Friday, August 18, 2017
Yom Shishi, 26 Av 5777

From Rabbi Bigman...

From Rabbi Bigman...

Kol Nidrei ~ 5774

on Friday, 13 September 2013.

Kol Nidrei 5774 

September 13, 2013

This is the story of Peggy and Joe and their son, Andrew.  Peggy and Joe live in Vienna, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.  Years ago, they decided to adopt a child from Guatemala.  They chose Guatemala because they liked the culture, it was relatively close to the United States so they could visit often, and, most importantly, Guatemala allowed prospective parents to start a relationship with the child while the adoption process was pending. 


Peggy and Joe met the child they named Andrew in December 2007 when he was four months old.  They fell in love with him immediately and visited him numerous times, but then the most unexpected thing happened:  Guatemala shut down international adoptions on January 1, 2008 amid allegations of fraud, kidnapping, and other crimes!  They shut down all adoptions at that point.  Andrew’s case got caught in the red tape and he couldn’t come to this country, but Peggy and Joe kept fighting for the right to bring their son home.  As Peggy noted, “Once we started [the adoption process], he was our son.  So you do anything you can for your family.”


Peggy moved to Guatemala in August 2008, shortly before Andrew’s first birthday, to take custody of him during her maternity leave.  They had been told that Andrew’s adoption would take place in a few months.  Well, Peggy’s maternity leave ended without the adoption being finalized.  In July 2009 Joe moved to Guatemala using a six-month leave from his job.  His six-month leave came and went and still Peggy and Joe couldn’t bring their son home to Vienna.  Joe left his job to live with Andrew in Guatemala, with Peggy visiting monthly and the family Skype-ing regularly to keep in touch.  Andrew’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles visited him as well.


In August 2012 Andrew was taken away from his home with Joe, the only home he knew, and put in an orphanage.  The rationale behind putting Andrew in the orphanage?  Guatemalan law stated that the only way the adoption process could continue was if the child did not live with the adoptive parents.  Now here’s the really fascinating part:  The Guatemalan government did a psychological report on Andrew and noted that taking him away from Peggy and Joe would be harmful to him, and yet he was placed in the orphanage anyway!  When Peggy and Joe tried to visit him at the orphanage, they were turned away, being told that Andrew needed to get used to not seeing them.  The Guatemalan judge also threatened to put Peggy and Joe in jail, claiming that they had violated international adoption law.


Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the founding co-chair and Board President of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption and co-chair of the Congressional Foster Care Caucus, became involved.  With the help of her and others, Andrew was back home in six days.  Six days may not seem like a lot of time, but for a young boy removed from his home, it was an eternity and Andrew was traumatized by his time away.  For quite a while after his return from the orphanage, Andrew always had to be in the same room as Joe since he was afraid that he was going to be taken away again.


In April of this year – yes, 2013 -- Peggy, Joe, and Andrew finally boarded a plane in Guatemala and arrived home safely in the United States.  They were greeted at the airport by Senator Landrieu, Andrew’s grandparents, and other family members.  All told, Peggy and Joe lived apart for 1,698 days – that’s over 4 ½ years!  That’s half of their married life!


I’m pleased to tell you that Andrew has adapted quickly to his new home in Virginia and is leading a normal six-year-old life.  A few weeks ago, just prior to Andrew’s sixth birthday, his mom posted the following on her Facebook page:  “Everyday Andrew tells [Joe] and I that ‘this is the greatest day ever.’  Andrew is clearly wiser than his almost 6 years and I need to follow his philosophy on life.” [Monday, August 5, 2013]


Out of the mouths of babes, huh?  This young boy, who lived apart from at least one of his parents for most of his life, who was taken away from the only family he knew and placed in an orphanage, who had so much happen in his young life, has a great attitude, that not only his mom should follow, as she noted in her Facebook post, but that we all should follow.  Today is the greatest day ever!  And not just because this particular day is Yom Ha-Kippurim -- Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement --, but because every day is, or has the potential to be, the greatest day.


As we gather here tonight, on this Kol Nidrei evening, this holiest evening of the year, we would do well to remember Andrew’s teaching:  “This is the greatest day ever.”  And tomorrow is the greatest day ever.  And the day after that and the day after that and the day after…  Every day is the greatest day ever.


In our liturgy, we find prayers that, directly or indirectly, remind us of that.  In the evening we pray the Hashkiveinu prayer which begins with the words:  “Hashkiveinu, Adonai Eloheinu, l’shalom, v’ha’amideinu, Malkeinu, l’chayim – Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed.”  We ask God to allow us a good night’s sleep and to give us a new day tomorrow.  In the morning we are to say:  “Modeh ani l’fanekha, Melekh chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’khemlah, rabbah emunatekha – I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy:  how great is Your trust.”


These prayers say, in effect, “this is the greatest day ever – and thank You, God, for letting me have yet another day, and thank You, God, for helping me to know what a great gift this is.”  Each of us has our share of difficulties, but we are blessed to wake up each day.  Thank You, God, for this gift.


I don’t think Andrew is a Talmudic scholar yet, but his comment to his mom reminds me of what the Talmud teaches about living our lives to the fullest:  “R. Chizkiyah said in the name of Rav: You will one day give reckoning for everything your eyes saw which, although permissible, you did not enjoy.” [Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12]  In other words, be grateful for and take advantage of all of the wonderful gifts you have been given. 


Rabbi David Wolpe, in his book Why Be Jewish?, writes about this idea to, as he translates the text, “indulge yourself in all things permitted to you.”  He notes that pleasure or enjoyment is permitted, even promoted, but that “Judaism also asks that it be disciplined and sanctified…  Our impulses cannot be indiscriminate.  We have to channel their expression.” [p. 22]  Whether we are talking about our sexual impulses, our eating habits, or other human impulses, “the calm, slow wisdom of moderation is the Jewish path,” Rabbi Wolpe writes.  “The Jewish path means living richly and yet being one’s own master.  Judaism allows us to rejoice in this world, to sample its pleasures, without losing our spiritual center.” [p. 23]


In other words, “today is the greatest day ever.”  It has the potential to be so, if we just set our minds to it.  We can – and must – rejoice in this world and sample the good in it.  As this day of repentance, this day of prayer and fasting, comes to an end tomorrow evening, please remember Andrew’s lesson tomorrow -- and the day after that and the day after that -- to make this day, each day, the best we can, to enjoy the gifts that have been given to us.


I’m looking forward to meeting Andrew soon.  I will give him a big hug and thank him for reminding me of this important lesson.  I’ll also give his parents, Joe and my cousin Peggy, big hugs, too!  May they be inscribed for a good year and may you and your loved ones also be inscribed for a good year.


G’mar chatimah tovah!


Rosh Ha-Shanah Mornings ~ 5774

on Thursday, 05 September 2013.


SEPTEMBER 5 & 6, 2013 

Did you hear the news this summer?  A baby boy was born!  No, it wasn’t the messiah, but by the way the media covered his mother’s pregnancy and then his birth, you could be forgiven for thinking so.  This baby boy was born on the other side of the pond, as they say, in England.  At the end of July, His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was born, third in line to the throne of England, behind his grandfather Prince Charles and his father Prince William.

I must admit that I don’t understand what the big deal was, at least outside of Great Britain.  By the way the American media covered Kate’s pregnancy and George’s birth, you would have thought that George was the next King of the United States!  I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that we fought a war specifically to avoid being subject to the rule of England.  Something about “taxation without representation” and all that.

Despite my not really caring about the royal birth, I have learned a lot about it just from watching the evening news or reading the newspaper and magazines.  One thing that I found especially fascinating was that people were betting on what the baby’s name would be!

After the prince’s name was announced, two days after his birth, there was all sorts of commentary about the names that were chosen.  “George,” of course, was the name of many British kings, including the current queen’s father, King George VI, and her grandfather, King George V.

I learned that “Alexander” and its feminine equivalent are also popular royal names.  King George I’s daughter was named Alexandra and the current queen’s birth name is Elizabeth Alexandra Mary.  The name “Louis” is thought to be after Lord Mountbatten, uncle of Prince Philip and second cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II.  This child sure does have a lot to live up to!

Earlier this year there was a great deal of speculation about another person, not just what his name would be, but who he would be.  On March 13th we learned who he would be – Jorge Mario Bergoglio – better known by his new name and title:  Pope Francis, the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church.  This new pope is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas, and the first from the southern hemisphere.  He is also the first to choose the name “Francis,” in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Saint Francis is known as the patron saint of animals; he also cared a great deal about and devoted his life to the poor.  The new pope clearly chose this name for a reason:  to remind people of the important work of taking care of the poor, something which he has been doing his entire career.  Now he has an even greater stage – world-wide – from which to teach this lesson.

