I'm looking forward to a whole new Noah experience this year at Torat Yisrael. For years now, our youngest TY kids have come to services with their favorite stuffed animals on the Shabbat during which we read the story of Noah and the ark. We'd create a great procession of bears and puppies and even a unicorn or two as we'd follow the Torah around the sanctuary.
This year, we're trying something new . . . stuffed animals are still invited, but now our live animals are invited, too! Instead of meeting during services, we're going to gather in front of the synagogue with our (leashed) dogs and (caged) gerbils as well as our favorite stuffed animals and we'll sing our favorite Noah songs and perhaps tell a story or two, as well. And have a nosh, of course.
I noticed that when the Christian congregations in our area invite the members of their congregations to bring their animals along, they are offering a "blessing of the animals." Being an animal lover myself, I am all in favor of sharing our Jewish community with our own animals, too.
But the idea of "blessing the animals" wasn't really working for me . . . and then I understood what wasn't working.
In Judaism, our blessings are directed toward God . . . so when we are pausing to appreciate the cats and iguanas and parakeets we love, it's not so much that we are blessing them, or even asking God to bless them . . . rather we are blessing and praising God for having created these wonderful creatures and bringing them in to our lives.
My cat Crembo (named for an Israeli marshmallow treat!)
There is a lot to be thankful for when it comes to our animals: unconditional love (well, perhaps not entirely unconditional when it comes to cats . . . ); a glimpse of beauty and grace and even humor in a day packed with "to-do" lists and bills and worries; companionship . . . people with pets are known to be happier, less lonely. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a study somewhere that said that pet owners are healthier, too!
I hope you'll join us with your furry or scaly or plush friend tomorrow. We'll share our admiration for Noah, the world's first champion of animal rescue, sing a little, meet each other's pets and thank God for bringing so much beauty and blessing into our lives.
On my first day at Torat Yisrael, in the summer of 2004, I sat myself down at the desk in the rabbi’s study and started opening drawers to see what “treasures” my predecessors had left for me. I opened a file and found a memo, written in 1985, by my predecessor, Rabbi David Rosen, making the case that the congregation’s most promising future could be fulfilled through a move to East Greenwich. Here and now, with the leadership spearheading our congregation now, with all the complicated realities of economics and demographics and the very human aversion to risk. Here and now, when congregations around the country are closing their doors, it is now that we are dedicating our new synagogue building in the very promising land of East Greenwich. Over and over I have had occasion to marvel at the commitment, the perseverance, the determination, the generosity, the selflessness of the members of our congregation. Over and over, I have witnessed delays, resistance, barriers, and I’ve thought, “please God, let them not lose heart.” And over and over the leaders of this project rolled up their sleeves, regrouped, got creative and got it done.
It is our privilege to dedicate this beautiful building לשם ולטפארת / l’sheim ultiferet, for the Name and the wonder of God. Within these walls, generations of our people will come together to delve into the infinite richness of our Torah, to embrace each other as a community of Israel, to find guidance and inspiration from our traditions and practices, to ponder and to attempt and to explore new avenues of Jewish life. During the mindful process of designing this building, it has been our goal to embody or to facilitate some of our most cherished, eternal Jewish values: בל תשחית / Bal Taschit: Our commitment to the mitzvah of avoiding unnecessary waste of resources is expressed in our investment in a unique LED and fluorescent lighting system that barely sips electricity. מכשול בפני עיוור /You will not throw up a stumbling block before the blind: Through this mitzvah we are instructed to anticipate and facilitate safe and accessible movement for all. In this spirit, one of our first decisions regarding the new building was to build all on one level, making every space in the building accessible to every person coming in. In that same spirit, one section of the coat rack in the cloakroom will be at a height comfortable to both the wheel chair bound and children to hang up and retrieve their own coats. הזן את הכל / Who Feeds All. In the blessings recited after a meal, we praise God as “hazan et hakol,” the One who feeds all. Our tradition encourages us to internalize the values embodied by God’s own actions. In that spirit, our congregation supports two food-security programs: the Edgewood Food Closet in our former neighborhood in Cranston, and the Chester Kosher Food Pantry maintained by the Jewish Seniors Agency of Rhode Island. We have literally built our commitment into our building: the benches lining our lobby under the windows are actually bins in which we collect non-perishable food items for these programs. העם: האנשים והנשים והטף / The people: the men, the women and the children. Towards the end of the book of D’varim/Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses to gather together the people and readthem the words of the Torah. In that text, the “people” , the body of Israel, is defined as “men, women and children.” Our commitment to making sure that all men, women and children are welcome and comfortable in our sanctuary is expressed through the unique wall of windows separating our sanctuary from our library. Shades reaching from the bottom of the windows upwards will provide privacy for nursing moms while still seeing and hearing what is happening in the sanctuary. Bins of quiet toys will keep little ones occupied while their supervising parents can still be part of the service. A parent, or grandparent!, who needs to “walk” a baby or comfort an unhappy toddler can do so without being cut off from the community. מה גדלו מעשיך / How great are Your works? The Psalmist exclaims “mah gadlu ma’asecha?” How great are Your works, O God? With the gift of conservancy land along the eastern border of our property, constructed an eastern wall that is almost entirely of glass. As we sit in our sanctuary, our social hall and our library, we are free to simultaneously enjoy and praise God’s natural world. We are celebrating a tremendous milestone in the history of our congregation. Let us remember that a milestone marks a significant stop along a path, not the end of the route. Yes, indeed, our geographic wandering is over, but there are many more paths for us to follow as a congregation. This is a building that we are turning into sacred space by our presence as a kehillah k’doshah, a holy congregation. How will we express our sense of the sacred here? How will we pray? How will we learn? How will we celebrate? What kind of communal goals and aspirations will we strive for? TY members have contributed so much time and concern and skill as members of our Building and Dedication Committees. Thank them when you see them. A project like this only comes to fruition when a few people throw themselves, body and soul, into the project. Our president, Susan Smoller and the chairman of our building committee, Andrew Sholes, and the chairman of our capital campaign, Marc Davis are those “body and soul” leaders who have inspired us and brought us to this day. Our Building Committee and our contractors and our architects and our painters and electricians and plumbers are done. Now it is our turn to fill this beautiful space with the joy, the challenges, the richness, the comforts, the spiritual horizons of the Judaism we love.
Yes, I do. I love Torah. If you know me at all, or if you peruse my writings over the years in this blog, you know I am not a Torah-thumping fundamentalist. But I do love Torah.
That makes Simhat Torah one of my favorite holidays.
So, why do I love Torah so much? Here's my big 5 countdown:
5: Genesis/Breishit 9:16-17 -- "And the rainbow will be in the cloud, and I [God] will see it, to remember an eternal covenant between God and every living being of all flesh that is on the earth." And God said to Noah: "This is the sign of the covenant that I've established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth." Torah teaches us that every human being stands before God on equal footing . . . no human soul is holier than any other or is created any differently than any other. All living creatures are treasured as creations of God.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
Announcement by The Rabbinical Assembly: A Day of Prayer for the Gulf Prayer for Recovery and Restoration of the Gulf Weekend of July 30th We rebuilt the wall until it was a continuous all around to half its height; for the people's heart was in the work. Nehemiah 3:38 The Louisiana Interchurch Conference and BISCO (Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing), will be sponsoring a special prayer service to be held in Houma, LA on the Gulf on July 30th. Parallel to this, we are asking our colleagues to include special prayers during Shabbat services, July 30-31 to pray for the recovery and restoration of the Gulf and its people. This particular weekend marks roughly 100 days since the explosion of April 20, 2010. We also remember in our prayers those who lost their lives in the explosion and subsequent fire and we pray for their families and all who grieve.
At one moment in this week's Torah reading, Moses attempts to fill the people of Israel with as much wisdom as possible as he prepares to send them into the Land that awaits them. These same words of wisdom echo for us today, as communities of faith around our country set aside this Shabbat as a day of prayer for another sector of God's Land: the Gulf of Mexico.
Moshe taught us: "So keep these commandments as you enter this promised land--a land that can flow with milk and honey. This is land for which God cares. The eyes of God are always upon it. If you will serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give rain and the plants will grow and be harvested and you shall eat and be satisfied."
"This is a land for which God cares."
We mark 100 days since the beginning of this toxic Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For all the progress made in controlling the situation, damage that will be decades in the repairing is now fresh in our minds and foul in the waters and beaches. Please join us this evening at our 7:30 pm service as we add our voices to those of so many other faith communities in prayer for the Recovery and Restoration of the Gulf.
May God Have Reason to Praise Us A Prayer in Response to the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill Prayer based on verses from Psalm 104 and composed by Rabbi Amy Levin
Reader: Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, You are very great; You are clothed with splendor and majesty. God wraps in light as with a garment; stretches out the heavens like a tent God set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.
Congregation: The foundations of God’s earth support us, too.The splendor and majesty of Creation inspires us.The delicate balance of Your creation is ours to cherish and preserve.
Reader: You covered the earth with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at Your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of Your thunder they took to flight; You set a boundary they cannot cross;never again will they cover the earth.
Congregation: As the flood waters receded, Your Covenant with Noah was established, Your promise to us has stood:Your precious waters may surge and surround us, but we hold fast, the core of Your creation.
Reader: God makes springs pour waters into the ravines; they flow between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. God waters the mountains from the upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of God’s work.
Congregation: God’s work of creation is ever-renewing.Humanity’s responsibility to cherish, preserve and restore God’s creation is equally eternal.
Reader: How many are Your works, O Lord!In wisdom You made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious,teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which You formed, to frolic there.
Congregation: How many are our works, O Lord!Some made in wisdom.Some made in folly.The earth is full of our presence and Your teeming creatures are in our hands to thrive or to suffer, to fill Your earth or to disappear.
Reader: When You hide Your face, they are terrified; when You take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When You send Your Spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the earth.
Congregation: When our faces are not hidden by humility and awareness of our own responsibility, we terrify Your creation:we take their breath away, they die and return to the dust.When we accept Your spirit, we nurture Your creation and have a hand in renewing the face of the earth.
Reader: May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in God’s works- I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to God, as I rejoice in the Lord.
Congregation: May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in the works of God we have revered, restored and healed.Let us sing praise to God who inspires and challenges us throughout our lives.May God have reason to sing praise of us as we move from contemplation to action, caretaking, advocacy and compassion.
Parashat Ki Tissa Torah Reading: Exodus 30:11-34:35
Rabbi Erica Seager Asch of the American Jewish World Service writes of this week's Torah Reading: This week's parashah contains the well known episode of the Golden Calf. Our ancestors eagerly gave their gold for its construction. That gold became an idol and the people made sacrifices before it. Their misuse of the gold was so grave that God sought to destroy the entire nation. Yet a few weeks from now we will read of our ancestors using their gold for good by eagerly offering it to create the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Israelites brought many gifts, including gold, to build a Mishkan. In this instance, the people gave freely of their possessions for a divine purpose.
The gold of the Israelites was used in two very different ways, prompting Rabbi Abba bar Aha to declare: "You can't understand the character of this people! When asked for the [Golden] Calf, they contribute. When asked for the Mishkan, they contribute." The gold was the same--it was what was done with it that gave it the quality of either idolatry or of holiness.
The question of how we use our limited resources is not just a question for ancient Israelites or for modern Jews, it is a question for every human being. How can we be good neighbors? How can we improve our own quality of life as well as the quality of life of those with whom we share this world?
Yesterday, I had the privilege of addressing the Rhode Island House of Representatives Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources. The Committee was accepting testimony on upcoming legislation that is referred to colloquially as "Right to Dry." This legislation, if passed, would protect the rights of Rhode Island residents to hang laundry outside, mount solar panels on their homes or small wind turbines on their property and would render illegal local regulations from prohibiting these actions.
Here is my statement to the Committee:
Mr. Chairman, honored members of the committee, I am Rabbi Amy Levin.I am the rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in Cranston and also serve as the vice-president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis. It is an honor to have the opportunity to bring a Jewish sensibility to today's discussion . . . for the legislation you are considering today touches upon two values cherished by Jewish tradition: The first is "kvod habriyot":respect for every created being. The second is "tikkun olam":repair of God's created world.
The Jewish ethic of k'vod habriyot, of respect for every created being, compels all those in leadership positions on every level to do our utmost to respect the realities and support the most fundamental aspirations of everyone around us.The legislation before you is a means to just such an end.A family struggling to cover the monthly commitments of utility bills, rent or mortgage and food bills, can find substantive relief in an act as simple as hanging laundry in the sunshine instead of paying for the electricity or gas to run a clothes dryer.In our state, this should be low-hanging fruit.I would hope that legislation from this body protecting everyone's latitude to take such a step would be a self-evident value.It is a step that would be applauded by the constituents of Rhode Island as an act of intelligence, vision and compassion.
The Jewish ethic of "tikkun olam", of repair of God's created world, also informs today's discussion.By acknowledging that we are all in the same boat . . . and that that boat is the natural world . . . we take on a tremendous burden of mutual responsibility.The actions of one have an influence on us all.The unbridled consumption of the natural resources that currently supply the overwhelming percentage of our electricity have implications for those of us alive today, in this place; for generations to come, God-willing, in Rhode Island; and for generations to come all over the world.Passage of this legislation would express to Rhode Islanders and our peers in other states and other countries, that here we take our responsibilities seriously.That here in Rhode Island we understand that making way for individual commitments to sustainable energy through small wind turbines and solar panels is really the least we can do to encourage the sustenance of the natural world God has left in our hands.
If we have people in our state who are willing to pay the premium to generate sustainable energy, we should thank them, we should remove all barriers to their commitment and their vision.You and your colleagues are in the unique position, with this legislation, of bridging the gap between theory and practice, between ethical talk and moral action.I and many others in our state would feel blessed to be led by statesman who embrace the opportunity to nurture the financially vulnerable and to encourage the environmental pioneers of Rhode Island with the passage of this one, sound, simple piece of legislation.
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. Rabbi Levin lived in Israel for 20 years and was the second woman to be ordained by the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel.