From the Rabbi's Desk

The Blessing of Dogs

on Thursday, 25 April 2013.

Sha-Bark in the Park

This year, studying the books of I and II Samuel, we have repeatedly encountered phrases that insult people by likening them to a dog.   As pet owners, it is clear that these derogatory comments can only be explained as ignorance.  And that is exactly what it was.

 

During the biblical period, an Israelite owning a dog would have been quite rare.  This mainly had to do with the expense of keeping a pet in a time of scarcity.  There may have also been some discomfort in keeping dogs as pets as they were worshipped in Egyptian and Canaanite religions.

 

Still today it is uncommon for Orthodox Jews to have dogs as pets.  Some believe keeping a dog is a violation of the command not to own a dangerous animal – a rule interpreted to include not only dangerous animals but also those that others might perceive as dangerous.  The fear of dogs, which can be prevalent in communities where they are uncommon, is amplified by the use of dogs in pogroms and during the Holocaust.

 

But while dogs have historically been rare in Jewish homes, the tradition is not silent when it comes to singing their praises.

 

The Maharal - a 16th century rabbi from Prague taught that in Hebrew a dog is called Kelev because they are K’lev – like the heart of the owner.

 

A story in the Jerusalem Talmud tells of dogs amazing loyalty.  Taught in the name of Rabbi Meir, they story describes a dog who watched a serpent poisoni his master’s milk. As the man went to drink the milk, the dog barked frantically, hoping to warn him.  But it was to no avail.  Finally, just as his master was about to drink from the poisoned jug the dog jumped up and drank the milk himself, thereby dying an agonizing death while saving the lives of its master and his fellow shepherds. As the text explains, the grateful shepherds buried the faithful dog with funerary honors and erected a monument to its memory."

 

Finally, the rabbis imagine dogs playing a role in one of Judaism’s foundational story, the Exodus from Egypt.  In the Torah we read that as the Jews left Egypt “no dog wagged its tongue.”  Commenting on this verse, Rashi teaches that because the dogs were silent, allowing the Jews to leave Egypt unhindered, they are singled out for reward.

 

Though many of our ancestors – perhaps even our own parents or grandparents would never have owned a dog, we have welcomed canine companions into our lives. I trust that your home, like mine, is richer and more full of love with a four-legged friend running around.  And so this morning we take a moment to thank God for the blessing of our pets.

 

Passover & Klal Yisrael

on Wednesday, 10 April 2013.

Coming Together As A Community

During the last election, Jewish supporters of Barak Obama pointed to the fact that he was the first President to hold a seder in the White House. They can now also take pride in the fact that Obama is the first President to make a pre-Passover pilgrimage to Israel.

As many of you know, President Obama was in Israel this week, meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and other Israeli political and business leaders. Though many have written off the trip as mostly symbolic, my guess is that the schedule makers still kept him too busy to stop by the matzah factory in Jerusalem. He is probably all right with that. Israeli matazh is just as flavorless as the American version. But hopefully, between meetings and museum visits he was able to get a sense of the energy that fills Jerusalem this time of year.

Along with Shavuot and Sukkot, Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals described in the Torah. Scholars believe it was the most popular, with people journeying from all over Israel and the ancient Near East to offer a Passover sacrifice – traditionally a lamb, in the ancient Temple. Though the sacrificial rites were suspended nearly 2,000 years ago with the destruction of the Temple, Passover is still considered a special time of year to be in Jerusalem.

Certainly part of what makes Passover a special time to be in Jerusalem is the knowledge that one is walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. As modern streets merge, at times seamlessly, into ancient thoroughfares, it is easy to imagine the biblical city bustling with the crowds and commerce of the Passover pilgrimage.

But another aspect of what makes Jerusalem so special today – and was certainly true in ancient times as well, is the sense of k’lal yisrael – of being part of a Jewish people far greater and more diverse than one normally experiences.

Spending Passover in Israel, and in Jerusalem in particular, means sharing the holiday with Jews from around the world – Jews speaking in every accent, Jews dressed in shorts, suits, and saris.

Israel, as those of us who have been blessed to visit know, offers a unique understanding of K’lal Yisrael. I hope some of you will be able to join me in the next year or two when But one does not have to travel eight time zones away to experience what it means to be part of a diverse Jewish community.

For the thirteen young people from this congregation who will be attending a Jewish Camp this summer, they are sure to experience a new understanding of Klal Yisrael as they share experiences and build friendship with Jews from around the South, and with counselors from around the United States and the world.

As adults we have an opportunity to experience the diversity and scale of Reform Judaism by attending the URJ’s Biennial in December. This year’s gathering in San Diego will bring together Jews from across North America – and there is nothing like worshipping in a congregation of six thousand committed and energized Reform Jews.

But just as we don’t have to travel to Israel to see Jewish diversity, we also don’t have to travel to California or to summer camp. There is amazing diversity in our own local community and congregation.

As human beings we have the tendency to see what is familiar as homogenous, but our congregation is anything but uniform. There are proud Sephardic Jews in our community, as well as Ashkenazic Jews with families from Germany and Eastern Europe. Though many of our congregations’ long-standing families come from the classical reform tradition, we have a number of members who grew up as Orthodox Jews, and still others who grew up in Orthodox Christianity. And in a country that remains, in many ways segregated by race, and certainly by socio-economics, Temple Beth El is a place where Jews of all colors and economic background come together.

There is a lot that we should be proud of, but of course there is more we can do to strengthen our understanding and our commitment to k’lal yisrael.

In a town with such a strong military presence, it is surprising that we have so few active duty personnel as part of our Temple community. In recent weeks I had the opportunity to visit with the chaplains at both NAS Pensacola and Corry Field. They each said they only had a few Jewish service members on base but would be happy to distribute the Passover seder fliers I left with them. And guess what – we have a few military families joining us on Monday night.

In Pirkei Avot Rabbi Hillel teaches, Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community. As a congregation we can do a better job of engaging this important part of our community. As a congregation we can do more to serve those Jewish men and women who are dedicating their lives to serving our country.

We can also do a more to reach out to the unaffiliated, especially interfaith families. Many of our members have shared that when they first came to Temple Beth El they were surprised to find a community that so warmly embraced their mixed family.

I pray that is still true of our congregation. Sadly I know that it is not true of all synagogues. Having been made to feel unwelcomed elsewhere, many interfaith families are understandably hesitant to walk through our doors. And so in the months and years to come we need to show, through our programming and our publicity, that at Temple Beth El, interfaith families are an important part of our definition of k’lal yisrael.

Later this spring I will be leading a discussion group for interfaith grandparents. I hope many of you will be able to attend – and that it will be just part of a larger outreach initiative.

Finally, I hope that our understanding of k’lal yisrael –of being part of a greater Jewish community -- will lead us to see past the tensions and recriminations that have for generations divided the Pensacola Jewish community. The last twelve months have been particularly difficult as the congregations recognized that there are some things – sharing a campus and a school – that are maybe too difficult. But that doesn’t mean there are not other things we can do together.

Under the auspices of the Pensacola Jewish Federation the congregations came together to put on a wonderful Purim carnival and each month the two sisterhoods share a Rosh Hodesh program. And there are so many other, easy, opportunities for cooperation.

Next month we will mark Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and celebrating the State of Israel they are reminders of the shared history and dreams that connect all Jews. They should also be times when we stand united as a community.

This coming week, as part of our seders, we will declare, let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate.

May this be the year when all who are hungry for Jewish community finds a spiritual home and who all who are in need of connection find a congregation in which to celebrate.

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