On Light and Memory

Today is the fourth yahrzeit of my grandfather, C. Lawrence (“Larry”) Eisen, z”l. As is common custom, I have completed some Torah study in his memory for today.

But first, some memories.

My grandfather majored in Electrical Engineering at Brooklyn Tech High School, from which he graduated around 1940. He told me that the skills he acquired at Brooklyn Tech allowed him to join not only the manufacturing staff at his subsequent job, it actually allowed him to join the lab, “in which testing was done on that electrical equipment” that was being manufactured: sinine rectifiers (which apparently change alternating current into direct current). When, in 1941, my grandfather was drafted to serve in the American army in World War II, he then joined the signal corps, which involved “telecommunications between various parts of the army.”

I remember that one time when we were kids, Grandpa Larry and Grandma Norma brought us a prism. (It was sometime when we were living in our second house probably before we renovated the kitchen, so it had to have been sometime between 1994-1996, but I can’t remember precisely when.) I will admit that that day I was more amused by the pretty colors that appeared on the wall opposite me rather than wondering about what made the colors appear, but I remember as Grandma and Grandpa patiently tried to explain it to us nonetheless. I remember how happy it made Grandpa to try to get us to understand these concepts. It was that day that Grandpa explained to me how a sprinkler makes a rainbow appear. Maybe that’s why I’ve since loved chasing rainbows. Maybe that bit of understanding has contributed to how excited I am to say the b’rachah prescribed for viewing a rainbow – the more I understand, the more in awe I am of divine Creation.

And in that vein, in my grandfather’s memory, my study this year has focused on light. Particularly, I have focused on the first b’rachah preceding the Sh’ma in the morning service, called “birkat yotzér,” in which we praise God for the light He gives us every day. Commonly, the weekday version of birkat yotzér appears in the siddur as follows (translation adapted from Silverman siddur):

barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, ‘elohénu melekh ha’olam, yotzér ‘or uvoré hoshekh, ‘oseh shalom uvoré ‘et hakol.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, and Creator of all.

Okay: God is the Creator of light, darkness, peace, and everything. A good opening. We continue:

hame’ir la’aretz veladarim ‘aleha berahamim. uvtuvo mehaddésh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh vereisheet. mah rabu ma’asekha adonai. kulam behokhmah ‘asita. mal’ah ha’aretz kinyanekha. hamelekh hamromam levado mei’az. hamshubah vehamfo’ar vehamitznasé mimot olam. ‘elohei ‘olam. berahamekha harabim rahem alénu. ‘adon ‘uzénu, tsur misgabénu, magén yish’énu, misgav ba’adénu.
In mercy You bring light to the earth and to those who dwell in it, and in Your goodness You continually renew each day the miracle of Creation. How great are You works, O Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your handiwork. O King, You alone have been exalted from times eternally past, and You will be praised and glorified until all eternity. O everlasting God, in Your abundant mercy have compassion upon us. O Lord of our strength, sheltering Rock, Shield of our salvation, You are a stronghold unto us. 

‘el barukh gedol dé’ah, hékhin ufa’al zoharé hamah. tov yatzar kevod lishmo. me’orot natan sevivot ‘uzo. pinot tzeva’av kedoshim. romemé shaddai. tamid mesaperim kevod ‘él uk’dushato. titbarakh ‘adonai ‘elohénu ‘al shevah ma’asé yadekha. ve’al me’oré ‘or she’asita yefa’arukha selah.
O God, blessed and all knowing, You have designed handmade the radiance of the sun. You, O Beneficent One, have wrought glory to Your name; You have set luminaries around Your strength. All Your hosts in heaven continually declare Your high praises and Your holiness, O Almighty. May You be blessed, O Lord our God, for the excellence of Your handiwork and for the bright luminaries which You have made; all shall glorify You.

