From the Rabbi’s Desk — September 2019
Religion, Science and the Meaning of Life
The world was created for me, I am but dust. – Talmud
He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. – Einstein
I believe human beings have always pondered the questions, “what is life?”, “why am I here?”, and “does my life have purpose?” We have scaled mountains, hiked the forests, looked up at the stars, and dreamt of worlds yet to be seen or imagined. Amid all of this we have searched both far and wide and intimately close – for life’s meaning. Life after all can be hard, unjust, and fragile. Yet, it can be filled with love, beauty, and wonder.
Yet, I believe we have to acknowledge that something fundamental has changed in our current age. With the triumph of scientific thought, particularly Darwinism and the Big Bang Theory, human belief systems often represented by religion and philosophy have not done a good job of bridging the gap between our new cosmic understandings and the teachings and values of our great traditions.
People therefore feel torn between our modern world of science and technology and that of our ancient wisdom. In the process many have chosen to reject the religious institutions which were the bedrock of communities and helped shape the fabric of social interaction. The result has been that for many Americans, religion is not only a dirty word but something that makes no sense in the current age. Sadly, this has led to throwing the proverbial, “baby out with the bathwater” which has left people searching for meaning without the benefit or insight of the wisdom of our religious traditions.
Religion for its best part allowed people to feel significant, loved, connected, and experience moments of transcendence. Grounded in Scripture, holy days, sacred symbols, and telling deeply human stories. Religion helped create an ethical and moral backbone for society. It allowed people to imagine a better world, a world to come, and both the highs and lows of human choices. It invited us to feel a part of something greater than ourselves. It made us both the humble and priceless creations of God and a part of a world filled with incredible beauty. “God created man in God’s image, in the image of God He created him; male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
Our faith wisdom helped give our lives cosmic and personal meaning amidst the uncountable stars and the all too real struggles of human life. Religion allowed there to be order out of the chaos of life. A belief that God has a plan and a purpose even if we do not fully understand it.
Religion however at its worst, made people feel insignificant, disconnected, fearful, and unloved. In some cases it became petty, magical, and rigid in its ways. It shrank God by trying to put God in a box – saying my vision of God is right and yours is wrong. It did not keep up with the thirst of human reasoning and scientific exploration and instead sought to either reject or suppress them. Religion could be twisted to divide us, terrorize us, and lead us to even to mass murder.
Science for its part can be exhilarating. A quest for knowledge and discovery, seeking answers to how the universe, and life itself works. Unbound by emotional beliefs, science seeks to test hypotheses, rejecting those that fail to be provable or unmeasurable. Yet, as with all scientific breakthroughs (without proper ethical and moral checks and balances) abuses more horrible than anything imagined before fill the pages of our history. Scientific “advances” can be used to entrench power, enslave, and destroy. Today we have the ability to destroy God’s creation in one horrific nuclear explosion or slowly poison it by stripping the planet of its resources and viability like never before in the name of “progress”.
Science can also reduce people to the impersonal, to calculable biological responses to stimuli, or statistically insignificant numbers. We can become cogs in the machine, easily replaceable or outdated. Our rights of privacy, our identity, and security eroded or abused. We can become enslaved to the very scientific innovations that hoped to improve our lives.
That is why I deeply believe that religion and science need each other more than ever. There is no need to reject either religion or science out of hand as both can help us explore the meaning of life. They are indeed both parts of a human drive for exploration, understanding, and finding our place in the wonder of the universe. For me, science and religion are two sides of the same coin. Each asks important and yet different questions. Simplistically – Science asks the question – How do things work? while Religion asks the question – Why does it matter? Together they invite us to think about the meaning of life, and the meaning of our lives.
I look forward to gathering together over the High Holy Days to begin again the annual Jewish process of self-reflection, forgiveness, and renewal. During this time I hope that each of us will be able to take a little time to think, meditate, and dream. To recharge ourselves with inspiring liturgical poems, melodies that move our souls, and stories that challenge us. To recapture our purpose, remember our worth, and connect with something greater than ourselves. May each of us be inscribed and sealed for a new year of life.
