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Word from Our Rabbi

Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, May 2024

On Sunday, May 5th we will commemorate Yom Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. This year feels like this day is more poignant than ever as we witness the virulent antisemitism in America today. I spent 5 years of my life in a Ph.D. program at Columbia University studying Hebrew Literature. As part of my work-study, while researching articles written in Hebrew in the 1920s-30s about American Jewry, I came across a poem written about Ivy League schools and their quota systems. The line that has always stuck in my brain was “and Columbia is for the Jews.” Columbia University has always had many Jewish students. There are 5000 now. I watched the police enter the campus last night and learned that they dismantled the tent city and removed everyone who had barricaded themselves in Hamilton Hall. As of today, we do not know how many were students versus outside agitators. News report after news report shows that demonstrators. when asked what they are demonstrating for, cannot answer basic questions about the conflict. While this is not true across the board, I am waiting to hear a voice of reason that says, “demand a ceasefire and RELEASE ALL OF THE HOSTAGES.” Israelis are demonstrating daily demanding that the hostages be released in exchange for anything. Unchecked antisemitism can have disastrous consequences and no Jew can afford to keep quiet today. This war was started by Hamas. Israel found documents that show that Hamas planned to overrun the entire country on October 7th. That is why on October 7th they shot over 3000 missiles into Israel.

I wish things were different in the world, but they are not. I’ve never believed in the concept of collective punishment and when I see the destruction in Gaza, it is overwhelming. When I keep learning more about what Hamas did on October 7th and what they did to the hostages who have been released, it is overwhelming. For my friends and family in Israel, I am so saddened by the burden they carry daily in their struggles just to make ends meet and live with the constant stress from being in their current situation. I also cannot imagine the terror of real hunger and being in fear for one’s life as the innocent people who live in the Gaza Strip.

I have a friend in Israel whose father, Josef Bau was on Schindler’s List and survived as a forger of documents. He was later in the Mossad (something her family learned at his funeral) and worked as a graphic artist and an artist. My friend Clila and her sister Hadassa run the Josef Bau Museum in Tel Aviv dedicated to their father’s memory. I had the honor of translating their mother’s autobiography into English. She too was on Schindler’s list and she and Josef got married in a concentration camp bunk which was featured for about one minute in the movie Schindler’s List. Clila told me that what happened in Israel was exactly what their father envisioned. He wrote that Hitler would come back and he painted this as well.

Hanukkah, Purim and Passover all remind us of our resilience against our enemies. Yom Hashoah reminds us how dark evil can be and what happens when the world is silent in the face of evil. I will not cower because I am Jewish. I will not stop supporting people and organizations who defend Israel’s right to exist. I can understand empathy for Gazans but I want the hostages to come home. I do not want Israel to be subject to continued missile launches or repeated terrorist attacks. I want Israel to live in peace with her neighbors and I want this conflict to end.

This is a time when Jewish communities need to come together to rally and support one another. It is not a time to dwell on differences and conflicts that separate us from one another. United we stand and we have strength in numbers. We can show this strength by standing together as one, even in Hickory, N.C.!

I will be back on Friday, May 10th. That evening in honor of Mother’s Day, we will be honoring all of the women in our congregation with a special blessing in front of the open ark. Please mark your calendars and join us for our celebration. It was suggested that in honor of the women, perhaps some of our gallant men would be willing to help set up the Oneg Shabbat and clean up after it! I am looking forward to seeing you.

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, April 2024

On Monday, April 22, we will usher in the celebration of Passover at sundown. Each one of us is commanded in the Haggadah to retell the story as if we were personally in Egypt. Memory and recounting our past yearly are what has kept Judaism alive for thousands of years. When we observe the Passover rituals and partake in eating bits of the Passover symbols, we simulate what it was like living as slaves in Egypt and experiencing the joy of liberation. While recounting and naming the plagues, we diminish our cups of joy by removing one drop from our wine cups, our symbol of joy, for each plague. Why do we do this?

We read in the Haggadah, according to the midrash, the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah: At the very hour that the Egyptians were drowning, the angels want to sing before God. God said to them: “My children are drowning in the sea, yet you would sing in My presence!” We know that Pharoah’s army who pursued the Israelites in the Sea of Reeds, drown when the waters closed around them. When Moses and the Israelites made it safely to dry land, they sang a song which is written in the Torah thanking God for protecting and saving them. According to the midrash, the angels tried to do the same. Their hearts too were filled with thanksgiving and they too yearned to express this joy in song to praise God.

God reminds the angels that the Egyptians were also God’s children. God asked the angels to feel empathy for their enemies which flies in the face of comprehension. If the angels had difficulty doing this, imagine how much harder it is for us as human beings. Later in the midrash, Rabbi Elazar conjectures that while God does not rejoice in the deaths of the wicked, that God did cause us to rejoice. God recognizes that we in fact are not divine and when we are hurt, there is a natural impulse to want retribution. This teaches us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We Jews are here to be a light unto the nations.

Being human, created in the Divine Image is to struggle and to recognize the humanity in all of God’s creatures. As difficult as this is, we must strive to do so and to be better human beings by trying. If God feels the pain seeing the death of our enemies, we too must push ourselves to feel the pain of others, even when in fact they may be our enemies.

On Passover we celebrate being victorious over people who wished to destroy us. We celebrate our communal freedom won over and over again, against all odds throughout our marred history. This year we will also pray for those still held in captivity, because as I write this, in my heart I know that the hostage deal making will be pushed further and further down the road. In my heart I know that many people will lose their lives on both sides as this war rages on. Some will be our enemies. Some will be innocent bystanders caught by circumstances beyond their control. As God’s children, we will struggle and wrestle as we should.

In a synagogue in Sefat in Israel, there is a framed piece of matzah hanging on the wall. This matzah reminds us that we are eternally in Egypt and as Jews we will suffer and struggle in every generation. This year Passover reminds us that until all of the hostages come home, we are not truly free this year and the salt water that we dip our greenery and our hard-boiled eggs into represent the tears shed by all of us for the lives lost on October 7th, and all of the senseless deaths that have followed that horrific day in Jewish history. We look forward to having a real celebration when all of the hostages come home to Israel.

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, March 2024

On March 23rd we will be celebrating Purim and hopefully, you will be able to join us in the celebration. Purim is a classic Jewish holiday with a timeless message that certainly speaks to us today. It is the story of an enemy, Haman, who out of anger because Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down to him manipulated King Ahasuerus to order a mass killing of all the Jews in the Persian empire. Queen Esther who hid her Jewish identity from the king was summoned by her Uncle Mordechai to appeal to the king’s good graces and get the kill order rescinded. She risked her life by coming to the king without being summoned and by doing so saved the entire Jewish community.

While there is no historical proof that this story ever took place, the message of the story cannot be more appropriate for the times we are living in today. Jewish life worldwide is changing. Israel is fighting a battle without any end in sight. The world is calling for a ceasefire. The same world is not demanding that the hostages should be released. Jews in different parts of this country and worldwide are scared. As American Jews, we have never felt insecure about living openly as Jews.

On Purim, we are commanded to rejoice, to have fun and to drink. One is commanded to drink to the point that you cannot distinguish the blessing of Mordechai from the curse of Haman. While we will not promote drinking oneself into oblivion, we are planning a great evening on the 23rd for adults to have fun rejoicing together. We will have havdallah, a light meal, read the Megillah, the Book of Esther, play games and have a great time.

Because Esther chose to hide her identity (Esther literally means hidden), it is customary to wear costumes for Purim. We invite everyone to dress up in costume and join us for a meaningful and fun experience. We will have an adult Purim costume contest on Saturday and one on Sunday for the children as well. On Sunday the 24th, we will celebrate Purim with the children in our congregation with a Purim spiel, an abbreviated Megillah reading followed by a carnival and games. We welcome all participation to help make this a special experience for all of our members.

Our tradition teaches us that when the month of Adar comes, it increases joy. There is a long stretch between Hanukkah and Passover and Purim comes at the right moment to bring us joy and hope. These are two important things we can all use in this world today.

With joy and hope, I look forward to seeing you on the weekend of March 22nd. I can’t wait to see what costume you will wear. It’s okay just to dress as a member of Temple Beth Shalom if you are not the costume type!

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, February 2024

We landed in Ben Gurion and immediately felt the mood of the country in the airport. There is an amazing art installation of the metal ‘bring them home’ tags hanging where every incoming passenger will see it. Going down the hallway to passport control, the walkway is lined with pictures of the hostages. These pictures and signs in Hebrew of bring them home are everywhere. They are at bus stops, in windows on walls you can’t go far without seeing them. On the cab ride from the train station in Jerusalem we learned that 24 soldiers had been killed the night before in Gaza. We passed a road leading to the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem that was blocked off to traffic because people had been demonstrating there 24/7 for the last few days demanding that he take action to bring the soldiers home.

Shabbat evening, January 26, Grace and I participated in a Tu B’shvat (the holiday of the birthday of the trees) seder at the home of a close friend where we are staying. Usually, this holiday is marked by picnics, tree plantings, and nature activities. Not this year. We took a beautiful 3-mile walk earlier in the day in the Tyelet Park overlooking Jerusalem and East Jerusalem. My friend asked me to think about the connection between the holiday and what is going on in Israel for our seder discussion. When we passed a beautiful carob tree we talked about the famous Talmudic story of Honi and the carob tree. As Honi was planting the tree, a passerby asked him why he was planting the tree knowing he would never see it give fruit since it takes 70 years. His response was like his ancestors before him who had planted these trees, he too was doing the same for future generations. Like Honi, the soldiers today are fighting to make sure that future generations of Israelis will continue to have a homeland while some of them will not have the luxury of living to see tomorrow. We celebrate the birthday of trees because for generations, others have planted them and we continue to plant them today. On our walk, we passed by olive trees that were hundreds of years old. If only they could talk and tell us what they have witnessed over the years.

Israel is fighting for survival. People we have spoken to, compare this period to that of the 48 war. In Jerusalem, restaurants and coffee shops are full. Life goes on but everyone is affected by this war. My rabbinic trip began in Tel Aviv on Sunday. We are a group of 40 Reform rabbis and a few spouses. I am happy to report that I have raised over $5000 to distribute during this trip. I look forward to being able to share stories from this experience with you during my next visit. We spent a few days before the trip catching up with old friends and family. I truly feel blessed to be here at this historic moment in Jewish history. Please pray for peace in Israel.

May Israel soon know peace, and may the hostages be brought back home where they belong.

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, January 2024

In January, we are introduced to Moses as we begin the reading of the Book of Exodus. The story of the Exodus is the continuation of the historical journey of the Jewish people. As we begin a new year, in a sense while we as Jews continue our journey into an unknown future, events occurring around us will become historical markers for us and the world. 2024 began with the Israeli Supreme Court striking down a law that deeply divided Israel and led to 100’s of thousands of people demonstrating to preserve Israel’s democracy. This action taken by the Supreme Court wipes out the potential for corruption and maintains the rule of law in Israel.

2024 is an election year in the United States and while we watched Israel from afar deal with their internal conflicts, the world will be closely watching what will happen here as we move towards the election in November.

It is with great sadness that Israel is still fighting her war for survival. While the world calls for ceasefires, I do not hear anyone calling on Gaza to stop sending rockets into Israel. No one is calling on Hezbollah to stop sending bombs from Lebanon into Israel.

At midnight on January 1st, many rockets were launched from Gaza into central Israel. While there is no apparent end in sight, the word is that Israel and Hamas are negotiating another ceasefire in exchange for the release of more hostages. We can only hope and pray that this will happen quickly.

Grace and I are flying to Israel on January 22nd. We will be joining a mission led by my rabbinic organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to volunteer; join forces with my Israeli colleagues; meet with families directly affected by the situation; and learn what is happening on the ground. One of the criteria for going on this trip is that you must be able to run. I have been to Israel too many times to count and that has never before been a condition for going on any of my trips there. The reality is if the sirens go off, they need to know that all of us can move quickly in the number of seconds we have to get to a bomb shelter or a safe room. This is today’s reality and how sad is that? We have been asked to bring money to Israel to help our colleagues with the ongoing need to provide people with what they need. If anyone is interested in contributing to this please speak with me.

On a brighter note, I am so looking forward to Werner Cohn’s Bar Mitzvah which is happening on January 13th. He is an outstanding student and a pleasure to work with. Please join us for his Bar Mitzvah so that you too can experience what a lovely young man he is! Mazal tov to his parents Seth and Ashley and his grandparents who I know will be kvelling the entire weekend.

I hope you will join us over Shabbat for spiritual nourishment, learning, community, and good food! I wish all of us a healthy, safe, and fulfilling New Year!

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, December 2023

Chanukah falls at the darkest time of the year. Back in the days when there was no electricity, the Chanukiah, the 9-branch menorah that we light, brought light into a darkened world. Because of the horrendous terrorist attack that took place on October 7th, the holiday takes on new meaning this year. The battle for religious freedom fought by the Maccabees was won despite the overwhelming odds against them. Israel is a tiny country surrounded by Muslim countries on all sides. Its location, as literally the gateway to the East, has led to endless wars for control throughout the ages.

Gaza has been under the control of the Palestinian Authority and then Hamas since 2005 when Israel gave the territory back asking for nothing in return. Today’s battle is existential for Israel and world Jewry. As I write this article, the truce between Israel and Hamas looks like it is being extended 2 days which means the release of more Israeli hostages.

How can we bring more light into a world that is filled with the darkness of misinformation, of age-old antisemitism, and of Islamophobia? How do we counter the fear that permeates our Jewish world? What do we say to parents of college students whose sons and daughters are facing antisemitism on their campuses and they are fearful and feel unsafe? What does it mean to be afraid to publicly identify as a Jew in America today?

How can we be modern-day Maccabees? The Maccabees were a small band of people who stood up for themselves and fought to be able to practice Judaism publicly. They fought and they won. How can we win the battle today with those who are antisemitic or hide behind the notion that they are ‘only anti-Zionist?’ We need to educate ourselves and have answers and facts. We need to be proud to be Jewish and not hide it. We need to be prepared to engage in difficult discussions with people who do not share our views. We need to have patience and know when to engage and when we should not engage. Never engage with counter-demonstrations for example. Be smart and be safe

In this period of darkness, there are glimmers of light and rays of hope. Some of the hostages are free, and for the moment, the ceasefire is holding. Leaders in the highest levels of government are calling out antisemitism. Congress has called on Ivy League administrators to testify before them over the antisemitism on their campuses.

Signs of hope for me was having a pastor come to our Shabbat morning Service in November because he felt a need to pray with the Jewish community and the person who left flowers for us and a note of support.

Come celebrate Shabbat and Chanukah with us. I look forward to seeing you the weekend of December 8th. Together we are stronger. Let’s all commit to being modern-day Maccabees, standing tall and proud, fighting for justice in this world.

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, November 2023

I’m writing this article from San Miguel De Allende where we arrived on October 25th for a destination wedding that I officiated on the 28th. The bride is a member of my New York congregation who I’ve known for 25 years! Her family joined the congregation when she was a first grader. We are spending the week here with her family and when I get back, I will have time to repack and head to Hickory.

On Saturday night of my last visit as we were studying Jewish texts about how to greet one another, how to treat strangers, and how to create a warm welcoming Jewish environment, a very strange thing happened. A stranger knocked on the door, having never been to the temple because she needed to be with the Jewish community, and was so pulled there after her shift was over at the hospital. The odds of finding a synagogue open on a Saturday night around 8:15 are slim to none, yet we were there, and she found us. Our guest is from Kiev and has been in the States since 1989, and her family is in New York and Israel. She lives 39 miles from the temple, yet that Saturday she needed us, and we needed her. She was greeted warmly and felt embraced by our small adult education group. It was as if Elijah had come to test us. I was happy to watch us pass the test.

As part of the global community of Jews, we all need each other at this unprecedented moment in Jewish history. I’m glued to my phone, checking the news, checking with my Israeli friends and family every day, listening to Zooms, hearing harrowing stories, and feeling anxious and worried daily. I was so disturbed by a blog I read castigating diaspora Jewry that I sent it to an Israeli friend asking for her reaction. She sent back a link to an interview with 4 different Israelis who lost family on October 7th. They were all begging Israel not to take more lives. Watching it allowed me to sleep better that night.

A grandson of a professor at my Rabbinical School, Hebrew Union College (a Holocaust survivor), who lived close to the Gaza border and had written his Ph.D. dissertation on Israeli-Palestinian relations, was murdered on October 7th. There are no Israelis who are not touched by 6 degrees of separation from the victims of this horrific massacre. So many of us worldwide are also connected and affected by what is going on.

No one can predict what the outcome will be. Four hostages have been released. What will happen to the rest of the hostages? With rockets continuously raining down over Israel, how long will Israel be able to hold back? Israel warns neighborhoods to evacuate before bombing them. Israel does not massacre innocent civilians. The videos are still being released from that infamous day and are shocking.

I am making donations to two organizations again and will continue to support the Israel Emergency Fund of UJA and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism which is doing incredible work on the ground with victims’ families and helping displaced families. The need is great, the time is now and I hope that you too will step up and help at this dark hour.

I look forward to seeing you on November 3rd, 4th, and 5th when we will have the opportunity to connect, feed, and nourish our spiritual souls through worship, study, fellowship, and of course eating! We are Jewish, right!

May all of us take the time we need for ourselves to breathe, take in the awe of the world, and center our beings.

Shalom,

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, October 2023

Friday night, Erev Sukkot was ushered in, in New York along with massive flooding and torrential rains. Had it been a few weeks later, it would have coincided with the Torah portion, Noah! An ark would have come in handy! The Torah commands us to build sukkot, temporary shelters, and to dwell in them for 8 days as a reminder of our ancestors' temporary dwellings for 40 years as they wandered in the Sinai desert. A sukkah by design is a very flimsy structure. You must be able to see the stars through the top of it. It is not meant to be permanent or sturdy. The structure reminds us of the fragility of life and how fortunate we are to have shelter, food, and a community to share our lives within times of need and joy. We are truly blessed but not everyone can say this. One out of 6 children in America is hungry and does not have enough food daily. Over 600,000 people in this country do not have permanent housing. Most shelters are closed during the daytime and open in the evenings. Where do people go when it is pouring down rain? Our sukkah reminds us of our responsibilities as Jews to help make this world a better place for everyone. It reminds us that the majority of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck and have little to no savings. Any slight change can put people out in the street. While we count our blessings, we are obligated to help those in need.

We just finished our first High Holy Days together. Grace and I are so grateful to be part of this community. I want to thank everyone who did their part to help make the holiday experience a meaningful one for everyone, from the people who opened the building to those who stayed and cleaned up after all of us and locked the doors. A special shout-out again to our Security team. A special thank you to Susan for singing, and to Jeff and Grace, and Dennis and Kathy Jones for blowing shofar. Thank you to all of our readers, to Rachael for her tech help, to Aaron and Mary Lee Tosky, and Linda Greenfield for their home hospitality, and to Jodi and Rhett and Sheri and St. John for hosting us for holiday meals. The beauty of being in a small community is seeing how congregants come together to make things happen. I am very impressed with the commitment and dedication of the leaders of this congregation and of all the members who work to see this congregation grow and thrive

A number of people mentioned to me over the holidays that they do not feel that the synagogue is an open, welcoming community and they want to change this. Every community prides itself on being warm and welcoming. Years ago, our New York Regional Director of the Reform Movement gave us a challenge to see how warm and welcoming our synagogues really are. She challenged us to look at our congregations and see how members interact with one another and with visitors coming to services and programs. So, I ask you the following questions: do you welcome the stranger? Do you talk to people you don’t know? Do you go out of your way to sit with people who are alone? Do you invite people to sit with you during temple meals? Do you introduce yourself to unfamiliar faces? Do you consider Temple Beth Shalom to be a warm and welcoming congregation? I would be thrilled to hear your responses to these questions. If you wish, please email me at rabbijanetb.liss@gmail.com.

I will be back on the weekend of the 13th. I look forward to seeing you over the course of the weekend. For our Saturday Havdalah program, I will be teaching texts about Derech Eretz which is behavior that is acceptable in society and is geared toward making people happy, as is written in the Mishna, “Which is the proper path one should choose? One that is pleasing to the one who performs it and is pleasing to others (Avot 2:1). The material is fascinating, and I hope you will join me.

May we all be a blessing every day to our families and community.

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Rabbi Dr. Janet B Liss, August/September 2023

I retired from my congregation, North Country Reform Temple, in Glen Cove, NY a year ago June after being there for 26 years. Last year I led High Holy Day Services in Guatemala City, returning to the Reform Congregation that I visited on a Mayaworks mission in February 2019. While in a sleeping car traveling by train from Sofia, Bulgaria to Istanbul, I received a call from Aaron Tosky telling me about Temple Beth Shalom. Ironically Aaron asked me if I liked to travel not knowing that I was almost at the border of Turkey where it was after 11 pm, I learned that Aaron is from Bellmore, Long Island about a half hour from where I live and I told him that I grew up in Charlotte. My father and his wife, and my sister and brother-in-law live in Fort Mill, S.C. Coming back to North Carolina as a Rabbi is like a dream come true. I am very excited about being the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom and getting to know everyone in the congregation. For the first time since I retired, I led a zoom Shabbat Service for my former congregation as the Rabbi Emerita and I invited TBS members to join us. I was delighted to be able to meet a number of you who joined us that night. My impression was that you have a very warm, welcoming and special congregation. My wife, Grace, and I are looking forward to joining you for our first visit on the weekend of August 26th which is coincidently our 28 anniversary! I hope to meet many of you this weekend. Please keep introducing yourselves to us until I have the opportunity to really get to know you!

We have just entered the month of Elul, preceding the month of Tishri. During Elul, we are supposed to begin to prepare ourselves for the High Holy Days so that when they come, we are ready to be fully present and open to the spiritual experience of the Days of Awe. This is the time to begin to look inward and examine where we are in our lives, and what changes we want and need to make. It is also a time to examine who we are in relationship to the world around us. The High Holy Days give us the opportunity to continue the spiritual work that we begin in Elul.

We are living through challenging times. The world around us at times can seem overwhelming. Judaism offers us a way to ground ourselves in community and helps us make sense of an incomprehensible world. For me, the High Holy Days help us recharge our spiritual batteries and can fill our souls with a calming balm and sense of renewal.

May we be blessed with many opportunities to come together in this New Year to deepen our connection with Judaism, to work toward Tikkun Olam, to make the world better than it is, and to learn from one another.

May this New Year bring the blessings of health, prosperity, and peace to you and your loved ones.

Rabbi Dr. Janet B. Liss

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Peace in the Middle East—Understanding the Passion on Both Sides
Based on The Words of My Father by Yousef Bashir, Summer 2023

You might recall that when I reviewed Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi I was thrilled to find that, like me, Klein Halevi proposes a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders as the best path toward peace. He sees that solution as a fair sharing of the land to which both Jews and Palestinians have valid but competing historical claims. Klein Halevi admits that this solution is a tough sell to both sides since many Israelis envision a “greater Israel” based on boundaries described in the Bible and ancient history, and many Palestinians cling to the hope of a Jewish-free Palestine that is all under their own control. That is why Klein Halevi is so committed to both sides entering into honest dialogue about their needs, hopes, and dreams. The one thing Klein Halevi requests from his Palestinian neighbors is that they do not deny his right to exist in the land. As he puts it, “Criticism of Israeli policies, of course, isn’t anti-Semitic. … But denying Israel’s right to exist, turning the Jewish state into the world’s criminal, and trying to isolate it from the community of nations—that fits the classic anti-Semitic pattern” (p. 185).

Klein Halevi closes his book with a chapter containing a dozen or so letters from Palestinians in response to his request for dialogue—giving his Palestinian neighbors the last word. Many of those letters brought tears to my eyes, but one letter, in particular, led me to purchase a second book, written from the Palestinian perspective that was absolutely eye-opening: The Words of My Father—Love and Pain in Palestine, by Yousef Bashir (HarperCollins, NY, 2019).

Yousef Bashir is the son of Khalil Bashir, a highly respected educator. The Bashir family had for centuries farmed dates near the small village of Deir el-Balah, “Monastery of the Date Palms,” in Gaza. Yousef begins his story by pointing out that “…for the past three hundred years since records were first kept, our name has been on them for this land.” Yousef, who has a BA in International Affairs from Northeastern University and an MA in Coexistence and Conflict from Brandeis University, speaks often to international groups, telling them, “I want to start by telling you two things about my father. My father was as much in love with his land as he was with my mother. And he loved both of them deeply” (The Words…, pp. 2-3). Yousef recounts that the freshwater springs that never ran dry and “the sweetest, reddest dates on the Mediterranean coast” had drawn his ancestors to this area long before written records were even kept. He shares with the groups he speaks to that he considered Gaza a " paradise " in his youth. But he despairs, “Today—and my heart breaks to say so—you might be more inclined to call it “hell” (p. 8).

The early chapters of Yousef Bashir’s book are a moving tribute to his father, Khalil, now deceased. His father was an educator, an English teacher who also served for many years as a school headmaster. One of the schools at which Khalil served was founded by a wealthy German benefactor, Rudolf Walther, near their village of Deir. Khalil had become friends with Rudolf. Yousef notes, “The two of them shared a deep commitment to peace, and both believed that education was its cornerstone.” Khalil clearly passed that passion for peace and value for education on to Yousef. Yousef attended the same school where his father was the headmaster, and he points out, “My father had the teacher punish me twice as hard as the other students so no one could say that the son of the headmaster was getting special treatment” (pp. 29- 30). As a result of his commitment to peace, Yousef’s father Khalil attended several local events held by an organization called the Sons of Abraham in Ramallah and Jerusalem. After one such conference, Khalil brought home a framed verse from the group and put it in the family’s home. It read:

    Peace begins at Home

    Peace begins in Me

    Peace begins in You

    Peace begins in Her

    Peace begins in Him

    Peace begins in Them

“Violence only leads to more violence,” was Khalil’s mantra (pp. 42-43). Though he was highly respected in the community, many of Khalil’s fellow Palestinians strongly opposed his commitment to peace and coexistence. Some of them still resided in refugee camps, their families have been there since 1948.

Most Jews consider the rebirth of the state of Israel in the 20th century and the resurrection of the Hebrew language as a national language to be the fulfillment of prophecy, an answer to prayer, and a miracle. We must remain compassionate, however, and mourn the grief and anguish that the return of Jews to the land has caused the Palestinians who called it home for so many years, particularly those displaced in 1948 and 1967. Shortly following the Jewish celebration of Israeli Independence Day is the Palestinian mourning of Nakba Day. Nakba Day commemorates the “nakba”—the “Palestinian Catastrophe” which entailed the destruction of Palestinian society and the permanent displacement of a majority of the Palestinian people, estimated at 700,000. Regarding this displacement, Yossi Klein Halevi offers a chilling and honest analysis.

    After the war, two competing narratives about the refugee tragedy emerged. For many years our [the Jewish] side claimed that there had been no expulsion, only voluntary flight from battle, and that Arab leaders had encouraged Palestinians to abandon their homes, to clear the way for the imminently victorious Arab armies. Your [the Palestinian] side claimed that expulsion had been the norm, a systematic and premeditated Zionist plan. Both versions were untrue [Emphasis mine] (Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, pp. 82-83).

In his treatise, The Words of My Father, Yousef Bashir recounts how the Bashir family was able to keep their date farm through the 1948 war, but things became much more difficult for them after the 1967 war. A Jewish settlement, Kfar Darom, was established very near the Bashir’s land, and an Israeli military base with two high watch towers, manned with machine guns, was placed between the Bashir farm and the settlement. Yousef shares his mother’s sarcastic comment, “The settlers attacked us, so they brought their soldiers to protect themselves” (The Words…, p. 15). It is difficult for the Jewish person to read much of Yousef Bashir’s narrative, as he details countless instances of both Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers treating the Bashir family unjustly and inhumanely. Such things as destroying the outbuilding on the date farm, destroying crops, detaining, and questioning family members, and ultimately occupying the family’s home as a barracks, even while the family lived there, became commonplace. Frequently the Israeli soldiers would lock the family into a single room while they ransacked the rest of the house. Yousef shares that he was angry at the time that his father, Khalil, remained dignified and committed to peace and dialogue.

Yousef’s life would completely change one week after his 15th birthday, when, while saying goodbye to a delegation of UN observers who had been visiting his father, Yousef was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier from a nearby gun tower. In his words:

    The [UN] jeep had just begun to reverse when, with no warning, I heard the sound of a single gunshot. Since there had been no shooting that day in the neighborhood, I instinctively assumed that the shot was being fired away from me in another direction. In the same instant, though, I felt something knock me to the ground, like I was crumbling. I tried to get up but my legs would not move. I grabbed my stomach and called out, “Yaba, I can’t move. Yaba, I can’t move.” … I was in shock and could feel no pain, but neither could I feel my legs. I ran my hands over my chest, stomach and legs to check what was wrong with me. … Then I suddenly understood that I had been shot (The Words…, pp. 99-100).

After three days in a hospital in Gaza, Yousef was transported to the Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Yousef’s experiences at the Tel Aviv hospital were equally transformative in his life. There he experienced the kindness, care, and compassion of the Jewish doctors and medical staff, in stark juxtaposition to the cruelty of the Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Yousef goes on to detail his long recovery and the educational opportunities that opened for him as he recovered. Ultimately, Yousef inherited his father, Khalil’s passion for peace, dialogue, and compromise. In fact, he has made seeking just that his life’s work. While many parts of The Words of My Father were hard to read, I encourage anyone who is interested in understanding the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to purchase and read this book. Understanding Yousef Bashir’s perspective has only served to strengthen my belief that in time the moderates on both sides might prevail and facilitate a transition into a time of compromise and peace. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Some Reflections on “The Messiah”, May 2023

Before I retire in July, I will get to my promised book review of the Palestinian perspective on the situation in Israel today: The Words of My Father, by Yousef Bashir. But time to write keeps slipping away from me!! While you wait for that article, I have decided to recycle some of my more controversial bulletin submissions from over the last nine years. The subject of “the messiah” is a very complex topic. So, let’s go for it. Let me begin the discussion with a favorite Passover story that I have heard told by many progressive rabbis over the years. There was a child present at a Passover Seder who inquired of the rabbi about the symbolism of the cup for Elijah. The rabbi explained to the child that according to our tradition, Elijah was to be the forerunner of the messiah, and when the messiah comes that will be a time of peace and prosperity— sickness and hunger will be eliminated, and all the nations will live in friendship and fellowship with one another. Upon hearing this, the child asked simply, “Why would we need to wait for the messiah to do that?!”

The Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have, in my opinion, become preoccupied with the doctrine of “the messiah.” My own views on this topic have evolved greatly over the years and are still evolving. I have no hard and fast eschatological system that I adhere to, only the fundamental belief that there is a Supreme Creative Mind that willed this creation into existence and, probably for reasons known only to that Creator, also willed human beings into existence to be partners in the completion of that ongoing Creative Process. In my own experience, to know that Creative Force is to have a sense of gratitude, respect, praise, and desire to respond to that Force. I think the appropriate response is to be a full partner in the completion of creation through acts of lovingkindness to all creatures, social justice, and gestures of peace. I do believe that the Hebrew Prophets have given us a glimpse of the perfected state that our world and eventually our entire cosmos can achieve. Based on my understanding of what the Creative Force has revealed about One’s self, at least in the Hebrew Bible, the sacred writings I am most familiar with, the Creative/Redemptive Process is being carried out through a series of covenants made with humankind.

Again, in my opinion, the idea of a messiah has been blown far out of biblical proportion by many. The entire idea of messiah comes from the Hebrew word, —mashiach, which means simply, “anointed one.” The word itself comes from the Hebrew verb, —mashach, which means, “to smear with oil.” The first messiahs in the Hebrew Bible were Aaron and his sons. We read in Exodus 29:7, “Then you shall take the anointing oil, and pour it on his [Aaron’s] head and anoint him.” And speaking of Aaron’s sons, in Exodus 28:41, “...and you shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests.” If we are going to interpret the term messiahs as referring to anointed ones, as I believe would be biblically appropriate, then even in biblical times we have examples of hundreds of messiahs, since the practice of anointing was used for priests, later for kings, and also for prophets. See for example 1st Kings 19:16, where Elijah was instructed, “Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint a king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place.” Even the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are called messiahs in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 105:13-15 states, “When they went from one nation to another, from one kingdom to another people, God permitted no one to do them wrong; yes, God rebuked kings for their sakes, saying, ‘Do not touch my anointed ones and to do my prophets no harm.’”

If we were going to look for a figure to assist humankind in ushering in the golden age which is often referred to as the “messianic age,” I would hone in on two passages in the Torah that scholars believe are more ancient than some of the later passages often applied to a messiah. The first passage is found in Exodus 23:20-23, “Behold, I am going to send a messenger/angel (Hebrew:) to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him for he will not pardon your transgression, since my name is in him. But if you truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For my messenger/angel will go before you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I will completely destroy them.” Now most scholars and interpreters take this passage as a reference to Joshua, but the writer of Deuteronomy picks up on it and gives it a more expansive meaning in 18:15-19 of that book, “Adonai your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among you, from among your countrymen, you shall listen to him. ... I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you [Moses], and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to my words which he shall speak in my name, I, myself will require it of him.” These passages make me wonder whether, rather than looking for a messiah, we should instead be looking for the return of prophecy to humankind. The sages of the Talmudic period talked about the removal of prophecy and its eventual return. A full discussion of that is beyond the scope of my answer here, but rather a messiah, an anointed prophet, group of prophets, or better yet all humankind communicating with the Divine Mind would be a much better deal. This might be what the prophet Joel envisioned when he said, “And it will come about after this that I [God] will pour out my spirit on all flesh; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. And even on the male and female servants I will pour out my spirit in those days.” (2:28-29)

Now, the idea of an anointed king came much later in the Hebrew Bible. And one should remember that Adonai was not pleased with the people’s request. When the people asked the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over them so that they could be “like the nations,” Adonai told Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (I Samuel 8:7). That passage continues with a vivid description of the oppressive rule of kings, concluding with the chilling warning, “Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but Adonai will not answer you in that day” (I Samuel 8:11-18). So, while there are references to a descendant of David in many prophetic passages, 10 to be exact, it is difficult for me to believe that the True Sovereign of Israel who felt rejected by the people at the appointment of an earthly king, would then turn around and make a descendant of an earthly king a central figure in the redemptive plan for the entire cosmos.

As said, there are 10 references in the Prophets to a descendant of David being involved in the ultimate golden age. There are another 4 references, three in Ezekiel and one in Hosea, that state that David himself will reign over a restored kingdom of Israel and Judah. But there are dozens of passages in the Prophets that speak of a return of Adonai’s own Presence to the earth. The clearest passage is in the book of Zechariah. We chant it every service as part of the Aleinu prayer. The prophecy is spoken in the context of many nations gathering for battle against Jerusalem. It states, “Then Adonai will go forth against those nations, as [God] fights in the day of battle. And in that day [God’s] feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the East.... Thus, Adonai my God will come, and all the holy ones with you.... And Adonai shall be King over all the earth; in that day it shall be—Adonai will be one and [God’s] name one” (14:3-9). There are countless more verses, though, in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Hosea which speak of the presence/appearance of Adonai with no references to any human agent.

Also pertinent to the discussion of “end time” events are the servant passages from the book of Isaiah. Scholars and interpreters believe that these refer predominantly to the whole nation of Israel. And that idea is definitely conveyed by the prophet himself. For example, in chapter 41, “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendent of Abraham my friend, you whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts, and said to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you’” (41:8-9). But a few chapters later, there is a twist and wording that could be interpreted to point to an individual rather than to the nation. “And now says Adonai, who formed me from the womb to be God’s servant, to bring Jacob back to God, in order that Israel might be gathered to God (for I am honored in the sight of Adonai, and my God is my strength). God says, ‘It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’” (49:5-6). It must be pointed out here that absolutely none of the servant passages in the book of Isaiah contain a reference to either a messiah or to a descendant of David.

So, on this very complex subject of “the messiah,” my views have evolved and are still evolving just as the views of Judaism itself have evolved over the years and are still evolving. As the Torah says, “The secret things belong to Adonai our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may observe all the words of this Torah” (Deut. 29:29). Of one thing I am very certain, I want to be a part of Adonai’s Creative Plan; I want to be a part of the perfection of this cosmos—tikkun olam. Our tradition tells us, “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: ‘If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you the Messiah has come, stay and finish planting, and then go to greet the Messiah’” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b). I will plant that sapling, drive an electric car, feed the hungry, visit the sick, free the oppressed, fight for social justice, and do whatever I can to bring perfection/wholeness to Adonai’s creation. If a messiah or messiahs, at some point, figure into that effort, so be it. And if not, so be it. It does not really change what I practice and preach.

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Chag Pesach Sameach!!, April 2023

We are about to observe what many scholars believe to be history's oldest continuously celebrated religious holiday. I would posit that the holiday of Pesach/Passover commemorates the secondgreatest miracle in the history of humankind—through faith in the Almighty God, a battered down and oppressed group of slaves was ultimately liberated and transformed into a chosen people, a blessed nation, and a light to all nations. As Moses is commissioned to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, God declares in the book of Shemot/Exodus, “I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Then I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ch. 6:vv. 5-7). Through a series of events that can only be described as miraculous, this oppressed group of slaves did manage to attain their freedom from what truly would have been the greatest superpower on earth at that time, the nation of Egypt. After their escape, as the people of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, about to receive instructions from the One who had provided their freedom, God affectionately instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all of the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). This amazing proclamation was immediately followed by the giving of the Ten Commandments.

What an honor to be chosen as witnesses to the One True God, the Creator of the cosmos. And that, I would argue, is the greatest miracle of all time/space. For people of faith, the One God brought into existence a creation that abounds with indescribable complexity and amazing diversity. Indeed, the more complex systems or species become, the more diverse they become. My Rabbi, Morton Kaplan, would often use the creation story in Genesis 1 & 2 as a springboard to extol the beauty and necessity of diversity not only in nature but among humankind as well. The Jewish faith tradition may just be the most diverse of all the world’s religions. Just think of all the changes our religion has gone through in the 4000 years when from what began as a covenant with one nomadic family expanded into the diverse, worldwide system of laws, traditions, and beliefs that Judaism embodies today. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, taught that Judaism’s holy texts are “anthologies of arguments: arguments between God and humans, humans and God, humans and one another.” Rabbi Sacks maintained that diversity can be a source of strength, not a weakness. Where you find disagreement and argument you will also find passion (https://rabbisacks.org/jewish-unity-published-in-jewish-action/).

Perhaps one of the most famous “clashes” in our people’s history is the rivalry between the Schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. Hillel has been called, “Judaism’s model human being.” This is because his life encapsulated so many of the values of Judaism in the time period in which he lived. Hillel was a scholar of the Mishnaic Period. He is known for having overcome a background of poverty and ascending to a life of devotion to serving humankind and studying Torah. Hillel is credited with originating the Jewish version of the Golden Rule. According to tradition, a non-Jew approached Hillel and asked him to define the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot. Hillel responded, “What is hateful unto you do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary—now go and study” (Shabbat 31a). As a result of Hillel’s diligent studies, he developed a forceful intellect. Many scholars credit him with the introduction of the concept of tikkun olam, the performing acts of Torah for the ethical betterment of the world. Hillel developed this idea in the context of his concern that the rote implementation of Torah law was actually degrading his peers’ motivation and efforts to help the poor and the oppressed. Hillel is credited with a large number of the words of wisdom which are found in the tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Elders). Hillel is remembered in history as being the perennial opponent of Shammai (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1991, pp. 120-122).

The Talmud records numerous disputes between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, then later of disputes between Hillel’s disciples and those of Shammai. It is generally agreed that Hillel’s motivations in the implementation of Torah were less strict and according to the “letter of the law,” and more motivated by compassion for all human beings. Shammai, on the other hand, was known for the strictness of his Torah interpretation, and his disregard for the effect it would have on human beings. Rabbinical rulings of that time almost always went in favor of the school of Hillel. There is a very interesting story recorded in the Talmud: “A heavenly voice declared: the words of both schools [Hillel and Shammai] are the words of the living God, but the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel because the Hillelites were gentle and modest, and study both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own” (Eruvin 13b). It is interesting to note that rulings went in favor of the school of Hillel on grounds of morality and compassion even when ritual matters of the Torah were being decided. This shift toward ethics over ritual not only reinforces the message of the prophets but may have also been the savior of Judaism after the Roman destruction.

In our own day here in America, we find our politicians and pundits lamenting the fact that our country seems more divided and polarized than it has been in recent history. I would ask whether we might turn this current diversity and disagreement into a strength today, just as Judaism has managed to do for its 4000-year history. Our nation was founded on the ideals of negotiation and compromise. I believe it is just our ability to compromise that has made our nation as free and prosperous as it has been. I truly believe that when ideas clash and are worked through, the evenest path forward can be struck.

We do, however, need to acquire or reacquire the ability to disagree without demonizing or “otherizing” our opponents. In his article, “Jewish Diversity & Unity,” Rabbi Sacks proposed three what I would call ‘rules for fair argument or disagreement.’ First, do not see an opposing point of view as being an attack on you personally. In other words, try to keep disagreements or differences within the realm of opposing ideas or principles, not as moral judgments. I know, sometimes that is hard to do. Second, try to defend your own ideas without attacking others on a personal level. Most human beings are sensitive to criticism and tend to take things personally. Can we each state our own case in such a way as to avoid that human tendency? Remember, the Mishnah says, “The one who passes judgment on his/her fellow is judged first” (Bava Kama 93a:3). Third, it is crucial to consider that Adonai loves, cares for, and sustains all of Adonai’s creatures despite our many differences, disagreements, weaknesses, and failings. It has never been acceptable in Judaism to expect Adonai’s love and forgiveness for ourselves without extending that same love and forgiveness to our fellow humans (Rabbi Sacks, ibid).

You know I talk often about how the Prophet Isaiah, in line with most of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, gives us some breathtakingly positive glimpses of humankind’s future. A particularly powerful and oft-quoted prediction is Isa. 2:4: “...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” As I think of the incredible strides humankind has made in the areas of science, technology, medicine, and human rights in just the past 100 years, I am optimistic enough to hope that the vision of the Hebrew Prophets is possible. I tell my students frequently that the American constitutional experiment, in particular, has yielded amazingly beneficial results. Never before have so many individuals been afforded equal rights under the law or broad access to food, shelter, medical care, and wealth. I believe that our country’s movement in such a positive direction is principal because it was founded and has continued to operate on the deeply embedded Judeo-Christian values of honesty, hard work, and acts of generosity and kindness.

I close with one of my favorite quotes from the Gates of Repentance High Holiday prayer book:

    When will redemption come?
    When we master the violence that fills our world.
    When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
    When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves

    (p. 103).
Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Can We Achieve Peace in the Middle East???, March 2023

With the troubling tensions in our beloved land of Israel currently reaching a fever pitch between Israelis and Palestinians, it is on my heart to re-run a book review which I posted in the TBS newsletter early last year. I know that like me, many of you long for a true and lasting peace in the Middle East that will fully respect the human rights of all God’s children.

As a rabbi, I am frequently asked by colleagues from other faiths and by students to explain the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I guess they assume that as a Jewish spiritual leader, I should be an expert on the founding of the state of Israel and on the competing claims of the Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land. Well, I most certainly am not!! But, in an effort to familiarize myself more fully with the claims of each side I have just completed reading two riveting books, one by a scholarly Jewish Israeli citizen living in East Jerusalem and the second by an open-minded and insightful Palestinian, born and raised in Gaza. So this month I give you a review of both books. I will start with the Israeli/Jewish perspective.

As is frequently the case, the book I am reviewing in this article was recommended to me by our Temple president, Susan Goldstein. The book is Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi (HarperCollins, New York, 2018). Klein Halevi is an American-born Jewish writer who has lived in Jerusalem since 1982. He is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem whose mission, according to their website, is “to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.” (https://www.hartman.org.il/) Partnering with Imam Abdullah Antelpi of Duke University, Klein Halevi also co-directs the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative.

In 1990, as a soldier in the Israeli military, Klein Halevi served a stint on patrol in the Gaza refugee camp at Nusseirat. Almost a decade later, in 1998, Klein Halevi returned to Nusseirat, this time as a “pilgrim.” Klein Halevi set out on the pilgrimage into Gaza and the West Bank to explore the faiths of his Muslim and Christian neighbors in the Holy Land. He was not so much interested in understanding their theology as he was in experiencing their personal devotional lives. In Klein Halevi’s words, “My goal was to see whether Jews and Muslims could share something of God’s presence, could be religious people together in this of all places, where God’s Name is so often invoked to justify abomination” (Letters..., p. 4).

Klein Halevi is a deeply religious person. He states, “For me, the only notion more ludicrous than the existence of a Divine being that created and sustains us is the notion that this miracle of life, of consciousness is coincidence” (p. 8). In the first several of his “letters” he summarizes his view of Jewish history, faith, and ethos for his imagined “Palestinian neighbor.” These chapters were a very reinforcing read for me, as Klein Halevi’s views so closely parallel my own. Don’t you love it when that happens!? Klein Halevi, in a very concise and readable way traces the evolution of Judaism from its beginning as a nomadic tribal/family faith into the universal expression of beliefs and ethics that it is today, while still retaining its family and faith elements. According to Klein Halevi, “The synagogue became a substitute for the Temple, prayer a substitute for animal sacrifices—a major step forward in the spiritual evolution of Judaism” (p. 31).

Since Judaism is both a family and a faith, Klein Halevi asserts, “The purpose of Judaism is to sanctify one people with the goal of sanctifying all peoples” (p. 53). I found this part of Klein Halevi’s treatise particularly exciting and uplifting. He goes on to explain that while the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all universalistic in their approach, Judaism is distinct from the other two faiths in one particular way. Both Christianity and Islam envision a future world where all humankind will eventually convert to their way. “In the Jewish dream of the future, all of humanity will recognize the unity of existence and ascend on pilgrimage to the ‘house of God’ in Jerusalem. But Judaism has no expectation that humanity will become Jewish” (pp. 54-55, Emphasis mine). Klein Halevi goes on to tout that since Judaism is a faith intended for one family to share the vision of the Creator God with the rest of humankind, it has remained far more tolerant of the validity of other faith traditions.

Klein Halevi passionately lays out the yearning in the Jewish soul for the return to the Holy Land while in exile. He shares with his Palestinian neighbor how deeply rooted that longing is in our scriptures, rabbinical writings, and prayers. Klein Halevi attempts to convey to his Palestinian neighbor that for nearly two thousand years, most of which were years of trouble and persecution for the Jewish people, the return to a land of their own was only a dream. Like me, Klein Halevi considers the rebirth of the state of Israel in the 20th century and the resurrection of the Hebrew language as a national language to be the fulfillment of prophesy and a miracle. Yet, Klein Halevi’s sincerity is palpable when he expresses his grief and anguish over the difficulties that the Jews return to the land has caused to the Palestinians who called it home for so many years, particularly those who were displaced in 1948 and 1967. That grief and anguish was the basis of Klein Halevi’s pilgrimage into Gaza and the West Bank in 1998 and is the basis of his reaching out to his Palestinian neighbors in this book. As a part of that appeal, Klein Halevi points to Abraham. He states, “Both our traditions note that Abraham/Ibrahim was buried by Isaac and Ishmael, who overcame their rivalry to honor their father. ... Perhaps the memory of [Isaac’s] hospitality can help us find a way to accommodate each other’s presence in the land” (p. 153).

I was thrilled to find, that like myself, Klein Halevi proposes a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders as the best path toward peace. He sees that as the fair sharing of the land to which both Jews and Palestinians have valid but competing claims. Klein Halevi admits that this solution is a tough sell to both sides, since many Israelis envision a “greater Israel” based on boundaries described in the Bible and ancient history, and many Palestinians cling to the hope of a Jewish-free Palestine that is all under their own control. That is why Klein Halevi is so committed to both sides entering into honest dialogue about their needs, hopes, and dreams. The one thing Klein Halevi requests from his Palestinian neighbors is that they do not deny his right to exist in the land. As he puts it, “Criticism of Israeli policies, of course, isn’t anti-Semitic. ... But denying Israel’s right to exist, turning the Jewish state into the world’s criminal, and trying to isolate it from the community of nations—that fits the classic anti-Semitic pattern” (p. 185).

Here is where it gets really interesting. Klein Halevi closes his book with a chapter containing a dozen or so letters from Palestinians back to him in response to his request for dialogue—giving his Palestinian neighbors the last word. Many of those letters brought tears to my eyes. I thanked Adonai for the faith, kindness, and grace they expressed, even when disagreeing with Klein Halevi on some of his facts. The closing chapter, actually the entire book, renewed my belief that in time the moderates on both sides might prevail and facilitate a transition into a time of peace, yes, even in the Middle East. Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!

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Trees Deserve a New Year Too!!!, February 2023

In my opinion, one of the primary reasons for the endurance of the Jewish faith/tradition, almost 4000 years, is our amazing cycle of annual holidays. Typically, as we emerge from winter and begin to see the first signs of spring, the notable occasion on the Hebrew calendar is Tu B’Shevat. This year the holiday falls on February 6th. Often called the “New Year for Trees,” Tu B’Shevat is a transliteration of the Hebrew for the 15th of Shevat. You will recall that in Hebrew, letters represent numbers. The Hebrew letter tet stands for the number nine and the letter vav (which in this case makes the “u” sound) represents the number six; six plus nine, of course, equaling fifteen. Shevat is the eleventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The New Year for Trees is not a biblically commanded festival. Its first mention is found in the Mishnah, a collection of the sayings of Judaism’s most prominent sages from just after the beginning of the Common Era. In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2a, the rabbis are discussing when the new year should fall. They did, in fact, establish four new years. The first of Nissan was referred to as the new year for kings and festivals. The first of Elul was established for the tithe (giving of one tenth) of cattle. The first of Tishri was called the new year for years of release, Jubilee years, and for the tithe of vegetables. The famous House of Hillel placed the new year for trees on the 15th of Shevat.

The need for a “New Year for Trees” was based on several passages from the Torah dealing with the treatment of trees, the most specific being Leviticus 19:23-25: “When you come into the land and you plant any tree for food, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the LORD. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.” The rabbis of the Mishnah probably placed the new year for trees on the 15th of Shevat because at that time of year the trees in the land of Israel, particularly those which bear fruit, begin to emerge from their winter dormancy and put forth their first buds. Since the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in about 70 C.E., the ancient practices of tithing and the dedication of fruit, vegetables, and cattle for use by the priesthood in Jerusalem are no longer strictly adhered to in Judaism. Still, the importance of Tu B’Shevat has remained on many levels.

In modern times, the “New Year for Trees” has become a time to emphasize Jewish responsibility toward the environment. For an ancient document, the Torah contains a remarkable number of passages that deal with the appropriate treatment of plants, animals, and the land. The passage cited earlier from Leviticus 19 about the treatment of a newly planted fruit tree is one such example. The practice of not harvesting the fruit of a young tree for the first three years would allow the tree time to strengthen and establish its root system before being subjected to harvest. You will recall that even from the beginning of man and woman’s time on earth, they were instructed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and master it, to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:27-28). The book of Genesis goes on to tell us that man and woman were placed in the Garden of Eden “to cultivate it and keep it” (2:15). The psalmist confirms, “The earth is the LORD’s and all it contains, the world, and all who dwell in it” (Psalm 24:1). In fact, the Almighty has made us partners in tending this incredible planet and bringing its possibilities to fruition.

The Torah instructed the children of Israel that even during times of war when extreme measures were necessary for the preservation of the nation, special care was to be taken not to destroy trees (Deuteronomy 20:19). According to Numbers 35:4, when cities were constructed in the Promised Land, “green belts” were to be maintained around the perimeters of the cities. Special rules were established for the harvesting of crops and the treatment of fields. For example, the land was to be planted and harvested for six years, but in the seventh year, the land was required to lie fallow, obviously in order to rejuvenate itself (Leviticus 25:3- 4). This is actually referred to as giving the land a “sabbath rest”! There are even laws in the Torah that regulate such mundane things as the disposal of waste (Deuteronomy 23:12).

The ethical treatment of animals is also a prominent concern in the Torah. Leviticus 19:19 prohibits the crossbreeding of species. Several laws pertain to the preservation of species. One such example is Deuteronomy 22:6: “If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young so that you may farewell and have a long life.” It is on this same theme that the famous passage, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21), the very passage from which the Kashrut laws of separating milk and meat derive—the ethical treatment of a parent of a species and its young. Even in such a simple statement as, “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:4), one can sense the Divine intent of not wanting to cause an animal undue stress or suffering. I have always been astounded that in the central communication of Jewish law, the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the Almighty keeps the welfare of animals in mind. When the instructions for keeping the seventh day Sabbath are given, in verse 10 the Torah states, “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals.... For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” So, it is clear that even our livestock, just as we ourselves, were to be given a time of rest and restoration one day in seven.

Another metaphorical lesson that we can take away from the “New Year for Trees” is a deeper appreciation for the source of the amazing laws and precepts that have preserved us as a people, the Holy Torah. It is likened in our tradition to a “tree of life.” The laws of the Torah truly have, as promised (Joshua 1:8), kept those who observe them happy, healthy, successful, and prosperous. Referring to the Torah as a “tree of life” connects back to the original “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden, from which, according to the creation story, if man and woman had eaten, they would have lived forever (Genesis 3:22). One of the most beautiful and soulful chants from the Sabbath morning liturgy is the one we do after reading the Torah, as we return it to the ark, “Eitz chayim hi...” Based on a paraphrase of the passage from the Hebrew Bible found in Proverbs 3:17-18, we are instructed: “Behold, a good doctrine has been given you, My Torah; do not forsake it. It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast, and all who cling to it find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” We have truly inherited an awe-inspiring and lofty tradition, teaching us to love God, our Creator, and to have compassion not only for our fellow humans, but for the earth and all its creatures, plant and animal.

In the weeks following our holiday of Tu B’Shevat, as we anticipate the rebirth of nature in spring, please join me in thanking Adonai for the awesome creation that has been entrusted into our care, as well as for the remarkable laws, the Holy Torah, which instruct us as to how that care should be implemented. Ken yehi ratzon! — May this be God’s will!

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Thank You, Temple Beth Shalom!!!, January 2023

Dear Members and Friends of Temple Beth Shalom,

Serving as your part-time rabbi for the past nine years has been the honor of my life. Thank you so much for the opportunity. Words cannot express how I have benefited from the experience on so many levels.

Now, I have reached a stage in my life where it has become difficult for me to meet all the needs of our very diverse and growing congregation. In addition, I long to spend more time with family, working my 25-acre organic farm, and traveling.

So, it is with mixed feelings that I have informed our Board of Trustees that I have made the definite decision to step down from the position as your part-time rabbi at the expiration of my current contract, on July 31, 2023. I know that news of my resignation (or more accurately, retirement) has been circulating, but I wanted all of you to hear the news directly from me, and not through the grapevine. That is why I have submitted this open letter to our Bulletin Editor, Karen Ferguson, for publication. It is my sincere hope that by providing the Board and Ritual Committee with seven months of notice they will have adequate time to find a suitable rabbinic replacement. I know that will not be an easy task, so it is critical that we all support these leaders with our thoughts, prayers, and positive energy.

I so look forward to being able to pray and worship with you once again without the responsibilities of service leadership. I plan to return to being an active member of our congregation. I will always consider Temple Beth Shalom my synagogue home. You know how proud I am, as well, that my children and grandchildren who live locally have made an effort to be active in the Temple. Now I will be able to sit with them during services!!!!

Again, thank you for the privilege of serving you. I will be a better person for the rest of my life for the experience!

Sincerely,

Rabbi Dennis

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