Thursday, February 26, 2009


"When Adar arrives, we increase our joy."

I decided to share this phrase with the children I teach at the Solomon Schechter day school in Oakland NJ. Beyond the immediacy of the month, I tried to impress upon them the possibility of making ourselves happy with a conscious and concerted act of our own choice. I asked: "What if you are sad when Adar comes? How do you follow the rabbi's urging that we increase our joy?"
One young boy, unusually mature intellectually, proceeded to explain how difficult, even, impossible it is, to carry out the rabbis' bidding. In a surprisingly adult way he asked:
"If someone is sad, it's a spontaneous emotion, and sometimes its so overwhelming, you just can't change it and make it go away easily? You can't just make yourself happy?"
He raised an excellent psychological point. All of us have struggled with this question, have felt the depth of grief or sadness and have tried, often unsuccessfully, to touch a thread of joy in our lives but were unable?
Another bright and lovely ten year old raised her hand and announced with remarkable maturity:
"Deep, deep down inside everyone is happy-so we can all increase our happiness."
Another hopeful comment of our human capacity to find joy in the midst of life's most daunting experiences.
Later,in an individual class meeting,I continued this discussion and asked the fourth graders what they would do to increase their happiness.
"I would paint my nails black." This mischievous reply came from a young man who had a few minute before painted his nails black while doing an art project.
I wrote on the board under the rubric of- Ways to Make Ourselves Happy- " Being silly," as long as no one was hurt.
"Call up my friends," was another suggestion,indicating how powerful a friend's
companionship can be at a time of sadness.
"I would work hard to get a good grade so my parents will be proud and happy and compliment me," he said ,quickly adding,"and buy me a present."
Another student pointed out that when she is sad she goes outside and that makes her feel better. A change of place, the freshness of the outdoors, also a gift of mood change. Still another suggestion."I used to feel happy when my mommy called me honey-bunny! I don't like it now, I'm too old."
A nick name, a term of endearment,a simple word of love-perhaps the most powerful antidote to sadness of all.
When Adar arrives-when any month or day or moment comes our way and we struggle to be happy, our Sages remind us that we can change how we feel -it is not easy, but it is possible. Just as in Adar when we remember a time when the Jews of ancient Persia could not find a trace of happiness in their hearts because of an impending catastrophe, yet circumstances changed and they were able to rejoice, so too can we bear in mind that there is always something in our lives for which to be grateful and can lift us from sorrow to a more joyful tomorrow.
It's Adar-be happy!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009



Today marks the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar. We are bidden by the Sages to "increase our joy." The popular rationale for this invitation is associated with the imminent merrymaking of Purim. Somehow the entire month adopts its nature and potential from one singular event that takes place during its days.
Events of significance have the capacity to extend their impact. Anticipation, a period of prologue is defined by the event's occurrence as is the epilogue, the moments that follow, the traces and echoes of what has transpired.
Time is like the parchment of our lives, and events, experiences and happenings are the ink that records our life's meaning, that which gives shape and content to our existence.
I believe that another reason can be suggested for the augmenting of joy at this season.
On the Biblical calendar, Adar was the last month of the year. Nisan, the time of Passover, was the first month according to the reckoning of ancient Israel.
Why not add to our joy, to our gratefulness at a time like this? We are soon to begin a "New Year," with spring around the corner and the miracle of rebirth soon to fill our hearts? We have been blessed to reach another end of a year: is this not reason enough for rejoicing?
We need not carouse at Mardi Gras or drink to excess on Purim to sense our deep=seated gratitude for the gift of time! Just a simple and quiet declaration from the Hallel prayer will suffice: "This is the day the Lord has made, let us-it is in our power to- celebrate and rejoice gratefully."
Perhaps "this is the day," refers not necessarily to a special calendar event as much as to every day of our lives, each day a gift from above for which we can be grateful.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Reading from the Torah scroll is a daunting task. Without punctuation, vowels or musical notes ,correct reading requires much practice and/or an excellent memory.
My memory is average and my patience for much repetition is limited. Yet, when asked to read at a Romemu service, I enthusiastically agreed.
Past demands to read were compromised; I made every effort to ensure the accurate pronunciation of the text while being lax about the musical rendition. Somehow congregations didn't mind. This time however, I was determined to read the selection with perfection. I rehearsed it sufficiently and stood by the rabbi as I read.
I felt a hand on my back-it was that of Rabbi David, subtly supporting my effort.His touch was calming and reassuring, making my reading experience one without fear but filled with sacred delight.
I returned to my seat. The service continued. My son stood at my side. I felt an arm around my shoulder. He placed his arm around me and we prayed in that special embrace of father and son.
How grateful I am for a rabbi's simple touch, and the touch of my son only heightened my gratitude and joy
Receiving those gifts of authentic concern and love by way of an ordinary touch was the singular reason for the sacred gratefulness of that Sabbath day.
Reach out and touch someone- it is a gift beyond words.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Walking down the lengthy corridor of the synagogue entrance way, I heard a young boy's voice behind me:" Great speech, yesterday, rabbi."
I turned and a skull-capped lad of no more than 13 years of age briskly passed by.
"Thank you," I called out after him.
These few words were like a tonic for my soul-bracing and sweet.The day before I stood before a congregation of about 300 souls interspersed among pews that stretched back to the rear of a cavernous sanctuary seating over 2500 individuals.As I spoke i desperately tried to not ony reach their ears and minds but their hearts as well.Feeling frustrated I spoke too long which gave rise to irritated restlessness among some congregants. I felt I had failed.
Following services one tall imposing fellow extended his hand with a perfunctory Sabbath greeting,and proceeded to level a devastating assault at the basic premise of my talk, namely, gratefulness can generate morality.
"From what you said,a child abuser should be grateful for his abuse!"
I was dumbstruck. He quickly added authority to his criticism by referring to himself as a professor of philosophy.We argued, discussed my presentation and I tried to place my words in a context that would negate his misunderstanding.
Needless to say, his words rang in my ears for hours after.
I questioned some other listeners to determine if in fact I had not made myself sufficiently clear.They were equally at a loss to understand the validity of my attacker's comments.
I confess that my skin is rather thin, and perhaps a deep-seated need for approval persists in my psychological make-up.
The following morning however,a few passing words spontaneously expressed by a youngster, restored my feeling of confidence and well-being.I realized again how grateful I was for a few simple words spoken at the right time.
I am not suggesting that we speak gratefully to hide the truth.I do suggest that we somehow attempt to display our gratitude even in our disagreement. Perhaps the harshness and angry tone of my critic was the source of my discomfort and not so much
the content of his criticism.
Our Rabbis say: The words of the wise are heard-understood, when spoken with "nachat," kindness-I would add, with gratefulness.

When speaking to others, be grateful for their words and thoughts- try to add a little gentleness to our environment of social intercourse.
PS What makes me particularly gratified by the youngster's compliments was my belief that he "got it!"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Tu Beshvat has passed. The New Year of Trees was celebrated by eating a variety of fruits,especially those grown in the land of Israel, by planting trees in Israel and by raising our consciousness regarding our responsibility to our natural environment.
It was also a time for stories about trees. One story, a children's story, is a favorite of mine. I would like to share it with grown-ups as well.
Once upon a time--all good stories start that way--there was a tall oak tree whose leaves almost touched the stars. He couldn't resist any chance he had to boast about his height and might.
Alongside him was a tiny apple tree. One day,the apple tree complained to God, crying that he could not reach the stars like the mighty oak tree. He was too short and could barely see the sky. He felt terribly inadequate and inferior.
"Why wasn't I made as tall and strong as the oak?" he asked tearfully.
God in His wisdom and compassion bent over the little apple tree and plucked one of the apples off the branch. He took a knife, and sliced the apple in half. When the apple tree had dried his eyes, God showed him the apple's core; lo and behold, at the center was the shape of a star.
"See," God said. "You have your own star in each apple." When the apple tree saw this he broke into a big smile and understood how lucky he was.
Since then he was able to hold his head high, feeling at times even taller than the mighty oak.

Each of us has the star of a soul deep within us, a soul that makes us special and unlike anyone else. Tu Beshvat reminds us again to be grateful for who we are, and thank the Giver of all things for the gift of our own, special stars.

PS. The next time you eat an apple, cut it width wise in half-you too will discover your star.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


This coming Sabbath is known as the Sabbath of Song. it precedes Tu Beshevat, the New Year of trees.On this Sabbath we read from the Torah the Song of Moses, a poetic outpouring of gratefulness in the aftermath of the rescue of Israel at the Sea of Reeds(The Red Sea).
We sing when are hearts are full to overflowing. When it is sadness that occupies our heart, our songs are lamentations, wailing sounds of despair.
When our hearts burst with joy and optimism, our throats warble with waves of glee and celebration.
The Psalmist urges us to "sing a new song"-psalm 98. These words are recited weekly during Kabbalat Shabbat, the service of welcoming the Sabbath .Is the Psalmist invitation that we sing a song with new melody and lyrics each week? Is this humanly feasible? If not, how can we understand the notion of newness when it comes to song?
The answer I believe is embedded in the phrase that follows-"for He has performed wonders." Singing a new song is a musical expression of recognizing the wonders of life. When we acquire this awareness, our song, no matter how old the melody or words, takes on the freshness and exhilaration of singing something new. Awareness of the dynamic renewal of life that surrounds us at all times is the impetus for articulating gratefulness through a song of gratefulness.
It is told that when the Torah is returned to the Ark and the congregation chants -"Renew our days as of old"- Mordechai M. Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism would whisper an additional phrase-"Und a bissel besser"- and a little better.
It is no accident that Tu Beshvat, the New Year of trees follows the Sabbath of song.
Each sapling embraces the life-giving capacity of nature to nurture a seed into a strapling tree that touches the skies; each tree is testament to the marvel of the human habitat; each leaf lifts the heart in a lilting tune of praise to the Creator of all things.A song is a poem of gratitude.
This Shabbat, we sing with joyful hearts, acknowledging with humble praise the myriad and infinite gifts of God's amazing universe.
Shabbat Shalom.