Hiking and Halacha 3

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On a beautiful fall day, 20 of us drove to Caumsett State Park for a calm, beautiful hike. On the hike we noticed the changing colors of the leaves as Fall begins to set in on Long Island. When we reached the ocean we paused to appreciate the ocean and the beauty of our natural surroundings. We also gathered “mermaid stones” on the seashore and saw some clams which had washed up on shore. We did a short teaching on the power of rain in Judaism before returning back to our cars. Caumsett is known as one of the most beautiful places on Long Island, and we most certainly discovered this to be the case on our hike! All ages were represented, from 7 to 77. We are now taking a break until the spring when we will be back to hike Bear Mountain amongst other sites.

Israel Sermon

Based off requests I received, I am adding my Israel Sermon from Rosh Hashanah as a post:

Jewish Unity

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are united with children, grandparents with grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at the new Jericho Jewish Center. The brochure that we provide is just the tip of the iceberg of what we are offering during this year. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Jericho Jewish Center.

When I was growing up spending Shabbat with my parents, one of the highlights was always discussing the rabbi’s sermon at lunch. My parents loved getting my thoughts on the sermon and sharing their own. My father especially loved when the sermon was about Israel, referring to it as a “red meat sermon.”

This year I cannot imagine a rabbi not speaking about Israel on the High Holidays. So much has happened in such a short time, much of it tragic and upsetting. I think back to June 12, 11 days after I was married, when the 3 yeshiva boys were captured by Hamas. Those 3 boys were the classmates of family friends in Efrat, who I had had the pleasure of staying with twice. When the boys were captured, I was travelling to San Diego to be with my wife and her parents, and I did not learn about the situation until I attended a Sephardi shul on Shabbat morning. When they said to pray for yeshiva boys who had been captured, I was in shock. I remembered celebrating 3 years prior when Gilad Shalit was released; thinking that the days of captured soldiers was a thing of the past. As we now know, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach were murdered by Hamas, along with Hadar Golin. We also know that Hamas systematically built a network of tunnels into Israel with the desire of kidnapping Israeli civilians and taking them through the tunnels on this very Rosh Hashanah. Thankfully, Israel discovered and destroyed these tunnels before Hamas could carry out its plan.

Israelis had a summer running back and forth between their homes and bomb shelters after hearing sirens about rocket launchings. Thankfully the Iron Dome destroyed most of the rockets before they landed. Israel distributed leaflets warning those in Gaza to evacuate their homes, while Hamas kept them in their homes and set up its facilities in schools and hospitals. Israelis had large public funerals to mourn their dead while Hamas encouraged them to be martyrs.

We also had a summer filled with terrible anti-Semitic actions, including the murder of 4 people outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels, a rabbi who was attacked by 4 youths in Berlin for wearing a kippah and rallies in European cities in which “Death to the Jews” was chanted-just as it was chanted in 1896 at the Alfred Dreyfus trial. We saw the beheading of two American journalists and one British journalist by the Islamic State-one of whom happened to also be an Israeli citizen. We saw war crimes and terrorist atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia and by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq-all of which are sending a simple message: convert to Islam or die. We see Iran ever closer to building a nuclear weapon.

Why am I talking about this today? Many of you have read the newspapers, seen the reports on television and know the details of Operation Protective Edge and the anti-Semitism in Europe far better than I do. My job is not to be a news reporter or to offer a picture of doom-and-gloom for the New Year: rather it is to address the events of the day and find a hopeful message from them. How do we combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel reports in the media? Two words: JEWISH UNITY. Let’s look at a few examples.

Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Los Angeles, was killed in battle along with 12 other soldiers in the Gaza Strip. Max had no family or friends living in Israel. There was concern about him having a suitable and proper funeral on Mount Herzl. What happened? 30,000 people showed up to honor Max’s life and his dedication to service in the Israeli Defense Forces. 30,000 people! Saying that Max had no family in Israel is not true: the entire people of Israel was his family! What makes it even more incredible is the 20,000 who came to lone soldier Nissim Carmeli’s funeral two nights before. These were two powerful acts demonstrating Israelis standing together as one people.

Another sign of unity in Israel was Israeli and Americans’ reactions towards Operation Protective Edge. The Knesset, Israel’s governing body, is often divided on every matter, yet the Jewish votes in the Knesset were almost unanimous in their support of Operation Protective Edge. It did not matter whether one was right or left wing: when the reports on the kidnappings and on the tunnels came out, there was support across the board to act. I also saw this in our country. Those who are often dovish on Israel wrote in support of the military efforts: one even wrote “I’m done apologizing for Israel.” People were able to put aside their legitimate disagreements on governmental policies, recognizing that Israel’s well-being was at stake. Unfortunately, it often takes danger to lead to unity, and this situation was no exception to that.

A third way we saw Jewish unity this summer was through participation at Israel rallies throughout the country. There were numerous rallies in Manhattan, one of which had over 10,000 attendees, as well as a rally at the Mid Island Y. This summer, we literally stood for Israel. We made banners, sang together and heard engaging speakers who called us to action: If Not Now When?

How do we begin a new year at a point of uncertainty for Israel and for Jewry? We do so with an optimistic outlook, actively working towards a better future. We do so by “not giving up hope,” in the words of Racheli Frankel, whose son was one of the 3 yeshiva boys killed. If Racheli Frankel can still be hopeful for the future after the tragedy she went through, how much more so do we need to be. These examples of Jewish unity demonstrate to us that by working together, we can send a strong, powerful message that Jews of all stripes stick together.

There are multiple ways that you can help our congregation stand unified with Israel. One is by joining us on Sunday October 26 at our Musical Arts Gala concert. This concert features Israeli artist Rita, dubbed “The Israeli Madonna.” A portion of the proceeds from the concert will benefit the lone soldier organization A Hero in Heaven. Not only will you be supporting Israeli music but you also will be supporting an organization that helps those who choose to make Aliyah and serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Another way you can show Jewish unity is through visiting Israel and making your own personal connection to the Land of Milk and Honey. The Jericho Jewish Center is planning a trip to Israel in the Fall or Winter of 2015-16. This trip is open to all, whether you have been to Israel 50 times or have not yet had the pleasure of going, and the itinerary will be determined in part by the participants. Our opening meeting is at the synagogue on Wednesday October 29, and we hope to see you there.

A third way for us to all stand together is to continue to educate ourselves about the situation in Israel. Whether you are a member of AIPAC, JStreet, ZOA or another organization, there are numerous programs and resources devoted towards education about Israel’s political situation. I do not care if you are right-wing, as I am, left-wing or in the center: what I DO care about is that you care about our community and the worldwide Jewish community. As Elie Wiesel said, “The peril facing mankind today is indifference.” There are numerous speakers about Israel at the Mid Island Y and at various congregations in town, as well as a plethora of media sources that you can use to educate yourself about Israel. I am hoping to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference this March to continue my education about the situation in Israel.

A fourth avenue we can take is to support Israel financially. Israel was hit hard economically by the war this summer, especially through a lack of tourism. To do our part to help make up for this, we raised over half a million dollars in Israel Bonds. While our Israel Bonds event was in August, there is no end limit to when one can purchase a bond or make a donation to strengthen the Israeli economy, and I encourage all to do so.

I pray that the coming year will present numerous opportunities for us to come together as one people. I pray that we will fulfill the motto that “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel,” for we are am yisrael, the people of Israel. Let us not lose sight of the biblical precept that though few in number, we are a strong and mighty nation, prepared to encounter the challenges that face us. May this truly be a year of renewed peoplehood, of being empowered to act together for a better future. AM YISRAEL CHAI! The People of Israel live!

Noah: Walking with God

While my sermons can all be found on my Sermons Page, I’m going to start publishing them as posts as well.


Walking with God

In the past few years, the University of Judaism has put out a series of books with teaching related to God. One of them is called Walking with God. What does it mean to walk with God? Good question! We will look at two bible characters, Enoch and Noah, who both walked with God.

The sixth Aliyah in last week’s Torah portion ended “And Enoch (חנוך) walked with God and was no more, for God took him.”  What it mean that Enoch was no more?  Rashi and Ibn Ezra comment that God taking Enoch refers to Enoch’s death. Rashi said that though Enoch was righteous, he was easily misled, which is why God took him before his time. The Baal HaTurim has a different reading: that God took Enoch and put him in the heavens.  He begins with Job 16:19 “Surely now my witness is in heaven, he who can testify for me is on high.”  He next shows that the word for “my witness,” עדי, has the same Gematria as חנוך and how the word for “my testifier,” ושהדי, has the same Gematria as מטטרון, the innermost angel to God.[1]  3 Enoch, a pseudepigraphical book in the hechalot literature which tells of Rabbi Ishmael’s encounter of Metatron in his journey to heaven, is the first place that describes Enoch’s transformation into Metatron.[2]  According to this view, Enoch thus is not merely someone who dies an early death but rather serves God as a heavenly being.

Both of these interpretations are very different than those regarding Noah, the other biblical figure who walked with God. This week’s portion began “Noah was a righteous man, pure in his generation. Noah walked with God.” Rashi here says that Noah walking with God means that he needed God’s support in order to be righteous. He takes this in concert with his comment of Noah being righteous in his generation-that if Noah was in a different generation, say Avraham’s, he would not be considered righteous. Kli Yakar, however, provides an alternative interpretation: that Noah was unwavering in his faith in God, not turning to the idolatrous gods of others. Once again there are two ways to look at walking with God: either someone who needs support to avoid the dangers of the world or someone with unwavering devotion to and faith in God.

Which definition of walking with God do you prefer? I prefer the latter, and this is how I view all biblical characters who are described as walking with God, whether it is Enoch, Noah or Abraham. When one walks on a path in life, his or her goal is generally to take a straightforward, unwavering path, rather than one that veers uncontrollably in multiple directions. Therefore, walking with God would be choosing a path of straightforwardness and righteousness through unwaveringly following God’s commandments, rather than what one feels like at the spur of a moment or what the media tells one to do.

How can we apply this lesson to our lives? For us to walk with God, we need to stand firm in what we believe in: to live an ethical life, follow commandments and bring holiness into the world. This viewpoint is similar to one of the definitions of halacha, Jewish law. The rabbis compare halacha to the word halach, or go, arguing that halacha is the path in life on which one walks. Let us choose the path of walking with God, as our ancestors did, and in doing so, our lives will be enriched and our spirits will be whole. In order to increase our feelings of godliness, let us turn to Page 777 in Siddur Hadash and continue responsively with a reading by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

[1] The second Gematria is a little off, even when one spells Metatron’s name מיטטרון.

[2] Gershom Scholem’s rendition of this section of 3 Enoch is This Enoch, whose flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and whom God placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.”

Blessing of the Pets

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We had a wonderful time at the Jericho Jewish Center’s first blessing of the pets. Blessing animals is something which has roots in Christianity, with St. Francis of Assisi blessing them 800 years ago. Why then have many synagogues chosen to take on this ritual? A few central reasons

1.) Blessing our pets enables us to appreciate their roles in our lives. For so many, their animals have an integral role in the family, and it is important to honor this.

2.) A connection is made to Parshat Noach, which we read this coming Shabbat, when the animals were saved from destruction.

3.) There are many contemporary blessings and rituals that are being created (one of my teachers at the Seminary wrote a blessing for finishing a new book). The rabbis of previous generations created numerous blessings and rituals, leaving room for us to do so as well. Having blessings over our pets is another way for us to connect to a age-old tradition of blessing that which we hold of great value.

Which blessing should we recite over our animals? There is no one right answer. The one that I chose for our ceremony is אוהב את הבריות, literally translated to “who loves all creatures.” Though בריות often translates to people, I am using it in its more literal translation of any creature.

I am already looking forward to next year’s Blessing of the Pets.

The Death of Klinghoffer

Today was the opening day of the Metropolitan Opera’s showing of Death of Klinghoffer, a film humanizing 4 Palestinian terrorists who captured the cruise ship Achille Lauro and murdered 69 year old wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer just because he was an American Jew. There was a protest outside the Met which had 100 wheelchairs and signs saying “Leon Klinghoffer is us.” I was planning to attend, but I have been feeling under the weather, so I did not make it in. However, I watched The Voyage of Terror, the film detailing the hijacking. The film shows how, while the 4 terrorists were captured (thanks to an American plane which chased theirs down), the two higher-ups in the PLO who orchestrated the attack got away due to an agreement Italy had with the PLO.

The opera was produced in 1991, so why the protests now, 23 years later? For a simple reason: the fact that Death of Klinghoffer has permeated an institution of mainstream culture is extremely disturbing. As we know from our history, propaganda and scapegoating often permeates from culture. I would feel the same way if an opera romanticizing Jewish terrorists appeared at the Met. The bottom line is that terrorist actions are being humanized is completely unacceptable and unjustifiable.

For the record, I have not seen the opera in its entirety although I have seen a number of scenes (including the opening act), which were painful to watch and which demonstrated to me the problematic nature of this opera.

Hol Sameach?

I was asked today before my Pirkei Avot class on Saturday afternoon as to whether or not I look forward to the holidays ending. For those who do not know, the Hebrew month of Tishrei (in September and October) features a marathon of holidays-Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. When these holidays conclude, we enter the month of Marheshvan, known as the bitter month because it contains no holidays. Many, however, enjoy this month because of its return to “ordinary time”: regular weeks uninterrupted by preparing meals and holiday prohibitions.

When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the holidays ended, we said to one another “Hol Sameach”-in other words, enjoy “ordinary time,” full weeks without holidays. Like others, I genuinely appreciated this break from holidays (especially in a year like this when the holidays are directly followed by Shabbat). With that being said, I think we are missing something crucial if we celebrate the end of the holiday season. This season is meant for us to be more reflective about how we are living our lives and to celebrate time with friends and family. Now that it is over, and we return to our busy workweeks, the question is have we done that? Have we taken the time to decompress, think about our goals for the coming year, and have the proper mindset to make a difference in the world in which we live? Hopefully we have, so that we will be truly able to have a “Hol Sameach”-joyous and productive weeks of reconnecting with the world.

And You Should Be Only Joyous

Can God command us to feel joy? It certainly appears to be the case on Sukkot. Sukkot is referred to as z’man simhateinu, the festival of our joy, and we are supposed to feel only happiness on Sukkot. We do so in part by setting up a new home, a temporary booth in our yard in which we dwell for 7 days, in order to remember that our ancestors dwelt in booths when they left Egypt. We decorate the booths and have festive meals in them. Furthermore, we should be joyous because our sins have been forgiven on Yom Kippur.

I wonder why, with all the joy that is inherent in Sukkot, is it so rarely celebrated? Why has it taken a backseat to the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? I often say that if 3 day a year Jews chose different days to attend synagogue, say Sukkot, Simhat Torah and Purim, they would have a much different experience which perhaps would be more joyous.

I hope this Sukkot brings only joy to you and your family. It has been wonderful to begin to experience it in Jericho and truly take in the feelings of fall: the leaves changing colors, the cooler temperatures and the celebration of the outdoors.

The Definition of Genocide

I was beside myself when I heard that Mahmoud Abbas in his speech at the United Nations accused Israel of genocide in Operation Protective Edge. I always thought genocide was the annihilation of an entire people. Modern day genocides might include Bashir Assad gassing 170,000 of his people or ISIS killing non-Muslim Christians and Yazidis in Iraq. There were genocides in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia and of course the Shoah, the Holocaust, in a class of its own.

Wait a second-Mahmoud Abbas denied! that the Holocaust ever existed!  As a matter of fact his dissertation centers on this theme, as well as on the idea that the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis to murder Jews! If you don’t believe me, take a look here: http://israelbehindthenews.com/abbass-thesis-that-zionists-worked-with-the-nazis-taught-in-palestinian-schools/7159/

It is true that in 2014 Abbas retracted his statement, calling the Holocaust the “most heinous crime in human history.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/world/middleeast/palestinian-leader-shifts-on-holocaust.html?_r=0) However, in doing so, he compared the Zionists treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazis treatment of the Jews! http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/elder-of-ziyon/abbas-compares-palestinians-to-holocaust-victims/2014/04/27/ He also said “I’ll never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” In addition, upon becoming Prime Minister in 2003, Abbas argued that Palestinian terrorists should murder Jews living in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. THIS is the man with whom Israel is supposed to negotiate? Perhaps better than Hamas, but far from a peace partner.