Archive for June, 2019

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!”

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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.