5782 Torah Commentary

Jewish Accountability – Individual and Communal
September 16, 2022 – כ׳ באלול תשפ׳׳ב
Parashat Ki Tavo – פרשת כי תבוא
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Yael Aranoff

Every High Holiday season, Jewish communities around the world gather together and publicly recite confessions of a variety of sins. I have often wondered at this part of the prayers. While I can certainly acknowledge that there are sins on the list that I am guilty of in any given year, there are typically a number of sins that I confess to while praying in community during the High Holidays that I have not committed. I imagine that many people can relate to some, but not all, of the sins we confess to on the High Holidays. So why do we do this? Why not only confess to our individual sins of the year, perhaps at the end of the silent Amidah, when we can reflect on our own actions and where we want to do better personally in the coming year? Is it not enough to go through the process of teshuvah, of repentance and return, going around to each of the people we have personally harmed during the course of the year, apologizing, pledging to do better next year, and perhaps thinking of casting away these personal sins with a variety of customs for the season, such as tashlikh? Perhaps we can gain some insight as to what is going on with the communal public proclamation of sins, that each individual may or may not be personally guilty of, by looking to this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo.

In Ki Tavo, in Deuteronomy 27:12-14, Moshe instructs the people of Israel that after crossing the Jordan, six tribes “shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken. And for the curse…” six tribes “…shall stand on Mount Eival. The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people of Israel” the curses and the blessings.

While the Levites are addressing “all the people of Israel” who are standing by tribe on these two mountains, emphasizing a collective experience, the grammar found initially in the curses and blessings listed in Deuteronomy 27 and much of Deuteronomy 28 is in the singular, emphasizing individual consequence: with ׳ארור׳-“arur”-“cursed” and ׳ברוך׳-“barukh”-“blessed” repeated throughout in the singular form. There is a shift in the grammar towards the end of Deuteronomy chapter 28 to a plural form, for example: ׳עליכם׳-“alikhem”-“upon you” found twice in the plural form and ׳אתכם׳-“etkhem”­-“you” found four times in the plural form in Deuteronomy 28:63. The simultaneous focus on the individual and the communal in this parashah encapsulates the balancing act that is asked of us as individual members of the Jewish people.

There is a part of a verse in Ki Tavo that the rabbis share a teaching on in the Talmud that beautifully captures this balance:

׳וְהָיִ֜יתָ מְמַשֵּׁ֣שׁ בַּֽצׇּהֳרַ֗יִם כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יְמַשֵּׁ֤שׁ הַֽעִוֵּר֙ בָּאֲפֵלָ֔ה…׳ (דברים כ׳׳ח:כ׳׳ט)

“You shall grope at noon as the person who is blind gropes in the darkness…” (Deuteronomy 28:29)

“It is taught in a baraita [rabbinic source] that Rabbi Yosei said: ‘All of my life I was troubled by this verse, which I did not understand: “And you shall grope at noon as the person who is blind gropes in the darkness” (Deuteronomy 28:29). I was perplexed: What does it matter to a person who is blind whether it is dark or light? I continued to ponder the matter until the following incident occurred to me. I was once walking in the absolute darkness of the night, and I saw a man who was blind who was walking on his way with a torch in his hands. I said to him: My son, why do you need this torch if you are blind? He said to me: As long as I have a torch in my hand, people see me and save me from the pits and the thorns and the thistles.’”

(Talmud Bavli, Megillah 24b)

In this Talmudic tale, the man who is blind holds himself personally accountable for his physical safety by carrying a torch while walking at night, while the community is responsible for seeing him by the light of the torch that he carries and helping to ensure his physical safety. The interplay between individual and communal accountability expressed here is a core value of Judaism—in every generation, we, the Jewish people, are simultaneously held accountable for our own actions and for the actions of our community.

So, let’s return to where this leaves us for the upcoming High Holiday season. It seems to me that while there are certainly a number of places in our tradition to do teshuvah for our individual sins specific to 5782, reciting the communal confession during the liturgy is not separate from that teshuvah process. Rather, as we are held accountable both as individuals and as a community, we recite all the sins in the prayers, whether we relate to them or not. If there is a chance that even one member of our community might relate to a sin that we cannot relate to, we are responsible for one another’s spiritual safety just as much as we are responsible for one another’s physical safety, and so we confess the sins aloud and together, pledging to do better in 5783, simultaneously as individuals and as a community.

Returning What I’ve Found
Taste of Torah 9/9/22
Parshat Ki Teitzei

By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Chayva Lehrman

I found an ox wandering through Los Angeles the other day. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I asked my boyfriend, “Is this truly an ox?” “Shor,” he replied. 1

It was a imaginary ox, of course, wandering through my mind’s eye as I studied this week’s parasha:

לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־שׁ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ֙ נִדָּחִ֔ים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֵ֖ם לְאָחִֽיךָ׃

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. (Deuteronomy 22:1)

The instruction continues: if you do not know who owns the stray livestock, or you do but they live far away, you must take it home and take care of it until its owner claims it. Furthermore, this law is not only for ox and sheep; it also applies to donkeys, clothing, and truly anything that someone loses. Indifference or negligence is expressly forbidden.

I don’t know about you, but I’m lucky if I can keep track of a pair of sunglasses through a summer season – people lose things all the time! How can we possibly live up to this massive obligation? Such an ethical system would make us so indebted to each other we could possibly never achieve its aims.

Fortunately, Talmud provides some helpful guidelines (Bava Metzia 27b-30b). Among them: the rule about returning clothing only applies if the clothing has distinguishing marks on it; the donkey must have overturned its saddlebags; the value of the lost item or animal must be less than the value of the labor to care for and return it, etc. And so on, and so forth.

It seems like we might not be so obligated to burdensome mitzvot as we thought. But is this a good thing?

In the TV series “The Good Place,” philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) teaches, “Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re gonna follow them.”

Where is the line between clarifying a principle and diminishing its power? How do we know the level of our obligation to others?

Moral philosopher (and real person) Peter Singer famously designed a threshold test for our personal obligation.2 Imagine a person in a $1000 outfit sees a child drowning in a pond. They have a choice: save the child and ruin the expensive outfit, or save the outfit and let the child drown. The obvious ethical choice is to save the child. But here it gets interesting. For now that we, the audience, have set a value on a child’s life, every time we purchase a luxury good when we know we can save a life with that money we are making the same choice as the man in the story. It’s a strong argument that has plagued philosophy students for decades. But do we really have an almost unlimited duty to others we do not know?

Like our commandment to return all lost property, Singer’s philosophy can feel excessively demanding. But it is not very Jewish. Maimonides, based upon Talmudic commentary, teaches that one must sustain the poor of one’s own community – the ones you see suffering in front of you – before you extend your tzedakah to people far away, even if they might have greater need.

Rabbis in every age have recognized that human relationships matter, and that in those relationships we must strive to be as good as we possibly can be, but we have limits. Judaism does not ask an unlimited duty from us; it asks that we do the best that we realistically can do. Amidst recounting all the exemptions and limitations to our mutual responsibility, Maimonides says that one who wants to walk b’derech hatov v’hayashar, the good and upright path, will go beyond the letter of the law and seek to return all that they find. As Chidi Anagonye put it, “We choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”

1 The Hebrew word for ox is שור, pronounced “shor.”
2 Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972.

A Wholehearted Relationship with God
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Ben Sigal

                With the Yamim Noraim around the corner, it’s easy to feel discouraged by our imperfections. As we review our flaws, our broken promises, our inconsistencies, we can find ourselves growing overwhelmed and depressed. Thankfully, we have the words of the Baal Shem Tov and his commentary on this week’s parsha, Shoftim, to help put us at ease.

In chapter 18 of Deuteronomy, the Torah lists various forms of prohibited worship: no child sacrifice, no divination, no necromancy, among others. Interestingly, directly after this list, the Torah commands, “Be wholehearted with the Lord your God.”

This statement seems to come out of the blue! Weren’t we just talking about the evils of witchcraft and wizardry? What is this random verse doing in there?

The Baal Shem Tov looks at this verse and theorizes what it means to be ‘wholehearted.’ To do this, he goes back to the opening lines of the parasha, where it states, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes.” Here, the Baal Shem Tov understands the passage as a directive from God. Just as we need magistrates and officials for our society to operate, God wants us to understand that we live under the rule of a higher power as well. 

The Baal Shem Tov then looks to the sixth chapter of Proverbs to continue his point, seeing it as the opposite of what we are commanded in our parasha. “Lazybones, go to the ant; Study its ways and learn. Without leaders, officials, or rulers, it lays up its stores during the summer, gathers in its food at the harvest.” In life, we can choose to be like the ant, hastily going about our business with no knowledge of the world at large, the universe, or of God’s divine presence. We can still accomplish many of our goals, but these goals will not be motivated by a sacred purpose. Therefore, our accomplishments will feel hollow and devoid of the greater meaning we seek.

Alternatively, we can live our lives with a knowledge of God’s existence. We can set out to accomplish our same goals, this time with higher aspirations to connect to something deeper. 

According to the Baal Shem Tov, ‘wholeheartedness’ is the very knowledge of the presence of God. We may act poorly, but a small part of us knows the truth: there is an entity greater than ourselves in the world. God has expectations for us, and perhaps next time, we can do better. In other words, so long as we strive to maintain any form of understanding of God, we inch toward a better version of ourselves.

As the Yamim Noraim approach, I have been finding small pockets of time to sit and reflect. I’ve done many things this year I’m not proud of. And while I haven’t committed any child sacrifice or necromancy, I’ve certainly missed the mark on many occasions. But the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov bring me comfort. Sure, I’ve made mistakes, but I am not an ant busily going about my work, blind to anything save the task at hand. Instead, I am a full human, blessed to feel a part of God’s world. And as I ponder my small role in God’s great universe, I find my heart opening. And there, in that feeling of wholeheartedness, do I find the inspiration to improve myself in the year to come.  

What do Weight Watchers and Hasidism Have in Common?
By TBA Ritual Innovator, Cantor Michelle Stone

I’ve been doing Weight Watchers on and off for about 20 years now (OK, mostly off!). Each morning when I open the app, it displays an inspiring message. My favorite message goes something like this: “Today is a new day to start again.” Even if you didn’t stick to the program yesterday, or last week, or the last six months, this morning is a new opportunity to make smart choices. I find this powerful because it forgives me for the past and shifts my focus to what’s ahead and the goals I want to achieve.

This week’s parsha, Re’eh, opens with the following verses, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse; blessing, that you listen to the commandments that the Lord, your God, I command you THIS day; and curse, if you do not listen to the of the Lord, your God, but turn away from the path that I command you THIS day and follow other gods that you do not know.” This idea, that there will be blessing if you follow the mitzvot and curses if you do not, is a common theme of the book of Deuteronomy. I find this theology hard to relate to, as we know that is not how the world works. So, I turned to some Hasidic masters to learn how they address this dichotomy. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, focuses on a grammatical anomaly in the text. He notes that the blessing part says that “you will listen to the commandments,” but when it mentions the curses, the text writes, “IF you do not listen.” The assumption is that the Israelites will obey the mitzvot, but if they don’t, there are consequences. He explains that the inclination to do good is inherent; we are, by our very nature, predisposed to do the right thing. But, we aren’t perfect, and sometimes we make mistakes and don’t make good choices. The Sefat Emet says that is why the text emphasizes the word hayom, “this day,” which he teaches refers to every day. He writes, “Israel as a whole certainly heard and accepted the Torah. Even if they have fallen away since then, each day they are given the choice anew.” Yesterdays mistakes do not determine the choices we make today. Each day we have the opportunity in front of us to choose the path we want to be on. And if we buy into the Sefat Emet’s optimism, it is natural for us to choose the “right” one.

The Maggid of Mezritch, the 18th century Hasidic Master, adds another layer to these verses, focusing on intention and awareness. As stated above, we have the opportunity each day to choose the path of blessing or the path of curse. The Maggid teaches the importance of awareness in our daily choices. He writes, “It is our awareness that places us before this day, the loves and pleasures, and they contain blessing and curse, together. The blessing is within them if you listen.” Every day, we have an abundance of choices to make, and we are lucky to have the freedom to make those decisions. But to make the “right” choices, we need to listen deeply. It takes intention and awareness. This is part of the Weight Watchers program also – awareness is fundamental to successful self care. Eating mindlessly is a common challenge.

Being mindful and aware of why you make food (and other) choices is one of the keys to success on the program.

The month of Elul begins this weekend. We start the month-long process of teshuva that will culminate in the High Holidays in just 4 weeks (gasp!). It is supposed to be a month of introspection and self evaluation. Yes, of course, part of teshuva is accountability for what we’ve done in the past, but it is also an opportunity to ask ourselves who we want to be in the future. It is a month of asking, “What kind of person, parent, partner, friend, child, etc. do I aspire to be?” These Hasidic masters (and WW!) provide us with a reminder of some of the tools that can help us through this process. Even if we have made mistakes in the past, each morning, we have the opportunity, with awareness, to start fresh and listen deeply to the voice that leads us to the right path.

Listen. Then Love – Our Mezuzot of Relationship Building
A kavannah for my Honeymood Israel participants
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

In 2 weeks, I will be celebrating Shabbat in Jerusalem as the rabbinic leader for a Honeymoon Israel trip. Honeymoon Israel is a brilliant organization that focuses on expanding cultural, religious and historical connection to Judaism for new couples. Groups are organized by city so that when they return home they have new community and friends to explore their Judaism together. Often, these groups also have many interfaith couples, coming to Israel to experience their religions together, in one meaningful place. After staffing my first HMI trip for a cohort in San Francisco, I shared with them, with tears in my eyes, that as a conservative rabbi who does not perform intermarriages, this trip taught me more about building Jewish family than I had ever thought possible. 

Last week we read the verses of Shema and v’Ahavta. One of my favorite teachings, from Rabbi Ed Feinstein, comes from these passages as a framework of building a home or supportive relationships. We first see the mezuzah before entering the home and know that the Shema and v’Ahavta are inside. We see the sign and know the first two words inside mean “listen” and “you shall love.” Which comes first, Rabbi Feinstein asks? Listen, shema. We should see the mezuzah before entering our home and recognize that we are entering into a space where listening is most important. Following shema we read the word, v’ahavta – and you should love. Rabbi Feinstein says, it is important that only after listening, and opening your heart and mind to the others in your home, that we are capable of then saying, “and now I will love.” 

We see the mezuzah and we walk into a home, into our relationships, and first we listen and then we love. Often the listening leads to loving, but at times, just like with God, we need to listen and allow what we hear to help us love more intentionally. 

In Eikev, we read the second paragraph of the shema that has a more harsh reality from God. If you listen and love God, good will come to you, and if you do not God will be angry and make life difficult for you. However, the connection to God’s love and support softens with a solution in Chapter 11 of Deuteronomy, verses 18-20. Here are the famous lines where we get the tradition of t’fillin and mezuzot: “You shall put these words on your hearts and on your souls and bind them as a sign on your arms and as a symbol between your eyes. You will teach them to your children. Speaking these words when you are seated in your homes, walking on your way, lying down or standing up. And you shall write them on mezuzot on your homes and your gates.” 

We should hear God, so we can love God. AND, we need reminders all around us as to what our connection is, our commitment should be, and when we must open up to listen.

Our Honeymoon Israel participants are coming together to Israel, often excited but uncomfortable. “Will my husband think he needs to convert for me?” “Will hearing the history be one that excludes my non-Jewish spouse?” “Will experiencing the harsh religious realities be overwhelming and offensive to my non-binary partner?” 

This is a trip to listen and this is a trip to fall in love. 

A trip to fall in love with a tradition, a culture, a homeland shared with everyone represented on our bus. 

This is a trip to figure out what those metaphorical and traditional mezuzot are that we put up on our home to remember to listen, to learn, to support and then to love. 

This is a trip to explore what those signs are to attach to our physical selves as a spiritual reminder of connection, of communication and of belonging. 

In two weeks, on our first day in Jerusalem, I hope to be creating a Shabbat experience where I invite us all to learn how to listen and find new love in what we hear.

To Give and To Forgive
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, August 12, 2022

Can we live more generously than God? It seems like a preposterous question, at least from certain theological angles. If God is creator, and thus bequeathed to us life and consciousness, how could we ever aspire to giving as much or more to anyone than what God gave to us? On the other hand, there are poignant moments in Torah where God seems parsimonious, and unwilling to stretch in order to give even what is deserved, let alone what is not yet earned.  Which means there is room, in that image of God, for us to aspire towards and beyond God’s beneficence.

We have one of those occasions in the opening lines of Vaethanan.  As is well-known, most of the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, of which Vaethanan is the second parsha, is old material, law and narrative, recast.  Moshe is reminiscing, retelling the tale of Exodus and the meanderings in the desert.  When our parsha opens, Moshe is remembering the moment he asked God to permit him to enter the land, thus overturning God’s punishment.  The verb he chooses, which gives our parsha its name, is a curious one.  ואתחנן.  Va’ethanan.  This is normally translated as “I pleaded,” from the root ח-נ-ן (h-n-n).  Rashi takes a different approach, reading the verb as if it is built from the root ח-נ-ם (h-n-m), which means “free” or “without reason or merit.”  Playing with the possibility that the final נ/nun in the root was changed from a מ/mem (letters that are adjacent to one another both in the alphabet and in pronunciation), Rashi says Moshe pleaded, knowing he had no case.  He had earned the punishment that had been given to him, but still he begged for mercy. 

This is a very different read than the one offered by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, known as the Baal HaTurim (13th-14th C France/Spain). He believes the root suggests that Moshe was pleading his case, on merits. He references the previous verse (with which Parshat Devarim ends) in which Moshe exhorted and reassured the Israelites about their relationship with God.  He efforted to bring God and Israel together, so that Israel would feel bonded to the divine, and would follow God’s laws and paths. Moshe reasoned that for that leadership effort, he had earned enough chips to cash in for a ticket to enter the land of Israel. So he pleaded with God, as if to say “Be reasonable! I know you have been angry with me. But have I not redeemed myself? Do I not deserve this reprieve?”

It is important to remember that whichever way you read the verb, God’s answer was and is the same: no. Whether Moshe felt he deserved this, or was asking for an unearned charity, God keeps the door closed.  Moshe is not to enter.

When I read this verse in shul, I am at times overcome with sadness.  Who else deserved divine grace (both earned and simply bestowed) more than Moshe?  And still, Moshe was denied. What are we to learn from this?  Perhaps two lessons that are in internal conflict. One–sometimes a hard, unexplained, unwavering “no” is what is called for. Societies and families and communities and individuals need rules, limits, boundaries and even disappointments to function coherently.  And…Two–the pang we feel when we are reminded of God’s harshly maintaining that very “no” may be the seed that grows inside us for us to become a flower of generosity, stretching beyond what God was able to do, bestowing our love, forgiveness, softness and grace both to those who have earned it as well to those who have not yet. 

To be human is to err. But perhaps to be human is also to give, and forgive, even beyond what God is capable of doing.

Shabbat Shalom

Listening with Humility
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro

The more people I meet and the more I learn of the world, the less I feel I know. I grew up relatively sheltered and fairly oblivious, a nice, well-off Jewish kid in the suburbs of Chicago. Because of how our society is structured, as I grew up, I was able to feel safe, seen, and welcomed in society because my gender, race (the way in which many Ashkenazi Jews came to be seen as white in America over the course of the 20th century is a fascinating conversation for another time!), sexuality, and gender all lined up in the normative ways of the time to maximize those possibilities for me. As I’ve come to understand, that makes me an outlier- the majority of people aren’t in the same position and therefore have to fight harder and navigate far more obstacles to feel heard in the ways that I assumed as given. 

Over time, I’ve come to see not only how blinkered my perspective was, but how damaging it can be to have those blinkers on. I miss out on how other people experience the world, and because I miss that, not only am I not able to help them, I implicitly continue to elevate my own position and perspective over theirs because of the innate privileges society has arbitrarily awarded me. 

So: what does that have to do with the parsha? This week, we read of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of a man named Tzelophechad. He died without any male heirs, and they bring a claim to Moses that they should still be able to inherit their father’s land, objecting to him that “why should the name of our father be lost from his family because he had no son? Give us a holding among our father’s brothers!” (Numbers 27:4) Moses, in turn, brings that claim to God, who agrees with the five daughters- God responds that their perspective is just, and they should inherit their father’s land. A clear message is articulated here, that even God, somehow, hadn’t noticed this before, that there’s a gap in the divine laws that have been transmitted which must not only be addressed but corrected. 

Avraham Eisen writes that “the story of Zelophehad’s daughters teaches that in order to change reality we must establish three basic conditions: sounding the voice of the casualties, leadership that is unafraid to make unpopular decisions, and the search for a long-term solution.” Moses and God accomplish these tasks as the story unfolds, and each of us can as well. 

I work at hearing a broader spectrum of  voices who speak to the way our world currently functions and being open to how that can change the way in which I walk in the world myself. It can be painful, and that’s why it’s important. 

In reviewing this episode, there’s something I noticed for the first time: we don’t hear from the daughters after the decision is made. Are they relieved? Glad? Wishing they had asked for even greater equality in the system? The text doesn’t tell us. Even though this is, rightly, held up as a relatively feminist story within the larger narrative of the Torah, they ultimately still seem to be the antagonists in the story, the ones who create the change within the system. The protagonists, the ones who undergo the change, are still the male characters (there’s Moses, and God who, however we might consider and rethink theology today, is still pretty clearly considered to be male within the context of the Torah). The shift is real, but incomplete. Lasting change, per Eisen’s comment, would entail not only having the voices heard, but a system in which women aren’t just the agitators for change, but the central focus of the narrative

And still- there’s a striking power in the humility expressed through the story. If even God can miss something so central to the perspective of a person, surely we can as well. If there are people that haven’t had their voice fully heard within our society, this episode highlights to us that to truly be in line with what our tradition teaches, we must listen to them with open ears and open hearts. When I worked at Beit T’shuvah, one of the go-to truisms was that the hardest words to say in the English language are “oops, I made a mistake.” It might vary in difficulty for different people, but, at least for me, being able to admit my errors isn’t something that comes easily. I’ve had to cultivate that ability over time, and it’s something I still need to work at. This narrative tells us that it’s a truly holy act to be able to say those tough five words: “oops, I made a mistake.” 

When we do, we listen to the call coming out of the text and into our lives. We move towards perfecting our tradition and the world, not by avoiding our fallibility or our blind sports, but by acknowledging them and learning through them. I grew up in a certain way, which in turn led me to act in a certain way, but that doesn’t have to continue. Following the example of our parsha, I can pause, say ‘oops,’ listen more fully and carefully, and work to find whatever long-term solutions are needed to bring us all into a more equitable world moving forward.

Shabbat shalom. 

The White Space of the Scroll, And of the Soul
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Parshat Balak 7/15/2022

All of midrash contains projection and stretching. Unless we hold by the rather absolutist notion that the rabbis of the Talmudic/Midrashic era were individually and specifically inspired by God in their writings, such that what emerged was not just organic, but rather the very intent of the Holy One, we can honestly lean in to the notion that in interpreting our inherited sacred texts, we are creating new material. Part of that material is the stuff of the texts themselves. Part of that material is the stuff of our minds and imagination. I embrace that fully.

And since I embrace that fully, I can find wonderful wisdom in, and applications for, even the stretchiest of midrashic interpretations. Including one from Parshat Balak, a version of which I also shared at a shiva minyan this week. The wisdom has to do with slowing down and considering the beauty of what one is inheriting. But how the wisdom is arrived at? It’s a snake path.

If you have ever looked at a Torah scroll, you know that there are partial and full line-breaks, as if the celestial author pressed “tab” or “return” on the divine keyboard.  One of the oddities of Parshat Balak is that the narrative is laid out in one endless column (over 4 plus actual columns of text) with no interruptions. It makes it, therefore, very hard to find one’s place in the reading if the yad has been moved since the previous aliyah.  Why does the torah scroll look like that? We have no certain answer. Within Jewish tradition, the layout of the scroll is as old as the scroll itself. It’s just how we received it.

But I am touched by a creative read by the Hafetz Hayyim (Rabbi Israel Mayer Kagan, 19th-10th C. Poland. It is said that during his lifetime he was one of the most famous Jews alive, his renown compared to that of Shalom Aleichem, the author).  He relies on a midrash that explains the reason for the paragraph breaks themselves.  The midrash imagines Moshe, the initial scribe, writing down paragraph after paragraph, and then needing to pause. To ruminate. To think about what he was receiving and transmitting. To slow down the lightning-quick process of revelation. In that white space amidst the dark ink we are to conjure Moshe’s daydreams. His questions on God’s word. His wondering about what it all meant.  Those breaks are the proof of a man who thought, considered, questioned and meditated on the heady material–all traits that our tradition venerates, both in study and prayer.

In contrast, much of Parshat Balak contains the spoken words of the mercenary prophet Bilaam, who was hired to curse the Jews but praised them instead.  Whereas Bilaam was ultimately not a man of wickedness like King Balak, nor was he a Moshe.  According to the Hafetz Hayim, Bilaam was in it for the money. He was hired to do a task, and so the quicker he rushed through it, the sooner he would be available for another gig. There was no reflection. No cautiousness. Yes, he praised us. But mostly because God forced his hand. He is not to be reviled. But he is also not to be emulated.

Ever since I have returned from my recent yoga and meditation retreat, I have felt overly hurried by the constraints of daily minyan, and even Shabbat services, which do indeed need to end at a reasonable time. I know the words. And still, racing through them feels like I am racing past them. Not permitting them to penetrate.  I have found myself lingering on one word at a time, savoring a phrase for a few luxurious seconds, creating the white space in my mind, akin to the white space on the Torah scroll, that represents not just revelation offered, but revelation received.

To Make You Feel My Love

Rabbi Schatz – Parashat Hukkat 2022

In memory of my uncle, Dr. Lee Goodglick z”l


8 years ago, my uncle, Dr. Lee Goodglick died of Pancreatic Cancer. Many of you have heard me talk about him over the years as part of my Torah learning, my Yizkor giving and my life live-ing. With every year that passes I miss him differently, I miss him more distantly and I try to continue finding ways to make me feel his love. In this week’s parasha, Hukkat, we learn of the death of Miriam and Aaron and their sibling Moshe goes through steps of grief – some clear and others hidden. So this Taste of Torah is a compilation of pieces I shared or will be sharing this Shabbat: Table for Five from the Jewish Journal and my text study source sheet for Beiteinu. May we each continue to live finding ways to hold onto those we love and not only make sure they feel our love but that we find ways to feel theirs in moments that are most difficult. 



May the memory of Hillel ben Zev v’Sarah continue to live for a blessing in our lives and hearts


Table for Five – Parashat Chukkat – Jewish Journal


This popular narrative of a “lesson learned” by Moshe after “striking” the rock with the rod rather than holding up the rod and his other open hand, is sudden and stark. Similar form had been instructed and followed in an earlier instance: In Exodus 7:19, God says, “Take your rod and hold your hand over the water,” after which Moses strikes va’yach the water and turns it to blood—without apparent chastening. And we remember Moshe “striking” the Egyptian taskmaster with his hand. Moshe, like a toddler learning spatial boundaries, uses his hands to get what he wants. Why is striking the rock so infuriating to God?

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says there is no Godliness in the rod, just a symbolic object used to show faith and devotion. But in the action of wielding the rod as a powerful wand serving the temperament of Moshe, God’s authority is challenged. Moshe is punished in this case for superseding the acknowledgment of God as the author of these events, losing the respect and trust of God and Community. May we each recognize, in our relationships, how our behaviors affect those who are supporting and loving us rather than striking down moments of growth.




במדבר כ׳:א׳ב׳

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כׇּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מׇת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃ וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן׃

Numbers 20:1-2

The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.


Or HaChaim on Numbers 20:1:1

ויבאו בני ישראל, The children of Israel arrived, etc. Why did the Torah have to emphasize that כל העדה, “the whole congregation” arrived in the desert of Tzin? Who would have doubted that the whole people traveled together? We have learned (Bamidbar Rabbah end of Parshat Balak) on a previous occasion that whenever the Jewish people were on a moral/ethical high they are referred to as בני ישראל. On occasions when they were guilty of rebellious behavior (such as Numbers 14,11 and many others) they are described as עם;[…] This interpretation agrees with a statement by our sages that the words כל העדה, mean עדה שלמה, “a perfect congregation.”


Or HaChaim on Numbers 20:1:4

ותמת שם מרים, Miriam died there, etc. Why did the Torah have to write the word שם, “there?” Our sages in Moed Katan 28 say that the people buried Miriam near the place where she died. […] Seeing the Torah mention the death of this righteous woman it also was concerned with the honor due to the body of such a righteous woman stating she was interred on the spot. We learned in Berachot 18 that the righteous are called “alive” even after they have died a physical death. When the Torah said שם, it wanted to remind us that Miriam was “dead” only “there,” i.e. on earth […]


תענית ט׳ א:ט׳

מֵיתִיבִי, רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בְּרַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר: שְׁלֹשָׁה פַּרְנָסִים טוֹבִים עָמְדוּ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אֵלּוּ הֵן: מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם. וְשָׁלֹשׁ מַתָּנוֹת טוֹבוֹת נִיתְּנוּ עַל יָדָם, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: בְּאֵר, וְעָנָן, וּמָן. בְּאֵר — בִּזְכוּת מִרְיָם, עַמּוּד עָנָן — בִּזְכוּת אַהֲרֹן, מָן — בִּזְכוּת מֹשֶׁה. מֵתָה מִרְיָם — נִסְתַּלֵּק הַבְּאֵר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַתָּמׇת שָׁם מִרְיָם״, וּכְתִיב בָּתְרֵיהּ: ״וְלֹא הָיָה מַיִם לָעֵדָה״, וְחָזְרָה בִּזְכוּת שְׁנֵיהֶן.

Taanit 9a:9

The Gemara raises an objection from a baraita: Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for the Jewish people during the exodus from Egypt, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given from Heaven through their agency, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: “And Miriam died there”


במדבר כ׳:ו׳

וַיָּבֹא֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה וְאַהֲרֹ֜ן מִפְּנֵ֣י הַקָּהָ֗ל אֶל־פֶּ֙תַח֙ אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־ה’ אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃

Numbers 20:6

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of ה’ appeared to them


Ibn Ezra on Numbers 20:6:2

ויפלו על פניהם. להתפלל וי”א לדרוש את השם בנבואה:

AND FELL UPON THEIR FACES. To pray. Other interpret, to prophetically inquire of God.


Otzar Midrashim, Aharon, Midrash on the Death of Aharon 3

“I lost the three shepherds in one month” (Zecharia 11:8); and thus, in one month, Aaron, Miriam, and Moses died. […] Each had a gift that they gave to the Israelites. By the merit of Miriam, God gave the well, by the merit of Aaron, the clouds of glory, By the merit of Moses, the Mana. When Miriam died, the well closed so the Israelites could see that it was by her merit that God granted them the well. Moses and Aaron bewailed her internally, and the Israelites did so publicly. Moses didn’t know about the Israelites mourning until after six hours, when the Israelites came to them and said: “how long will you sit and mourn?” He said to them “should I not continue to mourn my sister who has died.” “They said to him: “just as you mourn for one soul, all the more so mourn for all of us.” He said to them: “why” They said to him “because we do not have water to drink.” He stood and went and saw that there was no water in the well, and he began to argue with them, he said: “did I not say to you that I can’t carry this people on my own, did I not appoint for you officers for the thousands, and officers for the hundreds, and the fifties, and the twenties, I gave you officials, and chiefs, and great elders, and they are to busy themselves with your problems.” They said to him: “Everything is on you, for you are the one who brought us out of Egypt and brought us to this terrible place, if you give us water, everything will be fine, but if you don’t, then we will stone you.” When Moses heard this, he fled from them and went into the tent of meeting.





Numbers 20:7, 8, 11

and ה’ spoke to Moses, saying:                                               וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃


קַ֣ח אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֗ה וְהַקְהֵ֤ל אֶת־הָעֵדָה֙ אַתָּה֙ וְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּ֧ם אֶל־הַסֶּ֛לַע לְעֵינֵיהֶ֖ם וְנָתַ֣ן מֵימָ֑יו וְהוֹצֵאתָ֨ לָהֶ֥ם מַ֙יִם֙ מִן־הַסֶּ֔לַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ֥ אֶת־הָעֵדָ֖ה וְאֶת־בְּעִירָֽם׃


“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes speak to the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”


וַיָּ֨רֶם מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־יָד֗וֹ וַיַּ֧ךְ אֶת־הַסֶּ֛לַע בְּמַטֵּ֖הוּ פַּעֲמָ֑יִם וַיֵּצְאוּ֙ מַ֣יִם רַבִּ֔ים וַתֵּ֥שְׁתְּ הָעֵדָ֖ה וּבְעִירָֽם:       


And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.


Berakhot 6b:14

Rav Pappa said: The primary reward for attending a house of mourning [bei tammaya] is for the silence, which is the optimal manner for those consoling the mourners to express their empathy.


Could it be that Moshe was angry, not able to use his words after losing his sister and distraught that God did not bring him comfort? 


Why did God not share in words of support or love but rather move him along in his tasks as leader?


Was this Moses’ silence in a moment of shiva – or acting out in anger of grief?

Numbers 20:25-29

קַ֚ח אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֖ר בְּנ֑וֹ וְהַ֥עַל אֹתָ֖ם הֹ֥ר הָהָֽר׃ וְהַפְשֵׁ֤ט אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶת־בְּגָדָ֔יו וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ֖ם אֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֣ר בְּנ֑וֹ וְאַהֲרֹ֥ן יֵאָסֵ֖ף וּמֵ֥ת שָֽׁם׃ וַיַּ֣עַשׂ מֹשֶׁ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֣ה ה’ וַֽיַּעֲלוּ֙ אֶל־הֹ֣ר הָהָ֔ר לְעֵינֵ֖י כׇּל־הָעֵדָֽה׃ וַיַּפְשֵׁט֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֜ן אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיַּלְבֵּ֤שׁ אֹתָם֙ אֶת־אֶלְעָזָ֣ר בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֧מׇת אַהֲרֹ֛ן שָׁ֖ם בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר וַיֵּ֧רֶד מֹשֶׁ֛ה וְאֶלְעָזָ֖ר מִן־הָהָֽר׃ וַיִּרְאוּ֙ כׇּל־הָ֣עֵדָ֔ה כִּ֥י גָוַ֖ע אַהֲרֹ֑ן וַיִּבְכּ֤וּ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים י֔וֹם כֹּ֖ל בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃


Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up on Mount Hor. Strip Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar. There Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead.” Moses did as ה’ had commanded. They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.


Akeidat Yitzchak 81:1:6

[…] It is not sufficient to grasp the opportunity for peace when it presents itself, but it must be actively sought out at all times. For that reason Hillel urged that one be a disciple of Aaron, the High Priest, who excelled in the pursuit of peace. Avot de Rabbi Natan 12, describes Aaron as going so far as to involve himself in family or other personal quarrels, unbidden, in order not to miss an opportunity to restore peace and harmony where it had been shattered. When he died, all sections of the nation cried, having been aware of his outstanding contribution to the unity of the people, and how his departure from amongst the living, might endanger the nation’s well being.


stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance


Adele “Make You Feel My Love”

When the rain is blowing in your face

And the whole world is on your case

I could offer you a warm embrace

To make you feel my love


When the evening shadows and the stars appear

And there is no one there to dry your tears

I could hold you for a million years

To make you feel my love

In the Name of Heaven, in the Name of Love
By Rabbinical Student Julia Knobloch

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 controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

This famous passage from Pirkei Avot 5:17 seems easily accessible: Shammai and Hillel, in their disagreements, strive to best interpret and bring to life the divine message, regardless of their personal benefits. Korach, the rebellious priest who disagreed with Moses and Aarons’ leadership and took with him 20.000 people into the desert’s abyss, was only concerned about his ego.

But you might say: What is so holy about minute halachic matters, which Shammai and Hillel focused on? Isn’t dry legalese the opposite of any spiritual exploration of Divinity? Isn’t Korach reaching for the sky, making bold, inspiring claims? Doesn’t he have a point, when he hurls at Moses and Aaron:

וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהֹוָֽה

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and יהוה is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above יהוה’s congregation?”

Korach seems to appeal to basic democratic ideals – we are all holy, we are all equal, there should be no hierarchical structures. But what he also says is that we should pursue our opportunity and seize the moment when we think it’s right.

Besides the short-sightedness of such a reasoning that is likely to lead to chaotic, unbridled competition, the other poignant problem about Korach’s argument is that he pretends to be speaking for all people, when in fact he only speaks for himself. He uses a good cause – We are all holy! – to make a self-serving argument: His desire is not for the community to thrive or have the best possible leadership. His desire is to obtain what he thinks he deserves.

You might say: There is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to attain what one desires. After all, the moral of our country is built on the self-evident truth that we should all strive for our personal benefit, seize the moment. We should all dream and demand to be leaders.

Yet we witness every day what living primarily according to such a premise can do to the health and stability of our societies, communities, and interpersonal relationships: Self-centeredness and empty phrases have long been a figurative plague for human interaction, and the literal

pandemic has intensified – made acceptable – a “me-first-attitude,” often disguised as “self-care.”

Where is the line between giving oneself the space one needs on the one hand, and indifferent egoism on the other? To what degree can we expect from our fellow humans that they give just a bit more than they feel like in order to improve the emotional or economic well-being of another person or a communal body? Can we demand a sense of responsibility, an awareness that giving of ourselves can lead to receiving back?

One of Temple Beth Am’s tote bags quotes Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Giving can also mean to step back, to withdraw and thus create new opportunities: for us, for others.

These questions are related to the Korach episode precisely because Korach makes a beautiful sounding argument that turns out to be only lip-service.

He doesn’t care about the holiness of the person next to him. He is not creating new possibilities, not for himself, and clearly not for others. He is neither making an argument for the sake of heaven, nor in the name of heaven, which is a more literal translation of לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם.

Unlike a Catholic priest, a Jewish clergy person is not seen as the middle man of God on earth. Rabbis, just like folks who didn’t go to Rabbinical School, simply interpret Torah. They may be better set up to put certain texts into perspective, but they are not, by virtue of their title, more holy than other people. They paid to get a degree. And yet, rabbis – rabbinical students – are expected to be speaking for the sake of heaven, in the name of heaven, more often. This expectation cries out for honest and frequent self-examination:

Am I interested in the broader issue that I am representing, or primarily in my own performance and my favorable reception by the audience? Do I – will I be able to – live up to what I am preaching? Am I holding myself to the same high standards to which I am holding others?

Yet in our competitive, anxious, and easily manipulated society, it is difficult to be self-critical, or to give constructive feedback in a way that doesn’t come across antagonizing. In order to accept (self)-criticism, we need to accept the fact that we are not perfect. We need to embrace the possibility that even if we get a B in any given context, we’re still lovable and lovely human beings: Moses even failed as a leader a few times, and still he is to this day a beloved prophet like no other. Hillel and Shammai constantly disagreed, and while there emerged a clear winner between the two, Yevamot 14b asserts that they were able to create a sustainable and inclusive society:

Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of (marital and personal status), Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text: Love ye truth and peace. (Zechariah 8:16)

We can’t always be there for everyone, and we will need to make choices. Sometimes, life happens. And because that is inevitably the case, we need to be more careful with the claims, promises, and demands we make. We need to be more humble in the way we look at ourselves, our expectations, our capacities, our words. Not in a self-deprecating or aloof way, but in a confident and caring way. If we learn to better manage our feelings of insecurity and jealousy (something Korach arguably wasn’t good at), it can make us feel less pressured to succeed always in only the most stellar way possible, and it can help us accept the shortcomings of our fellows with more understanding, in the name of Heaven, i.e. God, and in the name of Love, which arguably might be the same, as Rabbi Nachman writes, in Likutei Moharan 56:8.

The point is that peace is dependent upon daat, as has been explained, while dispute is the absence of daat. Nevertheless, there is dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, which in truth is very great daat, even greater than the daat of peace. For in fact, such dispute is great love and peace, as our Sages, of blessed memory, said (Kiddushin 30b): et vaHeV be’Sufah (אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה Numbers 21:14) – they do not move from there (from one of their stations on the way) until they become oHaVim (lovers). This is the meaning of what our Sages, of blessed memory, said: Dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end prove constructive. (Avot 5:17) This is the aspect of love, as it is written, et vaHeV be’Sufah, as explained above.

Shabbat Shalom!

I am grateful for a source sheet prepared by my fellow T’ruah peer, Adam Gillman, for the inspiration it provided with the Rabbi Nachman and Yevamot passages I quote here.

Buy Them Herring!
B’midbar 6/3/22
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

One of my favorite jokes “from the shtetl” is the one about the pauper who begs a kopek from a wealthy matron. Taking pity on his miserable situation, she gives him a single coin. She is aghast, an hour later, when she sees him delighting in the delicacy of herring, a relative luxury back then. “I give you a kopek and you waste it all on expensive herring?!”  His response is classic: “Dear lady…when I didn’t have a kopek, I couldn’t afford herring. Now that I have a kopek, you still don’t think I can have herring. So tell me…when can I possibly have herring?!”

The joke satirizes any valor that someone might associate with poverty, or lack of means. In the joke, the woman represents the one who is generous, but cynical. Who is sympathetic, but not empathetic. Who thinks the man deserves something, but certainly not the same comforts and delicacies she enjoys.  She looks askance at him, and assumes there is something less about him because he has less.

Via a complicated, but ultimately powerful, interpretation of the opening lines of Parshat Bemidbar, a rabbi known as the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunchitz, 16th-17th C Prague) makes the argument that we act differently towards those we assume have less, and thus begrudge them basic things, including our own good will.  Similarly, we overestimate the strength and vitality of those who present with more things, with more robust holdings.  His comment is actually a comment on Rashi, who tells us that the census in Bemidbar (the 3rd census we have encountered in Torah) was not done by a head-to-head count.  Rather the word גלגולת/gulgolet, which is often translated a skull, is used in the verse commanding the census to refer to the half-shekel tax that each adult gave, and which was given “head-by-head.”  In this census what was counted was coins, not heads of people. Why? According to centuries-old superstition, counting individual people makes them vulnerable to the עין הרע/ayin hara, or the “evil eye” (ptooey ptooey ptooey!).  This is why, to this day, even in non-overly-superstitious communities, a minyan is counted not by assigning the people a #, but by counting off a 10-word verse to see if you get to the end. This way, we (again, superstitiously), “protect” the individuals from any attack or vulnerability associated with the evil eye.

According to the Kli Yakar, Rashi says this because at this time the people are already vulnerable in the census. Why? Because we generally are suspicious when #s that we expect to be low end up higher. Just as we are suspicious when paupers get delicacies.  And why do we expect this # to be low? Because since the previous census, there was the incident of the golden calf.  As punishment, many Israelites were killed. So we expect this census’s # to be lower than the previous. Since this census actually will show a # similar to the previous one, the Kli Yakar suggests that the universe’s reaction to this new # will be cynical, suspicious and almost disapproving. That is the perfect time for the evil eye to strike.  So to confound that ayin hara, we count with shekels. Not with people.

Convoluted, I know.  Sometimes rabbinic interpretation is that labyrinthine. But within the inner sanctum of this interpretation is a caution to us all: not to begrudge the gifts and blessings of those we assume lack them. Whatever we believe about the evil eye, we do indeed contribute to their vulnerability when we look askance upon what they do have. As Tevye put it, it is no shame to be poor. But it is no great honor, either.  Rather than contribute to any shame those who lack do feel, we might as well give them the kopek. Even better–buy them some herring.

By Rabbi Matt Shapiro

This is an adapted excerpt from the sermon Rabbi Shapiro will deliver on Shabbat, since May is Mental Health Awareness Month. We invite you to join us tomorrow if you’d like to hear more!

Building Healthy Communities
A few months ago, the Jewish Federation in New York shared a report from an in-depth survey of a wide-ranging cross-section of Jews in the greater New York area. They looked into a wide-ranging number of topics from poverty to religious observance to substance abuse. 

Though I’d recommend looking at the full study, there are two specific data points I’d like to call your attention to- first, they found that one in five adults in Jewish homes experienced anxiety and/or depression during the pandemic, of whom only half were seeking or planned to seek professional support. Second, here’s an equally interesting set of data points- the survey reports that “feeling like part of the local Jewish community is associated with a 25% reduction in an individual’s odds of anxiety/depression…attending Jewish programs is related to the chance of having anxiety/depression being reduced by about half…similarly, attending religious services is associated with the likelihood of anxiety/depression being reduced by 75%.” This is, of course, not to say that synagogue will cure your depression nor that everyone here has impeccable mental health; we also don’t know what’s correlation or causation- does coming to shul help with anxiety and depression, or are people who are experiencing these challenges just less likely to show up? Whatever the link, there’s clearly a relationship between community connection and mental health. 

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that those who consistently are a part of a community show signs of greater well-being- briefly returning to the survey, it was reported that “respondents with no social network to depend on for help report mental health problems at a rate five times higher than those with a social network of 10 or more persons.” The facts also cast a particularly sharp focus on how challenging the past two-plus years have been. No matter how nimble we’ve pivoted for the umpteenth time, no matter how compelling our various Zoom offerings have been, there’s still no substitute for being together, in person, sharing time as a community. We’ve been scattered, and we’ve only recently, finally, been able to consistently join together. 

But the challenge of finding our tribe, of knowing our place, isn’t a new one. There’s a construct within our tradition that’s mentioned in this week’s parsha (and explored in greater depth in last week’s parsha) that offers a solution invites us to go one step deeper than coming to schmooze during musaf- the year of yovel, the jubilee year. After seven cycles of seven years, with the shmita, sabbatical, year being a year of rest for the land, the yovel is a doubling of this year, in which a number of other societal shifts unfold, including the striking commandment that, in this 50th year, all land holdings return to their original owners. In Vayikra 25:10, we’re told

each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.

Now, the logistics of this would, obviously, be complicated- I’m neither a farmer nor a land use attorney, so I’m limited in my understanding of exactly how that would work. I’d invite you to look at this from the lens of relationship and community: everyone, every person, no matter who they are or what has happened over the years, has a place, and everyone has a right to return to that place. What does it mean to return to your family’s home, its holding? What would this world look like if each of us, truly, knew that we always had a home?

For some of us, that might feel complicated; in fact, for some of us, considering a return to family may be uncomfortable or even scary. So, if your family of origin, the place that you came from, was not a place of safety or a place that felt like ‘home’ to you, I’d invite you to envision this as a return to a place that truly feels like a home to you, whatever or wherever that may be. The jubilee year is the great equalizer, an ultimate reminder that we each have inherent value and infinite worth; to cite a text I often turn to, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote about how we each have a place in the garden that is our world that’s uniquely ours, to care for it in the way that only we can.

Release and Redemption
By Rabbinic Resident Julia Knobloch

Had I been born Jewish, Parashat Behar would have been my Bat Mitzvah portion. There’s another reason why Behar feels like a special parsha for me, especially this year: Last Friday, I turned 49. Thus has begun my 50th year – my personal Yovel year. As it says in Vayikra 25:8; 10:

וְסָפַרְתָּ֣ לְךָ֗ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת שָׁנִ֔ים שֶׁ֥בַע שָׁנִ֖ים שֶׁ֣בַע פְּעָמִ֑ים וְהָי֣וּ לְךָ֗ יְמֵי֙ שֶׁ֚בַע שַׁבְּתֹ֣ת הַשָּׁנִ֔ים תֵּ֥שַׁע וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃

וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכׇל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם(…)

And you shall count you seven Sabbaths of years, seven years seven times, and the days of the seven Sabbaths of years shall come to forty-nine years. (…) And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and call a release in the land to all its inhabitants. A jubilee it shall be for you (…)

While scholars debate whether the Yovel year was ever enacted, there is consensus that the Shmitta year, which marks a rest for all agri-and viticultural work every seven years, was indeed observed, as it is still today — in fact, our current year 5782 is a Shmitta year in Israel. The Yovel, or Jubilee, year takes the idea of rest and reboot 7 times 7 further, at least theoretically: Purchased property will revert to its original owner. Slaves will be freed. Debts will be forgiven. It is a year of complete release, of letting go and starting from scratch. A year of redemption.

Now, the word redemption is a big word and difficult to define, especially for modern, secular-minded sensitivities, which even those of us who engage in the religious tradition of our ancestors may have. It seems laden with eschatological, maybe even apocalyptical imagery, a word some shy away from because they hear a zealous tone in it. This year I spent the days leading up to and during Pesach discussing just a few of its possible meanings – and barely scratched the surface of the subject. For this dvar, I want to turn to Jeremiah and the haftarah for Behar and look at another angle of the correlation between the Yovel year and redemption in one’s 50th year.

Jeremiah, the prophet who can’t refrain from delivering messages of destruction to his fellow Judahites, who despise him for his constant rebuking, has remained wife-and childless, as a living symbol of hopelessness: The future is too bleak to settle down and sire children. He finds himself in jail on account of his doomsday agitations, when the word of God comes to him:

הִנֵּ֣ה חֲנַמְאֵ֗ל בֶּן־שַׁלֻּם֙ דֹּֽדְךָ֔ בָּ֥א אֵלֶ֖יךָ לֵאמֹ֑ר קְנֵ֣ה לְךָ֗ אֶת־שָׂדִי֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּעֲנָת֔וֹת כִּ֥י לְךָ֛ מִשְׁפַּ֥ט הַגְּאֻלָּ֖ה לִקְנֽוֹת׃

Look, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle is coming to you, saying: Buy for yourself my field which is in Anathoth, for yours is the right of redemption to buy.

Why buy a field – a common metaphor for sowing hope – when everything is hopeless? The significance is that precisely after all, there is hope, there is a future, God will not abandon God’s

people entirely, after the punishment there will be forgiveness and rebirth. There will be new crops growing on the field that Jeremiah redeems.

The fascinating thing about the root גאל is the same thing that’s fascinating about the Hebrew language and Torah and Tanakh in general: It can take on different, sometimes opposing meanings. It hovers between the prosaic and the lyrical, between the practical and the lofty, between the secular and the sacred. A redeemer is not only, not even first and foremost, a messianic figure that will bring the times when mountains melt and all nations shall celebrate the biggest Sukkot.

In Biblical language and cultural context, a redeemer is a next-of-kin with the necessary means to buy property from a relative who has fallen on hard times, needs cash, and can’t or doesn’t want to take on responsibility for a piece of land that should stay in the clan’s possession.

We know a similar case from the Book of Ruth, where Boaz is actually not the first in line to redeem the property of Naomi’s dead husband, but he scares the respective relative away with the warning that if he buys Elimelech’s field, he’ll also have to redeem, i.e. take care of, that Moabite woman who lives with Naomi — and so Boaz gets to do all the honors. Redemption, both in Ruth and in this chapter of Jeremiah, is a worldly, matter-of-fact purchase, witnessed by witnesses and sealed with a deed. And, like the religious redemption, it is liberating in that it releases one person from a certain debt and especially in its expression of hope for better days:

כִּ֣י כֹ֥ה אָמַ֛ר יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל ע֣וֹד יִקָּנ֥וּ בָתִּ֛ים וְשָׂד֥וֹת וּכְרָמִ֖ים בָּאָ֥רֶץ הַזֹּֽאת׃ For thus said the LORD of Armies, God of Israel: Yet shall houses and fields and vineyards be bought in this land.

Jeremiah is not the only prophet who uses the imagery of trampled fields, unpruned vineyards, and barren wilderness to drive home his point of divine punishment. And he is not the only prophet to use the same imagery as metaphors for potential beginnings, for reconciliation and new sprouts, so ingrained in the narrative of the Israelites as well as the State of Israel: Take us back to the desert, to the place where our love was young. Make the wilderness bloom. Turn the Negev green.

Parashat Behar and its haftarah connect Mount Sinai with Judah. They both focus on agricultural processes that took on religious meaning and significance. The redemptive Yovel year at the end of a 49-year cycle – it can’t get more complete – more revelatory? – than that. And what does that mean for one’s own 50th year?

Had I been born Jewish, I would have been born on the 11th of Iyar, the 26th of the 49 days of the Omer, on the day of the sefirot Hod shebe Netzach – humility in resilience, humble endurance. I resonate with this. The decade of my 40s began with a divorce – certainly a liberation and the promise of redemption – and has seen a lot of wandering. Mostly internal, and largely intentional, but not necessarily leading to the longed-for outcome, the flourishing crops, the deed sealed in an earthenware jug. And yet, I have continued, grateful for the good and the love I have been given, ever balancing as best as I could both the frustration and serenity that come

with increasing life-experience. It is painful to approach one’s 50th year without having biological children, especially when one always wanted to sow and build property to pass on to a next generation. And yet, after difficult years of accepting that without releasing certain hopes I can’t focus on new ones, I am finally excited for the beginning of a new cycle, this personal Yovel year, which I will largely spend in Jerusalem for the academic year. I can’t wait to see what new opportunities await, whom I will follow through unsown lands, what fields I will cultivate.

You Shall Not Pass – Emor 5782/2022
By Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig

This week we find lots of rules for the Kohanim in the Temple, both in our Torah reading from Emor and our haftarah reading from Ezekiel. 

The rules here are striking, there are clear boundaries being drawn, arguably for the sake of the Temple. The first thing explained in the haftarah is that the priests must be descendants from Zadok, an earlier priest, who remained loyal. Only they may administer to G!d, these boundaries are clearly being drawn for G!d’s sake. We then have rules about keeping their hair in shape, not to be drunk while serving in the Temple, and then rules about who they may or may not marry. Many of these rules are repetitions of what is read in the parsha. Lots of rules, even more in the parsha, and seemingly all to create a boundary.

Ezekiel then turns to the job of the Kohanim:

וְאֶת־עַמִּ֣י יוֹר֔וּ בֵּ֥ין קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְחֹ֑ל וּבֵין־טָמֵ֥א לְטָה֖וֹר יֽוֹדִעֻֽם׃

They shall declare to My people what is sacred and what is profane, and inform them what is clean and what is unclean.

Here they are to draw lines, they are to decide what is pure or impure, they are to set the boundaries of the kodesh and the chol, the sacred and the mundane.  

They are also living by example: they are setting boundaries in their lives before setting rules for the people as a reminder that boundaries are important. Their boundaries are created for the sake of the Temple and the sake of G!d.

After the role of the priests in the Temple is explained, there is another boundary:

וְאֶל־מֵ֣ת אָדָ֔ם לֹ֥א יָב֖וֹא לְטׇמְאָ֑ה

 A priest should not come to defile himself [through contact with] a deceased person.

This makes sense, and again is for the sake of the Temple. If the priests just went and became impure willy nilly the Temple would be facing all sorts of staffing shortages. The priests need to separate themselves in some ways from the community to ultimately serve the community. 

But then, we see one final boundary, and this one seems different:

כִּ֣י אִם־לְאָ֡ב וּ֠לְאֵ֠ם וּלְבֵ֨ן וּלְבַ֜ת לְאָ֗ח וּלְאָח֛וֹת אֲשֶֽׁר־לֹא־הָיְתָ֥ה לְאִ֖ישׁ יִטַּמָּֽאוּ

He shall defile himself only for father or mother, son or daughter, brother or unmarried sister.

There is an exception to the rule, and it’s a strong one. For what the Torah considers to be direct family members, not only “may” the Kohen or “perhaps” become impure, it uses a future tense form, the Kohen -will- defile himself. This, I would say, is a boundary set for the sake of the Kohanim themselves. The Kohanim need ability to care for their loved one who has passed, care for their community, and ultimately care for themselves. While they are impure they cannot serve in the Temple and they need to, and they get to, focus on what is in front of them. And on themselves.

So much of their lives is dedicated to the needs of the Temple, and so much of our lives are dedicated in the service of others.  This moment gives us a different lesson: you have to take care of yourself, too, sometimes.

It is easy for us to dedicate our lives to something and someone else. It is easy to draw boundaries around ourselves for the sake of things we care about, a little or a lot. It’s easy to say “I can’t go out on a weeknight because I have work in the morning.” And a little harder, but not the hardest, to say “I can’t go for brunch because I’m taking my friend on an errand.”

At least for me, though, but I think for many of us, the hardest of all is to set the boundary for my own sake. I cannot do this thing because I need the time to myself, I have something else I want to do, I’m just not interested. But this, too, is a boundary that our text and our tradition is telling us to set.

It is a challenge, and it is also permission. Next time you are faced with setting a boundary that’s hard for you, especially one for yourself, I hope you take our tradition’s permission, rise to the challenge, and take care of yourself. You’re worth it. Shabbat shalom.

Taste of Haftarah: Choosing Holiness
By David Kaplinsky

The Haftarah for this week comes from the Prophet Amos, a literary prophet from the Southern kingdom of Judah, but who came North to prophesy against the kingdom of Israel in the mid 700s BCE. Amos, then, was an outsider in two ways, as he seems also to have been one of the few prophets not to have acted as one full-time. The book of Amos in fact begins by describing him as a sheepherder from Tekoa—he simply is compelled to prophesy against the injustices and aberrations perpetrated around him in the Northern Kingdom under that worst of all Northern Kings, Jeroboam II.

Our Torah portion this week, Kedoshim, is focused on the many ways God exhorted the Israelites to be a holy nation, both in terms of ritual purity as well as acting justly in interpersonal behavior. Amos, incidentally, is concerned with admonishing the people for violating that holiness in these same two areas of God’s law. However, Amos in this haftarah perhaps takes this message of “kedoshim tihyu”, “you shall be holy” to its natural, but radical conclusion: that when Israel does not act holy, they are not holy at all. Our haftarah begins with such a challenge to the people:

הֲל֣וֹא כִבְנֵי֩ כֻשִׁיִּ֨ים אַתֶּ֥ם לִ֛י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נְאֻם־יְהֹוָ֑ה הֲל֣וֹא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל הֶעֱלֵ֙יתִי֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם

וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּ֥ים מִכַּפְתּ֖וֹר וַאֲרָ֥ם מִקִּֽיר׃

To Me, O Israelites, you are Just like the Cushites —declares the LORD. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, But also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.

Amos tells the Israelites that they are not inherently holy—in fact, at the end of the day, they are no better than the Cushites, the Philistines, or the Arameans. This shocking rebuke tells the Israelites that to be holy to God, they have to act holy, but that is wholly up to them (pun-intended). Chosen-ness, for Amos, is earned—not automatically granted with no strings attached. In fact, Amos goes on to suggest that many Israelites have indeed ceded their holy status to God through their behavior and so are fair targets for the coming destruction of the Northern kingdom. Amos pronounces their doom, saying: “All the sinners of My people Shall perish by the sword, who boast, ‘Never shall the evil Overtake us or come near us.’” Thus, the worst of the sinners in Israel are those who are perhaps aware of their sins but refuse to believe there could ever be consequences for them. These types of sinners indeed have ceded the opportunity to make themselves holy and are the antithesis of the holy behavior that God demands of them, and that Amos preached. They know what they’ve done is wrong and yet remain arrogant in their insistence that there is no such thing as divine Justice for their behavior—thereby, in a sense, denying God’s power.

But just as Amos reaches his most furious and threatening point in his prophecies, he then tempers this gloom in doom with a promise that a holy remnant of this people will indeed be saved and will re-establish “Sukkat David HaNofelet/ David’s fallen sukkah”—poetic code for a united, flouring Davidic kingdom. So, while Amos is not usually easy on sinners, in this haftarah he still affirms the opportunity that acting in holy ways affords us. He tells us that when we do so, whether as reward of God or as the natural result of living in a just society, the future can be bright, prosperous, and secure.

Amos in prophesying in his time and place is also delivering a message for us: being a chosen people is dependent on us choosing holiness. Amos tells us that we cannot rely on our inherited status to make us special. Specialness, holiness, is a result of our individual and communal behavior, and means nothing in its absence. While this may seem a real challenge to our status as “chosen people”, it has the unintended, though beautiful, consequence of reminding us that we do not have monopoly on holiness as a people. Many individuals and peoples can achieve this status outside of the Jewish community and even set examples for our own behavior. For all of us who follow justice and righteousness, while we may not always enjoy personal reward for our actions, Amos affirms that for such behavior there is ultimately a reward—as person by person it shapes a society and transforms its desolation into prosperity. May we each play our own part, Jews and Gentiles, in bringing such a world to fruition.

Lucky Number Seven

Passover 5782/2022

by TBA Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig


I might be biased, but the last days of Pesach are my favorite, and if they were their own holiday it would absolutely be my favorite. It feels like a trudge, trust me, I get it. We’ve been eating matzah for a week, missing chametz, not sleeping, all the tough things. But for me, there’s nothing else like these days. The end of Pesach is filled with what we all need a little more of, especially right now: hope.

The last days of Pesach are connected with Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, specifically Shvii Shel Pesach, the 7th day. On that day, the tradition teaches, the Jews found themselves staring down the Red Sea, wondering what to do next. It is our obligation to see ourselves as if we left Egypt, and here’s another place that we can do so, possibly differently than ever before.  Before AND after the sea splits, we find two incredible stories of faith and hope. 

The first story, a story of faith, comes from the midrash. The rabbis tell the story of Nachson ben Aminadav. While all of Israel watches as the sea is not parting, he decides to take a leap of faith – quite literally. He begins to walk into the sea, slowly but assuredly, one step at a time. He goes deeper and deeper, having faith that something good will come of it. Finally, the midrash tells us, as he is about to open his mouth and swallow the sea water, it splits. Right at what seems like the last minute, his faith pays off and because of him the Israelites are able to cross through on dry land. We know what comes next. The Israelites cross, the Egyptians are drowned, and then, as we will read over the holiday, they sing a song, Shirat HaYam. 

And immediately after that we see a story of what hope really looks like. As made famous by Debbie Friedman, the first verse immediately after Shirat HaYam reads:

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כׇֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃

And Miriam, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out with her with drums and dancing.

Okay. They danced. They were excited. So what? Here’s what. Remember how we eat matzah because there was no time for them to even bake bread before they left? Even in that sort of haste they looked at their timbrels and they said “We should probably take that with us.” Despite the rush, despite the fear, despite the unknown they were facing, in an incredible act of radical hope, Miriam and the women prepared themselves to dance and celebrate on the other side. 

We know we are in the midst of something big and scary and life changing like Yetziat Mitzrayim and crossing the sea. Something that if we are not careful will swallow us up. But we can be like Nachshon, we must be like Nachshon, and take one step at a time, as small and as cautious as it is – the only way out is through.

And more than that, here’s the even harder part. We can try to be like Miriam and the women. Through everything in our world, the news headlines, the doomscrolling, we can try to have radical hope. To pack in our hearts something we’re holding onto, something big or small, something that we can hold and can hold us. Because, while it may be hard to imagine right now, there will be something worth busting it out and dancing for on the other side. Chag sameach and shabbat shalom.

TBA Taste of Torah
Parshat Metzora 5782
April 8-9, 2022
Chayva Lehrman

When emerging from a period of illness, most of us don’t resort to anointing our bodies with the blood of a sacrificial bird. Such a scene might look more like a horror movie than a sanctified religious ritual. Yet, so opens Parshat Metzora, in which the מצרע (metzora), one afflicted with צרעת (tzara’at), is brought back into the camp of Israel.

The modern reader will never know exactly which diseases fall under the category of tzara’at, though Rambam tells us it includes several types of topical infection. We do know, however, that it renders the afflicted person tamei, ritually impure, and requires extensive monitoring by the priest. The priest, too, is the one to reintegrate the metzora into the community after their period of quarantine.

From the moment the reintegration process begins, the afflicted person stops being referred to as a metzora, and is instead called המטהר, the one who is purified. The change of title is implicitly the first step of their transition. The process continues: outside the camp, the priest takes two birds, sacrifices one, sprinkles the blood of the sacrificed bird upon the מטהר, and releases the living bird. The מטהר then shaves and bathes, and then the priest makes a חטאת (chatat) offering.

The step of the chatat offering caught my attention. Usually חטאת is translated as a sin offering, which seems discordant; it is no sin to be sick. Biblical scholar Everett Fox translates chatat as a decontamination offering, which seems more fitting in the context of tzara’at. But this is not the first time we encounter a chatat offering, and the other usages raise further questions.

Chatat offerings are formally introduced in Leviticus 4:2-12: when an Israelite misses the mark and sins, they sacrifice a bull for chatat, sprinkle the blood on the horns of the altar, and burn the sacrifice upon the altar so that none of it is consumed. Chatat offerings are described in the abstract, without examples of how it might be applied.

Several chapters later, however, a chatat offering appears in a very different context: the sanctification of Aaron and his sons for the priesthood. Among the many steps of this process, one stands out when we read it through the lens of Parshat Metzora.

וַיִּשְׁחָ֓ט ׀ וַיִּקַּ֤ח מֹשֶׁה֙ מִדָּמ֔וֹ וַיִּתֵּ֛ן עַל־תְּנ֥וּךְ אֹֽזֶן־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַיְמָנִ֑ית וְעַל־בֹּ֤הֶן יָדוֹ֙ הַיְמָנִ֔ית וְעַל־בֹּ֥הֶן רַגְל֖וֹ הַיְמָנִֽית׃ וַיַּקְרֵ֞ב אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיִּתֵּ֨ן מֹשֶׁ֤ה מִן־הַדָּם֙ עַל־תְּנ֤וּךְ אׇזְנָם֙ הַיְמָנִ֔ית וְעַל־בֹּ֤הֶן יָדָם֙ הַיְמָנִ֔ית וְעַל־בֹּ֥הֶן רַגְלָ֖ם הַיְמָנִ֑ית וַיִּזְרֹ֨ק מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הַדָּ֛ם עַל־הַֽמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ סָבִֽיב׃  

It was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar. (Leviticus 8:23-24)

Compare this with the ritual for reintegration of the person afflicted with tzara’at:

וְשָׁחַ֣ט אֶת־הַכֶּ֗בֶשׂ בִּ֠מְק֠וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁחַ֧ט אֶת־הַֽחַטָּ֛את וְאֶת־הָעֹלָ֖ה בִּמְק֣וֹם הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ כִּ֡י כַּ֠חַטָּ֠את הָאָשָׁ֥ם הוּא֙ לַכֹּהֵ֔ן קֹ֥דֶשׁ קׇֽדָשִׁ֖ים הֽוּא׃ וְלָקַ֣ח הַכֹּהֵן֮ מִדַּ֣ם הָאָשָׁם֒ וְנָתַן֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן עַל־תְּנ֛וּךְ אֹ֥זֶן הַמִּטַּהֵ֖ר הַיְמָנִ֑ית וְעַל־בֹּ֤הֶן יָדוֹ֙ הַיְמָנִ֔ית וְעַל־בֹּ֥הֶן רַגְל֖וֹ הַיְמָנִֽית׃  

The lamb shall be slaughtered at the spot in the sacred area where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered. For the guilt offering, like the sin offering, goes to the priest; it is most holy. The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of the one who is being purified, and on the thumb of the right hand, and on the big toe of the right foot. (Leviticus 14:13-14)

Why would the reintegration of the metzora and the sanctification of the priests share a ritual?

First, these are both processes of purification. I mentioned that Fox translates chatat as decontamination; the metzora is decontaminated of their tzara’at, and Aaron and his sons are being decontaminated of the mundaneness of their prior life. As priests, they bear an obligation to holy comportment. 

Second, we know already that those afflicted with tzara’at are considered to be resembling death because when Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at, Aaron says “Do not impose upon us a chatat for our sin; let her not be like one who is dead!” (Numbers 12:11-12). The metzora is brought from a death-like state to being alive and part of the community, or from a mundane life to the sanctified life of priests.

Both metzora’im and cohanim exist on the fringes of society; the former is debased and the latter is elevated, but both are separated from normative life. This status on society’s extremes is reflected in the ritual: sacrificial blood is placed on the ear, finger, and toe, which are all extremities of the body. The ritual, however, does not indicate permanent ostracization, because despite their separateness, the priests play a central role in the community, and the metzora is reintegrated. Rather, this ritual holds the transitional moment when someone’s status in the community is changing.

Moments of transition can be tenuous. In Leviticus, these moments of transition are navigated by sacrificial ritual. Though we no longer observe sacrifices, may we too find rituals that sanctify and hold our transitional moments. As a ממלכת כוהנים (mamlechet kohanim, a nation of priests), may we create those rituals for ourselves and our communities, bringing in ever-present holiness around and within us to elevate these moments of our lives.

Tazria/Haftarah: 2 Kings 4:42-5:19

Speaking Truth to Power

By Rabbinic Resident Julia Knobloch



Parashat Tazria deals largely with a disease commonly translated as “leprosy,” although most commentaries point out that it is not actually leprosy. Just like the word “tazria” – she will give birth/she gave birth – has nothing to do with “tzara’at,” the Hebrew term for the infectious skin disease in question.


To be sure, both these states of a person’s body – the body who has just given birth and the body who is suffering from a scaly affection – are considered “impure,” albeit for different reasons: The former is related to Israelite concepts of blood and its symbolism of both life and death, as well as the temporary implications these concepts have for persons experiencing any type of bodily discharge. In the case of tza’arat, the afflicted person must also isolate, but if the disease does not recede, the affected might have to remain in isolation indefinitely. It is the High Priest who decides, after close examination of the symptoms, whether to pronounce the person as suffering from “leprosy” or not. As the one representative of Israel who, once a year, gets to enter the Holy of Holies and communicate with God, this is all the Kohen Gadol can do – administer the divinely ordained bureaucracy. 


How different is the scenario that this week’s haftarah is offering!


2 Kings 4:42-5:19 belongs into the cycle of the prophet Elisha’s miracles. The haftarah begins with a short passage about a wondrous supply of bread for hungry disciples, but its majority is dedicated to the story of Na’aman, the leprous Syrian general, who comes to Israel hoping to be healed by the local prophet, Elisha, of whom he first heard from an Israelite slave girl in service to his wife.


The episode is interesting for several reasons: A Biblical leper, even when he is a general, must be considered an outsider to some degree, living at the fringes of “normal” society — and he seeks advice from another outsider, a prophet, of an enemy nation to boot. 


He has his king send a missive to the Israelite king, Jehoram, son of the evil king Ahab. Given the political-religious backdrop of the Elisha stories in 2 Kings – constant war with Aram/Syria and idol worship as the cause for God’s wrath against Israel – he is depicted as arguably the weakest personality in the cast of characters. Upon learning of Na’aman’s intentions, Jehoram suspects treason and imminent war, tears his clothes and cries out:


הַאֱלֹהִ֥ים אָ֙נִי֙ לְהָמִ֣ית וּֽלְהַחֲי֔וֹכִּי־זֶה֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ אֵלַ֔י לֶאֱסֹ֥ף אִ֖ישׁ מִצָּרַעְתּ֑וֹ

 Am I God, to deal death or give life, that this fellow writes to me to cure a man of leprosy? 


Which prompts Elisha’s snarky comment: 


יָבֹא־נָ֣א אֵלַ֔י וְיֵדַ֕ע כִּ֛י יֵ֥שׁ נָבִ֖יא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Let him come to me, and he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel.

Meaning: Yes, you may be a useless king, and you certainly are not God, you worship the wrong gods to begin with — but I, the prophet who keeps admonishing you and your Northern Kingdom for your transgressions; I, the man of the true God, I will take care of this. 


Yet at first, Na’aman refuses to follow the sought-after prophet’s suggested treatment: Immerse himself in the Jordan? That’s not what he came for! Syria has better and more powerful rivers, and they didn’t cure him, so why would this Israelite backwater? Having hoped for a more impressive performance of the prophet, he stalks off in a rage, but his – Syrian – servants eventually convince him to listen to Elisha’s advice, with a clever argument that both soothes the general’s ego and reveals an awe for the powers of this intense Israelite – an awe, which that prophet’s own king does not display.


אָבִי֙ דָּבָ֣ר גָּד֗וֹל הַנָּבִ֛יא דִּבֶּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ הֲל֣וֹא תַעֲשֶׂ֑ה וְאַ֛ף כִּי־אָמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ רְחַ֥ץ וּטְהָֽר׃

“Sir,” they said, “if the prophet told you to do something difficult, would you not do it? How much more when he has only said to you, “Bathe and be clean.”


And lo and behold, Elisha’s treatment – seven immersions in the Jordan – renders Na’aman’s skin as fresh as that of a young boy, resulting in the Syrian’s acknowledgment:


הִנֵּה־נָ֤א יָדַ֙עְתִּי֙ כִּ֣י אֵ֤ין אֱלֹהִים֙ בְּכׇל־הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֖י אִם־בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel! 


Which is ultimately the message of this episode: There may be no worthy king in Israel who has God by his side – but there is a prophet in Israel and God is with him: A man of God who can bring about the healing of lepers, instead of merely administering it, as the priest would do in the parsha. In the haftarah, the prophet holds the key to better days and appears as the executor of God’s will.


I first wrote a version of this dvar for a Tanakh class in school and was encouraged to “take it further homiletically.” Why would modern readers care about the roles of the priest and especially the role of the prophet? I think we 21st century folks need to remember respect for institutions and their merits on the one hand, like a priest would – and we need a good dosage of encouragement to speak truth to power. Not as a commodity, not in well-established language building blocks, but with the audacity of a prophet, someone who states things beyond the mainstream analysis. In the parsha, the Kohen Gadol, invested with solemn authority and arguably in more official contact with God than Elisha, doesn’t see much beyond of what he must see, nor does he have strong intuition nor healing powers. Mind you, he fulfills an important task and is needed. But people who are not in senior leadership positions have wisdom to share as well. They can do more extravagant things, like showing even an enemy general who is the one true God of Israel. 

More than echoing the parsha, this week’s haftarah complements it by offering an alternative perspective. So we, too, can become more holistic harbingers of God’s will when we respect the priest and at the same time bring out the prophet in ourselves.

Best Laid Plans of Priests and Prophets

by rabbinical resident David Kaplinsky

There are some days when your best laid plans just do not turn out the way you had hoped. You envision a perfect celebration, meeting, family gathering, or completion of a project when something out of your control happens to derail the whole thing. Such a moment can be found in this week’s parsha Shemini, featuring the eighth day culmination ceremony to dedicate the servants of the tabernacle. In fact, our parsha begins with everything going according to plan, and perhaps better than expected:

Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of יהוה  appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from beforeיהוה and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

This was a moment of consecration, of blessing, of communal exultation as the dwelling place for God was finally readied for operation. God’s approval is shown as God brings down a flame to consume the offering, a kind of final, holy fireworks display to say, “the Mishkan is open for business!” You really could not imagine a more perfect conclusion. This is, of course, when things start to go off the rails:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before יהוה alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from יהוה and consumed them; thus they died before יהוה.

Now obviously, this is more than just an instance of things not going how you expected. This is a tragedy—a crisis of major proportions that threatens to derail the entire enterprise of the Mishkan’s dedication and existence. The fire that had previously been brought down from God as a sign of approval now serves to destroy God’s servants.  Imagine if you were opening a power plant and just as you cut the ribbon, there was a nuclear meltdown. This is perhaps the kind of crisis Moses faced along with the impossible personal loss suffered by Aaron.

And when things go wrong, Moses jumps straight into action like a CEO trying to keep his fledgling company afloat. He first rushes to get Aaron’s cousins to come in and clear out the dead bodies lying in the tabernacle. He sends reminder memos to the priests not show signs of mourning while they still bear the anointing oil and to carry out and consume the offerings that God commanded. He puts all his focus into righting the ship. And then, in the course of his constant action the Torah says that Moses discovers that the priests had messed up yet again by burning the sin offering and not eating in the sacred area. Moses became angry, saying:

“Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and it is what was given to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before יהוה!”

            Aaron’s response is instructive:

“See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before יהוה, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would יהוה have approved?” And when Moses heard this, he approved.

What I see in this scene is a lesson in what happens when a leader does not keep their cool in trying circumstances. They look to get the project back on its feet, but forget the real people also affected by the unfolding events. They forget to trust their partners, micromanaging every element without understanding that their solutions may not be the only or best way to move forward.

As we have sought to learn during Covid times, trying to simply return to normal without acknowledging all the trauma and failures that we experienced is a self-defeating effort. So too Aaron stops Moses in his tireless efforts to return to the perfection before disaster, forcing him to confront what Aaron and the whole people has suffered. Aaron cannot just eat the people’s sin offering according the original plan. The plan has changed. Not just he, but God, would not be pleased if he carried on like nothing life-changing had happened.

And Moses, to his credit takes a breath and takes in his older brother’s message, realizing that he was wrong. We too must take the message of those who suffer most through tragedy and trial to heart—realizing when we were blind to their needs. When things fall apart, perhaps our goal is not to prop them up like nothing ever happened, but to acknowledge what was lost and use that to move forward in a better more constructive way. This serves us for big societal moments of change and invention, but also in our personal lives as we face those little moments that just do not go as expected. We dare not ignore them and pretend like we can return to the perfect plan initially envisioned. That plan won’t work under the new circumstances. Only if we have the courage to pause, to listen and feel for others, and only then start to rebuild can we find a path forward and find a new way to right the ship.

Fire and Light

La’yehudim hayta orah, v’simkha, v’sasson, v’yikar – for the Jews there was light and gladness, happiness and honor. We read this line each week as part of our havdalah ceremony and we read this line each year in Megillat Esther. This moment in Havdallah brings us to the symbolism of light in our lives and how we bridge the joy of Shabbat into the workaday  week ahead. In Megillat Esther, this statement shows triumph and jubilation of a people who’d survived the wicked schemes of an evil leader. The common theme? People as vessels of light, bringing joy and honor to themselves and the world.

In this week’s parasha, Tzav, we read in Leviticus chapter 6 verse 6: 

אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶּֽה׃

A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. Not the “Ner Tamid”, regularly lit and relit inside the Tent of meeting, but the “Eish Tamid”, the fire that is not allowed to go out; the fire of the altar for sacrifices, outside and in front of the Tent of Meeting. Fire and Light–the light that is relit each nightfall to continue as day fades; and the fire that is constant and ready at a moment’s notice to translate our passion to deeds of sacrifice. 

In our Gemara, in Megillah on 16b, Rav Yehuda explains the verse of la’yehudim to say that “Light ” refers to Torah-study.   Like it says in Proverbs chapter 6 verse 23: “For the mitzva is a lamp and the Torah is light.”. “Gladness” refers to the festivals that we observe. Like it says in Deuteronomy 16 verse 14: “And you shall be glad [vesamakhta] on your Festival.” And “joy” is referring to life cycles, specifically circumcision, as they once again could ritualize their Judaism. Torah – holidays – life cycles. That which we do to further our own Judaism, that which we do to further the Judaism in community and that which we do to further the Judaism of our family and future generations. Not moments of darkness, but moments where the light of our tradition, culture, custom and familial connection could be hidden, or lost. 

As I sit in New Orleans, overlooking Lake Pontchartrain, I am struck by our Temple Beth Am mission to be in the south in 2022. We planned a trip to the Jewish South for March of 2020, and for obvious reasons, did not arrive until today. The itinerary changed based on recent events in our world and recent relationships built across communities. For example, we changed the trip to begin in New Orleans because during the pandemic we forged bonds and learned in classes with the Modern Orthodox and Conservative shuls in Metairie. We will spend Shabbos with these rabbis and our fellow students who provided so much light of Torah and friendship during COVID. We will daven in the conservative shul, Shir Chadash, which we housed in our Dorff-Nelson chapel, via zoom, for Rosh HaShana services following the hurricane earlier this year. If we have learned nothing else during these trying times of pandemic, political unrest and surging hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia, we have learned where to seek light and when to be like fire. 

There is a very famous hasidik story that has this core narrative:

“Rebbe, what is a chassid?”

Replied the rebbe: “A hassid is a lamplighter. The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. She knows that the flame is not hers. And she goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.”

Asked Reb Yosef Yuzik: “What if the lamp is in a desert?”

“Then one must go and light it,” said the rebbe. “And when one lights a lamp in a desert, the desolation of the desert becomes visible.”

Continued the hassid: “What if the lamp is at sea?”

“Then one must dive into the sea, and go light the lamp.”

This story suggests that a righteous person can bring light even if they do not need it themselves. However, more poignantly, a righteous person knows where there is darkness and is ready to come with light to shine on the beautiful aspects of life. 

The Zohar comments on the verse from tzav with a parable: “one person stood up from behind a wall, and said: Rebbe my teacher, The Holy Light, come and light candles, for that is a Mitzva, like it mentions in Tzav: An everlasting fire shall be kept burning on the altar, it should not be extinguished. This is surely the light of the Divine, the light that shines within the soul of every person.” Layehudim hayta orah – the Jewish people had and will have light, v’simkha – and joy, v’sasson – and happiness, v’yikar – and honor. The first must continue to burn so that we can return to these feelings, these reminders of what we should put into the world and the way in which we light the lights that can show others the way. 

Our excursion to the South will bring light to us, allowing us to more deeply appreciate the passions of those who chose these places to create Jewish homes and communities. We will better understand the challenges of finding Godliness in places surrounded sometimes by inhumane treatment of other human beings, while breeching accommodation for the widest possible variety of reasons, and often to our own shame.  We carry with us Torah learning, Jewish thinking, and hopefully a great deal of humility and sense of wonder.  So when we experience Havdalah this week, we should think about the light we are bringing and the fires we are igniting.  Discovery and passionate resolve. It is for us this week to act upon next week in ways that continue our learning and sharing. Shabbat Shalom…Y’all!

More Precious Than Gold: Pekudai 3/5

By Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny


A few weeks have passed since Kol Tefilla participants gathered on our campus. This fourth Shabbaton focused again on prayer innovation and spiritual growth, drawing dozens of clergy and lay leaders from across the country to our campus. Each time the registrants came together as a group, name tags swinging and voices ringing with joyful greetings and reunions, I was reminded of the vision our clergy team imagined long before we attempted the first iteration. We spoke of the joyful curiosity that activates when one gets to spend Shabbat witnessing and exploring another community’s sacred space, seeing where and how they perform parallel rituals to our own. Each Kol Tefilla has brought that sensibility to life: I am tossed back into my memories from days as a teen at Far West USY kinnusim where we sat in unfamiliar pews singing along to familiar prayers and songs, forming new friendships catalyzed on the playing field of Shabbaton magic.

Kol Tefilla also comes with a familiar letdown. There is a kind of wistful consideration of the uniqueness one is witnessing, שלא היה ולא יהיה, it never was before nor will it be again just like this. Already we think to the next Shabbat, the Shabbat post-Kol Tefilla, when we will not be 200-strong for Lecha Dodi no matter the momentum of Shabbaton-fueled excitement. I kicked myself a bit for allowing that wistfulness to enter, preemptively, on Friday night of the Shabbaton this year, already yearning for the loveliness to linger. If only Shabbat might always be gilded with the musicality and the heights of Torah we reached when we built a palace in time with hundreds of new friends and old, and Rabbi Yosef Goldman and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky and Deborah Sacks-Mintz and Rabbi Micah Shapiro and… If only.

I returned to these thoughts of longing this week with Parshat Pekudei. We read detailed accounts of the precious metals used in the construction of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle wherein God was said to dwell as the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness. (Ex. 38:24)

כָּל־הַזָּהָ֗ב הֶֽעָשׂוּי֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה בְּכֹ֖ל מְלֶ֣אכֶת הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ וַיְהִ֣י ׀ זְהַ֣ב הַתְּנוּפָ֗ה תֵּ֤שַׁע וְעֶשְׂרִים֙ כִּכָּ֔ר וּשְׁבַ֨ע מֵא֧וֹת וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֛ים שֶׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֥קֶל הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ׃

All the gold that was used for the work, in all the work of the sanctuary—the elevation offering of gold—came to 29 talents and 730 shekels by the sanctuary weight.

Sforno, a 15th-16th century biblical commentator, points out that from these verses and a comparison with later chapters in the Hebrew Bible, we see that even this extraordinary lot of gold is nothing next to the opulence of the First or Second Temples built later as permanent homes for God. And yet:

ועם כל זה יותר התמיד מראה כבוד ה’ במשכן של משה ממה שהתמיד במקדש ראשון, ולא נראה כלל במקדש שני. ובזה הורה שלא קצבת העושר וגודל הבנין יהיו סבה להשרות השכינה בישראל, אבל רוצה ה’ את יריאיו ומעשיהם לשכנו בתוכם:

Even with all this, writes Sforno, God was hardly found in the First Temple, and God never resided in the Second Temple at all. The greatness of the building is not the most important factor in the success of a holy dwelling place but rather God desires the appreciation and deeds that welcome God’s come to dwell among the people.

This week, I derive comfort from this teaching in two ways. First, in our long-awaited return to our sweet sanctuary, our award-winning home built with tremendous thoughtfulness, “gilded” by the hands of great craftsmen and with the boundless generosity of our community. I think to the  temporary holding spaces for us that have held our community these past two years: our mikdashim for prayers, and for God.

Surely our spirit and our deeds are what kept the flame of dedicated community alive.

And I am also reminded that the gilded surface – bright lights and brimming crowds of guests – are not the heart and soul of community; our appreciation of God’s greatness and the goodness of our deeds are the foundation, always. Sometimes it is the steady dedication of more than a decade of Rashi study or the quiet, extraordinary work of rehousing an entire refugee family that give us our communal “shine”. As we are instructed earlier in the Torah (Ex. 25:11),

וְצִפִּיתָ֤ אֹתוֹ֙ זָהָ֣ב טָה֔וֹר מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ תְּצַפֶּ֑נּוּ וְעָשִׂ֧יתָ עָלָ֛יו זֵ֥ר זָהָ֖ב סָבִֽיב׃

Overlay it with pure gold—overlay it inside and out—and make upon it a gold molding

Whether we are reveling in Kol Tefilla or comforting in the quiet hush of a shiva minyan; whether we are praying indoors or outdoors: מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ תְּצַפֶּ֑נּוּ – may we be overlaid inside and out with the gifts of community.

We need to talk – Vayakhel 2/26/22
By TBA Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig

We need to talk. You. Me. All of us. Our society is facing a mental health crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing mental health conditions and people who have never faced mental health challenges are grappling with them for the first time. It can be tough to know how to talk about it or what to do. Thankfully our torah offers us ancient wisdom for our modern times.

In this week’s parsha, Moshe lays out again the requirements for building the mishkan. The materials, the dimensions, the overlay of the ends of the curtain rods – you name it, it’s there. We see two ways that the nation goes about building the mishkan, two ways that we can face mental health issues. First, people gather in community and bring gifts of the heart. They bring gold, linen, threads of all colors, and more. We, too, can find a way through in community. There are so many opportunities to help people who are going through challenges. Take a friend on a walk, offer to bring a meal, offer a cup of tea and a non-judgemental ear, ask someone how they’re doing and really listen. Deep down, I think we all know this, but often are scared to do it. We may feel uncomfortable or awkward, but that can be combated. Think about how it’s felt when someone has done any of these things for you – I’m guessing it feels good. It will feel good to other people, too. Through community there are also ways to reach out when you need help. The easiest is just to say yes when someone asks you to go on a walk or have a cup of coffee. It can be harder, but you can also ask for help. Tell someone you’re struggling, ask someone if they have time to talk, or just ask for what you need. 

After the Israelites bring all their gifts to the Mishkan, Moses steps back in. He then calls in all the experts. Exodus 36:2 tells us “Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab, and every skilled person whom the LORD had endowed with skill, everyone who excelled in ability, to undertake the task and carry it out.” When the average Israelite had reached their limits, they asked for help from people who had training and knowledge in this field. This is the second lesson for us: call in the professionals. There is no shame in knowing when to ask for professional help. There are long-term solutions available, and also experts available in a crisis. One of my favorites is the National Crisis Text Line, which can be reached by texting 741741. You can also call the National Crisis Line at 800-273-8255. There are experts in this field and they are there to help us build ourselves and build our community. 

Mental health is a big and scary topic, and talking about it isn’t easy, especially when it comes to sharing of ourselves. It can be done, though, and I’ll even share first. I live my life with general and social anxiety. Some days are fine and some days, especially during the pandemic, I find myself wanting to stay closed up at home and avoid the world around me. I sometimes avoid new places that I’ve never been, parking in places I don’t know feels like an impossible task for me (though hopefully it’s easy for you!). I’ve grown a lot, gone to therapy, told trusted people in my life, and developed some great coping skills; it’s all gotten easier. There are still days, though, when I just don’t go somewhere that I’d otherwise like to go because I can’t figure out how to park. I will live with my anxiety for the rest of my life, but talking about it, to friends and experts, makes it more livable. 

Mental health issues are all around us. According to a CDC report from the early days of the pandemic, 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13% reported having started or increased substance use, 26% reported stress-related symptoms, and 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. These numbers are nearly double the rates that would have been expected before the pandemic. These aren’t just numbers, these are people we know, this is our community, this is us. 

Just like how in the parsha the Israelites rely on the community and experts to build the holy space of the Mishkan, we can and must rely on community and experts to help build our personal holy spaces – ourselves. It is clear that the work of building the Mishkan was holy work, and so, too, the work of building up our mental health is holy work. Mishnah Sanhedrin teaches us that anyone who saves one life is as if they have saved an entire world. We are here together in community to sustain each other, AND it would be enough for the life you save to be your own. Shabbat shalom. 

A Glowing Face
By Rabbinic Resident Julia Knobloch

A friend recently posted on Facebook a photo of the first date with his now-wife and soon-mother of their child. The photo shows them on the Coney Island boardwalk, leaning against a bistro table of a seafood restaurant, in the waning hours of summer sunlight: “Some random guy came along and asked if he could take our photo. Didn’t know why but I guess we were glowing?”

The casual, rhetorical question betrays the powerful after-the-fact realization that there emanates a radiance and assuredness from their faces that the “random guy” must have picked up on six years ago. Maybe the stranger imagined that one day, the photo might become a Facebook memory, any kind of memory, of a day at the beginning of a shared life, a photo that parents show their children when asked about their life before they were born.

In this week’s parsha, we come across a more formal rendering of “guess we were glowing”:

וַיְהִ֗י בְּרֶ֤דֶת מֹשֶׁה֙ מֵהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וּשְׁנֵ֨י לֻחֹ֤ת הָֽעֵדֻת֙ בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּרִדְתּ֖וֹ מִן־הָהָ֑ר וּמֹשֶׁ֣ה לֹֽא־יָדַ֗ע כִּ֥י קָרַ֛ן ע֥וֹר פָּנָ֖יו בְּדַבְּר֥וֹ אִתּֽוֹ׃ So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with God.

The verse describes Moses after his special date with God, when he had asked to behold God’s presence (or face, or glory), and I imagine him in a similar state like my friends in Coney Island. When traditional commentators explore the “why” of the glow, i.e. what might have transpired when Moses was crouched in the cleft of a rock (or crag, as Robert Alter translates), they explore what it means to contemplate Divinity, to gain knowledge of something beyond the earthly realm, to be enveloped by all of God’s attributes and feel reassured that the universe is not indifferent to our longings. Since “no human can see (God’s) face and live,” Rashi thinks that what Moses witnessed was a semblance of God’s glory, which Ibn Ezra defines simply as “the Name”: Moses must have experienced something that corresponds to God’s name, because, Ibn Ezra says, God’s name equals glory. Ramban, maybe with a Talmudic interpretation in mind, explains that Moses beheld as much as humanly possible of God’s goodness, if not directly. Rather, in a reflection as in a window-pane, or through a shining mirror.

All three agree that it must have been so overwhelming and complete a moment, that it could only happen through a filter of sorts, and that speaking with God and seeing God’s back is like seeing God’s face (or presence, or glory) —a complete moment of trust and intimacy. In our lives down here at the seashore, at the foot of the mountain, we know that seeing the face of a beloved human can be just as overwhelming and complete. And after two years of a global pandemic, we have gained a deeper appreciation of the preciousness of seeing faces, especially the faces of people we care about.

With all this said, it may be not surprising that poets—writing in Arabic, Hebrew or any other language—have often compared catching a glimpse of the Divine with arguably the most powerful experience of intimacy humans can think of: being physically close with another human—making love; the erotic union of Malchut (kingdom) and Keter (crown), in Kabbalistic language referring to the lowest and highest sefirot on the diagram of the ten emanations of God. For example, in “To Glorify the Song”, an essay about “Images of Love and Redemption in Yemenite Jewish Poetry,” scholar Mishael Maswari Caspi quotes from the Zohar when he analyses a poem in which the speaker is receiving “kisses of love” in a chamber inside “the king’s palace”:

“In the midst of a mighty rock, a most recondite firmament, there is set a Palace which is called the Palace of Love. This is the region wherein the treasures of the King are stored, and all His love-kisses are there. All souls beloved of the Holy One enter into that Palace. And when the King Himself appears, “Jacob kisses Rachel” (Gen. XXIX, 11), that is, the Lord discovers each holy soul, and takes each in turn up unto Himself, fondling and caressing her (…) (Zohar II, 97a, Soncino Edition)

This echoes language from Shir HaShirim, the ultimate love poem in the Tanakh, which in turn brings us back to Ki Tisa. Check out Shir HaShirim 2:14:

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶת־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖נִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה׃

My dove in the rock’s crevices, in the hollow of the cliff, show me how you look, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your look desirable.

And now compare it with these lines from Ki Tisa, Exodus 33:18-22:

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ׃

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִ֨י אַעֲבִ֤יר כׇּל־טוּבִי֙ עַל־פָּנֶ֔יךָ וְקָרָ֧אתִֽי בְשֵׁ֛ם יְהֹוָ֖ה לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וְחַנֹּתִי֙ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָחֹ֔ן וְרִחַמְתִּ֖י אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲרַחֵֽם׃

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֔ה הִנֵּ֥ה מָק֖וֹם אִתִּ֑י וְנִצַּבְתָּ֖ עַל־הַצּֽוּר׃

וְהָיָה֙ בַּעֲבֹ֣ר כְּבֹדִ֔י וְשַׂמְתִּ֖יךָ בְּנִקְרַ֣ת הַצּ֑וּר וְשַׂכֹּתִ֥י כַפִּ֛י עָלֶ֖יךָ עַד־עׇבְרִֽי׃

וַהֲסִרֹתִי֙ אֶת־כַּפִּ֔י וְרָאִ֖יתָ אֶת־אֲחֹרָ֑י וּפָנַ֖י לֹ֥א יֵרָאֽוּ׃

And he said, “Show me, pray, Your glory!” And He said, “I shall make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I shall invoke the name of the Lord before you. And I shall grant grace to whom I grant grace and have compassion for whom I have compassion.” And He said: “You shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see My face and live.” And the Lord said:

“Look, there is a place with Me, and you shall take your stance in the crag. And so, when my glory passes over, I shall put you in the cleft of the crag and shield you with My palm until I have passed over. And I shall take away My palm and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.”

The essence of Divinity is intangible, and we can’t behold it directly. However, in our day-to-day lives, we are able to see its sparks and reflections in the love we have for and express with other humans, be it romantically or as friends, by going on a hike in the mountains, or by sharing song and prayer: Last Saturday evening, after the Kol Tefilla concert, I saw several people who walked out of Temple Beth Am’s own Tent of Meeting with a special glow on their faces, a shining smile, and I thought of the last lines of Ki Tisa:

וּבְבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֜ה לִפְנֵ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אִתּ֔וֹ יָסִ֥יר אֶת־הַמַּסְוֶ֖ה עַד־צֵאת֑וֹ וְיָצָ֗א וְדִבֶּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְצֻוֶּֽה׃

וְרָא֤וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה כִּ֣י קָרַ֔ן ע֖וֹר פְּנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֑ה וְהֵשִׁ֨יב מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־הַמַּסְוֶה֙ עַל־פָּנָ֔יו עַד־בֹּא֖וֹ לְדַבֵּ֥ר אִתּֽוֹ׃ {ס}

Whenever Moses went in before יהוה to converse, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was. Moses would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with God.

Gathering our Hearts in Song and Service

by Rabbinic Resident David Kaplinsky

What does it take to create an experience that connects with each of our hearts? How do we weave together the fabric of our local and global community to become like one standard which we bear with joy on our breast? This week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, digs in to the details of the physical and metaphorical clothing deals we furnish for ourselves as servants of Adonai.

Central to the garments listed in this parsha is the Hoshen Mishpat, the breastplate of decision, that is fixed to the Cohen Gadol’s heart with gold rings and a blue cord. It is decorated with four rows of three precious stones, each representing a tribe of Israel. Through this arrangement, the Torah tells us: “Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before Adonai at all times (Ex. 28:29).”

This design forms the centerpiece of all the other colorful, ornate clothing that is prescribed for the Cohen Gadol to wear, and indeed, its importance is emphasized by being described first among the priest’s garments . Where the headband later explicated emphasizes God at the center of our thoughts through the phrase “Holy to Adonai,” the breastplate serves the essential purpose of causing the priest to remember the people whom he represents in God’s service. All of them are present through the layout of the Hoshen—in his every task, every preparation, every sacrifice, every service.

This gathering together of all the precious stones of Israel, represents in some way, the gathering of wonderful artists, seekers, and most of all, holy Jews that Beth Am is hosting this weekend at Kol Tefilla. To do true service we need representatives of Jews across our communities to join together, sharing the brilliance of their voices, hearts, and joy. Doing this allows us to together become a Hoshen—each jewel unique and distinct, but together creating something even more beautiful—something that will touch our individual and communal heart.

I look forward to joining in song with many of you this Shabbat to find ways to bring our hearts closer to the divine and stir us to God’s service. Shabbat “Kol Tefilla” Shalom!

Holy Interdependence
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro

When the pandemic began, the rules were clear: there were some things we still could do and some (many!) things we just couldn’t. As the months have ticked by and Omicron slogs on, the lines have gotten blurrier. I don’t need to enumerate here the countless calculations, the Covid calculus, we each take on each day, but it’s certainly murkier than it used to be. If the decisions were initially made for us, we’re now more frequently free to make our own choices. Though this expands the spectrum of what I can do on any given day or week, there are still lots of judgment calls that I need to make, especially since my 3 year old isn’t yet able to be vaccinated. Paradoxically, despite this broader set of options, at least for me, it’s getting to be exhausting.

I can understand, then, the great 20th century psychoanalyst and thinker Erich Fromm’s perspective when he wrote about the lure of the escape from freedom. Fromm suggests that there’s an innate human desire to have freedom from authority and control; however, once that freedom is present, that then leaves a vacuum, a gap into which authoritarianism, conformity and destructiveness can sink and take hold. Sadly, this was a pattern he knew all too well, as a Jew who fled Germany in the 1930s, seeing firsthand the ways in which people can be drawn to the darkest forms of surrendering their own free will imaginable.

The Torah pushes us to see this grasping for an external structure to just tell us what to do not as something only other people are vulnerable to, but that each of us might be as well. The Israelites have finally left Egypt and have just had the transformative experience at Sinai, where revelation burst forth and their trajectory as a people was changed forever. And what do we discuss first? Slavery. The very institution that was, presumably, left behind. Freedom has been achieved and there’s even a new structure in place…and yet, maybe that’s not enough. It’s possible that the patterns of the past few generations still hold enough sway within the people for a return to old behavior to seem compelling.

The good news, at least, is that we’re exploring mechanisms to escape it. The very first verse about this topic specifies that after six years, Israelite slaves should go free in the seventh. But even that structure has its own escape: 

If the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

Exodus 21:5-6

Through this ritual, the slave who is scheduled to go free can recommit himself to his enslavement, binding himself to his master for life. Rabbeinu Bachya makes a number of fascinating points and connections within the framework, of which I’ll highlight just one. He connects this moment with the climatic moment through which the Israelites just left slavery, the painting of blood on the doorposts of Israelite homes to prevent the Angel of Death from entering. Bachya remarks “This blood signifies the reverse of what the blood on the doorposts and lintel of the Jews in Egypt on that fateful night had signified. Then, it expressed the desire to be free, this time it expresses the desire of the owner of that ear to remain unfree.”

But why? Wouldn’t any slave want to be free? Maybe, these verses suggest, sometimes  it’s just too much. Being confronted with freedom might be overwhelming. Before you judge someone who might make that choice, think for yourself- has there been a moment or two or maybe even three in your life when, instead of breaking from a pattern of behavior that would move you forward, that presented you with the opportunity to let go of something that held you captive, you chose instead of stay in that restrictive structure? Has there been a time when you’ve finally managed to do so, to leave something oppressive behind, and then you’ve felt lost, unmoored, adrift?

We’ve known this pattern over the centuries, from the holy writ of Torah to the thought of Erich Fromm. What, then, might the answer be? Rather than independence (a perceived freedom from obligation to anyone and everyone) or dependence (being reliant on just one person), we can pursue and look to enhance our interdependence. We’ve seen, for better and for worse, how deeply connected we are all to each other over the past two years, in how the very air we breathe and share can spread disease and in how the loving, kind, generous, selfless actions we take can support each other to get through times of deep need and pain. We’re always connected to each other. Rather than asking whether we are ‘free’ or ‘enslaved,’ maybe the real question can be found within the through-line in the tenth plague and revelation and the ritual of servitude articulated above: the presence of God. In our tradition, we sometimes ask whether we will be servants of God or servants of Pharoah. I’ll add to that two more questions. Knowing that we are always in the presence of the Holy, how can we respond to that Presence in a way that brings us deeper into relationship when we feel adrift? How can we connect to that Presence when we’re feeling oppressed and stuck in a way that then brings us to greater expansiveness?

I don’t think there’s only one answer to these questions, for us collectively or as individuals. Rather, it’s a process, a gradual exploration and reflection into our current state and an evaluation of our unfolding responses. Most of all, I do think that we determine better responses when we choose not to engage in these questions alone, but interdependently, together.

Shabbat shalom. 

Stone and Iron—Judaism’s Least Well-Known Prohibited Combination
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Judaism has several illicit or inappropriate pairings amongst its many traditions.  In kashrut, we do not mix milk and meat. (Though an Impossible burger with a slice of cashew cheese on top is permissible, and delectable! Sorry…couldn’t resist). In clothing, wool and linen may not be in the same garment. In agriculture, two different seeds cannot be planted in the same furrow, and two different species may not be tethered to the same yoke. Some of these prohibited unions seem to have ethical underpinnings, such as the concern that a smaller species may be unduly burdened by being yoked to a larger one, or the seemingly ethical incongruity of using as a medium to cook flesh the very type of substance (milk) that once nourished that animal. Some of the unions seem to have no obvious reasons they should be prohibited, aside from our worshipping a God who is introduced to us, in Creation/B’reeshit, as a God of categories, divisions and firm boundaries.  Whatever the reasons, these things we Jews should be keeping apart from one another are numerous.

A lesser-heralded example appears at the end of Parshat Yitro. In the verses immediately after the end of the 10th commandment, the Torah commands that an altar must be made of stone, but un-hewn.  No iron instrument may be brought to the raw stones in order to shape them. They must essentially be used, as is, or somehow be hewn by an instrument perhaps made of stone, when they are being turned into an altar.  Why? What is noxious about the combination of stone and iron? According to a midrash in the Mekhilta (an early connection of midrashim on the book of Shemot/Exodus) that is brought by Rashi in his commentary, the concern is that there is a deep incongruity between the stone altar, whose purpose is to heal the soul and the world and unite heaven and hearth, and the tool made of iron, a substance of harshness, weaponry, violence and bloodshed.  As we build a structure intended for spiritual practice, we may not sully the virgin stone, emerging from the earth as God crafted it, by hewing it with a material associated with such base activities, and warfare. To be sure, back then as well as today iron is used both for weaponry as well as plenty of other useful implements. But its association with battle was foundational.  Its usage, therefore, for building the altar to the Holy One would be a profanity.

I am struck by the moment in which we are living today, a moment that is essentially forcing the Jewish people to violate this warning, to jettison the forbidden-ness of this particular union, as we try to secure our altars, our sanctuaries, our Jewish life against those who would do us harm.  It was with a heavy heart, some years ago, that the Temple Beth Am board voted to have armed security on our campus, at all times.  Especially with last week’s terrorizing hostage-situation in a synagogue outside Dallas fresh in our minds, it seems nearly inconceivable now to operate our campus without our guards brandishing iron. But it is not lost on me, thinking of the midrash’s wisdom, that in order to protect our altar, we must profane it. It may be worth it, but it takes a spiritual toll. One cannot enter into a sacred space, over and over again, passing by flak jackets, pistols and wands without the totality of what it is required to protect that holy Jewish space also diminish the very holiness of the space.  This is our Faustian bargain, foisted upon us by those who hate us, by which we surrender some of our sanctity for at least some measure of safety.  I embrace it, as one trying to keep a community safe. And I resent it. I rue it. I hate it. 

I long for a world in which Exodus’s exhortation can fully animate our spiritual world: a world in which no Jew requires iron to protect the altar of stone. And, for that matter, a world in which no penitent of any faith brings nervousness along with spiritual yearning when entering a temple to worship.  May we battle this hatred of us with mettle.  And may we dream about a day we can live our Jewish lives without the metal.

The Immortal Woman
By TBA Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig

Noah lived to be 950, according to the Torah; Abraham lived to 175. But what about a woman who was timeless? Noah, Abraham, and so many other biblical figures live for what seems like an infinite amount of time, but still confined to a generation. They live approximately the same amount of time as their partners and siblings, they die long before their children. While time may have been counted differently (or they were better hydrated and used way more sunscreen than we do!), people always lived within their generation. 

But in a midrash on this week’s parsha, we find reference to a character who seems to be beyond time itself: Serach bat Asher. We met her just a few weeks back, in Parshat Vayigash, in the list of all the people who go with Jacob to Egypt. She is the sole granddaughter of Jacob listed, among all her brothers and male cousins. AND, the amazing part is that we will see her again in a few months, in Parshat Pinchas. We will find her counted in the census taken right before the land is divided. So here we have a character, a woman no less, who seems to be beyond time, beyond her generation. So what? Why mention her here? 

While many people are familiar with the splitting of the sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, and especially the Song of the Sea, there is a small and beautiful moment that happens before that, and according to the midrash happens only because of Serach. The Israelites are about to leave Egpyt, and we know that it has to happen quickly – they do have to invent matzah after all! But before he goes, Moshe makes one final stop, the Torah tells us:

וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ כִּי֩ הַשְׁבֵּ֨עַ הִשְׁבִּ֜יעַ אֶת־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַעֲלִיתֶ֧ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֛י מִזֶּ֖ה אִתְּכֶֽם׃

And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.” (Exodus 13:19)

Before he leaves Egypt, Moshe makes sure to fulfill the promise made to Joseph. One problem, though, that whole generation is gone. Where can Joseph’s bones be found? Cue the midrash. In the gemara, in Masechet Sotah, the rabbis pose this question: how did Moses know where to find Joseph’s bones? They explain that Serach bat Asher still remained from that generation, so he went to find her. She knew where it was to be found, in the Nile, so Moses went to find it. Somehow, the story gets even more magical from there: 

Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile. He said to Joseph: Joseph, Joseph, the time has arrived about which the Holy One, Blessed be He, took an oath saying that I (i.e., God) will redeem you. And the time for fulfillment of the oath that you administered to the Jewish people that they will bury you in Eretz Yisrael has arrived. If you show yourself, it is good, but if not, we are clear from your oath. Immediately, the casket of Joseph floated to the top of the water.

Somehow, even with this incantation and floating casket, the magic of Serach bat Asher’s story doesn’t end there. She appears again hundreds of years later, according to Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, in the Beit Midrash with Rabbi Yochanan: 

Rabbi Yochanan was sitting and expounding “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Ex. 14:22). R. Yochanan expounded that [the wall of water] was a sort of netting. Serach bat Asher appeared and said: “I was there, and the water was not like netting, but like transparent windows.”

According to the rabbinic tradition, she not only went to Egypt and was part of the Exodus from Egypt, but she then managed to live hundreds more years to be able to sit and learn (and maybe even teach) in the times of the Mishnah and the Talmud! In Masechet Kallah Rabbati, it explains that Serach entered Gan Eden, paradise, in her lifetime, meaning the rabbis think that she never actually died. There are beautiful modern midrashim telling stories of her living among Jews up until today. 

We read the same parsha each year, and so often we focus on the same thing, especially when it seems to be the main idea, like this week’s splitting of the sea. Every so often, though, it’s nice to take a break, take a small deep dive, and find something that we never knew was there. And I don’t know about you, but I definitely never knew about the immortal woman hiding in the midrash on this week’s parsha. Shabbat shalom.

Breathing into Redemption

by Rabbinic Resident David Kaplinsky


I have to confess that I have been feeling pretty down over the past few weeks. After nearly two years of Covid, and just recently beginning to feel a sense of normalcy, starting this secular new year back in a state of fear and frustration makes it difficult to say the words “Happy New Year” with a full heart.

            And yet, such trials are not foreign to the world nor to the Jewish people, whether in contemporary history or ancient legend. Our parasha, Va-era, begins in a moment where the Israelites momentary hope for redemption has been crushed under the ordered intensification of their brutal oppression. At the end of the previous portion, Moshe and Aharon’s attempt to free the people has been greeted by Pharaoh’s order that they now be forced to find their own straw to make the bricks for their building projects, where previously the material was provided them. Our parsha then begins with God’s affirmation that he will free them with signs and wonders and bring them into the promised land.

            However, when Moshe delivers these good tidings to the people, it is not well received. Exodus Ch. 6, verse 9 recounts:


וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.


While the New JPS translation above translates the reason for their inability to listen into one compound phrase— “their spirits crushed by cruel bondage”—the Hebrew actually gives two distinct reasons they could not listen: “קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ” and “עֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה”. So what exactly is kotzer ruach? Literally, the words translate into narrowness of spirit. The Koren Jerusalem Bible adds some nuance by translating it as “anguish of spirit.” Rashi elaborates on this idea, explaining this difficult turn of phrase in a more physical sense:


מקצר רוח. כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא מֵצֵר, רוּחוֹ וּנְשִׁימָתוֹ קְצָרָה, וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַאֲרִיךְ בִּנְשִׁימָתוֹ

Anyone who is in anguish, his breath is short, and he is not able to elongate his breath.


For Rashi then, “ruach” refers not to spirit but breath—claiming that their inability to listen or maintain hopefulness was due to their lack of ability to breathe deeply. Thus, Rashi identifies the way in which physical circumstances can influence one’s emotional state (and vice versa). And this inability to breathe is connected with the fact that the hope the Israelites felt in the last parsha has since been crushed—returning them to an even more difficult reality after they began to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Many of us, I’m sure, have felt this narrowing of our ability to breathe freely recently. Whether it stems from renewed anxiety over basic trips to the grocery store or a restaurant, or because we feel yet again constricted within our homes and apartments, our ability to breathe in life with joy and hopefulness has yet again been constrained. And we’re tired of it. As we stand now, we have difficulty seeing an end to this cycle of fear, followed by hope, followed by fear again.

But God, and God’s messengers, represent the firmness of the promise of redemption. Moshe tried to deliver that promise to the Israelites and they simply couldn’t breathe it in. This is altogether understandable and justified—like their feelings, we have a right to feel hopeless at times. But we also have a chance to take a moment in the stress of everything and breathe deeply. Our breath puts us back in touch with our immediate reality, the miracle of our being alive, and helps us to understand that “this too shall pass.” We don’t have all the answers and can’t look into the future, but we can trust in the truth that this moment of anguish will surely end. That for us is the trust that God represents.

So in the midst of this trying time, where we are at our wits end and ready to be done with crisis, I encourage us all to ground ourselves, breathe deeply, and remind ourselves that redemption is real. As we all do what we need to protect ourselves and others, we can take solace in our breath, allowing us to look forward to the moment where this will all be a memory—a reminder that “this too shall pass” through our persistence and patience.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy and safe 2022.

In The Heart of the Flame – And We Are Not Consumed

Rabbi Schatz – Parashat Shmot 2021

This is one of those weeks where I could choose so many different pieces of Torah that piqued my attention. Shifra and Puah as holy women literally birthing us into a nation. Moshe killing an Egyptian for dealing harshly with a Hebrew, even though Moshe did not know he himself was a Hebrew – feeling pulled by a part of his identity that he had yet to discover (for more on this, listen to the Parsha class with me and Rabbi Shapiro). Daughters standing up to their fathers for the sake of humanity and life giving – both in Midrash and in Torah. Moshe taking Tzipporah as his wife, which could be considered an interfaith and intercultural marriage. Etc. And yet, on this last Shabbat of 2021 the verse that caught my eye was the ever-famous burning bush. 

וַ֠יֵּרָ֠א מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו בְּלַבַּת־אֵ֖שׁ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֑ה 



הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל

And he saw an angel of Adonai in front of him in the flame of a fire, from within the bush. 

And he saw. 

And behold! 

The bush was inflamed in fire and yet the bush was not consumed. 

Imagine that this was your life in metaphor. We come across burning bushes that are not actually becoming ashes all the time. Parts of life that seem to be aflame, but really just need different perspective. The part of the bush that is on fire is the heart, the lev, the center that holds the passion and feeling of the experience. It might feel as though something in your life is on fire, but are you really all consumed? 

My grandfather says to us all the time, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” And sometimes, we do not have a good perception on what “the small stuff” is because often we are living in this world of drama, jumbo size, Hollywood scene extremism that is unhelpful in our own emotional balance. 

Chizkuni comments through a quote from Shmot Rabbah “this was a symbol for both Israel and the Egyptians. The Israelites’ enemy, Egypt, is portrayed as an all consuming fire, while the prey, Israel, are supposed to be represented by the bush that refuses to be consumed by the fire.” I do not love the idea of Israel and Egypt depicted as prey and hunters, but I do value the idea of calm, strong, realistic goals not allowing us to be consumed by an overpowering fire. We each have our version of this metaphor. Whether work versus time off, or healthy versus toxic relationships, or bottled up emotions versus healthy sharing with loved ones or mental health professionals who help us offload. 

For some, 2020-2021 have been years of major forest fires; burning much of life, mental health, spiritual community and human relationship to ashes. And for others, 2020-2021 were years where those fires existed, and the challenge of COVID loomed, but we used our community, our friends, our professionals, our new-found hobbies, our guilty pleasures to recognize the fire and not let it consume us. 

Next week, as our Shabbos candles are melting away, 2022 begins. The fire goes out but the flames of life might still exist around us. How do we check in with the heart of our flames? How do we make sure that the fires surrounding us do not consume us? How do we assure ourselves that this year we will not see the fire as a bush that is not burning, but a sign that God is standing in front of us even in the scariest of moments? 

I cannot predict that this will be an easier year, or a better year, or a healthier or happier year. However, I know that because of the fires I have seen burning before me that this year I will be focused more on the heart of the flame that does not go out. Moses saw the angel of God in the heart of the fire and behold, you know what, it was not consumed. Moses was focused on the connection to the Divine being in front of him. Relationship. Passion. Connection. And yes, there will be fires, but if we can see into the heart of the matter, just maybe we will keep the fires from burning us down. 

Shabbat Shalom! 

The Invention of forgiveness

By TBA Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig


If you could have invented any concept in human relationships what would it be? Love? Trust? Deceit? Revenge?

In this week’s parsha, according to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l,  we see Joseph invent a new concept seemingly never seen before in human relationships: forgiveness. 

In his book Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea, David Konstan explains that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had no concept of forgiveness. One attempted to appease one they had angered, or maybe divert or distract them, but there was no concept of interpersonal forgiveness. 

Up until now in our Torah, we have yet to see a concept of forgiveness. In the story of Noah the entire world is punished, there’s no opportunity there. When Abraham argues with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah he does not ask God to forgive the people for what they’ve done, rather he pleads on behalf of people in the city who may be innocent, lest they be destroyed along with the guilty. 

In Vayigash, however, we see something new. Joseph tackles the brothers’ misdoings head on and clearly forgives them: 

וְעַתָּ֣ה ׀ אַל־תֵּעָ֣צְב֗וּ וְאַל־יִ֙חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֣י לְמִֽחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶֽם׃ 

Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. (Gen. 45:5).

It would have been easy for Joseph to take revenge instead. The brothers had done something terrible to him, he now had basically endless power, and they wouldn’t have even known who he was. Revenge would have been easy, and probably sweet, at that moment. This moment was the literal fulfillment of Joseph’s dream we saw a few weeks ago – his brothers all bowing down to him in his position of power. It would have taken so little for him to ruin their lives. But Joseph decided differently. He took the route famously suggested by First Lady Michelle Obama thousands of years later, “When they go low, we go high.” He put the past in the past, and moved himself and everyone forward. He decided to forgive the brothers and in it he changed their lives and the way of the world. 

There are so many times in life where it is easy to hold a grudge, for things big and small. It is easy to be upset about the unreturned phone call, the person who cut you off while driving, and all the more so the big things in life, like being sold to a band of Ishmaelites. It is easy to let these things stew and to promise ourselves that one day we’ll get back at the person who harmed us. Instead, though, there is always the option of forgiveness. It is a gift to the other person, and ultimately often a gift to ourselves. Forgiveness doesn’t have to be given willy nilly, but when it feels right, and sometimes we have to push to feel that way, forgiveness is a way that we can truly change our path and our future. 

This Little Light of Ours

In memory of Esther Blum z”l

Rabbi Schatz – Taste of Torah Miketz

Passover and Hanukkah start in the same way. I’m sure you’ve never heard that connection before, but just go with me. We search for hametz in our home at night, in the dark, with a tiny candle to see each and every crumb. So too, on the first night of Hanukkah, at the darkest part of the night, we light our Hanukkiah to see how a small candle can brighten a large dark space.

My favorite mitzvah of Hanukkah is that we are not supposed to use the light. On Shabbat, the lights are lit and the candles are used to make sure we can see one another and enjoy each other. On Hanukkah we can light the candles and just let them be, even sitting in another room if we wish. The lights of Hanukkah are not for us, they are for everyone else. And why? So that we can answer questions about them. So that we can share something about our tradition and our people and our fears and hopes and dreams with those who notice and ask. So that we can share our willingness to see in the darkness when others might not be able to.

In Masechet Shabbat 22a, we learn of the dimensions of the tallest Hanukkiah. One cannot be above 20 cubits or else it is invalid, just like the beam of an eruv or the schach of a sukkah. Why? The rabbis say because people do not usually raise their heads to see something that high up and Pirsumei Nisa, the publicizing of the miracle is the entire reason for lighting these candles. We must make sure they are at a height where people actually notice them and see.

In last week’s parsha we hear of the famous line v’habor reik v’ein bo mayim and the pit was empty and there was not in it water. Joseph was thrown in a pit and our Torah describes, in her economy of language, that the pit was dry and there was no water in it. Well dry means without water so why say that also? As you know, our rabbis come to drash that it was because though the brothers could see that there was no water, they could not see that there were snakes and scorpions that Joseph then was thrown into.

So we start off Passover looking for that which we cannot see. Those aspects of our lives, the shmutz, the chametz, the missing cheerio that was hidden and we didn’t even think to look for. On Hanukkah, we light a world, a time of deep darkness, to remind the world to intentionally see. To force ourselves to recognize how important it is to look for those in the darkness, to seek out those who are overlooked, to pay attention to something or someone that you might not have ever noticed before. We publicize the miracle to let others know that we are taking on this mitzvah and to encourage others to light their own lights into those darknesses.

This Sunday is Esther Blum’s shloshim and I cannot help but think that as Hanukkah ends and shloshim ends, but yet really begins the next stage of mourning, how Esther’s life and tragic death jolted us all to see a bit differently. To recognize those little lights and see how they light up a whole room of darkness. And more importantly, to acknowledge the darkness and figure out which small candle we can light to make sure a person, a community, an important matter of society is seen.

Envisioning Your Life in a Name

By TBA Rabinnic Resident David Kaplinsky


What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

While Juliet’s insight has resonated with audiences and readers for the past 400-plus years, the Torah and our tradition has a more complicated relationship with names. The Talmud in masekhet Rosh Hashanah highlights a classic example of how our tradition thinks about names in a teaching of Rabbi Yitzchak:


“A person’s sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions…giving tzedakah, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds.”


While it is noteworthy that the name change doesn’t make it into our high holiday liturgy in U’Netaneh Tokef, the Talmud here maintains by association that a name change is a symbol or opportunity for a change in one’s deeds and destiny. The Talmud in Berakhot takes this idea further:


From where do we derive that the name affects one’s life? Rabbi Eliezer said that the verse says: ‘Go, see the works of the Lord, who has made desolations [shamot] upon the earth’ (Psalms 46:9). Do not read the word as shamot, rather as shemotnames.


Names then, according to Rabbi Eliezer, are the works of God.


Our parshah, Vayishlakh, is veritably obsessed with names and the meanings they bring. It is in this portion that Yaakov twice gets his new name of Yisrael—once from the man/angel he wrestles with throughout the night which is then affirmed (or repeated) by God’s self later in the narrative. In the first naming, his opponent blesses him:


“Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”


In this naming, Yaakov’s new title signifies his epic night-long struggle with the angel but also with the deeper divine and human struggles he has experienced throughout his life. Rashi sees this new naming—as in our text in masekhet Rosh Hashanah—as signifying a deeper change in Yaakov: “It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through supplanting עָקְבָּה)) and subtlety, but through uprightness (שררה) and in an open manner.” Rashi is noting how this new name of Yisrael is not just about his wrestling. Rather, it can be seen as containing the word yashar—upright—which is the antithesis of his previous name Yaakov—from the Hebrew root for “supplant” or “deceive.” Whether this reflects an actual, current change in Yaakov’s perspective (perhaps spurred on by the consequences he now fears of hurting his brother) or a blessing for future transformation, the name is a symbol for a new Yaakov who is known for being honest and not deceptive.

After this scene of being blessed with a new name, Yaakov then immediately wants to know the name of the being with whom he has had this encounter. The being denies this request outright rhetorically asking, “Why do you ask my name?” Rashi, assuming he is an angel, draws on a midrash in Genesis Rabbah to expand on the angel’s words: “We have no fixed names; our names change, all depending upon the service we are commanded to carry out.” Here too, even the angel’s denial is revealing: “Our names reflect our holy, but temporary task—yours, on the other hand, are meant to reflect your task for the long run.” And almost instantly after the angel departs, what does Yaakov/Yisrael do? He gives the place a name: Peniel, the Face of God.

Perhaps the most tragic naming incident comes towards the end of our parsha, when Rachel dies in childbirth bearing her second child. Before she succumbs to her pain, she gives the boy a name: Ben-Oni, usually translated as “son of my suffering.” But the verse immediately follows saying “his father called him Benjamin”—which can be translated as “son of my strength.” What is at play in these two competing names?

Ramban, the medieval Sephardi commentator, notes that on (אוֹן) can mean either ״mourning״ or ״strength״ based on context in other parts of the Tanakh. From this, he posits that “Jacob wanted to call him by the name his mother had called him, for all his children were called by the names their mothers had called them, but he thus rendered it to good and to strength.” Ramban tells us that by affirming the meaning of “strength”, and using the word yamin to do so, he makes sure that the name’s meaning is no longer ambiguous; rather it is wholly positive.

It is telling that Yaakov’s choice here comes right after God confirms his own name change to Yisrael. As someone who knew what it meant to start his life with a name that did not reflect his best self, Yaakov-now-Yisrael intercedes, choosing to see the name his wife gave their son in a positive light. He still honors Rachel’s choice of their son’s name but transforms it for good: much in the same way that the angel and God transformed his own. In this way, Yaakov seeks to give his son what he never had—a name that believes in and affirms his potential for goodness. That Yaakov had the clarity of mind to make this affirmation in the face of the tragic loss of his beloved wife is even more remarkable—and perhaps strong evidence that his name change did in fact reflect a deeper transformation of Yaakov to Yisrael: from deception and pain to uprightness and hope. May our names likewise be transformed for good.

Dvar Vayetze: A Place for the Secrets of our Souls
By Rabbinic Resident Julia Knobloch

When I was a child, one place that stirred my imagination was Lisbon, or Lissabon, as I was used to calling it then. I didn’t know anything about the place when I first heard the city’s name and located it on a map or rather on a spinning globe, one of those that also serve as a lamp and turn any room into a magical realm.

For some reason, the sound of the name, Lissabon, touched something inside me that was part of me without my knowing it – or before my consciously knowing it. I believe that we know more about ourselves at a young age than we are aware of, and we are drawn to places, moods, songs, feelings because our souls are following a thread, a calling, a knowing that unfolds in hiding long before it becomes apparent to us and to people around us. Choices that seem random might sometimes be just that, random, but in other instances, they are very much in synch with an inner truth.

A few years after I first happened upon the name of this place, my parents visited Lisbon. I specifically always remember one photo: My mother, younger than I am today, is standing on the main square, the Rossio, next to a strawberry vendor and holds a few strawberries into my father’s camera. There it was again, the pull of that name, Lissabon. It was in the eyes of the farmer, in my mother’s smile, in the yellow facades and adobe colored shingles, the gray and beige pattern in the pavement. Maybe there were pigeons in the background, maybe even the hint of a cable car. Yet all those details are not the point – the photo of a happy tourist on vacation with a south-European city as background is nothing unique. And yet, for me, it was unique because I knew how it felt, would feel, to be in that place.

When I finally visited Lisbon for the first time, on a scholarship from the Portuguese cultural institution Instituto Camões, my intuition was confirmed. Despite my being tall and not particularly dark-haired, I seemed to blend in, locals often assumed that I was from there, the daughter of some Nordic immigrants, with odd idiomatic choices sometimes, but a local nonetheless.

It’s been like this with a few other places for me as well. And each of you may have similar experiences with different places that have touched you deeply because they reflect something inside you. When they reveal themselves to you everything makes perfect sense. It is like falling in love. It is like finding home. Some might say the way we experience a place is shaped primarily by moments of human connection. And that may be true on one level. Yet there also is the experience of knowing a physical place as if it were a living being, as if it were THE place, in a way that turns the earth-bound experience of being in a physical place into an inexplicable encounter with the divine.

Place, haMakom of course is one of the names of God and Judaism is a religion that is in love with, well, God — but also place, the notion of place. It’s fair to say that at the core of the religion is a land, a place – the place, the land. And inside that land, there are many significant places – the Torah has a tendency to list and specify place names, to describe an exact location, to detail what’s in the east (the hills), what’s in the west (the great sea), and what name a place is called now or once was called. It is a tribal, visceral, intimate way of rendering the geography tangible, familiar, of situating the reader and saying: You know the place, too.

In Bereishit 28:10-11, we read:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃

Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

Abraham Ibn Ezra comments quite laconically that “one of the stones of that place” means – just that: one of the stones of that place. Nothing more. There is nothing special about that place, haphazardly chosen while the sun is setting and because Jacob, who hastily left home and didn’t plan his journey, didn’t book a proper lodging. Explaining that Jacob stopped there to pray because it was a holy place — that the place WAS God – is letting one’s imagination flow too freely, says Ibn Ezra: “According to the plain meaning of the text, וַיִּפְגַּ֨ (‘and he happened upon’) is not to be translated as ‘and he prayed,’ because we never find in the entire Bible the word makom meaning God. Do not pay any attention to the Midrashic interpretation that explains makom, in makom acher (Esther 4:14), as referring to God, because it most certainly does not.

HaMakom is indeed one of the names the Rabbis, not the Torah, coined for God. Ibn Ezra seems eager to highlight that in a random place God appears to Jacob like he did to Abraham: in a dream. God reassures Jacob that he will protect him and that the ground on which he is lying will belong to his descendants.

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַעֲקֹב֮ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי׃

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!”

This famous verse in Bereishit 28:16 is quite enigmatic and at the same time conveys a feeling many of us might be familiar with: We sensed a divine presence and only realize it later. We visit a place and are suddenly overcome by a feeling of déjà-vu. We didn’t know that we knew. Even the stern grammarian Ibn Ezra succumbs to the power of such a sensation: “Surely God is present in this place,” he says means “that there are places where miracles are seen. I cannot explain why this is so because it is a deep mystery.”

So, what is it? A random place or a divine place? Did Jacob stop there for the night haphazardly, or did he know without knowing that this place was going to be called Bethel — the House of God – and no longer Luz. (As an aside, “luz” means “light” in Portuguese.) Is it a place of stones, pretty uncomfortable, or a place of divine appearance? Ibn Ezra’s two different comments seem to point to a probably unresolvable ambivalence: A random place can be the place. God can appear everywhere – yet that doesn’t mean that there is not a secret in our soul, mysterious like the light of a globe lamp in the dark — a certainty that leads us to one and not to the other place. Where God appears to us, in whatever way that might be, will be forever a unique place that shows us what we knew all along.

Shabbat Shalom!

“Bless Me Also”: Redeeming Esav to Redeem our World
By TBA Rabbinic Resident, David Kaplinsky

As a regular Torah reader and former professional performer, I have always enjoyed the challenge and the beauty of chanting from the Torah. Singing the lovely melodies, bringing the words to life for others, and achieving personal ownership of sections of our Holy story all made the task thoroughly enjoyable and valuable to me. But it wasn’t until a few years ago when reading the Torah for this week’s parsha, Toldot, that I had an experience of deeply feeling what I was reading. My performance of leyning had previously focused on being accurate and melodic but not on finding emotional connection. This new connection all fell into place the first time I read Esav’s words to his father Yitzchak right after he is told that his brother Yaakov has duped him out of the blessing. When Esav heard his father’s confirmation of this…

וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד־מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר לְאָבִיו בָּרְכֵנִי גַם־אָנִי אָבִי׃…

…He cried out with an extremely loud and bitter cry and said to his father,

“Bless me, also me, my father!”

Chanting the words of Esav as a Torah reader caused me to embody Esav’s cry. The narration of his cry alone is enough to break your heart, but once the text quotes his own words the effect is immediate and visceral. His insistent repetitions further emphasize Esav’s feelings of being left behind, second best: “Bless me, also me!” It is a heartbreaking moment.  

            While our Rabbis often made a great effort in the midrashim to make Esav look like a villain who deserved to be duped, the Torah’s language itself seems to want us to empathize with Esav—to feel the injustice dealt him by Yaakov and Rivkah. Beyond his quoted words, the Torah goes out of its way to describe Esav’s cry not only as “loud” and “bitter” but also adds that it was “extremely” so. Why should a character who deserves no sympathy be described with such heartfelt empathy in the Torah?

            It is instructive that many of our great commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rambam, Ramban, etc.)—who usually have so much negativity to cast upon Esav—are silent on this verse. To me, it is a subtle acknowledgement that this moment doesn’t fit quite so neatly in their picture of a bloodthirsty, amoral person. However, our rabbis in a midrash on this parsha in Genesis Rabbah recognize clearly the damage inflicted on Esav:

אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא אוֹמֵר שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וַתְּרָן הוּא יִתְוַתְּרוּן בְּנֵי מְעוֹהִי, אֶלָּא מַאֲרִיךְ אַפֵּיהּ וְגָבֵי דִּילֵיהּ, זְעָקָה אַחַת הִזְעִיק יַעֲקֹב לְעֵשָׂו, דִּכְתִיב: כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו אֶת דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה, וְהֵיכָן נִפְרַע לוֹ בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד מְאֹד

Anyone who claims that The Holy One, blessed be He, is overly lenient will forfeit his life; rather, God is slow to anger and as a demonstration: Yaakov caused Esav to cry a single cry, as it is written: “As Esav heard the words of his father, he cried out…”  And where was he called to account for this? In Shushan, the capital [of Persia] as it is written: [Mordechai went through the city] crying out with an extremely loud and bitter cry (Est. 4:1) ]against Haman’s decree to destroy the Jews[.

In a sharp intertextual reading, this midrash plays on the nearly exact shared wording of Mordechai’s cry in Esther and that of Esav in our parsha to demonstrate that what Yaakov did to Esav was indeed wrong and deserving of punishment. The pain that was caused Esav inevitably became our own pain, even if it took several generations for the backlash to materialize. Where so often our Rabbis only recognize our own people’s merit and pain—while characterizing people outside our family as enemies—this midrash recognizes that the cry of Esav cannot be drashed out of existence. It is our own pain. It is a recognition that a wrong was perpetrated and that Esav’s pain was real and legitimate.

Why did this cycle of hurt and punishment have to come in to being? One hint is that Yaakov and Esav’s relationship appears to have founded on the idea that their individual success had to be to the detriment of the other—only one could have the birthright, only one the blessing. Yet, one of the few notable commentators who does comment on this pasuk, the 19th century commentator Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel or the Malbim, opens the possibility of a different way of thinking that is embedded in Esav’s request to also be blessed. He asks rhetorically, seemingly in the character of Isaac:

?הלא האב יכול לברך כל בניו בעושר ובממשלה וכל טוב

Is not a father able to bless all his children with success, stability, and all good things?

            This is a question worth asking. And indeed, Isaac does subsequently recognize that blessing is not a zero-sum game when he goes on to bless Esav also. His further blessing can be given equally, even if it happened to not be the first in reception.

Our success as individuals, as a community, and as a people does not have to be at the expense of those outside our orbit. We can cheer on their success and happiness even as we seek our own with equal vigor. And a major part of recognizing that blessing is ultimately shared among us all is recognizing that other people hurt too and that we may be the source of some of their pain. Even with the best intentions we are capable of doing damage to others on the way to achieving our goals. Our work then is to minimize that damage and acknowledging the pain we cause when we get too caught up in our own efforts. We must ultimately realize that true success only occurs when we lift up not only ourselves, but all those around us. Then we can all merit to be truly blessed with all good things. 

Moving Forward Together
Prepared by TBA Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig

In some ways, our world has marched on towards normal. In other ways, it is so hard to be a human right now. People are still dying, the fear of COVID is real, and we are still just figuring out how to emerge from our protective cocoons of the last year and a half. As we return to navigating our complex “normal” lives, we have to figure out how to do this. During this last year and a half, we have faced challenges unlike any other. And also, we’ve been doing this for a year and a half. Why talk about it now? We know it’s hard, nothing has changed, and if anything things are easing towards better and more “normal” and life as “usual.” Torah is timeless and can offer us wisdom for each moment in our lives, and this time is no different.

This week’s parsha offers us an incredible example of how to work through these incredible challenges: together. At the end of our parsha, Avraham faces what is arguably the hardest thing that he has ever done in his life. G!d calls out to Abraham and tells him to sacrifice his son, and Abraham seemingly agrees to it. Preparations are made and Abraham, Isaac, and some servants set off on their way to the place that G!d will show them. Just two verses before the climax of our events, right before Abraham binds Isaac to the altar, Isaac speaks to his father, for the first time in the story. He says “Here is the flint and here is the wood, but where is the sheep for the offering?” Abraham responds that G!d will send the sheep. And then, and here it is, don’t blink or you’ll miss it וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו . They went. The two of them. Together. The Torah doesn’t include extra words for no reason, each and every word is meant to tell us something. So what does this together mean here? Why doesn’t the Torah just say “They went” or “the two of them went” or any other way of saying it, why does the Torah tell us that they went together? 

Rashi says that this means that they went with בְּלֵב שָׁוֶה, with an equivalent or fitting heart. From this, we might think that it means that they were both ready together for what was about to happen. 

Targum Yonatan, however, offers a slightly different explanation. It translates this section to say בְּלֵב שְׁלִים כַּחֲדָא, with a heart completely as one. These two men went together with one heart. 

This is such a challenging moment in the Torah, for us, and presumably for the players in the story. Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son that he loves and that he waited 100 years for, that can’t be easy. Isaac has just realized that something strange is going on, something seems off, his spidey senses are tingling, if you will. There could be an adversarial moment happening, there could be a lack of trust, there could be a feeling that the other person is just in it for themselves. And yet. They went. The two of them. Together. With one heart. Whatever they felt, they knew that they could not do it alone, the hardest thing they’d ever been asked (even if Isaac didn’t know it quite yet), and so they did it together. And this is our charge for today. What we have faced and what we continue to face, contain big challenges. It is up to us to come together, with one heart, and lean on each other to keep moving forward.  

Where Do I Go from Here?
By TBA Rabbinic Resident Julia Knobloch

The day olive trees breathed deeply
and the hills learned again to dance like lambs
I saw my son’s face when I was alone.
I was so alone that I saw.
Sleep in me, said the landscape, sleep, sleep.

I saw birds flying up and birds flying down
as when people leave you
and others come in their stead.

I saw men sitting in their homes
crying: “I want to go home!”
with the calm faces of men sitting
in their homes.

Sleep in me, said the landscape, sleep, sleep.

I resonate with this untitled poem by Yehuda Amichai, from his collection Time. It is like a mysterious prophecy, a somnambulant déjà-vu that evokes a truth I know I know, something I believe in. It has a reassuring, peaceful effect. The speaker doesn’t seem troubled. He feels safe in the landscape, surrounded—protected—by breathing olive trees and dancing hills. The hills are not jumping with fear, like the mighty mountains of the Lebanon at the sound of God’s voice in Psalm 29. Here, nature is rejoicing like the lovers in Shir HaShirim, conjuring up their reunion.

This bucolic atmosphere notwithstanding, the main sensation which emanates from the poem is loneliness. It is even stated twice: I saw my son’s face when I was alone. I was so alone, that I saw.

These two lines describe a vision: either of someone from the past—an absent son—or of a future son. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that an experience of loneliness lies at the core of prophecy. This loneliness arises from being different, from knowing differently than most “others” and can be literal or figurative: the prophets were not alone in their environment, and they must have felt very lonely.

This reminds me of the popular wisdom to deconstruct the word “alone” and remove its perceived negative connotation by focusing on the more empowering reading of “all one.” Amichai’s poem in fact is a good example of the overlap of both meanings: The speaker is alone, he is the only one in the landscape. He is all one with the landscape, he is all one with his vision.

Abraham may be one of the loneliest people in Tanakh, and there are many lonely people in Tanakh. While he had wives, a concubine, servants, and followers—and two sons, plus other offspring—he is a person set apart by his “vision and mission.”

When I think of the midrash about the Burning Castle, which explores why Abraham left his land, birthplace, and father’s house, I imagine a surreal landscape, like in a painting that Dalí and Hopper created in a team effort. Not at all like the landscape in Amichai’s poem. In the middle of a bleak nowhere, Abraham comes upon a burning castle and wonders why it is burning. Doesn’t it have an owner? The owner reveals himself to Abraham and thus makes him a partner in extinguishing the flames. Now they have a pact.

This powerful imagery seeks to explain how and why God chose Abraham to become the patriarch of (not only) the Israelite nation. Naturally, it focuses on a dialogue between God and Abraham. And maybe this is precisely the nature of a vision: there is no distinction between dialogue and monologue, between inside and outside.

Did Abraham intend or hope to change his luck by changing his place? It’s unclear. All that which seems clear is that he knew he had to leave. And that he knew that making a pact means to honor the promises one gave to oneself and to the covenantal partner, even if some visions may not come true right away, or exactly as imagined. Renouncing one’s initial certainty, faith, and trust would mean letting the flames consume the castle, instead of putting them out.

Arguably this is why Abraham, at the end of his life, insists that his servant must not return his son Isaac to where he came from, should no woman want to cross over and become Isaac’s wife: “On no account must you take my son back there!” (Bereisheet 24:6) Taking Isaac back to Haran would render the last 100 years of Abraham’s life as well as the pact he made with himself and with God in front of the burning castle meaningless.

Lekh Lekha is a parsha full of promises and covenants between God and Abraham. There is the initial command to leave Haran and the oft-repeated promise of reward. There is the Covenant between the Pieces. There is the Brit Milah.

Theologically, these covenants are the foundation of the bond between God and the Israelites until today. On a lyrical, mystical level, they are the visions of a man who was so lonely and all one that he saw. A man who believed in himself and in God and who honored the pact he had made. A man who felt so at home in his new land(scape), that he trusted her to protect him while asleep. And that land made him see his future.

This dvar technically ends here. As a coda, I am adding a poem I wrote a few years ago. It can’t aspire to Amichai’s mastery, but it, too, in its own right, is inspired by this week’s parsha and Abraham’s visions.


Why don’t you go home, they ask the immigrant
after all that went wrong?

Back to health care, passport, security
Family, the Yemenite rabbi said
is a husband, children

Does a niece count as offspring?

Make a chart, my neighbor said:

Why stay?
I want to
I left
G-d promised

Land, blessings, a name

I am the earth — One grain of dust
I am the sea — One drop of water
I am the sky — One star

(From the collection Do Not Return, Broadstone Books, 2019)