It is clear, still, that we are praising God for His creation of the celestial bodies – the sun, in particular. All of these in heaven praise God. Still straightforward. We continue:

titbarakh tzurénu malkénu vego’alénu boré kedoshim. yishtabah shimkha la’ad malkénu, yotzér meshar’tim, va’asher mesharetav kulam ‘omedim berum ‘olam. ‘umashmi’im beyir’ah yahad divré ‘elohim hayyim ‘umelekh ‘olam. kulam ‘ahuvim, kulam berurim, kulam giborim, vekhulam ‘osim be’émah ‘uvyir’ah retzon konam. vekhulam potekhim ‘et pihem bikdushah ‘uvtohorah, beshirah ‘uvzimrah. ‘umvar’khim, ‘umshabekhim, ‘umfa’arim, ‘uma’aritzim, ‘umakdishim, ‘umamlikhim…
May You be blessed, our Rock, our King, our Redeemer, our Creator of ministering angels who, as envisaged by the prophet, stand in the heights of the universe and together proclaim with awe the words of the living God and the everlasting King. All the heavenly hosts are beloved; all are pure; all are mighty; and all in holiness and purity, with song and psalm, all bless and revere, sanctify and ascribe sovereignty…

‘et shém ha’el hamelekh hagadol hagibbor vehanora, kadosh hu. vekhulam mekabbelim ‘aléhem ‘ol malkhut shamayim zeh mizeh. venotenim reshut zeh lazeh lehakdish leyotzeram benahat ruah. besafah berurah uvin’imah kedoshah, kulam ke’ehad ‘onim ve’omerim beyir’ah:
… to the Name of God, the great, mighty, awe-inspiring and holy King. They all pledge to one another to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and give sanction to one another to hallow their Creator. In tranquil spirit, with pure speech and sacred melody they all respond in unison and reverently proclaim:

kadosh, kadosh, kadosh ‘adonai tseva’ot, melo khol ha’aretz kevodo.
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Adonai Tseva’ot, the whole earth is full of His glory.”

veha’ofanim vehayot hakodesh bera’ash gadol mitnase’im le’umat serafim. le’umatam meshabbehim ve’omerim:
And the Ofanim and the Holy Beasts, in great sound proclaim to the leagues of Seraphim. They utter praises and proclaim,

barukh kevod ‘adonai mimmekomo.
“Blessed be the glory of the Lord that fills the universe.”

The ministering angels and all of the other celestial beings proclaim God’s holiness and His presence. The text then ties together its previous few paragraphs: beings singing, God is enduring, God combats evil, God is the Lord of wonders, and God made the heavenly lights.

l’él barukh ne’imot yiténu lemelekh ‘él hai vekayam, zemirot yomeru vetishbahot yashmi’u. ki hu levado po’él gevurot. ‘oseh hadashot, ba’al milhamot, zoré’a tsedakot, matzmiah yeshu’ot, boré refu’ot, nora tehilot, ‘adon hanifla’ot, hamhadésh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’asé v’réshit. ka’amur: le’oseh ‘orim gedolim, ki le’olam hasdo.
“To the blessed God they offer a sweet song; to the Ruler, the living and ever-enduring God, they utter hymns and make their praises heard; for He alone works mighty deeds and makes new things. He is the Lord who combats evil, sowing righteousness and causing salvation to spring forth. He creates healing, for He is the Lord of wonders and is revered in praises. In His goodness He renews the creation every day continually, as it is said in the Psalm: “Give thanks to He who made new lights, for His mercy endures forever.”

Up until this point, the liturgical text is clearly unified. God’s greatness, ministering angels, celestial bodies. With this in mind, what comes next is surprising:

Or hadash ‘al tsiyon ta’ir, venizkeh khulanu m’hérah le’oro. barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, yotzér hame’orot.
O cause a new light to shine on Zion, and may we all be worthy to delight in its splendor. Blessed are You, O Lord, Creator of Light.

The b’rachah at the end, acknowledging God as Creator of Light, nicely finishes this extended blessing — but where did Zion enter our discussion?

9th-century Jewish Babylonian scholar Saadia Gaon was unhappy with the insertion of Zion into this b’rachah, and omitted it in his siddur. The commentary to this section in the siddur of Saadia Gaon’s contemporary, Amram Gaon, indicates the following (before deciding to include this phrase in his compendium anyway):

Our master Saadia said that it is forbidden to say “And cause a new light to shine on Zion” in this blessing. Why? Because we are not blessing about the light to come in the days of the Messiah, but rather about the light that we see each and every morning. 

