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Notes From Cantor Israel Singer



Hanukkah - Light vs. Darkness PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 06 December 2013 11:33

A Note from Cantor Singer

At the darkest time of the year, when the daylight hours are at their shortest and the cold has set in, as the moon gets smaller and smaller until it finally disappears, we go out at night and light our menorahs. According to Jewish custom, we also light our menorahs in a low place (under 3 ft.). One starts to see a pattern emerging, a confluence of darkness in both time and space. It is into this place, at this time, that we bring light.

In all of our lives we have times and places where the "darkness" seems to gather. One loses a loved one, a job, gets angry at their children (or spouse) for leaving their clothes on the floor. There is no lack of potentially dark moments in our lives. Even the "good" things have a "dark side" -- the stress of marrying off a child or attending a family gathering, the stress of moving to a new home, or the exhaustion that comes with having a newborn baby.

A famous question is asked: Why do we celebrate the miracle of the burning oil for eight days? Since there was enough oil to burn for one day, the first day wasn't a miracle at all -- it was natural occurrence! Hanukkah should only be seven days. Not so. Who says that oil should burn at all? Burning for one night is also miraculous! In reality, God's hand is behind everything that happens. "Natural" means that we have become accustomed to expect that this is the way things should be. We can bring more light into our lives by appreciating the miraculous nature of the world around us and be grateful for things we take for granted.

We all go through ups and downs. We are commanded to bless the moon when it first appears right after disappearing completely. What a wonderful message of faith to remember that even when it appears dark and all seems to be forsaken, the light will come back again. It is telling us “Hang in there”.

If the miracle that we celebrate during Hanukkah is the re-dedication of the Temple and the lighting of the menorah, why do we always recount the story of the military victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks? While it is true that the goal of the Hanukkah story was realized in the re-dedication of the Temple, there was a long and arduous battle to get there. A small band of Jews battled against impossible odds in order to realize this goal.

Our journeys may also seem impossible at times. The road may be long and exhausting. By learning the story of the military victory of Hanukkah, we gain hope that against all odds, over long periods of time, with God's help, one can come to achieve their goals.

 

 

Last Updated ( Friday, 06 December 2013 11:37 )
 
Sandy and Us PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 27 December 2012 09:50

It is now more than two weeks since the storm hit. Subway and train service is back, roads are fixed, and businesses have re-opened. For us, the memory of Sandy is fading. Life is returning to “normal.” After a few days of commiserating, we could easily find ourselves going back to our hectic routines as if nothing ever happened. It's difficult to shake ourselves out of our complacency.

But we can do better. And we must.

The Talmud (Bava Basra 21a) states that if not for Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla (a High Priest from the late Second Temple era), the Torah would have been forgotten. What did he do that was so revolutionary and far-reaching? He instituted a school system. Until his day, parents were responsible for teaching their children. Those who were blessed with parents studied, while orphans did not. Rabbi Yehoshua saw to it that community-wide schools were formed, ensuring that no child be left behind.

This begs the question that if only the orphans – perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the population – would have been left out, how can the Talmud state the entire Torah would have been forgotten from Israel? What about the 80 to 90 percent who would have been studying? 

The point is not that some of the unfortunates, a small fraction of the youth, would not have lacked the opportunity to study. Rather, if the rest of us had continued going about as if everything was normal, ignoring the plight of the minority, the Torah would have been forgotten. If we could think, it's really too bad about all those orphans, but at least we're okay, then we may have mastered the Torah's texts, but we would have failed to absorb its most basic message. We would have failed to “share our fellow’s burden,” and the Torah would have indeed been forgotten from Israel.

It shouldn't require a tragedy like this, but let us take this as a wake-up call to stand together.  During the time of Noah, humanity had deteriorated to such a low level of morality and great evil that G-d decided to press "delete" and flood the world and then press "restart". Indeed, G-d promised Noah that a flood like that would not occur again, but maybe we have to regard the recent event as a reminder of what could have happened, People told me that now, after seeing the pictures and hearing the voices, very few of us doubt that the biblical flood really happened. While helping those who were hit hard by the storm, let's make a personal promise to contribute our part and "make the world a better place, so let's start giving".

Besides giving, maybe we can be less materialistic and more spiritual – let’s work on our Midot (attributes of the soul). Try to think less of me and my needs and more of others and their needs. A good way to do this is by consuming less. Before buying anything, we should ask ourselves if we really need that item, and if not, give it up. (I know this one is tough, but it is a great lesson in self-control, and after overcoming our consuming instincts, the feeling is great). In Avot, our sages say "know where you come from and where you go to, and before whom you are about to be judged".  This saying is aimed at making a person more self-aware and teaches that he must aspire higher in life. All the property accumulated during one's whole life can be wiped out in seconds. Spiritual assets stay forever, even after life ends.

It is time to open our hearts, our minds, and our souls. There was so much lost; there is so much rebuilding to be done.

 

Last Updated ( Thursday, 27 December 2012 09:53 )
 
Tisha B'AV PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 02 August 2012 08:29

Tisha B’Av 1492 – the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain - "In the same month in which their Majesties [King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies." So begins the diary of Christopher Columbus. The expulsion that Columbus refers to was such a cataclysmic event that the year 1492 has become almost as important in Jewish history as in American history. On July 30 of that year, the entire Jewish community, some 200,000 people, were expelled from Spain. That day was also the Jewish Tisha B ‘Av, and the expulsion joined the long list of destructions, calamities, and other troubles that the Jewish people encountered since the time of the destruction of the Temple.

Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety. In some instances, Spanish ship captains charged Jewish passengers exorbitant sums, then dumped them overboard in the middle of the ocean. In the last days before the expulsion, rumors spread throughout Spain that the fleeing refugees had swallowed gold and diamonds, and many Jews were knifed to death by bandits hoping to find treasures in their stomachs. Most of the crew that Columbus recruited for his expedition was composed of Jews who saw this as an opportunity to get away from Spain. Testimonies from that time describe the Mediterranean Sea as "full from horizon to horizon with ships and boats, all crowded with Jews".

The Jews' expulsion had been the pet project of the Spanish Inquisition and was headed by Father Tomas de Torquemada. Torquemada believed that as long as the Jews remained in Spain, they would influence the tens of thousands of recent Jewish converts to Christianity to continue practicing Judaism. Ferdinand and Isabella rejected Torquemada's demand that the Jews be expelled until January 1492, when the Spanish Army defeated Muslim forces in Granada, thereby restoring the whole of Spain to Christian rule. With their most important project, the country's unification, accomplished, the King and Queen concluded that the Jews were expendable. On March 30, they issued the expulsion decree with the order taking effect in precisely four months. The short time span was a great boon for the rest of Spain since the Jews were forced to liquidate their homes and businesses at absurdly low prices. Throughout those frantic months, Dominican priests actively encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity and, thereby, gain salvation both in this world and the next.

The most fortunate of the expelled Jews survived the hard journey on rickety boats, without food, and with the abundance of diseases, and escaped to Turkey. Sultan Bajazet welcomed them warmly. "How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king," he was fond of asking, "the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?" Among the most unfortunate refugees were those who fled to neighboring Portugal. In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal concluded an agreement to marry Isabella, the daughter of Spain's monarchs. As a condition of the marriage, the Spanish royal family insisted that Portugal expel her Jews. King Manuel agreed, although he was reluctant to lose his affluent and accomplished Jewish community.

In the end, only eight Portuguese Jews were actually expelled; tens of thousands of others were forcibly converted to Christianity otherwise they would be killed. The Chief Rabbi, Simon Maimi, was one of those who refused to convert. He was buried in earth up to his neck for seven days until he died. In the final analysis, all of these events took place because of the relentless will of one man, Tomas de Torquemada.

