Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tent City TLV - The revolution will not be on Facebook

Much of what you might read on this blog about Israel is perhaps overly complacent - fawning over the concept and culture of the Jewish state, with only occasional light criticism of the current Israeli government's seeming reluctance to engage with the Palestinians or the two-state solution. Having lived here for more than a year, now nearly a decade ago, I have some sense of the complexity of Israeli society and politics, and long ago lost the uncritical, honeymoon-ish devotion that often afflicts tourists and new immigrants (briefly, until they have to spend a day at Misrad Ha-Penim / Ministry of the Interior office). Perhaps that has not been so obvious in this forum.

Today as I walked through Tel Aviv, I made it a point to stroll through the "tent city" demonstration on Rothschild Street. This is a protest that began just last week, beginning with a Facebook call to action, largely in opposition to high housing prices, but also an assault on what the protesters see as the government's devotion to special interests (corporate buddies, new immigrants, right-wing religious groups, even foreign visitors like me). What precipitated this protest is a real estate bill before the Kenesset that many believe to favor wealthy developers with strong government ties over average Israelis. There are now similar tent cities all over Israel.

Israeli politics is quite complex, so much so that I cannot possibly describe it adequately here. But this particular protest is notable for two reasons. First, it follows a recent nationwide protest, also initiated on Facebook, over the increase in the price of cottage cheese. Second, it has captured the attention of the nation. News outlets have heavily featured the protests, and a large rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night attracted tens of thousands of people, and Prime Minister Netanyahu canceled a trip to Poland to address the issue at home.

As I walked through the tent city, reading the signs of protest, the political slogans, the quotes from biblical and rabbinic sources about fair treatment for all, I was struck by the tremendous resentment that these "average Israelis" feel, and the strong sentiment of neglect felt by the central demographic pillar of Israeli society. Housing, education, health care, and more - their message is that these items are being passed over in favor of helping everybody else.

(Faux ad: "A find! Tent divided into four wonderful residential units, not renovated, 5 minutes from the beach. 2800 sheqel per month [equals about US$820])

I took a detour and headed off to the shuk, but the following slogan from one of the signs in the tent city echoed in my head:

המהפכה לא יפוסבק
Ha-mahapekhah lo tefusbak
The revolution will not be on Facebook

This is striking not only because of the clever hebraization of the name of a popular Internet site, nor the cultural reference to the 1970 song by Gil Scott-Heron (ז"ל), but because of the presence of mind of the anonymous wag who penned it. Real people in the streets, full of venom for their government - this is the way that revolutions happen. Not in digital form, or on paper, or even by telephone.

Leaving aside the imminent debacle that will erupt when the Palestinians ask the UN for statehood in September, I am not concerned about the stability of Israel or its government. Nonetheless, this is a movement with legs.

(The above photos are mine; you can see more pictures via this virtual tour.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Live from Tel Aviv Beach, Part II

This evening, as the sun set, I swam. Israel, like New York, is in the midst of a heat wave, and even as the evening breezes rolled in off the Mediterranean, the water was warm and soothing. There were only a few other bathers near me - a family tossing a frisbee, a couple chattering in Russian, a guy with an underwater metal detector working his way patiently back and forth in the shallow water. A man was davening minhah (reciting the afternoon prayer service) in a bathing suit, t-shirt and black kippah alone, next to the now-empty lifeguard station - I must confess that I've never seen THAT before on the beach. I watched Tel Aviv light up, floating in the salty, draining day.

Out of nowhere in a particular, a song popped into my head: Cantor Charles Osborne's "Samahti Be-omrim Li," (here is a performance featuring Cantor Osborne on piano; although not a perfect recording, it gives you an idea of how moving this piece is; song starts at 1:52). The text is Psalm 122:

שָׂמַחְתִּי, בְּאֹמְרִים לִי בֵּית יְהוָה נֵלֵךְ
עֹמְדוֹת, הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ, יְרוּשָׁלִָם
Samahti be-omrim li, beit Adonai nelekh
Omedot hayu ragleinu, bish'arayikh Yerushalayim

I rejoiced when they said to me: Let us go up to the House of God.
Now we stand within your gates, O Jerusalem!

The psalm speaks of the peace that enables the author to enter the Temple in Jerusalem; Osborne's setting speaks to me of the ancient yearnings that led late 19th-century pioneers to start building the modern State of Israel in this land, which the Romans re-named Palestine two millennia ago to further dishonor the defeated Jews. Those yearnings are still with us, and yet peace is not.

Tel Aviv is not Jerusalem, but I am beginning to understand that it is almost as holy. "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," says the psalm. And so we do, even on the beach.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wednesday Kavvanah, 7/20/2011 - Recharging My Jewish Batteries

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Israel, I am charging all of my devices: the Israeli cell phone, the netbook, the toothbrush, the mp3 player, and so forth. Many of us rely so heavily on electronics that arriving in a foreign country without a fully-charged phalanx of digital items induces anxiety.

It occurred to me, however, that in doing so, I am also preparing to have my own battery recharged. Israel has become, for me, not only a place for resonating with the land of my people and visiting with family, but also a source of inspiration as a rabbi and as a Jew. Regular trips to the Jewish state re-align my spiritual connectors, reinforce my faith and reassure me that the Jewish people have a bright future.

Have you been to Israel lately? If not, go now. There has never been a better time to get recharged.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Kavvanah, 7/19/2011 - Tammuz Blues

Late in a summertime fast day, a palpable lethargy sets in - the dry mouth, the slow reaction time, and the feeling that there's really nothing good about the world. Makes you want to retreat into bed, close your eyes, and just float.

A little bit of suffering is good for you. Or so thought our rabbinic forebears, who liked to place fast days adjacent to joyous holidays. But the 17th of Tammuz is all alone, only the inauspicious start to the Three Weeks that precede Tish'ah Be'Av. No joy in sight.

Frankly, I relish a good fast. It makes me feel cleansed, like my body is purifying itself. OK, so the misery I could do without, but that's exactly the point - a fast is not to be enjoyed! Today is the day, according to the Babylonian Talmud, that the Romans breached the city walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, three weeks before destroying the Temple itself. Not a happy occasion, to be sure.

So even while immersed in this challenge of will, of denying myself food and drink until nightfall, I am thinking about Jerusalem, both the earthly city and the heavenly one. I'll be there in a week; this day reminds me that in the Holy City, the past still walks with us in the present.

Tzom qal. Have an easy fast. Tomorrow will be more pure.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pinehas 5771: Why Egalitarianism Still Matters

Many of you know by now that I grew up with just a handful of Jews in a small town - so small that we had to bring our own garbage to the municipal landfill because there was no curbside pickup, that local decisions were made at old-fashioned town meetings, and that our yard was bordered by a dairy farm, a horse pasture, and a still-functioning cemetery that dated to the Revolutionary War. We drove 20 miles back and forth to our Conservative synagogue in Pittsfield, Massachusetts several times a week.

By the time I was aware of Jewish life, our synagogue was already egalitarian. (By the way, the rabbi who had overseen the change to egalitarianism in the mid-1970s was Rabbi Arthur Rulnick, who spent a number of years at Woodbury Jewish Center after leaving Pittsfield.) It was completely normal for me to sit with my family, for my mother to get called to the Torah and be in the regular rotation of gabbaim, for my sister to celebrate her bat mitzvah on Shabbat morning, and so forth.

I had heard that in some communities elsewhere, men and women were separated, but that seemed far away and irrelevant to my Jewish experience. I took egalitarianism for granted; it was an integral feature in the fabric of my Jewish life, and anything otherwise would have seemed alien.

Fast forward to the present. I now live in a largely-Jewish New York suburb with no fewer than 18 synagogues and at least two miqva-ot. Of those 18 synagogues, 14 are not egalitarian. This non-egalitarian reality is far more present today than it was 100 years ago in American Judaism. And that is why we need to be clear as to why we embrace equality in Jewish life.

One of the passages that we read in Parashat Pinehas this morning, the one about the daughters of Zelophehad, has some bearing on the relationship between Jewish law and women. To briefly summarize the story, Zelophehad was a member of the tribe of Menasheh who had five daughters and no sons. Although property is handed down from father to son, according to laws set out elsewhere in the Torah, the daughters of Zelophehad plead with Moses and El’azar, the Kohen Gadol (high priest), to allow them to inherit their fathers’ share in what will become their tribal territory. When consulted by Moses, God favors the daughters, and then a new law is introduced whereby women can also inherit, even before the deceased’s brothers. The story is remarkable for several reasons. One might make the case that it contains the seed of egalitarianism. But we’ll come back to that.

First, a little history and a little halakhah.

According to noted historian Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, mixed-gender seating (that is, men and women seated together) is a distinctly American Jewish development. In the 1860s, while Reform Jews in Germany still sat separately in synagogue, like their Lutheran countrymen did in church, American Jews began to adopt mixed seating after the widespread Christian norm in this country. By the middle of the 20th century, mixed-gender seating was prevalent across all the American movements; even many Modern Orthodox congregations sat together as well. (It was not until the 1980s that the Union of Orthodox Congregations began to pressure their mixed-seating congregations to put up mehitzot, to draw a clear distinction between moderate Orthodox and traditional Conservative congregations.)

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) addressed the issue in a teshuvah (rabbinic responsum to a question of Jewish law) in 1941, in which they permitted the practice based on the fact that “the prevailing attitude about the place of woman in modern society is making it increasingly difficult to maintain the traditional policy of isolation towards women in the synagogue.” In other words, this committee of traditional rabbis said, times have changed, and so have social norms. The committee permitted individual rabbis to allow mixed-gender seating according to their own judgment, even though it seems that the members of the committee were personally against it.

Although seating women and men separately is a long-standing minhag / custom, it is not halakhah / law, and it is not found stated clearly in rabbinic sources prior to the 13th century CE; even Maimonides, who details synagogue construction in his Mishneh Torah, does not mention the mehitzah (barrier between men and women found in almost all Orthodox synagogues).

In subsequent decades, the Conservative movement gradually pursued an egalitarian agenda. In 1955 they had passed a teshuvah allowing women to take aliyot (be called to the Torah, although presumably few did at the time), and in 1973 they permitted counting women in a minyan. Finally, after several years of heart-wrenching dispute, 1983 brought the well-known Roth teshuvah allowing for the ordination of female rabbis, and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s faculty voted to admit women to the Rabbinical School.

In each case, the teshuvot examined by the Law Committee found a halakhic basis on which to permit the forward movement. For example, the permissibility of women’s aliyot is indicated in the Talmud, even though it states that “we do not do this because of the honor of the congregation.” In a world where women can hold the highest political offices, be CEOs, doctors, lawyers, judges, and so forth, calling a woman to the Torah can only bring honor to a congregation.

However, the issue would never have been addressed had there not been efforts on the part of the women to bring it to the table. In the case of mixed seating, for example, Sarna cites an anecdote of women at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC who boldly started sitting downstairs with their husbands, against synagogue policy.

Now, back to the daughters of Zelophehad, about whom the midrashic collection Sifrei comments (responding to Numbers 27:1 in today’s parashah):

Vatiqravna benot tzelofehad:
The daughters of Zelophehad approached:
Since the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was divided amongst the tribes, but not to the women, they gathered to consult.
They said, “The mercy of God is not like the mercy of flesh and blood [i.e. men]. Men are merciful to men more so than to women, but God is merciful to all, as it is written [here quoting Psalm 145, which we know as Ashrei], “Verahamav al kol ma’asav” (His mercy is extended to all).”

The motivation of Zelophehad’s daughters was to ensure that they were treated properly, that they received that to which they were entitled. And they had to ask for it, to bring their case all the way to the top. Had they not pursued their rights, they would not have received their father’s land.

And their case was a landmark! Immediately after the story, the Torah amends its own law to say that when a man has no sons, his daughters inherit his property.

And this is the way it has always been in Jewish tradition: women who want to participate in Jewish law as men do must pursue it.

Dr. Elisheva Baumgarten, in her visit a few weeks ago for the Lillian Schiowitz Memorial Lecture, presented our congregation with several wonderful lectures about women’s roles throughout Jewish history. If you missed her appearances that weekend, shame on you!

Her best lecture was the one after Shabbat services, when she pointed out that there is evidence that a number of women donned tefillin in the Middle Ages in Europe. Although there is no proof supporting the oft-told legend of Rashi’s daughters’ having done so, nonetheless it was indeed an extant practice, especially in the higher economic strata. Rashi’s grandson and bar plugta, one with whom he often disagreed, Rabbeinu Tam, points out that a woman who puts on tefillin should say the berakhah, just like a man.

As with the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, the women forced the issue by entering an area of law from which they had been excluded. And this is just how egalitarianism unfolded in the Conservative movement.

And, of course, we are still evolving. The need and desire for egalitarianism, especially in this period of rightward movement within Orthodoxy, is still with us. Temple Israel is a haven for equality here in Great Neck, and as such we must continue to revisit and refamiliarize ourselves with the principles that validate the ways in which we express our Judaism. Nothing should be taken for granted.

And that applies to everything that we do here. One message that we learn from today’s parashah is this: we have within our hands the capability to shape our tradition such that it is more meaningful, more powerful, and more helpful to all of us.

In one of the teshuvot from the Law Committee about mixed seating, Rabbi Jacob Agus quoted Ahad Ha-Am:

“Some day perhaps we may feel the need of a new tradition: we may want to understand the natural process of its evolution. We may then have a new Maimonides, who will codify the law from the historical point of view, not on the principles of an artificial logic, but on the basis of the order in which the various laws emerged in the course of an age-long development.”

He is here more or less supporting the Positive Historical School that became the Conservative movement, and then he goes on to criticize secularists, or perhaps even the Reform movement of his day:

“Instead of critics who declare that the Shulhan Arukh [the authoritative 16th-century code of Jewish law] is not our Torah, we may have a new type of exegete, whose aim will be to discover the source of its prescriptions in the psychology of our people, and to show why and how they grew out of the peoples’ material conditions and mentality, or were adopted from the outside, under strength of need or favor of circumstances... But, we shall no longer feel compelled to regard all the minutiae of our inherited tradition as laws and precepts binding on us everywhere and for all time.” (Ahad Ha-Am, Essays, East and West Edition, p. 70.)

His point is this: we have an allegiance to our tradition and its laws. But we are also modern people, with the need to reinterpret for our times in a historical, social, and psychological context.

For me, it could not be any other way.

Shabbat shalom!

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, July 16, 2011.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Leiby Kletzky, Zikhrono Livrakhah (May his memory be for a blessing)

What can one say regarding the tragedy of the 9-year-old Jewish boy in Brooklyn who was abducted and brutally murdered by a Jewish stranger from his neighborhood? How can we possibly respond to this?

I cannot help but wonder if the rabbi who conducted his funeral read the traditional passage, "Tzidduq hadin," a series of biblical quotes about God's omnipotence and inscrutability that serve to justify the decree of death meted out to the deceased. Did he skip it? Did he apologize for it and mumble it quietly? Did he substitute something else?

* * * *

The traditional words recited to a mourner when leaving a shiv'ah house (where the mourners gather for seven days after a funeral) are:

המקום ינחם אותך בתוך שאר אבילי ציון וירושלים
Hamaqom yenahem otkha betokh sh'ar aveilei Tziyyon viYrushalayim.
May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

The first word, "hamaqom," is a euphemism for God; it literally means, "the place." The suggestion is that God is in every place, and especially in this place where people have gathered to mourn. That is, arguably, the time when we need God most.

Let us hope that the Kletzky family is comforted by the presence of God in their place, and that we may all find some comfort in the wake of such a such tragedy. Perhaps that is all that we can say.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday Kavvanah, 7/13/2011 - Reconnecting with the Morning

All of my most memorable tefillah / prayer experiences have been outside.

As luck would have it, a brown-out at Temple Israel this morning rendered the air conditioner useless, so we picked up the morning minyan and moved it out into the courtyard. Shaharit is really the best service to have outside, not only because the time for reciting it is determined by the rising of the sun, but also because there is nothing more beautiful than gathering as a community to begin the day under the bright morning sky, with birds chirping and a light summer breeze.

The opportunity to pray in a natural environment rather than a climate-controlled, enclosed space enables the resonances of Creation in tefillah. Try it!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tuesday Kavvanah, 7/12/2011 - Spiritual Betrothal

While applying tefillin this morning prior to Shaharit (the morning service), I recited the customary verses from the prophet Hosea (2:21-22):

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת-יְהוָה
Ve'erastikh li le'olam
Ve'erastikh li betzedeq uvmishpat, uvhesed uvrahamim
Ve'erastikh li be'emunah, veyada'at et Adonai

I betroth you to Me forever
I betroth you to Me with righteousness and justice, with love and compassion
I betroth you to Me with faithfulness; then you shall be at one with Adonai

In biblical context, Hosea's imagery reflects his metaphorical marriage to an unfaithful wife, and the pair together symbolize the fraught relationship between God and the people Israel. When binding tefillin to one's arm on weekday mornings, these verses are recited as the strap is wrapped three times around the middle finger of the weak arm; the action suggests marriage, and so do the words.

I have never heard these verses recited at a wedding, although I think that they would work well. Binding tefillin is, however, just as much about betrothal - of course to God, but as well to one another as a community. Those of us who gather early in the morning to daven are bound together in qedushah / holiness and camaraderie.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Rainy Relief

Friday night rain always reminds me of summers at Camp Ramah in New England, when a good portion of Qabbalat Shabbat services outside were rained out, and we had to daven in the Hadar Okhel or Beit Am Bet.

The nostalgia that comes with this evening’s rain has taken my mind off the disaster narrowly averted in the eastern Mediterranean, where the government of Greece prevented a new flotilla of boats from sailing to Gaza. Sure, it may have been for their own cynically political reasons – Greece has not been a friend to Israel, perhaps primarily due to Israel’s until-recently strong alliance with Turkey.

I want the people of Gaza to get a fair shake. The Palestinian people have always been cynically used by their leaders and their brethren across the Arab region. However, this is not the way to do it. We all remember the scene that happened last year with the first flotilla, featuring the Turkish boat Mavi Marmara, how the Israelis killed activists in self-defense.

Mine is an apprehensive relief, because there will be more flotillas, and even greater attempts to delegitimize Israel. I’m relieved for now, but concerned about the next action.

Enjoy the cleansing rain tonight. I’ll be awash with memories of camp.

Balaq 5771 - Lighten up!

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, July 9, 2011.)

A story is told of three Jews who are comparing the holiness of their rabbis.

The first says, “My rabbi is so close to God, he trembles all the time.”
The second says, “My rabbi is so close to God that God trembles for fear of displeasing him.”
The third says, “Well, first my rabbi trembled. Then God trembled. Then my rabbi said to God, ‘Look, why should we both tremble?’”

OK, so maybe that’s not so funny. My wife Judy often reviews my sermons on Fridays, and she’s a tough critic. Some of you have told me that I should tell more jokes from the pulpit, that I am too serious. So I searched for a good joke to tell today, but none of them passed muster (i.e. the Wife-Laugh-O-Meter), and it occured to me that, there are no good jokes about the Torah that I have not already used. That’s right, I’m out of good jokes. Funny how Rabbi Stecker never seems to run out of material.

Another struggle that I have as a rabbi is the healthy tension regarding how I spend my time. This question is wrapped up in the larger question of what the role of a synagogue is. Is this building, this community center, primarily:

1. A place where people come to pray
2. A school for teaching children about Judaism
3. A learning institute where adults can discover their own path (perhaps not having found it as a child; refer back to number 2)
4. A place to celebrate benei mitzvah, weddings, and so forth
5. A community gathering place, where people come to meet others, to participate in social activities, etc.

Of course, it is a little of all of these, and many more as well. Given that Rabbi Stecker and Cantor Frieder and I only have a limited number of hours, how should we spend them?

And it's not just the clergy, of course. It's also how you, the active members of the laity, spend your time here as well. Participating with the Board of Trustees, the various arms and committees, the volunteer opportunities, helping those in need, and so forth. The tasks associated with community-building are effectively endless.

It is sometimes easy for the clergy, through various forms of work-based myopia, to miss the forest for the trees. So considering today's parashah, in particular, we might think about the message of Bil’am’s donkey. Or his apparent change of heart, turning curses into blessings. Or Balaq's foolishness.

And in doing so, we might miss the fact that THIS IS COMEDY! The aton, the she-donkey opens her mouth to speak! This was hysterical to our ancestors! And it might be to us as well, if only we did not take the Torah so seriously. Not only that, but Bil’am, who is a seer of some note, fails to see the angel by the side of the road, which even the dumb ass sees. The “seer” is blind, a witty trope that appears throughout Western literature.

Furthermore, Bil’am is supposedly so powerful that his mere pronouncements can change the course of history, but he is powerless in the face of his disobedient donkey! He needs a sword to kill it?! Ridiculous!

Bil’am is a comic figure; Balaq, who sent him, merely foolish, and the donkey comes off as the cleverest one of the bunch. Makes an ass out of all the others, you might say.