Abe Katz, a pre-eminent scholar of tefilah in our generation and the founder of the Beurei Hatefila Institute, included in his commentary on this text the words of Naftali Weider, who apparently found the following in the handwritten manuscripts of Saadia Gaon (Katz’s translation):

“Between all that I heard about the additions and the deletions within the three B’rachot of Kriyat Sh’ma, I found that two of the changes do not fit into the original intent of the authors. The first: there are those who recite the line beginning: “or chadash al tsiyon ta’eer, v’nizkeh koolanu mehérah le’oro.” […] It is prohibited to recite that line. The type of light that was the basis of the B’rakhah was the light of the sun itself and not something else ([i.e.] the light of the [Messiah]).”

Further, the Tur, Orah Hayyim 59, according to Katz’s assembly of sources, indicates that the recitation of this phrase is not recited as part of the Sephardic liturgy. It affirms Saadia Gaon’s position and indicates that Rashi’s position is the same. The Likutei Maharikh, a Chassidic commentary, says, however, that whether one’s inclinations direct him or her to include or omit this phrase, “one should not digress from the custom within his area.” This much-later Chassidic commentary, in fact, reads into the entire previous b’rachah the light of Zion and the Messiah, particularly angled toward its devotion to the Ba’al Shem Tov.

On the one hand, I agree with Saadia Gaon – now that it’s been called to my attention, the acknowledgment of Zion in this passage does seem out of place. Perhaps another example of minhag avoténu beyadénu – the custom of our ancestors is in our hands. While there was a place discuss its appearance in the 9th century, a piece of liturgy at least a millennium in its place feels permanent. However, as we daven in the days to come, it is perhaps important to be aware of the kavanah, the intention, of this paragraph. We thank God for His creating the celestial bodies which guide our days, our calendars, our tides, our sailors, and our lives. In this day and age, it is perhaps even more important that we acknowledge God’s power over the sun as we increasingly benefit from solar energy.

I never really got a straight answer about whether my grandfather believed in God, but it seemed to me that he did. He certainly davened when he was in shul. I do believe that from C. Lawrence Eisen I inherited an ability to see the divinity in physics and in the science of the world around me. God has given us the world to live in, to harness, to make our own, and He helps us embrace it every day. I loved and respected my grandfather with all of my heart; he was my teacher, he was my friend. Four years later, I still miss him, and I was blessed to have him in my family. May his memory be for a true blessing.

Shabbat into two days of yom tov is always difficult, even for those of us who have always been Shabbat-observant. It’s a mixed blessing: three days of unplugging, recharging our souls, can be great. On the other hand, the “real world” of those around us who have been plugged in during our absence from the cybersphere slaps us pretty squarely across the face the minute the stars come out. Nice piece by Rebecca Borison for Moment Magazine’s blog on this.

InTheMoment

by Rebecca Borison

This past Friday, I turned off my iPhone at approximately 7 pm and prepared myself for three days of being disconnected. Shavuot happened to fall on Sunday and Monday, which meant that Shabbat led directly into the holiday, allowing no time to catch up on missed emails on Saturday night.

While I am used to unplugging for one day a week, the three-day holiday always poses a greater challenge: It’s a lot harder to deal with three days of unplugging than one. But ultimately, I found the three days to be more beneficial than bothersome. I was able to catch up with high school friends, play basketball with my younger brother, go to synagogue, and even read some George Eliot. Granted, I don’t think I’d be able to do it every week, but once in a while, it’s actually nice to disconnect for three days.

For observant…

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About the Hops Omer

The brilliant idea started with scotch (but who can afford 49 different kinds of scotch?)… and then migrated to other grain-related alcohols… and ended up at beer. 49 days of the Omer start the second night of Pesach (Passover), and we count upwards until the festival of Shavuot, 7 weeks later. It’s hard to remember to count 49 days in a row, but someone’s got to keep it all on track.

The one snafu: Beer and other grain alcohols are NOT kosher for Passover! So we’ll start with wine, or something else, for the first seven days. Then we’ll launch straight in. Join in on the fun!

Hinda, Aron, and Rick

A Prayer for Beginning an Endeavor

וְעָל כֵּן אֲנִי מִתְחַנֵּן לְשֵׁם שֶׁהוּא בָּֽעַל הַיְּכוֹלֶת הַגָּמוּר וְהָאֱמֶת הַגָּמוּר שְׁיִתֵּן לִי עֹז וְתַעֲצוּמוֹת לְהַשְׁלִים כַּוָּנָתִי וְיַנָחֵנִי בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶמֶת וִילָמְדֵנִי ארָחוֹת יוֹשֵׁר, כִּי בוֹ בַטָחְתִי וְאֵלָיו קִוִּיתִי, כְּמָאֲמַר הַמְּשׁוֹרֵר, “הַדְרִיכֵנִי בַֽאֲמִתֶּךָ ׀ וְלַמְּדֵנִי כִּי־אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי אוֹתְךָ קִוִּיתִי כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם: וְזֶה הֶחֱלִי בְּעֶזְרַת שָׁדַּי:

Therefore I pray to God who has absolute power and truth that He may grant me courage and strength to accomplish my purpose, that He may lead me in the way of truth, and teach me the paths of uprightness, for in Him I trust and for Him I wait, as the Psalmist says (Psalms 25:5): “Guide me in Your truth, and teach me; for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all day.” Now I begin with the help of the Almighty.

This t’filah is an excerpt from Ikkarim: Book of Principles, a four-volume beautiful theological statement and explication of Torah by Joseph Albo, completed in 1454. Albo closes the preamble to his work with this prayer.

What a beautiful sentiment with which to begin a journey.

“Many Thanks”

How many times do we say “Thank You” without really thinking about what it means? While considered the polite response (we were all taught by our parents to say it whenever someone performs a task for us or gives us something), how many times do we say “Thank You” and actually feel deep, heartfelt gratitude?

Today, I feel thankful.

Perhaps it is cliché to write about how thankful I am the day after Thanksgiving. Well, it’s okay to be cliché every once in a while, I think. While Thanksgiving is not at its core a Jewish holiday, the space in time that Thanksgiving creates for us to consider everything for which we are grateful seems to fit right in with feelings and rituals that are elicited by many of the Jewish holidays. So here we go.

My father met me at the train station in New Jersey. I am grate that I have parents who care deeply about me and who welcome me into their home, to spend Thanksgiving with me.

As we drove home from the train station, I witnessed piles of branches and trees that had fallen down weeks ago in the snowstorm. The devastation was evidence. I am grateful I have a safe place to live, and that, barukh hashem, I and my family and friends have not been affected badly by this year’s severe weather.

As I get ready for bed, I am grateful for flannel pajamas. And the clean feeling I have after brushing my teeth.

Thanksgiving morning, I woke up and watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade from the comfort of my parents’ family room. I am grateful for my health and my ability to wake up every day with a smile on my face, in a good mood. I am grateful for a heated house, for American traditions that unite so many different people between our coasts, and for the police and other forces who keep us safe even in crowds of over three million.

My brother later came over so we could drive to New York to pick up my grandmother and then to central New Jersey to have Thanksgiving dinner with my extended family. I am grateful for the time I get to spend with my immediate family. I don’t think I really appreciated how wonderful it is to have time, just the five of us, until I decided to live four states away. Once again, I am grateful that I have a supportive family who loves me and supports my decisions, even when I live far from them.

I am grateful to have a family which isn’t broken.

We spent Thanksgiving afternoon with extended family, including my parents, both of my siblings, my grandmother, my mother’s two sisters, and their immediate families. I am grateful once again for a warm family, with families that live geographically close to one another, such that we can appreciate each other and catch up at holidays such as this one. I am grateful that we all are doing economically well enough to put food on the table and to have clothes to wear. And I am grateful that I have siblings who support me and whom I can support.

I am also grateful for secular holidays that allow us to get together as a family, but do not preclude cooking and driving.

For some of these things, there are blessings that Judaism proscribes. We have blessings over food to make the act of eating sacred; we have blessings for avoiding danger; we have blessings for rising up in the morning; we have a blessing even when seeing a gathering of many people. Other things, are just meant to be appreciated from afar. Let us take time this weekend, this month, this year, to appreciate even those things that are close to us.

As Sir Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his commentary on the siddur, Nachmanides notes that we read each day three times a day the phrase v’al nisekha she-b’khol yom ‘imanu – thanking God “for Your miracles which are with us every day”, and that there are two kinds of miracles: the hidden and the exposed. The exposed miracles are those which are supernatural, perhaps unexpected, and wondrous. This phrase, however, found in the Modim paragraph about mid-way through the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, encourages us, according to Nachmanides, to appreciate those little things, those “hidden” miracles that are always in our midst but are perhaps so commonplace that we take them for granted. Let us take this to heart, and notice the hidden wonders in our midst in every moment of every day.

The Redemption Heard ‘Round the World

Every morning, we recite in our morning blessings,
ברוך אתה ה’, א-להינו מלך העולם, מתיר אסורים.
“Praised are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who releases captives.”

As we recite the first page of the Amidah, each time, we call God
סומך נופלים, רופא חולים, ומתיר אסורים
“He who raises the fallen, heals the sick, and frees the captives.”

Every time we recite the weekday Amidah, three times in any given weekday, we recite the following:
ראה נא בענינו, וריבה ריבנו, וגאלנו מהרה למען שמך, כי גואל חזק אתה. ברוך אתה ה’, גואל ישראל
“Behold our adversity and we shall be healed. Redeem us soon because of Your mercy, for You are the mighty Redeemer. Praised are You, Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.” (Sim Shalom translation)

This morning, for Mussaf of Chol ha-Moed Sukkot, we beseeched God to have compassion on us and on all of His children, calling him
מלך רחמן המשיב בנים לגבולם
“the compassionate King who returns His children to their own borders.”

And then we paraded around the chapel with our lulavim and etrogim, typical of the Hoshanot ritual for Sukkot, and we recited the following passage:
אדון המושיע. בלתך אין להושיע. גיבור ורב להושיע. דלותי ולי יהושיע. האל המושיע. ומציל ומושיע. זועקיך תושיע. חוכיך הושיע. טלאיך תשביע. יבול להשפיע. כל שיח תדשא ותושיע. לגיא בל תרשיע. מגדים תמתיך ותושיע. נשיאים להסיע. שעירים להניע. עננים מלהמניע. פותח יד ומשביע. צמאיך תשביע. קוראיך תושיע. רחומיך תושיע. שוחריך הושיע. תמימיך תושיע, הושע נא.

“Lord who saves, other than You there is no savior. You are powerful and abundantly able to save. I am impoverished, yet You save me. God is the Savior, He delivers and saves. Those who cry to You – save; those who yearn for You – save. Satiate Your lambs, cause an abundance of crops, of trees, of vegetation – save. Do not condemn the ground, but sweeten the luscious fruits – save. Let the wind bring the soaring clouds, let the storm rains be emplaced, let the clouds not be withheld, He Who opens a hand and satisfies Your thirsty ones – satisfy; Your callers – save; Your beloved – save; Your seekers – save; Your wholesome ones – save.” (Artscroll translation)

What a lot of talk about redemption!
What a day to talk about redemption!
What a day to pray for redemption and to praise God for granting redemption to those who are bound and oppressed.

Today, October 18, 2011, Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier now twenty-five years old, was returned home to Israel after five years in captivity by the hands of Hamas terrorists. Israel traded 1,027 Palestinian captives for Gilad’s safe release to his family.

This morning, as I checked Facebook for status updates, it seemed to me that every Jewish person plugged into Israeli happenings had posted about Gilad’s safe return home. The page for Binyamin Netanyahu is littered with pictures of the reunification of Gilad with his family and with the Prime Minister himself.

So much about this sixth day of Sukkot celebrates God as Redeemer. Some of the words I mentioned I say every day, multiple times a day. Some I say several times a year. Some I say once a year. Even so, none of these words have struck me the way they do today, God as Redeemer. God as Savior. Until one witnesses an event like this (and can check the news by 4G network even during the repetition of the Amidah, hearing in real-time what is going on in the world) one never knows the ways simple phrases of daily liturgy can tug at the heartstrings.

I join in the rest of the world in the following blessing, which we are not blessed to say so often:
ברוך פודה שבויים.
Blessed is He who releases captives.
Welcome home, Gilad.

Fighting Fire with Fire: A Reflection for 9/11

American Flag Today is September 11, 2011. Ten years ago today, at 7:41 AM, the time it is right now as I write these words, I was getting ready for my fifth day of ninth grade at James Caldwell High School. And it was any other day. For many families, at 7:41 AM on September 11th, 2001, it was still just any other day.

My mother reminded me yesterday that part of my high school principal’s opening remarks for our graduation told us that we were the class that would forever remember that just a few days after we began our high school lives, the world would change entirely and eternally.

As evident in the essay I wrote for Tish’a B’Av just over a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about fire recently. We all remember that fateful day ten years ago, when we watched as the flames burst uncompassionately into the sky from the top floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched as both towers crumbled as hundreds and thousands of individuals said their final words. We were glued to the news, unsure of what the small black dots falling from the buildings’ sides were, until the newsman sickeningly told us those were people jumping from the high windows to their demises, thinking it was the only way not to be burned alive in the melting structures.

When my father and I crossed the lower level of the George Washington Bridge the following Sunday, on our way into the Upper West Side for the second week of Prozdor (Hebrew High School), I remember not being able to see the Hudson River or Lower Manhattan; the air was still too thick with ashes. We could smell them. And I remember in the Sundays that followed, when we made the same drive, we could see as the ashen curtain to our right gradually revealed a potently empty landscape.

This Friday night, I lit candles for Shabbat. I felt the nauseating parallel I felt ten years ago, between the image of the tame, inviting twin flames of my Shabbat candles and the raging twin flames bursting from the towers.

Last night, I watched as the community celebrated Waterfire, when bonfires are lit along the Woonasquatucket River in downtown Providence, Rhode Island — a beautiful sight. As the flames licked the night sky last night, along a backdrop of the towering but quaint offices for which Downtown Providence is known, all I could see was the distance between the fire and those buildings. And how amazing it is that they can coexist safely so long as they never touch.

My composition of this essay was paused here by minyan this morning. We recited everything as usual, except we didn’t recite Tachanun, asking God to forgive our sins. As proscribed by our Sages, Jews always omit Tachanun at times of joy and times of mourning. I told the story of what I remember of ten years ago, my most potent memory of learning Cantor Joel Caplan’s El Malei, which he composed that day, for our choir, in memory of those deceased. The piece was to be sung antiphonally in Hebrew by the Cantor and English by the choir. I remember sitting on the floor in the chapel at Congregation Agudath Israel as no one made any noise except for this music. I remember it was raining.

I remember nine years ago, on the first anniversary, sitting after dark on the football field at James Caldwell High School, with all the stands packed and people standing along the fences for a communal commemoration, as Cantor Caplan instructed the crowd to insert the names, when we paused at the proper time, of those who they knew who had perished that day a year earlier. After about five seconds of complete silence, one invisible person from the back right of the football field, from the dark, yelled a name. From across the field, another. For the next ninety seconds, what felt like an eternity, names of loved ones and friends were announced, shouted. Let us remember all of them. Let us remember all of those who died that day. With tear-filled eyes the Cantor looked at us and said, “For the sake of all those people, we have to finish this piece. We have to.” With a big gulp and a deep breath, we finished:

“Merciful God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the Holy and Pure, the souls of all those we remember today, for blessing… Embrace them under Your sheltering wings forever, and bind their souls in the Bonds of Life. They are with God. May they rest in Peace.”

Today, and every year on this day, let us remember them.
Let us embrace the fire in our hearts and feel the burn, the scar, the imprint, that day left on our souls.
Let us be united in our hatred for those who perpetrated this heinous crime on our nation.
Let us be united in our forgiveness and our vulnerability.
Let us be united in brotherhood, and pledge to help each other through all the times we feel fractured, individually and nationally.
Let us create sacred space together, in which we can worship and praise God while at the same time asking Him why He would allow such a thing to happen.
Let us know Peace, soon, and in our day.