The Daily Minyan Needs You…and You Need It!

Here’s a question of Jewish law that could only be asked in the 21st century:  Can we fulfill our obligation to pray with a minyan in a videoconference held online?  Could 10 Jews be at home or in an office and pray together using Skype or ZOOM?  On the one hand, a videoconference seems like a brilliant solution to convening a minyan, especially for people who don’t have a lot of spare time to go to the synagogue.  The internet is an element of technology that could not have been envisioned by the Talmudic sages and medieval scholars who codified Jewish law.  It’s possible to read the Torah via videoconference if one person had a Torah scroll and could chant the portion.  It’s even possible to imagine a “virtual minyan” expanding well beyond the minimum requirement of 10 Jews for a quorum.

On the other hand, a virtual minyan is a bad idea, even if it’s a clever merging of religion and technology.  That’s because no matter how good your computer is or how fast your internet speed is, people aren’t truly brought together in cyberspace.  There’s something real about being in a shared physical space, where we can hear each other’s voices as we pray and sing, that simply isn’t very authentic online.  Human interaction is most genuine when we face one another, listen to one another, take note of one another’s feelings that are seen in the expressions on our faces.  And praying together requires genuine human interaction.

I say this as a prelude to putting in a plug for your presence at our daily minyan.  If you are one of our regulars, or even if you come to the morning minyan occasionally, you know that Oheb Shalom’s daily minyan is a close group of people who care about one another and support one another.  If one of us is ill, the rest of the group is concerned.  If one of us is in mourning, the rest of the group provides comfort and consolation.  If one of us can’t get to the minyan on his own, someone from the group will provide transportation.  We celebrate each other’s joys with blessings at the Torah, in conversation before and after (and even during!) the service and enjoy breakfast and a few words of Torah study after the service each Wednesday.  Perhaps most important, Oheb Shalom’s daily minyan is not a closed group at all.  Any person who attends is instantly drawn into the club and quickly feels at home.

For those who are not sure they can recite the prayers, don’t worry.  Our minyan is not a judgmental place where people’s knowledge is scrutinized or critiqued.  Whether you choose to pray in Hebrew or in English, whether you wish to follow the order of prayers or do your own thing, you will feel at home at our minyan.  You will be called to the Torah for an honor regularly and assisted in reciting the blessings if you are not familiar with them.

Aside from all the personal benefits of attending minyan, your presence will fill an important need for our congregation.  One of the signs of a healthy synagogue is a reliable daily minyan that serves the needs of its members and the community, whether for prayer and introspection or the fulfillment of a mourners’ Kaddish obligation.  There are few things more disheartening than a mourner seeking comfort and wishing to say Kaddish for their loved one but being unable to do so because there is no minyan.

So, I ask you to support Oheb Shalom’s daily minyan.  Perhaps you wish to pick a day of the week to attend the minyan, or perhaps you are inclined to attend every day.  Either way, your presence will make a significant difference in the lives of fellow members.  The idea of starting each day with prayer and reflection, in the company of others, will also make a difference in your personal life by enabling you to start each day in a positive manner.  That is why our tradition urges that we start each day with the experience of prayer.

The minyan meets every Sunday-Friday at 8:00 AM (7:45 AM on Rosh Chodesh and certain Jewish holidays), and at 9:00 AM on Sundays and national holidays.  I hope to see you there!

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

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We Need the Torah…and the Torah Needs Us Too

Shavuot, the second of the three pilgrimage festivals, commemorates God’s revelation to the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah.  Several commentaries note that the Ten Commandments, which are at the heart of the revelation, are addressed in the singular.  Why?  Two reasons are given.  First, so that each person should think that he is personally responsible for upholding the Torah’s teachings.  Second, because each person can and should hear God’s voice in a personal way and craft a unique relationship with the Divine.  The Kabbalists taught that there was no spoken Revelation at all.  Rather than proclaiming the Ten Commandments in a booming voice, the ancient mystics said that God spoke only the first letter of the first word of the first commandment.  That was the letter “aleph,” which produces no sound at all.  Standing at the foot of the mountain, the Kabbalists said, each of the Israelites heard God’s voice in their head.  So it is with each of us—we each hear and understand God in a deeply private and individual way.

Taking this idea a step further, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yaakov Alfasi (1013-1103, Morocco) taught that not only must each person cultivate a personal relationship with the Divine, but the Torah only reaches its potential when it is received and interpreted by many different types of people.  He wrote:

Our rabbis said:  Had only one of the Israelites been absent, the Torah would not have been given.  It is for this reason that the Torah was given to 600,000 people.  It was the will of the Holy Blessed One that the Torah be accepted by all factions, and the 600,000 people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai included all factions and opinions.

Rabbi Alfasi remarkably taught that the Revelation could not have taken place had even a single person from the community of Israelites been absent.  That is because every single person’s opinion was necessary to make the Torah into a living, relevant document.

I understand Rabbi Alfasi’s teaching to be innovative and urgent.  Not only is each person free to craft a personal understanding of God, but the Torah itself, which reflects Divine wisdom and insight, becomes stronger and more authentic when its passages are subject to many different interpretations and opinions.

Those who arrogantly believe that they alone know God’s truth, those who claim to exclusively hear the authentic voice of God, and especially all those who seek to impose their views on others because they think they have special knowledge of how God wants human beings to behave, should carefully read the words of Rabbi Alfasi.  The voice of God is heard differently by every human being, and God’s Torah thrives only when it is interpreted by many factions and subject to many opinions.  No one has a monopoly on God’s truth.

Judaism holds that we need the Torah.  But Rabbi Alfasi cleverly reminds us that the Torah needs us too.

I hope that you will join us for our Shavuot celebrations.

  • SATURDAY, JUNE 8
  • 8:30 PM. One Text…Three Faiths: “A Triangle of Love: How Jews, Muslims and Christians View Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.”  On Shavuot eve, learn a text revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The evening will begin with refreshments and worship. Rabbi Cooper, Pastor Brenda Wheeler Ehlers from Morrow Memorial Methodist Church, and Imam Daud Haqq of the National Islamic Association Masjid will teach and lead a discussion on what their respective faith groups learn from these sacred texts.
  • SUNDAY, JUNE 9
    • 9:45 AM Morning Service for the First Day of Shavuot.  We will celebrate as Jason Vaidman (the grandson of Nancy Lorre) becomes a Bar Mitzvah.
    • 11:15 AM Shavuot Katan/Gadol (with Miss Vivian). For kids ages 0-8.
    • 9:00 PM Evening Service for the Second Day of Shavuot
  • MONDAY, JUNE 10
    • 9:45 AM Morning Service for the Second Day of Shavuot.  Our Yizkor service will be accompanied by a professional violinist to create a moving and beautiful tribute to our lost loved ones.

 

One Text, Three Faiths

Join us for an inspiring evening of interfaith study on the eve of Shavuot

Saturday, June 8 at 8:30 PM

Jewish tradition holds that seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, on the Festival of Shavuot, the Israelites arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai and there met God to receive Divine “revelation” and the Torah.  The Talmudic rabbis, in Tractate Shabbat, suggest that the Torah was given to the Jewish people on a conditional basis.  Playing off the phrase “they encamped at the foot of the mountain,” the sages say that God held the mountain over their collective heads and threatened to drop it on them, turning the site into a graveyard, if they did not accept the Torah.  Some interpret this Talmudic passage as asserting the idea that God created the world solely so that Jews could live in it and teach Torah to humanity, a self-aggrandizing attitude that encourages the dark and ugly notion that Jewish souls are somehow qualitatively better and purer than the souls of other human beings.

Opposite that idea lives the nobler assertion that all human beings are children of God, that we all face the same challenges and risks, and that our journey in this world is a common one that we approach from different perspectives.  The great champion of that idea was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who, in 1953, gave a lecture about the need for interreligious cooperation entitled “No Religion Is an Island.”  Heschel said:

Christianity and Islam, far from being accidents of history or purely human phenomena, are part of God’s design for the redemption of all men. Christianity is accorded ultimate significance by acknowledging that “all these matters relative to Jesus of Nazareth and Mohammed… served to clear the way for King Messiah.” The achievements of these religions within history are explicitly affirmed: Through them “the messianic hope, the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics among people.” Maimonides acknowledges that “the Christians believe and profess that the Torah is God’s revelation and given to Moses in the form in which it has been preserved.”

Heschel taught that the purpose of interreligious cooperation is “to help one another, to share insight and learning, to cooperate in academic ventures on the highest scholarly level, and to search in the wilderness for well-springs of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man.”  His compelling vision, and not the one embraced by a handful of self-righteous people that suggests that Jewish souls are superior, is, of course, to be embraced.

We live in times when adherents of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are at risk.  Synagogues, masjids, and churches all suffer from hate-filled persecution and violence.  We must affirm that there is strength in unity and mutual respect.  When Jews were massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, my Muslim colleagues reached out to me with words of consolation.  When a hate-filled bigot murdered 50 Muslims peacefully praying in New Zealand, I joined my friends in the Jumma prayer at the NIA Masjid in Newark to offer comfort by affirming that we are all children of the same God.

In the spirit of nurturing interreligious cooperation, this year’s Shavuot evening of study will be held in partnership with the National Islamic Association Masjid and Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church. Come for refreshments, fellowship and study.  Imam Daud Haqq, Pastor Brenda Wheeler Ehlers and I will teach and members of all three congregations will learn together how Biblical stories about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar are understood by Jews, Muslims and Christians.  Our theme will be “A Triangle of Love:  How Do Jews, Muslims and Christians View the Abrahamic Narratives?”

No religion is an island.  Join us on Shavuot to demonstrate that the adherents of all religions can, and must, learn from one another.

TLS In House-1

 

What Would Herzl Think?

Note:  This Friday night, May 10, we welcome to Oheb Shalom Rabbi David Levy, Director of the New Jersey Regional Office of the American Jewish Committee.  Rabbi Levy will discuss “Building Bridges Between American and Israeli Jews.”  Service at 8:00 PM, Presentation at 8:30 PM.  

It was on a sunny and warm Sunday August evening that a 37-year old man, impeccably dressed in a top hat and tails and a crisply formed white bowtie, stood before some 200 people and spoke these words:

“We shall never tire or slack off at repeating and repeating these words, until we are understood. On this cordial occasion, when Jews from so many lands are assembled together, to hear the clarion call, the ancient call of the people, we must again cordially repeat this our belief…that Zionism is a legal and civilized movement full of love of the masses, with the ancient and coveted goal of our people to live in safety in a land of our own.”

The man in his late 30s was Binyamin Ze’ev Theodore Herzl, and he spoke these words 122 years ago in the city of Basel, Switzerland at the First World Zionist Congress, an auspicious gathering of Jewish leaders from across Europe that Herzl convened to present his plan to create a Jewish State and begin the work necessary to make his dream a reality.

Herzl is a giant of Jewish history, credited with establishing and fostering modern Zionism, a movement that culminated in Israel’s improbable rebirth just a half-century after he convened the first World Zionist Congress in 1897.  He understood the odds against the success of his work and that of Zionists who wanted to establish a haven for the world’s Jews in the land of Judaism’s birth.  The obstacles he faced were enormous.  There was rampant anti-Semitism everywhere, and there was assimilation among Jews in the lands where they lived.  There was the need to reconcile Zionism, a secular nationalist movement, with the rabbinical establishment. The rabbis were not interested in a movement that they viewed as undermining religion and their authority. Over many centuries, Judaism had adapted itself to Diaspora living. Religious authorities saw a return to the land of Israel as an event that would come to pass only upon the coming of the Messiah. Those few rabbis who were Zionists sought to control the new movement and ensure that the new state would be a theocracy, obedient to ancient religious laws. And of course, the secular Zionists who attended the meetings of the World Zionist Congress felt that a modern democratic state could not be built on those principles.

Herzl’s life and work are a story of unfathomable success in the face of enormous odds.  In the decades preceding Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation-state, world Jewry was largely oppressed and living in fear in Eastern Europe, facing assimilation and persecution in Western Europe.  Jews then faced genocide during the dark years of the Shoah.  The land that Zionists sought as a homeland was in the possession of the Ottomans.  The allied powers who would soon be victorious in World War I were split over whether the land should be partitioned among the victors or left in the hands of the Turks to be reshaped by world powers.

But not only did the State of Israel come into being against all odds, 71 years later it is an indisputable brilliant success.  In just seven decades, an undeveloped land with almost no infrastructure, with few roads or schools or hospitals, has become a thriving nation that is among the world’s leaders in science, technology, and agriculture.

So, on this 71st Yom Ha’atsmaut, Israel Independence Day, I wonder what Herzl would think of the modern State of Israel.  Would he be impressed by the remarkable pace at which the land has been developed, at which Jewish culture has taken root, and at which a Jewish army has been able to defend its citizens and Jews around the world?  Would Herzl be satisfied to see Israeli medical teams fly to distant lands to help other states recover from earthquakes or agricultural specialists heading off to Africa to help drought-stricken countries yield more from the land?

Or would he be disillusioned to see that tension and discord still rage between religious and secular Jews, or that there are parts of Israeli society still awaiting social and economic justice?  Would he be disheartened to see the rightward drift of Israeli politics, marked by the legitimization of extremist and racist parties and ideologies in the government?  Would he be disappointed that enmity between Arabs and Israelis has for the most part not abated and that peace has eluded the people who live in the land he worked so hard to establish?  What would he think of an Israel that has done so much, yet still has many problems to solve?  If Herzl could see the Israel that today is celebrating Yom Ha’atsmaut, I imagine that he would see all these things.

I see these things as well.  I see Israel’s brilliant achievements, and I see Israel’s challenges and struggles.  And I love Israel.  The rebirth of the State of Israel is the most exciting, impactful event to happen to the Jewish people in the past 2,000 years.  Herzl’s dream thrives in the land of our people’s birth, and it’s ours to protect and to nurture.  Od lo ovda tikvateynu…Israel remains the hope of the Jewish people in our time and for generations yet to come.

Marror- Symbol of the Holocaust?

With the setting of the sun on Wednesday evening, we begin the commemoration of another Yom HaShoah.  This day of remembrance and solemn reflection of the cost of absolute evil has been observed since December 1949, when a group of rabbis gathered on the 10th of Tevet, already an established fast day on the Jewish calendar, to bury the bones and ashes of thousands of Jews that had been brought to a cemetery in Jerusalem from the Flossenberg concentration camp.  In 1951, after lengthy and difficult negotiations between the ultra-Orthodox, who did not want Yom Ha-Shoah to fall in the month of Nissan and intrude on the joy of Passover, and ghetto fighters, who wanted to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which began on Passover, the Israeli Knesset passed a law establishing the 27th of Nissan as “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah.”  The name was meant to convey that we should remember not only destruction and suffering but also heroism, resolve, courage and determination.

The name “Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah” suggests that the meaning of the Holocaust is about both suffering and heroism.  There is no end to tragic stories of pain and suffering from that dark period of our history.  And there are also stories of heroic resistance and defiance.  The intense debate among religious leaders and ghetto fighters that led to setting the date of Yom HaShoah on 27 Nissan was about preserving the religious integrity of Pesach, but it was also about the tension between the Holocaust as a story of victimhood or a story of heroism.

A familiar Passover symbol- Marror, or the bitter herb- also reflects this tension.  We are commanded to eat Marror at the Seder in order to vicariously taste the bitterness of slavery and oppression.  Experiencing bitterness can make someone bitter, suspicious of others and unable to see goodness in the world.  Experiencing bitterness can also sensitize us to the trauma of suffering and can make someone empathetic and understanding.  Perhaps we are told to eat Marror precisely so we can consider how to respond to the despair and suffering we encounter in the course of our lives.

Nobody should dare tell a Holocaust survivor how they should respond to the suffering they endured.  There are survivors who could not shake the bitterness of their suffering and who lived their years with a cynical attitude and untrusting of others.  There are also survivors whose experience of bitterness led them to be empathetic, sensitive and understanding.  One such person was Helen Paktor, who witnessed the murder of her father and brother, survived the hell of Auschwitz, and went on to raise a family and build a productive and positive life.  Helen taught others about how a human being should behave and what a virtuous life entails.

Helen passed away this week at the age of 93, and she is on my mind and in my heart as we commemorate another Yom HaShoah.  Yehi Zichra L’veracha…her memory will indeed endure as a blessing.

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

 

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