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From the Rabbi - April 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

The first seder of Pesach this year will be celebrated on Monday, April 18.  Elsewhere in this newsletter, I’ve included a list of the items that we customarily find on the seder table.  Two of them are marked with an asterisk.  Do you know why?

Everyone knows that the seder is a retelling of the experience of the Israelites, first as slaves in Egypt, then as they were freed with God’s guidance and Moses’ leadership, and finally making explicit the lesson of Pesach: if we like freedom, it is our task to extend this boon to all other peoples.

All but two of the items of the seder table list have roles to play as we unfold the Passover story.  But what about the roasted egg and the green herbs?  They are never used during the seder; they are extraneous to the story of Jewish liberation.  Yet they are present.

The reason is that, originally, there were two holydays, one after the other, in the spring.  One was called The Feast of Matzot, and it was akin to our present-day Passover seder.  The other was called the Feast of Aviv (Spring) and dealt with the rebirth of nature in March and April.  The symbols of life and growth that the egg and greens constitute are remnants of this older festival that was overwhelmed by the historically-oriented Feast of Matzot.  They are vestiges of a much earlier celebration.  Maybe you can find a way to include them in your family’s celebration this year.

What is crucial, regardless of how you observe Pesach and what ritual objects you include in your celebration, is to remember and act on the fundamental syllogism and lessons of the holyday. There are four simple insights you need to have.

1. Slavery is a terrible institution.  Slavery stinks.

2. Freedom is far to be preferred.  Freedom is great

3.It would be selfish in the extreme if we enjoyed freedom      for ourselves, but refused to help make it a reality for others who are not now free. The task to which the seder calls every Jew is to be a bringer of freedom, whether to someone who is actually in chains or to someone who is enslaved by chronic illness, illiteracy, hunger, loneliness or any other condition that denies to a person the benefits of full freedom.

4.The reason that Elijah does not appear at our doors to announce the imminent arrival of the Messiah is that we have not yet completed our task of bringing freedom to the world.  When we have created a world in which freedom is the legacy of all men and women, then Elijah will stand at our doorsteps on  Passover and point down the street to the Messiah who is about to arrive.

For Phyllis and myself, for all who lead Congregation Beth Israel, we wish you the happiest possible Pesach and stimulation that will lead you to help change the world in the coming year.

            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi
From the Rabbi - March 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

As I write these words, I am just a week before the departure of our tour group for Israel.  Over the last several months, I have had repeated conversations with both members of our own congregation and some of the non-Jews who will be with us.  One consistent theme is that some of the travelers hope that they will have a spiritual experience in the Holy Land, that they will have some kind of new awareness of God.

I know that this aspiration is held out, particularly to those who are going to visit the Western Wall of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem.  I have seen videos and heard testimonies of people who have approached the Wall and who have had, what they describe, as transformative experiences.

For a person who does have such an experience, it’s wonderful and it’s real.  But it does not happen for everyone, at least not in the same way.  Some people are repelled by the unremitting orthodoxy surrounding this site, and the demand of the ultras that there is only one way to pray.  Others are equally turned off by the misogyny of the Wall’s custodians – women are strictly limited and segregated.

A day or two ago, I drove up Shoreline Blvd., from town and passed the First United Methodist Church.  Their new neon billboard advertised a shining “Rock and Worship” event.  Out at Bay Area Fellowship, a variety of bands and styles of popular music entertain and, perhaps, inspire the faithful.  Maybe, I thought, it is not the stillness of the stones in Jerusalem and their black-clad guardians that conveys the reality of God, but the concussive blare and swaying of contemporary religious and even secular music.  Maybe God is more likely to be found in the jukebox than in the sanctuary.

On Friday night, March 18, we shall celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim.  Is it possible that one might find God amid the revelry and silliness of that festival?  How ironic it would be if God were to become apparent in the midst of the reading of the Megillah, the book of Esther, a volume that almost did not gain admission into the canon of Holy Scripture.  Why?  Because Esther never mentions God, prayer or religion.  It is a totally secular folk-tale that was ultimately accepted into the Bible because “after all, a miraculous rescue like this could only have happened as part of a divine plan.”

Maybe God is at the Wall or in the sound of the rock band or at the Purim celebration – or maybe at any number of other venues.  Or perhaps the path of biblical Elijah (I Kings 19:9ff) offers the most effective guidance.  Fleeing into the desert from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, the prophet was told that God is not in the strong wind, nor in the earthquake nor in a consuming fire.   God for Elijah appeared most powerfully in “a still small voice,” inside his own mind and his own heart.

I find the advice of the prophet Isaiah to be the most helpful in this matter.  He said: “Seek the Lord at any time that He may be found; call upon Him whenever He is near.”  There are obviously many different times and places, many situations and conditions under which one may become intensely aware of God.  The important things to me are two: never impose limits on the possibility of becoming alert to God (because that is the equivalent of imposing limits on God – not a good idea) and always keep yourself open to a sacred experience.  Then, perhaps, when you least expect it, the presence of God will become a reality in your life.  I pray for this blessing for each of you.


            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - February 2011 PDF Print E-mail
Dear Friends:

During January, we read a series of selections from the Torah about miraculous events.  First, there were the plagues in Egypt.  Then came the remarkable escape, culminating in the splitting of the Reed Sea.  Finally, the Israelites assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where they witnessed thunder and lightning and a fearsome sound and light show as the Deity descended upon the top of the mountain.

One of the questions that I am often asked, especially around this time of the liturgical year, is: “Why doesn’t God do miracles today like God used to do in the Bible?”  I want to answer that question.

On Tuesday morning, January 11, I climbed onto a gurney at Methodist Hospital in Houston, received an anesthetic from a young woman doctor who looked to be about sixteen years of age but who was impressively competent and spent two hours undergoing back surgery to remove calcium spurs that had been pressing on my back’s nerves.  By mid-afternoon, I was out of bed and walking without a limp and with no more pain than that associated with a long incision.  Any of you who have seen me hobble around during the last six months will immediately recognize that the change was little short of miraculous.  My recovery has proceeded without interruption, and I am enjoying the luxury of being able to stride forward with my right leg as I did in years past.

Some people might say: “That’s no miracle.  It’s just medicine at work.”  Maybe they are right, but from the vantage of the person who has gone through successful surgery and can now move with ease, it sure seems like a miracle.  Miracles, like beauty, are probably in the eye of the beholder.

Today, many people are skeptical and cynical.  I take an opposite view.  One of the greatest assets a human being can have is a well-developed sense of wonder.  The ability to say “WOW” in the presence of some remarkable event; the willingness to suspend judgmentalism and react openly and enthusiastically to what another person does; the skill to open one’s eyes and ears and perceive that there may, indeed, be burning bushes all over the place (if only we were aware of them) – these are the crucial components of the person who recognizes miracles in today’s world.

Once you open yourself to a sense of wonder and awe. I suspect you’ll find it easy to discover the miraculous in even everyday existence.  Let me give you one example.  There are multiple billions of cells in a cubic centimeter of human flesh.  (If you’re having trouble with metrics, just think that there are around 15.6 cubic centimeters in a cubic inch.  How many billions would that be?)

The process of cell division called mytosis begins when a single ovum and a single sperm join together.  They are undifferentiated cells, but somehow, during pregnancy, they split multiple times and some of the split-offs become kidneys, some hair, some bone, some blood, some all the other parts of the eventual human being.  I know that this is somehow controlled by the DNA in each cell, but no doctor has ever fully explained to me how this directed cell division happens in such a predictable and orderly fashion, much less why it happens.  Yes, it’s part of the natural process of the universe, but to my wondrous eyes it’s a miracle.  When I see a newborn child, the only legitimate response I can make is “WOW.”

Here’s a second example.  The drive to preserve ourselves is paramount among the drives of the human organism; we are structured to fight for our own survival.  A key element, then, in the use and allocation of all the resources available to us should logically be that we use what we have to protect ourselves and to enhance our own personal existence.  And yet over and over again we see our fellow human beings giving to others, doing for others, sacrificing their own selfish interests on behalf of someone else.  There is something remarkable about altruism and selflessness.  It flows completely against the more natural impulse to hoard and sequester what we have for our own use.  When I see another human being subordinating self-interest to the needs of others, I can only think in terms of a huge “WOW.”  This flow against the normal expectations of human nature seems to me little short of miraculous.

I don’t suppose I’m going to go out to Cole Park and wait for God to split the Bay so I can walk over to Ingleside.  But maybe God has become a bit more subtle and nuanced; maybe God expects us to take a little more responsibility in spotting miracles in today’s world.  All I can tell you is that every time I turn around, I am confronted with events and personalities in the world that strike me as so remarkable that they seem miraculous.

Besides, I much prefer being a “cockeyed optimist” and taking a positive approach to the world in which I live than being cynical, skeptical, pessimistic and negative.  If you want to live that way, it’s OK with me, but try, just for fun, looking around, saying “WOW” and enjoying the grandeur of the miracles that surround us every day.

                       Sincerely yours,
            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

From the Rabbi - January 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

Whenever I try to encourage people to become Jewishly literate and better educated, one of the responses I hear is: “Rabbi, I’d like to, but I can’t read Hebrew.”

Good try, but the excuse doesn’t wash.  Here’s why.  In Cincinnati, Ohio, there is a  Jewish library with over 750,000 volumes on a single topic – some phase of Jewish learning.  To be sure, some of these books are not written in English.  There may be as many as forty or fifty different languages represented in the collection.  But, please be assured, well more than half of the books were authored in a language with which you have more than a passing proficiency – English.

I once figured out that, if you were to read one book each hour until you completed the library (assuming no new books), it would take you almost 86 years to read every book in the stacks.  If only half the books are in English, you’d still have 43 years of constant reading before you completed the task.

Not possible, you say.  My friends, there are plenty of books on Jewish topics that you can read.  Assuming you know the basics (like what Shabbat and the other holydays and kashrut and Zionism are), you can then exercise considerable discretion in your selection.  You can choose history or religious practice, theology and philosophy, biography, novels, travel, Israel….the list goes on.  There is no lack of interesting and inviting Jewish reading material for you to select.

The real reason you don’t read Jewish books has nothing to do with language.  It does have everything to do with your own choices and, even more, your own motivation.  Let’s be honest with each other.  The reason you don’t become Jewishly literate is that you choose not to do so.

So, here’s the challenge.  Of the roughly 400,000 English books on Judaica in Cincinnati, disregard 399,999 and pick up just one.  Which one?  It doesn’t really matter; choose one that might interest you.  And then, when you’ve finished that book, try another.  What I suspect you’ll find is a sense of power about your own identity, a deeper knowledge of what you might mean when you say “I am a Jew,” a richer sense of self.  In addition to reading a Jewish book at home, keep a second one in your car.  When you are waiting somewhere for an appointment, instead of reading an old magazine in the doctor’s office, take your Jewish book in with you and read for a few minutes.  You’ll be surprised how often you’ll be able to finish off a new reading project.

            Sincerely yours,
            Kenneth D. Roseman

From the Rabbi - December 2010 PDF Print E-mail

Dear Friends:

There are a number of things I don’t expect to happen when I come to Shabbat services.

For one thing, I would be quite surprised if even a sizeable minority of the congregation showed up.  We have around 400-plus individuals who are members of CBI.  If twenty-five percent of you came to a Friday night service, that would mean about a hundred people, and I would be astonished if that happened.  One of my friends in the Los Angeles region said that his congregation was populated by Seventh-Day Absentists.  I have a pretty good suspicion that this is not solely a southern California phenomenon.

A second thing I don’t anticipate is that we shall hear a divine voice penetrating into the Sanctuary and issuing commands or specific answers to our prayers.  If such a voice did make itself heard, you’d probably accuse me of ventriloquism.  Besides, theologically, many of us are not sure that God is revealed in this way, at least in today’s modern era.  Evidence for God and godly acts is much more subtle and sophisticated than a booming bass voice – or could it be a soprano?

In nearly fifty years of rabbinical life, I’ve never experienced a member of the congregation overcome with emotion to the point of blurting out a religious vision or testimony.   Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but I am pretty sure that we expect personal transformation to be more inward and gradual and that we’re happy to leave public conversion experiences to charismatic Pentecostals.

So, is there anything I do expect to happen if someone comes to services?  Yes, there is!

When I open the siddur, I do expect a specific result.  The prayer book is a shorthand summary of what liberal Judaism stands for; it rehearses in a terse fashion the fundamental values of our religion and our culture.  If you read its pages carefully, you will find a capsule version of what a Jew ought to believe and what a Jew ought to stand for and what a Jew needs to do.

I spend my entire working life preoccupied with those values, yet even I treasure a weekly refresher course.  I am grateful to spend ninety minutes of my week rehearsing the basic premises of what and who I should be.  There remain 166½ hours in each week when I can then implement what I have reviewed and relearned at services.

But I am unusual in this respect.  Most members of CBI, most Jews, do not devote themselves directly to the study of being Jewish.  It’s an important part of our lives, but there are other involvements as well.  That’s why, it seems to me, that coming to services for a weekly repeat of the basic values is important.  Services are not, according to this way of thinking, not an end in themselves, but a vehicle to help us pattern the rest of our lives during the ensuing week.  This is a specific outcome you can expect from your attendance.  So, come in when you can and take advantage of the benefits that accrue from being in temple Friday night or Shabbat morning.

            Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi

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