Psalm 116

What can I give back to Adonai acknowledging all I have benefited from God? (116:12)

If the bounty of the world is our reward for being alive, what, if anything, should we give back to God? Although I don’t think the Psalmist asked the question this way, I read it as a rhetorical question. There is nothing that I need or even can give back to God to repay God for giving me life, a loving wife, children with gifts of their own to share, as well as employment, a home, and sufficient food.

First of all, it is given as a gift. When we receive a gift, the proper response is to be thankful. If we are not thankful then future gifts may be withheld, but the giver does not take back the gift. A gift by definition is given to and belongs to the recipient.

Second, what do you give a God who has, is, was, and will be, everything? Honestly speaking, God does not even need our thankfulness. God asks for loyalty, obedience, and appreciation, but it is not a demand issued by a tyrant on pain of death. We have the freedom to do as we want.

I suggest that we give thanks to God not to satisfy some Divine need but rather to remind ourselves of the importance and power of giving thanks. Thanksgiving is more than an overstuffed turkey and football. It is a pause in our lives to contemplate how lucky we are to be able to put any food on the table, not matter what it is, how little or how much.

My wife set aside a “Thanksgiving Jar” in the kitchen into which we place slips of paper indicating our gratitude for something that has happened. Slowly, over the course of time, the jar fills up. We take them out on Thanksgiving and read them aloud. It becomes a review of the good things of the past year, not necessarily in any particular order. God doesn’t need our Thanksgiving jar, but we certainly do.

Divre Harav – November, 2015

Stuart Rapaport has given me permission to reprint the words he shared about our Endowment Campaign on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Since then, we have received additional gifts and promises so I have edited his remarks accordingly.


How blessed our congregation has been in the over 125 years we have been in existence.  From a small group of 15 families we became a two orthodox congregation city. In 1936, under the leadership of rabbi Benjamin Emdin, Beth Israel and Ahavas Achim became Ahavas Israel. We moved into the post world war II years and moved to Conservative Judaism, built two synagogue buildings.  This facility is the culmination of the effort put into Ahavas Israel by so many of our past leaders and congregants.

We turn to you, our family and friends, for further consideration.  Our biggest problem today is that of operating funds.  We know that our membership is smaller, that we have very few business owners and we struggle to keep the financial ship upright.

We are asking you to consider a proposal that will help the future of Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids. We are asking you to consider remembering the shul in your wills and estates.  By leaving a small percentage of your estate, you are helping to keep Judaism, Conservative Judaism, alive and healthy in Grand Rapids.

We have had many people remember ahavas israel through their wills.  My grandfather, Philip Rapaport, who was not religious but rather a member of the socialist arbeter ring, the workmans circle, realized the importance of our congregation to future generations. He never came to Shul with the exception of his grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah. Yet, when he died in 1963 he left $10,000 to the congregation for this building.  Think about how much that would be in today’s dollars. According to google, figuring 4% inflation, that would be over $77,000 today.  Believe me, my grandfather was far from a wealthy man.  He was a blue collar wood turner who worked for John Widdicomb furniture.

Or, how about our largest bequest to date.  That of Francis Rayden. That money came to us because of a good deed done for her by a member of Ahavas Israel. Abe Wolfson, member, promised Mrs. Rayden to recite kaddish for her parents and she said she would remember the shul.  He recited kaddish for the family for over three decades and just after Abe died, Francis Rayden died and left a bequest of $650,000 to our congregation. That money continues to keep our congregation in the black.

But we need to create a true endowment.  One that can be sustained and grow while still giving financial help to our beloved Ahavas Israel. Rabbi and I have been meeting with congregants to tell them of our ideas. Leon Ash has come forward and has pledged $2,000,000 through his estate. $2,000,000! He challenged us to match the $2 million.

Through our meetings with congregants, we have been promised $310,000 in gifts and estimated pledges based on current values.  This by seven families. Plus an additional five families who have pledged unspecified amounts.

Consider a percentage bequest.  A small percentage.  No matter how large or how small your estate will be, even a 5% gift would be a generous gift to the future of Ahavas Israel while leaving 95% to your family and charities you wish to help.

Obviously, we are not standing like the grim reaper, rubbing our palms in hopes of getting this money right away.  Our hope is that all of us live a long, happy and healthy life.  We just ask for your consideration to join the ranks of our congregation whose financial support span the past, continue today, as well as bringing Ahavas Israel into the future with financial strength to be able to continue serving our community.

If you have been contacted but not responded, we would love to hear from you and to speak to you.  Please understand that all information shared with us is private and will remain private.

Your participation will help insure a successful future for the Jewish people in Grand Rapids.

Psalm 115

They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot touch, feet, but cannot walk; they cannot make a sound in their throats. (115:5-7)

The Psalmist wrote these words to describe idols, but they can also describe people who aren’t paying attention to living their lives. They describe people who misuse their ability to speak, who don’t pay attention to what is in front of them, and who don’t listen to what people around them are trying to tell them. They describe people who don’t take the time to fully smell and taste the food prepared for them, who never take the time to hug their loved ones, and who decline to go and visit and talk with the people around them who need company.

The gift of speech is a blessing, but the ability to speak well is a talent. One who misuses that talent for the purpose of lashon hara (gossip) or to denigrate others has a mouth but does not use it well. One who behaves selfishly and does not see the needs of the people around him has eyes and chooses not to see. One who does not care about the thoughts and feelings of those around her has ears which do not hear the things which are important.

We use our senses and our limbs to connect with people around us. When we fail to use our body for the most basic mitzvah of “Love your fellow as yourself” we become engaged in idolatry of the self. On the other hand, those who use their bodies and their senses to serve others are blessing God and being blessed by God.

Psalm 114

The sea saw [Israel] and fled, Jordan ran backward, mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep. (114:3-4)

Why would the sea, the Jordan river, and the mountains and hills be frightened by the sight of Israel? The answer is simple. It is not Israel who causes the waters to flee or the landscape to run around like skittish animals. God has Israel’s back. Israel gets respect because everyone and everything knows that if they mess with Israel, God will mess with them.

Every slightly nerdy, non-athletic kid in the schoolyard needs a friend like this to keep the bullies away. These four geographical features are like the bullies on the playground, forming obstacles between Israel and its goal of getting from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. The Reed Sea and the Jordan River are the first and last obstacles to cross; in between, the trek through the Sinai and its hills and mountains, including Mount Sinai, makes for a difficult journey. Generations later, Isaiah declares that God “will make all My mountains a road, and My highways shall be built up” in order to ease Israel’s journey from Babylon back to Israel. We might imagine that the geographical features blocking Israel’s passage through the wilderness are worried that God will pave them over, so they are parting and skipping to get out of the way.

The spiritual challenge is to see underneath the bluster of the bully to find his positive characteristics. Most bullies are motivated by fear and insecurity. They bully others to elevate themselves in their own eyes. Take away the fear and insecurity and you can find a potential friend hiding inside. The sea is a source of food. The river is a source of water. Animals graze on hills. Torah comes from the mountaintop. The skipping of the mountains and hills can be playful and full of joy. God can change the heart of the bully, and he can become your friend.

Psalm 113

He sets the childless woman among her household as a happy mother of children. (113:9)

On Rosh Hodesh (the new month), Festivals, and Hanukkah, the prayer service is supplemented by a set of six Psalms known as Hallel, beginning with Psalm 113 and continuing through Psalm 118. The Psalmist speaks of celebration and thankfulness, particularly the joy that comes from emerging from a period of suffering or stress. By no means will every childless couple seeking to conceive find their prayers answers, nor will every needy person be lifted out of crisis. Those who find themselves in a financial hole, through hard work and a good attitude and a willingness to make sacrifices, will very likely find themselves in a more secure place. However, no amount of good spirits and sacrifice will necessarily help the couple suffering infertility who cannot afford the expense of medical intervention or adoption. Nonetheless, the Psalmist believes that it is still possible for such a couple to find happiness. Of those whose hearts ache with the lost opportunity to raise a child in their home, some will find that happiness with nieces and nephews. Some will be teachers. Some will serve the community by leading youth services or coordinating youth group activities.

Jewish tradition says that one who teaches and guides a child towards responsible maturity is a parent to that child. This is not meant to be a facile response to those mourning infertility, nor should our verse be read as a promise that if you have enough faith, God will miraculously wave away your inability to conceive. For some, childlessness is a medical condition that no amount of prayer can cure. However, I hope that our Jewish community treats such people with sensitivity and compassion and our Psalmist has faith that such couples can eventually find their way to happiness.

Psalm 112

October 5

Happy is one … who is ardently devoted to God’s commandments. (112:1)

There are no guarantees of happiness in this world. Making the most money or acquiring the best ‘toys’ won’t do it, but studies have shown that those who spend time serving others tend to be happier than those who live self-centered lives.

God has many commandments and they have a variety of functions, although the Torah generally does not describe a purpose for the commandments. Living a life of participation in public prayer, Sabbath and holiday observance (including the communal aspects of such holy days), tzedakah and service towards others tends to creates the conditions for greater happiness. However, it is not an automatic response, like dropping a quarter into a parking meter. Showing up for a minyan now and then when you feel like it does not show devotion. Showing up consistently, even when you are tired and would rather be doing something else, does. Being physically present because you were asked to make a minyan but mentally zoning out, or rushing through your prayers and leaving the service early so your can get to your next activity doesn’t show devotion. The former is minimally doing someone a favor and the latter is selfishness – devotion to your prayer, not devotion to being a part of a community serving God.

Devotion to God’s commandments requires a high degree of selflessness. I have to be willing to give something up for God and it is precisely in setting aside my ego and my needs in favor of something else that satisfaction and happiness may be found.

Psalm 111

The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Adonai (111:10)

The character attribute of Yir’at Hasham, living in awe of God, reminds me that for all of the degrees on my wall, my storehouse of knowledge is finite while God is infinite. Fear of God is not terror. Most religious people do not understand God as a terror or use God to frighten others. At the most, they might embrace the quality of fear to inspire trembling in themselves. The primary purpose of fear and awe is to promote the quality of humility, the ability to set aside ego. Wisdom begins with the ability to see the rightness in the words of others and the wrongness in one’s own words.

Wisdom is not the same things as intelligence. There are many smart people in the world who are not wise and there are many wise people who would not score well on an IQ test. Wisdom begins by cultivating the ability to see one’s own flaws against God’s perfection. A wise person knows when to speak and when to hold back. A wise person sees wisdom in others, even while disagreeing with them. A wise person understands his or her own motivations, triggers, and flash points and uses that knowledge to minimize responses provoked by fear, anger, jealousy, or other negative emotion.

Psalm 110

Stretch forth your mighty scepter from Zion, O Adonai! (110:2)

When producing a flat map of a globe, the mapmaker has to choose how to center the world on the paper. Typically, world maps sold in the United States depict North America in the center. A similar map sold in Germany places Europe at the center just as an ancient map of China is centered on China. The most interesting projection might be a world map sold in Australia which (not surprisingly) places Australia at the center, but for a better projection of the continents, sometimes places south at the top of the map, causing the world to appear upside down!

The traditional Jewish view of the world sees Jerusalem as the center of the world, sometimes described as the navel of the world. From the point of view of the Zohar, the central Jewish work of Kabbalah, the Divine umbilical cord providing nourishment to the world is attached to the rock on the Temple Mount, Mount Zion, on which Abraham was told to offer his son Isaac.

There is no right way or wrong way to orient a map, and there is no right or wrong way to center a map. If the Biblical Israelites had produced a map, they probably would have placed east at the top and west at the bottom (see Genesis 13:9, where the Hebrew words for left and right denote north and south). The published map reflects the common world view of the expected audience.

In the same way, there is no right or wrong way to number years. The western world has chosen to use the birth of Jesus as point ‘0’ on the number line. The Jewish world has chosen a different starting point, the year of creation according to a midrash written nearly 2000 years ago.

Even though I live in the world of CE and BCE, my filing system organizes files by the Jewish year. Even though I know that there is no place devoid of God’s presence, I think of Jerusalem as God’s home base. If references to time and space are nothing more than a convention, I’m going to choose the convention that reinforces my chosen religious identity.

Psalm 109

They repay me with evil for good, with hatred for my love. (109:5)

Most of the time it feels good to be a good and loving person in this world. Living one’s life according to the middah of hesed (character value of love) means continually looking for ways to radiate acts of love. Most of the time, a smile aimed at a harried cashier or another driver at a four-way stop during rush hour will elicit a smile in return. A kind word to a server or a person you pass walking down the street doesn’t take much effort and will likely result in that person passing along the act of hesed to another person later in the day.

Every once in a while, however, it is more challenging. I had a meeting downtown and was fortunately enough to find street parking right across the street. I had just pulled in to the spot and had not even shut off the car. While arranging my bag and getting change for the meter out of the ashtray, I heard a sharp knock on the window. Standing there was a meter lady, getting ready to write a ticket. I rolled down the window and she barked, “you’re meter’s expired!” I explained, somewhat angrily, that I had just that moment pulled in and hadn’t had a chance to get out of the car yet. She responded, “Well, you’d better put money in the meter right away,” and walked away. I wanted to get out of the car and ask her why she was being so unpleasant! Was she behind on her ticket writing quota? I could have gotten her badge number and reported her for … something! Such an aggressive action, however, would have had no positive outcome. It would have left both of us feeling even more angry, and that anger, carried through the rest of the day, would have infected each of my subsequent interactions.

Pirkei Avot (1:6) teaches, “judge every person on the side of merit.” My initial response to her was angry. What would have happened if I had imagined how hard her job must be and even when she does it 100% properly, people get angry at her. What is it like working under those conditions day after day, week after week, month after month, in the heat, cold, rain, and snow? If it happens again, perhaps I would be able to roll down the window and say, “I appreciate all the hard work you do to make sure people park on the downtown streets fairly. I was just about to get out of my car and put money into the meter. Thank you for reminding me, and enjoy the rest of your day!”

Psalm 108

Awake, O harp and lyre! I will wake the dawn. (108:3)

Of course we know that the human being doesn’t wake up the musical instruments or the dawn, but rather the instruments – the alarm clock – or the dawn wakes up the human being. The Psalmist, however, chose to imagine a moment in which reality is holding its breath, waiting for him to turn on the power, as it were. I’m thinking of my summers at camp or time spent on a retreat in a rural location. I’m seeing that precise moment in the morning when consciousness returns, before anyone’s alarm clock rings, before the sun rises, when everything is quiet.

There is a quiet so completely still that it feels like even nature is asleep. At a retreat in a peaceful camp-like setting, I arise and dress and head to minyan early. I’m the only one outside, and as dawn breaks and the birds begin chirping, it is a concert for my enjoyment alone.

At that moment, an early morning blessing comes to life: Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, “who gave the rooster the consciousness to distinguish between day and night.”

Good morning, world! It’s nice to see you again, and thank you for the wonderful show you’re putting on for me this morning.

I am aware that some people are not morning people and might not be enthusiastic about greeting the dawn. Truthfully, while I often awake early, I would sometimes prefer to go back to sleep. But most of the time I shoulder my responsibility and get out of bed to wake up the dawn. After all, aside from the winters in extreme regions, we wouldn’t want the sun sleeping the whole day, would we?

Psalm 107

He gathered in from the lands, from east and west, from the north and from the south. (107:3)

The Psalmist’s vision is literally true. Israel is populated by Jews from Europe and Russia in the North, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa in the South, Iran, Iraq, Yemin, and Syria in the East, and North and South America in the West. Jews from those countries and more, many of whom experienced terrible persecution in their country of origin, were redeemed by God as they were able to resettle in the land promised to the earliest followers of YHWH, Adonai, God of Israel.

For me, Israel has functioned as the base station of a cordless phone. As the battery dies, the phone loses the ability to make a connection. Periodically, it needs to return to the base to recharge and renew its connection.

I had a spark of a sense of God’s presence growing up in my synagogue and going to Jewish camps, especially Ramah. But that spark grew into a flame the first time I visited Israel with the Ramah Seminar, which kindled the desire to return again to study at the Hebrew University for my junior year. I’ve been back every 5-7 years ever since, frequently enough to continue stoking the fire, not as frequently as I would ideally like.

Israel is the place where my language of prayer and study is also the language in which I order from a menu and listen to my friends’ children talk about their lives in a babble of language from which I recognize every fifth word. Israel is the place where the fundamental Jewish rituals of my life are embedded into the fabric of everyday life: Shabbat is the weekend, kosher meat is the norm sold in stores, specialty butcher shops exists to sell pork and other treif! Israel is the place where Jews can support the government, oppose the government, and ignore the government without being called self-hating Jews. In other words, while outside of Israel the Jewish commitment of Jews who vote against “Jewish interests” is questioned, within Israel, Jews can disagree with their neighbors politics and not be accused of betraying Judaism.

Israel is sometimes called “the beginning of the flowering of redemption.” When Jews can disagree about anything and everything but still doven and have Shabbat dinner together, that might be the definition of complete redemption. Israel isn’t there yet and certainly diaspora communities are not either, but we keep working on it. And that’s the Jewish way.

Divre Harav – September 2015

Food sustains our physical selves and plays an important role in keeping us emotionally and spiritually healthy. Food can connect us with one another. The preparation of food binds parents to children or binds a group of people preparing a meal together. The act of eating food with other people is perhaps the most important social bonding experience.

Jewish practice makes the act of eating into a holy act by means of a combination of the elements of mindful eating, food blessings, and kashrut. We eat mindfully when we pay attention to the quality and quantity of food that we put into our bodies. We cultivate gratitude when we say blessings to God for the food that we consume. Kashrut is a complicated system, combining elements of awareness of the sacred nature of all things, sensitivity toward animal life, reverence for human life, and a way to bind Jews together.

In an ideal Conservative Synagogue, every member would have a kosher home. We live in the real world in which this is not the case, but the Synagogue ought to be a consistent and gentle reminder of the ideal. One such reminder happens every time we eat together as a Synagogue community and notice the kind of food which is served. In order to have the option of a new kind of community-building program involving food, the Religious Life Committee created some guidelines to permit experimentation with potluck meals in the Synagogue. A potluck meal experience in which we encourage everyone to contribute something that would meet a kosher standard, even from a non-kosher home, can bring our community together in a new way. The committee created three simple rules regarding food prepared without recognized kashrut supervision (such as in people’s homes) that are easy to understand and follow, and added two additional suggestions that would increase the likelihood that those who are more traditionally observant will be able to eat as well:

  1. 1. All food must be dairy, kosher fish, or vegetarian (no poultry or meat).
  2. 2. All service and eating utensils will be disposable and tables will be covered.
  3. 3. Food may not be brought into either of the Synagogue’s kitchens.
  4. 4.

In addition, we suggest, although we do not require, that those bringing food from non-kosher homes use kosher-supervised ingredients and cook in disposable pans as much as possible. We also suggest that the committee in charge of the potluck be sensitive to the variety of kashrut and other dietary restrictions of our members and make a reasonable effort to ensure that all who want to participate will find something that they are able to eat.

As much as food is about community-building, it is also about trust. In order to eat someone else’s food, we need to trust that the ingredients and method of preparation are consistent with our dietary requirements. If we have food allergies, the trust we place in the food we eat literally may mean life or death. The Religious Life committee, the Board of Trustees, and I, believe that we, as a community, can trust each other to feed each other properly while preserving the integrity and the kashrut of the Synagogue.

At the same time as we are open for potluck sharing of food, we also want to enable more people to prepare food in the Synagogue. Ahavas Israel holds a fairly strict standard of Kashrut for our kitchens, but even for those who do not keep kosher in their own homes, it is not hard to learn. Paula Miller will be leading a “kitchen orientation” at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 14. Please contact Paula Miller with any questions.

Psalm 106

They grumbled in their tents … (106:25)

Very few people look forward to dealing with angry, malcontented, frustrated, or unhappy people, although some are better at it than others. I am amazed at how well a good customer service person can diffuse my anger when I call about a mistake, a broken or lost product, or some technical support. That’s their job and they take pride in how well they do it.

When meeting with clients or working with co-workers, most people try to show their best selves. We focus on the task at hand to accomplish something positive rather than complain about the things that are going wrong in our lives. No one enjoys spending extended time at work with a grumpy co-worker.

After an exhausting and perhaps frustrating day at work or on the commute or with the kids or running errands and driving carpool, we come home or our spouse comes home, and what’s the first thing we are tempted to do? Complain about our day! All of the grumbling and whining that we held inside all day because we were being good professionals comes pouring out! All of the frustrations that we kept inside because we were being good parents burst forth!

Granted, a good spouse understands that sometimes we need to get something off our chest. But if grumbling is the first thing out of our mouth when we come through the door or moaning and kvetching is the first thing we hear when our spouse enters the house, it puts a major damper on the excitement of coming home welcoming one’s beloved at the end of a long day apart.

Try this as an exercise: Pause before coming in the door and take a deep breath. Let out the tension and put a smile on your face. Do the same thing inside the house when you hear the garage door or the door to the house open. Set aside the bellyaching for a bit and enjoy seeing your family again. Greet them with a smile of gratitude for all the pleasure they bring you. There is a time and a place for “grumbling in the tent,” but if you lead with positivity and happiness, you might find that your complaints are not quite as significant as you first thought.

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