Loving Your Friend as Yourself

One of the most well-known verses in the Torah is ואהבת לרעך כמוך.[1] It is often erroneously translated as “love your neighbor as yourself.” In our society many people do not know their neighbors, let alone love them. We live in silos in the suburbs, with each individual home being a world unto itself. A better translation of the phrase is to “love your friend as yourself.” The word רע in Hebrew means friend. At the same time, how many of us love our friends as ourselves? We might wish our friends well and any opportunity for success, but if we are competing with them for a job would we really want them to have the same success as us?

What I find fascinating about the word רע is that it is the same word which is used in the Sheva Berachot, the 7 marriage blessings. In the sixth blessing we say שמח תשמח רעים האהובים, “loving friends shall truly rejoice.” Often people say, “I’m in love with/I married my best friend”-and today is no exception to that. By the time a couple reaches the חפה, they know each other so well.

The blessing continues כשמחך יצירך בגן עדן מקדם “May your joy be as that of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden.” We pray that Sara and Jeffrey always feel the sense of edenic paradise, that the joy which you feel now as well as under the wedding canopy will remain with you always. We know that often in life joy climaxes and then fades; the honeymoon period is too short-lived. It takes work in order to keep up the level of joy and intensity that one feels at their wedding. One thing that helps us do it, however, is to recognize that you are and will remain lifelong friends. Friendship strengthens every bond, including a loving relationship like yours.

Can you really love even your רע, your significant other and life partner, as yourself? We are so competitive with one another, always striving to prove “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Even with our partners, we tend to play the blame game when things don’t go as we envision-and even worse we can throw others in the middle of our grievances. A statement like “love your significant other as yourself” demonstrates that when we hurt our partner we also hurt ourselves. We are stronger together.

Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches that when we wake up every morning we should say הריני מקבל עלי את מצות הבורא ואהבת לרעך כמוך “I receive onto myself the commandment from the Creator to love your neighbor as yourself.”[2] The fact that he said it every morning demonstrates the perpetual need to remind ourselves of it. Without remembering to treat one with whom we are in relationship as we treat ourselves, we can quickly spiral into marginalizing or putting down that person to build ourselves up. We need to lovingly remember to embrace this principle each and every day; one which is easy to say but hard to do.

The hardest time to keep this is when we see something unfavorable in ourselves or in our partner that we would love to change. Rather than responding with criticism or put downs, we recognize, as the Meor Eynaim teaches, that “if we see something unfavorable in ourselves, we do not hate ourselves but that unfavorable thing. How we are in ourselves is how we respond to our fellow.”[3] If we respond to our personal limitations with compassion and kindness, so should we do with our significant other.

Jeffrey and Sara, my blessing for you is that your love continues to blossom each and every day and that you remain one another’s רעים אהובים best friends, always looking out for the other and letting your love conquer any challenge that comes your way in life. I also know that you will continue to stand by one another, providing confidence and bolstering the other up in times of need. In remembering that your relationship with one another is what is truly most important, much more so than the particular disagreement or issue at hand, may you strengthen your true love each and every day. In addition to being each other’s partners, always remember that you are best friends and then your marriage will thrive. Mazal Tov!

[1] Leviticus 19:18

[2] The Prayerbook of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria)

[3] Meor Eynaim on Chukkat

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The Holiness Code

We are now beginning a section of the Torah known as the “Holiness Code.” A central idea of this section is that the entire people of Israel bear the responsibility of seeking to achieve holiness. It is spelled out by putting these three weeks of portions next to one another “Aharei Mot, Kedoshim Emor”-after the deaths (of Aaron’s sons) you are commanded to be holy; or set apart from others.

Being set apart is not very comforting language in this day and age. Some feel that to be special implies that one is superior and others by definition are inferior. Yet what it means is that each of us has a unique destiny or path that is only for us. In that way we are set apart from everyone else.

