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The number 8: higher and completely distinct

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

There is a song that children love which has traditionally been inserted at the end of the Passover Seder called Echad Mi Yodea (“Who Knows One?”) But what does this have to do with relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Perhaps this popular poem, all about numbers, snuck into the Haggadah because Passover is the ripest time for Jewish education, to impart to the child (and to ourselves) a Torah worldview. Reciting “Who Knows One?” instills a natural association with One God — and likewise, some meaningful content associated with each number in the song.
A name and a number
This week, the number eight is emphasized, as the parasha title, Shemini, means “the eighth”—after the opening words “and it came to pass on the eighth day.” It’s the only Torah portion whose name is a number. And in certain years (outside of Israel), we read this portion a total of eight times.
This eighth day to which it refers follows last week’s instructions to complete a seven-day inaugural process of the Mishkan (sanctuary). The day after was set aside for inducting Aaron and his sons into priesthood, as they began their service. It was also the day on which the presence of God was revealed — when the Shechinah began to reside amongst Israel.
One of the primary commentaries on the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the “Kli Yakar,” is bothered by the phrase “shemini.” Labeling something the “eighth” in any sequence implies a common feature with the previous seven. The events of this day, however, were not a continuation of a previous seven, but the beginning of a new process. If so, he questions, why was this called “the eighth”? — it should have said something like “the following day” or “the day of revelation.”
Sevenths and eighths
In his answer, rich with insights, he explains that the Torah uses the term “the eighth day” to highlight its extraordinary quality — a day of revelation. He continues to elucidate how the number eight, which often appears in the Tanach in conjunction with the number seven, carries certain connotations: In Jewish thought, the number eight signifies something supernatural, a superior divine disclosure, while the number seven signifies the natural experience and ordinary processes. (The Hebrew word shemini, eight, also shares a root with shemen, which means fat or expanded.)
(This is a recurring theme: There are seven musical notes in any given scale. Our weekly cycle consists of seven days. The symbolic seven-stringed harp of the first two Temples stands in contrast to the eight-stringed harp in Messianic times, when the entire world will reach a higher consciousness, “for the earth shall be filed with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the seabed.” Interestingly, the infinity symbol we use takes the form of a sideways eight.)
The Kli Yakar commentary goes on to explain how the numerical association even manifests in Jewish law where the mitzvah of circumcision supersedes the prohibition of forbidden labors on Shabbat; a brit milah is associated with eight while Shabbat is associated with the number seven — “and the rule is that the sacred takes precedence over the mundane.”
Grades of holiness
While his question on the Torah’s usage of “eighth” is probing, there are two apparent difficulties with his answer provided. First, how can he claim that the seventh day, Shabbat, is part of the mundane? After all, throughout the Torah and prophets we find references to how this spiritual day of rest is permeated with holiness (i.e., “And God blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy,” Exodus 20:11). These verses — which are found in the Kiddush (from the same Hebrew root word as “holy)” — clearly stress the sanctity of the day.
The commentaries clarify that the expression “seven refers to the mundane” is only relative. The “day of rest” is indeed elevated above the other six days in its purpose — it is the completion of the natural order, the holy element within creation. But the number eight signifies a level that is beyond creation — not just higher, but completely distinct.
In other words, there are two general grades of holiness: There is a finite holiness that still has a relationship to the natural order. We can draw down and access this level with our actions — by refining the world through mitzvot. Then there is a more transcendent holiness, too potent to be incorporated within the physical realm (except for certain occasions).
Thus, we can speak of progressive stages: the raw, seemingly ordinary, existence of material; the perfection or holiness reached within the world (reflected by number seven); a holiness that transcends this world, a signal of the world to come (reflected by number eight).
If so, it seems that the Kli Yakar didn’t really answer his question, but instead made it stronger: The number eight is completely beyond the natural order which is controlled with a cycle of seven, and the eighth day was likewise disconnected from the previous seven, a unique occurrence bound up with the infinite.
But his succinct commentary is perhaps addressing an important existential question: How much of what we end up with in life is earned, and how much is due to factors beyond our effort, what we’d call a blessing or a gift? (A relevant subject in physical, economic and spiritual pursuits.)
Gifts and rewards
A reward, such as salary, is usually commensurate with the achievement — the person’s effort and capabilities — and so is in proportion to the quality of the invested. A gift, however, is not an outgrowth of one’s effort, but based on the kindness of the giver. Yet, in certain contexts, there may be a strong connection between the recipient’s actions and the decision of the giver to present that gift.
In our biblical extract, we are being taught a rule that pertains to holiness. There can be a process whereby the cause-and-effect are inherently distinct components, but at the same time specific actions are necessary to trigger remarkable results, “a gift.” Or from a different angle, in a relationship with God — or the global interaction between human effort and divine response — we must put in work, but what we receive in return far surpasses the boundaries of our capabilities and achievements. In numerical symbolism, the level of eight is infinitely higher than seven — so we can never earn eight — yet only when the process of seven is complete does the level of eight arrive.
This theme plays out in many aspects of our lives. Perhaps the best example is a marriage, which entails components of seven and eight. Seven represents our effort, beginning before marriage and continuing throughout. It is also our love and appreciation for a spouse. Eight is the deeper and eternal love, the connection which reaches way beyond any conscious appreciation. The ultimate goal of Jewish marriage — “finding your bashert” — is to transition from seven to eight and uncover the element of eight.
Two souls join in this world, brought together through an unfathomable intricate series of events over generations. On the one hand, a successful marriage can be perceived as a product of all the personal developments and preparation: the investment in trying to understand the way the other person operates and be in tune with their feelings and build a meaningful life together. But in the end, the fruits of their efforts — a sacred bond, the children created and legacy left — stem from a power beyond the boundaries of any joint effort, “the gift” that belongs to the realm of eight.
Takeaway
Whether in personal growth, in a relationship, career goal, or in our spiritual pursuits, we all face challenges and struggles. At times we may feel that the next higher stage is impossible or out of reach. One message from this week is that we must first recognize our task, the responsibility of fixing and refining our part through natural means, a process signified by seven. But when we do our job to attain perfection, we then uncover a force way beyond us that comes into our lives. This is the gift of “the eighth day.”
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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The first Jew in Texas — before it was Texas

