Category Archives: Rabbi Tom’s Messages

A Message From Rabbi Tom: A Judaism That Touches Our Souls

MCJC CONNECTIONS
July/August 2018 ~ Tammuz/Av/Elul ~ Volume 5778

Rabbi Tom SamuelsAt the very beginning of the Torah’s Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, the Israelite nation is commanded by God to take a military census as preparation for their upcoming war to conquer the Promised Land. And yet previously, in the Book of Exodus, Shemot, God warns the Israelites that census-taking, even for the purpose of war, can result in the death by plague of the participants and of the takers themselves.

Which is it then? Is taking a census permissible or not? Our ancient Sages look to the case study of King David to help resolve this textual contradiction. In the Book of Samuel II (and in parallel, Chronicles I), King David and the entire nation are punished with a horrible plague for having taken a census. What’s so wrong with taking a census, the Sages asked? They conclude that, at least in the case of David, the sin of counting was that he reduced human beings to objects, resources to satiate his feeling of being in absolute control. (I can imagine King David surveying his kingdom from his palace’s turret and exclaiming “All of this is MINE!”)

The ancient rabbis understood that human nature tends toward formulating the allusion, the story, and that we are the sum of that which we own. Our very existence is dependent on our power over others. David’s sin was relating to his people as surrogates to serve his own ego. But David and all of us are here to serve each other. Communal systems cannot flourish where their only narrative is numbers and rules. For true vibrancy, communities require human stories – of suffering and triumph, conflict and euphoria, humor and love – to ensure that a community understands its own depth and complexity (Rabbi Sacks).

The similarities to our current Jewish public conversation concerning policies and numbers is salient. In the institutional American Jewish world over the past half-century, there has been what scholars call a Theology of Demographics: How many people registered for your Shabbat program? How many households are members of your synagogue? How many young families participated in your Purim carnival? What is your temple’s post-Bnai Mitzvah attrition rate? This has become the bulk of the conversation, the Halacha of American Jewish life.

But here’s the problem with this conversation: While it certainly comes from a good place, an existential concern for the continuation of American Jewry, in our zeal to ensure the Jewish future, we forgot to articulate why it matters for Judaism to continue. The challenge isn’t about demographics. Rather it is about creating communities of meaning.

In America, where Jews can choose their religious and cultural identities from a smorgasbord of a seemingly endless array of offerings, where Jews are free to leave the Jewish community without joining any other religious community, where old ties to Jewish life have eroded and most Jews have no plausible explanation to justify trying to preserve them (Rabbi Gordis), the conversations that we need to have must start at the very fundamentals of our personal and collective Jewish identities. Why be Jewish? Do we have an obligation to remain part of the Jewish people? Where does that obligation come from? Who (or what) makes that obligation real? If I choose not to be Jewish, what do I lose? Would our lives be significantly impoverished if we chose not to make Jewish connection a central part of life? What does Judaism offer that I cannot find in secular society (Rabbi Gordis)?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously stated at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in 1964 that “…it is time to retire surveys and survival.” We must teach each other how a commitment to Jewish life will revive our spirit, rekindle our passion for living, and
infuse our lives with joy and with meaning (Jay Michaelson). We must foster a Jewish life which merits the attention of modern Jews by virtue of its potential role in our lives as a compelling, meaningful, and enriching enterprise that helps define precisely who and what we are (Rabbi Gordis). To express our humanity. To satisfy our need to touch the transcendent in the world.

B’Shalom,
Rabbi Tom

A Message from Rabbi Tom

MCJC Connections
May/June 2018 ~ Iyar/Sivan/Tamuz ~ Volume 5778

Rabbi Tom Samuels

Leadership guru Jim Collins describes a great leader as “an individual who blends extreme personal humility with an intense professional will.” Collins points out that such a combination is a rarity and needs to be recognized and appreciated. “Leaders,” Collins writes, “who possess this paradoxical combination of traits are catalysts for the statistically rare event of transforming a good company into a great one.”

MCJC and I have been blessed to have such leaders at our helm: outgoing president, Jack Fishman, and outgoing vice-president, Rob Perbohner. From my personal experience over the past two years that I have served as MCJC’s spiritual leader, Jack and Rob have weathered the storms that inevitably come with transitions and changes. They have done so with grace, respect, and as true mensches, readily willing to learn, to let go, and most important, to trust. They both truly exemplify the best of a reflective leadership and governance style marked by a careful examination of alternatives, a commitment to overarching purpose, attention to relationships, and a mastery of both big picture and detail. I will miss them both dearly.

Our Torah gives us a model for a healthy transition of leadership in the narrative of Moses presenting his successor, Joshua, to the Israelites: “And Moses went and spoke these words unto all Israel. And he said to them ‘I am a hundred and twenty years-old this day. I can no more go out and come in. And the Lord said to me, ‘You shall not go over the Jordan. The Lord, your God, He will go over before you and Joshua,’ he will go over before you.” (Deuteronomy 31:1-3)

But the narrative leaves the reader in a state of not knowing: How would Moses feel in the end? Might he act on feelings of jealousy? And, how would the Israelites react? Would they embrace Joshua? After all, they had spent the past forty tumultuous years with Moses, through the ups and downs that are at the foundation of any deeply-rooted, intimate relationship formation process. Would they be able to let go of Moses and accept his young assistant, Joshua? And finally, would Joshua, so used to being second-in-command to Moses, be able to assume the mantle of prime leadership? Would he be overwhelmed by this new responsibility, the very fate of his people burdened on his shoulders alone? (Rabbi
Schulweis)

Let us return to the first three words cited in the Torah passage above, “And Moses went.” Where, in fact, did Moses go? The great medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) writes that Moses went from tribe to tribe, tent to tent, comforting his people and encouraging them to embrace the closure of his leadership, while at the same time the continuation of the leadership of God, and the new leadership of Joshua. No one leader, not even Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, the only human to have seen the face of God, is indispensable, irreplaceable. The organization, is far larger than any one person.

All transitions, our Torah is teaching us, leave us with questions, doubts, and fear of the unknown. However, while those times of transitions might feel daunting, it is precisely these in-between phases, before the old is entirely gone and the new entirely settled, which allow for innovation, radically honest self-reflection, and consequently individual, relational, and collective actualization.

As Jack and Rob’s board terms come to an end this May, and as they tirelessly continue to dedicate their time and energy to ensuring a smooth transition to a new MCJC board, they exemplify and inspire the Talmudic dictum: “This is what the Holy One said to Israel: My
children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you have the love for one another, honor one another, and that you have awe and reverence for one another.” (Tanna de Bei Eliyahu Rabbah)

I will miss having Jack and Rob as our board leaders. At the same time, I look forward to working with our new board and new energy. In the end, the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land and thrived. And so shall MCJC.

B’Shalom,
Rabbi Tom

A Message From Rabbi Tom: Sharing and Exchanging the World of Ideas

MCJC Connections
March/April 2018 * Adar/Nissan/Iyar * Volume 5778

An ancient legend teaches that when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, God said to them, “Before I give you my Torah, you must give me something precious that proves that you are devoted to it.” The Israelites thought long and hard. They offered their jewelry. But God did not accept it.

Then they thought harder about what was most precious, and offered the patriarchs and matriarchs – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel, and Leah – as proof. But God refused that offer, too.

Finally, the Israelites said, “Our children and all generations of children after them are what is most precious. We will teach them to love and honor God’s commandments.” (Song of Songs Rabbah)

We are commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God, tribal heads, elders, officials, all of the men of Israel, children, women, even the stranger within your camp, from wood chopper to water drawer.” (29: 9-10) That every single one of us, from the prince to the water drawer, adult to child, is literally standing before God to create a Judaism of meaning, depth, and seriousness.

And the Jewish way, the Jewish path towards this, is through education. “You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, veshinantam levanecha, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise
up.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, points out that at the very brink of the Israelites’ walk to freedom from their Egyptian slave-masters, Moses, their leader, gathers them together and talks about their duty to pass on the memory of the Exodus to their children and to future generations. “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall… explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt…’” (Exodus 12-13)

Rabbi Sacks asks, why this obsession with education that has stayed with the Jewish people throughout the millennia? And he answers, “Because to defend a country you need an army. But to defend a civilization you need schools. You need education as the conversation between the generations. Whatever the society, the culture or the faith, we need to teach our children, and they theirs, what we aspire to and the ideals we were bequeathed by those who came before us. We need to teach our children the story of which we and they are a part, and we need to trust them to go further than we did, when they come to write their own chapter.”

The Hebrew word for education is chinuch. The Talmud associates this word with the word chen, grace. That education, in the Jewish tradition, is the act of drawing-out, revealing the unique inner beauty, the chen, of each and every student.

And the Torah is called the Book of Life, Sefer ha’Chayim. That is something you get intimately involved with. It is a relationship. A meeting place. An organic process that weaves life and learning together. Where we meet God.

And so, at its core, Jewish education, and Judaism itself, from its very beginning, is based on the the exchange of a world of ideas. To seek that which speaks to our very souls.

Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us through His commandments, and commanded us to be immersed in the words and in a life of Torah.

B’Shalom,
Rabbi Tom

A Message from Rabbi Tom: Finding God in the Everyday

MCJC Connections
January/February 2018 ~ Tevet/Shevat/Adar ~ Vol. 5778

By Rabbi Tom

Rabbi Tom Samuels

Rabbi Rami Shapiro tells a story: Reb Yaakov Shimshon of Kosov loved to share with his students the stories of the great Rebbes and their Hassidim.

It once happened after morning prayer that the Rebbe began to tell one story after another without stopping. He and his Hasidim were lifted to such a state of divine rapture that they stepped out of time. The day passed, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that the Rebbe told his final tale. Slowly, Reb Yaakov and his disciples returned to the needs of the everyday world, and realized that they had eaten neither breakfast nor lunch.

One of the students stood up and honored his Rebbe, saying, “Until this moment, Rebbe, I did not really understand Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our sacred teacher, when he said that while on Mount Sinai he ate no bread and drank no water. Now I know what it is like to be filled with the very Presence of God, and to feel no further need to eat or drink.”

Reb Yaakov nodded his appreciation to his student and said, “Your interpretation is a worthy one, my son, but perhaps Moshe was not celebrating his transcendence of food and drink, but regretting it? We know that everything in this world contains a spark of the Divine and that only when a thing is used properly is this spark uplifted and repaired to God, from Whom it came. This is no less true of food and drink than it is of books and tools.”

Moshe realized that in those forty days on Mount Sinai he neither ate nor drank, and thus failed to uplift the divine sparks in his bread and water. “In the World to Come, these sparks will complain to the Holy One that Moshe did them a grave disservice by putting his own love of God before their liberation.”

Imagine that. Even Moses, the only human being to come face to face with HaShem, the Divine, needed to focus on the ordinary.

Rabbi Rami tells us of the great Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534–1572) who taught that all things contain a spark of the Divine, and that the deepest spiritual work is to release those sparks and return them to God by using the things of this world in a righteous and honorable manner. More often than not, the greatest mysteries in life, we (hopefully) discover, are the simplest ones, the ones that we confront every day.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “We tend to read the Bible looking for mighty acts that God does, and not seeing that all the way through the Bible God is waiting for human beings to act.”

He went on and quoted from the Prophet Elijah, “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah, the sound of delicate silence.” (1 Kings 19)

God, Rabbi Heschel was teaching us, as was Reb Yaakov in the Hassidic story above, is found in the ordinariness, the everyday, the seemingly most mundane aspects of our lives. That is where God resides.

B’Shalom, Rabbi Tom

The Essence of Jewish Education

MCJC Connections
January/February 2018 ~ Tevet/Shevat/Adar ~ Vol. 5778

By Rabbi Tom

The Hebrew word for education is chinuch. The Talmud associates this word with the word chen, grace. That education, in the Jewish tradition, is the act of drawing-out, revealing the unique inner beauty of each and every student.

The Torah is called the Book of Life, sefer ha’chayim – not the Book of Knowledge. Judaism is not something you study; it is something you get intimately involved with. It is a relationship. A meeting place where we meet God.

This is so very relevant to today when knowledge is available
on every Internet-connected device, where what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.

The determinant for a successful educational program must first and foremost be measured by how well it is able to engage, to integrate, and to inspire the whole child. That is the world they inhabit, and the world they would like to build. Education is, after all, an organic process that when most effective, weaves life and learning together, naturally and seamlessly.

And so, at its core, Jewish education cannot and should not be reduced to disseminating information. Rather, Jewish education is about sharing a world of ideas. It is aspirational, and never about arrival.

Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us through His commandments, and commanded us to be immersed
in the words and in a life of Torah.

A Message from Rabbi Tom: Finding Warmth from Within

MCJC Connections
November/December 2017 ~ Cheshvan/Kislev/Tevet ~ Vol. 5778

As winter encroaches, my thoughts and dreams transition to finding warmth and hope, to finding those fleeting moments of light, in the mystical. And towards this, I turn to the great mystic, scholar, and
social reformer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, May His Memory Be A Blessing. Heschel so brilliantly can help us to understand the nature of the world in which we live, and the role that the Jewish tradition has assigned to us within this world.

Heschel challenges us to imagine the universe prior to Creation, where all that existed was God. And in order to create the world, God performed an intentional act of Tzim-Tzum, self-contraction. God literally contracted Him/Herself, thereby allowing the space for our world to be created. Then God placed the Shechinah, God’s indwelling, the Divine presence, within this world, which ultimately proved unable to contain the GodSelf. The world, the first Creation, burst, and in a cataclysmic moment, those sparks of God were hurled together to form our current world.

From the standpoint of this metaphor, the universe is broken, and God, in the very act of creating the world, chose to limit Divine perfection. God, therefore, needs human beings to repair our world, to gather up the sparks of Divine Holiness that are scattered throughout creation, a Tikkun Olam.

This audacious myth, Heschel points out throughout his writings, asserts that God is in need of each of us if holiness is to be achieved in the world. That our human actions have cosmic import. That the very presence of God in the world is dependent upon how you and I act in our everyday lives. That at the very core of the Jewish tradition is the notion that there is holiness in the world and that we are all responsible, accountable to God, for having such holiness realized.

Heschel taught that we tend to read the Torah looking for mighty acts that God does. All the while, we are not seeing that God is waiting for human beings to take action, that God needs His children to take care of each other. “Zeus loves women; God loves widows,” he wrote. Do you want to love me? God asks, then love the way I love. Love who I love. Love those who are the hardest to love… the stranger, the vulnerable, those who are different, those who just don’t fit in. The ultimate moral test of a community is to include those who have been downtrodden and forbidden to speak, to give them, and therefore all of us, a voice, dignity.

At the same time, Heschel understood and presented with radical honesty that there is so much healing that is beyond our reach, even if we’re commanded to try and achieve it. And so, he reminded us of our great Sages from the Talmud. Through them, a wisdom tradition formulated over two thousand years ago; we are embraced, assured, and protected. Our lives, they tell us from across the generations, are too short. The day is long and the work is great, and we’re not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it. “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel
mimena” – “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon,Pirkei Avot 2:21)

B’Shalom,
Rabbi Tom