Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Keeping the Willows Alive

For the first two parts of this series on the Four Species, see http://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/2017/10/the-lulav-growth-frozen-in-time.html and http://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-fruit-that-remembers-what-botanists.html.  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, https://www.timesofisrael.com/largest-lulav-harvesting-kibbutz-has-fronds-in-high-places/, 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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7KZO-jMdck. 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

"What if?" "Lulei" and Counterfactuals for the New Year (Rosh HaShanah eve 2017)

This Hebrew year 5777 that is now coming to an end - it could have been different.

You probably think I have some specifics in mind -- which I do, but actually I am making a comment that would apply equally to every year in the history of our world.  We can always imagine how things would have gone differently.  In fact, focusing on some of the ways that things could have gone differently is one of our tasks now, on the cusp of a new year.


There is a particular Hebrew word that refers to the contemplation of something that didn’t happen but could have happened.  The word is 'lulei' לולא, and it means 'we're it not for.'  It's a word that introduces a counterfactual, an alternative that did not come to be.   


Most kids in our educational programs first encounter the word Lulei in a Purim song about Haman’s 3-cornered hat.  According to the song, ‘lulei hayu lo shalosh pinot לולא היו לו שלש פינות- had it not had 3 corners - lo hayah zeh ha-kova sheli. לא היה זה הכובע שלי   It would not have been my hat.”  This is a fine example of counterfactual reasoning, even if it is not very sophisticated.


But throughout the Bible, there are various examples of the use of the word lulei לולא that are weightier and even agonizing.  For example: the word lulei is used in the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Without going into the entire story:  Joseph’s brothers need to travel to Egypt to purchase some more grain, but they have been told that they won’t be able to buy grain unless the youngest brother Benjamin is with them.   But the brothers, have a terrible time trying to convince their father Jacob to release Benjamin to travel to Egypt with them.  He is a classic overprotective father who thinks he has lost one son already.  And the weeks and the months pass, and Jacob still refuses to release Benjamin to travel with them.  In frustration and concern, Joseph’s brother Judah exclaims to their father Jacob: כִּי לוּלֵא הִתְמַהְמָהְנוּ כִּי-עַתָּה שַׁבְנוּ זֶה פַעֲמָיִם  “Had we not delayed, we would have been able to return to Egypt twice already.”  In other words:  If it weren't for our unwise decision, we would all have been better off today.  That is a more typical use of the world lulei:  if such and such a thing had been different, I would not today be in the sorry state that I am in.  In other words, this is the use of the word lulei to introduce a feeling of regret.


It’s fair to say that this has been an unusual Jewish year in the United States. Many of us have been engaging in a lot of lulei thinking, imagining small details that could have been just a little bit different, with the result that the course of the country or the world could have been transformed --
whether for better or for worse.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hurricane Harvey - helping those who are affected


This is the note I sent to my synagogue community on August 28, 2017. 


The images of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, in Houston and other communities in Texas and Louisiana, is devastating. It is on pace to be one of the worst episodes of flooding in recent American history.

Many of us in Hoboken know what it is like to be evacuated, stranded, and/or to have flooded homes and cars or other property. For many of us, this prompts a desire to help others, just as others around the country came to the aid of our community at our time of need.

In addition to aid organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, there are a number of Jewish organizations that are providing non-sectarian disaster relief. The following are some of the organizations that are accepting donations -- together with some thoughts about how these same organizations assisted us after Sandy. The United Synagogue of Hoboken Rabbis Discretionary Fund is making donations to all of these organizations.


Jewish Federations of North America -- This is the umbrella organization of all the Jewish Federations across the country, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. You can donate to Harvey relief through our local Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey's dedicated page, https://www.jfnnj.org/hurricaneharvey/, or to the Houston Federation's Harvey Relief Fund or to the national JFNA relief fund. Donations from Jewish Federations were helpful to our synagogue and many individuals in our area following Sandy. 100% of donations go to disaster relief in the affected area.

Nechama - a Jewish Response to Disaster is a Jewish disaster relief organization that mobilizes volunteers to assist with the hard work of gutting and rebuilding following storms, floods and other disasters. Nechama volunteers were instrumental in the early stages of our synagogue's recovery after Sandy, as well as in clearing many of Hoboken's municipal buildings so they could be used as polling stations (for the 2012 election shortly after Sandy), and in assisting many people in our area -- especially the elderly -- in cleaning out their homes after the storm. While most Nechama volunteers are Jewish, most beneficiaries of Nechama's work are not - they assist whoever needs the help most. Nechama is currently evaluating their plans for responding to Harvey and will be seeking funds as well as volunteers.

Hebrew Free Loan Society has a project to provide interest-free loans to people in Houston who will need help in rebuilding. see http://hfls.org/donate-to-houston/

Friday, July 14, 2017

What does the Torah say about ... insurance?

Every so often I will get a question from someone in this community or outside of it, of the form “Rabbi, what does Judaism say about X?” Like “What does Judaism say about genetically modified organisms?” Or “What does Judaism say about Snapchat?”

The answer, of course, is that the Torah and other classical Jewish texts basically doesn’t say anything about any of these issues.  However, the Torah includes ethical teachings that can shed light on all of these issues.

In this vein, a question on my mind over the last few months is: What does the Torah say about insurance?

Ostensibly, the answer is nothing.  The first insurance contracts date from the 14th century. The idea that you would pay a small amount of money on a regular basis, to someone who would pay you a lot of money to help you if something bad happened to you - seems like a new idea.  And that you would buy insurance for just about everything in your life - to insure your family against someone dying, or against having health care costs, or having property damage, or a car accident, or losing your job, or having your vacation cancelled, or having damage to the contents of the package you are sending -- appears to be an especially recent phenomenon.

Then again, the Torah and the Talmud do talk about institutions that are quite similar to insurance. Maybe we wouldn’t call them “insurance”’ per se, but we would call them examples of “risk pooling,” which is part of the underlying principle by which insurance operates.

If you lived in an ancient Jewish community, you would have lived in close proximity with other people and other families.  Some people would probably be farmers, while others would be merchants, and maybe others would be hired laborers.  Some would be wealthy, some would be poor, and some would be in the middle.  And if someone should experience a crisis -- for example, if someone became impoverished and needed financial assistance, or suffered illness, or crop failure -- the others in the community were responsible to come to the assistance of the person or people who were experiencing difficulty.  Such assistance would usually be possible to provide because most of the time, most people are not enduring a crisis and are therefore available to assist someone in need.

This is the most basic principle of social welfare as described in the Torah and the Talmud. We read, for example, in Leviticus (19 and 23):  If you have a field, don’t harvest the corners of the field or collect the harvest so thoroughly that there are no dropped sheaves.  Rather, let the poor and the stranger harvest the corners of  your field and glean (pick up the dropped sheaves) in your field.

This is a major theme at the conclusion of the book of Leviticus. Almost at the conclusion of that book, we read: -- וכי ימוך אחיך --- והחזקת בו - “If your brother is starting to become poor, hold on to him and strengthen him.” Prop him up. Keep his head above water.   (Leviticus 25) In Leviticus 19, we read  לא תעמוד על דם רעך “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

The common denominator in all these examples is that people who are doing well at the present moment should help those who are not, in part because such a situation could so easily change -- as the Talmud says (in a precursor to numerous 1960s folk songs), Galgal hu she-chozer ba-olam.The world is like a revolving wheel.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b) .  Sometimes you’re up, and sometimes you’re down. It makes sense for us to structure our society such that those who are up are giving some assistance to those who are down.  It’s not only a matter of beneficence and generosity; it’s also a matter of self-interest, because we know that the wheel keeps turning.   If today we are in the position to help others, it may happen in the future that we will be the ones in need.  

But is such assistance best defined as an “obligation,” or is it “an optional but prudent thing to do,” or is it “an optional nice thing to do?”  In other words:  Is it analogous to a tax (which would be an obligation), or is it analogous to an insurance premium (which would be optional but prudent), or is it analogous to charity (which - at least according to American society - would be optional but nice)?

My sense is that Jewish tradition does not really recognize the distinction between these categories.  The Hebrew word usually translated as “charity” is tzedakah, and it means “justice,” and it is considered obligatory, not optional.
Many Americans this year are asking the question: who should be eligible to get health insurance?  Who do we accept into our community, into our circle, to pool risk together with us?  In particular:  if I am healthy, do I need to accept sick people into my circle to pool my risk with them?  I might do much better if I excluded sick people from my community. In fact, If I am extraordinarily healthy, maybe it would be better for me not to be part of one of these communities at all.
Judaism has an unambiguous response to such questions: We don’t make decisions about who is in our community based on how expensive their needs are.
Still on my mind is an incident a couple of months ago in which TV personality Jimmy Kimmel described his new son’s medical condition, how henceforth his son will have to have many heart surgeries, which are likely to be successful but will classify him as having a preexisting condition for the rest of his life.
Former Congressman Joe Walsh responded to Kimmel:  “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn't obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else's health care.”
Ever since I heard that, I have been wondering: Setting any actual policy proposals aside, is there a way to interpret the Torah and Jewish ethics to agree with former congressman Joe Walsh, that someone who is fortunate at the current moment is not obligated to share in the risk of someone who - through no fault of his or her own - is experiencing misfortune?  
It appears to me that Joe Walsh and I do not only disagree about health care, but about the nature of community, and what it means to be part of a community and a society.  And these are things on which reasonable people can in fact disagree.  But it is incontrovertible that the Torah is sketching out a vision about the nature of community, and it looks different from the Joe Walsh version -- in that the Torah’s version reiterates the injunction,  lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hoboken shelter Civic Champion award to Erica Seitzman: presentation by Phil Cohen

This week, USH member Erica Seitzman was honored by the Hoboken Shelter. The following is the text of the speech delivered by USH member Phil Cohen to present the award (also presented on behalf of USH member and Shelter board member Rebecca Kramnick who was unable to attend)

Erica Seitzman Introduction
Presented by Phil Cohen at the Hoboken Shelter’s 35 Anniversary Gala
June 13, 2017


It’s my privilege to introduce you to Erica Seitzman.

This weekend, our family watched the movie Wonder Woman.  In Wonder Woman, the heroine has amazing powers given by the God Zeus, which she uses to save civilization and bring peace to the world.

Erica is the Hoboken Shelter’s Wonder Woman.  

Erica’s parents, who must have given Erica her amazing powers, are here with us tonight.  Can we please recognize Erica’s parents?