Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah from R’ Sunny Schnitzer

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s offering features a teaching from Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer. The text follows the video link, in Spanish and then in English. Deepest thanks to Rabbi Juan Mejia for translation help.

Find this month’s video here. 

A menudo  durante nuestra amistad, diecisiete años después de conocernos en mi primera visita a Cuba, hemos comentado cómo nuestro judaísmo nos une. No importa cuán lejos vivamos los unos de los otros, no importa las diferencias en nuestras culturas nacionales, hay mucho más cosas que nos unen que aquellas que nos separan. Compartimos una historia, una cultura, una forma de ver el mundo a través de los lentes de la Torá.

Ahora mismo, en medio de esta pandemia mundial, compartimos las máscaras, los dos metros de distancia al hacer cola, la escasez de papel higiénico (una novedad en Estados Unidos).

No comparo nuestras situaciones. En verdad, no hay comparación. Pero se necesitará la misma acción por parte de todos para sacarnos de esta oscuridad. Debemos trabajar más duro para compartir nuestra luz.

Es un principio espiritual que cuando compartimos nuestra luz espiritual con otros, nuestra luz no disminuye sino que aumenta. Cuanta más luz compartimos con los demás, más luz fluye a través de nosotros.

Janucá es algo realmente simple. A diferencia de Pesaj o Sucot, que requieren mucha preparación: limpiar la casa, hornear o ubicar la matzá, construir la sucá, Janucá requiere poca preparación. A diferencia de las festividades que también tienen restricciones, Janucá no tiene restricciones.

Uno simplemente enciende la Janukia durante ocho noches y uno se apega a la luz y bendición divinas. Es simple, pero profundo. En una época del año cuando los días son más cortos y las noches más largas; Janucá irradia esperanza, fe y amor incondicional, recordándonos que debemos soñar de nuevo, que nuestros sueños son hermosos e importantes. La capacidad de aferrarse a los sueños y la esperanza, incluso en medio de una crisis, es lo que ha sostenido a nuestra gente en sus días más oscuros.

Los macabeos lucharon por la supervivencia del espíritu en medio de una presión inimaginable para cambiar su forma de vida.

La suya fue una afirmación clara que suena a lo largo de la historia y llega a nuestra época.

No importa cuán atractiva sea la cultura del mundo en general, no importa cuán seductora sea, de alguna manera los judíos deben seguir siendo judíos. El milagro del aceite que usaron los Macabeos para encender la Menorah en el Templo es la declaración definitiva

La idea de un mundo sin judíos e ideales judíos fue rechazada. Y el rechazo de la oscuridad fue recompensado con una revelación de luz que ha mantenido vivo a nuestro pueblo durante más de dos mil años.

No importa lo que esté sucediendo en el mundo externo, Janucá nos enseña que podemos ser libres y que no debemos estar limitados por nuestros miedos. Podemos vivir nuestras vidas con mayor integridad, gratitud, amor y belleza, incluso en medio de nuestros desafíos.

Es un principio espiritual que cuando compartimos nuestra luz espiritual con otros, nuestra luz no disminuye sino que aumenta. Cuanta más luz compartimos con los demás, más luz fluye a través de nosotros “.

Que te inspire la luz en la oscuridad.

¡Feliz Janucá!


During our friendship, now going on 17 years since we met on my first visit to Cuba, we have remarked often on how our Judaism brings us together. No matter how far away we live from each other, no matter the differences in our national cultures, there is much more that keeps us together than apart. We share a history, a culture, a way of looking at the world through the lens of Torah.

Right now, in the midst of this worldwide pandemic we share the masks, the standing 6 meters apart in lines, a shortage of toilet paper (a first in the United States).

I do not compare our situations. In truth, there is no comparison. But it will take the same action by everyone to bring us through this darkness. We must work harder to share our light.

It is a spiritual principle that when we share our spiritual light with others, our light is not diminished but increased. The more light we share with others, the more light flows through us.

Hanukah is a simple thing really. Unlike Pesach or Sukkot which require much preparation – clean the house, bake or locate the matzah, build the sukkah, Chanukah requires little preparation. Unlike those holidays which also have restrictions, Chanukah as no restrictions.

One simply lights the Chanukiah for eight nights and one is attached to Divine light and blessing. It is simple, but profound. At a time of the year when the days are shortest and nights are the longest; Chanukah radiates hope, faith, and unconditional love, reminding us to dream again, that our dreams are beautiful and important. The ability to hold onto dreams and hope, even in the midst of crisis, is what has sustained our people in their darkest days.

The Maccabees fought for the survival of the spirit in the midst of unimaginable pressure to change their way of life.

Theirs was a clear statement that sounds throughout history and reaches us in our era.

No matter how attractive the culture of the larger world, no matter how seductive, somehow Jews must continue to be Jews. The miracle of the oil that the Maccabees used to light the Menorah in the Temple is the ultimate statement

The idea of a world without Jews and Jewish ideals was rejected. And the rejection of the darkness was rewarded with a revelation of light that has kept our people alive for over two thousand years.

No matter what is happening in the external world, Chanukah teaches us that we can be free and we need not be limited by our fears. We can live our lives with greater integrity, gratitude, love and beauty, even in the midst of our challenges.

It is a spiritual principle that when we share our spiritual light with others, our light is not diminished but increased. The more light we share with others, the more light flows through us”.

May you be inspired by the light in the darkness.

Happy Chanukah!

 

 

Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer

By Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer. Translation help from Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah

Illustration by Steve Silbert

This new collaborative offering from Bayit’s liturgical arts working group comes to bring light in dark times. Here you’ll find new liturgy (including an “Al HaNisim” looking back on the miracles we haven’t yet lived into being, and a “Hanerot Hallalu” for this pandemic year), evocative poetry (on finding light without a chanukiyah, on kindling lights alone, on the windows where we light our lights and the Zoom windows where the pandemic allows us to gather, and much more), and meditations on Chanukah through all five senses, all accompanied by heart-opening artwork. This collection was co-created by Trisha Arlin, R. Rachel Barenblat, R. Dara Lithwick, R. David Evan Markus, R. Sonja Keren Pilz, R. Jennifer Singer, Steve Silbert, and Devon Spier, and is intended for use by individuals and communities across and beyond the denominational spectrum.

Download the whole collection:

Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah [pdf]

 

Above you can see a glimpse of one of the illustrations. Here are tastes of a few of the poems, prayers, and meditations contained in this collection:

From “Hanukkah Poem #1,” Devon Spier:

i figure the day before Hanukkah
is the right time to begin
a new time
in inhuman history…

From “Hanerot Hallalu for 2020,” by Rabbi Dara Lithwick:

This Chanukah we honour those whose light has shone throughout the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the helpers who despite the tohu and bohu, the chaos and confusion, trauma, fear and disinformation have served and continue to serve, illuminating our communities by their commitment and caring…

From “Al Hanisim: Future Miracles Unfolding Now, ” by Rabbi David Evan Markus:

In the days of Stacey Abrams, Jacinda Ardern, William Barber, Anthony Fauci, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, John Lewis, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, peoples of the Earth had forgotten Your teachings and transgressed Your ways of justice. Greed corroded truth. Ignorance mocked science. Fossil fuels burned without end, defiling Your temple of nature. Zealotry and corruption flourished, defiling Your temple of democracy…

From “Rededication,” Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:

It’s not like the Temple, sullied
by improper use and then washed clean
and restored to former glory.
This house is tarnished by familiarity…

From “My Maccabees,” by Trisha Arlin:

…This year
My Maccabees
Wore masks
Washed their hands
Kept their distance
Stayed home…

From “Chanukah of Stars,” Rabbi Jennifer Singer:

The year I had no hanukiah
No candles
Not even a match
Because I had let the last cigarettes crumble in a drawer…

From “Second Calendar,” Rabbi Sonja Keren Pilz:

There is a Jewish calendar for those who came late.

Until Tuesday afternoon,
One might prolong the shabbes
For all those still in need
Of a second soul…

 

Download the whole collection:

Great Miracles Happen Here: Liturgy, Poetry, and Art for Chanukah [pdf]

And find all of our liturgical collaborations here: Liturgical Arts for Our Time.

 

    

Liturgy and poetry by Trisha Arlin, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Rabbi Dara Lithwick, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Rabbi Sonja Keren Pilz, Rabbi Jennifer Singer, and Devon Spier. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.

A Meditation for Channeling Blessing

During 5781, a group of Bayit builders, led by R. Cynthia Hoffman, is studying the writings of the Baal Shem Tov. First and foremost we’re studying “lishma,” for the sake of the learning itself. We’re also keeping an eye out for short teachings that might give rise to practices, tools, and spiritual technologies for our time. 

Drawing on the Baal Shem Tov

The blessing that Isaac gives to Jacob in this week’s parsha, Toldot, includes this prayer for abundance: “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.” (Genesis 27:28)

Riffing on the idea of abundance, the Baal Shem Tov quotes Brachot 17b, in which a Bat Kol (a divine voice) proclaims, “The whole world is nourished bishvil / for the sake of My son Chanina, and for My son Chanina, a small measure of carob suffices from one Shabbat to the next.” (Chanina ben Dosa was a first-century sage and miracle worker.) 

The Baal Shem Tov reads bishvil (for the sake of) creatively as b’shvil, “in the path of.” That shift transforms the Gemara reference: now it’s saying that the whole world is nourished by a path or a conduit, e.g. a conduit for drawing down abundance for the world. This is the role of a tzaddik, says the Baal Shem Tov: to be a sh’vil (path) and conduit for drawing down blessing. With their deeds, a tzaddik can draw down the great flow of abundant blessing for the whole world. 

Our job is to seek to be tzaddikim — to act with justice and righteousness — so that we can become conduits for abundance and blessing. The spiritual uplift that we find in this practice can nourish us from one Shabbat to the next, like Chanina ben Dosa finding in his measure of carob enough sweetness to carry him through the week.

 

#BeALight* Meditative practice for after havdalah:

Sit comfortably with your palms facing up on your lap. Plant your feet on the floor. Feel yourself rooted in the earth.

Bring your attention up your body to the crown of your head. Set the conscious intention of opening your crown, like a faucet turning, opening yourself to the flow of blessing, as though it were coming in through your kippah. 

