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by Rabbi Rachel Adler, January 27, 2018

Shabbat shalom. I am devoting this Dvar Torah to questions and observations about the two texts of the day. Shabbat Beshallach is an unusual occasion because both the parasha and the haftorah preserve very ancient victory songs. Biblical historians date both to the late twelfth or early eleventh centuries BCE. This would make them the oldest poems in the Tanakh. Another rarity is that both these compositions depict women leading and exercising authority. Both women are designated as prophets. Exodus15:20 refers to Miriam ha-Neviah. Judges 4:4 calls Dvorah neviah, prophet, and adds that she judged Israel. This term Shofet/shofetet designates the ruling authority in the book of Judges/Shoftim.

Throughout the ancient Near East, victory songs are a recognized genre for celebrating a military victory, and throughout the ancient Near East, they are a women’s genre. With the exception of Ex. 15, everywhere in Tanakh (and there are four other examples: two in Judges (5, 11:34), one in 1 Samuel (18:6-7), and one in Jeremiah (31:4), victory songs are made by women. There are, in fact, not one but two related women’s poetic genres found all over the ancient Near East: victory songs and laments. This makes sense, alas, because the two genres are two sides of a single coin: the occasion for one woman’s victory song is the occasion for another woman’s lament.

Both these genres were ancient forms of performance art, involving music, instrumentation and percussion, and a full-body enactment: in the victory song, dance, and in the lament, beating the breast and slapping the thighs. In both genres, women composed orally and maintained repertoires for repetition. In both genres, there is evidence of solo performances and of call and response, in which female leaders called verses and male and female participants called out the response. Our tradition for chanting Shirat Ha-Yam in this very kahal uses call-and-response. We see an echo of that mode in Exodus 15:20-21 “Then Miriam ha-Nevi’ah, sister of Aharon, picked up the tof (hand-drum) and all the women went out after her to dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing (plural imperative) to YHWH for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.” Surely this is an invitation to respond.

In the text of the Torah, this verse appears to be a postscript, drawing on words previously attributed to Moshe and the B’nai Yisrael. But, given that in every other case, the authors and leaders of victory songs are women, biblical historians have found this attribution of Shirat Ha-Yam rather puzzling. Since the mid-20th century, many of them have suggested that Shirat Ha-Yam was in fact the composition of Miriam. There is one ancient manuscript tradition that refers to the Song as “The Song of Miriam.” This is a difficulty we will not be able to resolve because the text of the Torah is the text. I would be satisfied if we simply allowed the question to haunt the text, that is, if every time we read Shirat ha-Yam, we wondered, ”Isn’t this Shirat Miryam?”

There are some other themes and motifs the two victory songs share. In both, the victory seems incredible to the stunned victors, who had been expecting a disastrous defeat. Other ancient Near Eastern victory songs do not share this theme. All the victors rejoice at winning, of course, but only these Israelite songs see victory as totally unexpected. This is a realistic assessment on their part. In Shirat ha-Yam, the Israelites are not even an army, merely a disorganized rabble of panicked, fleeing slaves. In Shirat Dvorah, they are a poorly armed, tenuously united, under-populated military confederation.

In both situations, they face highly professional armies with the latest and priciest military technologies: horses and chariots. The speed and mobility of horses and chariots allows soldiers to rampage all over the battlefield, trampling, slashing, eluding combat while cutting to pieces an army on foot. In the period of the Judges, the Phillistines have a monopoly on the making of iron, the hard metal that so revolutionized warfare, that the epoch of its introduction is called the Iron Age. More affluent kings like the Canaanite Javin can afford amass such weaponry. Iron can do immeasurably more damage than flint arrowheads or bronze swords. In both victory songs the Israelites are disastrously out-weaponed.

In both narratives, God intervenes via weather, wind and water, so that high-tech military equipment suddenly becomes a detriment rather than an advantage. Exodus 14:21, more naturalistic and less mythic in tone than Ex. 15, describes a hot, drying, chamseen-type wind blowing all night over the Sea of Reeds. This drying wind helps to create a temporary path through the sea. In Ex. 15, it is by direct divine intervention that Moshe is then able to hold out his hand and split the sea so the people can cross. When he lifts his hand again, much later in the day, the waters return and Pharaoh’s chariot army is inundated. The weather disaster that causes the downfall of Sisera’s army is a drenching rain that causes Wadi Kishon to flood, as wadis do in heavy rains. The battlefield turns to mud. The Israelites rushing down from the hills have the momentum, while the Canaanites struggle to extricate their iron chariots from the mire.

In both these victory songs, God is imaged as a warrior. The Hebrew in Shirat ha-Yam is even more shocking than the English word warrior. The Shir exclaims, “Adonai ish milchama!” To us, this description may even sound blasphemous, but we aren’t a hairsbreadth away from being dragged back into slavery. Those Israelites experienced God as an unprecedented sort of warrior: one who fights on behalf of the oppressed rather than on behalf of the power elite. There is a god-as-warrior trope in Sumerian and Canaanite myths as well. The warrior-god defeats chaos, which is usually imaged as the sea or some sort of watery mess, and triumphantly establishes order in the world. But only YHWH is an ethical warrior, a champion of the oppressed, who establishes not just order but justice.

The world that gives rise to these ancient victory songs is no less savage than our own. Shirat Dvorah describes the murder of the Canaanite general Sisera by the Kenite woman Yael as a kind of inversion of the usual reality of war in which men kill and rape and women are killed and raped. This is the reality in every war, every ethnic cleansing, every, genocide since the dawn of time. It is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar right now. But in these two victory songs, reasonable expectations are turned upside down. In the final vignette of her song, Dvorah imagines Sisera’s mother waiting for her son to return with his battle plunder, including captive women for slavery and sex. She envisions the aristocratic Canaanite lady brutally objectifying these other lesser women, describing them casually as “rechem, rechamtayyim l’rosh gever, “a uterus or two for each man.” But life is full of surprises. It turns out that an Israelite woman will sing the victory song. Sisera’s mother will be singing the lament.

I understand the desire to sing victory songs, although they trouble me. I love chanting Shirat Ha-Yam. I couldn’t imagine myself among those angels, whom God rightly forbids to join the Israelites’ song. And I have to confess that there are exploiters and oppressors in my own political landscape over whose downfall I could sing a victory song with relish and the sooner the better. Yet when I imagine the time of redemption, I imagine it as a time when the victory song will have no dark flip side because there will be only winners and no losers. May that time come swiftly and may we live to celebrate the deliverance of all, as we pray in the machzor “V’chol ha rish’a kulah k’ashan tikhleh, ki ta’avir memshelet zadon min ha-aretz.” “And all wickedness will disappear like smoke, when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth.”

Note to readers: Sorry about the transliterations. My program for inserting Hebrew words into English text is not working.


Parshat Miketz, 2017, 5778

By Joel Grossman

Imagine this: you are driving in your car, obeying all traffic laws when suddenly a police car comes up behind you, sirens blaring, and tells you to pull over. You pull over and the cops order you out of the car. They tell you that a car that looks just like yours was seen driving away from the scene of a robbery of a jewelry store. You tell them that you don’t know what they are talking about, you didn’t rob a jewelry store, you didn’t go into a jewelry store, you are just driving home from shul. The cops ignore you and search the car. Sure enough, they find a bag of precious diamonds in the glove compartment, a bag which they obviously had planted there. You argue, you demand a lawyer, you threaten to sue, but they handcuff you and throw you in the back of the police car. You keep arguing all the way to the police station, and all the way to the cell where you are locked up.

Now let’s compare this story with what happens at the end of our parsha, Miketz. If you want to follow along with me I am at Chapter 44 verses 12 and 13 on page 269 of the Chumash. Yosef had ordered his servants to place his special goblet in Binyamin’s bag. He accuses the brothers of stealing the goblet, and of course they deny it. Then, in verse 12, each brother opens his bag, starting with the oldest and ending with the youngest, Binyamin. Sure enough, the precious goblet is in Binyamin’s bag. In verse 13 the brothers tear their garments, in a show of mourning, as things will be bad for Binyamin. A couple of verses later Yehuda pleads with Yosef, and suggests that all the brothers be slaves to Paroh, not just Binyamin. Yosef replies, how could I do that—the man in whose sack the goblet was found will be my servant, the rest of you go home to your father. On that note, our parshah ends.

Spoiler alert—in next week’s parsha, Vayigash, Yehuda continues to argue with Yosef, and finally Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and all is well. But please note: during this entire event, Binyamin, the man who is accused of stealing the goblet, says nothing. Yehuda makes arguments on his behalf, but Binyamin says not one word.

Let’s go back for a little more context. As you know, this story begins when Yosef’s brothers –who first plan to kill him, sell him to a band of Ishmaelites, who bring him to Egypt and sell him to an Egptian named Potiphar. After Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of trying to sleep with her, Yosef is thrown in prison, but he correctly interprets the dreams of two of Paroh’s important men, the chief baker and chief steward. Two years later, Paroh has two dreams and is told that Yosef, still in prison, can interpret them. Yosef –with God’s help—interprets the dreams and Paroh is so impressed he elevates Yosef over all of his officers, and Yosef is not the number two official in Egypt in charge of distribution of food during the seven lean years.

Yaakov, back in Canaan here’s that there is food in Egypt. He sends his sons—with the notable exception of Binyamin—to go to Egypt and bring back food. The brothers go to Egypt and meet with Yosef. He recognized them but they have no idea that he is their brother Yosef. He accuses them of being spies, and while he lets them purchase food, he says that in order to prove they are not spies they must return to Canaan and bring Binyamin with them when they return.

So let’s pick up the story in Chapter 43, verse 3. The food from Egypt is running out and Yaakov asks his sons to go back and get some more. They then tell him that Yosef insisted that the youngest son—Binyamin—be brought to Egypt. Yaakov is surprised that they even told Yosef about the youngest son, but Yehuda explains that it was necessary since Yosef asked so many questions about the family. At first Yaakov refuses to allow Binyamin to go down to Egypt, but Yehuda talks him into it. Reluctantly, Yaakov allows them to take Binyamin with them, knowing that otherwise they would all starve.

What I find interesting is that this discussion is about Binyamin, but he plays no role in it whatsoever. You might expect Binyamin to say something like, “Dad, don’t worry so much, I will be fine, let me go with my brothers or we will all starve.” But he says nothing at all.

So the brothers return to Egypt, and come to Yosef, including Binyamin. In Chapter 43 verse 29 on page 267, Yosef sees his only full brother, the only other child of his mother Rachel, for the first time in many years, he asks, is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me, and then he looks at Binyamin and says “Elokim yachnecha b’ni,” “May God be gracious to you my boy.” Not bad, a lovely blessing from the number two guy in all of Egypt. But once again Binyamin says nothing to Yosef in reply.

Finally, let’s return to the story I started with. Yosef sends them off to their father with lots of food, but he tells his servants to put each brother’s money back in their sacks, and to put the precious goblet in Binyamin’s sack. When the brothers all open their sacks, and the goblet is found in Binyamin’s sack, Binyamin says nothing at all. Yehuda argues for him, but he himself says nothing.

Now let’s clear up one fact: Binyamin is indeed the youngest of the brothers, but he is not a little boy. He is a grown man with a wife and children. In fact, if you turn to Chapter 46 verse 6 at the top of page 281, the Torah says: “these are the names of the Israelites Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt,” and the Torah then lists each son and sets forth all of his children. In verse 21 on page 282 it lists the 10 sons of Binyamin. So no, he was not a little kid who needed protection. Yet it seems so odd that throughout our parsha Binyamin is in many ways right in the middle of the story, but he is in some way absent from the story. When Yosef demands that Binyamin come to Egypt, nobody asks Binyamin if that’s ok with him, and he says nothing. When Yosef blesses him, he says nothing. And finally, when the goblet is found in his sack, he says nothing.

Let’s go back to the passage where Yosef gives Binyamin a bracha, and says Elokim yachn’cha bni. As we noted, Binyamin –at least in the text of the Torah itself—makes no reply. But Yosef runs out of the room overcome with emotion. So the question troubling Rashi and the Rabbis in the midrash is this: why would Yosef run out of the room if Binyamin didn’t say anything? One would think that he must have said something that would affect Yosef.

So the Rabbis filled in the gap. Rashi tells us of a beautiful dialogue between Yosef and his only full brother, Binyamin, that appears nowhere in the Chumash. According to Rashi’s commentary on Chapter 43 verse 30, and citing the Talmud in Sotah 36b, Rashi recreates this very moving conversation. Yosef says to Binyamin: “Do you have a brother from your mother?” Binyamin answers: “I had a brother from my mother, but I don’t know where he is.” Then Yosef asks him: “Do you have sons?” and “Binyamin says: “I have 10 sons.” Yosef asks Binyamin: “What are their names?” and Binyamin replies by naming the 10 sons, whose names appear in Chapter 46 verse 21, and tells him all ten names. Now get out your hankies, for here is the really moving part: Yosef asks Binyamin “What is the reason for each of their names?” and Binyamin answers “They all are named for my brother, and for the hardships that befell him, that is I gave each of them a name that connects to my long lost brother Yosef, and his travails. In the Talmud they go through each of the 10 names, and Binyamin explains how the name relates to Yosef. The first son is named Bela, and Binyamin says I named him Bela “she’nivla ben ha’umot,” he was swallowed up among the nations. The second son is named Becher, he was given that name in honor of Yosef who was the b’chor, the oldest child of Rachel. I won’t go over all ten of the names, and how each was connected, but let me just mention three more: echi, because of my brother, and Rosh, because he was leader. Most moving to me is his explanation of the name of his son Chupim—because I was not present at his Chupah, his wedding canopy, and he was not present at mine. Following this deeply emotional conversation the Torah says that Yosef ran out of the room ki nichmeru rachamav el achiv, because he was overcome with feeling toward his brother.

What astonishing words the Rabbis placed in Binyamin’s mouth. Though his only full brother had disappeared, he loved him so much, that each time he had a new son he named that son after his connection with Yosef. No wonder Yosef ran out of the room overcome with emotion and love for his brother.

While Binyamin doesn’t actually say anything at all in our parsha, this beautiful midrash is meant to teach us what it means to be a brother, or for that matter a sister. It means never-ending and unconditional love. No matter how far away Yosef was, or how long they were separated, Binyamin never forgot him for a moment, and the Rabbis imagine that he named each of his 10 sons after Yosef, in one way or another. Perhaps this pure love for his brother explains a verse at the very end of the Torah. In the last parsha of the Torah, Vzot Habracha, Moshe blesses each of the tribes. This is what he says about Binyamin, and if you want to follow along you can look at p. 1205, the book of Devarim Chapter 33 verse 12: L’Binyamin amar, y’did Hashem” he said to Binyamin, “you are God’s beloved, you rest securely beside God, He protects you always, and you rest between His shoulders.” What a beautiful blessing, to be called Y’did Hashem. Perhaps the Rabbis are telling us that to become God’s beloved, love your brothers and sisters fully, and forever, and never forget them. It was Binyamin’s incredible love for Yosef that let him to become God’s beloved.

Shabbat shalom.


Parshat Vayetzei

By  R. Susan Laemmle, November 25, 2017

 This week’s parshah, Vayetzei, is framed by opening and closing words that encapsulate its contents. The parshah begins with Va-yetzei Yaakov mi-Beer Shavah, and ends with Va-yikrah shem hamakom ha-ho machanayim. Let’s look at the distance traveled between these two words.

Va-yetzei: Jacob journeys forth from his parental home to the home of his kinsman Laban — where he will spend 20 years working, wooing, wedding, and fathering children with four women.  Eventually he annunciates to Laban his need to separate off his household and return to his native land — which gives rise to the graphic episodes in which livestock are genetically modified and household gods, secreted away.  Toward the end of the parshah, Laban proposes a pact of peace when he catches up with the fleeing Jacob; then he and Jacob formalize this pact with a stone pillar and mound. After Laban departs, Jacob encounters angels as he goes on his way, and he announces that “this is God’s camp: machaneh-Elohim.” After that, he formally names the site machanayim.

 That final word machanayim implanted itself in my consciousness many years ago — where it has continued to echo, stir, and perplex.  Way back then, I noted the seeming incongruity between machaneh-Elohim: God’s camp — in the singular — and machanayim, with its dual or plural form.  Where is the second, the other, camp, I asked myself?  It took some years for me to ask myself an additional question: Why does the prospect of there being two camps in the setting where only one of them is apparent, stir me? The lingering force of those two questions explains why I accepted Alisa’s invitation to drash on this parshah.

It’s interesting to see the way in which some commentaries — including our Etz Hayim — ignore the slippage between the singular machaneh and the plural machanayim. Others (including Speiser’s Anchor Bible Genesis and the JPS Torah Commentary) note machanayim but disagree as to whether it’s the special dual form or just one version of the ordinary plural. Both of these commentaries, and additional ones, connect machanayim in an unspecified way to sh’nai machanot (the “two camps”) formed by Jacob as he prepares to encounter Esau in next week’s parshah.

The actual geographic location of machanayim has apparently not been identified; but it does play a significant role in Israelite history, and it may have housed a sacred shrine, the founding of which was associated with Jacob in popular legend. With his usual attention to shades of Hebrew meaning, Everett Fox translates machanayim as “Double Camp,” rather than “two camps” — and unlike the prevailing tendency to leave the Hebrew word untranslated in English, he uses “Double Camp” as the proper-noun name of the place.

Going beyond the word or phrase itself, most traditional commentary takes the plural formulation in a midrashic direction that pivots on Jacob’s encountering God’s angels. Ibn Ezra writes: “the angels come to assist him on the way.  Only Jacob saw the camp of angels surrounding his camp.  He called the name of the place machanayim because of the two camps there, his and the angels.”  For Rashi, “‘Two camps’ refers to the one consisting of the angles ministering outside the Holy Land who had come with him thus far, and the other, of those ministering in the Land of Israel who had come to meet him.”

Translating the traditional focus on the angels into a modern idiom, Rachel Havrelock in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary writes: “In the company of angels, Jacob recognizes the place as ‘the camp of God’ and himself as a dweller in machanayim, ‘Two Camps.’  This encounter with angels indicates that he crosses the threshold between home and exile, as well as that between heaven and earth.”

I am taken with Havrelock’s idea of Jacob as “a dweller in two camps” — two worlds, as it were.  Home and exile seem to fit his situation, as do heaven and earth. A Christian commentary on biblical geography says this: “Machanayim reflects the contest within the mind of Jacob of two strong forces, natural guile and spiritual concepts . . . .Thus machanayim reflects the arena of conflict between things of the spirit and those of the flesh.” This commentary goes on to list the ways in which Jacob’s life is marked, and marred, by divisions, beginning with his sharing womb and home with his twin brother Esau.

Polarities and divisions do characterize Jacob to an unusual degree.  They complicate his life and challenge him to become his own person. This challenge culminates in next week’s justly revered wrestling with an ish: “a man” who — despite the clearly human reference of this Hebrew word — is generally taken to be an angelic being.  This is the episode during which Jacob emerges as Yisrael: the “God wrestler,” with whom Jews proudly, even if sometimes tiredly, identify.  After that encounter, Jacob is able to make peace with Esau and proceed with the rest of his life.

Looking back again to the last word of our parshah, what shall we say then about machanayim —the perplexing doubled or paired camps where common sense sees only simple presence?  For me, the parceling out of angels into Zion and diapora-based units distracts from the overall thrust of Jacob’s story. And Havrelock’s version of this as “home and exile” or “heaven and earth,” seems to stack the deck in a negatively dualistic way.  From such dualism, it’s a short step to the typically Christian antagonism between “things of the spirit and those of the flesh.”  Yes, Jacob’s life — like mine, and probably yours — is full of division. But does that necessarily mean that he, that we, must live in “two camps”? Must we choose between home and exile, between earth and heaven, between our bodies and our souls?  It’s not that these various midrashic approaches are wrong — Midrash doesn’t work like that. It’s more that other approaches could be more fertile and meaningful.

This is where it matters, I think, to take Machanayim as a dual form, not a simple plural.  The grammar of this is complicated and subject to scholarly disagreement that we won’t get into here.  But surely all of us who’ve delighted to learn the Hebrew for paired parts of our body can connect to Jacob’s experience:  raglayim, aynaim, oznayim, sefatayim — and even ofanayim: “bicycle.” These are pairs that yoke a twosome together in an intimate, interconnected, balanced, life-affirming way. Only in extreme and unfortunate circumstances does someone have to choose between one eye and the other, one leg and the other, or even one bicycle wheel and another.

As Jacob, and we, mature into adulthood and toward wisdom, if we are fortunate, we learn more and more to negotiate, even to embrace, complexity.  Whenever possible, instead of gravitating toward either/or  thinking & acting, we reach out for both/and.  Not all or nothing, not a zero-sum game. Rather, somewhat less for me perhaps, along with something for you — you whom the womb of the world birthed as it did me.

This is the frame of mind and character with which Jacob moves from machaniyim to Seir — Edom, his brother Esau’s territory.  Jacob’s sense of himself has enlarged to the point where he feels able to seek reconciliation. His initial openness suffers a setback upon hearing that Esau is right then approaching him with four hundred men, and so he falls back into his old habits by dividing his people and livestock into two camps — sh’nai machanot.  Then he prays to Adonai the god of his fathers to save him from his brother’s wrath.

In response to that prayer, it seems, come the awesome struggle from which Jacob emerges with a new name — but without having to give up his old one. As Richard Elliott Friedman points out, “Abraham and Sarah have their names changed permanently, but Jacob is still called Jacob many times after his name is changed to Israel.” Jacob’s continuing to answer to both names can reflect his dwelling in Machanayim — an ample, open-ended environment of growth and blessing.

Of course, life will present its challenges, and Jacob-Israel will not be a saint.  (We Jews don’t much go in for saints.)  He shows favoritism toward his youngest son Joseph, which leads to another creation of “two camps” — one in Canaan and the other in Egypt. And yet, this polarity was foretold to Abraham by Adonai at the Covenant of the Pieces; and it will lead on to the Exodus, Sinai, and eventual return to the Land. Jacob is buried by his sons in his native land, and Joseph’s bones are carried along on the Exodus. The Torah instructs us “not to abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” to the point that “children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation.”  It’s as if what starts as two antagonistic camps develops into machanayim.

Today we Jews and we Americans are arguably more polarized than ever. It’s easy to create and maintain two camps over against one another.  It’s also relatively easy to uphold a stifling, coercive unity.  Jacob has shown us a way toward machanayim — a place of complex, open-hearted, life-suffused blessing. May we journey and dwell there in wholeness.










Rosh Hashana Day 1

Rosh Hashana First Day

By Ilana Grinblatt, September 21, 2017

Every year, in preparing for the high holidays, I ask myself the same, simple question: Who or what most inspired me this past year? Was it something that I read? Was it a person who said or did something memorable? Was it a particular moment that occurred? What did I learn that I want to carry into this new year?

This year was a tough one. While I am grateful for the blessings of this past year, if I had to summarize the past year is one word, the word would be: Oy! When I look back on when I spoke to you last Yom Kippur, I was feeling hopeful – guardedly so – but hopeful. Some developments that I was wishin for last Yom Kippur didn’t come to be.

Instead, we witnessed a year of great divisiveness in our country – where our civil discourse was anything but civil. We faced many disasters – from the bomb threats on the Jewish Community Centers to the horrific hatred displayed in Charlottesville, to the recent Hurricanes. We were constantly reminded of our vulnerability to tragedies – natural, man-made, and a combination thereof. Yet even in year like this past year, there is inspiration to be found.

So what did I learn from this past year? Who inspired me?

This morning, I’d like to share with you the word, the sentence, and the moment that most inspired me most this past year that I want to carry with me into the coming year.

The word that I want to carry into the year to come is Hayom (Today). This word is found in the Hayom T’amtzenu prayer said on the Rosh Hashanah. This word is repeated many times in this prayer. In a common melody, the word Hayom is repeated 13 times per line, for some 9 lines – hammering home that word, again and again.

When I think about songs in English about days, the first that comes to mind is Yesterday by the Beatles.

Sometimes, we get stuck in yesterday. Something happened years ago, and we’re still there. They say that “time heals all wounds,” – which is a lovely idea, except that it isn’t true. Since I’ve had two surgeries on my toe in the past month, I can tell you that time is a necessary but insufficient ingredient for healing. Wounds require active participation to heal – including cleaning, wrapping, and antibiotic ointment. Likewise, our spiritual wounds require care to heal. Sometimes we get stuck in the past because we haven’t done the spiritual work to tend to old wounds.

One of the tricks that mind plays on us is articulated precisely by the lyrics of the Beatles’ song. “Yesterday love was such an easy game to play, now I need a place to hide away.” One of the tricks the mind plays on us is to romanticize that yesterday was easier than now which is so much more difficult. Perhaps yesterday was actually easier or perhaps not, but nonetheless, we can’t go back there and redo our decisions, so the Hayom prayer pulls us out of yesterday to focus instead on the choices that are available to us today.

When I think about songs about days, the second song that immediately comes to mind is the opposite song – “Tomorrow” from Annie. “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, I love you tomorrow, you’re only a day away!”

It’s such a hopeful song. I do in fact love tomorrow. The hope that tomorrow will be better than yesterday is what gets me through the hardest parts of my life. Overall, this song has been true for me. One of the perks of a tough childhood is that adulthood is an improvement. No matter what I’m going through, I hope that tomorrow will be an improvement.

Therefore, I was surprised by a sentence that I read in Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new book, Einstein and the Rabbi – “Be aware that the Yetzer’s most powerful weapon of all is one word, tomorrow.” Rabbi Levy explained how the yetzer hara (our evil inclination) tricks us with the promise of tomorrow.

If we’re scared to do something, the yetzer reassures us by saying: you’ll do it tomorrow. This idea sounds great because tomorrow is so soon. Except, that tomorrow, the yetzer tricks us again this way, and tomorrow always stays a day away.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that if we are afraid of something, our fears are not likely to get smaller tomorrow. In fact, our fears tend to grow. If there’s a painful conversation that we need to have, that conversation is not likely to be easier tomorrow than today. Actually, it’s likely to be harder because the distance between estranged friends or family grows a bit each day. The Hayom prayer calls on us to have that conversation today.

If there’s a project we’ve wanted in our heart of hearts to do but been terrified to begin, the task not likely to get less intimidating in the future. Rather, the longer we listen to yetzer’s whisper tomorrow, the prospect of starting steadily becomes more overwhelming. The Hayom prayer says: Start today.

This same phenomenon occurs in both our personal and global problems. Rabbi Arthur Waskow recently wrote a moving reflection entitled, “The World itself is Blowing the Great Shofar. Awake!” He referred to four events of the past months as four shofar blows:

  • Charlottesville as a wake-up call to Neo-Nazism,
  • the Hurricanes as a wake-up call for Climate Change
  • the hydrogen bomb and long-distance missiles tested by the government of North Korea as a warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and
  • the “efforts to wreck the lives of Dreamers and other immigrants, documented or not.”

However you would define the Shofar blasts, and our greatest global and personal challenges, the sad truth is that these problems don’t tend to go away on their own. In fact, if we stall, these problems tend to grow.

On both a personal and global level, the irony is that the hope that tomorrow will be better automatically can keep us from the making the scary, painful actions today which would actually make tomorrow better.

The Hayom prayer calls us to begin today.

Now, let’s look at another prayer which begins with the word Hayom. While the word that I want to carry into the new year is Hayom, the sentence that I want to carry into the new year is Hayom Harat Olam (which is sung after blowing the shofar). What does that sentence mean?

Hayom Harat Olam is commonly translated as Today the world is born.

However, Rabbi Naomi Levy learned from Dr. Tamar Frankel the true meaning of this sentence. The words “Harat Olam” are quoted from Jeremiah. In a moment of despair, Jeremiah wished that he had never been born, that his mother had stayed pregnant forever.

Therefore, Hayom Harat Olam actually means: Today is pregnant forever.

To me, being pregnant forever sounds like a nightmare – since I felt sick throughout my pregnancies. Being pregnant forever means never meeting the baby, never seeing the fruit of your labor, being stuck in suspended animation, about to jump out of the airplane but never taking the leap. Today is pregnant forever means today is filled with potential until you undertake the excruciating process of bringing something new into the world.

What are you pregnant forever with? What are you waiting to bring into this world but haven’t yet? Is it a professional or personal project that you’ve been scared to start? Is it a social justice issue that has been bothering you? Is it a conversation you need to have?

This Hayom prayer calls us to do so today.

Now that I’ve shared with you the inspirational word and sentence, I’d like to share with you the inspiration moment from the year. Part of my job at the Board of Rabbis is to plan the High Holy Days conference. At this year’s conference Rabbi Naomi Levy led a meditation. I’d like to do with you a shortened version of what she did, and share with you what happened to me at that moment.

Close your eyes.

Take a deep breath, and exhale.

Imagine that you are walking into your favorite sanctuary.

Enter the sanctuary… walk towards the ark… open the ark… take out the Torah… and listen…

Now close the Torah…close the ark… Slowly step back from the ark… and walk back to the door of the sanctuary… Kiss the mezuzah on the door of the sanctuary, step out of the sanctuary… and open your eyes.

When I experienced this meditation at the High Holy Days conference, I heard two words, “yehiyeh tov,” it will be good. At first, I felt a bit frustrated and wondered, what should I do so that it will be good. Yet, ultimately that is our greatest hope, that there will be goodness in our lives.

Thus, my hope for us for the coming year is: May we not be stuck in yesterday, may we not be stuck in tomorrow, and may we not be stuck in between. May we not be pregnant forever. May we make the tough choices today that will make our tomorrows better v’yehiyeh Tov – and may your year be filled with goodness.

Shanah Tovah.

Rosh Hashana Day 2

Rosh Hashana Day 2

By Joel Grossman, September 21, 2017

One of the pleasures of the High Holiday machzor is coming across prayers that we say only once a year, that were composed just for these special days. We are so used to the regular weekday and Shabbat prayers, that the once-a-year prayers such as Unetaneh Tokef feel special, even meriting that overused adjective “awesome.” We also have to add various phrases into the familiar Amidah, giving us a new awareness that these are not regular days, as we concentrate on not saying the familiar beginning of the Amidah by heart and remembering to insert “Zachreinu l ‘chayim” and the other passages.

By contrast, this is a reminder that we need to work hard during the rest of the year to have some level of kavanah, of intentionality, when we say familiar prayers. When we very familiar with a particular prayer we may rush through it, with our minds a million miles away. This is certainly true of a very familiar prayer which comes at the end of every single service, shacharit, mincha and maariv, the Aleinu. Originally Aleinu, written by Rav, was meant to be the introductory paragraph of the Malchuyot section of Musaf on Rosh Hashono. It is still the beginning of Malchuyot, but the Rabbis liked the prayer so much that they incorporated in all 3 of the daily services, so that we say Aleinu more than a thousand times a year.

Perhaps what is so remarkable about Aleinu is that it is a particularist statement, which contains  a statement of Jewish exceptionalism, which we will look at in a moment, and then it becomes a universalist statement with its instruction to us to repair a broken world. Let’s take a closer look, and please follow along in the Machzor on p. 130. The first two lines of the prayer appear to be universal: it is for us to praise the Ruler of all—adon hakol, not elokeinu v’elokei avotainu—not our God alone but adon hakol, the Ruler of all. The prayer next says that we should acclaim or give glory to yotzer breishit—the creator of the world. Once again, the world was created for everyone, not us. It doesn’t say the God who took us out of Egypt, but the God who created all humanking.

The prayer then takes a sharp turn. After saying we should praise the Lord of everyone, the Aleinu says –in its most particularistic passage—shelo asanu c’goyei haaratzot—God didn’t make us like the other nations, v’lo samanu kmishp’chot haadama, and he did not give us a destiny like other peoples. And this notion of Jewish particularism and exceptionalism is even more explicit if you follow a tradition that adds one more sentence at this point in the prayer: she’hem mishtachavim l’hevel va’rik l’el lo yoshia, they worship vanity and emptiness, a god who cannot save them. Some have the custom of spitting when they recite this verse. This added verse points out how other nations foolishly worship an empty god (lower case “g”) which is contrasted by the God whom we worship—anachnu korim u’mistachavim umodim—we bow to and worship and are grateful to God who is the king of all kings.

The remainder of the first paragraph of Aleinu praises God as the essential force of nature, who extends the heavens and establishes the earth, and who is God alone, en od, there is no other. The first paragraph ends with a quote from Dvarim, from parshat Va’etchanan obliging us to know that our God is the only God, in heaven and here on earth.

The second paragraph of Aleinu is an amazing change of direction, leaving the particularist aspect of God and setting forth a universalist statement of hope that not just Jews but all people will join in the sacred work of tikun olam, or repairing the world. We hope for a time when idols are destroyed as we are prepared for a new age, an age of tikun olam, an age when kol bnei basaryik’ru beshmecha, when all of humankind will call on you by name, because kol yoshvei tevel, all who live on this earth will know that all every knee must bend to you. Pause for a moment to recall the first paragraph in which only our people –anachnu korim umistachavim—only we bow to God, but in the second paragraph all people who live on earth will bend their knees  before God. Vikablu chulam et ol malchutecha, they will all accept the yoke, or the obligation of God’s kingship. We will no longer differentiate ourselves from the goyeh haaratzot, the other nations of the world, but we will join with them in bending our knee to God, the only God, who will be king over all the world. We Jews will no longer have a special, elevated relationship with God; instead we will be partners with all people in worshipping God and working together to repair the world.

I can think of other prayers that emphasize our special relationship with God, often with a reference to our forefathers, or to the Exodus from Egypt, or the special Amidah for yom tov that says atta b’charanu mikol ha’amim, you chose us from all other peoples, or the  final line of the kaddish –oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael, God who makes peace in the heavens, please bring peace to us and all Israel. There are also more univeralist prayers, such as ha’meir laaretz v’ladarim aleha, God illuminates the earth for all who live here. Or Psalm 8, on p. 42, which is the Psalm for Rosh Hashono which focuses on the idea that hayom harat olam, today the world was created, and speaks of God’s majesty being recognized throughout the world, even mentioning the birds who fly above and the fish who swim in the oceans, all recognize God’s majesty.

So while I can think of some prayers that speak to us as God’s chosen people, and some which speak of God’s majesty for all peoples and animals, I know of no prayer like Aleinu that combines these two somewhat contradictory notions. What was the author’s intent in doing so? I certainly don’t know. But I can guess that the author’s vision was a two-part process. First, we accept and worship God, and then we become an or lagoyim, a light to the nations, who follow us in this worship which becomes universal. But that second event cannot happen before the first; in other words only if and when we accept God’s kingship over us are we ready to spread that message to the rest of the world. That’s not God’s job. It’s ours.

Two contrasting texts show Jewish tradition’s acceptance of both universalism and particularism. The Torah begins with creation of all manking, not of Jews. Yet, the Torah ends with the words “l’eyney kol Yisrael, in the eyes of all of the Jewish people. Both are part of the Torah.

Similarly we can contrast the phrase kol yisrael aravin zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other, with a passage from the Mishna in Sanhedrin, found on p. 40 of the machzor. The Mishna asks why God created only one person at the beginning of Genesis. The answer is to teach us that if we destroy one person, it is as if we had destroyed the whole world, but if we can save one person it is as if we have saved the entire world. My father loved this piece of Torah, and spoke of it often. In fact, my father lived his life with this as his guiding principle, doing anything he could to save the life –or the soul—of a single person. He loved this phrase so much, and he lived by it, so we put it on his gravestone.

So let’s talk about another interpretation of the word Aleinu, outside the context of this prayer. The word literally means it’s upon us, or it’s our duty, or it’s up to us. A similar phrase can be found in Pirkei Avot, stating lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’i atta ben chorin l’hipater mimena—it’s not alecha—up to you, or your duty, to finish the work, but you are free to avoid it either. Aleinu –the word itself, not as used in the prayer—is about taking responsibility. Even though we cannot possibly do all the work that needs to be done, that’s no excuse for not doing what we can. Just as on Pesach we recite all the things that would have been enough, dayenu, on this Rosh Hashono let us think about all of the things that are Aleinu, that are up to us. As we perform a cheshbon hanefesh, as we examine our victories and our failures during the past year, and plan to do better in the year to come, let’s think about this very important word,  Aleinu—it’s up to us.

  • If the State of Israel needs our support, Aleinu.
  • If Temple Bath Am needs our commitment for the shul’s future, Aleinu.
  • If the Daily Minyan, or a hiva minyan needs people, Aleinu.
  • If refugees in Darfur need food and shelter, Aleinu.
  • If Jews anywhere in the world need our help, Aleinu.
  • If Syrian refugees need our help, Aleinu.
  • If there are poor and homeless people in Los Angeles who need our help, Aleinu.
  • If we can fight to preserve DACA and let people who came here through no fault of their own, stay in ouir country,  Aleinu
  • If those devastated by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the earthquake in Mexico need our help, Aleinu.
  • If white supremacists and neo-nazis seek to take away the rights of minorities,  Aleinu.
  • If women’s right to choose is threatened by the government, Aleinu.
  • If non-Orthodox Jews are not treated as full Jews by the Israeli rabbinate, Aleinu.
  • And finally, as long the world remains broken and there is a need for tikun olam, Aleinu.

Shana Tova

Shabbat Shuvah

Shabbat Shuvah

By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, 23 September 2017

May the words of my mouth

and the meditation of my heart’

be acceptable to you, O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer.


Oh, those words! How often, when I see those words in the siddur, am I  transported back to Temple Beth El of Rockaway Park, and to the memory of our rabbi, Dr. Robert Gordis, standing broad-shouldered in his rabbinic robes as he enunciated them.  Each word was rich, resonant, full;

the “m’s” were thick, full of meaning, almost fat with life, with our mistakes, with our longings.

The words of my mouth…..the meditations of my heart.


Did my heart meditate?


Is that what my heart did when, long after my family went to sleep, I lay in my bed imagining dancing on a bridge to Europe across the Atlantic ocean whose waves I could hear so all through the night in my bedroom?

Or when I brooded that the popular clique at school would be mean to me,  or my sister wouldn’t want to play with me any more?

What exactly were the “meditations of my heart”?

Did Dr. Gordis also have meditations in his heart? What about all the others in the congregation? What were their  meditations?


It was a beautiful word.  Med  It Tay Shun.  Hard and soft at once,

firm and quiet,

precise –

that “it” – yet gentle, that “shun.” 

And my lips caressing each other with the “m” as in my own name, Miriyam.

And those meditations rolling into “BE” as in BE ACCEPTABLE  – AND the punch of Acceptable.  Almost as long as “meditation.”  My Rock.  Strong.  STEADFAST.

But what did “my Redeemer” mean? What “redeemer”?

Redeemed from what?

Is God a Rock?

How can a Rock redeem?


The words of my mouth.  The meditations of my heart.

I knew then that there was a world to aspire to, a world where words were big and round and juicy and strong and soft at once,

a world that had little to do with Belle Harbor, New York,

or with the girls at school who wouldn’t hang out with me or the stupid assignments some of the teachers at P.S. 114 Queens gave us.

A world where

the words of my mouth were somehow connected to the meditations of my heart,  and they connected to something greater, something beyond us, to God, and it made me feel less alone.


Later, of course, I learned that the words that resounded from Dr. Gordis were the closing lines of Psalm 19, the awe-inspired and awe-inspiring psalm that connects the magnificent glory of our physical universe with our own bodies and souls and all three with the beauty of Torah:

The Torah of Adonai is true, and altogether just

more desirable than gold, than even the finest gold,

sweeter than honey from the honeycomb,

I too glow with Torah and with the great reward in showing it honor.

Who understands why we stumble?

But from the sins I keep secret, please cleanse me –

save me from my own arrogance – don’t let it control me, cleanse me of any great wrongs.


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart ,fulfill your will,

Adonai, my Rock and My Redeemer.”


We often think of our Jewish tradition as a tradition of law and it’s clear why we do:  after all, along with all the laws in our Torah, there is the proliferation of laws in Mishneh and those elaborate, intricate, sometimes (to me, at least) utterly baffling massive collections we call Talmud.  Yet side-by-side (dare I say, in this minyan, “over and above”?) this religion of law, Judaism is at heart a religion whose deepest roots are STORY, and whose most eloquent voice is POETRY.  The stories are what bind us together:  the primal Paradise, the lost Eden, the saga of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac; Rebecca’s “I will go”; Jacob and Esau, a dream of the ladder to the heavens and a battle in the dark with an angel; Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers – tales of love and jealousy, anger and reconciliation, the human encounter with the One whose unpronounceable name is like the Breath of Life itself.  And we haven’t even gotten to Moses!  Slavery!   Freedom!  The Revelation at Sinai!  The Promise of a Promised Land.  Year after year we retell this story, relive the festivals that connect us both to the world of living nature, the energies of the year, and our own profound and riveting story.


And as powerful as is our Story, is our poetry.

Kumi, oh-ree, kee va Auray’ch, u’ch’vode Adonai alayich zarach!  Arise and shine, for your light has dawned, the glory of God has shone on you!


The cry of Violence shall be heard no more in your land

Nor destruction within your borders.

No longer shall you have the sun to illuminate your day or the glorious moon to shine for you

For God shall be your everlasting light, and your God shall be your glory.


“Oh Miriyam, oh Miriyam,” my dear haftorah hevrutah, Abe Berman qvells to me over and over, “Isaiah! Who has poetry like Isaiah!”

As you behold, you will glow; your heart will throb and thrill –

your sons will come from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders.


What makes the poetry of much of our tradition so vivid, so riveting, so soul-stirring, is much more of course than the beauty of its language.  It is that the great resources of language are infused with an impassioned spiritual, ethical intensity:  a Judaism of  profound emotional engagement and moral commitment, personal searching and demands for social justice.  That is one of the reasons Abe, over and over again, gets overwhelmed by the beauty of Isaiah.  It’s why I do. 


The vision of Isaiah – that interfusion of spiritual beauty with intense social engagement – is also echoed in one of the most profoundly beautiful inheritances we have:  the collection of Psalms.  The Psalms penetrate deeply into the anguish of spiritual and emotional crises:


I sought Adonai and Adonai answered me, saving me from my worst terrors….

And – crucially, especially in the troubled days of our world today – they rally us all to acts of social justice because our God demands it. 

 The eyes of Adonai are on the just, God’s ears are open to their cry.

Adonai is close to the heart-broken and those whose spirits are crushed.

Adonai unbinds the bound, Adonai gives vision to the blind, Adonai straightens the bent, Adonai loves the just, Adonai protects the outsider, helps widows and orphans stand on their feet. (Psalm 146)


And clearly, the Psalmist implies, so should we.


As we enter the new year, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart be infused with the poetry of our tradition, its impassioned call for social justice, and may we all make a joyful noise to Adonai, burst into songs and praise, shout out, sing out, make music (Psalm 98).

Shabbat Shalom.


Balak בלק

By Zwi Reznik, July 8, 2017

Several weeks ago I was invited to present a דרש  on בלק. I have learned not to question such an invitation and agreed. SO, I proceeded to re-read בלק and start examining some of the commentaries. I found myself ill at ease with these commentaries which characterized בלעם as a thoroughly evil individual. One who has an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a proud soul. In fact this characterization was a subject of discussion in our Mishnah study group recently. We were studying Pirke Avot, chapter 5 mishnah 19 which deals with the attributes of the disciples of אברהם and the disciples of בלעם. I discovered that the far more learned individuals I study with were also uncomfortable with the standard characterization of בלעם. So rather than ask myself “who am I to question the Rabbis of Midrash Rabbah and even Rashi” I am comfortable in my obligation to bringing my own thoughts and experience to this parshah. So I will speak of parshah בלק as the story of the spiritual transformation and redemption of the good, or godly, man בלעם.

In my own mind I considered the contrast between the actions of בלעם and another well known prophet. This other prophet when contacted by God and instructed to “…2 Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. 3 Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to  יפו and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.”  Jonah’s response to hearing God’s explicit instructions is to run away by the fastest means available in the opposite direction.

On the other hand how does בלעם relate to God. We need to examine the text and be mindful of both the older commentaries like Midrash Rabbah and Rashi as well as more recent ones like the well-known commentaries and other works of Nechama Liebowitz. Leibowitz wrote Neither moral courage nor sheer wickedness are ethnically or nationally determined qualities. Moab and Ammon produced a Ruth and Naamah respectively, [and] Egypt two righteous midwives.” So I would suggest we immediately discard any criticism, implied or otherwise, of בלעם based on the fact that he was not one of us. After all Jonah was one of us.

The parshah begins with בלק, King of Moab, hiring בלעם to “22:6… put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.”  Now the gentlest critique I have found of בלעם is that he was a mercenary. Typically we think of a mercenary as someone who fights, and kills, solely for money rather than a principled cause. Therefore, this is a somewhat negative characterization. So rather than mercenary I prefer to think of בלעם as an independent consultant, specializing in divination, and with a possibly undeserved reputation for blessings and curses. As was noted in our Mishnah study group, he had to make a living. What בלעם did for a living would not have been an uncommon occupation in his time and pIace. In my time and place I also had to make a living. I myself was once an independent consultant specializing in exploration geophysics in the quest for fossil fuels. Aside from the moral ambiguity of making a direct contribution to climate change I also recall the character of some of the people I worked for. I would not wish to be judged on the basis of my successes in finding fossil fuels or my client list. However, the Midrash as well as Rashi clearly condemn בלעם for his client list.

What follows in the parshah is a sequence of events, including three blessings, that illustrate the development of בלעם as a moral individual. In her classic עיונות בספר במדבר, Leibowitz uses the phrase “From Common Sorcerer to Prophet” which I believe is the progression we observe in the parshah. I have already noted the King of Moab’s request to בלעם. Now consider בלעם’s first response to בלק’s representatives. “22:8… Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the LORD may instruct me.”. בלעם  does not immediately accept the contract offer and clearly states that he must consult with God first. This supposedly evil heathen sorcerer first want’s to find out what God wants him to do before he responds. And God says “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” בלעם reports to the representatives, they leave and בלק sends new representatives with a new offer-basically ‘I’ll pay you all I can’. To which בלעם responds, without even consulting with God first, I don’t care what you’ll pay me “22:18… I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the LORD my God.” Once again בלעם invites the representatives to stay overnight while he consults God again. God responds, “22:20…you may go with them. But whatever I command you that you shall do.” In other words, you can go but remember who you’re actually working for.

While it appears that God has changed his mind he actually has not. Newer commentaries take up a grammatical argument to demonstrate that. This may seem like a diversion at this point but, I think it may be an example of the revival of Hebrew as a modern living language may have influenced commentary. Leibowitz, for example, refers to a 19th Century commentary and this issue is also discussed by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg in his work “Torah Gems”. The text uses different Hebrew words which are both translated as the English phrase “with them”. In God’s response to the first request, in Verse 12, for בלעם’s services the Hebrew word used is עמהם. Rather than the modern Hebrew conjugation, איתם, of the preposition עם (with) with the personal pronoun הם (them), the word used is a simple concatenation of the words with and them. In verse 20 God’s second response uses the Hebrew,אתם , for “with them”. The modern Hebrew conjugation of הם and את, the preposition used to reference a direct object is אותם. There is just a vowel sound difference. On the basis of these grammatical differences the modern commentaries note thatעמהם  indicates both a joint purpose and a joint action—i.e. both the trip to בלק and acting on בלק’s purpose. אתם indicates that בלעם’s traveling is only a joint action, the trip to בלק, but not a joint purpose.

Then we see the grammatical issue again in verse 21 where the phrase translated as “… with the Moabite princes.” uses the word עם. So it seems that we’re back to having a joint purpose, which the commentaries note as the reason for the anger at Balaam here. I will just note that at this point בלעם may not be as spiritually fit as his ass since he can’t see the Angel in front of him while the ass does, but, the path to redemption is not always direct.

Finally בלעם gets toבלק , reports in to his client and advises him to set up for the cursing session with seven altars and seven bulls and seven rams. Then he tells בלק that he has to go meet with God and to wait for him to get back. He meets with God, tells him what he has done in preparation, that the altars had been built and the bulls and rams sacrificed  and then the text tells us  “23:5 And the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth …”. Here we need to make another remark about the Hebrew in the text. The Hebrew word in Chapter 23 verse 5 that is typically translated as ‘word’ is דבר. In modern Hebrew that is the word for object or thing. Now the rabbis of the Midrash must have understood that word as thing or object. In Midrash Rabbah they interpret the thing as being a bit put into the mouth of a beast in order to make it go in the direction it’s master desires. Rashi makes that analogy as well, but also extends it to a hook in the mouth of a fish.

What happens next? No curses from בלעם, just blessings. As a former consultant I can tell you this is not the way to keep a client happy. Of course we know that בלק is not the client and בלעם even tries to make that clear to him. בלק doesn’t get it and simply wants to try for the curses again at another location. The same things happen. The hook in the mouth, the altars, the sacrifices, no curses just blessings, בלק gets angry and בלעם again reminds him who he is really working for. One more time בלק tries a change of location. This time to “23:28 בלק took בלעם to the peak of Peor, which overlooks the wasteland.”

Only now everything changes. The text informs us that “24:2 As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God (אלהים רוח) came upon him.” There is no hook in the mouth for בלעם this time. Then בלעם delivers his words, one of most famous sets of lines in the entire Torah. They include one of the most famous single lines in the Torah “24:5מַה־ טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” I see these words before me regularly, in large brass letters on the outside wall of the shule at Beverly Boulevard and Stanley Avenue as I walk through my neighborhood.

The story of בלק and בלעם now ends. בלק is so angry that he tells בלעם that he isn’t going to pay him. בלעם tells him he doesn’t really care since he has regularly informed him of who he is really working for. Then בלעם really piles it on with another prophesy, which is certain to not only lose him the King of Moab as a client but also many others. Finally “24:25: Then Balaam set out on his journey back home … .”

There are other significant transformations of the spirit that are in the Torah. The first we learn of are those of   אברהם and שרה, whose transformations were marked by name changes and who we recall whenever a convert acquires them as parents. There is יעקב whose fear of an upcoming encounter with the brother he knowingly defrauded of his birthright leads to a great struggle and a spiritual transformation. That transformation was so profound that his name had to change to ישראל. However, בלעם‘s transformation probably did not merit a name change. Neither did what I think of as my own, which led me to leave my earlier profession to become a teacher– work that is inherently valuable. I would note that for me even recognizing that a transformation had occurred took years to become aware of.  However that experience did impel me to identify with בלעם in this parshah.

But what of those older commentaries which are entirely negative regarding בלעם‘s character. At this point in the parshah רשי and others state that the Spirit of God left בלעם and he promptly returned to his evil ways.  However, what demonstrates that he had evil ways to begin with. That he was a non-Jewish heathen? I’ll recall Nechama Leibowitz’s comment Neither moral courage nor sheer wickedness are ethnically or nationally determined qualities…”.  In his commentaries on Pirke Avot (1945) Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, makes the following statement regarding the Mishnah I referred to earlier: “The characterization of the followers of Balaam are harsh, but—as a Christian commentator admits—so were the attacks on Jews by the contemporaries of the author of this saying.” Is it possible that our image of Balaam has at least partly been based on hatred of the other, fear, resentment and anger? Unfortunately we are all aware, or should be, of the prevalence of those emotions all around us. Consider also the broader question of whether the disciples of even a good man can commit evil acts? Of course they can and do. We have no lack of examples in our world.

I really needed to also examine all of the specifics of our source document’s depiction of בלעם. In particular the ones that are not in parshahבלק . Thanks to the electronic version of the Jewish Publications Society’s Tanach I found 61 instances of the nameבלעם . Of those 52 are in בלק. Of the remaining nine just one in parsha מטות is a truly damning statement about בלעם. Two of the others simply note his fate. The remaining six, which appear in דבורים, יהושע, מיכה & נחמיה are all variations on the unremitting evil of Moab with the hiring of בלעם just presented as evidence of their evil intent. Give some thought to that as well.

The parshah has not ended with בלעם heading home. What follows is one of those troubling stories that appear occasionally in the Torah. Then in two weeks we’ll hear some more about בלעם. But, I would prefer to stop here with just the vision of a happily content בלעם peacefully heading home, so I will.



By Susan Laemmle, May 13, 2017

God, Torah & Israel: the Responsive Shma within the Torah Service

There is a moment in the Torah Service whose power is undeniable: the shaleach-tzibur grasps the Torah, which has just been removed from the Aron Ha-kodesh; faces the congregation; and sings out, loud and clear: Shma Yisrael Adonai Elohanu, Adonai Echad. The kalah responds by repeating. And it repeats again after the leader proclaims: Echad elohanu, gadol adonaynu, kadosh v’norah shmo.”

The impetus for this Dvar Torah derives from my feeling the power of that moment, both when leading the Torah Service and as part of the kahal — and to my noticing years ago that it is typically done differently in Reform and Conservative congregations. Most Reform synagogues I’ve davened with recite it in unison, leader and kahal together, like the Shma line within Shacharit. In contrast, most Conservative synagogues are like Temple Beth Am in doing the Torah Service’s Shma and its attendant line responsively. What, I wondered, could be the reason for this difference?

More broadly, I’ve long been interested in, and moved by, the liturgical rubric called devarim sh’b’kedushah — literally, the words or things that are holy. We know them as the sections of the service that require a minyan. If you’re an egalitarian woman in an Orthodox setting or a mourner wanting to recite Kaddish when fewer than ten people are present, you’ve particularly felt this principle in action. What interests and moves me about devarim sh’b’kedushah is their back and forth rhythm — the “antiphonal” structure within which their holiness presents itself. All the devarim sh’b’kedushah are characterized by that back and forth, that antiphony.

Writers on the Mourner’s Kaddish typically extol the way in which it draws the mourner out of his or her isolation into the comforting arms of community. For me, the Kaddish’s effect comes not simply from the mourning individual’s being in the presence of other Jews but from the way in which the words spoken by the mourners interleave with those said by the others who are present. (In this, all the mourners are, as it were, unified into one entity.) To my mind, the mode of recitation in itself affirms the interconnectedness of individual and group — the Jewish and human commonality of mourner on the one hand, and those whose family circle is currently intact, on the other. I believe that the way in which Mourner’s Kaddish is recited — the reciprocity in itself, apart from the words’ meaning or even their entrancing rhythm — strengthens mourner and non-mourner alike.

I am no psychologist, but let me suggest that this saving, soothing, strengthening reciprocity goes back to the bond that forms between parent and infant; the bond that goes on to support the toddler who ventures forth and then returns to the parent’s side; the bond that echoes and culminates in the love that binds couples who become life partners.

I’ll take a deep breath now and return to my topic of devarim sh’b’kedushah and the requirement of minyan. It turns out that Parshat-Emor contains one of the three Torah verses that generate that requirement through the Talmudic rule of g’zeyrah shavah. The Emor verse is Leviticus 22:32 on page 724: “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people” [read Hebrew]. The word b’toch, “amidst,” also appears in Number 16:21: “Separate yourselves from amidst the congregation.” And this verse’s word for “congregation” — ha-eydah — is also used in an earlier Numbers verse (14:27) that describes the ten spies who brought back a negative report of the Land of Israel. From this triangular combination, the Talmud in Megillah 23b concludes that “sanctification” should take place in the midst of a congregation of ten.

This morning, the first point when we required that magic number was Borchu; next, the Kedushah within the Amidah; and then came the Torah blessings and congregational responses which precedes the out-loud public chanting of Torah — which were originally just one blessing and one response. Like variations of the Kaddish which occur at sectional breaks, these minyan-dependent liturgical moments go back and forth between the one and the many.

And so it is, I now suggest, with the responsively done, echoing, repeated Shma that comes at the beginning of the Torah Service. Through being performed responsively rather than in unison, it gets elevated in sanctity, becoming a dvar s’b’kedushah. Some of you may will know that a devar sh’b’kedushah is also what’s called a “doxology” — praise of God and God’s eternality. The Shma does not present the classic face of doxology, but it does affirm God’s enduring oneness in relation to Israel.

I am still at the beginning of my understanding of connections between minyan, the Shma, and the Torah Service. But for now, let me bring forward a few ideas gathered from others: The early twentieth century liturgist Ismar Elbogen postulated that in ancient worship, the Shma and its sequel — Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed — were recited antiphonally, with the congregation and what he calls the “precentor” alternating. In the fullness of time, the non-Torah sequel line was traditionally repressed into a whisper except on Yom Kippur. And the Shma within Shacharit became a unison affirmation by shaleach tzibur and tzibur together — even if there is not a minyan present. This and other instances of the Shma, both congregational and private, have been set free of the reciprocal restraint characteristic of devarim sh’b’kedushah. Thus the person who davens at home, who prepares to sleep, or who — God forbid! — faces danger or even martydom can summon the Shma unilaterally. In contrast, the Shma of the Torah Service is always a communal event. As our own Elliott Dorff puts this in My People’s Prayerbook: “Here, in the Torah service, the responsive face-to-face rendering of these lines makes them dramatically declarative: we as a community affirm the convictions contained in them.”

Let me very briefly broaden the context to say that ancient sources do not know of any special prayers before, during or after the reading of the Torah. That changes by the 8th century, when removing the Torah from the Ark gets surrounded with prayers that convey pomp and majesty. It has been argued that, consciously or unconsciously, the biblical account of the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem by King David in II Samuel (6:5) had a decisive influence on the formation of this ceremony. The responsive Shma Yisrael and Echad Elohaynu are mentioned in the 8th century Masechet Sofrim, as is lifting of the Torah to display its text — which we do at the end of the Torah reading while Sefardim do it at the beginning. All branches of Judaism recite Psalm 34, verse 4 — Gadlu Adonai ee-tee — every time Torah is read but the two verses “Hear O Israel” and “One is our God” are found only in the Roman and Ashkenazi rites, and there only on Shabbat and Chagim.

We’re so used to it that we hardly notice the extent to which the Torah Service, and especially the responsive Shma, highlight Adonai, rather than the Torah. Rabbi Dorff suggests that “the Rabbis wanted to guarantee that we worship God, the Torah’s author and source of its authority, rather than the Torah itself.” Here during the central, most public portion of Shabbat and holiday services, amidst choreographed and formalized ritual, the closest thing to a creed in Judaism, the Shma, is proclaimed in the most elevated and impactful manner that Jewish liturgy knows.

Before concluding, I want to bring forward another responsive moment in Jewish life that moves and pleases me. This moment is much smaller than the Torah Service’s Shma and it requires only two people, not a minyan. Technically then, it is not a devar sh’b’kedushah. And yet, this moment captures the communality of Jewish life and adds real sweetness to the Shabbat (or holiday) table. It comes when the person reciting Kiddush on Friday night (or Erev Chag) concludes the introductory verses from the first chapter of Genesis that culminate in the creation of the Sabbath (or their holiday equivalent), and prepares to recite the blessing over wine leading into the Kiddush itself. The leader looks out at whoever else is present, whether one or hundreds, and asks their permission, their moral support really, in going forward to sanctify the holy day, proclaiming: ­­Savrai maranan v’rabotai or Savrai chaverai.

And the response comes, echoing across the centuries of struggle and persecution, achievement and aspiration. We respond in one voice: L’chayim – To Life!

Shabbat shalom!



Vayetze: Rachel and Reconciliation

By Rachel Marder, 12/10/16

I have a confession to make: I am a feminist. Okay, that part is not the confession. My confession is that I really struggle to connect to our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Other female characters in Tanakh, such as Tamar who stands up to her rapist brother Amnon, Deborah, the judge, poet and military hero, Esther, who saves the Jewish people, even the Shunamite woman — check out her fascinating story in 2 Kings — have always seemed to me to exhibit far more depth of character than our imahot. In the text, the imahot are at least named, which is more that can be said of other women in Tanakh (again, see Shunamite woman), but it often seemed to me that they are defined solely by their husbands and their ability or inability to bear children. The central drama of their lives is their children’s and their husband’s adventures and divine encounters. In particular, Rachel, the figure whose name I carry, along with most other Jewish women born in the ‘80s and ‘90s, often struck me as one-dimensional. I didn’t blame her for this — likely she was constructed by men who devoted little space to women’s inner lives and non-male-centered interactions — but I did find it frustrating that she wasn’t a stronger character. However, I realize now that I was not giving Rachel her proper due. She is a character of great substance with much to teach us. Through her struggle with infertility, she conveys the harsh reality of being a woman in the ancient world; forges a direct relationship with God; and offers us a model for reconciliation both with her sister, and with God.

When we first meet Rachel in this week’s parasha, Vayetze, the Biblical narrator immediately pits the two sisters against each other.  “Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful,”  יפת תואר ויפת מראה, (Gen. 29:17). With this initial verse contrasting the sisters’ physical appearance, the narrator is alerting us of what is to come: competition, jealousy, and strife between the two. Like Jacob and Esav, who are described as opposite in nature — Esau was a hunter, while Jacob is an indoor person, Rachel and Leah are also described as opposites.

Jacob loves Rachel and works for 14 years to win her hand in marriage. During this time Lavan tricks Jacob into marrying Leah. Once married, it is now God who fosters resentment between the sisters. “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved or hated, שנואה and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (30:31).  Each sister possesses what the other desires: Rachel has her husband’s heart, but is jealous of Leah’s fruitfulness; Leah can have children, but yearns for Jacob’s heart.

Rachel laments to Jacob: “Give me children or I am a dead woman” (30:1). The Reform movement Women’s Torah commentary explains her tragedy: “Rachel equates her inability to give birth with death, implying that her story will never be told if not condensed in the name of a child.” She is protesting not only her barrenness, but a frustration with “the limits that her society sets on female autonomy.” (p.165). She turns to her husband who holds authority over her, but he responds angrily and deflects blame to God. “Can I take the place of God who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (30:2) Jacob asks rhetorically. The Women’s Torah commentary notes, however, that “had Rachel not spoken out her journey would have had no beginning and no fulfillment” (165). When Jacob, according to Rashi, refuses to pray for his wife to get pregnant, she tries another tactic; she gives her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob, as a concubine, so that “through her I too may have children” (30:3). Bilhah gives birth to two sons, two points for Rachel, but Leah begins to feel threatened, so she gives her handmaid, Zilpah, to Jacob, who fathers two more sons through her. Rachel then tries medicinal aid to get pregnant, bargaining with Leah for her son Reuven’s mandrakes, known as “love fruit,” apparently an aphrodisiac or fertility aid in the ancient world. Rachel takes three distinct actions to get pregnant: a verbal protest, bringing in a concubine, and eating mandrakes, and God responds to her in turn with three actions: “ויזכר אלקים את רחל, וישמע אליה אלקים ויפתח את רחמה — God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb” (30:22). Rachel’s efforts to conceive alert God to her desperation to be known, remembered, and hold a place in history.

Like Jacob, Rachel is a wrestler. She struggles with her sister and with God in her effort to get pregnant, and, like Jacob, she succeeds. When Rachel’s son Naftali is born to Bilhah, she says: “נפתולי אלקים נפתלי עם אחותי וגם יכולתי’’, A fateful contest I waged with my sister, yes and I have prevailed” (30:8).  Rachel’s wrestling, like Jacob’s in next week’s parasha, is transformative. She becomes a matriarch in Israel, and will ultimately be remembered as the mother of all of בני ישראל, “weeping for her children who are not” (Jeremiah 31:15) following the Babylonian exile.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso writes that Jacob demands a blessing from the angel he wrestles before he lets him go; Rachel too receives a blessing from her adversaries. Leah gives her the mandrakes, and not long after that, God opens her womb. A midrash teaches that the effort to help Rachel conceive was a shared one: “all the wives of Jacob — Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah united their prayers with the prayer of Jacob and together they besought God to remove the curse of barrenness from Rachel. On Rosh Hashanah, the day when God sits in judgment upon the inhabitants of the earth, God remembered Rachel and granted her a son” (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews).

Unlike Jacob and Esav’s bitter conflict, which is seemingly resolved in the text but for the Rabbis continues eternally with Esav fathering an oppressive nation — Rome —  the Rabbis recall Rachel and Leah’s relationship as one marked by enduring reconciliation and mutual nurturing. The gemara in Megillah 13b teaches that when Jacob and Rachel decided to wed, Rachel warned Jacob that her trickster father would try to marry him to Leah. So Jacob devises a plan to share simanim, secret signs, with his beloved that only she would recognize so that if Rachel is switched with Leah on the wedding night he will be able to tell. But when Rachel sees that Leah is married off to Jacob she does not want her to be embarrassed that night, so she shares the signs with her so he won’t know that it is Leah. Hence, the Torah says that the next morning, as if Jacob were surprised, “behold it was Leah” (29:25).

Midrash Rabbah Eicha adds an additional poignant detail:  Rachel even hid under Leah and Jacob’s marital bed to convey the signs to her sister. Rachel’s concern for her sister is matched by her sister’s concern for Rachel’s infertility in the mandrakes episode. The two sisters model compromise in this interaction; in striking their deal, they each get something they want; Leah gets Jacob for the night and Rachel gets help in her effort to conceive. In contrast, when Jacob strikes a deal with Esav for his birthright, he cheats his brother, and then steals his father Isaac’s blessing.

Rabbi Sasso notes another fascinating difference between sibling pairs Jacob and Esav and Rachel and Leah. Unlike Jacob who had to run away from his brother before they were able to reconcile, Rachel and Leah “build their lives in the same tent. Rachel’s struggle teaches us that reconciliation is not a process apart from other people, but with them, and that we come to better know ourselves through the eyes of another human being. Jacob’s spiritual search demands solitude. Rachel and Leah tell us that it demands engagement” (p.81). We also note that Jacob and Esav’s children do not get along, but Rachel and Leah’s do. They are not without conflict – they do sell Rachel’s son Joseph into slavery — but they also reconcile. And according to a midrash in Eichah Rabbah, Rachel, who was buried along the road to Efrat, greets Leah’s children as they return to the Land of Israel from exile.

Because of Rachel’s kindness toward her sister in sharing the secret signs, she is credited in Eichah Rabbah with convincing God to reconcile with the Jewish people and return them to the land. Rachel says: “I did her a kindness, was not jealous of her, and did not expose her to shame. And if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why should You, a King who lives eternally and is merciful, be jealous of idolatry, and exile my children and let them be slain by the sword… Immediately, the mercy of the Holy One blessed be He was stirred, and God said: ‘For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to its place.’” Rachel is peacemaker between God and the Jewish people, and makes national rebuilding possible.

Though initially described as beautiful and shapely, it is actually Rachel’s strong voice, sincerity, and sacred struggle that set her apart. Rachel teaches us to engage closely with others — especially those with whom we struggle — and that a single act of kindness can have far-reaching effects.