Divre Harav – April, 2021

We had a technological failure at Purim which got me thinking again about the role of technology in creating community. How many things need to work properly in order to create a community via Zoom or in order to be included in a community by watching a broadcast? The building needs to have power, the camera, sound system, and broadcast equipment needs to be turned on and working, the internal network needs to be active, the network of the company from which we buy internet needs to be working, the software of the video broadcast company and their network needs to be working, and your internet, equipment, and software needs to be working. And of course the entire system from one end to the other needs power. If any single piece fails, the broadcast fails.

It reminds me of the logic behind our approach to Shabbat. The minimal use of technology on Shabbat encourages us to turn to face-to-face community. In its most traditional form, when the community walks to shul, the only technology we rely on to gather a minyan on Shabbat is having sufficient heat and light in the building. Even adding the element of transportation to shul, we’re still relying on fewer points of failure than the broadcast.

Video-conferencing software like Zoom has been a blessing and a life-saver during this pandemic, allowing us to interact with each other virtually in ways that have begun to feel normal. However, periodically, the technology reminds us that virtual is not the same thing as actual. Even post-pandemic, we’ll continue to broadcast our service for people who cannot come in person. But as the Purim failure reminds us, if you are comfortable and able to come in person, you can bypass the technology when it fails by hopping in your car and driving to the synagogue. Within 15-20 minutes (or less for most people), you can be in the sanctuary plugged directly into the community without missing too much of the service.

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As the vaccine becomes available more widely, I urge you to sign up for a vaccination. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that vaccinations are an obligation, to protect your health and potentially that of others around you as well. And I hope you will begin to be more comfortable returning to in-person services on Shabbat. We have had a consistent minyan since mid-October thanks to about 20 people coming either weekly or once or twice a month. We need your help during Pesah. The Sanctuary, however, is a large room and we need a few more people to fill it up with sound!

Hag Sameah!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • telephone selulari or nayad – cellphone or mobile phone
  • mahshev – computer
  • reshet – network

Divre Harav – March, 2021

Jewish Prayer 102 – Petitionary prayer

Studies show that meditative or contemplative prayer is health-enhancing, perhaps because it calms the mind and slows down breathing and heart rate. A few months ago, I suggested that for those looking to begin a Jewish prayer practice, the Shema is a good place to start. The Shema, however, is not exactly prayer in terms of words and petitions addressed to God. The Jewish prayer that best fits that definition of prayer is Amidah.

The Amidah consists of 19 blessings. The core of each blessing is one line, beginning Barukh ata, Adonai …, which I understand to mean “You are the source of Blessing, Adonai.” The most basic approach to praying the Amidah might be to isolate those blessings lines, read each one and spent 15 seconds just holding the words in your heart. Devote about five minutes to the 19 themes of prayer composed in the first century and recited by Jews three times a day ever since, and see what comes up.

An important aspect of the power of traditional Jewish prayer — by design, it is not selfish, focusing primarily on ourselves. The themes cause us to remember our relationship and responsibility with others. There is room in the Amidah for petitions to God, but most of the things we ask for are not about ourselves, but rather about the community or world around us; and if it is about ourselves or loved one, it includes others as well.

We open with meditations on our relationship with our ancestors, God’s power, and Holiness. We continue with a focus on gratitude for the power of our minds, the capacity to say I’m sorry and be forgiven, and the ability to start over. We move on to prayers for healing, livelihood, and the ingathering of exiles, and hope for justice for all, punishment of the wicked, and support of the righteous. We build up to consideration of full restoration of Jerusalem, salvation for all, and thankfulness for God’s listening ear. And we conclude with a prayer for the restoration of God’s presence, a focus on gratitude and a prayer for peace.

The 19 Blessings of the Amidah:

  1. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, Shield of Abraham and Rememberer of Sarah.
  2. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who revives the dead.
  3. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, the holy God.
  4. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who graciously bestows knowledge.
  5. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who desires penitence.
  6. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, gracious One who pardons abundantly.
  7. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, Redeemer of Israel.
  8. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who heals the sick of God’s people Israel.
  9. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who blesses the years.
  10. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who gathers the dispersed of God’s people Israel.
  11. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, King who loves righteousness and justice.
  12. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who crushes enemies and subdues the wicked.
  13. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, the support and security of the righteous.
  14. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who rebuilds Jerusalem.
  15. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who causes the power of salvation to flourish.
  16. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who hears prayer.
  17. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who restores God’s Divine Presence to Zion.
  18. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, Beneficent is Your Name, and to You it is fitting to offer thanks.
  19. You are the source of Blessing, Adonai, who blesses God’s people Israel with peace. 

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Tefillah – prayer
  • L’hitpallel – to pray
  • Berakha/Berakhot – blessing/blessings

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 – May/2020

Shabbat in April was a strange experience for anyone whose normal routine takes them to shul on Shabbat morning. We had nowhere to go.

When all air traffic in North America was grounded in the days following September 11, 2001, the skies were eerily quiet. And when all, or virtually all, communal prayer ceased in the Jewish community in late March and April, a different type of silence emerged. For some, the silence was filled with the calls to prayer issuing from their screens, coming from rabbis and cantors across the country, seeking to gather a minyan via Zoom or Facebook Live or some other online platform. For others, exhausted by endless meetings in front of screens all week, the chance to relax into Shabbat by withdrawing from screens was a precious retreat away from technology.

For some, the days stretched long, sitting along in the house, waiting for deliveries of mail and food. For others, college age children returned and the house grew busier and more crowded, as each person vied for private space in the house to work undisturbed or perhaps to communicate with friends. When the days blur together, especially for people not used to working from home, it is too easy to become the person whose work takes over life. When you remove shopping, eating out, seeing movies, working out, and running errands, work becomes the routine that shapes the day. And Shabbat can become one of the markers that helps us keep track of the weeks since we felt normal.

Shabbat, for me, became a refuge away from the the things taking over my life in isolation. I finished books and magazines that had been on my coffee table. I took a walk with Marisa. I took the dog for a walk. I waited for the weather to warm up enough to be comfortable riding my bicycle. And I reset my body, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, to prepare for the next week.

Because as I sit and write, I don’t know what our world will look like in May, I’ll conclude by sharing a Prayer for Healing and Strength and Wisdom in Response to the Pandemic.

Oh God, we turn to You at this time of peril seeking Your protection for us, our families and all humanity. We ask that You heal, in body and spirit, all those — in this country and throughout the world — stricken by this terrible new plague.

We ask that You strengthen and protect the nurses, doctors and all others who are placing their own lives at risk to care for the sick.

We pray for our leaders and their advisors at all levels of government and for all others who exercise just and rightful authority, asking that You give them insight, judgment and compassion as they make the many decisions facing our country that need to be made now and in the future. 

We pray, too, that You will guide and grant wisdom to all who are tirelessly working to develop new medicines and vaccines to cure and protect against this virus and ask for their success so that soon it may be defeated and this pandemic ended. 

And finally, we ask that You sustain and help all who, even though escaping illness, are finding their lives and the lives of their families in turmoil because of the consequences to our society of the disease.

As we seek Your assistance, support and mercy, we say, AMEN.   

© 2020 Roger Leemis
Permission to reproduce with attribution granted.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • bidud – isolation
  • Mageifa – pandemic
  • N’gif – the pathogen behind the pandemic
  • hisun – vaccine

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