Category Archives: Drash
THE POWER OF WORDS BY RUZ GULKO
It seems like so long since Yom Kippur, but I am still full of warm and
happy memories. I miss everyone and hope to get back there soon!
I thought I’d send along the sermon I might have done, from one I did deliver several years back on Y”K. Feel free to publish it in the Ram’s Horn, or not – I just thought it’d be nice to try to send along a teaching
of some kind each month as a little reminder and offering.
All the best,
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Who hasn’t heard this schoolyard saying? Often offered by consoling adults to insulted children, it contains a literal truth but offers little comfort. All of us, I’m sure, can recall only too vividly the times, both as a child and as an adult, when someone’s words wounded us so deeply that just in remembering, we are flooded with intense pain, shame, and rage.
The Biblical Hebrew root for both “thing” and “word” is the same – Daled/Vet/Resh. Their common origin is extremely telling. Reading through the Torah, so many layers of meaning can emerge when we look at both understandings. The name of the fifth book of Torah, Deuteronomy in English, is D’vareem in Hebrew – does it mean Things or Words? We generally think of this book as the collection of Moshe’s farewell exhortations, his parting words. But we are, I believe, also to understand that with these words, we are to shape the things we do – our deeds. In the book of B’raisheet, Genesis, we read that God created the world by speaking. No pointing of divine digits or hurling of lightning bolts, but rather: “Let there be…. Let the sea/sky/earth bring forth…. “
We call the Ten Commandments in Hebrew “Aseret haDeebrot”- literally, the 10 Words, the 10 Sayings. How many of those 10 are about speech? There are at least two: swearing falsely by God’s name and speaking false testimony about someone. We can certainly agree that in honouring parents, speech is a large factor as well. In the morning liturgy we read: “Barukh ShehAmar…Blessed is the One who spoke, and the world came into existence.” In the brakhah for seeing a rainbow we remind ourselves that God is always faithful to God’s word.
“Sticks & stones…” God created the world by speaking, by naming things. What have you created with your words? What have you destroyed with your words? Here’s a sample:
I love you.
I’m proud of you.
You make me sick.
I couldn’t have done it without you.
Get the hell away from me.
Let me help.
Putting on some weight, aren’t we, dear?
You’re the best mommy/daddy/friend in the whole world.
In my work with survivors of domestic violence, I hear over and over from these women that the constant verbal assault on their self-esteem left the deepest scars of all. Thank God, most of us are not dealing with this level of nightmare and humiliation in our lives. But all of us have been victims of hurtful speech, and all of us have hurt others with our words. My father admonished us often: “Taste your words!” It was great advice then, and continues to be, for me, the litmus test of most of what comes out of my mouth.
In the Talmud we learn that to embarrass or shame someone in public was practically as bad as killing them, for every time they remembered the “bushah”, the shame, they would feel like dying, or their soul would die a little bit. “Lashon HaRah” – evil language, or speech – literally, tongue – is one of the most harshly condemned sins in our tradition. Our Rabbis likened it to leprosy, and preached that the latter was a punishment for the former. They even caution us not to praise someone in a situation where someone hearing us would be tempted to counter the praise or say something nasty in response.
Our tradition teaches the importance of Kashrut – the ritual laws surrounding the proper way of eating, eating that which is kosher – fitting – and properly prepared. In Judaism, there is also a Kashrut of speech for us, watching just as carefully what comes out of our mouths as we do that which goes in.
“Sticks & stones….” What will you “break” with your words? What will you create with your words? As we humble ourselves before God on this holiest night of the year, offering our words of repentance and our promises to do better, let’s realize that it is to those created in the Divine Image that we really owe words of contrition, reassurance, and respect. I’m sorry. You’re right. I love you. This year, let’s be as fully present as possible, using our speech to light and to lighten each other’s way in an often frightening, painful world. Then our “devareem” – our words”, will flow righteously into our “devareem – the “things” we create. May we all create for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our communities, a world of justice, compassion, and shalom.
ANSWERS AND QUESTIONS BY MORAH RUZ GULKO
I chose to use this piece as it has a direct bearing on much of my teaching for Rosh HaShanah.
Looking so forward to meeting everyone!
My 85-year-old mother adores the TV show Jeopardy. You get answers in different categories, and you have to guess what the questions were. It’s on from 7 – 7:30 every weekday evening, and anyone who calls during this time is treated to a hasty apology and a promise to call back. She is one smart cookie, and loves guessing the correct questions before the contestants can. And yeah, she is right about 98 % of the time!
Everyone has heard that old joke: “Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?” Answer: “Why not?” As silly as this may seem, I think we can look at it as an expression of Jewish non-binary thinking, combined with irony. After all, what do we really know? Our awareness and perceptions are clearly almost completely subjective, as has been demonstrated many times over in well-grounded scientific work. The Jewish response to this problem of knowing is to ask many questions, from different angles and approaches, turning it over and over until understanding, comprehension, and wisdom are achieved. That is why questions – sheh-eh-loht – are a critically important part of Jewish study, and, can often be more important than the answers.
Now, here’s an interesting fact: there is only one word each in Hebrew for What, When, Where, etc. But when we come to the question Why, we learn that there are two separate words: maDU-ah, and LAmah. MaDU-ah means, literally, “What is known?” Basic facts are needed. LAmah means “For what?” That’s the big existential WHY. Why do good people suffer? Why do people do terrible things? WHY ME? Obviously, the LAmah is the much harder question to answer.
Why do we need to ask so many questions? Which why?!
CHESHVAN: THE JEWISH MONTH LIKE NO OTHER
CHESHVAN: THE JEWISH MONTH LIKE NO OTHER
By Rebecca Reice
I have a deep admiration for the genius of the Jewish calendar, especially at this time of year. Back in Elul, which corresponded to the month of September this year, Jews around the world added two longstanding traditions to their everyday spiritual practice: blowing the shofar and reciting Psalm 27. These two ancient customs seem directed at each person’s heart, encouraging us to begin the work of teshuvah, of turning and repentance. Giving us 29 days to make apologies and forgive each other, before Rosh HaShanah arrives on the first day of the next month of Tishrei.
Tishrei is packed with Holy Days and Festivals. Rosh HaShanah starts the month with the celebration of the creation of the world and placing our focus on God as Ruler of that world. It initiates the Yamim No’raim, the 10 Days of Awe, during which Jews tried to finish their teshuvah and settle their affairs in order to start the year with a “clean slate.” Then Yom Kippur arrives as both the pinnacle of the work from Elul and the Days of Awe and its conclusion. Traditionally, as soon as Yom Kippur is over, Jews begin to build their sukkot, temporary booths, decorated for the next festival. The Festival of Sukkot arrives just five days later and is called “the time of our joy.” Having concluded all of the soul searching, chest beating, and hard work, we transition into eight days of partying. The “time of our joy” culminates in Simchat Torah, dancing and celebrating with the Torah, as we conclude Deuteronomy and start all over again with Genesis. It is quite the roller coaster ride, and also a marathon. Beginning with two days of Rosh HaShanah and including Shabbat, 15 of the 30 days of the month are set aside for special worship, celebration, or fasting. If a Jew were to observe every single one of these days, he or she might be partied out by the end of the month, or at least, a bit tired of going to synagogue.
A week after Simchat Torah, the month of Cheshvan begins. Cheshvan stands out on the Jewish calendar as the only month with no feast days or fast days, no special psalms nor shofar blowing, no seder nor omer counting. For this reason, it earned the nickname of Mar Cheshvan, bitter Cheshvan. Yet, I have never found the lack of festivity in Cheshvan to be bitter. It is true that Cheshvan is quiet in comparison to the busy days of Tishrei and it does not light up the gradually longer and longer darkness with beautiful lights like the Chanukah candles of the month to come. However, in its silence, Cheshvan presents a tremendous opportunity.
Cheshvan is the month that responds to the rush of Tishrei with time, time to fulfill the commitments we made during the Days of Awe, time to start becoming the people we want to be the next time the High Holy Days arrive. In fact, one group saw Cheshvan as an opportunity for the global Jewish community to do exactly that – change themselves and the world for the better. If you visit http://www.cheshvan.org/, you will find the home of Jewish Social Action Month (JSAM), supported by organizations and individuals around the world: from my school, Hebrew Union College to Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK, to the President and former Prime Minister of Israel to individual congregations around the world. The website is full of events to participate in to do the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world, around the world; as well as ideas for starting your own events or making meaningful changes in your own life. So, whether you choose to use Cheshvan as your time to get started on your personal improvement or improvement of the world with JSAM, I invite you to sweeten its bitter reputation.
The Concept of Time, by Hazzan Magalnick
Judaically or scientifically we have a concept of time. The passing of time may be viewed in at least two ways: spiral time or linear time. In spiral time we look at events at a higher level. We experience an event or we read about it, and then, as time passes, we re-enact it to bring us back emotionally to the event, and to discover or rediscover the significance of the event in our current everyday lives. In linear time, after the event happens, time passes, and passes, and passes … and as we get farther and farther away from the event, we lose our focus and our interest, and we lose the significance that the event had in our lives.
In Judaism, one way that we maintain our focus and our interest in past events of significance in our heritage and in our lives is by re-enacting our holidays. In the spiral time concept, we move in time lines that resemble elliptical circles. We keep in touch with events from our history by celebrating a Passover Seder, building and inhabiting a Succah, or engaging in repentance on Yom Kippur. It is this elliptical movement of thought in relation to events in our collective history that makes those events continue to be pertinent in our lives. Since the time line in Judaism curves backward, we do not forget- nor do we minimize the importance of our ancestors and what their deeds and their lives mean to us today.
In this season of solemnity, we reflect not only upon our recent personal history, but also upon our long Jewish history. We set goals to take more responsibility for our individual actions and those of our community — not just for our immediate benefit, but also for the benefit of those future generations who will follow after us and look back at our deeds and our lives as Jews and remember our influence in their own lives. May we remain strong and vibrant in this coming year.
Last year on Rosh Hashanah I wished that we all would come back together this year,, happy, healthy, and even more fulfilled in our Jewish lives. My wish and my blessing for this year is that we all continue to meet and pray together, that we all continue to be well, and that we all come back together again for next year.
May our children and grandchildren grow older and smarter. may we keep our health, our hair, our teeth, our sight, our hearing and our love of each other.
‘L’SHONA TOVA TIKVATENU’
What if there IS a GOD?
By Cantorial Soloist Elliott Ben Magalnick
April 27, 2011
And GOD invented mathematics and philosophy and physics and then botany and biology and chemistry and GOD in his infinite wisdom tested these theories in GODS’ laboratory that we call the universe. GOD evolved different life forms and tested them in different parts of the universe and then GOD figured out the need for a SUN …or many suns. (We will focus our story to one sun to simplify the explanation.)
Our universe was GODS’ laboratory. GOD stuck a sun in the middle and he gave it gravity. He needed the gravity to maintain solar order and control. With the sun and its gravitational pull and its intensely hot energy, GOD put in accessories to the sun. GOD scattered them in all directions and distances but they all had one thing in common: they reacted to the sun and its’ gravitational pull. They were not uniform with each other in size and structure but they all revolved around the sun with its gravitational pull.
Then GOD needed a counterforce or counter energy to the sun and its’ fire. So, GOD developed water. Over many, many millennia GOD tried to figure out where in the suns’ influence he could make water viable to harness it and use it as life force and a counter force to the fire on the sun.
We have named some of the suns’ colonies with names such as Mars, Venus, Mercury, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. GOD tested these colonies for their viability and their ability to function in the capacity that GOD predicted. Lab testing this whole menagerie of planets under the conditions GOD initiated found that some of the planets were too close to the sun and his water burned into a gas that could not be harnessed to maintain a pattern of development. He tried some of the planets very distant from the sun and the water was too low in temperature and become functionally inert. GODS’ testing determined that Earth was an ideal distance to keep water in a functional form, a form he called liquid. But further testing of Earth determined that GOD could spin Earth, move it, rotate it and do things with it so that it could support liquids, solids and gases. So Earth was it. Earth became GODS’ laboratory and testing station.
Then, HE began with physics and astronomy. His laboratory could support life so he invented chemistry and botany and biology. As the fruits of these disciplines developed, GOD added more. He started small: atoms, amoeba, single cells, complex cells, cells that could divide, cells that could find other cells and mate and reproduce more cells. GOD found that Earth was a good breeding ground for these progressions and he started developing them into larger, more complex structures. He had his liquid covering the whole surface of the Earth and he had gravity to keep it staying on the surface. The liquid was not enough. As important as it was, he needed more.
GOD created turbulence in the core of the Earth and some of the solid core broke free and pierced the surface of this liquid. GOD started small but kept at it and these contractions appeared in different areas and thus land appeared. Some land was flat and some was rocky and more elevated. These protuberances we call land became the breeding ground for living organisms to grow and live away from the water. As the organisms began to thrive on land others evolved in the sea. Organisms that grew up from the land or under the land provided botany and chemistry disciplines. As they developed, biology became a factor as larger life forms evolved. Not all grew from the ground. Some life forms could travel across the land or through the water. The products of GODS’ biology started sustaining themselves off GODS’ botany. Soon some of these species started eating smaller species. GOD developed a food chain.
GOD worked many of what we call years, millions of these years to develop an organism that could harness the scientific theories that were GODS’ tools of creation. One of these species was called the HUMAN. GOD gave humans the ability to think and develop his specialties. GOD did not throw it to humans all at once. He put it out there with hints and systems so that humans could eventually figure it out for themselves. To complicate matters (for humans) or rather to make it more interesting for GOD; HE put in alternate disciplines to pursue. GOD invented Philosophy, love, Religion, language, and emotion. Religion was introduced to Humans about 5800 years ago to make those humans who figured out the sciences that they did not do it on their own. They took what GOD used as his tools and made it their own. Religion was GODS’ way of defining science!
YOU GOT IT FROM ME!