Author Archives: Rabbi Neil Hirsch

Pharaoh Today

Melanie Henriques, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Shabbat Shalom — How privileged we are to be able to greet one another with these words without fear of persecution.

In today’s portion, Shemot, there is a new Pharaoh ruling Egypt.  He feared that the Israelites were too numerous and could side with an enemy and overpower the Egyptians.  Pharaoh  attempted to suppress the spirit and strength of the Israelites through taxation and forced, harsh labor, and eventually death.  Despite these measures, the Israelite population and strength continued to increase.  This is one of the earliest instances of religious persecution.

I have been fortunate to have lived in two countries and in a time period where religious differences are not only possible and respected but celebrated.  In Jamaica, I attended the elementary school established by the Jewish community and a public high school founded by Franciscan nuns – both welcoming to and attended by children of all faiths. Church leaders and government dignitaries annually attended our Rosh Hashanah services to celebrate the New Year with us, and our spiritual leader was invited to celebrate with other faiths. Here in Newton we’ve just celebrated a season of lights – we saw chanukiot glowing and Christmas trees sparkling.  Sitting today in our midst are family members and friends of other religions who have come to share this occasion.

However, much of the world does not enjoy these religious freedoms.  And it seems to be increasingly getting worse.  We all know the story of the Spanish Inquisition where Jews were forced to denounce their religion or flee their country.  And we are aware of how the Holocaust has touched the lives of so many, including those in this Congregation.  Recently, the news has been filled with reports of religious persecution worldwide.  Christians and Yezidis are systematically tortured and killed by ISIL.  This past November Kenyans traveling by bus were singled out and shot dead because they were Christians.  Nigerian girls live in fear of being kidnapped and forced into marriages and servitude by Boko Haram; hundreds have already suffered that fate.

Are the fundamentalist groups the new Pharaoh?  Are they inflicting Pharaoh-like oppression on others through slavery, fear, torture and death; even upon members of their own religion?  The Israelites were blessed to have Moses come lead them away from Pharaoh’s bondage.  Where is the Moses of the Christians in Kenya?  Who will rescue the girls in Nigeria?  Who will protect the non-fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan?  Who will be the Moses to stand up to ISIL?

There is hope when we reflect on the actions of our civil rights heroes – Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.  They showed us that individuals can change the world for the better. We see hope in the more than sixty countries who have joined the US-led coalition to fight ISIL.  We see hope in Malala, a young girl who stood up to the Taliban.  Hope exists in the small acts of individuals bringing together people of different religions such as the Hand in Hand interfaith schools in Jerusalem.

As you sit here today, take a moment to truly appreciate the religious freedom you enjoy.  Think about a small step you can take to stop these modern day Pharaohs.  We are not required to solve the problem but we can play a part in bringing about more religious freedom than the year before – through charity, calling attention to the issues, and being more accepting and tolerant of one another.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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Forgotten Heroes of the Exodus Story

By Carol Gabel Berlin, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Popular culture has brought the story of the Exodus from Egypt into our lives.  Moses, God and Pharaoh have starring roles.  We love this story for many reasons, especially because it serves to teach several important lessons including overcoming oppression and putting our faith in God.  “Remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt,” helps to frame our moral code.  This time in our history informs our Shabbat service.  It influences our interpretation of modern historical figures from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela.  Moses was a larger than life hero, as were these modern figures. How surprising it is to find in the Talmud, “It was the reward of the righteous women of that generation that caused Israel to be redeemed from Egypt.”  These are powerful words about a story that for most is about the heroics of men.

We find these women tucked neatly into the portion read today. Seven verses in parashat Shemot are about the midwives Shifrah and Puah.  With the mention of midwives seven times in as many lines, I believe we are meant to pay heed to these women, and particularly to the impact their brave and defiant actions had on the Hebrew people.

Pharaoh had demanded that Puah and Shifrah kill all Jewish male babies as they are born, but they don’t.   Pharaoh summons the midwives and asks them why they let the Hebrew boys live.  Puah and Shifrah explain to Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women.  They have lively births, and the babies are active before they arrive.  Thus they cannot follow Pharaoh’s decree to kill the boys as they are born.  This portion explains their actions by saying that the women are “God fearing.” God rewards the midwives with homes, and the people increase greatly.

These two brave women really mattered.   They acted as if everything depended on them, in a form of civil disobedience that caused our numbers to multiply, Moses to be born, and perhaps even allow us to be gathered here today.

Who are Puah and Shifrah, and what is it that makes them so brave?  What does it mean to say they are “God fearing?”  How did they become God fearing?  The answers to all of these questions can be found in their work.

The delivery of babies is a miracle of creation.  Today we may understand this scientifically, but it remains a miracle.  We stand in awe of each of these little creations, these new lives. Shifrah and Puah witnessed this miracle with each healthy birth.  How could the midwives disregard their life’s meaningful work and follow the Pharaoh’s orders?  Are they God fearing?  Although the Torah says they were, we might not choose those words. I understand this as coming to God through their actions.  Shifrah and Puah followed their hearts. The miracle of birth was their connection to creation, their connection to a higher power.

When Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill these small miracles, he shows that he really doesn’t understand the emotional connection of a midwife to her work, bringing forth new life into this world. Pharaoh was far removed from the miracle of birth, creation, and God.  Sadly, as this portion concludes, Pharaoh tries another method, demanding that all Hebrew boys be thrown at birth into the Nile River.

The midwives bring the babies through a narrow place, mitzrayim, to begin life.  This act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people.  This portion states, “The people multiplied and increased greatly.”  The Hebrew word for a narrow place, mitzrayim, is also the word for Egypt.  These heroic midwives bring Jewish lives into the world, creating the multitude that would leave Egypt, to leave the narrow place, Mitzrayim.  Their actions are a metaphor for the bigger story, the miracle of the flight from slavery to freedom.

Midrash tells us that Shifrah and Puah were actually Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, his sister.  I like this midrash because it positions Miriam, referred to later in Exodus as a prophet, as a central focus in the story of the Exodus, as a giver of life, as she is throughout the rest of our story.

In another Midrash, it is told that Miriam’s father divorces her mother to avoid the killing of children by Pharaoh. His example is followed by other husbands in the community.  If there are not new babies, none can be thrown into the Nile.  Miriam, also acting as if everything depends on her, says to her father, “You are worse than the Pharaoh because you are keeping all children from being born.”  This in turn causes the fathers to return to their wives, and in the case of Yocheved and her husband, leads to the birth of Moses.

Miriam, throughout our story, sustains life.  As Puah, she is life giving.  In her chastising of her father, the results are again, new life.   It is Miriam who places her baby brother into the water, but stays to watch him be drawn out by Pharaoh’s daughter.   It is Miriam who, during the travels we will study in coming weeks, finds the well that sustains the multitude as they move forth, out of Egypt, out of the narrow place.  Miriam is life giving.  If we are to accept that Miriam is also Puah, she begins as a young girl as a giver of life, a fighter for freedom.

An act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people, to the Exodus from Egypt.  Opposition to Pharaoh’s decree builds our community and leads us from that narrow place, from Egypt.  One of my favorite prayers that precedes the Amidah says, “Pray as If everything depended on God.  Act as if everything depended on you.”  Puah and Shifrah understood this.  We all should.

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A Stranger in a Strange Land

By Lauren Adams, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

The three verses I read, which conclude our parasha, describe Moses’s flight to Midian after he kills an Egyptian slave-master. At a well in Midian, he meets the daughters of a Midianite priest who are trying to draw water for their flock but have been driven away by shepherds. In the next few verses, Moses defends the priest’s daughters, and their father invites him to the house to break bread. The priest then gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses as a wife.  Moses and Zipporah have a son whom he names Gershom, which means “a stranger there,” for, Moses, says, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.”

Moses’s statement, made at this particular time in his life, is rather paradoxical. Unlike his fellow Israelites, who have long been strangers in the land of Egypt, Moses recognizes himself as a stranger in a strange land only when he leaves Egypt. A Jew raised as an Egyptian, Moses had been a stranger all of his life. But it is in Midian, where Moses is taken for an Egyptian (presumably because of his clothes), that he feels like a stranger. Only once Zipporah’s family welcomes him does he recognize his strangeness.

Even before trying to unravel this paradox while thinking about our parasha, the phrase a stranger in a strange land called out to me.  The image of a young man wandering into new territory, not yet knowing his future, takes me back to my first encounters with Judaism and Jewish texts. The most memorable of these was my very first Passover Seder, at the home of dear friends of my husband, Jonathan’s—and now mine. On that special evening, our friends were also hosting a distinguished guest, Dr. Abram Sachar, a renowned Jewish historian and the first president of Brandeis University. My head was swimming that night as I tried to keep up with the dialogue. Having grown up Catholic with only a passing familiarity with the ten plagues and the parting of the red sea, I could barely follow the sophisticated discussion of connecting texts and related stories.  A stranger in a strange land, indeed. I’m sorry to say that I’ve retained nothing of the intellectual substance from that night, but the shared participation in the telling, the delicious Sephardic foods, and the resounding call of “Next year in Jerusalem!” made a lasting impression. I did not yet know that it was only the beginning of my Jewish education.

In the years that followed, as Jonathan and I built a life together and decided to raise our children Jewish, my exploration of Judaism continued and deepened.  We brought Jewish traditions into our home, and I took classes to keep up with what my children were learning in Sunday school. Eventually, my curiosity pulled me further into study, and I fell in love with the texts, with the history, with the traditions and values of the Jewish people.

Given my own journey into the Jewish community, the paradox of Moses’s strangeness resonates deeply with me. In Midian, where Moses is “a stranger,” he meets his wife Zipporah and her father, a Midianite priest who later becomes his trusted advisor. They go on to travel together in Sinai, and the priest helps him lead. In the strange land of Midian, Moses meets his new family, and stays for 40 years.

Twenty-five years ago, I did not recognize that special Seder as the first step in my journey to Judaism.  As I stand with my classmates today after another rich year of study together, I look back and remember, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.” But now that land is home.

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Divrei Torah from Adult B’nai Mitzvah

Last Shabbat, we celebrated with ten (a minyan!) students who were called up to the Torah as adult b’nai mitzvah. This group studied together weekly for 18 months. They learned prayers to lead the service, they read from the Torah, and each of them prepared a d’var Torah on the week’s parashaShemot.

The service was incredible for so many reasons. It was a special event. At the service, we passed out booklets that had all of their divrei Torah printed in it for people to read and enjoy. I would be remiss if I didn’t share their words, though, in a more open space. So, starting today and for the next ten days, I’m going to post one of their divrei Torah here on our synagogue blog. Read through them. I think you’ll enjoy them. Their perspectives are remarkable, and prove that there really are shivim panim ba-Torah, at least seventy faces to Torah.

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Leading in Jewish Social Justice

By Melanie Fineman

(This past November, Melanie spoke from the bima at Friday night Shabbat services. She spoke powerfully about the connection between her Jewish life and social justice. The following are her remarks.)

Our Torah portion this week, Vayeitzei, opens with a journey: Jacob leaves his hometown of Beersheba and travels to Haran (28:10). And so it is only fitting that I am here, having come back to Newton after living in my new home in Washington DC. And just like when Jacob set off to find his place, I will continue, slowly yet surely, to find my place in this Jewish community. Though unlike Jacob, I am not fleeing anything: there is nothing that I would like to escape or avoid. Moreover, I am trying to learn as much as I possibly can to gain clarity about how I personally can partake in tikkun olam, or healing the world.

I have always had a strong Jewish Identity; I became a Bat Mitzvah and was confirmed at Temple Shalom, went to Eisner camp for one summer, traveled to Prague, Poland, and Israel for five weeks the summer after my sophomore year of high school with NFTY L’Dor V’Dor. I was an avid participant in the Temple Shalom Mother-Daughter Book Group when I was in Middle School. I also had a passion for political action and social justice. Every Sunday, my dad would hand me a dollar bill to bring to Religious School, which I would then place in the class tzedekah box. Temple Shalom’s Mitzvah Day was an annual highlight, and I was proud that my parents ran one of the projects. When wintertime came, I would walk up and down Temple Shalom’s social hall participating in the Mitzvah Mall. As I have grown older, I have discovered that my desire to help others could take root in ways other than through the community service contributions of my youth: I volunteered for political campaigns, interned at government offices, and engaged in public policy work. This political and government activism had always been fairly separate from my Jewish identity, and I was eager to see how the two intersected.

Just as Jacob begins his journey, he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and Earth, with various angels climbing and descending on it. The angels move up and down, fluctuating from the spiritual elements of faith to something more relevant down on
Earth. How could my Jewish values and Jewish ideals connect with policy and with the government action that I valued so deeply?
When I was a freshman in college I came across the Machon Kaplan Internship Program for undergraduate students interested in Judaism and social justice. The program is based in Washington DC and run by the Religious Action Center of Reform
Judaism, the DC office of the Union for Reform Judaism. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns. The organization advocates on over seventy different issues and serves as the social justice arm for the Union For Reform Judaism. The RAC hosts a number of programs, such as Machon Kaplan. For six weeks, students intern at various nonprofits, take classes exploring the relationship between faith and social justice, and live in dorm rooms at George Washington University with the other program participants. I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program. I was so fortunate that I could be a part of the RAC that, like a ladder, relates Judaism to work on the ground and ultimately makes it relevant to
the structures and systems facing us in today’s society. The RAC also has a fellowship program where recent college graduates participate as Eisendrath Legislative Assistants, or as LAs.

Several members of the Temple Shalom family were LAs including Julie Vanek and Liz Piper-Goldberg Hirsch. I am fortunate to get to be one of six LAs for the 2014-2015 season. This week’s Torah portion also emphasizes the outcome of hard work. Jacob is asked to work for his Uncle Laban by tending his sheep for seven years. Only after his hard work can he advance and ultimately achieve this end goal. Sometimes, we all have to persevere through difficult situations. At the RAC, I currently work on the economic justice portfolio. This includes housing, homelessness, hunger, taxes, the budget, aging and the elderly, children’s issues, labor, minimum wage, and paid sick leave. These are a lot of issues, and very important ones at that. I am responsible for researching these issues, relating the topic to our tradition, educating clergy and URJ members, lobbying and writing on the RAC blog. Let me share with you some of the
findings of my research and some of what I have learned over the past few months.

In our society, there are too many people currently 46.2 million Americans are currently in poverty and 47 million Americans, or 15% of the population, receive SNAP benefits, or food snaps. The US Department of Agriculture reports that last year over 49 million
Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food. 15.8 million children struggled with food insecurity issues in the past year and 50% of U.S children will receive SNAP benefits at some point before they reach the age of 20. Our Jewish tradition is explicit in the command that we feed the hungry and help eradicate hunger from our society. For instance, In Isaiah 58:7, God commands us to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.”

It has become increasingly difficult for American families to stay in their own home. A recent comprehensive state-by-state report sponsored by the National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research shows that the number of homeless children in the country has reached a record high, amounting in one in thirty children being homeless! This means that 2.5 million children in the United States, about half of whom are under the age of six, go to sleep without a home of their own each night, a historic high in the number of homeless children in the U.S.

All of these issues are interconnected: The major causes of American homelessness include the high national poverty rate, a lack of affordable housing across the country, the Great Recession’s continuing impacts, racial disparities, the challenges of single parenting, and how traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families. High costs of living, compounded by the lack of
affordable housing, further exacerbates the problem. Federal housing assistance, state housing assistance, and incentives for developers to build low-income housing units have met the high demand to feed America’s homeless. We can’t just solve or fix one of these problems – all of the issues regarding economic inequality in our society must be solved together. We need to address all of the root foundations that place people in poverty and that place people behind.

One way to combat these issues is by ensuring that workers are earning a living wage: the minimum wage needs to be raised in order to help workers earn enough to raise a family. Over the last forty years, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen by
close to 30%, demonstrating a need to raise the wage to account for changing cost values. The 1968 federal minimum wage would be worth over $10/hour in today’s dollars – yet our current minimum wage of $7.25/hour is far below that. Our current
minimum wage translates to a lifetime of poverty, not near enough for anyone to live by: in no states can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment working a 40 hour week. Raising the minimum wage would also help improve the economy, by increasing productivity, reducing turnover, saving on recruiting/training costs, reducing absenteeism, and lifting 2 million Americans out of poverty.

Though the Torah recognizes that we cannot necessarily eliminate all poverty, we are taught that we must work to alleviate its impact. In addition, the Torah also emphasizes the importance of a worker’s wages: “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer… but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).” Making sure the vulnerable and the worker are provided for is a responsibility for us as a society as well as us as individuals. Through the RAC, I was able to get involved with the Nebraska minimum wage race and helped a reform rabbi and Congregationalist minister write an interfaith op-ed encouraging voters to vote yes on initiative 425, the Nebraska ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage. It was exciting when the minimum wage was raised in four states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota – after last fall’s election day. We can make a difference.

We can also do more to increase the number of paid sick days individuals have access to. The RAC got involved in our Commonwealth’s Ballot Question 4, a call for Massachusetts workers to have earned sick time. We created an online social media tool called a Thunderclap that reached 85,000 people to raise awareness about Question 4, made a pledge to remind voters to vote on Question 4, and encouraged our clergy to write op-eds about paid sick leave. Temple Shalom’s own Rabbi Neil Hirsch wrote an op-ed that got placed in the Massachusetts Jewish Ledger. We also hosted a conference call for our clergy in Massachusetts about Question 4, and RAC staff members called rabbis at all of our Reform congregations to raise awareness about the issue. It was exciting to be part of an effort to make an impact in my own home state.

I also feel good knowing that I spend every day fighting for important government programs that are helping make individuals’ lives better. Social safety net programs are crucial to ensuring children who are experiencing poverty stay afloat. The share of federal funding directed towards children has declined and today amounts to under 8 percent of the overall budget. In 2013 federal safety net programs kept 8.2 million
children, over 11% of all children, out of poverty.

Our Jewish values encourage us to advocate for systems that can lift people out of poverty. Jewish history also provides us with an example for helping the needy. During Talmudic times, much of tzedakah was done though tax-financed, community-run programs that helped those in needed, paralleling the entitlement security that we fight for and continue to fight for today.

So I’ve spent a lot of time tonight talking about problems and issues facing our society, but I don’t want to lost sight that the RAC believes that we can act to mitigate these differences. What am I doing, as someone working on behalf of this denomination of Judaism, which was founded on the grounds of making your Judaism relevant to your life, on making decisions regarding how to practice faith and how to live a Jewish life through knowledge. I feel so fortunate to be working for an organization that embraces the journey of striving to make the world a better place and to advocate for policies that benefit all, not just reform Jews, or the Jewish community at large.

Visit the RAC’s web site at www.rac.org – on the web site, you will find action alerts that encourage you to contact your elected officials on issues that matter to you.

The other LAs and I write several blog posts a week about the issues in our portfolio and what our reform Jewish values say about them. Soon students from Temple Shalom will fly down to Washington DC to participate in one of the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminars, opportunities for high schoolers to learn about issues as well as what the reform movement has to say about policies and ultimately concluding in lobby visits, where the students will visit their own elected officials and advocate as ambassadors for Temple Shalom, for the Reform Movement, and ultimately for themselves. My fellow Legislative Assistants and I are doing a lot of work to prepare interactive programs, lobby materials, talking points, and memos to support these conferences – and to provide information to guide these high school students on their own Jewish journeys in pursuit of social justice.

How can we follow in the footsteps of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Rebecca, of Sarah, of Leah, and work to heal the world?

Our Jewish tradition encourages us to not be complacent in the face of these economic injustices, but to continue to advocate for programs to lift up those in need. Tzedakah is not simply a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. We are
told in Proverbs 31:9, to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: justice, justice, you shall pursue. And these are words that I will continue to carry with me, for the rest of my life and as I continue my journey. Jacob was not sure what his journey would bring, when he left Beersheva to travel to Haran. And nor do I know what will come next. Yet I will remain inspired by the ladder connecting what is holy to what is going on right here on the ground, with the angels floating up and down in between it. And I know that I will do everything possible to do
good work and leave a positive mark on this planet, with my Jewish values guiding me every step of the way.

Shabbat Shalom, and happy holidays.

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We Welcome Henry Levi Newman

Temple Shalom also celebrates with the Newman & Green family, welcoming Henry Levi Newman, son of Erica and Brandon Newman, grandson of Chris and Kenny Green, and great-grandson of Lawrence Green and the late Esther Green. May his name be a proud one among the People of Israel.

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We welcome Levi Aaron Calechman

Mazel tov to Steve & Jenny Calechman, brother Milo, and grandmother Susan, on the birth of Levi Aaron. Here are the stats: 7 pounds, 4 ounces; 19 inches.

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Mazel Tov to Jillian and Michael

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Temple Shalom celebrates with Jillian and Michael as they celebrated their wedding the other week. Jillian is the daughter of Judy Isroff. Mazel Tov!

Mazel Tov to Melissa & Jared!

Temple Shalom shares in the joy of our brides and grooms!

This weekend, Melissa Demir and Jared Levin will enter their chuppah as they become wife and husband. We can say that this wedding is all in the Temple Shalom family. Melissa is the daughter of Joe and Cindy Demir, and Jared is the son of Sol Levin and JoAnne Zangrillo. Both families have been a part of our community for many years.

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A little bit about them from Melissa:

Jared and I met about five years ago when we were both living downtown; he was in Law School and I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and preparing to obtain my Master’s in Social Work.  We are really excited to be getting married this October among family and friends and to be in the city that we love!

Mazel tov! We wish them many years of happiness together.

The Struggle for Meaning in Prayer

By Mary Jane Suzman

Temple Shalom Adult Learning recently sponsored a class aimed at members who in one way or another feel disengaged from Judaism and/or Temple Shalom. As one of the moderators of the discussion, I felt very fortunate in the folks who showed up. They one and all offered thoughtful perspectives, and were also respectful of others’ differing views.

While various topics were mentioned, the most common issue was difficulty with the words of the prayers in our prayer book. Many of our ancient prayers speak of a God who listens, answers and intervenes in the world. But in our group were some who held concepts of God that do not fit well with this liturgy, some who were agnostic and some who were atheist. Hence the discomfort.

Participants offered several ways of coping with the disconnect. Some enjoy the melodies and are comfortable singing the Hebrew words (which they don’t understand) and avoid looking at the English translations. Others spoke of the chants and melodies bringing a calm, meditative, peaceful state. Others found that the sense of community at the service helped. And some find that they simply cannot speak the words they do not believe, and remain silent during the problematic prayers.

For Reform Jews, I suspect that the disconnect between our liturgy and our beliefs is a widespread problem. I would like to suggest that we, as a community, share our approaches. What prayers bother us? What perspectives, solutions have we found? I will try to get us started by sharing two perspectives of my own, one to a particular prayer, the other to prayer in general.

I myself am a non-theist. While I have come to feel spiritually connected to our texts and to creation in ways that astonish me, God is not part of my life: no listener in the universe, no comforting presence in the world, no consciousness above or behind or within what exists. As you can imagine, prayer is a problem. How am I to approach the Shema, for example, so central to our tradition:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”? The Shema is actually where I will begin.

I learned that the word “Lord” in the Shema is actually a very poor translation of the 4 Hebrew letters YHWH. YHWH can be seen as an impossible contraction of the Hebrew verb “to be”: all that was, is and will be; all of existence; all of creation. With this view in mind, each week, as preparation for Shabbat, I seek out beautiful natural images. The most beautiful of the week will be the one I envision in my mind when I recite the Shema on the Sabbath. Often it is a sunrise or sunset, or trees or flowers in my garden or about Newton, or ice patterns on a window, or light sparkling on water. Once it was a white dove alighting in a niche on the Western wall in Jerusalem; once it was footsteps in the snow of those who came before me into the sanctuary of Temple Shalom. This search for beauty has brought joy to my life; when you seek it, you find it. Not only that, but cognizance of the beauty all around is a constant reminder that it is my job to till and tend, to help care for the earth. Not only that, but sometimes when I say the Shema, holding the vision of the week in mind, visions from all the weeks before shimmer around the edges, and conflate with it in a way that is inexpressibly beyond time, beyond space, beyond meaning.

And now a perspective on prayer in general: it has helped me to view religion not as a search for truth, but as a search for meaning. However it got here, the universe in its fullness is here. But it comes without meaning-in-itself. It is a uniquely human endeavor to overlay upon that universe a web of symbols, myths, rituals, that endow it with meaning and make moral action within it imperative. Our Hebrew ancestors have been doing this for 3500 years. The quest for meaning of my ancestor of 3500 years ago, in a very different time, place, and knowledge context, yielded different results than mine. But it was the same quest. When I recite some of those ancient prayers, I try for a bit to don the robes of our ancestors, for a bit to see the world through their eyes, to merge their quest for meaning with mine. But it is a struggle: sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. Another deep teaching of our tradition is that words have power, and must not be spoken lightly. Sometimes I also remain silent.

I would love to hear from any and all of you who have struggled with the words of prayer and found a helpful perspective, a path to meaning. Such sharing could deepen our spiritual lives and enrich us all.

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