Monday, October 31, 2011

Where is Trick or Treating found in the Torah?

Parshat Lech lecha always comes out around Halloween time and there is a definite connection.

Lech Lecha talks about the life of Avraham. It is known about Avraham that he and Sara set up their tent to have four doors, one in each direction. When they saw travelers passing by they would invite them into their home and give them treats.

I grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey that had a large Orthodox Jewish community. I cannot remember knowing a single Jewish kid form my neighborhood who went trick or treating on Halloween.

In Omaha, where I live now, many Jews trick or treat and there is no stigma against doing so.

It saddens me to see so many Jews engaging in this practice which, based on my background, seems to be completely non Jewish.

Before going into why I so disapprove of Jews celebrating Halloween, I must first acknowledge that the Rabbis (myself included) share some of the blame. To use an analogy, it is easy to resist junk food if a person is fed a balanced diet of nutritious food. If the people in Omaha were getting proper spiritual nourishment from their Jewish holidays they would not have to leave Judaism and seek non Jewish holidays. The preponderance of Jewish trick or treaters means that I have to do my job better.

That said, the Jews of Omaha also bear some responsibility for their actions and I want to explore what is wrong with Halloween.

My first instinct is to give the community the benefit of the doubt; Halloween is seen by Jews in Omaha as some kind of secular fun day for children. It is not seen as religious any more than Thanksgiving is.

But on further examination, I don't think a comparison between thanksgiving and Halloween could be made. The very name "Thanksgiving" speaks to its wholesome message. Thanksgiving is a day off from work where families can get together and be thankful and appreciate the freedoms that we enjoy in America.

Halloween has no such message. Ignoring the pagan origins of the day, "trick or treating" by definition promotes an unhealthy sense of entitlement and selfishness. The homeowner is responsible to give candy or else he is at best just a bad neighbor, at worst his house will be vandalized.

Avraham taught the world chesed. He gave to others because it was the right thing to do, not because someone held a gun to his head and forced him to.

But what I find even more unJewish about Halloween is the lack of history or symbolism connected to the holiday. Every Jewish holiday commemorates a specific event in our history and the purpose of the celebrations and observances is to draw our attention to the lessons of history and to be thankful for God's kindness.

Once again, Halloween is exactly the opposite. Its true origins and meaning are pieces of trivia known only by a few. Jews (and Christians for that matter) who trick or treat are not pagans, but they don't see how their actions can promote ideas and recall history even without them knowing it. The essence of everything Jewish speaks against this kind of thoughtlessness.

And I need not even mention that there are some places where trick or treating is actually carried out in mischievous and sometimes even criminal ways. Not in Omaha, but there are some places where children engage in activity that demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the property of others, another completely unJewish idea.

On the bright side, those who don't trick or treat can use this day as a day to point out to their children that just like we have holidays, non-Jews also have holidays and we can use this opportunity to teach the values of Avraham and show kindness and hospitality to all those who come to our door.

Quiz Questions For Lech Lecha

1. How did the land of Israel come to be known as the land of Cnaan? (12:6)
2. Who was Amraphel? (14:1)
3. Who were Avraham's 318 men? (14:14)
4. Who was Malki Tzedek? (14:18)
5. How many years were the Jews in Egypt? (15:13)
6.Where did Avraham meet Hagar? (16:1)
7. What was Sara's complaint against Avraham regarding Hagar? (16:5)
8. When Avraham was circumsized what is learned form the words, "on that very day?" (17:23)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Quiz Questions for Parshat Noach

According to Rashi...

1. As a Tzadik how did Noach rate when compared to Avraham? (6:9)
2. What sin is implied by the word "hamas?"  What is Rashi's source? (6:11)
3. How long did it take Noach to build the ark?  Why so long? (6:14)
4. Why did Hashem wait an extra seven days before bringing the flood? (7:4)
5. What hardships did Noach endure during the flood? (7:23)
6. Why did the people decide to build the tower of Bavel?  (11:1)
7. How did Avraham's brother Haran die? (11:28)
8. Who was Yiskah? (11:29)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Answers to Bereishit quiz questions

I hope everyone enjoyed shul this last week!

Here are the answers to the quiz questions:

1. Why does the Torah start with the creation of the world? (1:1)

Rashi questions why the Torah starts with the creation of the world rather than jumping out the gate with mitzvot that Moshe commanded to the people. If the Torah is a book of laws why waste time with the long back story of how we gat there? 
Rashi answers that the Torah also serves as a deed to the land of Israel.  1,000 years ago Rashi predicted that the non Jews would come to deny Israel's right to exist as a a Jewish state and they would claim that the Jews stole the land from another nation.  Therefore the torah begins with the story of creation as a statement, "Hashem created the world and therefore it is His right to aportion it out as He sees fit - and He saw fit to give Israel to the Jews.  If you have a problem take it up with Him!"
Rashi seems very prophetic here as in the days of Rashi the Jews were scattered and dispersed.  

2. What inconsistency does Rashi notice in 1:16?

The verse starts by saying that Hashem created two large luminaries (the sun and the moon).  Then right after it refers to the two luminaries as the small one and the large one.  The obvious answer would be that the latter half of the passuk is speaking in relative terms.  The moon is really big, but relative to the sun it is small.  But Rashi, in his usual way, takes this opportunity to introduce us to a midrash that teaches an important value.  
Originally God created the sun and the moon the same size.  Then the moon picked a fight.  He said, "hey, how are two kings supposed t rule with one crown?"  God said, "you know, you are right."  and he shrunk the moon down so that the sun was the dominant luminary.  This teaches that those who cause controversy in a search for honor will usually find dishonor and diminish their esteem in the eyes of others.

3. Why does Hashem say, "Let us make man" in the plural? (1:26)

Even though Hashem had the capability of creating man by Himself, he chose to involve the angels in the decision.  This was to set an example to future Jewish leaders.  If you think you are smart enough to make a decision without consulting with others, just remember, God Himself chose to consult before he made a big decision.

4. Why does Hashem ask Adam "where are you?' when He clearly knows where he is?  Who else did Hashem ask similar questions to? (3:9)

This was in order to give Adam an opportunity to come forward and repent.  He did this with Kayin and with Bilaam as well.

5. When Hashem spoke to Kayin, why did he say your brother's bloods in plural?  What does Rashi answer? (4:10)

Rashi gives two answers.  The second answer is because Kayin caused many wounds because he did not know what would kill (nobody had ever killed before).  
The first answer of Rashi is that Kayin did not only spill Hevel's blood, but he spilled the bloods of every decendant that could have potentially come form Hevel that will now never be born.  From here the Gemara learns the important principle, "he who kills one life destroys an entire world and he who saves one life saves an entire world."

6. What historical role did Naama play? (4:23)
She was Noach's wife.
7. How did Noach bring rest to his generation? (5:29)

Noach was the Steve Jobs of his generation.  he invented the plowshare and thereby through technology lifted the curse of Adam and Kayin that the earth should be cursed.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

quiz questions for Bereishit

This Shabbat we are starting the Torah anew with parshat Bereishit!  I hope everyone at Beth Israel comes prepared to answer the quiz questions this week.  Quiz Questions will be answered after the haftarah and answers will be posted after Shabbat.

Accroding to Rashi...
1. Why does the Torah start with the creation of the world? (1:1)
2. What inconsistency does Rashi notice in 1:16?
3. Why does Hashem say, "Let us make man" in the plural? (1:26)
4. Why does Hashem ask Adam "where are you?' when He clearly knows where he is?  Who else did Hashem ask similar questions to? (3:9)
5. When Hashem spoke to Kayin, why did he say your brother's bloods in plural?  What does Rashi answer? (4:10)
6. What historical role did Naama play? (4:23)
7. How did Noach bring rest to his generation? (5:29)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Your Brother's Bloods

Today I have met with a number of people and it seems that the trade of 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit seems to be on everyone's mind.

The aspect that seems to bother people the most is not as much the additional security threat of 1,000 released terrorists, or the feeling that this will encourage future kidnapping.  Those are all concerns but today I have heard mostly about the injustice that the evil murders who are responsible for terrible atrocities will go free while their victims and the families of their victims will suffer forever. 
Young Shoshana Greenberg was murdered with her unborn child and the woman responsible will go free. 
One writer said that granting these terrorists freedom is like pouring salt on an open wound, because the wound of losing a loved one never closes.
It seems that justice has taken a beating in the world.

As part of the new Rashi initiative, I had two learning groups today on the weekly parsha and in both groups the issue of Gilad Shalit came up.

This week is parshat Bereishit.  The first parshah of the Torah.  It talks about the creation of the world, the expulsion form the garden of Eden, and the part I find most intriguing, the murder of Hevel (Able) by his own brother Kayin (Cain).

What a story.  It has everything.  It deals with envy.  It deals with anger and drepression.  It has action.  The midrash even adds greed, religion, and sex.

For so many reasons this iconic episode in the history of humanity is viewed as a paradigm for human relations: particularly Kayin's response to God - "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Rashi uses the Kayin and Hevel story to teach a number of lessons, including one that may be the most well known and often quoted in all of Jewish philosophy.

When God finally accuses Kayin of killing Hevel God says, "your brother's bloods are crying to me from the ground. (4:10)"  Rashi is very sensitive to annomalies in the grammar of the text.  He points out that the word "bloods" is strangely in plural.

Rashi comments: "his [Hevel's] blood and the blood of descendats."
In other words, by killing Hevel you have also shed the blood of any future descendants that will now never be born.  The gemara learns from this the famous teaching that saving one life is like saving an entire world while taking one life is like destroying an entire world.

Alan Dershowitz quoted this teaching in a piece he wrote reflecting on the exchange.

Hamas and its evil followers demonstrate a complete disregard for this moral principle found in our Torah, but whether you agree or disagree with the decision, as Dershowitz writes, it clearly demonstrates that the Jews continue to hold by this ideal.  In the eyes of Israel and the jewish people, one life is considered an entire world.

midrash on Kayin and Hevel

In parshat Bereishit Rashi refers us to one of my favorite midrashim

Bereishit chapter 4 verse 8 says:
"Kayin said to his brother Hevel...and it happened that when they were in the field that Kayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him."
There seems to be some missing words.  What did Kayin say to Hevel before he killed him?

There are many different answers given by the commentaries.  Rashi refers us to a midrash in Berishit Rabbah.  The midrash says that although the primary cause of the fight was Kayin's jelousy, Kayin and Hevel had a separate argument that sparked the fuse that actually persipitated the murder. 

There are three opinions as to what that argument was. 

Version 1: Kayin said to Hevel, hey, the land belongs to me, get off my land.  hevel then said, fine, but I provided you with clothes so strip and give them back to me.  according to this version the fight was over property.

Version 2: Kayin and Hevel decided that they should build a Temple to Hashem.  Kayin said wanted the Temple on his property while Hevel wanted it on his.  According to this version it was a religious conflict.

Version 3: Kayin and Hevel were each born with a twin sister but Hevel and his sister were a triplet set.  Kayin and Hevel each married one of their sisters and then fought over who should get the second wife.  Hevel argued that he should since it was his sister, while Kayin argued he should since he was older.  According to this version the fight was over a woman.

I read in Rabbi Jonathan Sach's book "The Dignity of Difference" that the midrash is setting up the fight of Kayin and Hevel as a paradigm for all future conflicts to draw lessons from.  The three versions are meant to capture the various different reasons why individuals fight or why nations go to war.  It is usually a conflict over money, religion, or a woman (like Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A positive perspective of the release of Gilad Shalit

Today is a historic day. Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is finally coming home to his family. In davening we call the holiday of Sukkot "the time of our happiness" and this will surely be a happy Sukkot for his family. While his family is certainly celebrating, others have some concerns.

Israel will be freeing over 1,000 terrorists in exchange for just one soldier. Some of these terrorists were sentenced for committing unspeakable atrocities against women and children, some even for mass murder. Although the deal will require some 200 freed terrorists to be expelled from Gaza, the large remainder will be able to stay and many have expressed that they are unrepentant and will go right back to terrorism against Israelis.

People are also concerned that this will encourage Hamas to capture more soldiers because they know that the price is so high. One soldier releases a thousand prisoners.

This has become Israel's policy. Israel will pay exorbitant ransoms and submit to extortion by terrorists.

Despite the joy that the Shalit family will be experiencing, I believe that overall this is a sad occasion. It is a victory to terrorism everywhere.

However, in an effort to find some positive aspect of this episode in history - by engaging in this trade Israel has made a statement that no price is too high for the life of one Jew. On the flip side, Hamas has made a pretty bold statement to their people and to the world. They say that one Jew is worth 1,000 times any of their people.

Think about that for one second. When a Hamas official sees a Jew walking down the street that Jew is worth more than the lives of 1,000 of their own people!

The Arabs in Gaza have been told by their leaders to celebrate today, but if they stopped to think about it, the average Arab suffered a huge blow to their morale today. They were told they are worth less than 1/1000th of a Jew. It is indeed a sad day to be an Arab.

On the other hand, it is a great day to be a Jew! Why are we valued so high? Because of the great love that exists among the Jewish people. Sure, we seem to argue all the time, but when the chips are down we stand up for each other. We support each other. We make it known to each other that if any one of us is in pain then the rest of us will go to the ends of the earth to help you.

While I disagree with the methods employed in freeing Gilad Shalit, I certainly applaud the sentiment. God bless Gilad Shalit and his family. God bless Israel and God bless the Jewish people.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Omaha - middle of nowhere or middle of America?

I would have to say that one of the best benefits to being the chief Rabbi of the State of Nebraska is the privilege of hosting interesting guests every week form all over the world.

Literally every single week we get calls from people passing through Omaha for any number of reasons, business or personal, who need a place for Shabbat.  Of course we always ask for references, but the Jewish world is sufficiently small that in seven years of hosting every week I have never been more then one degree of separation from any shomer shabbat traveler.

Hosting these guests is always a great opportunity to make new and interesting friends, and in the past great things have happened to me as a result of these visitors.  The first thing that comes to mind of course is that is exactly how I met my wife.

I got a call from a Shabbat observant woman who was here on business and needed a place for Shabbat.  At the time I was single so I put her up by a family that lives nearby and I hosted them for a Friday night meal.  I really enjoyed getting to know her over Shabbat and she told me that she had a beautiful daughter who had just moved to Phoenix.  I thought, "hmm, attractive girl in a warm climate that is a direct flight - SOLD!"  (my wife has a slightly different version: she heard from her mother, "i want to set you up with a divorced Orthodox Rabbi who lives in Nebraska."  Not as appealing.)

Recently we had the great privilege of hosting Chaviva who was driving from my home town Teaneck, NJ to Denver.  She stopped in Omaha for Shabbat.  Chaviva is a social media guru, author of the blog kvetching editor.  She was part of the impetus for me to start blogging.  She also just wrote a very kind article about her shabbat here in Omaha.

So now that I am blogging regularly I have been thinking about fixing my blog up a bit and maybe even changing the name.  Right now it is ameRABBIca which means "Rabbi in the middle of America" (get it?)  but I am thinking of changing it to nowRABBIhere which I like better.  now RABBI here is "rabbi in the middle of nowhere".  

There are some people who don't like the self deprecation as it implies that Omaha is 'nowhere' and Omahans are very proud of their city.  

Anyone who knows me knows that I am EXTREMELY proud to live in Omaha and the last thing that I would ever do is imply something negative about this fine city.  But unfortunately, as far as jewish communities go, Omaha generally is a hidden secret - too hidden.  Everyone in Omaha knows that when you introduce yourself as a Jew from Omaha the dreaded response is almost always, 'THERE ARE JEWS IN OMAHA????"  Our Jewish community is so obscure that for some reason it evokes astonishment that any Jew would ever consider living here.  

Since I arrived here one of my main objectives was to get Omaha on the map and move it from the middle of nowhere to the center of everything Jewish!  "Now Rabbi Here" has that double meaning.  As if to say, "hey, we used to be nowhere but don't worry.  Now Rabbi Here!"  Together with my congregation and community we are going to make an impact on North American Jewry and nobody will every ask if there are Jews in Omaha again!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Great Rashi Initiative

In the spirit of the late Steve Jobs, on Yom Kippur I unveiled our newest innovation at Beth Israel - The Great Rashi Initiative.

• Learning Chumash with the commentary of Rashi has always been the best way to build a strong foundation of Torah scholarship.

• Other than the Torah itself, there is no other work that can be learned on as many different levels. 8 year old students learn Chumash with Rashi and the greatest Torah scholars learn Chumash with Rashi.

• Rashi's commentary is easy to read, engaging, succinct, and has contained in it the most essential elements of the oral tradition and jewish values.

So this year at Beth Israel we are going to concentrate on Rashi's commentary to each parshah. All classes will incorporate Rashi's commentary in some way, and the quiz questions at Shabbat services will be based on Rashi.
In order to better participate it is worthwhile to invest in a copy of a Chumash with Rashi. For those who have a harder time with Hebrew there is a wonderful edition available by artscroll called the Sapirstein edition.

It comes in three sizes:
Full size - this is great for your home Judaic library. It is 5 volumes and you can purchase them either all at once or one at a time. You can bring it to shul with you every week and follow along and use it during the week to prepare for Shabbat.
Student Size - I think of this as the economy version. It is a bit cheaper than the full size. The print is still legible but for those who need a bigger print it is not recommended.
Personal Travel size - great for people on the go. This comes in 17 pocket sized pamphlets. The print is comparable to the student size. The down side is each volume has only a few parshiot rather than an entire book of the Torah so you have to remember to switch frequently. It is, however, the cheapest of the three sets, but it is mostly for reading on an airplane or waiting on line at the DMV or something. Not ideal for shul or for home study.

They can be bought either at or
Artscroll offers free shipping for orders of $70 or more while Amazon offers free shipping for $25 so if you are buying the whole set it may be cheaper to order from Artscroll.

I really hope everyone purchases a set and gets involved in this initiative. This will take our shul to the next level of Torah engagement.  I am really excited to begin the new parshah cycle with Rashi and with our shul!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Important Sukkah FAQs for Nebraska

Being the Rabbi of Nebraska I get some interesting questions about the holiday of sukkot.  Below are some of the interesting questions that i have received so far.

Can I use corn for the roof of my sukkah?

This is a very interesting question.  Food is disqualified as material for a sukkah roof (sechach) however animal food is permitted.  According to my understanding, the corn grown here in Nebraska is primarily grown as feed for livestock.  Therefore it would seem that Nebraska corn should be permitted assuming you can be sure that it was grown for the purposes of feed and that it is not something a person would normally eat.  I would however shy away from using corn to avoid confusion.

Can I use corn stalks for sechach?

Yes.  If there is still corn attached to the stalks (see above question) their must be more stalk then corn.

Can I mount a sukkah on my horse or cow?

Yes you can!  However, you may not enter such a sukkah on Shabbat or on Yom Yov, only on the intermediate days.  You may also use an animal as the walls of a sukkah provided that the animal is tied up so it does not run away, and provided that the animal is at least 40 inches off the ground even at rest.  You must also fill in the space between the animals legs.

Is it appropriate to hang a University of Nebraska banner in my Sukkah?

Decorations are allowed and encouraged in a sukkah.  You can even hang a banner under the sechach of the sukkah, provided that it is hung within a few inches of the sechach.  Traditional decorations generally reflect some kind of Jewish theme, but there is certainly no prohibition, especially if it is something that would normally hang in your home.

Can I watch the Nebraska Cornhusker game in my sukkah?

Obviously not if the game is on Shabbat or Yom Tov.  But if the game is on Saturday night and Sunday is one of the intermediate days of Sukkot then it is actually preferable to watch the game in the sukkah.  The halachah is you should dwell in the sukkah as you dwell in your home and if you normally watch the game then on sukkot you should do so in your sukkah.  (of course this is only according to the opinion that says it is permitted to watch any television at all)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Erev Yom Kippur in Nebraska

Preparing for Yom Kippur is intense no matter who you are.  There are many preparations to be done, both preparing for the meal before Yom Kippur as well as all the mental preparation necessary before going into the day of judgement.  As rabbi, I have a few extra responsibilities like preparing sermons for tonight and tomorrow and making sure the shul is set for the big day.

This yom kippur I had some extra things that made the day really interesting. 

First, tomorrow in Lincoln Nebraska the Nebraska Cornhuskers are playing a big game.  Many Jew were going to have to make the choice between their religion and their football team.  A member of my shul, recognizing that many Jews might skip Yom Kippur entirely and go to the stadium early before the game, hired a Rabbi to come to Nebraska for Yom kippur to run religious programming all day on the college campus.  The event made the front page of the Omaha World Herald today.  In the morning I helped the Rabbi prepare for his big day.  

Today I also had a funeral.  I do many funerals unfortunately, but not like this.  The woman who died was born in 1937.  She was institutionalized at the age of 5 years old and remained there for the rest of her life.  Yesterday we received a call from an attorney who was placed in charge of her.  The woman died late Wednesday night.  She had no known relatives.  No friends.  Nobody in the world even knew she was there.  I had never heard of or met this woman before and I found that according to whatever instructions were left by her last family member, I as the Rabbi of beth Israel synagogue was responsible for taking care of her burial.  This was a true met mitzva - the greatest of all mitzvot that a person can do.  The Talmud says that if the high priest is going to do the Yom kippur service on the holiest day of the year and  the opportunity arises where he has to perform a burial for a met mitzvah he is supposed to abandon the Yom Kippur service and take care of the met mitzvah.  It is the most important of all mitzvot.  With Ari and the Rabbi going to Lincoln we buried the met and had the privilege of performing this mitzvah.  May this woman with no family rest in peace.

From the funeral we went to visit the grave of Zvi Hirsh Grodzinsky.  He was a cousin of the great Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky from Europe before World War II.  The Rabbi Grodzinsky of Omaha was a prolific author on Jewish law and there are a couple of people who are in the process of publishing his unpublished manuscripts.  I brought the latest volume that was recently published on the laws of yayin nesech and we learned a halachah and said some tehilim at his grave.  I then entered the grave into resting spot so others can find it.

Then, as I do every year before Yom Kippur, Ari and I visited all the hospitals and Ari sang Kol Nidrei for all of the Jewish patients who will not be able to make it to shul tomorrow.  

Finally, after a long day of preparations I have an opportunity to prepare for tomorrow, to go over my sermons and to make sure that I am familiar with the davening for tomorrow.  May Hashem listen to all of our prayers and may we all be inscribed in the book of life.

Eating erev Yom Kippur

Everyone knows that you are required to fast on Yom Kippur, but not many people know that there is actually a mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur. There are many reasons given for this strange mitzvah.

1. Make the fast harder: some say it is to maximize the intensity of the fast by going into the fast on a full stomach.

2. Make the fast easier: others say it is to make the fast easier to make sure that you don't fast two days in a row.

3. Have a festive meal: Yom Kippur is a holiday and therefore requires a meal like all other holidays. Since we fast on the day of, we fulfill the requirement of a yom tov meal the day before.

4. Emphasis: we want to make it clear that we are fasting on Yom Kippur for a mitzvah so therefore we eat the day before to demonstrate that the next day is a fast.

5. To rectify the original sin: The first sin man ever committed was eating from the tree in the garden of Eden. Therefore we have a meal of mitzvah to rectify the original sin of eating for a sin.

6. We're No Angels: Yom Kippur is the one day of the year that we serve God as completely spiritual beings that have no physical needs. On erev Yom Kippur we eat to remind us that the rest of the year we serve God as people of flesh and blood.

7. Last meal: we eat and drink as a last meal like someone who is about to enter judgment.

8. Confidence: We demonstrate that we are not nervous and we know that Hashem will judge us favorably on the day of judgment because He loves us.

I hope everyone eats well today and has a meaningful fast tomorrow. May Hashem inscribe us all into the book of life.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

10 Ways Your Rabbi Can Connect Yom Kippur to Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs dying is a big deal. Is talking about him from the pulpit appropriate for the Day of Atonement? I personally don't usually talk about current events, but perhaps the death of Steve Jobs is more than that. Undeniably he was a man who changed the world and affected everyone on this planet in some way, even those who don't have computers, as they were in turn affected by people who did.

I will not be speaking about him, but there are lots of ways he can be connected to Yom Kippur. Here are some ways I thought of off the top of my head and I am curious if any Rabbis out there use these ideas or some of their own.

1. Mortality: Steve Jobs had everything and yet could not escape death.

2. Potential: Steve Jobs shows us how much one man can achieve.

3. Perseverance: Steve Jobs failed many times before he finally succeeded.

4. Destiny (the goral): Steve Jobs' adopted parents really wanted a girl.

5. Immortality (Yizkor): we can continue to live on after death with our deeds just as Steve Jobs' contributions will continue to benefit the world.

6. Israel: Steve Jobs' changed the world with technology just like the startup nation (bonus - tie in the Israeli chemistry Nobel Prize)

7. Integrity: Unlike other companies who put out shoddier products would initially sell better, Steve Jobs' insisted on only producing true quality with the confidence that truth would in the end prevail.

8. Community: Steve Jobs created so much more than a company. He connected people with common ideas.

9. Equality: Steve Jobs' democratized technology and made it accessible and affordable to everyone.

10. Resolution: Steve Jobs gave the world a gift through his technology - will we use it for good or for the alternative.

*none of these drashot will be given at Beth Israel - don't worry.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Surviving Yom Kippur

I have heard that some people have a hard time dealing with davening on Yom Kippur.  Of course not at Beth Israel.  We have Ari Dembitzer, the greatest chazzan ever!  He makes the davening exciting, engaging, and meaningful for everyone!
But in other shuls in out of town communities (by out of town I mean out of Nebraska) I have heard that this may be a problem. 

So here is the question:

Would it be considered rude or disrespectful to come to shul on Yom Kippur with a book to read when you are board?

On the one hand, it would certainly make the davening more engaging.  Perhaps a Tom Clancy novel would be inappropraite, but what about a book of Jewish thought? Should the book necessarily be related to a theme on Yom Kippur or maybe it can be on any topic of interest?  Maybe any book is ok and we should just be thankful taht people are coming to shul.

The other side, I guess is that it could be construed by others as disrespectful.  Maybe there is some obligation to our heritage to at least attempt to connect with the liturgy that our people have found meaningful for so many generations.  If we all sit and engage in something unrelated then are we really coming to pray together?

One of the survivors at our shul related to me how when she was a little girl she did not understand why her mother would cry so much at shul on Yom Kippur.  Then when she got older she developed an appreciation for the solemnity of the day and she too cries on Yom Kippur. 

Is it really impossible for us to connect with the davening the way that our predecessors did and the way that many people still do?  I must admit that I am not the best davener but there have certainly been times when the davening has moved me to tears.  Usually it was related to other things that were going on in my life and my time alone with Hsaahem during davening was the perfect time for me to reflect on those things.
Maybe that is a good argument against books on Yom Kippur.  Having a book will take me away from prayer and will engage me in the words and thoughts of the author rather than giving myself time to think about my own life.

I am not sure what to say about this one.  In the meantime, at Beth Israel books are certainly allowed and welcome, but my hope is that the prayers of the chazzan, but more than that the experience of the day of judgement, will affect people and prompt them to put the book down and try to encounter Hashem in the best way that they are able.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Simon and Garfunkle at Beth Israel

At Beth Israel we happen to have the greatest chazzan in the universe, Ari Dembitzer.  When not in Omaha he works for the organization chai lifeline which runs programs for kids with cancer and other life threatening illnesses.  I am not sure if it is the nature of his work or something innate about his soul, but Ari is able to elevate our entire congregation with his beautiful voice and his obvious passion.

Ari very carefully chooses the tunes that everyone at Beth Israel has come to love.  Some of the melodies are from contemporary sources while others are more obscure tunes that Ari found by listening to old records of chasidic songs or songs that he heard in his various encounters with different chassidic sects in North America and Israel.  Each tune that he chooses is meant to reflect an aspect of the acompanying prayer and serve as a sort of commentary to the words that he sings.  The davening therefore can be appreciated on many different levels. 

One of the tunes he uses is the Simon and Garfunle classic 'Scarborough Fair' which fits perfectly with the poem 'Biyom Din' - on judgement day.

On the question of using secular tunes for traditional prayers, many Rabbis maintain that it is inappriate to do so.  On the other side of the debate however are equally great halachic authorities that maintain that it is a great thing to take a secular tune and elevate it to a level of holiness by using it for the purpose of bringing deeper meaning to davening.  I have many colleagues who do not allow the use of secular tunes for davening in their shuls.

But 'Scarborough Fair' is an interesting case because there is a Jewish Urban Legend that Simon and Garfunkle, both Jewish, learned that tune from their Orthodox grandfather who sang it every Shabbat to the words of the classic Zemer, "Dror Yikra'.  If that is true then the question of secular tunes is not relevant in this particular case. 

A quick Wikipedia search seems to refute that Urban legend, attributing the tune of Scarborough Fair to an old English folk song.  But as we all know, just because it is on Wikipedia does not mean its true.  I would love to have a more definitive source.

In any event, at Beth Israel I know that people look forward to 'Biyom Din' every year on Rosh Hashana and yom Kippur.  The haunting melody seems so perfect for the awe of the poem that paints the picture of standing before the omnicient, all powerful, and merciful God on the day of judgement.  But even the allusion to 'Scarborough Fair' always struck me as appropraite.  The song tells the tale of a young man, who tells the listener to ask his former lover to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back. 

While Ari sings I have often applied this understanding to 'Biyom Din'.  We stand before God humbled as the former lover in the song.  We have sinned.  We feel that we have caused a rift in the relationship with Hashem that cannot possibly be repaired.  We plead before God who we love so much and long to be close with that were we able to we would accomplish the most impossible tasks if it would help to repair the lost relationship that we once had.

As for the question of secular tunes, the tune is as much ours as it is Simon and Garfunkle's.  I was once with a kid from Beth Israel and the song Scarborough Fair came on and he said - "hey, isn't that Ari Dembitzer's tune?"  Classic!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Rosh Hashana Drasha (Day 1)

Is our perception of God too harsh? I have often been told so by others who struggle to understand the Jewish people's strict observance of certain mitzvot, particularly Shabbat.

How many of you have heard, "c’mon, do you really think that God cares what you do on Saturday?" or "God will forgive you if you just drive this one time."

Sometimes the sentiment is a sarcastic jab, while other times it stems from a true sense of pity. They feel that i am somehow held hostage to some nonsensical superstition that confines me to some intolerable self-imposed prison of the mind. They perceive that Shabbat observance is based on a fear that a cruel and spiteful God will somehow strike me down if I defy Him by watching TV or getting into a car on Saturday.

Those who hold this sad misconception of Shabbat fail to realize that in reality Shabbat has always stood and continues to stand as one of the strongest and enduring of all Jewish political ideas.

In a recent book by Yehuda Avner called, The Prime Ministers, there is a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who most articulately made this point in front of the Israeli Knesset.

For much of his career as Prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin had to focus on foreign affairs. He spent years working on the treaty with Egypt and the war in Lebanon. In the few times in between that he could turn his attention to domestic affairs he had to pick his battles carefully.

One of the battles that he cared deeply about was the issue of whether El Al, the national airline, should be allowed to fly on Shabbat.

In 1982 he delivered a speech on this issue to the Knesset.

Forty years ago i returned from exile to eretz yisrael. Engraved in my memory still are the lives of millions of Jews, simple ordinary folks eking out a living in that forlorn diaspora, where the storms of anti-Semitism raged. They were not permitted to work on the Christian day of rest, Sunday, and they refused to work on their day of rest, Shabbat, for they lived by the commandment, remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy. So each week they foresaw two whole days of hard won earnings. This meant destitution for many. But they would not desecrate the Shabbat day.

In Greece there was a port called Salonika, which had an extensive Jewish population before the war. Most of the port workers there were Jewish, and on Shabbat they did not work. They would forgo their pay rather than desecrate the Shabbat. The non-Jews accepted this as a fact of life. The port was closed on Shabbat. Imagine that!

For those who say that halting on Shabbat would take us back to the dark ages I have this to say: Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity. It originated with us, the Jews. It is all ours. No other civilization in history knew a day of rest. Ancient Egypt had a great culture whose treasures are on view to this day, yet Egypt of antiquity did not know of a day of rest. The Greeks of old excelled in philosophy and art, yet they did not know a day of rest. Rome established mighty empires and instituted a system of law which is relevant to this day, yet they did not know a day of rest. Neither did the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China - not one of them knew a day of rest.

One nation alone sanctified the Shabbat, a small nation, the nation that heard the voice at Sinai, 'so that your manservant and maidservant may rest as well as you. Ours is the nation that bequeathed to humanity the imperative of a day of rest to apply to the most humble of beings. Ours is the nation that gave the laborers the dignity equal to that of their employers, that both are equal in the eyes of God. Ours is the nation that bequeathed this gift to other faiths: Christianity - Sunday; Islam - Friday.
Ours is the nation that enthroned Shabbat as sovereign Queen.

So are we in our reborn Jewish state, to allow our blue and white El Al planes to fly to and fro as if to broadcast to the world that there is not Shabbat in Israel? Should we, who by faith and tradition heard the commandments at Sinai now deliver a message to all and sundry through our El Al planes - "no, do not remember the Shabbat day. Forget about the Shabbat day. Desecrate the Shabbat day!" I shudder at the thought that the aircraft of our national carrier have been taking off the world over on the seventh day over these many years, in full view of Jews and Gentiles alike."

We cannot engage in profit and loss calculations when it comes to the eternal heritage of the Jewish people. There is no way of assessing the religious, national, social, historical, and ethical values of the Shabbat day by the yardstick of financial loss or gain. In our revived Jewish state we simply cannot engage in such calculations. If it were not for the Shabbat that restored the souls and revived the spiritual lives, week by week, of our long suffering nation, our trials and vicissitudes would have pulled us down to the lowest levels of materialism and moral and intellectual decay.
More than Jews have kept the Shabbat day, the Shabbat day has kept the Jews.
Shabbat is a national political statement of freedom and liberty. However, if only for the political aspect, I believe that our people would have abandoned Shabbat long ago. At a certain point a people becomes too tired and weary from continuous persecutions and destructions to care to teach humanity such values.

The true reason that we have continued to keep Shabbat is because we have always viewed Shabbat not as a burden but as a wonderful gift that enhances our lives.

This idea was beautifully articulated in Senator Joseph Lieberman’s recent book, The Gift of Rest.

In the book he writes that many people frequently ask him, "How can you stop all your work as a senator to observe the Shabbat each week?" To that he answers, "How could I do all my work as a senator if I did not stop to observe the Shabbat each week?"

Every generation has its own pharaoh and its own slave masters, uniquely based on the culture of the time. Our pharaoh may be the electronic devices - computers, televisions, iPhones - that mesmerize us, dominating hour after hour of our lives. Our eyes and faces are glued to one screen or another for much of every day. Even when we think that we are at leisure, they invade our attention, holding us in their grip and separating us from our family and friends - sometimes from our faith. Too often they show us an electronic alternative reality full of negativity, trivia, or degradation. From all this, the Shabbat offers to free us for a twenty four hour period.
Senator Lieberman touches on the true beauty of Shabbat and he relates it in a manner that I believe resonates strongly with most people in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.

When Jews first came to this country Shabbat observance was an almost untenable challenge, one that often caused financial hardship and usually incurred scorn and ridicule from non-Jewish - and too often from other Jews as well. The men and women that upheld the Shabbat during those years were true Jewish heroes. Despite the hardships of their present time, they had the wisdom to understand the past, and the foresight to see a future when the beauty of Shabbat would once again be valued.

That future has arrived. Today "unplugged days" and other forms of Shabbat observance are in vogue. Young people are yearning to free themselves from the shackles of their technology addiction and experience life in a way that their parents did before there were cell phones and internet. Today people understand more than ever the importance of taking a day to connect with family and God.

Unfortunately, through years of neglect, for many people the skills that are required to truly sanctify the Shabbat have atrophied from disuse.

That is where we come in! Beth Israel synagogue was founded by those heroes who endured the hardships and ridicule in order to preserve Shabbat for the world. Our Synagogue is the only place in the entire state of Nebraska that has consistently maintained the Jewish Shabbat in its most pristine form since the Jews arrived in this state almost 150 years ago. We are now positioned to be THE place where Jews and non-Jews will be coming to learn from us how to sanctify the Shabbat and make it holy.

We have always been a welcoming place for people who wanted to learn from us how to better observe Shabbat, but as this trend grows, so will the people who come to learn and therefore we must work harder to live up to this responsibility.

Every one of us, regardless of how we observe Shabbat now, should look for ways that we can improve our Shabbat observance. The Shabbat lifestyle is an art that takes a lifetime to master. No matter what we feel our observance is, there is always a next level that we can strive for to further enhance how we bring meaning and holiness to the day. Whether it be coming to shul earlier or more often on Shabbat, being more careful in one of the laws, or finding more time for learning Torah or spending time with family and community on Shabbat. There is something that everyone can do. People are looking at us now and we have to set a good example.

Also, we have to be there as a resource for the community. Thank God, we are already as friendly and welcoming as we can be, but there are always ways we can improve. Try to have more guests if we can afford to, or just reach out to people who may be interested and invite them to shul. Let the Jews in Omaha know that all Jews are welcome at Beth Israel.

And finally and perhaps most importantly: some of our fellow Jews who may be interested have been estranged from Shabbat for many generations. As a result there are many different levels of observance, but there is and always has been only one Jewish people!!!! When we reach out to people it must always be with respect and understanding, never with condescension or - God forbid - causing another person any form of embarrassment or feelings that they are being judged by us.

No matter how well we think we keep Shabbat there is always someone out there who are keeping it better than us. Along with Shabbat the Torah says viahavta lirei'echa kamocha - we must love others and treat them just as we would hope to be treated.

These are exciting times. We have Shabbat because great Jewish heroes struggled to pass it down to us. If only they could have lived to see a time when the world started to grow to appreciate the very ideals that they fought so hard to preserve. I am confident that together we will make our ancestors proud and continue to observe the Shabbat in a way that makes it and its values attractive to others and brings true knowledge of God and peace to ourselves, to others, and to the world.