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.

Service Schedule Change

Last summer’s congregation survey reported and recent conversations confirmed that a number of people have said they would come to services more often than they currently do if only the service was shorter. On one hand, the people who doven in the Ahavas Israel community religiously, week after week, appreciate a traditional service, which, no doubt about it, is long. On the other hand, we want people to be able to find a satisfying worship experience at Ahavas Israel. Therefore, I have proposed an experiment to the Religious Life committee. On the second Shabbat of each month we will alter our Shabbat morning schedule and service in order to shorten the service significantly.

We’ll begin at 9:30 a.m. with bagels and Torah study. The service will begin at 10:30, with a goal of finishing by 11:45. We’ll try this for a minimum of 12 months, but begin to gather feedback after the first six months. Please be patient for the first couple of months. It may take a little experimentation to get the timing right.

I’m hoping that the multi-faceted experience will draw in both those who like Torah study, even if they don’t stay for the service, and those who want a shorter service, even if they don’t come early for the Torah study. I’m also hoping that our regulars who appreciate a traditional experience will enjoy the extended Torah study and also find the quicker service tolerable, once a month.

The first of the monthly Torah Study Shabbat services will take place on June 11. Subsequent dates will be July 9, August 13, September 10, October 8, November 12, and December 10. The schedule will be:

  • 9:30 a.m. bagels and Torah study
  • 10:30 a.m. Service
  • 11:45 a.m. Kiddush

Divre Harav – May/16

It used to be, back in pre-modern times, that there was a tall, thick wall between Jews and Christian. Jewish identity was protected by this wall, which formed a protective barrier around us by making it very difficult for outsiders to get in. There was a way through the way from the Jewish side to the Christian side, but Christians didn’t want anyone going the other way so they guarded their side of the wall. Jews were suspicious of anyone who tried to cross onto our side, examining them carefully and turning them away several times before finally letting them in.

As the 18th century enlightenment dawned, the walls between communities began coming down, replaced by neat picket fences. In general, people stayed on their own sides, but we begin having polite conversations over the fence. Most elements of the Jewish community welcomed the new openness in society, although some Hasidic or what came to be known later as Hareidi Jews built new, higher, walls around their lives.

As we reached the late-20th century, the picket fences began to be perforated by gates and more often the not, the gates were left open. People freely visited each other’s homes, married and raised children together. Jewish identity, once so clearly defined by walls or fences, became more challenging to define.

In the early 21st century, we live in a society defined by the consumer marketplace. Shoppers have access to food, clothing, and products from around the world delivered right to their doorstep at the click of a button. Religious community is not immune from this. It is easy to design a ritual that precisely reflects an individual’s Jewish identity, including elements from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, if you wish. A religious community like ours which reflects a particular path to God has to compete in this marketplace and demonstrate how and why our path is rewarding, meaningful, compelling, and true. We host visitors wishing to sample our product. If they like what they see, they might consider staying in our area; otherwise, they move on and sample another community.

Our challenge, then, is to maintain appropriate boundaries that preserve our identity, but at the same time keep our gates open and welcome visitors, knowing that many are just passing through but some will stay.  And those who stay will enrich our community by the many gifts they bring with them.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • ger – In the Bible, a stranger living in a foreign community; in post-Biblical Hebrew, a convert.
  • kahal or Kehillah – congregation
  • Adah – congregation. Adat – ‘congregation of,’ as in Adat Shalom
  • Bayit – house. Beit – ‘house of,’ as in Beit Yisrael. Sometimes written in English as Beth, as in Beth El.

Divre Harav – April/16

One of the findings from last summer’s congregational survey and the ongoing strategic planning process is a desire for more social connections within the congregational family. When people walk into a synagogue for a service, a class, a program, or a party, they want to feel connected to the other people in the room.

All Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and Passover in particular, are appropriate times to reach out and extend hospitality to another person or family in the congregation or beyond. I know that many families already do this, but I want to throw out a challenge. If you invite the same people year after year, I’d like you to consider the fact that every congregation changes over time. Some people leave, and new people come in. For Ahavas Israel to be as warm as welcoming as we know we can be requires that each of us periodically break out of our closed groups and welcome in someone new. I challenge you to invite someone you’ve never had over to your home. If you need a hand finding someone, let me know. I can connect you with a more recent member, potential member, individual or family.

I saw a beautiful story about the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who founded a synagogue in Berkeley during the 1960’s in order to reach out to the many young Jews who had drifted away from Jewish tradition. He named it “The House of Love and Prayer.” In the summer of 1967, he was asked to explain his vision for this synagogue.

He answered: “Here’s the whole thing, simple as it is. The House of Love and Prayer is a place where, when you walk in, someone loves you, and when you walk out, someone misses you.” 

Our synagogue is named “The Love of Israel.” How powerful would it be if each of us embraced the idea that love is a fundamental part of our identify as a congregation, the core of our mission statement! The essential meaning of Passover is tied up with the idea of transformation, from slave to free person, from a loose collection of individuals to a community. I wish you and your families a Passover of blessing and liberation from all that enslaves you.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • SederOrder. The Passover meal is so named because of the well defined order of the ritual.
  • SiddurPrayer book, so named because of the useful arrangement of prayers within each service.
  • Mazhor – Best known as a High Holiday prayer book, but also can refer to a special prayer book for Festivals. From the root hazar, meaning return, referring to the calendar cycle.
  • MitzrayimEgypt, from the root Metzar, meaning a narrow place, so named because of the narrow habitable area surrounding the Nile river. In addition, Mitzrayim in the Bible is a symbol of narrowness, oppression, and slavery.

Psalm 133

February 29, 2016

Divre Harav – March/16

For almost three years, I have been publishing reflections on Psalms, one a week. In only three months I will have finished all 150 Psalms. I’ve been doing this because the study of sacred literature for the purpose of spiritual development is a key practice of Judaism.There is a wide range of Jewish literature to study along with classical or modern commentaries, such as Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Zohar. I find that the discipline of study opens me up to whatever message resonates when I open up the book and start reading. I think of it as a message from the Divine, plucking at whichever one of my heartstrings that needs plucking at that particular moment. Here is my reflection on a verse from Psalm 133, at three verses, one of the shortest Psalms in the book.

Psalm 133

How good and how pleasant it is that siblings dwell together. (133:1)

This verse is one of the most well known verses of Psalms. Of course, ‘siblings’ (or more literally, ‘brothers’) is meant to be read broadly, as members of a tribe or nation. How wonderful it is when we all get along, and how awful it is when we don’t. Who can forget Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers for using excessive force during his arrest, “Can we all get along?”

Since then, St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Minneapolis have also become flash-points in our country’s struggle to create the kind of society Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, one in which all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is true that siblings don’t always get along. We’re not describing a pollyannaish future in which arguments cease to exist and we sit around every evening around the campfire singing Kumbaya. We disagree, we argue, we might even yell at times, but at the end of the day we find a way to come to an agreement.

The Mishnah speaks about disagreements that are “l’shem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. We reach this point when we understand and appreciate the other person’s perspective, even when we disagree. First, we imagine ourselves in the position of a young black man or woman walking through a store followed by security personnel or being stopped by the police while driving through predominantly white neighborhoods, and appreciate that the color of their skin places them under heightened suspicion. Only after doing this can we engage in a serious discussion on how to alleviate racial tension.