Parasha Ekev

It may appear flip to say Moses is reviewing the whole Torah in Deuteronomy, its final book.  Some of what he tells us is even new.  For certain, he is telling the people (and us) to remain diligent and faithful to God's laws and teachings.  However, in our Torah portion this week, Parashat Ekev, it seems that Moses is speaking to the people's stomachs as opposed to their minds and hearts. He reminds them of the manna God continued to send and then promises them much more. Just wait till you see the "land of milk and honey!"  There will be wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates, and olives and dates!  Your stomachs will always be full!

Forgive me, but this list does not seem to be the most elevated posture for Moses to take. It sounds like he is stoking their appetites and stomachs rather than diverting them to spiritual concerns.

In order to understand this we need to step out of the mindset of our well-fed society. For us, the endless obsession with food seems unbecoming of a spiritual community. However, for subsistence farmers in an ancient agrarian society, for whom anxiety about drought and blight was a constant companion, the visions of Moses must have been very compelling. "Stick with God," and you will prosper and feed your family.

But Moses is offering more depth to the Torah. As we read further, we realize that he is addressing not only the poor farmer constantly on the brink of ruin but also the wealthy farmer who has "conquered" the land. In 8:12-14 he speaks to the corrosive effects of affluence-how it breeds arrogance and disbelief.  In essence, remember from where your wealth comes.

The book of Deuteronomy focuses on the land of Israel, but it metaphorically addresses compellingly the affluence of Western democracies. Moses is speaking simultaneously to the people's legitimate needs for sustenance and to their spiritual needs to remain faithful even when distracted by the abundance.

We need to be cognizant of the relationship between material and spiritual aspects of life. The great Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev taught that our neighbor's physical needs become our spiritual obligations. As you hopefully received in your e-mail last Friday, beginning this Shabbat untilKol Nidre, our entire congregation is participating in a canned food drive for the San Antonio Food Bank.  I hope you will join me in bringing in canned food for those in need in our community.  In the New Year I hope that we will all make efforts to provide actual relief for people in physical need and spiritual relief for people afflicted by the corrosive effects of abundance.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Devarim

With full respect to Parsha Devarim, I would like to touch on Tisha B'av and its liturgy.  We will be commemorating Tisha B'Av Saturday night and Sunday morning.  It is said "with the advent of the month of Av we diminish our joy."   The Kinot ritual we will be doing Sunday morning first brings out the aspects of our triumphant Exodus from Egypt: the redemption followed by the plagues, the splitting of the sea, giving of the Torah, the manna, the clouds, the traveling water well, and so on.

Then, as if toying with our emotions, we see the rioting and ransacking, the fire and smoke of devastation, tears from families being torn apart, famine and starvation, captivity and servitude, war, sickness, death, and mourning of the destruction of the Temple.   We are taken from the highest heights to the lowest of the lows.

The concept is not original, nor mine, but we can take some consolation from the fact that nearly two thousand years after the destruction of Jerusalem and our exile, the Jewish people are still standing (for those of you that have been to Israel recently, still standing "tall").   We have been oppressed all over the world but time after time have left our positive stamp on humankind. A small group of us are even perched and flourishing on the plains just north of the Alamo for over 125 years!

Having spent many, many summers at Camp Ramah I recall hearing the story of the "fox" more than once, and it is only now as an adult that my inner soul feels its true meaning.  Rabbi Akiva and three other sages were walking in Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple.  As they approached the site of the Temple Mount, a fox came scurrying out from the ruins of the Temple.  Mindful of the prophesy, "On desolate Mount Zion, foxes will roam," (Eicha 5:18), the sages began to cry and mourn the destruction of our Holy Temple.  Rabbi Akiva only laughed.

Why, they questioned?  He reminded them the entire prophesy had two parts -- the first half dealt with destruction and the second with redemption.  If the first part dealing with destruction came true exactly as foretold, then the rest must also be true, and our redemption is at hand.  The Talmud (Makot 24b) tells us the sages replied, "Akiva you have comforted us; Akiva you have comforted us."

Please join us tomorrow night at 9:15 PM and Sunday morning at 9 AM to commemorate this solemn day.   This is the one weekday that we do NOT wear our tefillin

Our sages teach in Isaiah 66:10, "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her."  Whoever mourns properly for Jerusalem will be rewarded by experiencing its rejoicing.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Please note that Rabbi Abraham will be away next Shabbat.  His message will return on August 7th.

Iran Deal

This is a summation of Rabbi Abraham's Sermon about Iran that he shared on this past Shabbatmorning.

In anticipation of the upcoming entrance into the Land of Israel, the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a request to Moses that their inheritance be on the eastern side of the Jordan River rather than in what we now know as Israel.  Their position was that the eastern bank would be more suitable for their large herds.  Moses finally accedes to their request but only after they agree to aid the rest of the nascent nation in conquering the entire land before settling on the east bank.  Sounds like a smooth, easy deal. 

Moses responds clearly and firmly: As long as their proposition posed a danger to the nation, he could not succumb to their request. Modern scholar, Rabbi Yaakov Filber notes, "When Moses revealed signs of capitulation to the point of defeatism, behavior which could harm national morale, he could not ignore [this danger] and express forgiveness and understanding." As much as he might have wanted to respond positively, conditions demanded that he respond with a firm "no." 

The tribes return with a better offer in verses 16-18, "We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will be armed and ready to go before the children of Israel, until we have brought them to their place...We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance." Moses accepted their offer.

Moses' "no," rather than causing a rift among the people, served instead as sufficient incentive for a better offer. In certain circumstances, "no" really is the best answer to a bad offer.

Like Moses, we must evaluate. As the United States entered into negotiations with Iran, it was clear that any agreement would need to address the issues outlined by Congress to block any path to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability: inspections and verifications, long duration of the agreement, dismantlement, and potentially resuming sanctions in case of violations.

After much consideration, my conclusion is that the "agreement" with Iran does not achieve the minimum requirements necessary for an acceptable deal.

Saying "no" is not about scuttling a deal-far from it! When Moses said no to the tribes' first request, it was about setting the stage for a better deal. Now it should be about a deal that truly dismantles Iran's nuclear program and includes "anytime, anywhere" inspections. The deal as currently structured will embolden Iran, enhance its ability to sponsor global terror and threaten Israel and our allies in the region.

This is not a partisan issue nor is it about the president... it is a very bad deal.

When the tribes of Reuben and Gad made their counter-offer, they made it clear that they were prepared to fight on behalf of the children of Israel. It is now our turn to fight for America and Israel's security. We must reach out to our members of Congress and, like Moses, demand a deal that accomplishes the objective: in this case, a nuclear weapons-free Iran.  Even for our Senators and Representatives who have spoken out against the deal, need to hear from us that we support them.  And for the others, even more so!  Click Here to e-mail your representatives.  If you have time, call or send them a handwritten letter as well.  I am asking for each of us to use our voices now so that we can speak up, just like Moses, for what I believe is the just and right thing to do.

Parasha Mattot-Ma'asei

The words are Ralph Waldo Emerson's, but I cannot help but think he had me in mind as I became your rabbi exactly a year ago.   "Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."   My first allegiance is to the Conservative Movement we hold so near and dear, propelling each of our journeys getting closer to our God.  My mandates on my arrival were bringing in new families andinfusing innovative programming into the daily life here at Agudas.    Have we done enough? No!  Are we on the right trail? I like to think, yes.

Our double parsha, Mattot-Ma'asei, begins with a discussion of the laws regarding vows (neder) and oaths (shuva).  Neither seems applicable in our contemporary lifestyle until we arrive at Kol Nidre, where we ask that our vows made before God be annulled.   Other than that, their application is more from a historical perspective.  The parsha distinguishes them with a neder changing the status of an external thing, while a shuva initiates an internal change in the one who swears the oath.   You may have heard very religious people making the statement b'li neder after stating they will do somethingwhich simply means "without making a vow." 

Commitments to the shul should be taken seriously, but I certainly do not expect a vow.   All I ask is that each of you consider partaking of the programming at Agudas.   Some of you are active in one or two areas and others "just thinking about it."   Whatever your level, take it up a notch.   Our staff and leadership are unparalleled, but they can always use an extra hand.  Enhancing our welcoming nature is one place each of us can immediately make a difference.   Just smile, greet, meet and schmooze.  Visit with me; I have lots of thoughts, ideas and plans.  I want to include you!

You probably never thought you would hear a rabbi quote Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Lennon in the same piece, but "Imagine All the People" in the context of Agudas.  Imagine bringing your friends and fellow members to our smorgasbord of activities, be they religious, educational or social.

Please help me get out the word that our prayer experiences, programming and educational activities are incredible and that anyone interested in Judaism in San Antonio has a place here at Agudas.   No matter how innovative our activities and programs are, they are meaningless without YOU!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

*****I am aware that many of you are awaiting my response to the recent agreement between the P5+1 and Iran.  I will be speaking about this issue tomorrow morning on Shabbat and also please be on the lookout this Tuesday for a special message on my thoughts about the deal with Iran.

Parasha Pinchas

Violence today seems to be at an all-time high.  One need only look at our Torah to see how violent we have been as a people, especially during our time in the desert.  Pinchas committed a violent act and had this week's portion named for him-and attained the priesthood.  The Israelites began to participate in an idolatrous, orgiastic cult which led to a plague.Pinchas killed an Israelite man (Zimri) and a Moabite woman who were copulating near the sanctuary, and the plague halted.  God rewarded Pinchas with a covenant of the priesthood and peace for him and his descendants for all time.

Why was Pinchas, who committed a violent act, given a "blessing of peace?"  Rabbi Avraham Shmul Sofer (1815-1871), known as the Ktav Sofer and the rosh yeshiva of the famed Pressburg Yeshiva, responding to this query noted that zealotry is an "extreme attribute which carries with it great danger" which must be utilized only in extreme circumstances.  Great people recognize when and where to use zealotry-and when not to use it.  Pinchas, as the one of the only biblical figures to commit a zealous act, was given the attribute of peace to counterbalance his actions.  The Ktav Sofer goes on to make his most notable pronouncement, "This serves as a lesson for the future, that in private and public life, the ways of peace are preferable to acts of vigilance." 

Israel has consistently recognized the power of violence and the need to balance that power with peace. It is precisely for this reason Israel exhibits a greater degree of restraint than any army in the world's history. During last summer's war in Gaza, Israel scrupulously employed extraordinary measures exceeding international standards in order to avoid civilian casualties. Israel risked the lives of its own soldiers to spare civilian lives by providing Gaza residents with advance warning of impending attacks. Moreover, throughout the conflict, Israel repeatedly sought to end the hostilities through ceasefires which were responded to with more Hamas rocket launchings. 

Despite Israel's extraordinary efforts, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a draft resolution condemning Israel for its actions and made no mention of the Hamas-fired rockets at Israeli civilians which precipitated the conflict. Last week, the United States was the only country to support Israel and to oppose this outrageous resolution by stating, "We are troubled that this current resolution focuses exclusively on alleged Israeli violations, without any expressed reference to Palestinian violations." Thankfully, U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper characterized the American position with, "The historic alliance between the United States and Israel is the most stabilizing feature in an otherwise unstable region of the world."

For its great efforts to protect Gazan citizens and to return peace to the region, Israel deserves praise rather than criticism. One-sided efforts which fail to recognize Israel's restraint and its desire for peace will not further the interests of the Palestinian people. Instead, they will only encourage Hamas to again attack, forcing its citizens to suffer the consequences.

We are in the midst of an ideological battle in what seems like every corner of the world.  Pinchas killed Zimri for one reason and one reason only-he knew it was the right thing to do.  The Israeli Defense Forces do not attempt to curry favor-what they do is "the right thing to do!"  Regardless of how we feel about the internal politics in Israel, I hope that all of us will continue to do the right thing and defend Israel in the public sphere against those trying to take Israel and the Jewish people down.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Balak

This week's Torah portion is my favorite, largely because I love the story so much, and it was my Bar Mitzvah portion.  Parashat Balak takes on what seems like a farcical journey as the Israelites continue to wander and come upon the Moabites.  Balak, King of the Moab, is fearful of Moses and the Israelites, so he summons Baalam, a professional curser, to go and blaspheme the Israelites and allow the Moabites to defeat them.

Just as Balaam is about to start his journey, God tells him not to go as this is not what God wants.  Balaam listens and refuses to go, but after multiple attempts to not go, he acquiesces to Balak and proceeds on his way to curse the Israelites.  En route, God sends an angel to block the path of Balaam's donkey.  Balaam cannot see it and is baffled after the donkey refuses to advance multiple times; he becomes very frustrated and begins to beat his donkey.  The tables turn, and the donkey actually talks and asks Balaam why Balaam is hitting him.  Balaam, stunned, (and who wouldn't be if their donkeys began talking to them!) responds that the donkey is not going where he is supposed to.  The donkey calmly responds, asking Balaam if he has ever let Balaam down before.  Balaam responds, "No."  At that moment the angel who is blocking the path appears, and Balaam understands what is going on. 

Moments later, with Balak in his presence, Balaam blesses the Israelites three times rather than cursing them. This is the aegis of the prayer many Jews recite upon entering a synagogue, Mah Tovu.  Uniquely, this is the only prayer in our liturgy written by a non-Jew. [i] 

This week, I was privileged to attend the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) Conference with our new Director of Congregational Learning, Rabbi Ariel Greenberg.  We explored what the ISJL has to offer and how it can enhance Agudas.  It was motivating to learn about this incredible network of nearly 60 congregations throughout the South. The ISJL provides us with program ideas, adult education, religious school curricula, pre-school resources, and more.  I was energized to see how we can truly integrate much of what the ISJL has to offer and take advantage of this incredible organization and its network.

When Balaam gets upset with the angel, his failure is in not seeing what is right in front of him, that the angel was blocking the path of his donkey.  We, too, have not seen some of what was right in front of us.  I'm thrilled to bring back all of the new information we were exposed to and begin implementing it with Rabbi Greenberg in the coming weeks and months.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[i] Only the first part of the prayer is from Balaam, the end is from Psalms.

Parasha Hukkat

Exhausted upon my return last week after flight cancellations and an unexpected night in Atlanta, I placed my wedding band and watch on a credenza in the front of my house.  The next morning I woke up, and to my complete dismay my watch had been moved and my ring was missing.  I was, in a simple word, mad-at myself for leaving it out and at Benny and Henry for not remembering where they had put it while playing with it.

The more I looked (Benny frantically feigned looking, too), the angrier I became.  After a few minutes, I started thinking about my Shabbatmessage and realized that the Torah told me how to handle this (minor) vicissitude of life.  I went to the office, and even though I had the essence of the answer firmly in my mind, I needed to "inhale" it one more time.

In this week's Torah portion, Hukkat, we see Moses losing control.  Moses' chevra (community) is complaining yet again, this time for lack of water in the desert.  God tells Moses specifically to "speak" to a rock in order to draw water from it. Instead, Moses "hits" the rock in anger.  But there is a backdrop to Moses' behavior.  His beloved sister, Miriam, has just died. Moses' grief causes him to be short on patience.

Punishment is swift (and harsh), as Moses is told by God that for losing his anger he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.  I actually believe that it was God's scheme to not allow Moses into the land so that his grave would not become a shrine; either way, the Torah teaches us a valuable lesson.  As the old adage goes, if you add one letter onto the word "anger," we create "danger" in our lives.

People lose control.  We may get excessively angry or behave impulsively. We may even scream at a child.  I know I am certainly guilty when my children do something exasperating. Darkness lurks behind our behavior, and suddenly, when we least expect it, we can erupt into regrettable behavior.

It is important not to lose control, especially with our children or other friends and family.  We don't want to explode for minor infractions.  We also don't want to set up models of destructive behavior.  We deal with a myriad of issues in our lives that can be a source of our frustrations.  The lesson to learn from Moses is to take that extra deep breath and try to overcome our negative emotions.  Whatever the subject, it is better to address the deeper issues than for us to lose control.  After not stressing and getting ready to take the boys swimming, the ring turned up.  In the end, cooler heads prevailed, just the way it should always be.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Korach

Communicating is a huge part of ensuring a successful synagogue's culture.  It can be anything from one-on-one interactions, to our communication by mail, our e-mails and our postings on Facebook.

This is being written at the Rabbinical Assembly conference in Baltimore on "Leading Through Communications."  The conference for Conservative rabbis is focusing on how we communicate in our synagogues today.  We were exposed to new methods for improving our connecting through messages like this, my sermons on Shabbat, and the more interpersonal one-on-one communications with each of you. 

In my opinion the most relevant sessions were on social media.  In particular we examined Facebook and how we can best utilize it to communicate with you about what is happening at the synagogue.  We also discussed how we can use our Agudas Facebook page to generate conversations as well.  Be on the lookout as we work on engaging each of you through our communications even more than we already have been doing.

Our Torah portion, Korach, personifies a lack of communication.  Korach leads a group of 250 people who choose to challenge Moses' and Aaron's leadership.  They simply want to overthrow Moses and Aaron as the leaders rather than communicating and having a real conversation about how conditions, in their opinion, could have been improved.  It is this lack of desire to sit down and get to know each other's issues better that ultimately dooms Korach and his followers as they are swallowed up by quicksand at the hand of God.

How often in our own lives do we jump to conclusions, become angry with a person or group of people without taking the time to understand their side of the issue?  What we can learn from this week's Torah portion, as well as one of the major takeaways of my conference, is that we must always have the lines of communication open.  Judaism prides itself as being a religion where we are allowed to have machlochet, disagreements.  Nevertheless, we are told that they must be machlochet l'shem shamayim,disagreements for Heaven's sake.  Just as we concluded a hotly contested mayoral race here in San Antonio, and as the presidential candidates begin to come out of the woodwork, we must remember that it is OK to disagree with one another and at times even spar with each other.  However, we must remember to both disagree respectfully and to always attempt to understand the other's opinion.  This way we will build and grow our community as one which opens the lines of communication and engages with one another L'shem Shamayim, for Heaven's sake.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Sh'lah L'kha

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Sh'lah L'kha meanders.  It begins with the 12 spies being sent into the Promised Land (I will dwell more about this on Shabbat morning) and ends with the instructions for wearing tzitzit.  God instructs Moses to tell the nation to make tzitzit on the four corners of all garments to serve as an eternal reminder of all the Commandments.

One aspect of tzitzit I appreciate most is that they are on four corners of our tallit, thus representing the four corners of the earth.  When we gather our tzitzit together, we are attempting to bring the world together for peace. Our challenge is to make spirituality a part of daily reality. In "seeing" the tzitzit, we have a tangible reminder of an incorporeal God.

Seeing God in our lives is a progression-from recognizing his presence in mundane things like a garment, all the way to the spiritual realm ("heavenly throne").  In this way, tzitzit has a meta-physical "fringe" benefit (pun intended), in helping to safeguard one from temptation.  The Torah tells us in Numbers 15:39, "And you will see them, and remember not to follow after your heart and eyes, that you stray after them."

Tzitzit remind us that God is watching, and our actions should reflect that realization.You have no doubt seen men and boys at the mall with tzitzit hanging from their waist, that is part of what is known as the tallit katan (small), as opposed to the tallit gadol (large) worn at CSI over the upper body by both men and women.  The Talmud, (Menachot 44a) tells of a man who was intensely addicted to a dangerous vice and was willing to spend any amount of money to satisfy that desire. He traveled across the world, and at the moment before the forbidden liason, his tzitzit "slapped him in the face." The commentators explain that the tzitzit struck him not literally, but psychologically-with the four corners of the world appearing as witnesses against him, and he refrained from the sin. 

  • The tzitzit knots are wound with 7, then 8, then 11, and then 13 windings.  Take a look at yours, every one is identical.  The question has been asked as to why are they wound with 7, 8, 11, and 13 windings? Seven represents the perfection of the physical world, which was created in seven days.
  • Eight is the number of transcendence that goes beyond nature.
  • Eleven is the numerical value of vav-hey, the last two letters of God's Name.
  • Thirteen is the numerical value of echad - one.
  • The five knots themselves remind us of the five senses and the five books of the Torah.

What this means is that our tzitzit are a constant reminder for us about where we were created from, the importance of coming together as a global community, and a constant reminder of our one God.  If we can focus on our tzitzit and their meanings on a regular basis, we can become better human beings.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha B'ha-a lot'kha

We are told that in this week's Torah portion, Parashat B'ha-a lot'kha, "Miriam and Aaron spoke despairingly of Moses and the Cushite woman he had married."  They said, "Has Adonai spoken only through Moses?  Has God not spoken through us as well?"  The real questions of this episode are: What prompts Moses' sister and brother to protest against him?  Why does it appear to be a public matter rather than a private, "intra-family" discussion?

Some commentators express surprise, claiming that there is no apparent explanation for Miriam's and Aaron's criticism of Moses.  Others argue that the explanation is clearly offered in the text.  Are we not told, they point out, that Moses' sister and brother condemn him for his marriage to a Cushite woman and for acting as if God speaks exclusively through him?  Those maintaining that there is no apparent explanation for Miriam's and Aaron's criticism respond that while the Torah text provides a hint of an explanation, it does not offer any evidence that Moses claimed to speak "exclusively" for God. 

Given this justified difference of opinion, the real question is: How do we make sense of this troubling Torah story?  Why do Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, and why is Miriam more severely punished?  The crux of this issue is whether Aaron and Miriam are upset with Moses for marrying a second wife (other than Zipporah), or are they upset because she is not an Israelite?  In the first scenario, the commentators, including Rashi, read into this that we should only have one husband or wife in our lives.  This answer is convenient in hindsight.  Looking back at the Torah, many characters have multiple wives after Moses, and this is simply the medieval commentators placing their own values on the issue.

The second reason for the complaint is even more interesting.  During Biblical times, it was common for Israelites to marry someone from a different tribe or religion.  However, by the time the medieval commentators made their remarks, this was not the norm.  Many read into this that we are only to marry Jews and should be chastised if we intermarry.

While some may carry this view, I think the scenario is much more nuanced.  The fact that Miriam is punished for her complaint shows that God understands that not every Jew will marry another Jew, including Moses!  In our time, intermarriage is certainly prevalent.  There are those who simply shun others who marry a non-Jew.  I would like to suggest that instead of pushing intermarried couples away, we should take the time to embrace them and reach out (keruv) and welcome them.  At Agudas, we have recently created a new keruv committee that works on ways we can reach out to intermarried families and substantiate that there is a place for all at Agudas.  We are working diligently at changing our literature and website, while creating programs to help make our synagogue even more inviting and welcoming. 

It does seem poignant and apropos when we read the words Moses uttered to his non-Jewish father-in-law, "Come with us and we will be generous with you."  I have said it before and I say it again, All Are Welcome!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Naso

What task would you think makes me nervous? You may be surprised: it is making synagogue announcements. Standing up at the end of services and making announcements is still a slight challenge. I want to give warm but equal acknowledgment to all who have participated, as well as to those who fulfill the roles necessary to help the shul function. There are milestones to celebrate, mourners to comfort, and programs to promote.  I'm glad that our president attends most Saturday morning services to do all of this for me.

How much information is appropriate to share? What needs to be said in person, and what can be reserved for other forums? How do I avoid snubbing one person when praising another? How to balance the need to inform with the pressure to move quickly to kiddush? How do I correct the inevitable errors with grace? I worry about these things. These considerations may not strike you as momentous, but for me they represent core communal values-celebrating volunteerism and sensitivity to individuals.

"Carrying capacity" might be a good explanation for our parashah, Naso, which literally means, "lift up." This portion lacks exciting narratives, yet there is a sense of vast power embedded in it. The Levites are instructed to do their shipping tasks precisely-lest they die. They are also given definitive instructions on how to bless the Israelites in what has become one of the most familiar of Biblical text, the priestly benediction. Even the two non sequiturs of our portion, the regulations of the sotah (suspected adulteress) and the nazir (pious ascetic) are focused on controlling with ritual what are normally unregulated, emotional events.

The overall message of our portion seems to be that for Israel to function as a holy camp every person must have a designated role and each role must be acknowledged with explicit reference to the task performed. In truth, the Torah portion focuses only on certain classes of people.

Hasidic writer Rabbi Elimelekh Lipman (b. 1717 in Poland; known for his book of sermons, Noam Elimelekh) focused his teachings on the role of a tzadik, or righteous leader. Addressing our portion he discerned that Moses and Aaron were intent on "lifting up the head" of each person. Somehow, as saints they were able to discern the spiritual history (gilgul-playing on the synonym for head, gulgolet) of each member of their community and knew how to elevate each individual until the house of Israel could become a united front bringing divine presence into the world.

Naso is the longest portion in the Torah, and it generally comes just afterShavuot, when we are flushed with excitement after having received the Torah. What are we to do with this precious and somewhat overwhelming gift? We must use the Torah to lift up the heads of each person in our community, to give them all sacred tasks, to acknowledge them and to unite them into a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. Announcing the efforts of our community, thanking those who contributed, and recruiting others to join-these are not minor tasks. These are the very essence of leadership, and they are the shared responsibility of the entire community. We must recognize our amazing volunteers, as well as our paid professionals.  We are constantly aiming to engage more Jews in the sacred work of our community. My hope and goal is that we will be lifting each of us up and giving our community the gift of an honored role in the continuing covenant between God and Israel.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Shavuot

Benny asked me this week, "What is the difference between Sukkot and Shavuot?"  My quick answer was, "It is Zeman Matan Toratenu, the time of the giving of our Torah."  He instantly responded (to my delight) "at the end of the Counting of the Omerwhen Moses came down from the mountain."  Monday morning is the second day of Shavuot as well as Memorial Day.  We will be adding the Yizkor or memorial service as part of our davening (praying).

Jewish law shuns mourning on any holiday (as well as Shabbat), and in fact the onset of a Jewish holiday cuts short the shiva period of mourning. Why then do we recite Yizkor, a mournful prayer, specifically on days when it is taboo?   Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner writes that Yizkor overrides the normal mourning prohibition because the prayer serves not so much as a prayer of mourning but instead as a tool which unites the community: 

"...this is the goal of our Yizkor - to generate a communal moment of bonding and consolation - and so we use specifically those days of greatest gathering, Shabbat and Yom Tov and Yom Kippur, for this purpose. Precisely on these days of sacred communal gathering, we bond in an act of consolation, which is viewed not as a negation of our joy but as a celebration of our community. The Jew who mourns a victim of the Holocaust, the Jew who mourns a victim of terror in Israel, the Jew who mourns a grandmother or a child or a spouse or a friend-we are all part of the same nation, the same community, and if these are the days when our community comes together as one, then these shall be the days when we find communal comfort."

The same principle applies to the American Jewish community. A few short weeks ago, the Jewish community gathered on Israel's Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) to remember the IDF soldiers and terror victims who gave their lives in defense of the Jewish state. We must also use the prayer to unite with the loved ones of the dedicated United States of America Armed Forces who gave their lives to protect and defend our freedom (you can find a list here). It is my hope that these prayers will bring blessing and solace to those who made the ultimate sacrifice and their families and friends, and that they will likewise serve to bond us together in this great community of men and women dedicated to spreading freedom and democracy around the world.

Join us this Shavuot (and Memorial Day) as we will remember those family members important to us, in addition to our American fallen soldiers. Yizkor will begin at approximately 10:45 on Monday morning.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Behar-Behukotai

Our short portion of Behar-Behukotai emphasizes communal responsibility. Its distinctive mitzvot of the shimitah, or sabbatical, and yovel, or jubilee years, both require individuals to relinquish private holdings, whether on real estate or over other people (slaves), so that all of Israel can live in freedom and dignity with God. Leviticus 25:23 says "Do not sell the land in perpetuity, for all the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and residents with Me."  The overall message is that God's design for Israel is the creation of a fair society where everyone has a stake.

In Midrash Vayikra Rabbah God's declaration, "that the land is Mine," is compared to other places where God claims an entity-the priests, Levites, all of Israel, Jerusalem etc.-and explains that this claim is eternal, in this world and in the next. Seventeenth century Hasidic writer Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apte, known as the Oheiv Yisrael, finds here a hint of future experiences of exile. Even when Israel is not resident upon its land, God's presence remains. When Israel is called geirim v'toshavim, strangers and residents, this does not mean that they are less than permanent occupants of the land but rather that they are permanently connected to God, no matter where they live. For many Hasidic writers, exile was more a state of spiritual alienation than a physical dislocation, but in the Oheiv Yisrael one also sees a yearning for physical return to the land.

Our dilemma is that in the Diaspora we think of themes of exile and homecoming in terms of spiritual connection or alienation from Jewish identity and practice. But there is no denying the importance of a physical land. When we do things right in Israel, it has far more power and permanence than even the best efforts abroad. And when things go awry, the consequences are especially devastating.

Traveling to Israel is such an unbelievable experience.  We have a unique opportunity to travel to Israel together as a congregation next June of 2016.  I urge all of you to come and attend our Israel Trip informational session on Thursday, May 28th at 7:30 PM.  Even if you can't join us in Israel, we are going to be conducting a service next Shabbat morning, Saturday, May 23rd where we will "pray at the Wall."  We will have a unique experience of changing our seating arrangements to simulate what is like to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, literally what our sanctuary is meant to look and feel like.

It is not that Israel is unblemished, but rather precisely because of its flaws that I feel so committed to the land and want you to join me in absorbing it. Parashat Behar is itself set in exile-at Mount Sinai-and yet its image of national life on the land is not idealized. It anticipates many failures, both individual and national, and warns the people of Israel to guard its conduct, creating a just and faithful society, lest the land propel its occupants back into exile. 

Let us instill in ourselves the consciousness inspired by Parashat Behar. We are grateful for the opportunity to live in an era of Jewish sovereignty and resolve to take this opportunity to create a society that is secure, just, and faithful to the Torah's instruction of living with God, upon the land.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Emor

A great blessing one can have is the ability to give to others.  Hosting guests and taking care of their meals is the best way to manifest this. Guests care much more about your attitude towards them than the expense or beauty of the surroundings.

This week's Torah portion, Emor, addresses Jewish holidays (Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach, etc.) We are called upon to celebrate these holidays joyously with the imperative to make sure we are sharing the joy with others-our families, as well as guests we can bring into our homes.  In fact, we are taught that taking care of a guest's needs takes precedence over one's relationship with God.  However, our Torah is urging us to do more than just inviting guests into our homes; we need to help out others everywhere.

Two weeks ago, Nepal suffered a massive earthquake that killed thousands, injured thousands more, and devastated an entire country. Nations around the world sent aid, with Israel leading the way.  As Jews, this incredible act of national chesed (kindness) fills us with pride. This tiny country-the Jewish state-was ready, in a matter of hours, to send two hundred and fifty soldiers to build a field hospital and begin searching for survivors in the wreckage. Israel's chesed should spur us to follow suit.

How can we explain the scale, scope and speed of Israel's national response? Israel acts because it can, and so it must. It recognizes that as a Jewish state, its ability to use the IDF's knowledge and training obligates it to act, help, and save lives. But in the process, Israel is also creating aKiddush Hashem (sanctifying God's name) on a scale that no community of individuals could ever achieve on its own. Of course, we are proud. But we also recognize that our work to support the Jewish state benefits not only Israel but people everywhere. This strengthens our resolve to ensure that Israel will always have the means, strength and ability to come to the aid of people in need, anywhere in the world. 

As we similarly see riots in Baltimore and (yes, even) Tel Aviv over the last couple of weeks, we also need to have our voices heard to stand up for what is just, while encouraging all to do so in a non-violent manner.  God has bestowed much upon each of us.  Our gift of the ability to make others happy and to give to them allows us, briefly, to be "God-like."  Our own enjoyment of the world is incomplete if we cannot share it with others. Make the effort to have an open home and bring others into God's ambit.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

Like any normative system, Judaism is most interesting when it seeks to balance and prioritize conflicting values. It is less difficult to discern between right and wrong than between right and right. What are we to do when two positive values collide? Our double Torah portion Aharei Mot-Kedoshim takes on just this.

In chapter 19 we read two verses about Shabbat. 19:3 says, "You shall each revere his mother and father, and keep my sabbaths; I the Lord and your God," while 19:30 says, "You shall guard my sabbaths, and venerate my sanctuary; I am the Lord." 

Each verse has three clauses, each of which stands in relation to the other two. We can read them as a spiritual progression. Respect your parents by keeping Shabbat, and you will know God. And: Protect sacred time and mark it in sacred space and then you will come to know the Eternal One (who nevertheless transcends time and space). In these readings, each clause supports the others. 

Take a short moment to consider. Is it the Temple that we are supposed to revere-a building-or is it God whom we ought to revere? In Sofrim [i] 3:17we read, "Do not revere the Temple, but the One who commanded about it..." This brief statement reflects a common and growing concern that popular religiosity focuses more on the structures of religion rather than on its core values.  We, too, can be guilty of this, forgetting the synagogue's core mission is worship of and correspondingly coming closer to God.  This does not mean we should not continue to generously donate our time and money to help shuls operate; I simply want to remind each of us of the core reason we care so deeply about this sacred community.

In the end, however, keeping Shabbat is as much a state of mind as it is about our activities. On this Shabbat of Aharei Mot-Kedoshim let us "work" to create a "menhuah sheleimah," an uncompromised state of relaxation which will allow us to devote ourselves to Torahmitzvot and praise of the Holy One. We may not be at a stage where we can do all aspects of Shabbat, but I implore each of us to take on just a little bit more to help make Shabbat holier for our community.  I wish you a peaceful and pleasant Shabbat.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[i] A tractate augmenting the Talmud.

Parasha Tazria-Metsorah/Yom Ha'Atzmaut

Wow!  What an exhausting couple of weeks this is for our Jewish people.  We go through the emotional high of being freed from slavery to the lowest moment in our people's history on Yom HaShoah, remembering the six million, followed a week later byYom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for all of its fallen soldiers, and then finished off the very next day with Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day.  The range of emotions is emotionally draining.

I was honored to be at the community Yom HaShoah commemoration last week in addition to our inspiring trip to the Houston Holocaust Museum onYom HaShoah (in spite of the bus trouble on the way back).  I was inspired to be a part of the community commemoration and celebration for Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'Atzmaut two days ago.

Our support for the State of Israel is needed now more than ever before. 

In our Torah portion this week, we learn about the metzora, the leper.  TheTalmud (Arachin 15b) takes a different slant.  Reish Lakish (one of the most colorful personalities in the Talmud) said: "Do not [only] read the verse 'leper' (metzora), rather also read the verse to mean 'slanderer' (motzi shem rah)."  With this statement, the Talmud drew a direct link between the tzara'at, described in the Torah, and slanderous speech.  In the very first passage of the book Chofetz Chaim, the magnum opus of Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen Kagan, who came to be known as The Chofetz Chaim, he states, "It is forbidden to speak disparagingly of one's friend. Even if the information is entirely truthful, it is called lashon hara. If the information also contains any fabrication, it is also called motzi shem ra (lit. 'putting out a bad name')." While we take great care to choose our words carefully lest we malign our fellow man with our speech, the world seems devoted to using speech to malign the Jewish state, especially on college campuses.

I was shocked to learn about the anti-Israel and certainly anti-Semitic motion brought to the Student Government Association at the University of Texas proposing the University's endowment divest itself from multi-national companies that "trade" with Israel. Thankfully, 17 former student body presidents mobilized and a large crowd of protesters came the night of the vote, and the resolution was defeated.  This comes on the heels of incidents at UCLA and Stanford where students who were appointed to positions in the student governments were assailed for being Jewish and told that they could not be unbiased in their positions because they are Jewish.

What we must learn from this past days of Yom Hashoah through Yom Ha'Atzmaut is that when we say "Never Again" we must mean it.  We must continue to stand up and fight for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole so that what happened 70 years ago does not ever happen again.

 

Am Yisrael Chai and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Shimini

Dealing with adversity, fear and loss with courage is a lesson we learn from our forefather Aaron.  After his sons Nadav and Avihu are struck dead in the Mishkan, Moses offers a quick and puzzling explanation of Aaron's conduct.  The Torah says "vayidom Aharon" (Aaron was silent).  This does not necessarily mean that he stifled his grief.  It may be, as some commentators have it, that Aaron first wept in shock and then regained his composure.  But what was going on?  There are many reasons given for his sons' deaths.  All are plausible and are left for us to ponder.  

It takes a certain nobility of spirit to face adversity with courage, audacity and also humility. That is what I perceive from Moses and Aaron.  Life often presents rejection, disappointment, threat and even tragedy.  It is natural to feel angry, frightened or humiliated and to lash out in response.  Judaism does not teach a "turn the other cheek" approach, but it also does not favor angry retorts.  We must be deliberate even in a time of challenge, acting with principle and pursuing peace.

Just as my rabbis implored upon me, I do similarly.  We are constantly told that the Torah tells us how to live our lives, yet it is hard to envision concrete modern day examples.  Here we see the aegis of one of the fundamental concepts of our mourning practices.  During shiva, Jews do not extend greetings.  When you initially encounter or greet a mourner, "you" are silent; let them utter the first words.  Simply being there is sufficient.  We are there to share grief, not exchange pleasantries.  Aaron is our model-"Aaron was silent," even in his deepest grief.

Two of the most noted contemporary writers on Jewish mourning practices are Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University, one of my mentors and the author of "A Time to Mourn, a Time for Comfort," and Rabbi Maurice Lamm, author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning."  Lamm's work is, in my opinion, the most concise and authoritative work on a subject that will affect all of our lives. 

As if he were talking about Aaron, Dr. Wolfson notes: "However, the mourner is not obligated to rise from his or her chair to greet any visiting comforter.  This is perhaps the clearest indication to all that the normal roles of host/hostess and guest are inverted during shiva." (pg. 169)

Rabbi Lamm continues in the identical vein: "...the shiva visitation, is the time that is ripe for the beginning of the mourner's verbalization of his feeling of loss.  Here too, the rabbis urge the visitors to sit in silence until the bereaved desires to speak." (pg. 101)

It is almost as if I can hear Dr. Wolfson saying, "There is no right or wrong, our forefathers are our guides."  What better role model than Aaron?

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Passover

Tomorrow night at the end of our second Seder, we begin Sifrat HaOmer, Counting the Omer.  We are directed to do so from Leviticus 23:15-16.  We count from one to 49 with day 50 being Shavuot.

An Omer is a measure of the first barley harvest.  The people brought their Omer to the Temple to demonstrate appreciation to God for his wondrous bounty.  Upon the destruction of the Temple that rationale lost its meaning.  Part of our current day reasoning is to demonstrate our resolve to reclaim the soil of the Land of Israel.

The primary thrust of "the counting" today is the leading up to Shavuot.  Upon departing Egypt, our people were told that in 50 days they would receive the Torah.  It is said, (and I would like to leave you with this beautiful thought from Rabbi Isaac Klein in his Guide to Religious Practice, 1979), that our counting is "...a bridge connecting Pesach to Shavuot, including that we want not only freedom from bondage but also freedom for a purpose."  He goes on to bring down that the receiving of the Torah was the purpose and goal of the Exodus.  Our aspiration is to receive and practice it.

The counting is rife with rules, and we are not so punctilious as to address every one of them here. However, I do hope that you at least have the rudiments before you as we embark on our journey to Shavuot.  Join us this year at Agudas as we have a special Omer counting tree we will fill in each day, while displaying and discussing it.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach (Happy Passover)!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Please note that due to the Passover holiday, Rabbi Abraham's next message will be on Friday, April 17th.

Parasha Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol

This week's haftarah sets the theme of Shabbat (referred to as Shabbat HaGadol or the Great Sabbath), preparing us for the first and perhaps greatest of our festivals, Pesach or Passover. The prophet Malachi delivers a message of national restoration. Apparently, the people of Malachi's time were deemed guilty of not paying their tithes and not trusting in God's justice. As JTS Professor Michael Fishbane notes in his commentary, the people had even mocked the idea of God's justice. He cites Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:2 ("on Passover [the people] are judged with respect to their produce") to conclude that this haftarah may have originally been selected to inspire the people to pay their tithes without fear of being impoverished.  In our day, it continues this function, reminding us to give generously to Ma'ot Hittim (food for the poor). The easiest ways to do this within the Conservative movement are to donate to Mazon(mazon.org), helping to feed the hungry in America, or Leket (leket.org), helping to feed the hungry in Israel.

Given the haftarah's concern with poverty and justice, it is curious that it culminates with the arrival of Elijah to reconcile parents with children (and vice versa). Is that all? If Elijah were to come today, wouldn't we need his assistance with grander matters, like averting war between Israel and Iran, solving global hunger and disease? Sometimes the big picture problems are easier to address than intergenerational tension between parents and children. 

Many seder tables are marred by tension, but there is a particular type of tension not uncommon among us. Families may have some members who are more meticulous in observance of mitzvot than are other members of their family. While this may be a minor matter during non-holiday times, on Pesach it can be overly challenging. There are so many flash points-kashrut issues, the timing of the seder (traditionally after sundown, but try negotiating this with those who have younger kids like yours truly), the length of the seder and the most ubiquitous of all: "When do we eat?" 

My advice is to bring as much joy and depth as possible to the seder, and be as flexible as you can justify.  Whatever Haggadah is at your table, be conscious of the collective wisdom of our sages and that the legacy of our journey to freedom is yours to discover.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Parasha Vayikra

For many years, I gave short shrift to Leviticus and parasha Vayikra in particular.  Either I have become enlightened or grown a little wiser, but I finally appreciate the sacrificial concept.  Sacrifices are largely the initiative of an individual's response to his or her personal life narratives.  So here we go on a topic or issue you may become enthralled with, or you may say, "It has no application to me" and gloss over it.

The sacrificial services taking place in the Mishkan (and later in the Temple) are something some think "nice" to know about, and only time will tell if the sacrifices will ever "return."  At first blush, animal sacrifices seem abhorrent.  Korban is the Hebrew word for sacrifice, which comes from the word korov, to come close.  Simply stated, a korban is the means by which we draw close to God.   When we sin, we distance ourselves, and God is displeased with our conduct.  The korban provides an objective means to repair this impaired relationship.

It must be realized that in the days of the Mishkan the Jewish people comprised an agrarian society; their animals were their major possessions.   If today you had to give up your car, it would be a-sacrifice.   One can look at it two ways: as punishment or to foster and nourish a feeling of love.  The converse idea that this is how God gets "pleasure" from our sacrifices is truly difficult to grasp.  In the months to come, I hope we can begin to "get our arms around that complex issue."

Prayer has taken the place of sacrifices and actually parallels the sacrificial practices (i.e. Musaf on Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh).  We are constantly trying to create formal structures of worship.  Our ritual committee is continuously attempting to make our worship meaningful to the entire community.  There will be no burning of animals [i] or grains, but nonetheless we seek to create services that are uplifting and relevant to our community within the rubric of the Conservative Movement. 

It often seems that we are spiritual emcees-orchestrating ritual gestures that are mere formalities.  This passage from the most formal and foreboding part of our tradition demonstrates that even within the ritual realm, the purpose is always deeply spiritual-to create an internal transition from alienation to engagement.   This is the great Avodah, service,[ii] for us-to create opportunities for individuals to overcome divisions and feel whole-with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
 

[i] As I was preparing this, someone posed the question to me, "Could wild animals be used for sacrifice?"  It took me a moment to cogitate, and then I realized that one must "own" his or her sacrifice, and people have no ownership relationship with wild animals.  The answer is, "No."  You must surrender something!

[ii] The heart of the Yom Kippur Temple service was the confession recited by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, first for his own sins, secondly for the sins of his fellow priests and then for the sins of the entire community.  Today, theBaal T'fillah,(leader), prostrates himself when reciting the High Priest's confession known as the Avodah.