In this week’s Torah portion, R’eih, we read:
Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you:
neither add to it nor take away from it. (Deut 13:1)
If we examine Jewish history, we observe that the Jewish community has both added to and taken away from the laws as found in the Torah – whether it’s the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, the rabbis of the Shulhan Arukh, or the modern leaders of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements.
So how can this be?
Throughout the ages, we have attempted to apply the wisdom and overarching principles of the Torah to the realities and details of life. We have done this through a rich and long history of biblical interpretation and commentary, and legal decisions.
Perhaps Pirke Avot (5:22) explains it best:
Ben Bag Bag used to say: Turn it over and over because everything is in it.
Reflect upon it and grow old and worn in it.
Do not leave it, for you have no better lot than that.
During the seven weeks between Tisha b’Av (which was observed last night and today) and Rosh HaShanah, special Haftarot known as the Haftarot of Consolation are read during the Torah service on Shabbat mornings. These special prophetic readings are intended to give us hope, as we approach the High Holy Days, that G-d will be compassionate, merciful and forgiving towards us.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu because of the opening words of the Haftarah reading from Isaiah 40:
nachamu, nachamu, ami, yomar eloheichem –
Comfort, Oh comfort My people, Says your G-d.
G-d instructs the prophets and leaders of the community to comfort the people and to remind them that,
Like a shepherd G-d pastures His flock;
Gathers the lambs in His arms
And carries them in His bosom;
Gently He drives the mother sheep.
May those among us who need to be comforted, find that comfort within this community; and may each of us respond to that need with kindness and wisdom.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon – the Sabbath of vision. It refers to Isaiah’s vision of the destruction of the Temple which is found in the Haftarah reading (Isaiah 1:1-27) on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av.
During the heat of summer comes this holy day of Tisha b’Av. It is a solemn day on which we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and the burning of the city of Jerusalem. The restrictions on Tisha b’Av are similar to those on Yom Kippur: to refrain from eating and drinking (even water), washing, bathing, shaving and wearing cosmetics; wearing leather shoes, and engaging in sexual relations.
Unique to Tisha b’Av is a prohibition against the study of Torah (which is a joyful endeavor); instead, we study sad and painful passages such as the Book of Lamentations, Job, and parts of Jeremiah. Many traditional mourning practices are observed: we refrain from smiles, laughter, and idle conversation; and we sit on low stools. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read; the liturgy is marked by a haunting melody; the lights are dimmed; the Ark is draped in black or it is left open and emptied of all Torah scrolls; we sit on the floor or low benches; we don’t wear a tallit or t’fillin.
What does Tisha b’Av mean for Reform Jews? Historically, the Reform movement has downplayed the observance of Tisha b’Av because we may not mourn the destruction of the Temple; we may not consider ourselves in exile; we may not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple or for the return of the sacrificial cult; and we may not accept the theology that our tragedies were punishment for our sins.
However, Tisha b’Av does afford us the opportunity to experience communal grief for all Jewish tragedies and to reflect on our own personal losses and grief. Although we may not feel in physical exile, we may be in spiritual exile or in exile from communal life. This may also be an appropriate time to recall other human tragedies such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Reading the Book of Lamentations can teach us that what is painful to us can be talked about; and it can model for us how to handle grief, cope with a crisis, and express our rage: that lament is a first step towards healing. Please join us (virtually) on Erev Tisha b’Av, Wednesday, July 29 at 7:00pm, to study Eicha–the Book of Lamentations–together.
Most importantly, I hope that each and every one of you is doing well—health-wise and coping with the uncertainty of these times. This week, I’d like to share with you the words of Margaret Mead that I came across on one of my rabbinic discussion groups. I think the message is so relevant to today.
Many years ago, a student asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about hooks, clay pots or whetstones. But she didn’t.
Mead said the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thigh bone) that had healed from a break. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger, go to the river to drink water or hunt for food – injured animals or humans become fresh meat for predators. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken femur that healed is evidence that someone cared for the injured, treated the wound, took the person to safety and cared for them until they recovered. Helping someone through difficulty is where civilization begins, said Mead.
We, at Beth Shalom Synagogue, are here to help you through these difficult times. Please don’t hesitate to contact us and let us know how we can help if the need arises.
I hope all of you are doing well during these uncertain and stressful times. I want to share the following poem that was sent to me last March. It was written by the poet Lynn Ungar on March 11, 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This poem and other readings can be found on Awakin.org. I hope you find these words comforting.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
Kol Tuv (All Goodness),
On Saturday, June 27, Rabbi Natan Trief passed the Torah to Beth Shalom’s incoming rabbi, Rabbi Teri Appleby. Rabbi Teri’s time at Beth Shalom officially starts July 1.
Services will move back online only in the month of July. We are committed to keeping our congregants safe and pausing in-person services is an important step to doing so while coronavirus cases rise again in Louisiana.
If you have already RSVPed for this week’s (July 3-4) services, you will be contacted. If you are not a BSS member, but would like to take part in online services, please call the office.
In the past few weeks, the Advocate ran two articles featuring Beth Shalom. We want to share them our community.
After 75 years, Baton Rouge’s Beth Shalom synagogue will have its first female rabbi
BY GEORGE MORRIS | JUNE 26, 2020
When Beth Shalom Synagogue began 75 years ago in Baton Rouge, women could not be rabbis in North America. When that status changed in 1972, Teri Appleby was at Stanford University with an eye toward law school.
It took a while, but Appleby joined the rabbinate, and she’s about to become the first female rabbi at Beth Shalom.
Appleby, 68, begins her one-year interim rabbi position on July 1, replacing Rabbi Natan Trief.
Two restored Torah scrolls help Beth Shalom celebrate 75 years, return of in-person services
BY GEORGE MORRIS | JUNE 19, 2020
When Beth Shalom Synagogue resumed in-person services June 12, those who attended had extra cause for celebration — two of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls had returned as well.
The scrolls, each older than Beth Shalom itself, had been sent for restoration in January. By the time they were ready, the coronavirus had caused the suspension of public gatherings.
To commemorate its 75th year, Beth Shalom had raised $17,000 to restore the scrolls, which were in need of repair from the wear and tear of use.
After careful consideration by the members of the 75th Anniversary planning committee, we have decided to postpone the events planned for August 21-23, 2020. While this is certainly not what we wanted, we felt that the exciting event would just not have been able to be presented as planned. These events were designed to bring our community together and, given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, we do not feel the weekend could have been carried out safely for everyone who wants to attend.
However, there is so much to look forward to in the coming year! This is a wonderful opportunity to continue the celebration of our congregation and its 75th milestone year. We are now planning to have the weekend-long event for August 13-15, 2021, which coincides with the same Torah portion as planned for this year. Please mark your calendars and plan to arrive as a BSS family from near or far. When it is appropriate to do so, we will also restart our programs and fundraising projects, so be on the lookout for a final schedule soon.