Az Yashir – The Reconstitution of Freeze-Dried Prayer

Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot vayomru leimor: Ashira ladonai ki ga’o ga’ah…

Thus Moses and B’nai Yisrael sang this song: I will sing to the Eternal, for God has done mightily.

On this Shabbat Shirah, I have been wondering why we call this day “Shabbat Shirah.” After looking into this matter, I have found that this week’s Torah reading gets to the core of a question that I often hear: Why pray?

It is a good question, and it gets to the heart of what Shabbat Shirah is all about.

Lately, I have been reading the book “Starting with Why,” by Simon Sinek, who has a good TED talk on this topic. In “Starting with Why,” Sinek begins with the assertion that most people do things in response to two main questions: “What do I do?” and “How do I do it?” Most people don’t act based on the most important question: Why? Why do I act?

The siddur, the Jewish prayer book, which is an evolving body of work, gives us a lot of What? and How?, but what we need is to get back to Why?

Why pray?

A major part of my personal journey as a Jew and as a human being has been my ongoing relationship with prayer, and in particular Jewish prayer. It is not something that I was taught how to do as a child, and then just kept on doing, like tying my shoes or riding a bike. One thing that I have learned is that prayer is about much more than the skills to do it or the performance, saying the words correctly, as fluently and often as rapidly as possible. Much more.

Tefillah, Jewish prayer, is one of the pillars of Jewish life, and has been for thousands of years. Worship in Jewish life has undergone centuries of revolution, evolution and development. What we have today is a far cry from the animal, grain and oil offerings of our ancestors, which they offered in both Temples in Jerusalem for centuries.

We have in our hands this siddur, our prayer book, a document whose various components span thousand of years, with texts and sources that go back to our earliest moments and memories as a people and as a human species. The passages range from the practical to the sublime, written in stunning beautiful Biblical and later versions of Hebrew. The ideas and values enshrined in these pages represent some of the most profound religious thinking that humanity has ever created.

All of this is well and good, until one comes into a sanctuary, picks up a siddur from the back of the room (because that is what we do), opens it up, and is supposed to do something with it. But what?

When we encounter the siddur, what often happens is that we are confronted with a sea of words, swimming across the pages, half in a language that almost none of us speak, let alone can read with serious comprehension, and the other half in a translation that may or may not speak to us today.

The good news and the bad news is that the siddur is not prayer. The siddur does not contain tefillah. To rephrase an old koan, if a siddur is opened in a forest, with no one around, is anyone praying? Of course not. Better yet, if there is someone in a forest, who is praying with all their heart, mind and soul, but does not have a siddur, are they praying? Of course. Is that Jewish prayer? It depends.

There is something in the relationship between the one praying and the siddur in hand, a symbiosis. Authentic Jewish prayer involves a relationship, the interplay between the individual and the siddur.

Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi thought of the siddur as freeze-dried prayer. Like freeze-dried coffee, it has almost all of the ingredients of tefillah/davening/prayer: the words, the ideas, the thoughts, feelings, and hopes, but it is all missing one final component: hot water.

I suppose that one could take a spoonful of freeze-dried coffee and just eat it, but something tells me that the experience would lack many of the qualities of a hot cup of coffee, with steam rising and the aroma wafting out of the mug. One could also sip a nice big mug of hot water from a mug with nothing else in it, but again, that would lack many qualities of a cup of coffee.

The siddur needs something to come along and activate it – to make it live again, to make the words on the page come alive, and dance in our hearts, minds and souls. This ingredient is who we are in this moment.

In rabbinic terms, we call the parts that are freeze-dried, (the What and the How) –  Keva, meaning all of the fixed forms and details about Jewish prayer – everything from the times, the body movements, down to the words. The hot water (the Why) – is Kavannah. What Jewish prayer needs is the hot water, the Why, the Kavannah.

There is one word in this week’s Torah portion that is perhaps the best one word summary of what kavannah is all about: Az, Thus. Such a short word, but it is no small word. The Rabbis see in this word a great deal about the meaning of prayer.

Rashi sees in this word, not an introduction to the Song of the Sea, but rather a word that creates a bridge between the experience of the past and the moment of the Song. He comments that: “Az / Then” when Moses saw the miracle, he decided that “he would sing.” What Moses brings to his song, which becomes the song of the entire people, is the full impact of the experience that they have just gone through. In this case, it is the quintessential experience of walking through the Sea of Reeds.

Nachmanides adds another dimension to the the word Az/Thus.

“It is a phenomenon of language that a narrator places himself at whatever point in the story he wants: sometimes in the present, “Then Israel sing this song,” as if they were singing in front of him; sometimes in the future, to confirm that something will happen by treating it as if it already has.”

Nachmanides sees Az as the worlds’s smallest linguistic time machine. When we read the Song of the Sea, we become the narrators, and place ourselves in that moment in time, and it is if “they were singing in front of us.” I would take it one step further and say that when we become the narrator, we also become Israel-in-that-moment and we are the one who cross the Sea of Reeds, and we are the ones who step into the experience of the Exodus.

And at the same time, Az also points to this moment and to the future, and confronts us with the question of what this moment from our past has to say to us today. How have we experienced the Exodus in our days and in our lives? Perhaps it is a personal exodus from something that enslaved us during the week. Perhaps it is the passing of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps is anticipating an Exodus for the Jews of France from a year filled with fear and hate.

Az is the bridge between the experience and the song. Az invites us to enter into our own moments of liberation, the exuberance of knowing that a period of oppression and pain has come to an end, and that you are now taking the first steps into the rest of your life, and to bring them into service, and then to sing, as they sang, as we sang at the edge of the sea. This is what Reb Zalman means by adding the hot water to the freeze-dried coffee. It is the interplay between our lives brought as an offering into the service and the siddur that leads to the song.

Az reminds us to bring our all of our own experiences, be they joy, gratitude, regret, liberation, grief, worry, hope, into the moment of tefillah, to this place, and to sing, with our whole bodies, like the psalmist says: Azamra l’elohai b’odi / I will sing to God with my Od. The rabbis understand Od to be the wholeness of the self, one’s entire being. This sanctuary is a place that we make safe to be ourselves, to bring those experiences in, and to sing.

Another dimension of Az is that it reminds us that every part of the siddur came from someone’s immediate experience, either an individual or a group. In some sense, the siddur is an elaborate game of Jeopardy. Every part of the siddur is an response, an answer. Our task is to discover the Az, the experience that led to the expression of song. What are the stories behind the songs? What is the memory, the feeling, the recollection, or the direct experience that led to that prayer. What recovery from illness led a rabbi to compose the blessing that thanks God for the miracle of the human body’s functioning? What experience near death experience led someone to compose the blessing Mechayei Meitim, which thanks God for reviving the dead? Once we discover those stories behind each tefillah, we can then find our own similar stories, our own Az, that connects us to the siddur. Az is the pouring out of the soul into the freeze-dried words of the siddur. When we find our own sources of heat, light and light, our own hot water, our own kavannah, we bring that tefillah back to life. And then we sing!

To answer the question: Why pray? To pray is to embrace every moment and aspect of life as sacred, to see in all of those moments opportunities to serve. We pray because we are alive.

Shabbat Shirah Shalom

Shabbat Shirah: The Stirring of Liberation

Why us this Shabbat called Shabbat Shirah? We sing all the time, whether it is Shabbat Shirah or some other occasion! Why is there a Shabbat with the special designation “Shabbat Shirah”?
One possible answer is that it is called Shabbat Shirah because we read both the Song of the Sea AND the Song of Devorah. Both of these ancient songs come from the earliest layers of the sacred Torah, and are each layed out in brick-work patterns in the traditional sources.
But we come across the Song of the Sea in the daily siddur? For those who daven as part of a daily or regular practice, the Song of the Sea is there to be sung every morning! What makes this particular occurrence of the Song of the Sea special?
According to the Netivot Shalom, when we read the Song of the Sea, at the time when it occurred in the narrative’s timeline, that awakens a calling out, a k’riah. Now that we are still in the throes of winter, it is the reading of this passage that awakens the feeling of the time of year. When we rise, and chant/sing the Song of the Sea this Shabbat, it awakens in each of us that feeling of spring, liberation, and freedom. The illumination of Pesach is awakened within us, like a seed that has been implanted in the earth all fall and winter, and is now beginning to stir and break through the outer shell and starting to grow.
This phenomenon of liberation and growth is brought on by the reading itself. This awakening, this full bodied prayer is what is meant by Shirah.
May we all come together on this Shabbat, and sing with all of our bodies, holding nothing back, and feel the beginning of the Exodus stirring from deep in our souls, and expanding out into the world around us.

Guest Blogger: Judy Stanton’s Dvar Torah for Sisterhood Shabbat 5775, Parshat Bo

Note: It is my pleasure and honor to share with you a Dvar Torah written by a member of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, Judy Stanton.

Shabbat Shalom.

I want to thank Deb Sikora for giving me the honor of delivering my 3rd Sisterhood Shabbat d’var Torah.  It’s also, coincidentally, my 3rd d’var on Parshat Bo. In 2011, I explored the many different calendars by which we live. In 2012, I discussed tradition and changing gender roles in modern Judaism. This year, as I re-read Bo, it was a bit difficult to choose a central topic, plus I’m one of those people who find it all too easy (and enjoyable) to wander off in whatever directions an idea leads me.

But the recent horrifying attacks in Paris, coupled with the world-wide threat of radical Islam, plus the unending conflicts between Israel and her neighbors got me thinking about the concepts of collective guilt and collective punishment. Parashat Bo has a lot to teach us about these.

Our starting point is Exodus: chapter 11, verses 4 – 6, where Moses delivers God’s terrifying warning of the deadly tenth plague to Pharaoh. This translation is by Robert Alter:

And Moses said, “Thus said the Lord: ‘ Around midnight I am going out in the midst of Egypt.  And every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the slave-girl who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn of the beasts.  And there shall be a great outcry in all the land of Egypt, the like of which there has not been and the like of which there will not be again.’ “

And again, in chapter 12, verse 29, where the wording is slightly different:

  “And it happened at midnight that the Lord struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and every firstborn of the beasts.”

These are very troubling verses.  God seems to be is punishing the innocent along with guilty! Collective guilt, collective punishment!  Rabbinic commentaries attempt to explain and justify God’s actions. The eminent 16-century Italian rabbi, philosopher, physician and scholar Ovadiah Sforno characterized Pharaoh and “the captive in the dungeon,” as, respectively, “the most guilty and the least guilty.” Rashi wrote that “the Egyptian slaves themselves looked down on the Israelites and took joy in their suffering.” Commentary in our Eytz Chaim chumash says that the non-Israelite slaves were punished because they did not join with the Israelites to rise up against their common oppressor.

I agree with Sforno’s assertion that the Pharaoh was “the most guilty.”  As leader of the Egyptian nation, he sealed its fate by his judgements and actions. But who were “the least guilty?” Was the entire Egyptian population really to blame?  After all, how much control did they have in their own lives?  Weren’t the vast majority of them virtually powerless?

And what a cruel punishment is meted out! The death of the firstborn — whether an infant, an adult, or a young ram growing its first set of horns — was the ultimate demonstration of God’s power.  Not even the Pharaoh—a god within his own culture— was spared.  None of his people—who worshipped him and believed he could protect them—were spared. Imagine the impact of thousands of dead herd-beasts in an agricultural society!  And what is the worst thing that can happen to a parent but the death of a child?

But I think the tenth plague was also a demonstration of the power of God’s mercy and compassion.  After all, God could have destroyed the entire nation of Egypt. Why didn’t God do that?

It’s a natural human reaction to rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemy, as Moses, Miriam and the Israelites did when the Egyptian army drowned in the Sea of Reeds. But a midrash from the Talmud teaches us that, “the Almighty chastised the angels and said, ‘How can you sing when my people are dying?’ ” (Talmud Sanhedrin, 39b)  It was not a happy occasion for God.  I assert that God grieved for God’s children, just as the Egyptians did for theirs.

We follow God’s example when, during the Pesach seder, we empty wine from our glasses drop by drop while reciting the ten plagues. It’s a powerful reminder that our rejoicing must be tempered by acknowledging that often it comes at the cost of others’ suffering.

I believe this idea lies at the heart of conflict resolution and is the basis for the administration of true justice.  And when we recognize our common humanity, it’s much easier to “refrain from doing to others what is distasteful to ourselves,” as Rabbi Hillel taught. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

We modern, Conservative-Egalitarian Jews do not practice blind obedience.  We question authority and parse halachah, striving to maintain our core values while adapting in a changing world.  We acknowledge the complexities and contradictions inherent in life and in conflict. Like the great sages of the Talmud, we agonize over how to deal with brutal realities without ourselves becoming brutalized. We struggle against the natural longing for revenge instead of justice.  And, because of both our long history as outsiders, and our current status as accepted and valued citizens, we abhor bigotry.

Unfortunately, this is not the case where fundamentalism and fanaticism hold sway. But before I go any further, let’s define those terms.

Most authoritative dictionaries define fundamentalism primarily within the context of either Protestant Christianity or Islam. For our purposes, I prefer this generalized definition, as cited in Webster’s New College Dictionary:

 Fundamentalism is a strict adherence to or interpretation of a doctrine, set of principles, etc., as of a social, legal, political, or religious group or system.

So what is a fanatic? According to the Oxford Online Dictionary:

A fanatic is a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal especially for an extreme religious or political cause. The fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.

One comment I read online added:

“The fanatic is a person who is so sure that his or her views are the truth that they see anyone who holds different views as evil or inhuman.”

There is a difference between fundamentalism and fanaticism.  An anonymous contributor to the website Quora wrote:

“A fundamentalist wants to strictly adhere to the correct doctrines of his religion; a fanatic wants to make you adhere to them.”

This is my own definition:

A fundamentalist is someone who sticks to his guns.  A fanatic is someone who uses them.

We are all aware that Jewish fundamentalism and fanaticism are very real, and pose a  threat to the state of Israel and to Judaism itself. In Israel, the fundamentalist rabbinate sets rules for the secular population.  They wield far too much power, both personal and political.

These days, the terms “price tag attacks” and “settler violence” are all too familiar to anyone who follows the news from Israel.  Many of these fanatics are admirers and followers of the late Meir Kahane.  We remember with sorrow the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a 27-year-old Jewish law student named Yigal Amir, who told the court that he did it because Rabin wanted “to give our country to the Arabs.”

So why do people become fanatics?

For answers, I turned to a classic work that I first read in my teens, that time of of life when most of us search for answers to “the big questions” and begin to create a separate identity from our parents’. “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer, was published in 1951 and instantly recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen. Hoffer, the son of German immigrants, was a self-educated, lifelong learner who worked as a longshoreman and laborer for most of his life.

In 168 pages, Hoffer analyzes and dissects the motives and responses, the potential and power, of “the true believer.”  I’m going to share a short passagefrom  the book;  please keep in mind that this was written during the aftermath of World War II:

 All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them… breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

A central tenet of Hoffer’s states that it is from among the frustrated, the alienated,  the directionless, that charismatic leaders draw their followers. The typical follower feels personally inadequate, often worthless, and blames outside forces for his or her personal failures.  People are hungry for certainty, and sometimes it’s a toss-up as to whom they will follow. For example, in pre-Hitler Germany, a young person was more likely to join the Communists rather than the Nazis, if that’s what his/her friends were doing.

The radical Islamic terrorists who murdered the staff of “Charlie Hebdo,” and Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered four Jewish people in a Parisian kosher market, fall within these psychological parameters.

Remember, the fanatic’s mindset is an either/or mentality. I am right, you are wrong.  We are right, all of you are wrong.  The fanatic has no problem in assigning collective guilt and meting out collective punishment.

Extremist Jewish settlers are a tiny fraction of the total population in the West Bank, but their destructive actions have an enormous impact. They believe with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their might that the Torah is literally true and that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews.  The only authorities they recognize are God and Torah. They are religious, not political Zionists, and for that reason alone, they are very dangerous.

Now, there is no denying that the underlying structures of a society are what create fertile ground for radical movements.  Nations everywhere, throughout human history, have been  plagued — and I use the word deliberately—by the deep schisms within society.  A schism is a split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief.  From schisms come “isms” – racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism. An “ism” that is shared by the majority of a population becomes a part of the national psyche.  In modern terminology, it’s deemed an “institutionalized” ism, such as institutionalized racism.

At this level, the concepts of “collective guilt” and “collective punishment” play out within the context of mass movements, which may incorporate governmental laws and policies.

I have neither the time nor the credentials to explore the enduring nature of anti-Semitism.  But I have to admit there are times when I wish I could stand up in front the whole world and say, “Why are you all so obsessed with us Jews?  What is your problem?  Go away, leave us alone!”  (By the way, that’s the polite version.)

As we confront the current alarming rise in anti-Semitism, which is fueled in great part by anti-Israel fundamentalists and fanatics, what I find most disturbing is the intolerant attitudes of and escalating actions by students on college campuses here in the United States and elsewhere.

Young people are natural “true believers.”  They pour their energy and passion into trying to right the wrongs of the world—as they perceive them. And they are impatient!  (I speak, of course, from personal experience.) They are especially vulnerable to falling under the sway of leaders and teachers who seem to know all the right answers and have all the solutions.   And, whether consciously or not, they feel guilty about their own privileged existence. So they fight for the underdog! Excoriate the oppressors!

American college students can’t change American history, and they don’t seem particularly eager to give back the land they live on to the Native Americans, but by golly, at least they can make sure the Jews don’t do the same thing!  Jewish students are often leaders of these groups.  Their dedication to justice is admirable, but they have a double dose of guilt to assuage. (I’m not being facetious.) The worst part may be that they don’t understand they’re helping empower the fanatics.

In Israel, young Jewish extremists carry out “price tag” attacks and shout “Death to the Arabs!”  They throw rocks at Arabs and they throw rocks at the IDF, both of whom they consider heir mortal enemies.

Collective guilt, collective punishment.

So what can we do?  Quite a bit, actually.  We must make our moderate voices heard. Join together with moderate voices from the Islamic community to counter the fundamentalists and fanatics who seek to divide and destroy, both here and around the world.  Support the Masorti movement in Israel and the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement there.  Check out organizations like “Stand With Us” to learn how to counter anti-Israel propaganda. Subscribe to the online newsletter published by “U.N. Watch,” which monitors the United Nations’ actions, and advocates for human rights for all the people on this planet.  Come here tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. for the presentation by the Syracuse Area Middle East Dialogue Group.

There isn’t a nation on earth whose citizens are of one mind.  Utopia is not just unrealistic; it’s unobtainable, because we are imperfect beings.  The United States is our home; Israel is our spiritual homeland and we will continue to support and defend them.  But we must constantly be on guard against the longing for certainty. We must find a balance between passion and rationality if we are to “create the change we want to be.”

And let’s leave the collective judgements to God.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Bo: It’s About Time

When I think about the elements that shape and create the contours of a community, of a group of people who feel connected to each other no matter where they may be, one of the critical elements is a shared sense of sacred time.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we encounter another layer of how Jewish times works. Jewish time is actually comprised of four distinct layers, each of which communicate core values and ideas to the Jewish people.

The first layer is the Shabbat cycle. One day out of every seven, we imitate God by refraining from creative labor, and express gratitude for the world as it is. This layer is not tied to the solar cycle or lunar cycle, or any other cycle for that matter. It is an arbitrarily set pattern, gong back to the beginning of time (not literally, but mythically yes) that continually reminds us that there is a Creator of the Universe, who has created a world that is essentially good, and that we play a vital role in maintaining and stewarding.

The second layer of time we encounter for the first time in Parshat Bo, which is the annual calendar. This new way of marking months and years is tied directly to the experience of the Exodus, its preparations, the final night in Egypt, and the days and weeks that follow. The months do not have names; they are devoid of any connection to anything other than the Exodus itself. They are markedly monotheistic, whereas months of other cultures bear names that connect to a pagan pantheon of gods. (This is not unlike the names of the days of the week, which are all related to Greek, Roman, an Nordic god names. The Jewish weekdays are all numbered, except for Shabbat.) It is upon this lunar-solar hybrid calendar that the Jewish festival cycle is built. This layer of Jewish time creates an endlessly repeating series of opportunities to encounter our most sacred stories: Creation of the Universe, the Exodus from Egypt, Receiving Torah at Sinai, Exile from the Land and Return to it. This cycle also ties us to the Land of Israel and its agricultural cycle, which keeps us connected to it, no matter where we are.

The third layer of Jewish time is our weekly Torah reading cycle, which is actually a combination of the Torah reading cycles from the communities of Babylon and the communities of Eretz Yisrael. Each week, you know that in every Jewish community around the world, all eyes are on Parshat Bo (whether it is all, one third of it or a selection thereof), and those who are engaged with it are considering how it informs and impacts their lives today. The Torah reading cycle creates, in a very real sense, the world’s largest Book Group, and which gathers to discuss the reading on a weekly basis.

The fourth layer of Jewish time is the Jewish life cycle. Beginning with birth and taking each of us through every milestone of life up to that final moment of our lives, every turning point in life is not only framed by the context of our individuals lives, but by the meaning of that moment for the entire Jewish people. A Bat Mitzvah celebration is a communal event, not only a private one. A shiva is not a solitary experience, but one meant to be shared with the entire community. A wedding is both taking us back to the Garden of Eden, with the possibility of a new world being created, and to the future, where the city of Jerusalem rejoices as love of celebrated again in her streets.

Being tuned in to these four layers of Jewish time, all of which interact with each other at each moment, is a critical piece of Jewish consciousness and identity. For example, tonight begins Shabbat (Layer 1), and this is Parshat Bo (Layer 2), where we encounter the build up towards the moment of the Exodus. We are coming up to Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees in the land of Israel and Purim, a topsy-turvy festival that speaks about how life is experienced in the Jewish diaspora (Layer 3). And this weekend, one family is feeling the loss of a mother and grandmother, another is celebrating at a family Bar Mitzvah, couples are getting to know their newborns or anticipating the birth of a baby, and some are going to celebrate their first Shabbat as part of the Jewish people (Layer 4).

May the rich tapestry of Jewish time be a continual source of connection, inspiration and consolation for us this day and every day.

Happy Yahrtzeit to You!

When the (Secular) New Year rolls around, two people in my house begin to get very excited, namely, Aviyah and Matan. Both of them have birthdays close to the beginning of the new year. We probably, as we have for most years of the lives of our children, have some kind of fun-centered celebration with them and a few friends (playing games, doing an art-and crafts activity, etc.), and then conclude with a most peculiar ritual. Inevitably, we will seat everyone around a table, dim the lights, and then bring out a cake covered in fiery candles (one candle per year and one to grow on), and then place the cake in front of the birthday child. After singing a well-known song (which is owned by the estate of Michael Jackson), we ask the child to make a wish and to blow out the candles, all in one breath, hopefully without adding any of their bodily fluids to said cake.

I am sure that this ritual rings very familiar to almost every reading this. The question that the kids ask (not every year, but some years) is: Why is there not a Jewish celebration of a person’s birthday? We do people say kaddish on the anniversary of a person’s death and not on their birthday? (Ok, that second question is not from the kids, but is a good question anyway.)

The only birthday mentioned in the Torah, where the phrase “Yom Huledet” appears once and one time only, is for the birthday of Pharaoh (Joseph’s Pharaoh to be precise). It is on this birthday “celebration” that Pharaoh releases his cup-bearer from prison, restoring him back to his former position, and executes the baker, restoring him into a considerably less life-life state. In this case, the birthday celebration becomes an opportunity for a king to exercise his power to mete out life and death. It may then not come as a surprise to us that the Rabbis generally thought of a birthday celebration as a non-Jewish custom, and thus did not think highly of celebrating the day of one’s birth. To further explain why, let me share a rabbinic parable.

There is a newly built ship about to set sail on a long voyage, and there are people gathered at the docks celebrating the ship’s launch. As the ship slowly leaves the shore, all the builders and family members of the crew are celebrating. However, amidst the celebration, there is one person who stands there not partaking in the celebration. After the celebration has died down a bit, someone notices the man just standing there, and asks him why he is not joining in the celebration. After all, is the building of such a fine ship and the start of a long voyage not a cause for celebration? The man replies, “Actually no. The beginning of a sea voyage is certainly a moment of note, but who knows what may happen along the way? The seas can be calm, but also stormy. A port can bring adventure, but also danger. I will save my celebration for when the ship returns to port after the journey has come to an end.”

This is why the Jewish people celebrate the life of friends and loved ones on the yahrtzeit/anniversary of their deaths, on the day when the journey has come to an end, and we can look back on the entire voyage, both the moments of joy and moments of challenge and sorrow. That said, most American Jews today, myself included, celebrate their birthdays in some way. During our weekly Shabbat Torah Service, we often hear people sharing during the good news of a milestone birthday of a relative or for themselves. But the date that we use to remember the entire life is the final day of their life, because that is the date that reveals the full journey of a person’s life.

This was not begun a piece to give another rationale why it is important to attend services at a synagogue. That said, coming to a service (be it Friday night, Saturday morning, or weekday) to remember the life of a friend or loved one in the company of a congregation is a fitting way to honor that person’s life and the impact that it had on us.

At every service we have, at least one person, if not a dozen, stands up to say kaddish for someone. We do this, not out of a morbid holding on to the past, but because we stand up to affirm the good that has come from that person’s life, from the way that their life impacted up, and how their life moved the world a little bit from the way it was to that way that it ought to be.

At the end of this month, my family will be celebrating one more complete trip around the sun for both Aviyah and Matan, but we all know that, God willing, their journeys are far from over.