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.