Song of Peace
Drowning in Politics
In so many places that I go and people I meet, the conversation inevitably turns into politics. It is always highly emotional, with much discontent and even down right hatred. No matter which side one speaks for, it always sounds like righteous indignation and a barrage of accusations. We are absolutely right and the hated other side is made of mostly criminals in leading positions. Can we not see beyond our highly charged emotions? We are so occupied with trying to discredit our adversaries (in the name of what's best for our country, of course) that we can't see beyond our emotions.
But wait, it's even worse than that. Our sharp political differences are much more than a philosophical outlook on what is good for our country. The "other side" is now our true enemy to be despised, humiliated in every possible opportunity and, if only it was legal, to be "eliminated"
Does this sound too harsh? It is not! In many families around the country (as well as in our congregation!) brothers, cousins, sons and daughters with different political outlooks either don't talk to each other at all or keep their relationships to family obligations only.
Is this what we want?
The only time this country went through such explosive divisive politics was right before the civil war and that did not end up too well. While of course we are not facing another civil war, we are nevertheless just as divided today as then. There is a different kind of war going on. A war of words where everything goes. A war where our unity, which is so important for the country (and its safety!) is set aside for the sake of satisfying our ill emotions.
How sad is that. Our good friends, the Russians, the Chinese, some of the Middle East fanatical nations are laughing at us, trying to take advantage of this situation any way they can.
We can fix this. We do not need to act like this. This bickering is an insult to our country, to our veterans, to all of us who care deeply for our country's welfare.
Let me tell you what makes me optimistic that things will get better. I know of at least two members in our congregation who are on complete opposite sides in the political spectrum. There are always heated political debates between them, as you can imagine. Yet they are very close friends and care deeply for each other.
Politics should never be a vehicle for ridicule and hate. Differences, even sharp differences, are healthy. In fact, it is part of our strength as Americans. Our differences come with a strong sense of unity, respect and tolerance. We seem to have lost that.
Let’s come back to it for the sake of generations to come. It might very well be a question of survival.
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The holiday of Tu B'Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, (Jan. 21st this year) was designated as a special recognition of the importance of nature for the survival of all creatures.
In its origin it was designated as the new year mark for the trees' growing cycle. This was used in order to calculate the age of the trees for the purpose of fruit tithing for the poor as well as calculating the first three years of a tree's life when its fruit was not allowed to be eaten. Over the centuries as our sages began to further appreciate the enormous role trees and nature play in survival of Earth and its creatures, a celebration of nature was born. Originally the Tu B'Shvat commandment was simple and straight forward: "Every year, you shall set aside a tenth part of the yield, so that you may learn to revere your G-d forever." Sharing the blessings of nature with the needy was a way to develop a deeper sense of reverence for our environment.
However, beyond the appreciation of the farmer's harvest and, the celebration of our nurturing environment, the holiday has a much deeper meaning.
The Jewish tradition recognizes Earth, Gaia, as a living entity which cradles, protects and feeds all life. But, as our sages noticed, nature is very delicate and vulnerable to Human upheaval both physically and spiritually. Therefore, when G-D created humans he designated them as custodians of earth in charge of the welfare of the earth and its inhabitants. We were to correct and repair all that becomes poison to earth.
When entering the promised land Moses warned the Israelites that not only physical impediments but also spiritual decay will make the land sick. It will literally "regurgitate" its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:28) While Moses was talking specifically about the holy land of Israel the same is true of earth in general.
The Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, understood that we humans need to cleanse ourselves spiritually first, so we can better take care of our environment. They devised a self cleansing ceremony, commonly known as Tu B'Shvat Seder, modeled after the Passover seder. The ceremony involves a serious of blessings which express deep appreciation for Earth and nature. By eating fruits of different characters such as the fruit's hard parts which represent challenges as physical beings, we acknowledge that humans too are not perfect and may not do their best as custodians of mother earth. The act of eating a variety of fruits, which also symbolizes the goodness of Earth, reaffirms that we are not forgetting our role as preservers of earth and all its inhabitants.
This Tu B'Shvat seder, this self cleansing ceremony allows for a better sensitivity for Mother Earth. Today, it especially has enormous significance to our modern life, as we are putting our Earth, the only known home for all living things, in serious jeopardy. From deforestation to severe pollution, chemicals that cannot be broken down to depleted oxygen and diminished ozone protection from the sun, we must repair the damage we are inflicting on our beloved Earth.
G-d designated the Jewish people as carriers of his special Light of Peace and Justice in the world which includes being a voice for Mother Earth. The modern holiday of Tu B'Shvat not only elevates us spiritually but reminds us of our responsibility.
Happy Tu B'Shvat!
Plant a Tree in Israel for Tu B'Shvat!
The historical events surrounding the story of Chanukah are a little different than what we are told as children. The real story of Chanukah involved complicated upheavals both internally within the Jewish population of Judea and externally as part of the ever changing relations with the Syrian Greeks.
The influence of the Hellenists, the Jews who adopted the Greek culture and religion which included some of the Temple priests, was serious enough to severely threaten the continuation of the Jewish monotheistic and moral based religion. This existential threat was so severe that many saw the end of Judaism as imminent.
The Greek ruler Antiochus the Fourth who was entangled in wars in Egypt saw in the Jews a source of constant rebellion and was determined to eliminate Judaism once and for all. He turned Jerusalem into a complete Greek city, turned the Temple into a shrine for Zeus and forbade the Jews from practicing any Jewish laws. The Hellenists, were now in complete control of the entire country. The Jews who remained loyal to their heritage lost all hope for redemption. When Judah Maccabee gathered there with a very limited number of loyal followers, his rebellion against the Geeks seemed impossible to win.
Due to his guerrilla warfare genius, Judah managed to chase the Greeks out of a limited area surrounding the Temple. This took three months to accomplish. As we all know, he cleansed the Temple and rededicated it to G-D. However, by no means was this a complete victory against the Greeks and their vast Jewish Hellenists allies. Therefore the celebration of Chanukah is a remembrance of the re-dedication of the Temple and not of a decisive victory over the mighty Greek army.
Following the capture of the Temple by Judah many more Jews who began to believe that complete victory was possible with the help of G-D, joined the rebels. Judah gained a substantial number of loyal soldiers and a three year war against the Greek Invaders began.
First order of things was to send soldiers to protect Jews in the east side of the Jordan river as well as the Jews in the Galilee and the Mediterranean shores from local non Jews who with the help of the Hellenists wanted to eliminate Judaism.
In order to put a stop to Judah’s successes, the Greeks sent their best general, Lisias, along with a huge army to face Judah’s rebels. The major battle that ensued was a decisive win for the enormous Greek army. The Jewish rebels dispersed everywhere and the rebellion was just about over at that point.
A blockade was put on Judah and a few of his loyalists who retreated to the Temple area. Everything seemed to be lost. With the expected death of Judah and the rest of the Maccabees the end of Judaism in Judea seemed to be a sure thing.
This is when the Chanukah miracle really happened. Lisias suddenly faced a bitter political rival Philipus who was advancing toward the Greeks with a huge army in order to declare himself the Greek emperor. Lisias then retreated immediately from Jerusalem, left most of Judea and signed a peace agreement with Judah.
This peace agreement did not last too long. Another Greek general, Bacchides attacked Judah and his army and in a decisive victory he eliminated most of the rebels and killed Judah himself. This was the end of Judah Maccabee’s revolt against the Syrian Geeks. Therefore unlike common belief, Judah Maccabee was unable to successfully rebel against the Greeks.
Jonathan, Judah’s younger brother waited two years for the right opportunity to try and rebel again. Jonathan was a brilliant statesman and a great general. He knew how to take advantage of the political bickering among the Syrian Greek generals who all wanted to become emperors. With winsome and brilliant political maneuvers, offering loyalty to specific influential Greek generals, he managed to re-assemble his own Jewish army and to liberate, piece by piece, areas of Judea which were under Hellenist, Greek and other idol worshippers' influence. Jonathan was eventually murdered at the hands of Hellenists in Jaffa.
Simon, the last of the Maccabee brothers continued the task started by his brother Jonathan of the retaking of Judea from the local Greek and Hellenistic population. His successes aggravated the new Greek emperor, Antiochus the 7th who sent yet again army to help the Hellenists and to stop Simon from expanding their control over Judea. Yet again a battle took place between Antiochus’ army and Simon. This time the Maccabees won and the Greek army retreated out of Judea.
At this point the Greek Emperor Antiochus the 7th realized that losing so many soldiers for control over a small piece of land called Judea was not worth the effort. In addition the international power of Greece was diminishing against the rising power of Rome.
Therefore the Maccabees’ eventual victory was the result of the Maccabees stand fast effort to free Judea. With a little luck or perhaps a miracle and with hard fought battles along with brilliant political maneuvers they managed to gain an independence for Judea for the next 80 years, only to end at hands of their deceiving old ally, Rome.
A Thanksgiving Story
A story I once heard from a friend and a colleague. When he was a child during one Thanksgiving holiday meal his father challenged him along with his siblings to think of five things which annoyed them the most. That of course was not hard for the children. Within a few minutes they all had a generous list of aggravating things which they eagerly recited to their dad. "Now" said the father. "I want you to put in front of every aggravating item the phrase "I appreciate" and find a reason why you appreciate each and every item. As children, my colleague said, they could not complete the challenge. "We resisted such a seemingly impossible task."
"Now", his father said, "Think of five small things that you like and enjoy. Again, write the phrase "I appreciate" before each item and give a reason why.” “That of course was a much easier task,” my friend told me. "You see" continued the father, "When you learn to appreciate the little things in life you like, you will be able to better deal with challenges and maybe find a way to appreciate them as well.” As a child, my friend said, he did not quite understand what his dad was trying to teach him. Later on in years to finally understood his father’s lesson.
Appreciation of all aspects in our life, big and small, is paramount in Judaism. It is a corner stone of our belief system . In fact the many blessing we are encouraged to say every day are a perpetual expression of our appreciation of our life.
Think of the basic formula of appreciation, "Baruch Ata Adonai" - Blessed are You G-D. We bless G-D because we acknowledge what G-D does for us and for all mankind everyday, every moment. This of course is the opening statement to all our blessings. It is our expression of appreciation of everything around us, from blessing the variety of foods to anything new in our life, to experiencing a natural phenomenon, to life cycle events and of course many others.
In fact, this ongoing state of thankfulness for all things in our life has a deep spiritual purpose. Having a perpetual mindset of appreciation, by reciting a variety of blessings throughout the day is a powerful spiritual tool. It affords us the inner strength to face life's challenges. When we see our daily events as blessings which warrant expressions of appreciation, this ongoing gratitude gives our life a dimension of sacredness, it brings us closer to G-D and keeps us on a higher spiritual level. Jewish tradition puts all this in place to make sure that we are better equipped to appreciate all which is good in our life and to better face the not-so-good and even find the blessings during the difficult times.
The above was written before the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. So how in the world can appreciation possibly apply in this situation? We certainly aren't grateful this happened! Not only are we dealing with a horrific act of hatred but it is one of pure Anti-Semitism that has touched our very core as Jews! Collectively we are experiencing a wide variety of reactions including horror, grief, despair fear, anger and the need to find blame.
Judaism offers the spiritual tool of appreciation to assist us in the processing of these emotions so we do not sink into them, such as sinking into despair. When we draw our attention to that which we appreciate in our general lives, thus raising our consciousness, we can more easily lessen the severity of our emotions, process them more quickly and return to a sense of inner peace and well being. From this higher state we can then take the steps and actions needed to bring forth change.
Can we possibly also find the blessings? One I am personally seeing is that people of all faiths are coming together in solidarity. May this coming together be the first step in transmuting all forms of hatred and bigotry in our world! For this I can be truly grateful!
Thunder’s Mom by Cantor Lee
It was one of those beautiful days when everything just seems to flow perfectly! Rabbi David and I had just officiated a renewal of vows ceremony at Disney and were still flying high from the energy! Now we were looking forward to the drive home as we always love the peace of a long car ride. We were even going to be home in time for our homeowners meeting! Rabbi David sits on the board and there was an important issue to be discussed that evening.
But it seems the universe had other ideas. An hour into the drive on the turnpike the tire blew. That didn’t phase us, we would just change the tire. But lo and behold, the rental car didn’t have a spare tire! I began calling the rental car agency while Rabbi David walked to the nearest mile marker to see where we were. Things however became quite chaotic. I couldn’t get through to the car agency and kept getting disconnected from turnpike assistance. When we finally got through, the car rental agency wanted to tow us an hour out of our way to get another car. We decided to call AAA instead but kept getting disconnected.
I just paused in the midst of all this somewhat confused. Did I not call on the angels when we first began driving? It is just automatic for me to pray for protection anytime I get in a car. So I stopped and prayed now, calling on the archangels, the driving angels and the turnpike angels, asking that the energy would change.
Like magic everything began to go smoothly. AAA would be there within an hour and the tow home would be covered by our policy. They were also sending the turnpike police to check on us. While we waited we came up with all sorts of ideas as to why this was happening. “Maybe we are being protected from an accident!” I told Rabbi David! Whatever the reason we now saw it all as an adventure and it certainly continued to be one!
The tow truck driver had a deep voice on the phone so I was surprised when “he” turned out to be a “she!” Her name was Rebecca and she was just so lovely! When we got into the tow truck she had classical music playing with my favorite composer, Bach! She learned that I play classical piano and I learned that classical music calms down her 18 year old Autistic son, Thunder, the youngest of her four children.
She told us about her life with Thunder, of how she learned at 2 years old that he was diagnosed with Autism. “I went to jail for him!” she told us. She wasn’t about to put him in an institution as advised and got quite angry when told all that he would never be able to do. “Not my son!” she yelled and grabbed the woman by the neck. “It was the grabbing by the neck that got me forty-eight hours.”
She began educating herself about Autism and got support through internet groups. When Thunder was six he spoke for the first time but it wasn’t English. It was Japanese as he wanted to see his brother’s Japanese anime book. He now speaks nine languages and learned it all though google. “He can’t do anything with Math, though” she told us.
Rebecca wasn’t about to put Thunder in the school system. She wasn’t going to have anyone call her son stupid or bully him. She homeschooled him and learned over the years what would work for him including strict schedules, never touching him, turning his closet into a safe space and which foods would trigger the “moments.”
The “episodes” were the worst when Thunder was eight and nine years old. Her husband couldn’t handle it anymore so they got divorced. Rebecca wasn’t about to give up though. Not even as he grew older and stronger. He can’t feel any pain himself so he isn’t aware when he causes others pain. Thunder has broken both Rebecca’s arms and her collar bone. She works out to stay stronger and tougher than he is. She told us the trick is knowing how to talk to him sternly without raising her voice and getting him into the closet safe space when needed.
She wouldn’t date or have people come to the house. “They just wouldn’t understand about Thunder” she told me. But the father of her daughter’s boyfriend had other ideas. He went to Thunder first and told him he wanted to take him and his mother on a date to get pizza. Thunder was quite thrilled with the idea as pizza happens to be his favorite food!
Rebecca told us other stories as well, of all the animals she has rescued while on the road. She presently has thirteen dogs and two potbellied pigs. One time she rescued a puppy being severely abused. She beat up the man putting him in the hospital. The puppy went into surgery and the man got 90 days in jail for animal abuse. Rebecca’s time was eating pizza with the sheriff for seven hours. Everyone including the sheriff respects her in her small community. She is known as Thunder’s mom.
Another time she rescued a Chihuahua from a garbage dump. Ferocious wouldn’t have anything to do with Rebecca but took to Thunder after he bathed her and dressed her wounds. Ferocious doesn’t let anyone near Thunder except for BB, Thunder’s other dog, a pit bull rescue. BB has been trained to call Rebecca and 911 on a special phone if Thunder is hurting himself or others.
Rebecca also shared stories about her tow truck. Thunder named her Abby calling her Rebecca’s adopted baby. And Rebecca definitely takes care of Abby just like a baby! She told me she isn’t an outgoing person but when in the truck she is quite friendly. Abby is the one who helps her to be so. I told Rebecca I understand completely, that yes, vehicles have their own consciousness, that Abby is in partnership with her.
Hurricane Irma was quite tough as the house had much damage causing Thunder’s schedule to be disrupted. The well was also damaged so the family hasn’t had water since then. Rebecca goes every other day to get water for the household needs.
But she sees Irma as a blessing as it brought her boyfriend to her. After the pizza date he came to help with the hurricane damage and never left. “I saw how he accepted Thunder and could understand him” Rebecca told me. So they are planning to get married. “I always see the silver lining in everything” she said.
I told Rebecca I knew the flat tire was so I could hear her story. She confided that she had argued with her boss about taking the job. It was the end of a long day. But she knows she was also meant to meet me. She was so excited to learn about my third eye blindfold program and energetic work with children with ASD that she is going to participate in the next adult session! “I am always open to new ideas!” she told me.
After we hugged each other goodbye I pressed some money in her hand and said, “This isn’t a tip, but a gift for Thunder. Take him for some pizza!” She smiled and said, “He will love that and think it is so cool!”
We all have those experiences when we are touched so deeply. A mother recently told me that during her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony (Jewish rite of passage) something beautiful happened. “I feel different inside” she said.
Something beautiful happened during that ride with Rebecca. I too can say I feel different inside.
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Excerpts from Rabbi David’s Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon
(Rabbi David’s Disclaimer: This does not refer to any particular person, group or association. It is a general statement.)
According to the Bible there were close to a million soldiers that served in King David's army. By comparison 1,000 years later, the great Roman empire in its heyday had a similar amount of soldiers divided into 30 legions.
When the Jewish nation split into two kingdoms, Judea and Israel, the huge army split as well. It was then that the Israelites lost their unity. They lost their might. In the following centuries during endless wars with their neighbors, Judea and Israel each lost territory and population. This division, lack of unity and hostility between Judea and Israel continued until they were both eventually destroyed.
In the first century when Judea revolted again Rome, there were a bit less then 300,000 Jewish soldiers facing 350,000 Roman soldiers. If you play a pure numbers game the odds of winning was not necessarily with Rome. The Jewish revolt failed not because of an inferior number of Jewish warriors but again because of lack of unity. Due to the animosity between Jewish groups, they could not find a way to work together against a common enemy.
There is a famous Talmudic story about a wealthy man in Judea who had a party and wanted to invited his good friend Kamtzah. By mistake, the wealthy man's personal enemy named Bar Kamtzah was invited instead. When the wealthy man saw his enemy, he demanded that Bar Kamtzah leave his house immediately.
Bar Kamtzah asked the wealthy man not to embarrass him in front of the entire village and to invite him as well. The wealthy man refused. Bar Kamtzah then offered to pay for whatever he would be eating at the party if he would be allowed to stay. The wealthy man still refused. Bar Kamtzah then offered to pay for the food for everyone in the celebration which was the entire village, in order not be embarrassed. Still, the wealthy man refused and demanded that Bar Kamtzah leave the premises immediately.
The rabbis who were present at the party did not come to his defense and were silent throughout this whole episode. In his Anger, Bar Kamtzah went to the Roman emperor and told him that the Jews intended to rebel against him. The emperor in his anger attacked Judea and destroyed the temple.
According to our tradition, the Temple was destroyed and our ancestors were chased out of our land because of this incident. Because of senseless animosity between brothers…
I realize of course that hate is a very harsh word to use. It is one of the most destructive powers in society. It is what brings out the worst in us. It robs us of our clear thinking, our ability to reason. It takes away our humanity, our dignity. It has the power to literally change our personality, to bring people to violence.
There is a fine line between opinions which are kept as civil disagreements and those differences which breed hostility, that completely take over and create intolerance.
In the story of Bar Kamtzah and the wealthy man, what made G-D so upset was that this dispute was senseless. It caused humiliation and dishonor. It is known in Judaism as Sinaat Chinam, which translates as pointless hate.
We have all seen on TV and social media people saying malicious things about others. From the top echelon to the rest of us. Many seem to be consumed by this affliction of attacking others.
Have we lost our will to build a bridge between political opinions and ideologies? When principles and ideologies become very emotional we defend them to the end. We know we are right and anyone who does not share our opinion cannot be right.
As we go through our political unrest, people seem to dig their heels into their positions and like a snow ball, our differences lead to even stronger discontent and intolerance. Emotions take over and paralyze our ability to work together for solutions.
I have never seen any political or social debate where one side manages to convince the other side to change their position. The debates just go on and on... with bitterness and high emotions everywhere.
Political debates are healthy and good. It is a sign of diversity. It is sign of a free nation. But disagreements should not be allowed to escalate into rifts and chaos.
Building a bridge of understanding must start by all of us reexamining the idea that one's political views are completely correct and others’ opinions are completely wrong. We must try to find some common political ground.
We have always taken pride in our diversity. Different ideas and ideologies lead to healthy debates among us. Working together despite opposing opinions unite us. It makes us stronger.
We need this unity. In today’s world we simply cannot afford to appear as a divided nation. This weakens us in the eyes of those who are trying to hurt us. Divided we are in danger.
We have already seen how this intolerance has come into the fabric of our personal lives. It has torn apart families, hindered friendships, brought brother against brother. It is even hurting our freedom of speech. People are afraid to express themselves on social media or among family and close friends for the sake of not fighting.
We are all concerned with our national and personal safety, and prosperity for all. We all want to preserve our strength and respect among all nations. We don't have to agree with each other but we have to work together. Being united means a stronger America which means a safer world.
Senseless hate, whether politically or socially based or otherwise, is not an option for us anymore. There are no winners, we all lose.
We can do better.
Remember that whatever our children learn from us they may continue doing as adults and as future leaders of our nation.
From the top of the leadership echelon to every single one of us, let us change all this. Let us resolve that this coming year we will not be a part of all this negativity. This ray of hope and unity has to start somewhere. Let it start from us, today.
For this coming year I pray that we curtail all inappropriate verbal expressions due to political or ideological disagreements or for that matter, any disagreement.
In honor of the New Year.
For the sake of generations to come…
From Rabbi David
For everything there is time. As the earth rotates around the sun it creates cycles in our lives. Jewish life, of course, is based on those cycles of time. Seasons change, they come and go and turn into years and decades. Some scientists will tell you that there are physiological and even psychological “rotations” in our bodies which reflect the seasonal changes in nature. While these changes seem to be more noticeable in animals we as Jews recognize that each season puts us in a certain frame of mind or “mood”. As Fall approaches, we become increasingly aware of the High Holy Days.
In the past, the mere approach of the season evoked fear and awe in the hearts of our forefathers. There was a literal change in their demeanor. People became truly weary of their fate which traditionally is decided, written and finally sealed during the course of the season. In order to tilt fate to their side, they intensified their yearly practice of the three “Ts”: Teshuva – repentance, Tefila – prayers and Tzedaka- acts of kindness and good deeds.
In Judaism, this is serious business. Our legends teach that the Book of Life is opened in the heavens as the Almighty begins the process of evaluating the lives of all creatures. The heavenly High Holy Days scene is similar to our modern courtroom. However, while the accuser angel is busy preparing his material against each of us, there are no attorneys to defend us. We are our own advocates. Not fair you say? Well, that is why we are given time to probe our behavior and deeds. We are given time between the first day of the last month of the Jewish year, the month of Elul to the holiday of Succot which comes four days after Yom Kippur. Traditionally, we first engage in “Cheshbon Nefesh” literally, soul searching, then we take steps to correct (or begin to correct) that which needs correction. Moving in the right direction will go a long way to sway the heavenly scales of judgment to our favor. That is why the three “T’s” are so important.
As adults in a modern Jewish world we all have some doubt about the concept that our deeds are being judged by a mighty entity which we call G-D. What could we have possibly done to face severe consequences such as, G-d forbid, disease, poverty, or other adversities? In fact, what does all this mean to us, living in a modern, more sophisticated world? At the first glance, the mysterious Book of Life along with the an old fashioned scales to weigh our personal Good vs. Bad deeds, is not an effective way to “sell” us on the important concept of a yearly personal audit of ourselves. Where is the Almighty, anyway? None of NASA’s deep space probes has ever encountered large heavenly books, scales or angels.
For many of us these questions create a modern day dilemma. Other then the importance of merely keeping the Jewish tradition as it has been celebrated for millennia, how can we make all this resonate within us? How can we understand the High Holy Days in a way that is meaningful to us?
To “buy into” the traditions of the High Holy Days, one has to accept its concept and symbolism. If we remove the physical dimension from the heavenly scale, the Book of Life and the accuser angel, their modern relevance becomes clear.
It is about us, you and I, here on Earth. It is about the way we live our lives and the principals that guide all of us, whether we are believers or not.
The scales are about having a very clear understanding of what is right and what is wrong in our life and having a commitment to base our life on this understanding.
Grab the scales from its heavenly hideout and place it upon your heart. Then use it to weigh your deeds regularly. Evaluating oneself and having the courage and determination to correct that which needs to be corrected is a wonderful way to deal with difficult and challenging issues and keep our life on track.
Pull the Book of Life from its heavenly hideout and place it inside of you. Since our life is guided by free will, it is you who writes your destiny in it. Jewish tradition subscribes to the idea that life without compassion and acts of kindness is like a book with empty pages. So in order to rejuvenate and energize our days, and make them meaningful, our deeds should benefit us by benefiting others. Be for you, Be for others.
And why our prescribed prayers in the prayer book that constantly petition for forgiveness? Why are we confessing so many “sins”? It is about exercising our inner strength to recognizing our own fallibility as humans. Judaism ask us to have the courage to pry into ourselves and dig out that which is wrong with us, set it free and start anew. Not an easy task - just ask any psychologist.
We recognize that we are not perfect. As we go through life we err by wrong thoughts and wrong deeds. As we all know, the first step to recover from a bad situation or a bad habit is identifying and recognizing the problem. The High Holy Days, therefore, are a celebration of the human spirit, a time when we honor our ability to probe deep into ourselves with courage and humility to expose and correct our wrongdoings.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year!
L'Shana Tova Tikatevu,
Throughout the years we have had various children do a particular project. It involves having the Bar or Bat Mitzvah teen remember a child who died in the Holocaust, one who didn’t have a chance to come of age. It is such a beautiful mitzvah project and one that has always touched my heart! But this past weekend something was different.
There are several organizations that arrange for Bar or Bat Mitzvah “twinning” with a Holocaust child. This family chose “Remember Us” I always love how they try to match the name of the child with the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child’s English or Hebrew name. In this case Abigail’s middle name is Eliza as is her Hebrew middle name. She received the name Liza Akerman to remember.
Abigail and her mother researched to find out as much as they could about Liza. They learned she was born in Kishinev in 1931 and died in Belgorod-Dnestrovky 12 years later. There isn’t any mention of her mother but Liza, her father Dudl, grandmother and two sisters were in concentration camps during the war. All perished.
I wondered after the service what it was that made Liza’s memory become so alive for all of us. Was it her name on the chair? Abigail insisted that there would be a chair of honor, that Liza would stay beside her during the service, that Liza was included in the pictures beforehand.
When Abigail spoke about Liza during the service there was such a Sacred Presence that came into the room! It was a Presence of such Love, of such adoration! It touched something so deeply within all of us! As I looked around I saw the tears streaming down faces. Was it the soul of Liza saying thank you?
There was just something so profound that happened during that service. Later I understood so deeply within that the Presence in the room had come to bring healing for the wounds, the scars, the memories that we carry of the Holocaust.
May this healing continue as we remember all children in our collective history who were prevented from coming of age, as we remember all children of today’s world who are being prevented from coming of age.
This Presence of Love brought such hope! I know that there will come a time when there will no longer be new names to put on future chairs.
May it be soon…
From Rabbi David: It is a well known fact that humans are social creatures. Unlike some animals he is not meant to live a solitary life. We have an emotional need to share life experiences with others. Maybe that is the reason we evolved into the sophisticated creatures that we are. It seems that sharing one’s experiences whether happy such as a wedding, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, graduation or sad ones of sickness or death lead to better human understanding of the world around us. We call it progress. Whatever the reason for our needs of human interaction, I learned its power recently when I lost my beloved father.
Dad was an amazing, high achieving and loving human being. He lived a long life but that did not make leaving us any easier. Mourning is a very painful process. In its wisdom the Jewish tradition dictates that in the first week of mourning, when the shock and the pain are most intense, we sit and deal with the pain without really doing much of anything else. It is called "Shiv-ah" literally, "seven" for the seven initial days of mourning. This is the time when human interaction with the mourners is so critical.
There is a Jewish saying that visiting the sick or the mourner is such an important mitzvah that it is as if the visitor physically revives the sick or the mourner back to life. When a visitor enters the house of a mourner it is as if angels accompany him or her.
This past month, I became so much more appreciative of the mitzvah of visiting the mourner. The encouragement and consolation I received from all of the wonderful people and children who visited me or expressed their condolences in other ways cannot be put into words. I am very grateful to all of you for the love and care you have shown me and Cantor Lee not only during Shiva in my most intense time of need but also throughout the years. We are family. We care deeply for each other. Knowing that helps me immensely as I go through the continued process of grieving for my Dad.
From Cantor Lee: I wondered how it would be for Rabbi David to officiate his own father’s funeral. He has had experiences officiating for other family members, including my brother-in-law eight years ago. I still remember that when it came to my turn to chant the prayers, of looking out at everyone and wondering if I could actually sing. But as I have learned over the years, there is just something so powerful about our prayers. I only need to surrender and the prayers will sing for me.
As I watched Rabbi David I could see how difficult it was for him to begin the service. But he too surrendered and let G-d speak through him. Yes, I know he is my husband, but each time during any funeral we do, I am always touched so deeply by the comfort and healing he brings. And so it was during my father in law’s funeral.
When I think of my father in law, Tzvi, I just automatically associate him with Israel. As Rabbi David said in his eulogy, “My dad was Israel. Israel was in his soul. He ate, drank and thought about his beloved country all the time from the minute he woke up to night time.” I am grateful that my children have heard first hand his stories over the years for Tzvi truly lived the history of Israel. He helped make Israel’s history!
Tzvi lived in the land of Israel from the time he was a very young child. Born in Poland, his mother died when he was four years old. His father, wanted by the government as a Bundist, fled to South America. Tzvi’s maternal grandparents smuggled him into what was then Palestine in 1928.
(I am continuing with excerpts from Rabbi David’s eulogy)
“He was forced to leave school at the age of 10 to help in his grandparents’ shop. At the age of 12 he went on his own and opened a kiosk in the Tel Aviv food market and ran it for 4 years. My dad was a life warrior. Whatever difficulties he faced from childhood, he learned quickly to face it head on.
At the age of not quite 17 he joined the struggle for Jewish Independence in the land of Israel. It meant fighting in four different wars and surviving all of them.
He first joined the British army in early WWII. A few years later he joined the Jewish underground, the Haganah, which actually fought the British. From there he joined an elite fighting group which after several bitter battles literally stopped the Egyptian army from advancing into Tel Aviv. This was during the heroic War of Independence. He then fought two more wars. The first was when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria in 1956. The other was the well known Six Day War in 1967.
For a while he even served in the Israeli Secret Service in Lebanon since he spoke several dialects of Arabic, Hebrew, English, Yiddish and a little of a few other languages. In his house he displayed proudly pictures from all the wars as well as an official State of Israel's recognition for his bravery in the battlefield.
My dad fought the war of life. He did well as a provider, as a meat distributor to factories and to the army. He worked physically hard. Very hard. From childhood until he retired the hours were always long. Leaving very early in the morning and always returning when it was already dark.
My dad had his share of issues and challenges which were thrust upon him many times during the course of his life. Some of the issues were painful and frustrating and very difficult to deal with. But he stood tall in all of them, facing his challenges head-on. Always.
Many years ago he had a complicated triple bypass operation which the doctors did not think he would survive. He used to joke that he probably buried all the doctors who treated him as he lived to almost 94.
Dad did things his way. Always. Known for his stubbornness, in Israel he was a very well known figure. He seemed to know everyone in the country. He was an arranger. If you needed something arranged, no matter how difficult, he would have a friend or know someone in the field to arrange it for you. We are talking all walks of life. He even knew the upper echelon of the Israeli military, the highest ranking officers of the IDF including the likes of Moshe Dayan and Itzchak Rabin.
He had his own ideas about everything and that was the way he lived his life. Even the last day of his life.......”
My father in law left us on July 4th. Rabbi David had hoped that wouldn’t be the day he would choose as we would always associate the holiday with his death. But on each July 4th as I celebrate America's Independence, I will remember that Tzvi was a part of making Israel once again Independent. What a perfect day to honor him each year!
May his memory be a blessing…. and may his deepest wish that Peace comes to the Middle East, that there is no longer such as a thing as war....come to be…
Rabbi David and Cantor Lee
I know....I have written about it previously. But each time Rabbi David and I continue to be in awe that there is never a Torah portion by accident. Each B’nai Mitzvah child is meant to receive a specific one!
This time I initially didn’t know the child that well. The family lived out of town and had been referred to us. I didn’t think we could help as we weren’t available on the date that was already planned for the child’s Bar Mitzvah. I remember being surprised that the mother changed the date without even meeting us. It wasn’t until later that I understood why the new date was so important, of G-d's hand at work. It meant the child would receive the specific Torah portion of Naso containing the Priestly Blessings.
When I spoke to the mother I learned the family’s story, that her husband had died a little more than seven years ago. The first thing her husband said after learning he had cancer was that he just wanted to see his sons each become a Bar Mitzvah. “Of all the things he could have said!” the mother told me. After her husband died, the mother made sure her two boys received their Jewish education through a day school and that the family remained active in their local synagogue.
When it came time for the child to write his speech explaining the Torah portion I excitedly shared how Spock from Star Trek took his greeting from the hand position used during the Priestly Blessings. Leonard Nimoy had grown up in a traditional synagogue where the Kohanim, the descendants of the Priestly Tribe would bless the congregation using this specific hand position. The child told me he really didn’t watch Star Trek but he knew his dad loved it. He also told me his dad was a Priest, a Kohen. “Oh, that means you are too!” I told him. (see Rabbi David’s explanation below)
At that point I began to get goosebumps along with the message to pay attention, something is important here! I told the boy, “There is never a Torah portion by accident. G-d wanted you to have this one which is all about the Priests!”
As soon as the lesson was over the mother called. She had sat in on the lesson and was still flooded with chills. “I have to send you a picture.” she said. It was of her husband’s tombstone. The hand symbol of the Kohanim was engraved on it.
(Last name erased for privacy)
I always wonder how G-d manages to arrange these things. What are the chances that out of the whole year, this is the Torah portion the boy received, the only one with the Priestly Blessings! And quite honestly, even though it is a custom, with all the funerals we have officiated, I have never seen a tombstone engraved with the hand symbol of the Kohanim!
When it came time to give his speech during his service, the boy explained that he knew his father was sending him a message through his Torah portion, that he was always watching over him. I caught Rabbi David’s eye. He too felt the strong presence of the father in the room.
As with any life cycle event there is always “stuff” that comes up within families that needs to be processed. In this case it once again brought up the grief of the father’s death. But there was also healing and it came through the Torah portion’s message. It was such a beautiful message from beyond! A message from a father saying Love never dies...
Information about the Kohanim from Rabbi David When G-d instructed Moses to dedicate several families from the tribe of Levi as priests, ("Kohanim" in Hebrew) they were given the responsibilities of overseeing the carrying of the holy tent and the holy vessels such as the holy lamp, ark and other ritual objects during the forty years of wandering in the desert. They were also entrusted with conducting all the sacrificial rituals which were quite elaborate.
During the time of the First Temple built by King Solomon as well as during the Second Temple, many Kohanim actually lived in the Temple itself and conducted all the daily, Shabbat and holiday rituals. Many others lived among the tribes of Israel and became instructors of the Torah laws, making sure that the rituals were followed precisely. For example, Prophet Jeremiah came from a family of priests who lived in the Galilee city of Anatot.
It is quite amazing that for the past 2,000 years the Jewish priesthood has been passed from father to son for countless generations. In modern times, since we have no Temple, animal sacrifices are of course out of the question and ritual practices are officiated by rabbis who are not necessarily priests, the function of the modern day Kohanim is limited. In synagogues they are called to bless the Jewish people with the Priestly Benediction and also are part of a ceremony in the home called a pidyon haben, the redemption of a first born son so he is relieved from the requirement as serving as a priest.
Although there are Kabbalistic explanations of why the specific hand position is used for the Priestly Blessing most people only know the tradition goes back to Temple times. The special blessing they recite was actually commanded in the Torah. G-d dictated to Aaron, Moses's brother, the exact text of the blessing. When blessing the congregation at the end of the service the Kohanim cover their entire body with their Tallit first, then they spread their fingers and offer the blessing. It is important not to add or subtract from the text and to recite it exactly as written in the Torah.
The English translation of the blessing is:
May G-d bless you and guard you
May G-d cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you
May G-d lift His face upon you and bring you peace
May we all receive these blessings in our daily lives!
Love, Cantor Lee and Rabbi David
Origin of Spock's Vulcan Hand Symbol
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