Be A Giant

I have just returned from a wonderful four day cantorial conference in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the conference was social action. So many times over the course of the week people spoke about how helpless they felt in the face of so much horror happening in our country and in the world.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, Moses sends spies to scout out the land before they would enter and conquer it. The spies are very impressed by the land and all that they see there. They return to the people and report that the people there were giants and that next to such giants, they would be perceived as nothing but grasshoppers, and thus they started to see themselves as such.

When facing an enormous challenge, it is easy to see ourselves small in the face of the enormity that lies ahead. And if we see only this, how can we move in any direction, let alone, one that would require the strength and power to overcome those perceived giants. So what was the fault of the spies? The spies imagined how they would be perceived and then put that vision onto themselves, giving it power. But this was all in their minds. Their smallness was in their own perception, but their fear made it real.

Once it was clear that they saw themselves thus, G-d could not allow them to proceed. A whole generation needed to pass before the children of Israel would be permitted to attempt to conquer the land. The children of Israel needed to move beyond their slave mentality, to see themselves as free and worthy, before they could accomplish what they needed to.

Today, we do not have time for this. We must overcome any feeling of being helpless right now, because that too is only in our minds. Our Torah teaches us to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Over and over again, the Torah stresses these essential values. Even in this very week’s Torah portion, we read, “You and the stranger shall be alike before the Eternal.” (Num 15:15) This isn’t about politics. This crosses the boundaries of democrat and republican. This is about human rights, and is something that we can all get behind regardless of our feelings about immigration politics. These are the values that our Torah teaches, and this is the time that we must be giants.

I will leave you with the prayer that I wrote as part of the service that I led for the cantors this past Tuesday morning:

From cowardice, I will burst forth with courage

“Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal”

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,

And the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

My voice will sing out my strength and my joy

And through melody – the inspiration for deliverance.

From laziness, I will sing now with energy.

“Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena.”

“It is not up to you to complete the work,

But neither are you free to desist from it.”

No. I will sing.

Sing loud and strong,

And the energy of my song, of praise will move me,

Can move you

Can move us all to move mountains together.

There will be no arrogance in this song

“V’anochi afar va’efer.”

“For I am nothing but dust and ashes.”

And yet through breath and song, the dust stirs the air,

changes its essence

Brings forth ruach from nothingness.

G-d of truth, let the truth of this song ring out.

Breathe Your ruach into our souls,

Inspiring us to partner with you in tikkun olam

So that we may declare: “Kol Han’shamah T’haleil Yah!”

“Let every soul sing praise to You!”

May You Be Blessed With Love

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Naso, contains the famous words of the Priestly benediction: “May G-d bless you and protect you. May G-d deal kindly and graciously with you. May G-d bestow G-d’s favor upon you, and grant you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26) This blessing is ancient, dating back to the days of the ancient Temple, and has always held an important place in synagogue worship.

In ancient times, the priests recited the blessing twice a day while standing on a special platform called a duchan. Today, in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, the prayer is still only recited by the descendants of the ancient priests, known as Kohanim. At the appointed time in the worship service, the prayer leader calls upon the kohanim, who drape their tallitot over their heads, arrange their fingers in the shape of a shin (the same shape made famous by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek), and then bless the congregation.

In reform communities, this blessing has taken on a different role. At The Reform Temple of Rockland, we end virtually every service with it. We also use it to bless people for weddings, B’nei Mitzvah, anniversaries, and even birthdays. The prayer is usually lead by the Rabbi and Cantor together, regardless of their heritage as kohanim.

For many years, I used as my primary melody for this blessing, the one composed by Max Helfman (1901-1963), a Polish-American composer, choral conductor, and educator. https://youtu.be/sTqbEnSdUNs His melody has a place for the rabbi to add a translation built into the composition. The tune begins with a triumphant call. Each line of the three fold benediction rises higher in melody and volume and the final prayer for peace returns lower and has a lovely melody for the congregation to join in. The prayer moves back and forth between the heights of the Divine, and the community. It is perfect for the moment of blessing of a bride, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student, and so many more circumstances.

Lately, I have been ending our worship services with a different melody. Peri Smilow’s Priestly Benediction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0vA9kOITtg Her original composition is only in English, and actually differs from the translation we normally use because it is not based on the verses from the Torah as we know it, but rather on the Priestly Blessing of the Qumran sect, a group of Jews who lived in the Second Temple period, and who lived a very strict and separatist way of life. The remnants of their library were found in the Dead Sea scrolls. The translation is: “May G-d bless you with all good. May G-d keep all evil from you. And may G-d fill your heart with wisdom and grace you with all truth. May G-d lift up G-d’s merciful face and shine on you for all time. And may G-d grant you eternal peace.” I have added the Hebrew verses from Numbers to Peri Smilow’s melody to make a combined text out of it.

Peri Smilow’s tune is VERY different from Max Helfman’s. It is congregational throughout, written to be accompanied by guitar, and is very gentle and loving. To me, it is a perfect sweet closer to a worship service, embodying the love contained within a sacred community.

Before performing the Priestly Benediction, it is traditional to say the following blessing, “Blessed are You… who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us to bless the people Israel with love.” Note that the blessing stipulates that it must be completed “with love.” Nowhere in connection with any other mitzvah do we find this phrase.

May you be blessed with a Shabbat of peace and joy and may that blessing come with an abundance of love.

Vayikra

This week, with Parshat Vayikra, we begin the book of Leviticus. The first word of the book, and the one that also gives this Torah portion and indeed this entire book of the Torah its Hebrew name is, “Vayikra” – He (sorry for the gender pronoun) called. The use of this word to start the Torah portion seems redundant. The first verse of Vayikra reads, “The Eternal One CALLED (Vayikra) to Moses and SPOKE (vay’dabeir) to him from the Tent of Meeting SAYING (leimor). The Torah is famously succinct, so why so many words that seem to say the same thing?

Most of G-d’s messages in the Torah are preceded by the words, “Vayomer” (He said), “Vay’dabeir” (He spoke) or “Vay’tzav” (He commanded). These are all words of authority. But Vayikra doesn’t have this connotation at all. Vayikra is an invitation to engage. The book of holiness begins with a sacred summons.

The word, Vayikra is written in an unusual way in the Torah itself. The aleph at the end of the word is tiny. Why should this be so? If the aleph were not there at all, the word would be vayikar – He encountered, chanced upon. What is the connection? Why make the aleph small? Some people experience holiness in grand moments or major life events. For others, it’s more subtle. It’s a chance experience, an encounter with the Divine, a “still small voice” – a tiny, silent letter aleph.

The book of Vayikra brings to mind both types of holy encounters and invites us in to find a spiritual path. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Leviticus is divided into three parts. The first is about the holy – more specifically sacrifices. The second is about the boundary between the holy and the world – the things that prevent us from entering sacred space. The third is about taking the holy into the world. Leviticus democratizes holiness so that it becomes a part of the ongoing life of the people as a whole, and not something that only Moses can approach. Later, when prayer replaced sacrifice, this process would get taken even further.

Holiness is about setting things apart for a sacred purpose. Vayikra calls us to live a life of sacredness – whether we are the person who sees G-d’s hand in everything, or the person who seeks to hear that tiny, silent aleph. Vayikra is a challenging book, it is difficult to understand, has moral difficulties, and is hard to relate to. But we cannot begin to approach it without first engaging with it, and with that first word, Vayikra, we are invited to start.

It’s All About the Journey

With this week’s Torah portion, Parshat P’kudei, we complete the reading of the epic book of Exodus. The book began with the words, “V’eileh sheimot” – these are the names. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob.” A new king arises who did not know Joseph and the children of Israel become slaves. The book tells us of the birth of Moses, his rise to leadership, the plagues, the Exodus, the ten commandments, the sin of the golden calf, and finally the building of the Tabernacle – a portable sanctuary. The people leave Egypt a “mixed multitude” and over the course of their wanderings in the dessert will become the Jewish people.

The last sentence of the book of Exodus reads, “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal One rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” By the end of this grand book of the Torah, we have not completed our journey. We are still in the wilderness, but now we have an accessible, visible, spiritual presence that accompanies, unifies, and comforts us.

The book began with the names – the foundation of who we came from, but it ends with the word, “journeys.” Our journeys are what will define us going forward. As Jews throughout our history, we have always been wanderers, but our connection to our people, our faith, our history, and our Torah have been the fire and the cloud that have united us. The names are our foundation. The journey is our destiny. The destination has never really been the most important part. In fact, even by the end of the Torah, we haven’t reached The Promised Land.

It is so easy to become caught up in our visions for our future, in goals yet to be realized, but we learn from the Torah that perhaps the purpose of the goal is to lead us through the journey.

Shabbat shalom.

Finding Stillness

A few days ago, there was an article in the New York Times entitled, “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.” The author discusses how his use of his smartphone had become a problem in his life. “I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping.” He decided that, despite the fact that he is a tech columnist, he needed to find a way to bring himself back into having a more normal, healthy relationship with his phone use. He sought help. In the process of working on the problem, he noticed that he was reaching for his phone in every spare moment he had – while brushing his teeth, walking outside, even during the “three-second window” between when he would insert his credit card in a chip reader at the store and when it was accepted. He realized in trying to wean himself off of these extreme behaviors that he had become “profoundly uncomfortable… with stillness.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayak’heil we read, “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal…” (Exodus 35:2). In the traditional observance of Shabbat, Jews do not use electronics. This includes not only the lights and television, but indeed cell phones. Many Reform Jews that I know take a cell phone Sabbath every week. I will admit that I have not yet done this, partially because it is not practical for my life as a parent. Still, I felt some discomfort as read this article in the Times (and I read it on my cell phone). I do not have an extreme problem like the author does but I do (and I suspect many of us do) recognize this new discomfort with stillness and the empty time that appears while waiting in line.

One of the beauties of Reform Judaism is that we have the opportunity to define what Shabbat means to us. What does a “Sabbath of complete rest” mean? What are some new ways to distinguish Shabbat for all the other days of the week, to make it stand out as set apart? Maybe a break from social media, or from cell phone use altogether could be an interesting way to mark a separation “bein kodesh l’chol” (between the sacred times and all other times.) Maybe it is time off from something else that disturbs your sense of stillness and peace. But even if you choose not to go this particular route, the point is to find ways to distinguish Shabbat from the rest of your week, to find paths to stillness and rest. As Reform Jews, we often don’t walk the traditional route, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ultimate beauty that our tradition is trying to help us bring to our lives.

The Spirituality of Dyeing Yarn

I have recently taken up yarn dyeing. I dye with color-safe food dyes because I feel that while I live in a small space, avoiding toxic powders helps keep me and my family safe. As I have learned and explored this new hobby, I have found it to be deeply satisfying, not only artistically, but surprisingly, spiritually. I find a mystical joy in the discovery of the colors as they develop that reminds me of how I feel when I sing. It is as though I am, through this art, connecting to a deeper spiritual plane that few other things reach.

As I was preparing to teach a workshop at the synagogue on yarn dyeing, I wanted to make it Jewish, and wondered how I could help others find this spiritual connection as I had. I reviewed the symbolic meanings of the colors. I pondered the fact that yarn dyeing, like knitting is an act of creation, perhaps helping us to connect to the Divine Creator. But I think my connection goes beyond these things.

G-d created the world with two simple words, “Y’hi Or” – let there be light. What is light? Light is a collection of colors. Pure white light is a combination of every color. When you dye yarn, particularly with food coloring, which is a mixture of colors which bind to the yarn at different rates, the resulting colors are somewhat unpredictable. The resulting skeins are a surprise of color and that surprise connects us to our art, to the wonder of creation, and to the beauty inherent in both the purposeful act and the surprising result. It is an act of revelation – an unexpected beauty.


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This is a picture of the first yarn I ever dyed.  The color is created by “breaking violet.”  It uses only one color of food coloring.  I learned this technique from Rebecca Brown of chemknits.  You can find her videos here: https://www.youtube.com/user/ChemKnitsBlog

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These are the yarns that are synagogue yarn dyeing class created together.

Four Jewish New Years

Time has always been a sacred Jewish concept. In the first moments of creation, G-d began to distinguish times – “there was evening and there was morning, day one.” There was no sun, moon, or stars, but already there was a separation in time – evening to morning, one day from the next. By the end of the week, time had been divided, not only into days, but into sacred and profane – Shabbat, and every other time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat is holy partially because it is an island in time. Whereas sacred space can be destroyed, sacred time exists always, whether we observe it or not. “Judaism,” he wrote, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” Further, he said:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

So the Sabbath creates a weekly holy island in time, but Judaism also sanctifies its years. We think of the Jewish New Year as Rosh Hashanah, but actually according to the Mishnah, there are four Jewish New Years. This was to ensure that certain commandments were completed at their appointed times. For example, the Israelites were required to contribute a tenth of the current year’s produce, so therefore they needed to know exactly when the current agricultural year began and ended.

The first of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah. This is the holiday that we think of when we think of the Jewish New Year. It aligns approximately with one of the secular New Years too – the beginning of the school year. Rosh Hashanah is the new year for seasons. The Talmud associates it with the anniversary of the creation. It is also considered the beginning of the civil calendar, and thus the new year’s for measuring the reigns of foreign kings, for setting the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and figuring the yearly tithe.

Rosh Hashanah is also a spiritual New Year. This is when we consider our lives and how we wish to change and become better people. For most Jews, the only two “New Years” we observe are Rosh Hashanah and January 1st.

But for those who remember their days in Hebrew school, they might also remember that Tu B’shvat is the New Year for trees. This is when the sap has begun to rise and fruit has started to ripen (in Israel.) It is customary on this date to eat the fruit of the new season. Ashkenazi Jews eat 15 different kinds of fruit. In the 16th century, the Sephardic mystics of Sfat expanded the Tu Bishvat observance with a seder that uses the symbolism of fruits with and without shells to enact the process of opening up to G-d’s holiness. In modern times, we also associate this holiday with environmentalism and the planting of trees in Israel.

Rosh Hashanah and Tu B’shvat are the two most well known Jewish new year’s. But there are two more. 1 Nissan corresponds to the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people. It says in the Torah, “this month [Nisan] is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year to you.” We observe Passover on the 15th of the month of Nisan. The first of Nisan is also the New Year for the reigns of Jewish kings (as opposed to secular ones), the renting of houses, and the counting of festivals between making and fulfilling a vow.

The last of the four new years is 1 Elul – the new year for tithing cattle. This one seems irrelevant today. The Temple no longer stands and how many of us keep cows? Still, many environmentalists are arguing for bringing this one back into prominence. The holiday can be about seeing the sacredness of all living beings and considering our place in our food system. It is a day on which to, as Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg put it, “abjure cruelty and affirm our kinship with creation.” Of course Elul is also the month of selichot recitations in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Can there be a connection between our consideration of the treatment of animals and our own cheshbon hanefesh – the examining of our souls? The psalmist looks at a deer’s yearning for water and sees reflected an image of our own yearning for G-d. On Rosh Hashanah we will face our animal instincts – as we begin that inner accounting, an examination of our treatment of animals can connect.

These four ancient observances give us a gift of renewing ourselves and our communities in different ways over the course of the year. It’s really quite brilliant. Rabbi Ismar Schorch wrote of Rosh Hashanah and 1 Nissan (with its approach of Pesach):

…both sacred seasons express the fullness of human need. In the spring, we join with family and friends to celebrate the rebirth of our people. Nature and history converge in a burst of new vigor, hope and creativity. We have a need to belong, to attach our lives to something greater and more lasting than ourselves, to find meaning beyond the self.

But the self is not to be denied. It must find some sacred solitude within the totality of community and peoplehood. And so we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives.

Rosh Hashanah is a deeply personal, inner examination of our lives. Tu B’shvat connects us to nature and food, celebrates the rebirth of spring after a dark and cold winter, 1 Nissan connects us to our people – to our extended families and our shared Jewish story, 1 Elul begins the process of personal repentance and connects us to all life and its sacredness. Through the marking and celebrations of all four new years, we have the chance to explore our lives from many different facets and with greater depth. And the secular new year gives us a moment of sparkle and joy that makes us glad to exist in a world where sacred and secular can shine together.