5779 Torah Commentary

Standing Together
By Josh Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern

Nitzavim begins with nothing short of a miracle – we all stood together to enter into a covenant with God. What’s interesting is, I’m not even talking about the covenant with God part. Because it’s easy to recognize something like the splitting of the Red Sea as a clear, absolute miracle. But when it comes to people, splitting along social, political, or economic lines is commonplace. Coming together is the miracle. This week, in one brief and glorious verse, “You are all standing this day before the Lord…”(Deut. 29:9). Men, women, and children, young, old, rich, and poor assembled and nitzavim (“standing”) as a single Jewish community. How is this not considered the greatest miracle recorded in the whole Book, right up there with the Ten Plagues?!

What it seems we’re plagued with today is fragmentation and alienation. The same technology that connects us gives us the perfect excuse not to look each other in the eyes. When not on our phones, we gravitate toward the like-minded and as a result, we’ve forgotten how to talk to those with whom we disagree. And yet, this week’s parsha proves that we all stood together once. Can we ever do it again?

Maybe the first step away from alienation is the realization that we’re never alone. Even when we’re sure we are. You may already know this one, so stop me if you’ve heard it. Every time this man walked along the beach, he’d notice two sets of footprints in the sand. Everything was going so well in his life, he knew that the second pair of footprints were God’s. But then, things took a bad turn. He found trouble and pain. And whenever he’d walk along the beach, he’d only see one pair of footprints in the sand. When he died and appeared before God in Heaven, the man was angry. “Why did you abandon me!” he cried. “How come when I suffered, there was only one set of footprints in the sand?” God replied, “Those were the times I carried you.”

It turns out, Rashi kind of tells his own version of this story hundreds of years before I ever heard it. In Nitzavim, God warns that when the children of Israel betray the covenant, God will banish them from the land and scatter them among the nations. Certainly, exile is an extreme example of alienation, and evokes a feeling of Divine abandonment. The same verse promises, however, that when we turn back to God with a full heart, “Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you”(Deut. 30:3). Rashi notes that the Hebrew word used for “will bring back” is שב. What’s odd about that is, really, it should be the hifil (causative) form of the word – והשיב (lit. “cause to bring back”). Because שב means that God will return. If God is returning, that means God must have accompanied us in our exile, not forsaking us in our darkest moments, but rather guiding us through them. In other words, “those are the times I carried you.”

“Nitzavim,” reminds us that even when we think we’re lost and alone, God is standing with us. Today, how do we strive to follow the Divine example and carry each other, standing together once more as a Jewish community writ-large? I don’t know. But I do know that it isn’t some naïve fantasy beyond our ability to achieve. Rather, like Torah, “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.”(Deut. 30:12-14). It is not in the Heavens – היא בשמים לא. It’s right here, beneath our feet.

The stakes, it seems, have never been higher. Benjamin Franklin, speaking to the urgency of his own revolutionary moment, writes, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” Fragmentation and alienation is not the inevitable backdrop to the human experience. It’s a choice. So God says, “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life”(Deut. 30:19).

But can we choose life in our lifetimes? Will any of us live to see the day when the Jewish community stands together again like we did when entering the covenant? Lest we think this is a miracle consigned to the distant past or distant future, I’d like to call our attention to how many times God says “hayom” in this parsha. To cite just a few, “You are all standing this day”(Deut. 29:9) / “this day…”(Deut. 29.11) / “this day”(Deut. 29.12) / “this day”(Deut. 29:14).

Nitzavim is plural. It includes all of us, who are never alone. And it’s in the present tense. This day.

Living Our Stories
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro

Even though it’s been a while since the first time I lived in Israel for the year, certain memories are still quite vivid. One such experience was around this time of year, when I decided for the first (and, trust me, only) time to experience the ritual of kaporot. This ritual entails taking a chicken and waving around/in the vicinity of a person’s head to gather, as it were, that person’s misdeeds from the previous years. That chicken is that promptly shechted (killed according to the laws of kashrut), offered up as atonement- essentially, it’s the last true vestige of the sacrificial system we had during the time the Temple was standing. It was a ritual I partook of once and have no intention of seeking out again. Looking back, it’s not just the ritual I find distasteful and troubling. I’m also disturbed by the narrative that the experience communicates, that my errors can be waved away through the execution of another living being- I’m uncomfortable with both the actions and the story underneath.

To that point, Rabbi Neil Gillman emphasized the role of myth within his understanding of Judaism. Gillman defined myth as “a structure through which a community organizes and makes sense of its experience,” and elevated the stakes of that construct by discussing how myth conveys our tradition’s answers to ultimate questions. Though I find the ritual of kaporot unnerving and not personally resonant, our tradition is brimming with others I find compelling, in action and in subtext, two of which are found in this week’s parsha.

As the Israelites are being given instructions for what they should do when they finally enter in to the land of Israel, they are told to set up large stones, coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of the Torah. (Deut. 27:2-3) Those stones are then to be an altar for worship, a place to mark the moment of transition from being outside of the land to, at long last, dwelling within its borders.

Part of what I find striking is visualizing this moment, picturing in my mind massive bright white stones with the Torah written upon them, people all around gathered in unity and worship. Part of it is also about the story being communicated by this ritual. Abarvanel comments that this action distinguishes us from other nations- we’re not focusing our energy on raising monuments to commemorate military victories or conquests, but rather creating markers upon which we write out our core teachings, our ethics and our values.

I don’t think this framing necessarily needs to be comparative. I think we can state more simply that it’s a valuable exercise to, in liminal moments or times of change, engage in a ritual through which we make contact with what’s essential to who we are. Rollo May, a contemporary author and psychologist, has written about the interplay of ritual and myth. May states that “rituals are physical expressions of myths. The myth is the narration, and the ritual expresses the myth in bodily action. Rituals and myths supply fixed points in a world of bewildering change.” This narrative told by this ritual is that the Torah is central to who we are; that narrative is in turn given life through the action the people are told to take.

There’s another example of May’s paradigm earlier in the parsha. Just a chapter earlier, we’re given one of the most succinct examples of the Jewish myth that exists, the formulation that many of us know as “arami oved avi,” “my father was a wandering Aramean,” which we recite at the seder on Passover each year. This formulation of our core narrative hasn’t been transplanted into a ritual context by the rabbis; in the parsha, it’s cited as the specific formula to recite upon the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple. This retelling provides the very reasoning for why that action is taken: since God brought us out of Egypt and into this land, I therefore now bring an offering to express my gratitude. In his work, May comments that the myth can lead to the ritual, or the ritual to the myth, but that the story and the action are always connected, as they certainly are here.

Our tradition offers opportunities to embody the story of who we want to be in the world, with ample illustrations of how to do so which can then be adapted for our own contemporary context. Though we might not make a formal pilgrimage to a Temple with sacrifices, we will soon be convening en masse into our places of worship for a time of reflection and gratitude. Though we won’t be inscribing anything on white-washed stones at TBA any time soon (it’d ruin the new sanctuary!), we do take action, literal (our beautiful parsha panels!) and figurative (the way we conduct ourselves), to inscribe our stories upon our structures as we transition into a new space and a new year. As Rabbi Gillman taught, the story we tell about who we are provides meaning and, as May would add, we tell that tale via what we do. My hope for us all is that we can find ways to craft actions that give meaning and vitality to the stories of our lives, and that as we breathe life into our core stories, as individuals and as a community, we bring that same energy to writing the next chapter upon the fresh page we’re about to turn to in the Book of Life.

Words to Keep and Act in Holy Relationship
In Memory of those who perished and in honor of those who acted through holiness on September 11th

Prepared By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

Recently, I officiated a wedding where the couple wanted to share vows. This came up early in our process of planning and counseling and until the moment under the chuppah I was not sure how I felt about the secular custom of sharing personalized words of commitment and love. This act of affirmation does not go against any piece of law or standard for a Jewish wedding and so I allowed it to happen, but hesitantly. We had to carefully place it in the ceremony as to not break up pieces of the Jewish moments and yet sanctify it as holy and important to the couple. Ultimately, the couple crafted beautiful and passionate words shared before the breaking of the glass and a rousing Mazal Tov!

This week, in parashat Ki Teitzei we are exposed to more mitzvot than in any other parasha. Some that are clear and positive and others that are disturbing and complex. “When you make a vow to Adonai your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for Adonai your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to Adonai your God, having made the promise with your own mouth.”

מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ כַּאֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נְדָבָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ בְּפִיךָ

Motza sefatekha tishmor v’asita – that which exits your lips you must keep and you must do. Keep – shamor and do – oseh.

These vows are not just important because they are made to God; rather they carry weight and importance because you chose to utter them in the first place. They were released from your heart, your mind and your soul and shared with the world. God creates the world with words and we too create promises and relationships – both for good and for bad – with our words.

I would imagine that we can each think back to a moment in our lives, this year, this week or maybe even today where we said something or shared words that we wish we had kept to ourselves. Though those words might not be vows or promises, they create a world. They craft a situation or an illustration of a moment or a person in a way that is now in the abyss of our universe rather than in your own mind and heart. What could we have kept to ourselves? What did not need to be said? What should we have shared to change a situation?

We are all engaged in the work of heshbon hanefesh, a recounting of our soul, as we approach and then work our way through, the yamim noraim, the High Holidays. What do we need to shamor—keep and oseh— do to change the language of our relationships? The verse explicitly instructs us to be aware of that which exits from our lips, but I would include in that our behavior, our glances, our tone and our body language. It is all about presenting that which we would be proud to be held accountable and credited for.

Rabbeinu Bahya (13th c. Spain) comments that “self-imposed vows rate higher than the commandments which we are obligated to keep without having volunteered to do so. The vows are holier than the ordinary commandments, this is why the Torah has to warn especially against not honoring them.”

And so, alongside the bride and groom, I’ve learned something important to me: Perhaps the holiest moments for all of us in attendance were the words of their careful choosing. The moments of kedusha, of intimate holiness, were found in the emerging blessings humbly spoken by the couple here growing their partnership.

I pray that during these holy days, using our own whispered or sung expressions, our spontaneous t’fillot and songs of joy that the vows created, the words chosen, the promises made, rate higher because they were crafted to exit the mouths of those choosing to keep and act in holy relationship.

Pursuing Justice Justly
Prepared By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (Devarim 16:18-20)

It is hard to read this week’s parasha and not relate it to current events here, in Israel, and around the world. I thought about some meta-questions about this text, not exactly about the content of it, but about its conception, helping us to move away from a literal reading: What was their political and social context? What was the role of religion in their society?

We claim that the Torah is eternal, and its wisdom is still relevant for our days. In order to hold that claim, it is important to understand the challenges of these meta-questions and be aware of the problems we face when reading the Torah in the light of current events. A literal reading, without putting it into perspective and reality, can lead to religious fanaticism. A full relativist reading, can lead into nihilism, the rejection of all religious and moral principles, for being outdated or just nor relevant anymore.

It is a counter cultural move to still look for wisdom in our tradition and ancient books and not fight for a religious supremacist truth. This is the rabbinic enterprise throughout the ages: through study and devotion, find meaningful ways of connecting our ancient wisdom to our lives. From the Talmud, dealing with the massive exile and displacement of an entire people, mourning the destruction of the house and longing for the time to come back, the sages have been charged with this mission. In modern times, reform, conservative, Zionism, Hasidism, they are all ways of keeping this covenantal mission alive.

Thankfully, we do not live in a society governed by one religion, but on the contrary – freedom of religion is a key element of western civilization since the enlightenment. Every individual has the right to believe and practice – or not believe and practice at all – their religion according to their will. As modern Jews, we support this model that saved us from persecution and has granted us freedom and rights.

So what is the Torah trying to tell us about our commitment to justice and how we can achieve it in practical terms? I want to share with you two different answers that our tradition has offered, as ways to fulfill the commandment of “justice, justice you shall pursue” outside the original context of the Torah, focused on the settlement of Bnei Israel in the land of Canaan millennia ago. In search for meaning of the repetition of the word Justice, the Talmud offers some wisdom:

“Rav Ashi says: One (mention of Justice) is stated with regard to judgment, in which the court must pursue justice extensively, and one (mention of Justice) is stated with regard to compromise.” (Sanhedrin 32b)

The Talmud goes on with practical examples of compromise that were applicable to their audience:

“Where there are two boats traveling on the river and they encounter each other, if both of them attempt to pass, both of them sink, as the river is not wide enough for both to pass. If they pass one after the other, both of them pass. And similarly, where there are two camels who were ascending the ascent of Beit Horon, where there is a narrow steep path, and they encounter each other, if both of them attempt to ascend, both of them fall. If they ascend one after the other, both of them ascend.

How does one decide which of them should go first? If there is one boat that is laden and one boat that is not laden, the needs of the one that is not laden should be overridden due to the needs of the one that is laden. If there is one boat that is close to its destination and one boat that is not close to its destination, the needs of the one that is close should be overridden due to the needs of the one that is not close. If both of them were close to their destinations, or both of them were far from their destinations, impose a compromise between them to decide which goes first, and the owners of the first boat compensate the owner of the boat that waits, for any loss incurred.” (Sanhedrin 32b)

Compromise is the key to fight fanaticism. A society that strives for compromise is on the way to find mutual understanding and empathy for each other. Justice isn’t a game to win or lose, justice is an ideal that will help us create a better society for all.

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa said: “Justice, justice you shall pursue…With justice, you shall pursue justice. Even the pursuit of justice must employ only just means, and not falsehood.”

In making torah meaningful for his days, the Hasidic master made Torah wisdom also eternal. It is our task to find the timeless wisdom in it and not use it only for the sake of our own truths or personal goals. It’s not only about Justice, but more than that, how we achieve Justice.

May we all find ways of Justice during Elul, as we prepare to judge ourselves as we encounter the Divine Justice.

Today, and Every Day
Prepared by Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor

If you’re reading this bulletin, then you’re sitting in a room beneath blue skies, where the pattern of clouds serves as a sundial that links our tefillot with the passage of time. Go ahead and breathe it in. Notice something that you haven’t noticed before, like the texture of the upholstery at your back. Let your eyes dance over the ark doors and count the bricks.

There will always be something new to notice in this room, whether you’re here every week or twice a year. It would be impossible to stop learning its features, to run out of things to appreciate. And that’s not only because our architect, Steven Rajninger, poured loving details into each crevice. It’s also because you will change, every day. Molecularly, as your cells regenerate and you consciously strive to become someone new, different, better, fuller. And spiritually, as you experience a macro revelation every day that manifests itself in seeing with what feel like fresh eyes each time you step in the door. Your personal Torah, the way you take the world into yourself, is changing today and every day.

“Today” and “every day” are both captured by the word hayom. We have the word twice at the start of Parshat Re’eh.

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃ אֶֽת־הַבְּרָכָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ אֶל־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse. — Blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day.

R’ Levi Yitzhakh of Berditchev, in Kedushat Levi, writes about the superfluous hayom in these verses.

At first glance there seems to be no need for the ‎word: ‎היום‎, “this day,” as we know that God renews blessings ‎every day, just as God renews the act of creation of the universe by ‎providing bright light to the Divine universe as this is part of God’s ‎goodness. People who serve Adonai are aware that they receive new ‎insights daily and learn things they had not known on the ‎previous day. We may, therefore, understand the word: ‎היום‎, as ‎‎“every day,” as our sages said: ‎בכל יום יהיו בעיניך כחדשים‎, “Every day, you shall regard the commandments as if they are brand new, as though you are just today being commanded regarding them!”

Even when it seems that the world around you has gone unchanged, you have changed. You’ve been shaped by new clarity and insights borne of maturity, experience, and the influence of all the people who touch your world, every day.

And while we’re celebrating the end of this sanctuary’s metamorphosis, we’re also celebrating the beginning of each of our individual relationships with this room. The shape of this space has been etched into existence, and its details are endless little gifts waiting for you to discover them, unwrap them, take them in. New in your eyes today, and every day.

Remember the Journey
Prepared By Josh Jacobs, TBA Rabbinic Intern

In Ekev, one of the first few chapters of Devarim, we continue to read Moses’ discourses to b’nai yisrael. He recounts their journey, which has led them right to the border of the Promised Land. But why recount their journey, at all? Certainly as readers, we already know it. At this point, after forty years of trials and tribulations, after finally reaching the Promised Land, don’t you just want a victory speech? “And Moses lifted his arms towards the Heavens and proclaimed before the children of Israel: ‘Yo Adrian, I did it!’”

But we don’t get a victory speech. We don’t find any congratulations, really. Knowing that we are a “stiff-necked people” (so hey, congratulations on that) Moses skips right to the warning, prophetically predicting what will happen once we settle in Canaan if we’re not careful. He says:

“Beware that you do not forget the Lord, your God, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day, lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Deut. 8:11-14).

I love this verse because it isn’t saying not to enjoy your victories. Kohelet says there is “…a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4), and Miriam’s leading the people in dance at the Red Sea is one of our more glorious moments (and quite the end zone victory dance). I do think, however, that Ekev warns us not to get so caught up in celebration that we lose sight of the hard work that demands our immediate attention. Because if we do, our victories may be short-lived. I’m positive that this is how we lost the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Everything was going great until somebody yelled, “Yo Hadrian, I did it!” which was the end of everything.

But what’s so bad about patting yourself on the back for a job well done? Moses continues:

“…and you will say to yourself, ‘My strength and the might of my hand has accumulated this wealth for me. But you must remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth, in order to establish His covenant which He swore to your forefathers, as it is this day’” (Deut. 8:17-18).

Isn’t it interesting that this actually takes us full circle? We were freed from Pharaoh, who mistakenly believed he was God. Like Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, Pharaoh’s glory falls to ruin, as he goes from “King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair” to “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing in the desert. Hashem executes judgment over Egypt and its leader whose power, position, and wealth warps his perception of himself. So that instead of serving God, he serves himself, whom he incorrectly perceives to be God. How tragic, then, if we, too, upon entering the land, forget our story, attributing our success to ourselves and not rightfully to Hashem.

So Moses instructs them not to forget who they were – strangers in the land of Egypt. Because if this new generation forgets the bitter taste of slavery and only knows milk and honey, they might mistake their newfound security for invulnerability. Warping their perception of themselves, like Pharaoh. Whose hardened heart is only a few degrees beyond stiff neck. It’s no surprise then, that God tells us to “…circumcise the foreskin of your heart, therefore, and be no more stiff-necked.” (Deut. 10:16). In other words, if you allow yourself to forget your own vulnerability, your own humanity, how can you recognize these things in others?

This drash is not a call to humility because this congregation is simultaneously some of the most impressive and humble people I know (not that I’m bragging about how humble everyone is, which would kind of defeat the purpose). Instead, I think Ekev teaches that the worst thing that could ever happen to us, is if we forget our journey. Because to forget who we are and where we came from can only negatively impact our behavior wherever we’re going.

So Ekev gives us this model:

“For the Lord, your God is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe. He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing. You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 9:17-19).

I want to conclude with Rashi, who, referencing Megilah 31a, explains how in this verse, first we have a description of God’s power, and immediately alongside that power, we find a description of God’s humility. Power and humility must always go hand-in-hand, or there will be no victory speech, no victory dance. This week, we prepare to march forward, hand-in-hand, toward the next chapter of our Jewish journey.

In Memory of Rabbi Professor Reuven Hammer
Prepared by Cantor Michelle Stone, Ritual Innovator

The Jewish world and the Conservative/Masorti community, in particular, lost a beloved teacher, mentor, and rabbi this week. Rabbi Reuven Hammer was not only a teacher and rabbi, but also an institution builder, a communal leader, and a prolific author. I’d like to share some words of Rabbi Hammer’s that inspired me many years ago when I started learning about Jewish liturgy. This week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, includes the text of the Shema and Ve’ahavta. Before he passed, I planned to write a D’var Tefillah about the Shema in this week’s bulletin. I can think of no better way to honor Rabbi Hammer’s memory than to share his words directly. The following is excerpted from the closing of the chapter on the Shema in Hammer’s book, Entering Jewish Prayer: A Guide to Personal Devotion and the Worship Service:

The Significance of the Shema Today

The daily recitation of the Shema provides us with an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the basic doctrines upon which the faith of Israel was built when first proclaimed by Moses and which remain the foundation of Jewish faith today. Throughout the centuries sages and philosophers have expounded these concepts and reinterpreted them in light of new currents of thought and conditions of life: the existence of one God whose unity signifies a universe of order and not chaos; a God of moral and ethical concern giving existence meaning and hope; a God who acts of redemption are an assurance for a better future. The Shema is an assertion of faith and certainty against currents of nihilism, meaninglessness, chaos, and amorality. One who recites the Shema resembles the children of Jacob who respond to the question: Is there doubt in your heart regarding the existence of Him who spoke and the world came into being? “We have no doubts in our hearts.” [Midrash from the Sifre]

This testimony is especially important today, when belief and identification with the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people cannot be taken for granted. Living in a modern, postemancipation world, in secular, democratic societies, we welcome period opportunities to remind ourselves of our belief and to reaffirm our identity.

The formulation, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” remains the definitive declaration of Jewish belief. It is as close as we can come to providing a description of a divine reality, which is by definition indescribable. We emphasize the name of God – the very unutterability of which expresses the inability of the human mind to fathom the divine. We do not even pretend to be able to describe the Lord whose name represents existence and being. We say of Him the least and the most we can say – that of all that exists, of all we know and do not know, of all we experience, we make Him alone our God. Whatever else humans may worship – other deities, human beings, nations, flags, ideologies, weather, or power – we worship only Him. His oneness means that the world in which we live is a harmony; it is a universe and not a battlefield of warring forces. Beyond it and beneath it there is a unity of will and purpose.

Understanding the Shema as a pledge of loyalty to that One, there is need to recite it and thereby to reject the false ideologies and lesser loyalties that compete for our minds and souls…[T]here is great freedom in knowing that ultimate loyalty belongs only to the Ultimate Reality, who alone can command our love and obedience.

One need not believe literally in physical reward and punishment to accept the doctrine of the second paragraph of the Shema. Its importance is not in the specific way in which it was formulated and concretized, but in the very assertion that there is meaning in our actions, that there is responsibility for what we do. The human echo of the existence of that Ultimate Reality is that there also exists ultimate responsibility. If man is not the master of the world but is accountable to a greater power, our actions take on grave importance and must be carefully measured.

The Shema is a declaration of the continuity of the Jewish people in which we affirm to our ancestors that we remain loyal. We reenact the theophany at Sinai, repeating the words of Israel, “We will heed and obey,” taking upon ourselves the yoke of God’s kingship and the responsibility to seek out His ways in the world and live by them. We also affirm the unity of the world and of mankind, for all that exists is the work of one God. We reject the power of false gods and the validity of false ideologies, and open our hearts to that which is true and eternally enduring.

Hazon and Eicha – Prophetic Vision and Spiritual Concerns
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Hazon, for this week’s Haftarah begins with Isaiah’s Hazon (lit. Vision, a prophecy for what is coming). This haftarah is from the first chapter of the Prophet Isaiah, always read on the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av, which always coincides with Parashat Devarim.

One of the key connections between this Haftarah and Tisha B’Av is the word ‘Eicha’ (Alas! an expression of grief, pity, or concern). This is the opening expression for the Book of Lamentations, attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah, that we read on Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Jordán Raber wrote and explained the complexity of ‘Eicha’:

“‘Eicha’ is an expression of bewilderment, of perplexity (…) ‘Eicha’ is an hopeless cry before pain and suffering, whether one’s own suffering or someone else’s pain. ‘Eicha’, it is an exclamation of perplexity that is repeated in these readings, surrounding Tisha B’Av with a halo of regret and sadness.”

This week’s Haftarah is the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, the first contact we have with the Prophet and his message. Unlike Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who start their books with their initiation into prophecy, Isaiah does not have a similar introduction, he simply begins by condemning the people of Judah and Jerusalem for their poor behavior. Even Rashi agrees that Isaiah’s story starts on chapter 6 and this is probably a latter prophecy that was brought to the beginning of the book.

Isaiah reminds the people about the special relationship between God and Israel. That is why God is angry, because God loves God’s children and expects more from them, like parents and their kids.

The prophet teaches the people that ritual sacrifices have no meaning for God if the people is not behaving well and keeping God’s commandments. This is the essence of the kavanah (intention, awareness, direction) we bring to our prayers and songs, the rituals will only have meaning for God and for us if they are connected to our reality and coherent to our actions. To put it in rabbinic terms, Mitzvot tzrichot kavanah – One needs kavanah in order to properly fulfil God’s commandments. Our actions aren’t holy for themselves, but for the relationships that are formed in performing them. Relationships with form with other people, with nature, with time, and with God.

This is the core message of the prophets when they criticize the people for their meaningless sacrifices, since it’s more important to take care of each other than to offer praise to God while oppressing the orphan and the widow, the paradigmatic representatives of the of the most vulnerable in that society.

Here is a short guide to help you during the Haftarah reading, focusing on Isaiah’s main message:

– God is angry for the sins of God’s people, God rebukes Israelite behavior (1-10)

In verse 1 you will find the word Hazon, the prophetic vision of Isaiah.

In verses 2, 4 and 7 you can find good examples of God angry and rebuking Israel.

– Rituals have no meaning anymore if the people are not being moral in their own lives. (11-15)

Verse 15 is very powerful and can raise a lot of questions about our practices and rituals.

– God requests repentance from the people (16-19)

Maybe the core message of this Haftarah is in these verses. How is it related to Tisha B’Av?

– Consequences for obeying or disobeying God’s commandment and rebuke on Israel, Jerusalem and the temple leadership (21-23)

Verse 21 begins with ‘Eicha’ is the meaning of ‘Eicha’ the same in both places? Verse 23 shows how concern Isaiah was with the most vulnerable groups of his society.

– God will destroy God’s enemies and reestablish justice in Zion (24-27)

Usually our Haftarot end with a positive message, just like the Megillat Eicha. Why is it important to end these readings in a hopeful way?

This is the message that our Rabbis chose for the Shabbat right before Tisha B’Av. Just as Megillat Eicha, the lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah upon the destruction of the First Temple, we see Isaiah desolated for all the bad that is happening before him. At the same time, both texts bring a calling for repentance, once God is our partner and will always be with us working for a better future.

So what is our challenge for this Shabbat? What are the struggles that our calendar wants us to deal with during these days? Rabbi Jordán Raber helps us to find a way to sit with ‘Eicha’, to wrestle with this complex concept of discomfort:

“‘Eicha’, here we are, here I am, with my sorrows, with my pains and with my sufferings, but also with my virtues, with my achievements and joys. Here we are, here I am, willing to explore my sorrows, my fragility, my fissures, to progressively recompose them, to go – not too little – learning to live with them.”

My blessing to all of us this Shabbat is to open our hearts to the words of the prophet Isaiah, finding his core message to his society, so we can find our core values in it, and act accordingly in our times.

Tisha B’Av begins this Saturday night, immediately after Shabbat. The complexity of this day is an invitation to revisit our past, struggle with our present, and build the future we want to see.

D’rash from this week’s Rabbi in Residence at Camp Ramah, Caifornia
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, TBA Assistant Rabbi

I was 12 when I began my journey at Camp Ramah in Ojai. I began the summer of Adat Shalom because my brother was old enough to join me for a week of Gesher. I do not remember walking onto the bus, but I do remember knowing many people and yet feeling very nervous, homesick and alone in this journey. It was my choice and my interest to attend and yet there was a feeling of lech lecha, of going for myself, to prove I could do it, that made the journey daunting and important. Avram is told to go for himself, lech lecha, from his birthplace, and his parent’s home and to a land that God will show him. A solo journey to an unknown place, and each step getting further and further away from the center of those vital concentric circles. Avram was told he would be made into a large nation and his name would be known and he would “be blessing.” Our leader, and our people’s journey, begins with individual intrigue and results in communal identity and responsibility.

This week, in parasha Matot-Massei our people recount their steps of journeying from Egypt to outside the land of Israel. A communal journey retold by an individual participant. Moses points out each moment of departure and encampment along the way – va’yisu va’yahanu. Interesting that there is no mention of feelings, just step by step schedule and locations.

Often, when I would finish a week or sometimes even a day with my hanichim, I would recount the steps of our day for them. “Close your eyes and picture yourselves walking from t’fillot to aruchat boker (breakfast), to peulat tzrif (bunk activity), etc.” However, each child had the space and time to think of their own unique moments, feelings and encounters rather than retell them my perceptions of our day. Maybe that was Moses’s plan. He was guiding our people through their history and allowing their own stories and journeys to percolate in their minds as they were reminded of unique steps in the process.

The experience of returning to camp as many of our tzevet and chanihim’s Rosh Edah is powerful and thrilling. To see the journeys each of these young individuals took to arrive at their destination this summer is remarkable. And yet, the way that they remember our summers together and the moments I remember are often different and impacted our separate journeys and stories. One tzevet member told me today that he remembered a part of our edah culture from 2010. I did not remember this particular anecdote but it is impacting his style of leadership and teamwork.

Avram left on a journey alone with encouragement and promise of becoming part of a people and community. Moses journeyed through the desert with community and encouraged the people to remember the details, the feelings, and the unique moments that created their stories. In a midrash, Rav Tanchuma explains these journeys with a parable: “A King’s son became sick so he took him to a faraway land to have his son healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their trip, saying ‘This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache, etc.’”

Camp Ramah is a journey for a lifetime. A journey of individually choosing who you want to be as a Jew, a person and part of a community. A journey bringing many individuals into a community of great names, of beautiful souls, of experienced opportunities, and of blessing.

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.
God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing;
let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning,
illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know!
– Chaim Stern

Piety for God, or for Self?
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Let’s face it. Most readers of Parshat Pinhas, across time, read the man Pinhas and his actions far more favorably than is probably deserved.The main plot of Pinhas’s celebrated and rewarded act of religious and moral zealotry takes place not this week, during the parsha “named” for him, but tucked in at the end of last week’s parsha, Balak.There and then, an orgiastic, adulterous, idolatrous miasma was spreading through the Israelite camp. Israelite men were whoring with Midianite women.It was the Golden Calf, all over again, but rated X.In response, two violent and deadly acts take place. The first comes directly from the top. God tells Moshe to tell the pure and untainted Israelites to slay the sinners.The second is self-motivated: Pinhas impales an Israelite man and his Midianite companion as they try to come close to the Israelite camp, and the Tent of Meeting.He cannot let such uncleanliness and unseemly behavior render the holy camp toxic. So he makes a split decision, kills them both, and thus stops the divinely-ordained plague that took the life of 24,000 transgressors.

Is he a hero?Or a terrorist? Jewish (and non-Jewish) scholars have reckoned with that question for ages. Most in the former camp read him heroically, at least according to the Torah’s internal moral code.After all, God took the lead in this vicious response.He was “following orders,” with the Holy One as the inspiration.

But many of us are uncomfortable with complete apologetics regarding Pinhas, worrying that a comprehensive white-washing of his viciousness might, even unconsciously, sanction equally vicious behavior in the name of supposed piety. (Recent history is more than overflowing with horrific examples of terrible things being done in God’s name, with the antagonist certain that s/he is acting virtuously.Pinhas has been emulated, both directly and indirectly, in awful ways).Some cling to the reading shared by the great Nechama Leibowitz who understands thatבריתי‭ ‬שלום (briti shalom), the “covenant of peace” that God extends to Pinhas early in the parsha is less reward than it is corrective. (Perhaps even a self-corrective to God, recognizing, and ruing, all the killings).From this angle, Pinhas is rehabilitated, away from violence, rather than celebrated unreservedly for his zealotry.That read is nice. (And Rabbi Schatz may be exploring it more in her teaching on Shabbat morning) It feels good and right. But it, too, smacks of apologetics, straying a bit too far from the text’s most likely meaning.

In the vein of lovely (re-)readings which, however stretchy, at least give us some material to work with and some echoes of goodness to aspire towards, I share with you the interpretation by Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz, an 18th c. early Hasidic master, and a direct disciple of the Bal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidut.He looks at the verse preceding the one in which the covenant of peace is given.In that verse, God recognizes that whatever Pinhas did, it reversed God’s own wrath (the killings ended, after all), and it did so because Pinhas waged his zealotry, for God…בתוכם.B’tokham.Among them.What is the significance of that last image, that he did what he did “among them?”Reb Pinhas (who is linked to this story in a most personal way, given his namesake) reasons that zealots sometimes self-aggrandize. They focus on their own glory.Zealotry is replete with “look-at-me-ism.”One wonders, when considering such piety, whether the practitioner is more interested in the good or the self.Such personas transcend religious zealotry and become, or can become, demagogues.(This is a specifically interesting cautionary tale by an early Hasidic master, and thus a student of the Jewish movement that ultimately did deify, in some way, the rebbe/zealot/Pinhas who would lead each sect!).But that, says Reb Pinhas, is not what happened with our biblical Pinhas. He did not run to “build an altar for himself.”He sought not accolades, nor rewards or celebrations of himself. He did what he did (whatever one thinks of what he did), b’tokham, among them.As a part of, in the name of, dedicated to כלל‭ ‬ישראל.K’lal yisrael.In the name of all the people of Israel.For that, he is rewarded. And because of that, even God is chastened.

Certainly, even that lens can be abused. One can be convinced that one’s own objectionable, or even abhorrent, act is being done on behalf of the Jewish people.But at the very least, Reb Pinhas offers a healthy corrective to our own aspirations to piety.Is this act, or this pronouncement, or this tweet, or this post, or this drash, or this devotion, or this religious moment…something that is essentially for me?Or for God, and the Jewish people, and all of humanity?

Let us linger on the question. And try to minimize the former category, and lift up the latter category as most worthy of our aspiration.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Next Generation
By: Rabbi Rebecca Schatz in honor of Samson Schatz and Aarian Marshall’s wedding

Parashat Chukat is an emotional and moving parasha for familial reasons, which is hidden amongst the descriptive language of sacrifices. In the Etz Chayim, our friend Rabbi David Lieber of blessed memory wrote, “In the course of this parasha Miriam dies, Aaron dies, and Moses is sentenced to die without reaching the Promised Land. A transition of generations is taking place. The narrative’s center of gravity is moving farther from Sinai and closer to the challenge of conquering the Promised Land. Soon there will be no Israelites who actually stood at Sinai, only Israelites who have heard about it from parents and grandparents.”

Though those entering the land of Israel will not have been the original generation at the foot of Sinai, they are the receivers of a new type of Torah. The generation entering the land needs to figure out how to lead, how to manage a people and how to take that which was heard at Sinai and mold it for functionality in their new lives.

This week, in my family, this parasha helps us focus on how new transitions are at times poignant and healthy. Starting at Beth Am is a change for me, for our staff, and hopefully for the greater community. I stand on mighty shoulders of those who had this role before me, teachers who have brought me to this place and g’dolim, true thinkers, who allowed our tradition to accept and bless me with the role of rabbi in a community. Also, my brother, Sammy, is getting married tomorrow, changing the fabric of our family to grow another branch, to add more light and love to our legacy. Sammy and Aarian are approaching a new land, as a new generation, with those who have Sinai lessons and Torah to teach and guide them. They will begin a life, a family, and a future surrounded by people they love, with the memory of others in their minds and hearts and their own values and morals to be set forth for the next generation. Sammy and Aarian both beautifully acknowledge where they came from and feel the support, but even more impressively build upon that grounding for their own future.

In this parasha, Moses loses Miriam and Aaron, his support team, and though our rabbis’ reason for him not entering the land is because of his bad temper, it might also be that he would not successfully have made the approaching traumatic transition without his “persons” or his support team. Without the guide of those who came before us in our midst, we, like the next generation, are able to create and conquer tradition in a way that best influences and reflects our own goals and desires. The generations are advancing, onrushing toward us and each next step is daring and new. Whether or not we were at Sinai, the people who now surround us and those who preceded us have woven it into the context of our being. And the newlyweds will emerge from the Chupah as a new entity, a new couple, a new people, and a continuing future. As their sister, and as your new Assistant Rabbi, I am eager to be at your side and look forward to marching forward into many promised lands, building beautiful generations and futures to come.

Holy Conversations
By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

Parashat Korach is known for the challenge that Korach posed to Moshe and God. Korach questioned Moshe’s legitimacy and therefore, God’s will. This Shabbat I don’t want to focus on their debate in itself, but how Jewish tradition understands it, and more broadly, how we can manage better debates and disagreements like it.

The Torah offers a model for dealing with this challenge that is difficult for our modern minds and hearts to digest. Korach dies, with all his followers and their possessions. They are all swallowed up by the earth.

“The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.” (Bamidbar 16:32)

Korach’s actions are seen as deviant in the Torah, not acceptable to the point that God had to act in an extreme way. The Torah is radical and not always as pluralistic as our modern minds wish to encounter. Judaism as we know is not conceived only by the Written Torah, but also by the Oral Torah, the interpretations that our sages developed and still develop in our days. Our sages also struggled with the way that this debate ended. There are also many other examples of how one should engage in difficult conversations offered in the tradition. I want to share with you a model found in the Mishnah that I find powerful and applicable to our lives.

We read in the PirkeiAvot: “Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the debate that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the debate of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the debate that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the debate of Korach and all his congregation.”

Bartenura, 15th-century Italian rabbi, wrote: “(…) the argument which is not for the sake of Heaven, its desired purpose is to achieve power and the love of contention, and its end will not endure; as we found in the argument of Korach and his congregation – that their aim and ultimate intent was to achieve honor and power”. Our efforts in every conversation or debate need to be constantly leshem shamayim – for the sake of heaven – and not for the sake of our own ego and power.

Instead of focusing on the punishment given to Korach and his fellows, our sages focused on learning from that event and using it as an educational tool for the future generations. In the beginning of ParashaKorach, when Korach is being admonished for his actions, together with his group, they were set aside as communities must be holy, and whatever they were doing was not for the sake of holiness.

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” (Bamidbar 16:3)

The key to handle our debates and disagreements is to never lose the capacity of being holy. We need to deal with controversial and complex issues while still maintains our holiness. The means do not justify the end. A debate that will endure is a debate that respects people’s opinions and allows them to be part of the conversation. The Mishna teaches even more about the endurance between the healthy debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel:

“And why do they record the opinions of Shammai and Hillel for naught? To teach the following generations that a person should not always persist in their opinion, for behold, the ancestors of the world did not persist in their opinion.” (Mishnah Eduyot 1:4)

Jewish tradition is wise as it was never meant to be frozen. The most authentic Jewish tradition is to look to our past, our Torah, and find the guidance we need to bring holiness into our lives today. As Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer z’l used to say: “a Jew should walk in the world with the Torah in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other”.

Humility is to acknowledge that we might not be completely right, and our answers might not always be right at all. What was right before might not be right for now. What is truth now, might not be the answer for our problems tomorrow. We cannot engage in a serious debate with the conviction that there is nothing beyond our own truth. We need to be able to see ourselves as part of a holy community that holds as many truths as there are members.

Shabbat Shalom directly from Brazil.

Humble Grasshoppers?
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro

“What man thinks of himself, of society, of humanity, determines his way of making a decision”
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I’ve been working at Temple Beth Am for just over one year and I remember quite clearly how I was feeling around this time last year- a good amount of anxiety, a sense of inadequacy, confident in my sense that I can’t measure up. I have a distinct recollection of being in my briefly-shared office with Rabbi Lucas, sweating through the short drash I was going to be delivering at services on my first Friday night. He gently and kindly reflected back to me, essentially, “you’ve done this dozens of times before. You can handle this.” As I now find myself on the verge of another professional shift that, though within the same institution, is substantial and significant, I find myself wrestling with some of these same feelings. My experience over the past year allays some of my concerns, because of the experience and skills I’ve gained, the relationships that I’ve developed and the communal trust I’ve begun to build, but, at least for me, times of transition are particularly prone moments for doubt to seep in.

One of the most psychologically astute phrases in the entire Torah can be found in this week’s parsha. It occurs during the story of the spies who went to scout to the land, at the point of the narrative when 10 of the 12 of them negatively assess the situation. During their description of what they learned, after describing the inhabitants of the land as giants, the spies state that “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, so we surely seemed that way to them.” Nu, what made them like grasshoppers? Antenna? Thoraxes? The commentator Chizkuni easily explains that they weren’t talking about actual bugs, but that grasshopper is a metaphorical construct for something very small. The spies considered themselves as paling in comparison to those they were next to.

When a people lives in servitude for decades, the imprint of that slavery lasts months and years after the period is over. Even though there have been moments of freedom and revelation along the way, this is still a generation that has been habituated to seeing themselves as insignificant and inferior. Small wonder, then, that in this time of imminent change, they can’t help but to regress a bit, and see themselves as tiny. Interestingly, the report that all 12 spies bring back is the same- looking a few verses earlier, the spies all share the same information about the land itself and who’s there. It’s only in the interpretation of the data that the negativity and insecurity emerge from the majority of those who return.

Last week, we read about how Moses was the most humble man who ever lived…but, at least from the typical way in which we think about being “humble” today, that doesn’t quite fit. Moses was no shrinking violet! I’ve been taught that, rather than “humility” being a near-synonym for “meekness,” having humility is about being right-sized, neither too big nor too little, fulfilling your role as befits you, uniquely you. The spies were neither grasshoppers nor giants; neither are any of you, nor am I. We’re each people, with something to offer, and much to learn. As I move into this new role, I’m grateful to have support and guidance from those around me, people who can help to elevate and uplift me if I’m feeling too low and who can offer some needed perspective if I start to overinflate. Remaining right-sized is only possible in an incubated environment of love and care- it doesn’t seem be a coincidence, in this regard, that Moses the most-humble was the one member of that generation who didn’t grow up enslaved.

The verse that Chizkuni uses to highlight how “grasshopper” is metaphorical is taken from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, also known as the haftarah for Shabbat Nachamu, on which we are comforted after Tisha B’Av. The verse states that “it is God who is enthroned above the vault of the earth, so that its inhabitants seem like grasshoppers, God who spread out the skies like gauze, like a tent for them to dwell in.” I am committed to working with each of you to spreading out our communal tent, together, creating an environment of faith, generosity, trust, and closeness, bringing us all together so that we can affirm the holiness and wholeness we each contain. Taking into account Rabbi Heschel’s words above, this informs how we each think of ourselves and our community; that, in turn determines how we handle our transitional times and make our decisions, times when we might turn towards negativity and doubt. We will act not driven by fear or insecurity, but with thoughtfulness, trust, and love, as we move through challenges and journey forward.

Exploring Solitude
By Cantor Michelle Stone, TBA Ritual Innovator

I sometimes get lonely during the work week. My office at the Shalom Hartman Institute is at my house. While I have meetings and conference calls, many days, I don’t speak to or see anyone for hours on end. Normally, I’m fine with it. But, when I’m having a tough day or dealing with a difficult professional situation, I get lonely. Sometimes, but not often, I remember to call one of my colleagues or friends for advice or just to chat, and every time I do, I always feel reinvigorated and ready for the task.

In the parasha this week, Beha’alotekha, Moses is at a low point in his leadership of the Israelites. Once again, the people are complaining about being in the desert. This time, instead of complaining of hunger or fear of enemies, they are grumbling about how boring the manna is. They want to go back to slavery in Egypt because they lack variety in their food. Moses is at his wit’s end. He says to God, “Why have You brought this trouble on Your servant and why don’t I find favor in Your eyes, that You put the burden of all of these people onto me?…I cannot carry this entire people by myself, this is too much for me.” (Numbers 11:11-14) Moses is feeling defeated, and to make it worse, he is defeated and alone. Every leader has moments when they feel that they cannot carry the burden of their work all alone. God senses Moses’ feelings of solitude and provides him with a very practical solution. God tells him, “Gather for me seventy of Israel’s elders…and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it on them; they will share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” (Numbers 11:16-17) Moses does not have to face the cantankerous people by himself. He has other community leaders who can stand with him and help solve this problem. God is reminding Moses that he does not have to do this work alone. He has wise, experienced people around him to help him, to advise him, to be a friend when things are challenging.

Right before the Israelites start this latest rebellion, Moses has an encounter with his father-in-law, Yitro (called Hovav in this scene). Moses promises Yitro that, when they enter the land, they will be generous to him. Yitro declines, saying he will return to his native land. Moses pleads with him not to leave them, saying, “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will give you the same bounty that God gives us.” (Numbers 10: 31-32) Moses started with a generous offer of land, but ended with a plea for help. He showed his true motivation for his proposal to Yitro. Moses could not imagine continuing through the wilderness without Yitro. It isn’t clear from the text if Yitro acquiesced and decided to stay with the Israelites or left to go back home, though it’s noteworthy that he is not mentioned again in the Humash, so perhaps he did leave. As a reminder, Yitro was the one who suggested that Moses set up judges and courts to help the people deal with their disputes back before Mt. Sinai. He was the first person to advise Moses to not deal with the burden of leadership all by himself. And now he is gone. Perhaps Moses’ despondent response to the people’s complaints is a reaction to losing Yitro, his trusted and crucial adviser.

When God tells Moses to gather the elders around him, God is being that adviser; giving the counsel; playing the role of Yitro. How often have we relied on one person in our life for much needed guidance, and when they were gone, wondered if anyone could ever fill that void? God showed Moses that he was not lost without Yitro. There were others in his life he could turn to.

The end of the story is strange. The elders don’t actually do anything. They just stand with Moses at the Tent of Meeting, while God put the spirit that was Moses on all seventy men. He didn’t need their help to tell the people what would happen next. But they stood there, next to him, and he was no longer alone. They shared in his spirit. They gave him strength by their presence. We all need companionship and guidance in our lives. Pirkei Avot 1:6 states, “Make for yourself a rabbi [mentor/teacher/adviser] and acquire for yourself a friend.” I hope I remember it the next time I’m home alone, spinning my wheels on a challenge, forgetting that a friend or mentor is just a phone call away.

Under a Banner of Holiness
By: Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor

I remember the feeling of joy rising in my body when I spotted the group of Jewish day school students buying toothpaste and popsicles at the general store that serves as the beating heart of Yosemite’s campgrounds in the summertime. They must have been coming back from an early morning hike, blue shirts caked in dirt, but I could make out the Jewish stars emblazoned on their backs. My people!

There is something unfailingly exciting about spotting a Jewish star or flag while traveling. The Chabad house off the freeway on the way to Bryce Canyon in Utah. The logo on Jewish hospital that sticks out prominently in the skyline of Louisville, Kentucky. An Israeli flag dangling off the side of a hostel in Amsterdam. You’ll forgive me, please, for referring to these as “Easter eggs,” gems to be spotted and treasured like the “Hidden Mickeys” all over Disneyland, carved into topiaries and the moulding of buildings on Main Street. Jewish symbology signals warmly that Jews were here, planted like the stars and stripes on the moon. Or that we are here, and will be here, the way we pick up a flag to wave it with proud affirmation on Independence Day.

There’s a snapshot of ancient rabbinic wisdom captured in the midrash about the flags, the degalim, that feature prominently in Parshat Bamidbar. Chapter 2 verse 2 of Bamidbar cites:

אִישׁ עַל־דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵד יַחֲנֽוּ׃

Each person was to be underneath the flag with the symbols of their ancestral house; the children of Israel were to camp at a distance, around the tent of meeting.

Bamidbar Rabbah (2:2), an old collection of midrashim, imagines that the Israelites appeared grand and holy beneath their banners, and that all the other peoples would gaze upon them and wonder and proclaim, “Who is this [people] who shines like the dawn…?” (Shir Hashirim 6:10). Our flags beckoned to others in the wilderness: come see what wisdom and love and holiness dwells in this encampment!

Because I was born and raised as a Jew in a secular society, I have always thought of Jewish insignia, flags, and banners as signals that were calling out to me as a sister of the tribe. And sometimes that is exactly the job a flag is supposed to do. The image of the tribes in this week’s parsha is wholly different, imagining Jews as hoisting their flags high as a matter of declaration and publicity to anyone who might encounter them in the wilderness. In fact, banners can be used a thousand different ways. To celebrate pride of identity. To congratulate. To welcome. To tell a story.

We are so very practiced as a community at telling our story to one another. What story are we telling, what flags are we flying, to the communities that surround us? What wisdom, love, and holiness is so valuable to us that it’s worth spreading beyond our walls?

The Path of Our Lives
By Rabbinic Intern, Ariel Root Wolpe

Last week, after five years of study, I received my rabbinic ordination at American Jewish University. It was an incredible few days of celebration and transformation, made sweeter by the fact that my father Paul Root Wolpe was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony while receiving an honorary doctorate. During his commencement speech, my father offered a challenge and a blessing to the impending graduates: that we use our education to reinvent Judaism, as every generation has done, through creating and reinvigorating rituals which reflect our values.

It was a poignant charge for our class, which consists of a spread of innovative and traditional viewpoints, but all of whom carefully consider the evolving needs of the Jewish community. Balancing the new and the old is a classic tension in Jewish living and in rabbinic text. Chazal uses rabbinic logic to flip pshat understanding in Tanakh, the kabbalists add layers of meaning to every letter, all while the Torah says that we should not add or subtract a single thing (Deut 4:2). So, as the descendants of Hebrew ancestors who upended the beliefs of their time to follow a divine calling, and also as the descendants of Jewish ancestors who preserved a complex and demanding tradition through centuries of exile, where do we find our balance?

This week’s parshah Bechukotai warns us that if we follow God’s laws, we reap peace and prosperity, but if we stray, the land and its inhabitants will curse us. But what it means to follow God’s law is quickly expanded. According to Rashi, in the opening verse of our parshah, Leviticus 26:3, the work chukim in the phrase אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ/If you follow my laws, refers not to laws, but to studying Torah. Rashi concludes this because the verse already says וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ/and observe my mitzvot, and actions must be balanced by wisdom. Unsurprisingly, Rashi believes that studying Torah, thus gaining the ability to interpret and apply its teachings to the present world, works in tandem to the observance of mitzvot. This elevates Torah from an instruction manual to a conversation through the generations, empowering each generation to reinterpret our holy texts.

Our parsha continues that if we follow the chukim and mitzvot, God will bless us and be with us:

וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי בְּתוֹכְכֶם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵֽאלֹהִים וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי לְעָֽם׃

I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.

(Leviticus 26:12)

Italian commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno hones in on the phrase והתהלכתי בתוככם, I will be ever present in your midst. He says that the meaning of this reflexive conjugation can be read as, “I will walk with you in whatever direction you are going, back and forth and sideways.” God is not in a single location, not even in a single route of God’s choosing—God, if we pursue righteousness, will walk with us in whichever direction we go. Wherever the righteous are found, Sforno adds, holiness will be present.

When you think back on your Jewish life, at what moments did you feel holiness present? Which of these moments are from the Judaism of your youth, that older generations presented to you, and which moments came from the creations of your generation? Have you noticed any of your peers using their Torah learning to shift practice and create Jewish observance? Can you identify ways that your generation has shaped the path we are walking on?

Sforno and Rashi, while interpreting different verses, hang their understanding on the same verb, הלכ, to walk—in the first case, referring to the path of Torah study, and in the second, referring to the path of righteous lives. Halakha, the body of mitzvot and process of enacting Torah in our every step, comes from this same root. From living halakhic lives, these commentators know that this root indicates a layered, complex process of living Jewishly. Our tradition teaches us that while we must observe mitzvot and draw on an ancient understanding of God’s voice, the ultimate goal is to walk beside God in present time on the path of righteousness. How we get there depends on what each generations needs and believes, but it can only occur with a balance of observance and study, of deeds and wisdom, of old and new.

We walk through our neighborhoods, passing blooming flowers and playing children, and so too we step through time, our traditions and innovations directing the path of our lives. I know that through my rabbinate, it will sometimes be unclear which practices to observe as my grandparents did and which to experiment with. But it is not the rabbi’s job to reinvent and conserve the pieces of Judaism they find lacking or meaningful. That is all of our job. And our rabbis and Jewish professionals and teachers are here to empower each generation to find a way, to build a communal Judaism of righteousness and meaning.

May we continue to choose the path which brings us in step with God, holding dear what we’ve been given, and what is yet to be.


Let The Earth Rest
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

I have a conflicted relationship with plastic. I use it, all the time. It is hard not to in our world. As Benjamin Braddock was famously encouraged to do in “The Graduate,” plastic’s ubiquity in our civilization surely made its early, and perhaps current, investors very wealthy. I benefit from plastic’s ease of use, both in reusable and single-use forms. The keyboard on which I type this mini drash and the machine used to print and duplicate it rely on plastic’s versatility and strength. Try to go a day in your life without encountering, directly, plastic in its many forms, and it will be a true challenge. We rely on the stuff.


And, I hate plastic. It literally haunts my mind, both when awake and when I sleep. Sometimes I have to consciously jar my mind from perseverating on the troubling factoid that nearly every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence. Most of it in garbage dumps, flood drains or part of the ocean’s vastness. I recently read a report of a sea-diver who successfully dove to one of the deepest depths to which a human ever reached, protected by a slew of technology to help his body survive the enormous pressure (much of that technology, of course, relying on plastic). At the bottom of this dive, hovering on this otherwise virginal sea-floor literally miles beneath the surface, this nature-loving, Earth-exploring diver found odd and infrequently-encountered sea creatures and vegetation. And…a plastic bag.


There are many injurious things that humankind does to the Earth, justified by all sorts of things, many of them laudable. But plastic, in particular, troubles me. Can’t the Earth get a break?


The Earth gets a break in Parshat Behar. Or, we Jews are at least commanded to give it. While the verse to which I refer now mostly guides us in principle, in the ancient world the exhortation was literally intended, and observed. God tells Moshe to tell the Israelites that when they finally reach the land that is to be their inheritance, ושבתה הארץ, שבת לה’. V’shavtah ha’aretz, shabbat ladonai. The land will “sabbath.” The Earth will rest. Must rest. It is a divinely-ordained rest. The subsequent verses describe the mitzvah of שמיטה/sh’mitah, whereby fertile land lies fallow once every seven years, as part of an agricultural sabbatical. But the initial word used is shabbat, one of Judaism’s most important and beloved concepts.


The 18th/19th C. Hasidic sage, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Eichenstein of Zidichov (now in NW Ukraine) counts this “sabbatical” as the third of 3 biblical sabbaths. The one ordained in the creation story, and the one we observe once per week, is for the health and restoration of the nefesh, the soul. The human body, which houses and protects the human soul, needs a weekly respite from m’lakhah, or labor, in order to be well. Therefore, the restrictions upon the Jew on this weekly sabbath are the most comprehensive. One may not even do labor (in this case, cooking), to prepare food from scratch on Shabbat. The second sabbath is the series of Biblical festivals (Sukkot, Pesah, Shavuot, etc…) that observant Jews celebrate almost like a Shabbat. A few more things (cooking, carrying, for instance) are permitted on hagim/yontef than compared to Shabbat. According to the Zidichover, this is because this sabbath is not for the nefesh/soul, but rather for time itself. As we say in the concluding blessing for kiddush on festivals, we pause our mundane work for the sake of מקדש ישראל והזמנים. M’kadesh yisra’el v’hazmanim. To sanctify not only Israel, but time. It is as if the concept of time, beyond the needs of the human body/soul, needs some irregular interruptions in order to stay calibrated. When I think of this concept, I imagine the ur-clock, in Greenwich, England, needing a break here and there if it is going to continue to be relied upon for setting time for all of humanity. And the last sabbath? It is the one in our parsha. It is for Earth, herself. Because of that, the restrictions on this sabbath, the sh’mitah year, have more to do with earth, land, dirt, plants, fruit, nutrients of the ground…than with human behavior. The only thing an observant couldn’t (and, in Israel, still can’t) do that year is to work the soil to make it produce.


I fear that our distance-in-time from when these laws were given, and our distance-in-space from where they still obtain, and our distance-in-concept from most of agriculture and the earth’s needs, given that we procure most of our food from supermarkets, businesses, Amazon Fresh, etc… rather than from the ground…has lulled us into a lassitude, at best, and a corruption, at worst, with respect to the first mitzvah of our parsha. We just don’t care, that much, about what the earth might need. Particularly if it gets in the way of what we want.


I don’t know how to solve this. I am not introducing legislation. I am not cursing your every use of a one-time plastic bag. But I would like to awaken all of us to the clarion call, and perhaps the anguished plea, emerging from Parshat Behar. The Earth is not limitless in what it can give. The Torah personifies it akin to a servant or slave worked ceaselessly, without shabbat, who surely will give out from raw exhaustion. How much plastic can one Earth bear?


Shabbat Shalom

From Nothing to Everything
Rabbi Shoshana Cohen, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

In describing the yearly cycle of festivals, Parshat Emor describes the period we are in now, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, commonly referred to as the Omer*.

According to this description, this time period is all about grain. On Pesach ridding ourselves of chametz means getting rid of last years grain products. Having done that we turn to the new grain harvest (23:9-10) and bring an offering of the first of the grain(omer) to the priest. Until this offering is brought, which happens according to the Rabbis on the second day of Pesach, it is not permissible to use any of the new grain, as it says in verse 23:14: “You shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God.”

After omer offering is brought, we are to count seven weeks (23:15-16) and then bring another grain offering, know as “the two loaves.” (23:17). These differ from the omer in that the omer is the sheaf itself whereas the two loaves are processed, made from flour ground from the new grain. According to the Mishna in Menachot 10:5 there is another difference between the omer offering and the two loaves.

“The omer permits [the new grain] throughout the land, and the two loaves permit it in the Temple.” The bringing of the omer offering allows people outside of the Temple to partake of the new harvest, whereas in the Temple the new harvest is not permissible for use until the bringing of the two loaves seven weeks later.

Following the details of special sacrifices on Shavuot (23:18-21), we get the laws of leket and peah, the command to leave the gleanings and corners of the field for the poor (23:22). Although this command applies year-round, it makes sense for it to appear here, when the Torah is discussing the grain harvest. But there may be a deeper message there as well.

The period from Pesach to Shavuot is about more than just the ripening of new grain; it is a time of transition from having nothing to having everything. The cleaning out of chametz on Pesach is a ritual representation of the state of having nothing we experienced in Egypt. In the same way the omer offering that is brought “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest” is a ritual representation of what it means to have something. The pinnacle of this process is the two loaves, an offering made of processed loaves made of the finest flour. If Pesach is the holiday of ‘lechem oni’ – the bread of poverty – Shavuot is the holiday of plenty and satisfaction.

As the Torah understands, it is best not to go directly from one the other, just like it is best not to eat an enormous meal after a fast. We need a process and this process is the counting of the Omer. During the harvest we set some aside, we bring the first fruits, we even hold off on bringing grain offering in the Temple. We carefully transition from a state of having nothing to a state in which we have everything. The offerings allow us to acknowledge that our bounty is not our own, that we are not solely responsible for our own success. The laws of leket and peah reinforce this message, ensuring that as we accumulate and take stock of our own success we see those around us who are less fortunate and make sure to make offerings to them as well.

(*NOTE: when “Omer” appears capitalized, it refers to the counting of 7 weeks; when it is not capitalized, it refers to the “omer” offering.)

What is Kedusha
By Rabbinic Intern, Natan Freller

If I had to explain what Judaism is all about in one word, without a doubt I would say: Kedusha (Holiness).

Parashat Kedoshim is also known as the “Holiness Code”, a sequence of laws that cover almost every aspect of human life: doing business, Shabbat, moral behavior, Kashrut, family relationships, and non-Jewish Gods. So the question that Jews have been trying to answer throughout time is, of course, what does holiness actually mean?

A more literal reading of Kedusha that I think is very helpful to understand this complex concept is “to set aside”. The first mention of this concept in the Torah is during the creation story, and its role there is to set one day (Shabbat) aside from the other days of the week “vaikadesh oto” (God sanctified it – Shabbat). Shabbat is divine for being different than the other days of the week. The opposite of kedusha is chol (ordinary, commonness), which helps us understand this concept of setting aside, making it different, or extraordinary, if you will. The question that remains is: different how? This reading might not be sufficient enough to explain it completely, but Shabbat became the quintessential way of marking time in Jewish life as holy; so, if you want to understand kedusha, you must experience Shabbat.

This week’s parasha teaches “kedoshim tihiu – Be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy”. Our role in relating to the divine is to pursue the divine holiness in imitating God, being Godlike. Later on, our parasha teaches also “Make yourselves holy and be holy, for I am Adonai your God”. This second wording puts even more focus on human action, and not God’s actions, like we saw regarding Shabbat. We need to make ourselves holy, different, extraordinary and stay in that state. Then, the next verse says: “You shall faithfully observe my laws: I, Adonai, am the one who makes you holy.” Here is the key: God gave us Torah, by living a life of Torah, God makes us holy. We need God to be holy, but God cannot make us holy without our partnership and action.

The core message of this teaching for me is that we are all created in the image of God, and therefore have the potential to be Godlike. We need to strive to learn God’s ways of holiness through Torah study and acts of lovingkindness. The Talmud teaches (Sotah 14a):

“Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: What is the meaning of the verse: “After the Lord your God shall you walk” (Deut. 13:5)? But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? But hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (Deut. 4:24), and one cannot approach fire.

He explains: Rather,the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He provides several examples. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Gen. 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Gen. 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deut. 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.”

So what can we learn from experiencing shabbat and walking God’s ways?

Am Kadosh (Holy People) – God commands us, right before uttering the 10 commandments, to be an Am Kadosh, a Holy People. I can only understand the concept of a chosen people through this prisma of kedusha. Being a people that has certain set of values, laws, and practices that are clearly different and counter cultural to society is what makes us an Am Kadosh. Our narratives offer worldviews that could only be fulfilled if the entire world would abide by God’s Torah, once they all realize is truth. I’m constantly challenged by this perspective, I don’t hold my truth be higher than other’s truth, but I hold it as something dear to me, something that gives meaning to my life. Being part of the Jewish People has taught me how to model behavior, the constant work we put on to be a holy nation, can only be manifested through our actions and our relationship with others. Parashat Kedoshim also teaches: “Love your fellow as yourself”, as the sage Hillel taught a version of it in the Mishna, this is all the Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and study.

Kedoshim tihiu, it all starts with you.

Fire Is Fire
By Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor

Everyone woke up with the sun on our camping trips. Sunrise was our alarm clock and in any case the cold crept inside our sleeping bags and our breath would fog and condense on the inside of the tent flaps as we unzipped them at dawn. There was the campfire, crackling since long before the sun went down the night before. The whole campsite smelled of charcoal and glowing ash and s’mores. We liked to heat a cast iron pan on the fire as we built it back up for the day, and when it got just hot enough we’d throw on a couple of fresh-caught trout. I have memories of warming my hands on a coffee mug and sipping French-pressed grounds as I watched the fishtails curl and sizzle.

This is how I picture the eish tamid tukad al hamizbeah, the perpetual fire that the Israelites were commanded to keep kindled on the altar (Vayikra 6:6). A toasty communal hearth that served as an essential ritual tool, it was the beating heart of Israelite sacrificial space. In this week’s parsha, Aharei Mot (Vayikra 16:12), Aharon is commanded as part of his priestly service to remove a panful of glowing coals from the altar fire. The Babylonian Talmud records an Amoraic debate between Abayye and Rava (Yoma 46b) as to whether it was permissible to extinguish the fire that still glowed in those few holy coals. There was such sanctity ascribed to the fire that undergirded the precious sacrificial system that the flames and fuel were rendered nearly untouchable to the rabbinic imagination, even while they smoldered on the ground.

This ancestral anxiety is still something we carry in our guts, but rather than stoke a perpetual fire we fret over the continuity of our peoplehood. We stand around our little Jewish campfires and warm our fingers noting wistfully that the flames aren’t as bright as they used to be and if we don’t do something about it soon surely it will die altogether. Every diminution of Jewish vibrancy is a threat to the entirety of the Jewish project and every horrific act of violence against a Jewish community casts a shadow of dark prophecy.

The Sefer Hakhinukh, a 13th century Spanish guidebook of halakhic and ethical wisdom, can be read as a powerful counterbalance to the culture of foretelling doom at every negative turn (Mitzvah 133). He says that the reason fiery coals can be removed from the perpetual fire on the altar (sorry, Abayye) is that it’s simply not an act of extinguishing. Removing a firepan of coals does not change the status of the eish tamid tukad. The fire is still a fire. A fire that is dying can be rebuilt into a roaring inferno in an instant with the right infusion of fuel.

We’re at a particularly harrowing juncture of Jewish discomfort in the country and across the world. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, a survivor of recent anti-Semitic terror, wrote in the New York Times this week that, “We believe that helping any human being tap into their divine spark is a step toward fixing this broken world and bringing closer the redemption of humanity.” Even on the days when we find ourselves in the darkness, we are glowing, potent embers prepared to the give endless light into the world.

Who Knows One – Jane Shore

Who knows One. I know One.
One is God for God is One—
The only One in Heaven and on earth.

Who knows two. I know two.
Two are the first two: Adam and Eve.
One is God for God is One—
It takes one to know one.

Who knows three. I know three.
Bad things always come in threes.
Two trees grew in the Garden of Eden.
One is God for God is One—
One rotten apple spoils the barrel.

Who knows four. I know four.
What were you doing on all fours?
Three’s the hearts in a ménage à trois.
Two’s the jump ropes in double Dutch.
One is God for God is One—
One good turn deserves another.

Who knows five. I know five.
Five is the five in “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
Four is Egypt’s plague of flies.
Three the Stooges on TV.
Two the two-faced lie he told.
One is God for God is One—
One hand washes the other.

Who knows six. I know six.
Six are the wives of Henry VIII.
Who? What? Where? When? Why?
Four the phases of the moon.
Three the bones inside the ear.
Two eyes—the better to see you with, my dear.
One is God for God is One—
There’s only one to a customer.

Who knows seven. I know seven.
Seven the year of the seven-year itch.
Six the paper anniversary.
Asked if he did it, he pleaded the Fifth.
Four are my absent wisdom teeth.
Three is the three in the third degree.
Two can play that game.
One is God for God is One—
Public Enemy No. 1.

Who knows eight. I know eight.
The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week.”
Wrath is the seventh of the deadly sins.
Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
He lost it all in five-card stud.
Four bits in a nibble equals half a byte.
Three is the beginning, middle, and end.
Two are the graves in the family plot.
One is God for God is One—
The only one in a hole in one.

Who knows nine. I know nine.
Nine are the lives of an average cat.
Eight is the day of circumcision.
Seven the locks on Samson’s head.
Six the sense I wish I had.
Five the five in nickeled-and-dimed.
Four cold feet in the double bed.
Three’s a crowd.
Two’s company.
One is God for God is One—
The only one in a one-night stand.

Who knows ten. I know ten.
I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole.
She dressed to the nines.
Fellini’s “8½.”
Seven the times the bride circles the groom.
Six the number perfect in itself.
She daubed her wrists with Chanel No. 5.
Love is just a four-letter word.
Three is as phony as a three-dollar bill.
Two is the two in doubletalk.
One is God for God is One—
There’s one born every minute.

Who knows eleven. I know eleven.
Eleven are the stars in Joseph’s dream.
Ten is the Roman numeral X.
Possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Infinity’s a sideways figure eight.
Seven long years Jacob had to wait.
Six is the Lover’s Tarot card.
Five is indivisible.
Four, cruel April.
Three witches in “the Scottish play.”
Two is the two of “I and Thou.”
One is God for God is One—
One in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Who knows twelve. I know twelve.
Twelve are the face cards in a deck.
Eleven are the thieves in “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Take a deep breath and count to ten.
It takes nine tailors to make a man.
Eight are the people on Noah’s ark.
Seven are the hues in a rainbow’s arc.
Six is . . . I can’t remember what.
Five the rivers of the Underworld.
Four the rivers of Paradise.
Three on a match.
It takes two to tango.
One is God for God is One—
In one ear and out the other.

Who knows thirteen. I know thirteen.
Thirteen is the skyscraper’s missing floor.
Twelve are the men who walked on the moon.
At the eleventh hour, his life was spared.
Do not covet your neighbor’s ass.
Nine are the circles of Dante’s Hell.
Eight is the game of crazy eights.
The phone was busy 24/7.
They deep-sixed their love affair.
The five-o’clock shadow on your face.
Four is putting two and two together.
Three is the eternal triangle.
Two plays second fiddle.
Two minus one equals one.
One is one all alone.
You were my one and only one—
The only one whose number’s up.

We Made It!…Now What?
By: Rabbi Matt Shapiro, Interim Associate Rabbi

Whenever you’re reading this, the work is over. Whether it’s on the cusp of your seder on Friday night or in shul Saturday morning, you’ve cleaned, prepped, cooked, and are either heading into a substantive and joyous celebration of our exodus from Egypt or you still have the words and songs from last night ringing in your ears. But…to what end? What was it for? You had a meaningful and fun seder (or, at the very least, I hope, the food was delicious). What do you do with that experience now?

It calls to mind advice I once received myself and now often give to couples who are in the midst of wedding planning. Weddings are joyous, chaotic, wonderful events, yet if the exclusive focus of those efforts is on the ceremony and the party, something is missing. It should be a beautiful day, to be sure- and that day can then be a springboard of love and joy into everything that comes after those precious few hours. Yes, you should plan intensively and mindfully for the event, and you should plan just as intensively and mindfully for the days and weeks and years to come.

Our tradition knows about the challenge of losing the forest for the trees. The concept of and insistence upon building a meaningful structure on top of significant and lasting moments appears in countless ways in and around Jewish practice, ritual, and teaching. One such location for this is found in the counting of the Omer, beginning Saturday night, on the second day of Pesach, as we count the 49 days until Shavuot, when we celebrate, remember, and honor receiving Torah at Mount Sinai.

The mystics of our tradition explore and delve into how each day of the Omer isn’t just a number to be checked off, but how each one is a nexus point of different sfirot, the lenses through which we can view and understand attributes and aspects of God which are in turn mapped onto our own personalities and experiences. You can see a full chart online (for example: here), but you can also conceptualize a 7×7 grid, on which one element (the first of which is chesed, loving-kindness) moves through each of the lower seven sfirot for that week. We then transition into the second of those sfirot for week 2, and so on, getting us to a total of 49 before celebrating Shavuot. The first day of the Omer, for example, encourages us to look at chesed within chesed, seeking out the deepest point of compassion and kindness within ourselves, even and especially when it’s not easily given or found. Then, on day 2, we turn to exploring gevurah (judgment/might/justice) within chesed, the need for boundaries and structure to help shape and guide the love we seek out and offer. Each day offers a new dynamic tension and/or exploration and/or challenge to push us to look within our selves.

Based on my experience, I can’t help but connect this with the language and concepts of addiction recovery. Each of the previous six years, while working at Beit T’shuvah, the language of “one day at a time” rang throughout these seven weeks; particularly, and not exclusively, in early sobriety, a full 24 hours of abstaining from addictive behaviors is in and of itself a miracle. Each day is worthy of recognition and celebration. Each day, with its own spiritual challenges and opportunities for growth, is one step along the path of recovery, just as each day of the Omer is a step on the path to receiving Torah.

This can be seen as a corrective to the haste with which we fled Egypt, leaving no time, of course, for even our bread to rise. These weeks, these days of the Omer come to remind us that continued haste without pause leads to chaos. After we ran so quickly to escape oppression, persecution, and horror, we are then challenged to be able to slow down enough to recognize what’s present, possible, and necessary within each day we are blessed to be alive. This process isn’t just the next chunk of time that happens to come after a holiday. It’s a necessary element to lean into, a gift that’s offered up to us. We, in turn, make a decision in our response. We don’t just experience freedom from slavery- we are given freedom to choose how to live our lives, which we express through cultivating the aspects of our inner lives that need further development.

What’s the seder for? To commemorate that we left Egypt. What’s the point of leaving Egypt? Everything that comes after: wandering, Torah, growth, struggle, change, learning, mitzvot, service, love, and on, and on. The Omer gives us a beautiful, prismatically filtered set of days and weeks through which we can begin to map out what post-slavery life looks like, a continued, daily process that we get the privilege of living. Now that we’re out of Egypt, I’m so grateful and glad to be walking continually towards Sinai with you, one day at a time.

Shabbat shalom, and chag sameach.


As we prepare for Passover next week, I’m honored to share two short pieces of Torah from one of my teachers, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, that offer the opportunity for reflection before Pesach. It’s easy to get lost in the material preparations, yet it’s just as important to prepare ourselves for the deeper meanings of the holiday as well. Rabbi Borovitz plays with symbols and rituals that many of us already know quite well and refracts them through a different lens through which to view these observances. I hope you find these teachings as resonant and thought-provoking as I do! -Rabbi Matt Shapiro

“The difference between unnecessary suffering and bitterness is found in the maror and charoset. When we eat the maror alone, we recoil from the taste of its bitterness. So too, should we recoil from the bitterness of our current slavery. What about our lives tastes so bitter that we commit to not engage in these bitter activities? When we eat just the charoset, the taste is much more palatable. This represents the way most of us see our lives. Life is palatable, not great, not too terrible, just sort of a low-grade temperature. This is the worst enslavement of all! Many of us just become fatalistic and say this is how life is. We accept our suffering in our slavery, in our daily routine as part of life and believe that it will never change. This is the antithesis of Pesah.

Many of us are complacent and feel like we deserve and are comfortable with our enslavements; it is our response to the pains that we feel. It works for a while, then, it traps us and we believe that we have no way out. We don’t have to give in to this. This ‘suffering’ becomes a warm blanket and a trusted friend; it becomes how we define ourselves. Pesah is the answer to this type of life. We have to know that slavery is bitter, it is not comfortable, it is not our friend. We are not meant to be slaves! By eating the maror, we are reminded of this bitterness and the belief is that once we taste this bitterness, we will resolve to become free and liberated. This bitterness is the taste we have in our mouths that says: I won’t come to this place anymore!”

“Matzah tells us that the way out of tolerable slavery is to return to our basic self, our soul. We clean our homes for Pesah. We get rid of all of the chometz, anything that has a leavening agent in it. Why? If we try and get out of slavery when we are full of ourselves, when our ego is puffed up, we will get stuck. The Israelites in the Torah had euphoric recall of what it was like in Egypt. They remembered good times that never happened. They needed to eat meat, quail, fish, etc. because they used to sit and eat by the flesh pots of Egypt. But- they were slaves and this never happened! Matzah is the bread of transition. It helps us transition back to our essential selves/souls and then stay lean enough to get out of slavery.

There is a wonderful midrash on chometz and matzah. The difference is one letter, the hey, instead of the het. The puffed up chometz is symbolic of our egos. It is closed and impenetrable. The matzah is the symbol that if I allow the puffed up part of me to leave, then I am left with my soul- this is the part of me that allows me to be open and teachable. I am able to connect with God, my true self (all of me), and others. The matzah reminds us of our spiritual need for simplicity. Write down one enslavement that you commit to leave this year. Take some time this year to talk about what enslaves you and the one enslavement that you are committing to leave. Tell each other what help you need from them to make this a reality.

Remember, transformation from slavery to freedom is 5% transformation and 95% maintenance. The maintenance, like the transformation, can only be done in community.”

Excerpts from Liberation of the Soul Kit, by Rabbi Mark Borovitz

Calling Out, Calling in
Prepared by Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁוֹן וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ יֹאכַל פִּרְיָהּ׃

Death and life are in the power of the tongue; Those who love it will eat its fruit.
(Proverbs 18:21)

For a long time, I’ve heard connections between leprosy and lashon hara (lit. evil tongue. i.e. defamation, slander, gossip). How are these two related?

There are two interesting connections in our vast literature that I want to share with you today and hopefully learn meaningful lessons from them.

The first connection we see is in the Torah itself, a more contextual reading. Later on, in the book of Bamidbar, Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe for marrying a Cushite women, Tziporah. After that, God calls the three of them to the Tent of Meeting and rebukes their behavior. Once God’s presence leaves, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow.

The second is a famous midrash about the meaning of life:

Another explanation for the verse: “This shall be the law for a leper” (Leviticus 14:2) – the answer is in what is written (Psalms 36:13), “Who is the man who desires life?” There is a story of a peddler who would go around to towns that were close to Tzippori. He would shout out and say, “Who wants to buy the potion of life?” They would all cling to him. Rabbi Yannai was sitting and interpreting texts in his reception room and heard him shouting out, “Who wants to buy the potion of life?” Rabbi Yannai said, “Come down to here, sell it to me.” He said back to him, “You do not need it and those like you do not need it.” Nonetheless, he made the effort to come and go down to him. He took out a book of Psalms and showed him the verse, “Who is the man who desires life?” The peddler said, “What is written after it – ‘guard your tongue from evil […] Turn away from evil and do good’ (Psalms 34:14-15).” Rabbi Yannai said, Kind Shlomo wrote: (Proverbs 21:23), ‘He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.'” Rabbi Yannai said “All of my days I was reading this verse and I did not know how to interpret it until this peddler came and made it understood – ‘Who is the man who desires life?'” Therefore, Moshe warns Israel and says to them, “This shall be the law for a leper (metzora)” – the law of the one that gives out a bad name (motzi shem ra) to another person. (Vayikra Rabbah 16:2)

So, what is the deeper meaning of the connection between leprosy (tzara’at) and lashon hara?

The Talmud (Arakhin 16b) explains that a person who has tzara’at needs to sit outside the camp for an entire week. Why? Since the person brought division between spouses or between two friends therefore the Torah says: “The one with tzara’at shall sit alone…”. And that is what happened to Miriam after speaking against Moshe’s wife, Tziporah.

Lashon hara is not taken lightly by our tradition. The consequence for it is a process isolation that should lead into a process of teshuvah, repentance. I was thinking about this forced process of isolation and what could be a modern comparison to that. We don’t live in a camp in the desert anymore, so how does this process look like? I think that there is, or should be, a natural process of isolation to those who are constantly speaking lashon hara. When we witness lashon hara, either against ourselves or directed towards other people, it is our obligation to do something with it. Recently, I learned a new expression in English that I want to share with you as a response to lashon hara in the modern world. Instead al calling out someone for doing something wrong, we need to call them in! Isolation might have been a successful tool for the ancient world to deal with this problem. Our world is in need of love. Don’t call them out. Let’s call them in! We need to bring up these kinds of conversation to a civic discourse, explain why disrespecting someone with words is dangerous and counter productive to the society that we are trying to build together.

The Midrash about the peddler and Rabbi Yannai teaches us a mantra, a way to walk in God’s world and live a life of meaning and holiness: “Who is the man who desires life?” The peddler said, “What is written after it – ‘guard your tongue from evil […] Turn away from evil and do good’ (Psalms 34:14-15).”

About our own behavior, ‘guard your tongue from evil’. This is a constant exercise. Write it down. Carry a piece of paper with that phrase as a reminder. Make it your cellphone’s background. Frame it and keep it in your desk. This is a message from our tradition to keep us accountable for our behavior and a reminder of our values.

About what to do when we see lashon hara in our midst: ‘Turn away from evil and do good’. We need to find the strength to turn away from it, avoid listening it. And instead of calling it out and going away, the verse teaches us: ‘do good’. Call it in! Share your love with them and teach them the core teaching of our tradition: Love your fellow as yourself.

Shabbat Shalom

Aaron: Imposter or Perfect Fit?
By: Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy

I am friends with an amazing woman – she is accomplished and brilliant. Her work is changing the world on a daily basis. Her humor and insight can leave me breathless.

She recently texted a group of our friends asking, “how many people here feel like a failure on a regular basis? Or don’t trust themselves the way they wish they could? Second guess? Feel insecure in certain rooms or in dealing with certain people?” While of course we all texted back with reminders of her brilliance and bravery, my friend is not alone in dealing with imposter syndrome. Even Michelle Obama recently offered, “It never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me. It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know?”

Imposter syndrome—the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications—was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They find imposter syndrome most often in people with perfectionist tendencies. While the literature on this syndrome is fairly recent, we can trace imposter syndrome back to this parsha:

The Mishkan is finally complete, and now the time has come for Aaron and his sons to begin their priestly service. Moshe gives them various instructions and then says to Aaron:

קְרַ֤ב אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־חַטָּֽאתְךָ֙ וְאֶת־עֹ֣לָתֶ֔ךָ וְכַפֵּ֥ר בַּֽעַדְךָ֖ וּבְעַ֣ד הָעָ֑ם וַעֲשֵׂ֞ה אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן הָעָם֙ וְכַפֵּ֣ר בַּֽעֲדָ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֽה׃

Come near to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the LORD has commanded.

The sages were puzzled by the instruction, “Come near.” This seems to imply that Aaron had until then kept a distance from the altar. Rashi gives the following explanation:

Aaron was ashamed and fearful of approaching the altar. Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? It was for this that you were chosen.”

We know that Aaron is still feeling guilt and responsibility for the situation with the golden calf. Aaron was deeply uncomfortable with acting as the High Priest when he had, just recently, profoundly sinned. He felt like an imposter – how could anyone take him seriously? And at that moment, Moshe tells Aaron something radical and life-changing: “It was for this role that you were chosen.” The task of a High Priest is to atone for people’s sins. It was Aaron’s role, on Yom Kippur, to confess his wrongs and failings and to plead for forgiveness.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers on this topic:

“That,” implied Moses, “is why you were chosen. You know what sin is like. You know what it is to feel guilt. You more than anyone else understand the need for repentance and atonement. You have felt the cry of your soul to be cleansed, purified and wiped free of the stain of transgression. What you think of as your greatest weakness will become, in this role you are about to assume, your greatest strength.”

In other words, Aaron thinks he is not fit to be the High Priest because he has sinned, but it is precisely because he has sinned that he can be the best High Priest. We need to stop expecting perfection from ourselves. Like Aaron, we need to recognize that we have things to offer the world, we have expertise, and we have strength because of our weaknesses. And just as Aaron assumed the mantle of the High Priest, so too do we need to step forward and do those things that scare us. To paraphrase Rabbi Sacks, our weaknesses make us human; confronting those weaknesses and harnessing them for good brings us purpose and strength.

Prosper the Work of our Hands
By Zachary Golden, Ziegler Student

Psalm 90 is the psalm of Moses, who in the psalm, contemplates the shortness of human life and the frailty of humanity in the sight of the Eternal God. He sees how God, whose day is like a thousand years, towers mightily over sinful human beings, who live for seventy years – or eighty if they have the strength. Whereas God builds the world, and fashions the mountains, human beings return to dust. Moses has one balm for this terrible image of our helplessness and limitation. In the last line of the psalm, he asks God to bless the work of his hands. This is a strange method of comfort – if it were really the case that we are nothing before God, wouldn’t it stand to reason that our work -which is even frailer than human beings – is even more meaningless? But if there is one person in the Torah who could make the case that our work is more meaningful than the miniscule span and immeasurably small pureness of our lives in the eyes of God, it would be Moses!

In our parshah, Pekudei, Moses and the Israelites assemble the Mishkan, the roving Tabernacle. In previous parashot, all the pieces are made – and here they are assembled; and according to a Midrash, by Moses with the help of God. Moses then blesses the work in verse 39:43, and according to Rashi, he blesses it with the last line of Psalm 90 – “May God’s favor be upon us; may the work of our hands prosper, prosper the work of our hands!” In this reading of the psalm, Moses sees the building of the dwelling place of God, the Mishkan, the reason why human beings can claim any significance at all. Holy work is the only work that is more significant than us, not less significant. It is more eternal than us, not more temporary. And by being a part of this kind of work, Moses sees hope for us despite our insignificance.

Let us understand more deeply how different holiness, and therefore holy work, is from anything else. One does not descend from holiness – this is a rabbinic principle. It means that anything that is holy does not become unholy – though things that are pure can become impure and vice versa. In the scale of holiness, there is impure, pure, and holy. We are individually impure and pure. We go in between a state of being allowed near God, and being told to stay away, in alternating spans of our lives. But it says in verse 39:30 to inscribe the diadem of the High Priest with the statement “Holy to God.” There is no return for the High Priest – he is bathed in holiness. Holiness means he belongs to God, and God’s possessions are less than God but they are allowed to be nearest to God, desired by God. Holiness means breaking the cycle of purity and impurity to be near God, who is holy. When we contributed to the building of the Mishkan, we brought the possibility of having our representative come close to God and away from our limitations – and this is what gives us the hope for significance despite our limitations before God in the psalm of Moses. But we can be even more than enablers of holiness.

We are told to be a holy people – and one day we will be. We will all do work that will be work on behalf of a cause or a need that is precious and holy to God, not just for our own ambitions. And like Moses, we will find that the difficult task of assembling the heavy panels of the Mishkan will be aided by God, as long we desire to do the impossible. Often what is moral does not seem effective, what is good is not feasible, because of the fears we have of our limitations. But our limitations are a crisis in meaning rather than capability. Were we to do something we believed in, to become servants to a higher cause, we would see how easily we could step out of the picture – we could give up the petty things that tell us that we can not, and only see the truth and beauty of the work of creating the world alongside God. Reflecting on our limited time on Earth, we might ask God to “teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) Then we can build something greater than ourselves, and make us more than the dust of our bodies. Let us be so blessed to “prosper the work of our hands!”

All in the Timing
By: Josh Jacobs, Ziegler Student

My sister has been a vegetarian her whole life, ever since she saw the movie Babe, when she was seven years old. The movie ended, and my parents innocently asked, “Did you like the movie, Rachel?” She turned to them, tears in her eyes, and said, “You never told me that food comes from animals.” I’ve always admired her for making a decision at seven, and sticking with it her entire life.

Needless to say, Vayikra is not her favorite parsha. The vast majority of it deals with the vivid details of animal sacrifice, pinching off of heads, and dashing of blood on the alter. The good news is Babe was a pig so…he’s safe. But Vayikra begs the question, why does God demand animal sacrifice? Clearly, it’s not that God likes the smell of barbeque. What if, Maimonides postulates, the entire system of animal sacrifice was a Divine concession to the reality of a human growth curve?

Rambam points to how, upon liberating the Israelites, God “…did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because God said, ‘Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt’…” (Exod. 13:17). In other words, it’s possible that timing truly is everything in life. We could have gone the direct route, but we weren’t ready. We could have entered Israel forty years earlier, but ten of the twelve spies weren’t ready. Similarly, we could have skipped right over animal sacrifice to “Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be acceptable to You” (Psalms 19:15), but perhaps we weren’t ready.

As I turn the pages this week and heads are flying off left and right, I am reminded that the “pleasing fragrance” (ניחח ריח) God requires of us is not the smell of barbeque, but rather the sweet fragrance of a devoted spirit. The kind stirred up in our souls when we direct our thoughts toward gratitude. It just so happens that Samuel articulates this notion beautifully in the corresponding Haftorah for this week, proving once again, there’s something to this timing thing.

The Haftorah clearly prepares us for Purim, recounting Saul’s compassion toward Agag, who is understood to have been Haman’s progenitor. Interestingly, it also unequivocally weighs in on animal sacrifice. After raiding Amalek, Saul not only spares Agag, but also the entire cast of Babe. When Samuel rebukes him, Saul says he intends to sacrifice the animals to God. Samuel replies, “Has the Lord (as much) desire in burnt offerings and peace-offerings, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than a peace-offering; to hearken (is better) than the fat of rams” (Samuel 15:22). Saul failed to listen to God, but perhaps his greater failure was the inability to see down the long road. A road of prayer that leads to words and song. A road of Agag that leads to Haman.

Vayikra challenges me to look down my own road, and to consider my own growth curve. In what ways am I taking the long way? In what direction do I ultimately hope to evolve? If it’s all in the timing, what’s keeping me from being ready now? Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach.

God, Let me see you!
By: Natan Freller, Rabbinic Intern

Do you remember the last time you saw God? Take a minute to think about that experience. What did God look like?

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we read the famous episode of Moshe asking to see God. Interestingly, this story is actually mentioned twice in this parasha. First, the narrator tells about how the meeting between God and Moshe happened, from an outsider’s perspective. Later, we see the dialogue between them.

In the first account, it is said that a pillar of cloud would stand at the entrance of the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting), and God would speak to Moshe panim el panim, face to face, inside the Tent.

In the second account, Moshe said to God: “Please, show me Your Kavod!” The word Kavod here can be translated in many ways, such as: dignity, honor, importance, or presence. God answered, saying: “I’ll make my goodness pass before you, (…) and you will not be able to see my face, for no human can see my face and live. (…) and you will see my back, but my face may not be seen”. I like translating Kavod here as presence. For me, Moshe knew that he could not see God physically, and that is why he asked to see God’s presence. And God responded offering one of God’s attributes, God’s goodness.

One could argue that there is a clear contradiction between these two texts. I want to offer another perspective, where we can learn from both experiences how to find the Divine in our lives.

Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, an Italian rabbi, wrote in the 16th century about these verses: “All existence draws its existence from God, even though these phenomena do not appear to be related to one another. This is what Isaiah meant with the words: “all the earth is filled with God’s Kavod” (Isaiah 6:3). These different visions might look different from one another, but they were both divine manifestations.

The narrator of the first account and the author of Moshe’s dialogue with God might have had different life experiences of the same Divine revelation. God’s presence in this world can be manifested in different ways, from the nature of the clouds to the spiritual presence in times of prayer.

Judaism is known to be a religion of practice, not a religion of beliefs. There is no belief on God that unifies Jews across the board; still, we pray together as a community in order to support our members who lost someone dear to them.

In that sense, I want to offer another perspective in understanding the encounter between Moshe and God, between human and Divine. In this parasha we also read another famous text in the Jewish Tradition: Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, Erech apayim v’rav chessed ve-emet; Notser chessed la-alafim, Nose avon vafesha v’chata’ah v’nakeh.

Adonai, Adonai, God gracious and compassionate, Patient and abounding in kindness and faithfulness, Assuring lovingkindness for a thousand generations, Forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, And granting pardon.

Known also as the 13 divine attributes, Moshe used this formula to plead before God in the behalf of the People. God’s attributes are in fact descriptions of what God does, which creates what God is.

It is part of the human condition, to experience God from a relational perspective; it is not about what God is, but what God does that matters. We are all able to experience God, and it is not going to be the same experience for everyone, just as it is not going to be the same experience every time.

Sometimes we might not be able to see God, just like Moshe could not. Instead of seeing God, Moshe experienced his time with God by seeing the divine attributes. We can learn from Moshe that our experience with the divine will be through the divine attributes, finding and seeing God in what God does. It is up to each one of us to open our eyes to see God, since God’s presence is out there waiting to meet us.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis was able to say it better than I could: “What is it that I believe in? I really believe in the attributes of divinity. I believe it completely. I believe that they’re real. I think it’s the most real thing in the world. The question is not “Do you believe that God is love?” The question is “Do you believe that love is godly?” Of course I believe that love is godly. And I know darn well that if I want to express what the bible put so brilliantly in the beginning that God created me in the image of divinity that that is what it means to do. I’ve got to live out God, to behave God, not to believe but to behave God. That’s the deepest vindication, testimony of the existence of the truth of godliness.”

May we all be able to see the divine presence in our lives this week.

Shabbat Shalom.


What does it mean to volunteer your heart?
By: Jenna Turow, Ziegler Student

During rabbinical school orientation, we had a luncheon with students from the school for nonprofit management, some of whom are Christian clergy. During that lunch, a pastor at my table asked us all when and how we received our “calling” to the rabbinate. Some of my schoolmates around the table were a bit uncomfortable with this question and concept, but I was eager to discuss it. I truly feel that I have been called to become a rabbi, that I am compelled by the spiritual force of God. The concept of a “calling” has been mostly abandoned in Jewish culture, but it is evident throughout our narrative; perhaps it’s time to reclaim it. There are countless stories of our ancestors being called to act for God, such as Abraham’s lech lecha, Moses and the burning bush, and many of the later prophets. These callings may seem obvious and antiquated because those people were in direct conversation with God, but there are many ways to experience a calling from a higher power. This week’s parashah, for example, tells the story of a collective calling, a time when the people of Israel were asked to look within and sense their own calling for contribution.

Parashat Vayakhel tells the story of the building of the Mishkan. It repeats the detailed information given in Parashat Terumah, this time in action. Much of this portion consists of details of building materials, measurements, and construction. There is a phrase mentioned in Terumah that is repeated throughout Parashat Vayakhel; God is asking for all contributors to be a נְדִיב לֵב (n’div lev). Sefaria.org translates this as those “whose hearts have moved them,” and I would translate it as those “whose hearts have volunteered.” Throughout this parashah, the people are asked to bring various materials, give their abilities as builders and constructors. They are given two criteria for their contributions: that they have the physical materials or physical ability for their task, and that they have this n’div lev, a willingness or voluntary compulsion of their hearts and minds. What does it mean for your heart to volunteer for something? It is to be so compelled by your own inner will, that you feel called from within to contribute to the task at hand. In this parashah, we see that God is adamant that the people should only contribute if they feel compelled by their own hearts, that they are called on from the depth of their soul, to come forward with materials and able bodies.

The exact wording of “calling” may be foreign to us contemporarily, but the concept of n’div lev has continued through today for the Jewish community. There is a beautiful phenomenon among the Jewish people to be individually and collectively compelled by our hearts to take action and bring good into the world. When faced with a crisis of social justice, for example, the Jewish community rallies together to bring their materials and able bodies to the task at hand. When one person in a community feels so compelled, they rally their friends, family, and community members to join their cause. When we are asked to bring our “blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linens” and our chochma, or skilled ability, to contribute to a holy space, the Jewish people do not hesitate if their hearts are called as well. When a community seeks to help refugees, or combat homelessness, or promote inclusion, the Jewish people answer the call. We cannot stand idly by, because our hearts and minds are so moved individually and as a group to contribute to God’s work in the world. In this way, the concept of a “calling” has continued to pervade the Jewish collective consciousness. Parashat Vayakhel teaches us that we must keep our hearts and minds open to the calling from God, and from our own souls, to bring our abilities and ourselves to build the proverbial Mishkan, to make good. May we continue to be in tune with our souls, as the Israelites were in the desert, and jump to action when so called. May we all continue to find our calling, and answer it.

Taste of Torah: Tetzaveh

A Sign Upon Your Heart

By: Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor – Temple Beth Am

When I sit on a beit din, a rabbinic panel, that’s considering a candidate for conversion to Judaism, I have a favorite question. I ask the candidate, “What is it about you, in appearance or behavior, that will make clear to the people around you that you a Jew?” I’ve gotten lots of answers about kippot or necklaces with Jewish symbols. Most frequently, someone will say, “My coworkers notice my kosher lunch” or “people notice my absence on holidays”. Their ritual observance sets them apart.

In Parshat Tetzaveh, there is a setting apart beyond the chosen-ness of the Israelites of the people as Aaron and his sons are brought forward and decorated in honor of their priestly status. The instructions for adorning their breastplates are accompanied by the amendment that the names of the children of Israel should be al libo… l’zikaron lifnei Adonai tamid: upon his heart… as a reminder before God always.

Who is the beneficiary of the reminder here? Is it the priest who feels the weight of these stones of remembrance around his neck? Is it God, who is the heavenly witness to the priestly rites? Is it both? The name of the breastplate gives us a context clue: hoshen mishpat, the breastplate of law. The Netziv, 19th-century Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, emphasizes the instruction that this is worn over the priest’s heart, and therefore it is intended as a reminder for him to pray on behalf of his sisters and brothers when empowered to do so. This garb is a reminder of the priestly clout and ability to impact the lives of all of Israel. But the verse includes the specific instruction that the breastplate is worn “before God,” so it might equally serve as a reminder to God of the precious human souls at stake when heavenly decrees take hold.

Wearing something of symbolic importance can be dually experienced by the wearer and the beholder, in identical or radically different ways. When someone chooses to don a chamsa necklace as they embrace their Jewish identity, others may or may not notice. The magic happens, I think, in the conversation that the necklace sparks between the wearer and the observer. In the breach. In the human intersection. The necklace matters, but not as much as the portal of connection that it opens.

Last year, I sat on a beit din for conversion and asked my usual question: “How will the people around you see that you’re Jewish?” The candidate responded: “I used to drive like a maniac. Then I started wearing a kippah. And I realized that people were looking over at this guy who cut them off and not just cursing me but cursing all Jews, because that’s what that they saw: a Jew. I’ve cooled down on the road and I get more smiles and nods now. I like to think that someone out there is going, ‘Those Jews are such friendly drivers’”.

A kippah matters, but not as much as the behavior it inspires and the lives that may be impacted as a result. Every symbol we wear, no matter where we wear it, is a symbol on our heart as it reminds us to keep close who and what we represent. And every outward expression of identity is an invitation to grow and strengthen our relationships who might see us, and see what we do, as a representation of a greater whole.

The Heart Will Follow
By Rabbinic Intern, Ariel Root Wolpe

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

“Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.” (Exodus 25:2)

Every person must bring gifts—but not all gifts are to be accepted. How would you feel if, after selecting a few items from among your precious, scarce possessions, you brought them to the mishkan and were rejected? If you were told you could not help build the dwelling place of God and center of ritual practice because your contribution did not come from your lev, from your heart?

We all have different reasons we contribute to projects in our communities. Sometimes the guilt of our fortunate circumstances motivates us, and we alleviate that feeling through giving our wealth to just causes. Sometimes, our giving is initiated by a sense of obligation, a belief that we are commanded to invest in Jewish institutions and philanthropic endeavors. And sometimes we give purely because we see a need and desire to fill it. Sometimes, we give from the heart.

Rebbe Simcha Bunim Alter applies the concept of na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will hear, to the above verse of Parashat Terumah:

כיוון שאמרו ישראל נעשה ונשמע, מיד אמר הקב”ה למשה ויקחו לי תרומה. פירוש הדבר: מצוות צדקה צריכים לעשות בלי התחשבות יתירה, בלי שיקולים, אלא נעשה ואחר כך נשמע. כי אם יחשוב וישקול קודם, לעולם לא יגיע ל”נעשה”.

Since Israel said ‘we will do and we will listen’, the Holy Blessed One immediately said to Moshe ‘and you must take terumah for me’. An explanation of the matter: the commandment of tzedakah requires action without excessive contemplation, without excessive consideration, but rather to ‘do’ and afterwards to ‘listen’. This is because if one contemplates and considers beforehand, one will never arrive at ‘we will do’.

Giving, Rabbi Alter explains, is something we must get into the habit of just doing. If we overthink our impulse to give to a person or organization, we will come up with better ways to use our money and will be less likely to part with it. Before our mind begins to turn with warnings of careful spending, we must reach out our hand and give.

In this way, it doesn’t even matter whether your original motivation to give comes from guilt, obligation, or desire. All that matters is that you strive to be generous with your resources, to be someone who donates money and energy to the causes that deserve support. Over a life well lived, your desire to give will only grow.

Where the hand gives, the heart will follow.

Judaism, Beautifully Done
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

If only the whole Jewish world knew, and lived by, this one comment of Rashi. If only that…then the Jewish people would be kinder, more ethical and more dignified.

Let me rev this up by saying that one of my recent and current pet peeves (which is saying it lightly. What I am about to describe is a source of tremendous pain and anguish for me about Jewish living) is the discourteousness (again, to say it lightly) exhibited by some who are punctilious about ritual Jewish observance. In my mind, I have thought of this as “ugly Judaism.” A Judaism which valorizes, and pays attention to, halakhic/legal/ritual detail, while eschewing (sometimes simultaneously) basic politeness and rudimentary ethical comportment. Myriad examples jump to mind. Jews who are so careful about not touching a person of the opposite gender such that it impacts where they sit on an airplane, but seem to jettison all expressions of patient, flexible kindness when trying to meet those needs. Jews who are careful and ubiquitous when it comes to regular, obligatory prayer, and who can recite the prayers fluently and fluidly…but then resort to lashon hara (gossip, damaging speech) as soon as there is a gap in the service. Jews who are so set on venerating the Torah that they literally knock people over (and thus knock over the values of that very Torah) on the way to giving the Torah a kiss. Some might call that last example as veneration-turned-idolatry, with frenzy having replaced honor.

(I am neither a perfect Jew nor a perfect human. I try to name and efface as many of the flaws that I recognize within myself as possible. So I will accept “guilty as charged” for any of the ways in which I fall prey to the very phenomena discussed above.)

I muse about how we got to this place in Jewish sociology wherein the class of phenomena I named is so prevalent. Perhaps it should not be such a surprise. Human beings are complex and riddled with internal inconsistencies. We undermine, and betray, our own values and principles all the time—sometimes unaware and unconscious, and sometimes quite aware, but as a result of some negotiation, or rationalization, with self. But even if this is true, ought we not try to aspire to something better, something higher?

The commentary of Rashi I referenced above is his first on Parshat Mishpatim, and emerges from a pretty wonky and zoomed-in read of the text. The parsha begins with the words ואלה משפטים / V’eleh hamishpatim / “And these are the laws/statues…”. The parsha then continues with a litany of laws (making Mishpatim the parsha with the second-most number of mitzvot among all the 54 parashot, with only Ki Tetze having more). Most of those laws are related to civic life, business practices and ethical living, with rather few of them existing purely in the ritual realm. Rashi notes that all sorts of sentences in the Torah begin with the introduction of “אלה / Eleh / These…” And he notes, or suggests, a pattern: When the opening word is just Eleh, the word is meant to separate what is to come from what came before. It would be read something like “Now that we have finished that topic, these are some other things, in another category.” But when the opening word is “V’eleh” (as it is in our verse), the opposite is true: The word connects the upcoming verse(s) and concept(s) with the antecedent, as if we should read it something like “And these things, as well!”

Rashi is highlighting the import of the slim, humble, almost indiscernible vov-letter that begins the word and the parsha. Within that tiny letter is the following exhortation: lest you delude yourself into thinking that the laws about to be commanded are somehow other, or lesser, or disconnected from the “true revelation” we just had in Parshat Yitro…lest you erroneously think that all (any!) of the commandments after the initial 10 are secondary, the vov of “V’eleh” sets you straight. You thought that the Sinai moment ended last week? Hardly. It continues into Mishpatim, with no conceptual or hierarchical separation. So as you remember Shabbat and render it holy, and as you commit to monotheism and to not taking that one God’s name in vain, so too do you promise to act towards your servants with decency, and pay the damages of one you have injured, and guard your animals lest they create havoc, and ensure that your open pits do not pose a danger to unsuspecting wayfarers, and treat the stranger with empathy, and support the widow and orphan, and ease the burden of an overladen animal, and on and on and on. They, too, are part of God’s revelation to us, and expectations of us. While the latter category without the former category might be ethical humanism, I would say again that the former category without the latter is ugly Judaism.

Remember that vov, and act on it. Connect your conception of Sinai to how you hold yourself, especially while you find yourself in the midst of a ritual act. Make God’s name truly holy by having your very being be a conveyor of holiness, from the ritual to the civil, and back.

Shabbat Shalom

In the exquisitely lean five books of Torah, that which is repeated shines with importance. The aseret hadibrot, the ten utterances/commandments, appear twice with only slight discrepancies. The connection between these commandments and the grandeur of revelation serve to highlight their significance. If the Torah could be scribed in bolded font, Parshat Yitro and the ten commandments would certainly get that treatment.

But if the creed of the ten commandments is so very critical, why don’t we recite them like a pledge each day, or even multiple times a day? The testimony of God’s oneness by way of the Shema was deemed so central that it was assigned a spot in two out of the three daily services — and the Shema only appears once in the Torah! Kal v’homer, through an a fortiori argument, we might think that the ten commandments deserve to be recited ritually. And, in fact, they once were. Mishnah Tamid 5:1 recounts the morning blessings by the appointed priest:

…קָרְאוּ עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים, שְׁמַע, וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ, וַיֹּאמֶר…

“…they would chant the ten commandments, the Shema, V’haya im shamo’a, Vayomer…”

Later, in both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, there are accounts of the ten commandments being removed from the liturgy.

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל אף בגבולין בקשו לקרות כן אלא שכבר בטלום מפני תרעומת המינין

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: Even in the outlying areas, outside the Temple, they sought to recite the Ten Commandments in this manner every day, as they are the basis of the Torah (Rambam), but they had already abolished recitation of the Ten Commandments due to the grievance of the heretics.

What was the rabbinic concern? That highlighting this particular set of laws and norms would make them appear to be more central or more important than the rest of the instructions in the Torah. There was a specific concern among early rabbis that sectarians like the followers of Paul were claiming that only these ten rules were divinely ordained. Reciting the ten commandments daily might inadvertently reinforce the fallacy that the ten commandments were the most critical laws in the whole Torah, or — worse — that they were the only God-given laws. Maimonides even forbade standing during the chanting of the aseret hadibrot lest one part of the Torah seem more important than any other portion.

When our rabbinic forebearers went through the exercise of fixing a daily liturgy, over and over again in each generation they debated how our Torah should be treated. What should be included. What should be omitted. Inclusion and omission are powerful markers of storytelling. Anyone who has edited a speech or a eulogy, or prepared a bar or bat mitzvah montage, or gone through a parent’s home knows that the story is told by the remnants.

But the choice to hit delete or stuff something in a donation bin is only paralyzingly daunting if we believe that our stories are all told in one go. While the aseret hadibrot were removed from the siddur, they are still publicly chanted not once, not twice, but three times each year, with special music trope and much grandeur. After all, while they are not God’s only instructions, they were God’s first instructions to the Israelites as a newly forming people.

Similarly, no single speech or slideshow or box of things can tell the story of a life. Savta’s armoire may be in someone else’s family room now, but it also lives in the photo album with pictures of birthday parties through the decades. That story you decided not to tell at the funeral can be told at shiva, or on a yarzheit, or on the phone call with your sister when something reminds you of that one time when your father did that thing. And the picture that didn’t make the bat mitzvah montage cut? Just wait until your daughter calls you asking to see it because she wants to look for her own son’s smile in the snapshot of herself at two years old.

The result of editing the ten commandments out of the siddur is that their occasional recitation in the Torah reading cycle is exciting and comes with renewed understanding each year. When we choose to remove an object or a story or a picture from daily rotation, we make space for the thrill of rediscovery in the years to come.

Stages of Redemption
By: Ariel Wolpe, TBA Rabbinic Intern

The Israelites moved through four stages from slavery to freedom, teaches Rabbi Yaakov of Izbica, a 19th century chasidic teacher. Walking out of the gates of Egypt is only the beginning of the journey to mental, physical and emotional freedom. God hints at each stage through these promises in parshat Va’era:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am YHVH. I will remove you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I am YHVH your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.

When God says, וְהֽוֹצֵאתִי, “I will remove you,” Rabbi Yaakov teaches that God is promising to make the Israelites aware of their suffering. We know that the Israelites called out to God when they were in slavery, and God heard their cry. But while they knew their circumstances were inhumane and their souls cried out in protest, they did not grasp the extent of their suffering. Generations of slavery had numbed the Israelites to their inner experience, subduing hope of freedom, encouraging acceptance of their enslavement. Not only were their bodies bound to labor; their minds were weighted with mortar, disabled under bricks. But in order to become a free person, each Israelite had to fully understand the suffering he or she was going through. A person can only change their circumstances when they are conscious of what needs to change.

The promise וְהִצַּלְתִּי, I will deliver you, refers to the physical release from slavery. This is when the Israelites cease their work and flee, right before Pharaoh’s change of heart. In that moment, they are delivered out of making and lifting bricks, out of the reach of the taskmasters. Their bodies are their own, their work their own. This could only occur after the Israelites became fully aware of their suffering because otherwise they wouldn’t have left. To a people who had dwelled in the cities of Egypt their entires lives, the desert was unknown, uninhabited and full of dangers. As they journeyed towards the promised land, the Israelites fondly recalled the delicacies they ate Egypt, lamenting the loss of such luxuries. They had soothed their suffering with food, grown dependent on Egyptian lifestyles, and they had to tear their bodies away from such comforts on the road to freedom. Gaining autonomy over their bodies and their work was the second step towards freedom.

This step rings true for many of us. We live in a society with abundant luxuries, and we grow dependent on them even when they are not good for us. Pleasures of the body numb the complaints of the heart. We may soothe loneliness or purposelessness with food, TV, drugs or the internet. We begin to pursue a momentary release of serotonin instead of a holistic happiness. Escaping this state of slavery requires experiencing on our suffering without distraction, so that we are motivated to put forth the effort to leave Egypt.

Then God says וְגָֽאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm. The Israelites are already released from slavery in body and mind—what is God referring to? Rabbi Yaakov explains this promises a release “from the depths of the imprint that slavery left on you.” Imagine God’s metaphorical arm reaching deep into the inner psyche of each Israelite, pulling out the thorns that cling there, one by one. While they appear free on the outside, God knows that they are still enslaved within. This is not something that happens spontaneously, is not a moment of revelation or rebellion. This is a process that takes years, 40 years for all of the Israelites to complete. It is the process of clearing out all of the beliefs, the doubts, the apathy and the hatred that has accumulated from enslavement. Only after this process is there room to develop a new sense of identity and worth. Only then can the Israelites see the promise of the future.

Without reaching inwards, each one of us will inevitably return to our state of slavery. It is the skipping of this step which causes cycles of suffering in our lives, when we make the same mistakes again and again despite desiring a change. As we age, our own thoughts leave imprints in our minds about who we are and what we are capable of. Like our ancestors, we must root out our harmful beliefs in order to transform ourselves and live freely.

The final step, וְלָֽקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, I will take you to me as a people, is God’s promise to free every Jew from the bondage of slavery, and instead bind them to Torah. God reminds us that we are part of a people with a rich tradition which guides us in living our lives. Unless all of us are free, none of us are free. We are responsible for our families, our communities, and every being in this world. Freedom, ultimately, is not just a state of mind or a state of body. It is a universal transformation that we have yet to achieve.

Through learning Torah, good works, and acts of lovingkindness we move closer to freedom. It is our purpose as a people who have journeyed out of the bonds of slavery to instill freedom in the world around us. But first, we must begin with our own enslavement. First, we free ourselves.

Joy, Freedom and Holiness
By Natan Freller, Rabbinic Intern

“Joy drinks pure water. She has sat with the dying and attended many births. She denies nothing. She is in love with life, all of it, the sun and the rain and the rainbow. She rides horses at Half Moon Bay under the October moon. She climbs mountains. She sings in the hills. She jumps from the hot spring to the cold stream without hesitation. Although Joy is spontaneous, she is immensely patient. She does not need to rush. She knows that there are obstacles on every path and that every moment is the perfect moment. She is not concerned with success or failure or how to make things permanent. At times Joy is elusive – she seems to disappear as we approach her. I see her standing on a ridge covered with oak trees, and suddenly the distance between us feels enormous. I am overwhelmed and wonder if the effort to reach her is worth it. Yet, she waits for us. Her desire to walk with us is as great as our longing to accompany her.”

-The Book of Qualities, by Janet Ruth Gendler

What I found beautiful in this piece of art is how the writer transformed a feeling into words, stories, and relationships. Sometimes we struggle with many feelings, desires and emotions that we can’t express as we would like to.

Judaism is a way to walk in this world. Judaism is a lens to live life. Judaism can help to transform reality into the world that we want to live in. Different from philosophies of life that work just in the realm of ideas and religions focused on just the technicism of the rituals, I see Judaism as a full embodied experience in itself. There is no value in Judaism that exists by itself without practicing it – and so there should be no meaningless ritual. Every ritual is full of different, old and new, meanings and values that can enrich our lives.

This week we read Beshalach, the Exodus story, the moment when the Jewish People was finally free from slavery. What is now understood has a central value in our tradition, freedom was not a given value for their time, but an achievement of an entire generation. Its celebration was real. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song, poetry, and music. This Shabbat received this name because of the celebration of freedom that is found in it. Shirat hayam, the “Song of the Sea”, is the real celebration of the divine redemption. The Israelites were pouring out their hearts, trying to find words to describe their emotions, and they found them while singing to God. Joy was welcomed in and never left that party. Joy become the special guest of the Jewish People, as we celebrate the achievement of the divine values.

The hebrew verb to make something holy is lehakdish. It means to set aside. To make it different, special. The Jewish People eternal goal is to be holy, to live our lives in a different way. This is an invitation for challenging ourselves to find deeper values and create meaningful experiences. Being Jewish is an invitation to transform the ideal into the real. Shabbat is the ultimate experience for that. It is the day when we enjoy a small piece of olam haba – the world to come – the world that we are creating together.

Shabbat is known in our tradition as a special day for joy. It is a day when we rest and enjoy our lives in a different (holy) way. Let us welcome joy with open arms. Run towards her as Shabbat starts, and hold it tight, enjoying its presence while she is here, so we can spread her energy during the next week.

May this Shabbat be full of joy. Let us make our lives holy, meaningful and taste together the world we all want to live in, so that we can recharge our energies to share more joy, freedom, and holiness during the next week.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah as Wisdom
Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

I don’t think that I grew up believing in every single story or detail written in the Torah as an absolute factual truth. At the same time, I did not have the tools to question it or even the authority to question how accurate the Torah is describing the origins of our people. For how long were the Jews slaves in Egypt? How many were there? Did the plagues actually happen? And the sea splitting, is that true?

I remember a few classes I took in my twenties, where for the first time I was allowed to disagree or challenge the texts of our tradition, whether that was the Torah, a siddur, or any other book. That changed the way I see Jewish texts and made me love our tradition even more.

My question for us this Shabbat is: How should we read Torah today? What kind of content can I find in it?

One of my favorite verses in the whole Torah is in the last book, Devarim 4:6. The verse says: “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say: Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

One might think that this verse is theologically very complicated, questioning our relationships with other peoples that might sound like arrogance. I read this verse as the mission of the Jewish People. Many characteristics can be perceived from afar, like being tall or short, for example. Being wise is a characteristic that can be only identified through someone’s behavior. Our goal is not to show off to other people how wise the Jewish tradition is, but rather this language teaches us that if we do not transform the wisdom contained in the Torah into behavior, we are missing the point. We need to be so meticulous about our behavior that others will see it as a unique feature of the tribe.

I want to give you an example from this week’s parasha. The Talmud, the book that best understands the benefits of challenging our texts to find its wisdom, has an interesting debate about the verse: “And there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8).

Rav and Shmuel (Sotah 11a) disagree about the interpretation of this verse. One says that this means he was actually a new king, and one says that this means that his decrees were transformed as if he were a new king. The one who says that he was actually a new king holds that it is because it is written “new.” And the one who says that his decrees were transformed holds that it is because it is not written: “And the previous king of Egypt died, and a new king reigned.” This indicates that the same king remained. According to this interpretation, the words: “Who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8), mean that he was like someone who did not know him at all. Although he certainly knew Joseph and his accomplishments, he acted as if he didn’t.

Notice that the discussion regarding reality has been present in our tradition since its early beginnings. The sages of the Talmud felt comfortable asking questions about what actually happened in the stories because they knew that the goal was to learn something from it, and not just repeat it to the next generation.

What does it mean to have a new king? What does it teach about relationships between peoples and how to take care of other groups who live in your midst? The wisdom in this phrase can be found throughout the book of Shemot to the end of the Torah. The answer given to the way the Israelites were treated in Egypt is: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Empathy, lovingkindness, and respect. Those are the key values we are responsible to make them a part of our behavior as individuals and as a people.

I want to invite you to start preparing for Pesach a little bit earlier this year, and I don’t mean cleaning the house or cooking the soup. I mean start asking yourself the real questions about our story, and don’t wait until the Seder to ask a simple technical question. Take the opportunity to carefully read the text of our tradition week after week, looking for the real questions you have and the wisdom that you can learn from it. Think about your life in the 21st century and what values you need to practice in order to be the best person you can be. Don’t let the Torah stay obsolete in the closet; take it out, read it, let’s share its light and wisdom by being morally righteous until other people look to us and say: what a wise people!

Inheriting a Transcending Torah
Rabbi Matt Shapiro

“At each stage of development, the world looks different, because it is different.”

These words, from the contemporary writer Ken Wilber, offer a window into one of his core concepts: “transcend and include.” He takes a broadly developmental perspective on humanity, seeing how, over time, we collectively have moved (and continue to move) through stages that are progressively more expansive. As we move from one stage to another, we transcend the earlier stage, and it also remains included in our new stage. This process of growth is true of us both collectively and as individuals. Wilber further holds that religion can be uniquely instructive in spiritual development, as the world’s religions still contain early myths and teachings which are absent from more recently developed spiritual systems. Connecting to a religion shouldn’t necessarily stay in the “mythic” stage, but it offers an opportunity to start at, and grow from, that originating time, eventually transcending and including its origins.

There’s a quirky little phrase that’s easy to gloss over as Jacob is transmitting his final blessings. In the JPS translation, the start of Genesis 48:22 is written as “I assign to you one more portion than your brothers…” but the original Hebrew indicates something different, and potentially more interesting. It can also be translated as “I give you Shechem as a portion over your brothers…” In the narrative, Shechem is primarily known as the focal point of the narrative where Dinah was taken captive and then avenged by her brothers Shimon and Levi. The verse itself, however, seems to be referring to a military victory won by Jacob, as it concludes “…which I took from the Amorites with my sword and my bow.” There is, in fact, a midrashic tradition that indicates that Jacob joined with Shimon and Levi to defeat the people of Shechem after the incident with Dinah. Though this isn’t in the Torah itself, it seems to be embedded within the larger corpus of ancient Israelite lore.

As time went on, however, this understanding of events seems to have faded, with a different normative interpretation taking hold. In most rabbinic interpretations, the second clause of the verse is understood not as referring to an actual sword and bow, but rather as elements in one’s Jewish observance, like types of prayer or ways of studying Torah. Presumably due at least partly to our people’s evolution from a wandering tribe who needed to fight physical battles to a textually based religion, we find interpretations like Sforno’s, who understands the verse as describing “chochma and bina,” wisdom and insight, a metaphorical reinterpretation of Jacob’s sword and bow

Our tradition also has a counterpoint to applying layers of metaphors on top of the seemingly clear original meaning of a text. In the Talmud, on Shabbat 63a, during a related discussion where Psalm 45 is being similarly re-read. Mar, son of Rav Huna, responds to this technique: ein mikre yotzei miyad pshuto, a verse doesn’t depart from its literal meaning. There seems to be an internal conflict regarding rabbinic re-reading, between the apparent original intent of the verse- describing an actual military victory won by Jacob- and how it’s later understood by the rabbis.

One way of understanding how Torah is transmitted is as continuous revelation- that Torah was initially revealed at some point in time, and continues to be revealed- which is helpful in framing how different understandings of the same verse can each hold truth. A Wilberian perspective offers an additional layer to this frame. The ancient Israelite myths, the text of the Torah, the metaphorical understandings of the rabbis, the internal insistence of the tradition on its own original context, our own contemporary navigations through these elements- all of this is the grand narrative of Judaism itself unfolding, and we collectively transcend and include. We have moved from a tribe that needed to defend itself militarily to the people of the book, encompassing a wide-ranging panoply of understandings. Our collective understanding, therefore, evolves from a literal understanding of the text to a more metaphorical reading, and onwards, which is mirrored in our paths as individuals. Most literate, intellectually sophisticated Jews don’t believe in God as the bearded, jealous “guy in the sky” caricatured by fundamentalist atheists, yet having stories and teachings that are comprehensible and meaningful to us at earlier stages of development provide us with the grounding to evolve as individuals. Of course a verse doesn’t depart from its simple meaning- and it doesn’t stop there. As we grow and Judaism grows, we continue to weave the tapestry of our tradition. We don’t leave our stories, myths, traditions, rituals, practices behind; they continue to inform and help us develop into the people and communities we can and want to be.

So, what did Jacob give Joseph and how? He gave him Shechem, which he conquered; and he gave him an extra portion from his brothers; and he taught Joseph how to pray and learn; and more, and more. The different layers and seeming contradictions, the multivocal multiverse of our tradition, is one of its greatest and deepest strengths, always carrying us forward into the next iteration of meaning, as we both transcend and include, passing this, our dearest inheritance, on.

Wield Thine Power Justly
By: Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Vayiggash on my mind. In fact, it has been on my mind, constantly, for nearly a year. As many of you know, I teach a weekly class on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. (We meet every Wed AM at 8:30, for an hour. No experience or Hebrew fluency required. Come join us!). We read each verse, carefully and slowly. We try to anticipate the questions Rashi might have asked on the verse, and then both aim to understand the plain meaning of his commentary as well as the sometimes-obvious and sometimes-subtle sermonettes within his words. Just last week we celebrated a “siyyum” (completion) of Parshat Vayiggash, which we had been studying methodically since about January.

The text recited at a siyyum includes the phrase הדרן עלך והדרך עלן (Hadran alakh v’hadrakh alan). It can be translated in (at least) two ways. Addressing the text itself, it can mean “we honor you, and you honor us.” Or, “we will return to you and you will return to us.” In this personification of text itself, we both praise the words of our tradition and claim that those very words will linger in our consciousness, awaiting our eventual return to them.

Overly nearly 20 years of teaching a similar class, I have found that though I have more than a rudimentary familiarity with every verse of the Torah, this painstakingly slow study opens my eyes to insights and awareness that had never occurred to me before. When I offered my own closing thoughts and homage to Vayiggash before we jumped into Vayehi (the last parsha of the book of Genesis/Breishit. When we finish that one, it will be one doozy of a siyyum. All are invited!), I named that for me that the most novel insight I had had over the previous months was related to the last set of verses in the parsha, ones often jumped right over when rabbis and teachers are looking for fodder for divrei torah. After lingering, poignantly, on Joseph’s reunion first with his brothers, and then with his father Jacob, and spending several verses on Jacob’s own fascinating encounter with Pharaoh, the text seems to go back in time a bit explaining the nitty-gritty aspects of Joseph’s leadership through the years of plenty and famine, with details one would think only an economist would love (we have an economist in our class, and he loved this section!).

But when you slow down rather than race through, the text’s profundity and prescience—particularly through Rashi’s careful and, yes, biased lens—screams out. Consider this: As Joseph seems, both prophetically and magnanimously, to be taking great economic care of the Egyptians, his adopted home, he also seems, eerily, to be imitating the ways of the very Pharaoh who will ultimately enslave the Israelites…because “he knew not Joseph”! The means of protecting the famished people is, essentially, acquiring them. First by distributing excess food (47:12). Then by collecting their money in exchange for food (v. 14). Then by appropriating their livestock as payment for provisions (v. 16). Then by actually acquiring their land and their very bodies (!!) in return for bread (v. 19). Then, by dispossessing them of even a place to call home, choosing rather to move them around from city to city (v. 21). Rashi explains that this was to protect Joseph’s brothers, the newcomers to Egypt: if no one has a home, then no one is a stranger. A more cynical—and perhaps accurate—read is that this is an important step in imposing total control over a person, a people. The last step in this coup (a coup which both sustained the people and divested the people of their very selves) was to engineer a system by which the people received seed with which to regrow produce, both to provide for themselves and to create an economic base for ongoing taxation (v. 23-24). The upshot of this precise (proto-tyrannical?) system is chilling, particularly if you look at the Hebrew words. Remember what we sing every Seder night? עבדים היינו לפרעה. Avadim hayinu l’Pharo. We were slaves to Pharaoh. Well, that turn of phrase does not originate in the book of Exodus. Rather, the third-to-last verse of Vayiggash has the Egyptian people (perhaps including, perhaps excluding, Joseph’s family. It is hard to tell) exclaiming, “You have given us life!…And now we will be עבדים/avadim/slaves/servants to Pharaoh. Rashi, alert to the obvious allusions, is quick to explain that they weren’t slaves, God-forbid. Only the later Pharaoh would do that to the Israelites. No, in this case they are “just” servants of Pharaoh in that they remit to him annual taxes. I love Rashi more than I love some of my family members…but this answer of his just begs and amplifies the question: Why is it that under Joseph’s stewardship, the Torah tells us that the people (for their own well-being!) end up in some servitude to him, and to Pharaoh, in a situation that was at least far more beneficial to ones in power than those subject to it.

I have no succinct answer. I am still marinating at a “wow” lurking in these verses that I had never noticed before. Two brief takeaways, other than that I encourage you either to come to our class, or at least just to read the parsha slowly and carefully when you do read it. 1) How easy and pernicious it is that sometimes when we think we are doing what is best for those under our authority, or thumb, the ones benefiting most is our very selves. 2) Sometimes what keeps people from becoming a Pharaoh, or acting Pharaonically, is just the opportunity. And a convenient rationalization. A few short verses, and narrative years, before Joseph’s descendants will become truly enslaved to his boss’s successor, he seems to be effectively and perhaps cruelly imposing at least an echo of that power-wielding over the contemporaneous Egyptians.

Wield thine power, and authority, justly and humanely. As you would want it wielded if you were its subject.

Shabbat Shalom