HAPPY PURIM!

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the details of the vestments of the High Priest as well as the common priest.  Exodus 28:40 tells us: “And for Aaron’s sons also you shall make tunics, and make sashes for them, and make turbans for them, for dignity and adornment.”  The word translated as “turbans” is “מִגְבָּעוֹת” which comes from a root that means “round and raised” like an overturned cup.  As a result, the medieval Jewish commentator Fashi – who was also a physician – wrote that it was actually a mask.

How long were they supposed to wear them?  In Exodus 29:30, God says, “For seven days, he shall wear them,”  which would be enough time for the curve of the Altar to bend.  But at the end of seven days, the curve of the Altar had not yet bent.  So, the priests continued to wear the masks.

At first, only the priests wore the masks because they were difficult to make and there were not for all of the Israelites.  However, once it became apparent that the Children of Israel would be wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Levites ramped up production of the masks so that all Israelites would be able to wear them.

Despite the honor of wearing a mask according God’s design, not all the tribes wanted to wear the masks that were originally intended exclusively for the priests.  They were worried that God would be angry and punish them for wearing the vestments initially created to be worn by God’s special servants.

Six of the tribes wore masks and six of the tribes didn’t.  Moses told all of the tribes to wash and sanctify themselves for three days – paying special attention to their hands – and to join together at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  The six mask-wearing tribes were to the North and the six barefaced tribes were to the South.  On the third day, God appeared in a cloud of smoke.  The six tribes without masks could not breathe because of the smoke.  As a result, they passed out.  The six tribes with masks clearly heard God tell them that if they continued to wear masks, they would soon arrive in a “land flowing with citrus and vinegar” – in order to keep things purified.

The six tribes in masks responded, “We will do and we will listen (Exodus 24:7).”  And God responded, “I will reside among the Israelites, and I will be their God (Exodus 29:45).”

When the six unmasked tribes regained consciousness in the morning, they found that masks had fallen to the ground like dew.  They gathered the masks and put them on for the rest of the journey to the Promised Land.

HAPPY PURIM!!

Shalom, RAF.

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A Haman Among Us

Two days ago, I received an email from the Summit Public Schools with the benign-sounding subject line: “Letter from the Superintendent.”  The email was anything but benign.  The superintendent was informing the community that an employee of the Summit Public Schools had been arrested by the FBI for child pornography.  Due to privacy concerns, of course, he could not identify the employee.  However, within an hour, the name of the teacher was reported in the local news.  It was devastating to see that the accused had previously been my child’s teacher.

Now, granted, I know that everyone has the presumption of innocence in our legal system.  Nonetheless, on the assumption that the FBI can support the charges with evidence, I find myself asking, “What do we do when we find evil among us?”

It seems to me no small coincidence that the festival of Purim is approaching and this Shabbat we will read from Deuteronomy 25:17 – “Remember that which Amalek did to you.”  Our first response to evil is to take note and to remember.  We must name it and identify the perpetrator.  

And then we turn our attention to the Book of Esther, where we see three different approaches to the evil Haman.  Ahasuerus, Esther and Mordecai each give us a different type of response.  

Ahasuerus essentially ignored the evil in his midst.  He didn’t think it directly affected his life.  So, even though he had the power to act, he could go about enjoying his banquets without having to deal with Haman.  It was not until his beloved Esther showed him how Haman’s wickedness could potentially have an impact on his own life that Ahasuerus acted.  This is the least honorable approach.

Esther responded cautiously.  While she recognized how evil Haman was, she also understood that she could put herself in danger by calling it out.  She needed to weigh carefully how to address the threat to others while also protecting herself.  This is a completely understandable approach.

Finally, Mordecai responded most forcefully.  While his personal connection to Esther may have saved him individually from Haman, he did not simply act to save himself.  He sought to root out the evil completely.  He sought out an important ally – Esther – in order to confront Haman.  When Esther was unsure about her part in the plan, Mordecai famously said, “Who knows? Perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Esther 4:14).”  This is, hopefully, the approach that we would all take in his position.

The teacher in Summit was caught because a computer repair technician reported him to the FBI after seeing suspicious material on his hard drive.  The right person at the right time with the right skills did the right thing.  I am grateful to that technician.

May we all use whatever skills and influence we have to root out evil – even if we can’t see how it affects us directly at that moment.

Shalom, RAF. 

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Kippah Talking

Attorney David Schoen set the Jewish internet on fire when he placed his hand over his bare head while drinking water during the impeachment trial in the US Senate:

What exactly was he doing?  Was he using his hand as a replacement for his kippah or yarmulke?  Was he reciting a blessing over water?  In order to answer those questions, we have to review some of the rules and traditions surrounding the covering of one’s head and the recitation of blessings in Judaism.
 
First of all, there is no mention of a requirement to cover one’s head in the Bible.  The idea of covering one’s head emerges in the Talmud, but it’s not entirely clear that it was practiced universally by Jews at that time.  We have a story about Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak who was a bit of a troublemaker as a young man.  So, his mother told him, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you and pray for Divine mercy (BT Shabbat 156b).”  There are a few other similar teachings.  Eventually, it became the tradition to cover one’s head while studying Torah, while praying and while eating.  Obviously, it is harder to forget if one simply keeps the kippah on one’s head all the time.  So, that’s what traditional Jews did.
 
While it is convenient to have a kippah on one’s head all the time and it is a reminder to the wearers (and others) that they are Jewish, it is certainly not a violation of Jewish law to go bareheaded.  So, the fact that Mr. Schoen – who identifies as an orthodox Jew – chose not to wear a kippah when he entered the Senate chamber is no big deal.  

In addition, there is some question as to whether Mr. Schoen recited a blessing before drinking water.  If he did, in fact, recite a blessing, then he would have had to cover his head (but a hand doesn’t count!!).  The blessings that we recite before eating and drinking are called “The Blessings of Enjoyment – ברכות הנהנין.”  Many people are familiar with the blessing called “Hamotzi” which we recite over bread, which falls into this category. So, do we say a blessing over water?
 
There is some debate among the rabbis as to whether there is the same level of enjoyment from water as from other foods and drinks.  On the one hand, it has no real flavor, but on the other hand it slakes one’s thirst.  Over the years, some rabbis have required the blessing while others have not.  Some have argued that it depends on the situation.  For example, one need not say a blessing on the water necessary to take medication.  Either way, it did not appear to me as if he recited an actual blessing before drinking – which is not necessarily a violation of Jewish law either.

So, what was he doing? As a regular kippah wearer with less hair than I once had, who occasionally takes a drink of water without my kippah on, I’m fairly certain I know what he was doing.  He was holding on to the kippah that was not there to make sure that it wouldn’t fall off.

Shalom, RAF.

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The (No Longer) Secret Space Laser

I don’t know about you, but I have had lots of fun with the secret Jewish space laser this week.  It’s not that we Jews have one (we don’t!), but many of us have enjoyed making jokes about a member of congress possibly believing that such a thing exists and that we would use it to acquire land cheaply after starting wildfires with this (no longer) secret device.

Some of us have been marked “safe” from the Jewish space laser. Some of us have pointed out that Jewish mothers would never allow their children to play with a space laser.  Some of us acknowledged that Mel Brooks predicted Jews in space back in 1981.  Still others have complained that they were never told about our space laser and they now want a turn to control it.

I enjoyed the jokes as much as anyone.  Humor is one of the coping mechanisms that the Jewish people have developed over the centuries. However, now it’s time to take a step back from the jokes 

Although many of us also like to joke about political correctness taking over the world, the truth is that antisemitism is on the rise.  Both the ADL and the AJC reported a rise in antisemitism in their last reports.  It’s not simply that we feel like it’s on the rise.  The data back up our feelings.

This space laser example originated on the right, but there is plenty of antisemitism on the left as well.  These expressions of Jew hatred manifest themselves differently, but neither side is “better” than the other.  They are both dangerous.

Further, hate of one minority group inevitably leads to hate of other minority groups.  Antisemitism is bad news for other minorities.  A rise in racism, homophobia or other forms of hate typically bring about more antisemitism as well.  So, the fact that a purveyor of this kind of antisemitism is a sitting member of the US Congress is alarming.

This week’s Torah portion begins with Yitro, the Priest of Midian – and Moses’ father-in-law – hearing how God had freed the Israelites from Egypt.  The story must have sounded outlandish – the equivalent of a space laser in the ancient world.  Instead of spreading rumors or lies about the Israelites, however, Yitro approached Moses and listened as Moses told him what really happened.

The best antidote to antisemitism is a dose of truth.  If saying the words out loud make you sound ridiculous, that should be a pretty good clue.  However, the person spreading the lies and theories has to be open to hearing the truth.  And the truth is that we don’t have a space laser under the control of the Rothschilds or any other Jewish family.  

And it is also true that most Jewish mothers would be reluctant to let their precious children play with one even if we had one.

Shalom, RAF.

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Her Name is Miriam

On Tuesday, just as the school day was ending, I sent a text to two of my daughters.  Since they were learning remotely from home, I was not concerned about where they were or how they were getting home from school.  

Instead, I wanted to be sure that they were paying attention to what was going on around them.  I texted them the following photo:

And then I added the words, “First female VP swearing in first female Secretary of the Treasury.” 
 
It doesn’t matter what ideologies they follow or to which political party they belong.  This was glass-shattering history being made for women and girls.  While I have always told my daughters that they can be anything they want, I was not always so sure in my own mind.  A precedent-setting moment such as this one sends a very powerful message about the lifting of limits placed on girls and women in our society.
 
In this week’s Torah portion, the Hebrew slaves made it safely across the Red Sea and Moses sang a song of victory which is part of our liturgy to this day.  Immediately afterwards, his previously unnamed sister stepped up and led a second song.  
 
Although Moses would have never survived the Pharaonic edict against Hebrew male babies without the intercession of his sister way back in Chapter 2, we never learned her name.   Here in Chapter 15, not only do we learn her name – Miriam! – but the Torah tells us that she was a “prophetess – נב’אה.”  Miriam had her own status and her own relationship with God.  According to rabbinic legend, Miriam would be responsible for providing water to the community during the years of wandering in the wilderness.
 
Obviously, Miriam serving as a prophet and leader did not immediately bring about egalitarian leadership in ancient Israel or modern Judaism.  However, it was — and is — an important moment. 
 
Similarly, Vice President Harris swearing in Secretary Yellin does not mean that gender bias has come to an end in our country.  However, it sure was nice to share that picture with my daughters.

Shalom, RAF.

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A Poem

I’m sure I was not the only one who was struck by the poem offered by Amanda Gorman at yesterday’s inauguration entitled “The Hill We Climb.”  If you have not seen it – or perhaps only seen it once or only read it – I recommend you click here and watch it a few times.  

While the words themselves are beautiful – filled with wordplay, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme – her presentation was also extremely engaging.  I suspect that if one did not know a single word of English, she would still have been able to convey some meaning.

It immediately made me think of a Haftarah.  (I can’t help it; I’m a rabbi!)

The word Haftarah means ‘final reading’ and it was added after the Torah reading to make sure that Jews would study the Books of the Prophets in addition to the Five Books of Moses.  The Haftarot are selections from various prophets and are often pieces of poetry filled with wordplay, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme.  Isaiah is the most common source, but we’re reading from Jeremiah this Shabbat.  And, of course, we do not simply read a Haftarah.  We chant it. 

The musical tradition of chanting – called cantillation or trop – adds expression and emphasis to the text much like Ms. Gorman’s presentation augmented her beautiful words.  While we always provide a translation for the prophetic passage being chanted, I know that many people enjoy just listening to the sounds of a beautifully-chanted Haftarah.  In recent years, in our community, we have even chanted some verses in English using the same ancient melodies in order to make them more accessible to more people.

The tradition of reciting an inaugural poem began in 1961 when Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.  It’s no accident that poetry has continued to be a part of inaugural ceremonies for 60 years now, as it adds emotion and meaning.

The Haftarah has been around just a tad bit longer – about 2,000 years – and it does the same thing for the Jewish people every Shabbat and on holidays.

Shalom,

RAF.

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Honoring MLK

It was August, 1963 in Washington, DC.  Mahalia Jackson – then known as the Queen of Gospel – had just finished singing two powerful hymns.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was just about ready to speak.  But, before Dr. King would deliver his famous remarks, a white man in sunglasses with a hint of a German accent stepped up to the microphone to speak.

That man was Rabbi Joachim Prinz – the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in (then) Newark.  

Here is a small excerpt from his remarks on that historic day:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.

Nearly 60 years later, those words still ring true.  As a symbol of our commitment to speak up and act – rather than be silent onlookers – I invite everyone to find a way to participate in the events offered this weekend in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. Click here for the schedule of events here in Summit. And this year, you don’t have to be in Summit to participate!

Shalom,

RAF.

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Leadership

As I have tried to wrap my head around what has been going on in our nation’s capital, I (not surprisingly) turned to one of Judaism’s ancient texts – the Talmud.

Some 2,000 years ago, Rabban Gamliel was the president of the Sanhedrin.  Unlike some presidencies today, it was a lifetime position.  However, Rabban Gamliel made some unpopular decisions including the public shaming of a popular sage by the name of Rabbi  Joshua.  So, the other rabbis made the very unusual decision to remove Rabban Gamliel from office and replace him with Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. 

One of the first things that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah did as President was to remove the guard from the academy door and install more benches so that more students could attend the lessons.  According to the Talmud, between 400 and 700 benches were added, reversing the policy of Rabban Gamliel who wanted to restrict attendance to the most serious of students.

Upon seeing all these new students enthusiastically attending lectures in the academy, Rabban Gamliel did not get angry at his successor or try to have the new students removed.  Instead, he looked inward.  He said, “Perhaps, Heaven forbid, I prevented Israel from engaging in Torah study.”  After his period of introspection, he ultimately begged for forgiveness from Rabbi Joshua and made peace with the rabbis who removed him.  As a result of the wisdom that he displayed, they asked him to return and share the position of President with Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah.  And so, he did.

Rabban Gamliel became a better person and a better leader because the people around him were not afraid to call him out for his egregious behavior.  The Sanhedrin became a stronger institution because its leaders put the health of the institution above the honor of its President. 

I pray for leaders today who can muster the same strength, courage and wisdom that those rabbis displayed so many years ago.  The fact that we have preserved the rabbis’ story for 2,000 years is an indication of how rare that type of leadership can be, but also how important it is.  We need leaders who can be honest about their shortcomings and imperfections.  We need leaders who put the welfare of our entire county ahead of their personal glory and power. 

As we say in A Prayer for Our Country:  “Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country (from Siddur Sim Shalom).”

Shalom, RAF.

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Happy New Year!

I’m no longer surprised when the Torah reading cycle lines up in such a way that the Torah is clearly speaking to our current situation.  It happens too often.  This week’s portion gives us no fewer than three messages to take with us as 2020 ends and we (gladly!) welcome in the new year of 2021.

First of all, our Torah portion is called “Vayechi,” which means “he lived.”  In this instance, it is referring to the patriarch Jacob who lived out the final 17 years of his life in Egypt reunited with his son Joseph.  He did not think that he would ever see Joseph again.  Yet, he even got to meet and spend time with Joseph’s two sons Ephrayim and Menashe.  Many of our seniors have spent months in isolation this past year.  As vaccinations begin throughout our country, I hope that many of them get to experience reunions much like Jacob’s.

Secondly, this week’s Torah portion is the conclusion of the Joseph narrative.  He literally got up out of a pit and started a whole new life for himself.  He found great success and prosperity in the land of Egypt against all odds.  Similarly, many members of our community suffered economic setbacks this past year.  Once people feel safe leaving their homes and resuming their lives, it is my hope that we can all find success and prosperity much like Joseph did.

Finally, this week’s Torah portion is the final portion in the Book of Genesis.  Whenever we get to the end of a book of the Bible, we chant the following words: “Chazak, Chazak v’Nit-chazek – Be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened by one another.” In other words, when we lift others up and allow them to lift us up, we are collectively stronger than we would be on our own.  In this coming year, I hope that we continue to turn toward our tradition and toward one another for support as we close the door on 2020 and (cautiously) open the door for 2021.

Jodi and the kids join me in wishing you a happy, healthy and successful 2021.

Shalom, RAF.

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Delay & Deception

If there is one thing that we will all remember about 2020, it’s the complete disruption of our social patterns.  Some of us have been stuck in tight quarters with the same few people for an extended period of time and we now crave a few moments alone.  Still others of us have been on our own for extended periods of time and we no crave a few moments with other human beings.  Either way, things just aren’t the way they used to be in the “Before Time.”

This week’s Torah portion is called “Vayigash” and it gets its name from the very first word of the portion in Genesis 44:18.  It means “He drew near”  or  “He approached.”  In this instance, it is Judah approaching Joseph (though he didn’t know it was Joseph).  They had not seen each other in over 20 years.  It was an unnatural separation.  There was also an element of deception involved.  Joseph did not immediately reveal his true identity. 

This verb “Vayigash” appeared twice previously in Genesis. 

In Genesis 27:21, Isaac told Jacob to come near and kiss him before blessing him.   Here, too, there was an element of trickery.  Jacob was dressed as his brother Esau in order to receive the firstborn blessing.  Further, it would lead to an unnatural separation – Jacob would leave his family for over 20 years.

Then, in Genesis 29:10, Jacob met his cousin – and future wife – Rachel.  Here too we see dishonesty and delay.  We know that Lavan surreptitiously gae Leah to Jacob as a wife when Jacob was expecting Rachel.  Jacob would have to work for Lavan and live with Lavan twice as long as expected.

The Torah is reminding us that unnatural separations can lead to bad behavior – even among people who love one another.  As we begin to contemplate a return to the kinds of social interactions that we once took for granted and now crave, let’s remember to treat one another with care.

Shalom, RAF.

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