#TieBlog #Tzav

27 Mar
The eternal flame

The eternal flame

Parashat Tzav continues discussion of the order of sacrifices and contains the instruction that the kohanim (priests) maintain a perpetual flame on the altar.

This is also Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” preceding Passover. We focus on preparing our homes to be rid of all hametz (leavened products)by the start of the holiday. On Thursday night we do bedikat hametz, an inspection of the home to make sure it is hametz-free. On Friday morning we burn the leftover hametz from the search. This week’s tie also evokes the upcoming burning of hametz. Please exercise appropriate caution, and enjoy your Passover preparations.

#TieBlog #Vayikra

20 Mar

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Sacrificial lambs Sacrificial lambs

Parashat Vayikra brings us into the world of sacrifices. As arcane as animal sacrifice seems to us today, it’s helpful to reflect on how our ancestors understood sacrifice. For them, sacrifice was an occasion to feel God’s presence, not out in the distant cosmos, but right at their own table. Society’s view of religion tends to be biased toward the transcendent, more distant, view of God. However, Vayikra presents a strong and equally valid position of the Torah that God is also immanent, right there with us at our meal. When we sit down to a meal with loved ones, particularly on Shabbat or holidays, rather than focusing on the stress we receive from the “black sheep” in our family (see the Tie!), we should focus on the aspects of God’s presence that bring us together. Even if we don’t sacrifice sheep and other livestock as they did…

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The finer details of community building

13 Mar

For math aficionados, this weekend is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. March 14, known as Pi Day. To remind those of us who haven’t been in high school geometry for a while, Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This is approximately 3.14, but this is only an approximation. We actually don’t know the exact ratio, though mathematicians have expanded the decimal to hundreds more digits. As we were beginning the Shacharit service today on 3/14/15 at 9:26 and 53 seconds, we experienced Pi Day to the fullest extent possible for the next 100 years. I didn’t want that moment to go unnoticed.

Our Torah today reading focuses much attention on precision in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This week we conclude the public reading of the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot (Exodus) and read the two parashiyot known as Vayakhel and Pekudei. These readings follow last week’s reading of the Golden Calf episode, while today’s reading deals nearly exclusively with the construction of the tabernacle and furnishings that our people carried with them in the desert period. It is clear that after the powerful experience of the Divine Presence at Sinai, followed later by construction of the Golden Calf, the people need some tangible, physical reminder of God’s presence. The Torah describes in extensive detail the measurements of the Mishkan, because a house of God must be made just right. Years later, the Tabernacle would be replaced by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and following its destruction, the synagogue became our spiritual home. In every community, we attempt to make our place of worship a fitting beautiful place that we feel suits God’s presence. At the same time, we are reminded in this same portion that with all of the exactitude of construction, the key purpose of the Mishkan or the modern synagogue is as a place of sacred convocation. God is not present unless people are present creating community with one another.

The Torah reading opens Vayak’hel Moshe et KOL adat b’nai Yisrael. Moses gathered KOL, the entire community of Israel. In classical rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, every word is full of meaning. So many commentators naturally ask why the text adds the modifier kol, for all. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that this is to restore the sense of unity and shared purpose that had existed at Mount Sinai. Other commentators explain that the simple word kol was to be a constant reminder that our definition of community must include all our members. To be loyal to our calling, the community must include the younger and older; weak and the strong; men and women and children. Every individual, whatever his/her station in life, has a special place in the life of the community. Every person matters (Thanks to Rabbi Melvin Sirner for this spark).

Every day we are bombarded by difficult news stories that might be boiled down to individuals or segments of society forgetting the basic premise that every person matters. I don’t think any of us has to think too hard to think of examples disrespect, discrimination and hatred that exist in our country and around the world. Once in a while, it’s nice to hear good news about people standing up and doing the right thing for others, particularly for weaker, more vulnerable members of society.

This week, there was one such story in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Lincoln Middle School was hosting a basketball game. One of the school’s cheerleaders, Desiree Andrews, a student with Downs Syndrome, was being heckled by fans in the bleachers. This is horrible and disheartening. And then something remarkable happened. Three eighth graders on the team, Miles Rodriguez, Scooter Terrien and Chase Vazquez, stopped the game, went up into the stands, and told the hecklers to knock it off. In response, there has been an outpouring of support for these students, for their parents, for the school and for Desiree. The school renamed the gymnasium “D’s House,” and the Kenosha City Council is honoring the three players for standing up for Desiree.

The story has spread widely on the Internet and social media. One quotation in a news article stood out for me. One of the three boys, Scooter Terrien, said: “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong because we’re all the same. We’re all created the same. God made us the same way.”
This should not seem remarkable to us—it should be what we consider normal. And yet, for three 14-year-old boys to stop a basketball game to stand up to a heartless, cowardly bully, it gives hope to all of who wish to see our communal homes cultivate and nurture our most precious values. Clearly Lincoln Middle School gets an ‘A’ for creating an atmosphere in which these three basketball players developed values of caring and concern. Their families and broader community that helped raise these boys also deserve credit for raising boys who understand that every person matters.

These three boys at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha are an inspiration to us here who care about creating a vibrant and caring synagogue community where every person matters.

On this Pi Day, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the measurements of the Tabernacle and its contents. However, our Torah portion comes to remind us in the very first verse the ultimate purpose of a community, particularly a sacred community. Just as Moses recognized the value of each and every individual, we must do the same. May God grant us the strength to remember that every person matters, that our words and our actions will reflect this core value and that younger generations will look to us as models to emulate.


#TieBlog #Tetzave #Tashbetz

27 Feb

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Crossword puzzle is Tashbetz in Hebrew. Crossword puzzle is Tashbetz in Hebrew.

In Parashat Tetzave, the High Priest wears a “ketonet tashbetz.” Ketonet means tunic; translating tashbetz is challenging because this is the one time in the Bible that the term appears (scholars call such a phenomenon a hapax legomenon). So what does it mean? It’s generally understood as checkered. So, thousands of years later when the modern Hebrew language was born, “tashbetz” was chosen as the new Hebrew word for crossword puzzle. Therefore, my tie is in honor of the ketonet tashbetz.

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#TieBlog #Terumah #Menorah

20 Feb

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

The Menorah The Menorah

Parashat Terumah  contains initial instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness that was to be God’s dwelling place. In addition to the outer structure, we read about items from the interior, including the Menorah, the seven-pronged candelabrum.

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15 Feb
Elliott Fagin, Z"L, (1943-2015) was the Ritual Director of Temple Torat Emet. Here he is reading Megillat Esther on Purim in 2013.

Elliott Fagin, Z”L, (1943-2015) was the Ritual Director of Temple Torat Emet. Here he is reading Megillat Esther on Purim in 2013.

It is with broken hearts that members of Temple Torat Emet mourn the loss of Yoel Yehuda ben Zalman v’ Bracha Rivka Leah, Elliott Fagin, of blessed memory. Our entire community is saddened by this loss to our congregation and to the Jewish people. We grieve together with his beloved wife Reva, and his children Leslie and Joel and their families.

Elliott’s identity was closely intertwined with synagogue and Jewish life. Certainly if he were performing his familiar role of Ritual Director this past Shabbat he would have prepared the second Torah scroll for Shabbat Shekalim several days in advance. On multiple levels, it is fitting that Elliott’s final days corresponded with Shabbat Shekalim. A shekel is the basic unit of currency both in the Torah and in the modern state of Israel. The Torah in Exodus 30: 11-16 describes the taking of a census of the people in which the people, or at least the adult males, give one half shekel. Rich and poor give the same amount and are thus counted equally. The funds are used for the upkeep of the sanctuary. Parashat Shekalim is read as we prepare to begin the month of Adar, the last month of the year on the Biblical calendar. The following month, Nisan, is the month of spring, the month of Passover, the month of renewal. In ancient israel, the half-shekel tax was a sign to the people that as Passover approached, the community had to maintain communal institutions, starting with the Sanctuary.

Elliott, spent the bulk of his professional career, or perhaps his first professional career, as a high school math teacher. Parashat Shekalim is certainly among the more math-focused Torah portions. Elliott’s second career as the much beloved Ritual Director of Temple Torah, now Temple Torat Emet, was focused on keeping religious life running like a well-oiled machine. It’s too easy to take this sacred work for granted. Elliott worked constantly and quietly behind the scenes to make sure that ritual life in the synagogue ran smoothly. Just as the priests of the ancient Temple applied the half-shekel proceeds to maintain the Temple, Elliott did the same as ritual director. He rolled the Torah scrolls; he invited members to lead services; he read Torah; he closely monitored the Jewish calendar for special additions or omissions in the service. These are technical areas of the Ritual Director’s role that were part of Elliott’s official duties, and he performed them well. Furthermore, he did everything with a special sense of love and caring. He always went well beyond the call of duty of any formal job description. He welcomed newcomers and helped them follow services. He taught classes on the synagogue liturgy. He tutored individuals, youth and adults alike, in Torah readings. With Purim just around the corner, this is the first year in which we won’t have Elliott as the reliable “clean up hitter” who picked up whatever portions of Megillat Esther that were not assigned to others or whose assigned chanters could not attend services at the last minute. Elliott could always step in on a moment’s notice.

As Rabbi, I relied on Elliott a great deal to orient me to the congregation when I was new. He knew everyone’s name, even if they only came a few times a year. Indeed, he assigned High Holiday seats and knew not only names but where everyone sat. When I came to the congregation in 2011 from a much smaller congregation where the rabbi had to focus a lot more on the logistics of the services, I thought that the concept of a Ritual Director was the greatest invention ever. With Elliott in the role, he set the highest of standards, and I learned so much from him. With the lesson of the half-shekel fresh on our minds, I think the greatest lesson I learned from Elliott is to treat all people, rich and poor alike, with the same love and respect.

As Elliott is laid to rest in New York, our community in Boynton Beach, Florida feels his loss in a profound way. On behalf of Temple Torat Emet, I extend heartfelt condolences to Reva and the entire Fagin family.
Yehi Zikhro Varukh, May his memory be for a blessing.

Brian Williams, Bob Simon, and the role of journalism

13 Feb
The untimely passing of Bob Simon and recollection of his legacy, contrasts with the controversy of Brian Williams.

The untimely passing of Bob Simon and recollection of his legacy, contrasts with the controversy of Brian Williams.

Shabbat Shalom,
When I was a young boy and a teenager, before I discovered my career path would be the rabbinate, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player, but I knew I had no chance. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their use of a vibrant free press they spoke truth to power. While most of my friends TV consumption revolved around cartoons and reruns, I enjoyed the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. Journalists, I realized early on, had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth. Journalists are not supposed to be in the news themselves, and their reputations depend on the trust that the public invests in them to tell the truth.

This week, journalists have been in the news. I am saddened by the tragic and senseless death of CBS correspondent Bob Simon in an auto collision in New York. For five decades, he established a reputation as the best of the best. The memorial tributes to Bob Simon stand in stark contrast to NBC’s Brian Williams and the revelation that he fabricated a story in 2003 that he was shot down in a helicopter while reporting in Iraq. His public apology and six-month suspension are appropriate, but the incident casts a pall not only over his career but over journalism in general.

This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs te Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30:13):

זֶה ׀ יִתְּנוּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לה׳

This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord.

This is what everyone shall pay: Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a helf-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk)

In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. While Brian Williams is responsible for his own misdeeds, we as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus. Bob Simon, of blessed memory, will be remembered for striking the delicate balance in reporting news both for entertainment value and truth. Brian Williams crossed a line and sacrificed truth on the altar of entertainment and money. Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists so that our vibrant free press will continue to serve as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth.


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