Learning From The Trees

Tonight we celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shevat.  Literally, Tu B’Shevat means the 15th day of the month of Shevat.  This day has been deemed the “New Year of Trees” because it is on this day that the earliest blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle.   It is also on Tu B’Shevat that the trees of Israel stop absorbing water from the ground and begin to draw nourishment from their sap.  For our ancestors, who were required to ritually offer (tithe) a certain portion of the fruit they received from trees to God, the fruit that had blossomed prior to the 15th of Shevat was not be used as tithe for fruit which blossomed after that date.

What fruit we tithe, when trees start to bear fruit, and when trees begin to draw from their sap – these are not things that most of us worry about today.  Yet, Tu B’Shevat remains a part of our Jewish calendar and the Tu B’Shevat seder (which takes place this evening at 7:00PM) is something many of us look forward to each year.  This is because, in Judaism, we are taught that trees have much to teach us about ourselves.

In Torah, we are taught that “man is the tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19).  The “tree of the field” needs soil, water, air, and light if it is going to survive.  And we too need these four elements.

In the Pirke Avot 3:22, we learn that:

A person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is likened to a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down. But a person whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. (Avot 3:22)

Our “soil” is our every day world – the world in which we have the potential to make a difference.  Many of us spend our lives learning and working in an attempt to make ourselves better.  When we do this, we often fail to actively engage with the world around us.  Our good deeds, our opportunities to do tikun olam, are few and far between.  The Talmud teaches us that our good deeds in this world are our roots.  The Talmud explains that it is what we gain from learning and working – our wisdom – that serve as our branches – that part of us that reaches for the heavens.  Interestingly enough, our tradition teaches us that too much study and not enough interaction with the world around us makes us top heavy and, thus, unbalanced.  A person whose actions far outweigh his wisdom, one who is “bottom heavy”, he is grounded and strong.

Our water is not simply the liquid we drink that sustains us, it is also our Torah which is described as much needed drops of rain.  Our “roots”, like the roots of a tree, absorb this precious “water” and we discover an integral lesson of our tradition: we truly absorb Torah not by our branches – not by immersing ourselves in study continuously, but by living a life that actively reflects the values of Torah: by doing good deeds.

Our air is not simply what we breathe, it is our very essence, our soul, as God breathed the air of life into the very first human being. Without this sacred air that God gave to us, we would not be.  Our every day interaction with the trees, an interaction that often goes unnoticed, is a constant reminder of the sacred exchange of air that created life.  The oxygen that we breathe is produced by trees. The Arbor Day Foundation reports that a mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year.  In turn, trees breathe the carbon dioxide that we exhale and that our technology emits into the atmosphere – and, in doing so, they play a major role in cleaning the air that we inhale as we read these words.

Our light is not simply the sun, the same sun that the trees rely upon, but also the Torah and God.  Our branches, which Pirke Avot refers to as our wisdom (our desire to learn and study Torah), reach toward the heavens, trying to get closer to the source of all wisdom and knowledge.  But, we must remember that the branches that reach toward the light require roots that dig deep into the ground.

The Torah, referring to fruit bearing trees, states that: “you may eat of them, but you may not cut them down.”  Clearly, a tree that produces fruit that can serve as food and as a gift to God, is a sacred thing.  We may benefit from them, says the Torah, but we may not destroy them.  We, being “the tree of the field” must take this lesson to heart.  We rely on soil, water, air, and light to produce our own fruit – our actions which are a balance of wisdom and actions that make this world a more beautiful place.  We need to treat our fellow brothers and sisters no differently than a fruit bearing tree.  We may benefit from the fruit of our brothers and sisters – from all the wonderful things they give back to this world.  And we must never do anything to “cut them down” – to harm them in any way.

This Shabbat, may we learn from the trees and fill the world with fruit, beauty, and sacred breath.

Blessings Lie Beyond The Darkness

My D’var Torah (words of Torah) from Friday night, January 22nd

So many of us have gone through or are currently going through extremely dark and trying times.  Whether it be an illness, a death, a crumbling relationship, a financial crisis, whether it be overwhelming depression or anxiety, a powerful addiction, feeling lost, alone or hopeless – when our life shatters around us, the pain can be overwhelming.

In the section of Torah known as Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) which was read in synagogues last week (the week of January 17th), we are reminded that the 10 plagues were not sent by God to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites – rather they were sent to teach the Israelites the power of God.  The terrible fear and darkness that filled Egypt with each plague was God’s way of teaching the Israelites faith.  It was only after the Israelites had experienced the nightmare of plagues (granted, the Israelites were not the victims of the plagues) that they were able to turn to God and, consequently, find within themselves the strength and courage to leave the darkness (symbolized by Egypt) and begin the long journey towards the light (symbolized, of course, by Israel)

This idea that before we can experience true light we must experience true darkness is a theme that appears over and over again in Torah and Kabbalah.  It is such an important message for those of us who have lived in darkness or are still living in it.  After the darkness comes light.  Beyond the darkness lie blessings.  Our challenge and the purpose of life is to find the Divine strength that dwells within each of us – for this strength will enable us to travel to the great beyond.

Disclaimer: After sharing these words, I was approached by someone who asked me “how is the horrible illness of a child a blessing!?”  I am so glad that he asked me this challenging questions because I might very well not have been clear enough and that is the joy of having this blog.

Let me say very clearly:  I do not believe that any illness or terrible thing that happens to any of us is, itself, a blessing.  There are times in our lives when everything shatters and we are surrounded by darkness.  It is during these times, when we/if we somehow manage to find within us the divine strength to persevere, to crawl towards the light, to  pick up the pieces, that we slowly begin to have faith in something much bigger than our own suffering.    And it is when we grab on to this faith and allow it to lead us into the warm, radiant light that only comes after the darkest of darknesses that we understand the blessings of life.

So, to clarify:  The moment life shatters, the reason it shatters, and the feelings of total despair that immediately follow the shattering – these are NOT blessings.  They can, however, be the “birth pangs” of incredible blessings if we find within ourselves the Godly strength to wrestle with them, much like Jacob did with the angel in the middle of the night, until the dawn of a new day.

To my questioner I say thank you.  And I hope others will join the discussion here on BlogShalom.

Blessings Lie Beyond The Darkness, Part 1

Blessings Lie Beyond The Darkness, Part 2

Giving and the “It” Factor

As a synagogue community, we have given countless dollars to Haiti. Some of us, like our own Dr. Steven Swirsky have even traveled to Haiti to help. Many of us (myself included!) have signed up for the I CARE I CURE Run/Walk and will do our part to find gentler treatments and cures for childhood cancers. Ramat Shalom’s Relay for Life Team is growing and funds are being raised to support the American Cancer Society. Through all of our efforts just this week alone we clearly understand how precious money can be.

As I have watched our community step up to the plate for such important causes, I noticed that other fundraising campaigns that are going on in our community, campaigns for causes that might not seem as “powerful” as the ones we have been dealing with, are not attracting as much attention. A good friend of mine is putting together a fundraiser for a local food pantry/homeless shelter. The number of hungry and homeless adults and children that they help right here in our own neighborhood is staggering. Yet most of us are unaware or choose not to pay much attention to the suffering of our own neighbors.

What I clearly saw this week is that certain causes have an “it” factor.

  • The scenes that we see coming from Haiti every night, they have “it”. They are so powerful, so compelling – anyone with a heart and soul is drawn to do something.
  • The battle against cancer, especially childhood cancer, has “it”. Who in the world does not want to wage this war!? Who hasn’t been affected in some way or another by this monster of an illness? Who doesn’t want to see it annihilated? Anyone who loves someone who has been affected by cancer feels an obligation to do something and will be there with us on Sunday morning.
  • Who doesn’t want to help the 47 year old veteran, with no teeth and terrible body odor who sleeps under 595 every night, the teenage mom who can’t feed her three kids or the lady who cuts your hair who can’t pay for her medications? Who doesn’t want to help these folks? Very few of us want to. And even fewer of us actually do.

Helping the hungry in our own streets, supporting the needy, or lending a helping hand to someone who has not bathed in days – there is no “it” factor here. And when there is no “it” factor, for most of us, there is sadly no exciting, appealing, or touching reason to give.

Haiti has been struggling for years. It took a natural disaster of biblical proportions to give Haiti an “it” factor. What will it take for us to pay attention to those suffering in our own streets? What will be the “it” factor that gets us to open our pocket books and feed and cloth and shelter our neighbors?

As I pondered the role of the “it” factor when it comes to raising vital funds, I realized that we at Ramat Shalom have been trying for years to discover our own “it” factor. What is “it” that will get people to financially support our synagogue?

  • • Is “it” that we take pride in being one of the smaller, more intimate congregations in Broward County?
  • • Is “it” our informal nature and our closely-knit community that makes people feel safe and comfortable within our walls?
  • • Is “it” that you cannot find a more nurturing environment to send your little ones than our own Early Childhood Center?
  • • Is “it” that our Torah School and youth group programs provide our kids not only with a great Judaic education but also give our kids a deep and lasting connection to the synagogue and their Jewish community?
  • Maybe “it” is the variety of adult education and social programs that give so many of our members the opportunity to discover or reconnect with their Judaism in powerful ways?
  • Or perhaps “it” is our Shabbat, Holiday and B’nai Mitzvah services that blend tradition with creativity to produce (I hope!) unique spiritual experiences?

While all of these things make us special and are greatly appreciated by the vast majority of Ramat Shalomniks, most of us do not feel so inspired by these things, so moved by them that we open up our pocketbooks and support the synagogue. Most of us do pay our dues and feel that this is enough. But the reality is, dues do not cover our expenses. The generosity of a small percentage of members during the year helps us meet many of our other expenses. Prayer, a great bookkeeper and committed board members also help a great deal. With the economic downturn and more and more of our members unable to pay their dues or make additional donations to the synagogue, we, like most synagogues and other non-profit organizations, have had to tighten our belts as we help members who are struggling. Last year many staff member took significant reductions in their salaries. We have cut back the hours of some staff members and eliminated certain positions. All the while our board has worked diligently to monitor our budget and cut our spending without affecting what we offer our members. In the meantime, members continue to lose their jobs, struggle to make ends meet, or go into foreclosure. And I, along with our synagogue leadership, have spent many a late night thinking creatively about finances, studying the budget, and praying extra hard. But, this is not enough.

And so, I am asking you, what is “it” that makes Ramat Shalom so special? What is our “it” factor? And what can you do to support that “it” financially?

Ramat Shalom’s “it” factor in no way compares to the atrocities in Haiti, the dire need to raise funds for cancer research or feeding the hungry children of Broward County. This being said, “it” is our community. “It” is our children’s preschool classroom or upcoming b’nai mitzvah. “It” is Shabbat in our sanctuary. “It” is the comfort of a Ramat Shalom shivah minyan. “It” is the beautiful ark that holds your Torah Scrolls. “It” is knowing that we are here when you need us. “It” is our future. And “it” is beautiful and “it” needs your support.

For some, the idea of giving money to Ramat Shalom during a time when things are so tight, Haiti lies in ruins, and other important charities are asking for your support seems silly. But, the reality is that your spiritual home and all the “it” factors that make her up – incredible programs, services, classes and people – need your attention, commitment, and generosity right now.

So, as we begin Shabbat and prepare for another meaningful Friday night service, I am asking that you allow yourself to be moved by whatever “it” is that makes Ramat Shalom so special to you. I am asking that you help us preserve “it” and make “it” stronger” and give us the resources to carry “it” into the future and share “it” with others who need “it”.

As many of you know, I am running for “it” – doing what I can to raise the funds needed to insure that this incredible little synagogue we call home has the strength and fortitude to run strongly into the future. To support me and what you see as our “it factor” as I run the A1A Half-Marathon in honor of Ramat Shalom, please visit my fundraising page and make a donation (all funds go directly to Ramat Shalom): http://www.active.com/donate/irunwalk4ramatshalom/rabbiandrew

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing with me and supporting our synagogue.

Running Into The Future

I am running the Fort Lauderdale A1A Half-Marathon on February 21st.  I am doing it in honor of my incredible synagogue, Ramat Shalom.  This is the second year in a row that I am doing this.  Last year I raised $5,000 that went directly to help with synagogue programming.  I want to raise $5,000 again this year.  If you are a member of the synagogue or someone who enjoys this blog, I ask you to consider making a small donation in support of my race and, more importantly, in support of the best little synagogue there is!  I thank you for your support and am glad you are part of the BlogShalom community.  CLICK HERE TO MAKE A DONATION!!!