Divre Harav – October/2019

R. Hananiah, the Deputy High Priest, says, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if it were not for fear of it, one person would swallow one’s fellow alive.” Pirke Avot 3:2

Most weeks, we join together reading a prayer for our country in our Shabbat service. We do this to show gratitude that we live in a free country in which the laws protect us and ensure our freedom of religion. But similar prayers has been included in synagogue worship since 14th century Spain, in the form of a prayer for the king, asking God to help him and strengthen him against his enemies. Rabbi Hananiah’s instruction is based on a verse from the 6th century BCE prophet Jeremiah, who instructed Judeans in Babylonia to “seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to Adonai on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (29:7).

Such prayers recognize that for better or for worse, the Jewish community prospers when the government is secure and prosperous, or when the government is stable and adopts leading to economic growth and prosperity. Typically, though, they also recognize that all governments are imperfect, and conclude with a messianic hope for a world free of war in which all people live in friendship and freedom.

Rabbi Hananiah’s attitude towards government is guarded. First century Jews certainly didn’t love the Roman government who destroyed the Temple, but understood that a society without rules and the means to enforce them will devolve into chaos. In fact, among the seven basic laws of humankind (known as the Noahide laws) that Judaism believes are incumbent on all people, is a mitzvah to live in a community with established courts of justice.

With this in mind, I ask you to join us for services on Monday, October 21 at 9:30 a.m. for the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. Along with our regular Festival service and the Yizkor memorial service, following services we have invited members of the Grand Rapids Police Department to Kiddush, to thank them for their keeping an eye on our property and responding to our requests for special event coverage. Please join us to greet and thank them!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishtara – police
  • Tzahal – an acronym for Tz’va Hagana L’Yisrael – Israeli Defense Force
  • Heil Ha’avir – air force
  • Heil Hayam – navy

Divre Harav – September/2019

Akaviah ben Mehallalel says, “Reflect upon three things and you will not fall into the clutches of transgression: Know from where you came, to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a full account [of yourself].

“From where do you come? From a putrid drop.

“To where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots.

“And before whom are you destined to give a full account? Before the King of kings of kings, the Holy Blessed One.”

Pirke Avot 3:1

Repentance begins with breaking down the ego. We might like to think we we have power and influence, that we are important because of our intellect or our wealth. Not so, says Akaviah ben Mehallalel. We are, in the words of this mishnah from Pirke Avot, no better than the fertilized zygote with which we began our existence. Similar to this sentiment is a passage early in the morning service, recommended by the Talmud as the essence of confession. In it, we acknowledge that compared to the power of God and the scope of human history, our existence as individual human beings is insignificant.

Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might? What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent. The wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason. In your sight, all that we do is meaningless, the days of our lives empty. Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion, for all is futile. 

Not even our human origin makes us special. We grew from embryos, but so did everything else in the animal world. They are mortal and we, too, are born with the same ultimate fate of death.

Not until Akaviah’s third statement do we get a hint of our special nature: Human beings are uniquely destined to appear before God. My dog is not going to be judged upon his passing for each time he pooped in the house (something I’m going to take up with God someday). But our souls transcend our physical bodies. Our souls are a sacred gift from God. And the fact that we have a soul, that very thing that makes us special and privileged and gives us a covenantal relationship with God, it that which holds us accountable for all of our actions.

As we welcome September, we have approximately one month before Rosh Hashanah. So let me commend to you the exercise of doing a Heshbon Hanefesh, a spiritual self-assessment. At the end of each day (except on Shabbat), describe one good interaction with another person in which you were fully present, and one interaction that you could have handled better. It could be an interaction with a stranger, server, barista, or grocery story clerk; an email to a supervisor or coworker, friend or acquaintance; a phone conversation with customer service, a family member, or friend; or a face-to-face conversation with any of the above. Identify what you did well or what you could have done better. If you need to make amends for something you did wrong, identify the error and apologize. If you have other unresolved issues, error, or transgressions, take the month of September to take care of those as well.

And when I see you on Rosh Hashanah, we can wish each other l’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu with a full heart, knowing that we are starting the new year with a clean slate.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • din – judgement
  • Heshbon – account
  • din v’heshbon – a complete judgement, a full accounting. [grammaticaly, this is called a hendadys, in which two nouns combine, one modifying the other]
  • Heshbon HaNefesh – self-assessment; literally, accounting of the soul.

Divre Harav – May/2019

Rabbi Tarfon says, “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the employer is insistent!”

 Pirke Avot 2:20 

As we wind down chapter two of Pirke Avot, we conclude with two teachings of Rabbi Tarfon. The first is an overview of the human condition. “Our lives are short, the task of doing mitzvot is great, we look for shortcuts whenever possible even though the reward of the world to come is significant and God is demanding.”

The content of a full Jewish life is mitzvot, but the goal is twofold and has both a rational and a mystical component. One goal is Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Tikkun is not itself a mitzvah, but is the result of doing mitzvot. Every mitzvah a Jew does, whether it is putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, giving tzedakah, or paying a shiva call, affects the world. Maybe the mitzvah lifts up another person from despair, brightens their life with financial support, or maybe it elevates, educates, or transforms the doers in a way that makes them better human beings. Maybe the mitzvah brings light and love into the world, potentially creating a kindness chain reaction. The work of transforming the world is hard because on a planetary scale, the result of a single action is virtually negligible. However, remember the words of Margaret Mead — “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The second goal of a full Jewish life is connecting oneself with the Divine. The Hasidic term for such a connection is ‘d’veikut.’ The ideal is to spend all of one’s waking (and sleeping?) moments in d’veikut, so that every action and interaction is infused with the acute awareness of the Divine. Also consider that human beings are part animal, part Divine, created in the image of God. Through religious practice, we nurture and grow the Divine seed within, to realize our full potential and purpose in the world. So a part of ourselves naturally seeks out a connection with God, as like seeks like.

It is these two goals that have defined my life and my career. My purpose in the world for nearly all of my professional life has been to serve as the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel, to nurture and transform Jewish souls. Ask any congregational rabbi, and he or she will tell you that it is an exceptionally rewarding and frustrating career choice. We see people at their best, at the heights of joy, gratitude and celebration, and at their worst, in the pits of anger, despair, hopelessness, and mourning. Yet, I wouldn’t trade my 25 years here for anyplace else or any other career, and I look forward to celebrating with you over the weekend of May 31 to June 2.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tikkun – repair
  • D’veikut – attachment
  • S’khar – wages, reward
  • Hesed – love

Divre Harav – April/2019

Rabbi Eleazer says, “Be diligent in the learning of Torah. Know how to reply to a heretic. And know before Whom you toil and Who your Employer is.”  Pirke Avot 2:19

On a basic level, Rabbi Eleazer suggests that a Jew should know what we believe and why we believe it, and be able to explain and justify it to one who challenges us. Ultimately, though, he also suggests that the reason for studying Torah deeply is to understand and define our relationship with God (our “employer”).

But what if Rabbi Eleazer had been contemplating engaging with another person of deep and sincere faith, rather than a heretic? It would still be the case that in order to have a meaningful religious conversation, a Jew should be steeped in Torah.  The dialogue, in that case, would not be for the purpose of refuting the other, but rather with the desire to learn about the other’s worldview and even to learn from the other. A full understanding of God is only possible through learning about the covenants that God makes with the world through Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, Baha’i, and other traditions.

This positive attitude towards interfaith dialogue and understanding was all but impossible in the ancient or medieval world. At the best of times, other religions were tolerated. Under typical circumstances, religion was intertwined with ethnicity, and protecting one’s tribe meant conflict, subservience, domination, or uneasy temporary alliances with neighboring tribes. The religious faith of one people mandated subjugating the religion of conquered people. A conquered and enslaved people have long memories, so thousands of years after Jewish enslavement by Egyptians, we still tell the story and use the negative memory to promote our set of competing values. A history in which Christianity claimed to be the sole true inheritor of Biblical Israelite religion institutionalized antisemitism. Remnants of this suspicion of Christians can be found in the Hagaddah, especially near the end with the traditional reading upon opening the door to Elijah, Shefokh hamat’ka al hagoyim:

Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them; let the fierceness of Your anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens (Lamentations 3:66).

However, a Haggadah entitled “A Different Night” by Noam Zion and David Dishon includes an additional passage said to have first appeared in a medieval (1521) Ashkenazi Haggadah from Worms. although it may have more modern origins. 

Pour out Your love on the nations who have known you and on the kingdoms that call upon your name. For they show loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob and they defend your people Israel from those who would devour them alive. May the live to see the sukkah of peace spread over your chosen ones and to participate in the joy of your nations.

In a world in which antisemitism is increasing, I continue to recite the traditional version. But in a world in which there is more dialogue, understanding, and cooperation between faith traditions than at any time in history, I also recite the second text. May your Passover Seder be filled with love, Torah, and the spirit of God.

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Apikoros – heretic, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, representing the world view that God neither intervenes in human affairs nor holds us accountable after we die.
  • Heima – anger.

Divre Harav – March/2019

Rabbi Simeon says, “Be meticulous in the recitation of the Shema and the Amidah. When you pray, don’t make your prayer a prescribed routine, but let it be a [plea for] mercy and grace before the Blessed Holy One. As it is said, ‘For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers’ (Joel 2:13). Do not regard yourself as an evil person.” Pirke Avot 2:18

There are two main elements of traditional morning (or evening) prayers. The first, the Shema, is not technically prayer. Rather, it is the recitation of three Biblical passages whose function is to first accept God’s authority over our lives; second, to accept the obligation of mitzvot; and third, to use tzitzit as a concrete reminder of mitzvot. To summarize: Love Adonai, your God, with all your heart by listening to God’s commandments and tying tassels to the corners of your garments as a reminder of those mitzvot.

The Amidah is the name for the prayer section of our service, defined as a time when we are speaking directly to God, at least partly with a petitionary agenda. Although our liturgy has a fixed text for the Amidah, Rabbi Simeon’s instructions are to make the words of prayer our own. Put your heart into your prayers, focusing on asking for love, mercy, and grace not just for ourselves, but primarily for others around us. To focus only on our own needs during prayer is not only selfish, but also indicates that we think we have some special deficit that God needs to address. God may take pity on evildoers, but Rabbi Simeon cautions us not to assume that we are one of those evildoers in need of God’s special attention. Thus, most of our prayer should be focused on the needs of others rather than our own.

There has long been tension between fixed liturgy and prayers of the heart, or in Hebrew, between keva and kavanah. Keva describes fixed themes of prayer and can guide us towards non-selfish prayer. Kavanah encourages us to engage in a conversation with God in which we can share our particular burdens and joys. Individual, spontaneous prayer reflects the highs and lows of our spirit in the moment; fixed prayer reflects ongoing self-reflection and the highest ideals and aspirations of our relationship with God’s world.

Finally, the word tefillah connotes some degree of self-reflection. When we prayer, we not only offer petitions for our and the world’s needs, but we also reflect on how well we have done living up to our potential, living fully as one created in the image of God.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer, self-reflection
  • keva – fixed liturgy
  • kavanah – focused direction of thought and prayer