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Rabbi's Weekly Short Messages

Of Shoftim veShotrim - Role Models, Mentors, Gate-keepers, and Door-openers

 

Parshat Shoftim, Elul 6 5779 - September 6, 2019

This past week, one of my beloved teachers from my post-high school yeshiva years at Gush (Yeshivat Har Etzion) passed away after suffering with ALS for the past several years. Rabbi Binyamin Tabory zt”l was an amazing pedagogue and exemplary educator. Even when I was no longer in his shiur, Rabbi Tabory maintained a warm and interactive relationship with me, as he did with countless other talmidim and talmidot. I still remember dearly many of the stories and vortlach he shared with me in the Beis Medresh – much more than I remember all the sugyot and lomdishe chakiras from all the various Gemara shiurim I attended, however important they are. But most of all, I remember his model of sincere concern and warmth for his students. His model has been very influential in shaping the type of rabbi and teacher I myself aspire to be. 
      A few years ago, I was invited by Camp Moshava IO to be a guest rabbi for a Shabbat. I believe it was Rav Tabory’s last summer at Moshava as Rav Machaneh. WIthout question, the highlight of the Shabbat weekend for me was the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Rav Tabory. Incredibly, he remembered me fully, even conversations we had together, though I had not seen him in over two decades. We sat next to each other at Shabbat dinner and lunch, and it was like we just picked up our Beis Medresh banter  from so many years ago. 
     In life, we have role models and mentors; gate-keepers and door openers; even shoftim veshotrim. We have attained our professional accomplishments, personal achievements, and even religious identity, among other aspects of who we are, in great measure because of the influential roles -- both large and small -- that they have played in our lives. Sometimes they are family members, other times teachers and rabbis, often friends, and once in a while even a complete stranger -- what my colleague and friend Rabbi Daniel Cohen calls “Elijah Moments.” 
     This Shabbat, take some time to think about the positive influencers in your life. If they are no longer with us, share your memory of them with people you love. If they are still alive, consider sending them a Shana Tova card or email or call them, and say thank you. But more importantly, think about ways that you yourself can pay their kindness forward.  How can you best become a positive role model and mentor, constructive gate-keeper or door opener, judicious and magnanimous shofet veshoter, for others? 

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Benjie

Elul: Cleaning Before  the Cleaning Crew Arrives

Rosh Chodesh, Parshat Re’eh, 30 Av 5779 - August 31, 2019

This Shabbat and Sunday are Rosh Chodesh Elul, beginning the month-long Chodesh Elul preparatory period of Teshuva - a time for personal reflection and restoration. Have you ever hired cleaning help at your home? You know how you have to order, organize and clean up before the cleaning help even arrives? This is Chodesh Elul. Before the start of the Jewish New Year and the ensuing ten-day penitential period of aseret yemei teshuva culminating in Yom Kippur and the achievement of at-one-ment, we do pre-teshuva clean-up so that we can really do teshuva and scrub our souls clean, leaving us refreshed and ready for the new year.

This Shabbat, take the time to review the past year. What were your successes and failures, what did you accomplish and what did you intend to achieve, but for whatever reason couldn’t finish? What would you like to do and who would you like to be in the new year ahead? How do you get from the “A” of last year to the “B” of this coming year? What work needs to be done to traverse the distance?

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, Rav Benjie

Shabbat Chazon and the Fast of Tisha B'Av

Parshat Devarim, Shabbat Chazon, 9 Av 5779 - August 10, 2019

Chevre,

This year, the 9th of Av falls on Shabbat, and the fast and observances of Tisha b’Av are delayed until Saturday night and Sunday, the 10th of Av, August 10 and 11. The below “Schedule and Halakhic Guidelines” aims to help proper observance of both Shabbat the 9th of Av and the Fast of the 9th of Av observed on the next day. Tisha b’Av is our national day of mourning for which we remember the sin of the spies and the decree against the generation of the Exodus, the destruction of the first and second Beit HaMikdash, the fall of the Jewish city of Beitar during the Bar Kokhva revolt, and the razing of Yerushalayim, along with numerous persecutions through Jewish history. It is not a day of activism or optimistic expression, but a day of mournful solidarity with the Jewish people throughout the ages. The ritual practices and liturgies of the day help connect us with this pathos, but ultimately each of us in shared and individualistic ways must find depth of meaning in the observances of the day.

Shabbat Shalom, in love of Tzion, Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels

Friday night and Saturday, Shabbat, 9 of Av, August 9, & August 10 - Erev Fast of “Tisha b’Av

There is a debate among the rabbis regarding when the 9th of Av coincides with Shabbat. Some say that it is indeed Tisha b’Av, however, Shabbat overrides public and semi-public displays of mourning. Thus, at Shul, we treat the day as a regular Shabbat and at our Shabbat tables we do likewise. However, for example, in the privacy of our bedrooms we refrain from marital relations, unless it is leil tevillah – one’s mikvah night, for which we rule leniently (Rosh, Ta’anit 32; Ramo 554:14).

Others say that the rabbis uprooted Tisha b’Av completely from Shabbat and moved it a day later to Sunday, and thus there are no restrictions whatsoever (based on Tosefta Ta’anit chapter 3). While Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of Shulkhan Arukh (O”C 554:19) rules like this later position, Ramo rules more stringently for Ashkenazic Jewry (ibid).

We will not display any practices of mourning at Shul on Shabbat, we will study Torah related to this time period per our general practice of studying on Shabbat about upcoming holidays. On Erev Tisha bAv, it is generally forbidden to learn Torah, other than topics relating to Tisha b’Av or other lachrymose topics. When Erev Ta’anit Tisha b'Av falls on Shabbat, some are lenient, and the Mishnah Berurah says that one may rely on this opinion if needed. People who have Shabbat chevrutot or study groups will need to decide whether to study their regular topics or take up a topic relevant to Shabbat Tisha B’Av (my recommendation).

Since it is Shabbat, there is no Seudah haMafseket (pre-fast symbolic meal), but rather we eat Seudah Shelishit at home and conclude all eating and drinking before Sunset, which is at 7:53 pm.

6:00 PM Shabbat Minchah

Saturday night, 10th of Av, Leil Fast of Tisha b’Av

7:53 PM Fast Begins at Sunset
While we refrain from eating and drinking at Sunset, we are not allowed to prepare for the fast or actively demonstrate mourning until after Shabbat ends. Thus, we do not change into weekday clothing, remove our Shabbat shoes and don sneaker/slippers or prepare our Kinot books until after 8:30 pm.

8:35 Shabbat ends, but Havdalah is not said until after the fast on Sunday night.
Havdalah is postponed to Sunday night. All those who will need to eat on Tisha b’Av for medical reasons, however, should make Havdalah with beer or juice before they eat or drink. Additionally, although we do not normally make Havdalah, we do recite the berakhah of “Borei Me’orei Ha-Eish” on fire at Maariv before the reading of Eichah.

Who Has to Fast?
All Jewish men and women above bar/bat mitzvah are required to fast. However, because this year is a delayed fast, there is less of a halakhic threshold to legitimate eating and drinking for those with medical need. Thus, women who have given birth in the last 30 days do not fast at all; pregnant or nursing women need not fast if difficult; and a person who is slightly sick and will feel worse as a result of fasting need not fast. Children under Bat/Bar Mitzvah age are not required to fast the entire time, but should fast a set amount of time as to be determined in consultation with their parents. [Note this is different from Yom Kippur where 11 year old girls and 12 year old boys should fast the whole time.] At the same time, all children of the age of chinukh should be taught about Tisha b’Av, and restrict their eating somewhat, especially of indulgence items (i.e., cookies, ice cream, candy). To the extent possible, try to program Tisha b’Av appropriate activities for your children.

Additional Restrictions:
In addition to fasting, we do not bath, wash, anoint ourselves with moisturizes or wear perfumes/colognes, wear leather shoes, have marital relations, extend greetings, engage in pleasurable activities or sit on regular chairs (unless medically indicated). After chatzot – midday, we move from the floor to sit on regular chairs, but the other restrictions still apply until the fast concludes.

9:00 PM Maariv, Megillat Eichah and Kinot with Introductions (via microphone) by Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels. Eichah Readers: Perek alef: Allen Flusberg; bet: Bill Feld; gimel: Ernest Mandel; daled: David Waxman; heh:Daniel Swartz.

Sunday Morning, 10th of Av, August 11, Fast of “Tisha b’Av” Day

8:00 AM Shacharit and Kinot with Introductions and commentary by Rabbi Samuels and Community Members (Main Sancutary) Men do not wear Tallit and Tefillin until Minchah.

Upon rising, "Negel Vasser -- Morning Hand Washing" is done only from the finger tips until the knuckles. Residual water drops on our fingers may be used to wipe sediment from our eyes. A Tallis Katan is worn, but without a berakhah.

Following davening, one may work on Tisha B’Av, however, try to program your day in such a way that you can incorporate meaningful Tisha b’Av activities (i.e., recite additional kinot or read/learn sorrowful materials). Especially since this year we observe our national day of mourning on Sunday, consider participating in one of our many educational offerings throughout the day.

~10:30 AM Women’s Eichah Reading. Note: This is an approximate time, WTG Eichah will begin upon conclusion of KinotPerek alef: Esther Israel; bet: Rebecca Israel; gimel: Rachel Schiff; daled: Julie Goschalk ; heh: Sarah Robinson

12:49 PM Chatzot – Midday: We move from sitting on the floor to sitting on chairs.

Tisha b’Av Multi-Media Program for Adults, Teens and Youth sixth-grade-and-up

2:00 – 3:50 PM Screening “Who Will Write Our History (96 minutes) and discussion with Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels.

4:00 PM Learning out Loud on Jewish Mourning and Women Saying Kaddish with Sarah Robinson

7:15 PM Mincha (with Tallit and Tefillin for men) followed by a brief Shiur on a Holocaust Responsum and Maariv

8:00 PM (approximately) Maariv

8:31 PM Fast Ends

Sunday Night, 11 Av, August 11
Haircuts, laundry, bathing and swimming are all permissible. Eating meat and drinking wine (other than Havdalah), as well as listening to live music, should be postponed until Monday morning.

Exile and Return

Parshat Matot-Masei, Rosh Chodesh Av 5779 - August 2, 2019

At the conclusion of Shiva, before the “welcome back to life” ceremonial walk around the block, I often sit with the mourner and provide a brief overview of the laws of mourning for the sheloshim, and in the case of the loss of a parent, for the additional eleven post-sheloshim months of mourning known as “yud-beit chodesh.” I explain that the operative principle of aveilut is dislocation, manifest both literally and figuratively. The Halakhah conspires to convey a palpable sense of existentially being out of sorts and out of place.  My relative has died, my parent has passed, how can the world continue to turn as if nothing has transpired? So, Jewish law says: while in Shul, change your seat - i.e., spatially dislocate yourself; for your mourning period, do not participate in occasions of joy with group meals and live music - i.e., dislocate yourself socially and refrain from celebratory engagements. For others, the world turns as ever. For the mourner, time stops, and s/he is exiled from the normal byways of life.  

This year, since Pesach, we have experienced a dislocation of a different sort. Here in America the 8th day of Pesach was on Shabbat, but in Israel the last day of Pesach - day seven - ended before Shabbat. Thus, for the past 15 weeks, Israel’s Torah reading parashah schedule has been one week ahead of us. So, for example, fans of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ weekly internet divrei Torah, which followed the Israeli Torah-reading calendar, found their weekly parashah commentary out of sync with what we have read in Shul here in Newton. This week, however, we in the Diaspora catch up. We read the double portion of Matot-Masei, while in Israeli they just read Masei. Next Shabbat, Jews the world over, in Israel and outside of it, will all read parshat Devarim. The critical question is, though, why did we have to wait until now, until the end of Sefer Bamidbar, to re-align? There have been numerous opportunities for us to double-up parshiot, especially the current leap year in which we separate parshiot that in a non-leap year are usually doubled. Why wait until the last possible moment; why delay until now?

On the website of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Jack Abramowitz shares a wonderful, full analysis of this phenomenon that you can read here. However, the answer I wish to offer is that our tradition to delay realignment underscores the sense of dislocation Chazal intended for us to feel in the Diaspora. How poignant it is for us to realize this sense of dislocation at the beginning of the “Nine Days,” during which we mourn our lack of full redemption and past and present sufferings and persecutions.  How appropriate for us to re-align at the beginning of the “Nine Days,” to remind ourselves that it is separation, division, and dislocation that leads the perpetuation of exile. How inspiring is the realization that it is only through relocation, realignment, unification, and loving fellowship that we will bring about our ultimate redemption. May it be so speedily in our times! 

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Benjie

Upstanding

Parshat Pinchas, 24 Tammuz 5779 - July 27, 2019

Pinchas begins with the story of an upstander who swiftly and decisively exercises leadership in a moment of national crisis. When we look deeper into the narrative of flagrant transgression and violent zealous response, we will take note of the story’s layers, tensions, and ambivalences. Is Pinchas rewarded with the covenant of peace as an uncritical reward, or, as my teacher Rabbi Norman Lamm taught me, as a Divine measure and message to temper his righteous anger? While Hashem may have approved of Pinchas’ act in that hour of crisis, God intends to negate vigilantism as an option for order-keeping. The Rabbis in the Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 82a) teach that had they been asked they would have denied Pinchas license to respond outside the system of justice.

There are moments, however, when the regnant “system of justice,” is patently unjust. Think of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Another Jewish model of an upstander who strategically exercised leadership in a moment of crisis and in the face of inescapable evil and injustice was a man by the name of Emanuel Ringelblum, who in November of 1940 was incarcerated with 450,000 other Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. He created a group known by the code name Oyneg Shabbes to resist Nazi oppression, persecution, and annihilation by wielding paper and pen to tell the story of the Jews of Warsaw, as a larger community and as distinct individuals. On Sunday, August 11, the observed fast of Tisha B’Av, we will be having a special screening of the critically acclaimed Who Will Tell Our Story, which tells the story of Ringelblum and Oyneg Shabbes. You can see a trailer or read about the film here. It is not to be missed and will deepen our appreciation of Tisha B’av, which at its core is the Jewish answer to the question: “who will tell our story?” The Jewish answer to this question time and again manifests that we despite all we have been through we still aspire to the promised and coveted covenant of peace.

Shabbat Shalom toward a B’rit Shalom, Rav Benjie

A Walk in the Sun

Parshat Balak, 17 Tammuz 5779 - July 20, 2019

 

A long time ago, when the Children of Israel wandered in the desert, Bilam the Seer travelled forth in the heat of the day to bless Israel. The wilderness of the Sinai peninsula is notoriously hot, and those who inhabit such regions need to learn the rules of survival in extreme heat. We, on the other hand, live in the Garden City, and reside and thrive in climate-controlled spaces. Venturing out on a particularly sunny and steamy summer day, for us, therefore, can feel like a walk in the midbar. There is a government declared heat advisory for this Shabbat and for Sunday’s observed Fast of the 17th of Tammuz. Each person will need to judge for themselves whether it is dangerous to come to Shul. For most, if the below protocols are observed then attendance at Shul should be reasonably safe. In terms of the fast day, on the one hand, for those who are able to fast, it is a (rabbinical) mitzvah; on the other hand, no one should endanger their health through potential dehydration and sunstroke, especially if you will necessarily need to be in the heat. This year, the fact that the fast is a nidcheh - a delayed fast day since the actual 17th of Tammuz is on Shabbat - also allows for justified leniency. If you have any questions about whether you should fast whether in whole or in part, please feel free to contact me.

 

Regardless of whether or not you can fast this Sunday, we can all honor the historical remembrance of the day and affirm its religious and ethical import by participating in our minyanim, studying the import of the fast day, and beginning the “Three Weeks” and its mourning practices by appreciating the Modern State of Israel, recognizing that we must all still work toward the full redemption, fight for justice, and improve our relations with others. For readings, click here.

