2015 Archives: Word from Our Rabbi

The Story of Joseph: Bringing the Consciousness of God to All, December 2015

The story of Joseph unfolds in the Torah over the course of three portions, Vayeshev, Mikeitz, and Vayigash, Genesis 37:1-47:27. Because of their positions as the ninth, tenth, and eleventh readings of the Torah cycle, the Joseph readings fall every year in the weeks leading up to the holiday of Hanukkah. It is interesting that we read this story in conjunction with the “Feast of Dedication,” because, as you will see, Joseph, more than any other Patriarch with the possible exception of Moses, models a deep awareness of God in both his speech and behavior. (Rabbi Ari Kahn, “Echoes of Eden,” http://echoesofeden.rabbiarikahn.com)

You will recall that Jacob, whose name by this point had been changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28), had acquired two wives, Rachel and her older sister Leah, during his sojourn in the area of Syria. The Torah is very explicit in stating that “Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.” (Gen. 29:30) Scripture goes on to say, however, that as a result of Leah’s unloved status, she was granted the first four sons born to Jacob: Ruben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Torah portion Vayetzay goes on to describe the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter, Dinah, to his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaidens, Bilhah, and Zilpah. Jacob had already sired tens sons and one daughter when Rachel finally conceived and gave birth to Joseph. It is obvious from the Torah text that Jacob considered the birth of Joseph special because it was at that time that he informed Laban that he would be leaving the region of Syria and heading south to the land promised to Abraham, the land of Israel. (Gen. 30:25)

Torah portion, Vayeshev, opens with Joseph as a youth of seventeen years. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the passion he felt for Rachel, the Torah makes it clear that Jacob did not hide his love and favoritism for Joseph: “Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a multicolored tunic. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.” (Gen. 37:3-4) To make matters worse, Joseph had a set of back-to-back dreams foretelling his rise to the position of leadership. In the first he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field. Joseph states, “My sheaf rose up and also stood erect, and behold your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” In the second dream Joseph relates, “The sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Gen. 37:5-9) The telling of these dreams only increased his brothers’ hatred for him all the more. Even his father seemed a bit roiled at the report of the second dream. He rebuked him, saying, “What is this dream that you have had? Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” (v. 10)

When Israel sent Joseph to check on his brothers who were pasturing their flocks in Shechem, the brothers saw it as an opportunity to bring evil upon Joseph. They debated killing him or just leaving him in a pit, but ultimately sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants who happened to pass by. The merchants, of course, took Joseph down to Egypt. Joseph’s brothers took his multicolored tunic, dipped it in the blood of a goat, and gave it to their father Jacob, leading him to believe that Joseph had been killed by wild beasts. Jacob was beside himself with grief. The Torah reports, “Then all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. And he said, ‘Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.’ So his father wept for him.” (Gen. 37:35)

The Ishmaelite merchants sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. Even in his servitude it must have been very evident that God was present with and blessing Joseph. Potiphar noticed it: “Now his master saw that the LORD was with him and how the LORD caused all that he did to prosper in his hand.” (Gen. 39:3) Potiphar was so impressed with Joseph that he made him his personal steward and put him in charge of all of the affairs of his household. That proved to be a wise decision on Potiphar’s part because the Torah tells us, “The LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house on account of Joseph; thus the LORD’s blessing was upon all that he owned, in the house and the field.” (v. 5)

Perhaps the hardships he suffered gave Joseph a greater consciousness of the Divine. We begin to see evidence of that when he was confronted with the temptation of Potiphar’s wife. She was obviously enamored with Joseph and approached him boldly requesting intimacy with him. He rebuffed her with the statement, “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” (v. 9) According to the biblical account, that did not stop her. She continued to pursue Joseph. Once when they were alone, she “caught him by his garment.” He fled leaving his garment with her. Potiphar’s wife used the incident to concoct a false accusation against Joseph landing him in prison.

Even in prison God’s blessing upon Joseph was so pronounced that that others noticed it. “The LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. And the chief jailer committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail.” (Gen. 39:21-22) It was in prison that Joseph first displayed his unique ability to interpret dreams. He accurately interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker. Joseph, however, did not take credit for the interpretation for himself, but rather explained, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Gen. 40:8) It was this ability to interpret dreams that brought Joseph to Pharaoh’s court. Pharaoh had had a recurring dream, and no one was able to interpret it. It was then that the chief cupbearer remembered that Joseph’s interpretation of his dream, while in prison, had in fact come true.

Joseph’s awareness of and devotion to God are clearly evident in his words to Pharaoh, who at that time would have considered himself a god. When Pharaoh tells Joseph that he has had a dream and that no one can interpret it he states, “I have heard it said about you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph humbly replies, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Gen. 41:16) Upon hearing of Pharaoh’s dreams of the seven plump cows grazing along the Nile, who are eaten by seven gaunt cows and seven full years of grain that were eaten up by seven withered ears, Joseph tells Pharaoh, “God has told Pharaoh what God is about to do.” (v. 25) Joseph then informs Pharaoh that the dreams indicate that there will be seven years of plenty in Egypt followed by seven years of famine. The fact that the dream was repeated twice “means that the matter is determined by God and God will quickly bring it about.” (v. 32) Joseph’s interpretation must have resonated strongly with Pharaoh. Pharaoh tells his servants, “Can we find a man like this in whom is a spirit of God?” And, Pharaoh tells Joseph, “Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are.” (vs. 38-39) Pharaoh, of course, goes on to appoint Joseph as the ruler of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

Joseph’s abiding consciousness of God can be seen in the naming of his sons. He names his firstborn Manasseh, making to forget, saying, “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” He names his second-born Ephraim, fruitfulness, saying, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (vv.51-52) But, Joseph’s devotion to the Almighty is most pronounced in the graciousness with which he deals with his brothers’ wrong toward him. You recall that the sons of Jacob had to go down to Egypt to get grain because there was no food in Canaan. The brothers deal with Joseph not knowing that it is, in fact, their lost brother. He, however, recognizes them. Once he reveals his identity to them, they are quite fearful. Joseph tells them not to be angry or grieved insisting that it was God’s plan for him to be where he was. Joseph makes multiple statements to that effect, for example, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:7-8)

The completeness of Joseph’s devotion to God and forgiveness of his brothers’ wrong is summed up in a statement that Joseph makes just after their father’s death. With the passing of their father, the brothers are once again fearful that Joseph will be angry with them and retaliate against them. The Torah records, “And Joseph wept when they spoke to him… Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid for am I in God’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.’” (Gen. 50:17-19) This is the connection that the sages make between the Joseph story and the story of Hanukkah. At the time of the Maccabees many had drifted away from Torah and into Hellenism, but at the call of Mattityahu and his sons large numbers repented and turned their hearts completely back to the God of Israel and God’s Torah. The people’s relationship with God was fully restored because they emulated the Divine attributes. (Talmud, Shabbat 133b) This parallels the Joseph story in that Joseph did not merely forgive his brothers while harboring resentment for the wrongs they had done to him. Rather, he loved them and cared for them unconditionally, preserving their lives as if they had never wronged him, thus demonstrating the true meaning of forgiveness and complete reconciliation (Rashi, Genesis 45:12) With the kindling of this year’s Hanukkah lights, may we ever explore ways to make God’s presence more manifest in our own lives and in our own relationships. Ken yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will!

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A Double Whammy! He Took the Blessing and the Birthright? November 2015

At our next weekend of services at Temple Beth Shalom, November 13th , and 14th, we will be exploring the sixth reading of the Torah reading cycle, Torah portion Toledot, Genesis 25:19-28:9. This portion begins with Isaac taking Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel and sister of Laban to be his wife when he is forty years of age (25:19-20). In the biblical account, it would seem that immediately following their marriage, Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins (25:21-26), but we learn in verse 26 that in actuality twenty years have elapsed, since Scripture records that Isaac was sixty years old at the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob. We learn that Esau grew to become a skillful hunter, “a man of the field,” and that Jacob became an “ish tam-perfect man(?), dwelling in tents.” While in those tents, Jacob must have developed some amazing cooking skills, because he was able to wrest the birthright away from Esau in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup (25:27-34). At that point, the Bible tells us “there was a famine in the land,” meaning, of course, the land promised to Abraham, the land that would eventually become Israel. Isaac was instructed by the LORD not to go down to Egypt, the neighboring superpower of that time, so he stayed in Gerar, near the land of the Philistines. While there, Isaac deceived the Philistines into thinking that Rebecca was his sister because he was afraid they would kill him and take her if they knew she were his wife (26:1-16). In spite of his dishonesty, Isaac eventually makes peace with Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, because Abimelech could tell that Isaac was being blessed by the LORD (26:17-33). By this point in the story, the twins have reached the age of forty, and Esau takes two wives, Judith, and Basemath, from among a local tribe, the Hittites. Apparently these Hittite ladies “made life miserable for Isaac and Rebecca” (26:34-35). Nevertheless, Isaac plans a special blessing for his firstborn, Esau. Upon hearing of Isaac’s intentions, Rebecca and Jacob conspire together to formulate a plan for Jacob, through deception, to get the blessing for himself (27:1-29). Isaac and Esau were both enraged when they learned of Jacob’s deception and taking of the blessing. Esau was so angry, in fact, that he planned to kill Jacob after their father’s passing. Once again Rebecca steps in upon hearing of the plan. She arranges for Jacob to be sent to Haran, the land of her relatives, purportedly to find a wife, but more obviously to get him away from Esau (27:30-28:9).

