Parking Places

A man was driving up and down the rows of a parking lot, looking for a parking place. He was in a big rush as he was already late for a job interview. Frustrated, he finally turned toward God and said out loud in his car, “Please help me find a parking place! I promise to be more faithful to You.  Just help me!” Just as he finished his plea to God, a parking place suddenly opened up. He parked the car, and turning back to God said, “Never mind. I found a parking place on my own!”

One of the major spiritual tasks of the High Holiday season is to review our actions from the previous year.  We are supposed to figure out the mistakes and missteps we’ve made and then work to atone for them.  We reach out to God and our fellow human beings for forgiveness.

However, we can also take this opportunity to look back over the previous year to consider when we may have felt God’s presence in our lives, but we didn’t have the time to acknowledge it.  Even in challenging times – and this past year has offered more than its share of challenges – we all experience moments of blessing. 

I suspect that most of us are not shy when it comes to asking for future blessings.  However, it takes a little more time and effort to think about the blessings we’ve already received. 

One of the final prayers that we recite on Yom Kippur is the ‘Avinu Malkeinu.’  Our High Holiday prayer book translates that name for God as “Loving Parent, Compassionate Ruler.”  The prayer combines a look back at the previous year with a hope for the year to come. It culminates with a prayer that we sing to a very familiar melody:  “Avinu Malkeinu – Loving Parent, Compassionate ruler, hear us and have compassion on us; our good deeds are too few, so please treat us with charity and lovingkindness and save us.”

So, even when we forget to thank God for helping us find that parking place – not to mention all the other blessings in our lives! – here’s hoping that God will continue to be there for us as we face the challenges of this coming year.

Shalom, RAF.

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PARDON THE DISRUPTION: Rosh Hashanah 5781 – Day 2

On Halloween Day, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton went surfing with her best friend, as well as her best friend’s father and brothers – because that’s what you do when you live in Hawaii.  It sure beats a snowstorm on Halloween – as all NJ residents will attest.  Unfortunately, her outing did not have a happy ending that day.

A 14-foot tiger shark attacked her and severed her arm just below the shoulder.  Thanks to quick action by her best friend’s family and a doctor who happened to be on the beach that day, she was quickly transported to the hospital and rushed into surgery.  There was nothing anyone could do about her arm, but quite a few people contributed to saving her life that day.

Bethany took it from there.  Within a month, she was back on a surf board.  And in January 2004, barely two months after that fateful day she entered a surfing competition in Australia and made it to the finals.  She surfed professionally through 2016 before retiring.  Today, she is married with two young sons.  There are two movies about her life – “Soul Surfer” and “Unstoppable.”

Bethany Hamilton is an amazing example of overcoming personal tragedy. She adapted to her new reality and charted a new course in her life.

Our tradition preserves the story of Rabbi Meir and his wife Beruriah overcoming personal tragedies in their lives in much the same way.  By way of background, Beruriah’s father was a teacher in the land of Israel in the 2nd Century CE. Perhaps, that’s why Beruriah was as learned as any of the rabbis in her day and she was one of the few women quoted in the Talmud.  As a young woman, Beruriah saw her father painfully executed by the Romans for teaching Torah in defiance of the governor’s edict against such acts.  The story of his execution is told as part of the Eileh Ezkerah in the Yom Kippur liturgy.  Beruriah persevered and eventually married Rabbi Meir.  Together they had two sons. 

One Shabbat afternoon, Rabbi Meir was sitting and lecturing in the study hall, when unbeknownst to him, his two sons died. Without notifying Meir, Beruriah laid the two of them on the bed and spread a sheet over them. After the Shabbat was over, Rabbi Meir came home from the study hall and asked, “Where are my two sons?”

She said, “They went to the study hall.” He said, “I was watching over the study hall, and I did not see them.” She gave him a cup of wine to make Havdalah (the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat), and he recited the blessings. He again said, “Where are my two sons?” She said to him, “They went to another place and will soon come.” She put a plate of food in front of him, he ate and said the Grace After Meals.

After all that, Beruriah said, “Rabbi, I have a question to ask you.” He knew something was up when she addressed him that way, and he said to her, “Ask your question.” She said to him, “Rabbi, some time ago a man came and gave me something to keep for him. Now he comes and seeks to take it back. Shall we return it to him or not?” He said to her, “You know the law as well as I do – whoever is entrusted with an object must return it to its owner.” She said to him, “Rabbi, I would not have given it to him without your knowledge.”

She took him by the hand and led him up to the room. She led him to the bed and removed the sheet that was covering their two boys. When he saw the two of them lying dead on the bed, he began to cry and say, “My sons, my sons!” At that moment she said to Rabbi Meir, “Rabbi, did you not say to me that I must return the trust to its owner?” He said, “Adonai gave and Adonai has taken away; May the name of Adonai be blessed (Job 1:21).” We speak those words from the Book of Job at Jewish funerals to this day.

They found a way to adapt to their new reality and charted a new course in their life.  This is what Judaism has always done.  It has found a way to go on after tragedy.  It has completely transformed itself – when necessary – after a major disruptive event

In the year 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed.  We must keep in mind that after the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the Jews returned to rebuild it after about 50 years.  When that Second Temple was desecrated by the Assyrian Greeks in the 2nd Century BCE, the Maccabees immediately started their rebellion and rededicated it within a few years.

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was different though.  There was no rebuilding or rededicating on the horizon.  So, the rabbis had to find a way to keep the spirit of the Temple alive without the actual physical Temple.

They did so by creating a system based on study, prayer and performance of good deeds and infusing that system with the language of the Temple cult.  This brilliant strategy can be seen through the following story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  He snuck out of Jerusalem by faking his death and re-established the Sanhedrin – the High Court – in a town called Yavne after the destruction.

According to one of our ancient texts (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, ch. 4), “Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua – his disciple – was following him and saw the ruins of the Temple.Rabbi Yehoshua said: OY! Woe to us that it [the Temple] is destroyed, a place where the Jewish nation’s sins are atoned!   [Ben Zakkai] answered: My son, do not feel bad, we have another atonement just like it, and which is that? It is acts of loving-kindness, as the Prophet Hosea says: ‘For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifices (Hosea 6:6).’”

Following his lead, the rabbis named some of our worship services – such as Mincha and Musaf – after the sacrifices that they replaced.  They found a way to give the Priests honors in the new worship services they created – the Kohanim we called up to the Torah for an Aliyah first and they still got to recite the Priestly Benediction publicly.  Instead of offering sacrifices, the rabbis required us to read the Biblical passages describing those offerings.  In other words, they used all the creativity they could muster to make their new reality feel like their old reality which was never going to return.

Some 1500 years later, on another continent, our people suffered through another major disruptive event.  1648-49 Bohdan Chmelniecki tried to rid Ukraine of its Jews whom he saw as agents of foreign governments usurping the wealth of his country through taxes.  Scholars disagree over how many Jews he killed but it was likely over 100,000 – making him the greatest murderer of Jews prior to Hitler.  After Chmelniecki, the Poles and Russians murdered many more Jews during the second half of the 17th Century. 

One of the results of this half-century of massacres against the Jews was a great decline in the Jewish intellectual life in Eastern Europe.  The great scholars of Russia, Ukraine and Poland who managed to survived moved their academies to Lithuania and elsewhere.

In the year 1698, a man named Yisrael ben Eliezer was born in a small Ukrainian village and orphaned as a young child.   The community cared for him and until the age of 36, many thought of him as a nebbish, a ne’er-do-well – just another Jewish peasant who could read and write just enough to teach children.  But then, after years of study and spiritual discernment, he presented himself as a healer, a story teller, a singer of wordless melodies, and a spiritual guide.  He became known as the Ba’al Shem Tov – the master of a good name – and the changes he made to Judaism completely transformed our tradition.

The Ba’al Shem Tov gave every Jew entrée into the spiritual life of Judaism even if they could not afford to spend their days in a Yeshiva poring over sacred texts.  This new approach to Jewish life is called Chasidism.  While we have never abandoned our sacred texts – and the Ba’al Shem Tov would not want Jews to abandon those texts – virtually every subsequent expression of Judaism has incorporated elements of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Chasidism into its practice.

Our ancestors adapted to the new reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and charted a new course.

Some three centuries later, Europe would once again be the site of a tragic, transformative event in the history of Judaism.  More than one-third of the world’s Jewish population – over 60% of Europe’s Jewish population – was killed during the Holocaust.  Some 75 years later, it’s still impossible to wrap one’s head around that.

Yet, the Jewish people found a way to go on after the Holocaust.  Judaism would change, but it would go on.  Prior to the Holocaust, the three major modern expressions of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox (Reconstructionism did not really exist yet) – were all based on one’s relationship with God and Torah.  The differences among the movements had to do with approaches to Jewish law.  We defined each movement by how it applied the Torah to the modern context. 

Today, our movements still talk and write about our relationship to the Torah, to the mitzvot and to Jewish law.  But in reality, that is no longer how individual Jews think about their Judaism.

In a well-known 2013 Pew Poll entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” we Jews were asked: “What does it mean to be Jewish?” The top three answers were: (1) remember the Holocaust; (2) lead an ethical/moral life; and (3) work for justice/equality.” 

Nothing about Torah.  Nothing about Mitzvot.  Nothing about believing in God.  Perhaps it was still simply too painful to think about all of the Torah-studying, mitzvah-observing, God-fearing Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. 

As a rabbi, I obviously still believe in preserving our customs, I still believe in studying our traditional texts, and I still believe in God.  However, 75 years is the blink of an eye in Jewish history.  As we continue to adapt to our post-Holocaust reality, I have to recognize that members of my community don’t always want to talk about the Jewish issues that most important to me.

Just as the ancient rabbis created a new path to remain Jewish after the destruction of the temple, just as the Ba’al Shem Tov created a new path to remain Jewish after the decimation of Eastern European Jewry, we too are still in the process of finding our path after the Holocaust.  And if we are still finding our way post-Holocaust, then what is going to happen to Judaism following this global pandemic?

Now, first of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t put this pandemic and lockdown in the same category as the Holocaust, the Chmelniecki massacres or the destruction of the Temple.  However, it is clearly the most disruptive event in MY lifetime.  I could never have imagined our synagogue sitting virtually empty for 6 months.  And yet….

This past March 14th was supposed to be Women’s Group Shabbat.  On the Thursday before, we started talking about whether or not it was going to happen.  We started by cancelling the Kiddush and donating the food.  Then we tried to figure out who was willing to attend and who was not willing to attend. And what precautions or protocols we needed to follow in order still have services in our building.  By the end of that Thursday – less than 48 hours before some 50 women were set to participate in our Shabbat morning service – we realized that it simply could not happen.  We had to cancel. 

We would not be having in-person services in the sanctuary that Shabbat.  And we have not had in-person services in the Sanctuary since then – as evidenced by the fact that we are worshiping together today via Zoom and Facebook Live.

In the six months since our congregation – and others like ours around the world – had to make a quick decision about what to do for one particular Shabbat, we’ve begun to see how Judaism might change in the coming years.  Our synagogue evolved almost instantaneously in order to remain relevant in our members’ lives.  We were not tech-savvy enough to pull off a live Zoom service on March 14th.  The Cantor and I pre-recorded a service that we posted on-line.

However, we put it all together by March 28th for our first Zoom Bat Mitzvah.  And we haven’t looked back.

I suspect that some of the changes we have made on the fly these past six months are going to stay with us far beyond the duration of the lockdown.

1) Livestreaming of services is here to stay.  When the lockdown started, we all became homebound.  As a result, we all now have some insight into what it’s like to be homebound.  We did not want to be denied the opportunity to participate in synagogue life.  So, going forward, how can we deny any of our homebound members the opportunity to participate in synagogue life.  Virtual services are here to stay.

2) We have witnessed the erosion of geographic boundaries, and the redefinition of what does it mean to be a member.  Since the lockdown started, we created a new membership category called “Virtual Membership.”  It allows people who live anywhere to enjoy our services and programs.  This morning people are worshiping with us from Canada and across the United States.  As a result of the lockdown, we no longer have to join the synagogue closest to our home.

3) During these past six months, we have seen further integration of technology into our services.  We have created a new electronic Siddur for each Bar or Bat Mitzvah – with the specific Torah reading, Haftarah and prayers for that morning.  Could this be the new model for the Siddur?  Previously, the Siddur changed with technological advances like the invention of the codex and the printing press.  I suspect that we will not turn back. 

4) When our office closed and our staff all started working from home, you saw us respond to emails and phone calls at crazy hours because of everything that was going on in our homes.  While I don’t think that the synagogue office will ever be 24/7, I think that there will be an expectation that we are open 24/6. 

In other words, we’ll adapt to our new reality, and chart a new course toward revival and survival for our community.  Because that’s what Judaism does after a major disruptive event.  That’s what we’ve always done.  I look forward to charting that new course with you in the coming year.

L’Shanah Tovah, RAF.

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FLIPPING CHANNELS: Rosh Hashanah 5781 – Day 1

It’s been a little over six months since most of us went on lockdown.  Yes, some of the restrictions are starting to relax, but life has certainly not gone back to what we might call normal.  There were many different responses to the lockdown:  baking (and the subsequent eating), walking, family game night. But, I suspect that one activity was more popular than all the others: Binge Watching.

Some people have turned to new shows.  Some have watched movies.  Personally, I’m a traditionalist.  So, I’ve turned back to the classic TV shows of my lifetime.  And in the spirit of the season, I have to confess that I’m not really good at binge-watching the same show back-to-back-to-back.  I’m more of a channel surfer.  I like to flip from channel to channel looking for my favorites.

And since I have the remote control this morning, I hope you’ll join me as I search out some of the best sitcoms of all time. For as I’ve come to realize, many of those classics had something to teach me – teach us! – about life in the year 5780, which has just come to an end.

A great place to start – it’s the story of a lovely lady….  And a man named Brady….

It’s the “Brady Bunch!”  Across the world, this past Passover, we all came to realize that we were going to have to Zoom our Seders.  And collectively, virtually all at once, we also realized that somehow, miraculously, the Bradys also Zoomed during the opening and closing credits long before any of us knew what Zoom was.  All joking aside, the Brady Bunch reminds us of what Kohelet said many centuries earlier – “אֵ֥ין חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ – There is nothing new under the sun.”

Even in the early 1970’s, there were divorces, deaths, blended families, gender issues.  There was even an episode dealing with a contagious disease – it was the measles, NOT Covid, but still….

This past year, I feel like I used the word “unprecedented” more than I had ever used it before.  But, the truth is that even though some experiences were new for us as individuals, life during a pandemic was NOT unprecedented.  Our tradition had something to say to us about life during a pandemic.  For example, the seven-week Omer period between Passover and Shavuot was initially a period of celebration.  However, the Talmud tells us that 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva died in the 2nd Century CE as a result of a plague.

We don’t know how accurate that account is, but here we are nearly 2,000 years later and Judaism has preserved several customs as a result of that plague.  During  that period of time between Passover and Shavuot, we don’t have big celebrations or concerts.  Weddings are postponed.  People don’t get their hair cut.  Sound familiar?

We survived that plague 2,000 years ago and we are surviving this one as well. “There is nothing new under the sun –  אֵ֥ין חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ.”  That’s enough Brady Bunch.  Let’s see what else is on.

Now, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale….. I LOVE “Gilligan’s Island!”  Imagine being stuck with the same group of people for a LONG time.  Requires real imagination, doesn’t it?

Once we get past the silliness of Gilligan’s Island, though, there is a message that applies to us.  They were only going to get off that island if they worked together. In Judaism we say – “Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh lazeh – כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה.”  The Jewish people are intertwined with one another, interdependent upon one another.  In other words, we will only get through this if we work together.

We are starting to have conversations about returning to in-person worship in our community.  No one wants to see that more than I do – I assure you.  However, part of our calculation has to take into account what percentage of our community is considered at-risk.  While some of us are low-risk for fatality due to the coronavirus, we can’t make a decision based solely on our own individual risk-factors. “Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh lazeh – כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה.”  The members of our community are intertwined with one another, interdependent upon one another.  We have to move forward in a way that’s good for all of us.

Let’s see what else is on —   Hey, it’s…. “Cheers!”  

Just like Sam, Diane, Cliff and Norm, we all love being in a place where everyone knows your name and I – for one – miss it.  We are blessed to have the technology that brings us together this morning, but it’s simply not the same as being in our beloved synagogue together.

In recent weeks, my weekly Talmud class came across a text in the Tractate of Berachot…  “Rabbi Yitzḥak said: One who is accustomed to come to the synagogue and did not come one day, the Holy One, Blessed be He, asks about them (BT Berachot 6b).”  Based, in part, on this text, the custom emerged that if someone sat in the same seat three times in a row, the seat became that person’s “Makom Kavua –  מקום קבוע,” their fixed or established place.

If we were in our Sanctuary this morning, I know exactly where some of you would be sitting.  You have your regular spots.  And if you weren’t sitting there, other regulars would notice.  And we’d want to know where you were.  In other words, we would become God’s agents, checking in on the missing person.

Although we don’t have those regular physical seats this year, we have an obligation to notice who’s not Zooming with us and reach out to them to make sure they’re okay.  Our amazing Caring Connections Committee – who dropped off Rosh Hashanah gifts to all of our local members! – has been doing this since March.  Many of us started doing this for neighbors and relatives when the lockdown began.  We can’t stop now.  After all, we’re the kind of place where we know everyone’s name and where they like to sit.

Time to flip channels again, and wouldn’t you know it….. it’s “Seinfeld” –a show about nothing.

Six months on lockdown gave us all the opportunity to channel our inner Seinfelds .  Some days – some WEEKS! – our lives felt like a show about nothing.  Prof. Saul Lieberman – who taught Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for over forty years once said:  “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is a very important science.”  He said it regarding Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) which he viewed as nonsense in contrast with Talmud and Jewish law – his chosen field.

That being said, as we were stuck at home – presumably doing nothing – some profound things happened.  How many of us engaged in a new activity with a member of our family that we had never done together before?  How many of us re-connected with family members, old classmates and other people with whom we’d lost touch because our lives are typically so crazy?  How many of us changed our cooking and eating habits for the better?

Sometimes a few months of nothing can lead to profound changes in our lives.  And that’s not nothing!

Time to flip again…. Oh, this is a REAL oldie… In fact, I bet a bunch of people in our community have never seen an episode of the Honeymooners.

It tells the story of Ralph Kramden – a bus driver – his wife Alice and their best friends Ed and Trixie.  According to Honeymooners lore, Ralph Kramden was originally supposed to be a police officer, but Jackie Gleason – the creative force behind the Honeymooners – thought that would give him too much authority.  He wanted to give voice to folks whose voices were not heard.  Ralph Kramden was the first TV husband NOT to wear a suit and tie to work every day.  He represented regular, working class people and through all the laughs, he amplified their voices.

The pandemic and lockdown have shown us that we still undervalue people who do some indispensable jobs.  In addition to first responders and health care professionals (whose heroism we still take for granted sometimes), some of the heroes of the lockdown were grocery store clerks, transit workers, delivery people, teachers, postal workers and waste removal workers.

Our tradition preserves the story of Rabbi Akiva who was an illiterate goat herder at age 40.  He was embarrassed by his status and his ignorance.  But he also refused to go to a class where he would sit with young children learning to read. His wife Rachel came up with a plan to help him build up his courage.  She took the unusual step of putting dirt  on the back of their donkey, seeding it, and watering it daily. When the seeds sprouted and grew into plants, she asked Akiva to take the donkey to the marketplace to run some errands.  In the marketplace, everyone pointed at the ridiculous garden growing on the donkey’s back and laughed and jeered at Akiva. Akiva returned home utterly humiliated.

The next day the scene repeated itself. And the day after that and the day after that.  Eventually, though, people were so used to seeing Akiva and his donkey that they didn’t give them a second thought. Akiva got the hint, and agreed to go study with the younger students. At that point, Rachel said to him, “If you are embarrassed, you will never learn”.

How many others would aspire to – and reach – greatness if we didn’t undervalue them and belittle their efforts?  Not every Akiva has a Rachel in their corner.  Perhaps, one of the silver linings of this pandemic will be our appreciation of those who courageously, selflessly and capably do indispensable jobs.

Time to flip again…. Sunday, Monday – “Happy Days!”  Clearly, the most important lesson that we can take away from “Happy Days” is that the coolest guy in the room – the Fonz! – was actually a short Jewish man named Henry.  On the one hand, remembering the good old days can be fun and can cheer us up.  On the other hand, we are likely not remembering as accurately as we think.

Our goal ought not to be a return to some artificial perception of what life used to be like.  Our goal should be making today a happy day.

In of the earliest rabbinic texts, Pirkei Avot, the opening teaching tells us that — Moshe received the Torah from Mt. Sinai, but then he passed it down to Joshua, the elders, the prophets and eventually it landed in the hands of the rabbis.  Those rabbis continued passing it down from generation to generation until it reached us.  We can’t somehow give it back to Moshe or Joshua.  We have to figure out how to make the Torah work in our generation.  That is our challenge.  And when we get that right, maybe the short Jewish guy is, in fact, the coolest guy in the room.

Anyway, I think we have time for one more show…. Look at that, it’s “The Wonder Years” – a TV show from the perspective of a young man in his teenage years.  What we learn is that kids’ experiences matter and they shape the adults that they will one day become.

Rabbi Akiva – the man who was illiterate until the age of 40 – taught the following:  “When you teach your children, teach them from a corrected text (BT Pesachim 112b).”  As I mentioned earlier, Rabbi Akiva sat among young students when he himself was learning to read as an adult.  He had unique insight into their experiences.  I think he was trying to say that when our children learning something easily, it makes them want to learn to more.  When it doesn’t come easily to them, it suffocates their natural love of learning.

Like many other parents, I’m watching carefully as my children have started their second school year with at least some distance, virtual learning.  I’m not necessarily worried about which specific skills they learn – though that is important to me.  I’m worried that the process of learning is so difficult and sterile that their passion for learning more will get stifled.

We must push our schools to give our teachers and students the “corrected texts” that Rabbi Akiva talked about.  And in the year 2020, that means the best possible technology to make learning as fun and engaging as possible.  We may not be able to force more information into them, but we CAN teach them how to stay grounded and optimistic even when the world seems to have turned upside down.

Well… if I don’t the turn the TV off now, I’ll probably just fall asleep in front of the screen.  So, I think it’s best to stop here.  But as we welcome in this new year of 5781, let’s not forget the important lessons that classic TV shows have taught us over the years:

Our tradition has guidance for us even when we think a situation is unprecedented; we are all dependent upon one another; we need to keep an eye out to make sure that everyone is still showing up; we can always learn something – even when we think nothing is going on; we should appreciate the unsung heroes of our community; we can’t turn back – it’s up to us here and now to make these days the best possible days; and we can influence the kind of adults that today’s children will become by the way in which we teach them to cope with our current situation.

Let’s watch some more classic TV together this year, OK? After all, it’s really just research.

L’shanah Tovah, RAF.

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A Light Bulb for the New Year

Between 1878 and 1880, Thomas Edison and those who worked with him tried at least three thousand different materials to develop a filament for an efficient incandescent light bulb.  It would have been easy to give up at just about any time during those years.  According to legend, one of his assistants turned to Edison after approximately 2,000 attempts and said that they should quit as they had learned nothing.  Edison pointed out that they had already learned of 2,000 incorrect ways to make a light bulb.  He kept on trying.

The year 5780 – a/k/a 2020 – has given us ample reason to give up on a lot things.  It would be easy, for example, to give up on a synagogue into which one cannot step foot.

But, we haven’t given up.  We’ve learned how to be together as a community even when we cannot be together as a community.

I’m looking forward to being “with” you and learning with you during the High Holidays.  We’ve learned a lot this past year, but there’s so much more to try and to learn.  Let’s get started.

Jodi and the kids join me in wishing you a happy and – most importantly! – healthy new year.

Shalom, RAF.

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Stand With Me

They had been through a lot together – hunger, thirst, rebellion, attacks by outsiders and more.  Yet, they stuck together.  Now it was time for a ceremony and everybody was supposed to participate – leaders, elders, men, women, foreigners and even children.  It was an opportunity to renew their relationship with God and with each other. 

Of course, I am describing the Children of Israel at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.  Moses declared: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God…”  (see Deut. 29:9ff).

Well, we’ve been through a lot this past year as well – a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, racial conflict, political division, natural disasters and more.  It would be great if we could mark the end of this year and welcome in a new one by coming together for a celebratory ceremony.  There’s even a Jewish holiday coming up that does just that.  Unfortunately, we’re not quite ready to come together physically in the same place just yet.

As disappointing as that may be, we can still stand together before God despite not being in the same physical space.  I know that we all have some Zoom fatigue.  We have spent countless hours in front of our electronic devices doing things that we used to do in person.  Nonetheless, the High Holidays are coming and this is our opportunity to say goodbye to this crazy year.

I’d like to invite everyone who will be joining us for the High Holidays via Zoom or Facebook Live to dress up as you would if you were going to the synagogue and to create a sacred space in your home for worship.  Perhaps, you can move some of your Judaica into the room you designate for prayer.  It would be nice to have your candlesticks, Jewish books, a Kiddush cup, a shofar and other Jewish symbols nearby. 

In so doing, we can all feel as if we are standing together before Adonai our God as our ancestors did many centuries ago, as we have done in previous years and as we hope to do again next year.

Looking forward to standing and worshiping with you during this unique High Holiday season.

Shalom, RAF.

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Not Just A Walk

Like a lot of other people, life on lockdown has led to more walks in my life (which has been greatly appreciated by our family’s dog).  And, thanks to the lockdown, a walk is not always just a walk.  A walk can be an opportunity to meet a neighbor for a drink.  A walk can be a private moment for a couple.  A walk can be a research expedition into the local real estate market.  A walk can be our big opportunity to get out of our house – which is also our office which is also our children’s school.

So, as I was reading through this week’s Torah portion, one phrase leapt off the page.  In Deuteronomy 26:17, Moses told the Israelites that when they got to the Promised Land, they were supposed to “walk in God’s ways – לָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֗יו.” How do you do that?  How does God walk?

We are not the first to wonder how to walk in God’s ways.  In the Talmud, the rabbis asked this very same question and – fortunately! – an ancient sage named Rabbi Hama had a great answer.  His answer was rooted in the Biblical text.  It turns out that, for God and the rabbis, a walk was not always a walk.

Rabbi Hama said: Just as God clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy Blessed One visits the sick, as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy Blessed One consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy Blessed One buried the dead, as it is written: “And he [Moses] was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead (See BT Sotah 14a).

Spending so much time in our homes, it would be easy to focus on our own challenges.  However, a walk is an opportunity to leave our personal space and see what’s going on in the world around us.  I need not tell you that there are some serious challenges out there.  We all have neighbors and relatives who are facing difficulties during this extraordinary time.  We live in a country dealing with an economic downturn, racial strife and political division in addition to the pandemic that put us in lockdown in the first place.

So, this is a good time not only for walks, but for walks in God’s ways.  We all need to find ways to do God’s work in this world: clothe the naked, care for the sick, console the mourners and bury the dead.  Because, in these challenging times, a walk should not be just a walk .

Shalom, RAF.

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Something Unseemly Among Us

On June 28th, Mark and Patricia McCloskey burst onto the national scene when they were filmed standing in front of their home – which once belonged to St. Louis’ storied Busch family – pointing weapons at the protesters marching past their home.  There is some question as to whether the protesters were on public or private property.  Fortunately, no shots were fired. 

If the story had ended there, we could have tried to put the McCloskeys out of our minds and we could have moved on to address the challenges we face as a country.  However, the story did not end there.

From a Jewish perspective, we learned that the McCloskeys had been in conflict with the members of the synagogue which abuts their property.  In 2013, the McCloskeys destroyed beehives set up by the synagogue’s religious school to produce honey for Rosh Hashanah.  Why did they destroy the hives?  They claimed that the hives had been placed six inches over the property line (click here for more details).

More disturbing than that, however, is the fact that they were given a national platform to spew their hateful rhetoric.  Although they are facing charges for their actions that day, they strongly defended their behavior by reminding their audience that the day might come soon when, “no matter where you live, your family will not be safe.”  Thus, by pointing their guns at a peaceful protest through their neighborhood, they were not only protecting themselves, they were modeling to other Americans how to protect themselves in the future. 

Although the McCloskeys killed no one and they had a tenuous legal argument to defend their behavior, words matter.  Their dangerous rhetoric has consequences.

Two days later, we saw the inevitable, logical result of the reasoning that catapulted them into the spotlight.  A 17-year-old boy brought his AR-15 rifle from Antioch, Illinois into Kenosha, Wisconsin (his mother gave him a ride).  He went to protect businesses from protesters like the ones who had marched in front of the McCloskey’s home on June 28th.  Only this time, the young man killed two people and seriously wounded a third. 

In the midst of a protest in response to an unarmed man being shot by police seven times in the back, the very same police department allowed this young man to walk the streets with his AR-15 undisturbed – even after he had shot three people.

While there has been a serious problem with looters and vandals taking advantage of the recent nation-wide protests to do serious damage to property, there is no evidence to suggest that the June 28th marchers or last night’s victims were engaged in anything other than protesting injustice.

Gun-worship and racism combined to make a toxic brew.  As a result, at least two people are dead. 

In this week’s portion, Ki Tetze, we read: “Since Adonai your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy;  let God not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you (Deut. 23:15).”

Life during a pandemic is sufficiently challenging that we don’t need teens with guns, adults with guns and racists making things worse.  There is something unseemly among us.  If we want to feel God moving about among us, moral people must join together to root out violence and hate. 

Shalom, RAF.

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The Shofar

Today and tomorrow, we welcome in the new month of Elul – the last month of the Jewish year.  We are exactly one month away from Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year.  Each morning during the month of Elul – except for Sabbaths and the final day – we are supposed to sound the Shofar (ram’s horn).  Of course, this daily sounding of the Shofar culminates with Rosh Hashanah – which is actually called Yom Tru’ah – the Day of the (Shofar) Blast in the Torah.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are supposed to hear 100 different Shofar blasts.  No matter how much the world and Judaism have changed over the centuries, we still turn to this most ancient of instruments to announce the changing of the seasons.

It is a link to the way that our ancestors celebrated this time of year.  It is the way that we – the living heirs of the Jewish tradition – have always celebrated this time of year.  We may not be able to observe this custom the exact same way that we have always done it, but it will be an important part of our Rosh Hashanah celebration – as always.  We are not the only ones making adjustments.

Needless to say, our world has changed a great deal in the last six months.  The ways that we do mundane things like grocery shopping, exercising and going to work have changed.  The ways that we do sacred things like worshipping, honoring the dead, celebrating a birth and joining two people together in marriage have changed. 

I don’t have to tell any parents out there that the beginning of this school year is already different.  Our college students don’t know if they are coming or going.  Our states and school districts are issuing new instructions almost daily.  This week and next week, the conventions of our two major political parties – a tradition that dates back nearly 200 years – are taking place with no audiences for the first time ever.

But in the midst of all this change, each morning for the next month, Jews around the world will pick up an instrument which has been used since antiquity in order to make the sounds which have announced the coming of a new year for generations.  In previous years, I always perceived the sound of the Shofar as jolting and alarming.  It was a reminder to get our act together.  This year, though, I find it comforting.  It is a reminder that a new year is coming – and with it, perhaps, better days.

Shalom, RAF.

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Demolish, Wreck, Smash, Burn, Obliterate?

About three weeks ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey made world news when he ordered to the reopening of Hagia Sofia as a working mosque.  Originally built as a church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th Century CE, it was converted to a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.  For nearly a century, though, this 1500 year old building has been a museum – neither church nor mosque – with no religious services taking place inside its walls.

All that changed on July 24th.

While Muslims were celebrating, Christians were saddened by this development.  They feel that their connection to this sacred place is being erased so that a politician can score points with his constituents.  They may be right.  Hagia Sofia is perfect example of how one site can be sacred to more than one group – but not necessarily at the same time. 

This is what happens when one religious group takes over the holy site of another religious group and rededicates it for their own ritual use.  This is a practice as old as time.  For example, the Temple in Jerusalem was likely built on a site that was sacred to the people who lived there before the Israelites.  Of course, the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount centuries after the Temple’s destruction at the hands of the Romans.  It’s remarkable, really, that Jews can worship at the Western Wall at the same time as Muslims worship in the Dome of the Rock.  It’s certainly not a perfect situation and there are challenging moments.  However, the two groups are, in fact, coexisting.

In this week’s Torah portion, God and Moshe were preparing the Israelites for their entry into the Land of Canaan.  God knew that they would encounter the holy sites of the indigenous peoples and wanted to be sure that the Israelites were not tempted to worship the Canaanites’ gods and practice Canaanite rituals. 

So, in Deuteronomy 12:3 the Torah uses five verbs to instruct the Israelites how to treat the religious sites and symbols of the Canaanites: demolish, wreck, smash, burn, obliterate.  The text couldn’t be much clearer. There would be no competition.  There was only one proper way to worship in the Promised Land.  The Israelite nation – only 40 years removed from slavery – could not handle the temptation of other religions coexisting in its territory.

Fortunately, the modern state of Israel did not take this approach when the Temple Mount came under Israeli control in 1967.  Israel realized that it did not have to destroy the sacred sites of other religious groups in order to reinstitute Jewish rituals in the Holy City.  After surviving for centuries in the Diaspora among peoples of other faiths and beliefs, Judaism could coexist with other religions in her midst.

Similarly, it is good news today that Israel has agreed to put a halt to its plans for annexation as part of its new agreement with the United Arab Emirates.  Israel could serve as a model to other countries if she finds a way to turn her enemies of the past seven decades into allies. Besides, it ought to be Israel’s goal to coexist with her neighbors and not to annex or demolish them.

It is a lesson that we would do well to apply to our political discourse in this country as well.  There was a time in which the two major political parties could coexist, could discuss issues and could even work together to find compromises.  Unfortunately, our political system seems to have taken its cues from Deuteronomy 12:3 – demolish, wreck, smash, burn, obliterate.  We seem to have lost the ability to have civil conversations with people who hold different views than we do.   It’s a sign of political immaturity — not unlike the Israelites’ spiritual immaturity in our Torah portion.

Let us hope that we can return to a time when religious groups, political parties and nations can disagree with one another and yet still find a way to coexist.  Our history tells us it’s possible.


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Choose Someone Else!

In one of the more famous lines of Fiddler on the roof, Tevye the Milkman turns to his face to the heavens and says, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

I suspect that I am not the only one feeling a little like Tevye today.  Once again, many of us in New Jersey are without power (while still dealing with a global pandemic, mind you!).  Some of us had damage to our property.  So, we’re wondering why this happened to us again.

Our ancestors would have answered that question by saying it was God sending us a message. 

Consider the middle paragraph of the quintessential Jewish prayer – the  Sh’ma – which is taken from this week’s Torah portion, Ekev (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).  As we read through it, we are warned about the consequences for disregarding the mitzvot – God’s sacred commandments.  Pandemics, hurricanes and blackouts would seem to fall under that category of “consequences.”

But, I have always read this paragraph a little differently.

The paragraph opens by saying, “If, then, you obey the commandments….I will grant the rain for your land in season…and thus you shall eat your fill.”  It goes on to say, “Take care not to be lured away…so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land.”  The passage concludes by telling us, “Teach these to your children…to the end that you and your children may endure in the land.”

I have always understood this to mean that there are natural consequences to our actions.  If I go out in the rain without a rain coat and umbrella, I’m going to get wet.  That’s not divine punishment.  It’s common sense.  Sadly, my generator didn’t work when the power went out on Tuesday.  However, that was NOT God sending me a message.  It turns out that I left gas and oil in the engine since the last time I used it (which was Hurricane Sandy eight years ago!).  My actions caused this unfortunate turn of events.  I should’ve known better.

While the storm that hit the East Coast was an act of nature, we human beings had a little something to do with the complications that ensued.  We can wallow in self-pity and wonder why God has done this to us.  Or, we can begin make better choices in anticipation of the next storm.  We can begin to press our leaders – on the city, state and national levels – to make better decisions about infrastructure so that we don’t find ourselves out in a rainstorm without our coats and umbrellas.

If you need any assistance as a result of the storm, if there’s any way that the synagogue community can help you, please reach out to me directly –  I may not have power, but I can still read my email!!

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