Divre Harav – January, 2021

God made some animals to demonstrate God’s might and power, like the lion, the tiger, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the great white shark, and the blue whale.

Some animals are a demonstration of God’s beauty, like the antelope, the horse, the swan, and the dolphin.

Some animals make you believe that God has a sense of human, like the platypus, the penguin, and the monkey.

God made some animals to work with human beings, like horses or oxen, and some animals to feed us or clothe us, like sheep, goats, cows, or chickens.

God, the creator and designer, the engineer and driver of this grand experiment called planet Earth and the Milky Way galaxy and the boundless universe, will someday apologize, at least I hope, for mosquitoes, gnats, and cockroaches, some of God’s early insect experiments.

And then there are the animals that God made to be our companions, to live with us and talk with us and comfort us when we are sad and give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Cats and dogs and rabbits and birds and small animals like hamsters and gerbils, and various other animals that give us joy each day. In this category, there is no accounting for taste. Dog people and cat people will rarely agree, except when they puzzle over reptile lovers.

Why do we take animals into our homes? Companion animals are needy – who wants to walk a dog in the middle of a blizzard or a downpour? Expensive – not necessarily to buy, but the vet bills will kill you. Inconvenient – want to go on vacation? Who takes care of the fish? But we love them and we anthropopathize them with human feelings so that they love us back, and we are grateful to God for their playful nature, cuteness, and fuzziness (except for the snakes).

Many years ago, before I came to Grand Rapids, I lived in New York, down the street from the Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine, the largest Cathedral in the world. They hold a Blessing of the Pets each October in which they parade animals from elephants to giraffes, tarantulas to white rats, terrariums of snakes and bowls of fish, llamas, sheep, cows, pigs, goats, horses, dogs and cats and everything in between, down the main aisle, nearly two football fields long. Animals are followed by dancers waving banners representing seasons and other aspects of nature. The service is a celebration of God’s creation and a time to give thanks. Thousands of people sat with their pets on their laps or under their chairs, praising God for creation in general, and for those aspects which they had taken as their own in particular. Following the service, they went out onto the grounds where an army of priests individually blessed animals of all kinds, with the words, “May the Lord bless you and guard you; May the Lord shine His face upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord raise His face to you and grant you peace.”

God loves animals. As we say in Ashrei, Potei’ah et yadekha umasbia l’khol hai ratzon, “You open Your hands, and satisfy every living thing with favor.” Psalms 145:16

in memory of Mr. Macho Lipsner Krishef, June 3, 2011- December 4, 2020

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kelev – dog
  • Hatul – cat
  • Nahash – snake
  • Dag – fish
  • Kipod – hedgehog
  • Oger – hamster
  • Arnav – rabbit

Divre Harav – December/2020

Last month’s vandalism at the Ahavas Israel cemetery was shocking, disturbing. We wonder who would do such a thing, we wonder about their intent, their motivation. Were they trying to send a message, and if so — what was it? A week after the incident, we have far more questions than answers.

About a year ago on a cold September night in Duluth Minnesota, a nearly 120 year old synagogue burned down. It was a tragic fire. Churches and synagogues had been targets of hate crimes, and the early reporting reflected this fear. Less than a week after the fire, the police identified and arrested a suspect, a 36 year old homeless man. At 2:00 in the morning, he went in search of a place to sleep. He found a little shelter behind the synagogue and went inside. The small hut didn’t have a full roof. It was a Sukkah; Sukkot was approaching. He lit a small fire to keep warm. The fire got out of control and he went to a nearby gas station to call for help, but by the time he arrived, he heard the fire trucks on their way. He was arrested and immediately confessed and soon after pleaded guilty to a felony charge. He was not charge with a bias or hate crime because there was no intent to attack a synagogue or a Jewish community; he was just homeless and cold and careless.

No matter the motivation or lack thereof, losing a synagogue or finding graffiti on monuments in a cemetery is painful. But the outpouring of love and support from the community around us has reminded us that we live amongst a strongly supportive community. The day after we found the vandalism, a couple of the neighbors around the cemetery, on their own initiative, went over to scrub the paint off of the stones. They were joined by a women from Ann Arbor and several others who drove to the cemetery because they wanted to do something, as well as at least one person who stopped by to take care of their family’s gravestones.

Ed Miller, chair of the cemetery committee, and I received scores of emails, phone calls, and messages with offers of help, support, prayers, and contributions to upgrade the security of our cemetery. The notes came from a multitude of Christian perspectives — Catholic, Quaker, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Christian Reformed, among others — as well as Moslem, Hindu, and Unitarian, and Jewish communities around the country and world. We responded to each one with a sense of gratitude that we live in a community of caring, loving, people.

Hanukkah, beginning the evening of December 10, is a holiday celebrating light from the midst of darkness. The vandalism in our cemetery was an act of darkness, but the community’s response chased away the darkness with the light of love.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kever – grave
  • Beit K’varot – cemetery
  • Beit Olam – cemetery (literally, eternal home)
  • Matzeivah – monument

Divre Harav – November/2020

One of the results of the pandemic worldwide is the necessity of “doing Judaism” at home with less support from a community. Judaism has always been a home based religion, centered around the idea of each individual responsible for their own engagement with mitzvah. The requirement of minyan adds a community aspect to prayer, but prayer itself is an individual obligation.

The Zoom minyan or the broadcast of a service places a greater share of the responsibility of a spiritual experience on the individual. It’s easier to zone out and wander away when you’re not in the room with other people, standing, sitting, and hearing voices all around you. Some who are feeling unsatisfied by a Zoom minyan or by watching a broadcast of a service might therefore be wondering, how do I start a Jewish prayer practice? And how might my individual engagement with prayer enhance or support my engagement with a remote minyan?

Here are two paths to begin a Jewish Prayer 101 practice. What we generally refer to as prayer can be broken down into three major categories:

  • Meditation, which can be understood as quieting and preparing your mind for other forms of prayer;
  • Study, which can be understood as God communicating with you through sacred text;
  • Prayer, which can be understood as you communicating your needs, wants, and desires to God.

Although there is a long history of Jewish meditative practices, for most people, the prayer that feels most “Jewish” falls into the latter two categories.

The Shema consists of three paragraphs from the Torah – Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. it does not contain petitions addressed to God. Rather, it falls in the category of study. Through recitation of the shema, you will consider the role of love in your life; love of God, but also love of God’s creation – other people, animals, and nature. You will consider broadly the ways you express this love, intellectually, physically, and financially (with your heart, soul, and might). You will consider the consequences to the world around you of living rightly and wrongly (the second paragraph of the shema) and how remind yourself to stay on the right path (the third paragraph). The Shema is a total of only 20 verses, but there is a lot packed into those verses, enough that you might focus on a different lesson each day for several weeks before repeating a lesson.

The internal directions of the Shema are to recite the words twice a day, when you wake up and when you go to sleep. Any Jewish prayers can be recited in Hebrew, English, or any language you understand. Traditional synagogues are committed to Hebrew prayer because that is the language of the Bible and the historic language of our people, not because God doesn’t understand English. Part of your prayer practice could be to spend a little time learning what each Hebrew word means.

A prayer practice takes practice! Give it some time and you might consider keeping a journal of the thoughts that the Shema brings up for you. Let me know how it’s going.

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer
  • L’hitpallel – to pray
  • Berakha/Berakhot – blessing/blessings

Divre Harav – October/2020

When this pandemic is over, we will have fundamentally altered the definition of community. A minyan has long been defined as a mini-community. The boundaries of minyan are defined by the space of a room. You are either in the room and in the minyan, or out of the room and out of the minyan. If the room’s door or windows are open, however, and if someone is leaning in the window or standing in the doorway, than the liminal space is included in the minyan-space. And that slight extension of minyan opened the door, so to speak, for a kind of online minyan – at least for exigent circumstances. We treat your computer screen as a window into another space. And if a collection of spaces are connected in real time and there are 10 individuals within those spaces, it is as if a collection of individuals have become a community, a minyan. 

We began our online Monday through Friday minyan as a temporary measure to maintain some semblance of connection as pandemic closures began cutting us off from human contact, never thinking that more than six months later, we’d still be meeting, approaching our (God willing) 150th consecutive weekday morning minyan. We have people participating regularly in our minyan who have rarely or never come in person. Their is no question that they form a community that looks forward to seeing each other every weekday morning. 

When we begin broadcasting our Shabbat morning services online, several of those who had been coming in person decided to try out the online service at home. It’s convenient, to be sure. It’s great for those who cannot travel to Grand Rapids every week, those who have other mobility challenges, and those with health concerns about being in a closed space with others. But it does not create community. There is no connection among those who are watching, or between the leaders and the watchers. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that once a minyan is properly constituted, those watching may participate fully as if they were within the minyan, even saying Kaddish. But we need a minyan in the sanctuary for this to fully happen. So I have a request: If you are watching the broadcast and you hear me say that we are short of a minyan: if you are able to grab a mask and help make a minyan, would you come to the synagogue and help out?

Looking ahead another six month to when (again, God willing) we have an effective, widely-available, vaccine against COVID-19, how do we reconstitute our face-to-face community? How much of the virtual community do we retain, even though it takes away from our in-person minyan? We have fundamentally altered what it means to be part of a synagogue community. Can we take the best of the online opportunities and the best of the in-person minyan and build out from there? We can’t really eat together virtually – for that we need to be really together – but we can hold very effective and efficient meetings without taking the time and the gas to travel to the synagogue building. Can we create a hybrid weekday minyan, gathering some people in person and others through Zoom? Can we distinguish between weekdays and Shabbat and not let technology be a substitute for true community for our Sabbath service (at least for those who are able to join in person)?

In the meantime, those of you who are young enough to imagine being a part of a 22nd century Ahavas Israel will someday look back and know that you were part of an amazing era of synagogue transformation!

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Minyan – a quorum of 10 adults
  • Mei-ayin – “from where,” as in ‘Where are you from?’
  • Mi-nayin – “from where,” (Talmudic expression) as in ‘Where [do you know that] from?’, ‘How do you know?’

Divre Harav – September/2020

Over the past five months plus, I have become an expert in participating in prayer online. No matter what the status of COVID-19 cases might be in West Michigan in mid-September, some will not be comfortable in an in-person service. And Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur might be your first experience in a virtual synagogue environment. Here are some things you should know:

First, the service this year will be significantly different than in the past. We have designed it with the pandemic in mind. It will be shorter, to reduce potential exposure time of those sitting in the sanctuary, to acknowledge that wearing face-masks for a prolonged service is uncomfortable, and because we know that it is more difficult to remain engaged while watching a service through a screen.

We have crafted this service carefully, choosing prayers that are engaging, even while sitting at home. But in the end, the service is only as active as you are. The trick is to place yourself in a sacred frame of mind and imagine that you are sitting in your favorite seat in the sanctuary, no matter where you are physically located. Stand when the congregation stands, bow when the congregation bows. respond – out loud – when the congregation responds. Sing along with Cantor Stuart and read the English readings along with me. Don’t stand by and watch — Participate!

We are making High Holiday Mahzorim available for you to take home for each person in your household. Set aside your electronic devices and turn off the notification on the screen that serves as your window into Ahavas Israel. For 90 minutes (or so), follow along and contemplate the themes laid out before you in the liturgy. The season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of renewal. Draw your attention to the areas in your life which would benefit from breathing new life into them. The New Year and the Day of Atonement is about strengthening relationships with family, reconnecting with friends, remembering to be generous, giving, and kind to yourself and others, establishing a prayer routine, and finding God at the center of your consciousness.

Leo Laporte, a tech journalist, describes the consumption of media as a “sit-back experience,” versus the “lean-in experience” of interacting with the content. I encourage you to lean into your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience with an active posture and an active mind. If you take my advice, whether you are sitting in the pews or sitting at home, I virtually guarantee that you will be transformed!

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Mashgiah Ruhani – spiritual advisor