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Shabbat Shuvah - The Shabbat of Return

שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your G!d. (Hosea 14:2)

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return (שבת שובה) and refers to the Shabbat that occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance, and is between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The name Shabbat Shuvah comes from the first word of the Haftarah from the verse above that comes from the prophet Hosea 14:2–10.

We are currently in the very auspicious days called "The Ten Days of Teshuva (repentance/return)." Most people associate Teshuva with a melancholy and even sad process. In truth, Teshuva is the most joyous process since it represents the essential connection our soul has with the Infinite Divine. 

This is the time to prepare for Yom Kippur and explore Teshuva (Returning through Repentance) and how it is possible to return to the Eternal and higher selves with confidence and joy. 

Some of the best advice is that which Moses gives to Joshua as he passes on the mantle of leadership: "Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people..." The return to ourselves and our Creator takes great inner strength. May we be blessed with this strength as we ready ourselves for Yom Kippur next week.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Raanan Mallek’s Rosh HaShanah Sermon for 5783

Happy New Year from the Jewish Congregation of Maui. In thinking about what to speak about for Rosh HaShannah, I thought about our name: the Jewish Congregation of Maui. What does it mean to be a Congregation? My research on the subject led me to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s essay Fate and Destiny, which delineates two aspects of Jewish peoplehood: the camp and the congregation. 

Soloveitchik explains that “the camp is created as a result of the desire for self-defense and is nurtured by a sense of fear; the congregation is created as a result of the longing for the realization of an exalted ethical idea and is nurtured by the sentiment of love. Fate reigns in unbounded fashion in the camp; destiny reigns in the congregation….”

JCM’s building, also known as Beit Shalom, is our camp. It is a physical manifestation of our desire to congregate as a community. We are building a new kitchen and outside patio, upgrading our security and helping to advance ecological goals such as solar panels so that we can provide an example to the wider community. In ancient times, the camp’s primary concern was with our physical survival. We joined together to fight against our common enemies. We mobilized our resources to defend ourselves from attack. The camp was our means of maintaining our existence in a hostile world.

And then there is the congregation. The congregation is concerned with our spiritual survival. Although we need the camp to protect us from danger; we also need to know the purpose and meaning of our community. What are our overall goals as a community? Survival in and of itself is not enough; we survive in order to fulfill our role as a congregation. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes: “The congregation is a group of individuals possessing a common past, a common future, common goals and desires, a common aspiration for a world which is wholly good and beautiful and a common unique and unified destiny.”

Israelite history is full of stories of our wanderings, how we were slaves in Egypt; we overcame many obstacles and much suffering. We were endangered; we were afraid; we were victims of a negative fate. But then the Torah in Deuteronomy continues by expressing gratitude to the Almighty for bringing us to the land of milk and honey. It puts life in context of the Divine promises to Israel, and the many blessings enjoyed by the people of Israel. The Torah then makes it clear that we are a congregation with a destiny, not merely a camp forced to defend itself. 

“This day the Lord your God commands you to do these statutes and ordinances; you shall therefore observe and do them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have affirmed the Lord this day to be your God and that you would walk in His ways, and keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances, and hearken unto His voice.” (Deut. 26: 17-18)

Throughout our history, the people of Israel have had to view itself and act as a camp. This continues in our own time. Synagogues around the world and the State of Israel itself are constantly under physical and political attack. Our survival is threatened regularly.

First and foremost, we need to strengthen ourselves as a camp, as strong and determined people dedicated to defending ourselves. Not one of us is safe unless we ensure the safety and security of all. Thanks to the hard work of our executive director, Ellyn Mortimer, we received a federal security grant dedicated to increasing and upgrading the security of our building and our property. 

Yet, throughout our history, the people of Israel have understood its nature as a holy congregation. We have stood tall and strong in promoting the great vision of the Torah; the messianic idea that teaches peace for all human beings; the dedication to the Eternal and kindness to our fellow human beings. We have known “why” we survive; we have been a people with a revolutionary and powerful devotion to righteousness, compassion, and respect for all human beings.

Just as we need to devote tremendous energy and strength to maintaining our camp, so we need to devote tremendous energy and strength to maintaining ourselves as a congregation. Our physical survival is a primary responsibility; our spiritual flowering is equally important.

Some Jews are Jewish mainly in response to anti-Semitism or anti-Israel attacks. They are “camp” Jews. Some Jews are Jewish only (or mainly) in their fulfillment of the rituals of our religious tradition. They are “congregation” Jews. In fact, though, we each need to play our role in both domains. We need to fortify our camp and activate our congregation.

Our building is a reminder of our need to be a camp, and all of you here are a reminder of our need to be a congregation, a spiritually vibrant, compassionate and idealistic Torah community. Although my position as Rabbi is covered by JCM as an institution, my primary obligation is to be here for the congregation. What does this entail? First I must seek to plant seeds, like the papaya seeds I planted outside this Tu Bishvat. These seeds are characterized by Torah and modern values that will guide us forward. Second, is facilitating our community through a process where we discover how to continuously invest in each other’s growth?

Like the rest of nature, we are all growing. We must remember that people are not bad. Making such a declaration is שינת חינם or ‘baseless hatred.’ Once you get so used to a broken way of doing things, it is hard to remember how to be any other way. In other words we should be asking ourselves when does our memory not serve us and cause us to repeat destructive patterns?

Our days are characterized by anger at the perceived “other.” Some have the right to be angry, others… just get off on it; they draw energy from the chaotic abyss of anger, the destroyer of worlds. In such a shadow, can we build a congregation that is a utopia for everyone? To have different people working side by side in “perfect” harmony?

We can advance when we become better people. Once we learn to work together, to really live with each other and develop a genuine investment in each other’s growth, that is when we attain harmony. Step one is learning not to sweat the small stuff, and focus on the big goals so that we can make a leap of commonality. And this is the commonality that is at the core of a thriving congregation. A congregation that invests in the life of its members spiritually as the members invest financially, and with their time as volunteers.

These volunteers, such as Dorothy, Stephanie, Josh, Hanah, Simon, Sheri, Marge and so many more, have planted a vibrant non-profit known as the Jewish Congregation of Maui. The word congregation is meaningful to this community and should be preserved, in all the power contained within its meaning.

Shannah Tova

Going Out of OurselvesTorah Portion: Ki Titze

When you go out to war against your enemies, 
and the Eternal delivers them into your power 
and you take some of them captive… 
-Deuteronomy 21:10

Our Torah portion opens with the words that guide us how we are to behave during the chaotic darkness that characterizes warfare. Throughout our lives we find ourselves “going out” of things: we leave the womb, we get out of bed, the house, our workplace… we leave our comfort zone - the known and the familiar.

The most well known “going out of” is when Adam and Eve had to go out of the Garden of Eden. The movement of leaving was initiated by the interaction with the serpent. The movement of the serpent is motivated by a mechanism built into the very structure of Creation and is planted within everything. The snake is telling us to “get out, leave, become and emerge into your full potential.”

We can see the struggle of becoming in nature: the seed struggles to sprout, a baby struggles to leave its mother’s womb and a butterfly struggles to hatch from its cocoon. It would be easier to remain in the previous state of being as a seed, in the cocoon or in the womb. And yet, nature pushes to emerge into life and realize its potential. 

“Becoming” is one of the names of the Eternal One. When the Creator introduces His essence to Moses at the Burning Bush, he says: “Tell the Israelites that ‘I Will Become’ has sent you.” The ultimate going out became the Exodus and was initiated by the Force of Becoming. 

As we approach the High Holy Days, may we be blessed with actualizing our potential by going out and becoming forces for good in the world. May we become our higher selves as we manifest our full potential to repair the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Walking before the Eternal Whole-heartedly: Parshat Shoftim

“You must be wholehearted with the Eternal One.”
-Deuteronomy 18:13

I have a profound love of the root of the word for peace in Hebrew, שלום - Shalom. The root, ש-ל-מ - shalem means complete, safe and at peace. It also means to be complete or sound and to make restitution. Understanding this root, which is shared with the word for peace in Arabic, explains the cultural differences between the Semitic idea of peace and that of the western world. Whereas peace in the western world has the connotation of compromising, in Hebrew and Arabic it requires for both peoples to be in relationship and together attempt to understand what wholeness can mean to one another.

Sometimes our understanding of wholeness contradicts one another and creates a paradox where one side is perceived as having attained their goal while the other side is lacking. What does it mean to lack something? I would like to suggest that lack is a fact of life and is a very basic state of our human existence. 

And yet, our Torah portion calls for us to be whole with the Eternal One (Deuteronomy 18:13). It is important to note that the Hebrew word for ‘whole’ here is different from the one mentioned above: תמים - tamim. The other meaning of this word in Hebrew is: “innocence or naivete.” Our Sages teach us that being tamim is the highest level one can attain. We are therefore invited to be whole with the Eternal One. 

What does this mean? The great commentator Rashi explains that we are to walk before the Eternal whole-heartedly, put our hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shall be with Him and become His portion. 

Investigating the future implies that we seek to fill in that part of us we perceive as lacking. What can we do to fill the perceived gap in our life so that we have what we need to be whole? 

The Kabbalah sees lack or deficiency as the key to the existence of the world. It creates a sense of deprivation, which, in turn, creates will - the will to fill what is lacking - which is the essence of creativity, and therefore the essence of existence. Without deficiency there is no sense of lack. Without lack, there is no will. Without will there is no creation, and without creation there is no existence.

And, yet, why is it that we feel miserable when we perceive to be lacking something? The memory of what we do not have is the reason for fear and anxiety. Once these primal feelings are activated within us, it becomes fertile ground for breeding greed and violence. And this is why we need the laws and boundaries contained within the Torah.

It is our attitude towards what we perceive as lacking in our life that defines us. We all have the ability to undergo a transformation towards wholeness. Everyone can have a sense of deficiency while realizing that in truth there is no lack. 

The verse, “you must be whole with the Eternal,” is an invitation to ponder the ultimate paradox: Know that you are totally whole, and as part of this wholeness, you also have a sense of deficiency. This is what will create life and drive your will to succeed. 

The sense of deficiency is not the opposite of wholeness, because wholeness contains everything, including the perception of deficiency! Otherwise, how could it truly be whole? 

The Torah of Shalem (Wholeness) calls for us to accept this seemingly impossible paradox where, on the one hand, nothing is missing because everything is actually whole, and on the other, there is definitely deficiency - because without it there would be no existence.

May we be blessed with reconciling the opposites in our lives, wholeness and deficiency, peace and struggle, life and death. 

Shabbat Shalom.

On Chosenness and Repairing the World: Parshat Re'eh

“Follow none but the Eternal your G!d, and revere none but Him; 
observe His commandments alone and heed only his orders; 
worship none but the Eternal, and hold fast to the Lord.” 
-Deuteronomy 13:5

The Creator is envisioned as a raging fire, so the commentators ask how can one hold fast to a fire? We are to cling to the Eternal by doing what the Eternal does, so to speak; this includes visiting the sick, sustaining the poor, freeing the enslaved, and comforting the grieving (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a). 

During our Thursday evening learning we talked about Tikkun Olam and why it is that we are expected to ‘repair the world.’ Our chosenness is one that obligates us to take part in making the world a better place.

The idea of chosenness has been deeply problematic for our people throughout the ages. It has been one of the causes of antisemitism as well as the misinterpretation that we are superior to other peoples. Last week’s Torah portion was very clear in saying that it is only because of our foremothers and forefathers that we were chosen to enter into the Holy Land. We did not have any particular virtue that made us better than others, to the contrary, we are called a stiffnecked people (see Deuteronomy 9:4-6).

Such stiffneckedness has been important for us to remain as a Jewish people holding onto a three thousand year old Torah. It has an important role to play. Someone who is stiffnecked is less likely to submit passively to reality. Such as person may help change the world, waking us all up from a moral coma and lighting up a new path for us to know that yes, there are alternatives. The best example of this is Mordechai the Jew from the story of Purim. He is the first to be called a Jew and refused to bow down when Haman rode by him. Everyone else accepted the evil official with a “soft, flexible neck.” It was Mordechai’s unwillingness to submit that was part of saving the Jewish people alongside Esther.

The new Hebrew month of Elul begins this Shabbat. We begin fifty days of reckoning that lasts from the first of Elul to the Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot. During these fifty days we are to engage in self-examination and fine-tuning, asking the important question: Are we being stiff necked for the right reasons so that we can do the work that we were chosen to do.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy New Month of Elul and may your reflections be fruitful!

Reward and Punishment: Ekev

The word Ekev that opens our Torah portion this week means "following." In other words, if you do this, the result will be one way and if you do the opposite, the result will also unfold accordingly. During our Torah study last night, the participants found this to be an old theological model that no longer resonates especially after the Shoah (Holocaust). After all, some of the most observant Jews, 80% of Jewish leadership, perished at the hands of the Nazis and their allies.

Our Torah portion attempts to condition us to accept this old theological model: if we keep the Eternal's commandments our lives will be wonderful in every way and if not we will be punished. It was the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who cast doubt upon this conditioning and helped ignite the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah). 

At the beginning of my return to the Jewish religion in my early 20s, I was scrupulous in my observance of the commandments. I fulfilled the classical response of our people when they said that, "they will do and then they will understand" (Ex. 24:7). Now I look back and I think to myself how dogmatic such a way of thinking is. We believe in a religion that questions, such as when Abraham questioned the justice of destroying all the people of Sodom. 

Our Sages suggest that to reconcile this issue we need to focus on what the word Halachah (Jewish Law) means. It comes from the root that means to steer in the direction of. This direction should be towards internal movement or change. The purpose of this change is to dissolve the powerful grasp of the human ego and lead us into an inner place of humility, one that allows for dialogue with the Eternal. When we create an internal process of growth, we tend to only understand the benefits afterwards, when calm prevails in the stormy sea of anxiety.

As the prophet Micha 6:8 reminds us, "He has told you, human, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your Creator." 

May our humble walking and acts of justice bless us with calm waters.

Shabbat Shalom

A Comforting Shabbat of Forgiveness: Va'etchanan

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nachamu or the Comforting Shabbat. On Shabbat morning we will read the words of consolation of the prophet Isaiah, which are the source of the name of this Shabbat: “Oh comfort My people, says the Lord. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, And declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Eternal double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2) 

A familiar pattern emerges: we sin, we are punished, we ask forgiveness, we are pardoned, and then consoled.

Is this cycle truly necessary? Perhaps there is another way?

The Hebrew word for sin is חטא. חטא (pronounced “chet”) literally means to miss the target, as in archery. We, too, tend to miss our own targets, our own path, our own destiny. Some of us spend many years getting lost, climbing over rocks, and getting scratched by thorns, lost, thirsty, and very very tired. 

Missing the mark has a very important role to play in our lives. Losing one’s way teaches us and reminds us that there indeed is a path and that we may not be on it at that moment. 

Suffering can be a sign letting us know that we are not on our path, we are missing the mark. Without this suffering, we would not know how to be more precise on our journey. We would not learn the lessons that move us forward, that enable us to bring our gifts to the world.

There are three kinds of suffering described in the Talmud (Berachot 5a):

  1. If a person sees suffering come upon him, he should examine his actions, as it says (Lamentations 3:40) 'Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to the Lord'.
  2. If He has searched and did not find something wrong with his actions or a hidden sin, he may attribute his suffering to “Bitul Torah” not dedicating enough time to studying Torah.
  3. And if he still doesn’t find [the source of his suffering], it is then the suffering of love, as it says (Mishlei 3:12), 'For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes'."

 

I would like us to focus on the third kind of suffering - the suffering caused by love - it is actually not a punishment at all. This suffering does not result from our own actions. Its sole purpose is to help us grow, to take us to the next stage of our development. It is painful, but it has a purpose, which is development and growth.

It is so challenging to ask for forgiveness! Doing so is admitting that we have done wrong, perhaps even very much so. Most of us instinctively prefer to excuse our behavior, to explain why we didn’t actually sin, why it isn’t our fault. But just as we saw the sin in a different, more human light, and the punishment a result and not a penalty, so, too, we can perhaps see asking for forgiveness in a different light. Because at the end of the day, without asking for forgiveness we cannot expect to be pardoned and find consolation.

Forgiveness enables repair and allows growth. Forgiveness following a sin raises us up to a higher and more precise level than we were prior to committing the sin. Judaism is unique in that it demands that forgiveness be asked from the person against whom we sinned. Even the Lord cannot provide forgiveness in the name of someone we have wronged. 

This Shabbat is one of consolation. Finding consolation through forgiveness is a difficult and yet necessary task. May we be blessed with finding a way forward.

Shabbat Shalom

Taking the First Step: Deuteronomy

We read in Exodus 4:10 that at the beginning of the journey for Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt that he said that he was “not a man of words.” By the time of Deuteronomy, he is the master of words. The book of Deuteronomy is his final message to the people that include eloquent words of guidance. Moses as a leader grew by leaps and bounds in the forty years alongside the other Israelites. The shift in his consciousness was necessary to prepare the Israelites to finally enter the promised land.

Moses recounts the famous story of the twelve scouts that resulted in the need to wait a generation before entering the land. The version he chooses to relate is entirely different from the one we read in the book of Numbers, at the time it occurred. 

Moses says, “Have no dread or fear of them. None other than the Eternal, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as the Eternal did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Eternal carried you, as a person carries his child, all the way that you traveled until you came to this place. Yet for all that, you have no faith in the Eternal, who goes before you on your journeys—to scout the place where you are to encamp—in fire by night and in cloud by day, in order to guide you on the route you are to follow” (Deut. 1:28-33).

I am reminded of the parable of the footprints in the sand:

One night, a man fell into a deep sleep and had a detailed dream; he dreamt that he was walking along the beautiful beach in the company of the Eternal. While he was walking along the sea shore, the scenes of different incidents and situations from his life flashed one by one across the dark sky. He kept moving and watching the different stages of his life, the good times as well as bad ones. After the last scene of life flashed before him, he looked back and noticed the footprints in the sand. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand. One belonged to his own and the other one to the Lord. All of sudden he noticed that at many times along the path of his life; especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints. This really disturbed him, so he asked the Eternal about it. He said, “Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you the most, you were not there for me.”

The Eternal waited in silence and then in a small silent voice whispered, “My precious child, I love you and never left you. When you were fine and healthy, I used to walk beside you. So the extra pair of footprints was visible. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you during your challenging times. Whenever you were in difficulties and problems, it was then that I was protecting you the most.”
Coming back to Deuteronomy, you may have thought that it was only you who traveled on the difficult journey of life. Actually, it was the Eternal who carried you like a parent carries their child. You thought you chose the path on which your feet trod? Well, no. The Eternal goes before you and guides you on your path, day and night.

The demand of faith is one that is deeply difficult. It is as uncomfortable to us as the demand to love (V'ahavta prayer after the Shema) or the demand to collectively mourn as we will be doing on Saturday night for the 9th of Av. Most of us struggle with the demands on our emotions. We feel that it is there that we should have ultimate free choice. 

William James, a pioneer of American philosophy and psychology at the turn of the 20th century, gave a series of lectures entitled, "The Will to Believe". James, who was more scientist than philosopher at the beginning of his career as a professor at Harvard, searched for a response to the despair he felt in light of the uncompromising laws of nature. He even considered committing suicide, because what was the point? What is the point of making an effort, when the unrelenting laws of nature are so oblivious to us? And then, at the beginning of his thirties, William James experienced an intellectual transformation which changed his understanding. He understood that in any case our reality is based on belief, and that proof - if there is any - comes later. In other words, we choose to believe in life anew each day, in our body’s ability to bear us, in our ability to walk. Only after we take a step, do we discover that we were right. And it is at that moment of taking a step do we recognize the footprints of our Creator alongside us. 

Tomorrow night we will mark the eve of Tisha b’Av, the 26 hour fast where we collectively mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, the exile from Spain and so much more. It was a time when we felt that we were walking alone as a people and yet, if we concentrate on each of the incidents that transpired, we can see that the Creator was going with us into Exile. 

Let’s take for example the destruction of the Second Temple. For hundreds of years prior, the prophets were speaking out against the phenomenon of sacrificing animals as a way of being forgiven for personal and communal sins. A new system had to come into place. That new system is prayer which replaces the sacrifices. And yet, what does the Talmud teach us for why the Second Temple was destroyed and we as a people experienced an exile that lasted for thousands of years? Because of “baseless hatred.” I would like to venture that Tisha B’Av is the time for us to take first steps in repairing relationships. 

If we take a step in the direction of believing that we are capable of creating a healing, tolerant and conscientious society, and if we work together on that belief, the chance that such a society will be created is very high.

Moses believed that he was not a man of words. Forty years later, he delivered speeches that most likely surprised him as well. Who would have believed it was possible? This year, on the eve of Tisha B’av, I choose to believe that we will overcome our difficulties, that light will prevail over darkness, that tolerance will prevail over extremism, that love will prevail over hatred. 

Shabbat Shalom, and for those who are fasting, may it be a meaningful fast.

The Tisha b’Av fast will begin at 7:01pm on Saturday and finishes at 7:24pm on Sunday. Please join us at JCM for an evening of reflection and reconciliation at 7:30pm on Saturday, August 6.

Learning to be with the Lord when Struggling: Matot-Masei

Our Torah portion this week records each of the stopping places of the Israelites during their forty year trek in the Wilderness. There is a touching story in the Midrash that explains why this is part of the narrative. The detailed account of the stopping places reflects the Eternal’s loving concern for the Nation of Israel. It is compared to a king who has taken his ailing child to a distant place in order to be cured. On the return journey, the king would stop at each resting place and remind his child: this is where we found shelter; this is where we cooled off at an oasis; this is where you were quite ill. Each place evoked memories and created a deeper bond between the king and his ailing child.

When groups of people have shared experiences together what results is a deep bond that can be relied upon for building a common future. Thus, recounting the past is not mere nostalgia, rather it is coupled with the knowledge that we are now moving forward together towards a better future. New challenges and opportunities can now be met with those experienced in working together.

What kind of consciousness should we cultivate during the process of moving from one challenge to the next? Let’s begin by reading the repeating structure that appears throughout Numbers 33:5-49:

“When they were thrown by one place (state of being)
They found rest in another.
And when they were thrown by that one,
They found rest in another…”

Our people’s story is an ongoing journey, always shifting, always subject to change.

“An ongoing journey–
Always with the Eternal, and never with stability.
Always with longing, never with fulfillment.
Always shifting and moving, with no guarantees regarding the next stop or the next upheaval.”
-Rabbi Ebn Leader

At every stop along the road, these wanderers who came before us had to reconstruct the Lord’s home in their camp. This was done even in the most challenging of places based on the names that the Israelites gave them (Shadow Land, Terror, Bitterness, Desire’s Graves, etc.) We learn from our Torah portion this week to take upon ourselves the challenging practice of creating a place for the Eternal at every stop of the journey, no matter how intense the experience feels.

We are now in the second of the three weeks of collective national mourning that takes place every year between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av (this year on Saturday evening, August 6). Liturgically, this mourning is oriented towards the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. We learn from the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6) that there are numerous additional historical tragedies that took place during this time and the list only got longer. What is revealed is that the spiritual practice of communal mourning is oriented towards suffering in general rather than towards one specific historical tragedy.

Our Sages teach that a practice for these three weeks is to focus on the challenge of being present with the Lord in a reality that shifts and changes, and particularly in the difficult and painful stops along the way. This time becomes the practice ground on which we train for challenges whenever they appear in our lives. During this time, through memory and ritual, we strive to create a communal setting for engaging with the presence of the Eternal even in the midst of suffering.

Rabbi Ebn Leader teaches that all of being is the Eternal’s presence, though the form of that presence which we experience is constantly transforming and changing. The forms of presence that we find difficult may feel like absence or rejection, but they are divine no less than the forms we find inspiring. We do not always get to choose if we will encounter the Lord as an experience of beauty or as an experience of pain. But we can always choose our response. And as Victor Frankl teaches, it is in that response where our power lies.  

We each have a choice in our response to see challenges as a gateway to a deeper connection with the Eternal and each other, an opportunity to expand a sense of interdependence. Alternatively, we have the option to shut down when facing these moments and retreat into feelings of alienation, despair and pain. For our generation, could there be any spiritual practice more necessary than learning to recognize and be with the Eternal during our struggles?

On Tisha B’Av this year, Saturday evening August 6 at 7:30pm, we will come together at JCM to learn about how to confront challenges together as a community and turn them into opportunities for growth. Join us.

Pinchas: On Confronting Extremism

On Thursday, June 30, the Hebrew month of Tammuz began and Rosh Hodesh prayers took place at the egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel, known as Ezrat Israel. A large group of extremist Orthodox youth arrived there with whistles and used them to disturb the prayer service at the plaza. A few of the demonstrators tore the siddurim published by the Conservative movement, and one teen was photographed blowing his nose on a torn page of a siddur.

My colleague and close friend, Rabbi Arie Hasit, a Conservative rabbi, was leading a Bar Mitzvah service for an American boy at the plaza. He wrote the following post on Facebook: “It is difficult for me to find the words to describe my experience this morning at Ezrat Israel. I hoped that the charming, shy, but determined young boy wouldn’t be exposed to hatred. Instead, he received shouts from dozens of children and teenagers with whistles calling him a Christian. There were chants saying that he was a Nazi. An American boy who wanted to celebrate reaching the age of observance. A boy who chose to get his aliyah to the Torah in Israel. In the presence of his parents, grandparents and extended family. The boy was amazing. It happened beautifully, and he did not make a single mistake, despite the disturbances.” Rabbi Hasit added that the Bar Mitzvah boy is broken, believing that some people hate him and are willing to hurt him because his Judaism is different from their Judaism.

In our Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas, we learn of the reward given to the priest Pinchas for his zealotry. The story goes that after the failed attempt by the wizard Bilam and the king Balak to curse Israel, they developed a new tactic and sent the beautiful Moabite women to seduce the powerful men among the Israelites. The women then invited them to sacrifice to their gods which the elites gladly agreed to do. And once again the Lord was angered and told Moses to execute the leaders who were participating in the idolatry. Moses told the people to do this and just at that moment one of the Israelite princes brought a Midianite princess before the people to continue performing the rituals.

It was at that moment that the zeal of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the Priest, saw this, took a spear and killed the prince and the princess. The Torah portion this week begins with the Lord rewarding Pinchas with the Covenant of Peace (Numbers 25:12) for his actions! When Pinchas killed Zimri and Kosbi it unleashed a great controversy among the people. They asked, “Were his actions correct? Were they murderous?” According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the Sages were prepared to excommunicate Pinhas until the Holy Spirit came upon him and gave him the Covenant of Peace and Priesthood. 

The Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud understand Pinchas’ act as singular, and acceptable only with the testimony of the Lord. No matter what the provocation, zealousness such as Pinchas’ requires immediate excommunication; an individual prone to such action cannot be abided in the community. The Eternal’s intervention on his behalf is understood as both promoting Pinchas as a uniquely righteous individual and as denying permission for others to follow in his footsteps in an era when the Lord no longer directly speaks through us.

Unfortunately, what transpires far too often at the Western Wall and its environs are scenes of extremist Orthodox Jews using their fervor to build walls rather than bridges. They claim to be “zealous for the Lord,” like the Maccabees during Hanukkah who also took inspiration from Pinchas’ act. How are we to deal with the extremism in our text and it being glorified as holy zealotry? Is it reasonable for us to criticize other religions for problematic quotes in their holy texts while not paying attention to our own? 

I would like to suggest that a metric for judging the zeal of those who act “in the Lord’s name”  is how their actions affect the Jewish community in its entirety? That is, how do their actions preserve, or destroy the very fabric of, the Jewish community? Whereas the potential exists for arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, there are constructive arguments that can be made “for the sake of Heaven.” Destructive arguments, on the other hand, are characterized by the misplaced logic of Korach and all others who joined his camp to oppose Moses for whatever reason they may have had at the time. Differentiating between the two requires wisdom and patience on behalf of dedicated mediators who can calm tensions and encourage dialogue for the sake of heaven.

I pray for the day when Rabbis who are also experts in conflict transformation, can create dialogue between both groups at the holiest site of Judaism and show by example how we should transform “baseless hatred,” which caused the destruction of the Second Temple, into “baseless love.”

On Tisha B’Av this year, Saturday evening August 6 at 7:30pm, we will come together at JCM to learn about how damaging baseless hatred can be and what we can do to turn things around when it happens. How can we have zeal for baseless love even when there are reasons to be angry and upset at the other amongst us? 

Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz once taught that we should cultivate, “a feeling of love for all Jews, whatever their background, whatever their status. There will be those whom we will applaud, those whom we will oppose, those who will give us pain, even make us cry. But we will try never to forget that we are one and that the inner door should never be closed. And we will keep an outer door, to the outside world, open as well. To be sure, it will have a screen. Not everything is needed or wanted. But it is, after all, the Lord’s world and we live in it, not despite it.”

Parshat Balak: Leadership and Listening

“There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9)

  One of the challenges in leadership is understanding who we are supposed to listen to and to what extent are the opinions of others supposed to influence us? We have something to learn from a common analogy that compares a leader to a lion who is considered the king of nature. According to our Torah portion this week, the wizard Balaam compares the children of Israel to a lion and says: “A people that rises like a lioness and leaps up like a lion.” In the TV series, "Game of Thrones," Tywin Lannister said, "the lion does not consider the opinion of the sheep."

Numbers 23:9-11
As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, may my fate be like theirs! Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? Here I brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!”

  The story tells of a group of Moabites and Midianites led by a prophet and a king who ascend together to the tops of the hills and observe all of Israel from above. The Prophet noticed that Israel dwells separately and is not considered among the nations. The descendants of Israel seem endless to him. He swears that just as he wants to die being known as an honest man, so he also wants his fate to be the fate of Israel. The unity of destiny, that is, the common destiny, is first and foremost the building of a shared society.

  Imagine a political reality in the future when all nations will be able to greet us as Israel, and reverse the curses of our enemies. What kind of helpful dialogue will take place when we understand the common destiny that the Jews share with the non-Jews living among us? How can we listen to each other despite the differences between us?

  Such a dialogue stems from building relationships based on mutual interests. And what interest can be more mutual than the development of next-generation leadership out of all the diverse peoples composing modern society? 

  Leadership in the modern world is a complex and multifaceted discipline. It can no longer rely on innate talent or skill alone. Leaders today need to hold on to the values ​​that their society values. They must be practiced and experienced in skills appropriate to their tasks. They need to know the techniques by which they can collaborate with their peers and those who follow them, effectively and positively.

  Leadership development is a difficult and long-term challenge. However, it is rewarding, satisfying and helps people understand their true destiny. Leadership development should begin in adolescence, at a time when young people are shaping their identity, goals and destiny. This work should begin with young people leading themselves, being led by others, and experimenting with leading others.

  Leadership skills should become habits that leaders use without thinking. They should be studied and practiced until they become natural behaviors. The same is true of values; They need to be studied and applied on a daily basis.

  I envision a program dedicated to developing the next generation of leaders, regardless of race, religion or gender. The process begins with basic “life skills,” such as camping, outdoor skills, and survival skills. Through treks, setting up camps in the field, organizing equipment and backpacks and providing food and water to the group, participants will learn the importance and values ​​of these skills on their way to becoming leaders in society. These skills are universal and bridge the gap between different ideologies and beliefs.

  Attention and consideration for the opinions of others are important milestones on the path to prospering together. In contrast to the story in our Torah portion this week, in such a leadership program, all different types of people will ascend together to the tops of hills to greet all the people in peace.

Power for the Sake of Heaven

I would like to thank my teachers for their words and reflections that are part of this week's Torah portion.

Sometimes the Torah portion matches the Haftarah perfectly. Usually, the haftorah is assigned to a parasha because of a connection of content and this time, the connection is perfect.

In our Torah portion, Parashat Korach, a group of 250 men led by Korach, Dotan, and Aviram, question the leadership abilities of Moses and Aaron. Korach, who, according to the Midrash, was a very wealthy man, was not satisfied with what he had in life. He wanted it all and sold his vision to the people telling them that they are all inherently holy. 

"Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took for himself, along with Dathan and Aviram sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet—descendants of Reuven - to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chiefs of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined together against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”

“You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” Moses said, “Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of God’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that [God] has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?" (Numbers 16:1-10)

Let’s look closely at the statements being said here. Korah is arguing that Moses has separated himself too much from the people and that he has raised himself above the congregation. It seems that Moses does not hear the needs of Korah. He responds from the hip and says, “You are a son of Levi with privileges, be happy with that.” This was not Korah’s message. His message was that Moses had separated and elevated himself from the people. 

The problem was even deeper. Korah’s camp included all those who had any complaint against Moses. For example, Dotan and Aviram, who were not Levites, took their argument even further. When Moses called them to him, they refused to come. They answered him in the same manner - “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey (Egypt) to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?... We will not come!” (Numbers 16:13-14).

Moses is shocked. He didn’t want to be the leader of the people any more. He asks them, have I done something wrong? “I have not taken the donkey of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them” (Numbers 16:15).

What would have happened if Moses had really listened and understood the needs of Korah and the people? Could they have had a dialogue to prevent the violent end of the story when the ground opens up and swallows Korach and his people? 

The haftorah relates the story of Samuel the prophet, who is deeply insulted when the people turn to him and demand that he anoint a king to rule over them. He sees this as a personal attack. The people have had enough of his leadership, and particularly the leadership of his sons. A moment before he crowns Saul as king, Samuel turns to the People and asks them: "Here I am! Testify against me, in the presence of the Eternal and in the presence of His anointed one: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe…” (I Samuel 12:3).

Moses and Samuel are both shocked by the dissatisfaction of the people, and particularly by their lack of appreciation. They don’t understand where they went wrong and what the people want from them. 

According to the Book of Chronicles, Samuel was a descendent of Korach!

How can this be? After all, Korach was swallowed up by the earth together with his entire family. How can there be anyone left, and how can a great man like Samuel the Prophet descend from Korach?

It appears that power-hungry people never entirely disappear. Furthermore, every few generations this hunger for power and control dismantles the mechanisms of government, the delicate distribution of authority, the division between roles and centers of authority in society - all in order to gain more power. Systems of government are built with internal checks and balances, delicately constructed, but easily destroyed when there is greed for power in the vicinity. 

Korach fails at dismantling the existing structure of power. But his descendent, Samuel the Prophet, succeeds! Samuel is actually the one who implements Korach’s vision, and the one who does exactly as Korach wanted to do: He dismantles all the governing structures that Moses created. He inherits the priesthood from Eli the High Priest and then cancels it all together. He himself offers sacrifices, although he is not a Cohen (Priest). He cancels the judicial system created by Moses at the advice of his father-in-law, and judges the people himself. And the most extreme measure Samuel takes is to try to bequeath the leadership to his sons, even though they had no leadership or prophetic abilities. We do not hear about Moses’ sons, for example. There is no reason for the leadership to transfer to them. 

The big difference between Korach and Samuel is that Korach’s belief in equality was cynical. It did not stem from a true belief in equality “for the sake of heaven” or just for its own sake, but rather for the purpose of power and for the benefits of governance. Samuel, on the other hand, believed that his intentions were good. He dismantled the mechanisms which had become corrupt.

Equality is very important, but true equality does not mean everyone has the same abilities. Not everyone can be a judge. Not everyone can lead an army into battle. Not everyone is suitable to lead a nation. And when the motive is only power and not suitability, everyone ends up losing.

This is why the people turn to Samuel and demand that he instate a king over them. They are actually demanding that he forego his centralized authority and rebuild an organized system of government in which there is military and political leadership, spiritual/prophetic leadership, and judicial leadership. 

Remember, it was Moses who sowed the seeds of kingship in Israel. He is the one who gives the People the laws of kingship. In these laws, Moses describes exactly what the king’s authority is, and mostly what it isn’t. Moses makes sure that the future king is answerable to the laws of morality and judgment. 

It is easy to destroy the delicate structure of government. It is much more difficult to rebuild it. To Samuel’s credit, having dismantled the mechanisms of government and giving himself complete authority, at the end of his life he lays the foundations of rebuilding those mechanisms, albeit against his will. He will be the one who establishes the kingship in the spirit of Moses’ laws, and he prepares the infrastructure for the building of the Temple.

So what are the lessons to be learned from the linking of the Torah portion of Korach to the Haftorah of Samuel the Prophet? 

First of all, the value of equality requires further investigation. Every person is unique and one-of-a-kind. Every person is created in the Creator’s image. Therefore, in essence, we are indeed all equal. But the fact is that we all have different abilities and not everyone can fulfill every role.

There is nothing more poisonous for the soul than our tendency to compare ourselves to others, and we do so all the time - in the name of equality.  A lot is written, for example, about how Facebook is a leading cause of depression, because it shows the external glory of other people’s lives, and we mistakenly compare our inner chaotic messy lives to the external glory of others, leaving us feeling inferior and inadequate.

We must set boundaries for ourselves! The value of equality can exist only if it is accompanied by humility and a realistic recognition of our value. 

The desire for power usually stems from a sense of inferiority, and it is dangerous. Power that is “for the sake of heaven” is a power that has the ability to create and heal worlds. Any other kind destroys those worlds that have been so carefully constructed.

Shabbat Shalom

Confronting Our Expectations: Parashat Shelach

After departing the spiritual center of Mount Sinai, the Israelites began their journey into the Negev. For all intents and purposes, the community made its way to the Promised Land, to the Land of milk and honey. And yet, this is not what happens. They almost arrive, but that almost is so far away. Just as Moses will see the land from a distance but not enter it, so, too, the Israelites will see their goal in the distance, and not be able to attain it.

In our portion this week, the Eternal commands Moses to send twelve spies to tour the Land: “Send spies to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one participant from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a prince among them” (Numbers 13:2).

The Sages explain that when the Eternal initially ordered Moses to send the spies that it was a concession. They understood this from the literal translation of שלח לך - “send for yourself.” That is, for your own purposes (not Mine). The Eternal seems to be saying, “I have told you already that the Land is good and that I will give it to you. If you need human confirmation of that, go ahead and send scouts.” 

So why really are the Israelites having to do this? Moses rationally explains that they are to see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Why does Moses add these instructions when they were not requested by the Eternal?

Moses is rightfully thinking like a human general and understands that he is supposed to get an intelligence report from the leaders of the tribes so that the Israelites as a whole would feel confident in their conquering of the Land. We can not blame Moses for thinking this and adding the instructions as he thought that they would be helpful for the spies to be able to discern. In this circumstance, their attention to detail resulted in disaster: the inability to conceive that the community could undertake what it has been tasked with doing.

And the princes of the tribes who brought back the report that the land could not be conquered? Can they be blamed? I do not believe so. They were thinking in the best interests of their tribe and their people. They would prefer to see them live in the wilderness than to be destroyed in war.

The result of the report of the spies is that the community complains to Moses and Aaron resolves to head back to Egypt. Joshua tries to tell the people not to fear the situation at hand and the people move from verbal violence to physical violence. 

The Creator then intervenes and tells Moses that the people will die in the wilderness and the responsibility for conquering the Land will be transferred to their children. When the people hear this, some of them definitely march toward the Land and the inhabitants destroy them. 

I often wonder if there could have been a reconciliation between Moses and the spies which would have prevented the resulting calamity. What would have happened had the spies processed their legitimate human fears with Moses instead of airing those fears to the entire community? Could Moses have then intervened with the Eternal and understood how to communicate a hope for a future that they felt was all but lost? I would like to believe so. 

An effective community leadership is one that can work through its challenges together and be strengthened as a result. This relies on understanding the needs and fears of the community while communicating a united vision for a better future.  

Shabbat Shalom

On Manifesting the Pillar of Cloud in Our LivesParashat Behaalotcha

Once upon a time we as a people had a form of certainty in our relationship with the Eternal One. According to our Torah portion, there was no human general or political leader who told us when to move forward. It was the Creator who indicated Its desire through the movement of a pillar of cloud: 

"And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. At a command of the Eternal the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Eternal they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle.  When the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle many days, the Israelites observed the Eternal’s mandate and did not journey on. At such times as the cloud rested over the Tabernacle for only a few days, they remained encamped at a command of the Eternal, and broke camp at a command of the Eternal. And at such times as the cloud stayed from evening until morning, they broke camp as soon as the cloud lifted in the morning. Day or night, whenever the cloud lifted, they would break camp.  Whether it was two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle—the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp.  On a sign from the Eternal they made camp and on a sign from God they broke camp; they observed the Eternal’s mandate at the Eternal’s bidding through Moses" (Numbers 9:17-23).

Our portion picks up after a year of encampment at the foot of Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah. This was the formative year when a group of freed slaves organized themselves and created the infrastructures that would accompany the Nation of Israel until its entry into the Holy Land and even up until the modern day. A moment before they embark on their journey, two historic events take place: the seven-branched menorah is lit for the first time, and Passover is celebrated for the first time. And then the cloud rises.

This was a sign to dismantle the encampment and the Tabernacle, pack all the belongings, and begin to move. "In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai…" (Numbers 10:11-12).

One of the principles in Torah study is that the Torah is not just a guide for one moment in time on the journey in the Wilderness. It is intended to be an ultimate guidebook for the Nation of Israel. The Torah is intended to be our version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Our Sages throughout history have understood the Israelites’ journey in the Wilderness as an archetype for all journeys.  Every person experiences an Exodus in her or his life: parting of the Sea, the receipt of the Torah, the story of the Golden Calf, the endless complaints, the sin of the spies which brought about forty additional years of wandering and even Moses’ final view of the Promised Land from Mount Nevo a moment before his death. 

Therefore, the Divine pillar which determines when we move and to where, and when we rest and where - is a hidden guidance system which, if we get to know it, may bring about dramatic change in our lives. In Psalms 99:7, King David wrote, "He speaks to them in a pillar of cloud". The pillar of cloud did not disappear. It is present today, just as it was then. What did change was our ability to see. 

Our world is a reflection of our sight: “Tell me what you see, and I will tell you about you."  The modern world has veiled our ability to truly see. Today we are able to see things and objects, even more so with the use of telescopes and microscopes, but we are completely blind to the spiritual infrastructure in which they exist, and especially to the gaps between them. Our physical sight and intellectual sight works well and yet as these two developed, our spiritual sight atrophied.

How are we to define spiritual infrastructure? Presumably each person will see it differently, and yet, at the deepest level, this infrastructure is the infinite wisdom that activates the world. The pillar of cloud comes from that wisdom. More precisely, the pillar itself is the wisdom and intelligence that activates existence. The pillar of cloud "lives us,” directs us, makes us grow and guides us. It also takes us up the mountain from which everything can be seen, and from which the cloud returns us to the place from which It gave us life.

There is no reality without the pillar of cloud; no life and no journey. The Eternal spoke to them in a pillar of cloud and continues to speak to us and it is time we listened. Therefore, the invitation this week is to notice the pillar that is always there, although we don’t see it. Pay attention to how it feels, what it wants, and what it asks of us. For those who have never thought in this direction and are sure that it is possible to see only animate things and objects, this may be a little hard to do at first, and maybe even a bit strange. It is worth it as the power contained within is life-changing.

There are no mistakes on the journey. The Israelites did not know that they would wander in the wilderness for forty years. It is not the fault of the spies or of the people. The pillar of cloud is the deep wisdom that motivates the process. This all encompassing wisdom knew that the people were not yet ready, and that it was not yet the right time for them to reach their destination. When we learn how to listen to the pillar of cloud, we discover that there is nothing to regret.

Shabbat Shalom

Choosing How We Bear Things: Parshat Naso 5782

 

This week I had the privilege of conducting my first marriage here at JCM. Marriage in Judaism is נשואין  (Nisuin) that comes from the same root as נשא (Nasso), our Torah portion this week. The root means to carry, to forgive and to ascend. Marriage requires all three of these essential elements. The need to forgive is central and the ultimate test of a successful marriage is whether or not it is a source of upliftment and inspiration for both sides.

Our Torah portion is all about responsibilities. There are the families of the Levite tribe who bear the Tabernacle and its utensils on their backs. They also bear the spiritual responsibility for the people; an adulterous woman (Sotah) bears her sin, whereas a jealous man who has embittered his wife’s life bears his shame in public; a person who chooses asceticism (Nazirite vow) bears the weight of the abstinence he has chosen, including the price entailed in ending it; the Cohanim (Jewish priests) lift (bear) their hands upwards when bestowing the priestly blessing on the People; and, at the end of the parasha, each tribe bears its gifts and sacrifices in their carts to the Mishkan.

Bearing is the story of our lives. Many of us understand “bearing” as dragging or carrying a heavy burden. We can understand from the Blessing of the Priests that there is a different meaning revealed: May the Eternal lift up (bear) His countenance upon you implies lifting, raising, rather than carrying. 

In other words, the heavy burden can be transformed into wings.

We have a choice: to bear well - to lift our past up - or to carry it on our back like a heavy and oppressive burden.

Shabbat Shalom

Welcoming the Convert, Part Two

On Purim this year, I wrote a sermon called, “Welcoming the Convert,” where I explained that Amalek directly resulted from our forefathers and foremothers denying Timna the ability to convert. In her desperation she became the concubine of Esau’s son and Amalek was born. I concluded with a suggestion that the true way to counter Amalek and confront assimilation is to ensure that all who wish to convert have a path to do so. Forging a path to Judaism is a deeply individual process and it is a blessing to be here on Maui to assist those who choose to climb Mount Sinai together with our people. 

During Shavuot, it is traditional to read the book of Ruth where a Jewish family leaves the land of Israel, intermarries with a tribe who were the traditional enemies of the Israelites and the Jewish sons and the father die. In such an ancient society it is natural that Naomi, the mother, would have seen her departure from the Holy Land and her people as the sin which resulted in this misfortune. She turns to her daughters-in-law and tells them to return to their houses. Initially they refused and after much convincing, Orpah left and Ruth decided to stay. Many remember that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David; less of us know that according to Rabbinic tradition (Sotah 42b), Orpah was the mother of Goliath the Giant, David’s archenemy. This is not to say that every time someone is turned away from the Jewish people that they will produce our enemies, but it is fascinating to note the similarity between Timna and Orpah. 

And what lessons can we learn to encourage inclusion of the potential convert? There is a tradition to turn away a potential convert three times from the story of Naomi telling her daughters-in-law three times to “turn back” (see Ruth Rabbah). Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani states: "She says, 'turn back' three times, which corresponds to the three times one pushes off a convert" (Ruth Rabbah 2:16). This position was never codified into Jewish law. In fact, the authoritative Jewish legal texts go in the opposite direction, demanding that anyone who expresses a sincere interest in Judaism be immediately welcomed. The preeminent code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, states: "When a person comes to convert, we tell them: 'Do you know that Israel faces oppression and other challenges.?' If they reply: 'I know, and yet I would be honored [ani yodea v'ayni k'dai]' then we befriend them, immediately accept them, and begin to teach them" (Shulchan Aruch 268:2 - sixteenth century standard of Jewish Law).

Those who seek to convert, if they answer with sincerity ought to be met with a loving embrace and a hearty welcome to the family. According to Jewish law, one does not need to turn a person away three times, or even once. All that is required is one straightforward question of intent, ensuring that a person understands what it means to throw in their lot with the Jewish People. 

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth and pay respect to the spiritual courage it took her – and all her children after her – to take a leap into the unknown and discover a new path. But it is not enough to pay lip service to that courage. I have heard story after story from those on the path to conversion who are met with suspicion or outright rejection. Our community needs to take a hard look at itself and ask why "everyone knows" that we turn away converts three times, but too few people know that the actual law is to do the opposite.

As we are met with concern about assimilation we as Rabbis are called upon to transform our concern into an opportunity for a wider and more inclusive Jewish future. Rabbi Shmuel's minority position of turning away potential converts three times was rejected by the Sages millennia ago. It is certainly time for us to fully commit to do the same. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot.

JCM as a Safe Space: A Message of Support for Diversity and Inclusion

For Passover this year, the Jewish Congregation of Maui included an orange on all of our Seder plates in recognition of those who have felt marginalized and excluded. As we approach Shavuot, fifty days later, it is incumbent upon us to remember this message in the context of receiving the Torah. 

The Talmud (Berakhot 58a) teaches that one is required to recite a special blessing when witnessing a vast throng of Jews, praising the Almighty who is the One who understands the root and inner thoughts of each individual. “Their thoughts are not alike and their appearance is not alike.” The Creator made each person a unique being expecting and wanting a diversity of thought. We must bless Him for having created this diversity among us.

The antithesis of this ideal is represented by a society that wants everyone to be the same. The Rabbis taught us that this was happening in Sodom. The Sodomites placed visitors in a bed and if the person was too short, he was stretched until he fit the bed. If he was too tall, his legs were cut off so that he fit the bed. This parable is not more than a desire for physical uniformity; the people of Sodom wanted everyone to fit the same pattern. They fostered and enforced conformity in an extreme way. 

Another part of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) relates that when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the Eternal One stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first human, as all of them are his offspring, and not one of them is similar to another. Therefore, since all humanity descended from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: “The world was created for me, as one person can be the source of all humanity, and recognize the significance of his actions.”

Respect for individuality and diversity is the basis of a healthy human life. We each have unique talents and insights, and we need a spiritual climate that allows us to grow, feel safe and be creative. JCM declares itself to be a Safe Space where individuals can express themselves as they are. 

JCM’s Response to the Tragedy in Uvalde, Texas: An Invitation to a Grief Circle at JCM on Wednesday, June 8 at 4:30pm 

JCM’s Response to the Tragedy in Uvalde, Texas; An Invitation to a Grief Circle at JCM on Wednesday, June 8 at 4:30pm for all who are grieving spouses, parents, children, friends, etc.

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor [and their children].” Leviticus 19:16

It is with great sorrow that we respond to the tragic killing of nineteen schoolchildren and their teachers in Uvalde, Texas. We must be committed to the value that children are of greater value than indiscriminate rights to weapons. How have we built a society where driving a car is more difficult than purchasing a weapon?

Jewish values certainly mandate that we go beyond prayers for the lives lost. We must ensure that political action results in the prevention of this ever happening again, although sadly we fear that it will. America remembers all too well the killing of its children in Parkland, Sandy Hook and the hundreds of other locations where mass shootings have taken place.

We must organize and demand that United States politicians, currently obsessed with reelection campaigns, put aside partisanship in order to literally save lives. They must firmly and immediately enact meaningful gun reform legislation and mental health reform. 

We offer our deepest condolences and support to all those impacted by this horrible attack and reiterate our vehement condemnation of gun violence. Limiting the availability of weapons is a moral imperative in our time. If we do not do this we are standing idly by the blood of our neighbor and their children.

JCM would like to offer a grief circle on Wednesday, June 8 at 4:30pm led by Rabbi Raanan Mallek and Mitch Berman for all who are grieving spouses, parents, children, friends, etc. The community is invited to come together, grieve and provide comfort to one another during these times when we ask where justice is. 

The Inner Mountain that Flows

“The Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:
Speak to the People of Israel and say to them:
When you enter the land that I assign to you, 
the land shall observe a Shabbat for the Eternal.”
Leviticus 25:1-2

Rashi says, “What special relevance does the subject of Shemittah [the “release” of fields in the seventh year] have with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments stated from Sinai?" This teaches us that just as with Shemittah, all the finer details are also from Sinai.

The mountain being discussed here is Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is much more than a mountain. According to the Jewish tradition (as opposed to he Christian one), we do not know exactly where Mount Sinai is. Why is this? Mount Sinai is not a geographic location that may be located on a physical map, but an internal mountain, a spiritual one, which can be anywhere.

Mount Sinai is also a spring, a flowing spring. Life-giving water flows from it, giving Life to all who study it.

“Ben Bag Bag would say: Delve and delve into it, for all is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.” Ethics of the Fathers 5:21

Shabbat Shalom

Finding Meaning in the Omer: Leadership in Endurance

This week’s Torah portion includes the commandment of counting the Omer:

“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the Shabbat—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal” (Leviticus 23:15-16).

In a day and age when we no longer bring agricultural offerings to a Temple in Jerusalem, how can the Omer be significant and meaningful in our lives? Our Sages explain that the Omer is a road to transformation through time, the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Kabbalah teaches us that the Omer is a time when we should focus on ridding ourselves of negative influences. It is during these seven weeks that we are called to break open the klipot (negative shells) from within us which will release the Light that has been trapped by our choices in life. Although the extraction is sometimes painful, the benefit of releasing the trapped sparks of Light are more than worth it for our souls.

Each of the seven weeks is associated with one of the seven lower Sefirot (Kabbalistic Jewish Chakras): Chesed (loving-kindness), Gevurah (might), Tipheret (beauty), Netzach (victory), Hod (acknowledgment), Yesod (foundation), Malchut (kingdom). This week we are to focus on Netzach translated as Victory or Endurance.

Netzach represents Eternity and is representative of the right brain where the creative process takes place. Netzach is therefore the artist, the poet, the musician and the dreamer. Netzach radiates the desire to share and becomes the channel of that energy as it approaches the physical world we live in.

The Kabbalistic Sages teach that each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations, i.e. 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. This Shabbat is when we should focus on leadership (Malchut) in endurance (Netzach). 

Robert F. Kennedy once said, “each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, s/he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance… Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.” 

May we be worthy of leadership that can endure the challenges of our times. 

Shabbat Shalom.
 

The Empathetic Imperative - Kedoshim

ואהבת לרעך כמוך
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself
-Leviticus 19:19

Being commanded to love by the Torah is a challenging theological concept for us to wrap our heads around. How can we be commanded to love? Is this not a personal feeling we manifest as a result of our personal choices? Perhaps the Torah is asking of us something else. The command “ואהבת” - “and you shall love” really means to care for and protect, to be loyal. It is all about how we show love, not with feelings but with action. 

To reinforce this idea, we need to move onto the next word of this commandment: “רעך” - your neighbor? Who is this neighbor? There are some who understand it as someone who is ‘like you,’ who acts like you, lives like you and thinks like you. This person is “your neighbor” specifically because s/he is like you.

There are other Sages who invite us to understand our neighbor in the most universal sense possible. This person is the other par excellence, the one who is perhaps at the opposite end of your beliefs but is still made in the same Image of the Divine that we all share from Adam, the first human being.

This week was Israeli Independence Day and with independence comes sovereignty. And sovereignty mandates that the Jewish state take responsibility over the other in our midst no matter what race or religion they come from. 

And now we come to why I call this commandment the ‘empathetic imperative’. Why wasn’t the commandment merely “love your neighbor,” why add, “as yourself”? Because to love the other, to take care of them, to value them, one has to love themselves, one has to value what they are, we have to see ourselves as someone worthy of being loved. It is our self love that allows us to love others especially if they are not ‘like us’.

Hillel puts it best in Ethics of the Fathers 1:14- “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Shoah* Remembrance Day 5782/2022 by Rabbi Raanan Mallek 

"The Eternal spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal" (Leviticus 16:2).

Our Torah portion this week is called Aharei Mot in Hebrew which means, "after the death." And yet, the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu died six chapters earlier in Leviticus 10. After their death, instead of comforting his brother, Moses says, 'This is what the Eternal meant by saying: Through those near to Me I become holy, and gain glory before all the people.' And Aaron was silent." (Leviticus 10:3). Most difficult of all is how Aaron and his sons are told not to mourn the loss of their sons and brothers.  

As a student of theology, I am confronted by the Shoah (Holocaust)* and the denial of our greatest thinkers to ever attempt to justify or explain why such a tragedy happened to our people. Where were we as the Jewish people after the death of one third of our people, 80% of our scholars and an untold cultural history lost for all time? I can not help but remember stories of how for thirty years after the founding of the State of Israel, Israelis tended to distance themselves from remembering those who were killed and instead sought to focus on the future of the "New Israeli". Survivors of the Shoah* found living in Israel challenging since many of their brethren were "silent" like Aaron.

At the end Passover we recite Yizkor (Hebrew for "remembrance") prayers which just so happens to ready us for Shoah (Holocaust) Remembrance Day. Although traditionally Yizkor is recited by those that have lost either one or both of their parents, most modern prayer books include a remembrance prayer for the victims of the Holocaust. In this prayer, they are rightly remembered as martyrs. Our tradition holds that martyrs are closest to the divine thro

"And the Spirit of the Eternal Shall Rest Upon Him": Traits of Leadership

"The spirit of the Eternal shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, A spirit of counsel and valor, A spirit of devotion and reverence for the Eternal. He shall sense (smell) the awe of the Eternal..." (Isaiah 11:2-3)

How are we to identify traits of leadership that we hope to bestow to our children? Isaiah prophesied that through history we will be able to historically identify a series of repetitive and confirming truths. For Jewish memory, the Eternal’s redemptive acts constitute one such truth, and the source of hope. The festival of Passover is one of many ritual occasions when this truth and this hope are publicly celebrated (Etz Hayim p. 1316).

The messianic era is one that is identified by justice, kingship and restoration. It holds a vision of social and natural transformation and this requires a generation of leaders able to reveal the influence of the Spirit through wisdom, council, justice and impartiality.

And how is this leader to sense the awe of the Eternal? The commentators Radak (1160-1235) and Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) interpret this as an inner perception, in contrast to the external senses of sight and of hearing. The Hebrew word "והריחו" is also used for “smelling”. 

The incense has the same fragrance as the Garden of Eden, because our sources state that from the aroma of his offering, Adam remembered his former home in Eden. This is the first instance of memory that ever occurred. That is why fragrance imprints on memory and is so deeply connected with it, and also why our primordial ancient collective memory is actually all about fragrance and the Garden of Eden (Rabbi Avraham Sand). 

May we merit to have leaders in this generation who can identify truths that will act as road signs on our way to turning this world into Eden. Together we can then “smell our way home”. I will certainly be smiling when I recognize frankincense and myrrh. 

“For you will not depart in haste” Isaiah 52:12The Long Unfolding of the Exodus and the Redemption

"The inner liberty is gradually manifesting itself in the small steps of our renewal, 
in limited amounts according to the measure of the redemption which is being revealed to us.” Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook

Many are of the opinion that the Exodus from Egypt was an immediate success and that the Israelites were saved at the blink of an eye. Such, however, was not the case. Leaving Egypt was a long process that took place over many years.

First, Moses had to be convinced to assume leadership. The next stage was interacting with Pharaoh and begging him to free the Jewish People. Upon Pharaoh’s refusal, the Lord’s miracles began to afflict Egypt, and the country was crippled by a long series of plagues. Finally, after the final plague, the Israelites marched out of Egypt. It was not an instant salvation, but a process.

Psychologically, Moses must have struggled deeply when the first audience with Pharaoh was a failure. He was heart-broken and despaired before the Lord, “Why have You sent me?! Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed the People, You have not saved Your People” (Exodus 5:22-23). 

The Eternal proceeds to teach Moses that his despair was misplaced. Moses had to step back and realize that he was in the midst of a far larger picture, standing within a longer, historic process. The forefathers and foremothers stood at the beginning of the process. Imagine how Abraham felt when he was told, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).

It was not only our ancestors who waited, but also the Almighty. The great commentator Rashi explains that the Holy Name YHWH was not known to those who came before Moses because this Name means that the Eternal is faithful to verify His words as He made promises to them, but did not fulfill them while they were alive (see Rashi on Exodus 6:3). 

When Exodus 12:42 relates that the Passover night is “a night of anticipation for the Lord, to take them out of the land of Egypt; this night is the Lord's, guarding all the children of Israel throughout their generations,” Rashi explains that the Holy One was also waiting and anticipating, in order to fulfill His promise to take them out of the land of Egypt.

The Exodus was one part of the spiritual evolution of the Jewish people. Moses began to lead the people in the middle of an unfolding process. Even the manifesting of the Eternal to all of Egypt was not the culmination, but the beginning of the events which would lead to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. “Don’t worry,” the Lord was telling Moses, “this will be a gradual, incremental mission; success will come with time.”

The message is that success is a process that we are a part of and may very well not see the culmination if even there is one. Perhaps it is the journey of Torah unfolding that is the purpose of life we seek. 

The Torah never finishes, it is alive with the ever present promise of redemption. The Land of Israel may be in the process of being established, and yet we know from the news how volatile the current situation is. Just as the Exodus unfolded over so many years, so too the Messianic era. 

The prophet Isaiah clearly explains that the redemption of the future is one where we shall not go out in haste (Isaiah 52:12). Its gradual nature is one by design so that all of humanity can experience the full nature of redemption alongside us. And this takes time. Maimonides explains that Christianity and Islam came about to pave the way for the Messianic Age and to prepare the entire world to worship the Eternal together (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Kings and their Wars 11:7).

Our ancestors had to travel for a whole generation in the Wilderness to change the mentality of the nation from one of a slave mentality to that of a nation building mentality. They could not enter into the Holy Land thinking as they did in Egypt, because when they encountered the first sign of struggle, they would seek security in the strong handed tyranny of Egypt. 

We are taught that life is a process and that achievements are gradual. We can only improve ourselves gradually. As Rabbi Dessler teaches, “Our humble, everyday choices to do the right thing is the only way we can battle and climb up the ladder of self-perfection to become better people.” 

Jewish prayer is designed to be daily and repetitive precisely for this reason. It helps us to slowly inculcate values within ourselves and gradually draw us closer to our Creator. The message of the Lord to Moses is, “Lead my People out of Egypt but know that this won't be an overnight success, you are part of a long process that started centuries ago. Put one foot in front of another and see that you will climb Mount Sinai to receive the Torah that will carry My people through the ages from now until the redemption of all humankind: “For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the Name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent” (Zephaniah 3:9).

Happy Passover

Parshat M'tzorah: How Guarding our Tongues Strengthens One Another

"When you enter the Land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, 'Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.' The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house." Leviticus 14:34 

Of all the difficulties our ancestors had to deal with, plagues on our houses seems like one challenge too many. How could this have been part of our reality? Midrash Leviticus Rabba 17:2 says that the plague of the house was a punishment for the owner. If a person lied that s/he did not have something that a neighbor requested, the Lord would bring this plague on the house and then the person would need to put everything outside of their house (like a yard sale) so that everyone would be able to see what they have. 

And yet, as we learned last week, impurity is not something "bad" (in the normal sense of the word), nor is it something dirty. Impurity is a state in which something that was brimming with life is now emptied of the life force it contained. The Torah is meant to be read allegorically as we learn from the greatest sages and interpreters of old: Philo of Alexandria, Maimonides and Rabbi Samson Hirsch. Our portion is therefore an allegory for the inner vitality and potential for life, that emanates outwards and is unproductively emptied of its life-enhancing promise.

How do we channel our inner vitality so that instead of being emptied, it is filled with life enhancing promise? Another Midrash interprets the reason for this plague in houses as follows:

"The plague on the home was a warning for people to stop speaking 'Lashon HaRa' or Evil Tongue. As a person runs with their speech the lives of others, the Lord can ruin the home of someone if they do not repair their behavior." -Midrash HaGadol Leviticus 115 

Psalms has a beautiful way of helping us into realization of these concepts:

"Who is it who is eager for life and desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech." -Psalms 34:13-14

Even though today we no longer experience this plague in our homes, it is incumbent upon us to learn the lessons as though it were. Speaking badly about others empties our inner vitality and prevents us from realizing our full potential. If we desire a fortunate long life, may we guard our tongue and find ways to strengthen one another with our speech, for we learn the power of speech from the beginning of Genesis when the Eternal Spoke Creation Into Existence.  

Shabbat Shalom

Preparing for Passover - Parshat HaHodesh

 On years such as the current year when the New Moon (new Hebrew month of Nisan) falls on Shabbat, the special section known as Parshat HaHodesh - the Month Portion, is read on Shabbat. This special section is read in anticipation of the festival of Passover, which begins on the 15th of Nisan. 

 The special section is Exodus 12:1-20 and tells of the first commandment received by Israel, while still in Egyptian bondage, to mark the new moon and to prepare a lamb for the Passover offering. The famed commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040 – 1105) begins his commentary of the Bible by reminding us of this: "The Torah which is the law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) - 'This month shall be unto you the first of the months' which is the first commandment given to Israel." 

 We learn the following: "Thirty days before Passover, questions about the laws of the festival are asked and expounded" (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 429:1). The Talmud teaches: "A woman having Passover Seder with her husband need not recline, but if she is an important woman then she must recline" (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 108a). A thousand years later the Rama says: "All of our women are called important" and therefore they are also obligated to recline and relax during the Passover Seder. 

 I would like to suggest that we men do our part to manifest 'peace in the home' by helping to prepare and serve the Passover meal so that the important women in our lives can recline and take in the spirit of freedom we are all supposed to enjoy.

In the mean time, Shabbat Shalom.  

The Significance of Eight in Judaism

Shmini / Shabbat Parah 5782
Rabbi Raanan Mallek

 וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י
On the eighth day (Leviticus 9:1)

In previous sermons I have discussed how the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was representative of the process of Creation. The seven day week symbolizes the completion of a cycle and the eighth day represents starting over at a new level. As Rabbi Hirsch explains, it is like concluding a musical octave and leading to a higher octave.

Rabbi Kaplan explains that as opposed to six which represents the six directions of the physical world or the six days of the week, and seven which represents an integrating factor that unifies and perfects the physical world, eight represents the spiritual dimension or the realm that transcends the physical.

These values are also represented in the ceremony of the Brit Milah or the Covenant of Circumcision of Jewish boys. On the eighth day of their life they are brought into the Covenant as they begin the second week of their life as a member of the Jewish people. 

The emergence of the eighth day challenges us to begin living in the day to day world of ordinary events while keeping in mind the changes effected by the previous work undertaken, whether that is creation as a whole or the building of the Tabernacle. 

Transformation of being is clearly indicated in the Haftarah for the special Shabbat (Parah) we will be observing starting tonight. Ezekiel’s prophecy says, “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you.” Paying attention to what kind of heart we have, a heart of stone or of flesh is the first step in the spiritual awareness that Ezekiel is prophesying. I would like to suggest that everyday living, the consciousness of the eighth day, calls for us to return to our humanity and strive to be just a bit better than the day before.

Shabbat Shalom

Welcoming the Convert - Purim 5782          Rabbi Raanan Mallek

Lotan’s sister was Timna (Genesis 36:22)

 Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once explained that this is the very origin of Purim. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) states that Timna wanted to join the household of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but was rebuffed. She became the concubine of Esau’s son Elifax, thinking: “It is better to be a maidservant of this nation than the governess of another nation:

Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz.          (Genesis 36:12)

 As punishment for the sin of rejecting Timna she gave birth to Amalek, who grieved Israel. Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite was a descendant of the Amalekite king whose life was spared by Mordechai’s ancestor, King Saul, in direct contravention of the prophet Samuel’s instructions.

 One of the greatest enemies of the Jewish people was born as the result of Timna’s inability to convert many generations before. Amalek (and Haman) was a descendant of Abraham. This fact is overlooked by so many and yet it calls out to us from the depths of our intellect which seeks the root causes of ethical challenges in the Torah and in our lives. How can the same Torah which recognizes the image of the Creator in every human being (Genesis 1:26) call for the genocide of the nation of Amalek (Exodus 17:14-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19)?

 Reconciling such a dichotomy calls upon us to think differently. The Unity of Opposites is the central category of dialectics related to the notion of non-duality in a deep sense. It defines a situation in which the existence or identity of a thing (or situation) depends on the co-existence of at least two conditions which are opposite to each other, yet dependent on each other and presupposing each other, within a field of tension. (1)

 I would like to suggest that the textual challenge of Amalek calls for us to remember the Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael or the thirteen rules compiled by Rabbi Ishmael b. Elisha for the elucidation of the Torah and for making halakhic deductions from it. The last of the rules states that when two Biblical passages contradict each other the contradiction in question must be solved by reference to a third passage.

 When Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine (1921-1935) explains that Genesis 36:22, “Lotan’s sister was Timna” he is bringing awareness to the idea that stringency in conversion almost led to the destruction of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire.

 The Talmud in Sanhedrin 88a explains that the Eternal overturned Mount Sinai above the Israelites and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, this will be your burial.” The Rabbis questioned whether or not such a Torah would be obligatory to follow. (2) The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Another Rabbi (Rava) then said: “Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus (Purim), as it is written: ‘The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them’ (Esther 9:27)”, and he taught: “The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.”

 Purim resulted in a great change among the Jewish people. Whereas before Purim they were under a paradigm of coercion, now they would be in partnership with Torah, having chosen to remain among the Jewish people instead of assimilating into the masses of the Persian Empire.

 Jewish demographer Gary Tobin z"l in his 1999 book, Opening the Gates: How Proactive Conversion Can Revitalize the Jewish Community, says: "No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition....It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in".

 Perhaps the true way to counter Amalek and confront assimilation is to ensure that all who wish to convert have a path to do so. Forging a path to Judaism is a deeply individual process and it is a blessing to be here on Maui to assist those who choose to climb Mount Sinai together with our people.

Happy Purim!

(1) - V.T. JMcGill and W.T. Parry. "The Unity of Opposites: A Dialectical Principle (PDF)", Science & Society, vol. 12 no. 4 (Fall 1948), pp.418-444.

(2) - https://steinsaltz.org/daf/shabbat88/

Why is it important to us to know that we are "doing it right"?

Torah Portion of Leviticus by Rabbi Raanan Mallek

  Last week we finished the Book of Exodus where the grand finale of the Divine Presence (Shechinah) came down upon the Tabernacle. I imagine the Israelites sitting around after this amazing experience wondering, "and now what?" They wanted to know how to worship the Eternal. In our modern world we tend to discount prescribed ritual in favor of spontaneous religious expression. And yet there is power in the knowledge that we are doing what generations of our people before us have done in similar situations, something that other people in other places are doing at the same time and in the same way. 

  It must have brought comfort to our ancestors in the middle of the desert confronted with the unknown in front of them that they had clearly laid out guidelines for how to properly express their devotion to the G!d of Israel.

  Our modern day sensibilities have difficulty accepting sacrifice of animals as a method of worship. And thankfully that is the case. The Midrash imagines the Creator saying: "Better that they bring their offerings to my table than that they bring them before idols" (Lev. R. 22:8). The Israelites at the time could not conceive of religion without sacrificing animals. So human conception of the divine and what the divine wants of us is translated into our ritual practices, even if this is not the true desire of the Eternal.

  On Thursdays at 7pm here at JCM and on Zoom we study the weekly Torah portion together. We decided to delve into the deeper question of understanding for what sake we are doing something. Is not the intention what determines whether or not we are doing it correctly?

  I suggest we listen deeply to the words of the prophet Micah who said, "With what shall I approach the Eternal, do homage to the Most High? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? He has told you O' human what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your G!d."  

  May the justice that we perform and the love of goodness around us be the guiding light for helping us feel that we are "doing it right" as we walk modestly with the Eternal One.

  Shabbat Shalom 

Manifesting Encounter and Presence

ב"ה

Manifesting Encounter and Presence
Torah Portion of Pikudei
Rabbi Raanan Mallek
ר"ח אדר ב' תשפ"ב March 4, 2022

Exodus 40:33-34; 38
When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in the cloud by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.

During the Torah portion of Terumah the Eternal said, “There I will gather with you, and I will speak with you” (Exodus 25:22). The Tent of the Meeting (Mishkan) is not just a place where the Israelities come to worship and honor the Eternal, it is a place of the Eternal’s presence. This is not a metaphor; it is an actual physical manifestation. Thus our forefathers and foremothers in Sinai could visit and dwell with the energy of the Creator’s presence in a very physical way because it was actualized on the physical plane. 

It is challenging for us to comprehend such a physical manifestation. Many of us live in a modern scientific paradigm which rejects the premise that spirituality can transcend the divide into the physical world [Notable exceptions are: Professor Michio Kaku's The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything (2021), Professor Gerald Schroeder's Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible (1991) and especially John Horgan’s book, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality (2004)]. And yet the end of Exodus is clear, all of the House of Israel would see the Presence of the Eternal throughout their journeys. 

The tabernacle was to function as a portable Sinai, a means by which a continued channel of communication with the Eternal could be maintained. As the people move away from Sinai, the Mountain of Revelation, they need a visible, tangible symbol of the Eternal’s abiding presence in their midst, in other words the Shechinah.

A portable place of holy ritual accompanying the Israelites and engaging the nation in something other than material affairs or the personal needs of its members, it demanded a Legion of Cohanim (Priests) to disassemble and pack it up for transport for 39 of the 40 years of wandering. It was the place through which consciousness could be altered. The sanctuary enabled ritual devotion, purification, and unification.

Jewish legend says that when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the Shechinah withdrew from the earth. Over the centuries, through the various patriarchs and matriarchs, this aspect of the Creator, referred to in feminine terms, was successively brought back to the material world from each of the seven dimensions (or firmaments), above which the Infinite encompasses all. 

It is said that it was Moses who brought the Shechinah into full embodiment on the physical plane, making the Tent of Meeting the archetypal model for uniting our lives with the Shechinah. Today we are charged with redeeming the light of the Eternal within and without, knowing that divinity is everywhere. Our challenge is to recognize this constant Presence in our lives without it becoming so ordinary that we take it for granted. It will be worthwhile to discuss as a community how JCM can grow as a place more conducive for encountering and being present with the Divine. Please email me with your ideas and interest to be part of this conversation: rabbi@mauijews.org 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Month of Adar II.

Honoring Jewish Women in the Partisans during Women's History Month

"The future historian will have to dedicate an appropriate page to Jewish women in the war. She will take up an important page in history for her courage and her steadfastness. By her merit, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times." - Emanuel Ringelblum, (Jewish historian - 1900-1944, notes from inside the Warsaw Ghetto)

Today marks the beginning of the 42nd Annual Women's History Month celebrating women who changed the world. The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation website offers an extensive library of easily accessible resources and lesson plans to help you teach students about female Jewish partisans who helped change the course of history. Empower them through the lives of Sara FortisBrenda Senders (z''l), and Cesia Blaichman (z''l) (pictured above), and the many other women who fought back against the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. 

These JPEF resources offer in-depth insights into the lives of Jewish women who resisted as soldiers, spies, saboteurs, medics, and vital support personnel, helping to save people and end the war:

  • Women in the Partisans Resource Page: Includes free curricula, links to profiles with biographies, primary-source video testimonials, and photos, plus a printable poster and other resources.
  • Short FilmsEvery Day the Impossible: Jewish Women in the Partisans (15:00) and A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters (21:00) – both narrated by Emmy-winner, Tovah Feldshuh.
  • Free Curriculum: Women in the Partisans Study Guide
  • Video Course: A 41-minute training that can be used for lesson preparation (offering free CEUs), or shown to students in the classroom.

For more information, read JPEF's blog about female Jewish partisans. There are now 34 extensive biographies of female Jewish partisans on JPEF's Jewish Partisan Community website, and thirteen that include video testimony at www.jewishpartisans.org.

Restoring Unity and Shared Purpose - Vayakhel by Rabbi Raanan Mallek

Exodus 35:1-2
Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble...

The Israelite community was struggling with a sense of failure after the incident of the Golden Calf which introduced divisiveness and disillusionment. I would hope that the community of nations is also feeling a sense of failure as they watch Russia invade Ukraine. How can it be that in the 21st century humanity is still resorting to state sponsored violence after the horrors that the 20th century left behind?

After the incident of the Golden Calf, the community sought to restore a sense of unity and shared purpose which had existed before this incident. Jewish tradition teaches that although the majority of the Jewish people worshiped the Golden Calf, the instigators of this incident were not the Jews themselves, but the “mixed multitude” which accompanied them out of Egypt. The stigma of those who convert to Judaism for the wrong reasons are attached to this mixed multitude. 

The human tendency to blame the Other is one deeply ingrained. Social scientists sometimes claim that this was a useful evolutionary trait as separating out those who do not adhere to the majority creates the sought out sense of cohesiveness and shared purpose. And yet, we as the Jewish people, know all too well the dangers of being used as a scapegoat for the woes of other nations; whether they be the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans or Germans. 

The Talmud in Yoma 9b tells the story of why the first and second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. The First Temple was destroyed because of idol worship, forbidden relations and bloodshed. However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of commandments, and acts of kindness, while refraining from the sins of the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred, which is equivalent to the three severe transgressions. 

Generalizing and blaming the other for our problems is a direct extension of baseless hatred. To counter this we need baseless love, or loving even when you may not have a reason to do so. If we want to see the manifestation of Isaiah’s prophetic words that one day all peoples will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks so that nation shall not lift the sword against nation and neither shall they learn war any more,” we have much work to do. Instead of children being taught the ways of war, they must be taught the ways of the garden. Different people coming together to tend the land is a tool within our grasp to build unity and shared purpose. Join us here at JCM to help tend our new garden. And on Sundays during Kulanu, the kids will lend a hand.

Imagine that instead of violently battling one another, nations would plant gardens together and work out their differences while growing a shared outcome. The environment would be conducive to constructively figuring out their conflicts and we will be able to overcome irrational fears as dialogue flourishes.  

May we see a peaceful consciousness overcome the fears from our past. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Ki Tissa 18th of Adar I, 5782 - 2/18/2022

  What a Parsha! We begin with laws that continue to detail the building of the holy Tabernacle and the ways to worship within. Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab are singled out to lead the design and building of the Tabernacle. Bezalel will be endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft. The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 40:2) tells of Moses' assumption that he would have to build the items of the tabernacle himself. The Eternal explains that he can delegate to other Israelites and that they too will be able to fashion artifacts of holiness capable of bringing people close to the Divine.  

  Just when Moses may be able to relax, knowing that tasks have been delegated to others, the incident of the golden calf transpires. Imagine the scene: Moses is so happy that the two tablets inscribed with the finger of the Creator have been given to him. He is assured that the Israelites will be filled with an all encompassing consciousness to assist him on the rest of the journey to the promised land. He loses himself in the sublime joy of the seeming success of his mission. And then disaster. The slave mentality takes hold of the Israelites when Moses does not appear exactly when he is supposed to. Their impatience translates into idolatry. They can not comprehend a deity without a physical form.  

  Moses is brought out of his exalted position on the mountaintop and is told by the Eternal to, "hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have acted in a corrupt way." It is interesting to note that even the Creator struggles with blaming others. No longer are the Israelites the Lord’s people who were brought out from the Land of Egypt by His hand. Instead it is Moses who did this and must take responsibility for them as his people.

  And Moses answers the call in an exemplary way. After practically dealing with the situation at hand, Moses intercedes on behalf of the people and does not let the Almighty destroy them. Although Moses has been let down as a leader, he focuses on the failure of the behavior and not the failure of the people as a whole. The Midrash relates a beautiful reflection on behalf of the Creator: “Whenever I win an argument with My children, as at the time of the Flood or of Sodom and Gemorrah, I lose (in other words the Lord ends up destroying culpable human beings). Whenever I lose an argument, I win (as here, when Moses persuades the Lord not to destroy Israel.)”

  How many times do we lose when we win an argument? How many times does it fracture a relationship with a friend or family member, even if we are ‘right’? When is it helpful to lose an argument for the greater win?

  I think that the Eternal realizes that the nation of Israel is not ready to uphold a divinely ordained Torah in the Land of Israel. They need to become part of the Torah that they receive. In the words of the Hatam Sofer, we can not see the Eternal directly. We can only see the difference that the Eternal has made after the fact. We can recognize the Eternal’s reality by seeing the difference made in our lives. The first set of tablets was fashioned by the Divine alone. Moses passively received them. The second set will be a joint divine-human effort. This second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness, at the hand of an imperfect human being, rather than by a perfect deity. It is truly a Torah for human beings.  

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi advised: Be careful to continue to respect an elder who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control. Even though he is no longer a Torah scholar, he must still be respected for the Torah that he once possessed. As we say: Both the tablets of the Covenant and the broken tablets are placed in the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. Even though the first tablets were broken, their sanctity obligates one not to treat them with contempt. An elder who forgot the Torah knowledge he once possessed is likened to these broken tablets (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 8b).

  The Talmud explains here that the fragments of the first set of tablets that Moses broke were carried in the Ark of the Covenant along with the replacement set. That which was once holy retains its holiness even when it is broken. So too the elderly, the senile, and the infirm may not be cast aside. They must be accorded the reverence they have earned in their lives (Etz Hayim p. 540).

  The Japanese have a form of art called kintsukuroi or “to repair with gold”. It is the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Perhaps the second set of tablets were kintsukuroi. They were repaired with the humanity of the Jewish people so that the Torah could manifest as a vessel that would carry us for thousands of years.

Tetzaveh 2/11/2022

Exodus 28:15, 29

You shall make a Hoshen of Judgment, the work of a master weaver. You shall make it like the work of the ephod; of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen shall you make it. Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the Hoshen of Judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.

In the midst of all the rituals that have to be done for the Tabernacle, it is particularly interesting to pay attention to the miraculous shining stones that the High Priest used to wear to divine the will of the Eternal.

Why did the High Priest wear such a vestment? Rashi (1040-1105CE) says that Aaron, the first High Priest, had a good heart. When Moses returned to Egypt after the Eternal chose him to be the leader of the nation, Aaron was not jealous of Moses and was happy for his brother - in his heart. The Eternal therefore wanted to reward Aaron and gave him the vestment to wear.

Each one of the precious stones had the name of one of the tribes carved into it. The stones and their corresponding tribes are as follows: Carbuncle - Levi, Prase - Simeon, Ruby - Reuben, Pearl - Zebulun, Sapphire - Issachar, Emerald - Judah, Crystal - Gad, Turquoise - Naphtali, Leshem - Dan, Jasper - Benjamin, Onyx - Joseph and Chrysolite - Asher.

Another Jewish commentator, Sforno (1475-1550CE) explains that by having each one of the tribes on the heart of the High Priest, the High Priest would remember to pray for the whole of the nation of Israel.

Ethics of the Fathers 1:12 quotes Hillel who says, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” We need to learn from Aaron to love others and to love peace. We must strive with all our being so that peace can manifest between peoples. May we merit as a community to see such peace manifest around us.

Fri, September 30 2022 5 Tishrei 5783