Divre Harav – March/2018

[Hillel] would say, “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.” Pirke Avot 2:6b

It’s hard to translate this teaching of Hillel into gender-neutral English. A literal English translation would be, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” The word eesh can also mean a person, but “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person” doesn’t capture the sense of what Hillel was trying to say. His exhortation can be understood on two levels. First, it seems clear to me that he was thinking of the story from Exodus 2:11-12 in which Moses …

“… went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

However, the next day … (verses 13-14)

“… he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’ He retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ ”

Clearly, when Moses looked around, there were people watching the Egyptian beating the Hebrew, but no one was willing to intervene. The witnesses spread the word about what Moses had done both among the Israelites and the Egyptians. Not too long afterwards, Pharaoh found out and sought to kill Moses.

Hillel must have had this story in mind. In a place where there are no good people willing to step forward and fight for justice, be such a person. The Yiddish word for man, which in its Jewish and American usage has implications of moral goodness, is thus the best way to translate the mishnah: “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.”

However, Hillel may have had something else in mind as well. “In a place where there are no people,” where no one is around to watch you, nonetheless you should still behave like a mensch. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Understood in this way, Hillel is reminding us that even when no human being is around to witness our behavior, God is a witness. Both ways of understanding this teaching of Hillel are worthy guides to a life of goodness.

 

Hebrew Words of the Month. The seder (order) of the Seder:

  • Kaddesh – Recite the blessing over wine and sanctification of the day of Pesah.
  • Ur’hatz – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
  • Karpas – Eat the leafy greens vegetable.
  • YahatzBreak the middle matzah in half.
  • MaggidTell the story of the Exodus.
  • Rah’tza – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
  • MotziHamotzi, blessing over bread.
  • Matzah – the blessing over the mitzvah of eating matzah.
  • MarorBlessing over maror, bitter herbs.
  • Korekh – “Hillel” sandwich of matzah and maror.
  • Shulhan Orekh – Arrange the food on the table.
  • Tzafun – The hidden matzah, the Afikomen.
  • BarekhBirkat Hamazon, grace after the meal.
  • HallelPraise God.
  • Nirtzah – God accepts and is satisfied by our Seder.
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Psalm 113

“From the rising of the sun until its setting …” (113:3)

In the ancient world, astronomical phenomena were unpredictable and thus were signs of Divine favor or displeasure. An eclipse was a portent of disaster. A comet was a sign of good tidings. The regular cycles of the sun and moon told people when to sow, when to reap, and when to celebrate. Stars and planets were and are objects of wonder. Someday, humanity might take steps to populate another world, but today, the distances and difficulties of travel are insurmountable. From our miraculous perch on the arm of a galaxy we call the Milky Way, we sit and observe and perhaps wait to be contacted.

Psalm 112

“A light shines in the darkness.” (112:4)

Jews celebrate by lighting two candles on Shabbat and major Festivals and elaborate none-branched candelabras on Hanukkah, and mourn by lighting a single candle at the shiva following a death and on a yahrtzeit, the anniversary of a death. A single flame, representing the human soul, dispels the darkness of sadness and loss. Two flames represent “observe” and “remember,” the first words of the fourth commandment to observe Shabbat in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the increasing light of the Hanukiah at the darkest days of winter, reminds us when two candles or two human souls converge, the light burns brighter.

Divre Harav – December 2016

The basic mitzvah of Hanukkah is to place the Hanukkiyah in a window or doorway so it is visible outside the home, thus publicizing the miracle. We tend to think of religious observance as a personal and private matter, and to some extent it is. My religious practice is my own business, not anyone else’s. It is not the government’s right nor my neighbor’s right to coerce me into spending my time or money in support of a religious institution – that’s how the establishment clause of the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States has been interpreted. However, that doesn’t mean that we, as individual religious people, are prohibited from sharing ourselves in the open marketplace of social and religious discourse. As Jews, we have a mitzvah to share our story with pride. The basic Hanukkah story, tossing aside the story of the long-burning oil for the moment, is that of a group of people who refused to compromise their basic belief in one God,  primacy of Torah, circumcision, sanctity of the Sabbath, and refusal to eat pork. We don’t need to be obnoxious about sharing the story. We’re not trying to save our neighbors’ souls. Rather, it is a matter of personal pride. Proud American might wear flag pins on their lapels. A rainbow bumper sticker shows support for LGBT issues. Pink ribbon pins draw attention to the need for increased funding for breast cancer research. The brightly lit Hanukkah menorah in the window proclaims religious freedom for all.

December is Jewish pride month. How many different foods can you fry in oil to remember lighting the menorah to rededicate the Temple? What is one thing you can do this month to show public pride in your Jewish identity that you would not otherwise do?

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hanukkiyah: The name for the nine branched Hanukkah menorah.
  • Brit: covenant
  • Milah: circumcision
  • Sufganiyot: Jelly donuts, a common Israel Hanukkah treat.
  • Sevivon: dreydel

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.

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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