Note: The above (aside from the last paragraph) is an excerpt from a book I have started writing
From the Rabbi’s Desk — August 2019
Remembering our Loss
Ok, I admit it, Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) is not a particularly popular holiday for American Jews. It falls in the heat of summer, contains a 25hr fast and commemorates an event that occurred 2,000 years ago. Also, we are blessed today to have a restored and dynamic homeland in the State of Israel. Yes, it is true that the Temple has not been rebuilt. But, thankfully Judaism has evolved and changed in the thousands of years since the Second Temple. Indeed, who knows what God has in store for the Messianic era? Compounding the search for meaning for Tisha B’Av is the reality that for most tragic events in history after a century or more of time, the personal connection to these events becomes significantly diminished. Part of this is the natural healing power of time and part is that no matter how much we write and study our history books unless we feel touched by it emotionally it is hard to truly relate. Observing Tisha B’Av was like this for me personally as well until one fateful day.
I remember it as a clear crisp September day. In fact the clouds (if there were any) were high and wispy. Alexis had already made her way into the city for work (near the Empire State Building) and I was catching a later train on the Long Island Rail Road to meet up with one of my professors at the Seminary. The train was running late (which didn’t surprise me) when a white S.U.V. pulled up and a woman in a panicked voice yell out – “A plane hit the Trade Center!” I immediately thought that a small plane must have crashed. “It was a huge passenger jet! They think on purpose!,” she continued to yell. I ran. My synagogue was not far from the station and all I could think about at first was my dad. He worked across the street from the Twin Towers and took the Path train into them every day from Jersey City. When I arrived at the synagogue my secretary Jackie was in tears. It was three planes that were deliberately crashed into the buildings and the Pentagon. (I had not heard about the 4th plane that crashed in Shanksville, PA) No one knew how many more there would be. We tuned into the radio but even that was difficult since many of the broadcast antennas were on top of the towers. Phone lines were jammed and I could not get through to anyone. Not to Alexis and especially not to my dad. We listened and cried. Slowly as the news trickled in the worst was far worse that anything I could ever have imagined. It was a nightmare that had come to life. The Towers had fallen. In an instant the world I had known was gone. Three thousand murdered. Would they find survivors? NYPD, NYFD, Port Authority so many fallen. So many innocent people…why?!…for what?!
It wasn’t until later in the evening that I finally found out my dad had made it home covered in ashes. Alexis was trapped in NYC as they sealed off Manhattan. She would eventually get a train home but I cannot even imagine the journey. Anyone and everyone was crying. We all were in mourning, scared, traumatized, and broken. People were trying to find their loved ones. Pictures were being posted in lower Manhattan. I organized a prayer vigil at the local middle school. I tore up my High Holiday sermons, unsure of what I could say that would help my community and me cope with this devastating loss. The nightmare did not end in days, weeks, months or even years later. As a nation, for a moment we stood together in our collective grief. This was not only an attack on New York and the Pentagon, this was an attack at the heart of America – on the values of freedom, democracy, a diverse and open society, and fundamental human rights. We learned of the stories of unbelievable courage, self-sacrifice, kindness, and love in the face of suicidal hate, evil, and destruction. Yet still, in an instant, the world was irrevocably changed. The loss of what was and what could have been was felt and shared by everyone and most deeply by families whose loved ones never came home that September 11th.
Even today, I get very emotional when September 11th approaches. It has left a scar that has never fully healed (even after seeking counseling). My children will never know what the world was like before it and for so many families it is the untimely yahrzeit of a son/daughter, husband/wife, sister/brother or father/mother or neighbor/friend. Sadly, approaching eighteen years later for many Americans, it will be just another day – a historical reference. Yet, if they stopped to think for a moment they would realize that the wars we continue to fight with tens of thousands dead, the waste of treasure which could be used to invest in building our country and its people, the rise of the security state, and the loss of innocence continues to impact our world to this very day.
As Jews, the events of Tisha B’Av devastated the world of our ancestors but it is also still with us today. Exiled from our homeland, we wandered from place to place seeking a respite from oppression, persecution, and mass murder. In countries where we thought we were safe, where we planted roots and contributed to the arts, sciences, military, civil society, etc. we were often expelled, faced demeaning anti-Semitism, forced conversion or far too many times death. For those alive to witness it – Tisha B’Av must have been cataclysmic, the only world they knew ending and the repercussions of a new world unimaginable. Our tradition set aside Tisha B’ Av so that we could bear witness not only to a historical footnote but to our collective losses throughout the ages. It is a day when we sit together, mourn, and physically deprive ourselves of food/water and joyful pleasures sharing instead our personal and collective pain and tears. The wisdom of our tradition provides a means of cathartic release, a way to internalize our collective history through personal sacrifice and contemplation.
As American Jews, I believe there is a deeply moving power in having a day to come together as a community and pour out our collective grief and mark the day our world changed. For me Tisha B’Av, Yom HaShoah, and September 11th are not only reminders of what we have collectively lost in the past but the hard work we have to do right now to heal our broken world. I invite you to join with me after Shabbat on August 10th at 9pm as we hear the haunting words of Eicha and sing together kinnot.
This month’s bulletin article is from a piece I was asked to draft by Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger about the current attempt to remove veterans (and others) from eligibility for SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Aid Program). In March I was appointed the Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Food Justice Committee and have been working with rabbis across the country on issues of food insecurity and hunger.
The Jewish tradition declares emphatically in the Passover Haggadah that, before we sit down to enjoy the Feast of Freedom, we must open our homes, saying, “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and share this Passover meal.” All the more so, we must not turn away those whose sacrifice has allowed us to live in this land of the free. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines instead deserve our country’s open arms to welcome them home and a helping hand to lift them up, so they can live with dignity and honor.
Recently, the Trump administration has proposed a rule change to the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (SNAP) that would effectively stop tens of thousands of veterans from seeking or receiving benefits. This change would strictly enforce a 20 hour-per-week work requirement within three months of applying and receiving SNAP food benefits. Failure to prove enough hours would lead to the denial of SNAP benefits for three years.
As a rabbi, veteran, and a proud American, I believe that our service men and women deserve better. Denying them access to food will not make their lives easier or help them find work faster. It will further add to their burdens and their family struggles. Moreover, it breaks the fundamental American social contract that says that as they faithfully protected us, so will we faithfully honor their service by caring for them when they return.
Chaplains play a special role in the Armed Forces, as we are the only ones who hold confidentiality and therefore can be trusted with the most private and deep conversations of our service men and women. In my role as chaplain, I learned that transitioning from deployments and from the military to civilian life is complicated, and even in the best of times is often difficult. Family dynamics change, priorities shift, and decisions about the future can be rife with anxiety. Sometimes our veterans come home physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred even when a wound is not visible. (A look at suicide and addiction rates speaks volumes.) This takes its toll not only on the veterans, but also on their loved ones.
Planting roots in a community, adapting skills for the workforce, finding and holding a job, wrestling with physical and mental injuries, and negotiating civilian life that all too often nods at their service without really understanding what they and their families have sacrificed can be extremely daunting. The sad truth is that for an estimated 1.4 million veterans and their families, food insecurity is a daily challenge. Post-9/11 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from food insecurity at nearly double that rate. The enormity of this problem is often hidden from public awareness and political discourse. Sometimes this is due to veterans’ pride, self-reliance, independence, and wish to serve rather than be served.
That is why for the last two years I have joined with fellow rabbis and cantors across the country in Mazon’s Rabbinic Cohort to lobby our Senators and Congresspeople on Capitol Hill about this harmful SNAP rule change. Our duty to raise awareness and promote Judaism’s moral voice is not confined to sermons or classes, but actualizes itself in advocacy. It is one thing to read the newspaper and shake our heads; it is another to sit across the table from our elected officials and talk with them about food insecurity and hunger. The Torah’s command “Justice, Justice you shall pursue,” (Deut. 16:20) means taking tangible steps to ensure that our society is acting in the highest ethical and moral ways. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “This implies more than merely respecting or following justice; we must actively pursue it.” Jewish tradition teaches that we have a collective responsibility to care for those who are most vulnerable in our society. I hope you will add your voice and effort to this pursuit.
Rabbi Michael P. Singer
Congregation Brith Sholom Bethlehem, PA
Chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly Food Justice Committee
A Living Torah – Torat Chayim
One of the most exciting and rewarding parts of my rabbinate is sitting down with B’nei Mitzvah families and studying the Torah portion. It is amazing to see how parents, teens, and children turn over the words of the Torah and begin to pull out ideas, values, and Commandments from a text written over 3,000 year ago. No longer is it just a parchment scroll containing almost 80,000 Hebrew words but now becomes a living and dynamic part of who they are and who they are becoming. It becomes the treasured inheritance of Jewish life passed from one generation to the next – l’dor vador.
I believe the secret to why Judaism and our people have not only survived but thrived is that we continually engage with the Torah’s teachings. Through interpretations and commentaries, we are able to adapt Judaism to technological advances and different countries and cultures, while still holding on to the central ideas and core values that define us. Each generation has added its voice to the literature of Torah. Originally in oral form, then in scrolls, books, and now into the digital world (example: sefaria.org) – the library of Torah keeps growing and expanding. At its core is a Jewish tradition that is relevant, deeply spiritual, and presents us with a path to make life meaningful, just, and hopeful.
Sometimes the Torah’s teachings helped us stand up against social customs, religious doctrines, and foreign ideas that were counter to our values (idolatry, tyranny, racism, xenophobia). Other times we were able to seamlessly use the Torah’s support for contemporary issues such as civil rights, reproductive freedom, anti-poverty measures, and environmental protection. And still other times its teachings help us feel personally and profoundly connected to God, our family and community (both past and present) and our most intimate and deeply honest selves.
What is necessary for this Torat Chayim (Living Torah) and therefore Judaism to remain alive however are two key and critical actions. First, every Jew has an obligation to study and learn Torah (Talmud Torah). Whether it is reading the weekly Torah portion, studying Talmud, or reading a contemporary book on Jewish ethics. For Torah to remain a central part of who we are we need to study it, debate it, and ultimately find/add our voices to it. Second, the Torah is not only an act of intellectual discovery but a system of Commandments and values to be lived in the world. For example, we are commanded to keep honest weights and measures. This is not only historical, hypothetical, or in the ivory tower – this is in the real world. When I go to put gas in my car, I trust that what I pay is based on the actual amount I receive. Our shared communal system would fail if we could no longer trust each other. The living Torah requires us to put it into use, to actually live it!, otherwise it becomes out of touch, irrelevant, and then dies.
On Shavuot we celebrate receiving the Torah not as a dusty old tome hidden away, nor with its meaning calcified or stunted in only one time and place but through our engagement with it we make it a part of our time and our very selves. It is a “Tree of Life.” a Torat Chayim (Living Torah) whose words are meant to be studied, sometimes challenged, expounded upon and almost certainly – lived. At the end of Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Ben Bag Bag sums it up nicely when he teaches, “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 of life than this.”
May we all celebrate our Torat Chayim (Living Torah) by learning and living it all the days of our lives. Chag Sameach! A joyous and sweet Shavuot!
Sharing God’s Gifts as the Key to Happiness
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God” (Parshat Emor Leviticus 23:22)
A few years ago I came across the following short story from an unknown author entitled, “God’s Coffee.”
A group of alumni, highly established in their careers, got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups – porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite – telling them to help themselves to the coffee.
When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice looking expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress. Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups… And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.
Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain Life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of Life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us.”
God brews the coffee, not the cups………. Enjoy your coffee!
“The happiest people don’t have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything.”
This story struck a chord in me as we count the days of the Omer (Sefirat haOmer). As Jews, we are on a spiritual journey to Sinai to receive anew God’s gift of the Torah (holiday of Shavout). In anticipation, each day of the omer we attempt to move spiritually higher as we asses the content and character of our lives. The Torah frames this journey in our sacred calendar by reminding us, that when our ancestors gave thanks for the grain harvest they offered an omer of grain to God but also shared their harvest with those who were in need Jew and non-Jew alike. (See the story of Ruth)
Both the ritual of bringing the omer offering and leaving the corners of the field (pe’ah) for people in need teaches us to recognize and appreciate God’s gifts and blessings in our lives as well as to internalize the commandment and value of the holiness of sharing. The holiness of sharing in turn circles back to help us see beyond the rat race and its collection and acquisition of material items and allows us to find a higher and holier purpose to our lives. This cycle of gratefulness, sharing, and holy purpose has been shown to increase happiness in our lives/world as well as wholeness or in the Hebrew – Shalom.
We therefore can frame our life’s journey and purpose not by how much material we have acquired but instead by how we live in appreciation of God’s blessings each day and our responsibility to act with a generosity of spirit in how we share these gifts with others. Living in this manner makes us worthy of receiving God’s gift of Torah which by its very nature is not a possession of a singular person but is shared among all of us. As it says, “She is a tree of life to those that grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:18, 3:17)
May we celebrate in joy the holiday of Shavuot – living in gratefulness, sharing generously, and pursuing our holy purpose – Shalom.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — April 2019
Freedom is a Work in Progress
The quintessential Jewish story in the Torah is the story of our exodus from Egypt, and the trials and tribulations of moving from a people who knew only slavery to a people poised to forge a new society guided by God’s Torah. Each year we gather our families and friends together to remember and commemorate our amazing story of freedom in the holiday of Passover(Pesach).We remember that our freedom came at the cost of plagues on the Egyptians, including a terrible loss of life. It also took Jewish leaders like Moses, Aaron and Miriam, taking responsibility and owning both the struggle and the outcome of liberation. God acted only when we cried out, sent Moses to speak to Pharaoh, and marked our doors with lamb’s blood. We had to take the first steps ourselves into the Sea, in order for it to part. Around the seder table we not only remember these historic actions but also challenge ourselves with questions about the meaning of freedom today in America. With the continuing rise of economic inequality, mass shootings, hatred in all its forms, and technology which tracks our every move and our most private information. Our work for freedom is not yet complete.
As American Jews we take heart in the family stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents, who sought to bind their lives with that of America’s. They came to these shores for the promise of freedom, equality, and abundant opportunity. Yet, sometimes we faced an America that turned us away, was unfair, corrupt, or harsh. As Jews we have experienced the hurtful barriers of prejudice and hate that set quotas on college admissions, kept Jewish doctors out of hospitals or denied us hotel rooms and most often jobs. We were called un-American, invaders, the insidious “Other”. So, we fought back and we raised our voices not only for ourselves but for the civil rights of all Americans.
The hard fight for freedom, continues today as we strive to live up to the very best of the values of human dignity and respect that America represents. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, push-back against progress, and sad and ugly times. America’s history is filled with moments when we have failed to live up to the best of our values. We must not become discouraged, apathetic, or ambivalent. Instead, Pesach teaches us that we must continue to work towards redemption. Overwhelmingly, America is a model society that at its best allows her people no matter who they are or where they come from, to achieve their highest potential and ensure the safety, human rights and dignity of our citizens. The fact that it is imperfect does not absolve us from working to do our part. This is how we love America, love freedom, and love God. We work to make the world better through our actions which bring more justice, love, and peace to all humanity.
Today we are witness to a world that is still struggling with civil rights, hatred, and basic issues of human dignity. The powerful story of Pesach can inspire us to take up the struggle for freedom and remind us of our people’s long history to break the chains of pharaohs and oppressors. While I do not know how some of these struggles will come out in the near term, I firmly believe with all my heart that we are not only on the right side of history but also following God’s commandments to love the stranger, care for those in need, and pursue justice and peace. I also know that freedom takes courage, sacrifice and conviction. I pray that as we sit at our seder tables this Pesach we remember that our freedom is a magnificent blessing. A blessing that we are continually responsible for and that we have to work hard to ensure and renew in every generation. As our Torah teaches (and is inscribed on the Liberty Bell), “Proclaim freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants!”(Leviticus 25:10)
Purim, Passover and the danger of anti-Semitism
How many times have you heard the joke about making the Megillah reading shorter by just saying simply, “Hey, they tried to kill us, they failed, now let’s eat!” Sadly, the story of Purim wasn’t the first story in the Hebrew Bible where Jews were demonized, persecuted and murdered because we were Jews. That dark distinction is found first in the book of Exodus, where Pharaoh’s advisors convince him that the Jews should be enslaved because they could rise up and side with Egypt’s enemies.
Then emboldened Pharaoh takes the next step with the world’s first recorded genocide, having Jewish baby boys drowned and killed in the Nile. In the story of Purim, once again an eerily parallel plot begins to unfold with another kingly advisor – Haman (Boo!) spreading fear and prejudice to single out the Jewish people. Haman riles up King Ahashverus and the Persian people, claiming that the Jews were not only strangers in the land with foreign customs but, they refused to follow the king’s laws. In both stories – lies, mistrust and xenophobia are used to further denigrate the Jewish people in the eyes of the masses. The result is the systematic hatred of another people (the Jews) who had been living peacefully in their country. Frightfully, the troubles and ills facing the Egyptians and later Persians, coupled with the easy targeting of foreigners (Jews lived in Goshen, Jews dressed differently, etc.) turns what were once neighbors and countrymen into oppressors and accomplices to these evil plots. Furthermore, just as in the Exodus story, the service, leadership, and dedication of the Jews to the king, country and community, was forgotten and replaced instead by virulent anti-Semitism.
So, what can we learn from the similarities between Passover and Purim? – namely that as Jews, we must stand up against intolerance, prejudice and hatred wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Whether in the halls of our schools, the offices we work, the places we socialize, or the digital domains we frequent, we must strive to be vigilant against racism, sexism, religious hatred, and prejudice. Anti-Semitic incidents — from neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., chanting “Jews will not replace us” to physical assaults, vandalism and attacks on Jewish institutions — are on the rise. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 audit recorded the largest single-year overall increase, 57%, since ADL began this annual audit in 1979. That doesn’t even include the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history with the Tree of Life synagogue massacre this past October. Whether from the right or the left, anti-Semitism has been emboldened here at home and certainly in Europe (74% rise in anti-Semitic incidents/attacks in France alone), the Middle East, and around the world.
Yet, despite this, all hope is not lost. Our ancestors and role models – Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Mordechai and Esther teach us that good can come when we stand up to face the hatred of our times. Through the powerful tools of education, community building, and political activism we can make a difference. Indeed, I believe we will realize that there are many good people waiting to stand together with us against anti-Semitism and hate of all types. We sadly know all too well what can happen when these are left unchecked. So, as we look forward to eating our hamantaschen and drowning out Haman’s name with our groggers, let each of us do our part to make sure that the lessons of Passover and Purim never fade from our collective memories and from the memory of the world.
Chag Purim Sameach! – A Happy and Joyous Purim!
The Jewish Life-cycle: A Tapestry of the Past, Present, and Future
As a first year rabbinical school student 21 years ago, I remember learning the mechanics of how to halachically officiate, conduct, and sanctify the different types of Jewish life-cycle events. But only after being in the pulpit for a number of years did I fully realize the brilliant beauty of how our tradition weaves the past, present, and future together on both a cosmic and deeply personal level.The rituals of the Jewish life-cycle are a blessing that helps us mark these moments as individuals but also as a sacred community.
When a baby is born we welcome them into the covenant with a brit milah for a boy or a simchat bat for a girl. We connect our newborns with our spiritual ancestors Abraham and Sarah, as they become the next link in the line of the Jewish people. In the case of the brit milah, which may be the oldest of our ancient traditions dating back over 4,000 years, it has historically defined membership in the Jewish people and a requirement for entering upon male conversion as well. Yet, the present family, sometimes great grandparents, grandparents, and parents surround the baby, take part in the ceremony, and watch as their family grows. The baby is brought to sit on the chair of Elijah, not only to hopefully look towards the Messianic era but also to represent the immense potential of good this new life can bring into a broken world. Finally, a Hebrew name is bestowed on the baby. In the Ashkenazic tradition, the name is usually linked to a loved one who has passed on. While in the Sephardic tradition, the baby is named for a living family member. In both cases, tying together the past, present and future.
Skipping to Bar/Bat Mitzvah we see a coming of age ritual that marks the delicate dance between childhood and adulthood. Slowly, this often awkward teenage pubescent time is a push-pull between more freedom and responsibility and parental oversight and limits. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah marks the beginning of young adulthood and the taking on of communal responsibility which corresponds hopefully to the young adults look beyond themselves and towards the larger world. This life-cycle ritual was traditionally about accepting the responsibility of the Commandments in a public way by being called to the Torah for men. Today even in many Orthodox communities the Bar and Bat Mitzvah demonstrate a young adults commitment to a level of Jewish learning as well as leading a service or sharing a d’var Torah with family, friends and the community. In the misheberach blessing given to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah the same refrain: May the parents be privileged see them lead a life filled with the blessings of Torah, chuppah, and ma’asim tovim – connects the past, present, and potentiality of the future.
Today there are many new and creative modern life-cycle ceremonies that have entered the tradition such as: First day of school, getting their 1st siddur, heading to college, confirmation, and even going to away to camp ceremonies to name just a few. Each of these celebrates a new milestone and marks a transition in the lives of families and Jewish community. New Jewish ceremonies are not only for children but are also being created for adults with: special birthday celebrations, anniversary and marriage renewal ceremonies, retirement ceremonies, menopause rituals, and even heart attack/cancer/stroke survival rituals featuring the traditional addition of a new Hebrew name to the person’s original name. The best of these new life-cycle rituals have creatively connected pieces of the ancient tradition, the TaNaKh, rabbinic and kabbalistic writings, as well as more contemporary Jewish ideas.
These new Jewish life-cycle rituals have also added opportunities not only for individuals but also their families, and the community to connect spiritually to our tradition and to God in new ways.
We can’t however forget about one of the most joyous and sometimes most stressful life-cycle events: weddings! Your baby is marrying. Two families coming together. The hatan and kallah. The past, the present, and the future are in the minds of everyone involved. The ritual itself makes reference to this in the blessings which are recited under the chuppah. Adam and Chava (Eve) are invoked. Jerusalem remembered. The giant I.O.U. of the ketubah is witnessed and signed. Rings that are completely round (circle of life) placed on fingers. If it is a younger couple, often the parents will bless them with the hope of fertility (it’s all about the grandchildren!) It is as if God created all of Creation just for these two loving humans to find each other and become united as one (it was b’shert).
And yet finally, “like flowers of the field…”(Kohelet) we are limited in our lifespan. Here too, the Jewish tradition understands that the past, present, and future are woven together even in our passing. Our body washed and lovingly prepared by the chevra kaddisha for our final journey. Our life recalled in the hesped (eulogy), our family cuts kriah (rending their clothes), covers mirrors, and fulfills the Jewish rituals of mourning – shiva, sheloshim, and kaddish. Yet, as we are laid to rest, the liturgy captures the eternal nature of our souls, our transition to Olam HaBah (the World to Come), Eden, or another state of being. Our love, deeds, and memories become blessings for the those that remain. Maybe even our name will be passed on to a new generation to come (see brit milah/simchat bat). We have navigated the journey of this life and now are joined together with those who have journeyed before us. We are bound up in the bond of God’s eternal embrace.
From birth to death and life in between, the wisdom of each and every Jewish life-cycle tradition and ritual is that it weaves the past, present, and future together in deeply meaningful and personal ways while also connecting us to the larger story of our people and to the vastness of the Divine. For me personally, I could never have imagined how privileged I would be to be part of, share together, and witness so many of these life-cycle events with so many wonderful and incredible people – souls that touch my soul. To lead a deeply caring community that stands with each other and echoes the commitment and dedication of those of our past, working hard to sanctify life in the present, and planting the seeds for those yet to be in the future. These are some of the blessings of our Jewish tradition, may we always carry them L’dor vaDor.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — January 2019
New Year’s Resolutions with a Jewish Twist
I find it interesting that every year there inevitably comes the question on Jewish blogs about whether Jews should celebrate the secular new year? In my mind, I see no problem with celebrating the secular new year since around the world it has been adopted predominantly as a non-religious holiday and a standard measurement of time.As Jews, our tradition already has four new years of our own1 so adding another secular one doesn’t seem so crazy to me. Maybe what the real question should be from the Jewish perspective is the halachic validity of making new year resolutions? For our tradition takes making vows very seriously and many pages of Talmud (Nedarim) and Rabbinic law codes worry about the effect of making/keeping/breaking vows. So much so that, one of the most memory filled and meaningful moments of the High Holiday season is the service of Kol Nidre which literally means “All vows” and whose purpose is to proactively annul vows we will make and not fulfill. To our Sages, vow making was a terrible idea. For one, we could believe that by making a vow, we can somehow force God to do our bidding, as in some type of magic or mystical negotiation. For example, “If God, you do x for me then I swear I will do y for You.” or “If you do not clean your room, you will be punished forever, so help me God!” This presumes that God will agree to act or that the vow somehow forces God’s will, neither of which can be known. On top of this what about if a person forgets to fulfill his/her end of the vow? Then not only have they broken a vow made to God but also taken God’s name in vain by swearing on God’s name to fulfill it. What then would the repercussions be?
The Rabbis are not only concerned with vows made between people and God but also vows people make to each other. For example, “Don’t worry Sally, I promise to be at your concert.” or “Thank you, Rabbi for letting me borrow this book. I promise Rabbi to return it!” Both vows or promises are made with the best of intentions and sincerity and yet the one who vows cannot in the end be sure of fulfilling their promise. In the first vow, the person promising to be at Sally’s concert might have something come up that is unforeseen, preventing them from being there. In the second vow, both the person (and the rabbi) might forget or the person might even misplace or lose the book. The idea of making promises or vows so troubled the Rabbis that Jewish popular language included such phrases as, “b’li neder – without vowing” and “baruch haShem – praise God/please God” used after expressing everyday promises, hopes, or vows. For example, “I will see you at the baseball game tomorrow, b’li neder.” or “ Baruch haShem, Jimmy will get his acceptance to Rutgers today.” While sometimes I find these sayings silly, they do at least acknowledge the unknown and temporal fragility of our vows/promises. They remind us that we are not always the master of our fate, as in “there before the grace of God go I.”
So, this brings me back full circle to new year’s resolutions. Statisticians smirk at the percentages of new year’s resolutions that fail after the first month (or week?). Of course, people want to improve their lives, maybe lose a few pounds, and give up some of our vices! Yet, often making a new year’s resolution is not well thought out and often without an effective mechanism to keep people on track after the initial promise/vow. Jewish tradition understands changing our well-worn habits is not an easy task. Teshuvah or return takes great effort and perseverance. It also encompasses how we cope with the obstacles to change both external and internal, the times when we fail, or our disappointment at the pace of our progress. While admitting that we want to change is indeed the first step, this would ring empty without daily accountability, reminders, and reinforced collective2 and personal will. Changing ourselves is a continual process, that it is not limited to only New Year’s day. It is possible any time we are ready to earnestly devote the energy and time to the change process.
So, can Jews participate in making new year’s resolutions? I would say… no and yes. No, to making flippant vows or promises without a real plan or mechanism to hold ourselves accountable. Also, a definite No!, to swearing on God’s name. Yes however, to the idea that we can and should work to change ourselves for the better. Yes, to the idea that we can do this at any time. Yes, to the notion that we can seek help from family, friends, our community, and our religious tradition to support us. And finally Yes!, to recognizing that we are all strivers, sometimes delayed, sometimes failing but created out of love and worthy to be loved. For this and so much more, Baruch HaShem.
1 Rosh HaShanah (new year of years), Tu B’Shevat (new year of trees) are still widely observed, while the 1st of Nisan (new year of months/kings) and 1st of Elul (new year of tithes/taxes) are not.
2 The weekday Amidah prayer which is said 3x a day contains several reminders and opportunities for teshuvah and our individual and collective responsibilities.