The Beauty of Israel

It is now one week before the Jericho Jewish Center trip to Israel, and Karina and I are very excited. We want to thank all the participants for making the trip possible. In a few short days, 24 of us will be travelling to Israel, some spending one and a half weeks, and others spending two full weeks.

I hope from our trip to Israel, we will explore the land of so much richness to our ancestors of so many generations, from the oasis of Ein Gedi, where King David fled from King Saul to the City of David, the original centerpiece of Jerusalem, to the Kotel, the retaining wall from our holy Temple in Jerusalem, to the Kabbalists of Tsfat to Independence Hall where the State of Israel was called into being. We will also get to see a natural wonder, the Ramon Crater in Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev, and the gorgeous waterfall at Banias Nature Reserve, and reflect on the beauty of G-d’s creations. Masada, the Dead Sea and an evening in a Bedouin tent are highlights of the trip as well. In addition, we will do community service projects, helping out the underprivileged kids at the Neve Michael Youth Village and packing food for Israel’s poorest families. We will also get to learn about the perspective of soldiers on an army base as we share dinner with them, as well as hosting lone soldiers (who have no family in Israel) for lunch.

Why are we going to Israel? Three reasons. We are going to reconnect with the land of our ancestors and of our people today and to find our own personal meaning in its history, its culture and its beauty. It is one thing to intellectually learn about Israel or to read about it in the papers-quite another to actually experience it. We will be experiencing Israel in all its wonder and in all its complexity, strengthening our connection to this beautiful and inspiring country which produces major technological advances, engages in worldwide humanitarian efforts and strives to always act in the most ethical manner possible. In so doing, we will increase our appreciation of the Land of Milk and Honey and become armed with more knowledge and understanding to bring back to our local communities.

We are also going to appreciate that Israel is not something to be taken for granted through meeting with soldiers and going to the military cemetery at Mount Herzl. We will learn about many individuals, including David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin who made great sacrifices in order to create a homeland for their children and grandchildren…and for generations yet to come. In the words of the poet Natan Alterman, they are the “silver platter” on which Israel has been given to us. At the same time, we have a responsibility to deepen our connection with both the land of Israel and with Israelis. Through deepening our engagement with the land and the people, we become ambassadors for Israel and we “make it our own.”

Perhaps most importantly, we have an opportunity to show solidarity with our brethren in Israel at a time when they need our support. The news about violence in Israel has not been comforting, and we pray for an end to terrorism. At the same time, I believe that this is precisely why we must go-to show our solidarity with our brethren, that they are not alone, that we will not let terrorism scare us into staying back. Support for Israel when it is under attack is paramount, and we will give that support by meeting with Israelis from multiple walks of life, learning their stories and yes, supporting the Israeli economy through shopping. These are ways that Israel will become very real in our lives, and we will bring that richness back to Jericho.

I will try to blog from Israel on a daily basis so that everyone can keep informed on our trip’s progress. I look forward to sharing some insights from the Israel trip on Shabbat morning November 21 and in the weeks to come. L’shana Hazot B’yirushalayim-THIS year in Jerusalem!

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Iran Invited by United States To Discuss Syria’s Future-What is Wrong Here?

Iran has already gotten its way-a deal in which sanctions against it will be lifted in exchange for nuclear centrifuges taken down, supposed inspections and verification of Iran’s nuclear program to stop Iran from getting a bomb. Now Iran appears to have gotten even more than it bargained for-an invitation to join the United States and Europe in discussions on Syria’s future. Iran, a country that back and funded Bashar Assad, who gassed over 250,000 of his own people, is being given a say at the table as to what will happen with Syria. We have been on opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War, a war which has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their homes. This has been a war of the people against an oppressive dictator and could be over after 4 long years if Iran and Russia had not bolstered Assad. By inviting the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country which imprisons and lashes people for being poets, satirists and for shaking hands with members of the opposite sex.

I’m generally a fan of bringing more voices to the table, yet my blood boils when I think of a country which sponsors terrorists and which censors the behavior of so many of its people being invited to shape the future of one of Israel’s neighbors. What’s next-inviting Iran to advise the United States on how to handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Are we so naive as to believe that Iran’s input will be beneficial to the Syrian people rather than just further strengthening Assad’s power?

Israel Solidarity Shabbat

A letter I sent my congregation.
Dear Friends,
This has been a very difficult series of weeks in Israel. The stabbing of Israeli citizens in Jerusalem, Hebron and Pisgat Ze’ev, the attacks on public buses, the murder of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin, Rabbi Yeshayahu Krishevsky, Alex Levlovitz and of numerous other Israelis and the explosion of Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem are unfortunately just a few of the attacks on Jews and on Jewish sites that have occurred. The Israeli Defense Forces have been called to supplement the police forces for added security. Many of us are disheartened, saddened and scared by what is occurring. The question is how do we respond to it?
Our congregational Israel trip is planning to leave on Wednesday November 4. This is an important trip in which we show solidarity with Israelis, demonstrating that we stand together as one people. However, we also need to respond as a congregation as a whole, and we have an opportunity to do so TOMORROW. Join us for an Israel Solidarity Shabbat when we will sing some Israeli songs and hear from Tikva Mussafi, who just returned from Israel.
Shabbat Shalom-May this truly be a Shabbat of Peace for each of us,
Rabbi Herman

Black Jewish Coalition for Justice

Under the leadership of Rabbi Art Vernon and Reverend William Watson, as well as an entire Executive Committee, a Black Jewish Coalition for Justice has been formed. Our inaugural meeting was today. Rabbi Sid Schwarz spoke about the responsibility of living in privilege, imploring us to get closer to the pain of others. He referenced a statement by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l that “some are guilty but all are responsible.” Reverend Floyd Flake spoke about how to make our local community as strong as possible, and how for him the key issue is quality education for African Americans. Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and the Nassau County Parliamentarian also spoke.

Later we broke into small groups. We discussed how we can understand the struggles the other is going through, be they racial profiling, police brutality or affordable housing for the black community or delegitimization of Israel and the tendency to become isolated as challenges for the Jewish community. The leader of my group was an African American minister who had bad encounters with police officers (which we unfortunately learned was common amongst the black members of the group) but who later decided to become a police officer.

This is a great opportunity for rabbis and ministers to dialogue with each other and begin to understand the perspective of the other. I look forward to participating in the coalition and seeing its progress in the coming months.

Three Types of Creation

How do you create something completely new, ex nihilo? This is especially challenging, as the poet Kohelet proclaimed “There is nothing new under the sun.”[1] When I started writing my undergraduate thesis on Rabbi Stephen Wise and World War I, how he had switched from being a pacifist to becoming an interventionist, I was surprised to discover how much had been previously written on this topic. In order to get an “original idea,” a requirement for any thesis, I had to narrow my scope of research to such a great extent. This was a turn-off for me, as I thought why I am putting so many hours of research into a topic so narrow that it will only be of interest to a handful of people?

The same is true in other fields of work. We are fortunate to have so many talented and creative congregants in so many diverse areas. We have woodsculpters, craftspeople and designers within our very ranks-many of whom have helped create parts of our very building. At the same time, if I were to ask these individuals how they set their design, I would imagine they would say that they were influenced by something they had seen elsewhere. They took their creative spirit and went in their own direction but they had a basis from which to begin.

In this week’s Torah portion, three words are used for creation. The first is ברא (bara), which is creation that only God can do. Every morning we acknowledge how great God is because he spoke the world into being (ברוך שאמר והיה העולם), whereas we cannot create any physical structure through speech. The other term used for creation is יצר (yatzar), often translated as “formed,” and this is a type of creation that can be done by both God and humans. The third type of creation is עשה (asah), translated as “made,” and again both God and humans can do this.

What is the difference between these types of creation and how do they relate to us? ברא is the easiest: it causes us to acknowledge that there are things we are incapable of creating that are the work of a “higher power.”  As talented and as creative as human beings are, we did not create the sky, the oceans, and the mountains: only God could create these natural wonders. As Sifrei Devarim teaches, “if all the people of the world tried to create (ברא) one mosquito and instill a soul in it, they would not be able to.”[2] If we can’t create a mosquito, how much less so can we create the air that we breathe, the soil that grow our produce or the trees that provide our shade. We are indebted to God for these.

יצר is a more complicated term because it can be done by both God and us. יצר is first used in Genesis Chapter 2 when describing the formation of humans by God out of earth. God formed us from the ground and breathed into us the breath of life, our נשמה (neshama). This is like the כי הנה כחומר (Ki Hinei KaHomer) prayer that we just read on Yom Kippur, that we are literally “as clay in the hands of the Potter”-and I don’t mean Harry. God has formed each of us as a work of art, and we form other works of art as an act of Imitatio Dei, giving tribute to our Creator.

