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/Words from the Rabbi – May, 2013

The third of the three Biblical Pilgrimage festivals, coming approximately at the beginning of the summer, is Shavuot (“Weeks”), named after the practice of counting the days and weeks from Pesah to Shavuot. Although it is a harvest festival in the Torah, this aspect of the festival has been eclipsed by its post-Biblical connection to the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the Ten Declarations/Commandments and celebrate receiving the Torah.

Torah is, of course, the foundational text of Judaism. Traditional Judaism is structured around the practices of Torah, also know as mitzvah.

The literal, Biblical meaning of mitzvah is commandment, an obligation that God has imposed upon you. The implication of this is spelled out clearly in the Bible – God rewards those individuals and communities who follow the mitzvot, and punishes those who are disobedient. If this theology works for you as a motivation to engage in serious Jewish life and practice, you can stop reading here (and I’ll see you on Shavuot!). If you, however, like most Jews, do not believe that God cares whether you observe mitzvot, don’t believe that God rewards and punishes, keep reading – I’m going to give you an alternative meaning of mitzvah, inspired by a talk given by my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson.

The hasidic tradition noticed that the root of the word mitzvah in Aramaic means, “to connect” and understood mitzvah to mean “a connection.” Mitzvah is our means of making connections. When we are in a relationship, we do things for the other person not because we are seeking reward or afraid of punishment, but because the things we do express our desire to be in that relationship. The acts of mitzvah are acts which express our intimate relationship with God and/or with Torah and/or with the Jewish people and/or with the broad and eternal concept of Judaism. Most Jews at certain points in their life, find incredible and deep meaning in mitzvah – it may be within funeral ritual, it may be at a Passover Seder, it may be at a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration, or it may be at a synagogue service. It is an experience of finding a connection to eternity through the texts and rituals that have sustained the Jewish relationship with the Divine for millennia. As in any relationship, the more you do, the deeper the relationship becomes, and the more joy you find in the relationship. Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the “love letter” and marriage contract of the Divine-Human relationship. See you at Mount Sinai!

The full talk by Rabbi Artson, Contemporary Meaning of Mitzvot, can be found online at ZiegerTorah.org.


I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • Partially planning and leading a 9th grade religious school trip to New York. We visited three different synagogues for services, two Jewish museums, a number of kosher restaurants, a walking tour and a museum of the Lower East Side, a Broadway Show, and more.
  • I gave an Introduction to Judaism talk and tour of the Synagogue to students of Westwood Middle School of Grand Rapids.