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

Before there was Mexico, there was New Spain, formed by the conquests of the Indians by the Spanish conquistadors in the New World.
The names of Pizzaro, Coronado, Cortez, Verrazzano, DaVaca and Balboa are just a few conquistadors you may recall from your history classes.
You might not have read of Luis de Carvajal, an adventurer seeking to offer his ship, crew and services to New Spain’s growing Spanish government. Born Jewish, Carvajal claimed he was a “converso,” a Jew in 14th- and 15th-century Spain or Portugal who converted to Catholicism.
Carvajal made an impression on the Spanish viceroy by capturing more than 70 Englishmen who had been marooned on a beach after a shootout with the Spanish fleet. After he received his captain’s commission, Carvajal was sent to punish native Indians who had mistreated Spanish shipwreck victims on Padre Island. On this mission, he became the first Spaniard to cross the Rio Grande.
Each successful venture seemingly emboldened him further, eventually leading to a grand plan, presented in Spain to the king’s appointees overseeing the Indies.
Carvajal’s plan was to develop and build mines, and to connect ports across New Spain, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast. The crown, impressed with his plan, gave Carvajal a ship, manpower and supplies. He loaded the ship with many family members, who were also conversos.
Though Carvajal always sent glowing progress reports about village settlements, conflicting reports also surfaced of slave raiding and the sale of hundreds of Indian captives. Additionally, village, road and port development was not progressing as Carvajal had claimed.
Added to the charges of working with slave trade renegades, he was accused of heresy by not revealing that members of his family, conversos like himself, were secretly practicing Jews.
Carvajal was tortured, and confessed to being a Jewish heretic. He also named his mother, brothers and sisters, all of whom were eventually executed.
Carvajal, meanwhile, was imprisoned in 1590. Once he realized there would be no escape, he began to write a miniature religious memoir, titled “Memorias.” The 3-by-4-inch, 180-page treatise was completed before Carvajal was burned at the stake at 30 years old.
Though his morality was questionable and his life ended violently, Carvajal is credited with being the first Jew in Tejas (Texas), as well as author of the first book in the New World, written 20 years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.

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Study of grandparents’ Jewish involvement

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

Dear Families,
In November, the Jewish Grandparents Network began the first national study of Jewish grandparents. Thanks to outreach from 17 national organizations and Jewish Federations, nearly 8,000 responded to the survey.
Here are some of the results, courtesy of eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
• Joyful Transmitters (20 percent) — love being grandparents and feel it’s important to transmit Jewish values and beliefs.
• Faithful Transmitters (16 percent) — want their grandchildren to have a strong connection to Judaism and to marry Jews.
• Engaged Secularists (23 percent) — engaged grandparents, but don’t model Jewish involvement for their grandchildren.
• Wistful Outsiders (20 percent) — want to be more involved with their grandchildren, but family dynamics get in the way.
• Non–Transmitters (20 percent) — not Jewishly-engaged nor interested in passing on Jewish practices to their grandchildren.
We will definitely be hearing more about this study, but I want to challenge us all to read the groupings above, and remove the words “grandparents” and “grandchildren.” What if we generalized these into how we approach our own Judaism and our own role in passing on our tradition? Does it matter if we are parents, teachers, students, workers? Where do I fit in my commitment to Judaism, and do I have a role in the continuation?
Perhaps we can use the terms to view how we live our Jewish lives — am I a joyful individual with a strong connection to Judaism? How does engagement look to myself and those around me? If I am a wistful outsider, how can I get inside? And, are the “non-transmitters” also not living Judaism – is the term “just Jewish?” What is my commitment today whether I am a grandparent, parent or “just a regular person” living my day-to-day life? Where does being Jewish fit into my definition of who I am?
This type of survey creates many questions that only each of us can answer for ourselves. Additionally, as we prepare for Passover in just a few weeks, these might also be good questions for discussion, to add to our favorite four.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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Pain medications for terminal patients

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I recently came across an interesting moral dilemma. A terminal cancer patient in severe pain was on a very high dosage of opioids. He requested more of the medication for pain control. The physician knew that increasing the dose of the medication would mean the patient would stop breathing, and die. Yet, not increasing the medication would result in the continuation of severe pain, with the patient’s death in a few weeks, anyway. Essentially, administering the higher dose of pain medication would kill the patient; is this allowed?
Thanks,
Yuri, M.D.
Dear Dr. Yuri,
Your question is a very difficult one to decide on a purely moral, or philosophical basis, but one for which we have clear guidelines from our rabbinical leadership, based upon principles taught in the Talmud.
We’ll start with a different situation: A patient has a condition that will only allow him to live temporarily. Jewish law defines this as dying within a year. A treatment is available that, if successful, will enable him to live for many more years; if not successful, it could kill him immediately. Jewish law teaches that the doctor may ethically and morally administer that treatment, and even should do so, although it runs the risk of killing the patient. One can and should run a lethal risk to potentially save a patient’s life.
The authorities apply this reasoning, albeit with a caveat, to a question similar to yours: A patient is terminally ill, has no hope for recovery and is suffering great pain. To administer more pain killer will certainly relieve his pain, but could stop his breathing, causing him to die. In this case, the risk we are taking is not to potentially cure the patient, but to relieve his pain and suffering. Would the above reasoning apply even in this situation?
Rabbi M. Feinstein ob’m ruled that not only can the doctor administer the medicine but is obliged to administer the pain medication despite the risk (Igros Moshe Ch. M. 2:73). Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling is predicated upon the understanding that pain is not innocuous; it is not only a symptom of another condition. Pain is a condition in its own right. The suffering and despair it can cause could render the pain, itself, as a lethal condition. Every doctor knows how profoundly the mental state and emotional well-being of a patient can affect the overall medical condition and the mortality of his sickness, especially as it pertains to intense pain.
We also find a precedent for this in the laws of Shabbos, which require us to desecrate the holiness of Shabbos to save Jewish life. When a patient is deathly ill, one is allowed to desecrate Shabbos to perform actions that will calm the patient or make him/her more comfortable. This is true if they improve the patient’s mental state, even when those actions do not directly affect his/her condition. The Talmud considers the mental state to be directly related to the mortality of the condition.
Rabbi Feinstein concludes that a patient should never be allowed to suffer uncontrollably, even when treating that suffering means a risk of mortality. This ruling, however, carries two important stipulations:
• The medication is given to control the pain, not to kill the patient. We are only allowed to take a risk to take the patient out of his or her suffering, not to administer a medication that would clearly kill the patient or with the intention of hastening his or her death.
• The medication must be administered by an expert, who will know how to manage the therapy in a way that will minimize the risk of the suppression of breathing; this is not an area to be trusted to a student or amateur.
Your situation would, then, not be permitted, as we never have the license to take the life of a patient, and you said that the physician knows the dose requested by the patient will take his life.
Although watching the suffering of another is a profoundly difficult thing to endure, it is an area where we need to entrust the suffering of the patient to the just judgment of God, whose ways we do not always understand. We well know we cannot switch roles with Him.

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Keeping the ‘community’ in Judaism

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

Last Shabbat morning, I deserted my Conservative home synagogue to attend a special event at Kehillat Chaverim, a group/place I knew nothing about before I was lucky enough to be invited.
I consider that my background gives me the ability to participate with comfort in any Jewish setting. As a child, I went to Sunday school in a Conservative-bordering-on-Orthodox shul, attended holiday celebrations at a fully Orthodox one, and later taught at both. Later still, I taught in several Reform temples, but my home synagogue was one that served a small community where all its Jews were members, regardless of observance levels. However, this latest was my first experience with a group of worshippers who were not formally movement-affiliated.
I learned that this group — somewhere around 35 family units, which counts singles as well as couples with or without children — grew from people who used to worship together on Shabbat on the Levine Academy campus. But, one family offered its home as the group’s headquarters. The home has a large room, fully detached from the house’s main entrance, and it has become a true shul.
It contains an ark, which houses two Torahs, along with books and shelves for the knowledgeable lay leadership; a bimah table and lectern; chairs that can be moved and set in various ways; and tables that come out of a closet when the room is reconfigured for the community lunch that follows every service.
Interestingly, the minhag somehow manages to be both fully traditional and fully egalitarian at the same time. Women as well as men bless and read Torah, a basket of kippot sits on a shelf near the entryway, and meals are completely kosher. I was told that, if a family’s kitchen is not kosher, it can purchase the necessary food and prepare it in the kosher kitchen of another member.
I suspect many large congregations began this way, but with growth came the inability to continue without professionalization and all that means: rabbinic rather than lay leadership, dues and/or other fixed contributions, permanent rather than flexible physical accoutrements, etc. The feel of a large family can too easily be lost with largeness. But here, that feeling is exactly what exists.
But I want you to know why I was invited. Certain people thought I would enjoy a special program: the usual d’var Torah was shortened to allow time for a very creative presentation: A Latke-Hamantaschen debate.
The two presentations were clever, fun. But far more than that, in true Jewish tradition, the single representative for each side managed to bring to bear real wisdom from our Jewish past. Each woman had researched, discovered that scholars and sages offered many opinions on these subject matters, and put forth solid knowledge, as well as humor. And, of course, when tables came out of the closet and the room was reconfigured for lunch, both latkes and hamantaschen were on the menu. The first, with the usual choices of applesauce and sour cream, and the second in a multitude of variations, including chocolate dough and mint and lemon curd fillings, as well as what is more usually expected.
This is not a comparison, but a realization My son married into a very traditional family whose little shul had the same “feel,” even though it was Orthodox and non-egalitarian. So I returned to a long-ago memory, when I sat with all the women, our heads covered, to watch all the priestly descendants among the men rise and come forward to bless the congregation. Large tallitot covered their bodies and heads, hiding their faces, but we could see their hands extended, their fingers forming the biblical sign only they could give in conveyance of its true power. Their feet were bare, in the humility of worship.
I felt that same power and humility at Kehillat Chaverim.

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Simple song to guide your family’s choices

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

Dear Families,
When we talk with our children about faith in God, they ask us so many questions that we often cannot answer. Purim, Passover — all the holidays with so many lessons for life. We are always looking for the answer. Judaism is a great religion with so many guidelines and things that we are supposed to do.
There are 613 Commandments — that’s a lot of things to do. Throughout our history, prophets, judges and rabbis have tried to sum up what we should do to lead a good life and do good for others. The prophet Micah summed everything up in three simple things to do, but these things include everything. Here is a wonderful and simple song that will help us remember.
Only This (Micah 6:8)
By Josh Zweiback and Steve Brodsky
What does God demand of you? Only this, only this. (2)
Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God (2)
U-mah A-do-nai do-resh mim-cha
Ki im a-sot mish-pat v’a-ha-vat che-sed
V’hatz-nei-ah le-chet im E-lo-he-cha
Whenever we want to understand words from the Bible, we begin by asking questions. Micah asked the first question, “What does God demand of you?” What is Micah trying to learn? What does he ask about demands — does that mean that God expects us to do these things whether we want to or not? Do we have a choice to behave the right way?
After we question Micah’s question, more questions come to mind. Think and talk about these questions with your family:
Why does Micah respond to the question, “Only this”? Is it simple?
What does it mean to “do justly”? How do we act in a just manner? What does it mean to be fair to others?
What is mercy? How do we act with mercy? Why does Micah say to “love mercy”? Is that different than treating people with mercy?
Being humble, showing humility, is a very important Jewish value. What does it mean? What does it look like? Why does Micah say to “walk humbly”? How do we walk with God?
Why just these three things? How do they relate to everything else we should be doing? Is this really enough?
How can we use this song in our lives? Sometimes when we wonder how we should be acting, this song may come to mind. There are so many things we need to remember — this makes it easy to sum up the really important things to do.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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The flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive forever

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah Portion is Tzav, the second portion in the Book of Leviticus. The portion starts out with a description of the olah, the burnt offering. What I find interesting in the description of the burnt offering is the commandment from Verse 6 that “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” There are many ways that we can metaphorically understand this commandment. Orot Ha-Kodesh as quoted in Itturei Torah suggests one way of interpreting this commandment:
One is forbidden to extinguish the thirst for God which burns in every heart. We are told that a person who extinguishes an ember on the altar has violated the prohibition of “it will never be put out.” This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar — the Jewish heart.
The perpetual fire represents our perpetual yearning for God and our constant devotion to the service of God. The way that I look at the perpetual fire is more as a metaphor for Judaism itself. A fire, even a perpetual one, is constantly changing — flickering, flaring, dying down. Further, a perpetual fire requires perpetual feeding; we must constantly add more fuel to the fire or it burns out.
So too does Judaism perpetually change throughout the ages and so too does Judaism require perpetual feeding by our engaging with Torah and our tradition. In this new light of the metaphorical perpetual fire, we can see the offerings described in Tzav as relevant again to our lives, even though the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and there have been no sacrifices offered in almost 2,000 years.
The next offering described is the Mincha or grain offering. Part of this daily offering was meant to be burned completely for God, but the remainder was given to the priests to eat. I imagine that the Mincha offering was a staple in the priestly diet since it was offered daily, and was probably a large portion of the priests’ salary, so to speak. Now I’m not implying that in today’s world, I as a rabbi want to be paid in 5-pound bags of flour. But rather, I would suggest that for those who cannot otherwise feed themselves, we must provide for them daily that they have sufficient food to eat. We provide food for the hungry not just for their sake, but so that we may feed the perpetual fires that keep us close to God.
After the Mincha offering, the Chattat, sin offering, and the Asham, guilt offering, are described. These offerings are described as “most holy” such that they may only be eaten by the “males in the priestly line” (Leviticus 6:22, 7:6) or burned completely to ash and not eaten at all. Clearly, doing teshuvah, repentance, then or now is one of the most holy acts we can engage in. We do teshuvah when we cease our wrong actions, make amends as best we can, and resolve never to act that way again. And with every act of teshuvah, we make the world a better place and draw God closer.
Next comes the sacrifice of well-being, offered for thanksgiving to God or as a free-will offering to God. These offerings are interesting in that a portion goes to God, being completely burned up; a portion goes to the priest making the actual sacrifice; and a portion goes to the donor of the sacrifice. Everyone partakes in this sacrifice, just as we all gather together today to create a holy community. Everyone in our community has a part to play in creating a holy community that gathers together to thank God freely for the gifts God gives us.
God commanded us to keep a perpetual fire burning upon the altar. Today, the flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive. When we engage with our texts and our traditions, we add fuel to the ever-changing flame that is Judaism. When we reinterpret our texts and traditions to fit our modern lives, we add fuel, keeping the fire alive. When we give of ourselves, offering the best of our abilities and resources, we strengthen the community of the Jewish people, we make the world a better place, and we draw nearer to God. May God give us the will to see that the flame burns forever.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Heroic figures of our past are worth imitating

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

We got the Torah on Shavuot, but you won’t find any 9-year-olds dressed up as Moses, holding up cut-out-cardboard Ten Commandments, anywhere in synagogue over that holiday. Not many Maccabee look-alike contests over Hanukkah either.
But on Purim, we’ve got Queen Esthers and Mordechais to spare! These royal Jewish personages seem to be everywhere and anywhere over the holiday! I would venture to say that the No. 1 choice of Purim dress-up for 5-year-old girls is Queen Esther, and similarly it’s Mordechai for the boys. Sure, you’ve got one or two wise-guy Hamans in the crowd, but that shtick doesn’t usually start up until the teenage years, when that’s the least of parents’ concerns concerning teenage rebellion.
And so, it’s only appropriate on the holiday that recognizes and celebrates its ancient Jewish heroes like no other, to focus on the miracle that is great Jewish personages throughout our history.
I happened to be in the Holy Land just months after the venerated giant of mussar (the study of Jewish ethics and character development), Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt’’l, passed away. The year was 2005 and I was engaged in one of my favorite practices of Jerusalem life, book hunting. Meah Shearim in particular is lined with tens of large and small sefarim (Jewish books) shops, and I always spend as many hours as I can find perusing up and down the aisles for new and ancient treasures.
It just so happened that I passed by a certain store that had a table outside on the sidewalk, showcasing its newest additions, and a small, paperback book caught my eye. In honor of the shloshim (the 30-day period of mourning after death), the students of Rabbi Wolbe zt’’l had collected and published a small book of letters that their rebbe had written to individuals, addressing all sorts of questions and concerns that people presented him. I had to buy it!
Unfortunately, the book sat on my shelves for years, largely untouched, until just last year when I decided to go through the letters one by one. It turned out to be a real treasure. There were Torah insights on just about every page, with one pearl of wisdom in particular resonating with me above them all — an insight that highlights the uniqueness of man, and more particularly the singular majesty of the spiritually elevated man.
Rabbi Wolbe was perplexed as to why the Shemoneh Esrei (otherwise known as the Amidah — literally, “the Standing Prayer”), the holiest and most often recited of Jewish prayers, begins its praise of God with the reductive words, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob,” when it could have used broader, seemingly more glorifying terminology like, “Creator of Heaven and Earth,” “Redeemer From Egypt” or “Giver of the Torah.”
The answer, according to Rabbi Wolbe zt’’l, is that the greatest praise that we can offer the Almighty is that He created physical creatures of flesh and blood who nonetheless might achieve Godly natures. People like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who educated the world about the nature of the divine and were elevated themselves to such a lofty degree that the King of kings Himself felt it appropriate to attach His holy name to theirs (“God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob”). Who would think that you and I have the potential within us to become the greatest miracles of all! (See Igrot U’Ketavim Mimaran Rabeinu Ha’Mashgiach, Letter 5: Bircat Avot, for greater detail.)
Besides the fun and games associated with dressing up on Purim, it’s worth considering how special, and indeed unique, it is, that we as a people educate our children that the people they ought most to imitate and emulate aren’t today’s top athletes or most famous movie stars, but the holy and heroic figures of our Jewish past. People like the saintly Mordechai and the righteous Esther. Within the merriment of the day, and in the childlike endeavor of dress-up, we are indeed imparting a most lofty lesson to the next generation: that human beings can become greater than our biological limitations might imply — that we have the potential to become vessels of the divine, the greatest miracle in all of Creation!

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Simple song to guide your family’s choices

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

Dear Families,
When we talk with our children about faith in God, they ask us so many questions that we often cannot answer. Purim, Passover — all the holidays with so many lessons for life. We are always looking for the answer. Judaism is a great religion with so many guidelines and things that we are supposed to do.
There are 613 Commandments — that’s a lot of things to do. Throughout our history, prophets, judges and rabbis have tried to sum up what we should do to lead a good life and do good for others. The prophet Micah summed everything up in three simple things to do, but these things include everything. Here is a wonderful and simple song that will help us remember.
Only This (Micah 6:8)
By Josh Zweiback and Steve Brodsky
What does God demand of you? Only this, only this. (2)
Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God (2)
U-mah A-do-nai do-resh mim-cha
Ki im a-sot mish-pat v’a-ha-vat che-sed
V’hatz-nei-ah le-chet im E-lo-he-cha
Whenever we want to understand words from the Bible, we begin by asking questions. Micah asked the first question, “What does God demand of you?” What is Micah trying to learn? What does he ask about demands — does that mean that God expects us to do these things whether we want to or not? Do we have a choice to behave the right way?
After we question Micah’s question, more questions come to mind. Think and talk about these questions with your family:
Why does Micah respond to the question, “Only this”? Is it simple?
What does it mean to “do justly”? How do we act in a just manner? What does it mean to be fair to others?
What is mercy? How do we act with mercy? Why does Micah say to “love mercy”? Is that different than treating people with mercy?
Being humble, showing humility, is a very important Jewish value. What does it mean? What does it look like? Why does Micah say to “walk humbly”? How do we walk with God?
Why just these three things? How do they relate to everything else we should be doing? Is this really enough?
How can we use this song in our lives? Sometimes when we wonder how we should be acting, this song may come to mind. There are so many things we need to remember — this makes it easy to sum up the really important things to do.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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3 questions for Purim

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

Hi Rabbi,
I have three questions regarding Purim:
1. I know that we have a mitzvah to make a feast on Purim because we survived the attempt of physical bodily destruction. What I don’t understand is why our celebration needs to be a drinking party? Is it perhaps a resemblance to King Ahasuerus’ party, for which, for their participation, the Jews were decreed complete annihilation?
2. Why did Mordechai encourage Esther to commit adultery with Ahasuerus, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments? Perhaps this was because Mordechai felt her role was to save the entirety of the Jewish people? Does that make this OK?
3. Why was a special decree needed for the Jews to fight back against their enemies? They were still under attack. Couldn’t they defend themselves without a decree allowing them to do so? I would have considered it a much greater accomplishment for Mordechai and Esther if they could have gotten the decree of annihilation rescinded rather than keeping it in place and just having a counter-decree to fight back!
Thanks,
Judah
Dear Judah,
Three great questions!
You may have heard of the famous summary of all Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!
1. You are correct that on Purim we have a mitzvah to eat a joyous meal which is our way of celebrating the miraculous rescue from the first attempt at the “final solution,” first suggested by Haman, a member of Amalek (the progenitors of the Germans/Nazis).
We celebrate our physical rescue in a physical way, as opposed to Hanukkah when we celebrate in a spiritual way (lighting candles), as that was a spiritual, ideological battle.
The drinking a bit more than one is accustomed to (to say the least!) is to fulfill the Talmudic injunction to “eat and drink until one doesn’t know the difference between the curses of Haman and the blessings of Mordechai.”
On one level, this is to come to the realization that even when things seem to be going badly, ultimately it is for the good. Even when God seems to have forsaken us completely, He is always still there behind the scenes to protect us from complete annihilation. God’s love for us, although at times it is hidden, is always present. There are even deeper meanings of this, which we can’t get into here.
2. You are correct about the permissibility of Mordechai sending Esther to be married to the king despite her being married to Mordechai (according to one opinion in the Talmud). The commentaries explain, as you surmise, that although relations with a married woman is something that one needs to forfeit his or her life for rather than transgress (as this is one of the three cardinal sins), nevertheless when it involves the rescue of a multitude of Jews, and certainly the entire Jewish people, it is allowed.
3. The Megillah relates that, when asked to rescind his decree, King Ahasuerus replied that “a royal decree cannot be retracted.”
Mordechai and Esther felt that if the decree was still in full force without a counter-decree to defend themselves, the Jews would cower, rather than attempt to fight an enemy who were attacking them with the full license of the king. So, they sought to, at the very least, have royal permission granted to fight back to give the Jews the confidence that they could destroy their enemies, the Amalekites, without worrying about retribution from the king.
This confidence, coupled with their renewed trust in God, gave the Jews the resolve and determination to overcome their enemies.
May we continue to renew that trust in God and overcome the hardships of exile and all our enemies that seek to destroy us today.
A joyous Purim to you and all the readers! L’chaim!

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