Today is April 24, 2018 -

Congregation Beth Israel

A spiritual oasis for the Jewish community

Riverwalk - 360 Merrimack Street
Building 5, 3rd Floor
Lawrence, MA 01843-1740

(978) 474-0540

The Rabbi’s Column

Dear Congregants and Friends ~

If one comes to Judaism seeking and expecting simple, straightforward answers to life’s complex questions, one is likely to be disappointed, frustrated, or perhaps both.

Why do I say this? Because our Tradition is far more comfortable responding to a question with either another question or several possible answers, often leaving it to the questioner to decide which answer is the right or most appropriate one. In the words of a former respected Dean of The Jewish Theological Seminary, “Judaism speaks stereophonically and not monaurally.”

For example, Tractate Berachot of the Talmud, which Tractate deals with the subject of prayer, asks, “[W] hat is the appropriate way for one to recite the daily Amidah prayer?” One rabbi responds that one should recite the entire prayer, word for word, each and every time s/he prays it. A second rabbi takes a more lenient approach, arguing that how much of the prayer one recites should depend on the worshipper’s fluency, and a third rabbi goes even further, taking an approach diametrically opposite from the first, claiming that making prayer keva, or fixed, undermines the purpose of prayer, intimating that the Amidah should be said somewhat differently each time one recites it.

Why does our Tradition generally offer more than one answer or another question to a question? It is because Judaism, being the wise and venerable religion that it is, came to appreciate some 2 millennia ago, that life is complicated, and that there is often more than one rational and acceptable answer for a question. It is for this reason that we have two of the greatest rabbis of the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai, rarely agreeing on any issue, but both, at the same time, according to the Talmud, “speaking the word of God.”

We are currently reading in the Torah from the Book of Leviticus, which goes into great detail about the rules surrounding animal sacrifice, which the Book deems to be the primary way we Jews atone for our sins, show gratitude to God, etc. Just several centuries later, however, the Prophets take a totally different approach, writing that it is the ethical mitzvot—how we treat our fellow human beings, especially the poor and disadvantaged—not animal sacrifice, that is important to God; and after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., moreover, the Rabbis taught that prayer and performing acts of lovingkindness, not animal sacrifice, are the ways that God wants for us to atone for our sins and to show gratitude to God.

We see these same inconsistencies and tensions existing in the Holiday of Passover. While Moses, more than any human being, is given credit for the Exodus from Egypt, and our People’s eventually making it to the Holy Land, his name is not even mentioned in the Passover Haggadah. Why? Because according to the rabbis and sages, the writers of the Haggadah wanted to make sure that we Jews knew and appreciated that the Exodus story and the Jewish People’s becoming a free and sovereign nation would not have happened but for the will, power, and grace of God.

On Passover, we revel and sing about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the destruction of Pharoah’s army and charioteers. Yet, at the same time, our Tradition offers a powerful midrash, in which God chastises the angels for celebrating these same events, saying to them, “My creations are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!” One of the reasons [again, there is almost always more than one reason or explanation for any custom in Judaism] for the custom of dipping our fingers in wine, while we are enumerating the plagues during the seder, is that wine is a sign of rejoicing and, consistent with the above midrash, we do not want to appear to be too joyful over the misery and deaths of even our adversaries, for they, too, are children of God.

Recognizing that life is complicated, that “to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” and that we should thus be open to a variety of ideas, answers, and opinions, when we have a question or concern, will make us, individually and as a community, far better able to understand God’s will and truth and to make the best decisions for ourselves and our synagogue community.

The wisdom of this teaching was beautifully brought out at the two recent congregational meetings, at which the ideas and opinions of our synagogue community were solicited on a number of important matters involving the synagogue. Kol HaKavod [“A job well done”] to those organizing and leading the meeting and to the many congregants, who took time from their busy schedules to attend and to share their wisdom and ideas.

Wishing Your Loved Ones and You a Zizzen Pesach!
Rabbi Howard Mandell