Divre Harav – December 2016

The basic mitzvah of Hanukkah is to place the Hanukkiyah in a window or doorway so it is visible outside the home, thus publicizing the miracle. We tend to think of religious observance as a personal and private matter, and to some extent it is. My religious practice is my own business, not anyone else’s. It is not the government’s right nor my neighbor’s right to coerce me into spending my time or money in support of a religious institution – that’s how the establishment clause of the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States has been interpreted. However, that doesn’t mean that we, as individual religious people, are prohibited from sharing ourselves in the open marketplace of social and religious discourse. As Jews, we have a mitzvah to share our story with pride. The basic Hanukkah story, tossing aside the story of the long-burning oil for the moment, is that of a group of people who refused to compromise their basic belief in one God,  primacy of Torah, circumcision, sanctity of the Sabbath, and refusal to eat pork. We don’t need to be obnoxious about sharing the story. We’re not trying to save our neighbors’ souls. Rather, it is a matter of personal pride. Proud American might wear flag pins on their lapels. A rainbow bumper sticker shows support for LGBT issues. Pink ribbon pins draw attention to the need for increased funding for breast cancer research. The brightly lit Hanukkah menorah in the window proclaims religious freedom for all.

December is Jewish pride month. How many different foods can you fry in oil to remember lighting the menorah to rededicate the Temple? What is one thing you can do this month to show public pride in your Jewish identity that you would not otherwise do?

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hanukkiyah: The name for the nine branched Hanukkah menorah.
  • Brit: covenant
  • Milah: circumcision
  • Sufganiyot: Jelly donuts, a common Israel Hanukkah treat.
  • Sevivon: dreydel

Divre Harav, November 2016

For those of you who were out of town or unable to be at Ahavas Israel for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I encourage you to download my sermons from our website or contact the synagogue office and ask Deb to mail them to you. I hope you will find the messages both inspiring and challenging.

Now that a very busy month of holidays has passed we return to a normal 6 day rhythm punctuated by a Sabbath break. It has been about six months since we instituted our “Torah Study Shabbat” service schedule. The early morning Torah study has attracted about a dozen or so serious participants so when we begin our service at 10:30, we begin with more energy then then the other weeks of the month. We have not yet noticed that many of the people who said that they wanted a shorter service have been coming on the second Shabbat of the month, but there are still six months left in the initial stage of the experiment. Our Junior Congregation will also meet on the second Shabbat of the month so that will give greater incentive for another population to join together.

Perhaps the Torah study or the shortened service will be a gateway that will help you feel more comfortable in the Ahavas Israel community. Shabbat can be a social or a religious or even an educational anchor of a Jewish community. I love seeing people hanging around the meeting room or the library, not wanting to leave after services. With several more volunteers to shop, prepare kiddush, and clean up, we could prepare enough Kiddush food for a light lunch. This would enable those who wanted to stick around to study in the library or bring board games or just socialize. This community can be whatever you want it to you, as long as you are willing to put the time into it.

As Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream – im tirtzu, ein zo agada!”

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • agada – story
  • halom – dream
  • midrash – story, typically a commentary

Divre Harav – October, 2016

“Connect with your Jewish neighbors through Ahavas Israel”

The word havurah derives from the Hebrew denoting connection. Hibur means to make a connection; A haver is a friend. A Havurah is a group of people who come together because of shared interests, age, life experience, or geographic proximity. Sometimes a havurah functions as a synagogue, meeting every Shabbat, and sometimes havurot are formed within synagogues as a means to create a variety of small group programs and experiences.

A Havurah group might have a theme, such as:

  • Book discussion
  • Torah Study
  • Hebrew conversation
  • Yiddish conversation
  • Shabbat dinner
  • Havdalah
  • Game Nights
  • Garage sale for tzedaka
  • Sports event watching
  • Movie watching
  • Picnics
  • Other activities

Alternatively, a Havurah might meet as a group of people who live in proximity to each other who want to do a variety of the above activities. Ahavas Israel wants help you connect with your Jewish neighbors. We want you to find two friends with similar interests and let us know about your Havurah. We have a map of synagogue members so if you would like a list of people within a mile or two (or five) to invite, we can provide it. Meet monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly – the schedule is entirely up to you. We’d like to put your event on the calendar so others can see what you are doing and join you (although you may limit the group size, if you wish). We can provide you with study materials, book suggestions, instructions and booklets for Shabbat dinner rituals and Havdalah ceremonies. Just ask me for what you need.

***

High Holiday Preview: I typically begin serious work on my messages for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur about a month in advance. Here are some of the topics I’ve been working on:

Repentance – the power of teshuvah. Teshuvah can mean radical transformation, but sometimes the person who needs to do teshuvah is trapped in bad patterns of behavior. What might it mean to extend yourself beyond your comfortable boundaries to consider what it means to give others the chance to do teshuvah?

Sacrifice – What are we willing to sacrifice in order to support our most closely held beliefs?

What is the function of beating ourselves on the chest during the recitation of lists of sins? How might we reconsider the practice and turn it into something that leads to positive growth?

I wish you a happy and healthy new year and look forwarding to greeting you during this holiday season.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Teshuvah – repentance
  • Korban – sacrifice
  • Vidui – confession
  • Yamim Nora’im – Days of Awe

Divre Harav – September/16

The mystical text of the Zohar contains a notion that the Divine energy that vivifies the world depends on the unification of different aspects of God. Specifically, when God’s divine presence (known as the feminine Shekhina) is joined with the masculine aspect of Tiferet, God energy flows down and infuses the world.

The Zohar teaches:

As long as Torah is found within [Jerusalem], she endures, since Torah is the Tree of Life, standing over her. As long as Torah is aroused below, the Tree of Life does not depart above. If Torah ceases below, the Tree of Life withdraws from her. [Zohar, Pritzker ed., vol. 2, pg. 344]

The Tree of Life/Torah represents Tiferet and Jerusalem represents Shekhina. When we study and practice Torah, Jerusalem and the Tree of Life are in a symbolic union as Tiferet and Shekhina are united. If we should cease to live Torah, Tiferet breaks away from Shekhina. The practical result, according to the Zohar, is the eclipse of God’s blessings, such as rain.

Jerusalem is a city in which the ancient lives beneath the contemporary, the medieval alongside the modern, and innumerable religious streams of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others worship side by side. It is also a city in which religious differences create tension among her inhabitants. At the Western Wall plaza in front of the retaining wall around the platform on which the Biblical Temple stood, those tensions are between the Hareidi Orthodox and the Conservative/Reform Jews who each want to worship according to their community’s custom. However, the Hareidi chief rabbis of Israel and Jerusalem, appointed political positions, have claimed the entire plaza and forbade any worship that doesn’t conform to their Orthodox standards. Another group comprised of Conservative/Reform as well as Open Orthodox women want to worship on the plaza in a women’s only minyan. A third Conservative/Reform group want to create a new worship space adjacent to the current plaza for mixed worship.

Historically, the Kotel plaza was not a synagogue and people prayed as they wished. In the earlier years of the State of Israel the Kotel was a national civic/religious space. Now, has become a battleground for the right to define Judaism. Egalitarian-optional or strictly gender-segregated. Pluralist or monolithic. These questions are being fought in the legislature, in the courts, and in the press.

I can’t imagine that this is what our sages meant when they asserted that as long as Torah is found in Jerusalem, she will endure. There is a lot of Torah in Jerusalem that is being used as a club to beat down those who live by a different approach to Torah, and that is not the kind of learning and practice that the Zohar encourages. May there be enough loving Torah in Jerusalem to arouse the God’s Presence to unite with Tiferet, and may the Divine energy infuse the city with blessing.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Sefirah/Sefirot (pl) – the 10 mystical aspects of God
  • Hesed – the Sefirah of love
  • Din – the Sefirah of judgment
  • Gevurah – power, another name for Din
  • Zohar – radiance, the name of the late 13th century mystical commentary on Torah

Psalm 150

 

Let all that breathes praise Adonai. Hallelujah! (150:6)

I love the fact that the book of Psalms concludes with praise that comes from every living creature that draws a breath. Not just human beings, but every other animal joins with us in dedicating that breath to God. Every release of breath gives something back to God. We return carbon dioxide to nourish plant life. We release music to make the world beautiful. We release sounds and words of gratitude.

For some, criticism comes more naturally than praise. But living a life in which criticism comes as naturally as breathing is a recipe for unhappiness. Such people are focused on what is missing from their lives rather than the gifts they have received.

The book of Psalms contains words of people who are deeply afraid, unhappy, persecuted, and sick, reaching out to God for relief. The book concludes, however, with the words of people reaching out God in song and praise. At the end of my life I hope to face death and God with words of gratitude on my lips, for my wife, for my children, and for all that I have experienced in my life. Because we don’t know at what moment we might die, Pirke Avot suggests that we treat each hour as if it is our last (2:10). Consider the last sentence you spoke to a loved one. What if that were your final words? Would your last breath be leaving you carrying praise or condemnation?

Psalms concludes with an exercise in gratitude. How can your every exhaled breath contain appreciation?

I am grateful to God for the wisdom embodied in the 150 Psalms, reflecting the entirety of the range of human experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the poetry and use the life of the poet as a backdrop against which I have examined my own life. I am grateful to God for giving me the strength and perseverance to complete this project of Psalm reflections. As my thoughts have given me peace of mind, I hope that they have positively impacted other readers.

“May Adonai grant strength to God’s people. May Adonai bless God’s people with peace.” (Psalm 29:11)

.ה׳ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה׳ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם