The whole world is a narrow bridge — One Day at a Time

This is a repost from a blog written by a regular commenter on this blog, Otir. I share it because Rabbi Marcus Burstein z”l sounds like such a wonderful individual. I learned from reading it, and I hope that my readers will, as well.

(Also, Otir’s blog is well worth following: One Day at a Time)

The whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not be afraid ~ Rabbi Nachman of Breslav כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוּ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לאֹ לְפַחֵד כְּלַל

This was one of the favorite quotes of my rabbi, Marcus L. Burstein, z”l As […]

via The whole world is a narrow bridge — One Day at a Time

Halloween Hospitality

Image: Candy bars by Alexas_Fotos on pixabay.com. 

There’s a big bag of candy in my refrigerator, so it must be the week of Halloween.

Before I was Jewish, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I loved wearing a costume, and I loved handing out candy at the door. After I became a Jew in my 40’s, it took me a while to sort out what I was going to do with Halloween.

My thoughts went like this:

I love Halloween! I am not going to give it up!

Halloween has its roots in both pagan practice and Catholic practice – it’s not for Jews.

— But I love Halloween!

Halloween is a holiday when we basically license people to do mischief – not very Jewish!

— But I love Halloween!

We have Purim for costumes, without the whole “trick or treat” protection racket.

— But I love Halloween!

… and so on.

I had no problem whatsoever letting go of Christmas, partly because it carried some bad memories, and partly because the religious aspect of it was quite real to me. Halloween was a lot harder to give up, because I had a lot of great Halloween memories, both as a child and as an adult, and its religious content was not as immediate to my experience.

However, I could not escape a simple fact: It isn’t a Jewish holiday, and there are things about it that are simply not right from a Jewish point of view.

After a lot of years of study and thought, I’ve decided to celebrate Halloween as a time for hospitality. I don’t dress up. I don’t decorate. But the kids who come to my door know that they can depend on me for some really high-quality candy – stuff that they like, or can trade to others for things they like more.  And I let my non-Jewish friends know that they are welcome to bring their children by for a safe treat. I admire their costumes, I hand out the goodies, and it’s a day of goodwill all around.

Come Purim – look out! You never know what crazy thing I’ll wear!

RavAdar
Who IS this guy?

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Bereshit

Image: The first chapter of Genesis inscribed on an egg. In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Photo by Sputnikcccp on April 22, 2003. Via wikimedia, some rights reserved.

We’re back at the beginning again, reading, “In the Beginning…” We begin the Torah with two creation stories that have many contradictions, and this week’s Torah portion has both of them. Which one is true? we might be tempted to ask, if we are accustomed to think that there is one correct answer to every question.

So perhaps the first lesson in this scroll is that a good question may have more than one correct answer. Any good mathematician will tell you that there are many problems with more than one right answer.

So it is with Jewish questions.

One may ask, why did we wave the lulav during Sukkot?

An anthropologist might answer, “Because the practice began as an ancient fertility rite, and it is intended to bring on the rain and renew the fertility of the earth.”

A student of the Bible might say, “Because we are commanded to wave it in Levitcus 23:40.”

A kabbalist might reply, “Because when we wave the lulav, we bring together the seven emanations of the Holy and unite them next to our heart.”

A different teacher might say, “Because the four species represent the four kinds of people in the world.”

And yet another Jew might say, “Because it is what my teacher of Torah taught me to do.”

… and they are all quite correct.

Here are some divrei Torah on Parashat Bereshit. Shabbat shalom!

The Meaning of Mitzvah

Image: Photo of a wall decoration outside a synagogue in Zwolle, The Netherlands. By Jedidja/pixabay.com. The inscription reads, “Because My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” – Isaiah 56:7

A student asked me last night what “mitzvah” meant.

(I love my students; they keep me honest. I should have defined the term instead of just throwing it around.)

Mitzvah is Hebrew for commandment. In Yiddish and then in English, it acquired a colloquial meaning of “good deed,” and in truth, many good deeds are actually the fulfillment of commandments, but the literal meaning is the stern “commandment.”

Many modern Jews are resistant to that translation, because it fills our to-do lists to bursting. Our ancestors counted 613 commandments in the Torah, and no one has time for all of them. Some of them are impossible at this time (Temple sacrifices, for example) and others require equipment we don’t have right now (the Temple, again.) But we still have a long list of things we are commanded to do.

No one wants to be a failure.

What I said to the student last night was this:

“Commandment” means that it’s a serious thing. We have to deal with it, we can’t just ignore it and call ourselves good Jews.

Dealing with it may mean doing it, fulfilling it as perfectly as we can. (e.g. Keeping our tzedakah budget at a particular level and treating it as a budget item.)

Dealing with it may mean knowing that the commandment is there, as an ideal for behavior we regretfully cannot live up to at this time.  (e.g. Observing Shabbat as well as we can, in the hope that at some time in the future we will be able to do better.)

Dealing with it may mean acknowledging that it is there, on the books, and that it is inappropriate to observe it at this time. (e.g. Rebuilding the Temple would involve destroying someone else’s place of worship, against their will.)

Dealing with it may mean saying, no, we’ve misunderstood this one and we need to go back and study. (e.g. So-called mitzvot that exclude women from full participation in Jewish life are an antiquated mis-reading of Torah.) Going back and studying it is hard work, sometimes the work of generations. It is not an “easy way out.”

