To the Nth Degree

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Tuesday, August 25, 2017 / 3 Elul 5777

Summary: Rabbi Kosak speaks about an ancient Jewish ritual that is finding a new lease on life, reflects on hunger and the important national traveling exhibit which will be housed at Neveh Shalom from September 1-7th, and shares information about our exciting new Selichot service.  

Animals are Dropping Away

Two days ago, we welcomed in the holy month of Elul. Our daily minyan rejoiced in the songs of Hallel, and then we listened as the shofar was sounded for the first time, as it will be each morning leading up to the Days of Awe. Less noted, that day also corresponded with Rosh Hashanah Lama’asar Behemah, the New Year for Animal Tithes.

Once, this was a widely observed day on which shepherds would corral their flock into a shed and pass each animal beneath their shepherd’s crook, marking one in ten. In this way, they could accurately gauge how many sheep would be tithed for the Temple. In the dim aftermath of the Temple’s destruction and our long exile from our homeland, this antique custom was lost to sight and practice.

This is not the first time that a venerable Jewish custom has faded away only to be resuscitated. In the 16th century, in the sacred city of Sefat in Northern Israel, the mystical kabbalists would stay up all of Shavuot night, learning revealed and hidden Torah. The mystics are also credited with the origins of the Tu B’shvat seder, where individuals eat many different types of fruit. These practices practically disappeared from normative Jewish only to find renewed vigor in the last decades as new layers of meaning connected past to present.

We are an ancient people, and our spiritual tool kit is vast. As the needs of life change, we dip into this reservoir and find new relevancy in what an intermediate generation discarded. I would argue that all religions and all denominations do this, but that some are more forthright about the process.

So it is with Rosh Hashanah Lama’asar Behemah. Over the last eight years, a small movement has been afoot to restore this holiday and with it, our awareness of how animals fare in our modern world. What is our relationship with the animal world? How do we countenance the abuses that occur in industrial farming and slaughter houses? We are situated in the sixth wave of mass extinction, one for which we bear most of the responsibility. Is there some proper way to say goodbye to entire species? To admit that we haven’t yet learned to share our small, fragile planetary home? It is sobering and haunting.

Hunger to the Nth Degree

We’re not good at large numbers. Yes, we’ve come up with notations to manipulate the math. But our all too-human minds and our hearts don’t reel or rejoice with a pain or exuberance that matches the mathematical scale of what we are dealing with. This might be one of the many reasons that we’ve become so polarized in our ever-connected world. Our inability to “grok” the immense and the small sends us scurrying for the familiar cover of our tribal silos. Sixty million refugees wandering the face of the earth? We can’t process something like that.

The one way we seem best equipped to comprehend the very large is to go to the very small of a single story. I can’t grasp what sixty million lost souls means, but I am capable of letting a few stories touch and disarm me–and then motivate me.

When I think about hunger in America, and what we each can do about it, that’s where comprehension comes from–the power of stories. It’s what makes the upcoming “This is Hunger” exhibit by so exciting. It’s put on by Mazon, the Jewish experts in hunger who’ve been working tirelessly to address hunger’s underlying issues.

Inside one 53 foot long double-wide trailer parked at our own synagogue from September 1-7th, we will all have the opportunity to encounter the stories of the persistently hungry. We’ll discover that the hungry are not who we imagined them to be. We’ll learn concrete steps that we can take to make a difference. And we will be moved. Moved by the power that a handful of stories has to expand our awareness and our capacity to be a force for good.

Free tickets are going fast, so please visit to schedule your visit. Let your friends know also. Contact folks at churches and mosques. We want to provide access so that as many people who want can come.

Two Worlds: A Rock & Soul Selichot Experience on September 16th, 8:30 pm

Doors open at 8 with a wine and cheese reception

If Elul is the month of reflection and preparation for the High Holy Days, Selichot is when it all gets real–that sort of fever pitch when you suddenly realize, “oh, yeah, the High Holidays are coming!” This year’s Selichot is really quite exciting. Our new prayerbook for this special evening was finished yesterday. It’s a beautiful exploration of the themes of forgiveness, regret, intimacy and yearning. In addition to the most beloved high holiday melodies, prepare to rock out with Cantor Bitton with songs from Harry Chapin to Hoobastank (yes, that’s the band’s name), from Tim McGraw to the Prince of Egypt.

We encourage you to bring your children–or your parents. Or get a babysitter–this is good date night stuff! Call up your friends. It’s not a long evening, and you’ll be glad you came.

Warmth and blessings,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What Jewish ritual or custom do you now embrace that you didn’t when growing up? What changed? What practice have you given up and why?
  2. When have you had a sudden insight that helped you solve an intractable problem or see it from an entirely new angle?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.