Monthly Archives: October 2013

This One Was Special

Once again, for the third time in the last 10 years, fans of the Boston Red Sox watched their beloved team win the World Series. I learned to be a Red Sox fan in utero and the pain and sadness of so many years of disappointment, close calls and missed opportunities have faded away in the glory of not one, not two, but 3 world championships.

There was no season like 2004 when the Red Sox came back from being down 3 games to none to the Yankees and winning the pennant. A week later the Sox won their first series since 1918. How could anything compare?

Well, I honestly believe that this one does and in fact, this victory just might be  even more special.  I say that for two reasons. First, this team’s personality, quirky nature and ethic of hard work and teamwork was so captivating, so enjoyable, so indescribably exciting. Coming back from a horrible season last year, they confounded all of the pundits and experts by winning 97 games during the regular season and beating three very good teams in the playoffs. They weren’t perfect but they got key hits at the right time, fantastic pitching performances, some clutch fielding to make up for some rather silly errors and had all of the baseball world admitting they were, after all, the best team in the major leagues this year.

But, there is one other reason why this one was special and it has to do with the tragic bombings during the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day in April.

From the day of that horrendous event, the Red Sox took it upon themselves to lift the spirits of the city and remind people that no one was going to take their city away from them.  Team leader David Ortiz said that in rather blunt fashion when he said to a stunned national tv audience before the first game played after the bombing: “This is our  _____ ing city” But, beyond all of the symbolism of the “B Strong” logo and the frequent honoring of first responders, it was the attitude of the players that made the strongest statement.

I love my home here in Ann Arbor. It is my home as an adult, as a husband and a father and I love Michigan and have no desire to pack up the car and move back to New England. But, twice this year, on Patriots’ Day when I heard the news and last night when the Sox won game 6, I really wanted so badly to be standing on the streets of my birthplace.

Thank you Red Sox for what you did for Boston and for all of us fans. Below, I am reprinting the blog I posted in April. I feel those words even more strongly today.

 

TO LOVE A CITY

The tragic, uncivilized act of terror which took place in Boston on Monday has left us all shocked, saddened and angry. And,  it should leave us determined to continue to live life as we want to live it in this country in defiance of those who wish to undermine our hope, our freedom, our optimism for the future. We grieve for those who have been killed, reach out in compassion and comfort to their families and to all of those who have been wounded. And, we are once again filled with awe and appreciation for those who have bravely and tirelessly done all that they can do to protect and to heal. May we learn from the courage and compassion shown in the last 48 hours.

So much has been written and spoken over the two days about the attack and I have found myself listening less and less to the endless news stories and reading the paper more quickly than I usually do. As the hours have gone by, one thought keeps coming to my mind and it is that thought that I want to write about. It is not about violence, terror and pain or even about the uplifting actions of the brave law enforcement and medical personnel. It is about love: the love of a city, the love of this city.

I don’t question for a moment that any city can inspire love and dedication among those who were born there or lived there. Hopefully, all of us feel a strong, inspiring connection with the place of our birth or the place we call home. But, I also believe that there are some cities which inspire a greater sense of connection: a pride, a uniqueness, a more intense sense of belonging. And, Boston is one of those cities.

If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never lived there, you might pick up some of that sense by listening to the incessant ramblings of Red Sox fans or picking up on the elitist academics who talk about the intellectual environment of the city. But, if you have lived there, and even more importantly, if you were born there, you know that it goes much deeper than that. To be a Bostonian means to believe without apology that you were truly privileged to call such a place home.

So, over the last couple of days, I’ve asked myself why we feel this way.

It is not because the city is perfect. While I was growing up, we saw more than our share of racism and bigotry in this “Athens of America”. There is poverty such as you would find in any city. On a lighter note, the accent can be maddening and the drivers can cause you to want to leave town immediately (but you wouldn’t be able to find your way since the roads are impossible to follow). Still, there is no place like Boston.

