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

Psalm 147


The healer of the broken hearted (147:3)

Deuteronomy 10:16 speaks of circumcising the foreskin of one’s heart to remove impediments to recognizing God, but he could not have foreseen using miniature cameras to place stents in partially clogged arteries or cracking open someone’s chest and replace the arteries coming out of the heart.

Ezekiel used the metaphor of a heart transplant to speak about a fundamental transformation in the human being. He wrote, “I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh” (11:19, 36:26), but he could not have imagined attaching a human being to a machine to oxygenate and circulate blood while removing an ailing heart from the person’s chest and replacing it with a healthy heart.

The Psalmist could never have envisioned what goes through my mind when I read the phrase, “healer of the broken hearted.” I think of my relatives and friends and members of my congregation who have survived heart procedures that under normal circumstances have become routine. Even so, because messing around with the heart is never completely routine, this Psalmist’s image of God as a Divine doctor gives me strength and hope.

Imagine the presence of God hovering in the operating room guiding the hand of the surgeon. Think about the miraculous functioning of the body, and consider the asher yatzar berakha:

You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal Sovereign of the universe, who formed the human being with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is revealed and known before Your Throne of Glory that if one of them ruptures or one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. You are the source of blessing, Adonai, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱ–לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִיאֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת

Psalm 134


Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and acknowledge Adonai as the Source of Blessing. (134:2)

Raised hands with clenched fists can be an aggressive gesture, as in a boxer’s posture, ready to fight. Raised hands can be a gesture of surrender, hands far away from a weapon. Raised hands and arms stretched to the sides can be a welcoming gesture, preparing to envelope a loved one with an embrace. The same raised hands and arms extended forward can look more like a gesture of supplication.

Holding one’s hands up as a gesture of prayer is common in some Christian churches, but rarely seen in synagogues. Yet not only do both the Psalmist and Isaiah (1:15) make reference to raised hands as a prayer posture, but also the Priestly blessing (Numbers 6:23-27), known in Hebrew as nesi’at kapayim, raising of the hands, is recited with raised, outstretched hands.

I experience the posture of the priestly blessing as an active posture, channeling God’s blessings through the split fingers of the Kohen, forming the letter Shin for the word Shalom, peace, the most important blessing of all. The posture of prayer with raised hands, on the other hand, feels more passive to me, one’s hands open to receive whatever God choose, or chooses not, to send. I wonder if Jews lost the art of praying with our arms because we who grew to rely on holding books of prayer to formulate our words to God. Thus, our hands were no longer free to engage in prayers and gestures of their own.

Sometimes, during prayer, I put the book aside and allow myself to use my upper body to more fully engage with the words I am saying. I keep in mind, though, that it is the inner kavanah that counts, not the external fervor of the loudness of the voice of the body. Ultimately, the goal is to acknowledge God as the Source of Blessing and express gratitude. Gestures and posture ought to serve that purpose, rather than becoming an end unto themselves.

Psalm 124


Our help is the name of Adonai, maker of heaven and earth. (124:8)

The power of names. I love superheroes and will watch virtually any television series and see virtually any movie featuring characters from Marvel or DC. When I was young, I recall watching a short-lived television series based on a DC comic about Captain Marvel. Billy Batson was a teenage boy who, when he witness injustice, would strike a dramatic pose and transform himself into Captain Marvel by pronouncing the word, “Shazam!”

Then there is the beloved fairy tale collected by the Grimm brothers, in which uttering the name “Rumplestiltskin” causes the title character to stomp his right foot into the ground so hard that he either falls into a chasm or gets stuck and tears his body in two trying to escape, depending on which edition you read.

Jewish tradition asks us not to pronounce the personal name of God, spelled with the Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vav-He. Instead, we substitute the name Adonai (roughly, my Lord) or occasionally Elohim (God). We recognize that part of the power of the use of a personal name is that it implies equality between the user of the name and the owner of the name. Similarly, I would never address my parents as ‘Dale’ and ‘Bob.’ Instead, I use the titles Mom and Dad as a sign of honor.

In ancient times, the names of gods were thought to have had great power. Some mystical traditions attempt to discover the secret name of God. Using it, a person could supposedly control aspects of the physical universe. Other traditions use the name of God as a mantra. A meditation centered on breathing in and out the letters of God’s name will not give you God’s creative power, but may very will calm and center your mind, thus releasing your own creative energy.

Psalm 88

As for me, I cry out to You, O LORD; each morning my prayer greets You.  (88:14)

Some people wake up in the morning ready to go; others wake up with feeling like their brains are full of damp cotton. Even the most enthusiastic morning folks don’t always look forward to morning prayers. There is so much to do, we want to get started tackling the items on the agenda! So we rush through the prayers without much thought in order to get started with more important business.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev noted that it is easy to find people who are distracted by business during prayer times; it is far more difficult to find people who are distracted by God or Torah during business hours.

Why cry out to God? Doesn’t God already know what’s on my mind? Is it possible that God won’t provide for my needs unless I ask for them? And what about all those things that I ask for that I never receive – is God not listening?

We pray not because we need something from God, but because we need to remind ourselves to distinguish between what we truly need and what we merely want.

We pray because we remind ourselves that our life is a gift from God and we need to remind ourselves to show gratitude.

We pray because showing gratitude to God for God’s attributes of love, power, and generosity reminds us to be loving, use power wisely, and generous.

We pray to remind ourselves that the world can be better than it is right now, to remind ourselves that optimism is a Jewish value.

We pray because sometimes we are in pain and shared pain hurts less than pain born alone.

We pray because sometimes we are joyful and joy increases exponentially when shared.

Finally, we pray in a communal minyan to remind ourselves that we are not simply fulfilling a selfish personal obligation – we are also supporting others to fulfill their obligations.