Friday, October 16, 2020

In The Beginning God Created Carrots

In The Beginning God Created Carrrots
At Jewish Newport

October 16, 2020

By Aaron Ginsburg

Thank you to Rabbi Marc Mandel, Beth Ginsburg Levine and Vicki Kaplan

Also at

Let’s start at the beginning! It sounds simple. But in Judaism everything is open to questions.  

Today we read parshat Bereishit, beginning our year long cycle of weekly Torah readings. In his dvar, Rabbi Marc Mandel of Newport’s Touro Synagogue fills us in:

“As we begin to read the Torah from the beginning, Rashi asks, ‘Why does the Torah begin with the story of creation? The Torah is a book of Mitzvot, and should begin with the Mitzvot.’ The Ramban disagrees, and says that, ‘It is vital to begin with the creation story, because it forms an important part of our outlook on life.’

We are not accidents. We are part of a larger plan of God, and we must partner with God in maintaining this world. Indeed, as we humans face major challenges of climate change and social disunity, we must begin with doing our share to repair God's world. That is our mandate and the time is now!”

In Judaism, it is not clear who has the last word. So, Mr. Rambam, I will put in my five cents. 

If the Torah starts with creation, it is because it sells. Just look at today. DNA test kits and  genealogy software are big business. TV shows are devoted to who you think you are. We are fascinated with every scrap of science news about the origins of life, about the origin of the universe, and the evolution of hominids. There is a drumbeat of news about historic discoveries, be it in Egypt, the Vikings, the Romans, and across the globe. 

Clearly there is a wide interest in origins. Starting the Torah with creation addresses that interest, and draws the reader in. Why not take the opportunity to throw in a few commandments, even 613, at no extra charge?

But do our origins really matter? 

When the playwright Anton Checkov was asked about the meaning of life, he retorted, “That’s like asking me what is the meaning of a carrot? A carrot is a carrot, and that is all there is to it.” 

Chekov was warning us about being obsessed with the latest discoveries and philosophical debates and the use of “science” to justify our beliefs. Living in late 19th century Russia, Chekov was aware of the obsessive discussions of opponents of the Tsarist regime that led to fanatacism.  

In1863, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote “What is to be done?” which emphasized the duty of intellectuals to educate and lead the Russian masses, and encouraged idealism, asceticism, and fanaticism. The book was inspiring and persuasive with a logical and scientific veneer. How could it be wrong? The book was so inflammatory that both Fyodor Dosteyevsky and Lev Tolstoy wrote responses. It inspired Russian radicals, particularly Vladimir Lenin.

Judaism doesn’t discourage our interest in our origins nor does it oppose science, but it is sensitive to the misuse of science and dubious about basing ethics on science.

Judaism is concerned with how to be a mensch. We are encouraged to be leaders by setting an example. Russsian radicalism took a different approach to leadership, my way or the highway. 

May your life and your carrots be meaningful sans fanaticism! 

Carrot (and squash) fanatics should beware of carotenemia(orange skin)! 

Shabbat Shalom from Jewish Newport!

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Willow and the Compost Heap

The Willow and the Compost Heap

At Jewish Newport

Sukkot 2020

October 9, 2020

By Aaron Ginsburg

Thank you to Rabbi Marc Mandel

Also at

Rabbi Marc Mandel of Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island shared a message with Jewish Newport,

“As the year 5781 begins, we are all feeling a sense of vulnerability. As this blog goes to press, we have reached the grim milestone of one million people who have lost their lives to the pandemic. We feel vulnerable because we can't control this invisible virus. We feel as unstable as a blade of grass or a passing cloud. But the festivals of the month of Tishrei teach us that our attitudes can help us deal with our vulnerabilities.

“Once we accept vulnerability as part of our reality, we are ready to live with it and even conquer it. With a changed attitude, we can have the confidence to position ourselves in a flimsy Sukkah and still feel secure. With faith in God, we can maintain peace of mind and serenity in our unpredictable and vulnerable world. Chag Sameach!”

In 2005 I remember rushing back to my home in Sharon, Massachusetts after visiting a friend in Amherst, MA.  I was trying to arrive in time for evening services on the first night of Sukkot. I ran so fast to shul that I was out of breath when I arrived. To my shock, the shul was empty! I was a day early. 

While walking home, an idea popped into my head on Pond St. in Sharon: a website devoted to pictures of Sukkahs. I struggled the next morning to set up a website, and then went looking for sukkahs with my Kodak digital camera. I was so nervous I only found 5 sukkahs. And so was born. 

During Hol Hamoed, I learned about many more sukkahs in Sharon, even the ones that were behind high fences. Soon I had pictures of 70 sukkahs from Sharon alone, not to mention ones from Shanghai, China and St Louis, Missouri. 

On Hashanah Rabbah that year, it snowed early in the morning, and a gust of wind blew down some of the sukkahs. I ran out after services to catch sukkahs in the snow before melting began.

This year it has also been windy, and Jeff Weizenkorn’s sukkah blew down just a few hours after he erected it, even though it was secured with concrete blocks. Jeff is handy. He went to Home Depot, got some brackets and secured the sukkah to the cement deck using TAPCON screws

Hoshanah Rabbah is Judaism’s most visceral holiday. As always in Judaism, we say a blessing before starting. A youtube video at shows benching the lulav, etrog, hadass, and aravah-palm branch, citron,  myrtle and willow.

After marching around seven times while holding the four species, we take the willow and beat it on the ground at least five times for the leaves to fall off. 

Purportedly, this is a symbolic casting off of our sins; the gate of forgiveness that opens on Rosh Hashanah closes on Hashana Rabbah. But beating the ground with a branch is so dramatic and so violent, it must have more meaning.Is it rage or frustration at the fragility of our existence?

This morning, at Hashanah Rabbah services in the Temple Israel Sharon parking lot, Brian Silver wondered if we should recycle our willows and myrtles. As if on cue, Ken Sperber collected them for his compost heap. Rabbi Ron Fish told us to save the lulav for the burning of the chametz before Passover.

May you, your sukkahs and your compost heaps be well during 5781 and beyond!