Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Response To The Tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut

(Links which I spoke about during this message can be found toward the bottom of the post),

Shalom Shaarei Kodesh 

Last week, on the 7th night of Hanukah, as we lit those candle which were supposed to bring us joy, we all felt the opposite feeling; a deep sense of pain and sorrow after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.  Before I continue, I wanted to teach a small piece of halacha/Jewish law regarding how we as Jews mourn and how we get through difficult events and times.

After a loved one passes away, no matter the circumstances, the immediate family sitsshiva. Shiva is just a word that means seven, meaning that the family sits down in their home for seven days and lets the community come to them to fulfill the great mitzvah of Nichum Avelim, comforting mourners.

The laws of a shiva house are interesting. We are told that when we enter a home, we are forbidden from making ‘small talk’ with the mourners. Our tradition tells us that we should sit in silence and wait for the mourner to speak to us. But this answer was not good enough for all. The rabbis actually gave us words to speak to say to the mourners just in case there are no words at all and the silence became too unbearable: HaMakom Yinachem Etchem B'toch Sha'ar Avelei Tzion U'Yerushalayim...May God comfort you along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the first teaching of remaining silent is not an easy mitzvah for us in the modern world to keep. We live in a world where silence is not something we are used to, but even more so, the human condition almost begs for us to say something which is perhaps why the rabbis gave us an out by giving us words to say. In the social media world that we live in, we are constantly told to comment on events and to have an answer for everything instantaneously.  There were of course many theories offered as to the cause of this tragedy, and each person seems already dug in as to the cause (full disclosure:  I myself have very strong feelings as to what we can do to prevent another tragedy, but I am open to listening to other view points).  

But honestly, after this horrific event, I could not muster any words or come up with any theories, in fact, my first posting after the disaster was the following – “no words”. I believe that our Rabbis give us an important lesson through this request for silence – comfort mourners first, and once this holy task is completed, then you can look for answers. 
This Friday will mark seven days from the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary. It is almost as if we as a country have been sitting shiva for seven days and now we are standing up and resuming our lives. I believe that now we can start processing things, and we must process these issues together as a country and a community, whether it is gun control, mental health, or a culture of violence (these were three of the major factors that the country seems to have latched on to after the tragedy).

When we lose someone we have loved, there is an open hole in our hearts, and they need to be healed, slowly but surely. My hope is that we can heal together.  This was week was difficult, and the event in Newtown Connecticut affected us all. The families in Connecticut are mourning the losses of their children, their wives and partners, their sisters and brothers, and their mothers, but I believe that all of us are secondary mourners. The question is, what now, what can we do about it? How can we deal with the pain?  

I want to share with you a couple of ways which you can deal with this tragedy. Please note, I am not telling you that this is how you should handle this tragedy, but merely providing some ideas.

First, read their names, read their stories.  Here is a link to the names of those who lost their lives:  

1)    Processing – every family has to navigate how they will deal with this issue. I found a couple articles very helpful:
“Talking to your children about Newtown” by Patricia Stern, LCSW, MP -
“Dealing With Grief: Five Things NOT To Say And Five Things To Say In A Trauma Involving Children” by Rev. Emily Heath. Although this is not a “Jewish” source, the author provides extremely valuable and effective methods on how to deal with this issue in a theological way. 
Additionally, I am here as your spiritual leader to speak to you and your family if you have any questions or just someone to talk to, so please do not hesitate to contact me.

1)    Action – I urge you all to visit the Jewish Council of Public Affairs website which they created as a reaction to this tragedy.  On this site, you will find a petition which urges our leaders to take action on all levels of government to deal with the issues of assault weapons, mental health, and violence in media and games. 

USY, United Synagogue Youth, our movement's youth arm, will be holding a rally against gun violence:

Also, you can contact our local representatives to demand action:

2)    Tzedakah – I want to share something that our religious school director, Hinda Rosenbaum, shared with our religious school families regarding this tragedy:

An official fund was set up by the Newtown community to help the families of the victims:
Sandy Hook School Support Fund
c/o Newtown Savings Bank
39 Main Street, Newtown CT 06470
Another option, suggested by one of our Religious School parents, is to help by creating snowflakes! An odd request for us here in Florida but it will make lots of people feel better!
“Welcome Students to a Winter Wonderland”
When school resumes for Sandy Hook, it will be in a new building. Parent-volunteers are working to ensure that the students are welcomed back by a winter wonderland with the entire school decorated with as many unique snowflakes as possible.
We encourage senders to be as creative as possible, remembering that no two snowflakes are alike. Please send snowflakes by January 12, 2013 to:
Connecticut PTSA
60 Connolly Parkway
Building 12, Suite 103
Hamden, CT 06514
The above Tzeddakah options are only suggestions or you may choose any other option to promote the healing process.

