Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
I just spent the last two days of Shavuot studying. While Shavuot is supposed to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I find it more meaningful to be grateful for the enduring cycle of regiving or transmittance of Torah (which of course cannot be explained without Sinai). This Shavuot, I found myself wrapped in the comforting words of a voice as familiar to me as any Rabbi I’ve ever met – Rabbi Vernon Kurtz.
You see, Rabbi Kurtz has been the Rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL since I was seven years old. And his new book, “Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion” is an accomplishment thirty-six years in the making. The book is a compilation of ninety-two sermons by Rabbi Kurtz, approximately two on each weekly Torah Parsha. Not only can you read the book as a means of gaining insight into the Torah, but also as a way of making Torah relevant in your life. Many of you who read the book will find depth in the teaching and beauty in the message. I find the voice of Rabbi Kurtz.
It wasn’t until I read the book that I fully realized how impactful Rabbi Kurtz’s words have been in my life. It was because of Rabbi Kurtz ‘s invitation that my parents, who were great Zionists but had never traveled to Israel before, decided it was time for all of us to go. Within one of his sermons on Lekh Lekha, Rabbi Kurtz writes, “Aliyah should be considered one of the highest mitzvot of our generation… Within the Conservative movement, we have always been proponents of Zionism.”
There is no doubt that the trip to Israel changed the course of my life. Rabbi Kurtz made it impossible for me to imagine a Jewish life without Israel playing a central role. And now, as my family prepares to move to Israel in three months, the words of that sermon make me understand where it began to take shape.
I can also see where I began to care about the Jewish community at large. In his sermon on Va-Ethannan, he wrote about the second generation of Israelites wandering in the desert, “As they become further removed generationally from the actual events of the Biblical record, how will they internalize the experiences and the lessons of the preceding generations?” My grandparents, all Holocaust Survivors, all adore and adored Rabbi Kurtz. My parents are proud to call him a friend. My siblings and I look up to him. He relates to everybody in a way that is truly inspiring.
Rabbi Kurtz answers that question with the way he runs Beth El. It’s not just a big Synagogue, it’s also a Shul. Fathers wrap their sons with Tefillin on Sunday mornings in Vav Class. Mothers teach their children how to light Shabbat candles in the preschool. How do we solve the problem of transmitting the experiences and the lessons of the preceding generations? Each one of us has to assume the mantle of teacher, preacher and role model for our own children. And if each of us does this for our own family, then maybe each community will be lucky enough to have a devoted Rabbi. And if we can hope for even more, our Rabbinic communities will have role models like Rabbi Kurtz. Thank you Rabbi Kurtz for all of your teachings over the course of my life. I look forward to many, many more in the years to come.
If you are interested in purchasing “Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion”, please click here.
5.16.13 at 9:40 pm | I just spent the last two days of Shavuot. . .
4.24.13 at 4:21 pm |
3.21.13 at 11:19 pm | This past week, I witnessed an almost certain. . .
2.12.13 at 7:59 pm |
1.3.13 at 8:41 am | It feels great to begin 2013 with some truth. . .
12.3.12 at 6:02 pm | Chanukah is fast approaching. I know it because. . .
5.16.13 at 9:40 pm | I just spent the last two days of Shavuot. . . (11)
3.21.13 at 11:19 pm | This past week, I witnessed an almost certain. . . (4)
2.12.13 at 7:59 pm | (1)
April 24, 2013 | 4:21 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
Several weeks ago on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach my grandmother Marie Lebovitz passed away. We all lovingly called her Gammi. My Dad asked me to officiate the funeral. Although I had never officiated a funeral before, I said yes. I would do anything for my father. And thanks to Rabbi Nicole Guzik’s coaching ahead of time and Rabbi Vernon Kurtz’s mentorship before and during the funeral, I was able to officiate the ceremony.
I eulogized my grandmother. Like all of my grandparents, she had survived the Holocaust. And like all of my grandparents, Gammi was not a survivor. She was a prevailer. Her toughness allowed her to prevail over the Nazis even though she lost so much family. Her toughness allowed her to come to a new country and start a family. Her toughness allowed her to walk up to a young, good looking Jewish guy dressed in a Russian uniform and offer to sell him cigarettes and then demand that he take her with him to America. Thank G-d she did— He was my grandfather, Ba.
And after the service, we sat Shiva and in many ways I thought the process unfolded perfectly according to the wisdom of the Rabbis.
And then this past week, one night my four-year-old daughter began to sob that she would never see Gammi again. Whatever it was that set the crying off (and my wife and I are still not sure), we were not prepared for it. Having not been at the funeral, she needed a way to say goodbye. Between her sobbing she asked, “How do I call Gammi to say goodbye if Gammi is with G-d?”
I tried every explanation you could think of. Gammi will always be with us. If you close your eyes hard enough you can see Gammi. Just say goodbye and Gammi will hear you. But nothing could satisfy her. My daughter wanted to make Gammi a goodbye card and give it to her.
It was then that my wife and I offered to tape the card onto a balloon. Without even having to finish explaining our plans, my daughter surmised that the balloon would fly up to heaven.
You see, much like my personal story, three weeks ago we read in Parshat Shemini (Lev. 10) that Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu each lost their lives. And this week’s Parshat Acharei Mot begins “The L-rd spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron… Thus shall Aaron enter the Sanctuary…” (Lev.16:1-3). It is here that G-d describes a new type of ceremony that we know today as Yom Kippur.
I would like to think that this new ceremony established hope for Aaron. I would like to think that it rekindled his love for G-d and trust in the Holiness Code. Here, G-d shows that there will indeed be a place for judgment and reflection, and G-d understands that we as humans need both.
I want to think that Parshat Acharei is placed here for a reason—To create a connection that establishes Yom Kippur as our next big goal after the celebration of Pesach is over. On Yom Kippur we look at G-d as the truthful judge. On Pesach we look at G-d as our savior.
Before the funeral, during the “Kriyah” (tearing of the cloth), the mourners say the blessing “Baruch atah… Dayan Ha’Emet” or “Blessed are you G-d… the Truthful Judge” – Just like on Yom Kippur. And then during every Kaddish during the year, the mourner says “Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Shmei Rabah” or “His name should be mighty and sanctified” – Just like on Pesach.
Ba and Gammi used to take such pride in making their Pesach Seders and I used to take such pride in standing next to them during Yom Kippur. These holidays and all of the ceremonies in the Torah – They end up being the basis for so many family memories, so many community memories.
Because that’s what true community is. Our fellow Jews form our sanctuary today. It’s where we celebrate Pesach and Yom Kippur… And Gammi. It’s where we throw candy for Simchas and where we cry during mourning. We think of those who are standing with us and those who once stood by our sides. That special quality, that special feeling, that’s what Yidishkeit demands from a community.
Although the Torah doesn’t say it, I can assure you that Nadav and Avihu heard their father Aaron’s prayers. And although I have no proof, I can tell you with all of my Rabbinic training and with all of my studying and with all of my Emunah, my faith, that my daughter’s card was carried to heaven on the balloon.
Thank you G-d for directing the balloon. Thank you Gammi for accepting the card.
I pray that Gammi’s memory blesses all of us with connection. A connection that not only bonds us as a community but a real covenant that bonds us across generations all the way back to Aaron and the community at Mount Sinai.
I love you Gammi, always and forever.
March 21, 2013 | 11:19 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
This past week, I witnessed an almost certain miracle. My one and a half year old son has never been willing to wear a Kippah (yarmulke) during religious services or even for thirty seconds during the blessing over the wine. Sometimes people at shul point it out to me, as if I didn’t realize. But I understand their concern and I always smile and reply, “I’d be more than happy to put the Kippah on, but you’re going to have to lend me a stapler.” While there is nothing funny about stapling a Kippah onto a little boy’s head, if you have a one-year-old child, I know you can appreciate the sentiment.
My father, just as his father before him, has a saying that he applies to different situations, “Don’t worry Nolan, he’ll wear a Kippah by the time he is Bar-Mitzvah’ed.” Eleven more years of this is as reassuring to me as the stapler.
As somebody who is studying to be a Rabbi, sometimes his rejection of the Kippah has felt almost personal. Although, I’m absolutely sure he doesn’t intend it to be that way. My wife and I have bought him all different kinds and sizes—No help. “He’s just a toddler and it’s just a phase,” I used to hope.
Then last Saturday night before Havdalah, he reached out and grabbed a Dodgers’ Kippah and said, “MINE.” And with that declaration, he put it on his head and smiled. We tried not to make a big deal out of it and I quickly lit the candle and said Havdalah. The Kippah remained on his head the whole time.
The entirety of covenant doesn’t happen all at once. Although his circumcision on his eighth day of life marked his entrance into the Covenant between G-d and His Jewish People, my son now must accept all of the responsibilities that come with that Covenant—and that come with all of our family’s traditions.
Next week we will read in the Haggadah at the Pesach Seder, “In each generation, each individual is required to view himself or herself as if he or she is the one who left Egypt.” That means that as much as we all talk about our Covenant as the Jewish People, there is still an individual component for each one of us. There is a responsibility that each one of us has to maintain our part of the bond to G-d and to Jews all across the world.
Sometimes personal responsibility is far more daunting a task than collective liability. One can shrug off the collective duty figuring that somebody else will take care of it. That is not what Pesach teaches.
Pesach teaches that while we are all a part of this miraculous story of freedom, we all still carry personal responsibility to maintain that freedom for ourselves and for others. And that is what my son teaches. I witnessed his first step to claim his personal stake in the oldest covenant known in the world. His little hand placing that big Kippah on his little head was an affirmation of Torah and the Jewish People… At least until next week. I’ll keep you posted. Chag Kasher V’Sameach—Happy Passover!
February 12, 2013 | 7:59 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
January 3, 2013 | 8:41 am
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
Convincing others to support Israel sometimes feels like banging my head against the wall. What’s the point? Those who support Israel seem to do it always and those who don’t support Israel seem to do that always. My friends, most of whom are reasonably smart Jews, say things to me like “Of course the Palestinians are wrong. But aren’t we too? What about the settlements?”
This past week, the Torah Scroll contained no space to indicate the beginning of Parshat VaYechi. Rashi explains this lack of space as a reflection of the “closed” nature of Jacob’s sons. Presumably, the sons saw the changing times in Egypt, recognized the forthcoming challenges and “closed down.” We learn the exact opposite from Jacob, and Joseph for that matter. Challenging lives taught them to remain open to people around them, to the world around them, and to G-d.
And then the big break in the text… This week a big space appears between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. It is a wide “openness” that marks the beginning of Moses’ narrative. After all, for most of his life Moses finds himself caught between incredible forces: G-d, Pharoah, and the Jewish People. Yet, he always remains open. He remains open to a relationship with G-d. He also remains open to the Jewish People, whom he serves from morning until night.
During this election season in Israel, when I think that the divide between American and Israeli Jews appears wider than ever, when I think that there’s no point to defending Israel’s actions any longer, I woke up yesterday morning to find a startling article on JPost.com: “‘Wash. Post’: Settlements not main peace obstacle.” I encourage everyone to read it. (http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=298171)
What?! Settlements not to blame? Could that be true? Could we be starting 2013 off on an uncomfortable media position of truth? Could Dennis Ross and Condoleezza Rice and others be right in their assessment that there is no Palestinian State, not because of the Israeli settlements, but because the Palestinians have NO LEADER capable of making peace?
These glimpses of truth unlock my “closed” frustration. It inspires me to continue convincing all people that Israel’s existence betters their lives — all of our lives. The truth gives me hope that Israel, the blessing of the State of Israel, will be there for my children and their children and all of their generations to follow. I don't want my children to look at Israel and let frustration or fear or misguided blame "close down" their passion for the Jewish State. I want them to understand the truth, because the truth allows people to overcome fear.
Jacob’s life might have been difficult. His sons might have even made it more difficult for him. However, in the end, he blessed them — with truth. In this new secular year, let’s look at the world open to the possibility of truth, without the fallacy of moral equivalence. If not for yourself, do it for your children and their children. After all, they will all be the Children of Israel.
December 3, 2012 | 6:02 pm
Posted by Nolan Lebovitz
Chanukah is fast approaching. I know it because my kids are excited and my wife is leaving more frequently for evening runs to Toys R Us and Target. I love Chanukah. If you ask my Rabbinic (Student) opinion, if young Jewish families are set on the “three day per year” synagogue experience—Please make it Simchat Torah, Chanukah and Purim. You and your children will enjoy the services and probably end up returning to sample more days.
My family’s tradition is to light the Chanukah Menorah and sing about a dozen Chanukah songs from traditional to especially silly. I loved it growing up, my kids love it and I hope someday their kids will enjoy the silliness too. So much of the holiday mentions the Hebrew word Nes or Miracle in English. As a matter of fact, the Halachic foundation of Chanuka (and similarly Purim) is Pirsuma Nissa in Aramaic or to publicize the miracle. So what was the miracle?
When we’re children we’re taught that the miracle was the oil—When Judah Maccabee entered the Holy Temple, after defeating the Assyrian Greeks, he and his brothers found enough oil for one night but it actually burned for eight nights. That’s the miracle? We observe Chanukah to celebrate a magic trick?
If that’s true, then why did the Rabbis hold Chanukah (and Purim for that matter) in such high regard? One of my teachers, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, teaches the Halachah of Chanukah and Purim together, as similar post-Biblical holidays created by the Rabbis to mark "miracles". He taught (Talmud Shabbat 88a) that in the Torah the Jews received the Torah “under the mountain” (Exodus 19:17) or with little choice in the matter, but in the story of Purim, the Jewish People finally stand up for Torah and prove itself deserving of Torah. I think that if that's true for Purim where the Jews of Persia stood up and saved themselves from destruction; all the more so it should be true for Chanukah where the Jews of the Land of Israel not only stood up and saved their way of life but also redeemed the land and the Holy Temple.
While it’s a beautiful explanation, I find myself wondering whether the Maccabees considered their victory to be a miracle? After watching his friends and brothers get killed in battle, I think Judah would have probably sensed that they had defeated the Assyrian Greeks with courage, will, strength and intellect. While G-d bestows all of those things, I don’t believe he witnessed the type of Biblical miracles one would expect by all of the Chanukah miracle talk. Same with Purim, just read Megillat Esther and point to the part where G-d defeats Haman or the Persians for the Jews?
My mind immediately races to the modern Jewish “miracle” of the State of Israel. Go to Israel (I mean it, go!) and visit Mount Herzl. On any given day, you will find the military cemetery filled with mothers crying for children buried there—lost while defending the state. G-d help the person who asks that mother if the State of Israel exists because of a “miracle”. Simply put, it exists because there are Jewish teenagers who are willing to fight for the Jewish ideal. They are willing to fight for this new self-determined Jewish reality.
And the truth is that the Rabbinic age between the Maccabees and the State of Israel thought that this Jewish reality was impossible. That is why they called Chanukah a time of miracles. From Pumbadita to Bagdad to Warsaw and Paris, Rabbis experienced wave after wave of anti-Semetic hostility and could not find any answers in their Gemoras. They looked back at the miraculous times of the Maccabees (and Esther) with awe. Imagine, Jews fighting for what they believe in?
Jews do fight. Thank G-d we do. And over the last month, Jews all over the world watched their TV’s and their computer screens to see how Israel would defend herself against the Palestinian hostility in Gaza. Now that there is a cease-fire, everybody has an opinion of what they would do different. I would argue that it is easy for Jews in Los Angeles and New York to play Monday morning quarterback and insist that they know better than Prime Minister Netanyahu or the IDF Generals. It is difficult to show unwavering support for the State of Israel. But that is what is required of us.
This Chanukah there will be children in Sderot and Ashkelon who light their candles thinking that nobody is concerned about them any longer. They’re right. Nobody is glued to their TV’s or reading the Internet stories about Sderot and Ashkelon anymore. But we have to. They can be right about the rest of the world who only tunes in during times of absolute crisis, when rockets are falling, but they can’t be right about the Jewish People.
This Chanukah we must remind our children about the Jewish children who live on the border with Gaza and who are forced to live everyday with courage and strength and the Jewish will to live the Jewish ideal of determining our own destiny.
For a brief moment two thousand years ago, a group of brothers embodied this strength for the Jewish people. And maybe the miracle is that sixty-four years ago, another group of Jews decided to fight once again—To own our tradition once again. May we teach our children here in the Diaspora to honor that tradition in the State of Israel and all those who live that tradition every day. And may we all pray that this brief moment last forever and ever…