Friday, October 25, 2013

Lessons in Grabbing: Haftarah for Parshat Chaye Sarah

Reading any of the stories surrounding the transition of power between Kings David and Solomon, I always feel as if I am starting to hear the music to the Godfather playing in the background.  The intrigue, manipulation, and murder recorded in the Book of Kings could easily be (and has been now that I think of it) material for a movie.

We have just such a scene in the haftarah chosen for this week.  Just as we read about the deaths of Sarah and Abraham in our Torah portion, we encounter a scene about David's plans for a future without him.  And we learn from it a very powerful lesson that applies today.  Applies to so many areas from how government affairs should be conducted, how we treat the environment, and most importantly, how we interact with each other.

In brief, David's son, Adonijah attempts a coup against his father, not the first time that has happened, and the forces of the kingdom rally to the opposing sides.  Adonijah, has miscalculated just how feeble his father has become (or at least how feeble his advisers have not yet become) and his plans are foiled.

Adonijah is a great example of the rabbinic principle of tafasta m'ruba lo tafasta - "one who grabs too much ends up grabbing nothing at all."

As much as Adonijah's is a lesson about only taking what you really need (and really deserve), it is even more a lesson about miscalculating the situation.  He woefully misplays his hand by acting too soon, it would seem, and failing to neutralize those who are still quite able to act against him.

One hopes we will not find ourselves needing to fight our families over who shall be king.  But we should take the lessons of the haftarah to heart.  That careful planning and careful analysis, that understanding the larger picture and how we fit into it - and not just what will bring us immediate gains, that all these as well as being modest and thoughtful in what we take, what we use, that these are all the lessons we are encouraged to learn this week.

I hope it will be a lesson you really to take to heart and keep.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thank You & Hospitality - Parshat Vayera

If you open to the beginning of a chumash with Rashi, you’ll see the first comment that Rashi offers is one he learned from his father. In this way he pays the highest honor he can to his greatest teacher.  In coming to this parshah, I'd like to share with you a drashah (one of few to have been preserved given the largely extemporaneous way he tended to deliver sermons) about the importance of hospitality, of welcoming, taken from the teachings of my mentor, Rabbi Meier Schimmel, zichrono livrachah.  This comes from the early 1960's but applies just as much to synagogue life today as it did then.
Today, as we think about "welcoming" and synagogues - we must consider the experience of him or her who comes for the first time.  Or who longs for a Jewish connection but never comes into the synagogue at all.  - Rabbi Schimmel, teaching about Abraham, teaches us a lesson about these people:
Vayera elav Adoshem b’Elonei Mamre. “And the Lord appeared unto him, Abraham, in the Grove of Mamre.” As he was sitting at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day we see a picture of mercy – courtesy – brotherly love and hospitality. Our Father Abraham.
With Abraham we see the beginning of higher spiritual life in humanity. He planted an eshel in B’er Sheva. What is the meaning of eshel? Some interpreted eshel as an inn – others as a park. But the three letters in eshel stand for three meanings:
Alef for achilo – eating,
Shin for sh’teyoh –drinking,
Lamed for linon – lodging.
He built this eshel let us think of it as a sort of pavilion – open on all sides so that from whichever direction a traveler might come – the open door invited him to enter and rest.
Abraham recognized no distinction of class or creed, race or nationality. All were welcome – and were greeted, baruch habo – “blessed and welcome are you.” He put his guests at ease, and made them feel that in accepting his hospitality, they were honoring him.
The Torah lays stress upon consideration for the stranger – that sense of loneliness, of being unwanted, stirs Jewish compassion, to open the doors of our heart. So we must take the homeless to our homes and the stranger to our heart.
Returning to the opening verse of our sidro – what was the 99 year old Abraham doing at the door of his tent in the heat of the day?
He is looking for strangers –
Despite the heat and his physical weakness, Rashi tells us it was the third day after his circumcision. He lifted up his eyes and saw three persons approaching. He runs to meet them – and entreats them – do not pass by – come into my dwelling – wash your tired feet and rest in the shade of the trees until I can provide you with food and drink.
He rejoices when they accept his invitation. He hastens into the tent of his wife Sara – asking for the best food to be prepared. He serves the food himself urging them to take their fill. Blessing them as they leave. This was Abraham our Forefather.
Can you visualize this act of love? What a wonderful feeling and satisfaction Abraham must have had –
This is our heritage - in his footsteps we should walk.
In our daily prayers we say:
Elu d’varim sh’adam ochel perotehem b’olam hazeh, v’hakeren kayemet b’olam habah.
“These are the things – the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world – while the stock remains for him, for the world to come: honor father and mother, the practice of charity, timely attendance at the house of worship, and to bring in orchim - haknasat orchim.
The good deed, mitzvah, is to take care of an oreach. Oreach means stranger – and it is no surprise that the term also refers to a poor man – when one is lost and alone – even if he has money and possessions – he is poor. Therefore we must open our door and above all our heart to welcome him with baruch habo – “welcome is he who cometh.”
Yet this is difficult to do. It is difficult to be a stranger, and it is also frequently difficult to welcome the stranger, it forces us outside of ourselves, yet this is what Abraham sets for us as an example, for what God would have us do.
Let us remember – when an oreach, a stranger – whoever he may be – enters our synagogue – we must greet him with the warmth of our heart – to mean it fully, baruch habo, “welcome are you.” Sholom aleychem, “peace be unto thee.”
Let us also recognize that the oreach, need not be a literal stranger, he or she could be a long time member but someone who for whatever reason feels distanced from the community. In that case we must find the ways to say “welcome back,” and “share in this peace which is yours, too.” Similarly the oreach could be someone who is quite active, but whose good deeds and good efforts have gone unrecognized, unacknowledged, unrewarded. In that case, too, we must learn the proper ways to express the sense of honor we feel at having such a person in our midst and as a part of our community.
Therefore, members of this holy congregation, consider, how well will we be able to rest and find peace – when we know we gave rest and peace to others – as it is written,

V’ahavtem et hager, “Love ye then the stranger,” ki gerim hayitem beretz Mitzraim, “for you have been strangers in the Land of Egypt.” And as you would like to be treated – so treat thy fellow man. Let me wish you all a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Welcome the Nones! - Thoughts on the Pew Report

It has been the focus of much discussion in the American Jewish world, the new report by the Pew Research Center.  I posted about last week for those of you interested enough to click over to that.  

Earlier this week Conservative Rabbis had the chance to speak to Prof. Jonathan Sarna about the studies' findings.  One thing more than everything else resonated with me, regarding the news about all the "Nones" we have out there - people who take a dim view of "organized religion."

A fact that struck me, and apparently many others, is that within the "Nones" group are Jews affiliated with a synagogue.  How can that be?

Prof. Sarna explained that this is an example of, "all religion is local."  People who have a dim view organized religion as a whole may still very much appreciate the local synagogue, rabbi, school, etc.  That near-by institution is what will matter even if the national offices of the movement do not.  These people may not care about organized religion, but they still care about - well if not "religion" (although some do and they believe in God also) then at least "being Jewish".

That to me was very encouraging news about the study.  That it is possible to be successful and reach these people is something that can happen.  But it is not going to happen just because they are automatically looking for a Conservative synagogue.  But if the local Conservative (or whatever) synagogue can show how it plays a role in the lives of people - for them, their kids; show them how to enrich what they do, be better people - then the synagogue can be a vital institution.

And isn't that what we really want our synagogues to be anyway?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Aaron Benson

Friday, October 4, 2013

It's Time to Get Over Ourselves: The Lessons of the Pew Survey | Donniel Hartman | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel

The Pew Research Center recently released a new report on the state of American Jews:

Rabbi Donniel Hartman has a very insightful analysis of it I thought I would share with you here:
It's time to get over ourselves: The lessons of the Pew survey | Donniel Hartman | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel
Those of you in the Suffolk County area, please join me for a session on Prayer this Sunday at 3pm at the North Shore Jewish Center.  It is a part of a series brought to you by the Three Village Clergy Council.

And join me every Tuesday from 10-11am for a Bible study class in the Bet Midrash at NSCJ.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson