Enough is Enough

A few months ago, when we celebrated the beginning of 2017, I happened to read an article listing someone’s suggestions for New Year resolutions.  They included the usual things, like gaining control over finances, exercising more, eating a healthier diet, being outdoors more and doing more of what you’re passionate about.  One suggestion stuck with me, in part because I had already gone a long way toward fulfilling it—possess what you actually need rather than collect and store things that you don’t really need or use.  In the fall of last year, Amy and I decided to sell our home and move to an apartment.  With only one child still living at home, we felt that our house had become too big for us.    We had things stored in the basement, in the attic and in the garage that we simply didn’t need and never used.  When we moved to our new home (at The Avenue in South Orange), we donated furniture and kitchen appliances, including things we hadn’t used in years.  In our new apartment, we have exactly what we need and use.

We live in a country where some Americans have an abundance of material goods and almost unlimited access to what we want.  It’s not even necessary to be mega wealthy to have so much.  We need to be reminded that there are millions of people in this country, and billions more elsewhere in the world, who either barely have what they need or have much less than they need to survive.  Recently, Ruth Messinger, Global Ambassador of the American Jewish World Service and Finkelstein Institute Social Justice Fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote in The Forward about the need for each of us to conduct a “self-audit for sufficiency.”  She noted the following facts:

  • Rabbis who travel with her to the developing world report that one of their worst moments upon returning home is entering an American supermarket that sells more than 50 kinds of cereal.
  • Although the United States has 4.5% of the world’s population, we use on average 20% of the world’s energy.
  • Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily, while 16 million people in Africa are on the brink of death by starvation in the next few months.
  • The richest eight people in the world have assets equal to those of the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world (half the world’s population).

Messinger notes that people often speak of what they need when what they’re really referring to is what they want, and that we should strive to distinguish between needs and wants in our thinking, our possessions and our consumption.  She suggests that we should ask ourselves if we really “need” the item we are about to acquire, and if we are truly helping our children by giving them what they say they need.

Passover is an opportunity to focus on what we possess versus what we actually need.  In general, Pesach summons us to think about the burdens and suffering of those who are enslaved, oppressed and impoverished.  I often think of something my father used to say: “I felt sorry for myself that I had no shoes until I met the man who had no feet.”  His point seemed to be that there’s always someone who has less than you do, and it’s always possible to make do with less than you have.  Pesach reminds of this truth.

The Seder song Dayyenu is another reminder that we can get by with less than we possess or think we need.  Dayyenu was probably written about 1,000 years ago and was included in the Haggadah of Rav Amram Gaon, the first sage in Jewish history to produce a formal prayer book.  It has a catchy melody to go along with a precise literary structure.  Containing 15 verses, each one denoting a gift from God, the lyrics represent a step-by-step accounting of the creation of the Jewish nation from the Exodus to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The verses are considered “ma’a lot tovot” (steps of kindness) where each step is greater than the one before it.  (The Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah eliminates four of the 15 verses, three of which deal with the defeat of the Egyptians, something we are not supposed to emphasize, and one of which seems to be repetitive.  And The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices by Moshe Saks Zion offers a contemporary version of Dayyenu with the theme of the establishment of the modern State of Israel.)

Dayyenu, in addition to expressing gratitude to God for the gifts we have received, carries the message that any one of the steps would have been sufficient for us (indeed, that’s exactly what the word “Dayyenu” means).  It expresses the idea that we should be satisfied with what we have and ought to feel extraordinarily blessed to have more than that.

What a remarkable and important idea to ponder in this age of abundance—acquire and possess only what you need.  This is not meant to be an urging of asceticism or an embrace of poverty.  Jews are not expected to shun material possessions.  But we can say Dayyenu!  It’s enough to be alive, to breathe, to live each day in this remarkable world, to give and receive love.  A “Dayyenu attitude” serves to increase our appreciation of the gifts and blessings we receive each day.  It prompts us to appreciate what we do have, to be more generous, more compassionate, more sensitive and understanding of those who have less than they need for a dignified, healthy life.

Isn’t that a good reason to celebrate Passover?

My Grandson’s Bris

Recently I experienced what may be the most deeply spiritual moment of my life—my first grandson’s bris.  The ceremony, held in my son and daughter-in-law’s synagogue in Riverdale, New York, emphasized for me the profound and enduring importance and meaning of Brit Milah, the ceremony of welcoming a baby boy into the family of the Jewish people with prayers and the ritual of circumcision.   That this bris was so spiritually meaningful may not seem unusual, except for three things:  I am a congregational rabbi in the 31st year of my career and thus no stranger to Jewish life cycle events, I have been a Mohel with an active practice for nearly 24 years during which I have performed thousands of circumcisions, and I am the father of five sons, each of whom was welcomed with a bris.  For those who may be wondering, I did perform circumcision for my sons (the three younger ones, as I wasn’t yet a Mohel when the first two were born).  Unlike a surgeon in an operating room, a father has a Jewish legal obligation to circumcise his own son, though in almost every instance the obligation is transferred to a Mohel.

In my work as a Mohel, I’ve observed a fair amount of discomfort with the idea of ritual circumcision, often expressed in the form of crude and stale jokes (I can no longer count the number of times I’ve been asked what I think of the 1993 Seinfeld episode about the drunken, crazy Mohel).  I’ve met people who have misgivings about performing circumcision in public in the name of religion.  Because there is so much misunderstanding about the meaning of Brit Milah, my job is to present this time-honored experience as what it should be—a sacred religious gathering that celebrates the miracle of new life, the joys of parenthood and the blessing of family, and as a time to affirm that there will be another generation of the Jewish people, something that is in its own way miraculous.  Circumcision, while important (it happens to be the oldest continuously practiced Jewish ritual), is merely the physical symbol of our commitment to the continuity of the Jewish way of life and performing it takes no more than three minutes of a 30-minute ceremony.

These elements were all present at my grandson Noam’s bris.  He was ushered into the sanctuary on a pillow by his great grandmother and two grandmothers while everyone in the room soulfully sang “Hamalach Ha-Goel,” a song based on a verse from Genesis 48:16: “May the angel who has delivered me from all harm bless this child.”   We offered prayers that the world become a world of co-existence and tolerance and sang “Eliyahu Hanavi” as the baby was placed on the Chair of Elijah.

Next was the actual milah (circumcision), the physical ritual that symbolizes the welcoming of the baby into the covenant.  Serving as Mohel for one’s own son or grandson is a complex task.  Obviously, it’s necessary to remain focused on the technical aspects of the procedure.  But performing this ancient ritual for a grandson also draws forth a unique emotional response.  My eyes filled with tears as the baby, lying on a pillow, was placed on my father-in-law’s lap as he sat in the Chair of Elijah.  In the days leading up to the bris my son pondered if he should fulfill the mitzvah of milah, required of Jewish fathers, by performing a key step of the circumcision.  It’s uncommon for a father to do this, but Eitan had obtained some training and experience in performing ritual circumcision while living in Israel.  We agreed that I would perform most of the elements of the ritual but would guide him in fulfilling the actual mitzvah, the particular step that involves the removal of the foreskin.  When the moment came, I urged Eitan to embrace the moment as a deeply spiritual one.  In performing this part of the ritual for his son, he should have in mind the Kavanah, the spiritual intention, that he was doing so to give tangible expression to his and his wife’s commitment to inspire their son to make the world a place of greater holiness and blessing because of the Jewish traditions and values that they would teach him.

The moment the circumcision ritual was performed was deeply emotional and meaningful for me.  Family and friends quietly sang a beautiful song called Ve-Zakeini which asks God that we merit the privilege of raising children who are devoted to bringing goodness into the world.  Four generations of our family—a great grandfather, me, Eitan and Noam—were in one place for the sacred purpose of welcoming this beautiful new baby into the family of the Jewish people and affirming that he, along with the rest of his generation, would carry the story of the Jewish people into the future.

It’s not every day that a Mohel officiates at his own grandson’s bris.  For me, this day vividly confirmed what Brit Milah is all about.  It’s not a time for jokes, nor is it a time for someone to rapidly recite a few Hebrew prayers and then perform a ritual that people may find awkward and inaccessible.  For me, a bris is nothing less than a celebration of the miracle of new life and the affirmation of a solemn promise that the story of the People of Israel will have a new, promising chapter.  That’s what it wasfor my grandson Noams, and that’s what I strive for it to be every time I officiate at a bris.

Why We Wear Masks

Purim is our most fun holiday, celebrated with parties, food and drinking, giving each other gifts of baked goods and candy, and by wearing costumes and masks.  But even a day of fun on the Jewish calendar contains some serious and important lessons.  Wearing a mask on Purim can teach us something about how to live in the world.

No one is certain of the reason for wearing costumes, and especially masks, on Purim.  Some suggest it is reminiscent of the parties that Esther held for King Achashverosh and Haman, occasions she used to reveal Haman’s plot to kill the Jews and save our people from destruction.  Others suggest it is indicative of the “hidden face of God,” an idea found in the Book of Deuteronomy (31:18) where God declares that He will “hide His face” because the people don’t trust in Him.  The Book of Esther is one of only two Biblical books that do not contain the name of God.  Despite the omission, the Talmudic sages included it in the Biblical canon and taught that there was a reason God’s name is omitted.  Sometimes the presence of God is not obvious.  Like the director of a play who stands in the shadows and is nowhere to be seen on the night of a performance, sometimes the Divine presence is hidden, even if the miracles that sustain us are evident.  So it is with the story of Esther, said the rabbis, in that it teaches us that God is present in our lives and in the world in ways that cannot be discerned overtly.

Wearing a mask on Purim also can remind us that there are times when our own identity should rightly be hidden.  We should do certain things not because we get credit or are seen doing them, but because it’s right to do them.  Our pleasure and gratification should come from the knowledge that we have done something that helps another person.  Wearing a mask on Purim emphasizes that certain acts should be done anonymously, especially the act of tzedakah.

Purim affords us the opportunity not only to celebrate and have a good time, but to help the needy.  There are four mitzvot associated with Purim.  Three of these are well known: hearing the Megillah being read, giving each other gifts of baked goods and candy, and having a Purim meal on the afternoon of the holiday.  The fourth Mitzvah may be the least familiar but is no less important:  giving to the needy, or Matanot La-Evyonim.  This is our response to injustice and cruelty—working to make the world a bit more whole and to remove a small measure of the pain and suffering of our fellow human beings.  Oheb Shalom’s teen community and Social Action Committee will help us to perform this Mitzvah on Purim eve by preparing 200 boxed meals that will be delivered to the Willing Hearts Community Care Center in Newark.

Purim teaches us that such acts, on this day of celebration, or any day of the year, should be performed quietly, purposefully and, equally important, without seeking attention or credit for doing something helpful and virtuous.  Perhaps that’s the most compelling symbol behind wearing a mask.

I hope you will join us for a wonderful Purim celebration that begins on Saturday, March 11 at 6:15 PM.  We have transformed the synagogue into the Village of Shushan, and we await your arrival!

Anti-Semitism: Why and What To Do

The increase in anti-Semitic incidents is alarming to us all.  Bomb threats called into JCCs and Jewish Day Schools at an alarming rate, the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, graffiti sprayed on walls and public buildings, swastikas burned into the carpet of college dorm hallways in front of the rooms of Jewish students, vicious and threatening letters sent to heads of Jewish organizations who are working for social justice.  And this is only a partial list of the evidence of anti-Semitism.  The problem has become so pervasive that it was the first thing mentioned by President Trump in this week’s address to a joint session of Congress (though possibly because of criticism that he had waited too long to offer words of condemnation), and is major story in national news coverage.

Our own community has been affected as well, though not with violence.  In recent months, there have been incidents at South Orange Middle School and Maplewood Middle School that raise concerns of anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior among students.  And just yesterday, the new pedestrian bridge in the South Mountain Reservation was extensively defaced with graffiti which prominently included swastikas and intimidating language.

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When we encounter anti-Semitism, we are compelled to ask why it is so prevalent.  Anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior are not new—they are as old as Judaism itself.  Still, in every era and at every ugly incident, we want to know why Jews are so often the target of hatred and violence.

There are no clear and obvious answers, though many have offered theories.  Some have said that Jews have been historically hated because we are the world’s conscience, the first to sound the call to moral behavior.  Our voices have been the loudest to declare that the pursuit of goodness and decency requires sacrifice, self-discipline and the ability to control human impulse and temptation.

Others have suggested that anti-Semites are nothing more than people who hate themselves, often with good reason, so they find someone as different from themselves as possible, and whatever they don’t like about themselves they project onto this other person or people.  The result of their self-loathing is an attack on the “other,” including the expression of racial hatred, religious hatred and hatred of people who are expressing their sexual or gender identity.  In this context, we, as Jews, must continue to take a strong and determined stand against hatred against all people.  We must resist discrimination, hatred and violence not only when it affects our people and our community, but when it comes along to sting and insult any person.  This has long been a teaching and core principal of Judaism—we oppose hatred and discrimination in all its ugly forms and against all people.

Whatever the reason, the question now is why is there an upsurge in anti-Semitic activity and violence at this time?  Again, we have theories, such as the ideas offered by Dr. Stephen Windmueller who suggests that the current surge in anti-Semitism can be ascribed to three causes:  1)  the current political climate, 2) the “Cycle of Hate,” and 3) changing perspectives about Jews.

Whatever the cause of the current upsurge in anti-Semitism, we surely must respond assertively.  I urge us all to be vigilant.  While it may have come to sound a bit cliché, “if you see something, say something” is more relevant than ever.  Don’t be dismissive of the appearance of hateful graffiti as just something that’s part of our culture or the new norm.  We are supported by a strong and concerned community and by effective and dedicated law enforcement officials on every level– we are not alone.

I urge us all not to be afraid or intimidated.  If anything, that’s what haters want—to make their targets feel afraid and abandon what they enjoy and love about life.  Nothing would make an anti-Semite happier than to see Jews stop doing the things that they enjoy about being Jewish.

I urge us to work for goodness and decency in our community and national life and to oppose anyone who targets “the other” because they don’t conform to their own view of what normal and acceptable should look and behave like.

And I urge us all to continue to be proud of our Jewish identity.

Because of the upsurge in anti-Semitic activity, I have invited Josh Cohen, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey Office, to speak to our congregation on Saturday, March 11 during Shabbat morning services on the topic of “Toward a World Without Hate: The Quest to Defeat Anti-Semitism.”  The service starts at 9:45 AM and the presentation will begin at approximately 11:15 AM.
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