Are You Your Brother’s Keeper?

It can be argued that a central theme of the Book of Genesis is our obligation to care for others. Cain kills his brother Abel and when God asks him to account for himself he sarcastically answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That answer is the prelude to the struggle that unfolds in the rest of the book between the various descendants of Abraham, one that culminates with Judah putting his life on the line for Benjamin and Joseph forgiving the brothers that had mistreated him. When he breaks down in tears and embraces them, he answers the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an unequivocal yes. We are not meant to struggle or live in perpetual strife with our brothers but to live in harmony.

The theme of living harmoniously with our siblings continues in the Book of Exodus, which we conclude this Shabbat with the reading of the final parasha, Pekudei. The construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) has been completed, along with the special vestments worn by Aaron and his sons who will serve as Kohanim (priests). The Mishkan will soon be dedicated and then become an active hub of religious life for the Israelites. In this context, God commands Moses to oversee the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim:

“Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest. Then bring his sons forward, put tunics on them, and anoint them as you have anointed their father, that they may serve Me as priests. Their anointing shall serve them for everlasting priesthood throughout the ages.” (Exodus 40:13-15)

 The verse in question seems straightforward, but some commentators wonder how Moses truly felt about presiding over his brother’s consecration as High Priest. Was he proud of him? Did he feel honored to be God’s representative in enacting such an important and powerful ritual? Or did he feel envious that his brother was being elevated to a position of prominence and power that he coveted for himself? And why, wonders one scholar, does the Torah specifically state that Moses was to “anoint and consecrate Aaron” and then add “bring his sons forward and anoint them as you have anointed their father…”? Why was it necessary to mention the consecration of Aaron’s sons separately?

“It was necessary to tell Moses to anoint the sons of Aaron just as he had their father to signify to him the spirit in which he was to perform the ceremony. Moses had not been jealous of the priestly sanctity conferred upon his brother Aaron because he, Moses, had himself been prophet and king of his people and even fulfilled the functions of high priest during the seven days of preparation which preceded the Giving of the Torah. But Moses might well have resented the fact that his own children could not have been raised to lofty position… It was for this reason that the Lord reminded Moses that when he would anoint Aaron’s sons he must do it with the same joy and eagerness as he had shown when consecrating their father.” (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Lithuania)

Rabbi Dvinsk asserts that Moses was not at all jealous of his brother becoming the High Priest because he enjoyed an equivalent, if not higher, position as God’s prophet. He even functioned as High Priest himself for a week. If Moses was envious of Aaron at all, it was because his nephews, the sons of Aaron, would inherit the priesthood while his own children would not enjoy any significant position of communal leadership. It was for this reason that God reminds Moses to “anoint Aaron’s sons with the same joy and eagerness” that he displayed in anointing his brother.

These commentaries ask us to reflect on whether we are proud of the success of our siblings, family members and friends and happy for them, or if their success causes us to feel envious. There is no absolute answer to such a question. At our best, we do not feel envy or resentment of the success of others, especially those closest to us. At our worst, we are bitter and annoyed when others earn or have things that we do not. Most of us are likely somewhere in between two extremes in our emotional responses to life’s challenges.

As we close out this year’s reading of the Book of Exodus, we end on an encouraging and inspirational note. We are reminded to subordinate feelings of envy when those close to us achieve success or prominence. And we are reminded to answer some of the Torah’s key questions—Are we our brother’s keeper…do we truly care about what happens to those close to us…do we care about the people with whom we share a community and the world…do we act on that caring?—with a resounding yes.

 

 

 

The Message of Shabbat Shekalim

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Shekalim,” is the first of four special Shabbatot that occur in the weeks before Passover. Its name derives from a passage taken from the Book of Exodus that is read as a special supplement (maftir) to the main Torah reading:

“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay…a half-shekel by sanctuary weight. Everyone…from the age of 20 years and up shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

A half-shekel was collected from Israelites 20 years and older both as a way of assessing the size of the nation’s fighting force and as a way of raising money for the maintenance of the Temple. The tax was due on the first of Nisan (the beginning of the year in the Biblical and Temple periods), and people were reminded a month in advance to pay. We recall this tradition in our own time by reading the relevant passage from the Torah on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar (the beginning of the month of Adar, which is one month before Nisan). That Sabbath is called “Shabbat Shekalim,” the Sabbath of the Shekel. Other than recalling an ancient tradition of donating a half-shekel, does this occasion have any meaning for us? Two points come to mind.

The first is that we are nothing other than the sum of our parts. Every individual matters to the success of our community. While it’s true that the half-shekel was collected from those able to serve in the army, there is no doubt that our community, just like that of the ancient Israelites, needs the talents and attention of each one of its members. That means that, as a former Oheb Shalom member who has passed on once wrote, “We make of our congregation what it is and what it will become. Its pews will be filled if we fill them. It will be friendly if we are friendly. It will do great and noble things if we help to make great things happen.” Shabbat Shekalim reminds us that we each have an opportunity—indeed, a responsibility—to enhance our congregation.

The second point is captured by the verse that says “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” Perhaps this equalizing of payments was meant to ensure an accurate count of the nation’s fighting force. But there is something else implied by these words—every person matters equally. Of course, charitable institutions, including synagogues, benefit from and even rely on the generosity of people who possess financial resources. That generosity should be applauded and received with gratitude. Yet, there is something symbolic, something deeply meaningful, in stating that the members of a community, those who are well off and those who are struggling and everyone in between, all have something to contribute to its vitality. While we do not all have equal financial means, we all have something of equal value to contribute to the success of our synagogue—our caring and our love. To paraphrase the Torah, the rich and the poor give equal portions of caring and love to synagogue.

Oheb Shalom relies on your gifts of caring and love, given in equal measure by all of our members, to succeed in what we do. We cannot, and will not, take them for granted.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

If a Tree Falls In the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

The story told in this week’s Torah portion- Ki Tissa– about the Israelites worshipping a golden calf is a fascinating one. The traditional take on the story is that the people committed an act of apostasy, an act that is judged as an especially egregious one by the Talmudic sages since it came so soon after a series of miracles performed on their behalf by God. The rabbis are quick to condemn the people for turning their backs on God when instead they should have shown that they had faith in God. A more modern approach to interpreting the story would question the actions of Aaron and Moses. To what extent were they responsible for what the Israelites did? Could it be argued that Aaron was too compliant, that he was all too willing to act on the demand to build an idol? Shouldn’t he have resisted, or at least stalled before giving in? Or could it be argued that Moses shares a portion of the blame for his people worshipping an idol. After all, he seemed to have no succession plan in place, nor did he prepare Aaron to take his place in the event of a long absence. Perhaps there are leadership lessons to be learned from this story.

The sages do comment extensively on the role played by Moses, not only in opening the door to the people’s apostasy but for smashing the two tablets by throwing them on the ground in anger. Indeed, we read in the text that Moses was hot tempered: 

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)

Did he let his anger get the better of him? Was shattering the tablets an acceptable thing to do, especially for someone in a leadership position? Angrily smashing the two tablets, which had been written “with the finger of God,” would be similar to throwing a Torah scroll to the ground in anger. Could such an act ever be justified? Actually, some commentators do justify what Moses did, or at least they try to explain it. For example, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 43:1) asserts that Moses intentionally smashed the tablets to let his people off the hook of a severe punishment, reasoning that he would tell God that had they known the consequence of their actions they would not have worshipped an idol. Another Midrash (Tanhuma Ki Tissa 26) suggests that Moses was able to carry the two tablets because, having been inscribed by God, they possessed an aura of holiness. Once he saw the people dancing around an idol, the letters fell off the tablets and they became too heavy for Moses to hold them. While this interpretation doesn’t exactly sync with the storyline, it suggests that Moses didn’t really intend to smash the tablets.

One other interpretation is worth considering. Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen (1843-1926, Latvia) suggests that Moses smashed the tablets intentionally, but not out of anger. He writes:

“He feared they would deify the tablets as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf. It was the first tablets, which were the work of God, that were broken, not the tablets hewn by Moses, which remained whole, demonstrating that no holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah…”

According to this sage, as he descended the mountain Moses realized that his people were likely to deify objects in their search for God. He realized that the tablets he was holding were literally crafted by God. So he made a bold decision to destroy them, knowing (or perhaps hoping) that he would be able to get a replacement set that he himself would craft.

It’s the last line in Rabbi Simcha’s commentary that captures my attention: “No holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah.” In other words, the holiness of the tablets resided not in their having been crafted by God but in Israel’s willful embrace of their message. Moses didn’t want his people to gravitate toward objects because they seemed to be holy—they had seen enough of that in Egypt. Instead, he wanted his people to come to a place of holiness on their own. We might say, by extension, that there is nothing inherently holy within Judaism—no object or time is holy in and of itself. What makes an object or a period of time holy is how we relate to it and how we think and behave differently because we have encountered it.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Put differently, if Shabbat comes around and nobody celebrates it, is it still Shabbat? Perhaps the answer lies in this week’s story of the Golden Calf.

Every Person Matters

We all matter…we all count. That truth is deeply ingrained in the Jewish tradition. We don’t need a text from the Torah or Talmud to authenticate its truth, but we have many. Here’s one from this week’s Parasha, Tetzaveh:

And you shall make the breastplate of judgment with skillful work…of gold, of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine twined linen, shall you make it. And you shall set in it settings of stones, four rows of stones…and the stones shall be with the names of the people of Israel, twelve, according to their names, everyone with his name shall they be according to the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28:15-21)

 Try to visualize the breastplate worn by the High Priest. It was rectangular, woven from colorful twisted linen, with precious stones set in four rows, each stone bearing the name of one of the tribes. The Kohen Gadol, the leader of the people, wore the breastplate as a symbol that every member of every tribe mattered, everyone counted. A nation, any community, is the sum of its individual parts. We must convey the message, in the strongest possible terms, that every person matters.

Unfortunately, the truth that every person matters still doesn’t resonate across the spectrum of humanity, including the Jewish world. Discrimination and intolerance often pollute human relationships. More often than not, such attitudes are the result of ignorance and fear. We still live in a world plagued by racism and by homophobia.

The inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life is important for any synagogue and for the Jewish community at large. Despite its importance, many people do not fully understand what it means to be LGBTQ or the challenges that LGBTQ Jews face from ignorance, discrimination and intolerance. At Oheb Shalom we have always prided ourselves in being an inclusive and diverse congregation. But there is still much for us to learn and ways for us to grow, especially regarding the LGBTQ community.

keshet-logo_largeOur sacred task thus becomes that of promoting understanding, tolerance and acceptance through education. We will embrace the task of nurturing a culture of acceptance of LGBTQ Jews at a workshop led by Keshet this Tuesday, February 23rd at 8:00 PM. Keshet is a national grassroots organization that advocates for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. The Keshet workshop will be devoted to a discussion about LGBTQ Jews and the development of a plan that will ensure that our commitment to diversity is matched by tangible actions individually and as a community.

This is a crucial issue is crucial and your presence matters. Please make it a point to attend and to invite others to attend as well. The workshop is also appropriate for teenagers of any age.

We all matter, each one of us, regardless of sexual preference or gender. It’s time to translate that lofty principle into action. I hope you will join me on Tuesday at 8:00 PM to welcome Keshet.

Do You Do the Right Thing When Nobody’s Watching?

It’s a fact of human nature that each of us has a public face and a private face. It’s normal to filter what we do and what we say in public places, in the presence of people that we know only casually or don’t know at all. We are inclined to share our most personal thoughts and “let our hair down” only around people who know us well and for whom we do not feel we need to make a good impression.

It’s also a fact of human nature that we are more inclined to be our best selves when our good behavior is noticed by others and reinforced by praise and appreciation. That does not mean that we do good things only when we get credit for them. But we are certainly more inclined to do the right thing when others are aware of our actions, or when others would be aware that we chose not to do the right thing in any given situation.

Despite human nature, we ought to strive to what is good and right even when no one is watching what we do. This idea can be found within this week’s parasha, Terumah, in which we encounter the commandment to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary used by the young Israelite nation as they trekked through the Sinai on their to the Land of Israel. The passages of Torah we will read this week describe the components of the Mishkan itself, as well as its furnishings, including the ark containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments.

And they will make an ark of acacia wood…and you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and shall make upon it a rim of gold around it.

(Exodus 25:10-11)

The ark that was to be built and kept in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Mishkan, was a simple box, overlaid and decorated with gold. Atop its lid were the two “keruvim,” creatures facing each other with wings pointing upward. It was surely an impressive and artistic piece. Interesting, though, is that the instructions include overlaying the box with gold on the inside as well as the outside. That’s strange, considering that the ark was kept out of sight and was never supposed to be opened. Why cover the inside with gold?

The Talmudic sages tells us that the ark was covered both inside and outside with gold to teach us that we must strive to make our inner being match the person that we present outwardly. Displays of piety and righteousness must be matched by an inner conviction that we are doing the right thing. That’s not always easy to achieve, since our motive to do the right thing is sometimes the positive reinforcement and affirmation we receive from others who see and appreciate our actions.   But being a good person means that we must try to do the right thing because we believe it is right, even if we aren’t seen doing it and don’t get public credit for our good behavior.

When I pray each day, I dwell for a few moments on this passage in the Siddur, a line that is said each and every day of the year:

“L’olam y’hey adam y’ray shamayim ba-seiter u-va-galui u-modeh al ha-emet v’dover emet bi-l’vavo… A person should always strive toward righteousness both in public and in private, and speak the truth both outwardly and inwardly.”

Our commitment to a life of goodness can be measured not only by our reputation for doing the right thing but also by what we do and think when no one is watching us. It’s sometimes hard to do, but a lot of things worthwhile are just that.

Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk

After having met God at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelite nation is presented with an array of laws that will guide them in creating a just and decent society, in response to which they say “Na’aseh v’nishmah…we will uphold them and we will contemplate them.” The Israelites affirm that, with regard to the Torah, they will not only “talk the talk,” but they will “walk the walk.” They seem to recognize that one’s support of an idea must not be theoretical, but must be reflected in action. The best way to demonstrate commitment to an ideal or a cause is through one’s deeds.

This week officials of the State of Israel also declared, in a manner of speaking, “na’aseh v’nishma.” A compromise solution has been reached that will bestow formal status at the Kotel for non-Orthodox Jews. This milestone means more than tolerating non-Orthodox Jews praying together at the Kotel, something that can be done at the Kotel Masorti near Robinson’s Arch. The agreement announced this week represents official recognition by the State of Israel that there is more than one way to be Jewish. State law will now mandate that principles of religious pluralism will govern conduct at Judaism’s holiest site. A major renovation project will soon get underway to transform the entrance to the Kotel. One common entrance to Judaism’s holiest site will be created, with separate pathways established for Orthodox men, Orthodox women and non-Orthodox Jews. (For a map of the proposed new area, click here.)

What’s needed now is for the new prayer space to be used regularly. Nothing will be more damaging to the cause of Masorti Judaism in Israel than for the non-Orthodox section of the Kotel to be empty on a routine basis. If you’re visiting Israel, make it a point to daven there, whether or not you’re attending a special simcha. And I urge you to become an active supporter of the Masorti Movement. Learn what the Masorti Movement in Israel is doing to connect Israeli Jews to Judaism. To discover what the Masorti Movement is all about, visit www.masorti.org.

Na’aseh v’Nishma…support for important ideals must be expressed in word and in deed. This week, the Israeli government put their muscle behind that statement. So must we.

Note: Would you like to explore the richness of the weekly Torah portion? Would you like to discover how there is something to learn about how we live our lives from each of its passages? For several years I’ve been teaching a weekly class on the Torah portion. Beginning in March, that class will be offered twice on Mondays—once in the morning (9:00 AM) and one at night (8:00 PM). I hope you’ll be there to share in the discussion and to contribute your ideas!

Do You Know How to Swim?

Camp Ramah is a wonderful place, where Jewish values, texts and teachings come alive and are part of the daily experience of every member of the camp community. At Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, the main building at the swimming pool features hand painted artwork that includes a passage from the Babylonian Talmud enumerating the obligations that a father has toward his son:

“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well.” (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 29a)

Contemporary Jews have interpreted this passage as teaching what obligations parents have toward their children—to instill a sense of religious identity, to strengthen family connections and to encourage work that is productive and fulfilling. The artwork at the breicha (pool) at Ramah, of course, highlights that the Talmud considers it a mitzvah to teach a child how to swim. But I’ve often wondered why the Rabbinic Sages chose teaching a child how to swim as an example of good parenting.

Perhaps the answer lies in this week’s Torah portion – Beshalach – in which the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery continues with the Israelites being pursued by the Egyptians while their backs are up against the Red Sea. His people facing annihilation, God splits the sea, enabling the Israelites to trek across to the other side, and making the water come crashing down on the Egyptian army, drowning them and ending the threat for good. A Talmudic passage embellishes the Torah story by saying that the sea did not split until a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav waded into the water up to his nostrils. Apparently the Israelites, unable to believe that God would deliver them from danger, were reluctant to enter the sea. Only when Nachshon, acting on faith, took the plunge into the water and went in all the way up to his nose, did the sea split. His demonstration of faith both reassured God and inspired the Israelites to follow him.

The tale of Nachshon’s bravery teaches us two things. First, we should all try to cultivate the ability to believe in things that cannot be objectively described or proven. We live in a world that has been overcome by science and technology. Our growing mastery of the world has yielded many benefits and blessings, but it must be balanced by an awareness that some things in our world happen not because of human cleverness or ingenuity but because of a higher power that creates and sustains life. That awareness, the capacity to believe in something that cannot be proven scientifically, is otherwise called faith. Faith, like love and compassion, inspires and encourages us to do things for reasons that defy objective explanation. I’m not suggesting that faith should lead us to jump into the ocean if we know we can’t swim. But the Biblical character Nachshon’s example reminds us that sometimes we ought to act on faith and not only because we have objective reasons to do something.

The second thing we learn from the tale of Nachshon’s bravery is that every community, every generation, needs its leaders and example setters. Had this man not set an example for his people to follow, there would have been no crossing of the Red Sea and the story of the Israelites would not have continued beyond that point. Again, I’m not suggesting that leadership requires doing something irresponsible or dangerous. Rather, the anecdote about Nachshon simply reminds us that someone has to take the lead and inspire others to act.

Perhaps the Talmudic sages, when they wrote that a good parent teaches his child how to swim, were really saying that a good parent should inspire his children to be like Nachshon, a person who went for a swim in the Red Sea when it really counted, a person who was able to cultivate faith, and someone who was inspired to step into the role of leader when the situation called for it. Good advice, I think, to this day.

Note: This Dvar Torah is inspired by an Oheb Shalom member who is a thoughtful and engaged student of Torah…thank you!

Can You See Me?

In a couple of weeks I will have the opportunity to travel to Vienna with Amy and two of my sons for a week-long visit. We chose Vienna for a variety of reasons after strongly considering Amsterdam, where we could have visited with Peter Drucker and Suzanne Vine, former Oheb members who now live there. But while both Peter and I would have enjoyed seeing each other, he discouraged me from coming in the winter because the days are so short. Apparently, at this time of the year it’s still dark outside well past the time that the sun would have already risen here in the New York area, and it sets in the sky earlier than it does here as well.

If you live in a region where the days are short and the nights are long, you probably get used to the absence of natural light. Perhaps that’s what the Egyptians felt when they experienced the ninth plague- darkness. We read in this week’s parasha:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

Commentators have written about the nature of the darkness that descended on Egypt. Some understood it not as ordinary darkness, which is merely the absence of light, but as a phenomenon in and of itself. Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) said that the plague of darkness wrote that “the darkness which came over the land of Egypt was a phenomenon in its own right, so real that it could be felt and could not be dispelled by light.”

Other commentaries understood the darkness that fell on Egypt not as a physical phenomenon but as a spiritual one. The darkness was indicative of a callousness and indifference that set in between people. Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (1897-1943, Poland) wrote:

The greatest darkness is when a person does not see his fellow and does not participate in the distress of others. People could not see one another – they did not feel the other’s distress. Their senses were dulled — no one could get up from where he was. This is what the Sages meant when they stated in Shemot Rabbah that “the darkness was as thick as a golden denar.” Running after the golden denar increases one’s egocentrism, dulls his eyes, and makes it difficult for him to feel the distress of others.

Friedman quotes the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) in suggesting that such callousness was fueled by greed and a frantic chase after money. The phrase “golden denar” implies earning money not merely for one’s needs or to be comfortable, but to chase after amounts of money far in excess of what one needs (like $1.5 billion dollars!). That was the darkness that fell on Egypt—an indifference to the essential humanity of the other and seeing the people around us as obstacles to achieving our own goals.

The story of the plague of darkness reminds us to be vigilant about seeing and valuing the humanity in the people around us. Whether it’s a matter of racial diversity, sexual preference, differences in religious belief and practice, or differences in political philosophy, all issues that have afflicted society especially in the year gone by, we can’t afford to allow darkness overtake us, making us blind to the basic humanity that unites us. When that happens, we truly have a plague on our hands.

You Don’t Have to Take It

The worst thing about gun violence in America is, of course, the tragedy and pain of senseless killing. Who among us can truly empathize with someone who has lost a loved one to a killer brandishing an assault rifle? Who can truly feel their pain or their sadness? I admire and marvel at the courage of Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year old son Daniel in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago, for speaking about his loss and then introducing President Obama at a press conference. Somehow he was able to translate his pain into an activist message, but I suspect that most others who have experienced such searing tragedy do not find that possible.

Perhaps the second worst thing about gun violence in America is that we’re getting used to it. We’re not even surprised or shocked any longer when we hear of a mass shooting somewhere in the country. Even the Torah, in this week’s parasha, hints that one of the tolls taken by such grim experiences in life is that we grow accustomed to them. In Exodus 6:6, God reiterates to Moses His promise to end the enslavement and degradation of the people of Israel: “Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you…” The Hebrew phrase that translates as “the burdens of the Egyptians” is Sivlot Mitzrayim. A Chasidic commentary points out that the word Sivlot comes from the word “tolerate” (in modern Hebrew, Savlanut means patience). The effect of the enslavement on the people of Israel was not only physical; they had gotten used to the burdens placed on them and had learned to tolerate them. The physical torment of slavery was made worse because they had grown numb to their pain. As a nation, have we come to tolerate such tragic and senseless taking of life? Has apathy set in to our national consciousness, a feeling that nothing can be done to keep us safe?

Every generation must have its activists, its inspired and courageous individuals who do not see the burden of violence as something to be tolerated. Moses, Aaron and the Elders of Israel were the activists for our people ages ago, coming along to remind us to shake off the feeling of resignation as a prerequisite to claiming freedom. In our day, there are numerous organizations that are devoted to resisting the gun culture in our country and to opposing powerful gun lobbyists. The message of such organizations to us is that gun violence need not be a burden that is tolerated and that we need not sacrifice our safety or that of our children.

Moms Demand Action is one such organization. Our Social Action Committee has partnered with MDA to present two outstanding programs this year on gun violence prevention. A third will take place at Oheb Shalom in the coming week, on January 14 at 7:00 PM (next Thursday night). MDA will present its Be Smart Campaign, designed to educate parents and grandparents about gun safety and empower adults to ask the necessary questions about the presence of firearms in a place where we expect our children to be safe. Avoiding gun violence, including the unintentional firing of a weapon, cannot be taken for granted, yet it’s likely that most people feel awkward about asking whether or not guns are present where our children or grandchildren will be, or simply don’t think to ask. The Be Smart Campaign includes a video and a moderated discussion, and is appropriate for parents or grandparents who care for young children. I encourage you to attend this important event on Thursday night, because gun violence is not something we must accept.

Happy Yom Sylvester!

To most of us, January 1 is a day set aside for relaxation and celebration. In our culture, we celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and Jews are no exception. True, some especially religious Jews shy away from celebrating the beginning of a new Gregorian year, perhaps seeing it as inappropriately rivaling the spiritual celebration of the Jewish New Year on Rosh Hashana. But since we keep time according to both the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar, there is nothing inappropriate about marking the beginning of a new secular year, greeting each other with wishes of “Happy New Year” and even making resolutions that we hope to keep in the next twelve secular months. Our welcoming of 2016 in no way overshadows or competes with our celebration of a new Jewish year.

Israelis also celebrate the beginning of a new secular year, though the day isn’t a national holiday and most celebrations are more subdued than those we experience here in America and elsewhere in the world. And in Israel, New Year’s Eve is called by a different name—it’s known as Yom Sylvester. The reason is both intriguing and a bit amusing.

In 46 BCE Julius Caesar decreed that the first day of the year should be January 1 rather than in March. In the centuries that followed, many European countries named New Year’s Eve after Pope Sylvester I, who was Pope from 314-335 CE and who died on December 31 (it was common to hold a feast in his memory on that date). Jews were, of course, aware of the designation of the occasion in memory of Pope Sylvester. In the early years of the modern State of Israel, secularists who wanted to celebrate the beginning of the Gregorian year called New Year’s Eve “Yom Sylvester” because it seemed highly inappropriate to call it “Rosh Hashana.” The name has stuck to this day.

But there is also something ironic about calling New Year’s Eve “Yom Sylvester.” It turns out that Pope Sylvester was a particularly anti-Semitic Pope. Among other decrees, he convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. Pope Sylvester is long gone, but the Jews are still here and are living in the Land of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. So perhaps the name “Yom Sylvester” is used with a slight touch of irony and humor.

Whatever its history and whatever we call it, I wish you a Happy New Year. And while I won’t say “Shana Tova,” I certainly express the hope that the new secular year that is about to begin brings you much to celebrate and many reasons for you to be happy and fulfilled.