Parshat Pinchas, Shul Dinner 7/11

Since tonight’s dinner is ostensibly in honor of our arrival, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect both on our arrival, and this past year really.  And we’ll do so in light of …. this week’s parsha!

 

We’re at the end of 40 years in the desert.  Moshe knows at this point that he won’t be able to enter the land, and he asks God: “Hashem! Please appoint a new leader, who will work with the people.” I think it is instructive to see some of the ways the Torah, and the commentaries, understand this moment of transition.

 

Specifically, there are three moments in this weeks’ parsha that I think have significance both for our arrival, and my starting to work here at Beth Israel.

 

When Moses first asks God to appoint a new leader, he refers to God as:

 “Elohai HaRUchot L’chol Basar” – God of all the living things.

That’s an odd title for God, why not the normal appellations of “Eloheem”, or the Y – H name of God.

The midrash, which Rashi in turn quotes, claims this title means as follows: “HaShem, you know that everyone, every person, has different ideas of how things should be done.  Grant us a leader who knows who to deal with all the different kinds of people, and all of their different ideas.”

Now, I know that this is not true of our Jewish community, and our shul.  Everyone here, we’re all on the same page, no disagreements, etc. But theoretically, there could be a community like this, so important that Moshe points it out.

 

What exactly is Moses’s worry? That if a new leader is not appointed,

Lo tihiyeh Adat Hashem katzon asher ayn lahem roeh.

This community of God shouldn’t be like sheep that have no shepherd.sheep-flock-shepherd-14765717

In can be very difficult for a community not to have someone who’s formally in charge; particularly a shul community.

But Thank God, that was not the case this past year at Beth Israel.  Many different people stepped up; in giving sermons, even if they hadn’t ever before; in volunteering to take care of Shabbat hosting, meals, planning, programming, the Holy Kitchen Krewe which continues every week to step up, and prepare food for our kiddushim.

So I want to first take this moment to acknowledge, and thank, every person in the Beth Israel community who has stepped up and served over this past year, and continues to do so.  Thank you.

 

Lastly, God commands Moses, “vesamakhta et yadekha alav” –  you will put your hands on him, and yet when the moment to do so comes, “the Torah recounts, “vayismoch Yadav alav” he places both hands upon him.

 

 

Whereas Joshua only needed one hand to be placed on him, Moshe places two.

I, as well, have felt blessed so far to have received from two hands.  Firstly, I want to publicly thank Alex Barkoff.  Over the course of the last year, and especially since we’ve arrive, he’s been so attentive to our needs, settling us in the house, and making us feel welcomed.  So thank you Alex!

 

And the second hand, is that of Rabbi David.  David stepped up huge this past year, and was asked to take on a whole variety of duties and responsibilities.  And he performed very admirably.  So David, I know I speak on behalf of the whole congregation in saying “Thank you.”

 

And thank you all for being here tonight.  If I haven’t had the opportunity yet, I hope to use the next weeks and months to have the opportunity to connect to every member of the community, either in my office, our going out for a coffee or a beer.  Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.

I am eager and excited to begin the process of helping this community flourish and grow.

Thank you, Enjoy and Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Gabe Greenberg

Rabbi Gabe joined Congregation Beth Israel in June of 2014. Originally from New England, Rabbi Gabe studied at Yeshivat HaMivtar and the Pardes Institute in Israel, before returning to the states to study for his semikha and rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York.  He is an alum of the Adamah Fellowship in Connecticut, directed the Kayam Farm Kollel in Baltimore, and served as Rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at the Hillel of UC Berkeley.  Rabbi Gabe and his wife Abby are excited to be in the New Orleans area, and hope to expand the realm of Torah and Judaism in the city, while upholding the proud and storied legacy of Beth Israel.  He would love to meet you; so please give a call, send an email, or just come over to the shul and say hello!

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Parshat Balak, July 4th weekend

Dear friends,
I will attempt this morning to draw together some thoughts on the two major moments of this past week; finding out that the 3 Israeli tens had been killed, and the celebration of July 4th.

 

First, I’d like to share with you a pasage from Teddy Roosevelt, from 1907:

In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American…There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but is something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile…We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language…and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.
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Mr. Roosevelt describes loyalty as being “room for but one flag.” And yet look behind me here in this sanctuary; we proudly fly two flags.  And not just here, but in the American Jewish community at large.  In fact, many of you attended the Jewish community’s gathering Tuesday night at the JCC to mourn the loss of the three Israeli teens, Eyal, Naftali and Gilad.  It was a powerful, short but sweet, very appropriately starkly simply event.  One of the several things that struck me was that before the singing of Hatikvah, we sang the National anthem together.  Two flags.

 

And it is this very tension of “two flags” which is so central to our condition as American Jews.  When we heard the news of the Israeli teens, our minds, our hearts, our tears, were with Eretz Yisrael.  We were, not here – we were over there.

As Yehudah Halevi so aptly put it, centuries ago, Libi b’mizrach, vanochi b sof hamaarav.  My heart is in the East, but I am in the farthest West.

 

That was one of our dominant, emotional poles of the last week.

 

Followed by July 4th celebrations.  We as Americans, and as American Jews, profusely thank God for living in a country which grants us such broad religious freedoms, and we pray that it will continue to do so.  This is a holiday where we recognize the greatness of our country – even if on other days we are more focused on its shortcomings, and areas for improvement.

This was a week, then, of feelings pulled, in two directions.  Our hearts are in Eretz Yisrael, our prayers, our tears, are directed there.  I dwell amongst my people!, as the Shunamite woman from the Book of Kings declared.  And at the same time, we are celebrating here, acknowledging the place we live.

Over there, over here. Two flags.

 

This is the great tension that we should be feeling these days.  There, and yet here.

A chassidic story illustrates this well.

Reb Nochum Chernobler was a Ukrainian chassid in the 18th century, founder of a major branch of Chassidism (his eyniklekh include the Twerski family of Denver, the Tolner rebbe of Boston, etc).

 

Reb Nochum was travelling the Ukranian countryside, and stopped for the night at an inn, owned by a Jewish family.  The innkeeper was awoken in the middle of the night, hearing prayers emanating from the room of his guest.  He got up, walked down the hall, and knocked on Reb Nochum’s door.  Reb Nochum let him in, and the innkeeper asked “What are you saying?”

Reb Nochum explained, “I am davening, praying, that God should end our bitter Galus, our exile and that we should all go to Eretz Yisroel, and it should be finally over”.

The innkeeper was impressed. He went back upstairs, woke up his wife and told her, “You know, there is a Jew downstairs who is praying that the Galus should end and that we should all go to Eretz Yisrael.”

His wife turned over and said, “Go to Eretz Yisrael? What is going to be with the farm? Vos vet zein alla ki? What is going to be with the cows? What is going to be with the horses?”

The innkeeper was bothered by his wife’s questions. He went back to Reb Nochum and said, “But Reb Nachum — what will be with the farm and the cows and the horses?”

Reb Nachum said to him “You’re worried about the cows and the house and the barn? — And when the Cossacks come and the Tartars come and they pillage and plunder — then you’re happy? Is that what you want? G-d will take us to Eretz Yisrael — no more Cossacks, no more Tartars!”

Again the innkeeper was impressed. He ran back upstairs and related Reb Nachum’s response to his wife.

The wife said “Go tell Reb Nachum that G-d should take all the Cossacks and all the Tartars to Eretz Yisroel and we’ll stay here with the farm and the cows and the horses!”
That is the end of the story.  Clearly, the inkeeper’s wife is struggling with this same tension of “There, vs here.”  She perhaps represents the more extreme side of the spectrum, what happens when someone forgets the “over there”; the longterm vision of our people to return to our Land.

 

When Bilaam, in today’s parsha, looks out at Bnai Yisrael encamped, he states, 23:9

[They are] a People which shall dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.

Rashi comments:  No nation can be counted upon to share fully in our joy; but when other nations are doing well, we will prosper with them.

Rashi was well was quite aware of this ambivalence, even in 11th cent. France.  Rashi interprets Bilaam as saying, socially, culturally, they will be with, yet apart.  Here, but there.

 

This is our lot, our mission.  Our challenge, to be a good American Jew.  To be part of the broader spectrum, to contribute, to be uniquely ourselves.

 

Let us conclude with singing together Acheinu, as we pray for peace for our people, and for the world.

 

-Rabbi Gabe

 

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A Taste of Street Cleaning for Shabbat

July 12, 2013 ~ 5 Av 5773

Dear Friends,

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!”

Rabbi Uri

A Taste of Paradox for Shabbat

June 28, 2013 ~ 20 Tammuz 5773

Friends,
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,
Rabbi Uri

A Taste of the Bayou for Shabbat

June 21, 2013 ~ 13 Tammuz 5773

Friends,

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,

Rabbi Uri

 

A Taste of Two Tears for Shabbat

June 12, 2013 ~ 5 Tammuz 5773

Friends,

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,

Rabbi Uri

A Taste of Our Needs for Shabbat

June 7, 2013 ~ 29 Sivan 5773

Friends,

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,

Rabbi Uri

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

A Taste of Parting Gifts for Shabbat

May 30, 2013 ~ 21 Sivan 5773

Dear Friends,

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!

Rabbi Uri