May 29

D’var Torah: Bemidbar

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Moira Hart

This week’s Torah portion is called Bemidbar and is the first parsha from the Book of Numbers.  Numbers is not a translation of Bemidbar which actually means “in the wilderness”.  It recounts a time in the life of the Children of Israel when they are having to change from being slaves and all that entails to becoming citizens of their own land.  Much of the parshah is to do with the counting and sorting of people into their tribes. It’s all about transition.

Moses was instructed by God to count, by tribe, every male from the age of 20 to 60 – men of draftable age.

Moses counts 603,550 men.

However, this didn’t include the Levites, women or children!

It’s not really clear why a census was needed but it could be that God wanted the census to show his power in redeeming such a large number of people, a whole nation wondering in the wilderness.  To give you an idea of the scale of the number involved, 603,550 is somewhere between the 2016 estimate of the population of Macau in Asia at 597,000 and Montenegro in Europe at 626,000.  (166 and 167 out of 233 nations according to the United Nations.)

The reason for the census may simply have been more pragmatic – perhaps it was to have a list or clear idea of men eligible to fight and this would explain the omission of women and children.

It happens that some years later but also related in the Book of Numbers, God again instructs Moses to take a census of males over the age of 20.  This time it is towards the end of their time of wandering in the desert and the Children of Israel have been through many traumatic and difficult times including being affected by plague and much fighting.  So despite the passing of time the final tally is 601,730.

I have read that it could be viewed that this time God is trying to allay the fears of the children of Israel and refresh their spirit by adding a sense of newness and distinction to their mission. The purpose of this count serves not as a census or military count so much as a reestablishment of their old identity.  Something akin to a shepherd looking after his sheep – keeping them safe.

To return to the census in this parsha, why weren’t the Levites included?  Chapter 1, v 47 says “But the Levites, according to their father’s tribe were not numbered among them.”  I discovered that it relates back to the incident of the golden calf.  When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and found some of the Israelites dancing around the golden calf he asked that “Whoever is with God, come to me”.  The entire tribe of Levi gathered about him and they were charged, sadly perhaps, with murdering everyone guilty of worshipping the Golden Calf.  The Levites then became the tribe charged with carrying and looking after the tabernacle in place of all the firstborn from each tribe who were originally going to be assigned this important task.

The parsha goes on to describe how the camp would be set out going forward. The Levites were to set up camp to immediately surround the tabernacle with the other tribes camped around them in a specific order. And just how many Levites were there?  22,000 males over the age of one month old.  The fact that the children were included probably indicates the importance of the tribe of Levi.

So we can see that there are many different reasons and theories as to why God wanted to count the number of Israelites.   Nick Gendler’s interesting article in Reflections says that Rashi tells us that at important moments in history God counted his people.  And perhaps it is simply a question of taking stock – something we all do at times of emotion, happy or sad.

Nick also goes on to discuss the idea that he recalled that Jews should not be counted individually.  An idea derived from the first lines in this week’s haftarah, “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted”.  This rang a faint bell in my head and my consequent research led me to the following thoughts which are loosely based on an article from the Orthodox Union.

We will never know exactly why God chose that the Jews should never be counted with a census, but here are some thoughts.  The Talmud teaches that blessing is not found “in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, only in something that is hidden from the eyes.”  I think this is a rather beautiful idea.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, a Spanish rabbi and scholar born in 1255, explains that we do not count separate individuals, since we do not want to single them out and bring judgment upon them. An individual may not have enough merit to pass that judgment. However, when counting as a community, even if judgment is brought upon us, there are sure to be enough good deeds in the community to ensure that they pass the judgment and are found worthy of God’s mercy.

So what do people do to overcome this problem of wanting to know how many, but not wanting to count individuals.  As ever, there are ways around this problem.  Many censuses were carried out by collecting a coin – perhaps a half shekel, King Saul asked soldiers to bring kid goats, you can count noses or thumbs but not body parts that would are really significant for life.  And just by the way, once you have counted/or not counted it is ok to use the final number as long as it is arrived at in a correct manner.

As a footnote, and perhaps a hint to another reason why we traditionally don’t count individuals, King David counted the Jews in a more conventional way and a great plague struck and many of them died.

Another, rather lovely tradition, is that of how one should check whether there are 10 people present for a minyan.  The most usual way to do this is to use the words in a Scriptural verse (usually Psalm 28:9). This is a very beautiful way, because each word in a sentence is unique and without it the sentence would lose its meaning.  Illustrating what a mitzvah it is to be part of a minyan.  The verse translates as:

Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.

הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם

Anyway, I got so caught up in all of this that I forgot about the links I might be looking for to make all this meaningful for this week.  However, when I stop to think about it I think the parsha is about working out a good model and a way of life and a plan for living that makes a community function effectively.  I think everyone this week has been pondering on what we need to do to make our local communities, national community and global community to function well. We need to do take a long hard look at the way our global community operates and to see if we can mend something that seems to be very badly fractured at the moment.  I don’t really feel I have the authority or the right to try and speak to you all or help you find some understanding of this week’s events so I have turned to Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and would like to share some of his recent blog.

He writes.  Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena.  The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music.  Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot and we shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight that we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism – the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

I [Rabbi Wittenberg] spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Berlin, at a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.  In response, I encourage us all to mark this bitter and sad time through special generosity and kindness towards children and young people.

Shabbat Shalom.

Moira Hart

May 25

From the Co‐Chair

By Editor | Blogs

Written by Simon Samuels

You can listen to Simon reading this post on the audio version of our latest Newsletter

 

Do you know that feeling when you pop into a shop that
specialises in something that you don’t really know much
about and you quickly realise that there is this whole other
world of dedicated specialists that you didn’t know even
existed? As I write this, my final ‘From the Co‐Chair’
comment as my term in office nears completion, I reflect
that there was a bit of that feeling for me when I became
Co‐Chair of SAMS in May 2014. Of course, I had been
increasingly involved with different aspects of shul life for
several years before then. But it wasn’t until that May that
I truly began to appreciate just how SAMS relies on a
powerful, dedicated yet often invisible army of volunteers
who give so much of their time to helping keeping SAMS
special.

Being a Co‐Chair is, in many ways, one of the simpler roles
to do for a shul. It comes with a profile and, dare I say it, a
status; Moira and I get to stand up at the start or end of an
event and make everyone feel welcome, tell a joke, get to
meet the special guests, get to give the quote to the
newspaper etc.

However, it’s the people who do all the less visible stuff for
the shul who are the real heroes; dealing with the faulty
light in the main hall on a Tuesday morning; setting up
Sunflowers on a Monday morning; standing in the rain
doing security on a Sunday evening; buying the food for a
Shabbat lunch on Friday morning; loading their car with a
piece of a borrowed stage before school opens early on a
Thursday; poring over a spreadsheet or drafting some shul
guidelines at home on a Wednesday evening; or making a
B’nei Mitzvah weekend special for the family. These are the
real champions, and in my three years as Co‐Chair I have
for the first time come to truly appreciate all that is done
by our volunteers. I have discovered that secret world.

Yet being a Co‐Chair isn’t always straightforward. I often
tell my non‐Jewish friends that a community of 300 Jews
generates 600 opinions on everything. And these past three
years have included their challenges, of course. Rabbi Rafi
leaving, whilst clearly under standable for him and his
family, has left us with a hole to fill. Of course we were sad
to see him go, but it has once again provided SAMS with
an opportunity to demonstrate how self sufficient we can
be when needed. And we are really lucky to have Rabbi
Carl spending an extended period of time with us.

I wanted to make two last comments. Firstly, a confession.
Before becoming Co‐Chair I reckon that I came to shul
perhaps once every 6 weeks or so. Part of the role requires
either myself or Moira to go to shul each week. To be
honest, I was a little unsure how I would feel about having
to go to shul that regularly. But a funny thing has
happened; I’ve found that it’s not that bad. Actually – and
keep this to yourself – it’s rather nice. And for those of you
who were like me, perhaps try and go on a regular Shabbat
morning a little more often. I think you may find that you
like it. I do.

And finally, I cannot sign off without paying tribute to the
two Co‐Chairs I shared the role with, Alan Green for the
first year and Moira for the second and third years. In their
different ways they were great partners to work with,
always calm, never flustered and each with great
dedication to SAMS. We are all very lucky to have
members like them.

In my first ‘From the Co‐Chair’ article in 2014 I wrote “I see
my responsibility as being that of a temporary curator of a
precious vase, grateful to the people who came before me
and mindful to make sure that at some point the vase is
safely passed on to those who will follow.” Thanks to the
tireless support of that volunteer army, I strongly believe
that I am passing on a vase that is indeed very much intact
and we can all look forward to helping support our new
leadership as they continue to carefully curate it.

May 14

D’var Torah: Emor

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Beverly Cohen

Holier than Thou?

I love clubs.  I’ve always been a club junkie.  I’m particularly thrilled to join clubs that require special equipment.  Over the years I have treasured my ice skates, my curling stone, my softball glove, my exercise ball, my riding crop, my knitting needles, my squash raquet.

And uniforms, how I love uniforms! I was inordinately proud of my brownie uniform with all its badges.  When I started pottery classes, my potting smock gave me much more nachas than my pots.  Likewise, the tennis skirt I bought to launch my squash career.

Why?  Because I love to belong.  And I love to be seen to belong.  I love the sense of kinship, the common knowledge, common language, common identity.

And the sense of separateness – I love that the clubs I belong to are different, exclusive in some way.  That in belonging to these clubs I must in some way be different, special.

I’m proud to be Jewish.  I belong to a club whose members include Einstein, Freud, Marx, Pasternak, Harry Kroto, Henry Kissinger, Philip Roth – Barry Manilow ….  Am Yisroel Chai.

In the introduction to today’s Parashah, Emor, the Etz Hayim Chumash says: “The previous parashah [Kedoshim] describes the Israelites as being set apart from other nations, called on to attain holiness through their distinctive lifestyle.  Emor sets the Kohanim apart from other Israelites by means of symbolic obligations, restrictions and abstentions in their lives.  As the Israelites are to represent the God-oriented life to the nations of the world, the kohanim are to represent a maximal level of devotion to God for their fellow Israelites.  Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code, to set an example for others of what is possible.”  If this is true, why do we think, generally speaking, that it’s bad to be “Holier than thou”?

This week’s Parsha continues what is known as the ‘Holiness Code’, so-called because of “its repeated use of the word Kadosh (Holy)”.

The root meaning of ‘Kadosh is “something distinctive and set apart”, that is separate.  Last year, in one of his ‘Weekly Words’, Rabbi Rafi wrote that “we seek to imitate the divine to become holy.  In doing so, we seek to recreate the first moments of creation, where God began creation by separating:  light from dark, heavens from earth, water from sky and dry land from the sea”.

There are lots of separations enumerated in the Holiness Code: the pure from the defiled, unblemished from the blemished; the priests from the rest of the Israelites; festivals from ordinary days; praise from blasphemy; the Israelites from the other nations.

There are potential pitfalls in creating simple but unbridgeable dichotomies. I feel uneasy about this. If I’ve understood him correctly, Rabbi Joel Levy also feels uneasy.  In this week’s Masorti ‘Reflections’, he refers to the “Dark Side of the Quest for Sanctity”.  He is talking about the harsh punishment for blasphemy set out at the end of this parsha, but there are other problems that arise when I view my particular nation or tribe as Holier than yours.  Maybe there is a difference between creative acts of separation, which are holy; and the static state of separate-ness, which is not.

Jonathan Sacks wrote, in an article about Kedoshim, that “only one people was ever asked collectively to be holy.”  He goes on to say “That, to me, is what it is to be a Jew”.

I suspect few of us Jews in the modern world are conscious of this call to holiness as we go about our daily lives.  And even fewer feel the need to heed it.

But we are acutely aware of our separateness.  We nurture it.  We are the victims – and the survivors – of the Shoah.  And of countless precursor pogroms and attacks throughout our history.

I feel uncomfortable with the implication that the Jewish people have suffered more than other groups. Or that only the Jewish people have an obligation to be holy.  Does it imply that only Jews – as a whole community – can be holy?  Or that the Jewish people, the Jewish religion – in being separate, is superior to others?

To be “something distinctive and set apart”: this is simultaneously our great strength and our greatest vulnerability. The UK’s response to the threat of extremists has been to assert, and even to enshrine in law, the duty to promote ‘British values’ (e.g. civil partnerships, gay marriage, adoption of children by same-sex partners). Personally, I have no problem with these principles. But Ofsted has rated some Charedi schools inadequate, and last year one was threatened with closure because of its refusal to teach about same-sex relationships and about other faiths and cultures. One Charedi spokesman argued that this is an attack on their way of life. “There are lines we cannot cross”, he said.

I suspect that the brit mila could be next on the hit list. Jewish News reported that recently, at its annual conference, Norway’s ruling Progress Party voted to ban the religious circumscision of boys under the age of 16.  Again, from the perspective of current modern Western values, it’s hard to deny that there is a problem about injuring or disfiguring children when they are too young to give consent.

Next could come shechita, on the grounds that pre-stunning makes animal slaughter more humane. Whilst it was no doubt true that in biblical times shechita was the most compassionate way to dispatch animals, I don’t think we can be sure that’s the case today.

Nevertheless, despite my personal reservations, I feel deeply anxious about the State threatening customs that have bound our communities together; customs that we have shared and valued over so many generations.

As you all know, Rabbi Karl is a zealous advocate of “good questions”, so to end this drash I’ll pose some:

  • To what extent are we prepared to be “distinctive and set apart”?
  • Are such rituals as brit mila and schehita intrinsic and essential to our Jewish identity?
  • Are they worth practicing if they inflict pain (even if only momentary) on babies or animals? If they are proscribed by British law?
  • In the face of evolving British values, to what extent will we be permitted to maintain such practices? And if we’re not, how can we maintain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora today?

May 01

D’var Torah: Tazria-Metzora

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

Every year it is challenging to speak about these Sedras, either separately or together. Therefore, some context before I extrapolate from them. The Torah includes these portions about disease because the Torah is the story of the evolution of an entire civilization, which must include matters of disease and health. At the same time, however, one should not be critical of a generation for what was characteristic of it. We cannot measure their ways by 21st century standards. What can we learn from Tazria-Metzora is about the consequences of ignorance.

The rabbis who lived after the generation of the Torah nevertheless chose to attribute what they thought was leprosy as a result of moral failure, making Metzora an acronym for the Hebrew words for gossip (“Motzi Shem Ra”). The disease was probably actually a variety of ailments, all of which they thought to be contagious. Miriam, the sister of Moses (Numbers 12:10) is stricken when she speaks ill of Moses. The hand of Moses (Exodus 4:1 and 6) becomes diseased when he doubts God’s and his own ability to be believed by the people. By the way, the last hospital in America for people with Hansen’s disease in the USA was closed in the early 1980’s.

Long before we knew that the disease was not caused by moral failure, but our ignorance and the fear which it generated had already hurt many people in many generations. Here are the ways in which this kind of ignorance is so dangerous and damaging.

Making it all a result of moral failure is a “blame the victim” approach which can cause much pointless suffering and avoiding the real problems. For example, there have been in recent years those on the extreme right of the Jewish community who still say the Holocaust was, like the destruction of the Temple, caused by the failure of the Jewish people to obey God’s will.

Ignorance and fear lead to isolation. We know what it means to be locked in a Ghetto. At one time, leper colonies existed in Hawaii where lepers were forced to live away from the community. Further, even when we already knew how AIDS was a transmitted people shunned those with the disease. Remember what happened to Alan Turing because he was a homosexual. The wrong was only completely righted not that long ago.

Call it labeling or stereotyping, we Jews know about this only too well. I cannot mention some of the names we were called. Think about the ways we have been portrayed in anti-Semitic cartoons. I was painfully reminded that when I was growing up in America, “the land of the free and the brave,” African Americans were segregated in cruel ways as portrayed in two movies I have seen- “The Help” and very recently here in St. Albans “Hidden Figures.” The former is about the way African Americans were treated like the slaves of Egypt when they worked in American homes. The latter is about a number of women who were mathematical and engineering geniuses but were isolated and mistreated in the American space program during the 1960’s.

Only in 1991 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, did the US start making accommodations for the physical and mentally disabled a requirement, did we stop calling people “retarded.” Some would call this change and many other changes in the language we use to describe people with “special needs” politically correct, meaning phony. The old saying that goes “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” is wrong. More often, the new names we call these conditions are morally correct and long overdue.

The truth is that in so many ways we have not come very far in correcting all of these wrongs caused by fear and ignorance. Had we truly progressed there would not be the kind of pandemic called “bullying” nor would America have the kind of president we have who called Mexicans rapists and publicly mimicked a disabled journalist. Unfortunately the world is also increasingly populated by national leaders like Assad, Putin and Erdogan who are far worse.

These present realities remind us that we have not learned that much from the days of Tazria-Metzora and sadly the moral failure is ours!

Apr 25

SAMS Board of Deputies Report – April 2017

By Editor | Blogs

By Haim Ben-Zion

It is a pleasure to once again report on my work with the Board of Deputies (BoD) on behalf of SAMS.

As your deputy I have two roles, one to represent the Board to the SAMS constituency and Trustees of course, and second, equally important, if not more so, to positively represent SAMS at the Board.

So, regarding the first role of representing the BoD to you all.

In brief, a reminder of who the BoD is and what it stands for, namely a democratically elected representative organisation for the non-haredi British Jewish community to formulate policy, programmes and activities to protect and defend our rights as Jews, to civil rights and our right to maintain our customs and practices.

What has BoD achieved over the past year?
The answer is, actually, a huge amount of behind the scenes work by the Education, Defence and International divisions. The list is long, but includes the establishment of Schitah UK and Milah UK, publications such as the ‘Employers Guide to Judaism’, and ‘The Definitive Resource for Judaism GCSE’ by Clive Lawton, now in its second print run.

In the media, we have seen BoD as prominent in addressing issues of antisemitism within the left and in the Labour Party in particular. Under the leadership of President Jonathan Arkush, the BoD has proven itself as an organisation with teeth, and has won the respect of Government as the primary representative of British Jews. The BoD have taken antisemites to task; Naz Shah, Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and others; has directly met with Parliamentary leaders and confronted Jeremy Corbyn over these issues and the whitewash of the Chakrabati report into antisemitism and racism in the Labour Party. Indeed, BoD activity contributed to the redefinition of antisemitism by the European Parliament – the EUMC, which now includes denial of Jewish rights to self-determination and double standards applied to Israel.

On campus, the BoD has discretely supported UJS in combatting antisemitism and anti-zionism, and co-produced the ‘Bridges not Boycotts’ campaign to directly challenge the annual Israel Apartheid Week and activities of the BDS. The key here was to actually listen to our Jewish students and understand what tools they want and not what we adults, including former Jewish student leaders, think they need. In recent incidents the BoD and UJS have together taken Universities to task, including Oxford, UCL and LSE.

Now to my role of representing SAMS on the Board.
In terms of attendance I have only missed two plenary meetings out of 16 over the past two years. I have attended both regional plenaries in Sheffield and Exeter, and have attended additional monthly meetings of the CED Education division.

With the fantastic support of Nina Leigh, and funding from Hertfordshire SACRE, I succeeded in persuading the Board to loan us the excellent JLE exhibition, not just once but twice, and persuaded St Albans Cathedral to host it over three weeks, followed by two weeks in SAMS.

The launch attracted over 50 dignitaries and made a name for SAMS in our local community and beyond. We were overwhelmed by our 30+ enthusiastic volunteers, who talked and walked schoolchildren around the exhibits. Most were SAMS members, yet we had volunteers from the St Albans United shul and another 6 local shuls. The success can be illustrated by numbers – 740 schoolchildren and 80 teachers benefited from the event, and something like 700-1000 members of the public viewed it too at the Cathedral.

I am now actively supporting BoD and others in taking the show to other venues in the UK, including Exeter, Cumbria, Leicester and Sheffield. Maybe next year in St Albans too !

As a regular speaker, and in view of my activity in the Education Division, the name of SAMS St Albans and Masorti are often heard in Board meetings, which has established our reputation as a dynamic and pro-active shul, within an equally dynamic and growing synagogue movement.

With the ability to network as SAMS Bod deputy I have been active in other areas, not directly related to the BoD,

  • FACE interfaith and cultural group
  • Keynote panellists on recent two BIG SAMS debates on ISIS and Israel, and on Anti-Semitism.
  • My part in the Citizens UK Safe Passage project – funds raised by our Masorti movement helped to bring 350 unaccompanied children over from France under the Lord Dubs amendment. Regrettably this project has now been closed by the Government.

To summarise, the Board is as active and dynamic as ever under the Arkush Presidency, and the contribution of SAMS is highly respected. I believe we get our money’s worth from the Board and, in turn, the Board gets considerable value from SAMS.

Apr 23

D’var Torah: Sh’mini

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

I know you haven’t asked this question but I want to tell you why I became a rabbi. Yes, you may have heard me talk about the influence of USY through my graduation from High School and my many summers at Camp Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism. Notwithstanding having grown up in a non-observant Jewish home, in those places I found everything about Jewish observance quite attractive, which is in part the connection to this morning’s portion, Sh’mini in which are the fundamentals of the Dietary Laws.

The other part of that connection has to do with my father, of blessed memory. He did two things in his life which influenced my decision to become a rabbi. As you have read in a previous e-mail, my father saved two people from drowning in a river in the State of Vermont. He saved lives. I realized after I had already become a rabbi, that I was emulating him in trying to save souls. He was also an outstanding salesman of living room furniture. As a child, I travelled with him and watched his salesmanship at work. Here too, I realized later that when I decided as a teenager to become a rabbi that (subconsciously) I had found a “product” I believed in that I could spend my career selling. After all, although it was not that difficult, I convinced my mother to make our house kosher after my first summer at Camp Ramah.

So today my goal is to “sell” you the idea of keeping kosher. I am not here to guilt you into it, nor do you have to purchase the entire package. Any part of the Dietary Laws which I might convince you to adopt will in my mind be a successful sale. So, here goes my sales pitch of several reasons observing any part of the Dietary Laws will add meaning to your lives.

Be aware that the Torah in Leviticus 11:45 offers only one reason to keep kosher. We should be holy because the Lord our God is Holy. All the other reasons I offer today, build on that.

  1. I have spoken before of the idea of “normal mysticism” which is Judaism’s way of lifting us above the mundane to the spiritual. It doesn’t mean becoming ascetics living on a lonely mountain top. It is about in this case making eating more than a biological act. We choose what to eat. Animals don’t. We set limits on what we are allowed to eat. We are constantly reminded to think about it. In today’s word where “mindfulness” is so popular, we are mindful that even eating is a sacred act which elevates us above the animals and reminds us that we are the pinnacles of God’s creation.
  2. Compassion speaks to both our Dietary Laws and Vegetarianism. Although being a Vegetarian involves no killing at all and is high level of keeping kosher, the Dietary Laws remind us that eating meat, etc. is a compromise with us on God’s part. Knowing that we craved meat, fowl and fish, God with the help of the Rabbis required Shechitah, a compassionate form of slaughter, removing the blood from meat before we eat it, not eating animals of prey, and separating meat and milk, the former requiring killing, the latter not.
  3. The Dietary Laws teach discipline and self-control. Today everybody is on some kind of diet whether to lose weight, control cholesterol, avoid substances we are allergic to, etc. In observing a kosher diet, we are disciplining ourselves in a way that creates “sacred spaces” in our lives, again living on a level which transcends the mundane and purely physical.
  4. While at times some have thought the dietary laws were to separate us from our fellow human beings of other faiths, that is not why we observe them, nor is health a reason. Many religions have dietary restrictions, even one of our sister Abrahamic religions, Islam has Halal Meat. Observing the Dietary Laws is a way to creat ethnic distinctiveness and identity, a consciousness of who we are which brings me to the reason that attracted me most of all and continues to do so.
  5. We become part of a community of shared values of responsibility for God’s creatures, which is why I realized that my mother always told me to feed the dog before we ourselves ate. The Dietary Laws make us part of something bigger than ourselves in a world where too many people consider themselves bigger than and more important than anything or anyone else. It feels so good to be part of this larger community who believe in good values and live their lives according to them.

And that is what “closed the sale” for me as a teenager (excuse the commercial language) and led me to becoming a rabbi. I love what I “sell” and hope that even if I have not convinced you to buy into it all, at least I have “opened the door” (pardon the mixed metaphor).

Apr 16

D’var Torah: Shabbat hol hamoed Pesach

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

I have decided as of this Pesach that Passover is actually Rosh HaShana. I can substantiate the fact that it is a New Year by a citation from the Talmud, Mishnah Rosh HaShana 1:1. This passage says that there are actually four New Years. The first of Nissan is a New Year for Kings and for the Festivals (Pesach is the first of the three festivals). The first of Elul is a New Year for tithing animals (determining their age for sacrifice). The first of Tishri is the New Year for years, and the first of Shevat (Hillel says the 15th and he wins) is the New Year for trees.

Now that I have properly, if not questionably, put Passover on the same level as Rosh HaShana, I will call it Rosh HaShana #1 and  the first of Tishri Rosh HaShana #2. I am not suggesting one is more important than the other. I am, however, going to rename Pesach as the New Year for Cleanliness and Orderliness. Don’t worry. I am getting to my point which is that for the first time in a long time, I have come to see the value of all of the hard work which goes into getting a home reading for this holiday. Year after year I have asked myself why we have to shlep up all of the boxes of Passover items from the basement, empty cabinets and painstakingly clean them, Kasher silverware and other items, and deal with all of our counter tops. Oy Vey or in today’s language OMG! I will probably continue to kvetch but now I see a new reason for doing all of this.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been a clean freak and compulsive about orderliness. After all, I was brought up by a mother who taught me that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” I only learned by googling that. She would also remind me that there is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I learned by googling here as well that this may have been coined by Benjamin Franklin. Neither of these guiding principles, however, made me kvetch less about all the work to get the house ready for Pesach.

This year, I took the matter to another level and found an article about spring cleaning on Wikipedia. There I learned that on the Persian New Year, first day of Spring, they “shake the house,” obviously some form of cleaning out. I found out that in the Catholic Church the altar and related objects are cleaned just before Good Friday. The Greek Orthodox community celebrates a clean week often starting April 1. In general before there were vacuum cleaners and it was warm enough to open the windows people got all the dust out of their homes; it was Spring, of course. The last item was, somewhat to my surprise, “Bedikat Chametz.”

The point is that there is a global sense that this season is a time for washing, cleaning, dusting, decluttering, making the house look quite different than it had. The reason Pesach has a new positive meaning for me doesn’t lessen the work. The reason is for me the result. When everything is new and clean, fresh and shiny around us, it can lead to a feeling of renewal and restart within us. Just as nature renews itself around us at this season, we can feel that sense of inner renewal when we look around our newly cleaned and refreshed homes. Combined with the spiritual values associated with the Seder and the foods we eat at it, we can further that sense of inner renewal as we look around the table, a new appreciation for our blessings and for each other.

The bottom line is that beginning this year, I have a new lens through which I can look at Passover as one of two Rosh HaShanas. How fortunate I am then to have two opportunities for renewal and restart every single year!

Apr 10

D’var Torah: Tzav/HaGadol

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

In a small town named Whitwell, Tennessee, in the southern United States in 1988, a middle school principal named Linda Hooper had an idea. She wanted her students to learn about tolerance. To that end her students, mostly white and Christian, began a unit of study on the Holocaust. As they learned about the death of the 6,000,000 they struggled to grasp the enormity of that number. To help them she decided to have them collect 6,000,000 paper clips. She chose this seemingly insignificant item because Norwegians wore paperclips as a silent protest during WWII.

The project became a worldwide phenomenon. People sent in paperclips from all corners of the globe to the extent that in 2001 the students of Whitwell dedicated a Holocaust memorial, in the form of an actual German rail car filled with a portion of the 30,000,000 paperclips collected. In 2004 a documentary film about the project was released.

Sometime during this period, we had Linda Hooper as a guest speaker at our synagogue in Northbrook, Illinois. There was not an empty seat to be found. After her presentation, I had a moment or two to thank her privately. She came to my office and I expressed our gratitude in glowing terms to which she responded ever so modestly. “It was not about me,” she said. “It was all about the power of one.”

I have never forgotten those three simple words, especially as the global situation increasingly deteriorates into violence, famine and poverty. It is sometimes so overwhelming that as an individual I feel powerless and helpless; what I do won’t change a thing. When I am feeling this way, I think about Linda Hooper, one person in a small town in Tennessee, whose actions made a difference. Each of us can do something to repair the world. When we send a donation to feed people starving in Africa, when we write a letter to a government leader to protest an injustice,  or participate in a march to cure a disease, the power of one plus one plus….makes a difference.

One of the most significant illustrations of the power of one is related to Passover which begins next week. In the 1960’s a movement began to secure the release of our fellow Jews in the then Soviet Union where they were oppressed in ways not unlike our ancestors in Egypt. It took decades and the efforts of both numerous Jewish organizations along with a multitude of individuals who sent donations, marched, and even went secretly into the USSR to contact Soviet Jewish Refuseniks and bring them Jewish religious objects at risk to their own freedom. The Free Soviet Jewry Movement was a success because of the power of one.

One of the buzz words of our age is “empowered.” It means an awareness that willingness and commitment to a cause will empower us to act on behalf of that cause. We can each empower ourselves and thereby realize the power of one.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach,

Apr 02

D’var Torah: VaYikra

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

At the beginning of the Torah Reading this past Shabbat, I asked the congregation to think of one word and one word only to summarize the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which we began reading. Here are some of the responses I received: Holiness, Ritual, Sacrifice, Cruelty (in killing animals), Guilt, etc. I said that they were all right but that I would give my one word later.

I divide the Sedra into two major themes. The first I call “Korban” because it is the word for sacrifice and that is one of the major themes of Leviticus. It is a word which means “bringing close” and the five different types of sacrifice mentioned in the portion and throughout the book are all meant to bring people closer to God. They offer something earth-bound to lift them up spiritually, something they have raised or grown and might otherwise have eaten (not that God needs to eat). Maimonides says this form of worship was education leading our people from the familiar form of worship of their early days ultimately to prayer in our day.

The other theme is embodied in three words later in the portion- “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is otherwise known at the “Golden Rule” and appears in a Talmudic story in another form. When a prospective convert comes to Shammai and asks to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Shammai angrily sends the questioner packing. When he comes to Hillel, he is welcomed in and told “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor, the rest is commentary, come and learn.” The questioner who was actually not asking for the Torah literally on one foot but based on one principle is told that the principle which brings us closer to God is also quite earth-bound in how we relate to our fellow human beings.

In the context of these two core themes in Leviticus, what is the one word which I believe summarizes the entire Sedra? The word is “mysticism.” No, I am not talking about Kabbala as practiced by Madonna in California, or the complex and obscure mysticism taught by the traditional Kabbalists of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. I am also not describing the monk on the mountain top who retreats from the community to live a contemplative life, meditating or reciting mantras to climb a spiritual ladder to God.

I am, instead, talking about Judaism’s mainstream mysticism assigned the name “Normal Mysticism” by one of my professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Max Kadushin, z”l. His philosophy of all of Judaism and certainly the Book of Leviticus is summed by my Masorti colleague and previous SAMS Rabbi Jeremy Gordon who said, “We find meaning and salvation, not through hocus pocus, but everyday action, not through miracle but through elevation of the humdrum, not on a mountain top away from the world but by blessing bread, loving thy neighbor, giving Tzedaka.” These are the acts or mitzvot performed with our feet firmly planted on the earth while our souls soar upward. It was the all-natural rush I felt this past week when I made a donation to World Jewish Relief to help those suffering in East Africa. It was as powerful and heady a feeling as the feeling I get when I practice mindfulness meditation.

There are many ways to uplift ourselves but Judaism offers us a normal mysticism which we can practice everyday. True, it all began on the heights of a mountain called Sinai from which Moses brought those commandments down to us so that we could reach the heights, become closer to God, without ever leaving home.

Mar 21

D’var Torah: Ki Thissa

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

The portion of Ki Thissa which we read this morning starts with the first census taken in Jewish history which was to find out how many men of 20 years old and above there were should a war be necessary. What is unusual is that the men were not assigned numbers. Instead each gave a half shekel by means of which the numbers were tallied.

Therefore, from our earliest days, we did not number people. Each human being was sacred and could not be reduced to a number, to something inanimate and impersonal. Each of us is sacred because we were created in the image of God. That is why, for example when you count the number of people needed for a minyan, the quorum for a complete prayer service,  you use a verse with ten words. You don’t count the people from 1-10.

At the same time we know that numbers are important to maintain any civil society. Numbers matter. In Judaism, we need two witnesses to solemnized a marriage. We need a Jewish court of three to convert someone to Judaism. One becomes a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13.  In the complex world today, people are of necessity assigned a multitude of numbers. The first number I can remember that identified me in the US was my Social Security number. More than 50 years ago, I needed it  to register for university courses. And in the last half century I have accumulated a long list of numbers as pass codes, credit card numbers, so on and so forth, far too many to remember.

More than ever there is the danger of being reduced to a series of numerals which I think ultimately objectifies us and dehumanizes us. No better example exists for the Jewish people than the number tattooed on the arm of a Holocaust survivor. How then do we retain our identities as human beings created in the image of God who are to be treated with respect and sensitivity because we are sacred?

Ki Thissa offers us another example of the uniqueness and sanctity of each human soul, each life. The rabbis of old make every effort to view the fact that Aaron who helped the Israelites create the Golden Calf had a reason to do so besides saving his own skin. The context is the fact that according to the Talmud a man named Hur is mentioned as helping Moses at the Red Sea and then no longer heard about. The Talmud tells us that he was murdered by the people because he refused to help them build the calf. Well then, if Aaron did help was he not doing so to save his own skin? No. The perspective of the Talmud is that he was saving the people from committing a worse sin than the calf. He was preventing them from committing yet another murder, his own. Had they not heard the story of Cain killing his own brother Abel and the consequences of history’s first homicide?

When we connect the incident of Aaron and the Golden Calf with the reluctance to transform a person into a number during the first census, we must conclude that there is really only one number which counts. I am reminded of a scene in the movie “City Slickers.”

A group of men go to a dude ranch for a male bonding experience. There they are told by their cowboy teacher by holding up his index finger that we must all find the one thing in life which matters to us. From Judaism’s point of view, that one thing is not a thing at all. It is each one of us, uniquely created in the image of the one God.

After all the Talmud says, “He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world.” That’s what the first census was trying to tell us. That’s what Aaron was trying to do. That is what we must do as we navigate our way through a myriad of numbers daily. We must never allow a single person, starting with ourselves to be dehumanized, made less than sacred,  by being turned into a number!