Names.  “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”  That may be true in Romeo and Juliet’s world, but in Jewish tradition names are very important.  Parents often spend months considering what the name of their unborn child will be.  In Jewish tradition, Ashkenazic Jews name their children after deceased relatives, usually after loved ones who have lived long lives, lives filled with doing mitzvot.  Parents tell their children about their namesake so that the children will learn of their ancestor’s good deeds and use that as an example as to how to live their lives.  Sephardic Jews, in general, name their children after living relatives for the same reason -- so that they can be examples to the child of how to live a good life.

Many scholars have pointed out that in the Bible a person’s name represents his or her personality, as well as the aspirations of his or her parents. For example, Avram and Sarai were re-named by God.  By adding the Hebrew letter hay to their names, symbolizing God’s presence with them, their names became Avraham and Sarah (Abraham and Sarah).  The name Jacob, Ya’akov in Hebrew, comes from the Hebrew root ayin-kuf-vet, which can mean both “heel,” as Jacob was born holding on to the heel of his twin brother Esau, and “protection,” symbolizing the desire for Jacob to receive God’s protection throughout his life. [Etz Hayim, p. 147]  Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby boy she finds in The Nile River Moshe, because she “drew him out of the water.” [Exodus 2:10]  However, our Etz Hayim Torah commentary notes that “She intended it as ‘the one who is drawn out (of the water).’  Moshe is active in form and means ‘one who draws out,’ a name that fits his future situation (of drawing the people out of Egypt)…” [p. 323]

According to the midrash, one of the main reasons that the Israelites were freed from Egypt was that they did not change their names:  “Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of four things:  because they did not change their names; they did not change their language; they did not go about tale-bearing; and they did not engage in immorality.” [Vayikra Rabbah 32:5]

Similarly, Rabbi Pinchas Peli noted in his commentary Torah Today:

One of the main factors that kept the children of Israel together as one people and merited their being liberated, was…the fact that they did not change their original Hebrew names, trying to acculturate in Egyptian society.  “They came to Egypt as Reuben, Shimon, and Levi – and stayed as such.” [pp. 55-56]

Their names connected them to the people from whom they came, reminding them of their history, reminding them of the lessons which their ancestors taught.

There is an oft-quoted midrash that teaches that “there are three names by which a person is called:  one which their parents call them, one which people call them, and one which they earn for themselves.  The last is the best one of all.” [Midrash Tanchuma, Vayakheil 1]

What does it mean to earn a name for ourselves?  How do we do that?  The midrash  itself answers that question:  “Every time a person increases their good deeds, they earn themselves a new name.”

My parents named me “Amy,” after my great-grandfather Abraham.  (I would have been named “Adam” if I had been a boy.)  “Amy” comes from the French and Latin meaning “beloved.”  My Hebrew name is Avigayil (Abigail), meaning “my father’s joy.”  In the Bible, Abigail is the wife of Nabal the Calebite from Carmel and later becomes the second wife of King David.  According to 1 Samuel 25, Abigail is…described as beautiful and intelligent.  “The rabbis depict Abigail as a wise and practical woman, capable of acting at the right moment and in the right way.  She saves [King] David from committing unnecessary bloodshed...” [Jewish Women’s Archive, “Abigail:  Midrash and Aggadah,” by Tamar Kadari]  So, as you can see, Avigayil is definitely the appropriate name for me!  (Ha ha!)

The name my parents gave me is “Amy,” and the name – or perhaps more accurately, the title-- which others often call me is “Rabbi – my teacher,” a title I earned after many years of study.  I hope that I fulfill the definition of teacher:  “One who shows or helps a person to learn how to do something; to provide a person with knowledge or insight.” [paraphrased from Webster’s New World Dictionary]  That’s what I try to do every day:  provide some knowledge of our religion and its beautiful traditions.  Webster’s Dictionary defines “rabbi” as “a scholar and teacher of the Jewish law; now, specifically, an ordained Jew, usually the spiritual head of a congregation, qualified to decide questions of law and ritual…” [emphasis added]

So I am “Amy” and “Rabbi,” but the name I want to earn for myself is, as the midrash teaches, “doer of good deeds.”  In keeping with our tradition, I hope to do my part to make the world a better place.  This is my daily challenge.

And so on this new year, I ask you:  What are the names you want to earn for yourself?  And how are you going to get there?

Shanah Tovah U’m’tukah!

A good and sweet year to all of you!

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening ~ 5774

on Wednesday, 04 September 2013.

Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening 5774

September 4, 2013

Shanah tovah! Happy new year and welcome -- welcome home! Tonight we begin our ten-day celebration, our annual ten-day family reunion. We come home to be with each other every year at this time. Just like other families, some of us have been in touch with others regularly throughout this year, others we haven’t seen in a while. Some of us know a lot of people here and others know a few, if any. Some of us have been part of the Shaarey Zedek family for years; for some this is the first time you are joining us in our home – your home. No matter which category you fit into, b’rukhim ha-ba’im – welcome! Welcome home! It’s wonderful to see you!

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, teaches that

The synagogue has always been the home base for the Jews. No matter how religious or how secular, Jews know that the vault that safeguards our values, our community, and our identity is the shul. By returning to the synagogue during the Days of Awe, by affiliating with a congregation, we pledge our renewed loyalty to God, Torah, and to the Jewish people…

[“Already Forgiven,” September 23, 2006 / 1 Tishrei 5767, www.ajula.edu]

Shaarey Zedek is our home. Each of us comes from a different place, a different background, and yet something draws us here tonight as we begin the new year. Jews around the world flock to synagogues at this time of year, each with his or her own reasons for coming. We are drawn here – to our synagogue -- to be with our people.

The word “synagogue” is a Greek word meaning “a bringing together, an assembly.” And, indeed, that is one of the three traditional definitions of a Jewish congregation: we are a Beit K’nesset (a house of assembly, a house of gathering); we are also a Beit Tefillah (a house of prayer) and a Beit Midrash (a house of study).

A congregation cannot be just one or two of these; it must be all three: a house of assembly, a house of prayer, and a house of study. No other Jewish institutions, as worthwhile and important as they are, provide all of this. As our president noted in his remarks earlier this evening, this is where it all happens. The synagogue is the mainstay of Jewish life. The synagogue is our home away from home.

What do we do here during these ten days? We use these days to consider what we have done and who we have become this past year. We contemplate the gap between our highest ideals and our actual behavior. We seek to make amends. Rabbi Artson suggests three tools that Judaism offers us in accomplishing our task:

  1. The tool of tefillah, of prayer, to give us the script to call out to the holy one and to let our souls soar on the ancient and time-tested words and melodies.
  2. The tool of kehillah, of community, to strengthen each other and to nurture each other in our unfolding as Jews and as individuals.
  3. The tool of tzedakah, [of righteous giving], building a just world through charitable contributions to the agencies and causes that help repair the brokenness of the world.

First, tefillah (prayer): Some of us struggle with the words of our prayer book. I don’t mean the Reform version versus the Conservative version, but rather the traditional High Holy Days prayers and imagery that evoke God as the shepherd assessing the flock, deciding who will be inscribed in the Book of Life and who in the Book of Death this year. And yet despite these very legitimate difficulties and struggles, which have gone on for centuries, there is still something special about hearing those unique and distinct melodies, praying the words that our ancestors, our families, have prayed for generations and generations and generations.

Second, kehillah (community): We support each other during these Days of Repentance, these Days of Awe, allowing all of us an opportunity to “check-in,” to review our actions, all with the support of a community. By coming together and repeating the ancient prayers of confession -- where we say “for the mistakes we have made,” instead of “for the mistakes I have made,” allowing all of us to confess publically, but without embarrassment -- we offer ourselves as each other’s kehillah, each other’s community, each other’s support system, each other’s “safe place.”

And finally, tzedakah (usually translated as “charity,” but more correctly translated as “righteous giving”): This, the third of Rabbi Artson’s “tools,” allows us the opportunity as a congregation, as a community, to make the world a bit better by doing our collective best to help others.

The late Conservative rabbi, Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, wrote the following about this time of year:

…There is something more to Rosh Hashana than asking God for favors. This is a time to evaluate our lives… this is a time to recall our achievements and our failures. This is a time to ask: “What is life all about anyway?”

            The High Holy Days represent the “spiritual pause that refreshes.” Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur signal us to STOP…LOOK…LISTEN! It is time to stop running, to look at yourself, to listen to your life.

[“How Much Time Do You Have?” in The American Rabbi, December 1979, vol. 12, no. 3, pp.15-16]

And so we come to the synagogue during these Ten Days of Repentance to do just that: to stop…to look…to listen. We stop, just for a little while, to review our lives, to ask ourselves the eternal question: “What is life all about anyway?”   We look to our community to provide support, to hold us up when we are down. [And] we listen to the teachings of our tradition, the teachings of our people. These Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe, help us to evaluate our lives, to remind ourselves of what is really important in life.

So welcome home, my friends. Welcome home. May this congregation be your home away from home. And may these Days of Awe be for you the “spiritual pause that refreshes.” May they provide you with what you need to make this new year a shanah tovah, a good year, a year filled with sweetness, a year of happiness for you and your loved ones.

Kein y’hi ratzon.
May this be God’s will.