Beginning Saturday night June 11th and commencing June 12th and 13th, we observe the holiday of Shavuoth. Shavuoth is an important pilgrimage festival and the day that marks 50 days from when we began counting the Omer sheaf offering on the holiday of Pesach. The narrative of Exodus, Chapter 19, also makes a good case that it was the day on which we stood at Sinai and received the thunderous utterance of Ten Commandments that provided the scaffolding of the entire Torah.
There are many theories as to why it became customary to eat dairy on Shavuoth. One theory suggests that when the Israelites received the kosher laws, they were reluctant to eat meat since the laws were complicated, and ate dairy. Another theory says simply that the Torah would be our manual in the Land of Milk and Honey. Another states that just as we wean our young and vitalize them with milk, so we must passionately do so with our Torah. A sage points out that the numeric equivalent of Halav is 40, reminding us of the forty days Moses spent on the mountain top.
Here is a favorite from Nachalat Tzvi. When Moses went up to the top of the mountain he was transported to heaven. There he was required to wrest the Torah away from the possessive angels, who had possessed them for 954 generations, even before the creation! G-d transformed Moses' face to look like Abraham's. He turned to the angels and said "did you not eat milk with meat when I served you at the time you came to tell me about Sarah having Issac?" They had to admit that they did. "If that is so, then you violated the rules of the Torah that you possessed!" Having softened them up by this strong offensive parry, he continued his argument "...do you do work that you need to observe the Sabbath? Do you steal things so that you need a commandment that says thou shall not steal? ...do you worship idols that you need a commandment that says serve no other gods before me?" The angels, defeated by this argument, surrendered the 10 Commandments to him. As a result, it became customary for Jews to begin their Shavuoth festival with the dairy meal, and follow it after a short time with a meat one!
We will be observing this custom with blintzes and ice cream sundaes on Saturday night, June 11th at our special learning session in honor of the festival. Our Tikun Leil Shavuoth will be covering rabbinic ideas on the nature of revelation and aspects of the Book of Ruth. It will begin with Maariv at 9pm.
Please help make this a delectable and successful program. May I take this time to wish you and yours a sweet and joyful Shavuoth festival!
As your rabbi, and in the name of our wonderful Community Relations Committee, it is my honor to invite you to attend our Yom HaShoah Program at 7:00 pm on May 5th at East Northport Jewish Center.
This year, our program will feature the exciting and deeply meaningful discovery of Chris Nichola. Mr. Nichola, while spelunking (aka, caving) in the Ukraine, came across remnants of what was, no doubt, a record for the continuous habitation of a cave. Jews near Kerowlowka, Ukraine survived there, underground, for over a year-and-a-half, hiding from extermination efforts by the Nazis. Nichola traces his discovery and the subsequent meeting of survivor families, whom he came to know and befriend, with a multimedia presentation. It is a most moving story which has been made into a feature length documentary film.
Unlike our usual format, this year’s service will precede the program, as we are only able to have our presenter on Thursday, the day of Yom Hashoah, May 5th. We will begin our ceremony at 7:00 pm sharp, with the participation of some of our survivor families. The ceremony will include The Theme from Schindler’s List, performed by pianist Terry Bernstein, and the participation of Rabbi Silverman and Cantor Nussbaum. All families will be invited to stand on the bima with our Torah scrolls and our Holocaust Torah from Kolin, Czechoslovakia, as Cantor chants the mournful Kel Mahlei Rachamim. Once our moving ceremony is completed, with the lighting of candles commemorating the loss of our precious 6,000,000, we will begin our special program.
This ceremony and program is our yearly marking of Yom HaShoah. There may be some relatives or friends you wish to invite because our program will probably be a day later than the one that others might attend. Please invite your loved ones and friends to ours.
May the clarion call of Zachor (Remember) and “Never Again” be reinforced and echo strongly this Yom HaShoah season. Our Kedoshim–those who perished–must never be forgotten and the lessons of the Holocaust must never cease. Please grace us with the attendance of your family at this important event.
Let’s talk minyan. Ten is a number in Judaism that is greater than the sum of its parts. It implies totality and completion. Ten is the number of times G-d utters, “Let there be,” and with it, creates the universe. Ten are the commandments that make up the meta-categories of all of Jewish Law. Ten are the generations from Adam to Noah, and then from Noah to Abraham. Ten is the number of plagues which were the catalyst to launch and liberate the Israelites from Egypt. Ten are the emanations for the “Infinite One” that enables G-d to unfold from mystical transcendence to spiritual access and proximity. And, ten people are the number that makes up a rudimentary community.
A minyan is a precious phenomenon in traditional Jewish thought. Ten individuals praying together make up a community of Jews. They reflect all of the divine arrangement of ten “Emanations of God,” and in a sense, mirror a divine aspect. It’s combined prayer helps stir the heavens above to the earth below. The Mishna teaches us that ten people praying ushers in the presence of the Shehina, God’s immanent quality. And a minyan, of course, introduces the necessary “holiness” level that allows for the recitation of Kedusha and of Kaddish and the chanting of the Torah in the morning services. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, a minyan conveys the message, that a Jewish communal whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. I believe that this is a valuable message that has sustained Jewish community over millennia. Put bluntly, if individuals were as big a deal as a community of ten, there would probably be no Jewish people. We would have evaporated into a million different fragments long ago.
We hope to serve you and your family well by providing the necessary communal backdrop to support your recitation of Kaddish during some very difficult moments of mourning. But we cannot provide this without many others paying backwards and forwards. By this I mean, some of us have been there in our mourning, but after our year or months of attending is over, recede into the shadows again. Some only become conscious of its fragility when they have a new obligation of saying Kaddish, having considered it someone else’s problem prior to their personal need.
An Upside Down World
(this sermon may or may not reflect the view of management)
The portion this week, tezaveh, introduces us to the most beautiful of all accessories that the High Priest would don over his garments–the choshem mishpat, made up of twelve different precious stones, each mounted on a gold frame. In each of these sectors, the gems had one of the twelve tribes etched into it. According to the Bible, the choshen was arranged in four columns of three.
I have always depicted the gems in my Parasha pictures in this fashion, but found, to my distress, that English translations don’t correspond to my depiction. Oddly, the Hebrew word “tur” was translated as rows, whereas I had always translated “tur” as columns. Four rows of three on the choshen isn’t the same as four columns of three; the gems are arranged differently. “What?” I said to myself. “I know that the Modern Hebrew translation of “tur” is column, and a column is vertical! Except that when I checked the Hebrew dictionary for “tur” it states, “generally a column but can also have the meaning of row!” Oy! I frantically checked the Art Scroll Bible, which depicts the Temple and the vestments, and indeed, they were arranged in rows. Then I checked other sources and they seemed to interpret “tur”as rows too. I was about to redo my picture when I came across this commentary in the Aryeh Kaplan Torah commentaries: “According to some authorities, the names were ordered downward in columns rather than across in rows.” Kaplan cites the famous Minchat Chinuch 99, a legal commentary on the Sefer ha-Chinuch, written by Yosef Babad ("Rabbeinu Yosef"; 1800–1874). Therefore, I again was on solid ground! Phew! I didn’t have to change it, and here it stands.
Upwards or sideways is not the only discrepancy in Jewish tradition. There are times, in the Hebrew calendar, like at Purim, when we make the case that everything can be turned upside down. Hafuch! Totally upside down. Purim, which comes in the second Adar this year, reveals that every evil thing Haman intended for the Jews was actually thrust the heads of their enemies. Thus, Purim is a time we can do things topsy-turvy, like men dressing as women and women dressing as men (not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say), and no one, even in frum communities, would bat an eyelash. That is the basis behind the Purim obligation that a person becomes so drunk that he doesn’t know the difference between the curse of Haman and the blessing of Mordechai. On Purim, you can do things not just upwards or sideways, but you can do things topsy-turvy– just for a little bit of craziness. (Our sages implore us not to take this too literally.)
Unfortunately, today’s world shows us a constant Purim–a topsy-turvy world. For instance, Fox News shows footage of Sports Illustrated. Now I am no prude, but this is not news—it’s exploitive! It’s a network’s cynical calculation for holding on to market share during their morning program. Or maybe it’s just me– But what about this: political debates used to be respectful opportunities for candidates to agree to disagree and point out the larger or more nuanced differences with one another’s view and philosophy. But in today’s world they have devolved to food fights and mutual recrimination; calling one another liars and, gads, “Canadian”. This insulting behavior may have engendered a gun duel a hundred and fifty years ago. Dignity and reputation used to mean something! Now candidates threaten litigation. Years ago, good leaders would calm and channel anger and frustration into constructive and productive ends. Called to mind are phrases like “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Or “it is not for you to ask what can your country do for you.” Candidates spoke to ennoble the masses. Now they aim to mirror and magnify the worst tendencies in their constituency and compete for the most intolerant of postures.
G-d's message is a tolerant message–no religion is an island. In today’s day and age, it is easy to believe that certain peoples and certain religions are abhorrent. The path of least resistance is to distrust and to put up walls of intolerance, suspicion and prejudice against Muslims, as we see currently expressed in the presidential campaign. Many folks, jarred by recent events such as the growth of ISIS and home-grown terrorism, take the position that certain quarters cannot be trusted in any way, shape, or form. But it is important to keep channels open, and not paint and condemn whole communities based on the barbaric acts of those who hijack religion.
I am privileged to have signed a clergy petition against terror, circulated by Ransaq, that reads, “We, the undersigned clergy, representing a diversity of religious backgrounds and organizations, are deeply pained by all acts of terror, and especially those acts committed in the name of G-d. Our faiths are designed to promote peace and mutual understanding, not terror or indiscriminate death. Those who believe that such acts are in any way heroic or noble, are the victims of insidious deception. Such acts do not guarantee entry to heaven. To the contrary, those who commit such atrocities walk a road that is divorced from our sacred traditions and alien to G-d. The clerics who convince others to give their lives and take the lives of others are charlatans. They have abused their power and influence, recruiting others to advance their own personal political and military objectives with false promises of eternal bliss. We unequivocally condemn their actions and demand that they cease from further profaning God’s name. We dare not be silenced by those who have distorted G-d’s great message to all of humanity. That is why we have signed our name to this petition.”
This petition was penned by Yousuf U. Syed, Trustee, Islamic Association of Long Island, The Selden Mosque, who also wrote the following in an “Open Letter of Muslims to fellow American Citizens,” The Selden Mosque (The Oldest Mosque of Long Island) stands in solidarity with all our fellow Americans. We send our heartfelt condolences to all the families of the victims, who were murdered and injured in San Bernardino’s mass shooting. The Prophet of Islam said: “A strong person is not the one who throws his adversaries to the ground – a strong person is the one who controls and contains himself when angry.” Such are the teachings of Islam–for those who can understand. Rev. Wes Granberg Michaelson, from The Reform Church in America, has called the Paris incident an “Identity theft of the Muslim Faith.” Islam, in fact, is indeed a peaceful religion. The true blasphemers are those who ridicule and insult other faiths. The killers and others like them who do not understand that by forcing their false and murderous distortion of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace, do great damage to the image of Muslims and Islam. Islam requires that Muslims possess “ upright character” and deal justly with the entire human race, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality, creed, and whether they are friend or foe. These are the teachings of Islam. How could a man like the San Bernardino killer, claim to be Muslim, when he has no respect for his own one-year-old innocent baby child, whom he left behind without mercy. I cannot call him an animal, because it would be an insult to animals. They would not abandon their offspring like that, they will fight to death to protect them.”