Category Archives: religion

the Sabbath approaches

Oh how beautiful it is in Jerusalem, as the Sabbath approaches, and each of us, in his own way prepares to welcome her, to embrace her, and accept her. Whatever we were doing all week comes to the end of the chapter. There is a break now. We are aware of time and a freedom that transcends most human affairs. But it is not all spiritual. There is bread and wine, and the finest delicacies prepared for the palate. And the song of one’s heart is translated to a song from the throat… welcome to the ear. Even when we are in mourning, there is a break for the Sabbath. The clothing is different, we wash ourselves, and reboot our minds, and bless our friends and ourselves… Sabbath be blessed, blessed be our children, blessed be our friends, blessed be our aged… blessed be the queen Sabbath.

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an alley in Jerusalem

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happy new year

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As you may know, the Jewish day does not begin at midnight. It begins at sundown, every day. Each Sabbath begins on Friday evening, and continues through the night, and the following day, and till the sun has gone completely down on the Sabbath day. In much the same way, our new year does not begin in the dark of winter, but in autumn. We will begin the year 5776 according to the Jewish calendar.

This evening we will mark the first day of Tishrei, the start of our New Year. We celebrate the new year for two days, on Monday and Tuesday. These are our holy days. This is a time when we celebrate life, look forward to the best of all possibilities, but also begin the ten days of soul searching which reach their peak on the day of atonement. This evening we will begin our feast by dipping bread into honey, and blessing our friends, may the coming year be a year as sweet as honey. For us, the pomegranate, which is a native fruit of the land of Israel, represents the fruitfulness of life, and plenty. The fruit is presented on the holiday table on the second evening of the new year, and we share the fruit.

We believe that this was the day on which Adam and Eve were created. And so our holiday also celebrates all of mankind. Though I know that for most of my readers, this is not their new year’s day, I would like to wish for all of us, as part of the family of man, a year of sweetness and peace, and the joy of learning, and love.

idolatry

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In my previous post last week, I mentioned that the study of sculpture had been neglected in our culture because of the prohibition of idol worship. And this raised the question of why. Many in the west have accepted the concept of monotheism. And many are atheistic or agnostic. Because of the free thinking attitude towards faith and belief, many believe that the issue of whether it is proper or not to pray to, or worship an image seems irrelevant in our time.

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My dear friend Janet reminds us often that ‘everything in this world is interconnected’. This is the basis of monotheism, and one of the most important tenants of our religion. There are those who see powerful forces in this world as gods. The sea is a god to some, and there is a god of reproduction to others. Some people have a need to relate to an inspiring picture of a saint or a prophet in order to remind themselves of the virtues they believe in. There are so many pictures of saints, and medallions, and symbols of all kinds, that we have become accustomed to seeing such things. But our sages warned us that focusing on an image might distract us from our awareness of a god who is an intricate being reflected in all we sense in the world around us.

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I believe that those who coined the expression, ‘the almighty dollar’, meant to laugh at the phenomenon. But there is no doubt that a large portion of the population in the west has raised the importance of money to god-like proportions. Is it important? To some it is. To others not. For those of us who believe in god, it is important to consider what we receive from him, what sort of inspiration or example we envision when contemplating his presence in this world of ours, and how or if we choose to worship him.

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I have studied a bit of other religions, and found wisdom that has enhanced my own beliefs and worship of god in my religion. I have also found things that I cannot accept. Today is Friday, and this evening my Sabbath begins. And an essential part of my religion is not to work on the Sabbath. That is a day of freedom and appreciation of life, and it is set apart for contemplation and joy. This Sabbath is called the ‘Sabbath of consolation’, for on this last Sunday, we remembered the destruction of our holy temple. It was a very sad day for all. My best wishes to my readers for inspiration and delight from life. We all have our ups and downs. And how important it is, to maintain our perspective, to remember that there is beauty and pleasure in this life, despite the disappointments and pain.

love and ego

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Many years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, was visiting with friends and students in Jerusalem. Word of his presence in our city soon spread among his followers, and one by one and then in small groups, people started showing up at the apartment where he was staying. Outside, the sun was setting. Inside, it was beginning to get dark. A friend went to the light switch, about to turn on the electric light. But then Shlomo said, I would prefer a candle. A candle was placed in a single candlestick and lit. The sun went down completely, and more people came. After evening prayers, Shlomo asked for more candles.

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Rabbi Shlomo singing with friends

Friends melted the base of a candle and stuck it to a little plate. More and more candles were lit and placed on shelves and on the tops of high book cases. The apartment filled with people and Shlomo encouraged them to light more candles. A few friends went out to get more candles, and soon there were more candles than could be counted. They provided a soft light that filled the room. Friends pulled guitars out, bells and drums, and other musical instruments. We told each other stories, and sang songs together. Though each particular candle offered just a modest amount of light, all of the many candles together filled the apartment with light.

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At one point, when there was a natural pause in the conversation and the music, Reb Shlomo waved his hand, signifying the many candles, he said, ‘You see, each candle is like a human soul radiating its own particular light. But when we are all together, the space is filled with light, and it is difficult to attribute this great light to any specific source’.

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This week began for me with a visit to the rose garden opposite the Knesset, our parliament here in Jerusalem. The newly elected members of parliament were trying to organize a new government. And the news media was filled with dire warnings about what might or might not happen. But now, in the height of spring, the rose garden was filled with flowers, and the sun was shining overhead, and the sky was blue.

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Yesterday was the holiday of Lag B’omer. A day dedicated to the memory of the great mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who was born and married and died on this day, and taught us a mystical understanding of the light in this world. It is also a day in which we remember the struggle of our ancestors against the Romans. It is a holiday which is marked by bonfires and celebration in the middle of a very serious period of time, during which we progress from our exodus from slavery and aspire to the acceptance of enlightenment. And that is such serious work for the soul, that it is a great relief to have a day of fun and joy to offer release from our contemplation on the fact that true freedom is found only when one has a framework of values and intentional behavior.

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dancing around the bonfire

While watching the revelry around the campfires, I was reminded of Reb Shlomo’s words in praise of the candles. Let us remember the unique character of each and every human being, and value his individual contribution to our society. But remember too that the light that we generate is not held within, but is shared by all, lighting up the world around us and bringing us the warmth and happiness of love.

Passover Greeting

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חג כשר ושמח

May all those enslaved find freedom. And may all free men and women find their path to a true realization and enjoyment of their freedom.

Best wishes for the holiday.

a most unusual holiday

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Walking around town on Purim, my pleasure was looking at the faces of carefree people enjoying themselves in the streets. People talking to strangers and friends, amusing one another with costumes and jokes. All too often, in recent years, I’ve seen people sitting or standing together in groups, in the cafes of Ben Yehudah Street or in restaurants… and each individual occupied with some sort of business by way of his or her cell phone. But on this day, the streets were filled with unhurried people, moving along with grace and good cheer, and alert to the others around them. Entertainment wasn’t just passive. People were relating to one another.

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Last week’s post was in the spirit of Purim. But since then, I’ve received a number of questions about the holiday. And this year, my experience of this holiday was a bit different. Usually, I invite friends to feast with me in my home. But this time I chose to walk about in the city. We are counting down to an important national election, which will take place on this coming Tuesday. There is a certain tension in the air. And I was wondering if I’d sense that out in public. But I didn’t.

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I was thinking that the holiday provides us with a much needed mood break. Both personal problems and the issues of the day seemed forgotten as I watched the friendly crowds walking one way or the other. People were walking in the middle of Jaffa Street as well, with the streetcar politely ringing its bell to make its way through civilian groups that had taken to the streets.

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Kurt Vonnegut, a great 20th century American writer, tells us a wonderful adventure story in ‘Cat’s Cradle’, in which he invented a religion whose messages to mankind are revealed in songs. There you will find the following:
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

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Humans are rational beings. We have the indefatigable desire to understand. And even when we don’t, we have the need to rationalize what happens around us. On Purim, we remind ourselves that there are things happening all around us, that we don’t understand. Traditionally, the masquerading and the costumes are meant to remind us that things aren’t always what they seem to be.

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a little angel

Most of us live a regular day to day regime. There is a time for a wide variety of choices. But we realize that we have to make those choices. We can’t have everything. There are obligations incumbent on all of us. Each of us has a role to play. And there are times when we’re barely in touch with our own emotions, or have time for free thoughts because of all the things that are obligatory or routine. And yet, we have our fantasies. Not just the forbidden fantasies… Sometimes, light hearted silly fantasies. Usually pushed aside as we go about our daily routine and work, this traditional holiday of masquerading encourages fantasy. There are those who don’t have the need. But to go along with the spirit of the holiday, they wear pom poms or silly animal ears. Not as a disguise. Just to signal that they are part of what’s happening.

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two blue people with dog

The holiday commemorates an event that happened some two and a half thousand years ago, in ancient Persia, which had a large Jewish population after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The most important minister in Persia, second only to the King, planned to wipe out all the Jews of that empire. And had it happened, it would have been something like the holocaust, which annihilated most of the Jewish communities in Europe a little over 70 years ago. As it turned out, the hand of fate intervened in this story, after the plan had already gotten the approval of the all powerful King. The evil minister fell from greatness to dishonor. Instead of watching the extermination of the Jewish people, he himself was executed, together with his closest associates.

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We fast the day before Purim, to remember our fear, as the catastrophe was approaching. And then we celebrate. Jews are actually encouraged to drink to drunkenness (an uncommon practice in our culture). A great banquet is held in many private homes. And most of the population take part, either in producing the banquet or being a guest at the banquet of a friend. People masquerade in costumes. Not just children; adults too. Joking, clowning, and juggling is the order of the day. It is common to watch humorous skits which have a farcical nature.

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A book telling the long story is read in the synagogue or in a public place, and every time the evil minister is mentioned, people make a great noise with noisemakers, in derision. Sweet cookies, representing the ear of the villain of the story are eaten. Charity is emphasized. People bring baked and cooked foods as presents to their neighbors. The pictures on this post were taken a week ago, on Friday. Here in Jerusalem, we celebrate one day later than in most of the world. The reason for that was mentioned last week.

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A Taste of America

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credit Yakov Nahomie, and special thanks to Ronnie!

Today is the holiday of Purim in Jerusalem, which commemorates the deliverance of our people from a terrible plot to kill all the Jews of Persia, some 2400 years ago. The holiday has been popular ever since, and is somewhat similar to Halloween, in that it is common for people to dress up in costumes and masks for the occasion. It’s the one day in the year when it’s a religious good deed to get drunk! I mention that it’s happening today in Jerusalem because the holiday was celebrated in most other places in the world, yesterday. That is because when the holiday was first declared, it was decided to celebrate it on a certain day according to the Jewish calendar, but that in all walled cities it would be celebrated one day later. And since this rule applies only to cities that were walled cities at the time, Jerusalem has the singular honor… there aren’t too many other cities that were walled at that time, and exist to this day. And Persia, if you’re wondering, is not a mythological state. It’s still around. Except they’ve changed their name recently. Now they’re called, Iran.

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Last week, when I heard that our prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu was going to visit America, to tell congress there to do their bit, and keep Iran from making atomic bombs, it gave me an idea. I would volunteer to help him. After all, I’m pretty good at English, and this is a very important issue. We could do it as a team. He could be the straight man, and I could tell the jokes. As you probably know, Israel is like a family. Everyone knows everyone… and half of us are related, one way or another. So I got in touch with my sister in law who’s ex boyfriend just happens to have a second cousin who is married to the cook in the prime minister’s mansion. And asked her to get the message across to Bibi. That’s what we call our prime minister. You can just imagine my disappointment when I wasn’t invited to join the delegation.

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After Netanyahu made his speech to congress on Tuesday, there was much discussion here the next day. People from all across the political spectrum here in Israel thought it was an excellent speech. Some said it was even powerful. But about half the country said, ‘well it was just words. Will it really stop Iran from making the bomb?!’ Listening to this, I got a little dejected. I kept thinking, if only he had taken my suggestion. If I’d gone with him, we could have really gotten those congress folks off their seats, and changed the course of history! And what’s more, I would have gotten a taste of America! That’s what I told Chana, when we were driving through the rain in the northern Negev, looking for a picture that was worth a thousand words.

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So she told me, ‘But you could still get a taste of America’. Remember, Chana, I told her, ever since they forbade smoking on airplanes, I’ve no interest in traveling abroad. ‘No problem’, she answered. ‘I know a place just a few kilometers from here, where you could have a taste of America’. So off we went, to a gas station at one of the larger intersections found in the Negev. Around the gas station, a number of coffee shops and restaurants have settled in. And among them, McDonald’s. They’ve got a big sign there, that promises ‘Big America’. And if you don’t eat meat, you can get their Egg McMuffin plus coffee, for only 14 shekels! They call it, ‘the happy meal’. We walked in and stood in line. And I tell you, just standing in line already made me feel half American. We both ordered children’s portions. I didn’t want them to have to call for an ambulance when I was finished eating. I’m a cautious guy.

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But what we didn’t know, was when you order a child’s portion, you also get a toy, and a chance to win the big prize, after the guessing contest. All the food came in cardboard buckets, and on the bucket, there was a reproduction of the Mona Lisa that just about knocked my eyes out. Eating would be enough, but here we were, filling our bellies, and filling our eyes with high powered culture. The object of the guessing contest was figuring out how the Mona Lisa on the cardboard bucket differed from the original version of the painting, painted some time back by someone named DeCaprio or DaVinci or some kind of Italian name. We didn’t get to see the original. But I suppose everyone who’s been to Europe has already seen it. Though I couldn’t remember if I’d ever seen it, I could see that the lady in this version of the picture was frowning. I was sure that if the original was so famous, the lady there had probably been smiling. And guess what? No sooner did I give my answer, then we got a prize for each of us. It was called a ‘Gogo Squeeze’, and the package assured us that it was made of 100% fruit!

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almost an identical copy of the Mona Lisa

After we finished our Gogo Squeezes, we started opening our toys. We had each gotten a little plastic doll in a hygienic plastic bag, as befits a classy American restaurant like McDonald’s. Chana got the girl doll, and I got the boy doll. In the interest of heterosexual fantasy, we decided to trade presents. I opened up my present and laid her down on the table, just looking at her and wondering what to do now. A twelve year old boy ambled up to my table, and mumbled something out of the side of his face. What’s that, I asked? ‘If you want to get her to spread her legs, I could tell you how, but it’ll cost you 20 shekels’, he said. Please go back to mumbling, I whispered, pointing to Chana with my eyebrows, while trying to hide my blush with the napkin, generously provided by Mac.

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his recommendation: transcendental meditation

Cunningly, I pulled my wallet out under the table, and passed a twenty to the young man. He pocketed the money without anyone noticing the transaction. ‘What you’ve got to do’, he said, ‘is the simple exercise of transcendental meditation’. You compose a sentence that is the bare bones expression of what you want, and say the sentence over and over again for twenty minutes with your eyes closed. It works for more than 70% of all who’ve tried it, and has proved itself all over the world. Something like ‘legs apart’ will do. ‘Just close your eyes and say it over and over again. Ask the lady across from you to tell you when the 20 minutes are over. You won’t be disappointed’. Man, that was really a taste of America.

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