Monthly archives "December 2015"

On Tu B’Shevat, even the Messiah has to wait!

In 2016, Tu B’Shevat begins at sunset on the 24th of January.

As the New Year of the secular calendar, January 1st, approaches, I find myself reflecting that we Jews are fortunate to have four religious New Years to celebrate as well. Together with the secular New Year, we have a chance to make new resolutions five times a year! In addition, with Rosh Hodesh celebrated at the beginning of every lunar month according to the Hebrew calendar, each month also marks a new beginning. Then, as Shabbat marks the peaceful end of every week, we return to the practical work week with renewed vigor. And every single day, as we thank God for the restoration of our souls, we begin again. A fresh start. Soulfully and practically.

In the time of the Biblical Hebrews, each of the four special New Years also involved a practical consideration. Just as April 15th marks the deadline for tax returns to be filed with the U.S. government, the ancient Jewish New Years were connected to the timing of different types of tithing, different cycles of the year.

Despite the prevalent belief today that Rosh Hashanah represents the Jewish New Year, it was actually the first of Nisan that originally was considered the first month of the Hebrew calendar, So Spring time, the time of the barley festival (usually our April, primarily associated with Passover, the 15th of Nisan) marked the first Jewish New Year.  It was the occasion for calculating the reigns of kings and ordering the festivals. The first of Elul (the sixth month of the Jewish year) was the time for the tithing of animals, depending on whether the animal was born before or after the first day of Elul. The first of Tishrei (the seventh month of the Jewish calendar), which is when we celebrate Rosh HaShanah, which is used to calculate the year of the calendar (traditionally counted from the creation of Adam, although science tells us otherwise now). It is also when it is believed that God judges our behavior during the past year. Shevat is the 11th month of the Jewish year, and the Hebrew letters of Tu represent the number 15. So the 15th of Shevat (the rainy season in Israel, usually January of February) is when we celebrate the Birthday of the Trees.

It marks the time when trees could be harvested and tithed for the Temple service. For three years, the fruit could not be eaten. In the fourth year, it was consecrated to God. Only in the fifth year could farmers eat or sell the produce of their land. In fact, our reverent connection to

the planting of the land was considered so important that the sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai famously said that even if the Messiah comes, we should plant first and only then go to greet the Messiah!

Tu B’Shevat was largely forgotten in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews were dispersed from their land. However, the holiday also had an essential mystical connection, which, in medieval times, was revived by the kabbalists. The tree became a metaphor for the divine relationship to both the physical and spiritual worlds, for the connection between God and humanity. Then, in the late 19th century, Tu B’Shevat became linked to the Zionist movement’s emphasis on the redemption of the land. Today this Birthday of the Trees is strongly connected to ecological concerns. Often a Seder feast similar to that of Passover is held – and, yes, drinking four cups of wine and eating 15 varieties of fruits are part of the festivities.

Who Changes the Water?

The Bible, like the American Declaration of Independence, is an account of a covenanted people. Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, said that the covenant is the conscious decision to create a society in the light of shared ideals. A covenant is born when free people seek to create a better society. It is a collective moral undertaking, on the part of “we the people,” who declare individually and collectively our vision and actions.    At the heart of the covenant, there is the profound vision on the values by which the society wants to live. Thus — in the midst of pagan societies — an agrarian, Jewish biblical society integrated into its covenant and everyday life revolutionary ideas for the time, ideals of social justice and moral behavior. These ideas later inspired revolutions against injustice and for the creation of great nations. And these ideas were later spread by Christianity, which inherited and carried these initially Jewish ideals throughout the world.

Have you ever heard the story of the two little goldfish swimming in a bowl. One fish says to the other: “Do you believe in God?” And the other little fish replies: “Of course! Who do you think changes our water every day?”

But to be Jewish, it is not enough to believe that God changes our water. To be Jewish, you have to do. You have to live by the covenant and perform the commandments. The Ten Commandments, which we find in the Torah portion, Yitro, Exodus 20: 1-14 are the initial basis of the covenant of the Jewish people in the Bible. Later these commandments were elaborated by more specific rules in Leviticus, intended to help the ancient Israelites morally and practically apply the ten commandments of the covenant to living conditions in the wilderness for forty years — and then to the land of Israel.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis expanded these 10 rules into 613 very detailed rules, 248 positive commandments (thou shalt) and 365 negative commandments (thou shalt not). Each commandment was an extension of the initial ten in application to the minutiae of daily life – and intended to help the Jewish people keep the initial 10 commandments set forth in Exodus 20  — but in strange lands surrounded by people with different customs.

In Leviticus 26:3-4, God makes this promise which reflects the the Bible’s respect for nature in its imagery: If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. And in Ezekiel 34: 26-27, God echoes this promise: “I will make these and the environs of My hill a blessing: I will send down the rain in its season, rains that bring blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit and the land shall yield its produce. [My people] shall continue secure on its own soil.”

In California, in 2015, in the midst of drought, this is an important promise, still very relevant. We need rain for our produce to grow. So let’s welcome El Nino with gratitude. Its coming is indeed a seasonal greeting!

Wishing one and all the very best of years in 2016!

Can a Lemon Trump an Etrog? Spiritual Connections in the South Pacific

It was on the MS Volendam that I realized how much I had absorbed from my six years of rabbinic education. Like the medical doctor of an earlier time who made house calls with a medical bag in tow, I had taken a small suitcase of books with me, as well as the short sermons and other material I had pre-prepared in file folders before boarding the ship in Vancouver, Canada for the High Holy Days.

We were headed for the South Pacific. I knew that I would have very limited access to the Internet for supplementary material, so I had taken the precaution of bringing a dozen copies of specific services and — since plants or fruit could not be brought onto the ship — of preparing a bubble-wrapped lulav with artificial leaves representing the palm, myrtle, and willow for Succoth services. These were my materials. The rest was in my head and my heart. In addition, as Guest Staff Rabbi on the Cruise Ship, I would have to adapt to the different rooms and schedules assigned for religious services. They would be empty rooms until I used my newly-minted rabbinic capabilities to make them into Makoms, into sacred spaces, and the diverse people who would come to fill them into a temporary community.

Well into the cruise, a woman with slightly greying hair, Bernadine, hugged me to her joyfully in the corridor outside the room where I had just conducted an Erev Shabbat prayer service. Our ship was a mere dot on the vast Pacific ocean at the time, voyaging between Vancouver, Canada and Sydney, Australia. On the way we had already visited some of the many groups of Pacific islands: Hawaii, American Samoa (a U.S. territory where the indigenous people are intent on preserving their culture, yet there are many churches of various denominations, with the Mormon Church predominating); Fiji (only 133 of 300 plus islands are inhabited); Vana’atu (Mystery Island, an uninhabited island, where some episodes of “The Survivor” were filmed); and New Caledonia (formerly a French colony, where American troops were stationed during WW II). But at that moment of our cruise hug, all we could see through the ship’s many large windows were sky and sea melting into one another. A time and place to marvel at the works of the Divine, indeed.

“I have the courage now,” Bernardine cried, happy tears escaping down her cheeks. “I thought I was too old, but you inspired me.” She had been working with seniors for years and had long yearned for but hesitated to enter a degree program in gerontology. “I’m going to take the plunge,” she confided. With his arm around her shoulders, her husband nodded his own encouragement. They were both devout Catholics. We had first met when I was invited to “preach” at one of the Catholic masses held daily on the ship. On another occasion, I was asked to read a passage from the Old Testament. In return, the priest (a retiree) attended most of our Jewish services — where I honored him in a similar fashion.

In a meaningful interfaith service at the Arizona Memorial in Oahu, all the on-board clergy (the priest, the Protestant minister, and myself as rabbi) participated jointly in memorializing the men who died at sea at Pearl Harbor. After that deeply felt occasion, we three clergy enjoyed having several lunches together. We discussed religious similarities and differences between our respective faiths. Their congregational concerns were very much like those we face in Jewish life today: declining membership and attendance; making religion relevant to a new generation; intensified focus on educating youth; attending to the changing needs of a growing elderly population more likely now to stay in their homes than opt for costly assisted-living residences; interference in (or fear of) speaking from the pulpit about public issues that needed to be addressed; and, yes, we talked honestly about Israel.

So did a number of people (both Jews and non-Jews) who would approach me from time to time on the ship to ask challenging questions, things they were too reticent to ask in more formal settings. Some were evangelical Christians who wanted me to know that they were definitely “pro-Israel.” One person asked me if sacrifices still figure in Judaism today, and if the blood libel had any truth to it. Another man quoted chapter and verse from the Book of Daniel and wanted to know why, in the light of these prophecies, Jews still would not accept Jesus as their Messiah. Fortunately, my pluralistic training at AJRCA had prepared me to field questions such as these. I always had to be “on” as a rabbi.

My tour of duty also included Sh’mini Atzeret (it was fun to pray for rain with water, water all around us!) and a joyful Simchat Torah. Our little Jewish “community” all took turns reading from the Plaut Torah in English. Other than an Israeli couple (and an American who lived half the year in Eilat) who made up my regular minyan of ten or 12 people—a good turnout considering the small proportion of Jews on the ship — none of my “congregants” could read Hebrew.

It was satisfying to shape such disparate people — from Canada, Australia, England, America, Mexico, and Israel — into a little community that gleefully took the two loaves of challah and two bottles of ritual wine provided for us for the festivals and Sabbath eves into the dining room for Friday night dinner together. They even approached several “Jews who don’t go” on the ship and encouraged them to join our Friday nights.

That’s why Arik — who “goes to shul only once a year and that’s enough!” — couldn’t bring himself to accept an artificial lulav, electric candles (because we were not allowed to light real ones on the ship), and a lemon from the ship’s kitchen instead of an etrog (the fourth species, a member of the citrus family) for Succoth. “A lemon is not an etrog,” he said excitedly. He is right. It’s not. But where do you get a fresh etrog in the middle of the South Pacific ocean on a 25-day cruise? At least we had dinner together in a temporary shelter (okay, not a branch-covered hut, but at least an Ark of sorts). On the first night of Succoth, we waved the artificial lulav in every direction, thanked God that we had survived to this season, and invited imaginary guests to join us. When we stepped outside on deck, looked at the stars and inhaled the cresting waves, we were a community, joyful and hopeful for the future.

Later, when we explored Isle des Pins (Island of Pines), one of the New Caledonian islands, we climbed about 150 rough-hewn, slippery stone steps to reach a tiny church that was several hundred years old and still in use. Originally built by Catholic missionaries using indigenous artisans who put into play their imaginative woodcarving, it was perched high on a mountain top. At the rear of the church, overlooking the sea, stood a tall Catholic memorial carved in stone. At its top, a saintly stone figure held a cross aloft, Statue of Liberty style.

The memorial was dedicated to the men of the island who had served France in two World Wars. And circling the memorial stone were native totems, tall ones to recognize those who had been high chiefs, as was the native custom. In between the tall totems were symmetrically interspersed, shorter totems to signify lower orders in the indigenous hierarchy. Here, in this beautiful, natural setting with abundant flowers, traditional Catholicism was mixed with native culture — a phenomenon we call “syncretism” today — to honor the men who had given their lives for freedom.

One might say, comparatively speaking, that this memorial was not exactly an oval-shaped, bumpy-skinned etrog in its adherence to strict religious belief, but in its combined purpose of respect paid and beauty intended to elevate and comfort, it was like a fresh lemon, golden yellow and round. It was both touching and reverent. As this blended memorial etched itself into the camera of my memory, it supported my belief as a young-old rabbi that the spirit of religion often trumps the letter of the law.

Originally published at