Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Julian Pecht and Oliver Racciatti B'Nei Mitzvah

From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:


A message from two of our recent B'nai Mitzvahs:


We are cousins Oliver Racciatti and Julian Pecht, and we became b'nai mitzvah on June 16th. This was an important milestone for us, so we were happy to be able to do it together. 


Oliver Racciatti and Julian Pecht

For our mitzvah project, we are raising funds to restore one of our congregation’s precious Torah scrolls. We are donating a percentage of our monetary gifts from our Bar Mitzvah to the project, and we plan to hold additional fundraisers in the future to reach this goal. If you would like help, donations may be sent to the Adas Emuno Torah Fund. Thank you for your support! 




On behalf of the entire congregation, we send our congratulations to the Racciatti and Pecht families, and mazel tov to Julian and Oliver for their ambitious project!



Monday, July 30, 2012

Introducing Our New Religious School Director

From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno

A message from Annice Benamy, our new Religious School Director:



My name is Annice Benamy and I am very enthusiastic to introduce myself as your new Religious School Director.  My love of education, music, and Reform Judaism developed at my synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio, and at URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, New York. 

For 14 years, I brought my love of Judaism and music together as a youth group songleader, educator, Junior Congregation and Family Education coordinator in religious schools in Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio.  In 1986, I become cantorial soloist for a nursing home in Beachwood, Ohio and continued to share my spirituality and love for liturgy through music on the bima for Shabbat and holidays.  I am still a cantorial soloist in Ohio and New Jersey,  bringing my passion and devotion to congregants.  I am also very involved in Reform synagogue life by participating on committees and programming.

For the past 19 years, my secular educational experiences include K-8 Vocal music teacher, Fine Arts building supervisor, and staff trainer on educational topics including Technology in the Classroom, Arts Across the Curriculum, and Literacy in the Classroom. I am a National Board Certified Teacher with Supervisor Certification from Rutgers University, BA in Communication Arts from the University of Cincinnati, BM in Music Education from Kent State University, and MM in Music Education from Cleveland State University. 

I reside in Teaneck with my husband, David, my daughter, Ilana, and step-daughter, Sarah.  I love to travel, read, and spend time at the beach.

Thank you for welcoming me into your Kehillah Kadosha (a sacred community). I look forward to a great year and meeting each of you soon. 


L’shalom,

Annice M. Benamy



Congregants have had a chance to meet, and listen to Annice throughout the month of July, as she has been kind enough to serve as a cantorial soloist during Friday night Shabbat services, and look for her to return later in August.  

And be sure to join us for the Ice Cream Social Meet and Greet Open House, which will be held on Sunday, August 19 from 2:00-4:00 pm.  New and returning families may register for Religious School, sign-up for Parent Committees, and see what other innovative programming the Religious School will offer this year.  Of course, eating some delicious ice cream is always a bonus on a hot summer day.

And another great reason to join us for Ice Cream on Sunday, August 19 at 2:00 pm will be to meet the NFTY-GER Regional Advisor, Pam Schuller, and the Adas Emuno Temple Youth (AETY) Youth Group Advisor, David Benam. They will be available with all the Youth Group information. That's right, AETYAdas Emuno is forming a Temple Youth Group for high school teens in grades 9-12. If you cannot attend, but are still interested, please contact Annice Benamy, Religious School Director, at adasschool at gmail.com.


Please note that registration is OPEN for 2012-2013 Religious School.  Please check your e-mail account for registration materials.  All forms and payment are due by August 24, 2012 to the Adas Emuno Religious School. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

One Minute of Silence for the Munich 11

The following is a message from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey:






JOIN US: ONE MINUTE OF SILENCE FOR MUNICH 11

We invite you to join the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey  in observing a personal moment of silence wherever you are, at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27, to remember the 11 Israeli athletes, coaches, and referees murdered at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

The 2012 Summer Olympics, which begin in London on July 27, marks 40 years since that horrific moment. Since then, the bereaved families have repeatedly asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to observe a minute of silence in memory of the Munich 11. Although a petition has been signed by nearly 100,000 individuals, the IOC has refused to undertake this action. (Click here to link to the petition.)

In order to heighten awareness of and support for this important memorial ceremony, please consider commemorating this tragedy by observing this moment of silence. We are also asking local synagogues to remember the athletes at Shabbat services on Saturday, July 28, by reciting a special prayer, mentioning it in sermons, holding a moment of silence, or any other method the community will find meaningful.

