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Familiar verses of the Priestly Benediction interpreted

Posted on 14 June 2019 by admin

This week’s portion, Parashat Naso, includes a section that I’ll make a bet everyone reading this column has heard multiple times before: the last six verses of Numbers, Chapter 6, the Priestly Benediction.
In my own translation it says: “God said to Moses: say to Aaron and his sons: ‘Thus shall all y’all bless the Children of Israel. May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face radiate upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s face be lifted up to you and put upon you peace.
“That way, they will put My name on the Children of Israel and I will bless them.’”
Note: “all y’all” may be a Southernism, but since ‘you’ in English can be either singular or plural, it’s actually very useful to use “all y’all” to indicate “you” plural, just as it is indicated to be plural in the Hebrew.
This blessing is a specific formula for the priests to use, and to this day in a traditional congregation, anyone who is a Kohen will come to the front and recite this blessing in a ceremony called duchening. It is from the ceremony of duchening that Leonard Nimoy took his “live long and prosper” hand gesture. The hands are spread like the letter shin — standing for “Shaddai,” a name of God — and the blessing is given.
The first blessing is: “May God bless you and keep you, guard you, protect you.” This is where my translation is a little squishy. But then again, all translation is interpretation, so we should expect a little squishiness. There’s a sense, though that God will make sure bad things don’t happen to you. The only question is, what bad things — and how will God make sure those bad things don’t happen?
The second blessing is: “May God’s face radiate, shine upon you and be gracious to you.” I have a sense that having God’s face shine on you is pretty good, but again, I don’t have an exact idea what a shining face is supposed to be.
The third blessing is: “May God’s face be lifted up on you, favor you, think you’re special and give you peace.” Clearly there’s a difference between God’s face shining on you and being lifted up on you, but what that difference is exactly, isn’t always clear.
The part that I’m really interested in is the last sentence that isn’t spoken: “They shall put My name on the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.” Think how extraordinary that truly is. The priests put the name of God on the people, and then God will bless them. God blesses the people through the action of the priests. God acts through human action. We act in God’s name and God’s blessing comes forth.
When we help people and protect them from harm, God blesses that action. When we bring light to people’s lives — dispelling the darkness of despair and pain — God blesses that action. When we lift people up out of the depths in which they are mired — when we restore people to a sense of wholeness and peace — God blesses that action. When we act in God’s name, God blesses us all. Our hands are God’s hands, bringing blessing to the world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Does history repeat itself? The choice is ours

Posted on 14 June 2019 by admin

One of my amusing former teaching experiences occurred when a student in my American History class asked me a question just as I began passing out the weekly 20-question, multiple-choice quiz, which covered the week’s work.
“Mr. Kasten, does history repeat itself?” Since his question did not relate to anything on this quiz, I assumed he asked, hoping that I would be so engulfed in answering his question that I wouldn’t have time to give the quiz, and might postpone the quiz altogether.
As interesting a question as it was, I wasn’t going to allow it to stand in the way of my prepared quiz.
I suggested instead, that they could earn “extra credit” when they returned Monday with an example of how history repeated itself or was in danger of doing so.
Here’s how history is in danger of repeating itself:
Many German Jews were highly assimilated — were decorated veterans of World War I and chose to stay in Germany — while others, especially after Kristallnacht, began to flee the country.
As the Nazi grip tightened, many German and Polish Jews fled to the countryside to join bands of guerrillas hiding in the woods — or tried to leave Europe for Canada, Africa or the Americas.
Sadly, there were also many Jews — especially the elderly and children, who could not escape and became Holocaust victims — reduced to slave labor, victims of “medical” experiments, or reduced to bones and ashes.
The “lucky ones” were the Jews of Germany, Austria and Poland that sent their children away to relative safety in Palestine, or in England on the “Kindertransport.”
The extent of the Nazis’ concentration camp system was much greater and diverse than most people realize. In 2013, researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Museum documented hard evidence that there were 42,500 camps and ghettos throughout Europe.
In addition to the more well-known death camps such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau, there were other facilities where Jewish slave labor was used on a regular basis — where torture and “punishment” was a daily event.
A Holocaust research group issued the following stats: 30,000 slave labor camps, 1,150 ghettos, 980 concentration camps, 1,000 POW camps, 500 brothels, and thousands of other camps for killing and experimentation in all of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Forced labor camps were everywhere. Given that there were so many locations where prisoners were transported and used on a regular basis (3,000 camps in Berlin and 1,300 “Jew-houses” in Hamburg), the citizens of those cities had to know of the existence of those camps.
Today we have white nationalists parading anti-Semitism and other hatreds.
That is why Holocaust museums and museums of intolerance are so important. They display the truth and horror of what happened — what must not happen again to any people.
Many of the soldiers who freed the camp, including Lt. Rudy Baum (of blessed memory) and Mike Jacobs (of blessed memory), survived the camps to tell the stories they have passed on.
If history, this darkest page of history — the Holocaust — is not to be repeated against any people, it will be the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum — and all the other Holocaust museums — that will make it so.
In September 2019, the newest Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum will be open to help educate young and old as to the dangers of prejudice and discrimination, no matter what form it may take.
We must be alert to the great danger of history repeating itself. As the Dallas Holocaust Museum states: “An Upstander stands up for other people and their rights, combats injustice, inequality or unfairness, sees something wrong and works to make it right.”
Only then will Holocaust history not be repeated.

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Summer days boil down to basic Jewish values

Posted on 14 June 2019 by admin

This summer at J Camps, we are learning values through many ways. One way to see Jewish values in practice is to look at our Jewish heroes and mentors. We know that “we are standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us.” We must learn the lessons from those who came before us and then strive to be the ones who will shoulder the next generation.
How do we make Maimonides or Albert Einstein or Hannah Senesh come alive to our children? By making them come alive to us as parents and then introducing them to our children as “family” because these heroes are indeed part of our Jewish family. Just as we know the history of our favorite aunt, we should learn the story of “Aunt Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” We realize that our entire Jewish family makes us who we are and who we will become.
The information for this summer’s weekly columns comes from “Jewish Heroes Jewish Values — Living Mitzvot in Today’s World” by Barry L. Schwartz.
Please feel free to contact me to learn more and to find ways to share these lessons with your children. JCC camps will share and teach mitzvot throughout the summer, focusing on lots of great heroes as well as practicing being heroes for the future. The hope is that campers will come home this summer with positive role models, present and past.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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Storm prompts our contemplation of wonders

Posted on 13 June 2019 by admin

Dear Friends,
We are sitting without power for the third day and expecting to be so for another couple of days — some five days (hopefully not more!) without power — due to the Sunday event which “took Dallas by a storm.” As the Rebbetzin and I entertained our guests by candlelight during the holiday of Shavuot, until now seeing some of the more serious devastation wrought upon many, it has been a special time for thought and contemplation.
My first thought was tremendous thanks and appreciation to the Al-mighty for sparing our community what could have easily been much worse devastation. Although many of us have had to trash food which has thawed in our freezers and refrigerators, that’s a very small loss compared to the many whose homes were crushed by the falling trees and winds. Just thinking about what our friends in Houston endured not long ago made me appreciate what did not happen here.
As my wife mentioned, perhaps as a community we need to do some soul searching to think about what the “message” is to us…
Another thought was — as a student mentioned to me — the extent of our frailty. A bit of wind and everything could be gone in the blink of an eye. How could we be haughty after contemplating that?!
Another feeling which struck us was the unbelievable power of God. When the storm began we recited, upon hearing the thunder, the special bracha which praises God, “ … Whose power and strength fill the world.” Seeing afterward how He snaps powerful trees like matchsticks is an overwhelming feeling upon contemplation.
Finally, how great are our people! The moment the word was out that many of us were without power, so many around us offered us and our neighbors to come over for a meal, sleep over, use their freezers to transfer our food and more. “Mi k’amcha Yisrael!”
May we use this opportunity for thought, contemplation and growth, to learn important messages which make it all worthwhile.

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Tackling your stash of family photos

Posted on 13 June 2019 by admin

Today, I’m thinking about pictures. Old family pictures. What is the perverse magic that makes people honor filled-to-the-brim boxes with promises that “someday” we’ll go through them all — and then miss them terribly in cases of hurricane or fire, when the first thing survivors do (after crying) is look through rubble, trying to find those old pictures?
I’m thinking now about a wonderful short editorial by Nancy Black, who runs the White Rock Weekly, a paper I read faithfully every Friday after picking it up at my Rotary meeting site. This, she said, was inspired by a call from a friend who, in the midst of downsizing, ran into a photo of a strange male with an even stranger inscription on its back: “The Last Picture of Stanley.” Who was Stanley? And why was this his last picture?
My son and I were luckier when we were recently together at the old house that has sheltered at least one member of our large extended family since 1945, and decided that — since many had promised, but no one had made good on that promise — we would take on the task of doing something with several large boxes of pictures — all ages, all types, all sizes — all jumbled up together.
We were remarkably lucky to find rather quickly that many of the pictures in the first box had full identifications on the back — thanks to one of my aunts, who had taken many pictures herself in her own lifetime and scrupulously scrapbooked them all. We blessed her for taking on these photos as well. And we found it was actually fun to identify what we could, and sort them by which of today’s family members should be their recipients.
I came home with a small suitcase full of pictures, neatly divided, and sent them promptly to new — permanent, I hoped — homes. That was fun! But then came another large batch from my son, who had found another box and used what we’d figured out together to do the best he could with these “newbies.” And I now have all of them, to check over, sort out and send on their various ways. (My sister, I know will be overjoyed that she will now, finally, have the “pony picture” that she’s been missing for decades.) At some time during my life as a child, almost every kid had a pony picture. I never did. Truth be told, I never missed having one taken — until recently, when I saw my sister’s.
In our “research,” my son and I came up with a few “Stanleys,” but not one that was tagged as a final picture. That kind of message on a photo’s back, unaccompanied by anything more, opens up many possibilities — not all of them pleasant. Had Stanley passed away? Or had he, for some reason of his own, refused to ever have another likeness taken of him? Maybe he had suffered a facial or other injury he never wanted recorded for posterity? Maybe — as did an old high school classmate of mine — he joined an order of monks that practices silence, and totally avoids photography?
I could go on wondering like this for much longer, but I’d rather just encourage you to go through that photo stash you’ve avoided for ages. Just as we did, you’ll find some of it challenging (names with no dates, or the opposite), venues vaguely familiar but not specified, great family gatherings with no clue as to what and where. Our old house now holds only a small number of such unidentified pictures, and whenever we have the next big family get-together, we’ll spread them all out and let everyone have a go at identification. I’m looking forward to that, whenever it may be.
So — why not tackle your own stash of random photos soon? No guarantee you won’t find some unsolvable mystery like Stanley’s last picture. But I can guarantee you’ll have a lot of fun!

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Trips to France and Israel are essential

Posted on 06 June 2019 by admin

Today is June 6, a date that should never be forgotten in our American history, or in the history of the world. It was exactly 75 years ago when American troops landed on France’s Normandy beaches, marking a costly and painful beginning to what was actually to be the end of World War II.
It’s called “D-Day.” But, what’s the reason? In American war language, any big battle or military operation is marked with a D, which itself stands for Day. The day before it then becomes D minus 1, and the day after is D plus 1. But the day itself is D alone.
I can remember Pearl Harbor — December 7, 1941 — and also remember May 8, 1945 — when the great war officially ended.
The first was a time of surprise, terror, and quick mobilization that included immediate enlistment of many young men into military service. I was too young to be concerned. But, I was old enough to remember the rejoicing of the second when, as an almost 11-year-old girl, I joined my friends as we threaded crepe paper through the spokes of our new two-wheelers and rode around the neighborhood, adding that sound to the overall cacophony. Those were our first real bikes, the same ones we’d ridden around the neighborhood not quite one month before, minus the noisy paper, in silent tribute to the passing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. No one will ever know if he would do as his successor, Harry S. Truman, had done — ordered the atomic bombings of Japan, the brutality that finally ended that brutal war.
My husband Fred and I were fortunately able to take many trips together before his life ended. One of the most essential was to visit those Normandy beaches, to see in person the places that, at such great human cost to our own country, heralded the end of the war in Europe. We made this visit via a river boat on the Seine. That trip showed us much more of France before and after we spent some time on what we had most wanted to visit. We had already viewed gritty films of the landing that took so many young American lives, but to stand there oneself was another kind of experience — one that was, in a way, even more real.
Then, after exploring other significant markers and parts of the area, we went to the cemetery that is the final resting place of so many of the men who died in that landing, and afterward. The rows and rows of crosses — punctuated at various intervals by Stars of David — evoked the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields.” But here, there were also live women and girls, area residents handing flowers to those who would like some to mark a grave; a perpetual promise was made to do this by the women who lived at the time of the beachhead, and it has been carried out by their descendants. And there are stones, as well, for marking the graves of our Jewish dead.
As I said: Fred and I were among those lucky enough to have seen many sights of our great world: the signature Mer-Lion of Singapore, the amazing Iguazu Falls between Brazil and Argentina that dwarf those of Niagara, China’s sad Tiananmen Square, the Holocaust remnants in Poland and the glories of Israel that have risen to repute that history by its very existence. It is never easy — maybe never even possible — to say which trip, which place, was “best of all.”
But, having been granted the great opportunity to visit so many interesting historic places, I must conclude this: that for every Jew, time in Israel must be at the top of the list. And, for every Jewish American, seeing the Normandy beaches should come second. Because those two have guaranteed all of us the freedoms and possibilities that — although these days they come under attack more often than they should — have yet to fail us.

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Imam Suleiman has anti-Semitic past; has he moved on?

Imam Suleiman has anti-Semitic past; has he moved on?

Posted on 31 May 2019 by admin

Petra Marquardt-Bigman

 

By Petra Marquardt-Bigman

BAT YAM, Israel (JTA) — It was an honor for the young but popular Imam Omar Suleiman to be invited to deliver the opening prayer for a session of the U.S. House of Representatives. Suleiman is the founder and president of the Texas-based Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, which proudly announced the occasion and promoted it on its website and social media.
His short and passionate prayer included words about love, unity, justice, peace and reconciliation, as well as a call to “be for truth, no matter who or for is against it.” [sic]
But his appearance in Congress quickly became politicized. Rep. Lee Zeldin tweeted that allowing Suleiman to give the opening prayer was “totally unacceptable.”
“Totally unacceptable that @SpeakerPelosi had Omar Suleiman give the opening prayer yesterday in the House. He compares Israel to the Nazis & calls them terrorists, supports Muslim Brotherhood, incites violence calling for a Palestinian antifada & the end of zionism, etc.”
Two years ago I wrote a piece for The Algemeiner documenting Suleiman’s call for “the beginning of the end of Zionism” and a 2014 Facebook post in which he said that “Zionists are the enemies of God,” among other things. I had come across Suleiman only because I was writing a post on Linda Sarsour’s hostile views on Israel.
During the course of my investigation, I noticed that the newly prominent co-chair of the Women’s March and Suleiman were complimenting each other on Twitter. The articles Sarsour shared about Suleiman painted a glowing picture: One described him as “a new kind of American imam” with “a wildly popular social-media presence, with more than a million likes on his Facebook page and tens of millions of views for his YouTube sermons.”
Since my work focuses on anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism, I was mostly interested in whether Suleiman shared Sarsour’s views on Israel. What I found was rather shocking, particularly given that Suleiman’s vast social media following allows him to spread his views far and wide.
Suleiman, in his 30s and originally from New Orleans, rose to prominence due to his interfaith work and community organizing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He began studying Islamic texts in 2000, and has taught Islamic studies at the university level since 2008. He holds several advanced degrees and is in the process of completing a doctorate from the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Islamic thought and civilization.
In 2014, Suleiman repeatedly called for a new intifada inspired by religious fervor during Ramadan and in defense of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In another post, Suleiman cursed “Zionists” as “the enemies of God, His Messengers, sincere followers of all religions, and humanity as a whole.”
It was thus hardly surprising that Suleiman also compared “apartheid Israel” to the “Nazis,” claimed that Gaza was enduring “a Holocaust,” denounced the “Israeli regime” as “terrorist,” and compared the Israeli army to the Taliban.
As I noted in my 2017 piece, Suleiman seemed to become more restrained in his public commentary on Israel after 2015.
But in the course of watching some of his religious lectures, I realized that with regard to Jews, his theological views were perhaps also rather problematic: In one lecture from 2012, he seemed to cast the Bani Israel (sons of Israel, or Jews) as the ultimate, horrifying “Other” put on earth to serve as an example of sinful behavior. Even more alarming was another lecture he gave in 2016 on “Masjid Al-Aqsa: The occupied sanctuary.” Suleiman completely erased Jewish history and presented the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, as rightful Muslim patrimony from the beginning of time.
Sometime on or before August 2017, Suleiman apparently became aware that some of his views are polarizing. On Aug. 3 of that year, Suleiman posted a sort of mea culpa on Facebook, concluding, “I ask my Lord and all of you to forgive me for anything I’ve ever said, written, or done that hurt you.”
On Aug. 8, he also added a page to his website on anti-Semitism, writing, “I have never condoned anti-semitism. I have worked with the Jewish community in vibrant interfaith partnerships for over a decade.”
In the wake of this most recent controversy, Suleiman wrote an article in The Dallas Morning News in which he referenced his work with the Jewish community and past “regretful” controversial posts. He stated that “one thing I’ve never been is anti-Semitic.”
The article’s title sums up Suleiman’s take: “Hateful attacks cannot silence voices of unity and love” — which is to say, Suleiman views his critics as attackers who, motivated by hate, want to silence voices like his own, which promote unity and love.
It is clear — and understandable — that Suleiman feels it is unfair to focus on some tweets and Facebook posts he shared a few years ago while ignoring the work he is doing every day. It is also clear that he sincerely feels that his record does not warrant accusations of anti-Semitism.
But it is equally clear that he is unwilling to clarify if and how his “regretful” views have changed.
In May 2018, Suleiman took to Facebook to passionately endorse the Hamas-orchestrated riots at the Gaza border. The leader of Hamas had announced the goals of the riots very clearly when he vowed to “take down the border and tear out their hearts [i.e., the hearts of Israelis] from their bodies.”
Given Suleiman’s previous calls for a third intifada and his demonization of Israel, he will perhaps understand that it sounds somewhat sinister when he declared that Palestinians “will continue to demand their freedom. And so will we. By any means necessary.”
Suleiman consistently frames the Palestinian conflict with Israel in religious terms, painting it as one that should involve all Muslims, and adamantly denies the importance of the Land of Israel — as well as the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount — to Jews.
In his 2016 lecture on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Suleiman emphatically asserted that “Masjid [mosque] Al-Aqsa is that entire rectangle, that entire sanctuary, it is humongous, that is actually all Masjid Al-Aqsa; the Dome of the Rock is at the center of it, so that entire compound is Masjid Al-Aqsa,” erasing the fact that the same site is Judaism’s holiest, where historical and archeological evidence show that the Second Temple stood until its destruction in 70 CE. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque weren’t built until over 500 years later, on a plateau defined by the walls built to support the Temple complex.
Suleiman’s Al-Aqsa lecture is a depressing example of a fundamentalist theological outlook on the basis of an Islamist view of history. He says that it was “proven that other religions only flourished in Jerusalem under Muslim rule. It never happens any other way.” Complaining how unfair it was to fear that Muslims could “turn Jerusalem into some sort of blood bath,” Suleiman declared: “No, we recognize the sanctity of that place, we love that masjid, we love that land, we know what that land is. No one wants to do anything with that land except restore it to the way that it was.”
The implications of Suleiman’s religious teaching are clear: Muslims must strive to end Jewish sovereignty and “restore” Jerusalem and the Holy Land “to the way that it was” under Muslim rule.
It seems that Omar Suleiman’s theological views, which amount to a denial of Jewish history, color his political views. Like so many anti-Israel activists, Suleiman adamantly denies that anti-Zionism has anything to do with anti-Semitism. In the spirit of the interfaith activism he seems to endorse so warmly, he could perhaps consult some of the relevant material published by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who explains that “Anti-Zionism, denying Jews the right to their one and only collective home by misrepresenting Judaism, is the new anti-Semitism, every bit as virulent and dangerous as the old.”
That would help Suleiman understand that you cannot erase Jewish history and credibly claim that you oppose anti-Semitism.
We cannot only denounce Jewish fundamentalists who dream of demolishing the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount in order to build a third Temple as dangerous extremists. Muslim fundamentalists who preach that the Temple Mount has been Al-Aqsa from the beginning of time and claim that the entire site is a mosque are no better.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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Dallas Jewish community should back Imam Suleiman

Dallas Jewish community should back Imam Suleiman

Posted on 31 May 2019 by admin

Rabbi Nancy Kasten

 

By Rabbi Nancy Kasten

The Internet has made it much harder to perform meaningful teshuvah or to accept the teshuvah of others. Nonetheless, as Jews we are required to do both. I believe that Imam Omar Suleiman was sincere when he apologized in August of 2017 for statements he had “ever said, written or done” that harmed anyone who felt threatened by his words. I believe him not because of what he wrote and said then, or what he has written and said before and since, but because of the person he has always been, a person who daily performs acts of lovingkindness, and who embodies true commitment to human life and dignity. In February of 2017 Omar delivered a card signed by nearly 100 members of the Valley Ranch Islamic Center to the Dallas JCC, in the wake of a bomb threat, that said, “We are here for you.” In October of 2018 Omar sat in the front row at Congregation Shearith Israel at the memorial service for Jews gunned down in Pittsburgh. When he traveled to help bury the dead after the attack on Muslim worshippers in New Zealand in March, he sent some of his Jewish partners and friends this text message: “I’m holding you all in my heart in Christchurch. Every time I see one of our Jewish brothers and sisters here, I think about how blessed I am to have you all in my life. Thank you.” Many Jewish leaders in our community reach out to Omar when they want to talk to a widely respected Muslim leader, learned in his own tradition and in the complexities of working across lines of difference. Omar has offered his hand and heart to our Dallas Jewish community in solidarity, empathy and compassion time and time again, even when his overtures have been rebuffed out of fear or distrust.
I have sat with Omar in restaurants and in my living room, sharing stories and asking questions about past experience and hopes for the future; struggling to understand and accept each other’s narratives. In my experience, Omar tries repeatedly to understand and respect the narratives of others while refusing to negate his own. That is a quality we can all strive to emulate. Omar and I share a conviction that our communities have more that unites us than divides us, a concern that the futures of both the Jewish and the Muslim communities in this country are under threat, and a commitment to building trust between us so that we can effectively work together. We also share a sad suspicion that social media outlets are being manipulated to engender fear and distrust among would-be allies in the fight against racism, xenophobia, jingoism and white nationalism. Jewish and other social media outlets that choose to saturate their networks with “anti-Semitic” tropes by progressive Muslims and “pro-Israel” tropes by conservative evangelical Christians are sadly succeeding in dividing the Jewish community from our allies, making it harder for us to build the power necessary to combat discrimination and violence.
In the Mishneh Torah in the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides states the following:
“You must not show yourself cruel by not accepting an apology; you should be easily pacified, and provoked with difficulty. When an offender asks forgiveness, you should forgive wholeheartedly and with a willing spirit. Even if the offender has caused you much trouble wrongfully, you must not avenge yourself, you must not bear a grudge. This is the way of the stock of Israel and their upright hearts. “
I hope that our local Dallas community will not be afraid to share our lived experience of Imam Omar Suleiman with others who may not have had the privilege of personally interacting with this humble, patient and wise young faith leader, a person whom our Jewish community rightfully calls a friend. Let’s not let the Internet prevent us from doing what the stock of Israel is required to do: performing our own teshuvah and accepting the teshuvah of others.
Rabbi Nancy Kasten was recently named Chief Relationship Officer of Faith Commons, an organization working to strengthen faith communities and communities through faith.

