Opened Eyes

This past week, it came to light that the Houston Astros – World Champions in 2017 and runners-up this year – used video equipment to steal opponents’ signs during their championship season.  How you feel about the Astros may influence way you see this story.  If you are a fan of the Astros, you may feel that other teams do the same thing, stealing signs is longstanding baseball tradition and they would have won anyway.  If you are NOT a fan of the Astros, however, you may see things differently.  You may think that their championship deserves an asterisk.  It is somehow tainted.

It takes a disinterested party to point out that, yes, teams have always stolen other teams’ signs, but league rules specifically ban the use of technology to do so.  That being said, they were still probably the best team in baseball that year.

Back in 1921, a Swiss psychiatrist introduced ten ambiguous designs for patients to interpret.  He would then analyze those patients based on what they saw in the pictures.  This now-famous test, which he called the Inkblot Test, is generally called the Rorschach Test after its creator Hermann Rorschach. 

The idea behind this test is that we can all look at a particular image and see different things.  Sometimes, what we see in a picture says more about us than about the picture itself.  In an interesting irony, different experts in psychology look at the test and see different degrees of accuracy or efficacy.

Regardless of whether the test has any value, it has become a part of our cultural vocabulary.  We recognize that we see the world differently than others around us.  If you are not sure about this, then I suggest you ask ten different people how they feel about the impeachment hearings.

Our tradition recognizes this phenomenon as well.  Many different people can look at the same Biblical text and come to different conclusions as to what it may mean.  When those differences were irreconcilable, the ancient rabbis would declare, “Both these and these are the words of the living God.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Abram – not yet Abraham – saw guests approaching his tent.  Once they reached his home, the Torah tells us that he rushed to get them food (Gen 18:6).  He told Sarai – not yet Sarah – to hurry up (also v. 6).  And then he told his lad – presumably Ishmael – to hurry up as well (v. 7).  Nobody had to tell Abram to hurry.  He saw an opportunity to do a good deed and rushed to complete the task.

On the other hand, Lot saw the same guests approaching his home.  Those guests told Lot exactly what he needed to do to save himself and his family.  The Torah tells us that he hesitated to listen (Gen. 19:16).  He could not see how they were trying to help him.  He did not think he was capable of completing the task. 

Abram saw something that Lot could not.  His eyes were open in a way that Lot’s were not.

Toward the end of the portion, when Hagar was expelled from her home by Avraham, she was understandably upset and concerned about the welfare of her son Ishmael.  Perhaps her anxiety became so all-consuming that she could not see the resources that were available to her to save her son and herself.  So, we read in Gen. 21:19, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.  She went a filled the skin with water and let the boy drink.” 

Whether it’s seeing the divine in our fellow human beings or finding the resources we need to help ourselves and our families, may our eyes always be opened. 

Shalom, RAF.

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The Name Game

I’ve always been interested in how we all choose names for our children.  Perhaps, this is the result of the name that my parents gave me. My three older siblings have what you would probably call typical American/English names. Then, out of the blue — to me, anyway! — my parents gave me the Hebrew name Avi.  

Now, I know that they named me after my grandfather, who passed away a few years before I was born.  They decided to give me his actual name rather than pick a name with that started with the same letter.  I get it. It’s interesting to note, though, that the one kid with a Hebrew name ended up a rabbi. Go figure!

In this week’s Torah portion, God gets involved in the name game.  After the first two individuals enter into a covenant with God, God changes their names.  Instead of Avram and Sarai, they became known as Avraham and Sarah. The letter ‘hey’ in Hebrew is one of the letters used to represent the name of God in shorthand.  So, adding a ‘hey’ to each of their names announced that God was with them.

Although there is no obligation to have a Hebrew or Jewish name, it has been the custom for so long that it feels like a law.  In truth, there really are no Jewish laws about naming in general. However, there are many traditions surrounding this important decision.

The custom of naming a child after parents or grandparents dates back to the 6th Century BCE in Egypt.  Israelites most likely ‘borrowed’ this custom from their Egyptian neighbors.  The Ashkenazi (Eastern European) custom is to name a child after a relative who has passed away in order to perpetuate the memory of that loved one.  The Sephardi (Western European) custom is to name a child after a living relative in order to honor that person in life.