There’s even more to the term יצר (yatzar). When the word is used to describe God’s formation of the animals, there is only one “yud” but when describing the formation of humans there are two. The Hertz Humash comments that this represents both of our יצרים (yetzarim), our inclinations. We can use our יצר הטוב (yetzer hatov) to form things constructively, to improve our lives and our well-being. Many have done this, creating artificial limbs, pacemakers for heart arrhythmia or radiation treatment for cancer. In contrast, we can utilize our יצר הרע (yetzer hara) to create destructive items, such as chemical or biological weapons. We have the ability to use the power of our יצרים (yetzarim) in either direction.

The third term, עשה (asah), is “making” or “doing” something, putting the finishing touches on. Whereas יצר (yatzar) is the formation, the utilizing of creative energy to establish a “blueprint,” עשה (asah) is actually bringing the form into a finished product. The first time it’s used is on the sixth day of creation, when God makes the wild beasts and then says “let us make (נעשה) mankind in our image. God had the blueprint for humanity,”[3] but wanted the finished product to be imbued with godliness. We are supposed to use our יצר (yatzar), our formation, to do good in the world. In contrast, Eve used it to disobey God’s command, which is why God said to her מה זאת עשית (mah zot asit)-what have you done?

From each type of creation, we learn something. With ברא (bara) we understand that there are things that are beyond our ability to do. Those are in God’s hands, not ours, and we can get comfort from the fact that we are not responsible for them. From יצר (yatzar) we learn that when forming something new, when starting a new endeavor, we need to first contemplate if this is for our betterment and will have a constructive outcome. If not, better to stop doing it in the “blueprint” stage than when we have a finished product. Finally with עשה (asah) we learn that as we near the final stages of something we are developing, we need to once again look at it critically and make sure it is לטובתנו (letovateinu), for our betterment. After the product or the action is complete, it is often too late to “take it back,” as we saw when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. May we utilize our creative powers and all of our talents and skills for only good in the year 5776.

[1] Ecclesiastes 1:9

[2] Chapter 32

[3] Genesis 1:26

Dove Feathers

Do you believe that objects can be miraculous, even something as light as a feather? Is there a spiritual significance to these objects? Are they there to teach us a lesson? Questions like this are “above my pay grade”-all I can do is share experiences and leave it to each of you to determine what to make of them.

The story begins with my serving as a Rabbinic Intern in South Bend, Indiana in Summer 2008. I quickly got to know and befriend a number of the congregants. One individual stood out to me, however. John Roncz, a Jew-by-choice, was a frequent attendee of the evening minyan. He was an autodidactic engineer, designing the airplane wings and propellers for the Voyager, an airplane which travelled around the world without refueling and which is now located in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. John also designed The Global Flyer, in which Steve Fossett set 3 world records. What was fascinating to me about John, however, was not his scientific achievements but his personable, down-to-earth nature and that he had begun a career as a spiritual medium. He would have sittings at which he would connect with a spirit from someone’s past and impart a message or lesson that they were trying to teach the living.

Initially I was resistant to John’s new career both because I am a rationalist by nature and because Judaism does not look favorably upon mediums. Leviticus Chapter 19 Verse 31 states “Regard not those who are mediums, nor seek after wizards, to be defiled by them; I am the LORD your God.”  We also know that King Saul was castigated for going to the Witch of Endor and connecting with the spirit of the Prophet Samuel.  When I presented John with these texts, he explained that he is not a necromancer because he does not summon spirits-rather they come to him. He also needs to repeat verbatim the message that they give him and cannot “make up” anything.