The names of the 11 Israeli Olympic Team members are:

  • Mark Slavin, 18, Wrestler
  • Eliezer Halfin, 24, Wrestler
  • David Berger, 28, Weightlifter
  • Ze'ev Friedman, 28, Weightlifter
  • Yossef Romano, 31, Weightlifter
  • Andre Spitzer, 27, Fencing coach
  • Moshe Weinberg, 33, Wrestling coach
  • Amitzur Shapira, 40, Track coach
  • Yossef Gutfreund, age 40, Wrestling referee
  • Yakov Springer, 51, Weightlifting judge
  • Kehat Shorr, 53, Shooting coach
Thank you in advance,


Rabbi Neal Borovitz, Chair
Jewish Community Relations Council                                         


Joy Kurland, Director
Jewish Community Relations Council



                                           







Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Drew Noorily's Bar Mitzvah

Congratulations to Drew Noorily on becoming Bar Mitzvah last month in a ceremony held in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall.  Here's a photograph of him reading from the Torah, and the statement he provided to Kadima, our congregation's newsletter:







I’m Drew Noorily and I am 13 years old. I go to Tenafly Middle School and am going into the 8th Grade. I just returned from a trip to Israel for my Bar Mitzvah, with my family, including my grandparents. For my mitzvah project I donated flashlights to the Israeli Defense Forces. The flashlights will be used on their guns. I also spent a week in Costa Rica at an orphanage working with the kids and painting the exterior wall of their house.


On behalf of the entire Congregation Adas Emuno community, we wish a hearty mazel tov to Drew, his parents Dr. Stuart Noorily and Marilyn Katz, his sister Melissa (see our previous post, Bat Mitzvah Profile: Melissa Noorily) and the entire Noorily family!


Monday, July 23, 2012

Connected Screening — Save the Date!

Save the date for a special event in our Havdallah Talk series, a screening of the film Connected, followed by a discussion.  Free and open to the public, this visually stunning film appeals to kids as well as adults, and indeed to all who value family and tikkun olam.




Monday, July 16, 2012

Numbers

I served as lay leader again this past Friday, July 13, here again is the D'Var Torah I gave.  The Torah portion for last week was Parsha Pinchas.

For the past 8 weeks, the weekly Torah portion has come from the 4th book of the Torah, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar, meaning in the dessert.  It was given that name because the book begins with God speaking to Moses in the Sinai dessert, and all of the events that occur in this book take place in the Sinai.  Of course, the fourth book is better known by its Christian name, which is Numbers.  Actually the original name given to it by the church was the Greek word arithmoi, from which we get our English word arithmetic, but the meaning was not so much numbers as it was magnitudes.  That is to say, it was not about abstract mathematical concepts, but about the practical act of measurement, and counting.  And the fourth book was given this name because it includes the taking of a census, not once, but twice.  

For any society, counting up the number of people that we have helps us to organize ourselves, which is why modern governments do it, for example in the United States every ten years.  In the Book of Numbers, the first census indicates that there are 603,550 Israelite men age 20 or older.  But this population experienced a loss of faith when 12 scouts are sent out to Canaan, and 10 of the 12 report back that giants dwell in that land.  Because the Israelites didn't trust in God and were afraid to enter the promised land, they were then made to dwell in the dessert as nomads for 40 years.  

Why 40 years?  Because that is the period of time that traditionally constitutes one generation.  So after 40 years, a second census is taken, and this time there are 601,730 men counted, and this is the population that will at last enter the holy land.  This week's Torah portion includes the results of the second census, and also a passage where Moses name Joshua as his successor, Joshua having been 1 of the 2 scouts, along with Caleb, who came back from Canaan painting an inviting picture of a land flowing with milk and honey.

Counting is a part of our history, and it is a part of our religion.  The 4th Commandment tell us "to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  For 6 days you shall labor and do all your work. But the 7th day is a Sabbath to Adonai, your God."  And this serves as a celebration, and in a sense a re-enactment of God's act of Creation, as the commandment goes on to say, "For in 6 days Adonai made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but on the 7th day he rested."  To keep the Sabbath, we have to keep count.  

The same is not true for keeping track of day and night, as those transitions are signaled by dawn and dusk, and even though the days may be longer or shorter depending on the time of year, high noon is always the same.  So the day is based on earth's rotation, which the month is based on the cycles of the moon, and the year on earth's orbit around the sound, which can followed by observation of the changing position of the stars.  Only the 7-day week is completely arbitrary, and requires us to learn to count. and to keep an accounting.

In English, the days of the week are named after pagan deities and the sun and the moon, but in Hebrew they are simply identified by their number.  So Sunday is Yom Rishon, which means the 1st day, and Monday is Yom Sheni, which means the 2nd day, Tuesday is Yom Shlishi, which means the 3rd day, Wednesday is Yom Revi'i, the 4th day, Thursday is Yom Chamishi, the 5th day, and Friday is Yom Shishi, the 6th day.  

Each new day, in our tradition, begins at sunset, and the 7th day is called Yom Shabbat, or simply Shabbat, identifying it not by number but as a form of sacred time.  The numerical names for days has its origin in the Book of Genesis, in the story of Creation, where each episode of God's creative labors ends with the line, "And there was evening, and there was morning, the 1st day," "And there was evening, and there was morning, the 2nd day," and so on.

The ancient symbol of our people and our faith is the Menorah, which is described in the Book of Exodus as having 6 branches, 3 on either side, and 7 lamps.  In one interpretation, the 6 branches represent the 6 days of the week, and the 7th middle shaft represents Shabbat.  The Hanukkah menorah, more properly called the Hanukkiah, is a variation on the regular Menorah, in adding 2 extra branches so as to symbolize the 8 days of the holiday.

The Torah also commands us to keep track of every 7th year, which is a Sabbatical year at which time the land is given a rest and must remain fallow, debts are forgiven, slaves freed, and so on.  And the Jubilee year follows 7 Sabbaticals.  The Torah also commands us to engage in the counting of the Omer, counting 7 weeks, 7 times 7 days, the 49 days between the festival of Passover, celebrating our escape from Egyptian bondage, and that of Shavuot, celebrating our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

We all know that 7 is considered a lucky number, and all of the 7s that come up in the Bible are no doubt one of the reasons why.  And we all know about the superstition about 13 being an unlucky number, so much so that there is a word for the psychological condition marked by an irrational and overpowering fear of the number 13, triskaidekaphobia.  Architects apparently suffer from this condition as an occupational hazard, because most buildings do not have a 13th floor, or more specifically, skip from 12 to 14 in their numbering.  And today is Friday the 13th, a day that is considered especially unlucky, unless you are a producer of horror films.  

No one is really sure how the number 13 gained this negative image, but one theory is that it is on account of anti-Semitism, because 13 is considered a lucky number in Jewish tradition, not the least because it is the age of maturity.  Traditionally, 13 is the age when a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah, and in the traditional Bar Mitzvah speech typically says, today I am a man, and in traditional Jewish practice is considered a full member of society, and able to join a minyan, and lead prayer services. 

For the past 90 years, we have also included the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for girls, which also is sometimes associated with age 13, and sometimes a year earlier, because girls mature faster than boys.  But 13 is the first of the 7 numbers that end in teen, and maybe its negative image came from its association with teenagers?  I'm joking of course, but I should add that in our tradition, 13 has other positive associations connected to Rabbinic commentaries and Kabbalistic teachings, and for us, Friday the 13th is good luck, it's mazel tov!

Odd numbers like 7 and 13 stand out, and especially when they are prime numbers, that is numbers that cannot be divided evenly by any other number.  

Even numbers, on the other hand, give us a sense of balance and wholeness.  The symbol often used to represent the Jewish people and Judaism as a faith is the six-pointed star.  The symbol of the House of King David, we commonly refer to it as the Star of David, although the Hebrew phrase, Magen David, means Shield of David.  The six-pointed star is sometimes known as the Seal of Solomon, King Solomon being the son of King David.  The Jewish Star, as it is also called, has been used as a symbol of good luck since the Middle Ages.  The hexagram formed by the union of two equilateral triangles serves as symbol of unity, and community.

Given that symbolism, it takes sense that if you multiply 6 times 2, you get 12, and that is the number of the sons of Jacob, the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.   And if you multiply 6 time 3, you get the number 18, which means chai, life, and that is why we often give gifts and donations in multiples of 18 for B'nai Mitzvahs and weddings, and donations to the synagogue (hint, hint).

