Archive for September, 2010

Simchat Torah Message

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Dear Friends,

As we celebrate Simchat Torah, we are blessed to have the opportunity to complete the reading of the Torah and begin the cycle of reading the Torah again. What a wonderful concept…learning is never completed and there are always new insights which we can obtain through our ongoing commitment to Torah learning. I am always inspired by the end of the final section of the Torah which concludes with the word “Yisrael” or Israel from the book of Deuteronomy and the first word of the beginning of the Torah from the book of Genesis which is “B’raysheet” which is usually translated as “in the beginning.” The last letter of Yisrael and the first letter of B’raysheet spell the Hebrew word, “lev” which means heart. I believe that it takes a lot of heart to be Jewish and to commit to a life where Jewish learning is an important priority and I also think that among the most important aspects of being Jewish is to have a heart.

We have completed a very intense Holiday season that encourages us to forgive others, seek forgiveness, and turn to our best selves and begin again. This process is not easy and requires a great deal of effort. When we complete the reading of the Torah(or any of the five books of Moses which are found in the Torah), we say “hazak, hazak, v’nithazeik” which translates as “may we be strong and strengthen each other.” I believe that a measure of our strength is our commitment to helping each other to be stronger and face whatever challenges life presents us by being there to care for and support the members of our community. In this new year, I look forward to many opportunities for us to come together and strengthen, not only each other, but the members of our community who are less fortunate than we are. One of the teachings of the Ethics of our Ancestors(Pirke Avot) says that the world stands on three things, Torah, worship, and deeds of loving-kindness. May 5771 be a year in which we all turn our hearts to study, prayer, and making a difference through the deeds we perform.


Rabbi Bruce Aft

Sukkot Message – Be Our Guest

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Dear Friends,

As we celebrate Sukkot, I thought you would find the message below to be informative. I hope that during this Festival when we are commanded to be happy, zman simchateinu, time of our rejoicing, that we can find some way to add happiness to our lives and bring happiness to the lives of others.

Hag Sukkot Sameach.
Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor/GMU Adjunct Faculty/Rabbi Cong. Adat Reyim

From and
By Rabbi Jason Miller
Be Our Guest

In this week’s parsha, we learn that on the third day after Abraham had circumcised himself, he hosted three angels who appeared in human form. Recovering from this procedure in the excruciating heat of the midday sun, our patriarch still urged them to receive his hospitality. Not only that, but as soon as Abraham saw these three men standing near him, he ran to greet them (vayaratz likratam). Not realizing these men were angels, Abraham took these strangers into his home and offered them water to wash their feet and shade to rest. With his wife Sarah’s help, the guests were treated to a feast of bread and meat, curds and milk. He personally served these strangers the delicacies and attended to their needs.

In tractate Bava Metzia of the Babylonian Talmud, we find a Midrash explaining that the Israelites benefit later on as a result of Abraham’s kindness to these strangers:

Rab Judah teaches in Rab’s name: Everything which Abraham personally did for the Ministering Angels, the Holy One Blessed be God did for God’s children [the Israelites]; and whatever Abraham did through a messenger, the Holy One Blessed be God did for God’s children through a messenger [Moses].

Abraham’s hospitality serves as a wonderful example for us all. The parsha begins with God visiting Abraham at the entrance of his tent, but as soon as the three men appear, Abraham turned away from God to attend to these guests. In so doing, he teaches us that hospitality (hachnasat orchim) is a significant mitzvah and value for us.

There are three fall holidays on which hachnasat orchim is emphasized. They are not all religious holidays, but we learn from their message nevertheless. The first of these is the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. On these eight holy days (seven in Israel), we invite ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests”), or distinguished individuals from our people’s history, into our sukkot. Traditionally, we invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David to join our families each night of the holiday. The more progressive and egalitarian among us include some illustrious women who made their mark on the Jewish people as well, including Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda and Esther.

In addition to these biblical guests, it is important for us to open our sukkot to others as well, and especially to those who do not have sukkot in their own backyards and those unfamiliar with the tradition. This year, my family invited any student who wanted to join us for a barbeque on the Sunday night of Sukkot. More than 70 undergraduates and graduate students, religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, visited our sukkah and had the opportunity to recite the blessing of dwelling in the sukkah. I was proud to demonstrate this message of hospitality to my 2-year-old son.

While the Halloween tradition is certainly a controversial one among North American Jews because of its pagan roots, there is a positive side to its celebration as well. In today’s hectic times, neighbors so infrequently visit one another. The days of neighborhood kids, let alone their parents, dropping in on one another to say hello and shmooze is long gone. Yet on Halloween, millions of children and their parents trek around the neighborhood ringing doorbells, offering greetings and sharing candy. Ideally, this ritual would encourage some to invite their neighbors inside their homes to visit and become acquainted. For many, the Halloween experience is quite likely the first time they see the inside of their next-door neighbors’ homes. Therefore, for those who find Halloween a problematic enterprise, the opportunity for hachnasat orchim will hopefully serve as a positive.

Finally, the Thanksgiving holiday is inching upon us. This festive affair is an opportunity for us to gather with friends and family, consider all the good in our lives and give thanks to God for our good fortune. It is also a time for us to consider making room at our table for strangers to join us. Opening our homes to guests on Thanksgiving is a way to share the experience with others and demonstrate our value of hachnasat orchim. With a mother who works in residential real-estate, our family always had strangers at our Thanksgiving dinner table. Each year, my mother would invite those clients who had recently bought new homes and relocated to Michigan and did not have family nearby. This quickly become an annual minhag (custom) and encouraged us to be even more grateful on Thanksgiving that we were able to celebrate together with family.

The Jewish people place much emphasis on hospitality. We marry under a chuppah that is open on all sides to remind us of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. As we study the example demonstrated by our patriarch Abraham and our matriarch Sarah to welcome the stranger and make them feel at home, let us strive to be better hosts. Let us always be mindful to keep our tent doors open whether those doors are the doors of our home or the doors of our Hillel. Just as our people were rewarded because of Abraham and Sarah’s genuine hospitality, may we all be rewarded with abundant blessings for making the stranger feel at home among us.

Prepared by Rabbi Jason Miller, Assistant director, University of Michigan Hillel

Learn More
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Va’yera at

Yom Kippur Message

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Dear Friends,

As we approach Yom Kippur, I hope that each of you who fast, find meaning in your fast and that the opportunity to seek forgiveness and give forgiveness, enriches your life.

I continue to quote the Rod Stewart song, “Reason To Believe” because I believe it is difficult to “leave the past behind.” As Stewart writes,” If I’d only let you change my mind, I’d find a way to leave the past behind….knowing that you lied straight faced while I cried, still I look to find a reason to believe. Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else…someone like you makes it easy to give, never thinking about myself…”

We often do hurt the people we love and seeking forgiveness from them and granting forgiveness to them is not easy. It takes courage to admit a mistake and then to seek forgiveness. It also takes courage to be able to forgive someone who has wronged us.

I hope that each of you will dig deeply into your heart and somehow seek out someone who you have wronged and ask their forgiveness and I hope that if someone seeks you out to ask forgiveness, that you will be compassionate toward that person.

To be totally frank…it doesn’t always work and it can be very frustrating when we seek someone out and they won’t forgive us or if we try to forgive someone but they continue to hurt us….I wish I had a magic wand and could make these interactions lead to happy endings. We don’t always get what we had hoped for and can be very disappointed at this time of year….BUT…I hope we will make that call, send that e-mail, see that person, or do whatever we believe in our hearts will help lead to forgiveness and new beginnings.

Good luck in your efforts and may you and those you love be sealed for a healthy, fulfilling, and safe new year.

G’mar chatima tovah,

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor
Congregation Adat Reyim
GMU Adjunct Professor

High Holiday Message

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Dear Members of the George Mason Community,

As we begin the year 5771 and celebrate Rosh HaShanah, we are facing a very significant issue in our lives. On Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the attacks of 2001, there is a very real threat that the Koran will be burnt. As Jews, we are well aware of the power of book burnings and the symbolic impact that a horrible event like this can have.

I hope that as we wrestle with our own personal feelings about those we hold responsible for Sept. 11, that we will speak out against the burning of books. We are reminded of the quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller who stated (there is some controversy over the exact words) in response to the Nazis:

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

As we celebrate a time for forgiveness and making significant changes in our lives, I hope that we will speak out in whatever ways we can, against hatred and bigotry. I also look forward to ongoing dialogue after the High Holidays about the plans to build a mosque at Ground Zero since this project challenges us to think about issues of religious freedom and sensitivity to the victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

May 5771 be a year of growth, forgiveness, new beginnings, and the possibility of significant change in our lives in the places we desire to change.

Shanah tovah,

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Adviser
Member, GMU Hillel Community Board
Adjunct Professor ICAR, GMU
Rabbi at Congregation Adat Reyim, Springfield, VA

1st Fall Semester 2010 Dvar (Rabbi Bruce Aft)

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Dear Students and Faculty,

Welcome back to school this fall. Although no longer on sabbatical and working at GMU, I hope to be sharing a weekly dvar Torah and hope that I will be able to help others learn how to write a dvar Torah so that we can grow as a community of Jewish learners.

This week we have a double Torah portion which happens periodically so that we can read the entire Torah each year. The portion is Nitzavim, VaYehlekh, which is Deuteronomy 29:9-32:30. In Deuteronomy 30:19, we read, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…..”

As we begin another year (or our first year) at college, I believe that we have lots of choices in front of us….we can choose activities that will help make our lives a blessing or we can choose to do things that will make our lives less than pleasant. Each of us is faced with many different paths which we may follow and sometimes this can be energizing and sometimes this can be overwhelming.

Since this year, the beginning of school is occurring at the beginning of another year on the Jewish calendar(5771), we are spiritually reminded that we have lots of choices to make in how we live our lives. We pray during the High Holidays that we will be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a year in which we will be healthy, safe, and fulfilled. In her version of the mishebarach, a prayer for healing, Debbie Friedman prays that we find the courage to make our lives a blessing.

I hope that each of us can find meaningful way to choose paths that will enrich our lives and give us the feeling that our lives are a blessing. Journeying through life as a college student, a faculty member, and as a rabbi who is entering his 30th year in the rabbinate can be filled with many challenges. We wrestle with many issues which can result in either feeling blessed or cursed….I hope that as we travel through life together, we can support each other and find the courage within ourselves to choose to live a life that will be rewarding and that will be a blessing to not only ourselves but to others whose lives we touch.

Shabbat Shalom and enjoy a fulfilling and a blessed semester.

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Advisor/
GMU Hillel Community Board Member/
GMU Faculty, Conflict Resolution