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.

***

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.

Psalm 80

You plucked up a vine from Egypt; You expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (80:9-10)

The theology of this verse reminds me of the comment on the first verse of Genesis by the medieval French commentator Rashi, in which he explains that the purpose of beginning Torah with creation, rather than with the first mitzvah given to Israel in Exodus 12, is to remind us that the world belongs to God. In this Psalm, God is a gardener and the world is God’s garden.

I know some transplanted species do very well in a new location, taking over the land and crowding out the native species. Typically, we call those kinds of plants “invasive.” This does not seem to be the image that the Psalmist is drawing. Rather, he is describing a Gardener who very carefully prepares the soil by clearing away the plants currently growing in the new location as if they were weeds. Only when the area is empty and ready for a new planting does the gardener take the vine that had been growing in Egypt and transplant it to its new location.

The vine takes to the new location as its native habitat, flourishing, sending its roots deep into the ground and spreading out to fill the land. The vine doesn’t own the land any more than the plants who preceded it owned the land. The vine lives off the land, depending on the owner of the land to sustain it. This Gardener is not typical of those who take care of small farms and landscapes. This Gardener not only fertilizes the soil and trims the vine, but also controls the water and the sunshine that nourish the vine.

Although the Psalmist speaks as if the vine is the only thing growing, we know that a healthy ecosystem supports a variety of plants. To conclude on a messianic note: just as the vine shares the land with a different kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, grains and and flowering plants, so too may the people Israel someday share the land in peace with a diversity of other peoples.

Psalm 77

Has God forgotten how to pity? Has God in anger stifled God’s compassion? (77:10)

We commonly speak about God with human characteristics and emotions. We talk about God’s fingers, hands, arms, eyes, ears, and even nose, even though God has none of the above. We also commonly speak of God’s happiness, enjoyment, desire for obedience, sadness, regret, and compassion and other such human emotions. The 12th century philosopher Maimonides believed that we should not use such language for God, because to do so places limits on a God who is by definition infinite. However, Biblical literature is rich with anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language for God because it is the only way we have to to communicate our our sense of the Divine.

The Talmud (Sota 14a) suggests what we might learn from language attributing human behavior to God:

What is the meaning of the verse, “Follow none but Adonai your God” (Deuteronomy 13:15)?  Is it possible for a human being literally to follow God?  Rather, we should imitate the attributes of God.

Just as God clothed the naked, as it is written, “And Adonai God made Adam and his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21)–so too should you clothe the naked.

Just as God visited the sick –as it is written, “Adonai appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre” [following his circumcision] (Genesis 18:1)–so too should you visit the sick.

Just as God comforted the mourners –as it is written, “After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac” (Genesis 25:11)–so too should you comfort the mourners.

Just as God buried the dead –as it is written, “God buried him [Moses] in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6)–so too should you bury the dead.

The Psalmist hopes that God’s hen, graciousness or pity, and rahamim, compassion, have not disappeared. Because such traits are the central part of what it means to “Love your fellow as yourself,” it is also a reminder to ourselves not to let our anger overwhelm our compassion.

Psalm 76

God curbs the spirit of princes, inspires awe in the kings of the earth. (76:13)

Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Powerful leaders need constant reminders that their power does not entitle them to do and take anything they want. This is the basis for a philosophical argument for a monotheistic God. Were there more than one creator/power in the universe; or if there were no power above human power, there would be no basis for asserting universal, non-relative, moral authority.

In a polytheistic system, the gods are in conflict. There is no absolute authority, and therefore no absolute right or wrong. Any position that I might take, appealing to the voice of a specific god, can be contradicted by the voice of an opposing god. The sun god dries up the water god, but the storm god blows clouds to cover up the sun god and produce more water. The sea god has no power inland, where the goddess of crop fertility reigns. And so on.

In a non-theistic system, we have to trust the human system to create systems of morality. The problem, though, is that every human created system can be modified or suspended by a person with sufficient power. The Constitution of the United States provides protection for its citizens, but Congress has passed laws abridging our rights when it feels that it is necessary.

A monotheistic system has a God at the top of the system whose authority (in theory, and usually in practice) cannot be altered by human beings. It’s answer to Lord Acton is that since human power is limited by God, then a human leader who is curbed by a belief in God and held in awe of God will never be corrupted, and certainly never be corrupted absolutely.