January 2014

For Human Beings are Trees of the Field   
 (Jan. 2014)                          

This month we celebrate the holiday of Tu Bishvat, which is not only the “Birthday of the Trees,” but also considered one of the four new years of the Jewish calendar.  Why do Jews place such value on a holiday for trees?  Actually trees, both in their physical form and as metaphors, are one of the most prevalent symbols within Judaism.  In part this is because trees represent continuity and life. 
 
The Torah is referred to as a Tree of Life, an Etz Chayim.  Human beings themselves are compared with trees.  As it says in Dvarim, Chapter 20, Ki ha’adam etz hasadeh, “for human beings are trees of the field.”  How are trees like people?
 
A tree has three primary parts: the roots, which anchor it to the ground and supply it with water and other nutrients; the trunk, branches and leaves that make up its body; and the fruit, which is eaten and which contains the seeds by which the tree reproduces.
 
Like trees, people need to be fed and watered by deep roots in order to reach their potential.  Our families, our friends and our communities each contribute to the root structure that allow us to grow and develop.  Like trees, people have trunks, branches and leaves that represent their physical bodies, their minds and their spirit.  When properly nourished, these can stretch and reach for the sky, bathed in the light of God’s creations.
 
And finally like trees, people have fruit and seeds. The fruits are the accumulation of the knowledge and experience that we have acquired in our lives, and the seeds represent our desire to invest in the future that we may not even see.  This reminds me of a favorite tale from the Talmud:
 
There was once a man named Honi who was walking down the road when he saw saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”  The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”  The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
 
May we all be privileged to eat the fruits of our inherited trees, and continue to plant trees for those generations yet to come.

September 2013
(scroll down for past messages)

Preparing to Act   
                              

Jews do a lot of preparation.  What I mean is that it is rare for us to simply arrive at a holiday or other important time and begin celebrating or commemorating.  Built into our calendar and our traditions are periods of time in which we prepare ourselves spiritually and/or physically for the upcoming day(s) in question.  For example, before the holiday of Shavuot in which we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, Jews count a seven week period of time (called “counting the omer”) to lead us spiritually to that important annual event.  Similarly, we spend days (or sometimes weeks depending on our dispositions) cleaning our houses before the holiday of Passover, to make sure we have rid every corner of chametz (bread products).
 
We are now in a similar period of preparation, the month of Elul that leads us to the High Holiday season.  Elul has a number of important associations for us.  First, it is month in which we continue attempting to reconnect with God.  As I’ve described in my Sabbath remarks last past month, the period of time over the summer between the 17th Day of Tamuz through the 9th Day of Av, is among our saddest of the year during which we feel as if we have been alienated entirely from God.  In the month of Elul, we have the hope and conviction that we can repair the relationship, that God is the love of Israel and vice versa.  Indeed, some read the Hebrew letters of the word Elul -- the month we are now in -- as an acronym standing for “ani l’dodi v’dodi li;” I am my beloved’s and my my beloved is mine, the famous words of the Song of Songs which itself is viewed as an allegory for God’s love for Israel.
 
The month of Elul, though, is more often thought of as a month of spiritual preparation for the High Holiday season, a time of rededication to living our lives more righteously.  We blow shofar every morning to wake us up, and say prayers of forgiveness (selichot) before our regular morning prayers.  During the month of Elul we are supposed to reflect and then judge our own actions and behaviors towards our fellow human beings, a self-judgment which precedes in time the judgment that God will make on the High Holidays.
 
It is therefore very appropriate that the beginning of the month of Elul corresponds with the Torah portion of Shoftim, which literally means judges.  The parsha tells us to appoint just judges over Israel, and goes into detail as to the qualities we need to look for in a judge.  The most important feature is impartiality, an inability to be swayed by favoritism, bribery or excessive emotion.
 
Judging is certainly a tough business.  In fact, psychologists have examined people’s difficulty judging others and theorized that there is a “primary attribution error” in which we tend to overemphasize others’ negative flaws in judging a situation involving someone else, and overemphasize extenuating circumstances when judging a negative happening involving ourselves.  Because it is so hard to judge others and even to judge ourselves, it is ultimately God’s role as “the Righteous Judge” the “Dayan Haemet” to be the final judge. 
 
As the Maharal of Prague taught: Only God is able to judge the whole person. Every one of us has good and bad to some extent. Even those who have sinned may have many other good deeds that outweigh the bad ones. Perhaps even one good deed was of such major significance that it alone could serve as a weighty counterbalance. Only God knows. Only God can judge the individual in the context of his or her whole life and deeds, good and bad.
 
In this month of reflection leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I pray that each of us is open to view the totality of others and of ourselves, to ask for forgiveness of each other and also of ourselves, and to grant that forgiveness in the hope that God will do the same.

May it be a sweet and productive year; shanah tovah um’tukah.

 

Preaching to the Chorus     Rav-Hazzan Scott Sokol, Rabbi
 
Shiru l’Aadomai shir chadash, shiru l’Adomai kol ha-aretz!
Sing unto the Lord a new song, sing unto the Lord all the earth!
 
On June 6th, I was privileged to be the honoree for the Zamir Chorale of Boston’s spring concert, “Touch the Dream.”  Actually I had second billing on the program; the first honoree was the State of Israel, celebrating its 65th anniversary as a modern nation.  I was heartened to learn a few weeks prior to the concert date that the program was already sold-out, but the choir decided to set up a life-streamed video in their Sanctuary at Temple Beth Elohim (where the concert was held) in order to permit more people to see and hear the concert.
 
This honor led me to want to share a little bit with you about the Jewish choral tradition, which has had both a profound effect on me personally, and more importantly has been a central part of Jewish worship and culture for millennia.  Indeed, the Jewish choral tradition goes back to the time of the Great Temple when the Levi’im would sing Psalms and other prayers in massive choruses.  This tradition paved the way later on for choral music in the Christian Church and indeed could be claimed to be the most important precursor of choral music in general.  After the destruction of the Temple, Jewish choral music dissipated and indeed for a time was considered non-Halachic by many rabbinic authorities.  Although there were a couple of notable exceptions (e.g., the music of Salomone Rossi in the 16th and early 17th Centuries), it was not until the 19th Century that Jewish choral music experienced a true renaissance.  In the great synagogues of Eastern Europe and later in America and South Africa, choral music was considered a sine qua non of Jewish worship. 
 
In more contemporary times, Jewish choral music has had a much deserved second renaissance.  Hundreds of Jewish choruses have sprung up nationwide ranging from amateur to professional groups, and spanning all age ranges as well.  One of the recent boons to the Jewish choral movement has been the growth of the Jewish a cappella movement across college campuses nationwide.  Each summer, I join the faculty of the North American Jewish Choral Festival, which brings together hundreds of Jewish choral singers from across the US, Canada and Israel for a week of learning and singing.  This summer will be the 24th such festival, and I’m really looking forward to sharing it again with my family and friends. 
 
Of course, we in Boston are blessed with one of the finest Jewish choral groups in the world, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, of which I was proud to serve as assistant conductor/vocal coach a number of years ago, and in which I met my wife Francene.  In addition, about ten years ago, I co-founded Koleinu: The Jewish Community Chorus of Boston, also in residence at Hebrew College.  And if Newton is too far away, even closer to Temple Emanuel is another newer chorus, Shir Joy, which meets in Westborough and open to amateur singers as well.  Finally, I am VERY pleased to announce that we are about to start a Boston-area chapter of HaZamir, the International Jewish High School Chorus, which is the premiere choral experience for 8-12 graders.  It will be meeting starting in September at Gann Academy in Waltham. 
 
Whatever your level of experience or interest, there is a Jewish chorus that you can participate in or at least enjoy listening to.  And so in the spirit of Jewish choristers worldwide, I welcome you all to participate in the beauty and spirit of the Jewish choral movement.  As it says in Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise to God!”

 

April 2013
Lu Yehi 
                                     

 
Having just celebrated with joy the 65th Anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, I thought it appropriate to reflect a bit on our relationship with the State of Israel.  I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s at a time when love of and pride in Israel were not difficult emotions to muster.  In religious school we learned of the heroic wars fought in defense of freedom, the many miracles of “us” defeating “them,” seemingly against all odds.  I remember the shock in synagogue as the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War was announced, and my thinking (even as a small boy), ‘why won’t they just leave us alone to live our lives as Jews in our land?’  For me, those formative years are (not surprisingly) associated with songs.  I still recall the first time I heard Lu Yehi, Naomi Shemer’s hauntingly beautiful composition, originally intended as a translation of the Beatles’ song “Let it Be,” and I remember learning Hamilchamah Ha’acharona at Camp Ramah.  The tag line of that song still triggers deep emotions in me:

          Ani maftiach lach, yalda sheli k’tanah, shezo tihiyeh hamilchamah ha’acharona
            I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war.
 
Alas, it remains an unfulfilled promise.
 
In the mid-80s as political landscapes shifted, my personal perspective changed quite a bit as well.  I found myself forced to relinquish earlier views of Israel as the perpetually righteous and aggrieved party.  Indeed, I was among a group of academics who called for political pressure to be put on Israel to resolve the Palestinian situation.  At about the same time, I remember a discussion at our family seder in which some of us expressed the fear that Israel was on the verge of becoming the oppressor rather than the perennially oppressed.  That year, our singing of “Let My People Go” took on a rather different emotional tenor.
 
But as the saying goes, that was then and this is now.  As the situation in the Middle East has only worsened, I think I’ve come to a more balanced perspective on Israel and my relationship to her political decisions.  I know that more often than not Israel is justified in her actions, and continues to occupy the moral high ground in the Arab/Israeli conflict.  And yet I also must recognize that Palestinians my age and younger have only known occupation.  The psychological and spiritual toll of this fact cannot be ignored.
 
The time has clearly come for decisive action, but as a diaspora Jew (albeit one sincerely invested in the well-being of Israel), I must sit largely apart and watch the painful drama continue to unfold. I only hope the principal players in the political theater come to realize that life must be chosen over death, and moreover that policy needs to be based upon present reality.  As the lyrics of yet another popular Israeli song of peace goes -- one which unfortunately is now usually associated with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin --:
                Al tagidu yom yavo, haviu et hayom, ki lo chalom hu.
                Don’t say that “a day will come,” bring it on today for (today) is not a dream.
 
I know that dictum applies to me as well, that I must remain grounded in the present.  And yet, no matter how bleak the present may appear, I continue to pray that kol shenivakesh lu yehi (all that we ask for, let it be).

March 2013

This month, we come to the Torah text that is among the most meaningful to me as a rabbi and cantor, the Shirat haYam, the Song of the Sea first sung by Moses and then Miriam in gratitude for the divine intervention that brought the Children of Israel out from Egypt and across the Sea of Reeds. Although there are many ways in which one could “read” the Shirah, I have found a feminist reading to be one of the most interesting personally. Part of the reason that I find feminist issues of the Shirah so intriguing is that the Shirah is itself the Toraitic justification cited for the separation of men and women in the synagogue (i.e., the ezrat nashim), as well as the prohibition of listening to kol isha, women’s voices. Thus, one could argue that the Shirah (or at least its interpretation) is partially responsible for the repression of women in Jewish ritual. To my mind, though, such a construal would be unfair, or at least incomplete. Indeed, I believe the Shirah to be among the most important texts teaching us about the unique roles of women’s voices to Jewish thought and tradition.

After Moses sings his version of the Song of the Sea, the text continues:

And Miriam the prophetess, sister ofAaron, took the drum in her hand and all the women went out after her with drums and wind instruments [or possibly dancing, -- the text is equivocal]. And Miriam answered them, "Sing ye to G-d, however highHe may be, the horse and the rider he hath thrown into the sea."

Before I discuss my primary thought, one interesting digressionary question can be asked: how did the women come by their accompanying instruments? We know the Children of Israel left Mitzrayim in an awful hurry, so fast in fact that they couldn't even let their bread rise, or so the story goes. If you were running away from the country of your oppressors after hundreds of years and had limited space and time, I don't know that you'd put drums and timbrels on your short list of what to pack. This oddity did not escape the eyes of the commentators. As an answer to this question, Rashi, quoting the Mekhilta, remarks "the righteous women of that generation were confident that the Holy One Blessed Be He would perform for them miracles, and they had brought timbrels from Egypt" (to praise Him).

This interesting note notwithstanding, the fact that Miriam led the daughters of Israel in a distinct, though related song, holds another important lesson which may in fact run counter to the Orthodox claim that it indicates an halachic separation of men and women’s voices. Indeed, I believe that the text clearly indicates that Miriam’s song was intended for the men as well as the women. The relevant sentence states that Miriam answered or replied to "them," and the Hebrew word used is lahem, which is the masculine (or general) form. If the text intended "them" to only mean the women, then it should have been written as lahen, which is the feminine form.

Whether or not you grant this to be the case, we still don't know why Miriam's leading of song was necessary. Certainly, Moshe Rabenu spoke for and led the entire Jewish people on many other occasions. Were his words somehow insufficient in this case? Perhaps so. Apparently the voice of Miriam and her cohorts were necessary to complete the circle of praise. Shimson Raphael Hirsch states on this point "although the women followed the men in their inspired song, they were fully their equals in expressing the whole deep meaning of the Song, and in realising the high mission of the nation which is expressed therein." The haftorah of Shabbat Shirah hearkens the same implicit message; we read the book of Devorah and understand from it that prophecy is as much the province of the great women of our faith as the men.

More than just the simple fact that Miriam is an exalted prophetess, I think there is another message in her shirah that is equally instructive. The majority of the original Shirat haYam offered by Moses s speaks of God's glory in very militaristic terms. God is great because he slew the Egyptians and has the power to make our enemies tremble (e.g., “God is a man of war.”)

Miriam also acknowledges the militaristic importance of God’s g’vurah; salvation from the Egyptians is after all the proximal event that the Song of the Sea is responding to. But, Miriam does not dwell on those aspects in her shirah. Her song is brief and to the point, and though the words perhaps hold the same explicit message, their method of expression suggests a different implicit one. The women's approach to the shirah exemplifies the concept of Hidur Mitzvah, adornment of a mitzvah with added beauty. This is why the women picked up their instruments, and embellished their song: to glorify God by focusing on the beauty that God engenders, not simply the terror that God may inspire in our enemies.

In this second song of Miriam, then, is perhaps the parsha's most important lesson: namely, that through shared experience, prayer and song, each of us has the potential to emulate the beauty and majesty of God. May we always continue to do so.

Rabbi Scott M. Sokol

February 2013

Just last week, we read the Torah portion called Yitro (Jethro).  This parsha is arguably the most important in the whole Torah since it includes the Ten Commandments.  I don't want to focus on the Ten Commandments however.  Rather, I'd like to focus on the personage of Jethro.  Parshat Yitro is one of only two in which the parsha is named for a non-Jew.  The other is Parshat Balak, and Balak is certainly not a character whom we might wish to emulate, but I'll talk about him when the time comes.
 
Why does Jethro, though, merit having not only a parsha named for him, but arguably the most important parsha of the entire Torah?  I think there are several lessons here that one could draw.  The first relates to the fact that we Jews are not in the majority, far from it.  We are a very small minority of people on the planet.  Therefore it is incumbent upon us to consider not only our relationships with fellow Jews, but perhaps more importantly with non-Jews since these will likely constitute most of the relationships in our lives.  By naming a parsha that spells out our ten most important commandments after a non-Jew, I believe Torah is teaching us that Jews do not have a monopoly on truth.  This feeling is not only supported by the naming of the parsha, but comes through quite clearly as the story of Jethro unfolds.
 
The first thing we notice about Jethro is the respect that his son-in-law Moses gives him.  When Jethro comes to seek Moses’ attention, the text says the following:
So Moses went out toward Jethro, prostrated himself and kissed him, and they greeted one another, and they entered the tent.
 
We also know, that Jethro is not any normal Midianite, but actually a prophet and a priest, similar to Moses.  This too is a lesson of the Torah and one actually also seen in the other parsha that bears the name of a non-Jew Balak.  In both cases, the Torah refers to an individual, first Jethro and then Bilam – the guy who Balak hires to curse the Jews –, as being true prophets of God.  This underscores the Jewish belief that one can be a prophet without having to be Jewish.
 
Stepping back to earlier books of the Torah, one has to remark with significant surprise perhaps that the single most important Jewish leader of all times married a woman whose father was a Midian priest, which of course means that his wife was not Jewish, at least not initially.  Now, the Rabbis want you to believe that Moses’ wife Zipporah as well as his father-in-law ultimately converted to Judaism.  There is no direct evidence of this, although one can make reasonable claims I suppose from reading between the lines of the text.  What is clear however is that by today's standards at least, Moses intermarried.  In a congregation and indeed in a world such as ours in which many Jews have chosen spouses who are not themselves Jewish, it is important to remember that our greatest leader made a similar choice. 

Now I'm not making any value judgment saying that intermarriage is a good thing or a bad thing; that's not my purpose today.  But what I am saying is that the example of Moses shows that Jews cannot and indeed should not cut themselves off from the non-Jewish world.  More than that, his relationship with his father-in-law Jethro clearly sets a value on seeking the counsel of others.  I can tell you, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, that seeking the advice and counsel of one's father-in-law is not always easy.  My own father-in-law of blessed memory was a man who liked to butt his nose into many people's business, but always with good intentions.  He was also a smart guy.  So even if I often balked initially at accepting advice he might have given me, in the end I often realized that the advice was sound.

 
And this is of course precisely what happens to Moses.  Moses not only respects his father-in-law, but there is plenty of evidence in the text that his father-in-law respects him.  However, that doesn't mean that his father-in-law Jethro thinks that what Moses is doing is always correct.  Indeed, in this week's parsha, Jethro takes Moses to task in no uncertain terms.  When he hears of how Moses has chosen to serve as inquisitor judge and jury for the entirety of B'nai Yisrael, he makes the following blunt remark:
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good.  You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.  Now listen to me.  I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you.
 
He then explains in precise terms how Moses should organize a judicial system.  He tells him how to choose men who will be fair judges and support God's will, and how to generally manage the monumental task ahead of him.
 
The degree and detail of Jethro's advice to his son-in-law is frankly unprecedented in the Torah.  And I've wondered somewhat about the amount of level of detail, specifically what was Jethro's motivation as well as Moses’ in accepting his counsel.  No doubt, Jethro was not only a prophet and priest, but a father as well.  And he wanted his daughter to be happy living with the man of her choosing who was the leader of an entire nation.  Jethro saw that Moses was a workaholic, and was not devoting time to his wife and sons.  There is actually textual evidence of this and certainly if one is willing to again read between the lines.  But beyond that, he also saw that the system would not serve the children of Israel very well either.
 
Jethro understood what all good leaders understand, namely that without the support and active participation of the community, a leader cannot lead.  Moreover, it is not reasonable for the same leader to lead for an endless period of time.  The rest of the community is likely to come to either rely too heavily on the leader and/or even to resent him or her over time for taking the mantle of leadership for such a long period.  Indeed, this happens to Moses later on in the story of Korach. 
 
I could personalize this account of Moses for our community I suppose.  If I were to do so, I would of course have to cast Alan Moskowitz in the role of Moses.  However, I am not Alan's father-in-law.  Nor does he need my advice to say that he should not be leading alone; Alan is well aware of that and is ready for all the support he can get!  But in all sincerity, I do think it incumbent upon this community to consider both who might be the next lay leader of Temple Emanuel when Alan eventually steps down, as well as more importantly who right now can take some of those leadership challenges off of his shoulders.
 
The fact that this lesson about leadership comes to be taught in the same parsha in which we receive perhaps our ten most important behavioral lessons, namely the Ten Commandments, raises in my mind the importance of this issue of leadership for all of us.  I therefore hope that each of us hears in the Ten Commandments and in the lessons of Jethro the Torah’s important guidelines for living our lives with those we love, as inspired Jews and responsible members of our broader community.  


JANUARY 2013
Here’s to Tu Bishvat

One of my strongest memories of afternoon religious school as a young child is how we celebrated Tu Bishvat.  We’d get this bag that supposedly contained fruit, and we would make a bracha including a shehechiyanu (for eating a new fruit of the season) and then eat the contents.  Even as a kid I was never too full for a little treat, and yet I don’t think I ever ate any of the bag’s contents; it was just too unappetizing.  The most memorable of these so-called fruits was something called “bukser,” which was basically a piece of bark that our teachers claimed was edible.  Years later I discovered that bukser is actually the Yiddish word for carob.  (Those of you who may be reading this and thinking that carob isn’t so bad are probably envisioning modern-day treatments like carob-coated raisins that taste a lot like Raisinets.  Trust me, that’s not what I’m talking about!)
 
As with many Jewish traditions, though, it turns out there’s a lot more to celebrating Tu Bishvat than ingesting dried-up fruit. Tu Bishvat is often referred to as the New Year of the Trees.  And this is because we actually “count” the years of trees starting at Tu Bishvat.  Why do we need to count tree years?  It’s because Jewish law protects baby trees from being too early harvested.
 
During the time that the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, a tree had to be four years old before its produce could be used for any purpose.  On the Tu Bishvat following a tree’s fourth birthday farmers brought first fruits to the Temple and then could make use of the tree’s produce afterwards. 
 
After the Temple was destroyed, Tu Bishvat lost most of its significance, but the holiday was repurposed by the Kabbalists in the Middle Ages. The mystics of Safed developed a ritual meal that was celebrated on Tu Bishvat, modeled on the Pesach seder, in which they drank four cups of wine and ate seven fruits associated with the Land of Israel. 
 
In the late 19th Century, as the Zionist Movement began to flourish, Tu Bishvat was once again rediscovered.  The holiday came to be associated with our connection to the land and our attempts specifically to redevelop Palestine (and later the State of Israel).  Through the tireless efforts of organizations such as the Jewish National Fund, great forests were planted or replanted throughout Israel, with money raised by Jews from across the world in honor of Tu Bishvat. 
 
Finally, in modern times with our increasing concern for the environment in general, Tu Bishvat has become a holiday for ecological activism and greater appreciation for the gifts of the land.  Along with this trend, the Tu Bishvat Seder of the Kabbalists has been rediscovered as well, with many varieties of ritual meals centering on new fruits, wines and juices, especially from Israel. Nowadays, these can include wonderful Israeli wines and choice Israeli produce such as oranges, avocados, bananas, pomegranates, olives, and almonds.  It sure beats the heck out of bukser!
 
So let’s hear it for Tu Bishvat, the holiday of rebirth that keeps getting born again.
Chag sameach!

November 2012
Hanukah: The Jewish Thanksgiving     
 
                          
by Rabbi Scott M. Sokol

 
Having just come off of the secular holiday of Thanksgiving, we move to a specifically Jewish holiday in which we also offer thanks, namely Hanukah.  Hanukah is a holiday in search of a raison d’être, or perhaps a holiday with one too many.  Confusion as to the reason for the celebration of hanukah in fact led the rabbis of the talmud to ask the famous question, “What is Hanukah?,” as if they weren’t quite sure.
 
Why this confusion?  As many of you know, there are at least two stories of the miracle of hanukah, the liturgical and the talmudic , and interestingly both were written at about the same time.  The liturgical story is recounted in the prayer Al Hanisim and tells of how God saved us from the hands of the Assyrian Greeks in the time of the Hasmonean priests, delivering the “many into the hands of the few” and the “mighty into the hands of the weak.”   Probably the more familiar story, and certainly the one we like to tell our children, recounts the miracle during the time of the Temple’s defilement involving the one cruse of oil that lasted eight days until more could be produced.
 
Many questions could be asked about why two different stories are cited, and why in neither version is the other story even mentioned.  One possibility has to do with the nature of miracles in Judaism.  Some miracles are clearly supernatural (e.g., the parting of the Sea of Reeds), whereas others might be thought of merely as highly unlikely occurrences (e.g., the story of Jewish survival in the face of Hamanic Persia, recounted in its own parallel Al haNisim for Purim).   Interestingly, it is in the talmud – a book predominantly concerned with the behavior of human beings – that the “supernatural” miracle is described, and the siddur – a book more concerned with matters spiritual and divine – in which the more human miracle is highlighted.  Perhaps this is because when we pray, we tend already to focus a great deal on the supernatural (e.g., God’s creation of day and night, the aforementioned parting of the Sea of Reeds recounted in the daily Shirat haYam); however, we need a more specific reminder to focus on less dramatic instances of Divine intervention such as a military victory.  
 
Thus Al haNisim is chosen as the quintessential prayer for Hanukah rather than a prayer about the cruse of oil, and furthermore Al haNisim is placed directly where it is needed most: in the Thanksgiving section (Hodayah) of the Amidah and in a similar themed section of the Birkat haMazon (Grace After the Meal).   In this way, we are sure to recall and acknowledge God’s miracles in our seasonal prayers, along with all the other things for which we are thankful.
 
Whether your own thanksgiving prayers lean more to the natural or the supernatural, I hope that your celebration of Hanukah is a festive, joyous and appreciative one. 
Chag Urim Sameach! Have a happy festival of lights!

December 2012
Why pray?   
 
                          
by Rabbi Scott M. Sokol

As Rabbi and Co-Spiritual Leader of Temple Emanuel, I believe my single most important responsibility is to enable and facilitate the prayer experience of each member of the congregation. I like nothing better than studying and teaching about the intricacies of Jewish prayer. But frankly all of the minutiae are just that, minor points that are secondary to a much more fundamental question that I think every Jew must ask, namely why pray at all?  What is the motivation for the activity of prayer?  Until we deal with this question, all others seem somewhat beside the point. 

 
Rabbi David Golinkin, a important thinker of the Conservative movement, gives several answers to the question of why Jews pray in his brief publication, Rediscovering the Art of Jewish Prayer.  I will attempt to paraphrase some of these for your consideration. 
 
The first reason Golinkin cites for prayer is simply that it is a commandment of God to the Jewish people.   Indeed, Moses Maimonides (the Rambam), perhaps the greatest Jewish thinker and halachic authority of all time, opens his tractate on the laws of prayer (Hilchot Tefilah in his Mishnah Torah) with the following incipit.
It is a positive commandment to pray each day, as it is said “And you shall love the Lord                 thy God.”
 
How the Rambam derives his assertion that prayer is a religious obligation is at least in part based on the broader rabbinic understanding that prayer represents “service of the heart.”  This notion of service of the heart is in fact at the core of Jewish belief in the power and purpose of prayer.
 
A second reason that people pray is that prayer seems to be an innate need of human beings.  As the philosopher/psychologist William James put it, “The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.” Or in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words: “Prayer is not a need but a ...necessity, an act that expresses the very essence of man.  He who has never prayed is not fully human.”
 
A third reason to pray, related to some extent to the second, is out of a sense of “radical amazement” (to use another phrase of Heschel’s), that is, out of spontaneous appreciation for the miracles of life that God grants on a daily basis.  Indeed, hodayah - thanksgiving, and shevach - praise, are two of the three categories into which Jewish prayer is often divided (the last being bakasha - petition).
 
            Golinkin gives several other reasons for prayer, many of which seem related to the same fundamental realization that human beings have the ability to come into the presence of God; once this realization is met, one can consider the possibility and desirability of maintaining a personal relationship with the Divine. This idea is akin to communion with God, a term that finds its Hebrew parallel in the word hitbodedut.  Hitbodedut, though, implies solitude or a meditative need to be alone.  This notion, though important to many spiritual experiences, might be viewed as inimical to the Jewish take on prayer, which argues that the most effective prayers are those which take place in the context of a minyan, a quorum of at least ten adult Jews.  However, communion need not literally require solitude as Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader in the Reform movement has taught: 
 
“To feel the proximity of God, ...we must have periods of loneliness upon earth when our soul is left to itself... The purpose of prayer is to allow us to be alone with God and apart from other men, to give us seclusion in the midst of the world.  We are to seek loneliness also in the house of God, even when it is crowded with men, to be alone there also with ourselves and our God.” 
 
            What is critical to the notion of hitbodedut or communion is that we establish a personal relationship with God.  Such a relationship may be exclusively based upon, or at least partly aided by the tradition of prayer that has bolstered our people for millenia.  This matbeah tefillah (prayer canon) requires that its most holy prayers (e.g., Kaddish, Barchu, Kedusha) be recited only in the context of a minyan. In this regard, we should not forget that true communion, at least in the Jewish world, requires a community.
 
            The importance of our received prayer canon notwithstanding, the rabbis (in Pirkei Avot) are quick to point out that we ought not allow our prayers to become fixed:
            And when you pray, do not allow your prayers to become fixed...
 
            The reason for this injunction is at least in part due to the sense of our tradition that the proper posture for prayer is one of self-judgment (which is in fact what the Hebrew word for praying “lihitpalel” actually means).  In order to properly judge oneself and understand one’s relationship with God, it is necessary at times to craft one’s own prayers, and not merely echo the prayers crafted by others.  It is only in this way that we may feel the true service of the heart, that communion with our God that is personal and valid.
 
            The importance of personalizing our prayers and making them resonate to our own rhythms is something that I think Jews are often reluctant to embrace, or perhaps feel they are simply unable to do.  Yet it may be this aspect of hitbodedut that is most important of all.  One of my favorite sources in this regard comes from the Sefer Hasidim, a pietistic work of the eleventh century attributed to Rabbi Yehudah HaHasid.  Its message resonates with me both as one who prays, and as one who prays on behalf of others, so I think I’ll conclude with it.  The story is told of an Israelite herdsman who did not know how to pray...
 
 
Each day, he would say, "Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, it is obvious and known before You that if one had cattle for grazing and gave them to me to protect, I would be paid for my services.  But for You, I would guard Your herd unpaid because I love You so dearly."
 
Once upon a time, a sage of Torah went on his way and found the herdsman praying, "Ribono Shel Olam..." ( in the manner that the herdsman would pray everyday).  The sage bawked: "Fool, don't pray that way."  So the herdsman inquired, "How then should I pray?"  The sage agreed to teach the herdsman on the condition that he no longer pray that which he had been accustomed to each day.  And so the sage taught the herdsman the blessing before and after the Shema, the Shema, and the Amida.  
 
Unfortunately, after the sage left, the herdsman forgot everything the sage had taught him and ceased praying -- even that prayer which he had been accustomed to say.  For he was afraid; the sage had forbid him from uttering the prayer of his heart.
 
That night, the sage had a dream and a voice said to him, "If you do not tell the herdsman to say that which he had been used to saying before you came to him...if you do not go to him -- know that evil will find you.  For you have stolen a soul from the world to come."  Immediately, the sage went out and asked the herdsman, "What are you praying?"  The herdsman answered, "Nothing, for I have forgotten what you taught me.  And you also forbade me from saying my own prayer."  The sage recounted his dream to the herdsman and said, "Say that which you were accustomed to pray."
 
Behold, the herdsman had no great learning or deeds to his credit, but thought well of G-d and so he was raised to greatness.  For G-d desires the heart.

October 2012
The Holiness of Community  
 
                          
by Rav-Hazzan Scott M. Sokol, Spiritual Leader

 Community can be defined in many different ways, for example by nationality, geography, ethnicity, culture, or religion. The religious community, and in particular, the Jewish religious community is unique among these in that its very definition resides in the sphere of holiness. My proof of this claim is found in the Torah itself.  In Parshat Kedoshim, God says to Moses: “Speak to the entire nation of Israel saying, ‘You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy!’”  It is interesting to note that this is the only place in the Book of Leviticus that God tells Moses to speak to the entirety of the Jewish people (daber el kol adat b’nai yisrael).  It seems to me therefore, that the implication is that the promise of attaining holiness is one conveyed to the community of Israel as a whole, and not necessarily to individuals within that community by themselves.
 
Further evidence that it is the communal level at which holiness resides is found in the traditional term we use for the synagogue itself, namely Kehila Kedosha – Holy Community or Congregation.  For example, our synagogue would be written in formal Hebrew as Kehila Kedosha Kehilat Emanuel (the Holy Community of Temple Emanuel).
 
Shifting my focus (as I usually do) to prayer, let me offer two of the liturgical sources for this notion that holiness is a communal affair.  The first is the blessing Jews recite each Shabbat after the Torah is read, on behalf of the members of the congregation.  We refer to it as the Mi Sheberach for the Kahal, the blessing for the congregation, despite the fact that the target of the blessing ultimately includes the individual members of said congregation.  The first line of the blessing reads “May God bless this holy congregation along with all other holy congregations.”  It then goes on to praise those who fulfill communal needs such as giving wine and bread to the poor.  The obvious implication is that it is the holiness of the community and the fulfillment of communal needs that merit God’s blessings even for individuals.
 
A second liturgical source for the attribution of communal holiness revolves around the whole idea of the minyan/prayer quorum as well as the specific prayers that can be recited only in the presence of a minyan.   Why should one need a group of people in order to pray to God?  Shouldn’t one’s personal desire to attain dvekut/spiritual communion (literally “clinging”) with the Divine be enough?  Judaism, at least in certain contexts, says no.  It reserves some of its most important prayers for those times when at least ten Jewish adults convene for the purpose of prayer.  And what are those prayers specifically?  For the most part, they are the prayers that ascribe holiness to God: the kedushot of the Amidah and all the kaddishes (including the Mourner’s Kaddish).  Why these prayers and not other equally important ones such as the Sh’ma?  Put simply, it is because our emulation of God’s holiness (as cited above in Parshat Kedoshim) and even our ascription of that holiness can only take place when we are in community, represented in this case by the minyan.
 
If my assertion is correct that holiness only attends the community qua community, the implications seem rather significant.  Namely, despite the importance of individual spiritual paths, each of us must ultimately make contact with the broader community if we are ever to truly realize personal holiness.  Living in a cave for three years won’t do it, nor will immersing oneself in Jewish texts, nor even will chanting dvekut melodies on Shabbas.  The only way to achieve holiness is by dvekut of a different order, specifically by clinging tightly to a Jewish community and attempting to meet its needs along with our own personal ones.  This is a tough order, but one that God expects us to fulfill.  Coming off the intense spiritual season of the High Holidays in which we are largely introspective, we now move into our time of greatest joy during the holiday of Sukkot; as we do, let us remember that joy is an emotion best shared.
 
Chag sameach,
Rabbi Sokol

September 2012

High Holiday Motivation                              
by Rav-Hazzan Scott M. Sokol, Spiritual Leader

We’ve all seen parodies of film- or television-making in which an actor will exclaim to the director, “What’s my motivation in this scene?”  Knowing ones motivation before acting is not only important for theatrical performance; it is a critical self-check for religious life as well.  Along these lines, one of the most important concepts I learned in cantorial school had to with the proper motivation or attitude of asheliach tsibbur (prayer leader).  According to one of my professors, that attitude involves the dialectical pull of “yirat Hashem v’emat hatsibur,” which translates roughly as fear of God and terror of the congregation.” 
 
As I have moved from the classroom to the “real world” of the synagogue, I find myself returning over and over to those words of wisdom.  For in essence, if a rabbi or a cantor is able to remove him- or herself from the equation (which in and of itself is difficult enough), what is left is often a balancing act of service to God on the one hand and service to the community on the other, or more pointedly to the dictates of the first and to the needs of the second.  And in case you were wondering, reconciling this dialectic is not always easy.
 
But I do not want to use up this precious space to complain about my job, especially since I rather like it.  Instead, I’d like for us to consider together what it means to truly be in fear or awe of God as we approach these Days of Awe. 
 
Stated simply, the High Holiday season has two pervasive themes: malchuyot/kingship (on Rosh Hashanah) and vidui/confession (on Yom Kippur).  On Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge and rejoice in God as ultimate ruler and power of the universe.  In contrast, we place ourselves in a position of subservience.  Affirmations of and allusions to God’s kingship can be found throughout the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.  For example, in the kedushat HaShem section of the Amidah, we substitute the term HaEyl HaKodesh (Holy God) with HaMelech HaKodesh (Holy King).  And of course, the quintessential prayers on kingship are found in the Malchuyot section of the musaf Amidah of Rosh Hashanah, an entire liturgical unit devoted to just those themes. 
 
To acknowledge God as Melech al kol ha-aretz, King of all the earth, may seem overly anthropomorphic, patriarchal or hierarchical at the least, but the intention is none of these I think.  Rather, the redactors of the High Holiday prayers used the metaphors that had the most relevance to their theological understanding of God as the ultimate decisor of human fate.  Once we accept God as judge and ruler, we place ourselves in a posture of humility and contrition.  It is then that the next stage of the High Holiday trial can take place, namely confession. 
 
Confession is not only a religious obligation, but arguably a personal need.  The particular form of confession preferred in Jewish liturgy is the well-known alphabetic acrostic Ashamnu, known simply as the Vidui (confession).  The Vidui is recited on several occasions other than Yom Kippur, including on the day of one’s wedding, during Tachanun in certain communities, and on the death-bed.  On Yom Kippur theVidui, which presents our sins in somewhat abbreviated form, is expanded through recitation of the Al Chet prayer.  In both liturgical forms of confession, interestingly, the supplicant does not confess his or her individual sins, but rather the sins of the entire community:Ashamnu (we have sinned) or Al chet shechatanu lifanecha (for the sin we have committed against you).  This grammatical nuance underscores Jewish belief that we bear collective responsibility for sins against God and humankind alike.  As Rabbi Isaac Luria put it: “For all Israel is one body and every individual Israelite a member of that body.”  Thus, emat hatsibur (terror of the community) takes on a different tone, as we worry not simply what the community may do to us, but what we will be held accountable for on their behalf.
 
With God established as King and with our sins laid out for God’s inscrutable examination, our High Holiday motivation becomes clear: to plead before our Maker for compassion and forgiveness, not only for ourselves but for our family and community, and to accept God’s Divine judgments whatever they may be.  It is my prayer and hope that each of us be inscribed and sealed for a sweet year of health, happiness and prosperity.

 

Summer 2012

As I begin my first year as rabbi and spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel, I wanted to share with you some thoughts not only on this week’s parsha, but also on cycles and journeys.  I thought this fitting in particular as we embark on our journey together within the cycle of the already vibrant religious community of Temple Emanuel of Marlborough.  
 
