Divre Harav – February, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Be as cautious in a minor mitzvah as in a major one, for you do not know what reward comes for a mitzvah.” Pirke Avot 2:1

I suspect that few of us believe that we receive a tangible, quantifiable, reward for doing mitzvot. I’m not talking about a sense of accomplishment or a sense of satisfaction, but some actual benefit, whether it be finding a better or quicker place in heaven after we die or receiving a material benefit on earth. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, religious leader of the rabbis of his generation and the editor of the Mishnah, alludes to a widespread believe that the performance of mitzvot carry a reward. However, he downplays this belief. The reward does not necessarily correspond to the act, he says. We should treat all religious behavior as is equally important, whether it be lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry.

The Talmud’s description of the process of conversion to Judaism describes teaching the potential convert some of the major and minor mitzvot, warning him of the punishment for disobeying and describing in general terms the reward of the world to come for the righteous. If he accepts the obligations of Torah, they circumcise him and as soon as possible, immerse him in a mikvah while teaching him some major and minor mitzvot (again). Women are taught major and minor mitzvot while standing in the mikvah, and then immerse. The Talmud never precisely defines a major mitzvah vs. a minor mitzvah, here too assumes that there is a reward for observance, but declines to define the reward.

The “Butterfly Effect,” a tem coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, is named for the idea that the path and severity of a hurricane could be influenced by minor disturbances in the air such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered that when modeling weather, small actions can have very large effects. The same idea holds within the social model of a community, local, regional, national, or beyond. We never know how the smallest actions we take might effect larger consequences. Our actions on a small scale might influence others in ways we never anticipated.

Rabbi Yehudah’s message is that all of our actions have significance. We should never think of our lives as inconsequential. At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can manipulate events for our benefit. Ultimately, we are called upon to be holy people and bring holiness into the world through our actions, large and small; to be good, without the expectation of being recognized or rewarded.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kal – easy; light; facile

Kal has three opposites, depending on the precise meaning:

  • Kasheh – difficult
  • Kaved – heavy
  • Hamur – serious

Divre Harav – May/16

The festival of Shavuot is approaching, marking the beginning of summer on the Jewish calendar. We’re gathering on the first night for a program that is part social and part educational – a Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session. The topic this year is “Psalms and their role in liturgy and a life of religious practice.” If you’ve never participated, perhaps this year you’ll try it out. It’s an informal gather at my home (2021 Michigan St. NE) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 11. The Shavuot morning service the next morning reenacts the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai; on the second day of the festival, we recite Yizkor.

I chose this year’s Shavuot study topic because, for almost three years, I have been immersing myself in the poetry of the Psalmist and writing weekly reflections. On June 27, God willing, I will publish the reflection on the final Psalm, 150. I took on this project in part because for my own spiritual life, I needed a project that would bring me to parts of our Tanakh that I had never before thought about seriously. I needed something to break me out of patterns of habitual behavior, in which I only read and study material that I already know and feel comfortable with.

Most of us live our lives in habitual ways because the comfortable routine appeals to us. This is why when we ask people who are not accustomed to coming to synagogue services to participate in a weekday or Shabbat service, we most often do not succeed. Their is a vast gulf between one’s normal morning or weekend routine and the new routine of coming to Ahavas Israel early on a Wednesday or Thursday or at 9:30 am on Saturday morning. People tell me that they’d like to come more often or that they know they should come more often, but most often that desire is not strong enough to break an old habit and form a new one.

Living strictly according to the Jewish calendar can become just as habitual and thoughtless as a life disconnected from Jewish rhythms. Holidays which interrupt our schedule can help us pay more attention to the flow of time. Deliberately choosing to take on a new project or learn something outside our comfort zone can also take us out of habitual behavior. Please join me on Saturday night, June 11, to begin your celebration of Shavuot and your journey towards a more thoughtful life.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • tefillah – Prayer.
  • l’hitpallel – To pray.
  • l’har’her – To mediate.
  • lil’mod – To study.
  • l’la’meid – To teach.

Divre Harav – May/16

It used to be, back in pre-modern times, that there was a tall, thick wall between Jews and Christian. Jewish identity was protected by this wall, which formed a protective barrier around us by making it very difficult for outsiders to get in. There was a way through the way from the Jewish side to the Christian side, but Christians didn’t want anyone going the other way so they guarded their side of the wall. Jews were suspicious of anyone who tried to cross onto our side, examining them carefully and turning them away several times before finally letting them in.

As the 18th century enlightenment dawned, the walls between communities began coming down, replaced by neat picket fences. In general, people stayed on their own sides, but we begin having polite conversations over the fence. Most elements of the Jewish community welcomed the new openness in society, although some Hasidic or what came to be known later as Hareidi Jews built new, higher, walls around their lives.

As we reached the late-20th century, the picket fences began to be perforated by gates and more often the not, the gates were left open. People freely visited each other’s homes, married and raised children together. Jewish identity, once so clearly defined by walls or fences, became more challenging to define.

In the early 21st century, we live in a society defined by the consumer marketplace. Shoppers have access to food, clothing, and products from around the world delivered right to their doorstep at the click of a button. Religious community is not immune from this. It is easy to design a ritual that precisely reflects an individual’s Jewish identity, including elements from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, if you wish. A religious community like ours which reflects a particular path to God has to compete in this marketplace and demonstrate how and why our path is rewarding, meaningful, compelling, and true. We host visitors wishing to sample our product. If they like what they see, they might consider staying in our area; otherwise, they move on and sample another community.

Our challenge, then, is to maintain appropriate boundaries that preserve our identity, but at the same time keep our gates open and welcome visitors, knowing that many are just passing through but some will stay.  And those who stay will enrich our community by the many gifts they bring with them.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • ger – In the Bible, a stranger living in a foreign community; in post-Biblical Hebrew, a convert.
  • kahal or Kehillah – congregation
  • Adah – congregation. Adat – ‘congregation of,’ as in Adat Shalom
  • Bayit – house. Beit – ‘house of,’ as in Beit Yisrael. Sometimes written in English as Beth, as in Beth El.

Psalm 133

February 29, 2016

Divre Harav – March/16

For almost three years, I have been publishing reflections on Psalms, one a week. In only three months I will have finished all 150 Psalms. I’ve been doing this because the study of sacred literature for the purpose of spiritual development is a key practice of Judaism.There is a wide range of Jewish literature to study along with classical or modern commentaries, such as Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Zohar. I find that the discipline of study opens me up to whatever message resonates when I open up the book and start reading. I think of it as a message from the Divine, plucking at whichever one of my heartstrings that needs plucking at that particular moment. Here is my reflection on a verse from Psalm 133, at three verses, one of the shortest Psalms in the book.

Psalm 133

How good and how pleasant it is that siblings dwell together. (133:1)

This verse is one of the most well known verses of Psalms. Of course, ‘siblings’ (or more literally, ‘brothers’) is meant to be read broadly, as members of a tribe or nation. How wonderful it is when we all get along, and how awful it is when we don’t. Who can forget Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers for using excessive force during his arrest, “Can we all get along?”

Since then, St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Minneapolis have also become flash-points in our country’s struggle to create the kind of society Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, one in which all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is true that siblings don’t always get along. We’re not describing a pollyannaish future in which arguments cease to exist and we sit around every evening around the campfire singing Kumbaya. We disagree, we argue, we might even yell at times, but at the end of the day we find a way to come to an agreement.

The Mishnah speaks about disagreements that are “l’shem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. We reach this point when we understand and appreciate the other person’s perspective, even when we disagree. First, we imagine ourselves in the position of a young black man or woman walking through a store followed by security personnel or being stopped by the police while driving through predominantly white neighborhoods, and appreciate that the color of their skin places them under heightened suspicion. Only after doing this can we engage in a serious discussion on how to alleviate racial tension.

Divre Harav – Words from the Rabbi, December, 2015

In a recent Zohar class, I noted that the phrase “Who can tell the mighty acts of Adonai” from Psalm 106:2 is the basis for the well known Hanukkah song, Mi Y’mallel g’vurot Yisrael, written by Russian-born Menashe Ravina (1899-1968) sometime in the first half of the 20th century. It became a popular Hanukkah song in the early years of the State of Israel.

However, we should pay attention to the major theological difference between the source material and the Hanukkah song. The popular singable English version of the first verse is:

Who can retell the things that befell us?
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Arose to our aid.

But this is a mistranslation. The first line, in passive voice, doesn’t specifically tell us who led us to victory, and the third line introduces the word ‘sage’ to rhyme with age, not found in the original Hebrew. More literally, the song begins:

Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel?
Who can count them?
Yes in every generation a hero arises
To save the people.

In short, the Psalmist speaks of the power of God and Ravina speaks of the power of Israel. Hutzpah’dik? Theological audacity or arrogance? Yes, but with deep roots that go back virtually to the first accounts of the story of Hanukkah. The story told in the historical book of Maccabees focuses on the fight against the Syrians led by Mattathias and his five sons. God is not absent from the book, but it is clearly primarily about the zealotry and heroism of this family and especially Judah, who became known by the appellation “Maccabee” (hammer), for his strength.

The early Rabbinic tradition wanted to move away from the Maccabean origins of Hanukkah and instead emphasize God’s salvation of Israel. Thus the major Hanukkah prayer in the Amidah contains the passage, “You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah.” The rabbis turned the military leaders into yeshiva bochers!

The early builders of the state of Israel face the opposite challenge, that of turning academics and trademen into farmers and soldiers. Thus their songs emphasized strength and independence. If Israel was to survive the economic, social, and military challenges of the early years, they needed to learn how to do things that Jews had not needed to do for centuries, if ever.

As we celebrate Hanukkah this month, in our songs and prayers and candle-lighting rituals we remember the miracles ancient and modern, by which God has ensured the improbable survival of the tiny but determined Jewish people and our State of Israel. We also remember the Maccabees and others who fought for our religious freedom, both here and in Israel. Hag Ha-Urim Sameah, May you experience a joyous festival of lights!