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.


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.

Ner Tamid and Tish’a B’Av

As I was setting up the chapel for this evening’s Tish’a B’Av service and Eichah reading at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, dimming the lights, lighting the five shiva candles that sit on the Amud (Reader’s Table) during the service, it occurred to me that the symbolism of the Ner Tamid shining in the shadows is starker than ever on Tish’a B’Av.

The Ner Tamid, the “Eternal Light”, a symbolic light that is hung above the ark in synagogue sanctuaries around the world, is said to remind us both of the Menorah, the oil lamp, and the continuously burning fire on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.

It occurred to me also that while we light the Shiva candles in memoriam for the Beit HaMikdash that was destroyed for the first time in 586 BCE and then the second in 70 CE, my kindling feels a bit like a victory. A reclaiming of the fire, if you will. While I know it is a custom to light these candles, and that they are, in most places, for ambiance more than anything else, it felt like I was remembering the fire that burned our Temple, that burned our People, throughout the ages. It felt like I was connected to that raging fire, and had tamed it.

As I look at these small flames, contained in glass, against the great Ner Tamid that glows a strong blue in the chapel at Temple Emanu-El, I remember how our Temple was destroyed. Our People consumed in raging flames not once, but many times throughout the last three thousand years. I remember how not only was our greatest structure consumed those two fateful days in Jewish history; I remember how many must have died that day in terror. How many families must have been torn apart. I remember the Ten Martyrs who we recall on Yom Kippur, including the great sage Rabbi Akiva. I remember the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were burned at the stake. I remember the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. The flaming bricks thrown through windows. I remember the over six million Jews and over five million other who perished in our own century. I remember the news reports of the suicide bombings in Israel during the first and second Intifada.

Tish’a B’Av is a day to reclaim our national fire. It is a day of mourning for all those who were senselessly and brutally murdered from within our own People. As we inhale, we sense just a bit of smoke entering our olfactory consciousness. We remember those who ascended tragically in flames. On Tish’a B’Av, we remember them.

And as our Ner Tamid sits proudly above the ark, where we keep the most sacred objects in our tradition, we remember that we live in a world where senseless hatred had not been eliminated. It has not left us. And as the sun sets now on Tish’a B’Av, we — no, I — resolve to be reminded daily, always, no longer to stare blindly at the Ner Tamid. To let it serve as a reminder of my vulnerability to anger and to hatred, and to not let it overcome me in my own lifetime. I pray that we each do the same.

Parashat Mas’ei: An Oral History in Sight of Jericho

There is a Jewish custom of studying Torah in honor of a deceased loved one around the time of his or her yahrzeit. My family commemorated the third yahrzeit for my grandfather, Larry Eisen, zichrono livracha, this past Thursday, the 26th of Tammuz. The Torah study I’ve done in preparation for this d’var Torah has been dedicated in his memory. I hope I honor him by sharing these words with you today.

Before he passed away in the summer of 2008, I had the privilege of recording my grandfather’s oral history. He told me, chronologically, about his life, starting from childhood in Brooklyn, and recalled an early memory of running away from school every now and then in kindergarten. As he unfolded his life and memories to me, the details ebbed and flowed – some pieces were just outlines and dates, and sometimes he would vividly recall a story that he lovingly shared. My grandfather told me that he remembered his first middle-school crush, but wouldn’t tell me her name because it was still “too personal”. He told me that he served in the American army’s signal corps in World War 2, actually taking about a third of the oral history to describe to me in detail his experiences as a soldier. He reminisced about the time in 1945 when he was on a boat on the Atlantic with his platoon, traveling from Western Europe to the Phillipines via the Panama Canal, when suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the atom bomb had been dropped, the war had ended, and they watched the wake of the ship as it turned ninety degrees to head home to New York. My grandfather told me about his experience studying physics at NYU, his work in the sixties with early calculators for measuring explosions. He told me that while his first love of study was physics, he taught other subjects with some level of competency, sometimes keeping just a chapter ahead of his students. He told me, “oh yes, there was the time when I went to jail,” by which he meant the experience in which he taught astronomy in a medium-security prison, just because he’d been asked to; but, he remembered with a smile, “They wouldn’t let us go outside to see the stars. How can you teach astronomy and not let the students go outside?”

We find the Israelite nation at the beginning of this week’s parasha in Plains of Moav. If we think of the Book of Deuteronomy as entirely Moses’s final words to the Israelite Nation before they enter the Land of Israel, we recognize Parashat Mas’ei as the very last narrative parasha in the Torah. The contents of Parashat Mas’ei include the people’s Journeys; a mandate from God to possess the Land of Canaan and an outline of its borders; laws of ערי מקלט – cities of refuge for those who commit accidental manslaughter; and the resolution of the story of the daughters of Tslofehad, whereby it was decided that they could only marry those from within their tribe, so that the land they had inherited on behalf of their father would not transfer into the hands of another tribe. The parasha concludes, “אלה המצות והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ ביד משה אל בני ישראל בערבות מואב על ירדן ירחו” — “These are the commandments and Laws that the Lord commanded of the Children of Israel, in the plains of Moab, on the banks of the Jordan, near Jericho.” Nervous and uncertain, the Israelites face their future. As Kafka wrote in his work, The Castle, it would have been “‘A fine setting for a fit of despair,’ it occurred to [K.], ‘if I were only standing here by accident instead of design’” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, p. 19). Then again, perhaps not nervous and uncertain. In his translation and commentary on the Torah, Robert Alter points out that the fact that the book of B’midbar is concluded with the word “יריחו” is appropriate because “Jericho will be the first military objective when the Israelites cross the Jordan, and so the concluding word here points forward to the beginning of Joshua” (Alter on Numbers 36:13).

Parashat Mas’ei itself, particularly in the first third of the parasha, is like an oral history of the life of the Israelite nation, having been “birthed” forty years earlier with the Exodus from Egypt. Like my grandfather’s oral history, this recapitulation of the long forty-year journey from Egypt to the Israelites’ present camp just across the Jordan River from Jericho ebbs and flows.

When a person tells an oral history, we can generally assume that his motives for providing certain information in more detail than other information is that he finds those moments more defining, more important, or more relevant to his audience. Here, though, in Numbers 33, details about stories we consider most important to our modern Judaism are omitted: of the forty-two ventures listed, there is no mention of receiving the Torah, no mention of battling against Amalek, no mention even of the miracle crossing the Red Sea, though all of the locations for those events are simply listed; and we only hear more than just geographical details about four of the forty-two ventures. Looking at the details that have been included, we must ask ourselves, “Why are these the most defining moments that God and Moses want the Israelite nation to take with them / as they prepare to cross the Jordan River / and start a new chapter of Israelite history?”

First new detail:

· At the beginning of the parasha, when the Israelites are leaving Ramses, “… on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out defiantly in full view of all the Egyptians, who were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them; for the LORD had brought judgment on their gods.”

This account of the Exodus echoes but still has a very different feeling than the one that we heard back in Sh’mot, chapter 10. As triumphal as this account still feels, being told about the Egyptians burying their dead is a new addition to the Exodus story for us — last we checked in Parashat Bo, we read about the Ten Plagues, how God explains that He Himself “brought Judgment on [Egyptian] gods,” but we don’t get any sense of the stark feeling this image brings us — mourning, mass deaths, a preoccupation with their own grief which is what allows the Israelites, according to Rashi, a safe departure from the Land. Well, at least a safe head-start.

Two more non-geographical details:

· STOP #5 – At Elim, “… where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date trees.”

· STOP #10 – At Rephidim, “… where there was no water for the nation to drink.”

My nine-year-old chevruta partner had a very insightful interpretation of why these particular details are necessary. One particular comment he made rang very true in response to the question, “Why would God and Moses point out that in Elim there was lots of water and lots of food, while in Rephidim there was no water?” “Well,” my chevruta pondered aloud, “maybe it’s because having no food and water was what made Jacob’s sons go down to Egypt in the first place. Maybe this was to show them that sometimes they have a good supply and sometimes they don’t, but that they will always survive and be successful.”

The last detail we are provided:

· STOP #33 – At Hor HaHar, “… which is on the edge of the land of Edom. And Aaron the Priest went up on Hor HaHar, on the word of God, and died there in the fortieth year since the Children of Israel left Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month.” (Aside, this means that the Yahrzeit of Aharon Kohen HaGadol is Rosh Hodesh Av, which, incidentally, is on Monday). “Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Hor HaHar.”

Why is the death of Aaron notable here? It seems to me that this mostly has to do with time-frame more than anything else. Thinking as the nation currently standing in front of Moshe, we remember this event — it was important to us, and it happened recently.

Now, Parashat Mas’ei tells of forty-two stations at which the Israelite camp was situated throughout their forty-year journey in the desert. (And what would a summer d’var Torah at Temple Emanu-El be like without some Math? So here we go.) Forty-two is a very important number. Firstly, its prime factors are two, three, and seven — all very important numbers to our tradition. Additionally, anyone who read Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy knows that 42 is the “answer to the ultimate meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” Rashi points out in the name of Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan that, lest you think the Israelite nation was always moving, the first fourteen of these journeys all occurred in the first year of travel. These, Rashi says, are chronicled here to let us know that even though the Holy One sentenced the Israelites to wander the desert for forty years, you should not say that they were moving and wandering from journey to journey all forty years and never had any rest; […] rather, [of the forty-two] take fourteen away because these were all in the first year, before the decree (i.e. their travels from Rameses until they arrived at Rithmah.) […] Take away another eight journeys that were between the death of Aaron at Hor Ha-Har and the arrival at the Plains of Moav, and you’ll find that in all thirty-eight years of the decree since the negative report brought back by the מרגלים, the spies, the Israelites only traveled a total of twenty times.

But why retell this journey at all? What is so important that each of the forty-two stops be recounted so meticulously? A friend gave me a unique insight, taking our mind’s eye all the way back to B’reisheet. At the end of the first Creation story, God takes a step back and looks at everything He’s done, establishing Shabbat as not only a day “to rest and relax,” but also a day “to recount what we did during the week,” and say, “Wow, we did this?” Perhaps, continues my friend’s midrash, this is what this parasha is all about. Hindsight, reflection, is incredibly important. Perhaps the message God and Moses are trying to send is one of “look how far we’ve come”. Not everything is going to be easy, but look what experiences we’ve already had as a people — a dramatic move from slavery to freedom, experiences with times of plenty and times of drought and famine, death and transitions of leadership. As the Israelites look across the Jordan River, at the site of their next great step in nationhood, they are reminded that whatever they weather, with the help of God and with faith in their leaders they will succeed in whatever ventures they try. May we be blessed with the same faith and the same success.

Shabbat Shalom.

When Called to Guard

(Letter to Temple Emanu-El Providence community, June 2010)

By now you have probably received an email from Temple Emanu-El calling for “Shomrim”. You might already know that it involves signing up to spend an hour or two sitting with the body of a member of our community who recently passed away in the days before he or she is buried. It has come to my attention, though, that many of our members don’t really know what this mitzvah entails.

In the coming paragraphs I hope to give you a bit more insight into what “Sitting Shmirah” means, and I hope to encourage you to sign up when we are looking for shomrim.

Judaism considers the body to be a gift from God to man, to house the soul that lives inside it. Each morning we recite a blessing thanking God for allowing all of our bodily functions to work properly followed by a blessing praising God for “restoring the soul to the lifeless, exhausted body,” i.e. when we’ve woken up in the morning (these blessings can be found on p. 4 of the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur).

There is a sense in the Jewish afterlife tradition that as relatives say Kaddish for loved ones over the eleven months after they have passed on, the soul gradually rises toward the Throne of God. Since the soul is closest to the body just after he or she has died, and, tradition tells us, that the soul is most aware and most frustrated until the body has been interned in the ground, we keep the body, and the recently released soul, company until it reaches its final resting place.

When you sign up for Shmirah, you will be directed to the location where the body is being kept. Generally in our community Shmirah is served in the basement of the Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, but there have been instances where Shmirah has been served elsewhere. At Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, you will enter through the door in the back (facing the parking lot) and go down the stairs to where shmirah is observed unless there is a notice on that door indicating that Shmirah will occur somewhere else in the building. In some cases the body is in the same room but in a casket, in other instances, the casket is kept in the refrigerator to delay decomposition, but you would sit outside. In most circumstances, the body is not in a place where you can see it.

Once you arrive, there are a number of things you can do while you are “guarding.” It is customary either to read or discuss Jewish-themed texts or to recite Tehillim, from the Book of Psalms. Some suggest that you should only read those psalms which are appropriate to somber mood and the end of life. When I sat Shmirah for the first time, I learned from Cantor Brian Mayer that funerals are a “celebration of life, and hurt like hell.” He explained that because we direct our attention to the celebration of the person’s life we can say all of the Psalms because Tehillim, by nature, represent the whole spectrum of human emotion: fear, contentment, happiness, sadness, anger, resilience.

Here is my offer to anyone who is willing: If you are willing to serve as a Shomer this time around or in the future, I’m happy to sit with you or to find you a buddy who will sit with you. I understand if it’s not an experience you want to have alone the first time.

Keep in mind the following Gemara (based on Shabbat 127a and found on page 5 in the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur):

Here are the things that yield immediate fruit in this world and for which a fund is established for him in the World to Come: honoring mother and father; doing acts of lovingkindness; attending the House of Study punctually in the morning and evening; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; welcoming a bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.

In our tradition, attending to the dead in our community is considered one of the highest mitzvot one can do since there is no expected return from the person toward which the mitzvah is directed. It is one of the highest but also one of the most important, since, as we know, it is not easy.