The Spanish Jews who ended up in Turkey, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere throughout Europe and the Arab world, were known as Sephardim — Sefarad is the Hebrew name for Spain. After the expulsion, the Sephardim imposed an informal ban forbidding Jews from ever again living in Spain. Since their earlier sojourn in that country had been so pleasant, the Jews regarded the expulsion as a terrible betrayal, and have remembered it with particular bitterness. Of the dozens of expulsions directed against Jews throughout their history, the one from Spain remains the most infamous.

Let's hope that Tisha B’Av, among all other fasts and days that commemorate disasters that the Jewish nation underwent, will in the future, as our prophets said, turn into days of happiness. 

Last Updated ( Thursday, 02 August 2012 08:40 )
 
What's better – to be a Torah scholar or be a “mensch”? PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2012 09:21

In our Shavuot prayers, we refer to this holiday as "ZmanMatanToratenu" (the time of giving the Torah).In Hebrew,the phrase is in the present tense not the past tense.  We don’t say "time that the Torah was given to us".  The phrase is in the present tense to indicate that giving the Torah to the people of Israel is not an event that occurred in the past and it is over and done with, but rather this is a continuing experience in which we take part this very moment, every year, all the time. The holiday of Shavuot marks Matan Torah – giving the Torah – which renews itself every year.  

Like Matan Torah, which is a renewing event, we have to renew our mind and soul, and prepare ourselves to accept the Torah every year. But strange enough, our sages said (Midrash Raba, Tractate Avot, and many other places) "Derech Eretz Kadma La Torah" – one's personal conduct comes before his Torah knowledge. We are always called upon to work on our Midot (personal characteristics) so that we improve ourselves, try to be better people who are more sensitive and caring towards each other, and pay more attention to our interpersonal relations.   

Why does this come before Torah? Rav Kook says that reaching our optimal level of being good people is essential and comes first, because only when you reach a higher state of personality are you ready to learn Torah. Only when the basic morality becomes part of your nature, which is completely set into your soul, you are open and able to absorb the good influence that Torah has on your personality, and understand all its rules.   This second level is always constructed on the basic sense of justice – the ability of telling right from wrong.  

A person must know his place, and this is crucial in order to advance towards knowing his place in relation to

G-d, the giver of the Torah. We can now understand that the Torah is not mere philosophy or wisdom.  In every  other wisdom that can be learned, we don't find this direct connection between knowledge and personal conduct, and we have never heard that the way people behave can affect their understanding of what they learn. A professor of philosophy can be a corrupt misanthropist and still be considered a top expert in his field.  However, he could not be an expert in the Torah since these two characteristics can't go together. There is a custom of the North African Jews to pour water in the Synagogue on Shavuot, since the Torah is compared to water. Like water, which always flow to the lowest place when poured, Torah is best learned by a person who is humble. This teaches us that one has to always regard himself as part of the whole creation and constantly think about himself in relation to G-d, which prepares him to accept the Torah. 

Now we see why Moshe was chosen to bring the Torah to the Jewish people. The Torah itself testified that he was "the most humble person on earth".  And we understand why we read the story of Ruth on Shavuot. In the Talmud, RavZeira said, "This story of Ruth does not deal with things being pure or impure, with what's permitted or prohibited, so why was it written? It is meant to teach us the reward of those who are Gomlei Chasadim – charitable and philanthropic people" [like Naomi, Ruth and Boaz]. The Megillah of Ruth and the Torah complement each other teaching us that in the center of Torah knowledge we have to focus on one's personality, manners, and making a positive impact.So what comes first? Definitely Derech Eretz- being a mensch and only then Torah.  May we merit to be highly acclaimed in both!

Last Updated ( Friday, 01 June 2012 09:26 )
 
Sh'ma Yisrael – The Jewish Mission Statement PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 May 2012 08:16
Sh'ma Yisrael is the most powerful Jewish prayer. It is recited every morning service when getting up, every evening service and every night before going to sleep. It is the first prayer that Jewish mothers teach their babies and the last prayer one says before taking the last breath and departing life. It is similar to a mission statement, a pledge of allegiance of the Jewish people.

 

What is so powerful about it? In order to understand that, I want to tell you two stories.  First, let's hear Joe's story. Joe was an only child, and his father had a men’s clothing business. Throughout his childhood and college years, his father always said that, one day, Joe would take over the business. But Joe was not interested at all. Right after graduating college, he went to work for an investment bank. A few years passed and suddenly Joe left his job at the bank and joined his father's business. When he was asked how he felt about working for his father he said: "Great. I love it. See, in order to advance in your career, doing a good work is not enough. You have to impress the right people, but I never knew who they were! I worked with so many people, and I had no idea who had influence, who was going to be there for me when I encounter some difficulties and who was going to abandon me when I need his help most. When I was given tasks to do, I could never tell for whom I was working -- was it for my own sake or to promote the interests of those who gave me that task? I felt disconnected. I felt like a meaningless cog in a big machine, and could not tell whether I was uselessly running around in circles or following the right path which was good for me. Now I see a clearer picture.  My father is the CEO and the most important man, the senior in the company. It is him who I need to please, and more than this, I know his goals. He is preparing me to take over the company. I can be sure that everything he tells me to do – from washing floors to sitting in a negotiation meeting – has a cause, since there is a greater goal – to make me capable of being the next CEO. Everything is meant to be in my favor. I trust my father, I have full confidence in him and I know that he wants the best for me.” In the few years Joe worked for the investment back, he matured.  This enabled Joe to appreciate everything his father did for him to prepare him to take over his father’s company.

 

Similarly, we do the best to control our future, but sometimes we are quite clueless about whether we are moving in the right direction or just running around in circles. The circumstances that we face in life, people that we meet, all we do for our health or for our relationships – will these things lead us to where we want to be in our life?

 

  My second story takes us to World War II when countless Jewish parents gave their children to Christian neighbors, orphanages, and convents in the hopes of saving them.  After the Holocaust, Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, a prominent Lithuanian Rabbi, began searching for the Jewish children who survived the war.  Rabbi Kahaneman learned that many Jewish children were placed in a monastery.  He approached the Priest in charge and asked that the Jewish children be released into his care.  The Priest said that no Jewish children lived in the monastery.  Rabbi Kahaneman insisted that he wanted to see the children and the Priest finally agreed to give the Rabbi five minutes.   The Rabbi entered the children’s quarters just before bedtime.  He saw rows of beds where the children were going to sleep.  He walked through the aisles of beds calling out “Sh’ma Yisrael”.  One by one, children covered their eyes and started calling out “Mama! Papa!”  The children still had the memory of their mothers putting them to bed every night with the “Sh’ma Yisrael” on their lips. This powerful story is just another example that from morning to evening, from cradle to death, Sh'ma Yisrael is our guiding star so we are always connected to God and make our way in this journey called life. So every day, in the beginning and at the end, we remind ourselves:

Sh'ma – listen, pay attention

Yisrael – the Jewish people, me

Hashem--  God

Elokeynu – the creator, the sustainer of the world, the universal CEO

Hashem – that same God

Echad – is one, is the unity, where everything meets and becomes one

God directs the world and we are like his only child. Everything comes from him, literally everything in life: going to the Doctor, finding or losing love, making or losing money, changing a flat tire, seeing someone in need – all comes from God with a full intention that you encounter it on your way, and is part of a greater cause, aimed at empowering you and building the person that you are. We already know that in order to succeed, we have to work hard, but what about the uncertainties in life, the feeling that we are running around in circles? When we say these words of Sh'ma, we gradually start to internalize their meaning, and finally believe in the words. We know and believe that God is the CEO of the world and we are his only child. We concentrate on doing the best, hard work does not bother us, and the doubts of whether we are following the right path no longer worry us. We stay focused on doing the best we can.  Everything is connected in the sequence of life and receives its real meaning, and every part of the puzzle finally falls into place. No matter what our first impression may be and what happens along the way, we navigate our life peacefully, calmly and clearly with our belief always in mind.  We stay focused along the way. From morning to evening, from cradle to death, Sh'ma Yisrael is our guiding star so we are always connected to God and make our way in this journey called life. 

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 01 May 2012 08:25 )
 
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