Messages from the Rabbi

November 9th, 2012

The characters in our parsha, the Life of Sarah or Hayyei Sarah, are well known.  While the title speaks for itself, most of the action is identified with men—Abraham, Eliezer[i], and then Isaac.  My real interest is in Rebecca, the most iron-willed of our matriarchs (which is saying something).  She is the bridge between Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, and the death of Sarah. This is certainly no accident, as it foreshadows the next stage of covenantal history. But Rebecca is not just a tool.  She is an actress with a pronounced sense of self.  Modern commentator Tikvah Frymer Kensky sees Rebecca as comparable to Abraham in her hospitality and to Sarah in her willingness to subvert her husband’s inclinations in order to fulfill the will of God. “These women temper paternal authority to bring about God’s will.”

Yet despite her strong entrance and her powerful manipulations of the men in her family, there is eventually something unstable about Rebecca. Initially, in Chapter 24 Rebecca is remarkably self-assured. She appears with her water jug on her shoulder and shows no hesitation in engaging the stranger, watering his caravan of camels, and inviting him home. She is comfortable in her skin—she identifies with her family, but given the opportunity to leave, she announces her intention with the single and unambiguous word, elekh, I’m outta here. This is Rebecca the confident.

Something changes. She sees Isaac, and suddenly she is falling off the camel and covering up. She struggles to conceive, and when Isaac’s prayers are answered, she struggles in pregnancy, finally seeking out God.  Ramban, Nachmanides, dismisses the explanations of Rashi (why did I yearn to be pregnant?) and Ibn Ezra (why is my pregnancy so abnormal?) and says that Rebecca’s question is existential: “Why do I exist in the world?  I wish I were dead, or had never been born!”  Ramban associates Rebecca’s anguish with that of Job—if this is life, why live?

What’s up with Rebecca? My suspicion is that she entered the scene whole, confident that she could fix any problem, and then she was pierced by the suffering absorbed by Yitzhak. Her husband has the least fitting name in Tanakh, Hebrew Bible—can you imagine Isaac laughing? It is almost a cruel irony of his life that the laughter preceding his birth was actually sarcastic. In life he may have suffered at the hands of his big brother, was nearly sacrificed by his father, and seems to have endured a silent and paralyzing form of grief over his mother’s death.

It is a mystery as to how these characters, or any persons for that matter develop as they do. But on this day, after the horrible superstorm Sandy, I think about the myriad of young men and women all over the world who left home whole, ready to serve and solve the world’s problems, just like young Rebecca, and some became transformed into fragmented selves, broken by battles that started externally and then infiltrated their minds and bodies.

The time is now for our community to rally for one another so that we don’t have the Rebeccas and Isaacs of the world going into their shells but have people who still want to be a part of this great society.  I believe we can rally now after this storm (and its successor) and help each other heal and feel each other’s appreciation and love.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


[i] In my attempt to be consistent with the Conservative Movement, I strive to utilize the spellings from our Etz Hayim.  As I reached for it to be sure I had the name of Abraham’s servant properly spelled, I realized Eliezer was not mentioned by name in Hayyei Sarah.  I knew that I knew his name, but from where?  In a short journey back to Lekh L’kha, we are given his name.  Perhaps next year we will address why he is only mentioned as “the servant” in Hayyei Sarah so many times.

October 26, 2012

What fascinates me about this week’s Parashah, Lekh Lekha is the motif of journeys undertaken by Avram (he’s not yet called Abraham at this point in our Torah) that are simultaneously physical and spiritual. Crossing the Euphrates is one way of cutting himself off from a pagan past; the ritual of brit milah, circumcision, with which the parashah concludes, is another way. Like a candidate crossing the country, Avram passes from place to place, apparently collecting spiritual energies wherever he travels to give him power to achieve his potential as the "father of many nations" and the “source of blessing” to all families of the earth. (Yes, there is a parallel to a politician traveling strenuously from place to place and then finally arriving in a location where he or she can reach out to all families of his land.)

One passage that draws my eye is at the beginning of chapter 13:2-4. Heavy with cattle, silver, and gold, Avram begins his journeys, from Negev to Beit El, "to the place where his tent had been formerly... the site of the altar that he made there at first, and Avram invoked the Lord by name YHVH[i]."  In the Zohar, this journey is about linking different qualities of God.  Avram is associated with the quality of chesed[ii], loving kindness. So this verse means that he journeyed from chesed to Beit El, "house of God." The Zohar identifies this with the Shekhinah, the Divine presence of God, —as the final part, it is the receptacle, or "house" of God.  For the Zohar, Avram's journey is dedicated to linking his personal quality of chesed with the more universal and accessible divine quality of Shekhinah.

That might be a bit esoteric, but it comes to this: Avram has a spiritual gift that allows him to enter into a relationship with God. But his even greater gift is the ability to convey to others access to this covenant or relationship. He is a spiritual guide, a molder of souls, truly our spiritual father. He is also a personal example--each of us also has certain spiritual gifts that can draw us closer to God. How can we connect these gifts to those of other people, so that our tent or dwelling becomes the tent of YHVH? 

On this Shabbat of Lekh Lekha, I ask that we each consider our personal journey, recognize the spiritual powers with which it has endowed us, and consider how better to call out in the name of YHVH, bringing the blessing of the Divine presence to all around us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


[i] Even to this day, the ineffable name of God is not pronounced in Hebrew.  It has become so ingrained that as soon as one sees it, they instantly think Adonai or Hashem.

[ii] Each of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are identified with their attribute that exemplifies them.  Abraham is the first and as we come to them, we will address them and their characteristics.  They are:

Abraham               Chesed                   Loving-kindness

Isaac                      Gevurah                Might-Judgment

Jacob                     Tiferet                    Beauty-Harmony

Moses                    Netzach                 Triumph-Eternity

Aaron                     Hod                        Majesty

Joseph                    Yesod                     Foundation

David                     Malchut                 Kingdom

Ruth                       Chesed                   Love

Sarah                     Gevurah                Judgment

Rivkah                   Tiferet                    Beauty

Devorah                Hod                        Majesty

Tamar                    Yesod                     Foundation

Rachel                   Malkhut                Kingdom

October 19th, 2012

In our Torah portion

this week, Parashat Noah, Noah is commanded (Genesis 6:16) to tsohar ta’aseh la-teivah (make a skylight for the ark).  There is a differing of opinions as to what “skylight” means. Rashi notes that some suggest it is a window, while others note that it is a precious stone or gem.  We see in Sanhedrin 108b that the gem opinion prevails, as a window would have served no purpose since the sun and the moon provided no light during the flood.  Even with that said, we see in Midrash Breishit (Genesis) Rabbah 31 that Rabbi Abba bar Hahan somehow notes it was a window, and Rabbi Levi says it was a (magical) gem.

God gives Noah the command to face darkness and oppression to make joy and light.  A well-known commentary from the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, sees the command to Noah (and each of us) to bring light to the world.  Our words of Torah and t’fillah (prayer) should shine like gems.  The invigorating thing it posits is that it takes “our” effort to bring out the light of Torah.  Like a closed book or gem in a drawer, the words cannot “shine” without our action and attention.  In what might be called a Hasidic version of a post-modern reader response criticism, I will leave the following for you to digest and consider.

What I take is more than just the delight of the word play; we see that the responsibility is implicit upon us to read the Torah as a personal command and thence expand its light of mercy and wisdom into a world that is often dark and full of pain. Parashat Noah is a meditation on the catastrophes that inevitably follow human misconduct and for the responsibility of each individual to respond constructively to crisis, thereby preserving not only one’s family, but also the physical and spiritual environment.  On this Shabbat of Noah, my hope is that our words of Torah and t’fillah will shine like precious gems.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

September 28th, 2012

We are in a peculiar moment between the trepidation of Yom Kippur and the celebration of Sukkot.  Yom Kippur is an arduous time where we are supposed to be working as individuals and hope to be comforted.

However, the idea of refusing to be comforted is, of course, well-attested in Jewish sources. There is a well-known story on the grief of Rabbi Yochonan ben Zakai over his lost son (in Avot D'Rabbi Natan 14, 29b).  His friends (disciples) tried to console him with “Adam lost a son.  Nevertheless he found consolation.”  Another added that “Job had sons and daughters, and he lost them all.  Nevertheless he found consolation.”  Then another added, “Aaron had two exceptional sons who both died the same day.”  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai answered, “Why do you add to my sorrow with the sorrow of someone else?”

Finally, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach spoke, “Allow me to tell you this story: A king entrusted one of his subjects with a precious object to keep safe and the man worried incessantly, as he had to return this object undamaged.  Only when he returned the precious thing to the king intact was he relieved.  You see, my master had a son, a scholar of Torah.  He departed sinless form this world.  You should receive comfort for having restored your trust whole.  Rabbi Yochanan replied, “You have comforted me as far as any man can.”

It seems to me that this ritualization and physical enactment of sorrow allows one to look at the grief as a real but separate entity which one can at some point put away.  Even with that said, as the officiant at a number of funerals, I have to say that it is never that easy, and each one takes on a special dimension of its own.

Nonetheless, we are called on Sunday night to make a journey of emotions, from the vale of Yom Kippur to the joy of Sukkot.  It too seems like an impossible journey, but it is one our forefathers have managed for millennia. Starting from an external manifestation of joy in our Sukkah, we must integrate that happiness into our hearts. It is literally a process of ingestion--eating in the sukkah for a week, a reversal from Yom Kippur.

As rabbis are wont to do, I read from a small book on the Vidui (confessional) prayer during our break on Wednesday and instantly realized that I want to share what it said with you as we make the seemingly abrupt shift from Yom Kippur to Sukkot.  The purpose of fasting on Yom Kippur is not self-affliction.  Yom Kippur is not like Tisha B’Av, a day of tragedy and mourning.  The essence of Yom Kippur is the transcendence of limitations. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (ironically a disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai) quotes in his Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 46 that the angel of sin, commonly known as Samael—Satan himself, as he comes before God on Yom Kippur:

Samael saw the sin that was not found among (Israel) on Yom Kippur.  He said to God, “You have a unique nation, which is like ministering to angels in heaven.  Just as the angels have bare feet, so the Jews have bare feet on Yom Kippur (many of us disdain leather shoes).  Just as the angels neither eat nor drink, so the Jews neither eat nor drink on Yom Kippur…”

Yom Kippur is a day when Jews become elevated to the status of angels.  It is God’s will that when people begin to repent, God grants atonement far beyond their ability to deserve it through their own efforts.  Even a minimal, sincere effort is rewarded greatly, for it is God’s will that the service of Yom Kippur should gain Israel’s entry into the world of angels.  It is not as hard as you thought!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

September 21st, 2012

With this week being Shabbat Shuvah (The Sabbath of Repentence), the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I am always intrigued, as many of you know by now, with Psalm 27, known as Le David, which we say from the beginning of the month of Elul through the end of Sukkot.  This two month period of saying Psalm 27 every day fascinates me because there are innumerable lessons and messages for our lives today.

In verse ten, we come to the words “Though my father and mother have forsaken me, the Lord will take me in.”  Even though I have read it many times, I never thought about nor could not fathom my parents forsaking me, and you probably have not either.  It does seem somewhat harsh.  I do remember the time we broke our next door neighbor’s car window playing football, and I thought for a few moments I was going to be an orphan (or at least wanted to be).

My interest was piqued by the Hebrew “Ki Avi V’Imi a vorvounee,” “my father and mother have forsaken me.”  It did not take me long to find an explanation.  Rabbi Obadiahben Yaakov (1475-1550) better known as the Sforno, simplifies it with the clarification: “after my youth and adolescence they sent me out on my own.”  This is probably much like your familial relationship.

With the sternness somewhat ameliorated, I could not help but juxtapose it with the sermon I heard from one of my mentors a few years ago when addressing the so called “helicopter parents”.  The title alone tells it all.  “We Need To Learn To Hold Our Children And Grandchildren With Open Arms.”  My prayer is that as we continue in these Ten Days of Repentance, Aseret Yimei T’Shuvah, and come upon Shabbat Shuvah, we can find the strength to build our relationships with our parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren alike.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

September 14th, 2012

All the days we are blessed with are special, but some are more special than others.  The ten days  between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance or Aseret Yemei Teshuvah.  The first section of the Schulchan Aruch, known as the Orah Hayim (Manner of Life), page 603, concerning Rosh Hashanah speaks of the intensification of our religious practices during these days.  For example, it notes one should become more scrupulous about eating bread made by Jews, even if one is generally lax in this regard.  In our community, this concept and ones like it are not the norm.  Whatever the level of our observance, we can and should make a concentrated effort to increase it a notch.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572) notes that the Ten Days are a time to scrupulously examine one’s deeds, adding that we should work even harder on examining deeds which were only possibly wrong. After all, when one is certain that s/he has misbehaved, regret comes effortlessly. In the Temple our ancestors brought a chattat (a kid or lamb) sin offering for certain sins, but brought a more expensive asham (a ram) offering for possible guilt. This ruling seems to be counterintuitive; you would expect to pay a steeper price for certain misdeeds than for only possible misdeeds. What is going on here?

It seems to me that the halakhah, Jewish Law, is instructing us to be especially attentive to the grey areas of decision making. Stealing is wrong. While some people steal, most of us would be appalled to find ourselves in possession of something taken without permission from its owner. In fact, for such clear-cut questions, it does not even require significant effort to do the right thing. In addition, should we discover that we have truly stolen, it is obvious what we must do—confess, apologize, return the item, and pay any damages.

Ambiguity, however, is much harder to handle. Many of our decisions are defensible without being right. Do we stick with our rationalizations, or do we do the hard work of reconsidering our deeds? Questioning our ambiguous errors is no fun, and we often don’t have the energy for it. The New York Times Magazine ran an outstanding article last August by John Tierney entitled, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” It discussed the great mental energy required to make decisions and the decline in judgment as our energy gets depleted.

When we think back on the past year, it may be relatively simple to identify a few big mistakes that we made, regret, and have resolved to repair. The more difficult task, however, is to discern those moments of carelessness, haste, and inattentiveness when we caused damage without intention, and perhaps, even without awareness. Rabbi Isserles is guiding us to focus on these morally ambiguous behaviors during the Ten Days and to try to make all of our deeds more intentional and more constructive.

The Chofetz Chaim wrote in the Mishnah B’rurah, his seminal commentary on The Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayim), a suggested methodology for how to pace ourselves for this daunting task. While there are ten days of repentance, seven of them are in the middle between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He recommends using each of these days to repent for the deeds of one day of the week throughout our lives. Think about Sundays, the first day. What are the mitzvot that we do, and what things could we improve upon during our typical Sundays? We continue in the same fashion for each day. By pacing ourselves through the Ten Days of Repentance we can accomplish a great deal, remembering and repairing not only the intentional damage that we have wrought, but also rethinking the sketchy or questionable moments when we could have and should have done better.

It is a privilege to begin another year together with all of you; I look forward to many more good days of Torah, tefillah (prayer), mitzvot, and maasim tovim (good deeds) in 5773. May your prayers be sweet in your mouth, and may they be accepted with favor by the Holy Blessed One.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah U’Mitukah (To a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year),

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

September 7th, 2012

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, opens with the ritual presentation of first fruits by the Israelite farmer to the Priest. Giving the basket to the Priest, the farmer says, “I make known today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land that the Lord promised to our ancestors to give to us….” There are several unique features to this declaration, most notably the use of the second person—the Lord your God—instead of the first person, “the Lord our God.”

This is addressed by 14th Century Spanish scholar Rabbeinu Bachya as being intended to remove any doubt about who the farmer’s God is. But then he speaks about drawing down God’s presence. He says that an Israelite who prays is drawing on God’s power, much as the Priest does in offering our sacrifices. In this way, the Israelite is doing in prayer what the Priest does with “his” God in sacrifice. Bachya is playing on the second person “your God” but also on the Hebrew word “higid.” He is not so explicit, but Bachya seems to be associating the verb higid with the noun gid, which is a tendon—a connective tissue. The concept is indicating the power of prayer to make connection, to draw God into relationship.

Prayer is an ongoing process of building connection with God and drawing God’s heavenly force into the world.  Prayer requires a human effort.  This example from the first fruits declaration points to a core task of each Jew as we proceed through Elul towards the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe. That task is to bridge the alienation, the distancing from God, which is the consequence of our spiritual distraction over the course of the year. It is said that we proclaim “The Lord is God” seven times at the end of Ne’ilah in order to escort the Shekhinah (God’s dwelling place) out of our midst back into the seventh level of Heaven. Yet at this point, we are devoting seven weeks from the great alienation of Tisha Ba’Av to the renewal of Rosh HaShanah in seeking to draw God ever closer to mankind. More precisely, we are trying to cajole ourselves closer to awareness of God’s presence on earth through our purification and prayer.

We give strength to one another, adding urgency and power to our prayer. I look forward to praying together with you in the weeks and months ahead, drawing strength from our community, and bringing God’s presence closer into our lives. Let us entice one another to tefillah, prayer, and thereby enfold the Divine presence into our midst.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

August 31st, 2012

If you can remember being 10 years old, you surely are familiar with the aphorism, “Finders, keepers; losers, weepers.”  A schoolmate lost his special baseball that I found.  I vividly recall how sad he looked when I told him that.  It would be easy to say this week’s Torah portion is what caused me to give it back when the reality is I thought he was going to take a punch at me.  Did I get any credit for giving it back (under duress)?

In Parashat Ki Teitzei we are told to “return it” in Deuteronomy 22:2.  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asks, “How could I even think of keeping something that does not belong to me?”  He inquires further, “Why does the Torah even have to mention something so fundamental?”  To answer his own question, he responds, “Human greed and laziness are such that many people will seize the opportunity to claim a lost article or to avoid the task of trying to find the owner.”  For a few moments, I really did want that baseball.  However, I knew it was not mine.

Our early Rabbinic interpreters, in the midst of a totally agrarian society, insist that if the person finding the property makes a profit with it before returning it to the owner, even that profit belongs to the owner and must be paid when the lost property is restored.  If the property cannot be quickly returned and its care costs money, correspondingly the owner must pay the amount when the property is restored.

The Ramban, Nachmanides, makes it clear that the mitzvah of returning lost property supersedes any inconvenience to the finder.  The finder is obligated to announce the discovery of the lost item so that others will know he possesses it, and the loser’s anxiety will be relieved.  One’s ethical responsibility, whether you like or dislike the real owner, is to preserve the property.  Nachmanides puts it this way, “Assist others.  Remember the bond of humanity between you, and forget the hatred.”

Modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz suggests that the command to turn aside and help an enemy whose property is in danger is an example of how the Torah deals with the real world.  It does not present a world where all people get along with one another or rush to care for one another’s property.  Instead, it takes into account the reality that people do not always follow the commandment of: “You shall not hate others in your heart.”

After the Torah clarifies the duty to return lost property or to keep it safe until it can be restored, it concludes with the words lo tuchal le-hitalem, “You must not remain indifferent.”  Others translate it as “You may not conceal yourself” or “You shall not hide yourself.”  They are all fine, but Rashi makes it crystal clear with, “By averting your eyes as if you don’t notice it.”

This powerful phrase puts forth the ethical demand of Torah.  Upon encountering a lost object, a fallen animal in pain under its burden, or the property of friends or enemies in danger, one’s duty is to act.  We are not permitted to look the other way, to pass by without paying attention, or to continue with our business as usual.  Hiding the truth from ourselves and not acting to help others is immoral.  Indifference is intolerable.  Responsible caring is at the heart of Jewish ethics.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

August 24th, 2012

As a child, I read about European Jews from the shtetl always accompanying departing guests not only to the door, but out to the street and a bit down the block. I actually saw this once myself at a family friend’s home inDallas.  This person actually has a “Dalet Amos” line painted on his sidewalk, and it does arouse a good bit of conversation and good will.  The significance of this act eluded me at first—was the person signaling reluctance to see the guests leave? Just eager to get some fresh air after a lavish meal? Or was this some sort of chivalry?

Years later I found a basis for his custom in the world of Torah, specifically in this week’s Torah portion Parashah Shoftim. The final story we read is known as the Eglah Arufah. The city elders were forced to visit the crime scene where a murder victim had been found, and the perpetrator was not known.  The elders, along with the Kohanim, would decapitate a calf, wash their hands and announce, “our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see [the crime].” After this they prayed that God would atone for the sins ofIsrael, that innocent blood not stain the land.  Keep reading, I probably have your curiosity.

In Mishnah Sotah 9:6, the anonymous teacher asks in shock, “Would anyone think that these elders had actually killed the victim? Why then do they have to say, ‘our hands did not spill this blood’ ?” The ancient rabbis answer that culpability extends beyond the actual murderer. The elders need to show that this victim was not neglected by their community before the final tragedy occurred. Their statement means, “He didn’t come to us for help and get turned away without food; we did not see him alone and leave him without escort.”

It is the final failure—to leave someone without escort—which may have been the source of the Jewish custom to accompany guests beyond our threshold and out into the street, customarily dalet amot or four cubits (approximately eight feet).  There may also be an allusion to biblical horror stories such as the angels in Sodom or the concubine in Giveah (Judges 19:2), where the mean streets are not safe for visitors without local escort. The Mishnah’s language is repeated in commentaries such as Rashi on this verse and in codes such as Rambam’s Hilkhot Rotzeach u-Shemirat Hanefesh 9:3. There is even a Hasidic twist brought by the Sefat Emet, who says that the mitzvot are an escort to the soul to protect it on its journey through this dangerous world as it searches for the hidden light of Torah.

These texts call to mind the experience we all have each day walking down the street or driving and seeing people who have no shelter—who are alone in the world, exposed, and endangered. Not one of us has the ability to change the situation altogether, but each of us has the opportunity to help. I do not recommend handing out cash, but giving food or engaging a person in appropriate conversation can give them physical and spiritual support and help them to survive.

When we read this parashah, we think about our responsibility not just to avoid committing crimes but also to make our world a better place. Mishnah Sotah teaches us that we are responsible for the lives of people who lack food, shelter and even company. Be on the lookout as we are going to amplify our Social Action posture this year, and we will be including ways to help the homeless as part of this expansion.  As we end the week and enjoy the blessings of home, food, family and friends, let us think of how to extend such blessings to the most vulnerable people in our very midst. Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

August 17th, 2012

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, there is a beautiful verse in Deuteronomy 12:28 which says, “shmor v’shamata”, “be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus, it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever; for you will be doing what is Hatov V’Hayashar, good and right in the sight of the Lord your God”.  This verse presents variants on the language found throughout Deuteronomy, alluding to a general sense of ethics, in addition to the specific rules. Indeed, our foremost commentator, Rashi, on this verse claims that “tov” refers to that which is right in the eyes of God, and “yashar” refers to that which seems right to other people. I commend and endorse this dual foundation for ethics—there is a social check on tradition and a traditional check on society. It is that tension between received norms and contemporary insights which forms the core of Conservative Judaism.

But the verse has an unusual opening, “shmor v’shamata”. What does it mean to guard and listen/comprehend or, as another translates, safeguard and harken?  Rashi links the first verb to a verse in Proverbs 28:18 which follows a verse about listening to the words of the wise with a command to place them in your belly. Rashi alludes to a three-fold process of gaining wisdom—first to ingest the words, then to review and comprehend them, and finally to put them into action. The word “shmor” is analogous to “store the Torah inside you” and the next word “v’shamata” denotes, “then review so that you can comprehend”.

As Moses instructed, first we must safeguard what we have learned.  Specifically, one must review the laws and be fully cognizant of them.  Once we have internalized them, then we can properly observe and obey them.

This message is apt for all of us as we start a new year together; the goal is first to expose ourselves to the sacred tradition, then to review and reexamine until we can understand it for our day, and finally begin to put these words into action. The process is not always so linear or continuous. Sometimes we need to act in order to understand, as we know from the everlasting formulation in Exodus 19:8, “na’aseh v’nishmah” (we will comply and then comprehend). Experiential learning is a necessary accompaniment to textual study; the combination of study, review and action is an effective plan for learning and growing as a human and as a Jew.

We are entering the final weeks of summer.  This Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh Elul where we begin our month long preparation for the High Holidays.  It is a time to pause and listen for the voice of God. What are the voices of teshuvah that come to you each day?  How can you use the coming month and the New Year opening before us in order to engage with the synagogue, engage with each other, and ingest the words of Torah so we can put everything we want into action?  This is the great opportunity and challenge which lies before all of us.  It is a call to come close to God.  I hope that you find this to be a fruitful, challenging, and ultimately joyous time.

As the month of Elul begins, we will blow the Shofar at our Sunday morning minyan.  Even as one anticipates it, the clean, clarion-stirring sound resonates with intensity through my and, I hope, your inner beings.  Please join us at 9:30 AM. Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

August 10th, 2012

It may seem flip to say Moses is reviewing the whole Torah in Deuteronomy, its final book.  Some of what he tells us is even new.  For certain, he is telling the people (and us) to remain diligent and faithful to God’s laws and teachings.  However, in our Torah Portion this week, Parashat Ekev, it seems that Moses is speaking to the people’s stomachs as opposed to their minds and hearts. He reminds them of the manna God continued to send and then promises them much more. Just wait till you see the land of milk and honey!  There will be wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates, and olives and dates!  Your stomach will always be full!

Forgive me, but this list does not seem to be the most elevated posture for Moses to take. It sounds like he is stoking their hunger rather than diverting them to spiritual concerns.

In order to understand this, we need to step out of the mindset of our well-fed society. For us, the endless obsession with food seems unbecoming of a spiritual community. But for subsistence farmers in an ancient agrarian society, for whom anxiety about drought and blight was a constant companion, the vision of Moses must have been very compelling. Stick with God, and you will prosper and feed your family.

But there is more depth to the Torah Moses is offering here. As we read further, we realize that he is addressing not only the poor farmer constantly on the brink of ruin, but also the wealthy farmer who has “conquered” the land. In 8:12-14 he speaks to the corrosive effects of affluence—how it breeds arrogance and disbelief.  Remember from where your wealth comes.

The book of Deuteronomy focuses on thelandofIsrael, but it metaphorically addresses compellingly the affluence of Western democracies. Moses speaks simultaneously to the people’s legitimate needs for sustenance and to their spiritual need to remain faithful even when distracted by the abundance.

As the recession continues to sap much of the vitality from our economy and that of the world, we need to be cognizant of the relationship between material and spiritual aspects of life. The great Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev taught that our neighbor’s physical needs become our spiritual obligations. In the New Year I hope that we will all make efforts to provide actual relief for people in physical need and spiritual relief for people afflicted by the corrosive effects of abundance.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

August 3rd, 2012

In our Torah portion this week Vaechtenan, we find the familiar line that we as a congregation say out loud  in unison just prior to the Torah reading in Deuteronomy 4:4, “va’atem hadveikim ba’Adonai Eloheikhem chayim kulkhem hayom,” “You who cling to the Lord your God have been sustained to this day.”  This idea of “clinging” to God is a favorite motif in Deuteronomy (where it appears seven times), but it is hardly a simple or obvious concept. In the Talmud (Ketubot 111b), the sages ask if it is indeed possible to cling to God—is God not a devouring fire (as said later in this very chapter, 4:24)?

The classical rabbis solve this dilemma by substitution—since you cannot really cling to fire, cling to those who cling to God, e.g. the sages. Specifically, support their students, marry into their families and help them however you can. The cynic in me says that this interpretation is a bit self-serving, but I think that the sages meant that the way to cling to God is by clinging to the Torah and its teachers. This is what the great JTS professor of mid-20th Century, Max Kaddushin, dubbed, “normal mysticism”. You cling to God by performing the routines of Judaism—Torah and mitzvot. So too did the great medieval commentators Maimonides (Hilkhot Deot 6:2) and Nachmanides (Torah commentary, Deut 6:13) explain the idea of “deveikut” as clinging to Torah scholars as well as other activities such as doing business on behalf of sages and associating with them in all possible ways.

Nevertheless, those with a more mystical inclination have sought to reclaim the more simple and powerful meaning of this verse—which after all establishes a mitzvah to “cling to God”.  Some view this command as the core purpose of all of life -- to cling to God not by proxy, but in person. All of the methods such as performing mitzvot, serving sages, and so on are tools to prepare a person for union with God.  Perhaps the most developed explanation of this view that I have read is found in the teachings of the Slonimer Rebbe, known as “Netivot Shalom.”  In volume 1, the fifth discourse, he states:

In light of all these matters, the mitzvah of clinging is a core line in the service of God—that one must concentrate before every deed and even word and thought, whether of permission or prohibition, if by this he will come closer to God or grow distant from God. The human soul will teach him through this deep perception if he is distancing or drawing close.

The Slonimer writes that the only way actually to cling to God is to nullify one’s “self”, the ego that separates us from God and even other people.  The study of Torah and practice of mitzvot and service of sages are all meant to loosen the grasp of the ego to the point that a person can actually cling to God.  Shabbat in particular is a time to release our striving for physical gain and to try to live a life of union with God.  This requires self-abnegation and great focus.  He acknowledges in closing that it is not possible to live on this level constantly but says that we must cultivate our thirst for a connection to God, as the Psalmist says, “tzama nafshi leilohim, l’eil chai,”  “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God”.  The last clause connects us to the end of the verse in our parashah, that in clinging to God, “you will all truly be alive today”.

While the Slonimer focuses on the need to cultivate this sensation of clinging to God, I think he would also say that human beings have a predisposition to this type of yearning.  As we have taken time this past week during the Olympics to remember the Munich 11, I hope we use them and this week’s parashah as a reminder that we must live our lives to their fullest so that we can truly cling to God.

I wish all of you a Shabbat of rest and joy, a Shabbat of sheleimut -- wholeness with God, the eternal source of life.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

July 27th, 2012

With full respect to Parsha Devarim, I would like to touch on Tisha B’av and its liturgy.  We will be commemorating Tisha B’Av this Saturday night and Sunday morning.  It is said “with the advent of the month of Av we diminish our joy.”   The Kinot ritual we will be doing Sunday morning first brings out the aspects of our triumphant exodus fromEgypt: the redemption followed by the plagues, the splitting of the sea, giving of the Torah, the manna, the clouds, the traveling well, and so on.

Then, as if toying with our emotions, we see the rioting and ransacking, the fire and smoke of devastation, tears from families being torn apart, famine and starvation, captivity and servitude, war, sickness, death, and mourning of the destruction of the Temple.   We are taken from the highest heights to the lowest of the low.

The concept is not original, nor mine, but we can take some consolation from the fact in nearly two thousand years after the destruction ofJerusalemand our exile, the Jewish people are still standing (for those of you that have been toIsraelrecently, still standing “tall”).   We have been oppressed all over the world but time after time have left our positive stamp on humankind, and a small group of us are even perched and flourishing on the banks of the Hudson for over 120 years.

Having spent many, many summers at Camp Ramah I recall the hearing the story of the “fox” more than once, and it is only now as an adult that my inner soul feels its true meaning.  Rabbi Akiva and three other sages were walking in Jerusalemafter the destruction of the Temple.  As they approached the site of the TempleMount, a fox came scurrying out from the ruins of the Temple.  Mindful of the prophesy, “On desolate MountZion, foxes will roam,” (Eicha 5:18), the sages began to cry and mourn the destruction of ourHolyTemple.  Rabbi Akiva only laughed.

Why, they questioned?  He reminded them the entire prophesy had two parts -- the first half dealt with destruction and the second with redemption.  If the first part dealing with destruction came true exactly as foretold, then the rest must also be true and our redemption is at hand.  The Talmud (Makot 24b) tells us the sages replied, “Akiva you have comforted us; Akiva you have comforted us.”

This year, we will be hosting the Conservative community reading of Eicha on Sunday, at 9 AM.   Please make an effort to attend, as friends from all of Rockland will be joining us, and we want to have a good showing.   This is the one morning of the year that we do NOT wear our tefillin (other than Shabbat).   Please join us on this solemn day, followed by a teaching session with Judith Rose: “Where? And How?  A Midrashic and Psychospiritual Perspective on Tisha B’Av”.

Our sages teach in Isaiah 66:10, “Rejoice withJerusalemand be glad for her.”  Whoever mourns properly forJerusalemwill be rewarded by experiencing its rejoicing.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

July 20th, 2012

Mattot-Masei is not easily digested.  The bloodthirsty retribution against the Midianites along with the command to wipe out the Canaanites reflect an epoch that repulses our modern sense of decency.  Even the humane rule of the cities of refuge reflects and reinforces a primitive system of “blood avengers” being granted permission to exact revenge from people who have not been proven guilty.

We have an obligation to look at things in their historical context but then ask how it can be extrapolated into our own lives.  This week we are exposed to tevialt keilim, commonly referred to as “toiveling”.  Its aegis is in our parsha (31:21-24) and later in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 75b) and was initially the procedure for purifying the booty taken from the Midianites.  Toiveling operates from the assumption that the prior owners of cooking items were idolaters who may have used the cooking utensils for idolatry.  Why is this still a practice today?  It is a reasonable assumption that the people of other faiths are monotheistic and that the factory that produced the utensils was never in “cultic” service!

Nevertheless, consideration of this issue raises uncomfortable questions about how we are to view faith traditions that are polytheistic.   Does the same level of respect and appreciation extend to faiths that worship many gods, such as Hinduism or Buddhism?   See if it tells you on a spatula you bought that was “Made inChina” whether or not it came from a monotheistic or polytheistic factory.

What are we to do with this type of co-existence?   None of us are inclined to reclaim the warlike and intolerant traditions of attacking the beliefs and practices of our neighbors.    Indeed, we are appreciative of many aspects of their faith, and I am excited that we continue to participate in diverse interfaith activities and programs at CSI.

Returning to “toiveling,” at first blush it may seem as an anachronism until fully considered.  It is said the laws telling us how to eat make eating a holy act, which renders all cooking utensils divine instruments.  Even if you have no remote inclination or interest in it, you should be in a rudimentary sense familiar with the differentiation of a mikveh, for one’s body, and the keilim mikveh, the one for utensils.   We see that God ordered the utensils taken in the Midianite war to be ritually purified.   By extension, these laws apply to any utensils acquired from non-Jews.   The subject is exhaustively covered on the Internet,  if you are interested.  In Israel, there are kitchen stores that have a keilim mikveh on site.

In the closing words of this week’s haftorah, there is a vision of return and of the universal benefit fromIsrael’s fidelity to the Covenant.  As Jews, when we are faithful, we can become a source of blessing to others.  It is not a modern vision of religious coexistence, but it is important in reminding us that the particularistic Covenant of Israel has universalist purposes—we are here ultimately not to help ourselves but to help other peoples attain blessings and our ultimate goal to have peace amongst all people in the world.   Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “There are three ways we may relate ourselves to the world.  We may exploit it, we may enjoy it or we may accept it in awe.”  Unfortunately, too often we have chosen the first way.  Our faith requires that through our actions we choose to follow the other two pathways.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

July 13th, 2012

We need to recapitulate.  Recall last week the Jewish men became debaucherous with the promiscuous daughters of Moav and Midian and with the brazen public sexual act of Zimri (a prince from the tribe of Simeon) and a Midianite princess.  Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson pierced the two of them to death with a spear, halting a plague from God that had killed thousands.  I closed last week with the query: “Was Pinchas a hero or vigilante?”

The questions abound, and we can ponder these over Shabbat:

  1. Why does God praise Pinchas for killing two people spontaneously without a trial or even a warning?
  1. Why does God grant Pinchas peace and even offer him priesthood?
  1. Is zealotry and passion for God good when it leads to violence?

Within our time here the quickest answer is found in the first sentence of our parsha.  “The Lord spoke to Moses saying.” Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, known as Or HaChaim (1696-1743) sets out a Torah maxim that “saying” or לאמר usually introduces a statement that is to be repeated to others and indicates that the Lord wanted the entire nation to know that Pinchas had saved them from a cataclysm and earned for himself the priesthood.

Every time I think of Pinchas being elevated to Kohen status, I cannot help but recall the timeworn story of the man who came to the rabbi offering a thousand dollars to make him a Kohen.  The rabbi politely rejects him and the man responds with a five thousand dollar offer only to be rebuffed by the rabbi again.   A few days later the man returns with a third grandiose offer and the rabbi begins to vacillate, and he asked: “Why do you want to be a Kohen so desperately?”  The man responds, “My father was a Kohen and my grandfather was a Kohen and I want to be one too!”

We see there are two ways to become a Kohen, paternally and with this one exception from the Almighty.   Now, if someone wants to build a gym, pool, and fitness center adjacent to our social hall so that he or she can become a Kohen, I will attempt to intervene as best I can (only after it is built).  In the meantime, I hope you will join me tomorrow morning as we will discuss “Did Pinchas Really Do The Right Thing?”

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

July 6th, 2012

In elementary school our music appreciation teacher taught us aCaribbeanfolksong called “Tingalayo”, which had the fetching lyrics, “My donkey walk, my donkey talk, my donkey eat with a knife and fork”. I loved the melody and the image of this clever and polite donkey stuck in my head and was quickly recalled when I started learning the Torah portion for my Bar Mitzvah and came to Bilaam’s talking donkey. The conversation between the prophet Bilaam and his donkey, who not only talks back but defeats him in argument, is one of my favorite tales in the Torah.

Of course, there is a long history of Rabbinic interpretation to invest this entertaining story with deeper significance. An early Rabbinic tradition claims that “the mouth of the donkey” was one of ten miracles created by God in the last light of the week of creation This interpretation seems to have a rationalist agenda—that the world generally follows the rules of nature, so miracle narratives in the Torah must be part of a limited set of “exceptions” programmed by God into the creation plan. A moral agenda is also present—this story teaches us that the power of speech is a gift from God, taken away at will and even granted to dumb creatures when called for; consequently, do not take it for granted.

Finally, there is an allegorical interpretation connected to the peculiar use of “Shalosh Regalim” in this narrative to refer to the “three times” that Bilaam beat his donkey. The rabbis could not resist associating “regalim” with its other usage to mean “pilgrimage festivals”.  The Midrash Tanhuma sees a reproach aimed at Bilaam, noting: “How dare you seek to destroy a nation that celebrates the three festivals?”  Later commentaries go further, finding hints at the specific festivals.

The Kli Y’kar (early 17th Century) observes that the first donkey incident occurs in the field—hinting at the festival of Sukkot with the harvest of fruits from the field. In the second, the donkey is in a vineyard—hinting at Passover. In the third it is a narrow place—hinting at Sinai since the Torah is surrounded by “longevity on her right, wealth and honor on her right” (Proverbs 3:16). How dare Bilaam challenge a people who honor God in these ways? Thus the walking, talking donkey is a messenger from God to enlighten Bilaam about the futility of his mission. Even Tingalayo couldn’t beat that! Allegorical interpretations notwithstanding, we can enjoy the story on a simpler level. Bilaam is a “Great Prophet” and is clearly full of himself. The story is a classic formulation of how the supposedly wise are really fools and the foolish are wise (the blind are perceptive, and the sighted can’t see and so on). Here the “seer” can’t see the threatening angel who is visible to his donkey; the “prophet” can’t defeat his own donkey in argument. Whatever the meaning, the effect is clear—Bilaam learns his lesson and proceeds to follow the orders of God, not his sponsor Balak, to bless Israel again and again. I love the scene of Balak clapping his hands in frustration as his sinister plans are utterly defeated. Or are they?

Alas, the story takes a dark turn at the end. From a scene of comic relief and disaster averted we find Israel encamped at Shittim, worshipping Baal Peor, engaging in sexual antics and generally spurning the authority of the Lord and Moses. This leads to internecine violence and a plague that wipes out 24,000 Israelites. So our story begins with a threat, then becomes a spoof and victory, and ends on a note of shame and despair. Not a Hollywood ending!

The talking donkey is a great set-up for the darker drama that follows and reminds us that both humor and heroism are required for all of us in the Jewish world.  I will continue next week with Pinchas ending the plague, and you can decide for yourself if he is a hero or a vigilante.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

June 29th, 2012

Parashat Chukkat is a perplexing section of the Torah. Each narrative raises questions. The red heifer ritual, the terse description of Miriam’s death, the chaotic scene around the rock in Kadesh with the ambiguously explained condemnation of Moses and Aaron, and then the hapless encounters of Israel with its future neighbors—none of this seems to add up to a commanding narrative or moral lesson.  The people ofIsraelare in disarray.

While there are many renown commentaries on these passages, there is a great series of essays written by scholar Jacob Milgrom at the end of his JPS Torah commentary on Numbers.  Every year I enjoy rereading Milgrom’s excursus, “Magic, Monotheism, and the Sin of Moses.” His explanation of the “sin” is most convincing. You can read it, but to save the intrigue, Milgrom argues that Moses sinned in speaking during the miracle of the production of water from the rock. It was not his mocking tone of voice, or the fact that he struck the rock, but the very utterance of speech that undermined the miracle. How so?

Milgrom builds on medieval commentator Bekhor Shor, who enigmatically states that the sin was found in the Hebrew word, “notzi” (we shall bring forth the water)—which could easily have been heard as a claim that Moses and Aaron had the power to perform this miracle with divine assistance.

Yet Milgrom goes further, noting that the staff of Moses was NOT meant to be a magic wand, but rather a pointer. Moses was supposed to announce a miracle from God and then gesture silently with the staff to indicate that it is going to happen NOW. The danger of speaking during the miracle is that observers may think that Moses is not merely announcing the miracle but actually performing it. By speaking as he hit the rock, Moses made it seem (intentionally or not) that he was casting a spell or performing a miracle himself.

In the context of Chukkat—with the magic potion of the red heifer and the seemingly sympathetic magic of the copper snake that Moses made—curing the people who had been bitten by real “fiery serpents.”  This makes it extremely risky thatIsraelwill come to see its religion as equivalent to the magic of others, and its leader as a merely a better wizard than his rivals (like Balaam). While this unwanted utterance by Moses may seem like a minor matter to us, it was apparently a major matter to God.

You see a bit of the same differentiation in Exodus 19 when God demands that Moses descend from the mountain before the theophany.[i] God is concerned thatIsrael will think of Moses as his partner, not his prophet. This is probably the ultimate reason that Moses is not permitted to accompany the people into the Land—it is God who delivered them from slavery, revealed the Torah and provided the land. The great leadership of Moses is evident at each step, but it is never allowed to encroach upon the authority of God.

What does this mean for us? This story is a reminder that any of us in whatever leadership capacity we work in, we must be humble and recognize that there is a greater being.  There is a time to be audacious and assertive, but we must always be on guard to avoid the impression that we are the source of the good, the true and the holy. Moses remains our greatest prophet because of his humility— this rare lapse is the exception. May we learn from the triumphs of Moses, and from his failures, to be faithful servants of God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

_________________________

[1] The sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.

 

June 22nd, 2012

There are hidden stories in every parsha and there is a special one this week that you will have to agree strikes close to home.   One of my instructors at Machon Schechter, Tamar Kadari inJerusalemwrote a series of articles on Jewish heroines.  We are not told her name, but I feel a relationship with her.

We are told that Kroach was unhappy with the job Moses was doing and cajoled approximately 250 of his cohorts to confront Moses and Aaron.  An uprising was brewing.  Dathan, Abiram and On aligned themselves with Korach.  Korach accosts Moses questioning how he could have appointed his brother Aaron the Kohen Gadol, then Dathan (recall that in the movie The Ten Commandments the snide Dathan was played by Edward G. Robinson) and Abiram castigate Moses for bringing them to a lingering death in the Wilderness.  Korach gathered his flock (with the notable absence of On) and at Numbers 16:19 we see “… the presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community” and the He said “stand back from this community that I may annihilate them.”

The ground opened up and Korach and his followers were swallowed up in the earth.

Where was On?  Our Sages tell us that the wise and righteous wife of On persuaded him to withdraw as we see in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 109.  It is frequently said “it is all in the Torah” but we need the Midrash to explain and amplify our understanding.  On’s wife discovers he is in cahoots with Korach and asks, “What will you gain from this quarrel?  Now Moses is the teacher, and you are but a pupil.  And if your rebellion succeeds and Korach replaces Moses, once again, he will be the teacher and you are the pupil.  What will you gain from this revolt?”

On is in a quandary, he tells his wife, I swore to them I was “all in”.  She (we still do not know her name) knew Korach’s men were scrupulous about matters of modesty and told him she would save him.  What did she do?  She gave him wine and he became drunk and she took him inside, and his wife then sat at the entrance to the tent and provocatively loosened her hair as if she were bathing.  When they came for On, her lack of modesty repelled them and they left.  Upon awakening, On discovered Korach and company had been swallowed into the earth (and he was just a little hung over).

Our Sages ascribe the first part of Proverbs 14:1 “The wisest of women builds her house” as she saved her household with her wisdom, to On’s wife.  How does this strike close to “my home?”   My dear wife Lauren has not pulled me away from bands of infidels, but she has time and time again pushed or pulled me in the right direction as an aspiring rabbi, spouse and now father.  It is Lauren’s drive and zeal that often pushes me to be a better person and to help us make a better CSI for the future.

There was a soldier in Tzahal (the Israeli army) named On Kheffer.  He was killed in battle in the mid 1970s.  He was a cousin of Lauren’s father Jackson and when her parents heard of his death, they decided the wanted to have a son and to name him On.  A few years later the “son” was Lauren and when you hear her called to the Torah, she will be called as Onith (the feminine version) bat Yaakov ha Levi.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

June 15th, 2012

The Torah provides us with two versions of the story of the spies sent to scout theLandofIsrael.  Parashat Shelach-Lecha contains a much more extensive account than in parashat Devarim, where it is revisited.  Both versions agree that twelve tribal leaders are sent to explore the land.  The spies return to the people in the wilderness after a 40 day journey and bring back ripe fruits.  Ten of the 12 scouts report that it is a “a land that flows with milk and honey, but it is also a land of the Anakites or giants.  We feel like grasshoppers in their sight.”

Joshua and Caleb disagree with the ten other scouts, urging the people to go up and conquer the land.  In panic, the people protest to Moses to let them go back toEgypt.  Angered by the report of the spies and by the reaction of the people, God punishes them with forty years of wandering in the desert, a year for each of the days of the spies’ journey.  The people are told that the generation liberated fromEgyptwill not enter theLandofIsrael.  Only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, will victoriously enter the land.

Clearly something drastic has happened!  The people who had suffered long years of Egyptian slavery are condemned to die there in the dessert.  What do the spies either say or do to bring on such severe punishment?  As we may imagine with so significant an event, there are a variety of views.

Many commentators including 16th Century Italian scholar Rabbi Obadiah Sforno accuse the spies of misleading the people.  The Sforno says that when they mention the giants, they mean to suggest that the climate of the land is so polluted that only the strongest among them will survive.  When they claim that they felt like grasshoppers, the spies are deliberately exaggerating the physical size of their enemies.  Modern commentator, Rabbi Pinchas Peli says that by observing that it is a land that eats up its people, the spies are conducting a demoralizing campaign deliberately deceiving the people about the land.

Modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes that the spies knew their job well.  First they sing the praises of the Promised Land, aware that a tale to succeed must have a modicum of truth in it to give an appearance of objectivity.  They knew how to pass from an apparently objective report to a subjective expression of opinion.  For instance, they tell the people, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.”  Then they say, “But we saw giants there.”  It is for the sin of inciting the people to fear about going up to conquer the land, for misleading them with deliberate exaggerations, that the spies and the people for “following” them are punished.

The Ramban, Nachmanides, disagrees with most of the other interpretations.  The spies, he contends, do not present any false facts, nor do they exaggerate what they saw.  They show the people the fruit of the land, and they tell the truth about it.  Their fault, he argues, is in misunderstanding the purpose of their mission and in their manner of reporting about it.  They are sent on a reconnaissance mission with the task of bringing back strategic details on how best to conquer the land.  Since Moses is preparing for war, their assignment is to return with details about the land and its people, which will guarantee victory.  The future of the people depended on the report.

No matter which commentator one wants to latch onto, the bottom line is that the spies reveal their low self-esteem.  In saying, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they indicate little respect for their capabilities.  They see themselves as weaklings, powerless, without strength or imagination to overcome their enemies.  Their lack of self-respect breeds self-contempt and they provoked the others to lose faith.

Psychologist Erich Fromm observes that the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth, and freedom is rooted in one’s capacity to love.  We love productively only when we learn to love ourselves.  We can only conquer “Promised Lands” when we have regard for our talents and believe in our own creative powers.  The sin of the spies grows from their failure of self-love and self-respect.  Perhaps that explains their punishment.  Unable to appreciate themselves, they are condemned to wander and die in the desert.  Only Joshua and Caleb, who refuse to see themselves as “grasshoppers,” are worthy of entering the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

June 8th, 2012

We read in Numbers 4:3 the age of service for the Levites is set as a 20-year term, from ages 30 to 50.  This age range is repeated quite a few times in chapter 4, but this week in chapter 8:24 we see something different.  Suddenly, the term of service to serve in Tabernacle is 25 and up. Why the disparity?  In the Talmud Hulin 24a the text resolves that the five year disparity was for training purposes. The Levites must have had Levitical school for five years, after which they commenced their service.

There is a darker proscript to this passage, implying that anyone who does not retain their learning after five years never will. I believe this means that you should try and keep trying to learn, but there may come a moment when it seems that nothing is sticking.  I suppose that this is true—we have all tried various tasks that are resistant to our best efforts (my many years of tennis lessons did not yield a consistent serve!) and realize at some point that it is time to move on.

But can this be the case with Torah study?  Is there a point to cease and desist?  I think not—rather the five year term seems more connected to the famous statement of Yehudah ben Teima in Pirkei Avot 5:23 that at five we start study of Bible, at 10 of Mishnah, at 13 the responsibility for the Mitzvot, at 15 of Talmud, and so on.  Read it; I think you will agree with the progression(s).

The Book of Numbers seems in general to give priority to Levites and less attention to Kohanim, so the training may have been more substantial than the supporting roles we usually associate with Levites. Was five years the time needed to learn specific skills, or was there something about training for such a substantial period that allowed a person to develop the emotional and spiritual qualities needed to lead the religious life of the nation? It is the latter perspective that resonates with me.

Rabbi Jacob Milgrom has a comment on this subject in the JPS Torah Commentary. He notes that the Qumram sect adopted the same standard of five years initiation prior to service. One additional insight that I share with Milgrom is that our verse differs not only in its earlier start of service—25 instead of 30—but also in its lack of a terminus. Whereas chapter 4 retires the Levites at 50, chapter 8 just says “25 and up.” Milgrom is merely puzzled by this, but that does not stop me from speculating.

Perhaps those who just commence service without prior preparation can be expected to function for just 20 years. But pausing to prepare appropriately with five years of education not only increases the quality of service but also gives us the opportunity to become lifelong learners.  I mention this because of the importance for all of us to continue our Jewish educations.

If you are around this summer, we begin this coming Wednesday, June 13th at 7 PM with my class, “Sex, War, and Betrayal Based on the Neviim Rishonim (Former Prophets)”.  We will be looking specifically at Samuel I and the David stories with David as a warrior, musician, poet, philanderer, shepherd, the King of Israel, and, as many hold, the progenitor of the Messiah.  I hope you will sign up and join me on Wednesdays this summer.  No prior knowledge is required, and if you miss a class I will happily help you catch up quickly.

I encourage you to deepen your Torah knowledge, your faith and practice. As we read in Psalm 36:6 attributed to David, “O Lord, your faithfulness reaches to Heaven, Your steadfastness to the sky, Your beneficence is like the high mountains”, testifying to God’s goodness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

June 1st, 2012

With three aufrufs in the last four weeks, I have been thinking a lot about relationships.  The Book of Proverbs contains a number of valuable insights into human behavior.  Patience and jealousy are addressed in 14:29-30: “Patience results in much understanding; impatience results in foolishness.  A calm disposition assures physical health, but jealousy rots the bones.”  By drawing a parallel between impatience and jealousy, Jewish tradition provides a context in which to understand the case of a sotah, a wife suspected by her husband of adultery.

Our ParashaNaso, describes a unique situation.  A wife is warned by her husband not to seclude herself with another man and is then found to have done so.  The woman is to be taken to the Kohen.  If she does not admit to adultery, she is to be given a potion of “bitter waters.”  If guilty, she would suffer a grotesque death and if not, she would be exonerated completely.

Our Torah is predominately from the male perspective, with the focus is on women’s infidelity.  Thankfully, the sotahprocess was abolished.  However, we are all aware in our society that adultery is prevalent equally amongst men and women.  We see it frequently with politicians, athletes, and actors, both male and female.  I have no solution to this issue.  However, I do believe our sages can give us insight about relationships.

Rabbi Meir, from the second century C.E., is perhaps most famous as the husband of Bruiah, with his well-known statement to her upon the death of their sons.  The sons died on Shabbat.  Bruiah hid the fact from him so he would not be upset on the “holy day”.  She posed a question to him, “If someone lent you something and they came back to ask for it, should you return it?”  Upon seeing his dead sons, Rabbi Meir made the ageless statement, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away.  Blessed is the name of the Lord.”

Turning to our topic of relationships, Rabbi Meir points out that temperament and neglect can drive a wedge between husband and wife.  If a husband observes his wife entering into inappropriate relationships or a wife feels abandoned or compromised by her husband’s relationships, such misunderstandings require open and immediate discussion.  Their feelings must be expressed.  Rabbi Meir uses the example of the sotah as an opportunity to explore and explain the challenges facing relationships.

While modern commentator Rabbi Pinchas Peli does not disagree with Rabbi Meir’s psychological observations or with the causes of stress between husband and wife, he does offer a different slant about the strange ceremony of the “water of bitterness”.  He speculates that “it is possible that Torah devised the best way under the circumstances to save this marriage by removing the mutual psychological distrust” between husband and wife.  That is to say that “the sotahceremony is an extreme remedial measure for a troubled marriage….Jealousy, over-possessiveness, and similar emotions can be destructive and explosive in any husband-wife relationship.  The sotah ritual brings to us one painful remedy.

Rabbi Peli’s point is that sometimes bitterness, suspicion, anger, and pain destroy a marriage.  In such situations one needs to drink the “water of bitterness” to restore trust, mutual respect, and understanding.  Radical “medicine” is the only cure.  In ancient times that meant the wife’s submission to the ritual.  In our own time it can mean that both husband and wife seek counseling and learn how to drain the bitterness of misunderstanding from their relationships, restoring their love and trust for each other.

The issues raised in the case of the sotah in ancient times are significant today, not only for husbands and wives, but for all relationships based on mutual commitment.  Friendships, business partnerships, and family ties are also ruined by suspicion, selfishness, and misunderstanding.  How do we repair and strengthen such relationships?  Ironically, those who neglect faltering relationships may find themselves drinking a home-cooked brew of the “water of bitterness.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

May 25th, 2012

This is the first summer in the last seven that Lauren and I have not had to orchestrate a move to a new abode.  It was all good, but I hope none of you experience a similar seven year stretch.  The best part is we are ensconced in Nyack getting ready for Shavuot and truly looking forward to the second year in a row for the Yamim Noraim at the same place, with the same chevra.  No one is immune from moves, and we all have packed our valued possessions, books, and pictures to make our new habitat seem like home.

Parashat Bamidbar instantly drew me to the image of Aaron and his sons lovingly wrapping the sacred objects in garments of tekhelet, preparing them to be transported to the next campsite.  It was almost a year ago that our movers came, and I recall Lauren admonished them to be extra, extra careful with her framed (and autographed) Troy Aikman jersey.  In the past we had been almost maniacal about our “things”.  This time, with Benny safely in his seat and Lauren next to me, I was minimally concerned with the “things” and cannot express how eternally thankful I was for what I had in the car and the opportunity that lay ahead for us.  A year later (withTroy safely and securely on our wall) it is hard to imagine anything better.

Tekhelet by itself could be the subject of two or three of these messages and still only scratch the surface.  There are a myriad of articles on the Internet discussing it, and you will find them interesting.  You have undoubtedly seen fellow Jews with blue threads of tekhelet intertwined into their tzeiot.  Positions on it are varied, but it is not something that I have personally adopted. It does not seem to be very prevalent here, so we can leave it for another day and time, but we should be aware of what tekhelet was or is.

Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah has an extended discussion of the wrapping process and its symbolism. Rabbi Shimon’s famous statement in Pirkei Avot 4:13 setting out the three crowns—Torah, kingship and priesthood—is associated here with the wrapping of the ark, table and other sacred objects. The Ark is most important—the leather wrappings are covered by an ornamental layer of pure tekhelet, for the blue of tekhelet resembles the sea, the sky, and the very throne of glory. Other vessels have tekhelet beneath the leather, but the Ark was beautiful even in its packaging. The upshot of this Midrash is a bit obscure.   The idea seems to be that the student of Torah is like the Holy Ark—containing within him or herself the precious words and that this sacred treasure deserves a dignified cover—pure tekhelet.

As we wrapped up our first year together this past week with the Dinner Dance and Congregational Meeting, I ask all of us to figuratively cover our important items with tekhelet—with a layer that represents the very throne of glory.  With Shavuot this Saturday night, Sunday, and Monday, let your eyes linger on the beauty of Torah, your hearts meditate on its light and joy, and your soul soak in its wisdom and peace.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

May 18th, 2012

Just as the Torah calls for a Sabbath day of rest for people after every six days of work, it also commands a sabbath year of rest for the land after every six years of cultivation, culminating with a Yovel, or “Jubilee,” or fiftieth year, completing a cycle of seven sabbatical years.  During the sabbatical year people are to leave whatever grows for the needy and wild beasts.  Within our double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, the Israelites are told that, while they may not work the land or prune their vineyards or orchards, it is permissible to eat whatever happens to grow during the sabbatical year.  Moreover, the Torah also commands that all debts are to be cancelled.

During the year of the Jubilee, which is announced by sounding the shofar on Yom Kippur, all laws of the sabbatical year are to be observed.  In addition, all properties are to be returned to the families who inherited them at the time Joshua led the Israelites into theLandofIsrael.  To guarantee fairness in land values, all prices of land were calculated on potential usage before the sabbatical when they would revert to their original owners.  The Jubilee was also a time when Israelite slaves were freed.

These practices concerning both the sabbatical and Jubilee years were adapted and extended by the Rabbinic tradition.  Every time I read through our parsha, a query arises in my mind—do we take two consecutive years when the seventh sabbatical year in each cycle, or 49th year, is followed by the Jubilee, or fiftieth year?  The answer is yes.  Can you imagine the faith that took?  For example, owners were not allowed to collect large amounts of food in their homes because such a practice would deprive the poor.  Families were to take only the amount of fruits and vegetables required for their normal needs.  If there was no longer any food available in the fields, owners were commanded to remove all food from their storage places and make it available to the entire community.  It was forbidden to buy or sell produce from the field during the sabbatical or Jubilee years.

Rashi suggests that the reason for the sabbatical year is to give the land time to rest, just as the Sabbath allows humans to seek renewal and revitalization through rest.  Rashi, like the ancients, must have realized that crops usually grew more plentifully after the land had “rested.” Maimonides, echoing Rashi, brings out that the sabbatical and Jubilee years are commanded because by “releasing” the land it will become reinvigorated.

Maimonides, however, also stresses a social and ethical benefit of the sabbatical and Jubilee.  In his discussion of charity, he emphasizes that guaranteeing food for the needy, freeing slaves, canceling debts, and returning lands are all meant to teach sympathy and promote well-being.  A significant additional benefit of these special years is to encourage and instruct Jews to be generous with those in need, to share their profits and products, and to be just in business practices.

The interpreters of our tradition offer a variety of explanations and meanings for the sabbatical and Jubilee years.  Yet they all have one common thread.  Each explanation finds measures of great ethical, political, or spiritual significance within the traditions of resting the land, feeding the hungry, returning the land to its original owners, and liberating the slaves. By contrast, the moral concerns underlying these ancient agricultural and economic laws challenge many of the social, religious, and economic policies and priorities of our own era.  It is more than enough to ponder.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

May 11th, 2012

Rabbis need to be mentally and spiritually recharged with the expectations we will be able to transmit some of the energy to our chevra or friends.  These past two weeks I attended two powerful and moving conferences.  First was the JOIN for Justice Conference inNew York City.  There I interfaced with other rabbis regarding organizing and how to pick issues we deem important and, most significantly, how to take meaningful stands on them.  The New York Jewish Week covered it in an article I suggest to you:

http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new_york/saul_alinskys_moment_0

The real highlight was the Rabbinical Assembly inAtlanta.  Plentiful and invigorating summarize the sessions and learning.  As for the future of “our movement,” the attendees could feel the vibes as we became strengthened and invigorated in four glorious and exhausting days.  The climax was the unforgettable appearance of our Vice President Joe Biden.  He spoke about the unchanging American posture and his own passion forIsraeland the entire Jewish community.  Later in the day we heard from Israeli politician Yair Lapid who spoke with us about his new political party in Israel which stands for social change, most notably accepting all rabbis (specifically Reform and Conservative) as being just as legitimate as the Haredi Jews now virtually in total control of the country.  Here are the a few articles covering these phenomenal presentations:

http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/u-s-vice-president-biden-no-options-off-table-on-iran-nuclear-program-1.429054

http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/lapid-to-u-s-conservative-rabbis-you-are-the-gatekeepers-of-jewish-identity-1.429072

http://www.haaretz.com/news/international/yair-lapid-goes-back-to-the-future-1.429309

http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/08/biden-defends-iran-stance-we-were-the-problem/

As I was proofreading this I vacillated on whether or not I needed to say Vice President Joe Biden or simply the Vice President.  Somehow it made me think of the story I recently read about Jimmy Carter.  When he made his decision to run for President, he told his mother, Miz Lillian, who famously replied “of what?”  For whatever it is worth, the Vice President was accessible at the end of his presentation, and I did have a momentary face-to-face audience expressing my gratitude for his long-time pro-Israel stance.

Reflecting on the lingering glow from both conferences, one message remains clear but somewhat imbedded in this week’s parsha.  In Parashat Emor (at chapter 23) we find one of the Torah’s most complete descriptions of our holiday cycle.  It, of course, starts with Shabbat and then proceeds to describe Pesach, the Omer, and Shavuot.  Finally, it turns to the fall festivals we know as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shimini Atzeret.

Plunked in the middle is a non-sequitur: 23:22. “When harvesting your land, do not complete [harvesting] the corners of the field…”  Why is this mitzvah of poverty relief interpolated in the middle of the festival cycle?  The peshat or plain explanation might be that the festivals all relate to the agricultural cycle.  However, the rabbis bring a beautiful midrash in Midrash Sifra 13:12 that is paraphrased by Rashi: “It teaches that whoever gives leket, shikhekha and peah to the poor as is proper is considered to have built the Temple and brought offerings in it.” This drash gives comfort to us knowing that we can have a full festival service to God without the Temple, but it also presents a challenge. Since we are not farmers, how can we be certain that we have given sufficient tzedakah?  How can we be considered to have brought proper offerings?

While we obviously cannot follow the ancient laws precisely, we can fashion a system that is realistic.  While the ideal is that we give a certain percentage of our earnings back to tzedakah, this can be expanded to give back that percentage toward any good cause, which could include the synagogue, a family trip to Israel or the like.  As long as the cause is deemed worthy, we can give of ourselves both monetarily and with our time to make this world a better place.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

May 4th, 2012 

As we celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut last week, I noticed in my luach, which is the guide to every aspect of our daily, Shabbat, and holiday services, that the Torah selection for our Day of Independence is different inside and outside of Israel (for our Conservative Movement).  Synagogues that have daily minyanim have Torah readings, a haftarah, and Hallel.  While this is notable, the unexpected aspect that many are unaware of is that the Torah selections are markedly different forIsrael and the Diaspora.

Here in Americaand traditionally, we read from Parashat Ekev, which speaks to the military conquest and ethnic cleansing for the Israelites.  Conversely, in Israel, they read from Parashat Ki Tavo, which speaks of the farmer “lifting up” the fruit of the land.   The American selection for Yom Ha’Atzmaut makes a statement glorifying triumphal violence that may not sit well with many of us.  In Israel, the focus is to celebrate the goals of our nation at peace, not its triumph in war.  Many Conservative rabbis, including myself, recommend the reading from Ki Tavo even outside of Israel because of the need to focus on peace and our future, not thinking about our war like past.  It is a means of “moving on”.

The manner in which we proclaim our distinctive national identity, while forging positive relationships with our neighbors, is a compelling subtext of this week’s double parshaAcharei Mot-Kedoshim. The sexual codes at the center of each parsha are described in terms of differentiation from the Egyptians and Caananites.Israel is ordered to act differently, lest it share the Canaanite fate of expulsion.  Leaving aside our fraught relationship with these texts for other reasons for now, I am still concerned about the Holiness Code’s dependence on differentiation as the key to holiness.

Indeed, it is the very differentiation from others that is emphasized at the end of Kedoshim. As Rashi says in his famous comment to 20:26, “If you are distinct from them then you are Mine; if not, then you belong to Nebuchadnezzar and his cohorts.”

We all can understand the point of differentiation—absent distinctive practice it becomes difficult to maintain distinctive identity. Indeed this is the great challenge facing liberal movements—the less differentiation in daily routine, garb, and cuisine, the less durable is the resultant identity.

And yet, we also recognize an obnoxious and xenophobic quality to the passion for differentiation. It can easily lead to arrogance, hatred and even violence towards others. The contrast as we go the end of Kedoshim into the haftarah is marvelous. Amos 9 opens with the shocking words, “You are just like the Ethiopians…the Philistines...and the Arameans to me, declares the Lord.”

As Professor Michael Fishbane notes in his commentary on this week’s haftarah, Amos “denies Israel’s uniqueness.” This rebuke challenges Israel to reflect upon what its national purpose really is. “Then will it transform the triumphal assertion of uniqueness found in Kedoshim into a new awareness of distinction and duty.  Kept separate, Kedoshim and this haftarah’s lessons cancel each other’s truth concerning election; brought together, they revise one another reciprocally and suggest a more inward and humble theology of chosenness.”

During a time in our calendar of memory and celebration, of differentiation and neighborly engagement, it can sometimes seem too much to bridge the gap between our roles.Israelis called upon to be a signal to the world—a banner of redemptive possibility—while still maintaining its distinctiveness. I see this not as a contradiction but as a preparation. Only by being distinct can we hope to offer something of value to the broader world. But if we fetishize our distinctiveness, then it becomes an end unto itself, a holy bigotry, and dooms the very mission for which it was fashioned.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

April 27th, 2012 

There is little question that some parshiot are easier to write about than others.  Most will agree that this week’s is a toughie.

We are faced with an illness that is part spiritual and part physical.  In a nutshell, the malady, Tzara-at, is a discoloration of a person’s skin, clothing, and hair.  All agree that it is in no manner akin to leprosy.  It even appears on the walls of someone’s house.

Both Rashi and Maimonides note the initial appearance of Tzara-at will be on a person’s home.  We see that when that happens the affected stones are required to be removed.  That is the first part of the message.  If the person continues his sinful ways, the next thing affected is his clothing.  If he or she still has not corrected what is making this happen, his or her skin is infected, and he or she is ostracized and excluded from the community until the disease goes away AND a Kohen verifies that he or she is acceptable to return.

Rashi brings out that Tzara-at is in reality a blessing with its initial appearance.  How did he come to such a conclusion?  He goes on to say that Tzara-at on one’s home could bring one wealth.  What could he possibly have meant???  Rest assured, he knows.

Rashi on Leviticus 14:34 reveals  “…eruptions will come upon them because the Amorites hid treasures of gold in the walls of their houses throughout the forty years the Israelites were in the desert and by means of the eruption [the Israelite] tears down the house and finds them.”   Specifically, we find the Israelites removing the stones affected with Tzara-at and, fortuitously, finding gold behind them!

The obvious question arises---if you sin, do you get the gold?  Rashi, in his wisdom, deciphered the question, and I can only hope you will take his “take” to heart.

As soon as you hear it, it makes perfect sense.  God is telling the sinners to look deeper.  All they see are the stones afflicted with Tzara-at.  If they dig just a little, they will find gold.  Life is the same way---we need to look beyond what we first see, to see what is under the first layer.  If we take the time to look beneath the surface, we can begin to find true meaning in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

April 20th, 2012 

Dealing with adversity, fear and loss with courage is a lesson we learn this week from our forefather Aaron.  After his sons Nadav and Avihu are struck dead in the Mishkan, and Moses offers a quick and puzzling explanation, the Torah says “vayidom Aharon” (Aaron was silent).  This does not necessarily mean that he stifled his grief.  It may be, as some commentators have it, that Aaron first wept in shock and then regained his composure.  But what was going on within?  There are many reasons given for his sons’ deaths.  All are plausible and are left for each of us to ponder.  What we can observe is what Aaron did.  He slowly returned to routine, but he refused to eat the chattat (sin offering) after a lengthy and complex exchange between him and his brother Moses.

As we learned in Parashat Vaykira, there are different levels of chattat.  The more serious purification offerings have the blood applied INSIDE the tent at the incense altar and the carcass burned OUTSIDE the camp.  The lower level chattat (e.g. for the unintentional impurity of an individual) have their blood applied to the OUTSIDE altar and their flesh eaten by the Kohen.  In this case, however, Aaron has not eaten the chattat, as he was supposed to do, but rather had it burnt.  Moses is alarmed--perhaps terrified--that further tragedy will result from this breach of protocol.  He chastises Aaron, but Aaron explains that “such as this has befallen me.”  He seems to anticipate the law alluded to in Deuteronomy 26:14 “lo achalti b'oni,” that the priest should not eat in mourning (presumably because of his impurity but perhaps even because of his state as an onen).  Alternatively, Aaron may feel that the death of his sons had brought impurity to the shrine, thus contaminating the meat and requiring it to be burnt.  Moses acquiesced to the argument posed by Aaron and is not angered but is pleased.  As Rashi notes, Moses was not embarrassed and admitted the justice of Aaron’s argument.

It takes a certain nobility of spirit to face adversity with courage, audacity and also humility. That is what I perceive from Moses and Aaron.  Life often presents rejection, disappointment, threat and even tragedy.  It is natural to feel angry, frightened or humiliated and to lash out in response.  Judaism does not teach a “turn the other cheek” approach, but it also does not favor angry retorts.  We must be deliberate even in a time of challenge, acting with principle and pursuing peace.

Just as my rabbis implored upon me, I do likewise.  We are constantly told that the Torah tells us how to live our lives, yet it is hard to see concrete modern day examples.  Here we see the aegis of one of the fundamental concepts of our mourning practices.  During Shiva, Jews do not extend greetings.  We are there to share grief, not exchange pleasantries.  Aaron is our model—“Aaron was silent,” even in his deepest grief.

We face a challenging time in our world with issues happening everywhere, every day.  We each need to access quiet conviction and true openness from any and every direction.  Sometimes, we will find ourselves overcome like Moses was with a rational response; we should seek the grace to pleasantly accept it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

April 12th, 2012 

At our Seder last week, I was fascinated with the grasp and depth of our friends and fellow congregants as we went through the order.  Please indulge me in sharing my delight with you.

Just as I was getting ready to edify the table, before the meal, about the Hallel being said only at night, on one occasion at the Seder, someone chimed in with “on this night the heavenly influences made the night glow as if it were daytime”.  It took me a full minute to mentally regroup.  One could not get any more concise than that, and I am smart enough to not try to top excellence and moved on to “What was to come after our redemption (fromEgypt)?”  Someone answered, “We were given our freedom”, and I pushed it a little further with the query “What else did our people actually receive?”  The same person responded, “spirituality and riches”.

To say I was intrigued would be too simplistic.  In an attempt to “spoon-feed” the children and edify the adults, I wanted to explore the “riches” proposition.  You will recall that very soon after our forefathers began their journey in the wilderness, some of them were involved in fashioning the golden calf.  As a boy the thought had occurred to me as to how this people, who had been mercilessly enslaved for over 200 years, could come up with the gold to make a calf.  By now I was excited and could tell at least some of the table was intrigued with the direction of the query.

Before I knew it one of the children began to explain that prior to leaving Egypt, the Israelites went to the Egyptian people asking them to “pay” them for all the work they had done.[i]   We were “on a roll” by now, and I wanted to be sure it was not just about the gold, jewels and silver, so I asked, “What else did they have?”  By now, others chimed in with “Torah, mitzvot, trust in God”, and so on.  I was truly invigorated.

Something made me push in the direction of “What have we done with all that was given to us so long ago?”  For all at the Seder table, it gave us something to ponder as we retold the ageless story of how God bestowed so much upon us when he freed us from the Egyptians and sent these friends to rattle my soul in such an uplifting and positive manner.

As we move into the final days of Pesach, let us reflect on the week of the festival and the hope we have together for our future as a congregation and as the entire Jewish community.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

csirabbi@optonline.net


[i] For a fascinating treatment of this little-known happening, I direct you to Exodus 12:35 in our Etz Hayim.  You will find it enthralling.  Each time I examine it I see a new twist.

 

April 6th, 2012 

As a novice collector of Haggadot, I find many of them are unique and offer a new way to look at the holiday and specifically the seder.  At the back of Rabbi Menachem Kasher's very well known encyclopedic work of the Haggadah (460 pages to be exact), “Haggadah Sheleimah” there is a commentary by Rabbi Yosef Gikitilla, who was a thirteenth century Spanish kabbalist.

Rabbi Gikitilla argues that there is nothing simple or impoverished about matzah.  Lechem ani cannot mean "poor bread" because, in fact, matzah is “pure bread!”  Rather, chametz is the poor brethren.  Rabbi Gikitilla compares this to a powerful light.  When exposed to overwhelming light, we are blinded.  In order to see properly, we generally need a mixture of light and shadow. It is not that bright light obscures things but that our own weakness, as it were, prevents us from perceiving in "whiteout" conditions. So, too, we generally need a mixture of pure bread and chametz to facilitate digestion.  We ourselves are a mixture of spiritual and material qualities; we simply cannot handle pure truth. The real reason for eating matzah at yetziat mitzrayim (our liberation from Egypt) is to prepare the people for the Revelation at Sinai by purging us of as much material limitation as possible.

Rabbi Gikitilla explains this in the context of the Rabbinic concept that all sacrifices except for the todah (sacrifice for giving thanks or confession) will be annulled in the redeemed future (Vayikra Rabbah 9:7). Why would the todah remain? The todah was the only korban (sacrifice) offered over chametz. The reason is that the todah (translated as "confession", not “thanksgiving”) will remain as reminder of our past iniquity, symbolized by the chametz, which is, of course, a symbol of the yetzer harah (evil inclination).

What is the take in all this? The matzah becomes less a sign of our past enslavement and more a sign of our current weakness and dependence on chametz. It helps us understand what "hashta avdei" means--we may not be physically enslaved, but we are constantly compromised by our desires and “are slaves.” Just try to keep eating matzah alone for a week after Pesach! So this exercise is really one of self-control, purging, and preparing ourselves for Revelation and redemption. Matzah is less about memory and more about aspiration, less about the past and more about the future.  I find this perspective to be both challenging and uplifting.  It explains for me the messianic longing that pervades the Haggadah.

May your matzah be satisfying this year, even if you yearn for a bagel by the end of Pesach.  I wish you all a Chag kasher v'sameach!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

March 30th, 2012 

There are many explanations for the term Shabbat HaGadol, which we celebrate this upcoming Shabbat.  However, I like to think of Shabbat HaGadol in the context of its haftarah with Malakhi’s promise that Elijah is ushering in “The great and fearful day of the Lord...turning the hearts of parents to their children and children to their parents.”  When we think about redemption, most of us turn to cosmic revolutions like the end of war, the ingathering of exiles, the restoration of the Temple, and, to cite my former Professor Neil Gillman’s drash on Chad Gadya’s messianic conclusion, the “death of death.”  Yet the haftarah identifies the redemptive mission as being one of family reconciliation or perhaps reconciliation between generations.

Sometimes the seder feels like a plague for families, where all of the disconnect in values can be concentrated into this one event. Interestingly, Malakhi hints that it is the obligation of the older generation to attend to the experiences and insights of the young. This is the first stage of redemption, and it is, of course, the primary task of the seder.

Does your family gathering feel like the Shekhinah is descending, or like Gog and Magog, where you might prefer to be doing anything else but be with your family?  Thank God, my family gatherings are relatively peaceful now, but I remember being the young zealot who made everyone crazy by insisting that they guzzle down the proper volume of wine in the specified time, and dragging out every aspect of the seder until the older generation was exhausted.  In retrospect, my teenage persona was pretty intolerant, but somehow the older generation put up with me, and I seem to have grown out of it.  I still drink my wine and munch my matzah, but I realize the purpose is that everyone present has the opportunity to engage in the great narrative of redemption in their own distinctive manner.  The rituals are there to lead to an internal awareness, not to bludgeon one into a stupor.  Maybe Elijah really did come to our seder!

There is a Hasidic drasha by Rabbi Shabta HaKohen Rappaport where he asks the question, “Why does the seder begin with kadeish and urchatz (sanctify and then cleanse)?  Would not we say, “Depart from evil, rachtzah (cleanse), and then embrace the good, kadeish (sanctify)?”  While it would be nice if everyone could be like Moses, purifying himself or herself and purging sin before accepting holiness, the fact is none of us are on that level.  Rather, we must try to embrace holiness even in a state of impurity and trust in God’s compassion to be with us even before we are pure.  Thus, we are in the state of kadeish and urchatz when starting the sanctification, proceeding bit by bit towards urchatz and rachtzah (cleansing or washing) until the final nirtzah (redemption) when we can hope that our service will truly be acceptable before God. The seder is thus starkly differentiated from the Korban Pesach procedure described in the Torah.  There, the people needed to be purified first.  Our seder is not so much a reenactment of the ancient ritual as it is a protocol for spiritual development until we can reach that stage. As it says in the final lines of the Haggadah, “ka’asher zakinu l’sadeir oto, kein nizkeh la’asoto”. As we are worthy to celebrate it this year, so we may perform it in future years coming into our final preparations for Pesach.  I hope that for all of you, wherever you are, that the seder will be a time of inter-generational closeness and collective spiritual development. May the mitzvot and narratives of Pesach bring us all into a state of heightened appreciation of freedom, of closeness to God, and of responsibility to share these blessings with other people!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

March 23rd, 2012 

We begin a new book of the Torah this week, Vayikra, or Leviticus.  Most of the book describes in detail the many and varied korbanot, sacrifices, that the people ofIsrael were to make in the Tabernacle.  While the descriptions seem to be applicable to the time when Moses and the people were still wandering through the desert, many modern scholars believe this book was written by priests for the priests who presided over the sacrifices offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.

In our modern society, the idea of sacrificing animals may seem both foreign and unpleasant.  Some would describe it as disgusting and repugnant; others would call it cruelty to animals, protesting it as morally offensive.

In ancient society, however, sacrifices and offerings to God were considered not only appropriate but also necessary expressions of faith.  The word korban literally means “draw near” and reveals the purpose of the offerings.  They were meant to unite the worshiper with God.  By offering sacrifices, a person is saying thanks to God or seeking forgiveness for sins.  The drama and beauty of the sacrificial service, along with the music, prayers, and strong odors of incense, created an atmosphere of awe.  In presenting a sacrifice, one was giving something important of oneself to God.  For the ancients, the smoke of a burning sacrifice on the altar was material proof of a person’s love and reverence for God and for God’s commandments.

One of the leading teachers of Torah in the 20th century, Nehama Leibowitz, explains that the sacrifices are a positive means of promoting communion with the Divine and a symbol and expression of a person’s desire to purify himself or herself and become reconciled with God.  Despite the fact that rabbis and interpreters have over the millennia honored the tradition of sacrifices, even praying for their reintroduction, many believed prayer was superior to sacrifice as a form of worship.  They argued that while the offerings depended upon a particular place and altar, prayer could be offered anywhere and anytime.  Prayer consisted of the quiet meditations of the heart or words of the mouth expressed in a whisper, a song, or simply spoken.  The Midrash Tanhuma tells us that prayer is greater than all sacrifices.  As we delve into Leviticus, we will examine our movement’s posture on communal worship.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides argues that sacrifices were an early form of worship given to the Jewish people so that they could learn how to serve God without feeling different from the people surrounding them.  Slowly, Maimonides says, the people learned that “the sacrificial service” is not the primary objective of the commandments but that prayer is a better means of obtaining nearness to God.  Agreeing with the early rabbis, Maimonides emphasizes that the superiority of prayer is that it can be offered everywhere and by every person.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests that prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice, prayer is sacrifice.  This Shabbat is National Day of Unplugging (http://www.causes.com/causes/648905-national-day-of-unplugging) in which we are asked to sacrifice something of ourselves by taking a “tech detox.”  By “unplugging” you will enhance your Shabbat experience and cajole yourself to focus on prayer.  Heschel observes that in true prayer, we try to surrender our vanities, to burn our insolence, to abandon bias, dishonesty and envy.  Prayer is the means through which we sacrifice our selfishness and greed, and we touch with our power for truth, mercy, and as in days of old, “draw near” to God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

March 16th, 2012 

This past Sunday many of us sat at the Islamic Center for an inspirational Interfaith Symposium.  It was invigorating hearing from our moderate Muslim friends regarding Islamic practice inRocklandCountyandAmericain general as well as their feelings about their “brethren” outside of theUnited Stateswe so often hear about.  Their answer, given innumerable times throughout the evening, was how these Muslims in theMiddle Eastare deviating from the Koran in multiple ways.

The Muslim panelists made it clear that they did not approve of the way countries, such asSaudi Arabia,Iran,Iraq, andEgypt, treat women and their overall interpretation of the Koran.  What became extremely apparent by the end was that in the same way we struggle with the extremists in Judaism, they too are struggling with the extremists in Islam.  It is hard to speak for the Muslims, but the Jews certainly have not always been fragmented.  We see in the greatest building fund drive of all time in this week’s parsha that the donations produced materials far in excess of what was needed.  Moses had to tell the people to stop bringing!

Our double parsha Vayakeil-Pekudei repeats the descriptions of the Mishkan construction, including long, detailed lists of items donated by the Israelites.  Biblical interpreter Don Isaac Abravanel counts five repetitions of building plans and donation lists within the Torah.  Abravanel queries, “Why would the Torah keep reiterating such details?”

Ramban, Nachmanides, answers Abravanel by claiming that all the repetition reflects the love with which the sanctuary was viewed by God.  Such repetition is designed to underscore its importance in the hearts of the Israelites.  On the other hand, modern commentator Rabbi Umberto Cassuto suggests that all the duplication is merely a matter of “style”.  Ancient Middle Eastern documents, he claims, all contain repetitions of details, especially plans describing sacred places of worship.

Early rabbinic commentators would disagree with Cassuto.  They believe that the details and lists serve an important function.  Moses, they say, carefully records each heart-given gift.  Afterwards, he reviews the contribution and checks his list against others made by the “contractors”, Bezalel and Oholiab.  Then he scrutinizes each entry, making sure that nothing has been overlooked or misplaced.  All this repetition attention to detail and recapitulation of what was given and how it was used, is a matter of accountability.  For Moses, the rabbis observe, accountability by public officials of what they collect and how they use it is a moral responsibility.  Public officials must be above reproach.

Why did Moses insist on such accountability?  Was he not the trusted leader of his people?  Could anyone have thought he was misusing these sacred donations?  What is the Torah telling us?

The answer is clear.  Jewish tradition mandates that public officials must be above suspicion.  The community must have full confidence in the integrity and honesty of those chosen to serve.  Handling the funds of others demands open and scrupulous scrutiny.  Just as Moses makes a detailed public accounting of his collection and expenditure of funds, all public and religious officials are to be held to the highest ethical standards.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

March 9th, 2012 

Our parashah, Ki Tissa includes the famous commandment to guard Shabbat as a sign between God and Israel. What does that mean? Every word begs for its own drash, interpretation, but I will say just this—it seems that the core rationale of Shabbat in this context is thatIsrael is meant to share the Divine experience of work followed by rest. Just as God rested after creation, and just as God stopped providing manna every Saturday, so too mustIsrael alternate between active and passive states, as it “is as a sign forever.”

Our texts give us the insight that resting is a creative activity that changes the very fabric of existence on every level. We often take our rest for granted, seeing it as down time. But the truth is that we create a great deal on Shabbat. For many of us the most profound experiences of family, friendship and community are tied to Shabbat. Likewise, the sweetest prayers, songs and words of Torah come to us on Shabbat. For this to be possible we need to create space—by refraining from melakhah, work, we create spiritual potential.

As many of you know, especially those of you who follow me on Facebook, I was championing the story of theBerenAcademybasketball team.  Here was a small Modern Orthodox school fromHoustonbeing told that their team could not compete in the semi-finals and finals of the State basketball championships because they were not willing to play on Shabbat.  The league has in its by-laws that no games can be played on Sundays, but when this Jewish school (only 67 high schoolers) asked to have the final games moved away from their Shabbat, they were rejected.  This caused a national and later international outrage over what was viewed as prejudice by the league’s administrators.  A lawsuit was filed by parents from the school, and the league re-scheduled the tournament so as to not conflict with Shabbat.

This article from the Houston CultureMap best sums up my feelings on the fact that this was about more than just basketball and despite Beren losing in the finals (they won in the semifinals on Friday afternoon), it taught us a valuable lesson, that Shabbat observance is still paramount, even in the secular world.  http://houston.culturemap.com/newsdetail/03-04-12-beren-academy-creates-one-of-the-classiest-scenes-in-sports-even-as-the-cameras-flee-after-state-title-loss/?utm_source=CultureMap+Houston+Daily+Digest&utm_campaign=7df651f97b-Daily_Digest_Houston_2012_03_04&utm_medium=email

Outsiders to Shabbat have trouble grasping this experience. They see a list of restrictions:“You can’t write?” “You can’t shop?” “You can’t cook?” “You can’t travel???” I understand why people perceive it this way—if they have not experienced the depth, the beauty and the creativity made possible by Shabbat, they can only see confinements. But in that precious period of 25 quiet hours we not only rest, we also create holiness, beauty and peace.  Just as God shares Shabbat with us, making room for us to add to its holiness, our task is to make Shabbat a sign between us and other people we did not know and their own capability to add to its holiness.

By inviting people to our table to study and to sing, we expand the circle of holiness. Just imagine how many more people will enjoy Shabbat as a result of your collective efforts!  So go “make Shabbos”—create a sublime day of rest (even if it is in a modest manner) at the same time and let us learn from a group of Texas high school boys that we can enjoy our Shabbat and enjoy what the secular world has to offer.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

March 2nd, 2012 

Before Purim, on this Shabbat Zackhor (remembrance,) we are directed to recall our nemesis and charged to “blot out the memory of Amalek.”  The special Maftir portion minces no words.  It says “Do not forget!”  To that stance or proposition, Elie Wiesel stated it best when asked, “Do you hate your oppressors?”  His response was “to hate would be to reduce myself”.

We read in Ecclesiastes 9:8, “your clothes shall always be white, and oil never lack on your head.”  This verse has been interpreted in various ways. In the Talmud Shabbat 153a Rabbi Eliezer suggests that it proves a person should repent one day before death.  How does one know when that will be?  Repent every day—then your clothes always be white.  Rashi explains that “your soul should be pure and clean”.  Perhaps there is an allusion here to the tachrichim, the traditional simple white burial garments.

In his commentary to our parshah Tetzaveh, the Malbim, Rabbi Meïr-Leibush ben Jehiel-Michel Weiser from 19th century Russia, says that the “clothes” refer not to the soul itself but to the garments worn by the soul, namely one’s midot (values).  The concept here is that while the bigdei kehunah described in our parshah are designated as physical garments for the priests in their service, in fact every soul wears “garments” that can be purified or sullied. We may not wear the white linen uniforms of the kohanim, but we must attend to the purity of our spiritual garments—our moral qualities and thoughts.

Erev Shabbat is a time to purify oneself.  As many of you know, Lauren and I lived in Israelfor an entire year overseeing the staff of a gap-year program for post-high school students.  The teenagers consisted of young adults from all over the country and from every denominational stripe imaginable.  We lived in the shadow of the OldCityand would escort our group occasionally to the Kotel on Shabbat.  No matter where they came from (geographically or spiritually), every one of them quickly became imbued with a unique glow as we approached the Kotel.  Then and now, it is about purifying ourselves, putting on garments of beautiful midot, directing our thoughts to kedushah, holiness, and kindling the flame of Torah so that we become like a menorah—a soul on fire.

My first year in college, I had a brief time of estrangement from the mitzvot.  I went to teacher after teacher asking why he or she was shomeir mitzvot. None of their answers worked for me, not even that of one rabbi who said, “You have to enter the fire to feel its power.”  The anti-intellectualism of the reply annoyed me.  Yet it also stayed with me—there is after all something satisfying about visualizing oneself as a kohen in the mikdash, cleansing, purifying, releasing and seeking—then adding incense to the altar—that turned out to be more powerful than even the most intellectual of answers.

Even so, I would not want to be so quick to abandon intellectual discernment in favor of raw emotion.  Not all emotions are pure, and not all bring us closer to God.  The emotions of Zakhor, remembrance—of retribution and blood debt—are not the Torah that I wish to embrace.  I recall on Shabbat Zakhor some 15 years ago when a man named Baruch Goldstein entered the cave of the Patriarchs inHebronand massacred a room full of praying Muslims. That Shabbat I leveled an accusatory finger at my own young soul—do you harbor such violent hatred?  Do you thrill to this blood lust?

For me, Zakhor and Purim have become a tale of the horrors unleashed by unrestrained passion. It was the ignorant anger at being “dissed” that animated Ahashveros, the same anger that incited Haman, and childish anger that even enters our own souls as we try to blot out Haman’s name.  If it were pure anger, we wouldn’t get consumed trying to achieve it.  Vengeance is a powerful emotion to consider—even to discover in one’s soul—but after finding it we need to let it go.

I suggest that we remember this, the distortions that anger wreaks on our souls, and that we purify ourselves, even on this Shabbat.  Especially on the Shabbat of Zakhor, let us consider the garments of our souls—our midot—and let us release the shmutz, becoming pure as we are meant to be.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

 

February 24th, 2012 

Each year in this week’s parsha I am drawn to another detail of the tabernacle and its appurtenances.[i]  Consider the symbolism of the badim—the carrying poles or staves attached to the sides of the holy ark.  Exodus 25:15 states that the poles were never to be removed.  I have always enjoyed this image of a “portable Torah.”  This symbolizes the sustaining power of Torah and gives us identity even when our surroundings shift.  It also indicates that Torah itself must be placed in different contexts in order to fulfill its function.

There is a drash about “tent Judaism” and “templeJudaism,” where it was argued that the most creative moments of the Jewish spiritual history have occurred during our journeys. Yet even in our times of repose, when the Jewish settlement feels secure and near-permanent, we are required to maintain the trappings of transition.  This is one function of Sukkot, but it may also be a reason why the staves remained in place even when the Holy Ark was ensconced in the home built by Solomon. Our parshah’s injunction was apparently observed even inFirstTempletimes, long after the function of the (carrying) poles had been rendered obsolete.

In I Kings 8:8 we read, “And the staves were so long that the ends of the staves were seen from the holy place, even before the Sanctuary; but they could not be seen without; and there they are unto this day.”  In the Talmud, this verse is the source of puzzlement—were the staves seen or not seen from without?  Menachot 98a-b provides the answer, the staves were pushed against the parochet.[ii]  The staves were not seen directly, but they could be discerned by looking at the parochet.  From outside the Holy of Holies, one saw two bumps in the cloth, like the breasts of a woman. Thus the imagery from Song of Songs 1:13 describe God as a woman drawing her lover to her breasts—between the badim.

In the Talmud Shabbat 88b, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi links this feminine imagery to that of the next verse in the Song of Songs, 1:14, with its reference to Ein Gedi, flowers, which is of course a hint at Kapparah, atonement.  Israelsays to God, even though we have sinned (with the Golden Calf), draw us near, like a mother hugs her recalcitrant child, and forgive us. Immediately, God commands us to build the tabernacle, in order to atone.

If so, then the imagery of the staves is not only one of a portable Torah, but also of intimacy and forgiveness. Like a loving mother or father, or even a lover, God sees us in our failures and draws us even tighter into an embrace.  Reading these verses long after the Arkand Tabernacle, we can still appreciate God’s desire to dwell in our midst, to enlighten, embrace and atone.  As we complete another intense week, may we welcome the Shekhinah into our very midst, enjoying the comforting grace of the divine embrace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

csirabbi@optonline.net



[i] For a visiual of the badim, it is enlightening to see the depiction on page 1521 of the Etz Hayim.  Look closely and you will see how the badim or staves are attached to theArk by what look similar to what we may know as oar locks.

[ii] Parochet is the curtain on the front of the Aron Kodesh (Ark) in a synagogue that covers the Torah Scrolls.  In most cases, behind the parochet is also a door.  This curtain represents the covering that was on the original Ark of the Covenant.  It is customary in many synagogues to change the parochet to a different set (normally white) during the High Holy Days.

 

February 17th, 2012 

At first blush, Exodus 23:2-3 can appear troubling.  The JPS translation is “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong---you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty---nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.”  The primary reading one can glean from this is justice should be strictly maintained with no deference to the masses or the poor.

Rabbinical students are no different than medical, law or business students.  We frequently study in groups and I vividly recall being at a classmates apartment going over this very pasuk, verse, and her husband, a lawyer chimed in “that could be said for the legal system we have today.”   I was getting ready to say it and his wife so ably responded, “Where do you think the current system came from?”

It is remarkable that the Torah anticipates what remains one of the most challenging aspects of democratic rule---how to respect the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority, especially when that minority is vulnerable.  Unlike our translation, I see verses 2 and 3 as opposites---verse 2 warns us not to join the crowd in favoring the mighty; verse 3 balances this by warning us not to show partiality to the poor either.  Is justice in the middle?

Digging deeper, our rabbis in the Talmud, Hullin 11a read this as a moral instruction and, as a legal guide.  How?  In the first clause, we see in capital cases, a simple majority suffices to exonerate a defendant and a “majority” of two is required for conviction.  Rashi notes, the extensive rabbinic comments around this verse are confusing; their basic thrust is to follow the majority for “good” (i.e. to exonerate) but to require a supermajority for “bad (i. e. to convict).  How can a conviction be considered “bad?’

The overwhelming posture in rabbinic literature is that capital convictions represent failure---for the evil doer---and society as a whole.  In today’s world we see the same “bad” result when examining incarcerations.  Whites are incarcerated at a rate of 353 per 100,000 and blacks at a rate of 2,532 per 100,000.  In any given case, justice may have been served, and yet the result is still “bad.”

In the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 3:8 we see a principal enunciated some 200 years before the Babylonian Talmud came into being, the gist of which being you “listen to the words of the plaintiff and only then to the words of the defendant.”  I am sure my lawyer friend would tell me “that is exactly how they do it nowadays in New Yorkcourts.”  This reminds of a precious interaction I had with one of my own teachers last year days after my ordination.  It was overwhelming and intimidating to sit in a room with many of the hanhala or faculty, all greater than me in “wisdom and years” trying to interject my opinion on a contemporary halachic issue.

My mind wandered back to those remarkable days in the study halls and classrooms of JTS where one of my beloved rabbis taught me the importance of comprehending what others may say, I must make up my own mind on halachic and political issues---but within the proper framework.  Even rabbi’s listen and learn from each other and even more so from those I have come to respect and adore.  It is perhaps for this reason that the ancient Sanhedrin began its deliberations from the side, where the junior scholars sat, so the junior scholars could speak freely without intimidation.

Taken together, these short reading of one or two verses of Mishpatim yield a sense of great moral responsibility in the construction of a just society.  Each judge must be independent, respectful of rich and poor alike, tipping the scales just slightly towards leniency so that just and righteous society can emerge.  Leadership requires wisdom and creativity and at the same time principle and courage.  What is true for judges and civil leaders is equally true for those called to religious leadership.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

February 10th, 2012 

Many commentators have studied the structure of the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue as the Etz Hayim denominates it in Greek), seeking to understand the relationship of its parts to one another and its overall structure. There are famous debates such as the one between Maimonides and Nachmanides over whether what we know as number one (I am the Lord Your God…) is a foundational principle (Nachmanides) or a discrete mitzvah (Maimonides).

My interest is in the simple question of overall structure beyond the famous division between mitzvoth bein adam lamakom (between man/woman and God) and bein adam lichaveiro (between each other).  There is a great insight in the Drash commentary of our Etz Hayim to 20:14 (p.448): “Some see a symmetrical arrangement in the entire passage. The Decalogue begins with an abstract principle concerning thought (“I am the Lord your God”), proceeds to prohibit verbal utterances (swearing falsely) and then focuses on deeds (Shabbat, honoring parents, refraining from murder, adultery, and theft) before returning to the improper use of words (bearing false witness) and concluding with abstract thought (coveting).”

Rabbis Harold Kushner and Susan Grossman, two of the editors were once asked, who “some see” was, but neither could recall who it actually was. Let us expand on the dichotomy between speech and action.  Cultivating faith can lead to sanctified speech, which can lead to holy behavior.  But the progression does not end there.  Holy behavior can lead to careful speech and that to self-control in our thoughts.  Thought leads to action, and action leads to thought; speech is the gateway between our interior and exterior selves.  Physical practice is necessary to develop psychological self-control.  But faith, the conviction that there is a source of goodness and purpose to life in God, is foundational.  There is symmetry not only in the literary structure of the dialogue, but in the moral structure that it implies.

There is a fundamental mussar (ethics) concept, the essence of which is to never say anything uncomplimentary about anyone, ever.  Why?  Someone may have screamed when Ahmad Bradshaw did not go down on the one yard line at the end of the Super Bowl and called him a fool.  (Considering I may have done this, by all accounts I was wrong and should have instead told Bradshaw that I loved him)  Right or wrong, true or false, we want to train ourselves.  The mussar posture is if we do it here, we will soon find ourselves downward on the “slippery slope.”  The challenge is not to.  It is difficult, it is hard.  If we think about it, we can see the virtue.

I would go a step further and see this symmetrical structure as essential to our theory of the self. In contrast to the dualists who would divide body from mind or soul, Judaism generally (with apologies to Maimonides) teaches an integrated model of the self.  There is no intellect or spirit with the body and no body can live without the mind.  Body and soul are like a battery and a gadget. Neither is of any use without the other.  The Decalogue teaches a continuum of sanctified life, where ideas, words and actions are all attached, and no meaningful life can be complete without the entire package.

Of course, this perspective challenges the concept of the life of a soul before and after death.  I cannot say more here other than that the institution of Shabbat seems to be pointing us to awareness that there is more than one way to inhabit physical space.  Keeping Shabbat is at least in part a preparation for the afterlife, olam haba, a type of selfhood that is active but not through physical activity. There can be no Shabbat without the six days of labor, but it is Shabbat that gives purpose and perhaps even permanence to our labor.

Shabbat is a forshpeits of the World to Come.   When we get there it will always be "sunny and 70!  We are exposed to it weekly so we will have a feel for what it is like and maybe, maybe make us do what it takes to get there.   That is why it is said Shabbat is not a burden, it is a delight.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

February 3rd, 2012 

One of the seminal moments in the history of our people occurs this week.  The miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea (some of you may refer to it as theSeaofReeds) is the crescendo of “our” departure fromEgypt.  A cursory examination of the actual verses opens up an obvious question.  There is a widely accepted maxim that when God performs a so-called miracle --- he follows the laws of nature as much as possible.  God wants to cause as little havoc as possible to thereby leave those watching or experiencing the miracle to retain their freedom to “believe or not believe.”

Our question comes from 14:21 and 14:27.  If God moved the sea for us at night, why does the Torah say the Egyptians drowned in the day?  I know this adds fuel to the posture that our Torah is not “word of God” or even “divinely inspired.”  Like many of you I sometimes wonder and wander in my belief.  I make no secret of my conviction or principle, but it is a never ending quest.  This concept is one I read a few years ago and after being here seven months realized how germane it is to us at CSI.

God could have created a more natural event by creating a more modest miracle.  Had the miracle occurred in daylight our people could have “seen” where they were going thereby diminishing the miracle and vice versa for the Egyptians.  Specifically, the Egyptians “got engulfed in the sea in the daylight.”  Why did God enlarge the miracle?  The Egyptians could have drown in the night and made things seem much more --- normal.

The Hebrew word for miracle is nes, which is similar and comes from the same root as the word for test, nisayon.  The power and force of a nes is directly related to the nesayon the person or people and what they had to overcome to merit the miracle.  The Ramban tells us that the Jews traveled within Egypt at night from cities and towns all over to assemble in the city of Ramses for their grandiose exit (if you cannot recall that dramatic scene from The movie, you need to see it again—and again!)    Can you imagine or envision walking into that sea—in the dark?  The reality is that the greater the challenge, the greater the reward.

Whatever your take, we learn an important lesson here.   Observing the Torah and performing the mitzvot in an emotionless manner definitely gets one some reward.  The real reward, however, comes from fulfilling the mitzvot with passion, doing more than the minimum.  Even in my short stay here at CSI, I see the work and dedication our tireless leadership puts out day after day---with much of it at “night” when it would be easy to curl up at home with a book or your loved ones.  Just as our forefathers were “bold into the night” let us revel in the work our CSI foremothers and forefathers have been doing here for 120 years.  May God continue to give us strength M’dor L’dor, from generation to generation!

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

January 27th, 2012 

The Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who wrote an extraordinary ten volume World History of the Jewish People, was forced into the Riga ghetto in 1941, and then executed by the Nazis in December of that year. According to several accounts, Dubnow would go around the ghetto exhorting the people, "Yidn, shreibt un fershreibt" ("Jews, write and record"). His sense of urgency to record events was, I think, more than just a desire for substantiation of the monstrosity to be preserved. Recording events is part of the process of interpretation, and the act of writing gives purpose and dignity to life even in the most chaotic and humiliating of circumstances.

Something similar transpires in Parashat Bo, with the commandment to memorialize the Exodus even before it has reached its climax. In chapters 12-13 numerous mitzvot are commanded--from the fixing of the calendar (for you trivia buffs, what is the first mitzvah in the Torah?) to the redemption of first born to the Korban Pesach to eat matzot for seven days and on to the admonition marking of these events on the hand and head with tefillin—these mitzvot are all expressly designed to commemorate the historic passage to freedom. Curiously, there is no instruction to write things down.  In the ensuing years we received the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch.  It seems that the preservation of memory requires physical rituals.  Judaism can be trusted always to embed such rituals in a thicket of text, and all of these rituals are now well explicated for each generation.

Yet this same imperative to create ritual, and to explain the enduring meaning of events is not how most of us respond to our own personal lives. Today when we sense that we are in a momentous occasion, our instinct is to create images so that we can literally see what happened. Yet a picture is not always worth a thousand words.  Or, as someone once said “the book is better than the movie.”  A picture does not explain the meaning of an event. That requires a response of some sort. A picture accompanied by commentary, or embedded within a larger work of art can begin to give meaning to the experience. If we were leaving Egypt today, most of us would lift up our camera-phones and catch images of the Exodus, but that would never capture the power and grandeur of the experience.

What does it take to make us feel that we are in the midst of a historic change?  What rupture can shake our sense of habit and make use feel the urgency of writing about and ritualizing our experience?  Although we do not live in the kind of moment described by our parashah, it seems that our personal sense of mission can only be enhanced by our taking the time to write and create.  I reveled in the evening reading poetry with many of you last week as well as our recent service of Kavanah with new ways we are looking to express ourselves at CSI.  The time I have spent getting to know many of you these past few months has been truly meaningful.

Obviously there were movie and still cameras inRigain 1941, but few had access to them in those depraved days.  Deubnow may well have condoned the numerous methods of recordation available to each of us in 2012.  But my real feel is that he would still espouse what many would call hard evidence.  Who has not seen photos (or movies) on phones or a computer screen?  Each of them is gone with the flick of a finger or the click of a mouse.

Between MP3 players, laptops, Ipads, Iphones, Androids, Kindles, and Nooks (someone recently said to me “before you know it the Jews will be known as the ‘people of the Nook.’”), there will be no photos on the credenza.  My father and father-in-law were dumfounded when I e-mailed them a photo of Benny on the plane when we were still in the air.  All that is well and I am not maligning it.  We still need something to touch and feel.  As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary when I started noted when referring to his father, a well known rabbi, “Though he died over twenty years ago, we often meet in the pages of his books that are scattered throughout my library.”  What could be more poignant?

Some things need to be caressed, touched and seen—not for a fleeting moment, but all the time.  This week, let us try to identify the historic potential of our present, and at the very least mentally transcribe that awareness so that the moment does not simply pass, but is realized and remembered.  Just as the Israelites are about to cross the Red Sea and began transcribing our religion as we know it, let us learn from the past and the present so that we can take it with us forging our future together at CSI.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

January 20th, 2012 

This week presents us with a difficult question.  Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh, asking that he allow the Israelites to leave Egypt, Pharaoh listens to their request but refuses to let the people go, and then a terrible plague is sent to punish Egypt and cajole Pharaoh into changing his mind.  The same cycle we all know is repeated ten times.  Each time the Egyptian ruler seems to indicate that he is ready to say yes to the demand for freedom put forth by Aaron and Moses.  Then, mysteriously, his “heart hardens.”

The difficult question is what the Torah means by “hardening of the heart.”  What happened to Pharaoh each time he was about to say yes and instead said no?  Was God overriding the Egyptian ruler or playing with him like a puppet on strings?  Or, was Pharaoh freely making his own decisions?

Interpreters point out that the Torah mentions the “hardening” by Pharaoh 20 times.  The first 10 have to do with the first five plagues, and in each case we are told that “Pharaoh hardened his heart.”  Clearly, it would seem that whatever is happening is being caused by Pharaoh.  Yet the next ten references to the “hardened heart” are different.  They occur with the last five plagues, and in each we are told that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”  It seems that God, not Pharaoh, is in control and is bringing about the change in Pharaoh’s heart.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the Torah uses there different Hebrew words to describe the “hardening.”  The first is kashah, meaning “to be hard altogether, to let everything pass over one without making any impression.”  The second is kaved, meaning “heavy.”  One can receive impressions, but there can be a big gap between the impression and the moment one lets oneself be guided by this impression.  Finally, the Torah uses the word chazak, meaning “firm,” consciously opposing any pliancy, any submission.  Hirsch argues that “Pharaoh’s coldness, his apathetic insensibility” was used by God so that “all subsequent ages could derive a knowledge and conviction of the Almightiness, the Presence, and the Direction of God in human history.”  Never again, Hirsch says, would there be a “necessity for miracles.”  In other words, God pulled the strings and directed the choices for the Egyptian ruler.  God made his heart kashah, kaved, and chazak in order to demonstrate where the power and control really is!  It is obvious, God has not graced us with any (overt) miracles since Moses's time and as it is so often said “may it be speedily in our day.”

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan is troubled by an explanation similar to the one offered by Hirsch.  In contrast, he reasoned that if God is pulling all the strings, and Pharaoh has no free choice, then the Egyptian ruler could not be held responsible for his choices.  That would mean that none of us is really free and that our choices between acts of love or hatred, caring or selfishness, justice or indifference are an illusion.  Resh Lakish (Third Century CE) in the Midrash Exodus Rabbah 13:3 and Maimonides centuries later both emphasize that it was not God who forced Pharaoh to do evil toIsrael, but the decision was his alone.  Maimonides adds in his commentary that Judaism believes in free will, but that one bad choice in life will lead to another just as one good choice will lead to another.

Modern psychologist Erich Fromm notes that Pharaoh’s first choices to continue persecuting and oppression the Israelites ultimately led him to a point of no return.  He must have thought that “if I give in to their demands and do not stiffen my heart and rule them harshly, then both the Jews and the Egyptians will conclude that I am weak and will rebel.”  Trapped by fear of failure and unable to develop creative solutions to his problems, Pharaoh fell victim to his own bad decisions.  Tragically, he chose the steep path and, once he came plunging down it was like the new drinking cup I handed Benny as we were walking down the hill last Shabbat.  It was “gone” the moment he dropped it!

The last few weeks I have focused on leadership, both related to the upcoming Presidential election and locally.  As many of you know, I have spent the significant time over the last 10 days engulfed in the closing of the ReubenGittlemanHebrewDay Schooland the attempt to initiate the new Rockland Jewish Academy.  We can learn a great deal from our scholars both past and present.  In order for the RocklandCountynon-Orthodox community to survive and propser, we need to not allow our hearts to be hardened.  Instead let us learn from the past and create a better CSI community, a new successful day school, and an invigorated RocklandCountykehilah.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

January 13th, 2012 

On the final page of the Talmud, Masechet Chagigah, as with so many rabbinic texts, there is a "siyum meshichi" or triumphant conclusion. Discussing the incense altar, which was plated with just a thin layer of gold over the acacia wood, the rabbis say that it was miraculous that the intense heat of burning incense wouldn't damage the wood underneath; so too the fire of Gehenna does not affect the teachers of Torah, or even anyone who practices the mitzvot. In the Midrash Tanchuma on our parshah, it says that the miracle was made possible by a heavenly form of fire that burns but does not consume. This is the same "black fire" of the Torah. Thus the incense altar was able to contain the heat of heavenly fire without destroying its container; so too the bush noticed by Moses was burning with "eish shel ma'alah" and thus not consumed.

My take, based on these rabbinic texts, is that it is a rare divine gift to be aflame with heavenly light that does not destroy.  Usually, intense religious passion has a consuming power, destroying that which seeks to contain it, and also that which surrounds it.  This is what caught the attention of Moses.  Surely he had seen fires before, and certainly he had noticed religious passion in his day.  But this was different--a divine apparition that was commanding, but not threatening, a bush that burned but was not consumed.

At CSI, we just had a lecture last week discussing Jewish/Black relations and are working hard at our interfaith relations with other faiths in the area.  For all of the varieties of faith and practice, the essential quality that I look for is this type of "eish shel ma'alah." Is this a religious passion that nurtures without destroying? Or is this a type of passion that is out of control, contaminated by politics, jealousy, greed and hatred?  This week’s parsha, Parshat Shemot and the subsequent parashiot bring us into the heart of religious quest--the contest of belief. What will Israel believe, and do? What will the Egyptians believe and do? What type of faith will Israel develop? Will it be an eish shel ma'alah, or an eish okhelet, a consuming fire?

It seems that our parshah points to a quality test of revelation. The burning bush is not a sign of passivity--it is dynamic and commanding. It contains the power to refocus the life of Moses, and the course of human history. It does lead to violent confrontation, but seeks to contain this for the sake of justice and freedom rather than revenge (OK, I admit there is some revenge too; the fire does not remain pure in our hands). The fire that burns and perhaps purifies but does not destroy--this is the form of faith that we aspire to develop within ourselves, and for which we search among our neighbors of other religious traditions. Finding that, we can enter into relationship without fear, celebrating the ways in which our respective lights burn in all their radiance and holiness.

As we turn to Shabbat Shemot, and follow it with the remarkable days of MLK day, it is notable that some of our leaders have shown the capacity to pursue justice with passion and perseverance, but without succumbing to the angry and destructive rhetoric that often contaminates such passion. May the example of Dr. King place before all of us a vision of glory--of a purifying passion--that can inspire our leaders to achieve the great goals of justice, prosperity and peace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

January 6th, 2012 

As he is about to die, Jacob calls his sons to his death bed.  His “comments” to them are a combination of blessing, criticism, and prediction.  The dying patriarch is bluntly honest in his evaluation.  He tells Reuben he is “unstable as water,” accuses Simeon and Levi of “lawlessness” and “fierce anger,” and assesses Issachar as a “strong-boned ass.”  He calls Dan a “serpent,” he tells Joseph that he is “a wild ass” and Benjamin that he is “a ravenous wolf.”  Why, we might ask, was Jacob so harshly critical?

Contemporary thinker and scholar, Rabbi Pinchas Peli believes that Jacob’s evaluation was meant to be helpful.  His honesty taught them important lessons about their strengths and weaknesses.  As their father, he could say things that on their face appear pernicious.  Peli argues that “our lives often become confused and entangled for lack of a precise definition of who and what we really are on.”  He claims that Jacob’s evaluation “was meant to help his children hone in their proper identity.  Criticism of them,” Peli comments, “would help them find their way towards the future, in which they were destined to assume their roles as heads of the tribes ofIsrael.”

Peli’s psychological approach has special appeal.  A parent’s role is to help children comprehend their strengths and weaknesses.  Constructive criticism may build character and it can deepen sensitivity to one’s self and to others and improve one’s social skills.  But parental criticism can also undermine confidence or mislead children about their real talents.  Perhaps, instead of being helpful, Jacob’s last words to his sons were detrimental.  How were they to feel about themselves when their father characterized them with such negative depictions?

Not all commentators agree that “improving character” was the reason for Jacob’s critical evaluation.  Don Isaac Abravanel, from 15th centuryPortugal, offers a different slant widely accepted by many Jewish thinkers.  Abravanel’s theory is when it came time for Jacob to die, he decided to pass on the leadership (or rule) of his family to the son most qualified.  He struggled with his decision and the realization the future of the Jewish people hinged on his choice.  He assessed carefully the strengths and weaknesses of each son.  When he reached his conclusion, he then gathered his sons and “told it like it is.”  Jacob wanted each of them to understand why they had been disqualified with specificity.

Whether or not Abravanel’s view of what motivated Jacob is correct, his discussion of what qualifies or disqualifies someone for leadership is salient.  The following summary sets out what Abravanel believes Jacob was saying about his sons and the relevant qualities he took into consideration when he assessed each of them:

  • Reuben was unstable as water.
  • Simeon and Levi used violence and force.
  • Zebululn was always looking for a profit.
  • Issachar used others to fight his battles.
  • Dan snipes at others behind their backs.
  • Gad weakly gives in to his opponents.
  • Asher and Naphtali serve others but do not command respect.
  • Joseph was hated and distrusted by his brothers.
  • Benjamin lacked balance of judgment and concern for others.
  • Judah, who was chosen for leadership, was trusted and accepted by his brothers.  He was brave and successful in battle.  He was steady, thoughtful, and dependable.  He was clear about his goals and determined to fulfill them.

Abravanel’s emphasis is upon the important qualities that define leadership.  Jacob, he argues did not speak to his sons in order to mar their feelings or create bitterness between them (and him).  His purpose was to clarify for them whyJudah, above them all, qualified as the leader of the tribe that would produce King David and future rulers ofIsrael.

Jacob’s last words to his sons were neither a blessing nor a promise for a peaceful future.  Instead, Jacob presented them with a blunt and cogent evaluation of their behavior and personalities.  Our interpreters believe that his purpose was to provide his sons with some critical insights into themselves and their motivations.  In doing so, Jacob also created valuable standards for defining the difference between superior and unacceptable leadership qualities.

As we move into the first Shabbat of the secular New Year, a year in which we will be having a Presidential election and at a time when the leadership in Israel is in peril over the issues with the Charedim, let us be reminded by Jacob of what leadership qualities we should seek for in our leaders in the Diaspora, Israel, and worldwide.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

December 30th, 2011 

It is a time of great tension in the family of Israelboth of course in the modern state and the original family in the Torah.  Two weeks ago in our parsha, as Joseph approaches his brothers in the field, they see him "mei-rachok," from far away. On the p'shat simple level, they could see the well known coat, given to him as a favorite son.  But the drash or interpretation is not so hard to guess--they saw him as distant, and refused to see him up close. The text emphasizes this--"before he could come close to them"--and then uses a strange verb, "vayitnaklu oto l'hamito," or the schemed to kill him.  Ramban, Nachmanides, from 13th century Spain, brings out that their plan was also to kill Joseph from a distance, perhaps by setting their dogs on him, so they wouldn't have to get into a messy face to face situation.  When that plan failed, they decided to throw him into a pit and ultimately sold him into slavery.

Every child knows the rudiments of the story.  All of the troubles in this family stem from their petty jealousies. The brothers see a coat that is emblematic of Joseph’s position viz-a-viz his father.  Joseph sees the brothers as bit players in his dreams. Yet, decades later the brothers don't recognize Joseph even after all his machinations and intrigue.

Given the facts we have, this still begs the real question.  Yes, it took Joseph a few years to become the second most powerful man in the world.  But, how did he let his elderly father bewail and bemoan him for so many years after his ascending into power?

Joseph is surprised by his brother’s renewed fear of him after Jacob dies. Alienation is the root of anger and of great evil. The healing process cannot begin until this week’s parsha Vayigash when the brothers finally come near to one another, but even that reconciliation is incomplete as the brothers still go their separate ways.

This is of course the entire challenge of our community and all that await us. How can we transcend the alienation that surrounds us?  If we cannot hear our fellow human being, if we cannot come to know him or her, to experience their sorrow with sympathy, then how can we possibly come to know the larger communities of today awaiting our help? If we cannot transcend the alienation with people we see each day, then how can we undo the deep schism of our people from the Torah, from the life of the soul, and from God? We must learn to witness the pain of another person without feeling defensive. Rather we must show sympathy and love, and stand for hope.

We just celebrated Chanukkah.  This is now a time for reversing darkness and estrangement.  May the light of Torah which we ignite this season drive out the darkness of alienation and draw us together into a community of joy and peace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

December 23rd, 2011 

I have come to appreciate my sleep in the last 15 months more than ever before.  Benny wakes me up long before the time I have to be up.  Let me tell you that the contrast between a natural awakening and the sounds of Benny are stark (but music to my ears).

These two types of awakenings are reminiscent of the two times we read this week, “and Pharaoh awoke.”  He awoke to the puzzling images of his dreams, and immediately wondered what they meant and what response they demanded.  We awake with an equal sense of confusing reality—a mixture of hope and anxiety attends our rising, and we wonder always, “what should I do?”  What dramas can be put aside and what new challenges demand my full attention?  Increasingly, we ARE Joseph—called upon to be a voice of wisdom and holiness in a world of fear and hatred. Exercising this form of leadership is a privilege but also a burden. Our parashah is about the assumption of responsibility and living with the consequences of our decisions.

Miketz means “at the end” and in a way this parashah is about the end of the preliminaries of the Torah and the childhood of our people.  The transition from being a family in Canaan to a nascent nation inEgypt has begun.  The decisions made by the biblical characters increasingly impact not only on their own destiny but the world. From a modest beginning will come a mighty narrative that will eventually define the terms of civilized society.

It seems appropriate that Miketz is connected each year to the festival of Hannukah, which represents both a middle and a new beginning.  This is an activist festival—the one more than any other when the initiatives of the people determined their destiny.  The festival’s name refers of course to the rededication of the Templein Jerusalemto the worship of God.  But it also alludes to chinnukh, or education—this is a time to train ourselves with new skills and insights.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav brings out a beautiful word play—through Hannukah we reveal the hidden light of God’s face.  The second of the priestly blessings says that “the light of God’s face will shine on you andויחנך.  We translate that last word as “be gracious to you,” from the word חן, but Reb Nachman plays on the presence of the letters for חנוכה—by celebrating Hannukah we reveal the hidden light of God’s face. The human initiative is what reveals the light, though the source of the light is eternally present.

The latter point is made even more forcefully by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630) known generally as the “Shelah” for the name of his book, Shnei Luchot HaBerit.  There is an old tradition of reciting the passage “hanerot hallalu” after lighting the Hanukkah candles. The earliest version of the text is found in the Talmud, Sofrim 20:6.  The paragraph emphasizes that we are forbidden to use the light of Hannukah (e.g. to read or cook by it), but only to look at it.

The Shelah brings down that this unusual arrangement of lighting a flame and then declaring its light to be off limits for human use is reminiscent of the first light of creation.  As we all remember, God creates light on day one, but the sun, moon and stars are not fashioned until the fourth day. We use the secondary light of the celestial bodies—but what happened to the first light of creation? Already in Midrash, Bereshit Rabba 3:6 we learn the idea that God hid the initial light away for the future use of the righteous.  If I understand the Shelah correctly, he is saying that Hannukah is the “coming out” celebration where the righteous are able to reveal light that had previously been hidden and share it with the world.  What is that light?  It is the light is of the Shekhinah, the divine presence; the light of Torah; and the light of mitzvot.

One of my favorite Hannukah songs, Banu Hoshech L’garesh, makes this point as well. It is our collective responsibility and joy to reveal hidden light—sources of joy on this festival.  We can rise in darkness and feel burdened and overwhelmed by the troubles of the world.  We can bemoan the weakness of our institutions and despair of our ability to redeem goodness, tranquility and holiness in this world.  Or we can assert hope, and banish darkness.  Hannukah teaches us to simply light, and look at the dancing flames.  Not to use them, but to absorb their light until we gain hope and courage and the ability to carry on our holy work.

Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

December 16th, 2011 

Some seem surprised that I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  While I knew it was not the center of the Jewish world, it was the center of my own Jewish world.  Therefore, it is not hard to hearken back to the time of my Bar Mitzvah.  A small group of us had embarked on an arduous Chumash class with our rabbi and each week he would bring up some aspect of the parsha ask how it applied to life and what were we to glean from it.

As a very interested student, I vividly recall the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the Ark that got all of Gods creatures on it, Abraham circumcising himself at 99, the Akeidah, Eliezer happening upon Rebecca at the well and Jacob deceiving Isaac for the birthright.  I understood each actual happening and had no trouble relating the narrative with explicit detail.  At 13 or 14, I did have trouble deciphering how these supposed teachings had any application to life and my life in particular.

We were always caught up in class trying to find the “deeper meaning.”  It only took me a moment to find the place in the Hertz Chumash [1] where the rabbi took us in answering my question about how these could apply to my life:

There is nothing in Judaism against the belief that the Bible attempts to  convey deep truths of life and conduct by means of allegory.  The Rabbis often taught by parable and such method of instruction is well known…[2]

I wanted to see what happened and why in plain English and was satisfied. Then one day it clicked.  Now I would call it an epiphany.  We were reading in this week’s parsha and came to the verses (24 and 25) where the brothers threw Joseph into the pit “…and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.  And they sat down to eat bread…” (From the Hertz translation) or as the Etz  Hayim translates it, “They sat down to eat a meal.”  Whichever you choose, there is no substantial difference.

It was not hard to tell Rabbi Celnick was waiting for an explanation that was more erudite than “they must have been hungry.”  My brain was churning and somehow I put it all in context and realized the brothers has just done a dastardly deed and rather than show any remorse, shame or guilt, started eating in what must have been the next moment.

The look of elation on the rabbi’s face will never be forgotten and with that little “icebreaker” I began to see and realize how to get past the pashat, simple meaning, to the next level or meaning.  We are told that the Torah takes us through the vicissitudes of life, both the good and the bad and until I revisited this episode in Joseph’s life (and my own life) and read the Etz Hayim footnote to verse 25.  It had always solely been associated with lack of remorse, shame or guilt.  The Etz Hayim first notes the brother’s callousness and then, to my astonishment, takes a 180-degree turn suggesting the brothers sold “Joseph into slavery so the Israelites and Egyptians will have food to eat during the famine.”

This for me is “food” for thought and while I hope my skills have grown since my Bar Mitzvah days, find it very hard to put any kind of  positive slant on the brothers sitting down to eat after casting Joseph into the pit.  Perhaps that is why we have “commentaries on commentaries” and it is all good “food for thought.”  This Shabbat, I challenge us all to take time to think about those moments when perhaps we “ate” when we really should have been helping others.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

csirabbi@optonline.net


[1] It was just last week that I noted the Hertz Chumash as what seems to have been the only one in Conservative shuls the late 30’s to the turn of the century.  Rabbi Celnick relied on it exhaustively and exclusively.

[2] Hertz Chumash Page 195.

 

December 9th, 2011 

With all of the recent findings, allegations, at PennStateand Syracuse, I could not help but make the connection to the rape of Dinah this week.  In his renown commentary on the Torah, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Joseph H. Hertz[i] called the story of Dinah “a tale of dishonor, wild revenge, and indiscriminate slaughter.”

Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, goes out to socialize, something not countenanced for any woman, and is raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor who is the chief of the region.  Shechem confesses to his father that he is in love with Dinah and wants to marry her.  He asks his father to arrange the marriage with Jacob.  Jacob hears that Dinah has been raped, but he remains silent until his sons return home from the fields.  When they return, they are furious.

Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi, outraged at the humiliation caused to their sister, trick Shechem’s residents unto circumcising themselves under the preconception that would then allow them to intermarry with Jacob’s family.  Simeon and Levi then kill all the towns males, save Dinah, take all the wealth, women and children as captives.

Jacob hears what they have done, and says to Simeon and Levi, “You have made trouble for me by giving me a bad reputation among the people of the land.  I am few in number, and if attacked my house will be destroyed.”  The brothers responded, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

The question posed by Simeon and Levi takes us to the heart of the matter.  What should they have done?  Should they have allowed Shechem to rape Dinah their sister, without revenge?  Given the fact that they were fewer and weaker than Hamor’s powerful fighting men, were Simeon and Levi justified in tricking them?  Who was really responsible for this incident—Dinah, who went out socializing without a chaperon, or Shechem, who forced himself upon her?  One answer is obvious that we should never rush to judgment.  As a lawyer once related to me in a divorce proceeding where we were counseling, “There are three sides to these cases, his, hers, and reality.”

These are the questions.  How could have so many people who knew about the alleged abuse sat silently like Jacob did?  The fact that Jacob waited until his sons came back and it was only his sons who dealt with the situation is already troublesome.  For Jacob to be upset that his sons sought revenge is baffling.  One can understand how Jacob would be worried that someone would exact revenge upon his family, but for him to not want Dinah’s honor to be defended is upsetting.

By no means do I feel that the actions by the brothers took the right path.  However, Jacob’s silence is troublesome.  Commentators debate whether the action of Simeon and Levi were justified and whose fault this whole situation was.  Personally, I side with those who believe that Jacob should not have remained silent and that perhaps the brother’s did the only thing they could given the circumstances.  Maimonides says that the inhabitants in the city ofShechemknew that Shechem had raped Dinah but refused to even admonish him for his evil deed.  From Maimonides perspective this was the only action available to Simeon and Levi given the strength of the people of Shechem.

I am not advocating vigilantism to those being accused of sexual abuse, but we should not stand idly by like Jacob.  Instead we need to attempt to be more vigilant and address the abuse quickly.  Jacob’s condemnation of Simeon and Levi for taking the law into their own hands, even to revenge the rape of their sister, seems like a clear message.  However, I believe had Jacob acted and at least forced Shechem before a tirbunal, Simeon and Levi would not have been forced to act as they did.  It was refreshing to see the modern State of Israel act swiftly in the case of Moshe Katzav, a man of power and importance, the Shechem of his day.

The lesson to be learned from this week’s parsha, as well as what is happening in our society is that as soon as we hear about sexual abuse or rape, we need to respond immediately.  The answer to brute force or to violence, however, should not be more violence, but instead it should be the pursuit of justice within the proper framework, expeditiously.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


[i] It what was probably the Chumash virtually every one of us was raised on with the Etz Hayim not finding its way into Conservative synagogues until 2001 (at the earliest).  The shul where I grew up inAlbuquerque only phased out the Hertz Chumash two years ago in favor of the Etz Hayim.

 

December 2nd, 2011 

About a year ago I was in line to rent a car.  It was late and the line for two different companies had been combined into one.  I patiently waited in line with a dozen other people for about 30 minutes.  As it was almost my turn, a man who had just gotten there went through the other “non-existent line” and cut everyone else in line without a care in the world.  When other customers including me tried to reason with this man, he simply yelled at us telling us how foolish we all were to not create the second line.  This man clearly cheated the system and us.  I took the high road and chose to not continue any argument.  In a way, I let him cheat and win.

Last week, Jacob famously “stole” the blessing from Esau.  The text favors Jacob and it appears Jacob is the one meant to continue the Jewish people.  However, Jacob, with his mother’s help, deceives his own father into giving him the blessing.  Jacob even goes so far as to put extra “hair” on his arms so that his blind father will think he is Esau.

While many rabbinic commentaries ultimately vilify Esau, they all agree that he was wronged in this case as he was completely loyal to his father.  In Genesis Rabbah 65:16 Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “All my lifetime I attended upon my father, yet I did not do for him a one-hundredth part of the service which Esau did for his father.”

If we heard about someone deceiving someone else in our society today, would it be countenanced or celebrated?  Generally the answer is no because we try to keep to a moral code of sorts.  But how do we react in our society today if we feel that the person who has cheated, deserved to get there but was being given a raw deal before they cheated?  One example of this is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.  For those who saw the movie “The Social Network” last year, it is obvious that Zuckerberg cheated in some way to get to the top, but he also was initially given a raw deal.

Our Torah seems to make Jacob pay for his deception by having him be deceived by his father-in-law Laban, when Jacob marries Leah instead of Rachel.  The ongoing question is, was this punishment enough?  Does Jacob deserve to be punished more, or do we give him a pass because he was simply following the dictates of his mother?

We see Jacob wrestling with God, not once, but twice!  Perhaps Jacob’s sparring with God is also a result of his cheating the system to gain the birthright.  This is a reoccurring question for all of us.  Have you ever thought when you stubbed your toe or dropped your cell phone…is this some kind of retribution from God?  For me the answer is no, but for you it might be yes, depending on your theology.

The way I “read” our story, Jacob being tricked under the chuppah is just a speeding ticket, a bump in the road.  Jacob is the father of 13 children, and it is his 12 sons who move toEgyptto truly begin the Jewish people.  The Torah is telling us that this ebb and flow of deeds is part of life.

Our tradition tells us that cheating is a form of stealing.  The concept of Ginivat Da’at is understood to be the obtainment of undeserved good will.  That sounds like a mouthful of psychobabble until we see examples.  For instance, offering to pay at a restaurant when you know the other will not accept or inviting a friend to a simcha when you know they cannot afford to travel quickly come to mind, thus giving a false sense of generosity.  Cheating as this type of stealing is worse than any other kind of stealing, including robbing a bank, according to the Tosefta Bava Kamma 7:3.

While it may be true that others in society do things that are improper or immoral, there can be no justification based on what others are doing.  Maimonides in Hilchot Deot (the laws of personality development) 6:1 says that Judaism recognizes that peer pressure is a powerful force in life, but each person is given free choice and thus retains the ultimate responsibility for his or her choices, and each of us should always be in the company of the wise and learn from them.

We will all have moments in our lives when we can fudge or cheat to get ahead, just like the man who did so with me at the car rental counter.  I implore us all to take a step back and try to not take advantage of others or of situations that are morally wrong but could benefit us.  Our biblical heroes were not perfect, and this is but one example.  Let’s learn from Jacob’s actions and remember that we can always work to be better people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

November 23rd, 2011 (Thanksgiving)

Jacob is destined for struggle from the womb.  He is always running, wrestling, outsmarting others and getting outsmarted in return. His story is a tight literary unit, with the use of leitmotifs of deception that always rebound upon him (taking advantage of Isaac’s blindness, but being deceived in the dark tent; using the bloody skin to deceive Isaac; the bloody tunic used by his sons to deceive him etc.). While this constant struggle makes good literary sense and also fulfills the rabbis’ concept of midah kneged midah, one measure for another, it is exhausting!  It seems like Jacob got not only Esau’s but also Ishmael’s blessing (26:12)

We would hope that Jacob could at least find refuge in religion.  However, Jacob and his family have questionable religious practices—they seem to depend on magic in the procreative tale of the mandrakes, and also with the use of stripped branches to breed mottled goats; then there is next week’s parasha, Vayeitzei which mentions the theft of Laban’s household idols, and we could see problems even with the creation of a matzeivah shrine to house God (the Bet Eil of 28:22).

It takes a long time for Jacob to transition from “the heel” (Ekev) to “upright before God” (Yashar-El).  He never seems able to relax and just be at peace with himself, his family, his neighbors or his God. As the Rabbis say, the acts of the ancestors foreshadow what will come from the descendants.  So too it seems that the Jewish people’s destiny has been to struggle in many of the ways of our ancestor Jacob/Israel.  We have the good fortune to live in a period that is somewhat tranquil; there are no cataclysmic pogroms lurking.  But the struggle to figure out how to live with integrity before God, that remains a constant challenge. How do we balance ritual versus social obligations?  How do we maintain boundaries while opening our hearts to others?  How do we live with deep principle while also respecting other opinions?  What do we do with all this tension, and how do we keep it healthy rather than corrosive?

It seems to me that the best way to balance all of this and to feel whole is in the cultivation of community.  Religious communities are seldom places where everyone is in agreement and nothing divisive ever occurs.  You may have heard of the town with two Jews and three shuls?  How could that be?  And then I realized the obvious, everyone has to have a shul they would not step foot in.

Like families, communities are places where we are known and loved even when we are at odds with one another.  As with families, it takes real, sustained effort to protect this structure, to augment the forces of love and to channel tensions into constructive cooperation, i.e. make our community into a kehilah kedoshah, a holy community.

Watching Jacob this week and next, running from Esau and then from Laban only to be forced back into an embrace with each that he had desperately sought to avoid, I think about our own lives.  As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we should think about our families and our communities.  Our families and our communities are complicated places with the greatest capacity of both love and tension. I wish all of us fortitude in the creation of such an embrace, and hope that you will experience this holiday as a time of true thanksgiving.

In order to help aid us in finding a true Thanksgiving holiday, I would like to share a beautiful Thanksgiving poem written by Rabbi Naomi Levy.

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

November 18th, 2011

I first came to know it as a Chinese proverb, when I met Lauren, she was working on her MBA and she related it to me as a business school mantra.  When I arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary I constantly heard it in the context of an individual’s Jewish learning.  If you aren’t going forward, you are going backwards!

Is your “love” falling or rising?  In our vernacular, falling is typically taken as dwindling and rising as surging or growing.  It is certainly countenanced in today’s world that you meet someone (your bashert) you “fall” in love and then you get married and live happily ever after. On your weddingday, is your “love” at its apogee?  I hope not!

We are told in Chayei Sarah this week in 24:67 that when Isaac married Rebecca, “she became his wife; and he loved her.”  It certinaly seems out of sequence from what we are accustomed to.  We would say he “fell” in love with her and then he married her.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson about love from Isaac’s actions.  In today’s society, we say the word “love” so casually.  We use the word indiscriminately, thereby rendering it a meaningless term.  Count the number of times you say the word “love” during the course of the day and you will be quite surprised.  Phrases like “I just love that dress” or “I love Challah Fairy (or Rockland Bakery) babkah” are heard constantly.  But can you really, truly love an inanimate object?  Even when we say that we love a person, another human being, do we really love them for the right reasons?  Or do we contrive our own definition of love by thinking that I love her because she’s beautiful or I love him for his position in the community?

Isaac is reminding us of the true meaning of love.  Many times, people will fall in love, get married, and the relationship starts to go sour from there.  Isaac is teaching us that instead of falling in love, we should be rising in love.  I am by no means advocating for arranged marriages as with Isaac and Rebecca, but we can still rise in love like one of our patriarchs and matriarchs do in our parsha.  A relationship between two partners should be a dynamic one.  We should not “fall” into our love and then watch it fall with us.  The verse is telling us that when Isaac got married, his love was just beginning.  His love for Rebecca grew every day, knowing no bounds or limitations.  His love was real; it was not static, nor did it become stale depending on what Rebecca was wearing or by the situation they were in.  It was an everlasting love, one that we should try to emulate.

My prayer for this Shabbat is that whoever we love in our lives or for whomever we may love in the future that we are able to have the same introspection as Isaac and Rebecca to love each other through the ups and downs of life.  Let this Shabbat be one in which we can express our true love and gratitude to one another, and like our challah every week, be rising.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

November 11th, 2011

When one thinks of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, the first thought is incredible kindness of Abraham only days after his brit milah followed by Sarah bearing a child at 90 with a 100 year old husband all trumped by Abraham’s tenth and final test, the “almost” sacrifice of Isaac.  As children, we have all touched on the first thoughts, but I would like to delve into a portion that seems like a rhetorical question of an age old issue.  In the second half of chapter 18 we are run head on into, “Should good people suffer for the evil that bad people do?”

As if we are ease dropping on the “conversation” between God and Abraham, we enter with God telling Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed for their wickedness and Abraham responding with a lengthy prayer and dialog on the cities behalf.  “Cutting to the chase,” Abraham boldly asks, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  You know the rest, Abraham asks “what if there were 50 righteous citizens?”  He then negotiates for 45, 40, 30, and so on until agreeing on 10 righteous people being the magical number.  Unable to find even 10 righteous citizens, God proceeds to destroy both cities.

Why did God cause this to happen?  One would think the few good would be spared.[i]  Perhaps Abraham’s successful pleas were that the smaller number of the righteous would be sufficient to save them all.  Whatever the case, the Torah tells us little with the most memorable detail being Lot’s wife who “looked back” and turned into “a pillar of salt.”[ii]

The Rabbis also ask the same question of what was so evil about the people of these cities that God decided to destroy everyone.  Varying commentators and Midrashim give different reasons that all relate to one another.  The gist of these comments are as follows:

  1. They refused to share their wealth and abundant riches with others.
  2. They made fun of those in need and deliberately made their lives more miserable.
  3. They refused to care for the sick, aid the poor, help the needy, or offer hospitality to the immigrant or stranger in their midst.
  4. Their leaders were so greedy and selfish that they made cruelty a public policy.
  5. They went so far as to punish their own citizens who reached out to feed the hungry or provide shelter to the homeless.
  6. Their judges practiced dishonesty and robbery, and their courts offered no fair treatment for victims of oppression or injustice.

For all of these reasons mentioned, the rabbis note thatSodomandGomorrahwere destroyed.  But what about our original question?  Even if there was one innocent, good person left inSodomorGomorrah, should that person have been destroyed with all the evil ones?  Must good people suffer because of the bad things that others do?  The answer for us in our society today is that unfortunately we often suffer because of the evil that others may do.  Perhaps you can see the connection with our parsha and the incident at Penn State.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we are free to choose between good and evil, between hurting others or helping them.  The gift of freedom means that God does not interfere and cannot prevent us from doing things that not only harms us but others as well.  God wants us to do the right thing, to be just, kind, loving, and generous, but God cannot force us to make the right choice.  We must make our own choices, and we must live with the consequences—even the consequences of the choices that other people make.  Our job in the world today is to do our best to be an example and to not put ourselves in situations where others are making poor choices.  God gave us free will, and therefore we must be conscious of the broad latitude we have been granted.

God did not plan the destruction.  The people brought their end upon themselves and others.  What we should learn from this is that if we are in a place or position that does not feel right, it is our responsibility to leave and go somewhere better, somewhere new, rather than staying with those who could potentially cause us harm in our lives.  This is not easy.

It sounds so much more expressive in French and it does seem appropriate here today.  Plus ca change, plue c’est la meme chose or “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  The last thing I want to do is falsely accuse anyone of anything, but it sure looks like the whole upper strata of the athletic department and administration at Penn State could not figure out what to do in a very delicate situation.  Apparently, one person did something (dastardly) wrong, but nobody could figure out the right thing to do.  Not exactly like our kinsmen inSodom and Gomorah, but even the most biased observer would have to admit, similar.  Let us hope that the facts will not implicate those that did little wrong and not bring down careers and lifetimes of good work, but I fear that just like in our parsha, there were not enough righteous people to stand up for those little boys.

Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because, as we have seen, their inhabitants were guilty of abusing human freedom.  They brought on their own destruction—and the death of many innocent people—they deliberately chose cruelty over charity, selfishness over caring, and greed over sharing.  Let us learn from our parsha this week and the incident at Penn State

to do better for ourselves and for the environment we are living in.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham



[i] Gunther Plaut in his The Torah: A Modern Commentary somehow notes “There were no righteous men in the cities.”

[ii] This is not the first time I have read this portion and I was somewhat surprised by the footnote in our Etz Hayim Chumash where it sets out that she “lingered in flight and was overwhelmed by the rapidly spreading devastation.”  My lifelong understanding was that she simply “looked back” and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt.  At least that is why we have commentaries to allow us the opportunity to discuss issues like this.

 

November 4th, 2011

It is not a secret, I am an avid baseball fan, or in my wife’s parlance “a baseball nut.”  So, of course I was riveted last week to Game 6 of the World Series, as one of the greatest games of all time unfold as Texas blew an opportunity to win the World Series three different times, allowing St. Louis to come back and win the game dramatically in the 11th inning.  This was a game that no matter who I have spoken to that you had to see as it cultivated both the sports world and even the casual fan.

The process of looking, being seen, and being transformed in the process is discussed with particular insight this week by  Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 –1619) in his Kli Yakar  on Genesis 13:14-17 from this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Lech Lecha.

Kli Yakar notes how God first instructs Abram to look up and see the land, and then instructs him to rise and walk its length and breadth. The former instruction includes an unequivocal promise that Avram will instantly inherit the land and bequeaths it to his descendants “forever.” The latter instruction promises only that he alone will receive it.  There are other variations in language—the instruction to gaze includes the urgent Hebrew word “na” but the instruction to walk does not. Kli Yakar compares this to the story of Moses at the end of his life.  God offers him the ability to see the land from Mt. Nebo, but he urgently (e’ebarah na) desires to cross theJordan and walk it himself.  From the divine perspective, looking is the more significant act. From the human vantage, it is movement that we desire.

Kli Yakar brilliantly reconciles all of this with a nuanced theory of acquisition. Normal acquisition of property requires a physical action—walking the land and demonstrating ownership, but acquisition of the land’s spiritual qualities requires more than physical motion—it requires looking at and being seen by God (or the place of God—Mt. Moriah).  And even when one stops looking (or when God’s earthlyTemplehas been destroyed), the connection with heaven (and the heavenly temple) has been made permanent.  This idea of a sight that changes everything forever—and that has greater force than a physical experience—is extremely powerful.  But Kli Yakar notes that most people don’t feel the same urgency to look as to act. God uses the word “na” regarding “looking,” but leaves it out for “walking.” Moses reverses the sense of urgency, mistakenly associating it with a physical crossing rather than a visual experience. People are naturally inclined to “active learning” but sometimes physical activity is a distraction, and focused contemplative observation leads to deeper learning.

What relevance does this insight yield about our experience?  I suspect that this relates to the enduring challenge of creating inclusive communities—places where all people have not only physical access, but the ability to see and be seen as full participants.  Over the past 50-60 years, American society has struggled with successive campaigns of inclusion. These campaigns have, with enormous effort and sacrifice, transformed society in ways that grant greater access to people who had been excluded for reasons of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability and so on. Every court decision and piece of legislation, every policy and invitation that has opened the door to fuller participation is a precious victory.  These physical acts of “kinyan,” of acquisition are necessary.

But physical acquisition is not sufficient by itself. It does not suffice to ensure access to an asset, whether the asset is a physical resource like a bus or house, or a spiritual asset like Torah and mitzvot. In addition to the way we walk, there is the matter of how we look. Do we look at each other as sources of wisdom, worth and holiness?  Finally, getting back to baseball, last week’s World Series game was an incredible sight, but it is what has to be thought of or gained from a pivotal moment in our lives that matters the most.  Are we capable of “shifting the gaze” so that we see one another not as objects but as subjects—individuals with unique perspectives that can change the landscape forever?  As the physical and cultural norm of our community continues to grow more diverse, what adjustments can we make in the way that we behold one another, and how will these new ways of seeing change us?

Parashat Lekh Lekha takes us from the image of a physical journey to that of a visual transformation.  Raising our gaze we see a reality that is other, but which also has the potential to become our future.  May we see one another with the capacious and generous eye of Abram—and may we not fear what permanent change can result from our gaze.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

October 28th, 2011  

Most people when reading this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach think immediately about the flood, Noah’sArk, and the rainbow of promise from God that the Lord will never destroy the entire world again.  I, however, and am always struck by the story at the end of this week’s parsha about the Tower of Babel.

The Torah tells us that, after the Flood, people moved eastward and settled in the land of Shinar.  They decided to build a city for themselves and a migdal, a tower, that reached up into the heavens.  “Let’s make a name for ourselves,” they said to one another, “or we will be scattered all over the earth.”  Seeing the city and tower they were building, God decided to do what the people had feared.  “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act,” God reasoned, “then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”  For that reason God scattered them throughout the world and made them speak different languages.  The city where this all took place was named Babel, which means confused or mixed up.  This seems to be an appropriate description of the entire episode which raises several questions.  What was wrong with the people building a migdal, tower?  Would we not be better off if peoples everywhere spoke one language which could have improved communication, and, perhaps, the chances for human cooperation and peace?

Commentators over the years have tried to explain and answer these questions.  As 11th century commentator Ibn Ezra noted, we can find no reason to believe that the people were dim-witted enough to think that their building a tall tower would enable them to encounter God.  Consequently Ibn Ezra’s understanding of the story is significantly different.  He explains that their intent was not to build a tower or fortress, but rather a headquarters.  Their goal was to make a glorious name for themselves by establishing a center for all of civilization.  They thought this center was to become the heart of world society.

Isaac Abarvanel from 15th century Portugal, Spain, and Italy, says that before building the tower, the people had lived at peace with one another, but as soon as they began building, they started to argue bitterly with one another disagreeing over who would do what in the building process.  Rabbi Benno Jacob, a 19th Biblical scholar suggests that those who built the tower failed because their goals were wrong.  He said that the people had mastered the art of brick making, of molding, and heating the clay.  But, instead of using their technology to improve living conditions in their city, to create housing for the poor, sick, and aging, they decided to use their resources and efforts to build the highest tower in the world.  The mistake of the people was using their technology for pride and vanity instead of using it to improve the quality of life in their society.  A midrash in Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 24 speaks about the fact that the building of the tower and the goal of fame for the community became justification for brutality and the end of individual freedom.  Bricks became more important than individual liberties or lives.

As we can see, the commentators found many important explanations for God’s destruction of theTowerofBabel.  The project produced jealousy and vicious competition, a misuse of technology, and a cruel disregard for the worth of each individual life.  It fostered a false patriotism and, ultimately, threatened the loss of freedom.  Could it be that God actually saved humanity from catastrophe by confusing their language, destroying the tower, dispersing us, and our traditions to all corners of the earth?

Perhaps the real message of this story has to do with helping us understand that our differences in language, culture, and traditions all represent significant strengths and blessings for humanity.  With all of the horrible fighting and disagreements happening in our world today, especially with Israel and the Middle East, I believe we should all look to the end of this week’s parsha and the story of the Tower of Babel to be reminded just how much we should value each and every culture in our attempts to make peace in the world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

October 19th, 2011 (Shimini Atzeret and Shabbat)   

Moving forward.  We have completed most of the holidays in Tishrei, ready to ascend in completing the Torah and then restarting it again this week with Simchat Torah and Shabbat Breishit.

Our final parasha, V’zot Haberakhah, which we will read on Thursday night and Friday morning, has always been for me, one of the most difficult parts of the Torah to comprehend.  The language is not only poetic, but uncommon. The tribes are discussed as a single person.  Emotions run rampant throughout the text.  However, I like to think I am capable of getting past these difficulties.  The biggest dilemma is we have been following the life of a great leader, and the severest injustice is committed!  The leader dies, and we are not told where he is buried!  We know the mountain he climbs, per se.  We know that Aaron died there too – but we really have no idea today where he is buried.  How can we make sense of this?

Shortly before the Torah ends, Moses dies.  When we want to remember someone wholeheartedly we pay homage to their being in a variety of ways:  we tell stories of triumph and respect; we speak of their progeny; we build characters of love and pain and valor; and reflect.  We cannot just “remember someone.”  We need to say Kaddish.  We need to light a Yahrtzeit candle.  We need to hear that dirt hit the coffin with a resounding thud.  We need concrete connections.  I need to visit Moses’ grave to be at one with our Jewish heritage.  But, we see in Deuteronomy 34:6 that no one knows the whereabouts of Moses’ burial place.  How can this be?  How can we not make a pilgrimage to the final resting place of the venerated and exemplary leader of our people?

The commentators are likewise troubled by the omission of Moses’ burial place.  The answers seem to be in some sort of agreement, i.e. we do not know where Moses is buried because if we did, we would turn it into a shrine.  By virtue of Moses’ relationship with God, we would begin to worship Moses, or worse, we would begin a following devoted to the spirit of Moses.  Keeping to a political mindset, what would happen if there were a disagreement over the burial place?  If two factions claimed that “this is the spot where Moses is buried” (not far off from the hotels claiming “George Washington slept here”, or have you ever seen the Original Drifters?), there would be inherent strife.

It is difficult to accept these answers to my quest to find Moses’ burial place.  And so I attest that we DO know where Moses is buried.  Moses is buried in the text, or, like George Washington, “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  We read the end of the text in Parashat Ha’azinu, which we read on the Shabbat after Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah.  God tells Moses he is going to die in Deuteronomy 32:50, it is difficult to fathom that God would allow Moses to suffer from that point onward.  As God finished speaking, I am certain that Moses died right there and was fulfilled because God assured him that the land would be given to the Israelite people.

V’zot Haberakhah, in its entirety, is the epitaph on Moses’ tombstone, poetry of his accomplishments and conquests, our goals and our downfalls.  This is not a Blessing for us.  This is a Blessing for Moses.  The epitaph pays homage to Moses.  These are stories of triumph and respect.  We are included in the progeny.  We have reconstructed a life of love and pain, and we constructively or symbolically visit the burial place so that he is truly remembered.

It is appropriate that we “visit” the final resting place of such a hero in this season.  Just as we are beginning to walk in the shoes of new life, we are humbled that even the greatest of our leaders have to succumb to death.  And so, we finish our Torah and then we begin anew, reading from Breishit and our creation because the way to visit Moses and the way for us to gain new meaning is to reread our sacred texts each and every year.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

October 12th, 2011 (Sukkot)   

The emotional high of the Days of Awe is still an uplifting memory. We have attempted to cleanse our souls, and if we are really honest with ourselves, we might admit that we are feeling pretty good about the experience. Ironically, perhaps we might even be feeling a bit smug. Sukkot, which we begin tonight, is important in helping overcome this tendency.

Our Torah portion from Leviticus for the first two days of Sukkot begins with the reminder not to profane God’s name.  We are called upon to live our days through actions that sanctify our existence.  The concepts of “profaning God’s name,” chilul HaShem, and “sanctifying God’s name,” kiddush HaShem, introduce our special Torah passage from Leviticus.  The separation between these two concepts is often a fine line. Our High Holy Days experience has hopefully helped us gain insights that will inspire us to sanctify our daily lives, thereby elevating our sense of humanity. Yet when we bask in the glow of our own holiness, we profane its very meaning in our lives. Our tradition tells us that the righteous praise God’s glory. This is the nature of kiddush HaShem.

The parashah moves from the ethical principles just mentioned to a comprehensive description of the sacred festivals and holy days of the Jewish year. This juxtaposition is important because it offers us a clear and practical way that we can sanctify our lives and, by so doing, sanctify God’s name. Each of these holidays should be acknowledged as a holy convocation: a time for us to gather together, put aside our daily tasks and routines, and affirm our commitment to the uniqueness of the covenant ofIsrael. Each sacred occasion comes with its obligations, and the fulfillment of these rituals strengthens our resolve to live lives hallowed by the faith ofIsrael.

The two distinct tasks of the weeklong celebration of Sukkot are the selection of four specific species of vegetation as stated in Vaykira, Leviticus 23:40, the lulav and the etrog, and in Leviticus 23:42-43, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God.”

There is a midrash that relates each of the four species to parts of the body. The product of the hadar tree (the etrog) resembles the heart, which the Rabbis understood as the place of understanding. The branches of the palm (the lulav) have a likeness to the spine, symbolic of uprightness. The boughs of the leafy trees (the myrtle branches) model the eyes, which are for enlightenment. The willows of the brook (the willow branches) recall our lips, which we can use in prayer. The midrash uses these bodily references to remind us that we sanctify life with our whole beings.

What a fine balance we struggle with each day! We know that the heart can be the seat of understanding, but it can also become hardened and leave us compassionless. We know that when we perform deeds of loving-kindness we walk upright, but there are moments, too, when we act spinelessly. We are aware that with our eyes we can see visions of how to make the world a better place, but we also know that we often walk sightless among miracles. And we are all too aware that while our lips may offer prayers, sometimes we use them to speak words of hurt or disrespect. These symbols of our Sukkot harvest remind us that the choice is ours. We have the ability to sanctify or to profane. Which will we choose?

Perhaps it is the symbol of the sukkah that reminds us of the urgency of the choice. The frail, impermanent booth that provides some shade but hardly offers any protection from the elements is, ironically, our symbol of faith. It serves as the counterbalance to our self-righteousness, our post–High Holy Days smugness. Lest we too quickly forget the message of the Un’taneh Tokef, the sukkah reminds us of life’s fragility. We do not know the length of our days, but we do have the ability with the time afforded us to make each and every day have meaning. As we grow older, the sukkah’s fragility is a reminder of our own mortality.

We build our sukkah knowing that in a week’s time we will take them down. We live our lives knowing that our days are finite and that we will return to the dust from which we came. But in the meantime we have a choice. This Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Sukkot we read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes to assist in retaining our perspectives during this season of happiness by reading this sobering book, the work of King Solomon, the wisest of men.  Please join us to ponder these thoughts.  May we choose wisely so that our days will have meaning and our acts will exemplify kiddush HaShem.

Chag Sukkot Sameach (Happy Sukkot)!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

September 28th, 2011

Jews find it meaningful to privately reflect on the words of Psalm 27 which we read every day during the month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days through the end of Sukkot.  I have provided a translation of the Psalm below to help guide anyone both reading my message and for personal reflection.

In his commentary Our Heaven and Strength, Martin Samuel Cohen writes a respected and well known Conservative Rabbi notes that at a time of year when people find their thoughts turning more and more frequently to their relationships with God, it is both bold and brave to read the 27th Psalm over and over again as part of public worship, almost as though its message were in need of intense inculcation.

And what is that message?  Simply that God may be known even today in the normal way human beings know each other; that God must be served to be known, and that even the most assiduous performance of rites and rituals must be deemed meaningless in the absence of faith in a God who can be encountered and not merely obeyed.

As we enter in the holidays together, my first High Holy Days with each of you, I ask that each of us take time to reflect on this past year as well as our hopes and dreams for the year that is to come.  Together, we can make 5772 a year full of faith in God, a year full of blessings, and a year in which we build on our previous relationships with one another and new relationships that will blossom.

Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Psalm 27:

A psalm of David. Adonai is my light and my help.  Whom shall I fear? Adonai is the strength of my life.  Whom shall I dread?

When evildoers draw near to slander me, when foes threaten—they stumble and fall.  Though armies be arrayed against me, I have no fear. Though wars threaten, I remain steadfast in my faith.

One thing I ask of Adonai—for this I yearn: To dwell in the House of Adonai all the days of my life—to behold God’s beauty, to pray in God’s sanctuary.

Hiding me in God’s shrine, safe from peril, God will shelter me beyond the reach of disaster, and raise my head high above my enemies.

I will bring God offerings with shouts of joy, singing, chanting praise to Adonai.

Adonai, hear my voice when I call; be gracious to me and answer. It is You whom I seek, says my heart. It is Your presence that I seek, Adonai.

Do not hide from me; do not reject Your servant. You have always been my help; do not abandon me. Forsake me not, my God of deliverance.

Though my father and my mother leave me, Adonai will care for me.

Teach me Your way, Adonai. Guide me on the right path, to confound my oppressors.

Do not abandon me to the will of my foes, for false witnesses have risen against me, purveyors of malice and lies.

Yet I have faith that I shall surely see Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in Adonai. Be strong, take courage, and hope in Adonai.  

September 23rd, 2011

We have all heard incredibly moving speeches from our politicians and leaders during the course of our lifetimes.  However, I believe that the greatest speeches of all come in the next few weeks of our subsequent Torah readings.  Here, Moses delivers his last thoughts to the Israelites before his death and the transition of leadership for our people.  This week we have a double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayeilach.  Our first portion, Nitzavim, ends with a rousing speech by Moses calling upon heaven and earth to witness the choice to be made by Israel between life and death, blessing and curse.

Modern Bible scholars who view the Torah as following the format of a “Suzerain treaty” in which Israel enters into alliance with the Lord, just like a vassal would to an authoritarian ruler see this phase as the final witnessing of the agreement. Yet this passage is clearly about more than power and loyalty.  Moses frames Israel’s choice in terms of devotion, and clinging to God, who is the source of life.  Indeed, the idea of “clinging” to God is distinctive in the Torah to Deuteronomy (in Genesis, men “cling” to women, and in Numbers “cling” to land).

What does it mean to cling (or be glued—nidbak) to God?  This question arises in Midrash Sifre Devarim 49.  Here the rabbis wish to know how a person might cling to God—is it really possible to ascend to the heavens and cling to fire?  Rather, the Midrash says that we should cling to the sages and their students, and God will, as it were, lift you up as if you had taken heaven by storm.

Clinging to God’s ways is understood by the rabbis as a reference to imitating God’s qualities. An even better known passage from the Sifre emphasizes this point—to walk in God’s ways, is to be merciful and compassionate…and righteous, and faithful.

In the Midrash there is a key word play on Joel 3:5, “whoever is called by God’s name”—how can a person be called by God’s name?  Rather, follow God’s attributes and you will, as it were, be identified with God.

The 20th Century Chasidic writer Rabbi Shalom Yosef Faigenboim in his Netivot Shalom notes that it does not suffice to do acts of compassion and mercy, but that one must strive to become in essence compassionate and merciful—this is the path of God.  Netivot Shalom speaks further about this transformation to imitate the divine qualities as “purification of moral qualities,” or Taharat HaMiddot, and goes on to say that this work precedes the actual observance of mitzvot, and exceeds them in difficulty.

Often times, it is tempting to focus on our intellectualizing and on our external performance of mitzvot. These are indeed essential parts of our service to God.  Yet especially during this time leading into Rosh HaShannah, we also must consider our middot—our internal qualities, our ways of relating to other people in our community and those afar.

I pray that we will use these coming days of teshuvah to draw ourselves closer to the divine qualities of compassion and mercy described in this important Midrash.  As the Sifre says elsewhere, chanun, “gracious” also comes from chinam, giving others the gift of forgiveness, whether or not they deserve it.

May we all forgive one another and also become worthy of clinging to God, and emulating God’s attributes of compassion.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

September 16th, 2011

As many of you know by now, this coming week is Benny’s first birthday.  In reflecting back on the past year, I cannot help but feel blessed for everything Benny has brought to my life, including the sleepless nights.  The journey of parenthood can definitely be seen by some as a blessing, although some nights I wonder.

We witness another type of journey in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, at the end of the portion, after the frightening string of curses, Moses waxes nostalgic about the desert trek. In Devarim, Deuteronomy 29:3 he indicates that the journey was necessary not as punishment, but as a term or period of gestation leading to spiritual preparedness for independence, “The Lord did not grant you the mind to comprehend, the eyes to see nor the ears to hear until this very day, hayom.”

The word “hayom” (this day) is a motif in Ki Tavo, and is quite popular throughout Deuteronomy (where it appears 75 times).  Rhetorically, it lends a sense of urgency to the final sermons of Moses.  This urgency was not lost on the ancient rabbis, who noted in one early midrash, “these words should be new in your eyes as if you had received them today (hayom) from Mt. Sinai.”

This is an auspicious message for all of us—that Torah should always be fresh, as if it were just revealed anew.  But I discern another meaning inherent in 29:3.  There Moses says that it wasn’t until today that you had the ability to comprehend, or even see or hear these words.  Rashi shares a beautiful additional message.  He says that we see that Moses gave the Torah scroll to the Levites and the elders.  The rest of the nation of Israel protested saying that some day the Levites would say that the Torah is theirs alone and Rashi interprets that all of Israel was standing at Sinai.  Rashi concludes that Moses rejoices saying that this demonstrates that the Israelite people had matured and become worthy of being called a People.  The journey to people hood is no less miraculous than the journey to parenthood.

We are only a couple of weeks away from Rosh Hashanah, my prayer for all of us on this verse is yet a bit different—closer, perhaps to the p’shat.[i] On this day, at this stage of our life, each of us is capable of understanding things that were previously hidden from us. Perhaps we have learned more to enrich our lives, or perhaps we have matured. Perhaps we have suffered in some way, or perhaps we have felt new love. Our experience in this world is our aperture to the divine realm.

Only today can we understand this Torah. Tomorrow we may understand other things. But let us be fully present in this moment that is full of potential—the start of a year of Torah, the start of a new year of life. May it bring us the blessings of insight and wisdom, compassion and kindness, challenge and tranquility, and lasting peace.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[i] The simple, plain or obvious meaning of a Biblical text as compared with drash, which denotes a comparative, allegoric or midrashic meaning

September 9th, 2011 

This past week I read a moving story about the children of 9/11.  The story focused on a group of children who were still inside of their mother’s womb when their fathers tragically passed away on September 11, 2001.  I was incredibly stirred by this article.  What struck me the most was the way each of these children, now nine years old (almost 10), and their mothers had moved on living life to the fullest of their ability all in different ways.

Each and every one of us could tell some story related to 9/11.  For some of us it hit extremely close to home as we may have known a relative or friend who was killed on that dreadful day.  For others, we may have been thousands of miles away, but still felt the pain of those who were affected by this tragedy.

Each year since 9/11, I always study with curiosity which parasha falls in the week leading up to 9/11 and I try to find some nexus.  This week is Parashat Ki Tetzei in which more laws are given than any other parsha throughout the entire year.  The focus is much deeper than just a large subset of laws (74 to be exact).  The focus of most of these laws is on the family, on preserving life.

The goal of these laws in our parsha is to foster survival, even in the face of unenviable hardship or evil.  God wants us to persevere and be strong for each other and grow in our relationships.

There is a story, told by Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud, about a fox, who was once walking alongside a river, and he saw fish going in swarms from one place to another. He said to the fish: “From what are you fleeing?” The fish replied: “From the nets cast for us by humans.” The fox said to them, “Would you like to come up on dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors?”  The fish replied, “Are you really the one they call the cleverest of animals?  You are not clever, but foolish!  If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more so in the element in which we would die!  So it is with us, says the Talmud. ‘To us Jews,’ concluded Rabbi Akiva, “Torah is our life, just as water is to the fish.  If we are in danger in our natural habitat, how much greater will our danger be if we abandon it?”

On this Sunday, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, our prayer should be that each of us will muster the strength and resolve to continue living not out of fear, but out of the renewed commitment to democratic and religious freedom. We pray that despite the human acts of terror, each of us can transmit God's love and sheltering presence in the healing we bring to one another throughout this lingering ordeal.

As we prepare to remember those who fell unjustly right in our own “backyard” 10 years ago, let us pray that their memory is forever a beacon of instruction and inspiration: let us vow to live our lives to the fullest.  Let us remember the concepts in Ki Tetzei: family, preserving life, and faith in God.

This week, we remember, but as we also prepare for the High Holidays, we learn to be comforted and to continue to do our best to help heal the world we live in.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

September 2nd, 2011  

Before the storm, I had the pleasure of going with the Federation 20s and 30s group to see the film “Sarah’s Key.”  As with most films, this film had its moments of greatness in which I was swept away with the story and its moments where I wish they would have given me a little bit more of the story line.  This is a film I would highly recommend.

What made the film so powerful to me was the story it told.  The characters are fictional, but the film opens up the eyes of the world to the way the French treated the Jews during World War II and not just the Germans.  It is imperative for us to understand just how horrifying the Holocaust truly was no matter where someone lived in Europe.

