July 12, 2013 ~ 5 Av 5773
I returned this week from an uplifting week of Torah study in the heart of Jerusalem. I stayed in an apartment with a few rabbinic colleagues on a street called “Ahad Ha’am” – named after the pre-state Zionist writer known for his public spats with Herzl, arguing that what we really need is ”a Jewish state; not merely a state of Jews.”
Each morning, I would set out to daven Shacharit service at one of the two synagogues down the block from our apartment. The Ashkenazi shul posted their davening time for 6:50AM. They were usually done by 7:20AM. The Sefardi shul posted their davening time for 6:35AM. They usually started at 6:50AM and I never stayed long enough to know if they ever finished!
One morning, I sat down in shul beside a young chasidic Jew with long peyot (sidecurls) and a striking, brown-red beard that extended over his chest. We davened side by side, each immersed in our prayers. I left before him, went up to the apartment to leave my tallit and tefillin, grab by books for the day, and get a quick bite to eat. When I came back outside to walk to class, I bumped into my davening mate at the street corner. I was surprised to see that while I had traded in my tallit and tefillin for a backpack, he had swapped out his pair for a large broom and a dust pan. I then noticed what his tallit had concealed earlier – that he was wearing a municipality jumpsuit. He was one of the holy street cleaners of Jerusalem.
There on the corner of his namesake’s street, I saw Ahad Ha’am’s dream come true – here was not just a state of Jews, but also a Jewish state, humming with the sanctity and rhythm of our people’s traditions in all aspects of life.
I looked up at the holy street cleaner who I had davened with that Friday morning and I said to him, “Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul!”
June 28, 2013 ~ 20 Tammuz 5773
For many people, summer vacation means spending time living in paradise. But for me, each year, summer means spending time living in paradox.
This past Tuesday was the 17 Tammuz Fast which began a period on the Jewish calendar known as the “Three Weeks.” This is a time of national mourning that culminates in Tisha B’Av (on July 15-16), the day commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem.
And yet, I will arrive this Monday for my studies at the Hartman Institute in that very same Jerusalem, though in the modern State of Israel. I will drop my bags off in a beautiful, renovated apartment, and walk through the bustling streets of a rebuilt Jerusalem where Jews are flocking to cafes, houses of study, cultural centers, and universities.
Jerusalem is a city reborn on top of its own ashes. Do we laugh or cry?
Perhaps, it is best to take heed of another paradoxical lesson, taught by thephilosopher Georg Hegel: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
As we celebrate the year of Israel’s 65th Birthday, let’s not forget that it took 2,000 very long years to get here.
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul,
June 21, 2013 ~ 13 Tammuz 5773
In celebration of my upcoming 35th birthday this weekend, I accepted an invitation to go on my first Bayou fishing trip. And yes, if you’re wondering, we went fishing AND catching! Riding out of Delacroix and into the open waters was exhilirating, freeing, and beautiful. The Good Lord even delivered an awesome (albeit scary) 40 minute lighting storm that had us scrambling to find a structure taller than we were.
Mostly we were focused on our fishing and we caught a variety of species, including flounder, redfish, trout, drum, catfish, stingray, gar, sheepshead, oyster fish, and even a little croaker I reeled in that we used as bait to catch a hearty redfish (below).
But there were plenty of quiet, relfective moments while we waited for a bite, or while we rode the boat out and back in. In those moments, surrounded by nothing but water and swamp grass, you feel like you’ve left the world behind. You become an outsider.
That can be a great feeling if you are looking for an escape. But it can also be a productive experience if you are looking for a healthy dose of perspective. The opportunity to see our lives from the outside looking in can be a healthy way to assess goals and priorities.
In Jewish tradition, we also invite this experience with days like Shabbat and fast days (like the one coming up on Tuesday), which force us outside of our routines and allow for some objective introspection. Torah study is another vehicle for this type of assesment, and interestingly, this week’s Torah Portion of Balak is the only portion in the Bible in which the Israelites are not the subject of the story, but rather the object of the tale. We read how Balak and Bilaam size us up as a nation. We are analyzed and scrutinized and put to the test. We study this unique portion each year and using Bilaam’s own words, we wonder, “How goodly are our tents O’ Jacob?!” Is our home as “good” as we wish it to be??
As we move into Shabbat, I am thankful to have checked another item off my NOLA bucket list! But I am even more thankful for the outsider’s perspective the bayou offered me this week – the opportunity to breathe in some fresh air (although occasionally with a fishy smell) and daven anew this Shabbat morning those words of Bilaam which in the Hebrew we know as, “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov…”
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul,
June 12, 2013 ~ 5 Tammuz 5773
At our new synagogue dedication ceremony back in August, I mentioned a beautiful text from the Book of Ezra (3:10) describing the building of the Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,500 years ago. It reads, “And when the builders laid the foundation of God’s Sanctuary, the Priests came out in full apparel blowing trumpets and the Levites were dancing with their cymbals. They sang and shouted in praise and thanks to the Lord: For He is good!”
But alongside the shouts of joy, were a different set of cries. The text reads: “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, the elders that had seen the glory of the first house standing on its foundation, wept with a loud voice when this house was before their eyes; As some celebrated newness and were shouting with joy, others were reminiscent of the old, crying with sadness for what they no longer had.”
And then the story ends with a powerful line: “And you could not tell the difference between the shouts of joy and the cries of tears.”
The people had become one. The tears of joy and sadness had mixed together to create a more wholesome and honest cry. The young could lean on their elders and listen to their memories, and the parents could lift up their children and celebrate their future.
I offered this text that day to describe our Beth Israel and the multitude of emotions that people were no doubt feeling at our dedication ceremony.
But today the same words from Ezra speak to me in a totally different way as this morning, Dahlia and I saw off our son Elyon to sleep-away camp for the first time. He took an early flight out this morning all by himself. He will be at Camp Stone (a Bnei Akiva camp on the PA/OH border) for 4 weeks and then onto Camp Nana & Zaide in Maryland for a few weeks until we move there in August. That’s a long time away from him!
Like those who witnessed the Temple dedication, we too have been a bundle of mixed emotions. There are tears of joy as he goes off to experience an exciting new chapter in his life (- today is his 9th birthday on the Hebrew calendar). And there are tears of sadness as we wonder where all the time has gone and how much we are going to miss him over the next 6 weeks.
This is the natural rollercoaster of life’s experiences, and as we learn from the Book of Ezra, it is a valuable gift to be able to cherish and honor both sets of tears at once.
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul,
June 7, 2013 ~ 29 Sivan 5773
I used to tell a chasidic story about a Prince who is banished from the castle for his harmful behavior. Sometime later, his father, the King, regrets his actions and sends his troops to find the Prince and bring him back. As they reach the first ring of villages outside the castle walls, eyewitnesses report seeing the Prince, but believe that he had moved on months ago. As they reach the second ring of villages, some folks remember seeing a stranger in their town, but did not know who he was. They were certain he had moved on as well. As the troops reach the poorer, outlining villages of the kingdom, no one seemed to know about any lost Prince. As the troops march on, they kick over a beggar who was blocking their path, lying in the middle of the street. Immediately, they notice it was the Prince! His hair was ragged, his beard was grown out and muddied, and his clothes were filthy and shredded. He was a mess of himself. But it was certainly the Prince! The captain of the guard came down off his horse and knelt beside the dirty Prince and said, “Your father has asked if you would come home. He has promised to give you anything you need.” The Prince cocked his head, half opened his eyes, cracked a half-smile and managed a hoarse whisper: “Shoes… I could really use a good pair of shoes.” Oy.
I used to tell this story, and share its important message, because I didn’t have a personal one to offer until yesterday. That’s when I met a young Jewish man at the hospital, who was without a home, without a penny to his name, and suffering from a severe blood condition requiring constant medical attention. He was being released from the hospital and he had a mountain of challenges in front of him. The illness combined with his stress, fatigue, and I’m sure other mental health issues, had him babbling and fidgety. When I asked how our community could help him, he could only manage to blurt out: “I really need a clean t-shirt.” Oy.
An offer to help extended, and the only requests were shoes and a t-shirt?! These real life stories remind us about how far we sometimes fall – so desperately far that we can’t even think to ask for the things we really need.
By the simple fact that we are reading this email on some expensive device, we must be blessed that basic human needs are not our struggle. And yet, like the Jews of the desert, for whom food, water, shelter, and a covenant has been provided, we all naturally find plenty of reasons to complain about our needs. It’s the human thing to do! So I say, “TGIS” – “Thank God It’s Shabbos,” so we can turn off the TV advertisements, reflect on how truly blessed most of us are, and consider the things that we really, really need.
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul,
If you click this link, you can watch Dahlia and I doing a practice run of our farewell song that we sang Sunday night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ee5nweF7uq8
May 30, 2013 ~ 21 Sivan 5773
This is an apt time to reflect on journeys.
We are currently reading the book of Bamidbar – recounting the Israelite’s journey away from Mount Sinai towards the Promised Land. As we read this past Shabbat, the Ark of the Covenant leads the way. The Talmud teaches that the Ark contained four special items: the first set of broken Tablets, the second set of Tablets, the Staff of Aaron, and a jar of Manna. Why these four items? What were they meant to symbolize for the people as they set out on their way?
One explanation of their meaning: The first set of broken Tablets teach an important lesson about second chances. The second set is our current Torah – our guidebook for life. Complete with roadside assistance if we follow the Mitzvot! The Staff is a reminder of the miracles God performed for us as we left Egypt. And the Manna is the symbol of God’s continuing sustenance in our lives.
But that is just one interpretation of the items the ancient Israelites took along their journey. In fact, these four objects have layers of meaning. They are timeless gifts which have corresponding symbolism in every place and time.
At Beth Israel, we too carry these four items. We have our own unique set of Tablets, a particular Torah of New Orleans that shines through the collaborative spirit and warmth of small town Judaism. And we have our broken Tablets – the memories of loss and destruction we still carry from Katrina. Yet, those broken Tablets have been just as instructive as the ones that are whole, and have helped us chart newer and better paths for the future. Some would even say that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. We also have our symbolic Staff that reminds us of the miraculous – it is represented by the engraved words on the Ark, “Mighty Waters Cannot Extinguish Our Love.” We are a community that has seen the work of impossible achievement and can better appreciate the Divine spirit that moves through our committed congregants. Finally, we have our jar of Manna – our bowl of gumbo… or whatever the flavor and seasoning of the day might be. We are nurtured by a unique culture and heritage brimming with food, arts, creativity, satire, and music. These all have tremendous spiritual qualities – if only they could be as easily bottled as Manna from Heaven!
As our family celebrates with all of you this weekend, and as we prepare for our move to Maryland at the end of July, we will be thinking deeply about the gifts we have received while experiencing this wonderful shul and city – the two sets of Tablets, the Staff, and the Manna of New Orleans. We will continue to peel back the layers of meaning and revisit all we have learned and taught. And we pray that our next journey, and yours, be as inspired as the one before.
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul through the end of July!
May 24, 2013 ~ 15 Sivan 5773
My son Elyon performed today as a Pirate Captain in a terrific show put on by “Drama Kids International.” The group meets at the JCC and is designed to help build public speaking skills and self-confidence in the children. At the end of the performance, each of the kids stepped forward to introduce themselves and to share why they loved drama. I got a great laugh when one 9 year old said, “I have always wanted to become an actor ever since I was a kid!” – Ever since he was a kid!? Loved it!
In some ways, it was oddly inspiring to listen to a kid think that as a kid he had already achieved one of his dreams – or at least was well on his way to doing so. In his mind, he had set a goal and didn’t need to wait until adulthood to experience its fulfillment.
This Shabbat, in the Torah reading, there is a pair of strange, upside down and backwards letters that appear in the middle of the Torah scroll. Without going into too much detail, the Rabbis understand them to be a marker – the Torah should have ended here. Now that we have built the Tabernacle and organized the Tribal encampments, it was time to enter the Promised Land. That was suppose to be the end of our Holy Book. But somehow, lots of things go wrong, and we end up writing an entirely different book instead – one that includes 38 additional years of wandering around the desert.
The Sages say that these odd letters serve as a future reminder to be sure that the Book of Life we are writing, and the one we had hoped to write, are one in the same!
At such a young age, the kid performers inspired me to realize that it’s never too early, or late, to assess our goals and make sure we are on track for the story we hope to write with our lives.
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul,
May 17, 2013 ~ 8 Sivan 5773
I am still recovering from our terrific Tikkun Leil Shavuot Event with our neighbors Gates of Prayer and Shir Chadash. We hosted over 130 people at BI, and the program went all night long with some provocative learning sessions and great conversation all around. (Not to mention the unbelievable food!)
Every time I get together with my colleagues from different denominations, I am challenged to think more deeply about my own. I remember a conversation once in which we Rabbis discussed our “chumras” – our “stringent” positions on matters related to Jewish practice. Rabbi Loewy shared with me the challenges of the position he has taken regarding not officiating intermarriages. Rabbi Linden discussed his family’s decision to refrain from riding in a car on Shabbat, despite the Conservative movement’s responsa permitting it. I was asked what my “chumra” was as an Orthodox Jew? Does it count that I am stringent about celebrating the relatively unknown holidays of Yom HaMiyuchas, Shushan Purim, Pesach Sheini, or Hoshanah Rabbah?? Or that I am diligent about staying up all night on Shavuot?
Frankly, I think I spend a great deal of my time trying to remove the “chumra” from our community’s lifestyle. We already have such a detailed list of expectations in Jewish law, why add to it?! Is “chumra” really a good thing?
This question appears in this week’s parsha around the subject of the Nazir – the pious Jew who dedicates himself in service to God and refrains from drinking wine, cutting his hair, or coming in contact with the dead. The Torah seems to commend the practice while at the same time requiring him to bring a sin offering at the end of his ordeal as a Nazir – as if to say that refraining from the pleasures of this world is less than ideal. Is his “chumra” a bad thing?
Perhaps the message is that a healthy “chumra” should be a reflection of your values and can help inspire your own personal connection to Jewish life. And at the same time, it should heighten your conciousness of what you are choosing not to do – albeit for good reasons.
Pulling an all-nighter for Torah worked for me, but it also had adverse effects on my family the next day! My Shavuot chumra was meaningful, but it also required me to think through how I could arrange help for my wife the next day. So what is your “chumra?” And how does it impact others around you?
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul,
May 10, 2013 ~ Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5773 (45th day of the Omer)
It’s that time of year again – Yom HaMiYuchas! This little known holiday is one of my favorites. And not just because it has a mucusy sounding name! Yom HaMiYuchas is the nickname we give to the second day of the month of Sivan. The day before it is Rosh Chodesh (the new month), a minor holiday in its own right. The three days after it are known as the “Shloshet Yimei Hagbalah” – the three days of preparation for the holiday of Shavuot, which at Sinai were intense days of prayer, purification, and supplication. And then comes Shavuot itself. Thus, we have a whole week of holidays, with the lone exception being the second day of Sivan (which is Saturday). It is the only day of this week without any character. A blank slate, so to speak. And, ironically, that is what makes it so special. It is called Yom HaMiYuchas because by being immersed amongst other great days, it is considered to have good “yichus” – good connections. It has the capacity to absorb and reflect the spiritual energy of all the days around it without having to worry about its own identity or rituals. It is the most unselfish of all the holidays!
One of the reasons I appreciate this obscure holiday is because it reminds me of synagogue life. As proud as we are of our new shul building and all its nifty features (you should have seen the high-level tech equipment that was pulled out for our big screen film night this week!), intuitively, we all know that a synagogue is not a building, but rather a community. For seven years we internalized this lesson (hopefully for the long haul) – learning to appreciate the value of community, despite not having a home. We have come to understand that a synagogue building is ultimately a blank slate – mortar and steel that is only interesting because it reflects the people that have imbued it with mission and purpose.
Just as the second of Sivan is the Yom HaMiYuchas in time, the synagogue is the Yom HaMiYuchas in space. This Shabbat, Yom HaMiYuchas is a time to soak in the excitment building up to Shavuot – reflecting on the long count to get here and the anticipation of these final few days until the holiday begins. But this Yom HaMiYuchas Shabbat is also an opportunity to be proud of our synagogue – not just for the incredible house that was built, but to step back and appreciate the vision it reflects from the myriad voices that fill its space each day.
Shabbat Shalom! See you in shul,