Sign In Forgot Password

October 2022

Shemini Atzeret: A Mysterious Holiday

I am a trivia fan. I love watching Jeopardy, playing Trivial Pursuit, and a new game called Mind the Gap (A multi-generational trivia game for the whole family). Yet, if we were to play Jewish trivia - how many of us could answer under the Holiday category - What is Shemini Atzeret? It is kind of like the platypus of holidays. No, It is not part of the Sukkot holiday which is 7 days long. In fact, we specifically make a distinction between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret by not dwelling in the Sukkah. And no, it is not technically part of the High Holidays (even thought the kittel is worn for part of it) The Torah teaches us that, “On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring a gift to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.” (Leviticus 23:36) From this cryptic verse as you can see - we cannot learn very much. Furthermore, in the Land of Israel it is a one day holiday, like Shavuot, but outside the Land of Israel, like Shavuot, we have two days. Two days of what? you may ask - Good question! Stay tuned!

The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud debate what Shemini is. In the end they compromise and create two holidays in one. First, those that felt it was more connected to Sukkot argue that it is about geshem - or rain. Since Sukkot was a pilgrimage holiday, the Rabbis felt that if they prayed for rain during the holiday of Sukkot it would literally dampen the festive joy of Sukkot which is also known as Z’man Simchateinu (Time of Great Rejoicing). Sitting in a wet sukkah is not particularly fun. By waiting for Shemini Atzeret to officially pray for rain, the pilgrims could make their way home and we wouldn’t have to sit in a wet sukkah. Furthermore, on Sukkot we parade around with the Lulav & Etrog in our quest for fertility and blessing. Water (not too much or too little) is necessary for our crops to grow and for us to live -  it is the basis of life on planet Earth. This further links Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

But wait! For the other Rabbis, Shemini Atzeret is connected not to Sukkot but to Shavuot - where we received the Torah. God wants us to stay a little longer in celebration to mark the occasion of completing and beginning the Torah reading cycle again. So they gave the Shemini Atzeret holiday another name - Simchat Torah. (Remember in Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah take place on the same day as they only have one day of the holiday like Shavuot) Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah in terms of length and connection to Torah seems to make sense. Since the Torah reading cycle itself is coming to an end and beginning again - having a special holiday on the eighth day therefore makes logical sense since people have already come together in the cities (particularly Jerusalem) for the Sukkot holiday. They only need to stay an extra day. And thus a old/new holiday was born - Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.

Solved it, right?! Nope! This only works out if there was no division between the practice of the Land of Israel and the practice of those living in Babylonia with regard to the way the Torah was read. However, there was big difference. In Israel, the Torah was read in consecutive thirds or the Triennial cycle. For example: Parshat Noah was read over three Shabbat weeks. While in Babylonia, each Torah portion was read over one Shabbat. This means that in Israel they only completed the Torah cycle every three years, while in Babylonia they completed the Torah every year. Now if your head is spinning, hang on!

There also was a group of Rabbis who understood that the world was judged at four different times of the year from a teaching in the Mishnah. “At four times of the year the world is judged. On Passover, judgment is passed concerning grain; on Shavuot concerning fruits that grow on a tree; on Rosh HaShanah, all creatures pass before God like sheep; and on the festival (???) they are judged concerning water.” (Talmud Rosh HaShanah 16a). So… what is the festival mentioned when the world is judged concerning water? Like the three other judgment occasions - this is literally a matter of life or death. Over and over in the Torah, God reminds us that rain and water in general, are dependent upon our moral behavior. God will either open the heavens or close them depending on whether we have followed the Commandments or abandoned them. Ultimately, we believe in God’s power to forgive us and redeem us. Each of the four holidays mentioned are connected to opportunities for God’s saving grace and redemption. God saved us from Egypt (Pesach), gave us the Torah (Shavuot), forgave our sins (Yom Kippur), and will one day bring the Messianic era of everlasting peace, return to Zion, and redemption to the whole world (Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah).

If indeed, Shemini Atzeret is the festival that is being alluded to (some argue that it is Sukkot) in the Mishnah - then it makes sense that Shemini Atzeret is a holiday where we once again seek forgiveness and mercy from God in our petition for geshem - rain while also praying for the Messianic era of redemption. Indeed, it is traditional to wear the white kittel of Rosh HaShanah (Yom haDin - the Day of Judgment) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) while reciting the prayer for rain - Geshem. The kittel acts as a symbol of purity, compassion, and mercy. Additionally, I believe it is no coincidence that the days we recite Yizkor are connected to the days in which we and the world are judged (or in Yom Kippur’s exception - sealed) and days which feature God’s saving and redemptive power. Praying that God bind up the souls of our loved ones, remembering all of their good deeds and love, and acknowledging God’s power as Master of Life and Death seems to just make sense. Therefore, Shemini Atzeret would connect appropriately to those other holidays when the world is judged and we seek redemption.

As you may have guessed, in the end Jewish tradition embraced all four holiday themes - Rain, Torah, Judgment/Compassion, and Messianic redemption and merged them all together. From its cryptic verses in the Torah to the differing interpretations of the Rabbis - Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah is a holiday that is complex and yet deeply meaningful. It is a celebration of endings and new beginnings, of God’s sustenance and care, of love, loss, and hope, and a testament to our Jewish tradition itself - with its ability to engage the mysteries of life with creativity and yes, a little shot of L’chaim! to make us sing, dance, and celebrate together.

Moadim L’Simcha! A Joyous Holiday Season

 

ARCHIVES

September 2022

Forgiving Others is Hard but Necessary

I have written and delivered many a sermon on the High Holy Days about the process and power of teshuva (return/repentance). This is obviously one of the main spiritual themes of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as we seek to reflect on our own behavior and the events of the past year in order to rededicate ourselves to paths of righteousness, meaning, and growth as individuals and as a community. As part of the journey of teshuva we seek forgiveness from others and from God for the mistakes and hurts we caused and our failures to live up to our best selves. The journey of teshuva is not simple and seeking forgiveness is certainly not easy but just as difficult or maybe even more difficult is forgiving others for the mistakes and hurt they have caused us.

 Indeed the difficulty in forgiving others is wired into our human nature. Our basic instinct for survival tells us to avoid, defend, and harden ourselves against both physical and psychological danger and hurt. It is only natural that while we can easily extend to ourselves the benefit of the doubt, understanding, and compassion when we make mistakes and seek forgiveness - it is often harder to allow that same generosity of spirit with others - especially when they have hurt us. Obviously, there are exceptions. I have known people who are so much harder on themselves, unwilling to forgive their own mistakes, flaws, or failings yet willing to easily forgive others. For most of us however - we believe that we are at our core good people and since we understand our own intentions and the sincerity with which we seek God and others’ forgiveness - we anticipate forgiveness and atonement. This is by no means a bad thing. In fact, believing that we are worthy of forgiveness and atonement provides us the power of hope for continual improvement, change, and growth throughout our lives. As the Beatles sang, “Getting better all the time!” The deeper question is - “Do we or can we allow the same opportunity for others?”

When someone has wronged us or hurt us - it is often very hard to let go of the anger and pain in order to forgive them. Holding a grudge can even be a defense mechanism which acts like a bit of armor - shielding us from further hurt and giving us a small sense of self-righteousness over the one who wronged us. Additionally, when someone wrongs us, we can often feel the hurt replaying over and over again until it is ingrained into our very fiber of our being and our personal story. Jewish tradition wisely does not ask us to forget what has happened to us or even to squash our true feelings but instead challenges us in the belief that people can change and thereby be forgiven. The past cannot be rewritten but instead the relationships we are involved in can be healed and strengthened creating a future that is open to new possibilities.*

When we are approached by someone sincerely seeking our forgiveness (up to 3x), we are asked to let go and forgive them. The Sages of the Talmud recognizing just how difficult it is to forgive therefore attributed an extraordinary reward for forgiving others: “One who overcomes his/her natural tendencies and instead forgives, all his/her sins are forgiven.” (Rosh HaShanah 17a) On its surface this is an incredibly chutzpadic statement - in essence, committing that God will wipe the slate clean on account of those who forgive others. But, if we extrapolate out and imagine a world that is unforgiving - where people hold on to their hurt, anger, and pain and relationships are eternally broken and where revenge and vendettas are the norm - this would be a dystopian nightmare. Furthermore the impact would be detrimental for all of us seeking to change our lives for the better and to make amends for our mistakes. We would be continually rebuffed or learn hopelessness - abandoning teshuva out of futility. We can now understand the deep importance the Rabbis placed on forgiveness and why they would boldly offer forgiveness on behalf of God to those who themselves forgive others. 

Finally, there is another upside for the one who forgives. When we hold onto our anger it can corrupt us and tie us in knots. It can act as a poison not only in regard to the person who wronged us but also seep into other relationships we have. For example, it may cloud out all of the good the person has done and focus us only on the bad so that instead of seeing the goodness in people in general we may become jaded or suspicious of others. Additionally, holding back forgiveness plays into the fallacy that we as human beings can/should be perfect. That is a trap that creates not only an impossible bar to live up to but often sets us up for imminent failure and disappointment. There is no one that is perfect and therefore there is no one who does not need compassion, teshuva, and forgiveness.

When we forgive someone there can be a cathartic internal release. Just as we ask God to descend from the Throne of Judgement to the Throne of Compassion & Mercy with the sound of the shofar blast, so too each of us has the ability to open our hearts in compassion and mercy by forgiving those who wronged us. As we approach the High Holy Days this year, may our hearts be moved to forgive one another. To hold each other in a spirit of generosity and kindness. Forgiving others is hard to do but when we allow each other the opportunity to repair mistakes, heal relationships, and grow spiritually and morally we also contribute to our own growth and journey of teshuva. May we each be written and sealed for a sweet, healthy, and blessed New Year.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Tikateimu!

*Note: I want to make clear that there are some acts that are so horrible and despicable that Jewish tradition does not expect or require forgiveness.

 

August 2022

We Remember and We Persist - Transforming Tragedy through Loving-kindness

Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) is one of Judaism’s saddest days. It recalls the destruction of both the 1st & 2nd Temples as well as many other tragic events throughout Jewish history. As I have written about before - the Rabbis sought to channel all of the pain and anguish of our people into one day of national mourning (aside from Yom HaShoah). In doing so they allow us to bring forth all of the sadness we feel about a number of both personal and communal loses. 
We sing dirges, practice the rituals of mourning (no weddings, cutting hair, eating meat, wearing jewelry & leather, etc.), chant Lamentations (Eicha) and refrain from joyous celebrations. Yet, as important as Tisha B’Av is for us as a safety valve for our collective sadness and remembrance, it is what we do after that is just as important.

In one of the most telling (and moving) exchanges Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was the leader of the Jewish community before, during, and after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, comforts a distraught student, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya.

            “Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his disciple Rabbi Yehoshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the ruins and said, “Oy (Alas) for us!  The place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!” Then Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Ben not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of loving-kindness.” For it is written in Hosea 6:6, “Loving-kindness I desire, not sacrifice.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 11a)

Faced with a world turned upside-down, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai lays the groundwork for a Judaism based on our ritual & prayer practices, our sacred calendar, our continued study of Torah, our ethical behavior, and our deeds of loving-kindness. This is a Judaism that is focused not on a place (the Temple) and a priesthood but on how each of us as Jews infuse our lives with a living Torah. On Tisha B’Av we sit on the ground and mourn our loses but afterwards we pick ourselves up and like the mythical phoenix, we rise from the ashes.

Over the past three years we have collectively felt the loss, anxiety, and sadness of living in the midst of a global pandemic. We need a way to give voice to our feelings and find an outlet for our continued trepidation and fear of the unknown. The observance of Tisha B’Av can be one such vehicle as surely as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s response can guide us on how to pick up the pieces and Live. Observing one does not preclude the other but instead strengthens our resolve to rebuild and renew our commitments, to love more deeply, to live more fully, and to prioritize our family, friends, and community more than ever.

As we begin to look toward the High Holy Days at the end of September and October, we have an opportunity for spiritual introspection and renewal. We can rededicate ourselves to our Brith Sholom community and our larger world. We can comfort, lift up, and create joy for each other and our community as we have learned the powerful lesson of transforming tragedy through deeds of loving-kindness. Together we will remember and together we will persist.

 

June 2022

Civility and Peace Make Us Worthy of Torah

In expounding upon the story of the giving of the Torah in the Book of Exodus, the Yalkut Shimoni (a collection of midrashim from 14th century Ashkenaz) on parshat Yitro was troubled by a question. Why didn’t God give the Torah to the Jewish people earlier in the story of the Exodus? Maybe at the Sea? or the morning of the Exodus itself? Why did wait fifty days until the Jewish people arrived at Mt. Sinai? He answers:

            “The Holy One sought to give the Israelites the Torah when they left Egypt, but

            there was contention among them, some saying, “Let us head back to Egypt.”

            When they arrived at Sinai however, they were united. Said the Holy One: “The

            Torah is perfect peace. To whom shall I give it? To a peace-loving people.” That

            is: “All its paths are peace.”

From this answer we can learn that the reason God waited to give us the Torah at Mt. Sinai was that the pre-condition for receiving the Torah was peace among us. The verse from Mishlei (Proverbs 3:17) he used as a prooftext - “Its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” is so central to our understanding of Torah itself that we use it as part of the Etz Chaim prayer when we return the physical Torah to the ark.  Peace among us does not mean that we cannot hold differing understandings or views of God, Torah, halacha, or our world at large as the diversity of Jews present at Sinai attests. What it does require however is that we are worthy of receiving the Torah only when we can be civil and respectful of each other. Indeed when we seek to honor God and Torah, Jewish tradition sees this come to life in the very real way we show honor and respect for other people in the world.

In the famous story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), a person seeking to convert to Judaism asks that the whole Torah be taught to him while he stood on one foot. He came first before Shammai who pushed him away with the builders cubit in his hand.(ie. he hit him) The same person then came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Now go and study.” What is important about this story is not only the teaching Hillel cites as the core of Torah (in fact the negative reflection of “Love you neighbor as yourself”) but the respect and dignity he shows to the potential convert even with a question/condition that could be seen as ridiculous. Hillel’s actions demonstrate that Torah is acquired through civility and peace and not through violence and conflict.

We would have no Talmudic tradition or continued growth of Torah scholarship and learning without the idea that, “This and these are both the words of the living God.” Our tradition is centered on the belief that we have respect for those we disagree with and debate from a place of common love of God, Torah, and the Jewish people. This idea has held us in good stead for thousands of years and, I believe this is a powerful lesson we need to share with those outside of our tradition. Holiness can be found in the respect and peace we employ in the process of discerning Torah as well as the process of our representative democracy. Our democracy thrives when we can disagree but respect the people with whom we disagree or at least the office they were elected to. Instead we have seen the weakening of our democratic values, as vilification of the other, name-calling, and believing in a zero sum battle between good vs. evil has made compromise and cooperation grind to a halt. Moderation has been replaced by ideological litmus tests and extremism, compromise with no victory for “them” at all cost, and American unity with “they are trying to destroy America! They aren’t real Americans.” We have learned through painful Jewish history that when we allow disrespect and conflict to overwhelm our love for each other, that God and the Torah are diminished and then only suffering ensues. In teaching about the destruction of the Second Temple, our Sages are unambiguous about the cause - Sinat Chinam (Baseless hatred). Jews hating Jews. Rabbis more concerned with the purity of their halachic position than the dignity of people. In those moments, our Rabbis teach, Hillel’s principle was abandoned and the path of Torah which is peace forgotten. Power became more important than process and being “right” more important than the dignity and lives of our people.

The Torah was given at Mt. Sinai because it was there that we stood together in peace. A Torah of peace - to be received by a people at peace. I believe that in order for the United States to remain united, we must act to restore the foundations of our civil discourse, to rebuild trust in our democratic and communal institutions, and to remember what brings us all together.  It is not too late. May we be exemplars of respectful debate and the free exchange of ideas. May we be proud that making space for diversity is a sign of a healthy, confident, and strong people. May our Jewish tradition guide us in building relationships of respect and dignity. And may God’s greatest blessing of peace shine across this nation and our divided world.

 

May 2022

Celebrating the Timeless Beauty and Challenge of a Living Torah

“Ben Bag Bag taught: Turn it and turn it - study it and review it: You will find everything in it. Scrutinize it, grow old and gray in it, do not depart from it; for there is no better portion in life than this.” - Pirkei Avot 5:24

We are the amazing inheritors of a Jewish tradition that has seen age upon age of change and creativity for over four thousand years. At the heart is our Torah, both the physical scroll of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible but also its broader usage as the sacred texts of our Jewish tradition. Within them echo God’s voice in our world reminding us of our moral bearings and spiritual paths which have served us in every place and time we have found ourselves. There are many reasons our Torah has endured but part of its innate strength is that we have revered it, studied it, debated it, added our voices to it, and most importantly lived its teachings in each and every generation. As a Talmud buff, I love peeling back the historical layers and taking a seat at the table as our great teachers, the Sages, seek to understand God’s commandments and what the very Torah itself means in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora. Layer after layer, from the plain meaning of the text (peshat) to the deeper layers of wisdom (derash, remez, sod) which bring to life interpretations with ever more complexity and creativity. Famously, even Moshe Rabbeinu could have never imagined the creative directions and interpretations which unfold when Jews come together to learn Torah and bring its meaning to life in the world.

As a rabbi, I feel a calling to serve God, the Jewish people, and yes, the Torah of our Jewish tradition itself. It is often hard to explain to people what this means. My role as rabbi is most often as religious officiant, prayer leader, pastoral counselor, teacher, and community leader. But, as I began this article, We are the amazing inheritors of a Jewish tradition…” Therefore, I am also a gatekeeper, conservationist, innovator, wrestler, representative, humble caretaker, wide-eyed continual learner, and voice for our Tradition and its Torah. This is not just an academic exercise of pilpul (back and forth) but is an act of my spirit and soul. It is a honor and delight to swim in our Torah’s timeless and precious wisdom and also a heavy and serious responsibility.

There is a creative dissonance between received Tradition from our past and Change/Innovation of our present/future. What does it mean to be both a caretaker and a contributor to this precious gift? How do we ensure that we do no harm to it or allow it to become ossified, irrelevant, trivial or unmoored from its roots? Add to this an understanding of being in relationship with God both as commanded individuals but also fundamentally as Klal Yisrael - the whole Jewish people who share in the communal Jewish responsibility and expression of our Torah, holidays, life-cycle, and commitments to ethical and moral behavior. It is a multifocal conversation between the God - Who is Ever-Present, the God our our Ancestors, the God of our Future Progeny, and the myriads of Jews, Judaisms, also of the past, present, and yet to be. 

As Conservative Jews we have chosen to walk a complex and delicate middle path between conserving our Torah and reinterpreting it. Living in the “in-between” of: faith and truth, Hebrew and vernacular, modernity and tradition, individual and communal, autonomy and commandedness - We see ourselves as the next generation in a long line of Jews carrying forward our faith, passing down its rules and customs, its core principles and ethics, its meaningful celebrations, its beautiful chanted prayers in Hebrew, and both literally and figuratively the Holy Torah itself. And… just as generations before us, we humbly add new understandings and interpretations of Torah so that we and it can thrive in our time and place. As we come together on Shavuot to reaffirm the Covenant of Torah, we share in all its complexity and timeless beauty - may we all be worthy to live it, enjoy it, and wrestle with our part in it for many years to come.

April 2022

Passover as a Journey of Moral Courage, Faith, Perseverance, and Hope

Ever grateful to God for the beauty of our world, a Torah to guide us, and the precious gift of life - this year we continue to face a world in crisis. From the continued Coronavirus pandemic, war in Ukraine, worldwide refugee crisis, Uighur's in China, Rohingya in Myanmar, the drug epidemic, culture wars, poverty, climate change, anti-Semitism and hate - you could say there is a lot of healing, love, and salvation we are in need of. But, “Hope springs eternal,” and so does the story of Passover. From its original context retelling the story of the Exodus - to its changing and profound meaning throughout the journey of our personal and communal lives- the story of Passover resonates deeply in the Jewish soul. No matter the place, time period, or security/insecurity we feel - as Jews we have sat down to tell ourselves, our children and grandchildren our story of freedom and hope.

To help us tell the story the Rabbis gave us the Haggadah with its many themes and ideas but from the beginning encouraged us to question, add to, explain, and personalize our telling of the story (Haggadah = l’haggid - to tell). In each and every generation we see ourselves in this journey of freedom. Starting from a narrow place (Mitzrayim - tzar/tzuris = narrow), a place of danger, despair, and uncertainty and making our way to the blessing of freedom (even if in our reality it is only aspirational). “This year we are still here, next year in the land of Israel. This year we are still slaves, next year free people.” (Ha Lachma Anya from the Haggadah)

There are four areas of the Passover story I would like to expound upon and offer as topics for discussion around our seder tables this year. 1) Moral Courage, 2) Faith, 3) Perseverance, and 4) Hope.

The more I study the story of the Exodus, the more I have come to believe that there would not have been a story at all without the moral courage in the face of oppression, injustice, and tyranny - Shifrah, Puah, Yocheved, Pharaohs daughter, Moses, Aaron & Miriam displayed. Even before God responds to the cries of our people - Shifrah and Puah, who were midwives, defied Pharaoh’s decree to kill all of the Jewish baby boys. The Torah says of them that they had, “fear/reverence for God.” They were willing to give their lives to do what was right. They face down Pharaoh and refuse to be part of his genocide. And when Pharaoh then decides to take his murderous genocide to greater levels of depravity (drowning the babies in the Nile) - his own daughter - saves the life of Moses in an act of righteous compassion. Her action of drawing him out of the Nile and raising him - will set in motion our ultimate redemption.

We know that the voices and deeds of the righteous of the nations even in saving one life let alone countless lives is a mitzvah beyond measure.

Moral courage when one’s personal life is at stake is extremely rare and yet it is often the spark that rallies the larger community to find their own moral voice and stand up for what is right. We retell their stories not because they always succeeded in finishing the hard task of “bending the moral arc towards justice,” but because the spark of their actions fortifies us in every generation and reminds us of which way the compass of dignity, freedom, and life point. Indeed, it is only after Shirfrah, Puah, Yocheved, and Pharaoh’s daughter act, that God goes from hidden hand behind the scene to overt involvement and action.

Furthermore, I believe that the thing the forces of evil fear most is an awakening of mass compassion, humanity, and resolve in the fight for the good no matter the cost. (By the way, silence and apathy in the face of evil as Elie Wiesel taught, “only helps the oppressor not the oppressed.”) Once the story of moral courage is told and retold it lights the spark of freedom in our psyche. I still get chills when I imagine Moses & Aaron standing before Pharaoh and repeating God’s message for all to hear, “Let My People Go!” These words are still in the hearts of many still seeking dignity and freedom throughout our world.

For Seder discussion: Tell a story(ies) of an act of moral courage that inspires you whether personal or in the larger world. (Examples: Tank-man in Tiananamin Square, civil rights marchers/freedom riders, Righteous Gentiles during the Shoah, etc.)

Which leads us next to faith. From its initial idea(s) or belief that there is something greater than ourselves - as Jews we have come to believe that human beings did not create the universe. Instead, we believe that God as Creator, fashioned us, our universe, and all that is in it with intention and out of love. Each person was created in the Divine Image and imbued with the priceless spark of the Divine to be able to live in dignity. As a reflection and remind of God’s love, all human beings are charged with the responsibility to praise (acknowledge gratitude, etc), labor (contribute, serve, create, etc.), and love (enjoy, care for, preserve, help, etc.) God, our world, and each other throughout our lives.

We believe however, that when people put themselves or the things we seek or make above God - we inevitably fall to idolatry. In my opinion, its most dangerous form is when a person makes themselves into a god or demagogue. As evidenced in the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh is a god-king who places himself above God and all others. He has no fear/reverence of anything greater than himself - including the suffering of his own people. He has no regard for human dignity or life other than his own and sees himself as the master of all things. Yes, the Egyptians worshiped their gods but Pharaoh’s ambition, hubris, and need for power blinded him (or “hardened his heart”).

In reaction to this, Judaism constantly reinforces the concept of something greater than ourselves. That God (however we might understand) is above any human and therefore we worship and bow only to God. From reciting the blessings before we eat and drink, to giving thanks for reaching special moments in our lives, to the Commandments to care for the orphan, widow, stranger, sick, and poor - Judaism consistently reminds us of both the priceless worth of God’s Creation, and God’s ultimate sovereignty in our world.

In the story of the Exodus, God’s desire for human dignity and freedom bring to bear power, wonders, and miracles never before seen in order to overcome even the mightiest of human power, ego, and arrogance. The foundation of our Jewish faith and its radical ideas have sustained us throughout our long history both on a personal and communal level. We have stared into the eyes of evil and time again uttered in defiance the words of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel - Adonai, our God - Adonai is One!” (or Adonai Alone!, Unique!, One of a Kind!) Our declaration of faith while seemingly simple is a profound buttress against the idolatry of dictators, oppression, and injustice and a reminder of “know(ing) before Whom you (we) stand.”

For Seder discussion: Talk about how your core beliefs and faith inform your actions in the world. Have there been moments in your life when your faith has sustained you in the face of difficult challenges or situations?

And yet despite our moral courage and principles of faith we know that injustice, pain, and suffering continue. We are not there yet. The Exodus was not only a singular moment in our history but is an unfinished journey or promise. In the words of the Haggadah, “For not only has one enemy stood over us to annihilate us. But in every generation enemies have stood over us to annihilate us. Yet the Holy One keeps the promise to save us from their hands.” The yearning for basic human rights to breathe free and live in dignity while delayed is irrepressible and represents the indomitable spirit of human perseverance. The obstacles and challenges we face both personally and communally are difficult and real. I am sure all of us wold like to overcome them both quickly and completely. “Bimheirah V’yameinu! - Quickly in our time!” Yet, many times our struggles do not end in a day, a week, a year, a lifetime, or even over many generations. In the story of the Exodus we see this unfold as Moses and Aaron do not succeed in getting Pharaoh to let our people go time and time again. In fact, the plight of our people became worse as we were forced to glean our own straw for the bricks due to Pharaohs anger. Yet, again and again even when doubt crept in, Moses and Aaron returned to plead with Pharaoh. They did not give up. God did not give up. Our people did not give up over hundreds of years of back-breaking slavery with its physical, psychological, and spiritual oppression. They did not fade away, lose themselves to the dustbin of history or abandon their faith (even with moments of great doubt) - they/we persevered. “And God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, signs, and wonders.”

In this moment of time our personal and communal challenges are many. Whether they come from nature like diseases (cancer, Coronavirus, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, etc.), or human causes (greed, war, inequality, hate, etc.) we can sometimes feel like we are fighting a never-ending losing battle. But as Rabbi Tarfon reminds us in Pirkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are you free to neglect it.” Sometimes the best we can do is put one foot in front of the other, and hold on. Just like the generations before us, we can instill and prepare the next generation to continue the work, to move ever forward. As a people, we are resilient, stubborn, and have a history of determined perseverance despite whatever nature and humanity throw at us. We continue to journey ever forward towards the Promised Land.

For Seder discussion: Share a challenge that you are struggling with or working on. What keeps you going through the ups and downs? or if that is too difficult at the moment - Share a story of perseverance that gives you inspiration, strength, or resilience.

If the story of Passover is a journey of moral courage, faith, and perseverance then central to the journey is the dream of what the finish-line looks like. To the dream of a better future. A future where the shackles of bondage are broken, despots defeated, where humanity dignity is the norm, and peace & love can be enjoyed by all people. Indeed the Exodus is only the first part of the journey - we then walk 50 days to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah ( Shavuot), wander 40 years in the wilderness but even that is not the end. The Torah we received at Sinai ends on the cusp of the Promised Land but we are always striving for the ultimate dream - that every human being see themselves in the image of the Divine and in harmony with each other, our world and our Creator - in essence - Shalom (wholeness, completeness, peace).

Our tradition is filled with this powerful imagery of hope. That in the words of our prophets, “… love and justice should flow like a mighty stream. And peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.” or that, “swords will be beaten into plow-shares and knives into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore.” Our Haggadah envisions hope in the promise of celebrating all together in Jerusalem - L’Shanah Ha’Ba’ah B’Yerushalayim! Next year in Jerusalem! not only in the physical sense but in the deeper messianic redemption sense. Jerusalem after all means - the City of Peace. We hold onto the hope that one day all of the nations of the world will come together in Jerusalem and offer thanks to God. When the words of the prophet Zechariah that, “God shall be acknowledged Sovereign of all the world. On that day God shall be One and God’s name One.”

I believe one of the key aspects of our Jewish faith is visualizing hope. We need to focus on what the possibilities of the future could and should look like. What kind of world do we seek to live in? What are the big dreams we have as human beings? Hope, as I have written about before, is not fiction but the foundation of aspiration we then set our minds, hearts, and hands to work towards. As Theodore Herzl famously articulated in his book, Der Judenstaadt - “Im tirzu, ayn zo aggadah! If you will it, it is no dream.” However, we must start by articulating the vision. The last part of the Seder in the Haggadah is Nirtza which can be read in two ways at the same time - we accept and we will. We pray that our seder ritual will be accepted while also declaring that we will continue the journey toward the Messianic Era of peace. May this Passover holiday indeed lead all of us to the Hope that both springs and is Eternal.

For Seder discussion: Name something you are hoping for? What would its fulfillment look like someday? What are you doing to step towards your hope(s)?

Wishing all of you a Zissen Pesach - A sweet, joyous, and meaningful Passover holiday!

 

March 2022

WORDS MATTER! – Misappropriation of the Holocaust

With every bit of irony, “It should go without saying,” that - words have meaning and consequences. From the words of the Creation to the giving of the Torah itself, Jewish tradition infuses the use of both the written and spoken word as the pinnacle of both Divine and human power and responsibility. Words can transform thoughts and ideas into reality. Words can stir hearts and split seas, recall unheralded acts of bravery, creativity, and beauty as well as wield destructive power, and hate. Words can provide hope and inspiration not only for one generation but pass through the ages from one generation to another. Words can heal us, lift us up, and give us direction. They can be used to bind us together, foster the best of ourselves, and capture dreams yet to be fulfilled. Words can take us on journeys of fantasy beyond the physical limits of time and space and bring the voices of our past to life in conversation with our present. Words matter! This is why when people trivialize the Shoah (the Holocaust) by comparing it to everything but itself, their words desecrate both the memories of the those brutally murdered and simultaneously poison the minds of everyone in the present and future.

