The Rules We Live By

Goal of Shavuot Prayer

To hold in awe

Those words of law

Inscribed on stone

Which God had hewn

Then to cause truths

Those laws impart

To transpose to

The human heart.[1]

 

It’s not fair-why are there rules? Why can’t we live in a time of איש הישר בעיניו יעשה, every person does what is right in his own eyes?[2] After the giving of the Torah and the conquest of the Promised Land, our ancestors make this same mistake again and again. There were forty years of turmoil wandering in the desert because of the bad report given by the spies. Then there was calm with the conquest of the land. Yet throughout the Book of Judges G-d sends an adversary to rule over Israel (as a punishment for Israel engaging in idolatry), Israel cries out, G-d sends a judge to defeat the adversary and then the land was quiet for 40 years only to have the same cycle be carried out again and again and again.

People of my generation often shy away from rules, wanting to do whatever they feel like at any given moment. We are a generation of choice-as Peter Berger teaches, “we are all Jews by choice.”[3] However, is that necessarily a good thing? Sometimes having too many choices can be overwhelming; seeking freedom might actually be more enslaving. By having boundaries and a blueprint, even though it is limiting, it can keep one on the straight-and-narrow as opposed to being wound up in chaos.

Social scientists say that our basic personality formation is complete by age seven.[4] We might not know yet who we are but we know what we value and what’s important to us. Much of this is learned behavior primarily from our parents, then our siblings then our teachers and our friends. As we grow older, we often lash out against those areas of our personality that we see as weaknesses passed on from our parents. My teacher, Dr. Mona Fishbane, says, however, that as we mature we transition from viewing ourselves as victims to becoming the authors of our own lives. We recognize that our parents did the best they could in raising us; we give thanks for all the wonderful things given to us in our upbringing. As for those things we don’t like, we actively work to change them.

In life we often dwell on the negative and forget the positive. When we are in the middle of a tense situation with a loved one, we often see the trees rather than the forest. Yet at Yizkor we attempt to seek out the positive, how a loved one lived their life and the values that s/he taught us. We nostalgically remember the experiences we shared, the lessons learned and how we were shaped by them. The tension and frustration melts away as we turn to the wonderful memories. We start to recognize that some of the rules they set up for us were there for a reason: to protect us and give us guidance through the topsy-turvy road called life. We also remember the Torah they taught us, for the direct translation of Torah is instruction: the instruction needed to have a positive, meaningful and purpose-filled life.

As we now turn to say Yizkor, let us remember our loved ones, getting a picture of them in our minds eye, thanking them for giving us the gift of life, recognizing that when things were difficult they did the best they could to provide for us and to raise us to go out into the world as strong, independent beings. Whether they were imposing or “loosy-goosy,” libertarian or authoritarian, they strove to do their best for us in their own way. Let us remember them for good (זכור לטוב) and keep them in our heart especially today, at the end of Shavuot.

We turn to Page 16 for our Yizkor prayers to read “as We Remember Them.”

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Goal of Shavuot Prayer,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 159.

[2] Judges 17:6

[3] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory (New York: Integrated Media, 1967).

[4] Studies by Christopher Nave, UC-Riverside and Ganz Ferrance, PhD.

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The Priestly Blessing

What for you is the most moving part of services? For me, it’s those moments where we actively live out ritual, where we’re able to close our eyes and envision ourselves back in our ancestors’ time. The key moment for this occurs for Ashkenazi Jews in the Diaspora only 13 times in the year: on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simhat Torah, Passover and Shavuot. As a child, I loved attending services, but I especially loved going on Yom Tov to receive the blessing from the Kohanim.  We attended both Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in which this prayer was done.  My head was covered by my father’s tallit, and I could hardly wait to hear the words of the shaliah tzibbur, the prayer leader, followed by those of the Kohanim.  יברכך ה וישמרך-May G-d bless you and guard you.  יאר ה פניו אליך ויחנך-May G-d shine G-d’s face upon you and be compassionate onto you.  שלום לך וישם אליך פניו ה ישא-May G-d turn G-d’s presence to you and may G-d grant you peace.[1]  These fifteen words would touch my soul on every holiday and enable me to feel G-d’s presence.

I am not the only one who is enamored with these words of the Priestly Blessing.  Jews used to wear these words on their necks as amulets for God to protect them.  Two amulets containing the Priestly Blessing were found in 1979 at a site called Ketef Hinnom southwest of Jerusalem, a site which we visited during the 2015 congregational Israel trip.  These amulets were dated by archeologists to 600 BCE, during the First Temple Period.  They continue to be the oldest copies of a text from the Hebrew Bible that has been found.

What is it about these fifteen words that make them so prominent?  There are so many interpretations of these blessings, but my favorite is that of Rabbi Yitzchak Karo, a 15th century commentator and uncle of Yosef Karo.  In his commentary Toldot Yitzchak, he provides ten explanations for the threefold priestly blessing.  I like best Karo’s third interpretation: that the threefold blessing corresponds to the three types of blessings that we recite.  The first blessing, “May God bless you and guard you,” corresponds to ברכות המצות, blessings that we recite upon performing commandments, such as putting on a tallit.  The second blessing, “May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you,” corresponds to השבח ברכות, blessings that we recite to praise God in gratitude.  The third blessing, “May God’s presence be with you and may God grant you peace,” corresponds to ברכות הנהנים, blessings that we recite upon seeing something that we enjoy, like a rainbow or a loved one’s face.[2]  Rabbi Yitzchak Karo’s understanding is just as we bless God through these three types of daily blessings: those regarding performing commandments, praise, and witnessing wonders, so too does God bless us through the threefold priestly blessing.

What I find compelling about Rabbi Yitzchak Karo’s interpretation is that it illustrates a reciprocal relationship between us and G-d, one that is full of blessing.  Our blessing G-d through performing rituals and witnessing the daily miracles of life is reciprocated by G-d blessing us, guarding us, bestowing grace upon us and giving us peace.  This demonstrates what I believe is an essential teaching: the reciprocity inherent in relationships, both in terms of our relationship with God and our relationship with people.  Through blessing others, we are blessed; through viewing each moment of life with wonder and excitement, we bring wonder and excitement into the world.

I see this reciprocity also in my personal connection with the priestly blessing.  Receiving the priestly blessing while under my father’s tallit was a spiritual and emotional experience through which I could feel G-d’s presence.  Now that I bless others as a rabbi, I pray that I can continue to be part of the formation of such experiences.  This is what I think Heschel meant in his work God in Search of Man: that just as we are looking to create spiritual experiences through which to connect with G-d, G-d is looking for opportunities to connect with us and bless us.

On this Holiday of First Fruits when we hear the Priestly Blessing, let us think about our own, personal connection with the Almighty. Whatever challenges or struggles we are going through in life, let us feel that there is a beneficent G-d who loves us and cares for us and may this help us not only persevere but thrive and succeed through what faces us. Sometimes a blessing can give us a moment of inspiration to help us get past a place at which we are stuck. It can lift us up when we feel down in the dumps or quiet us at a moment of turbulence inside. May we pay special attention to each word of the Birkat Kohanim, focusing intently and coming to a moment of stillness and inner peace to receive this blessing.

[1] Numbers 6:24-26

[2] Toldot Yitzhak on Numbers 6:24 ד”ה יברכך ה וישמרך

A Mathematician’s Dream

Parshat B’Midbar is often described as “a mathematician’s dream.” It features lots of numbers with the census of the Israelites to prepare them from entering the Land of Israel. It therefore makes perfect sense that we have made this Accountants and Financial Professionals Shabbat.

It’s essential to account for every person, whether it is 24 (as we had on our 2015 congregational Israel trip) or 240,000. Every ten years we have a new population census which directly affects states’ electoral votes. For the Israelites’ sake they needed to be counted in order to make preparations for war and for the districting of the Land of Canaan. At the same time, how can we read this list of population without glossing over sections or becoming distracted? How do we impart meaning to each detail of the list?

Rashi gives a very interesting take on this. He comments מתוך חיבתן לפניו, מונה אותם כל שעה[1]  “Because of their (Israel’s) dearness to Him, He counts them at every moment.” What is most dear to us is what we count, whether it is our money or the number of grandchildren we have. For G-d, what is most dear is the Jewish people so they merit counting.

It is important to note, however, that while G-d can count us, we cannot count ourselves. Our portion begins with G-d saying to Moses to speak to Israel take a census. It was not initiated by Moses but rather by G-d. In 1 Samuel, when King David decides to take a census of the Israelites, it brings about seven years of famine.[2] Why would this be the case? Perhaps because G-d’s motivation for counting Israel is to delight in our growing numbers and in His chosen people whereas our motivation for counting might just be pride or curiosity. Therefore, we cannot be the ones to count.

In Parshat Shekalim, Israel was counted not by number of people but by the number of half shekels received. In other words, each person was counted by virtue of his/her contribution as opposed to by number. This demonstrated that our value is not just a number (i.e. I’m number 798 to be counted) but by what we brought to make G-d’s home. Of course, the numbering of people often has disastrous consequences, as we saw in the Shoah. Each of us is so much more than a number: we are a person with unique talents and gifts to contribute to better humanity and the world.

We also do not count Jews during minyan. To ensure there are ten, we use a roundabout technique: reciting a biblical verse of ten words and ascribing to each person present one of those words. A common one is הושיעה את עמך וברך את נחלתך ורעם ונשאם עד עולם, “bring salvation to your nation and bless your inheritance; rejoice and lift us up forever.”[3] By counting with this verse, we raise people’s spirits; that as we call out to G-d to save us so too are we saying that each person’s presence is lifting up our congregation.

There are some dangers in counting: the emphasis of quantity over quality, of numbers over people and their unique contributions. However, we also see some opportunities: through counting ourselves and those around us, we give hope that together we can make a strong, unified impact as well as that each of us matters, that “everyone counts.” It is in this spirit that I want to honor the accountants and all of the financial professionals here for this Shabbat. We greatly value the work that you do on a daily basis and the impact that you make in bettering our lives. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedules to celebrate Shabbat with us. As we are on the eve of celebrating Shavuot and rejoicing in the giving of the Torah, we pray that with your guidance and expertise we can find the joy in each and every moment of life.

[1] Rashi on Numbers 1:1 ד”ה וידבר, במדבר סיני, באחד לחדש

[2] 2 Samuel 24

[3] Psalms 28:9

Walking in My Ways

אם בחקותי תלכו-if you follow my laws.[1] Why do we need to follow G-d’s laws? Why can’t we just do whatever we want when we want to? The reason given by Rashi is הוו עמלים בתורה לשמור ולקיים[2], labor in the Torah to guard and establish it. That the word “labor,” or עמל, is used is not by accident: living a life of Torah requires a tremendous amount of work. We know that in order to master something, one needs to practice-often over and over again. Seforno expands on this thought when he comments חוקות הם גזרות מלך שינהג האדם בהם בשתדלות עסקי חייו, והתנהג בהם יקרא הליכה[3]. The laws are the decrees of the King that a person behaves by exerting effort in the affairs of his life, and one who behaving in accordance with them is called “walking.” In life we can take numerous, diverse paths, yet through following the structure of Jewish law and tradition, we will walk down the correct path.

Who sets the guidelines for the path down which we walk? When we are children, from babies until our B’nai Mitzvah (though for some it never ends) the ones setting those rules are our parents. At times the rules might seem overly restrictive, yet they are there for our protection. When one gets older, however, we set those rules in how we live our lives each and every day. G-d willing our parents have set a solid foundation for us to continue, and hopefully that includes wisdom from Torah and from Judaism. At the same time, it is up to us as to what we do with it.

Today we are here to celebrate the naming of a very special girl, Samantha Brooke Cohen. In looking up the origin of the name, it says that in Hebrew (I think erroneously) that it is derived from שמוע, “G-d heard,” which would be a very fitting name. G-d heard your desire to have a child and gave you a beautiful baby girl. However, I see a better origin of the name as being סמן, or sign. Having a baby is one of the greatest signs of G-d’s presence in the world, especially as the child grows and learns from everything that you do, often emulating it and viewing it as an ideal. Our role as parents is a derivation from the Divine Parent, G-d.

The origin of Brooke is a stream. We often find G-d’s presence in the beauty of nature. We go out to waterfalls, grand mountains, white-sand beaches and vistas to find a sense of serenity and joy. Not so for a child, however. S/he finds beauty in almost everything, experiencing it for the first time. We know that as Samantha Brooke grows, her curiosity will continue to abound and through looking at you as her example, you will both grow as well.

Carlee and David-we are blessed to have you living back in New York after having lived in Philadelphia for a number of years. We are also honored to celebrate with you ten months after we celebrated at Jilliane and Joshua’s daughter’s baby naming. In addition, we are blessed to have Samantha Brooke’s grandparents Erv, Bonnie z”l, Robert and Marlene, great-grandparents Edward and Eva, great-aunts Rosalyn and Mindy, great-uncle Andrew, aunts Jilliane, Rebecca and Lori, uncles Joshua, Douglas and Stu.

We gave Emily Brooke the Hebrew name בלימע שרה after an incredible balabusta, Bonnie Hoffman z”l. Blima is Yiddish for the Hebrew Shoshana, a flower at times translated as “lily” or “rose.” Shir HaShirim contains one of my favorite expressions, כשושנה בין החוחים, like a flower amongst the thorns.[4] Bonnie definitely exemplified this persona, and I know Samantha will as well, flowering not only in terms of beauty but also in developing a strong, independent personality, like her grandmother, z”l.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous and most beautiful day! To crystallize the joy of Samantha receiving her Hebrew name, I’d like to call Carlee, David and Samantha to the Bimah as we turn to Page 840 and continue responsively.

[1] Leviticus 26:3

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 26:3 ד”ה אם בחקתי תלכו

[3] Seforno on Leviticus 26:3 ד”ה אם בחקתי תלכו

[4] Song of Songs 2:2

Potential, Promise, Hope and Goodness

Moments of potential, promise, hope and goodness. That’s what we’re here to celebrate today. Two people finding one another and deciding to share a life together is something truly worthy of celebrating. Josh grew up at the Jericho Jewish Center, and his parents have been members here since 1997. Amanda his long-time girlfriend, then fiancée and now soon-to-be wife, has been at JJC for numerous High Holiday services and other events. How great that we as a congregation can celebrate this milestone.

You might be thinking, “How on earth does an aufruf or marriage connect to Parshat Tazria/Metzora? This parasha is one for which rabbis are often paralyzed at what to say to relate to their congregation. As I see it, we need go no further than the first half of the second verse of the parsha דבר אל בני ישראל לאמר אשה כי תזריע וילדה…, “Speak to the Children of Israel saying, ‘a woman who conceives and gives birth.”[1] No we’re not here to say we can’t wait until you have children but rather there’s a comparison to the birth of a child and a couple coming together. As a relatively recent parent, I can vouch for the fact that when a parent looks at his/her child, s/he sees all the potential for growth, development and goodness. Your parents are kvelling at you right now having found your besheret and sanctifying this moment in front of G-d and Israel.

It reminds me of the famous song “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof:

(Tevye)

Is this the little girl I carried?

Is this the little boy at play?

(Golde)

I don’t remember growing older

When did they?

(Tevye)

When did she get to be a beauty?

When did he grow to be so tall?

(Golde)

Wasn’t it yesterday

When they were small?

(Men)

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly flow the days

(Women)

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers

Blossoming even as we gaze

 

Each person blossoms into who s/he is meant to be, undergoing scrapes and bruises along the way and yet developing spiritually over time. Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser wrote, “Each person is both part of the human race and a unique being with a particular spiritual and potential capacity. Thus, the doctrine of human equality asserts that each individual is distinct.”[2]  When a couple is formed, each member continues to develop, not only as an individual but also as a partner with his/her spouse. This adds a level of complexity to the mix, for how can two individuals with their own wants and desires coalesce into a unit? It requires communication, compromise and growing together in order to accomplish this.

Josh and Amanda-today we are celebrating your choosing to build a life together and all the potential, promise, hope and goodness that comes along with that. You mentioned to me that you work as a couple because you’re both busy, dedicated to your careers as a cardiologist and criminal attorney, respectively. You have learned how to develop your own identities and now have an opportunity to strengthen your identity as a couple. It is wonderful to celebrate with you with your congregational family at the Jericho Jewish Center.  Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! To crystallize the joy of this celebration, I ask that you turn with me to Page 838 where we read responsively.

[1] Leviticus 12:2

[2] Ben-Zion Bokser, The Talmud: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), p. 30.

Voicing the Mourners Kaddish

They are only words-I know

How, then, can it be such pain

To say them?

Is it that I would roll the snow

Back from your whitesmooth winter grave

As coverlet-and see your face,

Your form once more before me.

 

They are only words to say.

How, then, can it be such pain

To say them-can it be the way

I take spring’s flowers out to you

When I would give them to your hand.

Though they are only words to say,

These words became such pain to say

Because I would have you alive!

And yet, I speak the words each year.

With tears, I tremble and repeat

The Kaddish-for within that prayer

The best and fullest which was you,

Your dreams and your ideals

Survive.[1]

Lucille Frenkel, “Voicing The Mourners Kaddish For My Mother’s Yahrzeit”

 

What is it about the Kaddish that brings so much emotion to it? At daily minyan, I notice not only who says Kaddish but how they say it. I see our Congregational President choke back tears as he reads these words day-after-day. The Kaddish, said for eleven months after the death of a parent, has so much power behind it.

One would think the Mourners Kaddish is a prayer to the deceased. This cannot be further from the truth: it is a prayer to G-d. The mourners say in Aramaic, the spoken language of our ancestors, יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא, may G-d’s great name be exalted and sanctified. The entire congregation joins in a response also said by the mourner: יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם ולעלמי עלמיא, may G-d’s great name be blessed forever.

Why do we turn to G-d at a time of such great vulnerability, when we remember a loved one who is no longer physically present? At funerals and unveilings I say this is not for G-d’s benefit but rather for ours. After a great loss, when our foundation has been shattered, when the carpet has been pulled out from under our feet, we still strive to believe that the world is good, that there is something to live for and to fight for. The Kaddish gives us this opportunity, to praise G-d’s name even at a time when we might be very angry with the הקדוש ברוך הוא, with G-d, for letting our love one pass away. We return to these words after our period of mourning on the Yahrzeit, the Hebrew date of death.

We also say the Kaddish at Yizkor, when we remember our loved one. We always feel the absence of a loved one’s presence, but it is often felt most during holidays, when there’s an empty chair or our loved one with whom we cooked or who led the Seder is not present. I remember my grandmother making matzah brei in the kitchen, helping my mother with the Seder plate (in particular making haroset) and at the Seder choosing not to read passages which deal with plague or with death. Although I did not have a Seder with her since I graduated rabbinical school, memories like that will always stay with me.

The past two months are among the first since I came to the Jericho Jewish Center that I have not voiced the Mourners Kaddish. Before, either someone asked me to say Kaddish as their representative, or שליח, or I chose to say Kaddish for 11 months for my grandmothers. When the 11 months for my Grandma Lucille ended, it felt strange to no longer be saying the Mourners Kaddish. As rabbi I often have said Mourners Kaddish along with the congregation on Shabbat but I deliberately decided not to do so anymore so unless necessary for pacing in order to let the mourners’ words be heard. Now the only times I say Kaddish are for a קדיש כללי, or communal Kaddish, at Yizkor, Yom HaShoah, and 10th of Tevet, so as to remember both loved ones who died and fellow Jews and family members who were murdered solely because of their religion. It feels dignified to voice the Kaddish to remember them and hold them in our hearts.

I hope that this Passover holiday has been a good one for you, celebratory and reflective, appreciating that we have reached this point again in our cyclical calendar. Let us now pause to remember the loved ones who shaped us into being who we are, who paved the way for us to follow, whose inspiration we turn to when we have a difficult decision to make and whose wisdom guides our spirits. Before beginning Yizkor I ask that we all turn in your new Yizkor booklets to Page 16 as we read responsively the prayer “As We Remember Them.”

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Voicing the Mourners Kaddish for My Mothers Yahrzeit.” In A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 120.

The Makings of a Community

Which individuals comprise a community? In Judaism, there are a couple different definitions of this. One is from Moses speaking to Pharaoh and proclaiming בנערנו ובזקננו נלך, we will leave Egypt with both our young and our old.[1] In other words, everyone is part of the Israelite community and should go out together from Egypt. Another definition is more exclusive. In explaining the phrase שלש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך ,את פני האדון ה three times a year all males shall be seen before G-d (in Jerusalem)[2], Talmud Tractate Hagigah begins הכל חייבין בראייה חוץ מחרש שוטה וקטן וטומטום ואנדרוגינוס ונשים ועבדים שאינם משוחררים, החיגר והסומא והחולה והזקן ומי שאינו יכול לעלות ברגליו[3]; “all are obligated to be seen at the Temple-that is except for a deaf-mute,[4] an imbecile, a minor, one with neither or with both genetalia, women, unfreed slaves, one who is limp, blind, sick or elderly and one who cannot walk on his own (or ride on his father’s shoulders.)

As celebrating the holidays is so essential a component for every Jew, why were so many people excluded in Temple times? Aren’t we supposed to protect the vulnerable rather than exclude them from our most festive times of the year?

In order to understand why this is the case, we need to look back at what society was like in Ancient Israel. We examine a time with no cars, where journeys to Jerusalem could take as much as two weeks of walking and sleeping outside. Someone who was limp, sick or blind would not be able to make that journey. Further, those who went on the journey would be vulnerable to the elements, whether the hot sun before and after Shavuot or the chilly nights before and after Sukkot (never mind the snow J). You needed to be in peak physical condition in order to make it. In addition, as the verse says males (women were excluded from positive, time-bound commandments),[5] anyone who was not easily identifiable as a male was excluded.

This is different from other commandments such as Hakhel where G-d told Moses הקהל את העם האנשים נשים וטף[6]; “Gather the people: men, women and children” or Sinai where all of Israel was present. At times, however, all of Israel, as opposed to today, where we are scattered מארבע כנפות הארץ, out to the four corners of the earth.

Now that we are no longer required to gather in Jerusalem for pilgrimage festivals, as there is no Temple, has the definition of community changed? I believe it has. While Israel remains scattered, we each form our own unique community like we have at the Jericho Jewish Center. As these are centered at geographic locations, all members of the community can join and congregate together during holidays. Furthermore, the time it takes to get from one place to another has shrunk because of transportation advancements, such as airplanes and trains. In addition, technological advancements make it possible for people who at one time were unable to fully participate in rituals to now become full participants. I had a blind neighbor in rabbinical school who is now becoming a rabbi in her own right. There is a rabbinical school for the deaf and there are programs to help those who have any variety of physical challenges. This enables everyone to fully participate in our community.

As we celebrate the Passover holiday, one in which many have been reunited with family members they might not have seen for quite some time, let us strive to make each community we are part of as inclusive as possible. May we truly feel free when our community is one that is completely welcoming to others, accepting them as they are and for who they are.

[1] Exodus 13:9

[2] Exodus 23:17

[3] Mishnah Hagigah 1:1

[4] If you were deaf you couldn’t communicate and thus were also mute. Now of course the two are not intertwined.

[5] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a

[6] Deuteronomy 31:10