By Rabbi Michael Schwab
In the category of “Mom Always Knows Best” I vividly recall a scene from my childhood when my mother inquired if I had a test coming up. She followed with “Did you start studying yet?” The answer was usually “no” and the result, if I didn’t course-correct quickly, was predictable. For my mother knew that if there was something important on the horizon, the wisest course of action was to prepare for whatever that something was.
Big presentation at work? Important conversation with your child? Torah reading for the Bat Mitzvah celebration? Public speaking engagement? Big project due? Passover Seder to host? Every one of these requires preparation to have them turn out well — or at least to make the very most out of the opportunity.
This Shabbat ushers in the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe) or what we often call, the High Holidays. During the High Holidays we reflect on our year and on ourselves. We identify those mistakes we have made and faults we possess. We make an effort to apologize to those we have wronged and to construct a plan to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. To say that this is both a large and important project would be an understatement.
Thus, the Rabbis designated this month as a month to prepare for this monumental task. We blow the shofar every morning of Elul to stir us into action and to remind us to begin our introspection and repentance now! Admitting a mistake and finding the strength to actually apologize takes time and energy. It is almost impossible to do on one day, or even over the ten days inclusive of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So remember that both Mom and the Rabbis usually know best: when something important is on the horizon, it is always best to prepare.
I hope that this month of Elul paves the way for a meaningful start to the New Year as we each learn to grow from our mistakes and consequently make the world better!
Rabbi Alex Freedman
Ah, it’s that time of year again. Time to buy the kids new folders; time to buy them new shoes; time to unearth that backpack you buried somewhere last June.
In equal measure for kids and parents, the beginning of the school year is an annual rite of passage. Yet there’s at least one crucial difference between them.
For the students, each year brings a tangible sense of advancement. “No longer am I in Grade X,” they tell themselves with good reason. “I’ve moved up to Grade Y.”
Not so for the parents. It’s possible, even easy, for these school years to feel the same to parents. One year may feel identical to the next. Or if not exactly so, the transition might be gradual instead of as sudden as a first day of school.
As a parent, I envy the ease with which students feel themselves advancing and growing in knowledge. I wish each year brought me a similar emotion.
Having no appetite for late-night homework, final exams, or loads of student debt, I will not be returning to the classroom as a student. Neither will most parents. But you and I can return to shul this week or this year with renewed focus and purpose. And a sense of growth.
I want to share an insight I hope will elevate our understanding of Shabbat. I think many of us intuit Shabbat being the week’s finish line. A day of rest, good food, and time with people we love recharges us for the next week. We believe this because Saturday falls on the “weekend.”
But there’s another way to see it. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed in his book Laws of Shabbat shares an amazing Gemara: from the viewpoint of the world, the creation of the six weekdays came before Shabbat. But from the perspective of humankind, who was created on the sixth day, Shabbat came before the six weekdays (B. Talmud Shabbat 69b).
This means that the world knew the six days of the week before Shabbat. But Adam, who was created on Day Six, the first day was Shabbat. The weekdays followed.
Rabbi Melamed writes, “Shabbat is also the anchor and beginning of the next week. From Shabbat we draw spiritual strength for the upcoming week so that we are able to realize, through our activities, the spiritual values that we absorb on Shabbat (7).”
Rabbi Melamed means that Shabbat is also the first day of the week. The day should set the tone for the next six. The values that animate Shabbat – quality time with loved ones, community, prayer, an emphasis on the spiritual – should be activated all week long in some ways.
I love that he teaches me something new about something that I’ve been doing for so long in the same way.
As we have only weeks to go before Rosh HaShanah, I hope we can begin to discover a new area of growth so that when the Shofar rings, we feel we are ahead.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. email@example.com
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