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.

Save Us! The Meaning of Hoshanah

If I was a Martian visiting our synagogue, I would be very perplexed by the ritual after Musaf. Taking plants from three different species which are bound together, along with a citron, and walking around the synagogue imploring of God HOSHANA, Save Us! Why do we do such a ritual.

As with most piyutim (liturgical poems) we give examples of how God has saved us in the past. We describe how God saved us from slavery and from Egypt, imploring God to save us again now.

Why do we do this? According to tradition, the Days of Repentance do not end until Hoshana Rabbah, this coming Sunday, a day on which we make seven circles which ends with us beating willows and being forgiven for our sins. Therefore, up until that point we are still beseeching God for forgiveness, to “save us” and put us in the Book of Life for the new year. In Temple times, willows adorned the altar, a sign that the weakest of the species, the one with no smell or taste, still played a central role in our atonement, just as each of us has a role in strengthening our community.

This is not the only time on Sukkot that we are asking for God’s mercy. We also ask God to save us during the Hallel when we repeat after the prayer leader, אנא ה הושיעה נא, Please God save us! Mishnah Sukkah 4:2 teaches that each day of Sukkot in the Temple the Israelites circled the altar once saying “Please God save us, please God make us prosper!” אנא ה הצליחה נא   אנא ה הושיעה נא Rabbi Yehudah said that they would say “Please God save me and Him,” אני והו הושיעה נא, the same words that we say in the Hoshana prayer. Who is the Him? God himself!

This is the only time that I know of that הו is used as a name of God in our liturgy. It is also the only time I have seen it as a truncated form for the word הוא, or he. It forms the middle two letters of God’s name, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, whereas normally our shorter name for God is the first two letters, יה. Why was this name chosen? The Tosafot on Sukkah 45a reference Ezekiel 1:1 “I (ANI) was among the exiles” and 40:1 “He (VeHU) was bound in chains among all the exiles from Jerusalem and Judah. They interpret this as God himself was in exile, if one can say such a thing. Because of this, the Hoshana prayer asks for God to save Himself.

At first glance this appears to be a radical (and blasphemous) interpretation. How dare we say that the omnipotent God was in exile! However, I would argue that there is precedent for such a view. The rabbis teach that God’s presence, the שכינה, followed our ancestors into the Babylonian exile. God was marching and weeping alongside us. Furthermore, Talmud Avodah Zarah 29a teaches that when we return from exile, in the Messianic Age, God will return alongside us.

Some will likely remain upset with the concept of a God in exile, yet I find comfort from it. It means that no matter where we are in life, God is with us. If God were not in exile, suffering with us, we would not be able to connect to Him. We would feel that God is callous, not caring about our fate during times of persecution, not lifting a finger to help us. Instead God is with us in every moment, and we pray for both of our salvation.

And so we pray. We pray that God not be forgotten about in this age of growing popularity of the “nones,” those with no religion. In an age of secularity we need to pray that God’s presence remain part and parcel of our society rather than being relegated to a position of exile. We pray that God help enable our congregation and other religious institutions to prosper, to be a house of godliness for generations to come. Most of all, we pray that God give us the willpower, strength and guidance to make those decisions we need to make to be beneficial for our future.

God is with us, both in our times of jubilation and in our times of sadness, when we feel victorious and when we feel vanquished, when we are in the Land of Milk and Honey and when we are in the Diaspora. God is with us-it is just up to us to find Him. May we always remember that we are never alone and may we use that knowledge to bring wonderful things into fruition in the year 5776. Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be our will to do so. Hag Sukkot Sameach.

Sukkot and Homelessness

Why do we dwell in a Sukkah? From the Torah the answer appears to be self-explanatory. This morning’s reading teaches us that we dwell in Sukkot as a reminder that our ancestors dwelt in Sukkot when they were brought out of the Land of Egypt. This by itself is compelling-it completes the linkage of the three pilgrimage holidays to our exodus from Egypt. Passover commemorates the Exodus itself, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai 50 days after the exodus, and Sukkot commemorates the temporary structures that our ancestors dwelt in for the 40 years that they journeyed from Egypt to the Holy Land.

However there is more to Sukkot then just the booths themselves. The sukkah is connected to the Tabernacle that traveled with our ancestors, as well as to the Temple. In describing the Tabernacle, the cherubim angels are mentioned as סוככים בכנפיהם על הכפורת, protecting the ark’s covering with their wings. The same terminology is utilized in describing the cherubs’ role in protecting the Temple ark. Similarly, Moses is told וסכות על הארון את הפרוכת, that the curtain is meant to shield the ark. It is apparent that the word Sukkot has to do with protection. This is evident every evening when we pray in the Hashkivenu ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך, spread over us the protection of your peace, and in the penitential prayer of this time of year כי יצפנני בסכוה ביום רעה, for God will protect me in his Sukkah on the evil day. There is also a prayer said upon entering the Sukkah in which we request that God spread God’s sukkah of peace over us.

The purpose of these booths, although temporary, is as a source of protection. There’s yet another purpose of a Sukkah, and that has to do with the סכך, the covering over the Sukkah. In Exodus 33, Moses asks to see God’s face. God will not allow it, as no one can see God’s face and live. Rather, God puts Moses in a cleft of a rock and covers him with his hand as he passes by. The verb for cover is שכותי, and while it is with a “sin” instead of a “samech,” the roots are related. The Sukkah, and in particular the סכך, also cover us from the warm sun. As Isaiah says, by day it will be a shelter to provide shade from the heat, as well as safety and protection from storms and rain.

There’s a greater purpose to the Sukkah than just protection and covering, however-it can be used to represent the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Amos foresaw the Messianic Age, proclaiming ביום ההוא אקים את סוכת דוד הנופלת; on that day I will resurrect the fallen booth of David. This is often taken as restoring the Temple of David, though some view it as restoring the Davidic Monarchy. In either case, the Sukkah referenced here foreshadows the Messianic era. This is connected to the prayer that it said upon leaving the Sukkah for the last time each year: May it be your will Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that just as I have built this sukkah and dwelt in it, so may I merit next year to dwell in the sukkah made of the Leviathan’s skin. The Leviathan is a sea creature that fought with God, and tradition has it that it will be eaten at the time of the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps this is why Sukkot is known as זמן שמחתנו, the time of our joy, as it is a sign of the coming of the Messiah.

How do we relate to these texts? It can be difficult for us to view the Sukkah as a source of protection, as we live secure in nice homes. It can also be challenging to relate to the Sukkah as a covering, as the rays of the sun somehow still get through, and the rain definitely penetrates our Sukkot. However, I think each of us can relate to the desire for a Messianic era, a day when all are living side-by-side with one another in peace. Even if we don’t believe this is realistic, or isn’t coming anytime soon, it is a good idea to strive towards. In 7 days we will be back enjoying meals in the safety and security of our suburban homes. In contrast, 60,000 people in New York City will still be dwelling in homeless shelters, and many more on the streets. In that number is over 23,000 children. On Long Island it is 1,879 adults and 1,864 children.[1]

What can we do about our epidemic? Of course we can and should continue to give to the Coat Drive that we do so well each year to ensure that people have adequate clothing, or to Sandwich Sunday to ensure that they have food. Of course we should increase our personal Tzedakah contributions, and our tradition teaches it is especially important to do so during the High Holiday season. However, we can also volunteer by donating food or spending an evening at various homeless shelters in the area, such as Bethany House, Operation Homeless and the Farmingdale Shelter. When I was at JTS, I regularly volunteered at the Anshe Chesed Homeless Shelter, which had at least 10 guests each night, and others did at the B’nai Jeshurun Shelter. Unfortunately there is not yet a Jewish homeless shelter on the Island, yet we should do our part by helping the shelters that are in our vicinity.
As we joyously celebrate Sukkot by inviting others into our Sukkah, let us also consider those who do not have a home to go to, and let us do our small but significant part to combat this epidemic. May we realize how fortunate we are and that we have the means to make a difference, to change the world one life at a time. In so doing our Sukkah will truly be a Sukkah of peace and well-being. Hag Sukkot Sameach.

[1] From www.coalitionforthehomeless.org

Like an Eagle Protecting Its Young

How do you view your relationship with God? Is God watching your every action, sentencing you to judgment? Is God in the clouds, waiting for our prayers to ascend to Him? Is God leading us into battle, the “Man of War”?

My favorite image of God occurs in this week’s Torah portion. In the second Aliyah, God is described “as an eagle, fluttering over his young, He extends his wings, grasps them, He bears them on His wing.” God protects us from predatory forces that might lead us astray or take us on a path towards destruction, just as the eagle protects its young. Rashi from 11th century France comments that the eagle does not enter his nest suddenly, rather causing a commotion and disturbance over his children with his wings, between one tree and another, between one branch and the next, so that his children are roused and are capable of receiving him.” Upon first glance we must ask what is this about? How can a commotion or a rustling caused by the parent be good for the fledglings? The answer is that we are often sound asleep, missing God’s presence in our lives and in the world at large. We need this noise, just as we need the sound of the shofar, to wake us up and recognize God’s presence in our lives.

Rashi continues with his comment on why God is like an eagle fluttering over his young. He comments that God does not press Himself on them, rather hovering, touching yet not touching. This is like God who did not hit the Israelites hard from one direction but rather from all four. If something is right in front of you, you feel it, but if it hovers around you on all sides, like air or energy, you don’t always notice it. That is true with God, who is everywhere yet on account of being omnipresent is difficult to notice or feel.

Rashi’s commentary continues, describing God as an eagle setting its young on its wings. He points out a difference between an eagle and the other birds. Most birds put their young in their talons, which can be painful or at the least uncomfortable, for the young. If the children were on the wings of the parent, they would be vulnerable to birds of prey, like the eagle. The eagle, however, according to Rashi, can fly higher than all the other birds, and thus has the luxury of carrying its young on its wings. This is also how God is described in Parshat Yitro, when He reminds the Israelites how He carried them on eagles’ wings out of the land of Egypt.
Martin Buber, the 20th century philosopher, has an exquisite interpretation on this biblical verse. He asserts that the eaglets are afraid to fly, huddling together in the eyrie. The eagle arouses them, flapping his wings and hovering over them. Then he spreads his wings and sets one of the young upon his pinion, carrying it away, and by throwing it into the air and catching it, he teaches it to fly freely. What a beautiful image! If you have children, think about how you trained your child to ride a bike without training wheels: the trepidation that your child had to get on the bike, the reassurance you gave by holding onto the handlebars and s/he started to peddle, the fear s/he had as you let go, perhaps falling and scraping his/her knee but then the sheer thrill and enjoyment when s/he was able to ride on his/her own without training wheels.

This is in accord with how I see life. We are all afraid of making changes. Our parents (and our ultimate Parent, God) assure us that it’s ok to make changes, taking baby steps at a time. We take one step forward, then perhaps a small step backwards, but then we proceed forward on the path of our destiny. Sometimes we have to take a leap, as when the eagle lets go of its young in the air. When we leap, however, we need to remember that God is there, protecting us from crashing. God will always be like the eagle, hovering over us but at the same time enabling us to have the courage to take the steps we need to take. My prayer is that we have the wisdom to move forward, rather than letting the fear of the unknown and the comfort of inertia dominate our thoughts. Let us continue to feel God’s presence in our lives and move forward believing that God is with us as an eagle protects its young.

The Meaning of Life

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. We are often so busy in our daily lives that we don’t take the time to think about what’s most important: our interpersonal relationships.

I’d like everyone to think for a moment of your answer to the following question: What is the meaning behind your attending synagogue services? Is it to repent for sins, to be with friends and family, to remember loved ones, or something else? What meaning do you find in being here and how will you transfer that meaning into tomorrow?

Many people have pondered the question “What is the meaning of life” but not too many have found satisfaction doing so. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy taught us that the meaning of life is 42, interestingly the number of stops the Israelites took on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but it never explained how this is the case or what it means. Monty Python tried to teach us The Meaning of Life “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” However, this is too simplistic for my tastes. What then is the meaning of life?

As a rabbi I look to God’s teachings in the Torah and the commandments to attempt to arrive at an answer. We learn from Rabbi Simlai[1] that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. 248 are positive commandments (where one is told to “do” something) which the rabbis say correspond to the number of bones in one’s body, and 365 are negative commandments (when one is told to refrain from doing something), corresponding to the number of sinews in one’s body or the number of solar days in most years. The contention is that by following these commandments, we will do what God wants of us and therefore will follow our mission in life.

This is all well and good but Rabbi Simlai’s words do not end there. He asserts that King David reduced the 613 commandments to 11 principles in his writing Psalm 15: Walking uprightly, working in righteousness, speaking the truth in one’s heart, having no slander upon one’s tongue, doing no evil to one’s fellow, not taking reproach against one’s neighbor, despising those who are evil, honoring those who fear God, acting on self-imposed restriction, not giving money on interest and not taking a bribe against the innocent. The 613 commandments get reduced down to 11 ethical principles, characteristics of a mentsch.

Rabbi Simlai then has the commandments reduced to six by means of the Prophet Isaiah: Walking righteously, speaking uprightly, despising any gains that come from oppressing others, not holding bribes, not hearing false accusations and not looking upon evil. Again we are focusing on moral attributes as opposed to ritualistic aspects. It appears that the focus needs to be on utilizing the rituals in order to be a more ethical Godly person. Next we are reduced to the 3 principles of the prophet Micah: to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God. Finally we have the one principle of Habakkuk: seek me and you shall live.

What is this reduction of commandments into ethical principles all about and how do they tie into life’s meaning? To me it boils down to Habakkuk’s single principle-we each need to seek out God and in doing so we find our mission in life. However, there is no one set course of action that every person needs to follow. For those who are naturally structured, type-A personalities like me, this might be unsatisfying but what I seek out, the path I take to get there, and what I find as my end result will likely be quite different from yours. Each of us must individually look for our own unique mission, how we can serve God and those around us.

My Grandmother Lucille Frenkel, who is turning 85 this year and who has been writing poetry for 50 years, has a different answer as to what life means and what we are supposed to do with the limited time that we have. This is her poem Progressions:

Knowledge I asked when I was young,

The purpose of Life-how did all become.

Answers, I yearned for and sought a reply.

I searched for the answers to my every “Why?”

Truth was my objective-my foremost goal

Was to find exact truth for my questioning soul…

But Life’s response (as much time went by)

Just posed newly-found questions within its reply.

Years passed-and I learned-and asked no more

About plan of all Being, about what Life is for.

Life withheld its answers until I knew

That what really mattered was what I could do

To change my whole focus and my attitude

So to see living splendor with increased gratitude-

And to live every day with more faith and my prayer

That I add to existence all the love I can share

While still I do live-while still I am there

To offer life my efforts.[2]

What my grandmother is trying to teach in this poem is that life is about transforming our outlook and out attitude, knowing what to let go of and what to retain. This is a goal which is more easily said than done. In Pirkei Avot[3] the five students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai are given different attributes. The two of note are the bookends: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, a “cistern who never loses a drop” and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, an “ever-flowing spring.” Which is better? According to Rabbi Yochanan, the cistern is the preferred quality, so much so that if they were on a scale Rabbi Eliezer would outweigh the other four students combined. After all, he has a photographic memory: he can remember every fine point of Halacha, every teaching that he has been taught. Not so fast, says Abba Shaul: the preferred quality is actually that of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, who was able to not only take things in but add to them, forming new ideas and interpretations in Torah. He was able to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” not getting bogged down in the unessential minutia that he was taught but knowing what was truly important to add to and to discard.

Rabbi Phineas A. Weberman in his book The Rabbi’s Message highlights the importance of being like Rabbi Elazar as opposed to Rabbi Eliezer. He comments: “some people retain within themselves all the character traits resulting from the ups and downs of their life and become schizophrenic, fluctuating erratically in their moods from malevolence to benevolence. They are like the sponge, absorbing everything. Others are like a funnel, spending an entire lifetime on earth and ending up as immature as infants. A person who is compared to a strainer is arrogant and haughty as a result of his successes, and bitter, miserly and unfriendly because of his past troubles. The ideal person is one who utilizes his past experiences for the good. He is humble and merciful, remembering his hard times, and is cheerful and charitable, expressing thanks for his good days.”[4] Rabbi Weberman points out that we are NOT inflexible but rather are able to change our behavior for the better, taking lessons from both our good and our challenging experiences. Life experience is meant to move us towards this ideal. There is no quick fix, no simple solution moving us from point A to point B. The only solution is to constantly work on ourselves, day by day becoming the people we are meant to be.

What is the meaning of life? I don’t have a simple answer to this oft-asked question. However, I believe that there is so much more to life when we strive to do our best each and every day, living with purpose and meaning. The same is true for those who came before us and who we are gathered here today to remember. They worked tirelessly each and every day so that we would have a better life. They taught us the values by which we live: the importance of family, of being part of a community, of always doing the right thing. We remember them tucking us into bed or reading us a bedtime story, sharing with us stories of what things were like in the “old country,” taking us to our first day of school, teaching us to drive our first car, walking down the aisle with us on our wedding day, seeing us at our graduation. Some of us still set a chair for them, for their presence is still very much with us. The meaning they have given to life in all they have built and all they have created, especially in giving us life, is something for which we should thank and praise them every day.

As we approach another Yizkor, an opportunity given by our tradition to remember those who are no longer physically with us, though who remain spiritually eternal, let us remember the lessons that they have taught us through the lives they have lived. Let us continue to feel their presence in our lives. May we turn to them when we need strength, hear their voice when we need advice, feel their hand caressing us, telling us that everything will be ok, reminding us that we are not alone. Let us remember the immortal words of the anonymous poet, “if you continue to love the one you lose, you will never lose the one you love.” As we prepare to recite Yizkor, may we keep in mind these words of affirmation from James E. Miller Willowgreen:

AN AFFIRMATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVE LOST

by James E. Miller Willowgreen

 

I believe there is no denying it: it hurts to lose.

It hurts to lose a cherished relationship with another,

          or a significant part of one’s own self.

It can hurt to lose that which has united one with the past, or that which has

          beckoned one into the future.

It is painful to feel diminished or abandoned,

          to be left behind or left alone.

Yet I believe there is more to losing than just the hurt and the pain.

For there are other experiences that loss can call forth. 

I believe that courage often appears,

          however quietly it is expressed,

          however easily it goes unnoticed by others:

          the courage to be strong enough to surrender,

          the fortitude to be firm enough to be flexible,

          the bravery to go where one has not gone before.

I believe a time of loss can be a time of learning unlike any other,

          and that it can teach some of life’s most valuable lessons:

 

In the act of losing, there is something to be found.

In the act of letting go, there is something to be grasped.

In the act of saying “goodbye”: there is a “hello’ to be heard.

For I believe living with loss is about beginnings as well as endings.

And grieving is a matter of life more than of death.

And growing is a matter of mind and heart and soul more than of body.

And loving is a matter of eternity more than of time.

Finally, I believe in the promising paradoxes of loss:

 

In the midst of darkness, there can come a great Light.

At the bottom of despair, there can appear a great Hope.

And deep within loneliness, there can dwell a great Love.

I believe these things because others have shown the way—

          others who have lost and then have grown through their losing,

          others who have suffered and then found new meaning.

So I know I am not alone:

          I am accompanied, day after night, night after day. [5]

 

[1] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Makkot 23b

[2] My grandmother has made a vow not to publish her work except for family. This poem is freestanding (not part of a book).

[3] Chapter 2 Mishnah 11

[4] Rabbi Phineas A. Weberman, The Rabbi’s Message: Modern Thoughts on Ancient Philosophy (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1975), p. 114.

[5] From his book A Pilgrimage Through Grief: Healing the Soul’s Hurt Through Loss.