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 Those are the fears upon which so many of us were raised, and that we hoped were now outdated And yet each of them manifested in some way.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

A Story of Personal Uplift

My Dad & The Town That Never Saw A Jew 
(Only 350 Miles from where a School Board banned a book about the Holocaust this year)

The little town of Whitewell, Tennessee never saw a Jew.
A Grade 8 class there, stunned to learn of the Holocaust, set up a world-wide campaign to collect
6,000,000 paperclips to understand.
( Dutch people wore paperclips on their lapels as a sign of resistance).
The class and the school grew in tolerance, love and connection.

My Dad was part of a Jewish Motorcycle Group - 'Yids On Wheels', or YOWIE's, as they called them-
selves - that created a motorcycle ride to Whitwell.

As the motorcycles drove towards the town, more and more older Jewish motorcyclists joined the ride.
My Dad and his group raised $60,000 to donate to that school in Whitwell for future programming to
teach love, to teach kindness, to teach tolerance.

My father described the scene:
A long line of Jewish men in their sixties and seventies on motorcycles.
The road into town lined with all the non-Jewish residents clapping, cheering them on.
The strong Jewish men in their 60's and 70's, with tears streaming down their faces, riding into the wind, and into town.
The main school auditorium set up for the reception.
Down one side of the reception room were long tables filled with Kosher Corned Beef imported from somewhere, for the
Jewish riders.
Down the other side of the auditorium were tables lined with Pork 'n Beans, for the townsfolk.
The entire town showed up.
A town where there had never been a Jewish person, came together to receive a long line of Jewish men, on motorcycles,
from across North America -
- coming to present them with a cheque for $60,000, to be used for more teaching and discovery and connections to all
Proud to be the son of the Dad who was part of that lineup.
Proud that Whitwell grew in its development, standing to receive such a group.
Rabbi Mark Biller

Resolutions can be Dangerous!

Resolutions can be dangerous. And New Year's resolutions are the most dangerous of all.

"But Rabbi", you think, "aren't you a proponent of making change? Don't you encourage people's reviewing and committing to things?"

I absolutely do but perhaps as part of a more deeply-rooted ongoing process, and not in that impulsive black-and-white-statement kind of way that says "Starting January 1st, I will... ".

We are all in a process of life and it's usually not the grand moments that precipitate change. Oh, those grand moments may bring on epiphanies and realizations, but they don't often translate into behavioral change or internal stance change. Those shifts are more incremental and more based on putting new habits into place.

One of the most misunderstood of the Ten Commandments may be the last, "Thou Shall Not Covet". Don't covet your neighbor, don't covet your friend. Don't covet - how is that to be made part of life?

A most innovative Rabbinic interpretation is to include the thought "Don't covet yourself".

We all have images of ourselves from our early young dreamer years; thoughts of who we thought we might become. Perhaps we romantically reminisce about a time in life we felt good about, or about a time we thought we were more grounded, or more creative, or kinder, or more attractive ..

Well, to stay in those thoughts is to .. . covet ourself!

To think back and wish we were our former self is to be absent from who we are now. It's a way of not being fully in our life. In fact, according to this interpretation, it may be breaking one of the Ten Commandments.

In this light, the Torah is encouraging our acceptance of who (and how) we are now, and perhaps encouraging us, to welcome gentle tweaking from our kinder inner self - or from a friend, or even from our rabbi - to move, with love, to a newer more desired state or direction.

I am grateful to be moving into the secular New Year with you all.


Rabbi Mark Biller