Tikkun Leyl Shavuot*: An exploration of ideas and Jewish texts  

When:  Tuesday, May 30th, 7:30 pm ’til the wee hours

Where:  A private home in the Tri-Valley

Session topics to be posted in mid-May.  Teachers include Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, Jamie Hyams and Jennifer Santer (list in formation).

Shavuot commemorates both the wheat harvest in the Land of Israel, and the giving of the Torah to the assembled Jewish people at Mt. Sinai.   *The practice of staying up all Shavuot night to study Torah – known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot has its source in the Midrash, which relates that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead. They overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this perceived flaw in the national character, many religious Jews stay up all night to learn Torah. (Wikipedia)

Contact us to let us know you are coming and for the address.

Purim and Death of Pediatric Judaism

Every morning when I awake, I do a quick read of the news on my cellphone to make sure that the world is still spinning and that there hasn’t been a nuclear incident the night before that I somehow managed to sleep through.  My news sources consist of the New York Times, the LA Times, East Bay Times, and a smattering of stories my friends have posted to Facebook.   Lately, with all the talk about “alt-facts”, fake news, “news spin” and flat out lies, I don’t know who to trust.

Because I no longer trust the media, I feel less inclined to weigh in on the issues of the day.  I am fearful that my personal analysis is based on “alt-facts”, or spin.  Spin is nothing new.  All stories have two sides.  I’ll bet you that Hagar would tell the story of her life with Abraham and Sarah in a pretty different light than we read in Genesis.  And what if we heard the Akkedah from the perspective of the ram caught in the thicket who became the sacrifice?  Grappling with issues from a variety of perspectives broadens us and deepens our understanding.

Today we are celebrating Purim, which in most shuls is a time of frivolity and Purim carnivals, and schnapps… lot of schnapps…  In the megillah we read of the feminist Vashti, the heroine Esther, the ingenious Mordechai, and the evil Haman.  It is a simplistic narrative in many congregations but what about the parts of the story that we sweep under the carpet?  At the end of the story, after Esther and her king have sailed into the sunset, when Mordechai has risen to power, we read:

“Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples.  So, the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies. The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil.  That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking.”

When the whole thing was over, more than 75,000 people had been killed.  How do we feel about the execution of 75,000 people at the hands of a mob?   How do we feel about the Mordechai and the Jews of Persia acting vengefully?  Are these the values that we want to blithefully pass on to our children today?

  1. Yes, I recognize that the Jewish community had just been threatened with extinction and it is to be expected that they would react against their would-be attackers.
  2. Perhaps this narrative teaches the listener “don’t mess with us, we can hold our own?”
  3. And yes, I know there is commentary that says that Haman was a descendent of Amalek and we are repeatedly told “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget it!”(Deuteronomy 25: 19; also see Exodus 17:14 and Numbers 24:20)
  4. And yes, I recognize that the entire Megillat Esther could be a fantasy tale of retribution written by a powerless author akin to “Inglorious Bastards.”

But grappling with the issues raised at the end of the story is the most important part of processing our yearly megillah reading.  The answers to these questions shape who we are as individuals and as people today.  As clergy, it is our role to bring folks into the community but to not give them a lightweight admission ticket.  How does one balance power with compassion?   Are Vashti and Esther feminist role models?  Is Mordechai really the “good guy” in the story, a conniving schemer willing to use his niece as a pawn to gain access and power; or a “strategic thinker with the big picture in mind?”   It is our role to use these texts to bring forth the questions that shed light on the questions of our day; to elevate Purim above Hamentaschen and Purim carnivals.  It is our role to help stamp out pediatric Judaism.

As I lie in bed in the morning reading the news, thinking “how am I going to stay grounded” with all the turmoil of the times swirling around me, wondering if Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are our modern-day Esther and Mordechai, our weekly Torah portion gives me a game plan for action.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read among other things about the taking of a census and the ½ shekel tax, and to observe the Shabbat.  What are 3 take-ways that will can keep us grounded this coming week and combine our Jewish and civic values?

  1. The first is the census. When the important issues that shape our world are in front of us, stand up and be counted.   Use your voice.
  2. Secondly, the ½ shekel… Pay your taxes and most importantly, donate to causes you believe in.
  3. Lastly, regarding “Keeping the Shabbat.” It says …שבת וינפש – shabbat v’yinafash. “And God rested and was refreshed.”     Wow, God needed rest and to be refreshed!  If God is exhausted at the end of the week, I am in great company.  If God needs some downtime, then so do I.

I started this post by saying “Every morning when I awake, I do a quick read of the news on my cellphone to make sure that the world is still spinning and that there hasn’t been a nuclear incident the night before that I somehow managed to sleep through.”  If I slept through a nuclear incident, bad news will find me…   I think it is time to chuck the cellphone first thing in the morning and to say the prayer “Modeh ani (I offer thanks)” instead.  I am grateful that my soul returned to me and I don’t take it for granted.  It’s a much better way to start the day.

The IPhone Unveiling

A friend of the family emailed me that she had a friend who wanted to have an unveiling for her father in Los Angeles the following weekend.  Could I help?   As luck would have it, the unveiling turned out to be on the one Sunday all year that I was flying rather than driving to LA for school; moreover, the request was to meet at Hillside Memorial which is right by LAX.  My grandparents, aunts and uncles are all buried there so it was familiar ground.  Karen*, who lives in Sacramento, rose at 4 am and drove down to meet me at 10:30 am. She and I had never met but we hit it off right away.  It took us 30 minutes to find the grave and the extensive, slightly humorous search allowed us to get to know each other.  When we finally found the spot, we saw that the cemetery personnel had set up a semi-circle of five chairs in anticipation of other people attending.

Karen’s family is not religious but she was intent on marking the day in a Jewish way.  We had planned that her husband and siblings would join us, but when the day arrived, it was just she and I.  Her husband was recovering from an illness and her sister and brother-in-law were not able to make the journey. As we settled in, Karen was feeling a bit lonely and so she Facetimed her husband to show him the setting.  I could see that she was intent on including him in a meaningful way and I suggested we also Facetime with her sister.  Within a few minutes we had her husband on her phone and her sister and brother-in-law on mine.  We faced two of the chairs opposite us on the other side of the grave and propped each of phones up on a chair so we could all see one another.  Our circle came alive as we began.   Karen and her sister told stories about their father, a famed designer and artist.  They read poems they had written to honor the moment.  We framed our gathering with prayers and readings provided by the cemetery and closed with the Kaddish.  As I recited the Kaddish, my eyes closed, I could hear all of us in recitation together, sharing the moment as one.   Our gathering was sacred and profoundly moving.

While at first glance, the idea of facilitating an unveiling via IPhone might seem strange, in today’s world, where we are much more mobile and where we often live great distances from where we were raised, this technology made a profound, memorable family gathering possible.   When our oldest son moved to Southern California nine years ago, we thought our Friday night family Shabbat dinners would be a rare occurrence.  But many Friday nights for the past nine years, at 7:30 pm on the dot, there he is on Skype.  Sam leads us in Kiddush, we bless our children as a couple, and my husband leads us in Hamotzi.  Frequently my father and stepmom Skype in from Idaho.  Our multi-generational observance has strengthened over the years.  What matters most is aided by the use of technology; spending time together as a family; living our lives by the rhythms and traditions of the Jewish calendar; and the transmission of Jewish values and heritage from one generation to another.

Whether it is Skyping the blessings as a family on Friday night, or coming together for an unveiling via IPhone, I am all for using technology to come together in community when we otherwise would lose the opportunity; to strengthen the bonds of family and friends; and to facilitate Jewish life and the milestone moments in our lives.

*not her real name

If Donald Trump and Maimonides were discussing their guiding ethical principles…

I was pondering the ethical contrast that might exist in a conversation between President Trump and Maimonides*.  Perhaps the conversation might go as follows:

1.TRUMP: “Winning is everything. To lose is to show weakness so never, ever, ever let your enemy sense compassion or compromise in your demeanor.  To do so is a huge mistake, HUGE… and believe me, I know huge from HUGE.”

RAMBAM: “A wise man in honest in all his transactions.  When he says “no” he means no, and when he says “yes” he means yes.  He does not encroach on another man’s occupation, and never mistreats anyone.  In short, he prefers rather to be among the offended than among the offenders.”

2. TRUMP: “Nothing in moderation. אם כבר, עז כבר….    Why have a leather chair when you can have a gold throne?  Always show your wealth and let ‘em know who’s the boss.”

RAMBAM: “Knowledge of the Torah cannot be sustained by one who is indolent, nor can it be acquired by those who combine study with luxurious living and feasting; it can be attained only by one who renounces the world for Torah, and regularly submits to physical discomfort, giving no sleep to his eyes, nor slumber to his eyelids.”

3. TRUMP: “Tell it like it is. Say whatever comes to your head.  No reason to think before you speak.  Everyone is dying to hear what comes out of your mouth anyway… Tweet in the middle of the night.  That is the best time to catch everyone off guard.”

RAMBAM: “A wise man does not shout and scream when he speaks, but talks gently with all people, and never raises his voice unduly.  He gives everyone a friendly greeting, judges all men favorably, loves peace and strives for it, so that all are kindly disposed toward him.  He dwells on the merits of his fellow man, without ever disparaging him.  If he finds that his words are helpful and heeded, he speaks; otherwise, he keeps quiet.”

*Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (מֹשֶׁה בֶּן־מַימוֹןMōšeh bēn-Maymōn; Arabic: موسى بن ميمون‎‎ Mūsā bin Maymūn), commonly known as Maimonides /mˈmɒn.dz/[9] (my-mon-i-deez; Greek: Μαϊμωνίδης Maïmōnídēs), and also referred to by the acronym Rambam /ˌrɑːmˈbɑːm/ (רמב״ם‎, for Rabbeinu Mōšeh bēn Maimon, “Our Rabbi Moses son of Maimon”), was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician.[10][11][12][13] Born in Cordova, Almoravid Empire (present-day Spain) on Passover Eve, 1135 or 1138,[14][15][16][17][18] he worked as a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt. He died in Egypt on December 12, 1204, whence his body was taken to the lower Galilee and buried in Tiberias.[19][20]    – From Wikipedia

Our First Shabbat Dinner!

Join us for our first Shabbat dinner.  We don’t know if there will be 4 of us or 40, but we do know Judith Markowitz will lead us in song, there will be beautiful music, delicious food, and great conversation.  Plans are to have the dinner at Chez Hyams but, if lots of folks want to join, we’ll shift to someone who has a bigger house in the Dublin/San Ramon area.

Please bring one of the following to feed 8 plus something to drink:

  1. A vegetarian main dish
  2. A fabulous salad
  3. Hors d’oeuvres or foods to pass around the table

If you are musical, bring your instruments

Friday, March 17th, 7:15 pm

Email jamiehyams@comcast.net to rsvp and let us know what you will be bringing.

Welcome to Kehillat Haverim

Do you have the Prayerbook Blues?

Are you lost when you open a prayerbook? Where did these prayers come from? Who wrote them?  How did prayer develop? Join me for a 3-session exploration of the history, development and purpose of Jewish prayer.
Dates:  2/16, 2/23, 3/2
7:30 – 9:00 pm
Location: Beth Chaim Congregation
1800 Holbrook Avenue, Danville
Register by letting me know you will be joining the class.

Welcome to Kehillat Haverim

Welcome to Kehillat Haverim.  Kehillat Haverim is Hebrew for a community of friends.  I am creating this blog as a way to grow my community and as a safe place to explore ideas among friends at a time when the world feels so chaotic.

My journey through rabbinical school is powerful and exhilarating and transformative. But what I am learning in the classroom is only part of the story.  As my thinking expands, I talk to you, my friends, and together we explore these ideas in more depth.  I am loving the conversations we are having on our bikes, on our walks and at our dinner table.

Much of what enriches my life happens at our Friday night dinner table, in our backyard sukkah, at our Academy Awards party, on bike rides, and on the beach.   For me, an authentic Jewish life is less about strict adherence to Jewish law and more about living our lives in community and engagement with Jewish ideas.   Over time, I am hoping that Kehillat Haverim will grow into a community of friends, living our lives in community under the umbrella of Jewish values and nurtured by Jewish tradition. I hope many of us will gather on a monthly basis for Shabbat dinner to mark the end of the work week; to enjoy each other’s company; and of course, to partake of really good food.   And as opportunities arise for other gatherings (gourmet potlucks in the sukkah, Passover cooperative dinners, Havdalah wine tastings), I’ll post that information too.

Regarding our chaotic world, what is happening to our society today is not o.k.  I need your help as I determine where to put my energy in response.  I’ve never been an activist but to quote Hillel “If not now, when?”  

So, let’s get this party started.  What do you think?

Jamie