Rosh Hashana 5777 October 3, 2016

shofar2

A FEW THOUGHTS ON YOM TERUAH,

the Day of the Trumpet,

commonly known as Rosh Hashanah

  Though many think of Rosh Hashana as the ‘day of judgment’ or simply the Jewish New Year, I’d like to suggest that we look a bit deeper.  Yes, there is certainly truth in those two concepts but they can also be misunderstood and misapplied.

The very word ‘judgment’ makes people uncomfortable.  We don’t like to be judged by a boss, a teacher, or anyone for that matter.  Yet ‘judgment’ in the context of love is a beautiful thing.  For example, the concern that parents show about their children’s activities, friends, and tendencies is often interpreted by the children as ‘judgment’ when in fact it is the parents’ love for their children that motivate their watchfulness and when necessary, their intervention.  To be honest, one of the most devastating things a parent can do to a child is not to ‘judge’ them. Why? Because a parent who isn’t interested in what their child is doing is sending a message that says clearly—“I don’t care about you,” the most destructive message a child can perceive.

On Rosh Hashanah, when we say that God “sits in judgment” what we are saying is that God loves us: He cares about each and every one of us, He cares about who we are, how we live, and whether or not we are moving forward in fulfilling the destiny that is uniquely ours and for which He put us on this earth.  That the King of the universe actually cares about “little ‘ol me” is a remarkably empowering and life-giving idea. Rosh Hashana is about how much you mean to Avinu Malchenu, our Father, our God.

Potential

Rosh Hashanah is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of the first human being, Adam. God could have launched humanity with a family, a village or a whole planet filled with people: why did He begin with just one person? Jewish thinking is that God began with one person to teach us about the fantastic potential inherent in each individual. You and I have the ability to impact our entire world; we are capable of making a world of difference. Therefore, as we approach the dawning of this year, 5777, we ask ourselves: As “How can I contribute, even in a small way, to making the world a better place?” “What can I do to make a difference in someone else’s life?”

Think of it this way: Every Rosh Hashanah is a vote of confidence from God in your individual, personal potential.  It is also a fresh opportunity to unlock more and more of your personal God-given gift.

Life

On this feast, we ask God to “Remember us for life” and “Inscribe us in the Book of Life.” When we greet one another we say “May you have a good year, and may you be written and sealed for a year of good life and peace.”

While the face value meaning is that we should enjoy a long life on this earth, there is a deeper meaning as well.  A person can be alive, strong, and healthy yet be “dead” in their soul at the same time. A life lived in the boots of a Nazi, or under the flag of ISIS is a life utterly drained of all meaning.

Certain choices that we make, and certain courses of action that we pursue have the ability to infuse life with “life.”  Other choices drain out the life of everything God intended for us. On Rosh Hashanah, we not only ask for physical life, but more importantly we are asking that our spiritual life be enhanced; that with God’s help in the new year, we will make the kinds of choices that reflect His giftings in us and His purpose for creating us in the first place: to be a living reflection of Who He is.  When the shofar is blown and its sound echoes across the world, may we hear the call of God to holiness, righteousness and peace.

My prayer for all of us is that the year 5777 will be a year of unparalleled spiritual growth in our personal lives and in our communities.

Shana Tova v’ Metuka – May you have a good and sweet year!

Weekly Torah Commentary — Shelach July 1, 2016une

Numbers 13-15

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Send out men to explore the land of Canaan, the land I am giving to the Israelites.  Send one leader from each of the ancestral tribes.’ So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. Numbers 13:1-3

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A well known passage whose message and meaning never get old.  Twelve of the leading men of Israel are chosen by Moses to go up to the Promised Land and ‘explore’ it.  What kind of people live there? Are they strong or weak? Defenseless or well-defended?  What crops grow there?

After exploring the land for forty days, the men returned to Moses, Aaron and the whole community of Israel at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran….this was their report: ‘We entered the Land you sent us to explore and it is indeed a bountiful country – a land flowing with milk and honey.  Here is the kind of fruit it produces.’  Numbers 13; 25, 27 And they showed the people enormous clusters of grapes as well as luscious looking pomegranates and figs.

So far so good.  They acknowledge that the promised land is indeed a beautiful country with abundance of produce.  If only they had stopped there.

The very next word is ‘BUT’. It’s possible that ‘BUT’ is the most deadly word in our vocabulary.

‘But the people living there are powerful and their towns are large and fortified.  We even saw giants…., next to them we felt like grasshoppers and that’s what they thought, too.’ 13:28, 33

In other words, ‘we know God told us to go up and possess the Land but…’

‘But’ is a crippling word.  It paralyzes the emotions, lies to the brain and stifles resolve.  It is most often found in words that challenge a position or situation that to the speaker seems nigh to impossible.

I’d like to lose weight but…

I’d like to learn French but…

I’d like to be close to God but…

What follows the ‘but’ is always an excuse, a rationalization to justify not doing what I just said I’d like to do!  Which means, I really don’t want to do it.  It just sounds good.

This is exactly what the ten leaders did. And in the process, they discouraged and demoralized the community.  Only two of the twelve took a different position; and only ONE of the twelve spoke up.

But Caleb tried to quiet the people as they stood before Moses. “Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it.” Num. 13:30

The Bible tells us that Caleb had a ‘different spirit.’  His attitude was based on what the Lord had said, not on the visible circumstances.

Circumstances can ruin your faith and make you a ‘but’ person if you give them more authority in your thinking than you give to the Word of the living God. 

But I can’t…but I’m not educated….but I’m poor…but I’m scared…but I don’t have the experience…

All twelve of these men were leaders.  But only ONE spoke the Word of the Lord. Ten of them let circumstances overwhelm them and gave up.

One of them says nothing – Joshua.  Did you notice that?  Ever wonder why?

I believe that at least in part it was because of his humility.  Joshua was Moses’ servant. He was always in the background. The Bible says that when Moses would pray in the Tabernacle, Joshua watched and often stayed on in the Tabernacle after Moses left.  Wouldn’t you love to know what he prayed in those times?

Joshua was your professional #2 man.  People don’t stand in line to be #2.  Being comfortable with a secondary position doesn’t come naturally to the ego.  But Joshua was the quintessential #2 man, the servant of Moses for 38 years!  And the result was that it was Joshua, the one in the background, the faithful servant, the #2 man, whom God chose to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.

Wow – there’s a lot to ponder there, my friends.

In Tune with Torah this week = neither circumstances nor our own ego deserve to be #1 in our thinking and emotions.  The eternal, unchangeable, unstoppable Heavenly Father must be preeminent in every aspect of our lives – thoughts, words and deeds.  HE and HE alone is #1.  When that truth is the bedrock of our lives, nothing is impossible.

Weekly Torah Commentary — Chayei Sarah November 6, 2015

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the story of how Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, went to the area where Abraham’s relatives lived and in a series of remarkable events obviously directed by the God of Israel, he is made to know that Rebekah will be the perfect match for his master Abraham’s son. After negotiating with her family, Eliezer brings Rebekah back with him. After hearing how God had directed his father’s servant in finding Rebekah, Isaac receives her. The Torah describes that moment for us:

Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he married Rebekah. She was his wife, and he loved her. Then Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Let’s think about this for a minute. Rebekah has grown up in her parents’ home and to this point we can only assume she’s had a ‘normal’ life. Without the benefit of knowing any later events, think of Rebekah getting up that morning, completely unaware that her entire life’s course would change that very day. She had no foreknowledge that Abraham’s servant was en route to their home. Remember – no phones, no fax machines, no internet!

She went about her ‘normal’ day, like any other day. When it was time to draw water at the well, she made her way there as she had so many times before. Seeing a stranger with an entourage of camels and servants, she understood they were travelers. Her upbringing had taught her to be kind to strangers and she did what came naturally. She offered Eliezer a drink of water and declared she would draw water for the camels as well – all ten of them!

Friends, this was no small task! It’s a known fact that a thirsty camel can drink up to 25 gallons of water or more at one time. These camels had been traveling for several day, laden with goods and gifts. Other servants accompanied Eliezer as well.

Let’s suppose that the camels only drank 10 gallons of water (most likely a gross underestimate). That means that this young girl with a bucket, drew out well over 100 gallons of water from the village well in order to provide hospitality to this caravan of strangers. And all this was BEFORE she knew anything about the reason for their presence!

Eliezer had prayed and asked God for a very specific sign – that the young woman whom God had chosen for Isaac would offer him water and to the camels as well. Rebekah didn’t know that. She did what she’d been taught to do – and her entire life and destiny was sealed by that selfless, exhausting act.

I wonder sometimes whether in the course of hauling more and more water, she wondered if the camels would ever be satisfied. Did she stop and wipe the sweat from her brow as she prepared to lower the bucket again? It was, after all, the Middle East where all this was happening. It was a tiresome, difficult task which Rebekah did willingly and kindly. In so doing, she embraced unknowingly the destiny for which she was born.

We sometimes think that the great moments of our lives are defined by a heroic or unusual event. The truth is that most of the time we have no idea until much later the power of an act of kindness and/or faithfulness. Our responsibility is simply to choose to do right, to be gracious to stranger and friend alike and only later it may be revealed that the most mundane service we provided was in fact the moment when our destiny became attainable.

In Tune with Torah this week = never underestimate the power of an act of kindness and hospitality towards others. Do what is right because it’s the right thing to do and leave the results to God.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Sukkot/Feast of Tabernacles October 2, 2015

NOTE: As we are in the midst of celebrating the seven day festival of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), the regular Torah reading schedule is suspended and the readings are from Leviticus 23 regarding the festivals of the Lord.

Tabernacles does not commemorate some major historical event in Jewish history; rather, it celebrates the survival of the children of Israel for forty years in the desert. Every guideline for constructing our ‘sukkahs’ today reflect the memory of our ancestors’ experience: a ceiling made of materials taken from the earth, a roof that is not fully closed so the stars remain visible, etc.

During those forty years, the children of Israel were surrounded by clouds of Divine protection. There was no dependence on navigational skills or instruments. All direction was given by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night; at once a very ‘insecure’ situation yet in reality the most ‘secure’ of all, as Israel lived under the manifest presence of the Almighty.

A sukkah reminds us that regardless of our personal or family circumstances, the reality by which we live is precisely that: we are temporary citizens of a temporary world enroute to the Land of Promise, the World To Come, where we ultimately achieve happiness and fulfillment.

Sukkot is a very joyful time but how do we keep that joy year round. First and foremost by the way we think. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he, wrote King Solomon.(Prov. 23:7)

When we include God in our moment-to-moment decisions, we are better equipped to embrace joy and “go with the flow” of daily life in a spirit of peace and tranquility. Once in a while we need to remind ourselves that God was ruling the world long before we came on the scene and will continue to do so when we depart this life.

Recognizing that “His mercies are new every morning” and “great is His faithfulness”,we can face each day with confidence and assurance that His love is greater than any limitation we hold on to or place upon ourselves.

The western attitude of entitlement has no place in our relationship with Him. Rather His goodness stimulates us to gratitude. We are the constant recipients of gifts that we can never repay. To Him be the honor and thankfulness.

We are all in this together, individuals bound together by faith and a love for the Almighty. This is symbolized by the four species that we join together on Sukkot; the etrog, the citron, the lulav and the myrtle. On Sukkot, we hold them up bound together as a symbol of our shared destiny.

In Tune with Torah this week= The joy of the Lord is our strength – this is the message of Sukkot. How is your joy level? Are you so grounded in Him that whether or not the circumstances meet your expectations, you are still able to maintain a sense of joy in your relationship with the Holy One of Israel?

Weekly Torah Commentary – Preparing for Yom Kippur September 18, 2015

As we are approaching the holiest day of the year in Judaism, the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, I am departing from the regular Torah lesson this week and presenting some thoughts for you to ponder regarding Yom Kippur which begins at sundown on Tuesday, September 22nd. and lasts through sundown on Wednesday, September 23rd.

For many people, the mention of Yom Kippur brings up the issue of fasting as traditionally, people observant of the Lord’s biblical festivals fast from food and drink for a full 25 hours on the Day of Atonement. However, what does the Torah say specifically about this holy day? Is fasting the focus of Yom Kippur?

Lev. 16:29 This [Yom Kippur] shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you.

Lev. 23:27 On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD

Num. 29:7 Then on the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall humble yourselves; you shall not do any work.

Three times in the Torah we are instructed to ‘humble ourselves’ on the day of atonement. The word here is ‘anah’ which means to humble oneself, to mortify one’s soul.
Anah appears 79 times in Tanach (Old Testament) and every time it has the same meaning.
For example:

Exodus 10:3 Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve Me.

Deut. 8:16 In the wilderness He fed you manna which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do good for you in the end.

Did you notice that nowhere in any of these verses does the Torah speak of fasting?
We are commanded to humble ourselves before the Almighty with the clear implication that such humility is the foundation for obeying Him. That is the essence of the Day of Atonement. The God of Israel is looking for our obedience.

Now, of course fasting is a form of affliction but here’s the issue. All fasting is affliction but not all affliction is fasting. The prophet Isaiah made that eminently clear:

Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not fnnotice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you follow your own desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing of none’s head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?
Isaiah 58:3-5

The prophet continues:

Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Isaiah 58:6-8

Fasting just for the sake of fasting is not what the Torah calls for on Yom Kippur.
By all means, fast according to your ability to do so, but for the purpose of submitting yourself in humility and obedience to the Holy One of Israel; to orient your attitude towards the kind of lifestyle that Isaiah describes;
to conform yourself to the high calling of the Torah: ‘you shall be holy for I am holy.’ Lev. 11:45 and 19:2 Fasting for any other purpose misses the point entirely.

Does the Torah actually describe what is the ‘afflicting of oneself’?

While not one mention is made of food, FOUR times the verses concerning Yom Kippur say this: ‘you shall do no work’ Lev. 16:19, 23:30, 23:31, 23:32. Given that this command is repeated four times, it behooves us to pay close attention. Why does God emphasize so strongly that we not work on Yom Kippur?

Precisely that we be un-distracted in our pursuit of humility before Him on that day; that we recall vividly that HE is our Provider; He is our Sustainer; He is our Life, our Health and our Prosperity. All good things come from Him.

We are so readily prone to take credit for our own achievements and forget to give Him the honor due Him for the blessings we have received. Yom Kippur is the day to humble ourselves in sincerity of heart, render to Him the honor and reverence due Him, repenting of our own pride and giving profound thanks for His incomparable kindness and graciousness towards us.

A final note: the Day of Atonement is an “everlasting commmandment for all generations”.
May this Day of Atonement be an opportunity for all of us to grasp the depth and breadth of His amazing goodness towards us and in doing so embrace a depth of humility greater than we’ve known before.

May each of us be sealed by Him in the Book of Life.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Nitzavim September 11, 2015

Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

This week’s portion is always read in close proximity to Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hashana – the Feast of Trumpets – begins at sundown Sunday evening and continues through sundown on Tuesday.

During this season, teshuva (“return to God”) is the main focus and verses from this week’s reading reflect that.

And it shall come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall return to your heart [while in exile] among all the nations, where the Lord your God has driven you. And you shall return unto the Lord your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul…. And you shall return and obey the voice of the Lord, and do all his commandments which I command you this day. And the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in every work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good; for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers. If you shall listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the Torah, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul. (Deut. 30:1-10)

While the season leading up to the fall Festivals of the Lord has a heavy emphasis on self-examination for purposes of repentance, let us not make the mistake of getting stuck in the past. The priority of repentance is to catapult us into a better tomorrow!
We repent for failures in order to walk more closely with God. This is the message of the Feast of Trumpets.

We are living in critical times. There are many voices in both the Jewish and Christian communities urging us to prepare for the coming of Messiah. Some who hear will scoff; others may dismiss it with a cynical ‘I’ve heard that before’ kind of attitude. The reality is that the appointed festivals detailed in Leviticus are and have always been important signposts on God’s calendar of redemptive history and should not be taken lightly.

Rosh Hashana is the annual reminder that life is a journey and every journey has a destination. One day each of us will stand before the heavenly Throne to give account of what we have done with the gifts and blessings we received during our life on earth.

Life is also a test. The pattern was set with the first two human beings, Adam and Eve. What was the test in the Garden of Eden? It wasn’t about eating a piece of fruit! Rather, in God’s command to refrain from eating the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil was the implicit question to Adam and Eve: Do you believe that I, Your Creator, have your best interests at heart? Or do you think you know better?

It was fundamentally a test of Faith.

It still is.

Rosh Hashana is a ‘mini’ judgment day, as it were. It is the time to judge ourselves at and ask: Do I really trust God? Am I persuaded that He is what the Scriptures tell me He is – my King, my Father, my Redeemer, my Provider, my Wisdom, my Rock and my Strength? Do I need to repent for leaning on my own limited understanding? The wise King Solomon warned against that when he wrote: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5 And the Psalmist declared: It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. Psalm 118:8

If repentance locks you in the past, you’ve missed the point. Repentance is not an end in itself; it’s the door to a new beginning.

In Tune with Torah this week = Stop looking at your past life and instead focus your sights on where you are going. Keep pressing on to fulfilling the purpose for which the God of Israel put you on this earth.

May you and your family be abundantly blessed during this season of the Lord’s festivals.
May we all draw closer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in this new year and walk more diligently in His ways.

Shana Tova v’ metuka! (May you have a good and sweet year.)

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary- KiTavo. Sept. 3,2015

Deut. 26:1- 29:8

Greetings to you this week from the coast of Italy en route back to Israel.

This week’s Torah reading includes the well known ‘blessings and curses’ related to obedience or disobedience to the Word of God.  It’s a sobering list -the extensive passages in chapter 28!  Much has been written over the centuries about this portion of the Torah by scholars far more learned than I.

One thing stands out to me as I read through these verses: the need to cultivate a grateful spirit.  Being thankful each day for all that God so generously bestows upon us is one of the greatest deterrents to sin; and therefore,to subjecting ourselves to the curses disobedience dispenses.  It is difficult to be rebellious and arrogant when we maintain a spirit of gratitude as our framework for living.

And it’s not just our soul that benefits for science has demonstrated that a grateful attitude enhances one’s health and prolongs one’s life!

A grateful heart is also a humble heart and God delights in the humble but distances Himself from the proud.

In Tune with Torah this week= check up on your spirit of thankfulness. How are you doing? Have you thanked the Lord today for the sheer privilege of knowing Him and for His sustaining grace that gives you life- right now, this very moment?

Shabbat shalom