Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Joseph and Nelson Mandela: Legacies in the Making

    (This week in the Torah we read the portion of Vayigash, which features the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers.  The confluence of this portion with the passing of Nelson Mandela inspired me to offer these words tonight at Shabbat evening services.  Shabbat Shalom!)
    Think about men held in prison on trumped-up charges.  Think about these same men men who rose up and eventually seized power and ruled for the benefit of their nation.
    During these weeks when we read in the Torah the story of Joseph and his sojourn in - first - an Egyptian jail and - then - in the Egyptian ruling class, the world experiences the death of Nelson Mandela, the powerful leader and symbol of the anti-Apartheid movement and South Africa's first black president.  There are only a few similarities between these two transformational leaders, yet each one of them rose to prominence and positions of national leadership despite the once-slim chances that this could ever happen.
    For the accomplishments and legacies of these two embodiments of liberation remind us of the achievement and the capacity of the human spirit!
    For Joseph, he wallowed in his prison cell for two years, dependent upon the quite forgetful butler to send his request for clemency up the chain of command.  The nation had essentially forgotten this accused rapist and undocumented immigrant.  Yet through all the time that he was imprisoned, he remembered the God to whom he was connected and indebted.  He may have lost hope of being released, but he did not give up his faith.  And he was rewarded for this faith.
    For Mandela, his 27 years under detention came after a near escape of the death penalty for treason against his native land.  The words he spoke before the beginning of his confinement display the courage and strength of his conviction of the evil of apartheid.  He took full responsibility for his actions precisely because of the rightness of his cause.  Those who take responsibility for their actions – and are willing to pay the price for their disobedience – usually are the leaders whom we follow.
    Joseph came to power by the command of the Pharaoh, who was grateful for the economic vision Joseph offered, which was a solution to Egypt's anticipated agricultural woes.  It is improbable that any modern day leader would offer the position of 'second in command' to a virtual unknown who had offered some untested advice.  But in the context of the bible, miracles, reliance on the gods, and improbable situations produce momentous events.
    During Nelson Mandela's prison term, he and his liberation movement were not forgotten by the world.  During those 27 years, the anti-Apartheid movement grew only stronger as the profile of the civil rights movement rose in this land and elsewhere.  Economic sanctions against the South African government began to take effect. And world-wide protests against apartheid kept the dream of a future of equality at the forefront of our vision.  The persistence and rightness of that dream allowed us to sing 'We Shall Overcome' in bright and strong tones.
    And both Joseph and Nelson Mandela engaged in acts of reconciliation, bringing families and nations together for the sake of peace.
    This week we read in the Torah of the peace made between Joseph and his brothers.  A boy once betrayed and sold into slavery and who now holds authority over his brothers, finds every possible pathway toward resolving their relationship.
    And Nelson Mandela, working from a position of strength and authority, permitted a process of national reconciliation to take place, thereby enabling a country long torn by racial hatred to find new potential for economic, social and political growth.
    The future of the Israelite nation was hardly cemented by its eventual acceptance in Egypt.  We know that their sojourn there was temporary, and that many changes took place in the years that followed.
    In South Africa, the changes are still happening, the national reconciliation process continues, and people still learn how to live in a majority-minority nation.
    I think the fates of both nations are yet to be determined, and I hope I can live to see the fulfillment of miraculous visions and dreams for both these historically diverse and important peoples.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Increasing Our Holiness by Increasing the Light

The academies of Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel, two great Jewish authorities of the First century BCE, were once engaged in a debate about how to light the Hanukkah menorah.

The students of Shammai insisted that they should light eight lights on the first night, seven on the second night, and so on down to lighting one on the last night.

The students of Hillel argued in favor of starting with one light and lighting an additional one every night, concluding with eight on the final night.  And as with most instances of disagreement between these two academies, Hillel’s method won out.

The rationale was as clear as the olive oil used in the lighting the lamps.  One should increase the light each night, as with each subsequent evening ceremony we invite more light – and thus more sanctity – into our homes and into our world.  As we move forward in time, we increase the light and strengthen the sacred connection between and among members of the human race.

The miracle of the Maccabees’ military victory led to a rebirth of religious liberty for all inhabitants of the ancient land of Israel.  No longer did the Jews have to exist subservient to an occupying nation which had sought to eliminate Judaism.  The popular story of the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days inspired them to ascribe their accomplishments to God.

In our day as well, the struggle for religious freedom continues, in our country and all over the world.  Will we realize miracles in those efforts?  Will we be able to bring sanctity to those who suffer oppression from the many ‘masters’ who control the lives of others?

As with all things, it begins with us.  If we increase the holiness in our lives
  • by treating people in just and fair ways;
  • by eliminating gossip and slander from our speech;
  • by devoting ourselves to helping friends and family through difficult situations; and
  • by taking part in movements to bring repair to our world;
we too will move upward from one strength to a greater one, and we will increase the sanctity of the entire world.  We can, each day, dedicate ourselves to bringing more wholeness – and holiness – to humanity.

Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Death of John Kennedy: The Loss of a Dream

I have tried to be fairly objective about my feelings of today’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy, and I was successful up until this morning.

“Important milestone.”  “Marking the day pays homage to a slain leader.”  “Sensitivity to a nation’s feelings and memories has its place.”  Yada-yada-yada.

By coincidence, that day was also a Friday.  When I rose today and listened to radio reporting that reviewed that day’s events, physically powerful feelings of loss began to wash over me.  I was eight years old 50 years ago, an eager and active third grader whose parents campaigned for Kennedy because of his idealism for the progressive spirit that he would bring to our nation.  This is how our nation's future was supposed to go.

In reality, it was not the assassination of a president that affected me, but more, it was the demise of the potential of a nation on the verge of realizing great strides in civil rights, sexual equality, and the drive toward a progressive future that was passionate and potent.

Those born after that date, or those whose awareness of those events had not yet blossomed, cannot easily identify with this feeling.  Someone who was only one year old at the time recently said to me that s/he could not understand the commotion that people are making over this fateful anniversary.  It’s difficult to explain this feeling of grief for the loss of a dream, but that is what it was.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

At the Time of Noah, and Today: No Compromise – No Civility

Scorched earth policy!

Misbehavior and anger everywhere!

Accusations of intentional evil to and from every quarter.

…and plenty of blame to go around.

If a Martian, who had no prior knowledge of the human race, had heard about these incidents, she would think that we were a pretty sad species.  For when we read the story of Noah and God’s destruction of all life in our world, we DO have to wonder about how low human behavior can go.

 (Oh, sorry, perhaps you thought I was writing about the US Congress and the government shutdown.)

You also have to wonder about God’s attitude toward us.  In the story of Noah, the Divine One executed a scorched earth policy against the world and its inhabitants, and – essentially – took no prisoners.

We can only imagine the extent of God’s anger, but I imagine that, similar to everything else ascribed to God, God’s resentment must have been boundless, which led to the earth’s destruction.

So regarding the era of Noah, we have to ask: How could it have gotten so bad so soon?  And what did God expect to happen when humanity was left on its own?

I can’t answer these questions.  But I am dismayed at the lack of human progress from then until now.  Sometimes we make mistakes; sometimes we are intentionally evil.  But the result can be the same in both situations: devolution in civility, and a total ignorance of how to get out of the mess.

I have to believe that we have the capacity to learn from our errors.  And I hope that, somehow, we can break out of this human pattern of disregard for civility that, according to the reckoning of the Rabbis, is perhaps 5700 years old.

In this way, we can solve our problems, and not perpetuate the evil and the inertia that plagues us as a planet and as a human race.

(These thoughts are excerpted from a D'var Torah given at Temple Beth El, Madison, WI, on Shabbat Noach, October 4-5, 2013.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: The Ninth of Av, Trayvon Martin, and Race Hatred as an American Affliction

Beginning Monday evening July 15 and continuing until sundown on July 16, the world-wide Jewish community will observe the day of the Ninth of Av (in Hebrew, Tishah B’av).  This is a day on which we commemorate the destruction of the two ancient Jerusalem Temples, once in 587 BCE, and the other in the 70 CE.

At Temple Beth El, we do not observe this holy day as other congregations might.  However, on this particular Ninth of Av, it is necessary for us to acknowledge one of the lessons put forth about this sorrowful holy day by the rabbis of the Talmud, for this lesson has a direct connection to the verdict of the trial just concluded in Florida which decided the criminal case brought against George Zimmerman.

In teaching about the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, the rabbis inform us that God destroyed the Temple on account of the “baseless hatred” (Hebrew: sin’at hinam) that we Jews had toward one another: During the years leading up to the destruction, the Jewish community had divided itself along many different political and ideological lines, bringing forth a great amount of vitriol and enmity toward each other.

There were ultra-religious Jews who observed the Torah word-for-word, as well as ‘interpretive-tradition’ Jews who believed that lessons of Torah had to be updated and interpreted in each era; there were also new Christians who believed that their savior had eliminated altogether the need for the Torah and its laws.

There were zealots who looked past the ideological stances of these groups, and advocated for the violent overthrow of Rome by the Israelite nation; and there were those who simply left the body of Jews in Palestine and retreated to the Dead Sea community of ascetics and hermits.

The rabbis of later years analyze the situation, and state that since we could not band together and present a united front in the battle for our land, and since we exhibited a baseless hatred toward – and a total disregard for – one another’s opinions and feelings, we deserved the fate of exile.

In America, in our times, there exist, we must acknowledge, a similar, underlying hatred and suspicion of some of our fellow citizens toward others, specifically some whites against blacks.  From calls for voter registration schemes that would disenfranchise poor and minority voters to the fear that brought about the Trayvon Martin shooting, race prejudice is still an affliction in our country that we have yet to cure.

And the thought that plagues me, as I write on this eve of the Ninth of Av, is whether and when we - as freedom loving and advocating Americans - will ever be able to rid ourselves of our racial fears and animosities, and look upon all others as beings created in God’s image.

Many issues can divide us.  Race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion, should not be the things that separate us from one another.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: A Journey to Auschwitz

 The physical dimensions of Auschwitz II (The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex next to Oświęcim, Poland) are difficult to describe.  It’s simply larger than belief.

It may take an hour and a half or longer to circumvent the borders of that infamous death factory where the Nazis murdered more than 1.2 million people, 90% of whom were Jewish.  During my recent visit, it took me twenty minutes to walk out of the camp, traversing the straight rail line that led into the camp and ends today at the platform where ceremonies of memory take place.  I could leave that camp, and our ancestors could not.

As I observed the rocks that lined and reinforced those rail lines, this verse from the book of Psalms came to my mind:  “The rock that the builders had rejected has become the cornerstone.”  (Psalm 118:32)  Just as those rocks have outlived the German war machine, so too have we as a people outlived the animus that sought to destroy us.  Our enemies have been destroyed, and we still exist.

It was recently my privilege to escort a group of 90 eleventh grade Reform Jewish students and their seventeen person staff through some of the Jewish historical sites of Eastern Europe.  And we traveled from the synagogues of Prague to the streets and tenements of Terezín, and from the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz to the rebirth of Jewish life in Krakow and Warsaw.

We learned there that, on the one hand, there was seemingly no limit to the Nazi atrocities of World War II.  We also learned that resistance took many forms, and there were countless Jewish Holocaust victims who would not quietly suffer injustice.

As difficult as this might be, we should include these places on our travel itineraries.  They are not comfortable places to visit, but they are significant Jewish sites where we can directly and viscerally understand what our people experienced during the Holocaust.  And we will also see that Jewish life is on the ascent, even in the very shadow of Auschwitz.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Decoration Day/Memorial Day, 2013: Deeds and People to Remember

My mother always used the original name of this holiday, Decoration Day, rather than it’s more modern one.  She was a stickler for tradition.

She taught that for those who have served their country and have given their lives for that sacred privilege, there truly is no greater honor than to remember them through appropriate rituals of the day: Flags, flowers, red-white-and-blue bunting, ceremonies, and words were all integral parts of decorating the graves, and remembering the struggle, of service people in preserving American liberties and values.  My father’s Jewish War Veterans post always sold Memorial Day poppies to remind us to honor those who died in defense of this country, honoring their struggle.

Decoration Day arose almost spontaneously during and/or after the Civil War; historians cannot easily pinpoint its exact date of origin.  That is of no consequence, of course.  The great hue and cry of the era was to heal the nation, and mourning the more-than-600,000 Civil War dead was one of the early pathways through the nation’s grief

Just as we learn in the book of Ecclesiastes, however, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9), and modern-day struggles continue whose soldiers we must also mourn.

I think about our national experience in Vietnam.  So many Americans wanted us to win that Cold War struggle against Communism.  So many Americans warned us to leave that seemingly pointless proxy confrontation.  And we never found national consensus, until we had experienced a great loss of values and lives on both sides.  And in the midst of that era’s angst, many forgot about, neglected, and actively shunned our veteran soldiers and their needs.

The photo above is an image of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, DC.  If you have not been there, you should place it on your agenda for your next trip to our nation's capital.  It is a dramatic expression of our nation's desire never to forget those who died for our nation.

And if there is one lesson that we, as Americans, seem to have finally understood from our foray into Vietnam, it is that we have taken a different and better approach to the service men and women who return from our conflicts.  They are on our mind, and in our hearts.  And the sacrifices they make – even when many have questioned the overall goal of our nation’s presence there – must be honored and appreciated, even in these days of shrinking dollars for veterans and their needs, and even when many Americans questions the overall purpose of our country’s mission.

Our fighting men and women act on orders by superiors – and ultimately a civilian superior, the President – whom we can petition when we disagree with our nation’s military or other actions.  And we must, at the same time, care for our soldiers, active and retired, even when we have disagreed with the purpose of their actions.

If there is an overriding message on this Memorial Day, it is to continue to respect and support those fighters who have placed their lives on the line for our nation’s ideals and values.  We do this in the memory of all those who have fallen for this nation.

On this Memorial Day, find a veteran, or an active service member, and let them know how much we truly appreciate their sacrifices.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Life in Israel during Times of Alarm (and not yet crisis)

I have observed that Israelis tend to live in many different worlds, and many at the same time.  (Talk about your multi-tasking!)  And this is, to me, most evident at this moment in time, when the State of Israel faces – and addresses – external threats.

By now I imagine that you have learned that Iranian surface-to-surface missiles were destroyed by an air attack in Damascus over the past weekend.  It is presumed that these weapons were to be transferred to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and someone wanted to eliminate them.  As of this writing no one has claimed responsibility for this attack, though the presumed perpetrator is Israel.

The rationale is for such an act is just and clear: Israel has the obligation to protect her citizens.  As President Obama said this past Sunday, “…What I have said in the past and what I continue to believe is that the Israelis – justifiably – have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah…Hezbollah has repeatedly said that they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv, so the Israelis have to be vigilant and they have to be concerned.  We will continue to coordinate with Israel…” (You find the video at http://www.nytimes.com/video/#100000002208575)

But on the Israeli street, life continues as usual.  As they say, “Ein b’reirah,” “There is no alternative.”

Students go to school: I was present yesterday as a Fifth grade class at the Arlozorov School in Haifa spoke by video conference to our students at Temple Beth El in Madison.  And after the video conference, they went outside to play basketball (and did not go home to do homework!), just like any other day.

Adults go to work: The road traffic is the same, with some very dangerous drivers, and many polite and careful ones.  That, by the way, is a notable change for those who are familiar with Israelis’ reputations for being poor drivers.

Life along Israel’s northern border feels normal: There is no obvious (that’s the operative word, I imagine) military presence, except for what is typical for a patrolling border with a hostile neighbor.
But there have been exceptional experiences over the last ten days or so:

From the Israelis shooting down a Hezbollah drone over Haifa Bay, to the first attacks in Syria last Thursday night; from the weird journey that an Israeli citizen took in crossing the Lebanese border this past Thursday (purportedly an emotionally upset person), to this past Thursday afternoon when I was on a hike about six miles east of here and heard artillery fire in the direction of Lebanon; to Saturday night's action in Damascus.  Yes, these are exceptional times…but Israelis seem to be taking them in stride, and they remain upbeat and positive throughout.

Discussions of the security situation are heard endlessly on the radio and on television; there is no lack of dialogue on the subject.  But people whom I encounter every day – from Erez College to Congregation Emet v’Shalom in Nahariya to my host family on the kibbutz where I live – seem to deal with things in stride, a reality that reduces some of the stress that one might otherwise feel given the same situation.

May we live in peace and security, so that no one has to learn about war anymore!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Happy Mothers' Day


On this coming Mothers' Day (notice where I placed the apostrophe!), I cannot be with my wife - a wonderful and always supportive mother - to share with her in person my admiration and appreciation of her mothering talents.  So for those who have connections with mothers here, there, and everywhere, I found something on the Internet that I would share with you.  I cannot cite the source, but I believe it will place a smile on your face!  Share it with the nearest mother you know!

WHY GOD MADE MOMS:   Answers given by 2nd grade school children to the following questions:

Why did God make mothers?
1. She's the only one who knows where the scotch tape is.
2. Mostly to clean the house.
3. To help us out of there when we were getting born.

How did God make mothers?
1. God used dirt, just like for the rest of us.
2. Magic plus super powers and a lot of stirring.
3. God made my mom just the same like God made me. God just used bigger parts.

What ingredients are mothers made of?
1. God makes mothers out of clouds and angel hair and everything nice in the world and one dab of mean.
2. They had to get their start from men's bones. Then they mostly use string, I think.

Why did God give you your mother and not some other mom?
1. We're related.
2. God knew she likes me a lot more than other people's moms like me.

What kind of a little girl was your mom?
1. My mom has always been my mom and none of that other stuff.
2. I don't know because I wasn't there, but my guess would be pretty bossy.
3. They say she used to be nice.

What did your mom need to know about your dad before she married him?
1. His last name.
2. She had to know his background. Like is he a crook? Does he get drunk on beer?
3. Does he make at least $800 a year? Did he say NO to drugs and YES to chores?

Why did your mom marry your dad?
1. My dad makes the best spaghetti in the world. And my mom eats a lot.
2. She got too old to do anything else with him.
3. My grandma says that mom didn't have her thinking cap on.

Who's the boss at your house?
1. Mom doesn't want to be boss, but she has to because dad's such a goof ball.
2. Mom. You can tell by room inspection. She sees the stuff under the bed.
3. I guess mom is, but only because she has a lot more to do than dad.

What's the difference between moms and dads?
1. Moms work at work and work at home, and dads just go to work at work.
2. Moms know how to talk to teachers without scaring them.
3. Dads are taller and stronger, but moms have all the real power cause that's who you got to ask if you want to sleep over at your friends.
4. Moms have magic, they make you feel better without medicine.

What does your mom do in her spare time?
1. Mothers don't do spare time.
2. To hear her tell it, she pays bills all day long.

What would it take to make your mom perfect?
1. On the inside she's already perfect. Outside, I think some kind of plastic surgery.
2. Diet. You know, her hair. I'd dye it, maybe blue.

If you could change one thing about your mom, what would it be?
1. She has this weird thing about me keeping my room clean. I'd get rid of that.
2. I'd make my mom smarter. Then she would know it was my sister who did it, and not me.
3. I would like for her to get rid of those invisible eyes on the back of her head.

The translation of the Hebrew poem above about mothers:

If you look to the right or you look to the left, whether you look behind or ahead, you will never find any other word more beautiful than mother.
The word rings out with wonderful sound which no one has ever been able to match.  A special word that has no equal, nor can be exchanged with any other, is mother.
It is the most pleasant of words to which, at night, we fall asleep.  It is the first word that we learned to speak.  Do you remember, mother?
And if her reputation and name do not adequately define her, at home or out of the house, it’s not because we have forgotten her.  For we will never forget you, mother.
And if her reputation and name are somehow mistaken, perhaps this is a mistake that has been made by others, we know that this was completely wrong – forgive me, mother.
And even after we’ve grown, and when we’ve set up our own homes: for eternity, forever, and always we will remember and love you, mother.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Erez College, and the Highest Level of Righteous Giving

EREZ COLLEGE, SHELOMI, WESTERN GALILEE, ISRAEL – The “Ladder of Tyre” is the name given to the range of mountains that separate the Western Galilee of Israel from southern Lebanon.  It was the area from which the Hezbollah drone shot down by Israeli Air Force jets last week originated.

It is also the view I see each morning these days as I arrive for my volunteer work in the town of Shelomi, as you can see from this photo: In the background, on the top of those mountains, are the antennae marking the Israeli border station.  In the foreground is Erez College.

Erez College has been my focus for the last two weeks, and into the next two weeks, as I engage in my volunteer efforts.  My sabbatical has been enhanced by my offering help to the development efforts of the College’s Executive Director Sandee Illouz.  She is an American – from Iowa – who immigrated to Israel in 1975, found her way to Shelomi, and established this school as a way to increase the quality of life in this depressed part of the nation.

The book of Leviticus reminds us to “Strengthen the poor person so that he does not fall and become dependent on others” (25:35).  And the goal of the school is exactly that: to strengthen the relationship between a worker, his or her skills, and that person’s job, so that s/he advances in salary, in opportunity, and in quality of life.

The school offers evening and Friday morning classes to people who are employed or underemployed, in areas of engineering, marketing, practical computer technology, basic understanding of programs and applications, technical Hebrew and English, day care provision for children and senior adults, and others.  Since the school’s opening in 1983, there have been 10,000 successful graduates who have filled the ranks of IT companies, IT departments in large corporations, warehouses, and hospitals, in various parts of the country.

The school has been wonderfully instrumental in raising the dignity of people in this region.  As a place at the periphery of the country, and a region that has known its share of enemy infiltration and fire even as late as last Thursday, the town of Shelomi has not been able to attract ‘the best and the brightest’ of Israeli society.  New immigrant absorption problems, mixed with a small town attitude of limited vision, have hampered Shelomi’s residents in their pursuit of a higher standard of living.  The poverty is palpable as you walk through the town’s main business square, and you get the impression that with just a little push, this place could blossom.

And this is what Erez College is doing, increasing the ability of this area’s residents to thrive.

My specific tasks are simple: to interview board members, students, graduates, and teaching staff – all in Hebrew – and turn those interviews into English language materials, in print and online, for potential donors in English speaking countries.  The intention is, of course, to entice them to give money and make business investments in this region, in order to allow the people and the state of Israel to thrive.  Large and small donors to the College need to better understand the need for populating the Western Galilee, raising the work standard of this region’s residents, and enlarging the profile of Zionism even in the border areas.  And that is what my work is all about.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: Needed Rain

KIBBUTZ ADAMIT, ISRAEL – On this lazy Shabbat afternoon, it is rain that is keeping us indoors.  But this rain is absolutely necessary to life here in Israel.  Since Friday morning, and predicted into Monday, this region will log more than two inches of needed rain.
My host family lives on a beautiful mountaintop, and their home is perched on the side of a mountain about 1300 feet above sea level.  As you can see in this photo, this site overlooks the entire bay of Haifa, a city 45 miles away.

But today we’re indoors making soup and small talk, as a blustery and massive series of storm fronts rolls from the west to the east, bringing needed rain to the parched land.  There was the prediction of snow on the Hermon mountain range for today.  In this picture you can see the clouds as we saw them this morning, getting ready to pour.

In a matter of half an hour, the clouds rolled across the mountaintop, and they brought thunder and lightning as they made their way east.

Then the rain came directly through the kibbutz, and the day became dark, mysterious, and eerie.

These storms also brought with them hail, perhaps ¼ of an inch in diameter.  This is not exactly typical of the weather patterns here, but it does make for a beautiful afternoon

At this point, the rain has obliterated any view that we have, and we see only a gray pall hanging over us.  It’s very mysterious and beautiful, cold and powerful, and absolutely necessary for a proper summer growing season.

Shabbat Shalom and Shavuah Tov – A Peaceful Sabbath, and a good week ahead to you!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Obsdeervations from My Sabbatical Leave: Shabbat Shalom!

The television news moderator signed off by saying “Shabbat Shalom to everyone.”  But it was only Thursday at 9 PM.

This is what I heard tonight, in this new Israel that has gone to the five-day work week.  The weekend for Israeli Jews now begins on Thursday evening and concludes Saturday night, a full 48 hours+ of time away from work.

Time was that Israelis worked themselves six days per week, Sunday 8 AM through 1:00 PM (if you were a government employee) or 3 PM on Friday (if you worked for private industry).  Then on your way home, you might have time to pick up some flowers or a bottle of wine for dinner (if you arrived at the store before it closed).  If you intended to take the last bus and you missed it, you were out of luck.

Nowadays, Fridays in Israel are much like Saturdays in America: People are off work – for the most part – and doing errands.  Commerce is active, businesses are open, and people can choose to be a part of the consuming society or simply rest.

Most people, like my host family, do all of the above: they shop for the week ahead, wash their laundry, clean the house or flat, take long hikes in the parks and forests here in the North, and so forth.  This added day of rest – or perhaps a day on which one prepares for the rest of Shabbat – has many advantages.  Among these is the advancement of Israel to a society that can begin to take its “rest” seriously and not get caught up too much in the fast pace that characterizes this country most of the time.

Whatever the day, rest for the body and mind is one of the most important gifts that we can give ourselves, and Israelis are truly grateful that this relatively new opportunity presents itself now.

The question for us is how will we bring life-preserving rest to our existence in this world and on this planet?  That is the challenge for us all.

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: Viewing Acts of Terror from Israel, a Land All Too Familiar with Terror

KIBBUTZ ADAMIT, ISRAEL – It is the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, and along with Israel’s celebrations of its 65th birthday anniversary, tonight – late – we heard news in Israel of the horrific acts of terror at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and around that city.

Those around me at Adamit, the kibbutz where I am staying (which is only 500 meters from the Lebanese border), send their sympathies to the families of the deceased and the injured victims.  They also remind us to stay calm and hold on to courage in the face of terror.

As Jews in Israel have taught us, remaining true to values in the face of threats and violence must be our goal, both as Jews and as human beings.  At the same time that we mourn losses, we stand firm in our convictions to continue life as it needs to happen for us, and not as someone else wishes to affect us.

Earlier this morning, I attended an Israel Memorial Day ceremony at the regional Junior High School.  The backdrop on their makeshift stage carried a message that I would send to you, as it carries a message of hope and persistence.

Regarding those here who have fallen for the sake of this beautiful land, that backdrop said:
“We should continue working, because they worked.  We should continue laughing, because they laughed.  We should continue loving, because they loved!  We should continue living, because they wanted to live.”

Know that I am thinking of you and all Americans as you experience this terrible act of terror, that I stand with you as your Rabbi and your friend at times of difficulty, and that I support you in all that you do to make life full and fulfilling for you and your family.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: Preparing for Israel’s 65th Anniversary

We have fireworks stands that come and go.  They have flags galore, as you can see in the photo of a square in the town of Nahariyya.  They are displayed all over the land, in squares, on automobiles, and in store windows.

We have a holiday of gathering, parties, and fireworks.  They have a holiday eve of solemn observance followed by fireworks and barbecues.

The rhythm of the land of Israel at the time of Independence Day – observed this year on Tuesday April 16 – is somewhat different from that of the United States as we approach July 4, and there are significant historical and emotional reasons for this.

In Israel, the day before Independence Day is Israel’s Memorial Day – this year April 15 – when Israelis venerate the memories of their war dead.  And the small size and young age of the country, added to the reality of ongoing struggles with its neighbors, means that every family here mourns either their own loved ones, or those of people very close to them.

Yom Hazikaron (Hebrew for Memorial Day) contains these observances:  Schools and businesses are open for half a day.  At 11 AM, sirens sound throughout the country and everyone stops whatever they are doing and stands at attention for three minutes.  Schools do not dismiss their students, but instruction ends and each campus has its own ceremony of memory, because each school has alumni who have died in Israel’s many armed conflicts.

Family members and friends then visit cemeteries where war dead have been buried, bringing respect and honor to those who died for their country.  This goes on throughout the afternoon, and as evening approaches, the country prepares for the anniversary celebration of the nation’s independence.
As the evening sets in, another siren sounds, signifying the end of Yom Hazikaron and the start of Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day).  Then the country enters a full day of celebrations, gatherings, fireworks, and acceptance of the blessing of freedom in an independent land.

The weather also turns decidedly warmer at this time of year, and Israelis are anxious to get outside and perform these acts of memory and celebration.  And it is a privilege to be here and celebrate with our cousins.

Shabbat Shalom to you, and a happy 65th Independence Day as well!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Observations From My Sabbatical Leave: Like Clockwork

I remember the days when many made fun of the “on time” record of Israel’s national airline, El Al.  Even on my first trip to Israel in 1970, our plane was 90 minutes and more late.  There was even a joke made of the name of the airline.  El Al is a biblical citation meaning “above and beyond.”  But those who knew it better remaned El Al “every landing always late.”

Nowadays, things run much more smoothly.  From my landing 45 minutes early to catching the right train up north to my host’s home, everything has been going like clockwork.

The ten hour flight from Newark should not be a deterrent in keeping people away.  I flew Continental Airlines today, and the service was very good.  More on the flight in the next blog entry.  But I am simply so impressed with the ease of getting around that I think I will start with that.

The Tel-Aviv airport?  If you have not been to Israel in the last ten years, the new terminals are large, comfortable, and easy to navigate through.  An d because of tail winds that prevail from West to East, our flight was easy, early, and pleasant.

The Israeli trains?  I recall when taking a train was a non-air conditioned affair, with smelly restrooms and open or missing windows that let in the scents of the countryside, both the good and bad ones.  I am now sitting on a double decker train, air conditioned and quiet, with commuting Israelis on their ways home.  It is now about 6:10 PM local time, and this train – that extends from Beer Sheva in the south to Nahariya in the north – is full and, of course, on time.

The weather is pleasant, high 60’s, and it’s definitely spring here.  Some rain to come tonight, but a nicer climate I would not have expected.  I start my volunteer work at Erez College tomorrow, and my participation in Congregation Emet V’Shalom on Friday.

It has been said that Israel is the land of miracles.  This is certainly true, and them some!

My time in Israel is a treasure to me, made even more significant because of the large extended mishpachah (family) that we all have here.  It is a privilege to be here representing our congregation.  All my best to you.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: The ‘Values’ of ‘Entitlements’ or of ‘Earned Benefits’

One benefit of being on sabbatical has been my ability to remain current with the news.  And what has caught my eye – and ear – has been the public debate on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

As the Administration and Congress each try to gain advantage in this clash of ideas, their arguments make me think of the need to reframe these political arguments into an understanding and implementation of the values put forward by Jewish tradition.

One side rails against the continued growth of these programs as the Baby Boomer generation retires.  They claim that these “entitlements” bring about an ‘immoral’ kind of dependency that is a drain on our nation’s economy.

The other side counters that Social Security and Medicare recipients have paid into the system over their working lifetime, and they are rightly to benefit from their personal ‘deposits’ over the years.

Now, I am no economist, but many argue that these funds are pretty healthy and not in need of much attention.  But even if these funds were in danger, no one seems to know for certain whether ‘chaining’ the CPI (reducing cost of living increases) or Medicare ‘premium supports’ (vouchers to assist in purchasing health care) would guarantee the long-term solvency of these funds.

But rather than debate foreboding economic forecasts or the fear of what reduced Medicare funding could mean to a retiree’s wallet, let’s examine instead the Jewish value of what these retirement payments represent.

Retiring income earners have paid taxes over their working lives to fuel the economy.  Whether in the form of income, Social Security payroll, sales, property, and other taxes, these workers have supported the nation’s private and government economies by earning incomes and paying taxes.  When they retire, we should see it, therefore, as a supreme - and basic - value to reward them for their concrete contributions to our nation’s economic health.  We must compensate them with the ability to live with health and dignity for the rest of their lives.  They should not worry at all about the vicissitudes of the nation’s future economy.

This attitude represents the direction of Torah!  These retired workers are the elderly that our religious tradition refers to, the ones ‘before whom we are to rise and for whom we are to show respect’ (Leviticus 19:32), and it is demeaning and insulting to view them as moochers and lazy, as some have opined.

To me, that is the price of our government’s doing business.  These methods of supporting our retired elderly are simply past investments for maintaining our nation and keeping her prepared for whatever events have occurred in her history.  It makes every bit of sense to me, therefore, to maintain the dignity and health of our senior citizens, and not shortchange them in any way.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Dancing with Gwen Ifill

I just returned from a family wedding in Denver, and aside from the fact that I left snow in Madison to encounter a blizzard there, we had a wonderful weekend of food, relaxation, and celebration.

Family has always been an important part of my life, but with my rabbinic profession demanding that I remain at Beth El on weekends – a time when many family life cycle events take place – it is somewhat rare that I attend family simchas.  That is not a terrible reality; it is simply a condition of my dedication to my profession and my chosen community in Madison.

But this wedding was a wonderful exception, and my family really appreciated my presence.  My cousin who tied the knot served as a news producer for PBS: at first, for the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, then for the Jim Lehrer News Hour, and then for the PBS News Hour, today moderated by Gwen Ifill.  And because of the years of their association, Gwen Ifill was wonderfully present at my cousin’s wedding weekend.

One high point of the weekend was the rehearsal dinner, with roasts, toasts, and fun.  Most prominent was a video parody of the PBS News Hour, which spoke about the “union of two powerhouses” (my cousin and his new bride) and the intrigue that accompanied their amalgamation of forces.  The video was ‘hosted’ by Gwen Ifill, and included many familiar PBS reporters for whom my cousin had produced news segments over the years.  The video was a stitch, a great parody, full of laughs and love that was developed between the PBS reporting staff and my cousin over the years.

And the next night, at the wedding, we were all gratified to see that Gwen Ifill was there.

Now some people dissemble excitement at the appearance of a celebrity.  They act cool, when they're really excited to no end.  But people left her alone, and I am sure that, from her standpoint, the evening was one of sacred presence for the bride and groom.

And when it was time to hit the dance floor, my sister Miriam and I found ourselves dancing in a circle of six people, including Gwen Ifill herself!

The tunes were 70’s and 80’s hits (You Millennials many not recall those ditties!), and Ms. Ifill – who was born the same year as I – was brilliant as we all danced and sang along to those former hits.  We discoed and we rocked, and all of us acknowledged the fun and the love that brought us together that evening.  The dancing together – simply having fun and enjoying the experience – was just that, and everyone appreciated the energy and the sparkle of the wedding couple, not the presence of this or any particular individual.

This night of celebration, and ‘dancing with a star,’ simply brought home to me the idea that people are people regardless of their profession and their circumstance, and that the notion of celebrity – however we define it – does not need to separate us, even though some become star-struck and immobilized when a person of notoriety enters the room.

If fact, we were present for some completely holy moment in the life of a family...and that was the most important aspect of all.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Hunt and Peck

I think I am back in elementary school.

I am using the ‘hunt and peck’ typing method again.

As you undoubtedly know, I am going to spend five weeks in Israel beginning on April 10.  One of my activities will be to help lead services and offer some one-session discussions at Congregation Emet V’Shalom in Nahariya, a coastal Israeli city located about 30 kilometers north of Haifa, and 10 kilometers south of the Lebanese border.  This 45-year old congregation is the only Progressive (Reform) congregation in Nahariya.

In these weeks before my departure, I have been asked by the congregation's leadership to offer a d’var torah (sermon on the weekly Torah portion) to this congregation at Friday evening services on Shabbat Emor, that is, the Sabbath of April 26-27.  In this multilingual congregation (Hebrew, English, and Spanish are the primary languages spoken, with some Russian speakers making up the full complement of members), the leadership requests that the d’var torah be written and delivered in Hebrew.

Further, they ask that it also be sent to the service coordinator with enough lead-time to translate it into English and Spanish for those worshipers who need it.

So to follow the custom, I am writing the d’var torah in Hebrew, and in the process I am using a very powerful Hebrew-English word processor called DavkaWriter. 

(The Hebrew idiom “davka” is difficult to translate, but it means something like “indeed,” or “naturally,” “wouldn’t you know,” or “of course.”  Here is one sample usage:  “The mother was talking with her son, and even though she tried to avoid the subject of his borrowing the car, davka, he brought up the subject himself.”)

But the composing and typing my d’var torah is a challenge.  In English I might type 60 – 80 words per minute, even with returning to correct mistakes.  But in Hebrew, using an unfamiliar keyboard and trying to compose a literate sermon, I have been plodding along at about one page per hour, or sometimes averaging seven words per minute.  I am attempting to be precise, but trying to translate in my mind and, at the same time, spelling it correctly for the benefit of a translator, has been a challenge.  (I may end up translating it myself; I'll make it easier on them...)

My conversational and presentational Hebrew is coming back to me, and I have the benefit of a powerful English-Hebrew dictionary.  But I feel as though I am a fourth grade student writing a research paper, slowly hunting the right letters, attempting to select the right words, and offering concepts and ideas that will appeal to my audience.

It is a slow process, though I feel confident it will yield a d’var torah that is understandable and appropriate for that audience.  When I finish it and secure the English translation, I will post it here for your benefit.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Defensive Postures

Last week something happened to me that had not occurred since elementary school.  I almost got into a fistfight.

Descending from 10,000 feet, the pilot of my plane had gave the customary direction to turn off electronic devices, and the clean-cut young man (early 30's?) on my right, on his way home to Tulsa, seemed willing to comply.  But after a while, I noticed him thumbing through his email on his smart phone, hidden (or so he thought) on the seat between his legs.  This retrieving and reading was lasting longer that a moment, perhaps two minutes or more, and it was at this point that I decided to ask him to turn off his phone.

I tried to be as polite as possible:  "I wonder if I might ask you to turn off your phone.  The signals, so they say, interfere with the planes avionics."  ('...And I would not want your phone’s pinging to have been the cause of disrupted signals that might have caused our plane to crash…'  No, I did not say that.)

His reaction stunned me.

He turned toward me and stared into my face with something like anger, or resentment.  He just stared and said nothing, trying to judge my reaction to what I perceived to be his 'war face.'  And finally, with whatever feelings he had, he hibernated his phone - he did not turn it off - and placed it in his pocket.

I decided not to press the point, but I had obviously infuriated him with my simple request, and elicited an obviously defensive reaction.

So again I wondered about the human tendency to be defensive when one’s foibles are pointed out.  Why was his reaction not “Oh, I am sorry, let me do what I need to do,” or (playfully) “Hey, you caught me, and I am sorry.”

I know why it was not “Hey, get out of my face,” nor was it a swing at my face.  It’s because he was in the wrong, and he knew it.  He also did not want to create a scene.  But even with that knowledge, he could not bring himself to apologize, or acknowledge his mistake.  (Mistakes are, after all, human.)

I think that each of us, in our own lives, needs to examine this human tendency to avoid admission of guilt, and try to limit our hubris and our constant need to be right.

May we live better lives; may we get along better with our fellow humans; and may we actually grow in the eyes of others when we demonstrate self-awareness and restraint.

This is certainly something to think about, and act upon.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Rules of the Spiritual Road: My Sabbatical and Yours

As I depart on my sabbatical, remember that our community remains strong by virtue of the support and loving care of its members.  Those who undertake certain rabbinic responsibilities in my absence are brave volunteers who have stepped forward to lead in synagogue life, so I ask you to support them in the ways that they have chosen to lead.

Encourage those who will be leading services, giving divrei torah, and making pastoral calls as volunteers by being present for all those who are participating; don’t stay away from services simply because your traditional leadership team is not fully present.

Those on the bimah, from Cantor Martin to our volunteers, need your support, and those in the hospital should know that our volunteers who will visit them are their because they truly care about other members of the congregation.

Remember that our community is a holy place, and that sacred things take place here.

Be gentle with one another, always.

Use direct and humane communication if things don’t always go in the way you’d like.

Don’t sit and stew, and don’t make too much of a fuss.

We’re only human, like that insurance commercial reminds us.

Remember the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: The whole world is only a narrow bridge, and the main thing to remember is never to be afraid.

--Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hunger Gains from the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge

Can we truly gain something from hunger?  Perhaps we gain an appreciation or an understanding of the situation of those who do not get enough to eat.  Perhaps we acquire sensitivity to those who live at or below the poverty level.  Perhaps we learn how best to relate to our impoverished neighbors and fellow human beings.

For the week of February 10 - 17, 2013, join me at my Hunger Gains website (click here or go to http://www.rabbijonathanshungergains.blogspot.com/), for responses to my experiences on the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge.  (SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)  It will be a week to raise awareness and build mindfulness about the needs of impoverished US citizens.  Please click here to come and read!

And may our hunger gains be for good!