Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2014

I was thinking one morning about why we do the things that we do, and it occurred to me that we can classify three different kinds of motivations:

Some things, we do purely because we want to do them. We might go on a bike ride, go to the beach, go out to dinner with our spouse, or go to a movie simply because such activities give us enjoyment.

Other things, we do only because we have been compelled to do them. Into this category we might put actions like paying taxes, driving the speed limit at all times, and paying for each and every item we put into our shopping cart at the grocery store. We might also add to this category things that we are compelled to do by our biology, like aging, getting sick, or dying.

In between, there are the things that we do because we feel a sense of obligation or duty; we don’t want to do them, but neither is anyone specifically forcing us to do them. This is where we live most of our lives. No one is forcing us to work, but we feel a sense of obligation to provide for our family. Exercise or proper eating, for many people, falls into this category. It’s when you go on the bike ride or the walk or eat your vegetables even when you don’t want to, because you know it’s good for you. No one can force us to make charitable contributions or volunteer our time – we do so because we feel a sense of obligation.

These three categories overlap. There are things we do, such as the act of giving or exercising, that make us feel good while or after doing them.

The number of actions that we are actually forced to do is actually very low – there may be some authority that issues a threat if we take a particular action (speeding), but most of the time we know that we can break the law and not get caught, so it is only our sense of civic responsibility that slows us down.

Where does contemporary Jewish observance fall? I am grateful that it is not in the first category. There are no effective or desirable means to compel Jewish life today, nor should their be. Even our model of synagogue affiliation and dues has moved from the coercive to the voluntary.

What is your motivation for Jewish behavior? What kinds of things do you do purely because they give you enjoyment (Synagogue on Shabbat morning, building a Sukkah)?

What kinds of things do you do our of a sense of obligation (or perhaps guilt)?

If you agree that the pure motivation of desire is a higher level of behavior than the level of obligation; what might you do to elevate your Jewish practices? Can you imagine embracing a fuller Jewish life out of the sheer joy of it? How might you achieve this?

Sending a 17 Year-Old Child to Israel

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My 17 year old son Solomon arrived in Israel today, about 4 hours before Israeli soldiers found the murdered bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel in a field less than 12 miles from the place from which they had been kidnapped 18 days ago. They had apparently been shot soon after being taken captive. Solomon is participating in the Ramah Israel Seminar, and I should have no worries about his safety in Israel – Ramah is fanatical about the safety of participants on their programs. Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel a twinge of worry. Israel is going to respond, and the response has to punish not only the two Hamas members responsible, but also others involved in covering up their actions and hiding them. I am distressed that Solomon’s Israel experience will be scarred not only by tremendous sadness, but also by the military response that is bound to occur.

This is not the blog post I had intended to write today. I had intended to write about the experience of sending a blind son on an Israel program, with lavish praise for the Ramah Israel Seminar and the director, Rabbi Ed Snitkoff, for making it happen. That post will have to come later. Today’s emotions are distress, disappointment, anger, and despair.

I am deeply disappointed that despite the horrific nature of the crime (and the fact that one of the boys is American as well as Israeli), it took President Obama nearly 7 hours to make a statement; and while he “strongly condemned” the murders, he also called upon the Israeli government to refrain from taking “steps that could further destabilize the situation.” What steps should be taken against people who kidnapped and tied up three boys, shot them, and left them half-buried under some rocks in a remote Wadi? Is there any way to take even the justified step of finding and arresting the suspects without “further destabilizing the situation?” The President offers US help in finding the perpetrators of this crime (although I wonder how US forces can be more effective than Israeli forces), and says that Israel has the full support and friendship of the US government, but doesn’t want Israel to take steps that might destabilize a situation that cannot reasonably be described as anything resembling stable.

To my Presbyterian friends – do you realize that while your national organization was passing a resolution of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, shortly after the Palestinian Authority was creating a unity partnership government with Hamas, three teenage boys were being murdered? When will we see you call for sanctions again those who perpetrate and support such a crime? Are you as angry as I am at the ineptitude of your leadership’s moral judgement?

Finally, as a person who still wants to believe that it will be possible to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians in my lifetime, I begin to despair that I will ever see Israeli and the Palestinian areas coexisting in security and prosperity.

May the families of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach be comforted among the mourners of Zion, and may their memories be for a blessing.

Psalm 41

Adonai, God of Israel, is the source of Blessing from the eternal universe to the eternal universe. Amen and Amen. (41:14) End of Book One of Psalms.

The book of Psalms is divided into five parts, just like the Torah. Each part ends with a verse of praise (or in the case of the conclusion to Book Five, an entire Psalm of praise). The word ‘amen,’ signifying affirmation or agreement, is found in the statements of praise which end the first four books of Psalms.

The word olam denotes endlessness in both the dimension of space and the dimension of time. It’s hard to capture the sense of the word in English – universe captures only the physical dimension, and eternal captures only the temporal dimension. The opening word of the Hebrew, barukh, is also tricky to translate. I’m never sure what is meant by the phrase, “blessed is God.” Surely it cannot be meant in the sense of “May God by blessed,” for I cannot imagine that human beings can bless God. It must be meant to say that “God is the One from whom blessings flow.” The word barukh is similar in sound to the word b’reikha, which means “pool,” as in a pool of water. Thus, when I think of the phrase barukh ata Adonai (which except for the word ata, “you,” is the same as the opening words of verse 14), I associate it with an image of God being a spring of blessing which gushes fourth in the form of animating energy onto the world.

This article not only represents the conclusion of 1/5 of the books of Psalms, but also the final bulletin article for the first year of Psalm Reflections. If I am able to keep up the pace of one Psalm a week, I will finish all 150 Psalms in a little under three years. I intend to keep writing and posting over the summer. You can follow the reflections either at AhavasIsraelGR.org or directly from the blog site, EmbodiedTorah.WordPress.com.

Are you engaging in daily and/or weekly Jewish devotional learning or practices? If not, I encourage you to find something to connect you to your Judaism on a regular basis, to nurture your Jewish soul. Read Jewish books, learn Jewish texts, help out at a synagogue minyan or come to Shabbat services. Enjoy the summer, and make Ahavas Israel a part of it!

Psalm 37

“Be silent for Adonai …” (37:7)

There are many times in our lives when we are called to speak up and let our voices be heard. This verse, however, focuses our attention on the time that we are called to be silent. I am thinking of my favorite part of dovening, the silence of the amidah, the part of the service where we create the opportunity for intense, directed, focused prayer.

The amidah is intended to be a period of time in which we address God directly. This is true prayer, during which we might pour out praise, thankfulness, sadness, hopes, requests, focusing on the quality of the day, focusing on our own needs, and focusing beyond ourself to the needs of the Jewish community and the world as a whole, using both our own words and the words of the Siddur. Externally, the most notable quality of the amidah is that it is prayed in complete silence.

There are different qualities of silence. There is silence of reprobation, there is the silence of shame, there is awkward silence, there is the silence of confusion, there is the silence of anger, and then there is the silence of acceptance. When a community agrees to hold each other in their prayers together in silence, it is a silence that embraces and supports.

The amidah is a time during a service where a roomful of people fall into a warm silence together. Not a word is heard. God, who has no ears, does not listen by means of air pushing through vibrating vocal cords, sound rippling through the room. Ideal Jewish prayer uses the merest whisper, audible only to the speaker. Prayer could be expressed through pure thought, being being human, we pray best if we activate our thoughts. But the mildest whisper of air while our lips enunciate the words, so quiet as not to disturb a neighbor standing only a foot away, is enough to focus our prayers and send them on to the Blessed Holy One.

There is a time to act for God, there is a time to raise one’s voice up to God, there is a time to sing for God, there is a time to shout for God, and there is a time to “Be silent for God.”

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!