Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hadasim / Myrtles: the branches that bind

See my other essays on the remaining plants of the Arba Minim (4 Species): 

Among the Four Species used on Sukkot, the myrtle branches (Hadasim) seemed to me to be the most innocuously pleasant.  The Etrog is fragile; the Lulav is dangerous with its sharp leaves; the willows quickly dry out. The myrtle branches are, in my experience,most likely to survive Sukkot intact without harming itself or others.  And the myrtle leaves have a fresh, vaguely Mediterranean scent  - best unleashed by crumpling up the leaves, or by scratching the myrtle branch itself.  In fact, unlike all the other parts of the Four Species, it is not particularly difficult to keep the myrtles fresh and fragrant for weeks and even months after Sukkot is over - just put them in a little bit of water.

The myrtle tree gives its name to Hadasah, the hero of the Purim story (better known by her Persian name, Esther).  That Jewish tradition describes a queen named after the myrtle should not be surprising; pliable twigs of the myrtle, together with the fresh scent of the leaves, make it especially appropriate for weaving into wreaths and victory crowns.  Maybe for a similar reason, the Talmud ( includes a small cameo role for myrtle branches, at the conclusion of the story of Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who spent several years studying torah in a cave to escape persecution by the Romans. When they emerge from the cave after twelve years, they are clearly unprepared to return to the regular world after such a period of ethereal seclusion. They return to the cave for one more year.  When they exit again, they see a person who is racing home, holding two myrtle branches.  When they inquire about why he has these branches, he informs them that they are special for Shabbat, and he has two of them to correspond to the two versions of the Shabbat commandment in the Ten Commandments.   Shimon bar Yochai and his son are cheered to see that the people of Israel are taking such pleasure in observance of the commandments (maybe they had feared the worst during their seclusion), and they consent to leave the cave permanently.  Maybe the myrtle branches reminded them of the simple sweetness that exists in the world - and maybe the branches help to bind them to the rest of the community.

A cryptic verse in the Hallel Psalms ( may also make reference to the pliability of the myrtle branches.  In what appears to be a “stage direction” in the midst of words of praise, we are told Isru chag ba-avotim ad karnot ha-mizbeach - - “Bind the festal offering to the altar with cords.”  The word translated as “cords” here, “avotim,” is the same word used to describe the myrtle branches in the book of Leviticus.  This could refer to the myrtle branches being used as a kind of strong twine in the time of the Temple.

Looking at the myrtle branches, smelling their scent, and thinking about how they have been used historically for tying and binding, I ask myself: how do I feel bound to the most ancient parts of my tradition?  How do I plan to keep the sweet scent of the myrtles alive well into the coming year?

Friday, September 14, 2018

"Through the narrow passage" (Sermon for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah, 2018)

The story is told of a rabbi, a priest, and an imam who all receive a message from God.  The message is that God has finally had it with all of humanity’s sins once and for all. And in six months time, God is going to punish everyone with a flood, but there will be no Noah’s Ark this time. The religious leaders go to their people to share this grim news.  

The priest and imam say to their people:  “We now have six months to purify ourselves before we meet our God. We have six months to pray, to beg for forgiveness, and hopefully our God will be merciful to us.”

And the rabbi goes to his people and says, "Fellow Jews:  we now have 6 months to learn to breathe under water."

Why was I thinking of this old old joke throughout the summer?  Because of a story in the news that you certainly saw. In a year full of so many terrible news stories, with so much sadness and heartache, there was at least one news item that everyone could celebrate - even though it was so stressful when it was going on.  It took place in Northern Thailand.  As you no doubt remember, there was a youth soccer team in Thailand who spent what they were hoping would be a fun day exploring some local caves.  However, they got seriously lost, and then the rains came and the caves started to get filled up with water. For almost 2 weeks, there were intensive searches to find them. Many feared the worst, that they would not be found alive. But then, two expert cave divers discovered them, alive and relatively safe, but miles deep in the cave.

However, this is when the real international drama began. Because  so many of the cave passageways were flooded, and efforts to drill new holes into the cave were not successful, the initial plan was that the only way for them to get out of the cave was for them to engage in some of the most challenging cave scuba diving that could be done anywhere in the world, going through some narrow passages under water that were only 15 inches wide.

And so they started the process of teaching these kids the skills of scuba diving - skills that none of them had, but skills that it was expected that they would need in order to get out of the cave alive. Then in a remarkable demonstration of international cooperation of thousands of people,
after 18 days of captivity, all the boys and their coach were successfully rescued.  (As it happens, the boys did not have to put into practice any skills of swimming or diving, as it was decided that it would be safer if they would be entirely in the care of professional divers during their journey.)

There are so many implications of this incredible story that have spiritual import. The 25 year old coach, who had previously been a Buddhist monk, teaching the kids techniques of prayer and meditation so that they would consume less oxygen and have an easier time dealing with their lack of food day after day. (As someone who had engaged in a lot of fasting as a spiritual discipline, he was able to guide the kids about what fasting would feel like so they wouldn’t panic.)  After being discovered but before being rescued, the coach sent a note of abject apology to the parents, acknowledging that he had made a terrible mistake in authorizing this visit to the cave.  And the parents sent a gracious message back to him in the cave, to let him know that they were so relieved that he was there together with their children and that they were so thankful that he was keeping them safe.  (Which truly he was, in ways that the parents would not learn until after the rescue.)   And after their rescue, the boys spent several days taking temporary vows of Buddhist monkhood in memory of the Thai Navy SEAL who had died trying to rescue them, and also in tribute to the role that prayer and meditation had played in keeping them safe.

So all in all, this is a story about prayer and meditation and fasting and apology and forgiveness, and self-sacrifice and cooperation and generosity, and doing acts of kindness in memory of the deceased.

Or in other words, there is absolutely NO theme from the HH that is absent from this story!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Listen to the Stories" (Rosh HaShanah sermon at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, September 10, 2018)

I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in astrology.  With one exception.

I find it very moving that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales - which have been a symbol of justice for so many centuries.

One nickname of Rosh HaShanah is Yom Ha-Din - the day of judgment.  Throughout the high holiday season, our prayers use the image of a courtroom.  This is the day when, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, we each feel judged, and we make every effort to judge ourselves.  In the stirring prayer Unetaneh Tokef, we confront the elaborate metaphor that each of us has our verdict inscribed in a fearsome heavenly book, determining our fate for the coming year.

So for the sages of our tradition, who were more interested in the zodiac than you might have thought, it was no surprise that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales of justice - which our sages referred to by the Hebrew name - ‘מאזניים Moznayim.’  For them, this was yet another demonstration that this is the time of year when all of creation passes before God one by one -   תעביר ותספור ותמנה ותפקוד נפש כל  חי - “You take note of and count and attend to every living thing.  ותחתוך קצבה לכל בריאה - and You determine the fate of every creature.”

As we stand today in the presence of these scales of justice, I want to tell you a story of how the scales of justice have a different meaning for me this year נecause of an troubling experience I had this year in an American courtroom.  This story, which some of you already know, has political implications.  But I am sharing this story with you not because of its political implications but because I think it helps us to better understand one of the themes of Rosh HaShanah.  Fortunately we’re not the kind of synagogue where people get up and dramatically walk out when the rabbi says something they disagree with.  (Or if we are that kind of synagogue, you have never done it dramatically enough for me to have noticed.)   But I want to promise you that, first of all, we have a politically diverse community and on this and other issues I respect where you’re coming from whether I agree with you or not, and I deeply believe that the story I am sharing with you can help you to better  understand Rosh HaShanah whether or not you and I are in sync politically.