Psalm 129

Let all who hate Zion fall back in shame. (129:5)

For most of Jewish history, love of Zion has united Jews. Zion represented the dream of a world in which Jews would regain their historic place and live in security in a perfect Garden of Eden society according to the values and practices of Torah. Dreams do come true, but there is a wide gap between the perfection of a dream and the realpolitik of reality.

Zionism is the movement to make the dream a reality. The modern state of Israel is our embodiment of the historic values of the love of Zion, the result of nearly 2000 years of prayers and 50-plus years of political activism. For the entire history of post-Temple Judaism, Jews have held Zion, the mount on which the Temple stood, as a place of pilgrimage. Life in Jerusalem and in other cities in which Jews lived, such as Hebron, Tiberius and Safed, was difficult. Nonetheless, small communities of Jews embraced life in and around Zion as a religious obligation and privilege.

There is room for disagreement about how successful the modern state of Israel has been in living up to the challenge of creating a state embodying Zionism, democracy, Jewish values, and security. There is no doubt that they have fallen short in some area, even as they have succeeded wildly in other areas. Who would have dreamed that the “ingathering of exiles” would have taken so many Jews from so many different part of the world and melded them into such a innovative powerhouse in such a relatively brief period of time?

It saddens me that there are still people in the world and in the Jewish community who believe that the world, Jewish and otherwise, would be better off today without a State of Israel. Let those who want to improve Israel stand up and let their voices be heard. Let those who want to dismantle and destroy the State be ashamed.

Divre Harav – February/16

Trivia Question: How many days of Hanukkah are there in 2017? You’ll find the answer by reading to the third paragraph of this article. No fair looking ahead!

I am writing this article for the February Voice early in January, shortly after winter arrived, measured by the onset of cold weather, ice, and snow. Around me, except for the evergreens, the trees are completely bare. No green (or even brown) is visible on the ground, only white. At the end of January we celebrated Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees. It is hard to imagine that elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, the sap is beginning to enliven the trees again and soon buds will begin to sprout.

The month of Adar begins this month, normally followed by the month of Nisan, in which we celebrate Passover. If we followed the normal pattern, we’d celebrate Purim on February 23 and Passover March 25. However, the Jewish calendar requires Passover to fall no sooner than a certain time before April 7, the pre-Gregorian calendar’s calculation of the spring equinox. In simpler terms, the calendar tries not to let Passover occur before the world begins to look spring-like! Therefore, every 2-3 years (according to a fixed pattern), a second month of Adar is added before Purim. So this year Purim will fall on March 24 and Passover will begin April 23 and end on April 30! Next Rosh Hashanah does not start until October 3, and Hanukkah begins December 24 and ends on New Year’s Day, 2017.

Now you know the correct answer to the trivia question, How many days of Hanukkah are there in 2017? You can amaze your friends, confound your enemies, and win countless bets because everyone who can count the branches of a Hanukkah menorah and subtract one for the shamash knows that there are eight, but you know the answer is nine: January 1, 2017 and December 12-20, 2017!

One more fun and confusing fact (because everything having to do with the Jewish calendar is confusing): I’ve already mentioned that there are two months of Adar. For the purpose of calculating Yahrtzeits and celebrating Purim, the added month of Adar is Adar I. If a person died in a non-leap-year Adar, his or her Yahrtzeit is observed in Adar II in a leap year, as is Purim.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • shana m’uberet: A leap year of 13 months. Literally, a pregnant year.
  • tekufah: equinox or solstice (Hebrew does not distinguish).
  • molad: the precise moment of the new moon. Literally, birth.
  • rishon: first, as in Adar Rishon, the first month of Adar.
  • sheni: second, as in Adar Sheni, the second month of Adar.

Psalm 128


You shall eat of your hands’ labor; you shall be happy and it shall be good for you. (128:2)

The key word in this verse is “labor.” Good things rarely come to us with no effort whatsoever. Sure, some people win the lottery or receive a large inheritance from a previously unknown great-uncle. But more typically, it is the people who work hard and selflessly with no expectation of reward who in the end are rewarded.

If you work hard on the things that really matter, you will see dividends.

My first job, other than babysitting, was as a busboy in a deli. I remember the satisfaction of depositing my first paycheck in the bank and the satisfaction the first time that I bought something with money that I had earned myself through hard work. I was making minimum wage and the work was hard. Over time, my salary went up slightly and I was promoted to work at the deli counter. I learned how to show up on time, follow instructions, do unpleasant jobs with a good attitude, and take initiative.

My next job was unskilled but not as messy; and each job after that relied on some specialized skills that I had gotten through educating myself. My happiness came from the satisfaction in what I had accomplished and the enjoyment of the challenge of the work.

Psalm 127

Unless Adonai builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless Adonai watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain. (127:1)

We are God’s junior partners in the maintenance of the world. Everything we build relies on the existence of consistent and predictable natural law. In order for the bridge to bear the weight of a given amount of traffic, the engineer has to know that the materials will behave according to the laws of physics. In order for the medicine to treat the illness, the doctor relies on predictable chemical and biological interactions between the substance and the biological entity.

Bridges fail. Medication fails. A friend of mine computer-models fractures in materials. His models can only approximate how the real material behaves. This happens not because the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are capricious, but rather because our knowledge of how those laws function in the real world is incomplete.

We could live for long stretches of time without being aware of the builder. For this reason, Judaism urges us to pause before we enjoy a product of the natural world and say a blessing. “You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal sovereign of the universe, who created the food we are about to eat.” That spark of gratitude reminds of that the house in which we live had a designer and a builder.

Psalm 126

January 11, 2016


When Adonai restores the fortunes of Zion, we are as dreamers. (126:1)

To be a Jew is to be an optimist and a dreamer. We don’t say “if God gives Zion back to us,” we say “when.” For nearly 2000 years of exile during which there was a Jewish presence but no Jewish control over Jerusalem, we introduced Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, with this Psalm on Shabbat. Our optimism asserts that our loss of sovereignty was only a temporary setback that could be corrected at any time. The Sabbath in Jewish tradition is celebrated as taste of the world to come, a day on which we experience the beauty and peace of messianic era. Shabbat embodied the optimism of the Jew. No matter how much time has gone by, no matter how much evil or hatred we experience in the world, Shabbat takes us back to the perfection of the garden of Eden.

In order to improve yourself to the greatest extent possible, you must have goals that are slightly beyond your reach. If your goal is to lose five pounds and you succeed and stop trying to lose weight, you miss the opportunity to lose ten pounds. If your goal is to increase your strength and endurance by taking a 50 mile bike ride, you might stop at that point and lose the opportunity to ride 60 miles. If your goal is to increase sales by 10%, you might lessen your efforts when you reach that mark and miss the opportunity to increase by 25%.

Optimism teaches us to celebrate our accomplishments even if we haven’t reached our goals. After setting the mark higher than you expect and losing only nine pounds instead of ten pounds; riding only 58 instead of 60 miles; or increasing sales only 20 instead of 25%, you can then notice with pride in accomplishment that you lost nine pounds instead of five pounds; rode 58 instead of 50 miles; and increased by 20% rather than 10%.

To be a Jew means to be an optimist and a dreamer.