Holocaust Remembrance - using the past to build a better future

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.

Recently I saw these estimates:

In 1939 there were 2.3 billion people on the planet and 17 million Jews.
Today there are 7.7 billion people on the planet and 15 million Jews.


We cannot calculate the immensity of our loss as a people.

We cannot imagine what was lost to our world without 6 million more Jews. 

We must make sure that their memories serve as constant reminders for us to make the world better.

We must fulfill our calling and be a light unto the nations. We must be like Aaron in this week’s Torah reading following the death of his sons. As he sanctified himself to enter the Holy Tent in the desert, so we must sanctify ourselves with the teachings of our traditions and become holy.

How can we become holy?

Leviticus answers this question too. The holiness code that comes next week, directs us.

-      We must care for the poor and the dispossessed

-      We must not steal or deal deceitfully or falsely.

-      We must pursue a society of fairness for all.

 On this day, in these times, and at this time of year our mission as Jews continues to be crystal clear – take care of one another and the entire world – pursue justice.

 Hoping that on this day of remembrance of the worst tragedy to befall our people in the last century, on this week of mourning for another despicable act done against us, and during this season of contemplation, we may still turn our mourning into a spark that kindles our inspirations to seek repair for everyone.

The Story of Dinah is Still Our Story

Shabbat Va-Yishlach
December 1-2, 2017 – 14 Kislev 5778
Torah: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1-21

Now Dinah, Leah's daughter, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land.
And Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her: he took her and lay with her, forcing her.
But his emotions clung to Dinah, Jacob's daughter – he loved the girl, and he spoke to the heart of the girl.
So Shechem said to Hamor his father, saying: Take me this girl as a wife!
(Genesis 34:1-4)

In these days, at this time, our reading of the Torah turns us to “The Rape of Dinah”.

Whatever we want to say about this story, at the heart of it is the power that men arbitrarily assert over women and over other men.

This should be a story of our ancient past. It is in fact still a story of the immediate present.

We can say that the core teaching of Judaism comes from this verse: “A sojourner, you are not to oppress: you yourselves know the feelings of the sojourner, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

We empathetically understand the feelings of those who have been abused by power. Every day we must work ever more diligently to make sure that none feel that oppression.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week and a meaningful Shabbat,

Jonathan

Share our Stories, Heal the World

Shabbat Va-Yeira
November 3-4, 2017 – 15 Cheshvan 5778

Torah: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37

“Indeed, I have known him, in order that he may charge his descendants and his household after him: they shall keep the way of God, to do what is right and just, in order that God may bring upon Abraham what God spoke concerning him.”
(Genesis 18:19)

This pivotal weekly reading comes during another difficult week in our State of New York and our country.

As our hearts go out to our family, friends, and fellow New Yorkers in the wake of yet another act of violence against humanity, I continue to ask: How can I fulfill the promise of doing “what is right and just”?

Hatred and intolerance seem to swirl around us. Scratch the surface and our personal and communal insecurity can quickly turn to anger. I know that I must take my elevated heart rate, my visceral responses, and turn them into expressions of my experiences that others can hear without recoiling.

We must turn our concerns and our worries into stories that connect us to one another. Yesterday, a teacher of reconciliation, Terry Cross, shared this piece of Native American wisdom with the Racial Equity Roundtable: “The shortest distance between two people is a story”.

Our stories are filled with our strivings to do righteously and live justly. Let us figure out a way to share what we’ve lived so that others can view us as companions.

May your week and Shabbat be filled with stories that bring us together,

Jonathan

Sacrifice, Creation, Instruction - Shalom to 5777 and 5778

Rosh ha-Shanah, September 20-22, 2017 – 1-2 Tishrei 5778

Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return - September 22-23, 2017 – 3 Tishrei 5778

Parashat Ha-azinu
Torah: Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10

As we enter the New Year, 5778, we celebrate and learn with three important stories:

-       the Binding of Isaac on the First Day of Rosh ha-Shanah at Temple Beth Zion, both at 805 Delaware Ave., and at Becker Farms;

-       the story of Creation from the opening of Genesis on the Second Day of Rosh ha-Shanah – I will join Congregation Beth Abraham to talk about this on Friday morning;

-       and the powerful final poem of Moses in Deuteronomy – Rabbi Scheldt will lead study and worship for this beautiful text for the Shabbat between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, on Friday evening and Saturday morning.

Sacrifice and Creation, Instructions and Farewells – we find in these readings an abundance of themes as we reflect on the year gone by, and look forward with hope to the year to come.

In order to make the coming year a better one, filled with greater reverence for all aspects of Creation, what will we give up? Conservation of Energy and conventional wisdom agree, there is no free ride, we cannot get something from nothing – what will we sacrifice to make things improve in the year to come?

As we say goodbye to the things we leave behind, let us embrace good Instructions, good “Torah”, about what we build next.

May our thought and attention be applied to the creation of sound and supple structures.

May we find ways to balance our needs and desires as we work together to change things for the better.

Wishing everyone safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year.

Torah and Action

For the Shabbat of September 15-16, 2017 – 25 Elul 5777
Parashat Nitzavim - VaYeilech
Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

I call as witness against you today the heavens and the earth: life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; now choose life, in order that you may live better… (Deuteronomy 30:19)

As we finish reading Deuteronomy, we also come to the end of the Jewish year and enter into our Days of Awe, Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.

This is when we attempt to figure out how to better “choose life” for the year to come.

Let us choose life for those in need.

As our worries about the lives of our family, friends, and fellow citizens, in the paths of Harvey and Irma subside, let us contribute to help those whose livelihood and homes have been drastically impacted.

TBZ is collecting gift cards to send to our Jewish communities affected –Home Depot, Target, Walmart, and local grocery stores (H-E-B and Kroger in Texas, Publix and Kroger in Florida) – please send or drop any cards with Becky. We will send them to the local Federations in the impacted areas.

There will be a mission to volunteer our assistance in person in November – we will pass along details as they emerge.

Let us choose life for our community.

Joining together for the High Holy Days helps energize us and our connections with our extended Jewish Family. Please check out this video about the URJ Biennial. December 6-10 in Boston will be the biggest gathering of Jews in North America, and the most exciting way to find Jewish inspiration in the New Year.

I hope that all of you will join us in helping those in need, gathering for our High Holy Days, and making the trip to Boston for the Biennial.

Wishing safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year,

Jonathan

Judaism = "all in it togetherness"

This week Jews the world over read the following verses from the Book of Exodus, (Chapter 23):

1 You are not to take up an empty rumor. Do not place your hand with a guilty person, to become a witness for wrongdoing.
2 You are not to go after the many to do evil…

The news for Jews this week seems to be all about the effect of “empty rumors” getting turned into destructive actions. From the bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country, including our own here in Buffalo, to the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, it has been a rough week for American Jewry.

Words matter. When we speak we create and we destroy. When we don’t speak, or allow others to speak for us, we allow creation and destruction to take place around us.

The forces unleashed in the last year – many of them rallied around the election of President Trump – are terrifying.

This week, at long last, President Trump spoke out against Anti-Semitism. I am grateful that he has seen his way to understand that something is going on that requires his attention. He must do more, and we must continue to be vigilant.

We must speak out against empty rumors, and live our lives in ways that show people who we truly are, the standards of integrity and citizenship we uphold, and the kind of neighbors that we are and aim to be. Muslims in St. Louis raised money for the vandalized cemetery. Jews in Texas handed the keys of their synagogue over to the Muslim community whose mosque burned down last month.

We know how to do this, how to live by an “all in it together” philosophy.

We must hold fast to the principles of our ancient teachings that we renew every day in our personal and communal conduct. “If not now when,” as our teacher Hillel said, is always now.

A call for real unity from Ezekiel

The Haftarah today, the reading from Ezekiel, provided some food for thought. Early on, when Ezekiel asks for unity in the bringing together of the different staves, or even trees of the tribes, he wrote:

37:17 Bring them close to each other, so that they will become one staff, and they will be one in your hand.

The word “one” for “one in your hand” here is plural, which seemed odd, since the intent of the prophet was to create a unity out of many.

This gets more interesting when compared to the way Ezekiel reports God talking about this unity a few verses later:

37:19 (excerpts) “Thus said God, here I take the staff of Joseph…and of the tribes of Israel, his companions, and place them upon the staff of Judah, and make them into one staff, they will be one in my hand.”

Here, in God’s voice, the “one in my hand” is singular.

This offers us a beautiful teaching on the idea of pluralism and unity. From our perspective, as humans who are in the middle of trying to come together around difficult issues, any consensus, any unity, will be a coming together of many ideas, a compromise of sorts. Often this will feel incredibly frustrating as the give and take to create a common ground among many differing viewpoints can be totally exhausting. And yet, there is a greater purpose afoot.

From the top down perspective, a “God’s eye view” as it were, our unity really means one-ness. We can easily get lost in the notion that common ground still leaves us a good distance from each other - we may be stuck in our singular perspective at that point - we are merely a “one” among many “ones”. And still, when we take a step back, or take a deep breath and raise ourselves above the immediate give and take, we can see the unity of the community that has come together around a common cause.

