In just a few days we will be gathered around our tables to retell the story of our people's liberation. Remembering is a mitzvah! But do you think it's an exercise in nostalgia? The mitzvah to remember the Exodus is meant to guide our lives in the here and now. This MATZA, this SEDER, these BITTER HERBS, must speak to our soul; Today!!!! How can we make these rituals and words that are so familiar to us to breathe new fire into our souls?
The HAGGADAH presents us with 4 children: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the child who doesn't know how to ask. Who are these children? Can we find them in our homes? In our Shuls? In our community? Perhaps.
The 4 children need not be children at all, other than in the sense that we are all children of one G-d. Who are these 4?
The first is the wise child, what does he or she ask????? "What are the statutes, the laws and the ordinances which G-d has commanded you?" The one who asks this question asks about the ordinances, "G-d has commanded you!!!!" Like the wicked child he also appears on the outside looking in. But he is seriously interested in the details of our faith. She is searching for the inner meaning of the SEDAR. This child wants to study, to grow, to become immersed in Judaism.
In our midrash, the child is, perhaps the Jew by choice, the potential convert. The Talmud teaches us that "the most righteous of all Jews can never achieve the spiritual phase of the righteous convert". Many communities are finding that Jews-By-Choice are becoming the leaders of congregations. They are Hahamim, wise in the sense that they learn our faith as adults, not as children. They bring to their study all the critical faculties that allow them a sophisticated knowledge of the statutes, the laws and the ordinances of our people. In a time of assimilation when our people are threatened, they represent a new source of vitality and wisdom.
How sad it is, that in Israel today, there are those who do not recognize the majority of Jewish converts who are taught by Conservative and Reform rabbis. How tragic, that as we recall our ancient liberation from bondage, there are Jews who would oppress other Jews.
The second 'child' is the wicked one but this is my midrash and the 2nd child is not evil. In fact I assume he or she is sincere and oh so pious. So high up on the frummometer. What is the avoda of yours????? There are so many spiritual pathways to G-d. There are, according to our sages 70 faces to the Torah, and like the facets of a diamond, each shines brightly, each leads us to a knowledge of an understanding of THE ONE. But there are those who only know the one face, who only know the one way, who believe there is only one Torah and that one Torah is theirs and theirs alone.
What is this ritual of yours they ask?
It's not the one WE know!!!!!
It's not OUR Torah!!!!!
It's not OUR answer!!!!!
It's a different melody!!!!!
There are Jews, who discount any interpretation, any spritual pathway that is unfamiliar. This is YOURS!! they say. This is foreign. This is new and different! What is this BAT Mitzvah, how can you skip this prayer? How dare you celebrate with men and women together!! Women Rabbis? Gay marriages? There are those who see Jews who worship differently and think of them as the OTHERS. And by doing so we separate vital parts of the community from the mainstream. ULIFEE SHEHOTSEU ET ATZMAM MIN HACLAL ---- because the attackers remove themselves or others from the mainstream, they mush be reminded: ILU HAYA SHAM LO HAYA NIGAL.
Our Jewish community depends on each committed Jew. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Zionist, Federation, Tzedaka Giver. When any one of these components separates itself from the community. The community is weakened in its entirety.
The 3rd child is the simple child. He/she asks MA ZOT????? What is this???????
This is Amha, your typical Jew. He or she is not here this Shabbat. But being Jewish in some amorphous way is important to him. He will put a mezuzah on the door, send her children to Hebrew School, attend a seder, light Hannukkah lights and attend synagogue on Yom Kippur.
We don't answer these Jews like we answer the wise child. We don't tell him ALL the ordinance and the statutes, the details of the law. We are not disappointed When they don't swarm into our synagogues. We remind them instead you too were released from Egypt. You too witnessed the plagues and the Sea of Reeds, the hand of G-d.
I grew up in an all or nothing world, either you keep Shabbat or you don't. I so admire the Chabadniks who believe as I do that every mitzvah brings redemption to the world and brings us closer to G-d. If we can invite the tam, the "simple" child to one Shabbos dinner, if we can show them the beauty of Sukkot or Tzedakah we will bring the messiah one step closer.
Who is the 4th child? The one who doesn't know to ask? These are Jews who are so peripheral, so assimilated that we don't know who some of them are. The Haggadah teaches us "AT P'TAH LO", "You open his mouth for him." It is our task, the task of committed, informed Jews to seek them out, to open up dialogue, to educate their children.
Some Jews are so far away, we must bring them closer. Some are bitter about their Judaism, we must answer their bitterness with love and compassion. It is our job to find them, to be MIKAREV, to bring them close to us.
We must remember and remind even the most assimilated, "You are blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh. You too, are part of the people Israel."
My sweetest friends, as we read of the 4 children this Passover, let us remind ourselves of the vitality being brought to our people by newly converted Jews, of the pressing need to bring our divided people together and of the mitzvah to integrate into our people the assimilated Jews in our midst.
Jacob’s Ladder (abridged version of a sermon written for November 28 Parashat Vayetze)
In many galleries devoted to biblical art, one might find a depiction of Jacob’s ladder.
In the book of Genesis, Jacob has a dream: he sees a ladder reaching to the very heavens; “And
behold the angels of the Lord ascending and descending”.
And Jacob hears the voice of God renewing the covenant of Abraham.
It’s a striking image. It hints at a moment where heaven and earth kiss. It suggests a world where one could ascend the ladder and reach the very heavens, or where one could bring heaven down to earth.
But while the image leaves us with a visceral feeling of holiness, the role of the ascending and descending angels are not clear. One midrash connects Jacob’s dream with our people’s history of oppression.
In order to understand this teaching, it is important to remember it reflected a time when Israel was being oppressed by Rome.
According to this teaching, each nation has its own “ministering angel”. Jacob had a vision of the angels of four nations that would eventually oppress our people. They were more like demons.
He saw the angel of Babylonia ascend the ladder (rise) and then descend (decline). Then he saw the ministering angel of Persia climb and fall. Same with the angel of Greece.
Finally, the ministering angel of Rome climbed the ladder. But he did not descend. Jacob trembled “perhaps he (Rome) will never fall”. And God reassured him “do not fear my servant Jacob, Rome too, will descend the ladder of history”.
Had the midrash been written today, perhaps there would have been other names on the list. From the ghetto to the gulag, from Spain to Auschwitz, we have survived our oppressors.
As Jacob’s namesake, Jacob’s dream and this rabbinic interpretation speaks to me not only as a Jew, but as an American. America, too has had its demons ascending and descending the ladder of history.
Our story has seen the demon of slavery ascend and descend. We have seen Jim Crow likewise climb and fall. Misogyny and homophobia, all part of our history, all in the process of descending the ladder.
We struggle to reach the apex, to be the greatest democracy, to be the shining light, the “city on the hill”.
As I write this, our nation is hurting. We are being threatened both physically (Covid-19) and spiritually. Of all the nations of the world it is America, the richest nation, that is suffering the highest number of illness and death.
And even as the plague continued to ascend, our very democracy was being threatened by those who attempted to overthrow the will of the people. Our nation is divided like never before in my lifetime.
Poverty and hunger are twin demons. Demagoguery is ascending even as the rule of law is descending. Fascism threatens the greatest democracy of the world.
And I, Jacob, look to faith and dreams. And in my subconscious, I hear an echo of father Jacob’s dream. Do not fear my servant Jacob, have faith, these demons too, will descend the ladder of history.
Faith and modern science will team together to heal our nation. America will continue to strive to follow the voices of our better angels.
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
What is Holy? A Hanukkah Message
Often we associate holiness with old men pouring over ancient texts or pious people praying regularly. Kedushah (holiness) is a foreign concept to so many of us.
There is a prayer that is traditionally recited when Hanukkah candles are lit: ”these lights are holy, and we are not allowed to use them, only to look at them ”. This prayer alludes to a somewhat esoteric point of Jewish law. According to the halakha, the Hanukkah lights may not be used for any secular purpose. For example, we are forbidden to read by their light. The candles are meant to inspire us. They remind us of the light of religious freedom brought into the world by the ancient
Maccabees. They are to be admired but not used. Indeed, the shammash (the extra candle lit each night) has its origin in the legal fiction that if we do use the light generated from the menorah, it is not the
Hanukkah lights we are reading by, but the extra shammash light.
In this obscure halakha, we can find a meaning of holiness we can all relate to. We find true holiness in ideas that inspire us, or in acts of compassion that move us. Things that we use or manipulate are not
In a truly holy relationship, our spouse, our child, or our parents are people we inspire or are inspired by, not people we use.
When we admire nature as a gift from the almighty rather than a series of objects we can gain benefit from, our relationship with nature becomes holy. And when we relate to others in such a way as to give, rather than manipulate and use, we create sparks of holiness.
Hanukkah reminds us that our relationship with God should be holy. We love God and follow God’s
mitzvot not only for the promised rewards, but also to bring holiness into our lives.
The Hanukkah lights are holy because they cannot be used.
One more lesson of Hanukkah lights and holiness.
So many religions associate candles with holiness.
Perhaps it is because one candle can light so many others and it’s flame is never diminished. If you are blessed and have a child for example, you pour so much love into that child you might think you have exhausted your supply. You’ve reached empty. Then you are blessed with another tiny miracle and your supply is quickly replenished . During this year of COVID, the Hanukkah lights have a new message. They represent the many doctors and nurses and essential workers and so many others who served us as our “shammash” , taking great risks and making great sacrifices to do so. Their acts were holy and may they continue to shed lights for all of us.
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
WHO WRITES THE BOOK OF LIFE
In our prayers recited during this holy season, we are told of a book: sometimes
referred to as a Book of Life, sometimes as a book of Memories. “on Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die”
Does this mean that my life is pre-ordained? Do I have no choices to make?
We assume it is God who is writing this “Book of Life”, but a closer look shows us that when God opens our “Book of Memories”, “the signature of each of us is attached”.
We write our own book of life. It is up to us to find meaning in these sacred hours we spend at prayer. It is the job of each of us to peruse the book of life we wrote during this past year, and determine where we need to grow. Perhaps, if we want to extend the metaphor, we should see ourselves as editors. We open our book, we read our chapters and we make changes. Some of the chapters are entitled “family” or “community” or “Judaism” or “charity”. On these Holy days we ask ourselves, “What did we write in those chapters?” Did we give of ourselves as much as we should have? Did we live a life of mitzvah? Did we connect with God? Did we contribute to our community? Were we loving and giving to our children and grandchildren, to our spouses?”
And if we find ourselves lacking, as we all sometimes are, these Holy days are a time to write the outlines for the chapters we will write in the year to come. But it is not only individuals who write books of life and memories. Nations write books of life. Societies make memorable decisions involving life and death.
And we need time to edit these books as well. Last year those of us willing and able, met during these festivals with our families in our familiar seats perhaps sitting with our friends, sharing family stories. This year services will be different, and we will open a national book of suffering. More than any other
country, our nation has been struck by COVID-19. Many of us have friends who have been sick or
perhaps passed on from the virus. I am sure every one of us has been impacted in one way or another. Most of us have been limited in our travel, our work, or our family connections
How do we as a society view our national book of life during this past year? Why is the richest nation in the world the nation stricken the hardest by the pandemic? What can we edit? What can we change?
There are answers that can bring us back to the blessings we seek during this season. Open the books of science! Open the books of medicine. Consider the needs of your fellow human beings. Wear a mask in public places. Follow the rules of social distancing! Prioritize health over wealth!
Remember it is WE who write the book of life
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
The following is a summary of a sermon I delivered Saturday, June 13th.
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe regarding the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman he had married.”
In their commentaries, the rabbis associate their sin of gossip with the punishment meted out to Miriam who was stricken with “snow white scales” (some sort of skin disease often mistranslated as leprosy).
In interpreting Torah, we often seek present day meanings in ancient texts/stories. I can only
imagine Aaron coming up to Miriam during the wedding, a drink in his hand, saying “Ess past nit” (it’s not right!)
Perhaps it was subliminal. Perhaps it was overt, but what he was saying was, “She’s not one of ours!” “She’s a different race.” “She doesn’t fit.” “Look at the color of her ebony skin.”
Our sages teach us that God punishes measure for measure. “You Miriam who think your whiteness makes you special!!! You would want to judge people based on the color of their skin!! When you don’t recognize the image of God in every human being, when your whiteness becomes a weapon of privilege, I will turn that very whiteness into a disease of ugly snow white scales”’
And when we read this section of Torah, we are reminded to defend the Cushite men and
women in our world. We are reminded to defend them from lashon hara…. Or racist language that leads to violence.
Aaron and Miriam were figures of authority. And when we read this section we are reminded to protect the powerless from those who wield white power. Either the power of office or the
power of the Billy club and gun.
Because Cushite lives matter. (Yes, I know Miriam was Semitic and therefore not really white …I’m basing MY midrash on the Miriam of the Cecil B. DeMille movie)
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
Dear Family & Friends,
Who wrote the book of life?
We assume that the author alluded to in the most well known of High Holy Day prayers is God. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who will live and who will die.”
But what if God is NOT the author of our book of life? After all, the text says on Rosh Hashana it is written without specifying who is the author.
Perhaps we can find meaning in the prayer far removed from the notion of our lives being pre-ordained.
Each of us writes his/her own book of life. And the book has chapter headings. One chapter may be family, another may be titled community or ethics.
And throughout the year we add pages to the book of life each of us writes.
And then comes this holy season. We review our chapters. In so far as we can, we edit our lives. If we use this season of introspection to truly raise a mirror to our soul, then we can rewrite our lives. We can learn to better express our love for those we hold dear. We can commit to being more active in our communities. We can write new chapters of commitment to our society and our environment. And we can begin to reconcile with God.
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
The following is a summary of a sermon I delivered Saturday, June 13th.
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe regarding the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman he had married.” In their commentaries, the rabbis associate their sin of gossip with the punishment meted out to Miriam who was stricken with “snow white scales” (some sort of skin disease often mistranslated as leprosy). In interpreting Torah, we often seek present day meanings in ancient texts/stories. I can only imagine Aaron coming up to Miriam during the wedding, a drink in his hand, saying “Ess past nit” (it’s not right!) Perhaps it was subliminal. Perhaps it was overt, but what he was saying was, “She’s not one of ours!” “She’s a different race.” “She doesn’t fit.” “Look at the color of her ebony skin.” Our sages teach us that God punishes measure for measure. “You Miriam who think your whiteness makes you special!!!! You would want to judge people based on the color of their skin!! When you don’t recognize the image of God in every human being, when your whiteness becomes a weapon of privilege, I will turn that very whiteness into a disease of ugly Snow White scales.” And when we read this section of Torah, we are reminded to defend the Cushite men and women in our world. We are reminded to defend them for Lashonda Hara… Or racist language that leads to violence. Aaron and Miriam were figures of authority. And when we read this section we are reminded to protect the powerless from those who wield white power. Either the power of office or the power of the Billy Club and Gun. Because Cushite lives matter. (Yes, I know Miriam was Semitic and therefore not really white … I’m basing MY midrash on the Miriam of the Cecil B. DeMille movie).
Rabbi Jacob Rosner
It’s like a tourist itinerary of the damned El Paso, Dayton– columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, parkland. Pittsburgh, Poway. And now El Paso and Dayton
This happens with such frequency in no other nation. And this week new mourners were created twice in one day.. A new ritual is being created in America. Upon entering a crowded synagogue or mall we look for the nearest exit
There are a combination of reasons. Lax gun laws is one of them. And our conservative movement has spoken loudly and clearly about the need to ban assault weapons and strengthen background checks.
This week’s portion repeats the story of how the Israelites sent spies into the land. We know the story. The people had no faith. They had seen the wonders of god. They had witnessed god’s miracles in Egypt and at the reed sea. They had heard god’s voice at Sinai. Yet they had no faith that they could conquer the land. And so god decreed that this generation was not ready for prime time. They would die in the wilderness and a new generation would enter the promised land.
There is a tradition that the day of god’s decree was the 9th day of av; today’s date and a day that would be eternally a day of sadness for our people. It was the day that both holy temples were destroyed.
Some of the rabbis we often speak of were witnesses to the destruction of the 2nd temple. The rabbis asked, why was the second temple destroyed by the romans? They understood that the destruction of the first temple was the result of the idolatrous practices of the people. But they felt the people in their generation were faithful to the covenant. They were believers. The sin of idolatry had vanished from the land
The answer they gave was Sinat Hinam, baseless hatred. They realized early “that a house divided cannot stand” rather than finding scapegoats, the sages looked into their own failings. And they asked why was there so much hatred between Jews.
What the Rabbis suggest is affirmed by historians. Josephus records that even as the romans marched to besiege Jerusalem, one group burned the granary of another.
We need to ask the same question today. Where is the hatred coming from that is eroding the soul of our country? Guns kill….Bombs kill…..But hate also kills words can be weapons. And when the words of hate come from high places we as Americans have to look inward. . It is not enough to speak of assault weapons. We need to guard against assault words. Gun control is not enough. A colleague, Michael Gold, speaks of the need for hate control. There is hate coming from groups of white supremacists who spread their disease online corrupting young and vulnerable boys and girls, men and women. There is hatred being directed at immigrants . There is hatred aimed at black and brown people. And there is hatred on college campuses directed at Israel and Jews
How do we stop the hatred? Perhaps we can ask the owners of social networks to be more vigilant of what is viewed on the social networks. That is a start. But first we must fight the hatred in our own hearts. We must remind ourselves and our children and grandchildren of the teaching of Rabbi Akiva (sing) love your neighbor as yourself
El Paso and Dayton grieve today. We can pray for comfort and healing. But thoughts and prayers are never enough. Even as we enter the sad fast of tisha b’av, let us try to fight hatred wherever it may dwell, and let us begin with searching our own hearts.