Monday, October 3, 2011

Rememberances of shuls past

Today I went to St. Francis Hospital to visit a congregant.  As I was leaving, I saw a woman pushing a cart full of Siddurim Sim Shalom.  I must have looked at them strangely (Who can blame me. St. Francis is a Catholic Hospital and why would they want so many Siddurim?), for the woman explained that the last time she was here, they only had one Siddur.  So she brought some from MA.  I told her that I lived in MA for 25 years.

She lives in Northampton and works in Spfld at the JFS which is now housed in the JCC.  I told her that I was a rabbi in Spfld for 19 years.  I go to open up the Siddurim and they are from Bnai Jacob, my first shul!  Names from my past leaped out at me.  Doug Winnaman, Irving and Sylvia Chelder, and Gloria Engleson. I saw their faces as I read their names.  I told the woman that I either married their children or buried those people on the dedication sticker.  I was so overcome, I don't remember if the siddurim come from Bnai Israel in Northampton or from Bnai Torah, the reconstituted Orthodox shul from Kesser, Kadimoh, and Beth Israel.

I am glad that Bnai Jacob is still are good force for yiddishkeit fulfilling its mitzvah mission even though it is no longer in existence.  That community is still close to my heart.

Monday, September 19, 2011

My First Flash Mob

I attended my very first flash mob on yesterday. If you don't know what a flash mob is, let me explain.  Disparate people are invited to meet to meet at a selected designation to do something in unison.  Perhaps you've seen the cell phone commercial when a man arriving at the flash mob point and begin dancing only to learn that his telephone carrier is slow in delivering a text message indicating that the flash mob has been rescheduled.

I attended the world's first shofar flash mob yesterday, but almost didn't make it.  Congregants showed me articles about the impending shofar flash mob at Lincoln Center and Shira Dicker sent me a facebook invitation.  Shofar blowers were converging in cities all around the world to blow shofar together.  I thought that would be a neat experience so I decided to participate in the world's first shofar flash mob.  My son needed the car; consequently, I decided that I would walk to the LIRR train station nearest my house.  I misjudged the time it would take me to get there so I was still walking down the hill in sight of the train station when my train pulled up and then left before I had time to even reach the platform.  The next train was in an hour.  I hoped the flash mob will start on Jewish time and me being a bit late wouldn't matter.  Sadly, I was 10 minutes late and the flash mob had already dispersed.

I saw a father with his young daughter.  He was holding a real shofar and she had one of those plastic ones.  They too had missed the Lincoln Center opportunity.  He told me that there is a second chance at the Manhattan JCC. 45 minutes later.  Happily, I could walk there in time and blow my shofar with that flash mob.

My whole adventure reminded me of a Hasidic story.  A rebbe once taught that everything can impart an important life lesson.  A hasid asked his master what does a train teach us?  The rebbe answered that every second counts for if you miss the train even by a few minutes you have missed your opportunity.

I wonder how many of us are missing the train preparing for the High Holidays so that we attain our spiritual goals of living a meaningful life of integrity for the coming year.  Unless we do the soul accounting now, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur will fly by in a twinkling of an eye and we shall be the same people we’ve always been.  Every second counts!

I remain hopeful though.  I missed my train on Sunday, but I did catch the next one and attended an alternate shofar flash mob. The lesson I took away from my near miss is: Judaism believes in second chances.  No matter what you have done up to now, today is a new opportunity, a second chance, to transform your life and become the person you truly want to be. 

Dr. Louis Newman concludes his book Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuva on this hopeful note:

The only question left unanswered is the question that can only be answered in the depths of each person’s heart: how shall I finally find the will to undertake the arduous work of teshuvah and then, because I will inevitably fail, to begin it yet again?  The path of repentance will be, by turns, difficult and easy, straightforward and circuitous.  But, like all spiritual paths, the most difficult part may be the decision to embark upon the journey in the first place.  There is much holding us back – fear, to be sure, but also shame, pride, and hopelessness.  In this respect, we may take some comfort from one final text.  It is the biblical text that is read in synagogues each year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  In one of Moses’s final address to the Israelites, he admonishes them one last time that God will bless them if they observe the law and curse them if they depart from it.  He reminds them of the great gift of the Promised Land that they are about to enter and possess.  He encourages them to love God and to “return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 30:10), a phrase that echoes the theme of the year.

