8/17/2017

Shabbat Re’eh

Friday, August 18 - Candles @ 7:29pm
August 19 - Havdalah @ 8:23pm
Rosh Hodesh Ellul Tuesday & Wednesday

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the word used in the Torah, toevah, which is often translated as abomination. This is a very strong word of condemnation. And it is used in regard to homosexual acts in the Torah as well as lots of other situations. Some rabbis have argued that this use, proves how exceptional and heinous the issue is. I and others have argued it is a misuse and misunderstanding of the word toevah and this and last week’s Torah reading proves it.

Last week the Torah said that any gold and silver taken from pagan tribes should not be used because it is a toevah. This week when the laws of what we can and cannot eat, the Torah also uses the word toevah. Later on, (24.4) the Torah will say that a man who has divorced his wife, if she then remarries and divorces, he may not re-marry her for it is a toevah. The Torah disapproves of trading in wives, wife swapping.

The word toevah (amongst seven terms in the Torah of disapproval) is to differentiate Judaism from pagan customs both in general and specifically, without actually implying that one is either better or worse, of that there is anything intrinsically wrong or bad about silver and gold, or non-kosher animals or sexual activity in itself. The issue is how these actions can be and are abused. The implication is that there is nothing intrinsic, food or sex is not bad or wrong. Context is what defines an act.

In Bereishit it says that Egyptians would not sit down to eat a meal with the Sons of Jacob because the Egyptians considered it a toevah (Genesis 43.32). In Proverbs the word is used to describe hypocrisy or vain prayers.

I mention this not to imply that the Torah considers homosexuality normative. It sees heterosexuality as the norm for its capacity to reproduce. But that does not mean that it is any different to any law in the Torah which God requires of us. Anything can be called a toevah if it contravenes a general law. This why the Talmud (Nedarim 51a) says that the word toevah means Toe Ata Ba, you are mistaken. Mistaken in what? In assuming this is Torah normative when in fact it is exceptional.

But there may always be exceptions, circumstances beyond our control, like genes, physical conditioning, force majeur, that call for understanding and tolerance. Humans are created differently even if the law deals in generalities. As we say in the Talmud Oness patra ley Rahmanah (Avodah Zara 54a). The Almighty excuses those who are driven by forces beyond their control.

8/10/2017

Shabbat Eykev

Candles - Friday, August 11th @ 7:39pm
Havdalah - August 12th @ 8:33pm

Six times in the Book of Devarim, the Torah refers to how wonderful the Land of Israel is. As a land “flowing (or better oozing) with milk and honey.”

In addition, in this week’s reading in Chapter 11.10. the Torah adds “The Land you are coming into is not like Egypt where when you plant you have to irrigate like a vegetable garden. The land you are coming into has hills and valleys and is watered by the rains. It is a land that God looks out for all the time. From the beginning of the year until the end.”

But the Torah also says in what became the second paragraph of the Shema, that God could shut off the supply of rain, close the heavens. Fruitfulness depended on the people and how they behaved. The Torah re-iterates that is not that we were, are, so good that we were given the land. But that the previous custodians failed!

We are so used to rational scientific approaches to the land, to GMO crops, to climate control, de-salination and technical ways of solving our problems. Important as they are, human intervention can be destructive as well as beneficial. We need a spiritual, a Divine, dimension to act as a check and balance to humanity’s “overweening pride and arrogance.”

8/03/2017

Shabbat Vaethanan, Shabbat Nahamu

Candles Friday Aug. 4th @ 7:45pm
Havdalah Aug. 5th @ 8:40pm

The second time the Ten Commandments are mentioned, at the end of the forty years, there are some minor differences. Such as “Keep the Shabbat” instead of “Remember the Shabbat.“ Or “In order that He will be good to you” which is added in the second version of the command to honor one’s parents. “And do not commit adultery,” whereas in the first version it is simply “Do Not.” But those relating to God remain exactly the same.

Yet there is a debate amongst the early masters after the Talmud as to whether the first statement “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt” counts as a command or not. Maimonides says yes, but Hilchot Gedolot says no.

I have always thought it strange that there is no command in the Torah that says, “You must believe in the Lord your God.” And from a philosophical point of view this makes sense. You can command someone to do something. But how can you command someone to believe anything? How can you check if they really do? Naturally this doesn’t take anything away from the fact that God underpins everything in Jewish life. Without Divine presence, Divine history, Divine Law there would be nothing to set ourselves apart from most other religions and cultures.

But the question remains, if there is no command to believe in God. What is there?

God simply says “I am.” That means there is something there that we need to relate to. But how do we? Some of us are rational, some mystical, some brilliant, others average. There are so many different ways of relating to life and reality. It is up to each one of us. We are challenged to find our way to encounter God, within the only parameter the Torah gives, that there is only one God. That remains unmovable and immutable throughout life on earth. The rest is up to us.

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, in which we are promised that despite all the terrible things that happen to us, even things we bring upon ourselves, God will still comfort us and stand by us.

7/27/2017

Shabbat Devarim & Shabbat Hazon

Candles July 28th @ 7:55pm
Havdalah July 29th @ 8:49pm

Tisha B’Av
Monday, July 31st
Fast Starts @ 8:12pm, Service @ 8:30pm
Tuesday, August 1st
Fast Ends @ 8:46pm

History is the record of events that took place in the past. This record comes from documents, inscriptions and the works of historians who try to reconstruct events that took place earlier. But we know that two people can see the same event differently. We also know that human memory is not always reliable. What happens when we have different conflicting records? Which one do we accept? Perhaps sometimes both views of the same event might be right. Just as we have different sides to our faces. They are not exactly the same. We think we have one face and it is balanced. Yet one eye might be bigger than the other or shaped differently. One ear lower than the other. When we look at others we combine both views into a single portrait.

History is like that. There are historians, each giving a personal view. We talk about fake news. But the truth is that there is no such thing as objective news. It is all biased to some degree.

When, in the Book of Bamidbar, the episode of the spies was described, it said explicitly that “God said to Moses, send spies.” But here in this week’s reading of Devarim, Moses says “ And you all got together and came to me and said, let us send spies…and I agreed.” Which version was correct? Perhaps both were correct. The Torah often tells narratives in different ways, repeats and adds an extra dimension. There is not only one history.

The Shabbat before Tisha B'Av is always called Shabbat Hazon after the Haftarah in which the prophet Isaiah condemns the corruption of the Israelites. Why was Israel destroyed twice? There are different narratives. Was the catastrophe because we were internally divided and corrupt? Or was it because the rival great powers of the times had their own policies that conflicted with ours? Perhaps it was both. That's history. Two theories and both are right!

7/06/2017

Shabbat Balak

Candles - Friday July 7th @ 8:10pm
Havdalah - July 8th @ 9:05pm

Fast of Shivah Assar Be Tammuz
Starts Tuesday morning @ 4:04am
Ends at 8:45pm

Congratulations to the Roshanzamir family
on the wedding of Jessica to Alex.

According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6) Five calamities befell the Jewish people on the Seventeenth of Tammuz:
  • Moses broke the two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai after they made the Golden Calf.
  • The daily tamid sacrifice could not be brought, because the Babylonian siege cut off supplies to the Temple.
  • The walls of Jerusalem were breached (the first step towards the destruction of the Temple).
  • Apostomus burned a Torah scroll.
  • An idol was erected in the Temple.
There is so much here that is both contradictory and historically uncertain. Which Temple was it? When was the tamid sacrifice discontinued? Who was Apostomus? The answer is we do not know for certain!

The Babylonian Talmud places the second and fifth tragedies in the First Temple but dates the breach of Jerusalem to the Second Temple period.

Jerusalem of the First Temple, on the other hand, was breached on the 9th of Tammuz. However, the Jerusalem Talmud states that the breach of Jerusalem in the First Temple occurred on 17th Tammuz.

Apostomus according to Josephus was a Roman soldier in 50 ACE who seized a Torah-scroll and, burned it in public. But the burning of a Torah came later at the time of the Hadrianic persecutions when Chanania ben Teradyon, one of the most distinguished men of the time, was wrapped in a Torah-scroll and burned. According to the Jerusalem Talmud Apostomus burned the Torah at the narrow pass of Lydda. Others suggest that Apostomus was Antiochus Epiphanes and another opinion is that "Apostomus" is the Hebrew transcription for the Latin "Faustinus," and that the name of Julius Severus, who was sent by Hadrian to put down the Bar Cochba rebellion, in which case the setting up of an idol in the sanctuary would have to be taken to refer to the dedication of a temple of Zeus upon the consecrated ground of the Temple.

The fact is we do not know. So why do we still insist on keeping the fast? The answer simply is this. The Seventeenth of Tammuz is the start of a three-week period of sadness and mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av when both Temples, both Jewish States were destroyed and the people exiled.

In both cases Rabbinic tradition says that we were the cause of our own downfall because we were divided, politically and socially. The rich did not care for the poor. Half the Jews were opposed to the other half. The many of the rabbis were corrupt and we made the wrong decisions because we allowed the mob, popular opinion to influence policies.

That message is so true today. Just as relevant as it ever was. Whether in Israel or the USA. That is why we fast to examine ourselves to see if we can improve, be better and avoid the mistakes and tragedies of the past.

6/29/2017

Shabbat Hukat

Candles June 30th @ 8:11pm
Havdalah July 1st @ 9:08pm

In this week’s parsha we have the first of several poems the Children of Israel used to sing about their time in the desert. Some of them were clearly written down, along with other songs, in a book called “The Book of the Battles of God.” They do not make sense. The names they refer to (Chapter 21:14, etc.) sound like code. Of course, the Midrash and the commentators try to decipher the codes. But what became of the original book? Why was it lost? Unless it is another way of referring to the Torah.

Then there’s a reference here to the Moshlim. Who were they? A Mashal is a parable, metaphor or proverb. As in King Solomon’s Mishlei that we call Proverbs. But who were these people? Were they paid poets, like there were professional mourners or counselors? Is it a reference to Bilaam the Magician, who next week fills the Parsaha with his poems?

The fact is we have lost so much of the background, context, and oral traditions that the Israelites had. Yes, we have the Tanach, the Bible, but clearly there was so much more that we have lost. Understanding documents of thousands of years ago is like stumbling in the dark. We may be able to decipher, but can we know the intent? To think we can manage only with the written text of the Torah is like relying entirely on what words a person says without reading his expression or hearing his tone! This is why even if Christians and Kaarites have the same text as ours in their version of the Bible, we understand it completely differently.

This is why we have always relied on the Oral Law, the Torah She Be’al Peh, to give us background and context. Even if we have lost a lot, there is still so much that has been preserved.

6/22/2017

Shabbat Korah

Friday, June 23rd Candles @ 8:11pm
Havdalah, June 24th @ 9:06 pm

Kiddush this week sponsored by Gilbert Cavaliero,
in memory of his brother Isaac ע״ה

Korach and his co-conspirators rebelled against Moses and Aharon, claiming that they were perverting religious authority and arrogating authority to themselves. “We know better” he and his co-conspirators said, “we are the rightful authority not you.” Indeed, they use words similar to those used by Moses himself several chapters earlier, when he said in response to Joshua “Don’t worry about my position. If only everyone was a prophet and the spirit of God was upon them.” And Miriam and Aharon both say “God has spoken to us too.” Korach says “All the people are holy and God rests upon them.” Who can argue with that?

Why then do we regard them as rebels who deserved punishment? In my opinion it is not whether their claim to holiness was right or not. But because they used negative, abusive language and arguments falsely, to support their claims. They were dishonest. Moses replies “Why are you complaining about me? I have not abused power or taken anything for myself.” He realized the holiness argument was just a cover for personal gain.

The Midrash says that Korach tried to claim religious authority, that he was more religious than Moses and understood Torah better. HaShem intervened on Moses’s behalf.

I think this is exactly what has gone on these past weeks with the furor over Rabbi Joseph Dweck. People claiming to be more religious have been accusing him of not being religious enough. They have besmirched him without justification just because he holds more open minded, inclusive views. And they are using religion as a cover for personal agendas and their own political gain. Just like Korach they will not succeed not matter what titles they have, because Hashem looks into a person’s heart and pays no attention to abusive words.

6/15/2017

Shabbat Leh Leha

Candles June 16th @ 8:09pm
Havdalah June17th @ 9:05pm

After the Children of Israel panic at the prospect of invading Canaan, they are sent back into the wilderness for another forty years. Soon afterwards we read about a man (his identity is not revealed in the text though the Midrash names him as Zelopchad) who went out in public to gather wood on Shabbat in contravention of two principles the Torah had already given. One was that work is forbidden. And secondly one should stay within the “city limits” on Shabbat. Was it neglect or defiance?

The man is brought to Moses who, it seems, does not know what to do. He goes to consult God. This is one of several cases in the Torah where Moses turns to God for advice. This, after Sinai, where according to tradition he received the whole of the constitution. One Midrashic tradition is that although Moses knew the law, in principle. He was not sure which of the various punitive options applied here.

But the Midrash often gives alternatives. One version is that this man was really righteous. He knew there was some uncertainty about the punishments. The law was unclear. And so he sacrificed himself for the sake of becoming an example for future generations. This is problematic. Jewish Law in principle does not approve of self-sacrifice this way. And if Moses had to go back to consult, maybe there were other issues that needed further consultation or would later require interpretation and innovation.

The Midrash offers another explanation. This episode illustrates how low the people had sunk, not only in morale but religious observance. That they were happy to ignore Moses, his instructions and his law. This man was typical of the sad state of affairs. This was why the people needed more time to recover from the debacle over the spies. They needed to learn the disciplines and the limitations that at first sight seemed harsh and petty. Yet in the end, firmness helped produce a people with self-control, discipline and a moral mission.

6/08/2017

Shabbat Behaalotecha

9th June Candles @ 8:06pm
10th June Havdalah @ 9:02pm

Mariam and Aharon complain to Moshe about his wife, because he had married an “Isha Cushit.” What is a Cushit? We all know that modern Hebrew a Cushi is someone from Africa, usually black. And in our still racial world, many people would consider this a negative word, implying inferiority. But the truth is that in the Bible the term cushi is used several times of Israel itself. The prophet Amos for example has God saying that the Israelites are like “children of Cushim” to God in a positive way. That is certainly not derogatory.

The major commentators were concerned about the meaning of the word and its context. What was the complaint? Was it that Moshe had married a black woman? Was it racial? Nowhere does the Torah indicate that some races are intrinsically superior or inferior. Inferiority is based entirely on a person’s behavior--if he or she is pagan and has no moral values. So if they are complaining because she was a non-Jewish Midianite, why didn’t they complain that she was Midianite? And why now, years after the marriage, with two nearly grown up children?

In the context of the Torah, Cushi here, means special. As the midrash says, Moshe was so busy looking after the people he had little time for his children and his wife. He was sleeping alone in his Tent to better concentrate on God and the needs of the people. Miriam’s complaint was that Moshe was setting a bad example abandoning his beautiful, lovely, special wife for the sake of the community.

God’s response was anger at Miriam. Moshe, after all, was doing God’s work, and that required exceptional concentration and dedication to God and the people. Miriam and Aharon were right to be concerned about others. But not if it undermined Moshe’s position. Sadly, we know that the result was that Moshe’s sons did not follow in his footsteps. Sometimes one has to make sacrifices for the greater good.

5/25/2017

Shabbat Bamidbar

Friday Rosh Hodesh, May 26th
Candles @ 7:57pm
Havdalah May 27th @ 9pm

Shavuot
Tuesday Evening, May 30th
Candles @ 8pm

First Day Shavuot, May 31
Morning service @ 9:30am
Candles and Kiddush @ 8:55pm

Second Day Shavuot, June 1
Morning service @ 9:30am
Festival ends @ 8:56pm

Bamidbar, the book and the Parasha we read this week are named after the wilderness. It is strange to give so much significance to a barren, silent seemingly abandoned part of nature where almost nothing grows or thrives and where all you hear is silence. Yet that was the painful crucible of the Israelites for a whole generation. Heat, sand and not enough water or shade. Yet it was out of those adverse conditions that a nation was formed ready to claim its homeland. The process was incomplete. There was more to do. But it was a start. And this story that has repeated itself throughout our history. It is adversity, exile, murder that seems to push us towards rebuilding and surviving.

Nature symbolizes the raw material of life. We never know where we may find ourselves. It can be nurtured and improved or destroyed. We start with very little but we can make a lot out of who we are.

Shavuot (which we celebrate next week) recognizes another geographical state, the mountain. Sinai. It is also barren, fiery, volcanic. It was where Moshe met God and then the place where Torah emerged. But whereas desert is usually flatter, the mountain has peaks and valleys. It also symbolizes the challenge of life. The ups and the downs. Sinai, Torah helps us cope with the challenges of life. It gives a framework, stability and roots in a cosmopolitan, unpredictable world.We are challenged by both desert and mountain to rise and thrive and live a good life.

We live in different places. We deal with different challenges and have different raw material. Some good, some not so. We face the challenge of making the most of what we are given or where find ourselves. It's the challenge we have. And the Torah gives us the tools to face the moral challenge in addition to the physical ones we are born with.

5/18/2017

Shabbat Behar and Behkotai

Candles Friday May 19th @ 7:50pm
Havdalah March 20th @ 8:46pm
Wednesday is Yom Yerushalayim

There are four words used in this week’s Torah reading that signify, in one way or another, freedom.

We start with Shmittah. This is the Seven Year release of bonded Israelites who have debits to pay off, either by working for their creditor or because they cannot afford to feed themselves and their children. It was also a year to leave the land fallow to help with fertility and to offer a break from hard labor. Hence our modern use of the word “sabbatical.” Some of us still keep the Shmittah by not eating produce of the Land of Israel during the Shmittah year. In addition, debts incurred were released. In ancient times lending was only an act of charity or to help someone set up in business. The Torah did not want people to be burdened indefinitely by debt.

Then came the Yovel. In addition to the Shmittah, every 50th year, all tribal lands returned to their original owners. This was to prevent anyone monopolizing the real estate and ensuring a fair division. We don’t know if this ever happened. It required lots of conditions such as a Sanhedrin of rabbis to convene and declare it’s start. But the idea of a Jubilee, also remains part of our language.

And then the word Dror. Which is a beautiful name in Hebrew and literally means freedom but it is used this way only once in the Torah. Its only other mention is one other place in the Torah where it is applied to sweet-smelling spice. Perhaps this is the origin of the phrase “freedom is sweet”.

There is another word for freedom, Chofshi. That simply means being “let out".

There are two different dimensions to freedom. One is the act of release, the removal of an obligation. That’s, if you like, negative. It’s good in that it removes a burden. But it doesn't substitute anything positive. Dror, means a positive sense of freedom. It is the appreciation of one’s free state. And that involves an obligation to use one’s freedom well and constructively. To be able to develop our inner beings and our spirituality.

Next Wednesday is Yom Yerushalayim when we celebrate the Old City being freed in 1967. Which puts an obligation on us to appreciate having a State of our own, having reclaimed our heritage and the freedom and use it well.

5/11/2017

Shabbat Emor

Candles - May 12th @ 7:44pm
Havdalah - May 13th @ 8:40pm

You might have heard the expression “Hillul HaShem.” Literally it means treating God’s name in a derogatory or a mundane manner. In ancient Israel, this was a very important concept. Society was predicated on Law and Order and Law and Order was based on the authority of the ruler and the ruler on earth depended on the authority of the Divine Ruler. Hence the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings.” Nowadays we no longer treat kings or Presidents that way. We are happy to criticize, insult and demean our leaders without a second thought. Similarly, many of us use the word “god” as if it was a swear word. We are careless with our actions and words.

Hillul HaShem has now come to mean something else. Desecrating God’s name means doing something that brings God or one’s religion into disrepute. As in: “See, another Jew who breaks the law. All Jews are like that. You can’t trust them.” Or internally, when non-religious Jews see an apparently Orthodox Jew behaving disreputably they will say, “See, Orthodox Jews are all hypocrites,” and use this to justify not following the Torah.

Maimonides quotes the Talmud when he says this is such a serious matter in Judaism that even Yom Kipur cannot atone for someone who causes God or Torah to be demeaned and disrespected.

The source for this is in Torah portion we read Leviticus 22:31 & 32: “You should keep My commandments (says God) and not desecrate My holy name, because I expect the people of Israel to sanctify My Name.”

When we are good human beings, we elevate God. When we misbehave, we diminish God’s influence in the world.

5/04/2017

Shabbat Aharei Mot & Kedoshim

Candles May 5th @ 7:37pm
Havdalah May 6th @ 8:33pm

We talk about good, moral human beings and about bad, immoral ones. But how does one become a good, moral person? Is it what society expects or private decision making? Either way why do we need Torah?

Nowadays many people argue that our genes decide for us whether we are “good” or “bad.” The trouble is that if you are brought up as a Muslim, the chances are that you will probably feel and genuinely believe that Jews are bad and ought to be subjugated or removed. Did this come, does anti-Semitism come from society or from genes?

In believe the answer is both. Genes are made up of lots of different matter, good and bad. That's why we can inherit diseases as well as looks, longevity, and brains. But there is a lot we do not know about what goes into genes. Things called episomes can be affected by lots of internal and external factors. This might explain why certain character traits, characteristics of being Jewish might be passed on through our genes and why pathologies like prejudice continue. Is being good or bad passed on through our genes? Are some people automatically good and others bad? Can people change? Why don’t we all “Love our neighbors” as the Torah tells us to this week?

Judaism always claimed that we are born neutral, with a good inclination and a bad one. And we decide which one we give preference to. We are influenced by our own actions. Good ones reinforce the good in our nature and bad ones reinforce the bad. But How do we learn to become moral beings? Clearly some people want to be better others don’t.

Preaching--whether by parents, teachers, or rabbis--rarely makes a difference. We have to want to change--usually only when faced with a crisis. Most people don’t make moral decisions. The role of the Torah is to present us with alternative patterns of morality and behavior other than society and selfish genes. We choose if they matter enough to us. Any good decision involves weighing up alternatives. This is why the Torah presents us with a range of ethical and practical laws and says if we really want to be good people, here is a menu of what it takes and how we should act.

4/27/2017

Shabbat Tazria & Metzorah

Candles Friday, April 28 @ 7:29pm
Havdalah, April 29 @ 8:25pm
Yom Ha'zikaron - Monday, May 1
Yom Ha'atzmaut - Tuesday, May 2

Kiddush this week sponsored by Clement & Hannah Salama
In appreciation of the community, rabbi, and hazzan

The double portion of the Torah this week deals with what are called laws of purity but purity is a very misleading translation. In ancient Israel, there were a lot of laws that required people to be in a special, elevated state, before they could enter the Holy Sanctuaries such as the Tabernacle of the Temple. This had nothing to do with what we call cleanliness. People had to be perfectly clean before they went through the process that enabled them to return to a higher state.

These chapters are concerned primarily with events that caused disruption or displacement to the normal functioning of the human body, both male and female. Sometimes this applied to sickness or disease. Other examples were the flow of bodily liquids. In addition, touching or being in the same room as a dead person also put one into a different state.

Such states primarily affected priests who could not perform their duties in the sanctuaries until they went through a process of purification. But it also prevented ordinary Israelites from coming into these special areas. Otherwise outside, and in the normal course of daily activity, being in one of these different states had no impact on daily life. One was not a pariah or forced out of normal life unless one had a contagious disease. One of the roles of the priests as the medical experts of those days was to examine and evaluate states of illness and displacement and recommend cures or corrections.

For most of Jewish history all this has been inapplicable. We have had no Temple and therefore the laws of Temple purity have lapsed. Technically today we are all in this state of not being able to enter holy places. But otherwise, despite our state of “impurity” we all lead normal lives.

So why do we spend so much time reading and some studying these ancient rules? Part of it is simply our interest in and commitment to our cultural and religious history. An interest in our past and how we have changed. There is a poetic nostalgia in recording and looking back at how our ancients acted and what mattered then. But it is also important as a lesson for us now.

It teaches us to be aware of our different physical and mental states. And this should make us more sensitive to the states that others might be going through. These chapters include sections that deal with how the body changes during childbirth, how relationships can be destroyed through deceit, how some of us choose to be more particular or punctilious in our personal lives. It is a lesson in awareness of the varieties of human conditions, states and behavior and how we can, if we choose, raise our games, try to be better and more sensitive people.

These ancient rules all focus in the end on how to be a better, more aware human being. The methods change over time. The goal remains the same.

4/20/2017

Shabbat Shmini

Friday 21st Candles 7:23pm
Shabbat ends 22nd at 8:20pm
Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Wednesday & Thursday

Kiddush this Shabbat sponsored by
Yassi Gershoony, in memory of Moshe Ben Ezra
Tony Zand, in memory of Esther Bat Rahamim

The laws of what animals, birds and fish are permitted are given this week as part of the Book of Vayikra which deals with issue of personal purity. Purity in Biblical Hebrew has nothing to do with cleanliness as we understand it. Quite the contrary, no matter how clean a person might be, certain actions and states placed them in a category of what we would call secularism. And the contrary state would be what we call spirituality.

It is common to hear people say “You are what you eat.” So if you are a carnivore, this is supposed to say something about your character. If that were so, Hitler who was a vegetarian, must have been a very spiritual man! But there are some Jews who believe that if you eat forbidden foods, this degrades your body. This is illogical. First of all, we see that you can be perfectly healthy physically on a diet of forbidden foods. Secondly you can make yourself sick purely by eating kosher food if you eat too much or do not have a balanced diet. Meat and wine like many foods have therapeutic qualities but they also carry within them the possibility of gluttony, alcoholism and hardening the arteries. And by over indulging, sickness and disease.

Really the issue is not WHAT you eat but HOW you eat. Do you control, discipline your intake or do you simply indulge. Animals eat and excrete. Human animals do too. But what makes a person rise to a higher level is HOW he or she eats and whether they think before they eat and exercise thought and self-control. And this according to Maimonides is what lies behind the laws in the Torah, governing food.

4/13/2017

Hol Hamoed Schedule

Friday April 14th, Shabbat Hol Hamoed
Candles @ 7:15pm

Sunday 16th, April 7th Day Pesah
Candles @ 7:17pm

Monday 17th Morning Service @9:30am
Candles @ 8:14pm

Tuesday 18th Morning Service @ 9:30am
Festival ends 8:14pm

The core difference in Jewish Law as written in the Torah, between Festivals and Shabbat is that on Festivals one is allowed to cook on flames (ovens etc) that have been kept alight from before the Festival. It makes sense of course in that there is a limit to how much food one can prepare in advance for a large family. And in hot climates before the age of refrigeration preparing for Shabbat is one thing. But preparing for Shabbat and for two Festive days in the Diaspora, would put unreasonable strains on family catering. If it was tough then, it’s so much easier nowadays.

Yet the implication is that Shabbat is stricter and more significant than Festivals because we simply cannot cook on Shabbat at all. Indeed Yom Kipur is described in the Torah as the Shabbat of Shabbats. Yet most of us nowadays treat Festivals as more important. In our community more of us come to pray on festivals than on an ordinary Shabbat.

I guess it is because most Jews find the weekly timetable of Shabbat too much to cope with and so fall back on making more out of Festivals. Of course, you might suggest that it was fine to take two and sometimes three days off work in an agricultural society but in our modern societies only professional Jews or those retired or self-employed can take so much time off.

People decide for themselves how much they are willing to give Judaism priority in their lives. No one suggests its easy. It isn’t. But the rewards are not just spiritual. Getting off the treadmill, taking a break to spend time on one’s soul is incredibly beneficial to our souls, our families and one state of mind. It is not easy I agree. But its worth it in more ways than most people realize. If a medical doctor recommended it you’d do it!

4/07/2017

Shabbat Parshat Tsav, Shabbat HaGadol

Friday April 7th Candles @ 7:07pm
Havdalah, April 8th @ 8:03pm

The Shabbat before Pesah is called Shabbat HaGadol. It records the first command to the children of Israel in Egypt to take actions to prepare for their freedom. So it was a “great” positive event. But Shabbat HaGadol also came to be “great” for distinguishing the Rabbinic Jewish identity as against those who challenged it.

It was a matter of dispute within Judaism two thousand years ago as to whether Pesah had to be celebrated, not on the 15th of Nissan but on the Shabbat before it. The dispute threatened the unity of the tradition. And Christianity recorded the death of their founder as taking place on that the Sabbath for which they blamed the Jews and led to the cataclysmic schism and enmity.

Thus this Shabbat came to represent the greatness of our tradition, as well as the hope that, as the Haftarah says, Eliyahu will one day bring about the reunification under one God.

We face challenges from within of sectarianism and different ideologies. We face external antagonism from other religions. But it is when we come together by taking steps to safeguard our freedoms that we can maintain our integrity in a divided world.

Shabbat Shalom

Pesah:

You can still sell your Hametz by emailing me before midnight on Sunday.

Sunday Night 9th April - Bedikat Hametz. Search for Hametz by candlelight.
Monday 10th - Erev Pesah. Biur Hametz. Burning leftover Hametz.
One may not eat Hametz after 10:45am.
Candles 7:10 pm, followed by Maariv and 1st Seder.
Tuesday 11th - Morning Service 9:30am.
Candles 8:05pm, followed by 2nd Seder.
Wednesday 12th - Havdalah 8:07pm

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Friday April 14th

Last two days April 17th & 18th

Hag Sameah

3/30/2017

Shabbat Vayikra

Friday, March 31 @ Candles 7pm
Havdalah April 1 @ 7:56pm

We return to sacrifices this week with the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. To our modern minds the idea of animal sacrifices is a very difficult one to feel much sympathy with. Even though it is true that we “sacrifice” animals all the time, hidden away in abattoirs far from the eyes of consumers. We are more sensitive nowadays to animal cruelty not just in the killing but also in the rearing, transportation and treatment of animals.

Even though the Torah allows for grain, and other non-animal sacrifices the whole of the Temple service seems rooted in a bygone era. There is no way of knowing if this will all, one day, return. We talk about a messianic era but we do not, as Maimonides says, know how it will be in practice. And so, we leave such matters to Elijah!

But then how are we to deal with sacrifices in the Torah and indeed in our prayers when we often talk about the future?

I believe the broad idea of “giving” to God is important, not because God needs our sacrifices or our prayers. But rather because we need to feel we are giving of our best, that we are trying to have a relationship with a higher order and tradition. And as we know good relationships rely on giving more than taking. Sacrificing is giving party of ourselves, imposing limits and disciplines in order to achieve something higher and better.

Once we did it with humans, animals and then gifts. Now we do it by giving up work on Shabbat, by eating differently and trying to live lives of values, spirit and meaning by keeping different rules. By following an alternative way of life that we double track with civil society and its values. The more we keep of Torah the more we are reminded that we as Jews should have another set of values and a different calendar. We remember that being different can have huge benefits.

3/09/2017

Shabbat Tetsaveh/Shabbat Zachor

Candles Friday March 10th 5:37pm
Shabbat ends 6:40pm March 11th

Kiddush is sponsored by
Nico, Jonathan, Stephanie, and Emma Moinian, and Ryan, David and Celine Elazari

Megillah Saturday Night will start promptly at 7:30 pm

We dedicate one Shabbat each year to remembering the fact that in very generation there are people who hate Jews and want to destroy and eradicate them simply for who they are and will use any pretense or excuse to condemn and set Jews apart. We call it the Shabbat of Remembrance, Shabbat Zachor. It is always the Shabbat before Purim when we celebrate the downfall of Haman who wanted to destroy the Jews in the Persian Empire simply because they were different.

We know of course that for two thousand years Christianity and then Islam have both tried their best to convert or destroy us. And when it suited them they tolerated us only on the understanding that we accepted an inferior or subjugated position. We might have thought that after the Holocaust, and in a modern so called scientific, objective world, such evil, diseased prejudice would have disappeared. But it is actually getting worse. Just think, billions of Muslims, billions of Left Wingers are all taught to be against us, not forgetting the fascist, racist anti-Semites.

Iran can declare it wants to eliminate Israel. Hamas can declare it wants to destroy Israel and all Jews too. And no one bats an eyelid. Women around the world are enslaved, raped and subjected to genital mutilation but only Israel is condemned in the UN as the source of evil. We are described as colonialists even if it was others who colonized the Land of Israel after we were driven out.

In America, Black Lives Matter and on Monday the International Women’s Strike picked only on Israel from all the nations of the world. The Teachers Unions of schools and colleges support anti-Israel prejudice and inculcate their pupils with the poison that allows disparagement of Jews who fight for their liberation and the right to have a homeland of their own. It's neither honest or objective. Anti-Semitism is an illogical disease and we must never forget it. The only way to combat it is to remember, to stand firm, to refuse to give in and to bring up children to be proud of their Judaism.

3/02/2017

Shabbat Terumah

March 3rd Candles 5:30pm
Havdalah March 4th at 6:26pm

Next Saturday Night, March 11th, is Purim
Megillah reading at 7pm

The Torah offers two models of contributions to the community. This week we have the Terumah, the voluntary contribution that people would make towards the construction of the Tabernacle. People gave, whatever they could and of things that they possessed, such as gold, silver, skins, materials and skills. In the end, they donated so much that Moses had to tell them to stop. If only that happened nowadays.

The second model was the half-shekel that everyone had to give towards the running costs. This was a poll tax. Rich or poor, everyone gave the same. It seems unfair to tax the poor in the same way as we tax the rich. Just as consumption taxes penalize those who buy more and most societies rely on expenditure to fill their coffers. Yet it also made the important moral point that everyone was the same, rich or poor, when it came to membership of the community.

Over the years, societies have tried all kinds of taxes, voluntary, graduated according to income or wealth, poll taxes, consumption taxes. They all have their pluses and minuses. In every case there are those who try to evade their commitments. Jewish communities have experimented with different kinds of taxes during the thousands of years they tried to survive in the Diaspora where they were often heavily taxed by the regimes and religions they lived under. But no one single method prevailed

Nowadays there are no specific Jewish religious taxes levied on individuals. Though we do in practice pay a tax for kosher food preparation and supervision. And of course, we pay State taxes. But all committed Jews donate both to the poor and to maintain our communities. Some communities impose membership fees, others like ours rely entirely on donations, on Terumah rather than enforced tithes or membership fees.

And this time of the year Purim requires us to give to the poor and in preparing for Pesach there are always campaigns to raise money for those who struggle to provide.

2/23/2017

Shabbat Mishpatim, Shabbat Shekalim

Rosh Hodesh Adar Feb 27th & 28th
Candles Feb 24th 5:22pm
Havdalah 25th 6:20pm

Special Kiddush for Younger Generation hosted by
Justin & Setareh Adelipour and Jonathan Aghravi and their families
Everyone is welcome

Last week we read about the revelation that gave us the Torah on Sinai. This week we go into the specific religious and civil laws that expanded the initial ten principles that were inscribed on the two tablets of stone.

After going through a fascinating list of fundamental laws, the Torah returns to the revelation on Sinai and adds an extra dimension, that of individuals, having a personal revelation of God.

Academic thinkers tend to see this as an example of inconsistency, or lack of chronology and system. But the Torah is a complex document, more concerned with the religious message than a work of history or science.

It seems to me that this unusual sequence is intended to convey a very important principle in Judaism. The laws are essential. The constitution and human behavior is what preserves society and a particular way of life. But just important is what we call spirituality, the feeling of being close to that energy and power that is greater than human capacities.

That is why the civil laws are sandwiched between the revelation to the people and the revelation to individuals. We are part of a great nation. But each of us needs to find one’s own relationship with the Divine. There are three core principles that define us as Jews. A people, a constitution and the spiritual connection with God.

2/02/2017

Shabbat Bo

February 3rd, Candles 4:56pm
Havdalah 5:52pm

“And they left Ramses to head towards Sucot, six hundred thousand men on foot, not counting children.” Tradition tells us that there were 600,000 people who left Egypt. But if we take this text at face value you would have to double the number to include women and again to include children. Could there really have been nearly two million? It’s even more difficult to understand if we were to accept the Midrash that says that only one fifth of the Children of Israel left Egypt. The rest preferred to stay behind. The sums do not add up.

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, though not at all religious, loved studying Bible. He pointed out that the word for one thousand ALeF could just as well mean AluF meaning a family group. So perhaps there were only 600 extended families. That gets the numbers down but doesn’t really explain why so few slaves were worth making such a fuss of.

The other unknown is the Eyrev Rav, the mixed multitude who, according to the Torah, went out with the Children of Israel (and were welcomed). They will have been other slaves, dissidents and refugees. The Midrash often blames them when things go wrong. How many were there?

The fact is that we cannot know exactly whether the Torah meant those figures to be literal, approximate or even symbolic, Like the number 40 that recurs throughout the Bible. 40 days and nights, 40 years and reigns not to mention 400. Perhaps 40 was a general number for say “a generation,” or “lots” as opposed to “a few.” Could there have been precisely 600,000? Doesn’t it look as if the number was rounded up?

The point of the story is not to give an accountant’s report on the business. It was to describe the miraculous events, the escape, the creation of a new nation and its constitution. It's the broad picture that is so impressive. It would be silly to reject it just because different times used numbers in different ways. I am not saying there were or were not meant precisely. Only that we cannot know. In fact, our tradition, the Midrash, has always included different ways of understanding the narratives in the Torah.

Faith is a wonderful way of keeping the message without getting bogged down in too much detail.

1/26/2017

Shabbat Vaeyra

Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Shevat
Candles Friday, January 27 @ 4:48pm
Havdalah 5:45pm

Please join us for a special Kiddush this Shabbat honoring Jahan Ghadamian.
Sponsored by the Ghadamian family. All are welcome.

If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he had no choice. It wasn’t fair. I have often heard this said. But what do we mean when we talk about God hardening a person’s heart? Maybe it just means that God allows people to make bad decisions.

We are used to an idea of freedom, that we are responsible for our actions and that is why in our societies we punish people who break the law. However, freedom does not mean that there is no compulsion, that there is nothing influencing us. Or that one is completely free of any kind of constraint. Let’s just mention our genes. Some people just seem to have better genes than others. Some seem to be naturally better people than others or more religious and have always been so since birth. Why is that? Why do siblings born into the very same family and brought up equally often turn out so different?

We know about the debate between Nature and nurture. What influences a person most? One’s nature, ones genes, or the way one was educated and brought up? I don't think there is just one answer. Lots of different things affect how we think and behave.

The Torah uses the word KaVeD, we normally translate this as hard, to harden. Literally it means heavy, stubborn, inflexible in different ways. But also, dignity and, respect. Things we may either be born with or develop or come to be appointed to. So the root word KVD can be used to say He (God) hardened his (Pharaoh’s) heart. But it can say that Pharaoh himself hardened his own heart HiKViDor. Or that his heart was heavy KaVed. Hardened, perhaps by society or circumstances. There are so many ways in which we are influenced to make decisions. And God is another way of saying that somethings are in our nature, some in our genes and others the result of conditioning.

Pharaoh had a good reason for not giving in to Moses and Aharon. He was aftr all the Master of his Universe, the head of the most civilized nation of his time. It’s like the Chinese leaders who refused to make any concession to the protestors in Tiananmen Square. Or like Putin who thinks that aggression is the way to exercise power. Do they have no choice? Were they compelled? Or just that they themselves refused to see any other point of view?

The Talmud agrees that someone who has to overcome temptation to do good is regarded much more highly than someone who was good by nature.

1/19/2017

Shabbat Shemot

Mevarchin Rosh Hodesh Shevat
Candles 4:40pm January 20th
Havdalah 21st at 5:35

The new Book of Shemot that we start this week has a very important theme that is often overlooked. The crucial role of women in Jewish history and Judaism.

We read about Shifra and Pua the two midwives who defied Pharaoh’s instructions to kill the Israelite male children. Their reward was establishing dynasties within the Children of Israel. It must have taken amazing fortitude and huge risk to find ways of circumventing the orders of an absolute ruler. All the more so, given that there were plenty of men who were unwilling or incapable of such heroism and just looked for an easy way out.

Then we have Zipppora, Moshe’s wife, who takes responsibility for saving her child when it seems Moses neglected his religious duties. Next week we will read about Yochebed and Miriam and their part in defying Pharaoh’s instructions too. And Pharaoh’s daughter herself who also refused to accept her father’s commands.

We learn not just about the role of women in providing the moral strength to stand up to their enemies but also the crucial role of women in preserving family life which is at the core of Jewish survival.

And we also learn that although the rule of law must be obeyed wherever we may be living, if that law is morally wrong, we have a duty to stand up against it.

1/12/2017

Shabbat Vayehiy

Candles Friday 13th January 4:31pm
Havdalah 14th 5:27pm

Favoritism runs through the Book of Bereishit. You might say it started with God preferring Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s. God preferring Noah to all the rest. Then Abraham favors Isaac. Isaac favors Esau. Rebecca favors Jacob. Jacob favors Joseph and this week Jacob favors Efraim over Menashe. And the consequences played out over the next 1000 years of Jewish history as the tribes argued and fought, split into two rival states until eventually they merged under the tribe of Judah, to become Jews ( as well as Children of Israel).

The Torah seems to be ambiguous about favoritism. On the one hand, it supports meritocracy, finding the best person for the job. On the other hand, it favors heredity, emphasizing tribal differences, choosing a specific tribe to become priests and later a specific family to provide kings. On the meritocratic level Jews as identified through their mothers as all equal and potential leaders. Anyone can get to the top. On the tribal level as identified through fathers, they provide aristocracies of kings and priests. Only those born to it can lead. This dichotomy runs through the history of mankind.

There are many examples of where the Torah gives alternative possibilities for actions and for models of leadership. Just as the Torah allows for exceptions under extreme conditions to preserve one’s life. Or even though hating violence, it allows for self-defense and even warfare despite detesting taking human life.

People often think the Torah and Jewish Law is rigid. It might be strict and demanding but it usually offers different legal positions and opportunities. That is why there is so much debate in Jewish Law. It is not monolithic or black and white and does indeed allow for many variations. No single approach answers every scenario.

1/05/2017

Shabbat Vayigash

Candles January 6th 4:24pm
Havdalah 7th 5:20pm

Special Kiddush this week sponsored by Mr. & Mrs. F. Iny.

It is a feature of the Torah to tell one version of events and then to repeat the narrative in a slightly different way. And often in repeating a narrative, new elements are added which weren’t there the first time.

So, in the beginning chapter of the Torah you have creation described in seven days or phases, each one adding new elements. But in the second chapter the Torah talks about one day and relations, weather, rain, human intervention, agriculture and human relations to animals and other humans. Or when Eliezer goes to find a wife for Isaac, the events are recorded. Then Eliezer repeats them adding points that are new, for example implying that Abraham specifically wanted a member of his family for a daughter in law. Some people like to think this shows that there were different records, different scribes. But it need not. It could instead be making a new point or emphasis.

This week Judah pleads for Benjamin who, Joseph is threatening to keep in jail. The way he tells the narrative of what happened to Joseph and what Isaac said to the brothers about past events is very different to the previous record. Clearly Judah is trying to stress the devotion the brothers have to their father, to their other brothers, particularly Benjamin and the degree of anguish their father has experienced. Was he telling lies or just putting a different emphasis? We can often tell the same story in different ways.

He is of course trying to win over Joseph by asserting the values of respect and love for parents, brotherhood and responsibility. All things that were missing earlier. Yes of course he is hoping to change Joseph’s mind by making them out to be good caring people. But now having gone through the agony of the events, the Torah is also showing us how adversity can bring one to change, by looking at one’s life, and changing our values accordingly, the way they did.