Hazzan Stein’s Blog

Wrapping Ourselves Up in God

Posted on February 28, 2018

When I work with students the week before their B’nai Mitzvah, I teach them to put on tefillin. (BTW, a big yashar koach to the Men’s Club for their World Wide Wrap and work with SCJLL leading up to the event). I talk about the concept that putting on tefillin is a physical manifestation of what our relationship with God should and could be. We wrap ourselves up in God during the week—literally. Ukshartam l’ot—you shall tie a sign, al yadechah, on your arm. We wrap the retzuot (straps) seven times around our left arm (close to the heart). This is just like the Jewish wedding ceremony where the couple walks around each other seven times—seven days of the week we are wrapped up in each other. Just as our relationship with God should/could be. When we put on the “shel rosh,” the tefillin for the head, I point out the idea that the four paragraphs contained in the tefillin are placed in four slots (rooms) in the bayit (housing of the tefillin scrolls). It reminds us of the chuppah open on four sides, but if we looked inside the home of the future, it would have rooms, perhaps even four! As we continue to wrap the tefillin, as we make the “shin” on our hand, we say the words from the prophet Hosea who said: “I shall betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy. I will betroth you to me with faith and you shall know Hashem.” The final act of putting on tefillin contains Hosea’s words—as we wrap around the finger, symbolizing the wedding ring. We make the letter shin as we complete the name of God, Shaddai whose presence depends on us, as Jews, to accept and believe in something holy and greater than ourselves.  Betrothal, the first step toward erosion (marriage), is called kiddushin—from the word kiddush, holy. Marriage is by its essence holy and so are the mitzvoth that guide our lives.

Did you ever notice how the straps of new tefillin, stiff, shiny and just a little uncomfortable at first, loosen up over time? They become supple, smooth, pliable and comfortable. The more you wrap yourselves in each other, the more perfectly smooth and comfortable you become. It reminds me of a musical instrument that with time ages and allows the full spectrum of sound to speak through the wood and strings. It’s not easy—the wood has to vibrate and shake loose the finely packed particles that make up the grain—when that happens, it allows the wood to vibrate, creating harmonious overtones that impress the listener. 

With that said, I am happy to announce that Kelley and I have been betrothed for 40 years on the second of April. It is hard to believe that so much time has gone by. Three sons and three grandchildren later, we are still, and more than ever, wrapped up in each other. 

At the end of my lesson, I tell my students that yes, mitzvoth are important—but whether you put on tefillin every day is not as important as living by Hillel’s creed: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Yes, the most important thing that we can do as Jews is to care for others with righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy and faith—always.

That is marriage, that is relationship, that is love, that is 40 years.

 Hazzan Stein



Why We Remember

Posted on January 30, 2018

Mishanichnas Adar marbim b’simchah (Taanit 29). When we enter the month of Adar, we have great joy. After all, Purim will not be long after. This year, Purim is on March 2nd with Erev Purim on March 1st. It is not Purim that I am going to talk about in this piece. It is the Shabbat before Purim, Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembering. It is on this special Shabbat that we remember what the Amalekites did to the Jewish people. The Torah tells us that the Amalekites attacked the stragglers from behind as the Israelites marched in the desert. But hold on, what is happy about this? Why in the month of Adar do we remember the ugly story and hear the commandment to remember and not to forget. 

First of all, zachor (to remember) is a central part of our Jewish DNA. We are certainly familiar with Yizkor on the holidays, we are used to telling the story of the Exodus every Passover and we tell the story of Esther and Mordechai every Purim. Some people ask why do we insist on remembering? Why don’t we just forget, and forgive? Teshuvah (atonement), an essential part of our religious observance, tells us that to perform teshuva, to get back on the right path, we must recall and face our experiences so that when faced with the same path, we can learn to avoid the mistakes of the past and do the right thing. Perhaps it is this path that Shabbat Zachor is reminding us about in this merry month of Adar. It is like stepping on the glass at a Jewish wedding. In the midst of our joy, we must remember that sometimes in times of sorrow, we reap tears of joy. As the psalmist writes: “You have turned for me my mourning in to dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.” (Psalm 30). So, too, with Ta’anit Ester—we fast on the day before Purim to remember that the Jewish people fasted for three days after Haman’s decree.

So after Haman decreed, he de-cried, “Dee-plane, dee-plane” (it’s a little known fact that the rain fell on the plane). Speaking of hot air, did you know that the Shul of Rock is a shul that I never step my foot into. Unless of course, it’s Purim! You think Aliyah is up there wait until Mordechai climbs to the Top of Mount Rock? And then, of course, he and his cousin Ester, “Stick it to the Hay-Man.” So if you’re wondering, “Where Did the Rock Go?” tune in on March 1st Erev Purim and you’ll be “In the Band!”