Friday, August 29, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 6 #34 in our countdown: Avoda - Work AND Worship

On Labor Day, it’s important to note that the Hebrew expression for work, Avoda, also means worship.   

As Rabbi Michael Strassfeld puts it: Avodah connotes service. (It is also the word for slavery, which is involuntary service.) Work is not only a necessary part of life, it is a form of service to the world, to the rest of humanity, and to God. We are meant to be of service, to be partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. Yet even as we serve God, we also serve our fellow human beings.

I’ve written regarding my own profession:

It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word for work, avodah, is also the word for worship. Our work is nothing less than our supreme offering to God, whether we are a rabbi, doctor or welder. Each of us must try to discern the cry of the times, perceive this mission and act on it. I see my task as being analogous to that of the ancient biblical prophet, of whom Heschel wrote, "He is neither a singing saint nor a moralizing poet. His images must not shine, they must burn."

Happy Labor Day!

Judaism's Top 40 - Elul 7 and # 33: Messiah

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has a somewhat unorthodox (and kabbalistically based) translation of the word: “yourself.”  Here’s his thinking:

The Messiah will only come, goes one legend, when things get so bad we cannot live without him or so good you don't need her.  Indeed, we often say that at the time all the contradictions, paradoxes and antinomies will be resolved.  Love and hate, male and female, even good and evil at last will be in perfect balance.  When the Messiah comes, we will understand how they all fit together and even why it seems so important they were once in conflict.  But until that time, the syntax written in our brains cannot simultaneously comprehend of thing and it opposite.  Because we cannot comprehend everything on one uncontradictory linear plane, we imagine a time when we won't need to.  In this way the notion of the Messiah is a metaphor for the resolution of all contradiction, when paradox will replace linear logic, right brain supersede the left.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi  asks Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”  Elijah says,”Go and ask him yourself.” Levi finds the “son of David” at the gates who tells Levi that the Messiah will come today. Levi goes back to Elijah and complains that he is been tricked, for surely the Messiah is not coming today.  But Elijah only explains that today refers to Psalm 95:7, which reads, “Today, if you listen to my voice.”  In other words, the Messiah will, only when we listen to the voice of God.

“Listening to the voice of God means attaining a rung of awareness on which hearing God’s voice is routine. And once that happens, all contradictions are resolved and you yourself are the Messiah.   You already have everything you need and you are where you need to be. Lions will lie down with lambs and then they will eat them because that's what lions and lambs do to and for one another.  The way things are just now is messianic.  The end of days is now and the Messiah is already here.”

For more explanations of this complicated concept of Messiah and messianism, see this intoductory article from myjewishlearing.  Also, my second day Rosh Hashanah sermon Apocalypse Later .

To catch up on other Judaism’s Top 40 entries, click here.

Shabbat-O-Gram for Aug 29: P-rage against the dying of the light! Labor Day, Arthur White, Israel and Iceland

This Labor Day weekend we celebrate the end of a glorious summer (weather-wise) by holding services outdoors, camp-style, both Friday night and Shabbat morning.  On Friday we’ll be at that spot just outside the sanctuary windows – well lit, as the service will just about at sunset.  But as it gets darer and darker, signaling the end of summer, we’ll paraphrase the classic Dylan Thomas poem as we (p)rage against the dying of the light – inasmuch as prayer can be a passionate - if not exactly raging – affirmation of life). And on Shabbat morning we’ll shift to our shaded location just across from the Mitzvah Garden (which looks more like an enchanted Mitzvah Forest right now!).  Dress is casual.  If you are around, join us for both!  We’ll have enough shade if it gets warm – and the service will be quick.  For the Torah discussion tomorrow, I’ll be focusing on the laws of warfare, following a tumultuous summer and in the hopes that Israel and her neighbors will now see a period of prolonged quiet.  And BTW, morning minyan Sunday AND Monday will be at 9.

·         I would be remiss if I were not to comment on the passing of Arthur White, whose funeral will take place here Sunday at 11.  Arthur too raged against the dying of the light.  He never gave in to notions of decline or death and in fact, at the age of 90, (a very young 90) was at his desk working to repair the world right up until he took ill last week.  He was a leader and inspiration for all of us, and countless lives were changed for the better because of his efforts. His life was epic, and his Wikipedia page only begins to describe the impact he had.  We will miss him.  I will miss him.

·         During Elul and the High Holidays, we seek inspiration from all those who have departed.  A new way we can do that this year is to contribute a blurb about your loved one to our Book of Remembrance.  Just a paragraph – a few lines to tell us what that person we’ll be recalling on Yom Kippur meant to you and to others.  I’ll make it easy for you: just click “reply” and send it to me.  Take a few minutes over the weekend.  In order to be included in our Book of Remembrance, we need to get these in by September 10!

·         We also seek inspiration from those who still walk this earth.  Lisa Gittelman Udi and I are planning another exciting series of “This American Jewish Life” speakers for our Friday night and Shabbat morning services. This is where congregants share their stories, focusing on key challenges and traumas, crossroad decisions or acts of kindness and love have impacted our spiritual growth.  We’ve had some incredible ones thus far.  Please let me or Lisa know if you would like to share your personal journey with us this year.

·         Speaking of journeys, our Israel trip, as you know, was postponed to next summer.   Not wanting to waste a single minute, we already have booked hotels and have put together a preliminary itinerary.  You can download it here.  A number of those who had been planning to go with us this summer have already indicated a desire to come with us next summer.  We have room for others.  Please give it some serious thought and let me know if you are interested.  I know people plan summers well in advance because camp and vacation commitments need to be made.  My feeling is that the horrific experiences of this summer will make it far more likely that next summer will be peaceful.  In any event, Israel tourism took a hit because of the conflict, and this is the time to make those plans to visit our extraordinary, precious homeland.  Please give it consideration.

·         I’ve been getting some nice feedback to the Judaism’s Top 40 series that I began this week, with the goal of increasing Jewish literacy and connecting us to key concepts and values during this month of soul searching.  Follow the countdown each day when you see it pop up in your email.

·         Finally, next week we’ll be welcoming Cantor Magda Fishman and her family to our community.  I’ve been speaking to her this week, and she is thrilled to be here and can’t wait to begin.  Next Friday we’ll be welcoming them with a special reception at the conclusion of her first service.  We also will celebrate not one but TWO b’nai mitzvah next Shabbat.  I hope you can join us.

And last but not least, I spoke at our Shabbat Experience last week (amazing service – 200 plus people – thank you Beth Styles!) about my visit to Iceland, an island that is constantly churning, bubbling smoldering, creating and destroying, expanding, ever alive and always raging against the night.  And the people aren’t so bad either.  We left just as the Bardabunga volcano was set to erupt.  There were literally thousands of earthquakes while we were there.  We touched the ash that left millions of Europeans stranded in 2010.  We saw the biggest waterfall in Europe, some of the grandest glaciers (yes, shrinking), and actually could see the fissure where the European and North American tectonic plates meet – or, I should say, met, because they are slowly drifting apart.  The entire country is heated by the hot springs that are everywhere – we swam in the legendary Blue Lagoon (sorry, no photos of me), which was like jumping into a soothing hot bath.

And we descended 120 meters into a dormant volcano.  They say it’s the only place on earth where you can do that.  You can see the experience in detail in this video (not mine, but the same volcano) and about 17 minutes into this BBC documentary.  I can’t even begin to describe what it was like being inside the volcano – and being in Iceland.  Ah yes, if I couldn’t be in Israel, why not go to a place that’s about to blow up!

Since pictures are worth lots more than words, below are a few that I took of Iceland’s ancient, churning terrain.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Labor Day.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 5 and #35 Emet and Emunah

Judaism's Top 40!

Today: Elul 5 - and #36 of Judaism's Top 40:

Emet and Emunah

Emet - Truth  / Emunah - Faith

The Hebrew word for truth is Emet. Alef-mem-tav. Amazingly, it is comprised of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In contrast, the letters for the word Sheker, which means "lie," shin, kuf, resh, are huddled together in a corner at the end of the alphabet. Emet, like "Amen," is derived from the root letters meaning "firm." Truth is tangible and real and all-encompassing. It expands our minds rather than confining us to narrow perspectives. "Emet" calls upon us to seek out truth to the outermost reaches of the universe and the innermost depths of our soul. The word "Emet" is found often in our daily prayers; it is repeated seven times, almost mantra-like just in the two pages between the morning Sh'ma and the Amida.

The word for "trust" is from the same family as Emet and Amen. It is "Emunah." In the evening service, the prayer just after the Sh'ma begins with those two words, interlocked, Emet V'Emunah," truth and trust. They go hand in hand. In the morning service only the word Emet" appears. The Talmud explains why the word Emunah is added for the evening service, referring to Psalm 92, which states, "It is good to give thanks unto God and to declare your trustworthiness at night (emunatecha balaylot)." Why do we affirm that trust at night? Because it's dark! When things are dark and murky, the truth is much more difficult to discern. When things are not black and white, we have to rely on trust.

To catch up on prior entries, click here.  Our countdown continues!

Judaism's Top 40 - Elul 3, #38 Tzedek

Judaism's Top 40!

Tzedek - the obligation to pursue justice

This week's portion contains the integral Torah phrase, "Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof," "Pursue Justice."  Why is the word "justice" printed twice?  To teach us to pursue justice only in just ways (just means - just ends) and also that we should seek justice for ourselves as well as justice for others..

See more on this concept here.  See a social action perspective from Hazon here and a link discussing the connection to tzedakkah here.   An excerpt:

Rav Joseph Solevechik wrote that Rosh Hashanah is a time to look externally, to atone not just for actions, but also for inactions-to examine relationships with the community and larger world.  It is not simply enough to acknowledge the failures and weaknesses in our world, nor to treat the effects - at this time of turning we need to address the ways that we can respond, to discern what each one of us can do to address society's faults, what we can do to impact the direction of things.

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 4, #37 Tzelem Elohim

Judaism's Top 40!

Today: Elul 4 - and #37 of Judaism's Top 40:

Tzelem Elohim

Tzelem Elohim - the creation of every human being in the image of God.  ”And God created the human being in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them.”  [Genesis]

"We are created in the image of God, if you will, and we are obliged to return the favor."                                                                 Rabbi Arthur Green

Erica Brown writes: Rabbi Art Green's quote is taken from his book "Seek My Face" in an essay about God's image. Looking back at his quote, we ask ourselves what it means to be created in God's image. It is not only a description of our creative powers; it is also a statement of responsibility about the way that we treat others. Do we see God in them? Do we recognize that all people are created in this image, not just famous people or people who can serve us in some way? Rabbi Green continues and elaborates on this responsibility: "The inner drive to imitate the ever-giving source of life calls forth in us an unceasing flow of love, generosity of spirit, and full acceptance, both of ourselves and of all God's creatures." In the ideal sense, if we truly believe we are all created in God's image we have to recognize everyone around us at all times. 


I pose this question to my students: If I truly believe that each one of you is made in the image of God, then how will I treat you? How should we treat one another if we believe this is true? They understand what I'm saying; they know that I am talking about treating others with loving-kindness, respect, and dignity.   

Judaism's Top 40 - Elul 2 # 39 Bracha

Judaism's Top 40!


B'racha - Blessing

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner translates "b'racha" as "awakening.'  He writes:

Blessings give reverent and routine voice to our conviction that life is good, even and especially when life is cold and dark. Indeed to offer blessings at such times may be our only deliverance.   We have specific and unique phrases by which we bless a sacred book before we read it, our children at the Sabbath table, hands while washing them,
the bread we eat, the mere fact that we are not slaves, and that the rooster can distinguish between night and day. We bless trees in first blossom, the hearing of good news in any kind of wine. We bless everything.   

Blessings keep our awareness of life's holy potential ever present.  They awaken us to our own lives. Every blessing says I'm grateful to be a creature and remind myself that life is good. With each blessing uttered, we extend the boundaries of the sacred and ritualize our love of life. 100 times a day. Everywhere we turn, everything we touch, everyone we see.  The blessing can be whispered. No one even needs to hear  -no one but the Holy One, whose presence fills me.

Click here for more on blessings.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Introduction and #40 - Pikuach Nefesh

Judaism's Top 40!

This year the entertainment world mourned the loss of Casey Kasem, known among other things for his weekly listing of  “America’s Top 40.”  Kasem, an American of Lebanese Druze descent, was an avid supporter of reconciliation among the peoples of the Middle East. 

The “Top 40” of the Jewish calendar are undoubtedly the forty days between the first of the Hebrew month of Elul and the end of Yom Kippur.  These are the days of repentance, punctuated by reflection, special prayers and the sounding of the shofar.  For Jews, it’s also become a time for reconnection with our ancient heritage and value system, which, while old, lends the kind of wisdom that is so needed in these difficult times.

In order to reinforce those values and to promote Jewish literacy, for each day of this period of soul searching I’m going to count down “Judaism’s Top 40” concepts and values.  Like any list, this one is subjective and I’m not revealing them in order of importance.   But a nice exercise might be to come up with your own list or to prioritize this one. I’d love to see your list and compare.  Let me know which ones you wish to explore in more depth. 

Of course, you can also study these on your own - I'll provide links.  And even more, find ways to incorporate these values into your life. 

To catch up on prior entries, click here.

Today: Elul 1 - and #40 of Judaism’s Top 40:

Pikuach Nefesh: the saving of life / the highest Jewish obligation that overrides almost every other law. Click here for more.

"For this reason was the human being created alone, to teach you whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed an entire world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world." Sanhedrin 4:5