Giving Light to One Another

In 1967, The Doors wrote their hit song “Come on Baby Light My Fire” I’m not sure Jim Morrison was thinking about the lighting of the Temple Menorah, yet that is how our Torah reading begins today. Aaron, as High Priest, is instructed in the illumination of the Menorah and to keep it lit throughout the night.[1]

This sounds great when we are talking about how in the winter cold and shortness of days, the light of the Menorah becomes a beacon for warmth and joy. Yet the Menorah was lit every day throughout the year. How can we relate to the light of the Menorah now, at the warmest time of the year with the longest days? True it is only required to be lit at night but are we only lighting it perfunctorily? Not so, says the Talmud, which asserts that by us lighting the Menorah we demonstrate that G-d’s presence is with us.[2]

How do we demonstrate G-d’s presence through kindling a flame? The lighting of the Menorah took place at parochet haedut, literally the “curtain of testimony.”[3] What is being testified to here? Rav in the Talmud stated that the western-most candle gave of its oil to light the other candles.[4] Each candle had been given the same amount of oil, yet the westernmost conserved its oil and had some left over to use to ignite the other candles the following days. It gave from its own light source to enable the others to shine.

Is this just a miraculous recounting in the Talmud, like the miracle of the Hanukkah oil lasting for eight days? Perhaps. However, there is a key lesson to be learned here: each of us can be the candle that paves the way for the others to be lit. We each have the opportunity to give of our light, of our own essence, to beautify those around us. To be the westernmost light is not always fun, for it requires not always shining forth but at times holding back to ensure that others will be able to shine. At the same time, by giving of your essence to strengthen another, you cause a greater total brightness.

This is what marriage is all about. It is taking of our own light and utilizing it to strengthen our partner. Before marriage we are the center of our lives and can use our light to blaze our own path forward. After marriage we need to conserve some of our light, our desire, our passion to make a place for that of our partner. At the same time, a greater light will now shine forth, for it is now a shared light coming from two flames. Our job is to ensure that the light will emanate forth as brightly as possible and that it will be one large, unified light, rather than completing flames.

Michael and Julie-as you approach your marriage I know you will always share your brightness, your vitality and your essence with each other, and together your light will rise ever higher and higher. As a couple, you have the opportunity to work together on a shared vision, illuminating your values and what you want to achieve together, and my prayer is that your light grows stronger and brighter each and every day. Mazal Tov on your upcoming marriage!

[1] Numbers 8:2 and Leviticus 24:3

[2] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 22b

[3] Leviticus 24:3

[4] Ibid.

Family Challenges

Whenever we get to Yizkor I try to focus on the positive memories that we have of our loved ones who have no longer physically present with us. Sometimes that is very difficult to do. As much as I’d like it not to be the case, not everyone has warm, loving memories of their parents, siblings, children or spouse. Some rabbis have given sermons on how does one say Yizkor for an abusive parent or for a sibling with whom one has not spoken in years.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to say Yizkor for a relative with whom one did not have the most positive of relationships. Most of us have family challenges in one form or another. Some are estranged from their parents or not on speaking terms with siblings. Others have difficulties with their children. My sermon is not intended to heal those wounds, nor is it meant to glaze over them. Rather it is meant to try to find a silver lining, remembering any positive encounters we have had with the person. As Yizkor means remember, we have some degree of control and selectivity over which memories we choose to cherish and which we decide to disregard. If we cannot find a positive memory, let us at least, for our own benefit, let go of the negative feelings we hold.

In Siddur Lev Shalem, the new Conservative prayerbook in the back, there is a Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent who was Hurtful on Page 335 written by Robert Saks. The last two sentences read as follows: Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time. I pray that You, who raise up slaves to freedom, will liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger, and that You will lead me from this desert to Your holy place.

