The Fifth Question

Dear Friends,

In the next 24 hours, we will gather with our families and friends to honor one of our most ancient and revered traditions by celebrating Passover.  With the symbols of our people’s past oppression and our dramatic liberation from enslavement arrayed before us, we will once again ask how this night is different from all other nights and tell the story of our pursuit of freedom from tyranny.

But the Passover Seder can be neither complete nor authentic if our story is focused only on ourselves, for Passover is not solely about our own people’s redemption.  It is a summons to work for the freedom of all oppressed people.   The ultimate and truest purpose of the Passover Seder is not merely to tell what happened to our ancestors 3,000 years ago, but to inspire every person who participates in the ritual to demand freedom for all who are denied it, just as Moses demanded freedom for the Israelites from the Pharaoh.

The Passover Seder has been described as a talk-feast in four acts.  Indeed, several aspects of the Seder come in a pattern of four, such as the drinking of four cups of wine, the tale of the four children and the asking of four questions. The Rabbinic Sages intentionally adopted this structure because, as they read the story of the Exodus in the Torah, God’s promise of redemption was made in four parts: “Therefore, say to the people of Israel…I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians…I will rid you from their slavery…I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…and I will take you to me for a people.” (Exodus 6:6-7)

Some of the sages interpreted that God actually made five promises, since one verse later, in Exodus 6:8, we read: “And I will bring you to the land which I gave to Abraham and his descendants.”  As often happens in Talmudic debate, the rabbis couldn’t come to a unanimous consensus as to whether there were four or five Divine promises, and thus whether there should be four or five question cups of wine at the Seder.  So, they decided that a fifth cup of wine should be placed on the Seder table, but did not require that a blessing be said over it.  They dedicated the fifth cup to Elijah the Prophet, whom they believed would solve all such disputes at the dawn of the Messianic era.

Just as there are actually five cups of wine at the Passover Seder, perhaps there should also be five questions asked instead of four.  The Fifth Question should be this: “What will you do to help alleviate the suffering of another person?”  Put differently, what act of kindness and justice will we commit to doing that will redeem someone from hunger, from homelessness, from insecurity, from fear, and from oppression?  Just as the Seder experience cannot be completed without answering the classic Four Questions, we ought not to end the evening without answering the crucial Fifth Question about how each of us will fight modern-day oppression in all its ugly forms.  The Passover Seder is an urgent call to work for freedom for all, and we must answer the summons.

This year, I again have the privilege of celebrating Passover with my family in Israel where the spirit of this special holiday is uniquely expressed and felt.  I am grateful for this opportunity and I eagerly look forward to the week of celebration that lies ahead.

My family joins me in wishing you a fulfilling, memorable and inspirational Pesach experience!

RABBI COOPER

 

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The Sound of Silence

We’ve reached the part of the Torah that describes the agonizing death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron.  As we read in chapter 10 of Leviticus:

Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them; thus, they died at the instance of the Lord.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people.  And Aaron was silent.”

It’s not at all clear what these two men did that displeased God.  Some say that they intruded in a holy space that was off limits to human beings.  Others say that they behaved in an irreverent manner while in the role of sacred officiants.  Our moral compass would point us toward the conclusion that a terrible injustice was brought on Aaron’s sons.  Whatever they did wrong, is it fair that they should have paid for their actions with their lives?  Truthfully, readers of the Bible are often bewildered by the apparent absence of Divine justice.  We want every Torah story to make sense according to our internal barometer of what is right and what is wrong, but that cannot always be.  Divine justice is elusive and often we are left with no satisfying explanations as to why something happens.  That is the nature of the Torah, just as it is the nature of life itself.  To make ourselves feel better, we come up with creative explanations that eliminate the possibility that God needlessly killed two people.  One such explanation I have always favored views Nadav and Avihu as being dead not physically but spiritually.  Their irreverence for God and His sacred space meant that they were rendered unable to appreciate the deeply spiritual aspects of life.

Even more intriguing in this story is the ending- “and Aaron was silent.”  After learning of the death of his sons, he says nothing.  No cry, no grief, no protest.  Don Isaac Abravanel (Spain and Italy, 1437-1508) takes note of the significance of the Hebrew word for “silent” used in this verse- vayidom.  He writes, “His heart turned to lifeless stone (domem, related to vayidom, meaning ‘mineral’) …and he did not weep or mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation, for his soul had left him and he was speechless.”  Here, Aaron’s silence is what we would expect- born out of trauma and unbearable grief.

It is also possible to understand Aaron’s silence as a response to his brother Moses’ clumsy, insensitive expression of consolation.  Having learned that God has killed his two nephews, Moses attempts a horrific “I told you so” by explaining to Aaron that perhaps he should have known that God prioritizes Divine holiness and glory above human life.  Aaron’s response to his brother’s candor is stunned silence.  Among the many gifts Moses possesses, apparently, compassion isn’t among them, at least not in this instance.  Aaron needed comfort, not a lesson in Divine Ego.  Here the Torah can teach us something about how to speak to those who are suffering from the loss of a loved one.

Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein (Poland, 1848-1896) provides a beautiful insight into the ideal outcome of a person’s journey of healing from loss through his interpretation of Aaron’s silence.  He writes:

Scripture chose “Vayidom” rather than “Vayishtok” (synonyms for silence).  The latter signifies the abstention from speaking, weeping, moaning, or any other outward manifestation.  The verb “vayidom,” however, connotes inner peace and calm.  Accordingly, scripture describes the saintly Aaron as “vayidom” and not merely as “vayishtok,” thus emphasizing that his heart and soul were at peace within, that rather than questioning the standards of God he justified the Divine verdict.

This interpretation of Aaron’s silence, based on the Torah’s choice of words, could be understood to depict Aaron as unwilling to question God’s justice and peacefully accepting whatever fate God had for his sons.  It may be that Rabbi Lichtenstein wanted to teach his followers about the importance of pure, uncompromised faith and that it is heretical to question God’s ways.  But it can also be understood as a description of the frame of mind people who experience tragic loss might aspire toward.  Perhaps the Torah is relating that Aaron was silent- eventually- after working through his grief and finally coming to a place of inner peace and calm.  Rather than blame God or anyone else for the tragedy he experienced, he found the inner strength to accept that sometimes terrible things happen in life.  He discovered the capacity to set aside his grief and resume his life.

Not everyone can do that, and among those who can, some take much longer to reach that place than others.  But achieving inner peace and calm, along with growing to accept that most often we cannot change or reverse events, is the goal of bereavement and recovery from loss.  With the help of friends and a supportive community, those who have been set back by tragedy and loss can heal and achieve a feeling of peace.

Silence is the complete absence of sound.  But it is not the absence of meaning or insight.  In this week’s installment of Torah, we encounter Aaron’s silence, and from it, we learn a great deal.

The Worst Sin

What is the worst sin that a person can commit?  Asked differently, of all the things that people can do wrong, which is the worst?  The sages of the Talmud said that the worst sin a Jew can commit is Hilul Ha-Shem, literally the desecration of God’s name, any action that brings the name of God, and thus the good name of Judaism, into disrepute.  Medieval Jewish philosophers taught that the worst sin a person can commit is to deny the existence of God because when we do that there is no longer any reason to follow the laws of the Torah and refrain from any other sins.  Martin Buber taught that we commit the worst possible sin by using another person, by treating them as a means to an end.  And my teacher, Rabbi Harold Kushner, taught that the worst sin someone can commit is to look at another person and not see in him the image of God.  All of human interaction, the way we treat our family members and friends, the way we relate to strangers we meet on the street, must flow from the Biblical teaching that all human beings are created in God’s image.  The ultimate sin of failing to see the image of God in another human being is the cause of many of history’s greatest troubles and tragedies, including those which have befallen the Jewish people.

The denial of the Biblical truth that all human beings are created Be-tselem Elohim– in the image of God- is the prerequisite for violence and killing.  The planting of bombs in cars or buildings that are meant to kill people can only happen when someone has first rejected the notion that the intended victims each bear the image of God.  Murder, for whatever motive it is committed, happens only when the murderer ignores the inherent divinity of the victim.

A 1974 yearbook from the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn contained this quote: “Judaism values life as holy and sees the taking of life as a terrible sin.”  That may not seem so unusual coming from an Orthodox Yeshiva.  What makes it remarkable is that it was written by Baruch Goldstein, the American-Israeli physician and Orthodox Jew who, 20 years later, murdered 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers and wounded another 125 at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.  How could any religious Jew allow his anger or passion to overcome his Jewish obligation to see other human beings as bearing the image of God?

That question, of how anyone could demean another human being and contemplate using violence to harm or even kill another person, may seem like a puzzle with an obvious solution, but it’s an agonizing, frightening problem playing out today in the State of Israel.  In the weeks before elections in Israel, scheduled for April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has maneuvered to bring about the merger of two Israeli political parties- Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit- in order to ensure that votes cast for either party are not wasted and his chances of forming a right-wing nationalist coalition are improved.  On their own, neither party would likely receive enough votes to meet the threshold for sitting in the Knesset.  Only if they merge can they pass the threshold.  That’s not an unusual move in Israeli politics.  Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, and Israel Resilience, a new party led by political newcomer and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, just merged to form Kachol Ve-Lavan, the “Blue and White” party, strategizing that they would do better as a combined party (the polls support their move).

But the merger of Otzma Yehudit with the Jewish Home party is different and for alarming reasons.  As has been reported (in the NY Times and other publications), Otzma Yehudit is founded on a hateful, racist ideology.  Its two leaders, Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir, are co-founders of Lehava, a group that opposes Jewish-Arab relationships.  Ben Ari calls Arabs the “enemy” and advocates expelling them. He was denied a visa to the United States in 2012 as a member of a terrorist organization.  Ben Gvir was implicated in a 2014 arson attack on a school for Jewish and Arab children in Jerusalem and has acknowledged having a picture in his home of none other than Baruch Goldstein.  He was a radical opponent of the Oslo peace process and became known for stealing the hood ornament from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car and then saying, “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too.” Weeks later, Mr. Rabin was assassinated by a member of a group that had roots in Kahanism. (David Halbfinger, NY Times, Feb 24).  To put it another way, bringing Otzma Yehudit into the mainstream of Israeli politics, and promising them ministerial portfolios should Netanyahu become the next Prime Minister, is the equivalent of welcoming David Duke and the KKK into the United States House of Representatives or into the cabinet of the President of the United States.

Baruch Goldstein was not only a murderer in the name of religious zealotry, but he was also a follower of Kahanism, a hateful ideology spawned by the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset because it was racist and committed to terrible acts of violence in the service of their tainted view of human beings, primarily Arabs.  What is so terribly alarming here is that by presiding over the union of Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit, Netanyahu has brought a hate-filled ideology from the shadowy fringes into Israel’s mainstream.  As Yosi Klein Halevi wrote eloquently in the Times of Israel, “In boosting Otzma Yehudit, Netanyahu has validated Kahanism, an apocalyptic racist theology that sanctifies hatred and vengeance. But now, thanks to the delegates of the Jewish Home party who voted to join with Otzma Yehudit and the rabbis who gave their hechsher, their seal of kosher approval, Kahane has posthumously become one of them. The party of the faithful has committed an historic act of Hillul Hashem. The good citizens of the Jewish Home have married off their daughters to thugs.  As for Netanyahu – the shadchan, the matchmaker – he has written himself into the annals of our ancient kings whose moral corruption undermined the spiritual immune system of the nation. Netanyahu has…desecrated the name of Israel.”

The leaders and supporters of Otzma Yehudit commit the worst sin imaginable- they invalidate the essential humanity of others and seek to obliterate their existence through hate, thuggery, and violence.  And Netanyahu has given this act of desecration his blessing, all for political gain and personal triumph.  This act of desecration and arrogant dominance of others is not even remotely Jewish.  Nor is it worthy of the Zionist dream that gave birth to the modern State of Israel.

Al het she-chatanu lefanecha…for the sin that has been committed before You, God, of failing to see the humanity of the other, for the sin of hubris and conceit and validation of violence in the misguided and deranged notion that some human beings are inferior, for the sin of placing political gain over principle and human decency, repentance should be done.

We can only pray that prayers for forgiveness are offered by those who have committed the worst sin we can envision.

 

In the Eyes of My Grandsons, I see God!

I write these words in honor of my second grandson, who was born on 5 Adar Rishon (February 10, 2019), the week Parashat Tetzaveh is read, and in honor of my first grandson Noam Yair, who was born on 12 Adar 5777 (March 10, 2017), also the week Parashat Tetzaveh was read.  Noam’s middle name, Yair, was given in memory of my father Irving Cooper z”l, whose Bar Mitzvah parasha was also Tetzaveh.

There is a story that is told about the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Polish Jewish mystical rabbi and founder of Hasidism, who one day asked his followers to come to the town square at noon the next day for a big announcement he planned to make.  The townspeople wondered what their revered rabbi could possibly have to say.  Was he ill?  Was he moving to another town?  At the appointed time, the rabbi appeared in the center of a huge crowd of people that suddenly grew silent to hear him speak.  After a moment, the rabbi said, “My fellow Jews, I have asked you to interrupt what you were doing to come here today so I could tell you…that there is as a God.”  The townspeople were dumbfounded.  This was the grand message their rabbi wanted to convey?  There is a God?  How absurd…of course, there is a God!  But as they contemplated the rabbi’s message, they began to realize how utterly profound it was.  Most of the time, they practiced the rituals of Jewish life without really connecting their behavior to the reality of God in a mindful way.  Their rabbi had simply reminded them of the most basic assertion of Judaism- there is a God.

I would expect that for most of us, the same is true.  We experience the routines of Jewish living without thinking much about God.  Rarely do we think about the nature of God, let alone have the feeling that we are connecting with God when we pray.  And then something remarkable and miraculous happens to us, and our thoughts turn to the contemplation of the Divine.  For me and my family, this week brought such a miraculous and remarkable moment.  Our second grandson was born, a second child to Eitan and Dita.  For now, he’s “Baby Boy Cooper,” as he will receive his name at his bris this Sunday morning.  As I did for my grandson Noam (and three of my five sons), I will serve as Mohel at the Brit Milah ceremony in which we will welcome this new child into our family and into the family of the Jewish People.  I couldn’t be prouder or more overflowing with joy.

The birth of my grandson is a miraculous moment that causes me to say, as did the Ba’al Shem Tov, that there is a God.  A baby’s bris is a time to affirm that there are some things that happen in this world, not because of human ingenuity and ability.  A great many things happen in this world because human beings are clever and able to make or build anything.  But the truth is that some things we can’t make or build by ourselves, and the birth of a baby is at the top of such a list.  In order to bring a child into the world, we need to forge a partnership with the Divine source of life.  The birth of a baby brings us face-to-face, in a way that is vivid and exciting, with the creation of life in all its mysterious and miraculous glory.  In the face of my grandson, I see the image and presence of God.

Here, I want to connect this idea to our weekly parasha, Tetzaveh.  In the opening verses of the portion, we read: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Exodus 27:20). This verse is the source for the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light that hangs above every ark in synagogues around the world.  The commentary in the Etz Hayim Humash (pg. 503) notes that light has always been a powerful symbol for God.  Why?  As the commentary tells us, “Because light itself cannot be seen.  We become aware of its presence when it enables us to see other things.  Similarly, we cannot see God, but we become aware of God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings.”

God cannot be seen, but there is a God.  I see God in the miraculous Divine power to create and sustain life.  I see God in my grandson Noam, growing and learning new things every day.  I see God in my new grandchild, perfect and beautiful as he is.  They are the light by which I am aware of God’s presence in the world.  They are the miracles that cause me to affirm what the Ba’al Shem Tov mythically said…there is a God!

Will Tefillin Become Extinct on Our Watch?

When I was in college at UCLA, the Chabad House would regularly set up a table on Bruin Walk.  The Chabad rabbis would invite Jewish students to Shabbat dinners, try to set up study meetings, and entice men to put on Tefillin.   They knew that anyone who took up their offer would not be attending a service or praying the traditional Jewish liturgy at that moment.  They just wanted every Jewish male who passed by their table to perform the ritual of wrapping Tefillin.  Chabad rabbis are known to promote the wearing of Tefillin not only on college campuses but also at airports, especially Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.  There is a Tefillin table in the departure hallway staffed by a Chabad rabbi looking for any males who have not performed the ritual that day and are willing to do so (Orthodox Jews do not believe that women should wear Tefillin).

Chabad’s zeal for promoting the wearing of Tefillin is in keeping with their approach to promoting all types of Jewish practice.  With near equal zeal, they distribute Shabbat candle kits, Chanukkah menorot and candles, Mishloach Manot packages to give away on Purim, and kits to search for Chametz on Pesach.  But I have always noticed Chabad’s particular passion for the mitzvah of wearing Tefillin.  There were times I didn’t understand it and was even put off by the seemingly abrupt invitation to take 10 minutes out of one’s day to perform a ritual that the person would likely not relate to or find much meaning in doing.  But for the most part, I can appreciate why Chabad is so committed to the ritual of wearing Tefillin- it is among our oldest and most venerable traditions.  And it’s at risk of becoming extinct.

Interestingly, Tefillin exist because the Talmudic sages chose a literal interpretation of a verse in the Book of Deuteronomy that says that God’s teachings should be “bound as a sign upon your hand and placed as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut. 6:4-9).  From the passage known as V’ahavta, the verse could easily have been understood symbolically.  Indeed, some Jewish sages posited that the verse was meant to instruct us to regard God’s teachings as if they were close to our hearts and minds.  But the literal interpretation of the verse prevailed and Tefillin were thus born.  Its name is an offshoot of the Hebrew word Tefilah, meaning prayer.  Also called “phylacteries” (from the Greek for amulet), Tefillin have been worn by Jews as an enhancement of the worship experience in a continuous chain of tradition for nearly 2,000 years.  Originally, they were meant to be worn all day long, but that practice was quickly deemed to be impractical.  Tefillin were discovered at Qumran (the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) and on Masada, proving that this unique prayer ritual has been in continuous use as early as 70 CE.

Tefillin are steeped in meaning.  They remind us of the need to seek consensus and compromise.  The black boxes (one is placed on the head and one on the arm) contain four verses from the Torah written on parchment.  Initially, the Talmudic sages could not agree whether the verses constituted one continuous passage and thus should be written on one piece of parchment, or whether they represented four distinct passages and should, therefore, be written on four separate strips.  Rather than have a prolonged dispute, they compromised and established that one box should have the verses written on four separate strips and the other should contain the verses on a single piece of parchment.  Their capacity for compromise reminds us all that none of us are ever likely to get everything we want and that we must make room for the views of others in the course of life.

Tefillin also teach us about the need to integrate thought and action.  One box is placed on the head, representing our capacity for thoughtful planning, while the other box is placed on the arm, representing the mandate to act.  The protocol for putting on Tefillin calls for first wrapping “Tefillin shel Yad” (the box that goes on the arm), pausing before finishing to put on “Tefillin shel Rosh” (the box that goes on the head), and then completing the wrapping of the black straps on the hand.  This practice emphasizes that we ought to integrate thought and action.  Always planning to do something without ever acting on our good intentions it is pointless.  Similarly, rushing to do something without thinking about it can be perilous.

I have been wearing Tefillin consistently since the age of 13, and I have been teaching people about the how’s and why’s of wearing Tefillin for all the years I have been a rabbi.  Because I am a Conservative Jew, I have always believed that this unique and intriguing prayer ritual is not for males only but should be practiced by everyone who has become Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  And yet, I have real concerns that because fewer and fewer Jews show an interest in wearing Tefillin, this 2,000-year-old ritual will soon be dropped from the array of Jewish rituals that are practiced by non-Orthodox Jews.  That makes me quite sad, for I don’t want this generation to be the one that abandons such a venerable rite, especially because it is so rich in meaning and history.

So, I invite you to join me this Sunday, February 3, for the “World Wide Wrap.”  During the morning minyan (starting at 9:00 AM) I will teach about Tefilin using props.  Students from the upper grades of the Zeman School will be present to learn how to wear them.  But the World Wide Wrap is not only for children.  Everyone present will have an opportunity to try wearing Tefillin under the supervision of a “Tefillin Coach” (loaner sets will be available).  This prayer-enhancing practice, embraced by Jews for 2,000 years, is worth a few minutes of your time even if you don’t imagine becoming a regular Tefillin wearer in the future.

Let’s not allow this unique practice to become extinct on our watch!

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

Today I Turn 60

Today I become 60 years old.  Given the tendency to celebrate milestone occasions, I’ve been thinking about this year’s birthday more deeply than in the past.  I find myself pondering what’s important to me and what I’ve enjoyed the most over the past 60 years.  At the top of the list are family, marriage, and fatherhood.  I have certainly enjoyed being a rabbi and a mohel, but the most fulfilling part of my life has been being married to Amy and raising our five sons together.  Each one of them is a beautiful soul, a good and decent person, and deeply committed to Jewish life, to Am Yisrael and to Medinat Yisrael.  Raising our sons has been a true joy.  I cannot think of a single difficult, agonizing moment in the course of being a parent (people who hear me say that think I’m joking but I’m not).  And as our sons get older, we have the pleasure of seeing them develop their lives and start their own families.  We’ll welcome our second grandchild into the family in about a month, and our son Benji, who just graduated from college, will get married in August.  My wife inherited a superstition from her mother that prohibits tempting the evil eye by enumerating one’s blessings.  But I inherited no such thing, so as I turn 60, I say proudly that my family is the greatest blessing in my life.

As you might expect, our tradition offers a commentary on what it means to be 60 years old.  In Pirkei Avot (5:21), there is a passage that describes life as having three periods:  preparation, maturity, and decline.  The Mishna lays out a sequence from age 5 to 100 that includes characteristics of heart, mind, and soul.  What’s predicted for age 60 is rather unsettling- zikna or old age.  Given that I most certainly feel young, I am determined to search for a different understanding of what this text, and the word zikna, means.

One translation I came upon is far more appealing:  60 is the time of sagacity.  Put another way, turning 60 is the beginning of the time to age wisely.  It’s the time in life to use what we’ve learned and experienced to deepen wisdom.  Developing and sharing wisdom enables us to use good judgment, knowledge, and perspective to have a positive impact on our own lives, on our relationships and on events around us.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l, a Mayflower descendant, convert to Judaism, and innovative rabbi who pioneered non-traditional approaches to Jewish life, identified the stage of life beginning at 60 as Et Zikna, a time for wise aging.  She writes:

“This generation has seen a revolution in lifespan. We who turn 60 nowadays have the prospect of living at least another 30 years with relatively good health and vitality. We are pioneers, entering a stage of life never experienced by earlier generations. This is our “third chapter,” our “third act,” our time of “active aging.”  Put another way, it is our “et zikna,” our time to age wisely.  These years are a time of opportunity for discovery.  Et Zikna is a time for increased curiosity, enthusiasm, and spirit. There is a lot to learn and to try, choices to make, risks to take, fun and joy to experience.”

The idea of wise aging is even embedded in this week’s Torah portion.  The Parasha tells of the actual moment of liberation for the Israelite slaves and the Exodus from Egypt.  Chapter 12 describes the ritual of the sacrifice of the Korban Pesach, the paschal lamb, which we symbolize on the seder plate with the shank bone.  After detailing how to offer the sacrifice and how to celebrate the first Passover evening, the text says: “Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Go pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering.’”  The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:1) wonders why the elders were given the special privilege of picking out the lambs that were to become the instrument of liberation for the people.  The answer is intriguing:

“Wherein did the elders merit that Israel should be redeemed at their hands?  Because when the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to Moses at the bush, He said ‘Go and gather the elders of Israel together.’  Immediately after they did, the Torah says ‘And the people believed.’  For had not the elders not accepted Moses’ promise of freedom to the people, then the whole of Israel would also not have believed him.  The elders accepted it first and influenced the rest of Israel, encouraging them to believe.  God, therefore, said, ‘I will confer honor upon the elders so that the redemption of Israel shall be through their hands.’”

Here we see that the elders used their wisdom, their willingness to believe in the possibility of a better future, to give confidence, strength and resolve to their people.  Such people are referred to in the Torah as “Ziknei Yisrael,” the elders, or more properly those who were aging wisely and using their experience, knowledge, and insight to nurture curiosity, enthusiasm, hope, and spirit about the future.

I will spend this 60th birthday with my family (I’ve asked each of my sons for some uninterrupted conversation).  And I will ponder all the experiences that are ahead of me to enjoy, all that there is to learn, all the ways there are to grow intellectually and spiritually, and all the ways I might be able to be a positive influence on my family and my community.  If Pirkei Avot is to be trusted, then today begins my Et Zikna, a time of wise aging, of fun and of joy.

The Voice of the Prophet at Oheb Shalom

One of the great treasures of our tradition is the messages of the prophets who lived in Israel more than 2,500 years ago and, through the power of speech, exhorted our people to live lives of faith and morality.  These messages have been passed down to us in written form and comprise the middle section of the Jewish Bible.  Every Shabbat and festival day, we read the “Haftarah,” a selection from the Nevi’im (prophetic section of the Bible).  The reason for reading from the prophets is shrouded in mystery, though a leading theory is that centuries ago when the Romans prohibited the public reading of the Torah, the Rabbinic sages substituted a reading from the prophets, which was not considered threatening.  When the ban on reading the Torah was lifted, the additional reading was retained and remains part of our liturgy to this day.  Specific selections from the prophets, thematically connected to the weekly Torah reading, were assigned to each Shabbat and festival by the Talmudic sages.

It’s unfortunate that the power and passion of the weekly prophetic message are usually lost.  The Haftarah is chanted in Hebrew, which is not understood by most people.  The traditional melody is slow and somnambulating.  People might be quietly reading the English translation from the Humash while the Haftarah is being chanted in Hebrew, or more likely, may simply disconnect from the service during that time.  It’s a shame that the powerful message and voice of the prophet is missing.

One remedy for this dilemma is a new approach known as “The Voice of the Prophet,” a project launched by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach at the Jewish Theological Seminary that blends the chanting of some of the Hebrew verses with a dramatic English reading of the text.  Samples can be heard or downloaded by clicking here.

Our Religious Affairs Committee has decided to present the Haftarah using this creative method during Shabbat morning services.  We have chosen portions from the literary prophets, those passages in which a prophet’s message is conveyed rather than the narrative sections of this section of the Bible.  The “Voice of the Prophet” will be heard once a month from January through June, on the following dates:

January 26, Parashat Yitro

February 16, Parashat Tetzaveh

March 30, Parashat Shemini

April 13, Parashat Metsora

May 25, Parashat Behar

June 8, Parashat Bemidbar

I am confident that this new approach to reading the Haftarah will make the message of the prophets more accessible and compelling.  Please be sure to join us especially on the Shabbat mornings when the Voice of the Prophet rings out.  I will be very interested in your thoughts and reactions.

B’shalom,

RABBI COOPER

Don’t Rely on a Miracles

It’s Chanukah week and I must say that I absolutely love this holiday.  I love lighting the Menorah with my family and I love making latkes (I use a very simple recipe and they’re drenched in oil and delicious!).   On the serious side, the story and symbols of Chanukah inspire thoughts about the desperate need for enlightenment in our world.  And the legend of the small cruse of oil that burned for eight days gets me thinking about miracles.

A miracle is an unexpected and welcome event that can’t be explained by natural or scientific laws and is therefore ascribed to the Divine.  Our tradition tells us that there are miracles that occur regularly and even predictably, like the birth of a baby or a sunrise, just as there are miracles surprise us and seem to overturn the rules of nature, like the unexpected healing of a person who is gravely ill.  While the first type of miracle may seem routine, our tradition asks us to express gratitude regularly for such fantastic moments and develop an appreciation for them.  With equal conviction, our tradition also teaches that we should never come to rely on a Divine miracle to save us or help us escape trouble or a crisis.  Doing so is dangerous and foolish.

That lesson can be found in this week’s parasha, Mikeytz, which continues the story of Joseph and his dysfunctional relationship with his brothers.  At this point in the story, Joseph is living in Egypt as the second-in-command to Pharaoh, and his brothers have come down to procure food.  Toying with their emotions and fears, Joseph does not reveal his identity and decides to load them up with food and money for their trip back to Canaan.  The text says: “With the first light of morning the men were sent off with their pack animals.”  (Genesis 44:3).  The first part of the verse sparks the imagination of the Rabbinic Sages.  Why, they wonder, do the brothers leave with the first light of morning?  If God is protecting them and they are pious individuals, forebearers of the People of Israel, why must they wait until the morning to depart?  Obviously, even a pious person should not rely on Divine protection.  The Talmud (Pesachim 2a) makes the point explicitly: “Rav Judah said in Rav’s name: One should always enter his lodgings when it is still light and leave on his journey when it is light.”  Another rabbinic source adds that such is the case even if a person is a ‘shaliach mitzvah’ (someone who has embarked on doing a mitzvah): “Know that even for someone who is traveling on a matter connected with performing a mitzvah, about whom it is normally taught that they are safe from harm, it is still not advisable for them to travel at night.”  The message is clear.  People should take steps to protect themselves and not presume that God will shield them from harm.  Don’t rely on a miracle to keep yourself safe.

I remember a moment during the first Gulf War that I later understood as a welcome demonstration of the principle that even a pious Jew should not rely on miracles or Divine protection.  The late President George Bush, whose life and legacy were celebrated this week, had organized a coalition of nations to evict Iraq from Kuwait.  During the war, Iraq fired Scud missiles at Israel to draw Israel into the war and expand hostilities (the strategy didn’t work, as the U.S. persuaded Israel to stand down in order to keep the mission on track).  It was a terrifying time in Israel as Scuds rained down on the country, with many hitting civilian targets.  There were fears that the missiles might be carrying chemical weapons, so Israelis were issued gas masks to protect themselves.  One Shabbat morning an air raid siren sounded, and people on the streets scrambled for bomb shelters.  A photographer happened to catch a Chasidic Jew, decked out in his streimel and kapote (furry hat and fancy Shabbat coat) on his way to shul, wearing a gas mask and running toward a bomb shelter.  That, it seemed to me, was the epitome of the Talmudic rabbis’ advice.  Even a pious Jew engaged in doing a mitzvah shouldn’t count on a miracle or Divine protection.

The Chanukkah story teaches the same point.  The legend of the cruse of oil is charming, but the real history of Chanukkah reminds us that the Hasmonean fighters didn’t wait for God to step in and relieve their suffering and oppression at the hand of the Antiochus and the Syrian-Greeks.  They took matters into their own hands.  That wasn’t true of the Chasidim, the pious rural Jews who believed that they had to accept whatever appeared to be God’s will, even if that meant death as martyrs.  The tension between these two communities nearly sparked a civil war among the Jews.  Centuries later, we remember the heroism of the Maccabees, not the passivity of those who waited for a miracle to save them from destruction.

Miracles, both daily miracles and unpredictable miracles, are one of the great mysteries of life.  When they happen, we should express appreciation and wonder.  But the wisdom of our tradition tells us that we should never count on them to help us out of a jam and protect us from trouble.  For that, we ought to rely on ourselves and one another.

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Chanukkah!

 

It is Good To Learn Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day, which in American culture usually means time reserved for family and friends, football and shopping.  But at its core, Thanksgiving is about gratitude.  While we should express gratitude every day of the year, we set aside this day to focus on the need to give thanks for what we have and for the kindness that others bestow on us and those dear to us.

Gratitude isn’t intuitive.  Babies don’t start life by sharing what they have; they must be taught by their parents to share.  Even when we become adults, we are challenged to overcome the impulse to protect what we have and block others from taking what we think we might need for ourselves.  Whether its due to our instinct for self-preservation or simply our nature to act in our own interests, it’s true that gratitude is something that must be learned.  It’s an acquired skill.

The Torah underscores this idea when the People of Israel are explicitly told to express gratitude for the bounty of the land and the material blessings they receive when they enter the land that God promised to the descendants of Abraham and begin to reap its many tangible blessings.  In fact, they are given a script for what to say when they bring a portion of what they harvest as an offering to God.

How do we cultivate an “attitude of gratitude?”  In his book A Code of Jewish Ethics (volume 1), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers numerous specific instructions on how to become a grateful person.  He writes that gratitude is rooted in remembrance, and that therefore we must make a conscious effort to remember the good things that others have done for us and for our loved ones.  As a personal practice, he recommends that we keep a journal of the good things that have been done for us, being careful not to overlook even the smallest gesture.  We can begin to cultivate an attitude of gratitude by being mindful of the times that we have benefited from someone treating us with kindness and consideration.

To Rabbi Telushkin’s comprehensive list, I would add two ideas.  First, when we do something kind or generous for another person, we should never expect anything in return.  This is a virtue expressed in Pirkei Avot, where we are taught not to fulfill a mitzvah in order to receive a reward.  Whether a reward might be forthcoming from God or from a human companion, we should never do something in order to store up good deeds owed to us.

Second, when cultivating an attitude of gratitude, we should look for role models of generosity.  All around us there are people who give of themselves constantly and selflessly out of a genuine desire to help others.  We have all met such people.  Perhaps we have been moved and inspired by their work, and perhaps we have causally overlooked them.  Sometimes they are given notoriety and sometimes they perform their work in anonymity.  We should seek out these people and hold them out as role models of generosity.  Such people will inspire us to give of ourselves.

On this Thanksgiving, I wish you a restful and memorable day.  May it be an occasion to begin (or continue) the practice of being mindful of the acts of generosity that come our way.  May we each do an inventory of the ways we are (and could be) helpful and generous with others.  And may we cultivate an attitude of gratitude that will be with us for a lifetime.

I offer this Thanksgiving kavanah (meditation) by Rabbi Debra.  Perhaps you might read its words at the dinner table, or contemplate them privately.

Tov l’hodot la-Adonai…it is good to give thanks.

To lift our eyes upward.

To hillsides still draped in deep browns and maroons of late autumn,

A rich, fleeting beauty before winter’s snows.

 

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To inhale the crisp air Laced with woodsmoke and peat,

To feel welcome warmth as we venture inside,

To sniff the aromas of savory gravies,

of nutmeg and cinnamon, berries and wine.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

To be seated at tables with friends and with family,

To join hands and embrace,

To share smiles and stories,

To count all our blessings,

To recall cherished loved ones who no longer sit here,

Grateful for memories and the gift of their lives.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For the land that we live in with its promise of freedom and justice for all.

For the visions we share and the strength that You give us

To work as Your partners To fix what is broken,

To bring healing and hope To those in despair.

Tov l’hodot It is good to give thanks.

For this joyous gathering,

For coming together to praise the Creator,

Extending our hands and raising our voices in chorus as one.

Learning Through Listening

Listening is at the core of meaningful, productive human relationships.  There is virtually no end to the impact on our lives of genuine listening.  We tend to see others through a pre-determined lens, sometimes based on their appearance or sometimes based on small bits of information we may know about someone or the community of which they are a part, and that is not conducive to building and sustaining productive relationships.

We all need to engage in reflective listening, a practice that increases our connection to another person with whom we are in conversation by allowing them to finish speaking before replying, by always making eye contact, by putting aside a smartphone or pen, or by replying to what someone is saying rather than starting a new thread by making a new comment.

As I think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I realize that none of us living here in America can break the logjam in the Middle East and bring peace to Israeli and Palestinians.  This anguished conflict, nearly a century-long, is deep-seated, and a solution is made elusive by history, by ideologically fragmented societies (both Israeli and Palestinian), and by an absence of courageous and visionary leadership on both sides.  Any solution will require enormous risks for both parties.  Still, we can’t look on helplessly and hopelessly.  What can we do?

As a first step, people can engage in reflective listening.  It’s not always pleasant or uplifting to listen to someone else’s narrative.  We’re quick to discount it and overturn it with our own facts because we want to emerge as victors in our struggle to be vindicated and proven right.  But the Palestinians need to listen to our narrative, our story of connection to the Land of Israel, and we need to listen to theirs.  Listening does not obligate either side to accept every element of the other’s story.  But we’ve seen that when people do not listen to one another, even if they don’t agree with what the other has to say, the boundaries between us remain high and unbreachable.

Lest you think that this idea is naïve, there is an organization called Encounter, that brings people together to listen.  As they describe their mission, Encounter is a nonpartisan educational organization cultivating more informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They say, “We enable deeply committed Jewish influencers to encounter firsthand the people, perspectives and challenges at the heart of the conflict. Our programs inspire new perspectives, new conversations and new approaches to the conflict.”

I was on a one-day Encounter in Bethlehem several years ago and felt it was a very thoughtfully constructed and productive experience.  Jews spent time listening to Palestinians share their perspectives on the condition of their lives and the conflict.  I did not agree with everything I heard.  At times I thought that the person speaking was mired in their own version of reality.  I expressed my views in a polite and respectful manner when it was my turn to speak.  The idea of an open and honest dialogue was refreshing and welcome.

My wife Amy was on a 4-day Encounter last year with a group of Jewish leaders, including Melanie Gorelick.  Melanie is the Senior Vice President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), and for a decade was the Director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.  The 4-day Encounter is, of course, a much more extensive and thorough experience, providing for many reflections and impressions.

I invite you to Oheb Shalom this Friday evening when Amy and Melanie will talk about their visit to the West Bank. I want to stress that their talk is not about finding a political solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, nor is it about urging us to take sides. It’s about the crucial importance of learning through listening.

Our service begins at 8:00 PM and the discussion and Q & A led by Amy and Melanie will begin at 8:30 PM. All are welcome, and I hope you will join us.