The Joy of the Jewish Year

Temple Beth El, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775, Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We are a wilderness people – our covenant was crafted at Sinai, a mountain in the desert, and our sense of peoplehood has been sculpted by years of homelessness. Most of our history has led us away from home, often as refugees.

We are a people who worry about our security.

We tell stories of our loved ones who keep bags packed, just in case. We worry if we have enough, or if we do enough – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world.

And now, in the face of all of our concerns, I am going to ask us to do something differently. I would like us to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, as a real holiday of joy.

Even more than that, I will suggest that this season that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and emerges from it, can be one focused on bringing more celebration into our lives.

Now, I realize that this may be a tall order. The Jewish New Year is not a typical celebration. We don’t pop any bottles of champagne, and we have no festive countdown.

In fact, our encounters with Judaism at this season of Days of Awe can seem grim. Apologies, confessions, the lifting of our vows from the past year, God as merciful ruler accepting our transgressing selves back into God’s favor after prayer and fasting – a little apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar hardly make up for all of these serious and somber themes.

And who could blame us?

Our calendar feels like we go from tragedy to tragedy – we jest that the general Jewish holiday can be described most succinctly as: “They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”

With all of our running and fleeing, and then thriving, we always hope, that for just a little while, we may have finally reached a place of safety. Maybe this time we won’t have to pack up our families. Maybe this time we are proven to be too nervous when we always have our passports up to date.

Let’s admit that while our tradition insists on calling this a celebration – this New Year’s Party that we have all shown up to this evening – this Rosh HaShanah – we have resisted its call to be joyful. A couple of millennia of homelessness, some truly unspeakable centuries of oppression, and then the last decades of unbelievable turnaround, about which we feel admittedly a little guilty – this history has led us to experience this holy day as darker than it was originally intended.

Embracing this Jewish journey is all about finding the little sources of joy around us. We Jewish people have been coping with our sense of permanent exile for two thousand years, during which we have created a whole year’s worth of holidays and countless daily and personal practices that are meant to offer us ways of emphasizing the rhythm between a low point and a high point. We descendants of Israel who grapple with loss on the scale of generations and continents must also figure out how to highlight the good times.

Let’s start with the basics – our lives and the world are miraculous. Jewish tradition as represented by the great Nachmanides reminds us that we must not rely on miracles in our everyday life, and we must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by the miraculous.

We are the people who notice small miracles in the littlest of things. We must be. How else could we have survived the last two thousand years with a sense of hope that things will turn out better? When we look closely at the world, we can immerse ourselves in an ocean of reasons to wonder.

To look at the world through thoughtful, Jewish eyes, is to stare with awe and gratitude, and indeed joy, at creation.

To awaken to the morning in a Jewish manner is to begin with words of thanks.

I aim to follow a rhythm of life that brings little pieces of joy into my consciousness every day. Each morning I gather our family together to sing the Hebrew words of gratitude, the song Modeh Ani, as a way of starting the day with thanks. Some days it works really well. Last week all four of us were up in time to gather together. Ginny, Jude, our seven-year-old, and I sang our morning song, and Sadie, our almost ten-month old, crawled from Ginny’s lap towards Jude and me, adding her voice to our song. We were all singing, in our own way, and definitely feeling grateful.

It was wondrous. Even though the morning still had its struggles, the memory of those moments of grace is still sustaining a week later.

Many of you may have noticed that I share my regular runs via social media.

Let me tell you, I do not have an easy time dragging myself out for a run in the morning: no matter how good it is for me, no matter how much better I will feel about life, the universe, and everything, afterwards.

So I make sure that I get my mind into a grateful place when I am done. I am grateful that I managed to do it. I am grateful that Ginny took care of Sadie while I was gone. And then I am grateful no matter what my times and distances were. Maybe I was supposed to run ten miles and I only had time for six – doesn’t matter! I got to run, and that was a blessing, even a source of joy.

All of this reminds us that Jewish traditions ask us to act in a way that we may not feel, so as to create the emotion we hope to have. Judaism recognizes that the mind-body connection works both ways – when we force ourselves to do something we create some momentum towards feeling differently too. Even more simply, it is a life-practice of “fake it ‘til you make it”. The system of Jewish practices, applied, experimented on, reinterpreted, and reapplied in our own lives and in our own ways aims to help us find regular moments of little joy.

Some days I can’t fake it so well. Some days I am too, whatever, and usually the ones who suffer the most are those closest to me. On those days we can take a little advice from a non-Jewish thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who talks about non-toothache days.

Non-toothache days. We must always be grateful that today is a non-toothache day.

Happiness is enjoying what we have.

We try to see the small miracle even when a whole host of things cloud our vision of the wonder of the normal.

As we find our own ways to acknowledge and celebrate all of those daily blessings, so we can find high points in our weeks and seasons.

We are a people who come together regularly to enjoy a good nosh, and a little prayer service.

Every week we have an excuse to create “delight” – to practice Shabbat is to remember to find some joy at least once a week. Think of Shabbat as a reminder that if the week has dragged us down, sapped our “fake it ‘til we make it” batteries, that we have an excuse to recharge our celebratory engines. When we accept Shabbat as an opportunity for that stop, that necessary break, then we can embrace it as joyful.

Shabbat happens when we make it happen. In our household, some weeks we get to make Shabbat at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. My break in the week happens on Thursday, or on Saturday night, or for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, maybe, if I’m lucky during a Panthers game.

Find a time, make Shabbat – when we can.

It definitely works better when we do it with our family and with our community at the time when we all try to make Shabbat.

Let’s aim to find the time, once a week, to inject a little “delight” into our lives, and take a break from the normal.

Now, this may come as a surprise to us all – our traditions teach us that the joy in the observance counts more than the observance itself.

Really – joy counts more than the details.

In Deuteronomy we find words that seem to say the opposite:

(Deut. 27:26)

Cursed be the one that does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to observe them!

From this, we could get the idea that observance is all that counts. And yet here is a Hasidic teaching about this very verse in Deuteronomy.

[From Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, pp. 128-129]

Fulfilling all of the commandments, which the Torah seems to say we must do in order to avoid getting cursed, only seems like an impossible task. First, everyone knows that no one can fulfill all of the commandments. The Hasidic teaching goes further, and says that each commandment can be viewed as containing all of the commandments.

So, if this teaching is true, then why does the Torah read that we get cursed for not fulfilling all of them? The Torah can’t have an extraneous teaching. The curse is there to remind us that joy is the key to fulfilling the commandments – to achieve one commandment that fulfills all of them, we must start with joy.

The teaching continues:

“’Prayer without inner direction is like a body without a soul.’ The letters of Torah and prayer, as well as the fulfilled commandment, are all the body; the soul is the inner direction and the joyous thought we have in doing God’s will.”

All of the commandments are separate when we do them physically – when we do a commandment with a joyous thought all the commandments become united. This is why later on in Deuteronomy it reads that we will be cursed:

(Deut. 28:47) because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything.

Don’t worry about the details of the commandments for Shabbat. Find a place and time to do a bit of Shabbat with joy.

We are a people with a lot of holidays.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes about the journey through our holiday year:

“…the key to a successful journey is not reaching the promised destination, but rather being aware of every moment on the journey. To be successful [we] need to rejoice, to travel with simcha, ‘joy’.”

We are not a people who arrive at final destinations, we are a people who journey.

As we plot our course through our holy days we also do not reach an ending place.

There are at least four different new years – Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the creation of the world; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the Torah; Tu biShvat, the New Year of the trees; and the first of Nisan, the first month of the year, the month of Passover, when the natural world is renewed in Spring.

With all these festival beginnings we have many starts, and no finishes!

Regularly, people say to me, “You Jewish people – what’s with all the holidays?”

I need to start responding: “You bet – we are a people who love to have an excuse to have a celebration. These holidays are reminders to bring joy into our everyday lives every month of the year.”

We celebrate AND we apologize.

We take a full month before Rosh HaShanah to work on repenting. What’s the connection between apologies and a New Year celebration?

Our son Jude once asked: “Why don’t people apologize? It makes it stop hurting.”

Apologies clear the way for celebrating.

When we apologize, when we make amends, we put down the burden of needing to know everything, of being in control.

When the High Holy Day season asks us to do tshuvah, to make amends, we can let go of the burden of having done wrong, once we apologize, make it right, then rejoice in the liberation from it.

We didn't know better, we didn't mean it, we thought it would be better, we didn't think enough, we’re doing what we can to make it better, forgive me, now let’s have a Happy New Year.

This celebration that we arrive at may not be stereotypical – we may not find the joy that we see depicted in a movie or an advertisement. Joy happens amid all the other things going on – we find it on the upside of our rhythms. We must have non-joy in order to fully experience joy. We must notice and celebrate the difference in order to fully celebrate at all.

This means finding some authentic joy, not manufacturing it. This won’t be Madison Avenue's joy. It's our own thing: personal joy from self-knowledge and self-exploration, which we found by clearing the way with apologies.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that the worst thing we can do, is to worry too much about our mistakes. Too much guilt keeps us far from God. Apologies act as a release valve for the guilt. In joy and wholeness, we fully feel God’s Presence, the miraculous nature of our existence. As long as we are at war with ourselves, we have no room in us to make a dwelling place for God. The main focus is on loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, doing it through joy and celebration of life.

[Arthur Green, Ehyeh, A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, p. 125]

Our God and God of all ages, please be mindful of Your People Israel on this Day of Remembrance, and renew in us love and compassion, goodness, life, joy, and peace.

This day remember us for well-being.

This day bless us with Your nearness.

This day help us to live, and live with joy and celebration.

Let us join together in joy for this New Year.

Celebrate more, and find ways to do it that are more authentically us.

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, gathers for Tashlich in Freedom Park, on Rosh HaShanah, 5775-2014  Thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC, gathers for Tashlich in Freedom Park, on Rosh HaShanah, 5775-2014

Thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

Gems in the Torah - for Charlotte Pride

Gems in the Torah, by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Message for Interfaith Worship Service “Treasured Jewels, Reflections of the Divine”

Sunday, August 10, 4:00 PM, Caldwell Presbyterian Church

Some comments inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:15-19a:

"Now keep close watch over your selves - for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire -  lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, the pattern of male or female, the pattern of any animal that is on earth, the pattern of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the pattern of any crawling-thing on the soil, the pattern of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth or lest you lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the forces of the heavens, and be lured-away to bow down yourselves to them and worship them…"

These verses, from the Torah reading yesterday [Saturday, August 9], warn us against idolatry.

“Oh yawn rabbi, more about idolatry – really, who is worried about praying to statues?” I can hear you all thinking that, and why not? What possible relevance could this ancient prohibition of Judaism, one enthusiastically included in Christianity  through the Ten Commandments, have for us today, as we celebrate the opening of Pride?

We do still suffer in the throes of idol-worship. Only our idols are far more sinister and subtle now than ever. Body-image, gender-image, heterosexism, and homophobia – these are forms of idolatry. They take a graven image, usually one air-brushed, or unrealistically depicted without nuance, or one constructed out of fear of the beauty of diversity and complexity in humanity, and hold it up as one we should all aim for.

Let us not “wreak-ruin” upon ourselves by holding up any carved form in the pattern of male or female as one that we must all universally adhere to!

We must instead embrace the idea of God from these verses as beyond depiction. We must remember the poetry of identifying our humanity as a reflection of that form that cannot be described, that infinite within each of us, and burst open those graven images and instead see in each other the jeweled facets of holiness, the depth and beauty of something that can never be captured in a piece of sculpture, art, or photograph. We cannot be contained in a graven image.

When we gaze upon our selves and each other with reverence, seeing in one another the beauty that comes from a reflection of God’s infinite diversity, we get to stand in awe of our shared humanity. In doing this we fulfill another sparkling jewel of wisdom from yesterday’s scriptural reading:

Deut. 4:29 "But when you seek Adonai your God from there, you will find God, if you search for God with all your heart and with all your being."

A key aspect to avoiding the pitfalls of idolatry is to avoid complacency – we must continue to seek with all our hearts and all our beings. When we don’t understand someone, when we are frustrated by someone’s actions, when we feel hurt or wronged, yes, we must stand up for justice, and even more, we must seek in the object of our difficulty for their humanity. When we go beyond the conflict and connect on the grounds of our infinitely varied humanity, we offer others that opportunity too.

In this we see that seeking that divine spark within all people, within even all things, gives us this opportunity to overcome the complacency of idolatry, that thinking that says, “I know what I need to know.” Let us accept that our knowledge can always be expanded so that we can continually search for greater insights into the people around us.

One more shining thought from this biblical selection. Moses reminded the People of Israel that:

Deut. 5:2-3 "Our God cut with us a covenant at Horev/Sinai. Not with our ancestors did God cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us (that are) alive!"

We are all responsible for upholding the good teachings of our multitude of teachers.

We are all part of a contract between us and creation – to see deeply into our surroundings and celebrate the facets of the divine in everyone and everything.

Each of us contributes, and each of us plays a part.

As we celebrate our Queen City’s Pride this year, the crown jewel of Charlotte, shine up the faces of our gems, share them with each other, and take moments to notice even the diamonds in the rough.

We all get to shimmer together with Pride.

Summertime Judaism

A quick look back on the last week at Temple Beth El tells you just how vibrant our Jewish community is:


- We had our weekly events - Shabbat evening and morning - including two B’nei Mitzvah, Anniversary Blessings, Torah Study, FIJI Class, and Tot Shabbat too!

- We celebrated: two baby-namings and a same-sex marriage ceremony.

- We mourned our losses and comforted our mourners with two shiva minyanim and a memorial service.

- We had some intriguing conversations about tattoos, organ donation, marijuana, the novel The Golem and the Jinni, Taste of Judaism, The Porch Torah, and even Talmud, in a myriad of locales including the Temple Beth El building, at The Village Tavern, Whole Foods, and at the Bechtler Museum Cafe.

- We ate together at a SPICE Potluck on Shabbat, and shopped together at our Attic Sale.

- Our Annual Congregational Trip to Israel returned with Rabbi Judy - everyone had an amazing and meaningful adventure, and four kids became Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

- And even though it is summer, B’nei Mitzvah preparations continue with a full schedule of training for our soon to be Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

I hear that other Jewish communities slow down in the summer.

I feel so honored and blessed to be part of our Temple Beth El family, to be all together so often for important times and moments of thoughtful discussion.

Looking forward to a great summer!

Check out the next book we will read for our August Book Club, or enjoy the last - links below:

Next book for August 3, 11:00 AM:

But Where is the Lamb?

Last book, a fun summer read:

The Golem and the Jinni

Awe, gratitude, and the Wilderness

A reading for Shabbat B'midbar - the Sabbath of the reading of the first section of the Book of Numbers:

In the desert simmered a small miracle,

a bush that burned and was not consumed.

The prophet was moved by awe,

and removed sandals going barefoot.

When the noises of our minds settle,

and we notice the wonders of the world,

when our eyes clear so that we can see,

and focus on the sparks in all creation,

then our hearts may expand in thanks,

and our breath speak words of praise.

Getting a handle on things one holiday at a time

Many of us are list-makers. I imagine I am not the only one who thrills in checking items off of those lists. We get to bring some order to our worlds that often seem out of control when we take all those things we have to do and itemize them. Then, with some sense of small victory, we concretely show that they have been completed with the stroke of a pen.

The Torah offers us the same kind of teaching this week in Parashat Pinchas. Two full chapters – Numbers chapters 28 and 29 – itemize the holidays of the year, from daily offerings to New Moon offerings, to all the celebrations around each holiday.

In these directions we see the need to establish regular customs and practices, expected times of gathering and prescribed things to do at those moments. So our ancient Israelite ancestors developed a structure to their lives and the calendar, allowing them to see the scope of the year in acknowledged weeks, months, and seasons.

However we manage to encounter a world that may often feel like mayhem, Judaism offers us frameworks in the calendar as models of breaking things down into smaller bits that may help us handle the whole more easily.

Happy list checking!

To fast or not to fast - summer mourning?

Today is the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz – one of a series of holidays in the summer that most Jews have never heard of.

This one begins a three week period remembering the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem that culminates in the observance of Tisha b’Av – the 9th of Av – arguably the worst and saddest day in Jewish history. On this day both Temples were destroyed, the First Crusade started, the Spanish Expulsion began, and more.

Why fast and/or maintain these days when we have Israel, when perhaps the reasons for our fasting – the longing for a return – may be obsolete?

Tal Becker reminds us in the article below that longing for a repaired world is part of the fundamentals of the Jewish psyche, and I agree – the metaphor of being lost and needing to find our way, to repair ourselves and our community, may not be removed from our Jewish consciousness.

Thanks to Rabbi Judith Schindler for pointing out this piece, and don’t forget to join us for a detailed discussion of this and other topics around the 9th of Av on Monday evening, July 15 – a pre-fast dinner and start the fast learning starting at 6pm at Temple Beth El in Charlotte.

Tal Becker on Summer Fast Days

Let's bring God into our midst

This week, in parashat T'rumah, Exodus25:1-27:19, the Torah details the commands for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernace, or portable Temple. We can understand about the need to bring God into our presence, even today, when we imagine God to be beyond the ideas of a tent or an ark of the covenant that might actually contain God. After all, there are moments in our lives when we feel God much more powerfully, and there are places we go in order to experience God more fully too. Life cycle events, Shabbat services, holidays, family get-together's – we often identify these times as filled with greater meaning, and even the presence of God. Synagogues, holy places, sites of tremendous natural beauty – these loom large in our mind as places where we might feel connected to God.

The Israelites in the desert, after the encounter with God at Sinai, where God visibly showed up in an impressive array of special effects, built a Mishkan, literally a dwelling place for God. Do we think that they really imagined that the entirety of God could fit in a little box inside a tent?

I don’t think our ancestors believed that, and I certainly don’t expect all of you to believe it either. Rather, I think that they understood what Abraham understood before them. Abraham knew that the presence of God entered into a place when we behaved in a certain way – in his case, when he welcomed strangers into his tent. The ethic of hospitality brings the presence of God into our midst. The Israelites understood that when they worked together to build something, when they came together for the improvement of the entire community, that God would dwell in their midst too.

In this way, we read the building of the Mishkan, the bringing together of many different items from many different people with many different skills and advantages, as a way of uniting to transform the Israelite community into something better. The actions of the people of Israel united behind a common cause and helped them overcome their difficulties from the past – like grumbling about being brought out of Egypt, and building the Golden Calf.

To bring God into our midst means acting in a way that transforms people from individuals with different desires and agendas into a community, united around projects and causes that bring benefits to everyone.

While we no longer build a Mishkan and all of its ornaments, including the ark of the covenant, we do reap the rewards of united actions. We come together to pray and to learn, to celebrate and to mourn, and to mark the end of the week and the beginning of Shabbat.

I wish that all of us take moments on this Shabbat to come together with each other, to find family and friends and do something that we couldn’t do on our own. Celebrating Shabbat in community transforms our time together, and brings God to dwell in our midst.

After Newtown...

[A sermon from Friday, December 21, 2012]

Genesis 46:28 Now Judah, he had sent on ahead of him, to Joseph, to give directions ahead of him to Goshen. When they came to the region of Goshen,
29 Joseph had his chariot harnessed and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen. When he caught sight of him he flung himself upon his neck and wept upon his neck continually.
30 Israel said to Joseph: Now I can die, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive!

    In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph and his father Jacob, who we also call Israel, accomplish an amazing thing – a reunion between parent and child when the parent had thought his son dead for many years.

    Would that we could only guarantee this for everyone.

    Jewish tradition embraces and discusses almost every difficulty, and yet the difficulty of losing a child – whether because infant mortality was so common, and therefore not requiring a story to respond to it, or some other reason – seems to be something our rabbis and scholars and writers avoid.

    We cannot avoid it.

    We cannot stop thinking about it, crying about it, and longing to fix it.

    There is no easy fix.

    Guns are not the problem by themselves – although impassioned pleas like this one may make us think so…


Here is an observation from Rabbi Shoshana Hantman:
    My husband, Rich Weill, spends a lot of time on a website called Banjo Hangout, especially when there's not much happening at work.  these banjo players (insert joke here) discuss all sorts of things not related to bluegrass music; and many of them seem to be right-wing fundamentalist Second-Amendment types.  Not Rich's natural cadre.
    He wrote this today on the website:
    When people get "pleasure, gratification, or relief" from the act of starting a fire, and are "fascinated with fire, its consequences and related activities," we call that "pyromania."  (DSM IV-TR, Diagnostic criteria for 312.33 Prymonania.)  But, for some reason, when people get "pleasure, gratification, or relief" from the act of starting an explosion inside a metal cartridge containing a lethal projectile, and are fascinated by the consequences and activities related to that potentially deadly explosion, we're supposed to consider that "being an American."
    Guns are about one thing and one thing only: destruction.  Whether it's a paper target or a tin can or a clay disk or an animal or a human being, guns exist only to destroy whatever they're aimed at.  How unlike a banjo.
    I'm also getting a little tired of hearing people excuse the often-scary American obsession with the destructive power of guns as a deeply embedded part of our culture, particularly in certain regions of the country. Slavery was also once a deeply embedded part of the culture of a region of the country, which even called it its "peculiar institution." Domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace were once deeply embedded parts of our culture, tolerated by most women without question.  A lot of things are deeply imbedded in the culture somewhere -- until they aren't anymore.
    Guns are necessary tools for those who defend our country and our communities, or for those who must hunt for food. They shouldn't be implements of pleasure. Pick up a paintbrush or a musical instrument or some woodworking tools instead. Do something that creates for pleasure, not something that destroys.

    Better mental health maintenance and attention is not the only answer, and still we have to work on it.

This is from a piece by Liel Liebovitz, on Tabletmag.org:
    “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” she wrote. “I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.”
    Amen to that. In Israel, still a somewhat socialist country, mental health services are ready available, for free, to anyone. And because so many young Israelis undergo traumatic experiences in the course of their military service, a whole host of nonprofit organizations are on hand to provide counseling and treatment. We must do the same. Rather than pretend that it was the objects in their hands rather than the afflictions in their minds that led Lanza and Holmes and Cho and the others to perpetrate their monstrosities, we should offer help to those young men and their families. We have no more compassionate route, and no greater hope for peace.


    And still, there must be more to it.

    There is something wrong with us, something rotting away at the heart of America. We are a frontier people with no frontier anymore except within ourselves. We are conquerors and builders with no conquest left, and no unifying project to devote ourselves to. We must confront that most frightening of places, the parts within us that need attention because we have no “west” left to go for our young men. Star Trek may have gotten it wrong – the Final Frontier is not out there in space, but in here, in our hearts and minds, in the seats of our humanity. We must evolve from within, as we can no longer rely on external resources to help us advance.

    The peace we long for we must create together, as a community of people from different backgrounds and with different opinions.

    We American Jews must take our role as part of the leaders in this. More than any other people in the world we have learned to live with others and collaborate. We must bring our wisdom to bear on these issues. The world needs America to improve and evolve, and our children need us to improve and evolve so that they may live.

    Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a third-century Jewish sage, once taught: Great is peace … if the Holy One had not given peace to the world, sword and beast would devour up the whole world. Let us all hope that through our discourse we silence the “swords and beasts” of our day, bringing about a world one step closer to peace.

TBE Women Stand With Women of the Wall

Temple Beth El women stand with Torah scrolls wearing Tallitot to show solidarity with Anat Hoffman and the Women of the Wall who peacefully and justifiably demand equal rights to pray at Judaism's holiest site, the Kotel (the Wall), in Jerusalem.

Temple Beth El women stand with Women of the Wall
Temple Beth El women stand with Women of the Wall

Realistic Theology

Torah-Inspired, Reflection of The Day:

Today we look at B'chukotai, Leviticus 26:3 - 27:34 - two chapters, almost, with the first focused on the outcomes of following or not following God's commandments, and the second on the rules about vows, concluding with the last verse of Leviticus:

These are the commandments that Adonai commanded Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

As rationalists, we often bristle at the idea that following commandments would result in blessings and not following them would result in curses. Reward and punishment theology seems unrealistic at best, we even have a Biblical book arguing against it entirely - the Book of Job.

So how do we learn from these texts?

When we follow reasonable practices that help us get along with each other better, when we treat the planet better, we will likely find our lives turn out better. Following a social contract creates better society. Noticing that certain practices hurt the environment, and in turn our livelihoods and fates, and then changing our behavior, leads us to a better life for all.

Our theology should support demands for improved behavior, without threatening supernatural rewards and punishments.

Celebrating Our Vulnerability on Sukkot

[From Sukkot Worship at Temple Beth El, on Monday, October 11, 2012 - 15 Tishrei 5772]

Our pilgrimage festivals seem to follow a natural pattern:

Passover – celebrate freedom

Shavuot – celebrate the giving of Torah

Sukkot – if we were to complete the pattern, we should be celebrating the arrival in Israel, the completion of our journey.

Instead, we celebrate our vulnerability – we celebrate the sources of our sustenance – how the planet provides for us through harvest and shelter, and how fragile all of that is.

Seems strange, as the finale of a three-part series – freedom, wisdom, vulnerability – this is something of a let down.

Yet, this may be one of the central keys to Judaism.

When we arrive in the Promised Land, when we complete the journey, our history has just begun. We do not celebrate a final sense of redemption in this world. We are not a people who believe that our work will be, or has ever been, complete.

Instead, we choose, as the most celebratory of our three primary festivals, to take in the harvest, eat, drink, and be satisfied, for a moment, while still knowing that the seasons will yet change again, and there will be more work to be done.

We do not have a holy day that marks completion, instead we sit in our temporary structures on Sukkot, happy to have brought in a good harvest, and see how fragile it all is. We notice that our completion is momentary.

Sukkot sends us a fundamental message about the nature of life. As we have come through our seasons of inspiration, our celebration of the creation of the world on Rosh Hashanah, and our deep time of repentance on Yom Kippur, Sukkot gets us back to the everyday – our needs being met by the earth, and our need to reconnect with those physical needs. We live in the desert forever – we do not reach completion. We get through the desert with the blessing of the bounty of our harvest, when we are lucky to have enough, and through the blessings of our communities coming together to share that harvest and make sure we everyone shares in our bounty.

Fragility, vulnerability, life as wanderers – this is life. As Jews we recognize it and celebrate when we succeed at living with it, as well as the need to make sure we don’t ignore it.

May this year be one where we live well with our fragile world, and guard against the hazards it brings by coming together to bring each other blessings of sustenance.