From the Rabbi’s Desk — April 2018
Elevating the Conversation: Words Matter!
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gevas to Antiparas (Judea); and they all died during one period because they did not treat each other with respect and the world was left desolate:- until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua; and it was they who founded the Torah at that time.
A Tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.
Rabbi Hama bar Abba or, it might be said, Rabbi Chiyyah bar Avin said: All of them died a cruel death.
As I have written and spoken about numerous times (and will continue to do so – with God’s help), Judaism places a very high value on the power of words. Words in Jewish thought hold God’s creative power within them. As the story of Creation itself utilizes words to create the universe. From the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai to the words of theProphets calling us to justice, our most sacred Scriptures are a treasure trove of timeless words that continue to inspire, command, and challenge us to strive for the highest ideals of moral and ethical behavior. Yet, our sacred texts also show us how words can demean, hurt, and destroy one another, our world, and God’s very name. From the unknown words that Cain speaks to his brother Abel before killing him, to the hurtful words of Aaron and Miriam against Moses; words have the power to destroy relationships, divide a people (ie Korach), and even exile God’s presence from among us (the Rabbis attribute the destruction of the 2nd Temple to evil speech). Words are never taken lightly in the Jewish tradition.
Enter the period of the Jewish calendar called the Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) which had its origins in the agricultural tradition of the wheat harvest. Each year as Passover approached the old grain was used up, while the new grain awaited harvesting in the fields. Jews would then offer a “sheaf(omer) of elevation(t’nufah)” of the new crop of grain as an sacrifice to God for a prosperous harvest and as a thanksgiving offering to God. It was by all accounts a time of great happiness and celebration.
This all changed during the time of Rabbi Akiva (some date this particularly to the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome in 166 C.E.) where the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) in a tragic yet strange reference remarks that 12,000 pairs of his disciples died because “they did not treat each other with respect…” Further, “the world was left desolate”… and “All of them died a cruel death.” Whether it was a disease/plague (as some suggest) or the Romans (during the Bar Kochba war) but the texts attributes their deaths to the rampant immorality of disrespect they showed each other – and alludes that their deaths were a punishment from God. What is crystal clear is that disagreements and hurtful words lead to demeaning each other, disrespecting each other, and in the end destroying each other. A pattern that history has shown time and time again to be true. (From blood libels to the Shoah)
The change in the nature of the Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) from joy to sadness is often attributed to this story. It is traditional not to perform weddings or shave until Lag B’Omer (when the “plague” against the students subsided). While these traditions might seem a little bit drastic, I believe our times once again demonstrate that we should not, cannot, must not forget this lesson. How we talk, tweet, and treat each other is extremely important. We can argue and disagree but we must not lose sight of the respect we need to have for one another and the impact of our words to hurt or destroy. We need to fight the current rise in hateful speech, in all of its forms whether it is cyber-bullying, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, etc. while also watching how we debate and talk about the topics the divide us. As we count the Omer, let us resolve to elevate the level of our discourse and in so doing creating more Torah and more life.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — March 2018
Together for Pesach
Have you ever had a nightmare where you found yourself left behind and alone? It is quite a frightening and awful feeling. Even in the comic movie Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin’s character at first struggles to adjust to this new reality. Now imagine that it is the night of the Exodus from Egypt, the 10th plague is over and everyone is hurriedly gathering their belongings ready to set out to who knows where.You’ve packed your sack and are ready to go but when you step outside, there is nobody around. Absolutely nobody! I imagine at first, shouting out, as the feeling of panic sets in. Eventually, however fear may be replaced with a feeling of hopeless loneliness and abandonment. They have forgotten me! They have left me!
Interestingly in the account of the Exodus, the Torah takes a moment to remind us that we cannot leave anyone behind. Our ancestor Joseph’s bones, who generations earlier we had sworn to bury, must come with us out of Egypt. Indeed, it is precisely when we might be so harried and uncertain about our own journey that we are told that Moses stopped to retrieve Joseph’s bones. The text of the Torah also states, that a “mixed multitude” left Egypt. The Sages interpreted this to mean, that the young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, Jew and non-Jew seeking to be free of the shackles of Egyptian slavery went forth. No one who wished to be a part of the exodus to freedom was left behind. In fact, when the Egyptians realize just how many people had left, they complain to Pharaoh about it. They persuaded him to change his mind yet again and pursue us with his army and chariots towards the sea.
This lesson is not merely one from the past but one that we need to remember today. It is all too easy for people to be left behind and to feel they are alone. The Haggadah reminds us from the beginning saying, “Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesach feast.” When the Rabbis ask why do we need both parts of this statement since the first part already deals with the hungry? They answer that those “in need” means those who have food and wealth but no one to share the Pesach feast with. In essence, no one should be alone and abandoned.
This is one of the main reasons we have a Brith Sholom community seder. It allows people to come together and celebrate the Passover holiday without anyone feeling they need to ask or be asked to attend a seder. For some, they would have no other seder experience without it. But it is much more than that. The community seder is open to everyone, member and non-member, Jew and non-Jew, rich, poor and everyone in between. We never turn anyone away. It is a joyous celebration of freedom with the story of the Haggadah coming to life in both its traditional as well as new and innovative ways (this year to the tunes of Rogers and Hammerstein). It is a feast to nourish the body, the soul, and our bonds of connection. We left Egypt not merely as a singular family but as a “mixed multitude” carrying both the most vulnerable among us, as well as those who too often would have been forgotten. How fitting therefore that we continue this tradition today, by ensuring that everyone has a seat at the seder table. As our member Joan Parker captured in her new children’s book entitled No Seder Without You, indeed it would be, “no seder without you!”
Chag Kasher v’ Sameach! A Zissen and Joyous Pesach to all!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — February 2018
Hide and Seek: Purim and Revealing Ourselves
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on
(from Billy Joel – The Stranger)
Ever since I was a child, one of the most enjoyable parts of the Purim holiday for me has always been dressing up. For just a few hours, I could pretend to be someone that I was not. The scoundrel Haman with his pointy hat and pirate like beard or a doctor borrowing my mom’s nursing scrubs and stethoscope. It was always a fun challenge to come up with an exotic and unique costume and imagine winning the costume contest at my synagogue. Granted there was no “trick or treat”, but there were plenty of hamentaschen to eat and bets on what crazy and wild costume the Rabbi would come as. The joy of Purim was just contagious. But, why do we dress up with masks (maseichot) and costumes? In the story of Esther we find a lot of intrigue and misdirection. From the beginning with King Ahashverus’s demand that Vashti reveal everything (ancient #MeToo) we can see a theme throughout the megillah of reveal vs. hide. Central to the story is that Mordechai asks Hadassah to hide her identity in Esther and not reveal that she is indeed Jewish. In fact the name Esther is a double entendre. Esther is based on the Persian goddess, Ishtar (star) but in Hebrew the word also comes from the root hester which means to hide or be hidden. We read about how the harem of women competing for the love of Ahashverus were anointed with fragrance and slathered with makeup. Esther we learn, doesn’t need to hide her beauty, it is radiant without any embellishment. Another thing scholars recognize is the detailed descriptions of clothing throughout the story. From the king’s finery, the reward parade clothes of Mordechai, to the sack and ash clothe worn in fear of destruction. – clothes and their descriptions and use play an important role in setting the mood and drama of what is to come.
Yet, as with all things Jewish, there is a deeper meaning that is waiting to be revealed. The interplay of identity and self is an important theme of Purim. Mordechai reminds Esther that even though she is the queen, the fate of her people will also impact her. She is at the end of the day – a member of the Jewish people even when she hides that aspect of herself. Many of us can relate to this idea of figuratively wearing masks and concealing pieces of ourselves from others. This hiding or concealment of who we are sometimes comes about because we are frightened to show ourselves to others. We do not want to feel rejected, subject ourselves to ridicule, or have the other person/people not understand who we truly are. We therefore often use psychological energy to formulate a “mask” which defends us against these feelings. From smiling even though we are sad to even suppressing deep depression/anxieties, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation to name a few. Many people spend their lives living behind the masks they create in order to cope with friends, family, co-workers and others. This often makes people feel that they are not understood, that they are strangers unable to find someone to truly connect with who will love them for who they are and not for who they picture others want them to be.
Discovering who we are is a hard process of being honest with ourselves. Having to wear masks that hide these hard-fought insights from those around us is many times even more painful and difficult. Esther’s bravery was her ability to not only come to grips with who she really was but also that she could stop hiding her true self and reveal it to the king and the kingdom. It not only saved and transformed her life but the lives of our people. At Congregation Brith Sholom, I hope each one of you can be who you are without the need of a mask. You should know that the love and community we share welcomes everyone. We do not need to pretend before God, but rather be true to ourselves and each other. So yes, on Purim we wear masks and costumes but on all other days please come as you are! Our doors and hearts are open.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – January 2018
The Exodus, Civil Rights, and our New/Old Marching Orders
Often when I mention the Civil Rights Movement, people (particularly Baby Boomers) begin to wax nostalgically for the heady days of the 1960’s. Ah, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Dr. King. They will proudly recall the myriads of Jews who organized, protested, and even gave their lives to bring America’s promise to all people. They will point to iconic photographs of Rabbi Prinz at the 1963 March on Washington and Rabbi Heschel arm in arm with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. But, then it seems the Civil Rights Movement ended, period! Love had vanquished hate, peace triumphed over war, racial and gender inequality was outlawed, and all around the “better angels of our nature” defeated our sectarian segregated prejudices, politics, and divisions. Game Over! … But, complacency, indifference, apathy, and cynicism have slowly chipped away at our “better angels.” Today we are gripped by polarities – “Us vs. Them”, the “true” America vs. those who are trying to steal or undermine it. In this tempest of absolutism, compassion for the “other” has been replaced by demonization and contempt. Hate has once again become fashionable, scapegoating and blame acceptable, and close-mindedness and willful ignorance a banner to be lofted.
Which brings me to some lessons we can glean from Shemot (Exodus) which we will begin to read this month. Beginning with a quick review of how the Jewish people ended up in Egypt, we learn quickly that things have gone terribly wrong. Somehow, a new Pharaoh arose who did not remember (or care to remember) Joseph and all he did to save Egypt from famine and death. Instead in a moment of revisionist history, poof! Joseph and rights of the Jewish people were gone. To be fair, the degradation, demonization, and eventual slavery was done in a methodical process, which took time. First, Pharaoh and his advisors demonized the Jews as being disloyal to Egypt, a 5th column if you will, that would side with Egypt’s enemies. The oppression built, slavery the new norm. Then laws were passed to try to restrict the number of Jews. When dissenters among the midwives (Shifra & Puah) refused Pharaoh’s orders, Pharaoh eventually had to take things into his own hands and order his soldiers to throw the Jewish baby boys into the Nile. It was a dark time for humanity and especially for us. Sadly, we have seen this play out over and over again. Closing our eyes to hate and injustice does not make it go away instead it emboldens it. It won’t stop of its own accord but rather has to be continually confronted and mobilized against.
The story of the Exodus gives us a guiding hand on what we can do when faced with these challenges. First, we can never lose our dream of a better future. We know that God has made all human beings “little less than angels.” We hold within us the Divine spark. Deep down we know what kind of world we wish to live in. “We know hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” If we have the dream, if we have the vision, then we know which way the moral compass points. Our people, slavery worn and battered, persisted in hope, in the belief that one day God would redeem us.
The next lesson Exodus teaches us is that God wants us to take the first step. God needed to find people willing to put it all on the line to stand up for what was right. Shira, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, Batya, Aaron, and Moses to name a few. Each act of kindness and courage was critical and without them the story would have been very different. Today the same is true. Each of us has something to contribute to the story of now. We can fight ignorance with learning, listening, and respect. We can double down on kindness, especially to people and communities we don’t normally come across in our daily lives. We can reach out a hand to the most vulnerable, to the most picked on, those who feel the least loved. We can cry out against the hate mongers, the scapegoaters, the narrow-minded purveyors of division and chaos who seek to make our world petty and cold. We each play an important part in this story everyday by the way we communicate and treat each other.
Finally, Exodus reminds us that passing this story down throughout the generations is a spiritual act vital to the future. As Jews, we constantly look to God for help in every age, and in an act of God’s brilliance, God recognized that what we needed was to hold on to this story. God commands us to literally ingrain this story upon our souls and psyche. We tell it to steel ourselves, to remind ourselves of its ending and to recognize in it the continuing struggle for civil rights and freedom. Like so many of the words of Dr. King, we need to remind ourselves over and over again where we came from and where we are going. (Always forward) We are the next generation in this story adding our hearts, minds, and hands in the pursuit of a more just, caring, and loving world. May we merit God’s grace in this pursuit.