Giving Tuesday

Rabbi's Message - November 30, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

It’s been a big weekend for Jewish Americans.  First there was Thanksgiving, with its meal prep, traditionally large gatherings, or pandemically small ones.  Then we could take advantage of Black Friday deals (last minute Chanukkah shopping anyone?).  Then Shabbat.  Then Chanukkah began on Sunday.  Then perhaps we also took a look at Cyber Monday deals from the COVID-safety of our homes.  And now, it's Tuesday.  But its still not just a regular Tuesday, its #GivingTuesday, which much like the American Thanksgiving traditions and commercial “holidays” around it, has grown in prominence over the last several years.

Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving.  The Tuesday which, as Rabbi Paul Kipnes writes, “moves us away from the popular narcissistic ‘gimme-gimme’ culture (gimme presents, gimme food) instead turns us outward.  We find ourselves being especially thankful for the food, the family surrounding us and the blessings that uplift our lives.  If only we could harness those warm fuzzy feelings and transform them into a force for tikkun… [Giving Tuesday] is a day when we are invited to give to others to act to create a better, brighter world.”  And this year, may it feel especially bright as we light our menorahs.

Whether you are waiting for online orders to arrive, or looking at a shiny new something purchased this weekend or not.  Whether you, or those in your household, are excitedly opening presents for Chanukkah, take some time today to give.  Be that monetarily to your preferred charities, donating new or used goods to others, or be that a simple act of kindness, or something else – use today to think about balancing the gratitude we have for the blessings in our lives represented by Thanksgiving, and for the freedom that Chanukkah represents, with acts that turn us outward to bring freedom and blessings to others.

I hope to see you tonight at Temple Israel to celebrate Chanukkah on this Giving Tuesday at our drive-thru and outdoor menorah lighting.  We encourage you to bring some donations from St. Vincent’s needs list, as we partner with them on this Giving Tuesday along with our Chanukkah fun!

Lighting the Way

Rabbi's Message - November 23, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

As we approach the start of Chanukkah (beginning sundown on Sunday), we retell the story of the Maccabees who fought for their religious freedom and the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days (and the deliciousness of latkes, jelly doughnuts and gelt!).  In recent years, the ancient message of Chanukkah resonates more strongly – the Maccabees fought for the right to live and practice peacefully in a culturally diverse empire.  We too, live in a diverse nation, and yet, we recognize that the freedom to live and practice peacefully without persecution due one’s faith, race, sexuality, or gender, are not equitable across Americans nor the world.  The Maccabees fought not only for the ability to practice their own faith openly, but against the creation of a homogenous culture in general. We too, remember that diversity is important. We especially recall our commitment to fight and persevere against intolerant forces and evil in order that redemption and freedom will prevail.

But in true Jewish fashion, how we do this has been subject to debate – and not just if one should put applesauce or sour cream on latkes. (In case you were wondering, this Rabbi says either is completely acceptable).  An interesting teaching from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, gives two opinions on how to light the Chanukkah menorah.  The students of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai (both first-century C.E. Rabbis in the Land of Israel) disagreed. The Babylonian Talmud records this debate stating that Beit Shammai (Shammai’s students) maintained that one should light the menorah with eight candles on the first night and reduce the number each night following, ending with one candle on the final night. Beit Hillel (Hillel’s students) maintained that on the first day one should light one candle and increase the number of candles, ending with eight on the final night. The Talmud then supposes reasons for the practices: Shammai’s practice of decreasing the number of candles corresponds to the days still to come (or perhaps parallels Sukkot, but that’s a different lesson), while Hillel’s increasing number of candles corresponds to the days that have past.  Do we count what has already happened, or anticipate what is to come?  Do we mark how many days of the miraculous oil have occurred already, or are left?

The Talmud gives a second rationale for each opinion.  Shammai’s decreasing candles might be a parallel to the number of bulls sacrificed at Sukkot, which also decrease over eight days, while Hillel’s increasing number can be attributed to the principle that, “in matters of sanctity one increases and does not decrease.”  

My Rabbi growing up (Rabbi Jeff Glickman) would always say, “May you grow in holiness”.  I’m reminded of this each year as I watch the flames increase over Chanukkah.  In a way, Hillel “won” the debate – that’s how we light.  But preserving the debate reminds us that both methods have merit.  I’m sure we have all counted down the days until something happens.  May we too, be able to take some time to count “up” our blessings that we have too.  As we count those blessings, may we grow in holiness, and share the light we have with others.

