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?”
In a recent sermon, I spoke about an interesting issue that occurs when we have a leap year. The Jewish calendar adds the month of Adar—Adar 2. Since being standardized by the Sanhedrin in the days of Hillel II, in 358Ce, the leap month falls seven times in a 19 year cycle, thus appearing in the Jewish calendar every three, sometimes every two years. The question arises: what happens when a loved one has died in the month of Adar of a regular year? Does the relative say Kaddish on Adar 1 or in the month in which we celebrate Purim, Adar 2? In other words, will the real Adar please stand up!
Our Haverware follows a majority Ashkenazic opinion; that Kaddish should be said on Adar 1. One should say Kaddish and fast in that month if that is one’s custom. Adar is Adar is Adar, as it’s listed on the calendar, and it comes first. To not say Kaddish at that time is to ‘squander a mitzvah’. On the other hand, many major rabbinic authorities, such as Rambam, view the real Adar as Adar 2. The real Adar, they say, is the one closest to Pesach, because the miracle of Purim began when Achashverush couldn’t sleep, and that was on the night of Pesach. They also view the real Adar as Adar 2 because we connect the rescue of Purim to the rescue of Pesach. We observe Purim and all of its customs in Adar 2. Finally, they say that it is Adar 2 because Purim and the Megillah are absolutely observed in Adar 2. Adar 2 is primary and yahrzeit and Kaddish should be said on Adar2!
There is also the opinion of the Tashbetz, who tells us to say Kaddish the first year in Adar 1 (the end of twelve months) and in all subsequent years in Adar 2. And then there are Rabbis such as Shlomo Luria and the Kol Bo Aveilut, who say Kaddish should be said on both Adars! Dizzy yet? I hope so, because on Adar we are supposed to be a bit off kilter. My advice: listen to Haverware; it will guide you nicely. But truly, you have a choice and may institute your own custom, so long as you hold to it from leap year to leap year!