Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Al Kol Eleh" - "For all these things": Thoughts on Israel's 70th birthday

In honor of Israel's 70th Yom Ha-Atzma'ut this week, the organization Koolulam released this video of 12,000 Israelis singing together. In a stadium in Tel Aviv, they learned and performed the vocal parts for the classic song "Al Kol Eleh," "For all these things."

If you haven't seen the video yet, you might want to pause to do so before reading the rest of what I have written about it.
In 1980, to comfort her sister Ruth on the loss of her husband, the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer dedicated a song to her sister called “Al Kol Eleh” - “For all these things.”   It has become one of the most popular songs of contemporary Israel.

Like many iconic songs, many regard it as hackneyed and cliched.  But there’s a reason why it became such a popular song. It reflects powerfully deep wisdom.

The opening words of this song, ‘Al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz, al ha-mar ve-hamatok,’ ‘For the honey and the sting, for the bitter and the sweet,’ have their roots in a midrashic comment on the Book of Numbers (Tanhuma Balak 6).  

The midrash pictures a person who sees a bee, and says, ‘Bee, get away from me!  I have no use for you. Lo mi-duvshakh, ve-lo me-uktzakh.  I don't want your honey, and I don't want your sting."

In its context in the midrash, this phrase cautions against things that look attractive but are actually bundled together with strong negatives, such that the bad far outweighs the good.  The prudent course implied by the midrash is to avoid the bee’s honey, because it is accompanied by the bee’s sting.

But Naomi Shemer’s song turns this midrashic phrase on its head.  Naomi Shemer realized that as a life strategy, “I don’t want your honey, and I don’t want your sting” is deeply flawed.  Such a strategy can lead someone to avoid any endeavor that includes the possibility of pain or failure.
Which is why in her famous song, Naomi Shemer thanks God al kol eleh - ‘for all these things,’ al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz, ‘for the honey and for the sting.’   Shemer says: don’t avoid the honey because of the sting.  Rather, appreciate the honey despite the sting.

Today’s 70th anniversary of Israeli independence is an opportunity to take stock of the entirety of the experience of Israel, the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet.  

It is breathtaking to behold how much Israel has accomplished in its few short decades:  reconstituting a Jewish national community; becoming a place where Israeli culture is normative, where Jews and Judaism are at home.  Being a place of refuge for Jews experiencing persecution around the world, who otherwise would have nowhere to go. Building a society that is animated by Jewish values, as well as by the values of the democracies that have been the places where Jews have been most likely to to thrive in freedom.  Becoming a center for the world-wide Jewish community, and the home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Reestablishing a deep Jewish connection to the land of the Bible, where so much of Jewish history took place. Becoming a leader in worldwide technology and innovation. Granting freedoms to its citizens, of all religions, that are so far beyond the freedoms that they could experience anywhere else in the entire region.  Expressing deeply held humanitarian impulses as it responds to crises around the world and endeavors to play its part in making the world better. The list of everything sweet about Israel goes on and on.

But the honey is accompanied by the sting, the bitterness that is often overwhelming.  The dream of return to the land of our ancestors has been realized - but the dream of being accepted in the Middle East has not been realized.  Every Israeli family and community has experienced the sting of the violent deaths of loved ones, often in the prime of life, in the struggle for the legitimacy of an official Jewish presence in its historic homeland.  Enough of Israel’s neighbors have not yet accepted its presence that the spectre of an attack upon Israel - even an attack with nuclear weapons - must be seriously considered and prepared for. Whereas criticism of Israel is not always the same thing as antisemitism, much of the criticism of Israel in our world is thoroughly intertwined with antisemitism.  

And the thus-far intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians stings so deeply:  terrible losses on both sides, and the corrosive effects on both sides of long-term war and the long-term subjection of a civilian population to military control. Israel is not totally responsible for this predicament, but it shares in both the responsibility and the consequences.  Implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also cast thorny questions on the character of Israel’s future: will it be a Jewish and democratic state as it strives to be, as per the vision of its founders? Or will it compromise its democratic character in order to remain Jewish, or compromise its Jewish character in order to remain democratic?  If Israel pursues either of these paths, what will be its future and what will be its risks? As I see the children of my Israeli friends reaching military age, and as I see the Israeli friends of my children reaching military age, all these questions are not at all theoretical; they burn with an intensity that nearly matches the sweetness of all of Israel’s achievements.

Some respond:  lo mi-duvshakh ve-lo me-uktzakh. Israel, I don’t want your honey, no matter how sweet, because I don’t want your sting.  

But I sing along with Naomi Shemer:  Al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz.  I take the honey despite the sting, even as I do what I can to minimize the sting.  

Israel is the most significant Jewish project of the current era. As the Israeli writer Amos Oz likes to say, Israel is a dream come true, which is why it is flawed. Dreams come true are always flawed, and the only way to keep a dream in its pristine condition is to never attempt to bring it into reality.  A dream come true, like a milestone birthday, should prompt both celebration and introspection -- both prayers of gratitude and prayers for guidance to chart a wise future. On this 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, my gratitude overflows - as do my prayers for guidance.

In the words of the Prayer for Israel in Siddur Lev Shalem:

“We pray for God’s blessing upon the State of Israel, her government, and all who dwell within her boundaries and under her authority.  

Grant her leaders the fortitude to keep ever before us those ideals upon which the State of Israel was founded.   Grant courage, wisdom, and strength to those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny to do Your will.

Be with those on whose shoulders Israel’s safety depends and defend them from all harm.

Spread over Israel and all the world Your shelter of peace, and may the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)


Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah 2018 -- in memory of Kurt Rosendahl, Frieda Brown, Mirielle Knoll z"l

Dear friends,

Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day - the day when we remember the effort by the Nazis to obliterate the Jewish people -- and how they nearly succeeded in their diabolical plan, murdering ⅔ of the Jews of Europe, approximately 6 million men, women, and children. The Holocaust continues to exert an influence on the life of our community today, as so many of us have family members who are survivors and so many of us have family members who were killed during that terrible era. (Click here to see a video of how Yom HaShoah is marked in Israel today -- with a two minute siren that brings the entire nation to mournful standstill in tribute to those who were killed.)

Tonight and tomorrow, many of us are lighting memorial candles in memory of those who have died. Additionally, many of us will gather on Sunday afternoon April 15, 4pm, at Congregation Bnai Jacob (176 West Side Avenue in Jersey City) for a moving tribute to those who died, including musical presentations by the USH Choir. Our older Learning Center students in grade 6 and above are having special programs this week focusing on remembering the Shoah.

Each year on Yom HaShoah, I reflecting on the memories of people who died since last Yom HaShoah, whose lives were touched by the Shoah. As we experience the loss of the generation of Holocaust survivors, the responsibility to tell their stories shifts to the rest of us.

Today, I think of Kurt Rosendahl, grandfather of our friend and member and trustee Adam Berkowitz, who died in February 2018. Adam wrote this in memory of his grandfather:

"Kurt Rosendahl was born in 1920 Aachen, Germany, with dreams of following his father into a very successful family pharmacy business. As the Nazis took power, my grandfather and his family left for Belgium, with my grandfather and great-grandfather fleeing to France to join the resistance. They were ultimately captured by the Nazis. My grandfather spent time in multiple camps, surviving Auschwitz, a death march through Poland, and finally Buchenwald where he was liberated by the Americans. At one point he suffered gangrene in his foot, had a non-surgical amputation of a toe, and only survived because his friends carried him back and forth to work each day. He met my grandmother in Belgium after the war (I told that story during Yom Kippur), and they eventually moved to the US, settling in Manhattan and then Long Island. They enjoyed traveling the world and meeting new people everywhere- visiting 6 of the 7 continents and numerous countries. But what they loved most was their family- Two daughters, 5 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren [LC students Marissa and Tori Berkowitz] (with a third on the way) are what made them most proud. Just last weekend he was able to celebrate his 98th birthday with his family and friends.

At my mother's funeral, my grandfather spoke the following: "In sleepless and endless nights and nightmares, in the filthy barracks of Auschwitz, I had a dream. I had the impossible dream that I would survive the Shoa which we call the Henim. I dreamt that I would meet Helen and that together we would create a new family and new life. When Diane was born, it was the fulfillment of an impossible dream. She was our first born and the beginning of a new family and new life. There is a concept in Judaism that one life is the equivalent to the entire world. Diane was the beginning of a new world.""

Kurt Rosendahl spent much of his life speaking and writing about his Shoah experience; he told his story to a group of teenagers just a few weeks before he died. We pray that Kurt’s memory be a blessing always, as we extend continued wishes for comfort and peace to Adam and Lindsay and Marissa and Tori and all who mourn the loss of Kurt Rosendahl.

Also on my mind is Frieda Brown, a dear friend of our community who died in July 2017. Frieda Brown, mother of our friend and member Alicia Weinstein, was born in the notorious concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, shortly after the war was over and it had been converted into a displaced persons camp for survivors of the Holocaust including her parents. A good portion of Frieda’s childhood was spent caring for her younger siblings, in part because her mother was in ill health with aftereffects of her Holocaust experience. We pray for continued comfort for Frieda’s daughter Alicia, son-in-law Jim, and grandchildren Mimi, Grace, and Evan.

We also join with the worldwide Jewish community in mourning the loss of Mirielle Knoll of Paris, age 85, who was brutally murdered just a few weeks ago in what authorities are calling an act of anti-Jewish violence. As a child, Mirielle narrowly escaped the roundup of Parisian Jews in July 1942. She lived a generally happy and quiet life and raised her family in France. In later years, she had Parkinsons Disease and was mostly confined to her home. Just three weeks ago she was murdered -- the key suspect is a neighbor whom she had known since his childhood, and there are indications that he and his accomplices were motivated by their anti-Jewish beliefs. How agonizing that the anti-Jewish hatred that had upended her childhood returned to cruelly and tragically end her life in violence. Mirielle’s death, along with other murders of Jews in France in recent years, are horrifying reminders that the hatreds of the past are still with us. And seeing thousands and thousands of people in Paris two weeks ago, marching against hatred in Mirielle’s memory, hopefully reminds us that not everyone embraces the hatreds of the past; we have many allies in our desire to create a world of kindness and tolerance.

In this country, this year as well, we are so alarmed by the events in Charlottesville and other indications that the spiritual heirs of the Nazis are more confident and assertive than they have been in many decades. The Anti-Defamation League’s report of extremist murders in the United States in 2017 notes that the number of murders in the United States perpetrated by white supremacists has doubled in the last year. Here, too, we can take comfort in the number of allies we have -- people who prize diversity rather than being threatened by it -- but we know that we must continue to be vigilant.

As we pause to remember those who were cruelly murdered during the Shoah, as well as those who survived, we pray that their memories will inspire greater kindness and tolerance and love in our world.


See below for an inspiring response to the Shoah - video of 600 Holocaust survivors and their children singing the Israeli song 'Chai' - "We are alive."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Seder Trivia - 2018 / 5778 edition

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

You can see previous editions of this game here

This is what was presented at our congregational seder in 2017.  2 are true; one is fictional. Answers at the bottom!

2 stories are true, one is fictional. 

What is everyone’s favorite Passover dessert?  Like you have to ask.  Your favorite Passover dessert is Matzo Toffee Crunch, otherwise known as Matzoh Caramel Buttercrunch.  If you have had it before, you know that it’s your favorite.  If you have never had it before, that is the only reason it is not yet your favorite.  

These cookies, made from matzo coated in caramel made of butter and brown sugar, topped with melted chocolate and then refrigerated, are easy to make and also so addictive that in some circles they are known simply as ‘matzo crack.’

You may have thought that you remember this recipe from your grandparents who brought it with them to Ellis Island … but food writer and pastry chef Marcy Goldman has done some research on this Passover tradition, and her research reflects that this recipe was invented by one specific person -- food writer and pastry chef Marcy Goldman. She says she developed this recipe in 1985, she says she can prove it, and it’s time for her to start getting credit for it.   

So when the Manischewitz Food Co  put a recipe for Matzo Toffee Crunch on its matzo boxes, she asked that they indicate that she was the original inventor of this recipe.  They declined, noting that recipes can’t be copyrighted.

But increasingly Marcy Goldman has been getting appropriate credit for the invention of this recipe, the first truly new food to truly break into the pantheon of Passover classic dishes in many decades -- even though it might be better not be known a the inventor of ‘matzo crack.’
The seder plate is getting crowded.  Along with the traditional shank bone and egg and parsley, some Jews have had the tradition for the last 30 years to add an orange to the seder plate - in solidarity with Jewish women, or with the Jewish LGBT community, depending on whose version of the story you believe.  More recently, advocates for farm workers have suggested putting a tomato on the seder plate.  Advocates for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence have encouraged putting olives on the seder plate. And Reconstructionist Judaism has encouraged adding a pineapple to the seder plate as a symbol for refugees.

But as of last week, the newest addition to the seder plate is an unbroken apple peel - to express solidarity with the millions of people around the world, and thousands and thousands of Jews, who are left-handed.   That’s according to Joel-Aaron Levine, the founder of “Left-Handers Anonymous,” as well as the moderator of its “Jewish Left-Handers” Facebook page.  According to Levine, this is the way that attention can be drawn to the daily indignities suffered by people who are left-handed, who find that desks, musical instruments, the computer mouse, and especially kitchen utensils were not designed with them in mind.

And why should the apple peel be the symbol for these people?  Says Levine:  “If you’re a lefty, you know that it’s going to be harder for you to use a regular vegetable or fruit peeler to peel your apples to make Haroset.”  But Jews have a special responsibility to reach out to the southpaw community, especially on Passover.  As Levine notes, there is a robust debate in rabbinic literature about which way left-handed people should lean at the seder -- to the left, like everyone else, or to the right.

Does Levine have any hesitation about mentioning the suffering of slaves in Egypt, contemporary migrant laborers, refugees, and LGBT people in the same breath with the challenges of people who are left-handed?  “We’re not implying that everyone’s difficulties are the same,” he says.  “But Jews are taught not to rest until everyone has equal rights - or equal lefts, as the case may be.”

Each year at the seder, we remove ten drops of wine from our cups as we remember the ten fearsome plagues that befell Egypt -- including the plague of boils.  The plague of flies.  The plague of lice.  The plague of darkness.  The plague of crocodiles.  The plague of….. What’s that you say?  You have never heard of the plague of crocodiles?

The second plague described in the book of Exodus is צפרדע - Tsfardei’a - usually translated as ‘frogs.’  But some traditional commentators say that really, the Hebrew word tsfardeia refers to crocodiles. After all, frogs are unlikely to be as destructive and fearsome as the plague of tsfardeia is described as being.  And crocodiles famously inhabit the Nile River, and crocodiles were even worshiped as gods in ancient Egypt.  This is enough evidence for the Spanish-Jewish sage Isaac Abravanel to conclude that the plague of tsfardeia actually refers to crocodiles.

If Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel is right, we may need to stop singing one of the most beloved children’s songs for Passover, because if we change the Frogs song to ‘crocodiles on his bed and crocodiles on his head, crocodiles on his nose and crocodiles on his toes,’ it would probably earn a PG-13 rating for gory violence.

So instead we’ll have to teach our preschoolers to say:
“Where’s the seder, alligator?”
“In the Nile, crocodile!”



B is false (though the references to the orange/tomato/olive/pineapple are all true, as is the fact that there is a debate in rabbinic literature about which way left-handers should lean at the seder.) 

C is true (or at least, that's what Abravanel thought, though his is a minority opinion.  See

Monday, January 15, 2018

Immigration and diversity: in Pharaoh's Egypt and in our America (Parashat Vaera 2018)

These words are adapted from my remarks at the United Synagogue of Hoboken on January 13, 2018.

Several years ago, I noticed that whereas I don’t always devote sermons to upcoming holidays on the American civic calendar, I have always, without fail, made sure to speak about Martin Luther King in some way on the shabbat before Martin Luther King Day.   It occurs to me that this is for many different reasons.  First, that Martin Luther King Day is the one and only day on the American civic calendar that is dedicated in memory of a religious leader, so it reminds us of the potential role that religious leaders can play in improving the character of a society (and reminds me of my responsibilities as a religious leader).  And second:  unlike so many American holidays that are simply celebratory occasions, Martin Luther King Day is a day not only of celebration but also of contemplation.  It is a day to celebrate how far the United States has come on this journey towards equality and freedom, and a day to contemplate how far we have yet to go.

As we know from Martin Luther King’s most famous speech in 1963:  The founders of the United States set a blueprint for a nation that would be free and equitable, asserting that all are created equal and are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights -- but those words of the Declaration of Independence were a promise that had not yet been fulfilled, “a promissory note,” “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”  However, as King said, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”  King retained a confidence that even if justice and equity were not  yet achieved in his own day, they would eventually be achieved.  Clearly we are closer to the achievement of that dream than we were 55 years ago when King spoke those words -- and closer to the dream than we were 50 years ago when King was assassinated. And yet we all know that that dream is still not fully realized.  It will not be fully realized until it is really true, as King envisioned, that people of all ethnic backgrounds and religions and national origins and other characteristics would be fully welcomed to help to build the society.

This week’s torah portion is called Vaera, from the book of Exodus, and it gives us an opportunity to look closely at a story in the Torah that revolves around how different groups in a society relate to each other.

In last week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the experience of Egyptian slavery. We read that the Hebrews in Egypt were growing and multiplying - and Pharaoh was getting alarmed.  He said to his advisors:  “הן עם בני ישראל רב ועצום ממנו -- the people of Israel are getting to be too numerous for us.  הבה נתחכמה לו-  let us deal wisely with them.”  It is clear from Pharaoh’s language that these Israelites are living among the Egyptians, but they he does not consider them to be Egyptians. In fact, they are considered to be so different from the Egyptians that Pharaoh feels threatened by them and tells his followers to prepare for a hypothetical scenario in which the Israleites would actually sympathize with the enemies of the Egyptians.
So for the Egpytians’ own safety, they decide that they need to weaken the Israelites - and this is why the Egyptians enslave the Israelites.

This week’s Torah portion of Vaera tells us about the first 7 of the ten plagues -- plagues that demonstrate God’s power and God’s insistence that everyone should be free.  The plagues eventually weaken Pharaoh’s resolve so that -- spoiler alert --  in next week’s torah reading of Parashat Bo, he will finally let the Israelites go free.

Pharaoh’s words in this part of the Torah reflect his discomfort with a heterogeneous Egyptian society.  Someone who is different from him is perceived as a threat.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Pharaoh keeps hardening his heart throughout today’s torah portion, and why the plagues don’t seem to work:  Pharaoh has been assuming that the Israelites are threatening and dangerous to Egyptian society, so he understands the plagues as simply confirming the assumptions about the Israelites to which he had already subscribed.  

Not surprisingly, I have been thinking about American diversity this week -- and about the history of American immigration, which is the primary means for how the United States got to be as diverse as it is.

I have been thinking about how my ancestors came to this country, when, and from where.  Like many American Jews, and large numbers of us in this sanctuary, I am descended from Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the New York area between 1880 and 1924.  

When people describe Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe, why is that period always described as concluding in 1924?  What happened in 1924? ….

Between the 1880s and 1920s, immigrants poured into the US -- including large numbers of Jews.  But there started to be concerns among some Americans that the United States was becoming too diverse.  Too many immigrants, from too many different places, and not all of them were people who would ‘fit in,’ so to speak.  And so a law was passed in 1924 which curtailed immigration for everyone, but especially for Jews, for Eastern Europeans in general, and for Italians.  Additional immigration from Western Europe and Northern Europe continued to be encouraged, however, to make sure that THESE would be the groups that would remain the majority in the United States.  According to the US State Department historian,the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.’  President Calvin Coolidge stated in his 1923 State of the Union address, and reiterated when he signed the bill into law in 1924,

he said, “America must remain American….Those' who do not want to be partakers of the American spirit ought not to settle in America..”  There were some categories of immigrants who were believed to be undesirable for America - because they were poor, or likely to be involved in crime, or they just were changing the American character into something that didn’t seem so American anymore.

I am not planning to quote the vulgar expression used by the president to refer to poor and troubled countries this week, countries from which he did not think we should be seeking immigration because we want more immigration from places like Norway.   When I hear him talk like this, I remember that the advocates of the immigration act of 1924 might also have talked like this -about the places from which my grandparents and great-grandparents came.  And I am grateful that my ancestors all arrived in the US before 1924 -- and deeply sad about the fate of my Jewish Eastern European relatives who didn’t make it to the US by 1924.   If the president had been alive at that time, why should I think he he would have been on the side of my ancestors and relatives?

We affirm today that it is precisely the diversity of American life that is one of its greatest strengths, just as our torah reading reminds us that Pharaoh did not realize that diversity could have been one of Egypt’s strengths.  The people I know who are immigrants from Haiti, Africa, El Salvador, and many other countries labeled by the President are EXACTLY the people who are making America strong. There are many people in our synagogue at this moment -- congregants, guests, employees -- who fall into the categories that the president labeled pejoratively.  I can only imagine how I would feel if the president of my country were to have referred to MY ethnic group in such a way.  I hope that if I ever did hear that, that my friends and neighbors and co-workers would be quick to stand in solidarity with me -- which is why I want to say: if you are from a group that the president labeled pejoratively, I stand in solidarity with you.  No matter what the president may say, you are valued in this country.

Almost 2000 years ago, our sages taught us in the Mishnah:  
שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכלן דומין זה לזה, ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחברו.
A human being can make a bunch of coins from the same stamp and they will all be identical, but God makes all human beings in the image of God, and using the stamp, so to speak, of the first human being, and yet all people are so gloriously different.   

In Jewish tradition, the wide diversity of humanity is not cause for alarm, but cause for celebration.

To the extent that many Americans agree, we have Martin Luther King to thank - as we both pray and work for the fulfillment of his dream  “that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all … are created equal."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Keeping the Willows Alive

For the first two parts of this series on the Four Species, see and  Hopefully part 4 on the Myrtles will be ready in time for Sukkot 5779.

Sukkot is a holiday of technological challenges, major and minor, that pit a Jew against the forces of nature.  Challenge #1:  Build a structure that is temporary and flimsy enough that it meets the criteria for a sukkah according to Jewish law, and strong enough to withstand the wind and rain that many Jewish communities can expect at this time of year.  Challenge #2:  Keep the Lulav’s willow and myrtle branches looking fresh, with vibrant green leaves, when natural processes lead the myrtle leaves to dry out and the willow leaves to turn black and grow mold.

Our synagogue distributes care instructions with the Lulav and Etrog sets that we sell.   Fortunately, the etrog requires no special maintenance (other than being careful when handling it so that the pitom protrusion does not fall off).  We instruct for the myrtles and willows to be wrapped in a wet towel or newspaper and refrigerated when not in use, or else they will decay (and we remind purchasers that the tropical Lulav (palm branch) does not want to be refrigerated, or else it will decay).   But even though I am the one who has written and circulated these instructions, by the end of Sukkot, I am always the one whose myrtle and willow leaves have clearly seen better days.  

I take some consolation in knowing that the decay of the willow branches is not a recent phenomenon. The sad condition of the willow branches at the end of Sukkot is even mentioned in classic rabbinic texts.  The midrashic collection Psikta de-Rav Kahana, from the year 700 or earlier, includes various allegorical interpretations of the Four Species.  In one interpretation, the etrog corresponds to Abraham, the palm branch corresponds to Isaac, the myrtles correspond to Jacob, and the willows correspond to Joseph, “for just as the willows decay and dry out before the other three species, so did Joseph die before his brethren.” (PdrK 28)   A similar midrash connects the Four Species to the Four Matriarchs, and the willows correspond to Rachel, because she died at an early age, as do the willows.  Of all the Four Species, the willows are a symbol of decay and loss.

In fact, this understanding of the willows can help us understand the mystifying role of the bundle of willows on Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot.  After seven processions with the Lulav and Etrog, it is traditional to put down the Lulav and Etrog and pick up a bundle of five willow branches, which -- after the recitation of several prayer-poems for the occasion -- are beaten on a hard surface until the leaves fall off.  There are diverse explanations for this unusual ritual.  Some traditional commentaries see the leaves as representing the sins that have fallen away at this conclusion of the penitential season.  Some academic scholars note that some other Near Eastern cultures had willow-beating ceremonies that were fertility rituals, and Hoshana Rabbah may be the Jewish version of these rituals.  While I am not qualified to weigh in on why this ritual originated, I do know what invariably has gone through my mind when I have participated in it:  I have considered it as a dramatization of what is soon to happen in nature around me.  The leaves will fall off the trees, winter is coming, and time marches on.   Like the more gradual decay of the willows over the course of the Sukkot holiday, like dwelling in the sukkah at exactly the point when the weather is likely to turn, the beating of the willows makes me maximally aware of the passage of time, arousing in me a bundle of diverse feelings including wistfulness, urgency, and hopefulness for the future.

Writer and educator Parker Palmer wrote in a collection of essays about the seasons: “My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life.”  Palmer notes, though, that autumn is also the season when seeds are scattered to ensure the renewal of life after the winter, teaching the “hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying.”   So too, Sukkot reminds us of the natural processes that are winding down to set the stage for rebirth in the coming year.  Just two days after Hoshana Rabbah steers us to confront loss, we begin the Torah reading cycle anew on Simhat Torah:  “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”   How can I ensure that these willow leaves, decayed and broken, will help me to seek and guard God’s light in the coming year?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Lulav: growth, frozen in time

I have lived most of my life far away from palm trees.  But on my visits to palm trees in places like Florida, California, and Israel, I have always been captivated by how majestic and (to me) exotic and unusual they are.   

On a visit to California several years ago, I started paying attention to how palm trees grow.  Most of the fronds of a palm tree are bent over to one direction or another. But at the very center of the top of a palm tree (at least for the date palm and other varieties that I observed) is a small “closed frond” that is not bent in one direction or another.  Rather, it points straight up.  As this “closed frond” grows, it will eventually open, and its leaves will separate and some will flop this way and some will flop that way.  But at the moment, the “closed frond” is united and undifferentiated.

Jews have a special name for the “closed frond”:  it is the Lulav, the palm branch that is one of the Arba Minim, the four kinds of plants that are used ceremonially on the holiday of Sukkot.  Each palm tree grows only one Lulav at a time. (A recent article on Lulav harvesting,, notes that each palm tree can yield approximately 1 Lulav each month -- but a palm tree has only one Lulav at any given time.)

Jewish law instructs that a Lulav that is fit for ritual use must exemplify this quality of being united and undifferentiated.  The Lulav’s leaves are arranged in a kind of pyramid arrangement, with the shortest leaves on the sides and the tallest leaves in the middle.  The tallest two leaves in a kosher lulav are fused together; collectively, they are known as the ‘tiyomet’ תיומת (related to the Hebrew word for ‘twin’). (The word ‘tiyomet’ can also refer to any fused pair of leaves in the Lulav, but in Ashkenazic halakhic discussions the reference is to the central and tallest pair.)  If the Lulav had not been harvested, the closed frond would have grown, and the tiyomet would have split, with the two twin leaves that comprise it going off in different directions.  But according to halakhic sources, one of the most important qualities of a kosher Lulav is that the tiyomet not yet be split.

The Lulav itself, and its unsplit tiyomet, can be a palpable symbol of the future, with its decisions yet to be made and its outcomes yet to be realized. For our ancestors, the undifferentiated quality of the Lulav might have been a symbol of their uncertainty about the quantity of rain that would fall in the coming year - always a preoccupation in the land of Israel, especially at Sukkot time.  

For us, the undifferentiated Lulav can also represent the moment, frozen in time, immediately before an important decision is made.  The two twin leaves in the tiyomet are now identical but would soon diverge (had the Lulav not been harvested). Similarly, in my own personal life, and in the life of  my community and nation, I am constantly faced with decisions, sometimes binary decisions, which will dramatically affect the future for me and for those who are connected with me.    I may sometimes seek the comfort of the middle path, resisting a decision. But so often in our lives, there isn’t a middle path. The tiyomet has not split yet, but its splitting (in a live palm tree) is inevitable. And it is up to me to locate myself on one side of the divide or the other.  The Lulav can remind us that, even at times when we feel powerless, we can still make decisions that will affect and transform our future.

The Lulav grows at the very center of the top of the palm tree and represents that tree’s potential for growth and change.  Staring at the Lulav’s tip, I can ask myself: right now, what is my tiyomet - the decision I need to make but have not yet made?  How can I make the most of this current moment that is full of possibility?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Jerusalem of Iron, Jerusalem of Gold (2nd day Rosh HaShanah 2017 / 5778)

Much of the first part of this sermon is adapted from the account in Yossi Klein Halevi’s masterful book about the Six Day War, Like Dreamers, which devotes significant attention to the life and work of Meir Ariel, and from a video interview with Israeli composer Gil Aldema, Many thanks to the United Synagogue of Hoboken Choir for singing so beautifully during this sermon!

Plenty of songwriters start out with the intention of writing a truly iconic song, but few actually succeed. And no songwriter can count on writing a true classic. But let me tell you the story of one of the most well-known Hebrew songs of all time, an instant classic, and how it came to be written.  

It was early 1967.  The state of Israel was 19 years old, and life in Israel felt as precarious as it ever had. Whatever hopes that the new State of Israel would be welcomed into the middle east had not been realized.  Both Syria and Egypt were using increasingly disturbing rhetoric to describe their goal of eliminating the state of Israel.  There were border skirmishes with increasing regularity.  The question was not if war would come, but when.

At that time, a very large percentage of Israel’s population were Holocaust survivors and their families. Another large segment of the population were Jewish refugees from Arab countries who had fled from the lands where they had been living for generations.  The memory of Israel’s War of Independence less than 20 years before was palpable, as was the tragedy of the catastrophic military losses of that conflict that ushered the Jewish state into being. Israel was a place of hopefulness, but also a place of significant challenge. And this was to be the setting for Israel’s National Song Contest, to take place on Israel’s Independence Day in early May in Jerusalem. The various songs that would be entered in this contest had been written and submitted, but the contest organizers were concerned that there needed to be additional music to be played while the results of the judges were tabulated.  (We could call this a “pre-computer-age problem.”)

Jerusalem’s Mayor Teddy Kollek suggested to Israeli composer Gil Aldema, who was coordinating the concert: Maybe, considering that the concert is taking place in Jerusalem, maybe there can be a performance of songs of Jerusalem?  Aldema responded:  I don’t think there are enough songs of Jerusalem.  

(That took me aback when I first heard this story.  I know of  hundreds of Hebrew songs of Jerusalem.  But that is today.  More than 50 years ago,  Jerusalem was for Jews not quite the celebratory place it is today.  Jerusalem was a reminder of past glory, but of present difficulty and struggle.  Of course, there are beautiful words about Jerusalem in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible, including the remarkable words about the return to Jerusalem in the Haftarah from the book of Jeremiah that was read today, but there few contemporary songs about Jerusalem.)
Aldema was told: if we don’t have modern songs of Jerusalem, we’ll have to commission them.  And he decides to approach five prominent israeli songwriters to ask them to write a song about Jerusalem.
The first four songwriters turn him down.  He asks songwriter #5 -- Naomi Shemer - to compose a song about Jerusalem, for use in this festival.
She is not very enthusiastic.  In fact, the next week she calls back and says:  “I've been thinking about it and I don't think I can do it.”
He responds: “Please! We really need you!”
She says: “I can’t write a song when the topic is dictated to me. That’s not how songwriting works.”
He says:  “I'll tell you what: If it makes it easier for you, just write a song about anything.  It doesn’t have to be about Jerusalem.”  
Upon hanging up the phone, he said to himself, “Now I KNOW she will write about Jerusalem.”

And in fact, she says, that very night, a new song just flowed out of her.  With Naomi Shemer’s strong classical Jewish education, her song played on a Talmudic expression.  The Talmud refers to how in ancient times, a beautiful object of jewelry that a groom might present to his wife on their wedding day was a golden diadem with an image of the Jerusalem skyline -- a Jerusalem of Gold -- Yerushalayim shel Zahav.  (BT Ketubot 62b)  This detail reflected that to the Jewish people, Jerusalem was not merely a city.   It was a symbol of home, of the vitality of the Jewish people, and of hopefulness.  And then echoing the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi in his poem “Ode to Zion,” -  she wrote:  “Behold, I am like a lute for all of your songs.   הלא לכל שירייך אני כינור  

The verses of the song expressed both the physical and spiritual beauty of the city of Jerusalem, especially as evening approaches, while also alluding to the