Today we read the Book of Ruth, a story which begins with a dysfunctional family. Ruth was a Moabite, a people who came from an incestual union between Lot and his daughters. In fact, the name Moav comes from the Hebrew “may’av,” from my father. Ruth’s future husband, Boaz, is a descendant of Perez, one of the children of the incestual relationship between Judah and Tamar. Both Ruth and Boaz are ultimately products of incest yet who do they produce? None other but the great King David himself, the greatest king ever of Israel, the man who conquered Jerusalem, the man who will be the progenitor of the Messiah!

Through family dysfunction will emerge a thing of true beauty. The Messiah will be a product of incest on both sides of his family, yet that will not stop him/her from bringing an age of peace to the world. We do not have control over the family we are born into or grow up in or how others in the family respond to us: what we do have control over is how we react and handle difficult family situations. As Mahatna Ghandi said, “We need to be the change we want to see in the world.”

King David’s story also demonstrates the power of the individual to effect change. When the Prophet Samuel visited David’s father Jesse to see which of his sons would become the next King of Israel, Jesse brought out seven sons, none of whom were deemed worthy of being king. Finally Samuel asked Jesse, “Is this all of your children?” and he replied, “There is still my youngest, tending to the sheep.”[1] Upon seeing David, G-d told Samuel, “Arise and anoint him, for this is he.”[2] The young, neglected shepherd boy can thus become the mighty ruler of Israel. All he needs is to be given the opportunity.

It is far too easy to blame life circumstances on our upbringing, our genetics or happenstance. The more important albeit difficult thing is to do the best with what we have to be the people we are meant to be. Ruth did so by choosing to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi and take the journey back to Israel, though it would have been far easier for her to remain in Moav with her family of origin. David would have had an easier life staying back and tending the sheep or not stepping forth to fight Goliath, yet his coming forward changed Jewish history forever. Similarly, it is our task to do our part to effect positive changes within our family and our community.

Yizkor is about remembering, but memory by itself is not enough. Our memories need to lead us to take steps forward to overcome challenges in our path. It does not mean to solve every problem or to “fix” things but at least to attempt to make positive changes in our lives and in those we care about. Sometimes all that is required is taking the first step forward with family members and we unexpectedly get met halfway. At other times we try and end up in the same place we began, but at least we made the effort. If Ruth and King David didn’t attempt to make changes, our people would not be in the place they are today.

As we say Yizkor, let us reflect on all memories shared with those who have left our midst, but let us focus on those which are most positive and productive, using them as the impetus to propel us forward. May we take the steps necessary to build or repair bridges with those with whom we have had difficulties, doing our part to create harmony and cohesion, while recognizing that we cannot solve all family problems. Following in the example of Ruth, who knows what will happen-perhaps we will see the blessing of the Messiah in our lifetimes.

We continue with Yizkor on Page 509.

[1] 1 Samuel 16:11

[2] 1 Samuel 16:13

The Ten Commandments

What are the most important words in the Torah? Some would say the Shema, which became known in certain circles as “the watchword of our faith.” Others might assert the Golden Rule, which proclaims “love your neighbor as yourself.” I think that it is neither of these but rather the 10 commandments.[1] For one we stand for its recitation (just as we do for the Song of the Sea). Also there is a special trope arrangement, known as Ta’am Elyon,[2] that is used in its recitation. I look forward to each reading of these magisterial commandments.

A challenge to my assertion of their importance is that we only read the 10 commandments three times a year. If they are so important, wouldn’t we read them every day of the week? The 10 commandments are listed in several Orthodox Siddurim, including Artscroll, as readings following the Shacharit service, yet why aren’t they part and parcel of our service?

Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, taught a class on this topic at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention. He referenced Mishnah Tamid, which states the texts which were recited on a daily basis.[3] The first one listed is the Ten Commandments, recited each morning prior to the Shema. Why is this no longer done today? For this we turn to the Jerusalem Talmud,[4] where Rabbis Matana and Shmuel bar Nahman state that reciting the Ten Commandments every day would lead to the heretics claiming that only these commandments were recited at Mount Sinai, as opposed to all 613.

The heretics being referenced here are Jews who turned against our tradition, using their knowledge to refute aspects of Judaism. An example given by the Midrash is that of Korach. When it states that Korach and his people “gathered against Moses and Aaron” one of the reasons they gather is to challenge the laws that Moses and Aaron were giving. After all, they said, ‘we were children at Sinai and we only were given the 10 commandments; we were given nothing about Terumah, Maaser and Tzitzit. Those do not come from G-d but rather from you.’[5] This powerful Midrash demonstrates that even one generation later the divine origin of the 613 commandments was being challenged by our own people.

Why are we so concerned about what the heretics think? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do what is our tradition rather than excise the Ten Commandments from our liturgy? A responsum about this was shared with the Rashba[6] asking whether it was permissible for those who wished to recite The Ten Commandments as part of their Shachait service. The answer from Rashba begins “It is forbidden to do this; even though it is listed in Tractate Tamid…it’s already been nullified because of the grievances of the heretics (תרעומת המינים.(” According to Rashba, once a tradition is nullified, it cannot be reinstated, so we can no longer recite the Ten Commandments in Shacharit.

Not all agree with the Rashba, however. The Maharshal[7] said it is a מצוה גדולה, a great commandments, to recite them, following the opinion of the Tur that it is good to say them,[8] and he added them in next to Baruch Sheamar.

What do we do today regarding the Ten Commandments? Do we recite them or don’t we? It makes sense for us to follow the tradition not to say them as a formal, fixed part of the liturgy, especially since they are not found as such in our synagogue’s prayerbooks. However, to say them after the service, or as an additional prayer every once in awhile, makes sense. There is something powerful to these statements which is enhanced by our not reciting them every day but only on special occasions, such as the Torah portions in which they fall and Shavuot, when we publicly gather to receive the Torah.

While it can be easy to lose sight of the import of the other 603 commandments if we solely focus on these 10, it would not be if we follow a teaching I learned from Rabbi Robert Eisen of Tucson. He asserts that the 613 commandments are all reflected in the 10 because 6 + 1 + 3 = 10. Similarly, the 10 commandments are all reflected in the guiding principle that there is 1 G-d, for 1 + 0 = 1. What I take from this is that our focus should not be on the number of commandments as much as it should be on what the commandments represent: the importance of following the Divine Way. If we do not lose sight of this, we do not need to recite the Ten Commandments (or any commandment) on a daily basis. What we need to do instead is to keep in the forefront of our mind what G-d wants from us and how we are going to fulfill the Divine will each and every day. In so doing, we will truly demonstrate that we accept the Torah on this זמן מתן תורתנו, the day on which the Torah was given to us.

[1] While I am referring to them as such, a better translation of the term עשרת הדברות is “ten statements” rather than the Ten Commandments.

[2] Literally “the elevated trope”

[3] Chapter 5 Mishnah 1. Tamid means “always” and focuses on the daily worship service.

[4] Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 1:5; Babylonian Talmud Berachot 9 a-b

[5] Yalkut Shimoni Korach, paragraph 752

[6] Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet of 14th century Spain

[7] Rabbi Shlomo Luria of 16th century Poland

[8] Rabbi Jacob ben Asher of 13-14 century Ashkenaz. The Shulchan Aruch is based off his work and also says, in Orach Hayim 1:5, that it is good to say the Ten Commandments.

60th Anniversary Shabbat

We have come a long way as a congregation over the course of our 60 years. From modest beginnings in someone’s home, to the groundbreaking on this building in 1960, to the expansion of our building in 1973 to the renovations of the sanctuary and the downstairs, we have certainly taken great pride in our house of worship. Most congregations of 60 years have gone through great changes yet we have remained relatively stable, with 3 rabbis and 2 cantors over that time. Our Religious School has received the designation Framework of Excellence from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and our Nursery School is entering an exciting new venture as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school. It is very fitting that we celebrate this momentous anniversary.

In our tradition, 60 is the halfway point between birth and death. It’s a time for evaluation of where we’ve come and where we want to be headed during our next 60 years. What do we want the Jericho Jewish Center to look like for our children and grandchildren? How will we shape our synagogue to continue to be a center of spiritual relevance, a place where people come to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, bar/bat mitzvot and weddings, transitions into retirement and adult b’nai mitzvot?

It’s no accident that we chose to celebrate our anniversary tomorrow, on Yom Yerushalayim. The ability to return to our holy sites is something those two generations back could not have fathomed. As the psalmist said, this return to our historic homeland and our holiest city felt as if we were dreaming.[1] I think of the paratroopers, many of whom were secular, weeping beside the Kotel, feeling something spiritual inside them welling up as they returned to the place where their ancestors lived 2000 years prior. How wonderful that we will be able to celebrate our own accomplishments and achievements as a congregation on this same date.

It is so special to have those who grew up at the Jericho Jewish Center and who have become successes in their own rite, Billy Stein and Melissa Hartman, returning to their roots to sing alongside Cantors Barry Black and Israel Goldstein. There’s something truly special about this merger of our past with our present, combining joyous memories from times long ago with our vibrancy as a congregation today.

In this week’s Torah reading, we conclude the Holiness Code, the model for how we are supposed to conduct ourselves as Jews. As the opening line of the portion states, through following G-d’s laws and observing His commandments, we will have everything that we need, not requiring anything else. We need halacha, the corpus of Jewish law, in order to guide our decisions. Halacha is also connected to halicha, the path in which we walk in life. Those who came before us set us on a good path, one which valued tradition and precedent yet also gave us the opportunity to try new things and continue to blaze our trail forward.

My vision for JJC is that we will continue to value both tradition and change, being a community of communities; that our services will both speak to our regulars but that we will also have offerings for those who are joining our ranks, such as alternative Friday night and Shabbat morning family services. In an age with numerous extracurriculars and diversions, it is challenging to get people to join a congregation, all the more so to participate in its events. I take great pride in hearing when congregants rearrange their schedules to come to our Friday Night Live services or when they commit to attending 7 evening sessions in our Sulam for Emerging Leaders program and follow through on it. This tells me that people feel that JJC is a second home to them, that they are proud to be members here and want to engage with us on a regular basis. This can only be done through tapping into who people are and what they value and providing those services at JJC. It takes a lot of hard work, and we are starting to see the payoff. My favorite activities that we do are those which are led by the initiative, foresight and hard work of our members, such as Sherwin and Hanit bringing the Israeli musician Idan Raichel to JJC, Steve Wishner teaching us how to brew beer with Hops and Halacha or Jill Guttman teaching us how to make mandel bread. Through getting at the core of what motivates people, we succeed in capitalizing on it and making them active members of JJC who care about our congregation and strive to make it successful. Too often we think solely of numbers, not recognizing that the quality and ingenuity of our membership supersedes the quantity.

I would imagine that if our founding members were here looking at the Jericho Jewish Center, they would recognize aspects of our congregation but not others. However, they would take immense pride in seeing from where we’ve come and that we are doing our best to provide a strong house of worship for generations yet to come. I’d like to think that they would understand that though certain things look different than they’re accustomed to, we need to continue to adapt to modern realities-in Mordechai Waxman’s words, we need to engage in both tradition and change.

Similarly, we have no idea what the Jericho Jewish Center will look like 60 years from now. I’m sure some aspects of it would surprise us but we’d understand that those who follow us are doing their best to meet the Jewish needs of their generation, creating a strong, compelling house of worship in an age where all are Jews by choice.

Thank you for being members of the Jericho Jewish Center, whether for 1 year, for 60 or somewhere in between, for believing in our congregation and for continuing to support it over the years. I’m sure you have seen a great deal of changes but one thing that has not changed is your devotion and dedication to your congregational family. Tomorrow we will present each member with a certificate honoring you for your commitment to our House of Worship. For today I will simply say, Thank You for your support and for all that you do to strengthen our congregation.

[1] Based off Psalm 137