New Year, New Light

"New Year, New Light"

Writing on the cusp of a NewYear, we all want a realistic look at what has been, and to also find the light within what has occurred. This past few months has been a dark spot indeed inJewish history and in all of our lives.

In so many ways it has touched our deepest fears - that evil and catastrophe are out there lurking, that unspoken antisemitism broods and percolates where it can't be seen, and that allies we think we can depend upon won't come through when needed. Those are the fears upon which so many of us were raised, and that we hoped were now outdated And yet each of them manifested in some way.

When I was growing up the rabbis in school taught that the ancient rabbis compared our people to eggs and to olives - to eggs because boiling eggs makes them harder and more firm; and to olives because the hardest pressing creates the best oil.

It comforted me growing up and it comforts me now.

Oddly and amazingly, morale in Israel right now is incredibly high, based on many conversations I have had with people in the army, and with civilians in the streets.

The volunteerism amongst the Israeli population is beyond astounding. As we all know, with so many ‘called up’ to serve, there are jobs in stores and factories to fill, and crops ripening on vines and trees waiting to be harvested.

One out of every two Israelis - fully 50% of the civilian population - Is engaged in volunteerism in some way. Younger children pack sandwiches for those at the front. Friends I know cook chicken and cholent to be delivered to soldiers each weekend.Teens are volunteering to pick fruit in the fields. It is an incredibly robust democracy at work. In a modern era, this is an incredible show of unity and connectedness amongst a civilian population. I am hard pressed to think of any country anywhere where this might be happening at such a level.

In the words of Samuel II, Chapter 7, “Mi K'Amcha Yisrael? - Who Is like your peopleIsrael?” The quote is from the sixth century BCE, the exhibition of behavior and its reality is from exactly now.

I write this so we can all feel the pride and ‘nachas’ of being part of our unique people - who over and over have revived and shown strength.

But I also write this so we can examine what we see and take lessons and perspectives into our lives.

All of us have hard times - at times! As is said, none of us gets through this journey without some difficulty…. it's how we grow, learn and strengthen.

When things are hard it's imperative that we seek out the growth and that we see the light - and there is always light.

In this case, from emergency and crisis and grief has come unity and helping and determination. Our charge is to have the grit and wisdom and determination to seethe strength in Israelis and in Jews all over the world, and then have the determination and integrity to bring these strengths into our daily vision and everyday actions.


Rabbi Mark Biller

What Is And What Is Possible

"What Is And What Is Possible"

When I first arrived here I was told there are definitely four seasons in Little Rock, and that sometimes they occur on the same day.

That has been delightfully true about Little Rock and it's completely true about life. We are presented with all the seasons of life, and sometimes in the same moment, and sometimes they present themselves on the same day.

We have been blessed at Agudath Achim with abundant participation at events on holy days.

In the first weekend of November we will gather for our Annual Picnic in the Park, and thanks to our Men's Club we will munch on hot dogs and veggies and enjoy all kinds of cold drinks by the water. It's a beautiful time to see people we have missed, and to remind ourselves of the beauty of nature all around us.

The very next day, Monday November 6, the Institute for Southern Jewish Life is sending us a special speaker, their Director of Jewish History, Josh Parshall. Addressing us and the whole Little Rock community, he will share his specialty "The History of Jews in Arkansas" with us. Join us at 7 PM at the synagogue.

Also in November we bring back our popular Sunday 11 AM classes, "Soul Construction". Join us beginning November 12.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the events we are all dealing with as part of the world-wide Jewish community. We are not strangers to occurrences of cruelty. We are, however, shell-shocked at the magnitude and the level of cruelty that has been experienced this past month. Our biblical reading this Saturday includes the birth of a child whose very name means laughter - Yitchak/ Isaac - and then the binding and almost loss of that child later on in the same portion. I think that's no accident. It is the joy of his arrival and the shock at his almost-loss that represents what is part of what makes life excruciatingly joyous and excruciatingly hard.

Jews worldwide have been enormously generous in their dollar donations and in sending packages of supplies for soldiers and for affected communities. They have shown their support in their rallying calls to friends and relatives. Israeli society has shown spectacular unity and bravery and an unparalleled level of civic stamina and civic volunteerism.

It is both the grief and the inspiration that I encouraged us to feel. The grief because it is real, and the inspiration because as Jews and humans we show ourselves over and over what is possible.

May we find our strengths - and yes, in the face of all that is difficult - find our joys.

Rabbi Mark Biller

Days of Awe

"Awe ..... Awwwwww"

The magnificent creation in the photo to the left is on a hibiscus plant I have been nurturing on my porch (along with Laura's help when I've been out of town), for months. Slightly tropical, it requires daily and sometimes twice-daily watering, and Laura tells me it doesn't hurt if you sing to it, either.

It can be a little temperamental. A day of excessive heat can result in yellowing and dropping leaves.

And then come these spectacular blooms, so beautifully detailed by the One Above.

Each bloom, magnificent as it is, explodes into the world for only twenty four hours, then drops.  Startled each time I awake to one of these suddenly unfurled beauties, I am filled with awe. The color, the form, this sudden red thing of beauty before me fills me.

Knowing that another one may show up on a different part of the plant on a day I cannot predict, fills me with awe again.

We are of course entering The Days of Awe as this Shofar Bulletin arrives in your home or on your screen. And awe, modern science is recently discovering, is the cure for what ails us.

Liturgically, theologically and religiously, six months from now we will be clearing chametz, leavened, puffy matter from our homes.

"Inflammation of the soul" is how the commentators refer to chametz, and so we clean it out.  "Inflammation of the body", modern science tells us, is exactly what entering a state of awe can clear.

It was only a few years ago that people "pooh-poohed" the idea of Inflammation altogether.  Medical journal after medical journal now cite inflammation as the source of so many ailments.New findings are that being in the emotional state of wonder, of being in awe, minimizes inflammation, soothes the sympathetic nervous system, lowers blood pressure, strengthens the immune system.  So stare at the picture on the front page.  Think of this Shofar Bulletin as good medicine!

And marvel that for centuries we have been calling this time of year - the Days of Awe - days for us to remember our Creator, days for us to remember that we ourselves are extensions of our Creator; days to remember with awe how we gather. Our president, Chuck Prousnitzer has said: "We gather for spiritual understanding, companionship and good food". All these will be true this Holy Day season.

Rabbi Mark Biller

"This Is Why I Love This Place"

"This Is Why I Love This Place"
Breaking Down
At The Side Of The Road
In Little Rock, Arkansas.

I’m continually asked how I like living in ‘the South’, how I like life in Little Rock.

This is why I love this place.
Driving home from a routine appointment at the doctors, at the UAMS Medical School hospital, our car just suddenly stopped, as we turned out of a main intersection - completely blocking a lane of traffic.

The car would not move.

IMMEDIATELY, two women came out of the side building beside the lane we were blocking to say "we work at UAMS, we've just moved into this building today, and we're just about to pull out of these parking spots. If you can get your car in here, you're welcome”. We explained the car simply wouldn't move. "Well then", they said "if you want to push it into this spot, that's great. If you want to leave it here overnight, that's great, but lock everything up.”

They came right back.
Told us "here's the number for the UAMS police in case you need it.”
They turned around and came right back.
"Y'all need some water?"
And returned with a bottle of water for each of us.

They wished us luck, told us to be safe, and again stressed that we could call the UAMS police if we needed to.

As they were leaving, they pointed out the numbers on the building, so that we could give an accurate address when calling the Motor League.

A police car pulled up.
Oh no, trouble!!

Not trouble at all.
The sweet young Arkansas policeman wanted to know if we needed help.
When we said we had already called the Motor League, he asked: "When did y’all call?
I could get a tow truck here for you quicker!"

We realized that we wouldn't have to put any money out upfront if we continued with the Motor League, which we explained to him. He thought for a minute and said:
"Well then, let me pull my police car in behind your car, with my lights flashing, to keep you protected."

Love this place.

The tow truck driver pulled up, and said:
"Give me a minute I'll have us all rolling out of here"

Leery about asking if we could get a lift with him, (we were marooned 4 miles from home if the car was pulled away), I didn't say a word.
He looked at me, unrequested, and said:
"Are you all coming with the car?"

Trying to figure out where we could both sit, we opened the door and there was a back seat, a front bucket seat, and an ice cooler and air conditioning in his tow truck.

"Make yourself comfortable" he said, “let's roll".

The designated garage we were taking our car to was a 4-minute drive from home but a 25-minute walk in 90+ something degree weather.
I asked if he would mind, or if it were possible, or if he had the time, to drive us home.

He smiled, said "Certainly!",
and four minutes later we were standing in front of our home.

•The helpers from the medical center,
•the bottle of water,
•the policeman who was TRULY there to help rather than patrol us, parking in his own car to help protect us
•this sweet helpful tow truck driver who OFFERED that we come along for a ride, and then took us the extra little piece home - all the while INSISTING that he would not leave us at the corner, as we had asked, but would take us right to our front door.

Love this place.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller

Rabbi Mark Biller

Haunting Verses

It is an unpleasant subject to write about and an unpleasant subject to contemplate. Worse yet, is the unpleasant reality.

The Torah portion we've just read tells us of blessings and curses. The curses bring on fear, shock, and negative awe. The text tries to steer us from the bad through fear, and to tempt us to good through the promise of reward.

The structure of this annual text is considered, by some, to be archaic; an outdated religious and philosophical stance.

Consider: do we live in a world in which groups which act well are rewarded? Do individuals acting well seem to be rewarded? (If a ‘good’ farmer lives among ‘evil’ farmers, will the heavens open up and drop rain only on his farm?). It's not how the world operates.

Our world, of late, is not operating in so many of the ways we would like to see. Aside from invasive war which appears to be unprovoked, are attacks on children, which are by definition unprovoked.

What does our “archaic, antiquated out of date” Torah portion describe?

Hauntingly, in its curses, we find a society veering so to the negative that it devours its own children. A society which could devour its own children is considered so shocking, so jarring to the Jewish mind, that in Jewish tradition we whisper these verses in synagogue rather than chant them aloud for all to hear like the rest of the Torah.

I don't need to touch anything political here, don’t have to touch the Left Wing or the Right Wing. We are beyond the realm of pro-regulation and anti-regulation. The only question is how we tolerate a social set-up in which children are unsafe to go to school.

The issue isn't guns or not-guns, rules or not-rules, permits or not-permits. The issue is how do we maintain a societal structure in which the everyday ritual of going to school, coming home at lunchtime, and going back for afternoon classes is normal and uneventful and unexplosive.

3,300 years ago we wrote that it's a curse - a curse! - to be a group that devours its children. Startlingly, sadly, not an antiquated 3,300 year old verse after all.

Rabbi Mark Biller

Pesach Sheni

It is more than a cliche.

We turn to the Torah as a source of our values, as our north star for guidance of the tone we want to set for life. Which brings us to a phenomenon we have just lived through on the calendar.

Not lived through very loudly. It's not at all well known. But it's on the calendar nevertheless, and it is sourced directly from the Torah, the Five Books of Moses.

Pesach Sheni.

The word 'Pesach' (Passover), we all know. That second word, 'Sheni', means, well, second - a second Passover (!).

In a Jewish world in which our Passover shopping starts weeks ahead, in which plans to bring children home for the event get set in motion, and where tables are piled high with centuries-old symbolic foods, and around which grown adults stumble, year after year, over words they learned as children .… we know about Pesach!

But a second Passover?! A Passover after the Passover during which we eat, gather and remember? And it's from the Torah?

Yes, exactly.

For those who were not in a state of ritual purity at the right time, or could not get to the Temple in time for Passover, a follow up date, one month later, is prescribed - by G-d and Moses (Numbers 9:10-12) - as a second chance for those who couldn't make it.

"A second chance for those who couldn't make it"

The phrase is a challenge to every perfectionist in the crowd, to anyone who's ever judged anybody for being late or missing a deadline. It's a challenge to the premise that life is in our control at all times and that we must measure up continually because we believe it is all in our control.

Life. Is. Not.

G-d and Moses spread the word. There's a second chance in case you couldn't make it. Exactly a month after the first Pesach we all know and love. For those who couldn't make it in time for the First Passover, G-d offers a second chance.

It's a message writ clear. Our Torah is aspirational and its high goals are a good thing. Our Torah, G-d and our Jewish culture then understand human life and allow for the second attempt at reaching those great, high goals.

Shabbat Shalom and blessings,

Rabbi Mark Biller

Picasso, the Rabbis and This Time of Year

When multiple people come to a similar conclusion, it's often prudent to take note. It may mean a universal truth is calling.

This week, because Passover is about freedom and Shavuot is about receiving the Torah and setting goals and purposes, and because we are in between the two, I asked committee members to consider what gives them a sense of freedom, and what gives them a sense of purpose.

After a few minutes we went around the room to share our answers.

The freedom responses involved physical mobility, being in a position to make decisions and access to rights. The responses to purpose had to do with helping others, helping organize things for others, and being able to implement ideas which could impact others.

As you may know we count "The Days Of The Omer" during this time of year. These are a series of days prescribed in the Bible, during which we count upwards from the second night of Passover to Shavuot (Sinai and receiving the Torah). The rabbis, in wondering about this counting, note that freedom for its own sake doesn't have too deep a meaning. Freedom is great, but freedom for what, is the question! Freedom to live how? Freedom to create what?

For the Israelites, it's when they received the Torah at Sinai, 49 days after their liberation from Egypt, that their newfound freedom came into focus. They now had a freedom to serve a higher ideal, freedom to create a new society, freedom to undo the trauma of slavery, and freedom to imbue the world with a new kind of vision.

What was true for the Rabbis and for the Israelites is true for us. Freedom is wonderful but adding a focus gives purpose to our time and energy.

It is no accident that in our meeting each of us wanted physical, emotional and action-oriented freedom …. and then for each of us purpose meant carrying out the things we were now free to do, in a way that could impact others - and experience the good feelings that came with that impact.

I came across a wonderful quote by Pablo Picasso that says it all:

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose is to give it away.”

Now go seek that out.

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Biller

Your Egypt is Not Forever

Passover Video Message from Rabbit Biller:

Let My People Go...

"Let my people go" is probably one of the most famous phrases in all history, literature and religion. It frames our Seder and our Pesach celebrations.

Like some ancient soundbite, it comes down to us through the ages, the banner, we believe, which heralds our coming into the world as the people of progress and freedom.

Like many other soundbites, it is a fractured piece of a greater truth. We hang on to it because it feels punchy and full of meaning. It is a partial phrase, however, that belies a deeper message and a deeper truth.

So, why do I call it a 'fracture'? Surely "let my people go" is a great message! It's a reminder of the equality of all human beings, a reminder that one nation has no right to oppress another, a reminder that no single person has the right to oppress any other being.

"Let my people go" is a partial call. Let them go to what? Let us go to what? Freedom is instinctive, instinctively wonderful …. but to what end? To what purpose or course? How do we structure where we go to with the new freedom? What is the point?

The end of Moses' famous declaration from G-d is: "... so they may serve me".

From a yoke of a Pharaoh who wants to humiliate and break down and abuse and enrich himself at your expense, comes a G-d who says I insist you rest every seven day, you your cattle, all the strangers among you.

From a Pharaoh who enslaved the people and had instant rights over their life and death, comes a G-d who says if you even break a tooth or an arm of an indentured servant, you must set them free and send the out with animals and the best of your belongings.

The missing ".... that they may serve Me" is the invitation to a best life, to a life of meaning.

In a continent and an age beset by depression, anxiety , need for counseling, therapy, and medication, and abuses of food, alcohol and perhaps even leisure time, comes a call for freedom …. with purpose!

Put that in your mind as you sit down to a Seder, or a meal, or however you celebrate this Pesach.

Rabbi Mark Biller

Somewhere Between Purim & Passover

Sometimes the lesson comes from what is not. Sometimes the lesson comes from what is.

And sometimes we need to navigate between the two.

Purim is a time for masks. At a deeper level, it deals with what is hidden.

Our heroine is named Esther, rooted to the word ‘Hester’ which means ‘hidden and covered’. Her Uncle Mordechai warns her, when she’s chosen as Queen, to not say who her people are. Several times in the Megillah we are reminded that she has not said where she comes from.

At the pronouncement of Haman’s evil decree, Mordechai publicly wears ashes and sackcloth. Embarrassed, Esther sends clothes to cover up his public display. He refuses them.

Most significantly, for a scroll read on a public Jewish holiday, there is no mention of G-d’s name anywhere in the ten chapters of the Book of Esther!

It is a book and a story which are predicated on coincidences, which lead to coincidences, which lead to uncovered secrets, which leads to salvation.

The point of this book is that G-d is not always obvious about things, that events take place – and we are asked if we can see the Divine in the events. Where many see coincidence can we see purpose, purposeful unfolding?

Conversely, a month from now we will celebrate Passover. It’s a time in which the Torah proclaims the work of ‘G-d’s outstretched arm’ to be in action.

Passover is about the unbelievable, yet the obvious, happening. It is David and Goliath, it’s The Six Day War – all the things that seem like they can never happen – and then they do!

  • Have you noticed suddenly that things have unfolded in a way that has benefited your life? That’s Purim.
  • Have you had an impossible dream visibly come true for you? That’s Passover.

Chag Sameach – Happy Holiday in the subtle unfoldings of Purim, in the coming explosions of Passover.

Wishing you richness in the soft, subtle moments of your life, wishing you richness in the grand moments of your life experience.

Blessings to all,

Rabbi Mark Biller