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Venturing from the shallow end of Jewish life

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — When I was a child attending summer camp, I dreaded pool days. I did not know how to swim and hated being forced in the water. I always made sure to stay in the shallow end of the pool and no amount of coaxing would entice me to enter the deep end.

One day during swimming lessons we were told to float on our backs. I lined myself up in such a way that I would stay in the shallow part of the pool and I began to float. The swimming instructor told me to begin a back stroke. I complied and slowly began to move. He continued to encourage me before finally telling me to stop. “Look where you are,” he said. I turned over and noticed that I had backstroked all the way over to the deep end, and I had not sunk or drowned. From that day on I was never afraid of the deep end again.

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale spent most of his life promoting the power of positive thinking. You can accomplish whatever you set out to do, he claimed, if you have the right attitude.

The same is true of negative thinking. If you believe you cannot accomplish something, you have already defeated yourself.

The Torah tells us that God’s Instruction “is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens…Neither is it beyond the sea.” (Deut. 30:11-13) Rather, “the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut. 11:14) The commentator Malechet Machshevet notes that in this last verse the Torah reverses the usual order of things. Normally, one thinks about something in one’s heart before saying it. Here the Torah perplexingly says that first we should “say” something and only afterwards think about it.

Malechet Machshevet suggests that the Torah proposes this order because it is talking about performing mitzvot. When it comes to performing mitzvot, we should first do them and only afterwards think about them. He adds that when it comes to mitzvot this is especially important because so many people look at performing mitzvot as a daunting, impossible, or difficult task. When they approach mitzvot with this attitude, their failure to perform them becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. They have already convinced themselves that they can’t.

I can vouch for the veracity of Melechet Machshevet’s opinion. I cannot even begin to count the number of Jews who have told me they don’t want to keep kosher because it is too difficult or expensive, or Shabbat and holidays because they are too restrictive. When one sees Jewish observance as a hardship rather than a joy, one is less likely to give it a try. Such is the power of negative thinking.

While it is easier to stay in the shallow end of Jewish life, it is not nearly as fulfilling or productive as when one ventures into its depths. When it comes to performing mitzvot, it is better to jump in first and think about it later!

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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Think you’ve got it bad in this economy? Think again!

August 27, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — When I opened this morning’s paper, I groaned when I saw that the stock market had dropped below 10,000.

I began to feel sorry for myself until I read the next headline: “Flooding displaces one million more in Pakistan.” At least 1,600 people have been killed and 17 million displaced since monsoon floods began in Pakistan a month ago.  Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, “An already colossal disaster is getting worse and requiring an even more colossal response.”

In ancient Israel the first of all harvests, the bikurim, were offered to God. The Torah instructs the Israelites to include the poor of society in their celebration: “You shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” (Deut. 26:11)

I have always explained this as requiring us to include gifts to the poor and hungry whenever we celebrate happy occasions. Our joy is never complete until the needy are provided for.

The commentator known as Lekutei Yehoshua, however, suggests another interpretation of this mitzvah. He writes that when you share your celebrations with the downtrodden of society, the joy you experience is of a special nature: it is the joy of one who is happy with what they have. (cf. Pirkei Avot 4:1: Ben Zoma says, “Who is wealthy? The one who is content with what they have.”)

Jealousy of one’s neighbor’s possessions, he writes, is the source of much sadness and anger in life. We always think that we will be happy if we have more.

However, if we think about our poor neighbors, rather than the wealthy ones, we quickly realize how fortunate we are and conclude that we must be grateful and content with the blessings that are already ours.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

Will Ground Zero mosque promote reconciliation or disharmony?

August 20, 2010 1 comment

 By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — Is the question “Do Moslems have the right to build a new Islamic Center and Mosque next to Ground Zero?” or “Should Moslems build a new Islamic Center and Mosque next to Ground Zero?”

If the question is one of “right,” there is no question at all. The United States Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and that the government will not unduly interfere with religion. While government agencies may be able to deny the construction of religious institutions based on zoning, traffic, etc., they cannot withhold permission simply because people do not like a particular religion.

Forbidding the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero would be similar to preventing a synagogue building next to a church because the Christian Bible says that Jews called for the execution of Jesus.
 
Furthermore, all Moslems are not terrorists. It would be morally reprehensible to hold all Moslems accountable for the murders of 9/11. As the Torah reminds us this week: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime.” (Deut. 24:16) It would be unfair and unjust to punish all Moslems for the acts of a few.

