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Rabbis thoughts as the semester ends

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

Dear Friends,

As we reach the end of the year, I want to thank all of you who have been reading these posts. I hope you have found them to be meaningful and even, inspiring.

This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who had a dream to create a world with more equality for all. They dreamt a special dream and my prayer for all of us is that whether we are graduating, whether we are faculty or staff, or whether we are students (aren’t we all students?), that we will find a dream, work toward its achievement and be blessed with its fulfillment.

My parents used to send me off to school with two bits of blessing and wisdom. First they urged me to “learn something!” and secondly they quoted an old Gaelic blessing:

“May the roads rise with you,
And the wind be always at your back,
And may the Lord hold you in the hollow of His Hand.”

May you carry these words with you in the days and years ahead.

Rabbi Bruce D. Aft

Happy Passover! Tired of Matzah?

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Dear Friends,

If you are tired of matzah, click below and find out what you can do with extra matzah!
Hope you like this!

Rabbi Bruce Aft

Passover’s here…

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Dear Friends,

We are celebrating Passover this month which has always been one of my favorite Festivals. When we all gather for the seder, I am inspired by the drama of the worship experience which reminds us of our ongoing challenges and opportunities as we commemorate our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Recently I saw the movie Black Swan and was very moved by the powerful portrayal of the main character. I will not be very specific because I hope that if you haven’t seen this movie, you will take the opportunity to watch it. I am not a movie critic, but I do believe that one of the main themes of the movie is the pressure that some feel to be perfect. Although I believe that striving for perfection or working hard are important, that if we enslave ourselves to the notion that we have to be perfect, we will never be satisfied with our lives.

A number of years ago in a publication called Emet V’Emunah, which was a summary of Conservative Judaism, one of the suggestions which was made in the book is that all of us should be “striving Jews.” I often wonder if one of the reasons that people are not more involved in performing religious rituals is that they are afraid they will not perform them correctly or that they may not be good at them. My view of Judaism is that striving to grow is what is important, that striving to learn more is important, that striving to bring more rituals into our lives is important, that striving to find answers to tough questions is what is important.

Another part of the movie that intrigued me was my perception that it was almost impossible to distinguish between what was real and what was imagined. Our tradition teaches that we should not spend time dealing with imaginary fears because there are enough real things that can create fear or concerns in our lives. What makes life even more difficult sometimes is when we cannot distinguish between that which is imaginary and that which is real. Sometimes we get so caught up in every day life, that we lose perspective and need to step back and look at our reality and strive to fix that which is problematic. In Desiderata which is a reading that hangs in the rabbinic study, one of the lines says, “Do not distress yourself with imaginings, many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.” I hope that we can find people with whom we can share our imagined and real fears and that we can support each other during these scary times in our lives.

As we recall the exodus from Egyptian slavery, may each of us find some way to liberate ourselves from at least something that holds us back from being happy and fulfilled. I hope that we can liberate ourselves from the belief that there is only one reality and that we will think about creative ways to deal with tough issues we face. I hope you will come see me so that we can help each other in our journey though life. And I hope that we will not enslave ourselves to the myth that we need to be perfect. Judaism wants us to grow and to to strive to improve and perfect our world, but NOT to be perfect.

Enjoy a wonderful Passover and please let us know if you need somewhere to go for a seder. No one should be alone during this special time.

Hag Pesach Sameach.

Rabbi Bruce Aft

lashon hara…

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Dear Friends,

What can one say about Parshat Metzora? We are dealing with leprosy and often the onset of leprosy is equated with uttering lashon hara or saying negative things about people. Sometimes I believe that the national pastime is saying hurtful or evil things about people that can leave us sore and wounded. And after all, how many of us have been victimized by rumors or falsehoods about ourselves or people with whom we are close? We know how damaging these negative comments can be to those we love and to us.

Rabbi Abraham Twersky in his book, “Living Each Week” discusses the following verse: “Something like a lesion became visible to me in the house.” (Leviticus 14:35)

Rabbi Twersky quotes Rashi who says that even if one is pretty sure that there is a lesion, one should not make a definitive statement and so says “there is something like a lesion….”

I believe that this teaches us not to believe that our way of looking at a situation is the only way of looking at a situation. How many of us declare that our position is the “right” position and are unwilling to look at things from alternative points of view? Whether we are talking about religion, politics, sports teams (except for the fact that the White Sox are the best baseball team:-)) we should be open to discussion and debate. Recently I participated in an interfaith dialogue about current conditions in the Middle East and was inspired by the willingness of the participants to be open to varied points of view. The participants certainly didn’t necessarily agree with each other, but were open to listening to each other.

I believe that we should have strong convictions and certain principles that we view as important and we should stand by them. However, I hope that we will be inspired by Rashi to realize that in certain situations, one cannot always be totally sure that we are correct. We should always be open to dialogue and being receptive to new ideas and ways of looking at things. After all, as we grow and mature, each of us has new insights to life’s experiences.

May we not be afflicted by the “sore” of intolerance and being close minded. May each of us be willing to look at new perspectives on issues and even if we disagree with others, be respectful and not disagreeable.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce Aft

Wishing for peace

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Dear Friends,

As I thought about what I would write this week, I decided to share my concerns about the bombing of the bus in Jerusalem. As we mourn another death in the Middle East, we are all saddened whenever there is a tragic loss.

In this week’s Torah reading as we celebrate Shabbat Parah, we read the section about the ritual of purification which is tied into the section dealing with the Red Heifer.(Numbers 19). As we read this portion we wrestle with what it means to perform the ritual which is described. I often wonder what it can take to perform a ritual of purification that could help us rid our world of the violence which has once again reared its ugly head.

I wish we could somehow develop a ritual that would rid us of the causeless hatred that motivates violence in our world. I hope that each of you will join me in prayers for peace and that each of us will recognize that none of us is ever completely free from violence until all of us are freed from potential acts of violence. I hope that those of us who may have influence with folks who can influence policy in the Middle East will urge our contacts to do whatever they can to help build a more peaceful world.

May G-d who makes peace in the Divine world, grant peace to us, to all Israel, and to all humanity.

Rabbi Bruce Aft

Hag Purim Samaech!

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Dear Friends,

As we approach the Festival of Purim, I want to talk about the leadership role which Esther assumes in the story about Purim which is found in the Megillah or Scroll of Esther. Mordecai, who is Esther’s uncle or cousin informs Esther that Haman, the evil prime minister is going to destroy the Jewish community. In Chapter 4:14, Mordecai tells Esther that if she doesn’t utilize her role as queen to intervene to save the Jewish people, that “help will come from some other place.”

The commentators discuss what is meant by this verse. Many people believe that help will come from G-d if Esther doesn’t intercede. In fact, this may be a veiled reference to G-d in a scroll that otherwise doesn’t mention G-d’s name.

I am intrigued by what this story tells us about being a leader. How many times in our lives are we presented with an opportunity to make a difference in the life of someone? How often are we faced with a leadership moment when our actions could make a significant change in our world? How many times do we respond to the challenge by asserting leadership and when do we back away and not assert leadership?

I am inspired to know that each of us has opportunities to be a leader in certain situations and I hope that Esther will remind us to seize the moment and not let these opportunities to help others go unmet. Let us not wait for help to come from some other place especially if we are uniquely positioned by a particular time and place in our life to be a leader.

Debbie Friedman, the noted musician, songleader, and liturgist who died recently,wrote a prayer of healing in which she asks G-d “to give us the courage to make our lives a blessing.” May each of us have the courage to be “the some other place” from which help can come by being an “Esther” in our generation.

Hag Purim Samaech!

Beginning Book of Numbers.. the census and why we count

Friday, March 11th, 2011

On this Shabbat when we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers in the Torah, a census is taken of the Jewish people. Each of counts and is a vital part of the community. May this poem remind us just how much each of us count and just how much each of our actions can fill our lives with 60 seconds of distance run….This poem was given to me by my parents through one of my brothers when I lost my first Little League baseball game.

IF… by Rudyard Kipling


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce D. Aft

Spring.. A time of renewal and reflection

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Dear Friends,

It is a rite of spring….each year I try to visit either Arizona or Florida at this time of year to enjoy spring training. This week I was fortunate enough to be able to be in Florida and be able to visit four different ball parks and see a number of spring training games. It is a reminder that spring is around the corner and that we are entering a time of renewal as we prepare to celebrate Purim and Passover.

When we go to Florida, my wife, Sue and I have the opportunity to visit my parents’ graves and to visit with a couple who were very special to my parents. Now, since it will soon be 13 years since my dad died and 10 years since my mom died, it was especially meaningful to be in Clearwater and have the opportunity to “chat” with them. This was the first time I had visited their graves since we became grandparents and so this was the first time I was able to “personally” tell them about their great grandchild. Sue and I spoke about how my parents and her dad are with us all the time and although we think of them often, visiting the grave evokes special memories that don’t always appear when I am not in their presence. I call one of my brothers and his wife as they call me when they are visiting Mom and Dad. We talk about whether we feel their presence while we are there.

While we were visiting this year, we had an honest conversation and spoke about any number of things including an update about the kids, what is happening in our lives, and then concluded this “rite of spring” by reciting Kaddish and leaving stones. This year, while we were visiting, a staff person from the cemetery stopped by to see if there was anything she could do for us. We asked her for some stones to leave on the grave which remind us that death is hard and that the memory of our loved ones, should remain forever. Although flowers may die, it is possible that stones could last forever and hopefully the memories of our loved ones stay with us forever.

She brought nine stones this year and Sue and I placed them on the graves in the pattern of a Chanukah menorah. We spoke about how their lives had provided light to us and how many of their actions sparked some kind of positive behavior in the lives of their children. We also used this as an opportunity to have a discussion about certain harder issues(perhaps also sparked by putting stones on the graves). As children, all of us, at one time or another, probably had/have some kinds of challenging issues we face(d) when dealing with our parents and we used this as an opportunity to try to make peace about some of those issues. As we were doing this, we were inundated by bugs flying all around us and crawling on us. However, as we addressed some of the more challenging issues, we noticed that the bugs began to dissipate. There were still a few around at the end of our conversation, but hopefully in the same way that there may be some issues between parents and children, we made peace with many of these issues which hopefully will no longer “bug” us.

Why am I sharing this with you? I share this with you because I hope that if there are issues between you and anyone in your life, that you will try to face them while they are living so that our loved ones can rest in peace and even more importantly, that we can live in peace without regrets about dangling conversations(check out the Simon and Garfunkel song with this name) or unfinished business. Judaism teaches that death offers ultimate forgiveness to the deceased since there is no longer any way in which they can ask our forgiveness nor can we ask them for forgiveness. I hope that we can have honest and loving conversations with those with whom we are close when we have the opportunity. As we walked away, Sue remarked that one thing was for sure…even in the midst of challenging moments, we should remember that our loved ones generally meant well when they did what they did.

As a personal aside, we then went to my parents’ favorite place in Dunedin to watch the sun set over the water. It was moment of beauty where as Sue and I sat next to each other, we could remember the beautiful aspects of their lives and to remember the light they brought to this world. We then briefly saw the man who who had been so wonderful to my parents as they aged and we shared a very special moment when he wrapped his hand around my neck and brought me close to him. Perhaps a vicarious hug from my parents? I will never know, but I can hope…

May their memories be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Bruce D. Aft

hazak, hazk, v’nithazek…may we be strong and strengthen each other

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Dear Friends,

As we complete the reading of the book of Exodus this week, I am inspired by the generosity of our ancestors. We read about all the details of the contributions and how the donations were used. I believe that we learn how important it is to be aware of how our gifts are used when we make contributions. We live in a world where sometimes people who we think are trustworthy, violate our trust and misuse our gifts. Even Moses was subject to intense scrutiny. People were suspicious that he might have misused their resources for his own benefit. I wonder what this says about our trust in our leaders and also what it says about our trust in ourselves. I wonder how many of us are worthy of the trust which people place in us.

Recently, an older person was telling me about a scam in which a close friend seemed to be in trouble. He donated to this internet site and then found out that someone had hacked into his friend’s e-mail and made this request. The older person lost a significant amount of money but as he put it, it was a cheap tuition payment to make to learn an important life lesson.

Isn’t it a shame that we live in a world where we have to be so very careful? And yet…it was no different in Biblical times when Moses wanted to be sure that no one suspected him of impropriety.

I hope that we will all be trustworthy in all of our endeavors. In fact, we read in the midrash that when we interact well with others we become closer to G-d. I believe that it is awesome when someone trusts me, but also am somewhat nervous because this is a huge responsibility. In Midrash Rabbah, it says that ” a person should strive to please people as strenuously as one strives to please G-d (Exod. Rabbah 51:2)

Finally, on this Shabbat when we finish the book of Exodus, we read hazak, hazk, v’nithazek…may we be strong and strengthen each other. May each of us in being trustworthy help to strengthen a community where sometimes trust is a rare commodity. We can change that perception through our own actions and with the change in culture help to repair our world.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek.

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Bruce D. Aft

What is the sacred space in our lives?

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Dear Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion, VeYakhel, we read a summary of some of the preparations which were made to create the sacred space of our Tabernacle which was used to transport the 10 Commandments.

What is the sacred space in our lives? Where do we go to be holy? These are important questions that each of us must address at some time in our lives. I recently talked to a student who suggested that she has certain places she goes when she is down which she calls her “happy place.” I wonder how many of us have a place that makes us happy. Many of you know that I love baseball and that my happy place is being on the mound, preparing to pitch. But most of you don’t know that the reason that this is sacred to me is not because I am a White Sox fan, and not because I love to play baseball (which I do). The reason that this is a sacred space and a happy place for me is that this is where my father and I bonded. He taught me to pitch, but more than that, he taught me about life when we would play catch with each other. We may have been arguing about other things but I can never remember a time when if he asked me to play catch with him or if I asked him to play catch with me, that either of us would refuse each other.

In fact, I knew he was dying when the last time we played catch, the game only lasted a couple of minutes. It was such a sad moment and yet, I so vividly remember him squatting down behind the plate and telling me to “rear back, lengthen my stride, grip the ball with the seams,” and other little baseball tidbits. One of the most sacred moments I recall was when I stood on the mound at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York near the Baseball Hall of Fame. I pitched, he caught, and my mother took movies (on an 8 Millimeter camera which I am sure none of you remember…)

It was not the Holy Tabernacle, it was not a synagogue, but it was and is a sacred space and happy place to which I return when I wish to remember my mom and dad and when I am seeking inspiration.

May each of us find holy spaces that make us happy.

Shabbat Shalom and thanks for bearing with my trip down nostalgia lane.

Rabbi Bruce Aft
GMU Hillel Rabbinic Educator