Psalm 6

“Adonai, turn!” (6:5)

The idea that God changes is challenging to many people. If God changes, then the earlier pronouncements of God must not have been correct – therefore, God is not perfect. If God was perfect, then God would never need to change. However, God’s covenant and relationship is with us, with human beings, and perforce needs to change because we change. God’s changes, then, are motivated by who we are at any given moment. God’s malleability, therefore, is a model for us. If God can change and respond to us, then we can change and respond not only to God, but to the people around us. Where do you need to change?

Psalm 5

“Let them fall by their own devices.” (5:11)

Most of our failures are not caused by other people sabotaging our lives. Most of the time when we run into problems, if we look carefully we’ll see that we are the primary cause of our difficulties. When we fail, it is most often because we didn’t sufficiently prepare or because we didn’t pay attention to the signs that were trying to warn about the “bridge out ahead!” We blithely continued on, ignoring the warnings, until we drove right off the bridge. And then we screamed all the way down, blaming everyone except ourselves for our plight, which was caused by our own lack of attention.

Psalm 4

“Ponder it on your bed, and be still.” (4:5)

Rare is the day on which all of our work, in the broadest sense of the word, gets done. We nearly always leave something undone, something we could have done better. That’s OK – it’s part of being human. Being human, though, is just a bit less than being Divine – which means that while messing up is expected, so is self-analysis. As you lie in bed at night, calm your breathing and review your day. Choose something that could have gone better. Even if 90% of the problem was caused by someone else’s mistake, identify one thing that you contributed to the problem and one thing that you could have done to avert or lessen it.

Psalm 3

“I lie down and sleep and wake again.” (3:6)

We sleep to recharge ourselves so that we can wake up in the morning with energy, ready to embrace any and all possibilities that the day might present to us, with a smile and a positive attitude. It is a blessing of the highest order to be able to lie down and know that we’ve given our best effort over the course of the day. When we can lie down with satisfaction for how we’ve conducted ourselves and with no regrets for the things that we have left undone or the things that we have to apologize for tomorrow, we can sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Psalm 2

“Break the cords of their yoke …” (2:3)

A mature adult is never completely free from responsibilities, but we choose what yokes we wear. Some yokes are harder to remove than others. The yokes of addiction to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs physically attach themselves to our shoulders, whereas the yokes of addiction to shopping or our iDevices rest so comfortably and naturally that we are loathe to remove them. The yoke is the device that drives the cart. We can choose to take on the yokes of family, service to God and community, and friends first and let those activities be our priorities, rather than yoking ourselves to other things that distract us from what should be most important.

Psalm 1

“A tree planted beside streams of water …” (1:3)

A well-watered tree planted in good soil will flourish. Everything that goes into my body — the food I eat, the liquids I drink, the air I breathe, the sounds and words that I listen to and the images that I watch, will affect my physical and spiritual health. I like action movies but lately, at my wife’s urging, I have been averting my eyes during the most violent scenes. Negative speech, much the same as sugary, fat-laden junk food, creates an intoxicating buzz for a moment, followed by a general feeling of malaise. A healthy lifestyle which includes high doses of gossip is like a vegan diet with occasional splurges of bacon cheeseburgers.

Divre Harav – January, 2017

The Mishnah of Pirke Avot is often translated as “Ethics of our Fathers” which describes the content of the Mishnah, but has nothing to do with its Hebrew title. A Perek is a chapter, and Avot are “fathers,” but the word is used in Rabbinic literature to refer to primary or fundamental categories. Thus, my teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Zahavy, translated the title of this tractate as “Chapters of Principles.” Most of Pirke Avot is a list of rabbis from the period of the Mishnah and Gemarah and a favorite saying of each one, naming a fundamental principle in which they believe.

Chapter two begins with the editor of the Mishnah, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi]. He says, “What is the upright path which a person should choose for oneself? Whatever brings honor to one’s maker and honor from one’s fellow human beings.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Rabbi Yehudah’s question is the fundamental question we should think about when we get up in the morning and before we engage in any behavior that affects other people. If you are known to be Jewish, a person of faith, then you need to be aware that anything you do, good or bad, will be associated with Judaism and the “Jewish God.“ How am I going to behave today, what am I going to do that which will reflects well on God, what can I do today to increase people’s respect for Jews and Judaism? How will my behavior cause other people to respond to me? Will their respect and admiration for me increase or decrease if I take this action?

For example, before sending an email, or before speaking your mind in public, ask yourself – will this honor God, and how will this make people think of me. We live in a world today in which communication is lightning fast and this creates an expectation of an equally speedy response. This may means that we answer with very little thought, without having thoroughly read or carefully considered the question. Rabbi Yehudah’s question encourages us to slow down and think before answering, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings.

Another example: I deal weekly with a set of people who read my Ethics and Religion Talk column and post comments. Some of them use a real name, some have corresponded with me privately so I know who they are, but most are anonymous. Perhaps this increases their inclination to use insulting or degrading language, or make outlandishly false claims against a position they disagree with. I have noticed that websites which require registration and verified real names tend to have a higher level of discourse than those who permit anonymity. If I don’t know who you are, you are able to cast insults without worrying that your reputation will be damaged. Rabbi Yehudah’s question should encourage each of us to pause before hitting the ‘submit’ button when we post on social media, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings, whether they know our name or not.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishnah – A second century Rabbinic expansion of the Jewish law and ethics of Torah.
  • Gemarah – a third to sixth century discussion and expansion of the Mishnah.
  • Talmud – The volumes in which Mishnah and Gemarah are published together.
  • Masekhet – One of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah.

Psalm 15

“… speaks truth in his heart.” (15:2)

To lie convincingly, most people, unless they suffer from a personality disorder, need to believe the lie. If you fully acknowledge the truth in your heart and mind, it is very difficult to lie. Your body will most likely give you away. Your eyes will shift, your tongue will stutter, or your voice will drop. Your body physically resists telling what it knows to be a lie. It is possible to override your body’s impulse and teach it to lie more effectively, but it is so much easier to teach your yetzer hara to tell the truth, inside and out.

Psalm Reflections

It’s been about six months since I completed my cycle of psalm reflections. Writing a 300 words reflection every week about a verse from a Psalm was rewarding, even though at time it was a difficult discipline. The Psalms are powerful poetry, reflecting a spectrum of human experience reaching out towards God. I appreciated the time that I spent every week reading the Psalm, trying to understand its message, and searching within that for the message it had for me. I miss it, but I’ve not been sure whether I am prepared to commit the time to do it again in the same way. Reading one Psalm a week was a three year commitment.

After much thought, I decided I missed the Psalms and want to go back through them again, but I also decided to streamline and accelerate the pace. 2017 will be the year of the Psalms mini-reflection. I’m going to try to go through the Psalms again and write brief reflections of approximately 100 words, each one focusing on a short sentence or phrase. And I’m going to try to publish three a week, so I can finish the project in one year.

I’d love to read your comments. I’d also love to see you keep up and write your own reflections and share them in the comments.

Divre Harav – December 2016

The basic mitzvah of Hanukkah is to place the Hanukkiyah in a window or doorway so it is visible outside the home, thus publicizing the miracle. We tend to think of religious observance as a personal and private matter, and to some extent it is. My religious practice is my own business, not anyone else’s. It is not the government’s right nor my neighbor’s right to coerce me into spending my time or money in support of a religious institution – that’s how the establishment clause of the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States has been interpreted. However, that doesn’t mean that we, as individual religious people, are prohibited from sharing ourselves in the open marketplace of social and religious discourse. As Jews, we have a mitzvah to share our story with pride. The basic Hanukkah story, tossing aside the story of the long-burning oil for the moment, is that of a group of people who refused to compromise their basic belief in one God,  primacy of Torah, circumcision, sanctity of the Sabbath, and refusal to eat pork. We don’t need to be obnoxious about sharing the story. We’re not trying to save our neighbors’ souls. Rather, it is a matter of personal pride. Proud American might wear flag pins on their lapels. A rainbow bumper sticker shows support for LGBT issues. Pink ribbon pins draw attention to the need for increased funding for breast cancer research. The brightly lit Hanukkah menorah in the window proclaims religious freedom for all.

December is Jewish pride month. How many different foods can you fry in oil to remember lighting the menorah to rededicate the Temple? What is one thing you can do this month to show public pride in your Jewish identity that you would not otherwise do?

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hanukkiyah: The name for the nine branched Hanukkah menorah.
  • Brit: covenant
  • Milah: circumcision
  • Sufganiyot: Jelly donuts, a common Israel Hanukkah treat.
  • Sevivon: dreydel

Divre Harav, November 2016

For those of you who were out of town or unable to be at Ahavas Israel for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I encourage you to download my sermons from our website or contact the synagogue office and ask Deb to mail them to you. I hope you will find the messages both inspiring and challenging.

Now that a very busy month of holidays has passed we return to a normal 6 day rhythm punctuated by a Sabbath break. It has been about six months since we instituted our “Torah Study Shabbat” service schedule. The early morning Torah study has attracted about a dozen or so serious participants so when we begin our service at 10:30, we begin with more energy then then the other weeks of the month. We have not yet noticed that many of the people who said that they wanted a shorter service have been coming on the second Shabbat of the month, but there are still six months left in the initial stage of the experiment. Our Junior Congregation will also meet on the second Shabbat of the month so that will give greater incentive for another population to join together.

Perhaps the Torah study or the shortened service will be a gateway that will help you feel more comfortable in the Ahavas Israel community. Shabbat can be a social or a religious or even an educational anchor of a Jewish community. I love seeing people hanging around the meeting room or the library, not wanting to leave after services. With several more volunteers to shop, prepare kiddush, and clean up, we could prepare enough Kiddush food for a light lunch. This would enable those who wanted to stick around to study in the library or bring board games or just socialize. This community can be whatever you want it to you, as long as you are willing to put the time into it.

As Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream – im tirtzu, ein zo agada!”

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • agada – story
  • halom – dream
  • midrash – story, typically a commentary

Divre Harav – October, 2016

“Connect with your Jewish neighbors through Ahavas Israel”

The word havurah derives from the Hebrew denoting connection. Hibur means to make a connection; A haver is a friend. A Havurah is a group of people who come together because of shared interests, age, life experience, or geographic proximity. Sometimes a havurah functions as a synagogue, meeting every Shabbat, and sometimes havurot are formed within synagogues as a means to create a variety of small group programs and experiences.

A Havurah group might have a theme, such as:

  • Book discussion
  • Torah Study
  • Hebrew conversation
  • Yiddish conversation
  • Shabbat dinner
  • Havdalah
  • Game Nights
  • Garage sale for tzedaka
  • Sports event watching
  • Movie watching
  • Picnics
  • Other activities

Alternatively, a Havurah might meet as a group of people who live in proximity to each other who want to do a variety of the above activities. Ahavas Israel wants help you connect with your Jewish neighbors. We want you to find two friends with similar interests and let us know about your Havurah. We have a map of synagogue members so if you would like a list of people within a mile or two (or five) to invite, we can provide it. Meet monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly – the schedule is entirely up to you. We’d like to put your event on the calendar so others can see what you are doing and join you (although you may limit the group size, if you wish). We can provide you with study materials, book suggestions, instructions and booklets for Shabbat dinner rituals and Havdalah ceremonies. Just ask me for what you need.


High Holiday Preview: I typically begin serious work on my messages for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur about a month in advance. Here are some of the topics I’ve been working on:

Repentance – the power of teshuvah. Teshuvah can mean radical transformation, but sometimes the person who needs to do teshuvah is trapped in bad patterns of behavior. What might it mean to extend yourself beyond your comfortable boundaries to consider what it means to give others the chance to do teshuvah?

Sacrifice – What are we willing to sacrifice in order to support our most closely held beliefs?

What is the function of beating ourselves on the chest during the recitation of lists of sins? How might we reconsider the practice and turn it into something that leads to positive growth?

I wish you a happy and healthy new year and look forwarding to greeting you during this holiday season.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Teshuvah – repentance
  • Korban – sacrifice
  • Vidui – confession
  • Yamim Nora’im – Days of Awe

Divre Harav – September/16

The mystical text of the Zohar contains a notion that the Divine energy that vivifies the world depends on the unification of different aspects of God. Specifically, when God’s divine presence (known as the feminine Shekhina) is joined with the masculine aspect of Tiferet, God energy flows down and infuses the world.

The Zohar teaches:

As long as Torah is found within [Jerusalem], she endures, since Torah is the Tree of Life, standing over her. As long as Torah is aroused below, the Tree of Life does not depart above. If Torah ceases below, the Tree of Life withdraws from her. [Zohar, Pritzker ed., vol. 2, pg. 344]

The Tree of Life/Torah represents Tiferet and Jerusalem represents Shekhina. When we study and practice Torah, Jerusalem and the Tree of Life are in a symbolic union as Tiferet and Shekhina are united. If we should cease to live Torah, Tiferet breaks away from Shekhina. The practical result, according to the Zohar, is the eclipse of God’s blessings, such as rain.

Jerusalem is a city in which the ancient lives beneath the contemporary, the medieval alongside the modern, and innumerable religious streams of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others worship side by side. It is also a city in which religious differences create tension among her inhabitants. At the Western Wall plaza in front of the retaining wall around the platform on which the Biblical Temple stood, those tensions are between the Hareidi Orthodox and the Conservative/Reform Jews who each want to worship according to their community’s custom. However, the Hareidi chief rabbis of Israel and Jerusalem, appointed political positions, have claimed the entire plaza and forbade any worship that doesn’t conform to their Orthodox standards. Another group comprised of Conservative/Reform as well as Open Orthodox women want to worship on the plaza in a women’s only minyan. A third Conservative/Reform group want to create a new worship space adjacent to the current plaza for mixed worship.

Historically, the Kotel plaza was not a synagogue and people prayed as they wished. In the earlier years of the State of Israel the Kotel was a national civic/religious space. Now, has become a battleground for the right to define Judaism. Egalitarian-optional or strictly gender-segregated. Pluralist or monolithic. These questions are being fought in the legislature, in the courts, and in the press.

I can’t imagine that this is what our sages meant when they asserted that as long as Torah is found in Jerusalem, she will endure. There is a lot of Torah in Jerusalem that is being used as a club to beat down those who live by a different approach to Torah, and that is not the kind of learning and practice that the Zohar encourages. May there be enough loving Torah in Jerusalem to arouse the God’s Presence to unite with Tiferet, and may the Divine energy infuse the city with blessing.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Sefirah/Sefirot (pl) – the 10 mystical aspects of God
  • Hesed – the Sefirah of love
  • Din – the Sefirah of judgment
  • Gevurah – power, another name for Din
  • Zohar – radiance, the name of the late 13th century mystical commentary on Torah
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