From the Rabbi’s Desk — January 2020
Vision, Courage, & Hope
by Rabbi Michael Singer
Parshah Vayeshev starts off with a cruel irony – the word vayeshev means to settle down. As we catch up with our patriarch Jacob and his family – it appears that he can finally yoshev – settle down. He has returned to the Promised Land, reconciled with his brother, Esau and has even wrestled with “man and God” and persevered – earning a new name – Israel. But, just as it seems things are going well – then strife and woe wrack his family with the Jospeh story – where he is tricked into believing that Joseph has been killed by wild animals.This is followed by Judah losing two of his sons – Er & Onan and Jospeh ending up enslaved in Egypt. It appears that everything that could go wrong is going wrong. Certainly, instead of settling down – what we end up is the opposite – great upheaval. (A nod here to 2020 might be appropriate) If we as Jews also add in the beginning of the story of Hanukkah (which as of this writing we are celebrating), then we really have a double whammy. Imagine the desecration of the Holy Temple, the outlawing of Jewish observance, and a seemingly intractable bloody 20 year civil war between the lure of Greco-Hellenism and Jewish tradition. Could the world be turned anymore upside down? (2020 different but familiar)
And yet, even amidst the overwhelming darkness the very lights of redemption are already at work in both the Torah and the story of Hanukkah. It is an ancient recipe but one that never goes out of style – Vision, Courage, & Hope.
The story of Joseph has the thread of dreams and their interpretation running through it. While certainly presented to his parents and brothers in a less than humble way – Joseph has a vision of what the future may bring. Being able to dream of what our community can be, what our world can be is important. So much of what appear to be “impossible” dreams inspire people to strive even over many generations towards realizing them. We went from horse power to the moon in 50 years. Too often we grow comfortable with the status quo, that’s just the “way it is”, instead of dreaming about and articulating a clear vision of what our world could be. Joseph certainly thinks big about where he seems himself visa via his brothers but too often as individuals and as a community we think too small. Placing the bar high allows us to stretch further than we think. For Mattathias, his five sons, and their followers the odds appeared very long indeed. Yet, they were rallied by a vision of a future filled with freedom and religious autonomy. Where Jewish worship would not only be restored to the Temple but that Judaism, as a faith, could be renewed and revered within a changing world marketplace of ideas and interconnectivity.
It is one thing to have a dream and to articulate a vision, and quite another to bring it to fruition. Here again our Torah and the story of Hanukkah offer great wisdom. Joseph not only interprets Pharaoh’s dreams about 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine but then devises a plan of action to ensure that there will be enough food set aside and stored for the lean years. Likewise, the Maccabees daily risked their lives in battle against the better armed and numerically superior Greeks and their Jewish supporters. Most people don’t know that out of the five sons of Mattathias only one, Shimon, survives the 20 year war. Yet, they were willing to risk it all so that Judaism and the Jewish people would survive. In both cases God works through those who have the courage to work for their own redemption.
While our communal efforts today thankfully do not require risking our lives – far too often we are overly risk averse. From innovative inventors to social activists – change does not come easily or without the risk of failure. Yet, risk is vital to moving our society and our community forward. Fear of failure and resistance to change can overwhelm our courage to make difficult and sometimes bold choices. Yet, it is these choices that have the capacity to move us closer to our dreams. I am not suggesting blind thoughtlessness but rather the courage to pursue our vision despite the risk of failure. In the spirit of “Start Up Nation” we have to be willing to fail (possibly many times) to create the transformative and dynamic community we seek. Why? Because we believe in the vision, the dream of what we can truly become, and frankly the price of inaction is certain failure.
Finally, from the literal pit of despair, and a prison cell – Joseph does not give up his faith or his hope. Likewise, the Maccabean dream of an independent Jewish state was not accomplished in a day. Nor our 2000 year dream to rebuild and renew the State of Israel in our own time.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l taught that, ”Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.” We are a people that despite all that has been thrown at us – we continue to place our faith in God and in God’s redemptive power that works through each one of us. Judaism embodies the hope that while darkness may seem to surround us – the light of justice, peace, and hope in a brighter future can never be extinguished. We are the next in the generations to pass this light down. We must face this pandemic, the rise of division, hate & anti-Semitism, the reality of climate change, and the challenges of building this Jewish community – with a compelling vision, the courage to take risks, and the hope worthy of both our ancestor’s sacrifice and our children’s future. May 2021 be a year when God’s blessings and wisdom shine down upon us with health, hope, and peace.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — December 2020
The Hanukkah Story and shmutz – A retelling of cleaning up the mess
Scene: The exhausted but triumphant 5 Maccabee brothers enter the Temple.
Judah: Will you look at this place! Ugg…what a mess!
Jonathan: Can someone turn on the light, I think I stepped in something! Eeeww!
Shimon: NO! That was my foot!
Yochanan: Mom always said you had big feet. Ha!
Eliezer: Okay, okay. Cut it out! Let’s see what condition our sacred Temple is in.
The five brothers begin to look around and are soon deeply saddened by the desecration of the Holy Temple.
Jonathan: Can you believe what they have done to God’s House! Statutes of Zeus and Hera, roasted pig on the altar, not to mention the piles of trash everywhere!
Judah: How will we ever clean this place and ready the Temple for Jewish worship again?
Shimon: I agree with Judah. There is too much damage, too much to clean – we will never be able to restore it. Oh, woe is us!
Yochanan: Woe? You mean, Oy! Oy, is such a better expression of this mess. I mean, Oy! captures not only the state of our Temple but the hopeless challenge before us. – Just Oy!
Eliezer: Brothers, brothers! Do not despair! Think how far we have come. No one believed in the beginning that our small band of freedom fighters could overcome the Greeks. No one believed that the people would rise up and join our call for freedom. No one believed that our faith in God would remain all of these years despite the loss of our Temple. And yet, here we are!
Shimon: Yes, but look around. What once was one of the wonders of the world is now literally a pig-stye. As the saying used to be, “A person has not seen beauty, until they have seen the Temple in Jerusalem.” Where do we even begin?
Eliezer: Well, here. (Motioning to his brothers) Judah, Yochanan, give me a hand in moving this statue of Zeus out.
As the brothers begin to remove the idols from the Temple a small crowd begins to gather and watch.
Bystander: Hey, do you mind if I take this for a decorative fountain in my backyard?
Judah: What?! This is a pagan statute!
Bystander: Yeah, well I just thought it might make a nice fountain…
Shimon: Well, don’t just stand there. This statue is very heavy. Ugh. Give me a hand.
Bystander: Right! Uh, just don’t want to step on your foot.
Yochanan: See, Shimon! Like I said, you’ve got big feet.
Eliezer: Well, that may be true but you’ve given me a great idea. You see they say that “big feet equate to a big heart.” What we need to clean-up this colossal mess are big hearts.
Standing on a small stone pedestal – Eliezer addresses the growing crowd.
Eliezer: Friends, Jews, Countrymen lend me your ears! (This famous line was later tragically altered) God has blessed us with victory over the Greeks. We are once again free from tyranny! We are once again free to worship God and practice our sacred faith! But, God’s work is not yet complete. We must clean all of the shmutz from God’s Temple. We must sweep out idolatry, we must scrub away the sins of oppression, we must polish and shine the lights of liberty, we must spic-n-span the…(Judah punches Eliezer in the arm)
Yochanan: Uh, Eliezer…I think they get the idea.
Eliezer: Ow! That still hurt.
The word spreads throughout the whole city of Jerusalem. People arrive at the Temple with brooms, mops, shovels, rags, and buckets. Also a few smart kids set up a lemonade stand.
Soon, the shmutz disappears and the Temple again sparkles. But in order to rededicate the Temple (Hanukkat haBayit) one thing remains…
Jonathan: Wow! This place looks great! But it is getting dark. Someone should turn on a light.
Judah: Again with the light! Why don’t you look around for some oil?
A short time later…
Shimon: Uh, well. I have some good news and some bad news on the oil front.
Shimon: Well, I tripped and…the good news is we have one jug of oil.
Jonathan: Shimon’s big feet, does us in again!
Eliezer: Well, at least we have enough for one night.
Judah: What we need now is a miracle.
The brothers light the golden 7 branched Menorah. And lo and behold – the oil lasts for eight days until new oil can be produced. “A great miracle happened there.” The Temple is filled with light that can be seen throughout Jerusalem. The people rejoice and are filled with hope.
Moral: While sometimes our lives are filled with large amounts of shmutz and darkness – by working together and with God’s help we can begin to heal and clean up the messes in our lives and world. We just need the courage to start the task.
Chag Urim Sameach! A joyous and light filled Hanukkah!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — November 2020
As I write this d’var Torah, the election is one week away, the Coronavirus is hitting new highs of infection, and I am working on the Bethlehem Interfaith Group Thanksgiving Service of Healing and Unity. What you may ask could possibly tie all of this together?
The story of Cain and Abel? Right you are! It is a story of anger, jealousy, unheeded advice, blame, and yes, death. But it is also a story which at its heart reminds us of our common humanity and responsibility to one another. Together I believe we can heal both our self-inflicted wounds as well as those of the pandemic. We can care for one another, give thanks to God for the blessings of resilience, healing, and love. We can give thanks to those who toil each day as their brother’s/sister’s keepers that together we might “bind up the nation’s wounds”.
Walk with me as we examine the story of Cain and Abel and its moral lessons for our own time.
Our story begins with two very different brothers. Cain is a farmer, he works day in and out to cultivate the land. This is hard and difficult work. When Adam and Eve are cast out from the Garden of Eden, God curses Adam saying, “Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it…Thorns and thistles shall sprout for you…”(Gen. 3:17-18) God continues saying that, “…your food shall be the grasses of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat…” For Cain this is his world. Working the hard earth, to survive.
Then along comes his younger brother, Abel. Unlike Cain, Abel is a shepherd. His flocks move from place to place eating the natural grasses and produce of the land. When they have eaten through an area, Abel just picks up and moves the flock. He has milk, yogurt, cheese, (maybe even cheesecake?! – yum!) wool, hides, and although not yet explicitly allowed (until Noah) possibly steak.
I can imagine a scene from the musical Oklahoma – the ranchers and the cowboys can be friends? Obviously one wants to fence in the land for agriculture and the other wants to roam free eating off the land. One might imagine one brother (Cain) believing the other (Abel) lazy, carefree and maybe even reckless. The other brother (Abel) believing his brother (Cain) is a worry-wort, uptight, sweaty and dirty, always frugal – even stingy hoarding away the harvest. Both brothers no longer understand each other’s world and thereby lose sight of each other’s struggles, contributions, beautiful differences, and humanity.
These tensions begin the division of Cain and Abel but we also see how rivalry for love and attention can add fuel to these divisions. In the story, Cain offers a sacrifice to God of his fruits and vegetables. He is the first person mentioned in the Bible to offer any sacrifice to God at all. Whether it was a leap of faith, a request for sustenance, or a showing of gratitude to God – Cain offers his sacrifice hopeful of God’s acceptance. Abel seeing his older brother’s sacrifice brings his own but the Torah tells us that he “brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.” God accepts Abel’s sacrifice over that of Cain’s. Cain’s reaction is to place the blame on Abel. He is hurt. He cannot see to place the blame on himself or God. He feels rejected and left behind by God. Instead Cain directs his anger not at God (to Whom he cannot hurt) but instead onto Abel, whom he can. We have seen this throughout history over and over. When something terrible beyond control occurs (poverty, famine, disease, changing technology – labor, etc.) it is easy to blame “the others” and to channel the anger and frustration, the hurt and fear against them instead.
Cain’s anger and resentment of Abel grow so much that when the brothers meet in a field, hurtful words are exchanged and Cain murders Abel. If the story ended with the singular moral lesson that murder is wrong that would have been powerful enough but the Torah wants to teach more than that. We do not have to be holding the knife(rock) to be guilty of neglect of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters. The Torah teaches that in the immediate aftermath of Cain’s act, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” And he(Cain) said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) To which the inherent answer is – YES!!!
Jewish law teaches that we are responsible for one another even when we disagree with each other. We are responsible for one another even when we feel so different from each other. So apart from each other. We are meant to care for one another no matter our class, race, political affiliation or religious beliefs. The expansiveness of the Torah’s message is that no matter how divided we may be – in the end we are our brother’s/sister’s keeper by the very fact that we are of the same human family. This is not an easy charge to fulfill. We can be so angry, hurt, and divided that we disown each other. This course leads to only more anger, jealousy, hurt and death. No problems have been solved and the collateral damage (Adam & Eve plus all of the possible future generations that would have come from Abel) leaves the wounds festering for generations to come. Instead, no matter how much we wish to disown each other, the Torah teaches that we cannot. We are forever responsible for one another. Our own lives are interdependent and bound up with those around us. We are an inseparable albeit often disfunctional family.
“…I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” Abraham Lincoln – Thanksgiving Proclamation 1863.
Wishing you and your family continued health and a happy Thanksgiving.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — October 2020
Stressed Out?! Sukkot to the Rescue
“Wish I could turn back time – to the good old days. When our mamas sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.” – twenty one pilots (alternative rock group).
To say that 2020 has been a stressful year would be an understatement. From the Coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest, a contentious upcoming election, and Zoom everything – 2020 has many of us vacillating between sadness and fear. Enter the holiday of Sukkot to give us a much needed boost.Known in the Jewish calendar as z’man simchateinu – the time of our great rejoicing, Sukkot challenges us to take stock of all of the things we should be grateful for. We dwell outside our homes in fragile sukkot which help to give us perspective on how much God has blessed us and sustained us. To truly appreciate what we have and where we have been – Sukkot invites us to recall all of the stress filled moments our biblical ancestors (and we have) confronted and how God saved them and will save us. Hoshiah nah! Please God save us!
Indeed Sukkot offers a tonic of gratitude (scotch, beer, wine & grape juice) to combat the doldrums of despair and apathy. We do have things to celebrate about our lives and our world. There still is beauty in nature, art, music, and our relationships. True, this does not mean that there isn’t tremendous loss, hard times, sadness, and daunting challenges that are before us but we are still here as a people to give thanks.
We hold onto our faith and tell ourselves over and over to look to the future with optimism even in the midst of distress. From the joyful melodies of Hallel to the Hoshanahs of the hakafot – we wave our lulavim and etrogim in all directions to praise God whose creative and renewing presence fills the world. According to tradition, God created human beings so that there would be a creature capable of praise and thanksgiving for all of the amazing beauty and blessings in God’s world. Additionally, we become part of the great salvation process by emulating God’s loving-kindness and grace by doing our part to repair our broken world. To raise our voices and to work for justice. We not only build physical sukkot that are open to the heavens but we also open our hearts to strangers and guests alike as testament to God’s open heart and bounty to all Creation.
With this in mind, I have a few suggestions to make Sukkot at home more meaningful and joyous during this trying year.
- Create a Sukkot/thanksgiving blessing jar or journal. Each night write a little note about some of the things you are grateful for. Or decorate your sukkah or house with cutout fruit shapes and write your thanksgiving blessings on the shapes.
- Another beautiful Sukkot tradition is to collect different color and shaped leaves to make a collage or leaf pressing.
- Try new fruits (like on Rosh HaShanah) or vegetables – these are great for both seeing the diversity of God’s creation and saying the Shehechianu blessing over a new experience.
- Get outdoors! Whether a daily walk or a new place to hike, bike or boat – explore the beauty of nature all around us.
- Bring the beauty indoors by painting, drawing, writing, knitting, crocheting or composing a new piece of art/music/story.
- Make a video gram of blessing for family and friends. Or spread the attitude of gratitude on social media by challenging yourself and others to post, “I’m thankful for…”
- Sing-a-long! – Nothing beats a good Sing-a-long – Join your CBS friends in a virtual Chol HaMoed Sukkot Karaoke sing-a-long on Tuesday, October 6th @ 5pm. Live from Rabbi Singer’s Sukkah – he will be taking requests for songs to post lyrics to as we bring the ruach to z’man simchateinu.
Finally, I want to again reiterate that if you are struggling – financially, emotionally, spiritually – we are here for you. Please pick up the phone and call me. You are not alone. We are all in this together. As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 3:1) taught, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…” May we go from Oy! to Joy! and never lose sight of God’s blessings in our lives.