 

When we engage with the commandments, even if what we do is struggle with them, we’re on the Jewish path.

[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. – Pirkei Avot 2:16

7 Rules For Calling the Rabbi

A conversation I had too often as a congregational rabbi:

  • Mrs. Cohen: Rabbi, why didn’t you visit Abe Levi in the hospital?
  • Me: What? Abe Levi was in the hospital?
  • Mrs. Cohen: Yes, last month! He had a heart attack! EVERYONE knew. He and Helen say they are never going to forgive you and now they are looking for another synagogue. I don’t know what they teach you in rabbinical school these days!

Unfortunately, I am not making this up. Many people don’t realize that in the USA, hospitals and other medical institutions are prevented by law from informing clergy when congregants are admitted to the hospital. Also, clergy cannot read minds and hear surprisingly little from the “gossip mill” in the synagogue.

Alternatively, I’d find out that someone was in the hospital and “hadn’t wanted to bother” the rabbi. If my congregant was in the hospital, I wanted to be “bothered”! If you don’t want us to visit, you can say so, but let us know something’s going on.

Here, as a public service, I offer these rules for calling your rabbi:

  1. Synagogues have methods of getting messages to rabbis in time of emergency; there’s usually something about it in the voice mail message. An emergency is (1) someone has died or (2) someone is in the hospital in crisis. It is OK to call your synagogue’s “emergency number” in either of those circumstances, even if the hour is very late or early.
  2. Hospitals in the USA cannot notify your synagogue about congregants who are patients. If you want your rabbi to know about your health, you will have to call the synagogue and tell them.
  3. Your rabbi wants to know that you are going in for surgery, even if it is surgery you don’t want to think about. Give them a call ahead of time and let them know.
  4. Your rabbi doesn’t need to know medical details unless you want to tell them.
  5. For things that are not emergencies (even miracles, like new babies) call during office hours.
  6. Call your rabbi during office hours if:

 

 

  • You would like a counseling session
  • You are planning a lifecycle event (the earlier, the better: A year ahead is not premature!)
  • You have happy news.
  • You have sad news.
  • You have gotten bad news.
  • You’d like to be more active at temple, but don’t know what you want to do.
  • You need somewhere confidential to talk something out.

7. If you need to leave a message for the rabbi, leave your phone number, spoken slowly and clearly. They may pick the message up at a time and place where they can’t look up your number.

Rabbis go into the rabbinate because we love Torah and we want to serve the Jewish People. Help your rabbi out by not requiring that they read your mind. Call the rabbi!

 

 

A Radical Jewish Notion: Shabbat

Image: Two people sit on a bench and look at a landscape. Photo by 4clients via pixabay.com.

Shabbat is a radical, transformative idea.

In the ancient world, there were no weekends; most people worked 7 days a week. Even those who lived more leisurely lives, like Pharaoh or the Mesopotamian rulers, had rigid roles to carry out and from which there was no break.

Then along came the Jews, with our peculiar Creation story. Unlike any other Creation narrative, ours begins as follows:

When God began to create heaven and earth— the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water— God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. – Genesis 1:1-5

…and so on. The process of Creation is not a making from nothing, but an organization of a pre-existing chaos. From that chaos, the Creator separates light from darkness, and organizes time as well: “evening and morning, a first day.” This goes on for six “days,” with the organization becoming more and more complex and sophisticated. Then something remarkable happens:

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. – Genesis 2:1-3

The Creator steps back from Creation, and rests. Work stops.

Some people get all wound up over this story, fighting about whether the world was “created in six days” and how that squares with evolution. Those people are missing the point: the point is that in six steps, the Creator takes the world from utter chaos to exquisite organization and then STOPS to rest. And by “declaring it holy” the narrative suggests to us that this is an example to us. The rest of the Torah will flesh that out.

Later we would get the same thing in the form of a commandment, just in case we didn’t get it the first time, from the narrative.

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. – Exodus 20:8-11

So here we are, 21st century Jews: we have to figure out what to do with this idea of Shabbat. Oddly enough, we are now back in an age when more and more people are forced to work 7 days a week, with demands coming hourly through email and smartphones.

It is a radical act to say, “No, I am going to make time and space in my life that I will use to BE instead of DO. I will use that time to make a genuine connection with people I love. I will use that time to become more truly myself. And yes, I will rest.”

It isn’t easy or profitable. It means hustling a little more to take the time off. And perhaps we will need to begin by carving out a little time, then gradually expanding it as we are able. That’s OK. The more Shabbat, the richer life can be; we have a lifetime to get there.

Ahad Ha’am, a great Hebrew essayist and cultural Zionist wrote:

More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.

Shabbat is a taste of the world as it could be, a world in which there is no slavery, and in which every person is valued for who they are, not for what they can do. It is said that if enough Jews kept Shabbat, the world would be transformed.

I believe it.

What in the World is Shemini Atzeret?

Image: Stanford University Hillel students enjoying a meal in their sukkah, October 2009. (Stanford University Hillel, via JTA.org)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

For a great take on the holiday read Rabbi David Evan Markus’ article on the JTA website, On Shemini Atzeret, Just Hang Out.

This year (5777, or 2016, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Sunday, Oct 23, continuing until sundown on Oct 24.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot! Enjoy one more day of fun!