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Love: appreciating others’ unique traits

Posted on 31 May 2019 by admin

During this seven-week period of counting the Omer, also a preparation for receiving the Torah on the festival of Shavuot, we place extra focus on character development. In this spirit, there is a widespread custom to study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) each Shabbat afternoon — a section of the Mishnah devoted to personal refinement, beyond the letter of the law.
In the Jewish mystical system, every person’s soul comprises seven middot (character attributes) — which form the template for emotive responses of the heart and instinctive character features that manifest in our demeanor. These seven weeks, we employ our faculty of da’at (knowledge in the form of identification) to create greater consciousness within our life to polish our distinct emotions and get them working together. This process is called tikkun hamidot (“character rectification”).
Each middah (lit. measurement) has a specific way of functioning and benefit. The first of these attributes is called chesed (kindness), whose inner essence is ahavah (love). Love is the prime emotion of the heart that also nurtures the other properties into maturity to promote a complete personality development. This inner force of expansion creates a feeling of attraction toward another, resulting in a sense of closeness and unity.
‘All You Need is Love’
Love is the thread that binds us to those people most dear. It nurtures important relationships — whether between friends, spouses, children and parents, or the love for our Creator — and helps these interactions to thrive. The powerful emotion has no limitations, transcending boundaries of time and place. In the Torah itself, there are explicit commandments stressing the importance of creating an active well-developed love inside: whether to “love your neighbor as yourself,” or to love God — “with all your heart, all your soul and with all your might.”
What drives the feeling of love? Sometimes love stems from the recognition of a striking or admirable quality. Here, the mind guides the heart; the more aware we are of these virtues, the stronger the pull. Other times, love is not provoked by any perception, but stems from a more innate bond. Ask a parent, for example, why they love their child. Even when the parent can list many exceptional qualities that the child possesses, it’s not any specific talent or virtue which serves as the ultimate cause for the love; the why transcends reason—it’s simply because “this is my child.”
Ideally, in those areas where we decide to channel our love, we want the emotion to be pure, free of any external factors. At the same time, there may be an advantage to using the mind to recognize special qualities and enhance the love.
The Mishnah
This Shabbat, the Chapter in Pirkei Avot contains a Mishnah (5:16) which discusses these two types of love: “Any love that is dependent on something — when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases. What is [an example of] a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one that is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.”
At first glance, the Mishnah seems to contain no novel teachings, only stating an obvious rule: Love born from an attraction to a specific quality will disappear whenever that quality disappears whereas a love that is not tied to any perceived advantage will endure. Indeed, everyone is familiar with the concept of conditional and unconditional love — so why are illustrations even necessary? Furthermore, of all the characters (and relationships) in Jewish literature, why were these two cases chosen as examples?
A precise analysis of the Hebrew word for “dependent,” however, reveals a hidden lesson wherein the Mishnah is not referring to what originally prompted the emotion but to the present status. Whenever the feeling of love is currently tied to a specific appreciation in the other — even if it was once unconditional love — there is a risk: If that feature ceases, so will the love. From the other angle, even when love was originally tied to some superficial appreciation or gain, it can evolve into an essential love. In other words, if right now the love is independent of any condition, regardless of its starting point, then it can possess that enduring power.
To emphasize this novelty, the Mishnah brings these specific examples from Tanach: one containing an innate love which changed into a superficial love and another where friendship transformed into unconditional love.
Some people may think along the lines of the old English proverb, “blood is thicker than water,” that family bonds are stronger than those of outside relationships, such as friendship or acquired love. As a result, they may be lax in building that love among the family members, taking these relationships for granted. Alternatively, people may be so focused on themselves and their family unit, creating an imaginary dynasty, that they neglect the opportunity to strengthen relationships outside.
So, the Mishnah provides an example wherein the love of Amnon and Tamar, his sister, was an essential love but the emotion disappeared when circumstances changed. An innate bond between siblings reverted to that of strangers. Conversely, we find a story of a friendship where the bond was so deep that it became like family. “After David finished speaking to Shaul, Jonathan’s soul became joined to David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as himself” (Samuel 1, 1:18).
Takeaway
The lesson from the Mishnah is that we must pinpoint our most cherished relationships (in multiple areas) and be conscious of what is presently fueling that bond. Love, regardless of the starting point, needs to be practiced and nurtured. The goal is to increase our tangible appreciation of the other’s unique traits, while ensuring that the essential force behind that love should not be tied to what we find attractive or beneficial — the gain — but independent of any virtue.

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The 12 Tribes and Camp Chai

Posted on 31 May 2019 by admin

Dear Families,
As we get ready for Camp Chai, campers are excited to find out what “tribe” they will be in. Every camp has traditions, and Camp Chai at the J has a longstanding tradition of naming our groups by the 12 tribes. Here is part of the blessing that Jacob gave to each of his sons, who later became the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel:
Reuben: the eldest who showed a deep sense of responsibility. He convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph. Later, he offered the lives of his own sons if he should fail to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. His symbol is the mandrake, the flower he brought to his mother Leah.
Gad: means “good fortune” and though “raided by raiders, he shall raid at their heels.” The symbol is camp tents, standing for prowess in battle.
Joseph: The favorite son was noble and distinguished; he was Jacob’s favorite. Joseph’s sons were given a blessing from Jacob because of their father’s honor. The symbol for Joseph includes the bull and the unicorn for his two sons.
Benjamin: “a hungry wolf who eats in the morning,” produced fine soldiers and gave Israel its first king. The symbol is the wolf.
Dan: means “to judge” and Dan would “judge his people.” But Jacob also said: “Dan shall be a serpent in the way.” The symbol is the serpent and scales of justice.
Judah: was a “young lion,” declared Jacob. “Rulers will descend from him.” Judah’s descendants include King David and King Solomon. The symbol is the lion.
Naftali: was alert, nimble and a good speaker. Jacob said he was “a deer let loose; he gives goodly words.” The symbol is a deer, still used by the Israel Ministry of Posts.
Simeon: The descendants of Simeon would be scattered among the tribes. The symbol is the Gates of Shechem, which was a city where the tribe of Simeon lived.
Zebulon: would “dwell at the shore and be a haven for ships.” The symbol is a ship with the breeze blowing and the white foam flowing.
Asher: means “happy,” and he would be “rich in oil.” The tribe of Asher grew olive groves and provided the Temple with oil. The symbol is the olive tree.
Menasha and Ephraim: Joseph’s sons were adopted by Jacob for a special blessing. “By thee shall Israel bless, saying: ‘God make thee as Ephraim and Menasha.’” The symbol for Menasha was the unicorn.
Levi: the tribe that served the Kohanim and the Temple. The symbol was the choshen mishpat — the breastplate of judgment. On the plate were 12 jewels, each with the name of a tribe.
Now if that is too much to remember, here is a song we sing — it is to the tune of “Catalina Magdalina” (some verses are a little tricky) but the same message is given:
Jacob Blesses His Sons
CHORUS: Jacob had 12 sons but they came from different moms. Each became a tribe in Jewish history.
Reuben was the oldest but he didn’t have much spine so he got the basic blessing but without the bottom line. CHORUS
As for Simeon and Levi, their families got mixed. Due to what occurred in Shechem, their blessing was nixed. CHORUS
All honor goes to Judah, the ancestor of David the King. His tribe would win back the Promised Land and praises would ring. CHORUS
Zebulon got the seashore and Issachar got the land. In looking at the blessings, these two were very grand. CHORUS
The task of judging all the folks was given to Dan. But for eloquence in speech, Naftali was the man. CHORUS
Gad will be a raider with a winning warrior band. And Asher will lead the traders and bring delicacies to the land. CHORUS
Benjamin was the baby but he led a wolf-like tribe. First he takes the goodies and later he will divide. CHORUS
Joseph was the favorite but we all know that. He got the longest blessing plus the coat upon his back. CHORUS
Ephraim and Menasha were Joseph’s pride. They got Grampa Jacob’s blessing as they stood side by side. CHORUS

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