Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2015

I have a picture of spring in my mind, although as I’m writing this article, looking at the snow and ice covering the ground, the memory feels like an old, faded sepia-tone print of spring. In my distant memory, the temperature is in the mid 60’s, the same as it was back last fall, but whereas the fall air felt chilly, the spring air feels warm. Fall smelled of moldy leaves, but spring smells of sweet blossoms. Fall reminds me of the heavy labor of putting away the bicycles, building and tearing down the Sukkah, and stowing the grill and deck furniture against the winter. Spring is the time to get on my bicycle, sit out on the deck with a beer and a burger, and celebrate Passover (although not with a beer and a burger!).

All my life, even during the times that my Jewish behavior was less serious, I looked forward to Passover. The story of the exodus, the lessons that flow from the Hagaddah, and the way that the

subjugation to redemption narrative infuses Torah, to me at least, form a compelling argument for Jewish engagement. I know that there are Jews who do not have a Seder or celebrate Passover by putting away the bread and cereal and other leavened grain products for eight days in favor of matza. No matter what you do for Passover, I encourage you to take the holiday experience, especially the Seder, seriously.

The critical element of the Passover Experience is not the elaborate food eaten for dinner at the Seder, but rather the thought that goes into preparing food without leavening and the symbolism behind it. One common take on hametz, leavening, is that it symbolizes the ego. The opposite of hametz, matza, symbolizes humility. Passover can be seen as an exercise in reducing the ego and developing a humble attitude towards caring for others.

The critical element of the Seder is not the brisket or the matza ball soup, but rather the retelling of the story of the Exodus, with the focus on how that story moves us to see and address oppression in the world around us.

I regularly speak to people of other faith traditions who envy the rich holiday life that Judaism offers, giving us times not only to connect with family and friends but also points in the year to reinforce our basic human values that reaffirm our covenant with God. We have chosen to embrace a 3500 year old religious tradition, some on our own and some because that’s what our parents or grandparents taught us what to do. Let’s all do our best to celebrate with joy and pass along our love for Jewish practices to others in our family and community.

Divre Harav – Words from the Rabbi – November, 2014

Beginning this month, I will be on Sabbatical for three months. It is a common practice of rabbis and other clergy to be given a periodic Sabbatical from their regular duties for reflection, for rekindling the spirit and the sense of calling by God, for reconnecting more deeply with the tradition (Scripture, theology, liturgy), and for deepening one’s own spiritual life. My last Sabbatical was five years ago. While on Sabbatical, I will not be available for my normal Rabbinic duties. I will not be coming into the office, attending meetings, or scheduling appointments. I will not be taking phone calls or responding to email for routine questions. I will not be teaching, leading study groups, leading services, or giving Divre Torah. The office will refer calls or email either to the president or to the appropriate committee.

What will I be doing? Clergy organizations suggest that a Sabbatical should not be heavily structured. The idea is to have free time for unexpected projects and learning. I will be spending a great deal of time time reading and studying. I will be out of town for part of the time, but most of the time will be spent in Grand Rapids. I do have two structured projects to focus on during my Sabbatical time. The first is something I have done several times in the past (my third time – I do it every time I have a Sabbatical). I am serving as a Graduate Assistant teacher of a 12 week Dale Carnegie course, giving example talks, leading small group exercises and discussions, and helping the instructors keep organized. In searching for a second project, I considered that my first Sabbatical focused on visiting other small congregations, and my second focused on studying the art of preaching. It occurred to me that I do a fair amount of writing for the synagogue, and I have had several projects on the back burner (including a booklet that would be a guide to funeral and mourning customs). I decided to join a weekly writing group, in which people bring a piece of whatever they are working on, share it with the group, and receive feedback.

During my Sabbatical, a number of people and committees will be picking up some of my responsibilities.  Of course, services will be led by Stuart Rapaport, but the Religious Life committee will be coordinating service gabbai’im, to help announce pages and lead selected readings. I have  invited a number of people to share Divre Torah – as of the beginning of October, November 29, December 13 and 27, and all of January are open. Please call the office if you would like to do one.

The one exception I will make in a normal Sabbatical practice will involve officiating at funerals, if I am in town. However,  the initial phone call regarding a funeral should go the office. After office hours (7:00 am – 10:00 am and 3:30 pm – 10:00 pm), please call Stuart Rapaport. After the basic funeral arrangements (include date and time) have been set, I will be contacted. If I am available, I will contact the family to speak about the funeral service.  Otherwise, Stuart will handle the funeral service.

This will be my fourth three month Sabbatical (one every five years). I understand that the many people in the congregation really stretch themselves to cover for me while I’m away, and I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. Todah Rabbah!

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!