One of the interesting questions that I often hear is, does Judaism see the end of the world coming in a big destructive crescendo or as a gentle process that unfolds over time? My initial answer is going to be unsatisfying. Jewish tradition actually has both options. Some commentators envision all sorts of disasters and plagues that G-d will unleash as a way of testing people’s faith. Other commentators describe a completely different end of time. These commentators see a slow process of improvement as people choose their positive inclination and start to build a world of shalom – where everything and everyone is in a state of harmony and peace like the Garden of Eden on the Seventh Day of Creation.
As I lay out these two possibilities in Jewish tradition for End of Days scenarios, I pivot one step away. We can learn not just from the End of Days narratives but more so from how the sages responded to these texts. First, I offer the reading of the Book of Lamentations. This is an account of Israel’s destruction by the Babylonians during the time of the First Temple. It is sad, harsh and gut wrenching. What I want to call attention to is not bloody broken details in the middle, but the end.
Lamentations 5:21 Return us to Yourself, Eternal, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
22 unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
We actually read this in a twisted way. Not into a joke but a Nechemta – a breath of hope, uplift at end. When we are reading Lamentations on Tisha b’Av, we don’t finish with the end. We roll back to the next to last verse, and read it this way.
Lamentations 5:21 Return us to Yourself, Eternal, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
22 unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
(21 Return us to Yourself, Eternal, that we may return;
renew our days as of old)
This repetition of a hopeful verse at the end, instead of the more depressing actual final verse, is the Nechemta. This patterns repeats throughout Jewish ritual. Finish with the uplift, the sweet.
In the Haftarah reading of Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat before the beginning of Nisan and Passover) we read:
23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal. 24 G-d shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. Then we repeat verse 23.
23Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal.
Rather than finish with the word destruction, the sages loop back to finish with the concept of an awesome and great day of the Eternal.
This Nechemta is not just in the reading of Haftarot or Megillot or Torah. We see it in many powerful moments in our ritual experience from Unatanatokef to Kol Nidre to Neilah. It is a value woven into our rituals. Always find a way to end on the upswing, with hope and a positive note and tone.
With the value of the Nechemta in mind, I return to the place where I started, the end of time. It is clear that we will continue, as individuals and a community, to wrestle over the concept of the End of Days. We will all envision it in different ways, at different times. However, there are always going to be elements of an end of days that will be beyond our control. What the Sages have placed in our hands, is the Nechemta. How do we want to finish things, whether a conversation, a project or our lives in This World? We have the power to loop back and push off. I am not saying that every piece of Tzuris, challenge and pain, is actually a blessing. Our tradition does direct us to do what we can, as we navigate these interactions and life moments, to have the will to look for sweetness or offer hope and kindness as we come to the end.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
The world stands on three things: Torah (Study), Avodah (ritual) and Gimilut Chasadim (acts of loving-kindness) (Pirke Avot )
In his book, 40 things You can Do to Save the Jewish People, Joel Lurie Grishaver, suggests creating a coded calendar which highlights all of the opportunities to do Tzedakah in the year. He lists each holiday with its specific traditional Tzedakah project. [Collecting pocket change on Shabbat, Mattanot La-ev’yonim on Purim, sharing our Chametz in Ma’ot Hittim at Passover, Tzedakah bets during dreidel games at Chanukah.]
This calendar creates quite a tapestry of opportunities to do acts of justice and righteousness. In our highly scheduled and efficient world, this type of calendar might help us tune into these moments in a different way. It would help us merge our kavanah, intention to do these acts, with a kevah, a concrete action, in rhythm with the Jewish calendar and community.
As I thought about this calendar in my mind’s eye I wondered, What if we did the same for acts of memory? We could code a calendar with the days of memory, personal and communal. On this calendar, we would have a listing of our family Yahrzeits and the times when we stop with our community to do the prayers of Yizkor for family. We can also mark the days like Yom HaShoah and Tisha b’Av when we fulfill communal acts of memory, reaching beyond our family to honor those who represent all of us or have no one to remember them.
What Joel Grishaver captures with his calendar is that it is not just a day of value, it is a reminder of action. On this calendar of memory, we would not just list the day, who we were remembering and what prayers we might say. We would also add actions that resonate with the memory of our loved ones or that honor the losses of our community. That is an important value in Jewish experience. We don’t think a thought or say a prayer. We add action, so that the movement of our body is in rhythm with the workings of our minds and the flow of our soul. This is why we tie acts of study, ritual or kindness (the three things the world stands on according to the Wisdom of Our Sages) to our times of memory. The sages taught that we should sit, studying our highest values with a community of friends and family; or visit the cemetery and place a stone of memory. What other actions could we put on our calendar? Making and sharing a grandmother’s recipe; washing a car for a friend like an uncle; going on a walk to honor a sister or brother who loved nature. The possibilities are endless. Writing it out on a calendar would help us organize and commit ourselves to these actions.
As we look at a fresh New Year stretching before us, I suggest the idea of a calendar of memory, with the intent to inspire us to map out actions to go with expressions of our heart and mind.
May we all find our way into a new year of blessing, in which our prayers and actions will be for good.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
For kids of all ages…
Join in the fun on Wacky Wednesdays!
On Wednesday, July 1, come watch the movie “The Princess Bride” with friends, beginning at 6:30pm. Then on Wednesday, July 22 at 6:30pm, meet in the school building for a night of board games and friendship. The summer time is perfect for hanging out and winding down with friends at TBS. Just RSVP to the office and let us know you’re planning to attend!
Religious School Registration will take place on Sunday, August 16 at 10am in the school building. Please come register your child/ren for school and receive the academic year calendar. We don’t want to leave anyone out! Volunteers are needed throughout the school year for many different activities. We hope you will participate and team with us for Family Education Days and Sunday events.
Mazal Tov to the Tardif and Birnholz families on the upcoming B’nai Mitzvah of their children. Max Tardif will lead us in worship and be called to the Torah for a Bar Mitzvah Aliyah on Saturday, August 15. The next week, on Saturday, August 22, Adina Birnholz will become Bat Mitzvah. Round out the summer by celebrating these joyous occasions with our Temple family. All are welcome to attend these worship services.
Religious School begins on Sunday, August 30 at 9:30am.
Hebrew School begins on Wednesday, September 2 at 4:30pm.
Mindy Lessem Pollack
In life there is the carousel and the roller coaster. The carousel is the part of life in which we go through cycles (or maybe spirals). We revolve through our year with little ups and downs doing our routines of daily existence. There is also a part of life with bigger swings of energy, growth and change. This is the roller coaster consisting of big moments, challenges and simchas, marked by rites of passage. Some are planned: graduations, weddings and B’nai Mitzvah. Others are unexpected like illness, finding a life partner, or changing jobs. If we stop to think about our life experience we can see the carousel and the roller coaster. We can also recognize that the skills and resources we call on to help and guide us through a carousel are different than what we need to navigate and assimilate the experiences of the rollercoaster.
As we enter these summer months, I call attention to this paradigm because this year has had a change in the resources we use for these motions of life. Last August, we started using Mishkan T’filah. Published in 2006, this siddur of the Reform movement has been part of our regular Shabbat worship for almost a full year. We have fully integrated Mishkan T’filah into our congregation’s life: on Friday night, with B’nai Mitzvah services and in our Religious School. We have become familiar with it’s layout and it’s subtle changes from the translations we know from Gates of Prayer. Mishkan T’filah is our resource for the worship that carries us through the carousel of the year.
The name Mishkan T’filah is instructive. Mishkan is a reference to the Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting the Israelites constructed and used during their wandering in the wilderness. This meeting was the place of ritual to interact with G!d’s presence. T’filah is the Hebrew word for prayer. The siddur is the tool we use to gather regularly in prayer as a community and connect with the Divine. The title contrasts with the title of the new Machzor we will be using this year on the High Holy Days, Mishkan HaNefesh. Based on Mishkan T’filah, Mishkan HaNefesh updates the liturgy of Gates of Repentance.
The Hebrew is transliterated. The translations are clearer. It has commentary to supplement our worship experience and most importantly, we will all be using the same edition. While Mishkan HaNefesh is based on the layout of Mishkan T’filah, it has a signficant difference. Mishkan T’filah has multiple options for any one prayer on its two page layout. It is designed so that as we go through the carousel of weekly prayer, we can make small adjustments to match the variety of life. Mishkan HaNefesh is for the roller coaster of the High Holy Days. Rather than multiple choices for any one reading, Mishkan HaNefesh includes more commentary and poetry at each stage to enrich the experience as we move through these High Holy Days. We only go through the each stage of the holiday once, so each step must have resources to enrich the soul and build the energy of these days.
Summer is the perfect time to reflect on the carousel and roller coaster. We have a few months leading up to the High Holy Days. Join us for a few Shabbatot and feel the rhythm of our community as we use Mishkan T’filah to move through the regular cycles of life. Reach out to me and make a time to join me in reviewing the new Machzor (holiday prayerbook). Join us for a Curious Class on Mishkan HaNefesh, or help set up the honors for the High Holy Days. Both are great ways to see the new book and think about how it can be a resource to move our souls to a place that high and holy.
Beyond experiencing the siddur and machzor, as the days start to get shorter and we go through our weekly cycle and start to build toward the climax of our High Holy Days, take time to be conscious of how you move through time and space. Consider the flow of energy from day to day, week to week and month to month. Don’t just go through the motions, feel them, let them empower you and make the most of them.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz
At a recent Rabbinic Conference I was asked if I had an ethical will. Rather than a statement of how our belongs and assets should be dispersed after our death, an ethical will is a statement of what values we hold dear and what we hope our descendants will use to guide their lives. Rather than writing a flat, linear, text on a piece of paper, what if I could construct an ethical will in 3D? While I would love to write one clean paragraph, the more I thought about it the more I realized that I don’t have one favorite piece of ethical wisdom. I could create a list, but not necessarily a rank. Also, while one piece of ethical insight might help in one situation, it may not apply in another. I wasn’t thinking in terms of relative ethics but rather like tools. One would not use a hammer for grasping things, not try to hit something with a screw driver. There are times when we need different perspectives, tools, keys to open our hearts and minds to deal with the challenges and questions set before us.
And so my ethical will took shape. A twenty sided dice to go along with a list of my 20 favorite ethical statements from Jewish tradition and beyond.
1. Take Long view and high road (Rabbi Shir Stutman commentary on Leviticus 26 in Text Messages edit by Rabbi Jeffery Salkin)
2. From a fortune cookie: God will help you overcome any hardship
3. Rabbi Yose: Discipline yourself in Torah for it is not born within you. (Pirke Avot 2:17)
4. Better late or early than never with study and ritual. [On the first day of the month]… We should try to sync up our rituals with the events of history and tradition but, [Up to third hour] don’t get so bogged down on doing everything at exactly the right time for magical effect. Do your best to do rituals at the right time but don’t let time be an excuse to not do them.
5. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said:Ein kemach ein torah, ein Torah ein kemach. If there is not food/sustenance then it is hard to really live out the values of Torah, if we don’t live out values of Torah then all of the food in the world will not sustain us. (Pirke Avot 3:21)
6. Leviticus says Love neighbor as self, but Hillel realized that we might not love ourselves so he added: what is hateful to you don’t do to another person.
7. Ben Zoma would say: B’eizehu: Who is rich, one who is content with his lot, who is wise, one who learns from every person. (Pirke Avot 4:1)
8. Shammai would say: Say little, do much cheerful countenance (Pirke Avot 1:15) [or] Jill, Sue and Ike teach smiling is contagious
9. Chesed v’rachamim lifnei kavodo: Kindness and compassion should proceed our pursuit for honor (From text of El Adon}
10. Achalta, v’savata, u’verachta. Eat, be satisfied and then bless/appreciate the source (human and Divine) of your food. (Deuteronomy 8:10)
11. Never let sun set on your anger (Wedding advice from Rabbi Richard Birnholz)
12. You shall be holy for I, your eternal G!d, am holy (Leviticus 19:1)
13. We get to place supposed to be when we are supposed to get there (Rabbi Michael Birnholz)
14. One only finds something we have lost when we stop looking for it (Rabbi Michael Birnholz
15. I set before you life and death, blessing and curse, choose lifeso that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30)
16. How awesome is this place, G!d in this place and I didn’t know it (Genesis 28)
17. Star Trek: Live long and prosper [and] Star Wars: may the Force be with you.
18. Hillel says: If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am for myself alone, what am I? (Pirke Avot 1:14)
19. Life is like a box of chocolates you never know what you are going to get. (Forest Gump)
20. Balance: The world was created for my sake [and] I am but dust and ash ( Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Psischke)
Rabbi Micahel Birnholz
Turning the world with a smile
It is kind of ironic that my wife said it while I was in a moment of frustration over trying to write this column about Judaism and humor. She said, “the positive attitude in my classroom is really infectious.” My wife teaches third graders. From the beginning of the year she worked really hard at the setting a can do attitude and creating an environment filled with the joy of learning for her class. Now, as the year comes to an end, she has started to hear the students generating the good will. Individually, students offer enthusiasm and excitement for the lessons and projects. Then, others catch on and amplify the positive.
As my wife described what was going on in her classroom, I remembered an experience from earlier in the week. My son’s little league baseball team was losing badly. Not only was their opponent playing at a different level, our team was making bad mistakes at the plate and in the field. The kids were getting frustrated and upset. Between innings the coaches told them to catch their breaths and reset for the rest of the game. We put on rally caps and started cheering for our batters as they went up to bat. The team did not suddenly mount an amazing comeback, but they absolutely played better. They started making plays in the field and hustling on the bases. It was still a blowout loss, but the whole energy of the team afterwards was different than it could have been. The players were excited for the next game and enjoying the experience of baseball.
It is a trope that has been repeating around me a lot lately. At the Memorial Mass for Monsignor Irvine Nugent of St. Helen’s Catholic Church, Father Edwards quoted the Monsignor who said that Joy is the unmistakable sign of God’s presence. Or in the TV show the Middle, the middle daughter Sue is given the task of coming up with a hypothesis and finding a way to test it. What did she come up with? She wanted to see if smiling was infectious. Through most of the show she walked around smiling and checking to see if others would return the joyous expression. What was heartening was that in her final report for class while she acknowledged that in fact very few smiles were returned, she was not going to give up hope. She concluded that joy and smiles are infectious even if her project did not show it. She would keep working until she found a way to infect those around her with her positive attitude. The hypothesis was correct she just had to find the right way to prove it.
The perspective of this Television character truly struck me. It resonated with my wife’s classroom experience, my son’s baseball game, the quote and the stories of Monsignor Nugent. It is the embodiment of the words of Ben Azzai, “Mitzvah gareret mitzvah….one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. Avera gareret avera…and one sin leads to another. ” (Pirke Avot 4:2) This is more than a collection of stories about persevering with the positive. This is precisely the approach of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. They said it once; they said it twice, over and over, God would speak through the prophets to get the people to turn to the right path. And so it is with us. Joy can be infectious. The positive attitude of one can feed and inspire others. Sometimes, with the challenges and frustrations of life, we give into our bad habits and sit in the negative. Yet, in collecting these stories, witnessing these experiences and living with a smile, joy, and the positive, we can inspire and turn ourselves and the communities we live in to always reach higher.
Let the winds blow and the rains fall
Over the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to attend a lunch with a visiting group of professors, theologians and scholars to wrestle with concepts of god and the nature of the universe. This year, three of my local colleagues were able to attend, adding a different dimension to our discussions. As we sat outside on that beautiful February day, conversation turned to the weather: the relentless cold and snow in the Midwest, drought in California, and winter warmth here in Florida. It did not take long for the conversation to jump from weather observation to theological inquiry. The first question was posed, “do prayers for rain work?”. Do we with our ritual connect with, control, inspire god somehow to create our desired outcome? Reverend Scott Alexander, of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, bravely opened the discussion with a hearty no. He does not envision God who we can control in that way or that is tuned into the minutiae of human experience to connect prayer for rain and a rain event. Part of me agreed. How presumptuous of us! If we say our prayer for rain (or sun or warmth) works, then what are we saying about the prayers of someone in weather misery or disaster?
And yet, I also was ready to argue. It has been very strange how many times I do rain rituals, rain experiments or rain text studies and the next thing I know, it is raining. From rain dripping on a podium in front of me after acknowledging Miriam as one who found water for the People of Israel in the desert to a deluge following study of Jewish water rituals, time and again there seems to be these strange coincidences. I never felt like I was actually causing the rain to follow, but it has happened enough to where there are people who start to wonder about water prayers/rituals and me.
We ended up having an amazing and thought provoking discussion. I had to run out just as lunch was finishing up and did not think more about it until my phone rang a couple of hours later. Our host was calling. Even though the chance of rain in the forecast that day was low, wouldn’t you know, it was pouring at his house! The first thought was to call Reverend Alexander to razz him. See what an “I told you so” moment. Two things hit me at once. First, did I really think we caused the rain? It is funny to think so but hubris to believe it. Second, in making it an “I told you so” moment, I would be undermining the power of our lunch together. The whole reason for sitting down in discussion, to wrestle with our beliefs, our thoughts and our ideas is to grow in understanding and fellowship. We might disagree, but in learning from and about each other we create the bonds that truly bring peace and holiness into our world. Ultimately the whole discussion was not whether prayer has power over God and weather, but rather how can we all be responsive and responsible for cycles on nature. If we can keep challenging and discussing with each other and keep laughing together we build relationships and communities. With these connections, we will be in a stronger position to respond to drought and loss or appreciate rain and bounty that might come our way.
Keeping holy in Holidays
I am in the middle of a war and I am not sure which side I am on. At times I am on one side. At others I am fighting for the opposition. In other moments, I feel like a noncombatant caught in the middle. The war in question is the “war on Christmas” and now as the holidays fade and the new year takes hold I am starting get a handle why this war is a mess. There are lots of battles in this war and lots of parties involved.
First, I will admit there are times when I am in the opposition as people talk about a “War on Christmas.” I am one of those folks who do question the need for Christmas displays in public spaces and Christmas activities in public schools. I would prefer that people in stores say “happy holidays” because I am very aware that there are others, like myself who don’t celebrate Christmas. It is a reality of wrestling with religion in public sphere. None of us should be uncomfortable expressing our religion in the world. Yet, in our country, which embraces diversity, and a Constitution that protects it, we cannot use government space-public schools, city halls, civic meetings, tax dollars to carry out a particular religious story. This plurality creates boundaries and limits to our individual expression so that folks don’t feel marginalized or devalued. While I voice this opposition I would also powerfully declare that none of these perspectives actually takes “Christ” out of Christmas. My not celebrating Christmas and being part of a diverse pluralistic society is going to have an effect on Christmas observances, but this should not diminish the holiday for you. Are there really not enough churches and private homes with nativity scenes or Christmas trees, that if there isn’t one in a school or city hall or the State Capitol that the sacred story and values of Christmas are suddenly going to disappear? People of other faith communities, cultures, who say not every public space, greeting has to be laced with one particular one are not trying to take down Christmas. We just don’t to be marginalized or demeaned. Our holidays/sacred times are just as valuable and meaningful to us. Diversity, awareness and respect for the other just makes us stronger.
There is a threat to the holidays, but not just to Christmas. When shopping and football, decorations and eggnog (or latkes for that matter) dominate the discourse something is off. The rituals that should be helping us tell our sacred stories, helping us bring values of caring, generosity, sharing light and dignity into our world have become the ends in themselves. When we spend more time shopping than caring for someone in need or more energy on football games than visiting with family and friends, our actions and intentions are out of sync. The consumerism and immediate gratification/superficial habits of our culture undermine our skills and opportunities to use the rituals of these holidays to tell sacred stories and live out the values they embody. We do fun stuff, eat good food, escape, hang out, get good deals on all sorts of clothes, jewelry and gadgets, but is this really bringing something sacred and powerful into the world?
It isn’t just “Christ and Christmas”, it is rededication and Chanukah, light and Chinese New Year, heritage and Kwanza, care for humans and Humanism. Whatever the story we may tell, we have to make sure we live it out. In this season we have to take care to connect our actions to the tradition and values of these sacred stories.
We have to be careful when we declare war. This is an important reminder about choosing our battles. There are times when, instead of conflict, we actually need dialogue with our opposition to make us all more aware and stronger. Then in turn, we can all work together to challenge and change the habits and attitudes that diminish us all.