This year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic Woodstock Festival, so we could hardly pass up the opportunity to celebrate this landmark occasion with our own Woodshlock Purim, next Wednesday, March 20 at 7:00 pm. Our Purim schpiel will feature songs played at Woodstock in 1969, and other psychedelic, far-out, and terminally groovy tunes of the era. Chris Hardin and his band will be here “turning it up to eleven” along with some larynx-shredding vocals by our talented singers. Please dress in your 60s gear, or if you can’t dig up anything Woodstock-appropriate, feel free to come by and shop in my closet! Actually, at the real Woodstock clothing wasn’t all that important (if you know what I mean...).
Cantor Phil Baron's blog
This week’s parasha, Sh’mot, appropriately begins with a list of names, which makes sense because sh’mot means “names.” True, the Greek title of the book “Exodus” sounds rather more grand and descriptive. However, the Torah strives for clarity, and a little housekeeping and exposition at the beginning of a book does make some sense. So as the year 2018 of the Gregorian calendar draws to a close and we open a new book, as it were, I’d like to share some names with you as a way to explain what’s going on with the Music and B’nai Mitzvah staffs at VBS.
I’m thought of as a law-abiding citizen, a team player, an upright fellow. But I have to admit there is a part of me that’s rebellious. Oh, nothing serious mind you, but I admit to occasionally violating the traffic laws. For instance -- and this is just between us, I might have willfully turned right on red at the corner of Valley Meadow and Sepulveda. Shocking, I know. The things you find out about people…
So, with rebels like me around, it’s no wonder that Parashat Re’eh begins with a stern admonition.
We try to praise with musical enthusiasm on a regular basis here at VBS. And thanks to some technological innovations and innovative programming, we plan to do even more with music in the coming year. I'd like to use my last Clergy Corner before fall to let you know about some upcoming opportunities, and some details about how to access the music of VBS -- 24/7.
In this week’s parasha we learn that an “eruptive plague” might afflict your house and that “green or reddish streaks” might appear and go deep into the walls. Today we would call a mold specialist, but in ancient times it was necessary to dissemble the afflicted area stone by stone.
The Chassidic rabbis of old saw a metaphor in this. They suggest that the inhabitants of Canaan had hidden treasures inside these walls, and that the eruptive plague was there to serve as an enticement for the Israelites to look deeper into the walls to find the treasures. Their teaching was a spiritual one, encouraging us to look beyond the veil of the everyday to find God’s blessings.
The walls of VBS also contain treasures, both spiritual and corporeal. We tend to think of our leadership, staff and clergy as the “soul” of the congregation, but when we dig into the walls that support our community, something very different emerges. Our treasure is our people, our families, our students, our congregation -- young and old.
If you attend synagogue services regularly you’ve no doubt had the experience of accidentally dropping a prayer book. It was drummed into me at an early age that my immediate reaction should be to scoop up the book and give it a kiss. This is the way Jewish people express their respect for God’s Name and Word. I wouldn’t think of ignoring this custom.
That’s why it’s so shocking that in this week’s Torah reading Moses, upon discovering the people worshiping the Golden Calf and in a fit of anger, throws down the holy tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Shabbat Shira commemorates both the song sung by Moses and the Israelites, and the singing and dancing of Miriam and the Israelite women after crossing the sea to freedom. This was a moment of pure joy and celebration unlike any other in the Torah.
Although the words of this remarkable song can be found in our Torah, we can only guess what the melody must have been like. Just imagine its soaring phrases and exuberant chorus spreading among the hundreds of thousands of people on that far shore!
It’s nearly December 24 -- just one day away from that magical meal of mu-shu vegetables and egg foo-yung you’ve been waiting for. So while you’re waiting, munch some popcorn and indulge your craving for great entertainment with a new holiday tradition: the “Fiddler on the Roof” Sing-Along -- with friends! This is the 10th year that the Laemmle Theaters have hosted this fun event, proceeds going to support The Jewish Historical Society. Not only is this a screening of a brilliant film of perhaps the greatest musical of all time, but there will also be songs, games and prizes, all led by your host – me!
A number of people at VBS have asked me about a project I’m currently involved with, so I’m taking this opportunity to include some background and information in this week’s Clergy Corner. Please excuse the shameless plug (!), but I truly believe you will appreciate learning about this unique program.
Imagine thirty Jewish people in a room, all of them rabbis or cantors. Now imagine that they are completely silent – for hours at a time. They eat, pray, and study in total silence. This must be the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode, or the set-up for a Jewish joke, right?
This week’s parasha asks a challenging question: Is repentance alone enough to wipe away our wrongdoing, or is something more required of us? And what is the nature of true repentance?
If you have ever demanded an apology from a young child, you know that reluctant repentance is far from adequate. I remember reminding my daughter that a coerced “sorry” under her breath was not enough to earn my forgiveness -- unless it was accompanied by one other important word.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is probably the most eloquent writer ever on one of my favorite subjects: Shabbat. This week’s Torah reading wastes no time in reminding our people, not for the last time, of the importance of this holy day. It goes so far as to threaten death to anyone who violates the prohibition to work on the seventh day.
Our rabbis tell us that Moses was the humblest of men. After all, he tried to refuse God when asked to lead the Children of Israel. He was “slow of speech” by his own admission. He did not seem to have a very high opinion of himself. Those who knew him well may have disagreed, as this week’s parasha Yitro points out. There is a kind of ego-centrism that often creeps in when we’re not looking.
Last night I fought my way through terrible traffic to get my daughter to the airport. I was late for another event. Five minutes after dropping her off, she called to tell me her flight had been cancelled. The futility of my long drive was my first thought. Then, I took a deep breath and thought about the extra time I’d now have with my daughter. I picked her up and learned that the cancellation was due to mechanical failure. I breathed an even bigger sigh of relief and headed back home with a smile on my face. My daughter was safe. We were together. Halleluya.
There is a new buzz word in our culture right now. The word is “mindfulness,” which is a term that I never heard until a couple years ago, although the concept is quite ancient. In fact, as this week’s Torah portion demonstrates, it may have been invented by our ancestor Jacob.
This week’s parasha Ma’asei begins with a detailing of our people’s many journeys. I must say that the cantors trip to Spain that we took part in this summer -- with 50 cantors and another 280 congregants from all over the country, felt a bit like moving B’nei Yisrael through the wilderness (although the nine air-conditioned buses did help quite a bit!).
We’ve all had the experience of attending a party or event we didn’t want to go to. Sometimes you feel obligated, sometimes someone schleps you along. You’d rather do something else. You might be surprised and enjoy yourself, but more likely you’ll be grumpy, and spend the evening checking your watch. Still, you’ve fulfilled your obligation by going, and (you keep telling yourself) it’s good to do things for the sake of others.
Cantor Phil Baron
I’m writing today from a cantors’ conference in Palm Desert. It’s pouring rain, and we had an earthquake this morning. But other than that, it’s been great! I’ve had a chance to participate in some of the most moving prayer services I’ve ever experienced.
High Holiday audio track form Cantor Phil Baron. Wishing you and your family a safe, healthy and joyous New Year from the staff and Clergy of Valley Beth Shalom
I’ve always prided myself on finding the best, fastest and most creative ways to avoid traffic. It’s as if Los Angeles traffic and I were made for each other. We’re natural adversaries. 405 stop and go this morning? No problem.
The UCLA department of Ethnomusicology has a new Chair in Jewish Music, endowed by a grant in the name of legendary Jewish performer Mickey Katz. This is a ground-breaking event, and the new chair’s first occupant, Dr. Mark Kligman is already actively beginning to stimulate a Jewish music renaissance here in Los Angeles.
This week’s parasha is the telling of the final plagues sent to persuade Pharaoh. It is exciting, dramatic, moving, and certainly liberating. But is it true? Is there any proof at all that the Exodus from Egypt really happened? Some years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe made a controversial statement during his High Holiday sermon. He suggested that the Exodus might not be true; that there may have never been a Moses. Many historians and even theologians nodded knowingly, for Rabbi Wolpe simply articulated what many people believe – that the Exodus story is a myth, albeit a highly important and powerful one.
Most of us, clergy included, would like to have a more meaningful prayer experience. We all want to connect with the transcendental, with the ineffable, with the Holy One. This morning I asked the Day school 3rd graders if they talk to God. Many responded that they do -- especially when they say “Sh’ma” before going to sleep. So I did an experiment. We sang the “Sh’ma” through one time. Then, I slowly translated each word and asked them to sing it again.
The title of my Clergy Corner article is borrowed from a current novel by Charlotte Gordon. The dust jacket describes this biblical tale as, “A story of fidelity and abandonment, birthright and expulsion, the saga of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is the myth of origin for three monotheistic faiths. Ms. Gordon gives us a startling new perspective on this legendary love triangle.” Hagar, like many biblical characters before her, is finally given her due in the midrashic tradition, albeit with an overlay of modern sensibilities. This is certainly not new. The story of Abraham and Sarah is replete with aggadic story-telling and legend. Many of us grew up thinking that these stories could actually be found in the Torah. It wasn’t until I took a closer look at B’reishit that I found the colorful story of Abraham smashing the idols was, well, made up. I also remember how shocked I was to learn the George Washington probably never chopped down a cherry tree. Alas, childhood myths must eventually be…smashed (or chopped down!).
Our many centuries of Torah discussion and commentary, called midrash, are an essential part of who we are as a people. Normally this process is conducted verbally – out loud or written, and often preserved or added to a kind of ongoing forum which engages and merges the opinions of contemporary Jews and scholars from the distant past. Composer Michael Isaacson teaches that music is also midrash – or should be. Music comments on the written word, and when the two are in sync, the results can often express meaning more powerfully than either medium can on its own. With this in mind, composer Bob Remstein, a member of the Helfman Composers Group I helped create, has given us a musical/lyrical midrash on this week’s parasha that is both thought-provoking and very funny. Those of you who joined us for last year’s Shabbat Shira will agree it is unforgettable.
On February 22 and 23, you will have the opportunity to hear music rarely played in the synagogue ‑ and played brilliantly by a world-renowned musician.
The music has its roots in Andalusia, a region of Spain, and you may recognize it as flamenco, that exciting, energetic Spanish music, usually played on guitar and danced with great emotion, pulsating rhythm and agility.
I occasionally continue learning with my young students privately -- beyond the age of bar or bat mitzvah. These are usually highly motivated students who want to improve their Torah reading or davening skills. What teacher would not welcome students such as these? Besides being a joy to teach, they often ask the most creative and challenging questions.
One of these students, a young lady of 15, recently asked me how I felt about the addition of the imahot – the mothers of our people (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) to the Amidah prayer. Traditionally, only the patriarchs have been mentioned, but about 15 years ago the imahot were added as an option to the Amidah. Page 115a in Siddur Sim Shalom has the traditional Amidah with only the patriarchs, and 115b has the more inclusive version. In our main service here at VBS we always include the matriarchs
“When you have eaten your fill and built fine houses
to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied,
and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty
and you forget the Lord your God.”
There’s a joke. It seems there was a 5 year-old boy who had never spoken a word. His distraught parents had taken him to every specialist, but no doctor of the body or mind could unlock the mystery of the child’s disability. Then one day, the boy’s mother placed his breakfast before him, and out of the blue he spoke up and said, “Hey, the toast is burnt!” The mother was ecstatic. Tears of joy filled her eyes and she asked the boy why he had never spoken before. The boy answered, “Well, up until now, everything was okay.”
I’m proud to announce that I’ve almost finished reading Moby Dick. Okay, I started it in 2008, but still…
It’s a book that is by turns exciting and colorful, scholarly and literary, and also filled with an enormous amount of information that I don’t care about. It was clearly written before the acronym TMI (“Too Much Information”) was in the culture. It was also written when people’s attention spans were evidently as boundless as the ocean.