Jewish Holidays with Sof Ma’arav

Sof Hanukkah Party 2019

Sof Members lighting candles

On Saturday, December 28, Sof held its annual Hanukkah Party. The soiree was held at the Littmans’ spacious temporary home. The Rockin’ Ruah band, led by Rabbi Ken Aronowitz, with side men Morris Rabinko, Reb Daniel Lev and Don Armstrong serenaded the happy crowd. Scores of menorahs were lit, and mass quantities of latkes were consumed. Dancing, singing, and schmoozing abounded. The “Party Shul” upheld its reputation.

High Holy Days: Sof Maʻarav Photo Montage

A man wearing a tallit and holding a Torah scroll People holding havdalah candles A braided round challah loaf A sukkah under construction. A sukkah under construction. A sukkah under construction. A sukkah under construction.

High Holy Days Thoughts

By Sandra Z. Armstrong

Sukkah decorations - two booths with fronds.

Chag Sameach,

We had an outstanding evening with 40+ attendees for the Sukkah Party. We celebrated Bella’s 8th birthday with cupcakes! The rain has come in this morning, but the entire week of Sukkot has been spectacular with sunny days and moon lit nights.

These Holidays at Sof Ma’arav have been one of great beauty and joy. Todah Rabah to all of you who celebrated and participated. The Holy Day season in Hawaii from a Jewish point of view just doesn’t get better than this! A string of special moments of our joyful accomplishments will carry us through the rest of the year.

Holy Days & Sukkot Edition

Drash for Rosh Hashanah 5780 By Alex Golub

Photos by Arnie Warshawsky

A table with two loaves of challah on a partially covered board, next to a covered Torah scroll.

Rosh Hashanah is the holiday of new beginnings, and nothing says ‘new beginnings’ like children. This year – which means every year – we have three of them. Today we have just heard the story of Ishmael and his mother Hagar, and the story of Samuel and his mother Hannah. Tomorrow we will read the Akedah, the story of Isaac and his father Abraham. These stories remind us of how central the relationship between parents and children are in Judaism.

Children are our future generations. They are what keep our community going and keep our heritage moving forward. But even though Rosh Hashanah is a joyous occasion, the stories we read during this holiday are dramatic and intense. They remind us not only of the joy of parenting, but its challenges. They remind us of the pain that children can brings us: We learn from Hagar the agony that every parent feels when a child needs more help than the parent can give. Abraham shows us the dilemma that parents face when they must do the right thing, even at the expense of a child’s well-being. And finally, Hannah reveals the despair of childless-ness. These stories teach us that children are not only sources of joy, but also sources of profound worry and anxiety.

Most of us, thank goodness, will never have to go through the trials of a Hagar or Abraham. And many of us here have decided not to have children, which is not only a legitimate choice but probably a smart one, especially if you’d like to travel more and get a lot of sleep. Why do we read these terrible stories on Rosh Hashanah? Perhaps because they tug so hard on our heart strings… and thus help keep us awake during our long services! But they also have something else in common: These stories teach us that g-d provides for us even when we cannot. G-d opens Hannah’s womb, stays Abraham’s hand, and rescues Hagar’s son.

Now at first glance, it looks like these stories teach Jews about hope. And yet, I would say that hope is not a Jewish virtue. Hope is, famously, a Christian virtue. It is placing your trust in god and relying on him to fix things when you cannot. That would be a nice option but it is not what we see in these stories today. The haftorah tells us that g-d is the person who shut Hannah’s womb in the first place, not someone who she is supposed to just sit back and wait for him to reopen it. The Shalom Hartman institute has an extremely detailed curriculum on the relationship between Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar and they point out that Abraham never doubts that g-d has the power to ensure that Abraham has children. What Abraham doubts is whether or not g-d will keep his promise.

For Jews g-d is someone you can bargain with, as Abraham does in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. G-d is someone who can be legally out-maneuvered, as Rabbi Joshua does in the famous Talmudic tale of the oven of Aknai. G-d is someone whom you can shake your fist at and scream “he had a hat!” as the mother does in the famous Jewish joke. Our Jewish conception of g-d is much less influenced by Plato and other Greek thinkers than the Christian versions of g-d. For them, g-d is perfect and unchanging. This creates a philosophical problem for them: If g-d is all powerful and perfect why does bad stuff happen? This is less a problem for Jews because we know the world is an uncertain place where bad and random stuff happens all the time. We believe g-d is the sort of being who decides it is too busy to read our emails. As a result of this, the Jewish parents in our stories do not wait, hoping that g-d will somehow save them. Sarah does not hope that g-d will somehow put the fix in on Ishmael. She doesn’t even believe that g-d will allow her to conceive — when she does, she laughs in disbelief. And, tragically, when Hagar has done everything she can for her child she does not pray to g-d or hope for rescue. She just cries.

