Resting the Land

We all know the importance of personally resting, to “recharge our batteries” and come back even stronger. However, our tradition maintains that it is of equal importance to rest our land, so much so that if Israel does not obey the Sabbatical year, its lands and cities will be destroyed. We have the ironic statement אז תרצה הארץ את שבתותיה “Then the land will have its sabbatical rest.”[1] In other words, if you don’t rest the land, you will be exiled from it, and I will force it to rest after the fact.

Rashi demonstrates that this is actually a kindness done to Israel, that Israel’s enemies will not be able to find satisfaction or bear fruit from the desolate land that they conquer.[2] I’m not sure how much of a kindness it is to be exiled from one’s land, even knowing that no one else will benefit from your hard work. Rashi also comments that Israel is exiled for 70 years corresponding to the 70 cycles of sabbatical and jubilee years that had been neglected.[3] This is a classic example of מידה כנגד מידה, measure for measure, that Israel is being punished exactly in the manner in which it sinned.

Why the emphasis on resting the land? Some have argued for the importance of crop rotation in not wearing out the soil, yet that is not the central reason for the land’s rest. It is also not to relinquish ownership through selling the land to a non-Jew. Rather, it is to remember that the land comes from a Higher Power and is not exclusively yours. This becomes even clearer through examining a verse in our portion, Behar. G-d implores Moses to tell Israel that “even crops that grew on their own from the seeds of the previous harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vines you shall not gather.”[4] What happens to these crops? Are they left to rot in the fields? Not so, says Rashi, who comments on this verse “they shall be ownerless-free to all.”[5]

It becomes clear that the land is rested not for its own benefit but to teach us that ultimately the land does not belong to us but to G-d. There’s a great lesson here in our responsibility to safeguard the land. We cannot abuse it, working it to death to produce more crops for more money or growing on it as we please because it’s “ours.” Rather, we need to engage in a period of safeguarding the land, resting it so that it will bear fruit in future years and understanding with great humility that our land, just like everything in this world, is not exclusively ours to do with as we please. There is only one Owner of the land, and that is G-d. Our homes and all that they contain, our trees, our plants and our soil are not ours but rather ultimately G-d’s. Rather than trying to vastly increase our possessions, we need to take time once every seven years to remember the true Owner and to enable all of His creations to take from the land. We came into this world with nothing and we will leave it with nothing, while G-d remains eternal.

In studying the Laws of Conversion, I was amazed to discover that the specific laws mentioned for one to teach the convert center on the land and social justice. One must teach the proselyte that s/he cannot harvest the corners of his/her fields, instead leaving these for the poor. They are also instructed about the forgotten sheaf, which s/he cannot go back to get but rather must leave it for the poor. In addition, the prospective convert must learn about gleanings which fall from one’s arms during the harvest and which must be left on the ground for the poor. Why teach these commandments in particular? It is to demonstrate that we have a responsibility to look out for our fellow Jews (and I would add fellow humans) and make sure they have the necessities of life. A more direct way to do so is to proclaim that once every seven years your land is not your own-rather what grows on it is הפקר, available to everyone.

As we live comfortable lives in the suburbs, continuing to acquire more and more possessions, let us take moments when we do not seek to acquire more but are satisfied with the bounty that we have. May we also actively work to help those who do not have the necessities and the luxuries that we take for granted. Once every seven years, our ancestors were treated as equals-the land rested and all had ownership in what it naturally produced. May we recognize today that we are all equals and all human, bound by the same rules and responsibilities as everyone else and with the obligations to help those who are less fortunate. In doing so, may our lands be blessed and may we live our lives with fulfillment and meaning rather than feeling like we are in exile.

[1] Leviticus 26:34

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 26:32

[3] Rashi on Leviticus 26:34

[4] Leviticus 25:5

[5] Rashi on Leviticus 25:5

Asking the clergy: Why is singing a part of religious services?

