I remember being present at one of only two arguments between my father and his father.
It was a few weeks before Rosh HaShanah in 1970, and we had just left my grandfather’s doctor in Beverly Hills. The doctor had just told my grandfather that he was to not fast on Yom Kippur due to his health. My father argued the doctor’s point, but my grandfather rebutted that he had never not fasted, and that it was a sin to not fast. We were driving to the Rabbi to ask him for the answer.
Strangely, I understand that the other argument that they had, the only other argument, was on the eve of my father’s induction into the Army. My grandfather begged and pleaded with my father to eat whatever the Army gave him. My father said that he could not eat anything that was not Kosher, and would starve first. This discussion too, I have been told, was placed to the Rabbi, who told my father, as the Rabbi did in 1970, that Pikuakh haGoof and Pikuach haNefesh, health of body and health of soul, comes before everything; even Yom Kippur, even Shabbat.
And so, my father ate what was served to him, and my grandfather ate, albeit lightly, on Yom Kippur so that he could take his medication.
The following July, my grandfather had a massive stroke and passed away. My father began going to our Conservative Synagogue every morning and evening to pray and say Kaddish. I loved going with him.
Kohn Chapel on the Beverly Glen side of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles is a hexagonal room with five long pews on each side, a Bima in the center of the room and an Aron Kodesh in the northeastern most corner. The chapel was designed for praying “in the round” and was very comfortable.
In the last row, nearest the Aron Kodesh, sat Nick Mermel, the Shammes or Ritual Director of the large Shul. He would daven mostly with his Siddur in his hand, closed, but with his fingers holding the page. He would chant, all by heart, with such feeling that I believed myself close enough to G-d to reach out and touch him.
I remember that our Rabbi, Hillel Silverman, used to sit in the front row across from Mr. Mermel and seemed to be in a world of his own while davening amongst all of us.
I was only nine or ten years old when I began attending Minyan daily, and even though the reason for our attendance was an observance laid in sadness, with my dad saying Kaddish, the feeling that I got from simply being there was overwhelming. The peace and strength that engrossed itself within my soul was at once both calming and invigorating.
One day, for no reason, except that I felt the need to, during the Shema, I stood at my seat and sang VeAhavta. It became my thing. Every morning and every evening, I would stand and chant VeAhavta. I remember the look on Mr. Mermel’s face, as I did this day in and day out. Both pride and curiosity graced this wonderful man’s face. From that day, and each day since, VeAhavta is recited in trope in Kohn Chapel.
Yearning for the chance to be part of the service, I looked forward to one day being of age to place Tefillin on my arm and join my community in public prayer.
My grandmother passed away just seven months later, and our eleven months of mourning became 18 in February of 1972.
By this time, I was able to lead the Mincha service, and did so several days a week. Each and every time I stepped onto the Bima, I felt a presence within me. A feeling of both relaxation and elation. A feeling of peace and of spirituality.
We also attended services, of course, on Shabbat and Shabbat afternoon. The Seudah Shlishit between Mincha and Maariv/Havdalah was a time that I looked most forward to, as we would discuss Torah, the Parsha of that week, or current affairs in Israel.
Usually, my father had to see patients on Shabbat (he was a Veterinarian), and he would drive me to the Shul, where I would join Cantor Carl Urstein’s Shabbat Choir, backing up the Bar Mitzvah for the Shacharit service. After Shacharit, I would sit with my friends and enjoy the Torah reading and by the time that Musaf was concluded, I was thinking about Mincha.
Chazzan Joe Gole replaced Cantor Urstein following his retirement, and the Chazzan and I became fast friends. He was young, just out of Seminary and loved to teach. I was eleven or twelve and loved learning to daven in different nusachim and melodies, different prayers for different days, and my favorite of all, the Hallel.
I became Bar Mitzvah on November 21, 1974. A Thursday. I finally lay Tefillin and was on the Bima from start to finish. I leined Torah and rose to my first ever Aliyah. It was an incredible morning, but not as incredible as the Shabbat morning two days later.
My third Aliyah to the Torah took place at the Kotel on December 3; a rainy Monday, Erev Chanukkah. At a bima ten feet in front of the Kotel, on the far right of the prayer section of the Plaza, and right next to the Mechitza, I davened Shacharit and was called again to the Torah. It was the most memorable Aliyah of them all. From out of nowhere, I was hit by several flying pieces of hard candy, as Yemenite women screeched and screamed from behind the Mechitza. I knew then that Judaica would one day be my vocation as well as my avocation.
As life moved forward, Zionism and Israel became a larger part of my life. Spending each summer in Israel for the next several years reminded me of how alive I felt each time I was there; how my people called to me and how my heart felt full and satisfied with each breath of air from the skies above Eretz Yisrael.
Albeit growing up in a Conservative Synagogue, certain practices that had become commonplace in the more liberal world of Conservative Judaism were still somewhat taboo to our family. Even though both of my sisters became B’not Mitzvah, and leined Torah, my father was never really comfortable with women on the Bima, and the truth is, that neither was I.
When called upon to need to say Kaddish for my own son, beginning in 1991, I would always seek a Congregation that would sport a “Kosher” minyan; A Minyan with ten men as opposed to ten people. About these leniencies, I was not fond. Not just because it seemed unusual to me, but more, I believe, because it did not seem natural. However, within the past few years, I have learned that in order to truly advocate Judaism, we must always be open to new ideas and interpretations.
I once was asked to describe how I would teach Torah, from the beginning of Bereshit to the end of Devarim, from a chronological annual standpoint, as opposed to Sedra-by-Sedra.
I responded that the Torah is, of course, divided into exactly fifty-four Parshiot or portions so that we start and finish reading the entire Torah in exactly one year. The Rabbanim of old who designed the reading scheme were brilliant. Shortly after Rosh HaShana, twenty days, to be exact, we finish Sefer Dvarim and begin Sefer Bereshit immediately following. The cycle is never-ending.
Prior to Rosh HaShana by a month exactly, it has recently become custom to begin our atonement on the beginning of the month of Elul, theoretically allowing ourselves an extra month to atone to those whom we may have hurt, and to be able to fully concentrate on our relationship with G-d during the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
But, in reality, our Teshuvah does not end on the close of Yom Kippur, rather, at sundown on Hoshana Raba, which ends Sukkot and begins Shemini Atzeret. This is also known as Erev Simchat Torah. My initial question was why do we not begin to read Torah on Rosh Hashana? Because Torah teaches us that Shmini Atzeret is the 22nd of Tishrei and Simchat Torah is the 23rd of Tishrei. In Israel, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are on the same day, the 22nd of Tishrei. The Torah, designates Rosh HaShana as the first day of the Seventh Month (Tishrei) as a non work day that Shofar is sounded.*
This being the case, and as both Mishna and Torah dictate when Rosh HaShana is, but Torah alone dictates that Simchat Torah is annually on the 22nd of Tishrei, the correct assumption would be this: we have an extra 30 days (Elul) to make things right with people whom we may have hurt. We have ten days of Teshuvah between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and another 10 days from Yom Kippur until the end of Hoshana Raba to make things right with G-d. Once we are finished repenting, we can celebrate. And what could be a better way to celebrate, than beginning to read Torah from the beginning?
The next question that we may ask ourselves is relative to understanding what we are reading. According to every TaNaCH, and every Sefer Torah, every word in the original and accepted text is identical, the first words being: בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ. I have always understood this sentence to mean: In the Beginning G-d created the Heavens and the Earth.
*- Mishna designates four separate Roshei Shana. On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; on the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; on the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables; and on the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees.
JPS, The Jewish Publication Society, has for over 120 years published and distributed Judaic texts in many languages, including English, Spanish and French. They are known throughout the world as the number one publishing house for Judaic text, and the way that JPS reads this line is: When G-d began to create…
Initially when I read this, I had to read and reread this sentence, as I did not understand how all of the brilliant Gaonei Talmud and Chachamei Torah could understand this sentence to read as they wrote. Certainly their Hebrew is more educated than mine, but nowhere could I find any relation to the words “when”, “began” or “to create”.
And then I looked further down, in the same chapter, the original and accepted text says: ויהי ערב, ויהי בוקר יום אחד. And when compared again with the English in the JPS translation, there was a discrepancy. The JPS scholars read this line as: and it was evening and it was morning the first day. Again, I am not able to locate the word ראשון meaning “first”. The direct translation from my understanding is: and it was evening and it was morning one day.
After inspecting more and more of the JPS English translation against the original and accepted text, I found what appeared to be error after error. Could this just be JPS? I looked at other publishers, and they also had different translations. I checked in Spanish. I checked in French. I even had a friend check in Russian. What I found was that almost every translation that I found was different. And the conclusion that came to me was this:
If all the brilliant, knowledgeable, and learned Gaonei Torah could not agree on one translation, how could we? In other words, unless we study TaNaCH in the original and accepted text, in Hebrew, how can we know if anything that we are studying is accurate? And, my recommendation at that time was that unless we can study in Hebrew, we should not study, as we may not be learning what G-d intended for us to learn.
In the past year, I began working with a man who would be the first congregant with whom I would experience the final steps to Olam haBa. He had called the Synagogue seeking someone to visit with him and help him come to terms with both his illness and that of his wife, who would die the next day. This man, Bob, told me of how his father was very observant, but also very strict, and due to his strict upbringing, Bob not only did not enjoy going to Shul, but when he turned 18 and moved away from home, he stopped practicing Judaism altogether.
As I drove to his home, I at first asked myself why he called the Synagogue for help if he wasn’t comfortable there. That thought lasted about a minute, and my mind turned to strategy. How could I convince this man that G-d can help him? Would I need to turn to my own personal story of how I died a year before and that G-d returned me to Olam HaZeh after a two month coma to do Teshuvah and help people like him? Would I need to show him my tracheotomy scar and my oxygen tank for him to trust that I am on his side? Or, would he just want to talk?
It turned out to be a little of all of these. Over the next eleven weeks, although Bob never did “get” Torah, per say, he understood the spirit of Torah in the most literal of ways, as he did his own Teshuva with his daughters, and with G-d.
As I sat with him at Hospice, his daughter just having left the room, he asked me if he could leave now. I told him that it was okay, and he asked me to say Kaddish for him. I agreed and Bob closed his eyes and rejoined his wife.
During the week that I spent with Bob at the Hospice Center, I was introduced to a lady named Rosalyn. Rosalyn, an end stage Alzheimer’s patient seemed to meet me anew each time I would visit, and I continued to visit her for two or three weeks after Bob had left us to complete his journey. Each time I would see her, her eyes would light up, and she would excitedly beam “Rabbi Honey!” It didn’t matter to Rosalyn whether I spent a half hour or ten minutes; only that I was there and that I cared.
One Sunday evening, on my way home from Maariv, I stopped in to see Rosalyn. As soon as I entered her room, she again sprouted up. “RABBI HONEY!! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” This visit was very different from the previous visits. On this Sunday, Rosalyn was bright, aware and totally lucid. As I sat with her, she recalled her life story, and told me how she lived in Manhattan and then on Long Island. How her husband used to take her to dinner every night and how he used to buy her a new dress and hat every week. She told me of her upbringing and about how her father was a sickly man, but that he always worked hard to take care of her and her sister. She talked and I listened, occasionally jotting down a note or two. As the hour got closer to the nine o’clock shift change, Rosalyn asked me about that week’s Parsha. I told her that the Parsha was VaYetze and that I would be happy to talk with her about it the following night, and we made a date for Monday after Maariv.
On the way home, I believed that I would not see her on Monday. I thought that her room would be empty the next day, and I called her daughter to relay that I had just seen her mom, and that she told me her life story. It was then that her daughter asked me for a strange favor. (I had not noticed before, because she was always under blankets, but according to her daughter, for the past fifteen years, not only had Rosalyn suffered from Alzheimer’s, but also from a bone condition that caused all of her fingers to break, her arms and legs to cross and wind around each other and her back to curve so badly, that she was in an almost constant ‘L’ shape.) Her daughter asked me to please call the Jewish Mortuary and ask that they please not break her back to fit her into the casket when the time came.
I did as she asked, and following Maariv the next day, I went to visit Rosalyn. Just in case she was still in her room, I had my TaNaCH in hand and a few short, but sweet Divrei Torah about VaYetze. She was up and waiting for me in a chair. As we talked about Yaacov and the Angel; about their wrestling match and about the Angel dislocating Yaacov’s hip, her ears perked up and she asked me more about the wrestling Angel. Her curiosity peaked when we discussed how Yaacov, who was born on his brother’s heel, who was not a sportsman, nor a hunter, but was a bit, shall we say, conniving, straightened out just as the Angel dislocated his hip. She asked me if I could come back the next day, and I told her that I could see her on Wednesday, because I was set to teach Hebrew High on Tuesday night. She told me that she’d wait for me, and she did.
‘You’re late,” she exclaimed, as I entered her room. And then her smile subsided and she asked me to sit down. She was as lucid on Wednesday as she was on Sunday and Monday. She was aware and she was awake, and as her face became concerned, she said “I need to settle up with your boss. How can I do that?”
Rosalyn proceeded for the next two hours to tell me that the reason that her husband took her out to eat every day was because she refused to cook for him; that the reason he had bought her new clothes each week was because she would yell and scream if he hadn’t; how she had not spoken with her sister in over seventy years, and how she had another daughter that she had not spoken to in fifty.
She told me that the family moved to Long Island because she alienated everyone in the building and the reason for moving later to Las Vegas, and then to Arizona, was due to much of the same. “I was not always this nice old lady you have come to know, Rabbi Honey. I was a mean, evil woman, and when I die, not one person will come to my funeral. How do I settle up with your boss?” she asked. “I want to go dancing with my husband.”
I told her that she had already settled up; that she was good to go. I told her that all she had to do was to close her eyes and tell G-d that she was ready, and as soon as she did that, G-d would send the first Angel that he could to come and get her. He would tap her shoulder and in an instant, she would be dancing with her husband. And then she asked me the big question: Will I have to wrestle with the Angel?
I received the phone call at 9:30 the next morning that at 10:00 that night, Rosalyn had gone to sleep, and when the nurse checked in on her at 10:05, she was gone. Her daughter called me and asked me to perform the service on Friday afternoon, and I, of course, agreed. The only people there were her daughter and her daughter’s daughter (and her two young children), whom Rosalyn had never met.
After the family had left, the mortician approached me and asked me about the business with not bending her, or not breaking her back. “She was straight as the day she was born”, he told me. “No broken fingers; no mangled legs or arms; No curved spine.” Maybe she met Jacob’s Angel, I thought.
That night I attended Shabbat services at the Reform Congregation where I taught this year. The Cantor was playing a guitar, there was a drummer and a guitarist, and the room was filled with so much Ruach and spirit that I was amazed. As I looked around the Sanctuary, I started to think about the question posed to me and my initial conclusion that only those trained in Hebrew should learn Torah. I began to count. How many of the people here that are so enjoying Shabbat will ever learn enough Hebrew to study Torah properly? Four out of three hundred? Three? Five? Immediately I had my answer.
Following Shabbat I opened up my JPS TaNaCH and looked at Bereshit. It read: בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ. I thought, and looked at the first word: בראשית. And I looked at it again. And again. And again. What is the real shoresh, I thought to myself. What is the real root? Is it ברא from “create”? Or is it ראש from “head” or “top”?
Now I had the real conclusion to this question. It is a living Torah. What we read today may not be what we read tomorrow. What we understood last week will be different next year and the next, and that is what makes Torah so beautiful. We can all read it as we will, and understand it as we will, and nobody is ever wrong. The key is in understanding that we may not ever understand. The beauty is in knowing that as we grow, so does Torah.
I had occasion to speak with Rabbi Silverman, Cantor Gole and Mr. Mermel over the last few days. Each of them echoed what I already knew: that my father and grandfather are smiling down on me as I accept Smicha.
I once was asked to describe how I would teach Torah, from the beginning of Bereshit to the end of Devarim. Now I know. One mitzvah at a time.