Thursday, December 12, 2013

Anniversary of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (Sandy Hook Elementary)

Bless and Remember the Children of Newtown

Huffington Post  · by Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin -Original link from Huffington Post:
Hamal’ach Hago’el oti. The Angel who redeemed me from all harm-bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac. And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth. (Genesis 48:16)
These words are part of the blessing that an elderly and ailing Jacob offered his favored son Joseph. They are found in the Torah portion Vayechi, which will be read on Saturday morning, December 14th. Jacob wanted to ensure that his progeny would be protected and that they would remember those who came before them. The words of this blessing have made their way into bedtime rituals for countless Jewish boys and girls. The blessing is often sung when a child is already in bed, face washed and teeth brushed, in the arms of a parent or guardian, and it precedes the final kiss of the night.
December 13, 2012 was the last time that certain parents would say goodnight to twenty innocent children, and it was the last complete day on earth for six caring adults. This was the last night of calm and normalcy for these people’s families, for the brief lives of their children were taken the following morning, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Most of us remember where we were when we heard the shocking news unfold. I happened to be in the passenger seat of a hearse, next to a funeral director, after officiating at a funeral for a wonderful woman who had lived for more than 100 years. I was close to this woman, and the funeral was particularly difficult. A year later, I can fondly remember the gentle woman who I loved dearly. On the other hand, I still cannot process how one person could own so many guns and so much ammunition, and decide to use it on innocent children. I remain angry and dumbfounded that a gunman was able to enter an elementary school, cutting short the lives of so many.
In the future, when we talk about Sandy Hook, it won’t be difficult to forget that twenty children and six adults were murdered. To truly honor the deceased, it is incumbent upon us to remember the name of each and every precious child and adult. When Jacob blessed Joseph, he said: in them may my name be recalled.
When we remember the massacre at Sandy Hook, we must remember all the victims by name. We must take the time to read/recall Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachel Davino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M. Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Dawn Hochsprung, Madeleine F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler and Allison N. Wyatt out loud. By taking the time to remember these innocent victims by name, and speaking about them as individuals, we honor them and recall them, just as Jacob asked Joseph to do.
These innocent children and the adults who looked after them deserve to be alive. But because of a madman who had access to guns, in a country with weak gun control laws, they are not. By recalling their names, especially on the anniversary of the massacre, their memories truly will be for a blessing.
Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the spiritual leader of Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY. 
Her essay on gun control can be found in Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence, available on Amazon.
Follow Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin on

Rabbi writes special prayer for Newtown anniversary  · by Renee Ghert-Zand · December 12, 2013
December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered 26 students and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut before fatally shooting himself with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, legally purchased and licensed by his mother, whom he had killed earlier.
The shooting shocked the world and sparked an ongoing national conversation about gun control.
To mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of the Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California has written aspecial version of El Malei Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut mass shooting.
He hopes the prayer’s recitation by Jews and non-Jews alike will help heal the soul of the country. According to Creditor, a few dozen Jewish congregations and organizations have committed to reciting it.
Over the past year, tens of thousands of Americans have been killed by gun violence. The number varies depending on who is doing the counting and how.Slate has found 11,404 deaths by gunshot reported in the media, while information compiled by Centers for Disease Control indicates that more than 33,000 people have been killed by guns since Newtown. Mother Jones reports at least 194 children have been shot in the last year.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor (photo credit: Courtesy of Menachem Creditor)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor (photo credit: Courtesy of Menachem Creditor)
“The attention of the Jewish community has waxed and waned when it comes to this issue. We’ve lost the Jewish passion to demand gun laws,” says Creditor, who has been very active in the campaign for more and better gun control laws.
Creditor is involved with efforts by PICO, a national, non-partisan network of faith-based community organizations, to reduce gun violence and get effective gun control legislation passed. Last January, he was among nine rabbis who participated in a gathering of 80 clergy in Washington, D.C. to speak out against gun violence. He also met with Vice President Joe Biden’s policy team working on gun violence legislation, as well as with White House staff.
Earlier this year, Creditor edited a collection of writings by rabbis about gun violence titled, “Peace in our Cities,” which has been distributed widely on Capitol Hill.
People familiar with El Malei Rachamim will recognize Creditor uses its traditional order and structure, but changes the content to reflect a different theological stance.
“It is less calm, less accepting of what is happening in the world,” the rabbi says.
Creditor says he was partially influenced by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s prayerful poem, “El Malei Rachimim,” in which he states there would be more mercy in the world if God Himself were not so merciful.
Creditor says that post-Biblical theology falls short.
“We’ve become so confused about human responsibility that we’ve allowed prayer to reinforce our helplessness,” he says. “Prayer is supposed to galvanize human agency.”
“God, grant us the courage, wisdom and endurance to change our world into a safer, saner place, the world You dreamt of, a world where Your Portion is one we extend each other through unending, unfailing, unconditional human concern,” he writes.
‘Even one life saved makes it worthwhile’
Creditor says rabbis and other religious leaders will need stamina to fight a long-term battle for gun control.
“For faith leaders, this is going to be an endurance race with the National Rifle Association,” he says. “But even one life saved makes it worthwhile.”
An obvious twist on one of the most recognizable lines of the traditional prayer makes Creditor’s message unmistakable.
“Adonai, do not bind us by death into Your Eternal Bond of LifeWe have far too much living to do first.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Name Change - A New Journey

As a rabbi, I’m blessed to be invited to be a part of some of the most meaningful and holy moments of people’s lives.  This week, I took part in a number of conversions as part of a Beit Din, (a Jewish ‘court’) a group of three rabbis who serve as witnesses and overseers to the conversions (the other two rabbis were my colleagues and friends Rabbi Michael Singer and Rabbi Leonard Zucker).  This week, we supervised the conversion of one of our young congregants, Franki Nasetti.  Let me wish a hearty mazal tov to Jon, Eve, and Danielle Nasetti as welcome Franki to the Tribe!  

After the children underwent conversion, we sat with two women in their 20’s who wished to convert.  As part of a conversion, we ask the conversion candidates to write essays about their journeys to Judaism, how the our tradition and way of life is more appropriate than their previous religion, how they identify to Israel, world Jewry, the local Jewish community, and their synagogue community, and more.  Learning about their journeys to our people truly inspired me.  Both came from religious Christian backgrounds and the journey has not been easy on their families, but they persevered and joined our people knowing that there are certainly struggles involved with being a Jew.  There were two moments in particular that moved me:  the first was when the conversion candidates read the Kabalat Ol Mitzvoth, the formal declaration that affirms their commitment to God’s mitzvoth.  During the declaration, one of the women’s voice cracked and tears came streaming down her face.  I could tell that there was so much emotion and feeling as she finally said these words.  It was the culmination of her journey, and her rebirth into a new person.  The Talmud says that someone who converts to Judaism is like a baby reborn.  Of course, newborns need names, so these women chose their own new names, and explained their choice to us with pride. 

At our Text Messages class this week, we read about the story of Yaakov and his name change.  First, off, let’s revisit the name Yaakov and see why he received this name.  In Genesis 25:26, we read about the birth of Yaakov and Esav:  “And after that his brother came out, and his hand was holding Esav’s heel, and he called his name Jacob.”  One interpretation for the name Yaakov is that it comes from the Hebrew word, ‘akev, which literally means ‘heel’.  In other words, he is known as a person who constantly nipping at the heels of others.  He is not thought of as a leader so he has to constantly grab for leadership.  Up until now, Yaakov lives in the shadow of his brother, and now, in our parashah, he is finally ready to confront this part of him.  After Yaakov struggles with the angel and prevails, the angel asks him, “What is your name?”  Of course, the angel knew his name, but, in my opinion, he was challenging Yaakov as if to say, “Who are you really deep down?  Have you changed along the way?  Are you ready to be someone different?”  Yaakov gives him a literal answer – “Yaakov”, but the angel tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Rashi comments: 

“It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through trickery (Akvah) and deceit, but with nobility and openness…”

We see here that Yaakov has not only had a name change, but a personality change and a change in destiny.  Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman, a modern Bible scholar whose commentary we use in our Text Message class, states,

“There is little character development in Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, or Rebekah, all of whom remain basically constant figures through the stories about them.  But Jacob changes, and the matter of deception is intimately related to that development.  As Esau points out, Jacob’s very name connotes deception:  to catch.  And Jacob starts out as a manipulator.  But Jacob is changed after his experience in Mesopotamia.  He has been the deceiver and the deceived…God blesses him in a remarkable etimology/etymology:  “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (yisra-el, understood here to mean ‘he struggles with God’) because you’ve struggled with God and with people and were able. 

Being a child of Israel, a Jew, is not easy.  Before someone converts to Judaism, before they become a member of Bnai Israel, we ask them:  are you sure you want to do this?  We have a long history of persecution.  You may be safe here and now, but we cannot guarantee that this will be the case in the future.  More than physical safety, being a Jew is also a great struggle – are you ready to begin this struggle?  In both cases, the candidates replied with confidence – Yes, we are ready! 
In our class, we debated the meaning of the pasuk of struggling WITH God.  Is it struggling with God, meaning against God, or struggling WITH God, meaning, together.  I think it is both – sometimes we struggle against God, and almost all the time we struggle together WITH God against adversity. 

The new Jews we brought into this world affirmed my belief in our vision statement: we journey, together, on a path to holiness.  This is what makes being a part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy congregation, and holy nation so meaningful and vital – we need to journey together because it helps us overcome the struggle. 

This is what it means to be a child of Israel – to embrace this struggle WITH God. 
My blessing for us all is that we do not why away from struggle, but embrace it.  That we continue to journey together because we seek a holy path.  My blessing is that we take on more mitzvoth because they tie us to God, and that we support each other through our journeys in life. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Baum

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Makes A Man/Woman?

What Makes A Man/Woman?

At our License to Chai (teen education) class on Wednesday night, we discussed the recent controversy regarding the Miami Dolphins, bullying/harassment (and the complexity of the situation), and being a bystander.

For background on this story, and please read this very interesting article and video on What Defines A Real Man In Sports

Ok, now that you have watched the video, and read the article, you can see that there are many issues at play here.  They revolve around dominating over the other, meeting violence with violence, and much more.

We see that the sports world is struggling with this issue, but what does our Jewish tradition have to say about what it means to be a 'Man'/'Woman'?

Here is a quote from the Ethics of our Fathers (2:6) that give us some insight:

ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש
In a place where there are no 'men', strive to be a 'man'/'woman'

Seems like a simple quote, but there's more than meets the eye!  The text gets us to define the core of what it means to act like an Ish or Isha (Man or Woman).

We talked about the true heroes of the Bible - some who we thought were heroes because they were physically gifted, like Samson, and Shimon and Levi, but their physical gifts ultimately got them in trouble.  Samson's strength ultimately led to his death.  Shimon and Levi's revenge for their sister Dinah led to the deaths of all the males of an entire city, and led their father Jacob to say this to his two boys:

“You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” Genesis 34:30

Is being a hero/heroine just about physical strength and violence?

Clearly, the answer is no.  We spoke about other heroes - heroes like Abraham and Sarah who welcomed strangers into their home and fed them, and who can teach us to welcome the new kid to our lunch table.

We spoke about Boaz who is described as a 'man of valor' (איש גיבור) who reaches out to Ruth, a stranger in his land with really no family, and shows her kindness and compassion.  It also showed how we can welcome other people into our friendship circles, and show compassion and kindness to those who are being picked on by bullies.

We learned about Elkanah, Hannah's husband, who shares in his wife's pain when she faces infertility and gives her love and support.

We learned about one of the most famous 'Bromances' in the Bible, between David and Jonathan, and the fact that men and women can show love, affection, and appreciation toward each other!

The teens shared their heroes to me who turned out to be their mothers and fathers rather than athletes and celebrities!

We learned that being a 'man'/'woman' means being brave and courageous; kind and compassionate; supportive and loving.

We ended class with this You Tube clip, with a different perspective on football, and true heroes who can teach us how to be better 'men' and 'women'.

The video really says it all doesn't it.  Fast forward to 2:40 and watch that again.  He admits, the play wasn't his idea, and he says, tearfully, "I never would have thought about that."  He goes on, "I went from being someone who mostly cares about himself and my friends to caring about everyone and trying to make everyone's day and everyone's life."  

It looks like those boys on the that football field, who showed themselves to be true 'men', could teach my beloved Miami Dolphins a lesson on what it takes to be a man.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Shabbat Message - Halloween and other musings

As a child, Halloween was never a big holiday for our family.  In fact, I don't remember donning a costume and trick or treating, but I do remember stocking up on candy for the kids (and adults) in our neighborhood who would come around in costumes looking to fill up their bags with delicious treats.  I know that many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders rail against the holiday every year, ordering their congregations to stay at home and turn off the lights to trick or treaters.  The main reason that many do not like this holiday is because the origin of Halloween is pagan (from a Celtic Harvest Festival).  But rather than list the reasons why a Jew should not celebrate Halloween (there are many reasons), I want to focus on how Halloween is similar to, and yet remarkably different than, another Jewish holiday:  Purim. 
There are some remarkable parallels between these two holidays!  On both holidays, those celebrating dress up in costumes, and both holidays revolve around candy.  On Halloween, people go to their neighbors' homes to 'take' candy or treats, but on Purim, we do just the opposite.  Rather than 'take' treats from our neighbors, we 'give' candy to our neighbors in the form of mishloach manot.  Halloween and Purim also have an interesting parallel - on both holidays, we allow people to our doorsteps, but on Purim, we go one step further - we bring people into our homes for an obligatory meal called a Purim Seudah, a Purim feast.  Both holidays achieve something that we very much need in Boca Raton, a land of gated communities:  it allows us to let our guard down and invite others into our lives.  This practice of welcoming guests (hachnasat orchim) should come second nature to us Jews, but often times, we fall short regarding this very important mitzvah.  These instincts of welcoming might be part of our history (i.e. Abraham welcoming guests into his tent), but we still must develop them and this takes time and practice.
On Monday and Tuesday, I attended a conference in New York City called Clergy 2.0:  Leading Through Relationship.  The conference was a collaborative effort through the Rabbinical Assembly and JOIN for Justice.  Close to fifty rabbis gathered to apply the methodology of community organizing to our rabbinates and communities.  These include building a culture of relationship, deepening relationship with others, developing new leaders, bringing Jewish values to the public square, and engaging our communities in social justice/Tikkun Olam.  
Of course, these practices are nothing new for me as I have been talking about building a relational or covenantal community for years!  I have given many divrei Torah about this these subjects, but I urge you to re-read a dvar torah I gave four years about the listening campaign we had at Shaarei Kodesh where we met with close to 100 of our congregants through a series of 'house meetings'.  
We plan on continuing our growth as a community that focuses on the depth of our relationships, on giving and sharing with each other, and connecting to God.  
I look forward to building deeper relationships with all of you this Shabbat.  On Friday, we'll begin with our First Shabbats program at 5:30 pm for our families with young children, followed by our We've Got The Beat Shabbat, our special drumming service, at 6:00 pm.  On Saturday morning, we'll be celebrating the bar mitzvah of Steve Blaine. 
For those of you who will be knocking on doors tonight, take some time to introduce yourselves to your neighbors before you 'take', and for those of you who are 'giving', make sure you do the same.  In this way, you will 'treat yourself' to an opportunity of welcoming others into your lives and hopefully building some new relationships.  I can't think of anything more Jewish than that! 

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi David Baum

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Between Luz and Beit El, the World as It Is and the World as It Should Be©

Between Luz and Beit El, the World as It Is and the World as It Should Be© by Rabbi David Baum
Delivered on November 28th, 2009
Parashat Vayetzei

While I was a fourth year student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was invited to something called a “house meeting”.  I had no idea what this meeting would be, or what the organizers wanted me to say, but I went anyway.  I sat around a table while one of my classmates asked us all a simple question:  what keeps you up at night?  Everyone around the room told a story, some were about healthcare, others about child care, and then it was my turn.  I told a story about something I experienced as a student.  Years before, the seminary had some financial difficulties and had to make money fast.  The Seminary chose to sell a property that they owned on 103rd and Broadway which was supposed to be graduate student housing.  No one was consulted about this, especially not the graduate students who had the most to lose.  But I was most upset about the fact that my fellow students did not say a word, what kept me up at night was apathy.  There was a woman who was sitting in the corner taking notes.  After the meeting, she approached me, introduced herself, and asked me, “Can we have a one to one?”  She sensed a hunger inside of me and wanted to meet with me, to have a one to one, in order to create a public relationship.  This woman, a community organizer named Jeannie Appleman, became one of my greatest mentors and teachers. 
That moment was the true beginning of my rabbinate.  It was where I learned about the hunger inside of all us, a voice that asks the basic question:  why does the world have to be this way?  This moment is when I woke up and became aware, and this theme of dreaming and waking up are in our parashah.   
This Shabbat contains a very famous story about Jacob and the ladder, and I would propose that this was a defining moment in his life. 
Parashat Vayetzei opens up with a peculiar scene.  Jacob has just left his home for a foreign land.  Unlike his grandfather’s journey which was ordered by God in his Lech Lecha moment to go a promised land, Jacob is forced to go to away from the promised land without God’s presence.  Up until this point, Jacob has been a wandering person, lost in many ways.   The text states that he came upon a makom, a place, but this place is yet unnamed.  The Torah also states that he had stopped there for night because the sun had set.  Jacob is totally alone, and is surrounded by darkness.  And it is at this moment that everything changes. 
Jacob laid down for the night and dreamed.  He dreamed of a world unlike the world he was living.  Jacob was only living in the world as it is, a world filled of limitations where the only thing that mattered was himself – his time sitting alone in the tent, his birthright, his life that had to be saved.  This world is a world without angels, a world without vision, a world without divinity.  As Jacob dreamed, he sees a stairway to heaven, where angels were going up and coming down.  The world he sees above is the world as it should be.  This world is a world of extreme idealism that rejects the material world as corrupt.  This world as should be is just as dangerous as the world as it is be because it leads to the individual withdrawing from public life because they do not want to live in an imperfect world. 
As Jacob sees the two worlds, God appears standing right next to him and blesses him, telling him that he will not be alone.  By appearing in this middle ground, in between the world as it is, the extremely materialistic earth, and the world as it should be, the overly idealistic heavens, God gives Jacob a message.  His destiny is to live in tension between these two worlds.  Living in tension between the two worlds means that he must care about himself, but not at the cost of the morals and ideals that guide our lives.  In this way, Jacob begins to learn that perhaps his past actions which were self-driven, taking the birthright at the cost of his brother, may not have been the best action. 
When Jacob wakes up, we finally find out the name of this makom, this place.  This place is called Luz.  There is little written about the meaning of Luz. 

The Talmud that Luz is the city in which the angel of death has no permission to enter: its citizens have the ability to live forever. The Midrash tells us of a man named Aaron, who heard that there was a town with an old Luz – an almond tree – and a dark cave with many passages that must be traversed to find the city of Luz.

Aaron found the town and entered the cave, and finally, after wandering for several days, he encountered an old man who asked him what he was doing in the caves.

Aaron told him: “I am looking for the entrance to Luz.” “The entrance!” exclaimed the man. “I am looking for the exit! The people who live forever have no ambition to learn new ideas or to create new ways to improve themselves or their community.”

When Aaron heard this, he retraced his steps, left the cave, and returned to his home and the work that awaited him there.

We can understand why the man was anxious to leave the city. He needed more than years of life: he needed life in his years. We tend to lose our incentive to grow when there is no limit, when yesterday is tomorrow and next year will be the same.

Jacob understood that he was shown the way out of Luz. He has awakened to the need to complete his journey. He opens his eyes to see God and gains the strength to overcome challenges and to grow. Luz is the place where one stagnates and ceases to grow; Beit El is the place where Jacob receives his wake up call, the divine charge to go forth into the world, to overcome adversities, and make a difference.
We are truly blessed to be living in Boca Raton.  On the surface, Boca can seem like the land of gated communities.  Gates are supposed to give us safety, but that safety comes with a price.  It gives us implicit messages:  not in my backyard, or I have no need of you. 
But coming to this Synagogue is the attempt to live a public life, a life outside of the gates.  We are a synagogue who lives in that tension, of the world as it is, and the world as it should be.  One way we are doing this is by visioning for the future through a tool called house meetings.  In these meetings, we will gather together in small groups to ask questions we don’t usually ask.  Why are we a part of a synagogue?  What do we to want to accomplish?  How are we going to build this synagogue in this tension of living in the world as it is, and the world as it should be?  How are we going to transition from Luz, the old model of a synagogue which continues to do the same things regardless of the results, to Beit El, where we add life to our years by learning new ideas and creating new ways to improve ourselves and this community?  We will learn about each other’s journeys, what brought us here and what keeps us here.  By learning from each other, we will find out where we are going. 
After Jacob’s dream, he realizes that he cannot be the person who he was, an ish tam v’yoshev ohalim, a quiet and private tent dweller.  Jacob becomes transformed, he starts doing one to one’s of sorts, he becomes engaged in public life by meeting people, by challenging the status quo when he moves the rock off of the well so Rachel could feed her flocks, even though it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. 
Perhaps this is why Jacob is one of my favorite Avot/patriachs.  He is the epitome of transformation and only HE determines how HE will be defined.  He doesn’t wait to be acted on; rather, he acts.  It is a message to all of us, we must transition to be public people, a congregation who acts and doesn’t wait to be acted upon.  This is how we will turn this place, this makom, into a Beit El, a house of God. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Shabbat Message - Hayyei Sarah 2013/5773

On Wednesday evening, I had the honor of sitting on a panel of rabbis in our community for the SPBC Jewish Federation's Young Adult Division "Courage to Remember" Event.  The event was held to show the Courage to Remember exhibit, a traveling Holocaust remembrance exhibit from the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Tolerance in Los Angeles.  I was one of four rabbis from our community who was asked how we personally kept our faith in God when we dealt with adversity in our lives.  Looking through my notes, I found the dvar torah I gave for this week's parashah, Hayyei Sarah four years ago.  As I read the dvar torah, I was instantly transported back in time to those moments.  That Shabbat in mid-November was the first shabbat that we came back to Shaarei Kodesh after our son Avi was in the hospital for over a week at the Pediatric ICU at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital.  I urge you all to read these words PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE DVAR TORAH - "SOMETIMES, ALL YOU CAN DO IS PRAY".  

By the time, Avi had still not been diagnosed, and it took another nine months to diagnose him.  Those were truly trying times for our family.  So how did we overcome the adversity?  Looking back, I think it was kindness, prayer, and community that helped us through those months.  It was the kindness of our community, whether it was trying to feed us (of course, we Jews always try to feed a problem), but more than food, the stories that we heard of people's own family struggles with health.  Prayer, which I spoke about in my dvar torah in 2009, also helped us get through those times, and this prayer had to do with community.  

Last week, during our License to Chai teen education course, we learned about the importance of communal prayer in Judaism, as opposed to praying alone.  In Judaism, the answer is quite clear - praying in a minyan is better than praying alone, but it might be more difficult.  It might be harder to focus because you hear other people's voices, or you might be distracted with someone's shuckling (body movements), and yet, to say holiest parts of the service (the kaddish, the kedusah, the barchu), you need a minyan, 10 Jews.  To me, the message is clear - prayer is also about support of others.  During those nine months of waiting, I was at a weekday morning minyan at another synagogue in town, and it came time for the prayer for the sick (misheberach for the holim).  The gabbai pointed to each person, and eventually, he came to a man who I did not know and he said the name, Avraham Yitzhak ben HaRav David Zalman.  I was puzzled because my son's name is Avraham Yaakov ben David Zalman.  I went up to him and asked, "this is crazy, but my son's name is Avraham Yaakov ben David Zalman, and the person you are praying for has almost the same name, but off by one word, and the guy is a rabbi too!"  The man replied, "I'm praying for the son of a rabbi in town who is sick."  I looked at him in amazement, and I said, "Thank you for praying for him; I'm sure he appreciates it."  It taught me that the Jewish community is greater than Shaarei Kodesh alone, and I was reminded of the line, Kol Israel Arevim Zeh BaZeh - every Jew is responsible for one another.  When you go through adversity, remember, you are never alone.  A holy community comes together to support one another, to say amen to your prayers, to feed you, both physically and spiritually when you are hungry.  This is the definition of what we strive to be here at Shaarei Kodesh - a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, where we support each person, both in good times, and during times of adversity.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hunger and The Heart©

Hunger and The Heart©
By Rabbi David Baum
Yom Kippur Day, 2013/5774

I want to begin by speaking about something that I probably shouldn’t be talking about today:  food. 

Before we go on, have you ever wondered, why do we fast on this day?  I know that in the past, I have told you that it is to raise us to another level so that we can focus on atoneing for our sins, but it’s mid day, and I’m sure that some of you are more focused on the bagels and locks that you’ll be eating tonight than being angels!

After many years, I’ve realized something – maybe we fast today, so we are forced to think about food. 

I’ll tell you how I got to this idea – it was from an experience I had in Washington DC. 

When I was 21, I led a trip with our Ramah group of 15 year olds from Ramah Darom to our nation’s capital, DC, with a program called Panin al Panim – face to face.  On the first night of the, the organizers brought a homeless woman come to tell them her story.  It was a touching story, the woman was abused by her husband, she was forced out of her home, she had no family to take her in, and nowhere to turn to.  Eventually, she found herself on the streets. 

Our campers were shocked, and the whole room was brought to tears.  Now, it’s one thing to listen to a story, it’s another to truly experience it.  Little did they know about the second part of the program.  The next day we had all the kids made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but we didn’t tell them why, and the next night, we took the children to the streets, to where the woman spent her nights, and we met her community, and we fed them, with our own hands.  Suddenly, the homeless had a face, a name, a story. 

So here was the shocking part – they came up to me, some of them from this Boca Raton, and said, “This was one of the most moving experiences of our lives. We want to help them, we want to continue this holy work!  We only wish there were homeless people in our city so we could continue this work at home!”

I stood there puzzled – have they really not seen a homeless person in their hometowns? Maybe so, but I know that if you drive in Boca Raton, you will see homeless people begging in the intersections.  They have almost become a part of the scenery, like the manicured trees, lawns, and the beautiful fountains. 

It reminded me of a story from the Talmud:

There was once a rabbi during the 3rd century, Yehoshua ben Levi, who traveled to the mighty city of Rome, the greatest city of its time.  There were many amazing sites, as anyone who has been to Rome knows, but he was struck most by the marble pillars.  One day, he noticed that the marble pillars were covered by sheets to guard it from heat and cold.  Then he looked down and saw the poor people, naked, without even a sheet.  When he saw this he said, “a civilization whose statues are treated better than its poor will not last.” 

Rabbi Yehoshua was able to see something that the Romans could not because they were so used to it – he had fresh eyes, and an open heart. 

I thought about the world we live in, a world of 24 hours news stations and a constant flow of breaking news, and a world with the internet at our fingertips, a world where we are constantly bombarded with so many images of suffering.  

I think the issue of is getting worse.

The homeless, the hungry, both here and abroad.  We are bombarded with images of the dead who die by violent means.  Who here wasn’t shocked by the scenes of the men, women, and especially children who were gassed in Syria?!?  I worry about these scenes – because we grow insensitive to suffering.

How do we cope with this reality?!?  We have to distance ourselves from it because the suffering is too much – this is called compassion fatigue. 

I realized that perhaps my campers didn’t see the homeless and the hungry in their own cities because they couldn’t see themselves in those people.  Maybe, just maybe, they grew callous towards them, so callous that they couldn’t see them.  Maybe, something in their very bodies changed. 

During the Al Chet, we confess our sins, and one of the first sins we confess,
together, is,

Al Chet SheChatanu Lefanecha b’Immutz HaLev

We have sinned against You through hardening our hearts.

A hard heart is more than a medical ailment; it’s a spiritual ailment.   

We hear about hard hearts when we read about Pharaoh, but his heart was heavy, kaved.  The word used here is Immutz Halev, which comes from the word, Amatz.  It’s the word that was used by Moses to Joshua, and Moses to the people.  “Hazak V’Emetz” Be strong and resolute.  At the end of Psalm 27, which we recite during this season of repentance, we say, “Hazak V’Yametz Libecha, v’kaveh el adonai” “Be strong take courage, and place your hope in Adonai.

And yet, now, we say that we have sinned against God by being Amatz.  What gives? 

I think that we are missing something in our al chet - hizzuk – strength, without strength, amatz, can become stiffness, and it can be a sin.  We have to make ourselves and our hearts strong first, then and only then can we have true courage. 

So how do we make our hearts strong? 

Deuteronomy 10:16 - 19

“Cut away, therefore, the thickening around your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God...shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

To make our hearts strong, we have to do something counterintuitive:  we have to cut away at the thickening of our hearts.  What does it mean to cut away the thickening of our hearts?  I think it means that we have to exercise it, we have to stretch it and strengthen it. 

We can do this by seeing your own story of suffering in others, and at times, sharing in that suffering. 

We need to live with softer hearts, and if we can do this, than they will grow stronger, and we will have courage.  I think that Judaism teaches us how – by living a life of empathy.

Empathy isn’t sympathy.  Sympathy is when we say, I feel bad for that person. 

Empathy is saying, I feel that person’s pain. 

Every Jewish holiday is an experience of empathy.  On Sukkot, we sleep in booths and make them our permanent home to remember what it was like for our ancestors to live in the wilderness on their way to freedom.  On Passover, we don’t eat any bread opting for matzah, lechem oni – the bread of affliction, to remind us of those days when we went from slavery to freedom.

Every ritual we perform gives us a certain way of feeling, and I think that for today, God wants us to experience hunger in order to stretch and strengthen our most important organ. 

Yom Kippur is one of the most widely observed holidays in the Jewish calendar.  Even those Jews who would never fast on any other holiday fast today.  Today, we feel something that we honestly don’t feel that often:  hunger. 

And so this year, I took the words of the prophet Isaiah, from our Haftarah, seriously.

Isaiah begins the Haftarah with hope for the future.  The exile of the Jews from Babylonia is soon coming to an end – the roads are being cleared, and we as a people will have a second chance, but with a second chance, comes a challenge:  to live a different life.  No longer will we only care about only about the ritual alone, but we will also take the ethical in our hands. 

Isaiah says, “3“Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!

5 Is this the fast that I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?

6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

7It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Isaiah gave us a new vision for our fast – it’s not just about us who choose to fast for one day, but about those who are forced to fast on other days.

For Slichot, we watched the powerful film, A Place At The Table.  In this movie were stories of real people who struggle with hunger every day.  We heard the story of Barbie, a single mother of two in Philadelphia who works but makes wages below the poverty level, and can’t make enough to buy food.  She cannot qualify for government food assistance programs if she makes above $28,000, she isn’t eligible, but if she made below that amount, she could not live.  There was one thing that she said that really affected me:  “What defines starving.  If you don’t eat for a day are you starving?  In the governments eyes, no, but in your eyes and the way you feel of course.”  When she is eligible, her food stamps only last three weeks out of the month.  She opened her refrigerator for the camera and said, “How can I tell my kids that we don’t have any food left for the week.”

I heard Isaiah’s haunting words – Is this the fast that I desire? 

We learned about the story of a policeman of a small town, once proud, but because of budget cuts, he hasn’t been paid in months, and yet, he continues to work.  Now, he has to go to the local food bank, and he feels ashamed, but what can he do?  He has to feed his family.

Is this the fast that I desire?

After the movie, I asked for reactions from those who watched. A woman raised her hand and said, “My daughter is on food stamps, and it’s not enough.  She is a single mom, and she tries, she really does, but she just can’t make ends meet.  We help her, but we are getting worried because we cannot help enough as we ourselves are on a fixed income.”

Let me ask you, a show of hands, how many people here have known someone, a family member or friend, or even yourself, who has ever been on Food Stamps? 

These stories occur everyday in our own community.  A teacher asks his young student, “Why are you falling asleep in class?”  The boy answers, because I didn’t eat breakfast.  And Why didn’t you eat breakfast and teacher demands!

The answer:  “Because it wasn’t my turn.”

Is this the fast that I desire? 

We have to open our hearts to the hungry, and not just on the holidays.  Today, we have to experience what they experience. 

Last year, I took the Food Stamp Challenge.  I had to spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week - this translates to $4.50 per day, or $1.50 per meal.  All food purchased and eaten during the Challenge week, including fast food and dining out had to be included in the total spending.  I couldn’t eat food I already owned, and I had to abstain from free food from family, friends, and at work. 

I ate, but wasn’t satisfied, I was tired, I was irritable.  I didn’t make my family take the challenge, and I sat, with envy, watching them eat their dinners.  It was a tough week, but it was only a week for me. 

A friend said to me, why take the challenge – to teach you that it stinks to be poor. 

I replied, why fast on Yom Kippur?  Why eat matzah on Passover?  Why spend time in an outdoor hut for Sukkot?

Because, I told him, there is a part of me that needs exercise – my heart.  If I am going to have a courageous heart, I have to make it strong first, and to make it strong, I have to understand what the poor and the hungry go through. 

I have to cut away at the thickening of my heart. 

Unfortunately, the problems of hunger are only getting worse.  Congress has cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding so that now, a person can only spend $1.41 a meal and a reduction of $29 a month.  There is much that can be done for advocacy.  Please visit Mazon (a Jewish response to hunger) to learn more about how you can help advocate for our most vulnerable, and you can also visit Mazon’s page to write a letter to our Congressmen urging them not to cut SNAP -

That all being said, we, as a community, have to pick up where our law makers have left off.

This past year, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, under the leadership of our social action chair – Judy Richman, has taken hunger on as one of our causes.  We have gone gleaning in the fields, picking up crops that farmers leave because it doesn’t make economic sense for them to pick it up.  We have fed the hungry at Boca Helping Hands on holidays, we have volunteered every month to bag food for the Ruth Rales Jewish Family Services Jacobson Food Pantry which feeds over 500 hungry families in South Palm Beach County, many of them Jews.  We must and will continue this work, but I want each one of you to do some things to help Isaiah’s vision, to share our bread with the hungry.  

Feed the hungry with your hands.

1.     When you walk into our sanctuary on Hampton Drive, you will see an Aron Kodesh, a place for our Torah scrolls, but on our way to our sanctuary, you will a box in front of the entrance to our sanctuary.   When you come to shul to pray, bring a can of food with you and put it in the receptacle.  This is what makes our space holy.  This year, give a morning of your life to bag food during one of our food bagging drives.  Come to Boca Helping Hands and serve the hungry.  Come gleaning with us to feed the food insecure children of South Palm Beach County. 

2.     When you make a PB and J sandwich in the morning for your child’s lunch, make one for you, and one for someone else.  As you are driving along your way, and stopped at a red light.  Give that hungry person with a sign the sandwich.  If it’s a long light, ask them what their name is. 

It’s important to know their names, because then they aren’t, that homeless guy, or that welfare queen – they are our brothers and sisters. 
The least you can do is make him a PB and J sandwich.  You won’t only feed his body with your act of kindness, but his soul, and yours also. 

Live out Simcha this year! 

3.     Who in here is going to have a Simcha this year?  If you are going to have an auf ruf, a bar mitzvah, a baby naming or Brit milah, or a wedding, I want you to consider taking part in Kayla’s Bountiful Arrangements.  Kayla Aronson, one of our teen congregants, started a program where you could donate $118 to her, and she gives almost the entirety of that money to the Jacobson Kosher Food Pantry.  To show this, she makes a food arrangement, which we have here in lieu of flowers.  When our ancestors brought sacrifices to the Temple, they would share a portion of it with the poor – this is the true definition Simcha, happiness.  Be like our ancestors – bring the poor and hungry with you into your simcha.

My prayer for you in the coming year is that you have a courageous heart by making it strong, hazak.  To make it strong, you have to open it up, you have to stretch it out, to cut the thickening around it, you have to live with empathy.

My prayer for you is that you realize that the task of feeding the hungry will never be complete, and despite this realization, you will continue on with a courageous heart.

In the Haftarah, Isaiah says: 

10And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature—
Then shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
If we do these things – we will bring light into the world. 

This is the fast that God desires.