Word from Our Rabbi

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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Hanukah—A Festival of Light Over Darkness!, December 2018

I speak often of the number of times I am asked in December by my well-meaning Christian friends, “Isn’t Hanukah the Jewish Christmas?” Now, I know my friends are only expressing an interest in my faith and a concern about things that are important to me, but how can I politely tell them that there is almost no similarity between Hanukah and Christmas other than occurring at about the same time of year? In reality, the one major similarity the holidays do share, their commercialization, would not be considered a good thing by many people. Christmas, of course, marks the birthday of the central figure of the Christian faith and object of their worship. One might say that without Christmas there would be no Christianity. Judaism has no such central human figure.

Hanukah, by comparison, is a relatively minor religious celebration commemorating the cleansing or rededication of a holy place. It was, for centuries celebrated very simply by just the lighting of candles, sharing of meals, and saying of prayers. In fact, most people are not aware that Hanukah is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. It does not rank among the major observances like the Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each of which is commanded several times in the Torah itself. Hanukah’s first mention in Jewish sources is in the books of First and Second Maccabees. These two books were not included in the Hebrew canon of scripture, but are assigned to a collection of writings known as the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha.

At a time in the second century before the Common Era, when the Syrian Greeks were occupying the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem, and the practice of Judaism had been forbidden by the maniacal ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, a small band of Jewish rebels rose up under the leadership of Mattathias, of priestly descent. Though vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped, these Jewish guerrillas, led by Mattathias’ son, Judah, nicknamed “Maccabeus—The Hammer,” succeeded in defeating the Syrian armies in battle after battle, ultimately taking back the city of Jerusalem, including the Holy Temple and the area surrounding it. Once the Temple was back in Jewish hands, attention was turned to the problem that the Temple fallen into disrepair and had been defiled. Repairs were quickly made, and a new and undefiled altar was constructed. Then, according to tradition, three years to the day after Antiochus had defiled it, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, a festival was inaugurated for the cleansing and rededication of the holy place.

According to the Book of Maccabees (Chapter 4), the festival for the dedication of the Temple lasted eight days. That is not surprising to scholars, because when Solomon built the first Temple, he chose to dedicate it during the feast of Sukkoth, an eight-day festival. Since the Jews under Antiochus’ harsh rule would not have been able to celebrate the festival of Sukkoth in the Fall, it is only natural that they would have wanted to do so, even belated, as a part of the Temple’s rededication. It is not until Talmudic times (100-300 C.E.) that we find reference to the “miracle of the oil.” The Talmud (Shabbat 21b-23a) tells us that as a part of the rededication, vessels of undefiled oil were sought for the lighting of the menorah. According to the Torah (Exodus 27:20-21), the Temple menorah is to burn day and night perpetually. Unfortunately, only one vessel of oil was found uncontaminated, about enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, that one day’s supply of oil burned for the eight days of the dedication —the time it took for a fresh supply of kosher olive oil to be prepared. Josephus, who also writes in the Roman period, referred to Hanukah for the first time as the “Festival of Lights” (The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Chapter 7).

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

One of the wisest Rabbis of our own time, Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Isles, writes, “Hanukah is about the freedom to be true to what we believe without denying the freedom of those who believe otherwise. It’s about lighting our candle, while not being threatened by or threatening anyone else’s candle” (http://www.rabbisacks.org/). The name Hanukah is based on the Hebrew word, chanak (chet-nun-kaf), which means “to dedicate.” While remembering that our ancestors, in centuries past, struggled to maintain their religious freedom and to rededicate the place considered most holy to them, shouldn’t we also rededicate ourselves to the things that matter most— faith, justice, and love? There is no doubt that the observance, prayers, acts of contrition, and seeking of forgiveness that we observe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are of greater import biblically and historically. But, we do have, during these cold winter months, an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the promises so recently made at Yom Kippur—to uphold the high moral and ethical standards of our Jewish tradition. It is, in fact, the pursuit of social justice and peace which, according to the Hebrew Prophets and echoed in our Aleinu prayer, will hasten the acknowledgement and sovereignty of the Creator encompassing the entire earth. This year, as you observe our Festival of Lights, will you pledge yourself to those values that the Prophet Isaiah says will make the Jewish people a “light to the nations”? Isaiah records Adonai’s message to us: “I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Thanksgiving—The American Holiday Rooted in the Hebrew Bible!!, November 2018

On the eve of every Shabbat, the proclamation of the Psalmist is read or chanted in the synagogue:

    Come, let us sing for joy to Adonai;
    let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
    Let us come before God with thanksgiving
    and extol God with music and song.
    For Adonai is a great God,
    the great King above all gods.
    In God’s hands are the depths of the earth,
    and the mountain peaks belong to God.
    The sea is God’s, for God made it,
    and God’s hands formed the dry land.
    (Psalm 95:1-5 [my translation], Mishkan T’filah, pp. 130-131)

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite among the American 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. In past articles, I have written in some detail about the possible historical connections between the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the origins of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It is known from many sources that the Puritan Separatists who began the custom of a Thanksgiving celebration were firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Some writers have asserted that in many ways the Puritans were closer to Jews than to other Protestants in that regard (e.g., Hugh Fogelman, “Puritans Were More Jewish Than Protestant,” http://www.christianity-revealed.com). The Puritan Separatists considered themselves to be God’s chosen people. They viewed King James I of England as the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh. Their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was likened to the ancient Israelite crossing of the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. Their arrival in the New World was seen as the Israelite arrival in the Promised Land. American children learn in elementary school that this religious group was called the Pilgrims. This is actually a name they gave themselves in commemoration of their wanderings in search of religious freedom. There is no question that the Puritans’ grounding in the Hebrew Bible instilled them with the centrality of giving thanks for God’s gifts. It is a fact that of the twenty-eight references to the word, “thanksgiving,” in the King James Version of the Bible, all but six are in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (Mario Seiglie, “Is Thanksgiving Rooted in a Biblical Festival,” http://www.ucg.org).

The Jewish tradition of giving thanks to the Creator, which is deeply embedded in our ritual and customs, derives, of course, from the same source. For example, the tradition of saying a minimum of 100 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). Jewish commitment to the principle of giving thanks to God is also evident in the fact that the first prayer prayed every morning by an observant Jew is the Modeh Ani: “I thank you, living and enduring king, for you have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness” (translation, http://www.chabad.org). Jews who pray thrice daily and recite the traditional blessings required by Halacha do, in fact, end up giving thanks to God for the various miracles of daily life over one hundred times a day (See, Rabbi Marci Bellows, “How to Pray a Hundred Blessings a Day,” www.thejewishweek.com). God is thanked for allowing the person to wake up, for the miracle of biological functions (upon using the bathroom), for food, for drink, for natural phenomena, to name but a few. In fact, what other religious group prays a prayer of thanksgiving after the meal is eaten, the Birkat Ha-Mazon? That prayer is based on the passage in Deuteronomy 8:10, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you.”

As you sit with your family over a bountiful meal this Thanksgiving, keep in mind that what you are doing in celebrating the prosperity and freedom we enjoy in America, and in giving thanks to God, has deep roots in Judaism, spiritually, if not literally historically. As you give your thanks, remember to invoke the ancient Hebrew blessing over bread, the Ha-Motzi. You might also say the traditional Shehecheyanu prayer, which is reserved for such special occasions. Indeed, in this country Jews have more to celebrate than perhaps at any time in our history. The level of religious freedom and economic independence we enjoy in the United States surpasses that of any previous era. And, in our lifetimes we have witnessed the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the establishment of the state of Israel. Such a restoration was only a dream for almost two millennia.

But, in celebrating our freedom, we must remember that being so blessed comes with great responsibility. I am thinking primarily of the responsibility to bring freedom to others who are still in bondage. Whether that be bondage to a literal oppressor, to disease, to hunger, to poverty, or to any other malady, it is our sacred obligation as Jews to strive for the freedom of all of God’s children. May the time not be far off which was spoken of by the Hebrew prophets when all mankind will be able to give thanks for freedom from disease; freedom from hunger; freedom from poverty; freedom from war. If you are bold enough to believe, the Prophet Micah foretells such a time with power yet simplicity (ch. 4, vv. 3-4), “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But they shall sit every person under their own vine and under their own fig tree; and none shall make them afraid….” What a day of thanksgiving that will be!!

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Second Chances - Life Lessons from Torah Portion Noach, October 2018

What an amazing time we have shared together for our High Holiday services at Temple Beth Shalom! As I travel around, speaking to other spiritual leaders, and visiting other houses of worship, I am always thankful to return to our Temple family. We have truly been blessed with something special here at TBS, and for that I am deeply grateful! When we next gather for the reading of the Torah on Shabbat, October 13th, we will be reading from Torah portion Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32. This Torah portion covers a broad range of very interesting topics, beginning with an introduction to Noah and his family. About two chapters are devoted to explaining God’s decision to destroy the world, including most of mankind and most of the animal kingdom (6:9-8:22). That is followed by an account of life starting over again, the Almighty promising not to destroy all life by flood again, and the establishing of a set of laws which our rabbis have called the Noahide Commandments or laws of Noah (9:1-17). Most of chapter 10 is taken up with the repopulation of the earth, including specifics on the families and their descendants. Then in chapter 11 we get the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel, and the decision by God to scatter mankind over the earth, and to give the various family groups each a different language (vv. 1-9). Chapter 11 concludes with the records of the descendants of Noah’s son, Shem, culminating in the first introduction in the Hebrew Bible of our patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (vv. 10-32).

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

Regarding the present Torah portion, it is my sincere belief, that like hundreds of generations of Jews before us, we too in the modern age can find light and inspiration from these ancient passages of Scripture. That may, however, require deep study, questioning, and discussion. One question that might arise from the accounts in Genesis 1-11 is how did the creation get so off track if when observed by God in Genesis 1:31 it was said to be “very good,” and by Genesis 6 we read the chilling passage, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of humans was great on the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that humans had been created on the earth, and God was grieved to the heart” (vv. 5-6)? Surely this demonstrates that being created in the image of God, as man and woman are, brings with it an extremely high level of free will or choice. That freedom of choice obviously has amazing potential in both directions— evil or good. Clearly evil was prevailing in the days of Noah leading up to the flood. But in our own day, I would like to believe that we have learned the lesson of history, and that we are channeling our choices toward good. I think I see evidence of that around me. For example, when we had the horrific, racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, rather than sparking more racial hatred and friction, I believe the crime moved many, many individuals to reach across racial lines and show a willingness to enter into dialogue and even expressions of brotherly love. When a disaster befalls our country like the recent floods in the Carolinas, are not the hearts of many stirred to help and to give what is needed to bring healing and restoration to the affected areas?

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

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

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

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

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The Month of Elul—An Auspicious Time in Jewish History and Tradition, September 2018

Temple Beth Shalom’s August Shabbat service was originally scheduled for August 25th. I had to change it back to the18th when I learned that my father’s 85th birthday party was being held on the 25th in Orlando, Florida!! It was only later that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had inadvertently rescheduled our service for Rosh Chodesh Elul, the New Moon of the month of Elul, a very important time in Jewish history and tradition! Elul, which is the sixth month of the Festival Calendar and the twelfth month of the Civil Calendar—leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the “head of the year,” has, since Talmudic times, become a season of particular introspection, repentance, and restitution.

Historical Connection

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

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

Hidden Meaning

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

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

Drawing Near to God

Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Torah is the verse following the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chal levavcha uv’chal naphshecha uv’chal me’odecha.” It translates, “And you shall love the LORD (Adonai’s Name) your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” My congregation at Temple Beth Shalom probably gets tired of hearing me ask the rhetorical question, “Now, loving someone or something with all your heart, soul, and might…, what exactly would that look like?” Would you have a hard time getting that one out of your thoughts? Would that one’s name be the first thing that entered your mind upon arousing from sleep in the morning? Would your thoughts be on that one as you drifted off to sleep each night? Would you be overwhelmed with joy when in that one’s presence, and perhaps saddened to the point of sickness upon being separated from that one? I know that despite my best intentions and re-commitments each year, I fall far short of honoring and remaining conscious of the Source of All Life to the level directed by the Torah. And, I am sure that many of my co-religionists must feel the same. The month of Elul is a wonderful opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the Creator, and to map out strategies for greater devotion, more diligent study of Torah, more prayer and giving thanks, and perhaps greater support for our house of study and worship.

Relations with Others

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

Rich Traditions

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

It’s Up To You

As I encourage all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom to study our precious Jewish heritage and implement more and more of its lofty principles, I like to honor the teaching of my beloved mentor, Rabbi Theodore Gordon, who used to say, “As a liberal rabbi, I am certainly not going to tell people what they need to do to be Jewish. BUT, DO SOMETHING!” There are, according to the sages, 613 commandments/mitzvoth in the Torah. Explore it! Find which ones resonate and are meaningful to you and in your life. And, I remind you regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service, “…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba— the one [who keeps them] eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.” As we say in Hebrew, “Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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King or Prophet Like Moses?....You Choose!!, August 2018

I have long considered it somewhat ironic that almost all of Christianity and a very large segment of traditional Judaism have put their hope in the coming of a Messiah, an anointed king of David’s line, when a plain reading of the Hebrew Bible suggests to me that God never wanted a king for the people of Israel to begin with. If this statement surprises you, then read on! My explanation begins in the next Torah portion that we will consider at Temple Beth Shalom, Shoftim—Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9. Shoftim is the Hebrew word for “judges,” the first word of this Torah portion. Shoftim is the 48th weekly Torah portion in the annual cycle; it is the fifth reading in the book of Deuteronomy. In general, the portion deals with an ideal balance between three “branches” of the government of the emerging Israelite nation—priest, king, and prophet. Interesting that the founders of the United States also composed the Constitution balancing three branches of government, but that is a topic for another day.

Getting back to my claim that Adonai never wanted a monarchy for Israel, the first thing one notices when one reads the book of Deuteronomy is that with respect to just about every law, the Israelites are commanded not to do as the nations around them have done. But, when it comes to the command concerning kings, we read, “When you enter the land which Adonai your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, you will say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations around me.’ You shall surely set a king over you….” (Deut. 17:14-15). The fact that the establishing of a king was the only way in which the Torah allowed the Israelites to be like the nations around them did not escape the notice of the sages of our people over the centuries. Commentary on this portion has been ample and varied. While Maimonides considered the appointment of a king to be an obligation, Ibn Ezra asserted that it was an allowance. Abarbanel claimed it to be concession by the Almighty, and Rabbenu Bachya went as far as to say that it was a punishment (See, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Shoftim —Learning and Leadership,” http://www.aish.com).

One cannot help but notice that the commands regarding kings are predominately prohibitions. The king was not to “multiply horses for himself,” nor “multiply wives for himself,” nor “greatly increase silver and gold for himself.” Many of our sages have pointed out that two of Israel’s greatest kings, David and Solomon, broke all three of these commands (See, Talmud Sanhedrin 21b).

Torah portion Shoftim refers us ahead to a time when the children of Israel would come into the land which God had promised to the patriarchs and matriarchs. The actual occurrence of this eventuality is recorded in the book of I Samuel. The Israelites had indeed conquered and occupied the land promised to them under the leadership of Joshua and successive judges. Samuel was serving as prophet and judge in Israel at the time. Samuel has been considered by many Jewish sages to be a prophet second only to Moses in wisdom and spirit. Late in Samuel’s life, the elders of Israel approached him saying, “Behold you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (I Sam. 8:5). Samuel was grieved by the request, and Scripture tells us that he turned to Adonai in prayer. Adonai’s answer to Samuel is instructive. “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all they say to you for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (v. 7). And, as if that were not bad enough, Adonai goes on to compare the Israelite’s request for a king with the many rebellious things they had done during their forty year sojourn in the wilderness.

While Samuel is told by Adonai to grant the people’s request for a king, he is instructed by God to give the people the following “solemn warning:”

    This will be the custom of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen…. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. And he will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards, and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys, and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but Adonai will not answer you in that day (I Sam. 8:11-18).

Pretty bleak! In fact, quite scary! What is even scarier is that according to the biblical history recorded in the rest of I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles, all of these dire warnings were, in fact, realized. The transgressions of Israel’s kings led first to the splitting of the nation into northern and southern kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. This was followed by several destructions and captivities. Northern Israel was destroyed and taken captive by Assyria, and Judah, in the south, was destroyed and taken captive by Babylonia.

It was in the midst of these destructions and exiles that the great prophets of Israel, Isaiah; Jeremiah; Ezekiel; and others, began to get glimpses of a future time which would be very different than what the nation was currently experiencing. They foresaw a time of peace and prosperity, a time when war and famine would be no more. And, while there are references in the Hebrew Prophets to a messianic King of the line of David, those references are very few in number. What has tended to happen, primarily by Christian commentators and to a lesser extent by Jewish commentators, is that every future good deed mentioned anywhere in the Prophets has been superimposed on the idea of a messianic king. Now, fortunately, Reform Judaism, has progressed beyond this interpretation, and does attribute most of the good things promised in the Hebrew Prophets to the actions of righteous men and women of all nations.

I have often wondered if some of the great things spoken of in the prophetic books might not be facilitated by another leader who is introduced in Torah portion Shoftim. This figure has been referred to by many sages as a “prophet like Moses.” In Shoftim, the fledgling Israelite nation is told that they did not need to resort to witchcraft, divining, or fortune-telling. Adonai promises, “I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like [Moses], and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut. 18:18). Just a disclaimer here, that while the ancient text uses the masculine pronoun, my interpretation would be more egalitarian. I would assert that the point of this promise is that there would always be a Divine connection—prophesy among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. We read often in our ancient, sacred writings about such a connection historically. Where is that clear direction from the Almighty today? Is it something that we should be hoping for, perhaps even praying for?

This is why I find the study of Torah and the Prophets so exciting. Not only do they detail amazing interactions between the Creator and humankind in the past, but I believe they contain the seeds of profound changes that are possible in the future. But, the task is ours to study, interpret, and apply these ancient holy writings of our rich Jewish tradition to the difficulties we face in the modern age. Won’t you join me for services at Temple Beth Shalom as we make an effort to do just that? Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!

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