Word from Our Rabbi

The Heat of Summer is Upon Us!! June/July 2017

We, in the Carolinas, have truly been blessed with some mild and beautiful spring weather. But, anyone who watches the thermometer knows, that the intense heat and humidity of summer has begun. Summer afternoons in the South get so hot, one is often driven to hide in the air conditioning or just take a nap! 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 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 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka began, July 23, 1942.
  • (See Tracey R. Rich, “Judaism 101,” http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayd.htm).

    Customs for mourning 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 Tuesday, July 11. That day is followed three weeks later by the fast of Tisha B’Av on Tuesday, August 1. Our time of rejoicing returns with the festival of the full moon of Tu B’Av on Monday, August 7.

    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. He was so impressed 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; therefore, 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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    Will You Join Me in Counting the Omer?! May 2017

    The Passover Community Seder at Temple Beth Shalom is truly one of the high points of my year. And, this year’s Seder was no different. 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 April and Glenn 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 Sefirat Ha’Omer, the Counting of the Omer, leading up to our next major holiday, Shavuot.— The omer is 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.

    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 Tuesday night, May 30 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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    The Most Profound Miracle of Passover... April 2017

    Those of you who know me, know that I speak often about the profound effects that the writings and teachings of Judaism have had on the other two major Western religions, Christianity and Islam. Through those two faiths, concepts of the Creator and principles which originated in the Torah have been disseminated worldwide. I would ask, “Is this just an accident of history, or is it part of a Divine Plan?” In this article, I will share my answer to that question, based on what the Hebrew Prophets had to say on the matter. The original Passover, was a critical link in the development of the Jewish faith-tradition. As we prepare for our annual observance of that ancient holy event, my thoughts turn 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.”

    In the early chapters of Bereishit, Genesis, we read that the Creator’s interactions with humankind 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 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 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 whole people of Israel. 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 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 because 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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    Persecution and Deliverance—A Recurring Theme in Jewish History! March 2017

    The holiday of Purim is upon us. Beginning at sundown Saturday, March 11th, until sundown Sunday the 12th, 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 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. 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 Hannukah?” “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 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 attended 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)

    Purim festivities at Temple Beth Shalom will be observed this year on Sunday morning, March 12, at 10:00 AM—join us if you can!! As we celebrate the 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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    “Let There be Peace on Earth….” February 2017

    Were our January 2017 services at Temple Beth Shalom not amazing! On Sabbath morning, Joy Kastan was called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah. Her diligent study of Hebrew and fluent reading of her Torah and Haftorah portions were an inspiration to all of us. Another very touching thing to me, personally, at this Bat Mitzvah, as at many B’nei Mitzvot, is watching friends and relatives of the honored family from many different religious traditions worshipping side by side with the Jewish community as we pray our ancient prayers. This 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 that 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 tells us, “Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for The LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth; and there was no man to cultivate the ground.” After the creation of human beings, the Torah states, “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (v. 15). From these statements the view began to develop within Judaism that men and women were created to be partners with God in completing the creation which God willed into existence. That understanding was ultimately expressed in the principle of tikkun olam, variously translated as “repairing the world” or “healing the world.” It is noteworthy that during the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods of religious history, when the emphasis of most major religions was transitioning from an earthly to a heavenly orientation, the rabbis and sages of Judaism kept emphasis firmly on the here and now—on our responsibility to the earth and to society.

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

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

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

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

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

    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, 2017, 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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    What’s in a Name???, January 2017

    It is hard to believe that the year 2016 has come and gone. And what an exciting year it has been! With the turbulence of the presidential and gubernatorial campaigns behind us, it seems to be in our hearts, as Americans, to look forward to the future with hope. I know that for my entire adult life, whether my preferred candidate wins or loses, I always wake up the next morning thankful to be an American. We are fortunate to be heirs of one of the most stable and prosperous governments in history. Our constitutional republic has provided an unprecedented level of peace, prosperity, and individual rights to its citizens. And, we have worked diligently to expand those rights to all classes of humankind, not only in our own country, but to citizens of foreign lands as well. I pray with pride every Sabbath and Holiday, “Bless our country as a safeguard of peace, its advocate among the nations” (Mishkan T’filah, p. 179).

    2016 has also been a good year for congregation Temple Beth Shalom. We are blessed to be in solid financial standing, and our membership has continued to grow slowly but steadily. I cannot say enough good things about our dedicated and hard-working Board of Directors and the many volunteers who make our Temple such a warm and inviting spiritual home. That warmth is reflected, I believe, in the positive responses of the many visitors whose company we have enjoyed this year. I know that I for one relish the opportunity to interact with members of all faiths, as we seek to deepen our understanding of one another. Whenever groups of students, in particular, visit our Temple, I can be sure that I will be asked many deep and insightful questions. And, in fact, several students of late have sought a deeper understanding of the name of God, as used in the Hebrew Bible—that name which we, of course, refer to as Adonai out of reverence and in keeping with tradition.

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

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

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

    Now, the Divine name is not some kind of talisman or incantation that one has to “get right” in order to earn merit. But, an understanding of the name does seem to figure quite prominently in the message of the Hebrew Prophets, particularly in their predictions of a future time of peace and prosperity for all humankind. One of the more well-known references is in Joel (ch. 3, v. 5-Hebrew), where the prophet states, “And it will come about that whoever calls on the name yod-heh-vav-heh shall be delivered.” Another is the one we chant in every Jewish service as a part of our Aleinu prayer. It is a quote from Zechariah 14:9, “b’yom hahu yihyeh yod-heh-vav-heh echad u’shemo echad—in that day, Yehovah will be one and God’s name one.” These are just two of the many references to the Divine Name and its importance, particularly in a time period referred to by the Prophets as “the latter days.” But, that is a topic for a future message. For now, my sincere prayer for each of you is the utmost of health, happiness, prosperity, peace, and spiritual growth in the New Year, 2017! Ken yehi ratzon— may this be God’s will!

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