 

Additionally, here are some tips from the CDC for preventing heat-related illnesses: 1.NEVER leave children, adults or pets alone in a closed, parked vehicle; 2. Slow down, avoid strenuous activity; 3. Avoid too much sun; 4. Plan outdoor games and activities for early morning or evening; 5. Avoid extreme temperature changes; 6. Stay indoors as much as possible and use air conditioners to cool the air; 7. When the temperature is in the 90’s, fans will not prevent heat related illness. Taking a cool shower or bath is a better way to cool off; 8. Wear loose-fitting, lightweight, light-colored clothing that will cover as much skin as possible. Protect face and head by wearing a wide brimmed hat; 9. Drink plenty of fluids, even if you do not feel thirsty, and avoid alcoholic beverages, drinks with caffeine and large amounts of sugar—these actually cause you to lose more body fluid; 10. Use your stove less and try to cook your meals in the cooler part of the day.

 

Although any one at any time can suffer from heat-related illness, some people are at greater risk than others. Check regularly on: Infants and young children; People aged 65 or older; People who have a mental illness; Those who are physically ill, especially with heart disease or high blood pressure; Visit adults at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke; Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.

 

Since Parshat Balak is the Shabbat of blessing, I will end with a blessing: May Hashem bless and guard you, keep you healthy, safe, and cool! Shabbat Shalom, Rav Benjie

Kindness  Requires Sacrifice

Parshat Chukat, 8 Tammuz 5779 - July 11, 2019

Over the past couple of weeks, I have written about utilizing summer-time for self-care, well-being and health, about trying to free ourselves from dangerous distractions (like texting while driving), and aspiring to the exercise of leadership and role-modelling. All of these themes, once again, are present in parshat Chukat, which focuses on staying-hydrated in the heat, anger-management, and the joys and oys of the life-cycle and leadership challenges. I would like to highlight, however, the great mystery at the heart of the ritual of the parah adumah (red heifer) with which our parashah begins. The waters of purification made from the ashes of the offering of the parah adumah purify all those who come in contact with a corpse, the most serious form of ritual impurity and defilement. Yet, despite the pure spiritual potency of these waters, the Kohen who prepares them becomes impure in the process. How can purifying waters impurify its preparers? I will not presume to claim an answer this conundrum that has perplexed throughout the ages our greatest scholars and wisest sages, including Shlomo HaMelekh. And yet, one observation I will offer -- that is, to do something helpful for another person requires sacrifice. That sacrifice need not be large or costly, but a sacrifice of time and/or resources is still required. There is no free lunch, as the expression goes - neither for the person who receives it, nor the people who prepare it.

Our Sages tell us that the reason the second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed was because of Sinat Chinam, needless hatred and indifference. Rav Kook insightfully taught that the third Beit HaMikdash will thus only be built through Ahavat Chinam - love and kindness generously and graciously shared. This year, on the fast of Shiva Asar beTammuz, our Shul will be organizing a Yom Chesed - a day of social justice and kindness. Come join other Shaarei families for hands-on volunteering at Cradles to Crayons on 17 Tammuz, Sunday, July 21 from 10 am to noon. This activity is free and open to all, especially families with children ages 5 and up. We will be working as a group to sort or pack clothing or other supplies for children in need in the Boston area. Cradles to Crayons is located at 155 North Beacon Street in Brighton. RSVP is required. Thank you to Shoshana L. and family for organizing.

Traction without Distraction

Parshat Korach, 30 Sivan 5779 - July 3, 2019

For my birthday this past May, I splurged and bought myself an Apple watch. My justification for this self-indulgence was to help me train for running. You see, while jogging, the Apple watch will tell you how many strides per minute, your current pacing, your overall average pace, your heart rate, and allow you to listen to music on wireless headphones without needing to carry a larger device. While running, I twist my wrist, check out my stats, and adjust my run accordingly. The gadgets in our lives are truly amazing. They allow us to be in contact with more people more frequently that ever imagined. We have instant access to data: news, weather, sports scores, stock prices, etc. It is hard to turn away from the constant lure of new connections, conversations, and information. When I am out on a bike ride (my other sport), at the traffic lights I take notice of people in their cars. It seems that 9 out of 10 drivers are checking their smart phones at stops. When I look at people while they are driving, often they are also doing something with their phone. Despite the law against texting while driving, there are a lot of distracted drivers out there. And perhaps, at least occasionally, you and I count ourselves among them.

This week we read parshat Korach, in which Moshe is caught unaware by a populist rebellion. How could the greatest of our leaders not have known in advance what was brewing? I think the answer is somewhat obvious. Moshe was texting while driving! While driving the children of Israel through the wilderness, Moshe was texting Torah – writing the Torah, studying the Torah, teaching the Torah. He was distracted. He was texting while driving.

Although I am writing this in a lighthearted fashion, my message this week is deadly serious. We live in a world of distraction. Sometimes that means we lose our trail and go off course.. Sometimes it means that we are less efficient at work, less available to those we love, less productive and contributing in life. And sometimes it means that we put others (and ourselves) in danger by texting while driving, running, and walking - dulling our awareness and our responsiveness.

Two Sundays ago, as I shared in a previous message, I ran a 10k in downtown Boston. This was the race that I have been training for; the race that necessitated my purchase of an expensive gadget. The race day came, and in my excitement, I ran out the door to arrive on time at Boston Common with 8500 other runners. Lining up for the start – OMG – I noticed that I forgot my new Apple watch and headphones at home. I was forced to run the race without distraction; without frequent stat-checks and adjustments. It was glorious!

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Benjie

Be the  Blessing

Parshat Shelach, 25 Sivan 5779 - June 28, 2019

 

One morning this past week during rush hour, I dropped off my son at the Newton Centre T stop so that he could take public transit to his summer internship. There was no place to turn off to the side in front of the T station, so I put on my hazards and stopped before the crosswalk so that he could quickly exit the vehicle. In my rear-view mirror, I could see an gesticulating, exasperated driver not happy with my impeding her passage forward. When we both arrived at the intersection of Union and Langley, me being on the left, and her being on the right, she “flipped me the bird. “I imagine that she was late for something and I was a present and safe opportunity to channel her negative energies. No worries. It was not the first time I got the one finger salute, and I doubt it will be the last time. The funny thing is, when she drove away, I noticed the solitary bumper sticker on her vehicle. It was a peace sign. Well, at that moment, I guess you can say she shared with me half a peace sign.

 

This Shabbat, we read Parshat Shelach Lecha, which tells the story of how the best and brightest of the generation of the wilderness, the nisiim of Israel -- the tribal princes of Israel, went on a reconnaissance expedition of the land of Canaan in advance of the Children of Israel’s entry into the Land of Promise. They projected their own fears onto what they observed, and channeled their own insecurities in their subsequent negative report to Moshe and the people of Israel. In response to their failure of leadership and their unreadiness to advance to the next stage of national development, God punished the entire generation by sentencing them to 38 more years of wandering. Their abiding hope would have to be that their children instead would inherit their ancestral Divine promises.

 

Why did God punish them so severely? We all know that otherwise good and upright people could occasionally chose poorly, make mistakes, and even fail miserably? Should people really “lose their world in a single hour”? This is a legitimate and fair question which comes up all the time and deserves a fuller discussion. The lesson I wish for us to consider, however, is that every occasion counts and that each moment presents us with an opportunity to either mekadesh or mechalel Shem Shamayim. Half a peace sign in a moment of frustration may momentarily provide a release of frustration, but makes it much harder to build a world in which all hands display the full peace sign. Whether driving in traffic, or delivering a critical report, let us remember that to bring promise and blessing, we need to be the blessing and display the promise. Instead of Road Rage, let’s aspire to being models of courtesy, positivity, and understanding. Shabbat shalom, Rav Benjie

The Summer of Our Lives

Parshat Beha’alotcha, 18 Sivan 5779 - June 21, 2019

This Shabbat marks the official start to summer. How appropriate then for us to read parshat Behaalotekha, which begins with a command to bring light into the world. Summer brings copious daylight hours and warmer weather affording us an opportunity to spend more time out of doors, realigning ourselves with nature, and allowing us an opportunity to exercise body, mind, and soul. Many in our community know that this past year I set as a personal goal to improve my health by bettering my eating habits, shedding unwanted weight, and committing myself to exercise more regularly. In fact, this Sunday morning, please God, I will be running the Boston Athletic Association’s annual 10k in downtown Boston with 10,000 other runners! If you are not running with me, you might consider joining the 7th annual Rofeh Walk around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Additionally, this coming Wednesday night from 7-8 pm, my health coach, Susie Berg, a member of the Young Israel of Sharon, will be hosting a motivational workshop at our Shul for those interested in a healthier lifestyle (see below).

Parshat Behaalotekhah famously has a short passage (Bamidbar 10:35-36), uniquely bracketed in the Torah by two calligraphed upside-down, Hebrew-letter nuns. The passage describes the movement of the Ark, and in turn, the Children of Israel, during their desert wanderings. We know the passage well, as we sing it each time we remove the Torah from the Aron Kodesh: “Vayehi binsoa aron…” Why does the Torah bracket this passage about the encampment’s movement, which the Talmud calls a book of the Torah unto itself? Homiletically I would say that to get oneself moving, one needs to bracket off space and time. To make a change, you need to mix things up, even turn yourself over like an upside-down nun. This summer, consider bracketing off some space and time for yourself and work toward a healthier you! Ready yourself to greet the coming New Year with positive energy and feel-good confidence. A new you for the New Year? Summertime is the time to get things moving!

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Benjie

The Mount Everest of Layning and Its Lesson

Parshat Nasso, 11 Sivan 5779 - June 14, 2019 - GRADUATION SHABBAT

As a pre-teen growing up in Chicago, for my friends and I, Parshat Naso was considered the Mount Everest of layning. The 34th parashah has the largest number of letters, words, and verses of any of the 54 weekly Torah portions. Forget baseball sluggers’ batting averages and pitchers’ ERAs, Naso’s stats made us quake: 8,632 Hebrew letters, 2,264 Hebrew words, 176 verses, and 311 lines of Torah text. To those layners who conquered it came the victor’s boast; for the rest, it represented a dangerous, even potentially lethal perilous journey. However, while the parashah is indeed quite long, for those willing to peer within, the mystique of the longest parashah evaporates. The primary reason for its lengthiness is its longest chapter of 89 verses (Bamidbar 7) which tells of the tribal sacrifices inaugurating the Mishkan. These 89 verses include a twelve-fold repetition of the same sacrifice brought time and again by each of the tribal leaders of all twelve shevatim. Many have asked why was it necessary for the Torah to repeat each Nasi’s sacrifice if they are all virtually identical. Why didn’t the Torah simply present the first, and then say something like: “and so it was for each of the tribes.” The answer is that the Torah wanted to equally honor each contribution, each achievement, and recognize that the whole - while stronger than the sum of its parts - still relies on each of its constituent parts!

This Shabbat, we celebrate all of the graduates in our Shul community. Our custom is for our President during announcements to read the names of each graduate, just like at a graduation ceremony. Why not just read the first name, and say: “and so too for all the graduates whose names may be found in your pamphlets.” Every individual learning achievement is valorous and worthy of celebration; every one’s sacrifice and contribution needs to be acknowledged. Mazal Tov to all our graduates and their families! May your graduation not only be a conclusion, but also a commencement of further learning and its application to life!

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Samuels

Re-enacting Kabbalat HaTorah

Parshat Bamidbar, 4 Sivan 5779 - 48 day of the Omer - June 7, 2019 - Shavuot, June 8-10

On Shavuot, we remember – even reenact – our receiving the Torah at Har Sinai.  We have Torah learning opportunities for all ages.  Please participate and enjoy our programs. Please find our full schedule in this week's annoucnements and posted in the Atrium of our Shul. Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach, Rabbi Samuels

 Jersusalem   and Jewish Destiny

Parshat Bechukotai, 26 Iyar 5779 - 41st Day of the Omer - May 31, 2019

The biblical book of Daniel tells us that while residing in captivity in Babylonia after the exile of Judea (594 BCE), and the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash (586 BCE) , “Daniel would enter his house, where there were open windows in his upper chamber facing Jerusalem; three times a day he would kneel and pray'” (Daniel 6:11). From Daniel’s example, the Talmud (TB Berakhot 34b) learns two halakhot: one, when we pray, we should face Jerusalem; two, we should seek to pray in a space that has windows. Why does the Talmud require that we pray towards Jerusalem? This certainly made sense in Daniel’s generation as Jerusalem was his home, and to return home was his deepest prayer. But why did the rabbis of the Talmud ordain that all subsequent generations should pray for Jerusalem? Three reasons: One, Jerusalem represents the meeting place of God and humanity. To turn to Jerusalem is to seek an encounter with the Divine. Two, Jerusalem represents the capital of the sovereign nation of the Jewish people. To turn to Jerusalem is to connect oneself with Jewish peoplehood and destiny. Three, Jerusalem represents the utopian vision of peace on earth, of all nations recognizing their common origins, their shared ultimate destiny, and that we are all God’s children and accountable to God’s expectations of us (see Isaiah, chapter 2). Thus, it is also a rabbinic requirement to pray in a room with a window in order to remind ourselves that when we pray it is not just about us, but our connections beyond ourselves to God, the Jewish people, and a greater human peace, purpose, and plan. This Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim. We celebrate the unification of Jerusalem, as well as share in its dream. At Shacharit, we will say Hallel with a berakhah. Throughout the day, find ways to connect to Israel and Jerusalem: wear blue and white; recite the Shirei haMa’alot - Tehillim 120-134; eat Israeli food; pray for peace; be an activist for Israel; contribute tzedakah to an Israeli cause; call a friend or relative in Israel. Think of your own connections and activities. Above all, seek Jerusalem and pray for its peace.

Shabbat Shalom, in love of Tziyon, Rav Benjie

The Prohibition of Self-Delusion

Parshat Behar, Iyar, 19 Iyar 5779 - May 24, 2019

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (Przysucha, Poland, 1765–1827) offers a trenchant lesson via the pasuk, “אַל-תּוֹנוּ, אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו - You shall not defraud one another” (Lev 25:14). He says, according to Torah law, it is only forbidden to defraud another person. However, teaches Rav Simcha Bunim, a pious person, chassidim, must go beyond the letter of the law and not delude, wrong, or oppress themselves either. Last week, here in Massachusetts (Chabad of Needham and Arlington), as well as in Chicago (Cong. Anshe Sholom), there have been anti-semitic arson attempts at synagogues. Rebbetzin Luna Bukiet of the Chabad House of Arlington, the day after someone tried to light her and her husband’s house on fire endangering their entire family, was quoted in the media as saying: “We have committed our lives to spreading the universal message of light and love. This will not deter us. If anything, we will double down on our efforts to bring more goodness into the world and create a better world for all of our children.” I found her statement incredibly inspiring. Why did the Rebbetzin focus on her and her husband’s and her community’s own behavior, values, and commitments? The problem isn’t them, the problem is the disease of bigotry and antisemitism found in others who have wronged them. Says Rabbi Simcha Bunim: Yes, the Torah commands us not to wrong others, however, to become a personality who does no harm, one must first do not self-harm, one must advance one’s own sensitivities and cultivate one’s own moral excellence. Don’t delude yourself. Each of us is capable of harboring bigotries and biases. Start within and work outwards. Be the flame of light and not destruction, the source of love and not hatred.

A similar message was shared by our friend and teacher Rabbanit Leah Sarna of Cong. Anshe Sholom in Chicago. Writing in the Atlantic Magazine, she affirmed: “Our synagogue will remain a powerful reminder that humans can and will and must gather, with all of our differences, because only in community can we live out our fullest human potentials of holiness, kindness, and service.” May it be so. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Samuels

Aging or Saging?

Parshat Emor, Iyar, 13 Iyar 5779 - May 18, 2019

In this week’s parashah, admidst the description of the festivals marking the yearly cycle, we find the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer: “You shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Shabbat, from the day on which you bring the Omer offering; seven complete weeks they shall be . . .” (Lev 23:15). The Maggid of Mezeritch teaches that the word, “sefirah - counting,” in the Kabbalistic tradition also means “illumination,” being etymologically related to “Sappir - Sapphire.” Thus, the illumination of God’s light in this world is poetically expressed through the metaphysical metaphor of the Sefirot, the 10 valences of God’s luminescent emanations. This duality of meaning teaches us, says the Maggid, that on each of the progressive forty-nine days of “Sefirat HaOmer - the Counting/Illumination of the Omer,” we illuminate, refine and advance another of the forty-nine characteristic aspects of our soul. This is a profound and beautiful idea. Each day when we arise, it is not yet another day in the slog of life, but an opportunity awaiting, a bestirring of unrealized potential, a trajectory of growth. All things change. Yet it is up to us whether the graph of our life is a bell curve beginning with growth and then after reaching an apogee a downward decline, or whether one cycle of growth leads to another. Aging or Saging? The Torah doesn’t set a date for Shavuot - the receiving of the Torah. The only way to get there is by the upward journey of Sefirat HaOmer. Let’s make it count! Let’s make it shine! Shabbat shalom, rbs

HaMar veHaMatok - The Bitter and the Sweet

Parshat Kedoshim, Shabbat Ahavat Tzion Iyar, 6 Iyar 5779 - May 11, 2019

This has been a whirlwind of a week. The State of Israel began the week under rocket fire, sustained tragic loss of life and injury, defended itself, and by mid-week had achieved a tenuous ceasefire in time to mourn its fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and then celebrate its 71st anniversary of independence. While our hearts and minds were on the Jewish homeland, much was also happening here at our Jewish home in Boston. On Sunday morning, while Israel was in lockdown, the Jewish community dedicated the beautiful new Daughters of Israel Mikvah in Brighton. The historic Adams Street Synagogue celebrated its 102nd year, and 1300 people gathered to stand with Israel at the annual Boston AIPAC dinner. Later in the week, our Boston area Modern Orthodox community joined together to observe Yom HaZikaron and celebrate Yom Haatzmaut. Our shelichot and B’nei Akiva teen leaders did a fantastic job organizing and running the event. This Shabbat, we will further celebrate Israel with our annual Shabbat Ahavat Tzion. HaMar veHaMatok - the bitter and the sweet. One could say that this past week encapsulates the ongoing state of the Jewish State and the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom and Shalom ‘al Yisrael, Rav Benjie

Dualities 

Parshat Achrei Mot, Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Iyar, 29 Nisan 5779 - May 4, 2019

On Wednesday night, Jews the worldover will join with our Israeli brothers and sisters in remembrance of the 23,741 fallen heroes of Israel on Yom Hazikaron, and then celebrate the 71 anniversary of Israel’s independence on Yom Haatzmaut. Please join our annual community event this Wednesday night, May 8th, beginning at 6:45 PM, at Cong. Beth El. This annual bittersweet dual observance resonates with us at this juncture in our Jewish lives. We celebrate Jewish self-sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the freedoms we have enjoyed post-Shoah and post-USSR throughout all our diaspora habitations, and yet we witness once again the rise of extremism, exclusive nationalisms, bigotry, and antisemitism throughout the globe, and even in the United States. Last weekend’s murderous shooting at the Poway Chabad Community at Yizkor on the last day of Passover reminds us that we still await redemption, and that there is still much for us to fix in our broken world. This week’s parashahAcharei Mot” - “After the death,” invites us to think about “reconstruction” in the aftermath of death, disappointment, and destruction. It calls upon us to be God’s partner in building a world of holiness, ethics and goodness. Shabbat and Sunday are Rosh Chodesh and create yet another opportunity for new beginnings. May the new month bring us new blessings.

Shabbat Shalom, rbs

A Place at the Table

Shabbat Pesach, 14 Nisan 5779 - April 19, 2019

This morning, I received Pesach well-wishes from a former congregant and still dear friend from my days as an assistant rabbi on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It read: “The Pesach sacrifice required cooperation and group unity to be effective. Perhaps that message will help all overcome the divisiveness and polarization which now affects our community and the larger world. All the best for the holiday.” Last Shabbat, on Shabbat HaGadol, I taught on this same theme of “How the Model of the Korban Pesach and Seder Can Save the World.” Global political, religious and national polarization, breakdowns in civil discourse, reductions in social capital ala Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone - all of these threaten to undermine civilized society and political democracy more generally, and rend the fabric of the Jewish people. The model of the Seder teaches that we must get everyone around the same table talking with each other, recognizing that we share a common origin, that we are partners in greater purpose, and therefore share a future and destiny. The sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim, story of Pesach, reminds us that the long arc of history bends toward justice, and that adversity - whether personal, communal or national - can be overcome. We begin with questions, diverge in our opinions and beliefs, find commonality in the conversation, and in the process learn empathy - to see ourselves through the eyes of others and others through more open eyes - and find harmony, or at least musical dissonance, in the songs we sing in thanksgiving together.

Wishing you nachas-filled, interconnected, beautiful Seders and a Chag Kasher veSameach, Rav Benjie

If At First You Don't Succeed ... Try, Try Again

Shabbat Hagadol, Youth Shabbat, Iron Blech, Parshat Metzora, 7 Nisan 5779 - April 12, 2019

This past Thursday (April 11), I watched the attempted satellite moon-landing by SpaceIL. I was born in 1968 and did not witness the great excitement of the first space-flights and moon-landing at the dawn of the space age. My mind’s eye can picture the image of the great control center at NASA that I have seen in books and recreated in movies. How different was the relatively small command center of a “small country with big dreams” trying to make history, displayed on a live YouTube feed on my personal computer, a day after a contentious and acrimonious election. I was gripped with excitement and pride as the mission control announcer spoke in Hebrew of engines firing, telemetries, and horizontal and vertical acceleration rates. And then, in the dramatic last 30 seconds, the failing of a critical instrument and then the primary engine, the successful attempt to restart the engine, but alas too late. The satellite’s descent was too fast, the landing failed, the craft crashed. One would have expected a scene of immense sorrow and disappointment. To be sure, there was disappointment, but the overall feeling in the air was still one of great achievement and hope. It was a beautiful Jewish and human moment, and displayed the Jewish capacity for survival and resilience.

This Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol, when our ancestors enslaved in Egypt set aside a lamb or goat, animals deified by the Egyptians, in advance of the night of Passover. There had been so many promises and then setbacks. And yet, the Children of Israel tried and tried again. When did the Children of Israel begin to gain their freedom? When they left Egypt or when they got up after their first failure and tried again? Shabbat Shalom, rbs

A Lost Son Returns Home

Shabbat Hachodesh, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, Parshat Tazria, 29 Adar II 5779 - April 5, 2019

כה אמר ה' , מנעי קולך מבכי, ועינייך, מדמעה: כי יש שכר לפעולתך נאום-ה', ושבו מארץ אויב. ויש-תקווה לאחריתך, נאום-ה'; ושבו בנים, לגבולם (ירמיהו לא:טו-טז).

Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy (Jeremiah 31:15-16).

When I was a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) from 1986-1988, I remember us praying for the return of soldiers missing in action, one of whom was Zachary Baumel, an MIA American-Israeli soldier who had been in Gush’s Hesder program, which combines yeshiva learning and military service in the Israel Defense Forces over 5 years. During the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon on June 11, 1982, Zachary’s unit was attacked, and he and five other comrades were declared missing. One had been killed and was buried in Syria, and two were located alive in Syria and returned to Israel a few years later. But Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman were unaccounted for over many decades. Until his death in 2009, Zachary's father Yona Baumel (who died in 2009, link to tribute article) kept his son's case in the public eye, traveling around the world to uncover leads to confirm or deny the persistent rumors that his son was still alive, and criticizing the Israeli army for not pursuing the case vigilantly. This past week, on April 3, 2019 (link to article, video and pictures), Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian army, in coordination with the Syrian military, had found Baumel's remains. The military operation was a result of a two-year cooperative effort between Israel and Russia to return bodies of missing Israeli soldiers buried in Syria, code-named Operation Bittersweet Song (Hebrew: זמר נוגה, Zemer Noge). Zachary Baumel's remains in a coffin draped with the Israeli flag accompanied by a Russian military Honor Guard (could you believe it?) were handed over to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an official ceremony at the Russian defense ministry in Moscow on April 3 and interred the following day at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. The whereabouts of the other missing soldiers remain unknown. I received a report from a colleague who visited the home of the Baumel family and reported: “This shiva visit had no raw emotions. The mourning happened a long time ago. This is one of pride, of pride in our government, our army, our intelligence services, pride of distant memories of a dedicated soldier who paid the ultimate price and who finally, 37 years later, is reunited with his land.

In the words of Naomi Shemer, “al hamar ve-hamatok”, bitter and satisfying in the same moment.” Of course, it would have been much, much sweeter had he returned alive after 37 years. Even so, a last son finally returns home.

This Shabbat is also infertility awareness Shabbat, and we partner with Yesh Tikvah, whose name in Hebrew means “There is Hope.” The organization was established to end the silence and create a community of support for all Jewish people facing infertility. Yesh Tikva gives a voice to these struggles, breaks down barriers and facilitates the conversation surrounding infertility. For more information visit us at www.YeshTikva.org. An e-journal entitled: “The Many Voices of Infertility: Pesach and All Year,” created in conjunction with Hasidah and the Jewish Fertility Foundation is also accessible at www.infertilityawarenessshabbat.org.

The Music in Me

Shabbat Parah, Parshat Shmini, 22 Adar II 5779 - March 29, 2019

This past week, I travelled to Washington to attend the AIPAC policy conference. It is always an incredible opportunity to stand with 18,000 other people -- Jews and Gentiles -- in support of the US-Israel alliance.  At a special lunch for 500 rabbis and cantors from across the denominational and political spectrum, we heard a presentation by Moran Samuel, an Israeli woman who played on Israel’s national women’s basketball team. At age 24, though young and fit, she tragically suffered a rare spinal stroke, that left her lower body paralyzed. Determined to not let her physical limitations define her, she applied her upper body strength and dexterity to become a celebrated Israeli paralympic basketball player and world champion rower. Among her many victories, in 2012, she won a race in the single scull competition at the Adaptive Rowing Regatta in Gavirate, Italy. However, when she received her trophy at the podium, the organizer didn’t have the music for Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, so she asked for the microphone and sang it herself! Embodying the Israeli national spirit, she told us that obstacles are challenges, not barriers. Then she asked us to sing Hatikvah with her. She said that as Jews we have learned to carry our own music with us. It was a moment of extraordinary uplift and inspiration.  Shabbat Shalom, rav benjie

Two Types of Redemption

Shushan Purim Parshat Tzav, 15 Adar II 5779 - March 22, 2019

The Talmud teaches: “Thirty days before a festival, one begins to study and ask questions about the upcoming festival” (TB Pesachim 6a; Megillah 32a; TJ Pesachim 1:1; Tosefta Megillah 3:5). On the one hand, this makes perfect sense, especially with regard to Passover, whose laws can be quite complex. On the other hand, 30 days before Pesach is Purim day! Are we really supposed to ask questions about Pesach between sips of wine and Purim punchlines?

While halakhists indeed understand this teaching as normative, there is another valence of meaning and purpose here.

Purim and Pesach represent two distinct types of redemption and their narratives are framed quite differently. The Talmud wishes for us to connect these redemptions and build from one to the next. At your post-Shushan Purim Shabbat tables, consider discussing the differing redemptions of Purim and Pesach. At Shul on Shabbat morning, I look forward to speaking on this topic!

Shushan Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom, Rav Benjie

Memory, Empathy, Equity and Justice

Shabbat Zachor Parshat Vayikra, 8 Adar II 5779 - March 15, 2019

Shabbat is Parshat Zachor, the Shabbat preceding Purim on which we fulfill our yearly biblical obligation to recall Amalek’s war on the Children of Israel upon their leaving Egypt and our perpetual battle against the forces of evil and injustice in the world. With the alarming rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, hate speech, and global terrorism – most recently aimed at Muslims in New Zealand, Parshat Zachor takes on even greater significance reminding us to stand up against bigotry and prejudice on behalf of our fellow Jews and other human beings. Both men and women should make sure to come to shul on time to fulfill this important obligation. For parents with small children who may not be able to attend the regular reading of Zachor, we will have a second reading of Zachor immediately following davening in the main shul.

Apropos of questions of discrimination and exclusion, this past week on our Kahal listserv, we had a respectful impromptu exchange about race. One person posted an informational notice about a Pre-Purim gathering of Jews of Color (and their families) this Sunday in Roxbury, and another person asked why an exclusive gathering of Jews of color doesn’t perpetuate a culture of exclusion and discrimination. In other words, if we would be outraged by a whites-only event, why is an exclusive event for people of color any better? When I read this exchange, it reminded me of the heated “Black Lives Matter” movement, and it's “All Lives Matter” critique, that roiled our society in recent past years, and to my mind was a phenomenon of people talking past each other, rather than to and with each other. As a traditional Jew whose political values are primarily socially progressive, for me, these larger clashing viewpoints also resonate with the discomfort I witness, ironically, by socially progressive political communities to condemn anti-Semitism on its own.

I reached out to our teacher and member, Yavila McCoy, a self-described Jewish woman and person of color whose professional life as an educator, activist, and spiritual teacher has been dedicated to educating people about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yavila helped frame the issues for me, very much in line with the wisdom shared by our teacher and member Amy Newman, when she wrote that it should be okay for Jews of Color (and their families) “to gather in a space that’s just for them, without the people who have marginalized them. It is not at all the same as when the majority chooses to exclude a minority.” Yavila advised that a starting point is to think of affinity groups (such as a Shul, or within a Shul, such as a Women’s Tefillah Group, and how and why people feel a need to gather with others of similar interests and experiences, and how minority/majority and privileged/underprivileged distinctions impact on the legitimacy of exclusivity for affinity groups. Yavila also shared with me a thoughtful and ardent essay on this topic, “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People,” which I recommend reading. Another resource that I personally found helpful, is the YA (young adult) Novel, The Hate You Give, which dramatizes quite effectively the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the feelings of marginalization felt by people of color that are not even on the radar of many white people whose world is shaped, at times, by vastly different treatment and therefore experience.

I would like to end by thanking the participants in this exchange for raising issues of race relations for our community and creating a “teachable moment.” At Shaarei, we sincerely think of ourselves as a thoughtful, warm, welcoming, inclusive and empowering community, but we also live, at least partially, in our own Modern Orthodox, Newton Centre bubble, that has not been on the front lines of race relations. I would like for us this summer, one Shabbat afternoon, to have an educational program on issues of race in our society and in the Jewish community. If you would like to help organize this educational event, please let me know.

Wishing you a memorable Shabbat, rbs

A Beit  Kenesset is a House of Gathering

Shabbat Shekalim, Parshat Vayakhel, 24 Adar I 5779 - March 1, 2019

Parshat Vayakhel begins with Moshe gathering the Children of Israel in the aftermath of the Golden Calf calamity, in order to heal a broken nation, and refocus spiritual energies on coming together and building the Mishkan, a house for God in their midst. It is therefore somewhat ironic, and patently disjunctive, that last week’s parashah ended with Moshe veiling himself, which he continued to do when not communing with God or bringing God’s word to the people. Last week’s parashah thus ends with difference and self-exclusion, and this week’s parashah begins with comprehensive inclusion and commonality. How do we account for this? Perhaps, that is precisely the point. We celebrate difference and recognize that diversity is part of creation’s majesty. However, it is in light of native differences that we need to turn the page and make the extra effort to come together and share our energies and resources to build something that allows us to share a life of sacred purpose.

In the coming weeks, we have numerous opportunities to come together as a community, to study Torah and daven together, to celebrate Purim together by delivering mishloach manot and sharing a Purim seudah (Thursday, March 21), to a wine tasting in advance of Pesach (Saturday night, March 30), a Shabbat Scholar and choral musical performance (April 6) and celebrating our youth and sharing a pre-Pesach community Iron Blech Kiddush-Luncheon on Shabbat HaGadol (April 13). Our parashah begins with coming together -- VaYakhel -- the same hebrew root for Kehillah -- Jewish community.. Shabbat shalom and see you in Shul! Rav Benjie

Lift Your Head High

Parshat Tetzaveh, 17 Adar I 5779 - February 22, 2019

RABBI’S MESSAGE: “Ki tissa et rosh b’nei Yisrael - when you lift up the heads of the Children of Israel according to their count….” (Shemot 30:12). Our parashah begins this week with a census, a numbering and taking of account. The Torah’s expression gloriously captures the importance of the individual, even while focusing on population mass.. When you consider, teaches the Torah, the quantity of Israel, lift up each person and never forget the irreducible quality of every soul endowed with tzelem Elokim and the dignities of absolute value, fundamental equality, and uniqueness.

Last Shabbat, on the occasion of the first Yahrzeit of her mother Lillian Garber z”l, our friend and teacher Ronda Jacobson expressed her gratitude to the men and women, adults and teens, who with quiet heroism attend our daily minyan, day by day, week by week, month by month, year after year. I too deeply feel this appreciation on the occasion of having completed my eleven-month recitation of Kaddish this past Thursday evening for my dear late mother z”l. There are moments of profound understanding and transcendent gratitude which we experience in life. If we try hard, the aroma and taste of those moments last a bit longer. Yet, after a while, concrete feeling evaporates into cognitive abstraction. I don’t know a single person in a kehillah who doesn’t intellectually appreciate the need for minyanaires - i.e., minyan regulars, and for those who stand ready to fill in the breach when a call is made for men to help make a minyan or for women to help create a greater sense of community tefillah. And yet, the reality of kehillah is also that the burden of the many is too often carried by the ardent few. While our parashah begins by taking note of the individual even at a time of census, there is another level of meaning at play. The individual feels his and her importance by realizing their contribution to the whole. The whole may indeed be greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are integral to the whole, and are made more whole by being a part, rather than apart. Thank you again to all those who help make up our daily minyanim, and may those of us who are blessed to feel deep gratitude born of our moments of need shape ongoing appreciation of our amazing community.

A Life of Service

Parshat Tetzaveh, 10 Adar I 5779 - February 15, 2019

RABBI’S MESSAGE: Our parashah this week continues the theme of building the Mishkan, this time primarily focusing on preparing the sacred vestments of the ministering Kohanim. Once again, only by virtue of volunteerism and the sharing of skills and resources could the communal project of the Mishkan progress. Only by putting themselves, as it were, into the Mishkan, would Hashem then put Godself into their midst. At Shaarei, we too rely on the amazing generosity of our membership who freely share of their personal resources -- participation, wisdom, energy, expertise, skills and monetary investment. This week, we are looking for volunteer upstanders from our membership to help with four upcoming projects.

Purim Package Driver Organizer - For our mishloach manot project, on Purim day we deliver 45 routes of packages. We need someone to help recruit drivers. No need to recreate the wheel here. We have good records of past drivers who can be called upon again, though we need to find within our membership some new drivers. Our mishloach manot project is our Shul’s largest yearly fundraiser and its proceeds constitute a large portion of our operating budget. Please contact our president, Rebecca Kaplan, or Rabbi Samuels, if you can help.

Writers for This Year’s Purim Shpiel - Calling All Funny Gals and Guys - This year, we will endeavor to gather a small group of aspiring comic writers from our membership to write collaboratively this year’s Purim Shpiel via GoogleDocs. Please Contact Rabbi Samuels if you want to be part of the team.

Ramaz High School Choir Shabbaton Organizer - The Ramaz High School Choir would like to visit our Shul for Shabbat in April on their New England Tour. The plan would be to house them in the community. They would eat Friday night at their hosts. Shabbat morning they would perform for our Shul after Kiddush, and share lunch with other Shaarei and Newton teens at Shul. The Ramaz Choir has approximately 35 high schoolers and 5 faculty members. Our Shul volunteer organizer will help recruit 15-20 homes for lodging. We did this before about 7 years ago and it was memorable, and not difficult to pull together. Please contact Rabbi Samuels if you will help lead this effort.

Binge Worthy Israeli TV Shul Spring Screening - We will be hosting a screening of exciting Israeli TV shows with English subtitles for a fun evening of food, friendship, and film. Please contact Rabbi Samuels if you can help organize.

I am not sure that the Mishkan featured similar events to the above, but there’s no question that we come together as a holy community through our shared activities in our sacred space. Shabbat Shalom, rbs

Finding Our Way Back Home

Parshat Terumah, 3 Adar I 5779 - February 8, 2019

A chassidic story: One day an elderly gentleman was crying on a city-street bench. A kind-hearted person approached and asked if the older man needed help. “Dear friend, why are you crying?,” she asked. “Are you in pain? Do you need bus fare home? Do you have family? Are you all alone? Homeless?” “No, Madam,” responded the man. “I am married to an extraordinary woman, and we have a beautiful home.” “So why are you crying?,” persisted the woman. To which the man replied: “Because I don’t remember where I live.”

This week’s parashah teaches us about God’s home -- the Mishkan, which literally means: “the indwelling.” Yet, famously, the Torah says that when God instructed Moshe to command the Children of Israel to build God a terrestrial abode, God said: “ve’asu li mikdash veshakhnit betocham -- make for Me a sanctuary, and I will indwell among them.” When God looks for a home, it is not the structure of beams and planks and boards, but within the chambers of a person’s heart, the noble dimensions of a Jewish soul. God says, “I have an extraordinary family and a beautiful home, but sometimes I cannot find it, I don’t recall where it is.” If, however, we live with generosity of spirit, with sincere regard for others, with kindness, faithfulness, and integrity, then God remembers the way back. God returns to indwell in God’s home. God lives within us. Shabbat shalom, rbs

It Takes a community to be a community!

Parshat Mishpatim 26 Shevat 5779 - February 1, 2019

It’s cold and icy outside, and safety and comfort are important concerns. Those who are at risk for falls should always consider their wellbeing paramount when facing such conditions. Those who venture out walking at night or in the early morning, should make sure they are dressed for the weather, and also wear reflective gear. We just received from the Orthodox Union this week 100 reflective belts that we will put out beginning tonight for people to borrow (and return!) to make sure that we are visible to drivers when walking Newton’s darkened streets at night.

I am deeply proud of our community for providing a minyan at a funeral this week for a woman whose family could only provide 3 Jewish men. 9 men and 3 women from our community helped create a dignified service for a Jewish family, despite being complete strangers. We also supported the Shiva of our dear friend and Gabbai, Larry B. And yet, we also faced some challenges. While the US Postal Service’s creed reads: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” the truth is that there are days upon which there is no mail delivery. There is not, however, a single day on the calendar upon which our daily, Shabbat, and Festival minyanim do not meet. We congregate for Tefillah b’Tzibbur because it is both a community and an individual obligation. We gather to support those who are saying kaddish for a loved one, whether in their year of mourning or for a yahrzeit. And we strive to support the men and women of our community when they sit Shiva. This past week, despite the weather, we had days that both our shul and shiva minyanim were well staffed, and we also had days for which we struggled to get a minyan at Shul in the morning, failed to provide a minyan twice at late Maariv, and one morning had to send our Shul minyan to the Shiva house to make a quorum. It takes a community to be a community and share in the responsibility of support, rather than relying on our regular male and female “minyanaires.” I don’t believe that there is apathy at play, just busy people under the presumption that someone else will take care of it. The best way to participate is to utilize our online sign-up application when support is requested. This way, we can efficiently support our minyanim without unnecessarily burdening those for whom support is difficult for whatever reason. My challenge to the members of our kehillah: If you participated in our minyanim this past week -- yasher koach! If you did not maximize this mitzvah opportunity, please consider taking it upon yourself to support our minyanim at least one time more per month than currently, and our Shiva minyanim at least once during the week of mourning. We have enough men and women in our community that if the burden of support was shared, we would guarantee the smooth running of our davening at Shul and better support our members in their time of need. Shabbat Shalom, Tizku LeMitzvot, and GO PATS! rbs

Learning to Listen

Parshat Yitro 19 Shevat 5779 - January 25, 2019

I have returned from my extraordinary learning mission to Israel, or perhaps I should say “listening mission.” Having met with high ranking Israeli Government, Palestinian Authority, and United Nations officials, as well as with Jewish and Islamic religious leaders, Israeli and Palestinian thought leaders and grassroots (peaceful) activists across the spectrum, the role of our delegation of 12 Orthodox rabbis led by the Honorable Robert and Laurie Wexler of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Mideast Peace was primarily listening -- listening deeply. Of course, we asked hard questions of all we encountered, but our questions were to facilitate more profound understanding, rather than to share opinion or recommend policy.

One of the thought leaders we met with was Rabbi Re’em HaCohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Otniel, a Jewish settlement near Hebron, who participates in an intra-Jewish and inter-Jewish-Muslim dialogue group called Siach Shalom.

Rabbi HaCohen shared that the parashah narrating the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai begins with the arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law: "וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ - Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt” (Exodus 18:1). The Torah emphasizes that what characterized Yitro was that “he heard” -- that he was a listener. Learning begins with listening; understanding with hearing. Rabbi HaCohen said that Yitro taught the Children of Israel how best to receive the Torah, how to become a people known for “Shema Yisrael -- Hear O Israel.”

I look forward to finding a time in the next couple of weeks to share of my experience with those in the kehillah who may be interested in learning what I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what new efforts toward peace are being generated on the ground that seed hope, and what challenges persist that entrench despair. With two upcoming b’nei mitzvah and a scholar-in-residence, Shabbat morning will likely not be a conducive time for several weeks. Stay tuned. Shabbat shalom, rbs

Changing Hardened Hearts

Parshat Va’era 27 Tevet 5779 - January 4, 2019

How do we change societal ills? How do we persuade people to another point of view? How are we ourselves enticed to consider a different vantage? This Shabbat, we begin to read the section of the Exodus narrative describing the ten plagues. Blow upon blow, plague after plague, Pharaoh's heart is hardened, Egypt’s resolve further steeled, Pharoah’s mind remains unchanged. In the end, Egypt is decimated and humiliated, and the Children of Israel leave seeking freedom with a bitter taste still in their mouths. There are many lessons we learn from the account of yetziyat mitzrayim, but the plagues model an avenue of last resort, and not a constructive way toward positive social change. As parents, children, siblings, co-workers, citizens and friends, how do we persuade, change minds, and exercise leadership toward building collaborative “win-win,” third-way solutions? The plagues serve as brute force arguments, but accomplish little other than devastation and destruction. Even Torah and Mitzvot, as the Talmud teaches (TB Shabbat 88a), when presented as a mountain hanging over people’s heads will not transform their hearts. We lower our defenses, and open our hearts, minds, ears and eyes, through trust, love, understanding, and recognition of another’s dignity. Our constant retelling of the Exodus, the Jewish people’s Master Narrative, of our journey from bondage to responsibility, attempts to teach us this through each new year’s Torah cycle, our annual Pesach Seders, from generation to generation, until we internalize its message. Shabbat shalom!

Back to the Future

Parshat Shemot 20 Tevet 5779 - December 28, 2018

New Beginnings: A Bat Mitzvah. A wedding engagement. Returning to Sefer Shemot. The secular New Year. In what ways are all these new beginnings similar, and in what ways do they differ? Two ways we think about time are linear and cyclical conceptions. A linear sense of time, sometimes called the arrow of time, understands time along a line, with a beginning, an end, and lots of middle. Life cycle events, for the most part, like birth, maturation - i.e., rites of passage, life-course milestones like marriage, etc., fit nicely with time’s linearity. Starting a biblical book anew in our yearly keriyat haTorah cycle, and celebrating a new year, whether Jewish or secular, align with a cyclical framework. And yet, when we celebrate, as a community, with a particular individual, or a couple, or a family, a life-cycle event, there is a sense of cyclicality and we affirm the life cycle through the generations. Similarly, although returning to a biblical book, and starting a new year fit into a cyclical pattern, we don’t return to the past, but progress along the timeline, as a wheel rolling forward on a pathway. Common to all the dimensions of new beginnings is a shared sense of renewal and commencement -- an opportunity to learn from the past, while we create a new future in relation to our unique present. In the beginning of the 20th century, thinking about time’s nature, its linearity, cyclicality, and relationality, helped yield new physics (think Einstein), and new metaphysics (think Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy). In Jewish thought, it is yet another example of the interaction of tradition and modernity, and building a new future based on a present-tense sense of our shared past. Wishing one and all a good Shabbos, Mazal Tov, and a thoughtful New Year! Rav Benjie

A Segulah for Long Life

Parshat Veyechi 13 Tevet 5779 - December 21, 2018

Once again, we partner on Shabbat Parshat Vayechi with 500 other Orthodox synagogues across the country for TEAM Shabbat, sponsored by the National Association of Chevra Kadishas (NASCK). TEAM stands for “traditional end-of-life awareness.” On this Shabbat, we affirm as a community the need and duty for each of us to set our affairs in order, as appropriate. Adults of all ages should have a health-care proxy. In my opinion, people should identify themselves as “halakhic organ donors.” Parents of all ages should have “wills” drawn up, and parents of small children, especially, should have documents assigning legal guardianship in case, chas veShalom, of tragedy.. Families should make sure that they have adequate life-insurance protection. For some, estate planning may also be appropriate. Middle-age and senior adults should communicate with spouses, children, and other significant people in their lives their wishes, in accordance with halakhah, regarding end-of-life decision making. People should consider purchasing graves, perhaps in our Shaarei cemetery. Adults of all ages may consider writing an ethical will. As a community, we affirm the importance of Jewish tradition guiding our end-of-life decision making and ritual observances, such as burial and mourning, and support the sacred work of our local chevra kadisha.

Some people may be afraid that undertaking any of these matters is an “‘ayin hara,” i.e., bad luck. However, we believe that responsibly having one’s affairs in order is actually a segulah for healthy and long life, please God. Unfortunately, too many families neglect such matters until moments of crisis, adding stress and strain to difficult situations, or worse, leaving such matters inconclusive, thereby compromising decision-making, if not harming personal and family interests. As always, I stand at the ready to help anyone with the above matters per my knowledge and ability.

This Shabbat, we read of how both Jacob and Joseph made their family promise that after they left this world their family would bring back their bodies to the Land of Israel to lay them to rest in their family burial cave, what colloquially we refer to as “Kever Yisrael — a Jewish grave.” Hadar Goldin z”l, a Lieutenant in the Givati Brigade of the IDF, was a Jewish patriot, humanitarian, and artist, and only 23 years old when he was killed and kidnapped in Gaza by Hamas terrorists. His parents have started a petition campaign to ask the White House to assist in the return of the remains of two fallen IDF soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. Please consider adding your name to the petition, as I did my own. Like the promise made to Jacob and Joseph, let’s do our best to bring back Hadar and Oron to “Kever Yisrael."
You may find the petition here.

Shabbat Shalom and Shalom ‘al Yisrael, Rav Benjie

Mapping Homes and Hearts

Parshat Vayigash 6 Tevet 5779 - December 14, 2018

This past week, I traveled to Chicago to lecture on “What Makes Us Human? Artificial Intelligence and Human Personhood in Jewish Thought and Law,” at an annual Science and Religion memorial lecture at a Modern Orthodox Shul in Skokie. Returning to Chicago is always a homecoming for me. Not only because people don’t talk funny there, and not only because it affords me an opportunity to visit with my dear father, my sister, and other family members and friends, but because there is a graceful comfort of familiarity in one’s place of birth and upbringing. The streets of West Rogers Park are mapped clearly in my mind, even as the shuls, stores, and other buildings have changed. Newton has been our home for 24 years, and we have lived here longer than any other locale, but Chicago will always be my hometown. This Shabbat, we read parshat Vayigash, which highlights the Joseph’s dramatic unveil and the reunion with his brothers and father. The children of Israel descend to Egypt, and the Midrash debates in what ways they remained strangers in a strange land. Did they not change their names, their language, nor their clothes, remaining Israelites even after a protracted residence in Goshen; or did they descend to the 49 level of impurities, assimilating to Egyptian culture and values. Per the first, the remained the Children of Israel, waiting for the fulfillment of the Patriarchal promises. Per the second, no matter how hard they tried to blend in, the Egyptians saw them as other. Was Joseph Yosef or Tzafnat Paneach (his Egyptian name)? Both? Neither? Is home a location, a state of mind, a network of relationships, a vision of promise? The Jewish saga continues… Shabbat Shalom, rbs

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779