Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Grateful, yet prayerful Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is in fact a very Jewish holiday, a wonderful opportunity to be grateful for living in a free and open democracy, proudly as American Jews, and to join together family and friends for a 'chag', yet one where we are not forbidden to do creative labor as on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
As Thanksgiving always falls on a Thursday, it creates some meaningful liturgical moments, where we can give special meaning on this special day.
  • מזמור לתודה 'Mizmor L'Todah' (Psalm 100), is recited each weekday during P'sukei D'Zimra, after the Hodu section, in which we praise God for our heritage. The opening words of this short psalm are 'A psalm of thanksgiving. Shout out to God, all the earth - Serve the Lord in happiness, come before him with joy.' What more appropriate way, on this day established to give thanks for a successful harvest, and renewed by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as an ode to our national heritage, to apply this gratitude when we recite this psalm, which comes in place of the 'Todah' sacrifice. This sacrifice was originally brought to the temple by those who had experienced distress and been saved from it (Psalm 102 has been understood as an exposition on the bringing of this offering). Especially in these hard economic times, it is all the more important to appreciate our family and friends with whom we will celebrate this day, as well as other gifts which have been bestowed upon us.
  • תחנון Tachanun, is a series of prayers of penitance and supplication recited daily on weekdays, with an extended version recited on Mondays and Thursdays, days on which the Torah is read and thus thought to have additional significance to make requests to God. In Nusach Ashkenaz (used by Conservative and many Orthodox liturgies), the tachanun service includes the recitation of Psalm 6, the piyyut Shomer Yisrael, and additional verses, supplemented by additional reflections on Torah reading days. Because of its intense and somber nature, tachanun is omitted on days of a joyous nature, both on the calendar and as a result of life cycle events, like a wedding, brit milah or a house of mourning (which is a time set aside to reflect on the loss of the beloved and comfort mourners, not for personal supplications).
  • So, should we recite tachanun on Thanksgiving? While I am generally opposed to altering the liturgy without good reason, there is a long tradition, especially among Hasidic communities, of omitting Tachanun on days of joy for their community, like the yahrzeit of a rebbe or the anniversary of a joyous communal event. I believe that for those who choose to do omit tachanun on Thanksgiving, in can certainly be seen in this tradition. For the American Jewish community as a whole, this day can be seen not only as an occasion for general gratitude, but for the strong and secure home that we been able to build here as Jews, and for the refuge that this land has served (though not a perfect one), for millions of our people escaping pogroms and other persecution. Though I do not usually search for 'excuses' to skip Tachanun, I feel this one presents itself for me, as one who is proud to be a traditional Jew and an American citizen.
  • Psalm 81 is recited each Thursday at the conclusion of the Shacharit service, but many of its words are especially meaningful on the fourth Thursday in November, especially its opening verse, "Prasise our God for our strength, shout to the God of Jacob." The psalm continues with a praise of God for guiding Joseph in Egypt, who ensured a bountiful harvest (think Thanksgiving feast!) for the Egyptians and his family. The people are also reminded that "There should bee no strange god be among them; neither shalt [they] worship any foreign god," (v. 10) reminding us of the privilege to live in a society with both freedom of religion, and separation of Church and state. The final verse of the psalm states, "And they shall be fed with the fattest of wheat, and I will make you satisfied with honey from the rock." May we be thankful for our sustenance, even if it is not an actual 'harvest, and in the words of Psalm 90:
ויהִי, נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ-- עָלֵינוּ:
וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנֵהוּ.
May God's graciousness be upon us, and may he establish for us the work of our hands.
Happy חג ההודיה\הודו Thanksgiving/Turkey Day!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Parashat Vayera - It's all about following through..., and making that special time happen

Fourteen years after his death, Shlomo Carlebach's legacy has become virtually synonymous with his song, Ki Va Moed. Often when we sing this song, whether when celebrating a joyous occasion or using the tune to welcome in Shabbat with Psalm 96 (Shiru Lashem Shir Chadash), we fail to notice the beauty and significance of the words of the Psalmist to which Shlomo composed.

אַתָּה תָקוּם, תְּרַחֵם צִיּוֹן: כִּי-עֵת לְחֶנְנָהּ, כִּי-בָא מוֹעֵד
You shall arise, and comfort Zion - for it is her time of grace, for her appointed time has arrived. (Psalm 102:14)

This verse, along with the final phrase of the piyyut (liturgical poem) Yedid Nefesh, recited in most communities preceding kabbalat shabbat,
מהר אהוב כי בא מועד, וחנני כימי עולם
Soon, my Beloved, for the appointed time has come, and have mercy on me all of my days.
can be interpreted in many ways, including as a time of closeness between God and the Jewish people. In any interpretation, we must take into account the root of יעד, which implies have the quality of being predetermined or deliberate.

The reason I bring in these references to kabbalat shabbat, besides for being a big fan of Carlebach and Yedid Nefesh, is that the word moed - special, or appointed time- figures prominently in this week's parshah. The opening scene finds Avraham, just after his Brit Milah, and Sarah in their tent, when they are visited by three men (traditionally thought to be angels). The task of one of these men is to announce to the couple that Sarah will bear a son at the age of 90. As shocking as this would seem to us at first thought, it was to to Sarah, and she 'laughed in her heart.' God then responded to Avraham, and reiterated the promise given by the angel:
הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְהוָה, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה--וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן.
Is anything too great for God; at the appointed time I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah will have a son. (Bereshit 18:14).

Not only does Sarah have a son, Isaac, a year later, but the Torah makes the point of using the same language upon the fulfillment of God's promise to the couple as it did in the original promise a few chapters before:

וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּן, לִזְקֻנָיו, לַמּוֹעֵד, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים.
And Sarah concieved and bore a son for Avraham in his old age - at the appointed time, as God had spoken to him. (Bereshit 21:2)

In Bereshit Rabbah, as I learned with Yossi this week, the rabbis take note of this pattern of God promising and fulfilling, and create a beautiful midrash around it based on a verse in the book of Ezekiel.

וה' פקד את שרה כאשר אמר
זהו שאמר הכתוב (יחזקאל יז): וידעו כל עצי השדה כי אני ה' השפלתי עץ גבוה הגבהתי עץ שפל
אמר רבי יודן: לא כדין דאמרין ולא עבדין, אלא, אני ה' דברתי ועשיתי.

אמר רבי ברכיה: אני ה' דברתי ועשיתי.
והיכן דבר?

(שם כב) למועד אשוב אליך ולשרה בן. ועשה.

וידעו כל עצי השדה, אלו הבריות, היך מה דאת אמר: (דברים כ) כי האדם עץ השדה.
כי אני ה' השפלתי עץ גבוה, זה אבימלך.
הגבהתי עץ שפל, זה אברהם.
הובשתי עץ לח, אלו נשי אבימלך, דכתיב: כי עצור עצר ה'.
הפרחתי עץ יבש,
זו שרה.
"And God remembered Sarah as he had spoken" (Bereshit 21:1)
This is referred to in the verse "And all the trees of the field shall know that I am God, I have brought down the tall tree and raised up the lowly one, I have made dry a lush tree and made fruitful the dry one; I am God, I have spoken and fulfilled." (Ezekiel 17:24).
Rabbi Yudan said: He (God) is not like those say things and don't act on them, rather, "I am God, I have spoken and fulfilled."
Rabbi Berechiah said: "I am God, I have spoken and fulfilled."
Where did he speak?
" the appointed time I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah will have a son. (Bereshit 18:14). And thus he did.
"And all the trees of the field shall know" - This is as the Torah said "For is man like the tree of the field" (D'varim 20).
"I am God, I have brought down the tall tree" - This refers to Avimelech [who took Sarah into his house, after Avraham said that she was his sister].
"and raised up the lowly one" -this is Avraham.
"I have made a lush tree dry" These are the wives of Avimelech, as it is written "For the LORD had surely closed up all the wombs of the house of Avimelech" (Bereshit 21:18).
"and fruitful the dry one"- this is Sarah.
This midrash has a very beautiful lesson, if we choose to emulate God's attribute of following through with one's commitments. The language evokes the words of the first b'racha after the haftarah:
הָאֵל הַנֶּאֱמָן הָאומֵר וְעושה. הַמְדַבֵּר וּמְקַיֵּם שֶׁכָּל דְּבָרָיו אֱמֶת וָצֶדֶק:
The faithful God, who says and does, who speaks and fulfills, whose words are true and just.

Just as God promises a son to the childless Sarah, and Isaac is born the next year, lamoed - at that time, we can take this lesson in our lives and relationships, by setting aside time for the things that truly matter - whether it is friends and family, torah study, or gemilut chasadim, deeds of lovingkindness. We can also echo the faithfulness implicit in moed, by fulfilling our promises and obligations and showing the value of our words and the weight they carry. Thus, we can follow in God's paths and emulate His faithfulness, just as when He promised Sarah a son in her old age, a feat she could barely believe, and allowed her and Avraham to rejoice in the birth of Yitzhak, לַמּוֹעֵד, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים - at the appointed time, as God had spoken.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Parashat Lech L'cha - Hebrews/Jews in Politics

While the most famous parts of this week's Parashah may be the opening verse (12:1
וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:
God Said to Abram, Go forth from the land which I will show you), Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah, and the Covenant of circumcision, there is another interesting (if less obviously inspirational) undercurrent present, that of politics.
At the end of chapter 12, Abram and Sarai are forced to descend to Egypt because of a famine in Cana'an. Abram tells Sarah to announce that they are brother and sisters so he is not killed, and in the end must explain to Pharaoh when Sarai is taken to the Royal palace.
In chapter 13, Abram negotiates his disengagement from his nephew Lot, as the two have accumulated too much livestock to continue living together comfortably. Abram chooses the plains of Canaan, but Lot, in the first of many ill-fated decisions, chooses the area of Sodom, which at the time was very fine grazing land. This incident leads into the excitement of chapter 14 (which I had never learned until I began participating in the חידון התנך- bible contest in high school). A war breaks out between a coalition of four kings pitted against a coalition of five kings. Abram, a relatively new resident of the land has no reason to get involved in this battle until Lot is taken captive by the group of 4 kings, and Abram decides to take action. He enters the war on the side of the five kings (including the king of Sodom), and sends troops from among the members of his household and his comrades. At the end of the chapter, we see that Abram's strategy worked, and Lot was returned safely. He is praised by Melkitzedek, king of Shalem, along with his allies, but refuses to take part of the spoils that were his entitlement according to ancient custom. Thus, we see in Abram's actions an example that many Jews have attempted to emulate throughout our history; a strong commitment to Jewish values and identity, combined with full immersion in the larger world and society.
These stories of Abram came to mind when I heard the news of some of President-elect Obama's appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel this week as his White House Chief of Staff. As I looked into Emanuel's background and history, I saw a similar commitment to dichotomy of Jewish and secular to that held by Abram, but without mixing the two in a way that would remove the integrity of Judaism and America, synagoue and State. Rahm is the son of Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician and member of the Irgun during the 1940s in Palestine/Israel. Both he and his children attend(ed) the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School in Chicago, and he is the member of a modern Orthdox shul there. Emanuel has shown a strong commitment to both Israel and the US. In 1990, he volunteered on an army base in Israrl dueing the height of the Gulf war, and he's been quoted many times since then emphasizing Israel's right to self-defense, and the need to hold the Palestinians to the same standards. However, this commitment to the Jewish state and Jewish life has not prevented Emanuel from serving as a top advisor in the Clinton White House, and a top Democratic congressman for the last 6 years, committed to improving health care access for all.
I would like to add in an anecdote shared with me by my abba from the blog of Rabbi Jason Miller:
I recall a funny story Jack Moline told me about his first experience meeting President Bill Clinton. Jack visited the White House weekly to study Torah with his friend and congregant Rahm Emanuel (left), the Illinois Congressman. Emanuel, then senior advisor to President Clinton, had an office in the West Wing. Jack always went to the White House with Kosher corned beef sandwiches for Emanuel and him to enjoy. He was also always prepared to stand at a moment's notice and greet the President with the traditional Jewish blessing one says upon meeting a head of state. One day during a Moline-Emanuel chavruta session, the President walked into Rahm Emanuel's office to chat about a basketball game when Jack jumped up with a mouth full of corned beef trying to utter the blessing.

That story came to mind the other day when I read an article about Rep. Rahm Emanuel in Newsweek magazine. The article theorized that Emanuel ("Rahmbo") might be the most likely Democratic Party leader to be the one to encourage Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race should Barack Obama continue to be the front runner. Why Emanuel? Because, the article explains, he is close to the Clintons from his years campaining for them and serving in the Clinton White House. And he is close to the Obama campaign as well based on his long standing friendship with Obama's campaign strategist, David Axelrod.

How close is Emanuel with Axelrod? "So close," Newsweek states, "that Axelrod signed the ketuba, a Jewish marriage contract, at Emanuel's wedding, an honor that usually goes to a best friend."
In response to this funny and inspirational story, I would like to end with a few relevant pieces of text to ponder:
ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם שנתן מכבודו \מחכמתו לבשר ודם
Blessed are You, God, King of the universe, who has given from His honor /wisdom to flesh and blood.
---This is the Blessing that Rabbi Moline recited for President Clinton. I pray that that we continue to be inspired by those who lead our nation, and that the incoming administration continue to reflect the values of this b'racha and Rabbi Louis Ginsburg's prayer for Our Country (see post of November 3).

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם שחלק מכבודו \מחכמתו ליראיו
Blessed are You, God, King of the universe, who has given from His honor /wisdom to those who fear Him.
---May we be able to tke pride in those like Rep. Emanuel, who rise to the heights of power and involvement in American society, while continuing to reflect a strong commitment to Jewish living and values in their personal and public lives.

Shabbat Shalom! May we, the Jewish People, the United States and Israel continue to go מחיל לחיל, from strength to strength.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Learning in a community, Praying for our National Community

While I often find it hard to write on the blog while concentrating on midterms and papers, I have a few updates to share in this period between Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan and Election Day.

On the Rosh Chodesh end, I wrote an article about the joy of Hevruta (partnership) study for the monthly KOACH E-zine, and I wanted to share it here as well:

By Gabe Seed
JTS / Columbia University

"Hevruta o Mituta" – Friendship/Peer Study or Death?! (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23b)

As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, one might think that I am inundated with Jewish studies. Although I am majoring in Talmud and have countless hours of formal Jewish learning in my schedule, some of my best Jewish education comes in the form of hevruta, informal Jewish study with a friend or two. The most wonderful element of hevruta study is that it is almost infinitely flexible, in terms of frequency and length of meeting, as well choice of topic to be studied. This year, I have two hevrutot which have greatly enhanced my Jewish learning, as we have learned so much from each other and the texts we have studied.

Starting during the previous school year, my friend Jonah Rank, a junior at JTS/Columbia, and I have been studying Masekhet (tractate) Sotah in the Babylonian Talmud, which deals with the ritual prescribed when a wife is accused of being disloyal to her husband, along with a number of other topics. In addition to honing our skills in Aramaic and rabbinic text study in general, Jonah and I have also struggled with the philosophical issues raised by the words of the Mishnah and the Gemara. Although the institution ofsotah may no longer be practiced today, it is a fascinating part of our Jewish heritage.

At the beginning of this year, I began an additional hevruta with Yossi Hoffman, a junior at NYU, with whom I had studied at Ramah in Nyack this summer. Yossi had suggested that we delve into the world of classicalmidrash, medieval works which explain and comment on difficulties in biblical texts. Some rabbis and scholars have compared midrashim to the sermons of today and it is fascinating to try and detect the rabbis’ underlying motivation in the messages they find in the text. Yossi and I have been learning midrashim related to the weekly Torah reading, from D’varim Rabbah, as well as selections related to the special portions for the holidays inPesikta D’rav Kahana, a work compiled from manuscripts by Dr. Bernard Mandelbaum, former Vice Chancellor of our very own JTS. Studying these texts, especially with the insights of a hevruta, has enhanced both my understanding of midrash and the meaning of the biblical texts when they are read.

It doesn’t take any special qualifications or background to have a hevruta like mine and it can happen on any campus around the world. Even here at JTS, an academic center of the Conservative Movement, some of the best learning takes place outside of the classroom, in a planned or impromptuhevruta session!

Gabe Seed is a sophomore at JTS and Columbia, where he majors in Talmud and history, respectively. He spent a year before college on Nativ, studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and Kibbutz En Zurim.  He also has a presence on the web at, with a blog and the Zemirot Database which he co-founded.

Looking ahead to the election, there are plenty of comments I could make from a political perspective, as I do have strong views about how Jewish tradition speaks on the hot issues of today.  However, I am choosing instead to devote this space to words of gratitude, prayer and hope that represent the feelings of American Jews on our unique opportunity to live in the open and democratic society that is the United States.

---Professor Louis Ginzburg (1873-1953), Scholar and Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow, 1985:

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

---Yocheved Tupper , Student, JTS and Barnard College:

Please feel free to include this in your daily prayers. If you don't pray daily, please feel free to use it! Also, feel free to post it but please give me credit. The first is non-denominational and the second is specifically for Jews. Please alter it to your religious needs! Please make sure to give me credit, even if you alter it, as every time we cite our sources we bring G-d's presence into the world. (this is according to Jewish law) Also, if you do use it, let me know in the comments below just because it'll make me happy to think of us uniting in prayer for a fair election.

Non-Denominational Version:
Almighty G-d, Ruler of time and space, give all those who believe in and work for the fulfillment of the democratic promise of equality, justice, and freedom the strength and insight they need to persevere and positively influence the vote. May Your children vote tomorrow free from the prejudice that has filled this election and in the interest of their collective good. May Your felt presence enable all who have the right to vote to do so quickly and without challenge to their citizenship. May communities and individuals who have been disenfranchised be fully enfranchised. May every vote be counted accurately and swiftly. May Your love of justice guide all who are responsible for voting machines, ballots, lines, and poll places. May Your steady hand prevent the overzealous from declaring the election's finish before due time, and may the expression of true and just democracy in which every person is protected and uplifted, which is Your hope for all Your children, be fulfilled in our time.

Jewish Version:
Our G-d and G-d of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, give all those who believe in and work for the fulfillment of the democratic promise of equality, justice, and freedom the strength and insight they need to persevere and positively influence the vote. May Your children vote free from the prejudice that has filled this election and in the interest of their collective good. May Your felt presence enable all who have the right to vote to do so quickly and without challenge to their citizenship. May communities and individuals who have been disenfranchised be fully enfranchised. May every vote be counted accurately and swiftly. May Your love of justice guide all who are responsible for voting machines, ballots, lines, and poll places. May Your steady hand prevent the overzealous from declaring the election's finish before due time, and may the expression of true and just democracy in which every person is protected and uplifted, which is Your hope for all Your children, be fulfilled in our time.