The Holocaust was an act of systemic genocide so horrific that in my mind all the words in every language ever uttered would fail to fully capture the evil atrocities of it.

And yet whether uttered by a Jew or non-Jew - co-opting the terms - “Holocaust”, “Nazification”, “Hitler“ and “Yellow Star” to talk about mask & vaccination requirements, educational policy, and to demonize your political opponents irrespective of left or right, is not only absurd but weakens what the Shoah was. Misappropriating the Shoah desensitizes and corrupts while giving those who misuse it a warped “moral equivalency” and free conscience about what really happened. Even Zionism, has been perversely equated with Shoah terminology by those seeking to demonize Israel and her supporters.

So let me be clear - The Shoah was the state sponsored systematic genocide of the Jewish people who were rounded up for extermination from every corner of Europe by the Nazis and their collaborators. A “Final Solution” which in the end murdered 6 million Jews along with countless Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, and political prisoners. Yet, for a long time now I believe we have witnessed the mind-numbing, history rewriting, conscience cleansing attempt to deny, minimize, and discredit the Shoah and the Jewish experience of it. We should not have to apologize for the Holocaust being taught in schools, we should not have to explain over and over why cheap political rhetoric using the Holocaust causes us pain and trivializes our Jewish experience. We should certainly not have to counter the insane ideas that the Holocaust was our fault, or that it really didn’t happen, or that it was not as bad as people think, or why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is somehow equivalent to the systematic mass murder of our people! 

Genocide has sadly not gone away, even when the world chooses to look away - particularly the Uyghurs in China today. But, the Shoah was a particular genocide against the Jewish people - perpetrated by the Nazis and enabled by the silence of the world. When words of justice and outrage at its onset might have saved lives, our plight was met mostly with silence and an unwillingness to believe. Now, as the few remaining survivors of the Shoah pass on - their stories, their lives, and those of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children who were slaughtered by hate incarnate are being abandoned and traumatized again. Whether malicious or thoughtless, to stir provocation or cleanse the conscious - we must demand a stop to the appropriation of words about the Shoah except when talking about the Shoah. By distorting words, warping history, and then desensitizing the present and future to them, it is my belief that the world wishes to forget, to strip the Holocaust of its Jewish nature, and to diminish any and all culpability.

Despite the saying that, “words are cheap” - as Jews, we know that they indeed are not! We have throughout our history given and had our lives taken because of them and we must not be silent. As we approach the holiday of Purim, the Shabbat before is known as Shabbat Zachor (The Shabbat of Remembrance) in which we recall the story of how the Amalekites attacked the rear of the Jewish camp as our people left Egypt. They murdered the vulnerable - our elders, children, women, and the infirm. God commands us never to forget. Each of us has a responsibility to Never Forget” the Shoah even if the world seeks to do so.

February 2022

TWO STORIES AND A PRAYER: AFTER COLLEYVILLE

Like many of you, I am still processing the terrifying event of what happened in Colleyville, Texas, where a rabbi and three members of Congregation Beth Israel were taken hostage on Shabbat. We live in a world where anti-Semitism is on the rise from both those on the left and those on the right. This disease like Covid seems to morph into new variants at an alarming pace (social media, anti-Israel rhetoric, etc.) yet at the core anti-Semitism still fundamentally believes that Jews either hold all the power (banks, media, secret cabals, world power, etc.) or are the cause of the world’s suffering (wildfires, Covid, war, etc.) Anti-Semites frankly just hate the fact that Jews exist.

I am not only worried about anti-Semitic attacks but also concerned about how our response to Pittsburgh (Tree of Life), Poway, Colleyville, and other attacks both physical, verbal, and emotional will change us and the nature of our community, its engagement, and its outlook. Will going to synagogue in our country become like trying to board a plane, or like the fortresses that European synagogues have become with heavily armed guards patrolling? Will we open our doors to someone in need we do not know - even to offer them a cup of tea and a kind word? Will our children be proud to share that they are Jewish or attempt to hide their identity?

In the face of all of this there is much to be said and hard work to be done. Here however, I offer two stories and one prayer for your thought, consideration, and response. (Please email me what you think: rabbisinger@brithsholom.net)

Story #1

The story goes that the Romans had forbid the practice and study of anything Jewish. Their intent was to wipe out the Jewish people by severely punishing (read: horrific displays of barbaric torture and death) Jewish practice and Torah study in the hopes that we would abandon our faith and fade away like so many other peoples and religious traditions. When the students of Rabbi Akiba asked him why he continued to defy the Romans and openly teach Torah and observe Jewish practice he replied:

It happened that there was once a river where fish kept being caught in a fisherman’s net. Week after week, day after day some of the fish were caught until finally the fish began to complain. “Woe is us! We are continually caught in the fisherman’s net!” A sly fox overheard the fish and said, “Oh, fish Oh, fish - let me help you! If you come to the edge of the water, I can ferry you on dry land past the fisherman’s net down the river.”  The fish laughed and said, “Fox you are indeed clever and sly but we are smarter than you. What chance would we have on dry land! Certainly, we would die and you would eat us. Yes, some of us are caught by the fisherman’s net but water is our life and our home. Indeed, many of us slip through the fisherman’s net and survive.” So too, Rabbi Akiba taught his students, that Torah is the life of the Jewish people. A Jew without Torah is like a fish without water. The Romans can only truly destroy us were we to give up our Torah and Jewish practice.

Story #2

It was a beautiful day when a rabbi and a soap maker decided to go out for a walk. They were both enjoying the sunny day when the soap maker abruptly turned to the rabbi and said, “What good is Judaism?! Judaism teaches all these important values, ethics, and morals but look around at our world! Without giving the rabbi a chance to respond, the soap maker continued his rant: “The world is corrupt, It is filled with pain and evil and wickedness. So many people hate us! I ask you, Rabbi, what good is it all!”

Yet, before the Rabbi could answer, out of nowhere a large rubber ball came flying through the air, headed straight for him! Fortunately, the rabbi had quick reflexes. He caught the ball before it smacked him in the face. A very scared boy ran up to the rabbi to apologize. As the boy ran off to join his friends, the rabbi said, “Just look at that young boy. He is absolutely filthy! And you are a soap maker, so I ask you, what good is soap?! There is all this soap in the world, and yet that young boy is dirty!”

The soap maker protested. “How can you say that about soap? You are a learned man, Rabbi, so surely you understand that soap is good only if you use it.”

“Ah!” said the rabbi, with a grin. “And so, it is with Judaism. We must use it to make a positive difference in the world - to teach and live ethical lives of loving-kindness, responsibility, and care even when we know there will be people who will not. We will nevertheless continue to bring our love and light into the world, just as you will continue to make soap so people can wash themselves.

A Prayer for Victims (by Rabbi Naomi Levy)

I am scared, God. I feel so vulnerable and exposed. Why did this have to happen, God? Why didn’t you protect me? What is wrong with this world?

Be with me, God; let me know You are near. Fill me with strength and courage. Return me to confidence, God; let me feel secure again. I don’t want to live in fear anymore. I don’t want to feel like a victim anymore.

When the nightmare of what I experienced invades my thoughts, calm my fears, God; remind me that I am safe now, and that I am fortunate to be alive. I am grateful, God, for my life, for my family, for my health.

God, please obstruct the plans of any person plotting to do harm to another. Watch over us, God; watch over Your world. Shelter us with peace. Amen.

 

January 2022

Political versus Partisan – Why religion needs to be politically engaged

One of the things I appreciate the most about studying Talmud is the concept of nuance. The rabbinic worldview is not set in black and white but instead echoes the reality of a band of fine distinctions and possibilities. Granted this can sometimes be misunderstood or difficult to pin down but I believe this worldview reflects the actual reality of living in an imperfect world. In my eighteen years in the pulpit and as Chair of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Social Justice Commission, I have often listened to the refrain that rabbis should not be political. It is here that I think an important distinction should be made and clarified. There is a difference between something that is political and something that is partisan. The very Torah itself is political - it is abundantly clear that idolatry is a sin, that the world and everything in it is God’s, that human life and dignity are priceless, and that caring for the stranger, orphan, widow, and poor are not feel good ancillary suggestions but Commandments from God.

The term political is the application of the Torah’s values and Commandments into the real world in which we live. It is how we conduct ourselves in business, how we create just and caring communities, and how we hallow God’s name in the way we treat one another and our planet. The Torah and our Jewish faith are meant to be lived primarily outside of the synagogue in our everyday lives. This is where our Jewish values hit the road. Yet, for most people the term political has become corrupted. Instead the term partisan has replaced political in its meaning and usage. I believe if Judaism becomes partisan than we have made ourselves small and narrow-minded. I am in total agreement that rabbis (and clergy at-large) should stay far away from the pettiness, mudslinging, self-defeating partisanship that has overtaken the probelm-solving, civilized debate, and compromise that are necessary for a healthy representative democracy. We desperately need the voice of ethical and spiritual wisdom of religion in the public square but it should not be aligned with a particular partisan party or candidate. To do so not only restricts our ability to listen and talk to our representatives no matter who is in power at the moment but also excludes members of our own Jewish community from feeling at home in our synagogues. In this capacity I feel it is important to distinguish between the term political and the term partisan.

I would like to illustrate an example of political relevance to the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shevat. In a famous story in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23a), Honi the Circle Maker, came upon a man planting carob tree saplings. He ridiculed the man as foolish since he will never live the 70 years to see the trees bear fruit. The man responded to Honi that, “just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.” This story teaches many lessons not the least of which is that we must preserve and even improve the land so that future generations are able to enjoy its blessings. How might we today do that? For starters, preserving forests and open spaces, regulating the chemicals which runoff pollution, and making sure that no matter a persons economic station they have access to parks and clean air and water. All of these ideas require political will and compromise. Jewish law and ethical values have a lot to say about balancing sustainability and human needs. (see the CJLS Teshuvah on Sustainability at this link: https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2021-05/cjls%20sustainability%20teshuvah.pdf) The preservation of our world effects all of us and will take real-world efforts and legislation to accomplish. A rabbi talking about this issue from the pulpit focused on our Jewish tradition should not be partisan but it most certainly is political.

I believe our Jewish voice is an important part of the larger community in which we live and can bring its strength and wisdom to the challenges which all of us face. To be true to our faith we must be a voice for social justice and a key partner in organizing good people to the holy work of making our community, country, and world better. We must however remember to distinguish between what is political and what is partisan and guard against becoming narrow-minded or used by partisan parties seeking to divide, diminish, or pigeonhole us.  As we approach Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day it is fitting to hear his prophetic voice on religious involvement in pursuit of social justice.

Excerpts from “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

… that in the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular…We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Rabbi Michael Singer

           

December 2021

 

Kindling Holiness, Increasing Hope

As to be expected there is a classic debate recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat) between two of our traditions greatest rabbis - Hillel and Shammai on the number of candles to be lit each of the nights of Hanukkah. Shammai using logic recounts how the Menorah in the Temple had seven branches which were traditionally all lit each day. When the Maccabees triumphantly recaptured Jerusalem and the Temple they only found enough oil to light the Menorah for one day - so they filled the seven branches and lit them. Miraculously the light, while diminishing each day, lasted for eight days instead of only one day. Therefore, Shammai reasons that we should start the holiday of Hanukkah by lighting all eight branches of the hanukkiah and decrease the light each day until only one branch (plus the shammash) are left on the last day. This of course makes logical sense and yet his debate partner Hillel suggests that instead we should add one new light each night until all eight branches are lit on the eighth day of Hanukkah. The light therefore instead of diminishing would grow brighter each and every night. How can this make any sense?! Shammai argued. Historically and logically the light from the Temple Menorah grew fainter not brighter! Hillel responded, “we do not go down in holiness only up.” Hillel understood that if people were to see the light each night diminish their joy and faith would also diminish. He knew that what people really needed was to see the light grow brighter and thereby increase their hope no matter the challenges and tribulations facing them. When we continue to work together with God’s saving power the impossible is possible - that we can succeed against the odds.

In each and every age, the miracle of Hanukkah has inspired and sustained our people. The story of a band of freedom fighters facing a mightier foe, the resolve not to give up our faith to assimilation or the demands of the majority culture, and the dream of rebuilding Jewish life in our homeland. We look to the light to dispel the darkness around us both physically, emotionally, and spiritually. From historical oppression and persecution, to the emotional battles in our personal lives - we take strength each night from recalling the miracles God has performed for our ancestors and for us. The lights of the hanukkiah are both fragile and powerful at the same time. Like Shabbat candles, we are not allowed to use the light of the hanukkiah for work or other purpose. In fact, while the candles are burning we are encouraged to sing, laugh, eat, and take it easy (no work).The light is kindled for its own sake - to reveal a spark of God’s holy presence within our home and to then spread that light to all of those who walk by. We are meant to share and bring light to the world.

As we continue to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, my hope for each of us is that as the light increases each night and fills our homes, that our hope grows, that we feel the uplift of God’s holiness and goodness in our world, and that we rekindle the joy within our hearts as we look forward to better times ahead.

Chag Urim Sameach! May the Festival of Lights bring you hope and joy!

 

November 2021

Eyes Wide Open - Taking a Stand For a Better Bethlehem

Just a few weeks ago our JCC received anti-Semitic phone threats to sadly add to a growing list of hate acts in the Lehigh Valley. Over the holidays, Rabbi Juda recorded an impassioned plea for the Jewish community to unite and wake up to the rising tide of anti-Semitism. At the very least for this, we need to put aside our differences - Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Chasidic, secular, humanist, right wing, left wing - it frankly doesn’t matter - we must all work together. Add to this the reality that in order to be successful we need to rouse the larger non-Jewish community to the situation. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the rise of anti-Semitism is emblematic of a civil society in turmoil. Traditional institutions of family, houses of worship, civil engagement & shared communal responsibility, economic justice & dignity, and trust in government & the media are shaken. Hate has never gone away but, recruitment and hateful acts both online and physically (of which anti-Semitism is one expression) have been on the rise in recent years. It is fueled from both the “Left” and the “Right” but its message is clear - Jews are the problem, don’t belong, are the cause of hardship, evil, and are not loyal.

While this is all extremely disturbing, we do not have to take this lying down. To that end, I have brought this up to the Bethlehem Advisory Council I sit on as well as B.I.G. (Bethlehem Interfaith Group). A Bethlehem is No Home for Hate - statement and signature campaign is about to be launched in our city. Thank you to Dr. Lori Herz, Rev. Hopeton Clennon, Guillermo Lopez, Rev. Bob Rapp for helping to craft this statement and to Rabbi Juda for his input. By launching this campaign, we hope to bring good people together to declare that hate has no place here in Bethlehem. What we need to do now is get as many of our Bethlehem neighbors and businesses to sign their names to this campaign. Awareness is the first step in a process of education and community building. The more we can shore up the institutions within our society and stand up to hate and intolerance while strengthening inclusion and tackling the challenges that we face together the better everyone will be.

If you are interested in canvassing and helping to get signatures - please be in touch with me. In the next few weeks, I will be unveiling this campaign in the local media along with the mayor. At the end of the campaign, we will be publishing all of the signatures and hope to then follow up with educational outreach and community engagement. Already the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) has run a workshop for B.I.G. and we will work with the Jewish Federation and others to continue to build a diverse and vibrant community. We cannot wish hate away. We cannot say, “it will pass.” We cannot dismiss hate against others as if it does not effect us. Instead, we will join together and open the minds and hearts of good people in our city. As we approach the remembrance of Kristallnacht on November 9th we must never forget which means dispelling false libels and ancient and modern prejudices, standing up to hate wherever it rears its ugly head and educate ourselves and our neighbors. Indeed as Elie Wiesel z”l taught - “to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

(The statement below was unanimously approved on October 11th by the Bethlehem Advisory Council with support of the Mayor’s office)

We, the members of the Bethlehem community, are deeply saddened and angered by recent acts of hate in the Lehigh Valley. For some of us, Bethlehem is where we live, raise our families, work, pray, or go to school. We will not be silent. Bethlehem is No Home for Hate.

The Bethlehem community we cherish is built on respect, dignity, and love. We are:

  1. Religiously diverse;
  2. Ethnically diverse;
  3. Diverse with respect to class, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and physical and developmental abilities.

Despite our many differences, we are united in decrying acts of hate, intolerance, injustice, and racism in Bethlehem and the surrounding communities. Just as one example, fliers promoting white supremacy were distributed in mailboxes in numerous neighborhoods in our region this summer. And even more recently, a resident had an altercation with a white supremacist at a local mall. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents, but part of an ongoing trend of intolerance and bigotry in our society.

We pledge to promote education, work for justice, and foster friendships and relationships with one another inside and beyond our community. We are committed to making Bethlehem a place where everyone is welcome and treated with dignity and respect. We will not be bystanders to hatred. While this will not be easy, we are up to the challenge! We sign our names below in commitment that Bethlehem is No Home for Hate, and that we will work to realize this vision.

 

October 2021

How Sweet It Is!

Among rabbis, the old joke goes that the month of Mar-Cheshvan is anything but bitter/sad but one of the best months! Traditionally, Cheshvan gets the Mar - bitter/sad addition to its name because it is the only month in the Jewish calendar without a holiday (aside of course from Shabbatot). Yet, for rabbis and those on the ritual committee (& congregants, too!) - it is a restorative and needed breather. We have again completed the holidays of Tishrei and this year once again in the midst of a global pandemic.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude to all of those who worked so hard to make them incredibly meaningful and joyous. I also feel blessed to have been able to sing the Hallel refrain, “Hodu La’Adonai Ki Tov - Ki L’Olam Chasdo! We give thanks to God - for God is Good; God’s Loving-kindness Is Everlasting! and count the myriads of sustaining blessings which my family, our congregation, and our people have received. Last year, we had no vaccine - this year we have a vaccine which saves lives. Last year we struggled to come together - this year while not fully whole - we were able to sing, see one another in-person (and on YouTube), and celebrate the holidays in joy and safety.

As we begin the Torah reading cycle anew with Bereishit, we recount how God’s loving-kindness establishes and sustains all life. As human beings, we are unique in being able to appreciate God’s Creation, its blessings, and just, “How Sweet It Is!” Yes, Jackie Gleason had it right - Gratitude (Hodaot/Todah) and Recognition of the Good (HaKarat HaTov) are important middot(values) in life. It is all too easy to take things for granted or dwell on the challenges, problems, and negativity that we encounter. In the process we forget to give thanks for the blessings, the daily miracles of life, and the loving-kindness and good which surround us. Yes, it is true that at times we don’t always, “feel it” but one of the significant Jewish spiritual practices through our daily prayers and copious blessings is to help us break out of our myopic view and see the bigger picture.               

As a core belief, Jewish living encourages us both as individuals and as a community, to foster an Attitude of Gratitude and take stock of all of the love and goodness in our world. Again this is not naiveté but instead a worldview that is both life-affirming, spiritually nourishing, and a builder of resiliency. Scientific studies have time and again shown the power of positive thinking, gratitude, and feeling/being loved on our physical and mental health.

The Torah teaches that as God created each living creature - God saw what God had made and exclaimed, “Ki Tov! It is Good!” God chose to see the goodness, potential, and beauty in each creature and when finished with all of Creation added, “Behold, it is (all) very good!” (Gen.1:31) How much more so, that we - the recipients of God’s love - should also acknowledge the beauty of Creation, the best of each other, and the blessings of life.

Difficult choices and hard days may still be before us. The challenges of life are many. Yet, I implore us all to devote time each day to saying, “Thanks You!” and seeking out the good. When we make this into a positive daily habit then sometimes even in the Mar (sadness/bitterness) we may yet find some sweetness. As the Naomi Shemer song, Al Kol Eileh’s refrain reminds us, “On All Those, On All Those - please watch over for me my good God, On the honey and on the sting, on the bitter and the sweet.”

 

September 2021

The Dialectic of Vulnerability and Joy

I remember when my sukkah fell on my father-in-law. No, it was not on purpose. It was a cold wind blowing and just like the Three Little Pigs story - it huffed and puffed and blew my sukkah down - on my father-in-law. Then there was the year we got to Florida and were greeted by Hurricane Wilma. I didn’t even wait - but took down our sukkah before it became flying artillery. Sukkot by their design are temporary. They are a reminder of how dependent, vulnerable, and delicate our world and our bodies are. We build our homes with the belief of permanence and too often falsely believe our bodies are indestructible as well. For all of our human engineering and ingenuity - our world, our homes, and our very bodies are extremely fragile. As we have continually witnessed throughout this pandemic, natural disasters like fires, floods, earthquakes, draughts, etc. or human caused devastation like violence and war - our world can turn upside down in an instant. What we thought was permanent, safe, and unshakable was an illusion, a conceit of our shortsightedness. Dust in the wind.

As with most Jewish spiritual wisdom, our holidays and their rituals speak to this complexity. The holiday of Sukkot works on many levels. It is both the Jewish Thanksgiving and a plea for salvation. A gleaning of the harvest bounty from the earth and a respect and return to nature. So when we break out of our routines to sit in the sukkah we remind ourselves of all of the blessings we truly have while simultaneously remembering those who don’t. We make ourselves vulnerable to the elements, to our connectedness and dependence on our planet, and to the important need for human humility in the presence of God and the cycle of life.

Through these contradictions Judaism uncovers the complexity of what it means to actually live. The great hassidic Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” It is only when we experience the heartache of loss, have empathy for others suffering, and recognize our own human fragility that we can feel the emotion of joy in its full capacity. It is in this space that the Sukkot holiday finds its true power. The Sukkot holiday season goes by the Hebrew name - “Z’man Simchateinu” literally “The Time of our Joy.”

The Hebrew language draws a distinction between the word - happy (Asher) and joy (Simcha). Happy is a raw fleeting emotion of limited range and depth. Don’t get me wrong. Happy can be wonderful, good, and sometimes just what the doctor ordered. Joy - simcha - on the other hand is complex, deep, expansive, and not without a tinge of sadness, longing, and loss. By example: when I am with a person who is suffering at the end of life - no one is happy when they pass but we can feel joy when their suffering comes to an end. Or, seeing a child head off to college - there is the beauty and pride of seeing them take flight and at the same time a sense of loss. Or, sitting around a holiday table celebrating while also remembering those who are with you in spirit but are not there in body. Happiness is something you might temporarily achieve but finding simcha is the marathon of a whole life.

In order to be fully present for Sukkot in Joy before God - we also must expose our loss, vulnerability, and hurt or at the very least have the emotional/spiritual empathy to feel others pain. This spiritual expansiveness allows us to count our blessings and work to share them with others. A real deep down simcha/joy. We do not take either our sustenance or the moments of our lives for granted. We take hold of the lulav and the etrog for songs of praise in Hallel then parade around as we beg for salvation, Hoshanah (Save Us!) and finally head to the sukkah for Kiddush and a thanksgiving meal while inviting guests both physical and spiritual to join with us.

As we yet again reckon with the weight of the challenges we face both personal and communal, may we open ourselves up to the joy of Sukkot - Z’man Simchateinu - gathering our strength, acknowledging our vulnerability, and bearing our true hearts to our Creator and to each other. Moadim L’Simcha - May we celebrate our holidays with joy.


August 2021

From Broke to Whole -- From Narrow to Wide -- From Alone to Together:

Lessons from the Shofar

One of the highlights of Rosh HaShanah services each year is hearing the blasts from the Shofar. As a child, we were fetched from the Jr. Congregation (or from running around outside the shul) to march right up to the front so we could witness firsthand the magic of the shofar. We would wonder: Will the shofar blowing be great or just okay? Will they miss any notes or add too many? What will the pitch, resonance, and character of the shofar sound like? and finally, Will the shofar blower pass-out? (hopefully not)

Even today, I feel the anticipation, the excitement build, and have to fight off these questions as I try to focus on the shofar’s call. All at once there is a deeply primal and profoundly spiritual range of emotions that wash over me as I listen to the shofar.

From a simple animal horn comes a prayer without words. A cry to the heavens and a plea to each of us. The first blast of the shofar is whole - a solid Tekiah. It comes to teach us that we have each been given the tools to live good and meaningful lives - to be at peace. To be our whole selves. This state however does not endure long. Life throws its curveballs at us, the complicated choices we make, the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges we face or to distill the point down - that we as human beings are flawed, vulnerable, and fragile. The wholeness breaks - literally in Hebrew: Shevarim - to shatter. The ideal world, our ideal lives becomes shattered. We become sick, hurt, scarred, suffer, and overwhelmed. We break apart in staccato sobs (Teruah) as we then lift our pain, our cries, our very tears to the One who listens and to those who stand beside us, whose hearts are moved to help. Together we silently listen and bear witness to the shofar’s cry which is also our own cry.

Some years we are the bearers of unspeakable pain and suffering and other years we are moved to compassion and open-heartedness. The shofar’s shape itself teaches us that we sometimes begin in a narrow and dark place but with every breath, every intention, every hand of support and act of love - we can move to a wider and more expansive way of being.

Finally, there is a transformation that takes place from the first notes of the shofar to the last Tekiah Gedolah. In the beginning everyone quiets down to listen to the shofar’s song. Sometimes we get inside our heads with thoughts(see above) or distractions but as the progression continues to make its way to the end, we come together as one mind -  all silently rooting for the shofar blower and the last Tekiah Gedolah! We are untied - on the same team - praying, hoping, willing him/her strength (oxygen) to ring the Tekiah Gedolah loud and long. We then exhale in a sigh of relief and gratitude having reached the end together. The Tekiah Gedolah represents the ultimate wholeness and peace. When all of the egos, walls and divisions, and problems in our lives and world crumble. Where we all can be our true selves - united together in common purpose and in lasting peace.

As the month of Elul begins and we hear the daily blast of the shofar, let us take to heart the lessons of its ancient call - going from brokenness to wholeness, from narrow straits to open hearts, from solitude and loneliness to community and connectedness. May we again excitedly await the shofar service and the promise of a new year filled with healing and hope.

Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tikiah Gedolah!   L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Tikateimu!

June 2021

Raising a glass to our teachers: Thank You!

The Talmud teaches that, “someone who teaches a child one verse or even one letter, it is as if they become their spiritual parents.” That is one of many foundational Jewish texts that talk about the incredible importance and honor due to our teachers. Our tradition places the role of teacher equal if not greater than the High Priest who uttered the Divine Name once a year on Yom Kippur. Teachers in their capacity instill knowledge, Torah, values, history, and light the fire of inquisitive exploration of God’s universe. In normal times, what we ask of our teachers is a nearly impossible feat - namely to educate and care for each student and help them to not only learn the subject material but to prepare each child for whatever future they may encounter. The areas that fall to our teachers is exponentially enormous including but not limited to: health/physical education, emotional education, moral education (right & wrong, social mores, manners, etc.), cultural education (art/music/dance, etc), academic education (reading, writing, math, science, computers, history/civics), life skill education (time management/communication skills, study habits, leadership, financial, home econ., etc.)

Often our teachers spend more time face to face with our children than we as parents do. Still if you ask them if they have enough time to teach all that is necessary the answer inevitably is not nearly enough. Teachers are asked to do the near impossible. Yet, day in and day out they keep coming back to try. Why? Because they love knowledge, our community, and most of all the children.

Yet, even the most masterful of teachers found this past year teaching in a pandemic to be extremely difficult. Between reimagining how to present the information in a digital setting, to a slew of distractions, attention spans, and frozen Zoom links the art of teaching (and patience) was severely tested. Add on to these challenges the difficulties in accessibility, student learning behaviors/aptitude, assessments, and the psychological toll on parents, teachers, and students the pandemic challenged everyone educationally. Despite all of this, many teachers persevered, were the bedrock of our children’s lives, and the joyous “Welcome Back!” that our children really needed. (Including a new found appreciation from parents who tried to remember how to calculate logarithms or the literary themes of Catcher in the Rye)

Our education system overall has a lot to be desired but for most who go into teaching it is not about the pay but about the passion, love, and opportunity to shape our children and thereby the future. I tip my kippah to all of the teachers whose dedication to the kids drives them to take money out of their own pockets (Side note: it is crazy wrong that they need to do this!) so the children in their care have school supplies and the necessary environment to succeed. Additionally, each of us can probably recall the one or two teachers whose impact directed the arc of our lives. The teacher who helped us overcome a weakness, supported our passion, or challenged us to think critically about an idea or our very being. In a society obsessed with media personalities, sports fame, and cultural influencers - I believe the real heroes of import are our teachers. Todah rabbah l’kulam - Thank you to all of our teachers both past and present! May next year be a lot easier and may God continue to bless all of your efforts.

Kayitz Tov! - A relaxing and joyous summer to all!


May 2021

Matan Torah & E Pluribus Unum - Out of Many, One

One of the most significant yet under-observed holidays is Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks). Shavuot is both the celebration and dedication of the barley harvest and first fruits and the culmination of the Omer counting (From the second night of Passover until the 50th day). Traditionally, Shavuot is the moment we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai after journeying out of Egypt. Indeed we are not truly free until we have pledged ourselves to God’s law and Commandments. It is through the formation of a just and civil society, grounded in ethics and a moral code accepted by the whole people, that we can even begin to undertake the lifelong quest to build a free nation in the Promised Land. For me it is this Sinai moment that is the “Big Bang” of the Jewish faith and a revolution that has inspired the world ever since. (The Bible is the most widely owned and best selling book in the world)

The revelation at Sinai in and of itself was a radical departure from anything that came before it and most of the other religious revelations that would launch other religious traditions after it. When God reveals Torah it is not to Moses alone. It is not to only Aaron and the kohanim. It is not only to the chieftains - nobility. It is not only to the men or those with wealth. Each of those groups had access to the traditional levers of power in ancient societies and certainly from the model of Egyptian society. No, the Torah was given by God directly speaking to all of Israel - men, women, and children. The societal, economic, and political divisions were erased by God because this Torah and its Commandments were intended to be applied equally to all of our people. The Rabbis go so far as to d’rash that the plural of the word “voice” was meant to teach that each person heard God’s voice in a voice and way they could tolerate and understand. It was a powerful religious experience that paradoxically was at once both unique and personal as well as communal and shared. The very method by which God gave the Torah created an outpouring of multiple understandings and interpretations - which would lead to the rabbinic dictum, “Both this and these are the words of the living God.”

Yet at the same time, the act of God’s gift of Torah also meant that although we were a mixed multitude of diversity - together we shared in this Covenant of God’s revelation uniting us together. We stood together at Sinai and said, “We shall observe and we shall understand (Na’aseh v’Nishmah).” Living proof that, “Out of many, One” is possible. The divisions that might have created inequality - ie. laws for some applied differently than to others - were shattered by the voice of The Holy One - who said, “there shall be one law for you and for those who dwell among you.” As a whole people we accepted the Torah and pledged to uphold it. The Covenant of Sinai was for a few privileged elite but to those long oppressed and disenfranchised from religious and societal power. Its revelation and acceptance was to be applied equally to all.

The ancient lessons from the giving of the Torah can be a useful reminder for us today. What foundational story however complicated and imperfect can bind us together as Americans? Can our Constitution and its Preamble to “Form a more perfect Union”, “Justice for all” and our justice system ensure “Equal Justice Under Law.”? America is an idea that has been created, changed, and rebuilt and improved time and again from immigrants from the whole world. We are a nation that draws its strength not from ethnic “purity”, social class, or group think but from our multi-cultural diversity and a boundless creativity fueled by the belief in freedom of expression, ideas, and reinvention. There are very few places in the world where such diversity and freedom combine to lay the ground work for innovation and possibility. (Note: I especially appreciate the food diversity and innovation such as Americanized (& Kosher) versions of: an Italian pizzeria next to an Indian restaurant, next to a Chinese take-out, next to a bagel place, next to a Tex-Mex joint - gotta love NYC!)

As Jews we too are diverse in our continuing centuries old debate and wrestling with our tradition and its understanding. From Sephardic Jews, Yemenite Jews, California Conservative Jews from Persia, to Satmar in Rockland County, NY to Satmar in Brooklyn (not to be confused). We continue to wrestle as a Jews and Americans over our “better angels,” and living our foundational ideals. The movement for a more just America, a more welcoming America, and an America that sparks the hope and dreams of both our citizens and those seeking freedom throughout the world is a work in progress. Just as the unfolding tradition of Torah is continuously added to, interpreted, and lived in the real and imperfect world so too are the ideas and ideals that forge America also a work in progress. As Jews and as Americans we can only continue to move forward if we ensure access to all and engage everyone in the work at hand. Additionally, just as Sinai required a commitment as both individuals and as a community - as Americans it is necessary to shoulder the personal responsibility to our neighbors, community, and country so that whatever challenges we may face - we do so together, united, and “Out of many, One.”

In essence on Shavuot God gave us the blueprint for living a committed, meaningful, and righteous Jewish life. We need to take that experience and continue to renew it, invest in it, adapt it to our time and place, and live it. So too, as Americans we must take the blueprint of our Constitution and its Amendments along with court rulings (interpretations) to continue the journey of the dream of America forever balancing the diversity of the many without losing sight of the One.

April 2021

Counting the Omer -- Counting Ourselves into the Community

One of the most apparent lessons of the pandemic has been that no matter how much we believe we are independent individuals the reality is that we are deeply intertwined with each other. From wearing masks, getting vaccinated, building herd immunity to the long chain of fellow human beings that enable each of us to flourish and survive every day. We are a complex interdependent society that, at our best, work together, build together, and prosper together. As social creatures, we seek out connection to each other through shared interests, hobbies, sports, civic events, and neighborhood projects. That is not to say that we don’t also appreciate our privacy, moments of peace & solitude, and our introverted tendencies as well. (Like sending the kids to school and reclaiming the house!)

Sharing in religious rituals and experiences historically has connected people through shared values, history, faith and action. It is no wonder that one of the hallmarks of the Jewish tradition is the focus on the collective. Our core religious beliefs center around communal mitzvot and practice and only then turns to individual faith. Ours is not a monastic tradition but the exact opposite. It seems almost comical then that one of our greatest Sages Hillel had to teach, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”(Pirkei Avot) Yet, as I have written about before, there is a growing unaffiliated population and an even deeper mindset of “Jewish” on my own and/or radical individualism. While I applaud anyone’s spiritual journey connecting them individually with God, the Jewish emphasis on community is both fundamental and irreplaceable.

Now I will honestly grant that there are challenges and difficulties to our Jewish communal emphasis and model. First, since we are all different,  our spiritual needs, likes/dislikes, and thinking are not all the same.(By the way, this is a good thing!) As the old joke goes: They found Moshe on a deserted island with two synagogues. When asked why he constructed two synagogues? Moshe responded, “Oh, that’s the one I don’t go to.” In essence, it is sometimes hard to fulfill our individual religious desires and needs when the community has its particular customs, rituals, and spiritual life. Second, getting the community to agree around a course of action or change is not easy. Forget the simple math of two Jews and three opinions - think more exponentially as the size of the community or board increases.  There is the joke about Rachel emerging covered in sweat from a two hour Federation board meeting. When asked by the custodian if a decision was made to replace the air conditioning - she replied, “Not yet, but at least they finally agreed that it was hot in the room!” Kidding aside, getting the community to study an issue together, agree together, and act together takes a strong organizing effort.

Finally, many of us has been brought up learning about the amazing individuals who changed the world. Rugged individualism, personal achievement, and looking out for #1 are all aspects of the American idea. But, so are collective sacrifice for our country/community/neighborhood, the great public work projects that are the backbone of our democracy - like libraries, infrastructure, museums, and our public schools. We often forget that more often when individuals succeed they do so in the context of the community that raised them, encouraged them, and supported them along the way.

As Jews, the three defining relational constructs between us and God are framed by the communal: Prayer, Torah/Mitzvot, and Ma’asim Tovim. (Shimon HaTzadik taught, “The world stands on three principles: On Torah, Service/Worship, and on Acts of Lovingkindness.” (Pirkei Avot)

From the moment we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, to the way in which we study Torah in chevruta (in small groups - often pairs), to the very reading of the Torah itself - all were/are done in the context of community. Likewise most Jewish prayers were/are written in the first person plural (us, our, we) from Kol Nidre, Avinu Malkeinu, Sim Shalom, to parading around with the seven Hakafot on Simchat Torah (Aneinu - Answer us, when we call), to adding the Kedushah into the Amidah repetition, just to name a few. Our tradition teaches that God listens astutely to the prayer of the community.

And, almost all of our Jewish holidays are based on historical/spiritual events that took place within the context of our people. Hanukkah (Maccabean revolt & independence), Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), Passover (Exodus from Egypt & Wheat harvest), Shavuot (Receiving the Torah & Barley Harvest), Sukkot (Dwelling in the wilderness & Fruit/Veg. harvest), Yom HaShoah, and even Rosh HaShanah & Yom Kippur which while personally introspective also center around our shared New Year and collective forgiveness. (Dating from the Biblical account of the Mishkan/Temple Service) Even many of our life-cycle events which might appear to be individual or family based are also at their best when shared with the entire community - from Brit Milah, Pidyon Ha-Ben, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, weddings, misheberach of healing, and the comfort of community in tahara, burial, shiva and kaddish yatom.

Finally, when we pursue justice it is often amplified and applied to the needs of the community. While individual acts of justice and kindness are important and encouraged - how a community embodies our ethical values translates deeply into the hearts and minds of its members. As the saying goes, “It takes a community.” From education, to social justice and transformation, to communal buy-in and impact, when people come together, work together, and dream together - the sky is the limit to what we can do to improve our world.

Each night when we count the Omer there is a beautiful prayer at the end which says, “Our personal journeys in life are marked by enslavements and liberations, revelations and promised lands. Just as we mark the approach of significant moments in our own lives, so we count such days in the life of our people. As we pause to recall our ancestors’ bond with the soil, their dependance on its fertility, and their gratitude for the annual harvest of grain, we also give thanks to God for renewing for us a year of life and of blessing.” (Sim Shalom Weekday, 157)

The act of counting the Omer gives us the opportunity to “Count Ourselves in to the Community.” As we count up to receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we can mark the challenges and triumphs of the past year as well as connect our individual lives to life of our Jewish community. In doing so may we recognize how precious our community is and do more to help sustain and grow it.

See you on Zoom at the Annual Meeting & Happy Counting!

 

March 2021

Food and Feelings:  A Passover Guide to Where We Currently Are and Where We Hope to Be...

Last year Purim was the final holiday we got an opportunity to celebrate together as a whole community and so Passover was the first major holiday under the pandemic. We now have officially marked one whole year living, struggling, and adapting to our shared reality. It has not been easy and indeed we have yet to fully vocalize the losses we have endured. For many it has been an emotional rollercoaster with moments of fear, loneliness, sadness, anger, despair and loss. At the same time we are still here. We have taken up new hobbies, learned the ins and outs of Zoom, connected as best we could to simchas, and even laughed at the twentieth time Aunt Tillie was reminded to unmute (although she seemed to have a great conversation with herself before anyone realized). We have come full circle and now are once again on the cusp of preparing for and celebrating Passover and this means shopping, cooking/baking, and eating - Kosher for Passover FOOD.

Some of the most meaningful and powerful spiritual traditions are intimately connected to food. It is not merely the adage that, “if you feed them, they will come!” but rather the memories forged deep in our souls that surround the family gatherings, the friends we have over, the celebrations made sweet, and the cherished recipes whose smells make the holidays, well, the holidays. Among all of our Jewish holidays for Passover this is especially true. Focused around the seder table - the foods we eat connect us back to the story of the Exodus as well as evolve a full body emotional/spiritual connection. We use our Passover food to help us tell three stories simultaneously - the ancient story of our people, the story of where we are in the present, and the story of where we hope to be.

Starting with the most recognizable food - Matzah the Haggadah states: “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Passover meal. This year we are still here - next year in the Land of Israel. This year we are still slaves - next year free people.”

This simple flat bread - certainly packs a meaningful punch! In normal times we could certainly recall the historical significance of our ancestors slavery - rushing to leave Egypt at the first possible moment without time to truly prepare. A flat matzah without frills - generally burnt and made with the barest of ingredients. Bread of poverty, bread of slavery, bread of haste.

For us living in the midst of the pandemic with all of its oppression - financial, social, physical, and emotional - the matzah seems to express our own fragility. It is as brittle and breakable (Yachatz) as we are. Yet, we still dream that while we are currently afflicted there is yet the sparks of redemption and hope. We have learned that the kindness and love we share with others (however limited) at the end of the day matters. We are a resilient and stubborn people who still look to the future cheerfully and with determination. At times we may break but only a fool would count us out.

Not to be forgotten the Torah commands us to eat Marror (Bitter Herbs) to remind us of the harsh treatment the Egyptians inflicted upon our ancestors. They made their lives bitter with oppression which was both physical and emotional. From the traditional bitter lettuce (romaine, arugula, etc.) to horseradish (chrain) which make us tear (when it is good!) - the bitter herbs are supposed to make us literally feel the “yich” of slavery. This year, I think we have all felt a sense of bitterness - a feeling of being robbed of time, robbed of a job/financial security, robbed of seeing our friends and family in person, robbed of our life routines, or sadly of life itself. (Not to mention seeing our children/grandchildren miss out on school, social events, summer camps, proms, graduations, and just being carefree kids) The pandemic has been a bitter pill. What will will say to the generations to come about this time? How will we express the emotional toll? Another helping of horseradish, please.

Yet, even to the marror in the end we add/dip charoset - that mixture of apples, wine, nuts(optional), cinnamon (there are other recipes of course) to sweeten even the most bitter of moments. For all it’s worth - we live in a time which allows us to connect in ways 5 or ten years ago we could not. With cellphones, YouTube, and yes, Zoom we have been able to stay connected to the ones we love. We have been able to bring scholars from near and far to learn from, we have been able to find creative ways to celebrate, comfort and remain a part of each others lives. These blessings are a heap of sweet charoset along with our bitter herbs.

Spring is eternal. The promise of new beginnings, life awakened anew, and the start of another New York Yankees title run. The egg on the seder plate represents new life and rebirth. That is why eggs are often associated with the seudah havra’ah (the meal of consolation) following a funeral. The journey from one state of being into a rebirth in a new state of being. Combined with the karpas which is usually parsley -  they remind us of the hopefulness of Spring. Trees, flowers, birds, and animals awaken from their winter slumber and the very air itself comes alive with promise. Yet, the karpas and the eggs are dipped into salt water which remind us of the tears of oppression and loss even in the midst of our renewal. So too for us this year. At once we look back at the changes that took place to our lives and our world while, looking hopefully to the potential of this new season. It will be some time to return to what we thought was “normal” before the pandemic. Some things may be different than before. We as people certainly will be. We now come at life both changed and focused on the true importance of community, friends, and family. Hopefully never taking for granted the people, conveniences, and basic necessities that make our lives both possible and meaningful. Our future is bright but also earned through many tears.

Dietitians often remind us that it is never a good idea to eat our emotions - as Jews, the Seder is certainly an appropriate exception. The seder not only has symbolic meaning but as the Haggadah points out, “we are to see ourselves as having gone out of Egypt (which in Hebrew means a narrow place)” - for many of us this year has been a narrow/confined place. The Seder meal is a process - a movement of meaning from our past, our present, to our future. This year we are still in the grip of a global pandemic - next year may God bless us to be surrounded by family, friends, and community as we celebrate our collective freedom from Covid.

Chag Kasher v’Sameach! A Zissen Pesach!

February 2021

Purim and the Art of Jewish Humor

Much has been written about Jewish humor.  From vaudeville, to television, Hollywood, and of course the Yiddish theatre & Broadway - Jews have been yucking it up in the entertainment industry in America for decades. But, the roots of Jewish humor can be traced all the way back centuries. From the hilarity of Bilaam and his talking donkey in the Torah to the literal gallows humor of Megillat Esther in the story of Purim. (This year hear the Megillah and laugh with us in “The Great Purim Mystery” via Zoom) As Jews we have always found humor as the creative outlet which lets us release steam, skewer our enemies, and some of life’s toughest challenges. One stress reducing area of Jewish humor is being able to poke a little fun at ourselves. So, in the happy spirit of this Purim, I devote this article to a funny look at rabbis. Afterall if rabbis can’t laugh at themselves then at least their congregants can!

An arrogant young rabbi more interested in tax and syntax than in his congregational duties, was appointed to a news synagogue. 

At the very first service, the cantor began a prayer with the word “Lord,” whereupon everyone rose to their feet.“What is the meaning of this impertinence?” roared the rabbi. “I gave no one permission to rise.”“B-b-but the word ‘Lord’…!” the cantor stuttered. “We’re supposed to…”

“Don’t but me any buts!” interrupted the rabbi. “Who’s in charge here—me or the Lord?!”

There is always at least one Jew in every congregation whose main purpose in life seems to be making the rabbi’s existence miserable.  Questions! Questions! It’s enough to drive a rabbi crazy.

One such congregant, forever plaguing the rabbi with riddles he hoped would confound him, asked: “Tell me, Rabbi, why is it that four questions are asked on Passover, but no questions on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah?” 

“It’s very simple,” answered the rabbi wearily. “To see a Jew wail and moan is not unusual, and raises no questions, but to see a Jew happy—that demands an explanation!”

It was a warm summer’s day and inside the synagogue the rabbi droned on and on—endlessly—his voice a deadly monotone.  The congregation fidgeted, squirmed in their seats and tried to stifle their yawns.  At length a few stole quietly out of the temple.  Others followed suit until, one by one, the entire audience had departed.

