Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for October 11


The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by 
Beth and Raymond Baer in honor of their daughter, Celia, 
becoming a Bat Mitzvah

It was a Super Sukkah-Sunday at TBE!



Happy end of all the holidays (at long last)!



- AND SPEAKING OF THE FORWARD, SEE THIS WEEK'S NY TIMES PROFILE ON HOW THE FORWARD IS COPING WITH THE DRAMATIC RISE OF ANTI-SEMITISM IN AMERICA (According to the ADL there was a 34 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in 2016 compared with the year before, and an 86 percent increase in the first quarter of 2017).

- You must watch this op-doc, "I have a message for you," about a young woman who left her dying father as she leapt from a train to Auschwitz, only to hear from him many years later.

The End of the Beginning

It's been quite a journey these past several weeks, and now it is about to end, but the ending offers new beginnings.  As we conclude the reading of the Torah on Simchat Torah night and the following morning, we then immediately go right back to the beginning.  And then, this Shabbat is Shabbat Bereisheet, the Sabbath when we read the Creation story and the start of the book of Genesis.  Mazal tov to Celia Baer and her three-generation TBE family, as she becomes Bat Mitzvah this weekend.
 Join us for our week of celebration.  Shmini Atzeret services at 9:30 on Thursday, with Yizkor following the Torah reading (about an hour in), and our multi-generational, musical spectacular Simchat Torah celebration at 6:30 on Thursday evening.  If you want to experience the pure, unadulterated joy of being Jewish, there is no better time than then.  With all the singing and dancing, the youngest kids coming up for their Torah blessing, plus the chance to honor three very special people, and, oh yes, flags and candy during the processions and Dunkin Munchkins at the end, what could possibly be bad?

A Very Lego Sukkot

Endings and Beginnings: 
Simchat Torah and Beginning Again 

"Thoughts and Prayers"

It's become a ritual.  After every horrible tragedy in our country, public figures from all corners offer "thoughts and prayers." In many cases, those very appropriate expressions of sympathy are accompanied by action, acts inspired by that reflection.  In other cases, "thoughts and prayers" are substituted for action.  From a Jewish values perspective, this is not appropriate, unless we are waiting for the Messiah.  In that case, waiting is much less dangerous than trying to bring about the Messianic age prematurely through acts of violence.  But charity is rarely violent.  On Rosh Hashanah, in that oft-quoted Unetane Tokef prayer, it is specifically stated that the "evil decree" is not reversed through prayer alone, but only when prayer is accompanied by tzedakkah (charity) and repentance.  Both of those imply real corrective action, designed to address the problem at its roots.

In this essay detailing multiple Jewish perspectives as to why we pray, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman describes prayer as "
a delivery system for committing us to the great ideas that make life worth living, because ideas that are ritually construed empower us to do what we would otherwise never have the courage to do." 

Were I to lead a moment of "thoughts and prayers" from the floor of Congress or the State House after yet another massacre, I would employ that quote by Rabbi Hoffman - and then pray aloud that our representatives might have the courage of their prayerful convictions.

I will leave it to you as to how to address the multiple mega-storms that have hit Florida, Texas and most acutely Puerto Rico, the mass carnage caused by an arsenal of enhanced weapons of war in Las Vegas, and the climate-parched tinderboxes in California.  You can decide what your causes are, and whether your decisions will be guided by empirical study or rote response.   All I ask is this: every time you hear the expression "thoughts and prayers," instinctively reach into your hearts - and then into your pockets.  Donate and turn your prayers into action.  As Heschel would say, pray with your feet.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement, made this statement after the Las Vegas shooting:

"This latest mass shooting cannot be termed a random act of violence. Even before all the facts are known we know this: rather than revere gun rights our country must finally revere human life.
We mourn those callously slaughtered in Las Vegas and pray for the wounded. But our prayers must be followed by action, long overdue limits to the easy access to firearms. Common sense measures, like restricting the use of silencers that make a shooter harder to locate and stop, must prevail. Yet we know that instead, Congress is planning to vote on the SHARE Act, which, among other misguided provisions, allows purchasers of silencers on the internet or at gun shows to forgo a background check. This bill must not be allowed to become law. Human lives, like those taken overnight in a horrific burst of violence, depend on it.
We cannot say this mass shooting was “unbelievable.” It is all too believable. We cannot say there that there are “no words” to express our grief and our outrage. We must find the words, and we must not stop saying them and acting on them until we stop this plague of gun violence that has gripped our nation for far too long." 
We in Connecticut understand this more than anyone.  And we have a charity close to home that we can support.  So, yes, I'll offer my thoughts and prayers - and then I'm donating to The Enough Campaign.

INNOVATION NATION and the New Celebration
Long before Israel became the start-up capital of the world, Jews were all about innovation.  Even in the area of ritual - in fact, ESPECIALLY in that area - Jews have always adjusted with the times.  It is precisely that ability to adapt and innovate, which has become so ingrained in our culture, that has enabled Judaism to stay relevant even as other traditions have lost their power to move the masses.   
The evolution of this week's mini-festival-within-a-festival, Simchat Torah, is case in point. Simchat Torah never existed in biblical times.  The idea of setting aside a holiday for the completing and restarting the Torah postdates the rabbinic period, various aspects of the current observance (e.g the haftarah, circling the sanctuary and calling up the children) didn't begin until the Middle Ages, and throughout Jewish history, controversies about the innovation abounded, BUT INNOVATIONS WERE ALWAYS ACCEPTED.
The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem explains it as follows: 
Simchat Torah as a cause for celebration resulted from fixing the reading of the Torah annually, which was not always the case.  The Talmud makes reference to the triennial (3 year) cycle in Palestine, and Rashi notes there that the custom in his area was to do it in a year.  Maimonides, a century later than Rashi, is more specific - he considers the annual cycle the prevailing practice and Sukkot the date for its end and re-beginning.
The Tur (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 1269 - 1343, Ashkenaz and Spain) says the day is called "Simchat Torah, because we finish the Torah and it is appropriate to rejoice on the completion."  He notes practices which were apparently new or recent: the removal of three Torah scrolls, the third for the reading of the beginning of Genesis and the addition of liturgical poems for the day.  "There are places where all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark; and, in Ashkenaz, special honors for the ones who end and begin the reading of the Torah (the Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereisheet today)."
The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century, Kracow, Poland), in his gloss of Ashkenazic customs in the Shulchan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 669), mentions elements which evidently had become popular in the intervening centuries and which seem "natural" to us today: removal of all the Torahs the night before as well;  circling the bima of the synagogue with the scrolls "as we do with the lulav;" calling many people for aliyot and repeating the same reading many times "and this is not forbidden;" and calling the youths to the Torah and "some even call a youth for the final aliyah." 
What is surprising is how smoothly it appears that these customs, some quite radical, were accepted; at least we don't see strong objections in the contemporary sources. The Rema's comment that repeating the reading to allow many aliyot "is not forbidden" hints that there was opposition to this.  R' Joseph Colon (the Maharik, 15th century, Italy) permitted dancing on Simchat Torah "though we don't (usually) dance on Festivals," but he forbade the burning of incense.  And the Magen Avraham (17th century, Poland, on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 669) adds that it is forbidden to "burn pulvei (gun powder) to make noise, and I have seen important rabbis object to it." This is intriguing; apparently the use of fireworks for the celebration of Jewish holidays did not originate with Yom Ha'Atzma'ut.
What does all this mean for us?  Well clearly, there needs to be a balance between innovation and tradition. If nothing is consistent, a religion become untethered, and we float away.  On the other hand, when a religion becomes ossified, it quickly loses touch with the real lives of real people and it becomes irrelevant.  Cue the Pope, who said that the church has "sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" and, if it doesn't change, would be in danger of falling "like a house of cards."
Our services aim for authenticity, but when there is no apparent need to maintain a particular tradition, the default is on innovation; hence the eclectic mix of global and contemporary musical styles that has become our trademark.  Nothing we do could possibly be as radical as the creation of an entirely new holiday on the last day of Sukkot, one that has NOTHING TO DO with Sukkot.  And incidentally, the innovation of Simchat Torah continues today. This diaspora-only festival has been exported back to Israel, where the celebration now continues long into the night AFTER the festival is over.  
As I noted in my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, in Judaism, innovation has always been the rule, not the exception.
BTW, you want to read about crazy innovations?  Wednesday is Hoshanah Rabbah,  the day when Jews traditionally beat willow branches to a pulp.  Yes, we do. This is considered a symbolic attempt to rid ourselves of any remaining sins (the leaves representing these transgressions) that might influence God's decision to send the seasonal rains. In fact, there is no rational explanation for this innovation. But that hasn't stopped lots of authorities from trying to justify it.  At least, to my knowledge, no willows have been harmed in the performance of this ritual.  Wish I could say the same for those chickens on the eve of Yom Kippur.

This Year's Kallot Torah Are...

As mentioned, we are honoring three congregants as our Kallot Torah (literally, "Brides of the Torah") this year.  Irma Ross, Denise Greenman and Sue Greenwald have worked tirelessly to develop and promote some of our most creative new spiritual events, our Women's Seder and Shabbat-in-the-Round.  Please join us on Thursday evening to celebrate their leadership and dedication.  I asked them to write a little about what their volunteer efforts and TBE mean to them.   Here are their replies:
Irma Ross
If you look in the dictionary for a definition of "welcoming", it should say Temple Beth El next to that word.
It's hard to believe I've only been a member for 2 and 1/2 years.  I remember writing to the office in June of 2015 because I had seen an announcement in an email from another organization that TBE was doing a Gay Pride service.  Thanks to the woman in the office (I am sorry I don't remember which wonderful office person it was) she put me in touch with Richard H. (z' l') and Chris M.  who responded with enthusiastic open arms and invited me to join them for the service, which I did.  The rest is history.
Shortly after that service I met with the Cantor who extolled the warmth and openness of TBE.  I then also met with the Rabbi, who in his quiet way encouraged me to join and participate in any way I wanted.
I began regularly coming to Friday night services and was soon "adopted" by my fellow honorees Denise and Sue and also by Judy S., Rosalea, Judy A., Eileen, Carl and a number of other amazing and warm people.
The truth is, I had been Shul shopping for 10 years and had visited a LOT of synagogues but none felt right.  The minute I experienced the Cantor's voice and the music along with the spirituality and the services of the Rabbi I was mostly sold.  But it was the warmth and openness of the people in this congregation that quickly made me feel like I had found a home!
Welcoming is in fact part of the mission of TBE and without that as a major living component a synagogue can just be a place to pray, not that that isn't important, but it won't draw people in and make them feel like they truly matter and belong.
With all that said, I needed/wanted to participate more and more and give back to this amazing place.  My volunteering has been (again) welcomed.  The Cantor and the women on the Sedar committee are wonderful and easy to work with, the Cantor's vision along with mine, and the Rabbi and Carl were all open, willing,and excited about starting a new Shabbat-In The Round Sat morning service and our first one was a major hit. (The next one is 12/9--please join us!)
As a single woman with very little family, TBE has become both family and home for me. Volunteering here is a gift I RECEIVE and there are no words to express my gratitude for all the gifts I have been given over the past (short) 2 and 1/2 years.
I feel so blessed and grateful to receive the Simchat Torah honor and am grateful to G-d and to this family for the sense of community, spirituality and openness which it continues to bestow.
On this Simchat Torah my wish for the entire congregation is to renew its commitment to welcoming strangers into the TBE family with the warmth and open arms that greeted me, and has truly changed my life.
Susan Raikis Greenwald
Many years ago when my daughter, Ali, was little, she learned a song with the lyrics "love is something if you give it away...you get back a whole lot more." It struck a chord with me. Everyone has the capacity to give in some way. Once you give, you ultimately realize the feeling you get from doing something good for others is its own reward even though true chesed means giving with no expectation of "return."
When Ali and my son, Seth, were young kids, Art and I took them with other Temple Beth El families to Pacific House and St. Luke's Residence on Christmas Eve so they would learn what it means to give. We worked with the TBE AMERICARES team refurbishing homes so the kids would understand not everyone had what we had.  We organized the food drive and had the kids help so they'd learn that some people are not able to get enough food to eat on their own.
I realized working on these projects also connected me to Temple Beth El in a meaningful way. I learned I could counsel with Rabbi Hammerman if I wasn't sure about the right thing to do in a tough situation. Art and I learned from the compassion and leadership of Joan and Fred Weisman, z'l and others; we ultimately led Beth El Cares.  I learned that facilitating the opportunity for others to give is a mitzvah. Some people find it easy to give but hard to receive.  I believe giving someone the chance to do a mitzvah when you need a hand is a mitzvah too. "Love is something if you give it away..."
My connection with Temple Beth El has taught me how to "give better."  Working with the leaders of Reyut, collaborating with Cantor Fishman, Denise, Irma and others on the Women's Seder and now serving on the TBE Board of Trustees enable me to help and feel connected at the same time.  Over the last few years I've come to understand the sweetness of "quiet mitzvot:" saying hello, saying thank you, being kind, providing a meal, helping when someone is sitting shiva... when we do mitzvot for others we let them know we see them, are here for them and they are not alone. Small acts can make a big difference.
"Love is something if you give it away...you get back a whole lot more."
Thank you for this honor which I gratefully share with Denise and Irma.
Denise Greenman

Temple Beth El has been my second home for over 25 years.  I can't say there was any one person or reason that drew me into the temple, walking through its doors just felt right. And now, many years later, having chaired and served on multiple TBE committees and boards, it still feels right.
My involvement at TBE has provided me with the opportunity to lead and participate in a variety of events, with so many different people, but more importantly, for so many people. Seeing 150 women brought together by Judaism at the Women's Seder was such a powerful, moving experience, it reaffirmed why I commit to TBE. My experience volunteering at TBE has given me the chance to grow as a person, to build self-confidence and leadership skills, and learn the art of delegating. My volunteerism allows me to be part of such a special community, and I am grateful for the opportunities that TBE has provided me with to give back to that same community. 
Mazel tov to Irma and Sue, who I am pleased to share this honor with. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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