Who By Fire, Who By Water?

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling[1]?

Who by fire? Just look at Paradise, California, burnt to a crisp, 40 people dead from the Camp Fire. Who by water? Look at the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian to the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama, with at least 50 people killed.

Look at the rising temperatures on land and by the sea, and we see the evidence of Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. Look at the Amazon Rainforest on fire, Hurricane Lorenzo setting a record for being the furthest east a hurricane made Category 5. I am not going to preach about climate change and what to do about it. It would be hypocritical, as I personally could be more environmentally friendly: we use paper towels, plastic bags, and I do not drive an electric car. However, one person who is qualified to preach about it is Greta Thunberg, who said to world leaders at the UN “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…we are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth-how dare you!”[2]

I’ve spent a lot of time speaking about mindfulness, the importance of focusing on the here-and-now. However, at times one must take steps for future generations. There’s a famous story about Honi HaMaagel (the circle drawer) who saw an old man planting carobs. “Fool!” he said to him. “Who are you planting those carobs for?” The man replied “Just as my grandparents planted carob trees for me, so too will I plant them for my grandchildren.”[3]

We need to think about what we are doing to plant the seeds for generations yet to come. It was quipped to me that my generation won’t have to worry about retirement because of global warming. I prefer to think much more optimistically-that we WILL take the steps collectively to make a difference and where we cannot we will adapt as best we can.

There are two brief stories I want to share about people who respond to natural disasters when they occur. The first is the Saks family. Belinda Saks, a former United Synagogue Board Member, fled her home with the oncoming Woolsey Fire, not knowing if when they returned it would be still standing. She was driving with her husband Jeremy when she saw a yeshiva where the students were stranded. They arranged to get all the students out and rescue the Torah scrolls in the yeshiva. A great mitzvah and a heroic act indeed.

The other story concerns Hurricane Dorian. When many of us saw the devastation and destruction that befell the Bahamas, we sprang into action. In the span of a few days, our Tikkun Olam Committee collected over two minivans full of diapers, canned foods, bottled water and many other goods which they brought to the United Way to send to the Bahamas. Our Greater Miami Jewish Federation sent out an email the next day requesting funds for The Bahamas to rebuild, and raised $270,000. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation with its CEO, Jacob Solomon, a member of our very own congregation, is always at the forefront of being there for those in need. They should be lauded for springing into action so quickly, and they should be supported by our entire congregation.

I do not have answers as to how to stop Who By Fire and Who By Water. There are certainly more qualified environmental protectors than me who also put their money where their mouth is. However, I believe 100% that when natural disasters strike, as unfortunately they will continue to do, we will band together to support each other and truly be a community of caring and a congregational family.

 

[1] Leonard Cohen Who By Fire

[2] Greta Thunberg Speech, September 23, 2019.

[3] Adapted from Babylonian Talmud Taanit 23a

Honesty and How to Change a Bad Habit

It is so wonderful to see so many people gathered together today to join us in worship. Parents are reunited with children (including my parents, Bruce and Laurie Herman), grandparents with grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at Bet Shira Congregation. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at your Bet Shira Congregation.

For those who do not know, we have a sister congregation, Kehillat Netzach Yisrael in Ashkelon. I sent a more detailed update by email but here is a synopsis of what they are doing. They operate five afternoon day care programs with over 140 children including a hot lunch and activities.  They also opened a nursery from three months old to three years old last year.  They added another room to the nursery this year and now have thirty children in that program.

Their rabbi, Gustavo Surazski, has been running mini lectures series in member’s homes. Their Youth Movement started two weeks ago from third grade to the army (ages 9-18).

After the holidays we will begin working on B’nai Mitzvah twinning with our sister congregation. Each Bnei Mitzvah student will be twinned with someone in our sister congregation who is also becoming a Bar Mitzvah, kind of like a pen pal. The students will write to one another-I will translate the Hebrew into English-and they will learn about their Israeli counterpart. There will also be the option of B’nai Mitzvah families giving to Kehillat Netzach Yisrael (as well as anyone else who wants to give) in order to support the good work of our sister congregation.

 

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5734-1973”

Another New Year

Marking passing of time,

A fresh chance to reflect

And to question how I am

Passing my days

In my journey through time-

Do I value each moment

God sends to be mine?

Do I criticize much

Which I do not approve,

Instead of attempting

Myself to improve?

Another New Year

Marking passing of time

Holds the need to reflect

On my whole life design.[1]

I couldn’t get it done. Those words from presidential candidate Pete Buttigeg speak volumes.  Mayor Pete who served in South Bend, Indiana, where I was privileged to have a pulpit internship, was asked why he did not further desegregate the South Bend police force and why race relations have worsened during his tenure as Mayor. ‘I couldn’t get it done’ was his response. No excuses, no further explanation.

Regardless of where we stand politically, I think we can learn from Mayor Pete’s words. So often in life we are afraid of our shortcomings so we build artifice around them. When taken to task for something we did, we develop an excuse or a rationalization. Believe me I understand: I’m a Maimonidean at heart. However, what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about are looking ourselves in the mirror. We are honest, admitting that we are human and that we make mistakes.

After Mayor Pete’s statement, David Suissa of the Fort Lauderdale based Jewish Journal wrote the following: “It was a shocking moment. In the middle of all the bluster at the Democratic primary debate Thursday night, with one candidate after another promising they would fix all of our problems, one candidate, Pete Buttigieg, decided to go in another direction. He decided he would tell us the truth and admit failure. In so doing, he exposed a deeper truth: There’s just so much a politician can do to make our lives better. All too often, they fail. The problem is, they never admit it. They’re afraid that if they do, they will lose our vote. And maybe they’re right. Maybe we’re just suckers for hucksters who promise us the moon. We want to believe that someone, somewhere, can make our lives better. The alternative— that the solution to most of our problems is inside each one of us — is too burdensome.[2]

Rather than do the best we can and admit failure when it occurs, it is far easier to blame someone else or to put on blinders or a mask, pretending we did no wrongdoing. After all, Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage[3]-and some of us are rather good actors. The High Holy Days, however, is the time at which we take off the masks, the blinders, and expose ourselves for who we truly are.

Let us illustrate that with a comparison between our upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur and Purim. The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century Lithuanian rabbi, reminds us that Yom Kippur’s full name is Yom HaKippurim, meaning “the day which is like Purim.”[4] Does that surprise everyone? According to the Talmud, every holiday has a partner, and Yom Kippur’s is Purim.[5] Purim is a foil for Yom Kippur, a day where we relish in the physical; food, drink and merriment. Yom Kippur is the day when we focus on the spiritual; being like angels who do not require and food or drink. Purim is the day when we read the Megillah, where G-d’s name is not even mentioned once. Yom Kippur is the day totally devoted to G-d, a day of atonement or “at one ment” where we become one with G-d.

The greatest opposite, however, is not in what we do but rather in how we are supposed to feel. On Purim we put on masks, hiding our true identities. We do this to mimic G-d, who says “I will surely hide my face from them.” [6]וְאָנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי֙  The name Esther means hidden and she is the perfect example of an assimilated Jew, hiding her identity-from her husband no less! Yom Kippur is the opposite of Purim: we take off the masks, revealing our true inner natures as we stand before the Ark, just us and the Master of the Universe.

Our new year goes one step further than the secular one. Rather than making resolutions, we look ourselves in the mirror, saying not only that we are going to change but more importantly how we are going to change.  We acknowledge where we fell short and how we are going to do better in the coming year.

In a podcast by the Mussar Institute, Ronit Ziv-Krieger gave six steps for habit change. The first is to have a sense of purpose as to what one wants to change. Second is to have awareness of what one is doing at all times, being focused on the present moment. Third is self-restraint, specifically to define the point at which you struggle. Fourth is to create a trigger or visual stimulus to help you in the process. We often think of triggers as negative yet they can also be turning points for positive change. Fifth is to choose something small to work on. There is a rabbinic maxim תפסת מרובה לא תפסת, if you try to grab too much at once you grab onto nothing.[7] Sixth is to appreciate what you’ve done and to be compassionate for yourself when you fail, evaluating yourself honestly. The rabbinic principle is ברחמים תשוב, that we have compassion for ourselves and try again. We do not put on a mask, making an excuse or blaming others: we accept things as they are for now, admitting failure when appropriate, and then we try again.

Every year we gather together here at Bet Shira Congregation, saying the same prayers, atoning for our sins and then returning to our regular routines . As we engage in this process of repentance תשובה, let each of us ponder the question: How have you changed in the past year? What are you doing differently than when we gathered together last September? How are you becoming a better person, taking more time for your family, putting more effort into your work, eliminating bad habits and strengthening good ones? Our service may not have changed much but you have certainly changed. You’re one year older and wiser with more life experience, the wisdom to guide each of us on our path.

I strongly believe in besheret, that none of us is here by accident. Each of us has a specific path to walk down, a mission to follow, a destiny to embrace. During these holy days, we take our personal heshbon hanefesh, our accounting of what we are doing, how we are progressing on our journey through life. It is too easy to go through the prayers by rote, saying hello to our neighbors and then walking out the door until next year. It’s far more difficult, though crucial, to sit back and ponder who we are and in which direction we are heading. We need to follow Ronit Ziv-Krieger’s six steps, in particular recognizing the turning points for us to make effective change as well as celebrating our successes, yet when we relapse or go down the same rabbit hole, we must have compassion for ourselves and admit to our current reality. At this time of introspection, it’s just us and G-d.

Rosh Hashanah’s significance is that it is the birthday of the world. In the Musaf service, we will say three times היום הרת עולם-this is the day on which the world was created. There is a creative interpretation by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs by “The Velveteen Rabbi.” She writes that היום הרת עולם means “today is pregnant with eternity.”[8] In other words, anything’s possible on any given day. We are not bound by the same old but rather we must open ourselves up to new possibilities. Rosh Hashanah provides a lightning rod for doing so, for reflecting on how we want the coming year to go and what type of person we want to be this year. I think about what type of rabbi, husband, father, son, teacher and leader I want to be in 5780, how I want to get rid of bad habits and refine myself for the better. Thank G-d Rosh Hashanah comes around every year and enables us to be introspective and reflective…as long as it is followed by acting in a constructive and proactive manner.

Think of the moments that have inspired you to change. It could be a wakeup call of some kind, a matter needing urgent attention, or it could be a characteristic you noticed in someone else that you wanted to emulate. We hope for more of the latter as opposed to the former, as too often we wait too long to make the constructive, beneficial changes that would greatly aide us. Now is the time to do so-for Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה) can also be thought of as Rosh HaShinui (ראש השינוי), the time for making changes.
When we return to daven (pray) together next year, I imagine that the prayerbook will still be the same. You might be sitting in the same seats next to the same people. However, you will have changed over the course of the coming year. Perhaps you will take those Krav Maga lessons or learned how to sail (a good skill in Florida). Maybe you will find a way to be better connected with friends and family who live far away or to be more patient, kind and gentle to those who are in your midst. Perchance you will gain the skills necessary for a job promotion. Perhaps you’ll go to Africa to help at an orphanage. Maybe you’ll even win at Fortnite-or maybe the Dolphins will win a game! Whatever this new year brings, think about what you can do to grow as a person so that when we meet again you will be able to say, “I certainly have changed for the better, and it was well worth the effort.” Similarly, when we digress into the habits of yesteryear, let us not put on blinders but rather say “This is where I am at present; I’ll try again to get better.” היום הרת עולם-Today is pregnant with eternity.

Lucille Frenkel, “New Year Prayer 5732-1971”

At the approaching of each New Year

One must really pause and ask oneself

What one has accomplished in the past year,

What one has envisioned of the New Year.

For time is not guaranteed progressive,

And living can advance or be regressive.

Thus, at the approach of every New Year,

One must really pause to reassess

What one has accomplished in the past year

To assist the new year to progress.[9]

 

Shana Tova U’metuka, a happy, sweet and healthy new year to all.

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 133.

[2] David Suissa, June 28, 2019, The Most Powerful Line of the Year: ‘I Couldn’t Get it Done’ https://jewishjournal.com/columnist-2/editors-note/300775/the-most-powerful-line-of-the-year-i-couldnt-get-it-done/

[3] William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

[4] Vilna Gaon, Yahel Or-Likkutim Yekarim V’Niflaim

[5] Talmud Bavli Pesachim 68b

[6] Deuteronomy 31:18

[7] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 80a

[8] Blog posting in The Velveteen Rabbi, “Being Change” on September 17, 2012.

[9] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 132.

Netanyahu and Super Teams

I’ve always been intrigued by super teams. Ever since Lebron James took his talents to South Beach, I’ve been interested in those who join together. After Lebron set the mold, we had Kevin Durant join the 73 win Golden State Warriors.

The Israeli elections in April and September were a story of Bibi Netanyahu versus a super team. Netanyahu, the magician who has held power in Israel for over a decade, was unable to have been beaten by any one leader, be it Tzipi Livni, Amir Peretz or Isaac Herzog. It took a “super team” of Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon joining together to form a party to rival Netanyahu. Three parties (Israel Resilience, Yesh Atid and Telem) morphed into one (Blue-White) and combined they could not get more seats than Likud in April 2019. In September they have (barely) succeeded in getting more seats than Bibi’s Likud party.

In this case, a strong leader (a “dominant player”) needs a “super team” to even serve as a rival. Like him or hate him, Netanyahu has been on the forefront of Israel for so long that it took Gantz, Lapid and Yaalon banding together to seriously challenge him. In contrast, when three parties joined together in 2015 (Labor, Hatunah and Green Movement), they had 6 fewer seats than Netanyahu’s Likud.

