Over the Rabbi’s Disk
Rabbi Howard S. Herman, D.D.
LOVE: IT’S NOT JUST
FOR VALENTINES DAY ANYMORE
A story that is told about Reb Shlomo Carlebach, referenced in a Broadway show, Soul Doctor. When Carlebach returned to his childhood home in Vienna to perform in the 1970’s, he was accused of forgiving the people responsible for the death of his family and people. How could he perform in a former bastion of the Nazis? To this Reb Shlomo is purported to have said: “If I had two hearts, I could use one to love and one to hate. But I only have one heart … so I use it to love!” (www.americanrabbi.com)
During the month of February, here in the United States, one of the days we celebrate as a minor holiday is Valentines Day. It is a day dedicated to love and hearts, flowers and candy. As a kid I remember myself along, with my three siblings, pooling our funds and going out to the local drug store and purchasing the largest heart full of chocolates for our parents that we could afford. It is one of the few times each year that I remember the four of us going together and arguing about which heart to buy. Of course, what we were trying to show our parents was how much we loved them. The larger the heart, the more love we felt!
Judaism and Jewish sources have treated us to a much more expansive idea of “love”. We are directed in the Shema to love God. In the Ten Commandments it tells us to “Love our neighbor…." We are directed in Judaism to love ourselves. Good advice, no? How often in your lifetime have you been directed to love yourself? We are forever being told to love others…love mommy and daddy, love grandma and grandpa, but how many times did anyone command you to love yourself?
It seems that in this regard, we have the short shrift. Love, it seems to me, has been too narrowly defined by our society. Most of the time, when we talk about love we are referring to either romantic, sexual, or familial love. But Judaism and Jewish tradition have always expanded our ideas of love and, to be honest, tested it’s limits. For Judaism love has taken on the dimensions of action, and kindness and compassion. It has been the call to all of us, to make love an active, ongoing, participatory aspect of one’s life.
Treated this way, as Jews, we do not look at love as only unidimentional. We are called to use love as a litmus test for our own powerful connection to Judaism, to the Jewish people and in fact to all people in general. We are asked to go well beyond our own tent when we are told to “love the stranger among us” to treat them “even as the native born.” There are maxims we are given, to ponder and incorporate into our lives. For example, the Talmud teaches us, “who acts from love is greater than who acts from fear.”
Sociologist Will Herberg tells us, “The law of love requires that every person be treated as a Thou, a person, an end in himself, never merely as a thing, or a means to another’s end." Sigmund Freud hypothesises, “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love. Finally a Jewish proverb teaches us, “A drop of love can bring an ocean of tears.”
It seems a shamethat we often relegate powerful concepts and ideas to one short day a year: holidays such as Thanksgiving, eterans Day and Memorial Day. I think we do the same with Valentines Day. On these days we celebrate honored values and moral distinctions. We would benefit more from them if they were not allotted just one day a year, but assigned to the forefront of every day. If we observed them daily, then just possibly, our world might become a more hospitable place to live.
Peace and Blessings
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
STRUGGLE AND BLESSING
Nothing worthwhile in life ever emerges without a certain tension and even pain. The birth of a child, the building of a business, the creation of a career, the development of a cogent family life, are all products of people who are determined to wrestle with a challenging situation, until it yields a blessing. The remarkable thing is that we really never obtain anything in life without facing some kind of stress; as it challenges us, it tempers our iron and makes it steel.
The theme of tempering through stress is illustrated through the following true story. America has produced only one great form of the violin. The original maker searched all his life for wood which would enable the violin to have a certain haunting and beautiful resonance. He finally found the wood in the timberline, the last stand of trees above the Rockies, 12000 feet above sea-level. Up there, where the wind blows so fiercely and steadily, the bark to the windward has no chance to grow. All the trees lean in one direction. But they stand firm and do not fall to the ground. That wood, after facing years of challenge from the elements, is so resonant and beautiful, that it sings to the touch of the bow.
Each of us, throughout our lives, have to face stressful elements. Like our ancestors, the Maccabees, we need to have the courage to think out of the box, we need to have the tenacity that love demands, we must have the desire to reach beyond our grasp, and that we aspire to be and become everything that we might be in time. We need to hold life with a firm grasp and in everything that we face we need to be prepared to struggle and to hold fast until we are satisfied with our outcome.
It says in the book of Genesis (32:25-27): “And Jacob struggled with a stranger all night… Then the stranger said, “Let me go for dawn is breaking.” But Jacob answered: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Do not let the struggle deter you. Embrace it and allow it to strengthen you.
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
LIGHT ONE CANDLE
In 1982 Peter Yarrow, of the popular trio Peter, Paul and Mary, introduced the song “Light One Candle” as part of the group’s Chanukah/Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Since then, the song has become a standard in the celebration of Chanukah throughout the world.
If you haven’t heard it, do so, because it so very much embodies the story and the insight Chanukah provides today no matter where we live. Chanukah is more than presents and candles dreidels and latkes. While these are the face of the holiday, the ideals expressed in this simple song stay with us as our Jewish life’s mission out in the world.
The lyrics are simple but forthright. They speak of an ethical imperative, not just for Jews, but for all people worldwide. The most meaningful and powerful stanza is the third one which goes as follows:
(Listen to "Light One Candle" by clicking here.)
“What is the memory that’s valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died
That we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail
This is the burden, and this is the promise
This is why we will not fail.
Don’t let the light go out
It has lasted for so many years!
Don’t let the light go out!
Let it shine through our hope and our tears.”
Peter Yarrow 1982
Light from a flame is a vividly powerful symbol. Look at all the events during the Jewish year when we kindle flames: Shabbat, Havdalah, Festivals, Chanukah, Lag B’Omer, Yahrzeits and remembering the six million of the Holocaust, and Yahrzeits.
The eternal light was originally a flame on the altar of the Tabernacle which was never permitted to go out. There are so many times in our Jewish lives when we witness a flame. For me the flame is always tied to memories of something larger than ourselves. Sometimes the memories are sweet, and sometimes they are bittersweet, but the flame always evokes them. At Chanukah, the flames of the Chanukiah (menorah), whether fueled by oil or candle, reminds us of our eternal quest and desire for justice.
Not just ordinary justice, but the moral value of justice. This kind of justice takes four forms: Commutative justice is based on the principal of equality. Distributive justice guarantees common welfare by sharing what God has created. Legal justice is the obligation of government to its citizens and society, while social justice guarantees that everyone has a right to a fair say in that society.
This principle is what we keep alive in the flame that so beautifully dances every night of Chanukah. As the flames warm us and pierce the darkness, Chanukah is not merely a story of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks; it is a memorial beacon to all those who perished fighting for justice, reminding us that their deaths were not in vain. Today we continue the struggle for which they died.
Gifts were not a part of the original celebration of Chanukah. They came along much later. But if you think about it carefully, the most elusive gifts we seek are those which would benefit everyone. They wouldn’t come gift-wrapped, but instead they would arrive with excitement and pleasure for all to enjoy. So, as Peter Yarrow gave us this beautiful gift of song, we need to accept its challenge and mandate, not just at Chanukah, but year ‘round while we work as hard and as diligently as we can for the elusive justices we seek.
Have a very special and joyous Chanukah and remember: “Don’t let the light go out!”
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
The Accord of Disagreement
When I was in Rabbinic School at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion I was already familiar with the concept and ideology of disagreement. I had already been living in Israel for a number of years and had attended University of Tel Aviv, The Shalom Hartman Institute, and the Yeshivat Hakotel: all were institutions of higher learning, and all gave me the opportunity to study Jewish sources at a very high level, and all taught the value of disagreement. Judaism has always venerated the art of disagreeing.
Why? Because it opened channels of learning and discourse that would never have been arrived at had we agreed on everything. Not only did we study disagreements between rabbis, but between judges, prophets, sages, leaders and ordinary folk as well. The art of disagreeing and studying these disagreements gave me an entire vocabulary that I had never exercised before. It was a very freeing experience mentally to not always remain stuck within the status quo. Once one learns it’s art, and it is an art, one is able to really expand his/her horizons. It was in this tradition that I trained and when I found myself involved in the world of Philosophy and Ethics, which I taught on the college level for many years I would teach my students the value and advantage of disagreeing purposefully.
So why do I bring this up? I bring it up so that you as congregants understand that if I give a sermon which you disagree with, I would love to hear what your disagreement is so that we can talk about it. Perhaps I can clarify what you heard or thought you heard. Perhaps we may never agree, but at the very least I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject and why you think that way. Perhaps you will open my eyes to a new way to look at a subject. I am always open to that possibility. When I create sermons or messages as many of you call them, for me they all begin as teaching experiences.
I am attempting to teach you something. But in getting that message out, whatever it may be, we may disagree on the process, or we may disagree on the value of the message, or we might even disagree on the relevance. If there is disagreement you have to let me know what we disagree on. You can attempt to convince me of your point of view and I can try to convince you of mine. But along the way we might find some common ground, through our discussions that neither one of us ever thought of before.
So, please, don’t be shy. If I say something publicly from the bima that you take issue with, please let me know. We can always dialogue about it and we might even come to a resolution. I am actually contemplating teaching an Adult Education course for this coming year that deals with the importance of disagreement by looking at some traditional sources that venerate this very idea. I will keep you posted.
Again, Shanah Tova to you and your family
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
A New Jewish Decade to Fix the World
As a Jewish community, with the advent of Rosh Hashanah, we are looking forward to the new Jewish decade 5780. We face this decade with a mixture of anticipation, hope, trepidation and caution. We, as a community, have made monumental strides during the past ten years. That gives us much optimism to look ahead and feel good about our achievements.
Yet there are still those things in our community that we continue to battle and continue to need greater resolve to arrest. One of our great achievements over the past decade has been responding to the call of “Tikun Olam” to help heal our world. If you are not familiar with the term, it literally means to “fix the world”. We have involved more people actively in Tikun Olam over the last decade than at any time in Jewish history. It has become a permanent fixture and a rallying call in synagogues, religious schools, Jewish camps, Jewish communal organizations, Day schools, Yeshivot, and in Jewish homes, no matter what their denomination.
We have taken it upon ourselves to speak out and get involved in issues such as affordable housing, literacy, food distribution, voting rights, healthcare, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, battling racism, fighting anti-Semitism, prison reform, and many other dominant issues of our day. We have taken these to heart because our involvement helps make our world generally a more tolerable, fair, ethical, and better place in which to live and raise our families.
Tikun Olam not only strengthens our broader community spirit, it gives us as Jews an active chance to follow the mandate of the great sage Hillel who taught us: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? If not now when?” At the same time, our participation in Tikun Olam allows us to follow the wisdom of the prophet Micah who taught us “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are hallmark days when we are tasked with reflecting on the past in terms of our behavior, our efforts, our resolve and our actions. The Shofar, that we blow each Rosh Hashanah, is to be a wakeup call, an alarm so to speak. It is supposed to awaken not only our memory but also our conscience, and our moral selves to do, be, and act in the most humane way we can. It is the action of Tikun Olam that answers this call.
The Shofar awakens our sense of morality and ethical behavior to move our actions toward ethical priority. By doing this we become the best ambassadors to pass on these ideals to our children. We become the role-models and the heroes who bring about just and righteous change for the future. We do what we are called to do as human beings.
Go back to the book of Genesis in the Torah, where it teaches us the story of creation. The text says after each day of creation, “And God saw that it was good”. It never says “God saw that it was perfect,” just “good,” which is quite a ways from perfection. So we take from this that as a partner with God, it is our job, our responsibility, and our destiny to take the “good” that God gave us and make it better. In other words, move the good toward perfection.
We can’t do it all at once, and we can’t do it everywhere because we are only individuals with limited scope. But we can do it in our small corner of the universe. We can make great strides though, through our actions of Tikun Olam. To help bring the world closer to perfection is our responsibility, and we each do our individual parts, then collectively we can help make this world a place where God’s spirit reigns supreme through our human actions.
So do your part in this new decade of ours. Pitch in and help. Find a project and give it your all. Let’s see how close to perfection we can move our world. Let’s see how great a place this world can be. It starts with you and me and it starts on this Rosh Hashanah. In 5780 get intimately involved with a Tikun Olam project, any one of the hundreds available will do. Make it a New Years’ resolution. Share yourself, your time, your effort and your energy. We will all derive these blessings because of you.
Have a wonderfully joyful, healthy, productive, blessing filled New Year.
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
Time Off and Time Out
Did you ever stop to ask yourself whether our biblical ancestors took time off and went on vacation? What might those conversations have sounded like? If it were Isaac and Rachel or Isaac and Leah it might possibly have sounded like this : “Sure Rachel, I will go hiking anywhere you would like, but I am not hiking up any mountains. My last mountain trek on Moriah with my father didn’t work out so well for me.” Or perhaps the vacation discussion of Noah and Mrs. Noah (we never learned her real name). Mrs. Noah emphatically insisting that she will do anything but go on a cruise. She doesn’t care how good the food will be.
Or the vacation planning of Moses and Tzipporah with Moses telling her, “I cant go away now -- I have a 40 year contract with no time off.” Or even the planning of a vacation by Abraham and Sarah: Sarah saying to Abraham, “ I will go on vacation but I am not going overseas. Do you remember the last time we went away using our passports? God changed our names so our photo id passports were no longer valid and we couldn’t get though TSA to fly home.”
I am not sure if our ancestors ever took time off and went away to rest but our tradition is replete with maxims about the importance of taking time off and having time outs. We dedicate one day every week to resting. We call it Shabbat. We are instructed to do no work on that day and there are 39 kinds of activities in which we are specifically prohibited from participating.
It tells us in the Book of Ecclesiastes that there is a time for everything; For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. The Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher Mordechai ben Ezra teaches us “Time is the most sublime and wisest teacher.” Jewish philosopher Shlomo di Olivera pens the quote: “There is no loss as bad as the loss of time.” A popular Jewish maxim is “Time works wonders.”
Taking time out for ourselves and taking time out for our families is crucial to our stable mental health. Many people take time off in the summer to go away, to refresh and recharge. Families get to spend quality time together without the stress of deadlines and homework, business meetings and commitments. But time doesn’t only have to be taken in the summer -- it could be at any time of year.
We In the United States are woefully behind other countries in the amount of time we are allowed to take from our jobs. In fact, the United States is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee its workers any paid vacation time, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. A Center For Economic and Policy Research economist John Schmitt writes, ”Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked. It is a national embarrassment that 28 million Americans don’t get any paid vacation or paid holidays.”
Taking time off affords us the opportunity to breathe without the worry that we are missing something important. We can move at our own pace and not be concerned that the world is passing us by and we will be left behind. Taking time off or time out avails to us the luxury of being able to “ stop and smell the roses” and take time to savor that scent. We need to do this for our families, for our mental health, and for the sake of recharging our batteries and our resolve to help make our lives fuller, richer and more in line with what God has planned for us.
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
I have always loved to read. To me, reading is the epitome of relaxation and rest. It was my custom, while I was the Rabbi in Simsbury, Conn., to offer my congregants a list of books they might enjoy as summer reading. I would like to continue that tradition with you of the Naples Jewish Congregation.
There is no particular order to the books I will list here, but every one of them has some kind of Jewish theme. I hope you will take advantage of many of these titles for your summer reading. Whether you read books from the library or on a Kindle or Nook, or listen to audiobooks, these books these suggestions will definitely pique your interest.
I also hope you will let me know what you think about a book and whether you believe we might use it as part of a book club or adult education session. So no matter where you are this summer, I hope you enjoy your summer reading. Here are my picks:
Pogrebin, Abigail, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew
Kadish, Rachel, The Weight of Ink
Benedict, Marie, The Other Einstein
Benedict Marie, The Only Woman In The Room
Orringer, Julie, The Flight Portfolio
Frank, Anne; Polonsky, David; Folman, Ari: Ann Frank’s Diary, The Graphic Adaptation
Eisen, Norman, The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century. Five Lives and One Legendary House
Cohen, Leonard, The Flame
Lesser, Wendy; Robbins, Jerome: A Life In Dance
Burger, Ariel, Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom
Shteyngart, Gary, Lake Success
Englander, Nathan, Kaddish
Dobbs, Michael, The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz and a Village Caught In Between
Nadell, Pamela, America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times To Today
Hillman, Robert, The Bookshop Of the Broken-Hearted
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
"A QUEST ON AN OPEN ROAD"
Judaism is distinguished by a commitment to search and exploration. From the Jewish point of view, life is not necessarily a fixed map, but rather a quest on an open road.
One finds this restless searching in many aspects of Judaism, but it is revealed in a most unusual custom which is observed on the night before Passover. The ceremony of “bedichat hametz” is the final search for leavened bread before the holiday begins. The ancient rabbis interpreted this as a search for self-improvement. It is part of the human desire to explore the inner and outer world for ways to better life.
In the Middle Ages it was the custom of a city to adopt a motto. A city in Portugal chose as its theme “Ne Plus Alta”, “Nothing More Beyond”. That is because they believed Portugal was the end of the world. Then, one day, a man named Columbus questioned the validity of that motto. He sailed out and found a new world. When he returned, a conference of the city officials was called and they changed the motto to read; Plus Ultra, “More Beyond”.
This really is the story of all the great adventures of the mind: Of Copernicus who taught us that the sun and not the earth is the center of the solar system, of the Wright Brothers who proved that people could fly, of Sigmund Freud who found new ways to understand the human psyche, and of others like them. The list of such explorers is endless. Everything in this world that has enlarged and ennobled us is the result of people who live by this motto, “Plus Ultra,” there is yet more beyond. We are told in the megillah: If you’re told: “I searched and didn’t find”, believe not; “I didn’t search and I found”, believe not; “I searched and found”, believe.
Have a zissen pesach!
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
"YOU SHALL NOT DESTROY"
An important and central value in Judaism is called baal taschit, you shall not destroy. This means it is forbidden to destroy nature, natural beauty, and natural resources, among other things. Jewish law deems it a transgression to waste natural resources. We see it as sinful not to protect our environment at all costs. It is part of our heritage to understand that God’s world is a gift to us.
When we use a gift wisely and well, we reflect honor on the giver. When we practice environmental protection and regulation, we are living up honorable to our responsibilities to God and humanity. But when we abuse a gift, and we abolish environmental restrictions and trample on those protections over our earth, we bring discredit and insult to the one who was thoughtful enough to give it to us in the first place.
As we wander through God’s world, and as we continue to push ahead further into the universe, we need to be ever mindful of the nature of our gift. We need to be very careful that we do not destroy natural beauty and resource as we have in the past—with pollution, sewage and chemicals glutting our rivers and industrial waste, carbon monoxide and other chemicals destroying our ozone layer and poisoning our air.
I think it is important that we all actively rededicate ourselves to preserving God’s natural world. To litter is not merely to break a civil law, but a religious one as well. To wantonly break branches or take down trees is not a civil offense, but also a moral one. To fill the air with smoke, may not violate a city ordinance, but it does violate a moral principle. We need to unite to make this world—God’s world—livable and beautiful.
Henry Thoreau, the naturalist and author who invented the lead pencil--and refused to patent and cash in on it--knew all the birds and enjoyed watching them. He took pictures of them, but he refused to shoot them because, he said, “A gun only gives you the body, but not the bird.”
Just as one must be careful, not to destroy or injure their own body, so must we be careful not to destroy or injure our own environment. Whoever spoils anything that is fit for human enjoyment, breaks the commandment, “You shall not destroy.”
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
THE MAGIC OF RENEWAL
Who doesn’t love a wedding? The rite and ritual of Marriage has been a cornerstone of Judaism ever since biblical times. So important was marriage in the Jewish community that our ancestors actually arranged marriages from a very young age so that the outcome of the marriage would be beneficial to all concerned or so they thought. If you’ve read “Tevya the Milkman” by Shalom Aleichem, more commonly known from the broadway production and the movie “Fiddler on the Roof” it is all about, changing times and attitudes, as portrayed in the three marriages of Tevye’s three oldest daughters.
Officiating at weddings is one of the great joys of being a rabbi. I have had the pleasure of officiating at over 500 weddings thus far in my career. Watching the faces of the bride and groom and the faces of their parents during a wedding ceremony is often magical and unpredictable. Every single one is different. Every single one is unique and perfect.
For as long as I have been officiating at wedding ceremonies, though -- and I have just completed my 40th year in the rabbinate -- I have also had the even greater joy of officiating at Renewal of Vow ceremonies for couples married 18, 25, 36, 50, 72, and 75 years. Marriage can be a blessing and a joy, it is hard work, and is sometimes stressful. But the years that couples invest in marriage, the relationship that grows together, the triumphs and trials that are faced over the years, and how the strength of a couples love and commitment to each other endures, are things that I believe are important aspects of a marriage to be celebrated.
When a couple contacts me to officiate at a renewal of vows ceremony, or their children contact me to officiate at one for their parents golden wedding anniversary, I am always excited for the chance to inject a degree of kedusha (holiness) into the occasion. Celebrating love is important, but celebrating marriage as a gift, and celebrating the growth of the husband and wife as they continue their journey together are things that I believe should be recognized publicly. Renewing vows and publicly reaffirming the commitment that was made years ago reopens one’s eyes and reawakens one’s heart and celebrates all that has gone into making that relationship one of distinction.
This type of ceremony can be celebrated anywhere, really. I have renewed vows using a large tallit for a huppah at the Western and Southern Walls in Jerusalem, on the waterfront in Jaffa, in couples’ living rooms, on mountaintops, in synagogues, parks, country clubs, and in hospital rooms. Celebrating love and the relationship it manifests is something that our sages and mystics write about often. Whether this special ceremony is done alone with a rabbi, or in front of hundreds of well wishers, it is something that envelops a couple with memories, feelings and emotions that will last a lifetime.
So, whenever you may have a significant anniversary coming up whether in a year or in ten years, I would urge you to consider a renewal of vows ceremony. If it has never crossed your mind think seriously about it. Talk to your rabbi if you are a member of NJC or some other synagogue. We will all be thrilled to give you some direction in this regard. If you are not a member of a synagogue and would like information about renewal of vows you can reach out to me and I will be happy to guide you. It says in Song of Songs, “Set me as a seal upon your heart and upon your arm, for love is infinitely strong, many waters cannot quench love no flood can sweep it away”. Renew your vows and you will renew the depth and meaning of this ancient verse
THE FUTURE IS NOW
We Jews have been known throughout the centuries by many recognizable and unrecognizable epithets. Some of those names are laudable while others are lamentable. We have been called, “the People of the Book” and “God’s chosen people.” We have had the banner of the “Children of Israel,” “Wandering Jews’” and a “light to the nations.” We have been called “Yids” and “schwein” and “Juden.” Where you look will at least partially determine the tenor of the name.
There are so many more names, too numerous to count. But the name that has always intrigued me is the first one I mentioned, “the People of the Book.” It was that name that grabbed me and gave me such a good feeling, even at a very young age. Whether it meant this or not, it always signified to me that as a people we were intelligent. We valued education and learning was important to us. We were readers and knowledgeable about the world and curious about the things around us. Just look at the sheer number of Nobel Prize winners who are Jews. This is such an amazingly disproportionate number to our size as a population in the world. So, to me it always connoted intellect above all else.
But have you ever taken the time to think about what “People of the Book” actually means? First, what book is the quote referring to? Is the book the Torah? In other words, it is saying we are the people spoken about in the Torah, or are we the people who read, study, and practice what is written in the Torah? Does “the Book” refer to simply generic books, in other words we read and study a lot? Is ‘the Book’ the Talmud or other books of Jewish Law, thereby suggesting we follow the rules written down in our books. No matter where I have researched this I get all of the above and then some. So, what that says to me is that this term “People of the Book” has been and remains open to a whole variety of interpretations and understandings, depending on whom you are speaking to and what historic time period they are utilizing for their answer.
I bring all of this up because I was given a “Google Assistant” for Chanukah. For those of you not familiar with a Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa, these are devices that operate on the basis of artificial intelligence. You ask it questions, or you ask it to do a task and there, right before your eyes, it is done. You don’t need books, or rules, or tomes, or laws or anything else for that matter. All you need is the desire to know something, or hear something, or watch something, or create something.
My Google Assistant is there to grant me anything I have a desire for at the moment. It is instant gratification personified. It turns in my TV, turns off my lights, wakes me up in the morning and sings me anything I like to put me to sleep. She will tell me whatever story I ask her to tell. ‘She’ is really quite remarkable. All I need is a wireless internet connection, and my Google Assistant is ready to go. “She” never sleeps and is at my beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I could program her to rest on Shabbat if I want to. I have to be honest -- I love having her around.
So, I wonder, with the continuing advances in the field of artificial intelligence and its ability so readily available, will we Jews stop being “the People of the Book?” Will we succumb to not reading, or not going to the library, or not studying Torah or any of our ancient texts because they can be accessed through the Google Assistant? I am thrilled to see we still have book festivals and author lectures, book groups, and book clubs, and one-book programs in our community. I can only hope they will continue and we as a community will support these endeavors. The lure of artificial intelligence may be the wave of the future but the significant strides we have made in the world as the “People of the Book” continue to resonate across the ages.
Shalom Uvracha and a Happy 2019
Rabbi Howard S. Herman, DD
The Two Seas
There are two seas in Israel connected by the River Jordan. One is Yam Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee and the other is Yam Hamelach, the Salt Sea, or as it more commonly referred to as the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee in the northern part of Israel is fresh water. Fish swim in it, splashes of green adorn the banks, and people of all stripes sunbath, swim, picnic and frolic on it’s shores. People have started building weekend and summer retreats all along its banks.
It seems that every kind of life is happier because the Sea of Galilee is there. On the southern end of the Jordan is the Dead Sea. There are no fish in it, in fact there is no life in it or around it at all. No one really wants to live there and neither human nor animal will drink of it’s “dead” waters. If you look all around the Dead Sea all you can see is barrenness for miles.
What is the great difference between these two seas since they are both watered by the Jordan River, which sends the same water into both? The difference is that the Sea of Galilee receives but does not keep the Jordan. For every drop that flows into it, another drop flows out. The giving and receiving is in equal measure. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, is greedy and hoards its income jealously. There are no outlets. It cannot be tempted into any kind of hospitality or any generous impulse. Every drop it gets it keeps.
The Sea of Galilee gives and lives. The other sea gives nothing. It is called “dead."
There are two kinds of seas in Israel. There are also two kinds of people in the world. Which kind are you?
Rabbi Howard S Herman DD
December 1, 2018
The Not-So-Bitter Month of Heshvan
As Jews, we stand with our feet in two different worlds. We stand with one foot in the secular world and one foot in the Jewish world. In the Jewish world, just like in the secular world, we mark time in days, weeks and months. The Jewish world, just like the secular world, measures time in months. The months’ names are different than the secular names; they begin and end for different reasons and in the Jewish world, the beginning of the year is around September and initiates with the Hebrew month of Tishrei.
The month we currently are marking is the Hebrew month of Heshvan, the second month of the Hebrew calendar. It is the month of Heshvan that is different from every other Hebrew month in the calendar. What makes it so different? Well, Heshvan in Hebrew is known affectionately as “Mar Heshvan.” No other Hebrew month shares that distinction. So why is it called “Mar Heshvan” The Hebrew word “mar” you might recognize from a word we use at Passover time “maror”. What is “maror”? Maror, you might remember, are bitter herbs found on the seder plate and “mar” simply means bitter. Mar Heshvan is the bitter month of Heshvan. It sits between two Hebrew months Tishrei and Kislev, which seem to be “superstar” months, filled to capacity with holidays and celebrations.
OK, Rabbi, what is it that makes Heshvan so bitter? Eleven months of the year, each month has at least one Jewish holiday which sweetens that particular month. Heshvan, as you have probably already determined, is the only Hebrew month without a Jewish holiday. So therefore it is known as the “bitter month.” We try to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with a bit more gusto if they occur in Heshvan and we attempt to make preparations early for the holidays that occur in the following month. Yet Heshvan still carries the mantle of “mar” bitter.
So what can we learn from the month of Mar Heshvan? I think that the message is clear that we cannot always live on the highs of celebration. We need to maintain a balance between the highs and lows of life. To be able to live a balanced existence is the truth about how successful our lives might be. We learn from Mar Heshvan that life is about living the everyday, the mundane, the ordinary. In order to live a balanced life we need at times to taste disappointment and even some bitterness is to be expected and to learn how to deal with it properly.
I believe that Mar Heshvan is so situated in our lives to teach us the lessons of moderation and balance. If we learn these lessons well and maintain that sense that not everything is a high or low, it is then that we are able to maintain our equilibrium and our perspective. So look at Mar Heshvan as an opportunity and a challenge. Once we successfully navigate its course we will live richer, more satisfied lives.
Rabbi Howard S Herman DD
Oct. 26, 2018
THE BEDROCK OF RELIGION
Religion is an important and established institution. While organized religion has changed and will have to change even further to keep up with new insights into the nature of humanity and the meaning of God, we must still hold fast to the basic traditions that strengthen us, and guide us in our search for a good life. If the roots of religion are torn out, then the tree of faith will shrivel and die and with it will perish the great moral and ethical teachings which have evolved over the centuries. If this happens what will take its place?
The basic function of traditional religion is to keep society ethical and stable. That is why religion as an institution needs to be kept intact, while at the same time we try to breathe into it new direction, energy and relevance.
I come from Connecticut so I thing a fitting analogy is the graceful Harkness Tower, the most commanding structure on the campus of Yale University. All the stones for this tower were brought in specially except for the bedrock foundation, which was part of the earth itself. That bedrock is clearly visible, for the first layer of the new stone begins several feet above the old stone which is embedded in the earth. The Harkness Tower is so heavy that without the bedrock it could not stand.
So it is that we need the bedrock of basic institutions upon which to build new ideas and new resources to help ourselves. In this process we need to be careful not to erode or destroy anything that would continue to support us and give us the benefit of centuries of accumulated wisdom. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said it well in one sentence: “The community with the past is not a duty; it is rather a necessity.” It teaches us in the Book of Enoch: “Blessed is the person who keeps the foundation of his/her ancestors.
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
CONSIDER THE TURTLE
The Torah tells us that on the fifth day of creation “God created the great sea animals and every living thing that creepeth.” These creatures have mystified, delighted, and amazingly enough have instructed us. The following is an apt illustration of the manner in which they teach us the art of living.
It is recorded that when James B. Conant was president of Harvard University, he kept among other objects on his desk a little model of a turtle, under which was the inscription, “Consider the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” This is a great truth. It can be verified by watching any turtle. No turtle ever moves forward when he is enclosed within his shell.
The turtle teaches us a vital lesson for our times. How carefully we guard our necks! We have become afraid of taking risks for good causes. We often fear to stick our necks out for what we believe. But unless we challenge the thinking of our peers, and on occasion chance their displeasure, we cannot advance beyond ourselves.
In every generation, in every social circle—indeed any group—there have to be individuals who are willing to express their ideas and their ideals, even if they are unpopular. It is through these people that the progress of society, culture, values and morality is assured and its ideals continually advanced. The truth is neither shy nor timid. It underpins the structure of society and goes a long way to bolster the democratic ideals we hold so dear.
Rabbi Howard S Herman DD
To Thine Own Self Be True
George Steiner’s volume Language and Silence, contains a sentence worth remembering: “Men are accomplices to that which leaves them indifferent.”
This is the underlying purpose of religion: to inspire us, to lead us beyond indifference to action, to make our ideals real, to have our studies, move us into practice.
This approach to life is the core understanding as Jews and the meaning of Jewishness. Being Jewish is feeling a part of the Jewish historical experience. The consciousness of Jewish history is the consciousness of the self that we share with others. We are centuries, if not millennia, older than our chronological ages. Other peoples live from moment to moment, but we live from memory to memory. That is the uniqueness of the life of the Jew.
We were with Abraham when he looked up at the stars and was inspired to smash the idols and proclaim the One God. We walked up the slopes of Sinai with Moses to receive the Ten Commandments. We studied Talmud with the Rabbis and worked out a remarkable series of rituals and ethics that have shaped our lives ever since. We probed philosophy with Maimonides and helped shape the intellectual history of the Western world. We walked into the hell fires of the Holocaust with our brothers and sisters and emerged badly scarred but survivors.
We returned with the first settlers to our promised land, established a new state, fought continually to defend it, and worked hard to preserve it. Much of today’s eminent consciousness lies in the fact that the history of the Jewish people is like an axis crossing the history of humanity from one of it’s poles to the other.
We are Jewish history. If you are a Jew, be true to that.
How and where do we encounter holiness in our everyday lives? If we do encounter these transcendent moments how do we respond? How do we acknowledge them? Do we acknowledge them or do we just tend to let them slip by?
It is a hard thing to do, to pay attention to holiness, because there are many noises and distractions around us that it makes it difficult to keep an eye out for these things.
In the Talmud, the rabbis present us with a spiritual challenge for acknowledging holiness: everyday a person should say 100 blessings. While the discussion in the Talmud might not speak to our modern sensibilities, the essence of the challenge is powerful: how can we become more attuned, more mindful of the opportunities to connect to what is going on around us and to offer gratitude and thanks for even the simplest things on our lives?
How can we elevate some of the most mundane tasks – whether it is eating a meal, hearing thunder, or catching up with an old friend – how can we transform these simple actions into holy moments? We have a system of paying attention to the details of our lives, and for sanctifying special moments, helping us live our lives with a mindset of gratitude. There are blessings we can say for all kinds of things. These blessings take these simple actions and remind us that there is something bigger than any one of us, and to pause and reflect on the significance of these moments.
We have another practice that can help us with spiritual awareness: Shabbat. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his work The Sabbath:Its Meaning for Modern Man, writes that “there is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue, but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space(and of things) becomes our sole concern.” As Reform Jews we don’t see Shabbat observance as all or nothing, but each of us has to start with something that is manageable and meaningful.
The idea of Shabbat rest is different from the way the rest of the world understands rest. Our tradition teaches that while the rest of the world rests in order to work, as Jews we work in order to rest. Rabbi Heschel explains it this way: The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space.
The world we live in is full of mystery and wonder, and these days we spend a good amount of our time zipping by, often missing the small opportunities to stop and acknowledge the good that we have that surrounds us.
There is a story in the Reconstructionist prayerbook that tell of a great pianist who was once asked by an admirer: “How do you handle the notes as well as you do? The artist answered: The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes, ah! that is where the art resides.” In great living, as in great music, the art may be in the pauses.
May you find a moment of true rest on this Shabbat. Just imagine what you might connect to when you disconnect, even if just for a bit.