5778 Torah Commentary

Reckoning With God
By: Salvador Litvak

A year ago, my son Avi and I began a weekly Torah study of his bar mitzvah parsha. It has been a wonderful journey, one I recommend to all parents. Is 52 hours a lot of time to spend on verses that can be read aloud in ten minutes? No, because the Torah is fractal. Go deep in any one spot, and find whole new worlds of meaning.

The first lines we encountered give the parsha its name: “When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.” According to the Talmud (Men. 98b), this means the wicks of the oil lamps were arranged so that the outer six were oriented toward the center lamp, which sat not on a “branch” but rather on the menorah itself.

The center light represents the Holy One, the outer lights represent the people. One might think that the wicks should be arranged outward, thus spreading the light as much as possible and creating more honor for the Lord. The Talmud answers that we actually create the most light for others, when we orient ourselves toward God.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe took another approach, and based his entire, world-changing movement on it. Beha’alotecha literally means “when you cause to ascend.” The Talmud specifies, “kindle the lamp until the flame rises by itself” (Shab. 21a). The Rebbe created an army of emissaries around the idea that every Jewish soul is a candle waiting to be lit. When we share Torah, we kindle those flames until they burn with their own precious light.

Avi and I enjoyed these approaches, but we were struck by the fact that it says, “the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.” If the “face” means the center, then what is the center light doing? How does it face the center?

Avi suggested the center light faces itself. If the center light represents God, this means God faces Godself. When we speak of facing ourselves, we usually mean a personal reckoning of our deeds. God doesn’t have to account to anyone, yet God created an opportunity to do exactly that by creating humans with conscience and free will.

Like characters in a dream, our thoughts are God’s thoughts, and our deeds are God’s deeds. Each of us is entrusted to represent our Maker in a series of life choices that will illuminate a unique aspect of God’s character. When God makes that personal reckoning of Godself, and reaches our little corner of the universe, it is our actions that determine whether God’s own mission has been successful.

May we merit to make the Holy One smile at that moment!

Prepared by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder

Reflections on Yom Hashoah
The Claims Conference published a startling survey this week that many Americans lack basic knowledge about the Holocaust. Thirty-one percent of respondents and 41% of millenials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed and 52% do not know that Hitler was democratically elected. I worry about the long-term implications of ignorance, and that the rallying cry of “Never Forget” will be lost in this generation. I fear not only that we are forgetting the lessons of the Holocaust, as nationalism and anti-semitism are on the rise around the world, but also that we will forget the survivors and victims themselves.

Each year we hold a Yom HaShoah ceremony at American Jewish University, which includes a display of black and white photographs of Holocaust victims. I have to remind myself that the people in the photos were real, flesh and blood individuals who lived in color. They spoke many languages and participated in Jewish and cultural life. They had hopes and dreams, professions, talents, and personalities. They are not only victims. They did not live in black and white, and they were not always frozen in time.

As we recommit this year to never forgetting the 6 million, let us also commit to never forgetting the real people behind this figure. Who were the men, women, and children behind the millions? What made them smile? Whom did they love? What gave them hope? Let us listen to the survivors’ testimony in person and in museums, read their books, and teach our young people to relate to them.

The animated film Coco , whose backdrop is the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, offers us a message about memory that speaks to us deeply as Jews. In the film, when people die they simply move to the Land of the Dead, a parallel world to the Land of the Living. Each year on the Day of the Dead when families display photos of their deceased loved ones, celebrate their lives, and tell stories about them, the spirits visit from the Land of the Dead. As long as their photo is displayed they can visit. And when one of the deceased in the Land of the Dead starts to physically disappear, one of the characters explains that “he’s been forgotten. When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.” The dead are not truly dead as long as they are remembered.

We are in the midst of counting the Omer, the first 32 days of which are considered a period of mourning. According to the Talmud, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died tragically of a plague during the period between Pesach and Shavuot (they stopped dying on day 33). The text says: “The world was desolate of Torah until Rabbi Akiva came to our Rabbis in the South and taught his Torah to them… Although Rabbi Akiva’s earlier students did not survive, his later disciples were able to transmit the Torah to future generations” (Yevamot 62b). Rabbi Akiva’s lost students lived on through later disciples who continued teaching their Torah. They were remembered and their Torah was preserved until today.

When it comes to victims of the Holocaust, there are many who no longer, or never had someone to remember them, or say Kaddish for them. Let us commit to learning the stories, honoring the memories, and learning the Torah of every person we are able to. When we say, “May their memory be for a blessing,” let us allow the victims’ memories to enrich our lives and really be a blessing, a source for goodness in the world. Let us remember and teach about them not only as figures in distant black and white photographs, but as real people like each of us. And while we teach, let the cry of “Never Forget” guide us as we navigate life’s storms.

Our Daily Offerings
By: Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Marder

In her stunning memoir If All the Seas Were Ink, Ilana Kurshan writes about her seven-year journey studying one page of Talmud a day. Kurshan weaves together all that is going on in her life with the daily Talmudic discussion and insight. During those seven years, she gets divorced, remarries, and gives birth to her four children. Through heartache, joy, and tremendous change, her study of Talmud remains consistent. Kurshan demonstrates what it means to “make your Torah fixed,” as Shammai advises us to do in Pirke Avot 1:15. Through ups and downs, struggles, and triumphs, the text serves as an anchor that helps her find meaning in every moment.


Now caring for young children, Kurshan, once an avid shul-goer, laments that she can’t find time or space to pray. While emptying the dishwasher of yesterday’s dishes one early morning, she is listening to her daf yomi (daily Talmud page) podcast, which happens to be discussing t’rumat hadeshen, the first ritual activity performed in the Temple in Jerusalem every morning, which involved the priests clearing away the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices from the altar. The mitzvah of t’rumat hadeshen is derived from parashat Tzav, in which the priests receive instruction on how to perform daily sacrifices in the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable worship space in the desert. The verse reads:

“And [the priest] shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place” (Leviticus 6:3-4).

Kurshan is struck by the similarity between this ancient ritual and the one she is performing for her family. She writes: “I thought about how t’rumat hadeshen is not unlike emptying the dishwasher, a ritual that links the day that has passed to the day that is dawning. While trying not to let the glasses clink against one another, I peered out our kitchen window to watch the sun begin to paint the sky above our view of the Old City where the Temple once stood. I froze the breast milk I had pumped the previous day and cleaned out the bottles, and then I set up Matan’s place setting with his map-of-the-world placemat and his monkey sippy cup. These are activities I perform every morning; they are love’s austere and lonely offices, and they are, in a sense, my version of the Korban Tamid, the daily sacrifice offered every morning in the Temple.”

In a post-Temple society, the Rabbis ordained regular prayer, Shabbat, Torah study, and giving of tzedakah as our touchstone spiritual practices in place of Temple ritual. These regular mitzvot represent ways to keep “a perpetual fire… burning on the altar” (6:6). But Kurshan teaches us another spiritual practice: showing love to the people around us by performing acts of service every day. When the priests clear away the ashes to make way for new sacrifices, they are telling the Israelites that their offerings are welcomed, God is receiving and appreciating their gifts, and their presence and participation here matter. The priests are also communicating their love for God in this seemingly mundane task. God does not need the ashes cleared away. Cleaning God’s plate for a new day, clearing away the day’s residue to begin again and receive new offerings, shows God honor and respect.

Chores like doing laundry or washing dishes, and listening, expressing gratitude, and sharing what we love about someone each day, are our daily offerings. The hard work of caretaking and sustaining relationships invites holy connection into our lives. The regularity and our loving intention behind acts of service elevate them. What do you do each day that might feel ordinary but contains a spark of holiness? How do you nourish and support those around you? How do you give, listen, and care regularly? How do others care for you? I invite you to see the ways you give and receive love as moments of profound spiritual connection.

Prepared by Pressman Academy student, Ezra Rosenthal

In Vayikra, the Torah goes into explicit detail about sacrifice, but what I found most interesting was learning about who was obligated to bring offerings and why. I was especially interested in the rules that guide community leaders. “If it is the appointed priest who has incurred guilt so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of a herd without blemish as a purification offering to the Lord” (Vayikra, Chapter 4 verse 3). This passage seems to say that our leader must bring bigger sacrifices than regular citizens and that if a leader sins, he or she will bring sin upon the whole community through his or her actions.

This made me think about the responsibility of leadership. Everyone, even our leaders make mistakes and I am glad that Judaism sees mistakes as part of life and allows people to be forgiven and do better next time. When a community selects a leader or when a person steps up into a position of leadership, he or she has agreed to be honorable and responsible. If that promise is broken, the leader has let the people down. The part of the pasuk that says that blame for the leader’s actions will fall upon the people stuck out to me. I realized that it might mean that people follow what their leaders do, so if the leader is sinning, the people will begin to follow his or her example. I think the leader is obligated to bring a big, public sacrifice as a sign to the people that the leader’s actions were wrong and should not be replicated.

I am glad that Judaism offers a path to forgiveness, but I am also glad to live in modern times when I don’t need to offer a sacrifice in order to show that I am taking responsibility for my actions. Killing an animal to atone for a sin doesn’t make sense to me—it is like you are committing a new sin to make up for what you have already done wrong. Learning what some Rabbis teach about sacrifice, I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes in an article in The Jewish Week that he is glad sacrifices are no longer required. He says that we “must be a light unto the nations, not a source of darkness by returning to a practice once deemed honorable but now perceived by the global masses as barbaric.” Abraham Joshua Heschel said prayer is a higher form of sacrifice because prayer is meant to help us give up our selfish feelings and replace them with love for others. Even right after the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught that we can earn God’s forgiveness and approval by doing acts of hesed for our fellow human beings, rather than by giving gifts and sacrifices to God.

The Torah goes into explicit detail about all of the rules governing sacrifice, but I wonder what this world would be like if we had rules as specific as those about sacrifice to guide the way we treat one another?

By: Myra Meskin, Rabbinical Student at Ziegler

In 1983, the Conservative movement began ordaining women rabbis. Throughout the next 25 years, the issue of homosexuality was hotly debated within the movement, but it wasn’t until late 2006 that the CJLS voted to begin accepting gay and lesbian rabbinical and cantorial students. In 2012 the movement formally approved same-sex marriage ceremonies, and now in 2018 a range of contested issues, including politics, Israel and intermarriage, all demand attention from the religious body politic. I don’t claim to know the way forward on these issues, but I know that our proven path of rigorous commitment to tradition, with an attitude of spiritual seeking and innovation is one venerated by this week’s parsha.

After renewing the covenant with God, symbolized by the second set of stone tablets, the Israelites finally begin the task of building the Tabernacle – a process described at length in this week’s double parsha Vayakel-Pikudei. Moses instructs the Israelites to contribute gifts for the building of the Tabernacle, and the people respond with extreme generosity. Very quickly however, this giving spirit turns from generosity to excess: “their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done,” (Exodus 36:7).

An interesting take on what this overabundance is really about comes from the Kedushat Levi, the principal work of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the primary disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich and one of the original Hasidic masters of the 18th century. He points out that Bezalel, the chief architect of the Tabernacle, was endowed with a special “ רוח אלוקים ” – a Divine spirit (Exodus 35:31), and the overabundance that

Bezalel has is not actually in physical gifts, but in Divine spirit:

This is what is meant by the word והותר , “there was an overabundance,” i.e. there

was enough holy spirit that had been provided to enable Bezalel and his assistants to build the Tabernacle, but instead of exhausting it at the time, Bezalel, in his modesty, was content to leave a surfeit of it to be used by Torah scholars, who in a way are also Torah “architects,” to delight their audiences with their insights in their respective generations.1

The Kedushat Levi makes two remarkable claims here: first, that the Divine spirit which inspired the famous artistry of Bezalel, is the same Divine spirit which we are granted for the creative interpretation of Torah; and second, that this gift of creative interpretation stems from the modesty of Bezalel.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg, though not a Conservative Jew, describes beautifully the attitude of progressive revelation that inspires our movement to take Bezalel’s legacy seriously. Rabbi Greenberg explains that the ambiguity of the Torah text, which allows for the generations of reinterpretations which Bezalel envisions, proves its holiness: “An eternal work needs to be a beacon for all moments of human history. It needs to press toward deeper values while not prematurely attempting to force paradise on us. It says what it can, and then it points, sometimes overtly and sometimes obliquely, toward Eden.”2

Bezalel knew that to reveal all of the beauty of God’s Torah in one generation would result in waste and loss – a Torah too thunderous for one generation to grasp. Rather, we need to ask what greater justice and inclusion can be accomplished in our time, and then we must embody that same modesty, to leave more of the beauty of Torah to be revealed in its time. Though we may not yet know the right course for this generation, we know that ours is a path traveled by many righteous generations before us, and we use their legacy to propel us to take the next cautious step forward.

Shabbat shalom.

1Translation from www.sefaria.org

2 Rabbi Steven Greenberg, “Wrestling with God and Men, Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” p. 210.

by Natan Freller

Reading this week’s parashaKi Tisa, reminded me about one of my favorite psukim (verses) from the entire Torah: “Observe them (the mitzvot) faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom (חָכְמַתְכֶם – chochmatchem) and discernment (וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶם – uvinatchem) to other peoples, who upon hearing of all these laws will say: Surely, that great nation is a wise (חָכָם – chacham) and discerning (וְנָבוֹן – venavon) people.” (Devarim 4:6). I understand this pasuk as the Mission of the Jewish people since wisdom and discernment are characteristics that others can only identify when paying attention to one’s behavior. Those are not characteristics that cannot be identified just by our physicality, one needs to pay attention to how they are expressed in one’s behavior.

This week’s parasha tells us about the moment when Betzalel, the architect of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was appointed for the task: “See, I have singled out by name Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehuda. I have filled him with the Spirit of God — with wisdom (חכמה – chochma), understanding (תבונה – tevuna) and knowledge (דעת – daat) concerning every kind of craft.” (Shemot 31:2-3). Betzalel is described as someone who owns those characteristics mentioned previously, that I consider our Mission as the Jewish People. A People capable of combining theory and practicality, values and rituals.

Rashi (1040-1105), the most famous Torah commentator, shares his understanding of these characteristics in a very powerful way that became meaningful to me. He explains Wisdom (חכמה – chochma) as: “Is what a person hears from others and learns (makes his own)”. A wise person is the one capable to learn and internalize into one’s own behavior what one can learn from others. As Ben Zoma said in Pirkei Avot 4:1 (known as Ethics of the Fathers): “Who is the wise (חכם) one? The one who learns from everyone.” This idea is very humbling to me. We live in an era where dialog and the capacity to listen to each other are so important, and our tradition reminds us of our Mission. Learning from each other is what can make us wise when making it part of our own being, turning knowledge into actions.

Another characteristic that describes Betzalel is understanding (תבונה – tevuna). Rashi’s explanation for the second one resonates with me even more: תבונה – understanding – is to understand a matter by one’s own heart, deducing it from the things one has already learned. Modern thought would describe Rashi’s explanations as ‘learning how to learn’. Our world is changing faster than ever, and one of the most important skills to develop is the ability to understand something new based on one’s previous knowledge. I would add that more important than that is our Mission, transforming what we have learned into action. Changing behavior is a very complicated issue that takes a lot of work; still, our tradition challenges us to face it as a daily routine. When there is a new moral development in our society, a new understanding of right and wrong, it is our duty to pursue the actions that will change our reality.

May this Shabbat inspire us to be like Betzalel. May we find our ways of growing in wisdom and understanding. May we learn from others and from our own experiences and may we succeed in our Mission of transforming our values into our own behavior.

Shabbat Shalom.

By: Rachel Marder, Temple Beth Am Rabbinic Intern

Dwelling with God

After finishing the work of creating the world, like any artist, the Holy One stood back and admired this perfect project. “God saw all that God had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). And then life happened. Something spilled on the art project. Humanity displays unimaginable cruelty and disregard for human dignity, and God notices that unlike God’s good and perfect plans “every plan devised in a person’s mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). God’s hopes and dreams are dashed, and God decides to destroy the world. Scholars have drawn many literary and thematic parallels between the creation of the world and the creation of the mishkan, the transportable dwelling place for God in the desert. God instructs the Israelites: “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The verb השע , do/make, is repeated in the creation narrative, and stated about 200 times in the building of the mishkan. First God made humanity a world in which to dwell, and now the Israelites are tasked with building a place for God to dwell. Just as God blessed the seventh day after ceasing from the work of creation, at the end of the building of the mishkan, Moses blessed the people (Exodus 40:43), according to midrash saying, “May it be the will of God that the Shechina rest upon the work of your hands.”

But just as the perfection of the world does not last for long, the perfection of the mishkan, which was built according to all of God’s ideal specifications, also bumps up against reality. The mishkan is likened to a miniature, perfect world, and is meant to be a place for God to dwell with the Israelites, but can God really “dwell” in one place? Can we live intimately and physically with God? Is it not as Isaiah notes, “The heaven is My throne And the earth is My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me, what place could serve as My abode?” (Isaiah 66:1)

This time rather than God’s expectations being unmet, we are the ones who are left disappointed by the mishkan’s limitations. Rabbi Shai Held writes in his Torah commentary, The Heart of Torah, that the mishkan is “an oasis of Eden in non-Edenic world.” The contrast between the mishkan, God’s carefully laid plans for dwelling among the Israelites, and what we often experience in the world, is striking. “Instead of a world in which God’s presence is made manifest and almost tangible, we live in a world in which God all too often seems utterly absent,” writes Rabbi Held.

Rather than rejecting the mishkan or giving up on repairing the world out of frustration and disillusionment searching for God, Rabbi Held calls on us to let the mishkan “remind us that the world is intended to be a very large tabernacle – that is, a place in which God’s word is obeyed, God’s presence felt, and God’s dreams for the world fulfilled.” That is our task.

We Are God’s Echo. And God Is Ours
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Hallmark has made a fortune on the classic, emotional and pathos-heavy “Footsteps” poem. It appears on numerous cards in stores around the country. When a person, after death, sees his life represented as pairs of footprints in the sand, he notices that when times were rough the two pairs became one. If the second pair had been God’s accompanying footprints, well then “where were you, God, when I needed you most?” God’s answer is that during those moments there was only one pair of footprints. “For in those moments, I was carrying you.”

Sappy and sweet. And also, possibly, borrowed from (or at least deeply reminiscent of) a Hasidic commentary on Parshat Mishpatim! Many of us are familiar with the iconic phrase נעשה ונשמע, or na’aseh v’nishmah. These words, which can be translated as “we will do, and we will understand,” are often used to praise our ancestors’ willingness to leap. Into Torah. Into a relationship with God. Into observance. Into rules and structures…all before understanding their meaning. First they said “yes” to God’s Torah. And they hoped, and had faith, that later on they would come to appreciate and embrace the full meaning of the lives to which they committed.

On a simple pshat level, those words thus have great force as motivators in own relationship with leaps of faith and commitments. And yet it is this Hasidic commentary, authored by Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Ger (who was 4th rebbe of the Ger Dynasty, and who after emigrating from Poland to Palestine in 1940 died in Jerusalem during Jordan’s siege of the Old City on Shavuot in 1948) that speaks to me most poignantly this week. He invites us to read the second verb, nishma, not as “understand,” but as the simpler “hear.” And weaving together several midrashic sources he presents the two-word mantra as an elaborate description of the tethers that connect heaven and heart, that bind Jew to God. Na’aseh. We will do. We will study. We will pray. We will live Torah. V’nishma. And we will hear. What will we hear? We will hear the voice of God, echoing our own activities. When we study Torah, God studies concomitantly in God’s realm. When we visit the sick, God does as well. When we sing, there is a heavenly voice that is emitted at the same time.

We can understand his teaching both metaphysically, with a burst of magical thinking. And also representing a certain theology that can speak to the meaning of our deeds. From the former perspective, we lean in to the notion that there is a God, who is present and real in ways we cannot fully comprehend. And who mirrors our deeds, and is a direct echo of our spiritual life. That notion can be a comfort, in a Footsteps-poem kind of way. When we cry, there are divine tears shed along with us. And when we laugh in exultation, we are not alone.

Beyond the metaphysics, there is an assertion here that the realest way that God exists in the world, and is invoked, is through our deeds. Meaning, it is not necessarily positing a true divine echo, apart from us. But rather that the only way that God’s voice and realness is manifest is in our actions.

Na’aseh. Let us do. Acts of hesed. And acts of living out Torah. And deeds of meaning. V’nishma. For that may be the purest way for us, and others, to hear the voice of God.

Shabbat Shalom

Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder

Acquainted with the Light

“I have been one acquainted with the night,” writes Robert Frost. “I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. I have outwalked the furthest city light. I have looked down the saddest city lane. I have passed by the watchman on his beat/And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet/When far away an interrupted cry/Came over houses from another street, But not to call me back or say good-bye; And further still at an unearthly height, One luminary clock against the sky/Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. I have been one acquainted with the night.”

Frost captures here the loneliness that can envelop a person in the throes of depression. The darkness is all-consuming, isolating, exhausting, and terrifying. We are particularly vulnerable to seasonal depression during these winter months, when night falls fast. The darkness outside can trigger a darkness inside of us, and intensify the cruel and lying voice in our head that puts us down and tells us we are not enough.

Adam harishon, the first person, knew this feeling well. The Talmud teaches that when he for the first time observed the days getting shorter he cried out. “Oy! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is becoming dark and returning to its state of chaos and disorder? This is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven!” Adam fell into despair, blaming himself for the darkness the fell around him, wondering what he had done to cause the chaos. Adam punished himself by fasting for eight days. He questioned whether he could survive this life. Would light ever return?

But as time passed, he noticed the days getting longer. Little by little, the light was returning. He declared, “This is the way of the world,” minhago shel olam, and he observed a festival for eight days to celebrate (Avodah Zarah 8a). This origin story of Hanukkah is unlike the others; there is no national glory or supernatural miracle of oil lasting longer than expected. But it is a story of the miracles within us. Adam learns that he can overcome darkness. He learns to live in a dark and scary place, knowing he is not to blame for it and that the darkness will pass. Neither winter nor his own sadness will last forever. “This is the way of the world,” the Sages teach. Every life includes periods of both darkness and light. Adam is the first person to be acquainted with the night, and he survives. Perhaps you, like me, know someone who suffered from mental illness and sadly succumbed to the overwhelming darkness in their life. Perhaps you’ve wondered, as I have, if there was more you could have done.

It’s true that we cannot always save the lives of the ones we love, no matter how hard we try. But the message of Hanukkah is one of hope and empowerment: sooner or later, the light always comes back. By lighting one additional candle each night of Hanukkah, we demonstrate that a little bit of light can dispel the darkness around us. One smile, one phone call, one visit go a long way to alleviating one another’s isolation. Know the power of your presence to bring light into someone else’s life. We sing on this holiday: “Banu choshech l’garesh — We have come to expel darkness; in our hands is light and fire. Everyone’s a small light, and all of us together are a strong light.”

As we light our candles this Hanukkah, let us strengthen our own resilience – our power to survive the dark times — and remember our miraculous ability to diminish the darkness around us. For there is a spark of God in each of us, and together we make a strong and beautifully radiant light.

For information on accessing mental health resources including counseling services, contact Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles at (877) 275–4537.

In Memory of Rabbi Neil Gillman זצ״ל

Rabbi Neil Gillman died this week in NY. He was a pillar of the Conservative Movement and a teacher to generations of rabbis, like me, who had the privilege of learning with him at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With his permission, I’m sharing excerpts from a eulogy written by Rabbi Daniel Nevins that capture a small portion of the legacy Rabbi Gillman leaves behind:

Dr. Gillman was a giant presence at JTS for well over a half century, beginning with his arrival from Montreal in the mid-1950s. His ordination was from JTS and his doctorate from Columbia. Rabbi Gillman served as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School during a period of transition when women’s ordination was being debated. He was an early advocate for egalitarianism, and continued to teach and model a more inclusive vision of Jewish thought and practice throughout his life. He was also a historian of JTS and Conservative Judaism, publishing a popular volume, and working with a committee to articulate the beliefs of our centrist movement in the volume Emet V’Emunah.

…Sitting in his office surrounded by towers of books, chomping on his pipe, he initiated [rabbinical students] into the ancient conversation of Jewish belief. In his book Sacred Fragments he introduced many of us to the thought of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, specifically the concept of “second naivete,” which described the possibility and even need for a post-enlightenment return to mythic structures in religious faith. In other words, one might absorb the truths of historical development—of the earth, of human life, of culture and even of Torah—and yet also live fully within the mythic structures of revelation, redemption and even resurrection. That last theme became increasingly important to him and was the basis of another outstanding book, The Death of Death. In it, he showed how rabbinic Judaism basically invented the concept of resurrection as a form of theodicy to justify God following the intolerable catastrophes of the destruction of the second temple, and then the Hadrianic persecutions.

Dr. Gillman was as non-fundamentalist as they come, and yet he still felt bound by Jewish traditions. I remember a story he told in class one year about cleaning his refrigerator for Pesah. Apparently there was a crouton that had fallen into a crack and was inaccessible. He knew that he could simply “annul” that hametz in the morning, but he couldn’t sleep. So in the middle of the night he took a screwdriver and attacked the fridge until he had purged the hametz!

One more thing that is important to share. Dr. Gillman maintained deep friendships with many people—colleagues and students—across lines of ideology… Many of us at JTS especially enjoyed observing the continuing friendship between Rabbi Gillman and Rabbi Joel Roth. They were as different from each other in intellectual interests and ideological convictions as you can imagine. Gillman favored Heschel’s “aggadah” over halakhah, whereas as Roth was a student of the great halakhists such as Saul Lieberman z”l. Gillman preferred the indeterminacy of mythic structures, whereas Roth taught about the systemic structures of halakhah. On gay rights, the two parted company, with Gillman as a fervent advocate, and Roth as a reluctant but nevertheless firm opponent of changes that he felt could not be justified within the law. And yet—their friendship remained, deep and true. They could be seen sitting together for lunch, sharing a half century and more of friendship and shared values.

This is how I wish to remember my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Neil Gillman—a person of sharp intellect, broad interests, and deep friendships. A model of critical and constructive faith, a sage and teacher and friend. May his memory be a blessing.

Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder

My sister is coming to the end of a very difficult year. When she and my brother-in-law found out they were pregnant with their second child, we were thrilled. Roughly 20 weeks into her pregnancy though, their older child, my two-year-old niece, began experiencing random, terrible stomach pains. Soon after, she was admitted to the hospital and stayed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit for two weeks. I rushed to be with family. My fiance Hilly and I spent the next few weeks doing whatever needed to be done; laundry, grocery shopping and cooking, minor errands. I learned the value of simply leaping into action, rather than offering, waiting to be told what to do, or asking how I could help. It was the scariest time in our lives. Seeing one of the people you love most in the world suffer is excruciating. I had many moments during those weeks when I felt helpless and terrified. At the end of those two weeks, my niece was diagnosed with a rare form of Lymphoma, for which she would need a year of treatment. I am grateful to God and doctors from the depths of my soul that the treatment has so far been effective.

After watching my own family suffer through illness, I have become acutely aware of the ways in which members of our Beth Am community care for each other, in particular when someone is mourning. Beth Am members show up for those in need; praying with mourners, and also by cleaning, cooking, and shopping for people who are suffering in our midst. I am always in awe of our ability to be present and give of ourselves in these times. This Thanksgiving I am grateful for the human instinct to be and do for each other. I believe this behavior is a reflection of the Divine spark in each of us. When God comforts Jacob when he is fleeing for his life this week, the Holy One says, וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ (Genesis 28:15)’’ and here I am with you. God promises to protect Jacob and make him a great nation, and most of all, to be by his side. Our desire to “show up” for others is a reflection of God’s enduring ability to be present for us.

Boris Fishman wrote in The New York Times recently about friends of his who received devastating news about one of their children. He happened to be visiting them at the time, and while at first he felt uncomfortable being in their home during their hour of need, something inside him told him to make lunch. It felt like a sacred duty to make his friend Susan a salad just then. “Where just minutes before I’d felt only awkwardness, now I felt something approaching elation. If I were a believer, I would have said God was there. When the salad was ready, Susan embraced me. And what was an opportunity for an unforeseen boundary turned into a moment of greater intimacy than before” (“God Is in the Salad Dressing,” 11/17/2017).

As my niece nears the end of her intensive treatment, I can only think: Modah ani. Grateful am I for her smile and strength. Being an aunt has been the greatest joy of my life. Grateful am I for God’s presence, our presence for each other, and our instinct to do when we don’t know what to do. Thank God for the cooking and other matters of daily life that their family and friends have lifted from my sister and brother-in-law’s shoulders, as they have been carrying so much. Grateful am I to God for giving us these sacred opportunities for intimacy. Grateful am I that God is in the salad dressing.

Prepared by Rabbi Ari Lucas, Associate Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ

And they said to him – Where is Sarah, your wife?
-Genesis 18:9

Take a close look at the beginning of this week’s portion in a Torah scroll and you’ll notice something peculiar. There are 3 nequdot – dots over the letters aleph, yod, and vav. The word “eilav” means “to him.” The letter lamed is the only letter in the word that doesn’t get a dot. What are these markings doing? How did they get there? And what are we to make of them conspicuously placed in our Torah scrolls today?

In his doctoral dissertation, “The Meaning and Purpose of the Extraordinary Points of the Pentateuch,” published in 1906, Romain Butin offers several possible theories to explain the dots in this verse. The most plausible, in his opinion is that the text should have read vayomer lo – and he said to him (i.e. the angel to Abraham), instead of vayom’ru eilav (and they said to him). He points to the fact that in the following verse (v 10), only one of the ministering angels addresses Abraham. It is likely the same angel speaking in verse 9. Why would all three angels ask in unison “Where is Sarah, your wife?” His theory posits that the instructions to scribes was to mark the letters vav, yod, and aleph as questionable – only the scribes got the wrong vav. The “vav” should have referred to the last letter in “vayom’ru,” (see Fig 1) and was mistakenly placed on the last letter in “eilav.” (See Fig 2)

The rabbinic tradition derives a lesson from these dots (even if it is not likely the original reason for their existence). Rashi and Radak notice that the three dotted letters spell the word “ayo” meaning “where is he,” subtly indicating that just as the angels asked Abraham “Ayeh – where is Sarah, your wife” they similarly asked Sarah, “Ayo – where is Abraham, your husband.” From this, they conclude, it is customary to ask one’s host about his or her husband or wife. This clever teaching gives us a greater insight into the manner in which we can be good hosts and guests. After all, Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming attitude towards the angels is ground zero for Jewish teachings about hospitality.

But perhaps there is a deeper meaning to these dots and the question they’re “pointing” us to. The word “ayeh” recurs throughout the Genesis stories. First, God asks Adam in the garden, “ayekah – where are you?” Then, God asks Cain, “ayeh hevel ahikha – where is Abel, your brother?” And here, we see angels asking the first Jewish family, “Where is your husband? Where is your wife?” In each of these cases, we see God asking the characters of the Bible to take responsibility – for themselves and for the other people in their lives. “Ayeh” becomes a question that goes deeper than merely information about location. It’s an existential question – where are you in relationship to yourself, God, and others.

Genesis is a guidebook about taking responsibility for others. God is teaching humanity and the Jewish family how to care for one another and it begins by asking the question ayeh – where are you – where are your brothers and sisters, husbands, and wives. If we can answer that question honestly, then we’re on the right path to loving each other and loving God more fully.

Prepared by Rabbinic Intern Rachel Marder

You Never Told Us

“You never told us.” I read the accusatory words on my computer screen and my heart started to race. They felt like a punch in the gut. The authors of these words were alumni of NFTY, the Reform movement’s high school youth group, and they felt betrayed by me and others who educated them.

Soon after college I took a job as the regional advisor with NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, in San Francisco. I had grown up in NFTY and have many positive memories of spirited song sessions, tikkun olam work, and empowering learning experiences. After high school I spent a semester on a gap program in Israel and felt deeply attached to our homeland as a result. When I became a NFTY advisor I looked forward to giving back to an organization that had profoundly shaped me, and to inspiring young Jews. I wanted our programs to help teens love Israel and feel a strong connection to Jewish peoplehood. I told them that “Lech L’cha,” God’s charge to Avraham to go forth to the land God will show him, is directed to each of us as well. To be a Jew is to answer God’s call and feel a pull toward our homeland.

But I soon became frustrated with our educational programming about Israel. Programs were engaging, but they never felt like they accomplished enough. We set up a mock Knesset or planned “Israel Day,” complete with falafel and army training. We analyzed Hadag Nachash’s “Sticker Song,” a rap cataloguing Israeli bumper stickers. I had no idea then how to talk about the elephant in the room: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At 22 I lacked the knowledge and tools to engage them in a nuanced conversation.

Alumni of NFTY, USY, BBYO, Solomon Schechter day schools, and other groups are writing articles for the provocative anti-Occupation organization, If Not Now, as part of their #younevertoldus campaign. Davida Ginsberg, an alumna of USY on Wheels and USY Israel Pilgrimage, writes about her experience in gadna, basic training in the IDF, while on USY pilgrimage. She writes that while she was told there was a “conflict,” she heard nothing about an occupation. “You never told me what the soldiers were actually being trained to do with their guns, whose homes they were being trained to raid. You never told me why we – young, American Jews – should become militarized as a part of our summer camp experience… You never told me that the occupation doesn’t actually keep any of us safe.”

One of my former NFTYites writes about how growing up she received skills and knowledge from her Jewish community about standing up and fighting for justice, “but when it came to justice in Israel/Palestine, our Reform community gave us only silence. The adults around us… steered us toward a ‘cultural’ connection to the state of Israel that we now realize was anything but apolitical. We were asked to imagine Israel as our homeland and to share affinity with a people and place we knew little about.” Many of them discovered the Palestinian narrative when they arrived at college, and became activists on their campuses.

According to midrash, Avraham spent his younger years exploring and pondering the existence of a Creator. Avraham is likened to a man who was traveling from place to place and came across a castle on fire. The man wondered whether the castle had a master to care for it. Then, the master of the castle popped his head out, looked at him, and said, “I am master of the castle.” In the same way, Avraham was constantly wondering, “Can you say that this world is without a Master?” God looked out at him and through the charge of “Lech L’cha, conveyed, “I am Master of the World” (Berishit Rabbah). Lech L’cha is God reaching out to humanity to say, “Hineni,” here I am, the master and caretaker of this world. You might have thought that the flames suggest that there is no one. But that is not so. You might not be able to see the master of the castle, but Someone is there.

God’s mission to Avraham is to trust in a God and a place he does not yet know. This is what I as a youth advisor hoped my teens would do: trust and believe in a country and people they do not know. I hoped naively that educational programming would foster enough connection to last them until they would actually go forth and spend time in Israel, where of course they would fall in love with their homeland and feel a part of this people. This worked for some kids, including me, but for many it did not.

This generation of Jews sees an Israel that is on fire. This Israel does not respect their brand of Judaism and does not welcome them as an equal member of the tribe. And more urgently, they see an Israel that does not love the stranger or treat non-Jews with the same dignity as Jewish residents. They wonder what happened to their Jewish values in the Jewish state. They are asking whether this castle is without caretakers. Where are their rabbis, teachers, and advisors? They are declaring that extinguishing this fire must be our priority. They inconveniently disrupt AIPAC policy conferences and Jewish community events to tell leaders this cannot wait. Use whatever economic and political pressure you have to push for an end to occupation and extinguish the flames of injustice.

I want us to teach our kids about Israel. I want them to know that a people that was homeless for nearly 2,000 years came home and built a miracle. I want us to be brave enough though to have honest conversations. We can talk about the refugees and the Occupation, and the deep challenges that Israel and Palestinians face in creating a shared society. I want alumni of our youth programs to know that we who struggle with the morality of the Occupation are also afraid of the alternative. I want them to know that Israel is not monolithic and there are many Jewish Israelis working for peace hand in hand with Palestinians. I need to ask their forgiveness for encouraging them to love and trust a place without more information. There are caretakers to Israel; it’s all of us. We need to work together to advocate for a more just society. I hope and pray that our alumni always find a home among Am Yisrael, and most of all that their message does not fall on deaf ears.