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9/10 Feb 2018

This week's Torah portion is Mishpatim - Ex. 21:1-24:18. I came across this d'var Torah from the World Union for Progressive Judaism in my email box this week, and wanted to share excerpts from it with you. Rabbi Megan Doherty is the Director of Hillel and Jewish Campus Life at Oberlin College.

"These are the rules that you shall set before them…" Exodus 21:1

After the thunder and the lightning, the blare of horns and the smoking mountain, after the chaos and the ecstasy and the fear and trembling of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, we get the rules. Parashat Mishpatim is where we begin to move from the sweeping narrative of the Book of Genesis and the first part of the Book of Exodus to the more granular, specific, some-might-even-say overly detailed descriptions of laws and ritual that occupy most of the rest of Exodus and all of Leviticus...

... In Hebrew, we refer to the Ten Commandments as Aseret HaDibrot - the Ten Words, and though each commandment is at least two words long in the original, they are word-like in that each commandment is more of an idea, value, or concept than a detailed set of instructions on how to make that idea a reality. “Honor your father and mother” seems straightforward, but how is it different when you are five and when you are fifty? Does “don’t steal” really apply to office supplies? How do we move, as individuals and as a community, from the shared ecstatic experience of Sinai to the mundane and often frustrating reality of living with other humans in all of their (our) imperfection?

The poet Yaakov Moshe writes: “You can get to a place where God is everything and you feel unbounded love. / Eventually, however, you’ll have to go to the bathroom.” (p.17, is : heretical Jewish blessings and poems, Ben Yehuda Press, 2017.)

... The Israelites had to move on from Sinai in order to make their way to the [Promised] Land. [Time to move on from the awe and splendor and majesty and wonderment to "real life."] Sometimes we do, indeed, have to go to the bathroom. The reality of our existence is that the values that emerge from us in response to our experiences of the Divine are often difficult to sustain in the face of our messy, unpredictable, distracting and challenging lives.

So – we need rules. We need instructions and structure and detailed explanations for how we should treat each other, our shared resources, and the world. Parashat Mishpatim is only the beginning of the [ongoing and] millennia-long conversation that Jews have been having with each other and with God about justice, love, freedom, and peoplehood, and the best way to make those things manifest in the world.

2/3 Feb 2018

Our Torah portion this week is Yitro - Ex. 18:1-20:26, and begins soon after the Exodus from Egypt as Yitro/Jethro (Moses' father-in-law and priest of Midian) reunites Moses with his wife Zipporah and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, in the wilderness where the Israelites are encamped at the mountain of God. We read that Zipporah had been sent home to Midian... but it begs the question: when was she sent home and why? Didn't Zipporah and the boys go down to Egypt with Moses when he went to face Pharaoh?

The text is very quiet about Moses' family life; only that he marries Zipporah, one of the seven daughters of Jethro, and that they have two sons - "...Gershom, that is to say: 'I have been a stranger in a foreign land' and Eliezer, meaning, 'The God of my father was my help, and he delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh." (Ex. 18:3-4) We do know that the family left together for Egypt, but as the story continues with Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh, we lose Zipporah and her sons from the story-line. What happened?

Some say Moses sent them back to stay with Jethro even before they crossed the border out of Midian. He was prompted by his brother, Aaron, who said, "The plight of the Israelites is so oppressive, why should you bring your family to Egypt, only for them to suffer?" And home they went.

One would think that after all this time, after all that Moses had been through, after such a long separation, their reunion would be beyond words. In a way, that is how it is described... or rather, there is no description of their reunion! We read that "... Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other's welfare, and they went into the tent." (Ex. 18:7) All is quiet with regard to the reunion between Moses and Zipporah and Gershom and Eliezer. At least, all is quiet in the text.

We do know that Moses is working very hard and long hours, with people lined up to meet with him to settle disputes and answer questions. His father-in-law looks on and knows that he is working too hard, and will burn himself out. Jethro is probably the first leadership consultant, and shares his sage advice with Moses. He advises Moses to share the load among others who are "capable God-fearing men who are trustworthy and spurn ill-gotten gain... Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you."(Ex. 18:21-22)

Moses takes Jethro's advice and bids him farewell as he returns to his home in Midian. I would strongly suggest that Jethro was indeed a very wise father-in-law. Moses follows his advice and indeed makes things easier for himself and his people. But... he also frees up valuable time for his family. Rabbi Alan Lettofsky, our Rabbi Emeritus, taught that as he sat by people's bedsides, no one ever said that they wished they had spent more time at work! Indeed, it is time with our family that is renewing and regenerative. It is time with our family that can remind us of life's joys (and oy's) - but that are made that much more wonderful and meaningful because they are shared as a family.

26/27 Jan 2018

Our Torah portion this week is B'Shalach - Ex. 13:17-17:16, and celebrates the Exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh finally let's the people go... and then changes his mind and pursues them. The Israelites stand terrified at the shores of the Reed Sea, the sea miraculously parts, and they pass through on dry ground... their pursuers are then overwhelmed by the waters returning to their place. "When Israel saw the great power that the Eternal One wielded against Egypt, they had faith in the Eternal One, and in Moses, God's servant..." (Ex. 14:31)

Every year on the 27th of January, UNESCO pays tribute to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet troops on January 27,1945. It was officially proclaimed International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust by the United Nations General Assembly.

After Auschwitz, the idea of faith has come under scrutiny. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber spoke of "moment gods" - God is known only at the moment when awareness of God and God's Presence are fused in vital life. This awareness is interspersed among the times of our routine existence. In response to the Holocaust, Rabbi Irving Greenberg speaks of "moment faiths" - "...moments when Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of six million blot out faith... Yet, faith continues to flicker.. Faith is living life in the presence of the Redeemer, even when the world is unredeemed."

As Jews, we are called upon to remember - to remember our oppression in Egypt... to remember our oppression at the hand of 20th century evil. And we are called upon to recognize moments of faith, when the light of God's Presence shines through the darkest -- and the brightest -- of times.

19/20 Jan 2018

Our Torah portion this week is Bo - Ex. 10:1-13:16 and brings us to the climax of the Children of Israel's struggle for freedom. Pharaoh, finally seeing that his own people - the Egyptians - have been negatively affected in the course of the plagues, is willing to let the Israelites go... for a time. Just the men. Moses, however, refuses to go unless all Israel is together... "our young and our old... our sons and our daughters..." (10:9) Pharaoh says no, once again, and the final plague of the slaying of the first born ensues. Pharaoh then calls for Moses and finally lets God's people go... and asks for a blessing for himself as well.

It is interesting to note that as the Israelites leave, they are not alone. They are joined by the erev rav, the "mixed multitude" that went forth with the Israelites (12:38) from Egypt. One tradition holds that some Egyptians chose to leave with us, to strike out toward freedom and self-determination. Another tradition holds that even Pharaoh's daughter came with us, and in so doing acquired a new name: Batya, "Daughter of God."

Consider the scene: a vast column of refugees walking together into the wilderness... and in that great crowd of people were people who were born into the Israelite community, as well as fellow-travelers who chose to accompany us on our journey toward freedom. Together they redefined identity, so everyone became an insider, not divided by label or practice.

This is the story that constitutes us as a people, the story we retell during every Passover seder, the story we allude to as we recite the blessing over the wine in the Kiddush every Friday night and in the Ge'ula Prayer - the prayer of redemption after the Shema that includes the singing of Mi Chamocha every single day -- and in this core story, we are a mixed multitude. From the moment of our formation as a community, we are diverse.

With this in mind, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat teaches that "[... In all our diversity, we continue to live] this story through every act of tikkun olam (healing the world) that we do singly and together: in our learning, in our fellowship, in our activism, in our prayer, in our community-building. Each of these is a step on the road to Sinai, a step en route to the land of promise awaiting us all."

This is our story. As a people... As a community... And as a congregation.

12/13 Jan 2018

Our Torah portion this week is Va'era' - Ex. 6:2-9:35, and continues the story of the Israelites' struggle for freedom.

This Shabbat, we, along with communities around the country, will commemorate Shabbat Tzedek – a Shabbat of Justice – in connection with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. This is a moment to both recognize those whose pursuit of justice and freedom paved the path we walk today and march forward on the road towards redemption. The Union for Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center's Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch and Koach Baruch Frazier offer a prayer of redemption that is both personal and communal for this Shabbat:

Many among us experience both privilege and comfort. Yet, the experience of Egypt endures; not all are free. And so, we mark this time to shake ourselves from complacency and affirm our pursuit of justice.
“Out of the depths I call to You, Adonai” (Psalm 103:1) cried the Psalmist. We hear the one who says, “I yearn to be free.” There are those among us who long to know this redemption: those victims of baseless hatred and bigotry, of anti-Semitism and racism, of xenophobia and homophobia, of sexism and of violence.
On this Shabbat, we pray: May we each know our own personal redemption. May we see a path toward personal liberation. May we hear the voice of others as we listen to ourselves.
May we each know that we are loved by an unending love, and may we experience that love in our sacred communities, together… for redemption is also communal:
“The Israelites groaned under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” (Exodus 2:23) Eternal God, the Israelites cried out to You, and You took notice. You revealed Yourself to Moses first through a burning bush, and there You said: “I see the plight of My People in Egypt. I hear their crying because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings.” (Exodus 3:7)
And so, we pray: Help us to see, to hear, and to know the injustices that keep us from redemption. Like Moses who came upon the burning bush, open our hearts so that we cannot look away. Enable us to hear the voices of our family, our friends, and our community members when they tell us how they are oppressed. Grant us wisdom and compassion to eradicate the experience of the captive, so that we are all free.
Give us courage, energy, and humility to embrace those among us who we too easily label as “other.” Let us transform other into one another. In so doing, we bring justice and healing to our world. Disturb us from complacency that we may see, hear, and know the experience of the orphan, the widow, the stranger who dwells among us, the one who identifies differently, those who live in poverty, the unhoused, the newly immigrated, the person who thinks and speaks differently than us, anyone who could otherwise remain unseen, unheard, or unknown.
And on this Shabbat Tzedek, energize us in our pursuit of justice and the fight for redemption, in keeping with the words of the Prophet Micah: “It has been told to you... what is good and what the Eternal requires of you: to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8)

5/6 Jan 2018

With our Torah reading this week, we begin the book of Exodus Shemot - Ex. 1:1-6:1. Rabbi Shai Held (in The Heart of Torah) helps us understand the attributes that enable Moses to be the special kind of leader that is needed. These "... opening chapters of Exodus paint of portrait of a flesh and blood leader, but they also lay out a template of what kind of human being a leader in the deepest sense should be:

  • one who sees injustice and is compelled to respond;
  • one who is outraged by oppression of any human being, Jewish or not;
  • one who brings together a capacity for indignation with a gentleness of spirit;
  • one who manifests a compassion so deep that he cannot but attempt to aid those in need;
  • and one who, in a culture obsessed with self-promotion, exhibits a degree of self-doubt..."

This would appear to be a very helpful checklist for leadership in any age... which helps to make the leadership of Moses timeless.

29/30 Dec 2017

With this week's Torah portion - Va-Yechi - Gen. 47:28-50:26, the book of Genesis comes to a close. Jacob comes to the end of his life, blessing his sons, and finding peace of mind having been reunited with his son Joseph, and seeing that his family is safe and together. Jacob had made his sons promise that upon his death, he would be buried in the land of Canaan, in the cave of Machpela purchased by his grandfather Abraham so many years ago. Upon his death, Joseph and his brothers, along with a retinue of Egyptians, return Jacob to Canaan for burial and seven days of mourning (shiva), after which they return to Egypt.

Joseph's life, too, comes to an end in the final verses of our portion. He turns to his brothers and says: " 'I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.' So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying,'When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.' " (Gen. 50:24-25) Joseph understands that his brothers and their families will not receive permission to remove Joseph's body to the land of Canaan for burial, as they had in the past for their father Jacob, and so they must wait for a future time.

Like all the Torah portions, the title of this week's portion is based on the first important [Hebrew] word, which in this case is the first word of the portion: Va-Yechi. "Yechi" is a form of the verb "to live" (like the word "chai" = life); the "Va-" prefix turns it from a "not-yet happened" to a "has happened" = "[Jacob] lived..." Our portion brings the lives of Jacob and Joseph to a close, yet... the story of our people does not stop there, but will continue on into the book of Exodus and beyond...

And so the Torah turns. Chazak, Chazak, v'Nit'chazek! Be strong, be strong, and may we strengthen each other!

22/23 Dec 2017

Our Torah portion this week is VaYigash - Gen. 44:18-47:27 and brings us to the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, but this was not accomplished without hard work. Rabbi Sheldon Lewis teaches that "Joseph's elaborate plan, leading to a moment when his brothers could have rid themselves of Benjamin, the second son of Rachel, 'whose soul was bound with [Joseph's soul]' (Gen. 44:30), revealed how much the brothers had been transformed. They could have essentially repeated that same act that had rid them of Joseph." They could have rid themselves of Benjamin by letting him stay with the vizier [Joseph, unbeknownst to them] and become his slave... but they did not. How could they have reported this news to their father, Jacob, essentially killing him again?!

According to Jewish tradition, genuine repentance is demonstrated when an individual who has ostensibly repented is faced with the same opportunity to transgress... and turns away. Joseph is well aware of what his brothers did and had the potential to do again; but they did not. He now saw that his brothers had learned deeply, had truly regretted their actions, and were now different people. The stage was set for reconciliation.

15/16 Dec 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Miketz - Gen. 41:1-44:17 - and continues the story of Joseph. Joseph is called on to interpret Pharaoh's dreams and in doing so rises from the depths of prison to the heights of the royal palace, becoming Pharaoh's second in command. As famine spreads throughout Egypt and into Canaan, Jacob sends his sons down to Egypt to secure food for the family. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize the prince of Egypt before whom they stand.

Joseph has an opportunity to behave towards his brothers as they had behaved towards him. Yet, despite their cruelty toward him so many years before, he sets out on a careful path to reunion by giving his brothers an opportunity to repent. His apparent harsh treatment of them is belied by his frequently excusing himself from their presence in order that they may not hear his heartfelt cries.

In the Talmud - Sandhedrin 110 - we are taught not to hold on to a dispute.  Rabbi Isaac of Vurke (1779-1848) commented: "Even if it is an argument that has lasted any number of years, it is possible to make peace with each other." There is confidence that every argument can be overcome.  Just as the relationship with God is ever renewable, there is always an opening between people, and with that opening, an opportunity to repair broken bonds with others.

8/9 Dec 2017

Our Torah portion this week is VaYeshev - Gen. 37:1-40:23, and begins the saga of Joseph. After receiving a "coat of many colors" from his father, the text goes on to relate: "And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more that all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him." (Gen. 37:4) The verse implies that the brothers not only were unable to speak peaceably with with, but not able to speak even tough words of reproof to Joseph. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Levin (1721-1800), author of Tzvi L’Tzaddik, taught that had they spoken, perhaps they would have been able to assuage their anger and found a way to make peace with their brother, for "pouring out anger with words softens the heart and would have brought them to peace." We learn that key to overcoming conflict nonviolently - is the commitment to speech.

1/2 Dec 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Va-yishlach - Gen. 32:4-36:43. From last week to this, we have traversed through over twenty years since Jacob left Be'er Shevah for Haran - to find a wife from his mother's family and to escape the vengeful wrath of his brother Esau. Now, Jacob is returning - with wealth and and family... and he fears that he is in grave danger when he learns that his brother is making his way towards him with four hundred men on horseback. When he hears of Esau's approach, the Torah tells us: "Jacob was greatly afraid, and he was distressed." (32:8) Rabbinic tradition questioned the seemingly unnecessary doubling of language - if Jacob is greatly afraid wouldn't he also be distressed? From the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 76:2) we learn that "Jacob was greatly afraid that he might be killed, and he was distressed that he might kill others."

Jewish tradition is far from pacifistic; one is to defend oneself in the face of being killed... yet... an unavoidable tragedy is nevertheless a tragedy. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously captured this fear and distress when she addressed a 1969 press conference in London: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."

24/25 Nov 2017

Our Torah portion this week, VaYetze - Gen. 28:10-32:3, opens with the wondrous tale of "Jacob's ladder" - his dream of angels ascending and descending from earth to heaven, and God standing above him with the assurance of a safe return to the home and land from which he has fled. Jacob awoke from his dream and exclaimed: "Surely, God is present in this place! And I, I did not know it!... Mah norah hamakom - How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!" (Gen. 28:10,16)

Being able to express awe and appreciate mysteries connects us in profound ways to our world. Albert Einstein wrote: "The fairest thing we can appreciate is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. One who knows it not, who can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. It was the experience of mystery that engendered religion." [From his book titled The world as I see it (1949)]

It has been said that the age of wonderment was an era when extraordinary things were not taken for granted; all eyes were glued on the television when we landed a man on the moon, and all were amazed at the first heart transplant. Wonderment to the 21st century person may be a feeling that has essentially become numb. So much goes by unnoticed, ignored, and not even a footnote in the news.

Jacob was surprised by his experience, and recognized the existence of a Presence beyond his own. As time goes on, Jacob will wrestle with that Presence as well. His name will be changed to "Yisrael" - One who wrestles with the Divine. We are his namesake - and many of us also wrestle with recognizing the Divine in our lives. May we at least be open to wonder and amazement... and not become numb life's wonders.

17/18 Nov 2017

This week's Torah portion is Toldot - Gen. 25:19-28:9. Rabbi Rena Keival teaches this week: In the classic movie Casablanca, the ill-fated lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman share these words of comfort: “We’ll always have Paris.” A playful poem by Mary Jo Salter uses that line to make a point. The poem, titled, “We’ll Always Have Parents,” notes that, “We’ll always have them…they’re in our baggage.” The poem calls to mind what a wise and learned person once told me: that no matter how old we are, most of us shape our lives in response to our parents. We may define ourselves in a positive way by who our parents were, and what they taught us, and we may also define ourselves against who our parents were, and what they taught us. Most of us are driven and shaped by mixed legacies. Whatever those legacies are, “we’ll always have parents.”

This week's Torah portion reflects this truth in its opening lines. “Eileh toldot...This is the story... of Isaac son of Abraham…” who married “Rebekah, daughter of Betuel, sister of Lavan.” As Isaac and Rebekah begin their adult, married life and start their own family, the Torah pointedly recalls their parents and a sibling. These characters are already known to the reader, so we can assume that the Torah repeats them not to inform us about genealogy, but rather to remind us of the family legacies that both Isaac and Rebekah carry. The text is telling us at the outset to read these stories with the characters’ family histories, with their baggage, in mind... and reminds us of what is true for the story of every person: We do not exist in a vacuum, we all come from somewhere. Each of us was ‘begotten.’ We’ll always have parents...

