Friday, December 22, 2017

Vayiggash, Everything for a Reason

Parshat Vayiggash, "Everything for a Reason" - Joseph's journey has been a very difficult one, with a great deal of suffering for him and many others.  Finally, in this week, Jacob and all his family come to Egypt, thus fulfilling God's words to Abraham, "Know that your offspring will be strangers in a foreign land." (Gen. 15:13)
If God's plan was to get everyone down to Egypt anyway, why go through all the challenges and suffering?
This question was asked by Rabbi K
s Kal
​in his Esh Kodsh, "Holy Fire" a collection of commentary on the Torah he wrote while in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.  
He says, 
nothing can ever be revealed if it does not entail replacing something which already exists. 
​Or it could be said, improving oneself or anything else means replacing or changing the level you were at to begin with.  Sometimes, this may involve great difficulty.  Esh Kodesh gives several examples including: giving birth, the creation of the world, and the giving of the Torah, which he adds to the story of Joseph.
​This answer should not be confused with the simple notion, "everything happens for a reason."  It is not only saying that.  ​It speaks to those times when we can see, after our challenges and difficulties, that the changed circumstances in which we find ourselves can also contain something valuable.  If we remain imprisoned by grievances and regrets for what is no more, we cannot, like Joseph, achieve God's plan.  It is only, Esh Kodesh is telling us, when, we are able to see there is still meaning in our lives after even difficult changes, that we can really say what has happened has happened for a reason.  Like the Esh Kodesh, like Joseph, this is not something another person can decide for you, you must learn it for yourself.
​Shabbat Shalom!​

Friday, December 15, 2017

Careful Split-Second Thinking, Parshat Mikketz

Parshat Mikketz, “Careful Split-Thinking” - The essence of charitzut, decisiveness, is carrying through on a decision made while considering the needs of others, in all the various ways that can be meant.  Our deliberations and our follow-through on a decision must include consideration of the others to be impacted, and ideally, should include ways in which we lift up their burdens at the same time as we act in accordance with the best we have the potential to be.

We see perhaps the finest example of this in Joseph's response to his brothers’ appearance before him in this parshah.  Encapsulated in the verse, 'vayaker Yosef et echav v'hem lo hikiruhu' - 'Joseph recognized his brothers but they didn't recognize him' is the birth of Joseph's decision as to how to act towards his brothers.

We can posit that years of refining and improving his character, years of imagining all the ways in which he might deal with such an encounter, years of deliberating, as it were, resulted in Joseph's being able, in that instance, to set upon a plan by which he might act, over time, to lift up his brothers' burden of guilt and help them on the path to teshuvah, and finally to the ultimate redemption for the Jewish People as well.

And we see the fruits of this decision on Joseph's part when he finally does reveal himself and says, 'ki l'michyah sh'lachani Elohim lifneichem', 'for to save life did God send me before you,'  Joseph's decision is shown to have no enmity and no vengeance to it, but only a spirit of true concern and understanding for his family and how to help them.

May we all grow to be as able as Joseph was, to maintain ourselves and our way of thinking and being, so that, seemingly instantly, we can make the decisions that help and lift up others, and in so doing, achieve God's purpose for our lives and the world as well.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon on Jerusalem Decision

