Dear Hebrew School Families,

Most of our weekday Hebrew School sessions conclude with all of our students coming together for a twenty minute service. These services are an opportunity to really engage with the meaning of the prayers. This week, we focused on the Shema.

Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!

Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!

After we talked about what the Hebrew words mean, I passed out index cards and asked everyone to write down why they thought we would say that our God is ONE. When everyone was done, we read some of the cards out loud. After hearing only a few of the responses, it was obvious that while we all thought that there was only one God, many of our beliefs about God were actually unique!

As a group, we decided that it was actually A GOOD THING that all of us believed slightly different things about God. Our diverse ideas just made the fact that we come together to sing or say the Shema more powerful!

I concluded this week's services by reminding our students that one of my favorite rabbinical responsibilities is talking with them about God. I encouraged them to come see me if they ever wanted to brainstorm about who or what God is.

I hope that you'll take time this weekend to begin or continue a family conversation about your beliefs. It can seem like an overwhelming subject, but asking your children about this week's Shema activity is a great place to start!

Have a wonderful weekend and a restful Shabbat!

-Rabbi Bearman, November 7, 2014

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses tells the Israelites that they can expect both blessings and curses in their futures, depending on how they behave. It is a difficult part of the book of Deuteronomy for many reasons, not the least of which is its emphasis on the notion that our actions can bring devastating curses into our lives. I believe that Deuteronomy’s clear-cut structure of cause and effect can be burdensome, painful, and even unhealthy. For me, the events of this past week have highlighted the fact that the relationship between blessings and curses is often much more complex than it appears to be in this Torah portion.

On Monday evening, I learned for the first time that a swastika had been carved into a locker at Wilton High School. Immediately after that first phone call, I did what all new rabbis do in complicated situations—I emailed my mentors. I explained what had happened, and I asked for their advice on how I could best support the TBC and local communities. I’d like to share part of the response I received from the rabbi of my hometown congregation because I think he was particularly insightful. He told me that the main thing to remember is that when hateful symbols appear or hateful comments are made, it is not the responsibility of the hurt party to “own” the incident. The appearance of a swastika on a locker is not a Jewish problem any more than misogyny is a women’s problem or racism is an African American problem. He reminded me that, “Antisemitism has nothing to do with Judaism. It’s what others have done – and still do – to Jews.” He concluded by suggesting that expressions of hate should remind all of us that we are responsible for standing up against intolerance and for educating ourselves about different cultures, beliefs, sexualities, and identities.

Over the past several days, I have been in touch with both Wilton school officials and many TBC members. While speaking with administrators from both the high school and district, I was pleased to hear that they were sensitive to the fact that while this symbol may be particularly traumatic for Jewish students and their families, it is also hurtful and dangerous for students of all religious identities.

Having said that, I also believe that even though the entire community is impacted by the hazardous nature of hateful speech and actions, this symbol may cause us as individuals and as a congregation to feel a particular kind of pain. And, though we, as a Jewish community, are not solely responsible for condemning actions like this, we do need to address the reality that this kind of incident can provoke emotions and concerns that will need to be processed. Our people’s history has not always been joyful, and it is appropriate and even necessary to acknowledge the fact that incidents like this can remind us of a larger narrative of exclusion and pain.

But, even as we experience and validate our individual reactions, I would like to remind us to hold fast to the idea that this incident is so striking because we don’t encounter this kind of hatred in our daily lives. As American Jews, our lives are most often characterized by the blessings of acceptance and friendship rather than the curses of hatred and antagonism. And, while the dangers of curses like this symbol are real and need to be addressed, they should not make us forget about the many, many blessings that we experience every day. I pray that we hold fast to the blessings in our lives, that we celebrate the fact that the entire community has condemned this expression of hate, and that we channel our emotions into a deeper commitment to standing with others as we fight injustice in all forms and in all arenas. If we can do this, curses like this one could become, if not blessings, at least opportunities for further progress.

Ken Yehe Ratzon, may it be God’s will. Amen.

This week, we conclude the book of Leviticus. Tomorrow morning, two of our congregation’s 7th graders will become B’not Mitzvah, daughters of the commandments, and share with our congregation the words of this week’s double portion, B’har/Bechukotai. This double parashah includes a rather intense explanation of the relationship between our behavior and the rewards and punishments that we will receive. If we live according to God’s commandments, we will have peaceful lives, plenty to eat, and protection from our enemies. If we reject God’s commandments, our communities will be subject to disease, hunger, and war. When I discussed these portions with this weekend’s B’not Mitzvah, both were, understandably, concerned about the apparent harshness of this system. I have to agree with them, when we take these verses literally, they can seem cold and unfeeling. Worse yet, if we use this model to understand our daily lives, it appears as if our Torah is telling us that those who suffer are the perpetrators of bad deeds.

It is only when we take a step back and ask what these verses are meant to teach us, that their true meaning becomes clear. The men who wrote these chapters, this book of Leviticus, were trying to address and explain the reality that they experienced. Their mechanism for understanding the world was through a relationship with God, and so that was the language that they used. But, if we take away that particular framing, we see that what they were really trying to tell us is that the behavior of one person impacts the entire world. By acting justly and morally, we are adding justice and morality to the world, and by acting selfishly or unjustly, we are only adding further corruption. On the most fundamental level, the authors of Leviticus are trying to tell us that in our lives the stakes are real and that we live in a world where our behavior ripples out from us, affecting the lives of more and more people.

This week we were reminded of the power that an individual’s choices and actions have over the lives of others in the community. On Tuesday, two men who call themselves protesters forced their way into Temple Israel in Westport to interrupt a luncheon for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The story has been covered in many local and regional news sources and blogs, and what I’ve found fascinating is the debate between those who have chosen to focus on the two men’s stated intentions and those who focus on the actual reality of their behavior. In the comments sections of these stories, arguments go back and forth over whether these men should be able to share their opinions, but I would suggest that these arguments miss the point entirely. Intentions are all well and good, but how we behave and the impact of our behavior are what determine if we are adding justice or corruption to our world. Our Torah portions this week point us to the fact that we are responsible for our choices and that each decision impacts our relationship with God and with our community. These two men can claim to have been misunderstood, but ultimately, they chose to behave in such a way as to deprive a group people of the tranquility, safety, and protection to which they were entitled. These men either forgot or willfully disregarded the knowledge that we are each responsible to and for one another. Their actions remind us that it isn’t only in the Torah that individuals have the power to shape the experiences of many, many others.

It is interesting to note that the book of Leviticus does not end on the overwhelming but honest truth that we are responsible for one another. It goes on to address a seemingly mundane bit of community governance. Rabbi Naamah Kelman explains that the biblical authors or editors must have chosen to follow the Jewish practice of ending a sermon or a text on a comforting note, a nechemta. She writes, that, "Our Book of Leviticus cannot end with such difficult words, so a short, seemingly disconnected addendum is added, detailing vows, gifts, and dues. This summation brings us back to the daily lives of our ancestors and their daily interactions regarding property and livestock. It is as if some biblical "editor" wanted the last word: go about your business and let neither [the beauty of] messianic visions nor [the terror of] Divine retribution deter us." Knowing that our lives will be impacted and shaped by the choices of others can be overwhelming and even terrifying. What are we supposed to do in the face of such knowledge? I would suggest that the answer is a simple one. We are meant to follow the advice of the biblical editors and contemporary rabbis, and continue living- comforting one another and engaging in our communities. We are meant to go on- working to add justice and beauty to our world. We are meant to remember that even though the selfish and unjust choices of others can can darken our lives, we have the power and ability to make choices that will bring light and wholeness to the lives of our community members, both near and far.

I’ll conclude tonight with the words we traditionally say at the end of every biblical book, "Chazak Chazak V’nitchazaek" "Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another." Kein Yehe Ratzon. May it be God’s will. Amen.

Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Temple B'nai Chaim

As I prepared to offer a d’var Torah tonight, I was struck by the fact that the first congregational event that I attended at TBC, well the first one that didn’t involve anyone voting on whether or not I should be hired, was last spring’s congregational meeting. It’s hard to believe it was only a year ago when my relationship with this community began. It’s been a year filled with unexpected experiences, opportunities to learn and grow, and special, moving moments, and before I go any further, I want to thank you for your support, your enthusiasm, and your commitment to our community, our synagogue, and to helping me find my place in both.

When I studied this week’s Torah portion, Naso, I was struck by the way that its structure resembles the life of this and all congregations. The portion moves from a census, to a ritual that invokes God’s presences in the tabernacle, to an explanation of individual responsibilities, and then finally to what my rabbis have always called, “the best blessing our people knows,” the priestly blessing, one of the most special prayers in our tradition. It is a portion made up of both amazingly ordinary and profoundly sacred moments, and because of this, it is the perfect portion to talk about atthis meeting because it is a perfect representation of the life of a congregation.

For the Israelites and for our community, membership is both a reward and a responsibility- bringing with it the promise of many sacred and ordinary moments. This Torah portion reminds us that both kinds of experiences are inherently valuable. Without one, the other loses its power. If every moment in the Torah is a “Sinai moment,” we would eventually forget why we ever cared that Moses climbed up the mountain in the first place. And, if every service at TBC was Kol Nidre, then we would lose the ability to appreciate both the perfect simplicity of a Friday night service in the courtyard as well as the transcendent majesty of a bimah filled with our past presidents holding our Torahs in their arms.

Our individual lives, the lives of our families, and the life of this congregation are ideally balanced, successful, and rewarding when we appreciate and invest in all aspects of our experiences. We’ve spent this year thinking of this congregation as our home, and as we move forward, we need to continue working to fill this space with the beautiful, diverse, and complex moments of our lives. We need to learn from our Torah portion and value the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. We need to be inspired by this section of the book of Numbers and put our time, resources, and enthusiasm toward filling our congregation with life and toward filling our lives with our congregation. Thank you for all that you have done to help us reach this goal, and thank you for all that you will do in the future as we continue on our journey as a passionate, engaged, and inspired community.

Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Temple B'nai Chaim

In last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, we hear what I believe to be one of the most important commandments in the Jewish tradition, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

I thought that, this morning, I would take just a few moments to explain why I believe that this commandment — to be holy — is one of the most compelling reasons to belong to a Jewish community today.

We live in a world where each of us is told that we are special.  This idea the value of every individual person is a deeply Jewish one.  However, where our modern world and the Jewish Tradition divide is that in our secular lives, our innate specialness is both the beginning and the ending of the equation, and, all too often, our inner sense of value is transformed into entitlement.  In our secular world, our personal value means that we DESERVE things- attention, adulation, etc.  In the secular world, our inner value points us inward, helping us to be unconcerned about and blind to the lives and struggles of others.   

In the Jewish world, our belief that each individual is valuable points us outward.  If I am created in the image of God, so too is everyone that I meet and interact with.  Our tradition teaches me that as a person, I am valuable and special and, as a Jew, I am COMMANDED to be more than that.  

Judaism has within it the antidote to the self-centeredness that pervades so much of our secular world.  In our Jewish tradition, our individual value is not a singular idea; instead, it is inextricably linked with the commandment to be holy and to bring holiness into our world.  Belonging to a Jewish community means that we are not content to live neutral lives.  Committing to Jewish lives and Jewish families means that we have taken up the responsibility to do better, to live more generously, to treat others more respectfully, and to honor this world more sincerely than we could have otherwise done.

“But couldn’t we,” you might be thinking, “do this, live in a holy way, as individuals?  Why does our striving toward holiness require us to belong to a community?”

Rejecting the status quo and striving toward holiness are not easy tasks.  In fact, it is a goal that demands that we confront and seek to change so many parts of our lives and world.  Can each of us stand as individuals against the forces of moral complacency, injustice, etc.?  The truthful answer is, possibly.  Yes, there are some incomparable individuals who have successfully confronted evils all on their own.  But, there have also been hundreds of generations of Jewish families that have clung to the support and sustenance that comes from belonging to a community of people who are also striving to do better and to be better.

Every member of TBC has a story that explains why they chose to join our synagogue and community.  And, while each of these stories may be unique, I would suggest that underneath all of them, the reason our TBC families chose to belong is that they understand the value that comes from striving for meaning, for inspiration, and for holiness within the strength and support of a community of people with the same goals.  

We live in a world and in a time that is both terrifying and wonderful simultaneously.  Each of us could have been content to live lives that simply balance along the boundary between the bad and the good, but instead, we have chosen to strive for more, to live in such a way that we can say that because of each of us, there is a little bit more holiness and a little more goodness in the world.

Thank you for belonging to and supporting our community - a group of people who share a deeply held drive to do better and be better.   Thank you for choosing to support our synagogue- an organization that is dedicated to instilling that drive toward holiness in the minds and hearts of our children.  Thank you for understanding that one of the most significant ways to strive toward holiness is by supporting and loving other people.  

I’ll conclude this morning with a quote from the remarkable theologian, scholar, and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote, “The Jew does not stand alone before God; it is as a member of the community that he stands before God. Our relationship to God is not as an I to a Thou, but as a We to a Thou.”

Our community is the remarkable “we” in Heschel’s equation, and together, we can do remarkable things.

Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Temple B'nai Chaim