Sermons & Taste of Torah

Taste of Torah - Torah commentary from our Clergy, Rabbinic Interns, and other special guests


By TBA Rabbinic Intern Ben Sigal

This past Sunday, Elana and I got a craving for one of our favorite food outlets, Modern Bread and Bagel. It’s an incredible kosher, gluten-free bakery, and up until a few weeks ago, their closest store was a shlep away in Woodland Hills. Recently, however, they opened a new storefront in Santa Monica, and we were itching to check it out. There was just one hiccup in our plan-we now had a newborn boy, and getting out wasn’t quite as easy as it was before.

Nonetheless, we gathered up our stroller and our car seat. We filled up our diaper bag with two changes of clothes, extra burp cloths and bibs, and all sorts of other things we might, but probably wouldn’t, need for this outing. As soon as Shai had finished a feeding, while he was deep into a calm slumber, we piled into the car and headed out to Santa Monica. It was a lot of work, but at the end of the outing, Shai was happier, and his parents were too. The additional work required for our self-care was beneficial to him as well.

Our trek for gluten free bagels reminded me of our parsha this week, Tetsaveh. In Tetsaveh, we read of the dedication ritual of the mishkan, the tabernacle. At the end of this ritual, we read,

וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָהֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִֽים׃ וְיָדְע֗וּ כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֧אתִי אֹתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְשׇׁכְנִ֣י בְתוֹכָ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם׃

“I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I the Lord am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I the Lord their God.”

Ramban, a 13th century Spanish commentator, notes something very interesting about these verses. We are prone to think that God took the Israelites out of Egypt for their sake, because it was what they needed. But as we read here, that’s not why it happened at all. God took the Israelites out of Egypt so that God could abide amongst them. In this instance, God performed miracles for God’s sake, not for the sake of the Israelites.

But it was more complex than just that. God took the Israelites out of Egypt because God cared about the relationship between God and the Israelites, and that relationship couldn’t exist in Egypt. The Egyptians, slavery, and perhaps even the land itself all prevented the relationship from blossoming as it could have. Had the Israelites remained in Egypt, the relationship could have existed, but it wouldn’t have flourished. So instead, God changed the dynamic and led the Israelites to freedom.

We all have moments in our life when the “easy” thing to do is maintain the status quo, to not take the additional work of self-care, even knowing that our lives would improve exponentially for the amount of work that such a change requires. In those moments, we should look to God for the permission we may desire to make those changes. And if all else fails, we should remember that though God took us out of Egypt for God’s sake, we also benefited; so too, others may benefit by us doing what is best for us. May we all be blessed with the clarity of

mind to know when changing the status quo is what is needed for us, and for our relationships with those in our closest circles.

By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

In Israel, a battle rages regarding exemptions to military service granted to ultra-Orthodox/Haredi Jews. What began as a nod by Ben Gurion to a community that was exceedingly small then in the nascent state, and which he assumed would continue to remain small, has turned into a societal rift.  Haredi leaders say the Jewish state should honor those who devote their lives to Torah study, for on their merits does Judaism stand.  Others wonder why the Haredi community gets to live under the blanket of freedom created and paid for by the military service and sacrifice of others.  


This culture war has been magnified since 10/7 and the resulting military war in Gaza.  Haredi communities are living their lives mostly spared from the fear of their young men going off to, and dying in, war.  While the rest of Israeli society convulses and fights and worries.


Is it only the study of Torah that merits such vaunted status within Jewish culture?  


A surprisingly relevant and poignant commentary on a seemingly dry verse within Parshat Terumah suggests that Torah scholars share honor and exalted purpose within the Jewish community with many others.  The commentary is by the Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, late 19th C., early 20th C. Poland/Lithuania). He was a halakhist and ethicist, and was one of the most revered Jews alive during his lifetime.  He is commenting on Exodus 25:15, a rather nondescript verse that tells us that the poles inserted into the rings attached to the ark, which would be used for carrying it from place to place, are to remain there. In stable perpetuity.  לא יסרו ממנו/lo yasuru mimenu.  “They are not to be removed from it.”  


From that short phrase about the architectural and logistic particulars of the mishkan the Hafetz Hayim derives a deeper insight: “even” those who “just” carry the holy things of the community (ie, who make the holiness possible, by less-holy means) are likened to those who study and delve into Torah.  The “carriers” are perpetually affixed to the holiest appearance in the mishkan: the vessel carrying the stones of the covenant from Sinai.  In his words, “The poles were made sanctified through its [the Torah’s] sanctity and thus merited that they would continuously be with it [the Torah], even when they are not needed.  Similarly, those who hold up the Torah, because they made it possible for sages of the Torah to thrive during their lifetimes, they earn an eternal reward.”


I hear in the Hafetz Hayim’s words a prescient rebuke to those in the Torah-studying world who fail to show significant appreciation for and honor towards those in their midst who make their own ongoing Torah study possible. Through financial support, yes. But also through the nitty-gritty means by which a society, and a nation, are preserved such that there can be safe places where the Torah is studied and the tradition is nurtured. Both the ones toiling in the texts, and the ones toiling so that others can toil in the texts, are part of the sanctity of the Jewish people.


I do not know how the conflict regarding military service for Haredim should be resolved. I learned on our solidarity mission last week that more and more Haredim are signing up for voluntary (at least for that community) military service.  I hope that trend continues. Either way, I hope that mutual recriminations can yield to mutual respect. That the brave men and women who bear arms and risk (and at times sacrifice) their lives for the nation of Israel will know that at least part of what they are fighting for is so that the Jewish people can live and study and devote their lives to Judaism in their land, safe and secure.  And that the many communities of pious ultra-Orthodox men and women will understand that their fellow Israelis who build the economy, and govern the nation, and fight the wars and attempt to neutralize our enemies–they are a part of the sanctified of Israel, too. In this world and the next.


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

By Cantor Michelle Stone

Martin Luther King, Jr. is famously quoted as saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This hope for the future should be our lode star, but we also know that the history of humankind has ebbed and flowed over the centuries with violence and injustice. It has plagued civilizations of all types. The idea that enlightened, democratic civilizations become moral and just societies is not necessarily born out throughout history. The Greek Empire, the pinnacle of culture, philosophy, and art in the ancient world, fell due to the pressure from constant wars. As the Enlightenment took over Europe and America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the slave trade also flourished. Weimar culture was the center of Western innovation, art, science, and intellectual thought in the interwar period. It is also the society that gave rise to Nazism.

So, if societies are supposed to get more just over time, when they become more “enlightened,” more guided by reason and morality, why then do we still hate? Why do we still engage in violence and war? Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (it’s really good, go read it!), says that morality both “binds and blinds.” Morality binds us together into creating a common good. “I” becomes an “us,” and we work together to create a more moral society for “us.” But, by definition, an “us” leads to a “them.” And that is what Haidt means when he says that morality “blinds.” The society puts on blinders for those who are not considered the “we” in the greater good story and the new vision for morality doesn’t extend to the “them”. This is a natural human instinct. We are tribal people, and we instinctively put people into categories of who is in and who is out. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “The great crimes of humanity have been committed against the stranger, the outsider, the one-not-like-us. Recognizing the humanity of the stranger has been the historic weak point in most cultures.”

The Torah is keenly aware of the dangers of the human instinct to “other.” In our parsha, we are told two times to not oppress the stranger. In Ex. 22:20, “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And again, in Ex. 23:9, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The word “ger”, or “stranger” appears almost 100 times in the Tanakh. The Torah mentions laws to protect, care for, or rejoice with the stranger 22 separate times. It repeatedly mentions that there should be one law and one form of judgment for both Israelite and the ger. Our tradition recognizes that treating the stranger as equals, taking care of their needs, and avoiding “othering” goes against our natural instincts, so it had to legislate it over and over again, continuously reminding us to not act this way.

The Torah also realizes that it isn’t enough to say “don’t do this.” We need to internalize what it means to be a stranger and keenly feel the pain of being an outsider in order to protect and care for the stranger among us. These laws appear right after the Israelites came out of slavery, after we came out of being the ultimate “others” ourselves. The text is pleading with us to not forget that being a stranger in Egypt was so terrible, that it turned into 400 years of slavery. We had to experience it ourselves in order to not do it to others. It’s like when your parents used to tell you not to do something to someone else, saying, “you don’t like it when they do it you, right?” We needed the first-hand experience, otherwise we wouldn’t understand the pain of what it means to be mistreated as a stranger.

I did an unscientific experiment and asked on my Facebook page, “If a group of people ever made you feel you don’t belong, what were you missing? What was the reason you felt like an “other”? The answers were heart-breaking. People have been made to feel like they don’t fit in because they didn’t have the right clothes, didn’t send their kids to the right schools, didn’t speak the language, had an accent, weren’t the right gender, weren’t the right ethnicity, weren’t aware of cultural norms, weren’t thin enough, were too thin, were stay-at-home moms, were working moms, didn’t have the “right” values, didn’t make enough money, were disabled, were too nerdy, were too smart, weren’t religious enough, were too religious, were too old, didn’t want to party, were divorced, wasn’t a “local,” weren’t athletic enough, didn’t know the insider “vocabulary,” the list goes on. And of course, today maybe we don’t fit in because of the right politics or, increasingly, the right religion. I’m sure we can all relate in some way to at least one of these examples listed above – at least one time that a group made us feel we didn’t belong because we were different and therefore unwanted. The Torah teaches us that we must dig into these memories to make sure we actively make those who may not obviously fit into the “us” not feel like a “them.”

And as for societal othering, I’m not sure how we move forward. It has been the story of our people for generations, which sadly, continues to this day. But it isn’t limited to antisemitism. While I maintain great faith in the arc bending toward justice, and in so many ways, it already has, it does feel like the world today is about “us” vs. “them” in so many areas. The Torah has great wisdom here for tackling one of our poorer human instincts. As above, we need to tap into our personal and collective memories and remember what it was like to be a slave in Egypt. We must step into the shoes of the stranger, see things from their perspective, and do all we can to make sure that they are properly cared for and never made to feel less than because they are different. One member of our community, Marnie Stiglitz, suggested that we should put all world leaders in a room with ECC teachers. Or maybe we should ask them to read this week’s parsha and recall a time when someone made them feel less than because they didn’t fit in. As the Torah teaches, it’s all got to start with memory. Shabbat Shalom.

By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

This week is the annual Refugee Shabbat that HIAS puts on through communities throughout the world. Beth Am is always a proud location, sponsor, listening ear and productive hand in the world of all refugee crises. This year is no different and I hope you will join us as we heard from voices of displacement and refuge after services at around 12:45pm. 

Parashat Yitro is a magical parsha. A parsha named for the non-Jewish father-in-law of our leader, Moshe, one of the great minds and heroes of the Jewish people. Interesting that he is not Jewish and interesting that he is not blood related to a key character of our history. Especially magical that within this parsha we receive the 10 commandments. Some would claim that the 10 commandments are not just for the Jewish people, but rather lifelong lessons that all life should live by. While others would claim that our 613 mitzvot – specific to the Jewish people – come from these 10 main utterances and categories. So how are we to understand that a main credo of our people is given to us under the heading of a non-Jewish, peripheral, leader? We are to understand that we are proud, blessed and honored to be Jewish and that the 10 commandments teach us how to live as good human beings in the world, with care and dedication to all life around us. 

Yitro is a chieftain of his own people, who guides Moshe and his family, who acknowledges strength and power in God, and who mentions in the first sentence of our parasha an awe and gratefulness for God taking Israel out of Egypt. Our rabbis drash that his name, Yitro, meaning to add, explains that a part of our Torah was added by Moshe’s father-in-law. There is no other time in our canon that a book or portion of Torah is added by anyone other than God or Moshe when received at Sinai.

Yitro sees all that Moshe is trying to do alone and comes to him to say 

מָֽה־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה עֹשֶׂה֙ לָעָ֔ם מַדּ֗וּעַ אַתָּ֤ה יוֹשֵׁב֙ לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם נִצָּ֥ב עָלֶ֖יךָ מִן־בֹּ֥קֶר עַד־עָֽרֶב

“What is this that you are doing to the nation? Why are you sitting by yourself and the whole nation is standing on you from morning to night.” Nitzav, the word Yitro uses for standing, can also be used to mean perpendicular. As if to say, the people were not in front of Moshe but were above, in front and a top their leader just to receive his attention and advice. Moshe replies to his father in law that the people come to him to inquire of God, but Yitro rebukes him to say this is not right. He informs Moshe that he will burn out, and the people will lose faith, as the task is too heavy for him as a single leader.

So what does Yitro add to our Torah? For the first time in Torah, we receive advice from a member of another tribe that we must lead together with others. Moshe is told that he should select from among the people, those able to lead, who revere God, who are people of Truth, trust and honesty. They should lead beside Moshe. Immediately after Moshe receives this advice and puts the leadership into motion, God intervenes and tells the people to prepare for receiving the 10 commandments. 

 Yitro brings something to our Torah that we need before we receive the 10 commandments. We need perspective, humility, the strength and power that comes from being open to the wisdom of others, including from outside our own tents.  Rolling up the sides of our tent to invite others inside, like Abraham welcoming guests, or like two partners welcoming God and the community to share in their lives.  Our 10 commandments do not begin with a commandment! They begin with an introduction: “I am the Lord your God.”  With the receiving of Torah our relationship with God becomes a “contracted” one.  Bound by commitments between us, we trust one another to learn and teach, sometimes reciprocally.

We live in a world where we are too often divided into segments of similarities. It is human nature to connect and want to form relationships with those who are like us.  But it is a world in which we ignore culture-related hatred, gender-related denigration, and poverty, to our great peril.  I hope that, given the blessing and advice of Yitro, we can each of us read the 10 commandments and live the 10 commandments with clearer understanding and humility.  

Introduce yourself to someone for whom you do not expect a relationship, challenge each other on thought and process and invite them to speak to you as you listen to where they have come from and where they hope to go. I promise each of you, if we spent a bit more time like Yitro, observing, listening and then speaking that we would each of us be more successful unlike the Moshe before Yitro who was straddled under the burdens of only giving his thoughts and opinions because it was familiar and common.

I bless us that this Shabbat we begin the week trying something new, meeting someone for whom we are hesitant to be in a relationship and challenge ourselves to create a world where differences are beautiful, celebrated and learned from.

Shabbat Shalom

By Rabbi Matt Shapiro, Director of YLE

Two interactions from this week are lingering in my mind and in my heart as we approach Shabbat. 

The first: while leaving a shiva minyan on Tuesday evening, I spoke briefly with someone who had come to support the family. She introduced herself as a non-observant Muslim and shared that she appreciated how I had framed prayer heading into ma’ariv as it’s an opportunity to connect with ourselves, our community, and God. She went on to say that she found it meaningful to consider prayer as something that’s accessible for everyone, whatever their background is; as we continued to speak, we jointly lamented how rare it is today to be able to simultaneously passionately disagree with and care deeply for someone, and shared our hopes for full, sustainable peace soon. 

The second: for the first time, I participated in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count on Wednesday evening . It was something I had been wanting to do for a while, and I’m glad that I sought it out. Since I went by myself, I was paired with someone else to count with. As we went on our designated rounds in the neighborhood around Hamilton High School, gathering data that will help inform our local response to the ongoing homelessness crisis, I found myself in a deep conversation with my new friend. He shared about his current challenges, what’s been bringing him down, and what he’s hoping to achieve soon; I lent an ear, offered some reflections and, of course, made sure to make him laugh. 

From my perspective, these two experiences had a common thread- I endeavored (and, I think, succeeded in) to serve a higher purpose in each scenario, for communal or civic good. Yet, within each experience, there was a moment of personal connection that reverberated as well, a point in which I found meaning through shifting my attention to connect not (only) with the larger mission of the moment, but with the person right in front of me. 

Reb Shlomo Carlebach offers an interesting perspective on the crossing of the sea, the central event in this week’s parsha, Beshalach. He turns his focus to an element that generally doesn’t get much attention: the sea itself. He shares the midrashic understanding that it had been encoded since the beginning of creation that the sea would split, that there was an understanding from the beginning of the world that to serve its purpose, it would have to become something completely other than it always is. He goes on to teach that “God tells each person- ‘there will be a moment in your life when you can do the greatest thing I created you for, but you have to be ready to be something else’…I always have to be what I am, but there are moments when I have to be not what I am also.” In order for us to fulfill our essential purpose in the world, we have to paradoxically balance the importance of being fully who we are each day with an ongoing flexibility to completely shift into what a specific moment demands of us. I think this is what was so powerful to me in these interactions this week, that I brought myself to a context in which I was present as I expected to be, the way I usually am, and found myself pivoting to a different type of being, relational rather than only oriented to the designated task at hand. 

I also find it noteworthy that  I was in proximity with both of these people for some period of time before each of these interactions. I was at the shiva home for an hour or so before having a chat just outside; I was waiting for the count to start for a while and could have been paired with any number of other volunteers for the evening. The seemingly happenstance nature of the interactions brings me a sense of both wonder and destabilization, that two such resonant encounters could just as easily have not happened at all. 

This, in turn, reminds me of the thinking of Martin Buber, who generated the oft-taught and nearly as oft-misunderstood concepts of I-It and I-Thou. These ideas are usually explained as being in a transactional relationship with another person (I-It) as opposed to a deeper relationship with another person, in which the essential divinity of the other is fully grasped (I-Thou). That’s part of what Buber lays out, but it’s not the whole story. Buber contrasts two states of being in the world- I’m in an I-It relationship with the world when I’m focused on the basic functionality of my life, and I’m in an I-Thou relationship with the world when I see its essential divinity. This shift can be brought about by any number of occurrences- a sunset, appreciating art, noticing the aroma of delicious food, and, yes, connecting fully with another person. It’s helpful to recognize this more expansive understanding of I-Thou, because then the invitation to connect with the world in this way is always available to us. There’s an appreciation not only of these relational moments, but of the seemingly, but not at all, random occurrence, the way in which the full context of the moment brought me to a place where I could shift from how I initially was to the way in which I shifted. I came to the shiva to support a grieving family, and also found connection with someone trying to make sense of where we are in the world. I showed up at the homeless count to do something small but substantive in support of our city, and found myself in relationship with someone looking for guidance at this moment in his life. There is, of course, a reason why Buber’s idea is so located within the context of interpersonal relationships, because, when we’re lucky, there can, truly, be wonder in the moments of connection we can find with another person. 

Moving through our lives, through both the mundane and the heightened moments, it can be easy to focus on the standard elements of what’s around us, focusing on things as they are. The parting of the sea teaches us the essential truth not only that we can shift from one state of being to another, but that sometimes, we must. Ultimately, as befits the parsha, we exercise our freedom by showing ourselves that we can transition between these states of being, by responding within the bigger picture context in which we find ourselves to the more intimate, personal demands of the moment. It’s not always as grand as the splitting of the sea, but it’s also a miracle that a simple conversation, an interaction with another person, can be all it takes for this shift to happen.

Shabbat shalom.

TBA Rabbinic Intern Ben Sigal

Very quickly after moving out to Los Angeles, I was introduced to a term that I thought I understood, but had a very different meaning out here. That term, “the Industry,” could not stand alone back home in Chicago or in Minneapolis, but here it refers to Hollywood and all that exists in LA because of it. The movie and tv studios, the record labels, the marketing teams for those companies, and the publicists for the Hollywood stars, to name a few examples. From the outside, it seemed as though the Industry required a lot of bravado- if you didn’t think you were the best thing since sliced bread, you had no shot at making it. But since settling into life out here, I’ve learned something quite different. While one does still need to have a strong ego and sense of self-worth to succeed, the most successful individuals in the industry are the ones who are able to see their weaknesses and work on them.

      Take, for example, Robert Downey Jr. He has an incredibly successful career in Hollywood, but the only reason he was able to achieve his current level of success was because he accepted that his substance abuse addiction was getting in the way of his life and did the work necessary for recovery. He still does the work, regularly attending AA meetings as a part of his recovery journey. His career since starting his recovery journey is much more successful than it was beforehand, because he worked on his weaknesses.
            In this week’s parsha, Bo, we see an example of something similar. Up to this point, Pharoah has already refused to let the Israelites go despite God sending seven plagues down on Egypt. Seven is a number of completion within the Torah and Judaism (think 7 days of the week, 3 avot and 4 imahot, 7 days of Sukkot, etc.), and so it should come as no surprise that at this point, God acts to complete that which already should have been completed.
            But the reason why is just as important as the what. Moses, on behalf of God, tells Pharoah,
 “כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽעִבְרִ֔ים עַד־מָתַ֣י מֵאַ֔נְתָּ לֵעָנֹ֖ת מִפָּנָ֑י שַׁלַּ֥ח עַמִּ֖י וְיַֽעַבְדֻֽנִי׃”
“Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, ’How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go that they may worship Me.” A Hebrew speaker will immediately notice that this translation is not the more common usage of the word, as it understands the word לֵעָנֹ֖ת not as reply or answer, which is the normal translation, but as humble. This translation is the result of Rashi, an 11th century French rabbi, standardizing this translation. In doing so, Rashi tells us that because Pharoah refused to answer to God’s demand to humble himself, God humbled Pharoah forcibly.
God does this by sending down locusts upon the Earth as plague number 8 and as a direct link to the seventh plague, hail. The Torah states, “They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail; and they shall eat away all your trees that grow in the field.” To this verse, Chizkuni, a 13th century French commentator, notes that the point of the locusts was to ruin whatever might be still growing after the hail. Pharoah will no longer be able to claim that he and his land were able to survive the wrath of God’s plagues, because all that is left has been destroyed. Had Pharoah humbled himself in any of the prior moments, he would have been spared this embarrassment. But his insistence that he was more powerful than God ultimately became his destruction.
It can be hard for us to admit that we are imperfect beings. It might feel counterproductive to our success to own up to our failures. But as Pharoah learned long ago, and as I learned more recently, success derives not just from our skills but our ability to accept and learn how to compensate for our weaknesses. This weekend, at Kol Tefillah, we have the opportunity to learn about creating a beautiful prayer community. Some will have more knowledge about this than others, but my hope for us all is that we can take the understanding of wisdom from Pirkei Avot and humble ourselves such that we can learn from everyone, no matter our skill levels or theirs.
Shabbat Shalom,

By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

On Sunday, we will count 100 days from the nightmare of October 7. 100 days since innocent lives were dragged into Gaza and held hostage. We know from those who have been released that the hostages are held in the most horrific and inhumane conditions – without enough sustenance, sunlight, and no medical attention for those who need it. 

Though the plague of darkness comes in next week’s parsha, an apt reminder of life buried alive in Gaza right now, we do see the beginning of our plagues this week. After the showdown of magic between Moshe, Aaron and Pharaoh’s sorcerers, Pharaoh’s heart hardens and he is unable to hear Moshe and Aaron. We rarely connect Pharaoh’s heart hardening, strengthening or his becoming stubborn, to the life of the Egyptian people or the Israelites fight for freedom.

God advises Moshe and Aaron to go to Pharaoh in the morning, and after he comes out of the Nile from bathing, to ask him to let our people go, or a plague will be brought as water turns to blood. As we know, they turned the water to blood and it smelled and there was no water to drink. Here is where things become interesting:

וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־כֵ֛ן חַרְטֻמֵּ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּלָטֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְלֹא־שָׁמַ֣ע אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָֽה׃

“But when the Egyptian magician-priests did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them—as Adonai had said.”

So the Egyptian magicians tried to show Moshe and Aaron that they could do the same – turn water into blood – thereby making more water undrinkable, so that Pharaoh saw their strength. Pharaoh’s heart became stronger and he did not listen to Moshe and Aaron to let the people go. Where did that water come from, you ask, as all the water was supposedly already turned by the plague? Ibn Ezra teaches that Aaron only turned the water above ground into blood, the water he could see, whereas the magicians dug to find other water that they could turn into blood. Why didn’t they use that water to feed their people? Why did they choose to use that water to prove a magic trick and strength against Moshe and Aaron? 

וַיִּ֣פֶן פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֖א אֶל־בֵּית֑וֹ וְלֹא־שָׁ֥ת לִבּ֖וֹ גַּם־לָזֹֽאת׃

Pharaoh turned and went into his home, paying no regard even to this.

Pharaoh sees his own magician’s strength and abilities and does not even care about this, so he goes back home. Our rabbis, including Sforno, seem to see this as disbelief that our God, or Moshe and Aaron, have any strength or powers that his own magicians do not have. However, I agree with Haamek Davar, in that it seems more passive and dismissive of his own people. Whereas, he did not make an attempt to attain water for his country, because he was sure it was only witchcraft and the magic would soon vanish. 

If you have already caught on to the connections here, great and if not I will make them more clear: We are dealing with a situation in Israel and Gaza where thousands of innocent people are in need of humanitarian aid, support, housing, and help. AND there are IDF soldiers protecting their own lives, trying to eliminate the enemy of Hamas, and ultimately protect the people and state of Israel by fighting a powerful fight. Many people have said “we can hold both truths – the desire for safety of Israel and Israel’s people – and a desire to see innocent lives preserved.” It is so much easier said than practiced!

100 days since Hamas took innocent lives through some of the most gruesome acts of violence and hatred our world has ever seen. 

100 days since random people, of all ages, were taken, by force, into a living (hopefully) hell. 100 days since those living in Gaza, who are not Hamas, have been displaced, scared and had their lives uprooted. 

100 days since those living in Gaza, who are not Hamas, have wondered if they would receive humanitarian aid, shelter, guidance, sustenance. 

Pharaoh’s magicians dug for water knowing it was there and used it for their own power instead of helping their people. Moshe and Aaron turned water to blood to try and pressure Pharaoh, with ONE moment of discomfort, to let their people go and then everyone would go their own ways. Our people were slaves needing freedom, and they did whatever they needed to do to push Pharaoh to let them live their lives away from Egypt, in freedom, safety and peace. However, the suffering could have ended had the people been freed, or had Pharaoh’s magicians used their hidden resources to sustain life and livelihood for their people. Power and proving a point was more important than life to Pharaoh. And these are the same plagues we are living today! 

Bring Them Home Now

Comforting Love
by TBA Rabbinic Intern Ben Siegel

When I was a young boy, I’d play outside fairly regularly. My childhood home had a beautiful yard, a basketball hoop, and a sidewalk for biking. Inevitably, I’d fall down off my bike, and every so often, I’d bruise myself in the fall. I was a sensitive child, which meant that a bruise was frequently accompanied with tears. I’d fall and run crying to my parents, who would kiss the boo-boo and make it all better. In doing so, they didn’t do anything special. They didn’t apply a medication that removed the pain or even cast a spell to remove the pain, magical as it felt. They just managed to effectively convey their love. Their love was what ultimately removed my pain.

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, Isaac is similarly going through a painful time in his life. His mother dies and he enters into a deep mourning. According to one midrash, Isaac mourns his mother for three long years. I can only imagine Isaac feeling as though the intense feelings of loss will never cease. But then, he meets Rebekah. Of her, this week’s parsha says, “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” Ramban, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, explains that it is through Isaac’s love of Rebekah, and through her love of him, that Isaac is able to be comforted. Love is what removes his pain.

We live in a very painful period for world Jewry. With all the vitriol in the world, it’s very easy to get swept up in hateful rhetoric, hoping that it will be the answer to our hurt. But Ramban is reminding us that no matter how much we hate, our pain will not be sated. It is only through love, through connection with others, that we can hope to feel some semblance of consolation.

The path ahead is still murky. We do not know when something resembling peace can return to Israel. But what I do know is that the only way we can hope to get there is through leaning into our loving tendencies. Hold the door for a stranger. Put someone else’s shopping cart away for them. Make the world a kinder place. It won’t fix everything, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Seeing or Watching?
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

Testimony: Listening. Watching. Witnessing. Seeing. Right now, we are each of us doing this obsessively. We are listening to stories, watching videos, and witnessing a world in turmoil. However, what are we really seeing? Are we just allowing the algorithms of our social media and news profiles to show us the world? Are we only doom-scrolling through mediums and personalities that we agree with? Do we really see or know multiple perspectives? If we are not aware of the echo chamber of narratives are we really seeing or are we just watching? 

וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶֽת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק׃

“Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing.”

Sarah sees Ishmael, but she does not just notice him, she judges his behavior and makes assumptions of her own:

וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק׃

“She said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’”

Based on what Sarah encounters with Ishmael, she decides that he is a threat to her son, Isaac, and their family. Was that fair? No. Was it based on asking questions, experiencing multiple encounters, hearing different perspectives? No. It was a quick decision based on one moment of seeing Ishmael. Seeing Ishmael, in this moment, forges a future for him, and Hagar, that is complicated and dismissive. It is of course possible that Sarah truly saw something in this young boy that made her nervous for her child or family’s safety, but we do not know just based on her “seeing.” 

I am sure many of us are listening to stories and watching videos that make us feel that we have a full idea of anything going on. However, it is hard to know, without being inside a situation as to what we are not seeing, what we are not hearing, what we are not feeling. Sarah sees Ishmael, but the result is that Abraham is hurt by her judgment of him and his position in their family. Abraham ends up putting his attention on Hagar and Ishmael to protect them and create a prosperous and blessed life for them. And what comes next in Abraham’s parenting journey? The akeidah! Potentially the most epic story of being focused on the wrong goal, or not seeing the whole kaleidoscopic picture. 

The beginning of the parsha begins with seeing people approach Abraham and Sarah’s home and even in the toughest of moments welcoming them in. That moment brings Abraham closer to God, closer to the sanctity of being a leader. That is the type of seeing that we all strive to do. We hope to see people, whether they are strangers or angels, and invite them into our lives. We hope to treat them the same, and based on seeing them, hope to also listen to them, witness their stories and share our own with them. That is relationship. That is creating connection. 

This week, while you are listening to stories, watching videos, and witnessing a world in turmoil, think about what you are really seeing. Are you seeing the whole picture? Are you seeing multiple perspectives of a news story? Are you seeing the person who is speaking and in need? Are you seeing the world around you or are you just watching? 

Returning to Balance
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro

I know this parsha very, very well, except for one chapter. During rabbinical school, Dr. Ziony Zevit brought us through chapters 12-22 of the Abraham narrative as a way of learning and parsing Biblical Hebrew. He was meticulous, to put it likely, in ensuring we understood the nouns, the verbs, the conjugation…it was one of the more rigorous academic experiences of my life. But we skipped one chapter, chapter 14, because the language and the words were particularly complicated and obscure. 

And yet, in looking at Lech Lecha this week, it seems that this part of the narrative is what calls out most clearly, to me and to the fraught, painful moment in which we collectively find ourselves. The chapter is unusual for the stories we know of Abra(ha)m- rather than focusing on his personal journey or his family life, this focuses on his military exploits. In short, his nephew, Lot, is taken captive as part of an attack by a group of Canaanite kings, and Abram takes it upon himself to go into battle and rescue him, which he does successfully. 

On first glance, this seems at odds with how we think of our patriarch. Many of the commentators go out of their way to explain the apparent gap between a figure who becomes the rabbinic avatar for chesed, lovingkindness, and someone who is a military leader. For example, though the Torah specifies that Abram brings 318 people into battle, multiple rabbis note that by using gematria, the process through which Hebrew letters are assigned numbers and meaning is then drawn through various numerical connections, 318 is the gematria for Eliezer, Abram’s primary servant; per this understanding, Abram didn’t have a real military force, just one person supporting him. 

But that’s not the pshat, the simple and straightforward reading of the text. Abram decides that this is a moment in which armed conflict is necessary, and he takes it upon himself to follow through on that decision. It’s more compelling to take the narrative at face value and see what we might learn from it. Rabbeinu Bachya notices something about the choice that Abram makes in reestablishing the geographic boundaries. When it says in verse 14 that “he pursued as far as Dan,” Bachya engages in a bit of wordplay. He says that this is a reference to the attribute of justice, din, playing with the similarity between the tribal name and the Hebrew of the attribute. Why? Because, he teaches, they were pursued  “until the attribute of Justice caught up with these kings,” that at that point, there was no need for Avram to pursue any further. Abram does what he needs to do, no more and no less, a meaningful construct to reflect on when considering what our tradition teaches regarding armed conflict. 

More broadly, there’s the concept of pidyon shvuyim, redeeming of captives, running through this narrative, something that’s all too relevant and resonant in our minds and our hearts this Shabbat. As with so many topics in our tradition,there are a variety of sources and opinions about this concept, ranging from placing essential importance on ensuring that every single captive is returned to a sense of reluctance towards this obligation. The reluctance stems from the concern that this may encourage additional hostages being taken or too high of a price being extracted from the community, leading to an exploration of what, if any, parameters should be placed on this mitzvah. And, at the same time, there’s also an ultimate importance placed on this mitzvah; there’s no doubt some of the most powerful collective endeavors of Jewish peoplehood in modern times have been driven by this commandment. There are multiple values in play, and it’s exceedingly difficult to balance all of them just academically, let alone in a moment when lives are at stake, and the stories are painful, and the conflict rages. 

There’s a noteworthy moment at the end of the narrative when Abram receives an offer from one of his allies in the battle. In verse 21, the king of Sodom says to Abram “give me the persons and take the possessions for yourself,” that Abram can keep the property he has amassed in his victory, as long as the people are returned. Abram refuses, saying ‘I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours’ (v. 23). Abram didn’t enter this battle for personal gain, so what does he want? Balance. All he’s seeking is to reestablish what came before- he won’t settle for less, and he also doesn’t need more. He won’t forfeit his nephew’s life, and he doesn’t need to come out ahead in the process. 

It’s essential to do everything we can to reestablish balance where it’s needed, in the world at large and within ourselves. We can also work to appreciate balance when it is present, internally and relationally, in our lives, as that can anchor us and guide us in restoring that which is off kilter and teetering. So, yes, this is a difficult chapter in the Torah, but not only because of its language. It also speaks to something that’s a real spiritual struggle for all of us, which actually makes it all the more fitting for us to read this overlooked narrative closely, certainly this week.

May it be a peaceful, rejuvenating, and freeing Shabbat for all of us. 

Empty Chairs and Open Doors
By Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor

There is a feeling that cannot be described by the word “hope” alone. It is hope with the added ingredients of patience, and some impatience, and yearning and the grief that accompanies the yearning and feeling of not-yet that goes along with all of the above. This restless waiting for something we simply know in our hearts must be coming – perhaps it is best captured by the words Maimonides used in the preamble to his principles of faith: Ani ma’amin be’emunah sh’leimah – I believe with complete trust in the Divine.

This is the kind of hope represented by a door left ajar, not simply an invitation but an indication of confidence and trust. A door that cannot be closed because someone is coming, or perhaps coming back. We witness a moment like this in Parshat Noah, when the ark is nearly full and the rains threaten the fullness of the flood. 

וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ אֶל־נֹ֖חַ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה שְׁנַ֤יִם שְׁנַ֙יִם֙ מִכׇּל־הַבָּשָׂ֔ר אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ ר֥וּחַ חַיִּֽים׃ 

They came to Noah into the ark, two each of all flesh in which there was breath of life. 

וְהַבָּאִ֗ים זָכָ֨ר וּנְקֵבָ֤ה מִכׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֔אוּ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ אֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּסְגֹּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲדֽוֹ׃ 

Thus they that entered comprised male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him. And יהוה shut him in. (Gen. 7:15-16)

How could Noah have known that he had properly collected every pair of creatures on the earth? On and on the animals paraded into the ark; the rescue must have seemed endless, infinite. I imagine Noah waiting just inside the door of the ark as more and more creatures slid into the vessel. We learned back in verse 10 and thereafter that the flood waters had already burst open and the sea wilded. It must have been a wickedly scary sight out the door of the ark and yet. And yet. Noah could not bring himself to close the door. וַיִּסְגֹּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה בַּֽעֲדֽוֹ – God shut the door on Noah’s behalf. The Chizkuni, a 13th c. biblical commentary, wrote that Noah was terrified that he might miss even one species should he close the door prematurely. So he waited, and waited, and a holy wind blew the door shut as if to say, You’ve done all you could.

This year we read Parshat Noah as a brutal war rages in Israel, one that began with attacks of terror that led to hundreds captured and more than a thousand deaths. The captives include some active duty military but also many civilians, from young children to the elderly. 203 individuals remain in captivity as we move into Shabbat and we are praying with doors wide open. Expectantly. Praying with the kind of fervent emunah shleimah that mixes hope with certitude. At the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a Shabbat table stretches wide across their plaza, 203 empty chairs set and waiting for the whole and safe return of each person being held.

In our own Cafe TBA space, I have been working on an adaptation of The Empty Table – השולחן העזוב: a ritual that is used in the military to acknowledge those who are missing in action and otherwise captive and not yet released. Here is our chance, your chance, to turn art into a ritual salve. We will flip the wine glasses upside down in the true absence of a l’Chayim. We’ll add a pinch of salt to the plate, knowing that wherever they are, their food is salted by the same tears that fall on your plate. And we’ll sing Eliyahu Hanavi, blending the images of an empty chair and an open door, both associated with the prophet Elijah and the holy promise of return and redemption.

You are invited to join us as we emplace the table with great honor and solemnity next Tuesday, Oct. 24 at Temple Beth Am following evening minyan (5:45 pm minyan; program at approx. 6:15 M). Join us as we set the table and pray with full hearts and brimming eyes for the return of each life, unharmed. 

Read more about the ritual here.

The Power of Choice
TBA Rabbinic Intern Ben Sigal

Like many of you, my heart has been aching this week. Every story I hear from Israel of the horrors that were unleashed there breaks my heart into even more pieces in a way I didn’t know possible. The idea of a pogrom happening in the homeland of our people is unthinkable, and yet today it is reality. One of the many things that’s so incomprehensible is that humans can treat other humans in such vicious ways. Coincidentally enough, our parsha this week, Bereshit, has some insight into how this came to be.

This week we read the story of Cain and Abel, a story about the potential humanity has for destruction. But even before that, we read of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rabbeinu Bahya, a 14th Spanish rabbi, explains that when Eve eventually eats from this tree, it is not knowledge that she gains but willpower and freedom of choice. Prior to eating from the tree, humankind was set up to do only as they were programmed. It’s not that we as a species were unable to sin, Rabbeinu Bahya explains, but that we were unable to act illogically. We could only act in such ways as were logical for us, and so we were unable to sin. But once humans ate from the tree, we gained the ability to act in ways that may be illogical. We gained the will to do good and bad instead of just automatically doing the right thing without thinking about it.

What this means, unfortunately, is that humans are capable of unleashing destruction upon one another. It means, sadly, that the horrible scenes coming out of Israel can happen because humanity is capable of destroying one another. But it also means that when humanity acts for good, it does so despite the ability to be able to engage in such horrors.

Coming out of chag I saw so many terrible scenes, but there was one Instagram reel that helped to piece my shattered heart together. It showed lines snaking through malls of Israelis waiting to give blood. By now, whole arenas are filled with Israelis giving blood to help support the medical infrastructure. The video clip also showed Israeli children, for whom school is currently closed, taking their free time to write letters and make pictures to send to soldiers on the front. This video portrayed the beauty of Israeli society as Israelis from all backgrounds banded together to collect food, clothing, toys, and more for those who lived in towns evacuated by the IDF.

Since watching that Instagram reel, I’ve heard more and more related stories. Stories of people being turned away from giving blood because the blood drives were at max capacity. Stories of El Al flights full of soldiers returning from abroad to report for reserve duty. Soldiers leaving their lives in peaceful countries to defend those in need. Stories of regular citizens collecting resources and handing out food to soldiers going to war.

This is the flip side of the free will that we were given. Free will means that when we choose to do good, it’s that much more powerful than if we did that good without a choice. Yes, we are capable of pure destruction, but when we use our free will for good, that good feels so much better.

Later in the parsha, we do eventually read the story of Cain and Abel. After killing Abel, Cain cries out to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We know the answer. But we’re also seeing the answer today in real time. Israelis are absolutely each other’s keeper. And what makes it possible to truly be each other’s keeper is the free will we were granted.

My blessing for us all (and it’s important to remember in the middle of this destruction that there are still blessings to be found in this world) is that we use the power of our free will for good. May we all find the power to rise to goodness in opposition to evil and to remain steadfast in being each other’s keeper.

Vulnerable Structure, Sturdy System
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Sukkot 2023 5784

In the practice of law, and religion (ie, religious law), it makes sense to generally have an accepted way of doing something. While some variation in observance is both natural/inevitable, and even positive in reinforcing our lack of certainty regarding THE one way God and the tradition expects us to behave, I think we can all agree that if everyone set up and lit their hanukiot exactly as they wanted to, without nodding to inherited tradition, we’d lose some of the wonderful sameness that binds Jews together across time and space.

Recently, a TBA member asked about a very precise aspect of waving the lulav/etrog, about which there are, indeed, different opinions and customs. We waive the four species on their own, and then also during parts of reciting Hallel.  Most seem to agree that they should be waived in 6 directions (forward, right, back, left, up and down–though the order seems to be fluid among different Jewish communities and customs).  And most seem to agree that we should refrain from waiving while we are uttering God’s name in prayer, lest we are seen to be waiving them at God, or suggesting an apotropaic power to the ritual.  But there are at least two dominant customs about when, specifically, to waive them when reciting this phrase in Hallel: אנה ה׳ הושיעה נא/ana adonai hoshia na (Please, God, save us!).  Since one of those words is God’s name, some observe the custom of waiving in two directions on each of three other words in the phrase. And some observe the custom of waiving in one direction on each of the the six non-God syllables in the phrase.  Picayune, I know. I share it as an example of an embedded but minor variance in Jewish practice. Jews following the two different customs can stand, and waive, next to another in services and still feel they are both observing the same mitzvah, and participating in the same ritual. But if one person observed the custom by waiving them in 6 directions on that line, and another person’s custom was, say,  to throw them up in the air and then catch them with one hand (admittedly, a silly example), the two adjacent Jews would feel very ritually disconnected to one another.

Therefore, it makes sense that how the law about basic elements of building a sukkah evolved and concretized resulted in near unanimity about “major” components of that structure. In particular, all religious authorities that I am aware of agree that for it to be a kosher sukkah, it must satisfy the category of דירת עראי/dirat arai, or “temporary dwelling.”  A sukkah is intentionally flimsy. It should not withstand hurricane-strength winds. It is supposed to denote vulnerability, a nod to our ancestors’ sojourn through the desert. 

However, a quick look at the Talmudic discussion on the topic reveals that, 2000 years ago, as Jewish law was in its birthing mode, there was robust disagreement on this point of practice.  In masekhet/tractate Sukkah (page 7b) we have a list of at least 7 rabbis, including Rabban Gamliel (with the “Rabban”title denoting his status as that generation’s lead rabbinic authority), who believe the exact opposite regarding the structure of the Sukkah! To them, it must be דירת קבע/dirat keva–a permanent structure. Or, at least, a temporary structure that is as sturdy and strong as a permanent building.  

Clearly, that opinion “lost” the battle of commonly accepted practice.  But it is preserved, lovingly and carefully, in our sacred texts–one of literally thousands of examples of how rabbinic culture found a way both to create basic homogeneity of ritual observance and deep respect for and embrace of differing opinions.  

May we all, generally, observe Sukkot similarly this year. Sitting in relatively flimsy booths, and reciting the same words for the appropriate blessing. Waiving our lulav rather than throwing it. Using an etrog, and not a lemon. Etc… And may we also be curious about, and seek out, the opinions of those with whom we disagree, eager to understand their rationales, and, perhaps, even eager to ensure that their ideas about all sorts of things – whether or not they are canonized in practice – are respected. And preserved. There to be learned about, for generations to come.

Torah Commentary Archive

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