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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Vaetchanan                    August 17, 2019 - 16 Av 5779

08/16/2019 01:01:34 PM


“Ultimately, prayer is intended to have an effect on the individual and his or her actions.  It makes us more aware of the world, of nature, of history, of God’s role in history, of the nature of God and His demands upon us.  It emphasizes the importance of study and the performance of commandments, both moral and ritual.”

  Rabbi Professor Reuven Hammer (1933-2019)

 It was the summer of 2009, and before going back to New York City for my final year of cantorial school, I was spending a restful week with friends at a cottage in the Berkshires.  While many of the cottagers in the area were Jewish, there was no cottage synagogue nearby for Shabbat, but really, there was no need. The Jewish cottagers had become accustomed on Shabbat to heading over to one particular cottage on the lake where they all knew they would have one of the most unique, spiritually engaging and academically stimulating Shabbat experiences that could be had… but it was a carefully guarded, unadvertised local secret.  I had been looking forward to it all week because I was about to have Shabbat at the cottage of the legendary Rabbi Professor Reuven Hammer. His books were required reading for many courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary for rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and undergraduates.  One of the great rabbinical minds and shapers of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Hammer was a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, served as head of the Masorti Beit Din in Israel, and was the founding director of what is today the Schechter Institute.  About twenty or so people gathered together on Rabbi Hammer’s deck overlooking the lake, and we conducted our services as the sun rose over the water.  That was my personal experience meeting the great Rabbi. Sadly, Rabbi Professor Reuven Hammer passed away this week.

This week’s parsha is Va’etchanan, which continues Moses final speeches to the Israelite nation before crossing the Jordan River into the land that would become their permanent home.  There is a great deal in this parsha that would appear to be nothing more than a repetition, a rehash of material that Torah already covered quite a while ago.  It is particularly hard to miss the revisiting of the Ten Commandments.  With some slight variation in the wording, it’s the same Ten Commandments that we read months ago in Parshat Yitro.  Repetition is a useful literary device for captivating writing in poetry and novels, but one of the first rules of biblical exegesis is that there is no sentence, word or even a single letter than is superfluous in the Torah.  Traditional teaching forces us to consider that in each case where it may seem that the Torah is repeating itself, it is doing so for a specific reason and that there is something critical and unique to be learned by it.  Before the repetition of the commandments, Moses is sure to point out to the Israelites, “not with our forefathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, we, all of whom are here alive today” (Deut. 5:3). After forty years of wandering, the generation of Israelites that had personally experienced the public revelation at Mount Sinai had nearly died out completely, the same generation that had personally experienced slavery in Egypt.  This generation, the one now entering the land of Israel had grown up free.  In this repetition, we learn that these commandments do not simply apply only to those that were there to witness and ratify them, but that the covenant made at that time was eternally bound to all future generations of Israelites forever – a confirmation ceremony, if you will, whereby Moses offered the new generation of Israelites an opportunity to formally affirm the oath made by their ancestors.

As I look through my personal library at home at the various Judaica books that I have read and studied as a student and over my career, I feel humbled that many of their authors who were leading thinkers of the Jewish world, and of Conservative and Masorti Judaism in particular, are people whom I have been uniquely privileged to meet in their lifetimes, studied with in person, or with their direct decedents.  Reuven Hammer z’l, Neil Gillman z’l, Louis Jacobs z’l, are just some of the great modern Jewish thinkers who have furthered the understanding of what prayer, God, Jewish philosophy, law and culture means for many individuals and families who identify as Conservative Jews, and who challenged those who object to the legitimacy of Conservative Judaism with reason, scholarship and keen insight.  While I imagine that the majority of our shul members may not have heard of some of these amazing people, let alone had a chance to study with them, their contributions to Conservative Judaism certainly inform many of the thoughts and ideas that I offer in the weekly Shabbat Sheets, and when I offer a dvar Torah in shul. It is their approach to Jewish law and prayer that inform the policies of Beth Radom, and the way we operate in our own shul; their ideas have and will continue to have a lasting impact on us all.  And there are yet more great men and women alive today, who continue doing the work of building our movement and enriching our beliefs and ideologies.

This Shabbat, let us invoke the memories of these great leaders of the Conservative movement and acknowledge that their legacies have a lasting impact on each of us.  Conservative Jews are not a catch-all group whose raison d’etre is to meander religiously somewhere between Reform and Orthodoxy. Let us reaffirm our commitment to the positive definition that Conservative Judaism was meant to be – an evolving, but authentic, rigorous, rational and academically consistent approach to Jewish life and ideology fit for the modern era. 

To experience what believe to be among the greatest contributions of Rabbi Reuven Hammer, I encourage all those who are interested to purchase a copy of Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom (available in the blue shabbat version and the red weekday version).  Easily found on Amazon, it is exactly a copy of the Siddur Sim Shalom that we use in our shul, but with Rabbi Hammer’s commentary on each prayer written into the margins.

Shabbat Shalom,

Fri, June 18 2021 8 Tammuz 5781