Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 1/25/2011 - Being Near to God

We all have different reasons for coming to the synagogue; some do it for a holy, quiet moment, others to socialize, still others to remember loved ones who have departed.

In my estimation, a great reason to come to synagogue for services is found in the Ashrei prayer, recited three times daily (Psalm 145:18):

קָרוֹב ה', לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו - לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.

Qarov Adonai lekhol qore'av, lekhol asher yiqra'uhu ve'emet.

God is near to all who call; to all who call to God in truth.

We gather for services because it is a chance to be near to God, an opportunity to approach holiness. Something unique happens when we gather in a minyan (quorum of 10 people) together, but also when we call on God together; that something is the nearness of God's presence. Join us.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Yitro 5771 - This is a Holy Place

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Friday night, 1/21/2011.)

Because of the centrality of the Decalogue (often known as the "Ten Commandments," even though you might be able to count as many as 13 separate mitzvot within that passage), we often overlook the fact that as soon as they have been issued, God simply keeps talking. The mitzvah count keeps going up.

For example, just a few verses later, God tells Moses the following (Ex. 20:21):

;מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה, תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, וְזָבַחְתָּ עָלָיו אֶת-עֹלֹתֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלָמֶיךָ, אֶת-צֹאנְךָ וְאֶת-בְּקָרֶךָ
.בְּכָל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת-שְׁמִי, אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ

"Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen;
in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you."

Now, in a later time the officially-sanctioned place of sacrifice is the Temple in Jerusalem. But the Israelites are still standing at Mt. Sinai, at least 40 years away from arriving in Israel, and more than 200 years from the establishment of the Temple. So this is where the latter part of the verse is important: everywhere that we mention God's name is a place of holiness.

And this is especially important today, 2000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. We make the holy places, and we make the holy moments, by offering the words of prayer that we do right now, in this place and in every other place where we invoke God's name.

This is the place that God was talking about. Right here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Optimists Emerge Victorious

(Devar torah for my son's berit milah, 6/19/2009)

One of the beautiful things about fatherhood is the opportunity to consider what goes on in a baby’s head. What could s/he possibly be thinking? All the more so, what is going through the baby’s head right before birth, and right after?

In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelah Lekha, we read about the twelve scouts that are sent by Moses to scope out the situation in the land of Israel. The Israelites are wandering in the Sinai desert, preparing to enter the land, but they need to know what their chances are of conquering the Canaanite peoples that reside there. Ten of the scouts come back with a pessimistic report, but two of them, Caleb and Joshua, are optimistic. The pessimists outweigh the optimists 5-to-1, despite the fact that God has already more or less predicted the outcome.

So it might be easy, looking at today’s world, to be pessimistic (and I’m not going into why right now; I’ll leave that for you to discuss at breakfast). But little Zev Isaac could have popped his head out, looked around, decided that it’s just not worth it, and turned right back around to return to the womb, much to the consternation of the assembled medical personnel, not to mention my wife.

But of course, he did not do so. He joined the rest of us out here to become a willing participant in our berit, our covenant with God. This serves as a reminder to me that it is only we adults who understand suffering and disappointment; that life includes a healthy dose of misery along with joy.

But for a baby, there is only the good. There is only the full glass of optimism. There is only the simple wonder of going from darkness to light. There is only the beginning of Creation, when God says, “Let there be light.”

I suppose that it is this simplicity that causes us to continue bringing children into this very complicated world. The child’s optimism trumps the adult’s pessimism.

Thursday Morning Kavvanah, 1/20/2011 - When Do We Need God?

When do we need God?

Certainly, we need God during our very sad times (surrounding death and remembrance of loved ones, illness, tragedy).

And of course we need God during our very happy times (weddings, births, lifecycle events).

And sometimes we need God during our quiet times, and sometimes during our stressful times. And sometimes when there's nothing particular going on at all.

We seek God through statutory prayer in mornings and evenings, as night becomes day and day becomes night.

Most of these are transitions, and these are the times that we need God, when it helps to know that we are not alone.

Wednesday Morning Kavvanah, 1/19/2011 - Shalom: Wish or Request?

