Tag Archives: Torah

Memories and Making a Difference – Cantor Mary

15 Jan

I’m writing today from a cozy spot in the heart of Manhattan. Several times a year, I make a one or two day pilgrimage to New York City to visit my voice teacher and have a tune up, so to speak. Congregants are often surprised to learn that I still take voice lessons and are even more surprised that I remain with the same teacher after nearly 8 years, working together over skype and in person. I usually ask in response, “Do professional athletes have coaches? Do you think they have trainers?” Of course they do and so must professional singers.

I stood in Candace’s studio, just an hour or so ago, and as we started the familiar exercises, I was flooded by memories. I remember the first time I sang in this room. I remember the endless hours of frustration. I remember the successes. Those memories and feelings immediately call forward memories of the other parts of my life during those early years, the years when I spent one hour a week in that room and countless more practicing. I think of friends and school and work and commuting and dreaming about what the future might hold. Outside of the window, I notice that the sign across the street has changed, and I am back to the present.

My spot behind my teacher’s piano is one of the places where times collapses. Suddenly, all that was, was imagined, or might still come to be comes together into a single point of focus. I am, somehow, more myself and my potential self is more fully realized. These are deep memories – they are experiences that formed me and help me remember my past and to imagine my future.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his work The Sabbath that Shabbat is when we “collect, rather than dissipate time.” During the week, we dissipate time. We annihilate time as we race from one obligation to the next, focus on meeting our needs and the needs of those around us: gym, groceries, emails, meetings, deadlines, and alarm clocks.

But on Shabbat, moments are stretched longer and conversations linger. We are taught that shabbat is a mystical folding-in of all that was, is, and might come to be. Shabbat is a time when we sense the eternality of our people. When, if we stop long enough to tune-in, we feel the sanctity of lives lived before our own and lives that are yet to be. This is an awareness gained from slowing down, sitting back, and listening deeply that assures us that we are not alone, never have been, and are part of a great history past and story yet to be written. Shabbat is our collection of these moments, stacked one a top the other into a deep trove of memories and experiences.

This week’s Torah portion is Va’eira. It is both a memorable and challenging Torah portion, where the first 9 of the 10 plagues are exacted upon the Egyptians. Rabbi Dreyfus explores some of the difficulties with studying the suffering endured by the Egyptians as we went through the process of being wrested from our enslavement. I often think how much easier it would be to read this text, not as history as so many do, but as spiritual drama designed to link us viscerally to our very own story. The trials of the story, when read deeply, trigger a willing suspension of disbelief and allow us to be flooded by the memory of our people and to live our lives in such a way that our people’s history becomes our own story.

I haven’t seen Selma yet – but I will. I’ve heard that it is powerful and that the images, ideas, and events linger for hours after you’ve left the theater. Movies, music, architecture, paintings, theater – all art and everything we experience with our senses – has the power to trigger deep memories. A song may remind us of our grandmother’s hands, a smell of what it was like to feel very small, but very loved, and the feel of the pavement beneath our running shoes what it is to believe we can catalyze change. Our senses, as much as our intellect, can help us to access our deep memories and empower us to be who we are meant to be, not only who we happen to be right now. As we prepare for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, may we seek ways to access our deep memories and may we find the courage to live our own story and to help to write  the story of our people and all peoples with justice, righteousness, and holiness.

~Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

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Saving the day with creative cuisine

18 Dec

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

This week we continue to read the story of Joseph in the Torah.

Joseph interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh and he predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and then Pharaoh entrusted Joseph with the administration of Egypt’s entire harvest for seven years in order to set aside enough food to survive the famine.

Ignoring the strange question of why Pharaoh would have entrusted such a daunting task to a foreigner recently retrieved from prison, let’s look at a different question: how did Joseph accomplish his assignment from Pharaoh? How did he know how to effectively store harvests for seven years? Even in dry climates like Egypt I imagine that grain and crops would not be easy to store up for that long without them rotting or spoiling or going bad. So what secret did Joseph have to help him achieve this massive endeavor?

Joseph spent his time in prison with a baker and a wine steward. Maybe he learned some tricks of the trade from the two of them. Joseph could have learned how to make couscous, a pasta like substance that once made might be more easily preserved over the long time needed to feed an entire country during seven years of famine. And he could have learned how to brew beer from the wine steward, allowing the storing up of another source of nutrition from excess grain for a long time.

In both cases, he would have stored up knowledge that would allow him to fulfill this difficult task of running an entire empire’s food production and strategies so as to avoid the impact of the famine to come.

May we learn in these difficult times that creative thinking about our seemingly overwhelming problems has always been the hallmark of Jewish, and human, ingenuity. Working together, even discussing each other’s dreams, and then applying our know-how creatively, may be the only way out of our biggest predicaments.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Joy of the Jewish Year – Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

26 Sep

Temple Beth El, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5775, Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We are a wilderness people – our covenant was crafted at Sinai, a mountain in the desert, and our sense of peoplehood has been sculpted by years of homelessness. Most of our history has led us away from home, often as refugees.

We are a people who worry about our security.

We tell stories of our loved ones who keep bags packed, just in case. We worry if we have enough, or if we do enough – for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world.

And now, in the face of all of our concerns, I am going to ask us to do something differently. I would like us to celebrate Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, as a real holiday of joy.

Even more than that, I will suggest that this season that leads to Rosh HaShanah, and emerges from it, can be one focused on bringing more celebration into our lives.

Now, I realize that this may be a tall order. The Jewish New Year is not a typical celebration. We don’t pop any bottles of champagne, and we have no festive countdown.

In fact, our encounters with Judaism at this season of Days of Awe can seem grim. Apologies, confessions, the lifting of our vows from the past year, God as merciful ruler accepting our transgressing selves back into God’s favor after prayer and fasting – a little apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar hardly make up for all of these serious and somber themes.

And who could blame us?

Our calendar feels like we go from tragedy to tragedy – we jest that the general Jewish holiday can be described most succinctly as: “They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat.”

With all of our running and fleeing, and then thriving, we always hope, that for just a little while, we may have finally reached a place of safety. Maybe this time we won’t have to pack up our families. Maybe this time we are proven to be too nervous when we always have our passports up to date.

Let’s admit that while our tradition insists on calling this a celebration – this New Year’s Party that we have all shown up to this evening – this Rosh HaShanah – we have resisted its call to be joyful. A couple of millennia of homelessness, some truly unspeakable centuries of oppression, and then the last decades of unbelievable turnaround, about which we feel admittedly a little guilty – this history has led us to experience this holy day as darker than it was originally intended.

Embracing this Jewish journey is all about finding the little sources of joy around us. We Jewish people have been coping with our sense of permanent exile for two thousand years, during which we have created a whole year’s worth of holidays and countless daily and personal practices that are meant to offer us ways of emphasizing the rhythm between a low point and a high point. We descendants of Israel who grapple with loss on the scale of generations and continents must also figure out how to highlight the good times.

Let’s start with the basics – our lives and the world are miraculous. Jewish tradition as represented by the great Nachmanides reminds us that we must not rely on miracles in our everyday life, and we must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by the miraculous.

We are the people who notice small miracles in the littlest of things. We must be. How else could we have survived the last two thousand years with a sense of hope that things will turn out better? When we look closely at the world, we can immerse ourselves in an ocean of reasons to wonder.

To look at the world through thoughtful, Jewish eyes, is to stare with awe and gratitude, and indeed joy, at creation.

To awaken to the morning in a Jewish manner is to begin with words of thanks.

I aim to follow a rhythm of life that brings little pieces of joy into my consciousness every day. Each morning I gather our family together to sing the Hebrew words of gratitude, the song Modeh Ani, as a way of starting the day with thanks. Some days it works really well. Last week all four of us were up in time to gather together. Ginny, Jude, our seven-year-old, and I sang our morning song, and Sadie, our almost ten-month old, crawled from Ginny’s lap towards Jude and me, adding her voice to our song. We were all singing, in our own way, and definitely feeling grateful.

It was wondrous. Even though the morning still had its struggles, the memory of those moments of grace is still sustaining a week later.

Many of you may have noticed that I share my regular runs via social media.

Let me tell you, I do not have an easy time dragging myself out for a run in the morning: no matter how good it is for me, no matter how much better I will feel about life, the universe, and everything, afterwards.

So I make sure that I get my mind into a grateful place when I am done. I am grateful that I managed to do it. I am grateful that Ginny took care of Sadie while I was gone. And then I am grateful no matter what my times and distances were. Maybe I was supposed to run ten miles and I only had time for six – doesn’t matter! I got to run, and that was a blessing, even a source of joy.

All of this reminds us that Jewish traditions ask us to act in a way that we may not feel, so as to create the emotion we hope to have. Judaism recognizes that the mind-body connection works both ways – when we force ourselves to do something we create some momentum towards feeling differently too. Even more simply, it is a life-practice of “fake it ‘til you make it”. The system of Jewish practices, applied, experimented on, reinterpreted, and reapplied in our own lives and in our own ways aims to help us find regular moments of little joy.

Some days I can’t fake it so well. Some days I am too, whatever, and usually the ones who suffer the most are those closest to me. On those days we can take a little advice from a non-Jewish thinker, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, who talks about non-toothache days.

Non-toothache days. We must always be grateful that today is a non-toothache day.

Happiness is enjoying what we have.

We try to see the small miracle even when a whole host of things cloud our vision of the wonder of the normal.

As we find our own ways to acknowledge and celebrate all of those daily blessings, so we can find high points in our weeks and seasons.

We are a people who come together regularly to enjoy a good nosh, and a little prayer service.

Every week we have an excuse to create “delight” – to practice Shabbat is to remember to find some joy at least once a week. Think of Shabbat as a reminder that if the week has dragged us down, sapped our “fake it ‘til we make it” batteries, that we have an excuse to recharge our celebratory engines. When we accept Shabbat as an opportunity for that stop, that necessary break, then we can embrace it as joyful.

Shabbat happens when we make it happen. In our household, some weeks we get to make Shabbat at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. My break in the week happens on Thursday, or on Saturday night, or for an hour or two on a Sunday afternoon, maybe, if I’m lucky during a Panthers game.

Find a time, make Shabbat – when we can.

It definitely works better when we do it with our family and with our community at the time when we all try to make Shabbat.

Let’s aim to find the time, once a week, to inject a little “delight” into our lives, and take a break from the normal.

Now, this may come as a surprise to us all – our traditions teach us that the joy in the observance counts more than the observance itself.

Really – joy counts more than the details.

In Deuteronomy we find words that seem to say the opposite:

(Deut. 27:26)

Cursed be the one that does not fulfill the words of this Torah, to observe them!

From this, we could get the idea that observance is all that counts. And yet here is a Hasidic teaching about this very verse in Deuteronomy.

[From Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume 2, pp. 128-129]

Fulfilling all of the commandments, which the Torah seems to say we must do in order to avoid getting cursed, only seems like an impossible task. First, everyone knows that no one can fulfill all of the commandments. The Hasidic teaching goes further, and says that each commandment can be viewed as containing all of the commandments.

So, if this teaching is true, then why does the Torah read that we get cursed for not fulfilling all of them? The Torah can’t have an extraneous teaching. The curse is there to remind us that joy is the key to fulfilling the commandments – to achieve one commandment that fulfills all of them, we must start with joy.

The teaching continues:

“’Prayer without inner direction is like a body without a soul.’ The letters of Torah and prayer, as well as the fulfilled commandment, are all the body; the soul is the inner direction and the joyous thought we have in doing God’s will.”

All of the commandments are separate when we do them physically – when we do a commandment with a joyous thought all the commandments become united. This is why later on in Deuteronomy it reads that we will be cursed:

(Deut. 28:47) because you did not serve Adonai your God in joy and in good-feeling of heart out of the abundance of everything.

Don’t worry about the details of the commandments for Shabbat. Find a place and time to do a bit of Shabbat with joy.

We are a people with a lot of holidays.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld writes about the journey through our holiday year:

“…the key to a successful journey is not reaching the promised destination, but rather being aware of every moment on the journey. To be successful [we] need to rejoice, to travel with simcha, ‘joy’.”

We are not a people who arrive at final destinations, we are a people who journey.

As we plot our course through our holy days we also do not reach an ending place.

There are at least four different new years – Rosh HaShanah, the celebration of the creation of the world; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the Torah; Tu biShvat, the New Year of the trees; and the first of Nisan, the first month of the year, the month of Passover, when the natural world is renewed in Spring.

With all these festival beginnings we have many starts, and no finishes!

Regularly, people say to me, “You Jewish people – what’s with all the holidays?”

I need to start responding: “You bet – we are a people who love to have an excuse to have a celebration. These holidays are reminders to bring joy into our everyday lives every month of the year.”

We celebrate AND we apologize.

We take a full month before Rosh HaShanah to work on repenting. What’s the connection between apologies and a New Year celebration?

Our son Jude once asked: “Why don’t people apologize? It makes it stop hurting.”

Apologies clear the way for celebrating.

When we apologize, when we make amends, we put down the burden of needing to know everything, of being in control.

When the High Holy Day season asks us to do tshuvah, to make amends, we can let go of the burden of having done wrong, once we apologize, make it right, then rejoice in the liberation from it.

We didn’t know better, we didn’t mean it, we thought it would be better, we didn’t think enough, we’re doing what we can to make it better, forgive me, now let’s have a Happy New Year.

This celebration that we arrive at may not be stereotypical – we may not find the joy that we see depicted in a movie or an advertisement. Joy happens amid all the other things going on – we find it on the upside of our rhythms. We must have non-joy in order to fully experience joy. We must notice and celebrate the difference in order to fully celebrate at all.

This means finding some authentic joy, not manufacturing it. This won’t be Madison Avenue’s joy. It’s our own thing: personal joy from self-knowledge and self-exploration, which we found by clearing the way with apologies.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that the worst thing we can do, is to worry too much about our mistakes. Too much guilt keeps us far from God. Apologies act as a release valve for the guilt. In joy and wholeness, we fully feel God’s Presence, the miraculous nature of our existence. As long as we are at war with ourselves, we have no room in us to make a dwelling place for God. The main focus is on loving God, sharing that love with God’s creatures, doing it through joy and celebration of life.

[Arthur Green, Ehyeh, A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, p. 125]

Our God and God of all ages, please be mindful of Your People Israel on this Day of Remembrance, and renew in us love and compassion, goodness, life, joy, and peace.

This day remember us for well-being.

This day bless us with Your nearness.

This day help us to live, and live with joy and celebration.

Let us join together in joy for this New Year.

Celebrate more, and find ways to do it that are more authentically us.

Tashlich 5775-2014 Shofar Laughter

Tashlich at Freedom Park with Temple Beth El – thanks to Ginny Reel-Freirich for the photo!

Gems in the Torah – for Charlotte Pride

12 Aug

Gems in the Torah, by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Message for Interfaith Worship Service “Treasured Jewels, Reflections of the Divine”

Sunday, August 10, 4:00 PM, Caldwell Presbyterian Church

Some comments inspired by Deuteronomy, Chapter 4:15-19a:

“Now keep close watch over your selves – for you did not see any image on the day that God spoke to you at Horev from the midst of the fire –  lest you wreak-ruin by making yourselves a carved form of any figure, the pattern of male or female, the pattern of any animal that is on earth, the pattern of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the pattern of any crawling-thing on the soil, the pattern of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth or lest you lift up your eyes toward the heavens and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the forces of the heavens, and be lured-away to bow down yourselves to them and worship them…”

These verses, from the Torah reading yesterday [Saturday, August 9], warn us against idolatry.

“Oh yawn rabbi, more about idolatry – really, who is worried about praying to statues?” I can hear you all thinking that, and why not? What possible relevance could this ancient prohibition of Judaism, one enthusiastically included in Christianity  through the Ten Commandments, have for us today, as we celebrate the opening of Pride?

We do still suffer in the throes of idol-worship. Only our idols are far more sinister and subtle now than ever. Body-image, gender-image, heterosexism, and homophobia – these are forms of idolatry. They take a graven image, usually one air-brushed, or unrealistically depicted without nuance, or one constructed out of fear of the beauty of diversity and complexity in humanity, and hold it up as one we should all aim for.

Let us not “wreak-ruin” upon ourselves by holding up any carved form in the pattern of male or female as one that we must all universally adhere to!

We must instead embrace the idea of God from these verses as beyond depiction. We must remember the poetry of identifying our humanity as a reflection of that form that cannot be described, that infinite within each of us, and burst open those graven images and instead see in each other the jeweled facets of holiness, the depth and beauty of something that can never be captured in a piece of sculpture, art, or photograph. We cannot be contained in a graven image.

When we gaze upon our selves and each other with reverence, seeing in one another the beauty that comes from a reflection of God’s infinite diversity, we get to stand in awe of our shared humanity. In doing this we fulfill another sparkling jewel of wisdom from yesterday’s scriptural reading:

Deut. 4:29 “But when you seek Adonai your God from there, you will find God, if you search for God with all your heart and with all your being.”

A key aspect to avoiding the pitfalls of idolatry is to avoid complacency – we must continue to seek with all our hearts and all our beings. When we don’t understand someone, when we are frustrated by someone’s actions, when we feel hurt or wronged, yes, we must stand up for justice, and even more, we must seek in the object of our difficulty for their humanity. When we go beyond the conflict and connect on the grounds of our infinitely varied humanity, we offer others that opportunity too.

In this we see that seeking that divine spark within all people, within even all things, gives us this opportunity to overcome the complacency of idolatry, that thinking that says, “I know what I need to know.” Let us accept that our knowledge can always be expanded so that we can continually search for greater insights into the people around us.

One more shining thought from this biblical selection. Moses reminded the People of Israel that:

Deut. 5:2-3 “Our God cut with us a covenant at Horev/Sinai. Not with our ancestors did God cut this covenant, but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us (that are) alive!”

We are all responsible for upholding the good teachings of our multitude of teachers.

We are all part of a contract between us and creation – to see deeply into our surroundings and celebrate the facets of the divine in everyone and everything.

Each of us contributes, and each of us plays a part.

As we celebrate our Queen City’s Pride this year, the crown jewel of Charlotte, shine up the faces of our gems, share them with each other, and take moments to notice even the diamonds in the rough.

We all get to shimmer together with Pride.

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Image source: http://www.earthstreasury.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/FB-6413-3.jpg

Summertime Judaism

26 Jun

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

A quick look back on the last week at Temple Beth El tells you just how vibrant our Jewish community is (apologies to any events that I missed):

– We had our weekly events – Shabbat evening and morning – including two B’nei Mitzvah, Anniversary Blessings, Torah Study, FIJI Class, and Tot Shabbat too!

– We celebrated: two baby-namings and a same-sex marriage ceremony.

– We mourned our losses and comforted our mourners with two shiva minyanim and a memorial service.

– We had some intriguing conversations about tattoos, organ donation, marijuana, the novel The Golem and the Jinni, Taste of Judaism, The Porch Torah, and even Talmud, in a myriad of locales including the Temple Beth El building, at The Village Tavern, Whole Foods, and at the Bechtler Museum Cafe.

– We ate together at a SPICE Potluck on Shabbat, and shopped together at our Attic Sale.

– Our Annual Congregational Trip to Israel returned with Rabbi Judy – everyone had an amazing and meaningful adventure, and four kids became Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

– And even though it is summer, B’nei Mitzvah preparations continue with a full schedule of training for our soon to be Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.

I hear that other Jewish communities slow down in the summer.

I feel so honored and blessed to be part of our Temple Beth El family, to be all together so often for important times and moments of thoughtful discussion.

Looking forward to a great summer!

Check out the next book we will read for our August Book Club, or enjoy the last – links below:

Next book for August 3, 11:00 AM:

But Where is the Lamb?

Last book, a fun summer read:

The Golem and the Jinni

Kindling our hearts

6 Jun

This Shabbat we read about the lighting of the menorah in the Tabernacle, an obligation that we all have to bring light into our homes, here’s a quick meditation inspired by that and an anonymous 13th Century text, see Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah, p. 119 for the source text:

When we pray on our own we aim for unity with all,
we kindle the fire on the altar of our hearts.
By concentrating our thoughts, we unify our feelings,
our principles, our hopes, our dreams,
until they are drawn to the source of the infinitely sublime flame.
Here lies the secret of unifying which we perform in prayer,
raising up our ideas, like an elevating offering, towards one source.
In praise and in thanks
we draw ourselves nearer to the spark that ignites all.

www-eroglamour-com-1-fire-in-the-shape-of-a-heart2

Image source:

Awe, gratitude, and the Wilderness

24 May

A reading for Shabbat B’midbar – the Sabbath of the reading of the first section of the Book of Numbers:

In the desert simmered a small miracle,

a bush that burned and was not consumed.

The prophet was moved by awe,

and removed sandals going barefoot.

When the noises of our minds settle,

and we notice the wonders of the world,

when our eyes clear so that we can see,

and focus on the sparks in all creation,

then our hearts may expand in thanks,

and our breath speak words of praise.

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Image Source: