Gator Torah

Fully Jewish in North Central Florida

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Vayechi

Last night I spoke about the beautiful blessing that Jacob gave to his grandchildren, Menashe and Ephraim. Today, I’d like to turn our attention to the special and complicated blessings that he gave to his twelve sons.  

These ‘blessings’ are difficult to understand. In many cases Jacob is intent on reminding his sons of past misdeeds and his predictions based on the consequences of the deeds. In other cases he notes the special quality of a particular son and bequeaths the blessings based on the strengths he perceives for that son. In either case, he tailors his specific message to each son individually. 

I was reminded by these individualized blessings of the kind of educational technique that we have come to accept as standard these days. Teachers understand that every student has their own strengths and weaknesses and it is vital that we present material in various modalities that will appeal to each students needs.

In fact, we easily recognize today that we live in a very diverse world where every individual is unique and brings with them their own unique gifts, talents, personal qualities and innate identity. And we acknowledge that every individual deserves the right to live their life in safety and security.

It is for that reason that I was proud to be part of a delegation of 30 rabbis organized by American Jewish World Service, including Rabbi Kaiman of Tulsa OK (my son), who met with administration officials at The White House this week. We were there to address violence that is being perpetrated against women, girls and LGBT people domestically and internationally. We were there to ask the administration to raise their voice in opposition to the crimes that these groups must face in parts of the world where they cannot live with any decent sense of safety just because of who they are. 

We came to The White House as rabbis from every denomination and background - we were modern orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, male, female, straight and gay - speaking out because we believe that ours is a tradition that demands that we fulfill our holy destiny to be a light unto the nations. We were there because we believe that as Jews we must act to repair a broken world….doing deeds of Tikkun Olam that is our obligation before God. 

We came to the White House because we live in a diverse world where every individual is different yet deserves the right to live as they are. We came to give voice to those who need our voice.

But there is something else too. You see, these 12 sons who received these diverse blessings have come to Egypt as very different people. In the next few weeks we will read about their decendents who will suffer greatly under the thumb of the Egyptian pharaohs oppression.  Eventually these children of Jacob (who is also known as Israel) will leave Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Then, in the desert, they will become a people united under the banner of vision, belief and destiny.  

As rabbis we came together last Wednesday with a united mission that superseded the differences that far too often divide us. Together we formed a community united by mission and by our recognition that we live in a world that demands we take a stand for justice. It is easy to focus on the what separates us as Jews but it is much more important to focus on what unites us.

There is a midrash that tells us that when the Children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai God spoke in a single clear voice. But each individual heard a message that was unique to them. Jacob’s parting words to his sons are a foreshadowing of that moment at Sinai and they are a message to us to build a world where we celebrate diversity, safety and security for all.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Vayechi

Last night I spoke about the beautiful blessing that Jacob gave to his grandchildren, Menashe and Ephraim. Today, I’d like to turn our attention to the special and complicated blessings that he gave to his twelve sons.

These ‘blessings’ are difficult to understand. In many cases Jacob is intent on reminding his sons of past misdeeds and his predictions based on the consequences of the deeds. In other cases he notes the special quality of a particular son and bequeaths the blessings based on the strengths he perceives for that son. In either case, he tailors his specific message to each son individually.

I was reminded by these individualized blessings of the kind of educational technique that we have come to accept as standard these days. Teachers understand that every student has their own strengths and weaknesses and it is vital that we present material in various modalities that will appeal to each students needs.

In fact, we easily recognize today that we live in a very diverse world where every individual is unique and brings with them their own unique gifts, talents, personal qualities and innate identity. And we acknowledge that every individual deserves the right to live their life in safety and security.

It is for that reason that I was proud to be part of a delegation of 30 rabbis organized by American Jewish World Service, including Rabbi Kaiman of Tulsa OK (my son), who met with administration officials at The White House this week. We were there to address violence that is being perpetrated against women, girls and LGBT people domestically and internationally. We were there to ask the administration to raise their voice in opposition to the crimes that these groups must face in parts of the world where they cannot live with any decent sense of safety just because of who they are.

We came to The White House as rabbis from every denomination and background - we were modern orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, male, female, straight and gay - speaking out because we believe that ours is a tradition that demands that we fulfill our holy destiny to be a light unto the nations. We were there because we believe that as Jews we must act to repair a broken world….doing deeds of Tikkun Olam that is our obligation before God.

We came to the White House because we live in a diverse world where every individual is different yet deserves the right to live as they are. We came to give voice to those who need our voice.

But there is something else too. You see, these 12 sons who received these diverse blessings have come to Egypt as very different people. In the next few weeks we will read about their decendents who will suffer greatly under the thumb of the Egyptian pharaohs oppression. Eventually these children of Jacob (who is also known as Israel) will leave Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Then, in the desert, they will become a people united under the banner of vision, belief and destiny.

As rabbis we came together last Wednesday with a united mission that superseded the differences that far too often divide us. Together we formed a community united by mission and by our recognition that we live in a world that demands we take a stand for justice. It is easy to focus on the what separates us as Jews but it is much more important to focus on what unites us.

There is a midrash that tells us that when the Children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai God spoke in a single clear voice. But each individual heard a message that was unique to them. Jacob’s parting words to his sons are a foreshadowing of that moment at Sinai and they are a message to us to build a world where we celebrate diversity, safety and security for all.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Reaching Out into the Water

This past week I was privileged to join with an organization of colleagues under the banner of “Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Justice”. We traveled to Immokolee, Florida, in the heart of agricultural country to meet with the Coalition of Immokolee Workers who have been working tirelessly over many years to improve the conditions of Florida’s largely immigrant farm workers.

I wish I could tell you that I was shocked by what I saw and what I learned. Sadly, extreme poverty and brutal labor has been a part of Florida life for many generations and our farmworkers have suffered the worst abuses. It is hopeful to believe that slavery was abolished after the Civil War but alas forced labor, of one sort of another, continues to be with us and even in our land of plenty these immigrants work under conditions that are unimaginable.

Nevertheless, I came away with a number of impressions. First, and perhaps foremost, I saw farmworkers who were representing themselves and working tirelessly to improve their own conditions. They were giving their own voices and strength to find ways of improving the situation for family and friends. If America is about anything I believe it is about empowering the voiceless minority to find their voices. Listening to the farmworkers themselves tell about their plight was more powerful and important than I could imagine. But hearing their plans for improving life and conditions - hearing their hopeful vision - was inspiring for me and for those who shared this experience with me.

I was fortunate to hear directly of the fruits of the campaign to win the support of big food buyers across the nation who have voluntarily committed themselves to a program of insuring that one cent per pound of tomatoes purchased will go directly to the pickers to improve their lives. Sadly, I learned too of corporations such as Publix and Wendy’s who yet have taken steps to see that corporate responsibility is enhanced when consumers are assured that produce buyers have done all they can for the lowest workers on the food chain.

Yet, abuse persists. I learned of outrageous housing prices for farmworkers that amounts to nothing more than criminal economic rape of the most vulnerable in our society. Right here in Florida there are landlords charging more than $300 per WEEK for dilapidated trailer housing. Workers pay these outrageous prices because they are forced, through circumstance and availability, to take what is offered. Undoubtedly the slumlords who provide these substandard conditions would argue their right to economic independence and I have no doubt that their political clout insulates their egregious crime against society. Incidentally, I am not so naive to think that this crime exists only in farmworker country - the unfair advantage taken over the poor extends throughout the United States in many industries where those who have the least are the most vulnerable.

I stood there in Immokolee with rabbis from across the Jewish denominations. We were bound together by our underlying belief that at our religious core is a fundamental compassion for human beings that animates our religious sensibility. Each year, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, we read together the words of the prophet Isaiah who calls us to loosen the bonds of the oppressed and to feed those who are hungry. We stood together in Immokolee because these words are not empty recitations for us. No, these words are the core of what motivates us to teach, lead, minister and participate in the lives of our communities to build together a better and more decent world.

The classic story of Jewish redemption does not begin when Moses confronted Pharaoh or even when Moses stood at that burning bush. No, the stirrings of redemption would occur when Pharaoh’s daughter would reach out into the water to bring the floating Baby Moses ashore to safety. In our own way we need to reach out beyond our comfort zone and into the waters of despair to redeem a generation that longs for a chance at freedom.

They called us ‘tomato rabbis’ in honor of our involvement with these tomato pickers. I’d like to suggest however that we became tomato rabbis not because we stood shoulder to shoulder but because, like the tomato fruit itself, we had ripened into more sensitive individuals who, filled with passion for change will continue to raise voices and consciousness to build a world where every individual is treated with decency and respect.

Rabbi David Kaiman
November 2013

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The Story of Moses Levy: An inspired individual
Yom Kippur 5774

I don’t know if it is still mandated by the Florida Legislature or not, but when I was in fourth grade there was a mandatory semester of Florida history. I can remember the workbook fairly well and I was intrigued with the pictures of the Indians from early Florida history. You see back in those days, back in the early 60s in civic parades and at tourist stopsthroughout Florida one could see “authentic” Seminole Indians who were seen as the original inhabitants of Florida. I can also remember seeing the veterans the Spanish-American war who would march in Pensacola celebration of Florida history that would begin every year with the re-creation of the landing of Ponce DeLeon on the shores of Pensacola Beach. I suppose that growing up in Pensacola endowed many of us with a strong sense of Florida history. maybe the same thing happened in other parts of Florida as well.

I remember in college I used to love spending time in the library stacks- here the UF library- especially in this section that contained books of Judaica and Jewish history. I remember finding, to my delight a slim volume on the history of the Jews of Mobile Alabama- a community not too far away from Pensacola and as I imagined connected closely in Jewish history.
Years later my mother would become involved in the Jewish heritage project that would evolve into the Florida Jewish Museum that I’m sure many of you have visited in South Beach. It’s a fascinating place and recounts much of the history of the growing Jewish communities that exist now in Florida.

But there is one chapter of Florida Jewish history that although I did know about, I hadn’t fully appreciated until recently. Thank you Connie for the gift of a book by what turned out to be a local historian, Dr. CS Monaco who was a friend and colleague of our longtime friend and congregant, Dr. Sam Proctor. Dr. Monaco’s book is titled Moses Levy of Florida.

Now like you, I did know that Moses Levy was an early landholder in the new state of Florida and I knew that he was the father of the first senator From Florida, David Yullee. I also knew something about a Jewish settlement in Micanopy, but it wasn’t until reading this book that I fully appreciated just what had taken place less than 10 miles from where we stand today.

You see in 1826 or thereabouts, Moses Levy, who had emigrated under duress from Morocco to the Caribbean islands, found himself as a man of means and a dream. You see he had been inspired not only through the events of his life to his readings of Torah his interactions with his fellow man and circumstances to envision a settlement where Jews from Eastern Europe who, living under dire circumstances, would be able to come and create for themselves the kind of utopian society where they could reap the benefits of a bountiful land in their own labor. Moses Levy dreamed of a world where Jews could live in peace unencumbered with the burdens they faced in the old world. As Monaco describes Levy for Saul that he would build a community of equals. It would be a small cooperative agricultural settlement where each family would raise between 1 to 5 acres of sugar cane. He imagined the neighbors would unite in harvesting the cane for processing in communal sugar mills and according to Levy’s vision “each shall be entitled to his portion of sugar which is to be assessed by competent judges amongst themselves… With the spirit of neighborly consideration.”

Most importantly Moses Levy envisioned a society where slaves would be able to live as families. This was contrary to the practice that existed in the territorial Florida at that time.
Levy was able to purchase a large section of Central Florida from the Spanish were leaving at the time of the American takeover of Florida The settlement would be named ‘pilgrimage plantation’. today we know much of where that plantation is located. Among one of the major financiers of the plantation was a Mr. Warburg for whom Lake Wahlberg is now name Alas, after a number of years which appeared to be difficult but manageable the plantation was burned to the ground. At the time it was thought that Indians and destroyed the plantation but speculation persists that in fact It was settlers who opposed to the way slaves were being treated in the plantation. This vision of independence laves they feared would spread throughout the state and the nature of the society in Florida would change forever.

Now I tell you this story today, because I do believe that there is a connection with this holiday of Yom Kippur:
You see the Torah reading on the Yom Kippur, as I explained earlier, Focuses our attention on the rituals of the day on the instructions that the text says that God wants us to do for this day of Yom Kippur. But then here in Isaiah in chapters 57 and 58 we are refocused away from the ritual but rather in to a life of service. Isaiah imagined that God asks us “is this the kind of fast that I wanted, a day is focused on self affliction? is this what you mean by a fast, a day to obtain God’s approval? of course not applies Isaiah for what God really wants is “for us to loosen the bonds created by wickedness, untie the cords the key people enslaved, snap all the yolks of the oppressed and let them go free. Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless into your house; provide clothing for those who lack it, and do not turn away from those in need” according to Isaiah, we serve God by bringing about social justice.

Isaiah is speaking to us. And he does not stop with the instructions for how we should live our lives. No he goes forward with poetic eloquence to describe how acting justly will transform our lives. “If you dedicate yourself to feeding the hungry, and the comforting the sole who is afflicted, then your light will shine in the darkness and your blues will be dispelled like the noon day sun… You will be like a well watered garden and a spring whose waters always flow… You will be known as the mender of fences, as the restorer of homes… If you understand the Shabbat as a delight, a day sanctified the gods of honor, and if you honor it by abstaining from your work and seeking profit or conducting business. Then you will find the light in the Lord and I will transport you beyond earthly boundaries and I will nourish you with the spiritual heritage of your ancestors. This is what I do promise.

Friends, we are hardwired for empathy(1) and for helping others in the world. A recent article in the Huffington Post described the health benefits, now documented, that results from living a life of service and giving our central. We know now that we can live longer and more productive and happier lives when we find purpose in our life helping others. For some this may seem counterintuitive because for so many years it was believed or thought that a happy life was being able to provide for ourselves.
The challenge that comes to us on Yom Kippur is to turn our lives around. We are to take ourselves away from living a life turned inward to a life that is turned outward- it should be a life that is filled the doing of mitzvot in the performance of the goodness.the challenges are not small. as Ariana Huffington wrote in her blog this week: Technology has made it possible to be in a self-contained, disconnected bubble 24 hours a day, even while walking down the street. Our devices might seem like they’re connecting us, but they’re really disconnecting us from other people, without whom it’s hard to activate our hard-wired need for empathy.

In many ways we are more disconnected than ever. Children are pressured to turn education into technological expertise instead of social awareness. The time that they would have spent playing with friends is now programmed and planned and while it is true that required volunteer hours are now mandatory, I fear that these experiences are simply checkmarks off of lists of requirements instead of being the wholehearted imperatives that will bring great rewards. even worse, I fear that these experiences in required volunteerism are totally disconnected from the sense of religious obligation that is part and parcel, no indeed central, to Jewish life.

Moses Levy demonstrated that one man driven with vision could create even temporarily the hope of a better world. His vision did not succeed but here not 10 miles from his experiment we sit almost 200 years later feeling somehow connected to his bold plan. Incidentally, despite the thousands of historical markers that dot the state of Florida there is not one marker to commemorate pilgrimage plantation. And in fact, even though the site is designated as an archaeological treasure no money has been allocated or raised for excavation or exploration.
So today I ask you my friends: can we emulate the example of Moses Levy and have the vision to build a better society. Can we in our own small way turn our fast from mere ritual into a plan of action for social justice and social good in the year ahead? Are we ready like Levy to dream big even though we know that there is a chance for failure.

I’ve been proud that our congregation has long stepped forward to feed the homeless, to provide shelter, to provide clothing, medical needs and to fulfill the mandate that Isaiah gives to us. But I fear that we have not reached our potential and then there are many unmet needs that we may still be able to provide for. Today I would like to challenge you, as this holiday ends this evening, to step forward, to volunteer to help lead congregation B’nai Israel in our existing efforts and in new efforts to reach out in the community both to Jews and non-Jews to those in America to those in Israel and to those around the world. I stand ready to help you in the fulfillment of this challenge.

I pray today that our words will not be empty but that our hearts will be full and our actions clear. Upgraded together as a congregation we will see the fruits of our labors to build a vision of a new world. Let us take up the mantle of pilgrimage plantation that was settled right here those years ago- let us renew the promise that started here in central Florida of a community of Jews who were deeply progressive and brave. Amen.

(1) As quoted in Huffington Post August 23, 2013 “Empath for friends is hardwired into our brains, Study suggests”.

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After Boston

I hadn’t planned on writing anything on this tragedy in Boston. In fact, there is a long list of important projects that I need to attend to for upcoming events and meetings that are all pressing  down on me. But you see, I noticed a sign today in my local coffee shop that made me stop: “Lets come together to make our community stronger” said the poster board that had undoubtedly been prepared months ago. Yes, we need RIGHT NOW to come together to consider how to move forward after Boston.

Our hearts stopped yesterday when we heard the news. A bomb? At the Boston Marathon?  Another awful event?  More death?  I looked at the runners and could not help but think of the finish lines that I’ve crossed recently…the exhilaration, fatigue and sense of accomplishment that was tempered for these runners with the sudden realization that something had gone horribly wrong. Fellow runners and spectators were hurting and some were dying. Yes, something had gone horribly wrong.

There have been many eloquent words of prayer, comfort and hope that have been offered in the past 24 hours. My colleagues have noted the complicated emotions of multi-layered meaning to observe Israel’s Memorial Day followed immediately by Israel’s Independence Day and then this…the Boston Marathon tragedy. It is almost more than one can comprehend.

Some have suggested that this event must be related to some larger societal malaise.  Perhaps frustration?  Perhaps a sense of voicelessness? Perhaps an organized anger over some national policy or an enemy seeking to use terrorism to break at the fabric of American society? Could it be that our national consciousness is so dulled by violence on videos and movies that thrill seekers only seek to make real what was once fantasy?  Time and the effort of law enforcement will soon tell us more but I am afraid that like Newtown, Oklahoma City and so many other events we will never come to a totally satisfactory explanation. 

But…our tradition responds with remarkable timeliness! This Shabbat the Torah portion is titled “Achare Mot-Kedoshim”.  Those are the opening words of the reading in Leviticus 16 to 20 but simply translated the words of this week’s Torah reading are translated to mean: “After the death, holiness”. In the context of the book of Leviticus the words refer to the response of Moses and the community after the death of Aaron’s sons. In quick succession the Torah text moves from acknowledging painful loss to instructions for living a life of holiness.  

This tragedy in Boston was a painful loss of life. We hurt as the biblical Aaron undoubtedly hurt. We move forward by finding ways of living higher lives of purpose and holiness. We raise our lives higher when we reach beyond ourselves to find ways of building a world of hope. Holiness urges us toward doing deeds of kindness, charity, love and compassion. Holiness impels us outward toward lives that are infused with a sense of purpose. Holiness inspires us to see the goodness despite the darkness; to touch beauty despite the ugly; to hear the music; to smell the perfume; to taste the sweetness. Holiness can drive our lives to have the strength to continue to build a better world where each individual feels valued, loved and secure. 

We pray that those who have survived this tragedy feel the healing compassion of our love and that the perpetrators recognize that their evil will never deter our path toward the holy. 

Rabbi David Kaiman

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Ascending in Holiness: Shabbat Hagadol 5773

When we read this week’s Torah portion (Tzav) we cannot help but recall the greatest place where sacrifices would be offered: The Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  And there, in the Holy Temple was the Holy of Holies- that place where the High Priest would ascend on the most Holy of days during the most holy of hours to the most holy location on earth. He would ascend up the stairs in front of the assembled crowd who understood that this act of ‘going up’ to the Holy spot was fraught with danger. In fact, they would tie a rope to the High Priest in case the worst happened while he was inside this special space.  They intuitively understood that the holy could be dangerous.


Of course you may ask…what makes something Holy?  Let me suggest that it is probably easier to define what holy is not:  The ‘profane’ are those things that are part of the ordinary world and do not inspire, move or make us feel good. The ‘not holy’ are those things that we do not or cannot react to because they just have no real meaning in our life.  But the holy…well, the holy is what lifts us and takes us to someplace that is indescribable- -a higher space and existence.


But going back to consider the act of ascending to the holy of holies in the Temple: We know that the High Priest would deliberately walk up fifteen steps before reaching that holy pinnacle. Fifteen steps taking the Priest from a low level to the highest level of holiness imagined. And what is so interesting….is that OUR Pesach Seder…well, it includes fifteen separate steps before reaching the conclusion of the Seder.  Perhaps our Seder ITSELF is meant to be a vehicle for increasing holiness….with each step taking one higher and higher…


The seder starts with KADESH…which plainly refers to the Kiddish: The blessing over wine. But the word itself means “holiness” and it is our first indication that we are on a journey of holiness just as the High Priest was on a journey of holiness. The seder’s purpose is not simply to tell the story of the exodus…it is to RAISE US UP.


We move from Kadesh to URCHATZ…which is the ritual washing without a blessing. You see, water is one of the most basic substances of life. Without it we could not sustain life of any kind. And so….we TOUCH water…we feel its substance as it flows over our fingers. We are reminded of our fragile existence and we can feel the substance that keeps us alive. It is touchable but not solid. It is solid but clear. One moment we are wet and one moment later we are dry - so ephemeral and yet so present. Simple water. Simply complex. And as we feel the water we are so naturally nudged one step higher with…


CARPAS - the next step of the seder.  You know this as the dipping of a green vegetable into salt water. I once read an explanation of CARPAS that explained that the word itself is an anagram of the number 600,000 which is traditionally the number who left Egypt.  Perhaps this reminds us of how important each individual - each single soul - was as they left that land of oppression.  But…there is something more, too.  This small product of the earth is truly a miracle…it represents the gift of sustenance that keeps us alive throughout our lives. Without the produce of the land we could not live the lives of luxury that we enjoy. This is the miracle of SPRING and for us to go forward in holiness we must be AWARE of just exactly where we are.  Somehow we must know not only our LOCATION in space but our location in TIME as well.  Realizing that we are in spring helps us to locate ourselves.  Only when we know where we are can we even begin to contemplate the next step forward in holiness.


YAHATZ.  It is this point in the seder where we take the middle piece of matzah and break it in half!  How appropriate!  In our journey upward we must come to know that we still live in a world of brokenness. It is not only the brokenness of others but our own brokenness that we must somehow come to acknowledge. When we know the source of our own brokenness and are able to acknowledge that brokenness to ourselves then we are able to move forward…to move upward.  It is the process of getting to know ourselves. Additionally, we must be able to realize that there is still so much brokenness in our world  - so much pain!  How can we live in our world without the Jewish urge to relieve suffering of others?  What are we willing to do to help those in the world who yet suffer?  We ask!  We must answer…and we will then move forward….


To MAGGID.  The TELLING of the story of the Exodus!  The New York Times recently published an article by Bruce Fieler on the importance of stories in our lives. Humans are designed so that we MUST tell our stories….it is what allows us to form our own sense of identity that is so necessary in our lives. Young people need to be able to learn the story of their lives for healthy development and as we sit around the seder table we not only tell the story of the exodus but we tell the story of families; the stories of how we got to be who we are and where we are; the stories of the lives of our guests and friends who are at the seder as well.  These are absolutely vital in developing our own sense of ourselves…in developing our own ability to know ourselves.


Our next washing is called RACHATZ and it is this washing that is done with a blessing. Here, we note that water has a powerful property.  It has the ability to wash the dirt away from our hands. We are symbolically clearing away the old habits and any impurity that could stain our very being. It is this water that has the job of symbolically reminding us that we do not have to carry the past with us wherever we go.  We have the amazing ability to begin afresh.  After all, Pesach is one of the Jewish New Year celebrations and signifies, just as much as Rosh Hashanah, the ability to begin again.  New “starts” are liberating and more than any other holiday on our calendar Pesach is meant to remind us of liberation.  This is also the washing before the meal and is the washing of purity that was done in ancient times before the purifying rituals of sacrifice.  This washing leads us directly to our next higher step.


The MOTZI or the blessing over the food. It is the moment that begins to prepare us for the meal ahead. We say this prayer before each and every meal, each and every day. We remind ourselves with these words that the food we are about to eat is not simply a result of our own effort but rather is a combination of our efforts and the gifts that God has given to us. It is this step where we solidify our feelings of gratitude that have brought us to this special moment in our seder.


We are now ready to eat the MATZAH. This bread is unlike the regular bread that we eat during the year. We refer to matzoh as the poor man’s bread and its flatness reminds us that not everyone can live a life of luxury. As we are ascending in holiness we cannot help but turn our thoughts to the wider world where hunger is still a fact of life; as we are ascending in holiness we pray that we may be inspired to live a life of compassion and empathy. In fact, it is our religious responsibility to remind ourselves to reach out to those in need and to recognize that the luxury that we enjoy gives us the responsibility to help those who need. Unless we are aware of this we cannot even begin to build a world where all can live a life of peace, security and sustenance.


In continuing our trek up the stairs of holiness we now come to eat the MAROR. It reminds us of bitterness that we have experienced in our own lives and that others are experiencing even now. Life cannot always be sweet. Sometimes life contains elements that are unpleasant and difficult. Surrounded at the seder by our loved ones and dear friends we are in danger of forgetting.  Our religious responsibility is to remember more than just the good time but the bad times as well.  Memory can have great power in our lives and has the possibility to inspire us as a community and as individuals.


Eating the Hillel sandwich is the step of the seder known as KORECH.  It is a nod to the habits of a previous generation.  What an amazing thing!  We are here…now…in the year 2013 and partake of a recipe that is quite out of the ordinary for us but is based on something that our ancestors created years ago.  For them it must of had a particular meaning but for us it is our way of saying that we recognize that we are connected to generations past and that we value the contributions that they have made to our lives. We do this even if we have to stretch to fully understand what the purposes of their customs might have been!  Korech connects us to the past in a very personal way.


Everybody’s favorite part of the seder is the meal which we call SHULCHAN ORECH. In fact, it is the meal that was commanded to the Israelites by God at the night of that last plague.  We read in Exodus that the Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb and have a meal with Matza and Maror and that will be their Passover sacrifice.  The meal is what allows us (no, we don’t do sacrifices anymore) , to fulfill the commandment of Passover and like all sacrifices (karbonote) it is, at its root, the way we “come close” (karov) to God.  Our system of mitzvot in Judaism is a system where it is what we DO and not what we say or believe that counts. It is in our actions that we demonstrate our commitments.  But there is more, too, because a meal is a social convention that allows us to sit in family and community and share laughter, talk, discussion and each other’s presence.  A meal brings us close to one another in a very special way.


Of course when we eat we are obligated to move to TZAFON or the eating of the Afikomen.  Indeed, with the satisfaction of the meal we can seek to reintegrate the brokenness that we acknowledged earlier back into the seder and back into our lives. We are now strong enough to try and bring a sense of wholeness into our being.  Finding the broken pieces, restoring them as part of our meal, makes our satisfaction with the meal even more complete somehow. For one to become whole they must fortify themselves first and then accept the inevitability that wholeness does not come about instantaneously.


BARECH and HALLEL are our most immediate responses as we near the top of our rise in spirit and holiness. That is to say, that blessing and praise (the translation of Barech and Hallel) come as a result of our spiritual sense of gratitude and satisfaction.  Our hearts are opened and the only thing we can think to do is to look toward heaven with praise and song on our full hearts. And so we sing. We sing loud and we sing hard with the last remaining step in this journey just ahead.


Finally, that last step of the seder. The last step in the 15 steps toward the Holy of Holies.  And what do we do in that last step called NIRTZA? We say to one another “Next Year in Jerusalem”!  You see, my friends, it is only when we reach that top step, like the mountain climber who has reached the summit, that we have the vision and view to peer outward.  From the peak our vision is the clearest and the cleanest and in this vision we look out not at scenery but at TIME. And we look toward a future that is full of hope!  Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is more than just a physical location. Jerusalem is a dream of the highest religious nature.  Jerusalem is the hope of mankind for peace and an ultimate kind of freedom. Jerusalem is liberation. When we climb the steps successfully we will have enough power and vision to see ahead and to pray that one day we WILL have a deep world peace and liberation that is the true meaning of this holiday.


I wish you all a Pesach of sweetness, togetherness and most importantly—-a Pesach of ascending steps toward holiness.


Chag Kasher Sameach,


Rabbi David Kaiman

 

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Following Newtown: A question

After my last blog posting on the Newtown tragedy I received the following email. My response follows…..
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Dear Rabbi,

We seem to be outraged when people die in groups but not singly. If you look up the statistics, you will find that about 800 children (0-14) are murdered every year in this country, but this does not seem to bother people half as much as the 20 killed in Newtown.  To me, this seems irrational.

Signed,
AC

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Dear AC,

Thank you so much for your email.  You ask a very important question and it is worthwhile to consider the enormous response to this tragedy when so many others are hardly noticed.

The truth is that the event in Newtown, while awfully tragic, is as you suggest almost minor in scope to the sum total of the many tragedies that happen every day.  In fact, I did ponder in my previous posting as to some of the reasons I believe that this event struck such a raw nerve in the American public.  I mentioned my thoughts about the timing of the tragedy (one week prior to Christmas - a time of family and wishful peacefulness) and the shock because of the age of the victims. It is sadly clear to me, however, that there are other reasons that THIS event in Newtown garnered the rapt attention of Americans: the solid middle-class nature of this school; the location in proximity to New York City and the sources of network news coverage; and the media’s hungry need to present visceral drama as opposed to the mundane coverage of congress’ grappling with the taxes and the economy.  

But there is something much larger in your question and it gets to what I believe is at one of the foundations of human behavior.  We are, as you probably realize, innately built to forget somewhat easily. It has been said that if humans remembered the pain of childbirth that the human species would have died out. We avoid pain mostly by becoming habituated to what happens around us so that we can function. And when it comes to the emotional pain of living in a society where there is SO much violence, death and horror we are able to block this from our consciousness until an event so dramatic occurs as to shake us into the reality of the world around us.

Our world is wracked by horror: the desperation of mental illness and depression; the ravages of addiction; the shame of poverty, child slavery, unexplained illness and war are just a few of the things that beg for our attention, tears and heartache. It is simply impossible for us to attune ourselves at all times to all this pain.  It would overwhelm and could paralyze us from being able to do anything at all. So I think it is natural for some events, exceptional only because of some dramatic or unusual feature to catch our attention.

Irrational? Illogical? Perhaps. But it is a survival mechanism. You suggest in your letter that this focus on certain horrific events may lead us to incorrect conclusions - and I totally agree. But humans are just not built like computers. Our emotional responses will always drive behavior to a larger degree than logic. For you, as a scientist, I know that must be frustrating. But for myself, the religious imperative begs for responses theologically and socially.

The great rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1944: “THERE IS a divine dream which the prophets and rabbis have cherished and which fills our prayers and permeates the acts of Jewish piety. It is the dream of a world, rid of evil by the efforts of man, by his will to serve what goes beyond his own interests. God is waiting for us to redeem the world.”

We pray that tragedy will teach us to be better responders and more effective redeemers.

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Our hearts ache after Newtown

It has been exactly a week since the horrible events that took place in Connecticut and I know that many of us are still reeling from the thoughts of the needless deaths of these teachers and students.  It is an event that has touched our country for so many reasons - the innocence of such young children and brave teachers, the belief that our schools are sanctuaries of learning that are protected from evil, and of course, the time of the year when we wish nothing more than to concentrate on family, friends, joy and laughter but was, to our shock, shattered by bullets.

There have been so many responses.  Petitions and calls for political action have been many - even issued from the President of the United States.  My inbox has been filled with emails from organizations eager to renew calls for gun control and increased funding of mental health.  These are such important and worthy causes and I mentioned them last week in my Friday night and Shabbat morning messages.  I’ve signed many petitions and I do have hope for real change over the weeks and months to come.

Deep down, we know however that even the toughest gun control laws and the best mental health funding still cannot insure that there will not be another shooting, another deranged individual and another tragedy.

Important theological questions have been asked as well.  How do people of faith respond at a time of such crises? Where was God? Why children? Why such pain? These are questions that haunt us to our core-being. As Jews we know all too well that the innocent are often the victims. I believe however, that the very same free will that allows us to devote ourselves to lives of goodness is the same free will goes awry for reasons unknown. We cannot explain the why. That will always be beyond us. But we can turn our hearts, heads and intentions to bring comfort, courage and strength to a shattered world. That is where our faith gives us the ability to have hope in the face of darkness.

Last Monday I took my time to walk through our own school here at B’nai Israel. The combination-locked doors and television cameras had new meaning to me that morning. So, too did the runny-nosed fresh faces of children. So precious. So beautiful. So innocent and so loved. Today at our shabbat celebration I saw sets of beautiful eyes staring up at me as we recited the holy words of Sabbath blessings. So much to give, so much to see, so much future for each of these wonderful children.

Friends, if we are to respond to tragedy I hope that included in our response is a call for greater investment in our schools, camps and supplementary school programs. The teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary responded as teachers in hundreds and thousands of schools would respond in just such an emergency.  You see, even though this incident was truly exceptional our teachers EVERY DAY must have the courage to confront the challenges of meeting the needs of students - physically, emotionally and spiritually. It takes real bravery to stand in front of a classroom and yet our society time and again fails to recognize the value of education.

No one knows yet what happened to the disturbed killer who blasted his way into Sandy Hook school that day last week. Who knows what world he lived in that snapped so violently? Dare we ask if a teacher or an educational program had been available to this young man that could have turned him around? Might it have been possible? If the answer “there just was no program that fit him” then I fear how many other children “just have no programs to fit them”? I fear that we live in a world that can build bridges across mighty rivers but has failed to build bridges to the troubled youth living among us. We must respond with better schools, better teacher training, more programs, options and resources to insure that no child truly is left behind.  No child becomes so alienated that they feel their only option is to enter the fantasy of mass murder-suicide as some kind of escape mechanism.

To the children and teachers who died last week I hope that we will pledge to build a better world for them and for so many who perish innocently. As people of faith we respond WITH FAITH that there is hope for tomorrow.

Tomorrow morning we will read in the synagogue about the moment that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. It is a telling moment. The brothers, after all, remember their nefarious deed of selling Joseph into slavery and now stand powerless in front of their very strong brother. And yet, Joseph comforts them by telling them that “God sent me here to preserve life”  There is no anger or harsh feelings. Only the open acceptance of realizing that the hungry must be fed and so without delay Joseph sends them to fetch his father, Jacob. It is a story that is instructive for we, too, are sent to preserve life just like Joseph. It is our mission and destiny.

Educating and providing for our children is the ultimate way we will preserve life. Their needs cannot be secondary nor can we afford to wait until “we have enough” to invest in education - secular and religious - for our children. We preserve life by building a better society and our teachers and schools do that for us.

Let us respond forcefully and faithfully by asking where we can invest in children. Let us honor the memory of those who died last week by visioning a future of possibility.

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Thanksgiving Prayer - Modim

Modim Anachnu Lach…

We thank you, Lord, you who are now and you who knew our ancestors, you whom we proclaim as a rock…eternal, steady and forever. We thank you for our life, our breath, our strength…

For it is with our strength that we pledge to build a better world; seeking to discern how we may use our talents and energy in the most productive way to make a difference; to repair what is broken; to bring hope where there is hopelessness; to feed those who are hungry, to cloth the naked, to unbind the bound, to free the oppressed and to redeem the captive. 

For it is with our breath that we denounce the injustice that besets this world; that we speak the truth that is hidden; that we give voice to the voiceless; song to those that have no song to sing and a deafening roar where too many have been silenced. 

For it is with our life that we acknowledge the examples that we set for others in this world; that we realize that the choices we make with our lives live beyond us; our actions can change the world for we acknowledge that we can never know who or how those things we do ripple forth in time and space touching the least expected and the unintended.

We thank you for your miracles that are with us every day and for your wonders every season and hour…

For despite the pain of a broken world we know that there also exists overwhelming kindness and compassion, unexpected generosity and grace; despite sickness there is healing and despite death there is birth. We know we live in a world where great beauty conquers the ugly and where the light of holiness can penetrate darkness in most surprising ways.

For your never ending compassion…

Inspires us to reach deep inside each day to find the spirit of compassion; to discover within ourselves the capability to do what we never thought we could do; to love in ways we never expected we could love; to feel what we imagined we could not feel and to touch those we might never have touched had our hearts not been opened through your inspiration of everlasting kindness, hope and goodness.

Modim Anachnu Lach…we thank you and we pledge ourselves to hold within our hearts our gratitude that inspires us to do more; to give more; to see more; to speak more; to pray more; to sing more; to laugh more; to cry more; to love more; to feel more; to be more. May this day of Thanksgiving be only for a blessing of hope. Amen.

Filed under prayer Thanksgiving

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"Yes, you need to put ‘schach’ on your sukkah"  (Photo taken at Bnai Israel Day School Sukkah Building Workshop at Home Depot 2012)

"Yes, you need to put ‘schach’ on your sukkah" (Photo taken at Bnai Israel Day School Sukkah Building Workshop at Home Depot 2012)