Monthly Archives: June 2017

It’s That Time

 This is the final Before Shabbat of the TBA cycle. It goes on hiatus until September. I love the weekly opportunity to reflect on things large and small and then to share those reflections with you. I always try to find ideas that touch on matters of spirituality or ethics or Israel or Reform Judaism or movies or music or… well, anything that is interesting and topical.
There are weeks when there are so many things happening that it is hard to drill down on just one topic. On the other hand, there are times when I am reviewing the week and the news and the temple and my life, waiting like a fisherman for something to suddenly strike and take the bait.
I appreciate it so much when you tell me that you’ve read a particular blog and found it worthwhile reading. I know just how many emails you probably receive and how often you bother clicking on anything in your inbox. Thank you for taking the time to read it. Some of you have told me that you forward Before Shabbat to other people. That means a lot to me as well, knowing that Before Shabbat spreads beyond the immediate Beth Avodah family circle.
 I also appreciate it when you read something with which you take issue and then you share your question/concern. I want to engage and connect with Before Shabbat. I want to know when you think I’m speaking your language and when you’re sure that we’re not on the same page.
As Before Shabbat goes into hibernation and as I slowly roll towards my annual month on the Cape, I am in a reflective state of mind. How could that not be so? After all, I am entering my 20th year at Beth Avodah!
This is such a major professional and personal milestone for me. To be in one place for so long is itself something to celebrate. The new normal for Millennials is to jump jobs four times in the first decade out of college! Twenty years is a generation; I’ve had the enormous thrill of watching a generation’s worth of children grow to adulthood. I have said hello to lots of babies. I’ve said goodbye to folks, too, including my mom, in these past 20 years. So many weddings and B’nai Mitzvah and graduations and big moments. So many moments of study and dialogue. Traveling to New York and Israel in buses and subways and taxis and camels and even a hot air balloon! So much laughter, and tears, and common cause. And so many quieter moments of conversation: in my office, on the street, over a good meal, over the phone, email, texts, and more.
Sometimes my friends kid around with me and call me the happiest rabbi in America. I’m not sure if that’s true. What I do know is that I am blessed to be where I am doing what I do. It is a calling. The notion that I am doing exactly what God wants me to do is a sobering and a daunting fact. It means the expectations are enormous.  I take this truth to be an ironclad obligation to my congregation and to my people. Being a rabbi is not what I do; it’s who I am. For better and for worse, I have no rabbi face or rabbi voice. This is it; I’m all in – it’s just me.
I have a pile of books for the summer (including Now: the Physics of Time by Richard Muller, At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Blakewell, and Moonglow by Michael Chabon, among others), a new beach chair (Renetto Beach Bum 2.0), and some great places to plant myself. I have some recipes for summer gustatory pleasure and hopes that the wifi connection at the summer house we rent is good enough to watch the new season of Game of Thrones.
5778 is going to be filled, God willing, with lots of celebrations and Simchas for us all. I look forward to toasting l’hayyim for 20 years of the deep, abiding love and appreciation I have for TBA. I also look forward to all of the good things yet to be, the events that await our attention and the ones that will spring upon us. We’re in this together, and that is comforting and exciting.
What are you reading this summer? What kind of beach chair are you sitting in? Where will you be?
Whatever you do, take some time to breathe and some time to give thanks. Be healthy and safe.
Shabbat Shalom,

A Six Day War Remembrance

As I was doing last minute prep for my Bar Mitzvah – going over the Torah and haftarah, learning how to put on tefillin, reviewing English readings – Israel was under siege. We were all glued to every news report that mentioned Israel. And as you can imagine, it was mentioned with increasing frequency and urgency in the spring of 1967.

In mid-May of that year, President Nasser of Egypt started moving thousands of troops and armor divisions into the Sinai in direct violation of an agreement they made with the UN. He then ordered the UN to leave the Sinai Peninsula. Though Nasser had no authority to do this, The UN responded and withdrew their peacekeeping forces. And Jews everywhere began holding our breath, brooding over when Nasser would take his incendiary rhetoric about destroying Israel to its logical conclusion.

I always loved reading the news and listening to Walter Cronkite, so I was current on the situation. It was so long ago, yet I clearly remember that on June 1st, as the situation continued to escalate, it dawned on me that there might be a war in Israel before my Bar Mitzvah. What would I do? Would the Bar Mitzvah be canceled?  Would something horrible, unthinkable occur?

I asked my tutor if there was some contingency plan for a canceled Bar Mitzvah. What if, I asked him slowly, what if Israel is attacked? What if Israel is captured? What would we do? Cantor Bernstein looked at me. tears welled up in his gentle eyes, and, in mine, too.  He was a Holocaust survivor, and he had family in Jerusalem. Cantor Bernstein told me that no matter what happened, my Bar Mitzvah would never be postponed. “Life always rolls forward. Shabbat comes, in good times and hard times. In peace there is Shabbat. In war, too. Even in Auschwitz, there was Shabbat.”

“Ok,” I said, “But what if something terrible happens? What happens if Egypt attacks and Syria and Jordan attack, too?” “Number one, you will have your Bar Mitzvah. Number two, Israel will survive whatever is going to happen next, because it has to survive. Because after what Hitler did, Jews can’t be victims again. We won’t be victims again.”

He seemed so sure of himself! I took his certainty and made it my own. When Israel launched the surprise air attack against Egypt on June 5th, I somehow knew that, in the end, everything would work out. Because Cantor Bernstein said so. Because we could never allow for defeat.

In the few weeks that followed, the Jewish world reveled in the extraordinary victory of what came to be called the Six-Day War. My Bar Mitzvah ended up being a Shabbat of celebration. I talked about how cool it was for Jerusalem to be back in Jewish hands. I remember saying something about how one day I would pray at the Wailing Wall.  But I remember most clearly when the Cantor came up to me after the service and gave a bear hug. As he did, he whispered to me, “You see? We will never be victims again.”

I will always remember that hug. And I will always be grateful for Cantor Bernstein’s faith and strength. He enabled a frightened boy about to have a Bar Mitzvah, feel confident, not just about a ceremony, but most significantly about the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

That confident feeling I acquired 50 years ago still lingers, as does my great love of Israel. The hard truth, however, is that since the Six Day war, peace remains more elusive than ever. And in the end, Israel’s greatest legacy cannot be about a fantastically executed war. The only legacy that will have lasting meaning is to make peace.



Shabbat: the Gift that Keeps Giving

On some weeks, Shabbat arrives like a surprise visit from an old friend. We say, “Hey! I wasn’t expecting to see you here… come give me a hug!” Other weeks it feels like the timing is off. “You again? So soon? Weren’t you just here?” Then there are the weeks when Shabbat is just one more thing to plan for and worry about. “Ok, who’s coming over when with whom? How many meals do I need to prep?”
Occasionally, Shabbat can’t come fast enough. We look out the window. We check the calendar. We go to various websites. We plaintively ask, “When is Shabbat going to get here?” We need Shabbat. We need the respite from the crush of labor and the incessant yammering of people who say they know what’s good for us. We need to strive for some level of spiritual wholeness, a developed sense that we are not the center of the Universe, the truth that we are dependent on people – friends and strangers alike – to take care of us, to share in the stewardship of our world, our lives.
We push so hard all the time. We want to get ahead; that’s one of the most important rules of the game, is it not? Time becomes a boxing cage. Time turns into an ever shrinking space that will crush us unless we can slip under the closing vault door before its too late. Shabbat comes to the rescue.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that… “the Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon.  Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus, the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath, we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day to which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
But: here’s the thing. If you don’t embrace Shabbat, there is no other true respite like it. Embracing Shabbat doesn’t mean you must become Orthodox and obey Jewish law about driving and using electricity, and so forth. In fact, it’s all too easy for observant Jews to get stuck in the minutiae of ritual without looking up to see the arrival of the Shabbat bride. With all the worry about lights left on and off and screw tops on bottles pre-opened before sunset and the temperature of the cooking surface left on overnight, there’s not a lot of room for actually attuning to holiness in time.
For postmodern Jews who don’t carve out even a sliver of Shabbat space in their lives, a great treasure is discarded. To sanctify time on Shabbat is to get real and get centered. Even if all you do is light candles or have a family meal or even come to services! I always say that if you come once every six weeks, at the end of the year, I guarantee that your life will change for the better. Trust me, it’s true.
So get out your smartphone and schedule a Friday night at the temple, one every 6 or 7 or 8 weeks. Commit! Dare to find a small island of the sacred. You don’t have to sing or dance, though you can if you want to. You can come in and sit in the back the whole time without getting up. Just come and float in the warmth of Shabbat, of music and spirit and stories and community and laughter and tears. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Shabbat Shalom