by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
“R’fa’einu Adonai v’nei’rafei
We recite these words in every weekday Amidah—a prayer for healing: “Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed. Save us and we shall be saved.” We then we ask God to grant “refuah shleima,” perfect healing, for all our afflictions.
Over the course of the pandemic, I have paused a moment at this blessing each morning and evening, thinking about those I know personally who are afflicted with COVID (that list seems to be growing by the day). Since election day (and even more so this past week in light of the events at the Capitol last Wednesday), I’ve been thinking about this Amidah blessing in a more societal sense.
We say (both in this blessing and in the Misheberach prayer we recite at the Torah) “Refuat hanefesh u’refuat haguf” (heal the spirit and the body—the seen and the unseen wounds and illnesses).
How do you go about healing a wounded country? Heal we must, but it’s not as easy as saying a prayer and hoping for the best. The healing process will be messy and rocky, difficult and very challenging. But, the process begins within each of us, a commitment to V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as the Torah says. Or in the words of Rabbi Hillel “What is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else.” These are the essence of Torah, the essence of the moral wisdom embodied in the commandments. It’s easier said than done and ultimately cannot be accomplished without being intertwined with justice.
It starts with us as individuals (hey, God can’t do it alone) and, like ripples in a pond, resonates to family, to community and beyond. Rabbi Menachem Creditor wrote a simple, but evocative song—a prayer, really, for his infant child in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. (You can see him sing it here) It is equally meaningful and profound in the aftermath of last week, as we pray for a peaceful transfer of power and for the new administration:
Olam Chesed Yibane
I will build this world with love
And you must build this world with love
And if we build this world with love
Then God will build this world with love.
By Rabbi Schwab
The future of the Jewish people was hanging in the balance. The Pharaoh had just decreed his intent to kill all of the first born Hebrew males. Thus, he called the two most popular midwives who served the Hebrews, Shifrah and Puah, and commanded them to immediately kill all male Hebrew babies they delivered. In an act of courageous and righteous defiance, puting their own lives at risk by directly defying the King of Egypt, they did not follow his orders. Countless babies lived because of their bravery and due to their willingness to stand up for what they knew was right. In fact, because of their righteous compassion, the Jewish people were able to continue to multiply and survive in order to later be redeemed and freed from Egypt. Without their bravery Moses and Aaron themselves would have been killed at birth. Our people survived because of the heroism of these two midwives.
While the story of Shifrah and Puah is brief, their heroism does not go unnoticed by the Torah and certainly not by the rabbis. In a dramatic scene, Pharaoh realized that his orders were not being carried out and personally summoned Shifrah and Puah. He challenged them, “How is it that you are not doing what I told you to do?” They replied, “The Hebrew women are unlike the Egyptian women, for they are experts; before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth” (Shemot 1:19). This answer seems to confound Pharoah and allows Shifrah and Puah not only to live but to continue to be the appointed midwives so that they can save more lives. It is after this exchange that the Torah tells us, “God benefitted the midwives” and gave them “houses”, that our tradition defines as dynasties connecting them to the future lineage of King David.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that their story is “the first recorded instance of civil disobedience…(setting a precedent) that would eventually become the basis for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.” In other words,history’s proud line of social activists and conscientious objectors can trace their source back to these righteous midwives stand against pharoah. Their heroic bravery not only enabled the redemption of an entire people but served as an inspiration for generations to come of the importance of doing one’s part in righting whatever wrongs exist – even ones perpetrated by another.
This year we embarked on a synagogue theme dedicated to “Loving Our Neighbor as Ourself.” There are many wrongs in society, most not of our own personal doing. Yet, Shifrah and Puah teach us that we must do our part. As Proverbs 31:8-9 commands us, “Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” Please join our initiatives, or those of others in the community, that allow us to follow in the footsteps of these women, whom Gd, Gd’s self, described as righteous and worthy of great praise. Let us be brave and courageous in the pursuit of justice, righteousness, and our sacred values.
Rabbi Alex Freedman
The Jewish tradition overflows with important and worthwhile debates. But when our turn arrives in 2021 to get the Covid vaccine, the tradition is clear: it’s a Mitzvah to get vaccinated to protect the lives of ourselves and others. Hillel and Shammai would agree to that.
Two Shabbat mornings ago, Rabbi Schwab and I had a conversation on the Bimah in lieu of one of us delivering the sermon. “Vaccination in Jewish Law” was not a debate because the Jewish sources support only one side. We shared the key points from a Teshuva (legal responsum) about this exact question written this year by Rabbi David Golinkin, the renowned Conservative scholar in Jerusalem. (You can read it here: https://schechter.edu/does-halakhah-require-vaccination).
Rabbi Golinkin rules: “In conclusion, since the discovery of the smallpox vaccine by Dr. Edward Jenner in 1796 it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that vaccines against infectious diseases save the lives of millions of people every year, with almost zero percent harmed by the vaccines. Therefore, there is a halakhic [legal] obligation for Jews to vaccinate themselves and their children, unless their doctors determine that it’s dangerous for that specific person to be vaccinated due to a pre-existing condition.”
Rabbi Golinkin lists the copious sources that prioritize taking care of our health. For example, the Talmud famously says, “Whoever saves one life is considered to have saved the whole world” (Sanhedrin 37a). Remember that receiving the vaccine protects not only us but many others around us.
Next, the Teshuva raises possible Jewish objections to vaccines, and then convincingly rejects them. For instance, an idea exists that “G-d will protect me.” This conviction is not a statement of faith, but rather the opposite of what the Talmud teaches. As Rabbi Yannai ruled: “A person should never stand in a place of danger saying that they will perform a miracle for him, lest they do not perform a miracle for him” (Shabbat 32a). Although we Jews celebrate miracles when they do happen (think of Hanukkah), we should not expect them to happen. Rather, we are to do everything we can to minimize dangers to ourselves. The medical experts say vaccines are a simple way – and the best way – to do exactly that. (Unless an individual has certain pre-existing conditions).
Rabbi Schwab and I then discussed the question: Why do you think it’s important for rabbis to talk about this, when it’s a medical issue and we are not doctors? Here is my answer: I do speak with some medical expertise because my mother wanted me to be a doctor!
In all seriousness, our health is a Jewish issue too because the Jewish legal sources prioritize it extensively. Getting this vaccine is so important that Rabbi Schwab and I want our congregation to know that our tradition and rabbis unwaveringly support it.
We Jews love to say “L’Chayim! To life!” Getting the vaccine is how we actualize this in 2021.
(Vaccine registration is now open for Lake County residents – https://allvax.lakecohealth.org/s/?language=en_US)
Happy new year! May 2021 be a year of health for us and the whole world.
By Hazzan Ben Tisser
Confrontation is, perhaps, one of the most difficult things that we, as humans, have to do. I, for one, avoid confrontation unless absolutely necessary. It makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps even more challenging than confronting another person is confronting ourselves and our pasts.
Over the past several weeks Robyn and I have enjoyed watching The Crown on Netflix in the evenings. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fascinating show, loosely based on historical events, about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II – her personal story, family drama, and national politics. One of the most interesting parts of the show thus far has been learning about Prince Philip. He had such a unique and sad childhood – a mother taken to an asylum, fleeing his home country of Greece, much of his family dying in a plane crash – and until a good number of episodes into this show, one might never know. The creators of the show, however, attempt to show us the human side of this monarchical family. There are flashbacks, moments of pause and reflection. But it isn’t until the Queen brings the Prince’s mother to live in Buckingham Palace during a period of unrest in Greece in the 1960s that Philip is truly forced to confront his past. It is challenging for him, but ultimately very healing. He is able to repair his strained relationship with his mother, finally realizing just who she is. After these events, and after the eventual passing of his mother, we begin to see a change in him.
This week, in Parashat Vayiggash, we read of a similar confrontation. We have just read about Jacob’s sons descending to Egypt during a very difficult famine in Canaan, seeking food and sustenance. Joseph recognizes them but does not reveal himself, sending them home with supplies and telling them not to return without their youngest brother, Benjamin. They did so, and then as Joseph sent them home, his goblet was placed in Benjamin’s sack so that, when found, Benjamin would stay with him in Egypt. In this week’s episode, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in a rather dramatic scene. Judah makes a plea to Joseph that Benjamin should only return home to their father, after which Joseph cries out to all present (with exception of his brothers) to leave the room, so that he may ultimately tell them who he is.
Joseph was, by this time, among the highest people in all of Egypt. He could have done anything he wanted at this point. But rather than choose the path of anger and reproach, he chooses the path of direct confrontation and ultimately of peace. He tells his brothers that what they did so many years earlier, selling him into slavery and faking his death to their father, was all part of God’s plan so that he may ultimately save them. In confronting the past directly with those who hurt him, he was able to create a great future for his family. This takes great strength of character, and immense faith in God.
Each of us has a past. Each of us carries with us uncomfortable moments and experiences. The challenge lies in how we deal with them. Do we simply accept that they are part of our stories and schlep them along with us? Or, do we confront these issues or people directly, hopefully creating deeper connections and freeing ourselves from the bondage of hard feelings and discontentment? I think there is a great lesson to be learned from the Torah. As Jews, we are taught that carrying our past with us is vital. We cannot simply live in the present; we are a people of memory. We should learn from our ancestor Joseph, however, that the key to holding on to our past is having the strength to use those experiences, coupled with deep and abiding faith, to shape a meaningful and bright future.
By Hazzan Barbara Barnett
One of my favorite discussions to have with students at this time of year is the rehashing of the Hillel-Shammai debate on how to light the Chanukiah (or as you might call it, Chanukah menorah). If you are unfamiliar with this grand argument between these two sages of the Talmud, a quick summary:
First, Rabbis Hillel and Shammai argued about a great many things (Hillel won most of the time!). When debating the proper way to light the Chanukiah, Shammai believed you begin with a full set of eight candles, removing a candle each night until there is only one remaining, which more accurately simulates the diminishing light of the miraculous cruse of oil in the Temple. Hillel believed that one should never diminish the light, and so we start with a single candle and build up to the eighth night with a full, glowing, brilliant chanukiah. (Like I said, Hillel usually won these Talmudic arguments, and so we follow Beit Hillel to this very day).
But I often wonder whether Shammai might have actually had the correct idea, but not necessarily for the reasons we think. Indeed, the cruse of oil lasted for eight days, when there was only enough for one day (or so goes the story), and the flame would have dimmed over the miraculous, but lengthy, time. So, the Shammai method seems to work for historical authenticity. But there’s more.
As we approach the eighth night of Chanukah this evening, our Chanukiot are blazing, spreading light and warmth throughout the family, throughout the home. But then tomorrow comes. Nothing. Gone like a flash are the brilliant, dancing candle flames atop colorful candles or tiny bowls of oil and gleaming, festive chanukiot. The brilliance of light one night, brighter than on all the other nights, and then suddenly, we are plunged into darkness. And this, during the moonless, dark night of the darkest time of the year.
So, back to Shammai. In his method, as the eight candles become seven, the six, then five, etc. we adjust to the dark a little at a time, slowly by the day, until there is only the light of the last candle, dimmed like the fading cruse of oil in the Temple, and by now we are accustomed to the dark; it’s neither scary nor strange. Instead it’s natural. A progression.
Additionally, and perhaps more interesting, what if as the light diminishes flame by flame, it really doesn’t disappear at all, but becomes internalized within us. We take in the brightness of eight candles on the first night, and then the seven in the chanukiah with the eighth not really gone, but taken in, creating a spark of joy, of light, from within. By the end of Chanukah, the light isn’t gone at all, but reflected in the warmth of memory, the glow of a smile, the flame of Chanukah “ruach” (spirit) and the lingering aroma of simmering, shimmering latkes.
