Saturday, February 11, 2017

At Touro Synagogue February 11, 2017

At Touro Synagogue February 11, 2017
Houses are made of trees
by Aaron Ginsburg

It was a snowy weekend in Newport.

The inside of Touro Synagogue has been scraped in preparation for painting. It reminded co-president Dr. Naftali Sabo about the tradition of not finishing a building, to remind us about the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, literally, "The Sanctified House,” the Temple in Jerusalem.  

This is an ancient custom, from the Talmud, Baba Batra 60b, “Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: ‘My children, come, and I will tell you how we should act. To not mourn at all is impossible, as the decree was already issued and the Temple has been destroyed. But to mourn excessively as you are doing is also impossible, as the Sages do not issue a decree upon the public unless a majority of the public is able to abide by it, as it is written: ‘You are cursed with the curse, yet you rob Me, even this whole nation’ (Malachi 3:9), indicating that the prophet rebukes the people for neglecting observances only if they were accepted by the whole nation.’ ”

Rabbi Yehoshua continues: “Rather, this is what the Sages said: ‘A person may plaster his house with plaster, but he must leave over a small amount in it without plaster to remember the destruction of the Temple.’ ” source: The Davidson Talmud at  

This was a prohibition against excessively mourning the Temple’s destruction. We need to be careful, lest excessive mourning prevents us from building our houses.

Rabbi Marc Mandel said,  “Today is the 15th of Shevat, Tu B’shvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. In recent years, this holiday had been reclaimed as we all become more in tune with environmental issues such as climate change and global warming.

“Tu B’shvat, the winter holiday, when the tree sap begins to rise, has become a rallying point for environmental issues, integrating Jewish living and the natural environment.

"The point of connection between trees and Jewish tradition are rich and many. 

“When we return the Torah to the ark, we sing, from the third chapter of proverbs, עֵץ-חַיִּים הִיא, לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ;    וְתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר.-'It is a tree of life for those who grab on to it; happy are all that hold fast onto it.’

“In Parashat Shoftim, Sefer Dvarim 20:19, it says, כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה, ‘For a human being is like the tree in a field.’

“Using these kinds of metaphors in the Torah indicates that the Jewish religion is concerned about the environment and the possibility of global climate change.

“There are environmental halachahs about cutting down trees, and giving the land a rest, among other Jewish laws connected to the environment. Jewish traditions and customs are connected to the calendar, which tracks the seasons and the moon’s cycle and its rhythms. 

“Rabbi Eliyahu Safran from Baltimore writes that, 'Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman from Jerusalem was a Holocaust survivor, and he used to work in his garden every day. He told his students that, before the Holocaust, his teacher, Rabbi Chaim Ozer, showed him which vegetation was edible-and this saved his life when the Nazis invaded Vilna and he escaped into the forest. The trees, literately, provided for his physical existence.’

“Both trees and people are sources of blessing and potential benefit to society. Both, too often, are violently cut down. Let us hope and pray we will learn to respect human life and the natural world that surrounds us. Shabbat Shalom!”

Eti Hasadeh, A tree in the field is a poem by Natan Zack which was set to music by Shalom Chanokh. Read the moving words. The first line says it all. "For man is like a tree in the field" כי האדם עץ השדה

The builders of Touro Synagogue were planting a tree of Jewish knowledge, in a place where there were not many such trees. Cliff Guller pointed out that Touro Synagogue was literally built from trees-the columns being solid tree trunks.

In today’s parsha, Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16,  in response to complaints by the Children of Israel about bitter water, God instructed Moshe to throw a tree into the pool, which then became sweet.
וַיִּצְעַ֣ק אֶל־יְהוָ֗ה וַיּוֹרֵ֤הוּ יְהוָה֙ עֵ֔ץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ֙ אֶל־הַמַּ֔יִם וַֽיִּמְתְּק֖וּ הַמָּ֑יִם  "And he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree, and he cast it into the water, and the water became sweet." I can see Jackie Gleason heaving a tree into his swimming pool  and declaiming, “How sweet it is!”

It was appropriate that Dr. Naftali Sabo, who devotes his life to healing, should have the fourth aliyah. The aliyah ended with the words, כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה רֹפְאֶֽךָ "For I, the Lord, am your doctor." Physicians are doing God’s work.

Another tree that we can plant is a child. There are spiritual children, intellectual children, and physical children. Students are the descendants of their teachers. 

According to the Mathematics Genealogy Project, my cousin, mathematician Marvin Shinbrot, had five descendants. Marvin did a lot of classified work early in his career; he eventually had second thoughts, became an active Vietnam War opponent, and moved to Canada after losing his job at Northwestern University. He continued his career at the University of Victoria. I wonder if he would have gone to Uvic after watching this video:

Speaking of planting a tree, mazel tov to Kayla (Mandel) and Yaakov Lasson on their son’s birth. He was born Thursday morning, and is the first grandchild of Rabbi Marc and Jackie Mandel.

Houses are made of trees. @tourosynagoguenewport

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