This week’s parsha begins the fifth book of the Torah, the book of Dvarim.  Dvarim is in essence a review of the pertinent information conveyed in Torah to this point by Moses.  Although the content is therefore somewhat recycled, the way in which it is conveyed by Moses gives a slightly different perspective – in essence, in the first telling Moses is an active character, whereas in this one he is a narrator.  There are several instances of differences in content as well, which are also interesting.  One of the most famous is the repetition of the Ten Commandments.  When the commandments are repeated in the Book of Dvarim, it says of the Sabbath that we should guard it (“Shamor et yom hashabbat”), whereas in the Book of Shemot it says that we should remember it (“Zachor et yom hashabbat”).  
 
This difference has been interpreted in several ways.  Ibn Ezra offers the radical view, radical at least by the standards of traditional Judaism, that maybe the Torah's text is reliable in terms of its ideas, but not necessarily in its wording.  The Torah according to this view cares ultimately about meaning and not in recounting God’s teachings word-for-word, and thus the discrepancy is unimportant.  Most traditional commentators, however, would never agree with this formulation, since they believe that every word of Torah is holy, intended exactly as rendered and teeming with meaning.   

My favorite traditional teaching about the textual discrepancy is a midrash alluded to in the Shabbat evening prayer L’cha Dodi.   Why does the Torah first say Zachor and then Shamor?  The midrash claims that God said both words together:  Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad, hishmi’anu El hamyuchad (the Unique God caused us to hear “guard” and “remember” as one word).  God can of course do that, but we as mere humans are unable to utter both words at once, so we say “zachor” in Shemot and “shamor” in Dvarim.   
 
Although God uttered the two words together, tradition further teaches that there are important and nuanced differences to their meaning.   Zachor (remember) refers to the positive commandments associated with Shabbat, whereas shamor (guard) refers to the negative restrictions of Shabbat.  The rationale is that “remembering” implies an action, remember to do something positive, whereas guarding refers to keeping ourselves from doing something we are told not to do – keeping something out of our observance as it were.  In the case of Shabbat, remembering would include positive commandments such as lighting candles, making Kiddush, resting, etc.; guarding would include making sure we don’t do things like lighting fires, carrying, tearing, etc.  Both the positive and the negative are needed to observe the Sabbath fully.
 
So too can this lesson apply to our lives as Jews.  We need to do positive things, but we also need to keep ourselves from doing negative ones whenever we can.  This applies not only to our holiday and ritual observances, but to our lives more generally.  We know too that sometimes it is necessary to experience the negative in order to appreciate the positive.  For example, the Children of Israel needed to experience the cruelty and slavery of Egypt and the hardships of the wilderness in order to fully appreciate the Land of Milk and Honey.   Journeys, at least meaningful ones, are more often than not fraught with hardship early on.  This is certainly true of the period of time we are now in.  
 
Three weeks ago we began a spiritual journey that started in hardship and whose end point is not for two months when we will finally be able to celebrate great joy.  In this journey, we move from being completely estranged from God to being forgiven and brought back into God’s fold.  The journey began with the commemoration of Shivah Asar b’Tamuz.  On this day in history, we committed the grave sin of communal idol worship in the Golden Calf episode.  When Moses came down from his personal communion with God to bring us the Ten Commandments, he finds that we have already broken Number 2 and probably Number 1 as well.  We were still too immature for the unique and monogamous relationship with God that God offered us.  So Moses smashes the first set of tablets and goes back up the mountain to try and obtain forgiveness for bnei yisrael.
 
The 17th of Tammuz is also the day, several hundred years later, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached and the massacre within the city began.  Because this day marks the beginning of such a period of distance from God, many Jews take on certain practices associated with mourning beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and intensifying in the last nine days which correspond to the first nine days of the month of Av.   The Nine Days end on Tisha B’av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, which primarily commemorates the destruction of the Temples and our estrangement from God.  
 
Immediately following Tisha B’Av, we begin reading the seven special haftorot of comfort.  This seven week period (akin to the seven days of Shivah, following a loved one’s passing), brings us straight through the High Holiday season.  We reflect on our past sins and failed relationships and try to repair those that we can, and seek to improve on our future interactions.  If all goes well, if we are sincere in our repentance we merit the joy on Sukkot, known as “z’man simchatenu,” the time of our happiness.  Realizing that God has truly forgiven us and agreed to live amongst us again, we are overjoyed and express that joy on Simchat Torah, dancing with the Torah and reaffirming its many gifts.  Thus, our two-month journey evolves from nadir to zenith, re-establishing the cycle of Jewish living and learning.  

Outlining this journey reminded me once again of the journey recounted in this week’s parsha, specifically Deuteronomy 1: 6-7.   

        G-d spoke to us in Horeb, saying: "You have long enough surrounded this mountain. Turn away, and take your journey..." 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe commented on this text as follows: 

The mountain we're talking about is Mount Sinai, scene of the most monumental event in human history: G-d's revelation of His wisdom and will to man. Still G-d says: "You've been hanging around this mountain long enough. Move on!

In our lives, we also have moments, days or years of revelation, times when we learn and grow and are enriched. But the purpose must always be to move on, move away, and carry the enlightenment and enrichment to someplace else -- some corner of creation that awaits redemption.
In this period of temporary mourning as we await our hopeful reunification with God, I pray that we can think more broadly of our journey as a people and as a congregation, and that we use these next months as an opportunity to build upon what we know and to reach together to what may still be in our collective futures.  I look forward to taking this journey with you.