At the end of the film, the narrator and main character gives us, the viewer, and the moral of the film: we must continue to tell the stories of those who were mistreated in the Holocaust.  It is only through us that justice will prevail and that the horrors of the Holocaust will not be repeated.

I found this moral apropos considering the well known lines in our Torah reading this week, Parashat Shoftim.  While our Torah is ageless and boundless, some portions are etched in my psyche more than others.  In this week’s parasha in Devarim, Deuteronomy 16:20 we hear, ‫צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף‬

“Justice, Justice you shall pursue.”  In the film “Sarah’s Key” we are likewise admonished to pursue justice—a modern retelling of this Biblical imperative.

The question is asked by most commentators on our verse, why is the word “justice” repeated?  Rambam, Maimonides, from 14th century Spain says that “One should pursue justice (only through) righteousness.  It is not enough to seek righteousness; it must be done through honest means; the Torah does not condone the pursuit of a holy end through improper means.”  Simcha Bunem, a Hasidic Leader in Poland (1765-1827) said:  This command also means to “pursue justice justly,” for just goals can never be achieved by unjust means; the worthiest of goals will be rendered less worthy if we have to compromise justice to achieve it.  Abraham Joshua Heschel, a mid-20th century Conservative philosopher and teacher said that the term ‘pursue’ carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness.  This implies more than merely respecting or following justice.  We must actively pursue it.

All three of these esteemed commentators amplify the message we must learn from this week’s well known verse.  We need to do more in our lives to actively pursue justice in our world today.  We constantly speak about wanting to change the world we live in, but how often do we actually pick up the phone (or write) and attempt to communicate with a politician, go to a soup kitchen, help in letting the media know what is really happening in Israel, or help with the efforts in a tragic place like Darfur?  We must attempt to accomplish what the film “Sarah’s Key” is asking of us: to continue the story of our people, both past, present, and future, by pursuing justice in a just matter and done with righteousness.  Only when we take the time to be activists, to pursue justice, will we be able to say that we are continuing to tell the story of our people and changing what could not have been changed in the past.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

August 26th, 2011

Can we be God’s “Treasured People?”

Several times in the Tanakh (referred to by many as the Hebrew Bible) the people of Israelare referred to as God’s am segulah, “treasured people.”

In the third month after their liberation from Egypt, Moses climbs Mount Sinai.  There, according to Exodus 19:4-6, God tells Moses: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.  Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My am segulah, ‘treasured possession,’ among all the peoples.”

In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Re’eh, Moses declares to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 14:2 that “You are a people consecrated to Adonai your God: Adonai your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth be God’s treasured people, am segulah.”

There are a few other examples in the Tanakh in which we are referred to as am segulah.  So, clearly the idea of the people of Israel as a “chosen people” is central to Jewish faith.  Yet, what does this assertion mean? How does the Torah understand it?  How has it been interpreted throughout our history and how should we interpret it today?

The majority of Jewish commentators seem to agree that the Jewish people in its covenant with God sensed that their relationship was more than self-serving.  They bore the unusual task or burden of being God’s instrument for extending truth, justice, righteousness, compassion, and peace on earth among all peoples.  The awareness of this responsibility grew in them. The idea is that we have become conscious of our role, but not superior.  The rabbis believed that being an am segulah means that the people of Israel must measure its existence by the values and demands of Judaism.  To be chosen by God means to be responsible, not only for your own survival, but for the survival of all peoples.

I constantly struggle with this notion of what the meaning of being an am segulah, a “treasured people” of God is for us today.  It leads to the larger question of what is the purpose of our Jewish existence.  Why did God put us here?

Of course, I would love to believe that as Jews, we have been put here to be responsible for the entire world.  I believe we strive to do this with our Tikkun Olam and social justice efforts.  However, I ponder whether this is enough to warrant the distinction of being the treasured/chosen people.

Modern philosopher Martin Buber calls the Jewish people a unique people molded by our history and by a great inner transformation through which we become an anointed kingdom representing God.  I believe it is through our history and our shared experience that we as a Jewish people and our congregation can confront these ancient ideas and issues and attempt to better understand what our responsibilities are in this world.

This Shabbat, take a moment, as we continue our preparation for Rosh Hashanah, to think about how each of us can do more to help the world we live in and prove that we deserve the title of am segulah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

 

August 19th, 2011

You had to see it to believe it!

Two years ago I lived in Israel and I had an opportunity to tour South Tel Aviv, the part of Tel Aviv that no tourist would ever be shown. There, on every street, in every park, in every corner, were people sleeping and living on the streets. The poverty was out of control.

So, as the protests in Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel broke out in the last couple of weeks, it came as no surprise to me that the people in Israel would finally rebel over the current economic structure. Throughout Israel there have been protests involving nearly 500,000 people.

By no means do I believe that the poverty in Israel is any worse than that of us here in the United States, but I feel as though as a Jewish State, we should be working harder to lessen the poverty in Israel. Instead, it has been reported that 30-40 percent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of a few individuals and little is being put back into the society to help eradicate the poverty issues, especially in South Tel Aviv.

This week’s parasha, Eikev is aptly named and relates directly to this issue in Tel Aviv. Eikev means “on the heels of.” This refers to the consequences of not heeding or ignoring Gods commandments. Moses delivers a discourse whose central point is that listening to God brings blessing, while ignoring God brings curse. The most famous passage begins at Devarim, Deuteronomy 11:13, and is of course the second paragraph of the Shema. The premise of this entire parashah is that compliance with the Teaching leads to directly observable benefits. A Righteous Israel means good and prosperity while a wicked Israel means bad and penury. More simply stated, the fundamental doctrine of reward and punishment based on the mitzvot.

Yet this “prosperity gospel” (to use the Christian term for this way of thinking) is not so simplistic. Moses directly addresses the tendency of wealthy people to congratulate themselves for their great merit. In 9:4-6 he tells Israel that it is not their righteousness that has entitled them to reward—for they are a stiff necked people—but rather God’s promise to the ancestors that motivates the gift of the land. In other words: it is your fault when bad things happen, but not necessarily to your credit when the good times roll.

This form of theology has resonated with hundreds of generations of Jews as well as other peoples of faith. When there is calamity, we have historically accepted this as a form of chastisement from heaven and responded to woe with renewed piety. And when there is prosperity, we have tried to sustain the good times by the means of regular expression of gratitude. Only in this way could we curtail arrogance and avoid provoking God’s anger. Indeed, one of our parashah’s most famous lines, ואכלת ושבעת וברכת “you shall eat, be satisfied and praise God” (8:10) is explained in the following verses as being, “lest…you grow arrogant and forget the Lord your God” ורם לבבך ושכחת את יקוק אלהיך. Thanksgiving is a curb on arrogance, and human arrogance can be the downfall regarding the covenant with God. Be constantly conscious of the source of your blessings.

By no means do I agree with this theology presented above in its entirety, but I do think there is a lesson to be learned from this week’s parsha with regard to what is happening in Israel. We need our politicians to stop being so arrogant and take time to support those less fortunate. As Jews, we should learn from this week’s parsha to do our best to act in a way that God would want us to. It is time that we push the leaders in Israel to do what is right for the collective good. This is what God would want and what Moses attempted to teach the Israelites this week.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

*****Please note that this week on Shabbat morning in place of a sermon, we will be discussing this further as a congregation with additional texts offered both agreeing and disagreeing with the topic of arrogance versus gratitude.

August 12th, 2011

The week and Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is one of my favorites.  This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, named after the beginning of our Haftarah.  I revel in the concept that we all need to feel comforted after this time of mourning.  It is similar to why we are obligated to comfort those who are mourning a loss not just during the week of shiva, but for an extended proscribed time after shiva.

However much I connect with the comforting aspect after Tisha B’Av, my favorite part of all is Tu B’Av.  As my wife Lauren can attest to, I am not a big fan of Valentines Day1   for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, I do believe it is important to show our love to one another.  So, the Jewish calendar presents that day for us on the 15th of Av (this year Tu B’Av is on Sunday night and Monday), only six days after we are at our greatest period of mourning on Tisha B’Av, and in modern day Israel this resembles what Americans know as Valentines Day.

There is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud on Taanit 26b which states:  “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said that there were no days as joyous for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom HaKippurim, when the daughters of Israel went out in [simple] white garments that they had borrowed so as not to embarrass someone without a complete wardrobe…and they danced in the vineyards saying, ‘young man, lift your eyes and see—what will you choose for yourself? Do not gaze at beauty, but look to the family…’”

It is a strange text, to be honest. I have always had trouble thinking of Yom Kippur as an official Sadie Hawkins day in ancient Israel, though there certainly is a lot of socializing on the high holidays. It is also hard to imagine these young women explaining the Song of Song’s romantic descriptions of Solomon’s wedding as metaphors for the Sinai revelation and for the Temple’s inauguration. Obviously they did not have bridal magazines back then. When they tell the boys to look not for beauty but at the family, do they mean at the girl’s parents and “yichus” (probably), or perhaps are they instructing the boys to look with imagination at the future family that they might build with such a partner? (Proverbs 31:30)

Of course, the loveliest part of this text is the sense of social solidarity, with women exchanging clothes to dissuade their suitors from focusing on wealth and external glamour. Competition is a natural tendency in such settings, and this attempt to moderate it and to remind the young people of Judaism’s deeper values is noble.

Moshe puts this beautifully in the second aliyah of our parsha this week, Parashat Va’Etchanan in which he says that the Torah is our source of wisdom and goodness: “What great nation has rules and laws as righteous as this entire Torah that I place before you today?”  For me, the significance is that the rules become righteous when they draw on the entirety of Torah—including the ethics, the narratives and the struggles. In our Torah we see our forefathers (to steal a cliché) doing “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” all the while being no different from you and me but with a paradigm of how to carry out our lives properly.

So on this Sunday night and Monday make sure to remember to tell your loved ones how much you love them.  However, more importantly, we need to remember as we move into this Shabbat of Comfort followed by this day of love in our calendar that we need to find ways to love our Judaism together as a community and learn to love each other and our texts with a mutual respect.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[1] Valentines day is named after one or more early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, and it was established by the Pope Gelasisus I in 496 CE.  For some reason it was deleted from the General Roman Calendar of Saints by Pope Paul VI in 1969.  The day first became associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of country love flourished.

August 5th, 2011 

Like many of you, I have watched the news these last few days related to our debt and wondered to myself, “how did we get to this point?”

As I was reminded by pundits on television on Monday morning, “If you liked the debt ceiling debate of recent days, you probably will love the debate that will occur in the days leading up to Thanksgiving this year.  If you hated the current debate, you probably will despise the one coming up in four months.”

Why did the networks (FOX, CNN, NBC, ABC, etc) say this, because right before Thanksgiving is when the new 12-member special Congressional committee is supposed to come up with its proposals for major entitlement and tax reform. Entitlement reform will most likely mean cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while tax reform is probably code for tax increases.

It may be possible to get six Democrats and six Republicans to agree on these kinds of painful choices, but it certainly won’t be easy.  In short, the country may have avoided a debt ceiling disaster for now.  But this debate is only just beginning to boil.

Listening intently to this debate I was reminded of a moment at the beginning of our parsha this week, Parashat Devarim.  Moses recalls a moment of crisis when he realized that he, by himself, could not lead the Israelites.  Moses remembers saying in Deuteronomy 1:16-17 (see also Parashat Yitro 18:17), “I cannot bear your disputes and bickering by myself.”  To aid him, he appoints “wise, discerning, and experienced” tribal leaders and judges.  “I charged them to hear out the people and to decide justly between them, Israelites or strangers.  I commanded them to be impartial in judgment, hearing out low and high alike.  I told them to fear no person in rendering a judgment because judgment is God’s.”

In commenting on the difficult burden of making judgments, the early rabbis, many of whom were presiding court judges, compare their judicial responsibility to dealing with fire.  In Midrash Tanhuma it is said, “If you come too close, you will be burnt; if you stray too far, you will be cold.  The art of making judgments is finding the right distance.”

While I am not sure that our politicians and current judges meet all of the standards Moses wanted when creating the court system as our forefathers readied themselves to enter the Land. I do know that now more than ever we need our elected officials to find the art of making judgments in “finding the right distance.”  As cliché as it sounds, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

I was extremely moved as I am sure several of you were too by the return of Congresswoman Giffords, my parent’s congresswoman, to the floor to cast her vote Monday night.  There was a moment during these intense debates where it did not matter where one stood on the debt debate.  Instead, our politicians for a brief moment found that right “distance” and banded together.  Moses too would have been proud.

Many critical debates in our country are on the horizon.  Let us pray that our politicians have the wisdom Moses did in working with others to make the best decisions possible for all of us, our children, and our children’s children.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

July 29th, 2011 

Last Thursday I was overjoyed and excited to welcome over 150 campers and staff from Camp Ramah here in Nyack to an incredible concert they hosted in our new social hall.  All I could think about was the Beatles classic “Imagine All the People.”

Since arriving at CSI only a short few weeks ago, it has been made clear to me that one of my mandates is to bring in new families, as well as plan new and innovative programs to share with our current young members and families.  While we are all aware that this is not going to happen overnight, last Thursday gave me a glimpse into what the future portends.  As I watched these children dance and sing in the social hall followed by time to sit outside, play and eat a snack on our wonderful property, I got a brief peek as to what our shul can look like in the future.

Last week’s parsha involves taking a census of the Israelite people.  After the census is taken, however, beginning this week in Parashat Mattot, and throughout the rest of the Torah, lists all the necessary preparation so that our people can properly enter the land of Israel.

Here at CSI the same kind of preparation is going on so that we can hopefully enter into our new era with our children’s programming titled “Gan Katan.”  Programs and times are listed at the end of this message.

It does not stop there, this August, we are going to be offering Watermelon Wednesday CSI Storytime every Wednesday at 10:30.  And, on Sunday, September 11th, we will have our first annual Rockaroo Concert for parents and children as I expect the social hall to be rocking from 11 a.m. to noon!  I am not the only leader for all of this myriad of activities.  The facilitators are all professional and some of the storytelling will feature my wife Lauren who has 10+ years of experience as a Jewish educator at cutting edge day schools in New York and Los Angeles.  Needless to say, everyone will be masters of their craft.

We have exciting programs on the horizon for the religious school and families of all ages as well.  Please be on the lookout for these future programs.

All that I have mentioned is just a taste of what we are looking to offer here at CSI.  However, none of this amazing programming is going to be successful without each of YOU!

This week’s parshah begins with God giving instructions regarding the making of vows and oaths.  Any vow made in the name of the Lord must be fulfilled.  In the Torah there is a differentiation between the vows of men and women, but I believe in our egalitarian world today the vows are equal.

I am asking each of you to make a vow to help us make our new programming initiatives successful.  If you know of any friends, grandchildren, neighbors, or anyone at all that may have an interest in our programs (members or non-members), please contact me and give me their information so we can get them on board.  I need each of you to help me get the word out that these programs are legitimate and right here at CSI.  We want to have as many children enjoying each program as possible.

On top of getting the word out, in order to make these programs as successful as possible, I need more of your help.  If you have any extra time on your hands throughout the week, we could really use your help just to greet new families at the entrance to our newly remodeled synagogue, or help us serve snack at one of these classes.  Just being there to smile, greet, meet, and schmooze is enough.  Before you know it, you will be tapping your feet and singing along. We need everyone involved!

“Imagine All the People.”  Right now we are only imagining.  This project is going to take time, and success is not going to be quantitative but qualitative initially.  However, with your help, we can make this place into the vibrant, unique shul that I know we all want it to become.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

July 22nd, 2011 

I am obsessed with numbers and statistics.

Why you might ask?  As many of you know, after my Judaism and my family, my next love in life is baseball and especially the Yankees.  Baseball, more than any other sport is about numbers.  Ask any fan (especially a Yankee one) what do 56, 60 and 61 represent?  Fans banter about numbers like ERA, RBI, slugging percentage, on base percentage, saves and first pitch strikes ad infinitum.

Thanks to the advent of the DVR, I was able to view my all time favorite Derek Jeter join the august body of players in baseball history to record 3,000 base hits.  He did it with the aplomb of a home run to reach the magic number.   Not to mention his perfect day at bat leading the Yankees to a win.

That night,  I pondered (and rewatched it multiple times) the momentous occasion, I began to reflect on the deeper meaning of numbers and keeping track of what surely are meaningless statistics to many.  As is my wont, I began to reflect on its relationship to this week’s parsha, Pinchas.  Specifically the second Aliyah.  Here we see God ordering Moses and Elazare HaKohn to take a second census of the B’nai Yisrael.  Recall the first census took place at the beginning of Bamidbar, Numbers.  This census, thirty-nine years later includes the names of each clan in the Jewish nation by family names.  In what is one of the longest Aliyot, the Torah does not organize the census around where they pitched their tents or their date of birth, but around the Mispachot, the family clans/units originally descended from Jacob’s twelve sons.

To say this chapter appears incredibly unexciting would be an understatement.  Take your own look at pages 920-924 in our Etz Hayim Chumash.  What do we learn here?  Some say it was a method to “divide” the land, another says it was in anticipation of the impending battles to conquer the Land and another says God merely wants to count his children after the plague as a shepherd counts his flock.  While it may only be a parable, “there is something to be learned from everything.”

The other question worthy of contemplating here is why does the Torah bother to give us each leader’s name, but insists on telling us their (so called) first and last names?  In Midrash Sifrei Zuta 27:1, it is suggested that the names in the Torah signify the moral quality of the people who have them.

How does this Midrash and this part of our parsha relate to Derek Jeter?  One of the reasons Jeter’s accomplishment was so anticipated and celebrated is because of the good name he has built for himself on and off the playing field.  Numbers mean something (think of Roger Clemens, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds or Mark McGuire), but the worth of “value of a good name outshines” everything.

Our names are extremely precious.  We have to live and behave “by the book” to make and keep them valuable.  As we read in the Book of Kohelt, Ecclesiastes 7:1, “A good name is better than precious oil.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

July 8th, 2011 

“Home is where the heart is.”

This famous, yet cliché quote sums up my feelings during this past week.  As Lauren, Benny, and I spent the week packing and then moving yesterday into our new home here in Upper Nyack, I finally understood the cliché.  Moving can be very stressful, so when all of our boxes and furniture were finally unloaded, it felt like we had really come home; this is where our hearts belong.

All week long I have been thinking about how appropriate it is that we are moving this week, the week of Parashat Balak.  I have a soft spot for this week’s parsha, that of my Bar Mitzvah.  It does not get much better as a 13 year old than having a talking donkey as part of your parsha and incorporating it into your speech.  The “magic” is stimulating.  If you want to hear even more about this, please come on Shabbat morning to hear, “Do You Believe In Magic?”

While this parsha has great meaning for me and I love the supernatural aspect involved.  It is the words of Baalam to the Israelites that always intrigue me the most.  Every year I grasp onto a different interpretation predicated on where I am at in my life.  This week, I found the nexus that related directly to my move and the transition we are in at CSI.

In Baalam’s first “poem”, he speaks of the Israelites in Bamidbar, Numbers 23:9, “As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights; there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.”  I always ask myself, what is all this?  This appears to be a very uncomfortable statement about the Israelites.  Rashi suggests that Balaam is predicting a secure future for the people of Israel.  He means to say: “I look at your origins (mountain tops) and see that you are strongly rooted in your ancestors (heights).  You are distinguished (dwell apart) by your Torah traditions, and because of them you will not suffer the fate (be reckoned) of extinction but will survive and prosper.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century scholar from Germany takes this one step further and says that when Balaam looks upon the people, he sees in their traditions and values a uniqueness worthy of blessing.  I also see our traditions and values at CSI as a blessing; along with our glorious 120 year history, especially after the warm welcome my family and I received last Shabbat.

In Balaam’s second “poem”, he brings down the well known paean we recite today every Rosh Hashanah during the Malchuyot section of the Musaf service.  Balaam says in Numbers 23:21, “No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel.  Adonai their God is with them…”  I always revel in this blessing.  Nachmanides, Ramban, perceives that Balaam is not predicting the future but making a judgment about the character of the Israelites.  Even though the Israelites sin, just as we all commit sins, their morals and values were “high” enough to overcome those sins so that God remained with the people.

The most famous blessing of all, Ma Tovu, which one should utter every time we enter a sanctuary states, “Ma Tov Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael,” “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel!”  Rashi and many other commentators are quick to note that this blessing is exactly what Balaam felt as he looked down at the Israelites and their modest community.

This is precisely how I am feeling as we move into Shabbat this week.  With regard to my new homes, both on Front Street and at CSI, I cannot help but feel that these “tents” of our congregation, are beautiful and are deserving of every blessing Balaam articulated.  We all have Godly attributes in us and it is time for us together to put them to use as Balaam expressed regarding our ancestors.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

July 1, 2011

Like many of you, words could not describe my excitement last week as I heard about the New York State Senate’s vote to finally legalize Gay Marriage in New York.  Clearly overdue, this was a monumental moment, in allowing equal rights to a faction of our community that has long been discriminated against.

I was moved by reading Manhattan Senator Thomas Duane’s words following the vote.  He said, “[‎LGBT] New Yorkers will no longer be denied the right to marry the ones they love.  For the first time in New York's rich history they will be granted equal protection under the law...the paradoxical truth is that what already exists and will not change, but for true legal recognition, is the commitment and love that is already the reality in so many of New York's families.”

This will hopefully be a beautiful new beginning for the LGBT community in New Yorkand hopefully lead to more equality in other states around the country.

Of course, for all of us, this is a time of new beginnings as well.  As I prepare to spend my first Shabbat with you at CSI, I must admit I am excited, anxious, and nervous all in one.  Just like this new legislation has brought about so much renewed hope, it is my vision that through Torah, through Kehillah (community), and through Avodah (hard work), I can help all of us bring Tikvah (hope) and Emunah (faith) for what the future can bring together.  I believe it is appropriate that our first Shabbat together is during Parashat Chukkat as well.

Our Torah portion this week tells us of what will become the inevitable transition of leadership and the forced new beginning for the Israelites.  Miriam and Aaron both die within 20 verses of each other and Moses is told that he will not be escorting the Israelites into the Promised Land.  This entire course of events in Bamidbar (Numbers) chapter 20 is perplexing in many ways, mainly with the much debated question: how could a simple transgression be punished so severely that Moses is no longer allowed into the Promised Land (which he has been leading the people for many years).  Come to shul this Shabbat morning when I will be speaking about: Did Moses’ punishment fit the crime?

We may not know the reason Miriam and Aaron die so close to each other or why God puts an end to Moses’ life. We do, however, know God is ready for the Israelites to transition into a new era. God seems to be trying to wean the Israelites from one kind of perception to another: from dependence on the visible and tangible, to reliance on speech in connecting with God.  At Sinai, all their senses were engaged, but the revelation itself was auditory.  When Moses retells and reframes the story in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:12, he reminds the people, “The sound of words you did hear, but no image did you see except the sound.”  There is a grave danger in relying only on the visible.  Judaism gives us many essential concrete items to see, for example: a tallit or Shabbat candles. But is it really the visual image that connects us, or the hearing of the blessings or words we say when wearing or experiencing these “items” and more?

Just as God wanted to wean the Israelites from only the visible and tangible, we too need to take the time to not only rely on what we may see on the surface as a community, but attempt to build our connections in a deeper way.  My goal again is to get to know each of you, obviously visually, but as the Torah says, to listen to what your needs are, and, of course to dig deeper.

Please don’t hesitate to be in touch!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham