The Season of Miracles
Written for Temple Gates of Prayer Bulletin, Late Spring 2012
As many of you have heard by now, on March 29th Sarah and I were blessed with the birth of our daughter, Talia Yuval. We could never have imagined what a miracle it truly is to bring a new life in the world. At the same time, it is a great responsibility to be the guardian of such a precious gift, and we make a very conscious effort to be aware of this each and every day.
There is a Midrash on Proverbs which discusses the famous section beginning with “Eishet Chayil Mi Yimtzah” (A woman of valor, who can find?). The midrash describes the death of Rabbi Meir’s sons, and the way his wife Beruria consoles him (thus making the connection to a “woman of valor”). What strikes me about the way she consoles him is that upon being asked “Where are my sons?” several times, she responds first by distracting him, then by finding the most gentle way to share the news with her husband. So she tells him a little story: “Early today a man came here and gave me something to keep for him, but now he has returned to ask for it back. Shall we return it to him or not?” He replied, “He who has received something on deposit must surely return it to its owner.”
Our children are precious gifts from the Holy One, and it is our sacred duty to keep them safe as long as they are in our care. This brings me to the miracle of Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Next week, Jews around the world will observe Yom Hazikaron to memorialize the fallen Israeli soldiers, then immediately transition into Yom Ha’atzma’ut to celebrate the miracle of the birth of our national homeland.
Israel should not be taken for granted. The fact that the State was born because of so many lost lives means that we must protect it as a precious loan from God so that their sacrifice was not in vain. There are many ways in which we can support Israel from here in America. Of course we can visit often, which Sarah and I do every year. We can buy Israeli products and invest in Israeli companies. And, we can rally together and participate in the Salute to Israel Parade on Sunday June 3, 2012. Sarah, Talia and I very much look forward to participating in our first Parade this year, and I hope many of you will join us.
We wish you a most joyous start to the summer season, and thank you all for the continued stream of support and good wishes on the birth of our daughter.
Welcoming A New Year
Written for Temple Gates of Prayer Bulletin, Fall 2011
About this time last year, Sarah and I had just moved into our new home in Flushing and began what has proven to be a wonderful new adventure in New York. I recall my own excitement and delight at the fact that I had “made it” to be a Cantor in a New York City shul (that’s a very big deal out in California!). What I did not yet know was how truly lucky we both are to be at Temple Gates of Prayer.
TGP has really proven itself to be what most shuls try to be, but a very precious few ever attain - a mishpacha, a real family. We have made some very deep and special friendships within the community and have found each and every one of you to be such a special part of our lives as we establish ourselves in New York. From the wonderful programs to the very spiritual services, from simchas to some of life’s darkest moments, we have been very lucky to be with you, and have been fortunate to have you in our lives.
As we prepare to begin a New Year, Sarah and I wish you and your families from the bottom of our hearts a year filled with happiness, joy, success, good fortune, blessings of sweet moments with family and friends, and most of all health.
I look forward to greeting you all at High Holy Day services this year, and seeing you at some of the exciting programs we have in store for the coming year.
The Season of Joy!
Written for Temple Gates of Prayer Bulletin, Late Winter 2011
We all know the Rabbinic teaching, “Mishenich’nas Adar, mar’bim besimcha” (“Our joy is increased upon the arrival of Adar). And, what a gift that this year we have the added pleasure of 2 Adarim! For me, this teaching has always begged the question: What do we have to do that our joy should be increased?
I’d like to use this article to share some of my thoughts on this question, in hope that our collective awareness and joy will be increased. The first step I took in attempting to reason this question is to define “joy”. Merriam-Webster (children, ask your parents what Merriam-Webster is!) defines “joy” as, “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires; the expression or exhibition of such emotion.” OK, so now we know what it is that should be increased in our lives (at least according to my most trusted linguistic authority - perhaps, though, I should have checked the O.E.D. for further verification!). But should our joy only be related to success, good fortune and worldly possessions? While those things certainly add one dimension to our lives, I am not sure they are what our sages had in mind.
Look outside. As I write, I look out the window of my home office (over Shelley Handel’s backyard, actually) and am enjoying the most beautiful view! The snow has finally melted, the birds have come back to the large tree outside and the children are playing basketball (it is, afterall, 60 degrees outside at the moment). For what more can one ask than the beauty of nature and the simple things in life?
I like the way Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the School of Religious Leadership at JTS, put it this week in a drash he delivered: “The beautiful part about the arrival of Adar is that we don’t have to do anything; only to be joyous!” What a beautifully simple, yet poignant statement. Just be joyous.
My prayer for us all is that in this “season” of Adar we should only know joy, health and peace. I look forward to seeing you all at our Megillah reading and Purim celebration on March 20!
A Winter Wonderland?
Written for Temple Gates of Prayer Bulletin, Early Winter 2011
Just a few days ago I experienced my first glimpse of falling snow. What a beautiful thing to see! Of course there was barely enough to “stick” on the ground, but I was completely satisfied! As I turned on my car to drive in to the city, the classic holiday tune “Winter Wonderland” appropriately came on the radio, and I enjoyed singing along with joy as I drove through a neighborhood of snow-covered lawns and roofs.
I thought to myself, “Everyone warns what a pain it is to have a real good snow out here. How can anyone complain about something so beautiful?!” (Granted, I have never shoveled snow, nor have I fallen on my tuchus by slipping on ice, but still - what a beautiful thing!). So I had to question the voice on the radio - is this really a “winter wonderland”?
Then, as my thoughts continued, my mind turned to the words of our liturgy. If you come to the morning minyan and pay attention you’ll notice that Rabbi and I, in our private devotions, will occasionally daven some verses of the text aloud. Sometimes this is to help pace the service, and more often than not it is because the words speak to us - the meaning, the rhythm, the poetry. There is one such verse that Rabbi Thaler sings almost every morning in the 148th Psalm: “Praise Adonai, all who share the earth...fire and hail, snow and smoke, storms and winds which obey God’s command...” This verse is, for many reasons, very important (I’ll be happy to share my thoughts with you), but I think it is so appropriate to this winter season.
We must remember that just as our own lives are in God’s hands, so, too, is command of everything around us. And, as Kohelet teaches (and as does Pete Seeger), “For everything there is a season”.
While I recognize (and will likely agree with everyone who has shared with me the joys of shoveling and de-icing) that winter is not an easy time of year, let us begin each morning if not with praying a full service, with the 148th Psalm. Let us heed the call to praise God - the heavens, the earth and all who dwell there. Let us realize the beauty of our world and how fortunate we are to share in the miracle of a new day in this winter wonderland.
Sarah and I wish you all a warm and safe winter season. May blessings of health, joy and special moments with friends and family fall upon each of us as the snowflakes fall upon God’s earth.
Chadeish Yameinu Kekedem
Written for Temple Gates of Prayer Bulletin, Late Autumn 2010
Each time we return the Torah to the Aron HaKodesh, we sing the familiar melody “Etz chayim hi lamachazikim ba”. At the end of this beautiful prayer, the music climaxes at the final three words “chadesh yameinu ke-kedem”. Have you ever stopped to reflect on these three words?
I notice that in each melody we use, the music seems to point out to us the importance of the text – a musical midrash, if you will. The easiest example to understand is the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu”. Sing the familiar melody to yourself for a moment. What is the dramatic climax of the melody? “Aseh imanu tzedakah va-chesed”, right? We are asking God through this particular melody to treat us with justice and righteousness. There is another melody we all know for this same text written by Max Janowski, and made famous by Barbara Streisand. If you don’t know it, I highly recommend buying it on iTunes or in a record shop (you may also enjoy my rendition on my recent album, “Imrei Fi”). What is the climax of this melody? “Avinu malkeinu chadeish aleinu shanah tovah” – Our father, our king, grant us a good new year. The same text with two different melodies, each one with its own interpretation of the text and a different message.
Now back to Etz Chayim Hi. We end this melody with the dramatic Chadesh yameinu ke-kedem, which we all subconsciously sing slightly differently, creating a beautiful harmonious sound in our sanctuary. And how aptly does this climax lend itself to this season of reflection, repentance and renewal. “God, turn to us and we will return; Renew us as in days of old.”
Yom Kippur is often thought of as the end of the season of repentance and renewal. This year, let us challenge ourselves to treat this most holy of days not as an endpoint, but as a starting point for renewing our souls, renewing friendships and renewing the important things in life. May our sukkah this festival be a shelter in which we reach to the depths of our souls and allow God to turn to us, and allow ourselves to return to God. May our blessings this year be as numerous and sweet as the seeds of the pomegranate, and may we leave this holy season as upright as the most pristine lulav.
This year, let us allow God to turn to us in our hearts and in our souls. May we be wise enough to let God into our lives and renew us for another year of health and goodness. Each time we sing this familiar melody, may we make a little more room in our souls for God to turn to us, and may we allow ourselves to take one step closer to returning to God. When we enter the sukkah, may it be a sukkah of peace. And when we leave the sukkah, may we be renewed to take on the challenges of one more day.
Standing Before God
Written for Temple Gates of Prayer Bulletin, Early Fall 2010
This time of year is always amazing to me. It is a time of new beginnings for so many of us, in so many different ways. At this time of year, children transition from summer camp to school, some of us transition from vacations back to our regular routines, some of us begin new jobs and some of us move to new homes. But one thing is the same for all of us – we feel the spirit of the High Holy Day season begin to fill our homes and our hearts as we prepare ourselves for the coming yamim nora’im.
These past months have been especially meaningful for me, in a way much different than years past. Usually, in mid-July I would be running between voice coaches, sitting in large planning meetings for the High Holy Days and the coming calendar year, visiting with friends and family and maybe enjoying a short vacation. This year, my wife and I were busy packing our home, driving nearly four thousand miles across the country (we took a very convoluted route!) and are now getting settled in a new home, city and community.
Initially I was very concerned about how everything would play out. Would we be ready in time for yontev meals? Would I have the time necessary to prepare my davenin? Would I have a chance to meet new congregants and prepare services with the Rabbi? And, perhaps most importantly, would I be in the proper frame of mind to stand before God on behalf of this holy community on the most holy days of the year after this most major transition? I would like to share with you what I have discovered in reflecting over the past few weeks.
In mid-July, my wife and I began a very long journey. Once the last box was loaded on the moving truck and we enjoyed a nice lunch with our family, we began a trip that would take us twelve days, through fourteen states and part of Canada, and just short of four thousand miles. Though it was certainly an exhausting drive, it was truly inspiring. What made it so amazing is that every single day I saw one thing that astonished me; that reminded me how truly awesome the borei shel olam, the Creator of the Universe, is.
From mountain roads through towering peaks to rushing waterfalls, calm lakes to rugged terrain, and big cities to towns of less than five hundred residents, there was so much to take in. But in the end, it became so clear that there is only one Force behind this great diversity and beauty, and realizing that in such a powerful way provided me the source for my own cheshbon hanefesh, my spiritual audit, as I prepare myself to stand before God for the first time on behalf of this wonderful community.
Sarah and I are thrilled to have joined the Temple Gates community, and we look forward to meeting each one of you at the coming High Holy Day services. Please be sure to stop by the Temple office and pick up your copy of my new High Holy Day CD, “Imrei Fi” – a gift from us to our new Congregation.
Articles & Sermons
Please review the archives below for selections from my published writing and sermons.