Tuesday, November 17, 2015

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Carly Fein on Vayishlach

Shabbat Shalom

I’ve always been interested in finding new ways to approach things and finding ways to be creative.

For instance, where someone might see a used-up paper towel roll, I see a pencil holder.  All you need is some colored duct tape and some pencils.

One day cleaning up my room I found some leftover rope from a broken drawstring bag. Instead of throwing it out, I thought of a great way to organize all of the pictures I have of me and my friends form bar and bat mitzvahs. I clipped the photos to the rope with colorful close pins and hung it on my wall. Now I have a great picture wall-hanging and a lot less clutter on my desk.

I enjoy collecting quotes and reading the creative ways a simple twist of language becomes inspirational. 

Some of my favorites include:
“Take me as I am or watch me as I go.”
“A day without laughter is a day wasted.”
“No matter what, you deserve to smile. Don’t let anyone ever take that away from you.”
And a personal quote I use whenever sharing chocolate with anyone, “Break it in half and I’ll take the bigger half.”

And here's a great quote I hope to achieve, “My goal is to create a life that I don’t need a vacation from.”

Speaking of quotes, here’s one that relates to my parsha, Vayishlach, “We are strangers. Again.”

In my portion, Ya’akov needs to constantly come up with creative solutions to the challenges he faces, much as I have done with my different art projects and quotes.  One of the challenges is to meet up with his long lost brother Esav, who, by the way, wanted to kill him the last time they were together twenty years before.

Ya’akov was afraid of what would happen, but not afraid to leap into the unknown. He doesn’t run away, but instead he divides his camp into two.

First, he sends Esav presents.  Ya’akov is always thinking outside the box…
Then, on the night before he was about to confront Esav, as he crosses the river, Ya’akov fights with a stranger – we’re not sure if it’s a man or an angel – but he prevails.

Some say that Ya’akov was actually wrestling with himself.  Maybe he was struggling to overcome old fears and find new approaches to the situation he was facing.

Like Ya’akov, I too, am always looking for creative solutions.  
One of my hobbies is photography and sometimes I experiment by changing the settings on the camera. There are many ways to control the amount of light and focal-range for each picture.
I think Photography is like life – if you make one adjustment, it changes the whole picture.

In school we’re reading a book called “Out of My Mind.” It’s about a girl who can barely move or talk. Only her mother can understand her but they didn’t give up trying to communicate.  Finally, they learned about a new technology, a machine, that she could use to speak for her. It’s a great example of being open minded when searching for solutions to seemingly impossible problems.

Now that I am a Bat Mitzvah, I hope that I can help find creative solutions to many problems that people face.

For my mitzvah project, I did just that. I held a bake sale to raise money for the Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County and raised nearly a thousand dollars.  I’ve also been volunteering at the
Food Bank to help organize the food in their storage room which I will be doing periodically throughout the year. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Daniel and Elena Salm on Toldot

 E: Good morning and Shabbat Shalom! As you may know, our Torah portion today discusses the worst-ever relationship between a set of twins, the one between Esau and Jacob.

·         D: If Elena and I had been around during the time of Esau and Jacob, then we could have given them some helpful pointers on how to get along better, since we have so much experience living together as twins.

·         E-: We’re pretty much experts on this topic. And, as twins, we have a lot in common with Esau and Jacob, with one major difference.

·         D: …We don’t want to actually kill each other.

·         E: …most of the time. But seriously… we do get along…

·         D: Certainly better than Jacob and Esau. Not to sound competitive, but I, was born first, though some say it’s because my sister kicked me out.

·         E: Well, it was pretty crowded in there! But that’s exactly how it was for Jacob and Esau. The Torah tells us that they wrestled with each other before they were even born, making them rivals even before they were born.

·         D: Just as in other ancient tales about twins, each of them was described as half of a complete personality. Each had qualities that the other lacked, and, together they were viewed as one complete person.

·         E: In our Torah portion, Jacob was the clever; thinking brother and Esau was the athletic, active twin. The problem is that no person, especially a twin, should be seen as half a person. 

·         D: Just like Elena and me -- each of us likes to study and we also like sports.  Well, maybe we like sports more, but each of us is a complete person.

·         E: So here is our Twin Survival Guide for Jacob and Esau.

·         D: Even though we are both complete personalities, it is important to have individual interests and be your own person, so that we don’t always do the same things. Sometimes, those interests can complement each other. For instance, just as Esau was a big outdoorsman, I like to ride my bike and go fishing. 

·         E: …and I like to swim. Fortunately, I never swim where he’s fishing.

·         D: One of my other interests is that I like playing baseball.

·         E: And after going to my brothers’ baseball games for so many years, I know all the rules of baseball inside out, and enjoy watching baseball -- but not as much as I like watching “Project Runway.”

·         D: Speaking of watching, we both love movies, but I prefer comedies like “Happy Gilmore.”

·         E: And I like creepy, horror movies. But we can always find room to compromise by watching t.v. shows like “River Monsters.” 

·         D: Because it’s a TV show that has swimming,

·         E: scary Monsters,

·         D: AND fishing!

·         E: So this is our advice for Jacob and Esau. If you want to get along, stop trying to one up and compete with each other so much. You don’t have to be rivals just because you’re twins. Remember, friendship and brotherhood (or sisterhood) is more important than winning an argument or a competition or favor from a parent.

·         D: In another part of today’s Torah portion, Esau trades his birthright for a bowl of soup. As the first-born twin, I know that even though my favorite soup is Ramen chicken noodle, I wouldn’t trade my birthright for it.

·         E: …and I would never cook up some chicken noodle soup in order to trick you into giving me Dad’s blessing—I’d just trick Dad instead.

·         D: Well, I have some news for you. You’re too late.  Dad’s blessing already went to Nathan.

·         E - But that brings up another important point. Parents should not be seen as favoring one twin over the other.

·         D: Yes, Rebecca and Isaac were way out of line in how they favored one child over another.  That probably didn’t help them get along.

·         E: As twins, the other key to getting along is to be able to share the things that we both enjoy!

·         D: like pizza or our dog Tino.

·         E: No, like family or being there for each other or community or our Mitzvah Project, which was really great. We volunteered at the Ferguson library last summer, where we helped kids participate in the summer reading program.

·         D: Also, we collected the books that our now in our bima baskets and we are going to donate them to the Prison Book Program in Quincy, Mass., the city where our Grandma Dale grew up.  She was a big reader, and I think she would have been happy about our project. We’re so happy to be able to give actual books to people who people in prisons who are having tough time and who don’t have access to books or reading.

·         E: There’s one more bit of advice that we have for Esau and Jacob, and it’s really important. Never give up on your twin sibling. Even if it takes a long time, what you share will always be more important than what divides you.

·         D: It took twenty years, but eventually Esau and Jacob learned that lesson and came back together to become one big happy family. Finally, their rivalry was over.

·         E: So those are Daniel and Elena’s helpful hints for our “Twin Survival Guide.” If only we’d been able to help Jacob and Esau, maybe they could have been friends for those 20 years and their lives would have been so much more meaningful having a brother and a friend around.

·         D: Well, Elena, at least we’re friends.  We get on each other’s nerves, but we also have lots of laughs.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Shabbat-O-Gram for November 13

Shabbat Shalom!

Mazal tov to the Salm family on Elena and Daniel's becoming b'nai mitzvah on Shabbat morning.  At that service, I'll also be reprising our ever popular "Great Toldot Taste Test."  This week's portion is a Jewish Foodie's paradise.  In it, food changes history, not once, but twice: first, there's Jacob's "Lentil Soup a la Ruddy" which entices Esau to sell his birthright, and then Jacob and Rebecca cook up a dinner scrumptious enough to trick isaac into giving his younger son the big blessing.  Read more in this week's parsha packet. Once again this week, we'll have a blind taste test of four scrumptious local hallahs.  Which one is the best?  BTW, to see a plethora of Jewish recipes, click here.

Anat Hoffman: Time to Roll up Our Sleeves
The rave reviews for this week's Hoffman lecture, attended by more than 300 people, are pouring in.  If you did not have a chance to hear it, or more to the point, if anyone in your family has expressed a sense of alienation of hopelessness regarding Israel, this lecture needs to be heard.  I have uploaded the audio, along with a photo album of the event. You can access both by clicking here.  Share the link!

Hoffman stated that when there is a job to be done, we have a choice: to throw up our hands or roll up our sleeves.  With regard to Israel, far too many of us have opted to walk away.  She gave us hope that positive change CAN happen, and in fact it already has, especially with regard to women's rights (not just at the Kotel, but even on the streets of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods).  But there is much more work to be done, especially with regard to minorities and the non-Orthodox religious streams.  I was very encouraged by the turnout and the quality of the questions.  I think our community is ready to play a growing role in Anat Hoffman's important work.

Some follow up. 
  • Click here if you are interested in seeing and purchasing the Women of the Wall tallit.  Makes a great Hanukkah gift!
  • Speaking of Hanukkah, Anat Hoffman spoke about a campaign for a woman to light the Hanukkah menorah at the Kotel.  Here is the link for that.
  • And speaking of the Women of the Wall, today is Rosh Hodesh Kislev.  See the archived video of this morning's service as live streamed just a few hours ago.
  • And speaking of live stream, we are now streaming our own, amazing Friday night services - for now the link is available on request, as we complete our "soft launch."  Feel free to ask for it -but of course if you are in the area, there is no substitute for being here (as those who attend regularly will attest!)
  • And speaking of everything we've been speaking about, join us for the showing of the film "Gett" on Tuesday at 7:30, followed by a discussion of this important and difficult film.  When it was shown several months back at the Avon Theater, a number of people asked me to explain the Jewish laws of divorce, which seem so unjust and unfair in this film (and yes, they are).  So we'll talk.  Time to roll up our sleeves, indeed.
Cantor Fishman at USCJ
We take great pride in Cantor Fishman's acclaim as one the great contemporary voices of the Jewish people.  Just this weekend, in addition to our Friday night and Shabbat services, she will be appearing at Bi-Cultural's Auction on Sunday, and then on Monday night, at the convention of the USCJ.  Take a look at this overview of the convention as well as the schedule, to get a sense of where the Conservative movement sees itself at this place and time.  And if you know someone who is attending, odds are you will hear something from them about how fortunate we are to have Cantor Fishman here.


I've written before about a remarkable teen in our congregation, Gaby Baum.  For a number of years, her rare medical condition has forced her to subsist on a very limited diet. Read her story in her own words (see p. 12).

But that has never stopped her.  Several years back, when she was still in middle school, she became her own best advocate, increasing awareness with a walkathon at her school.  She's been involved in a number of charitable projects in our community and has taken a real leadership role.  She has faced innumerable and escalating health challenges since then, with complications that would crush the spirit of a lesser person.  But Gaby has continued to maintain a remarkable air of optimism. She refuses to get down on herself or on the world, focusing instead on how she can help others.

During a recent visit, I suggested that she begin to write about her experiences.  I'm so glad that she has now begun doing just that.  Here is her first blog posting, appropriately entitled, "SMILE."  In fact, she has turned that word into an acronym.  Here's what she writes:

"In the mist of the past month through all the ups and downs this word has been in the forefront of my mind. This one word has kept me going and continues to remind me every day of how lucky I am. I am surrounded by amazing family and friends. Because of them I am able to smile and overcome the challenges I face.

I want to start my first blog post with this word. For me personally a smile's meaning is more than an emotion that your muscles express when you are happy. A smile shows that you care, that you can keep going, that everything is all right. One smile can change a life. Through my journey these past few years I have met some extraordinary people and each one has given me the gift of a smile. If there is one thing that I can say that I have learned and what to pass on it is this...


So Much In Life (To) Enjoy

That is what a Smile is and that is what it does. Sitting in the hospital and at home I am trying to find a way to spread my message and do something. This is my first step on that road and I want to help spread the message to as many people as possible. It all starts with you.  If you see someone today at school, work, or on the street - give them a gift of a smile. It is a small and simple gesture that may change that person's day and goes much farther than the eye can see.

Here I am sending a smile to all of you :)"

Please check out her blog and pass along her timeless message to everyone you know.  And let her know how proud we all are of her.

Baby Hitler Refuses to Die

Suddenly, Baby Hitler is everywhere.  Since I presented four responses to the classic ethical dilemma in my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons, the little rug rat has been featured in the Atlantic and a New York Times poll (here are the results);Ben Carson has chimed in (won't kill him if he's a fetus) and Jeb Bush ("Hell, yeah!") too, and Stephen Colbert gave his take.  The Washington Post speculated on what a world without Baby Hitler would look like.  Social media outlets have piled on the satiric memes and tweets, and yes, there were tasteless Halloween bay Hitler costumes galore.

I'm not implying a causal effect between my sermons and the current craze.  In fact, I'm a little embarrassed by the connection, which has somewhat trivialized what I hoped was a very serious series of messages.  I wish the thing would run its course already, like a bad virus.  It only confirms what I claimed on Yom Kippur, that the obsession with Hitler (and by extension the Shoah) has intensified to the point of become unhealthy for Jews and other living things.
To reiterate my four responses to the moral dilemma, with quotes from the sermons:

1)    I'd hug him. 

I truly believe that every act of unconditional love has redemptive power. Each of us has incredible power.  All we need to do is hug a child to save the world.

But instead, what are we doing to our children? 

We're shooting them. We are stabbing them.  We are burning them.  We are sacrificing them on the altar of our ambitions.  We are humiliating them.  We are overindulging them.  We are ignoring them.  We are racing them to nowhere.  We are over-programming them.  We are infecting them with hate.   We are victimizing them because we hate.  We are enslaving them.  We are trafficking in them.   We're allowing them to wallow in loneliness. We are casting them off.  We are burdening them with excessive educational debt.  We are poisoning their earth.   We are filling their bellies with sugary soft drinks. We're numbing their minds with electronic distractions.  We are failing to show them the importance of service and seeing a world that is much larger than themselves.

For it's not about the mustachioed child we didn't hug in 1891, but the cherubic, innocent child we can hug today.  For that hug could save a life, or ten, or, who knows... millions. 
That hug could avert the evil decree.  That hug could redeem us all.            

2)    I'd kill him, and in doing so wipe out the "Amalek within."

Since it was Hitler's struggle to release the world from the "burdens" of morality and restraint, all the more so is it our crusade to reinforce those so-called burdens.  It is our task to champion conscience.  Our struggle - our Kampf - is to subdue that inclination to follow the crowd, to succumb to our first whim and to mindlessly obey the orders of impulse. 
In that way, God willing, may we vanquish Amalek - and its modern incarnation Hitler - forever from within our hearts.

3)    We cannot change history, nor should we want to.

No, I would not change history and kill two-year-old Hitler in order to prevent the Holocaust.  Nor would I go back and change a single choice that I've made, even ones that I regret.  Life is not lived backward; it is lived forward.  In fact, it is lived Fast Forward.  It is lived Far Forward. For while we humbly accept that we can't change history, let us boldly affirm that can make history - and let us forge that future as we walk along that tightrope, one step at a time, never looking down, never looking at ourselves, but always by imagining unborn worlds while fulfilling ancient dreams.

4)     I'd kill him, and in doing so cut off at the roots, at long last, the nightmares that continue to haunt us.

Google "Hitler" and you will find 101 MILLION results - the past year alone, over seventeen million.  The guy is dead seventy years.  We are giving this guy a shelf life he doesn't deserve.  It's time to slay the demon.  It's time to put little Adolf to bed, once and for all.

Listen, no one should be naïve to the real dangers that exist. One reason we are afraid to trust again is that we've been burned by trust in the past.   And by burned I don't just mean metaphorically.  So I get it.  It would be naïve to believe that after the scores of terror bombings, the thousands of missiles, and a million broken dreams, anyone would be willing to take large risks to trust the world right now, especially Israelis.

By killing the demon, I am not suggesting that we forget.  Heaven forbid we should forget the Holocaust!  On the contrary, any Judaism to emerge out of this new era must place the Holocaust experience directly at its core, or it will not be authentic; it will fail to speak to our need to confront this black hole in our history. But just as the new Judaism we are forging cannot ignore or deny the abyss, it must also speak to our religious need to affirm joy, beauty, renewed life and at least the possibility of a responsive divinity, or it will not be sustainable.  There needs to be a new balance between Auschwitz and Sinai that takes into account the lessons of both.

Our goal should be nothing less than for the next generation to see bearing witness not as a burden, but as a privilege, an honor, and yet another source of pride in who they are.

So I've presented four responses: By hugging the child, no matter who he or she may be; by reasserting the value of conscience and restraint; by taking the long view and thereby overcoming our inbred self centeredness; and finally, by cutting off at the roots, at long last, the nightmares that continues to haunt us, so that we might learn to have trust once again in the wondrous and priceless gift we have been given.  We must conquer the mistrust that paralyzes us, whether in commerce, in the public square, at home, in the synagogue or in the depths of our souls.  Too much is at stake - and there is so little time.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman