Divre Harav – May/2022

We celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, on May 5. 25 years ago, I could have written the previous sentence without a second thought. But although the vast majority of Jews care about Israel (82%, according to the Pew Research Center), and most of the rest would identify their ambivalence as non-Zionist, the number of Jews who identify as anti-Zionists has grown. So it is no longer a given that the subject of the first person plural pronoun at the beginning of my first sentence is “the Jewish community.” This saddens me.

It saddens me even more that a Chicago-based synagogue, founded seven years ago as a non-Zionist institution, has recently redefined itself as affirmatively anti-Zionist. I’m not in favor of creating a synagogue in which opposition to a long-standing Jewish belief is a founding principle. A synagogue based on eating pork, intact foreskins, feasting on Yom Kippur, or hating the principle of Zionism seems perverse and anti-Jewish. At the same time, creating a litmus test in which pork eaters, Kol Nidre feasters, intacters, and anti-Zionists are specifically called out for exclusion also seems anti-Jewish to me. Jews don’t have a history of carrying out threats of wholesale, widespread, excommunication, do we?

I suppose I’ll continue using the unqualified first person plural “we celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut” in the same ways that I say “Jews observe Shabbat,” knowing that what I really mean is that most Jews are aware of the existence of Shabbat, recognize it in their own way, and appreciate its power and beauty when they do. Most people alive today, including Jews, are aware of the existence of Israel, recognize that it sits in the geographical location that gave birth to two of the world’s major religions, and appreciate its power and beauty and history and connection to three major religions. 

So I encourage you to celebrate a world in which Israel exists as the place where our sacred language of Hebrew lives a vibrant life; where the Jewish calendar forms the natural rhythm of the week; where Jewish texts, values and ethics inform the legislative and judicial system; where Jewish history actually began; and as the place where any Jew, anywhere, for any reason, can claim refuge from a world that is not always friendly to Jews.

And I encourage you to be proud of a world in which Israel exists as a light until the nations, as a country nearly always among the first to send support and expertise in the wake of a natural disaster; as a country which take in refugees of any religion; as a bastion of religious freedom; and as an innovative “start-up nation.” 

Celebrate Israel’s 74th birthday on Wednesday evening, May 4 or Thursday, May 5 with Israel food, watching an Israeli movie or series on your favorite streaming service, listening to Israeli music (My favorite place to go is MyIsraeliMusic.com, The Israel Hour, with Josh Shron), and say a prayer of gratitude for the existence of Israel.

Hag Sameah!

We celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, on May 5. 25 years ago, I could have written the previous sentence without a second thought. But although the vast majority of Jews care about Israel (82%, according to the Pew Research Center), and most of the rest would identify their ambivalence as non-Zionist, the number of Jews who identify as anti-Zionists has grown. So it is no longer a given that the subject of the first person plural pronoun at the beginning of my first sentence is “the Jewish community.” This saddens me.

It saddens me even more that a Chicago-based synagogue, founded seven years ago as a non-Zionist institution, has recently redefined itself as affirmatively anti-Zionist. I’m not in favor of creating a synagogue in which opposition to a long-standing Jewish belief is a founding principle. A synagogue based on eating pork, intact foreskins, feasting on Yom Kippur, or hating the principle of Zionism seems perverse and anti-Jewish. At the same time, creating a litmus test in which pork eaters, Kol Nidre feasters, intacters, and anti-Zionists are specifically called out for exclusion also seems anti-Jewish to me. Jews don’t have a history of carrying out threats of wholesale, widespread, excommunication, do we?

I suppose I’ll continue using the unqualified first person plural “we celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut” in the same ways that I say “Jews observe Shabbat,” knowing that what I really mean is that most Jews are aware of the existence of Shabbat, recognize it in their own way, and appreciate its power and beauty when they do. Most people alive today, including Jews, are aware of the existence of Israel, recognize that it sits in the geographical location that gave birth to two of the world’s major religions, and appreciate its power and beauty and history and connection to three major religions. 

So I encourage you to celebrate a world in which Israel exists as the place where our sacred language of Hebrew lives a vibrant life; where the Jewish calendar forms the natural rhythm of the week; where Jewish texts, values and ethics inform the legislative and judicial system; where Jewish history actually began; and as the place where any Jew, anywhere, for any reason, can claim refuge from a world that is not always friendly to Jews.

And I encourage you to be proud of a world in which Israel exists as a light until the nations, as a country nearly always among the first to send support and expertise in the wake of a natural disaster; as a country which take in refugees of any religion; as a bastion of religious freedom; and as an innovative “start-up nation.” 

Celebrate Israel’s 74th birthday on Wednesday evening, May 4 or Thursday, May 5 with Israel food, watching an Israeli movie or series on your favorite streaming service, listening to Israeli music (My favorite place to go is MyIsraeliMusic.com, The Israel Hour, with Josh Shron), and say a prayer of gratitude for the existence of Israel.

Hag Sameah!

Divre Harav – April/2022

I’ve always loved Passover, but I think I’m going to like it even more this year. Coming as it does after a long winter, Passover symbolizes the freedom to enjoy being outside again without gloves, boots, and a warm coat and hat. When I feel the warmth of the sun, breathe the sweet-smelling air, get on my bike again, as the sun’s lengthening path across the sky keeps it visible more than 12 hours a day, I feel my spirit and my breath expanding from the narrowness and darkness of winter.

This year, after two years of pandemic living, we celebrate an additional kind of freedom. During the month and weeks leading up to Pesah, many of us who have been careful to protect the health of ourselves and others by wearing a mask, have increasingly been setting it aside and enjoying the freedom of going to work, getting a sandwich, or shopping with a visible smile on our face.

Please note that I am not at all critical of those who prefer to remain masked in public spaces. I assume that they have a good reason for doing so and I respect that by doing my best to keep my distance from them. I am, however, saddened by those who have chosen to exercise their freedom to forgo vaccination, without a compelling medical reason. They certainly have the God-given autonomy to refuse the vaccination, despite the fact that the rate of serious illness or death from COVID is somewhere between 14% and 50% higher for the unvaccinated compared to the fully vaccinated.

Another kind of Passover freedom – I hope that those who are comfortable coming in person will commit to regular support of in-person services. Whether regular means weekly, twice a month, monthly, or bi-monthly, we need to see your face again. The essence of Passover was the transformation of a collection of families into a nation; the creation of a community. Regularly gathering on Shabbat and holidays is the heart and soul of Jewish community. And I ask those who take advantage of the opportunity to watch the broadcast of our Shabbat service will recognize that it cannot continue without their support.

The Judaism that I celebrate each spring is a physical, tangible part of my life. I can touch it, taste it, and feel its texture in my mouth. At this time of year, it is matza, matza balls, horseradish and romaine lettuce, parsley, green vegetables, and haroset. It is the foods that take me back to Seder meals in St. Lous Park, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Milan, New York, and Grand Rapids, reunites me with my grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles, parents and in-laws, gathers together my siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins at the far end of the table incessantly asking, “When do we eat?”

I thank God that I have the freedom to live in the great country of the United States and have the resources to visit the great State of Israel regularly. I marvel that I live in a world so different than that which my parents and grandparents were born in, in which more than 85% of the population has never known a world without an Israel.

What do you celebrate at Passover?

Divre Harav – March/2022

As I sit down to write something about our community Purim celebration, I find myself struggling a bit. How to approach Purim, a holiday on which we make fun of antisemitism and those who would try to kill Jews, when the memory of just such an attempt at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, is so fresh that many synagogues and Jewish communities around the country are reassessing their security protocols and running active shooter drills?

Jew-haters are not new. Every generation has experienced its share of fear, and some generations have experienced more than their share. Yet, we have persisted in celebrating our holidays, including Purim, and we make jokes about them, summarizing every holiday in three easy steps — “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Or the story of two Jews sitting on a park bench in Germany, 1935, reading newspapers. One looks over at the other and sees that he’s reading Der Sturmer, a notoriously antisemitic weekly, and asks, “how can your read that Nazi garbage?” The other responds, “In your newspaper, Jews are being attacked on the streets, our businesses are being looted, and our synagogues are being destroyed. In my newspaper, Jews control the banks, the world media, and are on the verge of dominating international governments. I’d rather read the good news!”

I continue to observe Judaism proudly and publicly because I can’t imagine a world without Jews. Such a world would be infinitely poorer. The teachings of Judaism inspire the world. I cannot imagine a world without Jews, who, inspired by those teachings, go on to better the world in the fields of law, medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, and more. And the practice of Judaism enriches my life in countless ways, giving me a path of Middot to improve my character, a path of Jewish ethics to improve my interactions with others, a religious practice that ties me to the repair of the world around me, a body of Jewish wisdom to keep myself intellectually engaged and psychologically healthy, all of these being piece of a journey within a covenant with God.

This month’s Purim story, the soon to arrive Passover story, both are part of the larger story of Jews in relationship with the world. I am alive in order to bring love to my neighbors. Not necessarily to bring them to Judaism, but to be connected to them in positive ways that benefits our Grand Rapids community. For every person out there who thinks about bringing chaos to the Jewish community, there are a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand who would stand by our side against evil.

Please join me in a celebration of Purim on Wednesday evening, March 16, at 6:30 p.m. that includes a joint Purimshpiel with Temple Emanuel, two options for telling the Purim story (a traditional megillah reading and a Mad Lib megillah), and something delicious to take home with you. We’ll mock the villains and cheer the heroes and imagine a world where Jews are never afraid. We’ll wear costumes and masks to remind ourselves that nothing is as it first appears, that reality is often hidden under layers of superficial garments, that the world as it appears today is not the world as it is meant to be. Set aside your fear and display your pride in living a Jewish life!

Divre Harav – Summer/2020

Even an optimist has to face reality now and then. And as much as I want to believe that life is going to switch back to normal this summer, I have accepted that there is a real possibility that we’ll be making significant changes to our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services this fall because it will not yet be safe for many of us to gather together.

Our Zoom services this spring have been a much needed opportunity for connecting with other people in real-time conversations through the windows on a computer screen. We’ve successfully convened a minyan every day, Monday through Friday, from the end of March to the beginning of May, and counting. But creating an engaging zoom experience requires my hands on the keyboard, turning on and off microphones, scrolling pages and announcing page numbers, as Stuart and I take turns leading pieces of the service. For Jews like me who believe that Shabbat is a time to refrain from turning on and off electricity and using devices, using a laptop or a mobile device is a violation of the sanctity of Shabbat.

In addition, convening a minyan normally requires 10 people in the same physical space. During the pandemic, when face to face contact carried life and death risks, I’ve used the concept of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) to allow for an expanded definition of minyan to include ten Jews in a zoom meeting, with near real-time audio and visual connection. When we can again gather in person, however, we’ll go back to requiring a minyan of 10 in the same physical space, although I expect that we’ll also continue to include additional participants via zoom. 

I’ve begun investigating different methods of broadcasting streaming video of our service on Facebook Live, Youtube, and other platforms, either with a scattered minyan present in the sanctuary or with no one present but Stuart and me. The central question in anticipation of an altered High Holiday experience is, how do we create an engaging, online experience that feels traditional and also respects traditional Jewish Shabbat and Festival practice? I’m hoping you can help me with that.

When you think back on your years of Rosh Hashanah experiences, what do you remember? What parts of the service feel essential to you? What part or parts of the service would not feel engaging to you if you were to consider watching a High Holiday service on a screen. How long could you see yourself sitting in front of the screen? An hour? Two hours? In such an experience, would you prefer a traditional 15 minute sermon or would you prefer a 30 minute teaching format with a text sheet provided in advance? Finally, what kinds of messages would you like to hear this fall? Have you had enough of coronavirus, or would you expect the service to focus on casting a theological frame around your fears, anxieties, frustrations, and ongoing sense of isolation?

Have I missed anything – what else should we consider that is important to your spiritual experience? Please let me know. Leave me a message at the synagogue, send me an email (Rabbi@ahavasisraelgr.org). I need to know what you are thinking.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • pikuah nefesh – saving a life
  • masakh – screen
  • hazramat media – streaming media 

Divre Harav – April/2020

A Passover thought.

 The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is related to the root tzar meaning “narrow.” Most of Egypt’s population lives in a narrow band on either side of the Nile or its delta. When you are in mitzrayim, you are confined to a narrow, constricted space. That’s what it means to be in slavery – to live in confinement.

Slavery can be physical, financial, emotional, or intellectual. We can be enslaved to an idea, unwilling to entertain that we might be wrong, or unwilling to hear alternative points of view that might change our position. We can be enslaved to a dead-end job we can’t afford to leave or a well-paying job whose stress is slowly killing us. We can be enslaved to fear, anger, jealousy, mistrust, or even love.

What is it that enslaves you? Are you held hostage by your memory? Were you hurt or wronged year ago, and even today are still carrying the pain? Consider the lesson of this Zen story of two Buddhist monks:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a beautiful woman, fine dressed in silk, also attempting to cross. She asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman on his shoulders so her dress would stay dry, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on with his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could not contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted even to touch a woman! How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river a long time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

A good memory can be a curse. Forgetfulness can be a blessing. What are you holding onto from your past that is keeping you from living a mentally and physically healthier life?

Think of the things that keep you imprisoned in mitzrayim. Make a list. Write them down. And this Passover, choose one of them and free yourself. Celebrate the seventh day of Passover, the day of crossing through the Reed Sea, by singing a song of freedom from something in your past that enslaved you.

This is the message of Passover. Free yourself from the things that enslave your body and mind, physically, financially, emotionally, and intellectually.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • mitzrayim – Egypt
  • av’dut – slavery
  • heirut – freedom