Ekev 5779


“I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” President Donald Trump on Tuesday. On Wednesday: “I think if you vote for a Democrat, you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”

In response, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader: “To my fellow American Jews…: When [President Trump] uses a trope that’s been used against the Jewish people for centuries with dire consequences, he is encouraging — wittingly or unwittingly — anti-Semites throughout the country and world. Enough.”

What’s next in the “disloyalty” column for Jews? Jews who listen to classical music of European origin rather than, say, Nashville country? Who pray three times a day without invoking Jesus? Who contribute to United Nations hunger alleviation programs?

Has the president just made your vote a loyalty test, or are we all now honorary voting citizens of Israel? (That idea was floated some years back by a right-wing Israeli politician.) 

Does affinity to and support for a foreign country now make one suspect? Will buying a Japanese-branded car (even if made in Alabama) tar someone as disloyal? Are we Jews — or any other “membership” group — expected to self-police, and either rehabilitate those who are “disloyal” or excommunicate them?

It seems that political choices are becoming ever more binary: Love it or leave it; with us or against us; all or nothing. There is right or wrong with no awareness, nuance, moderation or discussion.

To me, loyalty is found in the voting booth. Loyalty is found in supporting civil rights. Loyalty is found in promoting fairness in all aspects of society. Loyalty is to a government and the people’s welfare it is charged with promoting. Loyalty is discussing issues and seeking solutions through compromise for the greater good. 

Loyalty is found in the Jews who currently make up about 1% of the American military. Loyalty is found in defending — in whatever ways one chooses — the right, the privilege, of Americans to vote and to worship as they please without the fear of being marked as disloyal.

We have been made to wear yellow stars. Enough.

Directory of Senators

Directory of Representatives

va’etchanan 5779

Tu b’Av

Destruction, lamentation and exile — the major (in minor mode) motifs of Tish’a b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. Both of the ancient Holy Temples were destroyed on that day, and many other calamities in Jewish history are pegged to 9 Av.

But come the full moon in the middle of the Jewish calendar month and there’s another kind of commemoration: Tu b’Av, the 15th of Av!

Here’s a bit about 15 Av from the Talmud (c. 500 CE):

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur.” The [anonymous editor] asks: “Granted, Yom Kippur is a day of joy because of pardon and forgiveness, and…it is the day on which the [second] pair of tablets were given [to Moses]. However, what’s with the fifteenth of Av?” (B Taanit 30b)

Then the sages go to town, attaching to 15 Av everything from Biblical-era permission to marry someone of a different tribe to a miracle related to those killed in the 132 CE Bar Kochba rebellion; from the seasonal changing angle and duration of sunlight to love.

Love? Love! The Mishna (edited c. 200 CE) explains:

[As on Yom Kippur afternoon, on 15 Av] the [unmarried] daughters of Jerusalem would go out in [borrowed] white clothes…so as not to embarrass one who did not have her own white garments.…[The women] would dance in the vineyards [where young men looking for a mate would congregate.]  And what would the women say? “Young man, please lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself for a wife. Do not set your eyes toward beauty, but set your eyes toward a good family…]

Or, “pick me!”

The origin of 15 Av is obscure, but its timing is genius. We’ve just spent three weeks descending into Tish’a b’Av — a day of mourning and lamentation — through deprivation, penitential texts, biblical readings and fasting. And less than a week later, on the full moon (with all its portents), we seek to build the future of our people. 

In modern Israel, 15 Av has become something of a Day of Romance, likened to Valentine’s Day. Isn’t it sweet that a focus on romance, love and marriage is a bridge from the agony of exile to the promise of a new year just six weeks later?

15 Av begins tonight and ends at Shabbat. Need I say more?

B’haalotecha 5779

Second Chances

The Jewish Day of Second Chances is a Torah-mandated opportunity. If you were unable to observe the Pesach sacrifice at the original time, say because you were traveling or were ritually impure, you are expected to participate in the ritual one month later. That day is known as Pesach Sheini/Second Passover; it generally falls in mid-spring. (There is no provision for the person who is traveling or is ritually impure again on the second date….)

Why are we talking about a Pesach-related opportunity now, at the summer solstice? This week’s Torah reading (b’haalotecha) tells the tale: some men who were impure from contact with a corpse wish to fulfill the Pesach obligation but are not permitted to do so. They pose the problem to Moshe and Aharon. Moshe takes it to the Chief Justice, Who rules that they get a second chance one month later. The ritual must be carried out as it would be on the original date.

This is a religious gift that today is not connected to a ritual, which means we get to determine how to observe the day. It isn’t a recap of High Holy Days, with the idea that we must atone for person-to-person sins before seeking atonement for person-to-deity transgressions. What a great opportunity for us to grasp Torah and make it ours!

How do we take ownership of second chances? Is it a time for the equivalent of secular new year’s resolutions? Or a day to look forward with resolve; after all, spring is in full bloom and is there a better season for optimism? 

It’s really up to us. Though we really don’t need to wait until a specific day next year to give ourselves permission to take second chances. We should allow ourselves that opportunity whenever we need it, as long as we don’t try to repeat exactly what led us to the point of needing to take a second chance. If we don’t learn from our mistakes….

The comedian Sam Levenson wrote: “You have to learn from the mistakes of others. There isn’t enough time to make them all yourself.”

Bereishit 5779

What a Story!

Simchat Torah morning, after hakafot (a couple of which were done with our preschoolers carrying toy Torahs and flags, clutching lollipops) and Torah reading, the scrolls returned to the ark…

“Thank you to the Shirat Hayam Literary Association for inviting me to review the book we just finished reading. It’s quite a classic tome, this history, legal treatise, moral guide, and mélange of prose and poetry all rolled into one epic literary masterpiece. Small wonder that it’s taken us a whole year to read our way through it.

“This is a good thing, in my opinion, since a slow and thorough reading allows us to savor the pleasures and challenges of our book. The primary protagonists — God, Moses, the people Israel — develop over time, and we certainly wouldn’t want to deprive them of the space needed to grow, to mature.

“As it has been quite a while since we started reading this work, let me begin by reminding us of some major plot points. Rather than trying to sum up the various parts in neat little packages that would effectively drain the epic of much of its power, I will ask your indulgence to go chapter by chapter. (It may be close to noon, but it’s yom tov, so who’s in a hurry?!)

“First, as I’m sure you recall, God creates the universe. Step by step, day by day, the Holy One of Creation speaks into being the cosmos, the earth, flora and fauna, and humans. Just like that, and in only 31 sentences!

“Before I continue with chapter 2, I want to thank Philip Hollander for reminding us that this great work already has a sequel, as just a short while ago he read to us the first chapter of that work, the Book of Joshua. Now, back to the tales of creation.…”

At this point, the reviewer was, um, encouraged to abandon the podium and return to his seat as it seems that some members of the book club were indeed ready to move on to lunch. Perhaps he will be invited back next year to continue his review…

Shabbat shalom ! שבת שלום 

Mishpatim 5778


In this week’s Torah reading, God says to the Israelites: “No boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk.”

Simple enough, no? Yet look where that seemingly simple statement has led us: (at least) two sets of dishes for daily use, two sets of china (for some), two (or three) sets for Pesach, cutlery to go with each set, pots and pans and utensils to suit, etc., plus waiting periods between eating meat and milk…What a system! 

And it all came from this one phrase that appears twice in the book of Exodus / Shemot and once in Deuteronomy / D’varim. How did those five words get to be an Encyclopedia of the Kosher Kitchen? As I understand it, through people (rabbis, sages) trying to figure out how to fulfill the commandments in Torah. 

The meaning and context of those five words? Perhaps they refer to not offering as a sacrifice an animal still nursing, or to a pagan ritual that needed to be quashed. The reason for that Torah injunction has been long irrelevant; our forebears created from that slimmest of toothpicks a formidable edifice that is a defining characteristic of Judaism: kashrut.

It’s not about physical health. As Rabbi Paul Drazen puts it (in “The Observant Life”), “Kashrut is…an attempt to turn the act of eating…into a holy opportunity to acknowledge God as the Source and Sustainer of all life.” Furthermore, he writes, “Keeping kosher is an active, vital way to identify as a Jew.”

As Jews, we are expected to follow the laws in Torah. As Jews, how we understand those laws can be an open issue: who gets to define the correct way to fulfill God’s commandments? Is practice based on interpretation immutable? What should happen when technology or newer understandings enable us to question or seek change to transmitted tradition?

Thus we have a variety of Judaisms (per Prof. Aaron Tepper). Within categories of Jews (e.g., Reform, Haredi), there can be differences of practice. Some Hasidic sects will not warrant (much less consume) perfectly kosher meat slaughtered under the auspices of a different sect. Some more liberal Jews will eat cold salads in a non-kosher restaurant, others will happily consume hot foods that are not on list of the forbidden animal, still others keep Pesach to the letter but eat anything anywhere the rest of the year. Go figure!

We have a wide range of responses to the dictates of Torah. When we act in the image of our people’s name, “b’nei yisrael / descendants of those who wrestle with God,” I believe that it is nigh unto impossible to determine just who is living “Torah true” Judaism.

Vay’chi 5778

The regulars at Beth Hillel-Beth El’s Thursday morning service were a genial, dedicated group; there just weren’t enough of us to ensure the quorum of ten every week. Absent a minyan, our practice was to read the weekday parasha / Torah portion from the siddur. There was no translation.

There is merit in hearing Torah being read, even from a printed source, and there is merit in learning Torah. However, after a string of non-minyan services, I felt that discussing Torah would be better than merely hearing Torah, the latter having more potential lasting value than the former.

At first, I prepared a few questions about the parasha. This turned into a paragraph or two, then three or four. Within a year, I was writing a weekly dvar Torah, an explication no longer than one side of a page, citing a traditional or contemporary commentator, keeping it short (people had to get to work!).

I had not purposely chosen parashat Vay’chi, the last in Bereishit / Genesis, as the week to begin offering divrei Torah. In retrospect, beginning with an ending was a fortunate choice: as we reach the end of each of the five books of Torah, we call out “chazak chazak v’nitchazeik / be strong, be strong and we shall be strengthened!”

Learning Torah, reading Torah, hearing Torah can be empowering. Following the flow of our biblical epic, recognizing names of major and minor players and places, asking questions…all lead to a knowledge of our sacred text that can help you feel more grounded in our tradition.

My “weekly reader” was one early (5764) signpost pointing me toward the rabbinate (the primary translation of the word “rabbi” is teacher). Nowadays, my typical dvar Torah is a bit longer than it had been on Thursday mornings, with an additional commentator or two, yet I still try to keep it succinct (people have to get to kiddush!). 

I am grateful for the opportunities and encouragement, starting 14 years ago, to learn and teach, and now I value the responsibility for sharing Torah as often as I can.

We gain strength from knowledge of Torah. With that in mind, I am starting a weekly Torah learning session, 12:30 Thursdays at Shirat Hayam, beginning January 11. Bring your lunch, a cup of coffee, bring your curiosity and questions. Come learn when you can — v’nitchazeik / we shall be strengthened!

Year-End, End-of Life Rituals

I enjoy perusing the New York Times’ year-end top-ten lists of books and movies even if I’ve read or seen few of those listed. More moving and enlightening for me is “The Lives They Lived,” an end-of-year Sunday Magazine dedicated to some of the famous and not-so-famous who died over the year.
It’s often fascinating and moving to read obituaries: what didn’t I know about well-known people? What did this little-known person accomplish, and against what odds? How was this person a pioneer, that one a great team player?
Since I started serving the Beth Judah/Shirat Hayam community some four-and-a-half years ago, I have conducted more than 50 funerals. I have met some fascinating deceased people…by association, through the stories told by their children, grandchildren and friends.
I learned of challenges and triumphs; aspirations realized or thwarted; blessings or fracturing of family; joys and sorrows; peaceful, timely deaths; slow, steady declines. When I meet with family members before the funeral, I try to minimize the focus on the dying and turn the conversation to the life of their loved one.
And what lives! A woman who, with the staunch support of her extended family, overcame physical disabilities to lead a full and fulfilling life. A man with irrepressible curiosity and a vast wealth of knowledge who freely offered (often unbidden) advice.
Others…A 98 year-old who had been a “Top Secret Rosie,” a female “computer” working on ENIAC, the first super computer. A man, just a couple of years older than I, who was remembered most for his kindness and generous spirit; another who, through his work at the National Institutes of Health, sought to help people even as he juggled a complicated family life.
They were variously described as quiet and non-competitive; devoted spouse; loving parent; driven to succeed, to transcend modest beginnings; proud of military service; dedicated to education; of deep faith even if not religiously observant.
They contributed to synagogue community through time, money, social involvement, singing, leadership, committee work, gardening. They were married 25 to 70 years. They had children, some of whom were estranged from them and others who were devoted to their well-being, some who don’t speak with one another and others who spoke about their parent with one voice and heart.
In closing every eulogy I recite, “יְהִי זִכְרוֹ/רָה בָּרוּךְ yehi zichro/ra baruch / may the memory of ____ bring blessing to the lives of those who knew and loved him/her.” For every family I have come to know, I believe that the enduring memories enrich their lives.
The sage Ben Zoma (in Pirkei Avot 4:1) offered this teaching: “אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הֵשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ Eizehu ashir? Hasameiach b’chelko / Who is wealthy? The one who is content with one’s lot.” May we find contentment in our lives, and may we bring blessing to others well before it is our time to be remembered.
Best wishes for 2019!

Ma Tovu

Commemorating the merger between Temple Emeth Shalom and Congregation Beth Judah, and with an eye on the structural and cosmetic changes made to our building, the two-year mark seemed like a propitious time for a party. I titled it a “reDedication” (initially it was re:Dedication, get it? but wiser heads prevailed) and intended it to be a celebration of collaboration.
In mulling over what would be appropriate for the event, Ellie suggested that I write a new melody for something that the Reform and Conservative services could use and, therefore, could sing together. “Ma Tovu”, a text from Torah (Bemidbar / Numbers 24:5) seemed most fitting.
“Ma Tovu” is a verse that we are to recite upon entering a prayer space; in my translation, “How pleasing your homes, b’nai yaakov (desccendants of Jacob), the places you pray, am yisrael (people Israel).” The melody works as a round.
Sheet music and MP3 of the melody are posted above.
A group of singers, representing both constituencies, will premier the piece at the reDedication celebration on Sunday. When I have a recorded version with music and lyrics, I will post that on the Shirat Hayam web site.
Meantime, you are welcome to hum or whistle the tune as you enter your personal or communal prayer spaces.

Marching Against a Plague: A Prayer

On this Shabbat haGadol, this Great Shabbat, across the country and around the world, many thousands of people, especially young people, are rallying in support of action against the plague of gun violence that afflicts our country.
This plague manifests itself in mass murder. This plague manifests itself in the panicked purchase of pistols. This plague manifests itself in the grief of family members, friends and communities, and in the physical and emotional life-scarring wounds of survivors.
This plague casts a pall of fear upon our citizenry, fear for personal safety that drives some to acquire weapons and others to seek constrained access to weapons; fear that drives some to withdraw and raise arms and others to reach out and open arms.
Next week, we will celebrate Pesach, our festival of freedom. It pains some of us that the straw that broke Pharaoh’s back was God’s killing all the first-born in Egypt. Why the deaths of many innocents before the Egyptian leader was moved to take action?
Today, we can ask why the deaths of so many innocents have not motivated our government to seriously address this scourge, to determine that there must be a balance between the American ethos of self-determination and the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This is a prayer for our country, for our children, and for their parents and grandparents:
Dear God, We offer You praise for opening our hearts and our lips in supplication.
We pray for and we are grateful for those who serve the public with generosity and with justice.
We pray for and we are grateful for the armed forces who safeguard us and this sweet land of liberty in which we are privileged to live.
We pray for and we are grateful for the unarmed forces — first responders, teachers, volunteers — who work to protect our safety and freedoms.
We pray for and we are grateful for our elected officials who understand that strength comes not only from military force but also from moral conviction.
We pray for and we are grateful for those in power who see that our fraying social safety nets might not be strong enough to catch the weakest among us, and who are willing to mend those nets for the benefit of all.
We pray for and we are grateful for all who recognize the dangers of unfettered access to weapons and who support common-sense regulation for instruments of lethality.
We pray for and we are grateful for the opportunities we have to participate in healing this world. As Rabbi Tarfon said nearly two thousand years ago, it is not incumbent upon us to complete that task, but we are not free to abstain from it.
We pray for and we are grateful for the strength to do our part. O’se shalom bim’romav; just as You, Adonai our God, make peace in the heavens, please help us make peace among one another — and within us — here on earth.
Together, we say, “Amen!”
Shabbat shalom!שבת שלום