Divre Harav – January/2020

From the writings of Abba Kovner.*

The Nazi ghetto did not make me a religious person, and I did not become a romantic in the forests with the Partizans. On the day I first arrived in Jerusalem, before even washing my face or changing my clothes, I went to the Kotel. It was 1945, and the place was narrow, crowded, dirty and depressing.  British soldiers were stationed there, armed with guns and rubber truncheons.  I had no friends or relatives who longed for those large stones. I did not go there to pray, my head was uncovered, and I had no plan to push a note into a crack between the stones.

Behind me I could hear the donkeys braying and the Arab merchants whose language I did not understand, and I was flushed with the odd sensation of fear and foreignness and the feeling that I belong somewhere else. And then someone pulled at my sleeve and asked in a whisper, “maybe you can join the minyan?”

Had the fellow called out like the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s young men who grab you by the sleeve at the bus station in Tel Aviv or on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in a commanding tone: “Are you Jewish? Come put on tefillin!” I would have responded the way I do to the ChaBaD commandoes: “Sorry, I’m Jewish but I don’t put on tefillin.” 

But the anonymous fellow by the Kotel in 1945 said only: “we need a tenth for a minyan,” and his voice was like the voice of Avraham Leib, the shamash.

Avraham Leib was the shamash of the local shul in the city where I grew up (Vilna). In those days it was called “Jerusalem of Lita.” For morning and evening services there were enough davenners, but for Mincha, even in Jerusalem of Lita there were not many. The elderly shamash would stand in the doorway of the synagogue and, in his hoarse voice, invite Jews to make the minyan.

I’m sure you know that minyan is an important value-concept in Judaism, perhaps the most Jewish thing in Judaism, to be part of the minyan. To know that nine Jews need a tenth, and that the individual Jew needs nine more to be a people, a divine congregation. At that moment it was as if the thousands of miles that my feet had trodden from Vilna to Jerusalem disappeared.  I put on a hat and joined the minyan. I felt I’d arrived.

*Note on Abba Kovner from Wikipedia:

Abba Kovner (March 14, 1918 – September 25, 1987) was a Jewish Hebrew and Yiddish poet, writer and partisan leader. In the Vilna Ghetto, his manifesto was the first time that a target of the Holocaust identified the German plan to murder all Jews. His attempt to organize a ghetto uprising failed, but he fled into the forest, became a Soviet partisan, and survived the war. After the war, Kovner led a secretive organization to take revenge for the Holocaust; he made aliyah in 1947. Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize in 1970.

P.S. Ahavas Israel needs YOU for a minyan, Wednesdays, 7:30 a.m. and Thursdays, 7:15 a.m.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • shamash – “service” or “helper” light; later, describing a person who is a helper or assistant.
  • shemesh – sun
  • minyan – from the verb “mana,” to count. A quorum of 10 adult Jews.

Divre Harav – December/2019

We are now in the darkest time of the year when the days are short and the nights are long. Soon, we will be lighting candles on Hanukkah to bring more light into the world and celebrate our free choice to turn darkness to light. If our attitude can express gratitude during the dark moments, we will soar during the moments of light and joy. Let’s now get down to business and make miracles come to life through our heartfelt recitation of this prayer, a Breslov Hasidic prayer that can help us through the darkest moments each of us must face in life.

To Be Said in Times of Revealed and Hidden Goodness:

King of Kings, Master of the Universe, Hashem – Thank You! Thank You that I am standing here and thanking You! Thank You for the infinite times that You have helped me, supported me, rescued me, encouraged me, healed me, guarded over me and made me happy. Thank You for always being with me. Thank You for giving me the strength to observe Your commandments, to do good deeds and pray – thank You for everything! Thank You for all the times You helped me when I didn’t know how to say “Thank You”. Thank You for all the loving kindnesses You do for me each and every moment. Thank You for every breath I breathe.

Thank You Hashem for all the things that I do have, and thank You Hashem even for all the things I don’t have. Thank You for my periodic difficulties, my occasional setbacks, and for the times when I don’t feel happy, because everything is for my ultimate benefit. Even if I don’t see that it’s always for my best, deep in my heart, I know that everything that comes from You is the very best for me and designed especially for me in precision and exacting Divine Providence, of which only the King of Kings is capable.

Thank You for my difficulties, for only through them I know how to appreciate the good. Only after being in darkness can one appreciate the light. Thank You for the wonderful life You have given me. Thank You for every little thing I have, for everything comes from You and from no one else. Thank You for always listening to my prayers. Creator Of The World, I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all the times that I didn’t appreciate what You gave me and instead of thanking You I only complained. I am dust and ashes and You are the entire universe. Please never cast me away. Amen

~shared with the permission of Rabbi Gershon Weissman

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • hesed – kindness, love
  • gemilut hasadim – acts of loving-kindness
  • hasid – one who is pious; also, a follower of a hasidic rebbe.
  • hasida – Stork(!)

Divre Harav – November/2019

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi

Beginning this month, I will be on Sabbatical for three months. It is a common practice of rabbis and other clergy to be given a periodic Sabbatical from their regular duties for reflection, for rekindling the spirit and the sense of calling by God, for reconnecting more deeply with the tradition (Scripture, theology, liturgy), and for deepening one’s own spiritual life. My last Sabbatical was five years ago. While on Sabbatical, I will not be available for my normal Rabbinic duties. I will not be coming into the office, attending meetings, or scheduling appointments. I will not be taking phone calls or responding to email for routine questions. I will not be teaching, leading study groups, leading services, or giving Divre Torah. The office will refer calls or email either to the president or to the appropriate committee.

Clergy organizations suggest that a Sabbatical should not be heavily structured. The idea is to have free time for unexpected projects and learning. I will be spending a great deal of time time reading and studying. I will be out of town for part of the time, but most of the time will be spent in Grand Rapids. 

Previous Sabbaticals have focused on:

2004-5 – Visiting small synagogues Tefillah Tidbits, Dale Carnegie graduate assistant

2009-10 – Visiting churches to learn the art of preaching, Dale Carnegie graduate assistant

2014-15 – Writing group, Guide to funeral practice, Psalm Blog, Dale Carnegie graduate assistant

This Sabbatical, I will be working with the Local First organization on a national project to create materials supporting a “Sacred Economy” initiative. They describe the project this way:

We believe a Sacred Economy:
is that ordering of relationships
that enables and encourages people
to activate their talents and energies

to create, exchange, and use goods and services
to provide for humanity’s everyday needs,
in a truly loving manner,
befitting that Love that is the signature identity
and desire of both God and the human person.

I’ll begin by working to identify teachings and language that resonates across spiritual traditions, political spectrums, and people groups, gathering multi-faith resources related to the sacred economy and connected topics. I’m looking forward to meeting with people from many different faith traditions to learn how their personal faith and sense of the Sacred affects the way they structure their business, and what texts or traditions shape their decision-making process.

During my Sabbatical, a number of people and committees will be picking up some of my responsibilities. Services will be led by Stuart Rapaport. As of the beginning of October, seven slots were open for divre Torah and 2 slots were open for leading Torah discussions. A d’var Torah should be about 12 minutes. The Torah study should be a 50 minute interactive session. To sign up, go to https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1akhLglgeGsuICPyT0aWjPhnOmhGUcmk65wMrPOXn7AY/edit#gid=0 or http://tinyurl.com/CAITorahSignup.

The one exception I will make in a normal Sabbatical practice will involve officiating at funerals, if I am in town. However, during normal office hours the initial phone call regarding a funeral should go the office. At other times (weekdays 7:00 am – 10:00 am and 3:30 pm – 10:00 pm or weekends), please call Stuart Rapaport. After the basic funeral arrangements (include date and time) have been set, I will be contacted. If I am available, I will contact the family to speak about the funeral service.  Otherwise, Stuart will handle the funeral service.

This will be my fourth three-month Sabbatical. I understand that the many people in the congregation really stretch themselves to cover for me while I’m away, and I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. Todah Rabbah!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Sh’mittah – Sabbatical year, once every seven years, a Sabbath of the land.
  • Yovel – Jubilee year, once every 50 years, every seven Sabbatical cycles, an economic realignment.

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.