Closely watching these last two Israeli elections made me fully appreciate the power of Netanyahu and how much it took for an alliance to get more votes than him. Without the corruption charges, perhaps Bibi would have won handily again. Regardless of where one is politically and what the final coalition will be like (or if there will be a third government in Israel) I hope that we can appreciate the power of Bibi-and the need for a super team to challenge his grip on Israel.

For Those Spiritual and Not Religious

I often hear those of my generation say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Sometimes I hear it expressed as “I’m a cultural Jew.” My response to them is Why do you see it as a zero-sum game? One can be spiritual and religious or a cultural Jew for finds meaning in Jewish rituals. Most Jews whether religious or not have at least one Passover Seder, light Hanukkah candles, go to synagogue to hear the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and fast on Yom Kippur.

What hearing one of those phrases tells me is that one has not found meaning or value in the daily observances of Judaism, whether keeping kosher, praying to God or observing the Sabbath. However, after asking questions, I discover that many of these same people find meaning in regular meditation and yoga practice. These are seen as Buddhist or Near Eastern traditions; however, they have roots in Judaism as well. Having just completed an 18 month course in Jewish Mindfulness Meditation with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, I will share a few of these connections.

Before the writing of the prayerbook, it was a regular practice to pour out one’s heart to God. This was done through silent contemplative moments as well as through hitbodedut, daily conversation with God about whatever one was thinking about, without judgment, in order to clear one’s mind. Similarly, Judaism always focused on shmirat haguf, keeping one’s body in good shape in order to serve God. Being flexible as the reed is a value which emanates from the Talmud. Similarly, the purpose of prayer was to open one’s heart and mind, having kavanah (proper intention). It says in the Talmud that one who fixes his/her prayer does not have the prayer function as is intended.

For those who want to see how Judaism and spirituality blend together, I invite you to come to Bet Shira during the month of Elul (which began September 1), the month before the High Holy Days, one which is known for introspection and contemplation. Joi
We had Reiki Torah on Friday September 6, a guided meditation in which we feel the energy of Torah emanate into our bodies. We had a Healing Circle on Friday September 14 after our 9:30 a.m. Shabbat services, geared towards all those who are in need of or are praying for someone in need of healing in body, mind or spirit. Be there for a reflective Selichot service on Saturday September 21 at which we will have Havdallah (ending the Sabbath) at 8:00 p.m., show the film Redemption at 8:30 p.m. and have services to usher in the High Holy Days at 10:30 p.m. Enjoy a free concert for the community led by our High Holy Day Cantor Andres Levy on Sunday October 6 from 4:00-6:00 p.m. Come to be inspired, to have your soul touched and to see firsthand how spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand.

More initiatives combining spirituality and religion, including Alef-Bet Yoga, are to come.

The key is to take the “leap of faith” and join us at Bet Shira, 7500 SW 120 Street. I look forward to meeting you and to joining you on this spiritual journey.

Rabbi Ben Herman plans series of fall events at Bet Shira

Rabbi Benjamin Herman has some exciting plans for the fall at Pinecrest’s Bet Shira, located at 7500 S.W. 120th Street, adjacent to Palmetto Senior High School. 

“We have a whole month of programming planned for the month of September, just before the High Holy Days,” says Rabbi Herman. “The goal is to bring people together for educational, spiritual and social events…that’s the best way to build community through personal relationships, which is an important part of my mission as a rabbi.”

On Friday, September 6th at 6:30 p.m., Rabbi Herman will lead a program called Reiki Torah, where members of the congregation participate in contemplative prayers for forgiveness, culminating in putting their hands out before a Torah scroll and undergoing a spiritual self-transformation through guided meditation.

“On Saturday, September 14th at 12:30 p.m., we will have a Healing Circle for those who have undergone loss as well as for those seeking a deeper spiritual connection with God,” he says.  An Apples with Honey Tasting will take place at Pinecrest’s Milam’s market on September 15th.

Bet Shira will also present a showing of the film Redemption on Saturday, September 21stat 8:30 p.m., followed by a brief discussion afterwards. At 10:30, Rabbi Herman will lead a contemplative evening service for congregants.

Bet Shira’s theme for the Jewish New Year is simple yet profound: New Year, New You. “People are searching for greater meaning in their lives. They’re looking for opportunities to connect…with God, with each other, with their community,” he explains. “That’s what we’re offering here at Bet Shira, opportunities to make those important connections and build relationships.”

Starting in October, Rabbi Herman has plans for some interesting programs planned to enable congregants to socialize, learn and connect with God in the great outdoors.

Hiking and Halacha will combine spiritual teaching with a walk in a natural setting,” he says. “Shabbat on the Bay will be an outdoor service with musical instruments and a picnic afterwards, all overlooking Miami’s beautiful Biscayne Bay.”

Those with a passion for dancing won’t want to miss Havana Nights on Saturday, November 16th when Bet Shira will host a fun evening of salsa dancing, kosher Cuban food, dominoes and camaraderie.

“At Bet Shira, we’re looking to make a difference in people’s lives. Every member of our congregation counts and is valued. These programs provide opportunities for us to come together, grow spiritually and build community.”

Bet Shira is located at 7500 SW 120th Street in Pinecrest. For more information about Bet Shira and upcoming events, please visit http://www.betshira.org.

Loyalty and Being Informed

To what or to whom are you loyal? In the Jewish tradition, we are commanded to be loyal to one thing: G-d. In the blessing after the Haftarah which Abe chanted, he readונאמנים דבריך  נאמן אתה הוא ה אלקינו “You, Adonai our G-d, are loyal, and your words are loyal.” In Parshat Eikev, G-d commands us to observe all of the commandments. We need to be faithful and loyal to G-d; it is contingent on having possession of the land of Israel.

Similarly, throughout Eikev G-d commands us to remember and take heed of what we are being told. The word זכור, remember, appears 200 times in the Torah. The word שמע, to take heed, appears 92 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone! Incidents which occurred long ago, such as provoking G-d with the golden calf, or testing G-d when there was no water in the desert, are repeated at length here. These are drummed into this new generation, about to enter the Land of Israel so that none of them can say they were not informed of the importance of observing G-d’s commandments.

In Judaism, we are required to have loyalty to G-d and to be informed of what G-d wants us to do in the Torah; in return G-d will be loyal to us. However, we are not commanded to be loyal to anything else, whether a person, institution or political party. One can say, in contrast, that one should not be loyal to anything other than G-d. We read as we were taking out the Torah “I do not put my trust in any mortal, nor upon any angelic being do I rely, but rather on the G-d of Israel who is the G-d of Truth, whose Torah is Truth, whose prophets are prophets of truth and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In   G-d alone do I put my trust and to G-d I utter praises.”

We are required to be informed, which is why we read the Torah over and over again, year after year. Humans by nature have short memories, and we need to read and repeat until things become second nature and we develop positive habits. Once again we have in Parshat Eikev words that demonstrate this. G-d says to us “impress My words upon your very heart; bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children-reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates.” If that’s not ensuring that we’re informed, I don’t know what is.

Nowhere in there does it say that we need to have one opinion. Judaism is not a cult where everyone has to drink the kool-aid; in fact, one of my favorite things about Judaism is that it encourages us to be independent thinkers, to question things, to take what we have and to arrive at our own conclusions. We are given a roadmap towards life in the Torah but we have the freewill to choose to do with it what we will. We are a people where belief is secondary to action, where we do not have a set dogma. Judaism encourages us to inform ourselves through repeating and acting out our core values but when we receive information about the world, we are encouraged to use it as we see fit. That is what makes our community at Bet Shira so wonderful: the opportunity to have multiple opinions and at times vehemently disagree but to continue to come together as a unified community.

I hope and pray that we will always be united rather than divided, coming together for the greater good. You are fully welcome at Bet Shira regardless of what you believe. We appreciate you for who you are rather than how you vote.

Reward and Punishment

So much of Deuteronomy is written from a cause-and-effect philosophy, and this week’s Torah portion is no exception. It begins by stating that if you observe the commandments you will be rewarded and if you disobey you will be punished. Can we really believe in such a philosophy in the 21st century? We all know of people who do bad things and appear to be rewarded and who do good yet are afflicted.

The rabbis took the philosophy that one’s true reward or punishment would come in the “World to Come” yet I’m not sure we can follow this philosophy either. After all, Judaism on the whole is a this-worldly religion. We also know from mindfulness work that we cannot focus too far ahead but rather must be centered on the present.

The philosophy that I embrace is that we need to focus on what we can do in this moment to enhance our lives, and the commandments can be guideposts to help us do that. In my Weekly Message, I gave some examples as to how being mindful of what we eat (keeping kosher), being mindful of taking time for family (keeping Shabbat) and having a conduit through which to examine how we are feeling or what’s going on with us (praying to G-d) can be invaluable tools through which to enrich our lives. I invite us this Shabbat and beyond to look for those tools for our own lives, not comparing ourselves to others or trying to come up with “the big picture” at the expense of what is going on for us right now. Ken yhi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.