As you know, our son Toby had his bar mitzvah earlier this month. While events with family are always a blessing, I can honestly be relieved at this moment that people have gotten safely home and Toby himself can relax because all that hard work is behind him.
This feeling of relief got me thinking. As a rabbi, I hate when people say to kids “you’re done!” right after they become bar/bat mitzvah, but here I was, essentially doing the same thing. And yes, in reality, we are done with a huge milestone. The party is over, studying that portion is over, writing the speech is over. There is absolutely an ending – multiple endings, in fact – in this moment. The end to a child’s ritual childhood, the end that comes with accomplishing a task for which you’ve had to prepare a long time. The baker has finished the cake. The runner has finished the race. The writer has finished their book.
But in this ending, as in the examples above, there is also the fertile ground for a new beginning. As the philosopher Seneca wrote (and Semisonic sang), “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” So while Toby’s time at Sinai School is behind him, the party is behind us, and Ignacio gets an hour of his week back from tutoring, there is space for all of us where before we were working on something else. Perhaps after a short rest, we can all turn our attention to the next project.
The b’nai mitzvah process, while an end of sorts, is meant to usher young adults into their adult life in the synagogue. The learning and study is meant to teach them the skills they need to be involved Jewish adults in our community. One of the biggest tragedies of modern Jewish life are the families who disappear after their youngest child becomes bar/bat mitzvah, because it means we haven’t found a place for anyone in that family to contribute their talents to the good of the community.
I talk to a lot of parents who bemoan their lack of Hebrew skills, feel guilty about their disinterest in or ability to get to services, who keep themselves on the periphery of Jewish life because they’re not sure whether they are into the rituals that so often take over synagogue life. But these people are often adults who can and do contribute in other meaningful ways – they organize the Purim carnival for our youngest kids, they become board members who help us manage our finances responsibly, they keep the kitchen clean and functioning so our community can use it, they volunteer their time to help with service projects or cleaning out classrooms.
These are all adult contributions, and these contributions are the things that keep our community moving. If everyone just came to services and nobody volunteered their expertise in other ways, our community would be in deep trouble. So I invite you to take some time and think: what is it that I have to contribute? Not everyone can chant Torah at the High Holidays, but not everyone can fill a CFO position either. As we come out of the end of the pandemic (may it come speedily and in our days), we should consider the ways we can all contribute on an adult level to make our community strong and whole for everyone who walks through our doors.
Rabbi Sara Zober
Torah Study Date
Saturday, May 29, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 24:6-16
Saturday, June 19, 2021
Starting at Genesis 24:17
Last week, we discussed why Abraham did not want his servant to take Isaac back to where Abraham came from (Abraham was not sure Isaac would return? Abraham didn’t want Isaac to be part of the decision-making process regarding Isaac’s own wife? Etc.). We discussed why Abraham adds to his exhortation not to take Isaac back there the description of YHVH as YHVH of the heavens (not YHVH of the heavens and earth) who took me here to give this land to me and my seed (meaning, I’m not letting Isaac leave here because this is where we will inherit and I want him to be here, safe and sound). We once again discussed Isaac’s passivity, went over old ideas about that and also entertained the idea that Isaac became passive because Abraham did not allow Isaac to have agency (for example, treating him as an object to be killed or not letting him be part of the process of choosing his own wife).
We discussed Abraham telling the servant that YHVH would send an angel ahead of him (suggesting YHVH would be making the selection or aiding in the selection of the wife). We discussed that ten camels went with them, laden with the best things Abraham owned. We discussed Rebecca’s response to the servant and camels, that she gave water to the servant and also to the camels (and, I might note, camels drink a lot of water!). Was she a generous person? Or a shrewd person who was doing what she could to catch the eye of the servant of a wealthy man? Did she see marrying Isaac as a ‘way out of Dodge’? Was she courageous to go forth to a land she does not know? Or prudent, given that the man she would marry was a man of substance?
We discussed possible meanings of the name “Rebecca” (stall? ensnarer? securer? secured? ensnared?) and thought the name itself indicates more than just kindly generosity but her ability to ensnare others or her status of being secure, perhaps secure in herself.
We discussed the servant asking YHVH to make something happen (a sign of whom to select to be Isaac’s wife) and that this kind of request was unique and the sign he describes (namely, that the one who when asked for drink gives it and also gives drink for the camels) and that Rebecca was there in front of him even before he finished speaking. We also discussed that Rebecca is described as beautiful/good-looking and as a virgin and wondered how it was known that she was a virgin and who it was who knew that (the omniscient narrator?) and whether they really knew that. We didn’t discuss the meaning of “no man had known her” or the idea that maybe it meant more than that she had not had sex but meant that no man there really knew who she was, namely, a generous, prudent, smart, shrewd and venturesome person, ready for an important future.
Our artwork this week is again by Israeli-Jewish painter, Abel Pann (1883-1963), Rebecca (above) and Biblical Figure (below). He was part of a group of people in Jerusalem who painted Biblical scenes in the 1920s. His paintings show the influence of 19th century Orientalism, art nouveau and the symbolist movement.
Torah Study Date
Saturday, May 15, 2021
Saturday, May 29, 2021
Starting at Genesis 24:6
Last week, we discussed Abraham’s purchase of field, cave and tree being established as a purchase in the eyes of all the children of Heth (meaning that it was established widely and publicly as belonging to him). We noted that Abraham was blessed in his old age with everything (land, wealth and progeny) and asked his old servant to go and get a wife for Isaac who is passive about the choice of a wife as he was in everything (we reviewed our discussions of why he was passive, for example, that he suffered from traumatic stress after his father almost killed him).
We discussed arranged marriages and the similarities and differences between them and marriages in the U.S. today (perhaps not as different as they seem as people still marry because of circumstances outside themselves such as going to college or rabbinical school together, that women in arranged marriages often are given the option to say ‘no’ to a partner not preferred, that some arranged marriages do and some don’t work just as some marriages by choice and some don’t work, etc.), the strangeness of having a servant pick a wife for one’s son (how would the servant know whom to select?) and the fervor with which Abraham has the servant swear that he will not select a Canaanite wife (just as parents today may wish for a spouse to be selected from their own ethnic, religious or social group) but will go to Abraham’s land and birthplace to find a wife and we puzzled over Abraham having the servant place his hand under Abraham’s thigh to do the swearing (possibly a sign of subordination). We began discussing the servant’s question about what he should do if the woman did not want to leave and come to Isaac.
Our artwork this week is by British-Israeli Jewish artist, Darius Gilmont, Parshat Chayei Sarah (above) and Parshat Vayera (below), two of his Torah portion artworks commissioned for a five-volume Torah-for-children set published in Berlin.
Can you believe it is May already? Time is flying by! A year ago, I felt like time was standing still and there was nothing we could do about it. So I am happy that we are moving forward and cannot wait to see all your faces soon. The COVID risk meter is inching down day by day thanks to all of you getting your 1st and 2nd doses of the vaccine. If you have not noticed, we have a Reopening Plan that was approved by the board that outlines a solid platform for all of us to follow and allows us to come back together safely. We know that not everyone agrees on each and every detail – should we wear masks if vaccinated, do we need to social distance anymore, etc. – but the reality is that there is still so much unknown that we will continue to be cautious. We do not want another outbreak if we can help each other avoid it. Many thanks to Jeremy Gelman and Sarah Friedman, chairs of our reopening committee, for their commitment to understanding the science and keeping us together in the safest way possible.
Speaking of May and Spring: do not forget, our Annual Meeting is scheduled for this upcoming Sunday, May 16, 2021, at 1:00 pm. You must be registered to get the Zoom information and be able to vote. At this meeting, we will vote on the next slate of officers, review the upcoming budget, and have some more by-laws to vote on. If you aren’t yet a member, you’re welcome to watch on our YouTube page or on our website’s live streaming page.
