Monday, June 8, 2020

Annual Meeting remarks 6/7/20 - Pikuah Nefesh

            This morning I talked to our religious school students - on Zoom of course.  The topic this morning was masks- how do we feel when we wear them, how do we feel when we take them off, why are we wearing them in the first place. It was a privilege to have this conversation – the honesty of the conversation, the vulnerability the students showed by sharing their feelings – was really a joy thing to be part of.  
            My session ended with a brief discussion of the concepts of Pikuach Nefesh and Safek Pikuach Nefesh. These may be familiar to you – in fact they are potentially the most important of all the Jewish values that we have.
            Pikuach Nefesh describes a situation in which there is a danger – potential or actual - to human life, which necessitates taking immediate action. Safek Pikuach Nefesh occurs when there is possible danger or threat to human life; it might not require immediate action but we know that action is clearly necessary. The rule stands that we take no chances and do what is needed to save a life, no matter what halachic rule or Jewish precept we might be braking.
            Where do these concepts come from? The rabbis derived them from the laws concerning Shabbat – the very specific rules of what we are NOT allowed to do because in doing so we would be breaking the Sabbath – something that holds the highest levels of punishment in the Torah. And yet… the rabbis decided that the value of saving a human life, whether it be immediately at risk or will possibly be in the future – was so important that it overrode even the Torah laws of Shabbat activities – also laws and requirements that are held to the highest standard.
            Human life is sacred and no matter how we live, no matter how we practice our faith and beliefs, saving a life in a dangerous situation comes before everything else.  So we wear masks, and we monitor our own health and that of our loved ones, and we maintain physical distancing and we are not meeting in person as a community. We obey the laws and recommendations that have been put in place around this pandemic to protect us now and in the future.
            During this time, especially this past week or so, a destructive situation imploded – one that has been festering for such a long time that it is hard to count. Racism, prejudice, bigotry, the erroneous idea that some people’s lives are more important than others based on superficial characteristics such as skin color, economic status, personal orientations to name but a few. This is unacceptable and we as individuals, we as Jews, and we as members of the FJC cannot allow this to stand.  The question is what to do. And, as I admitted in my Shabbat Greeting email the other day, I do not have the answers, but as a community I am sure we will find our path and our purpose in this area.
            I would like to end with a story. It is a Hasidic story retold by the Nobel prize winning Israeli writer Shai Agnon in his anthology ‘Days of Awe’ - a parable attributed to the 19th century master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:
            A man had been wandering about in a forest for days and days, going in circles, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way, “ he thought to himself. When they drew nearer to one another, he asked the man: “Tell me which is the right way out. I have been wandering about in this forest for days and days.” 
            The other to him, “I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And I know that we should not take the way you have taken, for that too will lead us astray and keep us trapped here. Let us look for a new way out together.”
            Agnon concludes the tale with the following comment from Reb Hayyim: “So it is with us. One thing I can tell you: the way we have been following thus far we ought follow no further, for that way leads you astray. But now let us look for a new way.”
            If this past week has shown us anything it is that the path we have currently been taking is not the way “out” – it is not the way to our future. It is only through working together that we can find our path – a new path – one to take us into a future that not only we want to live in, but that all people can live in… together.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Parashat Naso - Human actions impact God

 “Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.” (Numbers 5:6-7, Parshat Naso)

Look at the words I underlined, “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD…” This statement highlights something very interesting. We are taught that there are two discrete categories of interaction – Bein Adam L’Makom, actions between Human and God and Bein Adam l’Chavero, actions between people.

We see this in the 10 Commandments. The first tablet concerns actions between Humans and God and the second tablet concerns actions between people. [Commandment #5, honoring one’s parents, is a bridge commandment and fits into both categories. We’ll talk about that one another time.] Interactions between humans and God do exist in the realm of both intention and action but intention often takes precedence. One even gets credit for intending to do a mitzvah even if something occurs that prevents one from doing it!  Interactions between people usually include intentions (good or bad) but ultimately, it is the effect or impact of one’s actions that take precedence.

So, if these two sets of actions are understood to be discrete, then how do we explain this teaching: “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD…”?

The Sages teach that these categories are not quite as discrete as we might think, there is an important way in which they overlap. As we are all created in God’s image, when we do a wrong action against a fellow human (murder, theft, fraud, etc), we are not just committing a sin against humanity. We are in fact committing a sin against God. We are not only making God’s presence in this world smaller; we are also harming God in the world.  Racism is one such act.

As my teacher Rabbi Shai Held wrote,
“Racism is a crime against humanity. It denies the dignity and infinite worth we all share.
Racism is also a crime against God.
It denies that God is creator of us all (theologically, it's a heresy).
Stand up and decide. You can be a believer or a racist but you cannot be both.
You can *claim* to be both. Heck, you can even serve as clergy in many churches, synagogues, or mosques. But make no mistake: racism and bigotry are the enemies of authentic religion.
Time to stand up and be counted.”

Soon we will be entering the period of soulful preparation in advance of the High Holidays. It is a time to re-evaluate who we are and what impact we have on this world.   I know that there is always more for us to do, to learn, to understand – about how to be better allies, how to be good listeners, and generally how to make our world a better and fairer place. I readily admit that I’m not certain what this will look like – which is all the more reason that no one person can do "it" alone. To that end,  I ask you to be my partner as we all learn to stand up and is counted.  

Wishing everyone health, happiness, peace and love as we head into Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbah Arlene

Friday, May 22, 2020

#KehilaKonnections: Shavuot - We are all Living Torah

I’d like to share a short video that I made for Shavuot. The story is about mother, Harriett Goldstein z"l, and took place as I tell my children a story about their Nana Harri on the way home from school one day.

It’s called A Shavuot Teaching: We are all Living Torah and is made in honor of mom’s first yarzheit.

Chag Shavuot Sameach!
See you at Sinai!

Friday, May 1, 2020

May Day!!

Today is May 1st! Do you remember May Day celebrations growing up? When I was in college there was a tradition to dance around the May Pole. We celebrated spring and the upcoming graduating class, with talk about labor rights woven in somehow. Oh, and it was also part of the tradition to eat strawberry shortcake. I went to a small women’s college – don’t ask

According to Wikipedia, “May Day is a public holiday usually celebrated on 1 May or the first Monday of May. It is an ancient festival of Spring and a current traditional spring holiday in many European cultures. Dances, singing, and cake are usually part of the festivities. In the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers' Day.”   

Ok, granted May Day is grounded in pagan origins, but any excuse to party about now is a good one  – be it May Day and the advent of spring and good weather;  alternative celebrations for all the graduates whose hopes and plans for a regular graduation have been dashed; a family lifecycle event like birthday or anniversary; or even the fact that we are trekking our way through the wilderness to receive the Torah and become a people.

We are currently observing the Omer, the 7 weeks between Passover and Shavout. It is a serious time, it is also a time of joy. Joy of survival, of going from slavery to freedom, of recognizing our relationship with God, of being able to form sustainable relationships with others.

Our Torah portions for this week (Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, Lev 16:1-20:27) and the weeks ahead are in a portion of the book of Leviticus that is all about being holy. What does it mean to be holy? It means to emulate God’s attributes in this world: to be kind, gracious, caring, thoughtful, creative, in relationship, among other things.

We need that reminder of God’s attributes right about now. We need to remember that God’s attributes, godliness, can be found within each of us. It’s in times like this that we have to dig deep and get creative as we try to remember what it means to be normal in times that are anything but.

So make a phone call, take a walk and wave at strangers, write poetry or a song, find and feel joy as often as you are able. For gam zeh ya’avor – this too shall pass.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbah Arlene

Friday, April 10, 2020

Counting the Omer - Passover to Shavuot 2020

           Last night at the second Seder we began counting the Omer. On one hand the Omer process is rather simple, each night for 49 nights we say a blessing and count off which day of the Omer we are on. Many years ago, when I was studying to be a rabbi I wrote the following essay on the Omer and updated it for this year. So please enter with me into my school days and join with me in: The Omer 101.

--The laws of counting the Omer are specific.
--At nightfall, say the blessing and count
--If you forget to count at night, you can count anytime the following day without a blessing and then, begin to count with a blessing, the following night.
--However, if you forget to count during the day as well, you must count without the blessing for the rest of the Omer.
--Finally, if you are in doubt as to whether you actually had counted on the previous night, and, you did not count during the day, you may continue to count with a blessing that night.
Thus ends our class on Omer Counting. But wait, there’s more.
Welcome to Omer 102.
Most people begin counting the Omer somewhere between the 3rd and 4th cups of wine at the second Seder.  If one does not get to that point in the Seder, well… one usually forgets to count the Omer. As often happen in the Berger home this year – but not this year. This year we counted the first night of the Omer at the Fauquier Jewish Congregation’s Second Night Virtual Seder.  
The Omer is often an afterthought  - partly, because people don’t really understand why we count it; partly, because there is a feeling that it lacks relevance in today’s world where we do not bring grain offerings to the Temple; and partly, well, in part due to the rules surrounding Omer counting –as illustrated in the passage I read a few minutes ago. It makes the Omer seem silly or insignificant. But in fact, the Omer is neither of these things. 
So let’s go back to Omer 101 for a moment. Starting on the second night of Pesach, we begin every evening with the counting of the Omer. We count during Maariv (the evening service), right before Aleinu.  We find the ritual  in our Siddurim/ Prayer Books and also on line here in Hebrew and here in English.  
We begin with a kavannah, a line stating our intention “I am ready to fulfill the mitzvah of counting the Omer, as it is ordained in the Torah.”
Then we recite from Leviticus the injunction by God to count the Omer and learn the definition of an Omer, which is a sheaf of grain: “And you shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an Omer of grain (also translated as a sheaf of the waving) is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days.”  (Leviticus 23:15-16a – Parshat Shemini which we read next week)
Now our intent is set – we are counting the Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot when an Omer of grain was offered daily – we are remembering that time and the specific injunction. We are ready to recite our prayer:  "Blessed are You, Adonai, our G-d, Ruler of the Universe Who sanctified us with Your commandments and Commanded us regarding the Counting of the Omer."
After the blessing we recite the line for the appropriate day. So last night we would have said: “Today is the First Day of the Omer.”
In traditional Siddurim, after this there may be some psalms and prayers praising God and reminding us of the rebuilding of the Temple.  There might also be a reference to our desire to embody whichever of the Sefirot are associated with that day.
The Sefirot are often referred to as the emanations or the qualities of God. They play an important role in kabalistic tradition and include both the masculine and feminine qualities of the Divine.  The seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are associated with 7 of the Sefirot.  Rabbi Jill Hammer calls them “The bonds with God that make us human --- the seven expressive aspects of Godliness.”
They are:
chessed, "kindness."
gevurah, "strength" or "empowerment."
tiferet, "beauty."
netzach, "endurance or infinity."
hod, "gratitude."
yesod, "foundation."  and
malchut, "kingship."
When counting the Omer, we can meditate on a particular divine characteristic, with each week representing one characteristic and each day representing a nuance of a different Sefirah. So, for example, the Sefirah associated with the first week of the Omer is Chesed, love. And last night which was counted as the 1st day of the Omer, represents Chesed She'b'Chesed or Love within Love.
            The Omer entices us to be mindful for 50 days.  To that end people have been reclaiming the Omer in recent years. We’ve all seen the trends – the search for spirituality, for a way to connect to the godliness within us and around us. We see it in Hollywood in the red string bracelets on the wrists of celebrities and we see it all over the Jewish world now with meditation practice and the topics of God and spirituality that pepper Adult Education offerings.  The renewed interest in the Omer is an example of taking something of traditional Judaism and reframing it – or one could even say “reconstructing it” - and making it relevant for today’s world.
          However, this reframing of the Omer is really not new at all; it’s been going on for a long time. Rabbi David Hoffman, in a JTS Torah Commentary, writes: “The rabbis of the Medieval period were the first to articulate that this counting [of the Omer] is not exclusively about the offering of the new grain that was brought while the Temple still stood. We count from Passover to Shavuot because these two holidays are conceptually tied to one another. Passover is the holiday of our liberation and freedom. Shavuot, according to the rabbis, is the holiday of the receiving of the Torah — the holiday where we enter our covenantal relationship with God. Freedom (Passover) without Shavuot (Torah) is incomplete; and Shavuot (Torah) would be impossible without Passover … The freedom of Pesach gives us the opportunity to enter into relationship with God.”
Not only does the freedom of Pesach gives us the opportunity to enter in to a relationship with God, but I would go further and say that it gives us the opportunity to enter into a relationship not only with God but also with the Jewish people as a whole. As Jews we are blessed with the ability to have individual, personal relationships with God. This makes each of us personally responsible for our own relationship with the Divine.
Shavuot, the holiday that comes 50 days after Pesach, is our holiday of revelation and covenant. As the Midrash goes – all Jewish souls stood at Sinai and heard God’s voice. We all received the Torah – it is the glue that binds us together as a people. And it doesn’t matter if you believe that the Torah is divinely written, divinely inspired or totally man made – the Torah is our Etz Chayim, our Tree of Life, without whose guidance we would not survive as a people. 
It is up to us, in the myriad decisions that we make each day, to determine how the godliness within each of us manifests and what our relationship with the rest of the Jewish world is going to look like.  Counting the Omer is experiencing a resurgence precisely because is it a tool provided to us, either by the Divine, or by some very wise men from long ago, to help us focus in this task of spirituality and peoplehood.
I started with Omer 101, a review of the traditional way to count the Omer. Let me now share some ways the tradition has been enhanced – if this were a class it might be called “Omer 103: Ways to Creatively Count the Omer.”  I must admit that I found most of them while searching the internet – but in my defense, I was familiar with the more serious ones before.
First, there is Counting the Omer with the 48 ways of Wisdom which can be found at This site demystifies the sefirot and gives us pithy catchphrases for each day. For example, on the 11th day of the Omer, the way of wisdom is "Be Aware of Every Moment”,  and tomorrow it is “Listen Effectively”  Then there is Counting the Homer  -- a website with a Simpsons’ theme and aids  for counting each day of the Omer. It’s pretty scary.
However, my favorite is the Omer Calendar of Biblical Women authored by Rabbi Hammer. This Calendar takes the Sefirot and their associated strengths for each day and attributes them to different women from Jewish history. As an example, let me share the part of the reading for today, the 2nd day of the Omer.  
            2.  Gevurah she'beChesed
            Strength within Love
            Miriam (Exodus 2, 15:20-21, Num. 12, 20:1-13)
            “Miriam watches over her brother Moses on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, and convinces an Egyptian princess to save her brother. Legend says that Miriam is a midwife to the Hebrews, lovingly coaxing each baby’s first breath. She defies Pharaoh in order to save innocent infants. As she crosses the sea to freedom, she shows her bravery by raising her voice in song even while the sea is crashing down. According to a midrash, a well of water follows Miriam in the desert so that all may drink from it, for Miriam is a giver of life and strength.
            “Miriam’s chesed is tempered by gevurah: judgment and limitation. She criticizes Moses for not honoring her leadership of the people, and God punishes her with leprosy. She spends seven days and nights outside the camp, until she is healed and readmitted. Years later, Miriam dies in the wilderness, and her well disappears, but the mystics tell us that in every generation it returns to her people to heal them. When we consider Miriam, we know that to love well we must love with courage and determination. This is the meaning of gevurah shebechesed.
            How relevant is this message of Day 2 of the Omer for us today in a world struggling with a pandemic! Gevurah she'beChesed /Strength within Love – this is the recipe for how to survive the days/weeks/months to come. We must find our inner strength and be strong for ourselves and for others. We temper and enhance this strength with love – again for ourselves and for others.
            Through the Omer and to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and and through to the other side of this world-wide crisis that we find ourselves in. Together as a people we will make it through.
May the remaining days of the Omer bring with them a sense of mindfulness, connectedness and purpose to us all.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim B'Simcha

For more information see: 

10 Best DIY Omer Counters (including Lego, Lollipop and others – just click on links in the article)

Friday, March 20, 2020

Two fold post: #KehilaKonnections and Vayakhel-Pekudei

I want to introduce you to my latest endeavor - an occasional (2-3 x/week) video series called Kehila Konnections.  I will be posting the short video on youtube with a prayer, poem or kavannah (intention). Something to remind us that we are a people who are linked spiritually as well as physically. Despite being required to social distancing, we are still a community. Kehila is the Hebrew for congregation and is more generally used for a Jewish community or structure. This is my contribution to the myriad ways folks are trying to keep  connected. 
I recognize that we all experience our Judaism differently. To celebrate our different paths I am asking you to send me suggestions for content - do you have a favorite prayer? Is there a passage from a book that you'd like me to share? Do you have questions that I can answer? I am open to all possibilities. 

The first one is called Ma Tovu - a song of community
The second is call Asher Yatzar – our bodies

If you like the videos, let me know and I can put you on my mailing list for notification when a new video is posted.

And now, for a brief word of Torah…
In this week’s Torah Portions, Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1 - 40:38), we are told that God’s presence is indicated by a cloud over the Mishkan (portable Tabernacle) by day.  In times such as these it is important that we do not feel alone, even if we are physically alone. If you are feeling lonely or panicked or hit by a wave of anxiety, breathe deeply and take a look at the clouds. Know that they are a physical manifestation of the metaphor of God’s presence. Breathe deeply and know that others are looking at the same clouds that you are, that you are one of a whole and not alone. My Jewish Learning has a good summary of the portion as well as several different Divrei Torah and other information.  

May this Shabbat contribute to the healing necessary in our world right now.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat of peace, love, happiness and health, health, health.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbah Arlene

Friday, March 13, 2020

Shabbat Parah: Faith and Maturity

Parshat KiTissa  Exodus 30:11 - 34:35

The Israelite journey from slavery to freedom can be described as a process of maturation. As slaves in Egypt they were as children who didn’t have to make decisions and had their daily life was set out for them. Leaving Egypt began a process of maturation, journeying through adolescence in the wilderness and ultimately entering adulthood as they stood to enter the Promised Land.

The Israelites were fully dependent on Moses, their substitute parent, from whom they received a semblance of stability. So what would happen when Moses went away? As with most children, they were likely not pleased when Moses went away but accepted a finite absence, one of forty days. The problem arose when the forty days passed and the promised return did not occur. Why would Moses be late coming down from the mountain? He had to know that the People would not do well without him.

The simplest explanation is that Moses was not late, that a counting error occurred. In his commentary on Ex 32:4, Rashi (12th century, France) explains that before ascending, Moses told the people that he would return at the end of forty days, within six hours from sunrise on the fortieth day. Rashi notes that Moses ascended in the morning, thus the first “day” of his ascent was not a complete Jewish day as Jewish days begin in the evening. By counting the day of ascent as the first day Moses would be expected to return a “day” earlier than he had planned. 

To complicate matters, the Talmud contains a Midrash that holds that the Satan got in on the action and caused darkness during the day so that the Israelites would become even more confused about timing. They end up waiting until the next morning and then begin the construction of the Golden Calf, a physical manifestation of a God that they could not see.

Why couldn’t they have waited even one more day? They acted like children whose parent went away and left them with a babysitter. Things would be okay as long as their parents returned when promised. When that date passed, the fear of abandonment would blossom. Aaron the babysitter was not Moses.

It’s a matter of maturity. It’s a matter of faith. What is faith but a belief in something that cannot be seen? The Israelites were at a stage where they could easily maintain belief in the intangible. They believed in God when miracles were being wrought but the force of each individual miracle quickly faded as everyday life took hold. Moses was their lifeline to God. They understood that Moses was their tangible link to an unknowable God. With Moses away, the link went away as well. Thus, when Moses didn’t return exactly on schedule as promised, the People reacted as children will – rashly.

I think the Rabbis understood this. Otherwise why create a midrash about the Satan stepping in to further scare and confuse the Israelites? They needed to come up with some explanation for the drastic action of reverting to the idolatry of Egypt after all that the Israelites had seen and experienced of God’s greatness. Extreme fear combined with a lack of maturity provides at least some sort of explanation for one of our ancestors’ most egregious acts of all time. 

For faith to truly inform and enhance our lives, we have to be mature enough to accept that there are things we do not understand. That “things” exist even if we cannot always see or sense them. Only then will we have this faith to hold on to in our most trying times. The Israelites didn’t possess the ability to hold on to faith and to use it to temper their responses to crisis. We do. The only question is whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.

May we all have the ability to hold on to faith and to keep wise heads about us during this world wide health crisis.
May the Original Healer keep us all healthy, safe and at peace.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbah Arlene