Friday, December 25, 2009

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!

Dear Friends,

I just wanted to share with you that I'm in Jerusalem, preparing to welcome Shabbat with our sister congregation, Mevasseret Zion.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
May its borders know peace,
Its inhabitants tranquility.

Shalom al Yisrael v'al kol b'nei adam.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Wednesday, December 16, 2009



Thoughts for Parashat Miketz 5770

Our 2nd-year Triennial reading for Parashat Miketz begins with a reversal of fortunes for the people of Egypt. Seven years of plenty have expired, inaugurating the seven years of famine foretold by Joseph. Joseph has engineered a successful plan to stockpile grain during the years of plenty and to ration the food during the famine.

In Chapter 42, verse 1, we read: “Jacob saw that there was food in Egypt.”

RaSHI asks: “How did Jacob see it?” i.e., Jacob lives in Canaan! How could he possibly see what was happening in Egypt?

RaSHI’s answer: “It must mean that he didn’t see, but hear [about it], because it says [in the next verse], ‘I have heard that there is food for sale in Egypt.’”

(RaSHI then goes on in a folkloric way, explaining that the word “saw” implies that Jacob experienced a semi-prophetic vision leading him to place his hope in Egypt.)

However, RaSHI’s first comment on this verse highlights important differences between the knowledge we derive from seeing and the knowledge we derive from hearing.

Knowledge derived from seeing is a direct kind of understanding. We call this kind of learner an “eyewitness.” One directly experiences an event and then formulates conclusions.

Knowledge derived from hearing usually comes to a person second-hand. We sometimes call this knowledge “hearsay.”

What is the source of our knowledge? Think of mail, e-mail, the Internet, the news, radio, television…. How do we know which transmitter of knowledge is most reliable? Do we run the risk of internalizing misinformation if we rely too much on “hearing” and not enough on “seeing?” Alternatively, do we limit ourselves too much if we insist that only “seeing is believing?”

Which source of knowledge do you prefer? Or are both necessary?

I won’t be seeing you at Torah study this Shabbat—I’ll be preparing for my imminent departure—but I have already experienced a semi-prophetic vision that you will be hard at work contemplating these questions. Rabbi Jacobs and/or Rabbi Sklar will join Torah study this Saturday to share the learning with you.

Happy Studying!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Friday, December 4, 2009

Vayishlach 5770: The Physical and the Spiritual


D'var Torah delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, 12.04.09

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

A familiar Jewish practice appears for the first time in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach: a gravestone is dedicated. While traveling together, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth. Jacob does not carry her body all the way to Hebron, to the Cave of Machpelah, the family burial plot. Instead, he buries her en route and sets up a stone to mark the place forever.

From Jacob’s time to our own, proper burial of our dead has remained a paramount concern. Throughout history, whenever a Jewish community would settle in a new location, even before purchasing real estate for a synagogue, its first priority would be to secure land for a cemetery and to organize members of a Chevra Kadisha, a sacred society of volunteers who assist in the rituals of guarding, washing, and dressing the dead. (As a matter of fact, Rabbi Jacobs’ own Executive Assistant, Amy Rossberg, who observes Judaism in a Modern Orthodox congregation, (has) served on her local Chevra Kadisha for years.)

Around one year after a death, we, like Jacob, dedicate a gravestone at a service called an “unveiling,” marking the formal conclusion to mourning. But as with most Jewish practices, a Rabbinic debate surrounds the use of gravestones. Commenting on the pillar Jacob sets up for Rachel, the Mishna (Shekalim 2:5) says, “Any surplus money [collected in order to pay for the burial] of a dead person [must be used] to [help] his [or her] heirs,” and not, presumably, to buy an expensive headstone. Rabbi Meir proposed that “Any surplus of money [collected to pay for the burial of a dead person] should be left over until Elijah comes,” Elijah’s arrival announcing the Messianic Era; in other words, until the end of time; in other words, we shouldn’t spend it at all. Rabbi Nathan believed that the leftover money “should be used to build a permanent marker or monument [Heb. nefesh] over a person’s grave”; but Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel taught that “We [Jewish people] do not erect monuments [even] for the righteous; their words serve as their everlasting memorial” (Bereshit Rabbah 82:10).

It seems to me that this interesting little debate says so much about the Jewish way of looking at the world, not just in how we approach the rituals of death but in how we approach the meaning of life. For in this passage we see a common practice, the setting up of a stone over a person’s grave, called into question on the grounds that what really endures exists not in the realm of the physical--what we can see or touch--but in the realm of the spiritual: a person’s words, reputation, teachings, deeds. Any of us who have endured the death of cherished people have come to realize that their truest monuments reside not in cemeteries but in the way they touched our lives with beauty and simplicity, with words that still speak to us, with deeds that changed our lives, and maybe even the world, for the better.

What’s more, the priority given to the invisible, the spiritual dimension of life over the physical dimension, displays itself in so many Jewish stories. Beginning with Abraham, who, legend says, shattered his father’s idols; to Jacob, who (also in Parashat Vayishlach) managed to wrestle a blessing from a mystery messenger to become Yisra’el, the namesake of our people; to Moses, who demanded of God, “Show me Your Face!” but who was told to look the other way, because while God’s face cannot be seen, God’s goodness can be felt; to the Ten Commandments, the second of which forbids graven images, Judaism has time and again underscored the invisible, spiritual dimension of life. Time and again, our religion has taught that what really matters is not so much what our five senses can detect but what our heart and mind and soul can perceive.

Jewish law begins as a set of tablets, a one-of-a-kind object, words literally engraved in stone, which later becomes a Torah scroll, just ink on parchment, which eventually leads to “V’hayu ha-devarim ha-eileh asher Anochi metzavecha ha-yom, al le-vavecha” – “These words which I have commanded you this day, shall be upon your heart.” That’s how our religion evolved: from stone to parchment to teachings that live on in the heart, from visible artifact to invisible idea. When we parade the Torah around our congregation with outstretched arms and affectionate kisses, we adore not the scroll itself nor its silver ornaments, but its eternal message.

A week from tonight we will light one candle to announce the arrival of Chanukah. More than any other observance, Chanukah shows us that Judaism starts with the physical but inevitably moves toward the spiritual. Originally Chanukah commemorated a military victory and the rededication of a physical place, the Temple in Jerusalem which the Maccabees captured from the Syrian Greeks after a long, bloody war. The Maccabean family managed to hold onto that temple, ruling as kings and priests of Israel for more than a century. But eventually the Temple was taken again, this time by the Romans. Antiochus had it turned into a pagan shrine, but Vespasian had it burned to the ground. The Jews who survived this war became slaves to Rome or exiles in foreign lands.

A few of them became Rabbis, teachers of the tradition. Their main job in the years after the fall of Jerusalem was to figure out how to be Jewish without a state, without a capital, without a Temple, without a physical monument. They had but one tool: the Torah and its eternal message, which together with their ingenuity and leadership allowed Judaism and the Jewish people to become adaptable and portable. Freed from the physical, wedded to the spiritual, we survived, even thrived, in all the lands to which fortune and misfortune cast us.

For the Rabbis, Chanukah could no longer serve its purpose if it glorified war and a building long since destroyed. They removed the holiday from the physical to the spiritual by remaking its meaning, giving priority to a miracle story glorifying not the physical prowess of the Maccabees but the spiritual power of God.

We’d do well to remember this as Chanukah approaches. This holiday has become so consumed with so much stuff--gifts and gelt and menorahs and dreidls and latkes--consumed with the physical--that I fear we’ve missed its spiritual dimension, its essential teaching: that with God’s power and human dedication, we prevail.

One way to recapture this dimension is to bring the light of hope into a dark corner by dedicating one of the eight nights to tzedakah. Instead of exchanging gifts, a family chooses a night to select an organization in need of assistance, and makes a charitable donation. Another way to elevate the spiritual dimension of Chanukah is to recall the miracle of oil lasting and lasting, by dedicating eight days to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Take time over eight days to replace incandescent lightbulbs with fluorescent ones. For eight days, choose to carpool or take mass transit. Go eight days without red meat. Professor Gidon Eshel of the Bard Center has suggested that the effect of reducing meat consumption by twenty percent would be comparable to every American driving a Prius instead of a standard sedan. I’m sure you can find other ways.

But why am I still speaking? Everything I’m trying to convey tonight was taught long ago, and more succinctly, by The Little Prince of Antoine de St. Exupery, who said: “...[H]ere is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The Little Prince teaches us not only about Chanukah, and not only about this Shabbat, but about every Shabbat: one day each week for putting aside the physical and celebrating what is essential, invisible to the eye.

Shabbat Shalom!