Dr. Arthur Kurzweil

 

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This week concluded three life-changing lectures for me as we had Dr. Arthur Kurzweil as our Scholar-in-Residence. I had studied Kabbalah at JTS and taught the basics of Kabbalah at the Jericho Jewish Center but Dr. Kurzweil explained the Sefirot, or emanations of G-d, as well as the central teachings of Kabbalah in a way that finally made sense to me. Dr. Kurzweil has been the driver and close confidant of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the greatest minds of our generation, a master Kabbalist and scholar of Talmud who recently completed translating the entire Talmud into English, after previously translating it into Modern Hebrew. Dr. Kurzweil often quoted Rabbi Steinsaltz in his remarks.

The first talk was 20 Kabbalistic Ideas I Made Sure to Teach My Grandchildren. One of the ideas that really clicked with me is “Sometimes It’s Appropriate to Be Inappropriate,” that nothing is black-and-white. He referenced a story I had heard from Rabbi Berel Wein that if someone comes to you asking if a chicken’s kosher and they cannot afford another one, you find a way to say that the chicken is kosher. He also mentioned the Lincoln Square Synagogue mehitza which is made out of glass but is serving a young, single Orthodox population who might not come to a synagogue that had a tall, opaque mehitza. He also referenced how a woman ran towards Rabbi Steinsaltz to embrace him and rather than embarrass her he opened his arms so that they touched hands. He contrasted this with the Hasid Shoteh, or pious fool, who sees a woman drowning and says “halachically I can’t touch her,” so he lets her drown.

The other principle that hit me was that you need to taste/experience things and every once in awhile you get a flash of understanding. Dr. Kurzweil said in the name of Rabbi Steinsaltz to not only teach your children what they can understand but also the most abstract theological notions. For the Kabbalist, the blessings are the moments of awareness and consciousness with which one can connect with G-d.

The second session was The Kabbalist and Suffering.Dr. Kurzweil began by asking how does it feel for the angel of death to separate the body and soul? The Talmud (which he said it one in the same with Kabbalah), says that it either feels like separating a hair from a glass of milk or a ball of spikes in the throat with someone pulling on the rope. Do you view death as a graduation or as something to resist? Rabbi Steinsaltz said that the meaning of “Niftar,” or to die, is that one’s soul is patur, or relieved, of its earthly duties. He defined the soul as any part of one’s body which is not physical and talked about gilgul haneshamot, the reincarnation of souls. The conclusion he gave about suffering is that while we don’t discuss suffering with someone when they are suffering, later we tell them that suffering is considered a “descent for the sake of ascension,”-that when we suffer it is to raise us up to overcome it, and our soul will be on a higher level because of it. He said obviously it can’t explain the major, cataclysmic sufferings, such as the Holocaust (in fact, he spoke of how Rabbi Steinsaltz, when asked to speak about the Holocaust, gave an hour and a half speech about why he was not, for people are still suffering from it). At the same time, he said it helps explain the smaller examples of suffering in his life.

The topic of Dr. Kurzweil’s third and final session was Who Am I? Where Did I Come From? Where am I Going? What for? Why?  He began the talk by quoting Rabbi Steinsaltz who told the New York Board of Rabbis, “Kabbalah is the official theology of the Jewish people.” He discussed how Rabbi Steinsaltz’s book The Thirteen Petaled Rose references different levels of consciousness: the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects. These correspond to four of the five levels of the soul: nefesh, ruah, neshamah and hayah. as well as to the four worlds referenced at the Tu B’Shvat Seder: asiyah, beriah, yetzirah and atzilut. The question, Dr. Kurzweil posed, is which is the rider and which is the horse? Do our emotions direct our intellect or vice versa?

Dr. Kurzweil then went into greater detail about the Sefirot, the ten emanations of G-d, which he had begun to describe the previous week. Keter, or crown, is above everything else and represents those aspects of G-d to which we can’t connect. Then there is a triangle of Chochmah (intuition/flashes of awareness), Binah (analyzing/breaking things apart) and Daat (one’s inner experience), all of which deal with intellect. The next triangle is chesed (the quality of expansiveness/reaching outward), Gevurah (contraction, inwardness) and Tiferet (harmony between the two) which deal with emotions. Finally there is the triad of Netzach (the urge to get things done), Hod (bearing down and actually doing it) and Yesod (connection) which represents our physicality. Finally there is Malchut, the “kingdom,” and all of these triangles impact the greater kingdom.

Dr. Kurzweil described Halacha as the choreography of a dance, that all of the “do’s” and “don’ts” are not ends in and of themselves but rather the beginning of a process of connecting with G-d. Each of our acts is of cosmic proportion, including saying Modeh Ani when we wake up, differentiating between our soul (the rider) and our body (the horse). Then we clean our hands as a sign of purification (Taking the high road when we make choices). He described the Shemonah Esrei, or Amidah, as a ladder of consciousness and how one’s 5 fingers around the Kiddush cup correspond to the 5 levels of the soul.

I found Dr. Kurzweil’s talks extremely compelling as we engage in this process of Heshbon Hanefesh, of self-accounting, approaching Rosh Hashanah. Let us strive for something deeper these High Holidays in connecting with G-d and with our community. As Dr. Kurzweil said quoting Rabbi Steinsaltz, “one’s relationship with G-d is a personal affair.” However, he also quoted the Lubavitcher Rebbe after Dr. Steinsaltz came to him saying he had 3 projects to do, each of which would take more than a lifetime. The Rebbe said, “Add to them,” for he believed one could put so much pressure on him/herself that s/he could transform into a different person. May we work hard to strengthen ourselves and engage in self-transformation so that we can ascend to greater heights than we had ever imagined.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

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How to Walk with G-d

How are we supposed to live our lives?  It seems fairly simple when we look at Parshat Ki Tavo. The portion states “G-d will establish us as His holy people, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of G-d and walk in his ways.”[1] What does it mean to walk in G-d’s ways? In words attributed to the Prophet Elijah,כל השונה הלכות מובטח לו שהוא חלק מעולם הבא, שנאמר “הליכות עולם לו:” אל תקרא הליכות אלא הלכות  “Whoever repeats laws, it is clear that he will be part of the world to come, as it says (Habbakuk 6:3) ‘All the paths of the world are his’-do not read paths, rather laws.”[2] This pun between the words הליכות, or paths, and הלכות, or laws, is meant to make them viewed interchangeably. What, however, does it mean to walk in G-d’s ways? Here we go to Eliyahu Rabbah, a Midrash which is ascribed to the Prophet Elijah, which states “and you should walk in His ways-in the ways of heaven. Just as the ways of heaven are to be merciful and have mercy on the wicked, to accept them in repentance, so too shall you be merciful to one another.” [3] This is exactly what it says back in Parshat Eikev, “Now O Israel, what does G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere G-d and walk in G-d’s paths, to love G-d and to serve G-d with all your heart and soul.”[4] As Rashi states, “Just as G-d is merciful, so too shall you be merciful. Just as G-d does acts of lovingkindness, so too shall you do acts of lovingkindness.”[5]

Our job is clearly to walk in G-d’s ways. If we do so, we will be rewarded for our efforts. If not, we will be punished by the curses enumerated in our parsha. In line with the rabbinic principle of  מדה כנגד מדה, what goes around comes around. However, does this philosophy work for us as 21st century Jews? I worry that it too easily gives us an excuse for blaming calamities and natural disasters on our sins. Our goal therefore cannot be to simply live in a kumbaya world where everyone gets along with one another and all works perfectly. Similarly, it is counterproductive for us to see every bad thing that happens to us as a curse from G-d.

A Mishnah from Tractate Berachot enumerates how the philosophy of Ki Tavo is not necessarily one to enumerate. It reads “a person is required to bless G-d for the evil just as he blesses G-d for the good. As it is written, ‘you shall love the LORD your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”[6] How does one love G-d with all their might? Through each measure (both good and bad) that G-d gives us.[7]  What matters is not what happens to us as much as how we respond to the cards we are dealt. As Arthur Kurzweil said on Tuesday, to say גם זו לטובה. To walk with G-d is not to praise Him when it is easy, but rather when things aren’t going the way we like. Of course this is easier said than done but it is what it means to truly walk with G-d and be a ירא שמים, one who is G-d fearing.

Our laws and our traditions are pathways to teach us the proper way to act in the world. They demonstrate to us how we are supposed to conduct ourselves even when we are struggling with our own personal situations. That’s why the remedy given for someone who is “troubled” is to help one in need, so that the person does a mitzvah while at the same time feels better about his/her situation. Jewish laws, the halakhot, are supposed to guide us on the path of making a positive difference in the world. Without the goal of being G-dlike through helping the needy and doing good, even when we’re feeling down or upset, we will not be on a path towards G-dliness. Through helping others with love and kindness we will ensure that we are blessed at all times-as our parsha says ברוך אתה בבואך וברוך אתה בצאתך-you shall be blessed in your coming and in your going.[8]

We see an example of this today as we honor the great milestone of Phil’s 90th birthday. Phil is what we call a gute neshama, such a caring, sweet person. The same can be said for his dear wife Pearl and his devoted daughter Barbara, who is the backbone of our shul.

We are also remembering an אשת חיל, Gladys z”l who was the matriarch of her family. As her shloshim ends, we pray that her sons find comfort as they continue to say Kaddish in her memory.

[1] Deuteronomy 28:9

[2] Babylonian Talmud Megillah 28b

[3] Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 24, Section At the time when a person is honored.

[4] Deuteronomy 11:22

[5] Rashi on Deuteronomy 11:22

[6] Detueronomy 6:4

[7] Mishnah Berchot 9:5

[8] Deuteronomy 28:6

The First Year of Marriage

So much of Parshat Ki Tetzei centers on marriage, though not from a perspective we will discuss today. We no longer have “war brides” or polygamy, nor is virginity our primary concern in finding a partner. Rather, we will turn to the Sixth Aliyah, which begins “when a man marries a new wife he is not taken into the army, nor shall it impose upon him any manner; he shall be free to reside at his home for one year, and he shall bring joy to the wife he married.”[1] Our ancestors are given this law just as they are about to enter the land of Israel.

Why exempt one from battle who was just married? There are numerous servicemen and servicewomen in the United States who deploy soon after marrying, not granted this reprieve. In contemporary Israel, only women are exempt from service on account of marriage, not men.[2] What’s interesting to me is that in last week’s parsha, Shofetim, it states, “Whichever man has bethrothed a woman and not married her, let him go home lest he die in battle and another marry her.”[3] That section deals with unfinished business, as opposed to this one, which talks about a consummated process.

The Talmud points out that the woman in our parsha is called אשה חדשה, a new wife, and that it does not matter whether she has been married before.[4] Rashi asserts that the point is not the wife’s status but rather a man bringing joy to his wife.[5] I would add that because this woman has just married, for her to be left by her husband would be an act of exceptional cruelty, especially if he disappears, making her an agunah, or “chained women,” forbidden to move on to someone else. There’s also something to be said for the fact that a husband and wife need to learn to live with each other before they separate for any length of time.

Nowadays we have the honeymoon as a week, maybe two, for the bride and groom to be alone and celebrate together. The Torah, in contrast, teaches us to have a yearlong honeymoon with the special custom of dipping challah into honey. Just as we dip challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah for a sweet new year, so too do we dip for the entire first year of marriage for a sweet new life together. There’s also a tradition to call the couple hatan and kalah (bride and groom) during their entire first year of marriage, to emphasize the newness of their relationship. I’ve also heard (though found no basis for it) a tradition of the couple not separating from one another during the first year of marriage-that a wife would actually accompany her husband to work! Of course this is impractical nowadays with two-income families-not to mention that the couple might just get tired of one another if they’re never able to be apart.

Why emphasize this today at the auf ruf of a couple who is not getting married until July? I would argue that the longer one is together the more difficult it can be to rekindle that sense of newness and freshness. That’s why our parsha teaches that one who has recently married needs time to develop the relationship with his/her partner before going off. The Torah recognizes that without a solid foundation, the marriage will not have what it needs to succeed amidst life’s challenges. The joy of the Shanah Rishonah where the focus can be on just the couple, creates a basis that will weather any storm or surprise. This is evidence that the purpose of marriage in Judaism is not merely procreation but rather for a couple to bring joy to one another.

Sam and Heather, I know you’ve succeeded to bring joy to your families this morning. It was such a mitzvah that you joined us here to celebrate your aufruf, the synagogue which Sam’s grandfather, Bernie Berko, helped build and shape, and that you were called up to the Torah that he dedicated in memory of his father. We wish you nothing but happiness and bliss as you continue to strengthen your relationship, bringing joy to one another as רעים אהובים, loving companions. Mazal Tov on your aufruf! So that we can celebrate together as a congregation, I ask that we turn to Page 838 and continue responsively.

[1] Deuteronomy 24:5

[2] Section 39 of the Israeli Security Service Law

[3] Deuteronomy 20:7

[4] Sotah 44a

[5] Rashi on Deuternomy 25:5 ושמח

A Call for Healing

Let us take a moment of silence to remember all who perished in 9/11, including Glen Winnick, who had his Bar Mitzvah at the Jericho Jewish Center, served as a volunteer fire fighter and worked at the World Trade Center.

I put on the headphones and slowly stepped into the room. I felt the cold metal in my hand as I carefully gripped the handle. I steadied myself, pushing my finger back to the trigger and saw the target. I raised the pistol, aimed and fired. The guy next to me had what looked like a semiautomatic machine gun and kept firing round after round. After I finished my ammo, I was shaking. I spoke to the congregant who brought me and said, “this is such a foreign experience to me.” He replied, “going to a shooting range in Arizona is like eating a deli sandwich in New York.”

This was my one experience with guns. For some gun use is recreational. For others, however, gun use is pathological. By the time I finish this talk, 15 people will die from guns. The fact that over 300 people are shot each day demonstrates that we have a broken process that must be changed. It’s far too easy to obtain a firearm and use it for destructive purposes.

One need only think of the shootings in Charleston, San Bernadino, Paris, Orlando, Sandy Hook Columbine, and all those that have not made the national news. I imagine that each of us decries these shootings and felt our heart wrenched for the innocent victims. Whenever we hear of innocent blood being spilled, our hearts are torn and we can get full of anger and outrage. We worry about our lives and those of our loved ones and we strive to protect ourselves. That’s why we have increased security for this year’s high holidays. At the same time, we want to have a sense of healing and wholeness, some semblance of an answer to this senselessness.

This summer I read an article by Rabbi Joshua Flug entitled “Gun Control in Halachah”[1] in Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Flug begins with next week’s parsha, which states that one may not place hazards in his/her home.[2] Rambam, or Maimonides, a 12th century physician for among others the Sultan, asserts that any potentially lethal hazard must be removed from one’s possession.[3]

There are different opinions as to whether one can bring a gun into shul on Shabbat. The Talmud records a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and other rabbis over whether a weapon counts as carrying. While the rabbis assert that it does, Rabbi Eliezer proclaims that a weapon is an adornment to one’s clothing, like jewelry, and therefore is permitted.[4] The Shulchan Aruch states that some forbid entering a synagogue with a long sword because a synagogue lengthens the days of life through prayer whereas a sword shortens them.[5] However, Mishnah Berurah cites Eliyahu Rabbah which states that one can bring a sword as long as it is covered.[6] Of course a sword is different than a gun, so we need to go to the modern Poskim, rabbinic decisors. The Tzitz Eliezer states that one can bring a gun to shul as long as the bullets are taken out, for then it no longer resembles a weapon.[7]

But is this really the final word? What do we do when a terrorist enters our house of worship? I remember too well the shooting at a Sikh Temple outside of Milwaukee as well as the murder of African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. We also remember bombings of Jewish institutions throughout the world, in Istanbul, Buenos Aries, Atlanta, Jerusalem to name a few.

I’m sure we have different views on guns, yet I imagine we agree that these senseless acts of violence need to stop. There’s a group called Rabbis Against Gun Violence, of which I am a member. In June after the Orlando massacre, a book was written for which rabbis were welcome to submit essays, poems or thoughts. Here is what I wrote, called “Two Worlds”:

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world in which people are loved for who they are

Or the world in which people are hated for being different?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world of open-mindedness and compassion

Or the world of prejudice and racism?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world in which we work together

Or the world in which we grow apart?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world of self-fulfillment and happiness

Or the world of frustration and anger?

 

In which world will my daughter grow up?

The world where guns are melted down to make building tools

Or the world where guns are used for wanton acts of violence?

 

I will do my part to ensure

That my daughter grows up in the world of embracing others

Loving all people regardless of race, religion and sexual orientation

And pray that the world in which she will live

Will no longer know the horror of these shootings.

 

We need to act to ensure a better future, one where people are taught love not hate, one where there is room for those who look different or are of a different race or religion. Obviously I’m preaching to the choir. However, I believe that healing begins with oneself, letting go of any prejudices or animosity that we feel and striving to bring forth a world filled with love and compassion. This is easier said than done in our world which too often has violence and senseless hatred, yet if we work hard to teach the next generation kindness and acceptance, we have a chance to bring it forward. As Rabbi Shalom Noach Borozovsky teaches in his book Netivot Shalom, we cannot be another, only ourselves, and we must use our full self to engage in תקון עולם, repair of the world.[8]

Almighty G-d, let us pray for all the victims of the shootings. May we be vigilant against those who seek to do us harm while trying to bring goodness and healing to those who have experienced tragic losses. Let us never take life for granted, striving to live each day with a sense of wholeness and purpose even when newspaper articles, the internet and the television seem to be focusing on violence and divisiveness. G-d, help us to do everything we can to work constructively to repair the shards of emptiness and desolation in our world, and in so doing, we must do our part to bring healing. May we protect ourselves while concurrently praying for the day when “men shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”[9]  In your name רפאך, the healer, we pray, Amen.

[1] “Jewish Action,” Summer 2016.

[2] Deuteronomy 22:8

[3] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 11:4

[4] Mishnah Shabbat 6:4

[5] Shulchan Aruch 151:6

[6] Mishnah Berurah 151:22

[7] Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 10:18

[8] Netivot Shalom, Parshat Lech Lecha

[9] Isaiah 2:4