2019 Archives: Word from Our Rabbi

The Joseph-Hanukkah Connection, December 2019

I never tire of talking about the patriarch, Joseph. Although he is just one of twelve sons and one daughter of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, Joseph receives far more coverage in the Torah than any of his siblings. He is featured almost as prominently in the book of Genesis/Bereishit as Abraham and Jacob, his forbears. 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,”).

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, Vayetzay, 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 a position of leadership. In the first dream 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 punish 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 in 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 it was noticed by others. “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 is able to 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 which 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” (vv. 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 in order 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 also 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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Fringe Benefits of Thanksgiving???, November 2019

(From: Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier By Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D.)

I have said many times that Thanksgiving has always been my favorite among the American national holidays. There is just something powerful in a whole nation coming together across religious, political, racial, or any other lines that are drawn to divide us, to give thanks to the Creator and Source of our blessings. I think it is safe to say that gratitude is a quality that has been universally praised. In the first century BCE, the Roman philosopher Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” In fact, one of my many favorite things about the Jewish tradition is its emphasis on thankfulness. That, as we know, is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible. The tradition of saying a minimum of one hundred blessings a day goes back to the Talmudic period. The sages considered the verse, “Now, Israel, what does God, your God, ask of you? To walk in God’s ways and to serve God” (Deut. 10:12). The Rabbis of the Talmud pointed out that the Hebrew word used for “what” in that verse, mah, could also be read as meah, “one hundred.” Thus, they opined, the verse could be read as saying, “Now, Israel one hundred things (blessings) does God ask of you…” (Menachot 43b).

I speak often of how keeping Adonai’s laws brings positive benefits to one’s life. You can imagine my joy when I read a book review in Time Magazine about a book by a professor of psychology offering scientific research to support the positive benefits of being thankful—not only on psychological and emotional health, but on physical health as well. That book is - Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. Emmons, who is one of the leading scholars in the positive psychology movement, is a professor at the University of California at Davis. Professor Emmons also serves as the editor in chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology. He began his research on gratitude in the late 1990’s.

Now, one would expect that going through life with a grateful attitude would have a positive effect on psychological and emotional factors such as happiness, optimism, and positive relationships. But, more surprising is the connection that Professor Emmons was able to make with physical benefits. Thanks! details the many experiments that Dr. Emmons and his colleagues have done over the years as a part of their research. Subjects were encouraged into a state of either gratitude or ingratitude through the use of journaling. Emmon’s basic experimental structure was to divide subjects into three groups. One he called the “gratitude condition.” A second group was termed the “hassles condition.” And a third group, a type of control group, was called the “events condition.” The details of each experiment vary slightly, but in general the variables are similar. Individuals in the gratitude condition were encouraged to keep a journal highlighting a minimum of five things per week that they saw as positive and for which they were grateful. The hassles group, as one might expect, were asked to keep a similar journal, with the exception that these individuals were instructed to record a minimum of five problems or hassles that they had dealt with in the previous week. The control group, or events condition, were merely instructed to keep a journal detailing five events of each week with no instruction as to positive or negative. Prior to the journaling, during the journaling, immediately after the journaling, and six months after the end of the journaling, participants were rated on a host of indices, both psychological and physical (Thanks!, pp. 27-30).

As might be expected, participants in the gratitude condition did show statistically significant increases on scales of optimism about the future, positive feelings about life in general, and overall happiness. The researchers also reported that as the gratitude group practiced focusing on positive blessings, they became even more keenly aware of the positive things occurring all around them. Similarly, the hassles condition individuals became more focused on negative circumstances. What was less expected by the researchers were the physical benefits that accrued to the gratitude group.

It was found that individuals in the gratitude condition reported getting more hours of sleep each night, spending less time awake before falling asleep, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening in the morning (Thanks!, p. 33). Now, given an attitude of gratitude and its beneficial effect on sleep, it would only make sense that it would also have a positive effect on overall health. It is well-known that people who have sleep disruptions show higher levels of stress hormones which often lead to compromised immune functioning. Dr. Emmons documents that heart rhythms associated with a state of gratitude are also markedly different from the rhythms observed during conditions of anger or even relaxation. Harmonious heart rhythms have been found to be indicators of cardiovascular efficiency, nervous system balance, enhanced immunity, and hormonal balance. Contrast this with the effects of negative emotions which are known to create a chain reaction in the body leading to blood vessel constriction, increase in blood pressure, and a weaker immune system. Professor Emmons cites one study conducted by the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California where participants were monitored physically after engaging in fifteen minutes daily of focusing on appreciation. The study found “a significant increase in levels of immunoglobulin A, the predominant antibody found in the nose and mouth that serves as the body’s first line of defense against viruses.” The same study also documented a 23% average reduction in the stress hormone cortisol as well as 100% increase the positive hormone DHEA, which seems to predominate in a positive psychological state of warmth or relaxation (Thanks!, p. 73).

And, perhaps most interesting of all, is Dr. Emmons contention that an attitude of gratitude can lead to the reduction of physical pain. To support this claim he points to a meta-analysis of twelve studies that Carnegie-Mellon health psychologist, Sheldon Cohen, performed. Cohen found out that through stimulating the release of “endogenous opioids,” positive emotions have the ability to reduce sensitivity to pain and increase pain tolerance (Thanks, p. 76). Endogenous opioids are, of course, the brain’s own morphine like substances which are secreted in response to pain or discomfort. And, if pain reduction alone is not enough of the motivation, how about an increase in clearer thinking and decision-making ability?! In a study conducted on physicians and medical students it was found that positive emotions, such as gratitude, “lead to more efficient organization and integration of information.” This results in improved decision-making and creative problem-solving (Thanks, pp. 84-85).

Many of the claims made by Emmon’s book amazed me, but perhaps none more than this claim which may render a scientific explanation for psychic communication. I quote this paragraph in full so that you can get the full force of his argument:

    Recall that researchers have shown that gratitude and the related positive emotions of love and appreciation are associated with a smooth, ordered, coherent pattern in the heart’s rhythmic activity. What was left unsaid earlier was that the heart itself generates an electromagnetic field. In fact, the heart is the most powerful generator of electromagnetic energy in the human body, producing the largest rhythmic electromagnetic field of any of the body’s organs. The heart’s electrical field is about sixty times greater in amplitude than the electrical activity generated by the brain. Furthermore, the magnetic field produced by the heart is more than five thousand times greater in strength than the field generated by the brain and can be detected a number of feet away from the body, in all directions, using a device known as a magnetometer. Prompted by findings that a person’s cardiac field is modulated by his or her different emotional states, several studies have now documented that the electromagnetic field generated by the heart may actually transmit information that can be received by others (Italics mine, Thanks!, p. 88).

For those who desire to reap the psychological or physical benefits of living a life focused on gratitude, Dr. Emmons discusses ten evidence-based prescriptions for becoming a more grateful individual. Chief among these is the gratitude journaling that he used in so many of his experiments, but the other nine have many merits as well. Among those methods are prayers of gratitude, meditation to become more mindful of benefits and blessings, the use of visual cues/reminders, the use of positive self-talk, and the use of peers support. As I mentioned earlier, living a life of gratitude is deeply grounded in the Jewish tradition. Gratitude is revered and encouraged by most religions and philosophies. So, if you would like to open yourself up to the possibilities of what being more grateful can bring to you, I would urge you to read this book. Believe me, you will not be disappointed!!

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Required Reading for the New Year!!, September 2019

I cannot tell you how excited I am to begin the New Jewish Year of 5780 as an ordained rabbi. I have long called progressive Judaism, “the thinking person’s religion.” This is because, better than any other religion, in my opinion of course, progressive Judaism permits one to explore her/his spiritual inclinations and contribute to the betterment of the planet without having to check one’s brain at the door. My pride in now being a “leader” of one of the greatest, if not the greatest faith in human history, is immense. One of my goals in the new year, is to help each of you kindle or re-kindle your love for and pride in our precious Jewish heritage by recommending a series of books that have influenced me so profoundly during my rabbinical studies. I begin with this one:

Jews, God and History by Max Dimont is required reading for anyone with an interest in religious history in the Western world. First published in 1955, the first edition became a classic in Max’s lifetime. He was in the process of updating his volume and republishing it at the time of his death in 1992. Fortunately his widow, Ethel Dimont, continued his work and completed the publication of the second addition in 1994. Since Judaism is the foundation stone of the three major religions of the Western Hemisphere and of many of the Philosophies of the Enlightenment and Modern Periods, this book should be of interest to just about every student of history. Ethel Dimont points out in the preface that most books are written by Jews for Jews or by scholars for scholars, but not this book. It is laid out in a popular and readable format, accessible by anyone. And even at 490 pages, the book is riveting from cover to cover.

In a world with over five and a half billion people, of whom less than eighteen million, less than one third of one percent, are Jews, one would expect that the people known as the Jews would be barely heard of in modern times. Yet, their contribution to Western society is far out of proportion to their small numbers. Why is that the case? The Dimonts believe they have the answer, or should I say answers. When is the last time you met an American Hittite or a British Jebusite or a French Hivite or a German Amorite, perhaps a Turkish Assyrian, or even an Italian Etruscan? Most small clans and even some larger national groups have come and gone on the stage of history, but again this people known as the Jews has existed in nearly every culture in nearly every country on every continent for over four thousand years. The Dimonts claim that history has thrown six major challenges at the Jewish people throughout our history. Not only did we overcome those challenges, but each challenge influenced and sharpened us, and we in turn influenced and changed history. Jews, God and History does not make the decision as to whether this survival was the result of divine intervention, or of divine interaction, or of natural sociological and political forces. However, the book lays out the case for each and allows the reader to decide.

The history of the Jews begins, of course, at a time about 4000 years ago when a man named Abraham had an encounter with the God known to him as Jehovah (Jews, God, and History, p. 17). In about 2000 BCE, Abraham’s father, Terah, had brought his family from the cosmopolitan, Babylonian city of Ur across the river Euphrates to the land of Haran. It is here that Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants first became known as Hebrews meaning the people “who crossed over…from the other side of the river” (p. 19). It is at this point that Abraham perceived that his God, Jehovah, was making a special covenant with him and his descendants, sealed by the rite of circumcising all male children on the eighth day. While many things have changed about Jews and Judaism over the millennia, “this idea of a covenant with God has remained constant” (p. 20). Once Jews began to champion the idea of monotheism, their behavior began to change in radical ways from the pagan nations who surrounded them. The Jews, or Hebrews as they were called, spent the next two to three hundred years in a mostly nomadic lifestyle, acquiring territory and possessions in the land which would later become known as Israel. They continued to serve their invisible and transcendent, one God, and to develop rituals in line with that God’s values.

It was probably during the time of the Hyksos domination of Egypt that the Jews under Joseph were invited to live among the Egyptians. The Hyksos were a Semitic people, like the Jews, who rose to power over the ethnic Egyptians in about the 17th century BCE. This idea makes sense because it accounts for the fact that once the ethnic Egyptians rose up and expelled the Hyksos they also turned on the Jewish population and enslaved them. It was under the leadership of the next great figure of Jewish history, Moses, that the Hebrew peoples were liberated from that bondage in Egypt. The covenant with Jehovah that Abraham had made was renewed under Moses. Some very interesting historical questions arise at this point. Since it is highly unlikely that all Hebrews went down to Egypt under Joseph and considering the fact that the two earliest strata of the Torah used two different names for the deity, Jehovah and Elohim, the Dimonts pose several possible historical scenarios:

    Could it have been Abraham who originated the ideas of monotheism and the “chosen people,” and could it have been Moses who reintroduced them? Or, could it have been that Moses originated both ideas, which then were attributed origins of the Israelites? Or was Moses perhaps even a non-Jew, as some scholars claim, who chose the Jews as the people to whom to give his religious ideas? This then might give a secular explanation to the origin of the term “chosen people.” Did a fusion take place in Canaan, between the Israelites who Moses let out of Egypt and the Hebrews who did not enter Egypt with Joseph (p. 28)?
The Dimonts devote many interesting pages to fleshing out the various possibilities, but ultimately allow the reader to decide.

As the Hebrew peoples began to reestablish themselves in the land of Israel, after a seminomadic beginning and then a long sojourn in Egypt (part of which was spent in slavery), what was the glue that held his people together. The Dimonts make the case that was a combination of the Jews transcendent and invisible God with the addition of a powerful written code, the Torah. The very idea of a written code of human conduct seems to have been a Semitic invention, as law codes began to emerge among the Sumerian people around 2500 BCE. The Dimonts argue that the Torah was a “bold leap into the future,” surpassing any of the existing codes of that time period for many reasons. They state, “The Mosaic Code…was the first truly judicial, written code and eclipsed previously known laws with its all-encompassing humanism, its passion for justice, its love of democracy” (p. 33). Jews, God and History continues to trace the development of the Jewish history to the period of the judges and into the early days of the monarchy, examining both religion and culture. It maintains that the high level of intellectualism that has become associated with the Jewish people was the result of the interplay between an abstract invisible God, and the concrete specifics of a written Torah, which demanded constant reapplication as times and situations changed. A great deal of time is spent on the historical development of the Torah itself. I will not report that here, as it is covered better in another book that I intend to share, Who Wrote the Bible? Richard Elliott Friedman, 1987.

From the beginning of the monarchy, through domination and periodic destruction by local superpowers, including Assyria, Babylonia, Persia and Egypt, the Dimonts see the emergence of the Prophets as the next major phase of Jewish religious and cultural development.

    From the Prophetic teaching that the Jews must set an example for the rest of mankind through the idea that the physical commandments of Judaism were for the Jews only, but that the spiritual and moral message of Judaism was for all mankind. … Judaism, which began its life as the exclusive property of a few Jewish families, enlarged by Moses to include all the tribes of Israel, expanded by Josiah to bind the Jewish nation, was now made universal by the prophets. [Emphasis mine] … The Jews created two new ideas which have since become the possession of mankind. Instead of a temple for sacrifice, the Jews built synagogues for religious assembly; instead of rituals for God, the Jews offered prayers to God. The synagogue became the prototype for the church of the Christians and the mosque of the Muslims; prayer became the universal symbol of devotion to God (p. 58).
With these religious and cultural developments, the Dimonts point out that Judaism began to expand beyond the borders of the Holy Land and to make proselytes in many nations in many cultures by the middle of the Roman period. It may have expanded to such a point that it would have ultimately engulfed the entire Roman Empire were it not for a religious newcomer on the scene, Christianity.

With the destruction of Judea at the hands of the Romans, Judaism entered into its next major religious phase, the Talmudic period, which was dominated by the rabbis. The many chapters that follow in Jews, God and History trace the complex interplay between Judaism and early Christianity and between Judaism and medieval Christianity. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic of that phase of history is how the anti-Judaism of the early and medieval church transmitted into the secular anti-Semitism of the modern era. That too is covered in greater depth in another book report (Christian Antisemitism—A History of Hate, William Nichols, 1993).

In spite of the many obstacles they have endured, the Jewish people have survived to contribute religiously, philosophically, mathematically, scientifically, and artistically in almost every culture and every age. The Dimonts make much of the strong correlation between the American system of government and the teachings on government in the Torah and the Prophets, as well as in later Jewish writings. Jews, God and History culminates with the resettling of the Jewish people in the land of Israel and the reestablishment of the modern state of Israel. What seemed only a dream for 2000 years has in fact occurred in our lifetime. Won’t you join us for services at Temple Beth Shalom as we celebrate another New Year of the Jewish dream for humankind? L’shanah tovah tikatevu!!!!!!!

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Man is Not Alone—A Philosophy of Religion

By Abraham Joshua Heschel, August 2019

“The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 1951, p. 8).

Abraham Joshua Heschel (January 11, 1907 – December 23, 1972) was the descendant of Hasidic rabbis on both his mother’s and father’s side. Born in Poland, he received a yeshiva education, studying for Orthodox semicha (ordination). Heschel also pursued a doctorate at the University of Berlin as well as a liberal rabbinic ordination at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft de Judentums, where he later taught Talmud. As the Nazis rose to power, Heschel, living in Frankfurt, Germany at the time, was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. There, he continued to teach and lecture at the Institute for Jewish Studies in Warsaw. Just before the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Heschel was able to leave Warsaw for London. Heschel did, however, lose many family members to the atrocities of the Holocaust. By 1940, Heschel made it to the United States, where he served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, the well-known seminary of Reform Judaism, until 1946. He then taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a Conservative seminary, serving as a professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism until his death. In his relatively short but eventful life, Heschel authored six books on Jewish theology. Many people do not know that he was influential in urging the Roman Catholic Church to remove anti-Jewish elements from its liturgy at the Vatican Council II. Heschel, who was also active in the American Civil Rights movement, has emerged as a major theologian and philosopher both in the world of Judaism and beyond.

Man is Not Alone is actually not Heschel’s first book on theology. It was preceded in 1951 by The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, in which Heschel argued that Judaism is a religion of time not of space, and the Sabbath is crucial in conveying the understanding of the sanctification of time. In Man is Not Alone, Heschel wrestles with the problem of knowing the unknowable, of apprehending that which is beyond our senses, and in being able to convey that which is beyond thought and words in words. Heschel notes, as many philosophers have, that all knowledge involves a certain level of faith—faith in the information delivered by our five senses as well as faith in the objective existence of that which our senses apprehend beyond ourselves. So, Heschel takes this one step further. He claims, “Just as the mind is able to form conceptions supported by sense perception, it can derive insights from the dimension of the ineffable.” (p. 17) Heschel defines the capacity that gives humans the ability to perceive the ineffable as “radical amazement.” Heschel contends that this sense is inherent in all human beings. Since the ineffable exists beyond our knowledge and beyond our ability to define it, the result is, according to Heschel, “…full of spiritual radiance, for which we have neither name nor concept.” (p. 22) And, while the search for the divine is beyond knowledge, Heschel points out, “The approach to the ineffable leads through the depth of knowledge rather than to ignorant animal gazing.” He insists that humankind must not “...make the universal mistake of assuming as known a world that is unknown, of placing the solution before the enigma….” (p.15).

In his efforts to magnify the importance of the pursuit of the ineffable, Heschel in no way impugns science or the acquisition of knowledge. On the contrary, in Heschel’s own words, “The sense of the ineffable does not hush the quest of thought, but, on the contrary, disturbs the placid and unseals our suppressed impressionability” (p.15). Heschel states further, “Science extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge” (p.30). With this statement, I could not agree more! So, from whence derives this human ability to behold the cosmos with radical amazement? It comes, according to Heschel, from the ability to perceive the miracles surrounding us day by day, moment by moment. “Who are we to scan the esoteric stars, to witness the settings of the sun, to have the service of the spring for our survival? How shall we ever reciprocate for breathing and thinking, for sight and hearing, for love and achievement?” (p.39). But, to Heschel, the apprehension of the divine is not just the mind’s extension of an explanation of causation or order in the cosmos. Rather, Heschel would argue that in its conception of the divine, humankind is actually becoming one with the universe. “To our knowledge the world and the ‘I’ are two, an object and a subject; but within our wonder the world and the ‘I’ are one in being, in eternity” (p.39). In this understanding, Heschel builds upon the philosophy of Martin Buber. Heschel conceives this unity between human beings and the cosmos in the apprehension of the divine in quite poetic terms:

    Our soul compares with its glory as a breath with all the world’s air. We are introduced to a reality, the mere awareness of which is more precious than our own existence. The thought of it is too powerful to be ignored and to holy to be absorbed by us. It is a thought in which we share. It is as if the human mind were not alone in thinking it, but the whole universe were full of it. We do not wonder at things anymore; we wonder with all things. We do not think about things; we think for all things (p. 65).
In this possibility that the universe is of one mind, and possibly the expression of a supreme mind which lies either within it or beyond it, Heschel parallels the musings of the scientist Albert Einstein, but that is a discussion for another article.

The conundrum for Heschel is, of course, how do humans acquire the knowledge of a force that is beyond knowledge? How do they convey this knowledge to others if, in fact, the divine is, by definition beyond words or understanding? Heschel wrestles with this issue. He states, “There is hardly a symbol which, when used, would not impair or even undo the grasp or remembrance of the incomparable. Opinions confuse and stand in the way of intuitions; surveys, definitions take the name of God in vain” (p. 97). It is, in fact, in this discussion that Heschel begins making references to the Hebrew Bible. He, at the same time, begins smashing some myths about God. For example, he states, “The notion of God as a perfect being is not of biblical extraction. It is not the product of prophetic religion but of Greek philosophy…. In the Decalogue, God does not speak of being … perfect, but of … having made free men out of slaves” (p. 101). Heschel points out that the central proclamation of the Jewish faith, the Shema is not, “Hear, O Israel, God is perfect!” but rather, “Hear, O Israel, God is one” (p. 102). Heschel sees this unity as central to the relationship not only between humans and God, but between fellow human beings as well.

“The idea of unity is not only one upon which the ultimate justification of philosophical, ethical and religious universalism depends, but also one which is still beyond the grasp of most people” (p. 111). As Heschel moves in this book from man’s apprehension of the divine to man’s acts on that apprehension in the form of religion, this concept of divine and universal unity is central to Heschel’s understanding of the cosmos’ future. He contends, “In our own age we have been forced into the realization that, in terms of human relations, there will either be one world or no world” (p. 112). Without question, Heschel argues that the primary purpose of religion should be to bring about what he calls the “restitution” of the unity of God and the world. Heschel points out that according to the Hebrew prophets God is not so concerned with the overarching themes of humankind as God is concerned with the day to day details of human interaction. Time and time again the prophets do not discuss details of sacrifice or religious service, but they repeatedly emphasize feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, freeing the oppressed, in the short, bringing justice into every aspect of human interaction. Being a rabbi of course, Heschel sees modern Judaism as an ideal expression of humankind’s efforts to fulfill the divine will. Individuals of the Jewish faith will, as I was, be energized and reinforced by the profound wisdom of our tradition as they read the second half of Heschel’s treatise. And to Heschel, our restoration of justice and love to our communities and to our world becomes even more profoundly important as time marches on. “Horrified by the discovery of man’s power to bring about the annihilation of organic life on this planet, we are today beginning to comprehend that the sense for the sacred is as vital to us as the light of the sun….” (p. 146).

Heschel maintains that “…religion for religion’s sake is idolatry” (p. 236). And if our religion is to be for God’s sake then according to Heschel the goal becomes as simple as the words of the prophet: “…to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Heschel casts the Hebrew Bible not so much as the history of the Jewish people, but “…as the story of God’s quest of the righteous [person]” (p. 245). Heschel absolutely believes that the quest of humankind for God is reciprocated by the Divine quest for humankind. Why else, Heschel asks, would God have created humankind in the first place? Heschel maintains that humans advance God’s creative intent when they partner with God to bring the divine will into the every day. “The quest for right living, the question of what is to be done right now, right here, is the authentic core of Jewish religion” (p. 269). Ken yehi ratzon!—May this be God’s will!

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The Little Holiday with No Name!!, June 2019

While our trip to France in April was amazing, it broke our hearts to miss Temple Beth Shalom’s Passover Community Seder. It has always been one of the high points of our year. The TBS Sisterhood does an amazing job every year of coordinating and preparing the food and of arranging and decorating the tables. The food service, under the leadership of Glenn and April Eckard, just gets better every year. The camaraderie and unity among the guests of many faith traditions is palpable. And, the recounting of the miraculous story of our deliverance from Egypt never gets old. Most of you know, I am sure, that the celebration of Passover also begins the lead-up to our next major tradition—the Sefirat Ha’Omer, the Counting of the Omer. The omer was a unit of measurement used in Temple times for the bringing of grain offerings. The Counting of the Omer is the traditional practice of marking the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.

Now about Shavuot, I am always surprised at the lack of attention this holiday receives in 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).

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,” 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….” (Song of Songs 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 have pointed out many times, 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,” 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 men and women. 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? We will begin the holy day with an Erev Shavuot service on Saturday night, June 8 at 7:30 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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Christian Antisemitism— A History of Hate By William Nicholls, May 2019

Dear ones,

Being mindful of the shootings in the last six months at two synagogues and of the recent statistical rise in acts of antisemitic violence, I would like to strongly recommend a book to all my friends, Jewish, Christian, or other. This is a book that I would personally put in the “life changing” category —Christian Antisemitism—A History of Hate by William Nicholls. I first read it shortly after it came out in 1993 and it influenced me greatly. I read it again in late 2018 as a part of my rabbinical studies. And, as is typical of second readings, I learned things from the text that I was too young or too immature to have caught on the first reading. Since I am now active in local interfaith efforts, currently serving as the president of the Catawba Valley Interfaith Council, I have become intensely interested in the complexities of dialogue between Christian and Jewish individuals. The dialogue is made complex by a particular dynamic. Progressive Judaism is universalistic in its outlook, believing that all human beings are created in the divine image. Progressive Judaism teaches that all humans have a relationship with God as a birthright, as it were. As such, human beings are born pure, and though we stumble, as all humans do, God forgives our missteps, because that’s what God does! Evangelical Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that a relationship with God is only attainable through faith in Jesus Christ. This seemingly unilateral and exclusive path to a relationship with God appears to me to keep evangelical Christians from dialogue on equal footing with members of other faiths. I turned to Professor Nicholls’ book in an effort to find ways to bridge that gap.

Now let me say at the outset that I know that Professor Nicholls’ view may be hard for some of my Christian friends to accept. But, a quick look at his resume shows us that he has lived a life of study of the origins of Christianity and of service to the Christian community. Born in England, William Nicholls was educated at Cambridge University. He has written multiple books on religion and theology. An ordained Anglican minister, Nicholls became a professor of religious studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 1961. He founded that university’s Department of Religious Studies and was its head until 1983. From 1984 to 1985 Nicholls served as the Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Professor Nicholls has been involved in Holocaust education since 1975.

It is the Holocaust that sparked Professor Nicholls’ interest in the relationship between Christian origins and modern antisemitism. At the outset of his book he stipulates that the ferocity and insanity of the gruesome murders conducted by the Nazis cannot be explained strictly on historical grounds. However, Professor Nicholls maintains throughout this book that two thousand years of certain antiJewish Christian teachings had prepared a soil on which the Holocaust could occur. Professor Nicholls expresses in his book that its timeliness in history is not an accident. Nicholls believes that he is in a position to reap the benefits of the best scholarship of New Testament origins and the search for the historical Jesus. He relies heavily on the scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on both of those topics. Professor Nicholls presents the scholarly research on the historical Jesus and New Testament origins in a very readable fashion for the lay person. And, while he critiques each scholars’ findings on these historical matters, he leaves it up to his readers to draw their own conclusion as he expounds his analysis of the research with brutal honesty.

Professor Nicholls begins his analysis, of course, with the historical Jesus. Based on the latest scholarship available to him, Nicholls concludes that Jesus was a gifted teacher and perhaps prophet who believed in a dynamic relationship with the Creator based on humility and a repentant heart. He contends that Jesus was fully Torah observant and always encouraged his followers to be fully Torah observant. Professor Nicholls speculates that based on the success of Jesus’ teaching, he may have at one point entertained the idea that he could be the prophesied Messiah, but Nicholls believes Jesus abandoned that idea once it became clear to him that the Romans were likely to execute him and cut short his work. For Nicholls, the question remains, though, whether Jesus’ followers ever abandoned the hope that Jesus was the coming Messiah. In any event, Professor Nicholls is absolutely confident that the historical Jesus was not the founder of the religion that became known as Christianity (Christian Antisemitism, pp. 420-423).

That founder, in Nicholls’ contention would have been the individual known as the apostle Paul. Here again, Professor Nicholls gives deference to the many scholars who have investigated the life, teachings, and writings of Paul. In Christian Antisemitism, Nicholls presents and critiques that research in a very simple and understandable way, once again, allowing his readers to draw their own conclusions. But, of course, Nicholls does not hold back from giving his own opinion. Professor Nicholls’ gravest concern is that Paul never knew the historical Jesus, nor did he seem to have any interest in Jesus’ life or teachings. All of Paul’s’s understanding was, by his own admission, acquired through a heavenly vision. Not only that, but a careful reading of the New Testament books of Galatians and Acts, belies the fact that Paul came into sharp conflict with those leaders of the early Christian movement that did know Jesus and his teachings, because they had been with him. The question that Professor Nicholls poses for modern Christian scholars and theologians is why did Orthodox Christianity decide to base its theology on the unverifiable visions of a man who did not know Jesus or his original teachings (Christian Antisemitism, p. 420).

Professor Nicholls finds the source of Christian anti-Judaism which later transformed into antisemitism in the writings of the New Testament itself. He begins by reminding the reader that the four Gospels were, by scholarly consensus, all written in the last two to three decades of the first century or later. That would put their reduction to written form after the destruction of Jerusalem and a minimum of two generations removed from the historical Jesus and his teachings. Professor Nicholls maintains that the animosity that one finds in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees or between Jesus and the Jewish people in general is not historically accurate, but is reflective of an animosity that had begun to form between formative rabbinical Judaism after the Temple’s destruction and the nascent Christian community which was becoming increasingly more Gentile as a result of the missionary work of Paul. Nicholls states that the gospel writers may have innocently assumed that those rivalries stemmed back to the time of Jesus. Clearly they did not. It is the accounts of the trials of Jesus, in Nicholls’ opinion, that have done the worst damage in terms of Jewish-Christian relations. Based on those accounts, Jews have been persecuted as “Christ killers” for nearly two millennia. Professor Nicholls shows in a convincing fashion that the accounts of the trials, which are full of discrepancies among the four Gospels, could not possibly have been historically accurate. (Christian Antisemitism, pp 105-110). But again, Professor Nicholls leaves it for his readers to weigh the evidence and decide.

Throughout the rest of his book, Professor Nicholls traces the history of Christian anti-Judaism through the Church Fathers, as they are called, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment era, and into modern times. He points out that modern antisemitism is secularized and liberalized, but he lays out a convincing case for its roots in Christian history and dogma. Professor Nicholls does give credit to those modern Christian accomplishments which are attempting to undo the damage that antisemitism has done over the centuries, particularly Vatican II and the work of the World Council of Churches. But, Nicholls believes there is more to be done. He leaves his Christian readers with two choices neither of which I will go into here because they are beyond the scope of this summary in as much as I am writing from the Jewish perspective (Christian Antisemitism, pp. 427-431).

It is the prayer of my heart, just as we pray every Shabbat in the Amidah, “Strengthen the bonds of friendship and fellowship among all of the inhabitants of the world” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 259). We repeat it again in the Aleinu, “O may all, created in Your image, become one in spirit and one in friendship, forever united in Your service” (Mishkan, p. 289). If reading William Nicholl’s book can help Christians and Jews get to a fuller understanding of one anothers’ views, leading to more understanding, tolerance, and even cooperation, then it can only help us achieve the time of peace and prosperity that is foreshadowed in the Hebrew Prophets. I would encourage anyone interested in bringing more peace and harmony into the world to purchase and read this book, and let me know what you think.

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Shabbat HaGadol, April 2019

Temple Beth Shalom’s next rabbi weekend will fall on the Saturday before Passover, known in our tradition as Shabbat HaGadol. According to our sages, this Sabbath fell on the 10th of Nissan in the year of the exodus, the very day when the children of Israel chose their Passover lambs (Orach Chayyim 431:1). Translated, the Great Sabbath, it came to be associated by our rabbis with the “great day” of God that will eventually usher in the messianic age. In fact, the Haftarah reading for that day, Malachi 3:4-24, is the very reason we chant “Elihahu HaNavi” at every Havdallah service. It states, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers….” (vv. 23-24). As we prepare on Shabbat HaGadol for the coming of Passover this year, my thoughts turn once again to 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.”

Our story began, of course, with the calling of the family of Abraham and Sarah. 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 and Sarah 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 and Sarah, 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 I mentioned earlier is found in Isaiah 49. It 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 people 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). 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. 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 Sarah and their 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”? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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Happy Purim—Another Triumph of Good over Evil!!, March 2019

The holiday of Purim is upon us. Beginning at sundown Wednesday, March 20th, is a time of joyous celebration for Jewish families the world over. We will observe the four mitzvot (commandments) of Purim, which are enunciated in the Hebrew Bible (Esther 9:20-22), and reinforced in the Mishnah (Mas. Megilah 2a), and will be the core of our Friday evening service at Temple Beth Shalom on March 22nd. The mitzvot are: 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 borne a hatred so intense it seems unexplainable in terms of normal human emotions. Unfortunately, that hatred is both ancient and modern.

We read in the Torah 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 (Deut. 25). 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 Exodus 17, “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 book of First Samuel (ch. 15). 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. Lori Palatnik, a writer, educator, and the founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, tells the story 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/).

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/).

As we celebrate the holiday of Purim and mark the final month of the Hebrew calendar, Adar II this year, 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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Happy New Year!! - Again!, February 2019

Typically, as we emerge from winter and begin to see the first signs of spring, the notable occasion on the Hebrew calendar is Tu B’Shevat. This year the holiday seems to have come right in the middle of winter. On Monday, January 21, while most Americans were celebrating the very important civil rights holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Jewish holiday came and went, somewhat unnoticed, except by very observant Jews. 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 fare well and have a long life.” It is on this same theme that we find the famous passage, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21). The Kashrut laws of separating milk and meat were derived from this passage, which is all about 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 humans, but for the earth and all of its creatures, plant and animal.

In these weeks following our holiday of Tu B’Shevat, as we anticipate the rebirth of nature in spring, please join me in thanking Adonai 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. Ken yehi ratzon!—May this be God’s will!

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Let’s Work Toward Tikkun Olam!!, January 2019

Were our December 2018 services at Temple Beth Shalom not amazing?! Kathy, Heidi, and Jaimi always do such a wonderful job of making our Chanukah festivities special. On Sabbath morning it was an absolute joy to name and welcome our newest member, Ezra Hewitt Parkhurst, son of Matthew and Caitlin Parkhurst. Personally, the most touching thing to me at this Baby Naming was watching extended family from many different religious traditions worshipping side by side with the Jewish community as we prayed our ancient prayers. This always stirs a passion in me for the fulfillment of one of Judaism’s most core hopes—a time when all humankind will be united under Adonai’s unchallenged rule. As I say often of the Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is so much more that unites us than divides us! My heart rejoices on Shabbat morning, when we pray: “Bless our country as a safeguard of peace, its advocate among the nations…. Strengthen the bonds of friendship and fellowship among all the inhabitants of our world.” (Mishkan T’Filah, p. 259).

Chapter 2 of Genesis makes two very interesting assertions regarding the creation of humankind. In verse 5 the Torah tell us, “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for The LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth; and there was no human to cultivate the ground.” After the creation of human beings, the Torah states, “Then the LORD God took the humans and put them into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” (v. 15). From these statements, the view began to develop within Judaism that men and women were created to be partners with God in completing the creation which God willed into existence. That understanding was ultimately expressed in the principle of tikkun olam, variously translated as “repairing the world” or “healing the world.” It is noteworthy that during the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods of religious history, when the emphasis of most major religions was transitioning from an earthly to a heavenly orientation, the rabbis and sages of Judaism kept emphasis firmly on the here and now—on our responsibility to the earth and to society.

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

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

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

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

An individual’s behavior has repercussions in the community and in the world in proportions beyond our immediate perception—much like ripples in a pond. The tiniest of pebbles, when thrown into a pond, produces waves that proceed outward in concentric circles, ultimately encompassing the entire pond. So it is with good deeds. One person performs an act of kindness. Another is helped or touched, then passes along the kindness. Then another, and so on until a cycle of good can encompass an entire community, a country, and even the whole world. This cyclical expansion of positive effects will also flow from one generation to the next, then to the next, and so on. This is the process of tikkun olam.

In the words of our Aleinu prayer, we pray: “O may all, created in Your image become one in spirit and one in friendship, forever united in Your service.” (Mishkan T’Filah, p. 589). As we enter the new civil year, 2019, will you join me in committing to increasing our acts of kindness, compassion, and social justice? May our motivation not just be that the Torah implores us to do so, but because of the beneficial effect it has on ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world—tikkun olam. I, for one, have faith enough to believe that when a critical mass of people commits to pursue the good, the day will come when the utopian vision of the Hebrew Prophets can be realized. Ken yehi ratzon— May this be God’s will!

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