Psalm 69

As for me, may my prayer come to You, O LORD, at a favorable moment; O God, in Your abundant faithfulness, answer me with Your sure deliverance. (69:14)

The assumption of the Psalmist is that God is more open to petitionary prayer at some moments than at others. It’s like the image we use on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of gates of repentance opening and closing. If our prayer rises at a favorable moment, it will be answered. If God is not open to prayer at the moment our prayer arises, it will fail.

Another image comes to mind. An average of 280 million sperm cells race toward the uterus. Most will not make it. Only a small percentage of those who do will find the oviduct. Only a fraction of those will make contact with the egg – but the “shell” of the egg repels the initial assault by the sperm cells. Each sperm cell, however, deposits an enzyme that breaks down the barrier. Finally, one cell breaks through a hole in the egg’s outer shell and combines its genetic material with that of the egg. Let’s imagine that this couple has been praying for a child. So many things have to be in alignment: the egg has to be in the right place, ready for fertilization. The sperm have to find their way through a complicated mucus filled maze in sufficient quantity to help one break into the egg. The genetic material in the zygote has to be healthy enough to begin mitosis and the emerging blastocyst needs to attach itself to the uterine wall and absorb nutrition. This couple’s prayer seeks a favorable moment in the same way that the science of reproductive medicine needs a favorable moment to begin the process of creating a child. If the couple’s prayers for a child reach God at the wrong time in the woman’s reproductive cycle, there is little no chance that God’s answer will be a baby delivery 40 weeks later.

The lesson is that if we are to offer petitionary prayer, we have to ensure that we have done everything in our power to create the conditions under which our prayer might be answered.

The Leadership Qualities of Thomas Jefferson

One of my occasional projects is to read presidential biographies. I am reading them because each of them had the leadership qualities to get elected to perhaps the highest office in the Western world, so by definition there is something in their lives that is worth studying.

I have just finished “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” by Jon Meacham. Jefferson was a man who lived for the chance to increase his knowledge about anything and everything. He could engage virtually anyone in conversation because he could find a genuine interest in something that the other person was interested in. In his political leadership he was able to blend two opposing qualities that made him enormously successful. As president, he wanted to know everything that was going on in his cabinet so he could shape events according to his will. He wanted control. At the same time, he would do almost anything to avoid a direct confrontation. He understood that the way to maintain cordial relationships is to avoid arguments. So when he wanted to push some piece of legislation or introduce some controversial idea, he would often ask another person to do it for him, while keeping his involvement a secret. In this, there was an element of humility – he didn’t care whether he got credit for his ideas (on one case, he asked that the recipient burn the letter in which he suggested that the recipient introduce the legislation – we only know about this because the recipient didn’t burn it!). Jefferson blended control with humility. Although at one point he and John Adams were on opposing sides of a fierce struggle for the future of the emerging country (Federalist vs. Republican), at the end of their careers the two of them were on very good terms.

Jefferson also understood that theoretical idealism does not work in the real world of politics. He was elected as a States’ Rights Republican anti-Federalist (whom he called Monarchists), but over the course of his eight years he saw the wisdom of a strong president and a strong Federal government. For example, the Louisiana Purchase would not have been possible had he waited for a Constitutional Amendment (which he theoretically believes was necessary) before signing the agreement.

A synagogue should be an inclusive institution, and this means that within the boundaries of the mission statement, arguments should be avoided. People ought to be welcomed where they are, and the mission of the synagogue ought to be to encourage them to explore the depths of Judaism and increase their commitment to a Jewish life. The mission of the synagogue ought to be encouraging, not coercive. Synagogue business ought to be conducted with humility, with the awareness that control over the institution ultimately belongs to Torah, which embodies the mission of the congregation.

Next up: “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” by Lynn Cheney

Psalm 63

God, … I search for You, my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You, as a parched and thirsty land that has no water. (63:2)

Sometimes God’s presence is front and center, and sometimes it is like (as this Psalmist writes) we are in a dry wilderness and God is nowhere to be seen.

My own experience is this — I don’t expect the Presence of God to be visible at all times. I expect that I am pretty much on my own most of the time. The brief moments when I sense the Presence are comforting and gratifying, all the more so for their rarity. My sense is this is the way things are supposed to be.

Years ago, I read in Rabbi David Wolpe’s “Healer of Shattered Hearts” an explanation of theodicy and goodness that has remained with me ever since. If you knew that God was constantly at your side, rewarding you and punishing you at appropriate moments, wouldn’t you be on your best behavior? How many people break traffic laws when they know that a police car is right behind them! Are you being good at those moments, or are you just being smart? Rabbi Wolpe suggests that you are not being good when you are behaving well at moments when you know you are being monitored, you are just being smart.

The fact is that we know good people who suffer and nasty people who prosper. We know both good and evil people are hurt by tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunami. We know that God does not immediately reward and punish. God is not a police officer trailing us night and day. Thus, when we choose to be good rather than bad, we are truly being good, not just smart.

We may long for a more visible and constant and nourishing sign of the Presence of God. At the same time, we need to remember that we are mature, adult, human beings, able to function without constant “parental” supervision.

Divre Harav – Words from the Rabbi – November, 2014

Beginning this month, I will be on Sabbatical for three months. It is a common practice of rabbis and other clergy to be given a periodic Sabbatical from their regular duties for reflection, for rekindling the spirit and the sense of calling by God, for reconnecting more deeply with the tradition (Scripture, theology, liturgy), and for deepening one’s own spiritual life. My last Sabbatical was five years ago. While on Sabbatical, I will not be available for my normal Rabbinic duties. I will not be coming into the office, attending meetings, or scheduling appointments. I will not be taking phone calls or responding to email for routine questions. I will not be teaching, leading study groups, leading services, or giving Divre Torah. The office will refer calls or email either to the president or to the appropriate committee.

What will I be doing? Clergy organizations suggest that a Sabbatical should not be heavily structured. The idea is to have free time for unexpected projects and learning. I will be spending a great deal of time time reading and studying. I will be out of town for part of the time, but most of the time will be spent in Grand Rapids. I do have two structured projects to focus on during my Sabbatical time. The first is something I have done several times in the past (my third time – I do it every time I have a Sabbatical). I am serving as a Graduate Assistant teacher of a 12 week Dale Carnegie course, giving example talks, leading small group exercises and discussions, and helping the instructors keep organized. In searching for a second project, I considered that my first Sabbatical focused on visiting other small congregations, and my second focused on studying the art of preaching. It occurred to me that I do a fair amount of writing for the synagogue, and I have had several projects on the back burner (including a booklet that would be a guide to funeral and mourning customs). I decided to join a weekly writing group, in which people bring a piece of whatever they are working on, share it with the group, and receive feedback.

During my Sabbatical, a number of people and committees will be picking up some of my responsibilities.  Of course, services will be led by Stuart Rapaport, but the Religious Life committee will be coordinating service gabbai’im, to help announce pages and lead selected readings. I have  invited a number of people to share Divre Torah – as of the beginning of October, November 29, December 13 and 27, and all of January are open. Please call the office if you would like to do one.

The one exception I will make in a normal Sabbatical practice will involve officiating at funerals, if I am in town. However,  the initial phone call regarding a funeral should go the office. After office hours (7:00 am – 10:00 am and 3:30 pm – 10:00 pm), please call Stuart Rapaport. After the basic funeral arrangements (include date and time) have been set, I will be contacted. If I am available, I will contact the family to speak about the funeral service.  Otherwise, Stuart will handle the funeral service.

This will be my fourth three month Sabbatical (one every five years). I understand that the many people in the congregation really stretch themselves to cover for me while I’m away, and I am immensely grateful for this opportunity. Todah Rabbah!

Psalm 64

Hide me from a band of evil men, from a crowd of evildoers, who whet their tongues like swords; they aim their arrows — cruel words — to shoot from hiding at the blameless man … They arm themselves with an evil word … (64:3-6)

These verses have a very first world flavor to them. Many times, the Psalmist writes of being under physical attack. There are many people in this world who suffer the very real fear of physical danger. For many of us in the US and other Western, developed countries, our physical safety is not the primary question. Although we are aware of school shootings and violence in our cities, for many people, myself included, such incidents feel far away. There is no question that they are real problems, but the fear that feels most real to those who lives their lives in relative safety are from those who use words, not weapons, as threats.

It is not true that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Aggressive words do hurt. The modern workplace and modern politics may have no place for duels, or stepping outside and settling our disputes like gentlemen by beating each other up, or a good old fashioned sword fight. Rather, we see verbal attacks, condescension and ridiculing comments. We see people working (or playing?) on their devices during meetings, pointedly ignoring the person making a presentation. In schools, despite workshops and assemblies on bullying, we see closed cliques of teens deliberately shutting out those who don’t dress or speak or fit in the right way.

Email, texting, social media posts, all provide a forum to attack. We might even long for the simpler days of the Psalmist when the evildoers had to put quill on parchment to pen an insulting letter, or at least go out into the public square and show their faces if they wanted to engage in a verbal assault. There were no anonymous comment streams at the end of newspaper columns, behind which the cowards could spew their venom.

All who have been in the crosshairs of a barrage of hostile, violent, words have uttered words to whatever Higher Power we appeal to, “Protect me from this cruel assault!”

The Challenge of Being Unscheduled

The third day of my Sabbatical, I lost the watch that my grandparents gave me on June 2, 1982, for my High School graduation. I thought I might have left it in a locker at the Y the day before. No one had turned it in at the desk at the Y, so I kept looking. I found it later in the day in my dresser, exactly where I had left it. I also lost my debit card. Later, I found it tucked into my checkbook, again exactly where I had left it. At the end of the day, I lost part of my iPad charger. After much searching, I found it under the passenger seat in my car. I had put it on the seat in the car – it took the better part of an hour to find exactly where it had migrated.

The next day, I sort of lost one of my sons. I was supposed to pick up my two older sons from school. I picked up one of them, but forgot that I was supposed to pick up the other. He waited patiently until my wife noticed he was missing and went back to school to get him, 45 minutes later. Later that night, I temporarily lost my cellphone.

I am not normally a person who loses quite so many things. Fortunately, I recovered everything I lost, but something is clearly going on with my mind and I know what it is. It’s the Sabbatical.

Normally, my time is relatively scheduled. Even when I have unscheduled time, I have a defined list of things that I need to do to prepare for classes and meetings or finish bulletin or Mlive articles. Suddenly, I am temporarily free from my synagogue responsibilities and in order for Sabbatical time to work properly, I need to let myself drift a bit. The lack of order in my life is expressing itself by a lack of order in my mind. I know from past experience that in order to let myself explore new things in a completely new way (part of the purpose of Sabbatical time), I need to give myself the unstructured time. Eventually, I will start on some reading and writing projects and a direction will present itself, and my time, although still my own, will fall into a less chaotic pattern.

Meanwhile, I am focusing on self care – exercising and strength training at the Y – and taking care of some long overdue projects at home. I am also trying harder to keep my things – and my children – organized.

The Story of Soup

I shared two Sabbatical articles with my writing group last week. Aside from the small suggestions of grammar and sentence structure, I heard comments that I need to pay more attention to story. These articles could be more than just a journal of my activities. They should be the ongoing story of a series of transformative activities. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be in a profession that allows them an unstructured leave from daily responsibilities to spend an extended period of time learning and thinking. However, the Sabbatical can be experienced in microcosm if the story can be translated into the reader’s life.

Here’s a story from the first week of Sabbatical: One of my more mundane activities has been making soup. When I was first learning to cook seriously, in my early 20’s, I thought cooking soup required magic. My mother is a wonderful cook. I could never figure out how she could turn water into this rich, fragrant, golden liquid called chicken soup until I tried it for myself. I discovered that cooking soup simply requires throwing the ingredients into a pot of water and cooking it for hours, letting the magic of chemistry blend the flavors together, pull the starches and bind the liquid together into … soup!

If all you have at your disposal is standard kitchen equipment (i.e., no pressure cooker), you can’t rush the process of making soup. You can’t turn the stove up to high and make the magic happen faster. Similarly, the learning that happens during a sabbatical takes time. What do you do when you don’t have extended unstructured time? One answer, the Jewish answer, is that you can build a mini-sabbatical, called Shabbat, into your week. Magic happens on Shabbat when you decline to schedule shopping, entertainment opportunities, or children’s obligations, but rather spend the time in prayer (preferably community-based prayer), study, reading, contemplation, socializing, and eating meals with family and/or friends.

Winter is approaching. What a good time to make soup and make Shabbat!

Psalm 65

You take care of the earth and irrigate it; You enrich it greatly, with the channel of God full of water; You provide grain for men; for so do You prepare it. Saturating its furrows, leveling its ridges, You soften it with showers, You bless its growth. You crown the year with Your bounty; fatness is distilled in Your paths; the pasturelands distill it; the hills are girded with joy. The meadows are clothed with flocks, the valleys mantled with grain; they raise a shout, they break into song. (65:10-14)

Shopping at a large supermarket may not always feel like a joyful experience, beginning with finding a parking place, walking to the store, slogging through crowds of people to get a cart and negotiate the aisles, finding in which aisle the produce you are seeking is located, and waiting in line at the checkout. The hassle of shopping might in fact mask the absolute miracle of what you are able to buy. How many people’s livelihood depends on the produce that you are buying? How many hours, how much sweat and worry did they invest into growing it? So much of their living depends on factors out of their control, such as the quality and quantity of rain, the sun, the temperature.

In the mid-1940’s, Florida frozen orange juice concentrate began to be marketed as “liquid sunshine.” It takes a partnership of effort to transform the energy of the sun and a handful of materials and minerals into an orange, a sweet pepper, or a banana. And to take this one step further, walk down the bread aisle and imagine the additional set of people who took the raw grain and processed it into various flavors in a variety of shapes. The traditional berakha is “… who brings forth bread from the earth,” but we know that this, too, only happens in partnership with farmers and bakers (along with those who manage the transportation issues of getting the raw ingredients to the bakery and the finished produce to the store).

So next time you go to the supermarket, keep the Psalmist’s words in mind and think about the joyful pastures and hills singing their produce to life, and think about all of the people whose lives are dedicated to bringing you the song of the meadows and valleys.

Psalm 66

O peoples, bless our God, celebrate God’s praises; the One who has granted us life, and has not let our feet slip. (66:8-9)

Several years ago I met Rabbi Ronnie Cahana while visiting Camp Ramah in Canada. He serves a congregation in Montreal. Our paths crossed because his daughter was in the same age group as my sons. He was warm and friendly. I enjoyed the few days I spent getting to know him and remembered the encounter. Just a couple years after that meeting, in 2011, he had a stroke and was paralyzed from just below his eyes down. His mental faculties were intact – a condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” His daughter Kitra recently gave a very powerful TED talk describing how she and the rest of his family transcribed his communication through blinks, which allowed him to continue to share his Torah and his poetry with his congregation and on his web site, rabbicahana.com.

I watched the video of Kitra’s talk; the next day, I received an email from Pam, a college friend, whose mother suffered a major stroke early in October. She wrote that she has been away from home with her mother for nearly five weeks, taking care of her throughout her recovery and the search for a facility that will be able to take care of her after Pam returns home to her family. Her mom is mostly cognitively intact, cannot move the right side of her body, but because she suffered the stroke about 36 hours before she was found and treatment could begin, she will not recover fully.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” From the first moment that he could communicate, Rabbi Cahana comforted his family and his congregation, assuring them that his experience was a blessing, that he found God within the silence of his body. He continued to teach Torah, he continued to counsel members of his congregation, while in a condition that most of us would have found intolerable.

“Bless God … who has not let our feet slip.” Pam found spiritual comfort in some of my Psalm reflections and other blog posts, but I find spiritual comfort in hearing about the love and strength she exhibits in the face of tremendous hardship. Away from her husband and children, she has willingly taking on the task of caring for the mother who embraced her and cared for her.

I have long disliked the aphorism, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Most of us handle whatever we need to handle, but some of us, overwhelmed, do not handle things well at all. For me, A theology that suggests that God piles it on for those who can handle it is perverse. Rabbi Cahana is standing firm and my friend Pam is standing firm, both under very trying circumstances. “Thank God … they have kept their footing.”

Psalm 67

November 24

May the earth yield its produce; may God, our God, bless us. (67:7)

The American Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. The cornucopia, a horn overflowing with produce, is a symbol of Thanksgiving. The Jewish holiday of thanksgiving celebrated earlier in the fall, is Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. Notably, while it is a holiday of celebration and harvest, it also contains significant elements acknowledging that no matter how overflowing our pantries, our existence is nonetheless precarious.

We read the Book of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot to remind ourselves that our material possessions come and go, largely out of our control. We pray for rain to remind ourselves that no matter how abundant the current harvest, next year’s success depends on God’s blessing of rain. We eat our festive meals in the Sukkah, whose fragile structure open to the elements under a roof made from branches reminds us to be grateful for every blessing. Easy times and hard times blend together, just as eating at a Sukkah table full of tasty food leaves us open to heat, cold, insects, and rain.

The one line prayer of the Psalmist is a prayer within two realms. May the earth continue to share its bounty with us, and may God bless us with an open heart, able to see the blessing embedded within our troubles. I’ll conclude with the following prayer (author unknown):

May we have enough trials to keep us strong, enough sorrow to keep us human, enough hope to keep us happy, enough failure to keep us humble, enough success to keep us eager, enough friends to give us comfort, enough enthusiasm to make us look forward, enough wealth to meet our needs, and enough determination to make each day a better day than the last.

Psalm 68

… the father of orphans, the champion of widows, God restores the lonely to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound (68:6-7)

Orphans and widows – in the Biblical paradigm, these categories represent society’s most vulnerable. The Psalmist pictures God as the great protector of those on the fringes of society. This contrasts with Exodus 22:21, in which we are warned against mistreating the vulnerable, “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan,” and Deuteronomy 27:19, which curses one who does not uphold the rights of the widows and orphans. Three times in Deuteronomy 24 and 26, the Torah commands a special tzedakah obligation to take care of widows and orphans. If God is in charge of protecting the vulnerable, then clearly God has delegated the responsibility to us.

It is our obligation to watch out and protect those who live their lives on the economic or social margins of society. Single mothers are economically vulnerable. Children without fathers in their homes are vulnerable to fall prey to gang and other criminal activity. To expand the pool of the vulnerable – gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens; people with mental illnesses; people who have served time in prison, especially those whose crime labels them as a sexual offender; and those who are homeless. God may be in charge of restoring them to their homes, safe and sound, but it is our wallets, tax dollars, willing hearts and helping hands that will make it happen.

Psalm 59

They come each evening growling like dogs, roaming the city. (59:7)

Recently, while returning to the car after music lessons, my children and I heard a meowing cat – really more of a kitten – near the car. My daughter and one of my sons walked towards the sound and the cat came right out of the bushes and walked up to them. No collar, no identification. I love dogs, but am fairly indifferent to cats. On top of that, it was after 6:00 so the Humane Society was closed, and I know cats, being independent creatures, can take care of themselves fairly well. My daughter wanted to do something, find someone to take care of the cat, but in addition to the already mentioned reasons, I was hungry and I wanted to go home. Had it been a dog, I probably would have done the same thing – I would not have wanted to take it home, 6-7 miles away, in case its owner was looking for it. However, I would have felt badly about leaving a dog. My daughter, being more sensitive than I, felt badly about leaving the cat.

As much as I love dogs, there is something fear inducing about a stray dog. A hissing stray cat will not provoke much of a reaction in me (although I certainly wouldn’t approach it), but a growling dog brings up a primal fight or flight reaction.

This is not a surprising reaction. It is an empirically smart reaction, perfectly normal and expected. But if you think about it, it is the animal that I feel a connection with and have strong positive feelings for that potentially provokes fear, while the animal that I somewhat dislike that prompts feelings of indifference.

Isn’t this also the case with people? It is the people we have a connection with and feel closest to who have the power to evoke the strongest negative emotions in us – anger, fear, hatred, jealously, and disgust. Such emotions are generally undesirable and get in the way of maintaining a healthy relationship with our spouse, parents, siblings, or children. When those emotions come up it is worth keeping this in mind in order not be be over reactive – ‘fight or flight’ is proper when confronting a growling dog; ‘sit and have a cup of coffee and talk’ is a better reaction when dealing with an unhappy spouse!


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Midot - The embodied Torah of Character Values Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – September, 2014

My apologies – I forgot to post this at the beginning of September!

“Is it hard to be Jewish in Grand Rapids?” was one of the questions that one of our Israeli Scout guests asked as we were eating breakfast. Yes, it can be difficult. Acquiring kosher food can be a challenge, especially meat. One or two days, 2.5 – 4.5 hours, a week of Jewish education for children is barely enough to scratch the surface, much less teach serious Hebrew and the richness of Jewish literature, calendar, prayer, and other daily practice. There is a growing disconnect between the American Jewish community and Israel, as supporters of Israel find themselves having to work hard to overcome apathy at best, and to justify even the existence of the State of Israel at worst.

On the other hand, for those who want to support and/or participate in a serious Jewish community, Jewish behavior is as natural as breathing. Rarely do I feel that it is an effort or a burden to be Jewish – celebrating Shabbat in the Ahavas Israel community, being aware of how I give my Tzedakah dollars and what food I put into my body, helping staff our Family Promise shelter dates, and learning and teaching Torah, this is what sustains me.

As we approach the fall of the year and our High Holidays once again, I encourage you to use the time of teshuvah to consider how you might enliven your Jewish souls. Our Scholar in Residence weekend this month, featuring Dr. Yael Aronoff of MSU, will answer many of your questions (or the questions your friends or co-workers might throw at you) on Israel. Let the return of our religious school students to class be a reminder that Judaism is not (just) for children – you, too, can find ways to learn Torah and Rabbinic literature both locally and online. You can find my weekly reflections on Psalms at embodiedtorah.wordpress.com – read Psalms along with me and add your own reflections in the comments.

May your new year be sweet and give you many opportunities to nourish your soul.


Filed under: Embodied Torah Tagged: Israel, Jewish Education, Tzedakah
Text Size

Jewish Date

Facebook Twitter RSS Feed 

Subscribe to our Newsletter
Please wait