Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi Jeff Pivo

Monday Morning (Afternoon?) Torah

Rabbinic Reflections - February 2019

Having recently observed Tu Bishvat, and our connection the trees, fruits, and other produce of the land of Israel, we look ahead to the holidays of spring. Like Tu Bishvat, they occur at particular times of the year which are appropriate to their meaning. Purim and Pesakh have to happen when they do, but in seven of every 19 years, there is a twist in getting there.

    On the Shabbat morning of February 2nd we announce the new Jewish month of Adar. In most years, this means that Purim is a few weeks away and then, four weeks later, Pesakh. But this year, and in every Jewish leap year, we add an entire second month of Adar to the calendar. It doesn’t have its own name; in such years we simply have first Adar and second Adar. This is the mechanism that pushes Pesakh back into the spring where it belongs, as well as the next High Holidays, which are pushed later into the fall. All of this necessary in order to compensate for the days “lost” each month in Judaism’s lunar calendar. Following the phases of the moon, each Jewish month has either 29 or 30 days, meaning the holidays are always slowly regressing farther back. If there were no calendrical correction, Pesakh would eventually be in the winter, and the High Holidays would be in the spring.

    Purim and Pesakh have specific calendar dates on which they are observed. The book of Esther records that Purim is to be celebrated on the 14th of Adar, and the Torah marks the 15th of Nissan as the date of the Exodus from Egypt. We observe these holidays on the dates that the events they commemorate originally took place. The dates are not negotiable. But even without the extra Adar of the leap year, those dates would still occur; why do we need to also fix them in their season?

    In his brief yet bottomless book "The Sabbath", Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that too often we are enslaved to the products of technical civilization. Engrossed with the things we have made, with the cleverness of our creations, we follow the pagan idea that value is rooted in things. But true meaning, he writes, resides not in things but in time. Shabbat is his primary example, when we consciously liberate ourselves from the world and experience time, free from buying, selling, making or destroying, the things of the world. Similarly, the Jewish holidays occur at particular points in time, and it is those particular times that gives them their meaning. It is not merely that the Exodus happened to occur in the spring, but rather that God willed it to happen then; not only how it did, but when it did. Events do not give meaning to time, Heschel writes; rather, time gives meaning to events. God acts not in the pagan realm of randomness but in the monotheistic realm of purposeful decision, of a caring and planned intervention into time.

    Pesakh, in particular, must be a spring holiday. Its agricultural focus, its connection to the earth and the field, to the rebirth of nature, is the same time that the Israelites were reborn in history. That is not accidental. God took us out of slavery at a time that gave this explicit meaning to Pesakh, so that we would understand its meaning as God’s will. And so we must keep Pesakh, and all the other holidays, for similar reasons, in their seasonal positions. When they occur is a deep and meaningful feature of what they celebrate. As we look forward to Purim and Pesakh, we should remember their placement in the spring in terms of their time, and of how that time provides them much of their meaning.


Rabbinic Reflections - January 2019

The last year and a half have been heady times at EBJC: A new rabbi, a new cantor/educator, new office staff, the expansion of egalitarian services to every Shabbat morning, outreach to our constituents in Monroe, and a new mahzor have transformed our communal life. Simultaneously, we have begun to address many of the structural needs of our campus and our business: paving the parking lot, improved accounting and data procedures, and a comprehensive overhaul of our security system. There will be other changes to come, bringing our shul into the mainstream of the Conservative movement and making it possible for us to meet a broad array of Jewish needs. Having engaged in all of these changes and improvements, we are ready to implement a bold new phase in improving our facilities: the creation of the Grand Pavilion.


Over the past year, our leadership has been planning the redesign and refurbishment of the sanctuary wing of the building, from bimah to bimah. This area, which will now be known as the Grand Pavilion, will be restructured so that the sanctuary and beit midrash will be able to accomodate our two styles of worship over the High Holidays. The entire wing will be refurbished to improve our experiences, and will now feature a movable wall which will enable us to partition the Kroll Ballroom into smaller spaces during the year for multipurpose use. We have already gotten interest from caterers who would like to partner with us in the future to revamp our kitchens and bathrooms (those are not part of the current project).


Now that the plans have been worked out with architects and structural engineers, we are ready to build. But in order to do so, the entire EBJC community needs to come together to fund this project. Our leadership has committed to going forward only once funds have been procured, and to use funds raised only for this project. In order to complete the Grand Pavilion, we are now asking that every EBJC family consider making a meaningful gift that will help rejuvenate our synagogue for another generation. A small working group is arranging parlor meetings, private visits and phone solicitations during January and February, so expect a call. This is our opportunity to ensure the future of our shul by matching the blessings of our new staff, new practices, and new procedures, with a new set of spaces that will bring us pride and attention from the entire East Brunswick community. Now is the time!


Rabbi Jeff Pivo


Rabbinic Reflections - December 2018

When we light the Hanukkah menorah over the holiday’s eight nights, we do so in order to publicize the miracle that Hanukkah represents. But what is that miracle? We all know the account of the oil in the rededicated Temple in Jerusalem that burned for eight days instead of one, but since that account first shows up hundreds of years after the events themselves, in the Talmud, there must have been other reasons our ancestors lit their lights before that, other miracles that they were publicizing. What were they?


In the immediate aftermath of the revolt against the pagan Greeks, the victorious Maccabees and their supporters would have been justified in publicizing their miraculous military victory. The Syrian Greeks were the inheritors of the art of warfare, which had shortly before shattered many national armies and established Greece as an imperial power. The few Maccabees had defeated the many Greeks! But the light of the miracle of the Maccabees’ victory eventually dimmed; their power lasted only about a hundred years before imperial Rome came to control Israel.


Perhaps the miracle can be found in the immediate cause of the revolt, the desire to resist assimilation and hold onto Jewish traditions. Having swept out the pagans, the traditional Jewish Temple rites were reestablished. Religious freedom and Jewish distinctiveness had won! But the lights for traditional Judaism also dimmed; the Maccabees themselves soon assimilated, and the office of the High Priest fell so low that it was often awarded to the highest bidder.


So if the miracles that were celebrated and publicized in the immediate aftermath of the events of Hanukkah faded, what was it and what is it that we are publicizing? I would argue that the account of the oil and its miraculous burning, though late in coming, arrived just in time. As the military victory of the Maccabees receded in time and as their national and religious achievements eroded, the meaning of Hanukkah had to evolve. The account of the oil shifted the emphasis from human war to divine intervention, infusing Hanukkah with eternal meanings that the short-lived victories of the Maccabees could not match.


The reason that we continue to find the miracle of the oil compelling is that it symbolizes the values for which the Maccabees fought, without having to focus too much on the Maccabees themselves: Self-rule in the Jewish homeland; religious tradition; the ability of the few to stand up for themselves against the many. These are all worthy values that the light of Hanukkah continues to illuminate for us. We will continue to teach and live those values regardless of how their originators ended up, and despite the challenges that our own times bring. Hanukkah’s lights teach us that human events are as transitory as oil or candles, but that the values that animate those events burn as brightly as the lights that recall them.


Hanukkah same’akh.


Rabbi Jeff Pivo


Thu, October 21 2021 15 Cheshvan 5782