Friday, August 23, 2019

Ekev: Singing our Own Individual Songs

When I am not working as the Rabbi of Fauquier Jewish Congregation (FJC),  I spend the majority of my time as a Chaplain who specializes in pastoral care with the elderly and their families.  I am privileged to spend my time around our elders who graciously share with me their life stories – their sorrows and joys;  their hopes, dreams, fears and regrets; their wisdom and yes, even their pettiness. From each encounter I come away enriched, having learned something about how to live, or not live, a life. All valuable lessons freely shared. These are their life stories. These are their legacies.

In this week’s parsha, Eikev, we find the verse, “man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that God decrees.” (8:3) This verse speaks out strongly to me, loudly affirming that we all have souls as well as bodies.  And if we neglect these souls, our spiritual sides, these sparks of life and uniqueness within each of us, then we do so at our own peril. For it is not only bread – food and other material things that nourish and keep us alive – it is our inner selves that sustain us even when we get to the point when the outer world and all its trappings no longer seem as important. We cannot control where our bodies will take us. As individuals, we cannot control the economic condition of the world or the ecological state of the planet. We can, however, control our inner lives, our faith and our spirituality.

I’d like to share a beautiful piece of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.
            “I have spent many days stringing and unstringing my instrument 
             while the song I came to sing remains unsung.”

Most of us spend our lives rushing and doing and planning – stringing and unstringing our instruments. It is only when we take the time and listen to the words of Torah, when we remember that there is a power greater than ourselves out there, when we admit that we cannot control everything, that we will remember to take time to sing our own individual songs and truly live our lives. Then we will reach the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbah Arlene

Friday, August 16, 2019

It's OK to yell at the Awesome One!

This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) begins with the following words - I beseeched G‑d at that time (Deut 3:23). The use of the word “beseeched/va’etchanan” intrigued the sages of old. They took this word at face value as one example of how to interact with God and expanded upon it. 

A midrashic commentary on this verse expands our understanding of prayer:
“Prayer is called by [thirteen] names: cry, howl, groan, stricture, song, prostration, encounter, judgment, entreatystandingappeal and beseeching. 

[These synonyms for prayer are derived from: Exodus 2:23–24, Jeremiah 7:16Psalms 18:6Deuteronomy 9:25Psalms 106:30,  Deuteronomy 3:23Genesis 25:21Psalms 106:30 and Exodus 32:11.]”  
Source: Midrash Rabbah and Sifri - two collections of midrashim on the Torah

Thus, there are many ways to communicate with God. We are not bound by the words of the prayer book nor are we bound by time or place.  We are not bound to politeness or even political correctness. God created us in her image and knows what is in our hearts and souls. A relationship such as ours with our Creator is strong enough to take our hurt, disappointment, fervor and yes, even or especially our anger.

Next time you feel … something, and want to communicate it to God – go for it! The V’Ahavta prayer says that we love God with all our hearts, souls and our “allness” (m’o’decha). Take advantage of this ancient relationship and integrate it into your lives. Pray, sing, chant, scream, beseech, dance, meditate, drum… God, and the universe, will hear you and we all will be better for it.  This Shabbat is Shabbat Nachamu. 

Shabbat Nachamu ("Sabbath of comfort/ing) takes its name from the haftarah from Isaiah in the Book of Isaiah 40:1-26 that speaks of "comforting" the Jewish people for their suffering. It the first of seven haftarahs of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. (wikipedia)

Today is also Tu B'Av, a day of love in our tradition - think a Jewish Valentine's Day w/o the saint. Tu stands for 15 in Hebrew, Av is the Hebrew month that we are in. Learn more about it at'Av

So Happy Tu B’Av, may your day be filled with baseless and endless love to counteract the baseless hatred that we mourned last week on Tisha B'Av.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

My New Congregation: Fauquier Jewish Congregation

I am happy to announce my appointment as the new Spiritual Leader of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation (FJC).  Here is the letter that was sent out: 

We are very pleased to announce that after a careful Rabbi search process that included members and leaders of the Congregation in the Rabbi Search committee, the Fauquier Jewish Congregation proudly welcomes Rabbah Arlene Berger as our new spiritual leader after the retirement of our beloved Rabbi William Rudolph. 

Rabbah Berger has nearly 20 years of professional experience working in the Jewish world as a Rabbah, educator, service leader, life cycle officiant, and Chaplain. Most recently, she has been working as the Rabbah of Olney Kehila, Olney, MD and a chaplain at several senior living facilities. Rabbah Berger obtained her degree in Human Services from Simmons College in Boston and an MSW, MBA and Certificate in Gerontology from Boston College. She met her husband Warren Berger in college and has two wonderful children, Jennie, 28, and Alex, 25. Rabbah Berger worked for over 25 years as a social worker and gerontologist. However, ever since she was a child, Rabbah Berger had always wanted to be a rabbi. She was finally able to pursue this path after her children had grown. Fulfilling a life-long dream, she earned her rabbinic ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA.

The Board believes that Rabbah Berger is a wonderful match for our community. Much of this is attributed to her theology and particular skill set. She has demonstrated great ability in the areas of forming personal relationships with congregants of all ages, service leading, and skill in teaching in the Religious School. Theologically, Rabbah Berger believes that there is no one “right” way to be Jewish but that all paths to faith include a commitment to social justice, interest in welcoming and understanding interfaith families, and working with other religions and cultures for peace. We are very excited for all that is to come under the leadership of our new Rabbah.

During her monthly visits here, Rabbah Berger will work with the FJC Board of Directors and the Religious School, in addition to leading services, celebrations, life cycle events, and programming for families, youth, and adults. She will also be available to members needing pastoral care.


The Eternal Woman: Serach bat Asher

This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1.
This week we meet for the second and last time a very interesting woman of Jewish legend: Serach bat Asher, granddaughter of our ancestor Jacob.
Serach’s first appearance was in Genesis 46:17, in the list of the 70 Israelites who went down to Egypt with Jacob: “And the sons of Asher; Yimnah and Ishvah and Ishvi and Beriah and Serach their sister…”
Serach is the only woman listed here by name. Not even Jacob’s wives nor his daughter, Dinah, are counted in this census. Given that the Torah is not very liberal in its mention of women, especially in genealogies, why is Serach listed here?
Her other appearance is this week in Numbers 26, shortly after the Exodus has taken place. Again we have a census, this one of those who came out of Egypt — which, according to the rabbis occurs some 400 years after the Israelites first arrived in Egypt.
The parshah contains a detailed listing of families who leave Egypt and who are to inherit land in Israel. In the middle of this list is the verse, “From the sons of Asher according to their families; from Jimnah, the family of the Jimnites; from Ishvi, the family of the Ishvites…”
Two verses later (Numbers 26:46), a short sentence is set off by itself: “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach.”
Again, why is she the only woman in the list? But more importantly, how is she still alive after nearly 400 years?
We will never know why Serach is mentioned in these two verses or if, in fact, it really is the same woman. But over the centuries the rabbis decided to capitalize on her existence and ultimately made her the center, in fact the heroine, of a group of midrashim.
My favorite midrash is set at the time of the rabbis. Serach, now an old woman, has the deciding voice in a disagreement between the members of the beit midrash (house of study) and Rabbi Yochanan, the head teacher.
The scholars were studying the story of the exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Yochanan told them that the waters of the sea parted and became like solid walls for the Israelites to pass through. Suddenly Serach appeared and said: “I was there. The waters rising up like a wall for Israel were shining because of the radiance of such personages as Moses and Aaron, who had drunk deep of Torah’s waters” (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Beshalach, 11:13).
Serach’s words — a woman’s words — were taken as testimony because she had enough wisdom to follow the argument in the beit midrash, and because she had first-hand knowledge of what had actually happened.
I’ve always loved Serach bat Asher. She gives me hope, not only as a woman, but also as one who believes that knowing our history is the only way to create a safe and vibrant future. She reminds me that each of us has a role to play, even if that role might not be obvious.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation, in Warrenton, and the Olney Kehila.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Parshat Pekudei: Why did God appear at that moment?


Why did God appear at that moment?

The parshah ends by telling us,  “When Moses had finished the work (hamelachah), the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and God’s Presence filled the Tabernacle.’ (Exodus 40:33b-34) What is it about this particular moment that caused God to become present in a material way?

Let’s go back to the beginning of our quote, at just the moment the cloud appeared: “…When Moses had finished the work [on the tabernacle].” (Exodus 40:33) The word used here for work is melachah which is the same word used for God’s work of Creation (Genesis 2:2). Melachah, a type of work that has a strong element of creativity within it, is also the type of work that we are not allowed to do on Shabbat.

Once the Tabernacle was completed, it was time to begin the journey (masa) to the Promised Land. Rashi, the 12th century commentator, notes that the term masa is mentioned twice. The first time (40:36), the cloud lifts and the Israelites set out on their masa/journey. The second time (40:38), the cloud rested in the Tabernacle as they encamped.  According to Rashi, “Because they always set out again from the place of encampment on a new journey therefore all the different stages of their journeys (including the places where they encamped) are called masa’ot/journeys.” 

At the beginning of Genesis, God created the universe and the Divine presence is felt throughout the world.  At the end of Exodus, Moses completes the Tabernacle as a home for God, almost as an in-law apartment, a place for the imminence of God’s presence to dwell. Even though the Israelites had experienced miracles, they still required a constant material reminder of God’s presence.

The Akeidat Yitzchak, a 15th century commentary, writes that “… the universe could be shown to have been a successful creation only if it were able to function on its own, without constant directives from its Creator.”  

While we no longer require constant directives from God, we still require signs that God’s presence is among us. It is much more difficult in modern times to recognize the miracles wrought daily unless we train ourselves to do so. To this end we must remember that each of us is a mishkan, a tabernacle. Each of us not only contains a bit of godliness but are also required and able to manifest this godliness in everything that we do.

From the melachah of Creation to the melachah of the Tabernacle to our continued melachah of forming holy communities and bringing godliness into the world – this is our task, this is our purpose.

Table Talk Questions: 

  1. Where do you find God’s presence in your daily life? In the world? 
  2. What meaning does it mean to you the word journey is not only the going from point A to point B, but also all the stages along the way? 

First published in the Washington Jewish Week, March 7, 2019