Parashat Ha’azinu – September 22, 2018 – 13 Tishrei 5779

According to the midrash, Moses’ declaration at the beginning of this week’s parasha “Listen O heavens, and I will speak; earth, hear the words of my mouth,” implies that Moses was especially close to the heavens, such that he could call to the heavens at close range. Moses’ implied ability to negotiate the heavenly sphere bears an interesting connection with the conclusion of Yom Kippur. We conclude Yom Kippur by declaring seven times in unison, “Adonai is God.” Why repeat this phrase seven times? According to Jewish tradition there are seven layers of heaven and God’s presence, the Shechinah, resides in the seventh, outermost layer. The period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is when God is most likely to be found because (according to tradition) this is the season that God is closest to us. As the Shechinah departs to ascend back to the seventh heaven at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we escort the Divine Presence by calling out “Adonai is God,” once for each of the seven stages. The ancient Greeks had a conception of the seven heavens (which could well be the source for our notion), which they believed corresponded to the “seven planets” known in antiquity. The outermost planet they named “Saturn,” which is where we get the name of the day “Saturday.” It is intriguing that “Saturday” corresponds to the seventh day of our week, “Shabbat.” It may seem strange that we would associate Saturday/Shabbat with God’s most distant abode. On the other hand, the midrash, noting Moses’ apparent intimacy with God, credits him with the unique ability to bring the Shechinah back down to earth. Perhaps we do something similar when we replicate “heaven on earth” with our Shabbat spirit.

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Hoshanah Rabbah Extravaganza

Sunday, September 30 at 8:30 am

Hoshanah Rabbah is the 7th day of Sukkot, on which 7 circuits are made around the synagogue reciting a prayer with the refrain, “Hosha na!” (please save us!). Traditional beating of the willows at morning minyan followed by a full breakfast. Questions? Contact Ron Rudolph in the shul office, 614-237-2747.

Sukkah Hop

Saturday, September 29

4:00-6:00 pm

Contact Naomi at 614-237-2747 x17 or nkurland@agudasachim.org to get a map with addresses.

Dine Under the Stars in the Sukkah

Friday, September 28 – Dinner at 5:30 pm

$10/adult; $5/child; $25/family cap

RSVP by September 25 to 614-237-2747 or rsvp@agudasachim.org.

After 9/25, all costs increase by $5, NO EXCEPTIONS!

Pizza in the Hut

Thursday, September 27

5:15-6:45 pm

Sponsored by the Agudas Achim Brotherhood. FREE!

Music by Ruvane.

RSVP to Naomi at 614-237-2747 x17 or nkurland@agudasachim.org by September 21 to secure your slice!

Parashat Vayelech – September 15, 2018 – 6 Tishrei 5779

Twice in this week’s parasha, Moses utters the encouraging words, “Be strong and courageous.” This Biblical expression, which appears several times in scripture, is also to be found at the end of Psalm 27, the special psalm added to our services during the season of repentance. The context of these passages indicates that this expression was used to encourage those who were facing the challenge posed by external foes. In contrast, the Talmudic rabbis use this phrase to explain that four human endeavors require strength and courage. They are: Torah study, prayer, good deeds, and the pursuit of one’s worldly occupation (Brachot 32b). The challenges to these endeavors would seem to be primarily internal. It is largely up to me, and not some external foe, if I study or not, pray, commit to good deeds, work hard, and so forth. Why would the rabbis apply this phrase to internal challenges, rather than to explicitly external ones? In Pirke Avot, Ben Zoma advises, “Who is strong? One who rules over himself.” Our rabbis realized that, as formidable as external foes might be, the real challenge in life is to overcome ourselves. Study, prayer, good deeds, and a job don’t happen by themselves. These activities take thought, commitment and discipline. And these traits require strength and courage. May we be blessed with “strength and courage” for the New Year!

B’Yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Nitzavim – September 8, 2018 – 28 Elul 5778

At the risk of stating the obvious, intentionality is considered essential to Jewish prayer. To simply “go through the motions” by rote without paying attention to the prayer is shallow, misses the point of worship, and probably renders the prayer invalid according to Jewish Law. That’s why it is astonishing to find in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Rabbi Hiyya said, “In all my days, I’ve never concentrated in prayer. I wanted to once, and I ended up thinking about Persian court protocols.” Shmuel said, “[During services,] I count baby chickens.” (some texts “clouds”) Rabbi Bun b. Hiyya said, “I count the layers of brick in the wall [during services].” Rav Matinya said, “I must express gratitude for my head, for it knows to automatically bow at the right time!” (Yer. Ber. 2:4)

The traditional commentators are understandably loathe to take this passage at face value. They assume it must contain some deeper, hidden meaning. As modern readers of our tradition, I think we can accept that plainly some of our founding sages found it very difficult, even impossible, to pay attention during services. Their transparency about this difficulty empowers us to confront it honestly as well. Indeed, services have actually grown quite a bit longer over the past 1700 years.

Our cantor, staff, lay leaders and I work hard to keep our services lively and engaging. Over the past few years, we have freshened the format for the shofar blowing, added English readings/poems composed by congregants, innovated brief “bio’s” of those honored to be called to the bima, and included a special prayer which is led by non-Jewish fellow worshippers. I believe we can still do even better and that everyone can help. If you see a neighbor confused how to follow, gently direct him/her to the right page. If you recognize the tune, sing along with energy and spirit, and if you feel we’ve missed a tune that you recall fondly from previous years, let us know. It’s okay to let kids play quietly (there’s a play rug and toys in the social hall section), and it’s okay to take breaks and chat in the hallway.

While you’re there, check out this year’s amazing Agudas Lamed-Vavniks featured on our walls. We invite you to volunteer to greet, usher, or learn a role for the service. We have empty chairs on the bima and it is your bima too. Join me for a little prayerful company whenever you like. Become a partner in making our services engaging. No doubt about it, they are long and can be tough to get through. Worst case scenario, count a few bricks; or chickens.

B’vrachah (with blessings),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Parashat Ki Tavo – September 1, 2018 – 21 Elul 5778

In this week’s parasha, the Torah reminds us of the importance of the mitzvot. God, through Moses, instructs us saying, “Sh’marta ve asita otam” – “You shall keep them and do them.” Rabbi Yochanan, a rabbi of the Midrash, noticed the apparent redundancy – the Torah says “keep” and “do” them. If we need both words, there must be two actions being referred to. What’s the difference between “keep” and “do”?

Rabbi Yochanan realized that the Hebrew word “asita” not only means “you shall do,” it can also be translated as “you shall make.” Therefore, he interpreted the verse in a surprising and important way. The Torah is hinting that if we “keep” a mitzvah properly, this is tantamount to “making” it – actually creating that mitzvah, and the one who does this gets the credit as if he or she actually commanded it.

This is a strange midrash. Usually, people do mitzvot because they believe, and want to believe, that God commanded them. Why would Rabbi Yochanan interpret this verse to mean that doing a mitzvah is like creating it yourself?

The answer lies in his words, “doing a mitzvah properly.” Doing a mitzvah “properly” in this context means implementing it in a way that is fair and reasonable; as opposed to literal. One who does a mitzvah literally, does the mitzvah as created by God. But the one who does the mitzvah, taking into account justice and common sense, may end up doing the mitzvah very differently – and therefore it is possible to claim that this mitzvah, done properly by this person, was in a sense “created” by that person.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Yochanan goes even further and suggests that doing a mitzvah properly can even be a way of making oneself. That is, people can reinvent themselves through a commitment to doing the right thing – in a tough situation; you create what it really means to be you by getting it right. As a teacher of mine used to say, “God makes us ‘human,’ but we must add the ‘e.’ Only we can make ourselves ‘humane.’”

B’yedidut (w/friendship),

Rabbi Mitch Levine

Selichot Program & Service

Prior to Selichot services on Saturday night, September 1 at 9:00 pm, we are screening the gripping documentary “The Four Chaplains: Sacrifice at Sea”. 

 

In 1943, four young Army chaplains joined 900 recruits who were headed for battle in Nazi-occupied Europe on the U.S.A.T. Dorchester. During the voyage, a torpedo from a German submarine ripped through the hull of the ship  In the scramble for lifeboats, four chaplains on board-…a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant ministers- directed soldiers to safety. They also selflessly removed their own life vests and gave them to the soldiers, knowing they could not possibly survive without the flotation devices. They spent their last moments singing hymns and praying, arm-in-arm, as the ship disappeared beneath the waves. This event was the catalyst for Americans to embrace interfaith understanding. Until the Dorchester, there was no mention in print of Catholics, Protestants and Jews working together in this manner, especially in prayer.