How are we set apart from those around us? One way is through following in the footsteps of those for whom we are named. Each of us needs to embrace the positive attributes of those who came before us. Magnolia Fay’s Hebrew name is Perach Emunah. Perach means flower, just as magnolia is a type of flower. We pray that Magnolia will be nurtured and that she will blossom and grow strong each and every day.

Emunah means faith. When times are not going well, we pray that Magnolia have faith and that she take comfort from our tradition. The refrain Amen, from the same root as Emunah, is our communal response to having the faith we need to believe in G-d even when we are filled with doubt and uncertainty.

Magnolia’s English middle name, Fay, is after Sandy’s mother. Fay and Lou Staub were devoted members of the Jericho Jewish Center. They purchased a Torah which is in our top row in the Sanctuary, and they also dedicated a school classroom. Many meetings in the early years of the Jericho Jewish Center occurred in their home.

We know of great-grandparents Bill and Sandy’s contributions to the Jericho Jewish Center, with Bill being a Past-President, designing and donating a Tallit rack and the Tefillan drawer in the Beit Midrash, being the steward of the Holocaust Memorial Garden and a regular service leader, Haftarah reader and minyan attendee. We know of Sandy’s contributions through doing the calligraphy for every Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Baby Naming and being last year’s Sisterhood Woman of Achievement. We also know of her parents, Fay and Lou Staub’s great love for the Jericho Jewish Center and their building our congregation in its nascent years. These are big shoes to fill but Magnolia will become a leader in her own right and who knows? Maybe a future Synagogue President.

Let us pray that Jaclyn and Chris will raise Magnolia Fay with the values imparted from those who lived before us, and that she will be viewed through those positive attributes. Let us also recognize the blessing of this special day. May Magnolia Fay always be blessed with an outpouring of loving, doting parents, grandparents who spoil, aunts and uncles who cuddle, cousins who love and all of the blessings of life. Mazal Tov on reaching this special day!

Our Precious Heritage: Respecting Truths Our Ancestors Gifted to Us

Moral Values are important?

They enable us to see

And measure our desires and actions

With yardstick of Integrity.

 

Spiritual ethics are a pathway

To guide us to ways of Peace,

Where selfishness and self-interest

Can be acknowledged-then to cease.

 

Standards set high so to live by

Put our actions to the test-

Have we made our lives a blessing?

Have we each day done our best?

 

How to live-what our IDEALS are

Were goals set by our Ancestry;

And all our choices, all our actions

Become what is our History.

 

Now how we live-what our IDEALS are

Will become our children’s legacy,

And all our actions will determine

Future of World and Humanity.[1]

 

What truths have you been gifted by those who taught you? What are those eternal principles which continue to guide how you live your life? Have you in turn set things in motion to help determine the path of the next generation’s lives?

A significant part of the problem of the dearth of value of Judaism is the lack of objective yardsticks to measure it. How do you measure whether someone is “a good person”? What yardsticks do we use to show the reward for practicing Judaism? There’s no SAT score or grade for observing Judaism and no objective consequence, like being denied college admission, for not doing so.

At the same time, more than any grade or score we are influenced by the example set by those who came before us, who showed us the way to live. The standards for daily living might not be able to be statistically quantified but they are known qualitatively to us through the daily choices and decisions we make. We certainly have the primary role to play in shaping our lives, yet it was modeled for us by those who came before and we shape the formation for those to come.

Those who are not physically present have gifted us numerous truths by which we live each and every day. Long after they have physically departed this earth, we continue to follow in their example. We want to make them proud of us. Our shared experiences bring forth numerous emotions-we learn that what is more important than what one did is how one lived.

How do we enable ourselves to keep our loved ones in mind each and every day? How have they influenced you and how have their lives inspired you to be more devoted to your family and to look out for one another? How will they continue to inspire you to live each day with meaning, purpose and integrity?

