By Hazzan Ben Tisser
Shavuot is perhaps the least observed of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (regalim). Perhaps it’s because it’s the least understood. Let me share with you a new understanding I experienced just this week.
I spent the beginning of this week in Florida. Robyn and I woke up very early Monday morning to take engagement photos against the beautiful sunrise on the beach. Now, any of you who remember taking professional photographs—for any simcha, or perhaps for professional purposes, or maybe even just family portraits—will, I’m sure, recall that while it’s a beautiful thing to capture special points in our lives, it can become very tiresome pretty quickly (especially before that first cup of coffee!). “A little bit to the left…chin down…lean into him…put your right hand on her left shoulder…pretend you’re smiling…and on the count of three, say…’We’re getting married!’” I must admit, after the first 25 minutes (and still with no coffee), I was ready to crawl back into bed. And then something changed. Robyn looked into my eyes and said something to the effect of, “Can you believe that exactly a year ago yesterday we didn’t know that the other existed, and in just about eight months we’ll be married?”
I’m not sure if it was her words or the way she looked at me, but all of a sudden the experience of staring into a blinding light and holding a smile became something incredibly beautiful. It became an opportunity to embrace a person I love and respect deeply, and to recall so many beautiful moments in our shared journey—many happy, and some sad. And in that instant, I became re-engaged in the task at hand, recognizing what we were truly doing on the beach so early in the morning.
I want to propose to you (pun absolutely intended!) that Shavuot is the same sort of reminder, and thus perhaps one of the most important observances on our calendar. The rabbis understand Shavuot as the wedding between G-d and the Jewish People, for tradition holds that on Shavuot we experienced Revelation at Sinai, entering into an eternal covenant with G-d.
Shavuot comes at the end of seven weeks of counting—the period known as the Omer, beginning with the 2nd day of Pesach. During that period of time, very similarly to my schedule earlier in the week, we have some highs, we have some lows, and then there is the seemingly mundane task of counting the day toward the end of the evening ma’ariv service. And yet, when we get through the highs of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Lag Ba’omer and Yom Yerushalayim—as well as the lows of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron—we get the gift of a beautiful reminder to look back on our shared history…on the very thing which brought us together—as a community, and as a people in deep and everlasting relationship with G-d.
So on this Shavuot, I offer us all the challenge to make it about more than blintzes. Take a moment and think back. Think back to the stories of the Torah in which we went from tribes of wandering Arameans to a great nation enslaved, from a newly-freed people to a people with a land and a language and traditions…and from individuals walking this earth alone to people in relationship with each other—be it in romantic relationships or relationships with our families, our friends, or our larger communities. Invite people to your table, make Kiddush together, and share those moments which made the year since last Shavuot so meaningful. Share collective memories, reminding us the precious nature of each and every moment that passes. I believe that, in addition to cheesecake and study, these are the most powerful rituals we can observe on this festival of memory.
Bikkur Holim – Tell us who needs a sick visit
Rabbi Alex Freedman
I’m proud to say Beth El has a Bikkur Holim Committee to visit sick congregants. I’m thrilled to share that this group of 17 is freshly trained by me. Yet I’m surprised to acknowledge that it doesn’t have a list of people to visit. This is where you come in.
Bikkur Holim is no ordinary Mitzvah; it’s one of the ways in which we directly imitate G-d, Who visited Abraham when he was sick at the beginning of Parshat Vayera. As a Jewish community, we visit the sick because it’s a Mitzvah and adds holiness to the world. At Beth El, the Bikkur Holim Committee exists to do this and to communicate that we care about each other. The strength of a community is measured in how it looks after its most vulnerable.
For those who have been very sick or injured, I’m guessing you agree that a visit from somebody lifted your spirits; receiving no visitors would have made a tough situation even more difficult.
As clergy, from time to time we receive a name of somebody who is in the hospital briefly or rehab for a longer period of time. But we know that there are many more members in nursing homes or even in homes who may be quite lonely. They may not be hospital-sick, but they may still not be 100%. In these long-term situations, they may not have visitors. If you know of somebody who could use a visit from a friendly clergy or congregant, please ask their permission to share their name with me. And we’ll be sure to visit them.
Even if you don’t plan to join this committee, there is value in knowing the best way to visit somebody who is sick. Though we wish it were otherwise, at some point each of us will likely have a sick family member or friend and feel moved to visit. But this visit can feel daunting.
Here are a few pointers for visiting somebody who is sick:
1. Call ahead to schedule a visit sometime between mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
2. Begin with “I just came to wish you well.” Listen well and follow the person’s lead.
3. Sit down in a place where it’s easy for them to see you.
4. Don’t try to fix or explain the injury or illness.
5. Don’t stay too long, which may tire them out – maybe 15 minutes.
Remember that your presence is the key, and your very act of being there does immeasurable good. Please help us bring this goodness to as many congregants as we can by sharing names with me – email@example.com.
For more step by step instructions on how to do the Mitzvah well, check out this terrific article from chaplain Jason Weiner – https://jewishaction.com/jewish-living/how-to-do-bikkur-cholim/.
By Rabbi Schwab
Gratitude is considered a powerful component of living a happy, fulfilling life both in Jewish tradition and in contemporary psychology. The expression of gratitude sensitizes us to the ever-present goodness in the world and the everyday miracles of personal kindness.
Cultivating gratitude is linked to a sense of optimism, peace, hope and spirituality. Journalist Ilana Harris noted that author A.J. Jacobs in his book “Thanks a Thousand” coined the term “gratitude trail.” This suggests that for each blessing in our life we trace the manifestation of that blessing from its origin to its reception and express gratitude for each step along the way. He demonstrated this by expressing thanks for each step that led to his enjoyment of his morning coffee, from bean to barista.
As Jews we actually do something similar ritually by reciting a Beracha before partaking of food and other pleasures. For example, “Hamotzi lechem min haaretz” – which thanks God for being able to extract bread from the earth. We do not just thank God for the wheat or barley but the bread, suggesting thanks not only for the crops but for the tools and human labor that it takes to turn the grain into edible bread. The Beracha acknowledges the many blessings it took to have that bread reach our mouths.
Gratitude is something we should be paying particular attention to today, on Lag b’Omer. On this day – the 18th of Iyar and the 33rd day of the Omer – Ilana Harris writes that several events took place which call for gratitude and appreciation.
First, according to our rabbinic tradition, the Manna in the desert began to fall on this day – miraculous food from heaven that sustained our ancestors in the desert. Such a miracle highlights our gratitude to God for all of the blessings we take for granted each day.
Second, one of the most well-known reasons for celebrating Lag b’Omer is because of the cessation of the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. A lack of respect for each other is the explanation given for why this plague took place. Today, of all days, we should make sure to repair this transgression by showing gratitude for the people in our lives instead.
Third, today is the day our tradition tells us that the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died. Yet, our custom is not to grieve on his Yahrzeit but to hold a celebration with bonfires and gatherings. Instead of looking at the tragedy of his death, our tradition calls upon us to show gratitude for what he accomplished in life.
What is more, the Kabbalistic tradition associated with him assigns an attribute to each day of the Omer. The attribute associated with Lag b’Omer is “Hod,” from the word “Hodu” or “Modeh,” meaning to thank. Therefore, according to the Kabbalah, today is a day we focus on thankfulness and gratitude.
So, on this day and throughout Shabbat let us try to focus more on adopting an “attitude of gratitude” and to engage in acts of thankfulness: gratitude towards God and towards our fellow human beings. It is a Mitzvah, it is good for you and it will surely make your day and the day of those around you that much better.
“Shtisel” for Precedent
Rabbi Alex Freedman
Shalom, Shalom. If you’re not watching it, you’ve probably heard or read about it. “Shtisel” is an Israeli TV show that has caught fire on Netflix. The show and its international following have been written up in countless major media outlets. It’s just been renewed for a third season. And it’s about…a Jerusalem Haredi family?
Yep. You are forgiven if you didn’t see that premise capturing global attention; nobody did. And yet people love the show about Kiva Shtisel – a marches-to-his-own-drum Ultra Orthodox Jew who is searching for self and looking for love. In the Haredi world of black and white clothing, his artistic talents are a bold dash of color. The friction between old ideas and new makes this show really interesting.
I think the show opens people’s eyes to a few ideas worth discussing:
1. Even though they dress the same, the Haredi community is filled with personalities who are anything but. Some are generous – like the roomful of people willing to donate an organ. While others are greedy – like Uncle Nuchem. Some are serious students of Torah – like Tzvi Aryeh and Hanina Tunik. While others are not built for it – like Lipa and Kiva. To date, media coverage has treated the Haredi community as monolithic, which is unfair. This series shows them in living color.
2. Although the Haredi community speaks different languages (Hebrew and Yiddish) and looks and acts differently from the rest of the world – including much of the Jewish world – so many experiences are universal. The excitement and anxiety of dating. The anguish of losing a loved one. The centrality of family. The pain of betrayal. We all share these in common.
These two ideas are not revolutionary. But they are insights into human nature that are worth keeping top of mind.
3. This community lives Judaism every minute of the day. Everything they do is Jewish, or at least done in a Jewish way. Their way of life aims to achieve holiness at every moment in every place, not just on Shabbat or at shul.
This attitude is something I strongly admire about them. Being a religious Jew doesn’t end when we leave the synagogue; it’s a light that is always green. This idea of holiness permeating all of life is central to the Torah readings these days. The end of Shmot, Exodus, described the holy space, the Mishkan Tabernacle. Parshat Vayikra is about holy offerings. Tzav is about holy people, the Priests. Shmini highlights a holy diet, Kashrut. Aharei Mot speaks of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and holiness through sexual morality. Next is Kedoshim, which charges the entire nation of pursuing holiness in their ritual and civil behaviors. Emor follows by describing holy time, the holidays. Then comes Behar, which speaks of the holiness of Israel.
The Haredi community, seen clearly in the show, seeks to imbue every aspect of life with Judaism, which is what I believe the Torah is teaching us in Leviticus.
The show has its funny moments, but it’s also a serious perspective on life.
If you’re watching, let me know what you think of the show. Shkoiyach!
by Rabbi Michael Schwab
Over Passover I spoke about making the Exodus narrative relevant to each of us through acting on the lessons we have learned from that monumental time in our history. In fact, there is a modern equivalent to our ancient story, the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews. And though the initial act of redemption made possible by the State of Israel in the 80’s and 90’s was truly inspirational, there is more work to be done!
There are currently approximately 8,000 Ethiopians who identify as Jewish who are still left and wish to make Aliyah to Israel. The Israeli government and the Jewish people have the power to make this modern exodus happen. The money is there and the Jewish Agency for Israel is ready to receive them. Yet, for various political reasons the current government has not fulfilled its initial pledge to accomplish this. According to our Torah portion Kedoshim this week, our source for compassion and our imperative to care for others comes from none other than God. Therefore we should channel the words of our Parsha “Kedoshim Tihiyu Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem”. “You shall be Holy for I, the Lord your God am holy”, by taking action to fulfill this injunction to act like God in holiness.
Therefore I invite each of you to take one or more of the following actions: 1) Write an email to the Prime Minister congratulating Mr. Netanyahu on bringing more Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and encouraging him to complete the mission of bringing the 8000+ from Addis and Gondar to Israel. firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Write or contact our local federation to help us advocate with the Israeli government. E-mails can be sent to Steve Nasatir at StevenNasatir@juf.org.
3) Encourage our Israeli friends and family to advocate and raise awareness in Israel with Knesset and the PM. Feel free to forward this article https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/8000-empty-chairs/ to anyone you wish to raise awareness.
4) Donate to the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry NACOEJ (the President is Rabbi Jerome Epstein, formerly of USCJ) http://www.nacoej.org/support-us/ways-to-donate.
Together we can help facilitate a modern Exodus in our time and participate in a sacred endeavor! Shabbat Shalom!
Acharei Mot: What Comes Next?
This week in the Torah we continue reading Acharei Mot, which is the partner parasha with Kedoshim. On its own, the title means “After the Death” and its partner “Holies” or perhaps “Holy Things/People”. But when combined we may consider translating the combined parshiyot as “After the Death of the Holy People.”
The parasha begins with the events following the death of the sons of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol. Aaron is instructed with the rites and rituals necessary to maintain a pure sanctuary for God, which becomes particularly important after his sons, Nadav and Avihu, die by fire after offering a “strange fire”, or an unauthorized sacrifice, before God. These rituals provide opportunity for the High Priest to make expiation – first on behalf of himself and his family, then on behalf of the Kohanim (Priests), and ultimately on behalf of the whole House of Israel.
The Torah then continues to teach about the rules of appropriate sexual relations and the definition of family, and ultimately we land at chapter 19 of Leviticus – the Holiness Code, which is the beginning of parashat Kedoshim. In this section we are instructed to be holy, for God is holy, and are given the ways in which we are to fulfill this great task. Pieces of the Code refer back to the 10 commandments, and others include new important dimensions to living a sanctified life: not placing a stumbling block before the blind; judging fairly without deference to the rich or poor; and perhaps most importantly, not standing idly by the blood of our neighbors.
This past weekend we saw yet another example of the lowest levels we as humans can reach when a gunman entered a Synagogue outside of San Diego, opening fire in a packed sanctuary as a community gathered to celebrate the Festival of Freedom. This is not the first, second, or even third time such a tragedy has occurred in a house of worship in the last six months. You have received the messages from our synagogue community and, I am sure, many local and national Jewish organizations, that we stand by Chabad of Poway, and that we are offering assistance to them even as we work diligently to maintain our own level of security.
So the question becomes what are we to do now? What do we do Acharei Mot Kedoshim, after the death of sacred souls? What do we do after someone brought “strange fire” into a sanctuary? It seems to me that this is one of those times when the Torah becomes so relevant to our lives…so let me suggest that we look to it for the answer.
In the immediate, we must first support a community struck by shock and fear. After all, kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. But what do we do beyond the letters of support and the financial assistance to the community, the victims and their families? We must speak up. We must not stand idly by. We must write our politicians and representatives, giving the strong message that guns in the wrong hands are deadly and that this must stop. We must demand that perpetrators of such heinous crimes are held responsible to the full extent of the law. We must demand that our elected leaders act and legislate to the highest moral standard. And, perhaps we should refer them to Leviticus 16 where they will learn about how to make good and maintain a safe, sacred space where we can thrive and where God’s rule may exist, as well as Leviticus 19 where they may be reminded of the human obligation to act in a Godly manner, without exception.
Aleinu…l’takein olam b’malchut Shadai – “It’s up to us…to repair the world in the Kingdom of God.” Let us resolve to do our part to ensure that the day will soon come when our children and our grandchildren can go to shul and not worry…when they can go to school and know that they will come home to their parents at the end of the day…and when we can turn on the morning news and not hear about such tragedies. Let us not stand idly by, and lead the world by example.
Oseh shalom bim’romav, Hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu v’al kol Yisrael v’al kol yosh’vei teivel…May the One who creates peace in the heavens bring peace to us, to all of Israel, and to all of humanity. Amen.
The Omer: Counting Down by Counting Up
Rabbi Alex Freedman
Typically, when we’re really excited for a moment to arrive, we count down. Like on New Years Eve: “10, 9, 8…” Because we can’t wait for the new year. Or the days before a vacation: “ 10, 9, 8…” Equally as typical, when we want a moment to last, we count up. On vacation, we’ll think of it as “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, etc.”
So why does it seem like we have the Omer count backward?
The seven weeks between the second night of Passover and Shavuot are counted night by night. The end point is the anniversary of receiving the Torah, surely an exciting moment. Intuitively we should count down the days, but instead the Omer counts up: “Today is the first day, second day, etc.” Why?
When we count down to something, we communicate that the time in between doesn’t matter. All that’s important is getting to the finish line. The last few minutes of a given year are like that. For kids (and teachers!) the last few days of school are like that too. Counting down implies, “let’s just fast forward.”
But life is too precious to let any moment simply pass by. As a friend told me, “Killing time is suicide.”
The days between Passover and Shavuot matter a great deal and should not be “just gotten over with.” This is because we must prepare ourselves emotionally each year to receive the Torah anew. We care about reaching the finish line, but we also care about finishing strong. We seek to grow through the entire process. Counting up marks growth.
In the case of counting the Omer, we also “ascend” Mt. Sinai for a period of seven weeks. Every day we aim to take one step higher to the apex. Counting up conveys progress.
This year, I’m excited to launch a series of Facebook posts that weaves two threads together. The first strand is this 50 day Omer count. The second strand is the late-in-the-Seder classic song Echad Mi Yodea, Who Knows One? We learn how every number from 1-13 is significant. But why stop at 13? What if we keep counting?
I want to combine these ideas. For each day of the Omer, I’ll post where that number appears in the Jewish tradition. As Rabbi Marc Angel teaches, “We count the days so that we will learn to make our days count!”
Check out daily updates on my new Rabbi Alex Freedman Facebook page.
Shabbat Pesach I – 5779
Introducing the Seder Supplement
Here are four new Passover questions I have for you:
1. Has your Seder discussion gotten stuck?
2. How do you take this ancient story and refresh it for 2019?
3. How do you engage both kids and adults?
4. How do you interest both Seder rookies and veterans?
Leading the Seder conversation is a challenge. Let the Seder Supplement help you.
I prepared this new handout to spark a table discussion. (A big thank you to Abby Lasky for the graphic design).
The Seder Supplement has two front-and-back pages. The first contains a classic Torah text study with two guiding questions. The beginning of Exodus speaks of defining moments in the life of young Moses. These few verses reveal an impressive character, one whom G-d soon appoints to liberate the Jews. What leadership traits do we see in young Moses? Are they still relevant today?
The handout also includes a collection of different quotes about freedom. Selected from a range of personalities and historical figures – Jewish and global – these quotes nudge us to think about freedom in a more sophisticated way. While the themes of freedom and slavery remain timeless, our understanding of them matures as we do. Our conversations should reflect this growth. This conversation is accessible to kids and adults, Seder novices and veterans, Jews and non-Jews. Exactly what does freedom look like in 2019?
This first handout is for all the guests; print out a bunch for the table to start a conversation. Also print out one copy of the second handout for the Seder leader. This contains my insights on the Moses Torah study, in order to dive a little deeper. It also includes a series of Seder trivia questions to keep things interesting.
The Haggadah text itself is a conversation starter, but sometimes it needs to be unlocked. That’s what the Seder Supplement is intended to be. The word “Haggadah” itself means “Telling the story.” So does the Hebrew word “Maggid,” the longest section of the Seder. The Torah tells us “You shall tell your child on that day [of a future Passover holiday], ‘It is because of what G-d did for me when I left Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8). The challenge – and ultimate satisfaction – is to create an experience and conversation that makes it feel as if we ourselves taste both slavery and freedom. So we’ve got to talk about it. The conversation itself is the experience of renewed liberation. After all, only free people can speak freely.
If you’re hosting, feel free to make copies for your guests and adapt to your needs. If you’re a guest at someone else’s table, consider bringing it to your hosts. The hardest part is starting a meaningful conversation. Once it begins, however, it’s as sweet as Haroset.
No Seder leader can control what the guests will say and who will participate. But every Seder leader can prepare for success by organizing in advance questions, stories, songs, games, and topics for discussion.
This Passover, let’s liberate the conversation too.
Rabbi Alex Freedman
In 1839, English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, in his play “Cardinal Richelieu”. There is so much truth to this. While our bodies miraculously allow us to recover from physical wounds, the aftermath of words, if used improperly, is often more difficult to recover from.
We are currently reading a very interesting section of the Torah, one dealing with properties of purity and impurity; and, one which centers around our mouths – the central entry point of nourishment, and the central point of communication. A couple of weeks ago in parashat Shemini, we dealt with the ideas of kashrut (dietary laws), and now we find ourselves looking at the metzora—the person afflicted with tzara’at (often incorrectly translated as leprosy, this word represents a variety of physical blemishes resulting from negative actions).
The idea of the metzora (the one afflicted with tzara’at) is that they have misused speech. The rabbis connect this word with speech by splitting metzora into two words: motzi ra (one who speaks evil). In other words, one who engages in idle speech or gossip, becomes afflicted with this physical blemish…it’s as if they walk around with the thing they said painted on their forehead. They must leave the camp for a period of minimally one week, and then undergo a series of rituals to eventually be able to rejoin and engage with the community. By being removed from the community, a few things are accomplished. Of course, if the physical ailment is communicable, this prevents contagion. As well, if the root cause of this condition is idle speech, by removing oneself from the community, one has nobody to speak with. This removal, then, ensures that the idle speech will stop. By perpetuating idle speech, one has the power to cause the foundation of community to crumble. When we learn that the Temple was destroyed because of idle speech and senseless hatred, I look at it not as a punishment but as a result. If community were strong, and if members of the community used speech purposefully and thoughtfully to strengthen and build, rather than to destroy (either intentionally or unintentionally), it is likely that perhaps we could have been stronger than the swords which sought to destroy the physical center of our universe.
We are approaching the holiday of Pesach. The seder, the major ritual observance of this holiday, is centered on words. It is centered on asking questions, giving answers, having deep and thoughtful conversation, and of course passing on the tradition to younger generations. In our family, we are challenged to take the ancient story of the Exodus and make it relevant by discussing issues present in our world and how we may participate in working toward a world in which all may enjoy the same sense of freedom as we. One of the founding principles of our great country is the freedom of speech. We can use our speech, individually and certainly collectively, to effect change—for good and for bad. I would then challenge us at our sedarim this year to teach the lesson of the metzora. If we use our speech idly, the negative consequences can be potentially devastating. But if we use our speech for praise, for love, and for speaking out against injustice, we may have immeasurable impact on society.
May we all responsibly enjoy the freedoms provided by our country. May we treasure the freedom which is part of our Jewish narrative. And may we be vigilant to teach our children to use their freedom responsibly, and for perpetuating goodness.
See you in shul,
The Rabbis link the skin disease, tzara’at, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion Tazria, to the evil of speaking negatively about another. In their teachings they highlight the immense harm done to both the subject of the slander, as well as to the entire community, through the destruction of another’s reputation. Last week I traveled to Washington DC for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. There, policy maker after policy maker from each party emphasized the need for the pro-Israel movement in America to educate lawmakers and decision makers on the true nature of Israel and the dangers it faces. They told us that our efforts make a significant difference in combating the bad name that others falsely, but unfortunately effectively, spread about Israel throughout our society on social media, on college campuses and even in Washington DC. The harm created through the disseminating of negative stereotypes and fallacious accusations about Israel is real and has manifested itself in particular in politics as a threat to bi-partisan support for Israel. We are fortunate that this crucial support for Israel from both parties is still very strong, but we cannot afford to let such support erode in any way. The financial, diplomatic and military assistance Israel receives from the United States is critical. It is therefore the job of the pro-Israel community, the foundation of which is the Jewish community, to educate and advocate for Israel and spread instead the good name of our incredible Jewish state, which shares so many core values with the United States of America. I want to thank all those who came to DC with me to AIPAC and, as well, thank anyone who does advocacy work for Israel in the many other wonderful ways that this can be accomplished.
It is also noteworthy that almost every politician at AIPAC spoke about the disturbing rise of anti-Semitism, which expresses itself through the dissemination of negative stereotypes about Jews that give the Jewish people, writ large, a bad name. This Shabbat we have the opportunity to hear from our own congressman and member, Brad Schneider, as well as an expert on Jewish relations in America and abroad from AJC, Dan Elbaum. I encourage you each to come and to join in our discussion about how we can best respond to anti-Semitism here in America. As our Sages wrote, the crown of a good name is precious and we must all do what we can to champion the truth about who we are as a people and what the State of Israel stands for as loudly and effectively as possible. Shabbat Shalom!