From the Rabbi’s Desk – June 2017
The Promise and Dream of Jerusalem
I am not exactly sure when my family arrived in Husiatyn, Austria. What I do know is that my ancestor Alchuna was the Alter Cantor. Generations of my large family lived in Husiatyn with some like my great grandparents Leon & Perl moving later to Vienna and then leaving Europe for America (The Bronx)..But, even though I would be interested in visiting Husiatyn (currently part of the Ukraine) it would never feel like home. But, Jerusalem… no matter how many times I see it, walk its streets, and watch the sun’s rays over the old city turn its stones golden, it always feels like coming home. Tel Aviv is great, Haifa – beautiful, Beersheva filled with potential but Jerusalem is like no other place. It is true that in Jerusalem you are always walking up hills but the views from those hilltops is priceless. Walking the neighborhoods and streets one can feel the mix of modern and ancient where streets are named for prophets, kings and sages as well as modern dreamers, artists, and heroes. Jerusalem has always been the heart of Jewish hopes and aspirations.
The city reflects the dual nature of the Jewish people, where the past, present, and future all mingle, wrestle and challenge each other. One aspect of identity and heart cannot ignore the other without losing a part of who and what we were, are, and dream to be. I find it hard to imagine a time when Jerusalem was not this place of promise and dreams. And yet, before the Six Day War (50 years ago) Jerusalem was divided, a far away symbol of thousands of years of Jewish hopes to one day re-establish our capital city and our national, cultural, and religious heart. Jerusalem literally means City of Peace in Hebrew. Yet, for thousands of years Jerusalem would only know strife, exile, and persecution. Scars, ruins, and bullet holes remain but Jerusalem once again teems with song, art, culture, and life. Today, as Israel’s capital, Jerusalem is filled with parks, schools, shops, and the hustle and bustle of any city but it also has an intangible unlike anywhere else – Holiness. It is the original place of pilgrimage, the epicenter of religious creativity and discovery. It is sacred to great religious traditions, including the three monotheistic faiths, and its air is daily filled with prayers and praise for God in many languages and ways.
Jerusalem is obviously not a perfect place. It has its share of problems including poverty, religious tension, cost of living, and of course the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But, I would challenge anyone who looks at Jerusalem’s reunification and only sees “the Conflict”. No, for me Jerusalem is home. It is the one place we have named at the end of the Seder’s meal of redemption for thousands of years. “This year we are here. Next year in Jerusalem!” This year on Yom Yerushalayim (May 23rd – 24th) we celebrated 50 years of restored Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. The place at the heart of the Jewish people. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, All you who love her! Join in her jubilation, All you who mourned over her—That you may suck from her breast Consolation to the full, that you may draw from her bosom Glory to your delight. For thus said the LORD: I will extend to her Prosperity like a stream, The wealth of nations like a wadi in flood; And you shall drink of it. You shall be carried on shoulders and dandled upon knees. As a mother comforts her son so I will comfort you; you shall find comfort in Jerusalem.” (66:10-14)
We are indeed living in a blessed time to be able to celebrate with Jerusalem. May she continue to grow, prosper, and ever become as her name – the City of Peace!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – May 2017
Finding the Balance Between Memory and Creating our Future
I think I have always struggled to live in multiple worlds at the same time. Like most Jews, I have one foot in Tradition and one foot in the modern world. I am a proud American and a proud observant Jew and Zionist. And also like most Jews, my identity is built with a complex intermingling of our people’s history, personal memory and the need to continually renew and own my faith in the world in which I liveThe wrestling match within me is usually brought into sharp focus from Pesach, when we retell our liberation from the bondage of Egypt, leading up to Shavuot the renewal of the Covenant at Sinai. In this period, we are commanded to count the Omer, which originally was a joyous time of thanksgiving for the bounty of the new grain harvest(wheat and later barley) and a reminder of our connection to the land. However, as Jewish history is sadly too often filled with persecution, anti-Semitism, and death, the Omer counting also became associated with the Roman decree to outlaw the teaching of Torah and Jewish practice. Our Sages and their students as well as countless Jews would rather submit to torture and death than to give up our Torah, Jewish tradition, and faith in God. In this later historical context, the Omer combined the earlier Commandment with Jewish history and took on a new meaning and tradition. (Hence, not cutting one’s hair, no weddings until Lag B’Omer-33rd day of the Omer, etc.)
When you then add to this time Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah(Holocaust Remembrance Day), then the heavy weight of our history and the responsibility that come with it drive me into conflict with the need, indeed the necessity for a compelling Judaism that can free itself of the death shackles of too much history of hardship, persecution, and hate. Can there be a moment to capture the creative imagination of a tradition that in its deepest essence is both a positive force for good, a dynamic and ever growing Torah, a reflection of the Divine Presence which, possesses a deep wellspring of meaning for those who embrace it? Yet, our history even with regard to the other Yom’s (Yom HaZikaron (Israel Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is often cast in the shadow of those who sought to destroy us or those who yet seek to destroy us! The black hole of woe, heartbreak, and mourning overwhelm the birth of so many beautiful stars.
For far too many Jews, their Jewish identity is forged from the darkness of these historical tragedies and not from the creative and dynamic power of our texts, traditions, ideas, and ethical life. As recently as 2013, a Pew Research study was done where a broad swath of American Jews were asked, “What is essential about being Jewish?” The following answer crushed me.
“When we asked Jews about what is and is not essential to their own sense of Jewishness, 73% say remembering the Holocaust is essential (including 76% of Jews by religion and 60% of Jews of no religion). Almost as many Jews, 69%, say leading an ethical and moral life is essential, and 56% cite working for social justice and equality; only 19% say observing Jewish law is essential.”
The Holocaust was the most important/essential aspect of what it means to be Jewish. Again, this is crushing. Remembering the Holocaust is important but, it is not by any stretch of the imagination what a living Judaism needs to sustain itself in the hearts and minds of future generations to come. How can this be #1 essential aspect of being Jewish?! What I long suspected before this study was completed was that while we have made ourselves informed students of Jewish history(particularly the negative, tragic history) we have too often failed to create and shift the culture to a positive Judaism/identity based on compelling thoughts, ideas, values, and observances. History has overcome/overburdened our future. I have therefore often seen my rabbinic mission as a small corrective in this light (through education, uplifting spiritual observance & Jewish ethical life) but like so many I continue to wrestle with the responsibility and weight of our history, the power of memory, and the balance of shaping/returning our Jewish future to the hands and hearts of a creative and dynamic people who are heir to Prophets and who continue to echo God’s word and hope with all our hearts, minds, and soul’s. For our sake and for the future of Judaism’s sake may we remember this first and foremost.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – April 2017
A Fifth Question
Over the years I have been privileged to be the recipient of many congregants sacred stories. Many have touched me deeply and given me a glimpse into the many ways God’s presence has worked in the world. With her permission, I would like to share with you one such story. I met Mrs. Weissfellner when I was the rabbi at the Malverne Jewish Center in Malverne, Long Island. One day I happened to notice that she had on some pretty pink shoes and I paid her a little compliment. (Note: It is not often I notice people’s shoes but these stood out) She said thank you and then proceeded to tell me the following story. “You see,” she said – “shoes are very important to me. I have hundreds of shoes, a whole closet just for shoes. But, rabbi I am not Imelda Marcos. You see, when I was a child the Nazis came and my whole life was turned upside down. They came for my father and we never saw him again. I was eight years old.
We knew we had to try to escape so my mother, my little sister and I left everything including my precious babydoll. My mother said she would buy me another when we were safe. Tragically she was caught by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp. We never saw her again. My sister and I had no where to go but to stay meant certain death. We knew we couldn’t wait. We began to make our way to by foot, trying to find a place to hide. We had almost nothing and when we reached the mountains my sister and I had no shoes left. We literally climbed mountains with no shoes! That is what I remember most. Not having my babydoll or any shoes. My feet hurt so badly, and my little sister kept crying out in pain. It was horrible. We did not think we would make it. Rabbi, that is why I have so many dolls and shoes.”
I remember being totally stunned and unprepared to hear this story. And while some of the details have faded from my memory (like which mountain range – Alps or Pyrenees) . I can still picture in my minds-eye two little girls climbing tall mountains alone without shoes. Refugees from the horrors of the Shoah. Seeking life at all costs, leaving everything behind, fleeing for their lives along a perilous route hoping someone would take them in. After the war, she met Henry who had survived one of the camps. They later married and came to the United States where he became a pharmacist. They raised a family. Lived in West Hempstead, Long Island and I just knew them as Henry and Irene.
Passover is all about retelling our defining story. We tell the story of our slavery in Egypt and are reminded that each of us should see ourselves as if we had been freed by God from the horrors of slavery and oppression. As Jews, we remember that our story does not end there.(Exiled from Israel, Spain, France, England, Germany, Poland, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, etc.) For much of our history we have been wandering in the hopes of living in our Promised Land. (L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yerushalyim!) We have been persecuted, exiled, tortured and murdered because we were Jews. We sought refuge from the hate but time and again we were turned away or the refuge was fleeting. Fleeing genocide, war, oppression, abject poverty is never a legal or illegal matter or a simple choice but, rather about the fundamental Commandment of preserving life itself. For those lucky enough to meet the likes of a Raoul Wallenberg z”l or Oscar Schindler z”l, who provided documents both real and fake – it meant life. Thousands have been and are at this very moment willing to risk life and limb to make dangerous journeys to find refuge. We must not allow rising isolationism, ethnic nationalism, fear, and nihilism to drown out the Divine voice of compassion, mercy, and loving-kindness. God after all “heard our cries and saw our oppression.” (Deuternonomy 26:7) We are the living witnesses who bear the testimony of all of those before us. But we are also more than witnesses – we are commanded to stand up and help those who are oppressed.
The Torah reminds us over and over, that we must not oppress the stranger. God demands of us kindness for those who are the most vulnerable. I remember in the 1980’s marching for Soviet Jewry. Those years we added an additional matzah to the traditional three – the “Matzah of Hope.” This year as we sit around the seder table asking the four questions we should add another: How should we be treating the stranger/the refugee? The original Exodus of our people might have been thousands of years ago but for many their Exodus is now. Hundreds of thousands of people are seeking freedom from war, oppression, and the misery of financial bondage. Will we respond to their cries, their need for refuge? How can we eat the matzah (bread of affliction) and the maror (bitter herbs) and not be moved by their plight? Indeed, if we are true to who we are as Jews and to what we believe, then we must work hard to fulfill the spirit of the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesach!” (ie. freedom!) We here in America call this the, “home of the brave and the land of the free.” This country has been a beacon of hope and symbol of freedom for my family’s journey from Europe, and for so many around the world. As Emma Lazarus wrote:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I still believe in these words and this promise. Let our Feast of Freedom be a meaningful one. And may our questions and story be an inspiration for action.
You can help by supporting:
HIAS: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society at www.hias.org
and locally: Bethany Christian Services firstname.lastname@example.org (see following sheet)
Reminder: Never Forget wristbands and candles for Yom HaShoah (4/23 – 4/24) are available in the office
From the Rabbi’s Desk – March 2017
Standing Up with Mordechai and Esther
Every since I was a little kid, I loved to dress up for Purim. It was fun to pretend to be someone funny, dastardly or heroic. To escape for a little while into a story of kings and queens, and cheer on Mordechai and Esther, and boo Haman. Purim was always filled with light-hearted laughter, good songs, and tasty treats. Yet, at the core of the story is the existential threat Haman posed to our people and just how close he came to seeing his plot succeed. Indeed, too often in Jewish history the Hamans got their way.
One of Megillat Esther’s interesting facts is that God’s name is not mentioned at all in the scroll. Our Sages teach, that while God is behind the scenes, it is up to us to stand up and fight for our future. All of this gives me a greater appreciation for just how heroic Mordechai and Esther truly were. Mordechai took a stand against Haman’s evil and Esther was willing to use her position and risked her life for her people. It was their extraordinary courage, faith, and conviction despite the long odds (purim = lots/lottery) and danger, that still inspires me today.
For many people staying silent, keeping a low profile, and not putting yourself at risk is not only common sense but the most practical and prudent course of action. Sometimes as the saying goes, “You need to look out for numero uno.” Queen Esther almost certainly could have done that. Yet, Mordechai however recognized early on that Haman’s demand for loyalty and worship of himself, was only setting the stage for the oppression of the Jewish people and a rallying cry for anti-Semites throughout the kingdom. Haman’s thirst and need for attention and power fed his need for an “enemy” of the King which, would enable him to consolidate power in the name of protecting and securing the kingdom. We as a Jewish minority could easily be labeled “lawless” and “dangerous”, a fifth column if you will because we were different. King Achashverus moved by Haman’s fear mongering, only too willingly gave Haman the power and authority to carry out whatever actions he saw fit. Against this backdrop, Mordechai and Esther stood up against Haman’s hate. In fact, Mordechai does no less than save King Achashverus’s life by uncovering the assassination plot of Bigtan and Teresh! While Esther for her part literally becomes King Achashverus’s chosen (no pun intended) queen and protector of the kingdom herself. She risks everything to go before the king. She did not know if her entreaties would be her head or if after all was said and done, Haman’s evil plan would succeed because she was too late to stop it. Mordechai and Esther’s resistance to Haman and his band of evil hate-mongers demonstrated that, while it is easier to stand on the sidelines, standing up for what is right can and did make all the difference.
Sadly, hate (at least in the open) in all of its forms is on the uptick. Today’s polarized society has swung open the door of demonizing “the other” and blaming them for the world’s problems. In the past month alone there have been over 48 bomb threats called in to JCC’s and synagogues around our country. In St. Louis, the Chesed Shel Emet cemetery was vandalized with over a hundred headstones pushed over and damaged. Synagogues are being sprayed with swastikas and hate messages scrawled on college campuses. Children in schools giving the Nazi salute and ridiculing their classmates with ethnic and anti-Semitic slurs about ovens and showers. Online social media trolls, threatening Jewish journalists and spreading hate on websites. As a prime target of this hatred we are certainly not alone. For Muslims in our community and around the country they are immediately judged as “terrorists” or “radical extremists”. Not to mention continued racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia which are all too common.
Therefore, we the descendants of Mordechai and Esther cannot be silent. We are the witnesses of the 20th century’s most horrific and evil plot to wipe out our entire people, the Shoah. We are charged with never looking the other way. Now is the time to cast aside any lingering doubts or questions about whether we should “keep a low profile”, “let this pass by”, or “not call attention to ourselves.” No, now is the time for moral courage, faith in each other and what is right, and with a resolute conviction that if we stand up to those peddling in hate we can save ourselves, others, and our children’s future. So let’s not only cheer for Mordechai and Esther this Purim but stand up and make some noise against hate.
Chag Purim Sameach!
A few organizations leading the way:
Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
American Jewish World Service (AJWS)
Bend the Arc
Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College (IJCU)
Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley (JFLV)
Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)
United States Holocaust Museum (USHM)
From the Rabbi’s Desk – February 2017
Hope & Inspiration Despite the Times : The Sequel
Boy, is it dark! I mean this not only in the literal sense but also in the figurative sense. There are days when I wonder how the world has gone so terribly wrong. Forgetting the painful lessons of history and eclipsing the fundamental ethical imperatives of truth, justice, and that we all are created in God’s image. Yet, just when I feel that the world I will leave my children will be worse than the one I inherited, I go to my special “stop whining & get off your tuchus ritual.”
This ritual involves recharging myself by reading the writings and stories of inspiring people whose unrelenting hope, extraordinary heroism, truth to power, andvisions/dreams of what we and our world should/can be. (See the article I wrote on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January 2015) Their words, stories, and deeds become a buttress of hope, civility, and inspiration for me. Proof that one person, one voice, one deed can and does bend the arch of history toward justice.
This month I would like to share with you some of the teachings and thoughts of Victor Frankl, a Jewish Austrian born psychologist and survivor of multiple concentration camps including Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Frankl developed a new school of psychology called logotherapy, which at its core focuses on the importance of the drive for meaning in our lives. What first inspired me was how Frankl combined both psychology and faith together in their shared pursuit of helping people find purpose and meaning in life.
Although a few quotes will never do justice to Frankl (I of course recommend reading: Man’s Search for Meaning & Unconscious God) here are a few quotes that I find inspiring and life affirming.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”
“The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
“No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.”
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love.”
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
As always, I welcome your feedback and thoughts, especially any recommendations of people whose writings, stories, and deeds inspire you.
As Victor Frankl might say, may we challenge ourselves each day to strive for love and a higher purpose bringing hope and meaning to our lives and world.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – January 2017
I am often asked what led me to want to become a rabbi? And while I could point to many things that shaped my choice such as my love of learning, serving God and the Jewish people, and hoping that after every day I could bring a little bit of goodness, justice, and love into our world – I would be remiss if I didn’t include standing in wonder before life’s big questions. Ever since I can remember I was filled with questions both big and small. Sometimes these questions were out of simple curiosity for how objects worked or what their function was but more often I was that crazy idealistic (or I admit annoying) child who wanted to know – but WHY?!
Encouraged by my parents, teachers, and Rabbi Steven Tucker z”l to keep asking these questions no matter the lack of definitive answers, I was led to seek out others who grappled with the same questions. I found that the TaNaKh and its commentaries, the Talmud, the theologians and philosophers of our tradition from the past to the present all had these big questions too. I was not alone but instead a participant in a tradition that believes it a sacred and core act (responsibility) of faith to ask questions – Mah Nishtana…?
I soon learned that the key to understanding people and their responses, behaviors, or “answers” to life and the world around them was to find out what their questions were. Even, admittedly when they didn’t know they were responding to one (or many) of them. Judaism, and its spiritual path to living, seek not one answer to all of the big questions but a sensitization to the questions themselves. Judaism offers a way for us to find meaning(s) and live in a world continually changing and mysterious and yet fundamentally eternal and the same. As Jews, we are unafraid to ask questions and live without a definitive answer but, what we also understand is that our actions matter – living matters. Standing at Sinai, the Jewish people respond to God’s Commandments with the famous words, “na’aseh v’nishma – we will do and we will understand!” Our Rabbis teach, that from the order of the words, we can learn that “doing (na’aseh)” takes priority even when we do not fully “understand (nishma)” why we do what we do. While this has been the modus operandi of Jewish life, our Sages also teach that we still need to try our best to find the meaning and understanding in what it is we do. Essentially both the keva (form – practice) and kavanna (intentionality and understanding).
To that end, starting in February I will be offering a class called, “The Hitchhikers Guide to Everything Jewish” which will explore some of the questions of the how, what, and why we do certain things as Jews. And while this class does have some basic framework of life-cycle, holidays, and rituals – the real x factor will be the questions each of participant. So here’s to starting the secular year journeying together – unafraid to ask and explore the difficult questions of God, our tradition, and our lives.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — December 2016
The Courage to Fight for Freedom
Like most Jews, I look forward to celebrating Hanukkah with latkes, sufganiot (donuts), the beautiful lights of the hanukkiah, and a good game of dreidel. As Adam Sandler put it, “Hanukkah is the festival of lights, instead of one day of presents we get eight crazy nights!” And yet, despite all of the celebrating and blatant commercialization (Hallmark Hanukkah cards?) there is something weighty and deep about the story of the holiday.
There once was a priestly family headed by Mattathias. He had five sons. He refused to bow down to the Greek idols and led by his son Judah, a small band of freedom fighters (Maccabees) fought back against the evil Greeks. With God’s help they overcame great odds. Yet when they entered the Temple in Jerusalem they could only find enough pure olive oil to light the 7 branched golden Menorah for one day. God however performed a great miracle and the oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be found. (That’s why the 8 branched hanukkiah) We sing and celebrate the amazing miracles of the light and our independence with the holiday of Hanukkah which means “Dedication” as we rededicated the Holy Temple.
At the core of the historical account, Jews who wished to become more Hellenized aligned themselves with the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes IV who saw himself as the second coming of Alexander the Great. This unholy alliance swept away the last remaining independent religious freedoms and tolerance of Jewish tradition and practice in the land of Israel. Instead fellow Jews backed by the Greeks set about suppressing Judaism, oppressing their own people, and installing Greek idol worship and practices in their place. Anyone who was not loyal to their vision, and who refused to adopt pagan ways was arrested and killed. Judaism was outlawed. This was a scary and dark time. It was in this atmosphere of fear of our fellow Jews (who could turn us in), the government itself, and with the threat of Judaism’s extinction, that Mattathias and his sons took to the streets of Modi’in. They roused those loyal to our tradition and began a long and hard fought civil war to save the Jewish people. It was this courage to stand up for what was right, for freedom, and for our Jewish tradition despite the danger and sacrifice that is too often overlooked. It is not an understatement to say that the fate of our people, and our tradition hung in the balance. Victory was certainly not assured and the light of Torah was very nearly snuffed out.
Sadly, there have been too many times in our history when these painful choices confronted our people. (Expulsions, Spanish Inquisition, Pogroms, the Shoah, etc.) As a child, I remember hearing stories of Refusniks who despite the Soviet Union’s prohibition of practicing any form of religion (especially Judaism) secretly lit hanukkiot even though if caught (sometimes by their neighbors), they could be thrown in jail or worse. It is my hope that as American Jews we start to pay greater attention to this unvarnished part of the Hanukkah story. Namely, that freedom is not free, and often it is not given willingly or without a fight. It takes dedication, persistence, and yes, sacrifice to preserve our freedoms and with it our rich tradition. There are always those who would wish to use their power to marginalize, spread hatred, and seek to oppress others. We must rededicate ourselves to opposing not only anti-Semitism but, racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and all forms of hatred and intolerance. We cannot, should not allow this darkness to overtake us, our communities, our country, and our world. We must be particularly vigilant when we, and other religious communities, minorities, and those most vulnerable become the scapegoats, targets of discrimination, or focus of hateful attacks both verbal and physical. We know this all too well. As Elie Wiesel taught, “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
In the face of this we as Jews can invite and share the powerful story of Hanukkah with others. Reminding ourselves in the process that we are the heirs of men and women of great moral courage who, moved by God’s spirit, have in every generation found the strength to stand up for freedom despite and in spite of the odds against them. With this in mind, may we each be rededicated and touched by the light of God, whose Word and strength have guided our ancestors and us to this day.
Chag Orim Sameach! – A Joyous Festival of Lights
From the Rabbi’s Desk -November 2016
Thankfulness & Sharing – Perfect Together
Some things just go together. Peanut butter & jelly, bagels & cream cheese, and chocolate and … Okay, chocolate and almost anything! Jews & food, ah where to begin. It may be an understatement that our people and food have a long, delicious, and rich history. From special holiday foods like matza balls, hamentaschen, challah bread, blintzes, and Bubbie’s brisket we know that part of what makes a holiday, a holiday, is the food associated with it. We go that extra mile (or many miles) on a holiday because we recognize that family, friends, and assorted guests will take in the delicious food, the rich social atmosphere, and the stomach memory, if you will, of this unique and special day. Many times the smells alone foretell of what joy is waiting in store for the celebration of a holiday. Yet, it doesn’t stop there oh, no! Can you think of any Jewish life-cycle event or simcha where there isn’t a seudah mitzvah, a meal of commandment. From a brit milah, pidyon ha-ben, bat mitzvah to a wedding celebration, we mark significant moments in our lives by sharing food as a community. In fact, no formal invitation is needed. If there is a simcha, everyone in the community is invited. In small towns and villages throughout the Jewish world, historically the entire community would come out to share in the blessings of these sacred moments. Even facing the sadness of death, a seduah havra’ah, a meal of consolation brings us together.
Food is life. Eating is a deeply intimate, sacred, and spiritual experience where God’s nourishing world and sustaining blessings come together with our human hard work and culinary creativity. There is no part of a meal that does not contain God’s handiwork, the raw materials of the universe which we both did not create and which exists precariously often beyond our control.(As the saying goes, “Ein Mayyim, Ein Chaim – No water, no life”) Tradition teaches that before we eat, we recite a blessing to sensitize us into remembering that this is really God’s stuff, and when we conclude a meal (usually one with bread), we then thank God (Birkat HaMazon) for sustaining us with this nourishing and satisfying culinary experience. At the core of all of these blessings lie two important Jewish values: 1) that we should recognize and be thankful to God, and 2) that we concretize our gratitude to God for all of the blessings we have received by sharing those blessings with others.
In essence, in order to show thanks to God, we must share with others. Yet, sadly on a recurring basis day after day in a country that is the wealthiest in the world, and in a community that has isles and isles of food in your choice of supermarkets, there are many in our community that go to bed hungry wondering where and when they will eat. According to a study from six years ago, the Food Hardship Data for 2008-2009 Shows: 16% of respondents in Pennsylvania experienced food hardship in 2009. Roughly 1 in 5 households with children experience food hardship in Pennsylvania. This is equal to 22.4% of Pennsylvania households with children. In the Metropolitan Statistical Area of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, 16.7% of respondents reported food hardship in 2008-2009. In the 15th Congressional District (Lehigh and Northampton Counties): 15.4% of respondents experienced food hardship. Food Hardship is defined as the lack of sufficient funds within the past twelve months to buy food for themselves or their families. I believe this is a continuing human and spiritual crisis. Thank God, the vast majority of Brith Sholom families have been blessed with enough income to put food on the table day in and day out. Yet, if we are truly thankful and count ourselves blessed we need to make it a religious ritual to support our local JFS food pantry on a regular basis. To continue to support New Bethany Ministries Soup Kitchen, and to renew our commitment to the Monocacy Farm Project, our partnership farm with the School Sisters of St. Francis, which I am happy to report produced a full and bountiful season of fresh organic produce to the JFS food pantry and other local hunger initiatives. Some things do go perfect together. Popcorn & a movie, hugs & kisses, Mike & Ike, and according to our Jewish tradition – Thankfulness & Sharing.
Thank you to all who brought food for Operation Isaiah, contributed to Mazon, worked on the farm this summer, and cook each month at New Bethany. Your generosity of time, resources, and spirit make all the difference!
Yom Hodu Sameach! – Happy Thanksgiving!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – October 2016
Sukkot: Just the Rx God Ordered
I know that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the world in which we live. It seems that almost every conversation is fraught with either the coming Presidential election, the multiple crises overseas, and the discord here at home. While I believe we must be informed and engaged in the moral issues and demands of our times; we all need some way of letting off a little steam, of lightening the mood as it were, so that we can recharge ourselves for the tasks which lay ahead. That is why, I hope you will join me in thanking God for the holiday of Sukkot! With its themes of thanksgiving, welcoming, and agricultural focus on fertility, Sukkot brings life, celebration and joy to the forefront. It operates on a totally different holiday cycle than Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (introspection, repentance and forgiveness) which proceed it.
In our tradition, Sukkot is last of the Shelosh Regalim, the 3 pilgrimage holidays, with Pesach followed by Shavuot leading the cycle. Following the story progression, we begin with freedom from Egypt, receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and conclude with God’s protection (sukkat shalom) as we make our journey to the Promised Land. The Promised Land however is not only the tangible land of Israel but also the great hope of the Messianic Era. Our tradition views Sukkot as more that just another holiday but indeed “THE HOLIDAY!” It is suffused with the themes of the ultimate hope and redemption to come, when all nations will come up to Jerusalem (The City of Peace), sit under the great Sukkah (made from the skin of Leviathan) and offer praise and thanksgiving to God together. Indeed, Sukkot is called z’man simchateinu – literally the “time of our rejoicing.” Sukkot reminds us that despite all of the tzurris that tries to bring us down, we believe that in the end God will see us through. We do not give up on ourselves, on God, or the dream of a better world. Instead, we sing Hallel, parade with lulavim and etrogim, dwell in sukkot, and share our bountiful feast with each other and strangers alike.
Take a deep breath of crisp autumn air, look up at the stars, take in the vibrant color of the leaves, hang out in the sukkah without a newspaper, t.v. or dare I say it a cell phone, and talk about all of the blessings we truly have and enjoy. As two talented and wise Jewish poet/songwriters would remind us, “Slow down, you move too fast. Got to make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobblestones. Looking for fun and feeling groovy!” (credit to Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel) What a party we can throw (Schnapps optional)! As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) reminds us, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time from dancing…”(3:1,4) Sukkot is a time for rejoicing, and a time for thanksgiving. A time for welcoming and a time for peace.
So as we say the special greeting for Sukkot, “Moadim L’Simcha!” and respond “Chagim u’Zmanim l’Sasson!” (“(May you have) a joyous festival!”/ “Holidays and Times for Celebrating!”) May we remember that Sukkot is the Rx from the Big Doctor Upstairs. God knows we need it. So let the festivities begin!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – September 2016
Reigniting the “Can Do” Spirit
One of my friends and colleagues in Florida, Rabbi Nason Goldstein always insisted that instead of wishing people to, “have a great/nice day!” we should say instead, “make it a great day! He believed that each of us has the capacity to choose, act upon, and strive to fill each day with good deeds, love, and kindness. At the philosophical core of Rabbi Goldstein’s statement is that we have a choice – whether to view ourselves as acted upon by the larger forces of the world, pawns in a vast game, with lives that are more determined than lived or as Rabbi Goldstein suggests that we have a choice, that we can be proactive with a “can do” spirit to make our days meaningful and be the captains of our own lives.
On Rosh HaShanah we take stock of the year that has passed and look hopefully forward to the new year ahead. Sometimes we feel that life is out of our control, and indeed sometimes events and circumstances are; but more often than not we have tremendous unrealized power to control how we use our days and our lives. The Unetanetokef prayer reminds us that while we may not be able to control everything in our lives, still “each person inscribes the Book by their own hand.” In essence, we fill the Book of Life each day with our choices and actions.
I am a firm believer that part of improving our lives depends on a “can do” attitude. Of recognizing the power we do have and using it to transform ourselves, our community, and our world for the better. God empowered us with free will and choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse–therefore choose life!”(Deuteronomy 30:19) Judaism believes that God is routing for us to succeed – to make our lives extraordinary. That is why we have a process of teshuvah and a season of repentance. It is however, not enough to leave it to God to fix, or to make a wish for our lives to be better. Instead we must roll up our sleeves and work to make it so. While I don’t fully agree with Yoda’s, “Do or do not there is no try,” statement, I do agree that sometimes – habit, complacency, and apathy can get in the way of the “can do” spirit inside of us. I believe that if we truly want to change our lives that we not only can, “make it a great day,” but a week, a month, and a year!” Someone once wrote that,”The happiest people don’t have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything.” Let us reignite the “can do” spirit and make it a great 5777 together!
L’Shana Tova u’Metukah! A good and sweet new year!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – July 2016
Summer Reading: Cooling off with a Good Jewish Book
A lot has changed since last summer’s Jewish book recommendations. First, we have a new Torah! Hurray! A big Todah Rabbah! (thank you) to all who contributed and worked so hard to make this a reality and a great success. Second, the best team in baseball so far are the Chicago Cubs?! Yes, the Cubbies. I don’t know if this is some kind of sign from God but the world has certainly become a little more of a topsy-turvy place. Some things however never change. Our people still highly value learning and for many, our prized possessions remain our books. In fact, Muslims for centuries referred to us as, “The People of the Book” which was a both a compliment and an accurate reflection of the centrality of books(manuscripts, codices and scrolls) in Jewish daily life.
Talmud Torah or the commandment to engage in Jewish religious study is one of the most important commandments we have in the Jewish tradition. “Study it and review it: You will find everything in it. Scrutinize it, grow old and gray in it, do not depart from it: There is no better portion in life than this.” – Ben Bag-Bag (Pirke Avot 5:24) Some Sages even say that Talmud Torah is equivalent to all of the mitzvot together because when we study our tradition it leads us to the performance of ma’asim tovim (good deeds). Today, Jewish books are more widely available then ever before, and with access to a ipad or kindle, ordering your favorite Jewish book is only an instant click away. Here are a few selections I recommend reading this summer:
- Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom and Revenge by Edward KritzlerHoliness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis
- The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing & Renewing Your Life on Earth by Dr. Ron Wolfson
- Hillel: If Not Now, When? by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
- Wise Men and Their Tales by Elie Wiesel
- I am Jewish personal reflections inspired by the last words of Daniel Pearl by Judea Pearl & Ruth Pearl
- The Baseball Talmud: The Definitive Position-by-Position Ranking of Baseball’s Chosen Players by Howard Megdal
- Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy
These books only touch the surface of the many myriads of Jewish topics and literature available. There are kosher cookbooks, classic Jewish texts, storybooks, parenting books, spiritual guidebooks; the list could fill a whole card catalog and then some. So pick up a good Jewish book today and make this summer one filled with some sun, fun and a good Jewish book.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – June 2016
Advocating Judaism in the Marketplace of Ideas
In a famous Talmudic passage (Ta’anit 7a) Judaism and the Torah are compared with water. The question arises: Should a teacher of Torah seek out students (bring them water), or should students seek out the teacher of Torah(they go to get the water)?
Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa raised a contradiction. In one verse it is written:
“To him who is thirsty bring water (Isaiah 21:14), which indicates that the one who has water must bring it to the thirsty person, and it is written elsewhere: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water” (Isaiah 55:1), from which may be inferred that the thirsty person must seek out water him/herself.
Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa resolves the contradiction by saying that in the first case the students were
worthy, so the teacher brings it to them. And, in the second case the students were not, so they must seek it out themselves. What remains however is a fundamental question of how we can/should disseminate, engage, and advocate Judaism?
In my opinion, for far too long Judaism has kept a low profile in the marketplace of religion in America. We have followed the later idea that the “thirsty person must seek out water(Torah) him/herself.” In essence, unless a person walks into the synagogue seeking to convert to Judaism, we don’t actively go out to bring them in. Indeed, we have a long tradition of not actively proselytizing and even turning potential seekers away. Whether, this was due to the historical effects of anti-Semitism, or a circling of the wagons, we have often only focused our attention on those who were by birth traditionally considered Jewish (in-reach). In the modern world we live in though, I believe this alone is not enough. We must bring the water(Torah) to all of those that are thirsty! After all America is about competition in the marketplace of ideas. It is about the best rising to the top and succeeding. The fastest growing religious group in America is “None of the Above.” Imagine for a moment if we were able to reach out to this growing demographic group. Many have no experience with what Judaism teaches or the beautiful values and mitzvot at the heart of Jewish life. What would we say to them about our Jewish faith? our community? I believe we can translate our love of God and Jewish life into an open and active invitation to those searching for their spiritual home.
I am proud of what Jewish wisdom and ethics has to say about our world and our lives. I am proud of the multiplicity of opinions, and ideas that our Jewish tradition uniquely applauds and cherishes. I am proud to be part of the creative enterprise which is the growth and prosperity of the State of Israel. I am proud to teach and learn, sing and dance, celebrate and comfort, remember and create anew with my fellow Jews. I am even proud to make choices that run counter-cultural to what everybody else is doing (some of the time). I am proud to believe that there is something greater than myself, and that I am indebted to, grateful for, commanded by, and in partnership with God. Yet, are we as a community too proud or too ashamed to encourage and actively seek out and welcome spiritual searchers who have no particular faith affiliation? We should be saying, “Come one, come all – the waters fine! Learn what Judaism and Jewish living has to offer!”
Ask any rabbi who has guided new Jews-by-Choice into the Jewish people how they feel when these Jews become vibrant and active in our community. It is a deeply sacred experience to see people so moved by Jewish life and practice taking the plunge into the mikveh, making their declaration of faith, and choosing their new Hebrew names. The power of the moment reminds us that our tradition is indeed compelling, meaningful, and Holy. People choose and want to be a part of it. Our tradition celebrates Jews-by-Choice by giving them (as part of their Hebrew name) the spiritual parents of Abraham and Sarah, and reminds us on Shavuot (as we celebrate receiving the Torah) that it is from Ruth the Moabite that King David descends.
I believe the future vibrancy of the Jewish community rests in part on reaching out to all spiritual seekers, both those traditionally defined as Jewish, and to the countless people who are just searching for something meaningful. I believe there are many people just waiting to be invited into our tradition, to be welcomed into our tent. We must not turn people away, but instead invite them to join in the experience, the wealth, and the benefits of Jewish life. In America as in the modern world at large, we cannot be a closed community, we need to recognize that we are all Jews-by-Choice on our journey of faith and life. So a big welcome to all! Judaism wants YOU!
Chag Sameach! – A meaningful and joyous Shavuot!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – May 2016
Memory in the Age of Technological Forgetfulness
Everyday new studies are being initiated and conducted to determine the effects of the use of technology on our memories. Think about it, at one point in the not too distant past, people had to memorize historical dates, the Preamble of the Constitution, how to spell words correctly, and yes, other people’s phone numbers (as well as their own). Today such information is literally only a click or voice command away. Even the passwords we use to “protect” our information can be stored and saved in case we forget them. I am not suggesting that we can or should turn back the clock or that we as a society would even want to. We are indeed privileged to live at this exciting time, and have a world of information accessible earlier generations would be envious of.
Yet, there is still an important place for first hand use of human memory. Making memories entails taking the information around us and internalizing it in a way that not only creates neuro-pathways in our brain but, literally becomes part of who we are. This is more than doing a Google search or posting on Facebook. In fact research1 shows that posts, tweets, and texts engage only short-term memory, they are quick, in the moment, snapshots that don’t last long because they are followed by more posts, tweets, and texts. Arguably, this is indeed the purpose of this type of media communication but, as far as the faculty of memory is concerned this does not translate to creating long-term memories that change, enhance, and enrich us.
As Jews living after the horror of the Shoah (The Holocaust) we have often been taught, “Never Forget!” But, how do we do that? Especially in our technology driven world today?! Last year I wrote that unlike so many of the other holidays and commemorations in the Jewish life-cycle and calendar, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) does not have a universally accepted ritual, sacred text, or even special foods or proscribed fast. This is why we at CBS now have yellow bracelets we wear as reminders and a new special book (Shoah Scroll) to help us mark our Yom HaShoah service. I believe that it is through these rituals that we as Jews, have been not only able to maintain our traditions but as important been able to create memories that literally transform and touch our souls. They bring meaning to our lives by connecting us through the generations, informing our relationships, our values, and our moral perspective. Which brings us back to the challenge of Yom HaShoah. With very few survivors left, how can we ensure that their stories and those of the millions of Jews who perished will not be forgotten?
One way we can create powerful memories is by coming together as a Lehigh Valley Jewish Community to attend the Yom HaShoah vigil at the JCC Wednesday night May 4th 6pm (in lieu of our evening minyan) at which the names of some of those who perished in the Shoah will be read. We read their names – we hear their names, and in doing so I feel we not only keep their memory alive but make our own powerful memories. The sacred duty to never forget needs to become real. They were not numbers but our people who were mothers, fathers, and children. The Nazis may have counted them as inhuman numbers but we have an obligation to remember them as people with names.
We have always believed that names carry memory. As Jews we remember loved ones by naming our children after them. We still use the ancient names from our Torah – Adam, Seth, Jacob, Rachel, Sarah…It is no coincidence then that our people’s Hebrew name – Yisrael, links God’s name with ours. By remembering the names of our brothers and sisters who perished in the Shoah we link their names and lives with our own. And in that way may all of their names be for a blessing – one we never need a password to remember.
Important note: CBS Yom HaShoah services will be Thursday morning May 5th @9:45am where we will dedicate our new Shoah Scroll books.
