Psalm 107

He gathered in from the lands, from east and west, from the north and from the south. (107:3)

The Psalmist’s vision is literally true. Israel is populated by Jews from Europe and Russia in the North, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa in the South, Iran, Iraq, Yemin, and Syria in the East, and North and South America in the West. Jews from those countries and more, many of whom experienced terrible persecution in their country of origin, were redeemed by God as they were able to resettle in the land promised to the earliest followers of YHWH, Adonai, God of Israel.

For me, Israel has functioned as the base station of a cordless phone. As the battery dies, the phone loses the ability to make a connection. Periodically, it needs to return to the base to recharge and renew its connection.

I had a spark of a sense of God’s presence growing up in my synagogue and going to Jewish camps, especially Ramah. But that spark grew into a flame the first time I visited Israel with the Ramah Seminar, which kindled the desire to return again to study at the Hebrew University for my junior year. I’ve been back every 5-7 years ever since, frequently enough to continue stoking the fire, not as frequently as I would ideally like.

Israel is the place where my language of prayer and study is also the language in which I order from a menu and listen to my friends’ children talk about their lives in a babble of language from which I recognize every fifth word. Israel is the place where the fundamental Jewish rituals of my life are embedded into the fabric of everyday life: Shabbat is the weekend, kosher meat is the norm sold in stores, specialty butcher shops exists to sell pork and other treif! Israel is the place where Jews can support the government, oppose the government, and ignore the government without being called self-hating Jews. In other words, while outside of Israel the Jewish commitment of Jews who vote against “Jewish interests” is questioned, within Israel, Jews can disagree with their neighbors politics and not be accused of betraying Judaism.

Israel is sometimes called “the beginning of the flowering of redemption.” When Jews can disagree about anything and everything but still doven and have Shabbat dinner together, that might be the definition of complete redemption. Israel isn’t there yet and certainly diaspora communities are not either, but we keep working on it. And that’s the Jewish way.

Divre Harav – September 2015

Food sustains our physical selves and plays an important role in keeping us emotionally and spiritually healthy. Food can connect us with one another. The preparation of food binds parents to children or binds a group of people preparing a meal together. The act of eating food with other people is perhaps the most important social bonding experience.

Jewish practice makes the act of eating into a holy act by means of a combination of the elements of mindful eating, food blessings, and kashrut. We eat mindfully when we pay attention to the quality and quantity of food that we put into our bodies. We cultivate gratitude when we say blessings to God for the food that we consume. Kashrut is a complicated system, combining elements of awareness of the sacred nature of all things, sensitivity toward animal life, reverence for human life, and a way to bind Jews together.

In an ideal Conservative Synagogue, every member would have a kosher home. We live in the real world in which this is not the case, but the Synagogue ought to be a consistent and gentle reminder of the ideal. One such reminder happens every time we eat together as a Synagogue community and notice the kind of food which is served. In order to have the option of a new kind of community-building program involving food, the Religious Life Committee created some guidelines to permit experimentation with potluck meals in the Synagogue. A potluck meal experience in which we encourage everyone to contribute something that would meet a kosher standard, even from a non-kosher home, can bring our community together in a new way. The committee created three simple rules regarding food prepared without recognized kashrut supervision (such as in people’s homes) that are easy to understand and follow, and added two additional suggestions that would increase the likelihood that those who are more traditionally observant will be able to eat as well:

  1. 1. All food must be dairy, kosher fish, or vegetarian (no poultry or meat).
  2. 2. All service and eating utensils will be disposable and tables will be covered.
  3. 3. Food may not be brought into either of the Synagogue’s kitchens.
  4. 4.

In addition, we suggest, although we do not require, that those bringing food from non-kosher homes use kosher-supervised ingredients and cook in disposable pans as much as possible. We also suggest that the committee in charge of the potluck be sensitive to the variety of kashrut and other dietary restrictions of our members and make a reasonable effort to ensure that all who want to participate will find something that they are able to eat.

As much as food is about community-building, it is also about trust. In order to eat someone else’s food, we need to trust that the ingredients and method of preparation are consistent with our dietary requirements. If we have food allergies, the trust we place in the food we eat literally may mean life or death. The Religious Life committee, the Board of Trustees, and I, believe that we, as a community, can trust each other to feed each other properly while preserving the integrity and the kashrut of the Synagogue.

At the same time as we are open for potluck sharing of food, we also want to enable more people to prepare food in the Synagogue. Ahavas Israel holds a fairly strict standard of Kashrut for our kitchens, but even for those who do not keep kosher in their own homes, it is not hard to learn. Paula Miller will be leading a “kitchen orientation” at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 14. Please contact Paula Miller with any questions.

Psalm 106

They grumbled in their tents … (106:25)

Very few people look forward to dealing with angry, malcontented, frustrated, or unhappy people, although some are better at it than others. I am amazed at how well a good customer service person can diffuse my anger when I call about a mistake, a broken or lost product, or some technical support. That’s their job and they take pride in how well they do it.

When meeting with clients or working with co-workers, most people try to show their best selves. We focus on the task at hand to accomplish something positive rather than complain about the things that are going wrong in our lives. No one enjoys spending extended time at work with a grumpy co-worker.

After an exhausting and perhaps frustrating day at work or on the commute or with the kids or running errands and driving carpool, we come home or our spouse comes home, and what’s the first thing we are tempted to do? Complain about our day! All of the grumbling and whining that we held inside all day because we were being good professionals comes pouring out! All of the frustrations that we kept inside because we were being good parents burst forth!

Granted, a good spouse understands that sometimes we need to get something off our chest. But if grumbling is the first thing out of our mouth when we come through the door or moaning and kvetching is the first thing we hear when our spouse enters the house, it puts a major damper on the excitement of coming home welcoming one’s beloved at the end of a long day apart.

Try this as an exercise: Pause before coming in the door and take a deep breath. Let out the tension and put a smile on your face. Do the same thing inside the house when you hear the garage door or the door to the house open. Set aside the bellyaching for a bit and enjoy seeing your family again. Greet them with a smile of gratitude for all the pleasure they bring you. There is a time and a place for “grumbling in the tent,” but if you lead with positivity and happiness, you might find that your complaints are not quite as significant as you first thought.

Psalm 105

God is ever mindful of God’s covenant, the promise God gave for a thousand generations (105:8)

Even in this era of contracts and written agreements and attorneys, we depend on people and businesses who make verbal promises to keep their word. We wait for the repairman or the cable guy who said he would arrive between 8:00 and noon. We drop off our cleaning or a pair of shoes to be resoled or pants to be tailored receive in return a promised that it will be ready by Tuesday at 4:00. We need some specialty item and call ahead to the store to ensure it is in stock before we make a special trip. We make appointments to see doctors, to have our hair or nails done, to have our teeth checked or our pets groomed and expect that we will be seen at or close to our appointment time.

Our lives would be in chaos if we couldn’t rely on the people around us to keep their word. How frustrating is it to make plans to meet a friend at a certain time, only to have her cancel at the last minute or show up a half hour late or not at all!

The Kol Nidre prayer at the beginning of Yom Kippur acknowledges that there are times that we do not keep our word. By asking forgiveness from God for those lapses, we acknowledge that every unfulfilled promise is an offense against God. Therefore, we should treat every promise as a sacred commitment. Words that come out of our mouth should be as strong as a written contract drawn up by attorneys. A promise made in private should be as reliable as a written agreement notarized and signed by witnesses.

Understanding that sometimes a broken promise is unavoidable, under normal circumstances our word should be like God’s covenantal promise, everlasting.

Psalm 104

… Leviathan that You formed to play with. (104:26)

The central images in this Psalm about God as creator depict God as provider. The trees and the earth get their water, the lions get their prey, the cattle get their grass, and human beings get wine and oil. Yet buried in the description of the sea are a few words which describe the creator God in very different terms — God plays! What a wonderful concept, a God who creates with playful enjoyment.

First, let’s be clear that all language about God is symbolic. God has no arms, legs, fingers, eyes, or nose. God is not a lover or a warrior. God is not happy, sad, angry or jealous. All such language describes the human body-centered condition. However, human language is all we have to share ideas with each other, so when we talk about God we by necessity describe God in human terms.

We describe God using terms of negative emotion because a dash of anger is sometimes appropriate, as is a hint of jealousy and a certain amount of sadness. Other descriptions of God are aspirational – we imagine that God is loving to challenge ourselves to be loving. We describe God as just because we believe in the principles of human justice. The depiction of a playful God reminds us that while work and study of Torah are important, so too it is important that we set aside time to be frivolous.  God didn’t create the world so we could spend every moment in serious contemplation and service. The world contains items with no purpose other than for our amusement and so it is our duty to be amused by them. The Talmud tells us that God will hold us accountable for every earthly pleasure we denied ourselves to which we were entitled (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12). While the Talmud spoke about the pleasures of food, it is equally true with respect to other physical or emotional pleasures. God is playful, and we, too, should be playful.