By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
Between Rosh HaShanah, known in the Torah as Yom HaZikaron (the Day of Remembrance), and Yom Kippur, I’m thinking about memory and the Yizkor service. It is common when Jews interact with mourners to say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” I like this phrase more than “They’re in a better place” or “may they rest in peace” because these phrases focus on the deceased. But what we say is focused on the mourner – the one who remembers, and thereby grieves. But what does it mean for a memory to be for a blessing? And is this even how people talk?
In the Yizkor service, the liturgy still implores us to pledge an act of Tzedakah (usually monetary) in memory of our loved one(s). So their memory is indeed an opportunity for us to contribute to another living person’s experience of a blessing – like money for food, clothing, shelter, or any other number of blessings provided by a charitable organization. Perhaps, the phrase means something more like, “may the memories we hold on to and share be comforting.” Our hope is that our memories elicit a feeling of being blessed to have known our loved one, rather than feeling exclusively sad and grief-stricken by the loss.
Since my parents are still alive, I wouldn’t ordinarily be in the Yizkor service if not for being a Hazzan. That’s only a custom, so if you choose to stay regardless, you’re welcome and may get a lot out of it. Still, I’m remembering grandparents, friends who left this world too soon, and some distant relatives I didn’t know that well.
So, what constitutes a memory? Is it a name? A birthdate or yahrzeit date? A picture from generations past? What about those who died long before us? Are their memories still a blessing? First hand memories are wonderful, but so are stories we hear and can imagine. Quotes or aphorisms attributed to those long gone help us glimpse the values of our ancestors. A personal journal or piece of writing could be invaluable.
A year or so ago, I started reading my Great-grandfather Phil’s journal, z”l*. He only started keeping one for the last few years of his life to recount stories about his family – his grandparents, and parents and siblings. He hadn’t yet written about my grandfather, his son, before he passed away. Reading his words, getting a sense of how he thought, how he might’ve spoken, and what he deemed important to pass on helped me feel close to him, like I got to know him even though my mom was only a year or so old when he died. The journal, found and published by my first cousin once removed, also had lots of pictures in it. And after a few weeks of reading through this journal, I had a dream and he was in it. He didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know what his voice sounded like. But I could see him sitting there, and I knew that it was him.
After my Bubbe z”l passed away, I had several dreams she was in, that I called visits. I believe that dreams have a deep spiritual nature to them. And when I was able to construct through pictures and writings a memory of who my great-grandfather was, that memory became a blessing to me as I, in a limited sense, got to meet him.
When I think about those I knew and loved and mourn during Yizkor, I believe in all three of the blessings their memories can be. A blessing to those who benefit from the Yizkor pledge to give Tzedakah, a blessing of comfort to those who live and remember, and a blessing to the soul of our loved ones who are able to live on in those memories, and stay intimately connected with us here in this world until it is our time to join them in the world to come.
*z”l = Zichrono/zichronah Livracha (His/her memory for a blessing)
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
This year’s Beth El Tashlich will enable us to go down to the beach and actually throw our breadcrumbs into the water. (The last few years, our neighbor’s stairs were covered by high water levels, so we were limited to our backyard, but no longer.) Please join us at shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Sunday, September 17th at 6:00 pm. Those who are up for lots of stairs can go down to the beach, while those who prefer not to can throw from our backyard.
That was the Tachlis, and here’s the Torah. Actually, this ritual is not from the Torah per se, and not even mentioned in the Talmud. But it does quote a verse from the prophet Micah: “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (7:19).
The key idea is that we are casting our sins away, so we throw bread crumbs to be carried away by the waters. But Tashlich is not a “magical trick” by any means. There’s no “hocus pocus” involved, and not even a blessing recited. Instead, it’s a physical actualization of a theoretical concept.
The theme of the holiday is Teshuvah, repentance. And all this occurs in our heads. The thoughts of renewal we have, the words of apology we say, the songs we sing – they are all in our minds. But the rabbis were brilliant educators, and they wanted to engage all our senses. So they created a tactile element to this intellectual process. When we throw the bread into the water on Rosh HaShanah, it’s a physical release, which caps off the conceptual release made earlier in the holiday. Tashlich is the finishing touch.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
The 613th mitzvah in the Torah falls within this week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim and Vayelech. We read in Devarim 31:19, “Now, write down this shira (song/poem) and teach it to B’nei Yisrael–put it in their mouths.”
This is a verse with which so many of us are already familiar. We contributed to writing a Sefer Torah this past year during Beth El’s Mitzvah 613 Torah writing project. This very verse is quoted on every certificate given to anyone who participated in this mitzvah.
Rav, the great Babylonian commentator, said that writing a Sefer Torah is so important that if you do it, it’s as if you received the Torah on Har Sinai. We, at Beth El, revealed our newly completed Torah scroll for the first time this past Shavuot, when we celebrated the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai and read from it for the very first time.
Rav Sheshet, yet another of our great Babylonian commentators, said that even if you write a single letter in a Torah scroll, it’s considered as if you wrote the entire thing. What an amazing feat, to think that it truly “took a village,” and without everyone’s participation, we could not have fulfilled this mitzvah.
It takes many individuals within a wider community to write a Sefer Torah. And we did it!
According to the Rosh, the German-born medieval Talmudist, the purpose of this 613th mitzvah is to be sure that everyone can study Torah.
That being said, I’d like to agree with the Rosh by suggesting that in this upcoming new year of 5784, we can all take an opportunity to grow as Jews, to learn something new, to take on new rituals. I would love to challenge all of us to cling to our Torah, “l’mahazikim ba,” as we say everytime we return the Torah to the ark. By remaining close to our Torah, may we all find opportunities to draw close to our new Torah, be it by learning to read Torah, taking an aliya to the Torah, or any variety of bima honors when we can experience what it feels like to be in proximity of our new scroll.
“It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed.”
Let us each find the opportunity to continue to fulfill the mitzvah of creating our new Sefer Torah by drawing close to it, learning from it, and finding blessing in every Torah encounter we have.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler
This Thursday we’re in the thick of it preparing for the High Holidays, and halfway through the month of Elul. Elul has always been my favorite month of the Jewish calendar – well, ever since I learned the following teaching: “The King is in the field.” This became a mantra in some ways, and a call to action in other ways. Of course God is always near to us, but it doesn’t always feel that way. In Elul, The King is in the field — not in the palace in the heart of a capital city. To visit a king in the palace requires great effort. One should dress their best, and behave extra carefully. They have to jump through the hoops of bureaucracy to even get an audience, and travel however far, use however many vacation days to make the journey to the King. In Elul, this is not so. In Elul the King, that is HaShem, comes down to the field – to the place where we are toiling through our work as usual. We can show up as we are, flawed and busy and flustered in the throes of earning our daily bread. Yet the King greets us all with a smile. There is no expectation to run home and change, or straighten up or even cease our work. Just like in Elul, it’s not a holy day, it’s business as usual — but it’s still a holy time, doing holy work in lockstep with our mundane tasks.
We have to hold the physical and spiritual, each in one hand simultaneously. And as I understand it, anything that can go right, will go right if we are working ot be our best selves. HaShem will bless our efforts, and support us in our teshuva. We should make great use of the time when the Shofar is blown, and reflect, repent, reconnect and renew. When it comes to making a change in the world, we can only really control ourselves. In this time, we can tap into a deep spiritual energy and make the change, begin the process. And take this headstart into the coming year. I encourage you to be on the lookout for the littlest miracles, the tiniest blessings. When something works out in your favor — short term or perhaps in the long term, remember: “The King is In The Field.” An early Shanah Tovah, and may we continue to see blessings abound through the year ahead.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
I’m afraid we may be remembering the wrong thing.
This week we read a passage connected to Purim, though it’s months away. 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?
2. 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.
Parasha Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
The number ten is having its moment. In a few days, synagogues around the world will chant the Ten Commandments in honor of Shavuot.
What follows are ten reasons why Jews go for cheesecake and other dairy goodies on Shavuot, the holiday when we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
10. Torah is compared to milk in Song of Songs 4:11. Just like milk sustains the body, Torah nourishes the soul.
9. The Torah recounts Israel’s journey from the bitterness of Egypt to the sweetness of Israel, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” On Shavuot we recall not just the pause at Sinai but the final destination of Israel.
8. The numerical value of “milk – Halav – חלב” is 40. This is an allusion to the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai downloading the Torah.
7. The numerical value of “cheese – Gevinah – גבינה” is 70, which corresponds to the “70 faces of Torah,” the multitude of possible interpretations.
6. The four Hebrew words in Numbers 28:26, which describe the Shavuot offering, are “Mincha Hadashah La’Doshem B’Shavuoteichem – an offering of new grain to Hashem on your Festival of Weeks.” The initials of these four words are מחלב. This means “from milk.”
5. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were considered to be as innocent as newborns, whose food is milk.
4. Scholars note that ethnic spring harvest festivals – not just Jewish – often feature dairy dishes, perhaps because this was the season for producing cheese.
3. When the Jews received the laws of Kosher slaughter and cooking on Mt. Sinai, they didn’t have the tools to immediately prepare for a meat meal. So they went dairy.
2. Mt. Sinai is also called Har Gavnunim הר גבנונים, “the mountain of majestic peaks” in Psalms 68:16. The similar Hebrew word Gevinah גבינה means “cheese.”
1. This is not necessarily the best, but it is original, though it builds on #10. Milk symbolizes life. It’s a product that flows from a living animal and sustains another living animal. By contrast, meat is a product that comes from a dead animal. Torah, like milk, emerges from life, and our experiences and Torah nourish the living. Like milk, Torah symbolizes life. L’Chaim.
One thing that impresses me about the Jewish tradition is the range of possible answers to any given question, like this one. Just as cheesecake is enhanced by its broad range of flavors, the Torah is richer when it yields multiple interpretations. It’s a prism that refracts a rainbow of light onto our world.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
Ki mitzion tetze Torah udvar Hashem mirushalayim.
Torah shall come from Zion, the word of Adonai from Jerusalem.
This final half of Isaiah 2:3 is a familiar one, as we recite this passage every time we take the Torah out of the ark. But it bears a particular weight this week, and for 3 different reasons:
We will recall our time Bamidbar, in the wilderness, for all Jews, as “the Torah leads us on our journey of life.”
We will remember Yerushalayim, when we place our new Torah in our Aron haKodesh for the very first time.
We will celebrate the awesomeness of having created an entire Torah, together, as a kehila kedosha, a holy community.
As we recited at the end of Vayikra last Shabbat: Hazak, Hazak, v’nitchazek! May we all be strengthened through this holy communal experience.
Mazal Tov to all of us!
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
Lag BaOmer was Monday night/Tuesday this week. The 33rd day of our 7-week journey to Shavuot. The Torah teaches that while we left Egypt and were free on Passover, our freedom wasn’t fully realized until we received the Torah 7 weeks later. As we count those same 7 weeks, we have an opportunity to refine our souls and become even more ready to take hold of our freedom and be our best selves.
I like to ask a lot of questions during the Omer about the sefira (attribute/trait) of the week, and the sefira of the day – how they relate and inform each other. If you’ve been coming to evening minyan regularly, you’ve heard me do this. If not, come check it out.
During the first week, in focusing on Chesed (lovingkindness), I wondered how can I be sure that my love or kindness is still respectful of others’ boundaries (Day 2: Gevurah in Chesed). You wouldn’t want to go in for the hug without knowing if that person is a hugger, or at least it never hurts to ask. Later that week (Day 6: Yesod in Chesed), I thought about how the bonds and relationships in my life support my kindness. Do I surround myself with people who encourage, value and inspire me to be kinder?
During the second week, the week of Gevurah (strength/discipline/restraint/judgment), I thought about how my judgment should come from a place of love and rooted in kindness. (Day 8: Chesed in Gevurah). Sometimes we need tough love. On Day 12 (Hod in Gevurah), it was Yom HaShoah uGevurah, I thought about how judgment without humility can be incredibly dangerous. We must know that our strength comes from HaShem, and never forget what can happen if we become arrogant and judgmental or worse.
The third week is about Tiferet, which is associated with beauty and balance, but also truth and the integration of extremes. I thought about (Day 18: Netzach in Tiferet), how finding balance is never a done deal. That we need to find enduring balance, which requires constantly balancing. It’s an exercise that is ongoing.
In the fourth week, the theme was Netach (endurance, eternity – netzach netzachim, but also ambition and success – nitzachon). I thought about (Day 23: Gevurah in Netzach) how to make good decisions into lasting good habits. I also meditated on (Day 26: Hod in Netzach), sometimes in order to reach our ambitious goals, we need to let go and be grateful for what we’ve already achieved. It’s also important to be humble in our pursuits and asking for help and receiving feedback in order to continue succeeding in the long term.
And in this fifth week of Hod (humility, gratitude, surrender), I always remind myself (Day 29: Chesed in Hod) that humility is not thinking less of myself, but thinking of myself less. Humility is not self-deprecation, but a loving recognition of the greatness of others. I’ve also been thinking about (Day 34: Netzach in Hod) how important it is to make gratitude a practice. Not only to be thankful, but to make a habit of being thankful.
The days and weeks ahead we will look at Yesod and Malchut. Yesod is our foundation, our connections, and our relationships. We can think of our partners, teams, colleagues, families, friends, communities and how they serve as our foundation, our support and our source of intimacy. We might ask ourselves how can I be more kind in my relationships, more discerning, more honest, more consistent or more grateful?
And the final week of Malchut is the most challenging. Malchut is the great receiver. She is the manifestation of all we learn each week, and how we receive the blessings of those meditations. How do we increase our dignity and our ability to lead with these traits? How can we move from freedom to true autonomy, allowing our soul to guide our bodies to do great things? Have we reflected and received the gifts of kindness, strength, balance, success, gratitude, and connection? And are we ready come day 50 to receive the Torah all over again?
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
When people think of Rabbi Harold Kushner – the Conservative rabbi who passed away Friday at age 88 – they often associate him with the best-selling 1981 book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And correctly so. That was a wonderful example of sharing Jewish wisdom with the larger world. If that had been his only teaching, Dayeinu – that would have been enough of a career accomplishment.
While I did read that book years ago, it’s not how I think of him as a teacher. That’s because I am grateful to learn from him in a very real way every single week – and you might too without even realizing it.
He was the editor of the Etz Hayim Humash commentary below the line (Drash). So if you are ever in shul following the Torah reading with the Humash, and your eyes wander to the bottom of the page, you are reading Kushner. These comments and insights share timeless treasures from the Torah verses. These short sentences instantly help us understand sometimes cryptic passages and stories. And they add holiness to those precious words.
Here is but one example from this week’s reading, Emor. The topic is the role of priests and how to maintain their ritual purity. The Torah says “and you must treat [the Priests] as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy” (Lv. 21:8).
Let me quote Kushner’s comment on that idea:
“Rabbis and cantors are no different from other Jews. They have no special powers; no obligations devolve on them that do not apply to all Jews. ‘Ten shoemakers can make a Minyan but nine rabbis can’t.’ Nonetheless, they are considered Klei Kodesh – instruments of holiness – because, through their knowledge and teaching and by life, character, and commitments, they show the way to a life of holiness.”
Rabbi Kushner was a mensch and certainly did not intend to glorify himself with those words. But those same words certainly apply to him. Many of us – plenty of rabbis included – have followed his lead to a life of holiness.
While he has sadly passed away, his words endure forever for they are printed for all of us to read. I and many other Jews who read the Humash every week will continue to learn from his wisdom without end.
May his memory be a blessing.