Divre Harav – February, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Be as cautious in a minor mitzvah as in a major one, for you do not know what reward comes for a mitzvah.” Pirke Avot 2:1

I suspect that few of us believe that we receive a tangible, quantifiable, reward for doing mitzvot. I’m not talking about a sense of accomplishment or a sense of satisfaction, but some actual benefit, whether it be finding a better or quicker place in heaven after we die or receiving a material benefit on earth. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, religious leader of the rabbis of his generation and the editor of the Mishnah, alludes to a widespread believe that the performance of mitzvot carry a reward. However, he downplays this belief. The reward does not necessarily correspond to the act, he says. We should treat all religious behavior as is equally important, whether it be lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry.

The Talmud’s description of the process of conversion to Judaism describes teaching the potential convert some of the major and minor mitzvot, warning him of the punishment for disobeying and describing in general terms the reward of the world to come for the righteous. If he accepts the obligations of Torah, they circumcise him and as soon as possible, immerse him in a mikvah while teaching him some major and minor mitzvot (again). Women are taught major and minor mitzvot while standing in the mikvah, and then immerse. The Talmud never precisely defines a major mitzvah vs. a minor mitzvah, here too assumes that there is a reward for observance, but declines to define the reward.

The “Butterfly Effect,” a tem coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, is named for the idea that the path and severity of a hurricane could be influenced by minor disturbances in the air such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered that when modeling weather, small actions can have very large effects. The same idea holds within the social model of a community, local, regional, national, or beyond. We never know how the smallest actions we take might effect larger consequences. Our actions on a small scale might influence others in ways we never anticipated.

Rabbi Yehudah’s message is that all of our actions have significance. We should never think of our lives as inconsequential. At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can manipulate events for our benefit. Ultimately, we are called upon to be holy people and bring holiness into the world through our actions, large and small; to be good, without the expectation of being recognized or rewarded.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kal – easy; light; facile

Kal has three opposites, depending on the precise meaning:

  • Kasheh – difficult
  • Kaved – heavy
  • Hamur – serious

Divre Harav – January, 2017

The Mishnah of Pirke Avot is often translated as “Ethics of our Fathers” which describes the content of the Mishnah, but has nothing to do with its Hebrew title. A Perek is a chapter, and Avot are “fathers,” but the word is used in Rabbinic literature to refer to primary or fundamental categories. Thus, my teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Zahavy, translated the title of this tractate as “Chapters of Principles.” Most of Pirke Avot is a list of rabbis from the period of the Mishnah and Gemarah and a favorite saying of each one, naming a fundamental principle in which they believe.

Chapter two begins with the editor of the Mishnah, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi]. He says, “What is the upright path which a person should choose for oneself? Whatever brings honor to one’s maker and honor from one’s fellow human beings.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Rabbi Yehudah’s question is the fundamental question we should think about when we get up in the morning and before we engage in any behavior that affects other people. If you are known to be Jewish, a person of faith, then you need to be aware that anything you do, good or bad, will be associated with Judaism and the “Jewish God.“ How am I going to behave today, what am I going to do that which will reflects well on God, what can I do today to increase people’s respect for Jews and Judaism? How will my behavior cause other people to respond to me? Will their respect and admiration for me increase or decrease if I take this action?

For example, before sending an email, or before speaking your mind in public, ask yourself – will this honor God, and how will this make people think of me. We live in a world today in which communication is lightning fast and this creates an expectation of an equally speedy response. This may means that we answer with very little thought, without having thoroughly read or carefully considered the question. Rabbi Yehudah’s question encourages us to slow down and think before answering, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings.

Another example: I deal weekly with a set of people who read my Mlive.com Ethics and Religion Talk column and post comments. Some of them use a real name, some have corresponded with me privately so I know who they are, but most are anonymous. Perhaps this increases their inclination to use insulting or degrading language, or make outlandishly false claims against a position they disagree with. I have noticed that websites which require registration and verified real names tend to have a higher level of discourse than those who permit anonymity. If I don’t know who you are, you are able to cast insults without worrying that your reputation will be damaged. Rabbi Yehudah’s question should encourage each of us to pause before hitting the ‘submit’ button when we post on social media, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings, whether they know our name or not.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishnah – A second century Rabbinic expansion of the Jewish law and ethics of Torah.
  • Gemarah – a third to sixth century discussion and expansion of the Mishnah.
  • Talmud – The volumes in which Mishnah and Gemarah are published together.
  • Masekhet – One of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah.

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 – May/16

The festival of Shavuot is approaching, marking the beginning of summer on the Jewish calendar. We’re gathering on the first night for a program that is part social and part educational – a Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session. The topic this year is “Psalms and their role in liturgy and a life of religious practice.” If you’ve never participated, perhaps this year you’ll try it out. It’s an informal gather at my home (2021 Michigan St. NE) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 11. The Shavuot morning service the next morning reenacts the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai; on the second day of the festival, we recite Yizkor.

I chose this year’s Shavuot study topic because, for almost three years, I have been immersing myself in the poetry of the Psalmist and writing weekly reflections. On June 27, God willing, I will publish the reflection on the final Psalm, 150. I took on this project in part because for my own spiritual life, I needed a project that would bring me to parts of our Tanakh that I had never before thought about seriously. I needed something to break me out of patterns of habitual behavior, in which I only read and study material that I already know and feel comfortable with.

Most of us live our lives in habitual ways because the comfortable routine appeals to us. This is why when we ask people who are not accustomed to coming to synagogue services to participate in a weekday or Shabbat service, we most often do not succeed. Their is a vast gulf between one’s normal morning or weekend routine and the new routine of coming to Ahavas Israel early on a Wednesday or Thursday or at 9:30 am on Saturday morning. People tell me that they’d like to come more often or that they know they should come more often, but most often that desire is not strong enough to break an old habit and form a new one.

Living strictly according to the Jewish calendar can become just as habitual and thoughtless as a life disconnected from Jewish rhythms. Holidays which interrupt our schedule can help us pay more attention to the flow of time. Deliberately choosing to take on a new project or learn something outside our comfort zone can also take us out of habitual behavior. Please join me on Saturday night, June 11, to begin your celebration of Shavuot and your journey towards a more thoughtful life.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • tefillah – Prayer.
  • l’hitpallel – To pray.
  • l’har’her – To mediate.
  • lil’mod – To study.
  • l’la’meid – To teach.