Tu BeShevat—Our Connection to Israel

In the week ahead, many in the Jewish world will celebrate Tu BeShevat. This beautiful holiday, among the newest on the Jewish calendar, has its roots in the Mishna, where the 15th day of the month of Shevat was one of the four days designated as a Jewish New Year. These were:

  • The 1st of Nisan, was, among other things, recognized as the New Year for Jewish kings and as the beginning of the religious calendar for festivals.
  • The 1st of Elul was determined as the New Year for the tithing of cattle.
  • The 1st of Tishrei was set as the beginning of the religious New Year and a day when the world faces judgment.
  • The 15th of Shevat was chosen as the New Year for trees. This date was selected because, according to the Talmud, the winter rains in Israel are over and most tree fruit has begun to ripen. Establishing a uniform date for the “birthday” of trees helped to designate fruits as “orlah” (forbidden to eat because they grew during the first three years after a tree’s planting) and for purposes of tithing.

Over the centuries, Jewish communities developed Tu BeShevat into a holiday that celebrates the earth and its bounty. The Kabbalists of Tzefat created a “Tu BeShevat Seder” patterned after the Passover Seder that features drinking four cups of wine, eating different fruits and nuts and reading poetry and hymns. Others have seen Tu BeShevat as a time to emphasize environmentalism and our duty to safeguard the earth entrusted to us by God.

In the past century, Tu BeShevat has taken on new meaning that is linked to the land of Israel and the reestablishment of the State of Israel, no doubt because Tu BeShevat celebrates the land of Israel and its beauty and bounty. The relationship between Judaism and the physical land of Israel, explicit in the Torah and expressed in our people’s yearning to live in the land of Israel, is a key to Zionist identity. Thus, to celebrate Tu BeShevat in our time is to celebrate the land of Israel itself.

How can we best celebrate Israel? There are myriad ways to do so. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has long been devoted to building and sustaining the land of Israel by investment in infrastructure projects. JNF is also there to help organize the worldwide Jewish community to respond to crisis and emergency needs for communities around Israel. Investment in Israel Bonds enables the government of Israel to build up communities and resettle immigrants.

We can also celebrate Israel by helping to shape a strong and vibrant society, even from here in the Diaspora. One of the ways we can do that is to be supportive of MERCAZ, the Zionist organization of Conservative Judaism in Israel. MERCAZ runs and supports many programs throughout the year, such as Israel Advocacy Seminars, Zionist and Hebrew education, short and long term study and volunteer programs. MERCAZ provides financial support for USY Pilgrimage, Ramah Seminar, Nativ, the Conservative Yeshiva, and more. Supporting MERCAZ is one way to advocate for and nurture religious pluralism in Israel, considered by many to be a necessary pillar of a healthy and vibrant Israeli society.

MERCAZ needs your attention and support at this particular time. The 37th World Zionist Congress will convene in October 2015, and delegates to the congress are being elected now. You can register to vote for MERCAZ delegates, who in turn will vote at the WZC to allocate necessary funds to the Conservative Movement in Israel. Registration is open now and will run through the end of April. More MERCAZ delegates at the WZC will ensure that our movement can continue to support Masorti congregations in Israel, TALI (Masorti) public schools, and many other Conservative educational and Zionist programs in Israel. Those 18 years of age or older can register now to vote for MERCAZ delegates.

Tu BeShevat reminds us of our vital link to Eretz Yisrael. We who live in the Diaspora can continue to care for and support Israel, both the physical land and a strong, vibrant society. All it takes is a little initiative and desire.

Click here to register for MERCAZ and vote for delegates to the 37th World Zionist Congress.

Miriam Sisterhood is sponsoring a congregational Tu BeShevat Seder this Tuesday, February 4 at 7:00 PM.

I Have a History

Back in November, when Rabbi Jan Uhrbach was our scholar at the annual Shapiro Lecture, she told a wonderful story that has stayed with me and, once you hear it, it will remain with you as well. I want to share it now because Monday, January 27th is a milestone anniversary that we all should be aware of—the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Granted, there’s nothing special about the 70th anniversary of anything—it’s just a number. Why should the 70th anniversary of an event be more significant or noteworthy than its 69th anniversary? Actually, what’s striking about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is that it reminds just how far in time we’ve come since that terrible and dark time in our history.

And now the story. Rabbi Uhrbach was talking about the importance of connecting to others when we gather for prayer and how we ought to be concerned about more than just our own spiritual fulfillment through prayer. She related how years earlier she was davening one Shabbat morning in a New York synagogue, trying to concentrate on achieving kavana (deep focus) in her prayers. A woman sitting by her side struck up a conversation with her, asking her several questions about who she was. Somewhat impatiently, Rabbi Uhrbach (who was not yet a rabbi at the time) answered her and returned to her prayers. The woman interrupted her again with more questions. Rabbi Uhrbach replied, “Ma’am, I’m trying to concentrate on my prayers…please stop interrupting me.” The woman turned to her husband who was sitting on her other side and said, “Look, dear, I’ve met this nice young woman…say hello.” Rabbi Uhrbach repeated, “Please let me daven…this is very distracting.” The elderly woman said, “You know, I have a history,” perhaps implying that she had a story worth hearing. “We all have a history, ma’am.” At that point, the elderly woman rolled up her sleeve and showed her forearm. “No, I mean I have a number…” Rabbi Uhrbach related that never had she been as mortified and embarrassed as in that moment. Here she was playing the role of self-centered worshipper trying to achieve greater piety, while ignoring the story of the person near her, who just happened to be a Holocaust survivor.

We’ve come 70 years since the end of the Holocaust, which is two generations of distance and increasingly faint memories. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz reminds us that the personal accounts of survivors and liberators are fading from our grasp, and that the sacred task of remembering is upon us with even greater urgency.

So I urge you to come to Oheb Shalom this Sunday, January 25th at 9:30 AM to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust through reflection and learning with Dr. Nili Keren, who will speak about the unique and universal nature of the Holocaust. Come to recommit to the sacred and time honored task of remembering. For if we do not remember, and tell what we know to our children and grandchildren, then the stories of suffering and heroism will be gone forever.

For more details, visit THIS PAGE.

The Fifth Promise

Last week’s terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher market, which resulted in the murder of 17 people, including four Jews getting ready for Shabbat, has captured the attention of many people around the world. France has woken up the dire threat posed to its nation by the growing number of French-born Islamic radicals living on French soil, and in the days following the attacks the world has rallied to their side. The march against terror held last week in Paris was astounding in that it drew numerous world leaders who were first in line to march (the United States government has expressed regret that it failed to send an official of sufficiently high ranking). The image of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the front of the line, separated by only a few dignitaries, was itself enough to do a double-take (though no conclusions should be drawn that they were, themselves, experiencing a moment of political or personal unity, and their placement on opposite sides of the line so as not to have to encounter each other was surely not accidental).

The attack on the Hyper Cacher market, a target chosen specifically because it was Jewish, has highlighted the plight of French Jewry. At 500,000 strong, French Jews are Europe’s largest Jewish community, and many of them feel that their safety and their lives are threatened. There is good reason for French Jews to feel threatened, as the growing tide of radical Islam has made them a target for violence on numerous occasions. It is no wonder that the largest block of immigrants to Israel has been from France. That French Jews belong in Israel, indeed that the safety and security of any threatened Jewish community around the world can best be assured only in Israel, was the focus of comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli governmental officials, who in their comments on the attack on the Hyper Cacher market beckoned French Jews to come home to Israel. Touchingly, the four victims of the attack on the market were flown to Israel for burial, now their final resting place.

Can Jews survive and thrive without living in Israel? 2,000 years of living without a land of our own have clearly demonstrated that we can. But the history of Diaspora Jewry, while demonstrating that Jews know how to survive, is surely one of oppression, displacement and danger. The near complete destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust, while unequaled in its scope, was not the only tragedy to befall our people. Throughout Jewish history, we have faced violence and destruction at nearly every turn. Perhaps it should be said that we can survive, but only barely, without a land of our own. In the nearly 67 years of Israel’s existence as a state in the modern era, we have seen countless Jews from Arab lands, from Ethiopia, from the former Soviet Union and from elsewhere around the world find safe haven in the land of the Jewish people. Only a land of our own can guarantee our long term safety and survival.

Perhaps that’s the message in this week’s Parasha, which contains the familiar “Four Promises” made by God to the ancient Israelite people on the eve of their redemption from Egyptian bondage. These four promises are the source for the structure of the Passover Seder, a “talk-feast in Four Acts,” each of which is accompanied by making a blessing over a cup of wine.

Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and (1) I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and (2) I will rid you from their slavery, and (3) I will redeem you with a outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And (4) I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God…(Exodus 6:7)

The Talmudic sages noticed that there was a fifth promise two verses later, but were unsure if it should be grouped with the other four and whether or not the Passover Seder should instead feature five cups of wine. Ultimately, they ordained that a fifth cup of wine be placed on the Seder table for which no blessing should be recited, a cup in honor of Elijah the Prophet, who according to tradition will one day usher in the Messiah and bring with him answers and solutions to problems too hard to solve.

But the fifth promise did not escape the attention of the sages, and it may be the most significant, for it is the promise of a land of our own.

And I will bring you in to the land, which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord. (Exodus 6:8)

It is in the Land of Israel that the Jewish people can fulfill our potential to become a people devoted to the service of God in a focused and effective way. It is in the Land of Israel that we can develop our ideas, our culture, our language, our ways of life. From that hub of creativity, the Jewish people can branch out into the world, confident in who we are and spiritually rooted in the land of our heritage. This is the essence of the passage found in the Siddur that we recite each time the Torah is replaced into the ark—Ki Mi-Tsion Teitzei Torah, U-d’var Adonai Mi-Yerushalayim…From Zion shall Torah come forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.

Diaspora Jewry, specifically in North America, is strong. But that does not diminish the significance of the State of Israel as the spiritual homeland of our people and its role as a safe haven for the Jewish people, including those from France. That fact behooves us to do whatever it takes to support Israel and to advocate for her needs. To paraphrase the great sage Hillel, if we don’t step up each day in support of Israel, who will?

Time to Take Off Your Shoes

When Moses meets God for the first time, he encounters the Divine presence in a lowly bush at the foot of a mountain near Midian where he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. The Sages see great significance in God appearing to Moses from within an unnoticeable piece of dry desert brush and use the image to point out that God may be found everywhere, within every aspect of the world around us, within the soul of every living thing. This Divine Bush was itself a miracle, as it was on fire yet not consumed, an oddity that draws the attention of Moses.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

God calls Moses to service from within the bush. God instructs Moses to keep his distance, presumably either for his own protection against the overwhelming power of the Divine, or because God wishes to reinforce the idea that human beings cannot occupy the same space as He does. The Divine call, though is accompanied by an additional instruction that seems strange. Moses must remove his shoes, apparently as an affirmation that the ground on which he is standing is holy.

And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.

Muslims remove their shoes before entering a Mosque (indeed, all visitors to a Mosque must remove their shoes). This is likely done to create a boundary between the outside world, which is often filled with dirt and grime, and the prayer space. And the Japanese, as well as some Europeans, remove their shoes before entering their homes, a practice that is meant to keep one’s living space clean and pure. Our passage in this week’s parasha, Shemot, gives us a reason for God’s command to Moses to remove his shoes, namely that wearing shoes would somehow violate the holiness of the environment. But in what way are shoes an obstacle to holiness?

First, it can be said that because they are manmade, shoes are an obstacle to holiness. We distance ourselves from God when we tip the balance from that which is natural to that which is artificial. It’s true that the things we make are, in some way, a result of the Divine gifts with which we have been endowed. Nothing that is created is truly manmade, for the materials and talent used to create things ultimately emanate from God. But manmade things give human beings a sense that our own power and status govern the world. It could be argued that God told Moses to remove his shoes because they were manmade, and manmade things prevent us from sensing that we are in the presence of God. From this idea we might learn that is possible to sense God’s presence, God’s holiness, by connecting to things that are natural in our world.

It could also be said that God commanded Moses to remove his shoes so that he would feel discomfort when he walked on the ground. Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace and enjoyed a pampered, sheltered life. He wished to leave that environment and see the suffering of his people. Did he want to observe their enslavement, gather facts and become informed? Or did he wish to experience their enslavement? Only by feeling a small sampling of what the Israelite slaves felt could he summon the necessary passion and zeal to be God’s ambassador for freedom. In short, Moses had to know suffering himself before he could presume to represent the cause of the slaves to the Pharaoh. And God helped him, in a small way, to feel the sting of slavery by making him walk on the ground barefoot. From this we might learn that we each must find a way to better understand the sting and pain of poverty, of homelessness and of hunger in order to summon the passion and commitment required to remedy these plaques.

Moses was told to remove his shoes because they were an obstacle to holiness. Apparently, they symbolized being distanced from experiencing and enjoying the natural world. And they symbolically sheltered him from the pain and suffering of slavery.

That’s something to think about the next time you put on a comfortable pair of shoes.

As a postscript to this week’s post, I ask you to visit the webpage of Masorti Olami and consider donating to their emergency campaign in support of synagogues in France. Our brothers and sisters in France were already feeling vulnerable, and circumstances have only become more complicated in the wake of yesterday’s brutal terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

CLICK HERE to be directed to Masorti Olami’s webpage.

There’s No Messiah…and You’re It!

An old Jewish folktale tells of a small town, and near it was a monastery in decline. The monastery’s grounds were overgrown and dusty and it had only six monks left, all over 70 years old, living out their lives without much hope or joy. As it happened, near this monastery there was a little hut where a certain Rabbi would come for hitbod’dut, for solitary time and meditation. One day, the Abbot of the monastery, in a moment of desperation, decided to go to speak to the Rabbi about their problem, thinking that perhaps he could help them reverse their decline, their loss of direction and their loss of spirit. He came to the Rabbi and poured out his heart to him.

The Rabbi told him, “We have similar problems. We have synagogues that are empty and families that are crumbling.” And the two men embraced and wept. Then they sat and studied Torah together until it was time for the Abbot to leave. As he left, he asked the Rabbi, “Is there anything more that you can tell us?” “Yes,” the Rabbi replied, “One of you is the Messiah!”

The Abbot went back to the monastery and told his brother monks what the Rabbi had said. During the next weeks, they all thought about it and wondered, “If the Rabbi’s words are true, which one of us is the Messiah?” As they thought about it, they realized that each of the brothers had a quality that might mean that he was the Messiah. Brother Thomas was very kind. The Abbot was their leader and the holiest among them. Brother Timothy had taken a vow of silence, so perhaps that qualified him. And could it even be Brother Joseph, who had a sharp and critical tongue, but whose judgments were always accurate.

With this in mind, the monks began to treat each other with greater respect, because they saw their brothers as if each could be the Messiah. And their attitude toward themselves improved as well, because although one was so bold as to think that he was the Messiah, still it was possible. So they learned respect, which means “to take a second look,” and in so doing took a second look at one another.

And this new attitude changed the whole atmosphere at the monastery. The grounds were fixed up. People started coming by to speak to the monks. The monastery reconnected with the world and became a place where people could reconnect with one another. And they always remembered the Rabbi’s special gift to them.

I think of this story this week in particular, as Parashat Vayechi, with which we conclude this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis, tells us: “Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1). The Talmudic sages wonder how Jacob could tell the future. Was he prophetic, perhaps even messianic? Ultimately, the sages conclude that Jacob had no messianic power, suggesting in a Midrash that he was about to reveal the secrets of the “End of Days,” but at the last moment God withheld this secret knowledge from him. Instead, Jacob describes the character of his sons in his deathbed blessings to them. From this we may learn that while the Talmudic sages certainly believed in the End of Days and the Messiah, they preferred to downplay the possibility that God’s Messiah bore responsibility for making the world a better place. No Divine miracle, no Messiah, will make the world into a place fit for the presence of God. That job, they taught us, is ours alone.

Each one of us has the power to make the world a better place. In that sense, anyone of us could be the “Messiah.” As the title of a book by Rabbi Robert Levine on the Messianic concept in Judaism suggests, “there’s no Messiah, and you’re it.”

Think about it…and then get started making a difference.

P.S. I wish each of you a happy, healthy and fulfilling “Gregorian” New Year, and hope that we spend much of it together here at Oheb Shalom!