1 How Technology Is Warping Your Memory The Huffington Post | By Carolyn Gregoire
From the Rabbi’s Desk – April 2016
Breaking Free From Our Shackles
Truth be told, my favorite holiday is Pesach. Yes, the cleaning, the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning again, can leave a person physically exhausted but, the end result of all of this work is a holiday that brings family and friends together in celebration of our people’s past, and still unfolding story. God’s redemptive power to bring our people out of the midst of unbearable slavery, pain, and sorrow to freedom is the constant reminder of God’s glory and promise. Our people because we have tasted the bitterness of slavery are charged by God, to pursue justice, care for the weak and downtrodden, and remember always that it is to God we owe praise.
Yet, despite this national story, there is another part of Pesach that lies just underneath the surface. Pesach offers each of us the personal yearly opportunity to free ourselves from those things which, enslave our lives and embitter our relationships with God and others. Telling the story from the Haggadah is not a rote act but one, which requires us to believe in the words we are telling. Each year we are asked to take the journey from slavery to freedom and in doing so to once again partner with God to liberate ourselves.
How many of us today are enslaved to television, our cellphones/computers, or out of sync priorities, which can erode the quality of our family and social lives? I have had numerous people come to me saying, that just because they have cell phones, call waiting, and email doesn’t mean they feel more connected to those they care about but rather feel farther apart. We can let ourselves become over-programmed, over-computered/tv’d, or we can make the time for exercise, study, creativity, synagogue, family and friends. Free people (who are free economically as well) make decisions about how to spend their time, and the priorities they place on that time. We each live on God gifted time, so let’s make the most of it.
How many of us today are enslaved by our own bodies? Aging and sickness attack our sense of self. From cancer to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, illness can attack our very notion of who we are (and who we were). Lifting up our prayers to God for healing, supporting doctors and researchers looking for cures, fighting for affordable health care, visiting the sick and caring for the elderly are all ways in which we can partner with God.
Slavery, is not only physical, it can also be emotional. How many of us today are enslaved by anger, depression, shyness, and fear? This type of slavery makes our relationships bitter and leaves our lives in bondage. Whether we live in fear of terrorism, hold a deep grudge against a member of our family, or feel that life has lost its vigor, each of these examples hold our lives hostage. Pesach again offers us the opportunity to realize that we are fettered by these chains, and that we need to seek both spiritual and professional help to overcome them.
As we begin our preparations for Pesach, let each of us name aloud those items, which in this year we feel enslaved to. Then through prayer and action break free and declare, “hashta avdei – lishana haba’ah b’nei horin – This year we are slaves, but next year we will be free people.” (Haggadah Pesach) I believe this is what God wants to remind us as we sit around the Pesach table – now let’s join together and celebrate!
Chag Kasher v’Sameach! – A Joyous and Meaningful Passover!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – March 2016
Adars Filled With Fun
Two Adars1 are better than one,
So let’s get to it and have some great CBS fun!
To smile and laugh and have a good time,
And so this whole drash2 will be written in rhyme.
With two Megillah3 readings that will steal the show,
And as Irving says, “Don’t forget the minyan, now Go, Go, Go!”
Purim is coming with groggers, karaoke and hamantashen too,
So we give three cheers for Esther, Mordechai, and the Jews.
A little study each day keeps the doldrums away,
At least that’s what my professors at JTS4 used to say.
So we are learning together the wisdom of Talmud Berachot5,
And Jewish ethics and values filled with hope.
Snowbirds have trekked north from their winter hiding places,
Filling up the shul with their warm (and tan?) smiling faces.
The best is yet to come with our Purim celebration,
Come one, come all6 from every generation.
Two Adars are really better than one,
With something to do for everyone.
Alas, it is now time for me to bid you shalom,
But always remember CBS is your home.
Purim Sameach! – Happy Purim!
1 The Hebrew month of Adar is a time for rejoicing. The Talmud states that, “When Adar enters, joy increases!” In the Hebrew calendar, a second month of Adar (a 13th month) is added seven times every nineteen years to bring the lunar calendar into alignment with the solar calendar, thereby keeping holidays in their respective seasons.
2 Drash is a Hebrew term which literally means to “search out the sense of” or to “seek to understand” the sacred text. Generally however the term refers to interpretation and creative expansion of sacred texts usually in the form of a sermon or story.
3 Megillah is a term used for the 5 books (scrolls) from the Writings (Ketuvim) section of the Bible (TaNaKh) read aloud in synagogue. The five scrolls are Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations. Most people however associate the megillat Esther or jokingly as the whole gansa megillah!
4 JTS is the acronym for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the main professional school training Conservative rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, doctoral students and in conjunction with Columbia/Barnard undergraduate students. JTS houses the largest Jewish library outside of the land of Israel. It is located in Morningside Heights in the upper west side of New York City. For more info. stop in and see me.
5 Talmud Berachot – The Talmud is a combination of the early writings of the Rabbis in the land of Israel (Mishnah – Tannaim) and the later Rabbis of Babylonia (Gemara – Amoraim) Talmud Berachot is exciting because it contains the beginnings of our prayer service and the formation of the beracha or blessing pattern – Baruch Atah etc. Including the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) and prayer over bread, wine and other food types.
6 We are blessed to be joined again this year by B’nai Abraham and Am Haskalah!
From the Rabbi’s Desk – February 2016
Caretakers of God’s Masterpieces
When President Theodore Roosevelt championed the designation of National Parks, he said, ”We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” An avid outdoorsman, Roosevelt was often more at home in the wilderness than in the political back alleys of Washington yet, what is evident in his words is that the natural beauty in our world requires each of us to do our part in taking care of it. It is hard to imagine today our country without the National Parks but, before Roosevelt lobbied to create them, rampant industrialization was literally raping the land of its resources without regard to conservation or the complete destruction of the land. As Dr. Seuss would later write, “Business is business, and business must grow, regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.…” (The Lorax)
In Jewish thought and law since the Earth was created by God, the entire Earth itself is owned by God. As tenants on God’s earth we must not wantonly destroy it (baal tashchit) and are in fact positively commanded to be caretakers of it. Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:28 teaches, “When God created the first man He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world — for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
The midrash’s words of wisdom ring as true today as ever. As a world, we are inching closer to environmental catastrophe caused by our progress, growth and development. We are consuming our planet faster than our planet can rejuvenate and replenish itself. With melting ice caps, an island of garbage in the Pacific, and the continuing rise of animal extinctions we are destroying God’s masterpieces at an ever increasing rate.
But we can still change this course. The state of Israel is a great example of “where there is a will there is a way.” Combining ingenuity and resolve; Israel is the only country that has more trees today than at the beginning of the twentieth century. Through the efforts of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), and its tree planting initiative millions of trees have been planted. Today the JNF is working to create sustainable water solutions for the Negev and manage water more efficiently around the country. Each time I visit Israel, I am continually amazed at how technology is being used and developed to conserve and preserve the land. Israel exports this technology around the world and has been instrumental in teaching green ways to farm in Africa and Asia.
Yet, we are slower here in America to adopt eco-friendly policies and practices that other countries around the world have already adopted. We mistakenly believe that our freedom and rights come before anything else. We are sadly resistant to adopting new restrictions that will change or impinge on our “American” way of life.
On Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new year of trees, we have the opportunity once again to raise environmental awareness in our communities. We should resolve to redouble our efforts to living more in tune with our environment. From coffee cups to paper towels we live in one of the worlds most disposable societies. We can start to change this in small ways by bringing our own coffee cups to work & synagogue, using reusable bags when grocery shopping, taking shorter showers, carpooling, and redoubling our efforts to recycle. Each behavior we change does make a difference.
On a larger scale, I am proud to announce a partnership between Congregation Brith Sholom and the Sisters of Saint Francis in the Monocacy Farm Project. This project will both teach and use environmental and sustainable farm practices as well as provide both an organic CSA for the members of our congregation/community as well as provide produce for our local food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters. There will be opportunities for our community to learn, work, and contribute to this project. Please take a look at the flyer for the Monocacy Farm Project in this months bulletin for more information.
As rugged an individualist as President Roosevelt was, it was clear that he understood the need to balance between using our nations resources and preserving God’s masterpieces. As he wrote, “Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” To this we all can say, Amen!
Rabbi Michael Singer.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – January 2016
Hillel’s wisdom is our challenge: Do not separate yourself from your community
“Do not withdraw from the community … Do not judge your fellow human beings till you stand in their situation.” (Pirke Avot 2:5)
The sage Hillel’s words are over 2,100 years old, yet the challenge they pose still rings true today. While Hillel’s teaching seems obvious, that a person should not separate themselves from the community, still, all too often, we are very selective about how we define community — who is a part of it and who is outside of it. In particular, how do we treat those who are too poor to put enough food on the table, the mentally ill, struggling seniors or disadvantaged children? Are these people welcome in our community? Are they a part of our community? Are we responsible to help them? Or, are they somehow seen as “other,” invisible or in “that part of town?”
Even with the best of intentions, it is all too easy to become insular, inwardly focused on the very real day-to-day work and needs of our synagogue. Indeed, our 30th Anniversary Campaign is vital and necessary for our synagogue’s continuing spiritual and physical health. We are, however, also a part of the larger Jewish community of the Lehigh Valley and our local city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Each of these communities impact and make up an important part of who we are as a congregation and as individuals. This is why I believe Hillel’s statement is all the more challenging, for it asks each of us to examine the concentric circles of the communities we are a part of; to not withdraw from them and by extension, therefore from work, volunteering, donating, and being engaged in them. It is undoubtedly true that we each have limited time and finite resources at our disposal and therefore need to prioritize how we utilize those resources. Often the primary challenge, however, is finding the needed motivation to become involved and engaged even in small meaningful ways.
At Brith Sholom, we are proud to be a part of the (historic and present) fabric of the city of Bethlehem and the larger Jewish community. We work collaboratively with other synagogues like Bnai Abraham through our joint religious school and in family life programs such as the Purim celebration and the Poconos Shabbaton. We lend the Hillel at Lehigh University a Torah for the High Holidays and I have run programs for students at Moravian Day School and College.
We work as an important partner with our Jewish Family Service in our Operation Isaiah food drive, the kosher food pantry, and the Go Program (ShareCare), with volunteers who drive seniors to the doctor or take them shopping. We continue to support our local Bethlehem/Easton area Hadassah chapter and work in collaboration to support our valley-wide Kadima/USY chapter (LEVUSY). We actively support the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley by donating to the annual campaign, making calls on Super Sunday (Jan, 31 9:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 5:30 – 8 p.m. — volunteers needed!) and through Young Federation Leadership in the annual Thanksgiving Food Drive. As your rabbi, I am also active with the Lehigh Valley Clergy Association which gives me the opportunity to sit on the Jewish Day School and the Jewish Federation boards. In our local Bethlehem community, we partner with New Bethany Soup Kitchen (volunteers needed!), where we cook food and serve over 100 people; we donate blood on a continuing basis at the Miller Keystone Blood Center.
Each of these are ways in which we as Congregation Brith Sholom look beyond our walls and reach out to be part of the larger communities around us. Yet, Hillel’s words are meant to make us uneasy. They are meant to challenge us to continually reassess and find new ways of increasing and broadening our involvement in the community. As we celebrate our 30th year at Macada and Jacksonville roads, I would like to open a discussion on ways we can further collaborate, engage and work with our larger Jewish and local community. Please feel free to call and/or email me with your thoughts and suggestions. In the end, our level of engagement and success depends on each of us as members of Brith Sholom participating and continuing to build the communal culture Hillel taught us so long ago.
Rabbi Michael Singer
From the Rabbi’s Desk – December 2015
Lighting Up the Darkness
Throughout our history we have always found deep meaning in the power of light. Indeed Creation itself begins with God creating light. It was a light that was not physical in nature (see Day 4 for that) but as our Sages teach the light of consciousness, awareness, thought and knowledge – Torah Orah (The light of Torah). God takes this special light and hides it throughout Creation for people to discover through righteous acts and deeds of kindness. “Light is stored for the righteous, joy for the honorable.” (Psalm 97) Later the tradition records that each night as the Jewish people settled into their tents they could see the light emanating from the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at the center of the camp. The light was from the seven branched golden Menorah which the kohanim kept lit but, the deeper meaning of that light was God’s protecting and comforting presence reassuring us as we made our way in the wilderness.
It is no coincidence the the Maccabbees sought to rekindle the Menorah showing God’s presence once again filling the Temple. When the rabbis reimagined the holiday of Hanukkah, they specifically decreed that the hannukiah’s light needed to be able to be seen by people walking by to remind them of the miracle – to light up the darkness.
Our world is filled with too much darkness. The darkness of hatred, intolerance, and violence. From Jerusalem to Paris, from Beirut to Bamako to right here at home, there are those who peddle in the darkness of ignorance, hatred and violence. The lighting of the hanukkiah has always been a defiant act against such darkness. Whether in Exile, a concen- tration camp, or the former Soviet Union the lighting of the hanukkiah has always represent- ed God’s presence in our midst – the essence of which is hope, comfort, and love. It recalls not only what our ancestors fought for but what we continue to fight for – namely freedom and dignity for all. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” This Hanukkah as we gather together to light up the darkness may we shared it with others, fighting hate with loving kindness and intolerance with understanding. May the presence of the Holy One burn bright in our homes and in our hearts.
Chag Orim Sameach! A joyous light filled Hanukkah!
Rabbi Michael Singer