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!

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