Category: Rabbi’s Message

On Fruit and Transformation

Thought Shavuot was all about dairy foods? Think again, says Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

When you think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, what do you picture as the forbidden fruit they ate? You might imagine an apple though we have no true idea what grew on the Tree of Knowledge. However, history has provided plenty of hypotheses.

Our sages have suggested the fruit might have been a grape, reasoning that nothing brings on more trouble than wine. Or it might have been a fig, since immediately upon eating it, Adam and Eve saw they were naked and made loin cloths out of nearby fig leaves.

But the most interesting hypothesis I’ve read about the forbidden fruit is that it was wheat. One might dismiss this as wheat is not a fruit, but we must remember we’re dealing with rabbinic logic here!

In ancient times there were two main grains that were widely cultivated: barley and wheat. Even though it is hearty and healthy, it’s not so easy on the stomach, so our ancestors avoided making barley into bread. Instead, they used it forstews, beer or animal feed. Wheat was held in much higher esteem, asit could be ground into a very fine flour for making easily digested bread.

Our sages also teach that the first solid food most children ate was wheat bread, which their parents would feed them once they started talking. This suggests a direct connection between wheat and knowledge, so sages identify the forbidden fruit as this grain.

But the symbolism of wheat and barley goes even deeper. In ancient Israel, farmers would plant wheat and barley seeds in the autumn, just in time to be nourished by the winter rains. However, the barley grows faster and would be harvested in March or April, while the wheat would be harvested in May or June. In the Torah, the barley harvest is associated with Pesach as the Israelites would make an offering of barley to God then. Fifty days later, the Israelites would celebrate Shavuot and bring an offering of bread, made of the finest flour from their wheat harvest.

Of course, the importance of Pesach and Shavuot extends beyond the agrarian, as they remind us of the two most central events in our people’s history. Pesach celebrates our liberation from enslavement and the birth of our people, and Shavuot celebrates the day God gave us the Torah and we attained knowledge.

Shavuot’s association with wheat, a grain so tied up with knowledge, led our sages to teach that ‘without wheat, there is no Torah; without Torah, there is no wheat’.

The 50-day journey that takes us from Pesach to Shavuot is called the Omer. The essence of this period is to see ourselves transform from being merely free animals into cognitive humans – finding our humanity through the wisdom of the Torah.

On this journey from Pesach to Shavuot, I encourage you to manifest your fullest potential as a human. And if you find yourself stuck, just remember Adam and Eve, who taught us that even the simplest of acts (like eating an apple) can prove to be truly transformative.

Spring cleaning for the soul

While many Jews will spend the day after Purim resting and reflecting on the previous night’s festivities, a small group of people will already be looking ahead one month and beginning their preparations for Pesach. I know it’s crazy to think about, but the time for eating matzah will soon be upon us. And while some people might spend a week or two (and many only a day or two) looking up new recipes, loading up on groceries and cleaning the house in preparation for the holiday, few people consider the spiritual preparations the holiday demands.

You see, just as Pesach can be viewed as the Jewish approach to spring cleaning, some rabbis say that we should treat the holiday as a chance to do some spring cleaning of our souls – a bit like a Yom Kippur 2.0.

The Maggid of Kozhnitz – an early and influential Chassidic rabbi – famously taught that just as we prepare for Pesach by clearing our homes of all signs of chametz, so too we must prepare for the holiday by clearing our souls of all negative inclinations. Pesach, he explains, is a joyful holiday – one that celebrates freedom and new beginnings – and requires us to be open to the joy these blessings bring. So just as we must wash the dirt off our windows to let in the most sunlight, we must also clear away the grime of our negativity if we are going to let in the joy of the holiday.   So how do we clear away our negative inclinations? The same way we clear our homes of chametz. We start the search for chametz in the places where we are most likely to eat it – in our kitchens and dining rooms – so we need to start looking for negativity where we most often exhibit it. Do you find yourself speaking poorly about other people more often than you should? Then you will want to use this month to be more aware of what you say when speaking of others. Do you find that you don’t treat your body as well as you should? Then this is the perfect time to think more about what you eat and how you stay healthy. No one knows you better than yourself, so take some time to identify one or two aspects of your life on which you would like to focus.

Now, before you worry about recalling every aspect of your life in which you can be negative, remember that we are only required to search for chametz in places we can reach. Don’t worry about remembering every slip-up you made this past year – by addressing the things you actually can remember, odds are you also will address the things you can’t recall. And just as you would never go to a friend’s house and start cleaning out their chametz, you should use this time to focus on doing your own spring cleaning – that’s already a big enough job as it is.

Don’t forget – to clean a house really well, you have to start by tidying up the place and preparing your supplies. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking you only need to spend a few minutes on this spiritual cleaning if you’re going to do a thorough job. This process takes time and preparation. But if you start early enough, it will be easier to identify your biggest obstacles and to figure out how to address them – in that way, you can get the most joy out of the freedom and new beginnings that come with your holiday celebrations. And really, is it ever too soon to start preparing to be happy?

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

Tu b’Shevat

This month, we celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which is known as the New Year of Trees. In Judaism, we’re not allowed to eat the fruit of a tree in its first three years, so rather than trying to remember exactly when we planted a tree, we can use Tu B’Shevat to mark its birthday. Whether you plant a tree 10 days before Tu B’Shevat or 10 months before, either way – according to our tradition – that tree will turn one on Tu B’Shevat.

Tu B’Shevat is often marked by planting trees or engaging in other eco-friendly activities. While these customs are beautiful and meaningful, I’d rather focus on the deeper symbolism of the day.

Trees are mentioned throughout our tradition for many reasons, one of which is to compare them to people. The rabbis teach that just as a tree with strong roots can withstand the most powerful winds, so too a person with a strong foundation can withstand any challenge. But what are the metaphoric roots that provide us with this stability?

One of the strongest foundations we enjoy is our tradition – our holidays, rituals and literature. For instance, by celebrating Shabbat and holidays with family and friends, we are able to pause to reflect on our lives and to connect with those we love. This fortifies us, allowing us to stand strong in the face of adversity.

Another way to understand our metaphoric roots is provided by the rabbis in Pirkei Avot (3:17), where it says, ‘A person who possesses great wisdom, but lacks good deeds, is like a tree with many branches, but few roots: a light wind can easily uproot it.’ In other words, if you spend all your time and energy advancing yourself (for intellectual or material gain) and not helping others, then you’ll be left vulnerable when trouble comes your way. However, if a plant roots in the fertile soils of community, you will withstand the strongest of winds.

I want to propose that this month we take the opportunity to consider how we would like to plant our own roots. For you and your family, that might be celebrating more Shabbat or holiday meals together, or even introducing one or two new traditions. Or you might want to think of ways to volunteer and support the wider community. You could even strengthen your foundation in the Jewish tradition by watching our Taste of Torah videos or attending an adult education class or discussion.

No matter how you choose to plant your roots this year, I want to encourage you to take small, gradual steps toward growth. It is better to make one small commitment and see it through than to take on too much and have to give up. Try to find the one thing that will help you grow and strengthen your roots in the coming year. After all, it takes a long time and a lot of patience for a sapling to become a mighty oak or a towering cedar.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

A Taste of Torah: Shema, part 3

We’ve learned a lot about the Shema – arguably the most important prayer in Judaism, in part 1 and part 2. We now conclude by answering some remaining questions, like what’s up with all the mumbling and kissing, and why do we say the Shema differently at certain times. So take a few minutes to watch this Taste of Torah video, and learn the answer to these questions and more, as we complete our exploration of the Shema.

A Taste of Torah: Shema, part 2

In part 1, we learnt a bit about the Shema – mostly what it is and when we say it. But we still have a lot of questions to address, like what’s up with covering our eyes, all the mumbling and kissing, and whether we’re supposed to sit or stand. So take a few minutes to watch this video as we continue our journey through the Shema.

A Taste of Torah: Shema, part 1

Let’s talk about the Shema. For such a simple prayer, there’s a ton to know. Like, why do we even say it? And why do we sometimes say it quietly and other times out loud? Are we supposed to cover our eyes or not? And should we be sitting or standing? And what’s up with all the kissing? There’s so much to learn! So here’s what we’re going to do: Instead of answering all these questions in one really long video, we’ll be exploring the Shema in three parts.

A Taste of Torah: Chanukah

It’s getting darker earlier and earlier, which means it’s almost time for Chanukah. Do you struggle to remember just exactly how to light the Menorah? Are you supposed to add candles from the left or right? And which direction do you light the candles? Why do we even light the Chanukah candles? And isn’t it a serious fire hazard to place those burning candles in the window near the drapes?! Take a few minutes to learn the answers to these questions and more in Rabbi Botnick’s latest video.

Embrace the Light

As we prepare to say goodbye to 2021 and reflect on the past year, I can’t help but focus on the challenges of the pandemic and lockdown, as well as the cautious optimism of reopening.

Despite all the pain and suffering we experienced over the past eighteen months, many of us find ourselves still clinging to a general sense of hope and faith. Call it naive if you will, but I believe this outlook is woven into the fabric of the Jewish people.   Throughout history, the Jewish people has witnessed one devastating catastrophe after another. From the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem to the Crusades, from the Spanish Inquisition to the pogroms, and finally the Holocaust – each of these events saw mind-numbingly high numbers of casualties and a threat to the Jewish future.

Yet despite the pain and sorrow resulting from these events, the Jewish people held onto their faith and maintained hope in a better future. And no holiday embodies this sense of hope and optimism more than Chanukah.   The Talmud records a disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over the proper way to light the Chanukah menorah: Beit Shammai says we should start with eight candles and remove one each day; Beit Hillel says we should start with one candle and add one more each day. As is almost always the case, Beit Hillel wins the argument, but their reasoning here is uniquely beautiful and powerful: Ma’alin BaKodesh VeEin Moridin – we only increase holiness, we never diminish it.   Another way to look at Beit Hillel’s ruling is to say that at the darkest time of the year, we light more and more candles in order to drive out the darkness of pain and suffering with the light of hope and optimism.  

Last year, we were not able to hold our annual Chanukah Bazaar due to the pandemic, but this year, we are cautiously reopening our doors. While I would understand if not all of you are ready to re-join us in person quite yet, the fact that we are allowing ourselves to return to some sense of normality shows that we are embracing the lesson of Chanukah and the story of the Jewish people: there may be times when we must hide in the dark, but a time will always come when we must embrace the light and help it grow.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick

Connection, reconnection and disconnection

Despite the challenges and traumas of the past 18 months, one can’t help but marvel at all we’ve accomplished, thanks to technology. We have FaceTime and Zoom for ‘visiting’ family and friends or ‘attending’ classes and services. We have Netflix, Spotify and Libby to enjoy TV, film, music and books. Podcasts and blogs make it simple to learn from people all over the world. And yet, our connectedness is both a blessing and a curse.

It is a blessing that my daughter can FaceTime with her grandparents and great-grandparents across the ocean. It is a blessing that my colleagues and I can correspond on WhatsApp, despite living on multiple continents. It is a blessing that we can learn with just a few taps of a screen.

But it is also a curse to be so dependent on technology to feel connected. We are drawn constantly towards our devices with each bleep – tearing us away from the present moment and turning our attention towards something happening elsewhere. With a 24/7 news cycle, it feels as if we are incapable of going even an hour without checking our screens. The greatest irony is that this connectedness has led to an increased sense of isolation from those around us. Not only that, but we also spend less time connecting with our own selves, as the gratification provided by our devices is far more immediate than the difficult work of introspection.

So how do we solve this dilemma?

The first step is to disconnect from technology. In recent years, a group called ReBoot has been promoting what they call a National Day of Unplugging, running from sundown to sundown, on the first Friday in March. In other words, it’s Shabbat. The fact is, every week, Shabbat offers us the opportunity to unplug and disconnect from technology without guilt. Family and friends are less likely to begrudge you for not answering their texts right away when you tell them you were following Jewish tradition. Better yet, the family and friends with whom you spend Shabbat will enjoy your physical and emotional presence that much more.

But if the idea of disconnecting every week feels a bit daunting, why not start with something easier? Try disconnecting from technology for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sadly, due to the restrictions of social distancing, we still need to rely on technology to ‘attend’ services this year. But I want to encourage you to try shutting down your device the moment services end. Use the time to connect with the world around you – take a walk on the Heath, meditate in
your garden or engage a loved one in meaningful conversation. If you’re able to attend services in person this year, seize the opportunity to check in with those you care about – those you haven’t been able to see this past year – by moving past superficial greetings and asking how they’re doing in a respectful and meaningful way.

Finally, after you’ve disconnected from technology and reconnected with old friends, you can take on the most important (and challenging) task: connecting with yourself. This is actually what the High Holydays are about. The word that best describes this time of year is ‘Teshuvah’, which literally means ‘return’. Most commonly, this return refers to a reconnection with God. And as the way to God comes from within, the first step of Teshuvah is listening to and connecting with ourselves.

This is the holy work we must take on during the holidays. By disconnecting from the noise in our lives, we attain a silence and stillness that sets the stage for our work. By reconnecting with those we love, we establish for ourselves a loving and supportive environment in which to work. And finally, we engage in the holy work itself by connecting with the deepest parts of our souls, through the framework of our tradition. In this sense, the Machzor (prayer book) serves as a guidebook. One should not feel obligated to follow every page, prayer or even word at the frantic pace of the communal service. Rather, take your time and meditate on these ancient words at your own pace. Use the poetry of our liturgy as a mirror to gaze upon yourself – searching within for any Divine attributes you recognise or wish were there.

Every year, we enter the High Holy Days with the intention of finding these connections – with others, with ourselves, with the Divine. This year, as we strive to move beyond the curses of our technological connectedness, the call of this holy work seems all the more important.

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick