Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Yachad, Shivtei Yisrael - Together, the tribes of Israel

וַיְהִי בִישֻׁרוּן, מֶלֶךְ, בְּהִתְאַסֵּף רָאשֵׁי עָם, יַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

"And there was a King in Yeshurun (a reference to Israel), when the heads of the people gathered, together as the tribes of Israel." (D'varim 33:4)

This pasuk, taken from the torah reading of V'zor Hab'racha, the final parasha which is read on Simchat Torah, is a perfect one to summarize my Simchat Torah experience on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Besides for having a wonderful chag overall, with new friends and old, I was proud to be a part of the two communities with which I celebrated Simchat Torah in the evening and the morning. Last night's festivities began with a festive Ma'ariv service with Koach, the Conservative group at Columbia's Hillel. After the service and the introductory verses to the Hakafot, we danced the Sefer Torah from the Hillel building down the street to the Roone Arledge Auditorium, the largest room in Columbia's student center, which has hosted such little-known figures like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Barack Obama and John McCain. After a few minutes, we were joined by Yavneh, Hillel's orthodox group, and soon we began our annual joint hakafot, an amazing show in Jewish unity. Separated by a diviaion of low folding tables, the entire community danced in an arrangement known as a trichitza, with a mens section, womens section and a mixed section. Each segment had one sefer torah, and we even attempted to dance to the same songs in each section. I experienced much intense joy for a number of reasons. First of all, it was wonderful that our entire Hillel community could come together on such a joyous occasion with so few barriers, so that we truly felt united in our celebration of Torah and Judaism. Secondly, I was proud to be a part of the mixed section of the dancing; as a traditional Conservative Jew who believes in the permissability of mixed dancing, I was proud to see the vitality of our celebration, inclusding the attendance of regulars and those aren't generally shulgoers.

The celebration came to a climax for the 7th Hakafah, as we danced the sifrei torah out of the auditorium, up Braodway, and into the main Columbia gates, as we had the final hakafah outside on Low Plaza. It was an amazing felling of Jewish pride as we celebrated in the center of the Columbia campus. At one point, we successfully formed a large circle around the plaza with everyone present, and sang Achainu and Hatikva with everyone present, which was truly a spiritual moment for me. Around 11:15, we began to dance the sifrei Torah back to Hillel, at which point I joied Yavneh for a joyous Torah reading [Traditionally, the Torah is not read at night. However, there is also an idea that we do not take a Torah from the Aron Kodesh without reading from it, so many have the custom to read the beginning of V'zot Hab'racha]. Although I'm told that some hakafot went into the wee hours of the morning, I actually hung out for a short while before I got some sleep so I could wake up on time for shul the next morning.

I spent Simchat Torah morning with Kehilat Hadar, an independent traditional/egalitarian community, which met at local Conservative shul Ansche Chesed. They pulled all the stops with having a ruach filled davening and hakafot, so much so that I left after the silent Amidah of musaf (around 2:30) because I was late for lunch! There was plenty of singing, even in p'sukei d'zimra, and a joyous hallel, followed by a rousing hakafot. Often in my childhood, I remember Simchat Torah being fun, but I think it says a lot that I felt quite exhausted after all the dancing this year! By the end of hakafot and beginning of Torah reading, there were a few hundred people present, which meant that it took about an hour and a half for everyone to have an aliyah, even with 5 Torah readers. Although the Ba'alei K'riah were great (including a few kids of Conservative rabbis), I followed the lead of a few others and decided to read my own aliyah!
And not to forget our lead-in pasuk, Hadar's services also represented Yachad Shivtei Yisrael. I saw dozens of friends there from all different stages of my life, and from across the spectrum of belief and observance.

This year's experiences reminded me of true meaning of the holiday - The Torah belongs to all of Israel, if only we will take ownership of it, however it speaks to us.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Take with you d'varim! - a follow-up!

I often have a strange feeling at the end of Yom Kippur. Of course, I am overjoyed at the feeling that our prayers have been heard and that our sins have been forgiven. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 425:1), in the gloss of the ReMa (Rabbi Moshe Isserless), that is is a mitzvah to begin bulding our sukkah as soon as the fast ends, in order not to pass over a mitzvah that comes to hand. This is surely a beautiful concept, and amongs its messages is the one that Yom Kippur is not an end, but a means to continue our relationship with God and mitzvot. However, this still leaves me with one issue - How do we ensure that the process of self-introspection and reflection that we have just gone through is not forgotten, and that do not forget the steps and prayers in which we were immersed in order to improve our behavior and actions?

When I was in Israel on Nativ, I was introduced to an amazing Machzor which has forever altered my High Holiday experience. Named ממך אליך (Mimcha Eilecha - 'From You, To You'), it's concept is brilliant - to provide a complete, traditional text surrounded by a plethora of traditional and modern commentaries, with everything from traditional, medieval and hassidic texts to modern poetry and short stories. Although it sounds like a lofty goal, I would love to see if anyone would publish a similar set in Emglish: a complete traditional Hebrew text, a translation that is faithful to the original, and texts to complement it from every corner of the Jewish experience, spanning time, place and outlook. While I do find the traditional liturgy and especially the piyutim (poems which complement the structured prayers) very meaningful, the readings and quotes in this Machzor have helped to enhance the meaning of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience.

On the final page of the Yom Kippur Musaf service I found a short bt very meaningful quote which hearkens back to my d'var torah for Shabbat Shuvah:
קחו עמכם דברים ושובו אל ה' -את הדברים שאתם אומרים בבית הכנסת, בשעת התפילה והלימוד, אל תשאירו שם, אלא קחו את הדברים הללו עמכם גם בצאתכם משם.
"Take with you words (d'varim), and return to God" - These words which you say in the synagogue, during times of prayer and study, should not be left there, but rather should be taken with you when you leave there."
- Malbim (19th century Russia)

I feel that this quote is the perfect answer to my search. There is a reason the Yom Kippur happens once per year, as it is the pinnacle of our relationship with God. But this day was and is not an end in and of itself, but a means to impact on how we choose to live our lives each and every day. Especially on Yom Kippur, but each and every time we daven or learn, we should not leave our words and prayers in Shul, but allow them to influence our daily lives. Judaism is not meant to be just a compartment of our lives, but the essence of who we are and what we believe in.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hayom! - היום! - Today!

While whole bookshelves have been written about the themes of the High Holiday Liturgy, I would like to focus on one which I find particularly meaningful and which helps explain my great distraught at reading a feature article in the New York Times yesterday.

Throughout the liturgy, both the core b'rachot and the piyutim, of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, remind us of the special power invested in those very days, in the repeated use of the word 'Hayom' - today, this day. These references reminded me during my tefillot to concentrate on the unique opportunity to reflect on the beginning of a New Year, and the focus on the day elevates the other core themes of the Rosh Hahanah Musaf (God's Kingship, Remembrance and Revelation), as well as atonement on Yom Kippur.
Here are a number of the countless tefillot that reflect the 'Hayom' theme, which has helped bring meaning to my Yamim Noraim so far.

וּנְתַנֶּה תּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּום. כִּי הוּא נורָא וְאָים
And we proclaim to you the greatness of this day, for it is terrible and awesome.

עוד יִזְכּר לָנוּ אַהֲבַת אֵיתָן, אֲדונֵינוּ.
וּבַבֵּן הַנֶּעֱקַד יַשְׁבִּית מְדַיְּנֵנוּ.
וּבִזְכוּת הַתָּם יוצִיא הַיּום לְצֶדֶק דִּינֵנוּ.
כִּי קָדושׁ הַיּום לַאֲדונֵינוּ:
May he still remember for us the love of the steadfast one (Avraham), our Ruler,
and through the one who was bound (Isaac) may he set to rest our strict judgment,
And through the merit of the pure one (Jacob) may he bring out today a positive decree,
For today is holy to our God!

היום הרת עולם, היום יעמיד במשפט כל יצורי עולמים
Today is the birthday of the world, today all creatures of the world will stand in judgment.

הַיּום תְּאַמְּצֵנוּ:
הַיּום תְּבָרְכֵנוּ:
הַיּום תְּגַדְּלֵנוּ:
Today you will strengthen us - amen!
Today you will bless us - amen!
Today you will raise us up with your greatness - amen!

And on Yom Kippur, we repeat too many times to count, in our liturgy and Torah reading (Vayikra 16:30)
כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם: מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ.
For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the LORD.

As this is only a sampling of the times that our rabbis reinforce the power of these special days to transform us each year, I was greatly distressed to see this article on the front page of the Metro section yesterday.
Rabbi Has Message. So Does Cellphone. -
In it, the Times reporters traveled to a number of Reform and Conservative congregations in Manhattan and at each found a variation of the same scene. Congregants frantically walked in and out of the service, checking their cellphones, blackberries and iphones for the latest financial news. At one Conservative shul, the static from so many electronic devices caused their microphones to malfunction.
While I did find out the gravity of the financial situation after the conclusion of the holiday, and while I understand that I don't work on Wall Street, I think that not being able to remove oneself from the world of business on such a special day is both sad and disrespectful. If the news outside is sad, than it is even more of a reason to leave it behind and come together as a community to praise the "author of the universe (אדון הכל) and to pray for a better future.
While I personally would not use an electronic device on Yom Tov out of halachic (Jewish legal) imperative, I would encourage others who do not feel that compulsion, to turn off their communication devices, and instead communicate with their souls and with God, "He who spoke and the world came into being." Wall Street will open after shul and after the holidays. But this day, these days of awe, only come once per year. May we sense their message and seize the power embedded in the words of the machzor and the days themselves. I wish to conclude with one final prayer:
כְּהַיּום הַזֶּה תְּבִיאֵנוּ שָׂשִׂים וּשְׂמֵחִים בְּבִנְיַן שָׁלֵם:
כַּכָּתוּב וַהֲבִיאותִים אֶל הַר קָדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עולתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצון עַל מִזְבְּחִי כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל הָעַמִּים:
On a day such as this may you bring us, glad and rejoicing in the rebuilding of Shalem (=Jerusalem, but lit. wholeness, completion, peace), as it is written (Isaiah 56:7):Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.


Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Chatima Tovah!

Take with you d'varim (words?) - Parashat Vayelech

Hayamim chol’fim, shanah overet, aval hamanginah l’olam nish’eret

The days change, a year passes, but the melody remains.

The words to this Israeli folk/children’s’ song come to mind when reading this week’s short, but significant portions – the parasha of Vayelech from the Torah, where Moshe prepares to submit his poetic legacy to the people of Israel, and the Haftarah, which gives the name of Shuva to this special Shabbat. I would like to focus on the opening of this haftarah, and an important lesson that can be drawn from it.

This week’s haftarah is actually a composite of selections from among three of the twelve minor prophets, beginning with the concluding portion of the book of Hosea. Hosea’s prophecy deals with what Professor Amy Kalmanofsky calls the wayward wife metaphor, in which God is the husband and Israel, an unfaithful wife. But as Hosea’s words come to a close, the message is one of hope and reconciliation, appropriate for this season in which we reflect on our past deeds and how we can alter and improve our relationships with God and those close to us. The prophet, acting as God’s conduit, announces:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
For you have fallen because of your sin.
3 Take d’varim with you
And return to the Lord.
Say to Him:
"Forgive all guilt
And accept what is good;
Instead of bulls we will pay
[The offering of] our lips. (Hosea 14:2-3)

In Hosea’s vision, our return to God is not based on materialistic of financial acts – but Rabbi David Kimche (RaDaK) argues that it cannot be just words either. He explains, “I do not ask from you gold or silver or offerings, but rather a complete t’shuva with all of your heart. “

We are told that we can’t buy our T’shuvah with material good, but Hosea seems to imply that Teshuva does not take place in a vacuum; while we should surely start fresh with our words and actions, we are not required to go it alone. This prophetic call for our return is phrased in the plural, to remind us that repentance is designed to take place in a community, like ours here at MSRH and JTS, where we can recognize that we all have faults and shortcomings, and we can support one another in our growth and learning over the coming years. I would like to interpret Hosea’s term of d’varim as words of Torah, but Torah in the broadest sense. I hope that we can all find our spark of Torah in the new year, whether it is by studying with a friend, repairing the world, or anything in between. God has called us to return, our only requirement is to hear that call and take with us D’varim on our journey.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tovah!