Friday, June 29, 2012

“Zeh Ha-sha-ar L’Adonay” – “This is the Gateway to God” -- The Sanctuary of Temple Beth-El

"Zeh Ha-sha-ar L'Adonay" – "This is the Gateway to God"

The Sanctuary of Temple Beth-El

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

June 30th, 2012


The Main Sanctuary Building of Temple Beth-El is a most extraordinary religious edifice. It was built in three significant phases, the initial construction of 1939, the revision dedicated in 1949, and the stained glass windows depicting the prophets completed in the mid-1960's. Additionally, there is the art and architecture of the bemah, the main dais, the stained glass windows facing Grove Avenue, the stained glass windows in the doors on the main and upper levels, and the two murals on either side of the entrance doors into the Sanctuary room.  An untold number of hands labored with love, skill, craftsmanship and vision to assemble a religious structure that is wondrous to behold. Further research will reveal the names and details of how all this came to pass. For the worshiper who ascends its main portico, the collective construction and illumination creates an awesome, glorious and inspiring religious experience.


This year of 2011-2012, 5772, has been dedicated to the explication of the individual pieces that collectively construct the religious ambiance that embraces those who enter this building. In all probability the individual artists and architects labored separately and never knew nor conversed with each other. They could not tell the following artisan why and what their art was intended to convey. That being the case, my mind perceives a miraculous unity in the presentation and augmentation of this religious home. Each piece intertwines perfectly with the other, creating a religious broadcloth that surrounds the assemblage. Because the other papers detail the individual parts, the purpose of this composition is to delineate the unified vision that emerges.


The Psalmist urges us "to lift our eyes to the mountains (Psalm 121:1)." As one approaches the synagogue, the elevation of the building compels one to do precisely that. More than 'climbing steps,' one who enters is an "oleh," "one who ascends." This word resonates in the synagogue ritual, but is rooted in the history of the faith. It is a religious ascent, far beyond the physical. The central sacrifice was the "olah" that was entirely burnt on the altar of the Tabernacle and Temple. Its smoke rose to God, for the purpose of unifying the person who brought the offering with God. Later the term would be used to describe the pilgrims on their journey to the Temple in Jerusalem, commanded in the Torah to come at the holy days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Lastly, the term is used for one who comes to the Torah during its reading.


The very edifice wants all who enter Temple Beth-El to feel that they are on this journey to fulfill all these meanings: ascending to a relationship with God, coming to the Temple to worship, and entering into the dialogue with God through the central document of the covenant with God, the Torah.


 The synagogue is the third official place of Jewish worship, following the First and Second Temples on the mount in the city of Jerusalem. They in turn replaced the Tabernacle, the portable shrine built by Moses. Yet that, too, was a substitute for the core location in Judaism, the place to which we never returned, where God revealed Himself to Israel, Mt. Sinai. It is the place where the children of Israel heard God's voice, where the irrevocable covenant that made Israel a nation was declared. Instead of staying at Mt. Sinai or making it a place of pilgrimage, Israel took Sinai with them, forever. The Jewish religious experience is the unique symbiosis of all of these places, Mt. Sinai, Tabernacle, and the Temples with the synagogue. From the outside of the building into it innermost core, this place takes each person on a religious journey through space, time and history to meet God.


The journey begins on the outside façade of the building. It is emblazoned with four manifestations of the Ten Commandments surrounding the name of the synagogue. The name itself proclaims this place to be Bet –El, God's House. The Ten Commandments lead us to Mt. Sinai. The Torah Scrolls represent Matan Torah – Kabbalat Torah, the Giving and Receiving of the Torah at Sinai. The menorot on the façade were first constructed for use in the Tabernacle becoming the paradigm for the Menorah of the Temples. They are replicated on either side of the bemah. The covenant of the faith of the Jewish people and God begins at Sinai.


Yet the ultimate destination is the Land of Israel, promised to Abraham and his descendants and reaffirmed at Sinai. When one enters the Main Lobby ones eyes immediately rise to the newest piece of art, the mural presentation of pastoral ancient city of Jerusalem. The Tabernacle of Moses, built at Sinai, is permanently when Solomon builds the First Temple on the mount in Jerusalem. It is the focus for Jews forever and throughout the world. Our orientation is to the Land of Israel and within the land, to Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem, to the Temple. This mural locates us geographically and spiritually.


Upon entering the Main Sanctuary one must look to the bemah with its two sets of tall columns, embracing the Holy Ark. It is surrounded with grapes, the main ornamentation representing the Land of Israel. The rear wall of the bemah is curved, precisely replicating the original synagogues in the 1st century C.E. in the Land of Israel. The Ark with the Torah was brought in to the room and placed in the apse. This architecture brings us back to 2nd Temple times, when Temple and synagogue co-existed.. The main liturgy of the Temples was the Psalms, chanted by the Levitical choir. Located at the very pinnacle of the bemah is the inscription in Hebrew: "I place the Lord before me always (16:8)." This same inscription in inscribed in English in the mural at the rear of the Sanctuary, so that the worshipper is directed towards it upon entry, focuses on it during the entirety of ones presence, and reminded that God's presence continues with us even as we leave the Sanctuary and reenter the world outside. The Holy Ark and the two lecterns are also decorated so as to capture one's eyes with the continuing symbol of the Land of Israel, David's harp – author of Psalms for the Cantor, Torah – core of Judaism, for the Rabbi.


The aura of the Main Sanctuary is created the infusion of the deep resonant colors of the windows that depict the essential message from each of the three Major Prophets, all of the twelve Minor Prophets, the Burning Bush – also Sinai, and Elijah, forerunner of the Messiah. Individually and collectively, their magnificent, breathtaking appearance presents the certitude of God and His message. The worshipper is to be infused with God, the certainty of God's existence, His choice of Abraham's descendants to be His chosen people forever, the eternality of the covenant made at Sinai, enshrined in the Temples in Jerusalem, and taken by the Jewish people to the ends of the earth, protected and projected by the synagogue. The awe inspiring physical surroundings place the worshipper on this unbroken journey to God and Torah that traverses Jewish history. The relationship of God and Israel bound together through the covenant of Torah is to last forever.


The strength and size of the internal and external architecture is to impress all who sit it and all who enter with the truth of Judaism and certainty of the faith. The vibrancy of the colors, the magnificence of execution, the repetition in the smaller pieces of glass in the doors, and in the windows that project forward in the upper lobby infuse the worshipper to be resolute in their conviction of Judaism, unshakeable in their identity as a Jew, proud to be the descendant of such a glorious history, confident to transmit it to their children and thus be the antecedents of generations of the Jewish people yet to come. All this is contained in this brilliant religious home, formed with grace, shaped in splendor, resplendent in beauty and filled with holiness.


Temple Beth-El has long held its rightful place in the never ending journey of the Jewish people. Its physical manifestation is a beacon on the hill for the Jewish people, illuminating them the meaning of the faith, belief in God, and loyalty to Torah and the Jewish people. Entering this building one travels metaphysically from Richmond to Sinai and to Jerusalem. Spiritually we stand before Sinai and God.


May the light of its truth burn brightly for ever.





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How Do We Use This Machzor?

How Do We Use This Machzor?

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

July, 2012


This coming Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we will be using a new Mahzor entitled "MahzorLev Shalem ," meaning: "A Complete Heart," or "A Whole Heart." It is published by the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization the Conservative Rabbis. It has been many years in the making.


This is a very unique edition: in the first instance it looks and feels different – it exudes richness, luminescence, newness and antiquity all at once.


This is a very different edition: it includes things that have hardly or never been in our past mahzor:

            There are clear headings to indicate where we are, what is the piece, its name, its structure.

            There are clear instructions what, when and how to do things. We do have some Beth-El traditions that are at variance which we will observe, but nonetheless, this is very helpful.

            The different Shabbat pieces that are color coded.

            The Hebrew and English fonts are warm and inviting to the eye.

            The bottom of the page indicates the service and the section.

            There are many transliterations enabling everyone's participation in Hebrew chanting that creates a community and creates our Jewish ambience.


But even more important:


On the far right margin of the two-page layout [English/Hebrew texts that we are accustomed to] there is a running commentary on the liturgy. Explaining either key phrases or extended concepts, this invites the worshiper inside the liturgy. This is an intricately woven text, created over time. It hypertexts [we knew this concept long before the current craze] between prayers, the Bible and Rabbinical texts. The commentary is the key to the gateway into our religious treasure house.


On the far left margin of the two-page layout are meditative texts: some are ancient, some are newly created. There is an interplay between the text in the middle of the page layout, the commentary on the right, and the meditations on the left. Liturgy "is a many splendid" text. The meditations are meant to provoke us, make us think, make us feel, make us question, and make us affirm.


Perhaps you will 'get lost' in thought because a meditation caught you off guard and you stop to ponder its meaning, its implication, because it 'grabs you.' Wonderful! Perhaps you will 'turn to yourself' and say 'that's what I was thinking!' or, 'I never though of that.' You might totally disagree. That is good, too.


I recommended to the Ritual Committee that we change to our book and so transform our service.  During the services there will be times for people from within the congregation to come to a floor mike and read a piece. There will be times when we will pause and enable people to focus on whatever piece they chose within several pages, what I call "Individual Silent Time."


This year Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be very much the same – same prayers, same order, familiar tunes – and will be very much different, new commentaries, new meditations, new feel in our hands and to our eyes, new translations.


Many things happen in the Sanctuary and Social Hall on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. People see each other for the first time in months or a year. We notice who is no longer present and who is here for the first time. We note the heat or coolness. We even see new fashions, the least important part.


Most of all through the liturgy, the prayers we come to speak to God, and have God speak to us. In the aura of the magnificent synagogue building, we come to engage in Judaism, to pray, to forgive, to remember, to forget, to ascend in spirit and to grow in soul.


Yet a book is just a book, paper, ink and binding.

In a Midrash we read of a Roman Emperor who wanted to know why the food on Saturday tasted different. He learned that there is a special spice called "Shabbat." Similarly, one could ask: "How does this 'book' work differently?" The answer is: there is an extraordinary, the most precious spice of all: you!





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Monday, June 25, 2012

Korach Never Stops (Friday Night Sermon, June 22, 2012)

Korach Never Stops

June 22, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


I am always amazed how current events intersect with just the right Torah portion. This week the torah portion is Korach. It is a Torah portion of insanity. Its narrative is sheer madness. While previously the Israelites doubt God, doubt whether Moses is His agent, and they complain about Moses leadership, about water and food, this Torah portion is open rebellion. Woven together are two separate rebellions that seek to destroy Moses and Aaron's leadership even as they also disrupt the Levitical obligations. We have previous read that the Israelite camp has been structured. Everyone knows who goes where; when to march, where to march. Everyone carrying the holy objects have their orders. The kohanic families know how to take down the Mishkan and put it back up and who is going to carry which piece. They are ready to go forward. While they will not enter the Promised Land, they have been guaranteed that their children will. Up steps Korach, Dotan, Aviram, On and two hundred and fifty important people and seek to overthrow Moses, Aaron and all the order that has been put into place.


What is the ultimate result of this insurrection? They have bitterly divided the Israelites. They have set family against family, brother, sister, father and mother against each other, tribe against tribe. All else pales into comparison. They have terribly weakened a people who just left slavery and were beginning to stand up on their own two feet. What should have been a growing unity, with ancient divisions removed, namely, which tribe had which mother with Jacob the father of all of them, would now etch ever deeper lines of partition. What is the ultimate result of this insurrection? It is death. All those who revolted, died. Israelites died because they hated each other. Korach starts a pattern that continues to this very day.


In the times of the kings, after the division of the briefly united monarchy of David and Solomon's son, we had our own Jewish "civil war," the northern ten would join an alliance against the southern two, and vice versa.  It was  Jew and against Jew by any name, and Jews died by Jewish hands because of Jewish hatred.


During the revolt against Rome in 66-70 C.E. there is clear evidence that the Jews would have had a real chance of holding off the Romans if the Jews could have united and not killed each other. The Rabbis reflect and say that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless, senseless, insane hatred of one Jew by another.


During the war for Israel's independence, David Ben-Gurion was opposed by Menachem Begin. You would have thought that with all the invading Arab armies and militia, Jews could put aside differences and unify to face the common enemy that wanted to destroy them all! It didn't happen until Jew killed Jew, newly minted Israeli killed Israeli.


I often wonder how many Jews there would be in the world if Jew hadn't killed Jew, going all the way back to Korach. Statistics are not my strength, but if from Korach to the Roman period we didn't kill each other, would there have been an additional one hundred thousand Jews to fight Rome, a half a million, a million? Certainly some mathematical formula can be devised to determine how many Jews there could have been in the world if we hadn't hated each other so much that we had to kill each other. We could have been invincible. And there didn't have to be a Spanish Inquisition, and the auto da fe that burned our books, and the Holocaust to burn our bodies. We could have been strong enough, if Jew didn't hate Jew and rob us of our power, of our strength, of our soul. This is my vision of Jewish history. It relies on continuing miracles from God for us to be here. Dayaynu that there have been enough outsiders who have sought to destroy us. Dayaynu that there have been enough members of other faiths who forced us to forsake our own. We did not need to do it to ourselves. If we are still here, only God knows why, and only because He wants us here for His purpose.


Korach intersects with current events. This week of Korach, chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel has issued an inflammatory document instigating violence against the Conservative and Reform Rabbis and synagogues.

It sounds like Korah all over again.


In this same week a woman was arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel at the women's Rosh Hodesh service. Our women and bnot mitzvah take it for granted that they can wear, even should, wear a tallit. Only in the state of the Jews can something so unJewish be done.


The president of the Rabbinical Assembly has spoken wonderfully with the following words:


We need to be strong Conservative/Masorti Jews, believing in ourselves, in our synagogues, in the pluralistic presentation of Judaism, where none is wrong and all can be right.


We need to follow the prayer in our siddur taken from Pirkei Avot 1:12 which was formulated by the greatest sage Hillel:


May it be Your will, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, to grant us a portion in Your Torah. May we be disciples of Aaron the Kohen, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving our fellow creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.


Shabbat Shalom.





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Friday, June 15, 2012

"We Are All God's Children"

We Are All God's Children

June 15, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


I want to speak in brief about a subject that has been riling the legal and legislative world of Richmond, even as its implication is universal. It is worthy of and has consumed immense volumes, seminars and lectures. In these few minutes I wish to be very tightly focused on one and only one of the many components of Judaism on this matter. I entitle this piece: We are All God's Children. I am speaking to the appointment Tracy Thorne-Begland, the first openly gay judge in Virginia, to the General District Court Bench.


Our Torah is a very special, unique and holy document. While you might expect it to begin directly with the story of the Hebrews, Israelites, Jews by any name, it does not. It begins with the exposition of humanity. After establishing God as the creator of all existence, the first two protagonists are Adam and Eve. They are not Hebrews, Israelites or Jews. They represent all humanity.


The Torah tells us nothing about them. We don't know if they are tall or short, petite or robust. The Torah's language is Hebrew but we don't know what language they spoke. We don't know where the Garden of Eden was located. And we don't know if they were white, black, brown or any color in between. Adam and Eve represent the original antecedents of all humanity. Judaism teaches clearly, unambiguously, and with a loud voice, that despite any point of differentiation we are all God's children.


The Rabbis saw this as the most important lesson in the Torah. They discussed the implications that the Torah begins the human story, our universal journey with only one set of parents.

            We learn from this that no one can say that they are better than anyone else;

                                           that no one is more important than anyone else;

                                           that no one is greater than anyone else.

            We learn from this that no one needs to feel that they are worse than anyone else;

                                           that no one is inferior to anyone else;

                                           that no one is less important than anyone else.

They heard Amos loudly and clearly: "To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians…True., I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir." God acts for everybody. In correlation to the piece that I wrote entitled "We Are Holy Beings" I add this piece because I completely believe in our Jewish teaching: "We Are All God's Children."


It is true that the Torah begins with one man and one woman, perhaps because its focus is on creation – procreation. Yet with the incredibly large volume of material in the Tanach, Talmud and post Talmudic writings, very little is written about homosexuality. Their focus was not on sex and gender. Neither should ours. Their focus was on alleviating the human condition of poverty and inhumanity. That must be ours.


Echoing the prophetic voice, the Rabbis of the centuries focused the development of our Judaism on creating a just society, helping the poor and the disadvantaged, dreaming about peace and the ultimate redemption of humanity from war and violence. Today they would raise their voice for the creation of jobs which leads to human dignity by honest labor and the alleviation of debt.


The Rabbis and we are the inheritors of the mantle of Abraham, the prime exemplar of one demonstrated against public policy. Abraham was the man who did not keep silent before God, when informed that God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, where possibly there were righteous people among the evil. Abraham rose up and protested: "Won't the God of justice do justice?" We believe in questioning unjust policies, because the ultimate value is justice, with righteousness and fairness.


There is no doubt that to every endeavor each one of us brings the totality of our being. I am a man, a Jew, a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother, born in Brooklyn, educated in New York City, second generation American, never served in the military, nearly forty years a Rabbi. But I am not one piece. I am the sum total of everything I have lived and everyone who has made me into who I am this moment in this place. I am a whole being. To everything I do I bring all of me, not a piece of me. We are all whole beings. We bring all of ourselves to any given moment. So does Tracy Thorne-Begland.


When I see a person as judge in court I will see the sum total of everything that brought him or her to that position. Of course they are of a gender. Of course they are of a color. Of course they are of their particular age. Of course they have their personal history. Of course! How else can it be?


But I want to see a person of courage and discernment,

                                          of quality and honesty,

                                          of integrity and justice.

That's who I want on the bench, of any court, at any level, from the lowest to the highest. I want to see a person who knows that they are a child of God looking at a child of God.


Nothing, absolutely nothing else matters.


Shabbat Shalom





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shavuot Yizkor Sermon: "To Learn to Live Without Regrets"

To Learn to Live Without Regrets

Yizkor of Shavuot

May 28th, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


My Rabbinic network enables the sharing of pearls of wisdom between colleagues. It is from that source that I derived the material that I share with you today. The initial author is Dr. Robert Brooks, who in an article entitled "Regrets" winds his way to a book by Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse. She devoted several years working in palliative care with patients in the last twelve weeks of their lives. She finally compiled her blog into a book entitled "The Top Five Regrets of the Dying."


I quote from the article:

"Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom." Ware identified the five main regrets of those facing imminent death, "common themes that surfaced again and again." The five themes resonated with many of the ideas that my colleague and close friend Dr. Sam Goldstein and I have addressed in our writings, especially in our book The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life."


For the entire article please go to the following website:


Yizkor by its very nature directs us to look backwards towards the lives of our family members and friends and our lives with them. At least for me, standing here, when I look back I don't only see the one person I am thinking about. I see the whole panorama of life in which I have lived and that envelopes me at any one moment. I see the members of my family, members of my congregations and friends from along the journey. So these five themes strike me differently at each turn and twist of life's path. But perhaps as Dr. Brooks writes, we can learn something important for going forward from the exercise of looking back. Perhaps that is really a great use of Yizkor, that the paths of those whom we remember will illuminate the path we have yet to walk. Then in our own time, we can illuminate the paths for others as they remember us.


The five regrets as compiled by Bronnie Ware:


1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.


2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.


3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.


4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.


5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

In a different venue it would be interesting to see how we would vote on these five. Do we agree with her list? Which would we delete? What would we add? I would personally rework this list. There are some that ring true and others that don't. And most importantly, what can we learn from each regret, that while we yet are blessed with life, we can change, that we can be inspired by reflecting on the past to live a different life in the future.


I know that standing where I do today in my personal journey as a Rabbi and reflecting on Yonina's ordination last week and Menachem's ten years ago, that I have a certain contentment, internal satisfaction and neshamadik joy. While I don't jump and down externally, I have a serene bliss. I believe that I embrace more than I would wish to have changed. The cycle of Yizkor is good for the soul, to pause and reflect, backwards and forward.


I believe that there are certain songs that beautifully capture meaning. That is why I use so many in my sermons.  In the beginning of Dr. Brooks article he refers to Harry Chapin's "Cats In the Cradle." I don't know what motivated Chapin to compose it, perhaps something from his personal life. This song has been a great motivator in my life. Like the five regrets by Bronnie Ware, it challenges us to consider our decisions in life. Perhaps by doing so, we won't have certain regrets. Here is the song:

"Cats In The Cradle"            

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin' 'fore I knew it, and as he grew
He'd say "I'm gonna be like you dad
You know I'm gonna be like you"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home dad?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, "Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let's play
Can you teach me to throw", I said "Not today
I got a lot to do", he said, "That's ok"
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah
You know I'm gonna be like him"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

Well, he came home from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
"Son, I'm proud of you, can you sit for a while?"
He shook his head and said with a smile
"What I'd really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please?"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

I've long since retired, my son's moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind"
He said, "I'd love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job's a hassle and kids have the flu
But it's sure nice talking to you, Dad
It's been sure nice talking to you"

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then



May the lives we remember today, our family, community, synagogue and friends, when we remember the lives of the Jewish military personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, brightly illumine our paths in life.


May they inspire us to chose wisely what we do, how we do it, what we say, and when we say it.


May we find more satisfaction, more contentment and more fulfillment and less regrets along the way.


And now let us say "Yizkor."



Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152