Toldot is not only about what and who begets us, about the baggage we are born with. Toldot also means generations. Each of us generates something of our own. We generate our own lives. We each give birth, be it to actual children, or to other additions and contributions that we make to the world...

Our family stories in the book of Genesis show us how our toldot shape us, and also how we create our own toldot. What we learned in our families, and the roles that we play in them, are carried with us, and can define us, in both helpful and possibly not-so-helpful ways. We’ll always have parents, but each of us can choose what to keep from our family legacies, and what to leave behind or transform. One of our tasks is to keep open the wells of the generations that have come before us, and to draw from them. We can choose how those wells will nourish us, and nourish the people in our lives.

10/11 Nov 2017

This week's Torah portion is Chayyei Sarah - Gen. 23:1-25:18, a very full portion that begins with Sarah's death and Abraham's purchase of a burial ground for her. After this is accomplished, Abraham dispatches his servant to find a wife for Isaac. The servant finds Rebecca, and she agrees to go with him to Canaan to marry Isaac. The text continues with Abraham taking another wife - Keturah, and concludes with the death of Abraham; his sons Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father in the family's burial ground at Machpelah.

Biblical scholar, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, Exec. VP and Academic Dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, commented this past week on Abraham's words to his servant as he sends him to find a wife for Isaac and makes him swear an oath that he will try his best to do so... The servant expresses his concern, "What if the woman does not consent to return to this land with me...?" Abraham basically responds by telling him that God will send God's angel with him and will [make sure that he] find a wife for Isaac. BUT, if she does not consent to go with him, he will be relieved of his oath. (Gen. 24:2,8) What do we learn from this? Abraham is instructing his servant to do the best he can... that's really all that he can do... the rest is out of his hands.

Dr. Horn Prouser shared the story of preparing for Pesach with her children by searching for and disposing of the final pieces of hametz (leaven) in their house. Her young son asked if they got everything, and was told "We did our best" and then the family continued with the special verses recited after collecting and disposing of the hametz... Her young son added: "We did our best. Amen."

And so it is with us as well. When presented with challenges, we are urged to do the best we can.  The results are the results, not necessarily in our hands... We did our best. Amen.

3/4 Nov 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Va-yera' - Gen. 18:1-22:24. As Rabbi Shai Held teaches: Appalled by the corruption and lawlessness of Sodom and Gomorrah, God is ready to respond with dire consequences. However, before taking action, God makes a choice to consult with Abraham. Alarmed at the prospect of God acting unjustly, Abraham protests, wanting to know whether God will "sweep away the innocent along with the guilty" and asking, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"

Before God even brings up the idea to Abraham, God says (to God's self),"For I have singled him (Abraham) out, that he may instruct his children and their posterity to keep the way of the Eternal by doing what is just and right..." (Gen. 18:19) So what's going on here?

God wants Abraham to teach his descendants to do what is just and right -- but Abraham cannot teach that which he himself has not yet learned. God sets up the situation for Abraham so that he has the occasion to stand up for justice. If Abraham is to be the father of a people who will stand up for what is good and just, he will have to first do it himself.

Subtly, out text communicates a powerful lesson: We cannot teach our children values that we ourselves do not embody. We are charged never to go along to get along; in the face of injustice, we are challenged by God to speak up.

27/28 Oct 2017

This week's Torah portion is Lech-Lechah - Gen. 12:1-17:27, and opens with God's call to Avram (Abraham) to "Go forth from your native land, from your father's house to the land that I will show you." (12:1) Basically, Abraham will need to leave all that he knows, all that is familiar to him - he will have to go out of his comfort zone, trusting in God - trusting in the process to a place he does not know.

How many of us have had this experience? How many of us have had to make changes on our lives that have sent us in a different direction? A direction, in many cases, very different from what we ever anticipated?

A story is told: A man was on a journey that took him through a forest. There he lost his way. After several days of wondering, he encountered another. To this one he appealed: "Can you show me the way out of this forest?" The other replied: "I too have lost my way. Each path I have taken has been wrong. But at least I know what paths not to take. Let us search for the way out together."

The process can be long and winding.; There can be times when we might have felt (when we might feel) that we are lost and feel afraid. To know that we are not alone, to know that we have others to turn to to help us along the way - to accompany us along the way...

God continues to Abraham: "...And you shall be a blessing." (12:2) There are many interpretations as to what this can mean; I would like to suggest that, after having made the journey, after having had the experiences of leaving all that was familiar to him, perhaps Abraham was better able to help others who had gone through similar experiences and truly became a blessing to them. I believe that we, too, can say that those who have helped us along our way have also been a blessing to us... as we can be to others.

20/21 Oct 2017

Our Torah portion this is week Noach - Gen. 6:9-11:32. At the end of the story of Noah and the Flood, God places a rainbow in the sky, saying "This is the token of the Covenant which I make between you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the clouds... and when the bow is seen in the cloud I will remember My covenant... and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh..." (Gen. 9:12-15)

The rainbow is a symbol of peace; it is shaped like an archer's bow that is turned away from the archer - a sign of reconciliation. A truly lethal weapon that is turned into one of the most beautiful sights in nature.  Bringing together opposites - the fire of the sun and the water from rainfall, the rainbow demonstrates that the seemingly irreconcilable cannot only coexist, but also become a sight of beauty.

We see this hope for peace, by turning an object of war into an instrument of peace, reflected in the words of Isaiah (2:4) -- "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall learn was anymore."

God's rainbow and Isaiah teach us that making peace is done by intention: by turning our archer's bows into things of peaceful beauty, and by using those beautiful objects to remind us to pursue peaceful ways in the world.

13/14 Oct 2017

This week's portion - B'reishit - Gen. 1:1-6:8 - begins the book of Genesis with an epic poem about the creation of the universe... our world... and our place in it. Our portion invites us to reflect on the miracle of creation, and on the wondrous nature of all being. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810) taught:

Always say, The world was created for my sake.
Never say, What does all this have to do with me?
And do your share to add some improvement,
to supply something that is missing,
and leave the world a little better for your sojourn in it.

6/7 Oct 2017

On the Shabbat during the festival of Sukkot, we read the book of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as "Kohelet. In a recent article in Tablet Magazine, author Beth Kissileff wrote: "Ecclesiastes itself is all about duality: One could frame it as a dialogue between reality and alternate reality in the key of Greek philosophical ideas of its time. A back and forth between the hevel (futility and breath are both translations of the Hebrew) of an absurdly short breath and span of time humans have to live, and the possibility within that of accomplishing something meaningful and experiencing joy. The contradictions seem central to the book... Ecclesiastes swings between simchah (joy) and the transient nature of human life...”

Kisseleff continues: "The culmination of the season of atonement is setting aside days specifically for joy on Sukkot which is called by the rabbis, “z'man simchateinu,” the season of our joy, letting us spend time with family and friends, savoring the good life outdoors, in a booth under the shelter of God’s Presence. Huddled in an intentionally flimsy structure, we focus on the basics, on what is truly meaningful in life... The sukkah, our home for the duration of the holiday, reminds us that no home is permanent, all is transient..."

Especially this year, we are reminded of the fragile nature of our lives: from storm-tossed seas to water-ravaged cities... from the explosion of the earth as it quakes to the explosion of gunshots at an outdoor concert... The fragility of home is borne out in the life of Pedro Hernando-Rimerez, as he tearfully separated from his family to be deported to Mexico, after spending 14 years as a productive and law-abiding citizen here... Last week I sat in my office with two teenage girls from John Marshall High School: one whose family was still waiting to hear from relatives in Puerto Rico, and another whose grandmother lost her home to the earthquake in Guatemala...

We are called upon to hold the joy of our festival and the transient nature of our lives together at one time... We cannot do it alone. That is the power of community, as we pray: Ufros aleinu sukkat sh'lomecha - Spread over us Your shelter of peace.

29/30 Sep 2017

[I share this d'var by Jonah Baskin, Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, with you as a kick-off to our Social Action theme for the coming year -- Jewish responses to our environment]

Why the Un’taneh Tokef Scares Me and What We Can Do About It

I have a tough time with prayer. Often, my idea of God prevents a relationship in which asking for something results in receiving it directly, or one in which blessings of thanks can be understood or appreciated easily. I also struggle to buy into the literal meaning of various prayers.

When I read a blessing praising God for freeing the captive or clothing the naked, it reminds me of the very real inequities in our criminal justice system and the crushing poverty that affects so many around the world. God has not yet freed the captive or clothed the naked, and so my prayer experience has to become abstract and metaphorical to make any sense of the words. I try to reinterpret the blessing, asking God for help to get angry at injustice and fight for sentencing reform, economic justice, and the work of repairing a broken world. But there is always a bit of a gap. I need to translate more than just the Hebrew, twisting both God and what I am talking to God about through metaphor to arrive at a place where I feel I can say the prayers honestly.

This is why I am struck by the Un’taneh Tokef, a liturgical poem that dates to before the 8th century and is prominent in the High Holiday liturgy. The poem represents God as a divine monarch and judge, who passes judgment on us and our actions of the past year:

On Rosh HaShanah it is inscribed, And on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, Who shall live and who shall die, Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

I struggle with an image of God as a figure who predetermines the fates of individuals. What comes next, however, the potential fates the author envisions God decreeing, come straight from my fears of the future on a warmer planet.

When the Un’taneh Tokef asks, “Who shall perish by water and who by fire,” I instantly connect. North America has recently dealt with devastating hurricanes that have taken lives, destroyed houses, and left people without necessities. These storms are made more intense and dangerous by the warming of our planet. Over the past few months, when I was back at home in Colorado, I saw unusually hazy skies and colorful sunsets. They were a cruel and ironic result of an historic number of forest fires caused by record-breaking dry summers. Although I may need to understand God through layers of metaphor, these real, visible consequences speak directly to my experiences.

The U'’taneh Tokef asks “Who by famine and who by thirst?” Last week, in my new role as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I met with two interfaith partners from Lutheran and Anglican development organizations in Tanzania and Malawi. They spoke about how climate change is affecting local farmers, who are dealing with irregular rain patterns and new, migrating pests they do not know how to combat. After that meeting, the question in the poem is no longer rhetorical. Famine and thirst are real threats these farmers now face due to climate change.

The intense fear, dread, and terror the poem’s author expresses about his or her potential fate speak directly to my fears of climate change. The author’s anxiety about the future was the same anxiety I experienced when President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a major international climate change deal. For once, I do not have to reinterpret or reimagine the prayer to make it meaningful – and that is terrifying, strange, and unsettling.

The poem ends the stanza by comforting that “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah (using money to do the work of world-repair or, literally, justice) avert the severity of the decree.” I find that this statement, too, does not require the level of abstraction I’m used to. We know that repenting – which includes efforts to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions – will lessen the effects of climate change. We know that prayer, when it includes supporting our friends and neighbors, can help make our communities stronger and more resilient when we do face climate change’s effects. We know that tzedakah can fund projects that help protect the most disadvantaged people by helping them recover when the effects of climate change strike.

If you share my fears about a future on a warmer planet, ask your governor to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Doing so is one way we can repent, pray, and repair the world around climate change. []

The Un’taneh Tokef scares me. The tragic ends it describes have become imminent possibilities in the world. One of the themes of the High Holidays, one highlighted by the Un’taneh Tokef, is that our actions have consequences. The consequences of failing to act in a world of climatic changes worried the poet of the Un’taneh Tokef centuries ago and equally worry this 22-year-old today.

22/23 Sep 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Ha'azinu - Deut. 32:1-52 which is taken up for the most part by a long poem in which Moses describes God's care for the children of Israel, pointing out that God has been very patient with this people through all their troubles and failings. The divine perseverance is to be emulated.

Henry Ward Beecher was a 19th-century minister, preacher, and social reformer who supported abolition and women’s suffrage. He was the brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe. About perseverance he wrote: The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is, that one often comes from a strong will -- the other from a strong won't.

Jacob Riis was a late-19th early 20th century photographer and writer whose book How the Other Half Lives led to a revolution in social reform. On the subject of perseverance he wrote: "When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without so much as a crack showing in it.Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split on two, and I know it was not that blow that did it - but all that had gone before.

At this season of renewal and return and forgiveness, the idea of perseverance - of what it means to say "I will" rather than "I won't" is very much a part of our intentions. Making change - be it personal or social - is not easy; it very well just might not happen on the first try. Or the next... Or the next... But each try builds upon what came before, and patience and diligence can lead to a positive result.

15/16 Sep 2017

This week, as we make our way into the High Holy Days, we have a double Torah portion: Nitzavim - Deut. 29:9-30:20, and Va'yelech - Deut. 31:1-30. Va'yelech opens with "Va'yelech Moshe va'y'daber et kol hadevarim ha'elah el kol Yisrael - Moses went... and spoke all these words to all Israel." (31:1) The text states that Moses went -- but does not tell us where he went. Moses is 120 years old (God bless him!), reaching the end of his life.

The Torah commentator Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 -1619) taught that somehow, especially because of his advanced age, Moses found the energy to go and visit every tent where his people lived in order to urge them to make peace with each other and with God. His final speech is dependent on a personal commitment by each person to make teshuva - to reconcile with each other and with God. He does not want to depart with relationships in disrepair.

Just as we are to pursue justice, the Kli Yakar taught that we are to actively engage in reaching out and pursuing peace. The process of peacemaking connects us to each other, and those positive connections have a positive effect upon our homes, our communities, and our world.

8/9 Sep 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tavo - Deut. 26:1-29:8. In chapter 27, Moses details a ceremony for the people that they are to carry out when they enter the promised land. They are to "set up large stones, coat them with plaster, and inscribe on them the words of HaTorah Hazot - this Teaching... most distinctly." (27:2-3, 8)

Basically, set up large billboards, no? "Welcome to the Promised Land... This is how we do things around here!"

The Teaching is inscribed -- carved into the plaster-covered stones, and meant to be read easily and to last into the future. With future generations able to see and learn for themselves this Teaching. Thus, the reading and teaching and understanding of this Teaching is always today. This Teaching is not for one generation only, but for all time.

1/2 Sep 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Ki Teitzei - Deut. 21:10-25:19, and specifically addresses the treatment and rights of the worker: "Do not abuse a needy or destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it." (24:14-15) Historically, Jews have been at the forefront of worker's rights, and on this Labor Day Weekend, I invite you to read on for examples from the Jewish Women's Archive by Judith Rosenbaum

It’s Labor Day Weekend, which for some reason in this country is a time to barbeque, shop, and maybe spend one last weekend at the beach. Labor Day has come to mean the end of summer, rather than a day to consider and celebrate the role of workers in building and sustaining this country.

As Jews, labor rights are central to our tradition, and as American Jews, they are central to our history. Jews served as important labor leaders as well as a significant proportion of the rank-and-file in certain industries (e.g. textiles and garment work). The Jewish Labor Committee recently wrote a piece on Jewish involvement in the American Labor movement, naming leaders such as Samuel Gompers, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky. For some reason, they’ve neglected to mention the female Jewish labor leaders, such as Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Pauline Newman, Lillian Wald...

Most American Jews are lucky that the sweatshop is far from our personal experience – except as we enable them as consumers – and has receded into our (often nostalgic) image of our immigrant roots. So I thought it might be useful to point out a couple of examples of Jewish labor activists whose stories differ from the more familiar labor activism narrative.

Justine Wise Polier, daughter of Rabbi Stephen Wise and Louise Waterman Wise and the first woman Justice in New York, is known mainly for her work as a judge in family court. As a young woman, she was frustrated by the gulf between her economic studies and the experiences of working people. So she decided to supplement her education at Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard by working nights at textile factories in New Jersey, where she advocated for a union. In 1926, while a student at Yale Law School, she was a vocal participant in the great textile strike in the Passaic mills in which she had worked.

Gertrude Weil was a southern activist for women’s rights, civil rights, and labor rights. Sensitive to the link between women’s political and economic disadvantages, in the 1910s and 20s she lead North Carolina’s women’s groups to advocate for a survey of women’s working conditions and to support a strike of women workers in the state’s textile mills. Her work helped bring women workers shorter hours, among other reforms.

Of course, labor activism is not just a topic for the history books. Workers rights and immigrant rights are [very often in the news...] So this Labor Day, I urge you to think about ways to make this holiday more relevant: how can you support workers’ rights?

25/26 Aug 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Shoftim - Deut. 16:18-21:9. "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue." (Deut. 16:18). Tikva Frymer-Kensky (z"l) wrote that "the view of justice detailed in our Torah portion is a view from the top, and is concerned with establishing authorities and delineating their functional procedures. The view of justice posited by the prophet Amos was a view from the bottom: standing in the way of one's legal rights can get in the way of just behavior. These are two differing views of justice - strict procedural justice and social justice. We must pursue both types of justice and find a way to make the tension between them a dynamic creative tension." Perhaps that is why the word for justice - tzedek - occurs twice: to remind us to pursue both types of justice.

18/19 Aug 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Re'eh - Deut. 11:26-16:17, and opens with the ever present gift of free will...

As Rabbi Morley T. Feinstein teaches: What does it mean to choose? How important are our decisions? Choosing can range from what to wear, to what to say, to how to live our lives.

In our Torah portion, Re’eh, God places before the Israelites blessings and curses as they are about to enter the Holy Land. Blessings will come to the Israelites if they follow God's commandments and curses if they don’t.

But God doesn’t say that we must follow God's commandments. We are given a choice. Everything we do has a consequence. God is saying that we can live our lives how we want to, but our decisions will have an effect, not only on us, but also on everyone around us. Taking seriously how we are to treat and support each other can impact each and every day of our lives...

We are given the choice to live the Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim. Based on the principles of community, acceptance, and role-modeling, we are called upon to strive each day to recall that all are created in the divine image. Each of us has unique gifts and talents. We are called upon to create community that discovers and praises the blessings of every individual.

11/12 Aug 2017

In our Torah portion this week, Ekev - Deut. 7:12-11:25, Moses recalls the daily portions of manna provided for the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness, and presents the manna's educational purpose. So we learn from Rabbi Avital Hochstein:

[God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that people do not live on bread alone, but that people live on what comes forth from God's mouth. [Deut. 8:3]

The manna itself teaches that like other foods and bread, it itself is insufficient; when offered alone it leaves people in a state of hunger and suffering. People need that which comes forth from the mouth of God as well.

What kind of relationship does a reality based on "what comes from God's mouth" have to offer? Supposedly, that is the manna's essence: it falls from the sky, God is its source, it is collected by human beings, who live according to God's words. If so, what is the difference between the manna and what comes from God's mouth?

In the book of Isaiah [55:10-11], we find a depiction of a reality based on "what comes forth from God's mouth":

For as the rain or snow drop from heaven and do not return there, but soak the earth and make it bring forth vegetation, yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is that which comes from My mouth: It does not come back to Me unfulfilled, but performs what I purpose, achieves what I sent it to do.

What comes from God's mouth is compared to rain and snow that fall from the sky. Indeed, this image reminds us of God's words falling from the sky, similar to the manna, but what is interesting is the condition stated in the verse: the rain and snow do not return to the sky. Instead, they saturate the earth, which in turn cultivates and provides. The sky provides rain that is absorbed by the earth, consequently vitalizing the earth. The saturated earth goes on to produce trees and vegetation, which grow skyward.

Now, let us return to that which is issued forth from God's mouth -- it too does not return to God, but rather is absorbed by people who are motivated by it. They are motivated to take action, advance, grow and maintain a mutual ongoing relationship with God... and God's world. Consequently, we find a different depiction of reality than the one of manna: a reality in which what people receive from God does not create a lack of independence, but rather generates action, productivity and creativity that aim skyward. Living in response to what comes forth from God's mouth creates a reality of independence and maturity.

4/5 Aug 2017

This week's portion is Ve'etchanan - Duet. 3:23-7:11 - and includes the famous six Hebrew words, the "watchword of Israel's faith" - Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad - Hear, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. (6:4) The Midrash Rabba on Deuteronomy understands these words as saying, "Hear the Voice of God" and points to Psalm 85 for clarification:

[King] David said: I wanted to hear just what the Holy One of blessing speaks about. And I heard that He speaks about peace, as it is said, 'I will hear what Almighty God will say: for He will speak peace to His people and to His pious ones.' (Ps. 85:9)

The call to listen is a call to deeply consider the nature of God and of what God wants of us. According to the psalmist (possibly David himself), the focus of God's hope for humanity is peacemaking.

And what of God's Oneness - "Adonai Echad"? As God is One, God encompasses all.  With that in mind, we should strive to actualize "Oneness" on earth.

Shabbat Shalom -- May your Shabbat be filled with peace, and may that peace radiate out to all you meet each and every day.

28/29 Jul 2017

Our Torah portion this week opens the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy - Duet. 1:1-3:22, as Moses begins the first of what will be three orations, starting with a look back at the years that began as they left Sinai... and included so many challenges to his leadership... This Shabbat is also Shabbat Hazon - the Sabbath of Vision, based on the opening words of our Haftarah from Isaiah 1:1-27 - the Shabbat right before Tisha B'Av, recalling the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips ( shares thoughtful insights that bring together the importance of the "How?" of lamentation and the "How?" of vision...

Vision. Lamentation. HOW?

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hazon, the annual Jewish “Sabbath of Vision.” At first glance, the “vision” of this Sabbath seems to be one of impending doom. The Scriptural readings prepare us for Tisha b'Av, our Jewish day of mourning for tragedies through the ages. On Tisha b'Av itself (which is commemorated next Monday night and Tuesday), the book that is called Lamentations in English and Eikha in Hebrew is read. The readings for Shabbat Hazon also highlight the word Eikha—which literally means “How." In painful, troubled times like these—when so many are lamenting what seems like the absence of vision—how we understand the word "How" may be our key to redemption.

"Eikha / How can I bear alone your stress and your burden and your quarreling?” is the plaintive question of Moses, toward the beginning of his long farewell address to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 1:12).

"Eikha / How it has (or How has it) become as a harlot, a faithful city—full of justice, in which righteousness would lodge; and now murderers...” is the pained observation of Isaiah (1:21).

Moses’ “Eikha / How can I bear [this] alone…?” can be understood in two ways. One is rhetorical, the way of lamentation; and the implied answer is “I can’t.” The other is the way of problem-solving (“How am I going to figure this out?”), and the implied answer is “I can.”

The “Eikha” of Isaiah can also be understood in two ways. One is the way of lamentation (“How terrible it has become!”). The other is the way of analysis (“How has it become so terrible?”).

It's tempting to disparage the way of lamentation in favor of the ways of problem-solving and analysis. We want to fix the problem—as quickly as possible—and not “wallow” in our feelings about it. Yet, in the desperate rush toward a quick fix, we tend to make our problems worse.

Similarly, our analyzing tends to deflect accountability away from ourselves, and too often leads to another form of wrongdoing also noted by Isaiah: sh’lah etzba, or finger-pointing (Isaiah 58:9).

If we look again at the challenge of Eikha, we may discover a clarity of vision that can only be realized if the true value of lamentation is understood and reclaimed.

"Consider and call for the lamenting-women, that they may come; and send for the wise-women, that they may come. And let them hasten and raise a wailing over us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush waters....and teach your daughters wailing, and every woman teach her neighbor lamentation."

These are the words of the prophet Jeremiah (9:16-17, 19), to whom the book of Lamentations is also attributed. Jeremiah makes a remarkable assertion: that the expression of grief is actually a form of wisdom—and that its facilitation is a communal responsibility.

This is further codified in the early rabbinic text of the Mishnah (Moed Katan 3:9):

What is…lamentation? That one [woman] speaks and all the rest respond after her; as it is said: “and teach your daughters wailing, and every woman teach her neighbor lamentation.”

Lamentation is a process of call and response. Traditionally, it was a powerful form of women’s leadership. Many Jews today chant Psalms during times of trouble in a similar call-and-response mode.

“Eikha / How can I bear [this] alone…?” As the subsequent Torah narrative indicates, Moses’ lament expresses a basic truth: he can't bear this alone. What he can and does do is enter the call-and-response of community, where the burdens of stress and grief can be shared. The “How?!” of lamentation releases and clarifies the “How” of vision—which ultimately facilitates real accountability and effective action.

“Deep calls to deep in the voice of Your channels” (Psalm 42:8). May it be our vision to learn the wisdom of call and response when we are faced with overwhelming challenges, so that we can serve as channels of healing and support for each other through the times of crisis and pain.

An earlier version of this teaching was published by the Academy for Jewish Religion [] in 2011.

14/15 Jul 2017

(Adapted from Rabbi Lisa Edwards'

We open our Torah scrolls this week to Pinchas -- Numbers 25:10−30:1. This week's portion is named for the grandson of Aaron who, in a short narrative at the very end of last week's portion, Balak, took the law into his own hands by running a spear through the Israelite Zimri and his Midianite paramour, Cozbi, for their public display of affection (Numbers 25:5-9).

“What a good idea,” God seems to say. Inspired by the zealous Pinchas, God says, “Assail the Midianites and defeat them” (25:17). God rewards Pinchas, saying, "I grant him My pact of friendship [literally, "My covenant of peace," b’riti shalom]. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time" (25:12-13).

It is difficult not to be disturbed by the actions of Pinchas or by God’s approval of him. Rabbis of the Talmud have a long discussion (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a), concluding that had Pinchas brought his case to a rabbinical court, the court would have told him: 'The law may permit it, but we do not follow the law!' 1

Numerous commentaries also ameliorate the reward of priesthood that God bestows on Pinchas and his descendants, suggesting that perhaps God does so in hopes that demands of the priesthood will make Pinchas less violent, and (or) allow him to atone for the lives he took.2

An amazing bristling at the violence of the story comes in the form of a visual midrash in the Torah scroll itself. Torah scribes scrupulously follow thousands of rules when writing a Torah scroll, among them that no letter may be broken . . . with one exception: the letter vav in the word shalom when God grants Pinchas, "My covenant of peace/b’riti shalom." Why is this vav alone to be written with a break in it? No one knows for sure, but many align with the suggestion that the letter vav, with its slight curve at the top, and straight up and down line, resembles a spear, perhaps the spear of Pinchas. The broken spear-shaped vav here in the word shalom invites us to see the imperfection/corruption of peace brought by the sword (suggesting that “the pen is mightier than the spear”3?). Add to that another nearby visual midrash: in Numbers 25:11 the letter yod in Pinchas’s name is written smaller than the other letters. "When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yod in us (standing for the name of God and for Y’hudi, "Jew") is diminished thereby."4

  1. Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinic Assembly, 2001), produced by The Jewish Publication Society (JPS), p. 918
  2. Ibid., p. 918, quotes Rabbi Abraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (K’tav Sofer, 1815-1879) and Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Ha-amek Davar (1817-1893) in considering these two interpretations of God’s “rewarding” of Pinchas
  3. Based on “The pen is mightier than the sword,” Richelieu, (1839), act 3, scene 2, Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  4. Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinic Assembly, 2001), produced by The Jewish Publication Society (JPS), p. 918

7/8 Jul 2017

This week's Torah portion is Balak - Numbers 22:2-25:9, and we turn to Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz, as she shares her teaching in Torah from T'ruah - a rabbinic call for justice...

We open our communal prayer daily with a verse taken from this week’s portion. A blessing that the notorious Bilam bestowed on us, and that has become a sort of a motto for Jewish houses of gathering. “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'acov, mishkanotecha Yisrael -- How Goodly are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” (Num. 24:5)

The recitation of this text reminds us that before we even turn to the morning blessings, mindfully acknowledging our morning routine, we express gratefulness for having a place to live, a roof over our head. We acknowledge our good fortune for not being homeless. And indeed, even wandering in the desert for forty years, the people of Israel were not homeless. All their physical needs were taken care of. They had clothes to wear, food to sustain them, and they had goodly tents. Goodly tents that Rashi explains are tents with entrances that do not face each other. Tents that not only provide shelter from the elements but also allow for privacy.

Privacy sounds peaceful and delightful. But on deeper inspection we might wonder whether a blessing of doors and windows not facing each other is truly a blessing for a justice-seeking people. Even more startling is Bilam’s earlier iteration: “A people who keep to themselves, who pay no heed to others” (Num. 23:9). It almost sounds like keeping to ourselves necessarily leads to the undesirable outcome of paying no heed to others. For isn’t our ability to do good in the world a direct outcome of first noticing lack, recognizing need and finding room for improvement? And is any of it possible if we keep to ourselves, tucked in the privacy of our “tents” designed so we don’t see the people around us? After all, justice has to start with seeing. Deeply seeing. And keeping to ourselves does not seem to foster that kind of seeing.

It could be said that the entire story of Bilam is a tale about the importance of seeing. Bilam, the great wizard, is known for his sight, his ability to “fall with his eyes open.” Indeed, he is the kind of perceptive man that, even looking from a distance at the camp of the Israelites, is able to see deep to their essence. I sometimes think of him as the insightful friend who gives good advice to everyone else but whose own life is a mess. And so the insightful Bilam, who sees rather well from a distance, fails to see what is right before his face - the suffering of his own donkey... and the angel blocking their way. And because Bilam does not see, he fails to respond correctly. His story seems like a series of missed opportunities to do better. I personally think of the story of Bilam as a cautionary tale. It reminds me that it is not enough to see injustice from the mountain top, from a distance, but that the seeing of the more uncomfortable kinds of injustice, the very local and close-to-home kind, is crucial.

And as for the Israelite tents, perhaps what made them so good is the flexibility, to sometimes have privacy, but sometimes also to open the flaps in all directions, and take a good look around, see what work still needs to be done, and then pursue it.

30/1 Jun/Jul 2017

This week's Torah portion is Chukat - Numbers 19:1-22:1 - and includes the incident in the wilderness when there is no water and the people complain bitterly. God instructs Moses to speak to a rock to flow with water for the people. But, in Moses' anger, he strikes the rock with his rod. Water flows, but God is displeased with Moses' actions, and tells him: :"Because you did not trust Me enough... therefore you shall not lead this community into the land that I have given them." (20:12)

Moses had been in this situation before. In Exodus, the people were thirsty and God told Moses to strike the rock, and water would flow. Perhaps Moses thought that, since he had been in this situation before, he knew how to behave. In his present anger with the people, he could not hear God's command... Anger makes Moses lose his ability to listen, and if he cannot listen, he is no longer fit for his position as prophetic leader of the people.

When we get angry, we, too, lose the capacity to listen. And that can prevent us from truly hearing what the other person has to say... and there are consequences.Take a breath... Let it out... And listen...

23/24 Jun 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Korach - Num. 16:1-18:32 and tells of a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach, a Levite and cousin of Moses and Aaron, leads a group of 250 prominent ("men of repute") Israelites, claiming to speak in the name of democracy: "All the community are holy... Why then do you raise yourselves against the congregation?" (16:3) Moses, then, discerns that Korach's claim is dishonest and God will choose between therm.

In his comments on this portion, Rabbi Arthur Waskow shares: But what was wrong with Korach's challenge? To many contemporary ears, Korach seems a grass-roots communitarian democrat. Whether in secular or religious life, we are suspicious of self-anointed leaders, even those who have a far-seeing vision and decent values...

Martin Buber asks this same question: Was Korach wrong? Buber certainly criticized such world-renowned leaders of his own day as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, for centralizing power and authority in themselves and in the State. Buber identified with the prophets much more than the kings, and admired Samuel's challenge to the people who urgently demanded that he choose for them a king. As Samuel said, "We have a King -- in Heaven! An earthly monarch will tax and conscript you, will shatter your free communities and your connection with God." (from I Samuel 8-9)

Rabbi Waskow continues: And in his book Paths in Utopia, Buber fervently criticized Marx, Lenin, and Stalin for their centralizing politics, their call for an elite and vanguard party to transform society. Buber instead argued for a transformative politics rooted in decentralized communities.

So, Buber asks in his book Moses, what's wrong with Korach's position? Don't we -- indeed we !! -- want the whole people to be holy, and not have to depend on an elite?

But then Buber says: Korach thought the whole people was holy regardless of how it acted. It could kill, or worship gold, or rape the earth -- it could do anything, thought Korach, and still be holy.

Moses, on the other hand, understood that the people had to become holy, over and over, forever and always... That the people had to act and act, do and do again, to make holiness out of ordinary life.

And in this way Buber (and Rabbi Waskow) explains and justifies the failure of Korach... and reinforces our ever-renewing mission of making holiness out of everyday life.

16/17 Jun 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Shelach Lecha - Num. 13:11-15:41 and ends with the command of tzitzit, the fringes worn at the corners of the tallit, prayer shawl. When we look at the tzitzit, we are to "remember and do ;all [God's] mitzvot/commandments and be holy to [y]our God." (Num. 15:39-40). What is the role of mitzvot/commandments for Reform Jews????

In 1999, the Reform movement published their Platform to take us into the twenty-fist century. On the subject of mitzvot we read:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

For me, as I look at the tzitzit at the corners of my tallit, I see them as strands and knots and windings that connect me to a portal in time: going back to those who came before me and provided the ever-developing interpretations of the mitzvot that help to make my Jewish practice meaningful to me. I look at my tzitzit in the present, and seek to find ways that these sacred obligations bring holiness to my life. And I see my tzitzit connecting me to the future - as I humbly seek to connect others to appreciating the holiness in their lives.

Look. Remember. Do... in the unique context of our own times. Be holy. Fringe benefits.

9/10 Jun 2017

Our Torah portion this week is B’ha’alotecha – Num. 8:1-12:16. In his recent commentary, Rabbi David Goldfarb writes that “… it begins gloriously - the Menorah is prepared, the silver trumpets readied for the departure from Sinai, the Fiery Cloud is in place to lead the Israelites to the land the Lord spoke of… Everything seems to be going smoothly... And then the complaining begins.”

A slight digression… A story is told of a young monk who joins a silent monastery. The rules are simple, the abbot tells him: "You can speak two words every ten years." After ten years the young monk says, "Bed hard." Ten years later, "Food bad." After 30 years he tells the abbot, "I quit." The senior monk looks at him and says, "I'm not surprised. You've been complaining ever since you got here."

The Israelites were never silent. And when we do hear from them, aside from accepting the Ten Commandments, they are complaining… especially about the food… or lack of it. The people demand meat and recall, with the tone of 'the good old days,' "the fish which we ate free in Egypt, the cucumbers and melons, the leeks, onions and garlic" (11:5). Actually, they had made similar complaints shortly after leaving Egypt (Ex. 16:3): "In Egypt we had plenty of meat and bread.” Complaining about the food, early and often, is a very old Jewish custom; no waiting ten or twenty years.

One word is particularly striking - "the fish we ate ḥinam - free." Several commentators explain it literally: fish were plentiful in Nile; the Egyptians would feed the slaves fish so they'd be strong for work.

The medieval commentator Rashi rejects that idea - if the Egyptians didn't give them straw for bricks, it was hardly likely they would let them eat fish for free. Ḥinam for Rashi means ḥinam min ha-mitzvot, free from the commandments (Rashi's comment on Num. 11:5). At Sinai, the children of Israel received the Torah, the commandments upon which the life and conduct of the Jewish people are based. The Midrash tells how, when the Israelites departed from Sinai, they fled from the message of Sinai [the message of Torah and mitzvot] like children running from school when the bell rings…

We need food for the body… and food for the soul. Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria articulates the balance that is needed (Pirkei Avot 3:21) - Im ein kemach ein torah… If there is no flour (physical sustenance) there is no Torah, and vice versa. We have to include and appreciate both. Striking that balance is the challenge the Jews faced as they left Sinai... and that we face today.

2/3 Jun 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Naso - Numbers 4:21-7:89 and includes the very famous Birkhat Cohanim - Priestly Benediction (6:24-26). Taking a closer look at the text (with various rabbinic commentators):

May the Eternal bless you and protect you.
"Blessing" - increasing the good in one's life... (Gersonides)
"Protection" - guarding against evil... (Bekhor Shor)

May the Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you.
"Deal kindly" - generously ((Bekhor Shor)
"Graciously" - rather, that others will look favorably upon you (Rashi)

May the Eternal bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.
"Bestow favor" - Whenever you turn to God, may God be turned to you. (Ibn Ezra)
"And grant you peace" - Peace in the material world and also peace of mind... (Gersonides)

Note that each of the three verses contain two blessings, yet the verses expand in length from three, to five, to seven words (in the Hebrew), with "Shalom - Peace" as the last word - the ultimate blessing.

26/27 May 2017

We begin the fourth book of Torah this week -- the book of B'midbar/In the Wilderness, commonly known at the book of Numbers. Numbers 1:1-4:20 takes up the narration of the Israelites' journey beyond Sinai and into the wilderness. As they prepare to set forth, God tells Moses to take a census of the able-bodied men who can defend them on their journey towards the Promised Land and also a counting of the Levites, those who will serve as priests to the people -- serving needs of their physical and spiritual lives.

As the Torah turns throughout the year, I cannot help but be reminded of the various students who have become bar and bat mitzvah. Each of our students read through the whole Torah portion with their family, and then choose a section to read and to focus on for their bar or bat mitzvah service. For this week's portion, I think of the young girl who read about how each tribe was camped beneath their standard, and how she wondered how each standard's pattern might have been designed for each tribe. I think about the young boy who chose to read the verses that listed each tribal name and the people who represented them, enjoying the challenge of learning each name. I think about the young boy who so did not want to become a bar mitzvah, and begrudgingly learned his Torah portion about taking the census - only to come to an understanding that although each tribe was different, each member "counted" - and so did he. And, I think about the young boy who, as he learned about the roles that the Levites played, found out that he descended from the line of Coheins/Priests; as his grandfather had survived the Holocaust, his role now was to carry on the Cohein line.

As the Torah turns, each of us - not just our children - has the opportunity to find ourselves in the text.

19/20 May 2017

Our Torah portion this week is BeHar/B'Chukotai - Lev. 25:1-26:2/26:3-27:34, and completes the book of Leviticus. In Lev. 25:35 we read: "And if your kinsman, being poor, comes under your authority, then you shall hold him up... and the resident alien, too: let him live by your side as a kinsman." We are to reach out to the poor and restore their dignity. The text does not instruct us to wait until they find themselves in dire straights, but to reach out when the other is beginning to slip. Notice that the text calls upon us to "hold him up" rather than "lift him up" - implying that he has not yet completely fallen. If we are attentive to those around us, even a small slippage would be noticed and would call us to action. A person's dignity can erode very quickly and calls for early action when another is in need.

The resident alien is included along with one's kinsman, thereby broadening the circle of concern to include everyone in our community. While the needs of brethren take priority when resources are limited, an ideal is articulated here that no one's basic needs be overlooked.

This past Sunday, the students, teachers, and parents in our Religious School heard from our good friend, Carl Cook, as he spoke about the caring and thoughtful approach that he uses with each person in the homeless community that he is able to assist. He reinforced how each person - each person - is "made in the image of God", and when we keep that in mind it has a positive and meaningful effect on how we treat each other. Yascher Koach to David Rosen and our High School students for organizing a very successful "Backpacks for the Homeless" project, that will help Carl to hold up those who are falling (or who have fallen) on hard times.

12/13 May 2017

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Emor - Lev. 21:1-24-23 and it deals with at least two kinds of holiness: that of person and that of time. Leviticus 21-22 address the laws of holiness (and who is fit or unfit for participating in the ritual life of the sanctuary) and they refer not only to the High Priest and the priests, but also to the ordinary Israelites and... to the animals that will be offered as sacrifices. Leviticus 23 is about holy time - Shabbat and the festivals of the Jewish year. Leviticus 24 ends with focusing on a third type of holiness: holy language, and the effect of blaspheming God's Name. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments: Blasphemy injures society by desecrating the sacred. A word - God's Name - that signals peace, is used like a weapon in a fight...

Why all this talk of holiness? A sense of the sacred lifts us above our baser instincts... and helps us to live as our highest selves.

5/6 May 2017

This week we have another double Torah portion - Acharie Mot/Kiddoshim - Lev. 16:1-18:30/19:1-20:27. Focusing on Kiddoshim, Lev. 19 begins with a chapter that is referred to as "The Holiness Code," Kuf-Dalet-Shin - the root letters for the word Kadosh - Holy. It is the blueprint for a holy life, following in the ways of a holy God. It opens with: "You shall be holy, for I, your Eternal God, am holy." (19:2) These words are to be directed to the whole Israelite community - they apply to all of us, not just to the priests, not just to the leaders, not just to the righteous ones... but to us all: reverence for parents, celebrating Shabbat, providing for the poor, dealing honestly in business and not taking advantage of others, judging fairly, not standing idly by while your fellow is in danger or distress... and loving your fellow as yourself. This is a list of actions... how do they play out in your life?

28/29 Apr 2017

This week’s double portion – Tazri’a/Metzorah – Lev. 12:1-15:33 (a perennial “favorite” among bar and bat mitzvah students) focuses on bleeding after the birth of a child, the identification of bodily discharges, and illnesses and skin afflictions (also appearing on the walls of houses) – all of which represent the crossing of the boundaries between life and death, and all of which cause the afflicted one (man or woman) to become ritually impure and not able to enter the precinct of the Tabernacle/Temple to offer sacrifices.  The Priest plays a significant role here: to positively identify the cause of the impurity, and positively identify its healing – when the person is now able to rejoin the community and enter the holy precinct. The Priest acts as the “border patrol,” identifying the ritually impure… and the ritually pure.

I write these words in New York, as I am preparing to attend the Rabbinic Ordination ceremonies of my seminary – The Academy for Jewish Religion, and I am thinking about the role of the rabbi during the healing process. In ancient times, it appears that the Priest was present just to judge this or to pass judgement on that; the text does not go into details as to what kind of relationship the Priest had with each person.

When I think about my congregation, I recognize how blessed I am not to have to pass judgements, but to be able to walk with those who are going through various “border crossings” – various issues that affect their health and spirit. It is hard to be present for everyone, but important to know that presence can be a personal visit or a phone call. As in ancient times when the Priest was notified about someone needing to be seen, so too today. Reach out your hand – and mine will be there.

21/22 Apr 2017

In this week's Torah portion - Shemini - Lev. 9:1-11:47, we find the jarring episode of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, who apparently made some kind of sacrifice using what the Torah calls eish zara - "strange fire" (Lev. 10:1). We are told that the manner in which this sacrifice was offered was not in accordance to God's instructions and, as a result, Nadav and Avihu were themselves summarily "consumed by fire which came forth from the Lord... and Aaron was silent." (Lev. 10:2,3)

Each generation has puzzled over this episode for millennia. What was the reason? How could this happen to Aaron's son? What did they do wrong? Was this Divine justice? And what could Aaron say?

On Monday, we will commemorate Yom HaShoah, the day set aside in the Jewish calendar on which we remember those who were killed by fire for no apparent reason. We remember... but we are not silent.

Maimonides taught that all the evil in the world was the product of free will, which allows those who would destroy us to follow the path of their intentions. Does this free will extend to us, so that we have a way of dealing with evil if we choose to do so?

Allan Myers, a member of Edgware Masorti Synagogue, London UK, writes that: "Today, many organizations are trying to inculcate a sense of morality in young people so that the events of the last century are not repeated. But they face an uphill task against fascist organisations, both European and Middle Eastern, that are gaining ground."

If we follow Maimonides' teaching, then response to the Holocaust, response to unmitigated hate, does not leave room for any consideration of Divine justice. But it does leave room for human injustice. Along with Allan Myers, we pray that the Divine can help us to stamp it out. We must remember, but we will not be silent.

14/15 Apr 2017

Many people wonder why the festival of Pesach is not celebrated when we are reading about it when it appears during the regular weekly Torah readings. Basically, we begin from the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit in the fall -- and the portions come as they come. When we take a close look at the reading about Pesach in the book of Exodus, we see that the instructions for celebrating Pesach are specific - "... on the fourteenth day [of the first month of the year - Aviv, which would become known as Nisan] you are to ...observe the Passover sacrifice as an institution for all time... this day will be to you one of remembrance..." (Ex. 12:2,14) Hence, we celebrate Pesach in its time -- and (as we are now in the book of Leviticus/VaYikra') we will roll the Torah scroll back to Exodus to retell our story.

This Shabbat during Pesach, the Torah portion is Ex. 33:12-34:26. The Haftarah is from the prophet Ezekiel 37:1-14. And, in addition, the Song of Songs is read. Taken all together, our readings will share:

  • God's reassurance to Moses that God will accompany the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness,
  • that the Jewish people - like a valley of dry bones - will "arise from their graves" [in Babylonian exile] and return to the Land of Israel,
  • and that spring means hope and happiness: hope lies in freedom... and happiness in our continued relationship with the Divine in our lives.

7/8 Apr 2017

This week's Torah portion is Tzav - Lev. 6:1-8:36 and it begins with a focus on the sacrificial rituals and the manner in which Aaron and his sons are to conduct themselves when they formally take on their roles to serve in the sanctuary on behalf of the people. They are to ensure that "a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (Lev. 6:6)

In our quest to make contemporary meaning of ancient practice, Rabbi Chaim Stern teaches: "What can we do for others? What can we offer them? Whatever that may be, it is an offering that gives light and warmth. When such service becomes an everyday occurrence, it is the "perpetual fie" called for by our reading."

And Rabbi Anonymous taught: If I cannot give bountifully, I will give freely: what I lack in my hand, I will supply by my heart.

31/1 Mar/Apr 2017

With this week's Torah portion, we turn to the third book of Torah - Leviticus, Va-Yikra - the Hebrew name of this book and this week's Torah portion - Lev. 1:1-5:26. We now turn to the description of the sacrificial system and the role of the priests... and the people. There are a number of things to keep in mind.

First, that this entire book, seemingly a "how-to" manual for the priests, is open and available for all of us to read; the priests might have specific roles to play, but it is not a "secret society" - we all know what it to be done and how... and what boundaries can and cannot be crossed. Most of the offerings are not done "for" us, but "with" us; a powerful message of the importance of our active role in ritual.

Second, as the offerings and sacrifices are described, we come to see that they are not limited to only those who can afford them; there are offerings made up only of flour and oil... or small birds... things that are accessible to those of limited means. Even in ancient times, as today, there should not be financial barriers to participation in the Jewish life of the community.

Third, the mitzvot and halachot - the commandments and laws that are listed in the book of VaYikra'/Leviticus are not only relevant to our ritual lives, but to our ethical lives as well. Central to this book is Chapter 19, known as Kedoshim - the Holiness Code. Moses is instructed to tell all the people to be holy because God is Holy, and what follows are not more sacrifices to offer -- but actions and behaviors that will insure love and justice and kindness.

As the third of five books of Torah, VaYikra'/Leviticus is central to Torah, and offers us not only a picture of ancient Israelite ritual and ethical practice, but challenges us to consider and craft and celebrate our own ritual and ethical lives in the twenty-first century - through our active participation in Jewish life, helping to overcome barriers to participation, and acknowledging and bringing holiness into our lives through our own actions and behaviors.

24/25 Mar 2017

The book of Exodus comes to a close this week as we read as double portion: V'yakhel-Pekudei - Ex. 35:1-38:20/38:21-40:38. With the building of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary, the people are ready to continue in their journey through the wilderness - toward the Promised Land. The book of Exodus ends with with God's Presence filling the Sanctuary as a guiding force: "For over the Sanctuary a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys." (Ex. 40:38) By day - a cloud; by night - a column of fire... God as nightlight, so to speak. It was important for the Israelites to know that God was with them on their journey - through good times and challenging times. The cloud and the fire provided that tangible evidence for the young Israelite nation.

And what of us? What is our evidence of God's Presence with us on our journeys? What serves as your "cloud and fire" to provide comfort and support and courage and encouragement along your way?

17/18 Mar 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tisa, Ex. 30:11−34:35, and I would like to share some excerpts and insights from Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, found in this week's D'var Torah from the URJ's Ten Minutes of Torah, entitled: "A Concrete Relationship with God".

At this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelites have seen a lot of action: the great drama of the plagues, the earth-shattering Exodus itself, and the transcendent moment of Revelation at Sinai. But now, it is as if the rushing scenes have been paused in favor of, well, waiting. The Israelites are somewhere in the desert, they have had these communal, transcendent experiences, and now, while Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai with God … now they are killing time until Moses returns to them.

Moses and God are hard at work grappling with very long and precise directives, but the Israelites have no idea what’s going on. Instead, they are down in the desert with no leader, no permanent home, and no sense of what they should be doing or of what’s next.

It is in this moment that the Israelites go to Aaron and say, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man, Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)... Contemporary biblical scholar and professor Nahum Sarna writes,

“An assurance of the continued existence of an avenue of communication with God — some visible, tangible symbol that He remained always present in their midst, irrespective of the ever-increasing distance between themselves and the mount of revelation — became a pressing imperative.”

In building the Golden Calf, it seems like the Israelites were seeking some kind of tangible connection to the divine, a reassurance for their communal anxiety, fear, and uncertainty...

...In The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Dr. Elsie Stern writes:

“The story of the Golden Calf is situated between the instructions for the Tabernacle (25:1-30:10) and the description of its construction (35:1-40:38). This arrangement affirms that the Tabernacle, unlike the calf, is an appropriate response to the people’s needs for a physical location where they can gain access to God.”

If we think about the Tabernacle as a response to the Israelites’ visceral need for God to have some kind of concrete presence, then we gain a model for ourselves as well... Viewing the construction of the Tabernacle as a response to the Israelites’ need for reassurance reminds us of the following:

    1. We need constant, real reminders of abstract ideas — even inspiring ones.

...Despite all the miracles the Israelites witnessed,they (we) still need the reassurance of God’s presence and Moses’ leadership. They (We) need something more than an abstract idea of a covenantal relationship — as inspiring as the concept may be. The Israelites’ struggle is a good reminder to us about something fundamental in human nature. We all need to experience reminders of the power of the principles we believe in, and we may need to intentionally create those experiences.

    1. Buildings can fill real, intangible needs.

Communal building projects represent hopes, dreams, and ideology. From the pyramids in Egypt representing the Egyptians’ hopes for the afterlife to the construction of Washington, DC in the United States’ early days representing the dream of American democracy, major building projects reflect core principles throughout history and the world. So too it is with the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Tabernacle represents God’s proximity, the ongoing nature of the covenant between God and Israel, and the hope for a safe and prosperous future. It is all a reminder that buildings are more than bricks and mortar. Whether we are building, renovating, or maintaining the homes of beloved communal institutions, it does us well to consider the dreams and values they represent and to keep those concepts front and center.

Now it's your turn to share your insights:

1) What are experiences that you have had that have reminded you of the power of the principles we believe in?

2) As we continue with the process of making renovations to our building, what are the dreams and values that our congregation represents -- and how can we continue to best hold them front and center? [I think the power of this question lies in its double-vision: what are your dreams of the future for our congregation... and how are they informed by our congregation's values of community, volunteerism, learning, social action, and ritual?]

10/11 Mar 2017

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Tetzaveh - Ex. 27:20-30:10... and includes the description of the clothing and accessories of the priests - specifically the breastpiece that will include four rows of three stones each, each engraved with the name of one of the twelve tribes. The priest will wear this in his ritual role before the people -- and before God. The breatpiece is a visual reminder of the importance of each of the twelve tribes -- of all of our people.

Also, because this is the Shabbat before Purim, we read from the book of Deuteronomy 25:17-19 - "Zachor -Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey (on the path) from Egypt... You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" In the Purim story, He-who-shall-not-be named is said to be a descendant of Amalek -- who is remembered for his cruel attack on the Israelites as they left Egypt - from the rear, where the stragglers were! Each year, before Purim, we remind ourselves to blot out his name and his memory.

Of course, in reminding ourselves to blot out the name, we cannot help but remember the deed. And in remembering the deed, it is also important that we don't forget who was attacked -- the stragglers: the aged, the children, the sick... All of them were part of the people of Israel. And just maybe, in remembering to forget Amalek, we remember not to forget those who are most in need.

3/4 Mar 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Terumah - Ex. 25:1-27:19 and records God's instructions to Moses to ask for free-will offerings from the people to be used to build a mikdash - a sanctuary to take with them through the wilderness, so that "v'shachanti b'tochem - I may dwell among them." (Ex. 25:8) The Hebrew root letters in the word for sanctuary are Kuf-Dalet-Shin - the letters that make up the word Kadosh - which we translate as Holy. Sanctuary - a place of holiness. The word Sanctuary has also come to mean "a place of refuge, safety... [as well as] a holy place..."

The idea of a portable sanctuary - a portable place of safety and refuge - is certainly timely. For today's immigrants. For today's refugees. For those of us who become targets of racism and ugly acts of discrimination and hate.

Since January 1st, the report from the Anti-Defamation League on anti-semitic incidents is double what it was last year. It was too many last year -- and way too many this year. I have included a link to a proposed plan of action for our government form the ADL. It's message is not just in regards to the Jewish community, but is a plan of action to combat anti-Semitism and to fight back against all forms of hate.

Wherever we find ourselves - in synagogues and mosques, JCC's, cemeteries, walking on the street, travelling on the rapid/subway/bus, in the classroom, in the college dormitory... all of us should feel safe... to make a place for the Holy in our lives.

24/25 Feb 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Mishpatim - Ex. 21:1-24:18, and sets forth significant legislation whose aim is justice and fairness in the lives of individuals and the society as a whole. When Moses reads this covenant out loud to the people, they respond with the promise: Na'aseh v'nishmah - We will do and we will hear! (Ex. 24:7) Wait! Shouldn't doing come after hearing??? Perhaps our people's response from so long ago is meant to teach us the importance of doing... and not just hearing.

There is a Chasidic teaching: When I say to myself, "I can't do everything," let it not be in order to do nothing. Let it be, instead, merely a recognition that I don't have to do everything; that other people, too, will do their part to right wrongs... just as they - and I - will try not to add to the wrongs we see done each day.

17/18 Feb 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Yitro - Ex. 18:1-20:23 and describes the experience of the people at Sinai. In the narrative leading up to Sinai, there is suddenly a shift in the grammar - from the plural to the singular; just before the revelation of the Ten Commandments, a singular verb is used to describe the action of the Jewish people: "And there Israel encamped before the mountain." (Ex. 19:2) The Hebrew va'yichan is used instead of va'yachanu, singular in place of the plural. This does not go unnoticed by the Torah commentators.

It was taught that receptivity to Torah requires a heightened state of collective consciousness; absence of conflict would enhance the experience. Conflict diverts attention and openness, and narrows one's focus. Access to Torah and to inspiration requires the opposite: a state of openness and expanded consciousness.

By its sudden switch from the plural to the singular, the Torah text subtly suggests that at this moment at the foot of Sinai - there was unity, the perfect setting for the giving of Torah. A singular verb captures that spirit.

10/11 Feb 2017

Our Torah portion this week is BaShalach - Ex. 13:17-17:16 and includes the celebration of the exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh finally says "Go!" to the Children of Israel... and then changes his mind yet again and pursues them. The people are terrified as they enter the Sea of Reeds, but the waters part, they pass through on dry ground... and then the waters return to their position, overwhelming the Egyptian pursuers. "Thus Adonai delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians... The people were in awe of Adonai and had faith in Adonai and God's servant, Moses." (Ex. 14:30,31).

There are times when it is hard to see the meaning in life. It seems terrifying. And then there are also times when it all seems so right. Many of us walk between these two poles - in a state of "in between." Rabbi Leo Baeck taught: "In Judaism faith is... the capacity of the soul to perceive the abiding in the transitory, and the invisible in the visible."

Rabbi Chaim Stern prays: "Today let me awaken knowing that the ground I walk on is solid, that my life has enduring meaning and value, even when I cannot see it."

3/4 Feb 2017

“And when your children ask you… you shall say…”
Ex. 12:26,27

I am proud of our congregation -- we can hold many perspectives in a safe environment. For many of us, the events of the past weeks have called to us to not stand idly by, but, as in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to “pray with our feet.” Across our congregation, many of us have spoken out, stood strong, and pursued what is right and just.

We are well aware of our people’s history, and know what it means to be strangers in a strange land – needing to find refuge from oppression and violence.

We are also well aware of the need to support “the law of the land” – dina d’malchutah dina. Yet, when we feel that the law does not justly serve our country and its people, we are obligated to speak up and raise our concerns for what is right and just.

This week’s Torah portion is well aware that our children watch what we do – and, each in his or her own way, want to know the reasons. We are called upon to provide them answers.

Our Jewish tradition calls us to support the rights of the homeless and the stranger, and so, too, to support the rights of refugees to find sanctuary on our shores. We shudder at the thought of religion-based lists for identification. We treasure our American right to hear the many voices of our country, and to work together for what is right and just.

We pray for the peace of our country.

* This week's d'var Torah was written by Rabbi Lader (who is the President of the Association of Rabbis and Cantors, the alumni and professional arm of the Academy for Jewish Religion) with Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, the Executive Dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, and has been edited for our congregational use.

27/28 Jan 2017

Our Torah portion this week is Va'era -- Ex. 6:2-9:35. We read about a Pharaoh who refuses Moses' request to "let the children of Israel go out of his land" and how God will "harden Pharaoh's heart" and multiply God's signs and God's wonders in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 7:1-3).

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis asks: "How can the hardening of Pharaoh's heart square with repentance?... In our tradition, the door to repentance is always open, even for one guilty of great harm; how could such a value be suspended in the case of Pharaoh?"

Torah commentators struggle with the message in the text that God would harden Pharaoh's heart, thus making it impossible for him to freely make a decision. But, as we read, Pharaoh is first described as hardening his own heart in the course of the first five plagues. Pharaoh was given many opportunities to repent his ways - and let the people go... yet he did not. With each plague he became more stubborn, more obdurate in his ways... and so blind to the suffering of his own people. There are commentators that suggest that had Pharaoh shown any sign of remorse, his hardened heart would have softened. Others suggest that once a pattern of refusal is set, it is as though the decision making is no longer in one's hands. Pharaoh had set his course; he was no longer capable of reversing himself... and ultimately suffered the consequences.

20/21 Jan 2017

This week we begin the book of Shemot - Exodus - Ex. 1:1-6:1. The people of Israel are slaves in Egypt. Moses becomes a shepherd who takes his sheep into the wilderness... (not unlike what he will soon be called upon to do with the people of Israel!). In the wilderness on Mount Horeb he encounters God in the midst of a bush that is burning... but is not consumed by the fire. God has appeared to Moses to send him on a mission: Tell Pharaoh to let My people go, tell Israel that the time of liberation is at hand.

The Rabbis ask, and so do we, "Why did God choose to appear to Moses in a thorn bush?" And the Rabbis answer, "To teach us that there is no place devoid of the Divine Presence, not even a thorn bush." (Exodus Rabbah 2:9) What are the "thorn bushes" in our lives... in our communities...? And, like Moses, how can we be God's Partner to help bring about positive change?

13/14 Jan 2017

With this week's Torah portion -- VaYechi - Gen. 47:28-50:26 -- we come to the end of the book ofBereishit/Genesis. The story of Joseph and his brothers, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ends with Joseph's death and burial in Egypt. Joseph is not buried in Canaan; both he and his brothers and their families remain in exile. Before he dies, Joseph turns to his brothers and says, "I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." (Gen. 50:24) Joseph then makes his brothers - the sons of Israel - b'nei Yisrael - take an oath that when "... God has taken notice of you, you will carry up my bones from here." (50:25) In this way, the promise of redemption is underscored by the brothers' pledge, and our story does not with words of despair, but rather of hope.

At the conclusion of each book of Torah, we say, "Chazak! Chazak! V'Nit'chazek! - Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen each other!" As the brothers have promised to carry up Joseph's bones when redemption comes, in this present time of change, what are the "bones" of the past that you want to make sure are not forgotten?

6/7 Jan 2017

I am saddened to share that Rabbi Michael Hecht, spiritual leader here in Cleveland since 1970 - at Beth Am and B'nai Jeshuran, part-time chaplain at the VA Hospital since 1980, and part-time rabbi at Agudath B'nai Israel in Lorian, passed away this week. He was also part of the faculty for the Introduction to Judaism classes, and assisted many people on their Jewish journeys. Rabbi Hecht was a poet as well, and in his memory, I would like to share a selection from his compilation (published in 1972): The Fire Waits: Prayers and Poems for the Sabbath and Festivals. "Blindness" is based on Gen. 46:21, and comes from this week's Torah portion --Vayigash - Gen. 44:18-47:27 as Jacob and his sons and their families make their way to reunite with Joseph in Egypt.

When Benjamin went down to Egypt
These were his sons:
Bela, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh,
Muppim and Huppim, and Ard.

We always think of Benjamin
As just a little boy,
Jacob's baby.

If today he had a birthday
We would likely send a gift
For a four-year-old.

He grew,
And we never knew.

If we were Benjamin,
We would surely resent it.

But every day
Mothers look at grown sons
And see babies.

Every day men look at other men
And see only doctors, lawyers, or butchers --
Not men.

Every day
Men behind cannons
Do not see other men at all --
Only The Enemy.

What is wrong with our sight?
God, what is this blindness?
Why can we not see others
As they see themselves?

All we seem to notice
Is what we want to see,
Not what we need to see.

We are blind, God!
What is the cure?

We seek the cure for many illnesses.
Give us the desire to find remedy also for this.
For this blindness brings death.

Help us find life.
Open our eyes to our fellow man.

Rabbi Hecht was a scholar and a mentsch. He enjoyed the opera and classical music, literature and the arts. He had a loving wife and family and was a dear friend to many -- including our own Rabbi Emeritus Alan Lettofsky and Rabbi Daniel Litt, rabbi of our congregation in the days of forming the Soviet Jewry movement. His eyes were indeed open to his family, his friends, and his communities. Zichrono liv'rachah-- may his memory be for a blessing.

30/31 Dec 2016

This week's Torah portion is Miketz -- Gen. 41:1-44:17. From the depths of prison, Joseph has risen to second in command as vizier to Pharaoh when he interprets Pharaoh's dreams, foretelling seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine in the land. As Joseph shrewdly stores food in Egypt, the famine is not restricted to the land of Egypt, but is "all over the whole world" -- and Jacob sends his sons to procure food for his family. When Joseph's brothers fall to their faces before the vizier of Pharaoh to ask for food, "Joseph knew his brothers, but they knew him not." (Gen. 42:8) Joseph now has the opportunity to behave to them as they behaved toward him. On the surface he acts harshly, accusing them of spying and holds one of them as a guarantee that they will return with their youngest brother Benjamin. However, Joseph's feelings of compassion are revealed repeatedly - as he returns payment for the food they have purchased and turns away in privacy to weep when he sees evidence of the inner turmoil among the brothers of their treatment of Joseph years before.

Joseph breaks the cycle of hateful behavior. He had incited his brothers against him with his dreams of dominion over them, and they had responded by forcibly banishing him. And now he is ready to end the cycle and repair and rebuild a brotherly relationship; however, his approach does not ignore the past. He will require his brothers to face up to what they did and to demonstrate that they have changed. When they do so, he will be ready to embrace them as brothers.

From Joseph we learn that it is possible to offer the opportunity for teshuvah - repentance and reconciliation - in our own relationships. Paying back evil for an earlier evil extends a never-ending cycle. It is important to face the past honestly and then to work toward compassionate new beginnings. It might not be easy, but requires taking the first step.

23/24 Dec 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Va'yeshev - Gen. 37:1-40:23. Rabbi David Almog teaches rabbinic literature at Academy for Jewish Religion, and offers an interesting insight into the literary use of the Hebrew "Vayehi" -- "In Biblical prose, one finds "vayehi", which translates literally as "and it was," or "and then there was." It is also commonly used as an introductory stock phrase, much like "Once upon a time." Like the opening of Megillat Esther, "Vayehi bimei ahashverosh. "And it was in the days of Ahashverosh".

In this week's parashah, "vayehi" appears 15 times in Chapter 39. What is the function of repeating "vayehi" so often, and what impact does it have on the intended audience? It seems to tell us of something wondrous. Additionally, as the Torah's version of "Once upon a time," it is a verbal cue, playing with the audience's perception of plot-time and expectations.

Turning to chapter 39:2 in our parashah, we read: "Vayehi Adonai et Yosef vayehi ish matzliah vayehi beveit adonav hamitzri -- And God was with Joseph, and he was a successful man, and he was in his Egyptian master's [Potiphar's] house."

The repetition of "vayehi" three times within one verse is striking, and has been the subject of much commentary. It would appear that here "vayehi" emphasizes, introducing something new, unexpected, and wondrous. God's involvement in Joseph's life is dramatic, and it is noticeable, as the very next verse indicates: "Vayar adonav ki Adonai ito vekhol asher hu oseh Adonai matzliah beyado -- And his master saw that God was with him and that all that he did, God made it succeed by his hand."

...The use of "vayehi" fits well with this reading. Just as the listener to the parashah experiences the literary cue of the repeated "vayehi", one can imagine that Potiphar experiences it as well. The sense that something wondrous just happened is embedded in the narration of the story. It portrays Potiphar's perception of events as nothing short of a miraculous. Is there a message behind "vayehi"? Perhaps these words were meant to highlight the small miracles in our lives, or to tell us something about Joseph, by contrast to the two years he is totally forgotten in jail, with no "vayehi" moments..."

With his focus on the power of words, Rabbi Almog reminds us that the Torah was composed to be performed, listened to, and experienced as great story telling... and great stories offer great meaning.

16/17 Dec 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Va-yishlach - Gen. 32:4-36:43. Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, Faculty and Coordinator of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, teaches:

"Preparing to meet his brother Esau, from whose wrath he had fled decades earlier, Jacob moves his family and property across the Yabok River. "So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak" (Gen 32:25). "He was left alone," Rashi explains: "he went back for some small jars [pachim katanim] he had forgotten." ...So it turns out that the most important encounter with God in Jacob's life - from which he leaves transformed (with a new name [Yisrael], the blessing for prevailing in struggles with God and man, and a muscle sprain) - happens when (because?) he went back to retrieve a few small jars. Odd? Just coincidence?

...We can only speculate - would Jacob have encountered the mysterious figure with whom he wrestled had he not gone back for those jars?

...Maybe those small jars had their own meaning for Jacob; they might have represented something of importance from his past. Our lives are composed of big objects and small jars. As the people left homeless by the recent fires in Israel attested, sometimes the latter are the more important - furniture and appliances can be replaced, but not childhood albums, mementos from family occasions, grandma's candlesticks or an old wine-stained Haggadah. We all have pachim katanim in our closets and in our souls. The Baal Shem Tov said that we should go back for them from time to time. ... And, the story of Chanukah, coming up soon, teaches that even one little jar may contain the oil needed to light the darkness of our lives."

9/10 Dec 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Va'yetzei - Gen. 28:10-32:3. It opens with the famous scene of Jacob, having left his family in Be'er Sheva, on his way to his mother's family in Haran to find a suitable wife... He is on the run from his brother Esau, from whom he "stole" not only his birthright, but also their father's blessing for the firstborn.

He stops for the night, gathers stones together for a pillow, lies down, and dreams. (Gen. 28:12)

In Jacob's dream he sees a ladder, "and angels of God were going up and down on it. And God, standing above Jacob..." (18:13), speaks to him, assuring him of a safe return to the home and the land that he has fled.

Jacob awakes in awe, saying: "Surely the Eternal is present in this place, and I did not know it!" (28:16)

As Jacob learns, so do we -- God is not only in expected places. Every place we go can be a place of prayer and hold the presence of God. Jacob learns this through a dream at a place on the side of the road. Moses will learn this through a lowly bramble bush that burns unconsumed on the side of a mountain. What has been your experience? [Feel free to share it with me -- This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.]

2/3 Dec 2016

Our scroll turns to the birth of and struggles between Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, in Toldot - Gen. 25:19-28:9. Towards the end of our portion, Isaac, grown old, prepares to offer his blessings to Esau... but it is Jacob who will stand in Esau's place. Yet... when Esau asks his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me, too, Father!" (Gen. 27:38), Isaac blesses his son, Esau, as well.

Blessings are powerful. They help to make relationships reciprocal, and offer the possibilities of relating to each other in holy ways. And - they offer hope for the future. Aging brings with it the precious dimension of being a source of blessings. Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman teaches: "When you offer blessings, you become a conduit for connection -- to hopes, to Power in the universe you hope will act/respond on behalf of the other, to eternity, and to the heart of the person before you." Isaac had blessings for both of his sons. As we age, may we be like Isaac -- a source of blessings for all our children and those we hold dear.

25/26 Nov 2016

In this week's Torah portion, Chaiyei Sarah - Gen. 23:1-25:18, we learn of the death of Abraham. Rav Abraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) comments on the life and work of Abraham:

"Throughout his life, Abraham strove to teach all of those around him the importance of serving the One God, of living a moral life, and of revealing the holiness in mundane things... As his name implies - he did this step by step. Av - father and teacher to his family, Ra- stand-in letter reish for the town of Aram, of which Abraham was the father and spiritual guide, and Ham - shortened form of hamon - meaning many... Av-ra-ham - Abraham would become the "father of many nations" (Gen. 17:5) - and his message and teaching would be spread throughout the world.

...The Talmud teaches: "If you attempt to grab too much, you will find that you have grabbed nothing at all." (Yoma 80a) One who tries to achieve more than is realistically possible does not succeed in fulfilling his potential, and the results will be empty... Abraham succeeded by being first, influential over his household; then his neighborhood, then, and only then, over the whole existing world."

And what of us? This teaching provides an important model for working to make positive change. By beginning with our own selves and small circle of family and friends, and then branching out to our neighbors, and then to the larger community, we can begin to bring tikkun - healing and repair to our world.

18/19 Nov 2016

In this week's Torah portion - Vayera - Gen. 18:1-22:24, the promise to Abraham that he will become a blessing to all other nations is given definition and is put to the test. Abraham is invited to join with God in discussing the fate of a people not his own (those of Sodom and Gomorrah). God wonders out loud if Abraham will be a voice for justice, saying: "For I have known him, to the end that he may command [and teach] his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Eternal, to do righteousness and justice." (18:19) Immediately, Abraham takes up the challenge and supports the values of justice and righteousness before God. Beginning with the challenge of finding 50 righteous people - "Will You wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent people who are in it? ...Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (18:24-25), Abraham ultimately makes the case to save the cities for the sake of 10 innocents.

Abraham's challenge before God created an eternal model for Jewish engagement with God and with the world. As Rabbi Sheldon Lewis teaches: "No people - no matter how far away or unrelated - should be beyond the scope of our concern and action... Abraham's plea to God was the beginning of a noble tradition of protest [even against God] in the name of a valued principle... For Abraham the very nature of God and God's universe was incompatible with injustice and cruelty."

From the time of Abraham up to the present day, it has been and must continue to be our obligation to speak out in the name of these key values; and, like Abraham, to teach our children and those who come after us to do what is just and right.

11/12 Nov 2016

Radio, television, our e-mailboxes, Facebook pages - the list goes on... All have been filled with non-stop coverage and commentary on the election results. One organization after another has sent out messages in response to the election results.

And the results are clear: this is the time to make room for our own responses. We need to make and take time to process our feelings

And then... it will be time to move forward. Lots of questions ahead; lots of unknowns.

Our Torah portion this week is Lech Lecha - Gen. 12:1-17:27, and opens with God's call to Abraham (and Sarah) to "Lech Lecha - Go [forward]" to a place they do not know, to a place that God will show them. Faced with many questions and many unknowns, they go forward, step by step. They take trust and vigilance with them... as we must do now.

Each of us brings a powerful light into our world. Shine it forward.

Each of us has the opportunity to take the task of careful and active listening very seriously. Shema - Listen!

Each of us can be an emissary to opening up conversations and building bridges to understanding. Who will you invite for coffee and a chat?

Each of us holds the power of finding and appreciating that which is holy in each other, in our lives, and in the world in which we live.

And then, each of us has the responsibility... to help repair.

Lech L'cha... Going forward... step by step...

4/5 Nov 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Noah - Gen. 6:9-11:32. After the flood, God said: This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be a token of a covenant between me and the earth..." (Gen. 9:12)

The rainbow is the universal symbol of peace. How did it come to be understood in this way? The Torah commentator Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachmanides, ~1125-1270, Spain) notes that, although the rainbow is shaped like a weapon of war, it is turned away from its bearer (God), a sign of reconciliation. In ancient practice, adversaries showed they were ready to make peace by turning their bows away from themselves. The threat to continued life on earth (another flood????) had come from God; and, in reversing the bow, God promises peace... (at least, not by flooding.)

A truly lethal weapon is transformed into one of the most beautiful phenomena in nature. Composed of sunlight and moisture, the rainbow demonstrates that the seemingly irreconcilable - the fire of the sun and the water from rainfall - can not only coexist, but come together to form a sight of intense beauty.

Turning an instrument of war into that which is life-affirming expresses a biblical hope for peace. The prophet Isaiah (2:4) taught that one day "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." Every object in existence seemingly has a double edge. While it can do great harm, it can also be shaped into a positive life-affirming thing of beauty.

28/29 Oct 2016

Welcome to the opening portion of "As the Torah Turns" as we read from the book of Bereishit/Genesis - Gen. 1:1 - 6:8. In the opening acts of creation, God brings multitudes to life at once. Plants and trees and the animals of the sea, the air, and the land fill the world with abundance. Yet, when God turns to the creation of the human being, just one individual is fashioned. The Rabbis of the Mishna asked: Why is the human being created singly? And answer: For this reason ...: to teach you that for everyone who destroys even one soul, it is as though one has destroyed the entire world. And for everyone who saves one soul, it is as though one sustains the entire world. And it was for the sake of peace, that none could say, "My father was greater than your father." (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5)

In this awesome text, we are taught that then, as now, every person is ultimately precious, equivalent to an entire world, just as was literally the case with Adam. Rabbi Sheldon Lewis points out that: "Adam was simply a human being without any descriptive adjectives defining his race, or color, or beliefs. He is universally human. No person is excluded from this teaching that a human being is priceless."

21/22 Oct 2016

The Torah portion read on Shabbat during the intermediate days of Sukkot is from the book of Exodus, 33:12-34:26, and includes a summary description of the festivals of the Jewish year: "... You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Hag HaMatzot)... You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest (Hag Shavuot)... and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year (Hag HaAsif)..." (34:18, 22) The Feast of Ingathering - celebrating the fall harvest - is what we know as Sukkot.

Interestingly, in the midst of the listing of the festivals to be observed, we find: "Six days you shall work but on the seventh you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time." (34:21) With a way of life that is so tied to the land and the cycles of the seasons, even at plowing time and harvest time it is an imperative to stop from the labor of the land and take a rest.

What are your "plowing times" and "harvest times"? They exist in one way or another for each of us. How do we make the time to cease from our labors? The "V'Shamru" that is sung on Shabbat (from Ex. 31:16-17) reinforces the rational: "Ki shei-shet yamim asah Adonai et ha'shamayim v’et ha'aretz, u’va'yom ha'shvi-i shavat va'yi'nafash. - For six days Adonai made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed." As God ceased from God's work, so we are to cease from ours. But it is not just a stopping. It is stopping in such a way as to refresh oneself - va'yi'nafash.  "Nafash" is pretty close to the Hebrew word for soul - "nefesh." Indeed, Shabbat provides us with the opportunity to "re-soul" ourselves - and then return to the work of our hands.

14/15 Oct 2016

This week's Torah portion is Ha'azinu - Deut. 32:1-52. It is known as "The Song of Moses" and is a long poem in which Moses describes God's care for Israel, pointing out that God has been patient with this people through all its troubles and failings. The divine perseverance is to be emulated. Rabbi Chaim Stern (1930–2001, U.S., a Reform rabbi and renown liturgist) offers:

There are the days I want to quit and
there are the days whose coming I dread.
There are days --
I can imagine disasters that never will be, and
gains I might never enjoy.
Make me
strong enough to lift this load,
faithful enough to carry it till the day's end,
wise enough not to carry tomorrow's load

7/8 Oct 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Va'yelech - Deut. 31:1-30, and begins with the words: "Va'yelech Moshe va'yidaber et ha'devarim ha'ela el kol Yisrael... Moses went and spoke these things to all of Israel..." (31:1) Moses went, but there is no indication of his destination. Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 – 21 April,1619) was a rabbi and Torah commentator, best known for his Torah commentary Kli Yekar, and served as the Rabbi of Prague from 1604 - 1619. He teaches that "... Moses, at 120 years old and reaching the end of his life, actually found the energy to go and visit every tent where his people lived in order to urge them to make peace with each other and with God. He seeks a personal commitment by everyone -- "all Israel" -- to do teshuva, to repent, to mend relationships with each other... and with God. He does not want to depart with relationships in disrepair."

These ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur serve as our opportunity to mend our relationships with each other... and with God. Mending can bring a sense of wholeness. The Hebrew word for wholeness is "Shalem", which is also the root for Shalom - peace. As we pursue peace among ourselves, we bring tikkun/mending to the fabric of our lives... and, in our own small but important ways, to the world.

30/1 Sep/Oct 2016

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Nitzavim - Deut. 29:9-30:20, and opens with "Atem nitzavim hayom... - You stand here today..." These are the words of Moses as he speaks to the children of Israel, who are camped at the shores of the Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. The amazing thing about the Torah text is that it is timeless. The "hayom - today" of this verse in Deuteronomy is the "today" of now - this moment. And is especially meaningful at this time of year, as we prepare to enter the New Year - a year filled with promise. "nitzavim" is a particular kind of standing - it is a standing of readiness: What's next? What am I going to be asked to do? I stand ready. And the "atem" is the plural form of you -- all of us. Here we stand, ready to reflect on where we have been - and ready to move forward to be the best we can be... together.

23/24 Sep 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tavo - Deut. 26:1-29:8. In the first verse of Chapter 28 we read: "If you listen, listen to the voice of Adonai your God..." Notice that the word "listen" occurs twice. The Midrash picks up on this and teaches: "Happy is the one whose listenings are to Me, hovering always at My doorways, door within door..."

"Listenings..." The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter,1847-1905, Polish) teaches us to listen twice - listen to that which we are already hearing. Words of Torah come to us in a variety of ways; it takes concentration and understanding.

"...[H]overing always at My doorways, door within door." Like the mezuzzah on the doorpost, there we are - ready to listen. "Door within door" - going deeper and deeper in concentration, bringing us closer and closer to understanding... understanding the text and, in the process, ourselves.

16/17 Sep 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tetze - Deut. 21:10-25:19. We note that two of the 74 mitzvot given in this portion, when observed, result in having"length of days" - לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיכוּ יָמֶיךָ - l'ma'an ya'arichu yameychah. The first is the commandment not to capture a mother bird along with her young (shiluach ha'ken, 22:6-7). The second is the instruction to have honest weights and measures (25:15). Both recall a similar reward promised in the Ten Commandments for one who respects parents (Ex 20:12 and Deut 5:16). There are certain variations in these verses, but the central common point is that of all the 613 mitzvot, observing these three mitzvot will lead to "long life."

Each of the three can "extend days" in a real and specific sense. Yet they also relate to larger spheres, the three environments which are necessary for a healthy society and which enable it to continue into the future, "extended days."

A healthy society, one that will survive into the future, must have: (1) a positive culture of family and attitude towards both young people and the elderly; (2) an awareness of the importance of keeping the natural world in balance and concern for the disastrous consequences of exhausting resources and polluting the air and water around us; and (3) the knowledge that a "market place" infected by improper and immoral commercial practices loses the faith of both the business community and the citizenry as a whole. Societies that want to have "length of days" must pay attention to their conduct in these three areas.

9/10 Sep 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Shoftim - Deut. 16:18-21:9. Rashi explains the command that a newly installed king "write a copy of this law" וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת (Deut 17:18): that he have two copies - one that stays in storage and one he takes wherever he goes. Rashi teaches that another way of understanding the word "מִשְׁנֵה" - that is translated as "copy" - is from the word "v'shinantem" - which is what we are to do with our children - teach them diligently. The role of a king, or a leader, is to be personally well aware of the teachings, to have it with him/her wherever they go -- and to be able to discuss (even teach) these essentials. In this way, the Torah was to be held close as a reminder of, on the one hand, the dangers of power and, on the other hand, a constant reminder of refined values as a way of treating others.

2/3 Sep 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Re'eh, Deut. 11:26-16:17. In Deut. 15:7 we read: "If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsman in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart, and do not close your hand to your needy kinsman." This is a key verse in teaching the importance of giving tzedakah. The word tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word tzedek, "justice." Performing deeds of justice is perhaps the most important obligation Judaism imposes on the Jew. In next week's Torah portion we will read: "Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof - Justice, justice, you will pursue..." (Deuteronomy 16:20). Hundreds of years later, the Talmud taught: "Tzedakah is equal to all the other commandments combined" (Bava Bathra 9b). From Judaism's perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedakah is acting justly.

In this verse, 15:7, notice that "your needy kinsman" is mentioned twice. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger ("the Imrei Shefer (1786-1869) Komarow, Russian Poland) said that there are two kinds of poor - those closer to us in style and status, who've come on hard times, and to whom it's easy to give. But, as he rightly points out, we must also reach out, "surely open our hand" (15:8), to those with whom we don't feel a sense of closeness.

Throughout our history, Jewish communities have assessed tzedakah from each member of the community, to assist "our needy kinsman..." - those who are close, and those with whom we do not feel a sense of closeness. Today, the Campaign for Jewish Needs is the annual fundraising Campaign of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland that helps to ensure the vitality and vibrancy of our community - and Jewish communities around the world - in the year ahead. As the Campaign says: "Whether we are feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, caring for the elderly, educating our youth, ensuring a Jewish future, or supporting Israel, our Jewish community stands together. And, together, we can make the world a better place."

26/27 Aug 2016

Our Torah portion this week is 'Ekev - Deut. 7:12-11:25.   "And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God ask of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God's paths, to love God, to serve Adonai your God with all you heart and all your soul, keeping Adonai's commandments and laws which I command you today, for your good." (Deut. 10:12-13) Rabbi Baruch Mezbitzer (Chasidic) commented that God asks of us us to do whatever God does: As God is merciful, we, too, should be merciful. As God is gracious and compassionate, so we should be gracious and compassionate.

Note that these attributes of God include God's divine concern for those most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the stranger -- Jew and non-Jew alike. The very nature of God is caring for the welfare of all. As these are God's concerns, they should be ours as well. And this informs our commitment to repair of the world - tikkun olam.

19/20 Aug 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Va'et-hanan - Deut. 3:23-7:11. Included this week, we find the "watchword of Israel's faith" - the Shema (Deut. 6:4) and V'Ahavta (Deut 6:5-9). The V'Ahavta opens with words which command us to "love Adonai your God." Can love and feelings be commanded? The Sefat Emet (R' Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, late 19th century, Poland) said the answer is in the question - the heart is capable of loving God if it can overcome the obstacles that we place in its way. He stands on the shoulders of those who came before him, as his commentary draws from Ha-Ari - The Ari (Yitzhak Ben Sh'lomo Lurya Ashkenazi,16th century Kabbalist) who taught that the Torah commands us to love three - your "fellow" (לְרֵעֲךָ, Lev. 19:18), the stranger (הַגֵּר, Lev. 19:34) and God, (Deut. 6:5), from which he said that one cannot reach love of God without fulfilling the command to love the other two.

This week, following Tisha b'Av, we begin the seven "Haftarot of Consolation," as we read the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah in response to the destruction of the Temple, the loss of our sovereign land, and our displacement to Babylonia. Isaiah comforts, but he also reminds us of our responsibilities to our fellow, to the stranger, and to God. With love -- comes thoughtful relationships and fulfillment of responsibilities.  From the words of Torah, to the prophetic writings, to the 16th century Kabbalists, to late 19th century Hassidic teachers... to today - timeless teachings that seek to help us rise to the best that we can be as we relate to each other -- and to God.

12/13 Aug 2016

This week we begin the fifth book of Torah -- Deuteronomy, and out Torah portion (and the book itself) gets its name from the opening word: Devarim - Deut. 1:1-3:22. "Eilu devarim - These are the words..." Our portion opens with the Israelites encamped on the plains of Moab, ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses is the featured speaker in this book of Deuteronomy, as he recounts the nation's history, expounds upon their laws, and instructs them about the importance of loyalty to God.

In this week's portion, Moses' account of the sin of the spies (Deut. 1:22-28) differs from the version we read in the book of Numbers (chapter 13). There God commanded Moses to send princes from each of the tribes to spy out the land. In our present version, Moses says that the initiative came from the people themselves and the social status of the spies is not mentioned. In Numbers the spies themselves return with a negative view of the Land, saying 'we cannot go up against the people because they are stronger than we are,' and actively spread pessimism among the Israelites. In this week's version, Moses recounts that the spies brought a short but positive report of the Land; despite this, the people sulked in their tents, accusing God of bringing them out of the Egypt only to have them wiped out.

The story of the spies in Numbers reflects a top-down model of political leadership. The policy decision comes from God (via Moses) and the protagonists are leaders of their tribes who use their position to influence the people for evil. Our present portion from Deuteronomy, in contrast, paints a picture of grass-roots politics: the people initiate the mission and are responsible for their own negative reaction to the spies' largely positive report.

Renown Torah commentator Nechama Leibowitz argues that rather than seeing these versions of the story as incompatible narratives, we should understand them in terms of the Torah's own chronology. Moses' speech in Deuteronomy comes 38 years after the sin of the spies, when, once again, the people of Israel are perched on the borders of the Land, ready to take possession. Last time the people failed. Moses wants to ensure this does not happen again. For this reason, his address stresses not the sins of the leaders - which he surely cannot have forgotten - but the personal responsibility of each and every individual for their own behavior. Morality requires that we each take responsibility for our actions. 'The listener,' says Leibowitz, 'has the choice of turning a deaf ear to evil words or of allowing himself to be misled by them. It is his (or her) duty to resist.'

Matt Plen, a leader and educator in the Jewish community of the UK, remarks: "This lesson applies not only to interpersonal morality but to wider social and political issues...[T]hose of us who live in a democracy are blessed with a unique opportunity: to resist demagoguery, to elect responsible leaders and, by holding them to account, to work for the common good."

5/6 Aug 2016

We come to the end of the book of numbers this Shabbat, with a double parasha/portion: Matot-Ma'asei - Numbers 30:2-32:42 and 33:1-36:13. This double portion contains many topics, several of them forming closing chapters to events that appeared earlier, others are looking forward to the entry into the Land of Israel, just across the Jordan River.

With each ending, there is also the possibility of looking forward to a new beginning.

At the end of each book of Torah we recite: Chazak Chazak V'Nitchazek! - Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other! Take a close look at that expression. Our tradition understands how endings can be difficult and challenging (in a variety of ways) for each of us. And our tradition also knows the importance being there for each other - and how important it is that we help each other through difficult times... and joyous times as well.

29/30 Jul 2016

[Rabbi ben Bag Bag said of the Torah, "Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it." It's true.  This week, especially, our Torah portion seems to have been written with our times in mind.]

In our Torah portion this week is Pinchas - Numbers 25:10-30:1, a biblical glass ceiling is broken. Five sisters whose father has died come before Moses in front of the Tent of Meeting (the Holy Center of the Tabernacle) and plead for the right to inherit their father's property. Moses takes their case before God, and God tells Moses that their plea is just: "... you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them." (27:7) God then goes on to lay out the order of property transference, if a man dies without leaving a son: it first goes to his daughter... no daughter, then his brothers... no brothers, then his father's brothers... no father's brothers, then the nearest relative in his own clan. The daughter(s) come first in this list. At a time when it was not obvious that women ought to be equal before the law, Torah takes special pains to raise this question, and name the women who come before Moses to raise their concern. Zelophehad's daughters - Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah - took the brave step forward and broke a biblical glass ceiling.

Rabbi Silvina Chemen teaches us: "The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. In addition, however, the story of these five women offers a compelling lesson for all those (women and men) who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them. It encourages us to think differently – and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles. Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us – or that we have decided to keep because we feel immobile – and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go."

22/23 Jul 2016

Rabbi Chaim Stern teaches: "In our Torah portion this week - Balak - Numbers 22:2-25:9 - the Moabite king Balak, fearing the Israelites who are advancing in his kingdom's direction, engages the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Balaam agrees, and sets forth on his donkey. God is very angry, and sets an angel to obstruct their path. The donkey, seeing the angel, goes off the road. Balaam, who sees nothing, beats the donkey. They continue along, but the donkey veers off the road again. After the third such beating, the donkey suddenly stops and sits in the road, and begins speaking (yes, speaking!) to its master. Balaam finally sees: 'Then the Eternal One uncovered Balaam's eyes, and he saw the divine emissary..." (22:31) It is one thing to look, another to see."

What does it mean to truly see?

A meditation: Today - or maybe tomorrow or next week - the hardest thing for me to see may be in plain sight. There are times when I need to see others, when I need to look beyond me and my wants, to the needs and cares of my family and friends. And there are times when I need to remember that there are people I pass as if they were not there: Open my eyes to them.

15/16 Jul 2016

In this week's Ten Minutes of Torah, the URJ's weekly Torah commentary, Rabbi Joseph Skloot writes: In the last forty years... American Jews have begun, finally, to feel comfortable in our own skin; to shed the shame and embarrassment of forebears; to celebrate our heritage, customs, and traditions — even some of the weirder ones — outwardly and openly... We have put aside the debate over whether we should be "Jewish-Americans" or "American-Jews" and come to realize that one can be passionately Jewish and proudly American at the same time, without contradiction. This is largely a consequence of a broader shift in American attitudes, a greater appreciation for difference and diversity as something to be treasured and not feared...

This week's Torah reading, Chukat - Num. 19:1-22:1 - begins with an explanation of the parah adumah, "red heifer," ritual. In short, the Israelites are commanded to produce a "red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid" (Numbers 19:2), slaughter it, burn it, and transform the ashes into a special "water of lustration" (19:9), used to render what has become impure, pure again.

Really? Burn a cow and use its ashes to make what has become impure, pure? Is there an explanation for this? Does this make sense?

Rashi, in his commentary on the first words of this instruction, testifies to the fact that "The nations of the world would taunt the Jewish people saying, 'What is this commandment and what meaning does it have?'" For this reason, according to Rashi, the ritual of the red heifer is called by the Torah a chukah, meaning "an indisputable decree before God, which you don't have any right to question."

Rashi understood what it was like to live as a minority in a majority culture. He understood the pressure to "fit in;" he understood what it was like to be the brunt of relentless bullying for being different; he understood the pressure to explain and justify himself according to the standards of the majority. And yet, Rashi also understood that enough was enough: It was time to stop listening to the jeers of the "nations of the world" and learn to have faith and confidence in the wisdom of our tradition, even if it doesn't make sense in the eyes of our neighbors. Nearly a thousand years ago, Rashi announced that it was time for us Jews to stop questioning ourselves, stop thinking of ourselves through the eyes of the majority, and start appreciating ourselves for who and what we are.

Rabbi Skloot continues: Today... there is no better time to be a Jew and to experience the diversity and beauty of Jewish culture in all its various manifestations. New positive expressions of Jewish culture proliferate on television, on film, in restaurants, and in books. It is tempting to see this prodigious creativity as a reflection of the American Jewish community's much-belated acceptance of our essential difference and celebration of it. Perhaps, finally, we have banished the voices of the "nations of the world" and begun to appreciate ourselves for who we are.

8/9 Jul 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Korah - Numbers 16:1-18:32. I want to share the insights of one of my AJR* colleagues, Cantor Sandy Horowitz, on Moses' reaction to the rebellion of Koach and his followers... and add a few thoughts of my own.

In this week's Torah portion Korah, along with Datan, Aviram and 250 chieftains from among the Israelites, attempts a full scale rebellion, challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron. When Moses hears about it, "Vayipol al panav... - He fell on his face..." (Numbers 16:4). According to Rashi, after having endured the incident of the golden calf, and the complaining about food, and the spies who had so little faith in God, Moses feels utterly discouraged... Or does he?

As he lay on the ground following this challenge from Korah and his followers, perhaps he recalled his repeated successes at communicating with God on behalf of the people; yet, how many times can he do this?

In any case, what happens next is that Moses gets up and addresses Korah, asking that he and his followers bring their fire pans to the Tent of Meeting the next morning, where God will determine their fate. Moses doesn't try to placate or change God's mind this time. Instead, he attempts diplomacy: "Listen sons of Levi...", perhaps hoping to change Korah's mind before the inevitable divine wrath descends. Korah does not respond. And Datan and Aviram reply with further provocation, questioning Moses' authority. Moses, attempting to find a way to avoid conflict, makes a dramatic gesture toward reconciliation by directly approaching these leaders.

The psalmist tells us to "seek peace and pursue it." (Psalm 34:15) Despite his despair as illustrated in the words "Vayipol al panav," Moses makes the choice to get up and go on, and is a role model for seeking peace through his concrete action.

1/2 Jul 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Shelach Lecha - Numbers 13:1-15:41. This famous portion tells the story of the the scouts sent to reconnoiter the land - and to bring back their report to Moses and the people. They are so close to entering the Promised Land!!! And yet, so far... The reporting does not go well, and the people resist moving forward. God is very displeased, and threatens to destroy the people. (Num. 14:17-20) Moses counsels God strongly against carrying out this plan. Moses' opening plea is: "And now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great..." implying that greater strength is demonstrated in restraint than in acting on one's anger. Moses goes on to quote back to God God's own words, which state that the divine essence is forgiveness and compassion. ("..Eyl rachum v'chanun... Nosei avon vafehshah v'chata'ah... God, compassionate and gracious... forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin..." Ex. 34:6-7)

Here Moses' speaking up for the people is reminiscent of Abraham's challenge to God over the impending destruction of Sodom. To retreat when God threatens to destroy the innocent with the guilty is unthinkable... and Moses succeeds in changing the mind of God! Some commentators see this as a test of Moses (like Abraham) to bring action on behalf of his people. Perhaps the sages found it hard to imagine that God would allow anger to reign; in their evolving understanding of God's essence, anger and violence were repudiated as expressive of the Divine.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma brings these aspects of Godliness into the human realm, as he teaches: "Who is mighty? One who conquers one's own inclination." (Pirkei Avot 4:1) In a later commentary Avot d'Rabbi Natan, Chap. 29) we learn: "[The mighty] is one who transforms another who hates him into one who loves him." And in this day and age, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis teaches us that: "... these texts underscore for us how deeper strength lies in forgiveness and reconciliation than in angry outbursts or violent demonstrations of power."

24/25 Jun 2016

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Beha-alotcha - Numbers 8:1-12:16, and opens with God telling Moses to speak with Aaron and instruct him as to the lighting of the menorah: as he goes up to light the lights, "the seven lights will give light in front of the menorah." (Num. 8:2) The light shines forward...

Every time I read this portion, I am reminded of when my husband Harry and I first met. I was at the end of my junior year at Florida State University, and Harry was at the end of his first year in graduate school. It was the last Hillel breakfast of the year, and I had arrived late - so late, that all the seats were taken and there were three people sitting at an otherwise empty table... and I took the seat across from Harry. The guest speakers for the breakfast were representatives from the Jewish Defense League (the JDL), and opened their remarks with a midrash on how the first word in the Torah begins with the letter "Bet." Note that the letter "bet" has a dagesh - a dot inside. That dot is like an eye -- and the letter surrounding it makes it so that the eye cannot look back, cannot look up or down, but can only look forward; that is how our Torah begins: "Bereishit barah Elohim... - At the beginning of God's creating..." (Gen. 1:1) Our Torah begins with looking forward...

This week's Torah portion teaches us about light shining forward. And how it can only shine when it is lit. What do each of us do to shine our light into the world? How do each of us help make a difference with that light? Yes, much of what we do is informed by looking back on past actions, and looking around at what is going on. But, to truly make a difference, each of us must actively shine our light forward - and move on from there.

17/18 Jun 2016

This week's Torah portion is Naso - Num. 4:21-7:89; a centerpiece from this portion is the Priestly Blessing, know in Hebrew as the Birkhat Cohanim: "May Adonai bless you and protect you. May Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you. May Adonai bestow His favor upon you and give you peace." (Num. 6:24-26) Rabbi Ibn Ezra, Torah commentator who lived in Spain and died in England - 1089-1164, interprets the blessing as such: "Adonai bless you - with extra life and wealth; And protect you - from having the extra wealth you have received stolen from you by someone else (!). Deal kindly with you - Whatever you ask for, and whenever you ask for it, may your request be fulfilled willingly and immediately; and graciously with you - If you are making your request at a time of great trouble, may God ease your trouble. "Adonai bestow His favor upon you" - Whenever you turn to God, may God be turned to you; And give you peace - ... You will have no fear when violence comes."

Ibn Ezra brings a realistic frame into the potential of this blessing:

what each of us has, may we be blessed with an extra portion, and the protection that goes with it;
may our requests be answered and our troubles be eased;
as we turn to God, may God's Presence be in our lives and may we have the strength and courage to deal with life's difficulties as they arise.

We might not have thought to equate "strength and courage" with "peace," yet, the Hebrew word for Peace -Shalom - is derived from the Hebrew word for wholeness or completeness - Shalem . Strength and courage can truly help us feel "whole" enough to get through very difficult times. As an individual... and as a community.

And to this we say: Kayn y'hi ratzon -- May it be so.

10/11 Jun 2016

This week our Torah scroll is rolled to the book of Numbers, our portion being Bemidbar, Num. 1:1-4:20. Moses and Aaron are commanded to count the Jewish people, but there are two kinds of countings/census that take place. The first census is of the men "... over the age of 20, those that went out to war..." in the camp. Along with representatives from each of the tribes, they arrived at a total of 603,550 men. (Num. 1:45-46)But the tribe of Levi was not included in this count; they were numbered in a second census - "each male from the age of one month and over..." (Num. 3:15) and their number came to 22,000. Two censuses? What is the purpose? Why not count everyone together?

>Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the celebrated first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, teaches that each nation exists and survives on the strength of two entities. One is a national infrastructure - an economic and political system and an army to defend itself. However, a strong infrastructure alone holds no guarantee that a nation will survive. A nation must also develop a culture and spirit; yet, just possessing a strong vitality and culture is not enough when one is being attacked on all fronts... So a nation requires a national side and a spiritual side in order to survive and thrive... in the same way the individual exists in both body and soul.

You might have noticed that Torah's counting is of the menfolk - the women are not included in the totals... or in the military or ritual service of the people. Yet, we know of the important biblical roles that Deborah and Miriam (and other women as well) played in the military and spiritual lives of their people. As time has gone by, we proudly count the many women who have served the Jewish people in many political and religious leadership roles.

Each of us has a role to play. And each of us counts.

3/4 Jun 2016

An interesting insight from Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, a member of the faculty at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, on this week's Torah portion -B'chukotai - Lev. 26:3-27:34 - as we conclude the book of Leviticus. "Chapter 26 lays out the blessings awaiting us if we keep the Torah and, in greater detail, the Tochacha (rebuke), the litany of tragedies that will visit us for infidelity to God. It (and Leviticus) ends with chapter 27 -- the voluntary vows a person makes to the Temple, with specific values for categories of people. R' Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin (late 18th C), explains the proximity of these two seemingly disparate texts: 'One who is listening to the [long listing of rebukes] might despair, indeed much of it has happened - and ask "What am I worth? Does my life have meaning or value?" Chapter 27, Rabbi Horowitz goes on to say, comes to tell us that, despite everything, every Jew has value.' Good therapy on both the national and personal levels."

I would add: "...[D]espite everything, every Jew has value." Indeed, next week we will begin the book of Numbers - B'Midbar, which will begin with a census. Not only does every Jew have value, but every Jew counts. And that, too, is good therapy on both the national and personal levels.

27/28 May 2016

This week's Torah portion is Behar - Lev. 25:1-26:2. This portion focuses on legislation intended to ensure that people - especially people in economic distress - may enjoy a secure life. Also, that the land itself is taken care of: "Six years you shall sow your field, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land." (25:2) Taking care of the land, and taking care of people. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that... "There are three ways in which we may relate ourselves to the world: - we may exploit it, we may enjoy it, we may accept it in awe." I would suggest that Heschel's teaching applies not only to the natural world, but also to our relationship with other human beings. What a blessing if we all were to enjoy and to appreciate the land and each other for those gifts we each offer -- and to accept those gifts in awe!

20/21 May 2016

This week's Torah portion is 'Emor -- Lev. 22:1-24:23. Rabbi Len Levin, who teaches Jewish Philosophy at the Academy for Jewish Religion writes: "We read this week of the strictures of purity incumbent on the priests who officiated in the Tabernacle (and in later periods, in the Temple). They should take special care not to incur ritual impurity except in cases of the utmost necessity, such as performing the mitzvah of burial of their immediate kin. (To this day, this is the source of the custom that kohanim, descendents of Aaron, avoid entering cemeteries.)

We also learn that just as animals with physical blemishes are disqualified from being offered as sacrifices on the altar, so, too, priests with physical deformities were disqualified from serving in the sacrificial service: "no man who his blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long...or who is a hunchback or a dwarf...shall be qualified to offer the Lord's offering by fire" (though they were permitted to eat of the sacred foods contributed by lay Israelites for the maintenance of the priestly class; Lev. 21:18-23). This is a disqualification that was not unique to the Israelite priesthood but was observed by the priestly classes of all ancient peoples.

As in many other respects, the idea of holiness evolved in the course of Jewish history from a physical to a more spiritual concept. ("God does not see as humans see; for humans look at the outward appearance, but God looks to the heart." [1 Samuel 16:7]) Rabbinic Judaism did not disqualify people from leadership on account of physical blemishes but ranked them by their spiritual qualities and learning..."

Each time we come to this reading, I remember how one of our bar mitzvah students chose this particular part of the Torah portion as his focus. He could have easily chosen another section -- dealing with the calendar of the Jewish festivals - but, no, Alex Pankiw wanted to talk about the unfairness of focusing on one's physical limitations, instead of one's intellectual and moral abilities when looking for leaders. Judd Seldin, his mentor, supported his choice - and together they brought this before the congregation. Alex and Judd have both passed away, but they left me with the timeless teaching of not judging a book by its cover - and to celebrate the best of each person.

13/14 May 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Kedoshim - Lev. 19:1-20:27. The opening chapter is known as the Holiness Code, and can be considered a blueprint for a holy life. It opens with "You shall be holy, for I, your Eternal God, am holy..." (19:2) and ends with "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (19:18) What could it mean to infuse every day of your life with holiness? What is our day filled with -- eating, work and/or learning, being with others, driving...? Some of these items might not be high on your "holiness" list... and yet... When we do things with a sense of mindfulness - I am preparing to eat this apple... I am getting ready to have a difficult conversation... I am getting ready to walk outside... I am getting ready to drive the car... - we can be more aware of: being grateful for what we do have... what we are going to say... what we are going to do... In the process of bringing a sense of holiness to our own lives, we can become more aware of those around us -- our "neighbors." That is a powerful thought - and a powerful way to live.

6/7 May 2016

[Excerpted from Rabbi Lader's remarks made during the Holocaust Memorial Program at ABI for Yom HaShoah]

This week’s Torah portion is from the book of Leviticus and is known by the name “Acharei Mot – After the death…” God speaks to Moses after the fiery death of the two sons of Aaron with continued instructions for Aaron with regard to the rituals of the Sanctuary. What strikes me this evening is, after such a tragic loss, how can Aaron go forward? Increase that loss to six million. How can the survivors go forward? How can we go forward? Yet, like Aaron, we do. Rituals can help us make meaning of that which we cannot understand. And rituals embrace life.

The Jewish response to death is the affirmation of life.Our people’s death would be in vain if we did not choose life, if we did not choose our future, and … if we did not choose to help change tomorrow.

Each of us here this evening – Jew and gentile – is a testament to the power of one… plus one… plus one… plus one… 

Each of us is – and all of us are – endowed with the ability to see each other as fellow human beings...

Each of us is – and all of us are – endowed with the power to say “Never again”…

Each of us is – and all of us are – endowed with the power to help bring peace and wholeness – Shalom – to our world.

29/30 Apr 2016

Our Torah portion for this Shabbat/Pesach is from the 7th Day Reading: Ex. 13:17-15:26, and includes the Shirat HaYam -  the Song of the Sea - sung by Moses and the Children of Israel after they escaped, on dry land, the clutches of Pharaoh and his horsemen through the waters of the Sea of Reeds. As we say goodbye to Passover, we are called upon to take the heartache of suffering, the joy of freedom, and the moral call to redeem others with us throughout the year. We are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day of our lives; it is our inspiration for better living and better loving of our fellow human beings. It guides us through the ethical imperative to move forward and advance rather than shrinking back and not exercising our freedoms. It tells us we cannot stop hoping for an improved world -- and we cannot stop helping to bring about that change.

22/23 Apr 2016

This Shabbat coincides with the first day of Pesach, and our Torah portion reflects the special reading for this day: Ex. 12:21-51, recalling the haste in which we had to leave to make our exodus from Egypt. It also includes the ritual for the Passover (Pesach) sacrifice -- and how the Israelites are to observe this ritual when they enter the land. But it is more than a ritual.Through the text, Moses knows that when their children see what their families are doing -- they will want to know "why?" -- "What is the meaning of this ritual?" they will ask, and we are instructed to tell them: "This is the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses." (Ex. 12: 27) From the text we learn that this is something we are to do - not just for the evening of our departure, but every year at this time - in the freedom of our own land. And we also learn that children have been asking "why?" for thousands of years! Sometimes the answers are written out for us... and sometimes we join our children and search for answers together.

15/16 Apr 2016

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is Metzorah - Lev. 14:1-15:33. Last week's theme of cleansing a person from an affliction of the skin continues, and carries on with the ritual for cleaning an afflicted house. The same word - tza'arat - is used in both instances. The ritual begins with the acknowledgement that something is not right, calling in the priest, and saying to him: "Something like a plague has appeared upon my house..." (Lev. 14:35)  The priest then begins the process for "cleaning" the house; the depth of intervention will depend upon just how deep the tza'arat is. And after all has been cleansed, sacrifices will be offered. Nice -- but what does this have to do with us in this day and age???
Perhaps there is a rubric here for healing... It seems so. When one is in distress, there needs to be an acknowledgment by that person that something is not right; but it does not stop there. Next step - find someone to help, and put into words what the problem is; chances are it will take more than a simple sentence -- but that is a beginning. The helper - or physician... or counselor - then begins the process to get to the root of the problem and begin the healing process. And at the end of the process, there is an opportunity for reflecting and being grateful. Timeless Torah...

8/9 Apr 2016

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is Tazri'a - Lev. 12:1-13:59 and includes a discussion of diseases of the skin and the manner in which the priest was to examine and treat a person with such afflictions. The field of medicine has changed greatly since biblical times, but the mandate to heal was clear then as it is now. In the midst of illness, many of us are caught up in the stress and anxiety that can accompany the difficulties in dealing with sickness. Poet Debbie Perlman z"l offers us a prayer for courage and healing: "Sit beside me, O Eternal: comfort my soul / At the clamoring bell of news revealed, You listen with me... Recall to me my cherished memories, to bring me forward through adversity; to stretch from then to now to beyond, beckoning to a future You will guard. / ...Wrap me in Your healing light; Wrap me in Your healing care."
This Shabbat is also called Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, which celebrates the arrival of the month of Nisan, during which the liberation of the children of Israel took place. Pesach is only two weeks away!

1/2 Apr 2016

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Shemini - Lev. 9:1-11:47 and includes the listing of the dietary laws - those animals, birds, fish, and insects that we are permitted - and not permitted - to eat.  As we try to "make sense" of these dietary restrictions, Bible commentator Rabbi Jacob Milgrom posited that it is helpful to see the dietary laws as a ethical system.  It is a given: [Many] humans will have meat for their food and will kill to get it. Our Torah has worked out a system of restrictions whereby human beings may satiate their desire for animal flesh, and yet not be dehumanized in the process.  There are three basic rules:
1) The choice of animal food is severely limited to the domesticated-herbivorous species only: cattle, sheep, and goat. No restrictions apply to vegetables or fruits.
2) Even the few permitted animals may not be killed by just anyone, but only by those who are qualified by their skill (painless to the animal) - and their piety (reverence for life); ensuring that these few slaughterers do not themselves become brutalized though incessant killing.
3) The meat may be consumed, but not until after the animal's blood (the symbol of life) is drained - returned to the universe, to God.
The dietary laws serve as an ethical guide - a system that serves as instruction for the soul.

25/26 Mar 2016

Our Torah portion for this Shabbat is Tzav - Lev. 6:1-8:36 - and opens with ensuring that "a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (6:6) The sacrificial system was the way of connecting with God; the way of drawing closer to God. In our day, it is our prayers and our actions that have the potential to bring us closer to holiness in our lives. What can we do for others? What can we offer them? Like a fire, what we do and what we offer can be a source of light and warmth, and when done day after day, these actions become the "perpetual fire" that burned continuously on the altar... and burns continuously within us.

18/19 Mar 2016

This week's Torah portion is the opening chapters of the book of Leviticus - Lev. 1:1-5:26. Philo of Alexandria, also called Philo Judaeus, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria during the first half of the first century of the Common Era. He was one of the early biblical commentators, and his commentary on the book of Leviticus draws out not only the importance of the actual rituals themselves, but also their ethical lessons. These opening chapters of Leviticus delineate laws of sacrifices; not necessarily something that many of us seek to reinstate - nor to which we can relate. Philo's insight can be very helpful: The sacrifices must be without blemish, yet, he teaches, that it is just as important for the "one who is about to offer a sacrifice without blemish [focuses on] whether or not his [own] mind is sound, entire, and perfect. Let him investigate the causes for which he is about to offer the sacrifice: gratitude... well-being... atonement..." Philo is teaching mindfulness and intentionality; having the proper intention is considered a vital prerequisite to carrying out any ritual. Today, our prayers - and our actions - take the place of sacrifices, and the need for intentionality and mindfulness remains vitally important for our prayers and actions to have meaning for us.

11/12 Mar 2016

The Torah portion for this week is Pekudei - Ex. 38:21-40:38, and brings the book of Exodus to its conclusion. The word pekudei is often translated as accountings or records, but based on the shoresh (root letters) peh-kuf-dalet can also mean rememberings. Rabbi Jill Hammer, on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion, focuses us on the idea of "rememberings" and connects it to "redemption":
At the end of Genesis (50:24), when Joseph is dying, he promises his family: "pakod yifkod -- God will surely take note of you." At the beginning of the book of Exodus (3:16) the people cry out for God's intervention, and God promises to redeem them: "pakod pakadti -- I will surely remember them." Now, at the end of the book of Exodus (38:21), we hear "Eileh pekudei hamishkan, mishkan ha'edut, asher pukad al pi Moshe -- These are the records/rememberings of the sanctuary, the mishkan of witnessing, that were recorded at Moses' bidding..." In each instance, the verb p-k-d repeats twice, and this last time it is as if to remind us that God has now remembered the people. The promise God made to Moses has been fulfilled...
In what way is the sanctuary a remembrance? If the experience of Egypt is the absence of the God's Presence, the feeling of abandonment that the Hebrew slaves endured, the experience of the mishkan is meant to be an experience of consistent Presence. Our portion ends with the scene in which the anan -- the cloud, the tangible Presence of Divinity, fills the mishkan... This cloud of Presence remains in view always, guiding the people on their journeys through the wilderness. While from one perspective Sinai is the answer to Egypt, in the perspective of these concluding chapters of the book of Exodus, it is the mishkan that is the fulfillment of God's promise to remember - and to redeem - the people.
How is the mishkan redemptive? (T)he mishkan causes people to become aware that the Divine exists in the physical world - this world. This recognition of God's Presence in our world is the antidote to the feeling of the Hebrew slaves that God had forgotten them. They now have a daily [remembering] of Divine Immanence. The presence of the mishkan is meant to establish trust in the guiding Presence of the Holy.
Redemption may mean radical change.
Redemption may also mean sitting with the knowledge of sacred Presence in an ordinary moment.

4/5 Mar 2016

Our Torah portion this week is VaYakhel - Ex. 35:1-38:20.  Moses convenes the people and tells them about the sanctuary they are about to build, and calls for voluntary donations of all the materials that will be needed.  Led by Bezalel, they turn to the work of crafting the sanctuary and its furnishings.  But before any instructions or work commences, Moses begins with: "Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy Shabbat of complete rest, dedicated to the Eternal." (Ex. 35:2)  From this injunction, we learn not only about the importance of Shabbat, but also the importance of work! One cannot rest unless one has worked.  The Talmud teaches: "Gedolah mal'achah she-m'chabedet et b'alehah - 'Great is work, for it confers dignity on those who do it." (Nedarim 49b). As we go to work, it is important to remember that  in "making a living" we are also making a life.  Our work can have little or no meaning, or - if we try - it can be a holy endeavor. In raising the secular to the sacred, the material to the spiritual, we can indeed imbue each an every day with the glow of Shabbat.

26/27 Feb 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tissa - Ex. 30:11-34:35. It begins with the final details about the Sanctuary, including a collection of money from the people that was to serve as a census, and then moves into high drama as the people, panicking in the absence of Moses, make a Golden Calf and dance before it.  (Moses is up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the tablets from God, and has been out of the people's sight for way too long.) God tells Moses to go down to the people, he does, gets very angry and smashes the tablets.  He punishes the people, and then goes back up the mountain to plead with God to forgive the people... and asks that God continue to accompany the people on their journey. God forgives and promises to be with Moses and the people, and Moses returns -- this time with a second set of tablets that he has engraved himself... unaware that his face is now radiant.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that: Jewish mysticism distinguishes between two types of encounters with God: "an awakening from above" and "an awakening from below." The first is initiated by God, the second by humankind.  An "awakening from above" - spectacular, supernatural, and filled with grandeur, may change nature, but it does not change, in an of itself, human nature. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts it is amazing, but only while it lasts; after, people revert to what they were.  An "awakening from below," by contrast, leaves a permanent mark.  Because human beings have taken the initiative, something in them... something in us... changes.  "From above" changes the universe; "from below" changes us.  Indeed, the first set of tablets were engraved by God - Moses was passive.  For the second set, he was active - God dictated and Moses "...wrote down on the tablets the words of the covenant - the Ten Commandments." (Ex. 34:28) He had a share in the making.  He became a different person -- his face was radiant.  Divine intervention changes nature, but it is human initiative - our approach to God - that changes us.

20/21 Feb 2016

This week's Torah portion is Tetzaveh -- 27:20-30:10.  It continues the account of the wilderness sanctuary by delineating the process of consecrating Aaron and his sons as the first priests to fulfill the rituals of the sanctuary. It begins with first commanding "the people of Israel to bring... pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to keep a lamp burning continually."  To this day, we call the lamp that burns continually the Ner Tamid - the Eternal Light.  Rabbi Chaim Stern teaches us that light is a metaphor for the Divine, for understanding, for "enlightenment."  Seeking it, we can become light-givers. And sometimes in the seeking, we can stray far from its source: A man was on his knees, looking for something.  A neighbor came along, saw him, and he asked: "What are you searching for?" The man replied: "My key.  I have lost it."  His neighbor got on his knees, too, and both men searched for the lost key.  After a while, the neighbor asked: "Where did you lose it?"  The man replied: "At home."  "Then why are you searching for it here?" asked the neighbor.  The man replied: "Because the light is better here!"

12/13 Feb 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Terumah -- Ex. 25:1-27:19, and is the first part of a very large section which will conclude the book of Exodus. With redemption (from slavery in Egypt) and revelation (of Torah at Sinai) accomplished, the text now turns to creation.  Creation???? How can that be so?  God is sharing the blueprints with Moses for the making of the Mishkan - the portable tabernacle which will provide a dwelling place for God's Presence, and a central location for the ritual life of the people.  These "blueprint chapters" - chapters 25-31, end with an extended passage on observing Shabbat, and the "construction chapters" - chapters 35-40, begin with a brief passage on the prohibition of work on the seventh day of the week.  The cessation of work has traditionally been understood to mean cessation from the tasks of construction, and that once a week, human beings must step back from their own creating to acknowledge the true "work" of creation and the "rest" that is so important to take.  When we celebrate Shabbat, we become partners with God in the process of creation - by imitating God's "work" and celebrating God's "rest."

5/6 Feb 2016

This week's Torah portion is Mishpatim - Ex. 21:1-24:18. It can be seen as a follow-up to the Ten Utterances - the Ten Commandments of the previous chapter (Ex. 20), legislation with the aim of justice and fairness in the lives of individuals and society as a whole. Moses writes it all down and then reads the words of this covenant aloud to all the Israelites, and they respond: "All that Adonai has spoken na'aseh v'nishmah - we will do and we will hear!" (Ex. 24:3) Rabbi Chaim Stern (in  Day-By-Day: Reflections on the themes of the Torah...) points out that it is paradoxical that doing would come before hearing. Perhaps, he suggests, "We are meant to discover a message about the supreme importance of doing. Hearing is not hearing... when there is no doing."  From the Midrash we learn: The rabbis asked among themselves: Which is more important - study or practice (doing)? Rabbi Tarfon argued for practice.  And Rabbi Akiva argued for study.  They concluded: "Study is only more important when it leads to practice."

29/30 Jan 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Yitro - Ex. 18:1-20:26.  Moses now returns to the mountain of the Burning Bush, where he met God, who told him: "And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you will serve God upon this mountain." (Ex. 3:12)  Moses and the people have arrived.  What follows is a formal change of masters: the people, no longer enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh/god, will now swear loyalty to their God, who will impose rules of conduct upon them in return for their protection and well-being.  This is the nature of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel at Sinai.  The Sinai experience "anchors the people of Israel on their journey toward the fulfillment of their destiny." (Everett Fox, Now These Are the Names, p. 104).  Their destiny? The Promised Land.  Why the giving of these laws in the midst of the wilderness?  Fox writes that "... it was necessary to demonstrate that Israel's laws and institutions arose, not out of normal settled political and economic circumstances, but rather as a direct gift from God Himself."  Sinai serves as the originating point of Israel as a self-defining community, and in the process, establishing an intimate relationship -- a "sacred marriage" -- between God and the Jewish people.

22/23 Jan 2016

Our Torah portion this week is BaShalach - Ex. 13:17-17:16. Finally, the Israelites have left Egypt and walk into the midst of the sea before them on dry ground, unscathed by the waters.  There is another place in the Bible where this occurs, and that is when we enter the Promised Land, crossing the Jordan River - which splits as well to let the Israelites cross over. However, there is no song that follows. The miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds endures in our memory on account of the song that was sung; the miracle of the splitting of the Jordan does not -- no song.  Music has great power to move us, as well as making an indelible imprint on the mind... and our collective memory.

15/17 Jan 2016

This week’s Torah portion is Bo - Exodus 10:1-13:16. The Torah describes the laws of the Festival of Passover: “And on the first day there shall be a holy gathering, and on the seventh day there shall be a holy gathering to you; no manner of work shall be done on them, just that which every person must eat, only that may be done by you” (Exodus 12:16). The Radomsker Rebbe, R. Shlomo HaKohen Rabinowicz (early 19th century, ), comments on this verse, “It is hinted in part of this verse, ‘just that which every person must eat’ that a person’s desire should not just be to take pleasure in the pleasures of the world, but rather to do just what is needed to continue one’s own vitality, so that he can use the rest of his energy to do acts of loving kindness to the ones who have been hurt in this world.” (This is from the Rebbe's commentary on Torah Tiferet Shlomo -- Parshat Bo.) In other words, each person must work to figure out what it is that he or she needs to live, and pass on the rest to those who are in need in this world. In this teaching, we become partners with God to take care of those who most need our help. The celebration of Passover becomes a vivid reminder that at a certain point in our history, we, too, had been hurt and were in need; it is our obligation to make sure our needs are met, but that we also have the means to help others.

 ??????? Why are we reading about Passover now... but will celebrate Passover in April? The Torah sets the dates for many of the festivals we celebrate, in the context of what is happening in the text/story itself. That being said, each festival has a special Torah reading associated with it, so that we might be in the book of Leviticus in April, but will turn back to Exodus during the celebration of Passover.... (which is why it is helpful to have more than one Torah scroll !)

8/9 Jan 2016

Our Torah portion this week is Va'era - Ex. 6:2-9:34.  Moses has brought his message of redemption to the Israelites, but it has fallen on deaf ears; Pharaoh has increased their hardships -- they are in no mood to hear what Moses has to say.  Indeed, "... they did not listen to Moses out of shortness of spirit and hard labor."  (6:9) And the narrative grinds to a halt.  God then tells Moses to go speak to Pharaoh, "that he may send the children of Israel free from his land." (6:11) And Moses responds, "The children of Israel would not listen to me, how then should Pharaoh listen to me - and I am of uncircumcised lips!"  (6:12) Moses reverts to his original resistance at the Burning Bush as he speaks of himself as one who cannot speak. And indeed, if he cannot speak, how can he (or God) expect Pharaoh (or the Israelites) to listen?  But... it will be the task of Moses to convince the people that what seemed to be irrational would inevitably become a reality.  As Don Bogart (z"l), one of our founding temple members, taught me years ago: "To work for change, you have to feel it burning within you... And that gives you the energy and the drive to push forward, against all obstacles..."

1/2 Jan 2016

This week's Torah portion begins the book of Exodus - Shemot - Ex. 1:1-6:1.  Chapter 3 begins: "Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said: 'I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.'  And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: 'Moses, Moses.' And he said: 'Hineini - Here I am.'  And He said: 'Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet -- the place on which you are standing is holy ground." (Ex. 3:1-5)
Take a good look at the words that are bolded... At the farthest end of the wilderness, from a lowly bush, God appears to Moses and calls his name - twice, and Moses responds with "Hineini - Here I am" - and Moses is told not to come any closer for he is standing on holy ground. From the ends of the earth to the middle of the city - any place we stand has the potential to be holy ground -- filled with God's Presence... We just have to be able to turn aside from what we are doing to hear the call -- and to say, "Hineini."

25/26 Dec 2015

This week's Torah portion, Vayehi - Gen. 48:28-50:26 - portrays the last days of our patriarch Jacob, otherwise known as Israel, the father of the twelve tribes. There is a beautiful midrash that describes the scene, as Jacob/Israel is on his deathbed surrounded by his children:

Eleazar ben Ahavei said: ... When Jacob was departing from the world, he called his twelve sons and said to them: 'Maybe in your hearts you doubt the Holy One, blessed be He?' They replied [taken aback by their father's doubts regarding their loyalty to God]:"Shema, Yisrael" - Hear, O Israel' (Deuteronomy 6:4), just as there is no doubt in your heart regarding God, so, too, there is none in our hearts, rather "Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad" - Adonai is our God, Adonai is One' (Deut. 6:4). To this Jacob gratefully responded in a whisper: "Baruch Shem Kavod Malkhuto L'olam Va'ed" - 'Blessed be the name of God's glorious kingdom for ever and ever.' (Bereishit Rabbah 88:3)

This imaginative reading of the biblical story gives an inspirational interpretation of the origins of our ritual reading of the Shema, particularly the refrain "Blessed be the name..." which is not found in the Torah. Our recitation of the Shema is now seen as the faithful response of Jacob's children to their father who feared that his children were not loyal to his faith mission. It makes our recitation of the Shema a confirmation of our loyalty to the faith of our ancestors, making us a link in the great chain of the tradition stemming all the way back to our forefather Jacob. 

18/19 Dec 2015

Our Torah portion this week is Vayigash - Gen. 44:18-47:27.  From the reconciliation that takes place between Joseph and his brothers, we learn about seeing the good -- or the potential for good -- in another person.  In judging others, the rabbis often advocate compassion.  They speak of seeking "kaf zechut" - judging on a scale of merit - in assessing the actions of others. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav turns the ancient value of judging another favorably into an activist approach to transforming another: if one exerts the effort to search for the good in even the most unlikely of people, one will locate some source of merit. And if one is persistent in reflecting that good back to the other, the other can be changed.

It is one thing to seek the good in another... it is just as important to seek the good in ourselves; having faith in others and in ourselves leads us to create relationships which are supportive and affirming.

11/12 Dec 2015

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Miketz -- Gen. 41:1-44:17.  The Joseph saga now turns towards the process of reconciliation.  When Joseph's brothers come down to Egypt to procure food during the famine, he has an opportunity to behave towards his brothers as they behaved towards him.  On the surface he acts harshly, instantly accusing them of spying and insisting on holding one of them as a guarantee that they will return with their younger brother Benjamin.  But Joseph reveals his compassionate side as he returns payment for food they have purchased and turns away in privacy to cry when he sees evidence of the inner turmoil among the brothers as they remember how they treated Joseph years before.  Tradition teaches that Joseph sets out on a careful path to provide the opportunity for his brothers to repent. Present-day Rabbi Sheldon Lewis teaches that his approach does not ignore the past. He wants his brothers to face up to what they did and to demonstrate that they indeed have changed.  And thus to bring his family together in unity... But that's next week's story...

4/5 Dec 2015

This week's Torah portion is Vayeshev -- Gen. 37:1-40:23.  We meet Joseph and his brothers - and read that, "...When his brothers saw that their father [Jacob] loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him." (Gen. 37:4)  The brothers were enraged at Joseph's behavior -- he reported his brothers' actions to their father... and he dreamed dreams of dominating his brothers [and even his parents] - and shared them.  Commentators suggest that, had words been used to express their rage, perhaps the violent episode that followed - the kidnapping of Joseph, throwing him in a pit to die... and ultimately selling him into slavery - might have been avoided.  The commentator Moses Alsheich uses the example of God's anger at the sight of the Golden Calf, and how God unleashed God's anger in words to Moses - and is able to backtrack from God's original intention to destroy the people and begin anew.  Had the brothers been able to speak even tough words of reproach to Joseph, perhaps they, too, would have been able to find a way to make peace with their brother.  A powerful lesson for all...

27/28 Nov 2015

Our Torah portion for this Shabbat is VaYishlach - 32:4-36:43. Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb teaches: For his meeting with his brother Esau, after 22 years, Jacob prepares a large gift. Esau responds (33:9): "I have much (rav), my brother; keep yours." Jacob urges Esau to accept it anyway (33:11): "Take what I offer; God has favored me and I have everything (kol)." The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz, Poland, 16th century) and the Hafetz Hayim (Israel Meir HaKohen, Kagan, 1839-1933) both note that one who has much, generally wants more. Whereas, one who has everything is satisfied. He is ha'sameiyach b'chelko, is content with his portion, truly "wealthy" as defined in Pirkei Avot (4:1).

As we put the finishing touches on our Thanksgiving feasts this week and gather with family and friends, let's be mindful of all the blessings in our lives - and realize how "wealthy" we truly are.

20/21 Nov 2015

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is VaYetze - Gen. 28:10-32:3.  In our portion, Leah gives birth to four of Jacob's sons, and she names them.  It is interesting to see the progression of the names. First - Reuben (Re'u-ven) - "Because Adonai has seen (ra'ah) my affliction [being the unloved of Jacob's two wives]; for now my husband will love me."  Second - Simeon (Shim-'on) - "Because Adonai has heard (Shama') that I am hated, He has therefore given me this son also." Third - Levi (Leivi) - "Now this time will my husband be joined (from the Hebrew root Lavah) with me, because I have borne him three sons." Oy, our hearts go out to Leah!  She is trying so hard to be loved by Jacob - and sees her sons as a means to that end. Yet, by the fourth son, her focus changes: Judah (Yehudah) - "This time I will thank (from the Hebrew Hodah) Adonai." And with the birth of Judah, Leah moved from despair to thanksgiving, thanking God for the blessings of her children.  As it happens, it is Judah's name that is associated with the Jewish people -- we are called "Yehudim"... and are called upon to give thanks for our blessings.