So I don’t think our Jewish parents hope. I think our Jewish parents strive. They do every-thing they can to achieve their goal. Even, in Abraham’s case, to the point of doing something terrible. They keep going even when the situation seems hopeless. Their struggles remind me of a quote from Shimon Peres’s autobiography, which I think I’ve mentioned in a Drash before. The autobiography is not a great book unless you want to read the nicest things ever said about Shi-mon Peres. But it has a wonderful quote from his mentor, David Ben-Gurion: “In Israel, to be a realist, you must believe in miracles”. Ben-Gurion, like Hannah, was a striver. He didn’t sit back and hope that g-d would hand him a Jewish state. The creation of Israel required three or four incredibly unlikely things to happen. To make them happen, founders like Ben-Gurion and others had to make extraordinary things happen. In order to do that they had to be ruthlessly honest with themselves about their chances, and concoct the most likely plan to succeed, even if that plan had a very, very, very small chance of succeeding. And then, they went for broke.

In his wonderful short biography of Hillel, Telushkin points out that optimism is a Jewish virtue, along with patience, moral imagination, a nonjudgmental nature, and intense curiosity. I wouldn’t call the striving that we see in our readings ‘hope’. I’d call it optimism. This is not sitting on your hands and letting someone else solve the problem for you. It is getting out there and doing something. And I think the Torah is very realistic in showing just how hard, dark, and messy this striving can be. To return to our Israel example, the Irgun did not just sit there and wait for g-d in 1946. They did it themselves. I think we will need optimism more than ever in 5780. We were just a month or so into 5779 before 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of our country. Afterwards, our community held a memorial service at Temple Emanu-El. There, my two boys joined all the other children in lighting a memorial candle for the victims. What are you supposed to tell your children when that happens? That, given all the other places we’ve lived in our history, ten is actually a pretty low number?

5780 does not exactly look like it will be a return to normalcy. Here in the islands, the county will install new “portable [lifeguard] towers [at our beaches], which can easily be moved back as the ocean encroaches” due to climate change, which is probably the most pressing challenge our islands and the world faces — and one both we and our children will have to live with. Of course, compared to the challenges of the 20th century — two world wars, an influenza pandemic, a possible nuclear holocaust and a real Jewish one — portable lifeguard towers are not that big a deal. And regardless of how big the challenges we face are in objective terms, we should not be demoralized by them. The Torah teaches us today that resignation will get you just as far as hope: nowhere. Instead, it offers us Jewish parents, striving and optimistic. They are the rule, not the exception, of Jewish history. Many of us have parents and grandparents who were strivers as well — men and women who grabbed fortune by the hand and pried prosperity out of its grip one finger at a time.

I think the Torah encourages us to keep moving forward with optimism, to be a realist and to believe in miracles. You can never tell when a well might erupt in the middle of the desert. So if you have been feeling depressed by the news, by the heat, by the ugliness of life in general, just look at it this way: Abraham thought he was going to have to kill his kid, but then that just got downgraded to just having to circumcise him. Ladies and gentlemen: Judaism! Let us remember that we have it in our power to make this year a good year and a sweet year. The book of life is open. It’s up to us to decide what gets written in it. Let’s keep striving. Shanah tovah!

Several people on a lanai standing and sitting around a table with a torah scroll on it.

A Snowbird’s Rosh HaShanah or Norman Rockwell Made it Look Easy

by Les Rosenthal

Image by Ajale from Pixabay

If we lived in Eutopia, preparing for the High Holidays with my wife, Pat, and our adult children, Katie and Kerri, when both adult daughters live within driving distance would be easy and enjoyable. Not so much in Gig Harbor, Washington, where my desire to enjoy this family time of year is an uphill battle. Kerri said, “Dad, I’ve got to work.” Her excuse to skip services, which I used when I was her age, now comes home to roost. Listening, I recall the admonition of the Torah to not condemn in my children faults I have condoned in myself. So I keep my mouth shut and imagine I’ve planted a seed for another time. Maybe, I think, I can arrange a family dinner. Maybe Kerri and Dan, our son-in-law, will come with our granddaughter. After all, my daughters live a lot more hectic life than I do. Their many obligations, commuting time, and finishing their ‘to do’ list are in themselves a major accomplishment. Maybe I’ll suggest their house, so they don’t have to fight the traffic to come to our house. Maybe, because food will bring our family together once more, for our Rosh Hashanah gathering. Maybe without gifts, today Pesach is all we can do. Maybe I can offer to bring Chinese food, which will allow us to gather at Kerri and Dan’s home, no fuss with cooking or much cleaning up. I’d much prefer that than missing High Holidays gathering altogether because the energy to make this happen seems like too much. I’ll ask my eldest daughter, Katie.

Calling Katie, I am pleasantly surprised when she says she’d like to go to Rosh Hashanah services with my wife, Pat and me. ☺ Pat and I are invited to a friend’s house for an after-service open house that afternoon. According to Katie, that is too much “being around my parents’ friends” to endure. I get that. Ok, I think… maybe just a family dinner after Kerri and Dan get off work. This will still allow an acknowledgement of the New Year with a gathering of the Rosenthal tribe. I call Kerri back, suggest it and she says, “It’s too far away for us to be able to plan.” SIGH… With the simplicity of my plan, it may still work even if we plan it a few days beforehand. Maybe Katie, Pat and I will just enjoy our company at the after-service oneg and call it a day.

We Jews living in the United States have so much for which to be grateful. Outside of Israel, we live in the least anti-Semitic country in the world. I’ve been inspired by listening to Dennis Prager these past few months. If you haven’t, you may want to look him up? He taught me that “Happiness is a decision not an emotion.” Struggling with my familial Rosh Hashanah hopes, I have to credit Dennis Prager for helping me keep it all in perspective.

Respectfully submitted from Snowbirdland – Les Rosenthal

Studying on Shavuot: From the feet of a man to the foot of a mountain

By Dina Yoshimi

Ten Commandments Tablets

Growing up in a Reform shul, I associated Shavuot with two rites of passage: consecration and confirmation. On Erev Shavuot, the rabbi would call all the children who were set to begin their Jewish studies in the Fall to the bima to be consecrated. The highlight for all those cute little ones scrambling up the stairs to join the rabbi was receiving their Ten Commandments pin. I still have mine tucked away. On the morning of Shavuot, it was time for the older kids to shine. The 10th grade confirmation class was filled with 16-year-olds ready to challenge everything they’d ever been told about God and Jewish tradition. They led the service, sharing their questions, and sometimes their answers, with the congregation. They had committed to continuing Jewish studies beyond the bar or bat mitzvah, and developed the maturity to bring their own Jewish perspectives to their lives. The highlight for that cohort of questing and questioning youngsters was the individualized blessing the rabbi bestowed on each student, and the gift of a beautiful Tanakh with gilded edges. I still have mine, but use it less frequently now since it lacks the Hebrew text.

The highlight of the evening, the reading of Megillat Ruth, was split between Hebrew chanters and English readers. Year upon year, this telling of the acts of ahavat chesed and g’milut chasadim by Ruth and Boaz evokes our deepest impulses ofAt our Sof observance of Shavuot, we exchanged these milestones of childhood for joyful gatherings of shared meals, communal study and prayer, and pleasant schmoozing, all pathways by which we access the full richness of the chag. A mighty cohort of nine Sofers kicked off Erev Shavuot this year with a potluck spread of vegetable and noodle dishes that prominently featured cheese, following the tradition of eating dairy products for the festive meals. The only thing missing was the “traditional” cheesecake.

The highlight of the evening, the reading of Megillat Ruth, was split between Hebrew chanters and English readers. Year upon year, this telling of the acts of ahavat chesed and g’milut chasadim by Ruth and Boaz evokes our deepest impulses of love and devotion to each other and to our people. This year, we pondered the wording of the verses that follow Ruth’s bearing a son to Boaz: “And Naomi took the child and placed him in her bosom, and she became his nurse. And the women neighbors gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi…’” (Ruth 4:16-17). Our discussion focused on Naomi’s unexpected shift in role from mother-in-law of Ruth to mother of Ruth’s child. As we turned and turned the matter, our resident chacham Gregg shared that the word used for “nurse”, omenet, is the basis for a lengthy discussion in Breishit Rabbah to Genesis 1:1. Stay tuned for further study next year!

Although we did not spend the entire night studying Torah, a Sof-strong minyan of 14 adults and five children gathered on Shavuot morning for services, followed by a bountiful potluck (still no cheesecake!) and ample schmoozing. We rejoiced with psalms and Hallel, stood to receive the Aseret HaDibrot, and spent a quiet moment to daven Yizkor before concluding with the Festival Musaf. For the Torah readers, an enhanced coffee table-cum-bima, (Thank you, Don!) made the reading from the Armstrong Torah all the more delightful.

Mixed among the joyful activity of the children and the kavannah of the kehillah, a familiar spirit of peace, awe and joy infused this gathering at the home of Sandy and Don. Shavuot celebrates z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah. This festival takes us from the perspective of the lowliest soul to reconnecting with the pinnacle of Jewish experience with the Almighty. Befitting of this observance, the Sof kehillah brought its whole-hearted and full-throated contributions to sanctify and rejoice in the blessings of the chag.