Imagine blessing flowing into you. Feel it filling you up. Feel it now emanating from your feet, sinking into the earth like rain. Feel it now emanating from your hands into the world.

Choose a justice-oriented act you will take in the new week. Resolve to perform that action with this flow of blessing coming through you. Set the intention of finding sweetness in that act, so that in addition to whomever this act helps in the world, it will also enliven you.

When you’re ready, gently close the faucet — not shutting off the flow of blessing, but putting a lid on your own structural integrity so you can return to paying attention to the world. 

 

*more on #BeALight

 

Source: Baal Shem Tov on Toldot, comments 8 and 9.

 

Graceful Beauty / Graceful Masculinity: Chayyei Sarah

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

The life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, these were the years of Sarah’s life. (Genesis 23:1)

The parsha opens with the story of Sarah’s death, but it begins with a description of her life. There are two unusual aspects to this verse, both of which have made it a particularly fruitful site for exegesis. First there is the fact that the verse references the life of Sarah twice. Rashi explains that the repetition is coming to praise her, and teach us that the years of her life “were all equal for goodness.” The first word, וַיִּהְיוּ, is a palindrome reflecting this teaching that from beginning to end, and everything in between, Sarah’s life was equally good. This is an unusual assertion as Sarah’s life certainly had its ups and downs. After struggling with infertility for decades, miraculously having a son at 90 must have felt like a life changing experience. The first word of the verse, having a numerical value of 37, also signifies this distinction by highlighting her 37 years of being a mother. 

The Sefas Emes1 writes that Sarah’s days were all equally good because she was able to place G-d in front of her, always. Her clarity and awareness of G-d’s presence was so real and consistent, it was powerful enough to heal from the trauma of the original sin. R’ Gedilah Schorr taught that this is alluded to in the verse “She bestows goodness, never evil, all the days of her life.”2 There was no mixture. Nothing impure.

Second, our verse also notes that Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years old, instead of saying more efficiently that she was one hundred and twenty-seven years old. Rashi comments that this alludes to the fact that when she was 20 years old she was like a seven year old with regard to beauty. Admittedly it is a very strange compliment. What is the Torah trying to teach us is praising her in this way?

Sarah’s beauty is lauded repeatedly in the Torah, prompting Abraham to fear that he would be killed by men who coveted her. The Talmud3 explains that one of the reasons that Sarah was also called Yischah, in Genesis 11:29, was because everyone wanted to gaze at her beauty.4 Yet despite her reputation for being gorgeous, the Midrash5 claims that Abraham eulogized Sarah with the words from King Solomon’s Woman of Valor6  which include: “Grace (Chein) is false and beauty meaningless, but a woman who is God fearing should be praised.” Why is the Torah focusing on Sarah’s beauty if ultimately, beauty is not of true value?

The Torah is not singing her praises as much as it is praising her song. Whether high or low, she is consistently connecting to G-d. The rabbis observe7 that the word for song שיר / shir  is the same letters as straight ישר / yashar. Songs, like life, consist of changes. Wherever we are, we can respond by connecting straight to G-d. The Talmud8 explains the verse in Psalms9“I will sing of loving-kindness and justice; unto You, O Lord, will I sing praises” to mean: If it is loving-kindness, I will sing, and if it is justice, I will sing.

Sarah was exceptionally beautiful because she presented as the purest form of the divine image, like the natural holiness of a child. Expressing that connection constantly is what made her life good. When the physical is elevated, in service of heaven, then the physical is also praiseworthy, because it is being used as a tool for spirituality.

Rabbi Akiva teaches10 that Esther merited to rule over 127 provinces of the Persian Empire because she was the descendant of Sarah who lived 127 years.  Sarah modeled an embodied revelation of the hidden that continues to give strength, especially in the hard times of exile and G-d’s hiding.

Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov11(1783-1841) explains that Rebecca and Miriam also had this spiritual beauty that inspired people to connect more deeply to G-d. Unlike the superficial beauty, true chein/grace produces a transcendent attraction that draws us closer to G-d, and to a deeper understanding of each other. 

We read this Parsha on the Shabbat that we bless the upcoming month of Kislev. In Hebrew כסלו is understood as כס-לו a covering for the 36 hidden lights of Chanukah which we experience at the end of the month. Each month is connected to a different order of the four letters of G-’s name. Kislev’s is organized ויה-ה 12 the same as the last letter in the first four words of our initial verse, וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה and corresponds to the mourning of Jacob,13 who is brought for burial in the cave on Chanukah.14

As we enter into the dark winter months, may the light of our connection to the Divine shine forth and bring true beauty to the world.

 

1.656

2. Proverbs 31:12

3. Bavli Megillah 14a

4.Another reason that is offered is that she saw with Divine Spirit

5. Tanchuma 4

6. Proverbs 31:10

7. Sefas Emes 633 Beshalach

8. Bavli Brachos 60b

9. 101:1

10. Bereishit Rabbah 58:3

11. Igra D’Kallah

12. Beni Yissascher M’1

13. Genesis 50:11 וַיַּרְא יוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי

14. Emunas Asecha

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

Running With Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeira

וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ–אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.

And he said, “my lord, if I have found grace in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.” (Genesis 18:3)

 

Vayeira begins as Avraham, recovering from his recent circumcision, is conversing with G-d in a prophetic state. Suddenly, Avraham lifts up his eyes and sees three angels, presenting as men, approaching. He runs to greet them and then says, “My Lord, if I have found grace in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.”

With whom is Avraham speaking? If he is speaking to the three men, why does he address them in the singular?  Rashi offers two understandings of Avraham’s words. First Rashi suggests that Avraham is speaking to the three men, but he is addressing the most important of the three and that is why he says “my lord.” Then Rashi shares an intriguing, alternative approach. Avraham is actually speaking with G-d, asking G-d to wait while he goes to welcome the potential guests.

Based on this understanding of the verse, the Talmud teaches1 that “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence”. But if Avraham is asking G-d not to pass on from him, why does he first run to the three men? Would it not make more sense to take his leave of G-d and then run to greet his guests? Also, how did Avraham know that it was acceptable to keep G-d waiting in order to service guests? 

The Ramchal frames2 all of character development as an attempt to better understand G-d in order to act as G-d would act. “Walking in G-d’s ways – this includes all matters of uprightness and correction of character traits.” He explains that is what the Talmud3 means when it teaches “Just as God is full of grace and compassion, we should similarly be merciful and compassionate.4

The commentators5 observe that Talmud could have simply taught that we should be graceful and compassionate because G-d is, but instead the Talmud links our actions to G-d’s by making them conditional to be G-d like. In other words, the more we study and come to know G-d and the appropriate applications of G-d’s attributes, the more similar we can be to G-d.

Abraham started his quest to understand G-d very early on and now, 96 years later, he had perfected his body to be aligned with the Divine Will. R’ Nosson Gestetner writes that Avraham’s 248 limbs were so attuned to their corresponding 248 positive commandments that his body naturally was performing in G-dly ways. 

As soon as his feet began to run towards the guests, he assumed that was what God wanted him to do. Because G-d is charitable, Avraham knew that he was also meant to be. Perhaps our verse should be understood as a question of approbation, after having left the prophetic state, asking “If I have found grace in Your eyes, if I have understood You correctly, this is what You want me to do – If I have properly found your way of gracefulness, please don’t leave me because I am not leaving you.” Avraham wasn’t just walking in G-d’s ways, but he was running!

Our relationship with G-d, however asymmetrical, is still reciprocal. Whatever Abraham did for his angelic guests himself, G-d performed directly for Abraham’s descendants. But whatever was done through a messenger, G-d also performed indirectly; mida k’neged mida, measure for measure.  This principal can also be understood, homiletically, as reflecting G-d’s Midos, character traits. The more we understand G-d the more we can be like G-d, and then the more G-d shares G-d’s self in relationship with us. 

Perhaps the mitzvah of welcoming strangers is the example given because one of the ways that we come to better understand G-d is by seeing different aspects of G-d in other people. It is now also a way to express to G-d, like Abraham did, that we come closer to  G-d by treating people with kindness.

 


1. Bavli Shavuot 35b

2. Introduction to Path of the Just

3. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 133b

4.Rashi explains this teaching about grace, from Abba Shaul on the verse in Exodus of זה א-לי ואנוהו, through the etymology ואנוהו = אני והוא, me and G-d – that we should make ourselves like G-d by doing as God does, adding to the Braisa’s understanding of אנוהו as the act of beautifying a mitzvah

5. בלבבי משכן אבנה

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah by R’ David Markus

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi David Markus. The text follows the video, in Spanish and then in English. Deepest thanks to Rabbi Juan Mejia for translation.

 

 

Hola mis amigos.  Desde mi corazón en Nueva York al vuestro en Cuba, envío mis bendiciones para esta sagrada temporada de “lo que viene después”.

“Lo que viene después” es nuestra eterna pregunta humana y también es nuestra pregunta espiritual para este mes.  Es una pregunta sagrada no porque este mes contenga fiestas sagradas, sino justamente por la razón contraria.

En nuestro calendario laico, es noviembre.  Escasamente puedo creer que ha sido un año entero desde mi visita a Cuba.  Aún un año después siento cuán viva se sentía Cuba en Noviembre comparado con Nueva York.  El poeta británico Thomas Hood escribió que todas las cosas más bellas terminan en noviembre.

Sin calor, ni alegría, ni saludable facilidad,

Sin sensación cómodo en ningún miembro-

Sin sombra, sin brillo, sin mariposas ni abejas,

Sin frutas, sin flores, sin hojas, sin aves,

Noviembre!

Pero no en Cuba.  Y no sólo por el clima.  Especialmente en medio de la dificultad, la comunidad judía de Cuba compartió  su tesón, su pasión, su espíritu de bienvenida y su propio ser.  Nos fuimos cambiados para siempre.  Parte de nuestros corazones todavía está con ustedes, especialmente ahora en medio de la adversidad que azota a gran parte del mundo.

Así que es especialmente significativo que este noviembre comience en el medio del mes judío de Jeshvan.  Jeshván es nuestro único mes sin fiestas-  sin tiempo sagrado dedicado a nuestros rituales, reuniones, devoción, orgullo, alegría, dolor, ansia y aprendizaje.  Después del intenso mes judío de Tishré, lleno de fiestas como Rosh Hashaná, Yom Kippur, Sukkot y más, súbitamente ya no hay más.

A veces la sabiduría más grande del judaísmo es sutil: el judaísmo nos enseña no sólo a través de las grandes fiestas y proclamaciones sino también a través de lo que el profeta Elías experimentó como la “tranquila voz susurrante” de nuestro interior.

Igualmente con Jeshván.  Un mes entero con una súbita ausencia de fiestas judías nos enseña que la vida judía no gravita alrededor de las fiestas.  Más bien, la vida judía tiene que ver con nuestro día a día, la rutina aparente con la que interactuamos los unos con los otros.  El judaísmo gravita alrededor de nuestra devoción, orgullo, alegría, dolor, ansia y aprendizaje a través de todo nuestra vida, y no sólo en ocasiones especiales.

Sí, las ocasiones especiales son jusatmente eso: especiales.  Son oportunidades especiales para reunirnos y celebrar, especialmente cuando el esfuerzo implicado en reunirnos es física y económicamente desafiante.

En contraste, Jeshván centra nuestra atención en el judaísmo y las mitzvot (mandamientos) de la vida judía en el resto del tiempo, ya que no vivimos sólo para las fiestas.  En efecto, vivimos todos los días. Vivimos para nuestras familias y amigos, para tener oportunidades de aprender, para tratarnos bien los unos a los otros, para buscar y encontrar gratitud por nuestras bendiciones así sean pequeñas, para la alegría de celebrar shabbat cada semana.  Buscamos y, a veces, incluso encontramos lo sagrado en nuestras vidas cotidianas.

Tal vez ese sea el secreto judío para sobrevivir y prosperar a través de los siglos.  Nuestro secreto está en nuestras fiestas compartidas, pero más aún en vivir nuestra identidad orgullosamente, nuestra misión y nuestro credo todos los días.  Que este Jeshván, el mes sin fiestas judías, nos recuerde que el amor, la alegría y el sentido de nuestra vida judía nos aguarda en cada día, en cada alma, en cada lugar y en cada momento.

Hello, my friends.  From my heart in New York to yours across Cuba, I send blessings for this sacred season of “what comes next.”

“What comes next,” our eternally human question, also is our spiritual question this month. It’s a sacred question not because this month brings sacred Jewish holidays, but precisely for the opposite reason.

In our secular calendar, it’s November.  I barely can believe that it’s been a whole year since my community and I visited Cuba.  Even a year later, I feel how alive Cuba’s November felt compared to New York.  British poet Thomas Hood wrote that most everything beautiful ends in November:

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member—
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!

But not in Cuba – and not only because of climate.  Especially amidst hardship, the Jewish communities of Cuba shared with us your resilience, your passion, your welcoming spirit and your very selves.  We left changed forever. Part of our hearts still is with you, especially now amidst continuing adversity for so much of the world.
So it’s especially poignant that this November begins midway into Judaism’s spiritual month of Cheshvan.  Cheshvan is our only month with no holidays – no specially sacred times to focus our rituals, gatherings, devotion, pride, joy, grief, yearning or learning.  After Judaism’s intense month of Tishrei full of holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and more, suddenly there are none.
Sometimes our Jewish tradition’s greatest wisdom is subtle: Judaism teaches us not only in the big festivals and proclamations but also in what Elijah the prophet experienced as “the still, small voice” inside.
So too with Cheshvan. A whole month’s sudden absence of Jewish festivals can teach us that Jewish life actually isn’t about festivals at all. Rather, Jewish life is mostly about our day to day, our seemingly routine of how we treat each other. Judaism is about our devotion, pride, joy, grief, yearning and learning together throughout our lives, not just on special occasions.
Yes, special occasions are just that – special.  They’re special opportunities to gather together and celebrate, especially when the effort of gathering can be physically and economically challenging.
But Cheshvan focuses us on our Judaism, and mitzvot (commandments) of Jewish life the rest of the time, because we don’t live only for festivals. After all, we live each day.  We live for our families and friends, for chances to learn, for treating each other well, for seeking and finding gratitude for blessings however small, for joyfully making Shabbat every week.  We seek and sometimes even find the sacred in our daily lives.
Maybe that’s Judaism’s secret of surviving and thriving over the centuries.  Our secret is partly in our shared festivals, but mostly in pridefully living our identity, our calling and our creed every day.  May this Cheshvan, this month with no Jewish holidays, remind us that the love, joy and meaning of Jewish life await us every day, in every soul, in every place and in every moment.
By Rabbi David Markus. Translation by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Covenantal Grace / Graceful Masculinity: Lech Lecha

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיְהִי אַבְרָם, בֶּן-תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים; וַיֵּרָא יְקוָק אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-קל שַׁקי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Hashem appeared to Abram and said to him. “I am El Shaddai; walk before me and be perfect.” (Genesis 17:1)

God commands Abraham to be entirely perfect. It is difficult to perfect one’s body and soul as the partnership between them is naturally contentious. The body is formed from the earth and the soul from Heaven, and each yearns towards its source. Without work, they will be in opposition to each other. This lack of harmony, according to the Sefas Emes, is the deficiency that bris mila, circumcision, comes to fix.1 Circumcision takes a site of physical desire, and consecrates it for spiritual purpose. 

The commentators famously ask “If Abraham kept the Torah,2 even though it had not yet been given on Mount Sinai, why did he wait to be commanded to be circumcised?” One simple answer might be that circumcision is more than a physical act. It is the instantiation of covenant. You can’t enter into such an intimate space  — the space of covenant —  without the consent of the other. Circumcision reminds us of the holiness of actions being determined by the will of another. Until G-d said “I want you …,” it couldn’t be fulfilled.

For bodies to whom circumcision applies, circumcision allies the body to the soul, which provides a continuity of our actions. The temporary nature of the physical world gains permanence through a spiritual attachment. The Bris Kehunas Olam observes an allusion to this in the verse (Psalms 144:4) “ימיו כצל עובר / His days are like a passing shadow.” In Hebrew, the phrase has a numerical value of 484; the same as “body-soul” גוף נשמה. With the sixth letter vuv, “ו” the conjunction “and,” it equals תמים, perfect. The Zohar says the letter “vuv” alludes to the site of the bris milah. The soul is connected and partnered with the body.

The early mystical work Sefer Yetzirah3 writes that there are actually two covenants: a covenant of speech, and the covenant of circumcision. “When Abraham our father looked…G-d made a covenant between the ten fingers of his hands – this is the covenant of the tongue, and between the ten toes of his feet – this is the covenant of circumcision, and G-d bound the 22 letters of the Torah…”

A fascinating observation is made by Ohr Tzvi. The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet can map to the body. Starting with the toes of the right foot, those letters represent א-ה. The next letter vuv, “ו”, is the “covenant between the toes” or the place of circumcision between the legs. If we continue to count the next five toes of the left foot, these are then aligned with ז-כ. The count then moves to the five fingers of the right hand ל-ע, and then to the mouth which is between the hands, which correlates with the Hebrew letter פה, which actually means mouth and represents the covenant of the tongue. We conclude with the five fingers of the left hand צ-ת. So all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are represented on the the body. And this connects the covenant of the tongue with the covenant of circumcision.

The Talmud4 relates that right before Rebbe, the redactor of the Mishna, passed away, “he raised his ten fingers toward Heaven and said: Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that I toiled with my ten fingers in the Torah, and I have not derived any benefit from the world even with my small finger.” Reb Tzodok HaKohen explains this Gemara as a reference to being faithful to the covenant.5

The holiness of circumcision is dependent on speech. The numerical value of פה / mouth is equal to that of מילה / circumcision. King David writes in Psalms “grace/chein is poured on to your lips.” (Psalm 45:3) Perfection of speech requires mastering how to speak, when appropriate, but also mastering when to be silent.6 Noach found grace and was called “perfect” in his generation. He is also praised for his use of sensitive speech.7 However, he was deficient in that he didn’t use language to help those around him to improve themselves and be saved from the flood.

The Magid points out that the measurements that the Torah gives for Noah’s ark: 30, 300, and 50 spell “לשן”, speech/tongue — but the word is missing the “ו”, vuv. Noah wasn’t connecting to others through speech the way he should have, and in the end that manifests in a defilement of his body.8

Correctly using our mouth involves both putting words out into the world through speech, and silence in holding words back. This dynamic of expansion and containment is reflected in the two covenants. Rashi says that G-d’s name E-l Shaddai is the name of G-d used in the passage about circumcision because there is די / dai  (sufficient) divinity for all. Yet the Talmud9 relates that the dai in the name E-l Shaddai is also in the context of G-d saying to the creation of the world: “that is enough.”  How can the same name of G-d refer both to G-d’s relationship with the world as limitless but also contained?

Chein / grace is produced by expanding the holiness of our spiritual connections, elevating the mundane and each other, while minimizing the physical that could be in opposition with the spiritual. Pursuing perfection comes from increasing our awareness of the Divine Presence, knowing that when we attach ourselves to G-d, we are made for each other.

 

1. Rashi here shares an interpretation that this verse is referring to the commandment to be circumcised.
2. Yoma 28a
3. Sefer Yetzirah 6:7
4. Bavli Ketubot 104a
5. Takanas HaShavin
6. Sefas Emes succot
7. Pesachim 3a
8. Genesis 20:9
9. Chagigah 12a

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah from R’ Rachel Barenblat

Each month Bayit offers regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This month’s video offering features a teaching from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. The text follows the video, in Spanish and then in English. Deepest thanks to Rabbi Juan Mejia for translation.

 

Palabras del Torá / a “vort” of Torah from R’ Rachel Barenblat from Bayit: Building Jewish on Vimeo.

 

Shalom javerim.  Espero que sus Altas Fiestas hayan sido dulces y significativas.

En este mes, llega la fiesta de Simjat Torá, cuyo nombre significa “la alegría de la Torá.”  Cuando leemos la Torá todos los sábados, leemos todas las porciones de la Torá salvo la última, la cual se llama “Vezot Haberajá”, “ésta es la bendición.”  Esta porción final de la Torá contiene la última bendición que Moisés da a los Hijos de Israel y la muerte de Moisés mismo.  Esta porción no es leída en Shabbat, sino en Simjat Torá.

Y al leerla hacemos algo inesperado: pasamos inmediatamente del final de la Torá al comienzo.  Pasamos de la muerte de Moises a final de Deuteronomio directamente a la creación del Cosmos al comienzo del Génesis.  ¿Tal vez se pregunten por qué?

Una respuesta es que la muerte de Moisés es una historia triste.  La Torá nos dice: “Nunca más se alzó un profeta como Moisés.” Moisés fue nuestro más grande profeta, y ahora se ha ido.  Los sabios de nuestra tradición no querían dejarnos en la tristeza de esa pérdida.  Así que nos instruyeron a seguir inmediatamente con el comienzo del Génesis. Esto nos recuerda que esa pérdida no es el final de la historia– de ninguna historia. Todo final ofrece un nuevo comienzo. 

Otra respuesta es que al conectar el final de nuestra historia con el comienzo de nuestra historia aprendemos algo profundo sobre la tradición judía y sobre la Toŕa misma.

La última letra de la Torá es lamed, la cual termina la palabra Yisrael, nuestro nombre como comunidad y como pueblo.  La primera letra de la Torá es la letra bet, la cual comienza la palabra Bereshit.  “En el comienzo”, o “en un comienzo” o “al comenzar Dios a crear el cielo y la tierra…”

Cuando viajamos del final de la Torá al comienzo de la Torá, la última lamed y la primera bet, forman la palabra “lev”, “corazón”. El corazón de la Torá encontramos el amor.

Esta es una metáfora. ¡Y también es la simple y llana verdad! El verso que aparece en la mitad del libro medio del rollo es “amarás a tu prójimo como a ti mismo.”  Esta es llamada a veces “la mitzvá del Creador”.  Todas las 613 mitzvot vienen de Dios, pero esta ocupa un lugar especial en la tradición porque es, literalmente, el corazón de la Torá.  Esta mitzvá evoca el acto original de creación de DIos – un acto motivado, dicen nuestros místicos, por el amor y el deseo de estar en relación con nosotros.

En Simjat Torá conectamos el final con el comienzo y encontramos “lev”: el corazón amante de la Torá.

Hay amor en nuestros finales y hay amor en nuestros comienzos.  Hay amor que nos conecta con la Torá y amor que nos conecta los unos con los otros.  Hay amor en nuestro ocuparnos los unos de los otros y ocuparnos de nuestras tradiciones.  Como Rebekah Langus nos enseñó cuando visitamos Cienfuegos el otoño pasado, la labor de mantener una comunidad judía es una labor de amor.  Si nos ocupamos de nuestros semejantes y de nuestras tradiciones en soledad, corremos el riesgo de caer en el resentimiento y el cansancio.  Pero cuando nos ocupamos los unos de los otros y de nuestras tradiciones con amor, entonces este cuidado nos eleva colectivamente. 

En Simjat Torá, nos alegramos por el amor por nuestra historia compartida. Nos alegramos por el amor que llena nuestra historia compartida. Nos alegramos en nuestra habilidad de comenzar nuestra historia de nuevo al comenzar un nuevo año.  Y nos alegramos en la habilidad de superar el dolor para poder comenzar de nuevo, del ir del caos a crear algo nuevo con nuestros corazones y nuestras manos.  Esta es la tarea de la vida espiritual, y es la labor que ustedes conocen muy bien. 

Aun cuando comenzamos con ruptura, pérdida o caos, podemos construir algo mucho mejor con amor.  Tal vez ésta sea la bendición a la cual hace referencia el nombre de la última porción de la Torá: Vezot Haberajá.  No importa cuántas peŕdidas tengamos en nuestra historia, no importa cuáles sean nuestros desafíos, siempre podemos comenzar de nuevo, juntos, con amor. 

Que así sea en este nuevo año, para ustedes y para todos nosotros. 

 

 

Shalom chaverim! I hope your High Holidays were meaningful and sweet.

This month we reach the festival of Simchat Torah, whose name means “Rejoicing in the Torah.” When we read the Torah week by week, we read every Torah portion except for the final one, which is called V’Zot Ha-Brakha, “This Is The Blessing.” That final Torah portion contains the final blessing that Moses gives to the children of Israel, and it contains the death of Moses. We do not read this Torah portion on Shabbat. We only read it at Simchat Torah. 

And we do something strange when we read it: we move immediately from the end of Torah to the beginning. We go from Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy directly to the creation of the cosmos at the start of Genesis. Maybe some of you are wondering: why? 

One answer is that the death of Moses is a sad story. Torah tells us “Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses.” Moses was our greatest prophet, and now he is gone. The sages of our tradition didn’t want to leave us in the sadness of that loss. So they instructed us to move directly from there to the start of Genesis. This reminds us that loss is not the end of the story — any story. Every ending can also be a new beginning.

Another answer is that in linking the end of our story with the beginning of our story, we learn something deep about Jewish tradition and about Torah itself. 

The final letter in the Torah is the letter lamed, which ends the word Yisrael, our name as a community and a people. The first letter in the Torah is the letter bet, which begins the word B’reishit, “In the beginning,” or “in a beginning,” or “as God was beginning to create heavens and earth…” 

When we move from Torah’s end to Torah’s beginning, the closing lamed and opening bet form the word lev, “heart.” The heart of Torah is love. 

This is a metaphor. And it is also plain truth! The verse that appears in the very middle of the middle book of the scroll is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is sometimes called The Mitzvah Of The Creator. All 613 mitzvot come from God, but this one occupies a special place in the tradition because it is literally at Torah’s heart. This mitzvah evokes God’s initial act of creation — motivated, our mystics say, by love, and by the desire to be in relationship with us.

At Simchat Torah we link ending with beginning and find lev, Torah’s loving heart. 

There is love in our endings and love in our beginnings. There is love in what connects us with Torah, and love in what connects us with each other. There is love in our care for each other and our care for our traditions. As Rebekah Langus taught us when we visited Cienfuegos last autumn, the work of sustaining Jewish community is the work of love. If we tend to each other and our traditions out of duty alone, we may become resentful and depleted. But when we care for each other and for our traditions with love, then that care lifts us up together. 

At Simchat Torah, we rejoice in our love of our shared story. We rejoice in the love that fills our shared story. We rejoice in our ability to begin our story again as we begin a new year. And we rejoice in our ability to move from loss to starting over, from chaos to creating something new with our own hearts and hands. This is the work of spiritual life, and it is work that you know well. 

Even when we begin with brokenness, or loss, or chaos, we can build something better together with love. Maybe this is the blessing referenced in that final Torah portion’s name, V’Zot Ha-Bracha. No matter what losses are in our story, no matter what challenges are in our story, we always get to begin again, together, with love. 

May it be so in this new year, for you and for us all.

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Translated by Rabbi Juan Mejia.

Martyrology slides for Yom Kippur from R’ Evan Krame

From founding builder R’ Evan Krame comes this set of slides for the martyrology service which in many synagogues is an integral part of Yom Kippur. He highlights twentieth century female martyr Marie Schmolka as a way of honoring  people who gave their all to build a better future.

These slides are suitable to use with your own adaptation of Holy at Home, or with whatever slide deck you’re using for Zoom high holidays this year.

Download the slides and teaching here:

 

 

By Rabbi Evan J. Krame.

Ushpizin: liturgy for Sukkot in time of covid

Sukkot this year will be unlike any other. Some of us won’t be able to safely build a sukkah; others will find in the sukkah the outdoor safety that indoor ventilation doesn’t provide. What does it mean to invite ancestors when we can’t invite guests in person? With what, or whom, (or Whom!) are we sitting when we dwell in our sukkot this year — whether our sukkot be literal or metaphorical? What structures can we build liturgically and spiritually to protect us in these vulnerable times? Four liturgists from within and beyond the denominations collaborated on this set of offerings from Bayit to accompany us through this year’s festival. Here are excerpts; you can download the whole collection at the end of the post.

 

0. This Year’s Sukkah – With Words, by Rachel Barenblat and David Evan Markus, with illustration by Steve Silbert:

We build this year’s sukkah with words. Our words keep us company.  We read the words of this Teaching: this Teaching gathers us in…

1. Invitation to the Builders / Invitation to my Virtual Sukkah by Trisha Arlin:

…You are invited,
Builders of our past sukkot
In the backyard, the park, the roof:
Every year
You put up the walls
You hung the decorations.
Where are you this week?…

2. Far Away So Close by Rachel Barenblat:

…How can I welcome Abraham
and Sarah, David and
Rachel, when I can’t welcome
my own neighbors?…

3. UnSukkah by David Evan Markus:

We don’t build our sukkah with nails
Sharply hammered into sturdy place.

We don’t build our sukkah with roof shingles
And sustainable solar panels for midnight light…

4. In the Open by Sonja Keren Pilz:

Vulnerable
Under the open sky.

The air gets thinner;
Canadian geese fly by…

5. Sitting in Emptiness by Trisha Arlin:

On Sukkot, we sit in the sukkah:
In an empty room
Porous walls
Holes in the ceiling
No door…

6. Sit With Me / Not Alone by Rachel Barenblat:

…The safest companion in times of covid:
Myself. Or you, Holy One:
dressed for the season in worn jeans
and flannel shirt, and maybe flip-flops
reluctant to let summer end…

7. Sitting neither Here nor There by Sonja Keren Pilz:

We used to sit, huddled together,
Sharing blankets, often too cold.
We used to drink,
Hot tea or cider,
Passing the water, the soda, the coke…

8. Tomorrow Again (for Shemini Atzeret) by David Evan Markus:

This is the breezy feeling I hope to remember
Starting tomorrow when beginning begins again

Pulsing reborn from the jumble of these many months
Left on pandemic ground to decay as pungent compost

For the first daring shoots of next year’s who-knows…

9. Simchat Torah, by the ensemble together:

We dance by ourselves.
We dance in our living rooms with Sefaria on our phones.
We dance in the falling rain.
We dance cradling toddlers, or dogs, or emptiness…

Download the whole collection here: Ushpizin [PDF]

 

Prayers by Trisha Arlin, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Rabbi David Evan Markus, and Rabbi Sonja Keren Pilz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.