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From the Rabbi
From the Rabbi - June 2009 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

Many of you know that we have begun a special land development project at CBI. As you walk around the parking lot or inside the curved sign that fronts on our southwest corner, you will notice a number of new plantings. All of these follow a single theme: they are plants that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

In the front garden, we have already harvested some onions and carrots (We substituted carrots for tares, not being entirely sure what those are or were!), and we are looking forward to a fine crop of various herbs and melons as the summer progresses.

Along the eastern end of the parking lot, you will notice two pomegranate trees. They were planted on Tu Bishevat by the children of the religious school, and they have been thriving and blooming full-force over the Spring. In mid-May, those trees were joined by a fig tree which is now only four or five feet tall, but which will grow to ten or fifteen feet when it is mature. If you take the time to look, you’ll notice that there are already small figs growing on some of the branches. We don’t know what kind of fig trees grew in ancient Israel; Jerusalem is about 4 degrees of latitude farther north than Corpus Christi; our climate is more like that of the Negev! This tree is a special hybrid that was bred to do well in south Texas – so it forms a linkage between our area and the land of the Bible. It will certainly become a living example for our students of what the Bible means when it refers to a fig tree – or any of the other vegetation that we shall plant.

Whenever I think about fig trees, a passage from the prophet Micah always comes to mind:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
But every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (4:3b, 4)

One of these days, our fig tree will be tall enough that you will be able to bring a folding chair and a bottle of water or soda and a sandwich and sit under it in safety and without fear. As you get relief from the hot sun of south Texas, you’ll perhaps understand in a new and vital way the promise that Micah was making to his contemporaries.

Yes, we want you and your children and grandchildren to have a first-hand appreciation of what biblical vegetation looked like and tasted like, and we very much hope you will come to treasure the symbolic messages that the biblical authors attached to various kinds of plants and trees. But shelter and peace are not the only messages that we ought to receive from our long-ago ancestors. A community of Jews who lolled about in a sedentary, but secure existence was far from what the biblical authors (and especially the prophets) wanted. To them, religion was as much challenge as it was comfort, as much demand and expectation as it was solace and security. Their vision involved a community that actively sought to create a fair and equitable and righteous society on earth. Micah also taught

What is it, O man, that the Lord requires of you: only to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. (6:8b)

And his colleague, Amos, put it this way:
Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. (5:24)

So, when you look at our new fig tree and rejoice in its growth and the savor of its succulent fruit, I hope you will also remember that its message must be paired with the message of Jewish activism and social conscience. Sitting under a fig tree without simultaneously pursuing justice makes a mockery of real biblical Jewish values, of the values that have come down to us over the last three thousand years. Our tree will flourish only if we can accept and pursue both dimensions of the biblical expectation.

Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - May 2009 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

Saturday, May 2 (remember, the Shabbat really begins on Friday night, May 1), is the 7th of Iyar, and it is a day to be reckoned with in biblical history. In the apocryphal book of Jubilees (3:16), it is alleged that this is the exact day in pre-history when the serpent visited Eve in the Garden of Eden.

There are at least two other dating traditions for this event. The Falasha Jews of Ethiopia believe that the encounter occurred nine days later on the 16th of Iyar [Teezaza Sanbat, a book entitled “The Commandment of the Sabbath], while the Talmud fixes the date on the first of Tishri (Rosh HaShanah). [b. Sanhedrin 38b]

There are consequences for each of these different understandings. If the serpent tempted Eve on Rosh HaShanah, a day that is also supposed to be the birthday of the world in rabbinic tradition, we would need to assume that temptation was present in human life from its very beginning. On the other hand, if the serpent waited until Iyar, about seven months later, might we be justified in thinking that the concept of temptation can only occur when people have matured a bit.

I don’t know when temptation first reared its head in human life, but I do know that there is scarcely an hour, or at least a day, when we are not beset by tempting choices. Some choices offer temptations which are easy enough to reject; they involve choices between something evil and something good or between two bads. But most of the time, the image is hardly black and white; the choices are between values and things that might be considered good and might, but under other circumstances, be thought of as bad. And, as if that were not difficult enough, the Jewish tradition says that something in one light might be evil (like sex turned to incest or child abuse) might in other guises be the root of procreation and enjoyment. In other words, good is not always so good and bad is not always so bad; there are rarely absolutes; everything depends on the context.

Our role in the face of temptation is to make thoughtful and mature choices. Judaism can help us do this, because rabbis and scholars over the millennia have recorded the struggles they went through to find the right path. I commend to you some of the great volumes of the Jewish tradition in this respect. Luzzato’s The Path of the Righteous is a good place to begin. You will not find them wanting for sage advice and copious wisdom.

Kenneth D. Roseman

From the Rabbi - April 2009 PDF Print E-mail
From the Rabbi ...
(5769) April 2009

Dear Friends:
Do you know that Pesach is really a double festival? I am not referring to the practice of celebrating a “second day of Pesach” at the beginning and end of the holyday period, but to the earliest ages of our people’s history.
The Israelites left Egyptian slavery in approximately 1250 BCE. It took them forty years to move through the Sinai and the Negev and, eventually to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. There, they conquered the native tribes, eventually settling down side-by-side with the indigenous people. In the earliest phase, they were ruled by Judges (see the biblical book by that name) and then, as the books of I & II Samuel and then I & II Kings tell us, by Saul, David, Solomon and a series of lesser monarchs who governed the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea. The northern ten tribes were taken captive by the Assyrians in 721, and they disappeared from the annals of history shortly thereafter. The two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) were taken into exile by the Babylonians in 587, but returned to Canaan and self-rule in 538.
During the majority of this early history, there were two Spring festivals. The first festival was an agricultural festival, focusing both on planted crops and herds of animals. For centuries, this festival ran parallel to a freedom festival, commemorating the liberation from Egyptian bondage. But eventually, the two festivals merged into the Passover celebration with which we are familiar today. Many scholars date this amalgamation sometime around the time of the Babylonian Exile.
Obviously, the historical references of Pesach trumped the agricultural connections, especially as Jewish life moved into cities and away from a direct linkage to the land. Many of the distinctive items we find on our seder plates have strong historical allusions: the matzah is the bread that the Israelites baked in a hurry as they were leaving Egypt; the shank bone is reminiscent of the lamb’s blood that was daubed over the lintels of the Israelite houses; the charoset ( a relatively new tradition) reminds us of the mortar the slaves had to use; and the bitter herbs and the salt water teach us about the bitterness of slavery.
But consider some of the other things on the seder plate. The lamb bone doubles as a reminder of the spring sacrifices during the agricultural festival; the lettuce and the egg are not used during the seder, but they are connected intimately with the spring growing season and the birth of new life at that time of the year. They are vestiges of the older agricultural festival, but, even while we think primarily of the historical connotations of the seder, they help us recall the dual origins of the festival of Passover.
As you gather at your seder table, I hope you will visualize both aspects of Pesach, the agricultural and the historical, and rejoice both in the bounty of the land that we enjoy and the bounty of freedom which is our most precious possession.
Chag sameach,

Kenneth D. Roseman
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