Sunday, July 17, 2011

Making Sense of the Census

I was doubly honored to be called upon to serve as lay leader for the second week in a row this past Friday, and it seems only fitting to add my accounting of this service as well.  This week, after beginning as we always do with the candle lighting, I noted how in these very hot and humid days of July sometimes people sing Christmas songs to try to cool off, and along the same lines, we could start by reading the lyrics of a Chanukah song.  The song I chose was written by Peter Yarrow, and originally sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, called Light One Candle, and it goes like this:

Light One Candle
Peter Yarrow
Light one candle for the Maccabee children

With thanks that their light didn't die

Light one candle for the pain they endured

When their right to exist was denied

Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know

When the peacemaker's time is at hand

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!

Let it shine through our love and our tears.

What is the memory that's valued so highly

That we keep it alive in that flame?

What's the commitment to those who have died

That we cry out they've not died in vain?

We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail

This is the burden, this is the promise

This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!

Don't let the light go out!

In case you're not familiar with the tune, here's a YouTube video recording of Peter Yarrow performing the song live:

We can apply the spirit of the song equally to the tradition of lighting the Sabbath lights, and answer the call to justice as we answer the call to worship.  From this point, the service proceeded as usual, leading up to the Dvar Torah (word of Torah).  I started by saying that in leading services two weeks in a row, I was able to say, as you remember from last week...

And in this case, the portion or parsha, this one called Parsha Pinchas, really does pick up right where the other left off, with Pinchas the priest's zealous action in killing the sinners, the Israelite chieftain and Midianite princess who were engaged in relations in public, which in turn put an end to the sinful behavior of the Israelites with the Midianite women who had come to seduce them and turn God against them.  (See the previous post, Sounds of Silence and Talking Donkeys, for more on this.)  So now, at the start of the new parsha, God tells Moses that because of this, he won't punish the Israelites, and that he will reward Pinchas and his descendents. 

But this parsha has much more to it than this brief epilogue to the story of Pinchas.  It goes on to relate that God then commands Moses and Eleazar, the father of Pinchas and the son of Aaron, to take a census, saying:  "Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel from twenty years old and upwards, following their fathers' houses, all that are fit to go out to war in Israel" (Numbers 26:2).  The results of the census are then reported in great detail which I won't go into, but here's a summary, broken down by tribe:

  • 43,730 from Reuben;
  • 22,200 from Simeon;
  • 40,500 from Gad;
  • 76,500 from Judah;
  • 64,300 from Issachar;
  • 60,500 from Zebulun;
  • 52,700 from Manasseh;
  • 32,500 from Ephraim;
  • 45,600 from Benjamin;
  • 64,400 from Dan;
  • 53,400 from Asher;
  • 45,400 from Naphtali;

This section concludes with, "these are those counted of the children of Israel: six hundred and one thousand and seven hundred and thirty."  How that final tally was obtained is beyond me, and beside the point.  The question we might well ask is why do the results of this census, which are described in painstaking detail in this Torah portion, included at all?  Surely, the numbers change with time, so that the specific information has no particular utility.

One immediate answer is that the results are used to explain and justify the ways in which the Holy Land is subdivided among the tribes, so that, as it says immediately afterward: "You shall apportion the Land among these as an inheritance, in accordance with the number of names. To the large [tribe] you shall give a larger inheritance and to a smaller tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance, each person shall be given an inheritance according to his number" (Num. 26:53-54).  After this, the Levites, who were not allowed to own land, but were considered a holy tribe and source of the priesthood, are counted as well, tallying in at 23,000.

But there is more to the census than property rights.  At the outset, the census is meant to count "all that are fit to go out to war in Israel," so it is also about organization for defense as the Israelites move through hostile territory in the Sinai desert, and prepare to return to the land of Canaan.  But even more than that specific function, this recounting of the census provides a model for how a people can organize themselves.  That's why governments today routinely take a census of their populations.  When the Israelites left Egypt, they left as slaves in great numbers, essentially a mob, a crowd, a mass, and the only social structure they had was a tribal system that worked fine for a household of a few dozen, maybe a few hundred, but could not effectively govern a population of hundreds of thousands.  That's why we see in the Torah the working out of new leadership structures, new forms of organization, a new model that the founding fathers of the United States looked to, and drew upon, when they endeavored to form a more perfect union.

