The Blessing for First Times

Image: A ripe pomegranate split open on the bush. (LeeTravathan/pixabay)

There is a special blessing Jews say for first times, or first times in a long time.  The blessing is called Shehecheyanu [sheh-heh-kheh-YAH-noo.]  It’s a big word, and a very special blessing that recognizes that our lives happen in time, and that not all moments are alike.

First, the blessing itself:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

And in English:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.

We say this blessing at times of joy or pleasure, times when we are glad to be alive and to have reached this moment. We don’t say it for things that happen frequently (like Shabbat) or things that are sad (like funerals.)  Here are some examples of “shehecheyanu moments:”

  1. At the beginning of each Jewish holiday.
  2. When we taste the first fruit of a season (e.g., the first berries in springtime.)
  3. When we acquire something new and precious to us, either as a gift or a purchase.
  4. Some Jews say the blessing to mark any first time special moment.

If you want to know more details about the traditional rules, you can find them in an article on the Orthodox Union website.

Don’t forget, while it is nice to be able to say the blessings in Hebrew, it is also fine to say them in English.

Here is a You Tube video by Bim-Bam explaining the blessing and saying it aloud.

When was your most recent “shehecheyanu moment?”

 

 

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Flu Vaccination is a Mitzvah

Image: Sick child in bed, looking miserable. (Shutterstock, 1621894310)

Have you had a flu vaccination this year?

You might ask, What does that have to do with Basic Judaism?

Getting a flu vaccination if we are able is a mitzvah. It is in fact one of the most urgent commandments, the one known as the preservation of life.

The flu kills. It kills little children and old people. It kills people with compromised immune systems. It kills little babies who are too young to get the vaccine, and people who are too sick to get the vaccine.

It sickens people with whom we may have had only the slightest contact, who are unlucky enough to touch a railing after we have touched it, if we are carrying the flu.

Don’t spread the flu.

The best way we can avoid spreading the flu during flu season is to do two things:

  1. Get a flu vaccination.
  2. Wash your hands often and thoroughly.

I’m getting my vaccination tomorrow. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends we get a flu shot during October, well before flu season, so that our bodies have a chance to produce protection against the flu.

The nasal spray vaccine will be available this year, according to the CDC. If needles give you the heebeejeebees, ask if it is an option for you. As for me, I’ll be getting a shot. I hate the flu, and I hate the thought of killing someone with it even more.

Please, please join me in this mitzvah, if your health permits! If your budget and/or insurance do not make allowance for it, read this article and learn where to get a FREE flu vaccination in the USA.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom – Parashat Noach

Image: Watercolor of the Noah’s Ark story, by Prawny, via Pixabay.

This week’s Torah portion is Noach. It contains two famous stories: Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel. It might be tempting to think, “Oh, I know those!” and skip right over, but it would be a bad mistake.

The great thing about Torah stories is that even though the words do not change, every year when we come back around to them, we are in a different place in our lives. When I was little, I was fascinated by the thought of all those animals: it seemed wonderful! When I was a young mother, I thought about Mrs. Noah: poor woman, all those animals and children to care for! This year, I think about the Flood itself: after a summer of weird weather, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and wildfires, it seems eerily close.

Then this past Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that describes a world of food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population. They predict the end of our world as we know it, within the lifetimes of most of the people alive today.

So take a look at these famous stories: read the parashah for yourself! Here are some writers with different points of view on the stories in Parashat Noah:

We have to stop taking the world for granted – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

It is Almost Too Late to Save Our Planet – Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Noah, the raven, and the dove – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

The Open Invitation – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Righteous In His Time – Rabbi Jordan Parr

End Violence and Stop Maelstrom Flooding – Rabbi Nina Mizrachi

The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark – Rabbi Ruth Adar

What’s Shabbat Like At Your House?

Image: Potluck Shabbat dishes ready to travel to a friend’s home. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

From time to time I sit on a beit din, a court of three rabbis that meets with a candidate to decide if they are ready for the final steps of conversion to Judaism. At the risk of giving away too much, this is one of my usual questions: “What’s Shabbat like at your house?”

This isn’t a pass/fail question. Rather, I want to encourage the about-to-be Jew to be deliberate about their Shabbat practice. Shabbat is one of the keys to a happy and full Jewish life, and I want that for every Jew!

If your answer to the question is “Gee, I dunno” let me offer you some questions that may help you think through what you want from Shabbat:

  1. If “work” is activity that drains your soul, what parts of your life feel most like work? Is there any way that you can structure your life so that you can put down that activity or thing for at least part of Shabbat?
  2. If “rest” is activity that feeds your soul, what parts of your life are truly restful? How can you bring more of that into your life during Shabbat?
  3. Do you want a richer Jewish life? Shabbat offers lots of opportunities for growing Jewishly and spiritually, from synagogue services to freeing up time to read.
  4. Does connection with other people feed your soul? Shabbat can nudge us to make time for our families and friends. It can also help us to make friends, at synagogue services and other Jewish activities. It can be a day to invite someone over or to visit (or phone) someone sick.

I am not suggesting that you do everything at once. Let’s say, you decide to get to know more people at synagogue by going to Torah study. That’s a definite addition to your Saturday morning. You will learn a little Torah, and by listening to others, you’ll get a sense of who they are. They’ll get used to you, too, without either of you having to do a song-and-dance. Give that new activity a solid chance – say, four weeks in a row – and then sit down to think about how you feel when you are doing the Shabbat routine. Better? Worse? Making new friends? Mad at the world? Then, if it isn’t working for you, try something else.

If it is working, consider adding a new wrinkle. Say, you’ve lit Shabbat candles for the past month, and you enjoyed it. Consider inviting someone over for Shabbat dinner, and give that the 4-week trial. It doesn’t have to be fancy. See how it goes.

Shabbat is the treasure of the Jewish people. It is a day for enjoyment, for learning, for sharing, for reflection, for prayer, for getting enough sleep, and for love. Shabbat is a little different in every Jewish home.

What’s Shabbat like at your house? What would you like it to be?

Be Strong and Resolute! – Vayeilech

Image:  Eight hands join over a map. (Photo: geralt/Pixabay) 

Chapter 31 of Deuteronomy is also known as Parashat Vayeilech. Moses is about to die, and he’s worried about the Israelites. He’s had 40 years of their insubordination and complaining, and while he wants to give them good advice, he’s also not at all certain that they will follow it.

The advice begins with prophecy: “You’re going to cross into the Land after I die. You’ll follow Joshua, my successor, and God will be with you. You’re going to face opposition from the residents of the land, but with God’s help you will prevail, as long as you follow instructions.”

Then the instructions: first, to the Israelites, he says:

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ  (Hizku v’imtzu!)

Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31:6

And then immediately turns to Joshua, and says to him:

חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒  (Hazak v’amatz!)

Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31: 7

This seems redundant: why say it twice? Why first to the people, and then to their leader in exactly the same words, only changed from plural to singular masculine?

I believe he does this because he knows that in future, the people and their leaders will go forward in a covenantal relationship. Joshua, and the leaders who follow after him, will have to be strong and resolute to do their jobs properly. Sometimes they will lead wisely, and sometimes they will not. But they will not be alone, because they lead in sacred relationship with the people of Israel. Moses gives the people the same charge, “Be strong and resolute” and he gives it to them first. Going forward, they will not be led like little children; they will be led by leaders who are fallible, and who may need to be reminded from time to time of their obligations under Torah.

And indeed, in the next verses, Moses entrusts the Torah to the priests, and gives them specific instructions for regular readings of the Torah to the whole people of Israel:

Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. – Deuteronomy 31:12

The Torah is not a book for specialists, or only for the leaders. It isn’t only for the men. It isn’t only for born Jews, or for rich Jews, or for insiders. It is the inheritance of ALL Jews, “men, women, and children, and the strangers in your communities.” Regular reading will insure that the People know the Torah, and can hold the leaders accountable to it.

And indeed, as the years passed, we know that sometimes the leaders were wise and their work was informed by Torah. We also know that there were times when ordinary Israelites had to call them to account. Some of those Israelites were prophets, like Nathan and Jeremiah. Some of those Israelites were women, like Michal and in the rabbinic period, Beruriah. Some converts to Judaism became leaders of the People, like Avtalyon and Shemaya (Yoma 71b) and some called the leaders to account, as well.

The long path of Jewish history is a partnership between leaders and ordinary Jews. I see it particularly in the history of the Reform Movement, when early leaders such as Samuel Holdheim would have an idea (“Would it be a good idea to move Shabbat to Sunday?” and the Jew in the Pew would say, “Absolutely not!” There was nothing in the tradition to support a move to Sunday, and while having a different Sabbath than Christians was inconvenient, it was not impossible. Today, all Reform congregations celebrate Shabbat from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, just as do other Jewish congregations.

Jews and their leaders need to talk to one another, and we need to listen to each other, too. We have to make our arguments “for the sake of heaven,” (Avot 5:17) that is, for the greater good, not for our own aggrandizement. Questions, even questioning authority, are good as long as they seek the truth.

These discussions are not easy. It is not easy for leaders to listen, because it’s simpler if they don’t have to listen. It can be hard for an ordinary person to speak up, fearing they’ll sound stupid or that they’ll be ignored.

That’s why the text says “Be strong and resolute” twice. We need to be strong and resolute partners to solve problems and to move forward. We need to be strong enough to listen, resolute enough to speak up, and to act. That’s the only way we will solve the problems in this world, whether they are large global issues or small local problems: in partnerships.

Let us pray for partners in peace, partners in discussion, partners in the struggle for truth in this world! Let us pray that when we meet a potential partner, we have the wisdom and grace to recognize them as such.

 

 

Shoftim: Who Is My Idol?

Image: A collection of idols: Egyptian gods, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Israeli fighter jet, smartphone, Greek demi-god, Kardashians, U.S. Twenty dollar bill, Andrew Jackson, Child sacrifice, Moloch. Collage from public domain photos by R. Ruth Adar.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make— or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests. – Deuteronomy 16:20-22
The first verse above is one of the most famous in all the Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” it commands with mighty emphasis. It sits right at the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, or “Judges.”
The follow-up to“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” seems like a non sequitur. It is a commandment against idolatry via the Asherah pole or a stone pillar, either of which is an idol. So we might ask: what’s the connection?
God detests idolatry. It’s one of the major themes of Deuteronomy: don’t make idols, don’t hang out with idolaters, don’t even think about idols. In the historical period when this book was written, that meant, don’t worship any god other than the one named Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey who brought you, Israelites, out of Egypt.
Archaeologists tell us that in fact there was a lot of other-god-worshiping happening in the Land of Israel at the time. The goddess Asherah, wife of El, was particularly popular – hence all the commandments against setting up Asherah-poles, as in the verse above.
So we have first, a famous verse commanding the pursuit of justice. Following it, there is a commandment against idolatry.
We now live in a different time.  Our idols are usually not made of stone, and we don’t usually call them “gods.”
Only a year ago, a group of people gathered in Charlottesville, VA, because they loved the statue of a dead man and they wanted to preserve it. It was so important to them that they put on a show of weapons and violence. They marched with torches, with weapons, and chanting angry slogans.
They were there for a more complex set of reasons than a statue of Robert E. Lee. They felt that a respectful memory of the Confederacy is important. They feel their way of life changing, and they don’t like it.
Other people – many of the local citizens of Charlottesville – felt that it was time for that way of life to change, because that way of life, to them, is called racism. That’s why their city government had taken steps to get rid of the statue.
Now I ask you: is it not idolatry to take a statue so seriously that it is worth a show of violence? Is it not idolatry that a woman was killed by someone who felt he was defending the statue?

Racism is in fact a modern brand of idolatry. It insists that some human lives are rightly privileged above others. It contradicts the Jewish concept of B’Tzelem Elohim, that all human beings are made in the image of God.

Now, lest my readers think this is just an exercise in pointing out where other people are messing up, let’s turn this insight upon ourselves.
When we decide to pursue justice, we need to ask ourselves about idolatry. Not “Whom do I worship?” but “What or whom do I prioritize above all else?” Specifically, when I think I’m doing justice work, I need to examine and reexamine my priorities: for whom am I doing this work? Who benefits? What’s my payoff for doing the work?
  • If I fight for justice when “justice” will also keep people I don’t like out of my face or my neighborhood – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if it won’t cost me a dime – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if I always get credit for what I do – what am I really worshiping?
We can be idolaters in the 21st century. If I want to know what I worship, all I really need to do is to take a hard look at what’s most important to me. What am I willing to defend with my reputation, with my money, with my life? 
Whether we call them “gods” or we call them “priorities,” every person alive has them. Even those who say “I don’t believe in God” have something that concerns them above all else. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote at great length about a concept of God he called “Ultimate Concern.”
We all have something that is more important than anything else to us. Whatever that may be, it is the thing we worship.
Whom or what do you prioritize above all else? Don’t tell me in the comments – tell yourself. Then decide if that’s really the worshiper you want to be.
(This is a variation and expansion on a post from 2017.)

#BlogElul — Prepare!

Image: My colleague @imabima has posted a list of topics for Elul on her blog every year since 2012. The image above is this year’s list, days 1-29.

The lovely thing about @imabima’s list of topics is that for the whole month of Elul I don’t have to think of topics. They sit right there in front of me in a tidy list, already set. Today is Day 3 (yes, I missed 1 and 2. I may come back to them later.)

The word PREPARE always brings one verse of the Bible to my mind:

  קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ

A voice calls – in the wilderness, clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God. – Isaiah 40: 3, translation mine.

This verse is echoed in the Christian New Testament:

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ· Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ,

He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! – Mark 1:3 (ISV translation) 

In both cases, a prophet is speaking to the people: Isaiah in his eponymous book, and in the opening of the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist speaks to his followers, quoting Isaiah.

For the devout, the context is already there. Isaiah 40 is known to devout Jews by its first line “Comfort, comfort my people” – it is the haftarah for the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. He was speaking to Israel after the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem, comforting them and saying, “Get on with it! Get moving! Buck up! Good things are ahead!”

Devout Christians today understand John to be saying, “Get ready! Jesus is coming!” What many Jews of his time likely heard was, “Remember what Isaiah said! Look forward, good things are ahead!”

Lately I’ve learned about “preppers” – people who focus on preparedness, usually with a bad scenario in mind.  They are preparing for massive accidents, terrorist events and natural disasters. They lay in supplies of nonperishable food and other necessities. Some of them get involved in amateur radio (for when the phone system crashes) or stockpile weaponry (for when the revolution comes.)

Preppers are  getting ready for bad things to happen. I confess have always been a bit of a worrier myself, and I try to be prepared for the things that worry me. I have a supply of water laid in, and a case of peanut butter, and dog food, because I worry about the earthquake fault in my backyard.

The thing is, neither Isaiah nor John were advocating “prepping.” They weren’t saying, “Look ahead, and be afraid!” They were saying, “Something good is coming, you better be ready!”

Today there are upsetting things all over the news. And yes, that Hayward Fault is percolating away beneath my feet. All that is true.

And yet the prophet calls to me,

“Clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God!”

Perhaps, instead of preparing for the worst, my energy is best spent striving towards something better.