Walking in My Ways

אם בחקותי תלכו-if you follow my laws.[1] Why do we need to follow G-d’s laws? Why can’t we just do whatever we want when we want to? The reason given by Rashi is הוו עמלים בתורה לשמור ולקיים[2], labor in the Torah to guard and establish it. That the word “labor,” or עמל, is used is not by accident: living a life of Torah requires a tremendous amount of work. We know that in order to master something, one needs to practice-often over and over again. Seforno expands on this thought when he comments חוקות הם גזרות מלך שינהג האדם בהם בשתדלות עסקי חייו, והתנהג בהם יקרא הליכה[3]. The laws are the decrees of the King that a person behaves by exerting effort in the affairs of his life, and one who behaving in accordance with them is called “walking.” In life we can take numerous, diverse paths, yet through following the structure of Jewish law and tradition, we will walk down the correct path.

Who sets the guidelines for the path down which we walk? When we are children, from babies until our B’nai Mitzvah (though for some it never ends) the ones setting those rules are our parents. At times the rules might seem overly restrictive, yet they are there for our protection. When one gets older, however, we set those rules in how we live our lives each and every day. G-d willing our parents have set a solid foundation for us to continue, and hopefully that includes wisdom from Torah and from Judaism. At the same time, it is up to us as to what we do with it.

Today we are here to celebrate the naming of a very special girl, Samantha Brooke Cohen. In looking up the origin of the name, it says that in Hebrew (I think erroneously) that it is derived from שמוע, “G-d heard,” which would be a very fitting name. G-d heard your desire to have a child and gave you a beautiful baby girl. However, I see a better origin of the name as being סמן, or sign. Having a baby is one of the greatest signs of G-d’s presence in the world, especially as the child grows and learns from everything that you do, often emulating it and viewing it as an ideal. Our role as parents is a derivation from the Divine Parent, G-d.

The origin of Brooke is a stream. We often find G-d’s presence in the beauty of nature. We go out to waterfalls, grand mountains, white-sand beaches and vistas to find a sense of serenity and joy. Not so for a child, however. S/he finds beauty in almost everything, experiencing it for the first time. We know that as Samantha Brooke grows, her curiosity will continue to abound and through looking at you as her example, you will both grow as well.

Carlee and David-we are blessed to have you living back in New York after having lived in Philadelphia for a number of years. We are also honored to celebrate with you ten months after we celebrated at Jilliane and Joshua’s daughter’s baby naming. In addition, we are blessed to have Samantha Brooke’s grandparents Erv, Bonnie z”l, Robert and Marlene, great-grandparents Edward and Eva, great-aunts Rosalyn and Mindy, great-uncle Andrew, aunts Jilliane, Rebecca and Lori, uncles Joshua, Douglas and Stu.

We gave Emily Brooke the Hebrew name בלימע שרה after an incredible balabusta, Bonnie Hoffman z”l. Blima is Yiddish for the Hebrew Shoshana, a flower at times translated as “lily” or “rose.” Shir HaShirim contains one of my favorite expressions, כשושנה בין החוחים, like a flower amongst the thorns.[4] Bonnie definitely exemplified this persona, and I know Samantha will as well, flowering not only in terms of beauty but also in developing a strong, independent personality, like her grandmother, z”l.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous and most beautiful day! To crystallize the joy of Samantha receiving her Hebrew name, I’d like to call Carlee, David and Samantha to the Bimah as we turn to Page 840 and continue responsively.

[1] Leviticus 26:3

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 26:3 ד”ה אם בחקתי תלכו

[3] Seforno on Leviticus 26:3 ד”ה אם בחקתי תלכו

[4] Song of Songs 2:2

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Potential, Promise, Hope and Goodness

Moments of potential, promise, hope and goodness. That’s what we’re here to celebrate today. Two people finding one another and deciding to share a life together is something truly worthy of celebrating. Josh grew up at the Jericho Jewish Center, and his parents have been members here since 1997. Amanda his long-time girlfriend, then fiancée and now soon-to-be wife, has been at JJC for numerous High Holiday services and other events. How great that we as a congregation can celebrate this milestone.

You might be thinking, “How on earth does an aufruf or marriage connect to Parshat Tazria/Metzora? This parasha is one for which rabbis are often paralyzed at what to say to relate to their congregation. As I see it, we need go no further than the first half of the second verse of the parsha דבר אל בני ישראל לאמר אשה כי תזריע וילדה…, “Speak to the Children of Israel saying, ‘a woman who conceives and gives birth.”[1] No we’re not here to say we can’t wait until you have children but rather there’s a comparison to the birth of a child and a couple coming together. As a relatively recent parent, I can vouch for the fact that when a parent looks at his/her child, s/he sees all the potential for growth, development and goodness. Your parents are kvelling at you right now having found your besheret and sanctifying this moment in front of G-d and Israel.

It reminds me of the famous song “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof:

(Tevye)

Is this the little girl I carried?

Is this the little boy at play?

(Golde)

I don’t remember growing older

When did they?

(Tevye)

When did she get to be a beauty?

When did he grow to be so tall?

(Golde)

Wasn’t it yesterday

When they were small?

(Men)

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly flow the days

(Women)

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers

Blossoming even as we gaze

 

Each person blossoms into who s/he is meant to be, undergoing scrapes and bruises along the way and yet developing spiritually over time. Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser wrote, “Each person is both part of the human race and a unique being with a particular spiritual and potential capacity. Thus, the doctrine of human equality asserts that each individual is distinct.”[2]  When a couple is formed, each member continues to develop, not only as an individual but also as a partner with his/her spouse. This adds a level of complexity to the mix, for how can two individuals with their own wants and desires coalesce into a unit? It requires communication, compromise and growing together in order to accomplish this.

Josh and Amanda-today we are celebrating your choosing to build a life together and all the potential, promise, hope and goodness that comes along with that. You mentioned to me that you work as a couple because you’re both busy, dedicated to your careers as a cardiologist and criminal attorney, respectively. You have learned how to develop your own identities and now have an opportunity to strengthen your identity as a couple. It is wonderful to celebrate with you with your congregational family at the Jericho Jewish Center.  Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! To crystallize the joy of this celebration, I ask that you turn with me to Page 838 where we read responsively.

[1] Leviticus 12:2

[2] Ben-Zion Bokser, The Talmud: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 30.

Voicing the Mourners Kaddish

They are only words-I know

How, then, can it be such pain

To say them?

Is it that I would roll the snow

Back from your whitesmooth winter grave

As coverlet-and see your face,

Your form once more before me.

 

They are only words to say.

How, then, can it be such pain

To say them-can it be the way

I take spring’s flowers out to you

When I would give them to your hand.

Though they are only words to say,

These words became such pain to say

Because I would have you alive!

And yet, I speak the words each year.

With tears, I tremble and repeat

The Kaddish-for within that prayer

The best and fullest which was you,

Your dreams and your ideals

Survive.[1]

Lucille Frenkel, “Voicing The Mourners Kaddish For My Mother’s Yahrzeit”

 

What is it about the Kaddish that brings so much emotion to it? At daily minyan, I notice not only who says Kaddish but how they say it. I see our Congregational President choke back tears as he reads these words day-after-day. The Kaddish, said for eleven months after the death of a parent, has so much power behind it.

One would think the Mourners Kaddish is a prayer to the deceased. This cannot be further from the truth: it is a prayer to G-d. The mourners say in Aramaic, the spoken language of our ancestors, יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא, may G-d’s great name be exalted and sanctified. The entire congregation joins in a response also said by the mourner: יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם ולעלמי עלמיא, may G-d’s great name be blessed forever.

Why do we turn to G-d at a time of such great vulnerability, when we remember a loved one who is no longer physically present? At funerals and unveilings I say this is not for G-d’s benefit but rather for ours. After a great loss, when our foundation has been shattered, when the carpet has been pulled out from under our feet, we still strive to believe that the world is good, that there is something to live for and to fight for. The Kaddish gives us this opportunity, to praise G-d’s name even at a time when we might be very angry with the הקדוש ברוך הוא, with G-d, for letting our love one pass away. We return to these words after our period of mourning on the Yahrzeit, the Hebrew date of death.

We also say the Kaddish at Yizkor, when we remember our loved one. We always feel the absence of a loved one’s presence, but it is often felt most during holidays, when there’s an empty chair or our loved one with whom we cooked or who led the Seder is not present. I remember my grandmother making matzah brei in the kitchen, helping my mother with the Seder plate (in particular making haroset) and at the Seder choosing not to read passages which deal with plague or with death. Although I did not have a Seder with her since I graduated rabbinical school, memories like that will always stay with me.

The past two months are among the first since I came to the Jericho Jewish Center that I have not voiced the Mourners Kaddish. Before, either someone asked me to say Kaddish as their representative, or שליח, or I chose to say Kaddish for 11 months for my grandmothers. When the 11 months for my Grandma Lucille ended, it felt strange to no longer be saying the Mourners Kaddish. As rabbi I often have said Mourners Kaddish along with the congregation on Shabbat but I deliberately decided not to do so anymore so unless necessary for pacing in order to let the mourners’ words be heard. Now the only times I say Kaddish are for a קדיש כללי, or communal Kaddish, at Yizkor, Yom HaShoah, and 10th of Tevet, so as to remember both loved ones who died and fellow Jews and family members who were murdered solely because of their religion. It feels dignified to voice the Kaddish to remember them and hold them in our hearts.

I hope that this Passover holiday has been a good one for you, celebratory and reflective, appreciating that we have reached this point again in our cyclical calendar. Let us now pause to remember the loved ones who shaped us into being who we are, who paved the way for us to follow, whose inspiration we turn to when we have a difficult decision to make and whose wisdom guides our spirits. Before beginning Yizkor I ask that we all turn in your new Yizkor booklets to Page 16 as we read responsively the prayer “As We Remember Them.”

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Voicing the Mourners Kaddish for My Mothers Yahrzeit.” In A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 120.

The Makings of a Community

Which individuals comprise a community? In Judaism, there are a couple different definitions of this. One is from Moses speaking to Pharaoh and proclaiming בנערנו ובזקננו נלך, we will leave Egypt with both our young and our old.[1] In other words, everyone is part of the Israelite community and should go out together from Egypt. Another definition is more exclusive. In explaining the phrase שלש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך ,את פני האדון ה three times a year all males shall be seen before G-d (in Jerusalem)[2], Talmud Tractate Hagigah begins הכל חייבין בראייה חוץ מחרש שוטה וקטן וטומטום ואנדרוגינוס ונשים ועבדים שאינם משוחררים, החיגר והסומא והחולה והזקן ומי שאינו יכול לעלות ברגליו[3]; “all are obligated to be seen at the Temple-that is except for a deaf-mute,[4] an imbecile, a minor, one with neither or with both genetalia, women, unfreed slaves, one who is limp, blind, sick or elderly and one who cannot walk on his own (or ride on his father’s shoulders.)

As celebrating the holidays is so essential a component for every Jew, why were so many people excluded in Temple times? Aren’t we supposed to protect the vulnerable rather than exclude them from our most festive times of the year?

In order to understand why this is the case, we need to look back at what society was like in Ancient Israel. We examine a time with no cars, where journeys to Jerusalem could take as much as two weeks of walking and sleeping outside. Someone who was limp, sick or blind would not be able to make that journey. Further, those who went on the journey would be vulnerable to the elements, whether the hot sun before and after Shavuot or the chilly nights before and after Sukkot (never mind the snow J). You needed to be in peak physical condition in order to make it. In addition, as the verse says males (women were excluded from positive, time-bound commandments),[5] anyone who was not easily identifiable as a male was excluded.

This is different from other commandments such as Hakhel where G-d told Moses הקהל את העם האנשים נשים וטף[6]; “Gather the people: men, women and children” or Sinai where all of Israel was present. At times, however, all of Israel, as opposed to today, where we are scattered מארבע כנפות הארץ, out to the four corners of the earth.

Now that we are no longer required to gather in Jerusalem for pilgrimage festivals, as there is no Temple, has the definition of community changed? I believe it has. While Israel remains scattered, we each form our own unique community like we have at the Jericho Jewish Center. As these are centered at geographic locations, all members of the community can join and congregate together during holidays. Furthermore, the time it takes to get from one place to another has shrunk because of transportation advancements, such as airplanes and trains. In addition, technological advancements make it possible for people who at one time were unable to fully participate in rituals to now become full participants. I had a blind neighbor in rabbinical school who is now becoming a rabbi in her own right. There is a rabbinical school for the deaf and there are programs to help those who have any variety of physical challenges. This enables everyone to fully participate in our community.

As we celebrate the Passover holiday, one in which many have been reunited with family members they might not have seen for quite some time, let us strive to make each community we are part of as inclusive as possible. May we truly feel free when our community is one that is completely welcoming to others, accepting them as they are and for who they are.

[1] Exodus 13:9

[2] Exodus 23:17

[3] Mishnah Hagigah 1:1

[4] If you were deaf you couldn’t communicate and thus were also mute. Now of course the two are not intertwined.

[5] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a

[6] Deuteronomy 31:10

The Eighth Day

Why do we continue to read Torah portions which focus on sacrifice? I believe that if one looks closely, s/he can find a nice parallel between this portion and the life cycle event of circumcision. Our first Aliyah this morning began שור או כבש או עז כי יולד והיה שבעת ימים תחת אמו וביום השמיני והלאה ירצה לקרבן אשה לה “For an ox or a sheep or a goat that gives birth, the young shall be with its mother for seven days and from the eighth day onwards it shall be offered as a sacrifice to G-d.”[1] It would be detrimental to the emotional well-being of the mother to take her young right after birth so there is a requirement to wait at least seven days, a complete cycle of the week, before doing so.

Similarly, in the case of a baby boy, the circumcision is not done until the eighth day. Why is this the case? Imagine taking a baby one or two days after birth to be circumcised. Not only would this be medically unsound but it also would be detrimental to the emotional well-being and stability of the mother. Because of that, a complete week (including one Shabbat) is given for the mother to be with her child before the two of them are reintegrated into society.

There is a broader purpose to this comparison: both examples have to do with making something sacred. Sacrificing an animal comes from the root karov, meaning “bringing close.” It was a holy act of consecrating an animal to G-d. Concurrently, the circumcision of a baby boy is an act of sanctification, bringing the boy into the Jewish people.

While with no Temple in Jerusalem we do not have animal sacrifice, we still enact circumcisions, and many moderns are uncomfortable with it. There have been campaigns to ban circumcision as a barbaric act, the most notable having been in 2011 in San Francisco and Santa Monica California.[2] Those who have argued for banning circumcision do not realize that this is more than removing a baby’s foreskin; it is a holy act of drawing a newborn close to G-d.

My mentor, Rabbi William Lebeau, said that each rabbistudent needs to develop a personal reason as to why circumcision is compelling. Mine is as follows: this is the first act of publicly celebrating the life of a baby boy and of bringing him into the Jewish people. It has been done continuously throughout the generations, beginning with our first ancestor Abraham. There have been times in the past when circumcision was outlawed and Jews were persecuted if they engaged in it, and often risked death to perform this ritual. There were even some who engaged in a practice of epispasm, trying to reattach the foreskin. Yet our ancestors time and time again reaffirmed the importance of continuing this ritual. They saw circumcision, like sacrifice, as an opportunity to draw closer to G-d.

When we get to a section of the Torah that might make us uncomfortable, I recommend that we take a moment to consider if we can find meaning in it for ourselves. While we might struggle with reading about sacrifice, we can appreciate that this ritual brought our ancestors closer to G-d. Similarly, we can take a ritual like circumcision and find our own personal meaning as to why we continue to perform and celebrate it. May each of us find opportunities to personally connect with the texts of our tradition so that these texts will continue to speak to us in a meaningful way.

[1] Leviticus 22:26

[2] See https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/us/05circumcision.html . While the attempt to ban circumcision for those under 18 years of age did not succeed, with Governor Jerry Brown signing a bill preventing a ban on circumcision, it was striking how close San Francisco in particular got to making it a crime to circumcise  a baby boy.

The Most Important Verse in Torah[1]

What is the most important verse in the Torah?  Such was the question asked by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. Three rabbis’ responses are recorded. Shimon Ben Zoma said that it is שמע ישראל ה אלקנו ה אחד[2] (“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem alone.” A great choice, right? The ultimate declaration of faith. Shimon Ben Nanus disagreed and said that it is ואהבת לרעך כמוך; love your neighbor as yourself.[3] Also an excellent choice. Shimon Ben Pazi said that it is את הכבש אחד תעשה בבוקר ואת הכבש השני תעשה בין הערבים; offer the first lamb in the morning and the second lamb in the afternoon,[4] a verse which we read on Rosh Hodesh. That would not have been my first choice, yet Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi said that is the most important verse and that the Halacha is according to Ben Pazzi. He comments that you get to loving G-d through loving your neighbor and you get to loving your neighbor through being present always, תמיד.[5]

I have not seen a related rabbinic argument about the most important passage in the liturgy, but if there were one I would choose a lesser-known passage: המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית, G-d who renews in his goodness each day the works of creation. Why choose this over the Shema or the Amidah? Because the way you get to appreciate G-d and have a relationship with The Almighty is through recognizing that He renews the acts of creation each and every day. When we take things for granted, we lose appreciation of The Divine. However, when we see the impact G-d has in acts of daily living, then the very act of being alive is infused with meaning each moment of every day. We can add to this ועל נסיך שבכל-יום עמנו, the miracles which are with us every day. What new opportunities are opening up to us today?

