Divre Harav – January, 2023

Deuteronomy 31:30 describes the land of Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This phrase evokes the image of richness and sweetness of milk, cheese, yoghurt, and ice cream, sweetened with honey made from figs, dates, or sometimes made by bees. Exploring the nature of the land of Israel will be a part of the Tu Bishvat Seder that we’ll celebrate together with Temple Emanuel early next month (February 5, 5:30 p.m., at Temple Emanuel), which will also will explore the mystical/environmental side of Jewish thought and practice.

The Seder is based on the notion that we live in four different kinds of worlds. At the basic level, we live in the world of asiyah, action. This is a physical world ruled by the expected laws of nature, physics, chemistry, and biology. In the fruits of the Seder, this world is represented by nuts with a hard shell, representing a world in which the spark of God’s presence is hidden. It is also represented by winter, a time of year in which a great deal of life is hidden and dormant.

We also live in the world of Yetzirah, formation. In the spring, life begins to sprout. Transcending the physical world, this world encompasses emotion and creativity. This is represented in the fruits of the Seder by fruits with an inedible pit. The seed is the blueprint for the fruit. Contained in the seed is the excitement of new life. We can imagine what the seed will become, the life that will be born. This level is also represented by spring, a time when God’s presence blossoms like a sprouting seed.

Above Yetzirah, we find the world of Beriah, the world of creation. This is the realm of thought. We hold the concept of something in our head, we envision it, but we have not yet taken steps to put together the elements. This stage is represented by fruit which is completely edible. This is also represented by the warmth of summer, when living beings sense God’s energy. This is the feeling of the nullification of the self, when we feel ourselves to be completely aligned with God.

Finally, the highest world is Atzilut, the world of emanation. This space is dominated by the infinite God alone, which radiates its energy down through the lower levels. Rather than the taste of fruit, this stage is represented by the sweet or energizing smell of spices like cinnamon, rosemary or cedar, indicating that we don’t exist on this plane, but we can be aware of its presence. This stage is represented by fall, a time when we celebrate the fullness of the harvest.

These four world intersect with the the seven species of grain and fruit of the land of Israel mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8: wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates or date honey, foods typically eaten at a Tu Bishvat Seder. I hope you’ll join me, Rabbi Schadick, and Cantor Fair to celebrate Tu Bishvat with a seder and a light dinner on February 5, 5:30 p.m., at Temple Emanuel.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • hita – wheat
  • s’orah – barley
  • gefen – a vine (as in grapes)
  • t’einah – fig
  • rimon – pomegranate
  • zayit (shemen) – olive (oil)
  • d’vash – honey

Divre Harav – December, 2022

Monday through Friday, we meet for weekday morning prayers. Each day but Thursday, we meet online at 8:00 a.m. using zoom and we pray without a minyan. Thursdays, we meet in person at 7:15 a.m. in the chapel. We would like to have a minyan, although it is rare that we have one. Every day, I wake up and take myself and all of my baggage into the service.

  • • Some mornings I wake up with anxiety or worries that I’m carrying from the day before or the previous week.
  • • Some mornings I wake up with anxiety or worry because of some particularly difficult talk or conversation or meeting I need to handle that day.
  • • Some mornings I just wake up tired or low energy and don’t feel like getting moving.
  • • Some mornings I wake up with the sun streaming in the window and leap out of bed ready to greet a new day!

No matter in what state I find myself when I wake up, when I take time for a little morning prayer, I feel emotionally and spiritually centered and better able to begin my day.

If I am feeling good, I notice the portions of liturgy which remind me to be grateful. If I am feeling tired, the morning blessings remind me that God, who infuses energy into the world, will also restore me to my fully charged state. If I am worried about something I need to do, my prayers remind me that God redeems, supports and protects me. As long as I do my part by being prepared and fully present for the encounter, I’ll be OK and the outcome will lead to something positive. And if I’m still carrying anxiety from the day or week before, the liturgy reminds me that today is a newly day created for me by God so that I can let yesterday go and forget yesterday’s mistakes and start over again with a fresh slate.

Some religious traditions prefer to take one idea, such as compassion, and sit in meditation for an hour with that word in one’s mind and heart. Our tradition prefer to give us a cascade of words and ideas to throw at your soul, because what sticks today is not necessarily what will stick with us next week. Perhaps today we need to have compassion for ourselves or our partner, but next week what we need to to see more justice in the world around us, and next month we want to know that God forgives us when we don’t live up to our best selves. That which I need may be different than that which you need. We read the same prayers, but we may come away with different pieces of liturgy echoing in our souls.

Prayer is a practice. That is to say, prayer takes practice. It doesn’t necessarily work immediately. It takes time to become comfortable with the prayers, to understand them well enough that a certain pattern of words can fly by and wrap themselves around our heart. At that moment, we might experience deep satisfaction. We might stop and sit with those words for a while to puzzle out what they are trying to teach us about they way we are or should be living our lives.

I wake up each day to go to online or in-person services because the experience of praying with other people, minyan or not, is more powerful than praying by myself. Perhaps you’ll join me. 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Shaharit – The morning service, from the word meaning ‘dawn.’
  • Minha – The afternoon service, from the world meaning ‘gift.’
  • Ma’ariv – The evening service, from the world meaning ‘evening.’

Divre Harav – November, 2022

The month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot is called Tishrei. The month we celebrate Hanukkah is called Kislev. The month in between is the only month in the Hebrew calendar in which there are no holidays. It is commonly referred to as Heshvan, although that is not the proper name. The real name of the month is Marheshvan, and midrash suggests that the Mar is a prefix added to the proper name because Mar, like the maror on Pesah, means “bitter.” It might be a nice midrash to think that a month without holidays is sad and bitter, but it is a completely wrong understanding of what the name Marheshvan means. The Akkadian name of the month is warah-sh’van. The Akkadian ’v’ or ‘w’ and the Hebrew ‘m’ interchange. Warah is related to the Hebrew word yerah, month; and sh’van is related to the Hebrew word shemini, eighth. So Marheshvan is the eighth month, following Tishrei, the seventh month.

Why does the New Year fall in the seventh month? First, because the Bible says it does. Second, because the Bible considers Passover to be the celebration of the national beginning of Israel, so it considers Nisan, the month of Passover, to be the first month. That makes Rosh Hashanah fall in the seventh month.

Marheshvan can fall any time from late October to early December. And while it is true that there are no Jewish holidays during that time, there is one American civil holiday which is fully consistent with Jewish values, and that is Thanksgiving. Leaving aside the problematic aspects of the history of the holiday, the concept of Thankgiving aligns perfectly with our celebration of Sukkot, also a festival celebrating the blessings of the harvest.

There is of course one other American holiday in this time period. Halloween. My ambivalence about the celebration of Halloween comes because Judaism has an overabundance of holidays. In traditional Jewish life, there are more than 35 major and minor festivals, not including the weekly Sabbath. Purim even includes the opportunity to dress up in costumes and receive gifts of food from our friends (and of course give gifts as well). For adults, Purim is a time when we are encouraged to get a bit tipsy – how great is that for a religious holiday!

I love celebrating holidays, but I have all I can handle with our own holidays, plus a few civic holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. I don’t have the energy to add onto the rich tapestry of Jewish holidays.

I do not encourage the celebration of Halloween because I would rather see the time, energy, and money spent on Halloween instead devoted to living Jewish life and celebrating Jewish holidays with more enthusiasm. On the other hand, I do not actively discourage Halloween because there is nothing inherently evil about dressing up and getting treats from our neighbors, and besides, being the grinch trying to fight halloween is a losing battle.

My personal ambivalence about Halloween has had absolutely no effect on my family. My children used to love Halloween. At a certain point, Marisa and I gave up and started counting the years until they would be too old for trick or treating. And in the meantime, we consoled ourselves by stealing their candy.

Hebrew Words of the Month – Memorize the Hebrew months:

  • Tishrei
  • Marheshvan
  • Kislev
  • Tevet
  • Sh’vat
  • Adar
  • Nisan
  • Iyar
  • Sivan
  • Tammuz
  • Av
  • Elul

Divre Harav – October, 2022

What is a home? Is it the four walls that we live in? Is it the furnishings, the chairs we sit on, the dishes we serve on, the people we live with?

In the rides I’ve taken with the Grand Rapids Police Department as a COP (Clergy on Patrol), I’ve learned that when officers interview people from poor areas of the city, the question “where do you live?” does not always elicit a useful response. Often, people who encounter police officers don’t have a home, they don’t “live” anywhere. So in order to get an address, the officers instead ask, “Where do you stay?” The four walls are always changing, the furnishings and the bed or couch rotate, and the people who provide the hospitality are not always the same. So it doesn’t feel like a home in which they live, but rather a place they stay until they need to find another place to stay.

