Although New Years Eve is beyond us now, one of the beautiful sentiments expressed is in the lovely song Auld Lang Syne, a poem composed in 17th century Scotland and enhanced by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. It has become fairly pervasive over the English-speaking world.
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine† ;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.
This is a song I like because I believe it tells us of the importance of good friends and to not forget one’s friends. Time has a way of erasing even the most intense friendships due to neglect, failure to nurture them, or simply geographical separation, but this poem reminds us that love and friendship are stronger than time. Friends are essential to human happiness. As perkei avot tells us, “O charvuta o mittuta”–friends are a must, or we will simply wither and die.
The Jewish Encyclopedia advises that the essential characteristic of friendship is disinterestedness. That is, the service one wants to provide a fellow, irrespective of the benefit we derive from it. It’s the classic “I- thou” relationship, which Buber tells us is a holy relationship–perceiving the other not as object but as central subject–the expansion of the self and the spirit to go beyond oneself and one’s family. Friendship is the building–block of community, but of course, it’s more than that as well. Friendship is destroyed by selfishness, but, says Avot, a friendship not based on selfish motivation will never come to an end. The classic example of friendship in the Bible is the relationship of Jonathon and David. Jonathon so loves David that he acts to surrender his kingship rights and monarchical claims to his friend.
The Talmud offers many examples of fierce friendships. One is the relationship between Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappach and Resh Lakish. Resh Lakish was a gladiator who was discovered by Yochanon. Yochanan promised Resh Lakish his sister’s hand in marriage if Resh Lakish would channeling his strength into learning Torah. Resh Lakish flourished, becoming Yochanan’s equal. Resh Lakish was never afraid to take issue with his friend and his former mentor. Such an attitude could have led to rivalry and resentment. But their friendship remained intense. Many times Yochanan changed his opinions as a result of his friend’s opinions. When Resh Lakish died, Yochanan was inconsolable. The rabbis send him the very nice scholar Eliezer ben Porat, who found reasoning to support Yochanon in his opinions, hoping this would cheer him. Instead, Yochanon cried “disagree with me like Resh Lakish. Only then can we grow in our understanding. Don't agree with me... " We learn from our true friends. We are challenged by them, and they by us.
Say our sages, “It is easy to gain enemies, much less so a friend.” Ben Sirach says, “We should choose our friends carefully and be discriminating. Many are those who like you when you're smiling but abandon you in your distress. A faithful friend is a strong defense and he who has found one has found a treasure. The best friend is one who can guide and reprove as well as support and love.” Says Avoth d’Rabbi Natan, “Love him who corrects you and hate him who only flatters, because a true friend wants you to grow in life and be a grander person, a better soul.” May we treasure our friends always and never let the hands of time cause us to forget them. May we never become closed to new friendships when they present themselves because each has the potential to enoble us. May we understand our synagogue and its service opportunities and programs as a place where friendships can expand and deepen, and
Let’s lift a lechayim to them my friends,
lets lift a lechayim or two.
So in our haste we not forget
the beautiful things they do.
Journeys Taken Willingly and Somewhat Less So
In our sedra, we describe the meanderings of the Israelites over the course of forty years. At various times in their journey, they experienced sin, grumbling, relief and belief. So, too, are the emotional journeys we encounter in our Jewish calendar year. One such journey is a personal one that we take from Rosh Hashanah to Hoshana Rabba–a 21-day period of personal responsibility. Another is the more collective journey we take in the summer, in the 21-day period beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and ending the 9th of Av. Both journeys are intense, consisting of prayer, penitential poems and fasting. But I feel that the journey taken in the summer is the harder one for most of us. It is harder because many of the customs–no music, no haircuts, no dancing, no weddings, no meat, no swimming (with many of these only for the ten days of Av)– border on the masochistic, in the dog days of summer. Harder too, because the premises behind this period are more difficult to accept.
Three of those premises make it challenging for me to journey through the difficult soul work of those three summer weeks. One is the premise that we must atone for the past sins of ancestors, or relive the sadness of their sin. Another is that the calamities of conquest and the destruction of our Temples were brought on by our own deeds. A final premise is an even more difficult one: that in this day and age, we still must mourn for the destruction of Zion.
On the 17th of Tammuz, after 40 days, Moses came down with the tablets, saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, and smashed the tablets. The smashing of our holy places began with our own actions of smashing faith and building idols. On some level, on this date, God is disposed to estrangement from His people. It’s a day that reminds us of the egel (golden calf). It is also a day that reminds us of when Judean kings put up idols in the Temple. On the ninth of Av, the spies came back and gave a negative report that had the Israelites in demoralized tears. “You are crying over nothing,” says God in the Midrash. “I will give you something to cry about.” From that day on, there were innumerable catastrophes on the day of Tisha B’Av–the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from York, England in 1290, and the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It’s a day of bad karma, and all due to sins of idolatry and the sins of needless hatred.
Several congregants who heard this sermon at Yizkor on Shavuoth suggested I share it. So I, along with Beth, do so with blessings for a pleasant, relaxing and memorable summer. Please know that we welcome you to our Shabbat services and encourage you to keep our pulse strong in the summer months. My thanks to Rabbi Yaacov Reimer for ideas in this very personal sermon. If it is self indulgent, please forgive me.
We are at time of yizkor and also at a time of graduation. In a way, this is interesting because the common denominator in the two events is that there are times in life when its imperative that we move on.
At graduation, when folks near the end of high school and college, they sense the time has come to be moving on. Similarly, sometimes people are lucky enough to know that the end of their life is near, but more, this is not the case. There was a movie out some decades ago entitle Girl Interrupted, about mental illness, but of course in this case, we see a case of “loved one interrupted,” at the time of a person’s passing. We may know, on some level, that a person is at risk or a loved one is seriously ill. But we are not always granted closure, and hold out hope that the end is not so near and there will be time for goodbyes later. Often a stroke, a heart attack or a coma prevents that closure. I am privileged, as a rabbi, to look in on families whose loved ones are in the process of dying. I am deeply impressed with the commitment of so many to be there in time to bid adieu; to see one’s loved one off, to spend last days and moments together, to convey to the dying that they are treasured, not alone, and to be together in the end. And 'though it’s a strange turn of phrase, lucky are families who have the ability to do so.
By the time this letter is received I am hopeful that I will officially be staying on as your rabbi for years to come. I have been blessed to be the rabbi for this community, and it is for this reason that I want to hang around. It is a community of self-starters and strivers, of leaders and active members, of those who help maintain the shul physically and financially, and of those committed to its spiritual and community aspect. These last two months have been no exception. We have had a stirring Pesach season, and wonderful presentation at Yom Hashoah. We have been entertained by our off-Broadway actors. We have seen our youngsters wow us for Aleph-Bet Shabbat and our Consecration Class rock our sanctuary with their program. We have witnessed another stirring graduation of our oldest Religious School students of Bar and Bat Mitzvah age. We have enjoyed the special flavor of our precious yontif Shavuot. We have enjoyed and qvelled at the wonderful Bar and Bat mitzvahs of two special young people, Evan Keiser and Melanie Spitz, and we look forward to three more such milestones in the month of June. We savored the taste of our cholent, heard our young people and women chant Torah and Haftorah, and we have also enjoyed scoops of ice cream sundae at our recent Tikkun Leil Shavuoth. Our Youth Group has led a service, and our new Sulam Emerging Leadership has been honored for their special training. Our Men's Club has recently taken us “out to the ball game,” and just a few days ago, we celebrated our Sisterhood Women's League Women of Achievement, regionally. Our committees are busily planning for the new season, and very soon, our Ritual Committee will gear up for the early arrival of Rosh Hashanah! It doesn't just seem busy here–it is a dizzying reality–But in a good way!
May we continue our steady and vibrant pace, all the while providing a haimish flavor in our Kehila, in which everyone man, woman, and child feels welcome and honored. And may we continue, Rabbi and congregation, our beautiful relationship as well.
I hope to see you in shul this month, enjoying all of our end-of-season events and all our Shabbatot. May all of us continue to go from strength to strength.
Please read on for my essay on Israel and "colonialism."
Soon, (May 14th eve – May 16th) we will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuoth. In a sense, Shavuoth is observed with less fervor than the other pilgrimage festivals. It suffers from being a bit too close to the summer and seven short weeks after Pesach, which is a hard act to follow. But it is a deeply important spiritual moment in the Jewish calendar. It is the anniversary marking when the Israelites first stood at Sinai and understood themselves as vehicles for God's will, as carriers of His message of joy, and having profound responsibility to the world at large. That was a deeply joyful and profound moment, and one that our tradition claims was experienced by every Jewish soul, past, present and future. Therefore, it is our responsibility to taste of it and reflect upon it yearly, as Shavuoth comes around.
Shavuoth has three names–“Holiday of Weeks,” “Holiday of the Giving of the Torah,” and “Holiday of Boundaries”–Atzeret. One can easily understand why Shavuoth is called the “Holiday of Weeks,” for it falls exactly seven weeks after we begin counting the omer toward it, taking a daily spiritual reckoning each day, beginning from the second night of Passover. It is also understandable why Shavuoth is called the “Holiday of the Giving of the Torah,” as Shavuoth marks the anniversary when God orally encountered the people at Sinai, accompanied by a message of ten commandments, the commandments on which the entire Torah is based. But why is it called the “Holiday of Boundaries?”