Torah Commentary

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


Lekh-Lekha 11/9/19

Eulogies for my friends Dr. Baruch Link & Nate Milmeister

By Danielle Berrin

In memory and honor of our friends Dr. Baruch Link and Nathan Milmeister, Danielle Berrin has written some words to share with us all about their journeys through life, how they impacted an entire community and yet every individual felt unique and special.

Dr. Baruch Link:

Baruch was sweet and gentle and kind, a brilliant mind, the consummate conversationalist, a loving and devoted friend and family man. But he was more than adjectives. More than a description. Baruch was more like a novel.

We all know the cliche “you are what you eat,” but with Baruch it’d be more apt to say, “he was what he read.” His personality, character, relationships, illness and struggles, his gifts and passions; his entire experience was as worthy a narrative as any of the many books of literature he so loved. And just as in the great works of literature that have described and defined and lent meaning to human life since the Bible, his was the kind of character so rich and refined it took but a moment of being in his presence to feel on some visceral level who he was.

I met him through Teri, a soft-spoken but mighty angel of a woman, who wasted not a day before approaching me with her warmth and sensitivity and kindness in the Beth Am daily minyan back in 2013. I met Baruch only a little later, probably at a Shabbat dinner, and as soon as I did, he took me in as one of his own. Both Teri and Baruch made me feel like family - a surrogate daughter of sorts, especially when Tal and Shmuel were not in LA.

And then there was Baruch on the phone. I remember the first time he called, it was to wish me happy birthday, and I had missed the call and saw it was from Teri’s cell phone. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when I received a voicemail from Baruch - ‘sha-lom’ calling to bless me and make me feel loved.

Over time Baruch and I bonded over many subjects -- as writers, as people who love words, and literature. We’d always discuss politics - the politics of LA Jewry, American Jewry and of course, his beloved Israel. I remember early on, he loaned me a book he was so excited to share with me. I remember I took it home, set it on my night table, building myself up for this magical world Baruch wanted me to enter. Only to discover that the book was written entirely in Hebrew. I just didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t fluent. So, I kept the book long enough to pretend I’d actually read it, and later, when I returned it and he asked me how I liked it, I of course said, “It was wonderful, powerful, exquisitely crafted!” And his response about the characters and the images and the lessons and the prose was so detailed and descriptive, I felt as if I actually HAD read the book.

That was Baruch’s gift. The ability to inspire and impart meaning through language and literature, prose and poetry.

I don’t need to tell you that according to our tradition, the world was created with words. But I wonder how often we pause to consider the impact of what that means. He spent his life living in concert with God in the ultimate act of creation and was able to express his own divine essence by creating worlds with words.

We are, after all, the people of the book. When we weren’t strong, when we were stateless and powerless, our people wrote texts. It has sustained us long after the authors have passed and the events of history have sought to smite us. Baruch entered history to restore us to the language of the soul and the spirit.

Nate Milmeister:

I met Nate at the TBA daily minyan, but my friendship with him deepened because I couldn’t resist popping in next door to visit him, or run outside when I saw him walking around the neighborhood with his caretaker and his cane. He called me regularly, we went out to Italian dinners where I’d order wine and he’d always order dessert. He knew everything about everyone — he loved kibbitzing, gossip, telling stories.

Twice, I took him to the emergency room — which horrified me, but he was always so blasé about it, “I’m in my 90s, I’ll survive anything.”

When I think about what his essence was, I think about his innocence and his youthfulness. Maybe because he didn’t experience all the things we expect of adults at that point in their lives - he never married, he never had kids. Maybe that joie de vivre was one of his gifts. A blessing. His Torah to teach. You know the quote, “It takes a long time to become young?” He had this purity of heart. A simplicity about him. He wasn’t much for conflicts, or politics, he was the rare human being who no ‘bad blood.’

Now that he’s gone, I’ll miss his totally distinctive vernacular - his Nate language - in which he’d say things like: “I’ll be there in two shakes of a lambs tail.” Or “I’m not schmearin ya.”

For someone who never married, Nate had the innocence of a bride, in a way. Or I should say, a bridegroom.

I think of him when I recall the words of Mary Oliver, who wrote:

“When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Nate was no tourist. He lived simply but he lived well. He gave generously. He loved deeply. He had no wife but he was married to amazement, to gratitude, to friends and family, to his beloved community. He was married to life.

In death he will be greatly missed and lovingly remembered. But frankly, God is lucky to have him. God is in for some real entertainment.

Zichronam livracha, may their memory forever be a blessing and may they live on in the hearts and minds

of those who knew and loved them both.

Noah 11/2/19

Walking with God, and walking with peers
By Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

There is a principle in the field of Adaptive Leadership called “immunity to change.” I have participated in precise, highly-curated protocols in which people are walked through a series of questions that expose our normal, human stubbornness with respect to internal change. We think it may be easy. New Year’s Resolutions are common (and commonly violated, rather quickly). High Holiday davveners dutifully recite the confessional and beat their chests, and yet somehow are not surprised when the same transgressions are at play, and problematic, one year later. We humans are rather immune to change (and concomitantly aware of how much change we would like others to go through!).

Change is hard. Trying to be different, and better, is elusive. We hope and pray it is not illusory. And we have been struggling with this concept for millennia. Furthermore, we have been projecting this dynamic onto our biblical ancestors, those sacred characters in whom we see so much of ourselves, for generations.

This week I am particularly moved, and prodded, by a commentary on Noah by the Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (18th-19th Hasidic sage, Ukraine). The Berditchever piles on to some of the withering critique that previous rabbis aimed at Noah, seeing him as not being in the same league of righteousness as, say, Avraham. Why? Rashi says that God commanded Noah to build the ark, rather than just have it appear by miracle, so that Noah could use that time, and the reactions of his doomed neighbors to the oddity of building such a vessel, to try to bring others from his generation from evil to goodness. Yet, he didn’t convince one person. The Kabbalisitic sage the Arizal (16th C, Tzfat, Israel) went so far as to say that Noah was so tragically flawed (even as the most righteous one of his generation) and so resistant to change and growth, that his soul left the earth with unfinished business, and was reincarnated as Moshe, a man who had no qualms about pushing God to act more righteously, and a man who constantly rebuked the Israelites for their own shortcomings. According to the Berditchiever, being good to one’s peers is as important as, and is an integral part of, being good to God. And part of being good to one’s peers “involves more than being helpful and charitable. It includes admonishing one’s neighbor when one observes him violating God’s commandments.” Moshe succeeded in this. Avraham is understood to have brought proselytes closer to God. Noah is read uncharitably in this regard. Even the description, which seems praiseworthy, of Noah’s walking with God (את האלים התהלך נח / et ha’elohim hithalekh Noah) is understood in this commentary as being limiting. He walked with God, perhaps. But not with his peers. He could not change them. He didn’t even try. He let their evil persist. In his words, “He was in step with God. But out of step with his peers.”

This Hasidic interpretation rings loudly true these days, and also folds in on itself. On the one hand, there are too many in our midst who are self-satisfied with their devotion to the Holy One, but fail repeatedly in treating peers with dignity and respect. And there are others amongst us who make themselves vulnerable and take risks in order to bring others closer to goodness, to do the just and the right. Their active engagement with their fellow humans, citizens, Jews, neighbors, shul-goers is in the spirit of what commentators admire in Moshe and Avraham for doing, and castigate Noah for failing to do. I learn from their example as I reckon with my own obligation to be “prophet” (moving people from their stubborn, moored ways) while remaining committed and devoted to the task of “pastor” (meeting and comforting people where and as they truly are). So this teaching pushes and goads me. At the same time, I observe far too many examples where what is criticized in Noah’s temperament for his failure to do is, itself, overdone. And the pushing of others towards the just is done with insufficient care. It can, even when motivated by the good, slide into unbridled castigation of the other, such that folks might indeed be trying to be in step with their peers, and bring their peers more into step…and yet at times doing so in a way that may be seen as no longer walking with God.

Change is hard. People have evolutionary, societal and biologically-driven urges to remain as they are. We notice the changes that others “must” do quicker and more sharply than we see our own lacunae. We must, as the Berditchiver urges, engage with our fellow to bring God’s world closer to goodness. And we must aim to do it in a manner, that itself, exemplifies the divine attributes to which we all aspire.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

B'reisheet 10/26/19

By Natan Freller, TBA Rabbinic Intern

We are all made in God’s image.

If there is something I truly believe with no doubt, is that we are all made in God’s image. All of us. No exception.

Reading year after year the same texts might be alienating for some, and maybe, an eye-opening experience for others. I have been in both places, moving back and forth. This year I’m making a deliberate effort to make this ritual an eye-opening experience week after week. It’s hard, I know. But living a meaningful Jewish life requires intentional spiritual work, a new cycle is here to refresh our souls and give us a new boost of energy to get there!

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַֽעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Beresheet 1:26)

This verse has been among the most commented verse in the entire Torah. Since the time when the second Temple was still around, our people have been concerned with this statement. The Talmud (Megillah 9a) mentions that in the translation of the Septuagint (Greek translation, 3rd century BCE), the wise translators wrote: " אעשה אדם בצלם ובדמות " “I shall make humankind in image and

in likeness”.

Why did they change the text? Isn’t it supposed to be an accurate translation? What is the problem with the original form?

Jews have been concerned with what other peoples would think about our truths and would avoid giving them material for creating arguments against their monotheistic tradition. In this text, the use of a possible plural form (Let us make) and the plural suffix attached to צלם (image) and דמות (likeness),

could indicate a plurality of Gods creating humankind together.

Among the most traditional views on that verse, and probably the one you learned in Hebrew School, is supported by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and many other commentators. God was talking to the angels. Humankind was created in the image and likeness of God and the angels. What a creative way of solving the textual problem that, in order to avoid giving other peoples an argument against a Jewish theology, our Sages created out of it a new Jewish theology, once this is clearly not the contextual meaning of the verse, where the angels aren’t mentioned at all. Note that God only took counsel from the angels, according to this view. Rashi teaches that by taking counsel from them, it teaches us a lesson about God’s humility. But the creation itself, happens in the next verse without any help from any other creature.

On a personal note, I have a hard time with this truth. Even understanding the ethical and moral teachings that we can learn from it, it always sounded too supernatural for me (even more than the rest of the story!).

This year, as we begin to read the same Torah once more, I challenged myself to go beyond and learn this passage with different eyes and tools, trying to find my truth within my people’s true revelation. The Torah might be the same, but we are definitely not the same anymore.

The good thing about learning Torah and looking for different interpretations, is that you are probably not alone. Many others in our history probably already struggled with the same issue and wrote their thoughts down to be carried out until our generation.

The first companion I found in this week’s journey was the Ramban, Spanish Rabbi from the 13th century. Ramban, although very mystical, reads our verse very differently. He goes back to state that the world was created from nothing (ex nihilo) on the first day. Since then, everything was created out of the foundational elements of the world. Following this idea, Ramban understands that God was talking to the Earth! Our souls come from God and our bodies come from the foundational elements of the Earth, or atoms, if you will. Later I discovered that the Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi) and his father, Rabbi Yosef Kimhi, have also supported similar readings.

Many Sages attempted to explain the meaning of צלם (image) and דמות (likeness). Maybe one has

to do with a physical form, and connects with the idea that the first human being was named Adam, drawing from the physical earth, called adama, in hebrew; and the other is linked to God’s attributes, with no physicality at all, but with a potential for creation and dominion over other beings. Even though each word might have had a specific meaning to the author, Radak offers many verses from different parts of the Tanach, that later on they are used kind of interchangeably.

We are all made in God’s image. Maybe not a physical resemblance, since God has no physicality, but we are definitely God-like. The eternal and supreme divine power gives us constantly the power of creativity and the freedom of choice to make godly decisions through a continuous creation that began in Beresheet and is an intrinsic part of our lives now.

Shabbat Beresheet is the time to roll back the Torah and restart our annual reading cycle. This is also a time to allow ourselves to open our hearts and our minds to the infinite wisdom that Torah contains. Torah is a mirror. As we look into the Torah, the Torah looks back at us to share abundant wisdom. This interaction is only possible if we roll it, open it, dive in it, and make ourselves vulnerable enough to see our reflection in the words of our tradition.

We are all made in God’s image. In looking into the Torah, we see God as we see ourselves. We find what is divine in our lives and we can let God in to be with us in this new cycle.

If there is something I truly believe with no doubt, is that we are all made in God’s image. All of us. No exception.

Vayelekh 10/5/19

The Transfer of Power
By Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

The whole of Sefer Devarim is the final communication of a departing leader to his people. And although Moshe is the "humblest of men" we see him struggling to make peace with it all - his successes and failures, his anxiety about the future, his inability to see things through to the end, and perhaps even his own mortality. We don't get to see everything he went through, but elsewhere in Devarim we get glimpses of various early stages of grief such as anger (Devarim 1:34-38) and bargaining (3:23-25). Although each time God tells Moshe, "You shall not go across the Jordan," he also says "Yehoshua is the one who shall cross before you" (31:5), through most of Devarim Moshe seems to focus solely on the first part. He assumes an even more prominent position, delivering long lectures to teach, scold, and encourage his flock.

But in our parashah this week, Parshat Vayelekh, Moshe seems to have arrived at the fifth stage of grief - acceptance - as he finally turns his attention to Yehoshua. With God's prompting Moshe passes the torch and offers some mild words of encouragement: "Then Moshe called Yehoshua and said to him in the sight of all of Israel: 'Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with the people into the land that the Lord swore to their fathers to give them, and it is you who will apportion it to them...'" (31:7)

But is this really enough for Yehoshua to be successful? Although Yeshohua had been close to Moshe for many years, it was as his attendant and assistant, not his disciple or understudy! They both must have felt the enormous gap there was - not only in their experience and wisdom but in their standing with the people. Imagine a personal assistant being appointed the new CEO! Sensing this, Sifre Devarim, a midrash from the period of the Mishnah, adds new details to the story:

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied to Moshe, saying, "Give Yehoshua a spokesman, and let him question, respond, and give instructions while you are still living, so that when you depart from this world, Israel might not say to him, ''During your master's lifetime you did not speak out, and now you do!?'" Some say that Moshe lifted Yehoshua up from the ground, and placed him between his knees (stood him on a stool), so that Moshe and Israel had to raise their heads in order to hear Yehoshua's words. What did Yehoshua say? "Blessed be the Lord who has given the Torah to Israel at the hands of our master Moshe"- those were Yehoshua's words. (Siman 305, Finkelstein ed. p. 324)

Knowing their capacity for disobedience, it is not enough for Moshe just to say that Yehoshua will succeed him. So God has Moshe set Yehoshua up for success in two ways: first, by showing that Yehoshua is his own person with his own thoughts and capabilities, and second, by showing that he ascends to leadership with Moshe's blessing and not as some kind of usurper. How often do we see leaders, unable or unwilling to cede power, do the opposite - belittling any potential successor or casting suspicion upon them?

Why is it so hard for leaders to transfer power gracefully? Surely Moshe knew he would not live forever and that for his life's work to outlive him, someone else would need to assume the mantle of responsibility. Perhaps the same "ego" that makes it hard for leaders to step aside is what made them step up in the first place. Leaders often are, and may need to be motivated by the idea that nobody else can or will do what must be done.

But even if a leader is essential at the beginning, the best leaders make themselves less and less necessary. In Egypt, Moshe was indeed alone. When he struck and killed the Egyptian taskmaster (Shemot 2:12), he "looked this way and that" before realizing he was the only one who could or would act. What keeps Moshe's death from being a tragedy is knowing that he is, finally, not alone. He has prepared Yehoshua and his people to honor his teaching and carry it forward.