When we think of our parents and grandparents we think of a void in our lives, of someone who was there and taught us essential truths about life but who we can no longer physically turn to for comfort or support. We miss the long conversations and the great life lessons that came from daily contact. At the same time, the truths that our ancestors gave us are eternal, and their messages resonate with us today.  It’s when we have it hard, the decisions that are difficult to make, that we turn to our ancestors for guidance. We look for signs as to what we should do with our lives and the impact that we should make in the world.

May we continue to light the torches that our ancestors lit, following in their example. When we are faced with roadblocks, may we try to think about what would our ancestors have done or how they would have advised us, and let us take the best step forward that we can. As we continue on our journey from being bound to becoming free, let us think about how we can be the change we want to be in the world and make them proud of our example.

 

“Listen”-said the grandfather,

And I will tell you the story of Passover,

And how our ancestors were slaves in Egypt long ago.

And I will show you the lashmarks of bondage

Which still burn upon my soul!”

 

“But I do not believe in fairytales”-said the child.

 

“Listen”-said the grandfather,

“And I will tell you the marvel of the Red Sea parting,

And of how God sheltered us to freedom long ago.

And I will show you a pearly shell

Plucked from the floor of the open Red Sea!”

 

“But I do not believe in miracles”-said the child.

 

“Listen”-said the grandfather

“And I will tell you of Judaism,

For we are Judaism.

Judaism is God and God is love,

Love of law and law of love.

And I love you.”-said the grandfather

 

“I believe in love”-whispered the child.[2]

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Our Precious Heritage Respecting Truths Our Ancestors Gifted to Us”

[2] Lucille Frenkel, “The Telling.” In A Jewish Adventure. (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 154.

When You Believe

I did not think that the Red Sea

Could open for humanity.

And so I stood upon its shore

Not one to pray nor to implore

The graces of a deity

To part the waters of the Sea,

So to permit safe entry.

 

Then came along another man

Who begged me but to take his hand

And lead him through the wall of sea-

And then I saw he could not see,

And then I knew that blind was he.

“Turn back, my friend, you cannot go.”

This, to that blind man, I did say.

But he replied, “The sea might open,

Would we pray.”

 

So great his wish that he could cross,

I joined his prayer-for only loss

Could be the sounding of vain words;

For logically, it seemed absurd

That men absorbed in piety

Could open pathway through a sea.

 

And so we prayed-and suddenly

A miracle! God split that sea!

And hand in hand, we both walked through.

And then it was I truly knew

Blind I had been-and ‘seeing,’ he-

For his hand led me through the sea.[1]

 

We often say “seeing is believing,” yet there is also the saying from the movie The Prince of Egypt that “there will be miracles when you believe.” Sometimes we need to believe in something in order to will it into the world.

There’s a nice story in our Ani Tefillah Siddur about the synagogue of Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg where he sang the Song of the Sea with such power that when the congregation recited with him the verses about the crossing of the Reed Sea, they all lifted up the hems of their clothes to keep them from getting wet, for it actually seemed to them that they had gone down into the Sea which had split before them. Dr. Jay Goldmintz concludes, “Such is the power of imagination during tefila.”[2] When was the last time in a synagogue service that you felt a sense of creativity? When did you lose your focus and just blend in with the prayers or the music? Such an experience is possible.

Often our sense of apathy or our habituated behaviors do not provide the room for this spontaneous prayer experience. We long for the wonder of childhood yet by living each day with the same regularity we lose the opportunity to have it. On a plane I saw the movie Christopher Robin about the adult Christopher Robin who had lost his sense of imagination and belief in the Hundred Acre Woods-that is until Winnie the Pooh came to find him. Through the movie he regained his sense of wonder and fun.

The next time you read the passage of the Song of the Sea, think about ways in which you can bring this into reality. How can you feel like you were an Israelite at the sea seeing the miracle of it splitting? How can you bring the words of the prayers off of the page and into your heart? Challenging for sure yet something I think each of us should aspire to in order to make our prayer עבודה שבלב, the worship of the heart.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Passover Tale,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 148.

