“Friendliest Synagogue in San Francisco” put to the test!

B’nai Emunah was featured in the latest Jew in the Pew column by the J’s David A. M. Wilensky:

The website of Congregation B’nai Emunah proclaims it “the friendliest synagogue in San Francisco.” A bold claim, but they pride themselves on it. Many congregations talk a big talk about being welcoming; there is a whole cottage industry of welcoming best practices and welcoming initiatives and whathaveyou. B’nai Emunah doesn’t need any of that. The people I met there on a recent Shabbat morning are just plain friendly. Start-to-finish, almost every single person in attendance greeted me warmly.

…When we reached the paragraph of the Musaf Amidah that begins “L’dor vador,” Melamut and several children and adults rushed the bimah to dance in a circle while singing that section of the prayer. This completely blew me away. And in a Conservative shul! At the end of the dancing, the children remained on the bimah; while a congregant continued leading Musaf, Melamut gathered the kids to give them a blessing and some candy.

…Start to finish, my visit to B’nai Emunah was one surprise after another. Their history is fascinating. Their Shabbat morning service is full of delightful quirks. And their boastful slogan about friendliness is absolutely true.

It was a pleasure to have David and Rachel visit us for Shabbat and we hope to see them again soon!

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Shabbat Symposium Wrap-up: Touring the Jewish Afterlife

This past Shabbat, a small crowd gathered following kiddush for a guided discussion examining various Jewish beliefs and approaches to the afterlife. Some topics included depictions of the underworld in Tanakh, resurrection and the World to Come in the Talmud, and reincarnation in Kabbalah. A complete source sheet can be accessed here.

A few quick highlights:

  • The term “She’ol”, or underworld, occurs 65 times in Tanakh, but only six times in the Torah itself– four of them are in the Jacob story when he is mourning Joseph.
  • The Talmud has several debates over which people make it to the World to Come. The general consensus is that both righteous Jews and non-Jews are rewarded after death.
  • One Talmudic commentator resolved the problem of Jews buried in Diaspora making their way back to Israel in the messianic age by saying “the resurrected will roll underground.” When another rabbi objected that this would hurt, the first rabbi responded, “The Almighty will create tunnels for them.”
  • The Talmud contains varied descriptions of what Gan Eden (Heaven) and Gehenna (Hell) might look like– ranging from a lavish banquet, to a heavenly study hall, to a purely spiritual existence basking in God’s presence. Gehenna is described as being thoroughly unpleasant, but also having many sub-categories designed to “purify” souls for specific misdeeds.
  • The rabbis of the Talmud established the belief that most wicked souls are only punished in Gehenna for a maximum of twelve months; following this, the custom is to observe Kaddish for only eleven months, to avoid the perception that one’s relatives were wicked.
  • The afterlife hasn’t been without controversy: Saadia Gaon, a medieval commentator, considered reincarnation to be “nonsense.” Maimonides so downplayed resurrection that he was publicly criticized for it and had to write a treatise acknowledging it to be an important Jewish belief.
  • Dante had a Jewish contemporary named Immanuel ha-Romi, who wrote vivid depictions of Heaven and Hell for his Jewish readers.
  • Early Reform rabbis eliminated references to the afterlife in their prayerbooks, but in recent years liberal liturgy has begun including these references again to offer worshipers a wider choice.

Many thanks to those who attended this month’s symposium! If you’d like to teach a class or have an idea for a topic, please get in touch with Rabbi Mark or Andrew Nusbaum.

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DIY Omer Counter – I Count, You Count, We All Count!

We are counting down the days until the next holiday of Shavuot when we celebrate receiving the biggest present of them all, the Torah!  49 days in total between Passover and Shavuot.
This week our Hebrew school made their own Omer counters– and you can make them at home for yourself, as well!
Materials:  poster board/side of cardboard box, markers, sticky notes with numbers 1-49 (#50 is Shavuot)

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Blessing for each evening:
Blessed are You, Holy One, who teaches us to number the days of the Omer, to count the blessings in our lives and to be grateful for each day.
Say, “Today is the # day of the Omer.”
[If you’ve missed a few days and need to catch up, tonight will be the day after the tenth day. 😉 ]

May we count and treasure each of our precious days,
 
Rabbi Mark
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Shabbat Symposium: Touring the Jewish Afterlife

Save The Date: April 22 Symposium at B’nai Emunah. Presenter: Andrew Nusbaum

Does Judaism believe in an afterlife? Many people, including Jews, may be unsure– and surprised– about the answer. Together will descend to She’ol, ascend to Gan Eden, visit The World To Come, and sneak a peak at the Messianic Age.

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We will start around 1:00 pm following kiddush and go for about an hour, leaving time for any questions.

Do *you* have a topic you’d like to learn about or teach to others? Get in touch and let us know!

B’nai Emunah believes all members of the community have something to teach each other. One way of putting this into practice is through our Shabbat Symposium program, a rotating adult education opportunity happening every fourth Saturday following morning services. Each class is led by a knowledgeable community volunteer on a topic of their choice. From holidays to history to religious studies, Shabbat Symposium is a fun chance to learn something new from fellow CBE members. Join us for engaged learning and enthusiastic discussion!

 

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Parashat Devarim — The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 13, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

Deuteronomy, also called Seifer D’varim, the Book of Words, combines a repetition of earlier sections of Exodus and Numbers with new material relating to laws for living in their permanent home. Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the fast day on which we read the Book of Lamentations, lamenting the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem and other tragic events in Jewish history. There is even a verse in today’s complete parashah, Deut 1:12, that is traditionally chanted to the plaintive melody for the Book of Lamentations. This verse begins with the Hebrew word Eikhah, variously translated as Alas! or How, as in How on earth! and continues with Moses saying “how can I bear unaided the trouble of you and the burden, and the bickering!”

Not only is Moses bemoaning the burden he’s carried, but we notice that Moses does all the speaking. The entire book is composed of 5 discourses of Moses’ words to the newer generation of Israelites.  Most striking is the change in voice.  We find mostly the first person:  “I said to you.  You replied to me: I sent messengers. I pleaded with God…etc.”  Gone is the passive voice of the narrator in previous books of the Torah.

Deuteronomy is Moses’s story to tell.  As other commentators have remarked, Moses’s voice and words in Deut. make it clear that he is the first of the great prophets. Quoting a rabbi we first met at Limmud two years ago, Rabbi David Kasher, “he has become a man of words because he now knows how to speak the language of Torah. He knows what to say, how to communicate ideas. By serving as the mouthpiece of God, and speaking out the words of the Torah so many times, Moses has learned what it means to speak with power and conviction. The Torah has been inside him, and it has changed him.”  And citing another person, the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli of Ben-Gurion University, ““Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these “words” earlier, but he waited for the right moment.”

I’ve titled my drash “The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes” because the speech of the mature Moses offers a good model for how to give criticism/rebukes. No one likes to be criticized or be taken to task for shortcomings, but we also know that it’s important for ones growth and development to get constructive criticism from those we respect and who respect and care about us.  Like you, I obviously have been the recipient of criticism plenty of times over the years, but there are two instances I can recall so vividly from my past: one graduate school and one in my early career.  I think the reason I still remember the emotional context and even the words is because in both cases I hoped that the persons criticizing me respected and cared for me the way I did for them.

What can we learn from the mature Moses about offering criticism?  Why did he speak so harshly to the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land?  My first thought was he was tired and frustrated with their constant complaints, maybe even a bit angry that he wouldn’t be joining them. I also think that because he cared for them, he was worried about how they would be living their lives in the Promised Land, since he would no longer be around to guide them.

A footnote in Etz Chaim, which credits Midrash,  gives us a clue about another aspect of his speech.  The Midrash points out that the first verse in Deuteronomy says “These are the words— d’varim —that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…”  The Midrash finds a  similarity between the sound of the Hebrew noun d’varim (words) and d’vorim (bees).  The Midrash comments that Moses’ criticisms and rebukes of the people are like the stings of a bee.  A bee’s sting hurts the person stung but it hurts the bee more, causing its death.  This midrash suggests that Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy because criticizing Israel has taken so much out of him.  It also suggests that “we should judge the validity of criticism not only by its factual accuracy but by how much it pains the critic to say it.  The harsh criticisms of Moses are spoken with love.” 

Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, offers additional points about giving criticism. He states: “Pointing out someone’s shortcomings should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority.  It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat.  Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge.” Notice his phrase “a rebuke, if properly intended and given,” again it is the intention that the critic has — it must be an intention to constructively help the person being rebuked because the critic cares about the person and believe that he/she is worthy and capable of improvement. 

From these commentators we learn four  important aspects of how to offer criticism/rebukes:  1.  Timing is everything….Moses waited until the time was right.  We should avoid offering criticism to someone in a time of weakness, anger or suffering, for example.  2.  In order to be taken seriously, the critic should respect and care about the person he/she is criticizing;  3. The rebuker’s intention should be to offer criticism in a humble, helpful way, never from a position of superiority or righteous judgment;  and 4. the person criticizing another should make it clear that he/she feels the person is worth the effort and capable of improvement. 

A certain person who will remain nameless and I have disagreed about offering criticism to someone that one doesn’t know that well or particularly care about.  My position has always been: if you aren’t involved in some positive way in that person’s life, why offer criticism? The chance of hurting, rather than helping, is too great.  As the Babylonian Talmud says: “Just as it is meritorious to offer reproof when it is known that it will be heeded, it is meritorious not to rebuke when it is known it will not be heeded”  Or as written in Proverbs 9:8:  “Reprove not a scorner lest he hate thee; reprove a wise man and he will-love thee.”

What about receiving rebukes?   Since our egos get involved, it may be harder to accept criticism then offer it. I don’t know about you but receiving criticism from those I admire or respect has always been more challenging for me to handle because I want the person to think well of me. However, if the criticism comes from someone I don’t think knows me that well or that I don’t respect, the words just roll off me. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”  It seems that in Rabbi Eleazar’s time, he observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the person receiving the rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error. 

QUESTION for the group:  In your experience what makes receiving criticism difficult?

When I looked for Biblical examples and wisdom about receiving criticism, nearly everything I found was from Proverbs.  One of the great themes in Proverbs is that those who embrace rebuke are wise, while those who despise reproof find themselves to be fools.

Here are just a few selected examples from Proverbs:  Proverbs 10:7  He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray; Proverbs 29:1 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice and from Ecclesiastes 7:5:  it is better for a person to receive a rebuke from those who are wise than to listen to the song of fools.

There are also many positive statements from Proverbs about accepting criticism. “Whoever heeds reproof is honored” (Proverbs 13:18) “He who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32), To the one who embraces rebuke, God says, “I will pour out my spirit to you” (Proverbs 1:23).

In closing, I echo many others in stating  that Devarim — words — are powerful and as we learned from the mature Moses, words offered as criticism require the wisdom of a caring person who knows when and how to speak them.  And on the receiving end of criticism, a willingness to listen carefully, suspend knee-jerk reactions, and believe that the critic has your best interests at heart might go a long way to truly understanding and maybe even benefitting from the words spoken. 

Sources

Rabbi Bradley Artson.  “Rebukes and Responses.” My Jewish Learning   http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/rebukes-and-responses/

Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen. “Words of Admonition” My Jewish Learning   http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/words-of-admonition/

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Parashat Matot – Mas’ei Numbers 33:50 to 35:13

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 6, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

We have a double Torah portion today: Parashot Mattot and Mass’ei.  Etz Chaim footnotes explain that these final chapters inaugurate a new phase in the history of ancient Israel: the settlement period when they began to find permanent homes for themselves.  Since our triennial cycle reading is only from Masei, I’ll briefly summarize what we missed in Parashah Mattot. 

It begins with a series of regulations emphasizing the importance of oaths and vows, making special provision for oaths and vows that women make. Then a description of the battle against Midian follows with details about how to purify soldiers and captives before they can enter the camp. Next is a request by two of the tribes —Gad and Reuben — to settle outside of the designated borders of the Promised Land because they feel it’s better grazing land.  These two tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh are the only ones living outside of Canaan.

Just prior to today’s reading in Parashat Masei is a lengthy record of the places the Israelites have been over the 40 years of travel and detours. The section we read today picks up with God’s instructions to Moses about the conquest of Canaan and instructions pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of land among the tribes. The boundaries of Israel are described and the 6 special cities of refuge for unintentional manslayers are discussed in some detail. Parashat Masei ends with God’s decision about  the inheritance of women, based on the situation of the daughers of Zelophehad — which is that in order to protect their inheritance they must marry within their tribe.

I am so impressed and amazed at the wisdom embodied in the laws of the six cities of refuge that I’ve decided to offer a drash about these cities and the importance of intention in our lives. These cities are yet another example of Israel’s responsibility to carry out social justice, rather than allow the basic instinct for personal revenge. I credit some of my comments that follow to the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from the Sacks web Archives and Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger from My Jewish Learning.

First, let’s review the details surrounding these cities of refuge. God commanded Moses to assign from the lands apportioned to the 12 tribes, 48 towns for the Levites, including some surrounding pasture land. Among these 48 cities God commanded six for refuge: three cities to the east of the Jordan and three within the land of Israel itself. There, people who had committed homicide could flee and find protection until their case was heard by a court of law. If they were found guilty of murder they were sentenced to death. If found innocent because the death happened by accident or inadvertently, with neither intention nor malice – then they were to stay in the city of refuge “until the death of the High priest.”  I can imagine how difficult it must have been to prove the lack of intention or malice, but we do know that more than one witness was required to give testimony.  Within the walls, the manslayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment. But if the person left the city of refuge, the deceased’s relative could kill him and not face punishment.  In this way, the Torah makes clear a distinction between deliberate murder and unintentional manslaughter.  As we know, contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a different degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance.

Were these cities of asylum unique in ancient times?  We learn from footnotes in Etz Chaim that the notion of a place of asylum was not unique to the Torah. Other law codes of the ancient Near East had places of asylum and even allowed deliberate murderers access to them as well as allowed offering monetary payments for some types of killing. For example, ancient Greece, Sumer, and Phoenecia permitted a murderer to flee to a local shrine and gain protection at the altar of the local deity. Whether or not the death had been intended was irrelevant to the power of the shrine to protect the murderer. But the Israelites did not accept monetary payments for the loss of life and required  intentional murderers to pay with their lives. 

Also diverging from other ancient law codes, the Torah does not use the status of the victim to determine the severity of punishment. Murdering a free man, woman, child, slave, or foreigner all resulted in the same penalty. Since all human beings reflect God’s image, all people deserve equal protection and possess equal worth.

Other ancient Near Eastern peoples also did not seem to share the notion of how murder pollutes the land.  As we read in Numbers 35:13 “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it”  Etz Chaim’s footnote on p. 965 explains further that the land becomes polluted so that neither God nor Israel can abide there.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote, “Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity. A Cohen who has shed blood does not bless the people. David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood. Death defiles.”  To our modern minds, it’s seem barbaric and contradictory to connect the killing of the original murderer to the unpolluting  of the land.

The laws and procedures for being protected in these cities of refuge are extraordinary and demonstrate such wise compassion and a social justice system far in advance of other cultures.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote,
   “The Torah inserts one vital element between the killer and the victim’s family: the principle of justice. There must be no direct act of revenge. The killer must be protected until his case has been heard in a court of law. If found guilty, he must pay the price. If found innocent, he must be given refuge. This single act turns revenge into retribution. This makes all the difference…and is what was introduced into civilization by the law of the cities of refuge, allowing retribution to take the place of revenge, and justice the place of retaliation.”

He continues by explaining how the cities of refuge functioned as both a place of protection but also a form of punishment because exile was commonly used as a form of punishment.  However, Maimonides emphasizes their primary purpose as protection.  He comments  in The Guide for the Perplexed, “The reason the man goes into exile in a city of refuge is to allow the passions of the relative of the victim, the blood-redeemer, to cool. The exile stays there until the death of the High Priest, because his death creates a mood of national mourning, which dissolves the longing for revenge – for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one befalls another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the High Priest.”

Clearly, the cities of refuge served both purposes and I think locating them in the Levite towns was an ingenious solution, since the Levites served as assistants to the priests. Perhaps the fact that these cities had a special “religious” designation helped those exiled there to understand that they were not rejected by God for their actions. One could even imagine that these accidental criminals would form a kind of community and provide each other support. Connecting their freedom to the death of the High Priest was also wise, as Maimonides pointed out, because everyone would be focused on mourning his death. There’s a  touching story in the Mishnah that says that the high priest’s mother would traditionally supply clothing and food to those claiming asylum in the cities of refuge, so that these individuals would not wish for the death of her son.

Finally, I’d like to end my drash focusing on the importance of intention in our own lives.  What is extraordinary on the part of the Torah, as we learned from the cities of refuge, is the notion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action. Unique among ancient law codes, the Torah consistently maintains its emphasis on kavvanah (intention)  which manifests itself through ones concentration and focusing ones mind on the meaning of words uttered or acts performed. The areas where we traditionally are expected to demonstrate intention is in prayer, particularly the Shema and part of the Amidah, and in performing mitzvot.  I would suggest that just as important is the intention we show in our personal relationships — an intention to listen carefully and to reach out with empathy and compassion to the needs of others.  How many of us recall having said at one time or another: “Well, I didn’t mean to do that or I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings?

To help us increase positive intention in our daily lives, there’s a teaching in Mussar related to silence that I think is helpful. It states that one should try to practice considered speech — that is withholding speech long enough for a conscious decision about whether what we say could hurt or benefit another.  This practice develops intention because it encourages the speaker to focus on the meaning of his/her words as they may affect another.  Indeed, nearly everything we do in our daily lives would benefit from our being more aware and showing intention instead of mindless speech and unintentional behavior. 

Sources

Rabbi Sacks Archive. “Retribution and Revenge.” http://www.rabbisacks.org/mattot-masei-5775/

Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger. “Cities or Sanctuaries.” My Jewish Learning. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/cities-or-sanctuaries/

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B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

A traditional breakfast of biscuits and grits fueled our “home on wheels” (newly nicknamed Stella Blue by the kids) to reach our weekend destination.  My friend’s cabin in Calico Rock, AR, is deep in the woods and literally 10 miles down a narrow dirt road. With the creek in his backyard and fresh trout for dinner, rest, relaxation and re-jew-venation came easily.  The cabin was even on Reb Lane (really, what are the chances of finding a weekend address like that).  Traversing a warm and flat Kansas freeway now, we’re collectively acknowledging that “there’s no place like home.”  After Ft. Collins, CO, we”ll travel to find awe and inspiration in Arches NP.  Don’t worry, our KOA campground has confirmed having a pool to help cool us down from the high desert heat.

Sending a Shabbat shalom from the Sunflower State,
Rabbi Mark and the mishpacha

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