Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, October 13, 2022
In This Moment: D.I.Y.izkor; Happy Birthday, Oldest President Ever! And what Ecclesiastes Has to Say About It
In This Moment
Kesher Beth El students decorating our TBE sukkah last week!
Happy Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah - and Shabbat Shalom!
The holiday season ends with a bang this weekend, with the Intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot, featuring the reading of Ecclesiastes, then on Monday morning Shemini Atzeret with Yizkor, and Simhat Torah on Monday evening and Tuesday. Throughout this transitional (Covid-wise) year, we've tried to remain steadfast and safe while getting closer to a semblance of normalcy. It's been a daunting task, but I think we've succeeded to a great extent. All services are being streamed or Zoomed, and the goal is for everyone to be engaged and feel embraced, whether in the sanctuary or hundreds of miles away. Yizkor presents a unique challenge. So I want to help those who will be participating online as well as those who may not be available either in person or online on Monday morning but wish to have a memorial service of some form on their own.
Every time I look at that list it awes me. For one thing, I can't believe I knew (and buried) so many of them. But more to the point, what wonderful people they were, good souls who loved their families and changed the world for the better. Each of them still has a story to tell, a lesson to teach. I couldn't ask for better neighbors. TBE's greatest asset is its people, both those here in person and those with us in spirit, and to have the cemetery right next door is one of the most gratifying and life-affirming things about our congregation. So whether or not you plan a Do It Yourself Yizkor, take a few moments to think about the folks on both lists - the Book of Remembrance and the TBE Cemetery.
So now you have the tools to do Yizkor your way. And by all means, make your Yizkor even more memorable by topping it off with us on Monday night, in person or online. as we celebrate the Torah that links us to all the generations.
My warmest wishes to everyone for a safe, healthy and happy remainder of the festival.
Etrogs were imported to far-flung Diaspora communities from the Mediterranean area and due to the limitations of supply and the requirement that it be unblemished, great care was devoted to etrog storage. It was usually kept in an appropriate container that had been adapted from a different use. Hence, etrog boxes have a great variety of shapes and materials and can be difficult to identify without an inscription. Plus, the command for Sukkot is to beautify the mitzvah, leading to a great variety of beautiful Etrog boxes, which were often originally used as containers for sugar or small sweets. Boxes that were originally made for etrog storage are either shaped like the etrog or contain depictions of this fruit in relief or sculpted form; the usual material is silver.
Happy Birthday, Oldest President Ever!
(and what Ecclesiastes has to say about it)
For the first time ever, (God willing), on November 20 the US will have an 80-year-old president. And everyone but President Biden seems to be feeling an almost Y2K-level dread. The question on people's minds: Are we better off with an 80-year-old president or one half that age? Of course, no one should generalize about these matters - every individual ages differently. But the question is one that is very relevant this week of Sukkot, as Jews around the world read the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).
A couple of years ago I read a provocative article on the subject by Arthur Brooks in the Atlantic, entitled, "Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think." You can read it here.
Brooks writes that according to research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. So if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that.
Decline soon after 50? Oy.
He adds: "Much of literary achievement follows a similar pattern....Poets peak in their early 40s. Novelists generally take a little longer. When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on New York Times fiction best sellers from 1960 to 2015, he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s. Despite the famous productivity of a few novelists well into old age, Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70. (Some nonfiction writers-especially historians-peak later.)"
On the other hand, wisdom, according to Brooks, increases even as mental acuity falls. "There are many exceptions," he writes, "but the most profound insights tend to come from those in their 30s and early 40s. The best synthesizers and explainers of complicated ideas-that is, the best teachers-tend to be in their mid-60s or older, some of them well into their 80s." He cites a number of Buddhist and Hindu sources on wisdom to make that point.
Jewish sources concur with what he shares of Eastern religions - like this passage from the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 5:24), which, at a time when lifespans were compressed, the aged were respected for their life experience.
He [Yehudah ben Tema] used to say: The five-year-old is for [learning] Scripture; the ten-year-old is [of age] for the Mishnah; the thirteen-year-old, for [the obligation of] the mitzvoth; the fifteen-year-old, for [the study of] the Talmud; the eighteen-year-old for the wedding canopy; the man of twenty is to pursue [a livelihood]; that man of thirty [has attained] to full strength; the man of forty to understanding; the man of fifty is to give counsel; the man of sixty [has attained to] old age; the man of seventy to venerable old age; the man of eighty, to [the old age] of strength; the man of ninety [is of the age ] to go bent over; the man of a hundred is as though already dead and gone, removed from this world.
The book of Kohelet is the product of an entire genre of biblical and post biblical material known as "Wisdom Literature." For its author, the specter of death colors all of life. Death for Kohelet is contradictory, to be both welcomed and feared; but as one ages, death's proximity vastly increases wisdom. Kohelet adopts the perspective that youth is wasted on the young, on those who have not yet learned to appreciate those fleeting moments of peak strength.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter, a founder of neo-hasidism and Jewish renewal, wrote extensively on "Age-ing and "Sage-ing." To hear him speak of spiritual eldering is to hear a modern version of Kohelet. In this excerpt, he speaks of how each human being is put here to share one insight, harvest it, and pass it on. Old age is not a time of diminishing capability, but of cultivating new spiritual and intellectual opportunities.
Join us next Thursday for Two Interfaith Programs!
The Talmud teaches:
Rabbi Eliezer said: "Why are 70 offerings brought on Sukkot? For the (merit of the) 70 nations of the world." (Sukkah 55b)
To bring forgiveness for them (the 70 nations which comprise the world), so that rain shall fall all over the earth.
The Sages stress that Sukkot has a universal element which is absent in the other festivals: Passover represents the exodus from Egypt and the emergence of the Israelite nation; Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jews.
Sukkot, on the other hand, focuses on universal themes of wandering, harvest and food insecurity, environmentalism and most of all, the need for rain in due season. Plus, coming on the heels of the High Holidays, the gates of judgment and repentance are still a crack open. So it's become a popular practice for Sukkot to be a time of ecumenical celebration and conversation.
Next Thursday, Oct. 20 at 6 PM we'll be hosting the first of four sessions of interfaith dialogue on subject near and dear to us all: the Bible. We'll participate, along with our friends at St John's Lutheran Church and St Francis Episcopal Church. We'll host the first two sessions, in our sanctuary as well as online and I'll be providing keynote comments for the series and also presenting Jewish perspectives throughout. The book we are using is a fantastic exploration of key biblical passages that have changed history and caused so much tension between Christians and Jews over the centuries.
And then, immediately after the bible conversation, we'll pivot to the first of a series of monthly interfaith programs dedicated to exploring religious responses to climate change. We're hosting the first session, and I'll be presenting at a session down the road. Our interfaith council has always treasured shared learning experiences, and this year we are focusing on two key areas of concern: climate change and sharing our stories. Come join us next week!
The most inclusive siddur ever! The Inclusive Siddur Project is an attempt to imagine what a fully inclusive, de-stigmatized Jewish liturgy might look like. The main release is Siddur Davar Ḥadash, a non-denomenational Ashkenazi siddur. The siddur uses a modified and expanded version of the Nonbinary Hebrew Project's third-gender Hebrew system to refer to G-d as well as to human worshipers across the entire liturgy. In addition, the siddur replaces passages of the standard liturgy that are sexist, ableist, xenophobic, or otherwise stigmatizing, finding alternatives — in Hebrew and in English — that are not demeaning. All Hebrew in the siddur is fully transliterated, and is translated in all-new translations. With the exception of one commissioned poem, the siddur is entirely in the public domain, free to use, distribute, modify, and reproduce however you want, without restriction or cost. The source files are also available to download if you would like to use them as the basis for your own version.