The Passover story is one of miracles and marvels: the parting of the sea; the plagues that struck Egypt; the protection of the blood on the doorposts of our people’s houses, as the Destroyer struck down the Egyptians; the miraculous redemption of our people from slavery.
Did these miracles really happen exactly as described in the Book of Exodus? I leave that to you for this particular moment. But here is a miracle that did happen, and happens every single year as we tell and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. It is the miracle that is described in this speech by David Ben Gurion, , exactly 70 years ago, before the UN Commission on Palestine (the “Peel Commission,” established by the British as they tried to extricate themselves from the Arab-Jewish quagmire).
300 years ago, there came to the New World a ship, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?
More than 3,300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt; and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows on what day they left: the 15th of Nisan. And everyone knows exactly what food they ate: matzah. And to this very day, Jews all over the world eat matzah on the 15th of Nisan. And they tell about the Exodus from Egypt, and the sorrows the Jews have experienced from the day they entered into Exile. And they conclude with two declarations: “Now we are slaves, next year we shall be free; this year here, next year in Jerusalem!”
What is the real miracle of Passover? Even now, over 3,000 years later, we – all of us – all over the world – still gather on the night of Passover, to tell and retell the story of our miraculous redemption from Egyptian bondage. Whether here in the United States and Canada, in the State of Israel, South America, in Europe, or Asia, or around the Pacific Rim, we tell it. In so doing, we remind ourselves as well of the core values of our history: our mandate to establish a more just and compassionate society, from the lessons we learned in the bitterness of slavery and oppression.
And so, in our celebration of miracles, and our hope for the coming of a better day on this Earth, I wish you and your families a Chag Sameach and a Ziessen Pesach – a sweet and joyous Passover to all.
This Shabbat before the celebration of Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance. As you know, this year Purim is Saturday night and Sunday, and our celebration at Union Temple will take place this Sunday, 12:30-2:30 PM. It will be an intergenerational celebration, with drinks, food, costumes, the Reading of the Megillah, groggers, prizes, games, music, and an opportunity for all of us to give ourselves two hours of joy. As Americans, we have very serious problems with which to concern ourselves at this troubling time. But, whatever generation you identify with, I hope you will come to the temple on Sunday, and take the opportunity that Judaism gives us to release some tension, even if only for two hours on a Sunday afternoon.
We associate Purim with costumes, hamantaschen, and lots of drinking – and I don’t mean just club soda, assuming we are of age! But perhaps the most recognizable custom is twirling our groggers to blot out the name of Haman, the evil Persian governor who had hatched the plan to annihilate the Jews of Persia. Haman represents not only himself, but in fact, all the evil power grabbers who have focused upon the Jewish people and directed venomous hatred toward us in one form or another throughout our history.
Swastikas on Jewish property, bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and institutions, gunshots through synagogue windows, skinheads and Neo-Nazi fervor. These and more are not merely remnants of days gone by, before America had matured beyond the anti-Semitism and bigotry that were undercurrents within our society. These are the new reality of today – right now – in America.
It is particularly ironic that one of the latest bomb scares came to the ADL in New York – the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL was founded in 1913 as an organization dedicated to stopping the defamation of the Jewish people, and securing justice and fair treatment for all people, and fighting against prejudice in all forms, for the benefit of all who would ever be subjected to it.
This year, we can look at all the noisemaking on Purim with an added significance. We can blot out the name of Haman, of course. But we can also symbolically blot out all hatred and bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia, which are blights upon our nation, and which threaten our dream of freedom, democracy, security and respect for all people.
We took a congregational trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History. The message of the museum is clear. Virtually from our arrival on these shores, Jews have been in the forefront of every movement of social, political, and cultural change in this country. America without the Jews, and Jews without America, are both unthinkable equations. This is our country, and will not let hate mongers and bigots take it away. On Purim this year, we will stand up, we will dance, we will shout, twirl our groggers, and eat as many hamantaschen as we can stand, in our ongoing defiance of hatred, and our ongoing quest for justice and right.
Our Torah portion begins, Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . After two years’ time. . . . The two years are those that presumably have passed since the end of last week’s parashah, as the cupbearer of the Egyptian court had told his dream to Joseph, and Joseph interpreted it with astounding accuracy. This time, “after two years’ time,” it is Pharaoh himself who is dreaming. The cupbearer tells him of Joseph’s astonishing powers of dream interpretation. Pharaoh orders Joseph’s release from the dungeon, and thus begins Joseph’s rise to power.
It is fortuitous that we are talking about miketz sh’natayim yamim, the end of two years, now at the end of this year of 2016. While in actual time it has only been one year, it has felt like one of the longest years in history. Donald Trump steamrolling over sixteen opponents in the Republican primaries; the often irritating rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the bruising, often outrageous presidential campaign; the unforgettable election night that most of us would prefer to forget; the devastating massacre at Pulse Night Club in Orlando; the police shootings of all too many African American young men, and likewise, the targeted shootings of all too many police officers; Brexit; Nice; Berlin; natural disasters; Russian hacking; escalated tensions between the US and Israel – close friends who are clearly rather irritated with each other at this moment – and the deaths of all too many celebrities whom we felt like we knew personally – from Mohammed Ali, to Gene Wilder, to Prince, to John Glenn, to Eli Wiesel, to Shimon Peres, and just this week, not only Carrie Fisher, but her mother Debbie Reynolds as well, among many more.
Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . . This may have been one year that felt not even like “two years’ time,” but more like twenty. I suspect we won’t be sorry to bid farewell to 2016. But 2017, of course, will present us with many challenges. While we may still be feeling down in the dumps, we will have to redirect our energies into mobilizing for what are sure to be struggles ahead.
This Torah portion, Miketz, is almost always read during the Festival of Chanukah. While it is actually just a calendrical coincidence, perhaps we might find some hope in the metaphor of light, which is such a prominent feature of our Festival of Lights. The last night of Chanukah this year is also the last night of 2016. But the festival reminds us of the strength and eternality of the Jewish People, and of the values we derive from our tradition – the values of justice, and fairness, of compassion and the pursuit of peace, and the teaching of fundamental respect for the dignity of all human beings.
So, Miketz HaShanah HaZot – at the end of this year – I wish all of you in the coming year renewed strength, and fortitude, hope and peace.
The year was 2010, and the Senate Judiciary Committee was carrying out its Constitutional responsibility of conducting a confirmation hearing for the President’s nominee for the US Supreme Court – a responsibility, I might add, which the Senate has now defiantly shirked for the better part of this past year. But in 2010, the nominee was Judge Elana Kagan, a New York jurist. In an exchange about the shoe bomber airplane incident, which happened over Christmas in 2001, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Judge Kagan in a rather off-handed way, “Where were you at on Christmas?” And in an equally off-handed way she replied, “You know, like all Jews I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.” Great laughter ensued.
During the laughter at Judge Kagan’s response, Senator Chuck Schumer explained that Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas Eve. And while that may be part of the explanation, there may be a deeper one as well, offered by Jennifer Lee, producer of The Search for General Tso’s Chicken. Lee explains that at the turn of the century (19th-20th), two of the most populous immigrant communities in New York were the Eastern European Jews and the Chinese. There were Italians and Irish too, of course, but on Christmas Eve, they were usually at home celebrating Christmas. And if an isolated restaurant happened to be open on that holy night, it most certainly would contain Christmas trees, images of the Virgin Mary, of the Christ child, and mangers galore. But the Chinese stood as much outside these traditions as did the Jews, according to Lee. So, in a natural coming together of outsiders, the two groups just kind of came together, to share being “inside” on Christmas Eve.
But what began out of practicality has grown into a beloved tradition for many Jews on Christmas Eve. Christmas is a sacred time for our Christian friends. It’s a time for families and friends to be together. As Jews, we recognize and respect the sacredness of that time. For some of us, though, in an effort not to feel left out, we have figured out this rather wonderful alternative: Chinese food, often coupled with a movie. What could be bad?! Of course this particular year provides us with a built-in reason to gather together – the first night of Chanukah! So, we can have our latkes, and Chinese food too, and as we will do at the temple, we’ll gather together for a movie as well!
An important note. . . Often I have been asked about the propriety of interfaith families celebrating Christmas Eve with their non-Jewish relatives. I have always made it clear that it is vital for families to gather together for beloved celebrations. While it’s much less confusing for Jewish homes not to have Christmas trees themselves, I would never tell anyone not to spend Christmas at the homes of their relatives who have trees, as long as the distinction was made clear. Certainly, the reverse is also true. I would hope that non-Jewish families and friends would be delighted to come to their Jewish relatives’ homes to celebrate Chanukah. This year, of course, is quite anomalous in the confluence of the first night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve. What I would urge us all to remember is that the only similarity between the two holidays is that they both occur around the winter solstice, the darkest and coldest time of the year. It is understandable then, in an anthropological sense, that festivals involving lights and fires gained popularity in the ancient world. For Christians, the Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. For Jews, the Festival of Chanukah celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian oppressors, and the rededication (chanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem to the God of Israel. Add to this historical event the folklore of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, and we’ve got a magnificent celebration that has always been one of the most popular of our entire liturgical calendar. As Chanukah holds deep historic and religious significance for Jews, so does Christmas hold deep historic and religious significance for Christians. For us, the challenge of the season is to rejoice with each other, while not confusing the two.
Ultimately the aim for all of us during this season of celebration is to realize and assert our own integrity and uniqueness, even in the pressure of all the hype that surrounds us. This will be particularly important as we head into a time of great uncertainty. The forces of bigotry and intolerance have already begun to rear their ugly heads, and we will have to stand strong and resolute. And so my wish for our community is a Chag Urim Sameach – a joyous Festival of Lights. And my wish for all of us and our families – most of which probably are multicultural to one degree or another – is a season of love and warmth, and mutual respect, and a future of security and peace, for us, and for our world.
I have told many of you about a close friend of mine in the Rabbinate who is a collector of antiques. Among his collection are a number of gorgeous menorot from different places and time periods. One was an 18th century German menorah. Just before the pogrom of Kristallnacht, someone who had an inkling of what was about to happen brought the beautiful menorah to the Bishop of Ulm, a German city on the Danube. The Bishop hid it in the church crypt. At the end of the war, the menorah came into the possession of Otto Frank, who survived the war, though his wife and daughters (Anna and Margot) did not. Otto Frank went on to become quite active in the Reform Movement of Europe. My friend was interning for a time in Europe and spent an evening in Frank’s home. Frank saw him staring at the menorah and understood that this was someone who appreciated the value of good art. Frank decided to give him the menorah on the condition that he would see to it that Kaddish would be recited for his daughters in the United States. My friend agreed, and the menorah found a new home.
Another piece in my friend’s menorah collection was black, fashioned out of shrapnel that was collected from one of the battlegrounds in the aftermath of the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. (“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares….”)
One Chanukah a number of years ago, I sat in my friend’s apartment in New York, along with a several other friends. The apartment was ablaze with light from the vast menorah collection. This time he focused on another incredible piece in the collection. He shook his head and opined, “If that thing could only talk!”
And so, my friends, I bring this story to you now, and hope you will take the opportunity to make it your own. If Your Menorah Could Talk, What Would It Say? Maybe it has been passed through generations of your family. Maybe it is brand new. Maybe it has a child-centered theme, or came as a gift from a special person in your life. Whatever it may be, the story of your menorah is ultimately a story about you; about you, your family, and your relationship to Jewish life.
This Sunday, during our Chanukah celebration, instead of lighting all our menorot (because it isn’t actually Chanukah yet), our menorot will tell their stories to all to come to celebrate with us. Bring your menorah, and we will provide a card and a pen for you to write your menorah’s story to share with all of us. And we look forward to sharing ours with you.
Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.
The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.
This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.
Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.
The conflict. . . . For the past four years, we at Union Temple have been presented with what I have called a “conflict of positive values.” There is profound meaning and good will informing each of these values, though together they present us with something of a conflict. By way of explanation, I will take the liberty of borrowing from my own words, which I originally wrote for a Bulletin article in October of 2012.
As the Brooklyn Jewish community has come together for Selichot services for the past five years, so too have we joined together in celebration of Simchat Torah, under the Arch at Grand Army Plaza. These have been wonderful events that we have shared with hundreds of our fellow Jews in the community. This year the celebration is Monday, October 24. So what’s the problem? The problem, or shall I say, the “conflict of positive values,” exists in the fact that for the Reform Movement, the celebration of Simchat Torah is SUNDAY night, October 23, not Monday night.
Here’s the story. . . . In the days of the Sanhedrin – the High Court in Jerusalem – Festivals and New Moons were officially declared by the Sanhedrin itself. The Court would base its declaration upon the testimony of two witnesses each month that they had observed the new moon. The declaration would be communicated by a series of torch signals beginning on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, proceeding to Mount Sartaba in Jericho, and on through the Jewish world. The chain would continue until the entire Diaspora; particularly the Jews of Babylonia, received notification. Eventually the system broke down because of mischief caused by the Samaritans, who began to wave torches on hilltops at the wrong times. The Sanhedrin sought to remedy the situation by instituting an additional day of observance for the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In the ancient mindset, if the Festivals weren’t observed on the correct day, supplications to God wouldn’t work.
In the middle of the 4th Century of the Common Era, the Jewish calendar was fixed on the basis of astronomical calculations, and thus everyone was able to determine the exact days of New Moons and Festivals without being dependent upon the Sanhedrin. But many in the Diaspora communities maintained the practice of celebrating these extra days in deference to the previous custom, and in its own self-perception as being in galut – exile, outside of Eretz Yisrael. The custom remained this way until the 19th Century, when the early Reformers cast aside this practice, not only because of the reality of the calendar, but also in rejection of the notion that Diaspora communities are in “galut.”
Contemporary practice. . . . In our time, the Jewish world observes along the following lines. All Jews in Israel – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and what-have-you – observe these Festival days for one day. These include: The first day of Sukkot, the eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret), the first day of Passover, the seventh day of Passover, and Shavuot. Reform Jews outside of Israel also observe one day. Conservative and Orthodox, and other non-Reform Jews outside of Israel still observe that extra day of the Festivals. For the Sukkot Festival, it works out in the following way. Israeli Jews and Reform Jews both in and out of Israel celebrate the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei) as a holy day. Sukkot is celebrated for seven days. We also celebrate the eighth day after as a holy day. This eighth day is called Shemini Atzeret, on 22 Tishrei. Eventually an additional holiday which is not technically part of Sukkot was been added to this day. This is Simchat Torah, Rejoicing in the Torah. It is characterized by circuits (hakafot) with the Torahs, and much dancing and rejoicing. The end of the Torah is read, and immediately the beginning as well, to begin the yearly cycle of studying the Torah. For Israelis and all Reform Jews, these two are conflated into one day of celebration: Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah. For non-Reform Jews outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is celebrated on an additional ninth day (23 Tishrei).
Specific values in conflict. . . . For us at Union Temple, as a Reform congregation, our custom, as with the vast majority of other Reform congregations, has always been to celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on the 22nd of Tishrei (this year, Sunday night/Monday, October 23/24). However, many of our friends in the community will celebrate Shemini Atzeret on Sunday night/Monday, and then Simchat Torah on Monday night/Tuesday, October 24/25. That has always been the case. But these past few years, there have been public gatherings of Jews in our neighborhood at Grand Army Plaza to celebrate Simchat Torah, this year on Monday night, October 24. For us, the two values we considered were (1) remaining steadfast in our convictions as Reform Jews, and (2) K’lal Yisrael – participating in the larger Jewish community and pursuing solidarity with our Jewish friends and neighbors.
Our decision. . . . After deliberating this “conflict of positive values” with our Board of Trustees, we at Union Temple will go ahead and celebrate Shemini Atzeret Simchat Torah on Sunday night, October 23, with 7:00PM reception and 7:30PM service, including the Hakafot with the Torahs – circuits and dancing. Monday morning we will hold our Festival Morning service as usual, including the recitation of Yizkor. And then, on Monday evening at about 8:00, we will join our friends for additional dancing out at the Grand Army Plaza. We hope that you will attend BOTH these celebrations, as there can never be enough rejoicing in the Torah!
Please note that in keeping with our policy of inclusion, there will be chairs around Grand Army Plaza for those who prefer to sit down during the hoopla.
Sunday, October 23
7:00PM: Reception in our Sukkah
7:30PM: Festival Evening Service with Hakafot
Monday, October 24
10:30AM: Festival Morning Service, Yizkor
7:00-11:00PM: Hakafot with the Community at Grand Army Plaza. (Union Temple’s Hakafah will be approximately at 8:15PM.)
By the way, weather permitting, please feel free to come by between now and Tuesday to visit our beautiful new sukkah, put up by our Brotherhood, with members of our Sisterhood participating. It is just adjoining our building. In keeping with the commandment, bring a bite to eat in there too. And, our Friday evening after our Shabbat service, join us for the Oneg in there as well.
Union Temple Food Drive: Each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened cann
YOM KIPPUR – The 10th of Tishrei, the Day of Atonement.
We read in the Torah: The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial. . . you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Eternal your God. Indeed, any person who does not practice self-denial throughout that day shall be cut off from his kin. . . It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath. (Leviticus 23.26-32)
A Day of Fasting.
Yom Kippur, then, is commanded in the Torah as a day of fasting for those who have reached the age of responsibility for the mitzvot – age 13. There are indeed several additional days of fasting in traditional Jewish observance, which came about as Rabbinic injunctions. There is an entire Talmudic Tractate, in fact, devoted to fasts called – Ta’anit – the Fast.
TZOM KAL – “Have an easy fast.”
One of the greetings that we Jews offer each other before a fast day is: TZOM KAL – Have an easy fast. Of course, our intent is to wish each other well on that day, and a general wish for health and strength. On the other hand, it poses an interesting contradiction. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of self-denial, not only regarding the pleasures of eating and drinking, but also of sexual relations, and even wearing leather, a sign of good living. (That is why you might see many Jews in sneakers on Yom Kippur. While we, especially in New York, may associate sneakers with comfort, the intent on this day is actually just the opposite!) So why are we wishing it to be easy for each other? Doesn’t that miss the whole point? When we’re not preoccupied with the preparation of our meals for the day, we are in a better position to focus inward, as we consider our behavior and our relationships during the past year, and make amends with those we have hurt. We are commanded to focus all our powers of concentration inward toward our conscience; outward, toward our relationships with others and our responsibilities in the world; and upward, if you will, toward Heaven, in recognition of that which is infinitely beyond our own individual selves and our own personal concerns. While Jews have never much approved of self-flagellation, we do engage in this day of self-denial in order to plumb the depths of our hearts and spirits, and improve our behavior in the year to come.
Is this the fast that I desire?
Our Haftarah portion for Yom Kippur Morning is taken from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah reminds us that, while fasting is commanded, it cannot be enough. We cannot fast for a day and think that we have discharged our religious obligations. We have to practice compassion every day of the year, particularly toward those who are less fortunate. Thus the prophet admonishes:
This is the fast that I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke:
To let the oppressed go free;
And break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And you healing spring up quickly….
Union Temple Food Drive
In direct response to Isaiah’s admonition, each Yom Kippur we at Union Temple conduct a Food Drive. We ask you to bring unopened canned and boxed food to the temple this Yom Kippur and donate it to this drive. The drive will extend as well through Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, and all the time in between. There will be food baskets at the temple and when they are filled we will take the collections to the Food Pantry at CHIPS. Thank you for enabling all of us to perform this mitzvah together.
And so, in anticipation of Yom Kippur, I ask you to REMEMBER THE FOOD DRIVE, and for Yom Kippur I wish you a TZOM KAL!
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.
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!