Count the Leaders

Our portion begins by counting each of the leaders of the Family of Gershon, a division of the Levites. Each of them is recorded as he is. Each tribes’ gift being brought to the Tent of Meeting is listed individually. Each leader is also listed individually by name.

Richard was a reluctant leader. When I first came to JJC, Barbara Rosenblum told me he was the perfect choice for President. I asked Richard and each time he adamantly declined saying he was not cut out for the job. I gave a sermon one summer Shabbat morning about going outside your comfort zone and looked at Richard, whose face was to the ground. After that sermon he told me he would become President.

These 2 years have not been easy for Richard. There has been negotiations with the STEM preschool and a change in ownership of the school, Homeland Security Grants, a change in Maintenance Director, a rabbi and cantor search, repairs in the building such as a boiler, computers needing to be replaced and discussions about the server, a new awning in front of the Sanctuary, a 3 day power outage, security concerns, public assembly license meetings and many more things than can be enumerated. Luckily Richard had a partner in Jay who joined with him in steering the JJC ship and who has gotten excellent training in becoming the next President of JJC.

We are so grateful to Richard for stepping up to the plate and doing what he could to strengthen JJC. He always had time to talk and to take things to another level. We also would be remiss in not thanking Helene for all she did behind-the-scenes to strengthen Richard. Behind every man is a stronger woman. Richard and Helene were two of the first people I met at JJC, and their devotion and dedication to this spiritual home is boundless. How wonderful it is to have this special Shabbat with 3 generations of the Cepler family present.

It has not been an easy couple of years with the passing of two strong, loving parents. Yet when Craig, Seren, Belle, Emily and Sadie were here on the 2nd Day of Passover, Richard said to Emily on the Bimah לדור ודור, do you know what that means? It is a concept that Richard has internalized. He knew this was his time to step up and take the mantle of leadership, and we are all the richer for him choosing to do so. His Executive Board has worked tirelessly in supporting him these past 2 years, as has his Board of Trustees.

Transitions are always hard yet they are important. Life is always changing and when one door closes, another one opens. Richard has helped open the door wide to the capable hands of Jay who in two short weeks will take over as President of the Jericho Jewish Center. Jay did something that has not been done in years-assume the position of Executive Vice President so that he could be groomed into this role. He even began staying for Kiddush! Thanks to Richard’s tutelage and close relationship with Jay, I know he will be a strong, successful President.

We are commanded to count the leaders because true leaders are few and far between-especially people who will take on the Presidency of a congregation. Let us count the many achievements of Richard, his Executive Board and Board. While Richard should get a well-deserved reprieve, we know this is not the final time he will be in a leadership role at JJC. Let us celebrate the work of our JJC leadership by asking each Board member to please rise as we read on Page 825.

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When We Feel Broken

When we feel broken

When the ground beneath our feet has slipped away

When we are unanchored

When we are vulnerable

We need somewhere to turn.

For some of us that is G-d

For others that is our family

For others that is our community

But each of us needs something to cling to, to hold dear.

 

I say words like this at the cemetery when explaining why we say words like Tziduk HaDin, that G-d is our rock in whom there is no flaw; or the Mourners Kaddish, when we sanctify and praise G-d’s great name. Why do we say these words at a time when we might be angry and frustrated with G-d? Certainly not for G-d’s sake but for our own. When we are broken, when we are rudderless, we need something to hold onto.

In the reading As We Remember Them, I think about the line “When we have decisions which are difficult to make, we remember them.” Those times in life we are at a crossroads, we think about what would the beloved matriarch or patriarch of our family have said? How would they have prompted us to act?

The connection to Shavuot is clear: the ark that Israel carried around the desert held two sets of tablets: the new intact ones that Moses had written and the broken ones that had come directly from G-d.[1] Why maintain the broken tablets?

Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider writes, “The bereaved, and especially those that have suffered painful loss, often live their life with two compartments within one heart – the whole and the broken, side by side. To be a good friend is to know this and to be respectful of the brokenness that always remains.” How often do we want to take away someone’s pain and sadness, to fix their suffering, rather than be present with them as they currently are? Our job is not to be the fixer but rather the one who is present with people, acknowledging their losses and their grief.

Rabbi Goldscheider continues, “The idea of brokenness appears in a number of significant places in Judaism: We sound the shofar with the broken notes of the shevarim; the Hebrew root ‘shever’ meaning ‘broken’. We begin the Seder breaking a whole piece of matzah. When the bride and groom stand under the wedding canopy, a glass is shattered into pieces. These important symbolic rituals represent shattered and broken events in both our personal and communal lives. Breaking the matzah represents the broken life of the slave, the repentant spirit of a remorseful person is symbolized by the broken sounds of the Shofar, and the breaking of the glass represents a world that is incomplete without the presence of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The two sets of tablets in the Ark offer a striking metaphor. Namely, that brokenness and wholeness coexist side by side, even in Judaism’s holiest spot – in the heart of the holy Ark.” [2]

At times we feel complete, that nothing can touch us. At others we feel like we are the lowest of the low. Humility teaches us to occupy the middle ground between self-effacement and haughtiness. We should always strive for balance, yet at painful times like losing a loved one, we sink to great depths. It is our job, when we feel broken, to be present with our experience as it is and work day by day towards wholeness, recognizing that there will always be a void.

One prayer, based off Psalm 147, that illustrates this is Healer of the Broken-Hearted by Shir Yaakov. We sang this at the rally at the Mid Island Y following the murder of 11 precious souls at Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. It goes “Healer of the broken-hearted, Binder of the wounds, Counter of uncountable stars, You know who we are.” No other person can understand who you are or what you are going through. Only G-d knows. When we are broken, no one can tell us to snap out of it; only we can do it with G-d’s help. When we are in mourning, no one can give us advice or rationalize how we can escape from it.

This has been a very difficult year of loss for the Jericho Jewish Center. A number of our steadfast congregants lost parents. While I cannot help you restore a sense of wholeness or a “new normal,” my heart goes out to you. I cannot fix but I can be present with you as we remember our loved ones who came before us. The brokenness and the wholeness lie side-by-side in the holy ark.

To Hold in awe

Those words of law

Inscribed in stone

Which God had hewn,

Then to cause truths

Those laws impart

To transpose to

The human heart.[3]

[1] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 14b

[2] https://www.aish.com/h/9av/oal/The-Broken-Tablets.html

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

The Goal of the Ten Commandments

Think not these laws mere rules set down.

Indeed, they pace the distance

Which raises Man from depths to heights-

Think not these laws but rules-they are

The essence of existence![1]

Why do we emphasize the Ten Commandments? My Senior Rabbi in Tucson taught the following when he did World Wide Wrap: the 613 commandments can be thought of as 6 + 1 + 3, making 10. The 613 are emanated in the 10. Similarly the 10 commandments can be thought of as 1 + 0, making the 1 true G-d. The 10 commandments thus emanate the 1 G-d.

Often we erroneously look at the 10 commandments as the blueprint for human existence. Rather than doing so, we need to look at what they signify. There are 10 commandments as a logical, sequential order in how we should act in this world. It begins with the belief in 1 God, which presupposes that one does not believe in any others. If we believe in a Creator of the universe, we must hold His Name to the highest of standards, never taking it in vain. Not only do we value His name, but we must act in His example, resting after 6 days of creative work. We further demonstrate this not only by following His example but by honoring those who are made in His image, the most central of whom being one’s parents, who are partners with G-d in our creation. Once we honor them, we also acknowledge that each person must be treated with great dignity and respect. We therefore cannot murder another, who is also made in the image of G-d. If we honor that each person is made in the image of G-d, we cannot have relationships with those with whom we are not supposed to. We also would not steal from another in the image of G-d nor would we lie about him/her. Last but certainly not least, we would not be jealous of his/her achievements, instead appreciating what we have and counting our blessings.

The goal of the 10 commandments is not a list of rules but a mindset for daily living. It is to understand that each of us has a uniqueness about us, as we are made in G-d’s image. Similarly, each of us has to respect the uniqueness of all the others who are made in G-d’s image. Through a mindset of turning to G-d and remembering the Creator’s role in our lives, we keep on the straight-and-narrow.

I hope as we continue with Shavuot, our holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, that we will take these lessons to heart and that we will continue to explore the Ten Commandments not as laws in and of themselves but rather as a theology for how to maximize our daily living.

 

For the Jew to choose life

Is not a simple matter,

For life is precisely that substance

Which the nations have consistently denied to the Jew,

 

And what is life to the Jew?

 

And what is life to the Jew

But every moment of lifebreath

Governed and evaluated by a system of law

God-revealed in a world God-ruled-

 

And God,

God is never

A very simple matter.[2]

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

[2] Lucille Frenkel, “The Ten Commandments,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 158.

In the Desert

I remember a conversation I had with someone when I was at a down time. Something I had wanted had fallen through and I was left in a lurch. The person I spoke to said to me “You’re in the midbar,” the desert. That is a very difficult place to be.

We’ve all been in the midbar at various points in our lives. We’ve been stuck, not knowing where to turn. Our ancestors were at such a point in this week’s portion. While they were taking the census to prepare for battle upon reaching the Land of Israel, they were only in the 2nd year of their wandering, having 38 more to go. They had no idea about the ups and downs they would have, the battles they would fight, the rebellions lurking in their midst. Yet 38 years later they saw the light at the end of the tunnel, the Promised Land.

Having lived in a desert, I remember hiking and seeing sand and dirt everywhere I went. Sometimes I got lost and could not find my way back or to my destination. At other times I found an oasis, a source of sustenance (perhaps a kairn, or trail marker) to get me through a difficult stretch.

We wish we could always touch the Promised Land. Yet being in the midbar is part of our life’s journey. Not knowing where to turn or what to look for is a common challenge. At the same time, if we had all the answers at the outset, we would never grow. If we did not have to go through the treacherous terrain of the midbar, we would remain stunted in place.

This book of the Torah is about the struggles Israel had to encounter along the journey in order to become the people ready to conquer the Promised Land. It is not always easy to read about what our ancestors did, whether the Ten Spies, Korach, the quivering for quail, the remembrance of free meat in Egypt, the gossiping about Moses’ wife, the striking of the rock rather than speaking to it. Yet we need to recognize that without these mishaps there would have been no room for growth. At times a fatal mistake is made: Moses striking the rock precludes him from entering the Land of Israel. That might be unfair but our actions have consequences, and we cannot take them back. What we learn from them, however, will hopefully take us out of the midbar and into the Promised Land.

As we enter into the journey where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, let us remember that the journey from slavery to freedom is a process. Let us have compassion on our ancestors, forgiving them for their mishaps. Let us also have compassion on ourselves when we fall short as well. When we find ourselves in the midbar, uncertain of which direction to go, may we have patience and resolve, and may our faith in G-d and our strength lead us in the right direction for us at this given moment in our lives.

One person who has left the midbar for the Promised Land is Beth Blumenstock, known for her shirts with the universities’ names in Hebrew. Beth is well-known at JJC at Stephanie, Alex and Melinda’s mother. Her daughters return to do their B’nai Mitzvah Haftarot and to lead the Prayer for the State of Israel, as they did so beautifully today. Yet Beth is accomplished in her own right. She is extremely generous, offering rides to people to shul and giving small gifts to others. She always has a smile on her face and a kind word to say to everyone. Today, right before we read about the giving of the Torah, she has chosen to take on the mantle of Torah and receive her Hebrew name.

We honor Beth today by bestowing upon her two Hebrew names after her grandmother Regina. Ruhama comes from rahamim, meaning compassion. We know the compassion and care that Beth has shown to so many in our congregation through her loving, kind presence. She knows just how to bring a smile to people’s faces when they are down and to go the extra mile in visiting someone at a time of need. What a perfect name for her to take on.

Beila comes from the Hebrew Bilhah. At first I was perplexed why so many Yiddish names derive from Bilhah, one of Jacob’s handmaiden. Then I recognized that she bore the first two of the children through Rachel’s line, Dan and Naphtali. In other words, she gave life when Rachel could not. It was not easy to be in the background: the text indicates that Rachel had authority over Bilhah, even naming the children she bore. With that being said, Bilhah was a crucial figure in being able to begin Rachel’s line with Jacob.

Beth often shies from the limelight, not liking to take credit for things yet making important contributions behind the scenes. That is why it is so wonderful to honor her today as she acquired two beautiful Hebrew names. She is certainly one who is not in the desert but rather is bound for the Promised Land.

On Mount Sinai

It seems like ages ago that we read about the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai. However, our people never left Mount Sinai through the rest of Exodus and Leviticus. Our portion begins on Mount Sinai with the laws of the sabbatical year. This demonstrates that these laws as well as all the laws of the Torah were given on Mount Sinai.

Mount Sinai teaches us many things. One is humility: it is the smallest mountain amongst the peaks by it. Another is obscurity: we are not certain as to where Mount Sinai is today. The smallest and least pronounced mountain can become the source of the giving of the Torah.

Moses, a reluctant leader, had to be up on Mount Sinai, a small mountain, for 40 days and 40 nights. Upon descent he not only gave the core teaching of our tradition, the 10 commandments, but transmitted the entire Torah. This teaches us that no matter how small something is, it has great import. Never underestimate the potential of small items.

At times in our life we will be on Mount Sinai. We should never let those moments get to our head. At other times we will be in the lowly Hinnom Valley. We should never stay in an area of despondency like that. Rather we need to walk a middle road, as Maimonides asserts. The resting of the land, like our resting on the Sabbath, is in order for it to yield even more produce when work resumes. The same is true with our rest and reexamination of our lives on this Sabbath and those to come.

In our life, whether we feel lowly or exalted, we use Shabbat to come back to earth, recharge and reconnect with our loved ones. We recognize that even, or perhaps because, we have a day without pressure to do anything that we are able to embrace ourselves just as we are for now. Even if we feel lowly, perhaps we are destined for great things in the coming week. All we need to do is reach a little higher, to climb a little farther.

Let us feel this Shabbat that we are on Mount Sinai, hearing firsthand the laws and commandments from G-d’s messenger Moses. In so doing, may we feel gratitude for the opportunity to come together as a spiritual community, especially when we celebrate the upcoming holiday of Shavuot in just 2 short weeks’ time. Let us enjoy all that this beautiful weekend has to provide-perhaps going on a hike or a walk tomorrow or Monday and appreciating all that nature has to provide. May we feel like we are ascending not descending in the journey of life and that there are far greater heights for us to reach.

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

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!