Whether building such a Mosque is wise or the right thing to do, however, is another question.

Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative, the group that wants to build the Center, stated: “We believe that Park 51 will become a landmark in New York City’s cultural, social and educational life, a community center to promote the American values we all aspire toward and to realize a better city for all.”

Cordoba Spokesperson Oz Sultan said: “We will continue going forward with the project. It’s a project that will build bridges.” He added that the Cordoba Institute is “committed to promoting positive interaction between the Muslim world and the West.”

It seems to me that if a structure that is intended to foster reconciliation between Moslems and non-Moslems and build bridges in the community is, instead, having the opposite effect, its planners should voluntarily change their location.
 
Although not all Moslems are terrorists, almost all terrorists are Moslems and have acted in the name of their religion.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the majority of peaceful Moslems have not done enough to condemn their coreligionists who do commit murder and mayhem against those who disagree with them. One rarely hears the Moslem world condemning acts of terror against Israelis, for example.

The pain and anguish of 9/11 are still very fresh for survivors and those who lost loved ones in the attack on the Twin Towers. If a new Islamic Center and Mosque built close to the center of their sacred ground renews their pain and anguish, the leaders of the Cordoba Initiative should respond with the same sensitivity they seek from others. They should build their Center and Mosque somewhere else.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue

What’s the meaning of the ‘eglah arufah’ ritual?

August 13, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO–Parashat Shoftim contains the obtuse ritual of the eglah arufah (heifer whose neck was broken).

If a murder victim is found outside of one or more towns and the slayer is unknown, the residents of the town closest to the victim must take responsibility for their burial. Before doing so they must perform the ritual of the eglah arufah and make a declaration that they were not responsible for the murder. They take a heifer which has never been yoked, bring it down to wadi (dry river bed) that has never been tilled or sown, and break its neck.

A Kohein offers a blessing and then the elders of the town wash their hands over the heifer and declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel who you redeemed and do not let guilt of the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” (Deut. 21:7)

The ritual of “heifer whose neck was broken” is strange and the rabbis classified it as a law which lacks rational explanation; it is performed only because God says so. Some of the symbolism, however, is obvious-such as the innocent elders “washing their hands” of guilt after the murder.

Their declaration is nevertheless strange. Why should the elders of the town, who are obviously innocent, have to swear they were not involved? The Talmud explains that the elders were not declaring their own innocence, but that they did not permit lawlessness and violence that lead to murder to flourish in their towns. The Midrash adds: “in our community, no poor person goes unaided to the point of being driven to a life of crime.” (Etz Hayim, p. 1105)

What the rabbis were teaching us is, that while it is obviously forbidden to commit murder, it is also our responsibility to prevent murder and acts of violence from occurring in our society. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We prevent acts of violence by making every effort to insure that those around us are treated justly and equitably, and that poverty and need do not propel people to a life of crime.

When we see injustice and violence we may not just wash our hands of responsibility and walk away. We are obligated to work together to eliminate the causes, attitudes, and lifestyle which lead to a life of hatred and violence.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

Commentary: Remembering pain in the midst of joy

July 23, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — The breaking of the glass at the end of a Jewish wedding was originally not greeted by cries of joy but rather with tears. This custom originates from a story in the Talmud. In the middle of sumptuous feast a rabbi stood up and threw an expensive goblet against the wall, smashing it. This surprised and sobered everyone. He explained that, even in the middle of a time of joy, it is important to remember that the life of the Jewish People is broken because we are in exile.  Until the Temple is rebuilt and all Jews move back to Israel, our lives are shattered and our joy is always diminished.

At the weddings I perform I also explain that the broken glass reminds us that we live in a broken world and that the obligations of a bride and groom include not only the need to support and encourage each other, but also to heal the world in which we live. When we see suffering, we need to share the pain and help alleviate it.
 
During a terrible famine in Russia, Rabbi Israel Salanter ran into a very poor Jew who was always hungry and complained constantly about the bitterness of his lot. This time, however, he was free of complaints and even appeared content. Rabbi Salanter was puzzled and asked him: “This is the first time I have spoken with you that you seem happy. Have you somehow escaped the famine?”

“No,” the Jew replied, “I am just as hungry as before. But now, everyone around me is hungry as well, and that others know how I suffer every day brings me omfort.”

Rabbi Salanter said to him: “A real Jew (yehudi kasher) does not suffer less when others suffer; he suffers more! A real Jew feels their pain! This is why the Torah says in Parashat V’etchanan ‘When you (pl.) worship other gods and serve (pl.) them and bow down (pl.) to them’ the Torah speaks in the plural. But when the Torah speaks about suffering ‘when you (s.) are in distress because all these things have befallen you (s.)’ (Deut. 4:30) the Torah speaks in the singular: it is to teach you that when others suffer, so should you.”

“Misery loves company” the saying goes. There are some people who derive a great deal of satisfaction from seeing others suffer as do they. “Now they know how I feel,” they say and it lifts their spirits.

Rabbi Salanter wants us to learn that the pain of others should never bring us pleasure. We should share their pain and use it to motivate us to bring them support, uplift, and healing, even if we share their complaint.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

The mystical pull of Jerusalem

July 16, 2010 Leave a comment

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — This Shabbat has a special name. It is called “Shabbat Chazon,” after the first few words of the Haftarah. The Haftarah contains the dire prophecy/vision (“chazon”) of the prophet Isaiah concerning the impending destruction of Jerusalem.

Isaiah’s prophecy is traditionally read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the day upon which the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. Tisha B’Av is a day filled with lamentation and fasting. This year Tisha B’Av begins on Monday evening, July 19th and continues through Tuesday, July 20th.

Ever since we were exiled from our land Jews have longed to return to Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem. Some Jews were so inspired that they traveled to the Holy City of Jerusalem centuries before the establishment of the modern State of Israel. However, life in Jerusalem was extremely difficult and primitive.

Some pilgrims regretted their decision and returned home.

In the early 19th century a Chasid decided to fulfill his dream of living in Jerusalem. He left Poland, weathered a difficult and treacherous journey, and finally arrived in the Holy City.

However, after several months he found life too difficult there and decided to return to Poland.

He approached the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who was at that time living in Jerusalem, told him why he was leaving, and asked for a farewell blessing.

Rabbi Simcha responded, “I feel very badly for you. Apparently, you have not found favor in the eyes of Jerusalem, for if you had, Jerusalem would have also found favor in your eyes.”

The Chasid took Rabbi Simcha’s lesson to heart and decided to remain in Jerusalem.

Even today living in Jerusalem can be a challenge. There are congestion and noise and internal as well as external conflict with which to contend. Yet, there is no other city like her in the world. Once she embraces you, she is impossible to forget, and one’s heart always longs to return.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue

The exhiliration of Jewish summer camp

July 2, 2010 Leave a comment

 

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — On Sunday Judy and I visited the Conservative Movement’s Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. Though Judy and I both retired from our summer Ramah jobs several years ago, we like to stay in touch and are local advocates and boosters.

The campgrounds and setting continue to be spectacular. Last year American Jewish University, which owned the campground, sold it to Camp Ramah. This move allowed Camp Ramah greater independence and full advantage was quickly taken. Ramah immediately put in an incredible professional ropes course and turned the house that was acquired on the adjacent property a few years ago into a beautiful adult retreat center. Everything was bright, shiny, clean, and green.

More exciting, however, were the smiles on the faces of the campers and staff who are members of Tifereth Israel Synagogue. This summer we have eight campers and five staffers from our congregation attending camp. They all looked healthy and happy. In particular, it was gratifying to meet with the younger kids who had never before attended camp. A few of them said they were nervous getting on the bus, but once they arrived at camp they didn’t look back. They were having a wonderful summer and smiled from ear to ear.

The campers and staffers seemed surprised and honored by our visit to camp. When they asked what we were doing there we told them the truth: we came up to see them! We brought them greetings from home as well as small gifts. During the day we watched them enthusiastically running from activity to activity.

Camp Ramah was a large part of my own children’s lives, and seeing the next generation of Jewish kids experience this unique opportunity for Jewish living, learning, and community is gratifying and inspiring. We are blessed that our Sisterhood, congregation, and Marlene and Michael Recht award camperships to deserving children each year.

If you have children or grandchildren who would benefit from a Camp Ramah summer, I hope you will encourage them to apply next year. You will need to do so early, as many bunks quickly fill up. For more information about Camp Ramah, please feel free to contact me or visit its website: http://www.ramah.org/

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Rosenthal is spiitual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego