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An ancient Jewish legend teaches that as the first winter approached, and the days grew shorter, Adam and Eve fell into a state of deep despair. Having never lived through a cycle of seasons, they did not know what was happening in the world around them—and thus began to fear that daylight would continue to diminish until it disappeared entirely. Terrified that the sun was going out forever, they prayed to their Creator for the renewal of light.
And then, as the winter solstice passed, their prayers were answered: slowly but surely, the days grew longer again. In gratitude, they established a solstice celebration known as Calendula, which was later marked by the Romans and many other nations and peoples.
Indeed, virtually every culture celebrates the return of the light in the season of deepest darkness. It is no accident that both Chanukah and Christmas—each a festival of lights—fall at this time of year. While the two holidays have no historical connection (unlike, for instance, Pesach and Easter), they share the same pagan origins, which pre-date both Judaism and Christianity.
For some Jews, the notion that most of our festivals have pagan roots is disturbing. And our tradition has largely emphasized the historical side of our holy days: Pesach as deliverance from Egypt, Shavuot as giving of the Torah, Purim as the story of Esther, and Sukkot as a reminder of the wandering in the wilderness. But each of these festivals also has an older, pagan foundation in the cycles of nature: Pesach celebrates the arrival of spring, Shavuot marks the onset of summer, Purim is a mid-winter bacchanalia much like Mardi Gras and Carnival, and Sukkot is a fall harvest gathering.
I find comfort and inspiration in this part of our tradition that is rooted in paganism. I believe that for far too long, we have de-emphasized the parts of our festivals that connect us with the earth. More and more Jews—especially young Jews—are renewing the ancient connections. They are turning to leaders like Rabbi Jill Hammer, and her organization, Tel Shemesh, which seeks “to celebrate and create Jewish rituals, prayers, and festival celebrations that honor the earth, the physical, and the immanence of the Divine, and to recover Jewish images, sacred texts, rituals, mystical traditions, and modern writings relating to the earth, the four elements, the cycle of life, and the masculine and feminine, as well as other creative images of the sacred within nature.”
Judaism is all about tikkun olam—about healing and repairing what is broken in our world. We take an important step in this direction when we renew and repair our own tradition’s connections with God’s creation.
So, as Chanukah draws near, let us tell the story of the Maccabees and eat latkes, but may we also revel in the returning of the light, the ancient cycles of solstices and equinoxes, in earth’s patient turning, in sun and sky. May it be a season of light and gladness for us all.
It is good to be home as we prepare to welcome a new year. I am deeply grateful to the CABI community for the extraordinary sabbatical which I enjoyed in the second half of 5769, and I hope to share some of my insights and learning throughout 5770. I felt so lucky to return to a congregation that grew stronger in my absence. It is a privilege to be the rabbi of such a vibrant and generous community, with tremendous lay leadership and creativity.
Over my course of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, we focused on Jewish responses to crisis. The topic was most fitting, for the past year has brought us the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, imposing severe hardship on millions of individuals and families, including many in our own congregation. Jewish communities in America, Israel, and the rest of the world have also suffered, as funding for budgets and buildings has greatly diminished.
During the forthcoming Days of Awe—and beyond—I will be drawing on some of the material I studied at Hartman—from Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah—to examine how we might use sacred stories and solutions from our people’s past to better face our own future. My Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons will all address different facets of responding to crisis: facing our fears, re-discovering our core values, using crisis as an opportunity to encourage systemic change, and finding support in a caring community. This theme will also be the topic of our Yom Kippur study session, an adult learning course that I will be teaching later this fall, a September 8th workshop on preparing for the High Holy Days, and our selichot study and service on the evening of September 12. More information on all of these programs follows below.
May 5770 bring renewal, blessing, and hope for us all.
One of my favorite insights comes from our Friday night service, when we sing V’Shamru. We declare, "U-vayom ha-sh’vee’ee, shavat va-yeenafash—on the seventh day, God rested and found renewal." The key word here, which so inspires me, is the last one: va-yeenafash. It means, literally, "to be re-souled."
What a powerful lesson this verse imparts. God teaches us, by example, the power of rejuvenation. Used cars and houses are re-sold. Old shoes are re-soled. And we, like God, take a day each week to be re-souled.
Contemporary science confirms this ancient wisdom. Last week, I read the results of a study showing that people who regularly get less than seven hours of sleep per night are highly susceptible to colds and other illnesses. Healthy immune responses require sufficient rest. I’ve always believed that many of the ills that plague our world could be diminished if we could just learn to slow down, step back, and catch our collective breath. We think, pray, teach, act, and love more clearly and powerfully when we take care of our bodies and souls, when we take seriously (and playfully) the requirement of va-yeenafash, to re-soul.
I find myself contemplating this insight a great deal these days, for in a couple weeks, I will be taking leave of you and embarking on a six-month sabbatical. My intention is to rest and re-soul, so that I might return with renewed energy, enthusiasm, and knowledge to share with you next fall and beyond. I will be spending time with my family in Salt Lake City, working with the Jewish community in Fairbanks, Alaska (where I hope to view the northern lights), traveling with Rosa in Spain, trekking in Nepal, and studying with rabbinic colleagues at the Shalom Hartman institute in Jerusalem. If you’d like to follow my comings and goings, you can do so by checking out the blog, "At Home and On the Road," that I’ll be keeping at http://rabbidanfink.blogspot.com.
On Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke about Mussar, a Jewish spiritual path that emerged out of Lithuania in the 19th century. The word "Mussar" literally means instruction; what it offers is a map of the inner life and a body of practices we can use to transform our behavior. By engaging in this work, which is known as tikkun middot ha-neshamah, repairing the traits of the soul, we move towards lives of greater integrity, decreasing the dissonance between our ideals and the ordinary, daily choices that we make. The mussar path helps us identify our own personal challenges and provides us with a battery of time-tested techniques—recitation of short phrases, meditation, visualization, daily text study, and nightly review of our actions—to break bad habits and establish healthier ones. As the movement’s founder, Rabbi Israel Salanter noted: "The Maharal of Prague created a golem, a living creature of clay, and this was a great wonder. But how much more wonderful to transform a corporeal human being into a mensch!"
On Sunday morning, November 23, and again on December 7, from 10:30 until 11:30 a.m. at the synagogue, I’ll be offering a class called: "The Way of Holiness: Healing the Soul through the Spiritual Path of Mussar." I hope that you will join me in learning more about this tradition. And if you want to read up ahead of time, check out the study guide in Reform Judaism magazine at
http://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1398 and the website of contemporary mussar teacher Alan Morinis at
Rabbi Dan Fink
following exchange is fictional, but it nicely illustrates
Rabbi,Why does the Jewish religion seem to obsess over insignificant
it’s not ridiculous. Because the dot is not just a dot. It represents something.
That dot has meaning far beyond the pixels on the screen that form it. To me it
may seem insignificant, but that is simply due to my ignorance of the ways of
the web. All I know is that with the dot, the message gets to the right
destination; without it, the message is lost to oblivion.
One of the highlights of my summer,
each year, is the
Last month, for the first time in a decade, CABI
And yet. . . I am still troubled by the idea of
The synagogue does have an important part to play in Jewish holiday observance; our challenge is to partner with our households rather than taking over their roles.
It will always be easier to attend a
Please join us for the annual Teen Backpacking
At many Passover
seders, the most oft-repeated line is:
There is even a
movie called “When Do We Eat?” that
And yet, beneath
the laughter there is a kind of profound
So this year, don’t
ask, “When do we eat?” Savor the
Next year in
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, delivered an important sermon at the 2007 U.R.J. biennial last December. He spoke with great passion about reviving and transforming Shabbat.
I strongly encourage
you to read Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon in its entirety at the U.R.J. website (http://urj.org/shabbat/),
which also contains a wealth of resources for Shabbat observance. That said, I’d
like to use this space to share and reflect upon two of his comments.
For all of these reasons and more, I hope we at CABI will put some thought into why our attendance at Shabbat morning services is so light. Shabbat morning is, in fact, traditionally much more important than Friday night! Shabbat morning is when we read Torah. It is a great shame that the vast majority of our membership only gets to experience the Torah reading on holidays and for bar and bat mitzvahs. I’d like to explore how we can attract more of our membership to the Shabbat morning service. Here is one suggestion: if the service is too long for you or 10:00 is too early on Saturday morning, don’t fret—come at 11:00 or so. It’s quite all right to be late on Shabbat morning. In the hour that follows, you’ll be there for the Torah reading and discussion.
Rabbi Yoffie went on to make one more very important point. He urged Reform Jews to find ways to celebrate the entirety of Shabbat, rather than just an hour or two at synagogue services. He said, “We need Shabbat. In our 24/7 culture, the boundary between work time and leisure time has been swept away and the results are devastating… Our families take the worst hit. The average parent spends twice as long dealing with e-mail as playing with his children. For our stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah’s mandate to rest is relevant and sensible. We are asked to put aside those Blackberries and stop gathering information, just as the ancient Israelites stopped gathering wood. We are asked to stop running around long enough to see what God is doing.”
This month, try to do something each Saturday to make the day different from the rest of the week, to make it Shabbat rather than another working day. You can start small. Turn off your computer for 24 hours. Let the laundry sit. Or take a walk in the foothills with family or friends.
It is said that “More
than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel.” May we all find
ways to bring more of the joy of Shabbat into our homes and hearts.
Rabbi Dan Fink
While January 1 is not a new year by our Jewish calendar, I often think that it
is a good opportunity for us to consider how we are doing on our Rosh Hashanah
resolutions. Through our fall holy days, we focus on teshuvah, the process of
making amends for our misdeeds of the past year and engaging in the difficult
work of changing ourselves. Now, as the rest of the world celebrates the
Gregorian year by drinking and eating too much, we do well to take measure of
how we are proceeding in our sacred labor of teshuvah. Are we still committed to
the transformation that we undertook nearly four months ago? Do we need to
adjust our course? As we linger in the darkness of winter, how can we nurture
the seeds we planted in the fall so they may bear good fruit come spring?
Rabbi Dan Fink
December can be a difficult time to be a Jew. Despite a few lingering vestiges of anti-Semitism, we feel completely at home in American secular culture through most of the year. And then the Christmas season arrives. Suddenly, everyone is wishing us greetings for a holiday that is not ours, singing sacred music from another tradition, and asking our children what they want from Santa this year. In December, we become aware—sometimes painfully aware—of the traditional status of the Jew as an outsider.
This can be especially difficult for those of us who are parents. More than anything else, children want to be accepted by others, to fit in with the crowd. Walk through the halls of any school, and you will see how hard it is for kids to be different. And that is exactly the message our children receive in December: you are different. This is terribly discomforting; it explains why our kids will often respond by asking us why we can’t have a Christmas tree or a visit with Santa.
How should we respond to this dilemma? One can, of course, give in to the pressure, visit Santa’s workshop, and put up a tree. By doing so, we may provide the children—and ourselves—with a kind of temporary relief. We might reason to ourselves: “What harm is done, anyway?”
But what message does this really send? Do we truly wish to tell our children, essentially, that we should be ashamed of our differences and accommodate to the majority culture every time it conflicts with our own? I believe that doing so is a disservice to both our children and ourselves. The most repeated mitzvah in the Torah demands better. Thirty six times, God commands us: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, our awareness of being different—the discomfort of the outsider—is, ultimately, a blessing rather than a burden. Our experience of uniqueness should lead us to appreciate the value of diversity and strive for the inclusion of others as well as ourselves. As America becomes an increasingly multi-cultural society, this lesson is an invaluable gift to our children. By encouraging them to live with and celebrate our distinctiveness—even, or especially, in December—we teach them to work for justice and inclusion for other distinctive groups and individuals. In other words, it is precisely by practicing our own faith and respecting its integrity, that we teach tolerance of others. When we accommodate ourselves to the majority, we send the message that it is acceptable for the majority to subsume others as well. When we stand up for ourselves as Jews, we stand up for every other minority group at the same time.
May the lights of freedom shine brightly for all of us this Chanukah season.
Rabbi Dan Fink
Imagine my surprise
when, a few weeks ago, I poured myself a cup of tea, opened my morning
newspaper, and read, “Yom Kippur begins tonight.” Since we had observed Yom
Kippur just six days earlier, I was a bit taken aback. When I called the editor
of the Idaho Statesman, she apologized for the error. I accepted her apology and
noted that one very long day of chanting and preaching and teaching on no food
or water was more than enough.
For the past two years, Interfaith Sanctuary has responded to the crisis of the
homeless in our city by providing winter shelter in various temporary locations.
Thanks to hundreds of volunteers—including an outstanding effort from our
synagogue community—we have sheltered over 400 people each year.
Rabbi Dan Fink
Many of you know that one of my favorite contemporary
Jewish sages—albeit a decidedly unorthodox one—is Bob Dylan. During this month
of preparation for the coming Days of Awe, I frequently find myself thinking of
a line from his song, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” In it, he captures
the essence of this season, the urgency of teshuvah. He reminds us that there is
nothing more important than the call to renewal.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend services at a Conservative synagogue in my home town of Alexandria, Virginia. As it happened, the congregation’s rabbi, Jack Moline, had just finished a six-month sabbatical and the topic of his d’var Torah was what he had learned during his time away.
It was a moving talk. Rabbi Moline spoke of how he had considered going to Jerusalem to study but instead decided to spend his sabbatical at home. He wanted to catch up on life as a father, to attend all of his children’s recitals and plays and athletic events that he usually missed in his busy life as a large congregational rabbi. He told us how much satisfaction that brought. He also described how much he savored the ability to read for pleasure, to catch up on his sleep, to enjoy a weekly date with his wife.
And then he offered an observation he had made about his own synagogue. He noted that each Shabbat morning, he had attended services—as a congregant rather than the rabbi. He found that the view from the pew was rather different from that from the bimah. He concluded with a confession: “For many years, people have complained to me that the Shabbat morning service is too long. I have always responded that this is not the case, that once you understand the service in all of its details and appreciate the poetry of the liturgy, the subtle and deliberate pace is properly prayerful. But now that I’ve attended for six months sitting in the congregation, let me tell you all: the service is too long.”
I admired Rabbi Moline’s honesty that morning and found a great deal of power in his observation that a lot depends on one’s perspective. That is why I value the summer season. Every rabbi should get to experience the service as a congregant. I get to do just that every July, here in Boise and in out-of-town congregations that I have the occasion to visit. I’ll come back with new music, new creative paths to prayer, a new point of view. And maybe even a sense that we could cut a thing or two.
Rabbi Dan Fink
Upon reaching early summer, we arrive at the Jewish month of Tammuz. This is a significant moment in our calendar. Tammuz marks one of the four solstices, known in Hebrew as tekufot. It is the beginning of our hottest and driest season. This year, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz will fall on June 17.
Tammuz is known in Jewish history as a difficult time. The scorching heat outside is manifest in our people’s history as a series of conflagrations and catastrophes. The Rabbis tell us that this was the month when our ancestors asked Aaron to forge a golden calf for them to worship at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Many centuries later, it was during Tammuz that the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, eventually reducing the sacred city to burning rubble.
It is, therefore, easy to despair during this season. In our own day, we see the flames of war burning all around us. Death and destruction engulf our world. Global warming threatens massive environmental degradation. As we reap the bitter fruits of greed and violence, we wonder if it is really possible to create relief, to help spread God’s shelter of peace over our own embattled planet.
Yet to be a Jew is to refuse to give in to despair. Out of the flames of Tammuz, hope is re-born. After the calf was melted down, Moses climbed back up the mountain and returned with a second set of tablets. After Jerusalem was destroyed, our people made their way across the globe and eventually—miraculously—returned. Our tradition teaches us that it is never too late to move towards teshuvah—renewal and healing.
I recently came across a wonderful book called The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear. As we move towards Tammuz, I’d like to end with a quote from one of the book’s gems, a short essay by the playwright Tony Kushner. It expresses what is, I believe, a Jewish credo:
“I do not believe the wicked always win. I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. In many other periods of history, people, ordinary citizens, routinely set aside hours, days, time in their lives for doing the work of politics, some of which is glam and revolutionary and some of which is dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure—and the world changed because of the work they did. Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world, but together in some sort of concert, in even not-especially-coordinated concert, with all of us working together where we see work to be done, the world will change. Being politically active is for the citizens of a democracy maybe the best way of speaking to God and hearing Her answer: You exist. If we are active, if we are activists, She replies to us: You specifically exist. Mazel tov. Now get busy, she replies. Maintain the world by changing the world.”
The poet Robert Frost famously wrote, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” This is precisely why Israel is so important to Jews all over the world. For centuries, our people suffered persecution and martyrdom in a world where we had no home. We lived at the whims of others. In our darkest hour, as the storm clouds of genocide gathered over Europe, all of the nations—including our own United States—barred the doors. We died because we were, essentially, a homeless people.
Since 1948, that has miraculously ceased to be the case. We Jews now have a home, a place that will take us in under any circumstances. And Israel has done just that for Jewish refugees from all four corners of the globe: Yemen, Russia, Ethiopia and so many more distant lands.
Like all homes and families, the Jewish state has its flaws. Like any other nation, it has its share of corruption, vice, inequity. Unlike any other nation, it has had to live with war throughout its entire existence.
But Israel is a marvelous place. It is the only democracy in a terribly difficult region. It has a vibrant economy and an engaged citizenry. It is the center for Jewish life in the world. It is, in short, our home—the place we long for every year as we end our seder with the memorable words, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
We will celebrate Israel here in Idaho with a communal Israel Fair on Lag Ba’omer, Sunday, May 6. We’ll have art and games and food and music and dance, as well as two films. The evening will end with the traditional Lag Ba’Omer bonfire.
I look forward to celebrating Israel, our Jewish home, together with you all.
Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking a great deal about the concept of obligation. Traditionally, of course, this is a notion at the very center of Jewish life. The Torah presents the Jewish people as a community in a covenant with God. We receive certain rewards—land, rain, spiritual blessing—and in return, we owe God our allegiance. We hold up our end of the deal by following the mitzvot, ritual and ethical commandments that become our binding obligations.
In Orthodox communities, Jews still operate out of this sense of obligation.
But in the liberal Jewish world, that sense is greatly diminished. During my grandfather’s rabbinate fifty years ago, at a large Reform temple in Buffalo, New York, his congregants operated out of a strong network of communal obligations (albeit a different set from those that guided their Orthodox neighbors). Today, however, those ties that once bound us have frayed a great deal.
In his book Bobos in Paradise, New York Times columnist David Brooks makes some very important observations about contemporary American life. His writing is not particularly addressed to Jews, but he raises the same questions that we in the progressive Jewish community should be asking ourselves:
Can you have freedom as well as roots? Because the
members of the educated class show little evidence of renouncing freedom and personal choice… they are going to try to find new reconciliations. The challenges they [we!] face are these: Can you still worship God even if you take it upon yourself to decide that many of the Bible’s teachings are wrong? Can you still feel at home in your community even if you know that you’ll probably move if a better opportunity comes along? Can you establish ritual and order in your life if you are driven by an inner imperative to experiment constantly with new things? We are trying to build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice.
That final question—can we build a house of obligation on a foundation of choice—remains very much open-ended. Some Jews today will return to the past and embrace a kind of Orthodoxy that proclaims, “Tradition!” at the expense of creative autonomy. Many more will reject obligation entirely. Our challenge as a progressive Jewish institution is to help our members create a caring community with very real obligations to one another and to God—and to do so as a matter of personal choice. I plan to spend much time this year listening and learning and formulating some new visions for how we might work together towards this end and thereby strengthen both our community and ourselves.
Rabbi Dan Fink
The last time the Reform movement published a new siddur (prayerbook) was just after my bar mitzvah. I remember the discussion in my home congregation that inevitably follows such an innovation: It’s so heavy. . . The translations are different. . . So much Hebrew. . . So little Hebrew. . . Do we have to change?
Of course, in the intervening decades, what was once radical has now become the status quo. Since 1974, the Jewish world, like the wider world, has undergone continued transformations. We have opened our doors to women rabbis, who have enriched our community beyond measure. We have proudly embraced gay and lesbian clergy and congregants. We have been on the cutting edge of creative outreach to intermarried families. We have welcomed countless Jews-by-choice into our midst. We have recognized patrilineal, as well as matrilineal, Jews. We have changed our God-language to reflect our more informal and egalitarian community. We have moved back toward tradition in many ways and toward inspired innovation in others.
And so we once again need a new siddur to reflect the nature of who we are as liberal Jews. That book—Mishkan Tefillah—will be arriving in Reform congregations this month. No doubt it will be greeted by many of the same comments as its predecessor. But as we grow with it, I believe that we will very quickly learn to love it. It is a beautiful text, which will make our liturgy more accessible to more of our people. And it speaks with a kind of poetry that will inspire as much as it educates and edifies.
In the end, though, any siddur is just a book. What makes
a service come alive is neither the liturgy nor the rabbi nor cantor nor
layperson that leads from it; the life comes from the congregation. I hope we
will bring our community’s unique Jewish joy and energy to this new book and
thus find insight and beauty within its pages. May they guide us closer to the
God of Israel, the Creator of the World. As the poet Adrienne Rich concludes in
a passage that is cited at the beginning of each morning service in Mishkan
From the north shall disaster break loose
upon all the inhabitants of the land!”—Jeremiah 1:14
This year, those words of despair resonate with a tragic prescience. This has been an extraordinarily difficult summer for the Jewish people. We are besieged again by brutal enemies from the north. The violence there has spilled over to our own region, with the shooting at the Jewish federation in Seattle. And the world has, as usual, decided to largely blame Israel and the Jews for the violence that we did not choose. Hezbollah—the disaster from the north, with its Iranian sponsorship—ruthlessly uses civilians as shields for its terrible deeds.
As 5766 draws to a close, we are all mourners.
Yet Tisha B’Av, the saddest commemoration
of our year, traditionally ushers in a new season of hope. Indeed, our Sages
taught that the Messiah will be born on this day, like the phoenix rising from
the ashes. Redemption emerges out of the darkness of despair. And the following
Shabbat, we read Isaiah’s promising words: “Comfort, oh comfort My people.” Then
we begin Elul, the month that prepares us for the New Year and the Days of Awe.
Rabbi Dan Fink
Our Rabbis taught: when Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, not a bird chirped, not an insect buzzed, not a single sound was heard. The moment when God’s voice went forth was preceded by something unique in the world: complete and utter silence.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes that this teaching answers two questions: “What was unique about Sinai?” and “Why don’t we hear God’s voice very often in our own time?” By this understanding, God speaks to us at every moment of every day. What made Sinai extraordinary was the stillness. At that instant, everyone heard God because all of the interfering “background noise” was turned off.
As we approach the festival of Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah, we do well to consider this midrash carefully. Now, more than ever, our world is full of distractions. With all of our cell phones, iPods, Blackberries, and the like, silence is the rarest of commodities. But Shavuot reminds us that God is not in the noise. The Divine Presence speaks in what Hebrew Scriptures call “the still, small voice.” In this holiday season, may we take the time to dwell in stillness and listen to that voice, which still speaks to us, if we only offer our full attention.
Rabbi Dan Fink
Last month, in my newsletter article on faith and politics, I ended with two questions: When do we, as a congregation, decide to actively advocate on an issue of public policy? And how do we decide which position to take? This month I’d like to offer some guidelines on these matters.
In good Jewish tradition, I’ll start to answer these questions with more questions. There are a number of things we must wrestle with in determining when and how to take a stand. Here are a few, offered by the Union for Reform Judaism:
· Are there Jewish values at stake regarding this issue?
· Is this issue especially timely, requiring immediate action?
· Do we Jews have something unique to add, as Jews, to the public debate on this matter?
· Is this an issue that resonates for the strong majority of Ahavath Beth Israel?
· Will this issue have a significant impact on the life of our community?
· Will taking a position on this issue enhance an existing project of our congregation?
Once we have established that there is a clear ethical imperative to speak out of our tradition on an issue, we can then turn to a profoundly important resource: the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism. The RAC is charged with implementing the policies adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism. These policies reflect the views of the leadership of our movement. Thus we have at our disposal the official Reform views on a vast array of issues, ranging from civil liberties to the environment to war and peace. I encourage anyone interested in these matters to go to the RAC’s website at www.rac.org.
Even with all of these resources, it is still difficult to make the decisions on how and when to enter the public policy realm. We weigh these matters carefully as a board and as a community. But we must not let caution lead us to inaction. On the pressing issues of our age—from same-sex marriage to immigration rights to genocide to global warming—it would be immoral for us, as a Reform Jewish community, to stay out of the arena. As our history teaches, neutrality is complicity. May we deliberate and act with wisdom.
Rabbi Dan Fink
Faith and politics frequently make for heated conversation. More than any other topics, these arouse passionate discussion and even division in families and communities. Some, craving tranquility above all else, choose to avoid these matters entirely. I, however, have always believed that a healthy debate is better than evasion of controversy for the sake of an illusory peace. Therefore, I plan to use my Chai Lights column this month and next to address the confluence of faith and politics as it plays out within Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel and the Jewish community at large.
I begin by noting that there is no political litmus test for being a good Jew. Our tradition embraces Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Greens and virtually everyone else. The fundamental principles of Judaism do not follow any party platform. To be Jewish is, by necessity, to live in close community with people with whom we profoundly disagree. And both American law and Jewish ethics prevent congregations and other Jewish institutions from endorsing politicians in electoral campaigns. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders can, as private citizens, support the parties and candidates of their liking but must refrain from any official statements from the pulpit. When synagogues hold candidate forums—as we have in the past here at CABI—we are legally and morally bound to offer equal time to all serious contenders.
Faith communities are, by contrast, allowed to take definitive stands on ethical issues—and make no mistake, most of the pressing political questions of our day have important ethical components. How our government spends our tax dollars, for example, is very much a matter of values, of deep concern to religious people and institutions. I believe that this sort of civic engagement is not only our right but also our responsibility. As part of our Yom Kippur liturgy, we make confession: “For the sin of silence. For the sin of indifference. For the secret complicity of the neutral.” Sometimes it would be easier to avoid controversy by maintaining neutrality. But as Jews, our history has taught us the unforgivable cost of neutrality when it comes to matters of justice. Too often, neutrality is complicity with evil. We must not stand idle while our neighbors bleed.
So when do we intervene and actively take a stand on issues of public policy? And how do we decide which position to take? I will explore these questions in more detail next month. For now, let me note that in a world full of shades of gray, this is a serious challenge. Ethical clarity is rare. But the difficulty inherent in wrestling with these questions should not lead us to abdicate our moral responsibility, as individuals or as a congregation.
Rabbi Dan Fink
As many of you know, there is a
difference of opinion within our community over the proper recitation of the
second line of the Shema. Some of us follow the traditional custom of praying
this line silently, since it is an insertion that breaks the flow of an
otherwise seamless biblical text. Others among us maintain the classical Reform
practice of singing “Baruch shem k’vod…” as a loud and proud proclamation of
God’s sovereignty. Advocates of both views cite varying rationales for their
Rashi’s Commentary on Baba G’noush 43b
We must study this tale together with a ma’aseh of the life of Rav Shmelke the Shrill. Rav Shmelke was a direct descendent of Boruch the Boisterous, first of the great mitnagdim who opposed the disciples of R. Bontsha. Like his fathers before him, Rav Shmelke draped himself in a bright plaid polyester prayer shawl. Eventually, Shemlke left the rabbinate, moved to the New World, and traded in his famously obnoxious “Baruch Shem K’vod” for a much more lucrative nationwide rant on a Fox News-sponsored AM radio morning drive-time show.
Baba G’noush 77a
R. Judah dwelt in the uttermost West, but his heart—and more importantly, his stomach—longed for the East. He taught: “Once I was young, now I am old, but never have I made it to shul on time to say any part of the Sh’ma, silently or out loud, on account of services starting at the same time as the all-you-can-eat Kung Pao special at the Golden Dragon.
Baba G’noush 16a
Rabbi John Paul George Ringo declared: “On such matters, one must resolve the controversy by asking “WWJD—What Would Joe (Berenter) Do?”
Happy Purim to all,
The story is told that the great sage Rabbi Akiba frequently attended the bathhouse, cleansing and caring for his body. When his students asked why he emulated this Roman custom, he noted that the Romans devoted themselves to cleaning and polishing their idols. Akiba then added: “If they spend so much time on these stone representations of their false gods, how much more should we, created in the image of God, care for our bodies.”
Our tradition has, therefore, recognized that we cannot properly care for our souls and minds without also caring for the body that houses them. We seek an integral kind of wholeness, a fitness that embraces the entire self, both flesh and spirit.
In keeping with this legacy, I want to invite you all to join me for a new program that I’ll be starting this month. I’m calling it “Walking the Torah” (with due credit to both Bruce Feiler and my colleague Lucy Dinner, from whom I got the idea).
Beginning February 3, I’ll be in Kathryn Albertson Park every Friday at 11:00 a.m. I’m planning to walk about 45 minutes each time, with whoever shows up. We’ll make a few circuits of this beautiful park—and as we do, we’ll share some insights from the week’s Torah portion. It’s a great way to exercise both body and mind. Please join me, rain or shine, for these mornings of Torah, togetherness, learning, and relaxing exercise.
I want to offer special thanks to Heather Goldstein and Sandy Berenter.
Heather recently stepped down after 5+ years of dedicated service as our education director. She devoted countless hours to our young people and did a great deal to build our synagogue school into the bustling and exciting place it is today. She has been a terrific colleague and friend. I hope all will join me in wishing her much success in all of her future endeavors. We are grateful to continue to have Heather and her family as a part of our community, and blessed by the work she has done.
Sandy made our recent Feast of Torah a stunningly successful reality. She was, of course, assisted by so many of you who helped to organize, teach, clean up, and create. But Sandy single-handedly translated a vague idea I concocted into an amazing event. It was an extraordinary day of learning together.
Rabbi Dan Fink
I have never liked the name that many Christian traditions have given to our biblical text: Old Testament. I much prefer our own term, Tanakh, or in English, Hebrew Scriptures. The reason for this is simple: for the Jewish people, Torah is anything but old. Our entire faith is built around the notion that every generation reinterprets the tradition for its own age. The book is never closed. Our task, as Jews, is to continuously renew our understandings of what God asks of us in Torah. Or, as the Talmudic sage Rabbi Ben Bag Bag noted: “Turn it [Torah] and turn it, for everything is in it.”
This month, we will be doing just that at our Feast of Torah on January 7. Sandy Berenter has done an extraordinary job organizing this event, with tremendous support from a host of talented and dedicated volunteers. This will be an opportunity to spend an entire day finding new insights in Torah—through study, music, art, and, of course, food.
This past Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke about the importance of Jewish learning. I am proud that so many have worked so hard to launch this day. Back then, I concluded: “In Jewish learning, Jewish life.” Torah is what binds us all—young and old, male and female, pious and iconoclastic. I hope that you will join us for this event, adding your heart and soul and mind to the eternal conversation between the Holy One and the Jewish people, a dialogue that is both ancient and ever-new.
The United States is, by far, the most religious nation in the West. In Europe, faith has atrophied to the point of irrelevance. The grand gothic cathedrals are now empty relics of the medieval past, mere tourist attractions. Throughout the developed world, religion plays virtually no role in public life.
We Americans are, by contrast, a strongly pious people. Statistics reveal that even those who do not regularly frequent a house of worship overwhelmingly believe in God. Here in the New World, religion still flourishes, in all of its glorious variety.
This is no accident. Unlike the European nation-states, our country was founded upon the principle of separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” essentially protects religious diversity from the corrupting effects of government—and government from the intrusion of a single and all-powerful religion. Both government and religion have clearly benefited handsomely from this division.
Unfortunately, Jefferson’s wall is now under siege from religious fundamentalists. On a whole host of issues—creation vs. evolution, vouchers for private schools, displays of religious symbols on state property—our current government has consistently sought to breach the wall. The attack is led by faith-based reactionaries who fail to see that religious communities are the greatest beneficiaries of church-state separation. Sadly, even the Jewish community is not exempt from this trend. While American Jews remain overwhelmingly supportive of strict separation, our own far-right practitioners have short-sightedly aided and abetted those who scorn the laws that made America a place of unprecedented liberty and opportunity for our ancestors.
This month we celebrate Chanukah. Our Festival of Lights was, in fact, the very first commemoration of religious freedom. The Maccabees overcame overwhelming odds to defeat those who would impose their faith upon us. As we kindle our menorahs, testifying to that miracle, let us recall the significance of their victory and rededicate ourselves to maintaining the separation of religion and government that has allowed us—and so many other American faith communities—to thrive, lest we follow in the footsteps of our European counterparts.
“A time to weep and a time to dance”
This is a time of weeping. Over the past month, Americans have wept at the scenes of devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi. We mourn for those who have suffered and died, for victims of flood and famine and war all around our wounded world. And we struggle with our own personal losses. As we enter into this solemn holiday season, our hearts bear a burden of grief. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many of us look back upon a year that brought too many tears. We shall cry, and we shall use our hands to do the holy work of reaching out to those in need and repairing that which is broken.
But our tradition reminds us that there are also abundant times for dancing. The month ends with Simchat Torah, when we celebrate by waltzing around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls. We close the book with the death of Moses—and immediately pick up again with the story of creation, with birth and life renewed.
So be sure to stick around to the end of the cycle, for the entire month of holy days. Mourn at Yizkor on Yom Kippur, but rejoice on Sukkot and Simchat Torah as well. Jewish life is both somber and celebratory, the weeping and the dance. And it is the promise of the dance that brings hope in the times of tears.
May 5766 bring renewal, laughter, and dancing to us all.
Rabbi Dan Fink
September means back to school. Students and teachers alike return from summer break refreshed and ready to learn together. And parents breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Here at Ahavath Beth Israel, we should be especially excited about the start of this new school year, whether we have children or not. This season marks a momentous occasion in the life of our community: the opening of our early childhood education center. For the first time in Boise, our children will have the opportunity to get a full-time Jewish education. We are beginning with pre-school students. We have superb teachers, a beautiful new classroom, and a terrific curriculum that presents our young people with a liberal, open, and egalitarian approach to Jewish tradition. Best of all, we have an eager class of Jewish learners and their families. Together, we will be sharing Shabbat and Jewish holy days, learning progressive Jewish values, commencing the sacred and life-long task of repairing our broken world.
I hope that each and every member of our community will take the time to stop by and visit our new Jewish school. We’ll be up and running daily: singing, dancing, cooking, sharing stories, and celebrating Jewish life. What a mitzvah it will be for all of us—young and old, parents, grandparents, and those with no children of their own—to participate in this unfolding of our Jewish future. Come in. Meet the kids. Shmooze with the teachers. Share your dreams and stories, and listen to theirs. As they come back to school, you can, too.
I look forward to seeing you there. The future of the Jewish people here in Boise depends on it.
Rabbi Dan Fink
In this spring season, we move towards the festival of Shavuot. Our Rabbis called this holiday z’man matan torataynu—the time of the giving of our Torah. On Shavuot, we recall the day our ancestors heard the call of the Holy One as they stood at the base of Mount Sinai. In that sense, the gift of Torah was offered at a unique time and place.
Yet the Rabbis also tell us this: the Divine Voice goes forth constantly, at every moment, to all the world. The challenge is for us to listen properly, so that we may receive its message. Torah is, in a sense, like radio waves in the atmosphere: always there, but of no import unless you have a radio tuned to the right station.
By this analogy, a Jewish community serves as the radio. Our synagogue is charged with the sacred task of translating the Divine Voice into opportunities that its people can “hear” and experience as Torah. The building and budget and programs are all just vessels for the holiness that is done both inside and beyond its walls. Those who work for the congregation—both paid staff and volunteers—are, in the end, servants to the mission of both CABI and the Jewish people as a whole: lifelong learning, spiritual service, and acts of loving kindness.
I want to thank all those who have served this congregation and that mission over the past year. Special thanks go to our outgoing board members: John Barnet, Marty Geffon, Fran Dudley, Lorraine Gross, Elon Whitlock, Deanah Messenger, and Dan Ronfeld. All offered extraordinary time and talents to Jewish life here in Boise.
I look forward to working with new board members Alan Dornfest, Lorian Gans, Ross Cohen, Murray Feldman, Sharon Abramsohn, Brad Wolf, Shira Kronenberg, Trudy Littman and Stephen Goldstein as they take up the challenge. They join our dedicated returning board members Craig Groves, Betsy Russell and Abby McLean. And of course, I am very eager to move forward in partnership with our new president, Sharon Katz. She brings enormous dedication and skill to our community as she begins her term as our new president.
Last but decidedly not least, I want to thank three magnificent colleagues: Kat Dellamater, Heather Goldstein, and outgoing president Steve Berenter. Over the last two years, in a sea of change here at CABI, they each, in their own special way, kept us focused on our calling to be a vessel for Torah. They never forgot—even as we built with bricks and mortar—that human relationships are what most endure. They have been my teachers, and I will always be grateful for their kindness and their wisdom.
My favorite song from this Passover season is Dayyenu. There are several reasons why this classic always tops my Pesach hit parade. First, like most successful pop tunes, it is both extraordinarily simple and infectiously catchy. Once you know the one-word chorus, you can’t help but join the fun. Second, at my seder, we always follow an old Afghani-Jewish custom that involves all participants whipping one another with scallions as we sing it. Symbolically, this recalls the lashes our ancestors received from their Egyptian taskmasters; still, it is also great fun. For once, we are given license to play with our food. Who could resist the opportunity to whack one’s neighbor with a root vegetable?
But beneath the famously singable tune and seriously silly customs, Dayyenu conveys a most important and timely message. It means: “It would have been enough for us.” We go through a litany of miracles that God performed on our behalf—freeing us from Egypt, parting the Red Sea, giving us the Torah, blessing us with Shabbat, and many more—and after each one, we declare, “This alone would have been enough.” Dayyenu is, then, the ultimate expression of gratitude, a recognition that just to live is a profound blessing.
This is a radical, counter-cultural message. For our society tells us that there is no such thing as “enough.” Advertisers are always urging us to want more, playing on our inclination toward covetous greed. Even billionaires run the rat race, striving to pass their competitors on the Fortune 500 ladder. We are driven to seek bigger homes, larger salaries, fancier clothes and cars. There is no satiating such desire. The more we get, the more we want—unless we learn to declare, “Dayyenu. Enough.”
In Talmud, Ben Zoma asks, “Who is rich?” Against the grain, he answers, “Those who rejoice in what they have.” As we sit down at our seders this month, may we, too, find the ability to take gratitude in our portion, to sing with our family and/or friends, “Dayyenu, this is enough for us.”
(Note for visitors: In the spirit of Purim the Rabbi's column this month is traditionally a satire. Enjoy -- and enjoy Purim!
Your board of directors and administrative staff here at Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel have been working very hard to meet the pressing financial needs of our burgeoning Jewish community. Following the successful model of Deli Days, we added a Latke Party fundraiser this past December, which generated even more revenue than we had anticipated. We approached that event with a bit of trepidation, fearing that the public market for fatty food festivals was pretty well “saturated”—or at least partially hydrogenated. But Boiseans attended en masse and ate with shameless gluttony, proving once again the wisdom of the renowned Chasidic teacher, Rebbe Elimelech of Kreplach, who repeatedly told his followers: “Di Goyim vellen esen velche es iz fette un nisht gezunte essen di Yidden derlangen—No matter how much cholesterol-filled junk you serve the Gentiles, they will always come back for more*.”
We are taking the Rebbe’s words to heart, quite literally. We are now enlisting volunteers for a third major CABI fundraiser to be held annually beginning next year, on the third Tuesday of February (the 16th in 2006). This Gala of Grease will be known as “Schmaltz Tuesday,” and will be chaired by our recent Fryers’ Hall of Fame inductee, Joe Berenter. We will serve an eclectic array of traditional Ashkenazic delicacies, beginning with chopped liver and moving on to the always-healthful gribbenes (chicken skin deep-fried in chicken fat). Krispee Kreme has generously agreed to donate the desserts.
Best of all, we have received an amazing corporate sponsorship for this event. Each Schmaltz Tuesday, we will be partnering with St. Luke’s Coronary Care Unit. And they’ve offered us quite the sweetheart deal. For every man or woman who goes straight from our festival to their angioplasty room, St. Luke’s CCU will donate back 25% of the cost of that exorbitant medical procedure. If the cardiologist puts in a stent, we will get an additional 15%. While no one can be sure just how many arteries we can clog and harden in twenty-four hours, even a very conservative estimate would yield around $250,000 in revenue for CABI from Schmaltz Tuesday 2006. In future years, we anticipate doing even better, as we add exotic Eastern European favorites such as calves’ brain pancakes. We hope to burn—or maybe sauté—the mortgage by 2009.
Meanwhile, enjoy your hamentaschen and happy Purim!
Rabbi Dan Fink
*Thanks to Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz for help with the Yiddish
One of the most common questions a rabbi hears is “Why are the holidays so late (or early) this year?” As we move towards our spring festivals, I’m expecting to get this a lot, since our celebrations really are about as late as they ever get—even for me, a person who runs perpetually behind.
Of course, by the Jewish calendar the holidays are always on the same date, right on time. But our calendar is primarily lunar-based. A new month—Rosh Chodesh—begins with each new moon. Twelve new moons constitute a typical Jewish year.
That’s where the problem lies—for twelve lunar months only add up to 354 days. Thus, by a strictly lunar calendar, our holidays would come eleven days earlier each year. This is exactly how the Islamic calendar works. But Torah tells us that we must observe Pesach in the spring. Therefore, the calendar is adjusted by adding an extra month approximately every third year. How lucky we are: in a secular leap year, we get an extra day, but in a Jewish leap year, we get a whole extra month!
And this year is just such a leap year, with the added month coming in this season. Usually the Hebrew month of Adar is followed by the month of Nisan. But this year we add a second Adar (OK, so the Rabbis didn’t come up with a clever name for the leap month). The great thing is that Talmud commands us to set the entire month of Adar as a time of special joy. So this year, we have two months where we’re commanded to be happy.
And interestingly enough, this year’s Rosh Chodesh Adar I falls on February 9th—which is also the Chinese New Year! So get used to things being late, prepare for an extra month of happiness, and celebrate with a traditional Jewish custom—eating Chinese food!
Rabbi Dan Fink
We American Jews have an obsolete understanding of who we are. In our Hebrew school textbooks, our creative fiction, and the art that adorns the walls of our homes and synagogues, we are almost always depicted in nuclear families with a mother and father of Eastern European descent and kids at home. We have embraced this portrayal and even imagined it to be our reality.
But this representation is an illusion. Definitive demographic data shows that only a very small minority of American Jews live in such “traditional” households, with married Ashkenazic parents and school-age children. Unfortunately, this widespread misconception is not just anachronistic (if it was ever really accurate to begin with). This fantasy is, in fact, harmful to the American Jewish community, for it sends an erroneous and corrosive message to the vast majority of our people, telling them that they are somehow aberrant and out of the mainstream. But the truth is: we are the mainstream.
So who are American Jews? Population studies show that we are an incredibly eclectic bunch. We are never-married, married, divorced, domestic partners, widows and widowers. We are gay and straight, young and old. Close to 20% of us live near or below the poverty line. We are traditional couples and single parents—sometimes by circumstances, other times by choice. We are childless, and we are grandparents raising children. We are empty nesters and young professionals, graduate students and blue collar workers. We are Jews by birth and Jews by choice. And our community also encompasses large numbers of our non-Jewish partners who cast their lot with us, who often go above and beyond in the own commitment to raising Jewish families. We are Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Humanistic, Reform and unaffiliated. We are black and brown and white, Asian and Hispanic—and complicated mixes of all of the above.
The time has come to recognize this reality and take it to heart. We should let go of our romanticized fantasy of the Jewish family and take pride in who we really are. Let us rebuild our communal institutions and rewrite our educational materials so that they meet the needs of flesh and blood Jews in America—and Boise—in 5765/2005. Imagine what we could do if we turned our resources and our full creative powers to the task of teaching and supporting our households in all of their wonderful variety.
This month our nation celebrates diversity with the annual Martin Luther King Day holiday. Our Jewish community should follow that example. We, too, should rejoice in our own multiculturalism. We are evolving and growing. Our religious school will recognize this with a workshop addressing the changing face of American Jewry on January 9. As for me, I thank God for our congregation’s extraordinary diversity with words from a traditional blessing: Baruch atah Adonai. . . m’shaneh ha-briot—We praise You, Eternal One, who makes each of Your Creations unique, and in Your image.”
An old legend teaches that when Solomon built
the Temple in Jerusalem, he made two gates: sha’ar simcha (the gate of
happiness) and sha’ar ha-eyvel (the mourners’ gate). All who came to celebrate
something joyous that had happened in their live entered one way, and those who
arrived in sorrow entered the other way. When the High Priest turned up each
morning, he would look to see which line was longer, and then he would recite
two prayers, one on behalf of the people in each group.
This month we will launch our new schedule and
study topic for Shabbat mornings. Beginning on October 9, our service will start
at 9:00 am. We will then break at 10 for an hour of study and food. The Torah
service will begin at 11:00 am.
“From all of my students, I have gained
Last month, I had the
opportunity to spend three days backpacking in the Sawtooth Mountains with ten
of our synagogue teens (and three chaperones). This turned out to be a very
special privilege, indeed. The weather was lovely, the vegetarian food
delicious, and the wilderness scenery absolutely spectacular. But what impressed
me most, by far, was the sense of community and camaraderie that our
congregation’s young men and women—and future leaders—shared with one another,
and with me.
As I write this piece, our nation has just concluded a week of mourning for Ronald Reagan. 1980 was the first time I had the opportunity to vote in a presidential election, and I will admit that I was deeply disappointed to be on the losing side in the campaign. I did not vote for President Reagan in 1984 either; while I admired his skills in communicating his political message, I found the message itself at odds with my more liberal approach to public policy. Therefore, I was not entirely moved by the wave of nostalgia that followed Reagan’s death. I still recall the Reagan years as a time of corporate greed run amuck, environmental degradation, imperialistic foreign policy in Central America, and inexcusable apathy amidst the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic.
Yet even I was moved by both Ron and Nancy Reagan’s dignity as they struggled with Alzheimer’s over the last decade of his life. In this, the Reagans really did offer a non-partisan lesson to the innumerable families who grapple with this awful disease. And I admire Nancy Reagan’s strong call for removing the restraints on stem-cell research. In this, she follows strongly our Jewish tradition.
Judaism believes that the saving of life trumps every other mitzvah except the ban on idolatry, adultery, and murder. Even if one believes that abortion is immoral—and I emphatically do not—it is pure callousness to uphold the “rights” of a thirty-two cell blastocyte over the lives of suffering human beings. This is not just liberal politics. The Orthodox Union of Rabbis has taken this position. So has Senator Orrin Hatch. And now, Nancy Reagan. Conservatives have spoken out on this matter because they, too, believe that saving life is the faithful, godly thing to do.
I hope and pray that President Reagan’s death will remind our entire nation of this perspective and move us to do what we can to choose life for ourselves, our families, and our friends by letting our scientists do their work.
One of the glories of our Jewish tradition is that it blurs the distinction between study and prayer. In many other faiths, learning takes a back seat to piety; by contrast, serious Jewish life demands Torah study. If we are to be God’s partners in the task of healing our world, we need to stay in dialogue with Him/Her. Prayer and learning are both essential parts of that ongoing conversation. When we pray, we talk to God. When we study, God talks to us. And, as in any good Jewish conversation, sometimes both sides talk at the same time. Thus our communal prayers often include bits of Torah study, while our shiurim (Torah lessons) are frequently framed by prayer.
Our restored synagogue is a wonderful, concrete symbol of Judaism’s synthesis of study and prayer. The once-gloomy basement is now a state of the art library, full of Jewish books. The refurbished sanctuary is a glorious place to pray. We are now, almost literally, founded upon our sacred texts, and ascend to the sanctuary for worship together.
I hope that we will follow in the tradition of blurring these boundaries between study and prayer. Please use the library as a place to sit quietly, to meditate, to pray. And if—for some, when—you find that services start to drag, go downstairs, get a Jewish book, and take it into the sanctuary with you. Read it while those around you davven. You will be conversing with the Eternal One no less than they, and still helping to make the minyan.
May your summer bring many opportunities for study and prayer and, God willing, some rest as well.
The old must be made new; the new must be made holy
A year ago, we broke ground on our new building. We celebrated this occasion on Lag Ba’Omer, a relatively minor Jewish holiday rarely observed outside the Orthodox world. Lag Ba’Omer is the 33rd day in the counting that takes place between Pesach and Shavuot. Unlike the other days in this seven week period, it is a time of celebration. In traditionally observant families, boys receive their first haircut on this holiday, after their third birthday. Hasidim and kabbalists flock to the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai, the supposed author of the Zohar, for a mystical celebration of Lag Ba’Omer. It is also a popular day for weddings, picnics, and, above all, bonfires.
By choosing this day to begin work on our Latah site, we added a local dimension to this holiday, making it a significant occasion for our progressive Jewish congregation. Few of us may remember what happened on the original Lag Ba’Omer (the end of an ancient plague or siege against our people), but it will always be, for us, a time to rejoice. Thus we follow the words of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, one of our great sages of the last century, who taught us to reinvigorate ancient traditions and sanctify new ones.
It is fitting, then, that we will dedicate our new facility this month, exactly one year later by the Jewish calendar, on Lag Ba’Omer, which falls on the evening of May 8. We will celebrate with prayer, thanksgiving, food, music, and yes, a traditional Lag Ba’Omer bonfire. We have had an amazing year. We have much to celebrate.
But the work—and the rejoicing—will not end here. In the fall, we will have a public open house and celebration of our new facility. Meanwhile, we begin the challenging task of defining what the beautiful vessel that we built will contain. Who are we? Where are we headed? What role does our synagogue play in the Boise community? In the wider Jewish community? All of these questions and more will be on the agenda for us as we settle into the new site.
We will grapple with these sacred questions, these definitions, for it is our nature as Jews to wrestle with God, the heritage of our father Jacob and the meaning of our name, Israel. We will not always agree. But as we begin this process, let us always remember the blessings we share, the history that binds us, and the future that beckons to us. This is our common task: to make the old new, to make the new holy.
When the Jewish people left Egyptian bondage, they never figured that it would take forty years to reach the Promised Land. Yet this is the way our life journeys often take us: down long and winding roads full of unexpected adventure rather than straight and efficient but ultimately dull highways. This month we will count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, the path from liberation to the new freedom we embraced at Sinai. Even that quest is a lengthy one. If our history teaches us anything, then, it is patience. We Jews have outgrown the need for immediate gratification; we learned that the best things in this world are achieved slowly, with much time and effort.
Last month, we began moving into our new building. But like all our Jewish journeys, this is not an overnight event. We will mark several milestones of this move over the coming weeks. This month, we will celebrate with our new neighboring congregations on the Bench at an April 22 Earth Day service and reception, which we will host. Next month, we will mark our official dedication. And there will be other landmark occasions along the way as we settle into the Latah site.
Thanks to the labors of too many superb volunteers to name, I am very confident this process will go smoothly. But we should all recognize that there will be growing pains as we adjust to our wonderful new home. We will all be learning, together, what opportunities this facility will make possible for us. Sometimes this will be a matter of trial and error, especially when it comes to scheduling and utilizing our space. This is the Jewish way. We have many blessings, for which we are very thankful. Let us be patient with one another as we begin to live and learn in this miraculous facility that we, with God, have created together.
Life-long learning is the heart and soul of Judaism. We are a tradition that holds the word to be holy and makes no distinction between study and prayer as pathways to the sacred. I am, therefore, very excited about two extraordinary new opportunities for Jewish learning here in Boise.
Next fall, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel will open our own weekday preschool. Our early learning program will be a wonderful way to use our expanded facility on Latah Street. Imagine what a joy it will be to hear our halls echoing with the sounds of young children singing Jewish songs, playing together, preparing for Shabbat on Friday mornings. We will run by the Jewish calendar (imagine—no “December Dilemma” at school with visits from Santa) and focus on Jewish values. For many years we have envisioned the creation of a day-school that would multiply Jewish learning opportunities exponentially; this is a monumental first step in that direction. We are currently busy interviewing teachers, raising funds and making other preparations for this exciting new start. More information will be available in the coming months; meanwhile, if you have questions, call our education director, Heather Goldstein, at 343-6601.
But even with the best educational programs for our children, we cannot expect them to become Jewish learners if we don’t model this behavior ourselves. The Reform movement is now introducing a novel and wonderful way to take on this mitzvah, called “Ten Minutes of Torah.” During the recent biennial, Rabbi Eric Yoffie asked: “Who among us is so busy that s/he cannot spend ten minutes a day in the study of a Jewish text? If we make time to answer our cell phones a dozen times a day and to check our e-mail five times an hour, surely we can find ten minutes to contemplate sacred works that nourish the soul.” On the basis of these words, the Union has made it easier than ever to study Torah. All you have to do is sign up at www.uahc.org/torah/ten and you will receive a one page e-mail each morning on a topic of Jewish interest. Study at your own convenience and start on your own path of lifelong Jewish learning.
Rabbi Dan Fink