Giving Thanks

In the course of my rabbinate, I’ve had the privilege of participating with countless families in the celebration of the birth of a child. It’s always a delight to hear the name that parents choose for their child, and interesting to hear the reason for their choice. As many of us have done and in keeping with Ashkenazic tradition, parents often name a child after a loved one who has passed away (Sephardic custom is to name a child in honor of a living relative). But some parents give their child a name that represents an interest they may have in life (one parent named his son Harley because he liked motorcycles) or an experience they may have had at some point (another parent named their child Hudson because she and her husband fell in love and got married in New York).

In this week’s Parasha, we read about the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah. What’s striking about their choices is that they seem very self-serving, in an almost tragic sense. Leah chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.” Naftali is chosen because his mother won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and Joseph is chosen as an affirmation that “God has taken away my disgrace by adding another son to me.”

But the choice of the name Judah, the origin of the word Jewish, is made for reasons that are not self-serving. Leah chooses this name as an expression of gratitude for those things that are above and beyond what she felt she had a right to expect in life. When Leah gives birth to Judah—the namesake of our people—she says “ha-pa’am odeh et Adonai…this time I will thank God” (Genesis 29:35). Why did Leah feel the need to thank God when Judah was born? Because he was her fourth child, and she had reasoned that each of Jacob’s four wives would be entitled to bear three sons who would become one of the ancestors of the twelve tribes. Judah was “extra,” more than she felt she was entitled to have, so she felt compelled to offer thanks to God.

This idea lies at the heart of the historical narrative that gave rise to Thanksgiving. According to historical records, the Pilgrims suffered numerous fatalities during their first year in the New World. Of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower, only half survived. In order for the others to make it, they needed the help of the Wampanoag, who taught them how to hunt, how to fish and what crops to plant in a place that was unfamiliar to them. The Pilgrims, feeling indebted to the Wampanoag, asked that they join them for a meal to show their gratitude for their kindness. The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving gives us an insight into the meaning of gratitude. Related to the word “gratis,” showing gratitude seems to mean offering appreciation for those things that are free or extra, above and beyond what we feel we are entitled to have. The Pilgrims had no reason to expect that the Wampanoag would help them and the lifesaving assistance they received was above and beyond the basic sustenance for which they might have otherwise recited grace.

There is no exact equivalent Hebrew word for gratitude. Typically, people say “todah” when they wish to say thank you, a word emanating from the Hebrew verb “l’hodot,” meaning to acknowledge or to praise. Another phrase, often used in modern Hebrew to express gratitude, is “hakarat ha-tov, to recognize the good.” That phrase captures the true essence of giving thanks. To offer thanks is to recognize the good around us, and to express appreciation for that which we perceive to be extra or above what we are entitled to have. Each new day should be received as a gift. Judaism encourages us to not only express appreciation for the blessings we receive that go beyond what we think we ought to have in life, but also to express gratitude every moment of life itself, for it is all a gift.

On this Thanksgiving Day, and every day that follows, let us offer thanks for the totality of life.

Give and Take

Our congregation, like most, seeks to create a communal prayer experience that is engaging to all who worship with us. Doing so is not always an easy task, for we are a diverse congregation made up of people of various backgrounds, skill sets, and spiritual interests. What kind of service can we create that will meet everyone’s needs? One answer is to embrace compromise. The idea of valuing both receiving and giving in the area of prayer, like so many areas of life, applies not only as communal experience but also as a personal one.

Few congregations are so single-minded that all its worshippers are satisfied with whatever prayers are recited and whatever prayer customs are practiced. An old story is told about a congregation that was fighting constantly over whether or not to stand while reciting Shema Yisrael. The battles were so intense that the president feared people would start throwing prayer books at one another. So a delegation of synagogue leaders was appointed to visit the oldest living congregant, a man over 100 years old living in a nursing home, to find out if the members of the congregation stood or sat for Shema in its early years. The small group came to see the elderly congregant and said, “We must know what to do. Did we always sit for Shema?” The old man answered, “No, I don’t recall that.” They then asked, “Well, did we always stand for Shema?” He answered, “No, I don’t recall that either.” In frustration, they said, “Please tell us what to do…people are throwing prayer books at each other!” The old man said, “Yeesss…that’s what happened back then!”

The reality of Jewish communal prayer, as we learned from Rabbi Jan Uhrbach this past Sunday at our annual Rabbi Alexander Shapiro Memorial Lecture, is that congregations that want to grow and thrive must compromise on modalities of prayer. Such compromise includes being open-minded about not only choices of prayers and music and length of the service, but also about the possibility of experimentation and creative innovation. Here at Oheb Shalom, we strive for an engaging worship service. In order to achieve that, we must be open to compromise. No member of our congregation will necessarily be completely satisfied with every aspect of our service. But, according to the nature of compromise, our members will be fulfilled by the experience as a whole of praying with our congregation. There must be a give and take when it comes to communal prayer.

There is also a “give and take” when it comes to our personal prayer experience as well. There are times in prayer that we hope to be fulfilled, uplifted and satisfied. We want to feel calmed and sheltered from the hectic pace of life. We want to feel unburdened, and to sense that we have been heard. Some of us may desperately want our prayers to be answered. These wishes are understandable and form an important approach to prayer, one which our Sages identified as Bakasha, or petition. Viewed this way, prayer is about satisfying the self.

Yet, there are times that prayer is not about “taking” but about “giving.” Our tradition encourages us to offer ourselves in prayer, to express praise and gratitude to our creator (our Sages called these Shevach and Hoda’a), to see our place as part of a greater whole. There are times that we “give ourselves” in prayer, and there are times that we “take.” This is the nature of life, and it is the way of Jewish prayer.

Join us this Shabbat morning. We’ve built some interesting innovations into the service that we hope you will receive positively. We want to make our congregation’s Tefilah more engaging, more fulfilling, more accessible to you. Come to give of yourself by adding your voice and your ideas, and come to receive spiritual nourishment.

And come to enjoy Kiddush! I am a firm believer that people come to shul on Shabbat morning not only take part in a service but to have a great Kiddush. So I’m making the Kiddush this week—Cholent and kugel! Don’t miss out!

The Holiest Mitzvah

Of all the mitzvot we are called on to perform, which are the most sacred?

In truth, there is no easy way to answer that question. There are many mitzvot—sacred, commanded acts—that the Jewish tradition calls on us to perform. Some are easy and fun, while others are complex and even burdensome. Some are meaningful to us, while the meaning and relevance of others are difficult to comprehend. And how would one go about measuring the sanctity of a particular act, given that people understand the idea of holiness in different ways?

Still, the Talmudic Sages expressed the idea that the most sacred of the mitzvot are the ones that call on us to treat the dead with respect and honor. We learn this from many sources, including this week’s Parasha, Chayei Sarah, where we find the story about Abraham, grief stricken at the death of his wife Sarah, goes about the task of finding a suitable burial place for her. That place turns out to be M’arat Ha-Machpela, the Cave of Machpela, located in Hevron. The site is still there today, revered as the ancient burial place of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Jewish burial and mourning customs are important, since everyone, at some point, must face the end of life. Who among us has not encountered, at some point, the grief that results from the passing of a loved one and the challenge of bereavement? Our traditions concerning burial and bereavement are rich, deep and meaningful. They fall into two categories: K’vod Ha-Met (paying honor to the deceased) and Nichum Aveilim (comforting the mourner). Comforting the mourner is a crucial aspect of our burial and mourning practices, as the Jewish tradition places a heavy emphasis on moving forward with one’s life in a positive manner after going through a time of bereavement. And we place a great deal of emphasis on honoring the deceased for several reasons. First, the body is a gift from God, on loan to us during our earthly journey, and we have a sacred duty to return this gift to our Creator at the end of physical life. And honoring the deceased is of crucial important in Jewish tradition because it represents what we call a Chesed Shel Emet, a truly righteous act, something done for another person that they cannot possibly do for themselves, a kindness that can and never will be repaid by the individual to whom it is directed. Our tradition teaches that such an act, one done without expectation of reward, is among the highest forms of righteous behavior.

How can we fulfill the mitzvah of Kevod Ha-Met, of honoring the deceased? At the most basic level, we follow customs such as rapid burial (ideally within 24 hours of passing), keeping the casket closed and having someone be present with the deceased from the time of death until burial (the person who does this is called a shomer). At the time of death, the deceased are prepared for burial through the ritual of Tahara, or ritual washing of the body. This is done by a group of people, called a Chevra Kadisha (Holy Burial Society), who are have learned how to fulfill this sacred task and who embrace the mitzvah as a meaningful spiritual act. A communal Chevra Kadisha is now being formed and you will shortly receive an invitation to be trained in performing Tahara and serve on a Chevra Kadisha that will accommodate the needs of the congregations in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.

The mitzvah of Kevod Ha-Met can also be fulfilled by supporting the Hebrew Free Burial Association, an important group that has been providing free burial for indigent Jews who are alone or have no family and cannot afford the costs of burial. The HFBA has been active since the 1880s and has provided Jewish burial services at no cost to over 60,000 people since its inception. Each year on Parashat Chayei Sarah, the HFBA reaches out to the Jewish community with an invitation to support their work. Click here to learn more about the Hebrew Free Burial Society and to offer your support.

Which is the holiest mitzvah? We each may have a favorite Jewish practice, but it can surely be argued that honoring the deceased and taking care of those in mourning are among the most sacred acts we can perform as Jews.

Getting Rid of the Salt of Sodom

Judaism has a love-hate relationship with salt. In the Book of Leviticus, we read that salt was a key ingredient in offering sacrifices: “And every sacrifice of your meal offering shall you season with salt; nor shall you allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your meal offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (Leviticus 2:13). In the Book of Psalms, salt is associated with friendship. We season bread with salt after reciting “Hamotzi” (some do this to challah especially on Shabbat). The primary reason given for this practice is that the Talmudic rabbis noted that our dinner table is akin to the Biblical altar upon which sacrifices were offered, and we are called on to replicate the practice associated with sacrifices mentioned in Leviticus. But another good reason for the practice of salting bread, and other foods as well, is that salt brings out the flavor in our food, and we should try to heighten the pleasure in eating.

Salt is also depicted as something negative and unwanted. Among Israel’s bodies of water is Yam Ha-Melach, the “Salt Sea,” whose English name is the Dead Sea, so named because the high salt content makes it impossible for any marine life to live in it. And in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read of the destruction of the evil city of Sodom. As God was destroying the city and its inhabitants, he instructed Lot and his wife not to look back as they fled for safety. But Lot’s wife did not listen and she turned around to see what was happening, only to be transformed into a pillar of salt. The narrative implies that salt is a consequence of destruction. Some commentaries depict Lot’s wife as being evil herself, while others propose that she was a person who could not change. Salt is a preservative, so turning into a pillar of salt can represent being unwilling or unable to change one’s evil ways and improve one’s character.

The Talmudic sages mention the “Salt of Sodom” (Melach Sedomit) suggesting that salt represents the evil, self-centered and callous attitudes and behavior of the residents of Sodom. In fact, they instituted a custom, little known and not widely practiced among non-Orthodox Jews, of washing at the end of a Shabbat meal as well as at the beginning. The practice is known as Mayim Acharonim, or “Final Waters,” and is performed without saying a blessing. But there is a ritual object devoted to performing the ritual. A miniature bowl with water and a matching pitcher are placed on the table. Before reciting Birkat Ha-Mazon (the blessing after eating), one rinses away the salt that accumulated on the fingertips while eating with a small amount of water from the pitcher.

By way of this practice, our tradition reminds us to strive to purify ourselves from the worst of human behavior—greed, selfishness, insensitivity, callousness—the very characteristics that, according to Biblical legend, caused God to wipe out the Sodomites in the first place. By washing our fingertips at the end of the meal, by washing away the “Salt of Sodom,” we are gently reminded to reach for holiness in our daily lives.

There are a lot of good reasons to have a low-salt or a salt-free diet. In this parasha, and in the ritual practice of Mayim Acharonim, the Talmudic sages advised that we have a salt-free soul as well.