Why teach this on Passover? Passover is a holiday during which things can feel very repetitious. Tonight we will gather for our Second Seder, reciting 99% of the same liturgy in the Haggadah that we said last evening. We also have eight days of matzah and by the end, many are tired of it and looking for something new to eat. No wonder our ancestors complained about the coriander-seed tasting manna[6] that they consumed day in and day out! At the same time, through being mindful that G-d renews creation on a daily basis, we recognize that each and every moment is new. When we are mindful about the food we are consuming, chewing it carefully and thoughtfully, each bite is infused with new excitement. When we focus on a different word or concept in our liturgy or look at it in a new light, it infuses new meaning for us.

We have an opportunity tonight at Second Seder to try to do things differently than we did last night. When we say the words מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, how is this night different from all others? let us also keep in mind how is this Seder different than last night’s. Perhaps we can add something new to the Seder, whether a new melody, interpretation or section of focus in our Haggadah. Similarly, let us not see Passover as anti-climactic (as I often do), all downhill after the Seder; rather may we see each moment of every day as having infinite value, enabling us to look at things differently than we did before. In so doing, may we have a meaningful זמן חרותנו (festival of freedom), feeling that we are free to approach life with a new vitality and spirit, rather than just doing everything the same old way for the sake of tradition.

[1] Thanks to Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality for this teaching.

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4

[3] Leviticus 19:14

[4] Numbers 28:4

[5] Preface to Ein Yaakov, הקדמת הרב יעקב בן חביב  Ben Zoma said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole [of the Torah]: “Listen O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One (Deut 6:4)”.’  Ben Nanus said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole [of the Torah]: “You will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).’  Ben Pazi said: ‘ I have found a verse that contains the whole [of the Torah]: “You will sacrifice a lamb in the morning and another at dusk (Exod. 29:39, Num. 28:4, )”.’  And Rabbi (Yehudah HaNasi), their teacher, stood up and decided  ‘The law is according to Ben Pazi.’

 

[6] See Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:7

Asking the Clergy: What is the significance of food during Passover?

Rabbi Ben Herman, Jericho Jewish Center

Rabbi Ben Herman, Jericho Jewish Center Photo Credit: Ellen Dubin

Why is food central to Passover?

The eight-day festival of Passover begins Friday evening. This week’s clergy discuss the role of food in the traditional Passover seder meal.

 

Rabbi Ben Herman

Jericho Jewish Center

The joke about Jewish holidays is that they can be summed up in one phrase: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” No holiday has food as a more central component than Passover. On the first two nights of Passover, we have a meal called the seder in which we make a plate with foods representing our ancestors being slaves in Egypt and their eventual redemption. Items on the seder plate are maror or bitter herbs, representing the bitterness of slavery; haroset, symbolizing the mortar used to make the bricks; saltwater, the tears our ancestors cried while enslaved; zeroa, a shank bone; and the Paschal lamb sacrificed by our ancestors and signifying that God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand. Also, an egg, representing the communal hagigah sacrifice; and karpas, a vegetable, generally green, representing that spring has come — the season in which the exodus from Egypt occurred. Let us not forget the matzoh, the unleavened bread our ancestors ate because they were in such a rush to leave Egypt that they didn’t have time for it to rise. As a result, we do not eat any substance which has leavened, and actually wipe away all traces of leavened substances, cleaning out our refrigerators, kitchens, offices and even automobiles, needing to get rid of every crumb. This massive ordeal is done in part to eat simpler foods (many subsist on matzoh, fruits and vegetables during this holiday) and in so doing emulating our ancestors’ experience of living in the desert. By focusing on the food we eat and giving symbolic meaning to much of it, we get the sense we fulfill the commandment to relive the Exodus from Egypt.