Rabbi KrishefRabbi David J.B. Krishef grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Hebrew and Jewish Studies.  Following a two year stint as a program director at the University of Minnesota Hillel Foundation (serving students at Carleton and Macalester colleges), he entered the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he received ordination in 1994.

Read more about Rabbi David J.B. Krishef

 

Psalm 127

Unless Adonai builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless Adonai watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain. (127:1)

We are God’s junior partners in the maintenance of the world. Everything we build relies on the existence of consistent and predictable natural law. In order for the bridge to bear the weight of a given amount of traffic, the engineer has to know that the materials will behave according to the laws of physics. In order for the medicine to treat the illness, the doctor relies on predictable chemical and biological interactions between the substance and the biological entity.

Bridges fail. Medication fails. A friend of mine computer-models fractures in materials. His models can only approximate how the real material behaves. This happens not because the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are capricious, but rather because our knowledge of how those laws function in the real world is incomplete.

We could live for long stretches of time without being aware of the builder. For this reason, Judaism urges us to pause before we enjoy a product of the natural world and say a blessing. “You are the source of blessing, Adonai our God, eternal sovereign of the universe, who created the food we are about to eat.” That spark of gratitude reminds of that the house in which we live had a designer and a builder.

Psalm 126

January 11, 2016

When Adonai restores the fortunes of Zion, we are as dreamers. (126:1)

To be a Jew is to be an optimist and a dreamer. We don’t say “if God gives Zion back to us,” we say “when.” For nearly 2000 years of exile during which there was a Jewish presence but no Jewish control over Jerusalem, we introduced Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals, with this Psalm on Shabbat. Our optimism asserts that our loss of sovereignty was only a temporary setback that could be corrected at any time. The Sabbath in Jewish tradition is celebrated as taste of the world to come, a day on which we experience the beauty and peace of messianic era. Shabbat embodied the optimism of the Jew. No matter how much time has gone by, no matter how much evil or hatred we experience in the world, Shabbat takes us back to the perfection of the garden of Eden.

In order to improve yourself to the greatest extent possible, you must have goals that are slightly beyond your reach. If your goal is to lose five pounds and you succeed and stop trying to lose weight, you miss the opportunity to lose ten pounds. If your goal is to increase your strength and endurance by taking a 50 mile bike ride, you might stop at that point and lose the opportunity to ride 60 miles. If your goal is to increase sales by 10%, you might lessen your efforts when you reach that mark and miss the opportunity to increase by 25%.

Optimism teaches us to celebrate our accomplishments even if we haven’t reached our goals. After setting the mark higher than you expect and losing only nine pounds instead of ten pounds; riding only 58 instead of 60 miles; or increasing sales only 20 instead of 25%, you can then notice with pride in accomplishment that you lost nine pounds instead of five pounds; rode 58 instead of 50 miles; and increased by 20% rather than 10%.

To be a Jew means to be an optimist and a dreamer.

Psalm 125

Jerusalem, hills enfold it, and Adonai enfolds God’s people now and forever. (125:2)

Jerusalem is not built on the largest of mountains and Israel is not the largest of peoples. Yet God protects both, which accords with a Biblical theme that the largest and the strongest are not necessarily the most important. In the story of Israel, it is the small and the second-born rather than the powerful or the first-born, the mild shepherd rather than the mighty hunter, who deserves God’s covenantal promise.

Living a modest life is a primary Jewish value. We know that we do not have to make a big splash in order to have a lasting impact on the world. A modest person can raise similarly modest children who live lives of faith and raise modest children of their own. One’s values pass from generation to generation through one’s children and one’s students. It is not necessary to be rich and famous in order to seed the world with goodness. In fact wealth and fame may very well may make it more difficult to live a covenanted life. Not impossible, but more difficult, because the power that comes from success nudges one in the direction of immodest and arrogant behavior. It is an additional obstacle that a powerful person must overcome, while a modest person does not. Thank God for the wealthy people who not only generously support institutions in their communities, but also do so with modesty. Thank God for the people of modest means who live humble lives enfolded in the arms of God.

Divre Harav, January, 2016

First I want to acknowledge with gratitude the outpouring of love and support for me and my family on the loss of my father. The journey through shiva gave me insight into a profoundly healing ritual that I had never fully experienced. The first time I sat shiva was for my infant daughter. The shiva minyanim morning and evening were important, but because we had two of her siblings in the hospital, we left the house every day to go visit them and focus on their needs. This time I experienced shiva in a form closer to its intended state. Except for the travel day between Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, I stayed in the home and stayed away from activities that would distract me from thinking about my father.

I talked about my father to Marisa and kept in touch by phone with my mother and sisters. I did some writing with my father in mind, created a slide show of pictures of my father, and watched it until I could do so without crying. I also sat or lay down doing nothing but thinking about him, stories he told, things we did together, and particularly how he handled the last week of his life.

The day my father died and the following day, the day of the funeral, I was an emotional wreck. The time I spent with my sisters and my mother, all grieving the loss of this person who meant so much to each of us, was enormously healing, and the time I spent in Grand Rapids with my community was comforting. In accordance with shiva customs, I didn’t get up to greet visitors. I waited until they came to greet me. I did that because even when I was in my home, I was not a host and didn’t want to act like one, which would have taken me out of the mental space of mourner.

Some people don’t know what to say to a mourner. For this reason, some visitors avoided me, not speaking to me until they were ready to leave, when they shared a few brief words of condolence, like “I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father.” Other people said that or the words that Judaism supplies, “May God comfort you among all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” as they entered, but disengaged as soon as possible afterwards. There were times, especially at the shiva in Minneapolis, that I was sitting by myself just watching people come in and stand on the other side of the room from where I was sitting.

It is difficult for many people to talk about death. To speak about my father would stir up uncomfortable feelings either about their own parent’s death or about their own mortality. They may have projected those feelings onto me, thinking that I would be uncomfortable having to speak about my father. The most uncomfortable moments for me were when people engaged me in conversation that had nothing to do with my father or when they launched into some kind of sermon telling me what I should be feeling, thinking, or believing about my father’s soul.

I found great wisdom in the traditional approach to shiva, suggesting that visitors sit with the mourners in silence and let them open the conversation however they want. I wanted to talk about my father and when I found opportunities to share stories about him, it was a comfort to me. I was looking for the shiva visitors to provide me with an opening. More than anything, I wanted them to say very simply, “Tell me something about your father.” This, more than anything, is the enduring lesson I will take away from this shiva experience. Again, I am grateful to each one of you who called, visited, sent a note, made a donation, brought food, or spoke to me personally about the loss of my father.

Psalm 124

Our help is the name of Adonai, maker of heaven and earth. (124:8)

The power of names. I love superheroes and will watch virtually any television series and see virtually any movie featuring characters from Marvel or DC. When I was young, I recall a short-lived television series based on a DC comic about Captain Marvel. Billy Batson was a teenage boy who, when he witness injustice, would strike a dramatic pose and transform himself into Captain Marvel by pronouncing the word, “Shazam!”

Then there is the beloved fairy tale collected by the Grimm brothers, in which uttering the name “Rumplestiltskin” causes the title character to stomp his right foot into the ground so hard that he either falls into a chasm or gets stuck and tears his body in two trying to escape, depending on which edition you read.

Jewish tradition asks us not to pronounce the personal name of God, spelled with the Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vav-He. Instead, we substitute the name Adonai (roughly, my Lord) or occasionally Elohim (God). We recognize that part of the power of the use of a personal name is that it implies equality between the user of the name and the owner of the name. Similarly, I would never address my parents as ‘Dale’ and ‘Bob.’ Instead, I use the titles Mom and Dad as a sign of honor.

In ancient times, the names of gods were thought to have had great power. Some mystical traditions attempt to discover the secret name of God. Using it, a person could supposedly control aspects of the physical universe. Other traditions use the name of God as a mantra. A meditation centered on breathing in and out the letters of God’s name will not give you God’s creating power, but may very will calm and center your mind, thus releasing your own creative energy.

Psalm 123

Too long has our soul been saturated with the ridicule of the complacent, the contempt of the arrogant. (123:4)

Ridicule and contempt wear down our souls. They are weapons used against those who take an unpopular position. Rather than engage in discussion and analysis of the pro’s and con’s, the path of a bully is to use tactics of intimidation by belittling the message or the messenger.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a child’s magical incantation to ward off the pain of being put down with words. It rarely works, because it is extraordinarily painful to be belittled, even just with words. It hurts not to be taken seriously.

The complacent and the arrogant might believe that things are great just the way they are right now, and no change is needed. They might believe that the status quo is dead and radical change is the only way to survive. It is not their ideas that make them complacent or arrogant, but rather the way they express them, with the certainty that they are right and anyone who opposes them is wrong.

Leadership of an organization, beware! For only so long will your volunteers devote their time and resources if they are not valued. Healthy individuals can handle the fact that not every proposal will survive the test of committee discussion because they know that not every idea is necessarily a good one. But even emotionally stable people will walk away if ridicule and contempt, complacency and arrogance, are the response to every proposal.

Psalm 122

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be in tranquility. (122:6)

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism, from the shaping of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish practice, the city is to Jewish history what Rome was to the Romans or what Babylon was to the Babylonians. Except while those ancient empires are no more, the Jewish civilization that grew up around Jerusalem thrives. I think of Jerusalem as the power source for my spiritual battery. Judaism has been powered either by the fact or by the memory of Jerusalem its Capitol city for over 3000 years, and both Judaism and Islam preserve traditions that connect Jerusalem with the site of Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac (or Ishmael, in the Moslem tradition), perhaps 3800 years ago.

The ancient etymology of the name ‘Jerusalem’ is made up of the two words “city of” and “Shalom,” peace. A vital Jerusalem is necessary for the spiritual life of Israel. A Jew who lives connected to Jewish texts and traditions cannot live in tranquility when our most sacred city is not a peace.

In ancient Jewish maps of the world, Jerusalem is in the center. In Jewish maps of the spiritual life, Jerusalem is the center. May we see the day when Isaiah’s vision comes to pass, that “… My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” and the house of worship on the Temple Mount will be a place where people of all faiths can pray in peace together.

Psalm 121

Adonai will guard your going and coming now and forever. (121:8)

Travel makes us vulnerable. When we leave the security of our homes, we are at the mercy of a means of transportation which might break down, get stuck in traffic, get in an accident, or be delayed by weather. It is no wonder that the traveler prays that God will protect him from missing connecting flights, losing a passport, being robbed, or getting sick. Even the occasional traveler has been stranded overnight, has had to find a place for emergency auto repairs, or has gotten lost in a strange city.

It seems that God doesn’t so much protect us from inconveniences as much as give us the emotional stability to withstand them and the mental ingenuity to work around them. With the right frame of mind, most travel inconveniences can be seen as adventures. It is the thrill of extending the trip for an extra day, having the chance to see a new part of the city, and embracing the opportunity to focus on the journey rather than the destination.

If the destination is the only thing that matters, how many wonderful things will we miss on the journey? Traveling to Chicago to catch a plane IMG_2197to Minneapolis for my father’s funeral, I saw an amazingly beautiful sunset over Lake Michigan. The sun was a pillar of fires shooting up to the densely clouded sky, like a brightly lit path for my father’s soul on it’s journey upward. It was peaceful and calming. God was with me at that moment, calming my anxiety at the outset of a very long (and delay-plagued) trip.

In the airport, I found a quiet spot to write a tribute to my father. A close friend called. I spoke with my wife. I sent text updates of my delays to my cousin. ‘Pick me up at 11:45 pm.’ ‘Delayed until 12:30 am.’ ‘Mechanical problems … See you at 1:00 am.’ ‘Waiting for a new plane to arrive.’ ‘On the plane ready to take off, scheduled to arrive at 2:00 am!’ I never felt alone or abandoned or panicked because I had complete confidence that one way or another, I would arrive in Minneapolis in time for the funeral.

The journey home had a delay as well, giving me the chance to spend more time with my mother and sisters as well as catch up with some cousins that I had not seen for several years. The hiccups in my travels inconvenienced a number of people, to be sure. But in the end I arrived safely at every destination. Thank God.

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