Maybe it’s the mixture of history and contemporary life. The “Freedom Trail” which features revolutionary war era graveyards and buildings winds its way through the middle of the main shopping district. Maybe it’s the beautiful views like the one from Storrow Drive coming out of town when you come out of a “s” shaped curve and find yourself for a moment looking right down the Charles River. Maybe it’s the many institutions which are the “oldest” this and the “first” that that are all over the city from the world’s oldest subway to the nation’s oldest public school (yay Boston Latin!) to the oldest ballpark still being used in the Major Leagues. Maybe it’s the way everything has to be just a little different than the rest of the civilized world- candlepin bowling, milk shakes made without ice cream to name just two. Maybe it’s because one of the greatest attractions in the city is taking a ride on the Swan Boats in the Public Gardens, the most “low tech” and least exciting ride you will take in the 21st century but one you will never forget.

Why do I love this city so deeply?

Maybe it is all of these things.

Maybe it’s one I haven’t mentioned.

But, maybe it just is because it is home.

That’s the most important reason of all.

 

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Talmudic Debates on the holidays 4: Purim

Our 4th class on  Talmud sections relating to holidays dealt with Purim and we looked at two different debates regarding the holiday.

The first  doesn’t focus on Purim but it is based upon a statement in the Mishna that one must read the Megilla in order and can not read it in a  language other than Hebrew  if the intent is to fulfill the obligation for hearing the Megilla being read on Purim. The mishna clarifies this by pointing out that one can read the Megilla in the vernacular if people do not understand Hebrew but that one fulfills the obligation if one hears it in Hebrew even if one doesn’t understand Hebrew.

This is an interesting discussion and leads eventually to one of my favorite sugyot, talmudic debates, that I have ever studied or taught.

The Talmud relates to the issue of the Megillah on Purim to the saynig of the Shema and begins with a disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (“Rebbe”) and the other sages. Rebbe says the Shema must be recited in Hebrew, the sages say: “In any language”

Rebbe gives the reason for his tradition as being that the first paragraph of the Shema says; “These words shall be (on the heart)”. He says “these words shall be” implies they shall be as they are, namely in hebrew. The sages defend their opinion by saying that the word; “Shema” implies hearing and understanding. Thus, one can say the Shema in any language on understands.

The Gemara then asks the students of Rebbe how they understand the word “hear” if they don’t think it is related to understanding. They respond that it means that the Shema must be heard, to fulfill our obligation, the shema  must be said out loud.

The Gemara than asks the sages how they learn that the Shema must be said out loud as they can’t learn it from the word “Shema” since a word can only be used once in teaching law and they already used the word “shema” to indicate that it can be said in any language.

The sages answer that they believe that if one recited the Shema without hearing it, they have fulfilled their obligation. So, they don’t need to learn it from any place.

The Gemara then asks what the Sages do with the word “they shall be” which Rebbe used to teach something they don’t agree with. They said, it teaches that you shouldn’t read the Shema out of order.

The Gemara then asks the students of Rebbe how they learn that the Shema can not be said out of order. He says the Torah  says’THE words” when just “words” would have been sufficient.

The sages however then say they learn nothing from the fact that THE words are used.

So, we have this wonderful short debate which is based on the idea that ideally statements of Jewish ritual law need to have a basis in the Torah text and that once one uses a specific text to teach one lesson, one can’t use it to teach another lesson as well.  These are the “rules of the game” for the Rabbis.

Then, we read another brief text. That text dealt with the Talmudic tradition that a person is obligated to drink on person until you can’t tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordecai”. This is such a difficult tradition to understand especially since the Talmud recounts a story of a Rabbi Zera and Rabbah who had a Purim feast together which ended up tragically due to drinking.

Many look to that story as an attempt to cancel out the Talmud’s expectation that we drink to excess on Purim. However, other Rabbis have found ways to claim that the Talmud never really wanted us to drink to excess.

Maimonides says that the Talmudic expression concerning drinking meant that we should do things which would cause us to sleep deeply on Purim because, when asleep, we don’t know the difference between the phrases. Other Rabbis claim that, in fact, the difference between Haman and Mordecai, between evil and good, is sometimes minimal and that even the slightest amount of liquor might render us incapable of distinguishing between the two. Still others claim that there was a long poem sung on Purim which contained the words; “Cursed be Haman Blessed be Mordecai” which was really a type of a tongue twister and that, again, even the slightest amount of liquor would cause on to be unable to say the prayer.

The bottom line is that regardless of what the Talmud meant originally, we should not use Purim as an excuse to drink to excess. Proper celebration of this or other occasions are appropriate of course and each person can make their own decision concerning alcohol consumption but to say we have an obligation to get drunk on Purim is a horrendous thought. Too many people struggle with alcohol consumption and to minimize their issue with alcohol in this way is insulting and dangerous. And, certainly, those who are below drinking age should not be given alcohol or nor drink in honor of the holiday.

 

Our next class will deal with Pesach.

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What I have Learned from the World Series

Tonight, my beloved Boston Red Sox will face the St. Louis Cardinals in game 1 of the 2013 World Series. After the debacle of last season, I hardly expected to see the Sox in the playoffs this year, let alone make it to the Series. But, this team has a unique combination of skill and perseverance and here we are ready for baseball’s biggest stage.

I have been a Sox fan since the early 1960’s and this will be the 6th time I have experienced a World Series. Each of those experiences stand out in my mind as  memorable moments so it seems an appropriate time to look back at the 5 previous occasions and  note the lessons I learned each time.

1967- This was the year of the Impossible Dream when the Red Sox who had finished in 9th place the year before and had never had a winning record for so many years surprised everyone by winning the American League Pennant. They lost in 7 games to the Cardinals but it was my first taste of sports joy. I remember the Series so well and especially remember the games that were played at Fenway during school days (games 1 and 6). We could hear the cheering from the Park at our school, less than a mile away. I learned that year the power that sports has to unite a city, to bring generations together, to lift spirits during what was otherwise a turbulent time in Boston as in the nation. That the Sox lost was sad but I remember thinking that it was only the first of many opportunities that I would have to cheer them in a World Series. Optimism is certainly important when you’re a 12 year old and the Sox bred in me that year a sense of hope for the future.

1975- The Red Sox had a great season, rolled through the playoffs against Oakland and went up against the mighty Cincinnati Reds in what was to become a classic series. After Carlton Fisk’s home run to win game 6 in the 12th inning. I and my cousin Dave were there to watch it from the next to the last row of the right field bleachers (and I have the ticket stub to prove it). We were all so optimistic for game 7. How could they lose? But, of course, they did, although the game was very close. I was still young enough and hopeful enough to assume there would be another chance but I felt more let down than in 67. So close, ahead in game 7 by three runs in the middle innings only to lose the game on a bloop hit in the 9th. But, the lesson that I remember from that series is the joy, the joy of Carlton Fisk jumping like a little kid when his line drive hit the foul pole for a home run. All of us in the stands jumped along with him and the lasting lesson from that night and that series was how we all have to and celebrate our successes with unbounded joy.

1986- I wish I had good things to say about the ’86 series. But, in many ways it is too painful to recall. Another 7 game loss, this time to the New York Mets. But, this was especially devestating. The disastrous loss in game 6 (lost long before Bill Buckner’s error in my opinion) and another blown lead in game 7 was almost too much to take. To me, it was so terribly sad because while I was only 31, I felt like time was beginning to slip away and that I couldn’t be as hopeful as I was in 1975 that I would see another chance for a world championship. And, of course, what I felt about myself, I felt even more strongly about my father who was 65 at the time. Dad and I talked on the phone during the 10th inning of game 6 as I wanted to celebrate with him when the Sox won. But, we hung up when the game started to slip away. The disappointment in his voice after the game is what I will remember most clearly. He said it didn’t matter that much in the long run,  but I don’t think he really felt that way. I could hear his sadness. 1986 taught me about the pain of getting older and seeing the future differently than we do when we’re young.

2004- Finally, a World Series championship. The Red Sox beat the Cardinals in four straight after their incredible comeback against the Yankees. It was a great night. I celebrated quietly and with dignity (not really) and most importantly, was able to hug our then 11 year old son Avi after the last out and ride through Ann Arbor with him after the game waving our Red Sox flag out of the car. While it is not true that all things come to those who wait, this certainly did and it felt every bit as good as I thought it would be. I learned that the things we look for in our lives, the things we hope for, are worth waiting for and while the waiting might be the hardest part, it makes the things we hope for even more meaningful. The other lesson I learned from that series came during a trip to my father’s grave in Boston two months after the series. I brought a copy of the newspaper with the Story of the Sox’ win to put on his headstone and the cemetery, even two months later, was filled with Red Sox pennants, baseballs, caps and other souvenirs left on the graves by children, grandchildren, siblings and spouses who only wanted to share that moment with the ones who taught them to be Red Sox fans. I learned again the power of memory and this memory was bittersweet as so many memories are.

2007- When the Red Sox won the four game series against Colorado, I celebrated like I had done three years before but now I was an old veteran of such celebrations and could take it more in stride. But, I will never forget the comment made by Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. He said that 2004 was for our parents and grandparents who suffered through so many years. This one, he said, is for us and our children. What a lovely thought. First, you pay tribute to those who came before you and then you celebrate with a full heart for yourself and the future. And, when I heard that, I forgot for the moment that I was now the “elder” in the family. This one was for me.

And that brings us to 2013. I have no idea who will win but I do know that the Series will, as baseball always does, give us lessons to live by and reasons to celebrate who we are and where we have come from. And, most importantly, as happened when Shane Victorino hit his grand slam in the 7th inning that effectively ended the League Championship series, baseball will make me  jump up and down and act like a hopeful kid again  and that’s why I love it so much.

Here’s to a great series!

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Talmudic Debates on the holidays: 3 Yom Kippur

Continuing with the summary of our classes on the subject of the holidays of the year as discussed in Talmudic texts, we turned our attention this past week to Yom Kippur.

The majority of the Talmudic sources on Yom Kippur deal with the Sacrifice of the High Priest on that day, a fascinating subject in itself, but we turned to the last chapter of the Tractate of Yoma (Yom Kippur) to discuss an issue which is brought up in connection with the fast day and then taken, as is typical of Talmudic texts, in a different direction.

The question we studied had to do with what to do when a person is hungry on Yom Kippur, hungry to the point of illness and desperation. The general principle in the Talmudic texts is that if a person claims to need food, we believe him or her and give them food. No one is allowed to second guess this decision, no matter how many “experts” might say that he or she is not in danger.  And, in the case in which a person says they don’t need food but there is an “expert” who says he or she does, we go by the word of the “expert”. It is not clear whether a person could be “force fed” but certainly it is the responsibility of those present to convince the individual that food is necessary.

This is not to be taken lightly as the commandment to fast is clearly one of the most important ritual commandments of the entire year. But, “pikkuach nefesh”, acting to counteract a threat to health or to life is a critical principle in Jewish law and overrides all of the ritual commandments.

We then read a section in which the Rabbis discuss a situation in which a life is in danger on Shabbat and there is a necessity, for example, to rescue a person from a collapsed building. There is no question that even on Shabbat or Yom Kippur, one does whatever is necessary to save a person. However, the Talmud is quick to point out that under no circumstances should this effort be assigned to someone who is not Jewish or not otherwise obligated to the law in order to allow a Jew who is obligated to not break the law. In fact, the Talmud records these actions must be taken in public by “gidolay Yisrael”, the most important people in the Jewish community in order to show the absolute priority given to life saving acts in Jewish law.

Finally, three cases were presented in which a person is obligated to act immediately without seeking permission from the Rabbinic court. They are cases which prove that pikkuach nefesh is of the absolute highest priority. The first case involves a young child swept away by the sea. We are obligated, of course, to do whatever it takes to save him or her even if,  in the process, we broke a law of Shabbat. Similarly are the cases where a child falls into a pit or finds himself or herself behind a locked door and unable to get out of a room or a closet. In all cases, adult Jews are required to do all it takes to save the individual then and there.

In an interesting twist, the Talmud then asks why all three cases had to be mentioned. The Rabbis point out that had only the first case been mentioned, one might think it was all right to leave the child in the pit because he wouldn’t go anywhere and one could come back after Shabbat to save him. The Talmud absolutely rejects this saying the rescue needs to take place then and there. Similarly, with the case of the child behind the locked door, even though one might sit and talk with the child throughout Shabbat and keep him or her amused while waiting for Shabbat to end, the Talmud says the child must be saved then and there even if laws have to be broken in order to do so.

This section and many others show how critical pikkuach nefesh, the saving of a life or the saving of an individual from serious harm, is of the highest priority in Jewish law.

Our next class will discuss some laws concerning Purim.

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Talmudic Debates on the holidays: 2 Hanukkah

As I mentioned in my last posting, I am going to use my blog to summarize the 7 session class I am teaching on sections of the Talmud relating to the holidays. The class meets most Thursday evenings at 8 pm. at Beth Israel (please check the website at bethisrael-aa.org  for dates of the class).

I know that not everyone can attend so I am hoping these summaries will at least pass along the information from the class even if it doesn’t provide the “experience” of studying Talmud in a group.
Our second class dealt with Hanukkah and we began by looking at one of the most famous Talmudic texts regarding Hanukkah, found in the tractate of Shabbat. The first sentence in this section says that the commandment relating to Hanukkah involves: ner, eesh ubayto, which is translated as one light for a person and his home. In other words, the original ritual of Hanukkah lights consisted of each individual lighting a light in the home each night, one light each night. The Talmud then says that the “mehadrin”, those who wish to observe in a more zealous way, will light one light for each member of the family and the ‘mehadrin min hamehadrin”, the most zealous, will light  a different number of lights each night. Bet Shammai says you light 8 the first night and decrease in number, Bet Hillel says you light 1 the first night and increase in number.

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So, the obvious question is how Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai arrive at their customs. One teaching is that Bet Shammai wishes that we note the number of days remaining in the holiday while Bet Hillel wants us to note the number of days that have passed.

But, another interpretation is then offered. Bet Shammai, it is said, is connecting the holiday of Hanukkah to the holiday of Sukkot by reflecting the fact that on Sukkot, the number of bulls which were offered as sacrifices in the time of the Temple decreased each day of the festival. This is not as obscure as one might think because there is a definite connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah in that the earliest record of the holiday, in the book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha notes that the Maccabees celebrated the festival of re-dedication of the Temple for 8 days since they had missed out on the holiday of Sukkot a few months early due to the fact that they were involved in the war against the Greeks.

Bet Hillel, it is said, instructs us to light candles in an increasing number each night because “in matters of holiness, we always increase rather than decrease”. The end of the holiday, says Bet Hillel, should be brighter than the beginning. This is, of course, the tradition that we follow today.

Then, we turned to the section of the Talmud which actually contains the story of the oil which burned for 8 days. It is told in the way that we tell it today; the Maccabees found one jug of oil still sealed with the seal of the high priest and it had enough oil only to burn for one day but a miracle occurred and it burned for 8 days.

This is the earliest record of this story and clearly the Rabbis wanted us to see in Hanukkah a divine miracle. Only God can make one day of oil last for 8 days so the Rabbis wanted us to focus on that rather than on the military victory which was dependent on the courage of the Maccabees. Even if one believes that God helped the Maccabees win the war, there was a significant contribution by the soldiers themselves.  It seems clear that the Rabbis of the Talmud wanted us to connect Hanukkah more clearly with the Divine.

I then offered an idea that perhaps the story of the oil is meant to be viewed as a parable concerning the Maccabees. They were kohanim, priests who were loyal to the Temple and to the faith. Perhaps the parable is that this small group “sealed with the seal”, in other words still loyal and not polluted by adherence to any other faith should not have been sufficient to win the war but a miracle happened and they were able to win the battle. I wonder if the small jug of oil which burned longer than expected is meant to reflect the story of the Maccabees winning the war.

Finally, we looked outside the Talmud to a great question of Jewish custom. If there was already one day’s oil in the jug, then the miracle really was only a 7 day miracle and we should only celebrate Hanukkah for 7 days. Of course, this is just a fanciful question since the original celebration was 8 days but the question is a good opportunity to think about what is important to us in the holiday.

Some claim that the extra night is to honor the Maccabees’ military victory. Some say that the fact that the Maccabees found even one jug of oil was a miracle in itself and should be honored with an additional day of celebration. Others say that the Maccabees, knowing that it would take 8 days to produce more oil, divided the oil up into 8 parts and hoped that 1/8 would be enough for each day. That opinion is generally rejected because, it is said in our tradition, you can’t depend upon a miracle taking place, which is of course what would have been assumed if you put only 1/8 of a day’s oil in each cup of the menora.

That question remains for each of us to answer. In the meantime, as we look forward to Hanukkah this year, it is a good opportunity to review some of these traditions relating to the holiday.

Our next session will discuss laws relating to Yom Kippur.

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Talmudic Debates on the Holidays Session 1: Sukkot

During this fall, I am teaching an adult education class in which we study sections of the Talmud dealing with the holidays of the year. The goals of the class are both to have some exposure to the way Talmudic discussions are structured and to discuss some customs of the holidays. Some of the customs are well known, others less so but each sheds some light on the significance of the practice of the holidays.

I intend to use my blog to summarize the classes after they have been held so that those who were not able to attend could learn from the texts as well.

Our first subject was the holiday of Sukkot and we began with a study of the first section of the Mishna in the tractate of Sukkah. The Mishna begins with the statement that a sukkah which is more than 20 cubits tall is “pasul”, can not be used as a sukkah.

In the Gemara, the commentary on the Mishna, (which together with the Mishna forms the Talmud) we read 3 different ideas as to why there might be a height restriction on the sukkah.

The first, from the teacher known as Rabbah,  notes that the Torah says, about Sukkot, “l’maan yaydu dorotaychem”, that your generations should know that I (God) made you dwell in Sukkot when  I brought you out of Egypt. The word “know” leads Rabbah to explain that if the Sukkah were too high, one wouldn’t “know” that one was inside a structure since the roof was so high above one’s head that it would not feel like one were inside.

The second opinion, from Rabbi Zera, notes that we have to dwell in the shade of the Sukkah, which the Rabbis identify as meaning the s’chach, the covering of the Sukkah. This opinion reasons that if the Sukkah is too tall, one would be dwelling for most of the day in the shade of the walls and not the shade of the roof.

Finally, there is the opinion, taught by Rava,  that we are supposed to build the Sukkah as a “temporary” dwelling and that a Sukkah that was over 20 cubits high could hardly be considered “temporary”. Each of these interpretations refers to either a verse in the Tanach or a particular Rabbinic tradition.

The next discussion we studied concerned the fact that according to the mishna, a child who “does not need his mother” is obligated to be in the Sukkah. The Rabbis discuss how one determines that the child does not need his mother.

There are two opinions to this question. The first from the school of Rabbi Yannai teaches rather bluntly, that the child has to be toilet trained and does not need his mother to clean him.

The second, from Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish,  is that a child does not need his mother if he doesn’t wake up from sleep calling: “Mother”.

In a charming comment on this idea, there is a note that many older children (the word used is gedolim and that might refer to adults as well) wake up and call for their Mother. So, the text is amended to read: the child who wakes up “calling Mother, Mother”. In other words,  the child deemed too young to be in the Sukkah is one for whom calling out  isn’t just a reflexive action but one which reflects a sincere need for the mother to come to the child’s aid. This is proven by the fact that the child calls out twice.

We discussed this at length. Either way, it is clear that the operative principle is that  men (women were exempt from being in the sukkah  according to the Mishna) did not want to have to bother with children in the sukkah, either because of the cleaning needs of the child or because of the disruption in the peaceful atmosphere of the sukkah that would come with a crying child. Either way, it seemed to reflect the reality of those times in which fathers were not accustomed to spending much time with their very young children. Obviously times have changed in many ways and we should all maintain that the youngest child, and of course, their mothers, should be in the Sukkah as often as possible.

Finally, we discussed briefly the beautiful tradition which states that when it rains, one can come in from the Sukkah when the food is ruined by the rain dripping through the roof. One Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef,  notes that he has a lower threshold and comes in even when some of the schach just happens to fall but he claims that this is because he is very fastidious. This raises an interesting point: sometimes some of us have different criteria than others regarding our observance of certain customs. While there is a clear delineation of expectation involved in halacha, Jewish law, occasionally individuals find areas in which they are less inclined to observe to the letter of the law. The implications of Rabbi Yosef’s statement are worth considering.

In regard to rain in the sukkah, the Mishna had mentioned a parable. If it rains in the sukkah, it is compared to a slave who comes to fill a cup of wine for his master and he poured the pitcher over his face.

The question asked in the Gemara is: “Who is the “he:”? Who poured wine on whom?” The answer is that it is the master who, for whatever reason, poured the wine in the face of the servant saying: “I have no desire for your service”.

In this case, it appears that the Rabbis are teaching that rain in the sukkah shows that God does not desire us to be in the sukkah. Some might see this as reflecting a failure of one kind or another on the part of the people who built the sukkah incurring God’s anger and causing rain, which is usually considered a blessing, to fall. Or perhaps it is the simple statement that God does not want us to be in the Sukkah if we’re uncomfortable in the rain and would rather have us enjoy the holiday inside the house.

Our next session dealt with Hanukkah and I will post the summary soon.

 

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Yom Kippur and the Pew Research Study

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, I opened up the New York Times to find a front page story about the changing traditions regarding Bar and Bat Mitzvah. My first reaction, before I even began to read the article, was a great sense of relief.

I had actually been considering giving a sermon for Rosh Hashana about Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Had I done so, I would have faced the nightmarish situation which all Rabbis have faced on occasion: the moment when the sermon we had worked on for so long suddenly becomes irrelevant or superfluous due to a development in the news or an article which suddenly appears unexpectedly in the press. I can only imagine the feeling of a Rabbi who had chosen to speak on the subject of Bar or Bat Mitzvah this Rosh Hashana and how he or she would have reacted had congregants approached afterwards with the news that much of what he or she had said, or didn’t say, had been in the paper that morning.

But, in a way, I  faced that situation with the release of the Pew Research Study on Jewish Americans which we have been reading about for the last week. Everyone says the news is bad. The numbers of committed Jews is decreasing, intermarriage is rising, the category of “Jews of No Religion” is growing (which, as a Rabbi, I find deeply troubling)  and movement affiliation is plummeting.

All of these are certainly cause for concern and even though there are some good signs in this report, for example: an increasing number of Jews finding issues of justice and equality to be Jewish concerns, most are saying the report should serve as a wake up call to do something to stem the tide.

But for me, there was an additional personal reaction to the Pew Report in that it seemed, at first glance, to contradict the entire basis of the sermon I had delivered on Yom Kippur before Yizkor.

I spoke that day about my belief that there has never been a better time to be a Jew than in the 21st century. I took issue with our penchant as Jews to believe that the past was always better than the present (As an illustration of this theory, I even quoted one of my favorite songwriters, Jim Steinman, who wrote in the great song Paradise by the Dashboard Light: “It was long ago and it was far away and it was so much better than it is today”. )

But, I argued, it is not true. If you think of our situation today with freedom in so many places in the world, including of course, here in this country to practice Judaism; if you think of the miracle of the State of Israel and all it means to us as a people; if you think of the growth of Judaic studies program and youth service programs and all kinds of Jewish expression throughout social media; if you think of synagogues experimenting with new ideas, dedicated to being more welcoming and inclusive, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that this is a great time to be a Jew.

So, how do I settle this contradiction?

Well, as they would say in the Talmud, it really isn’t a contradiction at all.

I was speaking about opportunity and I urged my congregants to take advantage of the opportunities that exist. The fact that many don’t is terribly disturbing but it doesn’t change the fact that the opportunity, the potential, is there for everyone and that can not be denied.

The Pew report may contain some alarming numbers but the truth is that the present and the future is exceedingly bright for American Jews. We just can’t be scared away by the idea that our best days are behind us. If the Pew report encourages non engaged Jews to do something to stem the tide the numbers might be suggesting, those who do desire to become more engaged will find a much greater variety of ways to do so than ever before.

I will admit that I would find some of those ways more positive than others. I do believe that Judaism should be first and foremost a religious faith and that the synagogue should be the center of Jewish life. I do believe that our homes should reflect a commitment to Jewish tradition. I do believe that “real communities” are preferable to “virtual communities”. I do believe that our love and support of Israel should include a passion for justice and equality within the State.

But, those are only my  perspectives and priorities. Others will believe differently and the pluralism within the Jewish world today, the many varied paths to commitment only enriches us further.

If all of us who are concerned by the numbers we read would only open our eyes to what is available to us, we will fulfill the potential that our Jewish world provides.

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