By Jim Merritt Special to Newsday


Whether you have been blessed with the voice of an angel, or sound more like a Muppet croaking on a lily pad, it’s likely you’ll be encouraged to sing along when you attend a worship service. This week’s clergy discuss why — no matter how your voice strikes the human ear — your singing is pleasing to the Almighty.
Rabbi Ben Herman

Jericho Jewish Center

Song is an important part of any form of worship. In Judaism it goes back to biblical times, with the words of the Psalmist “Sing unto God a new song, for God has done marvelous things.” (Psalm 98:1) We acknowledge God’s role in creating the world and sustaining us through our singing to him. Whenever God did a wonder for our people, we sang a song of praise, an example being Shirat Hayam, the song the Israelites sang after God split the Red Sea. Not only is this song read as part of the Torah reading cycle, but we stand for its recitation and sing parts of it alongside the Torah reader. Our people always praised God through song, whether it was Moses, Miriam, King David, the Levites in temple worship, the rabbis who wrote great liturgical poems and odes to our creator or the cantors who write modern compositions to praise God. Singing is what brings the service to life, enabling prayer to enter into the essence of a person’s being, to touch one’s soul. Song also enables the entire prayer community to participate in the service. Those who do not read Hebrew can connect through the power of song. The prayer leader is responsible for creating this participatory and communal feeling, adding spirituality and warmth to the service through song. There is nothing better than having a service where everyone participates by praising God with one voice. This is what the Psalmist says in his final verse, “Let every breath [soul] praise God, Hallelujah!” (Psalm 150:6)
The Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr.

Pastor, Church-in-the-Garden, Garden City

We sing because it is part of our praise and worship experience in church. Just like praying, singing is honoring and blessing God, collectively, with our voices. It brings us together. Fellowship is found through song. When the choir sings, if we know the song, we can sing along (even if some of us are melodically challenged). You become part of a dynamic congregational worship experience where you are part of something bigger than yourself. In a real sense, singing the anthems and the hymns particularly, reminds us in a very visceral way of the biblical Scripture that these hymns are based on. When we sing “Amazing Grace,” for instance, it was built on someone’s life and experience, but it also is rooted in the Scriptures. It tells a story to which we can relate. Songs resonate with us because they relate a theology. “It Is Well With My Soul” is another example of this. The lyrics hearken back to the Scriptures, a belief and faith that we know and can truly feel. Even if you went to a church, and you didn’t remember the message from the preacher, most likely you would remember a song because its lyrics resonated with you. Our songs then are mini-sermons offering encouragement and hope. When you go to an installation or ordination service of a minister or a reverend, they are given a Bible and a hymnbook because they work together. Songs are vital to the church.

The Rev. Ron Stelzer
Pastor, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Centereach

Worshipful singing is the natural response of a creature to its creator and savior. Angels sang God’s praises as they witnessed the creation. When God delivered his people from Egyptian slavery, Moses and Miriam led the musical tribute: “Sing unto the Lord, Who has triumphed; horses and their riders He has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1, 21) David’s music had a spiritually therapeutic and even exorcistic effect on King Saul. In my congregation, my philosophy is that the Bible is our standard, so its music from beginning to end should be a part of our experience as well. In fact, congregational singing is a strong part of the Lutheran tradition, introduced by Martin Luther. One of the three main divisions of the Old Testament Scriptures is the hymnbook called the “Psalms.” New Testament history barely begins, and Mary is singing her “Magnificat.” Before leaving the Upper Room for Gethsemane, Jesus and his disciples sing a hymn. Early Christians are commanded to speak to each other “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19) The Book of Revelation says heaven will be filled with a new song no man can learn but the redeemed of the Lord. Congregational singing brings all this good news of the Gospel and to God’s goodness to us.

Yom HaShoah

When I think of the words shared by Mr. Konstantyn, I think of how much this resonates with us today. Unfortunately we are exposed to words of hate on a daily basis: in the news, on our television screens, on the LIRR and in this Presidential campaign. What do we do to stand up to those who preach messages of hate, to refute their words? How do we counter their messages without giving them more attention and thereby credence?

One of the most compelling speeches that I have heard on this topic was from Israeli politician Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party (meaning “There is a Future”), who said the following message just under 2 years ago from Platform 17 in Berlin at Grunewald railway station, from which tens of thousands of Jews were taken to their deaths:

The Holocaust causes us all to ask of ourselves the same question: What would I have done?

What would I have done if I was a Jew in Berlin in 1933, when Hitler rose to power? Would I have run? Would I have sold my house, my business? Removed my children from school in the middle of the year? Or would I have said to myself: it will pass, it is just momentary madness, Hitler says all these things because he is a politician seeking election. Yes, he’s anti-Semitic, but who isn’t? We’ve been through worse than this. It’s better to wait, to keep my head down. it will pass.”

What would I do if I was a German in Berlin on the 18th October 1941, when the first train left this platform, heading East and on it 1,013 Jews – children, women, the elderly – all destined for death.

