Shabbat Vayigash

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, the Joseph story builds to its dramatic conclusion. In Egypt, Joseph had risen to prominence and power and when his brothers come down to buy grain they do not recognize him. Joseph toys with them, accuses them of being spies, takes youngest brother Benjamin as a hostage and now, as the reading begins, older brother Judah approaches Joseph to offer himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead. The Hebrew word vayigash means ‘and he approached.’

One of the Rabbinic commentaries offers that as Judah stepped forward he had a strategy and a well thought out plan in mind. First, he would flatter Joseph, then reason with him. Should that fail, he would argue with Joseph, and then, if need be, physically fight for Benjamin. Only as a last resort, would Judah deploy his ultimate weapon – he would pray.

Despite what our rabbinic forebears might have taught, we moderns probably would not think of prayer as an ‘ultimate weapon’ or the most effective means to achieve a desired end. My hunch is that many if not most see in prayer something akin to ordering from Amazon, a theological request for goods, services and blessings with a much less predictable delivery schedule at that. Formal Jewish prayer does in fact partake of such supplicational religious discourse. But there is more to it than that.

There is a passage in the old Gates of Prayer, the former prayerbook of the American Reform Movement, that taught: Prayer cannot bring water to a parched field, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.” There is great truth in this formulation and in that sense, I do believe that prayer has power.

And there is yet another way to look at it. I have read that Beethoven wrote music that could not be adequately played on the instruments of his day. Beethoven’s music then was a kind of prayer. It said, “Give me instruments tomorrow on which to play the music I have written today.”

There is an impossibly steep section of the Alps called the Semmering. In 1848 they began to lay down train tracks over these mountains to connect Vienna with Venice. They built the tracks, however, long before there was a locomotive powerful enough to use them. The Semmering section of track was a kind of prayer. It said: Build me a train tomorrow to use the pathway I have laid down today.  

Prayer in the Reform tradition is also a way of putting out into the world what we might call ‘the hoped for not yet’ – that would include things like justice, equality, serenity, freedom, fulfillment and peace. And in Judaism it is a way of holding up a portrait of God’s ‘hoped for not yet’ as well - for the world and for ourselves. Prayer understood in this way serves as a powerful reminder to act in such a way to help bring that ‘hoped for not yet’ into being.

Which I suppose was the thought behind another great passage in the Gates of Prayer: Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you. 

Shabbat shalom.

Shabbat Hanukah

In ancient Israel, the Houses of Hillel and Shammai dominated Jewish thought. The two schools disagreed on and about even the smallest particulars of Jewish practice. The Mishnah documents their debates and their divergences. Not even the Happy Holiday of Hanukkah escaped their contrarian pronouncements.

Hillel and Shammai both agreed that Hanukkah should be an eight-day festival and that the miraculous oil of Maccabeean rededication should be recalled with the kindling of lights. But there the agreement ended.

The School of Shammai ordered that eight lights be used on the first night of Hanukkah and then reduced by one on each successive night - seven lights on day 2, six on day 3 and so on. The School of Hillel took exactly the opposite view mandating one light on day 1, two lights on day 2, etc. Because, said Hillel, “In matters of holiness one should never decrease but always increase.” The decision on menorah lighting eventually went with Hillel, and that is the practice we generally follow to this day.

But the truth is that both approaches do make some sense.

Shammai’s practice of progressively reducing the number of lights might have been prompted by a recognition of the ever-diminishing quantity of oil in the original container. So Shammai’s menorah starts off in a blazing array of light and then slowly fades into a diminishing brilliance.

Hillel’s practice, on the other hand, of progressively increasing the number of lights might have been prompted by the ever-increasing wonder experienced by the Maccabees with their realization that something profoundly out of the ordinary was at hand. Hillel’s menorah begins with a single point of light and ultimately builds to an inspiration of illumination.

Elsewhere, the Talmud relates another major disagreement between the two houses. The question this time was: Given all the troubles in this life, the propensity for humans to act badly, would it have been better if humankind had not been created? Shammai said yes. Hillel said no.

This time Shammai argued that human beings were sinful beings, disasters waiting to happen. Hillel reasoned that on the contrary every moment in life was an opportunity to do good, to fulfill a mitzvah, to live in accordance with God’s dream for humanity. Their debate, the Talmud tells us, lasted for two and half years until finally the matter was brought to a vote.

These two disagreements actually have more in common than you might at first suspect. Just under the surface of both, there is a fundamental disagreement on the nature of the human condition. Are we human beings inescapably prone to wrongdoing and violence or are we good deeds waiting to happen? And consequently is the future essentially darkening into despair or progressively brightening with hope?

The decision to follow Hillel’s prescription for lighting the menorah, increasing the number of candles on each successive night, is a symbolic enactment, a statement of faith in a future that can be increasingly made brighter by our good deeds and loving actions.

And who won the dispute between the two houses on whether humanity should or should not have been created? Actually, surprisingly, it was Shammai. The vote of the rabbis indicated that it would have been better if humanity had NOT been created; but having said that, the Talmud adds: But we have been created, so best we get on with the business of living.

You and I have come into this world, and in matters of holiness we increase and do not decrease. So Judaism’s prescription at this season would be: Even when things seem their darkest, do the best you can do today and do a little bit better tomorrow. And - little by little, step by step, the world - your world and mine – will surely be made brighter.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukah.

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayeshev

New Bern is a small city that sits on the convergence of two beautiful rivers in coastal North Carolina. New Bern is old by American standards, founded but yesterday by Milanese reckoning. You would think there would be very little connection between this relatively rural American town and our sprawling, fast-paced Italian metropolis. But there is.

For one thing, the two cities share a Rabbi. I conduct High Holy Day services in New Bern and this column appears in both the Beth Shalom and the B’nai Sholem weekly email sent out by the respective congregations.

Several weeks ago I received a note from a North Carolina congregant that his grandson would be studying in MiIan this semester and perhaps I might make contact with him while he was here. Noah came to our Beth Shalom Shabbat morning service in November ,and David and I invited him to join us for our American Thanksgiving dinner the following week. One more connection.

It is a custom at Thanksgiving to go around the table and for each person to share with the assembled those things for which he or she is particularly grateful. Noah’s list included his gratitude for being included in our happy gathering because “otherwise he would be feeling far from home and very homesick.”

The story of this Noah, as opposed to the Biblical story of Noah, is all about connection and hospitality and family. While it is said that ‘six degrees of separation’ connect any two people anywhere in the world, for Jews - most of the time - the six degrees reduces down to just two.

A couple weeks ago David and I attended Shabbat morning services at Guastalla. Outside the building, the gatekeeper was rudely turning away yet another hopeful visitor. Security concerns aside, the woman it turned out was a Jew from Mexico City whom, in conversation, we learned was a close family friend of one of David’s former long-term business associates. Yes, most of the time - it only takes two.

This week’s torah portion begins ayleh toldot ya’akov, this is the family history of Jacob. We Jews refer to ourselves collectively as b’nai yisrael – the children of Israel. We are indeed all the spiritual descendents of Jacob, and that makes us all family - distant relatives perhaps, but family nonetheless.

One of the distinguishing and most laudable qualities of our Beth Shalom community is the warm and gracious welcome we extend to those ‘relatives’ from near and far who come to be with us for any of our congregational activities.

Yaron came to Milan after attending a Rockefeller Foundation meeting on Lake Como. He wanted only to find a place to say kaddish for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. What he found in addition was - as the home page of our website puts it - a congregation with a heart in the heart of Milan. This world travelling millennial wrote: Beth Shalom is the most warm and welcoming congregation I have ever attended.

In our tradition, hachnasat orchim – the hospitality shown to a visitor – is a great mitzvah. It is said that hospitality was one of the signature qualities of our patriarch Abraham. Beth Shalom can be rightly proud of our collective and continuing commitment to the performance of this righteous and holy deed, and I am personally thankful to be associated with such warm-hearted and welcoming people.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayishlach

As the Sabbath morning Amidah is concluding, we sing: Sim shalom tova u’verachah - O God, grant peace, goodness, blessing and favor to us, to Israel and to all the world. The prayer continues ki b’or panechah - literally ‘for by the light of Your face, O God’ – you have given us a love of kindness.

What does or could that mean? Remember, the Torah says that when Moses asked God: “Pray, show me Your glory,” God responds: “No one sees my face and lives.” So how should we understand ‘by the light of the Divine face’ do we discover and nurture our love of kindness?

The answer is given in this week’s portion, Vayishlach. The brothers Jacob and Esau had been estranged from one another for many years. Jacob stole the birthright and the blessing from Esau. Esau, in turn, swore revenge and plotted murder. But when the two meet again the brothers embrace. They are reconciled. Jacob presses his brother to accept gifts, but Esau refuses. Jacob entreats his brother further and says: “If for no other reason than seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”

When we see or when we experience kindness, compassion, forgiveness; When we see or help someone who is wounded to be made whole; When we see others acting as we understand God would act and wants us to act, that is as close as we mortals ever come to seeing the face of God.

And when we attune ourselves to seeing the face of God in the kind actions of others, that in turn can inspire in us the impulse to respond in kind. It is in the seeing and the receiving of acts of loving kindness, that the love of kindness is born and grows. And when we in turn perform gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, then others may well begin to see the face of God in our actions as well.

We see the face of God when we see the honor that others bestow on their aged parents; when we see others helping the bereaved perform the rituals of mourning, or when we see others rejoicing in the achievements and celebrations of their friends and neighbors. It is possible to see the face of God in the ones who drop a coin into the outstretched hands of the needy. So who looks like God to you?

Or to put it in a slightly different but more important way, who looks at your actions and thinks this is like seeing the face of God?

If you are approaching life in an honorable, upright, compassionate and caring way, observing the ethical and moral commandments of our tradition, then I am relatively sure that there is someone out there who when they look at you, it is as if they too were seeing the face of God.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: We cannot make an image of God but we can be an image of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayatsai

When Italian castles stopped being fortresses and began to serve simply as homes for the nobility, the most important feature of the architecture was the main staircase, and the grander the stairway the more impressive the castle. Furthermore, the mark of a visitor’s status was a function of how far down the staircase your host came to greet you. So if you had to walk all the way up to meet the Lord of the Manor or your host came down some number of steps to meet you, you got an instant read on your social standing and status.

 In Parashat Vayetze,  Jacob dreams of a sulam mutazav artza, a ladder, a stairway, a staircase reaching from heaven to earth. Angels are going up and down on it. Jacob, on the other hand, is always depicted sleeping on the ground, down at the bottom of the ladder. But where is God at this point in the dream?

 The Hebrew says, adonai nitzav alav, which could be translated God was ‘on it’, that is at the top of the ladder, or the same phrase could also be understood to mean ‘besides him’, meaning God was now standing besides Jacob. So depending on the translation and applying the principle of Italian castle staircases to our Torah reading, Jacob was either the most insignificant of visitors ushered into the presence of a God who stood infinitely far removed at the very top of a very long ladder. Or Jacob was the most important guest God had entertained perhaps since Adam and Eve because we see that God had descended all the way to the very bottom of the ladder to welcome his visitor into the divine presence. Either way heaven and earth are connected, but God is either - to put it in the words of the American Reform prayer book – “farther than the farthermost star or closer than the air we breathe.” So which was it?

 Well I would like to suggest that it was really both, and the choice of the Hebrew phrase is brilliantly deliberate.

 Think of it this way. Jacob had deceived his father and wrested the blessing from his older brother Esau. He had previously managed to get the birthright by similarly questionable means. He is running from his brother’s revenge. He stops for the night in the middle of nowhere, puts a rock under his head and sleeps like a baby.  Alone, in a place beset by brigands, robbers and wild beats -  yet there he is fast asleep. But when God shows up and promises him all these seemingly good things, then Jacob is shaken, afraid, terrified.

How is it that Jacob could sleep so soundly before the dream? My sense is that up to this point Jacob was sure he had gotten away with it. He had acted in a morally and ethically questionable, even objectionable way and it had all paid off. He had cheated his brother, bamboozled his father and the plan had worked. Or so it seemed. But now God shows up and says, u’shmartechah, which on the one hand means I will guard, protect you. But it also means I’m on to you, I’m observing you, I have my eye on you, and I won’t let go of you.

Then God says v’ hashevotechah – and I will bring you back – on the one hand the Hebrew means ‘return you to this place’. But hashevotechah is also the word Hebrew uses for repentance, to cause you to repent. In other words, God also says I will expect and assist you in your moral development. Jacob, God says, You are going to become a different, a better person. If it’s the last thing you do. If it’s the last thing I do. And that’s what scares the hell out of Jacob.  

 In Judaism, our understanding of what it means to be moral and ethical is rooted in the sacred teachings of our tradition. The God who stands at the top of the ladder, the God we call Adonai who is fully beyond our imagining, is nonetheless the source of our sense of right and wrong and the ground of our moral and ethical understanding. But that God who is simultaneously standing with us at the bottom of the ladder, next to us, within us is also the source of our ability to hope, to grow, and to become better than we are.

We are not meant to imitate Jacob’s questionable ethical actions and standards of morality. We are intended rather to use them to question and instruct ourselves with respect to our own. Jacob does not get to make up what is right and wrong. We are supposed to use these ancestral exemplars of a less than perfect humanity not as an absolute model to emulate but rather as a mirror with which to evaluate how well we are doing in our own spiritual and ethical journey of becoming. The Jew who follows the virtuous teachings of the tradition will more likely develop a moral character that will be seen and understood to be a blessing.

 In Judaism, righteousness is a possibility not a guarantee. As God says to us as God said to Jacob: I am with you, to encourage you, to assist you, and to put a forgiving and understanding arm around you if and when you need me. Now go forth to blessing.

Shabbat Toldot

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the family line of Abraham is extended into the third generation with the arrival of the twins Jacob and Esau. But even before their birth there is a premonition of discord. The twins struggle in their mother’s womb. God reveals to Rebecca that this pre-natal conflict will continue on into the lives of the children and their descendents. “Two nations shall issue forth from your body and the older will serve the younger.”

While the Torah does not explicitly tell us, it would seem logical to assume that Rebecca never shares the content of this revelation with Isaac. That would explain why Isaac, who appreciates Esau’s skill as a hunter, actually goes on to favor first-born Esau, the one who would customarily inherit the birthright and blessing.  And why Rebecca favors Jacob, the one designated by God to carry on the covenant of Abraham. To quote a classic movie line from the past “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

And because Rebecca keeps her revelation a secret, the family dynamic will be further damaged by incidents of fraud, theft, deception and ultimately Esau’s intention to murder his brother. The Yom Kippur confessional contains a long list of transgressions brought about through the agency of speech, by the rough words, the unkind words, the malicious hurtful words that we let escape from our mouths. But sometimes it is equally wrong to withhold our words, not to speak, not to communicate the thoughts, feelings and concerns that we hold in the head and heart.

In family life, some secrets are healthy and necessary but others limit the next generation’s freedom and self-acceptance. What a child doesn’t know can hurt him or her. Kim Edward’s novel, The Memory Keepers Daughter tells the story of a doctor who delivers his wife’s set of twins and then sends away the Down-syndrome-afflicted daughter at birth. Over the next 25 years the family suffers the consequences of the doctor’s secret as secrets beget more secrets and obfuscations abound.

The truth is families are paradoxical. Secrets that are so carefully guarded get revealed and uncovered when the children act them out – if not in their own generation than in the next. As the story of Jacob unfolds, the consequences of Rebecca’s secret keeping will play out in the lives of her children and grandchildren. Family secrets have consequences far beyond what the secret keepers ever imagined.

The downside of secret keeping shows up in organizational life as well. When problems are kept off the table for fear of threat or embarrassment they remain impervious to correction. An un-disscusable problem is an un-solvable problem. When an organizational truth is an open secret, even the well intentioned - who want the best for their organization - will dance around the real issues focused on redressing the multiple symptoms and not the root causes of their problem.

The truth is that there are few secrets so dangerous that they cannot stand being brought out into the open, where they suddenly lose the evil and darkness that once surrounded them. Though there is always some risk to revealing what has previously been kept secret, the maxim ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’ is worth keeping in mind.

The writer of Ecclesiastes counseled “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.” Among other things, “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” If Rebecca had shared her revelation with Isaac perhaps Jacob’s deception of his father and the rift between brothers could have been avoided. At any rate it is no secret that open and honest communication is an essential key in sustaining any and all relationships. 

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Chayei Sarah

One of my professors in Rabbinic School used to say that  Rabbis really give only one sermon in the course of their  careers. I didn’t know it at the time but he was right.

I have pretty much given the same sermon over and over again for the last 40-some years. It seems that I have found a very large number of ways to tell my congregations to ‘Just Be Nice.’

There is no exact Hebrew translation for what we convey with the English phrase ‘Just Be Nice.’ The closest equivalent is a variant on the word chesed. In this week’s portion, servant Eliezer sets off to find a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac. He finds Rebecca standing at the well and woos her on behalf of his Master. He says to Rebecca’s father, “And now if you mean to treat my master with chesed v’emet tell me and if not I will look elsewhere.”

The word chesed is usually translated as loving kindness. We sing al sheloshah devareem  On three things the world is sustained.  On Torah, on worship v’al gemilut chasadeem – and on acts of loving kindness. But the word chesed can also be applied to God where and when it means something like grace. God acts with chesed, graciously, undeservedly so, with us and with the world. Chesed is understood to be one of the essential attributes or characteristics of God.

So important is this quality that the rabbis point out that the Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed. When Adam and Eve are forced to leave the Garden of Eden it is God who provides them with clothing and when Moses dies alone on the summit of Mount Nebo it is God who buries the prophet. I suppose you could say that God is at God’s best when God is acting graciously, with chesed, and by extension so are we when we perform acts of loving kindness for others.

When we perform gemilut chasadim, we mirror the behavior of the Most High and when we do so we are acting as God would act and have us act in any given situation.

So Just Being Nice, performing acts of loving kindness is actually no small thing. In Judaism, there is a direct and immediate connection between kindness and godliness. In our tradition kindness is a prerequisite to righteous living. So you see Being Nice isn’t nice, as in optional. It’s a mitzvah, a commandment, a holy obligation.

Judaism is bold to declare that “Before the Throne of Glory every wrong that is repented is forgiven and every kindness performed is unforgotten.” Small acts of kindness change and humanize the world.

I suppose the best part of gemilut chasadeem, acts of loving kindness, is that it doesn’t require any special talent on our part to perform them. Not everyone can be a scholar or a scientist. But kindness is an equal opportunity opportunity. It requires only our intentionality and an open heart. 

So ‘Just Be Nice’ and Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Noah

When I was in the 8th grade, I attended a public school. The story of Noah, this week’s Torah portion, was a part of the curriculum. Though I assure you that the story of Noah was never referred to as “this week’s Torah portion.” 

The teacher asked our class, “ Why did God save Noah?” No one answered. So she asked again. “Why did God save Noah?” One young girl raised her hand and said, “God saved Noah because Noah was a good Christian.” 

Now I knew that Noah was not a Christian. After all, I had learned the story at Hebrew School, so I was sure that Noah was Jewish. 

But actually Noah was neither Jewish nor Christian, nor a member of any organized religious community for that matter. The Torah says only “Noah was a righteous man.” From this we learn that you do not have to be religious to be righteous. You can be a good person without membership in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. And neither Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists have cornered the market on righteousness. In fact, Judaism teaches that the righteous of all people have a place in the world to come.

You do not have to be religious, you do not have to be   Jewish to be righteous but if you are going to claim membership in a religious denomination, especially if that religion is Judaism, then your job is to strive for righteousness. 

What religion adds to righteousness is a communal or corporate dimension. Remember Noah left the world, went into the ark and saved only himself and his family. Our Judaism teaches us that we have a responsibility to the world beyond ourselves. The greater world and the greater good should also be our concern.

Community can be difficult because people can be difficult, but what we can accomplish together is manifestly more effective than what any one person can accomplish on his or her own. And when we get it right as a community then we are truly a kehillah kedoshah - a sacred, holy and righteous community.

Shabbat shalom


Shabbat Berasheet

This Shabbat is Shabbat Berasheet, the Sabbath we read the very first of the 54 Torah portions that are read in the synagogue over the course of a single year. That makes this a Sabbath for new beginnings.

I believe that we could all use as many new beginnings as we can get. In fact, the chance to start over is a wondrous and marvelous thing.

A new beginning is like receiving a beautifully wrapped gift. What’s inside might contain just about anything. Looking into a brand new future, the possibilities are endless.

A new beginning is like receiving a do-over. You close out what came before and start again with a clean slate. You can make changes. You are not trapped by all the yesterdays of your life.

Actually, in Judaism every new day is supposed to be greeted as a new beginning. The prayer book reminds us that the world is created anew each morning. The Hebrew praises the “God who daily renews the act of creation” almost as if God ever forgot to do the creation thing on any given morning everything would cease to exist. In that sense, everyday we could all be just like Adam and Eve waking up in the Garden of Eden on that very first day when they saw it all as wondrous and new.

Just imagine what it would be like to see everything again for the first time. Every tree, every person, every sunrise, every smile. To hear everything again for the first time. Every whispered word, every rustle of the wind, the laughter of a child. Imagine how marvelous that would be. Well, that is Judaism’s prescription on how to greet every new day of your life. 

Give it a try. As my friend Jeff used to say, “Once you wake up and open your eyes, the hard part of your day is over.”

Shabbat Shalom


What Comes Next?, Parashat Shemini

Congregation Beth Shalom
Parashat Shemini
Rabbi David Whiman

In Judaism the numbers seven and ten have great significance. The seven days of creation. The seven branches of the menorah. The Ten commandments. But the number eight has an equal though often overlooked importance as well.

Sukkot and Hanukah are 8-day festivals.  A baby boy comes into the world and his brit milah is held not on the seventh day but rather on the eighth. And this week’s parashah, Shemini – the only Torah portion with a number for its name  – comes from the word shemoneh, the Hebrew word for the number eight.

It came to pass on the eighth day, The Torah says, that Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and commanded them to take up their duties in the sanctuary. After a seven-day celebration of consecration, it is on day 8 that the actual work of the sanctuary begins, On the eighth day, Aaron and his sons take up their priestly duties in the Mishkan.

Seven is a prime number. It signifies wholeness and completion. Seven marks an ending and eight the beginning of what comes next. At the Passover seder we asked and answered the famous four questions. But I think it has been our response to the question ‘What comes next?’ that has sustained our people and our faith from the time of Abraham onward. 

Contrary to what some would have you believe, over the last three plus millennia Judaism has been an ever-changing and ever-evolving religion. Ours has never been a static faith.  Because in our tradition, in addition to the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ there has always been a ‘next.’ 

When Moses completed his mission and died on the summit of Mt Nebo, the people mourned their leader for seven days and then on day eight they asked  ‘What comes next?’ That question was answered by Joshua and tribal leaders and Judges of Israel. When Jerusalem and the Temple fell to the Babylonians and then to the Romans, the question ‘What comes next?’ was answered by the rabbis who instituted the synagogue and the study of the written and the oral Torah. The same question was asked and answered by the Kabbalists of the 14th century and the Chassidic masters of the 17th century, and then the Reformers and the Zionists of the 19th century. Judaism has always been a reforming and revitalizing faith – with an eye on tradition and ever ready to formulate a new and vital answer to the question ‘What comes next?’ 

David Ben Gurion famously said, “We must not live in the past, but the past must always live within us.“ This week Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary. How Israel answers the question ‘What comes next?’ will in many ways determine the viability, the moral integrity and spiritual authenticity of the Jewish state.

To understand the profound spiritual significance of the number 8, go back to the story of creation. In the Midrash, the sages taught that human beings were created on the sixth day. They were placed in the garden, commanded not to eat of the forbidden fruit, quickly transgressed and were sentenced to exile all on that same day.  But, God granted them a stay of sentence.  They were allowed to celebrate that very first Shabbat in Eden. For the whole of day seven, the sun did not set. And as the light began to fade,God showed the first human beings how to make light. Unlike the Promethian myth, in Judaism fire was the gift of God. And that is why to remember that gift we light a Havdalah candle at the end of Shabbat symbolizing the power of human agency and and creativity and our God given ability to bring light into the world.

The light of the eighth day is the light that illuminates what comes next  - in the human story and in our own personal narrative as well. The eighth day reminds us that in some mysterious way when one chapter closes or comes to completion, something can begin again. We get not so much a do-over as the possibility of a do-differently. With our God given creativity we have the power to make tomorrow look very different from today. On day 7, Shabbat, we remember God’s creativity. On the eighth day, it all begins again and we reassert and celebrate our capacity to create a different tomorrow.

There is no more beautiful Jewish teaching than the importance of day 8. And our ability to make the future better for ourselves and others.

When bride and groom marry, traditionally the wedding celebration continues for seven days. During this period friends and family do for the bride and groom. We have something similar in that carefree period known as the honeymoon. But in Judaism real married life actuality begins when the honeymoon ends, on day 8 when the real work of marriage with all its challenges and rewards begins in earnest. The honeymoon is easy. Marriage is hard. Why? Because human beings, too, are never static; and husband and wife must ever navigate the what-comes-nexts in life. That is why they share a cup of wine and break the glass under the chuppah. To show that together they pledge themselves to share the allness of life.

And what is true of marriage is also true of bereavement. When I arrived at my last congregation I was asked a  question that I had never encountered in all my prior years of rabbinic practice. “Rabbi,” the mourner would often say, “when do I do the walk around the block?” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, it seems that in New York the practice was to literally to ritually take a walk around the block to mark the formal end of the official period of mourning. 

When death intrudes into life, we observe shivah for seven days, but on the eighth day, we have a decision to make. What comes next? Will we return to life sobered, saddened, diminished but not undone by our loss. The walk around the block is a physical representation of my resolve to live into the future. It is a prayer offered not from the lips but by the feet, honoring our encounter with death but also our determination not to succumb to it. The walk at the end of shivah demonstrates a commitment to a gradual though difficult reentry into a future blessed and enriched by all that was good in the life of the one we have lost.

And this is true at every stage of a human life. Whether in times of joy or times of sorrow, in times of achievement or reversal, in the high moments or in the depths of our days, on the personal level and on the cosmic, the way we answer the question  ‘What comes next? makes all the difference in the world. That question and the host of answers given over the millennia is what have kept our people and our faith going and growing. It is how we respond to the challenge of the day eights of our life that determines ultimately if our life will be called a blessing or not. 

BE A BLESSING, Shabbat Lech Lecha

Shabbat Lech Lechah
Congregation Beth Shalom
Rabbi David Whiman

In this week’s portion God calls to Abram and directs him to set out on a journey of becoming, to leave his father’s house and travel to a far and distant land. In turn, God promises Abram blessing and gives the added assurance that through him will all the families of the earth be blessed. V’huyay berachah, and God concludes, “It will be a blessing.” Or the better translation I think is to render the Hebrew as God’s command: Abram, Be a blessing.

You and I know how to say blessings. That’s easy. We just recited the blessings before and after the Torah reading together. We know how to sing blessings and we do so to a host of different melodies. But how would one actually go about being a blessing? What would you have to be doing to qualify? Why would you even want to be one?

The story is told of a rabbi and his disciples who were sitting together and eating apples. They recited the blessing that you say before eating fruit, borai p’re haetz, and then they partook of the apples. The rabbi then asked his students, “Do you know the difference between you and me?” His students were silent. The rabbi said, “You recite the blessing so that you can eat your apple. I am struck with wonder and gratitude by the majesty of creation all around. I eat the apple so I can recite the blessing that extols the greatness of God.”

Many of the ritual blessings we recite, the berachot, acknowledge God as Creator. Blessed are You Creator of the fruit of the vine. These formulations are at heart expressions of praise. Sometimes you and I too are worthy of praise. At times, we human beings do extraordinary things. We exhibit sterling qualities of heart and mind. But the call to be a blessing is not about recognition, accomplishment, or fame. Far from it. And, though we human beings have produced some very impressive things over our long history, there are precious few if any things that we have actually created, that is brought into existence. So I’m guessing that our capacity to create, our creativity and the things that we produce that make life more comfortable, though important, are not what it means by the
summons to be a blessing.

Nor is it really about our ability to perform praiseworthy or commendable actions. Our rabbis teach that the highest in human behavior lies in the imitation of God’s way: In a text called the Mehilta we read: As God is called holy you shall be holy. As God is called gracious you be gracious and as God is called compassionate you be compassionate. There is a whole category of mitzvoth – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, burying the dead - that are seen as praiseworthy because these are actions that God performs in the Torah. But such acts are more in the category of gemilut chasadeem, acts of loving-kindness. When we act in imitation of God’s scriptural kindnesses we bring blessing to others. Such acts are important, holy but the performance of such actions is not exactly what it means to be the blessing itself. Nasty people can perform a mitzvah. It’s more than what you do. Though I think we are getting closer.

One of these lesser-known benedictions in our repertoire is prescribed after you eat a certain category of food. The specific foods need not concern us now but the brachah goes like this: Blessed are you O Lord, borei nefashot rabbot v’chesronam. Who has created a vast universe of souls and all that they lack. That’s a strange formulation, isn’t it? Praised are You O Lord who created our deficiencies. Surely we are not intended to praise, to thank God for our disabilities and deficits. There must be more to it than that.

I think this blessing is meant to remind us that we are all lacking, incomplete, partial beings in need of wholeness and healing. No matter how self sufficient and put together we may appear on the outside we are all wanting in some way or another. And the fact that we have deficiencies means that we need one another. “What you lack I may have and what I lack you may have. Our deficiencies make our social existence both essential and important.” In coming together, we learn what we could not have known if we stayed isolated. It is in coming together that we grow in ways we could not grow by ourselves. And so doing we accomplish what we could never accomplish alone or disconnected. Because of our deficiencies we find that we need one another. To be the person who provides another with what is needed for them to get to that place they could never get to on their own, that is the essence of what it means to be, to actually be a blessing.

Let me give you some personal examples. My 10th grade English teacher taught me how to write, that is how to express myself coherently, lucidly in writing. I’m not sure how she did it. It was more than what she taught. It was how she taught what she taught. How she carried herself as a teacher. She made us want to know what she knew. And I just know that my success in University and in my later professional life is due in no small part to that teacher What she taught me was invaluable. But she was the blessing.

My 98-year- old mother has a bevy of caregivers attending her around the clock. These women are models of caring, patience and support. One of the women however, by dint of her person, her loving heart, and her personal faith I believe is keeping my mother not only alive but lively. Not so much by what she does – all the women provide for her needs – but this woman makes my mother want to live. She is the blessing.

A couple years ago, I met a man at my High Holy Day congregation. He was in his 80’s at the time and he was battling cancer. But moreover this man was tormented by events and experiences that he had endured 60 years previously as a young foot soldier in World War II. He still had terrible recurring nightmares about it. He was if I might say, a tortured soul. I listened to his story and after a while I said to him. “Sander, you can’t undo the past. The question I would ask you is: Is there a way for you to use what you experienced to win back some small benefit for good? It’s not about forgiveness. It’s about redemption.” That one word gave him a new way to understand what he had happened. For the first time he spoke to his children about what he had experienced. For the first time he addressed the congregation and his community on Yom HaShoah. His wife told me he never had another nightmare. And she “I don’t think you told him anything that his therapists didn’t tell him before. It’s that you told him. And you enabled him to leave this world at peace. You are a blessing to our family.”

God’s summon to Abram huyay berachah to be a blessing is addressed to each and every one of his descendants. Think of it this way. Every soul is a complex assembly of puzzle pieces, some souls with more pieces than others, some souls more difficult to assemble than others. But no soul is ever complete in and of itself. At birth we are all nearly but not yet complete. Borei nefashot rabot v’heshbonam. We all have deficiencies. No one has within him or herself all the pieces to their puzzle. And everyone carries within them at least one and probably many pieces needed for someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. But when you present that piece which may be insignificant to you but essential to them, whether they know it or not, whether you know it or not, that is when you have fulfilled the command heyay berachah, be the blessing.

The Torah tells us that responding to God’s call Abram sets off on his journey of becoming taking with him his wife, his nephew Lot and the Hebrew says ‘all the souls that he had made, created in Haran.’ Now we know that only God can make a soul. So let us understand that to be all the souls that Abram had helped make whole there in Haran. Yes, only God can create a soul. But it is true that there are times when only we human beings can complete them. From the very start then Abraham fulfilled the summons to be a blessing. May we too ever be reminded that we are called to the same task and be ever watchful for those precious opportunities to be the blessing to others.

Cayn y’he ratzon.