May the Divine Spark, er, Force Be With You!

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since I went with my father to the Americana Movie Theater in Southfield, Michigan, in order to see the first Star Wars movie. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The newest movie, “The Last Jedi” was originally supposed to be released on the actual anniversary – May 26th – but we will have to wait until December to see it.

So, what is it about these movies that gets me – and presumably others! – so excited? If I had to answer that question in two words, I would have to say, “The Force.”

For those who don’t remember all the details, The Force is the collective power of sub-atomic particles in the bloodstream of a being, which transforms that individual from a typical being into a Jedi Knight capable of tremendous mental and physical acts. Just having the subatomic particles is not enough, though. One must learn how to harness the power within one’s body.

The truth is that this is not very different from the Jewish view of humanity. We believe that each of us has the spark of the divine within us. We are created b’tzelem Elohim – in the Divine image. The challenge to us is to learn how to use that spark – how to be divine.

We can choose to interact with people, animals and things in a positive way – the divine way. Or we can choose to interact in a harmful way. Our tradition has given us a guide by which to harness the power of that divine spark; we call it the Torah.

Now, that is not all that Star Wars and Judaism have in common. In Star Wars lore, there is a pithy little saying – you might even call it a blessing or a charge – that Jedi knights say to one another for good luck: “MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we read the Biblical equivalent of that phrase. It’s not quite as short. It’s not quite as catchy. But I daresay it is more meaningful and more powerful.

God gave Moshe three verses or fifteen short words called “The Priestly Benediction,” which he in turn passed to his brother Aharon. Through these words, we are assured that God is with us no matter what.

In English, “May Adonai bless you and keep you; may Adonai show you favor and be gracious to you; may Adonai show you kindness and bless you with peace.”

At key moments in our lives – births, b’nai mitzvah, graduations, weddings – we invoke these words acknowledging God’s presence in our lives and hoping that we will continue to feel that presence. After all, that presence, that spark, that force is present in all of us. We just need to learn more about it.


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Words & Deeds

I think that we all intuitively recognize that words and deeds are linked.  Just this past week, the world saw another terrorist attack – this time in Manchester.  We don’t yet know everything about the perpetrator of this atrocity.  However, we do know that despite being born and raised in England, he was “radicalized.”  That usually begins with words and those words lead to deeds — in this case, horrendous ones.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we heard a speech this week from the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, discussing the need to talk honestly about the Confederacy and those who continue to idolize Confederate leaders.  This speech, of course, is related to his city’s ongoing effort to remove four statues of Confederate “heroes,” because they were symbols of hate, bigotry and intimidation.
Words and deeds are linked – for good AND for bad.  The ancient rabbis of the Talmud knew this as we can see in the following story:
Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action (BT Kiddushin 40b).
Our tradition obviously places a premium on education and learning.  However, we don’t just learn for the sake of learning.  We study in order to inform our actions.  We study to give ourselves the wherewithal to make our world a better place.
That’s why Shavuot – which begins next Tuesday evening – is such an important holiday.  There’s no menorah or shofar or lulav.  It’s more of a synagogue holiday than a home holiday.  So, as a result, it gets a little lost in the shuffle.  However, on Shavuot, we are supposed to remember that God has given us a plan for making the world a better place.  If we study the words of the Torah and try to put its principles into practice, we can do exactly that.
So, we begin the celebration of Shavuot next Tuesday at 5:45pm – the holiday upon which we accept the words of the Torah and pledge to link those words to our deeds.  Please join us!


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The Blessings of Sports

Youth sports is serious business. I can’t count the number of times that kids – including my own – have told me that if they miss a practice they will lose their starting position or their playing time. Coaches set expectations, lay out the consequences and then follow through. Our kids live in fear.

In truth, as a parent, I want coaches and educators to teach my kids. Sports – especially team sports – are a great way for kids to learn important lessons about life. Kids need to learn about being on time, following through on a commitment, working as a team, developing skills over time and producing under pressure. And if they can learn some of those things while playing a game with their friends, that’s even better.

However, we all also know instances of coaches taking things too far – especially with kids too young to fully understand the lesson. When participation in sports causes kids to lose self-confidence and feel worse about themselves, we parents have to step in. Even the last player on the bench should feel good about what s/he can contribute to the team.

In the second of this week’s two Torah portions, Behukotai, we read a passage in which God lays out for us two paths. One – we listen to the commandments, walk in God’s ways and experience great blessings. Two – we ignore God’s teachings, we live without God’s blueprint, and we experience horrible curses.

The passage with the blessings is eleven verses long, while the passage with the curses is 31 verses long. Apparently, even God spends more time dressing us down as opposed to building us up. Maybe it’s just a natural element of the coach-player relationship.

Upon, closer examination, though, we see that the blessings come first. That is God’s preference. It’s not as if God WANTS us to ignore Divine Law, but the truth is that most of us want to know what would happen if we didn’t go down the path of blessing. So, God provides all the gory details.

I think it’s safe to say that, as modern Jews, we no longer believe in a God who rewards us for good behavior and punishes us for missteps. We believe that blessings are available to all of us. We prefer to focus on the positive. Life – including youth sports – is a whole lot more enjoyable that way.


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A Year

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 20 years since Jonathan Larson and the cast of Rent taught us all that a year is comprised of “five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes.” But, as the song “Seasons of Change” reminds us, there’s more to a year than the sum total of its minutes, days or weeks. It’s what happens during that time that really matters.

In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, the Torah gives us its definition of a year. It’s one of several places in the Torah that lists the key components of the calendar – Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. These are still the major festivals of the Jewish calendar to this day. However, the synagogue calendar is closely aligned with the school calendar, which means that the end is in sight.

As we come toward the conclusion of our program year at the synagogue – we have Confirmation, the 6th Grade Service, ELC graduation, end of the JLC year, officer installations and more coming up in the next month or so – it’s an opportunity to think about what were the key components of our synagogue year.

You might expect a rabbi to simply say that we had services – lots and lots of services. As important as prayer is to the life of our community, our calendar is jam-packed with so much more than that. There was something for everyone – Joseph Telushkin lecture, Super Hero Tot Shabbat, Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks performance, 10th Interfaith Menorah Lighting, Tennis Night, Country Western Purim, Nu – Whaddya Do?, Women’s Group Shabbat and, of course, the week-long hosting of 25 Israeli teens and educators.

I could go on. And our year is not even over yet.

How often do we really stop and think about the meaningful experiences of the past year? Many of us are so focused on getting from one activity to the next that we don’t take the time to appreciate the big picture. And sometimes, it’s a really great picture.

It’s certainly worthwhile to do as an institution, but it’s also worthwhile to do as individuals. It’s easy count minutes or list holidays to mark the passage of time. However, thinking about the moments that had an impact puts the year in perspective. I hope that some of the events on our community calendar have been meaningful moments on your personal calendar. I further hope that we’ll have more of those moments together going forward. After all, those events don’t just fill up a calendar. They also create community .


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Many of you may not be aware of this, but there was a very sad scene in our parking lot this morning. 23 families from our community said goodbye to the Israelis that they had been hosting for the past week. From the sobs and hugs, you would have thought that we were tearing apart lifelong friends – NOT people who had just met last Thursday evening. Yet, a strong bond was established between the members of our community and the Ra’anana delegation.

This bond was created thanks to the vision of Greater Metro West Federation and its partnership with Ra’anana.  We are fortunate that Federation leaders have entrusted us with this partnership for four years in a row.  It has been a true gift to our community.

Shortly after the parking lot scene, I then had the privilege of sitting in as the teens and teachers starting processing their trip. Moshe Levi – our community Shaliach – asked the kids what they would take back with them from this trip. If someone asked them, what they got out of it, what would their answer be?

I was incredibly moved as one after the other, these tenth-graders spoke about the sense of community that they felt in our synagogue. They loved how all the mothers seemed to know each other and sat around chatting. They were amazed that kids who go to different high schools travel 10-15 minutes to get to a synagogue to be with friends that they would not otherwise know. And they appreciated the fact that from the moment they got here, they were treated like full-fledged members of the community.

For many of them, it was a revelation that religion could be vehicle for creating a community. It was particularly surprising that this took place in the diaspora – and NOT in Israel.

The second of our two Torah portions this week –Kedoshim – begins with God commanding Moshe, “Speak to the congregation of the Children of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy…’ (Leviticus 19:1).”

This was an uncommon way for God to address our ancestors in the Torah. Usually, God simply told Moshe to speak to the Children of Israel, as in the third paragraph of the Sh’ma. Yet, here God used the term “congregation” in addition to the usual name.

The Hatam Sofer — an 18th century Hungarian rabbi — noticed this extra word and commented that God was trying to tell us that we are made holy when we come together as a community. We cannot attain true holiness in isolation.

We created a holy connection between Ra’anana and Summit this past week (and New Providence, Berkeley Heights, Springfield, Livingston, Chatham, Madison, etc.). Hopefully, the Ra’anana kids will no longer take it for granted that just because they live in Israel they automatically have a Jewish community. On the flip side, we here in New Jersey should not take for granted what a sacred community we have created.


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Double Up!

Everybody loves a two-for-one deal. BOGOF – buy one, get one free – is music to every customer’s ears. Sports teams manage the clock to get two possessions of the ball while allowing their opponents only one possession at the end of a period. Wrigley’s gum taught us to double our pleasure and double our fun. Two is simply better than one – any way you slice it.

So, we should all be excited that we have two Torah portions this week instead of one, right?? (You don’t have to answer that question!)

While I recognize that nerdy rabbis are far more likely to contemplate the idea of a double Torah portion, it’s actually an interesting concept. In a standard lunar year, there are typically 50 Saturdays and there are 54 Torah portions. When some of the Jewish holidays fall on Saturdays, there are even fewer available Shabbats and the same 54 portions. So, if we want to get through the entire Torah in the course of the Jewish year – which is our custom – then we have to do some combining.

In truth, this is a metaphor for our lives. The very act of combining Torah portions in order to make them fit into the calendar teaches us a lesson about our own time management. We have a finite amount of time in which to accomplish all the amazing things – and all of the mundane but necessary things – we wish to accomplish. How are we going to squeeze it all in? Clearly, sometimes, we have to double up.

Our kids intuitively grasp this. Every Wednesday and Sunday I see our students traipse into our Jewish Learning Center wearing the uniforms and footwear of their various sports teams. Sometimes, they come a little late. Sometimes, they leave a little early. Playing sports is an important part of growing up and kids learn things on the courts, fields and rinks that they might not learn elsewhere. However, religious education is also an important part of growing up and kids learn things in our JLC that they might not learn elsewhere. No one should have to choose between the two. So, what’s the solution? Double up.

As adults, we have similar challenges. There are things we want to get done on Saturday mornings that just don’t get done during the work week. Friday nights are valuable family time after a long week of school and/or work. However, being a part of a community, centering ourselves spiritually and learning about our religious tradition are also valuable. It need not be either/or. Double up.

Come for just part of the service. Have some family time here in the synagogue. Come in your workout clothes. Make this one more stop on your list of destinations. Double up.

Perhaps, in some perfect world, each Torah portion would have its own Shabbat during which we would focus solely on upon the contents therein. However, that’s not the way the ancient rabbis set up the calendar. They have challenged us to fit more into our schedules than we thought possible. They have taught us that it’s okay to combine two things that we assumed had to be separate. In other words, double up.


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In a Candy Store

“Like a kid in a candy store” is one of those expressions that gets thrown around without much thought.  We all know it represents pure, unadulterated joy.  It means that all one’s wishes are coming true.  In truth, going to a candy store might be extremely frustrating for a young child.  The expression actually needs to be amended to, “Like a kid in a candy store without a budget,” or “Like a kid in a candy store without parents.”  Then, we’d understand that all restrictions have been lifted.

I always think about this expression when we come around to this week’s Torah portion.  In Leviticus 11, we learn that there are animals which we are permitted to eat and animals which we are prohibited from eating.  It is one of the basic principles of Kashrut – the Jewish dietary laws.  In a sense, the Torah is saying that we live in one big candy store, but we have a budget and we have a Parent (with a capital ‘P’) watching over us.  We can’t just eat candy until we are sick to our stomachs and our teeth have rotted.  There are rules and limitations.

While this may be a simplistic way of thinking about Kashrut, it’s a helpful beginning to the conversation.  Perhaps, a more sophisticated way of thinking about it is that we must be mindful of the impact on the earth and on ourselves when we partake of her blessings.  If we abuse or overuse those blessings, it will have a negative impact on both the earth and us.  If we are judicious in enjoying those blessings, they will continue to exist for future generations and we will be in balance with the earth.

A well-known Midrash – or Rabbinic legend – based on the story of creation imagines a conversation between God and the first human beings.  They must have seemed liked kids in a candy store (long before anyone imagined a candy store, that is).  “When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it,’ (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13).”

It only takes a casual glance at me to know that I’d be the last guy in the world to tell anyone not to enjoy a good treat – whether it’s candy or something else.  However, even I know it’s never a good idea to eat all the treats.


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