I have always appreciated that the Hebrew Scriptures do not “whitewash” the lives and actions of our patriarchs and matriarchs. When wrongs or dishonesties are committed, the Hebrew Bible lays them out for all to see. Now, one might argue that Jacob’s taking of the birthright from Esau, the true firstborn, was actually just shrewd business practice. Jacob had labored all day producing a stew, while Esau had spent the day in the field, obviously pursuing game. Esau was famished after all of that hunting, so he asked Jacob for some of the soup he had been making. Jacob demanded Esau’s birthright in exchange for the soup. Esau obviously thought he was about to perish from hunger and that the birthright would be of no use to him, so he willingly made the exchange. Now, the birthright in ancient near Eastern cultures was no small acquisition. It entitled the holder not only to the family leadership and decision-making, passed down from the father, but also to a double portion of any property inheritance. (See Deut. 21:15-17)

It is somewhat harder to justify, I believe, the outright deception that was involved in Jacob’s taking of the blessing. Isaac had grown old and “his eyes were too dim to see.” He commissioned his son, Esau, to go on a hunting expedition and bring him back some of his favorite game, so that after he had eaten he might pronounce a blessing on Esau. Upon overhearing the plan, Rebecca instructs Jacob to quickly go among the herd and take two young goats. Rebecca took the meat of the goats and prepared a “savory dish.” She put the skins from the goats over Jacob’s neck and hands so that he might appear hairy like his brother. She also had Jacob put on Esau’s clothing; thus Jacob would both smell and feel like his brother Esau to the aging Isaac. As Jacob approached his father, Isaac, with the delicious meal, he answered all questions cunningly to continue the deception. So, Isaac, thinking Jacob to be the firstborn, Esau, pronounced his blessing upon him: “Now may God give you the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and an abundance of grain and new wine; may peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master of your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you.” (Gen. 27:28-29) Then, just as soon as Jacob had left Isaac’s presence, Esau returned from his hunt. He prepared his game and brought it to his father, Isaac. It was only then that both realized the deception that Jacob had perpetrated. The biblical account tells us that Isaac “trembled with a very great trembling,” obviously enraged. Esau, on his part, was so angry he plotted to kill his brother after the passing of their father.

Some commentators make an effort to relieve Rebecca at least partly of blame for this deceptive plan by pointing to a prophecy she received just prior to the birth of the twins. While the twins were in her womb they “struggled together,” apparently causing her some discomfort. When she inquired of God about this situation, the Torah tells us “the LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples shall be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.’” (Gen. 25:23) According to some sources, when she realized that the blessing of her husband, Isaac, was about to go to the firstborn Esau in contravention of the prophecy, Rebecca obviously felt compelled to step in. (See, e.g., “The Tragedy of Good Intentions,” Rabbi Lord Sacks, http://www.aish.com)

Other commentators do not try to mitigate the level of deception involved in the story, but use the situation to emphasize another point. That is that such difficult circumstances often arise when parents play favorites. You will notice that early in our Torah portion, we are informed that “Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca loved Jacob” (25:28). Such a blatant statement of parental bias and disagreement must convey some meaning in the context of our story, according to these sources. With such division and favoritism existing how could the family not have struggles among siblings? (See, e.g., “Parenting 101,” Noah Chertkoff, http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/toldot)

Another possible observation we might glean from this story is the importance of spousal communication. When Rebecca learned of Isaac’s plan to bless Esau, knowing full well this went against a message from the Almighty that Jacob would be the son to come to a position of preeminence in the family, why did she not just approach Isaac and discuss the matter with him? A simple exchange of information and coming to parental consensus may have avoided the need for the deception that followed. Isaac may well have planned a blessing for both sons, just intending to deliver Esau’s first, but we will never know. (See “Toledot 5771,” Rav Michael Susman, http://harova.org/)

Finally, many commentators point out that while acquiring the blessing came by deception for Jacob and Rebecca, it was not without great cost and consequence. Jacob incurred the ire of his father and brother. He needed to flee from both and ended up living, basically in exile, in the region of Syria for over twenty years. Rebecca, for her part, had to endure that long separation from her favorite son. Upon Jacob’s return from Syria, his beloved wife, Rachel, died in childbirth with her second child. Ultimately, near the end of his life, when the Pharaoh of Egypt meets Jacob and inquires about his age, Jacob tells Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, nor have they attained the years that my fathers lived during the days of their sojourning.” (Gen. 47:8-9)

Because the Torah is so honest and straightforward about the lives and actions of our patriarchs and matriarchs and the consequences that followed, we who are living almost four thousand years after their time can still discuss, debate, and derive meaning from these ancient texts. The Constitution of the United States is often referred to as a “living document” because it is debated and interpreted based on changing times and events after just over two hundred years of history. Can you imagine that after four thousand years any document could have anywhere near the relevance of the Torah, the document which has become the cornerstone of the world’s three major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

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“I Set My Bow in the Cloud…” The Promise of a New Beginning, October 2015

When we next assemble at Temple Beth Shalom for the public reading of the Torah, we will be reading from Torah portion Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32. This Torah portion covers a broad range of very interesting topics, beginning with an introduction to Noah and his family. About two chapters are devoted to explaining God’s decision to destroy the world, including most of mankind and most of the animal kingdom (6:9-8:22). That is followed by an account of life starting over again, the Almighty promising not to destroy all life by flood again, and the establishing of a set of laws which our rabbis have called the Noahide Commandments or laws of Noah (9:1-17). Most of chapter 10 is taken up with the repopulation of the earth, including specifics on the families and their descendants. Then in chapter 11 we get the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel and the decision by God to scatter mankind over the earth and to give the various family groups each a different language (vv. 1-9). Chapter 11 concludes with the records of the descendants of Noah’s son, Shem, culminating in the first introduction in the Hebrew Bible of our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (vv. 10-32).

What a strange coincidence that as I read these verses about the destruction of the earth by flood, and as I study the passages about God’s promise not to destroy the earth again by flood, including the placing of the rainbow in the clouds as a remembrance or sign, the news is full of terrible images from South Carolina of the devastating floods that they have just experienced. Meteorologists have said that South Carolina has received rainfall amounts which are only expected at thousand-year intervals. My heart breaks as I see the displaced families, the destruction of property, and the loss of life. I know that I am moved to take action through charitable giving, and I hope that many others will be as well. As we will see, one of the strong themes of Torah portion Noach is that rebirth, renewal, and rebuilding are possible. I know that we will pull together as Americans, in the face of this disaster, in order to make that happen.

Regarding the present Torah portion, it is my sincere belief, that like hundreds of generations of Jews before us, we to in the modern age can find light and inspiration from these ancient passages of Scripture. That may, however, require deep study, questioning, and discussion. One question that might arise from the accounts in Genesis 1-11 is how did the creation that when observed by God in Genesis 1:31 was said to be “very good” get so off track that by Genesis 6 we read the chilling passage, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that man had been created on the earth, and God was grieved to the heart.” (vv. 5-6) Surely this demonstrates that being created in the image of God, as man and woman are, brings with it an extremely high level of free will or choice. That freedom of choice obviously has amazing potential in both directions—evil or good. Clearly the evil was prevailing in the days of Noah leading up to the flood. But it our own day, I would like to believe that we have learned the lesson of history, and that we are channeling our choices toward the good. I think I see evidence of that around me. For example, when we had the horrific racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina just this past June, rather than sparking more racial hatred and friction, I believe the crime moved many, many individuals to reach across racial lines and show a willingness enter into dialogue and even expressions of brotherly love. When a disaster befalls our country like the recent floods in South Carolina or the widespread damage of hurricane Sandy of last October, are not the hearts of many stirred to help and to give what is needed to bring healing and restoration to the affected areas?

Another question that naturally arises from the flood story as it begins in Genesis 6 is, “Why would the Almighty choose to destroy not only the evil men and women, but also a very large portion of the plant and animal life on the planet?” This question is difficult to answer. Could it possibly be to show that those creatures which were created in God’s image, namely man and woman, bear a deep responsibility for everything that happens on this planet and for all species both plant and animal? Surely we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how our decisions, our use of resources, and our lack of proper waste disposal have had a profound impact on the entire earth ecosystem. Once again, I believe that we are learning from the past and from our mistakes. We are taking definite steps to rein in many of the wasteful and polluting practices of the last 200 years. Of course, more needs to be done!

Also on a global scale, it is from Torah portion Noah that the rabbis of the Talmudic period derived seven laws applicable to all mankind. A discussion of these Noahide Laws or Commandments, as they are called, can be found in the Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin a-b. Those seven laws are the prohibitions of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, stealing, eating the flesh of a living animal, and the positive commandment to establish courts of justice. One of the amazing things about these seven laws is the universalist view of God’s relationship with man and womankind that they convey. Going back to the earliest days of the Jewish faith, our sages never saw the need to convert all mankind to Judaism, thus the absence of proselytizing from our religion. The laws of Noah were seen as elevating all mankind to the will of the Creator, and making them equal partners in the perfection of the creation that was entrusted to man and woman from the very beginning (Gen 2:15). All men and women share the Divine image, and it is incumbent upon them all to make choices which are “godlike.” In so doing, the earth, including the plant and animal kingdoms, can be moved in a positive direction, fulfilling the ultimate plan, expressed in the Hebrew Prophets, of what God intended this garden planet to be.

The Haftorah portion associated by our sages with Torah portion Noah, Isaiah 54:1-55:5, reinforces this view of individual and corporate responsibility for our actions, and also reinforces the idea that while negative things may happen as a consequence of poor decision-making, there is always the opportunity for turning from our ways (repentance) and the insurance of a brighter future. The prophecies found in this passage from Isaiah come on the heels of a severe destruction which was delivered to the people of Israel through the hands of the Assyrians in the seventh century B.C.E. then of the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E. We learn elsewhere in the Prophets that those destructions were the consequence of the northern ten tribes, Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah not being faithful to the laws and precepts of God. But, the message of the Haftorah portion is one of hope. It is connected by the Prophet Isaiah with the situation in the time of Noah. We read, “For this is like the days of Noah to me; when I swore that the waters of Noah should not flood the earth again, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you…. My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken, says the LORD.” (54:9-10) Amazing promises are they not? The entire Haftorah reading is full of hope. Look, for example at verse 8, “In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.”

Heartening that though we may make mistakes and though we may fall short of the ideals set forth for us in God’s law, bringing consequences that are sometimes severe, there is always the opportunity of turning from our wrong choices and changing the course of events for ourselves and for our world. I notice that this Isaiah Haftorah reading closes with a mysterious statement, referring obviously to a future time, “Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, and a nation which knows you not will run to you, because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel.” I have some definite views on who that nation that will turn to the Jewish people is, but I will save that for another message. For now, as we ponder the passages of Torah portion Noah and its Haftorah from Isaiah, may we receive insights that inspire and elevate us to partner with the Creator in bringing not harm, but good to all of the amazing creation with which we have been entrusted! May this be God’s will!!

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An Open Letter to Temple Beth Shalom, September 2015

Dear congregation, in previous bulletins, I have made every effort to bring you articles that were full of Biblical, historical, and Talmudic insights in an effort to further your spiritual growth. With this issue of the bulletin, as I anticipate the coming of the Hebrew year 5776 and the opportunity to spend time together during the fall holidays, I am overwhelmed with many emotions. So, I wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts with you personally, from my heart.

Can you believe that it has been a whole year since I became your “student” rabbi? What a remarkable year it has been for me personally! To be able to study Bible and Talmud, to prepare for and lead services, particularly to learn and chant Torah and Haftorah, and to teach Sunday School are activities that bring me the utmost of personal joy and sense of fulfillment. The privilege of doing these things as your “official” spiritual leader and to be able to receive compensation for doing them fills me with gratitude that is difficult to put into words. When I accepted the position as your rabbi, I made the commitment to Adonai that for every service and Sunday school I was responsible for, I would give my utmost in preparation and service delivery. In the coming year, I want to renew that commitment and pledge to do even more to make Temple Beth Shalom a place where every soul can make a connection to the Almighty, to our temple family, to the greater community, and to our rich Jewish heritage.

The decision I made, almost twenty-five years ago now, to formally convert to the Jewish faith and to become a member of Temple Beth Shalom is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life. I have said many times, and I say again, that this congregation is blessed with the most amazing assembly of souls. Your superior intellect, talents, personalities, commitment to others, and love and respect for our Jewish traditions has always impressed me, and still does. I am honored just to be a member of this unique group, and to be your rabbi—gives me a sense of purpose and personal fulfillment for which I am deeply, deeply grateful. In my prayers, I thank God daily for this privilege. And, I also want to thank you as well.

As I look back at the previous year, I remember how nervous I was as I prepared to lead High Holiday services for the first time. I remember telling my wife, Kathy, “I just need to make it through the High Holidays then it will be all downhill from there.” She quipped, “You mean the quality of your services?” “No,” I replied, “just the level of my nervousness.” Now, in retrospect, as I consider those holiday services and all of the monthly services that followed, from my perspective, things went very well. The positive feedback that I have gotten from all of you surpassed all of my expectations. As this year’s fall holiday services approach, rather than being nervous, I am filled with a sense of anticipation and excitement. I hope you share that excitement with me. It has made my preparations this year even more joyous than last.

I have, over the past year, received much beneficial constructive feedback as well. I extend my thanks to those of you who have shared your thoughts with me honestly in that regard. Some have said to me that they find it difficult to share constructive feedback because they like me personally and do not want to hurt my feelings. But, I want you to know that I view that feedback as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. I am ever aware that I am a “student” rabbi, and this is truly a learning process. I welcome your input; I take it very seriously, and I use it as a guide for future service preparation and delivery. So, if you have ideas on ways to improve services, educational opportunities, or other activities at Temple Beth Shalom, please share those with me. I will make every effort to accept your feedback graciously and to use it for the betterment of our Jewish community.

Many have asked me about my rabbinical studies, so let me share just a brief word about those. I am thankful that we live in the Internet age. In a previous time, I might not have been able to avail myself of enrolling in a rabbinic studies program and to be your rabbi. Fortunately, most of my learning and academic requirements are able to be fulfilled over the Internet. When I originally considered the course requirements of my school, Rabbinic Seminary International, I set a personal goal of accomplishing ordination in four years. I am pleased to report to you, that after one year in the program, I am just under one fourth of the way through my coursework. I must be honest with you that teaching full time at Alexander Central High School, trying to fit in time for exercise and healthy eating, spending quality time with family, and preparation for my role at Temple Beth Shalom has given me less time to devote to rabbinic studies than I might have liked. But, with Adonai’s help, I am making slow but sure progress, and I appreciate your patience and the patience of my teachers at the rabbinical seminary.

I want to say just a few words about the Sunday school program at Temple Beth Shalom. During my ten years as president, I always longed to be more involved with our temple youth, but never seemed able to make the time. Over the past year, working with the Sunday school students and their parents has been one of my greatest joys. It has meant so much to me to get to know the kids and their parents on a much more personal level. My affection for the students and interest in their individual spiritual growth has grown week by week. I believe that the young people sense that, because they have reciprocated my affections, and we have bonded in a very real way. When I became “student” rabbi, I was committed to “beefing up” our educational opportunities for young people. I believe that has happened, but in the coming year I want to do even more not only to educate the students, but to involve them in all aspects of temple life, particularly service participation.

I cannot say enough good things about Temple Beth Shalom’s president, Barbara Laufer, vice president/bulletin editor/Sunday School principal, Marsue Davidson, secretary, Tiffany Hull, treasurer, Mark Faruque, and the entire Board of Trustees. These dear souls constantly give of their time, talents, and resources, and never ask for anything in return. They truly have my deepest admiration and appreciation. As we began the year together, it was perhaps awkward at first to have the rabbi present at every board meeting. That is something that was new to all of us. The experience has been an unparalleled opportunity for growth and improvement for me. I love to have my “finger on the pulse” of the congregation and its needs. I truly hope the dedicated members of our Board have enjoyed the experience as I have.

In closing, I want to once again express my sincerest thanks to the entire congregation for the past year. I am humbled and honored that you have chosen to renew my contract for another year, and I look forward to making the next year even better than the last. With your help, I know we will. My earnest prayer for each of you is that the New Year will bring you the utmost of health, happiness, and prosperity. L’shanah tovah tikatevu!—“May you be written down for a good year!”

Your rabbi, Dennis

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A Time for Reflection…, August 2015

This year on Saturday, August 15, at sundown begins the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul, which is the sixth month of the Festival Calendar and the twelfth month of the Civil Calendar—leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the “head of the year,” has, since Talmudic times, become a season of particular introspection, repentance, and restitution.

Historical Connection

According to the Sages of Israel, it was on the Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul, that Moses ascended Mount Sinai following the people’s sin of the “golden calf” to make intercession before Adonai. You will recall that Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days. That would have covered the thirty days of the month of Elul and extended ten days into the month of Tishri, bringing Moses’ sojourn on the mountain to an end on the very day of Yom Kippur. It was on that particular visit to Mount Sinai that Moses received the second set of stone tablets containing the Law of God, since the first set had been destroyed at the incident of the golden calf. (Exodus 33-34)

It was also on this visit to Sinai that Moses had the opportunity glimpse just a tiny portion of God’s glory. This amazing self-revelation by the Creator has become known as the “Thirteen Attributes” of God and is chanted in Hebrew at many of our most moving prayer and worship services, particularly during the High Holidays: “Adonai, Adonai (God’s Name repeated twice), compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7)

Hidden Meaning

Many Jewish sources have pointed out that the name of Elul, spelled aleph-lamed-vav-lamed in Hebrew, could serve as an acronym for the verse, "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li—I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs 6:3) The Sages have long interpreted this verse as an allegory for the relationship between God, the beloved, and the people of Israel. Just as Moses drew close to the Almighty on Mount Sinai at this season of the year following the Israelites’ miraculous redemption from Egypt, so should we draw close to our “beloved” Creator in the period preceding our holiest of days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (See Tracey R. Rich, “The Month of Elul and Selichot,” http://www.jewfaq.org/elul.htm

The Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, used to liken the month of Elul to a time when “a great king is in the field” as opposed to a time when the king is confined to the palace. When in the field, the king is among the people, and easily accessible to anyone desiring a royal audience! (“Elul Observances in a Nutshell,” http://www.chabad.org/holidays/)

Drawing Near to God

Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Torah is the verse following the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “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 your might.” My congregation at Temple Beth Shalom probably gets tired of hearing me ask the rhetorical question, “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? I know that despite my best intentions and re-commitments each year, I fall far short of honoring and remaining conscious of the Source of All Life to the level directed by the Torah. And, I am sure that many of my co-religionists must feel the same. The month of Elul is a wonderful opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the Creator, and to map out strategies for greater devotion—more diligent study of Torah, more prayer and thanksgiving, perhaps greater support for our house of study and worship.

Relations with Others

Elul is also an opportune time to examine our relationships with our fellow man and woman. You will recall that in one of the most powerful of our High Holiday prayers, we pray, actually quoting from the Mishna, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” (Gates of Repentance, URJ High Holiday Prayer Book; Mishna Yoma 8:9) In Jewish tradition, we have an entire month, Elul, to consider our behavior toward others and make amends and possibly even restitution where needed. This month is also an ideal time to consider becoming more proactive in our relationships with others—increasing our acts of social justice, tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion), for the sake of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.”

Rich Traditions

Over the last two millennia, the Sages of Judaism have developed the richest of traditions to serves as guideposts for the implementation of our faith principles. Beginning on the second day of the month of Elul and continuing until two days before Rosh Hashanah, it is the Ashkenazi custom to blow the shofar daily, after morning prayers, as a call to reflection, introspection, and repentance. The shofar is not sounded, of course, on Shabbat; nor is it blown the day before Rosh Hashana, in order to separate rabbinic custom from Biblical command. Also, during the month of Elul, Psalm 27 is added to the morning and the evening prayer services. In that Psalm, David exclaims, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the refuge of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … One thing I have asked from the LORD, that shall I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.” These words are a clear reminder that the Protector of Israel is continuously in our midst, and we are continuously in God’s Presence. Finally, at sunset on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, S’lichot prayers, special petitions for the mercy and forgiveness of the Almighty are added before the shachrit/morning prayer service. If Rosh Hashanah falls early in the week, S’lichot begins the week before, so that a minimum of three days of these special prayers may be said. (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “ABC’s of Elul,” http://www.aish.com/)

It’s Up To You

As I encourage all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom to study our precious Jewish heritage and implement more and more of its lofty principles, I like to honor the teaching of my beloved mentor, Rabbi Theodore Gordon, who 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, I remind you regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service, “…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba— the one (who keeps them) eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.” As we say in Hebrew, “Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!”

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The Dog Days of Summer: A Turning Point in the Hebrew Calendar, June 2015

The dog days of summer are soon to be upon us. Traditionally dated from July 3 till August 11, this period of intense heat can be oppressive to the body and stifling to the spirit. The term “dog days” is believed to have its origins in ancient times, when our ancestors were more attuned to events in the heavens. During the summer months in the northern hemisphere, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (the big dog) is Sirius—the “dog star.” The star is so bright that early observers believed its heat added to the heat of the sun to increase the intensity of summer. (http://www.wilstar.com/dog-days-of-summer/)

Interestingly, these same days of oppressive heat have long been considered a low point on the Hebrew calendar by the sages of Israel. Beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and extending until the 9th of Av, is a three-week period that has traditionally been a time of mourning and sadness for the Jewish people, at least as far back as Talmudic times (100-300 C.E.). While the primary purpose of our mourning during this time is given by the sages as the destructions of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians then of the Romans, the sages also saw the darkness of these days as deriving from incidents which occurred at the time of the Exodus. For example, the beginning of the three weeks, the 17th of Tammuz, the fourth a month of the Hebrew calendar, commemorates the day in 70 C.E. when the Romans breached the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem. Rashi tells us that it also corresponds with the timing of the “golden calf” incident following the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. (Rabbi G. Rubin, “Matan Torah According to Rashi,” http://ohr.edu/991)

According to the Rabbis of the Mishnah, the time of sadness culminated on the day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the fifth month of the Hebrew calendar. They stated, “Five misfortunes befell our fathers ... on the ninth of Av. ...On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed up.” (Mishnah, Ta'anit 4:6) Recall that Moses had sent twelve spies into the land of Canaan ahead of the arrival of the children of Israel, and when those spies returned, they reported to the people that it would be impossible for the Israelites to overcome the inhabitants of the land. According to the Torah, the people believed the spies negative report, and, sadly, Adonai decreed that that doubting generation would not be permitted to enter the land of Israel. (Numbers 13:25-14:45) This “sin of the spies” seems to have put a black mark on the day which has persisted throughout history. Particularly disheartening to the sages was the fact that the focal point of Israelite worship, the holy Temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed first by the Babylonians (586 B.C.E.) then after its rebuilding, by the Romans (70 C.E.) on the very same day. And, fresh on their minds were the slaughter of over 500,000 Jews at Bethar and the plowing of the destroyed city of Jerusalem by the Romans at the time of the Bar Kochbah revolt (135 C.E.)

In addition to the tragedies falling on the 9th of Av, as enumerated in the Mishnah, a host of dreadful events have befallen our people on or very near that day throughout history:

  • The First Crusade began, August 15, 1096, in which 10,000 Jews were killed in the first month alone.
  • The Jews were expelled from England, July 18, 1290.
  • The Jews were expelled from France, July 22, 1306.
  • The Jews were expelled from Spain, July 31, 1492.
  • Germany entered World War I, August 1, 1914.
  • Himmler approved the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” August 2, 1941.
  • The deportation of the Jewish population from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka began, July 23, 1942. (See Tracey R. Rich, “Judaism 101,” http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayd.htm, also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tisha_B'Av#cite_note-ohr-8)
  • Customs for morning this dark time period in Jewish history have varied from community to community and from time to time, but there has been general agreement that, beginning on the 17th of Tammuz, weddings are not to be performed. As the first day of the month of Av approaches, mourning traditionally intensifies. During the nine days from the first to the ninth, many observant Jews abstain from cutting their hair or shaving, abstain from the drinking of wine or eating of meat except on Shabbat, and abstain from pleasurable activities and recreation. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the fast of Tisha B’Av was to be every bit as strict as the fast of Yom Kippur. Extending from sundown to sundown, the individual is prohibited from eating or drinking, washing or bathing, applying creams or ointments, wearing leather, or enjoying marital relations. The sadness of the day is intensified by the reading in the synagogue of the woeful book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Bible. The only difference from the High Holiday fast of Yom Kippur is that if the 9th of Av falls on a Shabbat, it is not observed until the next day. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, pp. 593-597)

    But, did you know that according to at least one sage of the Talmudic period, there was to be a major holiday following the intense summer time of mourning? “Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” (Talmud, Ta’anit 26b) In fact, the Talmud goes on to record at least six major positive events that occurred on Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av. The Mishnah tells us that the “daughters of Jerusalem” would borrow fine linens and go out to dance in the vineyards. Young men who were not yet married would look upon the maidens to find a suitable wife. (Also Ta’anit 26b, Yanki Tauber, “Why Do We Celebrate the 15th of Av?” http://www.chabad.org/) As nights became longer, the intense heat of summer began to fade, and the early cool breezes anticipating fall began to blow, the Rabbis encouraged the Jewish people to turn from their time of mourning to a time of joy. And, this has been a recurring theme of Jewish history, that times of oppression and tragedy have been followed by times of redemption, victory, and joy, by the hand of the Almighty.

    If you are moved to recognize these ancient observances this year in keeping with the traditions of our people, the 17th of Tammuz falls on the 4th of July—that should be easy to remember! That day is followed three weeks later by the fast of Tisha B’Av on July 25. Since the ninth falls on a Sabbath, the fast will be postponed until Sunday the 26th. Our time of rejoicing returns with the festival of the full moon of Tu B’Av on July 31.

    Such has been the history of our people from ancient times until now that periods of tragedy and sadness are followed by periods of deliverance, joy, and rebirth. The story is told of a 19th century British politician who was walking outside of a synagogue on the 9th of Av. From inside the synagogue walls, he heard the reading of the book of Lamentations and the weeping of the people. Upon inquiry, he was informed by a bystander that the Jews were mourning the loss of their ancient Temple and the many tragedies that have befallen their people during this time of year. So impressed was he, that he exclaimed, “Surely a people who mourn with such intensity the loss of their homeland, even after 2000 years, will someday regain that homeland.” (Telushkin, p. 595) Amazingly, we have regained that homeland, modern Israel, and are prospering there. And, this return was predicted by the Hebrew Prophets over 2500 years ago. In one such prophecy, Zechariah even refers to the fast of the 9th of Av: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the fast of the fourth month (Tammuz 17) and the fast of the fifth month (Av 9) …will become joy, gladness, and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah; so love truth and peace. …many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem.... In those days, ten men from the nations of every language will grasp the corner of the garment (tzitzit?) of a Jew saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zech. 8:19-23) As one who has had the privilege of converting to Judaism, I find the words of this prophecy chilling. Could it be possible that we are witnessing the fulfillment of these ancient words in our own day? Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will!

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    Shavuot: Marking one of God’s Greatest Gifts to Humankind!!, May 2015

    I am always surprised at the lack of attention the holiday of Shavuot receives from the modern progressive synagogue. Biblically speaking, in the list of holidays presented completely for the first time in the Torah in Leviticus 23, Shavuot receives its fair share of attention. Seven verses are devoted to the method for counting the time leading up to Shavuot and to the explanation of how the holiday is to be observed. That compares with only two verses in Leviticus 23 devoted to Rosh Hashanah. In fact, that holiday is not even called Rosh Hashanah in the Torah, but rather "Shabbaton Zikaron Teruah—a Sabbath memorial of the trumpet blast." Rosh Hashanah became the holiday´s name in the post-biblical period. And yet today, synagogue seats are filled to overflowing on Rosh Hashanah, but on Shavuot, one finds meager attendance when there is a service at all. Perhaps it is that Shavuot does not have any prominent symbols that we can cling to—no shofar, no sukkah, no Hanukah gifts or menorah, no matzah. In fact, the holiday does not even have a real name. The term, Shavuot, in Hebrew, only refers to the weeks that we are instructed to count leading up to the observance of the holiday. (Lev. 23:15-16; Deut. 16:9-10) It seems ironic that on this oft ignored holiday the rabbis of the Talmud tell us that Israel’s most precious gift was bestowed. According to our sages, it was at the time of Shavuot that the holy Torah was given on Mount Sinai. (Talmud Shabbat 86b-87b, see also Ex. 19:1 ff.)

    The Torah instructs us in Leviticus 23 that Shavuot is to be a full-fledged yom tov, on the order of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, first day of Sukkoth, and the first day of Pesach. The Torah states, "On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work. It is to be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations." In honor of the giving of the Torah on this day, it has become the custom of many observant Jews to spend the entire night of Shavuot engaged in the study of Torah. Referred to in Hebrew as, "Tikkun Leil Shavuot—an act of completion/perfection on the night of Shavuot." The all night study traditionally ends at daybreak when the participants turn their attention to the saying of Shachrit, morning prayers. (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, "ABC´s of Shavuot," http://www.aish.com) The saying of morning prayers on Shavuot has become an event of amazing proportions in modern Jerusalem, where several hundreds of thousands of Torah students conclude their evening studies by walking to the Kotel, the Western Wall, to engage in morning prayers. This event has occurred since the Six Day War in 1967. While the Temple Mount was liberated in early June of that year, Jews were not allowed into the area where the temple once stood for security reasons. On the holiday of Shavuot in 1967, the Western Wall was first opened to visitors, and upwards of 200,000 Israelis spontaneously crowded into that area. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 593)

    Another widespread and ancient custom on Shavuot is the eating of dairy foods only. While as many as four possible reasons are given in support of this custom, none is truly definitive. It may connect to the biblical book Song of Songs which is allegorically applied to the Torah, stating, "Your lips...drip honey; honey and milk are under your tongue…." (4:11) Alternately, a commandment in the Torah, Exodus 23:19, juxtaposes language connected with Shavuot, "the choice first-fruits of your soil," with the famous, “you shall not boil a kid in the milk of its mother," the basis for our prohibition of mixing meat and milk. There is, of course, also the Torah reference to the Holy Land as "a land flowing with milk and honey." (Ex. 33:3) This reference has been cited as a possible reason. Perhaps the most interesting possibility of all is the idea that upon receiving the Torah the children of Israel, for the first time, grasped the importance of the laws of kashrut, so they ate only dairy until the laws of sh’chita, kosher slaughter, could be more fully expounded. (Simmons, "ABC´s of Shavuot")

    In the Mishnaic Period (100 B.C.E.-200 C.E.), there was much debate regarding the appropriate Torah reading for the holiday of Shavuot. Some of our sages preferred Deuteronomy 16 which recounts the instructions to the people of Israel to count for themselves seven weeks and then to celebrate the "Chag Shavuot—Feast of Weeks" to the LORD their God. That reading was usually paired with a Haftorah portion from the book of Habakkuk. Another group of sages favored the reading of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai contained in Exodus chapters 19 and 20. This reading was followed by the mysterious "Chariot" Haftorah portion of Ezekiel 1. In places outside of the land of Israel, where the holiday of Shavuot is observed for a two day period, both customs are followed in deference. The book of Ruth is also traditionally read on Shavuot, presumably in honor of Ruth an ancestor of King David who is connected with Shavuot in that, according to tradition, he was both born and died on that same holiday. (Rabbi Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli, "Shavuot: The Day of the Giving of the Torah?" www.conservativeyeshiva.org)

    As I pointed out in last month´s article the miraculous redemption of the children of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai were part of an overarching Divine plan for humankind. That plan was to spread the way of God through molding a particular family group into a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation," (Ex. 19:6) who through observance of the Creator´s laws would eventually become "a light to the nations, so that [God´s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isa. 49:6) Our rabbis often referred to the covenant at Sinai between the Almighty and the nation of Israel as a contract or even a marriage. In the words of Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, "The Torah was the symbol of our bond, the gift God granted to the betrothed to consummate their relationship. The Talmud (Berachot 57a), discussing the verse ´[the Torah] is the heritage (morasha) of the congregation of Jacob´ (Deut. 33:4), comments, ´Do not read "morasha" (heritage) but "me´orasa" (betrothed).´ We are wedded to God. And as a result, we are wedded to the Torah, God´s wisdom." ("Shavuot: Crazy, Stupid Love," http://www.aish.com)

    There is no question that the more we study the laws and precepts of the holy Torah, the more we understand the mind of the Creator God in whose image we were made. It follows that the more we apply the Torah´s commandments, statutes, and acts of loving-kindness to our own daily walk, the closer we will be connected not only to God, but also to our fellow man and woman. The Almighty has a plan for the restoration of the cosmos, tikkun olam. The gift of the Torah, given at the time of Shavuot some 3500 years ago, is a key element of that plan. Will you join me in observing this coming Shavuot perhaps as no other before? We will begin the holy day with an Erev Shavuot service on Saturday night, May 23 at 7:00 PM. Join me then for a time of celebration, prayer, and worship. Who knows, we may just stay up all night studying.

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    I Will Make You a Light to the Nations…, April 2015

    My dear friend and mentor, Prof. Emmanuel Gitlin, Ph.D., frequently sends me articles of interest, dealing with research and developments in the field of religion. Only partially in jest, I refer to Prof. Gitlin as "a walking encyclopedia of biblical and historical knowledge." While Prof. Gitlin´s knowledge of religious principles cuts across the spectrum of all religions, he is deeply committed, as am I, to establishing Temple Beth Shalom as a thriving Jewish community in the Hickory area. Like me, Prof. Gitlin strives to find ways to meet the spiritual needs not only of the congregation, but also of the greater community. Recently, Prof. Gitlin sent me an article from "The 2014 Dean´s Report" of Duke Divinity School. In that report, Dean Richard B. Hayes, Ph.D., lays out the initiatives for the Divinity School for the coming year. In his essay, Dean Hayes draws inspiration from a stirring and powerful passage found in Isaiah 49:5-6, "And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him... ´It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.´" Now, we are truly blessed in the United States with educational institutions of the highest caliber, both secular and religious, but coming as it did in the weeks leading up to my preparation for Temple Beth Shalom´s Community Passover Seder, Dean Hayes´ article got me thinking about what might be the greatest Passover miracle of all: through faith in the Almighty God, a battered down and oppressed group of slaves was ultimately liberated and transformed into a chosen people, a blessed nation, and a light to all nations.

    In the early chapters of Bereishit, Genesis, we read that the Creator´s interactions with mankind got off to a rocky start. There was the killing of Abel by Cain, which apparently led to the spread of such violence in the earth that a cleansing flood was necessary to purge the bloodshed and give mankind a new beginning on the earth. Even after the flood we find that the rebellious nature of man seems to persist as evidenced by the story of the Tower of Babel, which again required a Divine intervention in the form of a confusion of the languages and a scattering of the people. It was at that time the Eternal initiated what I call "The Family Plan" for the spreading of God´s way and message to mankind. The plan began, of course, with the calling of the family of Abraham. We read in Genesis 12: "Now the LORD said to Abram, ´Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your father´s house, to a land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.´" (vv. 1-3) For insight as to why the Almighty chose Abraham and his family, one might take note of Genesis 18 where in God´s own words it is recorded, "For I have chosen [Abraham], in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what God has spoken concerning him." (v. 19)

    After a long sojourn in Egypt, estimated from various sources to have been between 250 and 430 years, originally necessitated, of course, by a famine in the land of Canaan, the descendants of Abraham had become enslaved by the ruling class of Egypt. Known at that point in history as the children of Israel, that is of Jacob the grandson of Abraham, the labor of the Israelites was exploited by the Egyptians for the building of their famed cities and temples. The hard bondage of the Israelites became so intense and unbearable that the Creator decided once again to intervene in the affairs of mankind. The deliverance from slavery in Egypt appears to have fulfilled a twofold purpose, keeping promises made to the matriarchs and patriarchs while at the same time establishing a platform for the next step in the family outreach plan. As Moses is commissioned to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, God declares in the Shemot, Exodus, "I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant.... I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians." (Ch. 6:vv. 5-7) Through a series of events that can only be described as miraculous, this oppressed group of slaves did manage to attain their freedom from what truly would have been the greatest superpower on earth at that time, the nation of Egypt. After their escape, as the people of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, about to receive instructions from the One who had provided their freedom, God affectionately instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel, "If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all of the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." This amazing proclamation was immediately followed by the giving of the Ten Commandments.

    The "light to the nations" passage found in Isaiah 49 and used in Dean Hayes´ essay on Duke Divinity School picks up on this same theme. The verses containing the passage are among a group of similarly themed messages in Isaiah known as the "servant songs." And, while scholars agree that they refer to the calling and commissioning of the prophet Isaiah himself, it cannot be denied that the "servant songs" have a deeper and transcendent meaning applicable to the nation of Israel as a whole. This can be seen in chapter 49, verse 3, where the Almighty states quite explicitly, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will show my glory." This statement is paralleled by another servant passage in the book of Isaiah in which the entire nation of Israel, at that time, is clearly being addressed, "You are my witnesses, declares the Lord and my servant whom I have chosen in order that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am. Before me there was no God formed and there will be none after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and there is no savior besides me." (Ch. 43:vv. 10-11)

    In our modern age, a call to be a light to the nations might seem controversial or intimidating to some, but I assert that to a very large extent the commission is already achieving success, and in a way that many people might not even realize. Keep in mind that the primary purpose for the original call of Abraham was the teaching of God´s laws first to Abraham´s family, but by extension to all mankind. Is it merely coincidence that those laws have become incorporated in the religious precepts of what is already a majority of the world´s religious population? Jews, of course, have followed the laws in the Hebrew Bible for generations, but they are only a tiny proportion of the world´s current population, 0.2% according to a 2012 Pew Research analysis of 2010 population data. But, Christianity, whose roots are also in Judaism, deemed it appropriate to accept the Hebrew Bible into its own canon of scripture, thus bringing the laws and traditions of Abraham and his descendants to the world´s 2.2 billion Christians. That is approximately 31.5% of world population as of 2010. Add to that the Muslim faith, whose roots are in Christianity and Judaism, which has also ratified and brought forward many of the laws and traditions of the ancient Hebrews in its own holy writings, and one finds the laws of the Creator, originally enunciated in the Hebrew Bible, reaching another 1.6 billion people, or 23.2% of world population. (For a brief analysis of how the Ten Commandments have been incorporated in the Koran, see http://submission.org/The_ten_commandments_in_the_Quran.html. For a more detailed analysis, see http://www.answering-christianity.com/quran_ten_commandments.htm.) These three major Western religions alone, all tracing their traditions back to the patriarch Abraham, accounted for a total of almost 55% of the world´s population in 2010, a majority already. (For population figures, see http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/.) Based on my research, I would also posit a connection between the ancient Hebrew tradition and the teachings of Hinduism (15.0%) and Buddhism (7.1%) bringing the world influence of the "Abrahamic faith" up to 77% of 2010 world population, but that connection will definitely have to wait for a future article.

    You see my point, that the One who willed this creation into existence, the One who chose Abraham and his descendants, and the One who miraculously brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and entrusted them with lofty precepts and a worldwide mission is now known and revered worldwide as a result of that mission, just as the Hebrew Prophets foretold. But, there is still much to be done. We as Jews have experienced the bondage of slavery in Egypt, so we must never fail to take up the cause of those who are still oppressed in our modern world. We experienced starvation then, so our compassion must remain with those who still do not have enough food. We were strangers in a strange land; let us continue to reach out to all who are disenfranchised in any way. As we celebrate the Divine gifts and miracles provided to our ancestors at this holy time of Passover, will you commit to join me in carrying the mission forward to be in the words of our holy writings, "a light to the nations"?

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    Purim: Celebrate, but Remember!, March 2015

    The holiday of Purim is just around the corner. Beginning at sundown on Wednesday, March 4, and extending until sundown on Thursday, March 5, it is a time of joyous celebration for Jewish families the world over. We will observe the four mitzvot or commandments of Purim which are enunciated in the Hebrew Bible (Esther 9:20-22) and reinforced in the Mishnah (Mas. Megilah 2a): the reading of the megillah of Esther, matanot l´evyonim–giving money to the poor, mishloach manot–gifts of food to friends, and feasting. Our hearts will be filled with gladness! But, we should also take time to remember that Purim represents a very serious subject as well, the age long struggle of those who would stand for the good against the forces of evil. It is a sad fact that the enemies of Israel and of the Jewish people have a hatred so intense it seems unexplainable in terms of normal human emotions. And, that hatred is both ancient and modern.

    We read in the Torah, in the 25th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, that as our people were coming out of Egypt, a tribe called Amalek laid in wait along the way and attacked Israel from the rear as they passed through. Amalek picked off the weakest members of the Israelite group, women, children, and stragglers. The Torah states that Amalek "did not fear God." A very stern pronouncement against Amalek occurs twice in the Torah, once in Deuteronomy, "It shall come about when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies in the land which the LORD your God gives you..., you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget." (vv. 17-19) This commandment appears to be a clarification of the more cryptic statement in the 17th chapter of Exodus, "Then the LORD said to Moses, ´Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.´ And Moses built an altar and named it, "The Lord is My Banner." And he said, "The LORD has sworn; the LORD will have war against Amalek from generation to generation." (vv. 14-16)

    Now, the connection between Amalek and Purim might not be immediately obvious to most readers. The evil Haman, whose hatred of the Jews defies rational explanation, leading him to seek the Jewish people´s annihilation, is referred to in the book of Esther as an Agagite (3:1). The connecting link to Amalek is found in the 15th chapter of the book of First Samuel. The newly crowned King Saul is leading the Israelites in a life and death struggle against the neighboring tribe of Amalek. God, through the prophet Samuel, had instructed Saul that God was about to punish Amalek for the crimes done to the people of Israel when they were on the way out of Egypt, and the judgment was to be harsh. Saul, in defiance of God´s command, spared the king of Amalek, Agag, the ancestor of the wicked Haman. (I Samuel 15:1-9)

    Parallels to those who hate the Jewish people so intensely and who seek our annihilation, while difficult to comprehend or accept, can be found in almost every generation, most recently and egregiously in the acts of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. I have never been so moved by a Purim story as I was recently by a story told by Lori Palatnik, a writer, educator, and the founding director of the Jewish Women´s Renaissance Project. She tells of a neighbor she had while living in Toronto whose name was Mr. Cohen. He was a holocaust survivor. As a youth of only 17, Mr. Cohen had been taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz. Knowing he would be there for a long time, if he survived, Mr. Cohen memorized the Jewish calendar for the next several years. He was known by his peers in the camp as a walking calendar. They would ask him, "When is Shabbat?" "When is Hanukah?" "When is Pesach?" And, Mr. Cohen would be able to tell them. When it was Purim, Mr. Cohen and a group of men met secretly in their barracks. They had smuggled a few bits of potato and bread crust as well as a book of Esther into their deplorable living area. The men stood in a circle as quietly as possible so as not to arouse Nazi suspicion, and they passed the bits of bread and potato from man to man in fulfillment of the mishloach manot commandment. The last to receive the morsels of food was Mr. Cohen, for it was he who was about to read the megillah of Esther. As they read the story of Esther under the harsh oppression of the Nazis, you can only imagine the joy it brought to their hearts to hear of the victory of the Jewish people over their enemies on Purim over 2300 years ago. We ultimately gained victory over the Nazis as well, though many, many precious souls had to give their lives in the process. Still, the Jewish people survives, thrives, and prospers. Truly a modern miracle!! (http://www.aish.com/sp/lal/Purim_in_Auschwitz.html)

    Jewish author, Tracey Rich, tells a similar Purim story about Joseph Stalin. Rich relates the story from Chabad, the Lubavitcher Hasidic Jewish group, that in the year 1953 Joseph Stalin was planning to exile all of the Jews in the Soviet Union to camps in Siberia. At a Purim gathering of the Lubavitcher Jews that year, their Rebbe was asked to give a blessing on the Jews of the Soviet Union. Instead of a blessing, he told a story about a Jewish man who was in attendance at the election of a Soviet official earlier that year. The crowd was shouting, "Hoorah! Hoorah!" as the candidate stood on stage. The Jewish man did not want to validate the candidate by shouting, "Hoorah," but neither did he want to draw the suspicion of the crowd. So, he indeed shouted, "Hoorah," while knowing in his own heart that he meant "Hu ra," which in Hebrew means, "He is evil!" Moved by the Rebbe´s message, the Jews at the Purim celebration began to shout in unison, "Hu ra! Hu ra! Hu ra!," referring to Joseph Stalin. Later that same night, March 1, 1953, Stalin experienced a stroke that led to his death a few days later. His plan to deport the Jews was never carried out. (http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday9.htm)

    Rabbi Benjamin Blech reminds us that the meaning of Purim can be found not only in the great miracles of the ages, but also in the small miracles of everyday life. A common term for such everyday miracles is "serendipity." Defined as "a fortuitous happenstance" or "a pleasant surprise," serendipity can be thought of as a beneficial occurrence that seems to defy statistical odds. For example, one evening you have just been thinking of a friend whom you have not seen for many years and with whom you long to reestablish contact, and the next day you happen to bump into that friend at the grocery store. Or, you set an arbitrary date to meet with your friends based on your busy schedules, and then you find out in retrospect that the day you chanced to pick is, in fact, the anniversary of some important event that is meaningful to you and those friends. Rabbi Blech points out that some of the greatest scientific achievements of all time were made under the most serendipitous of circumstances.

    How does this relate to Purim? The miracle of Purim is recorded in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Esther. Esther is one of only two books in the Bible which do not mention God or the name of God at all (the other being Song of Songs). And yet, one cannot read the amazing details of the hatred and plot against the Jews, the coming of a Jewish princess into a position of power disguised and against all odds, and the ultimate triumph of the Jewish people over their enemies, without sensing the power and the hand of God in the events. So it is with serendipity. God may not be working in overt, readily observable ways or in mighty miracles. But, according to Rabbi Blech, "Serendipity is God whispering to us; it is God´s still small voice that beckons us to be aware of God´s presence." (http://www.aish.com/h/pur/t/dt/Purim-and-Serendipity.html)

    As we celebrate this year´s holiday of Purim and mark the final month of the Hebrew calendar, Adar, leading up to our beloved Pesach, it is my prayer for you that you too will find God working in your life, whether in the grand ways or small. Ken yehi ratzon – May this be
    God´s will.

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    The New Year for Trees, February 2015

    As we emerge from winter and begin to see the first signs of spring, the next notable occasion on the Hebrew calendar is Tu B’Shevat. Often called the “New Year for Trees,” Tu B’Shevat is actually a transliteration of the Hebrew for the 15th of Shevat. You will recall that in Hebrew, letters represent numbers. The Hebrew letter tet stands for the number nine and the letter vav (which in this case makes the “u” sound) represents the number six; six plus nine, of course, equaling fifteen. Shevat is the eleventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The New Year for Trees is not a biblically commanded festival. Its first mention is found in the Mishnah, a collection of the sayings of Judaism’s most prominent sages from just after the beginning of the Common Era. In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2a, the rabbis are discussing when the new year should fall. They did, in fact, establish four new years. The first of Nissan was referred to as the new year for kings and festivals. The first of Elul was established for the tithe (giving of one tenth) of cattle. The first of Tishri was called the new year for years of release, Jubilee years, and for the tithe of vegetables. The famous House of Hillel placed the new year for trees on the 15th of Shevat.

    The need for a “New Year for Trees” was based on several passages from the Torah dealing with the treatment of trees, the most specific being Leviticus 19:23-25: “When you come into the land and you plant any tree for food, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the LORD. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.” The rabbis of the Mishnah probably placed the new year for trees on the 15th of Shevat because at that time of year the trees in the land of Israel, particularly those which bear fruit, begin to emerge from their winter dormancy and put forth their first buds. Since the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in about 70 C.E., the ancient practices of tithing and the dedication of fruit, vegetables, and cattle for use by the priesthood in Jerusalem are no longer strictly adhered to in Judaism. Still, the importance of Tu B’Shevat has remained on many levels.

    In modern times, the “New Year for Trees” has become a time to emphasize Jewish responsibility toward the environment. For an ancient document, the Torah contains a remarkable number of passages that deal with the appropriate treatment of plants, animals, and the land. The passage cited earlier from Leviticus 19 about the treatment of a newly planted fruit tree is one such example. The practice of not harvesting the fruit of a young tree for the first three years would allow the tree time to strengthen and establish its root system before being subjected to harvest. You will recall that even from the beginning of man and woman’s time on earth, they were instructed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and master it, to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:27-28). The book of Genesis goes on to tell us that man and woman were placed in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and keep it” (2:15). The psalmist confirms, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, the world, and all who dwell in it” (Psalm 24:1). In fact, the Almighty has made us partners in tending this incredible planet and bringing its possibilities to fruition.

    The Torah instructed the children of Israel that even during times of war, when extreme measures were necessary for the preservation of the nation, special care was to be taken not to destroy trees (Deuteronomy 20:19). According to Numbers 35:4, when cities were constructed in the Promised Land, “green belts” were to be maintained around the perimeters of the cities. Special rules were established for the harvesting of crops and the treatment of fields. For example, land was to be planted and harvested for six years, but on the seventh year the land was required to lie fallow, obviously in order to rejuvenate itself (Leviticus 25:3-4). This is actually referred to as giving the land a “sabbath rest”! There are even laws in the Torah which regulate such mundane things as the disposal of waste (Deuteronomy 23:12).

    The ethical treatment of animals is also a prominent concern in the Torah. Leviticus 19:19 prohibits the crossbreeding of species. Several laws pertain to the preservation of species. One such example is Deuteronomy 22:6: “If along the road, you chance upon a birds nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may farewell and have a long life.” It is on this same theme that the famous passage, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21), the very passage from which the Kashrut laws of separating milk and meat derive—the ethical treatment of a parent of a species and its young. Even in such a simple statement as, “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4), one can sense the ancient intent of not wanting to cause an animal undue stress or suffering. I have always been astounded that in the central communication of Jewish law, the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the Almighty keeps the welfare of animals in mind. When the instructions for the keeping of the seventh day Sabbath are given, in verse 10 the Torah states, “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male servant or your female servant, or your cattle…. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” So it is clear that even our livestock, just as we ourselves, were to be given a time of rest and restoration one day in seven.

    Another, more metaphorical, lesson that we can take away from the “New Year for Trees, is a deeper appreciation for the very source of the amazing laws and precepts that have preserved us as a people, the Holy Torah. It is likened in our tradition to a “tree of life.” The laws of the Torah truly have, as promised (Joshua 1:8), kept those who observe them happy, healthy, successful, and prosperous. Referring to the Torah as a “tree of life” connects back to the original “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden, from which, according to the creation story, if man and woman had eaten, they would have lived forever (Genesis 3:22). One of the most beautiful and soulful chants from the Sabbath morning liturgy is the one we do after reading the Torah, as we return it to the ark, “Eitz chayim hi…” Based on a paraphrase of the passage from the Hebrew Bible found in Proverbs 3:17-18, we are instructed: “Behold, a good doctrine has been given you, My Torah; do not forsake it. It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast, and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” We have truly inherited an awe-inspiring and lofty tradition, teaching us to love God, our Creator, and to have compassion not only for our fellow human, but for the earth and all of its creatures, plant and animal.

    As we observe Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, which falls this year on Wednesday, February 4, please join me in thanking God for the awesome creation that has been entrusted into our care, as well as for the remarkable laws, the Holy Torah, which instruct us as to how that care should be implemented.

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    New Inspiration from Ancient Prayers?, January 2015

    As a rabbi living in the land of Israel in the first century of the Common Era, it is only natural that Jesus would teach his followers (students) about prayer. The Lord’s Prayer, sometimes called the Our Father prayer, is as powerful as it is simple and elegant. And, through and through, it is thoroughly Jewish in its themes. Jesus taught this prayer, according to the New Testament Book of Luke, in response to a request from one of his disciples who asked Jesus to teach them to pray just as John the Baptist had taught his followers. Appearing twice in the New Testament, the version of the prayer recorded in Luke is shorter and simpler than the well-developed version found in the Book of Matthew. The writer of Matthew, who, according to Christian tradition, would have been more familiar with Jewish sources, incorporates the Lord’s Prayer in a group of teachings of Jesus often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6:9-13 contains the text of the prayer: “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors. Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

    In their amazing book, A Prayer to Our Father: Hebrew Origins of the Lord’s Prayer (Hilkiah Press, 2009), Nehemiah Gordon and Keith Johnson point out the pronounced connections this prayer of Jesus and his followers shares with the Jewish faith of first century Israel. Nehemiah Gordon is a Karaite Jew currently living in Jerusalem. Keith Johnson is a Christian pastor currently living in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of the first contributions that Gordon and Johnson make in connecting the Lord’s Prayer to Jewish texts of the same time period is to correct the false notion that referring to God as “Father” is not a traditional Jewish custom. The Prophet Isaiah uses terminology very similar to the Lord’s Prayer in verses 15 and 16 of chapter 63. Isaiah states, “Look down from heaven.... For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.” Note that in this prayer, Isaiah not only refers to God as “Father,” but also refers to heaven as God’s habitation, as does the Lord’s Prayer. Jeremiah uses similar terminology when in chapter 3 verse 19 the Prophet quotes God as saying to wayward Israel, “You shall call Me, ‘My Father,’ and not turn away from me.” Gordon and Johnson go on to elucidate other references to God as “Father” in the Hebrew Prophets as well as in the Mishna and in midrashic sources (see, e.g. Malachi 2:20, Mishna, Sota 9:15, and Midrash Psalms25:13). It might also be added at this point that the most prominent prayer of the Jewish High Holiday season, extending from Rosh Hashanah through the Ten Days of Repentance until Yom Kippur, has since medieval times been the Avinu Malkenu prayer, which translates, “Our Father, our King.” Also interesting in this regard is a prayer recorded in the Talmud (Ta’anith 25b) of the devout Rabbi Akiva, who during a time of drought around 135 C.E. exclaimed, “Our Father, our King, we have no King but Thee; our Father, our King, for Thy sake have mercy upon us.” According to the story, rain immediately began to fall.

    In addition to the excellent points made by Gordon and Johnson in their book, I am not the only Jewish writer who has seen a strong connection between Jesus’ Our Father prayer and the beloved Jewish Kaddish (see, e.g., Anita Diamant, “Development and History of Kaddish,” http://www.myjewishlearning.com/). Both prayers would have been composed at about the same time, since scholars put the origins of the Kaddish prayer in the first century B.C.E., less than 100 years before Jesus’ public ministry. The prayer that Jesus taught to his followers shares many common themes with the Kaddish: “Hallowed thy name” could be a reflection of the line from the Kaddish which translates, “Let God’s great name be hallowed.” The phrase, “Thy kingdom come” echoes the Kaddish’s “May God’s kingdom soon prevail in our own day.” And, “Thy will be done” shares a similar meaning with “…the world whose creation God willed” from the Kaddish. The core sentiments of both prayers are the exultation of God’s name and a longing for the rapid establishment of God’s sovereignty over the earth. Anita Diamant also points out that both faith communities have used their respective prayers, the Lord’s Prayer and the Kaddish, in similar fashions, including them in most prayer and worship services and in almost all funerals. The two prayers truly unite their respective communities with familiar themes and rhythms. Is it possible that they, given their similar origins and themes, might one day unite the two communities more closely together?

    The Kaddish is composed mostly in Aramaic, the language commonly spoken by Jews in Israel from about the fifth century B.C.E. until the fifth century C.E. The prayer incorporates praises of the Almighty modeled after verses in the Hebrew Bible such as Ezekiel 38:23 and Daniel 2:20. The central theme of the Kaddish prayer is reflected in the congregational response: “Yehei shmei raba mevorakh l’olam ulalmei almaya, May God’s great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.” This is an apparent Aramaic translation of the Hebrew “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va’ed, Blessed be God’s name, whose glorious kingdom is forever,” a line familiar to every Jew since it is coupled so closely with the Shema. Such a translation would, again, connect to the Kaddish very closely with the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”

    A Meditation in the Gates of Prayer siddur states, “The origins of the Kaddish are mysterious; angels are said to have brought it down from heaven.... It possesses a wonderful power. Truly, if there is any bond strong enough to chain heaven to earth, it is this prayer” (p. 622). With Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication and a time of personal rededication to the high ideals of our Jewish faith behind us, and as the civil New Year begins, I would encourage one and all to return to the themes of these powerful ancient prayers for strength. And, whether one is Jewish or Christian, what a good time to recommit ourselves to the concept that one day, as spoken of by the Hebrew Prophets, God’s sovereignty will extend to the entire earth. It is our Jewish belief that God’s sovereignty will be hastened by our own actions in implementing the lofty commands of the Torah in our everyday lives—honoring father and mother, performing acts of love and kindness, visiting the sick, etc. As we strive toward that goal, may the translation of the Kaddish prayer, a translation we don’t read often enough, be a source of inspiration to us:


     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Let the glory of God be extolled; let God’s great name be hallowed in the world whose creation God willed. May God’s kingdom soon prevail, in our own day, our own lives, and the life of all Israel, and let us say: Amen.

    Let God’s great name be blessed for ever and ever.

    Let the name of the holy one be glorified, exalted and honored, though God is beyond all the praises, songs, and adorations that we can utter, and let us say: Amen.

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