Psalm 84

They go from rampart to rampart (or “from strength to strength”), appearing before God in Zion. (84:8)

“May you go from strength to strength” was part of a speech of congratulation of my childhood rabbi. It sounded so rabbinic, mostly because it was not at all clear to me what he meant. Did it mean “may you go from success to success,” a wish that would make sense given that he might be offering congratulations for an accomplishment? Of course, he might also be offering congratulations for a marriage or the birth of a child. We won’t know for some years whether the marriage is successful, and while the child may be successfully delivered, the larger task of actually raising the child has barely begun!

As a rabbi myself, I figured I needed to be able to give the phrase a plausible explanation and I did so as follows: “may you go from the strength that it takes to do what you did to the strength that it will take to do the next big thing.” A confession, though — prior to reading Psalm 84, I never knew where this phrase came from. Now that I know where it came from, my 26 word explanation of four Hebrew words seems a bit wordy.

The context in Psalm 84 is a description of a person engaged in a pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, going along the highways, passing through a valley, and finally traveling me’hayil el hayill. Are we envisioning the pilgrim climbing the ramparts on the walls of Jerusalem on the final leg of his journey? I think it more likely that the weary pilgrim would have completed the journey on the streets into the city rather than on the walls around the city. Perhaps a better understanding would be “from effort to effort,” summarizing the long journey as a series of discrete efforts, each of which needed to be accomplished in order to complete the task.

“May you go from [this] effort to [another] effort” doesn’t sound as good as “from strength to strength,” but I think that’s what what my childhood rabbi intended. Each time we complete something, whether it be graduation from high school, a wedding, birth of a child, a new job, we praise the effort that went into the accomplishment. We praise the effort that went into the completion, not the quality of the final product.

What do you call a medical student who graduated last in his class?’ goes the old joke.  Doctor! While there is much to be said for the marathoner who runs to Jerusalem with a world-record breaking time, when all is said and done the plodder who also arrives in the holy city has done the pilgrimage mitzvah just as well.

Psalm 83

O God, do not be silent; do not hold aloof; do not be quiet, O God (83:2)

Some Psalms do not speak to me. This is one of them. The language is powerful, it evokes the image of glorious battles of the past in which our enemies were vanquished, but I find it disturbingly passive. Shall we sit back and wait for God’s voice to thunder from the mountain top? Should we wait for God’s right arm to smash our enemies and correct the injustices of society? Ought we expect that the power of nature – wind, fire, storms – will protect us and destroy them?

Do I show a lack faith when I say no, we should not sit back and wait for God, whining about God’s non-appearance?

When Selma led to the passing and signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that was the voice of God. It was also the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of demonstrators. The racial injustice we still experience is not caused by God’s aloofness. It is the responsibility of those of us who carry around prejudice in our hearts.

To blame God for human failings is an act unworthy of a mature adult. God created us with the potential for greatness, and when we fail it is our failure, not God’s.

Psalm 82

They neither know nor understand, they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth totter. (82:5)

Our Psalm is identified by the Talmud as the Psalm to be recited on Tuesdays because on the third day, God separated water from dry land. In other words, God created the foundation of the world on which human beings live. The connection between Tuesday’s act of creation and Psalm 82 is found in our verse, which says that those among the court of divine judges who are ignorant shake the very foundation of the earth. The Psalmist suggests  that if we allow judges to pervert justice, the fabric of creation can unravel.

The first century Rabbinic work Pirke Avot understood that government, which includes a judiciary system, is necessary for the stability of society:

Rabbi Chanina taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive.” (Avot 3:2)

On the other hand, Pirke Avot also was caution about the capricious nature of the leadership of the Roman empire:

Rabban Gamliel taught: “Be wary of the government, for they get friendly with a person only for their own convenience. They look like friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person when he is in need.” (Avot 2:3)

It is true that our government has not always protected those in need. We have just passed the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” on which over 600 non-violent protesters were viciously attacked by Alabama State troopers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. President Obama shared the following words:

Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

Voting is a privilege and a sacred obligation. Collectively, we are responsible for maintaining a stable society by choosing our elected representatives wisely. Please take your obligation seriously.

Psalm 81

God feeds them the finest wheat, “I will satisfy you with honey from the rock.” (81:17)

The Me’or Eynayim, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (c. 1739 – 1797, Ukraine) teaches that any food we eat comes to us by means of the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, garbed in various proximate causes (from a translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality). In other words, we might buy the food at a restaurant, we might buy it at the supermarket and prepare it for ourselves, it might be served at a meeting, we might receive it in the form of a restaurant gift card, we might eat it at Kiddush, we might receive it from a food pantry. No matter what the food, from the richest, most elaborately prepared gourmet meal to the simplest microwave ready entree, it is God who is feeding us.

We might dream, with the Psalmist, of the finest food, but the Me’or Eynayim cautions, “Our sages teach that eating is a time of battle, that we must fight the yetzer hara, the selfish inclination, when we eat, especially when we are eating something we enjoy.”

Typically, I am not a mindful eater. My yetzer urges me to eat more and more, faster and faster, as if this might be my last chance to eat for a very long time! For several years, each time I would see my doctor for an annual physical he would note that I weighed a pound or so more than the previous year. A pound is not much, but over 20 years it would add up.

On rare occasions when I am relaxed and totally focused on the food and not distracted, I slow down and really think about what I am eating. I taste the food and feel the energy contained within it being broken down and absorbed by my body. For the past few years I have been working on being more mindful with both my eating and my physical activity. At my yearly visit with my doctor my weight has been stable or even a pound or so less than the previous year.

I love eating a fresh baked hearty roll and a slice of delicious honey cake, but the Me’or Eynayim’s lesson is to be equally satisfied with a simple peanut butter sandwich on plain bread. Remember, the Shekhina is equally found in all types of food.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – March, 2015

I want to thank all those who took on extra tasks while I was on Sabbatical, including:

  • Stuart Rapaport, for taking on extra service-leading and funeral responsibilities;
  • Deb Johnston, for all the additional hours finding answers to phone calls and email and handling emergencies;
  • Guy De Jager, for working hard as president to enhance synagogue life;
  • David Reifler, Elisabeth Rosewall, and the Religious Life committee for coordinating extra Shabbat morning responsibilities; and
  • Buddy Joseph, Annaflora Somers, Sheryl Siegel, Marsha Plafkin, Diane Baum, Paula Bojsen, Moe Kleiman, Joanna Bojsen, and Diane Rayor for sharing divre Torah.

The main focus of my Sabbatical was writing. I participated in a weekly writing group, sharing various things I was working on, to improve the quality and clarity of my written communication.

I shared a booklet I was working on entitled, “Death and Mourning in the Jewish Tradition: A Guide for Mourners.” In addition to explaining Jewish traditions, it also provides clear instructions for what to do when a loved one dies – who you call and what decisions you need to make. The booklet is available in the synagogue office or downloadable as a .pdf from AhavasIsraelGR.org, under “Jewish burial in Grand Rapids.”

I also shared several of my Psalm reflections from embodiedtorah.wordpress.com with the writer’s group. Seven of the reflections will be published in an anthology of material from the Grand Rapids Writer’s Exchange. If all goes according to plan, the book will come out sometime in the next year.

I appreciate the congregation’s willingness to give me this Sabbatical. It gave me time to write and read and reflect on some goals for myself and for Ahavas Israel. More on this in coming months.

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The World Zionist Organization (WZO) is a coalition of a number of Zionist organization. Approximately every five years it meets as the World Zionist Congress, established by Theodor Herzl, which met for the first time in 1897. At this meeting, delegates vote on policy proposals for the organization, including financial policy, and discuss issues of vital importance to the global Jewish community such as Jewish identity, peace and security, anti-semitism, civil society in Israel, and the future of the State of Israel. Annually the WZO and Jewish Agency for Israel allocate approximately $300 million in support of aliyah, Jewish education and other programs in Israel and abroad.

The WZO election is one way that we can influence how those funds are disbursed. Funds are distributed in proportion with the number of votes received by each organization. Therefore, the more votes an organization receives, the greater the amount of communal funding it can secure for its programs and institutions. Hence for the Conservative Movement, it becomes imperative to secure a large vote in order to direct more money to our movement in Israel.

As a result, if we in the Diaspora want to make a difference in Israel, each and every one of us should vote in the elections of the World Zionist Congress. The cost to register is only $10, or $5 if you are age 30 or under. The benefit to our movement and to religious pluralism in Israel is many times that.

The Zionist organization of the Conservative movement is Mercaz (slate #2). The platform is:

  1. 1. Pluralism —MERCAZ is celebrates Jewish values without limiting itself to one particular stream of Judaism.
  2. 2. Encouraging Aliyah, Hebrew and Zionist Education – Mercaz joins in the effort to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and it encourages Aliyah from all countries. It opposes all attempts to restrict the Law of Return. It also calls for the strengthening of Jewish/Zionist education in the United States and throughout the world.
  3. 3. A Negotiated Two-State Settlement between Israel and the Palestinians – MERCAZ supports a two-state solution – one Jewish and one Palestinian Arab – that is the declared policy of the current Israeli prime minister and of every other Israeli administration for the past ten years.
  1. 4. Pro-Active Concern for Israel’s Environment. As caretaker of the land of Israel we have a responsibility to protect the environment of Israel for future generations.
  2. 5. Support for the Conservative/Masorti Movement: This is really where the rubber hits the road. The number of members affiliated with Mercaz will determine how much money is given to our Masorti Congregations in Israel, and how much recognition they receive. Your vote then is a vote of support for our brothers and sisters in Israel – and it has economic implications.

The registration form can be found at https://www.myvoteourisrael.com. More information about Mercaz can be found at http://votemercaz.org. Voting end on April 30, 2015. The 37th World Zionist Congress will take place in Jerusalem in October, 2015.