Why is the Hebrew word for life given the numerical value of 18?  The letters of the Hebrew alphabet serve double duty as numerals, so that aleph represents 1, bet is 2, gimel is 3, and so on up to yud, which is 10.  Following yud, kaf is 20, lamed is 30, mem is 40, and so on up to kuf, which is 100.  The remainder of the letters, including the final forms of chaf, mem, nun, pei, and tsadi, bring us up to 900.  To represent values of 1,000 or more, letters are reused.  

But the important point is that, because the Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, every written word also has a numerical value, and this is the basis of numerology.  Jewish numerology is known as Gematria, and is associated with the tradition of Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah.  Kabbalistic scholars believe that there are hidden messages encoded within the Torah, and some draw on the Gematria in an attempt to uncover hidden numerical meanings in the Five Books of Moses. 

Of course, numbers typically are used for practical concerns in the Torah, for example in the results of the census found in this week's portion.  In Exodus, in the same parsha that tells us how to make a menorah, we find instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, specifying that it should be 2½ cubits long, 1½ cubits wide, and 1½ cubits high, and that there should also be a table 2 cubits long, 1 cubit wide, and 1½ cubits high.  And this section contains many more specific measurements for the cloth and planks of wood needed to make the Tabernacle and its enclosure.  For that matter, long before Moses or Abraham, the Book of Genesis tells us that Noah was commanded to build an Ark 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits wide.

What we can infer from all of these numbers is that our tradition encourages a certain facility with numbers.  Numbers don't come 1st, of course.  Genesis does not begin with a countdown to Creation, it begins with God's word, and it is the word that we venerate above all.  We are the People of the Book, the most sacred object in our sanctuary is the Torah scroll, and our b'nai mitzvah ceremonies are not math exams, they are literacy tests.  But literacy is closely connected to numeracy, together forming what we sometimes call the 3 Rs, reading, writing, and arithmetic.  

These skills gave many of our people a way to survive in times when most occupations were closed to us, and we played an important role in helping to bring Europe out of its feudal economy and into the modern world of free enterprise.  I think we can also understand how people who don't know how to read, write or do arithmetic, and therefore don't know how to reason in abstract terms, would not be able to understand the concept of paying interest on loans.  And how it would be all too easy to blame the messenger when tax collectors came around on the orders of the king or government.  These factors do not account for the origins of anti-Semitism, but they certainly added to that practice of prejudice and scapegoating. 

But what I want to stress is not money, but mathematics.  Being raised in our tradition does not guarantee that you will be good with numbers, some of us hate math, and have no feel for equations, and that's no sin.  But as a population, we are statistically well represented in occupations that involve counting and calculations, and that's because our culture encourages and aids the acquisition of arithmetic skills and abilities.  You might say that it helps to open a door, or many different doors in fact, doors that each individual may or may not step though.  And some doors may lead to business, or banking, or finance, or to being an accountant.  Other doors may lead to physics and chemistry, to medicine, to engineering, or to computer programming.  Still others may lead to pure mathematics, or economics, or to being a sports statistician, or a chess player, or to being a rabbi studying Kabbalah and Gematria. 

Whether we're mathematically inclined or not, as a people we count the days of the week, and the months, and we also count the years.  The Hebrew calendar tells us that this is year 5,772, and in a couple of months it will be 5,773.  So if we were to count backwards, where would that leave us?  Tradition has it, the calendar goes back to the origin of the world, but of course modern science tells us that cannot be correct.  The obvious answer might be, it goes back to the time when we started counting.  And there is some truth to it.  

In ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians had been using various systems of notation for approximately 10,000 years, and those systems evolved into the first form of writing, cuneiform, about 5,500 years ago.  And who invented cuneiform?  It was the ancient accountants, who used it as a method of keeping track of property in the palace and trade in the marketplace.  And the first written characters to be introduced were numerals.  So it was numeracy that gave birth to literacy, and the Hebrew calendar roughly coincides with this development, with the introduction of numerals for counting.

Traditional Jewish history begins with the patriarch Abraham, who was not Sumerian, but one of a number of Semitic peoples who lived in Mesopotamia and had come to dominate that region about 4,000 years ago.  Among them, the Babylonians were especially advanced in regard to mathematics for that time.  Hebrew numerals were born in the Sinai dessert, however, around 3,500 years ago, and the origin of the Semitic alphabet at that time roughly coincides with the events represented by the story of the exodus from Egypt.  Numeracy, along with literacy, was spread throughout the ancient world by the Semitics peoples, by the Israelites, the Babylonians, and the Phoenecians.  When it reached ancient Greece, about 2,700 years ago, the result was geometry.  

When numeracy was brought east to India, about 2,300 years ago, the result was the invention of the number zero, and with it positional notation.  Neither our ancestors, nor the Greeks or Romans, had conceived of zero, of nothingness, and none of the earlier numeral systems used the concept of positions that is now in common use today, where the 1st position on the right refers to the units 0-9, the 2nd position represents multiples of 10, the third represents multiples of 100, and so on.  This gift from India opened the door to all forms of mathematics beyond adding and subtracting, and was delivered to the west through another Semitic people, the Arabs, which is why our numerals are commonly referred to as Arabic numerals.  During the Middle Ages, the Jewish people lived in peace and prospered within Islamic lands, and shared in the benefits of this new form of numeracy long before it was adopted in Europe.

But beyond all of the practical advantages of numeracy, there is something about the world of numbers that excites the imagination of individuals of all sorts of different religions, faiths, and belief systems.  There is something about the simplicity of numbers that brings to mind the spiritual.  There is something about their purity that brings to mind the sacred and the sanctified.  There is something about their abstract quality, so removed from the compromises and approximations of the material world, that brings to mind the transcendent.  There is something of their perfection that brings to mind the divine.  

This sense of the mystical aspect of numbers extends to the concept of infinity, which fits in so well with the monotheistic conception of God.  In Kabbalistic tradition, God is described in terms of infinity as ein sof, without end.  According to the 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria, God was ein sof before Creation, and being infinite, was all that existed.  In order to make space for something other than God, Adonai had to engage in Tzimtzum, which means withdrawal, contracting into himself in order to free up space for a finite Creation.

The thing about infinity is that it is not a number.  Infinity cannot be numbered, cannot be counted.  When you consider the concept of infinity in numbers, if you add one to infinity, you still have infinity.  But the same is also true if you subtract one from infinity:  you still have infinity!  And there are greater and lesser infinities.  A one-dimensional line stretching endlessly in both directions is infinite in length, but a two-dimensional plane, stretching endlessly in all directions is infinite in area, and therefore a greater infinity than the one-dimensional line.  And a three-dimensional-space that is without end would be greater still.  So in the case of Tzimtzum, God could withdraw into himself in order for there to be something other than God, becoming less than God was before and yet, still be infinite.

The lesson for us should be plain enough.  We too can engage in Tzimtzum, self-withdrawal.  That is what Shabbat affords us, a time to withdraw from the world, from the constant activity and demands of the world.  We can withdraw to make room for something other than ourselves, and yet not lose anything in the process, for there is something of the ein sof, a spark of the infinite inside all of us.  We can withdraw, and in doing so, find that we have gained something that we would not otherwise have had.

Albert Einstein once said, "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."  On this Shabbat, may we be guided by the humbling realization that all of our days are numbered, so that we may resolve to make each and every day count, and so that we may be determined to be individuals that others can count upon.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

More on Image Wars

As a follow-up to my previous post, Israel's Image Wars, you may recall that an Israeli radio newscaster mentioned a "picture is in circulation of what looks like the boot of an IDF soldier stamping a young Arab girl, who's lying on the ground. An officer from the special unit in the IDF spokesman's office, who looks at the provenience of these pictures, told Channel 2 TV News, the picture comes from Bahrain and has nothing to do with the Mid East crisis in this region."

Today, I came across this image on Facebook:







Not only does this serve as a critique of the propaganda effort, but it also illustrates how words are at war with images, and rational analysis is pitted against emotional response.  

In an image culture such as ours, the Second Commandment is more relevant that ever before.  It's not that graven images are the only means by which people can be mislead and manipulated, but that our best hope lies in the power of words, and the mindset encouraged by reading and writing that an absence of graven images is meant to open up room for, and encourage:  critical, analytical, reflective.




Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The God Particle and God's Word

Having served as lay leader for Sabbath evening services this past Friday, July 6th, I thought I would share with you my D'Var Torah, as I have in the past.  My talk was divided into four parts.

Part One:  This past Wednesday, physicists working at the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Switzerland announced that they believe they have discovered the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson.  This particle is also known by its nickname, the God particle.  You may recall that atoms are composed of particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons, and you my also know that there are a number of other subatomic particles apart from those three.  Most of these particles have mass, and mass is what distinguishes matter from energy.  Protons and neutrons have mass, for example, electrons have very little mass, but photons have no mass whatsoever.  Photons, as you may know, are the particles that form the basis of light, along with every other form of electromagnetic radiation.  They are pure energy. 

So, some particles have mass, and some do not, and the question is, how do particles such as protons and neutrons gain their mass?  Which is to say, how is it that matter comes into existence?  The theoretical answer, put forth by the British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964, is "that particles gain mass by interacting with a medium, or Higgs field, that exists everywhere in space and is made up of unseen particles called bosons."  The Higgs boson is called the "God particle" "because it is believed to have originated during the Big Bang and helped shape the subatomic particles that make up all matter in the universe." (quotes taken from 'God particle' likely discovered).

And what does this mean for us, as we join together to observe Shabbat?  The Fourth Commandment tells us to remember and keep the Sabbath because God labored for six days to create the world, and on the seventh day God rested, and blessed and hallowed the Sabbath day.  Shabbat is a celebration of Creation.  As Reform Jews, we are not asked to be creationists, and accept the story of Genesis literally.  But Shabbat gives us the opportunity to stop for a moment, and reflect on the grandeur and enormity of our universe, to regard with awe the marvelous and miraculous nature of existence, and to be grateful for our beautiful blue planet earth, the precious and sacred quality of our lives, however fleeting they may be, and the great gift that, just as the universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, so too has our knowledge and understanding been expanding over the course of human history.


Part Two:  The discovery of the God particle was announced on the Fourth of July, our American Independence Day.  The founders of the United States were products of what we sometimes call the Age of Reason, or the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that began in the mid-17th century, and originated with the writings of the English philosopher, John Locke, and the Jewish philosopher from Holland, Baruch Spinoza. 

The English physicist Isaac Newton was also an important influence on the Enlightenment early on, and later, one of the founders of the American republic, Benjamin Franklin, was himself a scientist, and made major discoveries concerning electricity.  He didn't know that electricity was created by a flow of subatomic particles when he flew his kite in a thunderstorm and caught lightning in a bottle.  But that glowing key in a bottle was an important step on the way to understanding the relationship between electrons and photons.

The founders of our nation believed in the power of reason, and the United States of America was the first country ever to be argued into existence.  The basis of the rational argument that underlies our separation from England is made abundantly clear in the Declaration of Independence:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

In the story of Genesis, the Creator begins the labor of Creation by saying, Let there be light!  God calls the world into being, and the world is created by God's word.  On July 4th, 1776, our founders created a new nation through words, through a Declaration of Independence.  They declared that we all have the freedom to choose our own government, and the freedom to pursue our own dreams.  They declared that all people have a right to be free from oppression and persecution, and also to be free to engage in our own acts of creation.  In the same way, on the Sabbath, we are given the freedom from labor, but also the freedom to reflect, meditate, contemplate, to pray, commune, and communicate.

The founders of the United States took inspiration from a variety of ancient sources, including our own Holy Scriptures.  The story of Exodus is the story of how a diverse population of former slaves, divided among 12 tribes, became one nation, under God.  If Moses telling Pharaoh to let my people go was our declaration of independence, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai was our constitution, the laws and commandments that bound us together as one.  The rule of Law, of Torah, would apply to everyone, even prophets, priests, and kings, establishing the principles of equality and justice, as unalienable rights.  The Haftarah reading for this week, from the prophet Micah, concludes with one of the most memorable statements in the Bible, one that inspired the founders of this nation, and serves as the foundation of our faith:  "What does the LORD require of you, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"


Part Three:  This week's Torah portion includes the story of Balaam, who is a prophet of God, but not Jewish, not one of the children of Israel. He's not even a friend to our people.  And this is important because in our religion, we do not believe that ours is the only pathway to God.  Each individual can relate to God in his or her own way, but mostly God deals with groups of peoples, with families, with communities, with peoples.  In this way, we take responsibility for each other, for creating a just and merciful way of life.

The story relates how the king of Moab does not want to give the Israelites safe passage through his kingdom as they make their way to the promised land, and summons the prophet Balaam to come and put a curse upon the Israelites.  This leads to a comic episode in the Book of Numbers where God causes a donkey to talk.  

Balaam was riding on his donkey to Moab, responding to the king's summons, even though God told him not to, so God sends an angel to block their way.  The angel is invisible to the Balaam, but visible to the donkey, so the donkey keeps stopping, and Balaam beats the donkey repeatedly in an effort to make her continue on their way.  Finally, the donkey says to Balaam,  "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" And Balaam responds, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
 And the donkey then says, "Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" Balaam concedes her point, and at this point the angel is made visible to him, and Balaam begs God's forgiveness and offers to turn back. The angel tells him to continue on to Moab, "but the word I will speak to you, that you shall speak."

Certainly, there is an important message here about cruelty to animals, and the Torah does include some significant passages that serve as a foundation for animal rights.

After he arrives in Moab, there are three episodes where Balaam is ordered to curse the Israelites, but instead is directed by God to bless them instead.  The first time around, he says, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered? For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations." Israel has a unique destiny, and it stands alone, independent, but also isolated.

The second time when Balaam blesses the Israelites, he says, "God has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness. For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel. In time it will be said to Jacob and Israel, 'What hath God wrought?'"  Balaam himself was said to be a sorcerer in addition to being a prophet, which goes along with his unique power to curse and to bless, but what he is saying here is that the Exodus was brought about not by magic or sorcery on the part of Moses and his people, but by the power of God; by the will of God, not that human beings.  

The question, What hath God wrought? became an important part of American history in 1844, when the quotation was used as the first message sent from Washington DC to Baltimore by Samuel Morse, officially inaugurating the first commercial telegraph line.  The telegraph used electricity to send signals from one point to another instantaneously, allowing us to transcend time and space for the first time.  This invention represents an important stepping stone between Benjamin Franklin's kite line, and the particle accelerator that led to the discovery of the God particle.

The third time Balaam is called upon to curse the Israelites and blesses them instead, he begins with a declaration that became a part of Jewish Sabbath morning liturgy:  "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

Part Four:  The story of Balaam serves as reminder of the power of words, and especially of the power of voice.  Balaam has the power to bless and the curse, but both are speech acts, both blessings and curses only have power when they are spoken out loud.  The same is true of the concept of prayer.  The prayers printed in our prayer books are not actually prayers until we say them out loud (or in some instances, say them silently to ourselves), just as in stories of magic, the magic spell does not take effect until someone actually utters the words.  Along the same lines, our worship service officially begins with the call to worship, a vocal summoning to praise God.  And when we say the watchword of our faith, the Shema, we say, Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.  We have to hear it, not see it, so much so that many follow the tradition of covering their eyes when saying this prayer.

Sound is the source of the sacred, while sight reveals the profane world.  Sound gives us depth, we can hear the interior of things. And sound emanates from within, as the prayer says, out of the depths I call to you, from deep inside us sound is uttered, and outered.   Sight only gives us surfaces.  In the story of Genesis, Creation begins with sound, with God saying the words, Let there be light.  God's voice is heard before anything can be made visible, before the creation of light, the first particles being without mass.

Hellen Keller, who as you know lost both sight and hearing, was once asked which of the two senses she would rather have, if she could only have one.  And she answered that she would rather be blind.  The reason she gave is that hearing is so much more important for communicating and relating to other people.  Sight gives us a world of objects, it leads us to objectify the world, to engage in what Martin Buber referred to as I-It relationships.  Sound gives us a world of relationships, of voice and conversation and communication, and makes it easier to form what Buber called I-Thou or I-You relationships.

Albert Einstein's theory of relativity replaced Newton's physics by saying that space does not exist apart from the relationship between objects.  The universe does not sit inside a box, or what Newton called absolute space; the particles, the matter of the universe is all that there is, and there is nothing outside of that.  Space is the field that exists between the particles of the universe.  As the matter in the universe expands, so does space.  

In the same way, our Congregation Adas Emuno does not exist outside of the relationships among us, it is created by our relationships with each other, and with those who came before us.  Judaism does not exist, except for the relationships among us as they extend among our people everywhere, and the same is true of any religion, and any nation.  

The relationships created by Higgs bosons, by God particles, is what grants mass to matter.  Our relationships with each other, joining together as we do on Shabbat, is what grants meaning to life.