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 – February/2022

In the coming months, it is my wish to contact each member of Ahavas Israel and offer to engage in a spiritual checkup. Spirituality concerns making a connection with something higher than yourself. The essence of spirituality is seeking meaning in your life that transcends you as an individual, seeing yourself as a part of something larger than yourself. A Jewish spiritual assessment is an exercise in which you explore your personal set of values, the most important values within Judaism, and the relationship between them. It is not a judgement. It is a snapshot of where you are right now, to be compared to where you want to be five years from now. It uses language of mitzvot and Jewish practices as a starting point coming from Torah, because that’s what unites and drives us as members of a Jewish community.

When I contact you, I hope you’ll join me for a conversation about your spiritual checkup. The goal of the conversation would be to engage in the questions, “Where are you religiously?” “Where do you want to go?” And “How can I/Congregation Ahavas Israel help you get there?” If the thought of doing this kind of spiritual work interests you, please call me to set up a time. If you think you have nothing to learn from such an exercise, I’d ask you to consider, what would you lose by giving it a try?

I have a list of specific questions to guide our conversation. If you wish, you may think or journal about them in advance.

  • Where do you have Shabbat in your life? Where do you need it?
  • How can you experience mindful eating?
  • What do you give of yourself?
  • How can you be mindful of your speech?
  • How are you engaging in Talmud Torah, what Jewish books are you reading and studying?
  • How do I approach difficult issues?
  • Where are you in your life-goals and relationships (including your relationship to Judaism)?
  • Where would you like to be in five years?
  • How has your practice of Judaism helped your spiritual life?
  • How can Ahavas Israel help you get there, or facilitate or further your goals?
  • A time I felt close to God was when:
  • A time I felt distant from God was when:
  • The Jewish practices/teachings I especially value are:
  • The Jewish practices/teachings I have trouble with are:
  • My general feeling about coming to services is: 
  • I feel connected to our congregation and the Jewish community. True or false. Please explain.

Note: In last month’s Divre Harav, I accidentally omitted Esther Bookbinder from the list of those supporting our Shabbat service and the weekday morning Zoom minyan. I apologize to Esther. To any others whom I omitted, please know that it is not a deliberate slight, just my imperfect memory.

Divre Harav – January/2022

In a small congregation in a pandemic world, it is not easy to get a minyan. Yet we have done exactly that, nearly every Shabbat and holiday, since October 23, 2020. Thanks to a remarkably dedicated core of Shabbat regulars and to group of people who have answered the minyan call when we were in danger of falling short, we reestablished our Shabbat minyan.

Our minyan regulars who could be counted on weekly, semi-weekly, or monthly, included Rhonda Reider and Mike Halpern, David and Karen Reifler, Stuart Rapaport, Jim and Patti Flood, Harry Krishef, Lennox Forrest, Elisabeth Rosewall, Dovid Ben Avraham, Connor Hess, Robin Turetsky, Sandy Freed, Mark Silverstein, and Marisa Krishef.

Those who responded to the call to make up for a projected shortfall in our minyan or just showed up to surprise us occasionally were Ken Strauss, Jason Cook, Grant and Taylor Winkelman, David Alfonso, Jan and Bill Lewis, Leigh Rapaport, Jim Siegel, Ed Miller, Barb Freed, Diane Rayor, Barb Wepman, Judy Subar, and Toby Dolinka.

Our weekday Zoom minyan remained strong for about 18 months and then began to taper off. But we still have a core group of about nine who continue to participate, even without a minyan. We are grateful for Judy and Buddy (of blessed memory) Joseph, Karen and David Reifler, Cliff and Jean Shekter, Stuart Rapaport, Fred Meyerson, Binyamin Mehler, Sandy Freed, Harry Krishef, Rhonda Reider, Sol Krishef, Marc Silverstein, Esther Bookbinder, Marni Vyn, Cathy Winick, Dale Kramer, Barb Christiaans, and Mike Halprin for being part of the every-day minyan core, for being semi-regular participants, or for pitching in to make a minyan when we fall one or two short.

Our online minyan was an important component in our efforts to maintain a community during the worst of the pandemic. The halakhic basis for a zoom minyan is rooted in the notion that a person leaning into a window can be counted in a minyan taking place inside the room. In other words, they are counted as physically present, even though they are separated by a wall, as long as they can hear and be heard, see and be seen.

Constituting a remote minyan in which the participants are not physically together was a concession to sha’at ha-dhak, exigent circumstances, a crisis situation. Early in the pandemic, when we keenly felt a sense of isolation, the zoom minyan was vitally important to provide connection and spiritual nourishment.

It is clear to me from my work on the Scare Resources Allocation Committee at Spectrum Health, an extension of my work on their ethics committee, that we are still in a serious situation. Hospital have reached crisis levels of demand and are instituting new measures to allocate the scarce resources of beds and staff fairly. Nonetheless, I have been looking to establish an objective criteria for establishing the end of of the sha’at ha-dhak. As the positive test rate for COVID-19 continue to climb to unprecedented levels (the 7-day average at the beginning of December was above 23% in Kent County), we continue to do what we can to slow the spread. Even though we know that vaccinated people who contract COVID are less sick and much less likely to die, we don’t want to become a vector for spread among the unvaccinated.

I am proposing that the next time that the positive test rate in Kent County goes below the level at which the CDC recommends masking at indoor gatherings (currently, 8%) that we end the sha’at ha-dhak. At that point, our online morning service will no longer constitute a minyan, even if we have 10 or more Jewish adults participating. We will try to resume a daily minyan once a week if we can get at least 10 people to commit to regular attendance. However, we will continue to offer zoom services for as long as we have a group of people who wish to participate. Members from Holland, Big Rapids, metro-Detroit, Texas, and Arizona, who are unable to attend an in-person morning minyan, have found value being able to join with other for morning prayers, even when we are unable to say Kaddish.

אבינו מלכנו … כלה דבר וחרב ורעב ושבי ומשחית ועוון ומגיפה ופגע רע, וכל מחלה וכל תקלה וכל קטטה וכל מיני פורעניות וכל גזירה רעה ושנאת חינם, מעלינו ומעל כל בני בריתך

Our Father, our Sovereign … end pestilence and sword and famine and captivity and corruption and iniquity and plague and evil harm, and every disease and every mishap and every quarrel and all kinds of calamity and every evil decree and senseless hatred, from us and from all of your covenanted peoples.

Divre Harav – December/2021

Note: I am republishing, with permission, a beautiful piece by my friend and colleague Rabbi Shefa Gold entitled, “The Inner Practice of Chanukah.”

Chanukah celebrates the re-dedication of the ancient Holy Temple, the place where the infinite meets the finite, where the spark of God bursts into flame within us. Each year we recall the “great miracle that happened there.”  And that same miracle is happening inside as we heal the desecrations we have suffered and re-dedicate our lives to Holiness.

 The Temple of our Soul is desecrated when we endure a sense of separation from God, and from each other. The Temple of our Soul is desecrated when we become cynical, when we feel unworthy or afraid, when we stop trusting the essential goodness of Life. On Chanukah we have an opportunity to clear away the debris that has accumulated in our inner Temple, and then kindle the flame of our renewed intention to stay connected to the Mystery at the center of all Life. That connection to God is our lifeline. That remembrance of God gives us our Freedom. When we forget God, that expansive mystery at our core, we risk becoming enslaved to the illusions of our most narrow perceptions.

Each day we remember and celebrate the foundational story of our journey to Freedom. God has brought us out of Egypt, the place of narrow perception, for one reason –“to be Your God” – to exist in holy relationship. For this is the key to our Freedom. Conscious connection to the reality that lies beneath the surface of things frees us from the bonds of the material world and allows us to expand beyond the arbitrary limits of a particular conditioned perspective. Yet Freedom is elusive. When we left Egypt in search of it, we were blocked by the great impossible sea. When we crossed the sea and fled to the wilderness we encountered within us the enslaving attitudes and habits of rebellion and complaint. And even after we stood at Sinai and received that moment of clarity, we still fell back into the habits of busy mind and cluttered heart. 

And so God says to us, “Make for me a holy place so that I can dwell inside you. Yes it is possible to stay connected with me at all times in all places, even as you engage in the life of the world.” When we make a place for God to dwell in our lives, then we will never be caught in the illusion of separateness. God will be available and accessible to us in the innermost chamber of the heart and in the inner dimension of all Creation.

Spiritual practice is about making our lives into a Mishkan, a dwelling place for Divine Presence. About one third of the Book of Exodus consists of the detailed instructions for building the Mishkan, (the portable sanctuary that we carry through our wilderness journeys). The purpose of the Mishkan is to send us to the space within where we can receive the Mystery of Presence. Just as a great poem points us towards a truth that is beyond mere words, so the beauty that shines from the Mishkan of our lives illuminates the beyond that is within us.

As Judaism evolves, the function of the Mishkan (the place of connection with God) is represented by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple is destroyed, the place of our connection to God moves inside. Prayer takes the place of sacrifice and the altar of sacrifice is hidden in the dark recesses of our own hearts.

The story of Chanukah reminds us that even the holiest place within us can become desecrated. We must enter the darkness of our own wounded hearts, survey the damage, clear away the rubble, and then light a candle to rededicate ourselves to holiness, to our own wholeness and connection to the cosmos. It is truly miraculous that a single spark of hope can ignite the radiant fires of passion that illuminate our way forward, even on the darkest night.

As the days grow short and the night darkness long, we are invited to enter into the darkness of our own hearts. There, buried beneath the rubble of our disappointments, we find the miraculous spark of our Divinity, the awesome knowledge that we are each created in the image of God. This is the spark that kindles our Festival of Lights.  Each night of Chanukah, we light another candle. Each night the light grows brighter, shining its radiance into our own hidden places. 

The “Great Miracle” of healing is happening right here within us when we call light into our own places of Darkness, when we bring the healing light of compassion into hidden crevices of shame or fear.

As we light the flames of Chanukah, may we kindle the flame within that will shine the light of awareness across the true expanse of Soul.