The holiday of Sukkot cultivates that kind of rootlessness. It’s a temporary place that provides uncertain shelter. On a glorious sunny day or a crisp cloudless night, it’s a wonderful place to sit down for a meal. In the bitter cold of a windy, snowy day, or when cold rain drops through the porous covering, it’s not quite so comfortable. But once a year, for seven days, it’s a mitzvah to uproot oneself from one’s home and stay, for meals at least, in the sukkah.

It’s a gratitude practice. It’s a reminder not to take one’s home or one’s comfort or security for granted. It’s a reminder of the fragility of our lives and how much we depend on God and other people for support. Don’t let Sukkot pass you by without making time to visit the synagogue Sukkah (or build one of your own). We’ll have Kiddush in the Sukkah on the Monday and Tuesday Yom Tov days of Sukkot and on Shabbat. During Sukkot, I’ll be eating my lunch out in the Sukkah, either at home or at the synagogue. I’d welcome company. And see elsewhere in the Voice for details about the joint Sukkot dinner with Temple Emanuel, the “Chili” Sukkot, on Wednesday evening, October 12.

I wish you a joyous Festival of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah, and I hope to see you returning to the synagogue to celebrate with us.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • • s’khakh – the covering of a Sukkah, comprised solely of materials grown from the land.

Divre Harav – September, 2022

Having a Jewish consciousness means that when the summer days get noticeably shorter, you begin thinking about Rosh Hashanah. And when you begin thinking about Rosh Hashanah, you start thinking about buying a lulav and etrog or building a Sukkah or at least eating a meal in a Sukkah. Being mindfully Jewish means that the rhythm of your year is connected with the natural world. Changes in temperature associated with transitions from summer to fall, fall to winter, to spring, and back to summer will remind you of Hanukkah as the winter begins, Tu Bishvat as you pass the midpoint of winter, Purim at the very end of winter, Pesah as spring begins to push its way onto the scene, Shavuot as summer breaks through, Tisha b’Av at the peak of summer, and then we begin anew.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described this kind of conscious exhibited by “The Halakhic Man” in the book of that name. The person who embodies Jewish consciousness views the world through the lens of Torah, Jewish commentaries and teachings, and Jewish practice. If there is a tree hanging over a deck, you might consider that the branches of the tree would make fine cover (“Skhakh”) for a Sukkah, but you can’t put the Sukkah on the deck because you can’t build a Sukkah under a tree. You might look at a banana and see a fruit from a plant (… “borei p’ri ha’adama”), and look at an apple and see a fruit from a tree (“borei p’ri ha’etz”).

I had a moment of this kind of Jewish consciousness when I heard the late comedian Buddy Hackett’s duck story. Have you heard his duck story? If not, you can watch it here (beginning at 2:55): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aww4HT5g7ig (if you’re reading the print version of this column, you can either google “Buddy Hackett Duck story” or go AhavasIsraelGR.org, find my column online, and click the link). When I heard the story, I immediately put it into the context of a teaching from the Mishnah of Baba Metzia (1:4) regarding claiming found property. A person who sees a bird that cannot fly or a lame deer on his property can claim, “My field has acquired it for me” and take possession over someone who had been tracking the deer or chasing the bird. A much better solution than the farmer’s in Buddy’s story, right? The principles in the first couple of chapters of this tractate help to adjudicated disputes over who has taken possession of various kinds of property in different situations. Essentially, the goal of this order of Mishnah (“damages,” covering many topics of civil and criminal law) is to serve as a guide to creating a harmonious society.

Our holidays and our sacred texts can give us that same kind of elevated consciousness, nudging us towards living in harmony with the world and the people around us. Rosh Hashanah begins with the fundamental premise that our first step is to do the internal work to align our behavior in order to resolve conflict with others. May you use the sacred time of Elul, the month in advance of Rosh Hashanah, to reach out and restore relationships, and may you enter the new year of 5783 with peace and harmony.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishnah – A second century collection of material describing Jewish life in a post-Temple world.
  • Talmud – The Mishnah plus a commentary on mishnah called Gemara, the major source of halakha, the system of Jewish law that created post-Biblical Judaism.
    • Seder – “order” or section. The Mishnah has six primary sections.
    • Masekhet – Each Seder is divided into many Tractates on a broad topic.
    • Perek – Each Tractate is divided into chapters, and each chapter, into mishnayot.