High Holy Days for Beginners, 5777

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on October 3, 2016. It will begin the Jewish Year 5777. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on Friday September 2, 2016 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101. Both are short entries on this blog.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5777!

What Do We Owe the Poor? Re’eh

Image: A woman huddles on a sidewalk, her belongings in a cart. Photo via pixabay.com.

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11)

With this statement, Parashat Re’eh explodes the fantasy that someday there will be no poor people. The passage begins with the rules for shmittah, the Sabbatical year, but this verse carries it far beyond. With a stark economic fact— There will always be poor people in the land—and the follow-up, which could be paraphrased, “And you have responsibilities to them,” the Written Torah undergirds the huge body of Oral Torah addressing tzedakah and economic justice.

When Maimonides set out to make a systematic study of our responsibilities to the poor in the Mishnah Torah, he looked to this passage and commentary on it, as well as the commandments and commentary for tithes and the corners of the field. As a collection of verses from the Torah, it seems a motley collection of agricultural laws, tax law trivia, and the law for the Sabbatical year.

However, by Maimonides’ day Oral Torah had developed these raw materials into a well-reasoned program for the care of the poor. This public welfare program of Jewish tradition is not a “War on Poverty.” Grounded in gritty realism, it is a relatively modest program that accepts the existence of poverty without “sending messages,” “teaching lessons,” or punishing the poor for their poverty.

It accepts the idea that some people seem chronically lazy, some are chronically unlucky, some are victims of politics or circumstance, and some have temporary setbacks that require assistance. 

The tradition as Maimonides lays it out is full of surprises for the modern reader.  If someone says they are hungry, Maimonides demands that we not ask any more questions, but feed them immediately. If they ask for money for clothing, however, we are allowed to make more inquiries about the real need, because that lack is not as likely to kill them as lack of food. If a person is accustomed to riding a horse, he says, then we should supply a horse to them (a very expensive proposition – the equivalent might be a luxury car today!) The dignity of the poor is a matter of great concern to Maimonides: he is willing to stretch the community’s charity budget to avoid shaming a person who has fallen into poverty.

Indeed, all of this is rather alarming reading to have in mind when faced with a panhandler on the street today. Our circumstances have changed in many ways. However, if someone says to me, “Can I have a dollar for food?” I remember Maimonides’ teaching and either offer to buy food or hand them a grocery card that will let them buy a little food. If I have to say no, I remember his teaching and say no as kindly as possible. Above all, I make sure to support the local food bank that feeds anyone who needs it.

What do we owe the poor? We owe them the means to live, and more than that we owe them dignity, no matter our opinion of them or their actions. Jewish tradition sets a  high bar even while it acknowledges that “there will always be poor people in the land.”

Part of this d’var Torah previously appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shabbat Shalom! – Re’eh

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov Elul!

This Shabbat marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. With so much going on, our divrei Torah are particularly rich; our writers examine the confluence of the month, the texts, and world events.

Just as Passover preparation requires turning the house upside down in the search for chametz, the High Holy Day preparation of Elul requires that we turn our internal houses upside down to seek out the issues that we may have hidden from ourselves. Whom have we hurt or offended? With what behaviors do we hurt ourselves? This month calls for rigorous honesty and that, in turn, calls for courage. Fortunately the texts will support us in our preparation.

This week’s parashah is Re’eh, “See!” which is the longest of all the parshiot in the Torah.

All Who Are Thirsty Come to the Water by Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

Believing is Seeing by Hannah Perlberger

To See or To Be Seen by Barbara Heller

Show Me the Money! by Rabbi Harry Rothenberg (VIDEO)

Blessing and Curse by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Time to Prepare, Time to Pardon by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

What Do We Owe the Poor? by Rabbi Ruth Adar


I Think My Friend is an Antisemite!

I thImage: A cholla cactus in bloom. Photo from pixabay.com.

Someone found this blog by typing “A friend of mine turned out to be antisemitic. How do I handle that?”

Ouch. It’s never pleasant to learn about potential conflict with a friend. I am assuming that this is someone you believe to be a friend, not a boss, a casual acquaintance, or someone on Twitter. Here are some thoughts about addressing the situation with a friend:

1. Find out more. Maybe you have misunderstood. But even if you heard right, there’s more to learn. Ask, “What makes you say that?” or “Why do you feel that way?” After all, maybe they hate “pews,” not “Jews.” (Sometimes it is good for people to listen to themselves, too. Your inquiry offers them a chance for self- reflection.)

2. Listen carefully. Did you hear right? Second, if indeed their words were antisemitic, find out what’s going on. Are they speaking out of ignorance or out of malice? Do they merely need better information, or are we talking about deep-set Jew hating?

3. Respect the person. Escalating to rage won’t teach or persuade. Calling names won’t help things. If they have bad info, say you disagree with their information, and offer a source for better info. Remember, this person is also made in the image of the Divine, even if they have just said something dreadful.

4. You can be honest. Tell them how you feel. Exactly what that is will depend on your emotions. “Hearing your words, I am angry / sad / hurt / speechless / etc” Again, don’t call names. This is assuming they are a friend; if so, they care how you feel.

5. If the problem is ignorance, offer information. You don’t have to be the educator: point them to a blog like this one or a book or a rabbi. Do not say, “Google it.” Google can lead to some dreadful misinformation, up to and including neo-Nazi sites.

6. If they really hate Jews, ask yourself if you can be friends. Personally, I could not be friends with someone who thought I was sub-human or evil. This also goes for someone who insists the most Jews are unacceptable but I am “different.” I’d have to tell them I was disappointed in them and then dust myself off and move on. Your decision is up to you.

7. Talk it out. Whatever the outcome, it’s an unpleasant experience. Have a chat with a trusted friend or your rabbi. A good talk will help you shake it off.

P.S. I wrote this post assuming that the person asking is a Jew or a member of a Jewish community. If you are not Jewish, these steps may also work for you. Alternatively you could say, “Dude. Do you have any idea how antisemitic you just sounded?” and see where the conversation goes from there.

Learn about Judaism Online!

I teach about Judaism online. Some of it, like this blog, is free to anyone who accesses it. But if you’d like something a bit more organized, especially if you need a formal “Introduction to Judaism” course for conversion or a wedding, I also offer a class through Lehrhaus Judaica of Berkeley, CA.

This year’s “Online Intro” class will begin on October 23, at 3pm Pacific Time.  We use Adobe Connect, a program that will allow most people to access the class if they have an Internet connection and a computer.

If Sunday afternoons (or evenings) don’t work for you, don’t worry. I will email a link to class recordings to everyone who is registered for the class. I am happy to meet with you via Skype or phone to answer questions, and you can participate in class discussions via the class Facebook page.

The class comes in three parts. You can take one of them, or all three, in any order:

Fall: Lifecycle and Holidays – exactly what it sounds like (begins October 23)

Winter: Israel and Texts – a look at Ancient and Modern Israel via traditional texts (begins January 15, 2017)

Spring: Traditions of Judaism – a look at the vast diversity of the Jewish world: Mizrahi, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, American, and other possibilities. (begins March 26, 2017)

For more information, check out the class website.

To register, and for class fees, go to our Lehrhaus online catalog page.


Shabbat Shalom! Eikev

Parashat Eikev might be termed “Parashat Deja Vu.” There is material here that may give us the feeling, “Haven’t I heard this before?”

We hear the story of the Golden Calf again, which we heard once before in Exodus. We hear the story of the making and breaking and remaking of the tablets. We also hear smaller, more recent repetitions: in Deuteronomy 9:1, we hear the formula “Shema, Israel” that we heard earlier at Deuteronomy 6:4.

Why is Moses repeating himself?

We could say, well, Moses was old. He was nearing his 120th year and he was exhausted. Maybe his mind was slipping a bit.

But more likely he had had time, over the forty years, to think about all these stories, and he understood them differently now than he had when they first occurred. Moses has learned and grown, and he is sharing those new insights with his people before his death, and before they enter the Land.

Also, Moses has a new audience: these are the children and grandchildren of the Israelites who left Egypt.

Some insights on the portion:

Thanks for the Memories by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Walking and Listening by Rabbi John Rosove

Walking on the Heels of God by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Stuff Doesn’t Just Happen by Rabbi Don Levy

Jon Stewart and Moses on BS by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

Ekev: On Wealth

Remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm the covenant sworn to your ancestors, as God is doing today.

–Deuteronomy 8:18

It seems to be human nature to give ourselves primary credit for wealth and prosperity.  When a person has worked hard and for many years to reach a place of security, it is only natural take credit for all that work. Parashat Ekev warns us never to forget that no matter how well we have done, humility still applies.

The word usually translated “wealth” In Deuteronomy 8:18 is “Chayil,” the same word we know from Eshet Chayil, the song written out in Proverbs 31, usually translated “A Woman of Valor.” Brown Driver Briggs, the major dictionary for Biblical Hebrew, offers a four part definition of chayil: “strength, efficiency, wealth, army.” If it is strength, it is strength is like that of an army, like that of the woman in Proverbs 31: interconnected, efficient, valorous.

The choice of words in this week’s Torah portion reminds us that whatever wealth we have is not simply our own doing, but the result of a complex mix of effort, energy, valor, persistence, and good fortune – all from God, and interconnected with other human beings, as well.

An entrepreneur works hard for success. Making a business go requires long hours and great risk. But it also requires other factors, interconnections to others. A physical location for business requires roads to reach it, water and sewage, power lines and other businesses to serve it. We may pay for those services, but unless we are on a desert island, we do not have to dig wells for water, build roads for service, pipe the sewage away, and build a power plant! We can call the police or the fire department; we do not have to invent them.

And face it, luck is also a factor. Smart people sometimes bring businesses into being, only to be hit with a stroke of bad luck: a drought, a recession, a change in tastes, an accident, and then instead of wealth, they have nothing but debt.

Opportunity is not equal anywhere in this life. Some people prosper either through their own effort or by inherited advantage. Others never get a chance.

Many people work hard all their lives and have little to show, even though they have done nothing wrong. Others through no fault of their own are disabled by physical or mental illness and are unable to work. We must hold any goods we have with humility.