But the rabbi, oblivious to anything but his own voice, continued to preach, his phrases as uniform as the buzzing of a swarm of bees.

The shammes(sexton) walked down the aisle between the rows of now empty seats and, sidling up to the rabbi, managed to catch his attention for a fleeting moment.

“Rabbi,” said the shammes, “here’s the key to the synagogue.  Would you mind locking up when you get through?”

A yeshivah student was having a discussion with his rabbi.

“Someday, I too hope to become a rabbi,” said the youth. “Aside from my studies is there any other all-important qualification I will need?”

“Yes, the stimulus of imagination,” replied the rabbi. “You will have to imagine that somebody is paying attention to what you say.”

I hope you enjoyed these jokes and believe me there are many more where those came from.  If you have a good rabbi joke please pass it on to me, I am always looking for a laugh! I look forward to Zooming with all of you on Purim and sharing in the joy of celebration.

Have a Purim Sameach (Happy Purim)!

Rabbi Singe r

 

January 2021

Vision, Courage and Hope

Parshah Vayeshev starts off with a cruel irony - the word vayeshev means to settle down. As we catch up with our patriarch Jacob and his family - it appears that he can finally yoshev - settle down. He has returned to the Promised Land, reconciled with his brother, Esau and has even wrestled with “man and God” and persevered - earning a new name - Israel. But, just as it seems things are going well - then strife and woe wrack his family with the Jospeh story - where he is tricked into believing that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. This is followed by Judah losing two of his sons - Er & Onan and Jospeh ending up enslaved in Egypt. It appears that everything that could go wrong is going wrong. Certainly, instead of settling down - what we end up is the opposite - great upheaval. (A nod here to 2020 might be appropriate) If we as Jews also add in the beginning of the story of Hanukkah (which as of this writing we are celebrating), then we really have a double whammy. Imagine the desecration of the Holy Temple, the outlawing of Jewish observance, and a seemingly intractable bloody 20 year civil war between the lure of Greco-Hellenism and Jewish tradition. Could the world be turned anymore upside down? (2020 different but familiar)

And yet, even amidst the overwhelming darkness the very lights of redemption are already at work in both the Torah and the story of Hanukkah. It is an ancient recipe but one that never goes out of style - Vision, Courage, & Hope.

The story of Joseph has the thread of dreams and their interpretation running through it. While certainly presented to his parents and brothers in a less than humble way - Joseph has a vision of what the future may bring. Being able to dream of what our community can be, what our world can be is important. So much of what appear to be “impossible” dreams inspire people to strive even over many generations towards realizing them. We went from horse power to the moon in 50 years. Too often we grow comfortable with the status quo, that’s just the “way it is”, instead of dreaming about and articulating a clear vision of what our world could be. Joseph certainly thinks big about where he seems himself visa via his brothers but too often as individuals and as a community we think too small. Placing the bar high allows us to stretch further than we think. For Mattathias, his five sons, and their followers the odds appeared very long indeed. Yet, they were rallied by a vision of a future filled with freedom and religious autonomy. Where Jewish worship would not only be restored to the Temple but that Judaism, as a faith, could be renewed and revered within a changing world marketplace of ideas and interconnectivity.

It is one thing to have a dream and to articulate a vision, and quite another to bring it to fruition. Here again our Torah and the story of Hanukkah offer great wisdom. Joseph not only interprets Pharaoh’s dreams about 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine but then devises a plan of action to ensure that there will be enough food set aside and stored for the lean years. Likewise, the Maccabees daily risked their lives in battle against the better armed and numerically superior Greeks and their Jewish supporters. Most people don’t know that out of the five sons of Mattathias only one, Shimon, survives the 20 year war. Yet, they were willing to risk it all so that Judaism and the Jewish people would survive. In both cases God works through those who have the courage to work for their own redemption.

While our communal efforts today thankfully do not require risking our lives - far too often we are overly risk averse. From innovative inventors to social activists - change does not come easily or without the risk of failure. Yet, risk is vital to moving our society and our community forward. Fear of failure and resistance to change can overwhelm our courage to make difficult and sometimes bold choices. Yet, it is these choices that have the capacity to move us closer to our dreams. I am not suggesting blind thoughtlessness but rather the courage to pursue our vision despite the risk of failure. In the spirit of “Start Up Nation” we have to be willing to fail (possibly many times) to create the transformative and dynamic community we seek. Why? Because we believe in the vision, the dream of what we can truly become, and frankly the price of inaction is certain failure.

Finally, from the literal pit of despair, and a prison cell - Joseph does not give up his faith or his hope. Likewise, the Maccabean dream of an independent Jewish state was not accomplished in a day. Nor our 2000 year dream to rebuild and renew the State of Israel in our own time.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l taught that, ”Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope.” We are a people that despite all that has been thrown at us - we continue to place our faith in God and in God’s redemptive power that works through each one of us. Judaism embodies the hope that while darkness may seem to surround us - the light of justice, peace, and hope in a brighter future can never be extinguished. We are the next in the generations to pass this light down. We must face this pandemic, the rise of division, hate & anti-Semitism, the reality of climate change, and the challenges of building this Jewish community - with a compelling vision, the courage to take risks, and the hope worthy of both our ancestor’s sacrifice and our children’s future. May 2021 be a year when God’s blessings and wisdom shine down upon us with health, hope, and peace.



December 2020

The Hanukkah Story and shmutz - A retelling of cleaning up the mess

Scene: The exhausted but triumphant 5 Maccabee brothers enter the Temple.   
---

Judah: Will you look at this place! Ugg…what a mess!

Jonathan: Can someone turn on the light, I think I stepped in something! Eeeww!

Shimon: NO! That was my foot!

Yochanan: Mom always said you had big feet. Ha!

Eliezer: Okay, okay. Cut it out! Let’s see what condition our sacred Temple is in.

The five brothers begin to look around and are soon deeply saddened by the desecration of the Holy Temple.

Jonathan: Can you believe what they have done to God’s House! Statutes of Zeus and Hera, roasted pig on the altar, not to mention the piles of trash everywhere!

Judah: How will we ever clean this place and ready the Temple for Jewish worship again?

Shimon: I agree with Judah. There is too much damage, too much to clean - we will never be able to restore it. Oh, woe is us!

Yochanan: Woe? You mean, Oy! Oy, is such a better expression of this mess. I mean, Oy! captures not only the state of our Temple but the hopeless challenge before us. - Just Oy!

Eliezer: Brothers, brothers! Do not despair! Think how far we have come. No one believed in the beginning that our small band of freedom fighters could overcome the Greeks. No one believed that the people would rise up and join our call for freedom. No one believed that our faith in God would remain all of these years despite the loss of our Temple. And yet, here we are!

Shimon: Yes, but look around. What once was one of the wonders of the world is now literally a pig-stye. As the saying used to be, “A person has not seen beauty, until they have seen the Temple in Jerusalem.” Where do we even begin?

Eliezer: Well, here. (Motioning to his brothers) Judah, Yochanan, give me a hand in moving this statue of Zeus out.

As the brothers begin to remove the idols from the Temple a small crowd begins to gather and watch.

Bystander: Hey, do you mind if I take this for a decorative fountain in my backyard?

Judah: What?! This is a pagan statute!

Bystander: Yeah, well I just thought it might make a nice fountain…

Shimon: Well, don’t just stand there. This statue is very heavy. Ugh. Give me a hand.

Bystander: Right! Uh, just don’t want to step on your foot.

Yochanan: See, Shimon! Like I said, you’ve got big feet.

Eliezer: Well, that may be true but you’ve given me a great idea. You see they say that “big feet equate to a big heart.” What we need to clean-up this colossal mess are big hearts.

Standing on a small stone pedestal - Eliezer addresses the growing crowd.

Eliezer: Friends, Jews, Countrymen lend me your ears! (This famous line was later tragically altered) God has blessed us with victory over the Greeks. We are once again free from tyranny! We are once again free to worship God and practice our sacred faith! But, God’s work is not yet complete. We must clean all of the shmutz from God’s Temple. We must sweep out idolatry, we must scrub away the sins of oppression, we must polish and shine the lights of liberty, we must spic-n-span the…(Judah punches Eliezer in the arm)

Yochanan: Uh, Eliezer…I think they get the idea.

Eliezer: Ow! That still hurt.

The word spreads throughout the whole city of Jerusalem. People arrive at the Temple with brooms, mops, shovels, rags, and buckets. Also a few smart kids set up a lemonade stand.

Soon, the shmutz disappears and the Temple again sparkles. But in order to rededicate the Temple (Hanukkat haBayit) one thing remains…

Jonathan: Wow! This place looks great! But it is getting dark. Someone should turn on a light.

Judah: Again with the light! Why don’t you look around for some oil?

A short time later…

Shimon: Uh, well. I have some good news and some bad news on the oil front.

Yochanan: Yes…

Shimon: Well, I tripped and…the good news is we have one jug of oil.

Jonathan: Shimon’s big feet, does us in again!

Eliezer: Well, at least we have enough for one night.

Judah: What we need now is a miracle.

The brothers light the golden 7 branched Menorah. And lo and behold - the oil lasts for eight days until new oil can be produced. “A great miracle happened there.” The Temple is filled with light that can be seen throughout Jerusalem. The people rejoice and are filled with hope.

Moral: While sometimes our lives are filled with large amounts of shmutz and darkness - by working together and with God’s help we can begin to heal and clean up the messes in our lives and world. We just need the courage to start the task.

Chag Urim Sameach! A joyous and light filled Hanukkah!

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — November 2020

As I write this d’var Torah, the election is one week away, the Coronavirus is hitting new highs of infection, and I am working on the Bethlehem Interfaith Group Thanksgiving Service of Healing and Unity. What you may ask could possibly tie all of this together?

The story of Cain and Abel? Right you are! It is a story of anger, jealousy, unheeded advice, blame, and yes, death. But it is also a story which at its heart reminds us of our common humanity and responsibility to one another. Together I believe we can heal both our self-inflicted wounds as well as those of the pandemic. We can care for one another, give thanks to God for the blessings of resilience, healing, and love. We can give thanks to those who toil each day as their brother’s/sister’s keepers that together we might “bind up the nation’s wounds”.

Walk with me as we examine the story of Cain and Abel and its moral lessons for our own time.

Our story begins with two very different brothers. Cain is a farmer, he works day in and out to cultivate the land. This is hard and difficult work. When Adam and Eve are cast out from the Garden of Eden, God curses Adam saying, “Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it…Thorns and thistles shall sprout for you…”(Gen. 3:17-18) God continues saying that, “…your food shall be the grasses of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat…” For Cain this is his world. Working the hard earth, to survive.

Then along comes his younger brother, Abel. Unlike Cain, Abel is a shepherd. His flocks move from place to place eating the natural grasses and produce of the land. When they have eaten through an area, Abel just picks up and moves the flock. He has milk, yogurt, cheese, (maybe even cheesecake?! – yum!) wool, hides, and although not yet explicitly allowed (until Noah) possibly steak.

I can imagine a scene from the musical Oklahoma – the ranchers and the cowboys can be friends? Obviously one wants to fence in the land for agriculture and the other wants to roam free eating off the land. One might imagine one brother (Cain) believing the other (Abel) lazy, carefree and maybe even reckless. The other brother (Abel) believing his brother (Cain) is a worry-wort, uptight, sweaty and dirty, always frugal – even stingy hoarding away the harvest. Both brothers no longer understand each other’s world and thereby lose sight of each other’s struggles, contributions, beautiful differences, and humanity.

These tensions begin the division of Cain and Abel but we also see how rivalry for love and attention can add fuel to these divisions. In the story, Cain offers a sacrifice to God of his fruits and vegetables. He is the first person mentioned in the Bible to offer any sacrifice to God at all. Whether it was a leap of faith, a request for sustenance, or a showing of gratitude to God – Cain offers his sacrifice hopeful of God’s acceptance. Abel seeing his older brother’s sacrifice brings his own but the Torah tells us that he “brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock.” God accepts Abel’s sacrifice over that of Cain’s. Cain’s reaction is to place the blame on Abel. He is hurt. He cannot see to place the blame on himself or God. He feels rejected and left behind by God. Instead Cain directs his anger not at God (to Whom he cannot hurt) but instead onto Abel, whom he can. We have seen this throughout history over and over. When something terrible beyond control occurs (poverty, famine, disease, changing technology – labor, etc.) it is easy to blame “the others” and to channel the anger and frustration, the hurt and fear against them instead.

Cain’s anger and resentment of Abel grow so much that when the brothers meet in a field, hurtful words are exchanged and Cain murders Abel. If the story ended with the singular moral lesson that murder is wrong that would have been powerful enough but the Torah wants to teach more than that. We do not have to be holding the knife(rock) to be guilty of neglect of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters. The Torah teaches that in the immediate aftermath of Cain’s act, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” And he(Cain) said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) To which the inherent answer is – YES!!!

Jewish law teaches that we are responsible for one another even when we disagree with each other. We are responsible for one another even when we feel so different from each other. So apart from each other. We are meant to care for one another no matter our class, race, political affiliation or religious beliefs. The expansiveness of the Torah’s message is that no matter how divided we may be – in the end we are our brother’s/sister’s keeper by the very fact that we are of the same human family. This is not an easy charge to fulfill. We can be so angry, hurt, and divided that we disown each other. This course leads to only more anger, jealousy, hurt and death. No problems have been solved and the collateral damage (Adam & Eve plus all of the possible future generations that would have come from Abel) leaves the wounds festering for generations to come. Instead, no matter how much we wish to disown each other, the Torah teaches that we cannot. We are forever responsible for one another. Our own lives are interdependent and bound up with those around us. We are an inseparable albeit often disfunctional family.

Therefore:

“…I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” Abraham Lincoln – Thanksgiving Proclamation 1863.

Wishing you and your family continued health and a happy Thanksgiving.

From the Rabbi’s Desk — October 2020

Stressed Out?! Sukkot to the Rescue

“Wish I could turn back time – to the good old days. When our mamas sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.” – twenty one pilots (alternative rock group).

To say that 2020 has been a stressful year would be an understatement. From the Coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest, a contentious upcoming election, and Zoom everything – 2020 has many of us vacillating between sadness and fear. Enter the holiday of Sukkot to give us a much needed boost.Known in the Jewish calendar as z’man simchateinu – the time of our great rejoicing, Sukkot challenges us to take stock of all of the things we should be grateful for. We dwell outside our homes in fragile sukkot which help to give us perspective on how much God has blessed us and sustained us. To truly appreciate what we have and where we have been – Sukkot invites us to recall all of the stress filled moments our biblical ancestors (and we have) confronted and how God saved them and will save us. Hoshiah nah! Please God save us!

Indeed Sukkot offers a tonic of gratitude (scotch, beer, wine & grape juice) to combat the doldrums of despair and apathy. We do have things to celebrate about our lives and our world. There still is beauty in nature, art, music, and our relationships. True, this does not mean that there isn’t tremendous loss, hard times, sadness, and daunting challenges that are before us but we are still here as a people to give thanks.

We hold onto our faith and tell ourselves over and over to look to the future with optimism even in the midst of distress. From the joyful melodies of Hallel to the Hoshanahs of the hakafot – we wave our lulavim and etrogim in all directions to praise God whose creative and renewing presence fills the world. According to tradition, God created human beings so that there would be a creature capable of praise and thanksgiving for all of the amazing beauty and blessings in God’s world. Additionally, we become part of the great salvation process by emulating God’s loving-kindness and grace by doing our part to repair our broken world. To raise our voices and to work for justice. We not only build physical sukkot that are open to the heavens but we also open our hearts to strangers and guests alike as testament to God’s open heart and bounty to all Creation.

With this in mind, I have a few suggestions to make Sukkot at home more meaningful and joyous during this trying year.

  • Create a Sukkot/thanksgiving blessing jar or journal. Each night write a little note about some of the things you are grateful for. Or decorate your sukkah or house with cutout fruit shapes and write your thanksgiving blessings on the shapes.
  • Another beautiful Sukkot tradition is to collect different color and shaped leaves to make a collage or leaf pressing.
  • Try new fruits (like on Rosh HaShanah) or vegetables – these are great for both seeing the diversity of God’s creation and saying the Shehechianu blessing over a new experience.
  • Get outdoors! Whether a daily walk or a new place to hike, bike or boat – explore the beauty of nature all around us.
  • Bring the beauty indoors by painting, drawing, writing, knitting, crocheting or composing a new piece of art/music/story.
  • Make a video gram of blessing for family and friends. Or spread the attitude of gratitude on social media by challenging yourself and others to post, “I’m thankful for…”
  • Sing-a-long! – Nothing beats a good Sing-a-long – Join your CBS friends in a virtual Chol HaMoed Sukkot Karaoke sing-a-long on Tuesday, October 6th @ 5pm. Live from Rabbi Singer’s Sukkah – he will be taking requests for songs to post lyrics to as we bring the ruach to z’man simchateinu.

Finally, I want to again reiterate that if you are struggling – financially, emotionally, spiritually – we are here for you. Please pick up the phone and call me. You are not alone. We are all in this together. As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 3:1) taught, “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven…” May we go from Oy! to Joy! and never lose sight of God’s blessings in our lives.

Moadim L’Simchah! – A Joyous Sukkot holiday season to all!

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — September 2020

Getting Clean:  Yom Kippur, Soul Sanitizer

Many people still don’t believe me when I say that Yom Kippur is a joyous holiday. Yes, I know that fasting is not easy. Yes, I know that spending the day in front of our CBS YouTube stream (or at the synagogue) will be hard. Yes, I know there is a solemnity and an urgency to the holiday. And yes, I know that by the end we are all ready to hear that final shofar blast so we can eat. Yet all of these truths still add up to the feelings of cleansing forgiveness, a new start, and renewed hope. Yom Kippur is really all about getting clean – if you will a sanitizer for the soul.Understandably most of us don’t like to do it. As a child, when I scraped my knee, my mother would take out the peroxide and say, “This is going to sting a little.” To use another analogy, cleaning our homes is generally not fun. But after the dirt and filth build up, the piles of junk blocking the way – there is nothing like a good scrub or decluttering to bring a sense of joy and peace to our lives. Yom Kippur helps us get clean by removing the grime of sin and the weight of guilt. When completed there is a feeling of elation, relief, and new possibilities – a clean slate for the new year.

The journey of teshuvah is a difficult one – requiring honest and deep introspection and soul work. It means confronting our worst moments and actions, feeling remorse, asking for forgiveness, and making amends. The reward for this effort however is nothing less than redemption. We believe that God does not seek our failure, our punishment, or our misery but rather is rooting for our success, our return, and our life changing transformation for the better. Our mahzor reminds us over and over that God hears our prayers and awaits our teshuvah. With the Divine attributes of mercy, compassion, and loving-kindness – God purifies us and redeems us with His forgiveness. As the 13th century Italian poet, Benjamin ben Abraham wrote in Machar Ya’aseh:

My sovereign, redeem the children of Jacob and accept our fasting from one evening to the next.

Rain down on us the redemption we have prayed for, and quench our thirst.

Tzur Yisrael, Stronghold of Israel, bathe me in Your purifying waters, and purify me as I sing to You:  Surely this is our God!

Surely You will do so tomorrow.

Wipe away my sins as I call to You, filled with awe, in Your holy sanctuary.

Form me anew, granting me a heart freshly born, as the righteous teacher foretold in Your holy law regarding this special day.

Yom Kippur is a special cleaning day. A day when God helps us remove the stains that we thought might be permanent. A day to wash away the sins we are both ashamed of and often held prisoner by. A day to put our lives into perspective and heal ourselves. In its place we are remade anew with all of the hope and possibility that our lives can be. I think that is something truly wortg celebrating.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May you and your family be sealed in the Book of Life!

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — August 2020

Soul Searching/Cheshbon haNefesh – The Gift of the Month of Elul

As I begin the preparations for the coming High Holidays, I usually look over the sermons I gave the previous year to see where we where and where we are now. Well 5780 has been an extraordinary (ground shaking, epic, once in a millennia…) year. This year, taking stock of where we are as individuals, a community,a nation, and a world can feel downright overwhelming. We have been introduced to new words/terms like Zoom, Zoom-bombed, social distancing, white fragility, and “I can’t breathe!” We are living in the midst of multiple life and death calamities – Coronavirus, depression/social isolation, hate/racism/anti-Semitism, and climate change. We are confronted by a pivotal election in November which may determine our country’s direction for years to come. From protests, unemployment, digital security/privacy, systemic racism, health insurance/access, to how we educate our youth (virtual? in-person?) 5780 has forced us to examine who we really are and who we truly wish to be. To put it another way – to do serious “soul searching.”

I know that the term “soul searching” is a popular term that can be easily thrown about in political rhetoric or even misused in a religious context without its true meaning being understood. In fact, taken literally the term is somewhat of an oxymoron. Why should I need to search for my soul as it is inherently a part of me?! It goes along with the term “lost soul” as if our souls can be lost apart from ourselves. Yet, while we can debate the semantic choice of words when we examine the definition of “soul searching” which is “the act or process of close and penetrating analysis of oneself, to determine one’s true motives and sentiments.” – we can see how close it is to our Jewish tradition’s term – cheshbon haNefesh or spiritual accounting. This is the first step in the process of transformative change that is teshuvah (return). Soul searching/cheshbon haNefesh is a process not the end product. Nor is it an easy process. What is required is an honesty and deep humility with ourselves. This can be painful – the truth can be hard to swallow. Of course the internal resistance and defense we put up are designed to shield us from the unpleasant, the difficult, the need for substantive change. Breaking old habits, peeling back the figurative mask behind which we hide (YES, you should wear a physical mask!), acknowledging what we do versus what we believe all lead to a cognitive dissonance which can be both jarring and painful. Yet, this is exactly what soul searching/cheshbon haNefesh are all about. It is about taking stock of ourselves, examining our actions/inactions, our motivations and intentions in relation to our professed values, our moral conscience, and our aspirational selves.

In their wisdom, our Sages recognized that we needed more than Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the 10 day in between them to do this soul searching/cheshbon haNefesh. Historically before the rabbinic period the month of Elul was tax season. It was the time where a person calculated the tithes to the government and to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was done in sixth month of the Jewish calendar which was the last month before the new year of years (Rosh HaShanah) which followed in Tishrei (the seventh month). The Rabbis recognized that just as they took stock/account of their possessions to calculate the tithe so to did we need a month of “soul accounting” (cheshbon haNefesh) to examine our spiritual lives. The proverbial bill was coming due. Therefore they instituted the blowing of the shofar every day in the month of Elul to “wake up” the Jewish community to this process. They added special liturgical prayers – selichot – prayers of penitence (which Sephardic Jews still do at midnight each night during the month of Elul) to facilitate introspection and evaluation of the relationships we have with God, ourselves, and with each other.

So here we are – beneficiaries of a timeless tradition that calls us to search our souls, to account, to atone, and to do the hard work of changing. For me the month of Elul is a gift. A whole month to take the time to reckon with myself and make a list of when I did not live up to the best of myself and what I believe. Each of us has this opportunity for reflection. Let us pray that as we look toward a new year, a new beginning, and new year of life we are honest with ourselves and resolved to make the changes to better our personal behavior, our community, and our world.

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — July 2020

Indestructible: How Judaism changes, survives, and flourishes despite calamity

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like seeing the Temple in Jerusalem on fire. After months of Roman siege, brutality, starvation, and death on the Ninth of Av in the year 70 CE the most beautiful and holy place in Jewish tradition lay in ruin. At the time, all of Jewish ritual, economic, and social life revolved around the Temple, priesthood, and the sacrificial system laid out in the Torah.. All Jewish holidays including Shabbat, sin offerings, thanksgiving offerings, and Jewish self-government were centralized and focused on the Temple and Jerusalem. What lay in ruin was not only this ancient tradition but at its heart and soul the way we had connected with God – the expression of God’s presence in our personal and communal life and our yearning for a relationship with the Divine. Quite frankly, this could have spelled the end of Judaism and yet despite this horrific calamity our faith and people survived and even flourished.

We are here today because what we hold as our core traditions, ethics, and beliefs not only can stand the test of every time and age but because our Sages and leaders understood that for Judaism to survive and flourish they would need to reimagine observance and be creative. From the creation of the Passover seder, to the creative expansion of communal and individual prayer in place of sacrifice, elevating the synagogue, house of study, and home as holy places, and maybe most important the centrality of Torah study, Talmud, and Midrash as an ever growing and changing force in Jewish life. Judaism adapted to become a portable religion able to accompany our people wherever they went. Indeed, as we settled in new places around the world – the influences and traditions of those localities added to the creative growth and innovation of Jewish practices, scholarship, and the arts (yes, culinary arts included).

As Conservative Jews, we are guided by this historical truth that Judaism has always balanced “Tradition and Change”. As we continue to find our way during this time of pandemic and social upheaval, I am confident that together we will not only survive it but also find ways to make our tradition stronger and more committed. For one thing I have heard from so many of you how important the synagogue is to your lives and how much it acts as a social, spiritual, and educational center for our personal and communal wellbeing. We need your support, participation, and creativity now more than ever. If you have ideas, Torah you would like to share in a short d’var on Fridays for Kabbalat Shabbat, want to lead a service or learn how to lead a service, read Torah from the Chumash, share a recipe, check on a friend or neighbor or suggest a topic for adult education – then now is the time to get involved!

The destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av was catastrophic as it led to exile, persecution, and mass murder (the Inquisition, pogroms, the Shoah) throughout our long history but has also shown us time and again that Jewish tradition with our faith in God are indestructible. Our understanding of God’s Torah and halacha (Jewish law) with its ritual practices and traditions – remain true to their core values and historical connections l’dor vador while also allowing flexibility, innovation, and relevance to speak to our souls yearning for God’s presence and direction in our moment of Jewish history.

Wishing everyone a safe and healthy summer!

Rabbi Michael Singer

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — June 2020

Olam Chesed Yibaneh  (Acts of Loving-Kindness Build the World ) – Inspiration from the Book of Ruth

Shavuot is a holiday that celebrates receiving gifts.  We recall the gift of Torah that was given to us on Mt. Sinai as well as the bounty of the grain harvest. We decorate the Torah scrolls in the ark with flowers and in Israel many people decorate their homes with flowers. (some kibbutzim also decorate their animals with flowers as well) It is a wonderful feeling to receive a gift from someone. Sometimes the gift is a physical one and other times the gift is an emotional experience. I think some of the best gifts are ones that come from the heart, a shared piece of themselves- an act of loving-kindness – that shows they are thinking of you, that you are special to them, a gift given freely without expectation of reciprocity. In the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, we see how gifts of loving-kindness wind there way through the story and can inspire us today.

The Book of Ruth begins as tragedy strikes Naomi and her two daughter’s-in-law, Orpah and Ruth with the death of her sons – their husbands. Naomi expects Orpah and Ruth to return to Moab and try to stat their life anew with among their people. Naomi mourns that she has nothing left to give Orpah and Ruth – she is defeated, bereft, and poor. After tearfully saying goodbye, Orpah returns to her people – yet Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. Famously she says, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God…” In this moment Ruth gives Naomi a gift of love that encompasses companionship, self-worth, devotion, and hope. Ruth will care for Naomi and whatever the future may bring she will be there for her. It is an act of loving-kindness that is both sincere and given without expectation. It is exactly what Noami needs at this moment of loss, loneliness, fear, and uncertainty. Indeed all of the gold or material comforts could not come close to the spiritual and life-affirming gift of the heart Ruth gave to Naomi.

It is this act of loving-kindness, this gift of the heart, that will lead Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem and connect them to Boaz, a kind man who is a relative of Naomi’s late husband.

He entreats her to only glean from his fields and instructs his workers to leave extra barley stalks and water for her. When she asks why he has shown a foreigner like her such kindness, he replies, “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband…May God reward your deeds…”

When Naomi sees the bountiful amount of grain Ruth brings home and learns that it was from Boaz she exclaims, “Blessed be he of God, who has not failed in kindness to the living or to the dead!” The book concludes with a fairytale ending as Boaz marries Ruth. Their chid Oved is the father of Jesse and the grandfather of King David. As David in the Psalms would sing, “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” – Acts of Loving-Kindness Build the World! Indeed the gift of an act of loving-kindness can change the trajectory of a person’s life and as a result the world.

Take a moment to recall a gift of kindness someone gave to you. How did you feel? How did this gift change you, open a door for you, or sustain you? These are priceless gifts. Even their memories can bring back a feeling of the love someone shared or the simple kindness and compassion given without expectation. And when we recall these gifts of loving-kindness – we can show our gratitude by giving gifts of loving-kindness ourselves. As we better understand their power, worth, and the impact they can have on others and our world. A “Thank You!” for the gifts we have received.

As we continue to face the challenges of our moment in time – I believe each of us has the capacity to give the gift of loving-kindness. It can be as simple as checking on neighbors, family, friends and CBS members. It could be a note of encouragement, a card celebrating a graduation or other simcha, or a baked item left on the stoop, to name a few. As the Book of Ruth teaches us: we can share the gift of loving-kindness, each in our own way, to help heal, sustain, and build our world in good times and in bad times. May God bless our deeds.

From the Rabbi’s Desk — May 2020

Of Counting the Omer and Coronavirus

As Jews we are used to counting. We count the days until Shabbat, the nights of Hannukah, the blasts of the shofar, and of course recently the days until Passover ends so we can eat chametz. Yet, for all the counting we do, counting the Omer can be both the most underrated and forgotten. In its ancient agricultural form, the Omer are the measurements (sheafs) of grain that were brought as elevation offerings marking the new year’s grain harvest. This was the backbone of people’s diets, and everything from bread, oatmeal, cookies and cakes and the important beverages of beer and liquor depended on a good harvest. How bountiful the new harvest was literally meant life and death for everyone in the country. So, the Torah teaches that from the second day of Passover we count 7weeks or 49 days until the Feast of Weeks (50th day) or Shavuot. The counting of the Omer also took on the spiritual story of the journey of our ancestors from slavery (Passover) to freedom and culminating in the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai which was a 49 day journey with the revelation on the 50th day (Shavuot). Many of our Sages understood this period of counting to be a spiritual journey for all of us as we continually prepare ourselves to renew the Covenant of Sinai and accept the Torah and God’s mitzvot upon ourselves. Yet, something terrible happened that would forever change this period of counting the Omer forever in our Jewish tradition.

During the time of Rabbi Akiva, a horrific plague killed thousands of his students and rabbis. Shrouded in mystery the Talmud alludes to this plague as a Divine punishment for vicious arguments among the rabbis and their students conducted without respect and dignity. The plague so ravaged the community that the fate of Judaism was at stake. Another possible reason for this mystery plague was that the Romans, who always feared another Jewish rebellion after the destruction of the Second Temple, had decided that the best way to eradicate a rebellion would be to outlaw all Jewish practice and the teaching of Torah. The Romans went on a campaign to murder all of the Rabbis and their students. Some historians believe this might have been the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. We recall these deaths on Yom Kippur in the Eileh Ezkerah service which recalls all who were martyred for continuing to be Jews.

The mysterious plague whether disease or Roman violence ended on Lag B’Omer (33rd day of the Omer). The Rabbis decreed that until Lag B’Omer, Jews would remember for all time the plague that killed so many by mimicking the traditions of mourning – no haircuts, weddings, or other joyous celebrations. This was the attempt of the community having survived this terrible plague to give meaning to their loss and keep the memory alive from one generation to the next by ritualizing this tragedy.

I admit that most years it is hard for me to continue to count and follow these traditions – since I had no frame of personal reference to a plague and we had more contemporary emotional/historical moments like Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut to observe. Many years I would often grow my beard just so people would ask me, “Hey, Rabbi! Why the beard?!” and I would get to introduce them to this ritual and its meaning. It is also never easy to tell a young wedding couple that I can’t officiate their wedding until Lag B’Omer or after.

This year however, things are very different. Our last Shabbat service together at CBS was on March 7th (when we also honored Sam). It has been over 40 days since we celebrated Erev Purim at Temple Beth El and then the following morning had Purim services at CBS (with yummy leftovers from Sam’s event). I do not think anyone fully grasped how our world would be turned upside-down by the Coronavirus and change our lives in very real ways.

Therefore, during this Counting of the Omer, we are all counting. Scouting the newspaper or news for the latest sad numbers of deaths. Watching our finances go south. Tracking the food in our pantries and the pills in our medicine cabinets. And, if we are lucky counting the minutes between Zoom meetings/services/socials and phone calls from friends and family. We are all counting now. Yet, for all the negatives and depressing statistics – we have also been able to count on each other and the love of others. We have been able to take count of the most valuable assets we have: our health, our family, our friends, our community, and our faith. Counting the Omer this year in light of Coronavirus has put into focus the hard work, kindness, and love that is beyond any measurable metric. It is these blessings that God has given us which sustain life, give us hope, and will eventually when safe allow us to once again to come together physically. During this time, we must continue to count our blessings and help those who are in need. Like the generations before, we will need to mark this time in a religious and spiritual way – to remember those lost, how our world changed, and recount the story for the future. Today however, it okay just to try to remember the day of the week, count the next day of the Omer, and pray like our ancestors did for this plague to end.

From the Rabbi’s Desk — April 2020

We Shall Overcome: Passover’s Message of Hope

And when, in time to come, your children ask you, saying, “What does this mean?” you shall say to them, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13:11)

It is hard for me to imagine a more fitting holiday to be celebrating right now in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic than the holiday of Passover. From feeling confined in a narrow place (Literally in Hebrew the word for Egypt = Mitzrayim), the spread of a plague, devastated communities around the world, and the many ways each of us has had to change our way of life  – this year’s Passover will indeed be different than all others.

And yet, despite all of the uncertainty and change the message of Passover is more pertinent and inspiring than ever before. The order of the Seder literally takes us on a journey from slavery to freedom, from tragedy to triumph, and from despair to hope.

Our homes are the focus of the Passover holiday. From cleaning them, to cooking in them, to finally sitting down to enjoy the seder. The home is literally at the heart of Passover. For our ancestors in Egypt, they literally painted their doorposts with lambs blood as they prayed that the final plague would Passover their homes. While I do not recommend this to be done literally, I do think it is important to pray for protection, healing and an end to this pandemic.

For some in our community, this year might be the first time in a long time(or ever) that we have to conduct the seder. I am offering a Zoom session on Friday April 3rd to help answer any questions you may have and also to give some Seder leading tips. There is also a great free website: www.haggadot.com which will let you build your own custom Haggadah. I recommend this to spice up your regular seder routine or just to include special input even from family and friends from far away.(there is a collaborative part)

Passover also is holiday filled with thanksgiving. We sing Hallel as part of the Haggadah and recall all of the blessings that God has given to us. Can you sing – Dayeinu! It would have been enough! Taking stock of the many ways we are blessed is very important. It can help us recognize the good in the world, give us strength to confront the future, and once again remind us to pay if forward by helping and caring for those around us.

The hardship and pain of slavery embedded in our souls the commandments to remember and help those who are suffering. We even remove drops of wine/grape juice from our cups to share in the pain of the Egyptians who suffered for us to be free. Physically distancing ourselves does not mean emotionally distancing ourselves. Passover reminds us that love and care for those who are in need is at the core of who we are as Jews.

Finally, Passover is the feast of freedom. Each year we are commanded to see ourselves as if we personally went forth from Egypt. Some years this is difficult to imagine. This year however, I think many of us can take stock of the sacredness of our freedom. It is something we have fought and died for, that God gives to each human being, and that is more delicate/precarious and yet resilient than we might expect. Whether we are oppressed by our health, by our inner struggles, by the limitations of the “shelther in place” order or our financial plight – may God help us to be free. May God bless us all with good health, loving family, friends and community, and enough prosperity to live in dignity.

Like our ancestors on that first Passover, we do not know what tomorrow may bring but we still hold out hope that while this year we are facing difficult times, next year our situation will be better. With God’s help we will overcome!

Chag Kasher v’Sameach! A zissen Pesach to you and your family!

Rabbi Michael Singer

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — March 2020

Purim & Moral Courage: The Few, the Brave – The Upstanders

It is one of the most joyous and fun holidays in our tradition – Purim. Everyone knows the story of Mordechai and Esther – the heroes. The foolish king with the funny to say name, Achashverus. The twisted and wicked villian, Haman (Booooooo!) We shout, grog, dress up, and drink and eat ourselves silly on Purim. From parades and pageants to paradies and shpeilen, Purim brings all ages together to hear the Megillah and its story of salvation and triumph over the evil plots of our enemies. Yet, if we look a little deeper into the comedy of errors of the Megillah, we see a lesson that is both inspiring and daunting. Mordechai refuses to bow to evil, to Haman – to accept Haman’s genocidal plans. Mordechai was willing to literally stand up and risk his very neck (on the gallows) to do what was right. No less did Esther, who might have been able to save herself, risk everything to petition the king on behalf of her people. Her wisdom and calculating brilliance set the stage for Haman’s downfall.  Faced with an imminent and existential threat, each of them stood up and summoned the moral courage to act.

While we might assume that if we were in their position we would do the same – in reality, if we are truly honest very few of us indeed would. Scientific data has shown that under normal and good conditions/circumstances – the vast majority of people act in an altruistic and compassionate way. The costs and consequences are low and the “feel good” yield is high. Yet, the same data also shows that in difficult and threatening situations many people prioritize their own safety and often stand by as perpetrators commit atrocities. There are the evil perpetrators (the Haman’s of the world) who prey upon the vulnerable and delight in their wicked plans against the innocent. However, the vast majority of people fall into the group known as bystanders. Fearful that they will be blacklisted, that their families will be targeted or that they will be the next victim – the bystander looks the other way or does not get involved when confronted by something they know is morally reprehensible or wrong even though they far outnumber the perpetrators. This is not to suggest that the bystanders are bad people, who agree with the perpetrators actions but in their choice of inaction – their silence cedes authority and allows the evil committed to go unchecked. The bystander effect has been demonstrated time and again throughout history and particularly in Jewish history.

Yet, there is a still the brave few who throughout time have stood up. Our early tradition called them Nevi’im (Prophets), in later times “Tzaddikim” (the Righteous) and today the common term is Upstanders. What they share in common is the spirit of God that moves them to stand up for justice, love, and the good in the world. The moral courage they exhibit through their actions comes often with suffering and life threatening consequences. They defy both our natural instinct for self preservation and the common sense calculus of holding on to our status, wealth, and physical wellbeing. Upstanders speak up and act to protect the vulnerable people who the perpetrators wish to single out and take advantage of. The perpetrators know that they can keep the bystanders in check with fear, division, as well as apathy. Elie Wiesel taught, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” For the Upstanders, not standing up is not only surrendering their souls but is akin to dying. As Wiesel continued, “Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.”

The story of Purim comes to teach another important lesson about Upstanders. While they are extremely rare and uncommonly courageous, the Upstanders often rally the Bystanders to action. The Megillah teaches us that Esther and Mordechai, empowered the Jewish community and its allies to rise up against those who sought our destruction. Particularly because Haman and his wicked oppressors did not think people would resist. Upstanders, by taking the dangerous first step, inspire the Bystanders to wake up and do what is right. From the story of Purim to John Lewis during the Civil Rights movement, when Bystanders see what the Upstanders risk, they can be moved to action. The story of Purim is not only a historical asterisk but a reminder about the difference one/two people can make in the face of evil. Purim therefore morally challenges all of us to ask the hard questions, to strengthen our inner resolve, and gives us inspiration and hope that when the “chips are down” we will act in accordance with our the “better angels” of ourselves.

Chag Purim Sameach!

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — February 2020

Making Our Voices Heard in Israel – A plea to vote in the World Zionist Congress

You wouldn’t know it by reading the newspaper or listening to the news but amazing and incredible things are going on in Israel. Yes, it is not perfect…but we should never forget how blessed we are to have a Jewish and democratic state.
Our ancestors would be in awe of the growth of Jewish life and prosperity in the Holy Land and the creative and dynamic people who day in and day out add new innovations and new Torah into our world. We must never take for granted that we now control our destiny and are not dependent on an often capricious and fickle world for our safety and right to exist.  There are many important and impactful ways to show our love and support for Israel (AIPAC, JNF, Israel Bonds). One of the easiest, most impactful, and yet sadly least known ways is voting in the World Zionist Organization election.

Every five years, Diaspora Jewry has the precious blessing of voting for delegates in the World Zionist Congress. This important body was founded in 1897 by Theodore Herzl with the purpose of creating and now supporting with all our might the Jewish State. By casting our vote in this year’s Zionist Congress election we not only show our support for Israel but also ensure that our voices are heard. Mercaz USA’s (which is the Conservative/Masorti voice in Israel) mission is to support religious pluralism in Israel and strengthen the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. Mercaz delegates are the advocates and the force that guarantees funding for our religious stream that is so crucial to our Movement’s growth in Israel and around the world. By taking the time to vote, Slate #6 Mercaz, we can send a direct message to leaders in Israel that pluralism, democracy and equality are critical to creating a strong and vibrant Israel. Over 1 billion dollars in funding are at stake in the effort to continue moving Israel toward these goals.

Each year at Purim, as Brith Sholom members, we symbolically collect the “half shekel” (today hundreds of dollars) which in ancient times supported the Temple and its institutions but now supports Israel through building up Masorti/Conservative Judaism in Israel. By taking the time to vote (5 – 10 minutes) our impact will be exponentially greater. MERCAZ representation in the WZO and Jewish Agency translates directly into millions of dollars annually in allocations, program subsidies, and services. These resources support Masorti institutions in Israel such as the Schechter Institute, TALI schools, Masorti congregations and Kibbutz Hannaton. In addition, these funds support American Conservative Movement programs, such as USY’s NATIV Year Course, Ramah Seminar and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem as well as Masorti Olami programs around the world.

You can register to vote at www.azm.org Please join with me to cast your vote for Slate #6 Mercaz. If you need help or have questions – computers are available at the synagogue to help you through the process. May we do our part to build up the people and land of Israel and strengthen the collective bonds which bind our future together. Am Yisrael Chai!

 

From the Rabbi’s Desk — January 2020

There once was a young man jogging along the beach. He came across an old man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea. When the young man saw how many starfish were washed up on the shore – he went over to the old man and said, “You are an old fool! You cannot possibly save all of these starfish!” “True”, replied the old man “but it matters to this one.” And he tossed it back into the sea. He picked up another and tossed it back. “And also to this one.” (Parable)

Rabbi Tarfon taught, “You are not required to finish the task, nor are you free to neglect it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) I have always imagined this teaching being taught in the voice of Yoda.It seems at once to be sage advice and yet a little cryptic. Who was the intended audience for Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching? Was it to strengthen and comfort those toiling against overwhelming challenges who might feel they can’t fix them all? (The “If I can’t finish/fix it then I have failed.” crowd) Or was it to light a fire under those who when seeing how numerous and daunting the tasks, give up before even trying? (The “What’s the use, it won’t matter.” crowd) In a very Yodaesque way, Rabbi Tarfon, allows each person to size up where they stand in the paradigm at any given moment and gain perspective and balance.

Yet, maybe the most brilliant part of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching is that he reminds us to keep plugging away doing the best we can. Some days it is enough to put one foot in front of the other. Other days we move the needle forward a little. No matter what, we must keep going forward. What is ultimately required is the attribute of RESILIENCE.

As a kid I learned this lesson by playing baseball. Baseball was an obsession for me. I loved the game but if you have ever watched or played baseball more often then not there seems to be a futility to it. Batters strike out or hit the ball to one of opposing teams fielders 80 – 90% of the time. This is a game where if you fail to reach base 70% of the time you are considered a great hitter. And even if you reach first base, the likelihood of reaching home depends on a multiplicity of factors out of your control including: the next batter hitting the ball safely (see above statistic), the opposing team’s ability to field the ball, the wind, the dimensions of the ballpark, and frankly just plain luck. I remember my coaches warning our team against trying to swing for the fences (hit a home run) every time we would step to the plate. Getting on base was a miracle enough. Yet, even when we struck out, were in a slump, or down 4 runs in the 9th inning – we would get back in the batter’s box and take our crack at it.

I remember after a particularly tough game where I played poorly (I cost my team the game), I thought about quitting the team. My dad said, “Quitting is not an option! You will pick yourself up, remember who you are, that you are part of a team, that it is a combined effort, and that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose but playing the game is what it’s about.”    In essence – Resilience.

As human beings we often face difficult challenges in life both personal and communal. On the one hand we bring our creativity, industriousness, and intellect to bear. On the other hand by our very nature we are confined by our finite resources – Money, talent, energy and most of all time.

It is the dialectical dissonance between our power and our limitations, between progress and regression, and between our dreams and our realities – that can lead us down the path to apathy, hopelessness, or a loss of meaningful purpose. The symptoms of which can manifest themselves in: Burn out, compassion fatigue, listlessness, and detachment to name a few.

That is why I believe building and supporting resiliency in our children and each other is a critical part of Jewish life. What others may call stubbornness, our faith calls resilience and determination. It has served the Jewish people well throughout our history. We believe that even the smallest acts can make a difference in our lives, the lives of others, and even change the course of history. We can’t always understand the impact at the time or live to see our dreams fulfilled. Even so, we do not give up! We step up to the plate to do our part with our eyes on the prize.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Indeed, as Rabbi Tarfon taught so long ago, “You are not required to finish the task, nor are you free to neglect it.

OLDER ARCHIVES

For archives from December of 2015 through December of 2019, please click here…

 

 

Mon, October 3 2022 8 Tishrei 5783