Not all of our commentators seem to be in on the joke; Pirqei Avot (5:8), from the first or second century CE, indicates that pi ha-aton, the “mouth of the ass,” was created on the sixth day of Creation just before Shabbat, grouping it with other very serious miracles.

Writing a millennium later, however, Rashi sees the irony. Here is his comment to Numbers 22:29 (לו יש חרב בידי; “If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”):

גנות גדולה היה לו דבר זה בעיני השרים,
זה הולך להרוג אומה שלמה בפיו, ולאתון זו צריך לכלי זיין
“It is a great disgrace in the eyes of the Moabite dignitaries [with whom he is traveling] - Bil’am is going to kill an entire nation with his words, but for a donkey he needs weapons of war?!”

The authors and editors of the Torah intended it to be eclectic and entertaining. It contains a wide variety of material: history, folktales, law, poetry, songs, love stories, erotic material, and, yes, humor.

And yet, we read the passage with Bil’am's talking donkey about a half-hour ago, and I did not hear a single person laugh.

OK, so it's in an ancient language which is nearly impossible to understand, even if you speak Hebrew. OK, so te'amei ha-miqra, the cantillation melody, is not conducive to comedic timing.

We simply do not expect to read the Torah in a way that is allows us to laugh. We take it awfully seriously. And frankly, that’s how we approach much of Jewish practice - anytime we are in the sanctuary, for example.

Yes, of course we need to be serious during tefillah. We read in Mishnah Berakhot (5:1):

אין עומדין להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש.
One must not stand up to pray without deep earnestness (literally, “heaviness of head”).

One cannot truly approach the Divine without being quite serious. Furthermore, says the Mishnah, some of our very pious ancestors used to sit in silence for one hour beforehand in order to prepare for prayer.

However, let me counter this with a quote from Voltaire:

"Dieu est un comédien, jouant devant un public trop effrayé pour rire."
“God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.”

We are taught that holiness means to tremble before God, to feel that this is serious, and not to laugh. And yet, sometimes the higher truths can be told with levity, speaking the truth in jest, you might say. We need not fear laughter and joy in the pursuit of holiness.

That is one of the primary lessons to be gleaned from Parashat Balaq: The Torah uses comedy to relay a very serious message. As Marc Zvi Brettler put it in his Jewish Study Bible:

“At times amusing, and somewhat mocking of the non-Israelite prophet [i.e. Bil’am], the message of this pericope is serious: The intent of the Lord reigns supreme and cannot be superseded. Even the powers of a well-known non-Israelite prophet are ultimately controlled by God.”

And hence the need to think about this in the context of this particular community. Rabbi Stecker, it’s true, is funny - far funnier than I am, as we have already established. But it’s not just us, the clergy. It’s all of us. We are the ones who make this place welcoming, a synagogue where all will want to gather and feel at home, where joy and levity are an integral part of the synagogue experience.

Services should be respectful, but not dour; we can find that sweet spot that incorporates levity and joy and yet still play by the rules.

To that end, I would like to offer a few suggestions for making this sanctuary and the rest of this building more welcoming to all:

Smile and greet people who you don’t know.

If somebody looks lost, find a gentle way to help him/her out.

If others are talking and it’s making it difficult for you to find your prayer space, please find a playful way to quiet them.

If a visitor is in “your” seat, use it as an opportunity to give a friendly smile and graciously sit somewhere else.

If somebody is speaking on a cell phone in the building on Shabbat or holidays, or texting, or taking photos, find a cheerful way to inform them that we discourage that. (Of course, if they’re reading my blog, let ‘em continue. Talmud Torah keneged kulam.)

Yes, we can have intellectual rigor and dignified worship and decorum. But let’s face it, folks: this community is about families! It’s about bringing people together for the sake of raising our stake in holiness. All of the things that we do, all of the ways that the clergy and everybody else devote their time, they contribute to this bottom line. And we need to go about this in an easygoing manner to do so effectively.

And yes, that’s just one more button that we have to hit as a community, one more task on an ever-growing stack - it’s not just the rabbi who can be light-hearted up here on the bimah; it’s all the rest of us as well. As we go about doing the work of building community in the pursuit of holiness, we have to do it with a smile.

Good spirits lead to a more serious understanding of what it is that we do as Jews, how we sanctify time. The donkey speaks the truth, and we only need to tremble so much.

Shabbat shalom!