2014 Archives: Word from Our Rabbi

Is Hanukah the “Jewish Christmas”?, December 2014

Here it is again, that time of year when many of my well meaning Christian friends will ask, “Hanukah; isn’t that like the Jewish Christmas?” Now, I know these friends are only expressing an interest in my faith and a concern about things that are important to me, but how can I politely tell them that there is almost no similarity between Hanukah and Christmas other than occurring at about the same time of year. In reality, the one major similarity the holidays do share would not be considered a good thing by many people. Christmas is the birthday of the central figure of the Christian faith and object of their worship. One might say that without Christmas there would be no Christianity. Judaism has no such central figure. Hanukah, by comparison, is a relatively minor religious celebration commemorating the cleansing or rededication of a holy place. It was, for centuries celebrated very simply by just the lighting of candles and saying of prayers. In fact, most people are not aware that Hanukah is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It does not rank among the major observances like the Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each of which is commanded several times in the Torah itself. Hanukah’s first mention in Jewish sources is in the books of First and Second Maccabees. These two books were not included in the Hebrew canon of scripture, but are assigned to a collection of writings known as the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha.

To understand the meaning of Hanukah, we need to understand and appreciate the importance of God’s promise that a particular parcel of real estate would become the permanent possession of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. Through time that particular piece of land, located in the Middle East, became more and more integrated into the faith and beliefs of Abraham’s descendants. Once Israelite control of Jerusalem was consolidated under kings David and Solomon, a particular mountain in the city became the focal point of Jewish prayer and worship. Solomon built the first Temple there. That Temple was later destroyed by the Babylonians. Under Ezra and Nehemiah, several thousand Jews return from Babylonian exile to build a second Temple which once again became the focus of Jewish worship. In about 333 before the Common Era (B.C.E.), Alexander the Great, a Greek, was able to conquer large portions of the Middle East and beyond. The city of Jerusalem was among his conquests. Now, in general, Alexander proved to be a benevolent ruler. He allowed the Jews to carry on with their religion and customs with a relative degree of freedom. When Alexander died in 323 B.C.E., he had no heir, so his empire was divided among four of his top generals. The Seleucids controlled the northern part of the Middle East, often known as Syria, while the Ptolemies controlled Egypt and the Southern Levant. The two powers warred back and forth often for possession of that area of the Levant which has become known at the Holy Land to Jews and Christians. The Seleucids consolidated their control over the area in around 200 B.C.E., but like Alexander before them, they too allowed the Jews to live in relative freedom to practice their customs and their religion. It was not until the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV, came to power in the early 160’s B.C.E that things changed.

Antiochus played into a civil strife that had already arisen among the Jewish people. Jews had divided into two hostile factions. One group, called the Hellenizers, was in favor of modernization, and by modernization they meant conforming to their Greek-Syrian overlords by adopting Greek customs, Greek names, and Greek dress. The other group, the Traditionalists, favored maintaining the ancient Jewish ways—the observance of Sabbath, keeping of the food laws, keeping the Torah, and worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem. Antiochus took advantage of this contention between the Hellenizers and the Traditionalists by exploiting their rivalry to advance his personal ambitions in the Land of Israel. Antiochus used his political authority and military power to promote Hellenism and suppress Judaism. Under his leadership, Seleucid soldiers sacked the city of Jerusalem in about 168 B.C.E. They erected a statue of Zeus in the Holy Temple; they sacrificed swine, an unclean animal, on the altar, and they killed many of the Traditionalist priests who resisted this defilement. Antiochus became so oppressive that he ultimately outlawed any expression of Jewish faith. The study of Torah, the keeping of the Sabbath, the keeping of the dietary laws, and circumcision were all prohibited, often under pain of death.