In modern America, it has become most common to give the baby the same Hebrew name — or sometimes Yiddish name — as the person honored, but then give a different secular name (often starting with the same consonantal sound).  Some families use the Hebrew name to name after one person and the English to name after a second person.  

A boy does not officially receive his name until his brit milah on the eighth day of his life.  As a result, some traditional families will not use the boy’s name until it has been officially given.  For the first week of his life, the boy is simply known as ‘he,’ ‘him,’ or ‘yo.’

A girl may be named in the synagogue any time the Torah is taken out (i.e., Monday, Thursday, Shabbat, Festival, Rosh Hodesh, etc.).  Some families employ the same tradition about not using a baby girl’s name until it is formally pronounced in a ceremony.  A more modern naming ceremony has evolved whereby a newborn girl receives her name in her home just as a boy would after his brit milah.  This ceremony is called either simchat bat (celebration of a daughter) or brit bat (covenant of a daughter).  

Individuals who choose to become Jewish later in life get to choose their own Hebrew names and the naming ceremony is a part of the conversion ritual.  These individuals do NOT get to blame their parents if they don’t like their Hebrew names.

No matter how a name is chosen and no matter how it is officially conferred upon an individual, the words of Pirke Avot 4:17 apply:  ‘Rabbi Shimon taught: there are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood and the crown of Royalty. The crown of a good name surpasses them all.’

Shalom, RAF.

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Happy Halloween

Every year, I get asked about the Jewish approach to Halloween.  In particular, when it falls on Shabbat – as it will next year – it gives Jewish families some things to think about.  Although it has fallen on a Thursday this year, there are still questions to be answered.  So, at the risk of repeating myself, here are some thoughts about our kids’ favorite holiday.

This week’s Torah portion is named after the gentleman who built an ark and brought the world’s animals on board with him during the Flood.  As we are introduced to Noah, the Torah tells that he was “Tzadik tamim…b’dorotav – righteous and blameless in his generation.”

For centuries, readers of the Bible have wondered why that extra word “b’dorotav – in his generation” was added.  Couldn’t Noah simply be righteous and blameless?  Why the qualifier?

Ultimately, the rabbis decided that this was meant as a compliment, because it takes incredible strength to follow your faith when it seems as though everyone else is going in a different direction.

Noah may have been the first to discover this reality, but he was certainly not the last.  Halloween is just one more example of the balancing act Jews play in today’s world.

While much is made of Halloween’s pagan origins and Catholic influence, the truth is that the Halloween celebrated today by Americans bears little or no resemblance to the harvest festival celebrated by the ancient Celts and Gaels.  And I’m fairly certain that no one is thinking about their faith when they dress up as Spiderman or a Unicorn and ask a neighbor for some candy.  Halloween has become a secular holiday with two major customs associated with it: dressing up in costume and trick-or-treating.  It draws people out of their homes and encourages neighbors to actually be neighborly.  It seems to me that these customs do not directly contradict our Jewish values.  In fact, we can “Juda-ize” this holiday and make it better. 

For example, when choosing costumes with our children, hopefully we can take the opportunity to talk about modesty.  In particular, some of the costumes available for girls are incredibly inappropriate.  Further, when choosing what to give out for Halloween and in assessing the night’s “haul” it is an opportunity to discuss the concept of Kashrut – that even though the world is filled with many, many delicious things, we place some limits on ourselves.

Instead of focusing on getting as much candy as possible, give kids a chance to give out the candy and feel the pleasure of sharing with others.  Or, when our kids come home with enough candy to last until they are parents, send some to the troops or donate some to a food pantry for kids who don’t live in safe neighborhoods.

Happy Halloween, RAF.

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Here We Go Again….

Just yesterday, a student in our JLC asked me why we read the Torah over again year after year.  In typical Jewish fashion, I responded to the question with a couple of questions of my own.  I asked all the students who had read the whole Harry Potter series to raise their hands.  Then, I asked those students to keep their hands up if they had read the series more than once.  Quite a few kept their hands up.  Then, we discussed some other series of books that other students had read more than once.

We realized that if someone had read all of the Harry Potter books as, say, a third-grader, it’s a very different experience to read them again as a sixth-grader.  After all, one is a completely different person in the sixth grade as opposed to the third grade, with different experiences and higher-level analytical skills.  In addition, when one returns to a book for the second time, one might simply notice details that were missed the first time through. 

So, there are a number of reasons why it’s a good thing to re-read a book or a series of books.  And if it’s true for Harry Potter or other recent series, it’s certainly true for the Torah.

Each time we return to the Torah, we are different than the last time.  We have had another year of life experiences that change the way that we look at world around us.  Perhaps, we are working full-time versus being a student.  Perhaps, we are retired versus working full-time.  Perhaps, we have gotten married, gotten divorced, become a parent, become a grandparent, lost a loved one or had some other experience that has caused us look at the world differently.  Those things all impact the way we read the Torah.

On top of that, the Torah is an extremely complicated text in a language that is not native for most of us.  There’s no way to absorb it all in one reading.  This past year, Robert Alter published a new English translation of the Bible that has given new meaning to phrases that I have read for years.  Each reading of the Torah is different than the one before it.

And our changing relationship with the Torah is a reminder of how our relationships with people change as well.  Each new year, we – and our loved ones – are different than we were the year before.  So, we may notice something new about our friends and relatives that will cause us to appreciate them even more than we did in the past.

It’s Shabbat Breisheet – the Shabbat of new beginnings – for the Torah, for ourselves and for our relationships with others.  Let’s get started again!

Shalom, RAF.

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A Celebration of Learning

If you ever wondered why the Jewish people are sometimes referred to as “The People of the Book,” then you need look no further than this Sunday evening.  That is when we will come together as a congregation to celebrate Simchat Torah.  It’s a holiday that is familiar to us.  Some of us even look forward to it. 

When you think about it, the concept of Simchat Torah is really rather remarkable, and it emphasizes how we perceive ourselves as a people. First of all, the words ‘Simchat Torah’ literally mean “a celebration of learning.”  We dance and sing together rejoicing in the words of our tradition as they have been recorded on a scroll.   

However, we are not just acknowledging words written down centuries ago.  We are celebrating the fact that the words still have meaning for us today.  That is why we have gone through each of the 54 Torah portions over the course of the past year.  Sunday evening, we will read the final verses of the Book of Deuteronomy in order to conclude our annual Torah reading cycle.  Then, we will immediately turn to a second scroll and start reading from the Book of Genesis. 

This is such an important part of our communal identity that we carefully choose who gets to recite the blessings over these two passages. 

So, after careful consideration, our religious committee has chosen Tal Novik and Karen Rosenberg to receive these honors on Sunday night (we’ll explain WHY we chose them Sunday evening!).  So, please join us for Simchat Torah as we celebrate the Torah as it was recorded by ancestors AND the ways in which these two members of our community enable us to keep the words of the Torah alive today.

See you Sunday at 7:00pm in our Sanctuary.

Shalom, RAF.

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Yom Kippur First??

When I walked into the synagogue yesterday for Yom Kippur services, I was met by one of our younger members and her father.  They told me that they had a question for me, but they certainly understood if I did not have time to answer.  I couldn’t possibly turn away a curious young soul – especially on Yom Kippur!  So, I told them to let me have it.

Here’s their question:  Why don’t we observe Yom Kippur BEFORE Rosh Hashanah so that we start the New Year off with clean slate?

Great question!  Unlike our young questioner, I never even considered the possibility that Yom Kippur could come first.  I simply accepted the given order.  But, it really would make more sense to atone for all our sins in order to have a truly fresh start.

In order to answer this question – or at least try! – I thought about the fact that Rosh Hashanah is not really the beginning of the year from a Biblical perspective.  In the Torah, the month of Passover is the first month.  (It would eventually be called Nisan, but that name does not appear in the Torah.)  The holiday that we call Rosh Hashanah was actually at the beginning of the seventh month and it was simply called “Yom T’ruah – The Day of the Shofar Blast.”

In Biblical times, the main holiday of the seventh month – the month we now call Tishrei – was Sukkot, which starts on the full moon.  So, in all likelihood, Yom Kippur was intended to make sure that our ancestors had a clean slate with God in anticipation of Sukkot.  After all, the number ‘7’ was very important to the ancient Israelites.  Thus, the full moon of the seventh month must have been particularly sacred.

So, now that we have all completed the fasting and atoning associated with Yom Kippur, I hope that everyone is ready for a great Sukkot!  The frame of our synagogue Sukkah went up today.  The Lulavs and Etrogs arrived in the mail.  We’ll be ready to go when the sun goes down on Sunday. 

Shalom, RAF.

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Oy! A Shanda!

Yom Kippur Day 5780.

So, according to my watch, we’re just about mid-Al-Chet.  By that I mean – starting last night, we have recited the great alphabetical list of sins which we have sinned a few times.  And depending on how long you intend to be here today, we have a few more to go.

If you’re like me, you might have started to categorize the sins into groups – such as “yes,” “no” and “maybe.”  As in, “Yes, I did that one,” “No, I didn’t do that one,” and “Well, maybe, I could have done that one.”  And once you’ve split them up that way, you might have started wondering why you still have to recite the ones in the “no” column.  In the Jewish tradition, there are two basic answers to that question. 

Answer #1: Our memories may not be so accurate.  Either consciously or subconsciously, we forget some of the things we have done.  So, it’s better to be thorough in our atonement and list all the possibilities.

Answer #2: The prayer is written in the 1st person PLURAL – i.e., “the sins that WE have sinned.”  So, we’re not just praying for ourselves.  We’re also praying for members of the community whose actions have an impact on us.

In order to better understand Answer #2, please allow me to introduce – or re-introduce – you to the Yiddish word “shanda.”  Yiddish is the folk language of Eastern European Jews.  It is largely a fusion of medieval German and Hebrew, but has vocabulary imported from just about every other Central and Eastern European language.  Shanda is usually translated as a disgrace, an embarrassment or a shame.  It likely comes from an old Germanic root which also gives us the English word “scandal.”

Let me use it for you in a Yiddish sentence:  “Oy! A shanda!” – I don’t think I need to translate that.

It can be used in a lighthearted way – such as the time that New York Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon went into Zabar’s and ordered lox on a cinnamon raisin bagel.  Every self-respecting Ashkenazi Jew responded by saying: Oy! A shanda!

But, it can also be used in a very serious way to discuss a Jewish person whose actions shed a negative light on the entire community.  It is usually accompanied by a sigh, as in: Oy – a Shanda.

For many years, the best – or worst – modern example of a shanda was Bernie Madoff.  When it came out that among the victims of his multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme were Jewish schools, universities, charities and pension funds, he went from being just another criminal to being a shanda

I think that if you were to ask most Jewish people what makes them proudest of their Judaism, one of the top answers you would get is ‘tzedakah’ – which we often translate as charity, but really means righteousness or justice.  We need only look at the Haftarah – the prophetic selection – for this Yom Kippur day in which the prophet Isaiah explains – on God’s behalf – why we fast: “This is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin (Isaiah 58).”

So, when a member of our tribe goes out in public and does the very opposite of the value that we hold dear, all we can say is, “Oy, a shanda!”

Then in recent years, we’ve gotten to know Stephen Miller – a special advisor to President Trump.  If there is one issue upon which I vociferously disagree with this administration, it’s immigration.  And Stephen Miller seems to be one of the architects of this administration’s most inhumane policies.  From separating families to lowering the number of refugees and asylum seekers allowed into the country, one can usually trace these policy decisions back to Miller.

And, of course, he’s Jewish.  Not only is he Jewish, but thanks to an essay published by his maternal uncle, we know that his family came to this country about a century ago virtually penniless in order to escape violence and conscription in the Tsar’s army.  Back then, anti-immigration groups were much more concerned with Asians, so Stephen Miller’s great-grandfather was able to enter this country with about $8 in his pocket and eventually he was able to send for the rest of his family – including Stephen’s grandfather.

Now, Stephen Miller is helping to slam the door behind him so that other families will be unable to enjoy the blessings of this country as his family has. 

As I mentioned last week, the Torah mentions caring for the stranger no fewer than 36 times.  Here’s just one of them: “Now when there sojourns with you a sojourner in your land, you are not to maltreat him; like the native-born among you shall he be to you, the sojourner that sojourns with you; be-loving to him (as one) like yourself, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH your God!”  (Lev. 19)

It is a core value of Judaism that we remember the ways in which we’ve been mistreated in countries around the world and, therefore, we don’t mistreat others the same way.  So, when a member of our tribe goes out in public and does the very opposite of a value that our tradition has historically held dear, all we can say is, “Oy, a shanda!”

And then, of course there’s Jeffrey Epstein.  I don’t think we have scratched the surface of this man’s depravity.  However, we do know that he used his tremendous wealth not to help vulnerable children, but to abuse them.  He transported them across state lines and international borders.  He allowed friends and acquaintances to abuse the girls under his control.

He used his wealth, connections and resources to escape the consequences of his actions.  And even in death, he may ultimately prevent victims from receiving some compensation for the dehumanizing way they were treated.

It is the very opposite of the way in which our tradition expects us to use our wealth; it is the very opposite of the way our tradition expects us to treat children.  The Book of Psalms teaches us that “children are an inheritance from the Lord, a reward (Ps. 127:3).”  And that doesn’t just apply to our own kids  – because we don’t all have kids.  Our tradition teaches: “One who brings up a child is to be called a parent, not the one who gave birth (Shemot Rabbah 46:5).”  When a child is parentless or when those parents are not doing the job sufficiently for whatever reason, we have an obligation to raise that child like our own.

So, when a member of our tribe goes out in public and does the very opposite of a value that our tradition has historically held dear, all we can say is, “Oy, a shanda!”

But, let’s not forget that the opposite can be true is well.  Unfortunately, we know that a person can be a shanda, bringing shame to the entire Jewish community.  However, it must also be true, then, that a person can bring incredible pride to the Jewish community as well.  And that pride is called “nachas” – the very opposite of the feeling  one gets as a result of a shanda.

What’s nachas? The word itself comes from a Biblical Hebrew word that means contentment or satisfaction.  It’s the pride and joy one feels in response to someone else’s accomplishment.  That someone else is often a child or grandchild, but that need not be the case.

So, for example, when you found out that Ben Platt performed in an all-Hebrew version of ‘Guys and Dolls’ at a Jewish summer camp long before he won the Tony Award for portraying a teenager with social anxiety in “Dear Evan Hansen,” it’s okay if you felt a little nachas – even if you’re not related.  After all, we all WANT to claim him as ours.

As we are here on Yom Kippur, the obvious person to mention is Sandy Koufax, who sat out a World Series Game in 1965 even though it was his turn in the rotation to pitch.  Jewish sports fans who never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn and Jewish sports fans who were not even alive when it happened have all held Sandy Koufax up as a hero ever since.  As a Detroiter, I feel compelled to bring up that Detroit Tiger hero Hank Greenberg sat out a game for the same reason in 1934, when it was much more difficult for Jews to make such a stand.  Both players gave a lot of Jewish baseball fans – and even non-fans – a lot of nachas.

Or, how about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg?  She fought through her fourth bout of cancer this past year to return to the bench with no apparent change in her courtroom demeanor.  Not only that, but her personal trainer published a book called “The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong … and You Can Too!”  And in case you think it’s one of those sit-behind-your-desk exercise routines, the regimen includes pushups, planks and squats.

Usually, it’s the older generation that feels nachas looking at the younger generation.  But, thanks to the documentary about her, multiple books about her, an opera about her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia not to mention her legal mind, I think it’s fair to say she’s given the Jews of all ages quite a bit of nachas.

Or how about former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg?  Beyond his accomplishments in the business world and in politics, this past year, he gave a record-breaking $1.8 Billion (with a B) gift to his alma mater Johns Hopkins so that no undergraduate student will have to take a student loan.  That’s right, all the students who entered this fall received sufficient scholarships and grants so that none of them had to take out loans, and that will be the policy going forward.  Whether your child goes there or not, whether you’re a Hopkins alum or not, you can feel nachas after hearing about a generous act of tzedakah like that.

Pirkei Avot – the wonderful, nearly 2,000-year-old collection of rabbinic wisdom – preserves a teaching by Rabbi Shimon who lived in Tiberias after the destruction of the Temple:  “Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns–the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a [SHEM TOV] good name surpasses them all (Avot 4:17).”

The priesthood and the kingship were inherited.  Either you were born into them or not.  The study of Torah is a personal decision that affects only us.  But, whether or not we have a good name is something that others determine about us based on our actions.

So, as we head into the final hours of this Yom Kippur Day, let us read through the Al Chet prayer and atone for the sins that are in our “yes” column and let’s atone for the sins in the “maybe” column.  But, then let’s look at the rest of the list more carefully.  Let’s think carefully about how to avoid being a shanda, while instead bringing great deal of nachas to our people in the coming year.

Shalom, RAF.

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