The Purpose of Prose and Poetry by Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun

Editor’s Note: Mentschen.org has asked FJMC to develop some questions for conversation based on the weekly “Unraveller”. Please keep these questions in mind as you read Rabbi Schonbrun’s commentary, we look forward to hearing from you:

What is your favorite Jewish text or your favorite Jewish story?

What is the message that this text or story is trying to teach?

 What is one way that this message applies to you your daily life?  

Having the distinction of being the longest Haftarah, this week’s selection Parsha Beshalach Judges 4:4-5:31 from the book of Judges recounts the heroism of the prophet Deborah and the bravery of Yael. Set in the mid-twelfth century B.C.E. and telling the tale of a battle between a group of Northern Israelite tribes and Cannanite armies in both prose and poetic form, the Haftarah describes the tactical advice and support that Deborah offers Barak as she convinces him to go to battle with the Cannanite army commander, Sisera. It also describes the cunning and clever actions of Yael, who lures Sisera into her tent as he is attempting to escape from the battle, and kills him while he is sleeping.

This Haftarah is read on Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, and one reason it was chosen is the parallel poetic style that is found between the Song of the Sea in the Torah and the Song of Deborah in the Haftarah.  While this explains the stylistic rational for why this particular selection was chosen, we may ask why the Ashkenazi tradition has us read both the prose and the poetry versions of the Deborah narrative. Why do we need to hear the same story told twice?

Dr. Michael Fishbane offers an answer to understanding the different messages that can be taken from the two different tellings. In his JPS commentary on the Haftarah he explains that:

The prose account consists of a prologue, setting forth the background of the event, and a description of the battle follows. The poetic version is a more variegated series of voices and reflections. Its principal concern is to praise God, the participating tribes, and the individuals who did their people proud….Placed after its historical narrative, the poetic version functions as a supplementary song of victory. (The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftorot, 98-100)

In other words, while the prose version of the narrative gives us a description of the events, the poetic version gives us an understanding of the purpose and meaning behind the story. The message is that when it comes to Jewish text, both the story and its broader message are needed.
It seems to me that this is an important lesson to take with us about many of our Jewish stories. When we are studying the Torah and Haftarah each week, it is important to know both what the text is saying from a narrative perspective as well as why we are being told the story.  For example, it is not enough to learn the details of the creation story — we must also understand that we are being taught about creation to discover God’s role as creator, to understand that human beings are made in God’s image, and remember that we have a responsibility to care for God’s earth. It is not enough to understand the narrative behind the Exodus from Egypt — we must also remember that the narrative is written to remind us about God’s role in liberating our people from slavery, and our responsibility to bring freedom to all who are oppressed. It is not enough to understand the stories of Hanukkah and Purim — we must also make sure that we understand the larger religious messages that these narratives are trying to portray.
So, the next time that you are studying a Jewish text, remember to not only ask yourself “Do I understand what this text is all about?” but also, “Why should I care? What is the deeper message that this text is trying to bring into the narrative of my life?”
The author of this week’s Unraveller, Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun, has been spiritual leader of Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst, New Jersey, since 2010.  He hails from San Diego, CA, and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with degrees in Psychology and Jewish/Near Eastern Studies. Rabbi Schonbrun was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2004, and from 2004 to 2010 served as one of the rabbis of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, CA.  Rabbi Schonbrun and his wife, Jane-Rachel, met in Jerusalem and were married in 2001, and they have three children.   

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ONE MAN’S JOURNEY TO FIND HIS JEWISH IDENTITY by Michael Brassloff

I was born in England during the Second World War. I didn’t know I was Jewish for many years. My parents were refugees from Vienna, Austria. They were friends in Vienna, who like many other young Jews, were influenced by the artistic, cultural and intellectual movements of the times.  Apparently, wanting to assimilate in Vienna, they repudiated their Jewish roots, each in their own way. For example, my father registered with the authorities as an atheist. and my mother told her mother not to speak Yiddish to her in public. And, supposedly they made a point of going to a public cafe during Kol Nidre services.  They were able to escape the Nazis through different routes and were reunited in England in 1940. Had Hitler not come along, they probably would have not been married, since they were from very different backgrounds. However, the war brought them together and they were married in Oxford in 1940. I was born in Birmingham in 1944. A few years later we moved to London.

I was given the name Michael Stephen. When I was older, I was told that I was named Michael after my maternal grandmother, Malka, who was missing during the war and presumed to be dead. However, after the war ended, she was found to be alive in an institution for Jewish seniors in Brussels created by the Belgian Queen Mother Elizabeth. Apparently sometime in 1939 Malka had missed the last boat out of Antwerp and had to fend for herself. At that time, she was already 73 years old. We don’t really know how she survived. She probably gained some survival skills growing up in a shtetl in what is now the Ukraine. When she was found in Brussels, she was brought to England to be reunited with her two daughters and her grandchildren. How often does a Jew see someone who is named after them? Here’s a photo of a family wedding attended by Malka and me after the war. Scan10003She is the little woman wearing a hat and I am the boy, lower left, looking up at the group.

My middle name had been my paternal grandfather’s name. He was an assimilated Jew who taught Roman Law at Vienna University. Although he and his wife had affidavits to come to America, they were unable to leave and they were deported to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Concentration Camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. They weren’t exterminated, but died of illnesses caused by the deplorable conditions at the camp. My wife and I have visited the site of the camp. I have prepared a video presentation about Terezin (Theresienstadt) and have presented it in Jewish day schools.

At some point during the 1950’s my parents separated and eventually divorced. My mother and I emigrated to the United States where we first lived in Reading, Pennsylvania.  It was there that I started developing a Jewish identity. We joined Kesher Zion Synagogue where I attended Hebrew School and had my Bar Mitzvah. It meant a lot to me that the rabbi, cantor and teachers took an interest in my welfare.

I met my wife at Temple University and once we had children, we became full-fledged members of the Northeast Philadelphia Jewish community. We sent our children to a Jewish nursery school, joined a synagogue and then sent our children to the local Solomon Schechter day school. We became very involved in both institutions, feeling that we should set an example for our children. We practiced many of the Shabbat rituals and had regular Shabbat dinners with friends and their children.

We were very active at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre, my wife in the sisterhood and me in the men’s club and congregation. I became men’s club president in the 1983, regional president in 1990 and then held various positions within the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs for over a decade. My experiences within the men’s club movement were significant influences on my journey to finding my Jewish identity. The sense of being part of a dynamic, innovative Jewish organization as well as the camaraderie were very gratifying and fulfilling.

These events and experiences have contributed to the development of my Jewish identity. I have no doubt that I am a Jew and I am proud that I have fulfilled my responsibility as a “link on the chain” of Jewish continuity. Our son and his family belong to a conservative synagogue in Florida and our daughter’s  family is connected to the local orthodox movement.

However, I am still trying to figure out the religious aspect of my Jewish identity. I went to college in the 1960’s where we were taught to not accept anything without questioning its validity. As many others, I am still searching for my place on the religious spectrum.

Everyone has a different journey. Some are straightforward. Others are circuitous. This has been my journey and apparently it’s not completely over!

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It’s Not All or Nothing by Rabbi Joel Schwab

Editor’s Note: Mentschen.org has asked FJMC to develop some questions for conversation based on the weekly “Unraveller”. Please keep these questions in mind as you read Rabbi Schwab’s commentary, we look forward to hearing from you:

1.  What are some ways that you have brought G-d and observance into your life that differed from the home in which you grew up?
2.  How have you added mitzvot to your observance, and what prompted you to add them?
3.  If you were to give guidance to a non-observant member of the tribe, which mitzvot would you suggest they adopt to begin this process?

rabbi_schwabYou may have noticed that on occasion Sephardim and Ashkenazim recite different haftarot.  Such is the case this Shabbat for parashat Sh’mot, when Ashkenazim read from Isaiah 27-29 while Sephardim are covering the first chapter plus three verses from the prophet Jeremiah.  Clearly different communities got to make their own decisions concerning what to read as the haftarah, and the split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim that was put in place by the division of the world between Christian and Muslim empires fixed those different decisions in place.  The amazing thing is how often the two communities agree on the same prophetic passage.

Parsha Sh’mot

Haftarah for Ashkenazim: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22 – 29:23 Haftarah for Sephardim: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

So what about this week’s difference of opinion?  If the idea is for the haftarah to have some thematic connection to the Torah reading for that week, it would seem that the Sephardim have the most obvious candidate for a close match.  The beginning of the book of Jeremiah describes the prophet’s call to prophecy, his commissioning as a messenger of G-d to the people.  That description almost exactly parallels the call that Moses gets in our Torah reading.  In contrast, the Ashkenazi haftarah gives us Isaiah blasting the people for ignoring G-d and G-d’s word and ripping into G-d’s prophets and priests for deserting G-d amidst their drunken debauchery.  To uncover a link between the passage from Isaiah and the Torah reading, one has to connect the word “ha-ba’im” that appears in the first verse of both the Torah reading and the haftarah and the word “b’kirbo” at the end of the haftarah with the same word in the middle of the Torah reading.  (See Dr. Fishbane’s wonderful commentary on the haftarah in Humash Etz Hayim.)  Seems to me to be a real stretch.

So why didn’t the Ashkenazi rabbis just go with the Jeremiah passage?  Personally I would like to think that their reason has to do with the same verses in Isaiah that caught my eye when I was preparing this haftarah for my Bar Mitzvah, verses that I insisted be included in my speech, which, in my congregation back then (my grandchildren are convinced that my Bar Mitzvah was so long ago that a stegosaurus was invited to my ceremony) was written by the rabbi.  “Tzav l’tzav, tzav l’tzav, kav l’kav, kav l’kav, z’eir sham, z’eir sham” proclaims the prophet, not once but twice!

In context all of the commentators, both medieval and modern, are convinced that Isaiah is alluding to the people’s mocking of G-d’s commands as childish mumblings – the JPS translation goes “Mutter upon mutter, murmur upon murmur, now here, now there.”.  But the 13-year-old Bar Mitzvah student saw in this verse an allusion to the way he – living in a home not attuned to observance or to G-d – could bring G-d and observance into his life.  Intuiting the word “tzav” from the same root as “mitzvah” and the word “kav” as referring to “tikvah“, “hope”, he saw the building of a G-d-centered life as created one mitzvah at a time, mitzvah following mitzvah, one hope after another, hope leading to more hope, little by little, a little at a time.  The prophet was telling him that it was not necessary to do everything at once, that turning 13 did not mean he had to follow every halakhic requirement in our tradition at that very moment, that he could assimilate one thing at a time while aspiring to add yet another mitzvah in the near future and yet another following that one.  And so he did.

I would love to think that those Ashkenazi authorities determining the choice of haftarah for this Shabbat saw the same hidden message as well.  It is a message that that child, now become a rabbi, believes is crucial for the spiritual life of many Jews today, whether that was Isaiah’s intent or not.  It’s not all or nothing.  It’s one mitzvah at a time, with the hope that soon another can be added, and another after that.  A little at a time, just a little at a time.  And soon enough observance of G-d’s expectations will become a way of life.

This week’s Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Joel Schwab. Rabbi Schwab has served as the religious leader of Temple Sinai in Middletown, NY for 28 years. He co-founded and served as the first chair of the Jewish Family Service of Orange County and is on the Board of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. He was the first rabbi to serve as the president of the Middletown Interfaith Council, has remained active on the council and is now the chair of the Interfaith Clergy Group. As the senior rabbi in the county, Rabbi Schwab is the convening chair of the county Klei Kodesh, the organization of rabbis and cantors in the area. 

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Where Do We Go to Find Community? By Bob Braitman

shapeimage_42.jpgI just finished listening to the podcast of a wonderful sermon given by my friend and teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous. Starting with the theme of loneliness, Rabbi Brous invoked texts both ancient and modern that demonstrated the key role that community plays in our lives. It is through community that we offer and receive support when it is needed. Using the Mourner’s Kaddish as an example, Rabbi Brous explored the power of the simple “amen” as a sign of community support. Indeed, the first “amen” is recited by the community even before the mourner has a chance to complete the first sentence!

I was moved and inspired by this important lesson. Yet at the same time as I thought about community, I wondered if the central community in our lives is still our kehillah; our synagogue. I realize that this may be true for most readers of this column because you are active in your Men’s Club or synagogue. Yet take a look around you and ask yourself-“where do your friends go to seek community?” I daresay that the synagogue and our extraordinary traditions and liturgy may not be the top of their list.

Why is that?

How can we, as men and leaders challenge the disappearance of this sense of community? How can we make the sanctuary a place where those who are in pain turn for support?

Rabbi Brous cited a Mishnah that described the path that pilgrims took as they visited the Temple in Jerusalem. Everyone entered and departed through the same doorway.  Virtually all turned to the right as they made their way through the courtyard. Yet those who were hurting turned to the left. This way they needed to come face to face with fellow Jews who then would offer support and comfort.

As we look to enhance the sense of community, I look to you, the readers of Mentschen for ideas that will return our “Temples” back to a central place in our lives. A place of joy, a place of comfort and peace. A place where we are ALL there to say “amen”.

What would it take to enhance our community of prayer?

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Divisive Family Issues by Rabbi Craig Scheff

Editor’s Note: Mentschen.org has asked FJMC to develop some questions for conversation based on the weekly “Unraveller”. Please keep these questions in mind as you read Rabbi Scheff’s commentary, we look forward to hearing from you:
Have you had a family issue which divided members of the family, which was resolved?  How was it resolved?
Have you ever tried to look at the issue from another’s point of view?  Did that change your view of a situation?
Have you been able to forgive an insult, perceived or actual, made to you, and how did you do it?

 The Haftarah assigned to this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is Ezekiel’s vision of a future reconciliation and reunification of the Northern and Southern tribes of Israel. The Northern tribes had been dispersed and exiled from their land by the end of the eighth century B.C.E. With the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., the Southern kingdom of Judah met its end. Ezekiel preaches from exile in Babylonia in the years following that destruction, and his vision of a time when the tribes will be united and a single monarchy will lead the nation in its land must have been a comforting and hopeful buoy for a community on the verge of total extinction. Ezekiel holds two sticks, one inscribed with the name of Judah (representing the southern tribes) and the other with the name of Joseph (representing the northern tribes). God instructs Ezekiel to bring them together so that they will become one stick. The symbolism of the sticks serves to tell the world that the Israelites will again be one nation, with one king, in their land, serving the one God and sanctified by God.

 Finding ourselves in the midst of the holiday season, family dynamics tend to take on greater prominence than during the rest of the year. Tension grows as excitement grows. Anticipation of family reunions, and the revisiting of longstanding (and sometimes strained) relationships raises the level of anxiety for many people. Sometimes the emotional and social exiles we experience from one another are the result of an act of God (as Ezekiel sees it-some event for which no one can claim responsibility), and sometimes they are the result of an act of a person (as in the case of Joseph and his brothers-some careless or intentional act that leaves us hurt, angry and resentful). Sometimes, we can’t even remember what started the whole uncomfortable dynamic, but we can’t imagine freeing ourselves of it!

It would be wonderful if we could write our names on stick, hold them together, and cure all that separates us. But that’s not the way it works. Ezekiel’s vision, however, does offer us some guidance. With one God, with one mission, with one sense of direction, we are made whole despite our differences. We don’t need to agree on all things to be one people. In fact, according to our sages, when two sides argue over an issue, and each side is truly dedicated to serving God in their position, the argument is worthy of being preserved! Such disagreements, however, are not meant to divide us. They are meant to bring us closer because of the passion and dedication we see in each other. Imagine how different our political or religious discourse would look, both in Israel and here in the United States, if members of every party or movement trusted that their opponents’ sole interest was the serving of the greater good. Perhaps compromise would more easily be reached if we didn’t have such a terrible track record of self-interest; perhaps more common ground would be explored. Within our own family structures, imagine how much better we would get along if we forgave insult, if we believed that we all want to be loved and accepted, if we opened the door to reconciliation and allowed two to dwell as one for a while.

I can’t promise that God is going to bring about reconciliation and unification to the north and the south, the secular and the religious, the Republican and the Democrat. But I know that I can open the door, just in case.

This week’s Unraveller was written by Rabbi Craig Scheff of the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York.  After practicing law for 3 years, Rabbi Scheff decided to enter the rabbinate.  In the fall of 1995, he arrived at the Orangetown Jewish Center. Just having commenced his third year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Scheff took the position of Cantor at the OJC, and was determined to make the OJC his home. After serving the OJC for 2 years as Student Rabbi, he was ordained in 1998.

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Parsha Va-yeshev-Haftarah Discussion by Rabbi Craig Scheff

Editor’s Note: Mentschen.org has asked FJMC to develop some questions for conversation based on the weekly “Unraveller”. Please keep these questions in mind as you read Rabbi Scheff’s commentary, we look forward to hearing from you:

How can we, as responsible human beings, not inquire about the source of warning signs in our midst? 
 
How can we not warn our neighbors? 

Amos took his job very seriously. Living in the eighth century BCE, he lived in a relatively affluent society of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in a society with a large divide between the haves and the have-nots. He also sensed the impending consequences of injustices prevalent within the Jewish community. The words of the haftarah for Shabbat Vayeshev give voice to an exasperated prophet, a frustrated citizen who can’t understand how others don’t see the warning signs.

This past week a forest fire burned across hundreds of wooded acres on Clauseland Mountain in my village of Orangeburg, New York. While firefighters fought to contain the blaze, life went on in the community, largely as normal. Occasionally the wind would shift, and one could smell the smoke off the mountain. At certain times, traffic on the main thoroughfare was diverted to make room for emergency vehicles. At worst, a local school dismissed early because the winds were carrying fumes in its direction. Thankfully, there were only two minor injuries among responders, and there were no homes damaged before the fire was contained. As I read the haftarah in this context, I kept thinking to myself how easy it is to ignore the fire when it is not at one’s own doorstop. And yet, we know that, if allowed to spread unabated, the fire will eventually reach our home. How can we, then, not respond with a sense of urgency when we see the flame?

The prophet Amos sees all the signs of a fire burning and spreading. He is compelled to speak out to a society that would much rather just let the flames spread. He knows that ultimately an entire society will be consumed if its citizens do not change their behavior, combat the injustices and take responsibility for all members of all classes. Even so, there are those who choose not to hear. And many who choose not to speak.

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, the one to share the gloomy forecast. But when we can smell the smoke, we know there is a fire burning somewhere.From our most intimate circles to our local neighborhoods to our society on a national scale, we are empowered–like never before–to be heard, to advocate for change, and to make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged. Amos reminds us that we have the obligation to speak out on social issues, to challenge the inequalities that exist, and to advocate for those who can’t do so for themselves, regardless of whether such injustices affect our own homes. Ultimately, we will all be burned by our failure to do so.

This week’s Unraveller was written by Rabbi Craig Scheff of the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York.  After practicing law for 3 years, Rabbi Scheff decided to enter the rabbinate.  In the fall of 1995, he arrived at the Orangetown Jewish Center. Just having commenced his third year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Scheff took the position of Cantor at the OJC, and was determined to make the OJC his home. After serving the OJC for 2 years as Student Rabbi, he was ordained in 1998.

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