From Our Rabbi
Some time ago I came across this cartoon. What attracted it to me was the “Jewish sense” of multiple interpretations. The Midrash comments that “Like a hammer striking a rock will yield many splinters, so looking at a verse of tradition will provide many meanings.” Why did the chicken crossed the road?
One favored paradigm, not unlike the literary response in the cartoon, bids to look at any verse, story, or tradition as multilayered: The literal view, the view that hints at something greater, the interpretive view (Midrash) and the Sod, or secret mystical understanding. In the case of the chicken crossing the road:
The four interpretations are:
1. Literal – to get to the other side
2. Hint – she must have a motivation
3. Midrash – Her mate is on the other side, OR to get away from a predator OR to get sustenance, OR to go back to its nest
4. Mystical or Sod – this is not about a chicken but a metaphor for our souls that are always making a journey – to heaven eventually? To a transformative state, improving ourselves Or (well you enter into the conversation and come up with another splinter, i.e. interpretation that fits you.)
As it is Sukkot time we are mindful of one symbolic sense of the Lulav and Etrog:
The Sages of the Midrash insisted that there are four types of Jews:
· “Etrog Jew” is both learned and filled with good deeds
· The “Lulav Jew” has learning but no good deeds;
· The “Myrtle Jew” has good deeds but no learning
· The “Willow-branch Jew” has nei- ther learning nor good deeds.
What kind of Jewish person do you wish to be? We are commanded to bind these four together, in order to remind us that a Jewish community consists of many types of Jews all of whom must be accepted and lovingly included within our Jewish community.
Congregational life is certainly most reflective of the variety of Jewish types cited above. Surely there are many more: cultural, Yiddishist, political, Zionist, Hebraists, Meditative, etc. It is diz- zying to keep track of them all, let alone bind them together in a union that strengthens our community. I hope that the coming year (post pandemic we pray) will be for our temple com- munity a place to explore all of those possibilities. In these pages are events that hopefully speak to each of you, if not all then at least some. (Film – Interfaith Services, dinners, movie time, Torah study etc.)
If it’s not too late: Shanah Tova, Chag Sameach My best wishes to one and all.
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, D.D.
Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it. (Pirkey Avot chapter 5) Ben Bag-Bag.
At this time of writing, we are well into reading from the book of Deuteronomy. It is largely a farewell speech by Moses as the People of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land. Its title differs from the Hebrew Devarim which simply means Matters and connotes Divine utterances. The Western title Deuteronomy does indeed capture the theme of the book as well for the book is filled with repetitions, most prominently another version of the Ten Commandments. Readers are often perplexed by this repetition. I think of the apparent redundancy as consistent with the modern Hebrew saying – “I have already seen this movie!” A deeper look, however, will allow the reader to take note of subtle differences which offer some exquisite meanings not found in the previous version.
As we begin our calendrical sojourn to the High Holy Days in the late summer as our tradition bids us to do, I anticipate the liturgy in our Prayer book, the Machzor. The late Rabbi Richard J. Israel author of “the Kosher Pig and other Curiosities of Modern Jewish Life” told the anecdote of the Jew who was seen ripping out a page from the High Holy Day prayer book. Facing rebuke by another member of the community, he said: “It is my custom that the week before the New Year I rip out a single page out of our Machzor. Though I plan to live as long as Moses did, (120 years) there would still be thousands of pages left to omit even if I were to live to the age of Methuselah. (1000 years)
Our A.D.D, culture surely encourages brevity. Just consider the fifteen-minute segments in our regular TV shows punctuated by commercials and previews. In my youth my Rabbi would offer his High Holy Day sermon which would go on for at least forty-five minutes. What was the fifteen minutes introduction is now the standard length of any rabbinical talk. Any longer than that would prompt some members of the flock to point comically to their watch as a not too subtle reminder it was time to wrap things up. Fair enough as most of us in our culture do not have what Germans called Sitzfleish. Or as a modern quip would have it – “The mind can absorb no more than the seat can endure!” Many a Jewish visitor to Protestant Churches are impressed by the brevity of the service. Not so much at a full Catholic Mass in which you can likewise grow fungus by the time it is over. Our 24 hours Yom Kippur marathon does contain numerous repetitious prayers causing not a few eye-rolls when hearing Avinu Malkeinu yet once more.
The above quote by the rabbinic sage and disciple of Hillel the Elder some two thousand years ago is wise as it is ironic. He offers the imperative that we engage in repetition as you never know what things you may have missed the first time. Why ironic? Aside from this single maxim encouraging a second or even third look he is not mentioned any where else in the Talmud. His teachings were quite brief. My seventh grade English teacher told me that one would do well to re-read Huck Finn every ten years as we all have new eyes as the years pass. It is also the same for viewing classic films such as The Graduate. In my youth I saw Mrs. Robinson as a villainous character. As the years have passed, I now see her as a pained, almost sympathetic figure compromised by the choices she made in her youth.
Looking forward to seeing you at the High Holy days again and again and again and again, if not sooner!
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, D.D.
Each Shavuot marks for me (and I suspect for many colleagues) the end of the season. Not until Tisha B’Av a fast day in late July or early August will there be any holiday demands. Yet, we do look forward to our Friday night services which will be followed by dinner out for those who are inclined. Shavuot has taken on additional meaning as it coincided with the loosening up of Covid – 19 safety measures. (If you are inoculated.) As such, our outdoor services will give way to indoor once more, starting with our annual summer Lasagna Shabbat dinner.
I have already begun to cogitate about High Holy Day services which the Board will re- view in late summer for the safest way to proceed. Keep tuned!
In the meantime, we will continue with hybrid in house services with steaming, somewhat reluctantly as a certain habituation has set in. For some it is a convenience that has its upside and its downside. Such is the residue of what was a very, very difficult year.
In Yiddish there is an expression Shpilkes in Tuchus often shortened to Shpilkes. (My mother would often say when I was impatient; “Er haut a Bissel Shpilkes”). It was the linguistic equivalent of “ants in your pants” or “pins and needles” or simply fidgety. Shpilkes! As things have opened up there is a burst of activity due to the Shpilkes endured by millions.
Let us hope we never have to experience it ever again.
Yossi Liebowitz, Rabbi
In the 1970’s there was a huge number of aspirants for the
rabbinate. For every single applicant to the Hebrew Union College, which
my seminary in Cincinnati accepted, there were three others that were
rejected. Some didn’t make it in because of the difficult psychiatric review
(one such applicant thought the rabbinate was a stepping stone to being the
Messiah), or because their intellectual acumen was deficient; or some
personal skills seemed to be wanting. At our Hebrew Ulpan in Israel it was inevitable that we would err in some embarrassing way as we labored in to converse in Hebrew. The usual quip of derision went; “Boy we would like to meet the other three candidates they re- jected instead of you!”
This of course leads me to think about the idea of being chosen. The academy awards are upon us in a modified Covid form this year. Nevertheless, the usual anticipations remain as to who will be the Best Actor, Best Actress and so forth.
Just a few years back to take away the sting of ruthless competition the new language, ever so politically correct went from Best Actor to Best performance by an Actor. Shel Silverstein (writer of The Giving Tree, and the song A Boy Named Sue) once reflected on winning with this poem:
As Shavuot is upon us this month, the Jewish people celebrate their “closeness!” We stood at Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, or according to one tradition all of the 613 command- ments. We became an “Am Seguah!” a treasured people to God. The book of Deuteronomy poetically concludes with a boast that when God decided the boundaries of nations, He/She began with Israel first. Over the years we have had to walk a narrow path between a triumphal posture of superiority (as in how many disproportionate Nobel prizes Jews win?) and a more modest view that being Jewish meant an embrace of responsibility (as in it hasn’t always been such an honor being chosen – the old jest, “Please God choose someone else for a while!).
We had a modest film night last month about Gefilte fish and Passover. (Thanks to Lorie Edder!) Delightful, poignant and sentimental, it reviewed the multi-generational annual Passover gathering of a rather large Jewish family whose roots went back over a century. The culinary preparations were both fun to watch and cringe worthy. Our cultural disposition seems to foster a relentless competitive urge to assert the best way to do this or to do that! (Especially when it comes to recipes and spices to use or not to use: that is the question!) Do think of that when you enjoy the annual Bible and Blintzes?
Tamping down the competitive impulse, the Prophet Amos announced:
“Are you not like the Cushites to me, O people of Israel?” declares the Lord. “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir? Amos 9:7 All people everywhere have their gifts to celebrate. All of us are winners in one way or another.
Yossi Liebowitz, Rabbi