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.

Blessings,
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


The Difference Between Joy and Happiness

Jackson was released from jail this week after 25 years of what was to be a life sentence for a crime he apparently did not commit.

He lives in one of the few states that allowed non-unanimous jury convictions. That allowance was originally designed to circumvent the power of any potential Black juror.

Jackson was convicted on circumstantial evidence, even though there was proof he was not present at the scene of the crime. The testimony used to convict him was provided by a man who changed his story three times - and who finally gave the damning testimony in exchange for a shorter sentence for himself.

Aside from his mentioning all the electronics changes in the world, what struck me while listening to Jackson’s interview was his comment about how grateful he was to be with his mother, who had been supportive of him all these years.  He expressed his lack of anger or resentment, and his repeated gratitude for being with loved ones

Jackson commented on the difference between joy and happiness, which is what I most want to mention today.

To Jackson, happiness is a response to obtaining something or having something, or seeing something completed.

Joy, he believes, is a quality that's not dependent on anything happening outside of the self. It is an inner state of being.

I can only say I was amazed listening to this man. To so many of us, he would have strong grounds for anger, resentment and mistrust.

Not only was he not focused on those negative emotions, but he had something to teach us all on that broadcast; joy is not dependent on outer happenings.

Humbled, I thought if this man can feel joy, surely I can aspire more consistently in that direction and perhaps so can we all.

Shabbat Shalom

Blessings

Rabbi Biller


Split Loyalties In Our Own Hearts

The most difficult part of being a Jew is sorting Jewish values when they conflict. We are tied to memories of our many ancestors’ sufferings in Ukraine. Our Jewish hearts, at the same time, go out to those presently being attacked and violated.

What do we do when our hearts are torn in two directions?

Mussar is a body of Jewish study through which we reflect on values and character attributes. It is a significant Jewish tool in one’s quest to become a balanced being and more polished soul.

I turned to a dear friend, Steve Lewis, who has invested years in the study of Mussar. In the throes of the emotional and moral push-pulls of the Ukraine situation, we are affected by strong family stories, and at the same time do not want to harshly over-judge the present generations in Ukraine. I asked Steve if Mussar had a schema through which to sift the issues.

A primary Mussar character trait, or Middah, as Steve reminded me, is ‘Judging Others Favorably’.

We often judge quickly and harshly without knowing the full context of the situation. We may be judging current Ukranians negatively for the transgressions of some of their ancestors. This is not only possibly unfair to Ukranians, but feeds a negative world view in our own mind – an unhealthy way to live.

Another well known Mussar trait (or Middah) is the well-known chesed/ lovingkindness – having compassion and empathy for what current civilians in Ukraine are experiencing.

Do we remember the stories our families have told us? Absolutely. Do we honor the pain and travails of our past family members? Absolutely.

But in the Jewish way – in fact living out one of Judaism’s strongest messages – we look into the present and future with our widest heart, greatest vision and the kindest view of our fellow human beings possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Blessings,

Rabbi Mark Biller


Looking Up!

The most difficult part of being a Jew is sorting Jewish values when they conflict. We are tied to memories of our many ancestors’ sufferings in Ukraine. Our Jewish hearts, at the same time, go out to those presently being attacked and violated.

What do we do when our hearts are torn in two directions?

Mussar is a body of Jewish study through which we reflect on values and character attributes. It is a significant Jewish tool in one’s quest to become a balanced being and more polished soul.

I turned to a dear friend, Steve Lewis, who has invested years in the study of Mussar. In the throes of the emotional and moral push-pulls of the Ukraine situation, we are affected by strong family stories, and at the same time do not want to harshly over-judge the present generations in Ukraine. I asked Steve if Mussar had a schema through which to sift the issues.

A primary Mussar character trait, or Middah, as Steve reminded me, is ‘Judging Others Favorably’.

We often judge quickly and harshly without knowing the full context of the situation. We may be judging current Ukranians negatively for the transgressions of some of their ancestors. This is not only possibly unfair to Ukranians, but feeds a negative world view in our own mind – an unhealthy way to live.

Another well known Mussar trait (or Middah) is the well-known chesed/ lovingkindness – having compassion and empathy for what current civilians in Ukraine are experiencing.

Do we remember the stories our families have told us? Absolutely. Do we honor the pain and travails of our past family members? Absolutely.

But in the Jewish way – in fact living out one of Judaism’s strongest messages – we look into the present and future with our widest heart, greatest vision and the kindest view of our fellow human beings possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Blessings,

Rabbi Mark Biller


Make Me a Sanctuary

The Torah talks about places of sanctuary and building a sanctuary. We need them for our families, communities and for the safety of our hearts.

The Torah gives us all kinds of instructions as well as lists of materials. We are told where each tribe is to place itself around the sanctuary. And where each head of each tribe makes an offering. And we are told which tribe is to bring which particular offering.

We're told when the lamp is to be lit and where to place the Tabernacle furnishings.

After all that detail, we are confronted with a verbal shift. G-d says build me a sanctuary that I may live in you. Not in the sanctuary for which we have received instructions. Not in the sanctuary for which we have made donations. Not in the sanctuary we have just constructed. But inside us!

It's reflective of the Jewish approach to being alive in a physical world and yet having emotional and spiritual hearts and minds and souls.

We work to build houses and manufacture cars and set up towns. And all of that work is to make our hearts feel good and our beings feel safe.

This is acknowledged by the Torah.

As a community, the Torah knows you will need a physical place. In Little Rock we have our Agudath Achim building. We have a board and officers and committees and volunteers and kitchen workers and program people.  All of that is to keep our building working and our synagogue functioning.

When all is said and done, however, those items are in place in order to build a sanctuary in our hearts, to keep us connected with each other, and to help us look after each other's souls.

Build a Sanctuary!
Why?
So that all the goodness can live in us. Amen!

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller


On a Zoom and a Prayer

What is prayer? What does it mean to pray?  Is it something I direct somewhere, and is it sent to Someone? Is it something I do to myself?

We’re delving into these questions, and looking into the Shabbat Morning Service - what it means, how it’s structured, and what might be my goal while reciting, or singing, or praying, or davening? (Those may be four very different actions). 

We are meeting at 11:00am Sundays, on Zoom, to study prayer together. The upside is that Laura can (and is) sending the Zoom recording to you by email, allowing you to watch the class that took place, and allowing you to listen to all the discussions and look at the prayers. 

If you choose to join us on Sundays live,  you can be part of the discussions.

Alternatively, we are looking into the Life of Jacob on Thursdays, at 5:00pm. This is also on Zoom, and also full of discussion. 

In this past week during Torah Tidbits, we looked at generational memory, how legacies are passed on, what we tend to forget, what we might want to forget, and things which we cannot forget. That’s pretty timely for so many of us.

Laura is emailing the Torah Tidbits Zoom recording link, too. 

Click on the Zoom recordings Laura emails you, and you can watch the class that has just occurred, at your leisure. 

If you join us at 5:00pm Thursday's, you can be part of the live exchanges.

Wishing you all love, self respect, inner peace and clear values as Shabbat arrives.

Blessings,
Rabbi Mark Biller 


Take a Donation

In this very difficult time in the world, which tends to make us look inwards and worry about ourselves, along comes this week's Torah portion with plans to build the Tabernacle in the desert. (It is the model for the Temple in Jerusalem, and later the model for our present day Synagogues).

G-d, and the Torah, says: "Take a donation".

Shouldn't that say "give a donation"?

For the rabbis, every word in our Torah is carefully chosen, every word rich with meaning. They wanted to figure out why the choice of words is "take" a donation rather than "give" one.

The English word charity tells us we are choosing to mete out part of what we own. The Hebrew word Tzedakah is based on the word Tzedek, meaning 'this is the just way', that sharing is the way things should be.

We are taught by the Hebrew language that sharing is not an act of good-heartedness, it is actually based on how the world is supposed to be.

Our Parsha's language takes this teaching one notch higher, and reminds us that we are wired in such a way that when we give, we're actually receiving; we get warm feelings, we get strength, we get a sense that we are part of a world. We are strengthened in the core of our very humanity.

You think you are "giving" something, when you donate. The Torah says; No, you are "getting" something! You are being warmed as a human being!

And so the Torah's choice of words for donating to your Tabernacle, your Temple, your Synagogue, your community is "take".

TAKE a donation.
You are RECEIVING something when you share.

Blessings and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mark Biller