Where did the light go? It’s not gone, but in us all, our children, grandchildren, where it remains to brighten these darkest days and into the year ahead.
Wishing you a Chag Urim Sameach (A joyous festival of lights) from our family to yours.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman
“You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.” So said the author Germaine Greer. The Torah’s response might be: grown-ups are never finished growing up.
Parashat Vayeshev kicks off the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. It begins with their father Jacob letting everyone know Joseph is his favorite; a multicolored coat rubs in this fact. Joseph does not help his own case, tattling on his brothers and sharing dreams that speak of his superiority. All these enrage his brothers, who dispose of him by selling him off to an Egypt-bound caravan.
One lens through which to read the story is that of personal growth and maturity. First, let’s give credit to Joseph for growing up into a respectable man. Remember that the opening scenes speak of him at age 17. Are we ourselves proud of everything we were at 17, still in high school? After he is sent down to Egypt, he grows up. He shows the wisdom of running Potifar’s house and operations. He has the discipline to not give in to Potifar’s wife. He has the kindness to help out two fellow prisoners. He gives credit to G-d rather than himself. He begins speaking of G-d for the first time. People respond to upheaval in very different ways, and to his credit Joseph matures almost overnight. This should have been a song in the musical!
Second, let’s applaud his brother Judah. Immature adult Judah is the one who suggests selling Joseph down to Egypt in the first place. He does not permit his third son to marry Tamar, effectively prohibiting her from marrying anyone else in the process. But something important occurs when he admits to his later actions with Tamar – he grows up. In the story’s decisive moment, it looks like younger brother Benjamin will remain in jail in Egypt while everyone else returns to Canaan. But one brother refuses to turn his back, insists that he remain in Benjamin’s place, challenges the second-most important authority in Egypt by basically bellowing “Let my brother go!” It’s Judah. The story of Joseph is the story of Judah too, whom Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls Judaism’s first true repentant.
In this story are a few lessons for us: maturity can happen all at once; emotional growth continues as adults; personal crises can lead to personal growth. As we read the Joseph story again this year, let’s look carefully at character development – and be inspired to spur our own.
It is hard not to notice that the days are getting shorter and that the balance is shifting toward darkness in its tug of war with light each passing week. For some of us, this can be a challenging phenomenon – we much prefer the light to the darkness.
In fact, in the history of world literature and culture, light is often the symbol of positivity, goodness and holiness, while darkness represents negativity, evil and desecration. What is more, perhaps for some, the encroaching darkness mirrors our own inner feelings of the challenge of the pandemic, or personal crisis we are experiencing in our lives. These feelings have the potential to be overwhelming and leave us with a feeling of hopelessness.
Judaism, though, has a different view and can offer us a context of meaning and hope for both the actual darkness of the season and the metaphoric darkness of personal challenge. Beginning with none other than creation itself, the Torah indicates that darkness too is sacred. In fact, it is out of darkness that the world is born. “There was evening and there was morning – the first day” (Gen 1:5). The darkness of the evening precedes the light of the morning and both constitute the elemental foundations of creation. Light only has meaning due to the existence of darkness and both come from God.
As writer Barbara Mahany points out in poetic fashion, “Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.” In other words, from darkness can come growth, unseen blessing or unrealized potential. Darkness is the prelude to light. And without it, we can’t appreciate the light. As the Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah says, “the existence of darkness underscores light, emphasizes the yearning for it.”
Our tradition honors this notion with the holiday of Hanukkah, which is called the festival of lights, because we kindle lights each night. However, powerfully, we celebrate it at the very darkest time of the year. The darkness forces us to appreciate the beauty of light and inspires us to find a deeper light within ourselves that we are charged with creating – the natural cycle of the world will not simply provide it like in the summer. As the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote, [During this season] Make the light be from you. Deep within you.”
Therefore, the challenge of this season is to seize the opportunity in the darkness of winter to reclaim the days and bring a deeper light of blessing, appreciation and compassion into the world and into our lives. We are guided to let the darkness inspire us to resilience, optimism and anticipation. Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about Shabbat as erecting a cathedral of time. As he wrote, “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” Through the Jewish tradition, darkness can indeed inspire us to erect a cathedral of light just when we need it most. As well as to set us up to enter the season of external light with our internal flame fully stoked. In this way, we honor the sacredness of darkness and its holy relationship to the light we all seek.
I have a confession to make. It might surprise many of you, but I take a calculated risk in sharing: I love the winter holiday season. Everything about it. The decorations, the music, the magic that seems to be in the air for the six weeks or so which begin just prior to Thanksgiving and end just after New Years Day. I’ve always loved it. As a child in Los Angeles, my dad would drive us down Wilshire Boulevard to see downtown Beverly Hills all decked out, the sleds and snowflakes ironically hanging above the street, suspended on either side from the lamp posts, all while it might still be 80 degrees outside…window displays revealed along Rodeo Drive…beautiful holiday music playing from the shops and from speakers set up along the roads. At night after leaving my grandmother’s home from a weekend visit, we would often take the long way home, winding through the canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains, enjoying the elaborate light displays of the homes we passed.
As an adult, I am no less enamored with it all. When I was in Seminary, I used to love walking down 5th Avenue and around Herald Square in Manhattan, enjoying the window displays, music, and the smell of roasting nuts. It seemed like the entire world was doing the same thing, and that everything was well with the world, if only for a brief moment, because everyone enjoying the beauty of the season was in harmony, enjoying something beautiful together, yet distinctly separate from each other.
This year is very different. There will be no parade route passing by Central Park; instead, a pared-down show in front of Macy’s. There won’t be the same lights and music on main boulevards around the world, and there certainly won’t be the throngs of people enjoying them. Holiday tables will be smaller, traditions will be missed. But as Jews, we know how to accept this and how to make do.
We have been reminded these past months of our obligation to press on even in the most challenging of times. We have been reminded that just as the Rabbis of old found new ways to sustain community after the loss of the Temple, so too do we need to reimagine our own communities. We have done that. Now, we have to reimagine family connections and traditions. As insurmountable as it seemed to reimagine a Synagogue community, I think it’s even harder to do this on a family level.
Some of us will be alone tonight — perhaps because we live far from family, or perhaps because it’s too unsafe to be with our loved ones who live in the area. Some of us will be with a spouse or partner, perhaps with our children. Very few, if any, of us will be with our entire close circles as we are so accustomed. Some of us have sustained loss this year, and that means that this Thanksgiving dinner, which is already challenging, will have another layer of sadness…another “first” without our loved one.
I want to call our attention to a mandate from the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 31a, 34b) which talks about prayer spaces. We are taught that “A person should always pray in a [space] which has windows…” This is why virtually every Sanctuary in the world has a window, a skylight, or some other way of bringing in outside light. This concept of the window in the sanctuary is so important. It reminds us that even while we are in our space, praying and studying, we are still connected to the outside world. We must work and pray and study for its welfare. We must realize that although we are a Holy or Chosen People, we are still so much a part of the larger tapestry of humanity…that no matter how particular our prayers might be, they have a universal impact.
This idea stretches beyond the Synagogue. It also belongs in our homes. We are taught that every Jewish home is a Mikdash Me’at, a small Temple, and that each of our tables is the Mizbe’ach, the altar. Connecting this with the idea above gives us important perspective. The idea of giving thanks is core to Judaism. Gratitude is one of our values which truly does connect us to everyone and everything around us. We have blessings of gratitude for everything – our bodies, seeing beauty in nature, surviving crisis, and celebrating life’s important moments – and thus there really is no more Jewish a holiday than Thanksgiving.
As we sit for dinner tonight, wherever we are and whoever we are with, I suggest that we take a few extra moments for gratitude. Look out the window. See our neighbors sitting just as we. Remember that we are part of something greater. Perhaps commit to a gift of tzedakah to make someone else’s life just a little bit better during this difficult time. We are part of something much larger than our family and our Synagogue community. Tonight, we are truly all in this together. It will not be the same, but it will be beautiful, and we can surely look forward to next Thanksgiving with great hope.
Robyn, Talia, and Ethan join me in wishing each of you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. Even during these trying times, there is truly so much for which to be thankful.
By Hazzan Barbara Barnett
We Jews, are, by tradition, a thankful group. It doesn’t take a specially planned day to offer thanks for the blessings in our lives. Thanksgiving is part of the Jewish infrastructure.
When we sit down to a meal, we thank G-d who “brings forth the bread from the earth.” Eat a peach or an orange, we than G-d for the fruit of the trees. After we dine, we offer Birkat Hamazon, based on the commandment to eat, be satisfied and bless G-d for the food we are given. (Or as my kids used to put it, “rubba-dub-dub, thanks for the grub!”)
Thanksgiving? We’re pros.
But our upcoming American holiday of Thanksgiving gives us a special opportunity to offer thanks for what we have. Especially when, like it has been for much of 2020, difficult to count our blessings as we look forward to Zoom gatherings rather than dining room tables brimming with Turkey and “the trimmins’” and full houses of family and friends.
Lately, especially during morning services, I’ve been finding myself drawn deeply into the Amidah, stopping to immerse myself in one or another in its nineteen brachot, each of them acknowledging the role of G-d in our daily lives, our hopes and aspirations. Sometimes it’s the blessing that asks for healing as I think of those affected by COVID or the deep divisions that mark our country these days. Sometimes it’s the brachah that thanks G-d for the small, sometimes barely perceptible miracles that mark our days and begins with “Modim anachnu Lach,” literally, “Thank You.”
During the last two weeks, we’ve learned that not one, but at least two, COVID vaccines are in the final stages of development, and their availability is, if not “right around the corner” at least now visible in the not-too-distant future. My thoughts dwelled this morning upon the Amidah blessing that thanks G-d for the gifts of intelligence, innovation, creativity—and pray for the wisdom and understanding with which to employ them:
“You graciously endow mortals with intelligence, teaching us wisdom and understanding. Grant us knowledge discernment and wisdom. Praised are You Hashem, who graciously grants us intelligence.”
This Thanksgiving, during these times, these Divine gifts deserve special acknowledgement: gratitude for the scientists inspired by the spark of genius, driven by curiosity and the pursuit of innovation and understanding of this novel virus to bring us a light at the end of this long tunnel so that once again we might gather together as extended families and community safely and in health.
With gratitude for the Beth El Community,
By Rabbi Alex Freedman
Very sadly, this week Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away. However, his voice will never be muted, not with his copious writings and global audience.
I read his weekly Parsha essays for years, the contents of which now form several of his 25 books. So many times I finished reading them with the word “Wow” on my lips. How could he read the same words of Torah I had – words I had read many times – and discover such greater depths? Week after week I felt this way. One of his greatest strengths as a teacher was to educate every audience without watering anything down. He really expected the reader to follow complex ideas, but he used the right language so everyone could follow along. Fortunately, his books are widely available, and his essays can be found at rabbisacks.org.
I was lucky to hear him speak in person three times in New York City. These Torah lectures were tremendously exciting, and he had the whole room of one thousand people listening on every word for the whole hour. As skilled a writer as he was, he might have been an even better public speaker. Many interviews and lectures are still available at rabbisacks.org.
Seven years ago, Rabbi Sacks wrote about Parashat Tetzaveh, and he described the unique nature of Judaism’s dual modes of religious leadership: the priest and the prophet. I quote his words that I have kept in mind ever since, which guide me in how I approach writing sermons: “The priest speaks the word of G-d for all time, the prophet, the word of G-d for this time.” I believe that sermons – and really Jewish education – should be both timeless and timely. Rabbi Sacks was both for me.
Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be a blessing.