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A Confluence of Emotions

Shimon Peres, President of Israel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009. CC 2.0 by World Economic Forum. Photo by Sebastian Derungs

Shimon Peres, President of Israel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009. CC 2.0 by World Economic Forum. Photo by Sebastian Derungs

As happens sometimes in the natural course of events, we are dealing with two ends of the emotional spectrum at the same time.

First, we join with the rest of the Jewish community, and the world community as a whole, in expressing our profound sadness at the loss of Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, z”l. Of the founders of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres was the last. The town in Poland in which he was born disappeared, as did many in his family, during the Shoah. He left when he was a teenager, and threw himself into the building of his new home, the national home for the Jewish People. He served in the Israel Defense Force, which he himself helped to build. He held virtually every public office that exists in Israel, including two terms as Prime Minister. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and accolades on the world stage too numerous to mention. While he led his people in war, he also became a pursuer of peace. His ultimate aspiration was for the peoples of the Middle East to live side by side in peace, security, and mutual respect. He was a friend to the Reform Movement, and in fact his daughter Tzviah and her family are members of Kehillat Beit Daniel, the largest Reform congregation in Tel Aviv.

Of all my memories of Shimon Peres, perhaps the one that has affected me most profoundly is of a speech he gave to a large Jewish group out on Eastern Long Island. He concluded his remarks with the following midrash. I believe it encapsulates the extraordinary humanitarianism of the man.

A rabbi once asked his students, “How do we know when the night is over, and the day has begun?” One student said, “When we can distinguish from afar between a goat and a lamb, the night is over, the day has begun.” Another student said, “When you can distinguish between an olive tree and a fig tree, the night is over, the day begun.” The rabbi kept silent, and the students turned to him and asked, “Rabbi, what is your indication?” He looked at them and answered, “When you meet a woman, whether black or white, and you say, `You are my sister;’ when you meet a man, whether rich or poor, and you say, `You are my brother,’ then, the night is over, the day begun.”

Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

But now, as I am certain President Peres would have wanted, we also turn to the Days of Awe, which are virtually upon us. As we move into our New Year on Sunday Evening and Monday, Rosh Hashanah, I know that I speak for the entire staff and leadership of Union Temple in wishing all of you, and your families and friends, good health, much sweetness, and all good things in the New Year of 5777. L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu V’teichateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.

The Blessing, The Curse, The Vote

Vote!

Vote!

Our Torah portion describes a public ceremony that was to be carried out as soon as the Israelites crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land. In the city of Shechem (the modern city of Nablus) there are two mountains that slope down into a crossroads. The ceremony was to take place on those two mountains. From Mount Gerizim, slightly to the north, six of the tribes were to pronounce a series of blessings. From Mount Ebal, slightly to the south, six were to pronounce a series of curses. The message of the blessings and curses was simple: follow God’s laws, and you will be blessed; transgress them, and you will be cursed. Long life, well-being, abundance, and peace were the blessings; drought, starvation, war and death were the curses. Pretty straight-forward, within the mindset of the ancient world.

It is fortuitous that these concluding chapters of the Torah fall within our yearly reading cycle just as we are preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe – the Season of Repentance. We understand that in large measure we are all vulnerable against the forces of nature. Nevertheless, again, and yet again, we are reminded that within the realm of our own behavior, we have a choice over the decisions and actions that are within our control. As we enter this holy season, we are charged with the responsibility to reassess our behavior during the past year, and focus ourselves on doing better in the next one.

This year in particular we are in the midst of extraordinarily consequential deliberations regarding the choices we will make in our upcoming national election. Yes, some of us may actually view one candidate or another as a blessing or a curse. But the blessing that we actually DO possess in the United States is at least the ability to make our voice heard, and that is in the voting booth. This is one area that IS within our control. It is not only a blessing of democracy, in my view, it is our sacred responsibility as Americans.

Please. . . If you are registered, please make sure to get out on Tuesday, November 8, and vote. If there is any question about registration, please read this and send it to everyone you know.

This is one blessing or curse that is squarely within our own control.

Developing Compassion

louisvilleusace-mother-baby-wrens-buckhorn-lake

A mother wren feeds her three babies in their nest near Buckhorn Lake. CC by 2.0. Courtesy LouisvilleUSACE.

In our Torah portion for this Shabbat we come across a number of seemingly random commandments. One of them is known as Shiluach HaKen – sending away the mother bird. If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may be well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22.6-7)

A parallel to this commandment is found by many commentators in Leviticus: When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on, it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Eternal. However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young. (Leviticus 22.27-28)

On the face of it, the rationale seems simple. We should send away the mother so the mother does not experience the pain of seeing her young taken away. The Women’s Torah Commentary (URJ Press) observes: “Such laws appear to stem from a perception that animals have an emotional attachment to their young, and from a humane concern to limit their distress.”

The medieval commentator Nachmanides (known as the “Ramban”) suggests that the purpose of these particular mitzvot, and others of course, is to cultivate within us the qualities of kindness and compassion. But note that it’s not so much out of concern for the animal that these mitzvot exist, but to educate us to be better human beings.

The Talmud (Berakhot 33b) suggests that it is not appropriate to look for a rationale for all the mitzvot, especially some that may seem particularly puzzling to us. The point of the mitzvot, according to the Talmud, is to teach us obedience to God. Period.

As Reform Jews, we are more inclined to understand and agree with the Ramban’s notion of cultivating kindness and humanity in ourselves. If we are concerned with the feelings of birds, after all, how much the more so ought we be concerned with our treatment of other human beings! Moreover, our approach in general is to try to understand the rationale behind various mitzvot, as we constantly evaluate their applicability (or not) to our lives. But the bottom line is that, whether we accept the Torah mitzvot as God’s law, regardless of whether or not we understand the rationale behind it, or we constantly evaluate it to increase our understanding of it and its relevance to us, we nevertheless embrace it as Jews throughout our lives as a source of our moral grounding as Jews.

Long Live the King?

king-david

King David (1957) hand-colored etching by Marc Chagall Courtesy Haggerty Museum of Art, Gift of Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Marc Chagall © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

While our Torah portion, Shofetim – Judges – is indeed about judges, and their responsibilities for maintaining judicial integrity in Ancient Israel, I’d like to focus for a moment on another type of leader in Ancient Israel mentioned in this portion. That is the king. We know that beginning around 1,000 B.C.E., kings did exist in Israel, beginning with King Saul, and moving subsequently to King David, King Solomon, and beyond. We read about the kings in the early Prophetic books of the Tanakh, Kings and Samuel particularly. But with the exception of this brief mention here in Deuteronomy Chapter 17, there is not a single word about an Israelite king anywhere in the Torah. There are leaders in the narrative, of course: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Miriam, and groups of people as well: judges, lawgivers, tribal heads, and the like. But no king. (No, no queen either.) Except here.

If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17.14-20)

A few things to note about this. First, the appointment of a king is not obligatory, but a matter of choice on the part of the Israelites. But if they were to go ahead and make this choice, then there were certain requirements that both they and the king had to fulfill.

1. They would have to choose a king from among the Israelite people. A foreign-born person was ineligible. (We in the United States have a similar Constitutional restriction on the Presidency.)
2. The king may not own many horses. How many is too many? We don’t exactly know. But the point is that many horses would lead to military might. This was something that a king should avoid, at least according to this narrative.
3. The king should not have too many wives. How many is too many? Later generations of Rabbis interpreted this to mean eighteen. Any more than eighteen wives would be too many wives for a king of Israel. What is particularly interesting about this is the consequences of the king’s reach. In the ancient world, international relationships were often effected through marriages. If the king was restricted in the number of marriages, he was also restricted in the number of potential international alliances that he could form. So there seems to be an attempt here to “keep it in the family” to a great extent.
4. The king should not amass too much silver and gold. One might venture a guess that this was to keep the king from becoming corrupt by an overabundance of wealth.
5. Perhaps the most remarkable? The king was obligated to have a copy of the Teaching of Moses (the Torah) written personally for him by the priests, and he was to study it throughout his life. So what was the king’s primary responsibility? To study Torah!

What should pop out at us immediately, given these restrictions, is the case of King Solomon. Not too much wealth? Not too many wives? Not too many horses? Uh-oh, looks pretty bad for Solomon! But as we remember, Solomon’s indulgences in all these areas ultimately led not only to his own downfall, but to the breakup of his kingdom, and the division of the Jewish people into two separate kingdoms within the Land of Israel, one in the north, and one in the south. Maybe the Deuteronomic author knew what he was talking about!

My teacher at The Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Micah Goodman, characterizes the restrictions here as a “paradox of power.” All these restrictions, Dr. Goodman deduces, were designed to prevent the kings of Israel from becoming too powerful. Because, as Goodman says, “only giving up your power enables you to stay in power. Only by giving up control can you remain in control.”

I will leave any suggestion of parallels to our current political leaders, and those who aspire at this particular moment, to you for just now. Nevertheless, for every one of us, it would seem that Dr. Goodman’s observation is important and relevant. We all walk a fine line, one that is often difficult to discern, between taking the reins of control, and building consensus; and at times, doing both at once. And for sure, the admonition of Deuteronomy that has steadied us as individuals and as a people throughout our history, and continues to this day, is our embrace and study of Torah. Our tradition has always centered us and helped us to understand the ethical framework within which we can build our lives in the best way possible. Ki hem chayeinu, v’orech yameinu, for they (the Torah’s teachings) are our life and the length of our days. We recite this verse in our evening prayers. May we remember it always.

The Shabbat of Blessing, and an additional note

new-moon

New Moon signals Rosh Chodesh

Shabbat HaChodesh… This coming Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul – the beginning of the month of Elul. Elul is one of the months that has a two-day Rosh Chodesh; this year, Shabbat, September 3rd is the 30th day of Av and Sunday, September 4th is the first of Elul. Elul, of course, is the last month of the calendar year before Rosh Hashanah. This Rosh Hashanah, the year will change to 5777. But the months of the Hebrew year actually begin in the spring with Nisan, the month of Passover, so Elul is actually the sixth month of the year. If Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh, it is called Shabbat HaChodesh.

The month of Elul… The word itself, “Elul,” comes from the Aramaic for “to search.” It is an appropriate name, considering the season we are about to enter. During Elul we begin searching our hearts, and looking back over our behavior during the past year. Elul is the month during which we begin the process of Teshuvah – Repentance – as we seek to repair the fissures that have occurred in our relationships with other people this past year. This of course should be an ongoing process for us all year-round! Nevertheless, it is during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, that we are specifically commanded to engage in this process. The month of Elul gives us a special opportunity to begin our soul-searching and seeking of rapprochement with other people.

Shabbat of Blessing… Shabbat Mevarchin, the “Shabbat of Blessing,” is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh. Last week was such a Shabbat. On Shabbat Mevarchin we recite the Birkat HaChodesh (Blessing of the Month). With this blessing we announce the day on which the new month will begin, and pray for peace and well-being during the coming month. The practice of reciting this blessing emerged during the Geonic period, around the 9th century C.E. Tishrei is the only month that we do not anticipate with the Birkat HaChodesh of Shabbat Mevarchin. The general explanation for this is that there is such intense build-up to Rosh Hashanah – the 1st of Tishrei – that a special blessing to announce the month is unnecessary. But there is also a nice Chassidic midrash that suggests that it is God who blesses the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, and thus leaves the privilege of blessing all the other months to humans.

The Blessing Itself… The Blessing of the New Month appears below. It expresses the hope that we all have for this month, for every month, and indeed, as we anticipate it, for the New Year as well.

Our God and God of our ancestors,
May the new month bring us goodness and blessing.
May we have long life, peace, prosperity,
A life exalted by love of Torah and reverence for the divine;
A life in which the longings of our hearts are fulfilled for good.

Rosh Chodesh Elul will be this Shabbat and Sunday (1 Elul is on Sunday).

4 additional notes… We have not one, but four additional blessings to mark this month.

Our new student cantor, Benjamin Harris, will be with us for Shabbat services this week. And, we will welcome him formally next week, September 9th. Kabbalat Shabbat begins at 6:30PM as usual, and then Ben will present for us a short program of cantorial art songs, both in Hebrew and Yiddish. A festive Oneg will follow. We hope you will join us next Friday!

We rejoice with Cantor Lauren Phillips, who served so beautifully as our student cantor from 2010-2013. Lauren is getting married this Sunday to Dan Fogelman, a New York– based attorney. Lauren began serving this summer as Senior Cantor of Temple Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. Mazal Tov Lauren!

On Tuesday evening, Steve and I had the thrill of a lifetime as we stood at attention at Citi Field, listening to Cantor Todd Kipnis sing the Star Spangled Banner before the awesome crowd of Mets fans. Todd, of course, served as our student cantor from 2003-2005, and now is the Senior Cantor of Temple Shaarey Tefila of Manhattan. He was stupendous! (By the way, also in the stands with us was Cantor Maria Dubinsky, the Assistant Cantor at Shaarey Tefila, and also former student cantor [2008-2010] at Union Temple. Maria grew up in the FSU, and this was her first baseball game ever!) And, by the way, last year, in May of 2015, Lauren Phillips, who at the time was serving as Senior Cantor of Temple Sinai in Milwaukee, sang the Star Spangled Banner at Miller Park before the Brewers game.

We wish our Temple Musician, Dr. Shinae Kim, our warmest Mazal Tov on becoming an American citizen just yesterday. A wonderful simcha!

All our musicians are awesome!