I’ll conclude with my favorite – not Jewish-sourced – thought: A candle that lights another candle loses nothing, it just makes the world a better place.

The Struggle Within

Rabbi's Message - November 16, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read about the night before the long-awaited reunion between Jacob with his brother, Essau.  He lays down by a stream that’s name itself means “struggle,” implying that, after coming to terms with his uncle, Jacob is now ready to struggle with conflicts that have long haunted him.  Once he falls asleep, Jacob wrestles with an ish, an adversary; he prevails and is given the name Israel, “one who struggled with God and man and prevailed.”  Jacob awakens transformed and ready to reconcile with his brother.  

There are numerous theories about who the ish was that Jacob faced that night.  Some commentaries suspect that he wrestled with his brother, others believe it was a struggle with God.  I prefer to lean into the modern commentaries who suggest that the ish with whom Jacob wrestled was, in fact, himself.  His better impulses were facing off against his darkest fears, sins, and guilt.  It becomes a story that teaches that strength emanates from within and often begins with personal struggle - perhaps many, followed by years of confrontation. 

At Torah study this past week, I mentioned one of my favorite interpretations of Jacob’s journey.  In Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, points out that the first time Yaakov encounters an angel (in his first dream with the ladder), he stopped ki vah hashemesh, or “because the sun had set.”   When he awoke from his wrestling match, found in this week’s portion, he left with ahlot hashachar, “the rising of the sun.”  Anchored in midrash, Zornberg suggests that these markers of time are functions of Jacob’s personal sense of time.  It appears from this connection between the setting and the rising of the sun as if Jacob remained twenty years in one long period of darkness - a spiritual darkness.  

But God was always there, even in the darkness.  It seems, rather, that Jacob wasn’t ready to face God.  It was only after his process of self-discovery, wrestling that night with his evil inclinations, that Jacob finally overcame that which was keeping him from coming closer to God.  It was through his process of self-reconciliation that Jacob, of his own volition, finally could pull himself out of his darkness so that the sun could rise again. 

How Jacob wrestled with himself and with his life experiences feels especially pertinent this week.  I spent much of today participating in the “Love Epidemic II,” a virtual program put together locally to help community leaders to better respond to communal and individual trauma.  One of the presenters shared: “Self-awareness is the gateway to healing.”  How true it is and, if we accept Zornberg’s interpretation, it is what our Torah portion teaches as well.  The struggle, the wrestling match of confronting our own pain and trauma, may sometimes translate to 20 years of pain and suffering, or perhaps longer.  But, by looking to Jacob’s story for guidance, we learn that something holy and transformational may come from our efforts and there are sources, and resources, to help us.  

Even though it may be painful, we would all benefit from self-reflection and self-awareness.  Becoming more mindful will help with our healing and, hopefully, lead us closer to God. As God remained with Jacob throughout his complicated life, especially through his personal and spiritual struggles, we pray that God will be with us as well. We also have one other.  If you ever find that you need support, know that your Temple rabbis and community are here for you.  May we continue to move from strength to strength and support one another on the journey between.

 

Repairing this World is Our Obligation

Rabbi's Message - November 9, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon taught: Lo alecha ha’melacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin l’hibatel mi’mena. It is not our obligation to complete the work, but nor are we free to refrain from doing it.  

As Jews, we are not permitted to back down from confronting the ills of our community.  We are taught that we must take an active role in finding solutions to bring us closer to the world as it should be.  It is a big weight to bear, considering the enormity of the work to be done, but we are not to be disheartened.  Even if our efforts may not single-handedly fix all of our societal ills, we must remain committed.  We must continue to engage in acts of tzedakah, justice, ma’asim tovim, good deeds, and Tikkun Olam, mending the world. 

Sometimes the work can be discouraging.  There will be moments in our lives when we struggle with the efficacy of our impact.  It could be because of the magnitude of the work to be done or a lack of capacity for effecting change.  But we are comforted knowing that even the smallest of our efforts will make a difference.  When we drop off a bag of dry goods at a food drive, we understand that, although the handful of items we contribute will not eliminate hunger in our entire population, it will nourish the bodies of individual families.  And every ripple we produce through our efforts has the possibility to become a massive change-enacting wave.   

When it comes to systemic issues in our society, these also can feel like climbing insurmountable mountains.  Documents, interactions, personal experiences, and testimonies - they help us understand the depth of the problems our society faces.  And it, too, is a lot.  But, just like our hands-on work of tzedakah, we must keep at it, even if we don’t see the immediate results of our work.  Policy change often takes years.  And we are not free to refrain from the work, just because we may not be able to finish it in our lifetimes.

This is why the work of the Religious Action Center is so important to our congregations.  It offers us a mouthpiece to address larger societal issues as a community and helps us to feel supported in our individual efforts.  

This year, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) has committed itself to issues surrounding racial justice.  Here in Ohio, we are specifically addressing one of many of these issues, in particular, the death penalty.  We are working closely with Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE) to help pass bills that will abolish the death penalty in our state.  With RAC-OH, our congregations are empowered to work in coalition to bring about real, lasting change in our communities.  And together, our ripples will gain incredible force.

On Thursday, you have the opportunity to hear from a powerful panel of speakers to learn more about why we are being called to abolish the death penalty.  Wise Temple is hosting an evening (via Zoom) to hear from State Representative Jean Schmidt, founder of the OTSE Hannah Kubbins, and Jonathan Mann, a family member of a victim.  Following this panel there will be time for us to discuss how we can move forward together as a congregation.  I hope that you will join me for this meaningful conversation.  When we work together, we help carry the weight of this task more evenly and move closer to a world of wholeness and peace.

Our Civic Duty as Jews

Rabbi's Message - November 2, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.” – Talmud, Brakhot 55a

Today is November 2.  It's election day.  It's not a presidential election year, nor a midterm election, but Judaism still says you should go vote..
 
Who we elect to positions, even those that seem of little consequence, affects the management and governance of our communities.  Our voices, as citizens, matter.  As a Rabbi, I cannot, and would not, tell you who to vote for; but I will tell you to go vote.  It is our duty as Jews and as good citizens of our communities.  
 
We pray (and often sing) the words of the Geulah prayer (think: Mi Chamocha) daily as Jews, which thanks God for redeeming Israel, for making us free.  For centuries, Jews were not full citizens of their countries and had no voice in the secular/national leadership.  Speaking for myself, it is all too easy to see voting as another task, or perhaps even a burden, on today's busy schedule.  It is.  It is also a privilege to make an informed choice - to be consulted - about who our leadership will be.  The "minor" offices that are decided today could be the candidates in more prestigious elections of tomorrow.

 
If you want a little more help reframing voting in terms of our Jewish selves, check out this article for more sources and a blessing to use before voting.  If it's the first year you are eligible - don't forget to add a Shehechiyanu!
 

To Trick or Treat?

Rabbi's Message - October 26, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

As a child, Halloween was about dressing up, getting candy, and coming up with new torturous swim practices in the name of Halloween “fun”.   Good, clean, fall fun – right?   For Jews, the answer might be a little more nuanced.  The issue boils down to the prohibition for Jews to worship idols.  As a monotheistic religion, we take the whole ‘no idols’ thing pretty seriously.

We know that Halloween has pagan origins, so the argument that it could be considered connected to idol worship isn’t so farfetched.  Some Jewish thinkers argue, that there is “no real reason for a child to dress up and collect candy on this specific day of the year.”  Biased as the mom of young children, I imagine if you spun the argument about not having a reason to dress up and get candy around, you’d be hard pressed to find a majority of younger children that would say ‘no’ to the idea of playing dress-up and treats.

But, asking 5-year-olds about free candy might not be the best way to make informed Jewish decisions.  Others would argue that modern celebrations on and around October 31st are so far removed from their pagan origins.  Much like you’d be hard-pressed to find a majority of Christian Americans today that would say Christmas trees shouldn’t be part of Christmas because of their pagan origins (which up until even the early 1800s they were in America).   If one believes that something can be separated from its history, that things change, that time changes, then if current Halloween celebrations don’t resemble idolatrous practices, it would be kosher for Jews.

The question may still not be as simple as asking if Halloween is truly about worshipping the devil or chocolate bars.  The stickier part of the discussion in Jewish legal literature comes about through notions of the propriety of engaging in the ways of other, non-Jewish, ethnic/religious groups.  Which, post-emancipation, I think is ultimately a question of how we as Jews respond to modernity and the challenges of living in our modern world.  Would trick-or-treating, a costume party, or a silly sports workout undermine our religious identity and practice as a Jew?  Personally, I don’t think it does, especially in a year where October 31 doesn’t fall on Shabbat.  That said, I also think it’s a great time to use the history and current practice as an opportunity to model for ourselves and our children what kind of thinking goes into making these decisions and reflecting on what values we hold most high.  Perhaps there is a way to elevate your spooky antics with Jewish values – can you reuse a Purim costume instead of buying or making a new one?  Could you donate some of your candy to first-responders, shelters, or somewhere else afterward?  What else could you do?  With that in mind, have a fun and safe last week of October.  (And don't worry - the religious school team has some special spooky-themed fun for our session on Sunday.  See you then!)

Thinking About God

Rabbi's Message - October 19, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

Soon after it was published, Rabbi Tuling’s book, Thinking about God, was a fixture on my nightstand.  I remember watching my youngest son, six at the time, pick it up and thumb through it.  As he closed the book he stared intently at the cover, a beautiful celestial scene in midnight blue, covered by the sun, moon, planets, and stars.  He looks at me.  Half stating and half asking he says: “So God is a star?!”

 
Yesterday, as I drove him home from Hillel Academy, he couldn’t wait to tell me that there are 248 bones in the body, as there are words in the Shema, so if we say the Shema perfectly over and over, HaShem will watch over us and protect us.  He was so excited. “HaShem will protect us from everything!”
 
One of the most wonderful parts of teaching children in a religious setting has been to see how their God-concepts have changed.  From Preschoolers sharing their answers to “Thank you God for…” in services with Rabbi Sobo to examining contemporary Jewish thought with Confirmands, their responses never cease to amaze me.  
 
In 1981, James Fowler developed a theory of faith development based on the works of Kohlberg, Erikson, and Piaget.  He was able to “map out” the process by which individuals progress in their faith development.  When I listened to my son describe God as a star, I recognized that he was right where he was supposed to be - in the mythic-literal stage.  Even if I helped, at 6 or 7 he wouldn’t have been developmentally ready to unpack ideas of Buber, Heschel, or Fackenheim that I teach in 9th and 10th grade. 
 
One of the things I enjoy most about working with teens is watching them explore deeper, more critical discussions of Jewish ideas, to which they will eventually assign personal meaning. This is why it is crucial that students continue to attend Religious School after Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It is at this point that they can synthesize information meaningfully.  They shift from simply repeating information to hopefully understanding why it matters to them.   
 
Some adults move beyond this adolescent level of understanding.  But, according to Fowler’s research, many adults do not.  It seems to me that it isn’t that we are incapable of doing so, but simply that we don’t take the time to reflect on our beliefs and how our life experiences have impacted them over the years.  That is why I chose to teach “Thinking about God.”  It offers thoughtful questions for various God concepts and encourages us to find ourselves within the array of Jewish thought.  I am excited about our conversations this will evoke and hope you will consider joining the conversation.
 
Last week we explored basic definitions related to theology, took an accounting of our current beliefs of God, examined Fowler’s ideas of faith development, and turned to Genesis to see what the Hebrew Bible had to tell us about God and Creation.  This Thursday at noon we will continue our journey by looking at the theology of traditional Jewish liturgy.  We hope to see you there.
 

Being Together is a Good Place to Be

Rabbi's Message - October 12, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Just a couple weeks ago, we restarted our annual cycle of Torah reading.  After Adam and all the animals are created, Adam feels lonely, and we read God’s observation, “It is not good for adam to be alone.”  We can read the Hebrew word adam as Adam’s name, or we can read it more generally, a person, people – it is not good for people to be alone.  From our very creation, we are meant to be in relationship with God and with one another – whether that is in our familial and romantic connections, or friendships, work relationships, and more – it is not good to be alone.

Navigating relationships is easy at times, stormy at others.  It can be easy to think throwing in the towel and walking away is the best option – it’s not.  Jewish tradition wants us to be with others.  We are called to “love your fellow as yourself,” and that “all Jews are responsible/accountable to one another.”  

As religious school has resumed in-person learning this year, I’m shocked by how much our students have grown.  On the one hand, physically, I have to look up to see some of them now!  But in maturity, self-confidence, how they carry themselves, and more.  They are the same people as before, but they are also not the same.  When we see people frequently, it is harder to see that growth.  In our relationships with one another, we cannot just do things the way we always have, because everyone is growing, changing, developing.  

This week at Temple, we have sessions with RAC-Ohio, we might attend the JCC's Cultural Arts & Book Series presentation on Jewish parenting, we might be starting or continuing in one of our learning programs at Temple (shameless plug for Hebrew classes tonight and Talmud on Tuesdays with me, and Thinking about God with Rabbi Bodney-Halasz on Thursdays).  I hope that these opportunities and more give us the perspective to stop and take stock of our own growth and development and that of those around us, as we continue to love and support one another to always be growing in holiness together.

Testing the Waters

Rabbi's Message - October 5, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, is a familiar one.  Dismayed with humankind, God decided to start over.  God instructed Noah and his family to build an ark before God flooded the earth.  With a sampling of each species of animal upon the earth, Noah closed the doors of the ark behind him.  In our minds’ eyes, we can picture the head of the giraffe peaking out of the window at the top of the ark, together with my personal favorite creature, the “yonah,” or dove.  

After much time had passed, Noah sent the dove away from the ark three times to determine whether or not the waters had subsided.  The first time it returned quickly, having found no place to land.  The second time, it returned to Noah with an olive branch, indicating that the waters had decreased.  The third time, the dove did not return, as it was able to make its home on the earth again.

When reading this section last year, I was struck by how patient Noah’s family was.  After the “Stay at Home” orders of 2020, we all had an inkling of what that must have been like - stuck in a limited space with close family and pets for weeks at a time!  We related to the anxiety of not knowing when the world would be habitable again.  

Like Noah, we sent out a dove to “test the waters.” It quickly returned because it wasn’t time yet.  We would need to wait.  Eventually we tried again.  The dove returned with a hopeful twig in its bill.  Cautiously, we prepared ourselves for how different things would be.  Finally, the dove flew away and never returned.  One unsteady foot at a time, we ventured back onto the dry land ready to navigate our new normal.  

Starting over carried a huge weight of responsibility for Noah.  He was a good, decent man, but righteous only in his generation.  With God’s promise never to destroy the world again, Noah and the generations to follow knew they needed to make the best choices they could.  

This story teaches us many important, and relevant, lessons:

  1. Individual choices and behavior greatly impact the lives of others.  Many innocent people were lost in the flood. 
  2. None of us is perfect.  Despite good intentions, we will make mistakes. (And that's okay.)
  3. When we sin, there are consequences for our actions.  We must take responsibility and complete teshuvah.  The rainbow taught us that destroying life is not an acceptable solution.
  4. We are all in this together.  Patience must also guide us in how we relate to others in the proverbial “same boat.” 
  5. It is wise to emerge slowly from a tenuous situation.  Danger does not disappear overnight and weathering the storm takes patience.  Use caution and take things one day at a time.
  6. Don’t lose hope.  The sun will eventually shine and dry the water on our cheeks.

Starting over is hard.  Admitting we make mistakes is sometimes even more difficult.  Can we fully emerge from the boat?  What will happen if we can't find dry land or make the wrong choices moving forward?  Whether you are still testing the waters or have jumped back on land with two feet, give yourself the chance to reflect and explore this new world. Open your mind to fresh perspectives and new possibilities.  

Why doesn’t the Sukkah need a mezuzah?

Rabbi's Message - September 21, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

We are commanded to dwell in Sukkot at this time of year.  But why is it, that unlike all other Jewish dwellings, the sukkah does not have a mezuzah?  On the 15th day of Tishrei, possibly with break the fast dinner feeling like it is still in our bellies from Yom Kippur, we begin the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths).  Traditionally we erect a sukkah, a shelter that reminds us of the booths in the desert when we left Egypt and in the fields during the harvest.  Sukkot is the time of our rejoicing, of feasting, of giving thanks, particularly for the abundant harvest.  From an agricultural perspective we celebrate that we are “set” after a year of harvest for the winter.

The mezuzah that we put on our homes symbolizes permanence.  This is our home, where we live, where we store our possessions.  Why would a sukkah, which the Bible tells us to dwell in, not also fall in this category?  Precisely because one aspect of Sukkot is to bring us more in tune with the impermanence that exists in life.  The Sukkah is supposed to leave us vulnerable to the elements, unlike the walls of a permanent house.  It can not be left (completely) in tact from year to year.  Its roof cannot provide full coverage, but rather let rays of the sun through, and thus also the rain, or even snow!  It is for this very reason, that although it is our dwelling for the week, it is not a true home.

 Within Jewish law, the definition of permanence for a dwelling is what distinguishes the need for a mezuzah from what qualifies as a sukkah.  We explore our permanence versus transience, rootedness versus wandering.  By drawing our experience closer to nature, we likely will come to appreciate the safety and security of our permanent home.  

One’s level of privilege often translates in our society into one’s perceived sense of security and safety.  Perhaps, this Sukkot, as we spend time in our Sukkahs, whether Temple’s, your own, a friend’s, or even something sukkah-like, take a moment to consider the vulnerability we feel when the sheltering elements of our life are set aside.  When we open up to vulnerability, what do we find?