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Showing posts from 2009

My thoughts on the Holiness of Shabbat (URJ Ten Minutes of Torah)


Penny Kessler

Download the PDF of these pagesMusic is midrash: it enhances and fills in gaps and unanswered questions suggested by texts and lyrics. Choosing music for prayer texts and saying that this or that setting “works” means that the text and music complement and respond to each other.
Each of the three prayers of K’dushat Ha-yom (Mishkan T’filah, pp. 250, 252) represents a variety of aspects of our celebration of Shabbat: joy, renewal, reinvigoration, community, family, contemplation and meditation. And the music for these prayers should reflect its own particular midrash. Yism’chu is a prayer of pure joy – oneg – and its music should reflect an outpouring of delight. I frequently choose Rabbi Joe Black’s setting of Yism’chu1 because it makes me smile when I feel the joy and the love and the absolute delight of the music. I love that it's not frantic, I respond to the salsa beat, it's fun and a…

Not My Job? Yom Kippur Mincha Devar Torah 2009

The words and concepts that we will read this afternoon are engrained in each Jew so deeply that they are the essence of Jewish DNA as it were. Known as the “Holiness Code,” the text is a to-do list of making ourselves holy, meaning to be special, unique, separate.

Taken at face value, it would seem obvious that these are things we should do: revere your mother and father, keep Shabbat, stay away from idols, don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be deceitful … to be vulgar, this is a “no-brainer.”

But clearly there is more to be gleaned, more to be learned; and we find our lesson in the first two verses of our parashah.

Moses is speaking to the “whole Israelite community. We are all here – figuratively if not literally (as I look out into the congregation this afternoon) – and we are all included. These words, these chores, these admonishments are not meant for some of us. We are ALL involved: whether we consider our Jewish practice to be observant, secular, ethnic, cultural; whether we pray…

Finding God - Yom Kippur Morning - Devar Torah

O Lord, where shall I find you?
Hid is Your lofty place;
And where shall I not find You,
Whose glory fills all space?

These words from Yehuda ha-Levi, the late 11th/early 12th Century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, inserted into the morning worship of the Reform Movement’s Gates of Repentance Machzor, sum up the essence of this morning’s Scriptural readings.

We began last night’s service by reciting a formulaic prayer declaring it “permissible to pray with those who have transgressed.” Since this is a communal declaration, we must assume that we are referring to all of us – we have all transgressed. An appreciation for this communal state of spiritual defilement is essential to this morning’s Torah and Haftarah readings.

We begin with the relatively dry job description of the priest’s responsibilities found in parashat Acharei Mot. At the end of the lit of his chores, we have a personnel change: From the priest’s job description, we switch to our own.

We start with Aaron off…

Seeing Things - Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Devar Torah

God said to Abraham: take your son by the hand.
God said to Abraham: you gotta take him by the hand (take him by the hand).

Take your son, your only son – Isaac, yeah, that’s the one.
Moriah is where you’ll be when you offer up your boy to me.

God said to Abraham: take your son by the hand.
God said to Abraham: you gotta take him by the hand (take him by the hand).

At first glance, the Akedah appears cut and dried: God “tests” Avraham’s commitment by demanding that Avraham offer his son, the only one he has left, as a sacrifice to God. And the traditional lesson of this parashah is that – especially on Rosh Hashanah – we trust God, we have faith that God will do right by us, we enter into the period of Asarah Y’mei Teshuvah believing that God will answer us, just as God answered Avraham’s unspoken prayer that his hand will be stilled from killing his child. Avraham has experience in trusting God; according to our Sages, the Akedah is the tenth such time God has tested Avraham’s faith. But w…

Hearing Ishmael - Rosh Hashanah Day 1

In this morning’s parashah, Abraham sends his son Ishmael and his son’s mother, Hagar, into the wilderness at Sarah’s order in order to remove the threat she perceives Ishmael to be to Isaac. The two – mother and son – soon face certain death from starvation and dehydration. The text reads, “15 When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, 16 and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, "Let me not look on as the child dies." And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. 17 God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him." 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.”

Why doesn’t God respond immediately to Hagar…

When Evil Becomes Banal

Last winter, a colleague and I were featured in a URJ on-line discussion on the challenges of music written by composers – and texts themselves – that were and are considered anti-Semitic. How should we, as Jewish professionals and Jews, approach such music? While the initial focus had been on Handel’s “Messiah” with its triumphant vision of Christianity overtaking Judaism, it quickly moved to noted anti-Semitic composers such as Wagner. Just recently, the New York Times reported that a motion was filed demanding that the Los Angeles Opera’s citywide festival – in conjunction with its new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle next spring – “be broadened to include less objectionable composers, like Puccini and Mozart because it was, according to the petitioner (Michael D. Antonovich, a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors) an affront ‘to specifically honor and glorify the man whose music and racist anti-Semitic writings inspired Hitler and became the de facto soundtrack for the …

The Hazon of a Hazzan

I handed my credit card to the cashier at the nail salon a few months ago. “Cantor Audrey M. Kessler,” she read out loud. There was silence. “Cantor?” she questioned. “I thought your name was Penny.” “Um, no,” I responded, “Penny is who I am [ed. note: "Audrey" is my legal name], Cantor is what I do.” She politely nodded, an unmistakable visual sign that she had NO idea what “cantor” meant. She’s not alone.

When I am asked “what I do,” I often find myself tongue-tied, Moses-like, tripping over my words as I explain the difference between my work and that of a rabbi’s. I have tried humor, as in, “the synagogue clergy equivalent of Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did but in heels and backwards.” I have explained carefully that I am the Jewish clergy who specializes in Jewish music and prayer. I have read dictionary definitions Periodically I am told of the many virtues of someone’s church cantor, a musician – not a clergy person – who leads a church choir. And ev…

Kol Sarah

I'm going on record here: while I dislike her politics, values and philosophies as presented during her 2008 bid for Vice President, I dislike equally - if not more - the ugly language that's swirling around some parts of the liberal blogosphere in reaction to Sarah Palin's recent as-yet unexplained resignation as Governor of Alaska.

The language is very ugly and not worthy of repetition. Too many posters/commentators sound positively obscenely delighted to rip her - and her family - apart. Change Sarah to Barack, Bibi or Hillary and you end up with hideous and repulsive racism, anti-Semitic and misogynistic swill. It's sickening to read and does nothing more than sink to the level of the spewers of filth on the extreme right wing of American political media spectrum.

Last week we read about lashon hara and its consequences. In a little over a month we will observe tisha b'Av and note the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, brought about - the rabbis teach - by …

Michael Jackson, meet Richard Nixon

We now know that in 1973, the "private" Richard Nixon spewed racist and anti-Semitic garbage. I say "private" because we hear the pronouncements he made in the Oval Office thanks to the non-stop recording device in his office. Abortion is a good thing for interracial pregnancies (I assume he meant black men impregnating white women) and - oh, yeah - for rape. Nice. Should there be an increase in anti-Semitism, it would all be the Jews' own fault because they were complaining about the increase in evangelical missionary work in the US. Nice.

Apologists are minimizing his spouting filth - at least about Jews - by remarking his loyalty to the State of Israel, as though being an anti-Semite and being a supporter of Israel are mutually exclusive. I disagree. I believe that "Rev." John Hagee is an anti-Semite because he truly believes that we Jews only exist to provide for his desperately anticipated Armageddon - and I believe that he loves Israel for the sa…

Healing - midweek 2

Yeah, I know - pretty ridiculous posting this with my profile picture as it is - I just haven't had a chance to change the picture.

One week and 4 days into "healing," and Stan and I saw the orthopedist this afternoon.

Stan first: he is healing nicely (which, I have learned, is relative term - as in, "relative to not going off the bike..." or "relative to not having our insides ripped out ..." or relative to not getting on a motorcycle in the first place ...") and progressing exactly as the doctor wants. His knee, which had previously resembled something you'd see in one of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" or similar slice-and-dice movies, is actually looking much better. Prognosis is good - and he has about 4-6 weeks of absolutely NO weight-bearing on his left leg. The doctor says he can go back to work as long as he's comfortable and doesn't put any weight on the left leg. Stan's aiming for a shortened day on Monday so he c…

Just wondering ...

I'm just wondering how some things - like language trends - work.

1. When did "pro-choice" become *not* pro-life and indeed, "pro-death?" Could it be said that Bristol Palin is pro-choice (meaning pro-death in some circles), having said, “It doesn’t matter what my mom’s views are on it. It was my decision.”

2. When did "pro-Israel" come to exclude people who have a different POV on the situation?

3. When did the charge of "treason" come to mean something to pin on people opposed to one president's policies, but not another's?

4. When did "wait and see" become wink-wink-nudge-nudge for "appeasement?"

5. When did "kol Yisraeil aravim zeh la-zeh" - all Israel is responsible for one another - become code word for racism?

6. When did being intelligent and having the ability to think something through become code word for elite, which has become code for evil?

Just wondering. Thoughts are welcome.

How Dare You Tell Me What To Do?????

No sooner had the weather turned decent than the local newspaper declared "Return of motorcycle season in Connecticut kickstarts old helmet law debate." And just as predictably, the online comments kickstarted the usual "evil nanny Government" responses.

Here's how I responded:

"You don't want to wear a helmet, jacket, whatever? Fine. But hear this: when you hit the road, your skin will be destroyed along with your limbs. Sound too dramatic?

My husband and I were involved in an accident last week when a car turned left in front of us. My husband, the driver, "laid the bike down" and we - and the bike on top of us on its side - went skidding down the rode. My ankle is broken, his leg was badly broken (requiring surgery).

The good news? Had we not been wearing helmets, reinforced jackets, heavy-weight pants and boots, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that we would have suffered much, much worse - trauma to our brains and internal organs, not…

Dolls and Dolls

Dolls 1:

There she is, smiling, sweet, happy, clutching her live cabbage patch doll to her graduation cap and gown. Bristol Palin has become the poster victim (or child, depending on your outlook) for a variety of strange-bedfellow policies and has been exploited by just about everyone who claims to love her. Her situation is an oxymoronic contradiction: the abstinence-only mentality colliding with “it doesn’t work;” teenagers needing real, solid and correct information on contraception colliding with “well, maybe we did it unprotected sometimes;” so-called “family values” colliding with a father from the wrong side of the tracks; the need for children to have both fathers and mothers in their lives colliding with the reality of a politician’s power to “negotiate” the rights of a father; and the sad reality of a teenager colliding with the perfect picture-bite on the cover of People magazine.

So what is the message our teens are getting from this bizarre, contradictory media circus? Unt…

President Obama @ Cairo

The parsing has begun. The President's opponents and his supporters are ripping apart his words and finding fault. I heard his speech, and I am impressed with his words, especially considering that the President was walking on eggshells.

Ever since election day, the knee-jerk opposition one liner has been: "No." They call the President deluded, naive and anti-Israel, and gleefully shout "AHA! We KNEW he was a secret Muslim" (the absolute racism and bigotry of comments like these cannot go unnoticed) because he can speak about the Koran with some intelligence. Well, you know something? I want a President who is familiar with the holy scriptures of one of the world's major religions. The knee-jerk opponents condemn and belittle his speaking at Cairo University because Egypt is not a bastion of democracy. Absolutely true, and Egypt is one of our allies, and enjoys a relatively decent relationship with Israel. Israelis and Egyptians move peacefully in and out of…

Living in a Bad Neighborhood

There are many news media, internet blog and Jewish leadership POV's on Israels "Operation Cast Lead" Gaza campaign. Although you periodically hear some voices from the lunatic fringes that appear to rejoice in or black-and-white condemn Israel's actions, most Jewish leadership take the position that, sadly enough, sometimes war is necessary to protect a nation's citizens. Other than jingoists and Marx Brothers comedies, no one initiates war gleefully. At some point a country must say enough is enough and must respond, especially when its people are being bombed each day.

Some voices declare a moral relativism between Hamas' bombing incursions into Israel and Israel's response. Some have insisted that Israel should be delivering a "proportional response." Some imply that if only Israel were to do this or that, then Hamas, Hezbollah and her other avowed enemies would go away quietly. I disagree with all these positions. There is NO moral relativis…