[2] Ani Tefilla Siddur Pages 100-01

In the Middle of The Night

I don’t always remember my dreams but I do remember a nightmare I had. For some reason I was out catching venomous snakes, gripping their bodies with a vise. I had a snake in the vise and was walking with it when all of a sudden it flung its entire body toward me and bit me. Then I woke up. It was 2:30 am and needless to say I could not get back to sleep.

We are afraid of the dark as well as of being vulnerable when we sleep. We ask The Almighty ופרוש עלינו סכת שלומך, spread over us your canopy of peace”[1] so we will be protected at nighttime. The psalmist  says אַךְ-חֹשֶׁךְ יְשׁוּפֵנִי וְלַיְלָה, אוֹר בַּעֲדֵנִי “Surely the darkness shall envelop me, and the light about me shall be night.”[2] Nighttime can be scary. Things that seem easy and doable during the daytime, can be overwhelming, even paralyzing at night.

We know that G-d acts at night as we read in yesterday’s Torah reading ויהי בחצי הלילה וה הכה כל בכור מארץ מצרים, “It was the middle of the night when G-d struck down all the firstborn Egyptians.”[3] The medieval paytan, the liturgical poet Yannai, wrote a poem on this regard which is in our Haggadot, entitled “It Happened at Midnight.” He wrote רב נסים בחצי הלילה, “Most miracles occur in the middle of the night.” We also know that Passover is referred to as ליל שִׁמֻּרִ֥ים הוּא֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה לְהוֹצִיאָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם, “The night of protection for G-d to save Israel from Egypt.”[4]

On Friday we will read וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ עַל-הַיָּם וַיּוֹלֶךְ ה׳ אֶת-הַיָּם בְּרוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-הַיָּם לֶחָרָבָה וַיִּבָּקְעוּ הַמָּיִם. “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and G-d led the sea with the strong east wind all night, and G-d made the sea into dry land and the waters split.”[5] Rabbi Avi Killip writes “Set at night, the story becomes more intense, more ominous.” When the Israelites see the Egyptians approaching, they begin to panic. They turn on Moses, suddenly certain that this whole journey was a bad idea in the first place. It wasn’t so bad back there in Egypt after all. At least we were alive. At least we were safe. Knowing that this scene takes place at night makes the people’s sudden panic more relatable. Who hasn’t had the experience of regretting at night a decision that seemed so simple in the daytime? In the middle of the night we find ourselves wondering, why did I need to have a baby after all? Wasn’t I perfectly happy before? Or: What made me think I was ready for this big promotion? Why did we decide to buy or sell that house? Why did I think I was ready for a big move like this one? How will I be able to handle this new responsibility? At night we ask ourselves: What made me think freedom was worth this journey? Wasn’t I happy back in Egypt? In the night, we doubt and panic. And yet, it was during the nighttime that the Israelites were able to get up and leave Egypt[6] and it is at night that they must be brave enough to step into the sea.[7]

At night we pray the Hashkivenu, for G-d to shelter us and enable us to have a full night’s sleep. Who doesn’t know the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep either because of a nightmare or a racing mind? Interestingly, in our tradition, G-d is our source of light. G-d guided Israel by a pillar of fire at night.[8] Ben Zoma taught in our Haggadah that the word ֹ כל in the phrase  לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת-יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיך refers to the nights.[9] We are not only commanded to be mindful of G-d during the day but also at nighttime.

The next time you wake up in the middle of the night, let us remember that the moment of our people’s greatest salvation, the Exodus from Egypt, occurred at night. May that give each of us hope that during our long nights we will find moments of redemption that will shine through regardless of whatever difficulty we are facing. Hag Sameach.

[1] Hashkivenu in Maariv service

[2] Psalm 139:11

[3] Exodus 12:29

[4] Exodus 12:42

[5] Exodus 14:21

[6] Deuteronomy 16:1

[7] Rabbi Avi Killip, “When Redemption Comes at Night,” https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/stories-and-redemption

[8] Exodus 13:21

[9] Mishnah Berachot 1:5

Mentioning the Exodus Every Day

As we walked out of Egypt,

Each of us left behind

The chains which bound our bondage.

But as we fled from Egypt,

Each carried in his mind

A memory of that bondage,

Which on Passovers, remind

Though we had departed Egypt,

Egypt was not left behind.

For the name of Egypt changes

But oppression stays the same,

And the ‘face’ of Egypt changes

But brutalities remain.

As we walked out of Egypt,

We sang freedom in our song!

But though we took leave of Egypt,

Each brought Egypt’s past along.[1]

 

As George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Egypt is not just a place in time, it is a mentality. We are commanded to mention the Exodus from Egypt every day. We fulfill this simply by saying the 3rd paragraph of the Shema which ends אני ה אלקיכם אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים, “I am the LORD your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” However, more is called for in remembering what it was like to have a time when we were forced to serve others and to work towards ensuring that no one needs to serve another master.

This reminds me of a Talmudic debate. Imagine the rabbis of yesteryear gathered around in their Beit Midrash (House of Study) trying to get a sense of what is a greater Jewish principle: study or action. Rabbi Tarfon jumped up and says “Action.” How many of us would agree? After all, we are a people who values deeds, subscribing to the maxim that “actions speak louder than words.” Rabbi Akiva, however, disagreed, asserting that study is greater. The other Sages agreed with Rabbi Akiva, albeit with a caveat: study is greater because it leads to action.[2] Studying Torah and Jewish traditions will help shape our mindset in making the best decision yet in the end we must act. We cannot stay in the ivory tower of the yeshiva world (or as I like to say, being a “professional student”); rather we must make decisions, often coming to understand their implications after the fact.

The goal in continually mentioning the Exodus is to always keep it in our mind. When things don’t go the way we want, we can remember what a time was like when we were not even free to act on our own. Freedom brings us an infinite number of additional choices that impact us on a daily basis. We remember that G-d renews and reinvigorates us each and every day, המחדש בטובו בכל-יום תמיד מעשה בראשית. In so doing, let us be mindful of the possibilities that this day brings forth.

Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his article Pesach: Finding Freedom that “societies where everyone is valued, where everyone has dignity, where there may be economic differences but no class distinctions, where no one is so poor as to be deprived of the essentials of existence, where responsibility is not delegated up or down but distributed throughout the population, where children are precious, the elderly respected, where education is the highest priority, and where no one stands aside from his duties to the nation as a whole-such societies are morally strong even if they are small and outnumbered. That is the Jewish faith. That is what Israel, the people, the land and their story mean.”[3] When we recognize how far we’ve come as a society and how much of that comes from Judaism, we appreciate the benefits of our freedoms.

Through mentioning the Exodus every day, we appreciate our lives as they are currently constructed. We stop taking our freedom for granted, counting the blessings that we have. When we feel constrained, like we are in Mitzrayim, we remember what it was really like to not have the freedom to act as we would wish in this world. We need to be reminded of this day after day, which is why there are frequent references to remembering the Exodus from Egypt as a precursor to doing the commandments.

Tonight at your Seder, I encourage you to have an honest conversation (especially with children) as to what it means to live a free life as opposed to being a slave and how we can ensure not to take the privileges and freedoms that we have for granted. In recognizing our freedoms, may none of us feel enslaved or bound in our present lives, as we always have infinite potential for making changes for the better. Through being mindful of the exodus, of the never-ending journey from slavery into freedom, may we always continue to grow into the people we want to be in this world. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so. Hag Sameach.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Jew’s Remembrance Thoughts on Freedom, Slavery, The Holocaust and Passover” (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 149.

[2] Kiddushin 40b

[3] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Pesach: Finding Freedom,” in Ceremony and Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays (New Milford, CT: Maggid Publications, 2017), p. 200.

The Denial of Death

In the morning I try to do a mediation from an app called Headspace. One of the mediations struck me in how it began. My teacher Andy said “Sometimes we might be fearful of death, assuming it’s radically different to life, but like a beautiful wave, eventually it has to return to the ocean. In truth, they were never separate at all…Each and every wave is different. It has its own root and own direction. There’s something about the way that wave is expressed that makes it unique. Yet ultimately, each and every wave goes back into the ocean. But the wave hasn’t been lost. The water is still the same but it’s gone back into the ocean. Something beautiful has been expressed, and yet nothing has been lost.”

One of the five shadows that Parker Palmer writes about, those things which hold us back, is the denial of death, whether it be our own mortality, the death of an idea or the fear of public failure or negative evaluation.

In looking at Parshat Metzora we see the closest one can get to death while alive-being afflicted by tzaraat. Rabbi Shai Held writes: “Leviticus’ focus on maintaining a stark divide between life and death is likely the key to understanding the laws governing the metzora (one afflicted with tzara’at).  Bible scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky explains that ‘if the disease was at all similar to modern leprosy, its affect in an advanced state was similar to the decomposition of a corpse… The afflicted individual, like one who has been in contact with a corpse, might have been considered to be in a no-man’s land between two realms which must be kept rigidly apart.’”[1]

Rabbi Held continues, “When Miriam is afflicted with leprosy after speaking ill of her brother Moses, Aaron asks Moses to pray on her behalf, tellingly pleading that their sister “not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”[2] For Leviticus, then, the metzora quite literally looks like death; the living dead conflate categories and blur boundaries – and are thus considered impure.[3]

Parshat Metzora is read close to Passover, the holiday of spring. The original name of the month in which Passover fell is Aviv, or spring. Passover is always around the time of rebirth: buds growing, trees starting to bloom, baby animals being born. It is a time in contrast to the conditions of one with Tzaraat, whose “clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left disheveled, and he shall cover his upper lip”.[4]  All three of these practices are associated with mourning. The Metzora is also isolated from all of Israel for 7 days, and he must cry out “Impure! Impure!”[5] According to the Talmud, he is bidden to call out “Impure! Impure!” not to remind others to stay away but to let them “know of his suffering so that they pray for mercy on his behalf.”[6]

The rabbis often teach that this is an example of מדה כנגד מדה, measure for measure: that one who said לשון הרע about others will get punished for his wayward tongue.[7] This punishment, making this person like one who is dead, is meant to make him realize how precious life is and work to reform his behavior. It demonstrates that one’s actions matter and that they have consequences, rather than denying the impact of his deeds. At the same time, he recognizes that there is rebirth after death: after a period of isolation he will return to society at large and be able to try again. So too should it be with us: when we make a mistake, when we lose our job or when we are publicly humiliated or shamed let us not think this is the “end of the world” but rather that we can learn from this and experience a renaissance.

My Grandma Lucille z”l often used to say that we live many lives. She did not mean that we have 9 lives like a cat but rather that we have many different stages in our lives. When one naturally comes to an end, that is not the time for denial or resistance but rather appreciating what was as well as understanding that what is to come will be different but will present us new opportunities for learning and for growth. When the last stage comes, it is again not time for resistance but rather for understanding that there is more to come. Death is not an end but the beginning of something new, like a wave returning to the ocean and then coming back in a new form. With that I wish everyone a Hag Aviv Sameach, a Happy Passover full of new beginnings and rebirths.

[1] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism (2006), pp. 330-331. Cf. also BT, Nedarim 64b, where we learn that a metzora is “considered as dead.” In Rabbi Shai Held, “Struggling with Stigma: Making Sense of the Metzora, Parshat Tazria-Metzora 5775.

[2] Numbers 12:12

[3] Baruch Schwartz, “Leviticus,” in Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., Jewish Study Bible (2004), p. 237.

[4] Leviticus 13:45

[5] Ibid.

[6] Babylonian Talmud Niddah 66a

[7] Babylonian Talmud Arachin 16b