Saturday, August 24, 2019

Faith And Loyalty In The Time Of Trump: Eikev 2019

Faith And Loyalty In The Time Of Trump: Eikev 2019
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Deuteronomy is a harsh book. Several passages, including some that appear in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“Consequences,” Deut. 7:12-11:25) list the severe punishments that would befall the Israelites should they fail to be loyal to God. In fact, some of these curses are so horrible that when chanted in public, it’s customary to chant them sotto voce, under one’s breath, so that they are barely audible.

God demands complete and unquestioning loyalty.  The Covenant between God and the Jews is binding, an agreement that must never be broken.

Our relationship with God is, after all, what defines the Jews as a people—even more than the foods we eat and the language we pray and study in. 

To be sure, it isn’t an easy relationship. Faith is an acquired trait, based on experience. And it is rarely unwavering. How often do I hear fellow Jews tell me that they are angry with God, or—especially after the Shoah, the Holocaust—that they simply cannot believe in God anymore! Of course I cannot and wil not argue with them. As I see it, anyone who has come out of those nightmare years with his or her faith unshaken is a true tzaddik (a righteous person). 

In Judaism, one can argue with God, debate God, even negate God. In his famous book, Night, Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, describes a scene in which Jews in a concentration camp go as far as to put God on trial, accusing Godof breaking the Covenant with His people, rather than vice versa.

The Talmud teaches us that all matters are in the hands of Heaven, except for the actual belief in God. Faith is in our hands. Belief in God is our choice. 

Deuteronomy does not negate this philosophy. What this book does forbid, however, is dual loyalty, or following other religions, other gods.

Other creeds and faiths that existed when the Torah first appeared, around the 10th century BCE, demanded horrific behavior. Nothing was unthinkable. Incest, prostitution, witchcraft, human—and even child!—sacrifice, were all acceptable, indeed even considered honorable! 

For all its unbending strictness, what Deuteronomy defines as righteousness would today be described as liberal, progressive, and—by some politicians—even as radical behavior: loving the stranger, feeding and clothing them, giving them shelter from the pursuer; dealing justly and compassionately with orphans and widows; teaching and educating our children, raising them to be seekers of truth and justice. Adhering to these standards of ethics and morality is how Deuteronomy defines loyalty to God. 

Faith, in the Rabbis’ understanding, can’t be dictated; how we believe is our choice. Loyalty, however, can be. You can’t be punished for your belief, but you can be for being disloyal. Disloyalty to God, as the Torah sees it, is not determined by which king, prophet or President we chooseto believe in, vote for and follow. Rather, it’s defined by our failure to follow God’s mitzvotGod’s commandments. That is what Deuteronomy warns us about. Disloyalty to God is any deviation from that which the Torah calls righteousness, behavior that is based on law and justice, as well as compassion and fairness. That is what will warrant the harsh consequences listed in this week’s portion.

That is why President Trump’s recent words about Jews being disloyal if they vote for a Democratic candidate are so disturbing. 

Accusing Jews of disloyalty is nothing new. Back in Moses’s time already, that was one of Pharaoh’s fears: that we rise up against him and strip him of power. Dual loyalty is an ancient and vicious anti-Semitic trope, one which for thousands of years has led to terrible persecution of the Jews. The danger implicit in President Trump’s words is something none of us can afford to ignore.

Democracy guarantees freedom of thought, freedom to follow our conscience. For the majority of Jews in America, democracy has meant not only our freedom to gather and worship in safety and security, but also to be involved in the process of democracy. Jews run for public office; Jews support candidates—Jewish or non-Jewish, Democratic, Republican or Independent—with contributions of money, time and effort. Jews vote, possibly in proportionally larger numbers than many other groups. Jews participate in the cultural, legal, medical, business and all other aspects of American life. Jews serve with courage and valor in the Armed Forces. One of my relatives is a pilot in the Air Force and has flown on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many members of congregations where I have served as rabbi—including students I have taught and at whose bar mitzvahs I officiated, served and continue to serve in our defense forces. What further proof of loyalty can be asked of them? Certainly not who they vote for.

Jews cannot be lumped into one category. Some of us define ourselves as Orthodox, others as Conservative or Reform, while many others still choose not to affiliate with any Jewish organization. In Israel as well as in other countries, some support the State of Israel and its policies, others do not. Similarly, here in America, Jews vote the spectrum of the political scene. In doing so, they act out of deep loyalty and unwavering love and commitment to the United States and the American way of life—as well as to the demands of the Torah and the Jewish faith. We may disagree—in fact we often do—with one another. We may find fault with this elected official or another; we may criticize the words or actions of particular members of the House or Senate—but that’s not disloyalty. That’s democracy in action. To say anything else is untruthful, hurtful, and divisive. The bottom line is, we Jews cannot ignore speech that accuses us of being disloyal. These words harbor grave danger to ourselves as well as to the larger society of which we are part.

This sermon did not start as a political speech. Its intent was to congratulate and charge the newest adult in our community, a girl who as of tomorrow morning will be considered mature and responsible enough to follow her own chosen path in life, yet still remain faithful and loyal to her faith and ideals. And that’s how this sermon will end, with a strong message to this person: Be strong and courageous. Do not let people accuse you of being untrue to yourself or to anyone else. I cannot tell you to how or even whether to believe in God—that’s your choice, and that may or may not change as you grow and mature. However, I can and must urge you to follow the message of this week’s Torah portion: To love God is to love one another, including the stranger who resides among us. To love God is to pursue justice with compassion, especially when it comes to those who are weaker and more vulnerable than ourselves. To be faithful to our people and our to country is not determined by which party or individual you vote for. Rather, to be loyal means that you show everyonethe same courtesy, dignity and respect with which you expect to be treated yourself.

This is the high standard of faith and loyalty which our religion demands of us.

In his great play Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “Unto thine own self be true.” That is the ultimate test of loyalty. Remain true to your heritage, the Torah; be just and caring and follow the Commandments of God. Remain true to your own conscience as well as to the aspirations of our American hopes and ideals.  It is so that you will find your life enriched with blessings and wonderful consequences.

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Blessings Of The Past, The Hopes Of The Future: Matot-Massei.19

The Blessings Of The Past, The Hopes Of The Future: Matot-Massei
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
August 3, 2019

The Hebrew poet known simply by her first name, Zelda, wrote a beautiful poem called “To Each One, A Name.” In this famous poem, every person in the world is defined by various names—the name given by his or her parents, by the community, by their line of work, by their holidays and celebrations, by their love, and ultimately by their death.

But we are defined by more than names.  Every experience we live through, every place we live in, leaves its mark on us as much as we leave our mark on it.

I was born in Israel, an ancient/modern land, nearly 70 years ago. As I look at old black and white pictures of my childhood, I barely recognize the places I lived in. So much has changed! First, a kibbutz—a settlement established early in the 20th century to absorb immigrants and then refugees from Europe’s anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. For a few months afterwards, my family lived with my grandparents in their small apartment in Tel Aviv. Then we struck out again, to Netanya, a city not far from the Mediterranean (I could see the beach from my favorite climbing tree in our backyard). I spent my early childhood there and still carry with me happy memories of friends, holidays, kindergarten and then six years of school.

Then came a long stint in the United States: more school, new friends, a new vocation. 

My life is defined not only by the names given me by my family and community, but also by the experiences I gained as I moved from one place to another.

The longest chapter is one my family and I just completed: Thirty years in Boston, Massachusetts. We just sold our house there. We are now residents of yet another state. A new chapter—a new book—has begun for us.

Humanity flows like a river, through time and space. But like rivers, we carry our past with us. We carry memories of love and friendships that last long beyond the actual moment of their actual existence. We are the sum total of everything we were, as well as the hopes and fears we carry with us into the future.

The last two portions of the Torah’s fourth book (Matot-Massei, “Tribes and Journeys,” Numbers 30:2—36:13) recount the stations that the ancient Israelites traveled through during their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Wilderness.  Each place recalls a moment in our history and evolution: At Mount Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments; at Mt. Hor, the death of Aaron, the High Priest. Here was fought a battle against the Midianites, there a war with the evil Amalekites. Thirst, hunger, an oasis of fresh water and sweet dates in the desert—each experience is recalled in a long list that helps define the not only the physical journey of the Israelites, but also their evolution as they grow from a rabble of exhausted slaves to a free people in search of a Promised Land.

At the end of this long list, the Israelites finally find themselves on the borders of the Promised Land. They can practically see it from their vantage point in Moab, across the Jordan River.

Dusty and weary from their journey, the Israelites don’t just rush in, however. Looking back is important, but looking ahead is just as vital. The Promised Land isn’t there just for the taking. Yes, there will be wars with the Canaanites, but even beyond that, Israel’s existence must be defined by law—civil as well as religious law. Human rights—including women’s right; justice; responsibility to one another as a unified nation: These are among the important concepts Moses presents to the People at this stage of their evolution. They will not enter the Promised Land as a rabble, as an unruly mob, but rather as an organized civilization, a culture founded on the basis of law, compassion, and dignity. Moses reminds the Israelites that their duties to God are as important as their responsibilities to one another.  Divided and defined by names, families and tribes, Israel is about to begin a new chapter—a new book—in its history. And as it does so, despite the many divisions between us, if we are to survive, we must see ourselves as One People, with a common history, under One God. 

If the laws outlined in these chapters seem harsh and primitive, it is because at this early stage of Israel’s evolution, the lines that define us must be clearly drawn. Our rights must be clearly bound by our responsibilities; our freedoms are not infinite, but must also be defined by our obligations—to God, to ourselves, and to one another.

Israel’s evolution does not end with the Book of Numbers. A fifth book of the Torah is about to commence. D’varim, Deuteronomy, will introduce new ideas into our philosophy, religion and way of life. A new part of our history is about to begin.

As the poem by Zelda gently reminds us, we are defined by the names by which we are known. This week’s Torah portion teaches us that we are also identified by the times and places we live in and by the cultures that surround us. We are Israel, a people distinguished as much by our relationship with our God as by the laws, customs and traditions that we follow. 

The Torah could have concluded at the end of its fourth book, Numbers. However, there is yet more to come. Much, much more. The book of Deuteronomy, a document that will be discovered in the Temple in Jerusalem almost five hundred later, represents the beginning of the rest of our history.

Each ending is a new beginning. Each summary is also an introduction. We carry our past with us. Some events are sad, others are joyful. The lessons we draw from each experience, from each stop and station in our life, help us to understand our mission and purpose in life as we go forward.  Israel’s history, one of the longest and oldest of any people in the world, is filled with memories and morals; all are a part of who we are today.  Our past helps us understand who we must be now, as we begin each new day, with each new page and chapter, with each new book and each new eon. 

Chazak, chazak v’nit’chazek: May we be strengthened by our past, encouraged as we go forward into the future, and may every day of our life be defined by the blessings that fill each moment of our existence.

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Riddle Of The Red Heifer: Chukat.19

The Riddle Of The Red Heifer: Parshat Chukat
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
July 10, 2019

The mystery of the Red Heifer (“Chukat,” Numbers 19:1—22:1) is fated to remain a mystery. Though the sacrificial ritual  is explicitly ordained in the Torah, its procedure outlined and its purpose explained, by early Rabbinic times (1stcentury CE) the rules have become mystified enough to cause endless arguments and divisions that have not been resolved to this day. It is said that even God, in the Heavenly Abode, studies and reviews this portion, as though within it lie hidden the deepest secrets of Creation and Destruction.

The purpose of the ritual of the Red Heifer was to purify a person who had come in contact with a corpse. For the living, death was synonymous with impurity, making this ritual necessary if one was to return to a state of sanctity and wholeness.  And yet, even as the sacrifice fulfills its healing purpose, the priest who offers it becomes impure himself and has to undergo his own ritual of purification.

How does the Red Heifer both purify and defile? What power is hidden within either the animal or the ritual that can do both at once?

The ritual of the Red Heifer is said to have been performed nine times during Temple days, with one last offering yet to come at some point in the future—signifying the arrival of the Messiah. Understandably, the timing of this ultimate event remains shrouded in mystery, though there have been attempts, both in Israel and elsewhere, to genetically engineer a perfectly red heifer and thus hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Of all the questions of faith, the riddle of the Red Heifer is considered the most impenetrable, the one that must never be questioned. And as such, it is best understood symbolically. 

Like every other religion, Judaism has practical, real-world aspects; and yet at its innermost core, like all other religions, like God Himself, Jewish faith is fundamentally unfathomable. It defies reason; it makes miracles possible. It transcends death.

Of all the commandments in the Torah then, this ultimate act of faith, the Ritual of the Red Heifer, the one that permits us to rise above death itself, must stand alone. Inexplicable, as vast and infinite as God, it becomes the essence of Faith itself, containing within it all the elements that enable human beings to rise from the dust and achieve the great potential embedded with each of us.

What would life be like without Faith, this Torah portion seems to be asking us. And then it answers its own question. In the verses and chapters that follow come several events of rebellion and dissatisfaction, of envy and war, of death and destruction.

Chronicling the journey of the Israelites in the Wilderness, Parshat Chukat (“The Law Of The Torah”) relates some of the last steps of their path toward the Promised Land. Yet, as the portion ends, the Israelites find themselves still homeless, still unrooted—and worse, surrounded by enemies, seemingly entrapped in the land of Moab, an enemy of the Israelites described as both inherently immoral and vastly dangerous. They may be as close to the conclusion of their travails in the wilderness as can be, yet the end is not yet in sight, and in fact things are about to get much, much worse.

Hungry and thirsty, the Israelites take to complaining bitterly.

Then tragedy strikes, in the form of the death of Aaron the High Priest.

Even Moses, the most patient and compassionate defender and protector of the Jewish People, momentarily loses his faith—and along with that, his God-granted privilege of leading the people. Beset by a thirsty and exhausted congregation, Moses yells at his people and even resorts to a violent act of impatience and anger. Ordered by God to speak to a rock and command it to produce water, Moses strikes the rock instead with his staff. Water flows forth, but the damage is irreparable. Moses’s loss of faith, this display—in plain sight of the entire people—of disbelief in the power of God’s word, will result in terrible punishment. Moses will see the Promised Land, but he will not enter it. He will die in the Land of Moab, his deathplace unknown, the robe of leadership stripped from him and given to another.

Life without faith, this Torah portion tells us, is meaningless. It’s exhausting and draining. Scoffers may scoff, but it is faith that gives us our strength to go on, to persevere despite the setbacks we may suffer along the way. Our faith  enables us to rise, time and time again, from failure, from persecution, from destruction and exile. Our faith gives us more than mysterious and antiquated rituals. It enables us to imagine a better place and strengthens us along the way there. Despite the vast distances of time and space that may lie between us, our faith has the power to unify us, to turn us from a rabble, a sheperdless herd, into an Eternal People, champions of freedom, progress and civilization.

We don’t really need to understand the mystery behind the ritual of the Red Heifer. We just need to keep it as a symbol before our eyes, as a symbol of our Faith. There are other rituals that we can follow, other traditions that will inspire us, that will give meaning to our existence and infuse purpose into each step forward that we take.

There is no escaping the harsh realities of life. No one—not even Moses—is entitled to more than is ordained for us by powers we do not understand. But what we can do is to rise from hopelessness and despair. We can find beauty in harsh landscapes; we can enjoy moments of light and joy even when surrounded by the darkest nights. We can find the strength to go on living even when we find ourselves deep in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Our Faith is the guarantor of our continued existence.

And that is the meaning of the riddle of the Red Heifer. Hidden within its mysteries lies the secret of our survival. 

And perhaps, when the time is ripe, also of the redemption of all humankind.

Kein y’hi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

Ramat Gan, The State of Israel

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, June 21, 2019

When Perfect Isn’t Enough: Behaalotecha.19

When Perfect Isn’t Enough
D’var Torah for Parashat B’ha’alot’cha
June 20, 2019
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Manna from heaven. The very concept has become a catchphrase for an unexpected miracle, a gift for the undeserving. Manna is the delicacy that appeared every morning, exquisitely balanced on the dew that settled on the ground at night. Suitable for frying or baking, manna served as food for the Israelites during their years of wandering in the Sinai Wilderness.  It was the perfect food, matched with the perfect picture that the Israelites’ camp presented to an observer’s eye.

And yet, evidently there is not much room in this world for perfection, and as we read in this week’s Torah portion (B’ha’alot’cha, Numbers 8:1—12:26,) the Israelites begin complaining. First for no reason, then because they crave meat. Overwhelmed by memories of the plentitude they were accustomed to in Egypt—fish, watermelons, cucumbers, garlic and onions—their longing sends them, wailing and weeping, into a tailspin of nostalgia and regret.

It’s at this point that Moses loses it. He thought he had finally achieved the impossible: He united the people, freed them from slavery, gave them a Tabernacle, a set of rituals and laws to live by, and a vision of perfection to guide them through the Wilderness.  And yet all that turns out to be not enough.

Moses turns to God, complaining that he just can’t do it anymore. He cannot give them meat; he cannot provide the nurturance that they crave. “I’m not their mother,” he says pointedly to the Creator of All, the Author of all life.

God responds by commanding Moses to gather seventy respected elders from among the people. They would receive God’s word and together help Moses lead the Israelites. “Take them to the Tent of Meeting and they shall stand there with you…  They will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone.”

Moses obeys, but even here something doesn’t go quite right.  Two of the seventy—Eldad and Medad—remain in the camp instead of joining the others at the Tent of Meeting. Yet the spirit of God descends upon them where they are, and they begin prophesying along with the other chosen elders.

Not understanding what was happening, a lad reports this incident to Moses, while Joshua—Moses’s assistant at the time—advises that Eldad and Medad be arrested for treason.

Yet Moses’s response is one of the most exalted highlights of the entire Torah: “May all Israel be prophets!”  This is no rebellion, he teaches. This is the entire purpose and intention of God’s vision for the People of Israel. May they all be uplifted by the Spirit of God, raised from the lowliness in which they see themselves to become prophets, leaders and teachers like himself!

It’s no wonder that the ancient Sages single out Eldad and Medad for special praise. The two represent the ideals they themselves stand for. How fortunate the People were when the Temple was yet standing! The Priests would accept their sacrifices, hear their prayers, and grant them absolution. But with the Temple destroyed, this sacred duty passes on to the Rabbis.  They become the “elders” that receive God’s message and in turn teach it to everyone else. And of all of them, the most praiseworthy are those who do not just sit there, waiting for the people to come to them, but rather those who go out among the folk, to seek the needy, the weak and the despondent.  They, teach the Rabbis, are those who will enter the Promised Land; they are the true inheritors of Moses’s legacy.

May all Israel be prophets! The sentiment is overwhelming. God’s spirit is not limited to the select few; there’s plenty to go around to anyone and everyone who would share in it.

The lesson of B’ha’alot’cha is as grand as it is subtle. What Moses learns is that he does not have “to parent” the Children of Israel. God has implanted within each of them the potential to reach greatness on their own. They will complain, yes; they will continue to find fault with themselves and with others; they will see the flaws in the world around them—but then they will also look for—and discover—the solution. 

Moses’s burden is eased—not by the co-leadership of the seventy elders, but rather by his understanding that the Israelites can achieve greatness through their own effort. God’s response to Moses’s complaints is a great gift. You have done more than enough, God seems to tell Moses; you have more than merely raised these children. You gave them faith in themselves. You have truly liberated them, not only from the terrible tyranny of Pharaoh, but also from the oppression of their own lack of confidence and self-esteem.

B’ha’alot’cha means “when you raise.” At the beginning of the portion, the word refers to the way in which Aaron is to kindle—to raise—the flames of the Menorah, the seven-branch candelabra that lit the way to the Tent of Meeting. As the portion ends, however, B’ha’alot’cha signifies the way parents should raise children: to be independent, competent, visionaries and doers in their own right. 

It’s a magnificent teaching.

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Saturday, June 8, 2019

A Model of Perfection: Bamidbar.19

A Model of Perfection: Bamidbar
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
June 8, 2019

The Torah is filled with wonderful stories and images. Many have been transformed into some of the world’s greatest art. Several movies, both live and animated, tried to capture the magnificence and depth of the stories and characters. Its message of freedom and hope inspired countless writers, many African-American spirituals, and at least one opera (Moses And Aaron by the 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg). There’s even a reconstructed Noah’s Ark attraction in Kentucky—one that recently suffered water damage, with an ensuing insurance claim of $1,000,000. (I guess they didn’t follow properly God’s instructions re waterproofing).

Yet the further we get into the five books, the fewer the adaptations. And that’s understandable. There’s little drama in the lists of commandments, the lengthy genealogies, or in the detailed description of the Israelite camp that’s found in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar (“In The Wilderness,” Numbers 1:1—4:20). Yes, later on, beyond these chapters, there are wars and uprisings, the miracles of water bursting out of the rock, and the moving description of Moses’s final vision and death at Mt. Nebo. But—let’s face it—all of these amount to no more than 15 or 20 minutes of screen time, and they don’t stand a chance next to the spectacular images of Noah’s Flood or the Parting of the Red Sea. Hollywood does not like anti-climaxes.

Yet the message in this week’s portion is as important as any other in the Torah. Depicting the encampment of the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Wilderness, it is the picture of perfection. Despite the many moves and changes, everyone is always in their place, everyone knows where they belong.  Each individual has his or her task in the maintenance of the Tabernacle and the camp, and  every tribe is strategically positioned to defend the newly-emerged people. In this picture, every individual counts; everyone’s contribution—from great to small—matters.

At the heart of the camp, protected by the Priests and Levites, lies the magnificent Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle. All its utensils are in place; the rituals are well-practiced and perfectly carried out. At its innermost core, in the Holy of Holies, is the Ark of the Covenant, and inside that, the Tablets of the Law. It is here that Moses and Aaron receive God’s word, to be passed on and taught to the rest of the people.

From station to station, each move is coordinated perfectly, down to the last detail. Nothing is left out, nothing is missing. Throughout the long road, everyone carries out without fail their duties and responsibilities. There is a higher truth at stake, a higher power, one which is entrusted not only to one individual, but rather to the entire people: The Power and Message of the Torah.

The Torah is more than a set of laws, more than a collection of stories, miracles and wonders.  The Torah is God’s eternal Covenant with the People of Israel.  Throughout the generations, the Torah has served as our inspiration and source of strength. It has been our fortress and sanctuary in times of change, war and upheaval. 

When the Israelites finally reach the Promised Land of Israel, under the leadership of King Solomon a permanent Temple is built to house the Holy Ark and its contents. Destroyed by the Babylonians, the Temple was rebuilt some time later—only to be destroyed once again, by the Romans in the year 70 CE.

Though the Jerusalem Temple was never rebuilt, wherever our people went they carried the Torah with them. As they did so, the image that they had before their eyes was the one described in this week’s Torah portion. The Sanctuary is always at the People’s heart; the Holy Ark always houses—not the set of stones Moses had given us, and which disappeared in the course of history—but rather, the rolled parchment we call the Torah.

Through the centuries, synagogues were built wherever Jewish communities grew and thrived. Though leadership of the people was taken up by rabbis rather than kings and priests, to this day we still find ourselves facing east, just as the Israelites did in the Sinai Wilderness. Facing the Torah, our hearts and minds are always directed to this ancient document and the sacred message that it contains.

Generations come and go. Change is inevitable. Yet the eternity of this first portion of the Book of Numbers remains untouched. It is the cornerstone of every Jewish community. Just as described in Bamidbar, at every synagogue, shul and temple, everyone has an assigned role to fill. There is always a person responsible for the implements, utensils, the food; another individual or committee is in charge of the rituals; yet another is there to keep account of membership and dues; and still others who carry out other necessary duties. Times and places may change, yet the model, the vision we are given in this Torah portion, never alters. Such is the nature of perfection.

Today, we find ourselves at yet another time of change and transition. A short four years ago, I began carrying out my responsibilities as Rabbi of TBI. I was entrusted with the teaching of Torah, the care of the community and its children, in charge of carrying out our rituals and traditions, celebrating our holy days and Sabbaths.

When I began my task here, what I found at TBI was a devoted and dedicated congregation. I am still astounded by the deep thirst for Jewish knowledge, by your love for our traditions, by your commitment to observe and practice our ancient customs and rituals. TBI’s involvement in social action is nothing short of phenomenal: feeding the hungry; visiting the sick; providing for the needy; nurturing wounded warriors—these are but some of the mitzvot—commandments—that TBI obeys. Teaching children, one of the most important and challenging commandments of all, has always been at the heart of everything you do. 

TBI’s place and role in the larger community is recognized not only in Laconia, but throughout the State of New Hampshire. When tragedy struck, both personal as well as communal, the outpouring of comfort and sympathy from all our friends and neighbors, from politicians and community leaders, from other members of the clergy as well as the “ordinary” people we met at supermarkets and on the street, has been nothing less than overwhelming. Recognition of Temple B’nai Israel’s contribution to society and the world around us is welcome, fitting and valuable. It’s proof of the truth embedded in our Torah: We might be wanderers in the wilderness, but when we follow the model shown us in Bamidbar, there is no doubt of the outcome. Like some well-oiled machine, as long as everyone does the task assigned to them, it works. That’s the way it has been for more than 3000 years now. 

The important task is to live by Torah, and then to pass it on to the next generation. Wherever we live, we are still in the Wilderness. We have meandered over continents, across oceans and seas, through valleys and high mountains. Yet throughout our history, what has never changed is what we see before our eyes today. 

When Moses’s time comes to leave his charge behind, he does so reluctantly. He knows his work isn’t done. But he also has faith. He knows that someone will follow him. He also knows that, with the Torah’s vision always before the People’s eyes, they will continue the work he had left unfinished. 

It is now my turn to pass leadership on to a new rabbi. I do so with sadness, but also with confidence and faith. I have faith in God, faith in TBI. I have faith in you, my friends. I will always carry in my heart the love and friendship you have shared with me. The rich memory of the past four years will continue nurturing me for as long as I have life and breath. I am grateful for the opportunity to be your rabbi, grateful that you became my friends, my chevruta—my study and worship partners. I could not have asked for more.

I am confident that TBI will never forsake its responsibility. You will persist—as you have for more than 100 years now—in bringing Judaism to life in New Hampshire.  Wherever your paths may take you, you will always carry with you the vision of Bamidbar. And we will always meet here again, in this Torah portion, in this glorious abode of God and people, where everyone lives in peace and harmony, where all have a place, a role and a task to play in keeping our tradition, people and faith alive. 

The Hebrew word shalom means not only hello and goodbye, but also wholeness and peace. With the image of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness in my mind and heart, I wish you all shalom.

I close with the parting words of the beloved friends, David and Jonathan, “Until we meet again, may God be between thee and me.”

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, May 31, 2019

Message To A Bat Mitzvah: Bechukotai.19

Message To A Bat Mitzvah
Shabbat B’chukotai, June 1, 2019
Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

We are facing a fearful world.

Not really encouraging words to say to a child about to embark on her path as a young adult. 

But that’s the thing about growing up. The first step is recognizing who the Tooth Fairy really is, and then, step by step, the understanding that, for the most part, life is what we make of it, not what we wish it to be.

And, after all, would it be better if we sent a teen off to face the rest of his or her life with the lyrics from the Disney movie Pinocchio, “When you wish upon a star/Makes no difference who you are/Anything your heart desires/Will come to you?”  Really now? “Makes no difference who you are?” I think we all realize by now that we live in a world and a time when the differences between us are more marked than almost ever; when your gender, your race, and your religion will almost definitely make a difference in which doors and opportunities will open up for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong. “When You Wish Upon A Star” is indeed a beautiful song. It speaks to the inner child in each of us, which accounts for its enormous popularity. It was recorded by countless artists, from Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong to Barbara Streisand and Idina Menzel. Even the Beach Boys admitted to being influenced by it, stating that it was the inspiration for their mega-hit, “Surfer Girl.”

We all love wishful thinking.  And truthfully, without dreams and hopes, we would have nothing to look forward to, nothing to strive toward. Even the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefillah, is tied into this very human sense, our need to imagine, to wonder, to strive toward something, no matter how far away it seems.

But prayer is only a starting point. We love to send thoughts and prayers, but aside from the warm and fuzzy feeling that such wishes evoke, they don’t really accomplish much. 

Prayers do not stop violence; prayers do not end hunger or stop a disease in its tracks. Prayer may set us off on the right track, but it will be the work of our hands that will take us the rest of the way. 

And so yes, we are facing a fearful world. The challenges facing young adults today are enough to keep all of us awake at night. I won’t list them here. We come to synagogue to find shelter from our fears, not to be troubled by them!

In some Native American cultures, coming-of-age rituals include sending a young man off on a vision quest, hopefully to find a purpose or a mission in life. For most Americans, however, transitioning from child to adult is a longer process, one that takes several years to complete. In the Jewish tradition, the process is simpler. It does require, however, years of immersion in prayer and study, learning to chant some verses from the Torah—in Hebrew yet!—and then leading the congregation during a worship service. And at the end of this process—voila!—you’re an adult!

At least for one day. The next day you’re back in middle school again.

So what advice to give a young adult about to start off on the road to maturity?

First, I would say: Yes, go ahead and dream. Dream, wish, imagine! Visualize a future where justice, equality and freedom are the lot of every human being. Strive toward a world without hunger, war, or need. Pray for strength to overcome the challenges and obstacles.

Secondly, learn from all your teachers and role models—including your parents, no matter how silly they may seem to you now. Mark Twain once famously said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in 7 years.” Experience is the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, and that is probably the greater part of all wisdom. Of course, along the way you will find some who will tell you that something is impossible. They may be right, but don’t let them discourage you from trying anyway. You may, after all, succeed where others have failed. Use common sense, by all means, but at the same time don’t stop trying to find a way that will lead you from where you are to where you want to get.

Work hard. Success is never easy. In the Torah, the book that most encapsulates Jewish wisdom, one of the first lessons that Adam has to learn is that the earth doesn’t easily yield its produce. “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread,” God tells Adam—and, by extension, all of us, too. There is no easy route to the top. You have to keep at it, and if you once fail, try and try again.

And just as importantly—don’t rely only on yourself. The human being is a social animal. We survive as members of a group. We help one another, watch out for one another; we are there for one another.

Becoming an adult in the Jewish community means that you have a built-in support group. Friends will come and go. As you grow and move from middle school to high school, then to college, and from there on to the next stages of life, you will make new friends. Some you will leave behind; others will remain with you for as long as you live. Your family, too, will always be there for you.  But beyond that, you will always also find yourself welcome in any Jewish home, in any Jewish community around the world. Dispersed as we may be, we are one people, one nation. Our collective wisdom and experience provide lessons at every stage of a person’s life. Not to mention food. 

When you go off to college, no matter how far away from home you may find yourself, Hillel, the international Jewish student organization, will always be there to give you a taste of home—literally and figuratively—and the sense of comfort and familiarity that come from having common roots, common traditions, and a common history.

Israel, the homeland of the Jewish nation, is there once again, to be there for you at times of hardship and need. Rebuilt after two thousand years of lying in abject poverty and degradation, the restored State of Israel will welcome you with open arms should you need refuge, shelter or inspiration.  That is its purpose, after all.

Most importantly, however, never lose sight of the values and ideals you learned at home, in your synagogue and at religious school. These, after all, have been providing the Jewish people with goals and direction for more than 3,600 years now. Our vision and perception of God may have changed through the ages. But not so our understanding of what God wants of us: To walk humbly, to pursue justice, to make peace where we see strife, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to teach the ignorant. And above all, to be loving and accepting of others, no matter how different from us they may seem at first. 

With these lessons at your side, you will never lose sight of the road ahead. Your feet will easily find the path before you; your hands will always find the strength to accomplish your goals, and your heart will continue reaching for the highest goals and aspirations.

In every legend and fairy tale, there is a seed of truth. Perhaps that’s true of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” too.  Don’t be afraid to reach for what may seem at first too far away to be attainable. Don’t let others discourage you from trying. Be as strong as you can be—physically, emotionally and spiritually—and you just might make it to that star. Or at least half way there. And don’t worry, even if you don’t reach it, there will be others who will follow you, who will take your hopes and dreams and make them grow. Who knows, perhaps one day we will yet get there. And it will all be thanks to your first steps upon that path.

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek—be strong, be of good courage, and we will all be strengthened with you.

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, May 17, 2019

Holiness In Time: Emor.19

Holiness In Time: Emor
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
May 17, 2019

This week’s portion, Emor (“Speak,” Leviticus 21:1—24:23), gives further instruction to the priests and the Israelites regarding their responsibilities as leaders as well as members of a people that strive for holiness.

Unlike some of the other major religions of the time, the Torah’s focus is on the here-and-now, rather than on the life thereafter. In ancient Egyptian and Greek mythologies, strong emphasis was placed on the afterlife. Food as well as other provisions were supplied for those traveling their final path into the netherworld. In the myth of Orpheus, we actually see an example of a living person who charms his way into the world of the dead in an attempt to release one of its inmates (though without success, due to lack of sufficient faith). Speaking to the dead and consulting with spirits were common practice back then (and based on the popularity of the movie Ghost, still have great appeal even today).

One of the early tenets of Judaism was that nothing but memory remains beyond this life, that in fact even God’s power extends only to that point. (In time, this philosophy was enriched by other influences and God began to be seen as Author of life and death, with God’s redeeming power reaching even beyond the grave).

In Emor, then, the priest’s behavior when coming in contact with death, even in the case of a beloved family member, is severely restricted. In public at least, the priest’s complete devotion to life, to life’s holy moments and sacred duties, has to be unwavering, strictly observed at all times. 

Life was seen as God’s gift, and as such it was considered holy, to be sanctified and not defiled.

It was Moses’s intent, however, that all Israel should be a holy nation, a nation of priests (see Exodus 19:6); as such, sanctifying life becomes the people’s responsibility as much as the priest’s. At every moment, then, with each breath, we must strive upwards from the earth and reach for the highest ideals possible. Our time here is precious. It must not be wasted. 

Only God’s time is perfect, eternal, infinite; ours is all too finite and marked by loss and imperfection. To make up for the time we spend earthbound, in toil and worry, we are commanded to set aside special moments and seasons, to proclaim Sabbaths and holy days and sanctify them. 

In addition to Shabbat, Emor repeats and expands earlier instruction regarding the rituals and sacrifices that must be offered on the Three Pilgrimages—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Originally seasonal pagan holidays, Judaism raises these festivals to a level of sanctity.  The Torah commands every Israelite to bring food to the Temple during these sacred times, provisions meant not for the dead, but rather to be distributed among the poor and needy. 

In the Torah, the functional is never far from the ideal. Holiness is firmly anchored in the grainy reality of time and place. God’s answer to hunger is the commandment to feed the hungry. Holiness is found in the kindness we show to others.

But Emor does more than that. This portion teaches that, in addition to mitzvot—acts of charity and kindness—holiness is encapsulated within time itself.  Our time on earth is our portion of God’s eternal time. When we set aside special times and celebrate them, be they birthdays, anniversaries, Shabbat or other holy days, we activate the Divine spark embedded in the moment. When we observe the sacredness of time, we experience a taste of God’s eternal timelessness, and, at least for that moment, our lives, too, become holy.

As we read in Psalm 118, “I shall not die, but live, and I shall declare God’s works.”

© 2019 by Boaz D. Heilman