When Angels Leave…A Blessing For A Friend and Colleague

Welcome among us, ministering angels!

Angels of the Highest One,

From deep within us, Majesty of majesties

The blessed Holy One.

Come, then, in shalom, angels of shalom!

Bless us with shalom, angels of shalom!

And now, you leave us, with shalom, angels of shalom

Angels of the Highest One,

From deep within us, Majesty of majesties

The blessed Holy One.


Shalom Aleichem, the beautiful song that we sing as Shabbat begins, describes the mystical interaction each of us supposedly has as the sun sets on Friday night.  We are taught that as Shabbat starts, we go to the synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat services.  As we sing Shalom Aleichem, we are surrounded by angels and we say “welcome among us, ministering angels!”  As we leave the synagogue, tradition teaches us, two angels select us and follow us home.  One of the angels is a “good” angel; the other is a troublemaker.  They both enter our home together.  When they enter the house and they see Shabbat candles lit and a Shabbat dinner waiting, the “good” angel says “May it be G-d’s will that next Shabbat be the same,” and the troublemaking angel is compelled to respond: “Amen!”  At this point,  peace descends upon our home and the two angels both become “angels of peace” – both the good and troublemaking angel.

We proceed to welcome the angels into our home, saying “come angels of shalom!”.  We ask the two angels to bless us as we prepare to gather with family and friends and eat Shabbat dinner – saying “Barechuni leshalom!”.  And, then, we do something very odd: we send the angels away: “Tzetchem leshalom, malachey hashalom” – “Go now angels of Shalom, leave us with your beautiful peace.”  The angels don’t stay to eat!  They fly off into the night.  And once they leave us, we are ready to sit with our family and friends and enjoy the peace and beauty left behind by our angels of shalom.

The lesson: when angels leave us, the gifts they bring do not go with them.  Their gifts linger and fill our lives with the sparks that make us holy.

Natalie, for the past seven years, you have been our “Angel of Shalom” – coming into our lives, our sanctuary and our homes; blessing us with your music, teaching and spirit – preparing us for this moment: the moment where you fly off.  As you leave us, it is so evident that you have filled this holy place with shalom, with wholeness.  You have made us complete.  And while your presence will be missed beyond words – because of you and what you have given us, we will forever be able to sing and pray together.  Your voice will forever fill this sanctuary and your melodies will forever fill our hearts.

“Tzetchem leshalom, malachey hashalom, malachey elyon, mimelech malchey hamelachim hakadosh baruch hu!”   Go now, our Cantor, spread your wings and fly to the next chapter of your life.  Take with you all of our blessings and know that you have left behind more blessings than you know.



Make This Memorial Day A Day To Remember

As we prepare for a long weekend, let’s not overlook Memorial Day.  Were it not for the sacrifice of our soldiers, we would not have the luxury to relax and enjoy with family and friends over the next few days.  Please take the time to remember our soldiers who lost their lives while serving our country this Memorial Day.  Don’t allow this weekend to go by without remembering.  To help us remember, I am sharing the lyrics of the famous Israeli song, “How Can I Bless?” by Rachel Shapira.  I have shared it before – but the lyrics are always moving.

“How can I bless him, what gift shall I give to this child” said the angel of love.

And he gave him a smile that was radiant as light.
 And he gave him two eyes that were open and clear to seek out each flower and each creature and bird.
 And a heart to rejoice in each day of the year.

“How can I bless him, what gift shall I give to this child” said the angel of love.

And he gave him two feet that were light in the dance, a soul to rejoice in each tune and each song, a hand that collected the shells on the shore,
 an ear to respond to the old and the young.

“How can I bless him, what gift shall I give to this child” said the angel of love.

But those hands that were able to make flowers grow,
 were blessed with the skill to drive engines of might. And the feet that could dance also knew how to march. And the lips that could sing, also summoned to fight.

“How can I bless him, what gift shall I give to this child” said the angel of love.

“I have given him all that an angel can give, two light dancing feet, and a song and a smile, a delicate hand and a sensitive heart.
 What else can I give him? I’ve given him all.”

“How can I bless him, what gift shall I give to this child” said the angel of love.

He has joined the angels, that wonderful boy, he has no more blessings, no longer is blessed.
Oh, Lord above, did your angel forget to bless him with life along with the rest?

May we all remember and honor the sacrifices made by our soldiers. May the memory of those who lost their lives while serving our country always serve as a blessing.  And may all those who have loved and lost a soldier know that their loved ones are never forgotten and will forever be our heroes.

Wrestling With The Jewish View On Abortion

With Dr. Kermitt Gosnell being convicted this afternoon of first-degree murder of three babies that were born alive during abortion procedures (and involuntary manslaughter of an adult patient), I felt it was important to share Judaism’s stance on abortion.  This is not an easy subject and there are many different opinions.  The Jewish position does not in any way condone the horrendous actions of Dr. Gosnell.  The Jewish position does, however, capture many of the complexities involved with the abortion issue.  Some of the texts below are difficult to read and will get you thinking and feeling lots of emotions; these texts can also be interpreted differently.  When it comes down to it – Judaism teaches us that abortion is an extremely difficult, emotional, spiritual issue that forces us to wrestle with life and death.

At the foundation of the Jewish view of abortion are the teachings that state that a fetus is not a life (yet). Until forty days after conception, an embryo inside its mother is referred to as “mere fluid”. Furthermore, an unborn fetus is not considered a person until it has been born. Until it begins to leave the mother’s body during childbirth, a fetus is regarded as a part of its mother’s body and not a separate being.  This being said, as part of the mother’s body, a fetus is indeed something special.  Certainly, Judaism sees the creation of life as a holy process.  As such, Judaism fights for the life of the unborn child, while, at the same time, making abortion permissible in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

The Torah teaches that “should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarries but there is no other misfortune, he shall surely be punished, when the woman’s husband makes demands of him, and he shall give [restitution] according to the judges’ [orders].  But if there is a misfortune, you shall give a life for a life” (Exodus 21:2223)

The medieval scholar, Rashi, teaches that “no other misfortune” means that the woman is not killed.  (If she is “you shall give a life for a life.”) Because of this, the attacker only pays financial compensation for having caused the miscarriage.

Many Jewish scholars agree with Rashi’s interpretation.  The focus is placed upon the attacker paying damages to the woman and her husband for the loss of the fetus. As troubling as it might be for some that there is no discussion of killing an unborn child, the fact that there is no discussion of manslaughter or murder is important: the unborn fetus is not legally a “person” according to Judaism.

In the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides taught: “if one assaults a woman, even unintentionally, and her child is born prematurely, he must pay the value of the child to the husband and the compensation for injury and pain to the woman.” Maimonides does not discuss the status of the miscarried fetus. Again, it is part of the mother and belongs jointly to her and her husband, and thus damages must be paid for its death. The one who was responsible for the miscarriage is not guilty of murder, since the unborn fetus is not considered a person.

The Torah teaches that “he that smites a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:12) and  “he that smites any person mortally shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17)  The rabbis teach that these verses apply to a person and since they did not see a fetus is as a person,  the destruction of an unborn fetus is not considered murder.  Consequently, one who causes the miscarriage of a fetus is not to be given the death penalty.

While the fetus is not considered to be a person, the rabbis teach that the fetus does have the potential to become a person.  As such, the rabbis struggle with its status.  In a text that is hard to read, the Mishnah teaches: “if a woman is having difficulty in giving birth [and her life is in danger], one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.”  This section of Mishnah refers directly to abortion – teaching that a pregnancy may be terminated if the life of a woman is in danger (and there is a lot of room for interpretation here).  However, once the majority of the fetus has emerged (some argue just the head) from its mother, it is considered a “life” and may not be harmed in any way.

Dr. Gosnell has been convicted of killing babies that were born alive.  What he did was not only a violation of American law – it is a blatant violation of Jewish law.  There will be much discussion about this case in the coming weeks and months.  American law should guide this discussion; however, knowing where we stand on this complicated and emotional issue is important.

I welcome any questions or comments.

Time to Climb the Mountain…..Shavuot 5773

3,316 years ago (give or take a few years), something incredible happened to the Jewish people.  It was so incredible that we still celebrate it.  The celebration begins in a week and a half, on Tuesday night May 14th, and lasts for one or two days depending upon your tradition (here at Ramat Shalom we observe the celebration for one day).  We call the celebration “Shavuot” and it commemorates a pivotal moment in our history.  Tradition teaches us that in the Jewish year 2456, on the 6th of Sivan, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and received the Torah from God.  It is at this moment that our ancestors received the stories, laws, and rituals that guide us to this very day.  Whether we believe that God literally gave the Torah to the Jewish people on 6 Sivan 2456 or not, there is no question that the Torah has been and remains the rock and the foundation of the Jewish people.  Whether it was written by God or written by authors who were divinely inspired does not matter.  What matters is that for centuries it has defined who we are and made us a holy community.

Some of us feel little to no connection with the Torah.  Our knowledge of it is limited to our own bar/bat mitzvah training.  The stories remain confusing and completely unrelated to our own lives.  Some of us have never read the Torah.  For us, it remains a mysterious book that is beyond reach.  Some of us know the stories well but have not taken the time to make a connection between the lessons they teach us and the issues we struggle with.  And there are those of us who read it, get it, live it and love it.

Every Shabbat, from my vantage point on the bimah, I watch as a mixed multitude of people take part in a Torah service.  It is usually pretty easy to pinpoint how people feel about the Torah by observing how they relate to the scroll when it is walked around the sanctuary.  Those who are comfortable with the Torah are often the first to approach it and use a siddur or a tallit to kiss the scroll.  Those who feel that the Torah is beyond their reach keep their distance or timidly touch the scroll.  Those who have yet to make a connection between the Torah and their own lives often let the Torah pass them by without touching it – yet they watch it closely.  And there are those who have no feelings whatsoever about the Torah – they are the ones who talk to others while the Torah processes around the sanctuary, paying no attention to the rituals going on around them.

While it is interesting to watch people’s reactions to the scroll as it passes them by, what always fascinates me is that the scroll leaves the protective confines of the ark and the relative safety of the bimah (where I could quickly grab it if need be) and travels around the sanctuary – often in the sweaty, shaking hands of a pre-teen as s/he becomes a bar/bat mitzvah.  I have no fear as it travels into the congregation.  It always makes it back to the bimah to be read and put safely back into the ark.  In synagogues across the globe, this ritual of processing the Torah takes place over and over again.  The scrolls that are carried around are sacred, precious, holy.  Like our own scrolls, many are very old and delicate.  But this does not stop us from processing our Torah.  We do it because this is what Moses did as soon as he came down from Mt. Sinai on the very first Shavuot.  He brought the words of God to the people.

The Torah was not created to be kept away from us.  It was created for us.  It is there to read, study, question, challenge, learn from….It belongs to us – each of us – equally.  It belongs to the person who rushes to kiss it when it is carried around the sanctuary.  It belongs to the person who is afraid to kiss it.  And it even belongs to the person who lets the Torah pass by without doing anything.  The Torah belongs to the people.

For those of us who go out of our way to protect and respect and study Torah, the idea that the Torah still belongs to someone who sees no value in her might seem unfair.   This is because we fail to realize that people come to appreciate Torah in different ways and at different times.  Shavuot reminds us that the Torah does not belong solely to those who have discovered great meaning in her – but to those who are struggling to find the meaning and those who have yet to begin the struggle.  Shavuot is there to remind those of us who love Torah to insure that everyone gets a chance to kiss the Torah.  Shavuot is there to remind those of us who crave for an opportunity to learn from the Torah that the stories are waiting for us to read and explore.  Shavuot is also there to remind us that the Torah is an unconditional gift of Judaism.  It is always there, waiting patiently to share precious lessons.  And, as many of us know well, sometimes it takes years before we let these lessons speak to us.

Please plan to join us on Tuesday night, May 14th at 7:30PM for our special multi-generation Shavuot program: “The Ten Commandments – Relevant or Rewrite Needed?” which will be followed by cheesecake treats!  Yizkor begins at 7:00 that evening.