3)    Prayer/tefillah – Last Shabbat, I distributed a prayer written by a friend and colleague Rabbi Menachem Creditor.  It is an incredibly moving prayer and it might be able to give you words where none might come out- 

A prayer from Rabbi Naomi Levy:

A prayer by Rabbi Rick Sherwin:

4)    Community - we can come together as a Shaarei Kodesh community, pray, and be together. It is fitting that we are joining together with Temple Beth Shalom this weekend. We are first and foremost a people, and we can join together, young and old, male and female, in prayer, and of course, in celebration of the bnai mitzvah of Matthew and Sydney Levine. 

But I would like to end with one way we can deal with tragedy:  to join together as a community, pray together, enjoy life together, and support each other, not just in times of sorrow, but in times of great joy.  It is fitting that we are joining together with Temple Beth Shalom this weekend. We are first and foremost a people, and we can join together, young and old, male and female, in prayer, and of course, in celebration of the bnai mitzvah of Matthew and Sydney Levine.  This Shabbat, we get up from our low points and move on to the celebration of life through simcha.

We hope you can join us together, for together, we will again be whole.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Baum

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day Reflections 2012

Sometimes, you have to take a step back and realize the amazing gifts we have and the miracles that we experience everyday.  In the Modim paragraph of the Amidah, we say these words three times a day, everyday of the year, "We thank You and praise You for our lives that are in Your hand, for our souls that are in Your charge, for Your miracles that daily attend us, and for Your wonders and gifts that accompany us evening, morning, and noon."

I want to tell you about a moment when I realized a miracle that daily attends to us.  Two days ago, we had dinner my parents and my paternal grandfather, who was born on the same day as I was, but in a much different place, and a much different time.  My grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust from Czechoslovakia, has told me first hand how special this country has been for our family.  Here, we have the right to be equal citizens and to take an active role in choosing our leaders in government.  These are not things to take for granted.

I remember speaking with my uncle (on my mother's side) a couple of years ago about his life in communist Poland.  My maternal grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust from Poland.  After the war, they settled back in Poland and lived under Communism.  We often complain about the choices we have here when it comes to electing officials, but in Communist Poland, there was only one party choice, and it wasn't really a choice.  They too came to America, a land of freedom and opportunity, and they had the opportunity to do something that they had never had for so many years - to step into a small box and vote for a representative.

This is a gift, a miracle that we experience not just during every election, but every day, evening, morning, and noon.  It is not just about the election, but about a system of democracy and freedom.  Every election season, at least one candidate will say, "This is the most important election of our time."  I used to think that this was preposterous statement, but in many ways it's true.  Every election is the most important election of our time, because it is truly a miracle that few in human history have experienced.  And so, as we stand in line today during this election day, do not forget that what you are doing is vitally important, and no matter who wins, your vote does matter.

And if you want a prayer to say, recite the prayer for our country, with an emphasis at the end:

Our God and  God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country- for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority.  Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and
prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.  Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit.  May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.   May this land, under Your providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom- helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And let us say, Amen.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Dvar Torah for membership season!

Parashat Vayeshev
Years ago, before Rabbinical School, I was at a conference with a friend of mine who was working for Ramah as a recruiter.  We had a great time at the conference and we met some very interesting people.  I remember there was one girl who we met who had tattoos and body piercings all over her, and she talked to my friend and became interested in Ramah.  Dani gave her some information, we both told her about our experience at Ramah, and we went on our way. 
About a year later, my friend Dani called me and she told me an interesting follow up.  She told me that she was at another conference and she saw that girl again, and the girl looked at her and started crying.  She told my friend Dani that meeting her at that conference brought her to Ramah and changed her life.  She told Dani that Dani was an angel.  When Dani told me this, we both started laughing.  One of us, an angel?!? 
Has anyone met someone, you don’t even have to know their name, who later turned out to be someone who led you to be the person who you are today? 
This week’s parashah, Va-Yeshev, is the next chapter in the story of our forefathers.  Jacob’s children are now the focus of the story, especially the story of Jacob’s most beloved son:  Joseph.  As soon as we are introduced to Joseph and his background, we see a very interesting scene that is all too familiar.  The text states: 
“And a man came upon him – here, he was roaming in the field; the man asked him, saying: 
What do you seek? (Mah Tivakesh)?
He said:  I seek my brothers, pray tell me where they are tending sheep.
The man said:  They have moved on from here, indeed, I heard them say:  Let us to got Dotan.”
What continues, the story of Joseph in Egypt, is one of the most intricate and interesting narratives in the Torah.  The language is rich with commentary, but before we get to that, we have to look at this scene.  Why even look at this scene when basically Joseph receives directions?  Can you imagine if you were telling a long story about a trip that changed your life and you spoke about getting directions at a gas station?   The Rabbis look at this scene as vital to Joseph’s narrative because the Torah does not contain extra and unimportant information.  It’s a very strange story and it involves an unnamed, anonymous man, an איש, much like the man who wrestled with Joseph’s father, Jacob when his name was changed to Israel.
Visualize this, Joseph is roaming around in the field and an anonymous man approaches him.  Joseph does not begin the conversation, rather, the man does.  Rashi and Ramban, two medieval commentators, claim that this was not a man, rather, an angel, in other words, a divine messenger. 
This angel asks a question that can have so many answers, what do you seek?  Joseph seems to be focused only on the task at hand:  finding his brothers.  The angel points him in the direction of Dotan where Joseph’s life and the life of his family, and his people for the future, changes.  It is in Dotan where Joseph is brought as a slave to Egypt, which led to Joseph becoming a leader in Egypt, which ultimately led to the settlement of Jacob’s family in Egypt, which led to the slavery of the people and the Exodus from Egypt, the seminal story of the Jewish people.
But let me ask you something:  what would have happened had Joseph continued to roam the field and just come home to his father?  Would the story ever have occurred? 
It makes you wonder about your own life.  How many people here found their way to Judaism because they were roaming aimlessly and a person approached them asking:  what do you seek? 
So many of us have found our future we could not have imagined in Judaism, and in this synagogue, but did we know at the time what we were getting ourselves into.  We could have been searching for something small – an afterschool education program for a child, a place to pray for the high holidays, a class on prayer that seemed interesting.  Many of us entered the gates here not thinking that it would lead to anything life changing, but so many of us have found a greater destiny. 
But someone directed you through that gate that led you on a path, and that someone was an angel.   In Judaism, an angel is considered a messenger of God, so if you think about it, there are times in our lives where we have been angels, where we have brought the message of Judaism to those who have yet to hear it. 
Ramban, the commentator I mentioned before, brings up an interesting idea.  That “איש” that man who directed Joseph to Dotan, even though a divine being, did not know the ultimate result of the directions he gave. 
Sometimes, you may think you know the path that someone should take, but the truth is, you can only point them in the right direction.  The path that they take is between them and God, just like Joseph’s path. 
You have the ability to be that “איש”, that person, you have the ability to be the angel, the messenger, that directs someone on the path of their Jewish journey.   
Every time you speak to someone who is unaffiliated, someone who is roaming in the field unsure of what they are REALLY looking for, you can show them the way.  You can approach them and ask them a vital question:  What do you seek?  Maybe you will show them a path by inviting them to services, maybe inviting them to come to a Shabbat meal, or even join us as members of Shaarei Kodesh, but each little interaction you have can change history. 
The truth is, you may not be remembered by this person, but your reward is knowing that you have made our congregation and our people are stronger because of your actions, your directions. 
The commentators say Joseph’s story was in order to fulfill the prophesy that God gave to Avraham, “your seed will be brought to a far away land.”
Much history has passed, and we have had many prophecies, both positive and negative, and it shows something:  the future is yet to be written.  I have heard on many occasions that the future of Judaism is bleak, assimilation is too strong, the birthrate is too small, intermarriage is too pervasive, the list goes on and on. 
But we have the power to change our destinies, as did the Maccabees did when they ensured that Judaism would survive despite the overwhelming force of Hellenism and a great empire.  It was something that seemed impossible at the time, but God was with them, just as God was with Joseph through his trials in Egypt, and just as God is with us today.  
The Sefat Emet wrote that Hanukah is a special time that Israel merited by their own actions.  This holiday is a witness that Israel chose God and created a new sacred time because of their actions.  Because this holiday was brought about by Israel’s own actions, their own deeds, every Jewish soul can be restored through this holiday.
That “איש” was a small light in the darkness that led Joseph to his destiny.  You too can be that “איש,” a small light to lead others to their destinies to restore their Jewish souls. 
Be a Malach, an angel for us, be a messenger for this shul.  You are an angel of God.  Find someone who is roaming and bring them here so they can find their destiny.    

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Teach Your Children…© Parashat Eikev by Rabbi David Baum

Teach “Your” Children…© by Rabbi David Baum written in August of 2009

A lot can change in just one week.  One week ago, I had only one exemption on my tax forms.  One week ago, I was cooking for two.  One week ago, my house was an adult’s playhouse, no toys to be seen. 

But two days in the hospital, and Alissa and I drove home with a new addition to the family, formerly Baby Boy Baum, now Avraham Yaakov, or as we call him, our little Avi. 
One week ago, when I read the V’ahavta paragraph of the Shema, I focused on the idea of my personal relationship with God.  It is no coincidence that the first paragraph of the Shema was read last week in parashat V’etchanan and it is written in the singular tense.  I would often times gloss over certain parts of the Shema because they did not pertain to me.  “V’shinantem Levanecha” – instruct your children about them (these words). 

Suddenly, as I read the second paragraph of the Shema, I see the mention of guiding your children again.  This time, it is “v’limadetem otam et benechem l’daber bam…”
“Teach them to your (plural) children, using them when you sit at home and when you walk about, when you lie down and when you stand up; write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – that your days and your children’s days in the land that Adonai promised to give to your ancestors may be as numerous as the days that the sky overlooks the earth.”

As a religious Jew, I put on tefillin and tzitzit everyday, I have a mezuzah on my door post to remind me of my role on earth everytime I enter and leave my house.  But now I have a new mitzvah, a new commandment – to teach my child. 

This text, the texts of the Shema, the central text of Judaism gives us very important mitzvoth.  Tzizit, tefillin, loving and serving God, but why is the mention of teaching your children so paramount to this text? 

I looked at Rashi’s commentary on the words, L’daber bam, to speak to them (Deuteronomy 11:19).  He states:  “When the baby begins to speak, his father speaks with him in the Holy Language (lashon hakodesh) and teaches him Torah.  And if he does not do so, see now, it is as if he buries him, as it says, “in order to increase your days and the days of your children.” 

This is a very scary thought for a new father.  If I neglect my duty to teach my son, it is as if I am burying him?  Given these consequences, it is important to know exactly what I am supposed to do.  What exactly does teaching him Torah mean? 

It got me thinking about a subject that I am quite familiar with:  Jewish education.  In the past, I used to read text books, books on education theory by thinkers like John Dewey.  But I turned to a new book that I was given called A Student’s Obligation, by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a famous Rabbi in Poland who eventually became the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The book is quite long, so I cannot give a whole summary in such a short time, but I would like to share some lessons that I learned.  Rabbi Shapira explains the concept of Jewish education - CH-N-CH, Hinuch-  is a special word that implies the realization of one’s potential.  This potential will remain hidden unless we bring it out.  Our task is to cause the potential to emerge.”
He goes on to say something that I have just now understood:
 “Since a Jewish child has the spirit of God, the breath of the Lord, hidden and concealed within him from the very moment of his birth, it is necessary to raise him and educate him to bring out and reveal this godliness and allow it to flourish.”

As we hold our son, we realize that he depends on us to live, for food, shelter, and warmth.
But as Jewish parents, we have an added responsibility:  it is our job to educate our child – to penetrate his inner being and reveal the holiness of Israel that is within him. 

As I was researching my son’s name, I looked at different passages regarding Avraham in the Torah and I found Rabbi Shapira’s commentary on these quotes.  He commented on a line, “I have made Myself known to him in order that he command his children and his household after him to guard the path of God (Genesis 18:19).”  Every generation in Israel is a link in the chain of our heritage, a chain whose beginning stretches back to Avraham and whose end will reach our Messiah.  Every generation receives its faith, its Torah, and its sense of awe before God from the generation that preceded it.  They take what they have received, serve the Lord with it, and pass it on to the next generation.  “In order that he command his children” is the mainstay of our existence. 

I now realize the special job that I have as a father and why.  It is my job to transmit to my child what I have learned so that the breath of the Lord will emerge from him, just as it has emerged from me.  Were it not for my parent’s educating me, I would not be standing here today. 
All too often, we seem to shirk the responsibilities of personally teaching our children about Judaism.  That is why we have Hebrew school teachers right?  And who am I to teach them about something I know nothing about?  Yes, it is true that there are those with more knowledge than us who are paid to teach our children.  But this does not mean that we do not have the responsibility to teach them some Torah ourselves, to start teaching them the holy language and Torah as Rashi instructed us. 

As we have seen, the commandments of sharing the words of the Torah with our children from the Shema come in both the personal and the communal.  As a community, we have the obligation to teach everyone’s children.  We do this by supporting our schools and religious institutions.  But we also have a personal duty to teach our own children.  I dare say that this duty never ends – to this day, I still learn lessons from my parents.  My parents will always be my teachers. 

I want to give one message to each one of you reading or listening to this dvar torah: do not be afraid to take on the role of Jewish educator--it is your task in life.  Do not be afraid to teach your child Jewish values, to sing the Shema to them before they go to bed, to bless them on Friday night, or to share your stories with them. 

When we educate our children, we show them that we love them. 
This week, I have discovered as I held Avi in my arms that love is my motivation and education is my duty.

Friday, July 27, 2012

9 days as a Vegetarian - Reflections on the first nine days of Av

For the last week or so, Morningstar farms products and Cholula hot sauce have been my best friends.  No, I have not converted from being a carnivore (I'm way too weak!), rather I was observing the practices associated with the first nine days of the Jewish month of Av.  Here is a description from the new Rabbinical Assembly publication, The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews:

The days between Rosh Ḥodesh Av and the Ninth of Av are called the Nine Days and are called the Nine Days and are characterized by the rabbinic dictum: “When Av begins, our joy is diminished” (M Ta·anit 4:6). Except on Shabbat, it is customary to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine during this nine-day period (SA Oraḥ Ḥayyim 551:9, where several variants of this custom are listed). The reason for both prohibitions is simply that meat and wine are commonly associated in our tradition with joy and celebration. 

These nine days were a great challenge for me as I am used to eating meat at least a couple times during the week.  I had to be inventive, and I came up with many different ways to cook fake meat and also pasta.  The reason why we refrain from meat is because meat and wine are symbols of joy in Judaism.  On Purim, we are commanded to have meat and wine at our Purim seudot (festive meals), and I look at Av as kind of an anti-Adar, the month that Purim falls in which is known by its catch phrase, "Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B'Simcha - When the month of Adar arrives we should increase our joy."  But I had some other feelings not eating meat related to the Temple.  Our holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, was one of the bloodiest places imaginable because of the amount of animal sacrifice that took place as part of worship.  Animal sacrifice (meat) was how we showed expressed ourselves to the divine.  On the ninth of Av, we commemorate the destruction of the second Temple which occurred in 70 C.E.  With the loss of the Temple came the loss of the very soul of the Jewish people - we lost our physical expression to God.  Of course, we have moved on from our Temple.  Now we worship God through Avodah sheBalev, the service of the heart, in other words, our prayers, our tefillot.  The very L'htipallel, to pray, actually means to judge oneself.  During our prayers, we turn inward, meditating on various the various themes of our journeys as a people and our own spiritual journeys as individuals.

I imagine that animal sacrifice must have invoked the same feelings.  One would bring a live animal to the Temple to be sacrificed, but you did not just leave the animal there, you were a part of the process.  After the sacrifice, you would eat the meat as a sort of meal with God.  The sharing of a meal with someone implies connection; it is hard to break bread with someone who you do not want to be in relationship with.  Losing the Temple meant losing that daily physical relationship with our creator.  Refraining from eating meat and drinking wine emphasizes what we have lost with the destruction of our Temple thousands of years ago.

I wish I could do this every week, refrain from eating meat until Shabbatot and holidays, the times of greatest connection with God, but I fear I will fall back into my normal practice.  However, I am glad I got to experience the feelings of refraining from meat at least this week.  I look forward to my glass of wine and my meat filled Shabbat dinner tonight as I prepare for the 25 hour fast on Saturday night.    Shabbat Shalom and have a meaningful fast.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Swimming with your children: Father's Day 2012

Perhaps the most known piece of Rabbinic literuature that speaks about the responsibilities of a father to his children can be found in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin).

"The father is required to Circumcise his son; to redeem him [referring to the first-born son, as per the Biblical passages in Numbers 18: 15-16]; to teach him Torah; to assure that he marries; and to teach him a trade. Some say he must also teach him to swim. Rabbi Judah says, whoever does not teach his son a trade teaches him robbery 

In the mishnah, the rabbis agree that a father should teach his son a trade.  This is probably in order for his son to be self sufficient.  Perhaps this is more about self preservation, I mean, you love your children, but by the time he is 40, one would hope that he is not still living on your couch if he can actually work!  

Why did only some say that a father should teach his child how to swim?  Perhaps it was because it was redundant.  The text already said that you should teach your child Torah and a trade, and swimming encompasses both of those things, the physical and the spiritual.

Teaching a child how to swim in Florida is a life or death matter considering how many pools and bodies of water we have all around us, so there is a definite physical aspect to the obligation, but if we look deeper, perhaps it is yet another way for us to look at the Jewish education that we give our children.  As parents, we often outsource Jewish education because we do not feel adequate enough to teach our kids Bible, Hebrew, Rabbinic literature, and so much more.  This trend is not anything new, in fact, Jewish schools for our children are thousands of  years old.  I would add though that these schools are just one part of the equation; they only work if we reinforce the values at home.  Teaching is not just about saying the alef/bet, but about feeling the alf/bet.  The stories that you can share with your children about your own experiences with our tradition can help frame their own jewish experiences.  When you take the lessons of the school and bring them to your home, you convey a powerful message - Judaism does not live in books and class rooms, but in our homes, our lives, our souls.

We have to teach our kids how to swim, but then, we have to swim with them.  It is a message not just about Judaism, but for life.

I am taking some vacation time over the next two weeks.  Over these two weeks, I'll be spending some quality time with my boys.  In fact, I'll be taking my oldest son to swimming lessons.  Fortunately, the teacher told me that I can be with him in the pool so I can reinforce the lessons when we swim on our own without the teacher.

Our faith teaches us that we must make our children self suffiencient, but it does not mean that we cannot work with them, that we cannot swim with them.

On this father's day, may you take the opportunity to swim with your sons and daughters, or swim with your fathers and grandfathers.  May the waters of your life be gentle and calm, and may you spread your arms out and explore the entirety of our world with your child at your side, and God above you.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Children of Adam and Eve

Children of Adam and Eve by Rabbi David Baum

I saw the most beautiful thing this week at morning minyan at the Rabbinical Assembly convention.  A former teacher of mine brought her daughter, who she adopted, to the morning minyan (they are not the people in the above picture).  Her daughter is two years old, and she held her close to her in a baby bjorn, which is not an easy thing to do!  This woman adopted this baby and I am sure she had to work long and hard as the process is not easy.  Her baby is of a different ethnicity, but it made no difference - you could see that they were connected by a strong bond of love that was palpable.  I felt like I was witnessing literal holiness in my midst, the fulfilling of the famous statement in the Torah, 
"ועשו לי מקדש, ושכנתי בתוכם’
"Build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you."  

At one point, her daughter looked into her mothers eyes, and touched her mother’s tefillin on her head.  I was so captivated by this tender image that I could not look away, and it actually gave me great kavanah (intention) for my prayers.  The magic that I witnessed was not just with these two, but what was happening all around them.  I saw men, Rabbis from all over the world and all different ages, turning and smiling, mimicking my expressions without knowing.  

As I saw this mother and daughter, the baby with her pacifier in her mouth, I thought about my own 2 ½ year old.  As she touched her mother’s tefillin, I remembered Avi running to kiss my tzitzit, or dragging me to the ark so he could kiss the Torahs.  I am sure that those looking back at this rabbi and her daughter felt the same feelings:  love and a little bit of envy, wishing that we too had our children so close to us at that moment.  It is scenes like these that ignite the compassion within our hearts and make us feel connected to each other, not just as rabbis, not just as Jews, but as Bnei Adam v’Hava, children of Adam and Eve.  My two sons, her daughter, your children - all of them, no matter where they are, or who loves them the most, are precious jewels.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

Text Teaching from the Rabbinical Assembly Convention

I feel blessed to have been asked to teach my colleagues and teachers at the opening plenary of the Rabbinical Assembly.  I was asked by Rabbi Josh Heller to teach a text that I was very passionate about, and I could not have thought of a more perfect text.  It is from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 85b.  I was honored to teach with some of my colleagues, Rabbis Menachem Creditor, Ellen Wolintz-Fields, and Elana Zelony.

I will update this blog with some more details about my experience teaching, but until then, enjoy the teachings from my

The text I taught:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Our son’s name: Harrison Eytan Baum (Hebrew – Naphtali Eytan Ben HaRav David Zalman V’Aliza Bracha)

This speech was given at our son's brit milah on February 29th, 2012
Our son’s name:  Harrison Eytan Baum (Hebrew – Naphtali Eytan Ben HaRav David Zalman V’Aliza Bracha)

Alissa Baum: 

“Harry Solom, your great grand-father, whom we all affectionately referred to as “Pop-pop” was born in 1922 in Bailey's Harbor, MI to Russian immigrant parents, Rebecca and Arthur. He was the 5 of 7 children and was the youngest boy. Pop-pop grew up on a cattle farm. He did not have a very wealthy upbringing but he learned to be independent, skilled, and had a drive for success that was unrelenting. Because he was the youngest boy and was not able to fight in the war, he remained at home until age 16 and then traveled to Detroit to find work and build a sense of self. He first worked at a fish market but later sought out employment from the owner of a package and liquor store, who would later become his father-in-law. During these first years in Detroit, my grandfather took up the sport of boxing, which as we all know is typically popular with the Jewish boys. By the age of 18, he was undefeated as an amateur middle welter-weight boxer and in his last fight he went up against the #5 ranked boxer in the country. Needless to say, he did not win and told my father that those were some of the hardest hits he ever took. Even if he did not want to give up the sport, Bubbie insisted that this was not a proper career for her soon to be husband. They were married in 1942 and remained married until she passed in 1985. During their lives together, my grandfather owned a supper-club in Detroit, flew a private plane for pleasure, moved to Maryland and liquidated men's clothing stores all along the Eastern Seaboard, and finally ended up in Florida where he practiced commercial real estate. Pop-pop also gave us Grandma Flora, your Gi-gi Flora, and remained devoted to her until he passed in 2007.

My dad, your Sabba, described your great grandfather as “a very loving parent, although he didn't show his emotions very much. He gave us everything we wanted but did not spoil us.” He would always be at my dad's pee-wee football games, and he always encouraged him and his brother to do whatever they wanted to do. When my dad wanted to learn to play the drums, my grandfather got the drummer in the band at hi supper club to give him lessons, even though he knew the headaches that he would have as a result.

As a grandfather, Pop-pop was equally giving and loving. He would bounce us on his knees when we were little and make up funny songs that made absolutely no sense, yet we thought were the best thing in the whole world. He taught me how to fish in Biscayne Bay, across the street from his condo in North Miami Beach. He would take us swimming in the pool and throw us around, off his shoulders, and just be a kid with us. He was also the first person to teach me how to drive...when I was about 5 years old. He would sit us on his lap in the parking garage and let us steer. I always loved going to Pop-pops house because like all good grandparents, he let us do all the things my parents wouldn't let me in their house. As we grew older, he started to tell us more stories about his childhood and all of the “colorful” experiences he had during his years on the farm and as a business man. One thing Pop-pop was always good for was retelling stories we had all heard hundreds of time before...and each time he told it, it was as if he was telling it for the first time. Many times, he wouldn't even be able to finish the story because he would be laughing too hard and we would just smile and laugh along with him.

When your Abba and I found out that we would be having another boy, there was no question in my mind that I wanted to honor my Pop-pops legacy by naming you after him. In researching his Hebrew name, we found out that he was actually named Naphtali, which means “to wrestle”. How perfect it is that Pop-pop was a boxer and up until the day he died, he fought to live.

To my son, Harrison: may you grow to be a strong, independent man with the drive and determination to do anything that you put your mind to, just as your namesake and great-grandfather did in his life. May you inherit his zest for life and passion to take on new experiences that you never knew were possible. You should also be blessed with wit, wisdom, and wealth of family and friends, just as Pop-pop before you was.”

Rabbi David Baum:

“Harrison/Naftali, your middle name is Eytan.

As I sat in the hospital, one week before your due date, the timing of your arrival to this world amazed me. You were born on the cusp on Rosh Hodesh Adar, the new month of Adar. Adar is the happiest month of the year, as the famous saying goes, Mi she’nichnas Adar, Marbim B’Simcha
"When Adar comes, joy is increased.” We are happy because Adar holds one of the most joyous holidays in our calendar, Purim.

The holiday of Purim is only happy because of the terror that was diverted. Haman, King Achashverosh's advisor, devised a plot to kill all the Jews, and the only thing standing between his goal were two people – Mordechai and Esther. Mordechai's Jewish identity was known to all, but Esther's was not. In many ways, Esther hid her identity in order to survive and help her people when the time came.

My grandmother, your great-grandmother, Eta, was like a modern day Esther. As a young woman in Budapest during World War II, she was able to hide her Jewish identity, pretending to be a Christian with doctored papers. But like Esther, she did not hide, but lived life out in the open. As a young, single woman, she became the manager of a hotel and restaurant, learning how to become a Hungarian chef in the process which her future family was grateful for as she made the most delicious, and fatty, foods. But she did much more than cook. In the hotel, she hid Jews in the basement, possibly saving hundreds of lives.

Eta was an incredibly strong woman. At one point during the war, someone accused her of being a Jew for the simple reason that only a Jew could be that young and that successful. When the soldiers came to her, she recited the Lord's Prayer, something she had heard growing up as a child in her small Shtetl.

When the Soviets came and freed Budapest of the Nazis, they looked for people who could speak Russian, Hungarian, and other languages. Luckily, she spoke Russian fluently. They gave her a machine gun, a uniform, and asked her to find hidden Nazis. I do not know exactly what she did, but my grandfather assured me, “Your grandma took care of business.”

She married your great-grandfather Frank after the war, had a son, your grandpa Alex, and was able to leave Europe, but without her husband. She came to America, sleeping on a down blanket on a cold basement floor with her little boy. She served as a maid, and was able to save up money. Her husband came to America and completed their family, and they were able to work hard, build a great life together, and rebuild a family.

Your middle name is after her – Eytan, which means “Strength or strong”. In the midrash, the Rabbis said that Eytan was a nickname for Avraham, your big brother's name. I hope that you are Avi will give each other strength, just as I do with my little brother who is close to me in age, just as you are with your big brother.

Your great grandma had a fire within her that radiated to others. Her strength was not in her body as she was only 4”11, but it was in her intellect, her savy, and her will.

May your namesakes strength in their lives, both physical, mental, and spiritual, come alive in you as you journey throughout life.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Born Again Jew - Parashat Beshalach

(I delivered this Dvar Torah at Shaarei Kodesh in 2010, but I think it's still relevant)

What do we think of when we hear the term: born again?  What connotations does it have?  When we hear the term born again in our society, we think of Evangelical Christians.  The term denotes a very personal relationship.  An individual is unhappy with the direction in their lives, they see that there is a better way, in this case, accepting Jesus as their lord, and they are born again. 
It might surprise you to know that this idea of being “born again” is not so foreign to us as Jews.  We see it a lot, just in different words.  In our vocabulary, a born again Jew is generally called a Ba’al Tesuvah.  This is also a very personal thing.  But Judaism is not always about the personal, most of the time, it is about the community and the people.  What I want to discuss is how we as a people were born again in this week’s parashah, B’Shalach.
One of the most famous scenes in the Torah is found in this week’s parashah, the splitting of the Red Sea.  It is the most famous scene in the movie the Ten Commandments and it actually won it an award for Best Visual Effect.  When we look at this scene, we think of another one of God’s great miracles for the people of Israel.  If the 10 plagues were not enough for Israel to sell them on their God’s supremacy over the world, than this would do it.  On another level, Ramban states that the splitting of the Red Sea was actually to finally break the Egyptians hearts because none of the previous miracles were as great as this one. 
But I choose to look at this scene a little differently.  I believe that this scene really was for Israel.  We say a line from our Torah everyday during our morning service, (read in Hebrew – turn to page… - “And Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.” 
Israel approached Yam Suf, the sea of Reeds, as one entity, but they came out the other end born again. 
The God of the Torah is a God without form, something quite different than other gods in the ancient world.  The God of the Torah is not bound by nature, in fact, God uses nature for His own use.  In this case, I like to think of the splitting of the Red Sea as a sort of birth.  The people of Israel are like a baby, waiting to be born, but they must go through the birth canal to enter the world.  For any of us who have the blessing of having children, we know that there is no greater miracle in our lives than witnessing birth.  This being comes from the darkness and insulation of the womb into a world of light.  These moments are transformative. 
As a newborn, you are totally vulnerable, and the first thing that often happens is the new born is given to the mother and a bond is made.  It is at this moment that the newborn develops an awe for his mother, and they start to have faith.  Rashbam says that the faith that the Israelites developed for God was that even though they were heading into dangerous wilderness, that they still would not die of starvation.  So too a baby looks at its mother for sustenance, warmth, and survival. 
When a baby enters the world, its first action is to cry in order to breathe in the air that they need to live in this world.  After the Israelites left the Sea unscathed, they did something that is one of the most primal things a human can do:  they cried out in song.  This song, called Shirat Ha-Yam, is actually the oldest narrative in the entire Bible.  It is our primal cry. 
This song reveals the faith that Israel had for God.  This idea of faith is also strong in our midrash.  The midrash says that each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nahshon the son of Amminadab and descended first into the sea; His descent led to the splitting of the sea.  I also learned another interesting story that explains why there is a dagesh in the second Mi Chamocha (Mi chamocha with the dagesh, there’s a story that the water was in their throats and only then did the sea split). 
Being born again takes faith.  It takes faith to know that you can have a different reality, because when you enter into a new reality, you are completely vulnerable.  Everything you thought was reality in the past is different:  you have to start over to build a new reality.
This happens all the time in our lives, sometimes by choice, like a new career, a change in deep seated habits, and sometimes it is imposed upon us, like the beginning of, or end to a marriage, the birth of a child, a death in our family, or in this case, a bar mitzvah. 
Don’t be scared to reinvent yourself, don’t be scared to change yourself for the better, don’t be afraid to build a new life.  The beautiful thing about our faith is that we do things as a people; we are rarely alone.  When we are born again, we walk together through the Red Sea; we support each other and walk toward the same goal:  fixing the world in God’s name. 
It is fitting that next week is Tu Beshvat – nature begins anew, a new beginning where anything is possible.  Every time we have a life cycle event, we are like a saplings growing into their own, the whole world is in front of us.