The Rabbi's Column
Let There Be Light - September 2019 - Creation Day 1
[As there will be six issues printed of the Temple Topics this year, I thought it would be good to go back to the beginning, and focus each column on one day of the first creation story of the Torah.]

When God began to create heaven and earth - the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water - God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. [Gen. 1:1-5, New JPS Tanakh]

In distinction from our ahistorical ancestors, we believe that things change, that there is an arc of history, perhaps moving forward in knowledge and civilization.  If we take that backwards, there must have been a starting point.  Cosmologists believe that the universe began with a “big bang” - that there was nothing and then there was something.  Our Jewish understanding has several versions of how it all came to be - two of them prominently placed at the beginning of our sacred text, the Torah.  The first version posits an orderly creation - six days with a development from nothingness to the world that we have received.

At the beginning, all was potential.  That which was to change things from nothing to something, the Creator we refer to as God, waited and considered in that potentiality: What would be and how should that existence be created?  The first thing was to get things moving to create time, and thus: a first day.  Day and night are marked by darkness and light, so God created light - and by creating light, defined darkness as its opposite. 

We often define ourselves by our creations - our work, our family, the home(s) that we have owned or made our own.  Some of us create more tangibly with visible objects.  We also create with words - spoken or written.  The way that we treat those around us is a creates the world that we live in; the environment that we inhabit.  Judaism challenges us to imagine each new year as a unique creation.  It is colored by the year that has come before, by who we have been up until that point.  Yet, the High HolyDays tell us that we are not solely defined by what we have done - that we can resolve to be different, once we have made healing for what we have done. To say goodbye to our old selves, or at least the parts that we want to leave behind, we are instructed to take a self-inventory, and to make right for others the wrongs that we have done.  Then, without baggage, we can imagine who we would be in the new year.

If we do it right, the idea of the new year can strike us like the light of creation - illuminating the path forward.  Once we have our light, we can define darkness - that which we would rather not do. Only once we have taken the decision to move forward, can we understand where we should and should not tread.

In the end, if the path is well imagined, we are inspired to travel upon it.  Then, just as God said at the end of the first day, it will be good - good for us, good for others, good for the world.  Let us resolve in this new year to pause, to consider what we are creating, to prepare ourselves for that new world, and, illuminated by the light of purpose, do our best to do good.

Shanah tovah,

Rabbi Abraham

Pray As If It Means (Some/Every)thing - Summer 2019 - Liturgy #8
And may the worship of Your people, Israel, be always be acceptable - God who is near to all who call.
Avodah (R’tzei) - T’fillah section of the liturgy

Prayer is a tricky thing.  We spend a great deal of time at the Temple teaching children the correct forms of Jewish communal prayer - the right pronunciation, tune or chant, and choreography.  Recently, we have begun to go deeper, and help them find meaning not only in individual prayers, but in worship as a whole.  We are getting better at explaining why Jews come together to pray, and what we hope to get out of those moments.  We spend virtually no time at all on individual prayer - on the communication with the Divine that happens outside of prescribed worship; personal prayer which does not require the participation of others.

One of the common questions that I hear from students is, “Why do I have to learn Hebrew?”  Beyond the question of difficulty and effort, there is an earnest inquiry - “Doesn’t God understand every language?”  The answer that we give is about community - Jews throughout history and all over the world today, pray (at least in part) in Hebrew.  Our Confirmation students, when we worship together with our sister congregation in Budapest, feel at home because, while the Hungarian parts are different, as are some of the tunes, the words of the Sh’ma, the v’ahavta, the aleinu, and so much else is familiar.  At that moment a bond is formed: we have something in common.

Yet the question remains valid. Further, how can we create spontaneous, heartfelt, personal prayer, in a language which we do not speak or even fully understand?  The prayer known as the avodah comes to answer this question.  When the rabbinic sages of two thousand years ago were moving Jewish worship from sacrifices offered in the (then newly destroyed) Temple in Jerusalem to this new concept of offering up words of prayer, they were nervous about whether it would work - whether the act of verbal prayer would carry the power and transformation of sacrifice.  In the service, at the end of the amidah, they placed this prayer, which was both a hope and an apology for the whole effort.  We ask God, in words, that our prayers will be acceptable, in place of those sacrifices.  The original version contained a promise to return to sacrifice once the Temple was rebuilt; that this was only a temporary solution, for use in exile.  Reform Judaism, which threw out the idea of a Messianic return to a rebuilt Temple, removed that reference, but kept the idea of praying that our prayer would be sufficient, would be formed correctly, would be pleasing, would be acceptable.

However, this prayer has more meaning than just an apologia for prayer in place of sacrifice.  The words imagine a greater truth - whatever we offer in worship to God, we trust it will be acceptable, as we believe that God is near to those who call.  The very act of reaching out to God is what draws God near.  For those who believe in a Theistic God - a God who hears prayers and responds, the idea is easily comprehensible.  For those with different Divine concepts, this metaphor may tend to alienate rather than bring close.  Let us then imagine the motion in the opposite direction.  When we open ourselves up to the Divine, then we let God, who is already near, in.  God, not as an external object or separate being, but, perhaps, the concept that ties us to other creatures, the spark we all have in common.  For those who understand God as the voice within themselves that calls them to do better, prayer is the moment of silencing the other voices, and focussing on the Divine, on our better nature.  For those who are called to transcendence by the world around them, prayer is the moment to step away from the centrality of ourselves, and be overwhelmed by the world of nature.
May the worship of Your people Israel, be acceptable to You, God who is near to all who call.  No matter what the nature of that worship, if it is a moment of opening ourselves up, of allowing the concept of something beyond ourselves - our ties to humanity, to each other, to the world, to a higher power - then let us learn to accept that moment as true worship and prayer.  Only then can we find the usefulness of prayer, once we open ourselves up to the possibility that we actually have the power to do it correctly.

Let us end this year’s study of liturgy with the words that bring us out of our silent prayer, our prayer of the heart, in our worship service - May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, be right and proper prayers before You, our sure and secure Anchor, the Idea through which we save the world.
Truth and Hope - April/May 2019 - Liturgy #7
All this is true and trustworthy, and sustaining for us... Evening G’ulah
True and enduring, beloved, and precious, awesome, good, and beautiful is this teaching - for us, forever. - Morning G’ulah

The section known as the sh’ma and its blessings is added to each evening and morning service.  In addition to the bar’chu and sh’ma/v’ahavta, the hashkiveinu - which is added in the evening, and the v’shamru - which is added on shabbat evening, there are three prayers that highlight the three most important formative events in our Jewish history - creation, revelation, and redemption.  Creation (ma’ariv aravim in the evening or yotzeir or in the morning) and revelation (ahavat olam in the evening or ahava rabbah in the morning) occur between the bar’chu and the sh’ma/v’ahavta.  The first obviously commemorates the creation of the world and humanity - a universalistic event. The second commemorates standing at Mount Sinai and entering into covenant with the Divine, through the receipt of the commandments.  The third, the g’ulah, includes not just words from the song we sang after the parting of the sea - the mi chamocha, but a section before which, in both the evening and the morning, begins with the word emet - truth.

Amateur historians may note that the prayers do not proceed in the order of the historical events.  The world was created, then we were redeemed from slavery, then we received the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Yet, the liturgical norm is to read the creation prayer, then the revelation prayer, and then the redemption prayer, only after the sh’ma/v’ahavta.  The original authors of the prayerbook explained that while creation and revelation had already happened, there was still need for a future redemption.  The exodus from Egypt was one example of God freeing us. They believed there would be more to come in the future, ending with the redemption of the messianic age, when all would be free forever. Therefore, while we remember being freed from slavery in the past, we also look to the future.

Looking to the future is the reason for the emphasis on truth in the g’ulah. We believe in the truth of past and future redemption.  Just like a scientific hypothesis that is proven by repeated results, we look to our past to prove the future. Our ancestors who were exiled in Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, brought back the Torah with its story of Egyptian redemption, which kept them faithfully awaiting their own journey to freedom.  I had lunch with a Black pastor this week who told me that so many African-Americans became Christian, because the Exodus story of redemption gave them hope of escaping slavery.  They rejected the Christianity that justified slavery and focussed on the Old Testament teaching of liberation.

For Jews and for African-Americans (and doubly so for those who are both), the truth of eventual redemption is a desperate hope that we cling to against all odds.  Today, as we see anti-Semitism on the rise, tropes that we thought were gone forever re-appear, we might despair at ever truly finding freedom from fear.  African-Americans, who may have escaped the bonds of chattel slavery, once again found themselves deprived of rights and freedom by Jim Crow laws in the South and institutionalized discrimination in the North.  After the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s, overt racism moved underground, while structural discrimination in housing, education, and imprisonment rose in proportion.  Today, even overt racism has reappeared, with groups championing the superiority of the white, European race.  Where is the freedom promised in previous redemptions?  At what point do we give up hope?

True and enduring, beloved and precious; it is true and trustworthy - and sustains us.  The g’ulah comes to remind us that there is a path forward, that redemption will come.  In our modern world, we have learned the lessons of previous journeys and know that we must, like the Biblical Nachshon, take the first steps ourselves.  When we despair, we not only turn to the repeated redemptions of our past, but also look to find partners who have travelled similar paths.  The alliance between African-Americans and Jews in the 1960’s came out of this shared language of Exodus and common understanding of redemption.  The connection has frayed in the past decades.  Facing resurging racism and anti-Semitism, we have to work together on both sides to find those truths and restore hope together.  Those are the truths that are true and enduring, beloved and precious - loving the stranger as ourselves, and standing together to pursue justice and peace.

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