Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Shabbat Shalom. Chag Sameach!!!
It is really sweet to be here with you on this start of our festival of freedom. This is the start of us as a nation, the Jewish people, and our journey from slavery to freedom.
Just like Moses and the Jewish people traveling from Succoth to Sinai, starting their journey, I too, am on a journey, and have reached an important milestone, but not a final destination. I will talk about that in a little bit.
The Torah reading for this morning is not from the usual rotation of portions, but a very special one, harking back to Exodus, and telling the story of, you guessed it, some of the Passover rituals. Much of the reading from Parashat Bo is straightforward. It explains the Passover sacrifice, but more importantly, tells us that the lamb we eat must be especially selected, roasted and fully eaten. It goes into great detail on painting the door lintels with blood so that the Israelite houses would be spared the visit from Adonai, for the killing of the first born.
As there is destruction and turmoil in Egypt, there is a perhaps confusing statement from Pharaoh. Exodus 12:32 states,
גַּם־צֹאנְכֶ֨ם גַּם־בְּקַרְכֶ֥ם קְח֛וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּרְתֶּ֖ם וָלֵ֑כוּ וּבֵֽרַכְתֶּ֖ם גַּם־אֹתִֽי׃
Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! וּבֵֽרַכְתֶּ֖ם גַּם־אֹתִֽי׃
And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”
A special blessing on me also? Couldn’t Pharaoh have spared everyone the violence and mayhem by letting the Children of Israel go prior to the last plague? Why should Pharaoh be getting a blessing for himself?
Rashi, the most influential Torah commentator, who lived in the 11th century, said:
וברכתם גם אתי AND BLESS ME ALSO — Pray on my behalf that I should not die because I am a firstborn (cf. and ).
The question is pray to whom? Wasn’t Pharaoh considered a deity among his people? Why would he be praying to another god? Doesn’t that request lessen his status? And, hadn’t Pharaoh deflected the God of Israel so many times to really make us wonder why this is happening. Yes, Adonai hardened Pharaoh’s heart many times, but this request for blessings still seems, at least to me, to be totally out of character. Or is it that he finally saw the light? In any event, the reason he said this is obvious – when your own life is in danger, you try anything.
Pray on my behalf. Suddenly his powers as a god are severely lacking. Pharaoh needs help in saving himself.
Let’s go further in the reading to tackle another part of our portion. Exodus 12:35.
וּבְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל עָשׂ֖וּ כִּדְבַ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַֽיִּשְׁאֲלוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם כְּלֵי־כֶ֛סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָ֖ב וּשְׂמָלֹֽת׃
The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.
I have wondered about this for many years. How did the Israelites get the silver and gold, and clothing? They should just walk over to Egyptian houses and ask to borrow these things? Shouldn’t the Egyptians know that they want to leave, and they will never see their belongings again?
This line is certainly not as simple as it seems. Let’s dissect it.
The first question stems from Moses’ request. How is it that Moses, the chosen of God, asked his people, his tribe, to go and steal, ok borrow, these objects from the Egyptians? And, speaking of the Seder, or the order, how is it that the portion states silver, gold and clothing? Isn’t gold preferred over silver, and both over clothing?
Let’s deal with that first question, as it really bothers me that Moses would tell the Israelites to go and plunder possessions from the Egyptians. Moses knows full well that they will be leaving Egypt, he knows that the materials will never be returned.
To try to answer this, I turn to the commentary of Ḥayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, also known as the Or ha-Ḥayyim after his popular commentary on the Five Books of Moses; he stated:
“The Torah stresses that the reason the Israelites "borrowed" all this
because they were greedy for material goods but because Moses had instructed
them to. The Torah may also teach us an object lesson in what Maimonides wrote
in chapter nine of his Hilchot Yesodey Hatorah, Fundamentals of Torah, that if a prophet orders the people to commit
an act which is against Torah law and such an order is of a temporary nature,
an emergency situation, the people are to accept the prophet's instructions as
long as the violation is not in the realm of idol worship.”
Interesting. But, wait there is more!
The Or ha-Hayyim continued : “The people here were not happy about deceiving the Egyptians by making them think they were borrowing these trinkets intending to return them in a few days. Seeing that Moses was a duly accredited prophet, however, they complied with his instructions in spite of their misgivings.”
So, if you thought there was a moral problem here, you were right.
So, from our reading this morning we have this picture of the Israelites leaving Egypt. First, they ate the lamb, put the blood on the door lintels, took some possessions from the Egyptians, and then hurried out of slavery and into freedom to worship the One God.
Their journey leads me to my journey, which did not have to be done in such a rush, and the rabbinic learning which lingered for seven years. This culminated in my ordination as a Rabbi last Tuesday from the Academy for Jewish Religion. That was not the end of my journey, but a major milestone along the path.
My education at the academy was extensive, I took over 70 courses from Talmud to Pastoral Care, from the mystical book Sefer Yetzirah to the Architecture of Ritual, from Contemporary Midrash to The Book of Job. Then there were dozens of ritual skills to master and eight comprehensive examinations. I learned so much from the instructors and students, and yet, I know there is still much more to learn.
The ordination day was incredible, filled with many blessings. The day was so full that I am still unpacking portions of it. Many family and friends were there, each one there a special blessing for me. And after the ceremonies were finished, many headed back to Stamford for a wonderful celebration to cap the day. Those celebrations continue now with my home congregation, and next week with my Glens Falls community. Also, several members of my first shul I served as a student rabbi, Congregation Sinai of Milford, were at the ordination.
Temple Beth El has been and always will be a very special place for me, with so many incredible friends, all part of this Kahal Kadosh, this holy congregation. It is here where I started leading daily minyanim and serving as a gabbai. It is here where my educational journey began, and it is here where I realized I needed to go onto further study.
I am especially grateful to our Hazzanim over the 33 years that my family and I have been members here. From the Hazzan, Sid Rabinowitz, to Deborah Jacobson, to George Mordechai and Magda Fishman, I developed a love of Hazzanout and learned many musical interpretations of our liturgy. And from my friend, mentor, advisor, role model, and mensch, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, I have learned so much Torah and about being a rabbi. He was one of my presenters at the ordination and wrote so lovingly about me in the ordination booklet.
I also owe a big debt of support to members of my family who are no longer with us, my mother Barbara, father Nathaniel and brother David; as well as Jane and Walter Wertheim, zichronam livracha.
And there are more people to thank, including all of you here today, as we celebrate the beginning of Pesach and my ordination.
Thank you also to my son, Sam and Rae; in addition to my daughter Ruth and Kim. You have been behind me on every step of the journey.
But the biggest thank you, the Todah Rabbah Gedolah, goes to my wife and partner of 45 years, Fran. Without her support and encouragement, this would never have been possible.
The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land took 40 years. Rabbi Akiba, one of our greatest sages, started his studying when he was 40. I also started studying at 40, well maybe a bit after that, but it did not take me 40 years to finish. In seven years, one year for each day of creation and our day of rest, I gained rabbinical s'micha. I still can’t believe it.
My journey continues. I look forward to serving Amcha, our people, for many more years.
Chag Sameach; Shabbat Shalom.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Friday, April 12, 2019
It was a really chilly night in late March, when, instead of playing my daily dose of Fortnite before bed (just kidding), my dad and I headed for church. Yes, not kidding, we went to the United Methodist Church of New Canaan, in order to fulfill my Mitzvah Project.
Now that I have you confused, for my project, I went to New York with an organization called Midnight Run, where along with six others, I personally handed out clothing, fresh meals and toiletries – at midnight – to homeless people on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
This project in fact ties into both my Torah portion and the festival of Passover.
My portion of Metzora discusses leprosy, a disease that was very contagious. No one wanted to touch or go near people who had it, so they were excluded from the community.
Except the Kohen, the priest, who would talk to them. In Leviticus 14:3 it says, “When (a case of leprosy) has been reported to the priest, he shall go outside the camp to see if the leper has been healed.” The commentators say that the priest was not to wait until people came to him. He had to go to them. Even the very contagious person with leprosy needs to be met with personal human contact… no one should be an outcast.
Which brings me to the homeless. It so happens that for me, homelessness is not just something you read about. In the past, I have had friends who were homeless. So when it was time for me to pick a mitzvah project, I didn’t want to simply donate to a homeless shelter or deliver food to a food bank. I wanted to go out to where homeless people live and personally help them out.
Also, today is Shabbat Hagadol, meaning Passover begins this week. The story of the Exodus and the night of the tenth plague is another story about a midnight run.
It says in Exodus chapter 12:
וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, וַיהוָה הִכָּה כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
“And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt.”
At that moment, the Israelites had no choice but to prepare to leave right away.
As ex-slaves, they knew and we know what it’s like to be an outsider – and that’s why we are told to love the stranger 36 times in the Torah – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. And it all started with that midnight run from Egypt after the tenth plague toward a better life and a more hopeful future. Just like the homeless people I met, who were trying to escape to a better reality.
Also, my haftarah speaks of the prophet Elijah, who visits every Seder table. He’s not there just because he likes Manischewitz (pause), but because he brings the promise of hope to those who are poor, homeless or otherwise down on their luck.
So let me tell you more about my experience that cold night in New York City.
It’s hard to express it, but it was much more enjoyable than I expected it to be.
The other volunteers were members of the church. My dad told them that we were doing this for my bar mitzvah. They were like, “Hey, that’s a great idea.”
Twenty-five people helped to prepare the food and load the van, most of them older volunteers and also a few teens. But as I said, only 7 of us went on the trip, and I was the youngest one.
We drove to Hell’s Kitchen – on the west side in the 40s, which is now a very touristed area. A lot of homeless people knew we were coming, through word of mouth, but a lot were pleasantly surprised that they were going to get supplies to help them through the night.
We would drive around in our van to different stops. Some of the people we served showed us where they sleep. Some had succeeded in moving into a tiny apartment, with the help of Midnight Run and other organizations. Some of them sleep in front of churches, outdoors. Others in recreation buildings open 24/7. At each stop, I handed out sandwiches, asking each person whether they wanted turkey, meatloaf, roast beef or my homemade PB&J.
They were all super thankful. Some even gave us hugs.
One guy needed a sleeping bag so we gave him one and he was ecstatic. He said, “I wanted a sleeping bag so much.”
There was another guy who was using toilet paper as socks and had purple bruises all over his feet. And the toilet paper was getting stuck between his toes. This really hit me hard. But he was super happy to get socks and shoes from us.
Counter to what some believe, I’d say that only a small percentage had mental health or drug issues. Everyone we met wanted to talk with us and was very thankful.
About half a dozen of the people we helped were women and there were maybe 60-70 men. Lots of people. One woman had been living with her husband, and after he sadly passed away – now she is on the streets.
The people we helped would all say “God bless” when I gave them supplies. Everyone wanted blankets and underwear and stuff like that. When we gave people food, most ate right away, but some took the food back for family.
Some of them have jobs, but NONE want to be homeless.
This was an amazing experience and I hope we can do something like this here at the temple.
Shabbat and Pass-O-Gram
A scene from last Sunday's 7th Grade class wedding.
See more photos in the 7th Grade Class Lifecycle Album
Thank you to Stephanie Zelazny for the photos.
Mazal tov to the family of Jake Davidson, who becomes Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning, which is Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Shabbat - always during the week before Passover). Join us for services on Friday night and Shabbat morning.
Speaking of great B'nai Mitzvah speeches, see Sammi Bradley's d'var Torah from last Shabbat.
Jake's Mitzvah project was very special, as he, along with his dad Aron, participated on a Midnight Run, where he personally assisted homeless people living in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan (see him above, in the special van). In his d'var Torah, he will describe that experience in great detail, and working with him to develop this speech was incredibly intense and moving. I'm hoping that his experience might set a tone for ways that our congregation can do even more than we already do for those lacking so much. I encourage you to join us tomorrow morning.
Note that there will be no Friday night service NEXT week, the first night of Passover. The "siyyum" (short study session) for the first born will take place at the conclusion of morning minyan on Friday. Please note that there will be no Shabbat-O-Gram next week.
Hametz must be sold by Friday morning.
When TBE congregant Gerry Ginsburg came to me several years ago to toss around some ideas he had about professionally transitioning, his choice came down to two of his great passions: Judaism...and wine. Fortunately, he ruled out another passion - playing linebacker for the Patriots. But when you think about what he has accomplished in his pursuit of rabbinic studies, I wouldn't have put it past him to succeed as a linebacker too.
In fact, Gerry, who will be ordained this coming Tuesday by the Academy for Jewish Religion following many years of study, has proven to us that Judaism is much like a fine wine; it grows even better with age and never stops changing. He's a rare vintage himself, as Gerry has set a marvelous example of how one can continue to grow through all the seasons of life. His congregational family has marveled at his perseverance (and Fran's too!), his desire to excel and to make a difference - and most of all, his passion for learning and leadership. Truth be told, Gerry has been making a huge difference in our Jewish community for decades, leading minyans, being president of our Men's Club, serving on our ritual committee and participating in any number of mitzvah activities. When he made his decision to go for the rabbinate, while on one hand it was surprising, it was not completely shocking.
So, the first great lesson of Gerry's rabbinate has already been taught through his example. But that is only the beginning. While many of his rabbinic contemporaries are contemplating retirement, Gerry is not ready to become emeritus on the day after his ordination. He has so much to teach and so many to help. At TBE, he often leads shiva minyans, and without exception, families tell me afterwards how compassionate and helpful Gerry was. And now, he has agreed to help us out next year, handling some pastoral, liturgical and educational responsibilities, now as a professional rather than a volunteer. I'm honored that he will be doubling the rabbinic population of our staff!
Gerry, Fran, Ruth and Sam have long mastered the art of leading by example, and the example that Gerry is now setting has placed the bar extremely high indeed. Mazal tov to Gerry and his family, and it will be my honor to present Gerry Ginsburg as a candidate for ordination on Tuesday.
A Time of Shared Sanctity
In the Talmud, Hillel the sage says, "in a world that lacks humanity, be human."
In the wake of recent hate-based massacres at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a church in Charleston, along with other unspeakable atrocities, the need for diverse faith groups to come together has never been greater. In that light, the close proximity of the upcoming holy days of Passover, Easter and Ramadan offer us a chance to turn these sacred moments into sacred encounters.
On Tuesday, April 16 at Grace Farms in New Canaan, I'll be doing just that, joined by close friends who have become my partners in interfaith dialogue. I invite people of all backgrounds to join us, so that we might have as diverse a group as possible participating in this event.
I'll be joined in conversation that evening by Grace Farms Foundation's Faith Initiative Director, Dr. Matthew Croasmun, along with Rev. Mark Lingle and Imam Kareem Adeeb. First I'll conduct a brief simulated Passover Seder, to set the tone for our conversations. Then, we'll engage in a deep discussion about the similarities and differences that Jews, Christians and Muslims have with regard to forgiveness and remembering. Focusing in on Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Charleston, we'll explore the significance of never forgetting the tragedies that harm our communities and degrade our common humanity.
We've put together four questions to frame our conversation, mirroring the Four Questions of the Passover Seder:
- How does your tradition understand forgiveness?
- Are there offenses that ought not be forgiven? How do we forgive in ways that both tell the truth about the wrong that has been done and deal seriously with the possibility of future harm?
- Given the command in all three Abrahamic faith texts to "love God and love neighbor," how are we to respond to this current moment of unspeakable violence?
- Is it possible to forgive and never forget? What does remembrance mean in light of the possibility of forgiveness?
One question that I've been asked often since Pittsburgh is whether Jews should "turn the other cheek," as Christians are often called upon to do. It's interesting fodder for discussion, and we'll talk about it at Grace Farms.
So why does Judaism not encourage the unconditional embrace of your enemy? When you turn your cheek, you are no longer looking at your offender in the eye, face to face. True reconciliation can only occur when two human beings can truly see what is human in the other, and how each of us is created in the Divine image. But there are times when such authentic encounters simply can't happen. The Pittsburgh perpetrator showed no signs of remorse during his appearance in court, and it is doubtful that he will when he stands trial. It would be a grave injustice to blindly forgive him.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."
We all share responsibility, not for the offensive acts of those who killed innocent worshipers in cold blood, but for forging the alliances that can at long last subdue the hate.
There would be no better time to build strengthen these alliances than during our holiest of weeks, a time when that holiness is shared.
I hope you'll be able to join me and my colleagues next Tuesday. It is important to have a strong representation from the Jewish community. If you have never been to Grace Farms, it is one of the most pristine, spiritually stimulating places on earth.
For more information, go to https://gracefarms.org/events/interfaith-seder-2019/.
FROM THE PEW AMERICAN RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE STUDY
Note the dramatic increase of the number claiming to have "no religion," which has just become the largest "religious" grouping, passing Evangelicals. Jewish numbers, though small, have remained surprisingly steady. Mainline Protestant seems to have turned a corner, following a long decline, and Catholics and Evangelicals are dropping somewhat.
I feel that Judaism is uniquely positioned to appeal to the "nones" as this growing unaffiliated group is called, because Judaism is more than a religion. To be a Jew is to be part of a people as well, and most Jews - in Israel especially but also here - identify along those lines, because most possess a secular world view. Some call it "spiritual," but very few Jews, including those who are extremely identified as Jews, call themselves "religious."
NEWS FROM ISRAEL
This week's news from Israel can be summarized in two charts. This top one was a screenshot of the landing board at Ben Gurion Airport yesterday. You can see in the middle, "Moon," as Israel was primed to land its first spacecraft on the moon. The landing failed, but still it was a moment of great pride.
The second chart is the final results of the Knesset elections held on Tuesday. These results will be analyzed for weeks, with enormous implications for the future of Israel as well as the Israel-Diaspora relationship. For now it's best to simply congratulate those who made it - a number of parties were left on the outside looking in - and continue to actively engage in efforts to guarantee a bright future of a democratic and secure Jewish state.
PASSOVER IS COMING!
Why is this Passover different from all others? Well, it isn't, but some have found a special need to focus on social justice concerns this year. So here's a way you can change your dishes and change the world at the same time...
Order your fair-trade, kosher-for-Passover chocolate bars today and ensure that your seder is free of the child labor and child slavery that plagues much of the cocoa industry. The maror (bitter herb) that we eat at seder reminds us of the pain of slavery. This year, let the sweetness of the first kosher-for-Passover slavery-free chocolate remind us that liberation is possible, and tasty, too! These delicious chocolate bars-in flavors that include chocolate espresso bean and lemon ginger chocolate-are the very first Passover chocolate guaranteed to be free of slavery or child labor. You can order your fair-trade, slavery free chocolate here, and click here to see what Fair Trade is a prime Jewish value. This year's chocolate includes a sample box of all eight varieties of chocolate that you can give as a gift to your host.
Other Seder Suggestions:
(I did all the research so you don't have to!)
Moving from the palate to the Plate, here are some Passover and Haggadah-related downloads that I recommend to enhance your Seders.
HIAS Haggadah Supplement: Welcome the Stranger, Protect the Refugee - timely material to enhance your Seder, from the legendary organization that has protected and resettled refugees since the Jewish immigrants of the Lower East Side in 1881.
Global Justice Haggadah - by the American Jewish World Service
Limmud Hevruta Project - Limmud has compiled an alternative four questions for you to explore with your family and friends this Pesach. Study material is provided on topics such as, "Are Jews outside of Israel truly free?" "Are Jews in Israel truly free?" "Are non-Jews in Israel free?" And, "What does this mean to you?" Guaranteed to start an interesting and deep discussion about Jewish identity - or a brawl.
Pardes Interactive Seder Activities - fun activities for all ages designed to make your Seder memorable, including "Truth or Dare" prompts.
Hadar Pesach Resources - lots of material from the innovative NY Jewish think tank
Shalom Hartman Institute Pesach Resources - a selection of essays, videos, and Seder material for download by Hartman scholars on Pesach, exploring a range of issues.
From T'ruah A Haggadah for resisting modern day slavery
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman