Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – May, 2015

Every 7 – 10 years, every cell in our body will have died off and been replaced. This means that on a cellular level, you are a completely different person – the old you has died off and been replaced. Yet, somehow, the patterns of memory that give us our identity are preserved.

On an institutional level, Congregation Ahavas Israel is the same organization it has been since 1937, when Ahavas Achim rejoined Beth Israel after having broken away 36 years earlier. As a congregation, we trace our sense of identity and our place within Grand Rapids history back to the founding of our first predecessor congregation in 1892. Some families and a few individuals have been continuous members for 80, 90, 100 years or more, but most of us came much later. The congregational body, unlike the human body, does not have a genetically influenced end of lifetime. If we care about it and put time, energy, and money into its upkeep, it can survive and thrive indefinitely. The congregation needs you who care enough about it to be members, to sustain it.

As a religious organization, the most consistent heartbeat of activity can be found in our services: shabbat, festival, and weekdays. Every Wednesday and Thursday morning, groups gather for prayer in the chapel. Perhaps this is a place where you can help sustain the congregation – can you help ensure weekly minyanim by committing yourself to morning prayer once or twice a week or twice a month?

The festival of Shavuot is approaching. We’re gathering on the first night for a program that is part social and part educational – a Tikkun Leil Shavuot study session. If you’ve never participated, perhaps this year you’ll try it out. It’s an informal gather at my home (2021 Michigan St. NE) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 23. The Shavuot morning service the next morning reenacts the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai; the second day of the festival is both Memorial Day on the secular calendar and a day on which we recite Yizkor on the Jewish calendar. The ritual of remembering connects us personally and institutionally, as Jews and as Americans, to those who gave us our identity and to whose lives made it possible for us to live in freedom. Our two identities also intersect at the Ahavas Israel and Greenwood cemetery, where we gather twice a year to place flags on the graves of veterans. We’ll meet at Ahavas Israel Cemetery at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 17 to place flags for Memorial Day.

Shavuot makes the beginning of summer on the Jewish calendar. During the summer months, make it a point to spend a Shabbat once or twice a month (or more!) with us. Your presence will help the heart of Ahavas Israel beat more strongly.

Psalm 89

How long, Adonai, will you hide your face forever; will your fury blaze like fire? (89:47)

The final Psalm in Book 3 of the Psalms, at 53 verses, is the third longest Psalm. It concludes with a doxology typical of the final verse of each book of Psalms, “Blessed is Adonai forever, Amen and Amen.” When I embarked on this project to write a reflection on each of the 150 Psalms, one per week, a nearly three year project, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to maintain the discipline. That’s the funny thing about long-term projects. You begin with the best of intentions, but at a certain point it seems like they’re going to take forever to complete. Forever is a long time. Something which takes forever is never completed.

The JPS translation of our verse, paying careful attention to the punctuation of the verse, reads three distinct questions:

How long, Adonai; will you hide your face forever, will your fury blaze like fire?

The first question, “How long,” is a general cry for God’s presence. It is followed by two specific question. To paraphrase, “Will I never see you again?” and “Are you very angry?”

Rabbi Benjamin Segal, in his masterful book “A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature” translates the verse differently by putting moving the word “forever” from the middle of the verse, where it is found in the Hebrew, to the end of the verse:

How long, Adonai, will you hid your face; will your fury blaze like fire forever?

Rabbi Segal’s translation, reads the verse as two questions — “How long will you remain distant?” and “Will you be angry forever?”

I’ve chosen a different way to understand the verse. The Psalmist asks, “How long will you hide your face?” but embedded in the verse is the word ‘forever,’ a word which indicates what he’s afraid of. I’ve translated this verse to emphasize the writer’s sense of uncertainty and contradiction. The Psalmist asks “how long?” but answers that God’s face will be hidden forever, that God will never appear to him again.

Time is relative. One minute standing in silence, as Israelis do as part of their Memorial Day observance, seems like an eternity. On the other hand, one minute on a rollercoaster is over in a flash. When we’re feeling abandoned, time crawls. When we’re having a good time, time flies. Three-fifths of the way into my journey though the Psalms, I, like the Psalmist, sometimes wonder if I’ll make it to the end. It seems far away. As we finish Book 3 of Psalms, I pause to acknowledge God, the source of blessing, and to thank God for giving me the mental strength and discipline to push on and finish what I began.

Psalm 88

As for me, I cry out to You, O LORD; each morning my prayer greets You.  (88:14)

Some people wake up in the morning ready to go; others wake up with feeling like their brains are full of damp cotton. Even the most enthusiastic morning folks don’t always look forward to morning prayers. There is so much to do, we want to get started tackling the items on the agenda! So we rush through the prayers without much thought in order to get started with more important business.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev noted that it is easy to find people who are distracted by business during prayer times; it is far more difficult to find people who are distracted by God or Torah during business hours.

Why cry out to God? Doesn’t God already know what’s on my mind? Is it possible that God won’t provide for my needs unless I ask for them? And what about all those things that I ask for that I never receive – is God not listening?

We pray not because we need something from God, but because we need to remind ourselves to distinguish between what we truly need and what we merely want.

We pray because we remind ourselves that our life is a gift from God and we need to remind ourselves to show gratitude.

We pray because showing gratitude to God for God’s attributes of love, power, and generosity reminds us to be loving, use power wisely, and generous.

We pray to remind ourselves that the world can be better than it is right now, to remind ourselves that optimism is a Jewish value.

We pray because sometimes we are in pain and shared pain hurts less than pain born alone.

We pray because sometimes we are joyful and joy increases exponentially when shared.

Finally, we pray in a communal minyan to remind ourselves that we are not simply fulfilling a selfish personal obligation – we are also supporting others to fulfill their obligations.

Psalm 87

Indeed, it shall be said of Zion, “Every person was born there.” (87:5)

For every person to be born in Zion either means that the world population shrinks dramatically or the boundaries of Zion, literally or metaphorically, expand to encompass the whole world. Let’s think of a messianic world in which we are citizens of planet earth whose capital is Zion.

If we lived in a truly messianic world in which there were no national conflicts and no meaningful borders between nations, in which people of all religions treated each other with absolute love and respect — wouldn’t that feel as if the messianic City of Jerusalem had expanded  to encompass the entire world?  The whole world would be Israel, a city/land of God.

In this messianic world any Jew living anywhere in the world could claim our birthright – Israeli citizenship and an Israeli passport, fulfilling the Psalmist’s vision, “Every person was born there.” For a host of reasons, this will have to wait until we are significantly closer to peace and stability in the Middle East, but I have a dream! I dream of an expanded Birthright Israel in which Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return is offered to any Jew on the condition that he or she visit Israel once every 5 years and participate in some kind of Israel service program. How many diaspora Jews would make a commitment to participating in the life and development of the Jewish state in exchange for Israeli citizenship? In my dreams, at least, the number is significant.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2015

I have a picture of spring in my mind, although as I’m writing this article, looking at the snow and ice covering the ground, the memory feels like an old, faded sepia-tone print of spring. In my distant memory, the temperature is in the mid 60’s, the same as it was back last fall, but whereas the fall air felt chilly, the spring air feels warm. Fall smelled of moldy leaves, but spring smells of sweet blossoms. Fall reminds me of the heavy labor of putting away the bicycles, building and tearing down the Sukkah, and stowing the grill and deck furniture against the winter. Spring is the time to get on my bicycle, sit out on the deck with a beer and a burger, and celebrate Passover (although not with a beer and a burger!).

All my life, even during the times that my Jewish behavior was less serious, I looked forward to Passover. The story of the exodus, the lessons that flow from the Hagaddah, and the way that the

subjugation to redemption narrative infuses Torah, to me at least, form a compelling argument for Jewish engagement. I know that there are Jews who do not have a Seder or celebrate Passover by putting away the bread and cereal and other leavened grain products for eight days in favor of matza. No matter what you do for Passover, I encourage you to take the holiday experience, especially the Seder, seriously.

The critical element of the Passover Experience is not the elaborate food eaten for dinner at the Seder, but rather the thought that goes into preparing food without leavening and the symbolism behind it. One common take on hametz, leavening, is that it symbolizes the ego. The opposite of hametz, matza, symbolizes humility. Passover can be seen as an exercise in reducing the ego and developing a humble attitude towards caring for others.

The critical element of the Seder is not the brisket or the matza ball soup, but rather the retelling of the story of the Exodus, with the focus on how that story moves us to see and address oppression in the world around us.

I regularly speak to people of other faith traditions who envy the rich holiday life that Judaism offers, giving us times not only to connect with family and friends but also points in the year to reinforce our basic human values that reaffirm our covenant with God. We have chosen to embrace a 3500 year old religious tradition, some on our own and some because that’s what our parents or grandparents taught us what to do. Let’s all do our best to celebrate with joy and pass along our love for Jewish practices to others in our family and community.

Psalm 86

I call to You all day long (86:3)

Years ago I met a man named Ken Wells, who used to sit at a table in the front window of a vegetarian restaurant named Gaia’s. Because I saw him every time I went there, morning or afternoon, I thought he owned the place. One day I struck up a conversation with him and found out that he was a local artist and a Buddhist, but he did not in fact own the restaurant. I admired his work, which I found flowing and whimsical, at a couple of bagel places where he was commissioned to do murals on the walls. Ken was my primary source of information on meditation, years before I did any serious learning from Jewish sources.

I invited him to be the primary speaker at an interfaith Thanksgiving service that was held at the synagogue. His message included a reference to his personal meditative practice in which he strove to spend the entire day, every waking moment, in a state of meditation.

At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. My mental image of meditation was of a person sitting in a quiet space emptying his mind of thoughts. How can you drive, have conversations, engage in business, or create art, with an empty mind? Over time I learned more about meditation and began to understand what he meant. Meditation is a “I call to you all day long” experience of being connected and aware of the Divine Presence at every moment. When speaking to another person while in a meditative state, you have total focus on that person and what she is saying as a manifestation of the Divine Image. Safe driving requires a meditative-like awareness of your surroundings and complete focus on the task at hand. Creating art, creative writing, and even engaging in business require a mind which is at once completely focused and at the same time open to unexpected ideas, a state of mind which can existed in meditation.

Thank you Ken Wells, of blessed memory, for sharing this insight with me years before I had the capacity to understand it.

Psalm 85

Love and truth meet; justice and shalom kiss. (85:11)

Sometimes, love and truth conflict with one another. “I love you and want to say only good things to you and about you. I don’t want to tell you the truth, because the truth will hurt you.”

Justice might demand a disruption in the status quo. Rosa Parks sought justice in being able to choose where to sit. Martin Luther King, Jr., sought a just society in which the color of one’s skin wouldn’t prevent one from exercising the right to vote. Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel want the same right to communal worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall, as Orthodox Jews. Gay and lesbian people want fair and just marriage equality so their partnerships and families have the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual partnerships and families. Each of these demands have created tension in society. Sometimes, justice and shalom temporarily contradict each other.

We all look forward to times when everyone is happy and there is no strife. However, an organization or a society does not mature during those times. It is only at times when a problem comes up and the organization has to struggle with questions of self-identity in order to find a solution that the organization can potentially become stronger. On a micro level, that’s how muscles work as well. When we exercise, we are breaking muscle tissue which then repairs itself and grows stronger. On a macro level, if the organization takes the conflict seriously, which means examining the root of the conflict and deciding which potential solution is most in line with its mission, then it will heal the wounds of the conflict and becomes stronger as a result. Organizations which make decisions opposed to their mission for the sake of expediency or making people happy have not wrestled with the difficult issues, and subsequently will be weakened.

When we tell the truth in a loving way we temporarily break society for the sake of justice but find shalom in a new status quo. In a world where two men or two women can go to the courthouse and get a marriage license without anyone raising an eyebrow, we would look back on a past when this was not so and wonder how people could ever have been so narrow minded.

Psalm 84

They go from rampart to rampart (or “from strength to strength”), appearing before God in Zion. (84:8)

“May you go from strength to strength” was part of a speech of congratulation of my childhood rabbi. It sounded so rabbinic, mostly because it was not at all clear to me what he meant. Did it mean “may you go from success to success,” a wish that would make sense given that he might be offering congratulations for an accomplishment? Of course, he might also be offering congratulations for a marriage or the birth of a child. We won’t know for some years whether the marriage is successful, and while the child may be successfully delivered, the larger task of actually raising the child has barely begun!

As a rabbi myself, I figured I needed to be able to give the phrase a plausible explanation and I did so as follows: “may you go from the strength that it takes to do what you did to the strength that it will take to do the next big thing.” A confession, though — prior to reading Psalm 84, I never knew where this phrase came from. Now that I know where it came from, my 26 word explanation of four Hebrew words seems a bit wordy.

The context in Psalm 84 is a description of a person engaged in a pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, going along the highways, passing through a valley, and finally traveling me’hayil el hayill. Are we envisioning the pilgrim climbing the ramparts on the walls of Jerusalem on the final leg of his journey? I think it more likely that the weary pilgrim would have completed the journey on the streets into the city rather than on the walls around the city. Perhaps a better understanding would be “from effort to effort,” summarizing the long journey as a series of discrete efforts, each of which needed to be accomplished in order to complete the task.

“May you go from [this] effort to [another] effort” doesn’t sound as good as “from strength to strength,” but I think that’s what what my childhood rabbi intended. Each time we complete something, whether it be graduation from high school, a wedding, birth of a child, a new job, we praise the effort that went into the accomplishment. We praise the effort that went into the completion, not the quality of the final product.

What do you call a medical student who graduated last in his class?’ goes the old joke.  Doctor! While there is much to be said for the marathoner who runs to Jerusalem with a world-record breaking time, when all is said and done the plodder who also arrives in the holy city has done the pilgrimage mitzvah just as well.

Psalm 83

O God, do not be silent; do not hold aloof; do not be quiet, O God (83:2)

Some Psalms do not speak to me. This is one of them. The language is powerful, it evokes the image of glorious battles of the past in which our enemies were vanquished, but I find it disturbingly passive. Shall we sit back and wait for God’s voice to thunder from the mountain top? Should we wait for God’s right arm to smash our enemies and correct the injustices of society? Ought we expect that the power of nature – wind, fire, storms – will protect us and destroy them?

Do I show a lack faith when I say no, we should not sit back and wait for God, whining about God’s non-appearance?

When Selma led to the passing and signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that was the voice of God. It was also the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of demonstrators. The racial injustice we still experience is not caused by God’s aloofness. It is the responsibility of those of us who carry around prejudice in our hearts.

To blame God for human failings is an act unworthy of a mature adult. God created us with the potential for greatness, and when we fail it is our failure, not God’s.

Psalm 82

They neither know nor understand, they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth totter. (82:5)

Our Psalm is identified by the Talmud as the Psalm to be recited on Tuesdays because on the third day, God separated water from dry land. In other words, God created the foundation of the world on which human beings live. The connection between Tuesday’s act of creation and Psalm 82 is found in our verse, which says that those among the court of divine judges who are ignorant shake the very foundation of the earth. The Psalmist suggests  that if we allow judges to pervert justice, the fabric of creation can unravel.

The first century Rabbinic work Pirke Avot understood that government, which includes a judiciary system, is necessary for the stability of society:

Rabbi Chanina taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive.” (Avot 3:2)

On the other hand, Pirke Avot also was caution about the capricious nature of the leadership of the Roman empire:

Rabban Gamliel taught: “Be wary of the government, for they get friendly with a person only for their own convenience. They look like friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person when he is in need.” (Avot 2:3)

It is true that our government has not always protected those in need. We have just passed the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” on which over 600 non-violent protesters were viciously attacked by Alabama State troopers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. President Obama shared the following words:

Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?

Voting is a privilege and a sacred obligation. Collectively, we are responsible for maintaining a stable society by choosing our elected representatives wisely. Please take your obligation seriously.

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Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – March, 2015

I want to thank all those who took on extra tasks while I was on Sabbatical, including:

  • Stuart Rapaport, for taking on extra service-leading and funeral responsibilities;
  • Deb Johnston, for all the additional hours finding answers to phone calls and email and handling emergencies;
  • Guy De Jager, for working hard as president to enhance synagogue life;
  • David Reifler, Elisabeth Rosewall, and the Religious Life committee for coordinating extra Shabbat morning responsibilities; and
  • Buddy Joseph, Annaflora Somers, Sheryl Siegel, Marsha Plafkin, Diane Baum, Paula Bojsen, Moe Kleiman, Joanna Bojsen, and Diane Rayor for sharing divre Torah.

The main focus of my Sabbatical was writing. I participated in a weekly writing group, sharing various things I was working on, to improve the quality and clarity of my written communication.

I shared a booklet I was working on entitled, “Death and Mourning in the Jewish Tradition: A Guide for Mourners.” In addition to explaining Jewish traditions, it also provides clear instructions for what to do when a loved one dies – who you call and what decisions you need to make. The booklet is available in the synagogue office or downloadable as a .pdf from AhavasIsraelGR.org, under “Jewish burial in Grand Rapids.”

I also shared several of my Psalm reflections from embodiedtorah.wordpress.com with the writer’s group. Seven of the reflections will be published in an anthology of material from the Grand Rapids Writer’s Exchange. If all goes according to plan, the book will come out sometime in the next year.

I appreciate the congregation’s willingness to give me this Sabbatical. It gave me time to write and read and reflect on some goals for myself and for Ahavas Israel. More on this in coming months.


The World Zionist Organization (WZO) is a coalition of a number of Zionist organization. Approximately every five years it meets as the World Zionist Congress, established by Theodor Herzl, which met for the first time in 1897. At this meeting, delegates vote on policy proposals for the organization, including financial policy, and discuss issues of vital importance to the global Jewish community such as Jewish identity, peace and security, anti-semitism, civil society in Israel, and the future of the State of Israel. Annually the WZO and Jewish Agency for Israel allocate approximately $300 million in support of aliyah, Jewish education and other programs in Israel and abroad.

The WZO election is one way that we can influence how those funds are disbursed. Funds are distributed in proportion with the number of votes received by each organization. Therefore, the more votes an organization receives, the greater the amount of communal funding it can secure for its programs and institutions. Hence for the Conservative Movement, it becomes imperative to secure a large vote in order to direct more money to our movement in Israel.

As a result, if we in the Diaspora want to make a difference in Israel, each and every one of us should vote in the elections of the World Zionist Congress. The cost to register is only $10, or $5 if you are age 30 or under. The benefit to our movement and to religious pluralism in Israel is many times that.

The Zionist organization of the Conservative movement is Mercaz (slate #2). The platform is:

  1. 1. Pluralism —MERCAZ is celebrates Jewish values without limiting itself to one particular stream of Judaism.
  2. 2. Encouraging Aliyah, Hebrew and Zionist Education – Mercaz joins in the effort to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and it encourages Aliyah from all countries. It opposes all attempts to restrict the Law of Return. It also calls for the strengthening of Jewish/Zionist education in the United States and throughout the world.
  3. 3. A Negotiated Two-State Settlement between Israel and the Palestinians – MERCAZ supports a two-state solution – one Jewish and one Palestinian Arab – that is the declared policy of the current Israeli prime minister and of every other Israeli administration for the past ten years.
  1. 4. Pro-Active Concern for Israel’s Environment. As caretaker of the land of Israel we have a responsibility to protect the environment of Israel for future generations.
  2. 5. Support for the Conservative/Masorti Movement: This is really where the rubber hits the road. The number of members affiliated with Mercaz will determine how much money is given to our Masorti Congregations in Israel, and how much recognition they receive. Your vote then is a vote of support for our brothers and sisters in Israel – and it has economic implications.

The registration form can be found at https://www.myvoteourisrael.com. More information about Mercaz can be found at http://votemercaz.org. Voting end on April 30, 2015. The 37th World Zionist Congress will take place in Jerusalem in October, 2015.

Psalm 81

God feeds them the finest wheat, “I will satisfy you with honey from the rock.” (81:17)

The Me’or Eynayim, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (c. 1739 – 1797, Ukraine) teaches that any food we eat comes to us by means of the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, garbed in various proximate causes (from a translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality). In other words, we might buy the food at a restaurant, we might buy it at the supermarket and prepare it for ourselves, it might be served at a meeting, we might receive it in the form of a restaurant gift card, we might eat it at Kiddush, we might receive it from a food pantry. No matter what the food, from the richest, most elaborately prepared gourmet meal to the simplest microwave ready entree, it is God who is feeding us.

We might dream, with the Psalmist, of the finest food, but the Me’or Eynayim cautions, “Our sages teach that eating is a time of battle, that we must fight the yetzer hara, the selfish inclination, when we eat, especially when we are eating something we enjoy.”

Typically, I am not a mindful eater. My yetzer urges me to eat more and more, faster and faster, as if this might be my last chance to eat for a very long time! For several years, each time I would see my doctor for an annual physical he would note that I weighed a pound or so more than the previous year. A pound is not much, but over 20 years it would add up.

On rare occasions when I am relaxed and totally focused on the food and not distracted, I slow down and really think about what I am eating. I taste the food and feel the energy contained within it being broken down and absorbed by my body. For the past few years I have been working on being more mindful with both my eating and my physical activity. At my yearly visit with my doctor my weight has been stable or even a pound or so less than the previous year.

I love eating a fresh baked hearty roll and a slice of delicious honey cake, but the Me’or Eynayim’s lesson is to be equally satisfied with a simple peanut butter sandwich on plain bread. Remember, the Shekhina is equally found in all types of food.

Psalm 80

You plucked up a vine from Egypt; You expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (80:9-10)

The theology of this verse reminds me of the comment on the first verse of Genesis by the medieval French commentator Rashi, in which he explains that the purpose of beginning Torah with creation, rather than with the first mitzvah given to Israel in Exodus 12, is to remind us that the world belongs to God. In this Psalm, God is a gardener and the world is God’s garden.

I know some transplanted species do very well in a new location, taking over the land and crowding out the native species. Typically, we call those kinds of plants “invasive.” This does not seem to be the image that the Psalmist is drawing. Rather, he is describing a Gardener who very carefully prepares the soil by clearing away the plants currently growing in the new location as if they were weeds. Only when the area is empty and ready for a new planting does the gardener take the vine that had been growing in Egypt and transplant it to its new location.

The vine takes to the new location as its native habitat, flourishing, sending its roots deep into the ground and spreading out to fill the land. The vine doesn’t own the land any more than the plants who preceded it owned the land. The vine lives off the land, depending on the owner of the land to sustain it. This Gardener is not typical of those who take care of small farms and landscapes. This Gardener not only fertilizes the soil and trims the vine, but also controls the water and the sunshine that nourish the vine.

Although the Psalmist speaks as if the vine is the only thing growing, we know that a healthy ecosystem supports a variety of plants. To conclude on a messianic note: just as the vine shares the land with a different kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, grains and and flowering plants, so too may the people Israel someday share the land in peace with a diversity of other peoples.

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