Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – November, 2011

I have been serving on a committee overseeing a city-wide project beginning this fall and continuing into next year called “2012: The Year of Interfaith Understanding.” I spoke about the personal and communal benefits of interfaith dialogue on Yom Kippur, referencing this project and suggesting that you take on the obligation during 2012 to read at least one serious book about a religion other than Judaism; and then read or research the questions that come up to find out how Judaism answers the same questions.  Over the course of the next year, I will have other suggestions and opportunities for participating in interfaith dialogue, learning, and worship.  One such suggestion is to participate in the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service, this year to be held at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, November 21.  As of the deadline for the bulletin, the location had not yet been confirmed (watch your eVoice or Shabbat announcement page or call the office for location information).

Of all the American holidays, Thanksgiving is the most Jewish, and also the most explicitly religious. It has obvious roots in the Biblical festival of Sukkot; in addition, there is an offering mentioned three times in Leviticus called the todah, or Thanksgiving, offering. The religious attitude of thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. How fitting that in our country, Thanksgiving has become a time for members of different faith traditions to come together and give thanks.  The city-wide Interfaith Thanksgiving service has become a meeting point for Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Protestants of various denominations, Bahai, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Native American, and non-theists to meet, share texts and teaching on gratitude, and appreciate each other’s musical offerings.

If you are a regular participant in this service, I am grateful for your presence.  If you have never come to the service, I ask you to give it a try.  I think you’ll enjoy it, and by your very presence you will be making an important statement about the importance of the inclusion of all faith groups in the religious landscape of West Michigan.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2011

I don’t need to expend a huge amount of effort to convince most of you that the synagogue experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not “fun.” Yet, you also understand that it is an important experience – otherwise, you would not come. As a narrow snapshot of Jewish life, the High Holiday experience is psychologically valuable, when done right. However, it is incomplete. Life is not just about the serious moments … it is also about the playful moments. A view of Jewish life that includes only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is distorted towards the serious and heavy. I invite and encourage you to capture the other side of the emotional scale, the side of Sukkot and Simhat Torah. The singing, dancing, and eating of Simhat Torah are the antidote for the chanting and sitting (or standing and prostrating) of the earlier holidays.

Jews are an intellectual bunch. We tend to be excessively proud of educational accomplishments and the number of Jewish Nobel prize winners. Judaism values study. However, Judaism also values action. Judaism done right is more than an intellectual activity – it is a celebration of life. Simhat Torah provides balance. It is about Torah, but it is not intellectual. It is experiential. It is about using our bodies and our breath as in the Shabbat poem Nishmat kol chai, “The breath of all that lives praises you, Adonai our God” (page 334, Siddur Sim Shalom). From our limbs to our tongues, from our knees to our back, our songs, our lips, our eyes and heart – all join together to “laud, praise, extol, exalt, and sing [God's] holiness and sovereignty.”

Sukkot breaks us out of our normal pattern of service and worship of God through primarily intellectual channels, to a more physical expression of our commitment to a Jewish life. We cannot fulfill the obligation to eat in the Sukkah by conceptualizing the role of the Sukkah in Jewish tradition, or discussing the historical context of its development. We can only do the mitzvah by putting our body into it, say a berakha, and eating something.

The physical labor I bring to building and decorating a Sukkah each year is as important to me as the money I give to Tzedakah or the time I spend in shul praying or studying. It is very easy in this world of offices, parking lots, highways, and cars, to forget the glory and power of the world around us. Our buildings are solid, our cars have powerful engines, and it is very easy to forget just how fragile we and our lives really are. All it takes is an earthquake a flood, a tsunami, a famine, or a hurricane to remind us of the power of nature. As I sit in a fragile Sukkah, open to the elements, I am very conscious of the physicality of my being. When I say shehehe’yanu on that first night, I am better able to appreciate the miracle of my existence because of the physical effort I put into constructing the Sukkah.

I wish you all a meaningful and joyous Yom Tov.