I don’t ask what I would have done if I was a Nazi, but what would I have done if I was an honest German man, waiting for his train here? A German citizen the same age I am now, with three children like mine. A man who educated his children on the values of basic human decency and the right to life and respect? Would I have remained silent? Would I have protested? Would I have been one of the few Berliners to join the anti-Nazi underground? or one of the many Berliners who carried on with life and pretended that nothing was happening?

And what if I was one of the 1,013 Jews on that train? Would I have boarded the train? Would I have smuggled my 18 year old daughter to the northern forests? would I have told my two sons to fight until the end? Would I have dropped my suitcase and started to run? Or would I have attacked the guards in the black uniforms and died an honorable, quick death instead of dying slowly of hunger and torture?

The question that must be asked today is what we can do today to combat the messages of violence, hatred and discrimination against an entire group of people. When we have a presidential candidate who wants to deport 11 million people, who has spoken of his intent to deny members of an entire religion the right to come to the United States, do we respond to this or do we ignore it? Do we try to dialogue with those who are different with us, to understand their points of view even though we may disagree, or do we marginalize them through classifying them as “the other?” I’ll always remember the words of Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate but indifference.” The words of FDR’s First Inaugural Address also come to mind, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.”

Almighty G-d, may our presence here on this Yom HaShoah give honor to the lives of those who came before us.  May we never forget the impact that they have made through courageously living each day.  May G-d also safeguard us by sustaining and sanctifying lives everywhere. May Jews live safely in America and in the land of Israel, in Paris and in Buenos Aires, in Japan and in Iran.  May we continue to persevere and fortify ourselves in spite of abominable anti-Semitic events being proud of our identities.  May we also never forget the impact that one person can make in the world and may it teach us to speak and act in the face of injustice.  Let us learn from the survivors and their families to be courageous and strong, living each day with meaning and purpose.  Amen.

Avoiding Haste

Ever heard the phrase “if you don’t do something right better not to do it at all”? So trite but true. So easy to do yet often not done by many of us. We live in a world that encourages ADHD behavior, moving rapidly from one activity to the next, scheduling in every hour of one’s day. Parents take their kids from soccer to dance to tutoring, not getting home until 10 at night, then waking up the next morning to another brutal day of the same cycle. I know I get started with one activity but often something comes up and I’m quickly moving to the next.

For many of us, Shabbat and Yom Tov are countercultural days, opportunities for us to slow down and smell the roses. However, Passover at first glance fits into the pattern of haste and frenzy that is common in many of our daily lives. We are told to eat unleavened bread for 7 days because we left Egypt in haste.[1] Furthermore, we are taught that the Paschal lamb was eaten in haste.[2] Why is everything done so quickly? We are familiar with the idea that the Israelites had to leave in haste, lest Pharaoh change his mind and forbid their departure. However, Rabbi Isaac Luria presents a different idea: that our ancestors were so mired in the depravity of Egyptian culture that had they stayed just a little longer, they would have been contaminated beyond redemption. They were on the 49th of 50 levels of impurity, which explains why they would so quickly construct a golden calf and yearn to return to Egypt. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Twerski writes that “even a single extra moment (in Egypt) might have sealed our doom.”[3] Thus the quick exodus from Egypt might have been on account of the Israelites’ actions just as much as it was because of Pharaoh’s fickle mind.

I’m sure there are some who are thinking if Passover is about haste, why are we still eating Matzah eight days later? Clearly G-d did not have our digestive tracks in mind when the holiday was established! All kidding aside, I would argue that the Passover that we observe today is more about slowing down than speeding up. We have had uninterrupted work weeks for months now, especially with the leap year. We have braved the chill of winter and watched the blooms of spring. One of Passover’s names is Hag HaAviv, the springtime holiday, and having come out of the winter we can now experience the rebirth of life (especially true for Karina and me). Passover enables us to take a step back and appreciate what we have, all of our freedoms. Especially now after all the houses have been purged of chametz, extraneous material, we have an opportunity to appreciate what is truly important: our families, our friends and our community.

At this moment of reflection, we also have the opportunity to think of those who are no longer with us and the impact they made and continue to make in our lives. For parents we cherish all that they put into raising us, teaching us values and ethics, molding us into the people we are today. For siblings we remember playing together in the yard, sticking up for one another in the face of bullies, being together for family celebrations and watching each other’s families grow. For a spouse we remember starting a partnership together from the laughing moments of the first dates to walking together under the wedding canopy to starting a family together. For children we remember raising them, their first steps and first words, taking them to school, teaching them to drive. These memories, though bittersweet, are important to hold onto. They not only bind us to our past but also set the foundation for the life that we continue to live each and every day.

As we prepare to say Yizkor, let us remember to slow down, taking moments to recall all those who though are physically no longer with us, they are still very much present in our hearts. May we take time to see their smile, the twinkle in their eyes, feel the caress of their hands, and remember their crowing achievements. In so doing, we continue to honor their examples and ensure that all they have stood for will continue to be an enduring benediction. We always continue to love them, to hold them near and dear to our hearts.

[1] Deuteronomy 16:3

[2] Exodus 12:11 and Mishnah Pesachim 9:5

[3] Abraham Joshua Twerski, Messages from the Mishnah (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, LTD, 2013), p. 135.

Standing at the Sea

There’s a great song that we have incorporated into some of our Friday Night Live services. It goes “Standing at the Sea, Mi Chamocha, freedom is on the way!” Then the kids yell out FREEDOM! We celebrate the fact that Moses and Miriam led our ancestors in song after the Sea of Reeds opened for them. This is a part of our daily liturgy, and the words from Mi Chamocha, “Who is like you,” are chanted in both the morning and evening services. At the same time, there is no ritual connected to commemorating Israel crossing the sea. There are rituals involving the ten plagues, the unleavened bread, even holding up the Paschal lamb to commemorate G-d passing over our homes, yet there is nothing in the Ashkenazi service to commemorate the splitting of the sea.

Sephardim from Mediterranean countries do a special commemoration of the splitting of the sea. On the end of the eighth night, the synagogue is opened at one minute after midnight. The Torah is taken from the ark and the Song of Songs is read while congregants dance in the aisles. Following the Torah reading, the Mimouna festivities begin. Mimouna means “wealth” or “good fortune” in Arabic, and the celebration honors Rambam, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a major authority of Sephardi Jews whose father’s Yahrzeit is the last day of Passover.

The Mimouna celebration varies depending on the customs and traditions of the local Sephardi community. There are many Sephardi communities who act out the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.  People who lived inland would go to rivers, wells, springs, or swimming holes to re-enact the miraculous journey. They would pour water over their hands and feet and even on the threshold of their homes. Once this ritual was done, they would then go to an outdoor setting to set up tents and picnics complete with music, laughter, singing and dancing. Every year the Tucson Jewish community hosts a major Mimouna celebration with bellydancers and Mediterranean food.

The Turkish Jews also have a special ritual as part of their Mimouna celebration that connects to the splitting of the sea. They throw coins and candy to their children, which symbolizes the wealth and abundance of food that our ancestors brought with them when they left Egypt. Some also throw grass, symbolizing the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as well as the hope that this coming year will be one of growth. There are stories I’ve read of children who could not wait until the men returned home from services, treasuring the opportunity to collect the coins and the candy.

Two aspects of this Sephardi ritual are significant to me. First, it gives the children something to look forward to at the end of the holiday. For many, the last two days of Passover can be anti-climactic, as the first two have the majesty of the Seder but the last two don’t have any direct ritual associated with them-and by now we can’t wait to eat bread. Mimouna provides a direct ritual for which we can revel in our joy of making it through one more Passover, another holiday at which we celebrate the liberation of our people. Secondly, this ritual directly ties into the Song at the Sea which we read today. It makes the concept of our ancestors being saved at a moment they faced destruction very real and tangible for children.  Just as we teach our children at the Seder table about the unique nature of Passover through the asking of the Four Questions, and that even as we rejoice we diminish our happiness on account of the Egyptians who perished during the plagues, so too should we take an opportunity to directly demonstrate for them the celebration of our people’s redemption from Egypt.

The more often we crystallize a historical event, bringing it out of the book and into people’s lived experiences, the more success we will have in transmitting the impact of that event to future generations. It is wonderful to hear Cantor Black beautifully chant the crossing of the sea or to sing (as done in some congregations) Yom L’Yabashah, the piyyut by Yehudah HaLevi, in which he writes that the redemption from Egypt should bring about future redemption for our people. At the same time, if we don’t actively show connection between the event and our lives, we lose the linkage as to why this matters to us. Some synagogues reenact the biblical events as part of their services; others draw parallels between them and current events. What is most important is to take the text out of the page and into our hearts, bringing the text to life, so that we will truly feel that we are standing at the sea on the way towards redemption. That is the potential of a song like “Standing at the Sea,” teaching our children to celebrate our freedoms and to connect with a time when our people were not free. Let us strive to create every opportunity for “living Judaism,” to make our texts and traditions relatable to the next generation. Hag Sameach.