From the Rabbi's Bunker
Thank you to the Jewish Historical Society for hosting my book talk and launching of "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Listen to the talk, and order the book here (it is currently out of stock on Amazon, but returning soon!). See a review from Reform Judaism below...
Shabbat Shalom from the Bunker - and Happy Jerusalem Day!
16th century German map depicting Jerusalem as the center of the world
Celebrate Jerusalem Day by taking a 360 degree virtual tour, or Click here to see our Jerusalem info packet, including an annotated time-line, maps explaining ancient history and current events, Biblical and Talmudic sources, as well as poetry and art. Or take a look at two thousand years of Jerusalem customs (did you know that Jerusalem is mentioned 850 times in the Bible?). Or read these five immortal Jerusalem poems by Yehuda Amichai. Or all of the above!
I'm looking forward to joining with Cantor Katie and Jami Fener for our pre-havdalah program on Sat. evening at 6:30. I'll be reading the book in the photo above, and I can't wait to see how it turns out! Join Beth Styles and me this evening at 6 for Kabbalat Shabbat, and tomorrow morning I'll be leading services from back in the sanctuary once again, by popular demand. See the Torah reading and commentary from our Humash for Parashat Bamidbar and Shabbat Machar Hodesh here. On Sunday, which is Rosh Hodesh for the new month of Sivan - we will have a mincha (afternoon) service at 1, as our weekly "Healing and Hangout" is transitioning to a pure afternoon service, the same as we currently have on Mon-Fri.
Praying for Monotony
Even as our state is inching toward "opening up" in some sectors, this eternal Groundhog Day continues to repeat itself day after day, week after week - and that's if we are lucky. In a sense, we are praying for monotony, hoping to wake up the next day feeling exactly the same as we felt the day before, wishing for as little drama to enter our lives as possible.
As a religious institution, one might facetiously say that we have an advantage in preparing people for a time like this. We are experts at monotony! Just look at our services! :) Same prayers, every week, and in some cases, every day, and in some cases, multiple times a day. That has often been the critique of our more traditional services, especially, such as Shabbat morning's. But last week we saw that people really had missed that monotony. They "flocked" to our Zoom room as I returned to the sanctuary, and when I took out the Torah, people were visibly moved. I know I was. It was like being reunited with an old friend. Somehow, the rhythm that has anchored my entire life, which had been ruptured by Covid-29, was being restored.
I saw some received advice from a church in Illinois.
It can start to feel like we're stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for the return of "real" life. A tiredness creeps in. We slowly start to slip away from normal habits. However, as unreal as the current reality feels, we need to remember that this is real life, and each moment has meaning.
For over 1500 years, in monasteries around the world, monks and nuns have taken vows to essentially live their whole lives in quarantine. They live, work, eat, pray, and sleep within the same walls their whole life. How do they stay sane? They follow a routine of prayer, work, and communal time that serves as the backbone of their life. They strive to stay present with God in the moment, offering up even the smallest tasks and frustrations to God out of love.
As we continue the long vigil, waiting for the day we can celebrate together again as a community, we should each ask ourselves: what is a simple sacred ritual I can take up every day and offer to God out of love? What can we do to stay awake and remain present with Him in the moment without worry about the future?
Keep it simple, remain faithful, and stay awake.
Sounds like good advice. Let your life hum to the rhythm of daily ritual - whether it involves exercise, yoga, reading or - pray tell - prayer. Find what grounds you. In Judaism, there are lots of options available. Life is only monotonous if we allow it to be.
Boredom is just a state of mind.
Some More Memorial Day Holiday Weekend Reading & Listening
BONDS OF LIFE - Stories memorializing some Jews who have died during the Covid-19 crisis.
Rabbi Gittelsohn's Iwo Jima Sermon - A rabbi's eulogy for World War II heroes became famous after a bigoted attempt to ban it.
Netanyahu Trial to Open Sunday (JPost)
Poems about Loneliness and Solitude (Poetry Foundation) Poetry offers solace for the lonely and a positive perspective on being alone).
"What Comes Next?" A podcast conversation between Rick Jacobs (Union for Reform Judaism), Jacob Blumenthal (Rabbinical Assembly / United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), and Yehuda Kurtzer (Shalom Hartman Institute).
NEXT WEEK IS SHAVUOT
Two Exciting Zoom Learning Opportunities...
We are partnering in an exciting coast to coast All Night study session with the Rabbinical Assembly. Check out the list of congregations here. View the full schedule for the night here. Also see a library of pre-recorded sessions and study guides available for use anytime to prepare for and observe Shavuot.
And on Wednesday, May 27, the Stamford Board of Rabbis will be leading a series of pre-Shavuot seminars (a "Pre-kun"). Mine is at noon.
Perspectives on Happiness and Gratitude
Thank you to Dr Kareem Adeeb for sharing this with me
Days of Gratitude - Disruption. Social distancing. Loss, and grief. The morning that we woke up to today is not the same one we did even a month ago.
And yet there is (somewhere, sometimes) what to be grateful for: technology that keeps us connected, doctors on the front lines, educators supporting our children, friends telling us they see us, food that nourishes us, the natural world around us,
our inner strength and beliefs.
our inner strength and beliefs.
We start our day with it. Modeh Ani. Thank you. This is Jewish wisdom at its best. Days of Gratitude is an invitation to partake in an international, week-long, daily expression of gratitude. From May 22-30, culminating on the Festival of Shavuot, this website will be updated daily and will feature a rotating menu of activities and prompts designed to help you and those around you share gratitude. You can do this on your own, among family and friends, within communities and organizations, and across the broader, global community. Each day we will focus our gratitude on a different question and explore ways to express it.
Should we pray for happiness? On the face it, of course we should. Who doesn't want to be happy?
But something about word "happiness" strikes Jews in the wrong way. There's the old joke about the Jewish telegram: "Start worrying...details to follow." Our default is often guilt rather than happiness. It is as if we have been programmed to see anxiety around every corner, to be more comfortable in the familiar "oy" over the risky "joy."
Happiness is also an odd English word. It comes from the Middle English
hap, as in happenstance and haphazard. This origin suggests that a happy life is a result of randomness and luck. Prayer has nothing to do with it.
In our consumerist culture, happiness is also frequently confused with pleasure, and praying for pleasure can feel self-indulgent. But happiness and pleasure are different.
Pleasure is short-term, like getting a massage or eating a sumptuous meal. Happiness is long-lasting. It is flourishing, which is a word preferred by the founder of the scientific study of happiness, Professor Martin Seligman. According to Seligman, flourishing contains five key components: positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning, and accomplishment. An easy way to remember them is the acronym PERMA.
The Jewish happiness prayer, as we will see below, promotes flourishing. It is the happiness experienced through a life of meaning and purpose.
What is the happiness prayer? It is a series of verses from the Mishna we recite as part of the morning worship service. It is found in many prayer books as part of the traditional series of morning blessings. Here it is:
I have translated as follows:
These are the deeds with infinite benefits.A person enjoys their fruit in this world,and in the world to come. Guide me in embracing these sacred practices:Honor those who gave me lifePractice kindnessLearn ConstantlyInvite others into my homeBe there when others need meCelebrate life's sacred momentsSupport others during times of lossPray with intentionForgive those who hurt me and seek forgiveness where I have othersCommit to constant growth.
This translation is not literal. For a few of the practices, I chose to convey the value expressed in the specific practice itself. For example, the Hebrew phrase that literally means "provide for a bride" I have rendered as "celebrating life's sacred moments." Providing for a bride reflects the importance of marking sacred moments with ritual, and these moments are not limited to weddings. Today they include anniversaries, baby namings, even graduations. Finding ways to participate in and create communal celebrations around those life events makes us happier.
The academic discipline of positive psychology has reinforced the message of the happiness prayer. Indeed, even though the rabbis who wrote this prayer were not familiar with positive psychology, their teachings intuit it. The actions this prayer calls upon us to take fit squarely within the PERMA framework noted earlier.
For example, celebrating life's sacred moments incorporates positive emotions, relationships, and meaning. Praying with intention is a act of engagement, and prayer itself encompasses a worldview that life has meaning. Knowing how to pray - the words, the rhythm, the melodies - gives us a feeling of accomplishment. When we look at the Eilu Devarim prayer as a guide to happiness, we can see each of its practices as an expression of some aspect of PERMA.
Saying the prayer also promotes happiness in other ways. First, it pushes us outside of ourselves. Almost all of the ten practices involve other people. Inviting others into our lives, practicing kindness, and comforting mourners, are just the most direct examples. The rabbis understood the seeming paradox that focusing on others more than ourselves makes us happier. As Victor Frankl put, "the door to happiness opens outward."
Frankl's observation helps us see a second source of happiness in this prayer. It roots us in a religious worldview. Its opening verses remind us that we are reading more than a list of good deeds. They are a series of practices that echo through eternity. We feel their effects in this world and in the world to come.
Put differently, embracing a religious worldview makes us happier. We can speculate on why this is true. But I suspect part of the reason is that faith is a mindset that pushes us - in some cases, even obliges us - to do things that may not feel great in the short term, but that enhance our lives in the long term. These are the things we do that we can look back on a year later and feel happy to have done.
Every year, I fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. To do so is a commandment found in the Torah and has been a Jewish tradition for more than 4,000 years. Since I am working all day - delivering sermons and leading my congregation in eight hours of prayer - fasting is the last thing I want to do. Yet it enhances my experience of the day and my connection to others. It does not feel pleasurable in the moment. But when I look back, I know I experienced the power of the day.
This is the kind of commitment faith has always nurtured, and ignoring the role of faith in the search for happiness is like going to search for a treasure and throwing away an old map leading directly to it. The Eilu Devarim prayer is such a map. May it guide us on our journey.
Rabbi Evan Moffic is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. He is the author of the "The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today."
Book Review: Embracing Auschwitz
BY JOSHUA HAMMERMAN
REVIEW BY: RABBI JACK RIEMER
I have a cynical friend who claims that there have been more books written about the Holocaust than there were people who perished in it. That is, no doubt, an exaggeration, but it is true that most of the books on this subject sound very much alike. Joshua Hammerman's Embracing Auschwitz (Ben Yehuda Press) deserves our attention because it is by far the most original book on this subject that has come along in a great many years.
It acknowledges right up front that this was the darkest time in all of human history, but it affirms that this generation can achieve new visions of faith and strength - and even joy - out of a confrontation with it. And I don't know of anyone who has said anything like that before.
He tells what he learned the first time that he was on a bus with a group of teenagers on the way to the hell-on-earth that was Auschwitz. He expected them to be feeling an overwhelming sense of dread, but when he looked around, he saw that these kids were trading their school pins and their sweatshirts and displaying an astonishing amount of teenage hormones... and he realized that they were the ultimate repudiation of the Nazis' intentions.
Right there, right on the way to the center of the valley of the shadow of death, these kids were expressing the excitement of life, and they were thereby demonstrating that the Final Solution was not so final after all.
And it is here that Hammerman offers his boldest idea, an idea that offends us when we first hear it, an idea to which our first reaction is that this is something that goes beyond the boundary of what a Jew can say. He proposes that there are now two Torahs that we must learn how to live with: the Torah of Sinai and the Torah of Auschwitz, and that each has validity, and each has lessons to teach us.
A Torah of Auschwitz? Is that phrase not the ultimate oxymoron? Surely, we can take pride and give honor to those who wrote poetry and composed songs even in the bowels of Hell without using a phrase like this one.
Surely we can stand in awe of those who shared their scraps of food, and those who held seders in secret, and those who escaped by crawling through sewers, and those who somehow preserved a bit of their humanity in that most inhuman of all places, without calling that world a place of Torah.
How can we talk of a Torah of Auschwitz? Is not such a phrase a desecration and a perversion of the whole Jewish tradition, which stands on the Torah of Sinai?
And yet, Hammerman declares that our perception of God, of ourselves, and of our purpose in the world will be transformed when we begin to see them through the prism of Auschwitz. The Torah of Sinai has not been abrogated, but we will understand it differently in confrontation with one that is sometimes much harsher and sometimes much gentler: the Torah of Auschwitz.
The rest of this book is a description of some of the ways in which these two Torahs differ and yet are intertwined. Hammerman tells us how he and his traveling companions found once-abandoned synagogues all over Eastern Europe now rebuilt with the names of every single person in their community who was killed by their Nazis inscribed upon their walls.
In some cemeteries, they found tombstones that had been overturned and desecrated with swastikas, but in others they saw tombstones that have been restored and repaired so that the names that are inscribed on them will not be lost.
They remembered the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who said that he envied those who were fortunate enough to have graves instead of just being thrown into rivers or into ditches. And he envied even more those that had sunflowers planted on their graves, because the sunflower is known in European folklore as the flower that remembers.
Hammerman recounts that the young people on this trip came away from this experience with the determination to be sunflowers to the next generation. He says that when you listen to a witness, you become a witness.
And so these young people resolved that when they came to Yad Vashem they would look up the names of these people in the archives, so that, when they got home, they could tell their congregations the stories of their lives, and not just their deaths.
Hammerman finishes this account of all the different collections of names that they saw wherever they went with this turnabout on one of the mitzvahs that is found in the Torah of Sinai. When they came to Berlin, they saw bricks on the sidewalks that you could stumble over, and therefore could not help but notice. These bricks are called stolpersteine, which literally means, "stumbling stones." Each one is inscribed with the name of the person who once lived here, who was taken away to his death from here, a name that must not be forgotten.
The Torah of Sinai says that you must not put a stumbling block before the blind, for if you do, you may cause him to fall. The Torah of Auschwitz says the very opposite: that stumbling blocks make people look down and see the names of those whose names they would rather not see.
The Torah of Auschwitz says that you must put a stumbling block before those who want to pretend they are blind so that they will have to come to terms with what happened here. And then it goes one step further, saying that it is a mitzvah to put a stumbling block before those who want to pretend that they are blind to suffering - not only then and there but here and now as well.
You will not be the same after you have read this disturbing book. It will force you to see God as the One who was with us in Auschwitz, who suffers with us, and who needs us.
Brace yourself to read a book that is sometimes painful, sometimes funny, and often inspiring. Brace yourself so that you can acquire a whole new perspective on who we are and what our purpose is. Brace yourself, even though you will put this book down many times along the way and wish that it were wrong. Brace yourself because you will learn that we are all survivors and that perhaps God is too.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met My Father Isaac at the Supermarket.
Shalom from the Bunker,
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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