Saturday, July 4, 2015

Words for Kiddush

In the schoolyard we learned: “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me,” but we knew – even in kindergarten – that it’s not true. Words have power. God used words to create the world and words turn a simple ring into the foundation of a new Jewish family. A few words change lighting a simple candle into something more than a source of light, creating a special moment of holiness that leads to a foretaste of the world to come.
Words can also destroy, as King Balak of Moab and leaders of Midian knew full well. That is why they invited the greatest seer of their day, a man wise in the way of words, Balaam, to curse the Israelites of whom they were frightened. Their effort failed and some of Balaam’s words are now found in our prayer book: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places O house of Israel.” Beyond the meaning of the words, this statement reminds us – each time we enter a synagogue – that words have power. We must choose them carefully, to build rather than destroy.
Words have the ability to make an ordinary act, like lighting a candle, into a moment of holiness, but unnecessary words, even in blessing, can ruin some commandments. Honoring parents, raising children, giving to the poor, visiting the sick, actually all of the interpersonal commandments, are done without a blessing. Why?
I want to focus on one specific answer, given by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (Poland, 1884–Switzerland,1966):
Why do we not say a blessing for Mishloach Manot?
It seems to me that the purpose of Mishloach Manot is to increase peace, love and friendship... Even though with mitzvot in general, the one who is commanded and does what he is commanded to do is greater [than the one who is not commanded but does it anyway] and we say a blessing “and commanded us,” nevertheless in the case of Mishloach Manot, it is better that a person give as an act of freewill, from a feeling of love for the other. If he gives only because of the commandment he lessens the aspect of love.
In other words, the giver must focus on the person receiving the gift, not on him or herself, and not even on the commanded nature of the action because that would distract from the most important component: expressing love for the other. Weinberg continues with a breathtaking idea:
It further seems to me that Mishloach Manot is really a perpetual mitzvah the entire year. On Purim we are commanded to actualize this mitzvah so that we remember it the entire year, just as we read Parshat Zachor to remember [Amalek] the entire year. It is known… that we do not say a blessing over a mitzvah which is perpetual and does not end.          
If Mishloach Manot really is a perpetual mitzvah and those given on Purim are “only” a demonstration, how is the commandment kept during the rest of the year?
There are many possibilities but Hod VeHadar has a time-tested method: the weekly Kiddush. I cannot forget our first Shabbat with the congregation, in the Sharett Jr. High. It was the bar mitzvah of Yishai Bouskila. About the service I remember very little, but the amazing Kiddush that materialized out of picnic coolers (there was no kitchen) made a strong impression. I very quickly understood that Hod VeHadar is a congregation where the Kiddush is no less important than the service, and that is how a congregation is built.
Some 10 years later, we hosted a young Rabbi who was making the rounds of Masorti congregations to learn a few things before starting out in his own as a congregational rabbi. He was also impressed by the Kiddush and cooperation among members (I can’t remember what the event was that particular Shabbat) but in a very rabbinic way asked: “How can you let people bring homemade food and baked goods into the synagogue? Who supervises the kashrut?” I answered that we ask that people only bring cooked food and home-made baked goods from kitchens with separate dishes or that are completely vegetarian but we don’t check. Then I added, “We trust and respect each other, that how to build a congregation.” He did not reply.
We trust and respect each other. That is how we have developed our relationships and this congregation. It hasn’t always been easy, but we kept working and succeeded. That said, in the last year or two, the Kiddush system ran aground a bit. The ship did not sink. Our strong congregational spirit saved it, and a few amazing Kiddushim appeared out of nothing on only two days’ notice. Lita and Elisabeth have worked hard to design the new Kiddush system that is being launched today. The details were sent to members by e-mail. There is definitely an emphasis on greater simplicity but that doesn’t mean there should be less caring and concern. I would like to return to the words of Rabbi Weinberg and adapt them to our situation.

It seems to me that the purpose of hosting a Kiddush is to increase peace, love and friendship. It is best that people give from their own free will, from a feeling of love for others and commitment to the congregation.
                                                                                                        

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