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.”
A happy and healthy 2015 to all congregants and their loved ones!
The new secular year brings with it resolutions for more vital and engaged living. That is as it should be. As we say in our prayers each day, “Praised are You G-d, who fashions the world anew each day.” That means that every day is an opportunity for transformation. One such transformation should be our involvement with the State of Israel. We accomplish that by writing and speaking out against those who are overly critical of Israel and hold her to a double standard. And we can do that in a more direct way by becoming members of the World Zionist Congress. We can truly have an impact on her religious directions and Jewish Peoplehood by becoming members of MERCAZ. Every Jew outside of Israel and over 18 years of age may become a member of MERCAZ by registering through their website WZO.org.il. There is a small fee for registration but a very good payout–The proportion of the Conservative Masorti Delegation at the Congress relative to the other organizations helps determine the appropriation of the Zionist Congress monies both in and out of Israel. In short, there is no more effective organizational influence we can have than becoming delegates to the World Zionist Congress.
As an arm of the congress, MERCAZ garners additional financial help through its TALI school curriculum, which is making huge inroads in the public school system in Israel. TALI promotes peace, pluralism and exposure to the beauty of Jewish text in these schools. It provides a “non-orthodox” approach to our traditional sources and offers choice to Israel’s youth population. MERCAZ’s numeric strength can also help determine funding for its growing synagogue system in the State of Israel. There are now 60 or so Kelliot Masortiot across the land of Israel. Your numbers will help direct more shekels toward these synagogues. Soon, the Israeli parliament will debate and craft a Jewish National Law which speaks of Judaism as the underpinning of government and policy developments in the Knesset and in Israel education. Masorti Judaism, no doubt, has something unique to say about this law and the religious direction of the State of Israel into the future.
I caught wind of the sad outcome of the kidnapping of the three teens, Naftali, Gil Aad and Ayyal, on may way from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem. I am currently at the Hartman Institute attending a Rabbinic Training session along with 120 other rabbis from various streams of Judaism from Israel and the entire diaspora. We, too, have been going through various stages of grief along with all of you. The truth is that to some of extent all of us understand, through these boys, that this could have happened to our children, and of course that is heightened in manifold fashion to every Israeli parent and grandparent. There is grief, identification, anguish and anger. Above all there is an understanding of the nature of the enemy that Hamas represents and even beyond, in the present precarious direction and societal turn of the Palestinians in general. Nonetheless Israelis are resolute. Resolute in uprooting, by military force, the threat against it to the degree possible. Resolute in the extirpation of the support networks and commanders that are encouraging these terrorists. Resolute in arguing diplomatically for the dismantling of this new hybrid regime of the PA that is basically adding Hamas to its decision making process. Resolute in showing restraint against civilians that are non-combatant. And resolute in its appreciation of seeing a unity among Israelis, secular and religious, outraged and pained by senseless brutality, not to be squandered by actions that aren't carried out without due process that befit civilized society.
It is fitting that these lads were laid to rest together side by side. It is fitting that the families have connected with one another in friendship and support. In a sense that support is spread across Israel, among all Israeli Jews in a massive extended family. That is something that a Jew feels keenly in Israel as in no other society. Because that is what Zionism is all about: the realization that as Jews, our primary responsibility is to look out for the welfare of the Jewish people and to protect it with vigilance and steadfastness. May we too learn these lessons and support the State of Israel and it's people through this challenging time in any way we can muster, politically and financially.Then and only then do we properly do honor to their memory.
May the souls of the departed be bound up in the bonds of life...tehi nishmatam tzerura betzror Hachayim.