Statement of the Rabbinical Assembly on Jerusalem Decision:   
Thursday December 7, 2017
The Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the entire worldwide Masorti/Conservative Movement listed below, issued the following statement today following President Trump’s announcement that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and take initial steps to relocate the American diplomatic mission in Israel to Jerusalem:
Jerusalem is Judaism’s holiest city and the capital of the state of Israel, as the Conservative movement has long maintained in resolutions and public statements. We are pleased, at the President's initiative, that the United States government will now recognize Jerusalem as Israels capital and begin the process of moving the American diplomatic mission there from Tel Aviv.
The status of Jerusalem is a matter to be settled in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and planning to move the American embassy to a location under uncontested Israeli sovereignty, the U.S. government acknowledges the age-old connection that Israel and the Jewish people maintain with the holy city.
We urge the U.S., Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community to take the bold steps needed to advance a two-state solution and a regional accord between Israel and its neighbors. Now more than ever, Israelis and Palestinians deserve a just and durable peace that protects the security of Israelis and grants to Palestinians an independent state in which to realize their national aspirations.
Rabbinical Assembly
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Cantors Assembly
Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs
Jewish Educators Assembly
Jewish Theological Seminary
Masorti Foundation
Masorti Israel
Masorti Olami 
Mercaz Olami
North American Association of Synagogue Executives
Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano  
Women’s League for Conservative Judaism 

The single most important thing to know and to build your thoughts on the week’s news around is the following.  Do you believe Jerusalem is the capital of Israel?  Or more precisely, had it ever really crossed your mind that Jerusalem wasn’t the capital of Israel?  Even if you were aware of the details of the situation prior to today – if you were going to Israel, what’s in your mind about what Jerusalem is vs. what Tel Aviv is?  And when you were in Jerusalem, what was the meaning of seeing the Knesset building, the Supreme Court building, the President’s residence or walking down the street in front of the Prime Minister’s house?  Were you not in the capital city of the country? 
And so if you were, if you knew that already, as I did, my first statement is what difference did it make to you that “officially” the US did not, prior to Wednesday, acknowledge what you already knew and had experienced?  (Although technically, it has been US law since 1995 that an “undivided” Jerusalem should be considered capital of Israel, and Trump, notably, didn’t even say that.) 
See for me, as much as I love the United States, it is my country, and it almost feels preposterous to have declare that out loud as if there were any doubt, I don’t need Trump or anyone else to tell me what is right and correct, and in this case, it is that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people.  In much the same way as when the Pope endorses the position Jerusalem should be a corpus separatum, an international city, or when Iran declares that Jerusalem is not the capital because there shouldn’t even be a State of Israel at all – not only do those statements, unlike what the US said on Wednesday, not only do such statements completely ignore the reality of what is on the ground, but more, they are, more than even being wrong, they are irrelevant.
This is the lesson of our parshah this morning, when we are told, after all that Joseph has endured, the pit, servitude, foreign lands, כִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה אִתּ֑וֹ וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁר־ה֣וּא עֹשֶׂ֔ה יְהוָ֖ה מַצְלִ֥יחַ בְּיָדֽוֹ׃Lord was with him, and the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.”  We Jews have our purpose and calling in life and it is not defined by others, who, more often than not in history and even in the world today, would just as soon see us fail as help us anyway.
Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean that any of these statements, Trump’s, the Pope’s, the Ayatollah’s, are completely “irrelevant,” of course they all matter a tremendously as their words and opinions shape the world in which we live.  So too, do the words of fellow Conservative rabbis, of many Jews I know, of the Reform Movement, that have expressed varying levels of concern or disagreement or suspicion about this policy endorsement, they all shape the world we live in and must be taken seriously as part of our reality when dealing with this issue.  Just as the calls of Palestinian Arabs to have autonomy in a land of their own must also too factor into how we measure reality and be taken seriously. 
But consider the following.  For me, my formative development came in the 1990s.  The world and the Judaism of that period still linger in my mind as a sort of “baseline.”  What synagogue was like then – Carlebach music was coming into vogue, the sense was Judaism and Conservative Judaism were doing okay generally, and the spirit in the country was similar.  Sure, there were challenges.  And the looming question of what was then called “Middle East Peace” was one of them. 
But in the 20 years since that era, the world has changed tremendously, as I don’t need to tell you.  The country no longer feels as optimistic and hopeful.  Conservative Judaism certainly isn’t anymore.  A real and serious question about the place of even the melodies let-alone the reputation of Shlomo Carlebach is rightfully being had given his misdeeds.  
…And, the question of “Middle East Peace,” and whether that statement can rightfully even be applied to the Israel-Palestinians question, when Iraq is torn apart by war, when Shiites and Christians are murdered in Egypt, when Syria is torn apart by war and genocide, when Yemen is torn apart by war and genocide, when not only countries like Egypt and Jordan but Saudi Arabia have increasingly decent relations with Israel, you must question whether you, and the news you consume, and the opinions that you’ve had are as equally outdated as the Palm Pilot I also finally got in about 2000.   (Incidentally, the notion that “Evangelicals” shape much of the platform and beliefs of political right in this country stems from this period too, but is, like the rest equally outdated.)
For the world in which we live, has a very different Middle East, and thus the decision the Congress took back in the 1990s and that was too controversial for any president to act on until now, regardless of party, doesn’t seem so challenging anymore when one considers the threats felt by ISIS and Iran for much of the Sunni, Arab, and Turkish worlds, the Palestinian-Israeli Question is increasingly becoming an unnecessary side-show.  While certainly no Arab or Muslim world leader has, to my knowledge, come out endorsing the decision, equally noteworthy is it that most of the Arab countries that do deal on some level with Israel seem as if they are going to continue to do so, and while there have certainly been protests and even loss of life, the called for Days of Rage do not, as of yet anyway, seem to be as violent and virulent as one might have expected  were this decision as meaningfully significant as some would claim it to be.  Also note, most of the protests have not been calls of “We object to the American Embassy being in Jerusalem” but rather, “free, free, Palestine” or similar chants – which seem to be protesting some issue different from, more fundamental than, what Trump said on Wednesday…
What’s more, Trump’s statement, which, I think it is fair to say without being partisan, is typically negotiable as his statements seem to be, intentionally or not, good or bad or otherwise.  It sounds quite strong, quite definitive, quite a break with convention, but it is none of those things.  As I’ve already said, it really only endorses the 1995 act of Congress regarding Jerusalem, so it’s not even his idea really.  It is short of specifics, I suspect he hadn’t consulted the Iriya to ask exactly where the municipality borders are.  It notably doesn’t refer to “a unified Jerusalem” which even if it did, it still more than allows for some piece or corner of eastern Jerusalem to eventually be labeled the capital of a Palestinian state.  Even the notion of “moving” or “building” an embassy in Jerusalem is, at least to me, questionable as to what that will really entail, as the consulate in Jerusalem that’s down the street from Super-Sal, really could just have a different sign put on the front for all that matters.  Therefore, the statement, apart from not shaping Jewish beliefs in the slightest, doesn’t even do that much, I think, to change American ones. 
We say in Psalm 122:6:  אֲלוּ שְׁלֹ֣ום יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love you.”
I doubt you all feel the same as I do, exactly, on this subject.  You may mostly agree, you may think I’m an idiot.  I respect that and welcome it.  For that verse is really the guiding sentiment here.  We all, I suspect, love Jerusalem dearly.  And increasingly this topic makes me sad, that Jerusalem, God’s City of Peace, should be a source of more strife and discord, particularly among those who love it.  That is really the way I hope you’ll take these words I’ve shared today, as a chance for us to get together as Lovers of Jerusalem and reflect on what it should mean and what form our love should take, so that it and all of us, should Prosper.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Urgent Request for Hurricane Harvey Relief Supplies

Bring the following items to the synagogue coat room today until 4pm and Wednesday 8am-8pm. Items will be taken by the NSJC Sisterhood to Temple Beth Torah on this Thursday morning to be sent to Texas.

