5783 Torah Commentary

Appreciate Things as They Are
by TBA Rabbinic Intern Ben Sigal

Growing up, I remember loving the rain and the snow. Snow felt especially entertaining because of how versatile it was to play with. However, at some point, snow and rain ceased to be fun and started to feel annoying. They caused flights to be delayed and traffic to increase. It was, at best, a nuisance, and at worst, utterly destructive. But that all changed when I moved out here to Los Angeles for school.

Living in California, I’ve come back to understanding the necessity of rain, at least in normal quantities. Elana and I moved out here and were confronted with watering restrictions, restrictions on buying inefficient showerheads, and other ways of limiting water usage. All because, when rain is scarce, it ceases to be a nuisance and is instead a blessing. But that all depends on how we view it.

In the second verse of this week’s parsha, Ha’Azinu, Moses prays, “May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass.” Rashi notices that Moses prays for his speech to be like both rain and dew as opposed to just one or the other. Rashi notes that rain can be an annoyance, despite the fact that it’s a source of life. Dew, on the other hand, is rarely an annoyance, so all can relate with Moses’ positive association. Why then is the rain listed in Moses’ simile at all? Wouldn’t just ‘dew’ suffice?

I’d like to offer my interpretation here:

We all have things in our lives that are effortless to enjoy when life is easy. But Moses compels us to relate to both the rain and the dew in our life, the water when it behaves as we want it to and the water when it can be a nuisance. He forces us to see that just as rain, when viewed through the lens of a traveler, can be a nuisance, for that same person it can be a life-sustaining force. Perhaps that person would be a tad less annoyed when keeping that in mind as they sit in traffic or delayed at an airport.

As we complete the first week of 5784, I’m sitting with this idea and pushing myself to view things in the best light possible. Just this past week, I had a mechanical delay on a flight that meant that instead of arriving back home at 9pm, I didn’t walk through the doors of my house until a little after 1am the next day. Yes, I was exhausted and annoyed, but I forced myself to find the gratitude in even this less than ideal moment. Sure enough, I was able to appreciate the fact that the airline valued my safety enough to make sure that the plane I was flying on was safe. It didn’t lessen my exhaustion the next day, but it did limit my frustration, and allowed me to enjoy the next day a bit more.

I invite you all to take a moment this Shabbat to focus on something in your life that could easily be seen as a nuisance and push yourself to see it instead in the light of a blessing. You might just be surprised how much happier life becomes.

Moments of Blessing
by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Ben Sigal

What does it mean to live a life of blessing? We talk about blessing all the time, but we don’t often stop that much to think about what blessing really means. We bless our children, the Torah, and the food we eat. We bless things so often it becomes a rote behavior that can lack meaning. Thankfully, this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, gives us plenty of insight into what blessing really means.

The parasha is full of blessings, yet I think it’s the curses in the parasha that best help us to understand what a blessing really is. Far along into the list of curses, Deuteronomy 28:29 states, “You shall grope at noon as a blind man gropes in the dark.” The obvious question here is why does it matter for the blind man if it is light or dark? He is blind and cannot see either way. Chizkuni, a 13th century French rabbi, helps us understand this verse by explaining that a blind man is more afraid of the dark because there might not be any people around to help him avoid obstacles. Thus, the blind man ‘gropes’ in the dark because he needs to make sure there are no stumbling blocks in his way. 

In essence, it is a curse to live motivated by fear. Just as the blind man walks fearfully in the dark, many of us are motivated by fear in our day to day lives. But as blessing is the opposite of curse, the wisdom of this parasha reveals that true blessing isn’t removing the obstacles in our path. It’s the privilege of having people and resources around us to help us through our hard times. We’re blessed every moment of our life when we feel comfortable knowing we can take on whatever life throws at us. Life will never be perfect. But when we are certain we can overcome our challenges, and that if we can’t, help will be there for us, we are immersed in a life of blessing. So my blessing for all of us is that this Shabbat, we are able to take stock of the blessings in our lives. When we take a critical look, I hope we can see how lucky we truly are. 

Foul Balls and Opportunities

One of many happy memories I have from growing up was going to my sister’s JCC T-ball games. I must have been about 8 or 9 at the time, and she was only 3 or 4. The little kids looked adorable in their oversized jerseys and baseball caps, even to a 9-year-old who didn’t really care about cute things. But the most heartwarming part was the expression on the kids’ faces when they hit the ball, even if it was a foul. Most of the kids at bat completely missed the mark, but it didn’t matter to them. They didn’t care where the ball landed. The outcome of the game and the number of points were of no importance. These kids were just grateful make contact with the ball in the moment.

This type of in-the-moment gratitude should serve as an example to us all! Often, we can get locked into a mindset in which gratitude is based on outcomes. And that’s where a line from this week’s parsha, Eikev, comes in to remind us gratitude is meant for every step of the journey (even those “foul balls” so to speak). In Deuteronomy 8:10, we read,

“וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃”

“You will eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land that God gave you.” Initially, this reads as quite the opposite of what I’ve written. One eats, and then one thanks God. If one isn’t satiated or one’s food wasn’t tasty, then presumably one wouldn’t bless God. But the Bekhor Shor reads this differently. He says that since there are three verbs at the beginning of the verse, there must be three different brachot one should say after eating and then he lists three of the brachot in the Birkat HaMazon. But he also takes it a step further. If one is to say three blessings over their food after eating it when they are now satiated, how much more so should they bless God when they are hungry and are given the opportunity to eat. In other words, when one is yearning for an opportunity, one should be grateful when an opportunity comes around, even if it doesn’t pan out in the end. Life isn’t filled with home runs. Often, we hit a foul ball or strike out. But these difficult moments are still part of the game of life. And often, we often forget to feel gratitude for the fact that we get the opportunity to wake up each day and play the game.

This can be so difficult to take to heart, and I know that I get disappointed when an opportunity I am looking forward to doesn’t pan out. But ultimately, the path toward living a happier world is to be thankful I even got the chance to prove myself, even if it didn’t work out. I try to remember my sister, years ago, and her friends, giggling with joy over the foul ball. They may have needed a lesson on the rules of baseball, but they taught me a lesson in gratitude far more important.

Taking the Right Path
By Ben Sigal, TBA Rabbinic Intern

Tuesday, February 10th, 1903 is a day that I expect has largely been lost to history. But two people of note were born on that day, and each took their lives in different directions. The first, who I wish to spend as little time on as possible, was Waldemar Hoven. He would, 45 years later, be executed for his role in war crimes at the Buchenwald concentration camp. The other individual, however, deserves more recognition.

Matthias Sindelar was born to a Catholic Family in Austria-Hungary. His family moved shortly after his birth to Vienna, where he picked up a knack for soccer. He was signed at the age of 15 for a youth team, and quickly became a star player for FK Austria Vienna. He was one of the most agile players of his day and among the most influential players of his generation. Sindelarled the Austrian national team to the FIFA World Cup semi-finals in 1934, as well as a championship in the 1931-32 Central European International Cup. Yet his most important game was against Germany on April 3, 1938. Nazi Germany had just annexed Austria and as a result, the Austrian national team was to be absorbed into the Nazi German team. Sindelar scored two goals in the game, celebrating in front of the Nazi officials who were in attendance. After the match, he refused to join the Nazi team, retiring at the age of 35. Instead, he bought a cafe at full price from a Jewish owner who had been forced to sell. Matthias Sindelar died on January 23, 1939, of uncertain causes. While the official cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning, there is some evidence that he may have been murdered by the Gestapo.

While I would be shocked to hear either name in everyday conversation today, Hoven’s name is probably more recognized, albeit for all the wrong reasons. But that is how life works sometimes. The people who create issues, who make the world a worse place, get more coverage. Doing the right thing is, unfortunately, not as easy a way of gaining notoriety as doing the wrong thing. That brings me to this week’s parsha.

In this week’s parsha, Pinhas, there is a second census of the Israelites. In Bamidbar 26:9, we are introduced to the three sons of Eliab, a grandson of Reuben. The Torah says, “The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korah’s band when they agitated against the LORD.”

Dathan and Abiram are names that might sound familiar. After all, they, led by Korach, engaged in open rebellion against Moses in the parsha a couple of weeks ago, and if we’ve already forgotten that, well the Torah has made sure to remind us here. Nemuel’s name, on the other hand, is mentioned nowhere else in the Torah. He’s been more or less lost to history. But we can infer from the fact that he is not mentioned among the conspirators of Korach that he was not involved in that disgrace. Of the three brothers, he alone did the right thing. Yet the parsha is more interested in the fact that the other brothers behaved badly.

For both Matthias Sindelar and Nemuel, doing the right thing didn’t earn them acclaim. They weren’t spotlit on the news and held up in their time as righteous people. But that’s also not why we are supposed to do the right thing. We’re supposed to do it because it’s right. Because it gives us some amount of internal satisfaction to know that we are individuals of character, no matter who else does or does not know that.

Nemuel is not remembered for doing anything of note. But his name is remembered, and in his name, the fact that he was a righteous person. His name literally means “the sleep of God,” and I can’t help but wonder if that means that God can rest sound with people like

Nemuel in the world. May we all merit to be people who make this a world in which God can rest without intervening, knowing that we are doing all the right things for all the right reasons.

Making Meaning through Uncertainty
By Rabbi Matt Shapiro

The challenge of meaning-making is real. It seems to be an innately human drive to look at our lives and craft some sort of narrative through which we can not only understand what’s happening around us, but cultivate a deeper sense of why. It’s fortuitous and satisfying when this endeavor is successful, and can be just as disconcerting and frustrating when it doesn’t. One such moment in the latter category seems to emerge in this week’s parsha. Many of us are familiar with the narrative of Moses striking the rock when the Israelites were asking for water, for which he was punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land with the people. What you might not have known (and I myself hadn’t really noticed this detail before) is that after this narrative unfolds at the beginning of chapter 20, later on in that same chapter, when we learn Aaron will die, we’re told in verse 24 that he “is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed My command about the Waters of Meribah.”

Yet, looking back at the incident, this explanation doesn’t seem to make much sense. Though Aaron is present when the incident occurs, he doesn’t have the stick himself, and he’s certainly not the one who strikes the rock. It seems odd, to say the least, that not only is he punished just as severely, but more quickly than Moses is. I’m not the only one to notice this- the Birkat Asher, a contemporary commentator, says very clearly in his thoughts on the verse that he doesn’t know how Aaron sinned in this situation. Furthermore, one might think if there was something that Aaron did that demonstrated he’s unfit to lead the next generation, it would be due to an event that occurred roughly two books ago- the sin of the Golden Calf, in which he was directly involved and which was, well, slightly more idolatrous that this scenario. So, why this outcome?

A few thoughts came to mind (aiding and abetting a problematic act? Less tolerance for misbehavior given his proximity to such a heinous crime as the Golden Calf?) but none seemed to really hold water (if you will). In grappling with this lack of logic embedded in the narrative, there’s a construct that seems to be a better fit situated right at the very beginning of the parsha. We learn about the red heifer, which we are told is a ‘chok;’ this type of law is usually contrasted with a ‘mishpat.’ There are different ways of translating these terms (law and ordinance, for example), but ultimately they represent different types of mitzvot. Whereas a mishpat has a clearly defined or logical reason for being enacted, a chok is something that just is, an action that you take because it’s commanded. In fact, the laws of red heifer are often seen as the paradigmatic example of this specific category. It’s clear in the Torah that we know why some mitzvot exist and others are more mysterious- perhaps it makes sense to consider narratives the same way. Some are linear and easy to understand, while others are murkier, if not outright illogical.

There are thinkers who have explored the challenges of our desire to generate narratives about our lives. Crispin Sartwell, in his book End of Story, looks into the problems of assigning specific overarching structures for how we think about the ways in which our lives unfold. As a very brief peek into what he explores, he states that “all of us participate in the making of narratives, but none of us can live wholly in narrative. The lack of narrative is a kind of madness, but too much narrative is also a kind of madness.” Sartwell thinks of narrative as a linear, meaning-based construct, so he’s looking at how that clear throughline can (should?) be disrupted given the ways in which life can be unpredictable. There are hazards that emerge if we always expect events to follow a preordained plan of our own thinking. We want closure, we want a narrative arc, we want a clearly defined sense of order and reason- it’s also, ultimately, unrealistic to expect this all the time, or even consistently. We could in fact see that one of the strengths of the Torah’s narrative can be its inherently elliptical nature, the gaps in the text that push us to ask tough questions.

There’s something that can be learned from this story that isn’t connected to the reason for why it unfolds, but the actions Aaron takes. Though he is confronted with a confusing, if not outright unfair, verdict, after we learn what will happen, Aaron graciously surrenders his leadership to his son; we hear no words of protest or disagreement. The events unfold exactly as planned. There’s a limit, of course, to passively accepting one’s fate in the face of pain and capriciousness; there’s also a potential grace in accepting the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “a Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought or faith. He is asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning.” This is not an easy task, to take that leap of action when we don’t understand. The reason behind the story might be unsatisfying, but this lesson is resonant, challenging, and relevant. Aaron carries out the ‘chok’ of the narrative through his actions- we’ll never know if this guided him to understand more than he did before. 

I hope that we’re all be blessed in our lives to have a clear sense of what’s happening and why so that we can craft meaning with as much ease as possible. I also hope that, in the moments when we experience confusion, uncertainty, and a sense of the seeming unfairness of life, that we are able to take that leap of action and navigate those moments with the wisdom and grace of our teacher, Aaron.

Shabbat shalom.

Agree to Disagree
by Rabbinic Intern Ben Sigal

A few years ago, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, I remember hearing stories of her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. They would regularly eat at each other’s homes, go to the opera together, and even travel together. And yet, the two almost never agreed when it came to their work. Their judicial philosophies were almost entirely incongruent with one another. But their friendship worked because they understood that opinions do not make the person. As Scalia once put it, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas.”

We have unfortunately begun to exist in a world in which many people have a hard time embracing that idea and putting it into practice. Our parasha this week, Korah, seems to hint at where that reality can lead to. Korah tries to wrest power from Moshe and Aharon. Korah cries out before Moshe and Aharon, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?”

It seems like a reasonable request at first glance. Moshe and Aharon have taken too much power for themselves, and Korah is trying to regain more power for the people. Yitro has already said something similar to Moshe, and this led to Moshe ceding some power and creating a court system of sorts. But the way Yitro and Korah went about it is quite different. Yitro introduced a problem that was causing Moshe stress, introduced a solution, and never bad-mouthed Moshe for what he was doing. Korah, on the other hand, attacks Moshe and Aharon multiple times in one verse. It becomes clear not that he is addressing an idea, but the people behind the idea. And therein lies the issue.

In Pirkei Avot, we learn, “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 dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the dispute of Korah and all his congregation.” Korah was not arguing for the sake of creating a better world. He was doing it for self-aggrandizement. And in doing so, he only pulled himself down.

When we get engaged in disagreements, we have to remember that the person on the other side of the disagreement is just that: a human being. Another individual that is just as much created in the image of God as we are. It’s very easy to lose sight of that when we feel the other person is trying to take something very fundamental to our being away from us. And yet, when we lose sight of that, we can lose sight of why we were engaged in the disagreement in the first place. So my prayer for all of us is that we engage only in disagreements as Hillel and Shammai did, building up each other in the process, and ultimately, doing the will of God.

Paradise, Shared
By Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor

Just last week, I had the tremendous merit of attending a summer intensive at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS), a place where I’ve dreamed of learning for many years. What appealed was not only the promise of high levels of intellectual discourse but especially the diversity of religious and spiritual perspectives. This summer’s cohort delivered on both those fronts: I was joined by a chief of police, a Thai Buddhist nun, a Lutheran pastor serving at a church just down the street from my childhood home, and a dozen others – none of them practicing Jews.

One of the notions we explored as a group was the lament of the Mosaic figure or character-type, the changemaker who knows that they will not see the fruits of their labor. This week’s parsha gives us the contrasting character types: Caleb and Joshua, the scouts who see into the land and are later granted the fortune of entering the land. One of the participants in my HDS cohort, a black pastor from the mid-Atlantic region, related to these two exceptional scouts as particularly righteous. He saw their very willingness to return from the promised land, which they experienced as a place of unparalleled glory and delight, as a matter of virtue. Why did they return? Would it not have been more desirous and enticing to stay, difficult even to turn around and rejoin the rebellious spies and hike back to the treacherous wilderness?

We’re told explicitly by the text – in God’s voice – why Caleb is granted entry to the land:

 וְעַבְדִּ֣י כָלֵ֗ב עֵ֣קֶב הָֽיְתָ֞ה ר֤וּחַ אַחֶ֙רֶת֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וַיְמַלֵּ֖א אַחֲרָ֑י וַהֲבִֽיאֹתִ֗יו אֶל־הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֣א שָׁ֔מָּה וְזַרְע֖וֹ יוֹרִשֶֽׁנָּה׃

But My servant Caleb, because he was imbued with a different spirit and remained loyal to Me—him will I bring into the land that he entered, and his offspring shall hold it as a possession.

What’s unclear in the plainest sense is whether Caleb has an inherent ruach, some kind of special quality, that would have gained him entry to the land regardless of his behavior. It would seem not, since we’re given this verse only after Caleb has returned from the land with a good report having also properly calmed the Israelite mob when they were most wildly upset.

The Chizkuni (13th century France) fills in the parenthetical of this thought: וימלא אחרי, “he followed Me fully” – in other words, Caleb fulfills the prophetic task of Moshe. That task is not one of entering the land as an individual, but prophesying and also leading the people, as a group, into the land. It is that admixture of faith, diplomacy, and spirit, when applied atop Caleb’s sheer willingness to turn around from the beauty of the land of Israel and go back to the drudgery of the wilderness, that ultimately unlocks Caleb’s fate: He will enter the land.

I’m grateful to this new hevruta, my colleague and fellow clergy-person who so thoughtfully raised the valor of Caleb and Joshua through the vector of their having alighted upon sacred soil and then readily, voluntarily, having returned to the Israelite people to complete their task. How tempting it must have been to stay in the gracious and glorious beauty of that place! Don’t we all want to “skip to the good part”? But the inheritance of Israel is ultimately, as we see in this parsha, not one that belongs to any individual. It is one that must be claimed as a cohort, together, led with the patient and loving vision of those who promise us that goodness awaits.

Perfect is a Feeling not a Picture
by Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

In honor of my uncle Dr. Lee Goodglick’s z”l birthday – he was a man who celebrated everyone and should have been celebrated today on what would have been his 63rd birthday

This Friday would have been my uncles 63rd birthday, so we are celebrating by eating his favorite foods for Shabbos dinner. While thinking through a grocery list, I was laughing at how simple of an eater he was. Of course, I knew that, and we made fun of him for it as a child, but now, when setting my table for Shabbat dinner, it feels like things should be fancier, or “nicer” and more special. Instead, he would have enjoyed the meal of salmon, carrots, succotash and potatoes with a dessert of sugar cookies. 

In this week’s parasha, we open the Torah to the image of light. The image of candles placed at the front of a menorah with a Divinely inspired and requested pattern. What I had never noticed before was the use of the word hammered as a defining feature of the metal of this menorah. We have come to appreciate hammered metal as an aesthetic in modern time, but hammered metal or a pock’d finish would seem broken or used. Why is the featured item hammered and made to look used and not perfectly new or special? 

Living in a place like Los Angeles, in a fairly financially comfortable environment, even if we do not think we are, we become influenced by outward appearance and “stuff.” We are worried about what we look like, what our homes look like, what cars we drive, etc. Numbers chapter 8 verse 4 says explicitly:

במדבר ח׳:ד׳

וְזֶ֨ה מַעֲשֵׂ֤ה הַמְּנֹרָה֙ מִקְשָׁ֣ה זָהָ֔ב עַד־יְרֵכָ֥הּ עַד־פִּרְחָ֖הּ מִקְשָׁ֣ה הִ֑וא כַּמַּרְאֶ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֶרְאָ֤ה ה’ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֔ה כֵּ֥ן עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הַמְּנֹרָֽה׃

Numbers 8:4

Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was a hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that God had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made.

The word hammered or beaten as Rashi translates is used multiple times to describe the exterior of this menorah. And yet, it was a treasured item in our Temple and gave off light both forwards and upwards. Rashi is very clear that this menorah was not hammered in the sense that many pieces of metal put it together, but rather that one piece of fine metal made the entire candelabrum and it was beaten into a pattern desired by God. Again, why take a perfect, smooth, shiny piece of metal and hammer it down? Ramban, Nachmanides, goes as far as saying that it can be made of any metal in future generations and remain valid, but if it is not hammered then it is invalid. The imperfect, multifaceted, curved element of this menorah was the one requirement for the present and future generations to build. 

During some of the LA fires, my grandparents have had to think about evacuating their home and quickly. In an evacuation, there is the feeling of leaving fragments of life behind that could be destroyed. Unfortunately, we know this all too well in our own community, through our own history and in present displaced moments. What do you take? What are the most important pieces to carry with you? My grandparents most recently told me that they would take their ketubah and pictures first. Of course my mind sped through all the other things in their home that I would miss, but I realized I was thinking more materialistic items and not those that tug at my heart. The items we first reach for are often not the shiniest or most perfect or best looking. They are often the items that have been well used, lived, spilled on by memories of Shabbos meals or raising children. 

The menorah, Sforno says, was made out of one piece of god to symbolize the unity of God. He does not even comment on the hammered material. He just focuses on why someone would think this menorah important and the symbolism behind the features of it’s light and creation. The lights face the lamp, Sforno says, showing that we should, in community, look towards the common goals, spirituality and connection of tradition. So it does not matter what it looks like, it matters that there is beauty within, light shining from and memories surrounding the item that the people immediately notice upon entering their holy space. 

In the tractacte of Gemara, Arakhin on page 10b, our rabbis discuss another element of the temple and the significance of outward appearance: There was a flute in the Temple; it was smooth and it was thin, it was made from reed, and it was in existence from the days of Moses. The king issued a command and they plated the flute with gold, but then its sound was not as pleasant as it was previously. They therefore removed its plating and its sound was then as pleasant as it was before. Similarly, there was a cymbal in the Temple; it was made from copper and its sound was pleasant. It became damaged and the Sages sent for and brought artisans and they repaired it, but its sound was not as pleasant as before. They removed the materials with which the cymbal had been repaired and its sound was then as pleasant as it had been before the repair. There was a mortar in the Temple; it was made of copper and it was from the days of Moses, and it was used to compound the spices for the incense. It became damaged and they brought artisans and they repaired it, but it did not compound the spices as well as it had before. They removed the materials with which the mortar had been repaired and it then compounded the spices as it had before it was repaired. Each of these items were beautiful in sound, full of nostalgia and connection and only looked different or even misshapen from the outside. However, what our rabbis are teaching us is that sometimes trying to change something to seem more beautiful takes away the essence of the natural beauty and story told on each face. 

My uncle loved a Shabbat dinner that was full of laughs, family conversations and could have enjoyed all of that without any food. Just simple love and joy – focusing on the importance of gathering and family rather than the “stuff.” Being together was perfect – no matter what we ate or where we were.

Our menorah was hammered metal, our faces grow lines of wisdom with age, our hair grays as we learn how to live life and the letters in our Torah only crack if we continue to open the scroll and read from it. So was it significant that our menorah was smooth, fresh and shiny and then made to look used from the outset? Yes, because we should each strive to live a life where we do not cover our stories, or hide our imperfections, or wipe away the blemishes – those elements allow us to share who we are and connect with the light of our soul both outward to each other and upward towards our Creator. I hope we each continue to search for the hammered metal pieces in our homes. To recognize that beauty and gratitude is not only seen on the outside but felt with the heart, shared with experiences, sharpened with minds and held in the eyes of those who choose to seek out their version of enhanced light. 

Riding the Roller Coaster of Life
by Ben Sigal, TBA Rabbinic Intern

At the beginning of 2023, an article appeared stating that Space Mountain, an indoor roller coaster at Disneyland and Disney World that operates in the dark, would operate going forward with its lights on. While this story was quickly revealed to be a satire piece, the pictures that accompanied the article took me aback. The piece included pictures of the inside of the roller coaster which were anything but inspiring. It looked like any old rollercoaster, probably because at its essence, it is just another roller coaster.

What makes the ride special, as any past rider of Space Mountain can attest to, is the wonder and excitement that comes from not knowing what’s coming next. By dampening our ability to see, our kinesthetic senses are heightened. Each and every turn is a surprise. The darkness forces us to be in the moment and we’re thrust into an unexpected and wondrous ride.

I bring up Space Mountain because wonder is at the heart of the last verse of this week’s parsha, Bamidbar. In the verse, the Kohathites, a sub-tribe of the Levi’im, who are tasked with carrying the ark from encampment to encampment, are commanded,

“וְלֹא־יָבֹ֧אוּ לִרְא֛וֹת כְּבַלַּ֥ע אֶת־הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וָמֵֽתוּ”, that they should not enter the sanctuary to see it being dismantled lest they die. The question that might naturally arise is, “What is so important about not seeing the sanctuary in a certain state?” Ibn Ezra points out that there are two prohibitions in this one verse. The first is that the Kohathites, who will be tasked with carrying the ark, are not to carry it directly, but rather carry rods connected to the ark. The second, however, is that the Kohathites are not allowed to see the holy things directly, only in a covered state.

To see the ark would be akin to riding the Space Mountain with the lights on. It would take away the wonder from the experience, and in doing so, distance one from the wonder of God. Perhaps this is why the verse states the penalty for transgressing this commandment is death. Perhaps this death isn’t so much a physical one as a spiritual one. When one sees the inner workings of the mishkan, one has to work that much harder to form a spiritual relationship with God.

Sometimes there is such a thing as too much knowledge. Yet, for many of us, we live our lives in the mode of craving knowledge. We work hard to be as informed as possible so we can make the most educated decisions and as a result, hopefully have the best chances for a positive outcome. But in doing so, we numb our ability to feel and silence our gut instincts. While knowledge can be power, so too can living in the moment and feeling the impact of presence. So I challenge us all that this week we choose to actively live in a mode of radical amazement, riding the roller coaster of life in a way that lets us enjoy life that much more.

Prayer on Mother’s Day
by Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson

Nobody makes something from nothing,
not even God.
But God molds the tohu va-vohu,the chaos swirling in the deep,and — miraculous to say! — life emerges.

Life is simple at first,
then complex. Reflexive at first,
then conscious. Life becomes.

It takes all that love,
all that power,
all that guidance,
but life does emerge, waddle, and walk.

Mother, my own creator:
You’ve always been able to mold the deep chaos
and produce life.
Cradling the babies you produced,
powerful love that made a world for your children,
deep wisdom creating a path to walk, a portal to enter.

You gave me life.
You nurtured life.
You instructed, taught, disciplined
and loved.

Latest mask of the divine,
you taught me I could trust,
showed me I’d be lifted when I cried out,
gave me faith in faith itself.

How can I bless you when you are the very blessing of my blessing?
My default parenting is yours,
endless fountain of love.

Blasphemy and Belonging
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Chayva Lehrman

In the Venn diagram of your full, unique identity and your identity as a member of Temple Beth Am, how great is the overlapping space? Do you feel that your full identity fits comfortably with your Beth Am member identity? Or do you feel dissonance because significant parts of your life do not fit here? Has that feeling of dissonance, or of compatibility, fluctuated at different times in your life?

Now consider the broad variability in how others are answering these questions for themselves as they read this. It’s normal and natural for us to feel part inside and part outside a community; mostly it’s just the balance between the two that changes from person to person.

At the end of Parshat Emor, we have a story of being part in and part out of a community.

וַיֵּצֵא֙ בֶּן־אִשָּׁ֣ה יִשְׂרְאֵלִ֔ית וְהוּא֙ בֶּן־אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיִּנָּצוּ֙ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה בֶּ֚ן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִ֔ית וְאִ֖ישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִֽי׃ וַ֠יִּקֹּ֠ב בֶּן־הָֽאִשָּׁ֨ה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִ֤ית אֶת־הַשֵּׁם֙ וַיְקַלֵּ֔ל וַיָּבִ֥יאוּ אֹת֖וֹ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וְשֵׁ֥ם אִמּ֛וֹ שְׁלֹמִ֥ית בַּת־דִּבְרִ֖י לְמַטֵּה־דָֽן׃

וַיַּנִּיחֻ֖הוּ בַּמִּשְׁמָ֑ר לִפְרֹ֥שׁ לָהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֥י יי׃

The son of an Israelite woman went out – and he was [also] the son of an Egyptian man – among the Children of Israel. He and an Israelite man fought in the camp, and the son of the Israelite woman pronounced and cursed God’s name. They brought him to Moshe – and the name of his mother was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan – and they put him under guard to discern what God would say. (Leviticus 24:10-12)

Here we find the second narrative of Leviticus, and, like the story of Nadav and Avihu, this man is to become a cautionary tale and the basis of a new law on what not to do around God. We never learn his name or why he was fighting with an Israelite man; clearly his unusual lineage is of greater interest to the text than either of those details, and of course midrash has much to say to fill in the gaps.

In addressing his half-Israelite, half-Egyptian heritage, one midrash says that his mother, Shlomit bat Divri, had been married to a fellow Israelite slave, but when he was away on business the Egyptian taskmaster came to her home and slept with her. One version says she was a promiscuous, flirtatious woman and by virtue of her behavior, indirectly invited the Egyptian in. Another says that she didn’t realize the man was not her husband and she was raped. All texts are implicitly conscious of the power dynamic and communal boundary crossing of this encounter.

The fight between the two men is also a point of interest to midrash. According to Sifra, Shlomit’s son had tried to pitch his tent among the tribe of Dan – the tribe of his mother. But the people rejected him because in Numbers 2:2 it says, “The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses.” He petitioned Moses, who rejected him too. Another midrash picks up the story by saying that the Israelite he fought was his half brother, Shlomit’s son by an Israelite man, who mocked him for not having a place among the tribe.

Of all days for us to consider those who live on the margins of the Jewish community, today is a good one: today is Pesach Sheni. Mishnah Pesachim 9:1 instructs that anyone who missed Pesach the first time around can now observe Pesach again, together. Why would someone have missed Pesach? The Mishnah lists those who were ritually impure, or traveling, or forgot, or prevented by something out of their control; the Talmud (Pesachinn 93a) adds those who were sick with skin diseases, women who had given birth, minors who came of age or people who converted between the two Passovers, and even those who skipped Passover on purpose. They all get a second chance to celebrate the exodus from Egypt.

The funny thing about most of our texts that address marginal identities is that they come from a place of a centered identity; when studying them, it is easy to fall into a sense that we’re reading about someone else. But we are Jews, a people whose outsider status has always been a part of our identity – not to mention that the status of Jewishness and ritual purity are not straight, clear lines, but rather blurry boundaries that have shifted over time. Perhaps we can find sympathy for the son of Shlomit, who reacted in pain and anger when he saw that his blended identity was rejected by his community.

There are many ways in which our individual identities can make us feel a little outside the norm, a little rejected, even as other parts of us tie us indelibly to our Jewish community. As we go through Pesach Sheni and Shabbat, let us resolve to include people who feel a bit different from us, to give them gestures of kindness and compassion – and to give ourselves some of that compassion too.

Marshmallows, Fruit, and Our Big Whys
by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Ben Sigal

Among the many famous psychological experiments done at Stanford University, one stands out in my mind. It’s known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment, though initially marshmallows were not used. The impetus behind the experiment was to learn about delayed gratification. Child participants were asked to sit down in front of either two animal cookies or five pretzel sticks. The kids were told that they could either eat the treats now, or, if they waited 15 minutes, they would be given a double portion. The kids did all sorts of things to try to avoid eating the snack, often creating a diversion to avoid even thinking about the snack. At least one kid successfully fell asleep in their attempt to avoid thinking about the snack. After reviewing the data, the experimenters concluded that the most effective technique to delay gratification is to simply suppress or avoid thinking about the temptation, as opposed to thinking of the future reward.

Funny enough, in this week’s parsha, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, there seems to be an ancient version of the marshmallow test. In Vayikra 19:23-25, we are commanded,

“וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כׇּל־עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עׇרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת־פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל׃ וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הָרְבִיעִ֔ת יִהְיֶ֖ה כׇּל־פִּרְי֑וֹ קֹ֥דֶשׁ הִלּוּלִ֖ים לַיהֹוָֽה׃ וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַחֲמִישִׁ֗ת תֹּֽאכְלוּ֙ אֶת־פִּרְי֔וֹ לְהוֹסִ֥יף לָכֶ֖ם תְּבוּאָת֑וֹ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃”

“When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before Adonai; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I Adonai am your God.”

Basically, after planting a tree, we’re not supposed to eat the fruit of that tree for three years. On the fourth year, that fruit is meant to be offered to God, and only in the fifth year can we enjoy it. So for four years, we’re expected to care for a tree without eating its produce. It’s a variation of the marshmallow experiment, except that instead of trying to avoid thinking about the marshmallow, we’re expected to care for it.

This mandate is far, far more difficult than the marshmallow experiment because there’s no way to distract ourselves from the proverbial treat sitting before us. If we do manage to fully distract ourselves from the tree, we won’t be caring for it

sufficiently to ensure that there will be fruit for us to eat once the fifth year rolls around. So what are we to do?

Interestingly enough, a mishnah on this mitzvah (Mishnah Orlah 1:1 in particular) sheds light on this particular issue. The mishnah states that one must wait to eat the fruit only if the tree’s primary purpose is to produce fruit. In other words, if a tree grown for wood happens to sprout some apples…these fruits can be eaten immediately. We learn from this that purpose matters.

The Torah teaches us that there are occasionally circumstances, such as planting a fruit tree, where distraction isn’t an option. We have to touch the fruit of that fruit tree every day without taking a bite for four whole years. We have to stare at temptation in the face and sit with it. And when those moments come into our lives, the best way to help ourselves is to examine our ‘big why.’ What is the purpose behind our actions? What is the big goal here? What I love about Judaism is that even small, seemingly insignificant mandates in the Torah can have a profound affect on our lives.

As I read this section, it helps me think in a broader perspective about my own life. What are my big goals? What’s my ‘why?’ Does my behavior align with the expectations I’ve set for myself? Of course, these are questions we will all have to ask ourselves over and over again over the course of our lives. But we are lucky to have a foundational text that consistently reminds us to check-in and examine ourselves.

This Shabbat, I hope we can all find a moment to reflect on the big ‘whys’ in our lives. I truly believe this type of intentionality is how we will build a greater, more peaceful world.

Parashat Tsav: I’ve Got the Morning Shift
By guest contributor, Ziegler student, Nico Losorelli

Holy work is an around the clock job, and getting up and getting to shul does take effort. I’m sure there are some among you who are morning people who spring out of bed ready to greet the day, and others of you are night owls who wake up Shabbat morning asking “who set that alarm???.. oh right.. me..” and when you do make it to shul, it’s a big victory! But, I’m sorry to tell you that getting here is only part of the battle, because on Shabbat we have so much going on: Kabbalat Shabbat, Maariv, Kiddush and dinner, and then the next day there’s Psukei d’Zimra, Shacharit, the Torah Service, maybe bnei mitzvah, Haftarah, Musaf, Shabbat Lunch, Mincha, Seudah Shlishit, Maariv, and finally Havdalah. That’s a lot! But, wait a minute, I thought Shabbat was a day of rest? What ever happened to “shabbat menucha?” where is my Shabbat shnatz, you know, my Shabbat nap?? The truth is, is that the shnatz—the coveted Shabbat afternoon nap, short for sheinat tzohorayyim/שנת צהריים– is somewhere in there, because rarely can we do it all. Yes, ideally we are all being major tzaddiks and showing up to everything, but we know that the demands of life often don’t lead to the ideal, so we come to what we can, and we shnatz through what we can’t.

Reading this week’s parasha, I thought I was going to be taken by the shnatz, because it’s not an easy one: sacrifices, fire, and lots of information about various animals and their unenviable role in this whole process. It’s not exactly the heart-wrenching drama of the Exodus story that we are all getting ready to re-enact at our Seders, and I’ve definitely thought to myself “well maybe that’s why this parasha is set here in the calendar, because it’s kind of a snooze.” But maybe not! No doubt plenty of you are planning to skip the snooze and show up do the “work”, or maybe let’s use the word “service”. After all, so many of us refer to what we’re doing here as “services”, which no doubt comes from “avodah”, the holy work done in the Mikdash and Temple.

In the Babylonian Talmud, our very first debate happens in Masekhet Berachot, in which the rabbis ask:

מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בָּעֲרָבִין?

“From what time can we say the Shema in the evenings?”

then they go on to debate, “from the time that the Kohanim enter to eat their terumah portions, until the end of the first watch,” Rabbi Eliezer and the Chachamim say “until midnight” and so on. So, why start the Talmud like this? What does this opening debate teach us? It teaches us that holy work is done in shifts. So, you didn’t make it to Maariv last week? No sweat, you have plenty of more opportunities to show up! So, you aren’t hosting lunch this week, maybe next week! Not even the Kohanim were expected to do it all!. Some took the first watch, some took the second watch, and so on. In all these shift changes, however, there was one constant, as we find towards the beginning of our parasha, Parashat Tzav:

אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶּֽה׃

(Vayikra 6:6)

“A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”

The guard changes, we change, we come and we go, yet the fire—the “esh/אש”– remains. And despite our transience in this life, even within the words that are used to describe people

“איש, אישה, אנוש” we see that the Hebrew word for fire—“esh/אש”– is contained within each. The fire doesn’t simply burn on its own, we bring our efforts—the fire within us—to keep it burning. We know that the literal fire within the Temple no longer burns, but we can rely on the fact that it is lit within us. It is lit by every bit of Torah we learn, by every act of loving-kindness that we do, by every time we make an honest effort to show up for our community in whatever form that may take within each of our lives. Together, we are called to keep that “esh/אש”– that fire– burning by each and every one of our own efforts, and collectively, if we do that, then we can truly make something beautiful.

God Calls Differently in Vayikra
By TBA Rabbinic Intern Chayva Lehrman

Every book of Torah is holy. But not every book of Torah is as beloved as the others. Don’t tell Leviticus, but I think people like Genesis and Exodus better. Not I! I love every book of Torah, but Leviticus holds a special place in my heart because in Leviticus, I found the starting point for a theology that changed my life.

I’m not talking about the sacrifices. Because of these, Parshat Vayikra is usually considered a dry text, if a bloody one. Sacrificial ritual seems distant, dramatically disconnected from our post-Temple rabbinic praxis. However, the key to the modern theological power of Leviticus is in working backwards, viewing Parshat Vayikra as an instruction manual for how to relate to a deity that is omnipotent and ambient but invisible, and sometimes, seemingly, absent when we are in need. Let us look to Parshat Vayikra with an eye towards the nature of a God that might be related to through these sacrifices, and consider how we might relate to such a God today.

What do we find? The God of Leviticus has no body. In Genesis, God smells the pleasing scent of Noah’s sacrifice, but in Leviticus, the smoke of sacrifices generates a pleasing odor for God. God does not need to have a (metaphorical) nose, nor even show signs of receiving the scent of the sacrifices. We serve God because we seek connection. 

In Leviticus, God does not act, except to speak or command. Genesis and Exodus are filled with divine interventions; God creates, blesses, performs miracles, plagues, parts the sea, manifests as a guiding cloud… the list goes on. Yet all of that comes to an abrupt pause in Leviticus, which focuses entirely on what humans must do. Modern Biblical scholar Israel Knohl wrote, “Just as the personal and anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Genesis period express the closeness of humans to their Creator, so the impersonal, non-anthropomorphic language of the period of Moses expressed the majesty of the holy and its awesomeness. Human beings, when faced with the holy, no longer see themselves as the center of the universe, nor do they evaluate God from the narrow point of view of the satisfaction of their own needs and desires.” Thus begins our efforts to relate to God as a people. Later, in Deuteronomy, the text will reiterate incessantly the quid pro quo terms of a divine covenant. Here, in Leviticus, we have no promises of what God will do in return; only instructions for our actions in what is referred to as a divine pact.

Levitical sacrifices seem to aim towards keeping God’s divine energy pure. When a Jew has violated a mitzvah, they can offer a sacrifice to God, the blood of which serves as the ultimate spiritual disinfectant. Today, our contrition serves in its place, which we demonstrate to God through prayer, tzedakah, fasting, and service to God and community. Herein lies the richest opportunity for discussion: after we have committed a sin בין אדם למקום bein Adam l’makom, between us and God, how do we, as modern rabbinic Jews, bring that relationship back to a place of purity and rightness? How do we do our part to reaffirm the divine pact?

We do not know the nature of God. But many of us have felt moments where we feel pushed to describe or relate to God in a way that feels disingenuous and ill-fitting. In Leviticus, I see God as powerful but unpredictable, often even inscrutable. (For an example later in the book, see the story of Nadav and Avihu.) I see God as intimately present but hard to identify and describe, lacking clear intentions, desires, and actions. And I find this comforting. My role, in relationship to this God, is not to know God. My role is to reach towards God, accepting that I don’t know. Through prayer, I must offer thanksgiving, exultation, and contrition, as the Israelites did through sacrifices. We are, after all, committed to the same, unending, divine pact.

Heart Giving
by Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

This week we finish the book of Shmot. The second book of our Torah and the one that gives birth to a nation. Last week we stood at the foot of the mountain, worried that our leader had left us and unsure of how we would proceed. We spiraled and unraveled as a people with the “unknown” in front of us. The Golden Calf became a security blanket so that we had some item, some attachment, to leadership. However, when Moses came down the mountain, and we realized we had been anxiously nervous and dramatically impatient, he became angry and threw the tablets to the ground. We are in this moment witnessing different relational attachment styles. Moses, not communicating with his people as to when he would return and how their relationship to him, to God and to Torah would change. And the people, anxiously needing connection and closeness to make them feel wanted, special, loved and safe. So, the birth of this nation is happening in a beautiful relationship in need of some clear communication, boundaries and ultimately space to grow. 

VaYakhel Pekudei takes us through the building of that space. The first word, VaYakhel, means and he gathered, or in modern use of the word kehillah, community, “and he created community.” The community is made, and immediately told to recognize six days of work and one where you just rest and create to the holiness, the separation, of time with God. This is a boundary for conflicting attachment styles – 6 days of individual connection and focus and 1 day of powerful, intentional time together with community and God. Following the boundary of Shabbat, the community is instructed to bring a sacrifice to God, to show love through action. However, the way to give is described with the phrase, נְדִיב לִבּוֹ, “giving with a willingness of heart.” The people are not just giving something or of themselves because they are told to, they are giving when they have reason and feeling to do so. Rashi says, this means being prompted by a generosity of wanting to give. Yes, the people are instructed to give, but the relational piece is to only give once that willingness and generosity is present. 

To make this space for growth, God also refers to our heart. Those who are wise-hearted, חֲכַם־לֵב, are asked to build the space. What does it mean to be smart or have wisdom in your heart? Well, this is one step past generous of heart. It means that you understand this relationship with your community and with God to be one that is worth investing in, pushing forward, and growing. Without chochmat lev, the wisdom of heart, the risk would not be taken to create this space where the nation and people in relationship can grow. HaAmek Davar points out that this term, chochmat lev, does not mean skilled in the craft of building this relational space – even though they are the builders of the Mishkan. He teaches that it means that they have wisdom in revering God, in trusting the process of building this space so that the relationship with God will grow. They don’t need to know anything or have any skills in this, they need to be wise in their trust, their feeling, their interest in engaging in process to see the outcome of this space built for growth. 

After hearing of their charge to build this space, the nation of Israel departs from their leader and begins on their tasks:

וַיָּבֹאוּ כׇּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ אֹתוֹ הֵבִיאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַת יְהֹוָה לִמְלֶאכֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכׇל־עֲבֹדָתוֹ וּלְבִגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ׃

“And they came, everyone whose heart stirred them up, and everyone whom their spirit made willing, and they brought Adonai’s offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” The hearts of these people were motivated and not calm. There was no assurance, still, but there was excitement and momentum to be a community, to be in relationship with each other and God and to do the work for those things to hopefully excel. Ibn Ezra says that n’sa’o libo means an exalted heart. Ramban teaches that it is in connection to those who were wise-hearted. He says “for we do not find the use of this phrase, “the stirring up of the heart,” in connection with those who merely brought the donations. The reason for using such a phrase, whose heart stirred them up, is because they undertook to do the work, although there was no one amongst them who had learned these crafts from an instructor, or had trained his hands at all to do them.” They had no idea what they were getting themselves into, but they had an inclination, in their heart, that this space of growth was one to put work into. They led with their hope, their love for God and their trust in the process. 

We finish this book of Torah with a space of growth. We have the boundaries of commandments, the trial and error of leadership, and the heart to believe we are in this together to succeed in relationship with each other and God. We start the book of Shmot as individuals, but from the love of a mother, sister, daughter, and midwives we recognize that immediately we cannot do this alone. We need belief in God, connection to community and love. We end Shmot as a large community with different needs, different skills, different connections and unique hearts. As we enter into the laws that create our communal and spiritual boundaries, may we remember those hearts and those relational moments for growth and connection. Some of the laws may push us away and others will bring us in, but just as our relational attachment styles ebb and flow to keep each other close, so too we need to recognize how as a people we lead with our hearts differently to build spaces of growth and deep connection. 

Finding God in the Rearview Mirror
by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Ben Sigal

One song I find myself belting out whenever it comes on the radio is “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts. It’s a great song about the singer’s journey to find love. He’s had his heart broken and life has clearly not gone the way he planned. But, in the end, he finds his true love. It’s only at this point, retrospectively, that he can see that the heartbreaks were all a necessary part of the journey to end up with the right person. It was, in his understanding, all a part of God’s greater plan.

God is often present in our lives in ways we can only perceive after the fact. We see this lesson at work in this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa. Toward the end of the parsha, Moshe begs God, “ הַרְאֵ֥נִי נָ֖א אֶת־כְּבֹדֶֽךָ “. He asks to see God’s glory. God responds that God will reveal God’s back, but not God’s face. Moshe’s request is peculiar, as he cannot possibly think that God has a literal face like a human being.

It is exactly this peculiarity that Maimonides picks up on in the introduction to the section of his Mishneh Torah that focuses on the principles of Judaism. Maimonides asks us to imagine the face of a person we know. This person, he says, is engraved into our hearts. We know them so well that when asked to bring their memory to light, we can not only imagine their face, we can imagine them. We can see them and how they would respond to a particular situation. That is what is meant by seeing one’s face. It’s not just peripheral knowledge of a person. It’s a deep understanding of who that person is. So when God responds that God’s face cannot be seen, God is saying that God’s full essence cannot be known by humanity.

That said, Moses, and we, are given a consolation prize. Moses is told that he may see God’s back. Maimonides says this encounter was a knowledge of matters no person before or since would ever know, so much so that Moses would know enough of God to get an outline of God. We too, are blessed to know God’s back, but similarly to how we can see a human being’s back as they walk away from us, we can only fully comprehend God’s presence after the fact.

The singer of the Rascal Flatts song would have had no way of knowing in the moment of each breakup that love was on the way, or how to navigate that heartbreak. But, in retrospect, God’s presence in that moment, and in many moments of our lives, is so clear. It says later on in the Torah that after Moses sees God’s back, Moses’ face becomes radiant. May we be blessed that we may witness God, even if it may only be after goodness has been brought to our lives, and in doing so, become beacons of light for those in our lives.

Wise-Hearted People Make the Clothes Which Make the Kohen
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Yael Aranoff

You may have heard the phrase “clothes make the man.” Or maybe you’re familiar with “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Or, if you’re a musical theatre aficionado like I am, you might be familiar with the lyric from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida: “dress has always been my strongest suit.” These phrases reveal an understanding of the significance of clothing in modern Western society. However, I generally find it challenging to connect with this concept, as I am no fashionista, and I certainly am not a seamstress. And so, I often wonder when we reach Parashat Tetzaveh why we spend most of a parashah in discussion of the clothing of the kohanim (the priests). Taking to heart Ben Bag Bag’s reminder in Pirkei Avot to turn the Torah over and over, a closer look at the words found in Parashat Tetzaveh reveals that there is depth to what may seem at first glance to be a superficial subject of the outer garb of our ancestral priestly class. Towards the beginning of Parashat Tetzaveh, God tells Moshe:

׳וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־כּל־חַכְמֵי־לֵ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִלֵּאתִ֖יו ר֣וּחַ חכְמָ֑ה וְעָשׂ֞וּ אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֧י אַהֲרֹ֛ן לְקַדְּשׁ֖וֹ לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִֽי׃׳ (שמות כ׳׳ח:ג)

“And you shall instruct all who are wise of heart, whom I have filled with a spirit of wisdom, to make Aharon’s (Aaron’s) vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.” (Exodus 28:3).

I am struck by this verse, and the idea that the people who are making these clothes must be “wise of heart” and “filled with a spirit of wisdom.” Rabbeinu Bahya, a 13th and 14th century Spanish rabbi, scholar, and commentator, begins his commentary on this verse with the following explanation:

“The word ועשו [make] which appears close to the word חכמה [wisdom] hints that the making of these garments required an exceptional degree of wisdom meaning that they had to be made לשמם [for their sake], i.e. the people making them had to remain constantly aware of the purpose of these garments and the function of the people who were to wear them. The Torah wrote the word ועשית [and you will make – in Exodus 28:2], in addition to the word ועשו [make] to underline how important the כוונה [intention] was which had to be present in the weavers, embroiderers, etc. …”

Thus, according to Rabbeinu Bahya’s understanding, this verse focuses on the intentionality and mindfulness required for the task of the making of the priestly garments.

While we have in our tradition an understanding of the heart to be the seat of intellect, so perhaps “wise of heart” may have seemed to the Rabbis to be a way of saying intelligent people, perhaps we can understand the phrase “wise of heart” to mean that God wanted people to bring their whole internal selves—their intelligence and their emotions—into the project of making garments to be worn externally by Aharon and his descendants. If the people making these clothes brought their whole internal selves, and, as Rabbeinu Bahya underscored, were mindful and intentional in the process, then when the kohanim put on the clothes, perhaps it would affect their whole internal selves, and their mindfulness and intentionality.

This Shabbat, I invite you to reflect on what you bring your whole internal self to and what helps remind you to be mindful and intentional. May we have a Shabbat of rest, reflection, and rejuvenation, and perhaps we can enter the week with a taste of the gift that the “wise of heart” gave to the kohanim.

Opulence and Mitzvot
Parshat Terumah
by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Chayva Lehrman

I’ve never been particularly skilled at arts and crafts. I enjoy creativity, but feel more at home in music and poetry. Reading Parshat Terumah makes my brain short circuit; after a certain point, I stop building the beautiful, ornate ark in my mind’s eye and start reading it as I might read a recipe ingredients list.

It’s a lot to hold in one’s mind! The list is incredibly long, and with pieces we have never heard of. Why? Why is it so ornate, so particular? Presumably because this is God’s dwelling place – no amount of adornment would ever be sufficient! The text is implicitly showing us the value of הידור מצווה hiddur mitzvah, of glorifying a mitzvah by making it more beautiful, elegant, or ornate.

In Bava Kamma 9b, Rabbi Zeira raises a discussion about hiddur mitzvah. When performing a mitzvah, one should see how much the standard item for performing the mitzvah would cost and spend an extra one third of the cost to embellish the mitzvah. 

This introduces the obvious issue of lifestyle creep: the subtle rise of norms until suddenly standard events and expenses (such as judaica, b’nai mitzvah and lifecycle celebrations, etc.) become so expensive they are unreachable for some members of the community. In other words, sometimes hiddur mitzvah can just feel like opulence and excess, at which point the hiddur, the embellishment, becomes elevated far beyond the mitzvah itself.

How do we know when things are getting out of hand – when we’ve disordered our priorities and values? We know when we take a moment to reflect whether the scope of the hiddur fits the scope of the mitzvah. Bava Kamma demonstrates this: one spends up to one third of the mitzvah. The embellishment of a mitzvah should never take more investment than the performance of the mitzvah itself – not even half as much.

In Parshat Terumah, the ark seemingly held God. But God did not build God’s dwelling place; the people of Israel did. Thus, the ark served as the container for the relationship between the people of Israel and God, and what a holy thing that is – certainly it was appropriate to decorate it opulently. Today, despite Indiana Jones’ best cinematic efforts, we no longer have an ark of the covenant. Our covenant is held in the palace in time we build each Shabbat; in the communal spaces and activities where we bond and build relationships; in the tzedakah we faithfully give and in doing mitzvot. Parshat Terumah is more than just an opulent arts and crafts project: it gives us a blueprint for how to elevate something beautiful and holy, and what should be the focus of such beauty.

Sarcasm—Use it Gently
Taste of Torah. Yitro, 2023/5783.
by Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

My humor is at least somewhat sarcastic.  When the setting seems right, I enjoy the art of determining the line were witty sarcasm would become harsh cynicism, pulling back several “steps” from that line, and then using the humor to defuse a tense moment, and/or to evoke a laugh.  Laughter is a good thing.  

But I am aware that sarcasm is dangerous. So is the internet, apparently. If you google the word “sarcasm” the first two “hits” that come up after straight definitions of the word are articles that take opposite positions on sarcasm itself.  One is entitled “The surprising benefits of sarcasm” an article in Scientific America that says that sarcasm, which it describes as “constructing or exposing contradictions between intended meanings,” boosts creativity. When wielded in situations of mutual trust, sarcasm can lubricate the social fabric, and contribute to fun.

The second article is entitled “Sarcasm–Why it Hurts us,” and defines it as thinly veiled meanness, with no redeeming qualities.

I lean more towards the first one. There is always a risk to humor. Wield it carefully and respectfully, though, because it can devolve into cruelty. To others, and to oneself.

Believe it or not, I see hints of this wisdom lurking in our Parsha, Yitro.  Most people think of the 10 Commandments and revelation when thinking of this parsha. But perhaps the most important human notion revealed in Yitro comes in a quieter moment, when Yitro fears his son-in-law Moshe will get burnt out, when trying to lead the people all alone. He says that if Moshe does not delegate and thus take care of himself, נבול תבול/navol tibol.   “You will certainly wither.” 

The great Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra connects Yitro’s warning to a phrase in Psalms, Ch 1, which is describing a righteous person.  אשר עלהו לא יבול/asher alehu lo yibol, “whose leaves will not wither.”  In the Yitro context, we learn how personal withering will certainly take place. In Psalms, the prescription is for how it not take place. How do you sustain yourself?  במושב לצים לא ישב/b’moshav letzim lo yashav. Don’t sit/be among the letzim. The scorners. The scoffers. The cynics.  The ones who, as it were, overuse sarcasm until it becomes bitter. And harsh.  Note that Psalm is not describing the impact of such behavior on others. But rather on the person engaging in it.  If you avoid egregious impudence, and train yourself to see and name what is good and right, there will be more peace around you, and within you.

Moshe needed to learn not to overly burden the self, to keep bitterness out of the soul.  Psalms warns us not to overly burden others with our clever cynicism, in order to preserve both us and them.

All of us–especially including those who still love healthy sacrasm and do not want to live without it–need to be cautious, and gentle and judicious when using it. The laugh is never worth the wound. In others. And in ourselves.

Manna and the Lesson of “Just Enough-ness”
February 3, 2023 – י׳׳ב בשבט תשפ׳׳ג
Parashat Beshalah – פרשת בשלח
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Yael Aranoff

While the lesson of not playing favorites can be learned throughout Beresheet, let’s imagine for a moment that it is a literal lesson about not having a favorite child, in which case, I hope that the following sentiment is not one that ignores a major teaching of the book of the Torah we finished just a few weeks ago. This week’s parashah, Beshalah, is a favorite parashah of mine, as it is, I would imagine, a favorite parashah for many people. Parashat Beshalah is jam-packed with miracles and celebrations, a record through story and song of a climactic moment for our people, as we finally attain our freedom.

But, as the character of George Washington sings in Lin-Maunel Miranda’s musical Hamilton: “What comes next, you’ve been freed…” After the miracle of the Israelites crossing the parted sea that in turn swallows up the pursuing Egyptians, and after the singing and dancing of Moshe and Miriam and the Israelites, the newly freed Israelites are now faced with what is at first unknown, and what will become their routine for decades: wandering in the desert. After three days of wandering, the Israelites find themselves with no water (for the first of two times in the parashah) and God, with perhaps some symbolic help from Moshe, sweetens the bitter water so the Israelites may drink. After some more time of wandering, the Israelites begin complaining about the food situation, and so we read of the following declaration:

׳וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה הִנְנִ֨י מַמְטִ֥יר לָכֶ֛ם לֶ֖חֶם מִן־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם׳ (שמות ט׳׳ז:ד)

“And יהוה said to Moshe, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky,” (Exodus 16:4).

Several verses later, the following happens:

׳וּבַבֹּ֗קֶר הָֽיְתָה֙ שִׁכְבַ֣ת הַטַּ֔ל סָבִ֖יב לַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃ וַתַּ֖עַל שִׁכְבַ֣ת הַטָּ֑ל וְהִנֵּ֞ה עַל־פְּנֵ֤י הַמִּדְבָּר֙ דַּ֣ק מְחֻסְפָּ֔ס דַּ֥ק כַּכְּפֹ֖ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃׳ (שמות ט׳׳ז:י׳׳ג–י׳׳ד)

“In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground,” (Exodus 16:13-14).

And so, we are introduced to what the Israelites will come to call מן or manna.

The Israelites are told only to collect enough for what they need to eat for one day—and then later are told that on the sixth day of the week, Friday morning, they can collect two portions, one for Friday and one for Shabbat. On the first day, some of the Israelites are unsure as to whether the manna will come again, and so they save some of the manna that fell on the first day and by the second day, the manna goes bad. Then, some of the

Israelites are worried that the manna they collected on Friday morning will go bad on Shabbat morning, so they go out looking for more on Shabbat morning, and learn that there is nothing to collect, and that the manna they collected on Friday morning is still good to eat. And so, we learn a concept that is as important for us today as it was for the newly freed Israelites starting their journey through the desert: the lesson of “just enough-ness,” teaching us to have faith that what we have is adequate for our needs.

There is a beautiful teaching in the Talmud that reinforces this lesson of “just enough-ness”, and like the verses that introduce manna to us in Parashat Beshalah, this teaching comes to us with imagery of rain and dew. It goes like this:

Rabbi Berekhya teaches that during one of our exiles from the land of Israel, the people of Israel asked God to come with us on our journey, and not abandon us, entreating God to be to us as the rain, referencing a verse from Hosea 6:3. God responds to the Israelites, saying, “My daughter, you request the manifestation of My Presence by comparing Me to a matter, rain, that is sometimes desired, but is sometimes undesired. However, I will be to you like a matter that is always desired, dew, as it is stated: ‘I will be as the dew to Israel’ (Hosea 14:6).” (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 4a).

God thus reassures the people that rather than being a Presence comparable to the rain, which can sometimes be too much—a flood can kill people—and sometimes not enough—as in years of drought that we are all too familiar with here in California, God will be a Presence comparable to the dew, which is reliable, consistent, and…just enough.

Back in Parashat Beshalah, while God does use the imagery of rain when describing how God will cause the manna to rain down from the sky, when the Israelites find the manna every morning for the 40 years of wandering through the desert, they find it after the fall of the morning dew lifts. The visible connection the Israelites get every morning between the dew and the manna therefore serves as a reminder that just like the dew, the food they are gathering will be just enough for that one day—or if it’s on Friday, enough for Friday and Saturday.

The lesson of “just enough-ness” is as powerful and relevant for the Israelites wandering in the desert as it is for us in Los Angeles in 2023/תשפ׳׳ג. While there is nothing wrong with a certain amount of ambition, and wanting for more than enough in certain areas of our lives, and wanting and praying for periods of the blessing kind of rain, in our day to day lives, can we have faith that we will have just enough? Do we have a role in making sure that those around us have just enough? Can we be grateful for having just enough? Every morning, we say in Birkot HaShahar, ׳שעשה לי כל צרכי׳, making a blessing that God has provided for all of our needs. My blessing for us this Shabbat is that we can linger longer in gratitude for the “just enough-ness” of life.

The Torch We Bear
by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Ben Sigal

My curse through rabbinical school has been an inability to enjoy music for its own sake. Instead of just leaning back and enjoying a tune (like I used to do), I often find myself relating song lyrics to something I’ve learned in school or the weekly parsha. I can’t seem to turn my brain off and stop nerding out!

This week, I couldn’t stop thinking about Coldplay’s song, “Fix You.” The chorus is, “Lights will guide you home/and ignite your bones/and I will try to fix you.” I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times, but for the past few days, I immediately heard echoes in it from this week’s parsha.

This week, we read Parshat Bo, which includes the plague of darkness. Well, darkness for the Egyptians. The Torah tells us, “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could move about; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” Ibn Ezra comments that this darkness kept the Egyptians stationary and most notably, solitary. How could it be that there was such paralyzing darkness for some but not for all?

There’s an aggadic story in the Talmud that can help us understand this darkness. In tractate Megillah, we learn of an encounter between Rabbi Yosei and an unnamed blind man. Rabbi Yosei is walking about in the darkest part of the night when he sees a blind man with a torch. He calls out to the blind man and asks why the torch is necessary. After all, the blind man cannot see the light. The blind person responds that the torch allows others to him and save him from the dangers that he might otherwise face.

Too often in life, we are like the blind person but without the torch. We are often too afraid to lift our flame and ask for help when we need it. We don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want others to see us struggle. And when we set up a system like this, we are living in deep darkness, similar to what befell Egypt during the exodus. This darkness is all consuming—where everyone feels alone.

But there is an alternative. We can choose to be vulnerable as the blind man chose to do. We can choose to put out our proverbial torches and request help from others. Moreover, when we see others with those torches, we can reach out to help them. When we choose to live in this paradigm, we choose to live alongside the Israelites instead of the Egyptians. We choose, to paraphrase the Coldplay song, to set up lights to guide others home.

So my hope is that each of us will bring into their life the intention to keep an eye out for the torches we all bear and that each of us will put out our torches when we need to. And in doing so, we will not just be able to fix each other, but perhaps change the world for the better.

Obligated by the King
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Chayva Lehrman

What’s in a name? Well, when you have a unique name, the answer can actually be quite a bit. People ask me about my name, all the time, and truly, if you meet another, Chayva, please let me know. My name is my great grandmother’s name before she changed it at Ellis Island, but no one in my family knew until she became elderly and forgot to change her name in the stories that she told about herself. It slipped out one day in conversation. “Who’s Chayva?” my mother asked. “Oh! My. That was me!”

God presents God’s name to Moses in a much more intentional way in this week’s parasha. 

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH. (Exodus 6:3)

We have many names for God; El Shaddai and YHVH are hardly the only ones. Every day, in every blessing, we call God “Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech HaOlam,” “my Lord, our God, King of the world.” This week, we also blessed a king, an earthly king of a different type: Martin Luther King. In MLK Day, we celebrate the man who not only had the last name King, but had the initials that match the Hebrew root for king: מלך, melech.

Dr. King demanded a different world. He made some people uncomfortable and others empowered. He lived through a nightmare and because – not despite – that nightmare, he had a dream. That dream is often recounted, but more often than it should, it gets divorced from its religious foundation: the messianic vision of a Kingdom of God, a day in which all people would be equal and all systems equitable. 

MLK Day – King Day – is one of our yearly nudges to refocus ourselves on the unfinished work, which, as we know from Pirkei Avot, we are not obligated to complete but neither are we free to neglect. 

Every day in Shacharit, we commit ourselves to קבלת עול מלכות שמים, to receive upon ourselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. For Dr. King, this meant creating an equitable world in which the kingdom of God would become a reality. How will we take that mantle upon ourselves? How will we respond to the obligations given to us by both Dr. King and by the King of the World, Melech HaOlam, whom we bless by word and by deed?

At the Moment of Turning
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Chayva Lehrman

In Yehuda Amichai’s poem שיר אינסופי, “A Never-Ending Poem,” Amichai writes:

Inside the brand new museum
There’s an old synagogue
Inside the synagogue
Is me
Inside me
my heart
Inside my heart
a museum
Inside the museum, a synagogue…

And thus the poem continues, in loops upon loops. As Amichai peels back each layer, he finds cycles of what came before and what will come after, each contained within ourselves and within the ways in which we preserve our stories.

Amichai’s holders of stories are museums, synagogues, and, of course, poetry. Torah also holds these layers of us and our Jewish stories. Amichai wrote his cyclical, circular poem to capture the kaleidoscopic layers of life; so, too, Ben Bag Bag addressed all of Torah in his oft-quoted aphorism, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).

Jacob feels this sense of turning in this week’s parashah, Vayechi, as he nears the end of his life. When Joseph is told that his father is not well, he brings his sons Menasheh and Ephraim to be blessed by Jacob. The narrative voice foreshadows the reversal of age order by referring to Ephraim first as they approach the moment of blessing, and sure enough, Jacob crosses his hands and blesses Menasheh with his right, as would usually befit the elder, and Ephraim with his left, and says,

בְּךָ֗ יְבָרֵ֤ךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה

By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasheh.
(Genesis 48:20)

Soon after, Jacob calls his sons to him. The ensuing poem is often referred to as Jacob’s blessing for his sons and their tribes, but Jacob himself does not call it a blessing as he does with Ephraim and Menasheh; rather, he says,

הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים

Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.
(Genesis 49:1)

Jacob clearly feels a need to foretell the ending he sees for his progeny, whether by blessing or by prophecy. 

The feeling of transition weighs heavily over this parashah, from Jacob’s foretelling to its position as the final parashah of Genesis. The feeling of transition also looms over this time of year, when the secular new year turns and we reflect upon what came before and what will come to be. Sometimes the discomfort of change can make us want to hurry time along, so that we can find out the ending and know what happens. But we are not Jacob – we will not know what 2023 will bring. 

Let us take wisdom from the title of the parashah, Vayechi ויחי, “he lived.” Life will go on with its surprises – such as Joseph’s younger son receiving the elder’s blessing – and its foregone conclusions, such as Jacob’s other sons are told. In the space between surprises and known results, we make our way. 

Like every book of Torah, upon concluding it we say חזק חזק ונתחזק, “Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened.” May we live through the ups and downs of 2023 with strength, by giving strength to each other, and thus may we, together, be strengthened.

Judah May Slumber—But Will Rise Again Soon
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

Stasis is illusory.  All wisdoms—philosophical, religious, modern and ancient—reinforce this. Change is not one of the realities. It is the only reality. We have all been dying since we were born. And our entire cellular structure is in constant regeneration.  While we sometimes stubbornly hold on to opinions and stances, we are literally not who we were yesterday, let alone last year. So why should we think and feel the same way?

What is true of the individual is true of any society.  The modern pace of life and media demands instant and abiding commentary on terrain whose sands are shifting all the time. By the time an article or opinion piece is submitted, the facts upon which said piece were based have changed.  We all would be wise to take the long view.  It will not only calm some of our anxieties—it will also lead us closer to truth.

I write this from Israel, where, after leading the Pressman Parent delegation, I am now serving as a Rabbinic Mentor on an inter-denominational trip that AIPAC runs for its Leffell Fellowship for Rabbinical students from rabbinical schools ranging from YU to HUC (with many “in between!”). It will come as no surprise that one of the underlying themes of nearly every encounter is the current Israeli political moment.  As many pundits are Chicken-Little-ing this moment, with doomsday predictions about the end of Israel, and/or of Israel’s democracy, so much of what we are witnessing is putting a lie to such facile thinking.  Including someone (from the Israeli political left) reminding us that when Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister in the late ‘70s, that too was considered a watershed moment auguring the end of Israel as a liberal democracy. Of course, Begin then went and made what has turned out to be an enduring (albeit at times tepid) peace with our most intractable Arab enemy. The same denunciations and dour prophecies were uttered when Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing secular politician, joined a previous Netanyahu government.  With today being the day that Israel’s new coalition and government will be sworn in, including two MK’s in particular who represent some of what is most odious in parts of the Zionist camp, it is tempting (but false) to presume that this supposed nadir will be determinative of an ongoing downturn in Israeli society.

The great Izhbitzer Rebbe, author of the commentary Mei HaShiloah, notes that one of the characterological hallmarks of Yehuda/Judah (referring both the brother of Yosef, and the Jewish people that bear Judah’s name to this day) is that our present is often hard to understand, and our future is hard to predict.  In next week’s parsha, Vayehi, Jacob’s blessing to Judah will be that even though he may כרע רבץ (kara ravatz), be seen to be crouching and cowering, כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו (k’ari ukh’lavi mi y’kimenu), he is like a lion and a lioness—who would are bother or rouse him? Meaning, when we are low, we may be about to rise. (And, yes, when we are soaring, there may be an Icarus-like downfall around the corner).  And in this week’s parsha, Vayiggash, Judah approaches the Egyptian viceroy (whom Judah does not realize is his brother Joseph) with confidence to resolve a sensitive situation, just verses after he seemed to express despair over his and his brothers’ circumstances.

Judah may be seen to be slumbering. In an ethical or moral divot.  Before you know it, the Jewish (and Israeli) people will find its next way to defy expectations, confront internal rot, and rise again to new heights.

By Light, Not By Might
by TBA Rabbinic Intern, Chayva Lehrman

In the haftarah this week, an angel gives Zechariah a vision of a menorah and two olive trees, but Zechariah cannot interpret it. The angel, surprised, explains that it means, “‘Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit alone,’ said Adonai Tzevaot.” (Zechariah 4:6)

לֹ֤א בְחַ֙יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י אָמַ֖ר יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃

We see these themes of might and power everywhere this week: in Parshat Miketz, Joseph is given Pharaoh’s signet ring and thus power over all of Egypt. In celebrating Chanukah, we exalt in the Maccabees’ mighty fight for independence. Even the name of God used by Zechariah’s angel, Adonai Tzevaot, evokes military strength; it is often translated as LORD of Hosts, but Robert Alter translates it more directly as LORD of Armies.

And yet, Zechariah’s angel gives us a counterpoint against the celebration of might and power. When reading this line in isolation, we might find ourselves in Zechariah-like confusion: what is done not by might nor power? What does the angel want us to achieve by God’s spirit alone?

If you know Debbie Friedman’s musical setting of these lines, it’s already going through your head. She completed the sentence “shall we all live in peace,” which is a midrashic extension of the text. Her interpretation is a modern gloss drawn from context. Zechariah’s community witnessed the destruction of the First Temple and still aspires to rebuild it. One can imagine their dream that a reconstructed Temple would bring a time in which all will live in peace.

Robert Alter writes, “The golden lampstand, with its seven burning oil lamps, is to be a focal point in the Temple, its light a token of God’s radiant presence in His house, in the midst of His people. Thus the rebuilding of the Temple, in difficult material conditions and perhaps with some resistance from the Persian imperial power, will be consummated through God’s spirit, which is symbolized in the lampstand.”

The menorah in the Temple brought God’s spirit into the space, centering and elevating it above might and power. Similarly, when we light the chanukiah, we remember the divine miracle of the Chanukah story. Both the menorah and the chanukiah give us beautiful, momentary reminders of God’s spirit, divided across a growing number of flames. So too, in the world around us, we see God’s spirit in many places: in people who give deeply of themselves, in people who weather hardship with courage, in children who learn with eagerness, and in the faces of those whom we love. By God’s spirit alone, may we build the world we dream of seeing, and may our ability to see the light of God’s spirit always continue to grow.

And Now You Know the Rest of the Story
By Cantor Michelle Stone, TBA Ritual Innovator

Do you remember Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story?

The Rest of the Story was a regular radio segment that aired for an amazing 63 years, from 1946 until 2009. In the segments, Paul Harvey presented little known facts related to famous events or people. At the end of each segment, Paul Harvey famously intoned, “And now you know the rest of the story.” This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, includes some of the most popular stories of the Bible – Joseph and his dreams, his brothers selling him into slavery and Joseph’s resistance of temptation at the hands of Potiphar’s wife. You might expect a cantor to break into some Andrew Lloyd Webber at this point. But buried within these famous, Tony-award worthy stories is the lesser known story of Judah and Tamar.

Right after Joseph is sold by his brothers to the Ishmaelites, the Torah abruptly segues to the salacious story of Joseph’s older brother, Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Judah’s eldest son marries Tamar and then dies, leaving her childless. Tamar is then married off to Judah’s second son in accordance with the law of yibbum, or levirate marriage, whereby the childless widow of a deceased man is married to his younger brother. Well, Tamar’s new husband, Judah’s second son, also dies before she has any children. Judah has a third son who, according to law, is supposed to marry Tamar as well. But after the death of two of his sons while married to her, you can imagine that Judah was in no hurry to marry his last surviving son to Tamar.

Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house and tells her to wait until his third son, Shelah, comes of age. After a while, Judah still has not sent for her. In the meantime, Tamar still technically belongs to Judah’s family and cannot remarry. So when Judah comes to town, Tamar disguises herself and dresses up as a “woman of the night.” Judah finds a hotel that rents by the hour, and he provides compensation in the form of his signet ring, cape, and staff. Tamar becomes pregnant with twins, and when Judah learns of this, he orders her to be burnt to death. She calmly and discreetly sends him his belongings and tells Judah that the father of her unborn children is the owner of these items. Judah recognized his payment and says, “tzadakah mimeni.” The Ramban and the Rashbam both read this statement to mean “she is MORE righteous than me.” Despite the indiscretions, the Torah and rabbinic tradition both view

Tamar clearly in the right. She did what she needed to do to in order to take her proper place in the world.

While it is uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities, women in ancient Israel had nothing if they were childless or husbandless. Once a woman left her parents’ home, she became the responsibility of her husband and his family. If she was sent away to return to her parents’ house, she was an extra mouth to feed, an extra body to clothe, and an extra burden for them to bear. Tamar takes control over her own destiny by ensuring herself offspring and a return to her father-in-law’s care. She reasserts her own worth, which had been forcibly taken from her, first by the death of her husbands, then by Judah in denying her right to his final son, Shelah. If you parse his name, Shelah can be read as Shel-Ah, meaning “belonging to her.” The text itself is telling us that Judah’s third son belongs to Tamar. Once she realized that Judah wasn’t going to fulfill his duty, she took it upon herself to advocate for herself. She showed courage of her conviction and spoke truth to power, not an easy task for a woman in ancient times. And our tradition rewarded her greatly for her courage. The Torah looks so favorably on Tamar’s gumption and advocacy that she merits being the primary ancestor to King David and the Messiah.

Tamar isn’t only remarkable because of her courage and prowess in speaking up for what she was owed, but also because of how she handles herself in the situation. Taking a stand for what is right doesn’t matter if you handle yourself in a boorish and disrespectful manner. Tamar fights for her rights with dignity. She doesn’t shame Judah publicly – she handles the situation discreetly, sending Judah his personal belongings privately. The circumstances called for discretion, and she shows her compassion in handling it as such. The Midrash says that Tamar would rather face the death sentence handed down to her than shame Judah in public. The Talmud, in three places no less, uses this episode to teach that it is preferable for one to cast himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly disgrace someone else.1 Through her humble and respectful behavior, Tamar furthers her own cause and shows that she has truly earned the honor our tradition bestows upon her.

As Jews, we have a duty to stand up and say, “hineni”. I am here. I am here to advocate for myself and for what I am due. Tamar is our model of how to do just that – how to be courageous, how to take a stand, how to speak truth to power, and how do it all with humility, grace and respect. And now you know the rest of the story.

Who is Your Biggest Support? Are They Also Your Papercut?
by Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

There are people in our life who lift us up. There are also, unfortunately, people in our life who break us down. And often, there are a select few people who do both and therefore the uplifting and the deflating is felt much stronger. Think of a person who can do very little for you and make you feel the happiest you have ever been. Is that same person the one who when they don’t call you back, or they don’t take out the trash, or they don’t provide you support in a moment that you need it most, you feel more broken than if someone else treated you the same way? Often that person is our partner, our parent, our best friend, our sibling or our closest colleague.

In Parashat VaYishlach Jacob and Esav reunite. It is a beautiful moment of two people who destroyed one another recognizing their need to love the other:

וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ

Esav ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.

Two people, who from the moment of conception, had been at odds with one another, realizing that they needed each other. They knew how to hurt the other because of their close bond. And so, they knew how to love the other without needing to process through the steps. They broke each other down better than anyone could AND they built each other up more successfully than anyone would. 

Before this incident, God tries to prepare Jacob for the reunion. Jacob responds with:

קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכׇּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת׃ הַצִּילֵ֥נִי נָ֛א מִיַּ֥ד אָחִ֖י מִיַּ֣ד עֵשָׂ֑ו כִּֽי־יָרֵ֤א אָנֹכִי֙ אֹת֔וֹ פֶּן־יָב֣וֹא וְהִכַּ֔נִי אֵ֖ם עַל־בָּנִֽים׃

I am unworthy [or made small] of all the kindness that You, God, have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.

Jacob was rightfully scared, but as we notice in the first word, Jacob already felt small. He is attributing this unworthiness or inadequacy to God, and all the good God has done for Jacob, making him feel small in God’s hands. But in fact, I think Jacob has been made to feel this way by missing his brother – his partner – the person who knows him best and therefore can hurt him and love him most. 

When there are people in our lives who can make us feel small, they are often the exact people we need to strengthen our relationship with to make us feel loved, supported, and strong. We feel unworthy because we are not receiving the words of affirmation or close connection we need from those people to feel prepared to take on this world. And yet, as soon as those people share their joy in our successes, tell us words of encouragement or run and hug us after a long time apart, our bucket is filled and we no longer feel inadequate. 

Jacob believes himself to be unworthy for all the love and strength God has provided and shown him. However, it has nothing to do with God. God is being supportive and loving – as God should, and as anyone should to a friend, colleague, partner, or family member. But God is not who Jacob needs to be lifted up by. Jacob recognizes in his reunion with Esav that his strength, his love, his need for support is wrapped up in the person who knows him best. The person who can hurt him most and love him deepest. 

I pray for us all this Shabbat that we lean into the relationships that build us up. That we recognize those people in our lives who support us, who make us better, who allow us to grow strong. They might not be close to you right now, or making you feel big at this moment; in fact, you might be feeling unworthy or small. So tell them. Remind those who love you strongest that that means that sometimes they can hurt you most deeply. Esav ran to greet Jacob, fell on his neck and they wept together. No words. Just feeling and understanding. Find that this Shabbat and build yourself up! We are each worthy of feeling strong, supported and loved! 

Listen here to a beautiful version of these verses by Yonatan Razel: יונתן רזאל – קטנתי (קליפ) – (Yonatan Razel Katonti (Video)

Surely God is Here- Do We Know it?
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Ben Sigal

Mary Stevenson, a native of the Philadelphia suburbs, had a very difficult upbringing. At age six, her mother passed, leaving her father to raise her and her seven siblings alone. Having been born in the early 1920s, her mother’s passing was followed very quickly by the onset of the Great Depression, making her life even more complicated. While in her teenage years, she wrote the following poem:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during
the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one
set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?”

The Lord replied,
“The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints,
is when I carried you.”

As I look back on the most challenging moments in my life, this rings so true. I’ve seen my family take on cancer, been inches away from a potentially life-altering car accident and have known other difficult challenges as well. In so many of those moments, I felt so alone. And yet, as I look back with perspective, I can see – my loneliness was not felt nearly as strongly as it could have been. And because of that, I know God was there.

Like Mary Stevenson’s dream, sometimes we feel totally alone, unaware that God is carrying us through the hard times.

In this week’s parsha, Vayetze, Jacob flees home, afraid of his brother. He comes to rest in a place which the midrash says will eventually be home to the Temple. There, he dreams of angels

ascending and descending up and down a ladder. Upon awaking from his dream, he says, “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it.” Ibn Ezra comments that this tells us that there are places where miracles can be seen. According to him, there are places where we can fail to notice God’s presence despite God dwelling there. Surely if Jacob can initially miss God’s presence in the holiest location on earth, we too can miss God’s presence in the comparatively mundane places we may find ourselves.

In our lives, we face numerous challenges. No matter how much we may feel it, we are never quite as alone as we may think. Surely God is always there- the question is whether we know it. Like Jacob, may we all be blessed to open our eyes to God’s presence in our lives. May we be blessed to recognize that we walk beside God on the sand on the good days, and that God carries us on the bad. And on those bad days, I hope we can all lean into God’s embrace and let God carry us through.

Chayei Sarah: Telling Our Tale
November 18, 2022 – כ׳׳ד בחשון תשפ׳׳ג
Parashat Chayei Sarah – פרשת חיי שרה
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Yael Aranoff

In the first episode of the podcast, “Serial”, Sarah Koenig shares with the listeners the following:

“I just want to point out something I’d never really thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it’s really hard to account for your time, in a detailed way, I mean.

How’d you get to work last Wednesday, for instance? Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure? Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what did you buy? Who did you talk to? The entire day, name every person you talked to. It’s hard.”

The question of the reliability of memory will be one we will return to shortly.

This week’s parashah, Chayei Sarah–the life of Sarah–starts, of course, with the death of Sarah at 127 years old. There is then the account of Avraham buying the burial place for the family, the cave of Makhpelah. Next, we learn of the oath that Avraham has his senior servant swear to find a wife for Yitzhak. Which brings us to the encounter between this senior servant of Avraham and a woman at the well.

Pay attention to the following order of events. In the first account of their meeting, Avraham’s servant meets a woman at a well, and she gives him and his camels water, fulfilling the sign he had asked for from God to show him who he should choose for a wife for Yitzhak. Then, Avraham’s servant gives her gifts—a gold nose-ring and two gold bands for her arms. Next, Avraham’s servant asks her whose daughter she is and whether there is room in her father’s house for him to spend the night. She responds that she is “the daughter of Betuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor”. This is Rivkah, and she is checking all the boxes to be a suitable wife for Yitzhak.

Rivkah then goes home and tells her family about her encounter at the well. While we do not get her own version of what happened, we get a verse saying that she told all of this to her mother’s household. In the next verse, her brother, Lavan, runs out to meet Avraham’s servant at the water source. Lavan brings him to their home and a feast is served. When Avraham’s servant sees the food laid out in front of him, he says:

׳לֹ֣א אֹכַ֔ל עַ֥ד אִם־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי דְּבָרָ֑י׳ (בראשית כ׳׳ד:ל׳׳ג)

“I will not eat until I have told my tale.” (Genesis 24:33)

He then shares his account of what happened when he met Rivkah at the well. In his retelling of their encounter, there is a change in chronology—first he asks her whose

daughter she is, and then he gives her the gold nose-ring and gold bands, flipping the order of events from the first account.

Going back to the questions posed by Sarah Koenig in her first episode of “Serial”, when I first noticed the change in the order of events, I found it relatable on a human level—as Sarah Koenig says, it’s hard to account for our time! Maybe that was Avraham’s servant’s best attempt at recounting the events and what we have here is a question of memory.

Some of the commentators of our tradition bring us different insights on this change in chronology. Rashi, the French 11th and 12th century commentator, writes:

“He changed the order of proceedings for in fact he had first given the presents and afterwards questioned her. But he did this in order that they should not catch him by his own words and say, ‘How could you give her anything when you did not yet know who she was!’”

According to Rashi, then, Avraham’s servant intentionally changed the order of events in the telling of his tale out of concern for how he would be perceived by Rivkah’s family. Perhaps he began to question whether it would have been better if he had done things in this revised order: first asking who she was and then giving her the gifts. Even if he was not questioning that, Rashi’s point is that the change in the order was purposeful and that purpose was connected to how Rivkah’s family would react.

Or HaChaim, the 18th century Moroccan commentator, agrees with Rashi that Avraham’s servant changed the chronology in his tale intentionally, yet Or HaChaim offers a different reason:

“He changed the sequence of events in his report so that Lavan and his father in their craftiness should not be able to claim these trinkets as belonging to Betuel since Rivkah had obtained them as reward for services rendered. If, however, Rivkah had obtained the jewelry only after she had identified herself as the daughter of Betuel, it was clear that they were meant to effect the betrothal between her and Yitzhak, her father not being able to claim them as belonging to him.”

Thus, Or HaChaim argues that the purpose of the change in the order of events is so that the gifts will not be misconstrued as payment for the water Rivkah gave at the well, but rather that they will signify the engagement between Rivkah and Yizhak.

If we are to understand this as an intentional narrative adjustment on the part of Avraham’s servant, as Rashi and Or HaChaim suggest, how do we understand that choice? Are there times when we intentionally rearrange the chronology of events in our own lives when we are asked to recount events? Is this an example of something that is permissible when we tell our own tales–like a white lie, which our tradition says is sometimes acceptable–or is this an example of something that we should not do, a lesson on how not to behave? And if we are to understand this as a question of memory, if Avraham’s servant struggled with memory on an individual level, how much the more so do we, as a people, struggle with communal memory? How does our communal memory shape the tales we tell of our people? This Shabbat, may we be mindful of how we tell and retell our tales.

The Avraham of the Beginning and The Avraham of the End
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz

Our parasha begins with Avraham inviting three people to dine and schmooze with him and Sarah in his most uncomfortable of moments. Our parsha ends with God asking Avraham to take his son up a mountain to sacrifice him, and Avraham does so without question. Though Isaac is not sacrificed, it is clear that the Avraham of hachnasat orhim (hospitality) at the beginning of our story is different from the Avraham of the Akeidah at the end. Or is he? Has Avraham’s character changed from the first moment to the last? Are Avraham’s priorities different or are we just seeing his reverence for God from different angles…(or angels)?

Parashat Vayera is in my top three favorite parshiyot of Torah. There is SO much to dive deeply into and I am always sad when we move on from this parsha so quickly. So we will focus on the beginning and the end this week. Let’s start at the top.

וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃

וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רׇץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃

יֻקַּֽח־נָ֣א מְעַט־מַ֔יִם וְרַחֲצ֖וּ רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִֽשָּׁעֲנ֖וּ תַּ֥חַת הָעֵֽץ׃

וְאֶקְחָ֨ה פַת־לֶ֜חֶם וְסַעֲד֤וּ לִבְּכֶם֙ אַחַ֣ר תַּעֲבֹ֔רוּ כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן עֲבַרְתֶּ֖ם עַֽל־עַבְדְּכֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֵּ֥ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ׃

וַיְמַהֵ֧ר אַבְרָהָ֛ם הָאֹ֖הֱלָה אֶל־שָׂרָ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר מַהֲרִ֞י שְׁלֹ֤שׁ סְאִים֙ קֶ֣מַח סֹ֔לֶת ל֖וּשִׁי וַעֲשִׂ֥י עֻגֽוֹת׃

וְאֶל־הַבָּקָ֖ר רָ֣ץ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקַּ֨ח בֶּן־בָּקָ֜ר רַ֤ךְ וָטוֹב֙ וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וַיְמַהֵ֖ר לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת אֹתֽוֹ׃

וַיִּקַּ֨ח חֶמְאָ֜ה וְחָלָ֗ב וּבֶן־הַבָּקָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וַיִּתֵּ֖ן לִפְנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהֽוּא־עֹמֵ֧ד עֲלֵיהֶ֛ם תַּ֥חַת הָעֵ֖ץ וַיֹּאכֵֽלוּ׃

“Avraham lifts his eyes, and he sees, and behold, three people standing on him. And Avraham saw and he ran to greet them from the opening of the tent and he bowed to the ground.” Avraham has just been circumcised, as an adult, and he is running to greet three people who he does not know. We read this as Avraham being a true mensch and someone who sees Godliness in the three people in front of him, whether or not they are actual angels. The story continues that Avraham washes their feet, gets them some bread, and then rushes to Sarah, to rush her, to make choice flour cakes. After giving her those instructions, Avraham runs to a young lad to ask him to rush and kill a choice animal and prepare it for the guests. Only after all of this running and rushing of the household does Avraham sit down and enjoy a meal with them. The ultimate balabusta we would say! 

The Or HaChaim comments that the word “nitzavim” implies that Avraham knew these were angels and so the presence of God was lingering over him. Because God was present, Avraham rushed and ran to be the best host, making sure that these angels were cared for. However, what if these anashim, these three people, who visited Avraham were just that, people visiting him. People who knew the pain he was in. People who knew that he and Sarah were trying for a baby. People who knew what the next part of his journey would entail in Sodom. People doing good for a man in pain, and therefore Godly – and Avraham noticed their Godly sparks and treated them as angels. 

So how does this Avraham change so drastically? Especially when in relationship with his own family, and specifically his son, at the time of the Akedah? Sure, Avraham is being tasked with an unimaginable challenge by God, but does Avraham not also see the Godliness in his own son and want to honor that? Why is Avraham only capable of seeing the Godliness in God in the story of the Akedah, but in the story of the three people, he can see Godliness in the strangers in front of him? Shouldn’t we be able to more easily recognize the Godliness in those we are closest to? 

I read a fascinating title, and then entire article (and encourage you to as well), from TheTorah.com, “Abraham Passes the Test of the Akedah But Fails as a Father.” The title intrigued me because of the questions I have just listed for you. Avraham passes the test in the eyes of God because at that moment Avraham only has eyes for God, but his son (and I would argue, SONS) deserve more from him as a parent. 

וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

וַיֹּ֡אמֶר קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶ֨ךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּ֑ה וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַֽיַּחֲבֹשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י נְעָרָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֖ת יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֑וֹ וַיְבַקַּע֙ עֲצֵ֣י עֹלָ֔ה וַיָּ֣קׇם וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָֽמַר־ל֥וֹ הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃

בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֧ם אֶת־עֵינָ֛יו וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הַמָּק֖וֹם מֵרָחֹֽק׃

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶל־נְעָרָ֗יו שְׁבוּ־לָכֶ֥ם פֹּה֙ עִֽם־הַחֲמ֔וֹר וַאֲנִ֣י וְהַנַּ֔עַר נֵלְכָ֖ה עַד־כֹּ֑ה וְנִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃

וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֲצֵ֣י הָעֹלָ֗ה וַיָּ֙שֶׂם֙ עַל־יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֣ח בְּיָד֔וֹ אֶת־הָאֵ֖שׁ וְאֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו׃

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִצְחָ֜ק אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֤ם אָבִיו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אָבִ֔י וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֶּ֣נִּֽי בְנִ֑י וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּ֤ה הָאֵשׁ֙ וְהָ֣עֵצִ֔ים וְאַיֵּ֥ה הַשֶּׂ֖ה לְעֹלָֽה׃

God comes to Avraham and begins an “ask” with, “Avraham” and he responds “Hineini – here I am.” God asks him to take his son, his only one, the one he loves, Isaac, and lekh lekha, go for yourself, to the land of Moriah and offer him up there (as a sacrifice) on one of the mountains that I, God, will show you. Similar to the moments with the three visitors, after this “ask” from God, Avraham is quick to respond and prepare: Avraham gets up early, saddles the donkey, takes two young lads and Isaac, splits wood for the sacrifice, and gets up and walks to the place God told him to go. 

“On the third day, Avraham lifts his eyes and he sees the place from a distance.” Completely different than Avraham with the three visitors – in this moment he sees a location, in the moment at the beginning of our parasha, he sees people. How come he could not lift his eyes to see Isaac here? We know the rest of the story; but there is one more profound moment where Isaac, after walking together with his father, says to Avraham, “my father?!” And Avraham answers “here I am my son.” This is the moment immediately before Avraham takes the knife to sacrifice him. So is he saying “hineini” to Isaac or to God? 

We all go through profound moments of change, growth, spiritual relationship and connection, but it is my hope that we all continue to see Godliness in people. Avraham seems to pivot from someone who can see the Godliness in people to someone who only sees the Godliness in God. And perhaps that is because of the stories in between (Sodom and Gemora, Lot and his daughters, Hagar and Ishmael, etc) that have made him struggle and question. It is easier to be kind to strangers because it is not an “I Thou” relationship – there are no strings attached. It is easier to have a smile on your face and send a kind greeting to a Trader Joe’s cashier than to a partner or parent or child after a frustrating day. You want those closest to you to see your pain, to ask if you are ok, to be available to vent your feelings to, and you do not expect that from a stranger. The strangers that came to visit Avraham were just people trying to do good deeds and yet Avraham experienced them as angels. Yet after years and experiences of trauma and frustration, when tasked with sacrificing his son, he could only lift his eyes to follow God and was blind to the Godliness in his own creation. 

Avraham failed as a parent and passed the test – but to me that means that Avraham failed the most important test in life. The test that matters. The test that affects the people who love you and care for you and are supporting you. So whatever you are going through today, this week, this month or this year, remember to do good for our world, for our strangers and for those you meet along the way – you will be kind to a stranger, like Avraham, even in your deepest moments of pain. But remember to also be kind to those caring most for you in those moments. For it is those people who drive you the craziest, who push your buttons hardest, who you wish would do more or less, who deserve your ability to see the Godliness in them. Lift your eyes. See those you love in front of you – stranger or not – and say Hineini, I am here, as me, for you. 

1 https://www.thetorah.com/article/abraham-passes-the-test-of-the-akedah-but-fails-as-a-father

Choosing God
Parashat Lekh Lekha
By Rabbi Hillary Chorny, Cantor

Next week, I’ll bring a candidate to beit din and, God-willing, mikvah as they’ve demonstrated readiness to convert to Judaism. The emotional valences of a conversion are many: pride, thrill, joy, and much more. I’m certain that candidates have their own private experiences of bittersweetness, a saying goodbye and closing of the chapter of their life as they shift identities and release fealty to any former religious ties.

There are also emotional experiences unique to the clergy who witness conversions. One of the feelings that arises within me as a rabbi is amazement. I look at the individual who is choosing Judaism with a sense of wonderment at their audacious conviction despite the many reasons one might not choose to convert: that antisemitism is crueler than ever; that our religion is one of obligation and commandments; that we are a complicated and complex tradition whose history and rules are anything but easy to learn. In the face of these challenges, I welcome new Jews with awe and gratitude that they have chosen to share a destiny with me, with us, with our people.

The first tale of conversion recorded in the Jewish canon is the story of Avram whom we meet in Parshat Lech Lecha. There is no beit din, no mikvah – no rabbis, after all! – but rather a mindful turning away from idolatrous worship as Avram appears to readily and willingly follow the call of a singular God to go forth to a new land. The ancient collection in Midrash Tanchuma records the response of Reish Lakish, a 3rd century rabbi in Judea, to the story of Avram’s conversion journey:

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said to him: “The

convert is more dear to the Holy One Blessed Be

God than those troops [forced laborers] who stood

at Mount Sinai. Why? Because had those same

troops not seen the thunder and the flashes and

the lightning and the quaking mountains and the

voice of shofarot [ram’s horns] they would not

have accepted the kingship of heaven, and this

one [the convert] did not see one of these

[wondrous signs] goes and gives themself to the

Holy One Blessed Be God and accept[ed] upon

themself the yolk of the kingship of heaven.


There is a possibility of reading Reish Lakish’s commentary unfavorably in two ways. First, as undue adulation of the convert: that there’s some kind of marked superiority of the convert over the Jew who is born Jewish. And second, that this might frame the Jewish people as enslaved to God, in service to their creator only under great duress and without free will.

I read this piece of Midrash more affectionately. Avram’s story echoes the narrative of the Holy One God’s self: In neither case do we find an origin story. In the beginning, God is simply there, speaking the world into being. And in the beginning of Lech Lecha, Avram is also just there, present and ready for a divine call. As someone who was born into a Jewish family, I tend to search for a reason why anyone would voluntarily differentiate themself as a Jew. The story of Avram is present for our annual rereading as a tender yet powerful reminder that we are not owed explanation for someone else’s choices, nor are there always rational explanations for the directions of the heart.

I am humbled each time I have the privilege to learn the intimate details of someone’s journey to Judaism. And thanks to the evergreen story of our first Jew, I’m reminded that sometimes the story is simply thus: God spoke to them and told them to go forth, and so they did, their story reverberating across the generations of Jews who have done just as they have.

Seeking the Bavel of Discourse and Diversity
by TBA Rabbinic Intern Chayva Lehrman

Where in English do we find the linguistic echoes of the Tower of Babel? Perhaps in bevel: an instrument of two surfaces joined at an edge to angle surfaces apart. Perhaps in babble, indistinct and unintelligible verbal prattle. But no, bevel comes from *baivel (Modern French béveau, biveau), which is perhaps from bayer “to gape, yawn.” And babble comes from an ancient onomatopoeic word for baby talk, which the Greeks applied to anyone who did not speak Greek, calling them “barbaros,” or barbarian.

It turns out that even when words coexist in the same language, they are more diverse than they seem. 

Torah also tries to explain the origin of a word:

(ז) הָ֚בָה נֵֽרְדָ֔ה וְנָבְלָ֥ה שָׁ֖ם שְׂפָתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ אִ֖ישׁ שְׂפַ֥ת רֵעֵֽהוּ׃ (ח) וַיָּ֨פֶץ יי אֹתָ֛ם מִשָּׁ֖ם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כׇל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַֽיַּחְדְּל֖וּ לִבְנֹ֥ת הָעִֽיר׃ (ט) עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל כִּי־שָׁ֛ם בָּלַ֥ל יי שְׂפַ֣ת כׇּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וּמִשָּׁם֙ הֱפִיצָ֣ם יי עַל־פְּנֵ֖י כׇּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ {פ}

(7) Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (8) Thus God scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. (9) That is why it was called Bavel, because there God confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there God scattered them over the face of the whole earth. [Genesis 11:7-9]

There are two places called Bavel, subtly drawn into one by these verses: the Bavel (Babylonia) of exile and later of the great Talmudic yeshivas recorded in the Babylonian Talmud; and the Bavel (Babel) of this story, where homogeneity gave way to hubris and ambition.

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes, and surely we contain both types of Bavel. At our best, we are the Bavel of the yeshivas, honoring different points of view and different solutions to problems, hearing views other than our own without shaming or maligning them. In this Bavel, we see that everyone brings something, regardless of how they say it or how they appear. I see this often at Beth Am, from hosting Dorit Rabinyan to speak about her banned book to the denominationally diverse rabbinic interns and minyanim.

But we are human, and sometimes we prize the safety of uniformity and unanimity over the challenging richness of difference. As Rabbi Kligfeld said in his Rosh Hashanah sermon, sometimes we hold our beliefs so tightly that we cannot hold our people. We know this path can be dangerous: when the people of this story built the tower, their echo chamber of self-similar voices gave them a sense of self-importance that was ultimately their downfall.

And what did God do? God washed away their common thread, their shared language, just as God had washed away evil from the world of Noah’s generation. Indeed, when parsing the root of the word for flood מבול, Ibn Ezra connects it to both navlah נבלה, “we will confound,” and balal בלל “mixed” or “confounded.” Thus we realize that the Tower of Bavel story is much more closely related to the flood story than simply being back to back in the same parashah.

When I read this story through the lens of my linguistics and cognitive science degree, I see it as an origin story for linguistic diversity. At some point, people must have met other people who didn’t speak their language, and this was so baffling they needed a legend to explain it. Simple enough. But the more beautiful thing is that even as they explained how another human could be incomprehensible to them, they assumed that we all come from the same origin. That there must have been a time and place when we all understood each other without having to work so hard. Now we live in a world where we all speak differently, even within the same language. A world where we all think differently. As we go into a weekend of discourse between different ideas, and further into the world of divided opinions, may we find comfort and empowerment in remembering that despite our differences, underneath the surface we remain connected.

Comfort in the Unknown
By Rabbi Rebecca Schatz – Beresheet 2022

On Thursday morning, I attended a shiva in Jerusalem, via Zoom, to comfort my teacher and friend Reb Mimi Feigelson, on the death of her mother z”l. There were about 40 other Ziegler alumni and teachers present to sit, sing, and share words of condolences. Reb Mimi shared Torah that came from our parsha, speaking to the fragility and spirituality of breath. 

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

The earth was formless and void and darkness was over the face of the deep and the spirit/breath/wind of God sweeping over the water 

It struck me, in listening to her words, that this is actually a calming phrase, not a chaotic phrase, like we often read it to be. It seems quiet – a blank canvass – a new start – a comforting newness. Breath, something we often take for granted, is what started creation. Creation of our world – barukh she’amar v’haya ha’olam (Blessed are the words that created the world). Creation of human beings – va’yipach b’apav nishmat hayim (and God blew into human’s nostrils the breath of life). Breath, as Reb Mimi mentioned, is also often our last form of communication with someone as they leave this earth. “Are they breathing?” “Are the breaths shallow?” “Can you see their chest rising and falling still?” Breath is central to creation – both in the first moments and last. 

In these past weeks, we have all been uprooted from regular routine. Often making many of us feel chaotic; even potentially out of breath. However, was that chaos defined as formless as a sign for potential and creation or was it darkness moving us to feel anxious, potentially depressed, and unhinged from regular life? Like the bamidbar, the wilderness that we traveled through to be birthed into a people, HaAmek Davar describes this tohu as the unknown that lasted with us for 2,000 years. The same commentary goes on to define vohu as something vast  with all the potential of everything in it – underneath the surface waiting to be discovered and built. And ruach Elohim, the commentary teaches, was a calm presence hovering, not a wind blowing to disrupt the creation. 

In any creation story there is tohu va’vohu, and we do not always realize that there is also ruach Elohim hovering with us. Creation is in art, life, relationships, professions, self-work – all of which create worlds. I would also argue that death is a type of creation – different for everyone, but something comes from the absence, and that is creation. 

I hope for each of us that we are able to start this new cycle, this new year, taking deep breaths and feeling the blanket of comfort and calm even when it is hardest. In this second sentence of our Torah, we know everything was unknown, and yet there was a support, there was a groundedness, an innovative energy to being in the darkness. The darkness was not sad or lonely, it was open and thrilling. How do we know? Because as soon as creation began, God said “let there be light” and we were able to begin seeing all that was possible. Take those deep breaths – but not for granted. Paint broad strokes on your blank canvas. Feel the blanket of support in the moments of unknown. And create worlds with your light! 

Faithful Observers: Living the Words of Ha’azinu
By TBA Rabbinic Intern, Ben Sigal

I was born in Minnesota, and there’s nothing I love more than a good game of Minnesota Twins baseball. My parents are Twins fans, as are my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. One of the oldest photos of me showcases my dad and I wearing matching Twins jerseys before a big game. Clearly, Minnesota sports run in my blood.

So imagine my surprise when, as a three-year-old, my parents and I moved from snowy Minneapolis to the slightly less snowy suburbs of Chicago. I found myself surrounded not by Twins fans, but by ardent supporters of the Chicago Cubs and White Sox instead. For years, I often felt like the odd one out. But no matter what, I could never abandon my love for the Twins. My parents were my role-models, and being a Twins fan was an important part of our family culture. My natural inclination was to emulate the people who raised me.

While reading this week’s parsha, Ha’azinu, I reflected on the many things parents transmit to their children. Not only can parents transmit a love of sporting teams, but also more important things like value and morals. In Deuteronomy 32:46 states, Moses tells the Israelites, “Enjoin them [the mitzvot] upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.” Sforno, a 16th century Italian rabbi, says that the phrase, “observe faithfully,” is actually referring to the parents. If the parents faithfully observe the mitzvot, then the children will see their parents being good role models and will do the same.

This powerful line from the Torah still rings true today. We are coming into the final week of the busiest time in the Jewish calendar. We’ve all spent plenty of time at synagogue, eating meals with friends, and generally engaging in Judaism. But what’s been most uplifting to me has been the tables I’ve sat around and the minyanim I’ve attended with kids. I really appreciated how Rabbi Schatz started her sermon the second day of Rosh Hashanah, welcoming kids to be present and not requiring their absolute silence. Having children feel at home at shul is part of what it means to build a growing Jewish community. That’s how we pass Judaism on to the next generation.

While it may feel more natural to verbally teach children about mitzvot by saying, “This is what you must do,” emulating behaviors goes far further. That’s why having the kids in the back of the prayer space goes so far. They may be playing, but they’re also noticing that showing up to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah is important to their parents. They’re taking in the incredible holy community that exists at Temple Beth Am. They’re noticing how we care for one another. How we discuss and grapple with the concepts of the Torah. Through a keen and discerning eye, they see our values. And they will carry those values with them well past today.

So to wrap things up, I guess I should mention that while I love the Minnesota Twins, I love Judaism more. I know I have my parents to thank for that. They never told me to be this way. But by watching and observing them through my childhood, they’ve shaped me to be the Jew I am today. Todah Rabah to all the parents who brought their children to shul through this high holiday season. You are truly living the words of Ha’azinu. You are giving your children a gift that will stay with them for a lifetime.