Moadim L’Simchah! – A Joyous Sukkot holiday season to all!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — September 2020
Getting Clean: Yom Kippur, Soul Sanitizer
Many people still don’t believe me when I say that Yom Kippur is a joyous holiday. Yes, I know that fasting is not easy. Yes, I know that spending the day in front of our CBS YouTube stream (or at the synagogue) will be hard. Yes, I know there is a solemnity and an urgency to the holiday. And yes, I know that by the end we are all ready to hear that final shofar blast so we can eat. Yet all of these truths still add up to the feelings of cleansing forgiveness, a new start, and renewed hope. Yom Kippur is really all about getting clean – if you will a sanitizer for the soul.Understandably most of us don’t like to do it. As a child, when I scraped my knee, my mother would take out the peroxide and say, “This is going to sting a little.” To use another analogy, cleaning our homes is generally not fun. But after the dirt and filth build up, the piles of junk blocking the way – there is nothing like a good scrub or decluttering to bring a sense of joy and peace to our lives. Yom Kippur helps us get clean by removing the grime of sin and the weight of guilt. When completed there is a feeling of elation, relief, and new possibilities – a clean slate for the new year.
The journey of teshuvah is a difficult one – requiring honest and deep introspection and soul work. It means confronting our worst moments and actions, feeling remorse, asking for forgiveness, and making amends. The reward for this effort however is nothing less than redemption. We believe that God does not seek our failure, our punishment, or our misery but rather is rooting for our success, our return, and our life changing transformation for the better. Our mahzor reminds us over and over that God hears our prayers and awaits our teshuvah. With the Divine attributes of mercy, compassion, and loving-kindness – God purifies us and redeems us with His forgiveness. As the 13th century Italian poet, Benjamin ben Abraham wrote in Machar Ya’aseh:
My sovereign, redeem the children of Jacob and accept our fasting from one evening to the next.
Rain down on us the redemption we have prayed for, and quench our thirst.
Tzur Yisrael, Stronghold of Israel, bathe me in Your purifying waters, and purify me as I sing to You: Surely this is our God!
Surely You will do so tomorrow.
Wipe away my sins as I call to You, filled with awe, in Your holy sanctuary.
Form me anew, granting me a heart freshly born, as the righteous teacher foretold in Your holy law regarding this special day.
Yom Kippur is a special cleaning day. A day when God helps us remove the stains that we thought might be permanent. A day to wash away the sins we are both ashamed of and often held prisoner by. A day to put our lives into perspective and heal ourselves. In its place we are remade anew with all of the hope and possibility that our lives can be. I think that is something truly wortg celebrating.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you and your family be sealed in the Book of Life!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — August 2020
Soul Searching/Cheshbon haNefesh – The Gift of the Month of Elul
As I begin the preparations for the coming High Holidays, I usually look over the sermons I gave the previous year to see where we where and where we are now. Well 5780 has been an extraordinary (ground shaking, epic, once in a millennia…) year. This year, taking stock of where we are as individuals, a community,a nation, and a world can feel downright overwhelming. We have been introduced to new words/terms like Zoom, Zoom-bombed, social distancing, white fragility, and “I can’t breathe!” We are living in the midst of multiple life and death calamities – Coronavirus, depression/social isolation, hate/racism/anti-Semitism, and climate change. We are confronted by a pivotal election in November which may determine our country’s direction for years to come. From protests, unemployment, digital security/privacy, systemic racism, health insurance/access, to how we educate our youth (virtual? in-person?) 5780 has forced us to examine who we really are and who we truly wish to be. To put it another way – to do serious “soul searching.”
I know that the term “soul searching” is a popular term that can be easily thrown about in political rhetoric or even misused in a religious context without its true meaning being understood. In fact, taken literally the term is somewhat of an oxymoron. Why should I need to search for my soul as it is inherently a part of me?! It goes along with the term “lost soul” as if our souls can be lost apart from ourselves. Yet, while we can debate the semantic choice of words when we examine the definition of “soul searching” which is “the act or process of close and penetrating analysis of oneself, to determine one’s true motives and sentiments.” – we can see how close it is to our Jewish tradition’s term – cheshbon haNefesh or spiritual accounting. This is the first step in the process of transformative change that is teshuvah (return). Soul searching/cheshbon haNefesh is a process not the end product. Nor is it an easy process. What is required is an honesty and deep humility with ourselves. This can be painful – the truth can be hard to swallow. Of course the internal resistance and defense we put up are designed to shield us from the unpleasant, the difficult, the need for substantive change. Breaking old habits, peeling back the figurative mask behind which we hide (YES, you should wear a physical mask!), acknowledging what we do versus what we believe all lead to a cognitive dissonance which can be both jarring and painful. Yet, this is exactly what soul searching/cheshbon haNefesh are all about. It is about taking stock of ourselves, examining our actions/inactions, our motivations and intentions in relation to our professed values, our moral conscience, and our aspirational selves.
In their wisdom, our Sages recognized that we needed more than Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the 10 day in between them to do this soul searching/cheshbon haNefesh. Historically before the rabbinic period the month of Elul was tax season. It was the time where a person calculated the tithes to the government and to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was done in sixth month of the Jewish calendar which was the last month before the new year of years (Rosh HaShanah) which followed in Tishrei (the seventh month). The Rabbis recognized that just as they took stock/account of their possessions to calculate the tithe so to did we need a month of “soul accounting” (cheshbon haNefesh) to examine our spiritual lives. The proverbial bill was coming due. Therefore they instituted the blowing of the shofar every day in the month of Elul to “wake up” the Jewish community to this process. They added special liturgical prayers – selichot – prayers of penitence (which Sephardic Jews still do at midnight each night during the month of Elul) to facilitate introspection and evaluation of the relationships we have with God, ourselves, and with each other.
So here we are – beneficiaries of a timeless tradition that calls us to search our souls, to account, to atone, and to do the hard work of changing. For me the month of Elul is a gift. A whole month to take the time to reckon with myself and make a list of when I did not live up to the best of myself and what I believe. Each of us has this opportunity for reflection. Let us pray that as we look toward a new year, a new beginning, and new year of life we are honest with ourselves and resolved to make the changes to better our personal behavior, our community, and our world.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — July 2020
Indestructible: How Judaism changes, survives, and flourishes despite calamity
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like seeing the Temple in Jerusalem on fire. After months of Roman siege, brutality, starvation, and death on the Ninth of Av in the year 70 CE the most beautiful and holy place in Jewish tradition lay in ruin. At the time, all of Jewish ritual, economic, and social life revolved around the Temple, priesthood, and the sacrificial system laid out in the Torah.. All Jewish holidays including Shabbat, sin offerings, thanksgiving offerings, and Jewish self-government were centralized and focused on the Temple and Jerusalem. What lay in ruin was not only this ancient tradition but at its heart and soul the way we had connected with God – the expression of God’s presence in our personal and communal life and our yearning for a relationship with the Divine. Quite frankly, this could have spelled the end of Judaism and yet despite this horrific calamity our faith and people survived and even flourished.
We are here today because what we hold as our core traditions, ethics, and beliefs not only can stand the test of every time and age but because our Sages and leaders understood that for Judaism to survive and flourish they would need to reimagine observance and be creative. From the creation of the Passover seder, to the creative expansion of communal and individual prayer in place of sacrifice, elevating the synagogue, house of study, and home as holy places, and maybe most important the centrality of Torah study, Talmud, and Midrash as an ever growing and changing force in Jewish life. Judaism adapted to become a portable religion able to accompany our people wherever they went. Indeed, as we settled in new places around the world – the influences and traditions of those localities added to the creative growth and innovation of Jewish practices, scholarship, and the arts (yes, culinary arts included).
As Conservative Jews, we are guided by this historical truth that Judaism has always balanced “Tradition and Change”. As we continue to find our way during this time of pandemic and social upheaval, I am confident that together we will not only survive it but also find ways to make our tradition stronger and more committed. For one thing I have heard from so many of you how important the synagogue is to your lives and how much it acts as a social, spiritual, and educational center for our personal and communal wellbeing. We need your support, participation, and creativity now more than ever. If you have ideas, Torah you would like to share in a short d’var on Fridays for Kabbalat Shabbat, want to lead a service or learn how to lead a service, read Torah from the Chumash, share a recipe, check on a friend or neighbor or suggest a topic for adult education – then now is the time to get involved!
The destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av was catastrophic as it led to exile, persecution, and mass murder (the Inquisition, pogroms, the Shoah) throughout our long history but has also shown us time and again that Jewish tradition with our faith in God are indestructible. Our understanding of God’s Torah and halacha (Jewish law) with its ritual practices and traditions – remain true to their core values and historical connections l’dor vador while also allowing flexibility, innovation, and relevance to speak to our souls yearning for God’s presence and direction in our moment of Jewish history.
Wishing everyone a safe and healthy summer!
Rabbi Michael Singer
From the Rabbi’s Desk — June 2020
Olam Chesed Yibaneh (Acts of Loving-Kindness Build the World ) – Inspiration from the Book of Ruth
Shavuot is a holiday that celebrates receiving gifts. We recall the gift of Torah that was given to us on Mt. Sinai as well as the bounty of the grain harvest. We decorate the Torah scrolls in the ark with flowers and in Israel many people decorate their homes with flowers. (some kibbutzim also decorate their animals with flowers as well) It is a wonderful feeling to receive a gift from someone. Sometimes the gift is a physical one and other times the gift is an emotional experience. I think some of the best gifts are ones that come from the heart, a shared piece of themselves- an act of loving-kindness – that shows they are thinking of you, that you are special to them, a gift given freely without expectation of reciprocity. In the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, we see how gifts of loving-kindness wind there way through the story and can inspire us today.
The Book of Ruth begins as tragedy strikes Naomi and her two daughter’s-in-law, Orpah and Ruth with the death of her sons – their husbands. Naomi expects Orpah and Ruth to return to Moab and try to stat their life anew with among their people. Naomi mourns that she has nothing left to give Orpah and Ruth – she is defeated, bereft, and poor. After tearfully saying goodbye, Orpah returns to her people – yet Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. Famously she says, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God…” In this moment Ruth gives Naomi a gift of love that encompasses companionship, self-worth, devotion, and hope. Ruth will care for Naomi and whatever the future may bring she will be there for her. It is an act of loving-kindness that is both sincere and given without expectation. It is exactly what Noami needs at this moment of loss, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty. Indeed all of the gold or material comforts could not come close to the spiritual and life-affirming gift of the heart Ruth gave to Naomi.
It is this act of loving-kindness, this gift of the heart, that will lead Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem and connect them to Boaz, a kind man who is a relative of Naomi’s late husband.
He entreats her to only glean from his fields and instructs his workers to leave extra barley stalks and water for her. When she asks why he has shown a foreigner like her such kindness, he replies, “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband…May God reward your deeds…”
When Naomi sees the bountiful amount of grain Ruth brings home and learns that it was from Boaz she exclaims, “Blessed be he of God, who has not failed in kindness to the living or to the dead!” The book concludes with a fairytale ending as Boaz marries Ruth. Their chid Oved is the father of Jesse and the grandfather of King David. As David in the Psalms would sing, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” – Acts of Loving-Kindness Build the World! Indeed the gift of an act of loving-kindness can change the trajectory of a person’s life and as a result the world.
Take a moment to recall a gift of kindness someone gave to you. How did you feel? How did this gift change you, open a door for you, or sustain you? These are priceless gifts. Even their memories can bring back a feeling of the love someone shared or the simple kindness and compassion given without expectation. And when we recall these gifts of loving-kindness – we can show our gratitude by giving gifts of loving-kindness ourselves. As we better understand their power, worth, and the impact they can have on others and our world. A “Thank You!” for the gifts we have received.
As we continue to face the challenges of our moment in time – I believe each of us has the capacity to give the gift of loving-kindness. It can be as simple as checking on neighbors, family, friends and CBS members. It could be a note of encouragement, a card celebrating a graduation or other simcha, or a baked item left on the stoop, to name a few. As the Book of Ruth teaches us: we can share the gift of loving-kindness, each in our own way, to help heal, sustain, and build our world in good times and in bad times. May God bless our deeds.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — May 2020
Of Counting the Omer and Coronavirus
As Jews we are used to counting. We count the days until Shabbat, the nights of Hannukah, the blasts of the shofar, and of course recently the days until Passover ends so we can eat chametz. Yet, for all the counting we do, counting the Omer can be both the most underrated and forgotten. In its ancient agricultural form, the Omer are the measurements (sheafs) of grain that were brought as elevation offerings marking the new year’s grain harvest. This was the backbone of people’s diets, and everything from bread, oatmeal, cookies and cakes and the important beverages of beer and liquor depended on a good harvest. How bountiful the new harvest was literally meant life and death for everyone in the country. So, the Torah teaches that from the second day of Passover we count 7weeks or 49 days until the Feast of Weeks (50th day) or Shavuot. The counting of the Omer also took on the spiritual story of the journey of our ancestors from slavery (Passover) to freedom and culminating in the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai which was a 49 day journey with the revelation on the 50th day (Shavuot). Many of our Sages understood this period of counting to be a spiritual journey for all of us as we continually prepare ourselves to renew the Covenant of Sinai and accept the Torah and God’s mitzvot upon ourselves. Yet, something terrible happened that would forever change this period of counting the Omer forever in our Jewish tradition.
During the time of Rabbi Akiva, a horrific plague killed thousands of his students and rabbis. Shrouded in mystery the Talmud alludes to this plague as a Divine punishment for vicious arguments among the rabbis and their students conducted without respect and dignity. The plague so ravaged the community that the fate of Judaism was at stake. Another possible reason for this mystery plague was that the Romans, who always feared another Jewish rebellion after the destruction of the Second Temple, had decided that the best way to eradicate a rebellion would be to outlaw all Jewish practice and the teaching of Torah. The Romans went on a campaign to murder all of the Rabbis and their students. Some historians believe this might have been the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. We recall these deaths on Yom Kippur in the Eileh Ezkerah service which recalls all who were martyred for continuing to be Jews.
The mysterious plague whether disease or Roman violence ended on Lag B’Omer (33rd day of the Omer). The Rabbis decreed that until Lag B’Omer, Jews would remember for all time the plague that killed so many by mimicking the traditions of mourning – no haircuts, weddings, or other joyous celebrations. This was the attempt of the community having survived this terrible plague to give meaning to their loss and keep the memory alive from one generation to the next by ritualizing this tragedy.
I admit that most years it is hard for me to continue to count and follow these traditions – since I had no frame of personal reference to a plague and we had more contemporary emotional/historical moments like Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut to observe. Many years I would often grow my beard just so people would ask me, “Hey, Rabbi! Why the beard?!” and I would get to introduce them to this ritual and its meaning. It is also never easy to tell a young wedding couple that I can’t officiate their wedding until Lag B’Omer or after.
This year however, things are very different. Our last Shabbat service together at CBS was on March 7th (when we also honored Sam). It has been over 40 days since we celebrated Erev Purim at Temple Beth El and then the following morning had Purim services at CBS (with yummy leftovers from Sam’s event). I do not think anyone fully grasped how our world would be turned upside-down by the Coronavirus and change our lives in very real ways.
Therefore, during this Counting of the Omer, we are all counting. Scouting the newspaper or news for the latest sad numbers of deaths. Watching our finances go south. Tracking the food in our pantries and the pills in our medicine cabinets. And, if we are lucky counting the minutes between Zoom meetings/services/socials and phone calls from friends and family. We are all counting now. Yet, for all the negatives and depressing statistics – we have also been able to count on each other and the love of others. We have been able to take count of the most valuable assets we have: our health, our family, our friends, our community, and our faith. Counting the Omer this year in light of Coronavirus has put into focus the hard work, kindness, and love that is beyond any measurable metric. It is these blessings that God has given us which sustain life, give us hope, and will eventually when safe allow us to once again to come together physically. During this time, we must continue to count our blessings and help those who are in need. Like the generations before, we will need to mark this time in a religious and spiritual way – to remember those lost, how our world changed, and recount the story for the future. Today however, it okay just to try to remember the day of the week, count the next day of the Omer, and pray like our ancestors did for this plague to end.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — April 2020
We Shall Overcome: Passover’s Message of Hope
And when, in time to come, your children ask you, saying, “What does this mean?” you shall say to them, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13:11)
It is hard for me to imagine a more fitting holiday to be celebrating right now in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic than the holiday of Passover. From feeling confined in a narrow place (Literally in Hebrew the word for Egypt = Mitzrayim), the spread of a plague, devastated communities around the world, and the many ways each of us has had to change our way of life – this year’s Passover will indeed be different than all others.
And yet, despite all of the uncertainty and change the message of Passover is more pertinent and inspiring than ever before. The order of the Seder literally takes us on a journey from slavery to freedom, from tragedy to triumph, and from despair to hope.
Our homes are the focus of the Passover holiday. From cleaning them, to cooking in them, to finally sitting down to enjoy the seder. The home is literally at the heart of Passover. For our ancestors in Egypt, they literally painted their doorposts with lambs blood as they prayed that the final plague would Passover their homes. While I do not recommend this to be done literally, I do think it is important to pray for protection, healing and an end to this pandemic.
For some in our community, this year might be the first time in a long time(or ever) that we have to conduct the seder. I am offering a Zoom session on Friday April 3rd to help answer any questions you may have and also to give some Seder leading tips. There is also a great free website: www.haggadot.com which will let you build your own custom Haggadah. I recommend this to spice up your regular seder routine or just to include special input even from family and friends from far away.(there is a collaborative part)
Passover also is holiday filled with thanksgiving. We sing Hallel as part of the Haggadah and recall all of the blessings that God has given to us. Can you sing – Dayeinu! It would have been enough! Taking stock of the many ways we are blessed is very important. It can help us recognize the good in the world, give us strength to confront the future, and once again remind us to pay if forward by helping and caring for those around us.
The hardship and pain of slavery embedded in our souls the commandments to remember and help those who are suffering. We even remove drops of wine/grape juice from our cups to share in the pain of the Egyptians who suffered for us to be free. Physically distancing ourselves does not mean emotionally distancing ourselves. Passover reminds us that love and care for those who are in need is at the core of who we are as Jews.
Finally, Passover is the feast of freedom. Each year we are commanded to see ourselves as if we personally went forth from Egypt. Some years this is difficult to imagine. This year however, I think many of us can take stock of the sacredness of our freedom. It is something we have fought and died for, that God gives to each human being, and that is more delicate/precarious and yet resilient than we might expect. Whether we are oppressed by our health, by our inner struggles, by the limitations of the “shelther in place” order or our financial plight – may God help us to be free. May God bless us all with good health, loving family, friends and community, and enough prosperity to live in dignity.
Like our ancestors on that first Passover, we do not know what tomorrow may bring but we still hold out hope that while this year we are facing difficult times, next year our situation will be better. With God’s help we will overcome!
Chag Kasher v’Sameach! A zissen Pesach to you and your family!
Rabbi Michael Singer
From the Rabbi’s Desk — March 2020
Purim & Moral Courage: The Few, the Brave – The Upstanders
It is one of the most joyous and fun holidays in our tradition – Purim. Everyone knows the story of Mordechai and Esther – the heroes. The foolish king with the funny to say name, Achashverus. The twisted and wicked villian, Haman (Booooooo!) We shout, grog, dress up, and drink and eat ourselves silly on Purim. From parades and pageants to paradies and shpeilen, Purim brings all ages together to hear the Megillah and its story of salvation and triumph over the evil plots of our enemies. Yet, if we look a little deeper into the comedy of errors of the Megillah, we see a lesson that is both inspiring and daunting. Mordechai refuses to bow to evil, to Haman – to accept Haman’s genocidal plans. Mordechai was willing to literally stand up and risk his very neck (on the gallows) to do what was right. No less did Esther, who might have been able to save herself, risk everything to petition the king on behalf of her people. Her wisdom and calculating brilliance set the stage for Haman’s downfall. Faced with an imminent and existential threat, each of them stood up and summoned the moral courage to act.
While we might assume that if we were in their position we would do the same – in reality, if we are truly honest very few of us indeed would. Scientific data has shown that under normal and good conditions/circumstances – the vast majority of people act in an altruistic and compassionate way. The costs and consequences are low and the “feel good” yield is high. Yet, the same data also shows that in difficult and threatening situations many people prioritize their own safety and often stand by as perpetrators commit atrocities. There are the evil perpetrators (the Haman’s of the world) who prey upon the vulnerable and delight in their wicked plans against the innocent. However, the vast majority of people fall into the group known as bystanders. Fearful that they will be blacklisted, that their families will be targeted or that they will be the next victim – the bystander looks the other way or does not get involved when confronted by something they know is morally reprehensible or wrong even though they far outnumber the perpetrators. This is not to suggest that the bystanders are bad people, who agree with the perpetrators actions but in their choice of inaction – their silence cedes authority and allows the evil committed to go unchecked. The bystander effect has been demonstrated time and again throughout history and particularly in Jewish history.
Yet, there is a still the brave few who throughout time have stood up. Our early tradition called them Nevi’im (Prophets), in later times “Tzaddikim” (the Righteous) and today the common term is Upstanders. What they share in common is the spirit of God that moves them to stand up for justice, love, and the good in the world. The moral courage they exhibit through their actions comes often with suffering and life threatening consequences. They defy both our natural instinct for self preservation and the common sense calculus of holding on to our status, wealth, and physical wellbeing. Upstanders speak up and act to protect the vulnerable people who the perpetrators wish to single out and take advantage of. The perpetrators know that they can keep the bystanders in check with fear, division, as well as apathy. Elie Wiesel taught, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” For the Upstanders, not standing up is not only surrendering their souls but is akin to dying. As Wiesel continued, “Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.”
The story of Purim comes to teach another important lesson about Upstanders. While they are extremely rare and uncommonly courageous, the Upstanders often rally the Bystanders to action. The Megillah teaches us that Esther and Mordechai, empowered the Jewish community and its allies to rise up against those who sought our destruction. Particularly because Haman and his wicked oppressors did not think people would resist. Upstanders, by taking the dangerous first step, inspire the Bystanders to wake up and do what is right. From the story of Purim to John Lewis during the Civil Rights movement, when Bystanders see what the Upstanders risk, they can be moved to action. The story of Purim is not only a historical asterisk but a reminder about the difference one/two people can make in the face of evil. Purim therefore morally challenges all of us to ask the hard questions, to strengthen our inner resolve, and gives us inspiration and hope that when the “chips are down” we will act in accordance with our the “better angels” of ourselves.
Chag Purim Sameach!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — February 2020
Making Our Voices Heard in Israel – A plea to vote in the World Zionist Congress
You wouldn’t know it by reading the newspaper or listening to the news but amazing and incredible things are going on in Israel. Yes, it is not perfect…but we should never forget how blessed we are to have a Jewish and democratic state.
Our ancestors would be in awe of the growth of Jewish life and prosperity in the Holy Land and the creative and dynamic people who day in and day out add new innovations and new Torah into our world. We must never take for granted that we now control our destiny and are not dependent on an often capricious and fickle world for our safety and right to exist. There are many important and impactful ways to show our love and support for Israel (AIPAC, JNF, Israel Bonds). One of the easiest, most impactful, and yet sadly least known ways is voting in the World Zionist Organization election.
Every five years, Diaspora Jewry has the precious blessing of voting for delegates in the World Zionist Congress. This important body was founded in 1897 by Theodore Herzl with the purpose of creating and now supporting with all our might the Jewish State. By casting our vote in this year’s Zionist Congress election we not only show our support for Israel but also ensure that our voices are heard. Mercaz USA’s (which is the Conservative/Masorti voice in Israel) mission is to support religious pluralism in Israel and strengthen the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. Mercaz delegates are the advocates and the force that guarantees funding for our religious stream that is so crucial to our Movement’s growth in Israel and around the world. By taking the time to vote, Slate #6 Mercaz, we can send a direct message to leaders in Israel that pluralism, democracy and equality are critical to creating a strong and vibrant Israel. Over 1 billion dollars in funding are at stake in the effort to continue moving Israel toward these goals.
Each year at Purim, as Brith Sholom members, we symbolically collect the “half shekel” (today hundreds of dollars) which in ancient times supported the Temple and its institutions but now supports Israel through building up Masorti/Conservative Judaism in Israel. By taking the time to vote (5 – 10 minutes) our impact will be exponentially greater. MERCAZ representation in the WZO and Jewish Agency translates directly into millions of dollars annually in allocations, program subsidies, and services. These resources support Masorti institutions in Israel such as the Schechter Institute, TALI schools, Masorti congregations and Kibbutz Hannaton. In addition, these funds support American Conservative Movement programs, such as USY’s NATIV Year Course, Ramah Seminar and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem as well as Masorti Olami programs around the world.
You can register to vote at www.azm.org Please join with me to cast your vote for Slate #6 Mercaz. If you need help or have questions – computers are available at the synagogue to help you through the process. May we do our part to build up the people and land of Israel and strengthen the collective bonds which bind our future together. Am Yisrael Chai!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — January 2020
There once was a young man jogging along the beach. He came across an old man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea. When the young man saw how many starfish were washed up on the shore – he went over to the old man and said, “You are an old fool! You cannot possibly save all of these starfish!” “True”, replied the old man “but it matters to this one.” And he tossed it back into the sea. He picked up another and tossed it back. “And also to this one.” (Parable)
Rabbi Tarfon taught, “You are not required to finish the task, nor are you free to neglect it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) I have always imagined this teaching being taught in the voice of Yoda.It seems at once to be sage advice and yet a little cryptic. Who was the intended audience for Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching? Was it to strengthen and comfort those toiling against overwhelming challenges who might feel they can’t fix them all? (The “If I can’t finish/fix it then I have failed.” crowd) Or was it to light a fire under those who when seeing how numerous and daunting the tasks, give up before even trying? (The “What’s the use, it won’t matter.” crowd) In a very Yodaesque way, Rabbi Tarfon, allows each person to size up where they stand in the paradigm at any given moment and gain perspective and balance.
Yet, maybe the most brilliant part of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching is that he reminds us to keep plugging away doing the best we can. Some days it is enough to put one foot in front of the other. Other days we move the needle forward a little. No matter what, we must keep going forward. What is ultimately required is the attribute of RESILIENCE.
As a kid I learned this lesson by playing baseball. Baseball was an obsession for me. I loved the game but if you have ever watched or played baseball more often then not there seems to be a futility to it. Batters strike out or hit the ball to one of opposing teams fielders 80 – 90% of the time. This is a game where if you fail to reach base 70% of the time you are considered a great hitter. And even if you reach first base, the likelihood of reaching home depends on a multiplicity of factors out of your control including: the next batter hitting the ball safely (see above statistic), the opposing team’s ability to field the ball, the wind, the dimensions of the ballpark, and frankly just plain luck. I remember my coaches warning our team against trying to swing for the fences (hit a home run) every time we would step to the plate. Getting on base was a miracle enough. Yet, even when we struck out, were in a slump, or down 4 runs in the 9th inning – we would get back in the batter’s box and take our crack at it.
I remember after a particularly tough game where I played poorly (I cost my team the game), I thought about quitting the team. My dad said, “Quitting is not an option! You will pick yourself up, remember who you are, that you are part of a team, that it is a combined effort, and that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose but playing the game is what it’s about.” In essence – Resilience.
As human beings we often face difficult challenges in life both personal and communal. On the one hand we bring our creativity, industriousness, and intellect to bear. On the other hand by our very nature we are confined by our finite resources – Money, talent, energy and most of all time.
It is the dialectical dissonance between our power and our limitations, between progress and regression, and between our dreams and our realities – that can lead us down the path to apathy, hopelessness, or a loss of meaningful purpose. The symptoms of which can manifest themselves in: Burn out, compassion fatigue, listlessness, and detachment to name a few.
That is why I believe building and supporting resiliency in our children and each other is a critical part of Jewish life. What others may call stubbornness, our faith calls resilience and determination. It has served the Jewish people well throughout our history. We believe that even the smallest acts can make a difference in our lives, the lives of others, and even change the course of history. We can’t always understand the impact at the time or live to see our dreams fulfilled. Even so, we do not give up! We step up to the plate to do our part with our eyes on the prize.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Indeed, as Rabbi Tarfon taught so long ago, “You are not required to finish the task, nor are you free to neglect it.