Needed items:
Bottled Water
Heavy-Duty Trash Bags
Work Gloves
Packing Supplies
Cleaning Supplies
Old Towels
Non-Perishable Food Items
Gift Cards to Grocery and Home Supply Stores

-Please label things as donations need to be inventoried-

North Shore Jewish Center
385 Old Town Road
Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776

Friday, March 24, 2017

"Sell Your Chametz" Form

Passover 2017/5777

Delegation of Power to Sell Chametz
I the undersigned, fully empower and permit Rabbi Aaron Benson to act in my place and stead, and on my behalf to sell all chametz possessed by me, knowingly or unknowingly as defined by the Torah and Rabbinic Law (e.g. chametz, possible chametz, and all kind of chametz mixtures).
Also chametz that tends to harden and adhere to inside surfaces of pans, pots, or cooking utensils, the utensils themselves, as well as pet food that contain chametz and mixtures thereof.
Rabbi Benson is also empowered to lease all places wherein the chametz owned by me may be found, particularly at the address/es listed below, and elsewhere.
Rabbi Benson has full right to appoint any agent or substitute in his stead and said substitute shall have full right to sell and lease as provided herein.
Rabbi Benson also has the full power and right to act as he deems fit and proper in accordance with all the details of the Bill of Sale used in the transaction to sell all my chametz, chametz mixtures, etc., as provided herein. This power is in conformity with all Torah, Rabbinic and Civil laws.

Rabbi A. D. Benson                                                   
Rabbi Aaron D. Benson

My Signature

Address and Specific Locations of Chametz:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Do Jews Believe in Hell? Third Afterlife Class

Third Afterlife Class - Do Jews Believe in Hell?

Video Link -

Introduction:  One night, God visits a rabbi.  The rabbi has one question, "What is Heaven like?” God replies, "Heaven is like a city. It has the best of everything. For example, the French are the chefs, the Italians are the lovers, the English are the policeman, the Dutch are the politicians and the Germans are the mechanics." 
"What is Hell like?" he asks.  "Well," God sighs, "the French are the mechanics, the Italians are the politicians, the English are the chefs, the Dutch are the lovers and the Germans are the policemen."

Review, Origin of Concept
   i.      Valley south of Mt. Zion (Jerusalem)
 ii.      Border of Judah
iii.      References in Former Prophets at idolatrous site
iv.      Garbage dump
Daniel 12:2 "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some     to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt."

Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a  R. Isaac further said: Three things call a man's iniquities to mind, namely, a shaky wall, the scrutinizing of prayer, and calling for [Divine] judgment on one's fellow man. For R. Abin said: He who calls down [Divine] judgment on his neighbor is himself punished first [for his own sins], as it says, And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee, and it is written later, And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.
R. Isaac further said: Four things cancel the doom of a man, namely, charity, supplication, change of name and change of conduct…
R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death; the doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death…
It has been taught: Beth Shammai say, There will be three groups at the Day of Judgment — one of thoroughly righteous, one of thoroughly wicked, and one of intermediate. The thoroughly righteous will forthwith be inscribed definitively as entitled to everlasting life; the thoroughly wicked will forthwith be inscribed definitively as doomed to Gehinnom, as it says. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence. The intermediate will go down to Gehinnom and squeal and rise again, as it says, And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on my name and I will answer them. Of them, too, Hannah said, The Lord killed and makes alive, he brings down to the grave and brings up. Beth Hillel, however, say: He that abounds in grace inclines [the scales] towards grace…
Wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body and wrongdoers of the Gentiles who sin with their body go down to Gehinnom and are punished there for twelve months. After twelve months their body is consumed and their soul is burnt and the wind scatters them under the soles of the feet of the righteous as it says, And ye shall tread down the wicked, and they shall be as ashes under the soles of your feet. But as for the minim and the informers and the scoffers, who rejected the Torah and denied the resurrection of the dead, and those who abandoned the ways of the community, and those who ‘spread their terror in the land of the living’, and who sinned and made the masses sin… these will go down to Gehinnom and be punished there for all generations…
The Master said [above]: ‘Beth Hillel say, He that abounds in grace inclines [the scales] towards grace’. [How can this be], seeing that it is written, And I shall bring the third part through the fire? That refers to wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body. Wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body! But you said that there is no remedy for them? — There is no remedy for them when their iniquities are more numerous [than their good deeds]. We now speak of those whose iniquities and good deeds are evenly balanced, but whose iniquities include that which is committed by sinners of Israel with their body. In that case, they cannot escape the doom of ‘I shall bring the third through the fire’, but otherwise, [in regard to them], ‘He that is abundant in grace inclines towards grace’, and of them David said, I love that the Lord should hear.
What is meant by ‘wrongdoers of Israel who sin with their body’? — Rab said: This refers to the cranium which does not put on the phylactery. Who are ‘the wrongdoers of the Gentiles who sin with their body’? — Rab said: This refers to [sexual] sin. ‘Who have spread their terror in the land of the living’: [who are these]? — R. Hisda said: This is a communal leader who makes himself unduly feared by the community for purposes other than religious. Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Any communal leader who makes himself unduly feared by the community for purposes other than religious will never have a scholar for a son, as it says, therefore if men fear him, he shall not see [among his sons] any wise of heart.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:5:  Similarly, all the wicked whose sins are greater [than their merits] are judged according to their sins, but they are granted a portion in the world to come for all Israel have a share in the world to come as [Isaiah 60:21] states "Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever." "The land" is an analogy alluding to "the land of life," i.e., the world to come. Similarly, the "pious of the nations of the world" have a portion in the world to come.  [He then details a parallel list of those who do not enjoy the world to come as we found above.]

ZoharAt the hour of a man’s departure from the world, his father and his relatives gather round him, and he sees them and recognizes them, and likewise all with whom he associated in this world, and they accompany his soul to the place where it is to abide. (Zohar I, 218a).  The soul then journeys to Gehenna, “whoever pollutes himself in the world draws to himself the spirit of uncleanness, and when his soul leaves him the unclean spirits pollute it, and its habitation is among them” (Zohar I, 129b).  “In Gehenna there are certain places [where] souls that have been polluted by the filth of this world ... are purified by fire and made white” (Zohar II, 150b). “The fire of Gehenna, which burns day and night, corresponds to the hot passion of sinfulness in man” (Zohar II, 150b). “The body is punished in the grave and the soul in the fire of Gehinnom for the appointed period. When this is completed it rises from Gehinnom purified of its guilt like iron purified in the fire, and is carried up to Gan Eden.” (Zohar III, 53a).

Modern Conceptions
Hell can be an intense feeling of shame.  When one has so deviated from the will of God, one is said to be in Gehinnom. This is not meant to refer to some point in the future, but to the very present moment. The gates of teshuva are said to be always open, and so one can align his will with that of God at any moment. Being out of alignment with God's will is itself a punishment. – My Jewish Learning

Value concepts such as Gehenna, hell, circulate in various Jewish conceptions of afterlife but are never defined with precision or authoritatively.  Using the building blocks of these value concepts, many different conceptions of life after death abound within religious Jewish traditions.  Those options remain viable for a Jewish Process thinker. 
Once our lives are finished and done, we continue to exist – as we have lived – on multiple levels.  All the stuff of which we are composed continues in the world.  The atoms that constitute us do not vanish with our death.  Our proteins are recycled in the ongoing cycle of life.  Everything that we are gets reused and continues. 
One possibility is that death marks the end of our individual consciousness.  Our energy patterns continue unabated, but there is no governing central organization, no self-reflective awareness that continues beyond death.  In such a possibility, we merge back into the oneness from which we emerged.  We go to sleep as discrete individuals and awaken as the totality of the cosmos. 

A second possibility builds on the first, adding the plausible hope that consciousness and identity continued unimpaired.  As God is process, and as God is the One who is supremely connected to everything, supremely related, and forgetting nothing, we remain eternally alive in God’s memory, in God’s thought – which it turns out, is what we have been all along.   -  R. Bradley Artson, God of Becoming and Relationship:  The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology