By Rabbinic Intern, Greg Metzger
This week’s Torah reading, Vayislach, exemplifies the very Jewish philosophy that blessings exist in all of life, even in our troubles. For some, it is our troubles that help to reveal the deepest blessings.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means, literally, "recognizing the good." Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours.
There is a saying that my happier friends recite: “I may not have everything that I want. But, I want everything that I have.” This may be difficult, as “everything I have” includes my troubles. In Judaism, the world and everything within is from G-d. This is in contrast to faiths that see the negative as a force outside of G-d, one with which G-d must contend.
Twenty years after running from the mess he created at home, Jacob wants to take his family to the holy land, the place of his birth. To do this he must, himself, return to holiness. He must confront himself and his past deeds. While others may help us, ultimately, this is something we must each do alone. “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” – Genesis 32:25
On his journey home, he finds himself alone and at the same time engaged in wrestling. Anyone who has ever made a mess of things knows that the only way to return is to take responsibility for the wreckage we create. Jacob, like most of us, initially dreads the prospect of facing his troubles, be they self inflicted or outwardly imposed. Also, like most of us, Jacob ends up discovering the deepest and most profound blessings by acknowledging his entire self, including his “dark side”. It is only in truth that we discover the beauty of true t’shuvah, redemption and return to holiness.
In Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik states that “redemption is achieved when humble man makes a movement of recoil, and allows himself be confronted and defeated by a Higher and Truer Being.”
Interestingly, it is in Jacob’s “dark” nights, here and previously at Beth-El that Jacob recognizes his blessings. Here, like Beth-El, he expresses and memorializes his gratitude with a reminder – a stone monument.
As solid as these stone monuments - and maybe even more permanent reminders of the great blessings of the Jewish people - are the names by which the Jewish people are called: Yehudim and Israel.
When Leah had her fourth child, she named him “Yehudah,” which means “I am grateful,” This reflected her gratitude to God for the gift of another son. The name Yehudah is the source of the Hebrew name of the Jewish people (Yehudim), revealing the very direct tie between Judaism and gratitude.
Israel, the name given to Jacob (singular) and collectively to the Jewish people, means to” wrestle with God”. We are a people who are blessed to be alive, conscious and awake in the struggle to harmonize our divine and material essences and inclinations. May we all be blessed to be conscious in the practice of hakarat hatov and may we all continue to be blessed to confront ourselves with Torah, Tefillah, and Tradition, seeing the good within and allowing it to prevail.
Every morning, among the blessings for the miracles of each day, we say the blessing "Baruch atah adonai,eloheinu melech ha'olam, poke'ach ivrim" -- "Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind." And then later, we say "Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha'olam, ha-mevir shena m'einai u'tnumah me-afapai" -- "who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids." This week, let us allow these blessing, to remind us to truly open our eyes to the wonder of life and to be awake to blessings that exist, even in our troubles.
And, let us all say Amen.
On my recent trip to Israel on a beautiful afternoon, we drove along the coast of the magnificent Mediterranean Sea to visit a childhood friend near Natanya. As we got off the main highway towards his neighborhood, I suddenly saw, as I made the turn, a large-scale sculpture. It was very different. At first glance I did not recognize its meaning. I thought it was based on the theme of Jacob’s ladder, but looking a little closer, I realized that the images are soldiers and not angels ascending the ladder to heaven. I was stunned. What is all this about, I wondered.
When we got to our friend’s home, I asked him to explain to me the meaning of this unique sculpture at the entrance to his neighborhood. He looked at me with a surprise on his face, and asked, “Don’t you know what this is?” “No,” I said. He went on, “Do you remember about 7 years ago a homicidal Arab detonated his backpack and killed about 14 soldiers waiting at the bus station.” “Yes, I remember,” I answered. He continued, “In the commotion of smoke, screams, and body parts all over the area, people ran to aid the wounded. Suddenly, while everyone was busy triaging the wounded, the homicidal bomber detonated himself and killed another eight soldiers.” “Oh my God. Yes, I remember this event,” I commented. “Well,” he continued, “this is an artist's interpretation of these soldiers ascending to heaven on Jacob’s ladder.” My heart was heavy and profoundly sad.
I could not get the sculpture out of my mind. Suddenly, I remembered Maimonides' writing and interpretation on the purpose of Jacob’s ladder. In his book, Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides quotes, “He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God was standing upon it” (Gen 28:12-13). He explains that the purpose of the ladder is to explain the relationship between two realities, between the existence on earth, and the existence in the “world of heavenly spheres,” both are set into action by God. The ladder is the connection between the two worlds, the heavenly and the earthly worlds. The angels ascend and become inspired, and then they descend and transmit the understanding they got in heaven to the earthly world.
Since in Isaiah 56:7 it is written, “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations,” I believe at Ahavat Torah we put into practice and observe this verse for the past six years.
We, each and every one of us, are the ascending angels who get inspired by our tradition’s teaching, whether it is the Torah, New Testament or the Koran, and than descend and convey our understanding of living in peace and harmony with one another. The best moral lesson is that at this point in our relationship, we practice patience, give love, and value the deep understanding with our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters.
May the steps of Jacob’s ladder be the stepladder to peace, harmony and understanding of one another. Amen.
Rebekah was the second of five Hebrew women in early biblical times who were declared barren, but later in life they were all able to conceive and give birth. They all gave birth to boys were destined by God to become leaders of the Hebrews. The women were: Sarah – Abraham’s wife, who gave birth to Isaac; Rebekah – Isaac’s wife, who gave birth to the twins Esau and Jacob, Rachel – Jacob’s wife, who gave birth to Joseph; Monah’s wife – who gave birth to Samson; Hannah – Elkanah’s wife, who gave birth to Samuel the prophet. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, though, belonged to a single family – Abraham’s family.
When an ancient tribe or a nation memorialized its history, it usually refrained from committing its shortcomings to ink. Instead, they turned every molehill into a mammoth mountain to exaggerate its accomplishments. Why did the Hebrew leaders act differently? Weren’t they concerned that they might be labeled “imperfect” or “defective”, not only by their own followers, but also by their enemies? Their enemies would gladly find this as yet another reason, in addition to the Hebrews being monotheists, to annihilate them.
Since the Bible, as a whole, was intended to teach the Hebrews, and subsequently the Jews, life lessons, perhaps “barrenness” was used as a metaphor or a representation for something remarkable, usually something positive, that was supposed to follow for an individual when things didn’t seem to working out. The expression: “the calm before the storm” or the calm coming after the storm could apply here.
Barrenness, though, was regarded then only as “negative”, and was a reason for great concern to the women in Abraham’s extended family and to his descendants. Women were under constant and enormous pressures to produce male heirs to become their future leaders. The women, however were all fully aware that since grandma, and great-grandma Sarah’s time, all the wives who had been labeled as barren, through the mercy of G-d – were able to conceive and give birth to boys who became leaders.
There are two important messages in the story. The first message reassures me that the condition of “barrenness” can happen to women and men, rich and poor, influential people and common people, but it is a reversible condition. The second message is a cautionary one. If the desired wishes come in abundance such as having more than one child at a time, getting rich too fast, and other similar situations, the happiness could turn into tragedy. Let us remember Cain and Able, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau.
Therefore, the lesson I learned from the Bible on the subject of “barrenness” is that it represents just about anything “barren” that we experience (internally or externally) and we cannot “cultivate” it for the purpose of seeing “the fruits of our whether in having a relationship with another person, finding a desired job, getting education, having children, etc.
Since G-d was the catalyst who brought about the changes in the wives’ condition, I take it that with situations that mirror it, where we only limited control, for whatever reason, a certain percentage of “blind trust” must enter our equation, while our effort must persist relentlessly. The “blind trust” is the belief that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1.) In due time, through our own sincere efforts, and because of our deep trust in the teaching of the Bible, we will advance, mature, and therefore progress further towards their desired noble goals. That said, it does not mean that every aspect of every desired goal will be fully achieved in one’s life time.
Our sages commented on such a possibility by saying “It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21)“ There must be reciprocity. Yet, one thing is certain; that individuals who follow the teachings of the Bible will be able to declare proudly that they have given their best efforts to “cultivate their goals, and move happily ahead to cultivate new ones”. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Human signs, marks and symbols set the groundwork for human communication and interaction during the dawn of wo/man. They were expressed and conveyed by simple, yet powerful, human and artificial sounds, acts, and
drawings. Natural phenomena such as lightning, thunder, floods, and other cosmic events were perceived and interpreted as truthful signs given by unseen universal powers (Gods) to humans. Examples: “The Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” (Genesis 4:15). “I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth.”. (Genesis 9:13).
At the same time forms of human behavior, were viewed as either, positive or negative, correctly or incorrectly through given “labels.” Example: “And she (Hanna) was of bitterness of soul and prayed to the Lord, and prayed bitterly… only her lips moved and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli (the priest) thought that she was drunk.” (Samuel I, 1:10/13.)
In this Torah portion Hayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18), we are told that Abraham’s trusted servant Eliezer, loaded ten camels with an expensive dowry, and embarked on a long journey to Haran, to find a wife for Isaac among the daughters of Abraham’s extended family who had not migrated to Canaan. It was an unusual task for him, because, at that time, young men set out to find their own wives. Therefore, when he reached a well on the outskirts of the city, Eliezer requested the following sign from Abraham’s God: "O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today, and perform loving kindness with my master, Abraham And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, 'Lower your pitcher and I will drink,' and she will say, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac.” (Genesis 24:12/14.) Lo-and-behold, it happened just as he requested. It turned out to be a perfect match between Isaac and Rebecca.
When we look more closely at his request, we can clearly see that Eliezer wished for Isaac a wife who had similar characteristics as Sara, who had taken care of her son until her death. Indeed, one of the first acts of motherly love that Rebecca performed for Isaac was: “and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. ” (By Rebecca) (Genesis 24:67.)
What are the Signs of Our Times, then, which friends look for, when they make a "shidduch” – (an introduction or a match) between two individuals? What sign does an individual who surfs the Internet in search of a “soul” mate looks for? Do they bother to look for any sign at all? Or, are they just taking a chance that it would work between them and hope for the best? (I crossed out the word “hope” because I don’t like to use it. What ”I hope” is telling me, is
that one relinquishes his/her responsibility for doing nothing about the given situation, and puts it in someone else’s hands – most likely in God’s hands.)
When I surfed the Internet in search of one repeated “label” that Rabbis advise individuals to look for in “perfect match” for which they yearn, it was: (I paraphrase) “You need to find someone with a good heart!” Really!? Wasn’t it Samuel the priest who warned the Israelites who had been searching for their first king, saying to them: “…for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (Samuel I, 16:7.) Can a human being observe” another human being’s heart, just as God can?
Samuel didn’t think so, and neither, regrettably, do I. However, human beings can observe the signs, marks and symbols that a truthful and a loving heart give off like glowing arrows. They are not in the big words and the lavish gifts, but in the simple gentle touch, in the admiring glance, in the single word, and in the tear of joy.
Rabbinic Fellow Dov Gottesfeld
This week’s Torah portion “Vayeira” consists of challenging topics for composing meaningful and educational Midrashim (Sermons). I chose to focus on the story of Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt, because I truly believe that she has been given a raw deal and is wrongly and badly treated by rabbis and commentators of past and present. They explained her bizarre death as a consequence of disobeying the angels’ “warning” - not to look back at Sodom and its inhabitants, while they were being incinerated by the wrath of God. Yet, as intelligent and learned men and women, it was obvious to those commentators that her punishment was over the top, and therefore they launched a campaign of character assassination which would deem her insignificant “crime” - of turning back her head - as merely a “third strike.”
It was obvious to them from the reading that Lot’s wife didn’t even have a speaking role in the Torah. She was not even mentioned until the end of the story when the angels hastened Lot to escape: "15. And as the dawn rose, the angels pressed Lot, saying, "Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you perish because of the iniquity of the city." The second and final time is the last line of the story: “26. And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” It is totally out of sync chronologically. By then, Lot and his family had already been in “Tzoar”, the city to which Lot had escaped, with the help of the angel, and the angel had some concerns: “22. Hasten, flee there, for I will not be able to do anything until you arrive there.” It was not even possible to see any details in Sodom from Tzoar.
I would say, because of what the Torah tells us occurred between Lot and his daughters afterwards, the Torah scribes were presented with a moral and ethical dilemma had Lot’s wife remained alive then. As the story goes, Lot and his daughters left Tzoar and moved to a cave up the mountain. Not having husbands any longer, the two daughters conspired to have children with their father. They achieved their goal by making their father drunk. Had their mother been there, it would have been impossible and too complicated for the scribes to make the scene work. The simple solution was to get rid of the mother. And they did.
If Lot’s wife, indeed, turned her head back, while escaping, as the going belief is, then she must be crowned as a heroine, first, for being in the rear. Fleeing from a dangerous situation always puts the last person in harm way. By doing so, she was protecting her daughters and her husband with her body. Turning her head was an act of being brave, not selfish. She was willing to sacrifice her life for them. Perhaps she wanted to see if her sons-in-law were rushing to catch up with them? Perhaps she wanted to see how far the falling brimstones and fire were from where they are?
And finally, salt in biblical times was considered a valuable commodity, because of its uses in foods and its preservation, and also as medicine. It was used in Jewish ceremonies as an offering element. “Metaphorically it signified performance, loyalty, durability, fidelity, usefulness, value, and purification.”(Wikipedia)
By turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, the scribes, in essence, turned her into a symbol bigger than life. She became an icon for Jews and Christians who keep looking around themselves and over their shoulders, until today, in search of that “Pillar of Salt” in the vast salty desert.
From Rabbinic Fellow Dov Gottesfeld
And G-d spoke to Abram: "Go you from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you. I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make great your name and all families of the earth will be blessed by you..." (Leh Leha Genesis 12:1-2).
There is no doubt in my mind that every Jew (and even non-Jews) would jump on (change to “at”) that offer; especially because there are no strings attached – God doesn’t demand anything in return from Abram. Strangely enough, Abram doesn’t inquire by asking God: “Why me?” Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as RaMBaM (12th Century) and one of history's foremost rabbis, explains it in his book Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idol Worship 1:3” that “At the age of forty, Abraham recognized his Creator” ... He began to debate with the people of Ur Casdim and take them to task, saying: "This is not the way of truth that you are following." He smashed the idols and began to teach the people that it is only fitting to serve the One G-d ... When he began to defeat them with his arguments, the king wished to kill him; he was miraculously saved. He departed to Haran and continued to call in a great voice to the world, teaching them that there is One G-d.”
On a closer read, however, there seems to be one “string” attached. This encounter with G-d begins with a command: “ לֶךְ לְךָ , lit. go to you” or “get out of here […] to the land that I will show you.” Abram, at least could have asked: “G-d, why not here?” Rashi (The 11th century Jewish scholar, who is quoted the most) picks up on it and writes: Go forth: Heb. לֶךְ לְךָ , lit. go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation, but here, you will not merit to have children. Moreover, I will make your character known in the world. — [from Rosh Hashanah 16b, Tan.]
Well, I’m glad he did, because we Jews live the outcome of Abram’s journey.
3825 years later, I posed a similar promise, which G-d made to Abram, to my second year high school students. The difference, however, is that I made it under comparable circumstances with respect to their current culture and environment. I instructed them to do the following: “Think of a grand goal that you would like to accomplish for yourselves in the future -- for your benefit and for the benefit of humanity. It should be a goal that would also require a real miracle for you to achieve it.”
Once the goals were set in their minds, I proceeded: “Now imagine that you hear the voice of G-d telling you that He would make sure that you will accomplish your ‘grand goal’ if you leave your home immediately, and go to a non-disclosed place which he will show you, where your ‘grand goal’ would materialize. (G-d, of course, will provide you with all the necessities of survival till then, and it might take some years).” Then I asked the students to raise their hands so we could see how many would subscribe to that offer. A total of a little over ninety percent of the students, male and female, raised their hands. After analyzing the “promise” as a ‘contract’, the students agreed that it was a totally unbalanced agreement, because they had no ‘responsibilities’ and/or ‘commitments’, except for leaving their homes. There was a loud and argumentative debate. I, therefore, added to that ‘promise’ a clause: “It would happen to you only “if you keep the commandments of the Lord your G-d and walk in His ways.” (Deuteronomy 28:9).
Again, there were arguments across the aisles. The next show of hands dropped down considerably, to less than thirty percent, with about half of the students swinging their hands – back and forth in the air to indicate: ”But, maybe not all of the commandments”. Only then, we read and discussed the story of Abram, his total trust in G-d, his sacrifices, pain and the turmoil that he had to endure in his life in order to be qualified to be called AbraHam and rise to the occasion, as G-d had promised him.
When the school bell rang the students filed out of class, most of them with their heads down – obviously thinking and wondering about the lesson they have just learned about themselves. When the last student exited and the door slammed shut with a thud, I remained standing, assessing the outcome of the lesson. The following phrase from Kings I 19:11-13 popped into my mind, and summed it up: “[…] And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire ; but the Lord was not in the fire. And After the fire – a still and small voice. When Elijah heard it, he
wrapped his mantle about his face […].
I, then, began to wonder who would lead us and speak for us (Jews) in the
The Torah portion of this week is “Noah”. It begins with:”These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.” It is a prelude to the famous story of the “flood.” That opening line also sounds like an opening of a eulogy or a tribute to a righteous dead person.
It made me ask myself, how many people wonder, how many are concerned, and how many people don’t care what will be said about them after their passing from the planet earth. There is a famous saying that's attributed to king of France, Louis (1710 –1774), who was also known as “Louis the Well Beloved.” When he faced unrest in France due to the economic hardship that he had imposed on his countrymen, which eventually led to the French revolution, his response was: “Après moi le deluge.” (After me – the flood.) He could care less what people would say or think about him once he was gone. Was Noah concerned what those who were doomed by the flood would say about him as the water of the flood was rising and drowning them while they observed his ark floating safely away? I don’t think so, or it would have been mentioned in the scriptures – much like Abraham’s negotiation with G-d regarding the numbers of righteous men who were perhaps living in Sodom and Gomorrah.
On the other hand, Israel’s National Poet H.N.Bialik was concerned. In his famous poem: “After My Death”, he wrote the following (first stanza): “After my death say this when you mourn for me: He died before his time. The music of his life suddenly stopped. A pity! There was another song in him. Now it is lost
forever.” The popularity and the request for his writings no doubt made him
think that by death, he would be disappointing his readers whom he had empowered with his poems to endure while they struggled to sustain their hard lives during the rebuilding their homeland in Palestine.
I wonder how many human beings take great pains to live their lives as “Examples” to others, knowing that a day will come when they will be judged not necessarily by God, who had witnessed Noah’s righteous deeds: “for it is you that I have seen as a righteous man before Me in this generation.”, but primarily by their fellow human beings who had witnessed their deeds?
Judaism does not subscribe to the concept of heaven and hell, as some religions do. However, if it did, heaven and hell would most likely be right here on earth, not in some obscure places like deep in the boiling center of the earth or in some magical place somewhere in the heavens. Those people who will be praised, commended, and remembered as “Examples” would surely be in that Jewish Heaven on Earth. However, those individuals who were evil, immoral and inhuman would surely be in the Jewish Hell on Earth.
The essential question for me -- in the wake of the views above – Should
one care if there would still be earthlings on the planet earth to witness the
beautiful colors of the rainbow in the clouds after the flood?
The month of Heshvan is also more commonly called Mar Heshvan,
as if to say the month feels bitter (Mar) because it has no festivities or holidays within it. Hassidim calls the month Ram Heshvan because Ram means elevated or high. In the mystical traditions, this month was left barren of holidays because it is being reserved for the opening ceremony of the third temple. Therefore, the soul does not feel like it is permanently seeing the world through dark sunglasses.
In many ways the whole month is a month of No'ah, of sitting in a relaxed form. A month to dwell on all that has happened during the very full holidays month of Tishrei. Mar also means water (sea), we associate it with the month’s special connection with the rains since we start praying V’tein Tal U’matar, deliver dew and rain in the month of Heshvan; for this reason the soul can cope with the drudge of every day life.
Have a blessed month of Heshvan. May God provide us with just enough rain, not too much so it creates floods, and not too little so it creates drought; just enough so that we may enjoy its blessings. Amen.
In the beginning of God’s creation, God created a perfect world, day by day, until God reached the pinnacle of His creations, “Na’aseh Addam B’tzalmenu kidmutenu, let us (plural form) make Man in our image and in our form.”
Interpreters were puzzled about the plural form of, “let us.” Most of them note that God got the heavenly angels to join Him in the creation of Man. But the angels who usually run in joy to fulfill God’s commandments, this time where not only reluctant, but actually said, “Why, should we create Man, after all, He is not going to fulfill God’s commandments.” Other interpreters said similarly that the heavenly angels resisted creating Man because he will have free will that would be based on his knowledge and understanding, and mostly not God’s will and commandments (Mitzvot). However, according to Midrash, when God completed creating Man, it was in such perfect form that the angels were no longer reluctant but rather sang praises to God for His creation. Then, shortly after creation something went very wrong…
This past Sunday, I joined a group of people celebrating the success of
certain individuals in a San Fernando recovery house. It was a very emotional
morning for me. One by one these ex-drug users, ex-robbers, ex-thieves, and even an ex-accidental killer, came on stage to receive appreciation awards for their current accomplishments. They were all successful for several months and some for years in resisting their temptations by committing themselves to an “unsoiled” future. One by one they shared a bit of their personal story. It was very painful to me to hear their dreadful and sad narratives. One ex-felon said that he was so grateful for his life now, that he knows that, “even the angels are jealous of me.” This sentence was carved on my heart.
Maimonides reveals in his commentary to us, about the nature of the
first Man before his wrong-doing. He did all that he was supposed to do as part of his innate character, just as the heavenly angles do the will of God without any deviations. He was given one commandment, not to eat from Etz Ha’da’at (the Tree of Knowledge). Why? He answered, because, the fruit of this tree would put into a person the desire to choose tov (good) or ra (evil).
So biblical commentators questioned, if the first Man was basically a
free will being, how was there free will before the knowledge of, and the desire
for ra (evil) existed? Rav Haim of Volozhin (1749-1821 Poland, Talmudist and
Ethicist) explains that the first Man did indeed have the ability of choosing
between good and evil, however, he was the embodiment of unsullied purity and holiness without any internal leaning toward evil. Any desire toward evil came from an external source (the snake). Today, we hear our desires for evil in first person, “I really want to do that…” The desires for good then speaks to us in a second person, “You know that you really shouldn’t…” The “I” is the want to do evil. At times, the relentless mutiny within each of us is so very hard to resist, that if we do not have a support system, we at times, cannot resist doing evil to ourselves and others around us.
What kind of support system do “I” have when I want to do evil? How is it possible that I want to cause others or myself destruction? Do I blame everything on the “snake” or an external source for my wrong doings? This week we begin the yearly cycle of Torah reading, “In the beginning”… Starting again… a new year, perhaps we need to ask ourselves an important question.
Let each of us check into our soul and try to answer, “Whom do I support?” and “Who supports me? Do I have the same names on both lists? Why? Is the list of names the same as last year’s list? Why?"
No matter how you answer these questions, I hope and pray that your life of being supported and supporting others would be such that, as the ex-drug user and dealer said, even the angels would be jealous of you.
On the first day you shall take the product of the goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:40).
Together, the four species are shaken in six directions during Hallel, signifying that God is found everywhere. It is considered a Mitzvah to buy the most beautiful Lulav and Etrog you can afford, in order to beautify the Mitzvah, and honor the holy day.
The first three (willow, palm, and myrtle) are bound together and collectively
called a Lulav set. The fourth is the Etrog (citron), a sweet smelling citrus
fruit grown in Israel. It is held together with the Lulav and brought both to
the synagogue where it is waved as Hallel is recited. The Lulav and Etrog are
also waved in the Sukkah. Ancient Israel was first and foremost an agricultural society and the laws, customs, and rituals described in the Torah reflect this. The four species symbolize the agricultural abundance of and God's role in nourishing Israel.
Why four species? Why not three or five? While I cannot provide an academic answer to this question, there are many wonderful Drashot for the number four.
Perhaps the best known is that there are four types of Jews (like the Four Children in the Passover Haggadah: the Etrog, which possesses both taste and fragrance, symbolizes those who possess both learning and good deeds. The Lulav, palm branches, possess taste but no fragrance, symbolizing those who possess learning but do not perform good deeds. The myrtle is the inverse of the palm, possessing no taste but having a pleasant fragrance; this is likened to those who are not learned but do good deeds. Finally, the willow has neither taste nor fragrance, symbolizing those who possess neither learning nor good deeds.
We, of course, wish to be the Etrog, possessing both learning and good deeds. But the reality of life is that our communities are made of all four types of people and because community is such a high priority in Judaism, we bind all four species together, as we ought to bring together all Jews in one community.
Borrowed from: http://www.ahbjewishcenter.org/
My Dear Congregants,
If you had one minute left to live, what would you like to recall or do?
Would it be your family? Would it be your friends? Would you
choose to lie down and peacefully wait for the minute to end? Would you choose to share a laugh with another person? Would you choose to run around pointlessly but joyously with your significant other? Would you smell each and every flower in your yard?
Whatever you choose to recall or do, just please make it count!
Make it count for you and your recall. Make that one-minute a beautiful piece of art! A canvas filled with color, fragrance, and the beauty of life. May you remember it even… if the one minute has arrived.
Avinu Sh’Bashmayim, dear God in heaven, please bless each and every one of the people I love, with good health, happiness and peace. May we all strive to live our lives fully, one minute at the time.
Avinu Sh’Bashmayim, dear God in heaven, please let me have many more minutes with my congregants. Let my prayers be acceptable to you.
Avinu Sh’Bashmayim, dear God in heaven I cherish so dearly each moment I spend with them. My sweet and loving friends, each one of your Neshamas (souls) brings an immense joy into my life.
Thank you. Toda Rabba, I thank each one of you, separately and all together.
Avinu Sh’Bashmayim, dear God in heaven, let my prayers be acceptable to you, so that my life may be an example of the teachings of Torah. I promise to care for the widow, the orphan, and poor, as much as I can, and wherever I can find them. I promise to put Israel and Ahavat Torah on top of my donation list. I will continue to adore and cherish my family, and do all that I can to keep them healthy, safe and together, and continue to do my very best to share my time and energy with them.
When I forget, forgive me. When I falter, remind me. When I weaken correct me. In my efforts,
PLEASE be with me.
I am wishing you a Ketiva v’hatima Tova! May you, your family, and all your loved ones be inscribed in the Book of Good Life and Good Health. Amen
See you all Friday for Kol-Nidrei, and on Saturday for Yom-Kippur.
Late last night I spoke with my dear friend Dalit for two hours. Dalit is a world famous ceramic sculptress who lives near Tzfat in Northern Galilee. She
got home in June of this year after a long trip to Central America. At first, when she heard some muted boom sounds, she did not know what they were. Very quickly she realized that these boom sounds were coming from Syria, just a short air distance away from her home.
She could not believe how life in Israel is going on “as usual” when thousands of people are being killed across the border and the world, again, is silent. At first she was not able to sleep at night, having a really hard time hearing these horrible sounds of bombs falling on women, children, the elderly and those who were not able to leave the area. She was having nightmares of the last war Israel had with the Hezbollah in Lebanon, as the terrorist movement rained shells on half of Israel indiscriminately. Yet, like most things in life, in order to survive the horrific reality of life around us, we create our own imaginary “beautiful world.” A few people even said to her “let them kill one another.” Suddenly, the world she knew collapsed. She was questioning the ethics of people she loved and knew very closely for many years.
This is one of the poems she wrote. By next week, God willing, I will translate her second poem.
HEARING THE BOMBS AND ROCKETS
Don’t you hear the falling bombs and rockets?
How can we continue to live our daily serene lives
When in the background are the sounds of tanks
Where hundreds and thousands of people die daily
Men, women and children,
A short “spit” distance away is... hell.
But who cares?
“Let them kill one another,” they say.
There are those in this war who see pure profit
And we are such an ethical nation
Does ethics knows the difference between race and color?
Is there such a thing as double (standard) ethics?
And the sound of the bombs,
that accompany my life for months
Flashes in my mind of ghastly pictures
That are coming closer and closer
And they don’t let my soul rest.
The nervous tension in the air is real.
The hate in the area is mounting
Without boundaries and restrictions
It is endless.
And we, as mere mortals
I got a strange phone call from a dear friend in Israel yesterday morning. She asked me, "What do you hear in your American media? When are they going to bomb?" It took me a split second to understand that the topic she was asking about was the civil war in Syria and the chemical bombing of their citizens. I informed her that by this point the media talks about when, not if, the Allies bombing is going to take place.
I placed the phone down, and my emotional being went into "high alert" to the happening in Israel. Late last night when I was finally able to watch my Israeli satellite TV, to my horror, I saw a large gathering of fearful people waiting to get their gas masks. Israel's civil defense unit had created centers for gas mask distribution in post offices and special centers throughout Israel. WHAT??? AGAIN???
Thoughts where running in my head, oh, my God, we just celebrated a family wedding, many of my family members are still here is L.A. All of them had tickets to go back to Israel today or tomorrow. I called them and asked them to delay their return just for one week... they were laughing. "What are you worried about?" they asked me. "We are not worried. Remember the Yom-Kippur War? It has happened before that they wanted to kill us. God is on our side, don't worry." Wow, this is a lesson in life, I thought. This is what we need in a relationship, complete trust. This is a relationship of conviction. This is the faith one needs to have in a covenantal relationship between God and His people.
Yet, my heart, and my emotional alert system called me to watch my Israeli satellite TV this morning. The focus of the Israeli media this time was on the Patriot anti-missile rockets the army already placed all over Israel; the frightening fact that there are only enough gas masks for six out of ten Israelis; and the growing crowds in the gas mask distribution centers. Suddenly, while being in one of these mask centers, almost by accident, the camera scanned the growing crowd and scanned the back of a worker's T-Shirt, it read, "Gas Mask Center. Choose Life!"
Shivers went up my spine. This line is in our Torah portion this week!!! "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life!" Deut. 30:19. At this point, tears were running down my face. Later, trying to console myself, I took a deep breath and thought about the pleading words of the Avinu Malkenu prayer, when we are beseeching God,
"Avinu Malkenu let the gates of heaven be open to our plea...
do not turn us away empty handed from Your presence...
have compassion on us and on our children...
give strength to Your people of Israel...
make an end to all oppression...
treat us generously and with kindness, and be our help."
As we gather this coming Saturday for early learning (see separate flier), Shabbat service, evening Slihot-Healing service (see separate flier), and Wednesday evening and Thursday morning in honor of Rosh HaShanah, we, your loving Rabbi, Gary, Kimberly and other holiday guests wish you a Shanah Tovah. May God bless you with a good year, a year of good health and peace. Amen.
Next Saturday evening we will be getting together for our special program of Selihot.
This week, I attended the Board of Rabbis’ Yom Iyun (day of study). Every year, rabbis from the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area gather before the High Holy Days for a day of study. It is always a wonderful day, filled with camaraderie and stimulating study topics.
One of the workshops I attended was about immigration. A panel of four colleagues discussed the need to change some of the current U.S. immigration laws. One common denominator was our responsibility to remember that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were immigrants to Egypt, looking for food for their families because of famine in their own country of Canaan. Many immigrants today are leaving their home for the same reason. They are looking for food.
Each one of us has an American family immigration story. Some of us are blessed to possess four generations of stories, while others have very current immigration stories. Some are sad, having to be separated from the family, and some are very happy, where families after many years of separation finally reunite. The question we are challenged with is whether our own families would have made it to the U.S., under the current immigration laws?
Our Jewish memory is strong. In our Torah portion this week, we are asked, once we are in Israel to take a basket of the first fruits to the Temple and make a declaration that is somewhat troubling. Moses instructs the people to say, “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there… The Egyptians dealt harshly with us… We cried to God and God heard our plea and freed us from Egypt… and gave us this land.”
Many commentators have asked why the Israelites need to constantly relive the immigration history of their ancestors, even while they are living in a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’, such as the “Golden Medina”? We all know the answer, right? It is gratitude!
Yes, we should help make immigration laws caring and kind and, at the same time, also accountable and responsible. I would not want to see the U.S. in a few years in the same predicament that England, Sweden, and other European countries are facing. Yet, when we remember our immigrant ancestors and their life transforming experiences coming here, we identify with their sacrifices, which guarantee us, their next generation, to have it better than they had it. My basket is full with fruits of gratitude, I know yours is also. May we continue to enjoy gratitude through God’s love, grace and mercy. Amen.
Last week I wrote to you about the special Three Week period before Tisha-B’Av and the collapse of Jewish life as we knew it.
On Tisha B’Av we use a special prayer book which includes Kinot (sad poems), portions of the book of Lamentations. Composed during the difficult times of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, these Kinot express prayers, dreams and hopes. Most of the topics are about the sinful behavior of the Jews, and their love for the land of Israel. These Kinot have a strong influence on our human psyche and also in our prayer books today. Other Kinot were written in response to tragedies in Jewish history.
Some of the most popular Kinot poets were Elazar Hakallir (eighth-century), Solomon ibn Gabirol from the Golden Age of Spain, (eleventh century), and Yehuda Halevi, a twelfth century physician, poet and philosopher who was born in Spain, and died soon after he fulfilled his dream of reaching the Land of Israel in 1141. Noted for both his religious and secular poems and also for his philosophical works, he is considered to be one of the greatest post-biblical Hebrew poets of all time. Much of his poetry reflected his love for Israel, and kept alive the love of Zion as a part of Jewish culture. Many of his religious poems are today integrated into the liturgy.
A Longing to Return to the Land of Israel
My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west. How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me? How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains? A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain - Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.
I am looking forward to seeing you on the 9th of Av (THIS Monday at 7 PM) for our Tisha B’Av program. Please bring a friend.
Most of our congregants were blessed to have been born in the U.S.A, but not
everyone is so blessed. I remember well September 1969 when I came to the U.S.
with my family. We left Israel because my mother said, "Your Dad survived
Auschwitz, the Israeli War of Independence, the Sinai War, the Six Day War, and
I want to have some peace. Your Dad deserves a Sabbatical year. We want to try a
different life." I was still serving in the IDF when she made this declaration.
I was shocked! "What did you say?" I asked my mother. She repeated what I
thought was her dreadful, appalling and outrageous statement. Never, never in my
life did I think I would hear this sentence.
I was raised in a very Zionist home. What, to leave Israel? Never! To be a Yored – one who descends? To ‘descend’ is the opposite of to ‘ascend’, in Hebrew to make
Aliyah). Never! It seemed like we left Israel in a clandestine operation. I was not allowed to talk about it with anyone. I did not want to leave. I was told, "Come and try it for six months." How could I leave Israel, I thought to myself? My heart was heavy with guilt and shame. Six months after my arrival I met Chuck, and the rest is history.
We were eligible to receive our Green Card about six months after our arrival when my father’s employer sponsored us to become U.S. citizens. My parents and little sister became U.S. citizens immediately. I, however, waited. In the beginning, I felt that with the Green Card I would be just like any other American, except that I would not be entitled to vote.
When another of my sisters decided she wanted to come to the U.S., I went ahead quickly with the process of "Naturalization". That was about 35 years ago. It was a process of studying for a few months some historical facts and civics and governmental information that was required to pass the citizenship examination. Throughout my preparation, I remember my feelings of conflict. I was tormented by feelings of betrayal and an emotional infidelity to Israel, the land where I was born, my homeland.
The day I stood with 2000 other people in the Music Center, declaring my
loyalty to the USA was one of the most important and decisive days in my life.
My heart was beating so strongly, I felt as if it was going to jump out of my
chest when we were asked to raise our right hand and repeat, "I hereby declare,
on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and
fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or
which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and
defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all
enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the
same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the
law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United
States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance
under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this
obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help
Today, I feel that my heart has many chambers which enable me to love many people around me. I feel that my heart has enabled me to have two loyalties, one to Israel and one to the U.S.A. I feel totally privileged and blessed to be able
to travel with two passports. I feel totally blessed to raise a family in the U.S. With great humility in my heart, I share with you that I feel totally blessed to live my dream of being a congregational rabbi.
Thank you, God, for all my many blessings. May you have the good blessing of
a life’s dream. May you have the good blessing of fulfilling and living your life’s dream. Amen.
Some of the information in this article was taken from the website of U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
It just happens that in the past week I got two emails from congregants about the topic of Ritual Ceremonies. The first email was about a bereaved uncle asking one of our members to lead the Kaddish service on one of the Shivah nights. “My first time, I got good coaching from a congregant of his temple. I was very touched by this, honored and learned a lot. Those that were there on that evening seemed to appreciate it. I am so moved by the power/support that our rituals offer especially when family and true loving community members are involved.” The second member shared with me a picture of her visit to Israel, where she had an opportunity to go to Masada. There she and others had a “ritual dance.” She was very emotionally touched by it.
In this week’s Torah portion, Hukat, we encounter the mysterious ritual of Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. It must have been an intriguing and important ritual to our early Israelites. According to the Torah, and later in the Talmud, the priests are to search for a cow with a perfect red coat, a perfect cow that has never worn a yoke or been used for work. When a cow was found, the priest would slaughter it outside the sanctuary, and sprinkle the blood seven times in the direction of the sanctuary, and then build a fire where the remains of the cow would be burned with cedar wood and hyssop, which was tied with a red string. The ashes were divided into three parts, one for purifying those who have touched a corpse; another was kept for safekeeping, and the third portion was saved to mix in the future with ashes of another red Heifer.
All over the world, people in pain turn to rituals in the face of loss—no matter if it’s the death of a loved one (dressing in black, for example), the end of a relationship (burning old love letters), or the crushing defeat in a Little League baseball game (graciously shaking hands with the winning team). But what’s the point?
Behavioral scientist Michael I. Norton became interested in mourning rituals. He was wondering whether rituals were merely a traditional part of the grieving process, or whether they truly alleviated grief. “We see in every culture—and throughout history—that people who perform rituals report feeling better, but we didn’t know if the ritual caused the healing,” said Norton. He and his team found that rituals not only alleviate and reduce grief, but also enhance the experience of consuming food, and they affect productivity and morale in the workplace. They understood that rituals led to an increased sense of control, and it neither had to be religious nor communal.
It’s easy to dismiss rituals as just the historical trappings of ancient religions. It could be something very beautiful, but if it has little relevance to our lives today, we intend to reject it. From this portion we know what our ancestors had a way to purify themselves if they became “contaminated” or un-pure. Their desire to be and engage with others in a state of purity is admirable. Do we, do I have the same desire to be and to engage with the other, in a state of purity? I pray we & I will have that desire and need to be in space of purity. Yes, we do have a ritual that offers us to live in a state of purity. The mikvah, ritual cleansing bath, kosher food, the Kol Nidrei prayer, laws of lashon harah, etc. I pray that each of us encounter the need and desire to be in a space of purity. Amen.
A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Numbers and Deuteronomy, page 57, by
Harvey J. Fields, UHC Press http://stangoldbergwriter.com/about/the-power-of-ritual/
Rabbinic Intern Message by Dov Gottesfeld
When I was in 6th grade, I was rebellious. I wanted to make changes. Sure enough, I was expelled by the end of the school year. Seeing the tears in my mother’s eyes, a teacher named Abigail, convinced the principal that she would be able to set me on the right tracks. From the first day of school – in the seventh grade, she assigned me to organize all the committees in the school, i.e. the Drama committee, the Health committee, the News committee, the Holidays committee, the Exhibition committee, etc. Abigail always watched me and guided me. A few years after my graduation from elementary school (8th grade) with honors, I went to visit her, and she told me that she had realized that I was passionate about getting involved in school activities, and she simply let me express that passion. It was a great lesson for me in leadership.
When we read the portion of Korach, as a standalone section in the Torah, he appears as a rebel who challenges Moses’ leadership and authority. However, when we read it sequentially from Be’ha’alotcha Torah portion, the perspective of Korach changes drastically. He is no longer a rebel, but an individual who truly wants to get involved and become a part in the construction of the new Jewish community. However, still having the mentality of a slave who recently became free, he does not seem to have the proper attitude and language to express himself adequately. Moses, being a sensitive leader, should have noticed it.
Recently Korach witnessed the following events: Moses assembled seventy from the eldest of Israel and appointed them as his close associates. Eldad and Meydad, two young fellows acted the prophet in the camp, and the young fellow who reported them to Moses, heard him say to Joshua that he wished that "Would all the Lords people were prophets." It is quite possible that later that young fellow spread those words around the community and Korach heard them. Korach also witnessed that Moses sent "all the men being leaders of the Israelites" to spy on the land of Canaan. He also heard Moses telling the Israelites to "present an offering by fire to the Lord […] upon settling in Canaan. He heard about the laws of the Shabbat, and about the tzitzit, etc. Korach, it seems, wanted to get involved; to be a part of the new leadership. However, when confronting Moses, all Moses could do is "fall upon his face", and eventually bring an end to Korach and his tribe by not intervening and stopping God when He opened the earth, which swallowed and burnt Korach and his tribe.
It was hard for me to accept the interpretations of the sages and the scholars whose wisdom I generally respect and quote. I think that the strength of a leader in situation such as this one should have been similar to what Abigail had done with me; by bringing me in, and mentoring me. Who knows, Korach and his tribe could have ended up becoming productive leaders for the nation of the Israelites.
The Torah instructs us on almost every component of our human existence. It is our Tree of Life. It includes instructions about the type of material our clothing is to be made from. It forbids women from dressing as men, and men from dressing as women. It forbids us wearing sha’atnez, clothing that is made of a mix of wool and linen. (Deut. 22:5, 11)
There is a particularly important commandment on wearing tzitzit, or fringes. In our portion this week, Moses instructs the People of Israel to wear tzitzit "throughout the generations, so that they would serve as a reminder to our connection to God by doing mitzvot every time we look at the fringes… "so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I Adonai am your God, who rought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, Adonai your God." (Numbers 15:39-41)
Throughout our history men wore tzitzit in the form of a small prayer shawl known as talit katan, on the four corners of their clothing, at times under a shirt, or even over a shirt. The mitzvah to wear tzitzit is so important that the rabbis who composed the first prayers of the synagogue included it as one of the four paragraphs chanted each morning and evening after the Shemah.
Wearing tzitzit is so important that Rashi noted that the word tzitzit has a numerical value of 600, and that the fringe is tied with eight threads and five knots. Together the full numerical value of tzitzit is equal to 613, the number of commandments that are found in the Torah. Rashi teaches that "wearing tzitzit and looking upon them leads us to remembering them, and remembering them leads to doing them." In other words, tzitzit function as a powerful symbol to stimulate ethical behavior. (Numbers Rabbah 7:6) They save those who wear them from being careless, forgetful, and from giving in to many temptations that are "crouching at the door eager to control us". (Genesis 4:7)
Today, tzitzit continue to be worn by many Jewish men as a symbol of identity, their historic covenant with God, and as a badge of commitment to ethical and ritual responsibilities. So, why do most women not wear tzitzit?
Please do not let anyone tell you that women should not wear tzitzit because traditionally only men wear it. Do not let anyone tell you that for women to wear tzitzit is muzar, strange. Do not let anyone tell you that women are on a higher spiritual plane and they do not need tzitzit to remind them to behave ethically. As you see in our Torah portion this week, nowhere does the Torah instruct only man and not woman to wear tzitzit. We know that wearing tzitzit is a symbol of identity. It is a symbol of our historic covenant with God. It is our commitment to behave in an ethical way, and to be a "light to the nations." Ladies, why not wear tzitzit? Please wear them, and be proud of them.
May God give us ladies the inner strength to wear tzitzit and be happy and humbled with our relationship with God.
Rabbinic Intern Message by Dov Gottesfeld
How many times have we reflected after an argument with a family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker, or after we speaking lashon ha-ra about someone behind his/her back, and later we realized that the core issue was much larger and deeper, and it had to do with us. Perhaps we were feeling hurt and victimized by that person but we were too timid and therefore too angry to spell it out head on. (That is if we are willing to be honest and truthful with ourselves.)
Two separate episodes are depicted in this week’s portion, Beha’alotcha - which means ‘when you carry up’. They refer to the instructions given to Aharon the High Priest on how to kindle the lights of the Menorah in the Holy Temple.
The first episode occurred when a young man hurried to tell Moses that two young men, Eldad and Maydad “act prophet in the camp.” Young Joshua, the son of Nun who eventually became the Israelite leader, told Moses to detain the two. Moses, being a humble man, realized that young Joshua’s ego was hurting and perhaps he feared that if it was true, Moses would choose one of them to be the future leader, instead of him. Moses responded: “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them?” What a
lesson in leadership!
In the second episode Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, sneered behind his back about the Cushite woman he had married. God punishes Miriam with leprosy, and not Aaron, because she initiated that conversation. Moses ended up crying loudly “O’ God heal her!” “El na refa na lah.” Miriam was healed.
Was it the fact that Moses married a Cushite woman that really troubled Miriam? I don’t think so. If we read closely in the story, we shall notice that Moses was grooming a young man, Joshua, to take over for him. Just recently he had chosen seventy elders to assume high positions within his kitchen cabinet’, so to speak. He had given his brother Aaron an important position as the high priest. Yet, he had not given her -- the sister who had saved his life when he was a baby, and to whom he owed his life, any meaningful position in the leadership.
Why, then, didn’t she confront Moses? Why didn’t she request an official position? Was it beneath herself? Is it possible that Moses did not want her to be burdened in the desert because she was older than he was? We will never know. However, it is clear that her ego was deeply hurt and the only outlet she could think of was to speak badly about her baby brother.
Before we open our mouths to say anything about others, let us remember the lesson from Pirkei Avot, the ”Wisdom Sayings of our Fathers”: “A person who guards his tongue, [in essence] is guarding his life [from getting into trouble.]
May HaShem bless you and keep you; May HaShem make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; May HaShem turn his face toward you and give you peace
Having the Priestly Blessing in this week’s Torah portion brings up some questions for me. First, how do the priests prepare to bless people today. Secondly, who has the right to use the priestly blessing - only the priests among us?
Just a month ago, our congregation participated in the city wide Israel Independence Day Celebration at Rancho Park. It was a wonderful and blessed day for our booth. It was decorated beautifully, we gave treats to anyone who engaged in dialogue with us, and at the end we gave away the treats to everyone. In addition to the Israeli flag and mobiles that decorated our booth, we had a sign outside reading, “Our Rabbi is here and would love to bless you.” At first I felt like Charlie Brown from the famous Peanuts cartoon… but not for long. I was delighted to experience the many people, from all walks of life, Jews and non-Jews, who came into our booth for a blessing from the Rabbi.
As most of you know, I often mention in my Ethics class and in our services that Emet – Truth, is the most important building block in a relationship, whether the relationship is between “me and you,” or in the relationship is between “me and God.” Without truth, as beautiful as it may be, the relationship will deteriorate over time, and crumble at the end. My challenge in the booth was to create TRUTH in my blessing of strangers.
How can I bless them from a truthful space in my heart and desire to connect with God when the loud sound of different park music bands was blaring, and people were waiting in line to be blessed?
The moment a person stepped into our booth and wanted to be blessed, I invited him/her to sit close and across from me, so we were facing one another. At that moment the outside noisy world did not exist any more. I looked into the person’s eyes and thanked the person for being there. I shared my desire to know a little about him/her so that I might bestow upon them a blessing from a truthful space in my soul. I listened intently to every word that they expressed. I empathized and felt their concerns or worries. I never limited their time with me. I was focused on them and their spiritual need. Even in that limited time, the two of us were able to create some precious closeness and intimacy.
I waited for a minute, when I was sure that the person was done sharing his heart with me, I stood up, gently placed my hands on his/her head and proceeded to bestow a personal blessing and also the Priestly Blessing upon him/her. When I was done, I waited another fifteen seconds or so before I took my hand off his head.
My prayer and blessing lasted about two minutes. But in those two minutes I felt as if his world and mine were united. I felt the truthfulness of that moment. In those two minutes I felt almost like a conduit for his “I & Thou” connection. I felt the purity of that moment. I felt the holiness of the moment. Almost everyone was moved, and at times to tears, including myself.
I was not able to prepare myself for the Priestly Benediction the way our priests, the Kohens, prepare in our synagogue. They first wash their hands, remove their shoes, silently recite a short prayer beseeching God that the forthcoming blessing be a “perfect blessing; that it should have no impediment or iniquity.” The Kohen than covers his/her head and upper body with his/her Tallit, and awaits for me to start the benediction in English before their own benediction of our congregants in Hebrew. I had no possibility for most of this preparation, however, I always made time to beseech God in their behalf so that my heart-felt blessing I bestow upon them be from the space of Emet, truth.
May God continue to provide each of us good health and the opportunity to be “Truthful Blessers” of others.
About Rabbi Miriam
Rabbi Miriam E. Hamrell MHL, M.Ed., has served as our religious and spiritual leader at Ahavat Torah Congregation and helped it grow since it was founded in 2003.