Spring has raised the concerns of the uprising in weeds at our beloved Synagogue. This past weekend we had a company come and do a huge weed cleanup job including the “Back 40.” They did a wonderful job and it looks great. I am asking and encouraging you all to help us brainstorm ways to maintain what we can in a safe manner. The last thing we want is our property becoming a fire hazard or neighborhood eyesore! If anyone has any connections or great ideas on making some of the space usable – parcel by parcel, I would love to hear from you. I know that the rabbis are dreaming about a small, outdoor worship space. What are your dreams?
As Spring has sprung and we start to turn to the very warm summer nights – it is that time of year that we can gather outdoors for our Shabbat Under the Stars. Speaking of that – Toby Pechner will be here for a “Live and in Person” Shabbat Unplugged Under the Tent event at Sinai on Friday, June 4th at 7:30 pm! Seating will be first-come seating and feel free to bring your lounge chairs and sit anywhere in the parking lot by the tent. We will require masks and social distancing.
Looking forward to seeing you all on Sunday at 1:00 pm… via Zoom!
Shabbat Unplugged! Sample Recordings
To download a recording, right-click the song title in the above playlists and choose “Save link as…” to save to your device.
Torah Study Date
Saturday, May 8, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 22:19-23:16
Saturday, May 15, 2021
Starting at Genesis 23:17
Last week we started a new parsha, Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah). First, we learned that Abraham and his servants went back to Beer-sheva and Abraham lived there, that Abraham’s brother Nahor’s wife had born eight sons, one of whom, Bethuel, was Rebecca’s father and that Nahor’s concubine, Reuma, had born four sons and we discussed that a main point of the mention of Nahor’s sons is to give the genealogy of Rebecca who will marry Isaac. We also discussed that there is no mention of Isaac going back to Beer-sheva with Abraham! Some commentators think that indicates that there was a previous version of the story in which Isaac is in fact sacrificed. We discussed the fact that Jews say “the binding of Isaac” not “the sacrifice of Isaac” as Christians do and that we emphasize in that way that Isaac was not sacrificed.
We discussed parashot and what they are (weekly Torah portions rather than Torah chapters), that they are named from first words of the parashot and that Chayei Sarah is one of the few parashot that include the name of a woman. We discussed that the life of Sarah (chayei Sarah) was one hundred twenty-seven years (written poetically as “a hundred years and twenty years and seven years”) and that she died in Kiriat Arba/Hebron. We discussed that the text says Abraham mourned and cried for Sarah, emphasizing using the two terms the depth of his feelings. We also discussed the idea that Sarah died after the binding of Isaac because she learned that Isaac almost was slaughtered and that news killed her.
Then we discussed Abraham getting the cave of Machpelah for Sarah’s burial, that he described himself to the children of Heth as a “ger v’toshav” (an alien and a visitor, a stranger and a sojourner, or a resident alien), that they agree to give him his choice of tombs because they consider him a prince of God. We discussed that Abraham offers to give Ephron, son of Zohar, the owner of the field and cave, full price for it; and Ephron says he has given the field and cave to Abraham; who then says he has paid Ephron for it; who then says four hundred shekels is nothing between friends; at which point Abraham weighs out four hundred shekels and gives them to Ephron. Whew! What a bargaining session, we all agreed. (It would be like this: A: I’ll pay for dinner. E: No, I’ll pay for dinner. A: I’ll pay for dinner. E: No, $65 is nothing among friends. A: Waiter, here’s my credit card; please charge me $65.00. The idea is that Ephron begins with a generous offer so that it does not appear that he is grasping for money but that Abraham is not supposed to accept it but to keep asking so that in the end Ephron will get what the property is worth (or something like that).
After that, Abraham buried Sarah in the cave and field of Machpelah facing Mamre/Hebron in Canaan.
Our artwork this week is two from a group of four really astonishing pieces by New Jersey Indian-Jewish artist, Siona Benjamin, Four Mothers who Entered Pardes, Rebecca (above) and Sarah (below) (to be compared with the four rabbis who entered Pardes). Sarah goes insane from hearing that Isaac almost was sacrificed by Abraham and is pictured under a mushroom cloud of demonic faces. Rebecca is, Siona Benjamin says, the only one able to ascend and descend from Pardes in peace, she is most whole and accepts that suffering is part of life. She is portrayed with lotus blossoms (symbols of rebirth), pomegranates (symbols of fertility), and with a lion of Judah (symbol of strength).
Torah Study Date
Saturday, May 1, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 22:9-18
Saturday, May 8, 2021
Starting at Genesis 22:19
Last week we continued discussing the Akedah with Abraham and Isaac reaching Mt. Moriah, the place of which God had told them, Abraham building an altar, laying out the wood, binding his son, Isaac, and laying him on the altar on top of the wood. We discussed the passivity of Isaac and, in general, how little he is an agent or the author of his story and Abraham picking up the knife to slaughter Isaac. We discussed how horrifying Abraham’s readiness to kill Isaac is. We discussed God addressing Abraham (“Abraham, Abraham”) and Abraham expressing his readiness by saying, “Here I am” (Hineni).
We discussed an angel of YHVH then telling Abraham not to raise his hand against Isaac nor to do anything to him since he now knew that Abraham feared God since he did not withhold his only son. We discussed angels as speaking for themselves but also for God. We discussed the NJPS saying ”favored” rather than the more literal “only” (found in the OJPS and other translations) and the fact that the NJPS often is not very literal. We noted that Rashi points out that God did not tell Abraham to kill Isaac only to take him up the mountain (an idea we have discussed previously) and even personifies God saying that to Abraham.
We discussed Abraham looking up and seeing behind him a ram caught by his horns in a thicket and offering it up as an offering in place of Isaac. We joined the medieval commentators in wondering whether the ram was behind Abraham or whether a better translation would be “after” rather than “behind” meaning that Abraham did not see the ram until after the angel told him not to do anything to Isaac (implying that Abraham could have seen the ram all along but didn’t). We then discussed Abraham naming the place “YHVH Yireh” and what that might mean: “YHVH will see” meaning YHVH will see the place as an appropriate place for his presence, that YHVH appeared there, that God would see to the sheep, or that there is vision on YHVH’s mountain, etc.
We discussed the angel calling to Abraham a second time from heaven and telling him that YHVH, due to what Abraham had done, would bless him and make his descendants as the stars of the heavens (as he was told before) and the sands of the seashore and that they would take over the gates of their enemies–and that all the nations would bless themselves by Abraham’s descendants because he obeyed YHVH’s command. We noted the second call has to do with rewards for Abraham’s obedience. We all then breathed a sigh of relief (or, at least, I did) that we had finished discussing such a terrible and terrifying story in Torah.
This week’s artwork is by contemporary Santa Fe Jewish artist, Sara Novenson, Sarah (above) and Eve (below). “To me painting has always been like prayer, ” Novenson says. “Whether I’m painting the landscape, a flower, or one of my women of the Bible, I feel as though I am part of the earth, part of something much bigger than myself. It is a prayer of giving thanks, an expression of gratitude for the beauty of nature and all aspects of our life.”
Sinai Annual Congregational Meeting
Online at 11:00 am Sunday, May 16, 2021
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Register using the form at the end of this page.
Zoom links provided upon registration. Sinai members MUST register to vote at the meeting.
Torah Study Date
Saturday, April 10, 2021
Bereishit (Genesis) 22:7-8
Saturday, May 1, 2021
Last session, we went back to the question why Abraham did not argue with God about the command to sacrifice Isaac as he had argued about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Specifically, we wondered whether it might be because he was more strongly attached to Ishmael than to Isaac. We also discussed Abraham saying “here I am” (hineni) to Isaac just as he had said “here I am” to God and we wondered if he was really there for Isaac. We discussed Abraham saying that God would see to the sheep for the sacrifice and wondered whether that meant Abraham thought God would in fact provide a sheep or, instead, thought there would be no sheep and did not want to terrify Isaac. We discussed the text emphasizing the difficulty of the event by saying “and the two of them went together” which stresses the intimacy of the relation between them.
We discussed the justice or injustice of God asking for Isaac’s sacrifice (if that is what really what God asked for). Why are innocent people killed? Why does God allow that? Or ask for that? We discussed the omni’s–all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient) and all good (omnibenevolent)–ideas admittedly not found in Genesis but utilized by medieval commentators and medieval philosophers.
* If you think God is omnibenevolent/all-good, then if bad things happen to good people, God cannot be either omnipotent/all-powerful (the bad that happened must not have been in God’s power to prevent) or omniscient/all-knowing (God must not have known that the bad was going to happen).
*If you think God is omniscient/all-knowing, and if bad things happen to good people, then God must either not be omnipotent/all-powerful (God didn’t have the power to prevent the bad things from happening) or not be omnibenevolent/all-good (God wanted the bad things to happen).
*If you think God is omnipotent/all-powerful, and if bad things happen to good people, then God must either not be omniscient/all-knowing (God didn’t know bad things were happening) or not be omnibenevolent/all-good (God wanted bad things to happen).
The general idea with these alternatives is that, if bad things happen to good people, then there cannot be a God who has all three characteristics. Of course, all along, we have not seen Torah describing God according to the omni’s. God has not seemed to know everything but has seemed to learn, for example.
We discussed a traditional interpretation that the story is about the end of human sacrifice–that God asked the hardest thing that could be asked of someone in the culture of the time, Abraham was willing to do it but in the end God did not ask that of him. We also discussed the Shoah because, in it, horrible things happened to millions of innocent people. We contrasted that with the Enlightenment (or, modern) idea that if Jews would be a Jew at home and a man or person in the street then they would be accepted and the idea that that kind of universalization of Jews didn’t work (and so we are post-modern or post-Enlightenment). It didn’t work to narrow our Jewish identity to the home and be more like everyone else in the street. We suffered massively anyway.
Finally, we discussed the idea that the reason we read and interpret this story, the Akedah, is because of the question of where God is in the story. We have to wrestle with that story. We have to wrestle with Torah. We don’t read Torah to believe in it but to wrestle with it, specifically, to wrestle with where God is when human suffering happens.
Our art this week is more work by a Pre-Raphaelite British Jewish artist, Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), Abraham and Isaac Set out for Mount Moriah (above), and The Sacrifice of Isaac (below). In addition to Jewish themes, Solomon’s artwork treated classical and homoerotic ones.
Chanukah has latkes and dreidels, Pesach has charoset and raucous seders, Shavuot has cheesecake and… all night study sessions? Maybe not everyone’s idea of a good time, but for many communities, coming together and studying until daybreak is a much-anticipated event. Last year, we could not gather as a congregation, and certainly not all night in the same room, but we found a way to do something special despite that fact.
For those of you who were with us last year for Shavuot, the highlight of our quarantined observance was an online Tikkun Leil Shavuot. On Zoom, we joined colleagues, teachers, friends, and others with sessions on every topic imaginable. We studied late into the night (some of us later than others). We are happy to announce that we will be doing it again, and it’s bigger and better than before!
The Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a kabbalistic tradition that goes back to the 16th century where people would come to the synagogue to study late into the night on the evening of Shavuot. In the Torah, we needed to be awakened for the revelation at Sinai, so to show that we are worthy of receiving Torah, today we stay awake voluntarily studying.
From 7:00 pm Eastern Time to 9:00 am Pacific Time and through the night on May 16-17, small congregations from across the Reform movement will be able to study with one another from the comfort of their own homes. We have up to 4 different sessions each hour, and you can choose one or two or you can choose to go all night if you so desire. Each session is run by a rabbi or cantor at a fellow Reform congregation, so there are experts on many different topics. As we did last year, we asked them to teach whatever they want, so we have classes on movies, food, history, theology, you name it!
This program has been one of the huge positive changes that the pandemic has brought into our lives, so come see for yourself how wonderful it is to study across congregations while in your PJs.
Stay tuned for more information!
Rabbi Sara Zober