All posts by admin



By Joel Elkins, November 26, 2022

Emile Boirac was a French philosopher and one of the earliest supporters of Esperanto, who lived in the late 19th/early 20th century. He noticed that sometimes when he was in a place that he was sure he had never been to before, he would see a tree or building and swear that he had seen it before. He called this feeling déjà vu.

If you experienced that feeling today, you would not be alone.

After all, two weeks ago, in Parshat Vayerah, we learned that Sarah was having trouble getting pregnant, but eventually God gives her a child, Isaac. In today’s Parsha, Rifka is having difficulty conceiving but God hears Isaac’s prayers and gives her twins.

Back in Vayerah, we read about a conflict that developed between Avraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. Today, we read about a conflict between Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau.

Two weeks ago, Sarah favored Isaac over Ishmael and convinced Abraham to send Ishmael away so that Isaac can carry on Abraham’s legacy. In today’s parsha, Rivka favors Jacob and helps him get Esau’s birthright so that he could carry on Isaac’s legacy.

Back in Vayerah, Abraham finds himself in Gerar, a kingdom in the Negev, and tells people there that Sarah is his sister, because Sarah is very beautiful and he is afraid they might take her and kill him. When the King of Gerar finds out the truth, he says “why didn’t you tell me?” and bestows upon Abraham sheep and cattle and land, and Abraham prospers as a result. In today’s parsha, Isaac also ends up going to the exact same Gerar, also calls his wife his sister, also because she is beautiful and that he is afraid they might take her and kill him. And when the King of Gerar finds out the truth, he says “why didn’t you tell me?” and gives Isaac free reign of the land and as a result Isaac also flourishes.

So if you’re having a “where have I heard this before?” feeling, it’s perfectly understandable.

Now, there are many theories about what causes déjà vu. Sigmund Freud attributed it to, what else, repressed desires. Because the desire is repressed, it is blocked from our consciousness, but, according to Freud, a sense of familiarity leaks through to our conscious mind and results in the déjà vu experience.

Carl Jung, alternatively, suggested we experience déjà vu when we tap into the collective unconscious.

Some modern day scientists believe that it may be due to a short circuit in our brain which mixes up long-term and short-term memory so that new incoming information goes straight to long term memory instead of making a pitstop in the short term memory bank. Other scientists believe that it’s due to a false triggering of the rhinal cortex—the part of the brain that signals that something feels familiar—even without the memories to back it up.

And, of course, it could just be a glitch in the matrix.

So, what’s going on here? Why is Parshat Toldot so eerily similar to Parshat Vayera that we read two weeks ago? Is it simply lazy storytelling? They ran out of story ideas? It worked so well in the original; why not use it again in the sequel?

Or is there something we can learn from this?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the two versions of each of these stories. In the first pair of stories, Sarah desperately wants a child of her own. By the time three mysterious strangers come and tell her she is to give birth within the year, she is already an old woman. When Rivka, on the other hand, has trouble conceiving, Isaac intercedes on her behalf well before she reaches old age and so she gets pregnant sooner. Same predicament, but a different reaction. Avraham is passive in the face of his wife’s longing and as a result, she has to wait a very long time; Yitzchak actively advocates on his wife’s behalf, and gets a faster, more effective result.

In our second pair of stories, Sarah has an issue with Ishmael, and her solution is to send him away. When Rivka has a similar issue with Esau, she works behind the scenes to change the dynamic in order to get her favored son the birthright. True, not altogether scrupulous, but at least more humane than exiling him into the wilderness, and arguably just as effective.

In the two Gerar stories, both Abraham and Isaac both lie about their relationships, valuing their lives over their wives. But when caught in their lies, Isaac freely admits that he was simply scared for his life, whereas Abraham continues the ruse by claiming that Sarah was technically his half-sister. They end up with the same result, but Isaac at least salvages some honor by fessing up when the truth is revealed.

Isaac and Rebecca are the middle generation of patriarchs/matriarchs. And compared with the bookend generations, they don’t get nearly as much attention, either in terms of column inches or reputation. But perhaps they got a bad rap.

Granted, in each of these stories, they are far, far from perfect. After all, they show clear favoritism to one child over the other (Rivka to Jacob, Isaac to Esau), and Rivka even goes so far as to help her favored child cheat the other out of what is legitimately his. But, to her credit, she doesn’t send him out into the wilderness.

Then, Isaac lies about his marriage to Rivka for no other reason than to protect himself even though he knows it might put her in danger. But, when confronted he admits the truth.

Not great, but it does show small signs of improvement. So perhaps the defining trait of this second generation is “progress, not perfection.”

In life, we often find ourselves in difficult situations. For example, we or our loved ones are denied something we sincerely desire, say a child. We can sit idly by or try to do something about it.

Perhaps we are caught in a lie. We can continue to propagate the lie, or we can come clean, put our cards on the table, take responsibility for our dishonesty and let the chips fall where they may.

Perhaps we see a situation that we know in our hearts is sub-optimal or even unacceptable. For example, someone less qualified holds a position in place of someone we know to be better qualified. We can jump in and heavy-handedly upend the entire framework, or we can work within the system to achieve what we believe is the preferred outcome.

We are not defined by the situation we find ourselves in, but in how we react to that situation.

The parshah ends with perhaps the quintessential example of choosing to react differently to similar situations. Jacob, with the help of his mother, tricks his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, which leads to years of animosity and estrangement between him and his brother Esau. In Parshat Va-y’hi, which we will read in a few weeks, Jacob, by then an old man, crosses his arms so as to place his right hand on the head of Ephraim, even though he is the younger grandchild, and his left hand on the head of Menassheh, the elder. Despite this obvious slight, Ephraim and Menassheh choose not to let it sour their relationship. Tradition tells us that this is why to this day we bless our children to be like those children, not because of what they did, but because of how they reacted to the circumstances in which they found themselves.

Let us learn from Rivka and Yitzchak and aim just a little higher. When faced with similar situations, deciding to act differently, slightly more honestly, slightly more prudently, slightly more proactively, slightly more humanely.

Progress, not perfection.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Adonai Ho Nachalatam: El Maleh Rachamim

Adonai Ho Nachalatam:  El Maleh Rachamim

By Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Yom Kippur Yizkor, October 5, 2022

El Maleh Rachamim — in a few minutes, this beautiful Hebrew phrase, carried on its haunting traditional melody, will introduce a central prayer in the Yizkor service. Like the Hebrew, the English rendition — “God, full of compassion” — is soothing. Being soothed is most welcome, for losing someone we love bruises and diminishes us, rendering us less assured about ourselves and the world. Even remembering back to such a loss after a span of time can shake us to our core.

The three key components of the Yizkor Service are Mourner’s Kaddish, the particular Yizkor Prayers, and El Maleh Rachamim. Mourner’s Kaddish comes to reassure us that the God we struggle to understand is still there; things seem to be falling apart, but the Center holds. The particular Yizkor prayers are there to lift the deceased person’s name and memory aloft within the earthly world they no longer inhabit, like a Torah scroll lifted by the Hagbah. El Maleh Rachamim wraps the dead, and us, in an embrace that sweeps beyond time and space to hook onto Life’s enduring ground. Of course it matters whether our beloved person died last month — or one, five, twenty, fifty years ago.

And mourning those who perished in the Holocaust or within the Temple Beth Am community affects us less directly, less viscerally. But still, on Yom Kippur we recite Yizkor prayers and the Kaddish for all of them; and El Maleh widens its scope while retaining its intimacy.

Some years ago, I suddenly noticed that one sentence in this prayer comes directly from Torah. There this sentence specifies that the Levites’ priestly duties prevent their being allocated a tribal share in the Promised Land and so they are promised compensation that Numbers 18:20 formulates as ani chelkecha v’nachalatcha: “I am your portion and your share”; which appears in Deuteronomy 18:2 as Adonai hu nachalato: “Adonai is their (literally “his”) inheritance.” Commentary sticks close to the pshat, as in the 13th century French commentator Hizkuni’s amplification of Targum Onkolos’s 2nd century translation of the Torah into Aramaic, which reads: “the gifts I have given you are your share and your inheritance; thus you will need no other income and will be free to serve me.” It makes sense that the priests and Levites would receive Israelite tithes while also gaining a special relationship with Adonai.

But how did this decisive statement make its way from the original elite, narrowly focused Levitical context to the memorial prayer El Maleh Rachamim, where it applies to any Jew who dies?

The custom of praying for the dead’s repose goes back to the 6th century, and martyrologies were formulated for victims of the Crusades. El Maleh Rachamim’s date of composition is not known, but it seems to have arrived at its prevailing form during the Cosack-led Khmelnytsky Massacres of 1648-54. There are different versions in various Ashkenazi European communities, and also El Maleh shares many phrases with the Sephardic Hashcavah or Ashkavta Prayer — including Adonai Ho Nachalto.

It is impossible to know who placed that particular Torah-anchored statement on nachalah near the conclusion of the prayer. But what we can know is how we feel upon being told that we will gain direct access to God even as we give up our animated physical presence on earth. And so too regarding the beloved person whose death removes them from the three-dimensionality of our lives and world. Just as the Levites are not dispossessed but instead possess differently so the dead person’s neshamah gains possession of God.

Back when that bold assertion in the El Maleh prayer jumped out at me, I felt immediately strengthened. At age 69, I was moving toward retirement, but in good health and full of possibilities. I was definitely aging but not yet old; aware of death but not yet like The Tempest’s Prosporo, who will “retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.” Several years earlier, the premature death of a younger study-partner colleague had shaken me toward focused thinking about mortality, which crystallized as something like this: The aspect of myself I most treasure is my inner life — the running discussion within my head and sense of being myself that reaches out to others and enjoys its own company. Surely this consciousness is bound up with my brain, which is part of my body, and so it could hardly transcend death.

From there, I reasoned that any existence beyond death must be im-personal, simply as part of the great web of life. Such speculative reasoning left room for a diffused connection to God, but it seemed very abstract and not very Jewish. Somewhat later, when beginning to do meditation, I strove to direct my ruach-breath toward the overall breath of life; to link my neshama-spirit with the Great Spirit. This often failed but the striving was still meaningful. The idea that Adonai will somehow be my inheritance when my time comes has helped me along, even when my sense of God wavers. I have emerged convinced, not rationally but intuitively, that if God exists, then we who are somehow made in God’s image must have an enduring existence beyond the grave.

When our family experienced death during the past year, I took great comfort in the final verse of Adon Olam, especially its opening line: B’yado afkeed ruchi: “In God’s hand I place my soul,” as well as in the idea that the departed would be “bound up in the bond of everlasting life.” But more than any other liturgical touchstone, El Maleh Rachamim helped me by proclaiming, loud and clear, that Adonai’s enduring presence comes to the dead person as a kind of delayed birthright, an inheritance that will endure into eternity.

As the year 2022 has continued, with Covid still a force and time moving relentlessly on even as our sense of time distorts, I have continued to reflect on mortality. I have come to believe that something like a soul exists within myself and others,

that these souls survive death of the body and its brain, and that souls released from physical boundaries may encounter one another beyond earth. I envision a baby emerging from the womb as containing soulful raw material that earthly living shapes into a personalized soul. The best expression of this idea that I know is in one of John Keats’ letters, where he writes: “Call the world if you please ‘the vale of Soul-making’.”

I pause now to articulate a question that may already have occurred to some of you: On this holiest day of the Jewish year, when we gather to confess and be renewed as a community within the Jewish People, why does Susan Laemmle present a largely anecdotal account of her personal spiritual development? Not merely to express myself I hope, but to speak out about how the death of people we love connects to our own eventual death — and how thinking through our views of mortality and immortality can provide both comfort and reassurance.

Of course, love and memory also matter. We remember the dead and hope to be remembered after we pass away. We hold onto the experience of loving someone even after their passing; it endures within us and influences us towards good. We give charity and do righteous acts with the dead person in mind. But loving memory is not everything. And for me at least, it is not enough. I need, and thankfully I have managed to find, a silken cord to hold onto — a cord woven from texts and inner experience and sources beyond explanation. I believe that such a cord is there for each of us, but we must weave it ourselves.

My library contains a good many books about these topics. It’s worth knowing how Jewish views of an afterlife have evolved and diversified over the decades and centuries; worth reading how saying Mourner’s Kaddish has been deeply meaningful for even unobservant Jews; worth learning how others have coped with loss through strengthened communal ties or Torah study or acts of Lovingkindness. I find such material interesting and sometimes helpful. But mostly in addition to Jewish primary sources, it’s poems that really help, especially in the dark hours. The best of them buffer loss with beauty, reassuring us in a way different from the Kaddish and yet fundamentally the same.

Let me end, then, with a poem. A very short poem whose nuanced slant on death and life doesn’t quite line up with

this Dvar Torah, but whose near-perfection nonetheless makes it a fitting companion piece to El Maleh Rachaimim.

Here is Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment”:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah, Shanah Tovah ooh’metukah.








Shabbat Sukkot

Shabbat Sukkot

By Joel Goldstein, October 15, 2022, 15 Tishrei 5783

Shabbat shalom, moa’dim l’simcha. 

I want to explore two problems: the timing of Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei and the lack of a festival to celebrate the culminating event of the book of Exodus: the building of the Mishkan. Using a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s on Song of Songs, I want to solve both of those problems and use that solution to reframe (no pun intended) Sukkot to give it some additional meaning.  

The timing of Sukkot is strange. I understand that it is a harvest festival – חג האסיף – according to its first two mentions in Exodus, one of which is included in today’s Torah reading. But in neither of those mentions is a date given for the festival. Further, once we get to Leviticus and the holiday becomes about the sukkot in which God caused us to dwell in the desert, there is no necessary reason given for the holiday to be in Tishrei. It should probably be in Nissan, in springtime. 

Sukkot should be in springtime because that is the moment when God first made us dwell in sukkot. Traditionally, there is a Rabbinic debate between Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Akiva (who has which position depends on the text) regarding these sukkot. One opinion, which notices that the first place the Israelites go after leaving Ramses in Egypt is “Sukkot,” sees this not merely as a place name, but actual sukkot, actual huts, the Israelites dwell in before being pursued by the Egyptians and crossing the sea.  The second opinion sees the place “Sukkot” as merely a place name and the “sukkot” we dwelled in in the desert as the protection of God’s Clouds of Glory. The Shulchan Arukh rules on this debate that these “sukkot” were not actual sukkot, but actually God’s Clouds of Glory. However, those Clouds of Glory first appear as the people leave the place Sukkot and head for the edge of the desert. Either way, God has us dwell in “sukkot” immediately after the Exodus before crossing the Reed Sea. So the holiday of Sukkot should be part of Passover! Every spring we should be eating our matzah and reclining under skhakh while nervously watching for rain. So why is Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei?

Before we deal with that question, I have a second question. If we look at the book of Exodus, there are three major, positive events in the relationship between God and the nascent people of Israel: the Exodus, Sinai, and the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. That these three are the major events in the God-Israel relationship is mentioned by Nachmanides in his introduction to his commentary on Exodus. The first has a holiday celebration explicitly in the Biblical text: Passover. The second has a holiday celebration with Biblical origins which is connected in Rabbinic texts to the Sinai moment: Shavuot. The third, the building of the Mishkan, a portable home for God, seems to lack a holiday, despite its seeming importance. Sure, we do give it a minor celebration by not saying Tachanun starting at the beginning of Nissan when the Tabernacle was completed and first put into service. But surely an event as momentous as building a home for God deserves a holiday! So why doesn’t it have one?

Both of these questions are answered by a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s in his commentary on Song of Songs (1:4). He starts by mentioning my initial question: if the holiday of sukkot is about recalling God’s Clouds of Glory in the desert, why does the holiday take place on the 15th of Tishrei? Why not celebrate it in Nissan when the Clouds of Glory first appear? He answers that the Clouds of Glory left the Israelites at the sin of the Golden Calf, traditionally seen as occurring on the 17th of Tammuz. Several midrashim which add up the time it took for Moshe to clean up the mess of the Golden Calf, beg God for forgiveness, and spend another 40 days on Sinai receiving the second tablets, places God’s verbally forgiving the people and Moshe returning with the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur, the tenth of Tishrei. If you look carefully at the text, the Vilna Gaon points out, on the next day is when parashat Vayakhel occurs, when Moshe gathers the people to explain the building of the Tabernacle. Since the text tells us that the people brought their donations for the Tabernacle “בבקר בבקר”, “in the morning, in the morning,” he concludes it must have taken two days for the donations for the building project. (That’s a standard every shul wishes they could meet!) That brings us to the thirteenth of Tishrei. On the fourteenth all of the artisans who were working on the project sorted through the donations to ensure the proper amounts and weights. On the fifteenth of Tishrei, the first day of Sukkot, they began their project. According to the Vilna Gaon, it was only then, on the fifteenth of Tishrei, that the Clouds of Glory returned to protect the people in the desert. Which is why we celebrate Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei!

With this commentary, the Vilna Gaon has accomplished several things. First, he has connected our building temporary dwelling places for ourselves with our building a temporary dwelling place for God. And it answers my second question at the beginning of this sermon: we now have Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot each as a celebration of one the fundamental events in the God-Israelite relationship in the book of Exodus. 

What strikes me most about the Vilna Gaon’s suggestion is how he answers my first question. According to his interpretation, Sukkot is a holiday connected to a point towards the beginning of the process of reconciliation, but neither the beginning nor the end. It is neither the point when, midrashically, God verbally forgives us, nor the point of the completion of the Tabernacle when the relationship seems to be fully repaired. Instead, it occurs at the start of construction of the Tabernacle, a point when the Clouds of Glory return, a sanguine omen that there is hope for the future God-Israel relationship.

But the Mishkan is barely started and far from completed. This reframesSukkot. Sukkot is no longer, as I am usually inclined to see it, as the last holiday in the holiday cycle. Instead, it is the first physical manifestation of the hope that the relationships we broke last year and have spent time since Elul fixing, relationships which are just beginning to show the fruits of their repair, will remain unbroken. In that sense, the sukkah and the holiday of Sukkot become a celebration of hope that the newly restored relationships with God and with our fellow people will work out even though we don’t know that they will. We don’t know that all of the work we did over the High Holidays will last through the year. They may look good now, just as the return of the Clouds of Glory and the initial building of the Mishkan looked good for the Israelites and God.

But just as I suspect the Israelites and God (כביכול) did not know that their newly remanifested relationship would survive through the completion of the Tabernacle, we don’t know that our newly repaired relationships will survive until Passover. Likewise, every year we put up our sukkot not knowing if the weather, the bugs, or any other impediments will allow us to use them or God will chase us from them like a master throwing their drink back in a servant’s face. Nonetheless, every year we once again try to repair our relationships and we rebuild our Sukkot, just as the Israelites began building the Tabernacle not knowing how things will end. Even though this is a moment of unsurity, we make it into a moment to celebrate the beginning of possibility. And at this moment, I wish for all of you that your renewed relationships, with yourselves, with your fellow Jews, with your fellow humans, and with God will remain strong through 5783.

Shabbat shalom and moa’dim l’simcha. 


שמות פרשת משפטים פרק כג

(טז) וְחַג הַקָּצִיר בִּכּוּרֵי מַעֲשֶׂיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע בַּשָּׂדֶה וְחַג הָאָסִף בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה:

שמות פרשת כי תשא פרק לד

(כב) וְחַג שָׁבֻעֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ בִּכּוּרֵי קְצִיר חִטִּים וְחַג הָאָסִיף תְּקוּפַת הַשָּׁנָה:

ויקרא כג

(מב) בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת:

(מג) לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

במדבר סיני כד

(ה) מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:

ספרא אמור פרשה יב

למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים, רבי אליעזר אומר סוכות ממש היו, רבי עקיבא אומר בסוכות ענני כבוד היו, בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים, מלמד שאף הסוכה זכר ליציאת מצרים.

שולחן ערוך או״ח תרכה:א

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים”  וגו’ “כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל” , הם ענני הכבוד שהקיפם בהם לבל יכם שרב ושמש.

רמב”ן שמות הקדמה

וכשיצאו ממצרים אף על פי שיצאו מבית עבדים עדיין יחשבו גולים כי היו בארץ לא להם נבוכים במדבר וכשבאו אל הר סיני ועשו המשכן ושב הקב”ה והשרה שכינתו ביניהם אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם שהיה סוד אלוה עלי אהליהם והם הם המרכבה ואז נחשבו גאולים ולכן נשלם הספר הזה בהשלימו ענין המשכן ובהיות כבוד ה’ מלא אותו תמיד:

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת כי תשא

פסל לך, אימתי ירד משה מן ההר, אמר רבי יהודה בר שלום ק”כ יום עשה משה אצל הקב”ה כיצד בחדש השלישי לצאת בני ישראל וגו’ בששה בחדש נתן להם עשרת הדברות וכתיב בו ומשה עלה אל האלהים ועשה שם ארבעים יום כ”ד מסיון וי”ו מתמוז הרי מ’ יום, ירד בי”ז בתמוז ראה את העגל ושבר את הלוחות ורדה את הסרוחין י”ח וי”ט, וחזר ועלה בעשרים שנאמר ויהי ממחרת ויאמר משה אל העם אתם חטאתם חטאה גדולה ועתה אעלה אל ה’ וגו’ וכתיב וישב משה אל ה’ ויאמר אנא חטא העם הזה חטאה גדולה וגו’ עשה שם עשרה מן תמוז וכל חדש אב הרי ארבעים יום, עלה בר”ח אלול כשא”ל פסל לך והיה נכון לבקר וגו’ ויפסול וישכם משה בבקר ויעל, עשה שם אלול כלו ועשרה מתשרי וירד בעשור והיו ישראל שרוים בתפלה ותענית ובו ביום נאמר לו למשה סלחתי כדבריך וקבעו הקב”ה יום סליחה ומחילה לדורות שנאמר (ויקרא טז) כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר, ומיד צוה לו למשה ועשו לי מקדש…




By Joel Elkins, September 24, 2022

I don’t usually put much stock in serendipity, but sometimes the universe conspires to try to convince me otherwise.

A while back I was given the assignment to give the dvar torah today on parshat Nitzavim. That same day, I had picked up from the library the book for my book club. I debated whether to start in on the book or to get a head start on the drash. I flipped a mental coin and the book won.

So I opened to the first page of Jonathan Sacks’ “A Letter in the Scroll” which begins with the story of a 15th Century Spanish rabbi named Isaac ben Moses Arama who was – I kid you not — preparing his sermon on parshat Nitzavim. Good one, universe. You’ve got my attention.So Rabbi Arama is sitting in his study and he fixates on the opening passage, where Moses gathers all the Children of Israel and says to them:

Atem Nitzavim, you are all standing here today to enter into the covenant of your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant not just with those standing here today, but also with those who are not with us.

Rabbi Arama then asks the same question that countless commentators have asked before him: It just said everyone was standing there — men, women, children, tribal elders all the way down to resident aliens, woodchoppers and water bearers. Who then are “those who are not here”? And he comes to the same conclusion that many others, including Rashi, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra had come to before: this must be referring to future generations. The Talmud calls it “mushba ve-omed mi-Sinai” (already foresworn at Sinai). From the moment we exit our mother’s womb, for better or for worse, we are born into that covenant.

Later in his book, Rabbi Sacks asserts that the idea of a covenant between a people and its God is unique among the world’s religions. Ancient polytheistic religions believed that men were essentially serfs serving whatever god controlled the region. Christianity believes that man is tainted by original sin which only devotion to God can remove. Islam believes that man is called to absolute submission to God’s will. Judaism alone believes in a covenant, an ancient contract between the people and God.

But Rabbi Arama asks how future generations can be held to a contract that they did not agree to. The traditional answer is that the souls of all future Jews were present at that time, but they were not included in the “those standing here today” for the simple reason that they could not physically stand.
I’d like to offer a slightly different answer.

A little later on is the parsha’s most famous line:
הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ
I have put before you life and death
הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה
blessing and curse
וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

Generally translated: “then choose life—so that you and your offspring will live”

Based on this translation, the whole process smacks of coercion. Follow my commandments and you will live and be blessed, do otherwise and you will be cursed and die. Like that famous midrash about God asking the people to accept the commandments while physically holding Mt. Sinai over their heads. Being bound to a contract which was forced upon you under pain of death is no way to go through life.

But perhaps there is another, more uplifting, reading. But for that, I will need to talk a little Hebrew grammar. In the Torah, there is something called vav ha-hipuch, a vav before a verb which changes a future tense verb to past and a past tense verb to future. Thus, yomar means “he will say.” Va-yomer means “he said.” Similarly, in the verse I just read bacharta means “you (singular) chose”; so u-vacharta – “you will choose.” But since Moshe is making a plea not a prediction, most translations change it to the cohortative “choose” — choose life.

But consider this: what if this is not an example of vav ha-hipuch, but rather a plain vav ha-chibur, the simple conjunction “and.” Then the verse would read “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, and you chose life.”

In the traditional reading, life and death, and blessing and curse are seen as alternatives, choose (a) or (b). But in this alternative reading, as I will explain, they can be seen as two sides to the same coin.

In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a choice. You can abstain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and stay forever in the garden with all your needs provided for, or you may partake of the fruit of the tree and be banished from the garden, live on earth, till the soil by the sweat of your brow and give birth in pain. As we all know, they chose life.

I like to think of this not as a creation story but as a parable, that every soul is given this choice: you can remain an ephemeral, lifeless being and exist forever in the cosmos, or you can choose to live on earth, with all its ups and downs, its blessings and curses, life and eventual death. And of all the untold number of souls given this choice, only a small minority chose to take the red pill, choosing life with all its highs and lows, freedoms and restrictions, adventure and mortality. By very definition, each of us here is one of those bold few.

Perhaps this is what God, through his servant Moshe, was saying to the people then and, through our reading of this parsha each year, to us today. You knew the consequences of the choice I set before you and you chose life on this earth. But with that great power comes great responsibility. The price of experiencing this corporeal life is the occasional misfortune and heartache. Sure, follow my commandments and I will lessen those for you. But they won’t go away. They are, after all, a part of life.

In Jewish literature and liturgy, God is variously described as a master and we his servants, or as a king and we his subjects, or as a father and we his children. But according to Rabbi Sacks, the metaphor most embraced by the prophets is that of husband and wife, a covenantal relationship created and maintained by mutual commitment.

Married couples make a lifetime commitment to marry “for better or for worse, till death do they part.” But every now and then they may find it helpful to renew those vows. We have that same opportunity. Every year about this time, we participate in an intense 10-day couples’ retreat. We admit our mistakes from the previous year and re-commit to trying to do better this coming year. We share with our partner what we expect from them and listen to their needs of us.

Starting tomorrow evening, we will all be Nitzavim, standing before God in that annual couples’ retreat. As you beat your chest and try your hardest to be remorseful, imagine God saying to you: I set before you all the terms of the contract, life and death, blessings and curses. And with full knowledge of the consequences, you signed on the dotted line, you gave your informed consent, and you got life. Now, keep up your end of the bargain, and live it, fully and honorably.

Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

By Melissa Berenbaum, Oct. 1, 2022

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.

If I were to recount a story about a man who runs away from his responsibilities, only to find there is no escaping those obligations, you would say you know the story. It’s the story of Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur. The Book of Jonah is a parable, reminding us that it’s more or less impossible to ignore or turn away from God’s call and that God is merciful when we turn away from wrongdoing and evil and turn toward God.

But I do want to talk about another person, more contemporary, who may have thought he was running away from some of his commitments, but his running away was in fact running toward his responsibilities.

The year was 1973. The person is Leonard Cohen. He was then living on the Greek Island, Hydra, with a woman and their young child Adam, born in 1972. That life was already something of an escape for a man who grew up in Montreal in an Orthodox family at Sha’ar Hashomayim. His grandfather laid the cornerstone of the shul in 1921. At his bar mitzvah, Leonard Cohen was called to the Torah at Sha’ar Hashomayim – Eliezer ben Natan Ha-Cohen.

His life on Hydra, first with Marianne Ihlen (of the song Marianne) and then Suzanne (but not the same Suzanne of the song), was a simple, but hedonistic, life. He consumed a lot of drugs and created a lot of great music through the 1960’s. He was part of the same music scene that included Joan Baez, and he had achieved success and fame. But at 39, he was unsatisfied, unfulfilled and told people, including reporters that he was done with music and essentially had nothing more to say.

On October 6, Yom Kippur that year, Israel was attacked, as we all know, in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. Israelis living outside the country scrambled to get home to join their units. And facing middle age, trapped by a family, blocked creatively and fed up with what the music business had become, Leonard Cohen made his way to Israel, to his myth home, as he called it. He intended to volunteer on some kibbutz that he knew would be in need of workers to replace the men who were being called into service. So done was he with music that he didn’t even bring a guitar with him.

Is he running away, or is he answering a call? Maybe he is more like Avraham… Hineni.

He had no specific direction when he got to Tel Aviv and went to a Café where he was recognized by some Israeli musicians – Ilana Rovina and Oshik Levy and they invited him to join as they were going to play concerts. He initially demurred, but after they requisitioned a guitar for him, he joined them.

We all probably have some familiarity with the USO shows that provide live entertainment to American troops serving abroad. These are lavishly produced entertainment spectacles that have been done since World War II. I remember them from the Vietnam era because they were filmed and then broadcast on American television.

Well, Leonard Cohen, Ilana Rovina, Oshik Levy and they were joined by Matti Caspi, were a long way from the USO shows. The first couple of concerts took place at air force bases, in a movie theater or similar auditoriums.

And almost from the start, Cohen’s inspiration and creativity were re-ignited. He began sketching out “Lover, Lover, Lover” on the first day he played and introduced it at the second show at Hatzor Air Base. Here are some of the lyrics:

I asked my father, I said “Father, change my name.”
The one I’m using now it’s covered up with fear and filth and cowardice and shame.
The refrain: Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, come back to me.

Matti Friedman, author of Who by Fire – Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, speculates that this verse relates to the widespread practice of exchanging diaspora Jewish names for Hebrew names, as part of the process of integration and assimilation into Israel. We all know Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir.

And a later verse:

And may the spirit of this song
May it rise up, pure and free
May it be a shield for you
A shield against the enemy

Cohen wrote in his notes that he hoped that this song might offer protection to the soldiers about to embark on their missions. Did he really think a song could protect soldiers facing war? Or was he fulfilling his responsibility and obligation, as a Cohen, to offer the priestly blessing to the soldiers who were about to embark on life-or-death missions?


And the refrain…. Lover, lover, lover, lover (and a few more) come back to me. We don’t know exactly the context. It could evoke God’s presence as in Shir Ha Shirim, or a conventional expression of one missing another, as a soldier missing a girlfriend.

It’s well documented that the concerts had a big impact on the soldiers. The music provided an escape – from the danger, the threat of death, the reality of death and injury. And Cohen was well known in Israel, having performed there in 1972 and through his albums.

Matti Friedman’s book recounts many of the concerts – none of which were filmed or taped. He tracked down soldiers – now grandmothers and grandfathers – who attended these concerts, most of which were in the Sinai, closer to where the battles were being waged. They were impromptu performances, with little equipment like speakers and lighting. Oshik Levy’s description of a typical concert – an officer takes them in the desert at night in a truck. “The front is close but he doesn’t know how close. They stop by a few big artillery guns clustered in the sand. Everything is completely black. Does anyone want to hear some music? Some dirty soldiers gather around.” He “builds a stage of ammunition crates and arranges a truck’s headlights for illumination. They start singing. Suddenly an artillery officer says politely, ‘Can you stop for a moment,’ and shouts ‘Gun three!’ The ground shakes and the air ripples with the force of a projectile. Everyone is deafened for a few seconds. They begin singing again.”

The memories of those who saw Cohen perform are sharp and precise. A soldier named Shlomi recalls an attack on the Africa side, after Israeli troops had crossed the Suez. An Egyptian plane overhead, firing at the soldiers below. One soldier manning a machine gun on an armored personnel carrier shot the plane down. Later Shlomi, after roaming through the desert looking for fuel cans returned to the improvised base camp and recalls hearing a voice. He said he felt like Moshe, hearing the voice and he walked toward it. He saw someone sitting on a steel helmet resting on the sand, with a guitar, singing – it was Leonard Cohen.

There could be much to say about the battles of the Yom Kippur War – 2600 lives lost. How perilously close Israel was to the precipice. And I’m sure many here (not including those in the 20s and 30s group, and I would add even those in their 40s) can remember where they were and how they learned that Israel was being attacked and what they did to offer help and resources to the Jewish state.

But this is about Leonard Cohen’s journey and the significance and impact his experiences in Sinai had on him and its relevance to this season of return and repentance. Cohen was reluctant to talk about his experiences in the Yom Kippur War, of being up close to war and its horrors, to see young men die. He did return to Hydra, to Suzanne and Adam, probably to appreciate the mundane and ordinary, which is what the war was waged to protect. They had another child and he began writing music again…. he had something to say. This rebirth gave us “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” and so many others.

So we come to Cohen’s version of the U-ne-taneh Tokef…. Who By Fire. He wrote it just months after his experiences in the Sinai. And it was released in 1974 on the first album following the war. Think about the prayer, recited on Yom Kippur and shortly after, Israelis learned the nation was under attack. From the shul to prepare for reserve duty – nothing could be more dramatic, more real than listing the ways peoples’ lives could end in the coming year and going off to defend your country.

Cohen, who grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and knew the prayer, its meaning and significance – all knowing God who inscribes and seals mortals for the coming year, who will die and who will be born, who will die in the right time and who will die an untimely death, who by water, who by fire …. And you know the rest.

He took that prayer with his experience in Israel, among soldiers, and gave us Who By Fire –

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

Matti Friedman tells the story of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, that tragically lost 11 of its young men in the Yom Kippur War – the next generation of the kibbutz. This was a particularly secular kibbutz where the members didn’t really observe Yom Kippur. After the war, Yom Kippur became a day of mourning on the kibbutz. Some years later an Israeli songwriter, Yair Rosenblum, visited Kibbutz Beit Hashita where he wrote a new melody for the U-netaneh tokef. He combined European cantorial melodies, Sephardic tunes and modern Israeli music. That melody is used in many Israeli synagogues. And then Israeli singer Aya Korem translated Cohen’s song into Hebrew and layered it on to Rosenblum’s melody. Listen here.

Leonard Cohen seems like Jonah – in that he tries to escape. But his escape route brings him right back to his roots, to who he is. He had to go back out on the road doing concerts around 2009 when he discovered his manager had stolen his savings. He played in Israel, and if you go to the Anu Museum in Tel Aviv, you can see a clip from that concert at the end, when Eliezer Ha-Cohen raised his hands, parted his fingers and blessed the crowd with the Priestly Benediction and left the stage.

May our t’shuvah be meaningful and fulfilling. G’mar hatimah tovah. Shabbat shalom.

Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen, September 17, 2022

You see that little bracketed word in the Prayer for the State of Israel? שתהא ? I saw that word for the first time 4 years ago when we came back to LA. I don’t like that word!

That word takes the assertion – that Israel is ראשית צמיחת גאוּלתינוּ reishit tzemichat geulataynu­… the initial sprouting or flowering of our redemption – and pivots away from it, turning it into a hope: “may it someday be” the place of our flowering redemption.  תפילה לשלוֹם מדינת ישראל

The prayer was written by Israel’s chief Rabbis Yitzhak haLevi Herzog and Ben Zion Meir Uziel, and had the support of various Rabbinic groups around the country. It was first published in the religious Zionist newspaper Ha-Tsofeh on September 20, 1948. We are 3 days away from the prayer’s 74th anniversary

Even with all that Rabbinic support, this prayer was not universally accepted. Why? Because people have been debating the concept and the timing of Geula — redemption — for centuries.

Geula can refer to several things: physical freedom (like escaping Egypt), or leaving Galut (the Diaspora) to go to Israel. Some say it refers to the ultimate perfection of humanity preceding the Messianic Era.

For some, Geula required introductory conditions, referred to as Ithalta d’Geula, to be in place, such as fruits and plants being tended again in the Land of Israel or new building projects happening in the city of Jerusalem, or people moving to Israel.

It’s important to note, though, that these conditions rely on human activity. But there were opinions that any human intervention in the process of Geula was not just irrelevant, but harmful. Here’s just one thread:

The following verse in Shir HaShirim is repeated three times:

הִשְׁבַּ֨עְתִּי אֶתְכֶ֜ם בְּנ֤וֹת יְרוּשָׁלַ֙͏ִם֙ בִּצְבָא֔וֹת א֖וֹ בְּאַיְל֣וֹת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה אִם־תָּעִ֧ירוּ
וְֽאִם־תְּע֥וֹרְר֛וּ אֶת־הָאַהֲבָ֖ה עַ֥ד שֶׁתֶּחְפָּֽץ׃

I adjure you (or make you take an oath), O maidens of Jerusalem,
By gazelles or by hinds of the field: Do not wake or rouse Love until it please.

Rabbi Yosi in Ketubot 111a claimed that these verses represent three “oaths,” two of which were binding on the Jewish People. One of them is  שֶׁלֹּא יַעֲלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחוֹמָה meaning that Jews should not ascend to Eretz Yisrael “as a wall” — in a large group- but little by little. The second oath is that Jews will not rebel against the rule of the nations of the world. Pushing for a wholesale return to the Land, and establishing a new State of Israel, were seen as breaking these promises.

This is why, even now, 74 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, many Orthodox Rabbis believe that there is still no halakhic obligation for anyone to move to Israel.

So how could Rabbis Herzog and Uziel make the claim that Israel is Raysheet Tzmichat Geulataynu- the beginning of our Redemption?

Here’s a story: Rav Herzog was in the US in 1943 as the Nazis were moving into North Africa. People begged him not to go back to Israel because it was too dangerous. He said, “The Nazis won’t go into Eretz Yisrael.” Where did that come from?

It came from the Ramban’s commentary on Vayikra 26:16. In what probably sets a record for the longest Ramban comment, he says that there are two tochechot (or rebukes) in the Torah (B’chukotai and Ki Tavo­ – this week’s pasha), each of which mentions exile as a punishment for not observing the Torah. Since it only mentions two exiles, with only the second one being a complete redemption (what Ramban called a havtacha shleima – a full promise) we can assume there won’t be a 3rd.

Another source comes from the book of Amos 9:15

And I will plant them upon their soil, וְלֹ֨א יִנָּתְשׁ֜וּ ע֗וֹד מֵעַ֤ל אַדְמָתָם֙ Never more to be uprooted from the soil I have given them.

And in Sefer Yechezkel 36:8 on, v. 12

 “I will lead the people—My people Israel—to you (the Land), and they shall possess you. You shall be their heritage, וְלֹא־תוֹסִ֥ף ע֖וֹד לְשַׁכְּלָֽם and you shall not again cause them to be bereaved.”

Rashi says that means, the people will not be driven out of the Land.

Arbabanel says: כי לא ילכו עוד בגלות – They will no more go into exile.

And the Malbim says the Land will be from that moment on a ירושה עולמית – a forever inheritance.

In 1967 Rav Shlomo Goren channeled Rav Herzog’s reasoning when he predicted that while the Arabs would soon invade Israel, they would not prevail. Why? Because there could never be a 3rd Hurban – destruction.

Rabbis have debated the value and potency of the Torah’s curses and predictions for centuries. Some say prophecies of punishment can be reversed… by doing Tshuva…look at Sefer Yonah. Some say a positive prophecy (like Amos and Yehezkel) cannot be canceled under any condition.

And some argue that prophecies weren’t guaranteed because they were often conditional.

That’s why, as early as 1956, Rav Soloveitchic wrote that while God had invited the Jewish People into a relationship, including settling the Land of Israel, after 8 years of the new State, the Jews hadn’t responded strongly enough and that there was a need for further spiritual elevation.

So, that little word — שתהא — that someday the State of Israel might be or would be the initial sprouting of our redemption — leaves us with some questions.

Are we waiting for God or are we in the middle of Geula? If so, how long will it take? Is there something we should be doing?

Or, as Rabbi Stewart Weiss phrased it: Have we entered the Messianic Age or is this just “Galut with a Kotel?” His answer: we have entered the process of geula, but redemption is a just that, a process, not perfection.

I understand both sides to this issue. It is only natural for us be wary of reading God into specific events or agendas. We’ve seen too much of that, in the U.S. and around the world. And we have our own history of false messiahs, generational trauma, and cynicism; too much to blindly accept such a huge theological shift.

But for those in doubt, for those who don’t want to go “all in,” Rabbi Alan Haber offers an interesting intellectual bridge. He quotes the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim that someone who compels all of Israel to follow the Torah, and fights on behalf of God, can be considered b’hezkat mashiach – a tentative, presumed Messiah, even if he performs no miracles, and no matter the outcome. This was based on his analysis of Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiba thought was the Messiah, at least until Bar Kochba was killed in battle.

Rabbi Haber suggests that because we are witnessing the fulfillment of so many Biblical prophecies we should see ourselves as b’hezkat ithalta d’geula – we should presume or act as if we are at the beginning of the geula, and we should do everything we can to move things along.

I like this idea. It’s motivating, it elevates our actions, linking them to a greater cause, for both Israel and all of humanity. It’s a very reasonable “as if” approach.

By way of comparison, look at the Prayer for Our Country in the Siddur. The founding fathers, with their deist theology, didn’t assume for a moment that God had a special relationship with the U.S. When we ask for God’s help in bringing about peace and justice in our country, we are basically asking God to maybe step in once in a while.

Let’s face it: Israel’s challenges are many. The government there does things that drive us crazy! And God, for some reason, refuses to issue regular updates about where we are on the Geula timeline. But to use a version of T’filla l’shlom Medinat Yisrael that treats Israel as if it’s just another country, waiting for God to someday get involved, makes me uneasy.

Remember what Yaakov said, having spent his first night away from home and seeing the ladder up to heaven in his dreams?

אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣ש ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי

“Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know [it].”

Yaakov, at that moment, pivoted in terms of how he understood what he was living through.

Herzog’s original prayer challenges us — every week — to pivot — to pivot away from doubt and historical fear, and to step towards understanding the founding of the State of Israel, with all its warts and wonders, as the beginning of a divine process which just might generate some faith for the future.

As we get further into the High Holiday liturgy, it’s important to remember that each word we say, or don’t say, can make a world of difference.

Shabbat Shalom





By Henry Morgen, August 13, 2022

Shabbat shalom. I’d like to remember my father-in-law, Hank Weiss, on the occasion of his yahrzeit that we observed a couple days ago. Here are a few words about him: Hank grew up in New York. He was trained as a weather forecaster in World War II, stationed in Greenland where he helped our forces anticipate adverse weather conditions from D-Day and beyond. Upon returning to the United States, he joined his family that had moved to Los Angeles, and completed a degree in meteorology at UCLA. He served as a weatherman and on the SCAQMD for a period of time. Later he was a rocket test site safety engineer for Rocketdyne. He headed-up several different departments there, and after a brief retirement, he went back to work for the Aerospace Corporation supporting the space shuttle program. He was always interested in people and was skilled at talking with nearly everyone on nearly any topic. Where he had strong differences of opinion, he generally found ways to shuttle them to the side rather than unnecessarily heat things up. In his later years he returned to painting and drawing. He kept in touch with friends and relatives via eMail and phone calls. For the last couple decades of his life, he was considered the patriarch of the family.

Turning to this parsha, it is totally loaded with material to discuss. It would take days to really deal with all of it. It’s got G!d reiterating to Moshe that he’s not going into the promised land. It speaks of the incredible and amazing power of G!d and how generous G!d has been to the Israelites. It’s got the second recitation of the decalogue. It’s got the Sh’mah with the v’ahavtah. It’s filled with Moshe reminding the people about all the places they’ve been and how they’ve behaved over the 40-year wandering. And in multiple places it anticipates the lack of faithfulness to G!d that will come once the people are in the land.

Today I’m just going to focus on the opening lines of our parsha and see what we can learn from Moshe’s relationship with G!d as he pleads, one last time, to enter the land. For context, let’s recall that Moshe is the youngest and last remaining sibling in his family. His older sister, Miryam, one of the people directly responsible for saving his life as an infant and the source of water during the travels through the desert according to the Midrash, died shortly after we learn how to perform the ritual of purification. It is this ritual that informs us how to prepare a body for burial. Now the people are without a water well, and this leads to the second “water from the rock” incident. G!d decrees that both Moshe & Aharon will die in the wilderness. In fact, Moshe is directed by G!d to walk away from the camp and transfer the priestly vestment to Aharon’s son, Eleazer. There Aharon is to be buried. Now Aharon, his older brother who was his spokesman to Pharaoh and who’s lineage will inherit the priesthood, is gone. Moshe is now alone. There is no mention of his parents coming out of Egypt. There is no mention of his sons after the revelation at Sinai. He’s already been told by G!d, at the same time that Aharon was told, that he would not be entering the land. There is a succession plan in place: Jehoshuah ben Nun will take the helm as they conquer the land. Furthermore, in the last few verses of our last chapter he has just reminded the people of the successes G!d has afforded them to take possession of land on the east bank of the Jordon. The conclusion of the long struggle to guide this often-rebellious people to the promised land is at hand!

Think of the frustration he must feel. He was raised in the court of Pharaoh and taught the tradition of the Hebrews by his mother at a young age. He attempted to right a wrong being done by a taskmaster and ends up being a fugitive to save his own life. He served as a shepherd for 40 years, which is quite a demotion from being treated as royalty. He was given a mission by “the one who will be who he will be” to take the Hebrews out of bondage by confronting the very dynastic leadership that raised him. He was reunited with his brother who served as his spokesman. He has defended both G!d to the people and the people to G!d for another 40 very challenging years. And now he’s being told, “mission complete. Your life will no longer be needed.”

Surely Moshe knows that human life is finite. And yet, he may have thought, to paraphrase Tevya: “What would be so tragic if I could live just a few months on the land itself?” G!d’s response is very curt: “Enough of this begging for more life.” G!d’s only compromise was to allow him to ascend a cliff and look at the land that the Israelites would soon inhabit. With this assurance in place, Moshe accepts his fate. He has argues and pleaded with G!d for 40 years. He knows his limits: what he can push for and where to hold fast. He now understands that with whatever time he has left, he must do all he can to admonish the people to be faithful to G!d and ethical with each other. It is from this realization that he begins his second rendition of recounting and paraphrasing the laws they have received with the hope that this generation will be more faithful to them than their parents had been.

Think of how both strong and humble Moshe had to be to pull this off. Unlike most people, he knows the end of his life is days or at most months away. He knows that the people depend on him as the conduit to G!d, especially now that Aharon and Miryam are no longer alive. He knows he must instill their confidence in Jehoshuah for the remainder of the mission to be successful. And he knows that the people’s faith in G!d and fidelity to the covenant is tenuous. Yet, he continues to teach and preach right up until the very end of his life.

And how do we honor such a person? One way is that we name the first five books of our Tanach after him. I have another couple insights to share that have also become embedded into our tradition. Back when Aharon died, we learn that he was mourned for 30 days. From this we learn that a brother (Moshe) is obliged to mourn the death of a sibling for 30 days. (Unfortunately, we don’t learn that about Miryam. We only learn that we should complain about not having any fresh water there.) But what about Moshe? He has no siblings, and we don’t have any information about his sons or his wife at this point. We learn that the community is obliged to mourn the passing of someone who has no specific relative for 30 days. And when does that 30 days start? They begin counting on the day of burial. We know when that was for Miryam and for Aharon based on the wording in the text. All we know is that Moshe went up to the mountain overlooking the land and never returned. We count the day after he left as the first day, because the text states that G!d buried Moshe there. And from this we learn that burying the dead is one of the highest acts of loving kindness that can be performed. Therefore, again, it becomes the community’s responsibility to see that one who dies is given a proper burial, especially if they have no family.

This would be a good time to plug the Hevra Kadisha, in which, with full disclosure, I am not currently a participant. For those that would be interested in learning more about it, there are several members among us who can further enlighten you. It is also important for us to continue to be the strong and engaged community we are during shivah periods. And I recommend that we think about how we could be a bit more supportive during the remaining 30 days of sh’loshim than we tend to be. Furthermore, as we grow older, I anticipate several of us, who do not have children, will outlive our relatives and spouses that would be obliged to formally mourn us. We may want to anticipate this and think about how we would commit to formally observing the sh’loshim period for one with no obligated mourner.

Our Torah continues to be an ever-renewing wealth of knowledge and inspiration every time we turn it over. I wish you all many more years of strength, prosperity and good health! Shabbat shalom.

Observations, Estimations and a Recommendation inspired by Parashat Pinchas

Observations, Estimations and a Recommendation inspired by Parashat Pinchas

By A.J. Happel , 23 July 2022

I dedicate this drash to my ma (aleha hashalom), Marta Leah bat Dov v’Cora. I wish to reassure everyone, I am not here to discuss current politics, nor to rehash decisions from 30 years ago. I welcome discussion of the numbers I cite – preferably after Shabbat.

The p’shat of Parashat Pinchas concerns names, numbers, the enumeration of available military personnel (at that time, all male) and sacrifices. As replete as this parasha is, it is severely limited; it only shows one side of the picture. For this drash, I have taken the liberty of estimating some numbers based on other sources to project more of the picture. But first, bear with me as I make a couple of obvious observations, before providing estimates and, as a consequence, a recommendation.

Observations and Estimates
First Observation

One hundred millennia ago, give or take 10,000 years, our forebearers brought forth on this planet a new species, human beings. And they’ve been doing it ever since. From that beginning until modern times, multi-generational families consisted of two groups, male and female, co-existing simultaneously together yet separate. Each group was constrained not to cross the line of behavioral norms for their assigned gender role. These norms were often regulated by overt means such as restrictions on apparel and on the use of tools and weapons.

The division between the groups is clearly represented in Torah, which admittedly was written primarily by, of and at least in some cases for men. Despite the extraordinary number of women named in Parashat Pinchas, we recognize that the numbers listed herein do not enable us to compare the two halves of society.

In fairness to Torah, women are rarely represented in history texts and scientific studies written prior to the 21st century. Even today, historical and statistical research funding is imbalanced, in part due to the significance of defense-related studies, which are still predominantly the domain of men. Many of these often publicly funded studies highlight the valorous sacrifices of men throughout history.

Second Observation

What about the women? There are fewer than 50 women listed by name in the Chumashim. Out of the 54 par’shiot, this parasha is singular in that it alone names 8 women: a religious prostitute, 5 upstart virgins, a woman who never dies and Moses’ mom. It’s a very diverse group. They were unusual by the mere fact that they were named. Yet we know little about them, what their lives were like, what chance they stood of living. We know even less about the masses of women, and men, who were not named. So, I estimated the likelihood for two gender-specific causes of death prior to modern times.

First Estimate

Let’s start with the men, by examining historical statistics for military combat fatalities, not for just one battle or war, but across broad ranges of time and geographical location. What danger did an average man face in military service? Did the average man actually serve in a military capacity? (3000 years ago – he probably did, at least once. 300 years ago – probably not.) I exclude the effects of plagues and other epidemics, which likely affected the civilian as well as the military population. Because of plentiful data availability, I cite herein statistics from what I would call proto-modern wars, namely the Crimean War and the U.S. Civil War. Granted ancient warfare differed significantly in scope, duration and nature from those of medieval and proto-modern warfare; but, I think we can assume that military fatality numbers in ancient times did not exceed those of the mid-1800s. In fact, I suspect they were in general lower. I stop at the year 1870 for two reasons: 1) because stopping at that date excludes the 20th century, which used heretofore unknown technologies and which would skew the fatality numbers for both military combatants and civilians; and 2) because I want to contrast military fatality numbers, which focus on men, against pregnancy fatality numbers from another set of estimates, which focus on women.

In the Crimean War, British fatalities in action and of wounds for those assigned to combat was 4%. In the U.S. Civil War, combat deaths were 6% for the Union and 7% for the Confederacy. These numbers prefigure the lethality of modern technology against Napoleonic military tactics (e.g., Charge of the Light Brigade and Pickett’s Charge). Hence, the per-war likelihood of our average man dying in combat was roughly 5%, or 1 out of 20. Although some men fought in more than one major war, most did not. The probability could be much higher for specific individuals and forces, depending on circumstances, geographical location and number of wars fought. These percentages do not include deaths by diseases, which accounted for 2 out of 3 military deaths in the U.S. Civil War. (For comparison, the fatality rate in WWI for the world’s mobilized forces was approximately 13%, a little less than 1 out of 7.)

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (zichrono livracha), as he pointed at the base of the back of his skull, taught that one should use one’s “reality checker”. I.e., does it seem correct? So, I want to add a quick reality check to the above. In the classical ancient period, the Romans considered decimation to be a devastating defeat. Decimation is the loss of one out of ten. Losing 10 percent of your army in a war was significant, exceptional, worthy of memorializing.

Second Estimate

To compare the challenges faced by the two halves of society prior to 1870, let us look at historical fatality rates due to reproduction. Finding sources for this is much more difficult. The World Health Organization has a lot of current data; but, historical data is very piece meal. I relied on studies done by researchers from Oxford University, based on records from 1800 to 1950, and I cut their plots off at 1870. I erred on the conservative side (using lower numbers). I also included a per pregnancy fatality rate from a Scandinavian study of circa 1800, which was considerably less than the Oxford rate. I will not spend time here on the details of what was included, what was not included, nor how I sifted through plots and synthesized results. Please see me later about those details.

Let me be clear, I did not do a research project on this. I just did some spreadsheet calculations using online information to get an approximation.

An approximate, admittedly imprecise, but I think accurate estimate of likelihood of fatality due to all pregnancies throughout the reproductive lifetime of the average woman prior to 1870 is 25%.

As the history books record, wars throughout history were gory. Not so long ago, so was childbirth. In some places it still is. Taboo as the subject was, the reality of what was happening in every household in every generation could not be completely ignored. The final reality check is hidden in Torah itself. The women’s mortality numbers are embedded in the stories of the four mothers. 1 out of 4 died.


So, what is the take-away message? What is the significance of this to Conservative Judaism and to us as members of this kahal? We are here because Conservative Judaism speaks to us, and we want to pass a fitting message on to the next generation.

The theological commitment of the Conservative Movement was “we affirm our faith in the Creator and Governor of the universe”. May I add, the manifestation of this faith was to maintain Halacha (or at least a knowledge of it), and to use Halacha to inform the ritual practices and the moral and spiritual processes of Jews living in the modern world? Conservative Judaism is a movement born of the human need to intimately remind ourselves of our past as we move forward in the modern world. We do this by offering prayers every day, individually and in daily minyanim. But we also must listen for the kol d’mamah dakah, the soft, elusive, ephemeral, resonating, permeating, penetrating message, which is the response to prayer.

From the Zugot 2100 years ago through the Rishonim several centuries ago, the rabbis formulated liturgy for the public to preserve and to perpetuate the faith. I cite my teacher, Rabbi Joel Rembaum, who scarcely a year ago reiterated in a zoom lecture that the most fundamental prayer of Judaism, the Sh’ma, is Torah text augmented by the rabbis to suit the needs of an evolving Judaism (and I add: the needs of evolving Jews), while simultaneously maintaining the uninterrupted integrity of any given line of Torah. This careful, painstaking development continues under the Acharonim to the present.

The Conservative liturgy has over time been refined to express an evolving understanding of historical liturgy and to address the concerns of modern Jews.  Our liturgy has been deliberately constructed to direct our thoughts and to remind us of our responsibilities. In addition to our duty to commit to serving HaShem and to healing this world, we also have a duty to remember our ancestors – all of our ancestors, and to honor their sacrifices. What better embodiment of Frankel’s “positive-historical Judaism” could there be than to honor the sacrifices of our forebearers? Since we cannot call them all by name, Traditional Judaism recites the archetypal names of the three fathers. The Conservative Movement also offers the recitation of the names of the four mothers as optional.

Now we are engaged in civil strife over reproductive issues; nonetheless, this is an age when medical technology can significantly reduce the dangers, including fatalities, of pregnancy, so much so, that even our awareness of the past dangers is slipping away. We are forgetting. To forget the sacrifices made by so many women for the sake of human existence would be inexcusable, even unforgiveable.

I therefore conclude that Conservative Judaism, by its raison d’etre, ought not to merely permit the inclusion of the Imahot. It ought to require the inclusion of the Imahot lest future generations forget the sacrifices of our foremothers. This would be fitting recognition of the sacrifices of the roughly one out of four women who gave their lives that we all might live.

As a layperson, I respectfully submit this suggestion to the Kahal for consideration. Shabbat shalom.

Shelach Lecha

Shelach Lecha

By Harry Eskin, June 25, 2022

Shabbat shalom.

This week’s parasha depicts a significant national calamity. When the time approaches for the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan, Moses sends twelve leaders of the people to scout the land and bring back a report. When they return, ten of the scouts say: Yes, the land does flow with milk and honey, but the inhabitants are big and powerful and we don’t stand a chance against them. Despite the protestations of Caleb and Joshua, the two dissenting scouts, that the land is attainable, the community gives up hope, weeping and lamenting: לוּ־מַ֙תְנוּ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם א֛וֹ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה לוּ־מָֽתְנוּ — “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we might die in this wilderness.” As punishment, God sentences the Israelites to forty years of wandering in the desert, leaving the adult generations to die without reaching the Promised Land. The people’s lament becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: וּפִגְרֵיכֶ֖ם אַתֶּ֑ם יִפְּל֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַזֶּֽה — “But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness.” The irony is striking: in their rebelliousness, the members of the generation of the Exodus, who had so recently been so near to holiness, miraculous redemption and Divine revelation, so drastically decline in their spiritual standing that in accordance with their own words they are condemned to perish while wandering in the desert.

Our Sages point out that the scope of this national calamity was not limited to the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. According to the midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah: וְאָמַר לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אַתֶּם בְּכִיתֶם בְּכִיָּה שֶׁל חִנָּם לְפָנַי, אֲנִי אֶקְבַּע לָכֶם בְּכִיָּה לְדוֹרוֹת — “The Holy Blessed One said to them, ‘You have wept for nothing in front of Me; I shall establish this night for you as one of weeping for generations.’” That night, the midrash specifies, was Tish‘a b’Av, which was decreed to be the date of the destruction of the Temple and the onset of exile from the Land of Israel — the land the scouts had rejected — in addition to numerous other devastations throughout history traditionally understood to have fallen on that day.

Today, in this country, we find ourselves experiencing a prolonged succession of national calamities, one on top of another. Massacres of innocent people, of children, while legally the stage is set for vast expansion in the proliferation of weapons of mass murder; assaults on the civil rights, liberties and basic humanity of many of our most vulnerable: immigrants, transgender people, gay people, people policed by law enforcement and people who are incarcerated; measures that respond to the crisis of homelessness not by helping to house people or provide them with basic resources but by punishing people for being poor in public; and, most recently, the denial of reproductive autonomy, namely the right to have an abortion, which, if carried out, will result in an increase in hardship, suffering and death among pregnant people — a burden that will fall particularly hard on the poor and on communities of color.

More and more, it seems like the country around us resembles סְדֹם — Sodom, whose sin the Sages understand to have been cruelty to the needy and the vulnerable. This sentiment is not far removed from another midrash on this week’s parasha, describing God’s reaction to the people scorning God’s Promised Land: אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֲנִי הָיִיתִי סָבוּר שֶׁאַתֶּם נַעֲשִׂין כָּאָבוֹת: כַּעֲנָבִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא הָיִיתִי סָבוּר שֶׁאַתֶּם נַעֲשִׂין כִּסְדוֹם — “The Holy Blessed one said, ‘I had thought that you [the Israelites] would become like [your] ancestors [who are described in the book of Hosea] “as grapes in the desert”; I did not think that you would become like Sodom.’”

At a time like this, the plight of the generation of the Exodus can feel somewhat familiar. Many of us here have more or less recent memories of bearing witness, in years and decades past, to some of the greatest glories in our country’s history: to the long-overdue and hard-won expansion and codification of civil rights for marginalized communities, to the attainment of reproductive rights, to the moments when our country came closest to fully living up to its stated values of liberty and justice for all. And it is almost unbearably painful for those among us who witnessed these victories, and those among us who fought and sacrificed to achieve them, to see them broken and undone, or dangerously close to the verge of it. Losing or coming close to losing things so foundationally important to us, facing this magnitude of harm, confusion and grief, can feel like exile, like being cast off to wander or perish in a wilderness.

But as hopeless as this situation might seem, it is of paramount importance not to give up. We should not follow the example of the Israelites in this parasha, who responded to a discouraging report by crying out that death would be preferable. Rather, we ought to follow the example of Caleb and Joshua, who stood up to the majority despite the risk, and were rewarded with a share in the Promised Land after forty long years. We ought to follow the example of Moses, who, when God proposed to wipe out the Jewish people and make a new, bigger and better nation for Moses, said no, pleading with God to use God’s Attribute of Mercy and spare the people. Moses understood that his people, in spite of its rebelliousness and its fall from grace, was nonetheless God’s people and still worth saving. The generation of the Exodus might have been denied entry to the Promised Land due to their actions, but their children were still worthy of it. And we, too, must stand up for each other and do what God commands us to do in the way we treat our neighbors, in the way we care for the most vulnerable members of our communities, in the way we must build a society on justice and compassion, no matter how high the odds are against our succeeding in doing so. It is appropriate to take time to grieve, as Caleb and Joshua rent their garments, but if we give up altogether, we doom ourselves to die in the wilderness, forfeiting the inheritance that was promised us.

This is why the parasha that begins with the calamity of the scouts ends with the commandment of tzitzit, which we recite daily. ​​וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת ה’ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם — “and it shall be your fringe, and you shall look at it and remember all of God’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and your eyes that you lust after.” וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ — so that you do not follow, or search — a clear echo of the scouts at the beginning of the parasha who went לָת֖וּר — to scout the land of Canaan and were led astray by their fear and doubt. It is vital to continue defending our values and to not give in to the prevailing forces around us and even within us that act contrary to them. And in order to help us stay on this path, God gives us this commandment as something we can always look at, something to remind us constantly of who we are and who God wants us to be. לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם — “in order that you may remember, and observe all of My commandments, and be holy to your God.” Does our destiny lie in exile in the wilderness, or in the Promised Land? Will we live up to the full potential of our peoplehood, or will we acquiesce to the policies of Sodom? It is our choice to make. The task ahead of us, to stand up for righteousness and justice in the face of calamity and adversity, is daunting, but it is a necessary task, and a sacred one. Remember.

Shabbat shalom.