And then, anticipating the reticence of the Israelites to believe that all this is possible and to commit themselves to living by the terms of the covenant, Moses says:

Surely this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

All aboard!

Friday, September 2, 2011

One article two spiritual lessons

This article about Steve Jobs has also taught me another spiritual lesson today.  “Don’t jump to conclusions or in Hebrew
,ufz ;fc ostv ,t is. Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2 and the co-founder of the advocacy group One and Product Red.  He wrote a letter to the editor responding to the same article.

“As a founder of Product Red, I’d like to point out that Apple’s contribution to our fight against AIDS in Africa has been invaluable.  Through the sale of Red products, Apple has been Red’s largest contributor to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria-giving tens of millions of dollars that have transformed the lives of more than 2 million Africans through H.I.V. testing, treatment, and counseling.  This is serious and significant.  And Apple’s involvement has encouraged other companies to step up.

“Steve Jobs said when we first approached him about RED, ‘There is nothing better than the chance to save lives.’”

One article two important spiritual lessons as we prepare for the New Year.  Make Tzedakah the cornerstone of your life and give your fellow human beings the benefit of the doubt this coming year 5772.  If we do so, we'll become the type of person we truly desire to be.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steven Jobs, the true measure of a man

 Even though today is the first day of Elul, the month set aside to begin our self-reflection, I began well over a month ago because I have been preparing for the High Holidays seriously since the end of July. I've been, reading, thinking, and writing ever since.  Consequently, an article in yesterday's New York Times Business Day section caught my eye because this topic is one of the major themes of our High Holidays in our quest for renewal.

The article is entitled "The Mystery of Job's Public Giving" by Andrew Ross Sorkin.  He writes:  "Steve Jobs is a genius.  He is an innovator. A visionary.  He is perhaps the most beloved billionaire in the world.  Surprisingly, there is one thing that Mr. Jobs is not, at least not yet; a prominent philanthropist.  Despite accumulating an estimated $8.3 billion fortune through his holdings in Apple and a 7.4% stake in Disney (through the sale of Pixar), there is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity.  His is not a member of the Giving Pledge, the organization founded by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to persuade the nation's wealthiest families to give away at least half their fortunes. (He declined to participate, according to people briefed on the matter.) Nor is there a hospital wing or an academic building with his name on it."

Mr. Sorkin continues, "None of this is meant to judge Mr. Jobs." Even though Sorkin doesn't judge Steven Jobs, I know our tradition has a lot to say about this kind of person.  One of the thematic prayers we recite when the ark is opened is the Unetaneh Tokef.  The book of life is opened and our deeds are recorded for all of posterity.  The prayer ends "But repentance, prayer, and Tzedakah can remove the severity of the decree."  Rabbi David Stern comments, "Repentance, prayer, and charity do not prevent misfortune-to say so would simply be to return to the fantasy of human mastery that the earlier litany demolished.  But they do temper the harshness of life's circumstances by asserting our redemptive capacity for response." (Who By Fire, Who by Water edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, page 174)  Tzedakah should be one of the cornerstone of our lives.

Tzedakah shouldn’t be translated as charity. but rather it is derived from the Hebrew root TZ-D-K, meaning justice.  We're not given the choice to give tzedakah or not because it is an obligation, a mitzvah.  In this week's Torah portion we're told "Justice, justice you shall pursue." (Dt. 16:20)  This is such an important mitzvah the Talmud Gittin 7b teaches us that nobody is exempt from this obligation.  "Even a poor person who receives Tzedakah must give from what he receives."  It is an honor, a privilege, and an opportunity to maintain ones kavod or dignity to help another person.  The donor also benefits from Tzedakah.  You know that the old saying that the giver receives much more than the recipient is true.

The article continues to describe how other successful businessmen like Warren Buffet came to philanthropy later in their careers.  "Another billionaire, Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart Stores, did not start the Walton Family Foundation until he was 69, just five years before his death. In his autobiography, Mr. Walton expressed misgivings about formal charity programs. 'We have never been inclined to give any undeserving stranger a free ride...'" 

I am reminded of a wonderful Hasidic story as a response to Walton's attitude. A rich man once came to the Maggid of Koznitz. "What are you in the habit of eating?" the Maggid asked.  "I am modest in my demands," the rich man replied.  "Bread and salt, and a drink of water are all I need. "What are you thinking of!" the rabbi reproved him. "You must eat roast meat and drink mead, like all the rich people." And he did not let the man go until he promised to do as he said.  Later the Hasidim asked him the reason for this odd request.  "Not until he eats meat," said the Maggid, "will he realize that the poor man needs bread.  As long as he himself eats bread, he will think the poor man can live on stones."

I remember asking a pre Bar Mitzvah boy in Spfld, what he would like to be when he grows up.  He told me that he didn’t care as long as he was rich.  I responded, “Great.  That means you can give more Tzaedakah!”  When it comes to philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, I say better late than never.  I only wish they had this vision earlier in their careers. Just think how much Tikun Olam they could have accomplished.  Just think how many problems could have been solved easier then than now as the problems have grown more and more complex and difficult.  I hope one day Steve Jobs will come to the same conclusions Gates and Buffet came to when it comes to Tzedakah.  I'll keep him in my prayers during the High Holidays just like in the story about the Rabbi of Ropchitz.  His wife said to him, "Your prayer was lengthy today.  Have you succeeded in bringing about that the rich should be more generous in their gifts to the poor?"  The Rabbi replied, "Half of my prayer I have accomplished.  The poor are willing to accept their aid."

We have two spiritual goals during the High Holidays.  One is live a meaningful life and the other is to renew a personal relationship with the Holy One Blessed be He. Tzedakah is our way to accomplish both.  We learn truly to live only when we learn to give and we meet God when we serve His creatures

Monday, April 4, 2011

How can that be done in God's name?!

Kiddush Hashem and Chillul  Hashem have been on my mind since this weekend.  They are two of the 613 commandments found in our Torah, Leviticus 22:32.  Kiddush Hashem, the Sanctification of God’s name is the direct opposite of Chillul  Hashem, the Descration of God’s name.  Any action by a Jew that brings honor, respect, and glory to God is considered a Kiddush Hashem, whereas any any behavior or action that disgraces, harms, or shames God’s name is regarded as Chillul  Hashem.[1]

The Torah was given to us so that we may sanctify God's name.  The ideal of human initiative in sanctifying God's Name beyond the strict requirements of the law was developed by rabbinic tradition in the area of ethical conduct. When Simeon b. Sheta bought an ass from an Arab and his servants were delighted at finding a jewel hanging from its neck, he at once returned the gem to its owner, who cried out, "Blessed be the God of the Jews Who renders His people so scrupulous in their dealings with other men" (TJ, BM., 2:5, 8c). His conduct going above and beyond the requirements of the law is considered Kiddush Hashem.

The news over the weekend from Gainsville, FL and its repurcussions in Afganistan were text book cases of Chillul  Hashem, the descration of God’s name.  God’s name was desecrated first by a Christian evengelical minister and then by Muslum Imans and thousands of their followers.  Pastor Terry Jones held a mock trial of the Koran.  The “jury” found  it guilty of five “crimes against humanity” including  the promotion of terrorist acts and “the death, rape and torture of people world wide whose only crime is not being of the Islamic faith.”[2]  Then the church members burned the Koran. 
Now we all know the Devil can quote scripture.  In any holy book including our Torah, anybody can find statements and laws which are morally abhorent to the modern person.  Each tradition has its own way of dealing with those troublesome verses to mitigate or even uproot their original intent.  Just as the Nazis committed a Chillul  Hashem when they burnt our holy books, so too I believe that this pastor committed a Chillul  Hashem.  What kind of God does he believe in that would sanction the burning of somebody else’s holy book!

The Muslim response to the burning of the Koran began on Friday when Muslim mobs overwhelmed a United Nations compound and killed 12 innocent men and women.  The murders continued through today.  Their only crime was not being Muslims.  Certainly this has to be the second example of Chillul  Hashem.  How can Allah be happy with the murder of innocent men and women!  Those murderers in the name of Islam as far as I am concerned desecrated God’s holy name.

Which Chillul  Hashem is worse?  I can’t speak for either Christianity or Islam; however, I know what Judaism teaches.  Our tradition teaches us that a Jew must commit martyrdom, the most extreme form of Kiddush Hashem, for only 3 violations.  When demanded to either commit murder, incest, or idolotry, the Jew chooses martyrdom as an act of Kiddush Hashem. The descration of the Torah is not one of those three for a person’s life is always holier and more sancrosanct than any book.  In our eyes, the burning of the Koran is no justification to the taking of any human life especially those completely innocent of the crime.

[1] Wikipedia Kedush Hashem
[2] New York Times, Saturday, April 2, 2011 page 10

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I am priceless!

Judy and I came back from our vacation to New Orleans this past Thursday night.  We had a fun time visiting all the sites and listening to all the live music.  As you can well imagine if America is the Treifa Medinah then New Orleans has to be its capital. There is not one vegetarian restaurant in all of N.O! The kosher restaurant was too far away and we didn't have a car.

Although there is a Jewish community in N.O. (when we took the Canal St. trolley, we passed two shuls and a JCC), N.O. is a very Christian city.  Sections are known as parishes.  Even their football team is called "The Saints." So when we passed the only shop that had any Judaica on Canal St., we had to go in.  In the window there were Silver Shabbat Candle Sticks and a Keter (crown) for a miniature Torah.  Judy checked out the price of the candlesticks and they were asking for $1500.00 dollars!  For that price we wanted to know what was its history.  A young saleswoman told us that it dates back to Israel in the 1950s and is an antique.

I just looked at her and said, "I was born in the early 50's, that must make me an antique too!"  She was so flabbergasted with that remark that couldn't retort back. Besides being created in God's image, I am also priceless because I'm an antique.  No wonder nobody carded me to get into a N.O.'s bar.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Next Generation

Today I went to JTS to listen to Micah Liben's senior sermon.  I was representing the greater Greene-Markowitz family today.  The Libens and us are so intertwined.  We are Ramah friends who have shared a bathroom and there are few things more intimate than that.  Dan was my hevruta in Framingham and his son Micah and my son Roni married the Markowitz sisters.  So we're almost related.  Thanks to Fran, Roni got a tip about his eventual job at Ropes and Grey.  First of all, it was grand to be with these great friends at a simcha (and not going broke because it's a wedding!).  We were able to catch up.  I learned that Jonah is making Aliya this summer now that he is graduating college.  He has already joined a gar'in.  Kol Hakavod.

Micah gave an excellent sermon.  It was well put together, cogent, funny at times, and his delivery was quite good.  This sermon will  probably be the last one he gives wherein he cites the Malbim, Rambam, Midrash, Gemarra, and Rabbi Harold Kushner all in one sermon.  He spoke about raising children and tied it into the inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.  He posits perhaps Nadav and Avihu were not seeking a power grab, but rather didn't want to go into the family business.  The acted out by offering up that strange fire.  His basic thesis is parents have an obligation to mold, shape, educate their children; however, there will come a time when they will have to step back and allow the children to make their own decisions even if those decisions are not congruent with their own hopes and dreams for their children.  At that juncture all parents can do is love them.

I found it interesting that that was part of Hillel's thesis when he gave his sermon at my shul a year ago. Two rabbis sons going into the family business and charting their own path that is the same but at the same time different from their fathers.

Both Dan and Fran, the proud parents, were beaming.  They had every right to.  Yasher koach to Micah and to them for doing such a fine job raising the next generation.