Psalm 137

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour. (137:5-6)

I love Jerusalem because it is the center of the Jewish world. I love Jerusalem even though the religious perspective of many Jerusalemites is anathema to my world view. I love Jerusalem because that is where I was introduced to the power of Torah. I love Jerusalem even though to many of its residents I am a complete puzzle whose religion bears little resemblance to Judaism. I love Jerusalem because it is a thoroughly Israeli city built on top of 3000 years of Jewish history. I love Jerusalem because it is also a city built on top of 2000 years of Christian history and 1400 years of Moslem history.

Jerusalem is religiously complicated, historically rich, at once ancient, medieval, and modern. I love Jerusalem both for what it represents and what it is – Judaism deeply rooted in Torah and a diversity of Jewish practice unimagined by ancient Israel. In a perfect world, Jerusalem would be the center of all religious practice. All people, of all faiths, would make pilgrimage there to offer of themselves to God. In a not-yet-redeemed world, the “city of gold” is a place of great joy and also a symbol of an imperfection and brokenness.

In the Bible, the right hand symbolizes strength. In Kabbalah, the right side symbolizes love. Without Jerusalem in my life, I would be weakened and my love of God and Torah would be less developed.

Psalm 136

Praise Adonai; for God is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal. (136:1)

An honest theology acknowledges that God, creator of a world in which both good and bad happen to every person, perforce must be the cause of both good and bad things. As Detero-Isaiah says, “I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil.” (45:7) Nonetheless, we also tend to believe that ultimately, the sum of our life experience, with all of its trials and travails, is beneficial. To put it another way, better to be born than never to have existed. Despite the suffering that we experience, the majority of our lives are pleasant, enjoyable, fulfilling, and peaceful. For this, we should be thankful.

The lesson embodied in this verse is to be grateful for the good, even if the good is not complete. Do not be the kind of person who looks for what is missing. There is always something missing. You can always find the imperfection if you look hard enough. If you are the kind of person who does this, ask yourself why you have this compulsive need to find the faults. If you choose, you can be the kind of person who looks at a bad situation and finds something positive. What lesson can I learn from this difficult situation? How can it make me a better person? How can I avoid getting entangled in this difficulty in the future?

Who would you rather spend time with – the person who finds the silver lining in the storm clouds, or the person who obsesses about the one cloud on an otherwise perfectly sunny day?

Divre Harav – April/16

One of the findings from last summer’s congregational survey and the ongoing strategic planning process is a desire for more social connections within the congregational family. When people walk into a synagogue for a service, a class, a program, or a party, they want to feel connected to the other people in the room.

All Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and Passover in particular, are appropriate times to reach out and extend hospitality to another person or family in the congregation or beyond. I know that many families already do this, but I want to throw out a challenge. If you invite the same people year after year, I’d like you to consider the fact that every congregation changes over time. Some people leave, and new people come in. For Ahavas Israel to be as warm as welcoming as we know we can be requires that each of us periodically break out of our closed groups and welcome in someone new. I challenge you to invite someone you’ve never had over to your home. If you need a hand finding someone, let me know. I can connect you with a more recent member, potential member, individual or family.

I saw a beautiful story about the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who founded a synagogue in Berkeley during the 1960’s in order to reach out to the many young Jews who had drifted away from Jewish tradition. He named it “The House of Love and Prayer.” In the summer of 1967, he was asked to explain his vision for this synagogue.

He answered: “Here’s the whole thing, simple as it is. The House of Love and Prayer is a place where, when you walk in, someone loves you, and when you walk out, someone misses you.” 

Our synagogue is named “The Love of Israel.” How powerful would it be if each of us embraced the idea that love is a fundamental part of our identify as a congregation, the core of our mission statement! The essential meaning of Passover is tied up with the idea of transformation, from slave to free person, from a loose collection of individuals to a community. I wish you and your families a Passover of blessing and liberation from all that enslaves you.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • SederOrder. The Passover meal is so named because of the well defined order of the ritual.
  • SiddurPrayer book, so named because of the useful arrangement of prayers within each service.
  • Mazhor – Best known as a High Holiday prayer book, but also can refer to a special prayer book for Festivals. From the root hazar, meaning return, referring to the calendar cycle.
  • MitzrayimEgypt, from the root Metzar, meaning a narrow place, so named because of the narrow habitable area surrounding the Nile river. In addition, Mitzrayim in the Bible is a symbol of narrowness, oppression, and slavery.

Psalm 135

Adonai, Your name endures forever, Your fame, Adonai, through all generations.(135:13)

We hope to live our lives so as to make a difference in the world, whether it is by raising children, the work we do professionally, or changing some person’s life (or persons’ lives) through tzedakah work. In ways large and small, obvious and barely noticeable, each one of us will have made a difference through the large number of people whose lives intersected with our own.

However, the number of us who will be remembered beyond one or two generations after we die is very small. Of the 108 billion or so human beings who have lived on this world, how many of them are still remembers 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years, after their death? Think of all of the names in the Bible or other tales of ancient literature. So many are just names, about whom we know nothing.

The name of a mortal human being, his or her fame, no matter how great, does not last. While an individual human life is a brief blip on the timeline, God’s name and God’s renown echo from earliest recorded history through the present and into the future. We may be unsatisfied with the progress of human development, at each minuscule human effort to push humanity forward. However, those who believe in a Divine Power can die knowing that although we are temporary actors playing a brief part in a very long play, our life, full of sound and fury though it may be, contra Macbeth is nonetheless deeply significant.

Psalm 134

Lift your hands toward the sanctuary and acknowledge Adonai as the Source of Blessing. (134:2)

Raised hands with clenched fists can be an aggressive gesture, as in a boxer’s posture, ready to fight. Raised hands can be a gesture of surrender, hands far away from a weapon. Raised hands and arms stretched to the sides can be a welcoming gesture, preparing to envelope a loved one with an embrace. The same raised hands and arms extended forward can look more like a gesture of supplication.

Holding one’s hands up as a gesture of prayer is common in some Christian churches, but rarely seen in synagogues. Yet not only do both the Psalmist and Isaiah (1:15) make reference to raised hands as a prayer posture, but also the Priestly blessing (Numbers 6:23-27), known in Hebrew as nesi’at kapayim, raising of the hands, is recited with raised, outstretched hands.

I experience the posture of the priestly blessing as an active posture, channeling God’s blessings through the split fingers of the Kohen, forming the letter Shin for the word Shalom, peace, the most important blessing of all. The posture of prayer with raised hands, on the other hand, feels more passive to me, one’s hands open to receive whatever God choose, or chooses not, to send. I wonder if Jews lost the art of praying with our arms because we who grew to rely on holding books of prayer to formulate our words to God. Thus, our hands were no longer free to engage in prayers and gestures of their own.

Sometimes, during prayer, I put the book aside and allow myself to use my upper body to more fully engage with the words I am saying. I keep in mind, though, that it is the inner kavanah that counts, not the external fervor of the loudness of the voice of the body. Ultimately, the goal is to acknowledge God as the Source of Blessing and express gratitude. Gestures and posture ought to serve that purpose, rather than becoming an end unto themselves.

Psalm 133

February 29, 2016

Divre Harav – March/16

For almost three years, I have been publishing reflections on Psalms, one a week. In only three months I will have finished all 150 Psalms. I’ve been doing this because the study of sacred literature for the purpose of spiritual development is a key practice of Judaism.There is a wide range of Jewish literature to study along with classical or modern commentaries, such as Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Zohar. I find that the discipline of study opens me up to whatever message resonates when I open up the book and start reading. I think of it as a message from the Divine, plucking at whichever one of my heartstrings that needs plucking at that particular moment. Here is my reflection on a verse from Psalm 133, at three verses, one of the shortest Psalms in the book.

Psalm 133

How good and how pleasant it is that siblings dwell together. (133:1)

This verse is one of the most well known verses of Psalms. Of course, ‘siblings’ (or more literally, ‘brothers’) is meant to be read broadly, as members of a tribe or nation. How wonderful it is when we all get along, and how awful it is when we don’t. Who can forget Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers for using excessive force during his arrest, “Can we all get along?”

Since then, St. Louis, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Minneapolis have also become flash-points in our country’s struggle to create the kind of society Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, one in which all people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It is true that siblings don’t always get along. We’re not describing a pollyannaish future in which arguments cease to exist and we sit around every evening around the campfire singing Kumbaya. We disagree, we argue, we might even yell at times, but at the end of the day we find a way to come to an agreement.

The Mishnah speaks about disagreements that are “l’shem shamayim,” for the sake of heaven. We reach this point when we understand and appreciate the other person’s perspective, even when we disagree. First, we imagine ourselves in the position of a young black man or woman walking through a store followed by security personnel or being stopped by the police while driving through predominantly white neighborhoods, and appreciate that the color of their skin places them under heightened suspicion. Only after doing this can we engage in a serious discussion on how to alleviate racial tension.

Psalm 132

Let Your priests be clothed in righteousness .… (132:9)

Would that all religious leaders were clothed in righteousness. The Psalmist hints at a great truth when he expresses himself in the form of a hope. He knows as well as we do that religious leaders are vulnerable to the same human foibles as anyone else. They are often placed in positions of power without sufficient preparation to keep themselves from stumbling. This is partially the fault of the seminaries and yeshivot that insufficiently train those they ordain, but mostly the fault of the clergy themselves who take advantage of their position of power. It may be that 99% are decent people, but it’s the 1% whose sins stain the headlines and damage the reputations of all faith leaders.

Not only clergy, but therapists and politicians and others who have the trust of people over whom they have authority, ought to behave beyond reproach and keep away from even the appearance of impropriety.

Psalm 131

Adonai, my heart is not proud nor my look haughty …. (131:1)

It feels good when people praise me. When I teach or write something that elicits positive feedback, I am proud of myself. I have to remind myself, however, that several of the people who have told me that I am the best teacher they have every learned from, the most compassionate listener, the most useful advisor, have later turned out to have had ulterior motives. Our egos love to be stroked, but the people who do the stroking too often have their own agendas. They want something out of us, so their praise comes with strings attached. The moment we no longer serve their purposes, suddenly we are no longer their teacher, advisor, or confidant.

Cultivating humility means keeping one’s ego in check. The more powerful the leadership position, the more advisors one has, the more vulnerable one is to believing the stories that they tell. Remind yourself that no matter how important others make you feel, in the scope of history among the billions of people on earth, you are just a momentary presence. Within a generation or two or three of your passing, you will be forgotten. If you are lucky, one of your descendants, perhaps sharing your name, will happen upon your grave marker and leave a small stone as a token. But the substance of your life, other than your name or a couple of dates, will be gone.

While you exist, your life can have infinite meaning but do not mistake meaning for transcendent importance. Live your life so that you make a difference, but remember that ultimately, the only one who can make a difference, generation after generation, is God.

Psalm 130

Yours is the power to forgive so that You may be held in awe. (130:4)

The greatest power of a ruler or a judge is not the power to punish harshly, but rather the power to pardon, forgive, or give a second chance. The Hebrew Bible is sometimes read as a book written by a vengeful God who delights in smiting. Such a reading overlooks a major plot point of one of the early stories of the book of Genesis: First, God regrets creating humanity and God also regrets destroying humanity with a flood. Regret is a strange characteristic for a Divine Being who takes delight in destruction. Regret is indicative of a God who learns, and the theological development within the Bible indicates a God who becomes more and more loving as the generations pass.

When God threatens to destroy Israel in the wilderness and begin again with Moses, Moses responds, “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that God delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ ” In a remarkable passage, Moses appeals to God’s desire to maintain a good reputation among the non-Israelites! God, you made promises to these people. What will the Egyptians say if you break your word?

Similarly, our Psalmist suggests that we are more inclined to love and respect a compassionate, forgiving God. Our challenge is to internalize this message and ask ourselves how we too might be more sensitive and caring, letting our loving nature overcome our judgmental side. Better that we inspire respect in those around us than fear.

Psalm 129

Let all who hate Zion fall back in shame. (129:5)

For most of Jewish history, love of Zion has united Jews. Zion represented the dream of a world in which Jews would regain their historic place and live in security in a perfect Garden of Eden society according to the values and practices of Torah. Dreams do come true, but there is a wide gap between the perfection within an unrealized dream and the realpolitik of reality.

Zionism is the movement to make the dream a reality. The modern state of Israel is our embodiment of the historic values of the love of Zion, the result of nearly 2000 years of prayers and 50-plus years of political activism. For the entire history of post-Temple Judaism, Jews have held Zion, the mount on which the Temple stood, as a place of pilgrimage. Life in Jerusalem and in other cities in which Jews lived, such as Hebron, Tiberius and Safed, was difficult. Nonetheless, small communities of Jews embraced life in and around Zion as a religious obligation and privilege.

There is room for disagreement about how successful the modern state of Israel has been in living up to the challenge of creating a state embodying Zionism, democracy, Jewish values, and security. There is no doubt that they have fallen short in some area, even as they have succeeded wildly in other areas. Who would have dreamed that the “ingathering of exiles” would have taken so many Jews from so many different part of the world and melded them into such a innovative powerhouse in such a relatively brief period of time?

It saddens me that there are still people in the world and in the Jewish community who believe that the world, Jewish and otherwise, would be better off today without a State of Israel. Let those who want to improve Israel stand up and let their voices be heard. Let those who want to dismantle and destroy the State be ashamed.

Divre Harav – February/16

Trivia Question: How many days of Hanukkah are there in 2017? You’ll find the answer by reading to the third paragraph of this article. No fair looking ahead!

I am writing this article for the February Voice early in January, shortly after winter arrived, measured by the onset of cold weather, ice, and snow. Around me, except for the evergreens, the trees are completely bare. No green (or even brown) is visible on the ground, only white. At the end of January we celebrated Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees. It is hard to imagine that elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, the sap is beginning to enliven the trees again and soon buds will begin to sprout.

The month of Adar begins this month, normally followed by the month of Nisan, in which we celebrate Passover. If we followed the normal pattern, we’d celebrate Purim on February 23 and Passover March 25. However, the Jewish calendar requires Passover to fall no sooner than a certain time before April 7, the pre-Gregorian calendar’s calculation of the spring equinox. In simpler terms, the calendar tries not to let Passover occur before the world begins to look spring-like! Therefore, every 2-3 years (according to a fixed pattern), a second month of Adar is added before Purim. So this year Purim will fall on March 24 and Passover will begin April 23 and end on April 30! Next Rosh Hashanah does not start until October 3, and Hanukkah begins December 24 and ends on New Year’s Day, 2017.

Now you know the correct answer to the trivia question, How many days of Hanukkah are there in 2017? You can amaze your friends, confound your enemies, and win countless bets because everyone who can count the branches of a Hanukkah menorah and subtract one for the shamash knows that there are eight, but you know the answer is nine: January 1, 2017 and December 12-20, 2017!

One more fun and confusing fact (because everything having to do with the Jewish calendar is confusing): I’ve already mentioned that there are two months of Adar. For the purpose of calculating Yahrtzeits and celebrating Purim, the added month of Adar is Adar I. If a person died in a non-leap-year Adar, his or her Yahrtzeit is observed in Adar II in a leap year, as is Purim.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • shana m’uberet: A leap year of 13 months. Literally, a pregnant year.
  • tekufah: equinox or solstice (Hebrew does not distinguish).
  • molad: the precise moment of the new moon. Literally, birth.
  • rishon: first, as in Adar Rishon, the first month of Adar.
  • sheni: second, as in Adar Sheni, the second month of Adar.

Psalm 128

You shall eat of your hands’ labor; you shall be happy and it shall be good for you. (128:2)

The key word in this verse is “labor.” Good things rarely come to us with no effort whatsoever. Sure, some people win the lottery or receive a large inheritance from a previously unknown great-uncle. But more typically, it is the people who work hard and selflessly with no expectation of reward who in the end are rewarded.

If you work hard on the things that really matter, you will see dividends.

My first job, other than babysitting, was as a busboy in a deli. I remember the satisfaction of depositing my first paycheck in the bank and the satisfaction the first time that I bought something with money that I had earned myself through hard work. I was making minimum wage and the work was hard. Over time, my salary went up slightly and I was promoted to work at the deli counter. I learned how to show up on time, follow instructions, do unpleasant jobs with a good attitude, and take initiative.

My next job was unskilled but not as messy; and each job after that relied on some specialized skills that I had gotten through educating myself. My happiness came from the satisfaction in what I had accomplished and the enjoyment of the challenge of the work.

Psalm 127

Unless Adonai builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless Adonai watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain. (127:1)

We are God’s junior partners in the maintenance of the world. Everything we build relies on the existence of consistent and predictable natural law. In order for the bridge to bear the weight of a given amount of traffic, the engineer has to know that the materials will behave according to the laws of physics. In order for the medicine to treat the illness, the doctor relies on predictable chemical and biological interactions between the substance and the biological entity.

Bridges fail. Medication fails. A friend of mine computer-models fractures in materials. His models can only approximate how the real material behaves. This happens not because the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are capricious, but rather because our knowledge of how those laws function in the real world is incomplete.

We could live for long stretches of time without being aware of the builder. For this reason, Judaism urges us to pause before we enjoy a product of the natural world and say a blessing. “You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal sovereign of the universe, who created the food we are about to eat.” That spark of gratitude reminds of that the house in which we live had a designer and a builder.

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