Psalm 33

Note: My psalm reflection leading into April on Psalm 33 is in honor of the celebration of Pesah. For more information about Pesah, you can download a detailed Guide to Passover from AhavasIsraelGR.org or contact the synagogue office to request that we send it to you, either by email or by regular mail.

For God spoke, and it was; God commanded, and it endured. (33:9)

I learned recently that in the Biblical idiom, “God spoke” or “God said” in Genesis 1 means “God thought.” God’s speech does not need to be audibly pronounced, because speech is a physical human action that involves breath and mouth/nose and teeth and lips pushing and shaping sound. God, lacking human anatomy, does not need to manipulate wind and sound to make something real. A though or an idea, which to us is only a potential reality depending on action to make it concrete, to God is a reality. In the higher world of God’s reality, if something can be thought than it is real.

Told through the lens of God, Passover should therefore have been a quick story. God would needed only to speak/think and the Israelites would been free. The story would have been brief and to the point – Now we’re slaves, <poof>, now we’re free! But the Hagadah doesn’t opens its telling of the story this way because we don’t tell the story of Passover through God’s lens – we tell it through the lens of human experience. Maggid (the storytelling) begins Now we’re slaves – next year may we be free. We human beings don’t transition quickly. Unlike God’s immediate though to action, we need time to adjust from one state to another. We need to draw out the story to give us time to become free, so we have 10 plagues (which in the Rabbinic imagination are multiplied to 50 and 250) to give Pharaoh and ourselves time to prepare.

I shared a d’var Torah recently in which I suggested that a critical component of leadership is presence. One can be a great visionary leader, but only if one also is able to enlist others to fulfill the mission and get the job done. There will be times of crisis during which writing memos and issuing orders will be insufficient. The leader needs to demonstrate presence, that he or she is involved in the process of getting the work done. Enduring visions are those which are sufficiently compelling so that people stick around to do the work and to see what comes next. The story of Passover wasn’t a story of slave people who scattered to the four winds, each in pursuit of their own vision of freedom but rather the liberation of a people who remained together. 3500-some years later, we are still that same enduring people, telling the same story of how God’s plan came to be. Have a happy and kosher Pesah!

Psalm 29

The voice of Adonai breaks cedars; Adonai shatters the cedars of Lebanon … The voice of Adonai kindles flames of fire; the voice of the LORD convulses the wilderness … the voice of Adonai causes hinds to calve, and strips forests bare ….” (Psalm 29:5, 7, 9)

I am fascinated by the description of God’s voice – the power of a tremendous thunderstorm, causing the mightiest of trees to lose branches and even topple over. Not only thunder but lightening as well, so loud that the sound can be felt in one’s core even more than by one’s ears. I’m not sure if the hind (deer) gives birth prematurely out of fright, or whether this is a reference to some other biological phenomenon – but the image is of God’s voice stripping both animal and vegetable bare.

Psalm 29 is sung liturgically twice – during the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service to welcome to Sabbath, and on Shabbat mornings when processing around the congregation and putting the Torah away.

The pairing of this Psalm with the Torah service makes a kind of sense, but is a bit backwards. God’s thunderous voice is associated with revelation of Torah. It would make more sense if we chanted these words when removing the Torah from the ark rather than after. The verses we chant when carrying the Torah in procession at the beginning of the Torah service focus on God’s majesty and beauty, which could just well be chanted when putting the Torah away as a response to revelation.

The Kabbalat Shabbat service is a serious of seven Psalms, once for each day of the week, followed by Lekha Dodi, a song welcoming the Sabbath queen. I wonder if the series of Psalms leading up to Shabbat is intended to build up to the revelation of the Divine Presence, which would explain why Psalm 29 immediately precedes Lekha Dodi. However, I have never really understood the progression of Kabbalat Shabbat Psalms (except for Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, right after Lekha Dodi), so my conjecture might be completely off base. If you have other ideas, I’d love to read about them in the comments on my blog at EmbodiedTorah.Wordpress.com.

Psalm 16

Much ink (including mine, last summer) has been spilled noting that Hanukkah has not been as early in the solar year as it is this year for 125 years. The articles stating that Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving again in 70,000-some years assume that the growing error between the Jewish year and the solar year will never be corrected. Were that to be the case, in 35,000 years we would be celebrating Rosh Hashanah in April and Passover in September. The problem is that the Jewish year is corrected to match the Julian year. We follow the Gregorian calendar, which corrected a very slight error in the length of the year. At some point, when Passover is projected to fall too late in the Spring, the calendar will be corrected so the celebration of Thanksgivakkah or Hodunakkah may very well happen again, although not necessarily in our lifetime.

I bless the LORD who has guided me … (16:7)

The Hanukkah story is an example of how we use a religious myth – the myth that God’s guiding hand can be seen in history.

The first sentence was deliberately provocative, in that it used the word ‘myth’ in a way that is likely to be misunderstood to mean ‘a made up story, one that is not true.’ In fact, a myth may or may not be a historically true story, but it is definitely a true story in that it teaches significant truth. The most accurate definition of ‘myth’ is a narrative that provides a meaningful framework for our lives. The Exodus story is the backbone of the Torah. The principles derived from the experience of the transition from slavery to Mount Sinai, such as the obligation to take care of the weak and vulnerable in our society, are the most important principles of the Torah. Tzedakah and Shabbat, for example, are explicitly linked to the Exodus.

The way we tell the Hanukkah story reinforces the idea that our successes, our victories, are directly linked to acting on our faith in God.

An objective telling of the Hanukkah story might focus on military acumen, the wisdom of fighting a guerrilla war against the Syrian army rather than confronting them in the conventional face to face battle. The Syrians, fighting on behalf of Greek values, were a powerful army, but not particularly committed to the ideology for which they were fighting. They could be worn down over time, and that’s what the Mattathias and his five sons did.

The theological story of Hanukkah emphasizes the victory of the few against the many, the weak against the powerful, an event that could only have happened with God’s intervention. This story is the one told by the al ha-nissim prayer, inserted into the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon on Hanukkah.

An even more extreme story is told by the Talmud to explain the 9 branched Hanukkah menorah. The 8 day celebration of Hanukkah, we are told, is only indirectly connected to the Maccabee’s victory. Rather, we are celebrating the miracle that the last vial of consecrated oil, uncontaminated by Syrian idolatrous hands, burned for 8 days, until new oil could be pressed.

The dreydel, with its four letters representing “A Great Miracle Happened There,” is ambiguous. Which miracle are we talking about – the military victory, the oil, or both? It doesn’t really matter – both stories illustrate “I bless the LORD who has guided me …”, seeing the hand of Divine providence in the critical events of our history.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2013

You’ll notice that Rosh Hashanah begins just two days after Labor day. You will recall that Pesah began very early. You’re probably wondering … what about Hanukkah?

The article is adapted from an article by Jonathan Mizrahi, which can be found here:

sites.google.com/site/mizrahijonathan/home/ThanksgivingAndHanukkah

This year features an anomaly for American Jews – The first day of Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving, on 11/28/2013. Hanukkah and Thanksgiving have only coincided once before, in 1888 … and it will never happen again. [Note: Prior to 1942, Thanksgiving was the LAST Thursday in November, and thus could occur on November 29 or 30. In 1888, Hanukkah began on November 29, which was also Thanksgiving.]

Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday in November, meaning the latest it can be is November 28. November 28 is also the earliest date on which Hanukkah can fall. The Jewish calendar repeats on a 19 year cycle, and Thanksgiving repeats on a 7 year cycle. You would therefore expect them to coincide roughly every 19 x 7 = 133 years. Why won’t it ever happen again?

The reason is because the Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar, at a rate of 3 days per 1000 years (not bad for a many centuries old calendar!). The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar modified by the addition of leap months to adjust for the length of the solar year. However, the assumption it makes about the length of the solar year corresponds to the Julian calendar. In 1582, Pope Gregory introduced a calendar reform (known as the Gregorian calendar) when it was recognized that the spring equinox was slowly drifting later at the rate of about 3 days per 1000 years. The solution was to reduce the number of leap years – century years divisible by 100 (but not divisible by 400) are not leap years. Thus, 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200, and 2300 will not be.

This means that while presently Hanukkah can be as early as November 28, in the year 2200 the Jewish calendar will drift forward so that the earliest Hanukkah will be November 29. The last time Hanukkah falls on 11/28 is 2146 (which happens to be a Monday).

Of course, if the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way, then it will slowly move forward through the Gregorian calendar, until it loops all the way back to where it is now. So, Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, November 28 … in the year 79,811! Of course, Jewish law  and the guidelines for determining the Jewish calendar require Passover to be in the spring.  Therefore, the Jewish calendar will have to be adjusted long before it loops all the way around. Of course, the messiah will have come long before then to sort out these kinds of sticky problems!

Remember that “day” in the Jewish calendar starts at night. This means that although this year the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving, candles will be lit for the first NIGHT of Hanukkah the night BEFORE Thanksgiving. When the first day of Hanukkah falls the day after Thanksgiving, the first night’s candles are lit the night OF Thanksgiving.  This will happen two more times, in 2070 and 2165.

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I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my additional activities of the past month:

  • • I am one of the co-founders of the Coalition for Small Conservative Congregations (CSCC) and one of the planners of the Rabbinic conference sponsored by the CSCC. I have been working on our 3rd annual conference, taking place in Chicago June 2-4.
  • • The weekly Torah study group that has been meeting for about 15 years (for the last 10, at Schuler Books and Music on 28th St.) will shift focus this fall to begin reading a chapter a week from the classical prophets. I have been researching books and commentaries on Isaiah.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – May, 2013

The third of the three Biblical Pilgrimage festivals, coming approximately at the beginning of the summer, is Shavuot (“Weeks”), named after the practice of counting the days and weeks from Pesah to Shavuot. Although it is a harvest festival in the Torah, this aspect of the festival has been eclipsed by its post-Biblical connection to the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the Ten Declarations/Commandments and celebrate receiving the Torah.

Torah is, of course, the foundational text of Judaism. Traditional Judaism is structured around the practices of Torah, also know as mitzvah.

The literal, Biblical meaning of mitzvah is commandment, an obligation that God has imposed upon you. The implication of this is spelled out clearly in the Bible – God rewards those individuals and communities who follow the mitzvot, and punishes those who are disobedient. If this theology works for you as a motivation to engage in serious Jewish life and practice, you can stop reading here (and I’ll see you on Shavuot!). If you, however, like most Jews, do not believe that God cares whether you observe mitzvot, don’t believe that God rewards and punishes, keep reading – I’m going to give you an alternative meaning of mitzvah, inspired by a talk given by my colleague Rabbi Brad Artson.

The hasidic tradition noticed that the root of the word mitzvah in Aramaic means, “to connect” and understood mitzvah to mean “a connection.” Mitzvah is our means of making connections. When we are in a relationship, we do things for the other person not because we are seeking reward or afraid of punishment, but because the things we do express our desire to be in that relationship. The acts of mitzvah are acts which express our intimate relationship with God and/or with Torah and/or with the Jewish people and/or with the broad and eternal concept of Judaism. Most Jews at certain points in their life, find incredible and deep meaning in mitzvah – it may be within funeral ritual, it may be at a Passover Seder, it may be at a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration, or it may be at a synagogue service. It is an experience of finding a connection to eternity through the texts and rituals that have sustained the Jewish relationship with the Divine for millennia. As in any relationship, the more you do, the deeper the relationship becomes, and the more joy you find in the relationship. Shavuot is the holiday on which we read the “love letter” and marriage contract of the Divine-Human relationship. See you at Mount Sinai!

The full talk by Rabbi Artson, Contemporary Meaning of Mitzvot, can be found online at ZiegerTorah.org.

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I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • Partially planning and leading a 9th grade religious school trip to New York. We visited three different synagogues for services, two Jewish museums, a number of kosher restaurants, a walking tour and a museum of the Lower East Side, a Broadway Show, and more.
  • I gave an Introduction to Judaism talk and tour of the Synagogue to students of Westwood Middle School of Grand Rapids.