During Antiochus’ campaign, he or his soldiers would go from city to city forcing Jews to bow and offer sacrifices to a statue of Zeus. The ruler became so consumed with his own power and role in history that he appropriated the name, Antiochus Theos Epiphanes, translated, “Antiochus God Manifest.” It was in the small Judean town of Modi’in, just a few miles northwest of Jerusalem,that a brave priest named Mattathias refused to bow before Zeus. He not only killed the Greco-Syrian soldier enforcing the regulation, but he and his sons rallied together and killed the entire contingent of solders dispatched to Modi’in. Knowing that Antiochus would retaliate brutally, Mattathias and his five sons, Judah, Eleazar, Simon, John, and Jonathan, fled into the hills of the surrounding Judean wilderness. There they attracted an army of like-minded Jewish resistors, who fashioned themselves into a guerrilla fighting force. One year into the fight, Mattathias died and was succeeded by his son, Judah, nicknamed “Maccabeus—The Hammer.” Though vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped, these Jewish guerrillas succeeded in defeating the Syrian armies in battle after battle, ultimately taking back the city of Jerusalem, including the Holy Temple and the area surrounding it. Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, attention was turned to the problem that the Temple fallen into disrepair and had been defiled. Repairs were quickly made, and a new and undefiled altar was constructed. Then, according to tradition, three years to the day after Antiochus had defiled it, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a festival was inaugurated for the cleansing and rededication of the holy place.

According to the book of Maccabees (Chapter 4), the festival for the dedication of the Temple lasted eight days. That is not surprising to scholars, because when Solomon built the first Temple, he chose to dedicate it during the feast of Sukkoth, an eight-day festival. Since the Jews under Antiochus’ harsh rule would not have been able to celebrate the festival of Sukkoth in the fall, it is only natural that they would have wanted to do so, even belated, as a part of the Temple’s rededication. It is not until Talmudic times (300-500 C.E.) that we find reference to the “miracle of the oil.” The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-23a) tells us that as a part of the rededication, vessels of undefiled oil were sought for the lighting of the menorah. According to the Torah (Exodus 27:20-21), the Temple menorah is to burn day and night perpetually. Unfortunately, only one vessel of oil was found uncontaminated, about enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, that one day’s supply of oil burned for the eight days of the dedication—the time it took for a fresh supply of kosher olive oil to be prepared. Josephus, who also writes in the Roman period, referred to Hanukah for the first time as the “Festival of Lights” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 7).

Being a post-biblical holiday, for centuries Hanukah was celebrated by Jews very simply with the lighting of a Hanukiah, a nine candled menorah used specifically for Hanukah evenings. Scholars believe the exchange of gifts did not begin until relatively recently when Jews in areas where Christmas was celebrated with gift giving decided that in order to keep their own children from becoming jealous they too would begin to give gifts. Even so, Hanukah gifts were quite modest, usually a small sum of money or Hanukah “gelt.” It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and mostly in America, that began to change. Dianne Ashton, professor of Religious Studies at Rowan University, in her book, Hanukah in America (NYU Press, 2013), has shown how in America the evolution of Hanukah and Christmas have gone hand in hand in many ways. The growth and development of both holidays has been fueled by rapid industrialization and the resulting blossoming of a consumer-based economy. The marketing around both Christmas and Hanukah, designed to promote the consumption of goods, has led to the popularization of both holidays that is far beyond any celebrations that occurred in previous centuries. Now, nobody enjoys the benefits our free enterprise economic system more than I; however, I think most people would agree with me that the extreme commercialization of these holidays has detracted somewhat from their intended deeper spiritual meaning.

The name Hanukah is based on the Hebrew word, chanak (chet-nun-kaf), which means “to dedicate.” Remembering that our ancestors in centuries past struggled to maintain their religious freedom and to rededicate that place considered most holy to them, we should rededicate ourselves to the things that matter most—faith, love, justice. There is no doubt that the observance, prayers, acts of contrition, and seeking of forgiveness that occur for Jews from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are of greater import biblically and historically. But, we do have, during these cold winter months, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the promises so recently made at Yom Kippur to uphold the high moral and ethical standards of our Jewish faith. It is, in fact, the pursuit of those values which, according to the Hebrew Prophets as echoed in our Aleinu prayer, will hasten the knowledge and sovereignty of the Creator encompassing the whole earth. This year, as you observe your Festival of Lights, pledge yourself anew to those values the Prophet Isaiah (4:6) says will one day make the Jewish people a “light to the nations.” Isaiah records God’s message to us: “I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Almost incredible to imagine; isn’t it?!

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Give thanks to the LORD for good; God’s mercy endures forever…., November 2014

Later this month, we will greet one another with a warm, "Happy Thanksgiving!" It seems like only last month we, Jews, were greeting each other with, "Chag Sameach Sukkot--Happy Feast of Tabernacles." Oh! It was!! Is this just coincidence? Or, could there be a historical connection between these two festive times, each intended to celebrate the bounty of the harvest and to give thanks to the Source of that bounty? Many writers over the years have posited just such a connection. It is common knowledge that the Puritans, also known as Separatists, who came to the New World, were a persecuted religious minority. They were known as Puritans because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England. Those who became known as Separatists eventually determined that the Church could not be reformed, so they "separated" in order to form their own holy community. In escaping from persecution in England, the group fled first to Holland, where they lived for a time among Sephardic Jews. When life in Holland proved to be untenable as well, the group decided to brave a trip to America. It is known from many sources that these Separatists were firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Some writers have asserted that in many ways the Puritan Separatists were closer to Jews than to other Protestants in that regard (e.g., Hugh Fogelman, "Puritans Were More Jewish Than Protestant," http://www.christianity-revealed.com/). The Puritan Separatists considered themselves to be God’s chosen people. They viewed King James I of England as the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh. Their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was likened to the ancient Israelite crossing of the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. Their arrival in the New World was seen as the Israelite arrival in the Promised Land.

While eyewitness accounts of the first "Thanksgiving" gathering in August 1621 do not specifically make a connection with the biblical Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), we dohave record that it was a three day affair attended by both settlers and Native Americans which included feasting, shooting, and celebration of a plentiful harvest. The word "thanksgiving" itself is not actually used in the earliest accounts (Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation; William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation). It is clear from the eyewitness accounts that the festival was sparked by gratitude for a bountiful harvest that first planting season following a brutal first winter in the New World. American children learn in elementary school that this religious group was called Pilgrims. This is actually a name they gave themselves in commemoration of their wanderings in search of religious freedom. Their dedication to the Hebrew Bible is evident in almost everything they did when they arrived in America. They held the Hebrew language in high esteem. In fact, when Harvard University was founded in 1636, it taught biblical Hebrew alongside the traditional Greek and Latin. The governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, wrote in his famous history, Of Plymouth Plantation, that even at his advanced age he would still like to learn Hebrew. The quote is quite moving: "Though I am grown aged, yet I have had a longing desire to see with my own eyes something of that most ancient language and holy tongue, in which the Law and the oracles of God were written and in which God and angels spoke to the holy patriarchs of old time…" (edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, 1989). As the colony developed and laws were established, a large portion of the legal code was taken from the Hebrew Bible. For example, the New Haven Code of 1655 contained seventy-nine statutes. Interestingly, over 50% contained references to the Hebrew Bible or "Old Testament" (Rabbi Ken Spiro, WorldPerfect: The Jewish Impact on Civilization, 2002, p. 248), while only 3% of the laws referred to the New Testament (Fogelman). Also interesting is the fact that Old Testament biblical names were quite common among the early New England settlers. Daniel, Noah, Elijah, Samuel, Sarah, Rachel, Leah, and Rebecca are just a few of the many Old Testament names evident in writings from the time period. While, again, almost no New Testament names appear (Fogelman).

Given their deep knowledge of and respect for the Hebrew Scriptures it is not unlikely that the early settlers of New England had the biblical fall festival celebrating the ingathering of the harvest (Leviticus 23:39) in mind when they established a time of commemoration of their own gratitude for the good things God had done for them. Whether or not a direct historical connection between Thanksgiving and the Hebrew festival of Sukkoth can be established, there is no question that the Jewish tradition of amply rendering thanks to God, the Creator, was also reflected in the beliefs and actions of the Puritan Separatists. The traditions of both groups are rooted in the Hebrew Bible. It is well established fact that in the Pilgrims’ possession were many Bibles. One such Bible, known to have been in the possession of William Bradford himself, was published in 1618 and contained the Annotations of the Puritan scholar, Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622). In an Annotation to Psalm 107, the psalm William Bradford and the Pilgrims recited to thank God for their safe journey across the Atlantic, Ainsworth quotes from an English version of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (inset, Moshe Sokolow, "Thanksgiving: A Jewish Holiday After All," http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/). Also significant is the fact that of the twenty-eight references to the word, "thanksgiving," in the King James Version of the Bible, all but six are in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (Mario Seiglie, "Is Thanksgiving Rooted in a Biblical Festival," http://www.ucg.org/).

Jewish commitment to the principle of giving thanks to God is evident in the fact that the first prayer prayed every morning by an observant Jew is the Modeh Ani: "I thank you, living and enduring king, for you have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness" (translation, http://www.chabad.org/). Jews who pray thrice daily and recite the traditional blessings required by Halacha do, in fact, end up giving thanks to God for the various miracles of daily life over one hundred times a day (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 670). God is thanked for allowing the person to wake up, for the miracle of biological functions (upon of using the bathroom), for food, for drink, for natural phenomena, to name but a few. In fact, what other religious group prays a prayer of thanksgiving after the meal is eaten, the Birkat Ha-Mazon? That prayer is based on the passage in Deuteronomy 8:10, "When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you."

As you sit with your family over a bountiful meal this Thanksgiving, keep in mind that what you are doing in celebrating the prosperity and freedom we enjoy in America and in giving thanks to God has deep roots in Judaism, spiritually, if not literally historically. As you give your thanks, remember to invoke the ancient Hebrew blessing over bread, the Ha-Motzi. You might also say the traditional Shehecheyanu prayer, which is reserved for such special occasions. Indeed, in this country Jews have more to celebrate than perhaps at any time in our history. The level of religious freedom and economic independence we enjoy in the United States surpasses that of any previous era. And, in our lifetimes we have witnessed the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the state of Israel. Such a restoration was only a dream for almost two millennia. But, in celebrating our freedom, we must remember that with great blessing comes great responsibility. I am thinking primarily of the responsibility to bring freedom to others who are still in bondage. Whether that be bondage to a literal oppressor, to disease, to hunger, to poverty, or to any other malady, it is our sacred obligation as Jews to strive for the freedom of all of God’s children. May the time not be far off which was spoken of by the Hebrew prophets when all mankind will be able to give thanks for freedom: freedom from disease, freedom from hunger, freedom from poverty, freedom from war. If you are bold enough to believe, the prophet Micah foretells such a time with power yet simplicity (ch. 4, vv. 3-4), "…they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid…." What a day of thanksgiving that will be!!

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The World Will Be Perfected…., October 2014

On Rosh Hashanah the tradition at Temple Beth Shalom these past many years has been to read the Creation Story contained in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 from the Torah. This is partly because we love the beautiful imagery and powerful metaphors contained in the account, but also because our Sages consider Rosh Hashanah to be the birthday of the world. It is said that on this day mankind was created and placed in the Garden of Eden. Chapter 2 of Genesis makes two very interesting assertions regarding the creation of mankind. In verse 5 the Torah tell us, "Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for The LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth; and there was no man to cultivate the ground." After the creation of man, the Torah states, "Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it" (v. 15). From these statements, the view began to develop within Judaism that men and women were created to be partners with God in completing the creation which God willed into existence. That understanding was ultimately expressed in the principle of tikkun olam, variously translated as "repairing the world" or "healing the world." It is noteworthy that during the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods of religious history, when the emphasis of most major religions was transitioning from an earthly to a heavenly orientation, the rabbis and sages of Judaism kept emphasis firmly on the here and now—on our responsibility to the earth and to society.

The phrase "mipnei tikkun ha-olam" came into use in the Mishnaic Period, the first two centuries of the Common Era. Sometimes translated, "for the better ordering of society," the idea is variously credited to Hillel or to his grandson, Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 121). The phrase appears several times in the Talmud, beginning in Gittin 32a. Its use in Tractate Gittin is applied to a number of social obligations, including rules for divorce, collections for widows, and redemption of captives. The sages were concerned that performing such mitzvot just because they were a Torah requirement might cause them to be misapplied or fall into disuse. Thus, the impetus of performing them for the betterment of the community was invoked.

The concept of tikkun olam was expanded greatly by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the renowned 16th century Kabbalist and teacher. The complexity of Rabbi Luria's teaching is beyond the scope of our discussion, but, in brief, it involved light from the Creator being lost in the creation and intermixed with the material world. Performance of the mitzvot was seen as one means to restore balance to the creation. The expansion that Rabbi Luria made on the concept of tikkun olam was that he applied the principal as a motivation both for acts of social welfare and for acts of a more traditionally religious nature, such as prayer, meditation, and the saying of blessings (Noparstak, J., "Tikkun Olam," http://learningtogive.org/).

Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute in California, brought the concept of tikkun olam into our modern consciousness, when in the 1950's he connected our obligation as partners in the creation with a line in the Aleinu prayer, which observant Jews pray thrice daily. Bardin asserted that the statement in the Aleinu, "l'taken olam b'malchut shaddai—then the world will be perfected under the rule of the Almighty" encapsulated the obligation of all Jews to work toward the perfection of the world. Over the course of the '50's, '60's, and '70's this understanding became ever more popular, becoming the motivation for unprecedented social action, tzedakah (charitable activities), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion) in the Jewish community (Rabbi Daniel Danson, http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/).

The Prophet Isaiah, in line with most of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, gives us some breathtakingly positive glimpses of mankind's future. A particularly powerful and oft-quoted prediction is Isa. 2:4: "…and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." As I think of the incredible strides mankind, in general, has made in the areas of science, technology, medicine, and human rights in just the past 100 years, I am optimistic enough to hope that the vision of the Hebrew Prophets is, in fact, possible. I tell my students frequently that the American constitutional experiment has, in particular, yielded amazingly beneficial results. Never before in history have so many individuals been afforded such equal rights under the law or such broad access to food, shelter, medical care, and wealth. I believe that our country’s movement in such a positive direction is principally because it was founded and has continued to operate on the deeply embedded Judeo-Christian values of honesty, hard work, and acts of generosity and kindness. These are at the heart of the concept of tikkun olam.

An individual's behavior has repercussions in the community and in the world in proportions beyond our immediate perception—much like ripples in a pond. The tiniest of pebbles, when thrown into a pond, produces waves that proceed outward in concentric circles, ultimately encompassing the entire pond. So it is with good deeds. One person performs an act of kindness. Another is helped or touched, then passes along the kindness. Then another, and so on until a cycle of good can encompass an entire community, a country, and even the whole world. This cyclical expansion of positive effects will also flow from one generation to the next, then to the next, and so on. This is the process of tikkun olam. As we enter the new Hebrew Year, 5775, will you join me in committing to increasing our acts of kindness, compassion, and social justice? May our motivation not just be that the Torah implores us to do so, but because of the beneficial effect it has on ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world—tikkun olam. I, for one, have faith enough to believe that when a critical mass of people commits to pursue the good, the day will come when the utopian vision of the Hebrew Prophets can be realized.

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This Is My Name Forever..., September 2014

As we approach two of the most solemn and meaningful times of our entire year, the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our thoughts most naturally drift in a heavenly direction. While considering the awesomeness of Israel’s God: creation, God’s workings throughout history with our mothers and fathers, and God’s purpose for mankind’s future, it becomes apparent just how central to our beloved faith tradition of Judaism the knowledge of the Creator God is. I have always believed that a glimpse into the great mystery that is God can be provided by a study of the Divine name.

The name of mankind’s Creator, the Sustainer of All Things, has been clearly revealed to us in the Hebrew Bible. And yet, the average reader of scripture remains relatively unaware that the Almighty God has a name at all, let alone what it is. That is because this name is not translated as a name in most well-known scriptural translations. You can only imagine my shock and amazement, when, as a young college student in the 1970’s, I began an in-depth study of the Hebrew Bible and discovered that the name of God is used almost 6000 times in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings (Tanakh). And, yet, I had never seen it. That is because most modern translations, in following the King James Version, have translated the four letter name of God, yod-heh-vav-heh, as LORD in all capital letters. I completely understand and respect the translation editors’ intent to honor ancient laws and traditions guarding against taking "the name of yod-heh-vav-heh in vain," as the third commandment implores (Exodus 20:7). Yet, a side effect of that editorial decision is that millions have been denied a more intimate knowledge of the Creator’s Name. "LORD" is a title and not a name. And, while I am a husband, a father, and a teacher, none of those titles conveys a personal knowledge of who I am like my name, Dennis Steven Jones, does.

The name of the Creator is revealed for the first time in Hebrew Scripture to Moses in his encounter with the burning bush on a mountain called Horeb (Ex. 3:1-15). You will recall that while he was pasturing a flock he came upon a bush that appeared to be burning, though not consumed. From the midst of the bush, a voice called out to Moses with the identification, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." (v. 6) Moses was, of course, commissioned to approach the Pharaoh of Egypt to request the release of the Israelite populous who had been serving as slaves there. Moses protested, "I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now, they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?" (v. 13) At that point, the Almighty made the stunning revelation, "eh’yeh asher eh’hey…. Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘eh’yeh has sent me to you.’" (v. 14—keep in mind there are no capitals in Hebrew) Now, the Hebrew phrase, "eh’yeh asher eh’ye," is difficult to translate, and has been rendered in most translations as, "I AM THAT I AM," although that is probably not the most accurate translation (Gerald L Schroeder, God According to God, p. 85). I will definitely explore that possibility more fully in a future article. For our present purposes, it is most interesting to note that in the very next verse in the Torah, God tells Moses, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘yod-heh-vav-heh, the God of your fathers…, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations." (v. 15) One might ask why the revealed name changed within the space of two verses from "eh’yeh asher eh’yeh" or simply "eh’yeh" to "yod-heh-vav-heh"?

That question may be answered by an understanding of how the name, yod-heh-vav-heh is pronounced. As a result of efforts by our sages to safeguard the extreme sanctity of the name of God, it appears that the exact pronunciation of that name may have become lost to us. The vast majority of scholarship on this subject favors the pronunciation, "Yahweh." I do not find that view compelling in that the Hebrew word, Yahweh, conveys no apparent meaning. That would be extremely unlikely, as the vast majority of names used in the Hebrew Bible do convey some type of meaning in their translation. Take for example my Hebrew name, Dani’el, "God is my judge." There is a minority scholarship opinion which favors the pronunciation, "Yehovah," for the Divine Name, a pronunciation which does convey meaning. At least one scholar (James D. Tabor, Restoring Abrahamic Faith, p. 20) has posited in this pronunciation of the name the contraction of three Hebrew verbs that have been preserved in the ancient Hebrew hymn "Adon Olam." In the seventh line of that hymn we chant regarding the Most High, "v’hu hayah, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yihyeh b’tifarah—roughly, the One who was, the One who is, and the One who will be." (Gates of Prayer, p. 729) Hayah translates as "was," hoveh-"is," and yihyeh-"will be." If one were to place these verbs in this order, YIYEH, HOVEH, HAYAH, and then to contract the emboldened letters, one would have YEHOVAH, a contraction meaning quite literally "the One who will be, is, and was." What strikes me most is not only how this correlation imparts such rich meaning to the pronunciation of the Divine Name, but also how it seems to reconcile an apparent discrepancy between verses 14 and 15 in chapter 3 of Exodus. Both verses would contain only slightly alternate renderings of Hebrew verbs for "to be."

Now, the Divine Name is not some kind of talisman or incantation that one has to "get right" in order to earn merit. But, an understanding of the name does seem to figure quite prominently in the message of the Hebrew Prophets, particularly in their predictions of a future time of peace and prosperity for all humankind. One of the more well-known references is in Joel (ch. 3, v. 5-Hebrew), where the prophet states, "And it will come about that whoever calls on the name yod-heh-vav-heh shall be delivered." Another is the one we chant in every Jewish service as a part of our Aleinu prayer. It is a quote from Zechariah 14:9, "b’yom hahu yihyeh yod-heh-vav-heh echad u’shemo echad—in that day, Yehovah will be one and God’s name one."

These are just two of the many references to the Divine Name and its importance, particularly in a time period referred to by the Prophets as "the latter days." But, that is a topic for a future message. For now, shalom u’vrachah (peace and blessing) and more importantly, l’shanah tovah tikatevu (may you be written down for good year)!!

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You Shall Love the Lord Your God...., August 2014

While there is no creedal statement in Judaism per se, one might say that the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Numbers 15:37-41, are the closest thing we have to a creed. The Sh’ma affirms that Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh (I will use Adonai, in keeping with tradition, though the Tetragrammaton, as it is called, is truly a name and not a title.) is our/Israel’s God and that Adonai is one. Jews have prayed this prayer for millennia in times of joy, plenty, and health as well as in times of trouble, persecution, and even death.

We at Temple Beth Shalom say the Sh’ma as the center piece of every service we engage in. A very observant Jew would recite the Sh’ma four times a day: two times during morning prayers, once as a part of the evening prayer service, and finally just before going to bed. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 667)

It is the line following the Sh’ma that intrigues me, "V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chal levavcha uv’chal naphshecha uv’chal me’odecha." It translates, "And you shall love the Lord (Adonai’s Name) your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all of your might." I like to ask myself and others, "Now, loving someone or something with all your heart, soul, and might…, what exactly would that look like?" Would you have a hard time getting that one out of your thoughts? Would that one’s name be the first thing that entered your mind upon arousing from sleep in the morning? Would your thoughts be on that one as you drifted off to sleep each night? Would you be overwhelmed with joy when in that one’s presence, and perhaps saddened to the point of sickness upon being separated from that one? Is this level of love really what the author of Deuteronomy had in mind?

There is a story in that regard in the Palestinian Talmud (B’rachot 9:5) about Rabbi Akiva, the second century spiritual leader who was tortured and ultimately killed by the Romans for his support of Bar Cochba in a revolt against Roman hegemony in the Land of Israel. The story goes that while Rabbi Akiva was being tortured, the time for the saying of the morning Sh’ma arrived. To his torturers Akiva appeared to be calm and even joyful in spite of his agony, leading one Roman soldier to ask Akiva whether he was, in fact, some kind of sorcerer. Akiva reportedly replied that he was not, but that all his life he had pondered the meaning of the words he had recited daily, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul (life), and with all your might." He stated that he knew in his heart that he had never truly fulfilled them and was saddened. But, in that moment, as death approached, Rabbi Akiva said, "Now that I am giving up my life (soul), and the hour for the reciting of the Sh’ma has come…, should I not smile?" The Talmud reports that as the rabbi spoke those words, his soul departed.

How might we translate this into action? I love the way my first rabbi and mentor in the Jewish faith, Theodore Herzl Gordon, of blessed memory, used to put it. It was, in fact, Rabbi Gordon who opened the door for me to this amazing faith tradition that is Judaism, through conversion. He used to say, "As a liberal rabbi, I am certainly not going to tell people what they need to do to be Jewish. BUT, DO SOMETHING!" There are, according to the sages, 613 commandments/mitzvoth in the Torah. Explore it! Find which ones resonate and are meaningful to you and in your life. And, keep in mind regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service (Gates of Prayer, p. 285), "…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba"—translating roughly that the one (who keeps them) eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.

By the way, did you know that in the Hebrew Bible there is something Adonai promises to do with all of God’s own heart and soul? In Jeremiah 32:36-44, God is speaking to Israel who had just been oppressed, defeated, and deported first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. The Almighty promises, "I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in my anger…." Stating further, "I will make an everlasting covenant with them…." And, finally, "I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will faithfully plant them in this land (current Israel) with all My heart and with all My soul." I have some deep thoughts I would like to share with you on that statement, but I will save that for a future message. For now, shalom u’vrachah (peace and blessing)!!

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