Autonomy and Equal rights
December 28 passed without much notice, but on the Jewish calendar, it was observed as a fast day–one of four–commemorating a significant aspect of the Babylonian occupation and destruction, in 586 BCE, of Judaea, the remaining Israelite national entity. In this case, on the 10 of Teveth, Nebuchadnezer surrounded and laid siege to Jerusalem. It took two and a half years, but eventually that siege would lead to the attack on the city and the destruction of the first Temple. With it would go Jewish sovereignty and autonomy for some 400 years, until the successful victory of the Hashmoneans from the Seluicid Greeks in 165 BCE. Alas, Jerusalem would not be a pure autonomous state for long. Soon, the Romans resumed a custodial rule until the Second Temple (which has been rebuilt in the Persian period of Ezra, in the 5th century) was also razed to the ground by Titus. Judaea's inhabitants exiled to other places in the Roman Empire or escaped into the western or northern Jewish communities, such as Yavneh, Lod, Tiberius, Caesaria, Tzefad, Tzipori and others. What that initial conquest meant for Jews, however, was a loss of sovereignty and national autonomy, which was not fully restored until 1948, when the international community gave sanction to the nation of Israel–the fulfillment of a national homeland, expressing a long-suppressed right to national self determination. The Jewish people once again, after two millennia, were given the equal rights of a people represented in a nation state.
70 years after that momentous event in world history, the Trump administration recognized Israel's right to determine its own capital, representing yet another important milestone. This was a reckoning of the reality on the ground, as Israel's national infrastructure is all located in Jerusalem. The capital is located within the green line, an area that Israel captured in the defensive War of Independence, when five nations attacked her upon the UN announcement of its legitimacy. And it is located in an area that was a part of the partition plan of the Jewish State of 1947 by the United Nations. The western section of Jerusalem has been in Israel’s hands for seventy years. While the Partition Plan accepted by the Yishuv leadership–and rejected by the Arab leadership– included the concept of an internationally administrated Jerusalem, with all religious sites under neither Arab nor Israeli sovereignty. In view of the virulent efforts of terror and intimidation from 1948-1967, when the eastern quadrant was in Jordanian hands, this arrangement is ill-advised and counter to Israel’s security obligations to its inhabitants. Nor is it feasible that Judaism’s most sacred sites, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount be removed from from Israeli sovereignty, especially in view of the UN Security Council Resolution (sadly accepted without veto by the Obama administration). These were the very areas where Jordanians regularly took pot shots at the western side of Jerusalem, destroyed synagogues and used Jewish gravestones for a pathway to their Intercontinental Hotel. The notion that these precious holding be surrendered to a future State of Palestine after Israel’s sacrifice in a defensive war to capture them is frankly morally and religiously untenable to Israel. Israel is committed to the status quo–equal access to all religious worship in mosque and church in all of the walled city, and to religious autonomy in administering the sites, so long as such activities are not harmful or malevolent in nature.
How do we deal with the Chanukah candles when Chanukah falls on Shabbat, and what can we learn from this? I thank Noam Zion for bringing this theme up in a recent teaching. The halacha, of course, is that we light the Chanukah candles before the Shabbat candles and before sundown; and on Havdalah Saturday night, the Havdalah candle before the Chanukah candles. Why? Because once we bring in Shabbat we mustn't kindle fire, even if it’s before sundown. And conversely, we should officially bring out Shabbat before lighting our chanukiah even if it’s after starlight. In this regard, one could say that Shabbat is more important. But on the other hand, we learn something symbolic as well. We learn that on Chanukah, Pirsum Hanisa, the broadcast of the miracle, is important as well– So important that it must burn into Shabbat and that it must continue uninterrupted almost after Shabbat.
What was the miracle of Chanukah and what do her candles teach us? The miracle was that a little cruz of oil burned far longer than expected. But it was far broader than that. It was that a people that others glibly expected would not survive through the Greco-Roman era continued to burn brightly and vitally. We celebrate the inner fire of the Jewish people and the Jewish individual that will never be extinguished. It represents the fierce and fiery identity of the Jew that cannot be snuffed out. Why is the holiday 8 days, asked the Berdichever Rebbe, when the oil lasted miraculously only for seven days? After all, it was supposed to last for only a day! Answer: we light eight candles because of another long lasting candle, the candle of the Jewish soul, the candle for the Jewish people–the Jewish nation that burns and will not cease from this earth.
Candles and fires though, draw from around them. A flame cannot be sustained in a vacuum–it will be snuffed. It draws on the oxygen around it. Similarly, every Jewish society has incorporated some of the vitality of the cultures it has inhabited. One only need look at the Roman-style synagogues, the Roman togas in Judaic artwork, the wording on synagogues like Dura Europa in Greek, and the incorporation of the mosaic zodiac tile floors in synagogues of Northern Israel. The Middle Ages saw the development of Ladino, an Italian Spanish language, and the development of Yiddish, a Middle German language. Maimonides introduced ideas of Aristotle into Jewish Philosophy and Jewish curricula in the Sephardic Golden age incorporated mathematics and science through the 1400s. A Jewish modern nation and a Jewish modern community incorporates and develops the latest technological and medical advances. Assimilating the best of the outside is not, in its own right, harmful. Important is how it is channeled. Will the outside influence be used toward the vitalization of Judaism or will it be utilized as an exit ramp from it? That is the real question. Each generation is called upon to put new wine in old vessels. Each generation is charged with treasuring the old but never standing still, adding a new layer that resonates.
The Shabbat candles celebrate the inner light of a strong Jewish family, but the Chanukah candles broadcast publically our pride and our strength to remain vibrant even as we become a part of a greater community. The lights of Chanukah broadcast that Jews and Judaism shall always be a driving force in their own destiny, and in so doing, be a light unto the nations. As we gaze at the candle fire at Chanukah, remember the burning flame of the tenacious Jewish heart that holds on to the core of Jewish practice and Jewish faith. And as Conservative Jews, may we also remember to not become hermetically sealed and static. May we never neglect the importance of breathing, growing and evolving our Judaism so that it speaks to us in the era and place we inhabit, balanced with both fire and oxygen, the light of our soul burning still brighter–and to this let us say Amen.
When it comes to the Gregorian calendar, there are things we Jews do and things we don't do: the Peculiar case of Birkat Tal u'Matar vs. Thanksgiving
(This gets a bit complicated so put on your thinking cap!)
Some wonder why, in our standing devotion (Amidah), we request that God send "dew and rain" for a blessing from December 4th until Passover [and discontinued after]. Why is this tied to the secular calendar and not to the Jewish calendar? Actually, in Israel, it is tied to the Jewish calendar because the blessing for "dew and rain" (Tal u’Matar) begins on Cheshvan 7 each year. Why? This is because the Israelis didn't want rain for two weeks when they began their pilgrimage back from Jerusalem. Who needed mud and rain during travel?
It was the Jewish community of Babylonia, followed by all of the diaspora, that decided to wait 60 days following the autumnal equinox (Sept 23) to recite the blessing, because the harvested crops took 2 months to fully dry. Well then, why do we not begin to pray for rain on Nov. 22, which would be 60 days from the Autumnal Equinox? The answer is that Pope Gregory, in the 16th century, decided to rob October of ten days to correct a discrepancy in the calculation of the length of the year. Unlike the Greco-Roman Julian calendar, which assumed the length of the year to be 365.25 days, the actual time computation, based on the earth's orbit, is 365.2422 days. That difference would henceforth be corrected, according to Gregory, by not taking a leap day (a Feb 29) during the century year unless it was a century year divisible by 400 (which is why we had a leap day in Feb. in the year 2000). It was determined by astronomers of the day that the calendar had gotten 10 days ahead of itself. So these ten days were omitted in that year of 1583.
The Jewish community of that century didn't accept the correction to the Julian Calendar. As far as they were concerned, the 60 days from the Equinox would henceforth fall on December 2, not November 22! So why are we now beginning prayer for rain on December 4th? Because they also didn't accept Pope Gregory's correction to omit a leap day each century year. Therefore, in 1700, the date advanced to December 3. In 1800, the date advanced an additional day to December 4th. In 1900, many prayer books failed to make the adjustment to December 5. In 2000 both the Julian and Gregorian calendar agreed to include a leap day. Presumably, if prayer books do due diligence in the future, the prayer will advance to December 5 in 2100, where it should have been already, and to December 6 in the next century, 2200. Fast forward 30,000 years or so, and our descendants will pray for winter rains as we approach summer! But we should be so fortunate that Judaism has the staying power to have such problems! Or who knows, some great sage in a future era may say we should accept Pope Gregory's leap day omission on century years.
We have, however, some unanimity to accept the November computation of Thanksgiving as the 4th Thursday in November. There are some ultra-Orthodox communities that don't believe in observing any holiday on the secular calendar–only Jewish ones–but most traditional communities of the last 150 years or so accept the observance of the civic holiday of Thanksgiving. There ought not to be a problem observing a civic holiday that all Americans mark. Most importantly, Thanksgiving, as currently observed, is a day of gratitude to God for the precious blessings our country and our God bestows. That, actually, is a Jewish imperative every day of the year. We mark that very sentiment each and every day when recite the psalm in the morning "it is good to give thanks to God and to sing Your praises on High!" Naturally, it can and should be marked with our dietary restrictions and so forth as American stands for the right of all to practice their religion. We also have no problem with observing it on the appropriate day rather than 10 days later. Since it is anchored in the American calendar, which has accepted the Julian accounting of time, there is no reason to make adjustments.
If any of this information is wrong, by the way, because math is not my strong suit, please let me know! To quote Wilbur Cross' 1936 proclamation, "as the chill and frost begin to set in in these darkening days of autumn under the heel of Orion" Beth and I wish you and your families a year that is fertile and prosperous, a year of plenty–rich in blessings, and a very happy Thanksgiving.
It is hard to envision Sukkoth on the other side of the High Holidays because of the monumental place of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the American Jewish holiday cycle. I composed a sermon a couple of decades ago bemoaning the slow death of Highway 66, which holds an iconic place in the American imagination. The article rued the demise of the charming and distinctive locales now no longer encountered because of the interstate system. Little towns, motels and restaurants are bypassed by truckers, bikers and tourists as they make their way to the west coast. “Sometimes,” I wrote, “the holiday cycle is the same as the Jewish calendar. The interstate highways of Passover, Hanukah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are travelled so well by so many, but the little locales of the other holidays in Judaism get such short shrift and are sadly victim to this infrastructure.”
But Sukkoth is an important holiday in its own right. Back in the time of the Bible, it was really important and even bigger than Passover as a pilgrimage holiday. In the Rabbinic literature it was called “HaHaG,” the quintessential holiday. It no longer has quite that turbo-charge today, although it is still a very big deal in Jerusalem. Sukkoth’s Kohain rite in the Kotel Plaza is like no other spiritual moment. Still, Sukkoth has many things going for it, running on multiple cylinders, and therefore I commend it. Here are some facts in honor of the seven days of Sukkoth:
Sukkoth is the first “local” stop on the Jewish calendar year, off the beaten route of the interstate holidays. Get off at this exit and enjoy the color and vibrancy of this unique calendar moment. Help us celebrate it Yontif morning, October 5th and 6th and on Hoshana Rabbah morning, Wednesday, October 11 at 7 am.
ברכת כהנים THE PRIESTLY BLESSING
One of the most beautiful customs of our shul, not common for Conservative shuls, is Duchaning (in Yiddish, Duchanen), which we do in the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you haven’t experienced this lovely ceremony performed by our Kohanim (Kohens), I encourage you to stay through Musaf to do so. There is a special melody in this ceremony in which the Kohanim repeat the words of the Blessing of Aaron, the High Priest, from the book of Numbers (Yevarecha). We uniquely adapt the tune to melodic lines on Rosh Hashanah evening, and the antiphonal response, led by the Cantor, is quite haunting and joyful.
Why do we Duchan? Numbers, Chapter 6, instructs Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites with the verse “Bless you, guard you…May Hashem lift His face to you and be gracious to you…May Hashem give you peace…” Since every Kohen is a descendant of Aaron, they are to repeat the blessing for every congregation of ten. Kohanim count as a part of the 10 congregants in the minyan that they are blessing. If a minyan dissolves while they bless the congregation, they continue and conclude it. If the Chazzan is the only Kohen, he is allowed to move from his stand on the bima and face the congregation to bless them. During the repetition, he must wash and remove his shoes before beginning the standing devotion. If he is not the only Kohen, he remains in his place.
Why is this custom of blessing the people called duchening? Because the word for bima, or raised platform, in Aramaic is Duchan. The Kohanim ascend the platform as a mediating symbol between the congregation and the Holy Ark. At this moment, they are a conduit for blessing. The Kohen raises his hands and spreads his fingers in a “V” shape. His hands, therefore, form two Shins (Hebrew letter ש), which equals 600. His fingers are ten and his blessings are three, which equal 613–the number of mitzvoth in the Torah. Talmud Hagigah mentions that one should not look at the fingers of the Kohen as they bless, as doing so will “weaken the eyes.” Probably this was so the Kohen, in feeling one’s gaze, would not become distracted. It is not correct, however, to turn around, as many do, and show their backs to the Kohanim as they bless us. Many rabbinic authorities label this a “superstitious custom.” It is far better to face them and simply look downward or place one’s head under one’s own tallit as one receives the blessing.
How many times a year is it customary to do the Kohen blessing with Duchenen? In traditional congregations of the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel), it should be done on Yom Tovim only (the five major holidays.) In the Ashkenazic congregation of Safed, Israel, it is done on major holidays and each Shabbat, and so, too, in many Ashkenazic congregations outside of Jerusalem. Sfardic synagogues in all of Israel do it every day. Many liberal congregations have discontinued it, considering it a vestige of the past and attached to sacrificial rituals.
There are some interesting facts of Duchening. We take our shoes off, not because the High Priest came in bare feet for the Yom Kippur ceremony, but because the Shulchan Aruch determined that a shoe lace untied can cause a fall, or an effort to tie an untied shoe lace nullifies the hand washing. This would prevent the shoe lace handler from saying the blessing, causing people to think him impure. To avoid this, it was decided that all would take off their shoes before blessing the congregation. A Kohen who doesn’t wish to say the blessing, perhaps because he dislikes someone in the congregation, should get over it! If a Kohen is impure after being in a cemetery, he should intentionally remove himself before the Kohanim begin to ascend the bima.