Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation

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Sunset in Tzefat. Photo: Nir-Smilag

Those of us who traveled to Israel together in May of 2015 spent part of our last day there up north in Tzefat – the highest city in Israel. Tzefat was the center of Jewish mysticism in the 16th century. Even now we have a taste of the mystical tradition that was born in Tzefat every Friday as we usher in Shabbat. The beautiful hymn Lecha Dodi, which we know in a variety of musical settings, was written by Shlomo Alkabetz, one of the luminaries of this community. You will note that at the last verse of this hymn, we follow the custom of standing up and facing the entrance. This is in remembrance of the mystics of Tzefat, as they went out into the fields every Erev Shabbat, dressed in white, to greet the Shabbat as the sun set. The imagery of our liturgy portrays Shabbat as the bride of Israel. The final verse of the hymn is: Bo’i v’shalom – Enter in peace, O crown of your husband; enter in gladness, enter in joy. Come to the people that keeps its faith. Enter, O bride! Enter, O bride! At this verse, we turn to the entrance as if to greet the “bride” at a wedding – a mystical wedding, if you will. We bow to the left and the right at Enter, O bride, Enter, O bride. Is this emblematic of the rationalism that characterized Classical Reform Judaism? Not on your life! Nevertheless, it is a sweet custom that has found its way back into standard Reform practice. When our congregational travelers stood gazing at the extraordinary vista in the hills of Tzefat, it became clear as to how the 16th century mystics became intoxicated with the beauty and inspiration of the expanse, and developed the ritual that Jews the world over have adopted into our Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy.

Today – Friday, May 26 – is Rosh Chodesh Sivan. So first I must wish you a Chodesh Tov. Then I must note that in six days we will celebrate the Festival of Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – the 6th of Sivan, on Tuesday night and Wednesday of the coming week. In the Torah, we are commanded to observe this festival as the time of the presentation of the first fruits of the barley harvest. This harvest time, of course, is more immediately observable in the fields of the Land of Israel than it is between the brownstones of Brooklyn. Nevertheless, that is the nature-linked significance of this seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot. But, as is the case with all three Festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – there is both a universal, nature-linked significance, and a historic, particularistic significance as well. In this dual pattern, Shavuot is both the time of the presentation of the first fruits of the harvest, and also the Time of the Giving of the Torah to the People of Israel – Z’man Matan Torateinu.

In addition to the Kabbalat Shabbat ritual and the hymn Lecha Dodi, the mystics of Tzefat gave us another extraordinary tradition – the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. This is the tradition by which we Jews stay up all night long on Shavuot and study. According to the Zohar – the central text of Kabbalah mysticism – tikkunim are adornments. This is the origin of the notion of Tikkun Leil Shavuot. In the Zohar, the night of Shavuot is not exactly about sitting in rows of chairs listening to a string of lecturers. It is about stringing together the jewels of stories derived from the Torah, and from the insights of communities of rabbis and scholars. When Jews get together on the night of Shavuot, they tell each other stories, glorifying the “marriage,” if you will, between the people and Torah. Again – not exactly the mainstay of rational Classical Reform; but a precious and beautiful tradition that we Jews have miraculously revived and rejuvenated in our own generation, and in ways most authentic and compelling to us. And is this not ultimately what Reform is meant to be?
As our Brownstone community has done for the past several years, this year as well we all will gather for Erev Shavuot – Tuesday Evening – at Congregation Beth Elohim. Services are at 8:00PM and the service for Reform Jews will be in the chapel. Services of many other interpretations of Jewish life will be taking place in different rooms. Then we will gather together for Kiddush, after which we will proceed to different areas in the building to learn from each other; if you will, to share the jewels of our tradition. In keeping with the tradition of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, that will continue throughout the night.

On Wednesday morning at 10:30 AM, we at Union Temple will hold our Festival Morning Service. As the Time of the Giving of the Torah, we will read the Ten Commandments, as is customary. As is also customary, we will recite Yizkor* – our Memorial Service.

*A brief reminder. When we have lost an immediate family member (parent, child, sibling, spouse) we remember them on the anniversary (yahrzeit) of their death by lighting a yahrzeit candle at sundown the evening before, which will burn throughout the day. We also come to services for Kaddish. But there are 4 additional times for us to light these candles (at sundown the evening before) and come to services for Yizkor. They are: Yom Kippur, the last day of Pesach, the morning of Shavuot, and the last day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret). Another jewel of Jewish tradition. While we must live our lives to the fullest, we also honor the memories of those we loved who are no longer with us. Judaism helps us to remember, as we light candles 5 times a year.