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Kabbalat Shabbat and the Hills of Tzefat

Hills of Tzsefat taken during the May 2015 Breadth of Israel Tour. Photo: Denise Waxman

Hills of Tzefat taken during the May 2015 Breadth of Israel Tour. Photo: Denise Waxman

As you know, a little less than a decade ago, we at Union Temple began including an introductory segment at the beginning of our Shabbat Evening Services. This segment is called Kabbalat Shabbat, Welcoming (literally “receiving”) Shabbat, and is relatively standard now at the beginning of most Reform congregations’ Friday Evening Services, as it has been in Conservative and Orthodox Judaism for quite some time. As a liturgical unit, the Kabbalat Shabbat section of the service is largely sung, and occurs at the very beginning of the service to help us usher in Shabbat. It consists of six psalms: Psalms 95-99 and 29, which, according to tradition, represent the six days of the week that is just ending. The psalms are followed by Lecha Dodi, a poem composed in 16th-century Tzefat by Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, one of the outstanding Kabbalists of that community. Many of the mystics of Tzefat at the time were exiles from the Iberian Peninsula, having fled the Inquisition there. Alkabetz and his brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, were among the exiles, and became leading mystics of the Tzefat community. The arrival of Rabbi Isaac Luria from Egypt in 1570 bolstered the mystical teachings coming out of Tzefat, and Lurianic Kabbalah soon spread to Ashkenaz (European Jewish communities) as well.

Alkabetz composed the verses of Lecha Dodi as an acrostic, with the first letters of the verses spelling out his name, Shlomo Halevi, throughout the poem. On Friday afternoons Alkabetz and his disciples would dress up in their finery as though they were going to a wedding. As the sun set over the hills of Tzefat, they would go out to the hilltops and “welcome the Sabbath bride.” The imagery is wonderfully rich, and it must have been a transcendent experience for them each week in the majestic beauty of those hilltops. But the metaphor of the Shabbat both as bride and queen far preceded the mystics of Tzefat, as both are found numerous times in the Talmud. The title itself, Lecha Dodi, is taken from the Biblical Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs (7.12), in the utterance: “Come, my beloved, let us go into the field, let us stay in the villages; let us go early to the vineyards…” The Rabbis later reinterpreted this romantic language as referring to the relationship between God, Israel, and Shabbat.

The imagery of the “Sabbath bride,” metaphoric though it may be, has captured the imagination of each generation of Jews since then. In fact during the singing of Lecha Dodi, it is customary for the entire congregation to rise at the final verse and face the back of the room, which is assumed to be the west, to face the setting sun. The words of this final verse are: “Enter in peace, O crown of her husband, even in gladness, and good cheer, among the faithful of the treasured nation. Enter, O bride! Enter, O bride!” At the singing of “Enter, O bride,” the congregation traditionally bows from side to side, as though in the presence of a queen entering the room as the sun sets.

The metaphor of sovereignty also goes to a deeper level of the meaning of Shabbat, which is articulated in the Psalms 95-99. (Ps.95) “Come, let us sing to Eternal; let us trumpet our Rock and Deliverer. Let us come before the Almighty with praise, trumpeting with songs. For the Eternal is a great God, a Sovereign greater than all other gods… Let us bow down low, kneeling before Adonai our Maker….” One of the elements of messianic hope envisions the whole earth as finally coming under God’s rule over a paradise of eternal life and peace, when justice and compassion will reign over the Earth. Each week Shabbat is embraced by Jewish tradition as a foretaste of what it will be like when the messianic vision is realized. This construct of Shabbat drives the Jewish exaltation of Shabbat as a day of rejoicing, rest, and peace, connection with family and friends, and putting aside the labors of our daily work. Thus we mean it quite literally when we greet each other with “Shabbat Shalom.”

One of the last stops on our “Breadth of Israel” tour took us last Thursday morning to Tzefat, where the mystics studied, prayed, and developed this wonderful practice of Kabbalat Shabbat. If we wonder at all about what it was that so inspired this scholars to engage in this practice, we can get at least some idea from the breathtaking vista they beheld there on the hilltops of Israel in the city of Tzefat. While a mere photo could not possibly do it adequate justice, I can tell you that it is breathtaking indeed. I hope that all those who have visited, and will visit, this place, will remember it fondly as we celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat for the rest of our lives.

UT Youth Group Finishes a Busy Year!

Taking Food and Clothing to the Homeless on Midnight Run

Taking Food and Clothing to the Homeless on Midnight Run

The Youth Group has shared so many fun activities, visited some amazing places, and built long-lasting friendships during this last and memorable year. Building DIY kites and flying them in Prospect Park, making hamantaschen in the 3rd floor kitchen, bowling in Times Square, and creating a complete Hanukkah feast. It wasn’t only about having fun; it’s also about giving back to the community and helping those in need. We’ve gone on Midnight Runs to cloth and feed the homeless and helped out at the Temple on Martin Luther King Jr. day to prepare food and goods for the elderly. Some places we visited this year include the Museum of Jewish Heritage and two different cemeteries along the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Thank you to everyone who helped make this year so special.

UT Selected for UJA Pilot Inclusion Project

We are excited to announce that as of May 2015 UT is now part of a cohort of 6-10 synagogues participating in the UJA-Federation Synagogue Inclusion Project “House of Learning for all People: Opening Our Synagogues to Include People with Disabilities. Read more →

A Stroke of Luck

Young Israeli's being inducted into units of the Tzanchanim (paratroopers) of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in May 2015 at the Kotel.

Young Israeli’s being inducted into units of the Tzanchanim (paratroopers) of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in May 2015 at the Kotel.

This past Thursday was Lag Ba’omer, and here in Israel, there was great rejoicing – bonfires, weddings, and music. By pure coincidence, our tour group struck a lucky, unplanned moment by happening upon a great celebration. We had spent the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, as we stepped back through some 3,000 years of Jewish history, here in the layers of the City of David. The excavations that have been conducted, and the structures and artifacts that have been found, are nothing short of extraordinary, all shedding light upon the period of the establishment of the Jewish kingdom under Kings David and Solomon, and periods following. Then we strolled a bit through the Jewish Quarter, and ate lunch in the Quarter Cafe, as we gazed out over an extraordinary panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. Later in the afternoon, it was time for us to visit the Western Wall for some personal reflection. Then, by dumb luck, as we approached the Western Wall – the Kotel Hama’aravi – we arrived exactly as a major celebration was taking place at the Wall, scheduled for Lag Ba’omer. It was a “moving up” ceremony for the Israel Defense Force, particularly for the units of the Tzanchanim – paratroopers. They had completed their basic training, and just as we arrived at the Kotel Plaza, the soldiers were gathering in formations with their commanders to receive their red berets, and be officially welcomed into these elite units. In addition, each received a Tanakh, which they keep with them at all times.

IDF-kotel-may-2015-2-webHere in Israel, as you know, upon graduation from high school, everyone is required to serve in the Army, men and women alike. There are many different kinds of assignments, several very elite combat units. In order to be accepted into the Tzanchanim, if a young man is an only son, he must bring written permission from his parents to serve in this capacity, which of course carries with it the potential for great danger. In fact the same holds true to any unit of active combat. For us in the United States, for whom military service is strictly voluntary, the relationship that most of us have to the military is markedly different from that of Israelis to the Israel Defense Force. Every Israeli has an intimate relationship with the Army. They have served in it themselves, their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends, all serve in the Army. The Army, in fact, is the great leveler of Israeli society. It is there that Israelis of different ethnicities and socio-economic strata come together, serve together, grow together, and entrust their very lives to one another. It knits together what ordinarily would be very disparate threads of Israeli life.

Sometimes even the most carefully planned itinerary must make allowances for moments of spontaneity such as the one we experienced on Thursday. It was a very special moment indeed, one that none of us will ever forget.

Israel…Wonderful, and Complicated

In Israel Independence Hall with the Breadth of Israel Tour Group May 2015

In Israel Independence Hall with the Breadth of Israel Tour Group May 2015

It’s wonderful; and, it’s also complicated. . . .

It is the end of a long but wonderful day – the first full day of our journey on our Breadth of Israel Tour. When we arrived last night we gathered for our opening dinner at a very special restaurant in the cultural heart of Tel Aviv. Liliyot is an upscale restaurant which presents the modern kosher kitchen at its best, with an innovative menu of the freshest and most beautifully prepared ingredients. But Liliyot’s real significance lies in its social action initiative for the rehabilitation of youth at risk. For this initiative, Liliyot collaborates with ELEM, the Organization for Youth at Risk in Israel. Every year Liliyot trains and employs 15 high school dropouts who receive instruction, supervision and employment for an 18-month period. The staff employs experts in the culinary world, of course, but also a social worker, and other professionals, to train young people for jobs in the highly competitive, and highly valued food industry – young people who were headed in the wrong direction – Jews and Arabs alike – until ELEM threw them a lifeline. To dine at this restaurant is a sheer pleasure. To watch these young people at work, one would have no idea that there was anything out of the ordinary without knowing the story. But the story is remarkable indeed, and is only one of a number of projects initiated by ELEM for the rehabilitation of youth at risk in Israel.

This morning, after a moving visit to Independence Hall, we visited another remarkable program, this one in Jaffa. In 2003, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Israeli counterpart of the Union for Reform Judaism) launched an invaluable program for young Israelis. “Mechina” means “preparation.” The “mechina” programs in Israel are voluntary programs for high school graduates that enable them to defer their Army service for a year, while continuing their studies. There are over 30 mechina programs in Israel. The Reform mechina program, however, is unique. It is specifically devoted not only academic studies, but also to religious studies from a liberal, Reform perspective. In addition, the participants in this program volunteer for various service programs within Israel. They work with mostly with senior citizens and children with special needs – Arabs and Jews alike, both of whom inhabit the city of Jaffa, the port city with a 4,000-year history. We heard from three of the participants in this mechina, and from their director as well. We were moved by their seriousness and commitment, and we look forward to telling you more about them when we return.

Our drive from the airport to the hotel yesterday, however, was not without its kinks. The Ayalon highway, which we were on, was closed for a time, as were other major arteries, due to a massive demonstration in the heart of Tel Aviv. It was a demonstration by the community of Ethiopian Jews against police brutality. After Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore, it is clear that racially charged problems with police and governmental policies do not stop at our shores. This was an outburst of pent up frustration on the part of this community for many of the inequities in Israeli society, and dozens of people were injured in the scuffling.

Sometimes our high expectations of Israel as a state built on Jewish values lead to disappointment and frustration when Israel falls short of fully realizing those values in the way it should. But expecting perfection of any nation, particularly one as complex as Israel, is unrealistic and unhelpful. What we do expect, however, is the maturity and courage to look at these problems squarely and take steps to ameliorate them. Hopefully the demonstration yesterday, and its continuation today in Jerusalem at the Prime Minister’s office, will place these issues front and center so that they cannot be pushed aside any longer.

I will end this installment with a note of hope. After lunch, some of us stopped at Abulafyiah’s Bakery, an Arab bakery of great and well-deserved renown in the shopping district of Jaffa. The young men working the counters all were wearing bright orange shirts, authorized by the Arab proprietors of the bakery. The shirts read: JEWS AND ARABS REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES. That is all I will say for now. There is much more to come.