We should also acknowledge that in order to take a census, you had to have a means of keeping track of numbers, a system of notation, of writing.  The first writing system was developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and it was developed by accountants to keep inventory, so writing began with numbers, or rather numerals.  The Sumerians were invaded and conquered by Semitic peoples that we call the Babylonians, and the first system of law, codifed law, written law, came from the Babylonian king known as Hammurabi--Moses is credited with the second such system.  We also believe that some of our stories in Genesis originated with the Babylonians, such as the Tower of Babel (that name's a dead give away),  the Flood, and maybe the Garden of Eden.  And one of the great cities of Mesopotamia was Ur, out of which came Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people, and the Arabic people as well.

But it was in the Sinai desert that the first alphabet appeared, developed by Semitic peoples, and adapted from Egypt's hieroglyphics, the second oldest writing system.  This coincides more or less with the time period reflected in the story of Moses and the Exodus.  And in Semitic writing, in the Hebrew aleph-bet for example, numbers are represented by letters.  This means that every word has a numerical value, which is why the Hebrew word for life, chai, is associated with the number 18, and why when we write checks for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and synagogue donations, we often make the amount out to be multiples of 18.  The mystical practice of numerology has its roots in Semitic numerals, and the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, and specifically the method known as Gematria, includes the idea of searching for hidden meanings in the Torah and elsewhere by translating its words into their numerical equivalents.

So the Israelites in the Sinai had the advantage of both letters and numbers, literacy and numeracy, and this forms the basis for the Jewish cultural facility for arithmetic and mathematics, and later on, for finance.  We didn't invent money, or taxation, or interest rates, or accounting, or banking, but we had the literacy, numeracy, and abstract thinking to work in those areas when all else was closed off to us, and to work in those areas when others could not.  And those who were not literate or numerate, and limited to concrete thinking, could not understand how something like charging interest on loans works, and instead charged us with usury, reinforcing anti-Semitism. But the rulers, the nobility of European lands invited and encouraged us to do this work, in order to develop and fuel their economies, and in this way we helped to usher in the modern world.

But to return to the ancient world, the census that is reported in this Torah portion is the second census that was conducted, the first having been done soon after the exodus from Egypt.  And the results of this second census reveal that, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, and of course Moses, no one from the original exodus was still alive.  They had wandered the desert for forty years so that the generation that was born to slavery, and proven unfaithful at Mount Sinai, would die off, and a new generation born into freedom, and born into the new society governed by God's Law, by the Torah, could take their place.  

I think it is also true that what we call wandering was in no way aimless, but rather was a circling around, a cyclical movement, which is characteristic of the nomadic way of life.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were essentially nomads, and in this way the Israelites could return to that original lifestyle after being captives in Egypt. They could reenact and recapitulate the lives of their ancestors as a prelude to reclaiming the land of their ancestors, Canaan.  And while today we no longer live as nomads, we too makes the rounds, year after year, as we move through the Torah portions, parsha by parsha.

This parsha also establishes the laws of inheritance, and in response to a claim made by the daughters of a man who had no sons, God rules in favor of the women, a highly unusual demonstration of progressive thinking in those ancient days:  "Speak to the children of Israel saying: If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter" (Num. 27:8).

In this parsha, Joshua is selected as the successor to Moses, to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, and various directives about ritual offerings are also listed.  And it says, "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, [you shall offer up] a Passover offering to the Lord. On the fifteenth day of this month, a festival [begins]; you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days" (Num. 28:16-17).  Note that the first month is the month of Passover, the month of Nisan.  In other words, the new year begins in the spring, not the end of summer, as it does for us now.  This makes perfect sense, because Passover is the defining moment for our people,  the birth of a nation, so to speak, the exodus from Egypt is our Independence Day, and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai 40 days later is our Constitution Day.  And a little later, it states, " On the day of the first fruits, when you offer up a new meal offering to the Lord, on your festival of Weeks; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall not perform any mundane work " (Num. 28:26).  The festival of Weeks is Shavuot, when we commemorate God giving us the Ten Commandments and the other 603 that constitute the Law, the Torah.

Later on, it says, "And in the seventh month, on the first day, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work. It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you" (Num. 29:1).  Although not identified by name, this is Rosh Hashanah, at this time not the head of the year, not the new year, but a special day nonetheless.  It was not until after the Babylonian exile that Rosh Hashanah became the New Year's Day for the Hebrew calendar.  And a little later, "And on the tenth day of this seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict your souls. You shall not perform any work" (Num. 29:7).  This is the basis of Yom Kippur.  And a little further on we find, "And on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work, and you shall celebrate a festival to the Lord for seven days" (Num. 29:12).  And this is the festival of Sukkot, a harvest festival where we also commemorate the nomadic lifestyle of our ancestors.

So we find in this parsha the beginnings of our cycle of festivals and holy days which, like the cycle of Torah readings, is a way in which we reenact the wanderings in the desert, which were not wanderings without purpose, but natural cycles and rituals of purification and spiritual communion.  Our Parsha comes from what is called the Book of Numbers, but the message is not about numbers, not about doing things by the numbers, for the original, Hebrew name of the fourth book of the Torah is Bamidbar, In the Desert.  And so, in the many deserts that we wander today, may we find justice and redemption, spiritual purification and communion, continuity with a four thousand year old living tradition and a covenant with a power greater than ourselves.

At this point, we continued with the service, and in lieu of a closing hymn, we sang the song written and originally performed by Bob Dylan, Blowing in the Wind--here are the lyrics:

Blowing In The Wind
Bob Dylan
How many roads must a man walk down,

before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove fly,

before she sleeps in the sand?
And how many times must a cannon ball fly,

before they're forever banned?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

the answer is blowing in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist,
before it is washed to the sea?

How many years can some people exist,
before they're allowed to be free?
And how many times can a man turn his head,
and pretend that he just doesn't see?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.

How many times must a man look up,

before he sees the sky?

And how many ears must one man have,

before he can hear people cry?

And how many deaths will it take till we know,
that too many people have died?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

the answer is blowing in the wind.

And while I have nothing against Bob Dylan's rendition, why don't we return to Peter, Paul, and Mary to get a sense of the simple spiritual beauty of this song:

In Hebrew, the word for wind, and breath as well, ruach, also means spirit, and in this sense we can understand the prayerful intent of this song.  And with that, the service was concluded.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sounds of Silence and Talking Donkeys

Last Friday, I was honored to be the lay leader for Shabbat services here at Adas Emuno, and I thought I'd share with you some of that experience.

First, we opened by reading together the lyrics written by Paul Simon from the Simon and Garfunkel song, Sounds of Silence.  Here they are:

The Sounds of Silence
Paul Simon

Hello darkness, my old friend

I've come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains

Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light

That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools", said I, "You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you"

But my words, like silent raindrops fell

And echoed

In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming

And the sign said,
"The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"

And whispered in the sounds of silence

I believe that the song is familiar to most, it was a big hit back in the 60s, but half a century later, you just never know, so here's a video from YouTube that plays the song while displaying the lyrics:

Paul Simon's lyrics draws on the Biblical polemic against graven images and idol worship, but brings a modern sensibility to it, and an insistence on social justice that has its roots in the Nevi'im, the books of the prophets, who truly came from the margins of ancient society, not the centers of power such as court or Temple.  There is also an echo of the commandment to not stand idly by while another is being harmed here, in the insistence that we not remain silent in the face of injustice.  It is a reminder of the silence that greeted the Holocaust, a protest against contemporary evils, and a call to action.

We then proceeded with the service, and later, before we reached the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing, we read together the lyrics from the Leonard Cohen song, If It Be Your Will:

If It Be Your Will
Leonard Cohen

If it be your will
That I speak no more

And my voice be still

As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you

From this broken hill

All your praises
They shall ring

If it be your will

To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill

Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will

To make us well

And draw us near

And bind us tight

All your children here
In their rags of light

In our rags of light

All dressed to kill

And end this night

If it be your will

This is a song about pain and suffering, about going through hell physically, and/or emotionally, and praying for healing.  Here is another YouTube video with a recording of Leonard Cohen:

After completing the healing prayer, it was time for the Dvar Torah, literally, a word of Torah, and the parsha or Torah portion for last week was Parsha Balak, Balak being the name of the king of Moab who figures prominently in the story being told in that section.  It's actually a rather unique section of the Torah, because the focus is not on the Jewish people or any individual member thereof.  After all, once we get past the preliminaries, Genesis is about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons, and then the other four books are about Moses mainly, and sometimes about Aaron and his sons and grandsons, and Miriam, but mainly its Moses, and the Israelites collectively. 

But in this story, the focus is on Balaam, who is a sorcerer and also a prophet of God, but not one of the Israelites.  Balaam is a Midianite.  And this is an important point, in my opinion.  What this indicates is that you do not have to be Jewish, or an Israelite, or Hebrew, to worship God, or even be a prophet. You can trace this understanding back to the story of Noah, where a basic religion and ethical code for all the peoples of the world is presented. And so there are priests, shamans, and prophets who come from other peoples, and the outlook is that each people forges their own relationship with God. It has to be done as a community, the individual is not enough, the group must take responsibility for itself and its conduct. And every community, every people, has to make its own deal with God, to create their own just society. In the Torah, the Jewish people were chosen, and chose to accept a special covenant, special responsibilities, and special hardships. But there are as many relationships with God, pathways to God, as there are communities.  This stands in contrast to later, universalist religions where there is only one path to God that all must follow, and where the emphasis is on the individual relationship to the divine, rather than on the community.

So, the story begins with King Balak of Moab, who viewed the Israelites wandering through the desert as enemies, and is not willing to give them safe passage.  So he sends messengers to the Land of Midian, to speak with Balaam, and ask Balaam to come with them to Moab and to put a curse on the Israelites. But God appears to Balaam and tells him not to go, saying, "You shall not curse the people because they are blessed!" So he refuses, but King Balak sends more prestigious messengers, offering to reward Balaam with great riches, and this time God tells Balaam he can go, but he must only speak the words that God tells him to.
  Here's an excerpt, in English translation of course, from Numbers 22:

21. In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries.

22. God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.

23. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field. Balaam beat the she-donkey to get it back onto the road.

24. The angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, with a fence on this side and a fence on that side.

25. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and she was pressed against the wall. She pressed Balaam's leg against the wall, and he beat her again.

26. The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.
27. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam's anger flared, and he beat the she-donkey with a stick.
28. The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?"
29. Balaam said to the she-donkey, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
30. The she-donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" He said, "No."

31. The Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.

32. The angel of the Lord said to him, "Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I have came out to thwart you, for the one embarking on the journey has hastened against me.

33. When the she-donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times. Had she not turned aside before me, now also I would also have killed you and spared her [the she-donkey]."

34. Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. Now, if it displeases you, I will return."

35. The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, "Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak." So Balaam went with Balak's dignitaries.

Now, this too is quite unusual.  Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we find a talking animal?  That's a motif that comes up commonly in myths, folktales, and nowadays in cartoons (can you imagine Eddie Murphy as the donkey?).  And the angel as well is much more conversational and personal than the typical supernatural messengers that appear in the sacred text.  All in all, the story of a talking donkey is a comedy, and a bit of a farce, and it may well be that this was a folktale that originated among the Midianites or Moabites, and not the Israelites, and then later became incorporated into the Torah.  It certainly has elements that indicate it is more like oral tradition than written scripture.  For that alone, I think this is a wonderful section of the Five Books of Moses.

After this encounter, Balaam arrives in Moab, and tells Balak to build seven altars, and offer sacrifices to God, which he does. And then Balaam blesses instead of curses the Israelites, saying, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?" King Balak is angry, takes Balaam to a second location, builds altars and offers sacrifices, and again Balaam has no choice but to bless the Jewish people. King Balak then tries a third location, with the same result. This illustrates a difference in mode of thinking, with the nonliterate, oral mindset of Balak, who thinks in concrete terms, and imagines the divine to be local, immanent, tied to a particular place.  In contrast, the story shows that for the monotheism of the Israelites, God is omnipresent (a similar theme is found in the book of Jonah, where it is shown that it is impossible to run away and escape from God).  This conception requires an abstract mode of thought that is all but impossible without literacy, and the religion of Moses is quite clearly a religion based on the sacred text received at Mount Sinai, a religion rooted in the written word.

So, Balaam makes with a blessing, the beginning of which is part of Jewish liturgy, but which then goes into a brutal, agonistic mode (this from Numbers 24):

5. How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
6. They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water. 

7. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted.

8. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows [into their blood].

9. He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.

And then Balaam concludes with a prophecy about the end days and redemption, when the evil of Assyria, Esau, and the Amalek will be defeated. This is the first apocalyptic vision of armageddon that appears in the Bible.  The word armageddon comes from the Hebrew Har Megiddo, Har meaning mountain, so it literally is a geographical location, Mount Megiddo.  But for those interested in the so-called end days, this is where it all begins.

The parsha concludes with a second story, where the enemies of the Israelites try a new tactic, getting the Israelites to sin and thereby lose God's favor, and they do so by sending in Moabite and Midianite women to seduce the men.  God's anger at this immorality is reflected in the outbreak of disease in the Israelite camp, but we perhaps can understand it in contemporary terms as an outbreak of STDs, and it might even be that this was an early form of biological warfare (perhaps comparable to the early settlers in the New World giving the Native Americans diseased blankets?).  The response is quite extreme in this story, as God tells Moses to execute the guilty ones.  But what happens is that one of the leaders of the Israelites is cavorting in public with a Midianite princess, until Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron and therefore a priest, kills them both with his spear. Not only is this violent, but also phallic, as the way, I believe, the story is understood is that the couple are caught in the act, speared together in a manner that Sigmund Freud would certainly have much to say about.  It's brutal, but again these are ancient times, and the Israelites were not that much more advanced over their neighbors back then, it was a constant struggle according to the stories in the Bible.  But in this instance, the ritual sacrifice ends the plague, which perhaps can be understood as the threat of execution put the fear of God into the men, and put an end to the promiscuous behavior that spread the disease.

The point, I believe, is not to sanitize these stories, but to understand them, not necessarily taking them literally, but as a reflection of a struggle to emerge out of the oral, tribal, agonistic mode of life, and evolve into something new, and better, a people governed by law and justice, ethics and rationality. It was a long and difficult struggle, but the Israelites were engaged in it long before others were.  And we understood that you don't make progress by forgetting your history, and editing out all of your mistakes and failures and wrongdoings, but by remembering them, and striving not to repeat them, and to make things better.

The progress can be seen in the concluding lines of the Haftarah accompanying this Torah portion, taken from the Prophet Micah (6: 7-8), which comes after another apocalyptic vision:

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

For me, those this sums up better than anything what the Torah tries to teach us, what is the basis of our religion.

The service then proceeded as usual, but before the Mourner's Kaddish, I read a poem by Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, one of the Hebrew Poets of Medieval Spain, translated into English by the 19th century Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus:

Almighty! what is man?

But flesh and blood.

Like shadows flee his days,

He marks not how they vanish from his gaze,
Suddenly, he must die-
He droppeth. stunned, into nonentity.
Almighty! what is man?

A body frail and weak.

Full of deceit and lies,

Of vile hypocrisies.
Now like a flower blowing,

Now scorched by sunbeams glowing.

And wilt thou of his trespasses inquire?

How may he ever bear
Thine anger just, thy vengeance dire?
Punish him not, but spare,

For he is void of power and strength!

Almighty! what is man?
By filthy lust possessed,

Whirled in a round of lies,

Fond frenzy swells his breast.

The pure man sinks in mire and slime,

The noble shrinketh not from crime,

Wilt thou resent on him the charms of sin?

Like fading grass,

So shall he pass.
Like chaff that blows
Where the wind goes.

Then spare him, be thou merciful, O King,

Upon the dreaded day of reckoning!

Almighty! what is man?

The haughty son of time

Drinks deep of sin,

And feeds on crime

Seething like, waves that roll,

Hot as a glowing coal.

And wilt thou punish him for sins inborn?

Lost and forlorn,

Then like the weakling he must fall,

Who some great hero strives withal.

Oh, spare him, therefore! let him win

Grace for his sin!

Almighty! what is man?

Spotted in guilty wise,

A stranger unto faith,

Whose tongue is stained with lies,

And shalt thou count his sins so is he lost,

Uprooted by thy breath.
Like to a stream by tempest tossed.

His life falls from him like a cloak,

He passes into nothingness, like smoke.

Then spare him, punish not, be kind, I pray,

To him who dwelleth in the dust, an image wrought in clay!

Almighty! what is man?

A withered bough!
When he is awestruck by approaching doom.

Like a dried blade of grass, so weak, so low

The pleasure of his life is changed to gloom.

He crumbles like a garment spoiled with moth;
According to his sins wilt thou be wroth?

He melts like wax before the candle s breath,

Yea, like thin water, so he vanisheth,

Oh, spare him therefore, for thy gracious name,

And be not too severe upon his shame!

Almighty! what is man?

A faded leaf!

If thou dost weigh him in the balance lo!

He disappears a breath that thou dost blow.

His heart is ever filled
With lust of lies unstilled.

Wilt bear in mind his crime
Unto all time?

He fades away like clouds sun-kissed,

Dissolves like mist.

Then spare him! let him love and mercy win,

According to thy grace, and not according to his sin!

The medieval mentality is also different from our own, less comforting and gentle, but it too is part of our long history, a tradition that encompasses the ancient and medieval as well as the modern and contemporary, a tradition of balance and harmony, and a tradition of freedom, justice, and memory.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Welcome Rabbi Schwartz!

We are now pleased to welcome our new spiritual leader to Congregation Adas Emuno, Rabbi Barry Schwartz.  Rabbi Schwartz will begin conducting Shabbat services in the month of August.  So he shouldn't be a stranger when you see him for the first time, here is a photograph:

And to begin to get to know him better, here is his brief biography:

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz 
     Barry L. Schwartz, a noted rabbi and author, is the CEO of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia, the preeminent English language publisher of the Bible and Jewish classics for the past 120 years.     
Rabbi Schwartz received his BA, magna cum laude, from Duke University, and his MA and rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College, which also recently awarded him an honorary doctorate for twenty five years of service to the Reform rabbinate.      
Rabbi Schwartz was senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ for more than a decade. He previously served pulpits in Amherst, NY and Chevy Chase, MD. Rabbi Schwartz began his career as the rabbi of the Leo Baeck Center in Haifa, and served in the Israeli army.          
Rabbi Schwartz is a prolific writer, the author of four books, a prize winning short story, and scholarly articles that have appeared in the Journal of Reform Judaism, American Jewish History, and the Hebrew Union College Annual. His textbook, Jewish Heroes, Jewish Values, is used in over 300 religious schools nationwide. A previous text Jewish Theology: A Comparative Study explores Jewish denominational thinking. Honi The Circlemaker: Eco-Fables From Ancient Israel is a series of folktales for children. Rabbi Schwartz’ latest book, Judaism’s Great Debates, will be published next year in adult and youth editions.      
Rabbi Schwartz has a special passion for Jewish environmental activism. He has also been extensively involved with interfaith efforts, especially in Camden, N.J.     
Rabbi Schwartz’ personal interests include hiking, cycling, table tennis, bonsai, and of course, reading. He is married to Deborah A. Schwartz, an occupational therapist specializing in hand rehabilitation. Their three children are Nadav, a financial planner, Talia, a speech pathologist, and Noam, a student at Rutgers University.

We will certainly be hearing more from Barry in the weeks to come, both here on our congregational blog, and in person, at Adas Emuno.   Until then, Shalom Rabbi Schwartz, and welcome!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Farewell to Cantor Shapiro

This month, we bid a fond farewell to our spiritual leader, Cantor Kerith Shapiro, seen below making the blessings over grape juice and challah, and telling the children that she will never forget them on the last day of religious school.

And we take this opportunity to include here the message Cantor Shapiro wrote for her column in Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

Looking back on the past eight years that I’ve been so lucky to serve as the Cantor and then Spiritual Leader of Adas Emuno, it all seems like a blur!  I really can’t believe that the time has gone by so quickly.  And as my last day at Adas Emuno draws closer, it seems like the time left with all of you is so short.
 I have had the opportunity to grow at Adas Emuno in so many ways and I want to thank all of you for that.  The lay leadership (your Board of Directors) will continue to work diligently as volunteers to guide the congregation and plan for the future.  I am ever grateful to these volunteers.  Our religious school director, Jennifer Katz Goldstein, has continued to shape our school and make it one of the best in Bergen County.  I want to thank Jennifer for always going above and beyond, and creating a thriving and wonderful learning environment for our children.  I want to thank the children for giving me the opportunity to be their teacher.  Seeing the world through their eyes allowed me the chance to feel young.  To our torah study group, “Turn it and turn it again for everything is found within it.”  May you continue to study the words of torah and may they always be sweet to you.  The junior choir has been a special group, and I’ll carry the sound of your sweet voices with me wherever I go.
Shalom chaverim,
Cantor Shapiro  

And we will most certainly remember you as well, Cantor, shalom and best of luck!