One evening John invited me over to his house where he cooked a gourmet dinner on his patio. He said he wanted to do a sitting with me and gave me the choice of trying to connect with a spirit or doing a spiritual assessment. I was hesitant to have him connect with a spirit so I  so I suggested the assessment. We began and the main advice from the spirits is that I need to get out of my head (surprise!). However, John quickly stopped the assessment, saying one spirit was coming forward. I thought it was my Grandpa Abe, so I described him physically, but John said my description did not match. He then said “I see a white handkerchief with the red letter M.”  When I heard this statement, I immediately knew it was my Grandpa Murray, who had such handkerchiefs.  John next described seeing someone attending to the wounded in a wartime hospital, and my grandfather had done such work in Korea.  He mentioned that my grandfather was sorry for his severed relationship with my immediate family, saying “Don’t do what I did” and “Physician, heal thyself.” I had never mentioned to him about a severed relationship. Finally John referenced my grandfather’s brother with a name beginning with the letter S.  At this point I thought John had erred, and I stated “My grandfather did not have a brother-just a sister Florence.”  Later that evening, I called my father, who told me that my Grandpa Murray had a brother Sol, who I had never met.

Fast forward to 2011, my final year of rabbinical school. John was working on publishing his book An Engineer’s Guide to the Spirit World, and e-mailed me his chapters to proof and comment on. I was interested to read John’s account of loved ones leaving signs behind for us, like a child who had passed on leaving a penny for his/her parent to find. When I spoke about this at my Student Pulpit in Flint, a woman took me aside at Kiddush. She told me that her mother often left feathers as a sign of her presence, and she gave me her story “Feathers from Heaven…from Mom.” Here is an excerpt from it.

“I was excited and apprehensive about going to our first family reunion after my Mom died.  My five siblings, our spouses, nieces and nephews would be present, but not the matriarch of the Golden clan, our Mom.  Her presence would greatly be missed.  Harold and I went for an early morning walk, before finishing our drive to Sun River, Oregon.  The path we chose to walk was bleak.  There were no trees, grass or flowers.  It was quiet and lonely.  I looked on the stony path, and I saw a small, but beautiful yellow feather.  I held the feather in my hand, and I felt Mom’s presence!  Mom was telling me, “Enjoy the reunion.  I will be there!”  I put that feather in my visor, and we certainly did feel Mom’s presence at our wonderful family reunion.

Since that time, I have found many, many feathers.  They just appear.  And when they do, I can feel and hear Mom’s presence.  

If I am looking for a feather (from Mom), they never appear.  I can say to myself, “Come on Mom.  Please show me that you are with me!”  It’s when I am not looking, that they miraculously appear.  

Harold and I were in Israel for two weeks.  Our car was broken into, while we were floating in the Dead Sea, and the contents of our car were stolen.  It was a horrifying and exhausting time for us.  I was sad, depressed, and I wanted our trip to end.  We were leaving Shul on Shabbat, the day after our misfortune, when I looked on the ground, and I saw a little feather.  I put the feather in my hand, and the tears poured out of my eyes.  Mom was in Israel!!  She whispered in my ear,  “Hells, Bells( one of her favorite expressions), it’s ok…move on…don’t let this spoil your trip.  Things are replaceable!!” 

Sometimes I pick up the feathers that I find, and I put them in my pocket or purse, or I put them in various places in my home as reminders to me about Mom.  Sometimes I leave them on the ground, but I feel  Mom’s arms wrapped around me, and I think to myself, “Thanks, MOM, I needed that !”

I put the idea of signs left behind out of my mind until May 2013, when I was working in Tucson and my friend Anna passed away. Anna was my first friend in Tucson, and we were very close. At Shiva, one of her brothers mentioned that they were at Sabino Canyon and saw a friendly blue jay came over and was playing around. He said this was her with absolute certainty. Anna’s mother mentioned that she felt her presence rustling in the wind. Immediately I thought of John and my encounter with my grandfather’s spirit.

Around the time of Anna’s passing I began seeing a dove feather outside my condo after I went on my morning run. There was always one feather every day I went on my run. After a couple weeks I began to inquire as to what these feathers are from. A congregant mentioned to me that it was a morningdove feather and the morningdoves were unique in that they mated for life. Every day in the summer I would collect one of these dove feathers, bring it into my condo and look at it, wondering why they were being shed outside my condo. In early September of that year, I met Karina, and soon after we fell in love. I stopped seeing the dove feathers shortly after this occurred.

I still wonder if this was a coincidence, if the morning dove shed one feather at a time and just happened to be by my condo. I will never know, just like I’ll never know if the signs that my congregant saw of her mother were coincidental or real. However, I gain comfort in believing that people show signs of their presence after they are no longer physically present with us. The alternative is to believe that someone is gone, departed from us, and it is far more comforting to believe that there are signs of their presence.

As we say Yizkor, let us reflect on the loved ones who have physically been taken from our midst and that we still feel their presence with us each and every day. Even if we do not find a physical sign of their presence, that does not mean they are gone from us spiritually. As the poet says, “As long as we live they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”

We’ll conclude with this anonymous poem about one whose life was taken far too soon:

As I sit in heaven

And watch you every day

I try to let you know with signs

I never went away.

 

I hear you when you’re laughing

And watch you as you sleep

I even place my arms around you

And watch you as you weep.

 

I see you wish the days away

Begging to have me home

So I try to send you signs

So you know you are not alone.

 

Don’t feel guilty that you have

Life that was denied to me

Heaven is truly beautiful

Just you wait and see.

 

So live your life, laugh again

Enjoy yourself, be free.

When I know with every breath you take

You’ll be taking one for me.

Ushpizin

Think back to the last time you invited someone into your home. What prompted you to engage in this act of hachnasat orchim, of welcoming guests?  How did the person react upon being invited? How was s/he treated as a guest in your home?

Hachnasat Orchim is a commandment which dates back to the time of Abraham, when he invited the 3 men into his tent and went far out of his way to make them feel welcome, giving them water to wash their feet and food to satiate their appetites from the long journey. According to Rashi, the original act of welcoming was actually at the beginning of that chapter, when God visited Abraham 3 days after his circumcision in the guise of these 3 men/angels. The men were welcomed and were treated with great hospitality in making their visit. Welcoming guests is so essential that it states in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat Page 127a that one receives the Shechinah, God’s presence, upon engaging in it.

Often we think of welcoming guests as connected to Passover, when we proclaim “let all who are hungry come and eat!” However, it is equally important to welcome guests for Sukkot. The Zohar, a 12th century Kabbalistic work, teaches that on each of the 7 days of Sukkot we welcome one of the Ushpizin, our revered ancestors. We welcome Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moshe, Aaron and David. However, it’s not merely a matter of inviting our biblical ancestors and saying a special formula of welcome; rather, it is a great mitzvah to invite “modern day Ushpizin” into our Sukkah. Maimonides, a 13th century Spanish and Egyptian commentator, puts it well when he states in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Festivals 6:18) that anyone who sits comfortably with his family within his own walls and does not share with the poor is performing a mitzvah not for joy but for the stomach. True joy is welcoming others into one’s Sukkah, sharing with them our most joyous holiday, our z’man simhateinu.

When thinking about Ushpizin, I cannot help but recall the 2005 film by the same name. Moshe and Malli are a Bratzlov Hasidic couple who cannot afford their bills, much less to prepare for Sukkot. Moshe, however, is joyous, believing that God will provide. After all, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlov stated that difficult times are God testing one’s faith. Out of the blue, the couple receives an envelope containing $1000, and they are overjoyed. Immediately, Moshe uses part of that money to buy an etrog for 1000 shekels, roughly one-quarter of the money. His first thought is not paying bills or putting into savings-even buying something nice for his wife. Rather, Moshe’s initial instinct is to engage in a hiddur mitzvah, a beautification of a commandment by getting the most elegant etrog for the 7 days of Sukkot. Moshe also joyously welcomes two escaped prison convicts as ushpizin, who know him from childhood. He keeps them in his home throughout the holiday of Sukkot even though they are interfering with his life and his relationship with his wife Malli.

I believe there is a key lesson that can be learned from this film and from the concept of Ushpizin: the importance of proactively inviting guests not out of obligation but rather out of sheer joy and excitement. In the reading for Shemini Atzeret it says that we should be only joyous on Sukkot, and we know that true joy is shared joy.

The Babylonian Talmud Tractate Hagigah 27a affirms this point. Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, commentators in the 2nd century Palestinian Talmud, state that at the time of the Temple the sacrifices on the altar atoned for a person. Now that the Temple has been destroyed a person’s table enacts atonement for him. What does this mean? Rashi states that it is about hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests to one’s table.

For Karina and me, the welcoming of guests truly occurred when we came to Jericho and were hosted by 14 households. Now it is Karina and my turn to invite everyone to our home tomorrow afternoon for our Sukkot Open House from 2:00-4:00 pm. I hope you will join us as our Ushpizin and share in the joy of Sukkot. Karina and I wish everyone a Hag Sukkot Sameach and enjoyment of z’man simhateinu, this time of true joy for our people.