be just staying where they are and if Moses wants to carry on his campaign, he can just figure a way to get along without them.  These are lines that could easily have been spoken by Bart himself.  One could almost hear him say to Moses, "Moses, buddy, don't have a cow... You want to fight, go fight. But leave us alone." Moses becomes enraged. He reminds them that they have a responsibility to the entire community and that they have no right to exempt themselves from their responsibility to the community of Israel.

Finally, after much bargaining a deal is struck and the Reubenites and the Gadites and Menashites  are offered to keep the land that they're in so long as they cross the Jordan as shock troops and work with the rest of their Israelite brothers and sisters in battle until the Promised Land is won. Only after they fulfilled their commitment — complete with the positive result if they fulfilled their part of the bargain and an articulation of the consequences should they renege ~ would they, in the words of the text, "be clear in the sight of the Eternal."

How many times in the face of adversity is there a bit of Bart Simpson in each one of us?  How many times have we confronted a challenging situation and said, "I feel like a grasshopper compared to those around me. I can't do it." Or, "Things are fine for me. Why should I stick my neck out?" It is not unnatural to have these feelings. What is unnatural, at least from a Jewish point of view, is to let them take over, for in doing so, we each become a little more like Bart Simpson. Bart would shrink in the face of adversity and yet Moses commands that we recognize our responsibility and as we see in the words of our text, it is only when we face up to our responsibilities — not only to ourselves but to our community as well — that we can truly live a good life and "be clear in the eyes of the Eternal."

Perhaps that's why whining annoys parents around the world. The whining reminds us of that little bit of Bart inside each of us. Being parents, we recognize our obligations to those around us, and we try to suppress those urges to whine. And anyway, if we did, nobody wants to listen to us whine. Instead we must remember the words we heard today and remember that we will only “be clear in the eyes of the eternal” when we do our part. 

Shabbat Shalom

 

From the Weekly e-blast 7/13/17:

"Let the Lord, Source of breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd."  (Numbers 27:16-17)

The time has come to choose a leader to take over for Moses.  The first thought would be - why not Pinchas?  After all, the portion is named after him.  Pinchas, in a moment of zeal, kills the ringleaders of an orgy that threatened to undermine the very purpose of the people Israel.  God rewards him with a Covenant of Peace, Berit Shalom.  Certainly Pinchas is a man who shows passion.  And yet passion alone is not enough to choose a leader.  That passion must be tempered by wisdom.

God picks out a leader for Moses to appoint by laying hands on him.  The new leader, the man who will take the Israelites into the Promised Land, will be Joshua the son of Nun.  What qualities did Joshua have to cause God to choose him?  (I would like to give credit to Rabbi Hayyim Angel and his article Moonlit Leadership: A Midrashic Reading of Joshua's Success for many of the ideas in this message.)

Joshua has been by Moses side on Mt. Sinai and through the years of wandering.  He certainly shares in Moses' wisdom.  And yet he had also has made mistakes along the way.  Twice he had misunderstood what God wanted, including misinterpreting the events of the Golden Calf.  In the incident of the spies, he did speak out in favor of conquering the land.  But he spoke only after Caleb spoke first, perhaps waiting to see which way the wind would blow before committing.  Like most leaders Joshua was far from perfect.

Nonetheless, Joshua seems to have a quality that eluded Moses.  Through the years of wandering in the desert the people constantly rebelled against Moses.  Through the years of conquest of the land there were no rebellions against Joshua.  Joshua somehow earned the trust of the people, something a successful leader needs.  Why?

The Torah teaches that when Moses lays his hands on Joshua, passing on the mantle of leadership, he only passes on part of his glory.  God says to Moses, "Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey."  (Numbers 27:20)  Why some and not all of Moses majesty. The Talmud takes off on this passage with a fascinating insight.  "The face of Moses was like that of the sun; the face of Joshua was like that of the moon."  (Baba Batra 75a)  That is why Rabbi Angel called his article Moonlit Leadership.

What is the difference between the sun and the moon?   The Hasidic Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger wrote, "Unlike the sun which dominates the sky, the moon allows other heavenly bodies to shine."  Moses who had seen God face-to-face was an overwhelming presence.  Joshua knew that true leadership means not overwhelming others, but allowing others to step forward and share in the glory.  The true leader is the one who can share leadership, and in so doing, can help others also become leaders.  Like the moon in the sky, a true leader does not dominate but is able to delegate and share the glory.  It was this aspect of Joshua's personality that allowed him to conquer the land with a minimum of controversy.

One of the most difficult tasks for anybody in a position of leadership is learning to pass the torch to someone new.  What should one look for in a leader?  The passion of Pinchas is important, but leadership must include more than passion.  The wisdom of Joshua, who learned Torah next to Moses, is vital.  But perhaps the insight that the Talmud and the Gerer Rebbe want to share is that the best leaders are those who do not try to dominate, but who are willing to share the leadership.  True leaders help others become leaders.

Shabbat Shalom

 

From the Weekly e-blast 3/9/17:

Thoughts from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL):

This is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, on which we read the passage from Deuteronomy that calls on us to remember how Amalek attacked the Israelites in the desert, “he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” This cowardly act of violence and hatred came to be emblematic in our tradition for the blind hatred of Jews, whether by Pharaoh, Amalek, Haman, Chmielnicki, or Hitler. We are the people who remember—we remember all that God has done to keep us alive, sustain us and bring us to this day (as we say in the she-hechiyanu) and we remember all those who have sought to destroy us. Regrettably, it seems that, as the Passover hagaddah states, in each and every generation, they rise against us to eliminate us. It is a sobering fact of our history. • It is this context, then, that the recent spate of bomb threats and vandalism against synagogues as well as the unleashing of anti-Semitism during the presidential campaign has so shaken the Jewish community. And so I want to take time this week to address this directly.

• It is essential to recognize that, for both positive and negative reasons –we are not alone. The Jewish community is not alone in being a target for hateful acts. In the last few weeks, several mosques have been set on fire, two Indian men were attacked in a bar; one was killed. Reports of hate crimes and hate incidents have risen significantly, and while the number of attacks on Jewish institutions since the beginning of 2017 has been unprecedented, we should not forget that many of our neighbors have been targeted as well.

 

• At the same time, we are not alone because the outpouring of support and sympathy has been overwhelming. Christian, Muslim and other religious leaders, and other individuals have spoken out, reached out and showed up to express their revulsion for these heinous actions and their solidarity with us. Government officials have denounced the attacks, called for more protection and even introduced legislation to address anti-Semitism. Law enforcement, from the local to the national level is treating this with the utmost seriousness. So we are not alone, and it is incumbent upon us to make sure that our neighbors who are similarly targeted know that we stand with them as well.

 

An essential question for us is what should we do?

• First, we must be vigilant. We must recognize that it can happen here and that we must prepared. To that end, over the past several years, our synagogue has stepped up our security and our Executive Director, Adam Kofinas is regularly in touch with the JFGA, local law enforcement, and our local representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, so that we are as prepared as we can be in the event of an attack.

• Second, we need to help those in our community, especially our children, understand what is going on around them. We must reassure them of their safety. In this regard, the ADL has excellent materials for parents and teachers about how to talk to children about hate and violence, including: Tips for Talking with Your Children about Threats to Jewish Institutions which can be found here.

• We also must maintain our perspective. While anti-Semitic incidents are certainly on the rise, there is no evidence that anti-Semitism itself is growing in this country. Studies show that the number of those in the Unites States who hold anti-Semitic ideas has not changed significantly. What we are seeing, therefore, represents the emboldening of that subgroup of anti-Semites who see in the current climate an opportunity to act on their hatred. We must—and are—taking this seriously, but we should not assume that Americans in general are turning against the Jews; that is simply not the case.

• Beside taking necessary precautions and reassuring our children, the most important thing we can do is not give in and not be cowed. As a community and a country we must join together with our neighbors—with the beautiful diversity out of which our unity is formed—to respond with a resounding “no” to the voices of hatred and division.

• We as Jews must demonstrate zero tolerance for hatred and bigotry not only against us, but against any group in our community or nation who is threatened. As our neighbors has spoken out, reached out and shown up, we must do the same. We must support those who have been harmed, hold our elected officials accountable, and send a message Americans reject and will not accept that targeting of that diversity which is our cornerstone and our strength.

• Two thousand years ago, Hillel said words that almost become a cliché in the Jewish community, but they are as true and as powerful today as they ever have been.

If am I not for myself who will be for me; as Jews, we have both the obligation and the right to protect ourselves, our children and our institutions from those who wish to harm us. We do this because it is in our own best interest and to demonstrate that neither the Jewish community nor anyone else should accept this state of affairs.

But if am only for myself, what am I? At the same time, our fate is inexorably tied to that of every minority group in our country, all those who are marginalized, demonized, and told that they do not belong. This is not just a Jewish problem—it is an American problem. And we should extend our hands, our voices, our political power, to reclaim the moral high ground, to show to ourselves and to the world what true American values are and how true American patriots act.  

And if not now, when? We have learned that hard way that we simply cannot ignore the cancer of bigotry, hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and totalitarianism. I am concerned that many of us are fatigued by the whiplash of what has been going on in our country over the past few months. But we ignore it, we retreat into our comfortable cocoons, at our own peril. Now is the time to speak up, to join up, and to show up.

The reason we are commanded to remember Amalek is not so that we can wallow in the tragedies of the past. Rather, it serves to remind us that our world is not yet redeemed and that, until such time, we must be vigilant and brave for our own protection and for the protection of all those who’s right to live in freedom and peace is threatened.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 2/2/17:

Super Bowl Sunday-The Winter Seder!!!

"You shall explain to your children on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt."  (Exodus 13:8)

This week's portion introduces the laws of Passover, the annual celebration of the exodus from Egypt.  And at the center of Passover is the seder - the formal ritualized meal built around the haggadah.  The word "haggadah" is key; it means telling.  The central goal of the seder is for parents to tell children the story of the exodus - we were slaves and now we are free.

This idea is so important that three times in this week's portion of Bo it speaks of a father telling his son.  (The Torah tends to use male language.)  To make sure we get the point, the Torah mentions the law a fourth time in Deuteronomy.  Why does the Torah need to repeat four times a single law, parents should tell the story to their children?  The haggadah gives an answer.  The Torah repeats it four times because there are four kinds of children. Some children are wise and want to learn it all.  Some children are rebellious and do not want to be there at all.  Some children are simple and can only ask the most basic questions.  Some children cannot ask any questions at all.  And some children are each of these at some point in their lives.

I want to suggest that there is another type of seder called Super Bowl Sunday and this year it is especially exciting with our Falcons. Though my father was not a football fan, super bowl Sunday was a time for family. I could never tell who we were going to cheer for, unless of course it was a New York team playing. We sat, we screamed, we ate and drank; mom told us to quiet down. We especially enjoyed the commercials and halftime show, that’s when mom would actually sit with us in front of the TV. By the way, I’m not so sure the halftime shows are appropriate for our kids anymore, but that’s a decision each family has to make. We also asked questions of our parents questions such as what kind of games did you play in Yugoslavia? Did you have equipment to play soccer? What fields did you play on? Did your parents watch you play? Can we stay up late tonight to watch the whole game and the interviews after? Do we have to go to school tomorrow? Many questions, some silly, but all in the context of seder-family dynamics.

As some of you know I got a chance to shake Matt Ryan’s hand a couple of weeks ago before the Falcons played Green Bay. I was delivering something to someone who lives in the same building as Matt. I wished him well, said Shabbat Shalom and he responded with a couple Hebrew words that he must have learned sometime in his life. That went pretty well for him and us didn’t it? By the way, I did try to hang around last week to do the same blessing but I think Matty Ice had gone by then. You think I should have put out a tent and stayed there 24/6? I agree.

Studies have shown that championship teams help unify cities in many ways. People are just happier and take tremendous pride in their team. So, in that spirit Let’s Go Falcons! Rise Up team! We are behind y’all. We’ll be at our winter seder Sunday night looking for a long awaited championship to celebrate in our city. Hashem-just a short question to you. Haven’t the Patriots won enough? Just sayin.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

From the Weekly e-blast 1/26/17:

"I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name `Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey'."  (Exodus 6:3)

William Shakespeare wrote in his play Romeo and Juliet, "What's in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word, would smell as sweet."   Juliet is telling Romeo that names do not matter, changing a name does not change who a person is. 

Names matter.  The number one question people ask me as a rabbi is how to find the right name for their newborn.  Often I get involved in complex family quarrels about names.   The Bible itself often changes the names of major personalities - Abraham, Sarah, Israel, Joshua.  I come from a tradition that teaches that names reflect who we are.

G-d also has a name, which is first introduced in this portion.  The name is spelled with the four Hebrew letters yud, hey, vav, hey.  The name is unpronounceable.  Various attempts to pronounce G-d's name, for example Jehovah, are considered improper by Jewish tradition.  The next time a group of Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door, ask them why they are trying to pronounce G-d's unpronounceable name.  In Jewish tradition, the name was only pronounced one time a year - on Yom Kippur, in one place - the Holy of Holies, by one person - the High Priest.  In S. Ansky's play The Dybbuk, there is a scene which speaks of the holiest man in the world on the holiest day in the calendar at the holiest place on earth pronouncing the holiest word in the Hebrew language.  When these four holinesses come together, one wrong thought could destroy the entire world.

In our common, everyday life, we do not pronounce G-d's name.  When we pray, we say Adonai - My Lord.  When we talk, we say HaShem - the Name.  We try to avoid writing G-d's name.  A manuscript or parchment that contains G-d's Hebrew name cannot be destroyed, it must be buried.  (By the way, this rule does not apply to the English word "G-d."  There is no requirement to write "G-d.")  Every effort is made not to take G-d's name in vain.

What do the letters in G-d's name mean?  The letters come from the Hebrew root for "to be."  On the most basic level, they mean that G-d is - G-d exists.  G-d is a being.  This creates many interesting philosophical problems.  Long ago Maimonides taught that the phrase "G-d exists" is not the same as the phrase "that tree exists."  We cannot use the term existence as it relates to G-d.  To use some technical language, everything that exists in this world is contingent, it could exist or it could not exist.  But G-d is not contingent; G-d is necessary.  If we posit G-d, then G-d has to exist.

Allow me to suggest a different understanding of what G-d's name means.  It is not simply "being."  In last week's portion, G-d called G-d's self Aheye Asher Aheye, "I will be Who I will be."  This suggests a much more dynamic understanding of G-d.   Rather than being, G-d is becoming.  G-d is always in process.  This seems to be the G-d of the Bible.  G-d is affected by what happens in the world.  G-d seems to flow, interacting with the human beings G-d has created.

Long ago Aristotle called G-d the "unmoved mover."  He envisioned a G-d unaffected by what happens to G-d's creation.  In response, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called G-d the "most moved mover."  G-d is a G-d of becoming, affected by everything we do.  It is a beautiful image, fitting with the notion of covenant.  Not only did G-d create us, but what we do has the potential of creating G-d. 

When we make choices in life, what would happen if we believed every choice we make will affect our Creator?  We would consider our choices more carefully.  Perhaps G-d's name hints at a dynamic G-d, ever influenced by the actions of us humans.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

From the Weekly e-blast 12/22/16:

Hannukah Sameah

"They took him and cast him into the pit.  The pit was empty; there was no water in it." (Genesis 37:24)

Here is the comment of Rashi after Joseph is thrown into an empty pit.  "There was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions."  (Rashi on Genesis 37:24)  We can see what is not there, or we can see what is there.  We can see the cup as half empty or we can see the cup as half full.  Our attitude towards life makes all the difference.

I think about the life of Joseph, so full of ups and downs.  At the beginning of this portion he is showing of the proof that he is his father's favorite son, wearing his Coat of Many Colors (literally a "cloak of stripes").  He is on top of the world.  Then he is thrown into an empty pit, without water but with snakes and scorpions.  Next he is sold as a slave to Egypt where he becomes the chief servant of an Egyptian nobleman, so handsome that he catches the eye of the nobleman's wife.  Then he is back in the pit, forgotten in jail in Egypt.  In next week's portion he will be raised up again, becoming the second most powerful man in Egypt.  The story of Joseph's life reflects Frank Sinatra's classic song “That's Life” - "You're riding high in April, shot down in May. But I know I am going to change that tune, when I am back on top in June."

Life is filled with ups and downs, bad times and good times.  It is much easier to deal with the vicissitudes of life if we consider that neither good times nor bad times will last forever.  It is helpful if we look at life with the attitude that the cup is half full rather than half empty.  I have often mentioned to people that they should place in their pocket the saying "This too shall pass."  When things are really good, look at it and try to embrace the moment.  Such moments do not last forever.  When things are really bad, look at it and remember that better times will come.

The entire idea is probably best expressed in a classic Taoist tale.  A man owns a single horse, until one day the horse escapes.  His neighbors come by to comfort him for his bad fortune, and he replies, "What makes you think it is bad?"  Shortly afterwards, the horse returns with several wild horses, which enter the man's corral.  The neighbors come by to congratulate him on his good fortune.  The man replies, "What makes you think it is good?"

Shortly afterwards the man's son tries to train one of the wild horses, falls off and breaks his leg.  The neighbors come by to comfort him for his bad fortune, and he replies, "What makes you think it is bad?"  Then a military official comes by to conscript men into the army, but they leave the man's son alone because of his broken leg.  The neighbor's come by to congratulate him on his good fortune.  Again the man replies, "What makes you think it is good?"

Life is bad and life is good.  Sometimes you see no birds and sometimes you see an alligator.  Sometimes you are thrown into a pit and sometimes you are on top of the world.  In the end, attitude is everything.

The Maccabees had this attitude when they found just a little oil for the Temple Candelabra. It was more than half empty but with the Lord’s help the miracle of 8 days ensued.

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 11/17/16:

SARAH’S SACRIFICE

Achar HaDevarim haAyleh VaHaelokim Nisah et Sarah. Vayomer aylehah: Sahrah, VaTomer Henaynee. Vayomer el Sahrah: K’chee nah et b’naych, et y’cheedaych, asher ahavt, et Yitzchark V’l’chee Lach el eretz HamoriahV’ha’aleehee l’olah. Some time afterward, God put Sarah to the test. He said to her: “Sarah” and she answered, “Here I am.” And He said: “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point to you.”

And Sarah said: Did I hear you right? You want me to take my only son; the son of my old age and offer him up as a sacrifice? What kind of God are you? You were willing to save all of wicked Sodom for the sake of a minyan’s worth of righteous individuals and now you want me who has been faithful to you all these years to part with my only son. Forget it.

Look what I’ve endured over the years. I had to wait until I was 90 to have my own child. Do you know how hard it was to be pregnant at that age? Yeah, a miracle; right; but you didn’t make the pregnancy any easier, did you?

And God said to Sarah: Because you have shown me your faith all these years; because you have endured so much, I shall repent of my actions. You have stood your ground before Me. And this will be the sign that you have passed my test. Through your son’s children you will be ever blessed. And when they speak of Me, they will speak of the God of Sarah along with the God of Abraham. And each year on the anniversary of this moment, a ram’s horn will be sounded to remind one and all of your deed.

And Sarah lived to a ripe old age; she saw children’s children and their children before she was buried in the Cave of Machpelah. And to the present day, on the first day of the seventh month, the story of Sarah and God is read and we sound the shofar as a reminder to summon us to challenge injustice whether on earth or in heaven.

I am sure that you recognize that I have played with the Biblical story. But my re-framing the story should help us to confront the fact that the text as we have is a difficult one. Sarah is shut out of the story. Professor Phyllis Trible, the distinguished Bible scholar, entitled her analysis of the Akedah story, of chapter 22 of Genesis, as “The Sacrifice of Sarah.” 

The key here is Abraham’s silence. God had shared with him concerns about Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham stood and bartered with God for their survival. Here his only remaining son is to be offered up; his future is literally about to go up in smoke on an altar and all we see is Abraham dutifully obeying God’s command, without uttering a word! And when challenged by his son Isaac about what the sacrifice is to be, he responds disingenuously, “God will show us the lamb, my son.”

Perhaps the consequence of not asking Sarah, of Abraham’s failure to engage in discussion with her over this critical command affecting their son Isaac is that when Abraham returns home, he returns to discover that Sarah is dead. She dies out of grief and heartbreak, there is nothing to live for if Abraham won’t speak to her about the fate of their son. If we consider the Akedah a test of Abraham, then might we not consider Sarah’s death his punishment?

I would like to conclude with these questions. The binding of Isaac is a complex tale embedded in less than twenty verses. Whose sacrifice was it? And who passed the test?

The story of interpretation is far from complete and ongoing and it is our duty to continue to wrestle with these and other questions.

Shabbat Shalom.

I dedicate these words of Torah to the memory of Bernie Russo and Darlene Resnick Thompson Andrews who passed away this past week. May they rest in peace and may their families find comfort in the many memories of their worthy lives. Amen.

 

From the Weekly e-blast 11/10/16:

Shabbat Shalom-I hope you will join your fellow congregants this Shabbat when we will have some post-election thoughts and prayers.

In Honor of Veterans Day

Almighty God, we  honor the beloved veterans of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, brave men and women who have fought valiantly to defend our freedoms and to preserve our liberties. We are humbled by their commitment, their patriotism and their courage. We are inspired by their selfless sacrifices and their indomitable spirit.

Please God, grant our veterans strength and support so that they may continue to serve as examples of true heroism for us and for our children. Heal those who have been wounded physically or emotionally and comfort those who have suffered loss. Bless the faithful and devoted families of our veterans with good health and success; watch over them and protect them always.

As for the citizens of this great Nation, implant in our hearts wisdom, discernment and compassion, so that we may acknowledge and appreciate all that we have received from our veterans and so that we pay fitting tribute to their service. May we be ever mindful of our obligation to treat them with the full measure of respect to which their deeds have entitled them. Let us never take our lives, our freedoms or our civil rights for granted.

As for our active servicemen and women, wherever they may be - on land, in the air or at sea - protect them, shield them, and bring them home to their families speedily and unharmed. Let their battles for the sake of human dignity, justice and democracy be victorious, and may their principled and noble conduct illuminate our world and enlighten its inhabitants.

As for those revered men and women who have lost their lives in service to our country, bless their souls and their memories forever. Preserve their names, their families and the legacy of their heroism for generations to come. Console the bereaved - parents, spouses, siblings and children left behind - who continue to mourn their absence.

We seek not war but peace, not discord, but harmony and brotherhood. Creator of the Universe Who makes Peace on High, do not let the sacrifices of our veterans be in vain. Help the United States of America to lead its fellow nations in the quest for true and lasting peace on Earth, and may we be fortunate enough to witness the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

May this be the will of God Amen.

City of Rockville, MD invocation for Veterans Day 2012

From the Weekly e-blast 10/27/16:

PAGE ONE PERASHAT BERESHITH-QUESTIONS!

The opening chapters of Perashat Bereshith are among the most significant passages in the entire Bible. More pages of commentary have been written about the two accounts of creation than about any other passage in all of Biblical literature. As a student of great literature knows, a good author will set the tone of his work in its opening passages. Perashat Bereshith is crucial to the rest of the Bible because it deals with the rest of the Bible’s attitude towards creation, the nature of a man, and the existence of God. The story of creation attempts to describe not only the origin of the physical universe, but also the foundation of moral and physical order in the world.

 1.        Unlike the remainder of the Torah, the first eleven chapters of Genesis deal with universal history rather than the history of the children of Israel. From Talmudic times onward, Jewish commentators on the Bible have puzzled over this fact. Why does the Torah begin with creation rather than with Abraham? What do the stories of creation and of man’s downfall imply about God’s decision to choose Abraham and his offspring as His own special nation?

2.         Chapters one and two of Parshat Bereshith contains two different accounts of how the world was created. In what way are these two accounts different from one another, both in their detail and in the ideas that they convey to the reader? In chapter one, man is the final element in creation, while man is apparently created first in the second chapter of Genesis. What attitudes are implied about man’s relationship to the world in these two accounts of his creation?

3.         Upon realizing that they had disobeyed God’s command, Adam and Eve quickly hid themselves among the bushes and trees in the Garden of Eden. This act of hiding from God, who is omnipresent, is one of the most striking images in the entire book of Genesis (See Chapter 3, Verses 8-13). In what ways do we continue to hide ourselves from God presence through our actions and our attitudes? What are the most common forms of self-deception that we use in our daily life?

4.         Eli Wiesel, of blessed memory, has argued that Abel is the first example of a victim of genocide in the history of mankind. If he is correct in this assumption, then is it fair to say that Cain was the first perpetrator of a holocaust? In what ways is Cain’s personality similar to and different from that of the Nazi war criminals? (Read Chapter 4, Verses 5-9). Cain’s act of violence against his brother is a reaction to his own anger. At whom is Cain really angry: at Abel or at God? Questions to think about as we begin to study the Torah anew again.

Shabbat Shalom

 

From the Weekly e-blast of 10/20/16:

As the High-Holiday season concludes I wanted to bring to your attention some important Holidays that remain to be observed.

This Shabbat the 22nd of October and the 5th day of Succot known as Hol Hamoed. In my address on Shabbat I shall be discussing the last few lines of the Torah, Moses’ death as well as the first few lines of Beresheeth, Adam’s birth. I think you will find it interesting.

Sunday the 23rd is Hoshaana Rabah traditionally known as the day when we are signed and sealed in the book of Life, Amen. We also circle the Torah 7 times. Service will begin at 8 am and the tunes remind us a bit of Yom Hakippurim.

Monday the 24th is Shemini Atzeret, a Yom Tov connected to Succot, and yet it’s a Holiday which stands alone. Because it is the last day of the Festival of Succot, we will recite Yizkor as part of the morning services. Services begin at 845 am and Yizkor is approximately 1030 am.

Monday night is Simhat Torah! Bring your children and grandchildren to a joyous service showing our love for the Torah. Children get chocolate bars and adults try to haggle to get one or two as well! We might unfurl an entire Torah around the Sanctuary as we have in the past-what a sight that is!

The next day is Simhat Torah when everyone receives an Aliyah and we honor the Hatanim-Grooms of the Torah, Michael Bouhadana and Maurice Cohen. Mazal Tov to their families as well.

I sincerely hope that this year’s High Holidays have brought a meaningful spirit and spirituality to your lives. We pray that Al-mighty G-d grant us a year of Haim Tovim and Shalom, a year of good health and peace throughout the world. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim Lesimhah-Hag Sameach

 

From the Weekly e-blast 10/13/16:

SUKKOT-THE DAY AFTER

The major holiday after Yom Kippur is, of course, Shabbat, Shabbat Perashat Haazinu, next to the last Perasha in the Torah. Beginning Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday we shall be observing Sukkot. Allow me, please, to share a few thoughts about this important historical and biblical holiday. Here is the verse in the Torah commanding us about the mitzvah of Sukkot (Lev. 23:42-3): BaSukot teyshvu shivat yamim…l’maan yeyd’u doroteychem ki vaSukot hoshavti et B’ney Yisrael b’hotzeyti otam meyEretz Mitzrayim, Ani Hashem Elokeychem, “You shall dwell in Sukkot…so that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I took them from the land of Egypt, I am Hashem, your G-d.”

Now when should the date of Sukkot be? It stands to reason that it should be celebrated in the spring—right after the holiday of Pesach when we left Egypt. However, the Torah in other verses designates it to be celebrated in the fall. The Talmud explains that celebrating it in the spring—living in a Sukkah in the spring—would not be anything special because it is pretty common for people to camp out in the spring when it is warm. In Israel in pre-air-conditioning Talmudic times, people often slept on their roofs because their houses were too warm after absorbing the heat of the sun. After Yom Kippur, however, when it starts to get cold, people generally tend to take shelter inside. We go outside only because G-d commands us to.

The other major mitzvah that G-d commands us to perform is the 4 species of the etrog and lulav. These 4 plants are clearly a return to nature and the lesson of how nature supports us in our holy efforts. The sages teach us that each is symbolic of a different part of the body—the etrog is symbolic of the heart; the lulav the spine; the myrtle the eyes; and the willow the lips—teaching us that we must serve G-d with all of our body. The sages also teach us that the 4 species are symbolic of different kinds of Jews in that each has a different combination of the properties of taste and smell—symbolizing different levels of knowledge and observance. When we bless them we must hold them together, emphasizing for us that all Jews are important—all Jews must be one, regardless of their level of knowledge or observance.

From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur we lived in our heads. Now using these physical plants as a path to holiness, teaches us in the most obvious way, that we need to live in the physical world as well. Therefore we embrace the 4 species, and in turn, feel embraced by the natural setting of the Sukkah—shaded during the day by its roof made of foliage and watching the stars overhead at night.

According to Kabbalah, the Sukkah has the ambience of the Garden of Eden, where humanity lived in complete harmony with nature and where all our physical needs were naturally provided for without “the sweat of our brow.” This is because the lesson of the Sukkah is that our strong houses can’t protect us. The only really source of protection and providing for our needs is G-d.

The fasting on Yom Kippur prepares us for the feasting on Sukkot. Abstaining from the physical pleasures of this world on Yom Kippur is meant to heal us from the sickness of overindulgence. But, once we take control of ourselves, we are free to enjoy the pleasures of this world on Sukkot.

On Yom Kippur we leave this world and experience union with G-d by transcending nature and abstaining from physical pleasures. However, on Sukkot we experience union with G-d through nature and through physical pleasures. And this completes the journey of holiness.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim Le’simhah!

 

From the Weekly e-blast 10/6/16:

Shabbat Shuva- From one of my teachers, Rabbi Avi Weiss

Yom Kippur Is Also A Time To Confess Our Good

An alternative approach to Yom Kippur sees the day as joyous. The Jerusalem Talmud puts it this way:

Said Rabbi Abahu: the way of the world is that when one comes to be judged, one wears black clothes, and allows his beard to grow long and unkempt, concerned about the outcome of his case. This is not the case concerning the People of Israel. The Book of Life and Death are before us, who will live and who will die. And yet, we wear white, we wrap ourselves in white garments, we trim our beards and we believe that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will act kindly towards us. (Rosh Hashanah 1:3)

The 13th-century commentator Rabbeinu Yonah adds that the final meal before the fast is viewed as a festive meal. In his words: On holidays, we joyously partake in meals. Bearing in mind, however, that on Yom Kippur we fast, the law was established that we eat sumptuously beforehand. As we approach Yom Kippur, we eat a hearty meal, full of optimism, belief and joy.

This is a remarkable commentary. We can always do better. But, reminding ourselves of what we’ve done well builds self-confidence, which is critical to belief in one’s ability to do and accomplish for oneself, for Am Yisrael and for the world.

Inspired by this approach, we may consider an opposite recitation of Ashamnu, the confession, focusing on the good we’ve done. It, too, can be listed following the order of the Hebrew alphabet.

We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.

We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically.

We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth, We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,

We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred.

We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel, been merciful, we have given full effort.

We have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.

Perhaps everyone should consider reflecting upon his or her good attributes by writing out a personal Ahavnu in English or Hebrew alphabetical order. With all of our challenges, there is so much to be proud of. Yes, Yom Kippur is a solemn day. It is a day of self-reflection. But it is also an “up” day. It is a day to combine tears, worries and regrets with smiles, confidence and a humble but positive sense of accomplishment.  

Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful and easy fast on Yom Hakippurim.

 

From the Weekly e-blast 9/29/16:

Congregational Prayer at the High Holidays
G-d of Old,
Bless our holy congregation,
Kehillat Or Ve Shalom
During these days of awe,
These days of judgment,
These days of forgiveness.
We are Your servants,
Men, women and children,
Old and young,
Lovers of Torah,
The strong and the infirm,
Teachers and students,
Lovers of Your way,
Beautiful in our imperfection,
Doing Your will when joy surrounds us,
Doing Your will, even yet, when our hearts are broken.

G-d whose name is Mercy,
G-d whose name is Truth,
Our lives are in Your hands.
Our time is fleeting.
You number our days.
Grant our Kehilla steadfast compassion,
Enduring devotion,
Strength, wisdom and kindness.
Let us celebrate together with fullness of heart.
Let us mourn together under a tent of comfort and care.
Let us serve you from generation to generation,
A light of hope,
A light of love,
A light of Your Holy Word.

© 2015 Alden Solovy and tobendlight.com

Shabbat Shalom and Anyada Buena-A Sweet and Happy Year to one and all. Amen.

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 9/8/16:

The Shofar and the Blessing

We have already begun sounding the Shofar as we are in the month of Ellul. So I wantb to tell you a story. Not any story. A holy story. A true story.  A story about a shofar and a blessing.

The story comes from Daniel Wisse and others who recounted it to Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal, who you may know from their series of Small Miracle books. 

The story begins in Poland, before World War II. Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler, the Grand Rebbe of Radoszyce, was well known as a holy man. Multitudes came to  see him. Among his followers was a little boy named Moshe Waintreter.

Moshe was deported in 1943 to the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp in southeastern Poland.  This camp had particularly brutal conditions and frequent "selections." (Perhaps Skarzysko-Kamienna is little known because so few survived.)

This was the nightmare into which Moshe found himself. But, almost as soon as he entered his assigned barracks—Barracks 14— he saw his beloved Rebbe! 

Not only had the Rebbe continued to offer endless words of comfort and encouragement to the dispirited, he had also conducted regular Sabbath prayer services and, whenever possible, taught Torah. He encouraged Jewish observance. Every morning, under the cover of darkness, a pair of tefillin that had been smuggled into the camp was passed around so each man had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of putting on the tefillin each day.

As Passover 1943 drew near, the Rebbe decided a seder must be observed in some concrete way. He approached Shloma and asked him to undertake an important mission. Shloma worked in the camp's kitchen. The Rebbe asked him to acquire enough beets to make enough juice for the four cups of wine for the seder.

Shloma was petrified, but the Rebbe assured him that in the merit of performing this great mitzvah, he would give Shloma his personal blessing and promised him that he would survive and live to see many better years. On a daily basis the Rebbe put his life on the line for his fellow Jews, and now it was time for Shloma to put his life on the line for the Rebbe. He performed the Rebbe's bidding, his clandestine activities mercifully undetected by the prison guards. That Pesach, the Jews in the camp fulfilled the commandment of drinking the four cups—with Shloma's beet juice.

Before Rosh Hashanah, the Rebbe decided a shofar (ram's horn) must be acquired to give the inmates a remembrance of those times when their spirits had soared. The Rebbe took a diamond he had hidden—one that could have easily bought him more food and less privation—and gave it to a local Polish peasant who worked in the camp. "I give you this diamond in exchange for a ram's horn," he bribed the peasant. A few days later, the peasant brought the Rebbe an ox horn, protesting he could not find a ram's horn. The Rebbe replied, "A ram's horn is what I asked for...If you want me to give you more diamonds in the future, you will have to find me a ram’s horn. Otherwise, I will approach someone else.” Several days later, the peasant returned, this time bearing a ram’s horn in his pocket.

The only problem was the ram's horn still had to be cleaned out and a hole made in its tip for it to become a shofar that could be used for the holy day.

The Rebbe approached Moshe, who worked in the metal shop and had access to tools. Would he make the shofar for their holy observance?  Anguish and fear flickered in Moshe's eyes as he appealed to his beloved master. "Rebbe," he said faintly, "You know I would do anything for you, but just yesterday a Jew from my workplace smuggled in a tiny piece of leather that he hid in his belt. A guard inspected his clothing and, when he found the leather, shot him dead. We are checked every day as we go in and out of the factory, Rebbe. If a man was killed for a scrap of leather, surely I will be killed, too.”

“Moshe,” the Rebbe replied gently, using the exact same words with which he had countered Shloma’s fears just six months before, when he had asked him to make the beet juice. “I understand your fear. But in the merit of this great mitzvah, I will give you my blessing and promise that you will survive and live to see many better years.”

Unable to refuse his Rebbe's request, Moshe reluctantly set out to fulfill it. He successfully sneaked the horn into the shop, picked up a tool and began drilling. Within a few minutes, the factory foreman was at his side, alerted to Moshe's "subversive" activity by the very public buzzing sound of the drill.

"What are you doing?" the foreman demanded. Moshe's father had once told him that the best way to disarm an interrogator was to surprise him with the truth.

"I'm making a shofar, so that we can blow it on the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur," he said.

"Are you crazy?" the foreman shouted, pushing Moshe into a storage room nearby.  It's over. I'm dead now. The Rebbe's blessing didn't protect me after all, Moshe thought, bracing himself for the gunshot. But none came.

In the privacy of the empty storage room, the foreman addressed him in an entirely different, gentle voice: "Listen," he told Moshe, "I am a religious Catholic, and I believe in the Bible. I respect your religion, and I respect the sacrifices you religious Jews make to follow your faith. I will allow you to make your shofar. I'll lock you in here with the tools you need, so no one else will see what you're doing and you'll be safe." A few days later, Moshe slipped the crude but completely kosher shofar into the Rebbe's outstretched hands.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, before they were called to work, the congregants of Barracks 14—whose bodies had long ago been broken but whose souls remained miraculously intact—rose early to hear the last tekias shofar of the Grand Rebbe of Radoszyce. And although the shofar was makeshift and crude, its notes were pure and true, piercing the prisoners' hearts, penetrating Heaven, and breaking down its inner gates.

The months passed and in late May 1944, the Nazis started to liquidate the camp in mass killings. Moshe was among the few survivors who were deported to a smaller forced labor camp nearby (Czestochowa). Sadly, the Rebbe was not.

Moshe managed to take the shofar with him and successfully smuggle it into this new camp. He clung to the shofar as tenaciously as he clung to life itself. Each evening, Moshe would return from his labors and frantically search his secret hiding place to make sure the shofar was still there. And, miraculously, it was.

However, one day, while he was at work, Moshe was suddenly thrown onto a train bound for Buchenwald. The shofar was left behind. He could not stop lamenting its loss.

When Moshe was liberated from Buchenwald in April 1945, he attributed his survival to the bracha (the blessing) he had received from the Rebbe of Radoszyce.

Moshe yearned to find the shofar, but life intervened. He married another survivor, helped organize the illegal immigration of Jews into Israel, and eventually moved to Israel to live. But Moshe never forgot the shofar. The shofar was Moshe’s sole physical link to the Rebbe. Finding it-and bringing it to Israel-was the only tangible way he could honor the Rebbe’s memory and inspire people with his story. So Moshe set out to find the shofar, combing the world for anyone who might possibly know its fate. He placed ads in Yiddish newspapers, wrote to Holocaust-survivor organizations, contacted friends of friends.

One day, in 1977, he received a call. His thirty-year search was over. A few months later, in an emotional ceremony, Moshe Waintreter was reunited with the shofar he had shaped and molded in the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp. He formally presented it to Israel's foremost Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem in memory of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler, the Grand Rebbe of Radoszyce, who defied the Nazis over and over again.

My work is finally done, Moshe thought. But the story doesn’t end here.

Moshe had a son. When the time came for that son to marry, a shidduch (match) was proposed with the daughter of a Holocaust survivor in Canada. The young man flew to Canada to meet the young lady. From the very beginning they knew they were each other’s destined one and they decided to get engaged. Moshe came to Canada for the engagement party. As his son started to introduce the two mechutanim (fathers-in-law), the two men began to sob and ran into each other's arms. The future father-in-law turned out to be none other than Shloma, the chassid who had made the beet juice for the Radoszyce Rebbe's four cups for Pesach in 1943!

These two men were the only Radoszyce chassidim who survived the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp. They survived exactly as the Rebbe had promised.

Why do I tell you this story?  Because perhaps this story of great adversity and great courage will inspire you to take that leap of faith you may need to in the coming year. Perhaps this story of death defying commitment to our tradition will inspire you to take seriously traditions we can so freely celebrate here. Or perhaps this story will inspire you to take a chance to help another. Any and all of these reasons would be enough to tell this story but I will suggest one more. When we listen to the sounds of the shofar , I hope this story will help open our hearts and lift our souls and bless us with the strength to do what we think is impossible but miraculously, with God's help, will not be in the coming year. 

Shanah Tovah!

 

From the Weekly e-blast 9/1/16:

American acting icon and double Academy Award Nominee Gene Wilder passed away Monday at the age of 83. Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wilder made his way to New York to pursue his dreams. From his start at The Actor’s Studio and his best-known, starring roles in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and his collaborations with Mel Brooks such as Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers and History of the World, Part I, Wilder’s impression on film history is indelible. But it is his lesser known role in a little gem of a film called The Frisco Kid that made the most significant mark on me.

To call myself a former self-hating Jew is a bit of stretch. I did not hate myself, nor did I hate other Jews. But growing up in the secular South, I was deeply insecure about my Judaism, and felt especially embarrassed when sharing a physical location with Jews doing any kind of ritual observance. I could never place my finger on it, but I always looked at Orthodox Jews (especially Hasidim) as “the Other,” like they were living in a different world. A different century. With no interest in being like everyone else.

The only pride I took in being Jewish was eating authentic rye bread and quoting Mel Brooks movies. All of that began to change, though, when I discovered  The Frisco Kid when I was a teenager in the early nineties. It launched my fascination with “Old World” Judaism, Yiddish culture, and  more importantly, it gave me the first Orthodox protagonist I could root for and connect with. Up until then, every Orthodox Jew I encountered in popular culture was a passing character. This was the first time I actually heard any of them say anything, and after coming from the lips of the great Gene Wilder – Orthodox Jews went from being unapproachable to a delightful curiosity. It might not have been a full turnaround, but it was certainly an important step in preparing me to meet the Chabad rabbi I would connect with a few short years later in college who took my journey to Hasidic Judaism to the next level.

Released theatrically in 1979, the film is a fish out of water story about a gentle Hasidic rabbi (played by Wilder) who befriends an outlaw to survive in the Wild West. Although John Wayne was originally supposed to play the outlaw Tommy Lillard, the part eventually went to Harrison Ford, who had just launched to movie stardom in Star Wars.

Intimately familiar with Wilder’s other comedy Western, Blazing Saddles, I assumed that The Frisco Kid was going to take a similarly irreverent approach towards Judaism . I sat down expecting a roast of Judaism – not a poignant celebration of Jewish values and an introduction to a way of life I would eventually adopt as my own.

What could have been a one-note joke about a clueless schlemiel lost in the wild is actually a story of self-determination and personal growth. A rabbi who lives by the book learns the value of human life and true spirituality through his experiences with outlaws and Native Americans. Wilder’s performance as Avram Belinski is nothing short of remarkable – evolving from naive innocent to world-weary gunfighter.

Make no mistake, though, The Frisco Kid is absolutely a comedy. Few scenes in any film give me greater delight than Wilder’s Polish rabbi trying to put on a real, American cowboy accent, or explaining to Harrison Ford what a “tuchus” is, or getting a silent monk to say “you’re welcome,” when he passes the salt shaker.

Although I first thought of a Hasid in the Wild West as a non-sequitur, I’ve since met many devout rabbis that remind me of Wilder’s character.

From Jew in the City, Srulli Brooker-in memory of Gene Wilder.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 8/25/16:

TWO REALLY IS BETTER THAN ONE

Walk into any synagogue and you’ll see them in the sanctuary.  Generally they’re above the Hekhal, or Aron Kodesh, or on a wall.  Walk into many churches and you’ll be greeted by the same sight.

The two tablets of the Ten Commandments have become the eloquent symbols of religion, good and decency throughout the Western World.

Those few words shaped nations and stirred souls.  The simple yet clear instructions of how to live in relation to G-d and with each other have ever been fully attained, let alone surpassed.  Each generation reads them anew, and each has found something fresh and abiding in them to transmit to posterity. We just read them last week in the Keilah.

In fact, the Ten Commandments are so common that we risk taking them for granted.  They are so familiar that we presume an intimacy in which basic questions are simply assumed.

But let’s pause and ask one easy question: given that the Ten Commandments are so terse, why did G-d command the use of two tablets instead of one?  After all, in the Torah’s record of revelation at Sinai, G-d seems concerned not only with the message, but with the medium too: “Thereupon the Lord said to me, ‘Carve out two tablets of stone…’ ” Omniscient even with PR, G-d knew that the shape of those tablets would attain a significance equal to the words recorded there."

So, again, we can ask, why two?

“It takes two to make our dreams come true,” a song on the radio regularly reminds us.  An American proverb holds that “two heads are better than one.”  Why?

Perhaps Jewish law can help here.  According to halachah (rabbinic law), a criminal conviction requires the testimony of at least two concurring witnesses.  So significant is this ruling that pages and pages of Talmudic debate focus on the requirements of who may (or may not) testify, what testimony is admissible, and what are the penalties for false testimony.

Two is better than one because two can perceive reality better than one. 

A second thought on twos: the classical Jewish mode of study is not that of a solitary scholar sitting alone, as we find in Western academia.  Instead, Jewish sages study in havruta, in fellowship.  Two or more Jews read the same text (out loud, of course!) and then discuss, probe, question and argue.  As a result of their shared discourse and their loud discussion, their knowledge of what they read is that much more solid, and their voices join in a debate and dialogue that is as ancient as Judaism itself.

Perhaps for this reason the sages of the Mishnah worked in zugot (pairs).  Two is better than one because it allows for a dynamic of profundity and involvement. 

Two is also the number of lovers.  Love requires an exchange between two people.  It multiplies in the give-and-take of two.

Midrash Devarim Rabbah records the same question: Why two?

The Rabbis say: “the Holy Blessing One said, ‘Those (tablets) shall act as witnesses between me and my children.  They correspond to two witnesses, to two agents for groom and bride, to hattan (groom) and kallah (bride), to Heaven and Earth, to this world and the Coming World.’ ”

The two tablets of stone are like the two witnesses required by Jewish law.  They can testify to our obedience to G-d’s will or they can highlight our failure to rise to the level that Judaism demands.

But they are also more than just legal watchdogs.  Our sages are reminding us that good things come in pairs, like Heaven and Earth, like a boy and a girl.

Two really is better than one.  SHABBAT SHALOM

Adapted from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson VP, Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University, Los Angeles, CA

 

From the Weekly e-blast 8/18/16:

"WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT—OUR RELATIONSHIP TO GOD

OR OUR RELATIONSHIP TO OUR FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS?"

 

In every synagogue you will find the "Ten Commandments." This week in Perashat Vaetchanan we will read the Ten Commandments.

The chaplains in the United States military wear on their jackets or shirts a button to indicate that they are chaplains: The Christians wear a cross, but the Jews wear the Ten Commandments.

It is interesting to note that the Ten Commandments are divided into two groups.

The first four commandments deal with man's relationship to God:

1. I am the Lord your God;

2. Don't have any other God's beside me;

3. Don't take the Lord's name in vain;

4. Remember the Shabbat.

However, the second group deals with man's relationship with his fellow human beings:

5. Honor your father and your mother;

6. No murder;

7. No adultery;

8. No stealing;

9. Do not bear false witness or lie;

10. Do not covet or be jealous of that which your neighbor possesses.

Someone once asked me, "To a Jew, which group is more important—my relationship to God or my relationship to my fellow human beings? Which is more essential to a Jew—how I treat God or how I treat my neighbors?”

Do you remember the story of Noah and the Ark? The Bible tells us that Noah was an upstanding man in his generation (Genesis 6:9). But, unfortunately, others were not. Man had a terrible and miserable relationship with his neighbors. Therefore, God said (Genesis 6:17), "I am going to destroy all the people through a flood"—and that is exactly what God did.

For a while, I guess, times were better. However, a few chapters later, the Bible tells us that there was more trouble. The people became restless and they said (Genesis 11:4), "Let us build a city and a tower whose peak will be in the heavens. [Let us invade the heavens and fight against God.]"   The people then began to build their tower, the Tower of Babel, but God intervened and they were punished.

Do you know how they were punished? It was not by having God destroy them as he had done with the flood in Noah's days, but he disbursed the people over the four corners of the globe. Some were shipped off to Paris and London, others to Washington and Miami, still others went to Berlin and Moscow, and some even were directed toward Zurich, and other places.

 From these two stories we can tell what is more important to God: Man's relationship to God or man's relationship to his fellow human beings.

In the Noah story, what happened? Man had a bad relationship with his fellow human beings. People were committing murder, adultery, and robbery. They were lying to each other and hating each other and hurting each other. Therefore, God said that their punishment was going to be very severe—a flood that would bring total destruction. It is extremely bad when people cannot get along with each other.

However, in the Tower of Babel story what were the people doing? They wanted to invade the heavens, battle with God, and overpower God. However, they must have had a good relationship with their fellow human beings because they were actually building this tower. One handed the hammer to the other, another handed the nails to his assistant, while still another individual was shipping up screws to the man higher up in the construction. They needed cement and boards and they were working together to complete this structure. They obviously had a good relationship with each other.  The Bible tells us that when God punished them, he was lenient with them because they got along well with each other. Yes, they had a poor relationship with God, but for this, God said, I'll be less severe. The most important thing is—my children—how they get along with each other.

Hence, we notice that from a Jewish point of view, if one has to make a choice he must say that man's relationship with his fellow human beings is more important than man's relationship with God. Doing things for human beings is primary, and even though belief in God is very important, it is secondary in regard to how we act toward our neighbors.

In Judaism, Rabbi Shimon said {Avot 1:17), "Works are number one; talk and beliefs are number two."

In the Book of Psalms, the Bible says (Psalm 15:1-5), "Who shall sojourn in Thy Tabernacle and who shall dwell on Your holy mountain?" and King David replies, "He who has no slander on his tongue nor does evil to a friend; he who works righteousness and speaks the truth; and he who honors those who respect God." Notice, that he does not say—"he who accepts certain beliefs about Me." To a Jew, Gemilut Chesed, helping other human beings is mitzvah number one.

There is a story told about an old rabbi who lived on the east side of Manhattan. All his years he spent all his time helping others. He helped get jobs for the unemployed; he would always supply food for the hungry; and he was extremely capable of finding shelter for the homeless.

This rabbi lived over a grocery store and there was a sign in front of the grocery store: "Rabbi Rabinowitz Is Upstairs," and there was picture on the sign of a hand with an outstretched index finger pointing upwards.

Rabbi Rabinowitz eventually passed away and was buried. But a year later his friends wanted to put up a tombstone to memorialize him, but the rabbi had not had any money and his friends were also old and impoverished. The rabbi had no wife because she had died several years earlier and the two of them had been childless. However, one day, one of his friends had an idea. He said to the other elderly gentlemen: "Next Sunday, be at the cemetery. We will have the unveiling of the tombstone in memory of Rabbi Rabinowitz."

That Sunday when they eventually unveiled the tombstone, do you know what it was? It was the sign that was in front of the grocery store: "Rabbi Rabinowitz Is Upstairs," with the finger pointing toward the heavens, upstairs.  How correct that was. Rabbi Rabinowitz truly deserved to "go upstairs" because he had done all his life what God and Judaism had asked of him—good works.

Remember Rabbi Simeon's words: "Talking about good deeds is not the most important thing in life. Doing them is."  May we all heed that call. Amen.

Shabbat Nahamu Shalom

 

From the Weekly e-blast 8/11/16:

This Sunday, actually Saturday night, we will observe the fast day of Tisha B’av. It is the day that marks the destruction of the Holy Temple, two times! and the end of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. The Sages say that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam. It was destroyed as a direct result of the hatred between Jew and Jew. And it will only be rebuilt, says Rav Kook, former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel,(1865-1935) when there will be ahavat hinam - love between Jew and Jew.

A striking and sad example of baseless hatred comes from a man named Alden Solovoy. He is a modern poet and I love his meditations on spirituality. He tells of how he once went to the Kotel in order to help protect the women who wanted to have a service there. He tells of how he was spit upon and kicked in the shins and stomped.  And he tells of how, when he was spit on one time too many, he said to the Jew who was doing this: “Don’t you realize that you are spitting in front of the Kotel? Don’t you realize that you are spitting on a fellow Jew IN FRONT OF THE KOTEL?”

And Alden Solovoy says: “I can’t say for sure, but I think that when I said that to him, when I said: ‘don’t you realize that you are spitting on a fellow Jew in front of the Kotel?’ - that there was a moment of shame on the face of the man, that there was a brief moment when my words had an effect on the angry face of this man, and he blushed, and then turned away.”

When Alden Solovoy came home that night, he wrote a poem that I want to share with you today.

It is called: The Kotel Weeps, and this is what it says:

Do not mourn for the Temple Mount.

Instead, know that the stones there mourn for you.

They mourn for you who have forgotten

That G-d’s Voice can still be heard in the hills.

The stones mourn for you who have forgotten

That G-d's Voice can still be heard in the valleys,

In the forests and in the deserts,

In the waters and in the skies.

 

Do not mourn for the lost tribes.

Those tribes mourn for you.

They mourn for you who have forgotten

That God’s people are one.

Ephraim and Judah,

the Levites and the daughters of Tselofchod,

Ask: why do you still divide the House of Israel?

The tribes mourn for you who have made us back into tribes again,

For you have forsaken your brothers and your sisters,

And closed your minds and hardened your hearts against each other.

 

Do not mourn for the lost sacrifices

Or for the yearlings without blemish that we once had here.

The ephah of fine flour and the hin of oil mourn for you!

They mourn for you who have forgotten

That G-d wants the strength of your days,

Not to be spent on hating each other.

 

Tear your clothes and sit in ashes if you must,

But then rise up! Rise up and listen to G-ds call:

Love My people Israel!

Love ALL of My people Israel!

Because, if you do, then you will know the depths of My righteousness,

And you will drink from the wells of My compassion.

Give them your heart

With joy and in thanksgiving,

So that My glory may dwell among you

And so that your days may be long upon this earth.

Is there a solution that will satisfy both sides in this dispute?  THERE HAS TO BE! There has to be - for the sake of both sides, and for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people. Perhaps one section of the Kotel can be designated for different kinds of prayer, or perhaps the arch that stands near it can be set aside for people to pray as they wish.  Or perhaps there is some other formula that we have not thought of yet that will work. Or perhaps the Kotel should not be considered as a synagogue, rather it should be open to all to come to meditate and pray. That’s the way it was a hundred years ago and we have pictures that reflect that. Whatever the formula, there has to be some way in which all the parts of the Jewish people can feel at home at the Kotel. For we are one people - and the Kotel belongs to us all.

There is a noble Jewish tradition of respect and pluralism. Books that disagree with each other co-exist side by side in the Bible. Sages who disagree with each other debate respectfully with each other on every page of the Talmud. Mystics and rationalists who see the world very differently are to be found within the same tradition. Ashkenazic and Sephardic points of view on what is the law can be found on the same page of the Shulchan Aruch-the code of Jewish law.

There is a line about the mitzvah of listening that I love. I don’t remember who said it—I wish I did - but one philosopher said: “To listen, to really listen, is to put your own point of view at risk”.

And so, let this be the word for Tisha B’av. To a divided people, let us say in the words of Isaiah: “Come, let us reason together”, for if we don’t, then the wall will weep for all of us, and so will G-d. Please join us for services on Shabbat as well as for Tisha B’av, on Saturday night, Sunday morning and afternoon.

Shabbat Shalom

 

From the Weekly e-blast 8/4/16:

It is well known that the single greatest Jewish legal text, the Talmud, a combination of the Mishna and Gemara, is built on a foundation of disagreements. In fact, those disagreements were indispensable to the eventual adjudication of the laws themselves. So much so is this true that there were actually sages who had someone with whom they regularly disagreed on matters of law. Hillel had Shammai, Rabbi Akiva had Rabbi Yishmael, Abaye had Rava, and many more. It wasn’t that they disliked each other, but rather that their different orientations to both life and law led them to different conclusions. Here we are not even talking about Sephardic and Ashkenazic divergent views. In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud,  it is made clear that though they differed on so many legal issues, men from the House of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from the House of Hillel, and vice versa. Their differences were scholarly, and not grounded in personal hatred.

For many years, Democrats and Republicans have differed on the very fundamentals of how America should be governed. Republicans traditionally believed that less government is better than more, and Democrats that greater government involvement is more often the answer, not the problem. They differ on taxes, social policy, entitlements, and all kinds of issues that constitute the nuts and bolts of these United States. But being a Democrat or a Republican never meant believing that those with whom you differed were so fundamentally flawed, and wrong-thinking, that their policies would literally endanger the country. You could absolutely think that they were in error, but still respect them, even if it was difficult to do so. You could still believe that they had the best interests of America at heart, and the country would not be hurt by their being in power.

It is difficult, to witness what too often passes for political discourse today in our country.

The traditional philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans have given way to, it seems, unbridgeable gulfs. It’s not about more or less government anymore. It’s about fundamentally different conceptions of what America is, what it represents, and how it conducts itself in an ever more dangerous world. The only thing that they seem to share in common is a visceral and total dislike of the other.

In Ethics of the Sages 5:17, we are taught that arguments that are for the sake of heaven, such as those of Hillel and Shammai, will ultimately produce lasting results. But those that are not, such as the revolt initiated by Korach, about whom we just read in the Torah, against Moses, will not.

I have no doubt that how America chooses in the coming election will have an enduring impact on America, either for better or for worse depending on which side you come down on. But the scars of what we are hearing and seeing before, during, and after the conventions, will also, sadly, endure .In its own way, and in my opinion, the level of political discourse today is no less dangerous to America than the policies being argued.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom. Peace upon the world, Israel, and amongst ourselves. Amen.

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 7/28/16:

TURN THE OTHER CHEEK; GET SLAPPED TWICE:

Perashat Pinchas

It seems obvious that striking back at an enemy is a gratifying but a lower response than forgiving the trespass in the first place.  A person who is able to overlook having been wronged demonstrates a higher form of moral sensitivity, by setting priorities that preclude a need to get back at someone else. That line of reasoning was given its classical formulation in the Christian Scripture, with the mandate to “turn the other cheek."  If someone slaps you on one side of the face, rather than slapping back, simply offer your other cheek to be slapped. By doing so, you confront your enemy with the power of love and the depth of your own humanity. 

Such morality has retained its popularity from the time of Jesus into our own century as well.  Mahatma Gandhi was the pre-eminent exponent of this approach, of returning hostility with passive resistance.  He urged Indians by the thousands to resist the violence of British officers and soldiers with equanimity, allowing the British soldiers to beat, maim and often shoot Indian opponents of British colonialism without opposition. 

Through this massive passivity, Gandhi and his followers hoped to show the British and the world the power of love to overcome hatred and oppression. In our own country, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader, employed this same passive resistance to the discriminatory laws which pervaded America.  His followers, like Gandhi's, were clubbed, attacked by guard dogs, and hosed without struggle -- as a way to awaken the slumbering moral conscience of the Nation.

But what if a nation has no moral conscience?  Isn't it possible that the policy of turning the other cheek can only work with a democratic government, one in which public opinion recoils from brutality and is forced to witness their own police and citizenry in unfettered reporting every day?

In other words, turning the other cheek only works when people aren't as good as they ought to be, and when the citizenry is fundamentally moral and open.  In imperial Rome, they butchered the people who turned the other cheek.  In the Jim Crow South, they were lynched. Such an approach disregards the enormity of evil in the world, ignoring the fact that there are people and organizations that knowingly destroy human lives and families, willfully and without apology.  Hitler could not be shamed out of Auschwitz, and Stalin was not embarrassed by the Gulags.   In such instances, rather than representing a higher spirituality, turning the other cheek is simply a form of cooperating with evil.

Our Torah portion addresses the issue of real evil.  In speaking of the Midianites, a tribe which attacked the stragglers and weak among the Israelite tribes, the Torah instructed our ancestors to "harass the Midianites . . . for they harass you." 

The Torah recognized the reality of human evil -- a malignancy which goes beyond not recognizing the consequences of one's actions, or underestimating how much one's policies hurt others, but the reality that some people delight in oppressing and putting others down. 

Such people cannot be won over through appeals to conscience or by showing one's own weakness.  Rather they can only be opposed with a greater force than they would have used to impose their own will on others.

An ancient Midrash teaches, "If a man comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first."  No turning the other cheek here.  Unadulterated evil can only be opposed with superior power.  There are times when discussion fails, when persuasion is beside the point.  At such times, as our Rabbis taught, "who begins with kindness to the cruel winds up being cruel to the kind."

Most people are not evil.  Many simply need to see firsthand -- and over a long period of time -- the consequences of their own bigotry, anger or greed.  But that predominance should not blind us to evil and its reality. The example of the Midianites, and the Torah's insistence that evil must be exposed and opposed, is the natural consequence of a passion for justice.  Mercy is important as a way to temper strict justice.  But as a replacement for justice, mercy results in the suffering of the victim instead of the wicked.  

Our Torah insists on balancing mercy and justice -- each with their own appropriate sphere, each with their own important jurisdiction.  Justice, an insistence that actions have consequences, requires that we oppose evil with sufficient force to prevent the wicked from harming the innocent. Gandhi and King notwithstanding, Jews do not turn the other cheek.  We strike back hard enough to prevent any further aggression.

By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson VP, Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University, Los Angeles, CA

 

From the Weekly e-blast 7/21/16:

NO LONGER A PEOPLE APART?

Recent studies of the Jewish population have confirmed what common sense already knew; we are less and less different from the people around us.  Our children attend the same pre-schools, the same public and private schools, the same dance classes or Boy Scout troops, and the same high schools and colleges.

On the weekends, they participate in the same athletic teams and they hang out at the same malls.  When they select a college, their standards are pretty much the same standards as everyone else’s, and their choice of professions doesn’t differ much from that of our neighbors either.

Small wonder, then, that a majority of marriages since 1985 have involved a Jew marrying a non-Jew. In Great Britain the percentage of intermarriage is 30%,  in the United States 55%.  Small wonder that approximately one million children with Jewish ancestry are being raised as Christians.

In America, the walls of discrimination have come tumbling down, and our future existence is imperiled precisely by the fulfillment of our fondest dream; living in a society where Jews don’t have to be different. 

No one wants to be different.  Line up any group of small children and ask them if they are different from anybody else.  They’ll confirm that we all have a deep-seated drive to be similar.  Being different means being lonely, being hated, sitting apart.

Yet, that is precisely what our tradition knew was the essential prerequisite of Jewish survival.

In today’s Torah portion, the Gentile prophet Bilaam sees that role as necessary for Israel to be able to make a significant contribution to humanity. Looking over the throng of Israelites assembled in the valley beneath him, he exclaims, “As I see them from the mountain tops and gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwell apart, not reckoned among the nations.”

For Bilaam, our essential traits are that we dwell apart, that being Jewish does mean retaining and cultivating a distinctive identity.

A good Jew ought to be different, ought to stand apart from a crowd. Rashi (11th Century France) recognized as much.  He knew that distinction was not a punishment, not some bad badge of shame to be worn with sorrow.  Rather, he knew that “this is what their ancestors merited for them, to dwell alone.”

Rashi sees our being different as something wonderful that we earned through the merit of our ancestors, of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob, Rachel and Leah.  Their piety, their goodness and their integrity earned our right to be different.

But are we?  Isn’t it striking that we are the generation of Jews least different than our neighbors and at the same time are the generation of Jews least capable of transmitting our identity to our children?

Most of us can remember a grandmother or mother who baked hallot and set out the wine for kiddush and the candles to bless the Shabbat. The hallah gave over such a beautiful aroma. Will our children grow up with those beautiful building blocks to a healthy identity?

At our best, we were a people apart, separated not by a smug sense of superiority, but by a passion for holiness, justice and study.  That three-fold path of Torah, mitzvoth, and gemillut hasadim preserved us through the millennia and enabled us to become a beacon for the rest of humanity. 

We abandon our distinction at our own peril, and the impoverishment of mankind. 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

From the Weekly e-blast 7/14/16:

 MIRIAM: WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE?

Careers of public figures take on a life of their own, ebbing and flowing with shifts in public opinion and the latest values.  One Jewish figure whose popularity is at an all-time high is the prophet Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. While featured prominently in the Torah, Miriam's claim to fame always paled in the face of her more visible brothers.  After all, Aaron was the first Kohen Gadol, the link between the Jewish people and their religion, and Moses was the intimate friend of God, transmitting sacred teachings to the people. 

Compared to those two leaders, Miriam simply faded into the background.  True, we celebrate her beautiful song at the shores of the Red Sea, but even that poem is overshadowed by Moses' far-lengthier song. Today, Miriam's fame rests less on any specific accomplishment and more on the fact that she was a woman. 

Three thousand years ago, and in most parts of the world even today, being a woman is itself disqualification from public recognition of accomplishment.  With so few female heroes, Miriam stands out precisely because we are now more sensitive to just how difficult it is for a woman to gain public recognition. This week’s parashah of Chukkat comments on the death of this prophet that "Miriam died there and was buried there, and the community was without water." 

Rashi (11th Century, France) noticed the strange juxtaposition of Miriam's death and the shortage of water, and assumed that there must be a connection between the two. "From this we learn that all forty years, they had a well because of the merit of Miriam." Miriam's well entered the realm of Midrash as testimony to the greatness of this unique leader. 

As the Jews wandered through the wilderness, lacking adequate water would have been fatal.  However, the power of Miriam's integrity, piety and caring was such that God provided a moving well of water, one which followed the people throughout their wanderings, until the moment of her death.  Without Miriam, there was no more water.

Miriam's place in Jewish legend points to two lessons we can carry with us through our own personal wildernesses.  While male prophets emphasize the power of words, the centrality of rules of conduct, of sanctity and of justice, Miriam's prophecy was one of deed.  Rather than stirring speeches or administration of justice, Miriam focused on teaching her people how to sing in moments of joy, and she saw to their sustenance during their period of exposure and fragility. 

Miriam's example, paralleled by countless women after her, is one of action -- deeds of love and support.  Without Miriam's efforts, no one would have been able to listen to the words of Moses or to study God's Torah.  Acts of caring and love -- that is the special gift that women give humanity. 

Why didn't anyone notice Miriam's well while she was still alive?  It may be too late to change Miriam's status among her own generation, although many Jewish men and women are now, belatedly, giving her the prominence that her compassion and nurturing deserve.  But it is not too late for our generation to re-examine its own values and heroes today. 

Do we sufficiently honor those whose contribution is quiet support of others?  Do we still relegate such vital care to one specific group, or have we each undertaken to make ourselves not only disciples of Aaron, not only children of Moses, but also personifications of Miriam -- using our hands and hearts, just as she did, to irrigate the lives of our people and of all people?

In honor of the birthday of my mother-may she live and be well until 120 years. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 7/7/16:

A BOLT TO THE BLUE

The summers of Atlanta often times bring a lot of rain.  Much of the rain that we get at this time of the year isn’t just rain.  It often comes as a thunderstorm with rushing winds and bolts of lightning. Yesterday, I was going to Emory Hospital Winship Cancer Institute to hear one of our youngsters play the piano in the entrance and I got caught in such an amazing deluge.   Lightning is an interesting religious symbol and it’s worth exploring.

The Chinese, for example, designate someone who is wise by the combination of the ideographs for wind and lightning.  What they seem to mean by this is that the wise person, like the wind, moves irresistibly onward, and like lightning, strikes at the proper moment, cleaning the air. A positive thing.

Our Western perception of lightning seems somewhat different than this.  Lightning for us is sometimes a bolt out of the blue, an unexpected illumination.  Think of all the cartoons we’ve seen where the characters are trying to figure something out.  All of a sudden there’s a bolt of lightning, and lo and behold, an idea has come into the character’s mind.

In Jewish sources, lightning seems rather ominous, a kind of divine retribution.  Our Torah portion this week relates the story of Korach, who led a group of rebels in the dessert to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron.

Moses challenges the rebels to a contest.  They are all to take fire-pans, bronze containers filled with live coals for the burning of the incense.  God will then decide whose leadership is legitimate: the rebels or Moses and Aaron.  The contestants all gather, and judgment comes.  A bolt of lightning comes from the blue incinerating the rebels, leaving nothing but the charred and smoking remains of the incense burners.

So, it would seem, God’s judgment like lightning, crashes down from the heavens upon us.  But that’s not actually what happens.  When we see a bolt of lightning appear to come crashing down from the heavens into a tree, for an instance, our eye has been tricked by an optical illusion.  What really happens, scientists tell us, is that only a tiny “leader bolt” comes down to make contact with the tree.  This bolt is actually invisible to the naked eye.  The leader bolt, like the light switches in our homes, completes a circuit between the earth and the charged ions in the clouds.  The crackling lighting we do see is the tremendous voltage of the earth’s mass, flowing UP from the tree towards the sky.  The bold from the blue, the crackling change from nowhere, is actually coming from the earth itself.

That’s why I suggest that properly understood, lighting is an important religious symbol.  How simple and convenient it would be if ideas, ideals, and morals, were shot down to us from the heavens by a benevolent God.  Three-hundred years or so ago, most of the world believed that our ideas, the internal dialogues of our own thinking, our dreams and fantasies, all came to us from outside.  Only rather recently, in terms of human history, have we come to understand that these things come from within us, from the earth of human consciousness rather than the sky of the great beyond.

More stubborn yet is our understanding of the destructive bolts – the family break-ups, the preventable medical problems, the historical calamities.  Many of us still see them as bolts from out of the blue, ignoring the charges that gather, often for years, until an outlet is found and their destructive energies pour forth in all their fury.

Can we prevent the bolts of blue, the destructive lightning, and enhance the productive ones, the ideas?  A proper understanding of lightning suggests that we can.  We look for the “leader bolts,” the minuscule promptings that do come to us from the heavens.  Yes, I know they can’t be seen.  But they can be felt.  They can be intuited.  They can be responded to – with purpose.  We can bring to fruition those tiny urgings toward human decency that often get lost in the wind and thunder of our world.  We can also take better measure of the charges building up in the earth – the real hunger of the Third World, the despair of our inner cities, the anger of good people trying to cope with the loss of their jobs and many more apparent issues.  If we respond in time, the charge will not explode into destruction.

Lightning, as we now understand it, comes mainly from the earth, not the heavens. May the bolts that our world sends into the blue illumine and cleanse, and light our way towards peace. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 6/30/16:

GOD BLESS AMERICA – JULY 4th

 

Chag Sameach! I write this because this week we will celebrate the Fourth of July. And I have come to realize that this day is a joyous one for the Jewish people, for never have we lived in a land - outside of Israel - that is as welcoming and as respectful to Jews and to Judaism as this land is.

I found a story recently that demonstrates this kinship between America and its Jews, and I want to share it with you today.  I found it in an article by Michael Schwartz, who is an attorney in New York City, and a student of American history, and he found it in a book by Pauline Maier called “Ratification”, which tells the story of how each of the thirteen colonies voted to approve the constitution, and to join the United States of America.

Ratification was not such a simple matter as you might think it was. Each of the colonies had to hold a special assembly at which they had to vote on whether to join the union or not, and the United States would not come into being until at least nine of the thirteen colonies agreed to join. In each colony there were fierce debates pro and con, and in some cases the vote on whether to join the United States or not was very, very close.

New York was one of the last of the colonies to vote. A special convention was held in Poughkeepsie to decide the question.  The decision on whether New York should join the Union or not was very controversial.

Can you imagine the tension there must have been in Poughkeepsie during the month of July, 1788, as the two sides struggled over whether to join the Union or not? The two sides were both determined, and no compromise seemed possible.  What would have happened if New York had voted not to ratify the constitution?

Alexander Hamilton and others used all the political power they possessed in order to persuade the convention in Poughkeepsie to ratify. And one of the ideas that came up was to have a great parade in New York City in order to drum up support for joining the union. The parade was to have floats, and a marching band. It was hoped that it would attract an enormous crowd in order to send a message to the convention that was going on in Poughkeepsie.

The parade was set to be held on July 22nd. And then, just a few days before the parade was to go on, it was postponed for one day.

Why?  The reason for the postponement was not announced. If you look in Volume Twenty-One of the Documentary History, all it says is that there was an announcement that appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser on July 17th that said: “The procession is postponed until Wednesday, the 23rd:” Period. No explanation was given.

And until our time, nobody noticed. Nobody cared or wondered why the parade was postponed for one day. But when Dr. Maier studied the sources that are found in the documentary history of the ratification carefully, she found two letters that explain why the parade was postponed for one day. In a letter that was sent to Nicholas Low, who was a wealthy New York City merchant, Peter Collin, who was one of his agents, wrote: “The procession has been postponed from the 22nd of July to the 23rd in order to give the Jews the opportunity to join in the festivities, the 22nd being one of their holidays.” And Dr. Maier found a second letter, this one from Adrian Bancker, who was a Staten Island grandee, who wrote to his brother: “I observe that the grand procession has been put off to the 23rd. I think it is a great compliment to the Jews.”

The story becomes even more amazing when you realize two facts.   Do you know which holiday it was that they were postponing the parade for? It was not for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or Pesach. These are major Jewish holidays that most Jews observe, and so it would have been understandable if the people in charge of the parade had decided to postpone the parade out of respect for one of these days. But it wasn’t Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or Pesach. It was not even Chanukah or Purim. They postponed the parade because July 22nd that year was Shivah Asar B’tamuz on the Jewish calendar! 

Shivah Asar B’tamuz is hardly a major Jewish holiday.  Shivah Asar B’tamuz is the day that marks when the Roman legions breached the walls of Jerusalem. That event led to the destruction of the Holy Temple, which is observed on the Ninth Day of Av.  It was out of respect for this day that those who wanted New York to join the United States postponed their parade!   Isn’t that amazing?

The second thing that makes this story amazing is: How many Jews do you think there were in New York City at the time?  Scholars guestimate that there were probably no more than twenty or thirty Jewish families in all of New York City at the time. It was not like it is today, when the Jews are a powerful and numerous groups that had political clout

Why do I tell you this story today?  I do so in order that we may appreciate the uniqueness of America. From its very beginning, this country has been respectful, both of Jews and of Judaism, as this story demonstrates. I don’t know any other country in the eighteenth century except America in which such a thing could have happened And I ask you to sing on July 4th the song: “God Bless America”, which was written by the famous Jewish composer: Irving Beillin, whom you may know by his other name: Irving Berlin:

God bless America,

Land that I love,

Stand beside her,

And guide her,

Through the night,

With the light from above.

From the mountains

To the prairies

To the oceans,

White with foam,

God bless America,

My home sweet home.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

From the Weekly e-blast 6/23/16:

SERVING G-D, SERVING PEOPLE

What does it mean to serve G-d?  Often, when we think of religious people, we think of those who have a zealous attachment to G-d, a strong sense of what  G-d wants from them and from humanity.  Unfortunately, their energy and devotion can sometimes translate into imposing their preferences on the rest of the world as though their religious passion is the only possible measure of right and wrong.  Matters which a few define as “spiritual,” or issues of death and  afterlife rise high on their agendas, and force their way into public discourse intrusively and excessively.

In the eyes of the television preachers, and others who claim a monopoly on religious truth, there is little room left for dissent, for options or for discussion, particularly because the poor object of this religious passion faces constant reminding that G-d’s authority (as understood by the passionate representative of whatever religious faith) is 100 per cent on a particular side.

This week’s Torah portion-Beha’lotekha- offers an interesting corrective to that pious monopoly.  We often think of the Levites in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) as authorized by G-d alone.  After all, they serve in G-d’s Temple and G-d’s behest.  Or do they?

The Torah relays G-d’s commandment to “Bring the Levites to the front of the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting) and assemble the entire Israelite community.  Present the Levites before G-d, and have the Israelites lay their hands (sam’khu) on the levites.”

It’s easy to understand why we are to present the Levites before G-d.  After all, they are about to be inducted into the service of G-d, to perform sacrifices in our stead.  But why would the Israelites place their hands on the Levites?  What’s going on here?

Traditional commentators offer great insight into this perplexing passage.  According to Lekah Tov, a medieval midrash, the verb samakh, from which the term “lay on hands” comes, means to “ordain.”  So what the Israelites are doing is ordaining the Levites.

The authority for the Levites to function as religious leaders (or as representatives of the entire people) comes not only from G-d, but must come from the people as well!

As Maimonides understood so well:  “No opinions retain their vitality except those which are confirmed, publicized and, by certain actions, constantly revived among the people.”

Religious leaders and religious traditions do not just embody the will of G-d alone, unmediated by human effort and human visionInstead, G-d speaks to us through human voices, inspired, wise and pious, but human nonetheless.  And those human beings who speak to us of G-d’s will and G-d’s way derive their authority to speak in that manner both from the G-d they serve and from the community they represent.

G-d and the people, together, form the source of religious authority.  G-d is never fully grasped by any human individual. It was the great medieval philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Albo, who observed, “If I knew G-d, I would be G-d.”

Our challenge, then, is to see in the vibrant ways of understanding Judaism the majesty of a G-d who cannot be straightjacketed by any single reading of our ancient traditions.

The Torah belongs to us all.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

From the Weekly e-blast 6/16/16:

In Orlando early Sunday, 49 people died in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S history, domestic hate and terror focused on a popular gay nightclub. This is a prayer of shock, mourning and consolation, incorporating quotes from a man who escaped the club, “there was blood, blood everywhere” and “it was chaos.” 

For Orlando, For the USA
There was blood everywhere.
Forty-nine dead. And blood everywhere.

Author of life,
Source and Creator,
Grant a perfect rest under Your tabernacle of peace
To the victims of the massacre
In Orlando, Florida,
Forty-nine people whose lives were cut off by violence,
In a rampage of aggression beyond understanding,
Targeted by vehemence and hate.
May their souls be bound up in the bond of life,
A living blessing in our midst.
May they rest in peace

There was blood everywhere.
Fifty-three wounded. And chaos.

G-d of justice and mercy,
Send healing to those wounded in this assault.
Fifty-three men and women who were
Struck by brutality.
Remember all the survivors of this attack,
Witnesses of shock, horror and dismay.
Ease their suffering and release their trauma
So that they recover lives of joy and wonder.
Grant them Your shelter and solace,
Blessing and renewal.
Grant them endurance to survive,
Strength to rebuild,
Faith to mourn,
And courage to heal.

Yes, there is blood everywhere.
Columbine. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood.
How much more blood will be spilled?
Sandy Hook. Killeen. San Yisidro.
When will sanity return?
Aurora. Charleston. Washington Navy Yard. Red Lake.
When will the U.S. confront this scourge of violence?
There is blood everywhere.

G-d of love and shelter,
Remember the families and friends
Of all the dead and the wounded
In Orlando and throughout the U.S.
Remember them with comfort and consolation.
Grant them Your protection,
Your wholeness and healing.

Heavenly Guide,
Put an end to anger, hatred and fear
And lead us to a time when
No one will suffer at the hand of another,
Speedily, in our day.Amen

© 2016 Alden Solovy and tobendlight.com

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 6/9/16:

 SHAVUOT

SINAI - IT'S A MITZVAH

 

The time: sometime in the 1920's.  The place: Berlin. A young philosophy student is walking through the streets alone with his thoughts.  He writes:

I walked alone in the evening through the magnificent streets of Berlin.  I admired the solidity of its architecture, the overwhelming drive and power of a dynamic civilization.  There were concerts, theatres, and lectures by famous scholars about the latest theories and inventions, and I was pondering whether to go to the new Max Reinhardt play or to a lecture about the theory of relativity. Suddenly I noticed the sun had gone down, evening had arrived. "From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?" I had forgotten--I had forgotten Sinai--I had forgotten that sunset is my business--that my task is "to restore the world to the kingdom of the Almighty." So I began to utter the words: "With his word brings on the evenings..." And Goethe's famous poem rang in my ear: Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (O'er all the hilltops is quiet now). Blessed are you... who with his word brings on the evenings. And his love is manifested in his teaching us Torah, precepts, laws... Ueber allen Gipfeln is God's love for man--You have loved the house of Israel with everlasting love. 

So wrote the young Abraham Joshua Heschel half a century ago, as he struggled with the concepts which his professors of philosophy attempted to instill within him and tried to balance these concepts with what his rabbis had told him was obligatory in life.  And the words of the siddur rang in his head:You have taught us Torah, Mitzvot, laws, rules...

The mitzvah won out, and as he walked along, the words of' the evening prayer came to his lips.   He had forgotten Sinai--but only for a moment, and was now again engaged in a climb up that rugged mountain to reach what was on the summit. The word mitzvah is one which comes to our lips readily, yet we use it without being aware of' its significance.  A bar/bat mitzvah or, "do a mitzvah”, someone will say in the same sense as "do me a favor", or a mitzvah is a “good deed".

So what is a mitzvah anyway?  If it's a good deed, then what good deed does the young person do at his bar/bat mitzvah?  Perhaps he/she provides a living for the caterer, for which fact the caterer and his family are very grateful. But what other good deeds are associated with the event?  Has he/she done a good deed because he has completed a prescribed course of study, for which his/her parents are supremely grateful, inasmuch as a headache of long standing has now been relieved?

To begin with, mitzvot are not good deeds.  Good deeds translate into Hebrew very nicely as ma-asim tovim, and the words mean precisely what they do in English: they are those proper, often righteous or pious actions which we perform for one another out of friendship, love or consideration, those actions which are meritorious because they are in no wise demanded of us, but rather come from the goodness of our own hearts.    Good deeds may be trivial or they may be beautiful, but they exist on a quite different plane from mitzvah.  The world is made more beautiful, oftentimes, because of the good deeds we do, but it is not redeemed through them.

 

Mitzvot are the demands which being Jewish imposes upon us.  The mitzvah system is central to the very idea of being Jewish; it is Judaism's response to face that this is not the best of all possible worlds.  Such an existence was posited in the Eden story, but given a choice between the paradise-like existence, which the Garden offered, and the chaos of a life affected by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, humanity invariably chooses the latter.  But having done so, there must be a hedge against limitless chaos, against limitless desires and the limitless gratification of them, and the answer to that is Sinai.  Sinai is not the answer to the Fall of Man, for that is not a Jewish concept, but rather it is an answer to the dilemma of living in a world that is not yet redeemed, and it is recognition of the role we must play in brining that redemption about.

 

The world is still waiting to be redeemed, but this redemption cannot come about by accident. Judaism recognizes the mitzvah system as being integral to this entire process.  Private prayer, public worship, the lighting of candles, the honor due the Sabbath day, educating our children Jewishly, educating ourselves Jewishly, all these fall into the mitzvah area which modern Jews are obligated to observe  (even though a Jew may not recognize the obligation, he still has it.)   It is this tension between the role of obligation and the role of freedom that characterizes modern Jewish thought. 

 

 

There is an apathy or resistance to theology among many Jews.  Yet in spite of this, there is also a strong sense of being part of a covenanted community which transcends the usual definitions of ethnicity.  You see, God is real, and the need to worship is real.  Unless we attune ourselves to the methods by which the one true God is to be served, we will instead create other Gods and worship them.

 

We speak often of needs and desires.  The wonderful part about this is that we can develop a need for what is commanded and this can be the ultimate breakthrough in the process initiated at Sinai.  The mitzvot provide access to another dimension by which life is made richer and more beautiful.  It is this added dimension to living which makes us unique, created in the image of God, bearing witness to God, each of us a universe in which God rules.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim LeSimcha , Hag Sameah for the Holiday of Shavuot which we will observe Sunday and Monday. We will read the 10 Commandments on Sunday morning at approximately 10:30a.m., and we will remember our loved ones with Yizkor on Monday morning around the same time.

 
 

From the Weekly e-blast 6/2/16:

This coming Sunday, the 28th day of Iyar, is a holy day in the Jewish calendar.

It is the newest holiday, Yom Yerushalayim. It is the anniversary of that dramatic day when the soldiers of the Israeli army swept through the city of Jerusalem, and we heard the astonishing words: Har Habayit Biyadenu (The Temple Mount is in our possession)!! Then Rav Goren rushed to the Wall and sounded the shofar. Surely no Jew who was alive then can ever forget the excitement and the thrill that we felt on that great day.

And yet, 49 years later, the status of Jerusalem is not yet resolved. It still remains one of the stumbling blocks to peace between Jews and Moslems. It still remains fought-over real estate to which Jews, Moslems, and Christians all lay claim.

I am not going to write anything today about the political, social, or economical dimensions of modern Jerusalem for I am not a politician, sociologist, or economist. All I want to do with you today is set Jerusalem into a larger context by studying with you one Psalm. It is a Psalm that is many centuries old, a Psalm that is a love song to Jerusalem that was written long before there was an Islam, probably before there was a Christianity, and perhaps even before there was a Judaism in the sense that we know it today.

Read the Psalm first, and then let us study it line by line with the help of a wise and helpful commentary that was written many years ago by Yehoshua Amir.

PSALM 122
A song of Ascents, of David:
I rejoiced when they said to me,
'come, let us go up to the House of the Lord'.
Our feet stood inside your gates, O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem built up, a city knit together,
To which tribes would make pilgrimage,
The tribes of the Lord,
As was enjoined upon Israel
To praise the name of the Lord.
There the thrones of judgment stood,
Thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem;
May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts,
Peace within your citadels.
For the sake of my brothers and friends,
I pray for your well-being;
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I seek your good.

Where and when was this Psalm said? My guess is that it was one of the songs that was sung by the pilgrims as they made their way towards Jerusalem on one of the pilgrim festivals.

The Torah says that 'three times a year shall all your males appear before the Lord', but it is inconceivable that every single male went to the central shrine three times a year. If they did, who would stay behind to guard their families or to take care of their farms? More likely, they took turns going. Perhaps they were chosen by lottery. Some went, and others stayed behind to take care of the farm, protect the women, and care for their property.

If so, then what was the mood of these pilgrims as they climbed up the Judean hills towards Jerusalem? Scholars believe that, as they wended their way towards Jerusalem, they sang the Shirey Hamaalot, the Songs of Ascent, of which this is one. And if so, by listening to this Psalm, we can get some idea of how they felt.

The Psalm begins: I rejoiced when they said to me: Come, let us go up to the House of the Lord. Whoever wrote this Psalm was not a native of Jerusalem, and not somebody who went there frequently. If he had been, he would not feel so excited and so privileged to be making this trip. This year he has been chosen, and so he travels towards the city, perhaps for the first time in his life, with an immense sense of awe and an immense sense of privilege in his heart. This year it is finally his turn!

In the very next sentence, he says: Our feet are actually standing within your fates, O Jerusalem. The Psalmist skips over the whole journey. Suddenly he is there. His feet are actually standing inside the gates of Jerusalem! I'm really here!

All his life, this farm boy had heard of Jerusalem, had yearned for Jerusalem, had wished he could someday see Jerusalem and now here he is at last! Those of you who have ever been to Jerusalem, who have seen the bus driver pull off the road so that you can get your first glimpse of it, and who have heard the tour guide lead the group in the blessing of Shehechiyanu have some sense of the awe and the excitement that this Psalmist is feeling as his feet stand, for the first time, within the gates of Jerusalem.

Notice that he does not call it: shaarey Yirushalayim-the gates of Jerusalem. He calls it: sha-areych, Yirushalayim, YOUR gates, not its gates. Jerusalem for him is not just a place; it is alive. It is almost a person. He speaks to it, or, better yet, to her.

By the way, this theme of Jerusalem as a city that we are in love with continues down through the centuries. Yehuda Halevi, the poet of the Spanish Middle Ages, writes a song: Tsiyon, halo tishali, lishlom ohaveych, Zion, will you not ask about those who adore you? That line is an echo of this one, though it is written a thousand years or more later. And Bialik, the poet of Eastern Europe, at the beginning of the twentieth century, asks the same question in his poem: El Hatsipor. Halevi in the Middle Ages, and Bialik in the Modern Age, are both responding to this Psalm, written in the time of the Bible. All Hebrew Literature is a debate with the past. 

Now the poet looks around at this city, which is so precious to him, so special, so beautiful and he calls it: Yirushalayim Habnuyah, k'ir shechubra yachdav. He calls it: Jerusalem which is built up, Jerusalem which is knit together.

We cannot be certain what these phrases mean. Perhaps he is saying that Jerusalem has been rebuilt after it was once destroyed. And when he calls it a city that is knit together, he may be referring to the fact that it was a city of incredible variety and yet that it gave a sense of unity to all the people who came to it on pilgrimage.

One person might be from the tribe of Dan, another from the tribe of Naftali, a third from the tribe of Shimon. They might have had different clothing, perhaps even different dialects. But when they stood together within this city, they felt that they were one people. Jerusalem united them.

Or perhaps the expression: 'a city that is knit together' may refer to the fact that the city then, like the city now, may have had tremendous variety within it. Just as today, you can go from Meah Shearim, which feels like a transplant of Eastern Europe, to Rechavia, which for years felt like a transplant of Berlin and America to Kiryat Wolfson, which feels like a transplant of America,to Shechunat Habukharim, Jews from Bukhara and the Middle East, to many other neighborhoods, each of which has its own character, so Jerusalem may have been a city composed of cities then too.

And now the pilgrim walks the streets of Jerusalem, and as he does, he is dazzled. He is awed when he sees the courthouse where justice is meted out. He understands that it is adherence to one system of law, which unites the tribes and makes them one people. He is awed by three things: the Temple where the people worship together, the courthouse where justice is mediated to the people, and the friendships he has made with the others whom he has met there and with whom he feels a sense of kinship.

And now it is nearly time to leave. The trip that he waited so long to make has flown by so quickly. It is almost over. And so, as he gets ready to leave, he turns to his fellow pilgrims and asks them to join with him in praying for the well-being of Jerusalem. Sha alu shalom yirushalayim, he says, and notice the alliteration here. Notice the sh sound in each of these three words. And notice that Shalom and Yirushalayim are connected in his mind.

'Let there be peace within your ramparts, serenity within your fortresses,' he prays.  He understands that, much as he wants peace within Jerusalem, there can only be peace there if there are fortresses and ramparts. He lives in the real world, the world in which Adonay oz l'amo yiten, we ask God to give strength to His people, and then and only then, do we pray that Adonay yivarech et amo b'shalom, may God bless His people with peace. Jerusalem then, like now, evidently can only know peace if its people are well armed.

'Limaan achay vireay'-for the sake of my brothers and friends, these words probably refer to the fellow pilgrims whom he has met on the trip, who were strangers when he met them, but who have now become his close friends. Just as today, when we go on a tour to Israel and we live together for a week or two with people we have never seen before, and share with them all kinds of powerful experiences, it is therefore hard to say goodbye to them. Here, united by this experience, this shared pilgrimage, it is hard for him to say farewell to these fellow pilgrims, and so he prays that God may guard them and keep them safe till they meet here in Jerusalem someday again.

 

At the end, he makes mention of the Holy Temple, the magnet that has brought them all to this place. He does not separate it out from the rest of the city. The religious center, the judicial center, the social center; they are all one in his mind, intertwined with each other, not separate categories.

And notice one more thing. He starts out in first person singular. I rejoiced when I was told that it was my turn to go up to Jerusalem. And then, very quickly, the “I” became a “we”: we were standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. And as he gets ready to go back home, the we becomes an I again. He went up as an individual, and then, on the way, became a member of the group, and now, as he leaves, he begins to see himself once again as an individual.

So what have we here? We have a love song to Jerusalem, composed at least twenty some centuries ago, that we still sing in our synagogues and on our tour busses. We have a love song in which an Israelite pours out his awe and his ecstasy at actually being able to set foot at last in the city of his dreams, and tells us how impressed he is with its laws and its holy place and he tells us what a sense of kinship he has learned to feel with all the rest of his people.

Have I written a single word today about the Jerusalem of our time? Not directly, and yet all through this Psalm you can see and you can feel the parallels to our own time. You can catch in this Psalm some of the awe and the ecstasy that each one of us feels on the holy day when we see Jerusalem for the first time. You can sense some of the kinship and the unity that we feel with all other Jews when we stand there. You can feel some of the respect for justice and for law that we identify with the Holy City. And you can understand why Jerusalem still speaks to us today, why it still draws us like a magnet, why we love it so much.

May they reach deep into our hearts and strengthen the bonds between the city that we love and have loved for so many, many centuries and us.  Amen.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

From the Weekly e-blast 5/26/16:

Puritan and colonial America viewed themselves as the modern embodiment of ancient Israel.  Like the Israelites, they saw themselves as fleeing from an oppressive Pharaoh, journeying into the wilderness in pursuit of freedom and the establishment of a religious and democratic society.  No coincidence, then, that on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the Hebrew Bible proclaims its ancient ideal. "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof." Leviticus Chapter 25, verse 10

Like the ancient Jews, the colonial Americans saw their mission as one of proclaiming liberty.  But did the two groups necessarily mean the same thing when they proclaimed that liberty?  What kind of liberty did the colonists spread and what kind of liberty does that biblical passage intend?

Americans believe that freedom permits uninhibited expression of personal opinion and the freedom to practice one's religion unchallenged (at least in theory).  In Communist China, those values do not comprise freedom; instead, they are considered counter-revolutionary and subversive.

Within Jewish traditions, Rashi (11th Century France) understood freedom to imply the ability to reside anywhere.  He added that freedom precludes living under the authority of others. One cannot, he claimed, be truly free unless he is able to choose where to live.  What of recent college graduates, now saddled with untenable debts and unable to purchase a home?  What about members of racial or ethnic minorities who are victimized in certain neighborhoods?  What of the freedom of gay men and lesbians to live freely where they choose without fear of intimidation or assault?

Our elderly refrain from leaving their homes at night.  Women are frequently the victims of rape or robbery on American streets and on college campuses.  Is a society where so many must worry about where they live truly free? 

No society is completely free.  Our dual birthright -- as Jews and as Americans -- encourages us to struggle to increase our freedoms, so that a previous generation's aspirations advances the next generation's rights.

As Jews, our call to freedom emerges naturally from our relationship to God.  Freed from human bondage in Egypt, we recognize that freedom is the simple corollary to divine service.  In the words of the Talmud, we are God's "servants, and therefore not the servants of servants."  In a world of social justice and spiritual depth, Jewish notions of freedom can thrive -- the freedom to assume our rightful place in a world sanctified and at peace.

I write these words on Lag Baomer –the 33rd day of the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot.  The famous Rabbi Akiva, a second century sage, fought for freedom to teach Torah and he succeeded to an incredible degree. He had 24,000 students! Amongst Rabbi Akiva's teachings was that a person should accept suffering with humility and be prepared to give his life for G-d and His Torah. Rabbi Akiva practiced in life what he taught.

When the wicked Roman government decreed that study of the Torah was forbidden on penalty of death, Rabbi Akiba continued to study and teach Torah. When he was asked by Pappus ben Yehudah whether he feared the government and its decrees, he replied with a parable of a fox who was walking along a stream and saw some fishes gathering together. The fox asked the fishes why they are gathering at this point, the fish replied that they were hiding from the fishermen's nets. The fox said to them that they should come up on the dry land and dwell together with the fox. The fish answered that if in the water which is their natural habit they are in danger, how much more so if they leave it and try to dwell in a place with no water! "So it is with me," Rabbi Akiva explained, "If while we study Torah we are in danger, how much more so if we neglect it!"

A few days later Rabbi Akiba was arrested and imprisoned. Pappus ben Yehudah was also placed in the prison with him. Rabbi Akiba asked him for what reason is he imprisoned, Pappus replied, "Happy for you Rabbi Akiba that you have been imprisoned for learning Torah; woe unto me who has been imprisoned for vain things."

When Rabbi Akiba was taken out to be killed his flesh was raked with iron combs to increase his suffering. As he recited the Shema Israel for the last time, his face had a beautiful smile of pleasure. His torturer called to him to explain his pleasure. He replied that all his life he wanted to fulfill the edict of the Torah that one should "…love G-d with all of one's heart, and of one's soul and all of one's might" Veahavta et Ado-nay Elohe-kha… He said he had been saddened to think that he knew not how he could love Him with all of his soul (life). However now that he was giving his life at the time of saying Shema, how can he not be pleased?

Shabbat Shalom to all and a meaningful Memorial Day as well. Those who fought for our freedom to live our way of life should rest in peace and their families comforted knowing they served a noble dream that we are privileged to fulfill. 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 5/19/16:

One of the defining features of traditional Judaism is its careful attention to matters of Halachah (Jewish Law).  While broader issues of theology and ethics form a significant backdrop to Jewish thought, primary attention is paid to the mitzvoth, the sacred commanded deeds of Judaism, and to the kind of debates that lawyers enjoy.

Small wonder, then, that some people (Jews included) conclude that Judaism isn’t a very spiritual enterprise at all! Trained by exposure to Christianity, Buddhism, or New Age faiths to define spirituality as an inner sensitivity to the awe and marvel of being alive, a sense of unity with all that is and with its source, so many seekers give Judaism a brief opportunity to prove itself (often only during services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  Hearing talk about how a sacrifice is to be offered, enduring explanations of how the Kohen Gadol (high priest) used to immerse himself and bow, and endless repetition of a fixed  liturgy seem to many to be hollow, point-less and futile.

In part that problem is one of inadequate preparation.  Without prior study, a Shakespeare play or a great painting will seem lifeless too.  Achievements of real depth require some training to be able to experience the wisdom they encode in form. But those answers only explain in part.  In part, traditional Judaism always has recognized that reducing all of Judaism just to Halachah represents a betrayal of the fullness of Torah.

Today’s Torah portion itself speaks to that religious realm beyond the reach of law.  Much of righteous living cannot be reduced to simple rules.  Prohibitions and mandates don’t instill values such as kindness, selflessness and charity.  Above and beyond the rules is Judaism’s insistence that we live our lives in a way that testifies God’s goodness, justice and love.

Such a way of living is called kiddush ha-Shem, the sanctification of God’s name.  Any deed which makes God’s sovereignty visible, any action which bears witness to God is kiddush ha-Shem, the highest value within the orbit of Jewish values.

This week’s Torah portion is understood as the source of this mitzvah.  God tells the Jewish people that “you shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel.”

 
 

Life presents us with a simple choice: How we live our lives can either heighten a sense of God in the world or it can diminish it.  There is no neutral, middle ground.  By treating our fellow human beings with generosity, we bear witness to God’s generosity.  Acts of greed and selfishness make that bounty harder to perceive.

By speaking out against oppression and bigotry, we affirm God as the righteous judge, as the One passionate about justice.  To remain silent in the face of such suffering is to eclipse God’s justice.  By extending a basic trust to our fellows, we make it easier for them to feel God’s willingness to trust them, to affirm the goodness of creation.

In everything we do at work, on the road, at play, we can help other people know that there is God, we can bring credit to the God of Israel and to God’s Torah.

Far more than simply arguing about rules, the essence of Jewish piety is the compassion and love that the rules embody.  As the great 19th Century Rabbi Israel Salanter said: “Compassion is the foundation of belief.  For a person who isn’t compassionate, even the belief in God is a kind of idolatry.

In Hell, Robert Cover noted, there will be only rules, and they will be strictly enforced.  We make heaven here on Earth, we sanctify God’s name and God’s Torah by using it to express God’s value of love, compassion, holiness and justice.

We are what we do, and to be a holy people we must live each moment as an opportunity to serve God. That’s kiddush ha-Shem.

 

Shabbat Shalom

 

From the Weekly e-blast 5/12/16:

We commemorate today Yom Hazikaron ("The Day of Remembrance" or "Memorial day")  honoring the memory of the soldiers of the Israeli army who sacrificed their lives for the establishment of the State of Israel and its continued existence.


The young soldiers who gave their lives in the wars of Israel are the greatest heroes of Israel. "The silver platter" on which the State of Israel was delivered to us. As Rabbi Eliezer Melamed says, "these soldiers, most of them very young, sacrificed everything, so that we can have our land, where we can fulfill our greatest dream, all AM ISRAEL returning to their homeland to serve HaShem ... .we should be inspired by their sacrifice and devotion to sanctify the name of God (leqaddesh shem shamayim). "

Yesterday, in Israel, tens of thousands of people attend local cemeteries to mourn for their children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends. In the morning, at 11.00 am, a siren sounds throughout the country. Everything and everyone stops for two minutes: people, cars, businesses, public transportation, etc. to honor the memory of the fallen heroes and victims of terror.

This year we honor the memory of 23,447 soldiers and victims of terrorism who fell in Israel's wars or terrorist attacks since the War of Independence in 1948 to the present day. Sixty eight new victims were added since last year's Yom haZikaron. In addition, fifty-nine disabled veterans who served in the Israeli army, mostly young, died as a result of their condition.

Today, there are 9,442 parents who have lost children, 4,917 widows and 1,948 orphans, according to interior ministry of Israel.


May HaShem treasure the souls of the heroes of Israel in Gan Eden.

May He bless their families and grant them strength to bear the pain of the loss of their loved ones.

May HaShem bless the soldiers of Israel and protect them from our enemies.

May HaShem give us strength and victory, and bless Israel with peace. AMEN

 
The 5th of Iyar, or May 14th, 1948, was one of the greatest days in the history of the people of Israel. That day, Israel's Independence Day or Yom Haatzmaut, we regained our political independence and sovereignty over the land of Israel. After almost 1900 years of exile, at the mercy of uncountable tyrants, we finally are able to determine our own destiny, have our own army and defend ourselves from our restless enemies.  HaShem your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, so that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors.  The process of Teshuba or return, spiritually and geographically, is taking place in our days.   More and more Jews are coming back to His land or to His Tora, or to both. Israel is prosperous, and growing in numbers. Every year tens of thousands of Jews come back from the end of the planet. We are the most privileged generation of Jews. We are living the fulfillment of prophecy.  We ARE this prophecy.

Happy 68th birthday to Israel!

 

Shabbat Shalom to one and all.
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From the Weekly e-blast 4/28/16:

FOR THE LAST DAYS OF PASSOVER

If there's one thing that we enjoy, it's a good story. In fact, one might say that Jews are the original story-telling people. Long before we theologized, philosophized, and rhapsodized about religion, we told stories around the campfire.  Judaism does not begin with Shema Yisrael, "Hear O Israel" or "You shall have no other God before me." It starts with, "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth," and "I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt."

It's no accident that Passover begins and ends with a story. On Pesach night, we tell the story of the Exodus. But we also create new stories. Who doesn’t have a favorite Passover story of their own? Who was there when you opened the door for Elijah? Do you recall the time no one could find the Afikomen? Or maybe you think of a beloved parent or grandparent who made this night so special. I do all the time during Pessah. These personal stories are as much a part of this holiday as the Exodus. 

We have a custom to conclude Passover with Yizkor on the last day, this year, Shabbat the 30th of April. We recall other stories - stories of those who are dear to us, those who wrote the narrative of our lives, and those who are responsible for who we are.

But we're not the only ones who love stories. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel writes: "God created human beings because He loves stories…"

Stories are more than entertainment: they are the language with which we come to understand our place in the world. Rabbi Lord  Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain, writes: "As we sit around the Seder table on Pesah, rehearsing the journey from the bread of affliction to the wine of freedom, we commit ourselves to a momentous proposition: that history has meaning."

Stories help us to figure out who we are and what we should be. They reassure us - that life does not end at the grave, and that a part of us lives on in the stories others tell about us. Isaac Bashevis Singer put it this way: "When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told and books weren’t written, human beings would live like beasts, only for a day. The whole world, all human life, is one long story."

Sometime ago, I spoke about the difference between 'history' and 'memory.' They aren’t the same. Passover isn’t so much about history as it is about memory. Rabbi Sacks puts it this way: "History is his story. Memory is my story." We don’t really know much about the history behind Passover but we have a story that we tell that has a powerful effect in shaping how we see ourselves and how we understand the world. Hayav Adam lirot or Leharot atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mimitzraim, "Each person is obligated to see, or show, himself/herself as if he/she personally left Egypt." We're not supposed to just tell the story but to experience it and identify with it personally so that it becomes part of how we live.

It's no accident that the Torah repeats thirty-six times that we must be kind to the stranger in our midst, because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Our story should affect how we see ourselves and therefore, the way we treat others. 

Similarly, Yizkor allows us to frame the memories that shape our lives and our behavior. There were thousands of details in the lives of our loved ones.

This Shabbat  morning, as we recite Yizkor, who will you remember? What stories will tell about them? How will those stories influence you? 

Do your children and grandchildren know who they are named after, and why their name was chosen for them?

The Koran refers to the Jewish people as "People of the Book." I think it would be better to refer to us as "People of the Story." We are part of a great narrative that began with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and continues in our own day. In some ways we are creating the greatest chapter of all - the creation of a Jewish homeland and a nation reborn. It is a complicated narrative and we cannot know how it will turn out - but it is up to us to be part of the emerging narrative.

At this very moment we are also writing our own personal narrative. What will our children say about us? Will our stories be worthy of repetition to future generations? How will others remember us: with laughter, with pride, with love?

We have an obligation to tell our story but we also have an obligation to be part of the story as well. Yizkor, then, is a challenge. To remember, to be remembered, and to challenge others to memory.

Join me and your Keila, for the 7th and 8th days of Passover. The 7th day Friday, commemorating the miracle of the Hebrews walking on dry land as the Reed Sea split, and the 8th day, Shabbat when we conclude the festival remembering our loved ones with Yizkor.

Moadim Lesimhah-Shabbat Shalom !!

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From the Weekly e-blast 4/21/16:
 
The tales and commentaries surrounding the Pesach celebration and the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt are legion.  And why not?  Letziat Mitzrayim, the going out from Egypt, is the central historical moment of the Bible and serves the Rabbinic tradition as the verification of God’s promise of future redemption for the Jewish people and the world.  The Pesach Haggadah reminds us that each of us must see himself and herself as if he or she personally has been freed from the bondage of Egypt, and, indeed, many of us have lived through experiences in the course of which we have felt as if we have been liberated.  I share with you the following “Pesach Tales” in the hope that they may provide you with additional insights into the significance of our Festival of Freedom and may make this Pesach a more meaningful holiday for you and your loved ones.
 
When Moses said to the Israelites, “In this month you are to be redeemed,” they said to him, “Our teacher Moses, how can we be redeemed seeing that we have no good deeds to our credit?”  He comforted the people, saying, “God wants to redeem you, and He will consider the acts of righteous among you.” And so Israel was redeemed from slavery on account of the righteous, the righteous women of that generation.  There were the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who saved the Israelite boys from being drowned in the river.  There were Yocheved and Miriam, who saved the life of the infant Moses and insured that he was imbued with a love for God and for his people even as he was being raised in Pharaoh’s court.  And there were the countless Israelite women who risked their lives to ensure that the Children of Israel continued to multiply in Egypt, in spite of Pharaoh’s forced separation of husbands and wives.  For it is told that the Israelite men should sleep on the fields and the women in the city, the women came to their husbands in the fields in the mid-day with food and with words of love and comfort, and they were together and they bore children.  And thus it is said: through the merits of the righteous women the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt.
 
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev wanted to argue with God on behalf of the Jewish people.  A passage in the Haggadah calls to mind one of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s discussions with the Almighty.  We read that the tefillin, “a sign of your hand and a symbol on your forehead,” are to remind us “that with a might hand the Lord freed us from Egypt.”  In his quest for the redemption of the Jews of his generation, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak confronted God with the following argument: “Master of the universe,” he said, “when a Jew drops his tefillin on the floor he hastily picks them up and kisses them.  Your tefillin, Your people Israel, have lain on the ground for nearly two thousand years.  Why do You let them lie there, trodden underfoot?  When will You gather up Your tefillin and embrace them?”  If the Haggadah teaches us that the redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage is a foreshadowing of God’s ultimate redemption of his people, then Rabbi Levi Yitzhak wanted to know what was holding things up.  
 
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach for Pesach. Moadim Lesimhah from our home to yours.
 
Amen
 
 
 
From the Weekly e-blast 4/14/16:
 
PASSOVER THOUGHTS
 
Woody Allen in addressing a Harvard graduation said, “You have entered a crossroads of life. Down one road is despondency and despair...down the other road is total annihilation. I sure hope you make the right choice.”
 
Woody Allen was undoubtedly trying to tell a joke, but it’s funny because it’s true that we have all felt like that at times. All of us experience circumstances in which we see no way out-stuck between a rock and a hard place-feeling huge burdens, waves of despair. Well, that’s the story in a nutshell of Passover and especially the 7th day of Pesach when the Jewish people found themselves at the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army rapidly closing in on them from behind. Only days before they were celebrating their freedom but now emotions are reversed and they find themselves in dire straits.
 
How God miraculously saved the Jews at the Red Sea is the theme of Passover so, let’s examine how God delivered them and how we can trust God to deliver us when we feel up against it too.
  
To understand the message of the story it’s important to look at how the Jews got trapped there. This wasn’t a military blunder. It was, incredibly enough, God’s design. God could have led the Jews on a more direct route to the Promised Land by the Mediterranean coast. The direct route from Egypt to Israel is about 350 miles-about half the distance from here to Miami Beach. Even a large group of 2-3 million people could walk that in 6 to 8 weeks. But God said if they went the short route they would encounter the Philistines, who were a warring people, and the Children of Israel weren’t ready for battle.
 
God purposely took them on this indirect route as well so He could lure Pharaoh to chase after them and set up a final encounter that would #1, test and strengthen their faith and #2, demonstrate forever His love for them. The Jews needed to understand that God had not delivered them from slavery just to leave them-that He was still there, still protecting them and would always be. 
 
The plan was simple: Place the Jews in such a predicament that it would be impossible for them to escape without God’s intervention. God’s plan was to deliver His people in such a way that it would be plain to every one of them that He was the One, True, God. But of course, the Jews didn’t know God’s plan and so they panicked.
 
They responded like many of us who feel trapped. They tried to find a scapegoat-someone to blame for their problems-and they then distorted and glamorized their past. They said accusingly to Moses (Ex. 14:11-12): “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness? What have you done to us?” A few days later when faced with a crisis of a lack of food they said (Ex. 16:3): “in the land of Egypt we sat by the pot of meat, where we ate bread till we were full.” 
 
It’s remarkable, it wasn’t even a week out of Egypt and they developed amnesia. Did they really want to stay and serve the Egyptians? Did the Egyptians ever give them meat and bread to eat till they were full? They had cried out to God to save them and now that they were free...as soon as the pressure of difficult circumstances came upon them they distorted and glamorized their past. They basically said, “We didn’t have it so bad in Egypt. We didn’t want to leave in the first place!”
 
What should we do then when we feel trapped? It helps to understand that God has a plan for your/our life and that you/we will be tested from time to time. It is especially when we feel trapped that we need to keep this in mind and not resort to desperate behavior. Instead, hold your head up, and like Nachshon, move ahead as best you can.
 
Who was Nachshon? On the banks of the Red Sea, when the people complained to Moses for bringing them into the desert to die, God said to Moses (Ex.14:15): “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak unto the Children of Israel and let them go forward!” But the Jews were immobilized by their fear. The Talmud tells us that one man, Nachshon, went forward as commanded by God until the water was up to his neck and then it began to recede and the people then followed. 
 
When it seems like you’re up against a brick wall-seemingly caught between a rock and a hard place-understand that God is trying to show you something. Don’t panic, be open to receive the message of your circumstances and move forward as best you can-even if the waters come up to your chin. You may not experience a miracle like the crossing of the Red Sea, or in your life it may be even greater, but you will see that God will meet you along the way and things will turn around.  Let this be a Passover lesson we carry with us year round !
 
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Hagadol , the great Shabbat before Passover. In that spirit, click here and enjoy this humorous look at the encounter between Moses and Pharoah, from Aish Hatorah.  

 

Shabbat Hagadol Shalom.

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From the Weekly e-blast 4/7/16:

THE TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH OF MIRIAM

A good deal of our Perasha  this Shabbat speaks about a dreaded skin disease, called ‘tzara’at’ which is usually, but probably erroneously translated as leprosy.  The rabbis considered this illness a Divine punishment for gossip, lashon hara.  The reason for this assumption is that no less than Miriam, Moses’ sister, was stricken with the disease for slandering the lawgiver.

What is it that Miriam said that brought down such a terrible punishment?  She denounced her brother for marrying a Cushite woman.  Cush, of course, is the ancient designation for Ethiopia.  Moses, it seems, had married a black woman.  Miriam was guilty, not only of slander, but racism.  The Torah teaches us “Miriam was leprous, white as snow.”  Here is an irony.  It is as if God is saying to Miriam “you think is so wonderful to be white?  Fine! I’ll make you even more white!”  What follows is a brief, eloquent prayer by Moses, only five words in the Hebrew, “Heal her, O Lord!” In Hebrew, El na refa na lah.  Miriam is healed and reconciled to her brother and her God.

Moses, it seems, is not at all angry that Miriam had slandered him.  His concern, rather, is for the health of his sister.  Whatever her faults, no matter what her shortcomings, she was a very great woman, whose powers of prophecy exceeded those of her brother.  There was more to Miriam than back biting and gossip.  This was the very woman, who as a young girl had saved the life of her infant brother as she followed his basket down the Nile.  Her store of virtue was overflowing.  Her goodness easily overpowered any taint in her character.  God recognized this.  She was healed.  She was forgiven. 

Cynics may well say that by accusing Miriam of racism we are guilty of anachronistic thinking, of projecting twentieth century values, multiculturalism, “equal opportunity” and tolerance, into biblical society which had no such concepts.  But the cynics are wrong.  God speaks to us through the prophet Amos saying, “Are you not as the children of Ethiopians to me?”  Yes, we are God’s chosen, but only if we ourselves make the right choices.  It did not matter if Moses’ wife was of Israelite origin, what mattered was that she embraced the people and God of Israel.  The Torah teaches us to “love the stranger” among us. Not just once, but 36 times!

It is forbidden to discriminate against a convert in Judaism.  The Talmud even gives us examples of how not to behave.  One should not say, “Who are you to talk!  You still have non kasher between your teeth!”  We must not denigrate the convert’s religion of origin.  It is even considered malicious gossip to say “so and so is a convert” as that might open the door to discrimination.

The yahrzeit/death anniversary of Miriam –the 10th of Nissan-has been marked a special fast for the righteous ever since.  But it is also a joyous day.  For on that day the waters of the Jordan parted and Israel for the first time stood within its own borders.  When Miriam died the well which bore her name ceased to give its water and the thirsty congregation rose up against her brothers, Aaron and Moses.

The tragedy and the triumph of Miriam are recorded in her very name, “Mar” bitter.  “Yam” the sea.  The bitterness of our thirst will be quenched in the sea of righteousness.  “Let justice roll down as water and righteousness like an ever ending stream.”(Amos-Chapter 5)

From Miriam’s seed came both Betzalel and David.  Of Levitical stock, she combined within her the priestly, the prophetic, the artistic and the regal.  As Miriam taught the women, so her daughters will teach us.  Then there will be peace for Aaron and Moses.  Then the wells will open up.    Then we will enter the Promised Land. 

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov.

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From the Weekly e-blast 3/31/16:

KASHRUT

In this week’s Perasha of Shemini, without attempting to justify or even explain the reasons for the elaborate Jewish dietary laws, the Torah provides a lengthy list of which foods are kosher and which are not. Animals with cloven hooves and which chew their cuds are kosher.  Fish with fins and scales are kosher.  Birds which eat grain and vegetables, and which can fly, are kosher.  Insects, shellfish and reptiles are not.

Since the earliest stages of our history, Jews have understood the patterns of 'kashrut' to be at the very center of our heritage.   From the biblical and into the rabbinical period, new guidelines and restrictions developed as Jews encountered different cuisines and aesthetic standards, yet the core of 'kashrut' has remained unchanged over the millennia. Some of our most stirring stories of Jewish martyrdom -- of Jews who preferred to lay down their lives rather than abandon their Judaism -- center around the laws of 'kashrut.' 

Thus, as early as the time of the Maccabees (167 BCE), we have stories of Jews forced to eat pork by the Syrian oppressors.  In those stirring tales, the Jews chose to die with their integrity intact, to expire still obedient to the dictates of God and Torah.  They could not conceive of Judaism without 'kashrut,' so central were the dietary laws to the entire rhythm of Jewish living.

Yet, the Torah gives no justification for 'kashrut.'  Consequently, Jews throughout history have struggled to understand the reasons underlying kosher eating. One explanation, popularized by the Rambam (12th Century Spain and Egypt), is found in Sefer Ha-Hinnukh (The Book of Education).  For this school of thought, God is a cosmic doctor, providing a prescription to ensure the health of the Jewish People. "God knows that in all foods prohibited to the chosen people, elements injurious to the body are found.  For this reason, God removed us from them so that the souls can do their function."

Another understanding of 'kashrut,' advanced by persons interested in abandoning the dietary laws, is that 'kashrut' was an early compensation for unsanitary conditions.  If the Jews of the Torah had invented refrigerators, they wouldn't have required 'kashrut.'  Now, with modern technology, we don't need these outmoded precautions. 

Some have argued,   now that we have homogenized milk and air-tight containers, we don't need 'kashrut.' Such a viewpoint has no basis in either science or religion.  No sacred text links the practice of the dietary laws to a fear of epidemic, or to a need to avoid rotting meat. That viewpoint also ignores the fact that most of the world's religions observe some form of dietary laws (Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, among them).

Why, then, is 'kashrut' significant?  If not health or physical well-being, what is the goal of the dietary laws? The answer is found in the Torah itself. "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I [the Lord] am holy." 'Kashrut' is a way of welcoming the holiness of Judaism into our daily lives. At each meal, we rededicate ourselves to the high standards of Jewish living and behavior.  The network of Jewish values -- loving our neighbor, caring for the widow and orphan, affirming a connection to the Jewish people, and establishing God's rule on earth -- gain strength and depth through the regular practice of 'kashrut.'

Every form of effective education involves regular repetition and frequent exposure.  Since we eat three times each day (at a minimum!), 'kashrut' is the basic school to recall and reinforce a sense of living in 'brit' (covenant) with God, to making the values of Judaism visible through our deeds and priorities. Affirming our Jewish commitments by adhering to 'kashrut'-at whatever standard we feel comfortable with- cultivates a greater awareness and an unwavering commitment to the eternal values of Torah -- justice and holiness. In the final analysis, this is why I try to keep kasher .

 

P.S. This Shabbat has been designated as World Autism Awareness Day. We have been asked to Light it Up In Blue in tribute and support to the people dealing with the challenges of autism.  Wear blue this Shabbat in solidarity with millions all over the world, and look up Autism Speaks and our local chapter here in Atlanta for more information. Thank you.

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From the Weekly e-blast 3/24/16:

Why did Amalek attack the Jews?  Why was there an attack in Istanbul while I was in Israel? Why was there an attack at Brussels International Airport and on a metro train in the heart of the city? And why so often are the attacks directed against Israelis and Jews?  While in Israel I heard Parashat Zachor and here at OVS Dr. Sim Pearl read that section – in which we are commanded: “Zachor eit asher assah lecha Amalek – remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt … that he happened upon you on the way and he struck those of you who were hind most, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted and he did not fear God.”  Why did Amalek attack the Jews?   Amalek had heard that when the Jews left Egypt their intention was to go to the Promised Land.  We did not have our sights on the land of Amalek … we wanted nothing from them.  And yet, they tried to destroy us.  Why? 

You see, there are a lot of times in life when we don’t know “why.”  We oftentimes hear it said that “Everything happens for a reason.”  But who said that?  Who said that it’s true?  You don’t find those words in Jewish texts.  Of course, there are some like the mystic Baal Shem Tov, who said that everything happens for a reason … that even when a leaf falls, it happens for a reason.  Those who believe this way oftentimes turn to the story of Purim as proof of the fact.  Here there is an attempt to destroy the Jewish people and then a whole bunch of coincidences take place … Mordechai’s in the right place at the right time, the King can’t sleep, Esther – from out of nowhere – becomes the Queen … and then we find out that it all happened for a reason.  

Everything happens for a reason?  I only wish that life was as simple as this!  But Maimonides didn’t think so!  And the great philosopher, Yehuda Halevi, didn’t think so!  Yes, to modify a two-word popular statement: Things happen!  And it doesn’t always happen for a reason! 

That is why it always rubs me the wrong way when someone suffers a tragedy and friends tell them: “God has his reasons.”  That’s what Job’s friends told him … and they were wrong!  Remember what God said: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?  Tell me if you understand who marked off its dimensions.  Surely you know.”  What God is saying is: What do you know?  I often hear people say to those who are suffering: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  Who said?  I’ve seen all too many people who God has given a lot more than they can handle.  Why?  Who knows?  Not everything makes sense. 

This week, after his visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama is visiting Argentina.  Argentina still has a Jewish community.  But many Jews left Argentina because of the terrorist attack on the Israeli embassy there in 1992 and on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in 1994 – the two deadliest attacks in Argentina’s history.  The two attacks killed 114 people and injured hundreds more.  Recently the leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs wrote to President Obama requesting that he visit these two sites and pay tribute to the victims who were killed there.      Immediately after the attack, Argentine President Carlos Menem said publicly that it was most likely carried out by Neo-Nazis.  The next day speculation focused on the Islamic Jihad group.  Shortly thereafter, it was announced that an international search was on for yet another suspect – a member of the radical German Red Army, Marxist terrorists with close ties to the PLO.  I remember thinking to myself: what a remarkable people we are.  When a bomb goes off on the streets of London, at that time, everyone knows who did it . . . the IRA.  If it happens in Spain, it was assumed it was Basque separatists.  If it was Germany – skinheads.  Turkey – Kurds.  But when it comes to the Jews, it can be anybody and everybody: Argentine Hitler youth, German Marxists revolutionaries, Islamic fanatics, Palestinian terrorists . . . they all have their own political agendas . . . some from the left, others from the right.  But when it comes to the Jews, they share their hatred of us … some because we’re accused of being capitalists, others because we’re accused of being communists; some because we’re too liberal, others because we’re too racist; some because we’re too pushy and some because we’re too ghettoized; some because we’re the chosen people, others because we’re an inferior race.

          Now, I ask you: does any of that make sense?  Can there possibly be a reason for this? 

Does that mean that everything in life is without reason, simply unexplainable, random behavior?  No!  As Cassius says to Brutus: “Men at sometimes are masters of their fates.”  Yes, there are things in life without reason, but other things with.  Yes, there are things in God’s hands, others in ours.  Yes, there are things beyond our control, but much that we can control.  While the Jews were battling against Amalek, Moshe went atop a mountain and the Torah tells us: “Whenever Moshe held up his hand, Israel prevailed.  And whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed.  But Moshe’s hands grew weary so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Chur held up his hands.”  When Moshe and the Jews took matters into their own hands, we were able to prevail against the forces against us.  But you know what?  After a while it becomes hard to fight … we grow weary.  When Ehud Olmert was Prime Minister of Israel he once said, “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, and we are tired of defeating or enemies.”  Similarly, Jews get tired of defending Israel and of standing up to the anti-Semites.  And as individuals we get tired of combating the physical and emotional challenges we confront.  But we dare not give in to despair … we dare not lower our defenses.  Just as happened then, happens today, there are things that defy reason and understanding, but if we remain strong it will be said of us in our day what was said of the Jews in the days of Purim: “La-yehudim hayata orah v’simcah – and for the Jews there was light and joy… kein tihiyeh lanu – so shall it be for us.”  Shabbat Shalom

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From the Weekly e-blast 3/10/16:

KEEP ON COUNTING

Deep into the night they toil, our CPAs. Carefully, quietly, their devoted families lay food beside them, and perhaps an occasional change of clothing.  It is TAX SEASON, and they are busy accounting for what we have and counting what we owe.  Soon it will be over, this madness.  Soon, after April fifteenth.

In the middle ages the nobility and the princes of the church considered money beneath them – perhaps because they had it all.  They called it filthy lucre.  But as commerce expanded and credit became more and more necessary, rather than soil their own hands, they turned to us, to the Jews.  We were the merchants of money, not just in Venice, but in most of Europe and beyond.  There were books and records to be compiled.  We were the ones who did it.  Counting, counting.

People of the book we Jews are called. Not just that book, the ledger book also.  We’ve been counting for countless generations.  We will read in this   week’s Torah portion of Pekude  how our ancestors kept records of how much they used to construct the Mishkan, the sanctuary they constructed in the wilderness:

All the gold that was used… came to 29 talents and 730 shekels… The silver… came to 100 talents and 1,775 shekels… a half-shekel a head for each one who was entered into the records…  [Exodus 38:24-26]   

Counting people, counting gold and silver and copper.  Counting, counting.

What else do we count?  We can count those who use their money wisely, the ten percent we’re enjoined to give, to help where help is needed. 

There is a story about R.H. Macy who founded the department store that still bears his name.  He was often seen pulling a small notepad from his pocket and writing numbers in it.  “Is that an accounting of your assets?” he was once asked.  “Yes,” he replied. “I keep an account of the assets I control.”  “You mean your stocks, bonds, factories, real estate?”  “No,” he said.  “I keep track of what I’ve given away.  Floods, fire, financial reverses, who knows what, can take all the other things away from me.  But only what I’ve given has truly been under my control.  Counting, counting.

Lastly, Rabbi Marc Angel, who spoke during the Centennial celebration of our synagogue tells a story [Forward, 1-12-96] about Satan who came before God one Yom Kippur and accused the Jews of uttering meaningless prayers.

The angel suggested to God that the Almighty take all the prayers of the Jews and dump them into a machine and grind them out. “When You do that, said Satan, you will see what their prayers really consist of.” God complied and ground all the Jews' prayers from all over the world into a giant machine. Out of the machine came the words: “money, money, money.”

See,” said Satan, with a big smile on his face. “I was right!”

A kind angel then approached God and suggested that the Almighty put the prayers through the same machine a second time, asking for more detailed clarification.

God agreed and this time the prayers came out in these words: “Money for schools, money for synagogues, money for the poor and oppressed, money for hospitals, money for medical research, money for arts and culture, money for university endowment funds, money for Israel, money for a just society, etc. etc. etc.”

The kind angel sat quietly, and rested his case.

Counting, counting.  So let us be proud of being people of the ledger books.  Let us make our money, count our money, and most importantly spend it on the things that really count.  

Shabbat Shalom and Amen

 

 

From the Weekly e-blast 3/3/16:

IN FAVOR OF SIN

One of my favorite midrashim appears in this week's portion.  The Torah says that when Moses issued a call for the people to bring gifts of materials for the making of the Mishkan, the women brought their mirrors and that it was out of these mirrors that the laver in which the kohanim washed before they began their daily duties was made.

Rashi notices that only here in the whole story of the making of the Mishkan do we have an account of a specific gift and what it was used for.  And he imagines this dialogue between Moses and God:

Moses is upset at the chutspah of the women in bringing mirrors - INSTRUMENTS OF VANITY for use in a holy place.  And he is about to reject them when God intervenes. God says: accept them, FOR THEY ARE MORE PRECIOUS TO ME THAN ANY OTHER GIFT..

How can that be?  Why does God insist that the mirrors of the women are sacred?  Because when the Israelite men were slaves in Egypt, working from before sunrise till after sunset, forced to do backbreaking and demeaning work, day after day, they felt like beasts of burden.  They lost all morale and all spirit and they would come back from their labors exhausted, eat the few morsels of food that they were given and throw themselves down on the ground to rest for a few hours before they had to begin the excruciating and demoralizing slave labor once again.

But it was the women who kept the morale and the will to live of their men alive, even in these difficult circumstances.  They would beautify themselves, with the help of these mirrors and with the help of whatever paints and rouges and eye shadow they could find. And when their men came home, exhausted and dehumanized, they were the one bit of beauty, the one semblance of civilization that their husbands could find in the midst of all their suffering.  It was thanks to the women of the Israelites that there was one bit of beauty still left in the slave camps of Egypt.  They kept the morale of their husbands going and they are responsible for their spiritual survival, despite the degradations and the persecutions that they endured.  This is why God says to Moses: accept these mirrors, for they are more precious to Me than anything else

The lesson for us to learn from this Midrash is that we cannot dismiss any object as vain or improper until we first judge it in its context.  Mirrors in the possession of vain, self-pampering women (or men) can be an instrument of sin. The same mirrors in the possession of the women in Egypt were holy objects that helped the Jewish people survive.

What is true of mirrors is true of all the other so-called sins. What determines whether they are really sins or not is how, and why, and for whose sake they are used.

So there is a time for beauty, G-d said so.  And, believe it or not, there is even a time for atheism.

Do you know the chassidic story about how the disciples come to their rebbe and say to him: we know that everything God made, He made for a purpose.  But what did God have to make atheism and doubt for?  These give us no rest. They keep us awake at night. They spoil our prayers.  Why did God have to make atheism and doubt?

To which the rebbe replied: When a poor man comes to you for help, you should not say to him: God will help you.  Instead, you should feel at that moment as if there is no God, and that you and only you can help this man.  That is the purpose of atheism and that is the situation in life in which we ought to practice it.

What we should learn from these examples about the potential goodness of vanity, and of atheism, is that the wise old man, Kohelet, was right when he said that there is a time and a purpose for every thing under heaven, even for those things that we think of as sins.

Shabbat Shalom.

 
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From the Weekly e-blast 2/25/16:

Moses’ Defends the People After the Sin of the Golden Calf

We all expect religious leaders to stand up for God and for the world as it is - to justify God's ways to a questioning and troubled congregation.  After all, shouldn't faith in God also imply faith in God's governance of the world?  If God is the greatest possible being, then God's creation should be the best of all possible worlds.

Jews who would like to believe in a loving and powerful God, a God who is just and good, often come to their rabbis hoping that their spiritual leader will make sense of tragedy, will show how what appears unjust is really part of a higher order.

Just as we expect our rabbis to demonstrate untroubled devotion (in order to point to the way for us all), the rabbis of antiquity turned to the rabbi of all rabbis, to Moshe Rabbenu - Moses our Rabbi, to embody all that a spiritual leader should be.

Inspired by his remarkable infancy, by his miraculous encounter with the burning bush and his courageous conformation with Pharaoh, Moses certainly seems to embody all that a rabbi should.  But then, the Torah recounts a most troubling experience.

After appearing before Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron are appalled to learn that Pharaoh has responded to their demands for freedom by increasing the slaves' suffering!  Of course, the Israelites blame Moses for their new agonies, telling him, "May Adonai look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers."

Moses is so tormented by their rage that he turns to God and says, "Adonai, why did You bring harm upon this people?  Why did You send me?  Ever since I cam to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people."

The rabbis of midrash Sh'mot Rabbah found that outburst shocking. "What is the meaning of this expression?  It is usual that when one person asks another, "Why have you done this?" that the question is asked out of anger, yet Moses says it to God!?!?

In fact, they develop Moses' short exclamation into a cogent and forceful use of logic against the Holy One: Say Moses-

“I have perused the Book of Genesis and read the doings of the generation of the Flood and how they were punished, and that was deserved; also how the generation of Sodom which witnessed the separation of the races was punished, and that they deserved their punishment too.  But this people, what has it done to be more enslaved than all preceding generations?  Is it because of (the doubts expressed by) our father Abraham?  Then Esau and Ismael, being his descendants also, should have been subjected to slavery too; moreover, the generation of Isaac and Jacob should have been the one subjected, rather than my own generation!"

Moses finds God's treatment of the Israelites unjust.  Not only does God let them suffer unfairly, but God still hasn't brought about their deliverance.  And, never one to suffer in silence, Moses challenges God directly, expecting God to meet his high expectations and his own understanding of what constitutes justice.

In this week’s Perasha of Ki Te’ssa which details the sin of the golden calf, Moses does the same questioning of God’s justice. He actually tells God, if you don’t forgive them, then erase my name from this Torah that I am bringing down from you!

Questioning God's justice is actually an assertion of love and loyalty with those who are suffering. It is the outer evidence of an inner passion for justice and for goodness. Because of that passion, questioning God's justice is really a form of loyalty to God: only someone with a commitment to morality and ethics could have an ethical problem with the way the world works.

We don't question the ethics of a spider eating a fly, because we don't expect morality there. But we do expect morality of God, out of our loyalty to God and our loyalty to the Torah as an expression of God's morality.

Questioning God's ways, even expressing disappointment or anger at the pain that frequently comes with living, shows the expectation that the universe is morally accountable, which only makes sense in the context of religious faith.

Questioning God is, in fact, an affirmation of loyalty to God's Torah.  It is an act of loyalty to God and to humanity.

Shabbat Shalom

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From the Weekly e-blast 2/18/16:

 

The Eternal Light

One of the most terrifying aspects of getting married is the idea of making a commitment to another person for the rest of one's life.  One of the most daunting responsibilities of parenthood is knowing that another life is dependent on you forever.

Even going to the pound to get a pet can intimidate because of the permanence of commitment.

In a society of people terrified by commitment, in a world in which people worry about what they might be giving up, what options they might be foreclosing, or that they might simply get bored by a particular relationship, the idea of a dependency that lasts forever is a frightening one indeed.

Ours is a culture that always keeps an eye on the exit, one foot out the door.  I gotta be me.

Jewish culture offers a healthy alternative to the independent nature of American relationships.  In fact, our Torah portion this week offers an interesting and unexpected perspective that might be helpful in our own age.

Parashat Tetzaveh speaks of the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in the wilderness.  This was Israel's portable site of worship and sacrifice, the precursor and role model for King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and also the synagogues of today.

The Israelites were commanded to build a site where they could encounter God, and to furnish it with an altar, with a Holy of Holies and with a ner tamid, an eternal light: "And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure olive oil beaten for light, to cause the lamp to burn continually." When I am asked to give tours of the keilah, I am most often asked about this light which is right above the ark. Recall, dear reader, that as we conclude Yom Hakipurim, the Ner Tamid, is turned off and then on by an honored member, usually remembering a loved one who has gone on to receive his/her eternal reward.

Always sensitive to unusual language, the rabbis of the Talmud notice that the Hebrew translates literally as "to cause the light to go up continually."  So they explain that phrase to mean "he (the priest) kindles the light until the flame rises by itself."

In other words, the kohen must care for the light until it can maintain itself without his direct involvement.

It's not enough just to light the flames; he is responsible for assuring that they can continue to burn without his immediate attention.

In that regard, the care that the kohen lavishes over the ner tamid is not unlike the commitment we make whenever we enter a relationship as well.  It comes as no surprise to parents that initiating that connection implies guiding the children to their own independence: good parenting doesn't stop with the immediate physical needs of the children, but extends to giving them the insight, values and self-confidence to be able to maintain themselves after the parents are no longer there.

Purchasing a pet from the pound involves a commitment to be there for the animal long after the immediate thrill has dissipated, ensuring that the pet can sustain itself throughout its lifetime.  So, too, with elderly parents.  Good children provide for their parents' physical and emotional needs so that they too can shine on their own.

The light of the ner tamid shines into the recesses of human relationships, mandating that we care in such a way that the recipient of our love is strengthened by our involvement and is better able to cope with life independently.  The kohen cares, as it were, for the dignity of the ner tamid, providing it with the ability to shine on its own.

We, too, must care for each other so that our mutual dignity is fortified, so that resilience, independence and well-being are enhanced by our love and our care.

One difference between living things, and the ner tamid, however, has to do with permanence.  While the ner tamid can definitively be established so it can flame on its own, no human being is ever fully independent, ever a finished product. The instruction to cultivate it until it can burn on its own is really a commandment to be constantly involved, to open ourselves to life-long commitments to those we love: our spouses, our parents, our siblings, our children and our friends.

Just as God's love and care never ends, so our own must become eternal as well.     Shabbat Shalom.

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From the Weekly e-blast 2/11/16:

Chaim Abromowitz was on a cruise when his yacht sank during a violent storm.  Fortunately everyone on board survived by swimming to a nearby island. When the people realized that they might be stranded for weeks or even months on this desert island, they began building shelters for themselves and searching for food.

All except Mr. Abromowitz. He lay on the beach tanning himself in the sun. When the others asked him why he was so calm, he said, "You don't understand. Two years ago my synagogue had a shortfall and I gave them twenty-thousand dollars. Last year when they had a capital campaign I gave them fifty-thousand. It's a new year ~ don't worry, they'll find us!"

They say that there's nothing new under the sun and that's certainly true when it comes to Jewish fund raising.  Parashat Terumah, this week’s Torah portion, opens with the first record of a building campaign but not the last. Having left Egypt and receiving the Torah at Sinai, Moses is told to instruct the people, "Vayik-khu lee Terumah ~ take for me an offering," of silver, gold, fine materials and precious stones. With these materials the people were to build a Mishkan, a tabernacle, so that, "God might dwell in their midst."

The sages point out that there's two things about the opening verse of our Parashah that are strange. First, Moses is instructed to invite the people, and not to order them, to contribute to the building of tabernacle. With all the commandments in the Torah, one would have expected this verse to be the same: Thou shalt. But it's not ~ it contains an invitation for all those with a generous heart to contribute to this project.

And second, the Torah seems to have it backwards. Vayk-khu lee, means "Let them TAKE -- Let them GIVE. Giving and taking would appear to be opposite activities. So why doesn't the Torah simply say, "Let them give an offering?" After all, the people were really being asked to give, not take something.

There's a lesson to be learned from the seemingly strange language of this verse. It teaches us that the greatest gift that we can receive is the one that we give away! And it teaches us that our generosity is the measure of our pleasure and our wealth in life. What we give is what we take.

Sir Moses Montifiore was one of the richest Englishmen of the nineteenth century and one of its best known philanthropists. He was once approached by a very rude man who wanted to know how much the philanthropist was "worth." Without blinking, Montifiore answered 50,000 English pounds. "Only 50,000?" pounds?" the man answered, "Why every one knows you're worth much more than that!" "My good man, you misunderstood me," said Montifiore, "I'm worth 50,000 pounds. That's how much I've given away to charity so far this year. It's the only money that I have to my credit!"

I believe that this is a great philosophy by which to live ones life. Charity is not what we give away but what we really have! The worth of a human being can be measured by what he gave away this year ~ not how much money he was able to hoard in the bank. Instead of looking at our stock portfolio maybe we ought to review a persons charitable giving...

It's no accident that there are no pockets on Takhrikhim ~ on a Jewish burial shroud. This garment teaches us a lesson we have all stated at one time or another but are not sure we truly believe: "You can't take it with you." In the end, human life is measured not by what we take with us but what we give away. There are no deposits in the next world ~ only receipts. Hopefully we will all leave this world with empty pockets, having given away everything we have and having done all that we can do.

The building of the Tabernacle, then, was not about Kavod - it wasn't about the honors people would receive for having contributed to this important project. There were no name plates in the Mishkan and no dedicatory plaques. And yet every person who gave knew that they were receiving more than they were giving up. True charity has the power to enrich us. In the words of the great sage and Philosopher, Moses Maimonides -- "No person has ever been impoverished by giving charity."

Too often we hear people complaining about the constant demands for support from their synagogue, or other organizations, or the needy. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could come to see these requests not as a burden but as an opportunity? Not only as a chance to give but a challenge to take something back in return?

The Talmud says, "Tzedakah tatzil mimavet," — charity can save us from death. Giving and taking a really not so different from one another. Both have the power to enrich our souls. Both have the power to add sanctity and meaning to our lives.  Shabbat Shalom!

 
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From the Weekly e-blast 1/28/16:
 
Dear Friends:
  
This Shabbat morning we will be fortunate to listen to the reading of one of the most significant statements of religion and morality: the Aseret Hadibrot, or the Ten Commandments.  Isn't it strange that these commandments are just as controversial today as they were 3500 years ago when the Jewish people first received them at Mount Sinai?  Who could imagine that at the beginning of the twenty first century we would still be arguing about these ten simple laws?
 
I once saw a bumper sticker that said: "The Ten Commandments are not multiple choice." We are not supposed to pick and choose between them. Yet I suspect that we do.
 
The truth is, though, most of us do affirm the Ten Commandments. If I received a dime every time someone said, "I'm a good person. I try to live by the Ten Commandments," I'd be rich. Most people choose to define morality by this basic set of laws. The fact that there are six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah, and not just ten, doesn't seem to matter to most of us. Everything comes down to this sub-set that we can count on two hands. We believe them. We affirm them. And we try to live by them.
 
All, except one, that is.  There's one commandment that we seem to have forgotten. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy."  While we regularly affirm the Ten Commandments as the fundamental laws of society, few people make the time to 'remember' the Sabbath and make it a regular part of their weekly schedule. I don't mean simply coming to synagogue or attending a church once a week. I mean setting aside twenty-four or twenty five hours as a true day of rest and renewal.
 
Just the opposite is true: we are moving furiously toward a society that functions 24/7. In fact we may already be there. We value immediate service, fast response, and we crave our constantconnection to the world. How many of us carry cell phones and other wireless internet devices with us all the time. There is no time for breaks and we value speed above all else. The instruments that we consider conveniences actually enslave us. We can't free ourselves of them. We have to check our e-mail; we can't bear to forgo the last phone call. We're afraid we'll miss something.
 
While communications devices have brought us closer together, they have also made our lives more chaotic and hectic. There was a time when you wrote a letter and you had to wait several days or a week for a response. Now the response is almost immediate. Rather then improving our lives, wireless devices consume the spare minutes between chores. There's no time to breathe; someone is waiting for our answer.
 
Regular mail is now referred to pejoratively as snail mail. It has become something of a dinosaur. One of my colleagues recently asked me, when was the last time you took the time to hand-write a letter to someone?  Worst of all, our work follows us home as we turn on our personal computers. Or if you're like me, then you never turn your computer off. It's constantly feeding you an overwhelming amount of data and information. We are on overload. Life doesn't stop. And we grow more and more tired each day. In fact right now, 9:01 am Thursday morning, I'm pretty tired already after a sleepless night.
 
This obsession with technology has had another ill affect on us. The more time we spend focusing on the outside world means that we spend less time focusing on our inner spiritual life. It is so easy to spend all our time checking e-mail, looking at the news, watching video clips, and monitoring the weather that we never stop to listen to the inner sounds of our soul. Shabbat is an opportunity to take a moratorium from the world so that we can get back in touch not only with God but with ourselves, and our community. It's a chance to rediscover our family and renew our romance with our spouse. What could be more romantic than a dinner with candlelight and wine? Shabbat is an opportunity to smell the roses, take a walk, or just spend time veg'ing out with a friend.
 
I was fascinated to discover an article on-line about the importance of "Keeping the Sabbath." What was so fascinating for me was that the article appeared in an on-line journal from the Alden Institute. The Alden Institute is an organization that advises churches on how to function more effectively. Written by Lynne Baab, A Presbyterian Minister, the article suggests that we need to rediscover the Sabbath as a way of avoiding burn out.  Rev. Baab responds to several myths about keeping the Sabbath. Her approach sounds very Jewish!
 
One common myth is that we can't afford the time to give up a whole day of productivity each week. Ms Baab points out that in recent studies it was found that people who worked seven 50-hour weeks got no more done than those who worked seven 40-hour weeks. Among more than a hundred and fifty churchgoers the author found that people who observed the Sabbath got more done because they felt more focused and rested during the work week even though they may work fewer total hours.
 
We need the Sabbath now more than ever. Shabbat does not restrict our lives - it frees us to become our selves. It saves us from burn out. And while Shabbat may be different for each of us, we need to begin by blocking out this time and giving it back to God.
 
Shabbat is the forgotten commandment. And we need it now more then ever. So lets "Turn off, shut down, and reconnect to life!"  Shabbat Shalom. Looking forward to seeing you on Shabbat and standing with you as the Ten Commandments are read again.
 
(excerpts from Shabbat: The Forgotten Commandment by 
Rabbi Mark B Greenspan, Beth Shalom Oceanside Jewish Center)
Shabbat Shalom,
 
Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla 
 
---
 
From the Weekly e-blast 1/21/16:
 
Dear Friends:
 
"Good Morning. Welcome to my Bar Mitzvah. This week's Torah portion is Beshalach. Beshalach when read on Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira or The Shabbat of song.  Beshalach contains one of the most important episodes in Jewish history - the splitting of the reed sea, most people call it the Red Sea. So important is this miracle is that it is mentioned every day in morning prayer. You all remember the miracle from the film-right!
 
The miracle of the splitting of the red sea is celebrated through song. Moses, not Charlton Heston, and the children of Israel sing the song of Moses after the Egyptians are drowned by the sea. "Az Yashir Moshe". The song of Moses has 18 verses. And the number 18 in Hebrew is Chai - which means  -  life. What is especially interesting about these 18 verses is that there is a space in the Torah scroll between each verse. Many rabbis believe this is Moses giving all of us, those who didn't see the miracle, space to create another 18, another chance to create miracles in their own, in our own lives.
 
After Moses sings with the people, Miriam sings a song with the women and Miriam's song is greater than Moses's song - the men's song. How is that possible if the women's song is only two verses? Why should the women's song be considered greater in holiness?
 
Because when the people were leaving Egypt they had to choose what they could carry with them. The women chose to bring with them their instruments. Miriam and the women had faith that God would preform a miracle and save them. The women wanted to be prepared to sing and rejoice and thank God. The women had emuna , trust, that God would do something miraculous for which  they would need the musical instruments. What the women had was FAITH!!!
 
So how does Parashat Beshalach relate to me? Moses song has left an empty space for me to write my own song in life. What will I choose to do and what miracles do I have in my life and what miracles can I create for people?
          
And Miriam's song and the women who acted with blind faith? How do I act with blind faith? Do I do things without knowing the outcome hoping they will produce good things? Do I do it without knowing exactly what the good will be?
Yes. I do! Tikun Olam which is to Repair the world. And sometimes Tikun Olam needs to be blind. We begin something good and don't necessarily ever know how it ends or if it ends.
          
My mitzvah project is a bit blind. Here is what I mean. I am working with a grassroots organization called Ethiopia skate. They create opportunities for young Ethiopians in Addis Ababa to gain access to skate boards and organize skate sessions with foreign skaters. Ethiopia Skate utilizes skateboarding to encourage sport, individualism, and confidence. It is about bringing all types of people together with fearlessness and creativity!
 
This is personal for me because skating has brought me space and freedom and movement and friendships and a kinship with long boarders from anywhere.
 
I don't know which children will receive the equipment I am donating. I don't know how it will affect them. I don't know what a simple skateboard will do for someone that has no access to one or money to afford one. But if I can give them a bit of joy, a bit of freedom, a bit of sport, well, I'll have faith that it brings smiles. It is my hope one day to travel to Addis Ababa and skate with these young boys.
 
I would like to thank...."
 
This was the Bar mitzvah speech from this morning from Felix Fisch. The family has had a long association with Or Ve Shalom and I was privileged to teach Felix his Torah and prayers. I felt his message was worth sharing this week for this Shabbat-Shabbat Shirah. 
 
Mazal Tov Felix and Fisch-Birnbaum Family!
Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla 

 

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