The oft-repeated line, "Oseh shalom bimromav..." (May the One who makes peace on high make peace for us and for all Israel), which we find at the conclusion of every Amidah and many forms of the Qaddish prayer, is not really a baqashah, a request. There is a very specific form for the liturgical mode called baqashah, and this is not it.

However, we do say it frequently, and there is no question that we need peace - here in America, in Israel for certain, and throughout the world. Its role as a concluding thought in these prayers points to the centrality of this need.

And yet, we do not formally request peace of God; we simply wish that God will bestow it. I find this ironic - something that we need so desperately, and yet we do not simply come out and ask for it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Debbie Friedman's Musical Plea for Peace

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Friday evening, January 14, 2011.)

This was a tragic week in the Jewish world, not only because of the near-fatal shooting of the first Jewish representative to Congress from Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, but also because of the death of the best-known modern composer of Jewish music, Debbie Friedman.

On this Shabbat Shirah, when we chant the oldest song in the book, Shirat HaYam, the song sung by the Israelites upon crossing the Sea of Reeds, it is all the more fitting to honor Debbie Friedman's contribution to the tower of Jewish song of which Shirat HaYam is the foundation stone.

Certainly, you know her work:

Mi Sheberakh - a prayer for healing
Not by Might - Zechariah 4:6; Haftarat Behaalotekha
Im Ein Ani Li - from Pirqei Avot
Havdalah melody
Aleph Bet

And many others.

When I was in cantorial school, we were not taught to love Debbie Friedman's work. She wrote synagogue music that was a break with tradition - she did not use the correct nusah (prayer chant melody), and stated firmly for the record (I was there when she said this at a panel discussion at the Jewish Theological Seminary) that she wrote music that spoke to people today, and that was far more important than the tradition of nusah.

That may or may not be true. To quote the very musical Reb Tevye of Broadway, "Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." But without a doubt, Ms. Friedman's music touched two generations of modern Jews in a way that no set of traditional motifs ever will.

I'd like us to take a moment to sing one of her most touching pieces, a song from the liturgy that many of you know, not only as a tribute to Debbie Friedman, but also a plea for peace in the wake of the shooting in Tucson. May the One who makes peace up in the heavens please make peace for all of us down here. All of us.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya-aseh shalom aleinu ve-al kol Yisrael ve-imru amen.

Friday Morning Kavvanah, 1/14/2011 - The God I Can't Believe In

One year after the earthquake in Haiti, which killed 200,000 people, I have to remind myself that natural disasters are not punishments from God. Although there is no shortage of clergy, Jewish, Christian, or other, who will say even today that the people of Haiti or New Orleans or the Jews of Poland merited their fate through bad behavior, this is not a theology that I can embrace.

The God that I know and praise does not work that way. Even though the Torah and rabbinic Judaism is rife with such thinking, I am certain that God is a good God, and does not mete out collective punishment.

The only way to account for such natural disasters is that God's Creation contains a certain dose of randomness, incorporated into the design. To credit God with wanton destruction today does not fit into my understanding of God.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bo 5771 - A Piece of the (Social) Action

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, January 8, 2011.)

There are two beggars sitting on a busy sidewalk in Mexico City. One is wearing a large cross, and the other a magen david. In front of the Christian beggar is a hat filled with a large pile of money, and in front of the Jew an empty hat. As people walk by, they continue to put more cash into the Christian’s hat.

Finally, a well-meaning stranger approaches the Jewish beggar, and explains, in polite Spanish, that in such a devoutly Catholic place, he might have better luck if he weren’t Jewish. So the Jewish beggar turns to his Christian colleague and says, “Nu, Moishe, this guys tryin’ to tell us how to run our business!”

* * *

In today’s parashah, we read the last three plagues, and the Pharaoh’s (temporary) decision to let the Israelites leave Egypt. This is a defining moment in the Torah, in our national story, and one to which we continually refer, not just at Pesah but year ‘round.

When are some of the occasions that we invoke yetzi’at mitzrayim / the Exodus from Egypt?

Pesah (of course)
p. 113 - third paragraph of Shema
p. 114 - shaharit, right before amidah
p. 125 - Festival amidah (You gave us this day in memory of the Exodus)
p. 312 Fri. night kiddush
p. 338 Birkat hamazon (nodeh lekha...)
p. 133 Hallel

These are, in fact, some of our holiest moments. We recall the redemption from Egypt, because we hope that soon we shall be redeemed as well, and this theme pops up all over our liturgy and our rituals. We’re going to talk about another primary Jewish activity that invokes yetzi’at Mitzrayim.

* * * *

This week, I was fortunate to participate, along with a few others who are in this room, in a discussion with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who is the rabbi-in-residence at the Jewish Funds for Justice and the author of a recently-published book about our Jewish obligations regarding social action.

Rabbi Jacobs was not necessarily trying to help us come up with a concrete plan regarding how to focus our energies, but rather an attempt to draw out our own personal stories about social justice and injustice with an eye toward helping to focus the congregational discussion of the matter.

Rabbi Jacobs said that while most congregations have social action committees and plans and programs, the mistake that many organizations make is to focus on the action, rather than the discourse. That is to say that there is always a core of committed people to run programs - a Mitzvah day, a food drive, a coat drive, a fundraising project, and these people often run themselves into the ground trying to save the world, when their work is unappreciated and perhaps even largely unnoticed by vast swaths of the community. But of greater importance is the discussion, the thematic integration within the larger picture.

As if to prove her point, during the course of this discussion, members of Temple Israel’s Chesed Connection were ducking in and out of the room, whispering to each other, exchanging information and supplies, all in preparation for tomorrow’s Campaign Against Hunger, a program that we are running in coordination with the Tikkun Alliance of the North Shore. I know from having spoken with members of the committee, having been copied on some of their emails, and having seen them running around during the past week in a sustained frenzy, trying to get everything lined up for tomorrow, that this program is taking a heavy toll on those committed to seeing it through. Tiqqun olam / repairing the world is hard work.

And for sure, many people will benefit from it - not only the needy people in Hempstead who will be receiving food, coats, and supplies, but also those involved with the giving, and particularly the children who are participating in various ways and seeing the modeled behavior of adults committed to bettering the lives of others who are less fortunate. And Temple Israel will benefit, as this is one way to build our own community, a topic which continually sashays through many of the meetings that I attend as a rabbi.

But - how many members of the TI community will participate in tomorrows activities? We do our best to get the word out through various channels for many of our events, and it is almost always the usual suspects who, kol hakavod to them, show up. (And, let me add that we are all grateful to those who do.)

What Rabbi Jacobs suggested is not that we desist from such programs as the Campaign Against Hunger, but also that we do not necessarily create more such programs. Rather, what she proposed is to widen the discussion - to make social justice awareness a feature of every activity that goes on under this roof. To integrate our stories, our discourse, through all the arms and schools of this community, such that this congregation breathes tiqqun olam, such that we have, as she put it, “a coherent story about social action.”

Many of you know that I grew up in a family that was strongly committed to Judaism and our Conservative synagogue. I attended Hebrew school all the way through high school, was involved with USY and spent several summers at Camp Ramah, the summer camp affiliated with the Conservative movement. I of course knew about tzedaqah. I thought I knew a good deal about the Torah and what was in it.

And yet, I am embarrassed to admit that the discourse of repairing the world was not part of my Judaism for most of my life. Not long after starting cantorial school, about 10 years ago, I was at a shabbaton, a Shabbat retreat for rabbinical and cantorial students, and on Shabbat afternoon I participated in a small-group discussion about tiqqun olam. I was only just beginning to learn critically, the way that students at the Seminary are taught. I asked, is there really a Jewish imperative to take care of others? And the subtext was, maybe that was just an idea cooked up by 20th-century bleeding hearts. Maybe it is not in the Torah at all.

Somehow, all of those years of Jewish education had not adequately relayed one of the essential planks of Judaism - that we are obligated to care for those in need. I had failed to connect the dots regarding whom to take care of, other than myself.

And where does this obligation originate? From what text does it emerge?

Where, indeed, and how is it that I had somehow missed that, after 30 years of commitment to Jewish life?

It is in yetzi’at Mitzrayim, what we read this morning. Well, OK. Not exactly. But it is when you juxtapose some of the verses we read today with others in the Torah. Let me show you:

Exodus 13:6-8 (Etz Hayim, p. 392):

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day where shall be a festival of the Lord. Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory. And you shall explain to your son on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

The commandment to remember actively, as an institution for all time, the Exodus from Egypt, how God brought us out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. And we must teach this to our children: vehigadta levinkha (this is the origin of the word haggadah, the telling, for the book that we use on seder nights).

OK, so do you see on this page the obligation to take care of those in need? Not really? OK. So now let’s take a look at another location. In two weeks, the Children of Israel will receive the Decalogue, the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments. Not in the Exodus version, but the one in Deuteronomy, there is a particular justification for the commandment to observe Shabbat:

Deut. 5:12-15 (pp. 1019-1020):

(Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.) Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Who is the Shabbat intended for, other than yourself? It is a gift to all in your land - your slave (I hope nobody here has slaves; they were kosher in biblical times, but not today), but also the strangers - the non-Israelite workers among us, who were historically landless and therefore by definition poor.

Not convinced yet? In my own bar mitzvah parashah, Qedoshim:

Leviticus 19:33 (p. 700):

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

The justification for treating the poor sojourner with respect is right there in black and white: ki gerim heyyitem be-eretz mitzrayim - for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The Exodus is repeatedly mentioned all over Jewish tradition not only to remind us of our past redemption from Egypt. We also invoke yetzi’at Mitzrayim to remind us that our actions in this world, if they are the right ones, will merit our ultimate redemption in the world to come. And this includes, of course, treating the needy among us with dignity and giving everybody, no matter their background or station in life, a fair shake.

* * * *

And so where do we go from here?

The conversation has only just begun. The Chesed Connection is off to a good start, but we must broaden the discussion, bring in more people, and keep telling stories. In the coming months, I am hoping that the Chesed Connection will spend some time strategizing how to foster that community-wide discussion, how to put tikkun olam on the table, how to tell and hear our stories of repairing the world.

If you want to be a part of that conversation, join us tomorrow starting at 9:30 AM here at Temple Israel to prepare the food that is going to Hempstead, and then from 1:30 - 3:30 at Kennedy Park. And join us on an ongoing basis as we work to bring social justice to the foreground at Temple Israel.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thursday Morning Kavvanah, 1/6/2011 - Something extra for Rosh Hodesh

Rosh Hodesh, literally "head of the month," or the first day of the new month, is sort of a half-holiday. There's not much to it, as holidays go, other than the extra liturgical material we added this morning: an extra paragraph in the Shaharit Amidah, an extra aliyah during the Torah reading, an extra Amidah (Musaf, which means "extra") at the end, and recitation of the extra Psalms of Hallel.

How should one, therefore, celebrate Rosh Hodesh? Well, maybe with something extra, just as a reminder. An extra bagel, perhaps. Or an extra hug to the ones you love. Hodesh tov!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wednesday Morning Kavvanah, 1/5/2011 - A little praise goes a long way; a lot puts you in the mood

There are five modes of Jewish prayer:

1. Shevah - praise

2. Baqashah - request

3. Hodayah - thanks

4. Selihah - seeking forgiveness

5. Tahanun - supplication

The vast majority of any given service is the mode of shevah / praise. In fact, in this morning's service, virtually everything from page 6 up to page 37 in our siddur (Sim Shalom for Weekdays) was shevah .

And this begs the question: why so much praise? Wouldn't a little be enough? After all, when we praise others, a little goes a long way, and too much sounds dishonest. And furthermore, God surely does not need human praise, right?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the meditative quality of tefillah, Jewish prayer. The praise, although descriptive of God, is not for God's ears - it is for ours. And what better way to "get in the mood" for tefillah than to meditate on the praiseworthy qualities of God?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 1/4/2011 - Comfort Zone

Our chapel is being painted slowly, and so this morning's minyan was held in the Blue Room, a far less inspiring location for tefillah. In a quick poll this morning, I determined that at least half of the attendees felt less comfortable in the temporary digs. There is indeed something to the idea of maqom qavua, one's regular place for davening.

But more than that, tefillah requires a framework of regularity to work properly. It's not just the maqom qavua, but also the siddur, the mindset, the paraphernalia (i.e. tallit and tefillin), and so forth. Certainly, every now and then an inspiring moment can be had elsewhere, but one's own comfort zone is the best place in which to hear the qol demamah daqah, the still small voice.