Rosh Hodesh and Honoring Our Presidents

I hope everyone is having a Hodesh Tov, a good start to the month of  Tamuz.  Tamuz is a tricky month. On one hand it is the transition from spring to summer, and many are getting ready to go away on vacation. On the other hand it is the month in which the Romans breached the Jerusalem city walls on the way to the destruction of the Temple. As a result we engage in a period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple.

Following a lunar calendar, the appearance of a new moon was a cause for celebration in biblical times.  The shofar was blown, Hallel (the prayer praising G-d’s name) was recited and a celebratory meal was eaten.  Because the proclamation of a new moon affected the calendar (especially regarding the festival days on which no work could be performed), great care was taken in ensuring the exact date that the moon was cited.  Two witnesses were needed to see the moon and report to the head of the rabbinical court.  Declaring the new moon was also an act of power that could be exacted by the head of the Sanhedrin, or rabbinic court.

In Tractate Rosh Hashanah[1] two witnesses tell Rabban Gamliel, the head (nasi) of the Sanhedrin that they did not see the new moon.  Despite their testimony, Rabban Gamliel declared it to be Rosh Hodesh.  Rabbi Joshua, the 2nd in command, disagreed publicly with Gamliel, implying that it was not yet Rosh Hodesh.  The implication is that Joshua’s calendar would be different than Gamliel’s.  Gamliel then commanded Joshua to come with his staff and money pouch on the day that would be Yom Kippur according to Joshua’s calendar, having him violate the festival.  Joshua obeyed, thus giving in to Gamliel’s calendar.  Clearly, when Rosh Hodesh was declared had tremendous power in determining the calendar.

While Rosh Hodesh had tremendous implications in the rabbinic era, what importance does the festival have to us today?  We no longer rely on witnesses to establish our months, determining the new moon instead by arithmetic calculation.  While the proclamation of a new moon is not as magnanimous event for us as it was in the rabbinic period, it can still have tremendous implications in our lives.  It is a chance to acknowledge ending one period of time and entering another.  Today is actually the 30th day of the month of Sivan, symbolizing leaving that month and reflecting upon its significance as we get prepared to begin a new month, a new era.

The new moon also gives us an opportunity to acknowledge G-d’s awesome power in creation.  We sing Hallel, as we did this morning, to praise G-d’s role in creating the natural world and an aspect of that is establishing the cycle of the moon.  Celebrating the new moon gives us a reason to rejoice and connect to our fellow Jews, especially during the large spans of time when there are no major holidays. We do not need to wait until Rosh Hashanah for a new beginning-rather each month provides us a chance to renew our spirits and reminds us of the changing seasons that G-d has established.

In addition, we embrace the New Moon is through an existing yet little-known ceremony called Kiddush Levanah towards the beginning of every month (which if you remind me we will do next Saturday night).  In this ceremony, one gazes upon the new moon, blesses it, and extends his/her feet heavenward, as if he/she could touch it.  This ceremony is generally done with at least 3 people so that they can greet one another upon seeing the new moon (Shalom Aleichem and Aleichem Shalom), and it is done outside in full view of the moon.  It has the potential to be a spiritual moment through recognizing the beauty of G-d’s creation.

Finally, Rosh Hodesh has regained focus as a holiday of celebration, especially among women.  The tradition according to Midrash is that G-d gave Rosh Hodesh to women to celebrate as a result of their refusing to give their golden jewelry for the construction of the golden calf.  In rabbinic times, women were exempt from doing laundry, sewing and weaving on Rosh Hodesh, what was known as “women’s work!” instead celebrating the day with their families.

Beginning in the 1970s, feminist circles began reclaiming Rosh Hodesh through developing rituals such as lighting candles in pools of water, sharing stories, singing together and comforting one another.  Women’s Rosh Hodesh ceremonies can be found in many communities.  These ceremonies focus on the importance of renewing oneself just as the moon is renewed and on the connection between the monthly cycle of the moon and women’s’ monthly cycle. Some communities even have a Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girls Thing program, a five year curriculum for girls in Grades 6-10 to work with a mentor on issues connected to womanhood and adolescence.

We have two exceptional women who we are celebrating today on Rosh Hodesh. These women have stepped outside their comfort zone to become the leaders of our congregation. They have often been present in the synagogue office as an unpaid, full-time job. It’s not easy to take on the mantle of Presidency, which is why our congregation is often scrambling to find a new leader, yet these women took over the position with grace, dedication and a love for our congregation. They also did something unique in becoming co-presidents, each taking on different portfolios related to our congregation. Your accomplishments include (among others) bringing in a STEM Preschool, getting a CofO established on our building, revitalizing our Keter Torah program and creating an Office Manager position.  You have set the bar high and demonstrated what it means to be caring, devoted and hard-working leaders in serving our congregation and the Jewish people.

This has not been an easy year for either Martha and Diane as both of you have suffered personal losses. We mourn your loved ones who have passed on and we remark on how despite going through these great difficulties, your efforts to strengthen our congregation continued unabated. We are so fortunate that you will be continuing as dedicated congregants. Diane will be devoted to our Partners in Caring program, one component of which is getting Friendly Visitors to see congregants who are home-bound; and Martha I’m sure will continue to be involved in the financial aspects of the congregation.

Mazal Tov, Diane and Martha, on this special, well-deserved day. On behalf of the congregation, it is my pleasure to present you with a very special gift: Kiddush cups with a beautiful-feminine figure as part of the base. We hope you will use them every Friday night. Thank you to Barbara Rosenblum for choosing such a fitting gift for our Presidents. To celebrate this milestone, let us turn to Page 825 and read responsively.

[1] Rosh Hashanah Chapter 2 Mishnayot 8-9

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Send For Yourself

         At times in life we all have to do things for ourselves, as opposed to for others. Even if others tell us not to do so, we feel that something is the right thing to do. G-d told Moses to send for himself men to scout out the land. Why does it need to say לך, “for yourself”? The general answer given is that G-d did not need to have men sent out for he knew the land was good. Moses, on the other hand, needed to have people go for himself, to give proof that the land was good.

Ephraim of Luntshitz wrote in his book Kli Yakar four reasons for the word לך. The first is for his good and his benefit. The Israelites said to Moses “send out before us men to search out the land,”[1] and Moses did as they requested. It will not be for the people’s benefit, as based on their report they will die; rather it will be in Moses’ benefit as he will live an additional 40 years.

The second reason given by Kli Yakar is that G-d wanted Moses to see that people can be deceitful, that they flatter you when in reality disguising themselves for purposes of falsehood. Moses thought the spies were important, reputable people, but their inner nature did not match their outer appearance (אין תוכם כברם), as we learned from their reports.

The third interpretation by Kli Yakar is that in that moment they were righteous people who did the right thing, but in the future it would not be the case. G-d can see people’s actions in the future and knew that they would give bad advice. That’s why Moses had to select the people, ones who in his eyes were leaders but in G-d’s eyes would turn the people astray at the first sign of adversity.

The fourth interpretation is to me the most interesting: Kli Yakar wrote that it specifies the word אנשים, men, as opposed to נשים, women. The men in reality did not like the land of Israel and were the ones who said “let us return to Egypt.”[2] The women, on the other hand, were endeared towards Israel, as in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters who said “give us an inheritance (in the land).”[3] G-d wanted Moses to see that it would have been better to send out women who are endeared to the land of Israel. Moses, in contrast, thought that these men would be drawn to the land of Israel, rather than so quickly attempt an about-face towards Egypt.[4]

This text is used to demonstrate the importance of 10 people for a minyan. Because these 10 men did not have faith in G-d leading our ancestors to conquer the land of Israel, 10 are needed to declare praise of G-d three times a day. Moses thought that sending the spies would be an affirmation of their faith in G-d and their belief that they could conquer the land of Canaan. Instead, to his surprise, he found that 5/6th of the spies did not believe that they would prevail. Through this, G-d demonstrated to him that this generation was not ready to enter the Promised Land of Israel, as to engage in battles for the land would require great confidence and faith in oneself, in one’s people and in one’s G-d. Moses needed to learn this lesson for himself.

Being married requires a great deal of faith as we navigate life’s challenges. As I am only married for 3 years, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be married for 66 years like Larry and Lorraine. It must have taken faith in one another and a transcendent love to navigate all the vicissitudes on life’s roller coaster. I’m so happy that you chose to celebrate the affirmation of your love and the years of bliss you’ve share together with us this morning at the JJC.

Larry and Lorraine exemplify for us having faith in why we are here and our ability to transcend any obstacle that we face. Let us learn from their example of commitment and dedication. Often the summer is an excellent time to recharge and prepare for the coming year. In doing so, let us do all that we can to affirm our faith that we will have the wisdom and foresight to meet whatever crosses our path. We wish Lorraine and Larry Mazal Tov for their years of companionship and only good things to come.

[1] Deuteronomy 1:22

[2] Numbers 14:4

[3] Numbers 27:4

[4] Kli Yakar on Numbers 14:2 ד”ה שלח לך אנשים

Ruth and My Grandmother

Little of this strange land did she understand

Except the need to glean and gather grain within her hand.

Little of strange language did she comprehend.

A foreigner and widow, her lot was just to bend

And garner enough sustenance for her and for one other.

Thus, Ruth endured and cared for her husband’s aged mother.

Her skin deep burnt by blaze of sun, her garments flecked with grain,

Ruth labored dawn till sunset-in heat of day, in rain.

She, often, knew discouragement but vowed she would remain

Within this place of one God-her faith would strong sustain.

And, often, she knew loneliness-still, she felt gratitude

For love shared with Naomi, for shelter and for food.

She looked beyond her circumstance to view all life as blessed-

How should she dream she, one day soon, would know great happiness-

How should she dream she soon would cradle child unto her breast.

Lucille Frenkel Shavuot 5738 (1978)[1]

You never know how you are touched in life by the smallest thing. I wrote this sermon after a March where I felt depression about my grandmother’s passing. It hit after Shiva and stayed with me throughout the month. Depression according to the Baal Shem Tov is the greatest sin-how much more so during the month of Adar when one is commanded to only feel joy. At the same time, while you can work on changing your mentality and making the most out of each and every day, you can never completely control what you feel. My friend Marty said last year that “the thing that makes depression so hard to fight is that depression destroys your will to fight.” I knew that I needed to change for my wife and daughter but I didn’t know how.

When you know your world will never be the same what snaps you out of this feeling of helplessness? What give you hope again for the future? I can only speak from personal experience and say that my Uncle Dan sending me one of my grandmother’s new poems was the impetus for me. I shared the poem entitled “Our Precious Heritage: Respecting Truths Our Ancestors Gifted to Us” at the April board meeting. After reading it I instantly knew that I wanted to write my Shavuot sermon in my grandmother’s memory. Her Shavuot poem about Ruth made me think deeply about how much faith Ruth had to have. She just lost her husband and had no children. As a single individual, the sensible thing to do would have been to return to her native Moav. Yet Ruth knew she could not abandon her mother-in-law Naomi, despite Naomi’s encouragement for her to do so. Instead she made a vow: “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d.”[2] She chose a much harder life unaware of what the future would bring. I’m sure that Ruth gleaning under the sweltering Israel sun had no conception that she would meet and marry a kinsman and become the great-grandmother of King David.

I know that my grandmother would have wanted me to carry on. She loved living so much and strove to do her best each and every day. I remember when I felt like leaving rabbinical school and she told me “You’re not a quitter.” She always gave me the strength and fortitude to continue on no matter what challenges I had. My grandmother was always the first person I called for advice, up at 4:30 each morning. She valued raising a family so much and giving her entirety to the next generation. One of my reasons for wanting to have a child so quickly was to make her a great-grandmother so that she could see the fulfillment of her values in the next generation. She never had it easy but like Ruth she kept her faith and integrity in what she believed.

There’s another side of Ruth that I’d like to share, which I found in my wife Karina. We had been dating for less than 2 months when I found out that my position as Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Anshei Israel was eliminated. I drove to Karina’s apartment, tears streaming down my face, and told her. I said “I’m going to need to move, and you didn’t sign up for this.” I’ll never forget her response as she hugged me. She said, “I didn’t sign up for this; I chose it.” I knew then that this was the woman I was going to marry. Like Ruth, Karina could have chosen the path of least resistance, to run away. Certainly women I had dated before chose to do so for far lesser reasons. Instead, she chose to stay by my side as I went through a time of uncertainty. Who would have dreamed at that point that we’d have a beautiful daughter and puppy and have found such a warm, loving and generous congregation as the Jericho Jewish Center?

As we remember those who are no longer in our midst, it can be very easy to feel depression or melancholy. After all, these people shaped who we are and our lives have deep voids without their physical presence. At the same time, we are grateful for how they have made our lives all the richer and for all the blessings they imparted in us by how they lived. We remember them with a wellspring of emotions and we live each day knowing that they would be proud of who we have become and of how we live our lives.

This is another of my grandmother’s poems about Ruth, entitled “Ruth at the Burial of Naomi.”

The tears well up within Ruth’s eyes.

She must admit this open grave,

The fact of Naomi’s demise.

She, who would not live separate

From her in life, must now accept

That death, that such is each man’s fate.

And now Ruth weeps with painswept tears

Recalling all their past shared years.

And she shall miss Naomi’s love.

And she shall miss Naomi’s voice.

She chose to follow in her steps

And never did regret that choice.

Ruth wonders how she shall live on-

Then sees the face of her own son.

She views in his life patterning.

She sees in his life’s flowering

An echo of Naomi’s being.

Ruth would not have him fear of death

Nor question preciousness of breath

She would not have her tears defile

His faith in life. Ruth prays for strength,

And with a love which conquers grief,

Through tears, she manages a smile.[3]

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Biblical Adventure Milwaukee: The Eternity Press, 1980), p. 138

[2] Ruth 1:16

[3] Lucille Frenkel, A Biblical Adventure Milwaukee: The Eternity Press, 1980), p. 147.

The First Fruits Ceremony

Think back to when you had to learn formulas and equations in school. Did you find this learning meaningful or was it just boring, rote memorization? Is there anything to be gained from the learning and recitation of statements?

The sole example of a biblical formula recited by someone occurred on Shavuot. In Parshat Ki Tavo, it lists that when the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they should take their first fruits and give them to the Kohen to offer to G-d. They should then recite a formula which begins הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כִּי-בָאתִי אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ. ‘I profess this day unto the LORD your God, that I am come unto the land which the LORD swore unto our fathers to give us.’ [1]

The formula continues with a passage very familiar to us from the Passover Haggadah: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב., “My father was a wandering Aramean who sojourned down to Egypt and lived down there few in number and there became a great, numerous nation.”[2] The formula recited goes on to discuss our suffering under slavery, how G-d saved us and then how G-d brought us into the land of Israel “וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.” “And G-d brought us to this place and he gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”[3] Now that we are in Israel the person bringing the fruit should joyously proclaim “וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.” “And now I have brought my first fruits which G-d has given me,”[4] setting it down before G-d and prostrating oneself before G-d.

I imagine our ancestors waiting with bated breath for the opportunity to reach Israel, arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, recite these words before G-d and then give up something which is theirs for the Kohen, G-d’s emissary, to consume. Mishnah Bikkurim teaches that our ancestors would hold the barrel of fruit on their shoulders during their pilgrimage to the Temple. Upon arrival before the Kohen, they would lower it from their shoulders to literally bite on its handle. The Kohen would place his hand under the basket and lift it up, thus symbolizing his taking over ownership of the basket.[5]

What relevance does this have for us today? We do not live in Israel, nor do we offer fruit as a sacrifice of gratitude before G-d. However, what we continue to do is to look for ways to demonstrate our appreciation for all that we have. We recognize the humble beginnings of our parents and grandparents who came before us, many of whom were immigrants to the United States and who sacrificed so much of themselves so that we have what we have today. Similarly, our ancestors endured the hardships of crossing through the desert in order to give this generation the opportunity to worship G-d in the Land of Israel.

Shavuot is an additional time to appreciate our bounty: that we are Jewish, that we have been given the Torah and that we have found so much blessing in the land in which we live. We should never take this for granted, recognizing instead the great cost and sacrifices it took for us to reach where we are today. A ritual like the First Fruits, though it has fallen into desuetude, is yet another example of showing gratitude and graciousness for all that we have. I hope that we find in our daily lives opportunities to make room for rituals like it, having moments of consciousness for all of our blessings. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:3

[2] Deuteronomy 26:5

[3] Deuteronomy 26:9

[4] Deuteronomy 26:10

[5] Mishnah Bikkurim 3:6