Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Were Exactly does G-d Live?

Posted on October 4, 2022

There’s a small poem1 by Yehudah HaLevi that can be found in the Mahzor on page 231 or in Siddur Lev Shalem on page 359 that reads,

1 יָהּ, אָנָה אֶמְצָאֶךָּ? מְקוֹמְךָ נַעֲלָה וְנֶעְלָם!

וְאָנָה לֹא אֶמְצָאֶךָּ? כְּבוֹדְךָ מָלֵא עוֹלָם!

 “Yah ana emtza’acha m’kom’cha na’aleh v’ne’lam? V’ana lo emtza’acha? Kevod’cha maleh olam!” It means “God, where will I find You? Your place is high and hidden. But, where would I not find you? Your glory fills the world.” The poem plays on an apparent contradiction found within the Kedusha.

2 קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָֽרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ:

 “Holy Holy Holy is Hashem Tzeva’ot – His Glory fills the whole Earth”2 and “Blessed is the glory of HaShem from His Place.”3

3 בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד־יְהֹוָה מִמְּ֒קוֹמוֹ:

 

Where exactly does God live? Is God in Heaven somewhere entirely distant and grand? Is God in a place that can only be described as HaMakom (The Place)? Or is God everywhere – all around us, across the globe and the cosmos, constantly nearby at all times?

Starting 5 weeks ago in Elul we began adding Psalm 27 to our daily prayers, and in it we recite: “One thing I ask of You, Hashem. To dwell in Your house all the days of my life.”4 And throughout the year, when we recite Ashrei we claim that those who ‘dwell in God’s house’ are joyous.

4 אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהֹוָה֮ אוֹתָ֢הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הֹוָה כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י

But where is G-d’s house? High and hidden? Or filling the whole world? Is God transcendent, ineffable, and entirely impossible to grasp? Or is G-d’s presence iminent, always close to those who call out to G-d in truth? The answer is both. G-d is everywhere, visible in the manifold works of creation we see anytime we truly open our eyes. G-d is felt everywhere, audible in the praises of all that breathes a breath of life. G-d is all around us, we are reflections of His divine image.

G-d is where we feel safe. G-d is also present, witnessing our discomfort serving as our help and strength in times of distress. G-d is at the synagogue, and G-d is at home. G-d is up in the highest Heavens, and G-d’s glory fills the Earth. G-d is not only found on the lofty throne of Judgment making decrees on Yom Kippur. G-d is found outside, in a flimsy and temporary sukkah we build to remind ourselves that it is by G-d’s grace alone that we survive. As we transition from the spiritual height of Yom Kippur to Sukkot – known as the Season of our Joy, let’s remind ourselves:  joyous are those who dwell in G-d’s house, they praise God forever. Selah5.

5אַ֭שְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י בֵיתֶ֑ךָ ע֝֗וֹד יְֽהַלְל֥וּךָ סֶּֽלָה׃

And as we leave our houses to dwell in Sukkot, let’s embrace the opportunity to tune into the natural, physical, beautiful world filled with
G-d’s presence. Let’s invite that presence into our sukkot, and into our lives and joyfully reside in G-d’s house. Chag Sameach!

Ten Days of Teshuvah – What Do We Do With These In-Between Days?

Posted on October 4, 2022

Rabbi Alex Freedman

Rosh Hashanah is over and next week’s Yom Kippur feels far away. What are we supposed to do now?

Don’t think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as separate and distinct holidays. Instead, consider them bookends to a single extended season – the time for Teshuvah. This Hebrew word means “repentance” but it connotes forgiveness, return, and second chances. On Rosh Hashanah, we sang during UNetaneh Tokef “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” The in-between days are the test for the new commitments we made on Rosh Hashanah. What happened when we went home after services? Did we start living by our new commitments? Or did we fall into familiar patterns? Based on this in-between week, we set the tone for the year ahead.

Known as the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Jewish Law urges us to be at our very, very best during these days, even if we take on practices we cannot otherwise sustain every day of the year, like going to Minyan. This is spiritual crunch time.

I learned the following from my teacher Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem: The 10 days of Teshuvah include both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which leaves seven in-between days. Each day of the week leaves its mark on that day for the entire year. So today, Thursday, sets the tone for every Thursday in 5783. The next day, Friday, sets the tone for every Friday in the year ahead, and so forth. If we want the year to go as we wish, we have to set the tone early. Otherwise we revert to old habits.

I wish you a meaningful Yom Kippur. But before that, I wish you a productive Ten Days of Teshuvah.

Shabbat Shalom.

Ten Days of Teshuvah – What Do We Do With These In-Between Days?

Posted on September 29, 2022

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

Rosh Hashanah is over and next week’s Yom Kippur feels far away. What are we supposed to do now?

Don’t think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as separate and distinct holidays. Instead, consider them bookends to a single extended season – the time for Teshuvah. This Hebrew word means “repentance” but it connotes forgiveness, return, and second chances. On Rosh Hashanah, we sang during UNetaneh Tokef “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” The in-between days are the test for the new commitments we made on Rosh Hashanah. What happened when we went home after services? Did we start living by our new commitments? Or did we fall into familiar patterns? Based on this in-between week, we set the tone for the year ahead.

Known as the Ten Days of Teshuvah, Jewish Law urges us to be at our very, very best during these days, even if we take on practices we cannot otherwise sustain every day of the year, like going to Minyan. This is spiritual crutch time.

I learned the following from my teacher Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem: The 10 days of Teshuvah include both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which leaves seven in-between days. Each day of the week leaves its mark on that day for the entire year. So today, Thursday, sets the tone for every Thursday in 5783. The next day, Friday, sets the tone for every Friday in the year ahead, and so forth. If we want the year to go as we wish, we have to set the tone early. Otherwise we revert to old habits.

I wish you a meaningful Yom Kippur. But before that, I wish you a productive Ten Days of Teshuvah.

Shabbat Shalom.

“I’m All For You, Body and Soul”

Posted on September 22, 2022

At the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, B’nai Israel are all standing before God, ready to again enter into the covenant with God first received back in Exodus, reaffirming that holy relationship established back at Mount Sinai.

A few generations have passed, so that those who were children back at Sinai are now present as the elders of this generation. The whole community is being addressed by Moshe, all those present. And then he reflects on the past generations, back to our earliest ancestors who lived long before this current crowd. For as we know, God promised to be God to Avraham and all of his future descendants. Now we are approaching an intriguing statement.

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone (29:13), but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day (29:14).

At first glance, it seems that those not present refers back to the past, but then what about future generations? This is worded in an interesting way: a covenant is being given both to those present and those not present. How can a covenantal agreement be made with people who are not there to make that commitment, to hear these words directly? 

Imagine finding out that we are bound by our ancestors to this huge covenantal agreement from the past. How can children be party to a covenant that they did not, themselves, agree to? One answer to this conundrum, articulated by Rav Ashi in Talmud Shabbat 146a, is that in addition to all those standing there, the souls of all future Israelites, both descendants and converts alike, were also present. After all, verse 14 refers to those present as “those standing here with us” and those not present as “those who are not with us.” Since “standing” is something that only bodies do, the verse hints that despite their bodies not being present, future Israelites were there in spirit. This understanding is similar to the Mount Sinai experience: that all of our souls, past, present and future, were all there.

The 19th century commentator, the Malbim, probes this Talmudic interpretation. He asks, if only their souls were present, how could the covenant apply to both their souls and their bodies? If the covenant is only with the souls of future Israelites, the physical aspects of the covenant should not apply. To this he answers that although there is no direct connection between the souls of children and their parents, since each soul is a unique divine gift, there is a connection between their bodies. And here is where religion and science converge to truly understand the reality of this possibility. 

Our souls are distinct, but our bodies are produced from the physical material, the DNA of our parents’ bodies. So not only were we there as disembodied souls, our bodies were also there within the bodies of our ancestors! We are indeed party to the covenant, body and soul. Despite our awareness of ourselves as unique individuals, we are the products of both our parents’ DNA as well as the particular history, circumstances, and decisions of our family, tribe, and nation. So much is placed under our feet, and so much is placed on our shoulders, without our having a say in the matter. And yet, despite all of that, we are held responsible as individuals. At the same time, it is a privilege to be part of a covenant with God, which our ancestors gifted to us.

When we return to these holiest days of the year, we are taking our bodies and our souls on a sacred journey to new experiences in this new year. 

Shana Tova.

 

Parashat Ki Tetzei – Remember Amalek

Posted on September 7, 2022

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

I’m afraid we may be remembering the wrong thing. 

This week we read a passage connected to Purim. We recall how the Israelites’ enemy Amalek nearly wiped them out shortly upon leaving Egypt. The connection to Purim is that Megillat Esther (3:1) tells us that Haman was himself an Amalekite.

The Jewish tradition has generally understood Amalek to be the external enemy that must constantly be destroyed. In other words, we are called upon to take up arms against someone in every generation. This position is highly dangerous.

I want to offer an interpretation from my teacher at JTS, Professor Alan Cooper, citing Rabbi Samuel ben Moses de Medina (16th century Greece).

He challenges the standard reading on two points:

  1. The verse in this week’s Parsha (Dt. 25:18) reads : -וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱלֹקים

“[Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, as you were leaving Egypt, that it happened upon you on the way and struck those of you in the back, all the weaklings behind you] when you were tired and exhausted and did not fear G-d.”

Carefully identify who the subject of the verse is. Almost all translations (including JPS) claim the ones who did not fear G-d were the callous Amalekites. But a Peshat (contextual) reading posits that the subject should be “You,” the Israelites. The Israelites were tired and exhausted, and they did not fear G-d either.

If so, why? 

  1. Deuteronomy 25, our Parsha, is one of two descriptions of Amalek. The other appears in the Exodus narrative in real time, in Exodus Chapter 17. Exactly what precedes the battle with Amalek? The Israelites had just finished challenging Moses and G-d at Massah U’Merivah for not providing water. The very last line (17:7) before Amalek arrives describes the people wondering 

?הֲיֵשׁ ה’  בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן

“Is G-d among us or not?”

Rabbi Samuel claims that it was precisely the Israelites’ lack of faith in G-d and Moses that made them vulnerable to external attack. Amalek was nothing compared to the mighty Egyptian army just defeated, but it stood a chance because it attacked when the Israelites were spiritually weak. “Remember Amalek” is an eternal rallying call for the Jews to never forget how we were nearly destroyed when we lacked faith in G-d.

I hope that when challenges face our community – as they always have and always will – that we remember to look inwards before looking outwards.

A Season of Love

Posted on August 31, 2022

By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg

In the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, the classic 19th century code of Jewish law, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried shares the following teaching derived from three biblical verses. These selections allude to three special responsibilities incumbent upon us, as we spiritually prepare for the High Holy Days during the the Hebrew month of Elul:

Dorshei R’shumot (Interpreters of Torah) teach first: It is written “And Hashem your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your children.” (Deuteronomy 30:6) The initials of the words in Hebrew, et levavecha ve’et levav, form the acronym Elul. Likewise, the initials of Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine,” (Song of Songs 6:3) form the acronym Elul. Also, the initials of a verse from Megillat Esther, Ish lerei’eihu umatanot la’evyonim, “One to another delicacies and gifts to the poor,” (9:22) form the acronym Elul.

These acronyms are an allusion to three things: Repentance, Prayer and Charity which should be practiced with particular eagerness during this month. “Hashem will circumcise etc.” alludes to repentance. “I am my Beloved’s etc.” alludes to prayer, for prayer is the song of love. “One to another and gifts to the poor,” alludes to charity.’

I find these interpretive acronyms for Elul (Alef-Lamed-Vav-Lamed) and Rabbi Ganzfried’s connection to T’shuvah, Tefila, and Tzedakah to be particularly meaningful.

The acronym with which many of us are most familiar from this passage, is the Songs of Songs reference.

Shir haShirim is understood to be a poetic biblical love story between God and the Jewish people. To tie in these three grand themes (T’shuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah) that we recite in our holy day liturgy, each of these values connect to the three kinds of loving relationships that each of us can strive for every single day of our lives:

  1. Bein adam l’atzmo,the relationship we each have with ourselves, the ability to love oneself, directly connects with the theme of T’shuvah. Elul marks the beginning of the introspective period of checking in on ourselves, seeing how we are doing, what we’ve done well, and what we can do to turn around to be the best version of ourselves in the coming year.
  2. Bein adam l’makom, the relationship we each have with HaMakom, one of the many names for God, directly connects with the theme of Tefilah. Elul marks a period where our prayers increase each day (adding the recitation of Psalm 27), as do our rituals (sounding the shofar each morning). With both these words and the primal sound of the shofar, we are awakened to pronounce our love towards HaMakom, directing our energy to working on our relationship with God in the year to come.
  3. Bein adam l’chaveiro, the relationships between each of us to one another, directly connects with the theme of Tzedakah. By building on love, on chesed (acts of loving kindness) between each other, we have the ability to strengthen our community and help to bring tzedek(justice) into our world.

May the month of Elul give each of us the opportunity to love ourselves, reciprocate the deep and eternal love that God gives us. And so too, let us all work on loving one another, finding the best in each other, as we continue to find strength in the incredible community that is Highland Park, that is Beth El, that is each and every one of us.

Message from Rabbi Vernon and Bryna Kurtz

Posted on July 7, 2022

by Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

Bryna and I were shocked to hear the news last night Israel time of the terrible shooting and loss of life at the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade. We were shaken to our very core as we saw pictures of the streets we walked for 31 years in downtown Highland Park and witnessed the aftermaths of the tragic shooting.

We heard from friends and colleagues eye witness reports of what occurred and how they were able to save themselves and their families and we watched local Chicago news stations as they reported on the event. Here in Israel, the story led off the hourly news. It was simply hard for us to imagine that this could occur in a peaceful community like Highland Park.

We want to express our condolences to all who lost loved ones and whose families are shattered by this horrible event. We pray for the well-being of those who have been injured in body and in spirit. May all return to good bodily and emotional health.

This morning at my daily minyan I recited a Psalm in memory of those who were killed and a MiSheberach for those who were injured. The community responded with appropriate concern.

I recited Psalm 121 which includes these words:

“The Lord is your guardian, the Lord is your protection at your right hand.

By day the sun will not strike you, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will guard you from all harm; He will guard your life.

The Lord will guard your going and coming now and forever.”

 

May these words accompany all of you and give you strength.

We offer our warm hugs from Jerusalem and pray for the welfare of all.

May we share only good news with one another in the future.

 

How Long do Services Really Have to Be?

Posted on June 15, 2022

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

A few weeks ago, a group of us were learning about Jewish prayer and music with Hazzan Barnett, me and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky and Rabbi Josh taught an amazing story from the Talmud (Berakhot 34a). The story goes:

Once, a student led the prayers in Rabbi Eliezer’s house of study, and his prayers were unusually lengthy. The other students complained, “Master, how slow this fellow is!”

Rabbi Eliezer responded to them, “He is no slower than Moses, who pleaded on behalf of the Jewish people [after the sin of the golden calf] for forty days and forty nights.”

On another occasion, a different student led the prayers. This student recited the prayers quickly. The other students complained, “How hasty this fellow is!”

This time Rabbi Eliezer replied, “He is no hastier than Moses, who pleaded for his sister’s recovery with a few short words.”

In particular, we Hazzanim get accused all the time of drawing prayers out for too long. This dreidlech and that vocal flourish or repeating a word three or four times for emphasis will leave some folks in the congregation antsy about ending in time to get to Kiddush. I happen not to be like that stereotype, boasting as I do: “Tuna by Twelve or your money back — that’s the Hazzan Sandler guarantee.” But Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that even a Shabbat service that goes until 1pm is considerably shorter than Moses’s prayer following the Golden Calf incident.

On the other hand, I recall in my days at JTS and Ramah that there was sometimes a competitive energy around being the speediest davener. I remember friends trying to see who could recite the second paragraph of Aleinu (the “Al Kein”) the fastest. In those moments my friends and I would bemoan the speed, realizing we couldn’t keep up with that pace and losing our spiritual moment in the process. But surely those services were still much longer than Moses’s prayer for Miriam, which comes in this week’s parasha Beha’alot’cha. In Numbers 12:13 Moses calls out to God:  “אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ׃ El na, refah na lah– Please God, please heal her.” Only five words that couldn’t have taken more than 15 seconds to utter. Rabbi Eliezer, his students, and all of us even today struggle with determining the best speed and length of prayer services.

What’s the conclusion? Is it better to be longer? Shorter? Somewhere in the middle? The answer is simple: Yes. Each style of prayer has its advantages and disadvantages. A more appropriate question we might ask ourselves is: How can I inspire my fellow daveners to connect with HaShem? What is my kavanah or intention in my prayer? If the Shaliach Tzibur is davening at a different speed than I prefer, how can I make sure my prayer experience is still meaningful?

Bring Your Own Gift

Posted on June 8, 2022

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

As we make our way through the amazing drama that is our people’s history as described in the Torah, we experience every year the incredible stories of our ancestors in the book of Genesis, the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, and some compelling stories about spies, adventure, and intrigue in the desert. But sometimes we reach a Torah portion where we have just repetitions of words and phrases over and over again. The 5th, 6th, and 7th Aliyot of Parashat Naso this week detail the sacrifices brought by the chieftains on behalf of the people of Israel. And its homogeneity and repetitiveness is the epitome of the mundane!  

Every day with every chieftain the Torah returns and details the whole order of the sacrifices, even though there isn’t a single change or addition. But as I’ve shared before, our teachers throughout the generations believe that in the Torah there isn’t even a single extra letter – nothing extraneous. Every word has to mean something. And it would have made more sense for the text to read: “on the second day Netanel ben Tzu’ar, chieftain of the tribe of Issachar, sacrificed the same measure of sacrifices as did Nachson ben Aminadav.” And so on the third and fourth days etc.  

However, the Torah comes to teach us that no chieftain imitated the actions of his fellow who came the day before. Rather, even though outwardly it looks like the same exact sacrifice, each and every chieftain came with his own awakened intention and inner drive. And that is why the Torah specifies and details each individual sacrifice, each one unique from its fellow. 

Even if we feel that what we don’t have anything to offer to our community, or that what we have to offer is just the same as the next person, the fact is that your individual presence matters. Your individual gift matters. Your individual soul and spirit is what is important. This Shabbat will be my last of a really wonderful year of monthly residencies at Beth El. So as we join together on the lake and at Beth El, I hope to share your presence, to sing out and pray together and bring our individual gifts to this community together.  

Thanks for a wonderful year and hope to see you soon

Shabbat Shalom

The People of Judah

Posted on May 31, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion, B’midbar (in the wilderness), begins with a census of all the Israelite tribes. Of all the tribes, we are known by the tribe of Judah (Yehuda). We are, all of us collectively, Yehudim.

The foundation of Hebrew learning is to find the “shoresh” or root of the word, which will then provide insight into meaning. So. Where does Yehudah and Yehudim lead us as we follow it into its shoresh?

The word is derived from the Hebrew shoresh י.ד.ה.  , which builds out into a whole dictionary of words having much to do with thanksgiving—gratitude. Words we find all through our liturgy: L’hodot (to thank), Modeh (as in Modeh ani—I give thanks), Modim anachnu lach (We thank You, in the Amidah), and a lexicon of gratitude all through Hallel, Aleinu, etc.

Yehudim, Jews–those who live in gratitude to G-d, to each other. We wake up in the morning and the first thing we do is to offer thanks for being alive in Modeh Ani, and then for all the less obvious blessings we might not always consider as we do Birchot haShachar.

So that brings me my own opportunity to offer a word of gratitude, of thanksgiving for the opportunities; the friendships, the partnerships of so many; and the blessings of having been part of NSS Beth El’s clergy team for the past three years.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude from the outpouring of good wishes and kind words you have bestowed on me these past few weeks as we make our move to Pittsburgh to be closer to family. The hugs (virtual and in person), elbow and fist bumps, the hundreds of notes will stay with me (and Phil) long after we are settled in our new home. NSS Beth El is the most welcoming of communities: warm, embracing, caring, compassionate.

So many of you have told me I will be missed, but I assure you, the feeling is mutual, and should you pass through or have the opportunity to visit Pittsburgh, please stop by and visit.

Feel free to friend me on Facebook or reach out to me via email (the office has my current email and contact information!).

In the meantime, I’ll say L’hitra’ot and not “goodbye.”

Chodesh Tov and (an early) Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!