Tuesday, December 27, 2016

At Touro Synagogue December 24, 2016

At Touro Synagogue December 24, 2016

It's just a coincidence!
by Aaron Ginsburg

On Saturday the lone visitor at services was a young man from New York. He is a living symbol of the Jewish journey. His mother is Moroccan and Sephardic. His father is Polish. They settled in Venezuela. The young man grew up in Miami, went to school in Chicago, and got a job in New York. There are still relatives in the old country (Venezuela).

Rabbi Marc Mandel devoted his sermon to the coincidental timing of Hanukah with Christmas.

“Chanukah begins this evening in just a few hours. You probably remember a few years ago when Chanukah fell out on Thanksgiving. Now it's falling out on December 24 the same time that Christmas falls out. Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a teacher at Yeshiva University and he used to be a rabbi in Oceanside, New York. He was contacted by the newspaper USA Today. They asked him, “Is there a message Implicit in the major faiths celebrating the religious traditions at the very same time?” 

This evening, as Christians and Jews share a major moment for spiritual  reflection, what message can there be for us? Rabbi Blech said, “Jews differ with Christians on many points of theology. We do not agree on crucial issues, on the identity of G-d and the idea of the Messiah. But we do agree that we are bound by a commitment to morality into a life of meaning and purpose.” 

During the time of Chanukah, Hellenism preached that life has no purpose-the only thing to do is to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you will die.

This year, Christians and Jews can mutually celebrate life's meaning and purpose and may we all come together to brighten the world and to create a better and more complete planet. Shabbat Shalom!”

On aish.com Rabbi Blech continued the focus on meaning rather than miracle, “What was at stake in the story of Hanukkah was the survival of the very idea of holiness. Judaism taught that the purpose of life is that life must have a purpose.”

In this analysis Greek culture doesn’t look good. That might be because it was a very appealing rival. Greece not only meant its mythology of gods acting like people, but also literature, science, philosophy and an interest in history. Of course, this was a two-way street. While some Greeks admired the people of the book, others realized that Israel’s approach to life had an appeal and portrayed Judaism very negatively.

What is a coincidence?  According to Google It’s “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.”

Humans have a need to find a pattern. A coincidence is a situation where we can’t discern the pattern. In the Torah, there are no coincidences. If there is no obvious reason for an event, the Almighty must have a message for us. The wisdom of Judaism is its ability to use the message to teach us how to live a purposeful life.

In today’s parsha, Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23, Joseph is imprisoned because of his loyalty to his faith and his employer. Rabbi Ron Fish of Temple Israel, Sharon, Ma compared Joseph’s avoidance of temptations to the story of Chanukah, which is about avoiding the temptations of Hellenism.

While in prison, Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and his cupbearer. After telling the cupbearer he will be freed, Joseph asks him, “Think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place.”  But, “The cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.” There is nothing unusual about a lack of gratitude, but in the Torah nothing happens without a reason. Was Joseph being punished for asking the cupbearer for help rather than trusting in G-d?

Pharaoh had a dream, and the cupbearer remembered Joseph’s ability to interpret. And so began Joseph’s meteoric rise from prisoner to vizier. Was Pharaoh’s dream a coincidence, or a miracle?  

Rabbi Mandel said the Haftarah, Amos 2:6 - 3:8, is the only totally negative haftarah. It has no words of comfort.  

After chastising Israel for its sins, Amos continues, “When a ram’s horn is sounded in a town, Do the people not take alarm? Can misfortune come to a town If the Lord has not caused it? Indeed, my Lord G-d does nothing Without having revealed His purpose To His servants the prophets. A lion has roared, Who can but fear? My Lord G-d has spoken, Who can but prophesy?” 

In the haftarah every event has a cause. The prophet Amos speaks because G-d has spoken. There are no coincidences. 

And what of the miracles of Chanukah?  When my uncle Arthur Green, z.l., was at Harvard (class of 1922), he wrote a short essay about the real miracle of Hanukah. “The miracle was not,” he wrote, “that the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, or that the pure oil was found, or that the oil lasted for eight days. The miracle is that we still celebrate Chanukah.” 

Shabbat Shalom and a Fraylichen Chanukah @tourosynagogue @newportri

Monday, December 19, 2016

At Touro Synagogue December 17,2016

At Touro Synagogue December 17,2016 
Do not walk alone
by Aaron Ginsburg

It should have been lonely at Touro Synagogue on Saturday. After a very cold Friday the weather was transitioning from snow to rain. Many of our regulars were away. But we were not alone.

Mitchell Trestman from Baltimore led the second part of Shacharit and Reuven Epstein from Monsey, NY read the haftarah, which included visits to France and Spain. Although we did not learn much about France and Spain, on Sunday we learned about Cuba thanks to Chuck and Karen Flippo.

Chaim Weiss from Netanya, Israel led a lyrical Mussaf. The kedushah was sung to the tune of “Memory” from the musical Cats:   The lyrics, “Memory, All alone in the moonlight,” echoed Rabbi Marc Mandel’s words of Torah. 

“The talmud tells us that we should learn life lessons from our ancestors, “Maaseh avot siman lebanim [The deeds of the fathers are a signpost for the children].” What can we learn from Jacob?
In this week’s parsha, Vayishlach [Genesis 32:4 - 36:43], we read about wrestling with someone-it's not clear with whom. Jacob was injured in this wrestling match: the torah tells us that a prelude to this wrestling was that Jacob was by himself. He was all alone. The Talmud teaches us that we should learn from Jacob not to walk alone at night. We should not take  unnecessary risks. 

Furthermore the Talmud tells us Jacob was alone because he went back to Lavan's house because he forgot some items: how many risks was Jacob taking? He put his life in danger for a couple of insignificant items. Do we sometimes live dangerously? Do we make foolish decisions that could cause us harm?

Another message is, we shouldn't make decisions alone-we should consult with others before we make decisions.

There is much we can learn from Jacob.  Let us take these lessons to heart-Shabbat shalom.”

On Sunday morning a well attended minyan was followed by a narrated slide show about a trip to Cuba by Chuck andKaren Flippo. Karen began with a quiz to test our knowledge about Cuba. I noticed Rabbi Mandel listening intently. I suspect a pre-sermon quiz on our Jewish knowledge is in the offing.  

The Flippos visited Jewish communities in Havana and in Trinidad, Cuba. At the home of the leader of the Trinidad Jewish congregation, where services are held, Karen noticed a decorative dreidel from the Touro Synagogue gift shop on the shelves. Rita Slom confirmed that she had presented the dreidel during her visit! The dreidel reminds us that Touro Synagogue was dedicated during Hanukah, 1763, and symbolizes the dedication of the Jews of Cuba, who are truly a remnant of Israel, 
שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל. Most Cuban Jews left when Castro took power. 

Cuba is a mix of the new and the old. The American boycott has had a great impact. The many cars from the 1950s have become taxis. Karen was thrilled by a ride in a Chevrolet Bel Air, circa 1957. The taxi ride rekindled memories of trips with her family in their Chevy Bel Air.
go to slide show

Monday, December 12, 2016

At Touro Synagogue December 10, 2016

At Touro Synagogue December 10, 2016

Stealing, Lying, and Cover-ups
by Aaron Ginsburg

It was another quiet weekend in Newport. Several people were away. Fortunately, we had a minyan for the Amidah. 

Rabbi Marc Mandel’s sermon covered a wide range of things, including Time magazine, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, honesty in the work place, conflicts of interest, and intellectual property rights. 

Parashat Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3, takes place in a world where people cheat, lie, cover-up their deeds, and don’t face up to conflicts of interest.  The parsha’s dramatis personae play their roles in a world that is very real, and not much different from today’s world. Our Talmud sages tried to put the best face on things with some half-hearted damage control. As a patriarch, Yaakov got an upgrade! And that’s not much different from the way we handle things today.

Rabbi Mandel began by holding up the cover of Time Magazine. Actually he didn’t, but he should have.  It’s always good to have a prop to grab the audience’s attention.  The Rabbi used his words effectively,  

“Each year Time magazine picks a person of the year. Here’s a trivia question: Does anyone remember last year's person of the year? It was Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany.

This year it was Donald Trump. As Trump transitions into the presidency, many people are wondering  how is he going to separate his business interests from being the president?

Will he be able to distinguish between his personal interests and the interests of the country? This question is very relevant to this week's Parsha. 

In this week's Parsha,  Lavan accuses Yaakov of exactly that-Lavan tells Yaakov, “You were supposed to be working for me, but instead you made your own personal fortune!”

Yaakov is astounded by this accusation-he says, “I worked for you for twenty years-day and night and I barely slept- and now you accuse me of stealing from you?” 

And Lavan does not cave in. He tells Yaakov, “Everything you have is mine and you are a thief.”

Radically different ideas about who is right and who is wrong. The Rambam teaches us that we have to live our lives like Yaakov, and he calls Yaakov a Tzadik because he worked so hard for Lavan with complete honesty. Maimonides writes that that’s what the Torah obligates us to do-to work as hard as you can and to be honest at work.

It would appear that there's a lot of stealing going on in these Torah readings. Last week we had the episode of the Blessings and how Yaakov disguised himself. This week, Rachel steals her father’s idols and Yaakov is accused of stealing Laban’s sheep: sometimes it’s not clear if it is stealing or not. 

Like today with the internet there are file sharing websites where you can get books and movies-for no money. Is it stealing-it appears to be-but there are those who say, “All I did was download a file that is there for the taking.”

Thomas Jefferson said, “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” That’s actually a Jewish idea.-The passage in Tehilim (Psalm 119, verse 160) says, “רֹאשׁ דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת (The Beginning of G-d’s word is Truth.).” The Talmud, in Kiddushin 31a, asks, “Is only the beginning of G-d’s word truth? What about the end?”  And the Talmud says, “Of course, when you see the whole picture then you can see it was true all the way through.” Let us strive for complete truth and honesty, let us try to be like Yaakov Hatzadik in our endeavors.”

And if that fails, may our damage control efforts be successful without causing too much additional damage!

@tourosynagogue @discovernewportri

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

At Touro Synagogue December 3, 2016

At Touro Synagogue December 3,  2016
Twins and Trauma

by Aaron Ginsburg

Twas Parashat Toldot, and all through the shul,
Not a tourist was present, it was far from full.
We davened with speed, it sure was a breeze.
We were done by eleven with the greatest of ease.

The Parsha, Genesis 25:19 - 28:9, was about Isaac and his family, and begins, “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.”

Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau were rivals in the womb of their mother Rebecca. Rabbi Marc Mandel told us that Yaakov and Esau were engaged in a war of ideas, “Even before they were born Yaakov wanted to be closer the Beit Midrash and Esau wanted to be closer to idol worship.”

That is interpretation of course; the Torah says it more obliquely, “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.”

Another interpretation is that the twins represent the two sides of a person. It is up to us to reconcile those tendencies, hopefully for good and for happiness.

One of the striking stories in the Parsha is how, with his mother’s help, Jacob pretended he was Esau by covering himself in skins to emulate Esau’s hair and received the blessing that should have been Esau’s, as the first born.The parsha states, "Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see." It seems a little far fetched.  Rashi must have realized this, and helpfully tells us that Isaac was traumetized for life by the Akedah, his binding before G-d prohibited Abraham from sacrificing him. This would explain his poor vision, and why he was a bookworm, not a hunter. 

Speaking of trauma, David Strachman commiserated with people suffering from Trump Trauma.  Some people were depressed by the outcome of the election. Now there is a name for the condition. I am happy to report that people have started to recover, although there always a possibility of a relapse. This can be averted by not watching and by not listening to the news, and by never reading the newspaper.

Once after a cold I had a persistent cough. I finally caved in and went to see my doctor, David Faling. He heard me out, listened with his stethoscope, and calmly told me I had a post-viral catarrh.  I was shocked to have such an elegant sounding diagnosis, and stopped coughing immediately.

Isaac was the only one of the Patriarchs who stayed in the land of Israel. 

Rabbi Mandel talked about  how we could help people In Israel who suffered in the recent fires. He observed that there was nothing new about pyro-terrorism. “… in this weeks Parsha, he said,”Yitzchak builds wells for water and the Philistines cover them up with dirt.”  Eventually, with the help of G-d, Isaac and Abimelech, king of the Philistines, made a treaty. 

Rabbi Mandel said, “Our synagogue has deep ties to Israel. Naomi Herstoff, daughter of Dr. James and Debbi Herstoff lives there-Yoni and Sasha Weiss children of Rabbi Loel and Patty live there. Rabbi Lewis z"l and Rabbi Katz z"l both moved there.”

Let’s hope, that with our-and G-d’s help, Israel will be secure and live peacefully with its neighbors, and that you will be spared a post-viral catarrh.