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By Rachel Rubin Green, January 15, 2022

After my Uncle Frank Forchheimer died in the year 2000, my parents and I cleaned out his apartment. Among a stack of self-help books stored high up in a hall closet, we found a German Language Jewish Bible. Leafing through this Bible, my mother suddenly collapsed on the couch. “I can’t believe he still has this,” she said. “I remember when some old man came to our house and gave it to him. The man was the leader of what was left of the Coburg Jewish community. It was just a few weeks before Frank left.” Then my mother flipped to inscription on the title page, showed it to me, and translated, “To Franz Forchheimer, that you should always remember the Jewish Community of Coburg. Signed Dr. A. Masur, Spokesperson.” The inscription was dated the 15th of Shevat, Tu’B’Shevat, 5699; the 4th of February, 1939. That this man, Dr. Masur, came to the Forchheimer family home and gave Uncle Frank this Bible was the sum total of Frank’s Bar Mitzvah.

Some years later I looked up which Parsha would have been read on that day on the Hebcal website. It would have been today’s Parsha, BeShalach. As many of you know, I occasionally write stories based on the snippets of Jewish life in Nazi Germany that I learned from my mother. In trying to flesh out these stories, with characters, scenes and conversations, I wanted to create a conversation based on a verse or event in the Parsha that might have occurred between young Franz and Dr. Masur during his visit. I also try to develop the personalities of the characters to be consistent with the individuals that I knew as adults. As an older man, Uncle Frank was active in local Jewish Philanthropy and also regularly attended a weekly Torah study group at his synagogue. Therefore, I wanted this invented conversation to promote a young man’s interest in further Torah study.

I was immediately struck by the verse early in the Parsha, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the Children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’” (Chapter 13, verse 19). In my fictional scene, I focus only on the first phrase of this verse, using the image of the Israelites carrying Joseph’s bones out of Egypt with them as a springboard for Dr. Masur and Franz to discuss what Franz should take with him when he leaves Germany on a Kindertransport. My imagined scene ends when Franz wraps this Bible in his pajamas and tucks it into the satchel he packs for his journey. Over 60 years later, when he died in Columbus, Ohio, he still had it. Since I wrote this scene, Parshat BeShalach is invariably tied to remembering my beloved Uncle Frank. I speak today in his honor.

Today I want to explore this same verse in greater depth. And I want to thank both my sons for their help, intentional or not, in preparing these remarks.

Stevie reminded me that this verse includes a restatement of the second to the last verse of Sefer Breshit, Genesis 50:25, “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’” The verse in BeShalach adds one word to the quote from Breshit, the word “Et Chem,” with you, the you in the plural. The Siftei Chachamim, in discussing Rashi’s comments on this verse, say that the Et Chem is added to mean that the bones not only of Joseph, but also of all his brothers should be brought out with the Israelites in the Exodus. This would make at least 12 of the Israelites responsible for carrying bone boxes, not just one.

The Rabbis often focus on duplicated words in the Torah. Both iterations of this verse have the phrase “HashBayAh, HeeshBeeAh,” from the root Shin Bet Ayin, which means to swear. Rashi and Siftei Chachmim see the repetition as Joseph asking his brothers to swear to make their children swear this same oath; to bring his, and theirs, including the brothers, bones out. After all, Joseph, in asking his brothers to swear this, did not know how many generations would yet live in Egypt before God would intervene to bring Jacob’s descendants back to Eretz Yisrael. To make sure that Joseph’s bones are not forgotten, each generation of Israelites in Egypt must have repeated the same vow. A few commentaries cite this as the reason for the repetition of the word “to swear.”

The commentator Chizkuni has a more spiritual interpretation. In making his brothers promise to bring out his bones, Joseph is giving them an opportunity to complete their repentance for selling him into slavery to begin with. When Joseph is buried in the land of Israel, then the spiritual damage of the initial kidnapping and sale has been repaired.

Bringing us back to the story of the Exodus, Kli Yakar’s commentary says that Moses wanted to carry Joseph’s bones with him to guarantee the splitting of the Reed Sea. Moses was confident that the merit of Joseph would force God to split the sea. Rabbenu Bachya repeats this claim.

Rabbenu Bachya also notes that this verse names Moses individually. The previous Torah verse states, “The Israelites went up armed out of Egypt.” We know from other commentaries on other verses that as the Israelites left Egypt, they took gold and jewelry, their own and their neighbors, as their Egyptian neighbors mourned the deaths of their firstborns. In this verse, the Israelites also collect weapons as they flee. Rabbenu Bachya notices that while the Israelites are dealing with practical and material concerns of preparing for the journey; Moses, in locating and carrying the bones of Joseph, is occupied with spiritual matters.

Parshat VaYiggash, near the end of B’reshit, lists the names of the children and grandchildren of Jacob who settle in Egypt. In his drash on VaYiggash, our son Andy mentioned that only two women are named, Jacob’s daughter Dina and Serach bat Asher. Torah mentions Serach twice, once going into Egypt and once, in Sefer B’Midbar, coming out. This leaves a greater than 400-year gap for the authors of Midrash to play with. In our Torah moment, Moses needs to find the grave of Joseph. One Midrash tells us that Serach Bat Asher was the only Israelite alive at that time who had actually attended Joseph’s burial, so she was able to guide Moses to the correct place. Another Midrash says that the Egyptians had thrown Joseph’s casket into the Nile, and that Serach recited special verses to conjure it back to the surface so the bones could be collected. Either way, she remains a magical character, who facilitates taking Joseph’s bones with the Israelites on their journey.

Finally, Rabbenu Bachya also comments, “Joseph had acquired the merit of having brought his father Yaacov to burial in Eretz Yisrael; as a result he received the distinction of having his own remains taken out of Egypt by someone greater than himself, by Moses. Then, in return for having performed this commandment, Moses himself was interred by someone greater than himself, by the Almighty.” Here Rabbenu Bachya creates a hierarchy of merit based on burial practices. In his hierarchy, merit, or holiness, is increased by meeting the requests, commandments, or vows of the deceased regarding their preferred final resting place. While I might want think that burying my uncle or my parents according to their wishes increases my merit before the Holy One, thinking that would be a willful misinterpretation of traditional Halachic burial practices. It would also miss what I have come to think of as a primary lesson of this verse.

I started this D’var Torah with a lengthy explanation of how and why I attached to this verse. The opening phrase, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph,” is indeed a good starting point for discussing what to take while preparing to leave one home for another, however rapid the departure. But reading the complete verse, and learning some of the commentaries that I have shared, has given me a different, and I hope, deeper, understanding. Moses took with him the bones of Joseph because Joseph had exacted an oath from the children of Israel. Moses fulfiiled a promise made by his ancestors generations earlier. He met an obligation(s) his forbears had laid out for him.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Rachel Adler often says that “What makes Torah Holy is that it’s interpretations are infinite.” This exploration of a single verse is an example of this principle. Every time we engage in any ritual activity: prayer, discussion, study, and so on, we fulfill some obligations our ancestors laid out for us. In order to do this, we need to continue to engage with the Torah text – “La’aSok B’Divrei Torah” – to busy ourselves in words of Torah. Throughout our history, whenever and wherever Jews move, no matter what causes us to change our location in the world, we bring the book. This fulfills ancient promises for ourselves and sets a model for our descendants. We are the people of the book.

My uncle brought the book.

Shabbat Shalom.







Vayechi — December 18, 2021

By Rabbinic Resident David Kaplinsky

I spent this past week working my way through final exams for my third semester of rabbinical school. The week was filled with a lot of procrastination;  a good deal of stress and angst; little victories; very belated, but fascinating reading; and finally just yesterday afternoon a sense of relief and freedom. That was until I remembered that I had agreed to deliver a Dvar Torah for The Library Minyan. I kid only a little. But in the process of examining my week in the context of parshat Veyechi, I realized how its collision with the end of the year and many of our travels home is so apt.

In this Parsha, as we’ve just read, Yaakov is near death, making Yosef promise he will bury him in Canaan. He then wraps up loose ends, elevating the future status of the Ephraim and Menasheh as tribes and blessing them, followed by each of his sons. Within this narrative there is an apparently extraneous mention by Yaakov of how he was forced to bury Rachel by the side of the road in Bet-Lehem.

He says:

וַאֲנִ֣י ׀ בְּבֹאִ֣י מִפַּדָּ֗ן מֵ֩תָה֩ עָלַ֨י רָחֵ֜ל בְּאֶ֤רֶץ כְּנַ֙עַן֙ בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ בְּע֥וֹד כִּבְרַת־אֶ֖רֶץ לָבֹ֣א אֶפְרָ֑תָה וָאֶקְבְּרֶ֤הָ שָּׁם֙ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אֶפְרָ֔ת הִ֖וא בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם

“As for me, when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath”—now Bethlehem.”

Following after his designation of Ephraim and Menasheh as “his own,” the question arises: what is the connection between his designation of his grandchildren and his retelling the story of burying Yosef’s mother? The JPS translation used by the Etz Hayim humash packs a lot into the connective vav in va’ani, rendering it in brackets “I [do this because] etc.” This makes the verse a continuation of the previous discussion, and not a completely random statement. Though how exactly Rachel’s death on the side of the road is an explanation for elevating Ephraim and Menasheh to tribal entities is unclear. However, many of the major medieval commentators, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam, all see something slightly different in Yaakov’s sudden recalling of this tragic moment in his life. Ibn Ezra sums it up well. He says:

ואני בבואי מפדן. שמתה רחל פתאום ולא יכולתי להוליכה לקברה במערה כאשר קברתי לאה. ואמר זה ליוסף שלא יחר לך שאבקש מאתך מה שלא עשיתי לכבוד אמך

Rachel died suddenly and I was not able to transport her to the cave of Machpelah and inter her there, as I did with Leah. Jacob told this to Joseph so that he would not be angry with him for requesting that he do for him what he didn’t do for the honor of his mother.

Thus, according to Ibn Ezra, Yaakov’s reason in mentioning this was in order to broach the difficult subject of his burying Rachel on the side of the road before his death, since he had just previously asked to be buried in the family tomb himself. After forcing Yosef to swear he will bury him at Machpelah and designating his two sons as future inheritors, he realizes “the elephant in the room” that he will either address now, or die without having ever broached the issue with his son.

What Yaakov was looking for and hoped to grant Yosef was closure. Yes, they had been truly blessed to reunite and for Yaakov to see not only his son but live to see his grandchildren, but in order for Yaakov to be able to let go of this life fully, he had to confront a wound that was still open.

During these winter holidays, many of us will return to our homes and our families, we have an opportunity not just to bask in the comfort and joy that home can bring, but to tie up loose ends in our lives.

We need not be on our death beds like Yaakov to seek closure with or apologize to our family members for past behavior. This does not have to only come in the form of healing real wounds, which often can be difficult though important to broach, but it can also be in sharing words of love and appreciation that you have often felt but not articulated to them. This may not be possible for every person in your family, but where it is, seize it. Going through life holding on to grudges and anger, or holding back from expressing the love you feel keeps you from real freedom. Yaakov knew that. May we all find our own way to closure with our families and friends. Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Miketz

Parshat Miketz (5782)

The First Lesson in Public Administration
By Larry Herman, December 4, 2021

Shabbat Shalom.

Giving the drash on parshat Miketz (מִקֵּ֖ץ) when it coincides with Hanukah and Rosh Ḥodesh is a little bit like a doing a root canal – you all want this over with quickly. In fact, you’re probably wondering if it’s even necessary. Or, “where’s Mickey Rosen when you really need him?” He’s not here, so you’re stuck with me. But I’ll try to channel Mickey.

We’re in the midst of the Joseph Story, which I believe is the longest continuous narrative in the entire Torah if not the entire Tanach. It’s the dramatic story of family conflict, the astonishing rise of Joseph, and ultimately family reconciliation.

But I want to focus on another aspect of this story as told at the beginning of our parsha. Chapter 41 is, I think, the first lesson that we are given in the Torah about management, public administration, and even a little economics. And while I have not checked, I’d be surprised if management gurus like Peter Drucker or Steven Covey haven’t made reference to parts of the story in their books.

You all know the basics of the story:

  • Pharaoh has 2 dreams
  • Joseph interprets the dreams
  • Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge
  • And Joseph’s wise leadership saves Egypt, and not coincidentally, his own family.

But there is much detail in the story that can be used to illustrate good practice in management and public administration. It starts with the morning after pharaoh’s dreams in verse 8:

41:8                 … and [Pharaoh] sent and called in all the soothsayers of Egypt and all its wise men, and Pharaoh recounted to them his dreams.

Lesson:            Get advice! Call in your management team and technical experts when you have a problem.

Verse 8 continues:

41:8                 but none could solve them for Pharaoh

Lesson:            If you don’t know, don’t bluff. Pharaoh’s advisors admit that they don’t have any good answers.

41:9                 And the chief cupbearer spoke to pharaoh… 

Chief cupbearer? What CEO invites advice from his barkeep?

Lesson:            Empower your junior staff to speak up. Good ideas don’t always come from the top.

We skip to verse 14:

41:14               And Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph and they hurried him from the pit.

Lesson:            Be willing to seek outside counsel directly without hesitation. Pharaoh doesn’t send an emissary, ask for credentials, or schedule a meeting a week from Tuesday.

Verse 14 continues:

41:14               and [Joseph] shaved and changed his garments       

Lesson:            First impressions are everything. Good grooming and attire are essential. Joseph makes himself presentable and appears promptly. Pharaoh was impressed, so he asks Joseph

41:15               And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I dreamed a dream and none can solve it, and I have heard about you that you can understand a dream to solve it.”

Notice what Pharaoh does here:

Lesson:            State the problem, objectives and expectations clearly.

41:16               And Joseph answered Pharaoh saying, “Not I! God will answer for Pharaoh’s well-being.”

Lesson:            Be modest but positive. Joseph doesn’t make excessive claims regarding his skills while still expressing confidence in his ability to succeed in the assignment.

41:17-24         In verses 17 through 24 Pharaoh lays out the details of his dreams.

Lesson:            Provide your consultant with all of the information necessary for him to succeed in the Terms of Reference. Don’t withhold information or make him search for it.

41:25-32         Then in verses 25 through 32 Joseph explains the meaning of each of the dreams, part by part, telling him that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought.       

Lesson:            Present your report promptly and speak to the client in simple language that can be easily understood. Note also that Joseph doesn’t ask for more time or resources. Avoid project delays and cost overruns.

41:33               And so, let Pharaoh look out for a discerning, wise man and set him over the land of Egypt.

Lesson:            Establish the need for your services indirectly. Joseph introduces a role for himself without explicitly putting himself forward as the ideal candidate. Pharaoh will think that it’s his idea.

Joseph continues:

41:34-36         Let Pharaoh do this: appoint overseers for the land and muster the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them collect all the food of these good years that are coming and let them pile up grain under Pharaoh’s hand, food in the cities to keep under guard. And the food will be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine with will be in the land of Egypt, that the land may not perish in the famine.

What has Joseph just done?

Lesson:            Make an Action Plan! Joseph lays out step by step, an easily understood plan to deal with the problem.

How could Pharaoh respond other than…?

41:39,40          And Pharaoh said to Joseph, … there is none as discerning and wise as you . You shall be over my house and by your lips all my folk and be guided.

Lesson:            Look for talent and when you find it, give it authority. Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s brilliance and is willing to delegate authority to him with clear objectives.

41:40-41         “By the throne alone shall I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.”

Lesson:            Keep your management lines tight and avoid unnecessary intermediate levels of management. Pharaoh makes Joseph accountable directly to him.

41:44               And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand and had him clothed in fine linen clothes and placed the golden collar round his neck. And he had him ride in the chariot of his viceroy, and they called out before him, Abrekh, setting him over all the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh! Without you no man shall raise hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”

Lesson:            Ensure that the authority you delegate is clear. Pharaoh made sure that everyone would know the authority and power that he conferred on Joseph.

41:45               And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-Paneah,
צָֽפְנַ֣ת פַּעְנֵ֒חַ֒] and he gave him Asenath [אָֽסְנַ֗ת] daughter of Potiphera, [פּ֥וֹטִי פֶ֛רַע]priest of On, as wife.

Lesson:            Give people appropriate titles and compensation. Promotions to positions with meaningless titles are no substitute for a good salary.

And what’s the first thing that Joseph does in his new post?

41:46               And Joseph went out from Pharaoh’s presence and passed through all the land of Egypt.

Lesson:            Get to know the lay of the land before you start. By visiting the work site and the people Joseph gains the credibility he will need to implement his plan.

The chapter describes the specific policies that Joseph implements:

41:48               And he collected all the food of the seven years that were in the land of Egypt and he placed food in the cities, the food from the fields round each city he placed within it.

Lesson:            Government should purchase surplus crops to stabilize prices and farm revenue. Joseph was practicing good agricultural policy.

41:49               And Joseph piled up grain like the sand of the sea, very much, until he ceased counting, for it was beyond count.

Lesson:            Investing in storage capacity and maintaining strategic reserves is another part of good public policy for commodities.

And once the drought begins…

41:56               And Joseph laid open whatever had grain within and sold provisions to Egypt.

Lesson:            When there are shortages, release strategic reserves to stabilize prices.

41:57               And all the earth came to Egypt, to Joseph, to get provisions, for the famine had grown hard in all the earth.

Lesson:            International trade benefits all parties. Joseph permitted exports which strengthened and enriched the Egyptian state.

There’s more to the story, continued at the end of parshat Vayigash, when Joseph turns Egypt into a feudal state by acquiring all of the livestock, land and other wealth of the country, turning the people into slaves and sharecroppers. There’s a very different political economy lesson there, but I’ll leave that to the darshan next week to explain it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Esav Reconsidered

Esav Reconsidered

By Michelle K Wolf, November 20, 2021

When it comes to Essau, our sages never missed a chance to disparage him, and they projected all types of evil onto him. In fact his Talmudic nickname was עשו הרשע “Esav the Wicked”.

According to Rabbi Barry Dov Walfish at ,only a few other truly nasty dudes are given the same appellation:

  • Pharaoh (b. Sotah 12a), enslaver of the Israelites, murderer of their baby boys;
  • Balaam (m. Abot 5:19), who wished Israel evil, and managed to seduce them into idolatry;
  • Nebuchadnezzar (b. Berakhot 57b), destroyer of the First Temple;
  • Haman (b. Megillah 10b), who hatched a plot to destroy the Jews and convinced King Ahasuerus to enable it;
  • Titus (b. Gittin 56b), destroyer of the Second Temple;

In the Roman period, Edom and Esau come to represent Rome. While many factors led to this identification, one major factor was the position of Herod, who was appointed by Rome as the king of Judea, and who was from a family of Edomite/Idumean converts to Judaism.[8] He and his descendants were hated by many Judeans, and their acting as Roman proxies helped solidify the Edom = Rome equation.

The rabbis were heirs to the disdain for Herod, and the midrash and Talmud take the equation of Edom and Rome for granted. Living in the time after the destruction of the temple and the quashing of the Bar-Kokhba uprising, Rome, in the guise of Edom, was despised.

This negative view of Esav is expressed nowhere more forcefully than in Rashi’s commentaries, writing in the 11th century, Rashi has trouble saying anything good or even neutral about Esau. Conversely, Jacob is portrayed as a righteous soul without a blemish on his character. Although typically Rashi only made use of midrashic sources when they help to solve a difficult explanation of a text, or fill an important gap in the narrative,[15] it seems clear that when it comes to Esav, Rashi reads verses against their plain meaning in order to impress upon the reader the utter wickedness and depravity of Esau.. For example the midrash on Toldot which says that when the twins were in Rebecca’s womb, Esau kicked when his mother passed a pagan temple. Even more far-fetched, Rashi at one point argues that Essau’s redhair shows that he is bloodthirsty.

From his commentaries on Psalms and Isaiah it is clear that Rashi accepts the identification of Esau with Christianity/The Church, and seeks to give his readers encouragement by showing that in the end Israel will prevail, and the Christians, symbolized by Esau/Edom, will lose their advantage and their dominion will in the end be terminated.

But the constant drumbeat of negativity around Essau is a stretch at best. For example, although it is true that Esau said he will kill Jacob in retribution for his brother’s act of deception, the fact is that Esav takes no actions to kill Jacob, and when they ultimately reconcile in today’s parasha, Esau comes to greet him Jacob with great affection, albeit accompanied by a 400-strong security force.

בראשית לג:ד וַיָּ ָרץ ﬠֵ שָׂ ו לִ קְ ָראתוֹ וַיְחַ בְּ קֵ הוּ וַיִּ פֹּל ﬠַ ל צַ וָּארָ ו וַיִּ שָּׁ קֵ הוּ וַיִּ בְ כּוּ.

Gen 33:4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.[5]

And while the cynics among us might say that Esav shows affection only because of the many presents Jacob has sent to him, Esau clarifies that he has no need for those presents and is happy with his lot:

בראשית לג:ט וַיֹּאמֶ ר עֵש ָּ ו יֶשׁ לִ י רָּ ב אָּ חִ י יְהִ י לְ ךָ אֲשֶׁ ר לָּךְ.

Gen 33:9 But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.”

Later on, Esav is even described as joining Jacob in the burial of their father after his passing (Gen 35:29). All in all, this hardly seems like the portrait of a wicked villain.

The twins are presented as polar opposites: Esav is hairy, Jacob is smooth. Esav loves the outdoors and hunting, Jacob prefers to stay close to home in the tents and more of an intellectual. Jacob is a crafty, long term strategic thinker while Esav is more of a short-term, immediate gratification kind of guy, and so on.

Perhaps the most extreme difference is that their Dad Issac favors Esav and Mom Rebekkah favors Jacob.

This complicated sibling relationship culminates in this week’s wrestling match. Jacob’s opponent is Esav’s Guardian angel, some say Samuel. This seems to provide additional proof that Esav is a decent guy, meriting his own angel.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory has another take on the Jacob and Essau dynamic:

My argument is that we can only understand the (angel wrestling) passage against the entire background of Jacob’s life. Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. He bought Esau’s birthright. He stole Esau’s blessing. When his blind father asked him who he was, he replied, “I am Esau your firstborn.” Jacob was the child who wanted to be Esau.

Why? Because Esau was the elder. Because Esau was strong, physically mature, a hunter. Above all because Esau was his father’s favorite: “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Gen. 25: 28). Jacob is the paradigm case of what the French literary theorist and anthropologist Rene Girard called mimetic desire, meaning, we want what someone else wants, because we want to be that someone else.[1] The result is tension between Jacob and Esau which rises to an unbearable intensity when Esau discovers that Jacob has taken the blessing Isaac had reserved for him, and vows to kill him when Isaac is no longer alive.

Talk about your #dysfunctional family!

Another reason for the rough treatment of Essau is that the Rabbis thought that if Jacob is our hero, then his opposite character must be the villain. But really, if we just read the text, it is clear that Esav has both good and bad qualities, just like anyone else. He is more than ready to reconcile with his brother, who after all, stole almost everything that he was supposed to inherit.

In thinking about the Four Sons in our Haggadah, I would suggest that Esav is more of much more of the Tam then the Raasha.

Yeah, he made some bad choices when it came to trading his birthright away for a bowl of lentil soup and also in making appropriate decisions when it came to marriage, but overall, he’s a simple, loyal kind of a guy who matures and seems content with his own lot and mission in life.

It’s time to remove that nasty nickname of עשו הרשע and rebrand Esav as more of a middling soul who is just doing the best he can with the circumstances of his life.

Source materials

For example, Psalm 137, which describes itself as a dirge set in the Babylonian exile, accuses the Edomites of relishing Judah’s destruction:

תהלים קלז:ז
זְכֹר יְ־הוָה לִ בְ נֵי אֱדוֹם אֵ ת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁ ל ָ ִם הָ אֹ מְ ִרים ﬠָרוּ ﬠָרוּ ﬠַד הַיְסוֹד בָּ הּ.

Ps 137:7 Remember, O YHWH, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
–Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The sages said it was Samael, guardian angel of Esau and a force for evil (Bereshith Rabbah 77; Rashi; Zohar). Jacob himself was convinced it was God. “Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Gen. 32:31).

My argument is that we can only understand the passage against the entire background of Jacob’s life. Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. He bought Esau’s birthright. He stole Esau’s blessing. When his blind father asked him who he was, he replied, “I am Esau your firstborn.” Jacob was the child who wanted to be Esau.

Why? Because Esau was the elder. Because Esau was strong, physically mature, a hunter. Above all because Esau was his father’s favorite: “Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Gen. 25: 28). Jacob is the paradigm case of what the French literary theorist and anthropologist Rene Girard called mimetic desire, meaning, we want what someone else wants, because we want to be that someone else.[1] The result is tension between Jacob and Esau which rises to an unbearable intensity when Esau discovers that Jacob has taken the blessing Isaac had reserved for him, and vows to kill him when Isaac is no longer alive.

Jacob flees to Laban where he encounters more conflict and is on his way home when he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with a force of 400 men. In an unusually strong description of emotion the Torah tells us that Jacob was “very frightened and distressed,” frightened, no doubt, that Esau would try to kill him, and perhaps distressed that his brother’s animosity was not without cause.

Jacob had indeed wronged him. Isaac says to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” Centuries later the prophet Hosea said, “The Lord has a charge to bring  against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God” (Hos. 12:3-4). Jeremiah uses the name Jacob to mean someone who practices deception: “Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan; for every one of them is a deceiver [akov Yaakov], and every friend a slanderer” (Jer. 9:3).

As long as Jacob sought to be Esau there was tension, conflict, rivalry. Esau felt cheated; Jacob felt fear. That night, about to meet Esau again after an absence of twenty two years Jacob wrestles with himself and finally throws off the image of Esau that he has carried with him all these years as the person he wants to be. This is the critical moment in Jacob’s life. From now on he is content to be himself. And it is only when we stop wanting to be someone else (in Shakespeare’s words, “desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least”[2]) that we can be at peace with ourselves and with the world.



By Joel Elkins, October 23, 2021

The Lord appeared to Avraham at Alonei Mamre as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the mid-day heat.

He looked up and here were three men standing near him.  As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and bowed to the ground, saying, “Sirs, please do not pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and rest yourselves under the tree  And seeing as you have already come this far, let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; and then you can go on.”

“Very well,” they replied, “do as you have said.”

Avraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three measures of choice flour! Knead it and make cakes!”

Then Avraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it.

He took curds and whey and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.

Thus begins Vayera, the parsha which famously ends with the akeida, the binding of Isaac.  What, if anything, is the connection between these two bookend scenes?  True, it begins with the announcement of Yitzchak’s birth and ends with his near-death at the hands of the one to whom it was announced and at the bidding of the one who did the announcing.

But if that is all there is to it, why the Julia Child detail?  Why do we need to know the complete menu and the preparation that went into making it?  Why the cakes from choice flour and the calf and the curds and whey?

A number of possible explanations spring to mind:

  1. The prevailing view is that it is a lesson in hachnasat orchim, that one should not only invite in guests but go all out in attending to their needs and making them feel comfortable.
  2. Or, as Rabbi Kligfeld explained at the tribute to Michael Berlin last shabbat, it demonstrates the virtue of being modest in one’s promises and abundant in one’s delivery.  Avraham promises a modest piece of bread and delivers a feast.
  3. It could be to draw a comparison between Avraham’s morals and actions with those exhibited by Lot, and to contrast that with the prevailing habits of the Sodomites and Amorites in the following scene.
  4. Perhaps it is an example of why Avraham was worthy of having a child and being the father of a great nation.
  5. Or perhaps it’s something else.

Many people have commented on the fact that Avraham is serving meat and milk together in the same meal.  True, but let’s concentrate on the meat he serves.  “Ben bakar rach va-tov” (a young calf, tender and choice) sounds like a perfect description of veal.

On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Kligfeld gave a sermon about the benefits of vegetarianism and his journey to a plant-based diet.  In that sermon, he discussed how he considered Jewish dietary laws to be a compromise between all-out barbarity, like they practiced in Sodom and Gemorah, and vegetarianism, which was the ideal.  He discussed the notion that perhaps God had reluctantly given mankind animals to eat in order to satisfy their blood lust, but that this was far from God’s preferred relationship between man and animal.

During a sukkah meal the following week, Zwi Reznik, himself a vegetarian, told me that, when he had expressed to Rabbi Kligfeld how much he appreciated the sermon, and had recounted to him his own first step towards vegetarianism – swearing off veal – our mara de’atra’s response was immediate and succinct: “Veal is tref.”

Perhaps a bit of hyperbole or aspirational thinking, but there is certainly truth there.  There is more scriptural evidence supporting the notion that veal should be tref, than a cheeseburger.  After all, the law prohibiting eating meat and milk together comes from a very broad interpretation of the commandment “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

But such an interpretation is not in line with the spirit of the verse.  There are those who say the prohibition derives from the fact that such a practice was part of an ancient pagan practice.  But there is no support for that either in the Torah.

However, there is support for the idea that animals deserve to be protected.  The Torah’s prohibition against tearing a limb off of a live animal and the mandate to give your animals the shabbat off clearly shows concern for the ethical treatment of animals physically.  And the three repetitions of the verse not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk, along with the mitzvah of shiluach haken (chasing the mother bird away before taking her eggs) demonstrates a concern for the animal’s emotional wellbeing as well.  If you absolutely have to eat animals, do it mercifully and don’t add insult to injury by boiling it in its mother’s milk.  If you absolutely have to eat eggs, spare the feelings of the mother bird.

So where does this leave the eating of veal?

Recently a midrash on this story was discovered by the great Torah scholar Carl Dodi.  Translated from the ancient Assyrian, it goes something like this:

The three men partook of the meal which Avraham had laid before them.

“This is indeed choice flour baked scrumptiously into cakes,” said one.

“And these curds and whey could make a spider chase away a young child,” said the second.

“But what is this flesh?” asked the third.

“That is beef from my youngest and tenderest calfling,” replied Avraham.  “Freshly slaughtered and cooked to perfection.”

At this, Hashem took great offense.  “What did the mother cow say when you asked to take her calf?”

“I did not ask,” replied Avraham.

Hashem turned to his fellow travelers.  “I begrudgingly gave mankind animals to eat so they would not kill each other.  I had no idea they would turn it into a basic food group.  And a baby calfling nonetheless.”  At that moment Hashem had an idea.  Hashem would give Avraham a son, a single, dear, kind, thoughtful, precious child, whom Avraham and Sarah could love, raise and dote upon.  A son upon whom they could invest their greatest hopes and dreams.  And then, a few years later, before that son had even reached full maturity, Hashem would then instruct Avraham to slaughter that child, without explanation and without asking permission or input from Avraham.

And so God put this plan into motion right then and there, announcing to Avraham that his wife, Sarah, well past what was considered her fertile years, would bear a child within the year.

The Torah says the akeida at the conclusion of the parsha is God’s test of Avraham, a test which some people say he failed.  That rather than act with blind faith, God was hoping Avraham would push back against the decree, as he had pushed back against the decree of Sodom and Gemora.

But perhaps the scene at the beginning of the parsha was the real test that Avraham failed.  Perhaps killing and serving a young calf is not the best way to honor one’s guests.  The akeida may have been God’s way of driving that point home.

Chayei Sarah

Chayei Sarah – October 30,  2021_5782

By Jacki Honig

525,600 minutes. 525,600 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes. How do you measure a year?

As a theatre kid of the early 2000s, Seasons of Love was an anthem of my teenage years and, If I’m being honest with you, the opening 5 notes still make my heart flutter happily. Depending on the version of Rent you see, the song appears in different places, but it generally always looks the same – the characters standing feet apart from each other on a blank stage, each in their own spotlight. Clearly sharing this moment together. Alone. Pondering the same question – a question that no matter where it appears in the show asks all of us the same thing

– how do you measure a year?

 The song offers us a few options, which of course I always pondered as a teen. In cups of coffee, which I never drank, in laughter and strife, things I thought I knew well as a teen, maybe in bridges he burned – definitely something I felt as an angsty teen, or even the seemingly simplistic answer: daylights and sunsets. And then, as the title may suggest, the song seems to have a preferred answer to this question: love. Measure your life in love, it says. But then, in just one more line, one final answer that it gives us: the very name of the song itself: seasons. of. love. [BREATHE]

Right at the beginning of this week’s parsha, we see the closing of a season, the death of Sarah. The Torah recounts her life in an interesting and peculiar way:

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים

And it was, the life of Sarah, 100 years and 20 years and seven years.

Here, right in the beginning of our parsha, we see a division of seasons between life and death. In his commentary, Rashi offers us an explanation of the way it is written:

The reason the word שנה is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number: at the age of one hundred she was as a woman of twenty as regards sin and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven.

He is delineating moments in her life that looked like what one would expect at another moment, in another season. There is more to it than this though.

As I have studied more and more Jewish text in rabbinical school, I have come to an odd conclusion: While I do love Torah and have always considered the Book of Esther my favorite, I find more and more love for and wisdom from a new-to-me book of Tanach: Ecclesiastes, Kohelet. While it often gets lamented, and it does open quite depressingly, any time I get to bring it to a teaching, it feels like a good day to me.

Wonderfully enough for me, and any other Kohelet enthusiasts out there, Bereshit Rabbah on the beginning of this week’s parsha opens with a verse from Kohelet and the discussion that ensues.

וְזָרַ֥ח הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וּבָ֣א הַשָּׁ֑מֶשׁ

…”The sun rises and goes down” (Ecclesiastes 1:5).

Rabbi Aba bar Kahana said: Don’t we know that the sun rises and goes down? Rather (this is what it means): When the Holy One of Blessing causes the sun of a righteous person to set, he causes the sun of his fellow to shine forth. The day that Rabbi Akiba died, our rabbi (Judah the Prince) was born and it was written about him “The sun rises and the sun goes down.”

The midrash continues on a genealogy of the rabbis, tells about Moshe and Joshua, and then finally comes  to this week’s parsha:

” Before God causes the sun of Sarah to set, he causes the sun of Rivkah to shine forth. For first it says “Behold Malkah also bore children” (Gen 22:20) and after “and the life Sarah was one hundred years…” [PAUSE]

The life of Sarah could not end until a new sun rose, and it did so with Rivkah. At this moment, one season ends and another one begins.

In our individual lives, seasons end and seasons begin, too. It is easy for us to see the reason – and even feel gratitude- for the closing of a tough season in our lives. It can feel really great to leave a toxic workplace or end a romantic relationship that isn’t going where you hoped it would. For those seasons, we might not need these reminders, we might not need the faith that something comes next, because whatever happens after doesn’t matter – this season needs to end.

But for the good seasons in our lives, it’s harder to see why those have to end. For me, that season was my life in Detroit. I had moved there for work knowing absolutely no one. I had a tough first year. Then I finally hit my stride. I had taken an interim job and was absolutely thriving personally and professionally. I had a shul, I had friends, I had community, [read slowly] I had professional fulfilment that the likes of which I will be chasing the rest of my life. And at the end of that season, I picked up my life and closed the door on that chapter. It was the hardest move I’ve made in my life, and I’ve made a few, and closing that season of my life hurt a lot, and some days it still does.

BUT. little did I know that leaving that job would end up leading me here. The seeds were planted before I left, ultimately it was my Detroit community that was my biggest cheerleading force in getting here. The closing of that season made space for what was to come. Bigger and better. Onward and upward.

Seasons of Love, like the midrash, may have given us the answer all along. You don’t just measure your life in coffee, laughter, strife, or love. We have seasons of all of these things, some long, some short, some good, some bad, some happy, some sad and so on. Things come and things go, and even like Kohelet famously tells us, for everything there is a season. And that’s how we mark the passage of our lives, in the seasons we choose and the seasons that we experience.

This coming week we will bring in the month of Kislev, and [if today’s weather is an indication/if the weather ever actually changes] the winter, or at least what we have of it in LA. And my hope for all of us, my blessing for all of us, is that we are able to make peace with saying good-bye to the season we are leaving and have faith that something good is beginning for us in this new time and this new season. And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ve already seen a little bit of it beginning in the last verse of the old season….

Shabbat shalom.

Shemini Atzeret

Shemini Atzeret – 5782/Sept. 28, 2021

By Melissa Berenbuam

Life loves on.  I’ll say it again: Life loves on. These three words are attributed to Bobby McIlvaine, Jr., who perished on 9/11, at 26 years old.  He worked at Merrill Lynch, but not in the towers.  He had a colleague, a friend, who was making a presentation at a conference that morning at Windows of the World.  Bobby went over to help him set up.  He didn’t stay for the conference, and he had left the building before the plane hit.  But he didn’t get far enough away and died when struck by the falling building.

Life loves on.  These are poignant words at any time.  They can take on added significance on a day like today when we say Yizkor.  Those of us here, in life, continue loving those who are no longer with us. Life loves on.

The words were so important – they had become a family motto for Bobby’s mom and dad and his younger brother Jeff.   Bobby’s mom, Helen, had a silver bracelet made with the words engraved.  And his father, Bob Sr., made a tattoo with the words on one of his upper arms.  Bobby left a pile of diaries and when a reporter from The Atlantic came around wanting to write a story about 20 years after, his parents gave the reporter the diaries.  The reporter, Jennifer Senior, was connected with the McIlvaine family.  Her brother had been Bobby’s roommate in college, and they shared an apartment in New York as they embarked on their careers.  She read the diaries, carefully, multiple times.  But she couldn’t find the words “Life loves on” anywhere in his diaries.

I won’t go into all the details of the McIlvaine story.  I recommend you read the article.  It’s available online – What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind in the Atlantic.

But the McIlvaine’s story does relate to Yizkor, as I’ve already noted.  And to Shemini Atzeret.  What is this holiday, in a season seemingly of unending holidays?  Haven’t we all had enough?  Atzeret, in at least one translation, means “to gather,” and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a German Orthodox Rabbi who lived in the 1800’s, wrote that it also means “to store up.”  Accordingly, we must store up the sentiments of gratitude and devotion of this holiday season since it will be another two months until we celebrate another holiday, Hannukah.

And, of course, God wants us to stay.  God has enjoyed our presence, our prayers, our expressions of praise and gratitude.  And our togetherness among family and friends is probably quite satisfying to God.  So God asks us to stay for one more day.  Some have interpreted this holiday as a more particular and intimate celebration for the Jewish people, while Sukkot is intended for all of God’s people.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote about this holiday:

“On the eighth day, as they were leaving [Jerusalem], it was as if God were inviting the Jewish people to a small private reception. The word Atzeret, as we learned from Rashi, was interpreted to mean, ‘Stop, stay a while.’ Shmeni Atzeret was private time between God and his people. It was a day of particularity after the universality of the seven days of Sukkot.”

Those of us who enjoyed the folk rock music of the 1970’s will remember Jackson Browne’s song…

“People stay, just a little bit longer.  We want to play, just a little bit longer.  Now the roadies won’t mind and the union don’t mind if we take a little time.  And we leave it all behind, and sing one more song.”

Shemini Atzeret is like the encore of a good concert.

We should revel in it and appreciate it.  After all, what would we give for one more day with the loved ones we are going to remember shortly?

So where did the McIlvaines get Bobby’s words, Life loves on, if they weren’t in any of his diaries?  Bobby had a girlfriend, Jen, to whom he was about to propose.  He had already spoken to her father and purchased the engagement ring.  Jen’s mother died in April and when Bobby didn’t come home on Sept. 11, she moved in with the McIlvaines.  Bob Sr. gave her Bobby’s last diary, the one with her name scrawled all over it, and that became a source of tension between her and his parents because Jen wouldn’t let his parents read it.  When Jen moved out, taking the diary, she never spoke to the McIlvaines again.

In pursuit of the story, the reporter tracked her down.  As you might expect, she had met someone, was happily married now with two children.  She still had the diary and she shared it with the reporter.  She also remembered Life loves on, but not exactly where it came from.  Turns out, she did use the words in her eulogy at Bobby’s funeral.  Here’s what she said:

“This past week I have been searching for some sort of comfort to get me through the shock of losing the love of my life,” she told the mourners at Queen of Peace Church. “I came across one of Bob’s journals and as I opened it, I said to myself, ‘Please let there be something in here that will comfort me.’ ” Then she described finding this passage, which Bobby had written as her mother was dying. She read it aloud.

It is OK for people to die. It hurts, and it is a deep loss, but it is OK. Life loves on. Do not fear for those who are dying. Be kind to them. And care for them.

“Life loves on,” she repeated to the crowd. “After I read this, I vowed that very instant to love on in my life, just as I had made a promise to my mom to never let her be forgotten. It was a way that I could extend a life cut short.”

Bobby wrote those words in an effort to give Jen strength to go on after her mother died… Life loves on.

The McIlvaines and Jen were estranged, but the words Jen had spoken at Bobby’s funeral – Bobby’s words – had become an organizing principle for their lives… Life loves on.  Their love for Bobby went on.

Except what Bobby wrote in his diary, after the reporter and her editor closely examined his handwriting was “Life lives on.”  In other words, we go on, despite the absence of those we love.  Also an important message for those coping with grief.  But Jen saw what she needed to see at the time, and for 20 years, Bobby’s parents organized their grief and mourning around the words “life loves on.”

Whether “life loves on” or “life lives on,” and I submit it does both, the important point is that we embrace life and continue to remember the ones we love.

Chag Sameach.




Parshat Noah: Tower of Babel, Take Two

Parshat Noah: Tower of Babel, Take Two – October 9, 2021

By Henry Morgen

Shabbat shalom. Eleven years ago on October 9th, I gave a d’rash on parshat Noah here at the Library Minyan. It was dedicated in memory of my mother, Beverly, who’s 12th yahrzeit was yesterday. In preparing for the d’rash this morning, I re-read the one I delivered those many years ago, and I discovered that what I want to share today is surprisingly similar to what I wanted to share then. In fact, I considered just reading the d’rash to you again this morning, but that’s not what we Jews mean when we say “return” or “renew as in days gone by.” We mean find something new based on our growth and life experiences since the last time we visited the parsha. With that in mind, I’m going to start with a grand view of the Jewish Bible as I see it today and zero in on one aspect of today’s Torah portion.

Simply stated, the Bible is a guide to living an ethical and responsible life on our planet. There are many examples in the Bible that reflect bad behavior and the real, flawed nature of being human. There are also a few examples of exemplary behavior. Before drilling in on today’s parshah, I want to start by observing that the books that follow the ones in the Torah scroll primarily deal with the Israelites and their struggles to establish and maintain a nation that is just and ethical on a narrow strip of land that connects three continents. The Five Books of Moses are the back story of how these people got there. And the first two pashi’ot are the back story to the back story. From creation until the start of today’s parsha is the first “half” of that story. It covers ten generations that includes the detail of the years of one generation handing off to the next and spans about 1600 years. Today’s parsha is another ten generations with very little detail about the years in a given generation (except in Shem’s lineage to Abram). This lineage, covers a span of about 400 years. Note that the entire balance of the book of Genesis only spans about 400 years. And except for the total gap in lineage at the start of Exodus until Moses’ birth (traditionally around another 400 years), the entire balance of the Torah spans 120 years.

You may ask me, “why did I start with this?” I wanted to point out that the majority of our Torah is very tightly focused on transforming our people into a nation from a group of slaves. In these early chapters that are the back story to the back story, we see how G!d’s experiment with humanity is tweaked and fiddled with until he finds one of them that in R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel’s view could be described as “Man in Search of G!d.” So, now I’m going to focus on the snippet of today’s parsha that I want to discuss.

Let’s look at the story regarding the Tower of Babel, which is one of G!d’s experiments. First, we should place this in generational time with respect to Noah’s three sons: Ham, Japheth and Shem. Paraphrasing and interpolating the text here’s what we know: up to this point, all humans spoke the same language, and they migrated “from the east” to Shinar. (For context, Shinar was a very expansive area where Nimrod, grandson of Ham lived.) With a little more detective work we can infer that Javan son of Japheth, Canaan son of Ham and Joktan great-great-grandson of Shem were very likely contemporaneous with each other and likely living at the same place and time as Nimrod and our story. That’s because after them each of these lineages breaks off. Their descendants occupy different lands and have different languages. While Joktan isn’t expressly called out in the date-span timeline of Shem’s descendants, we can infer that the events for the tower took place at about the midpoint, or at around the 200-year point between Noah and Abram.

Why do all this math? I want to show that our Bible represents a cyclical pattern of generations being more and less ethical and responsible. I’m not trying to tie the events to the exact duration; however, I am just mindful of the oscillating nature of human behavior that is so well captured in our text.

And just what was it that was “so bad” about these tower builders? The text is pretty sketchy here. Never the less I think there are two key reasons G!d felt the need to make an adjustment to the experiment at this point. The text says they wanted to build a huge tower to reach to the sky and aggrandize themselves so that they don’t scatter all over the world. You may recall that G!d’s first admonition to human beings was to “be fruitful, multiply, spread across the earth and be its caretaker,” right? So, the first point is that clearly, this generation still wasn’t “getting it”. There are many midrashim about how evil or immoral this generation was, but put simply, they’re just not living according to G!d’s most basic expectation of them. So, he confounds their language and scatters them. The second point relates to the hint about self-aggrandizement. By implication, they’re not even acknowledging that G!d is the source of their life and all there is in the world. They seem to be viewing themselves as above or outside the natural world.

Now let’s take a 21st century view of what’s going on here. Humans are unlike other beings on earth. We have the awesome power of language and translation so we can pretty much understand each other across the entire planet. We also have the ability to create written, audio and video records that can be shared with future generations who we will never meet. These communication skills allow us to pass wisdom down through centuries, allowing us to see the evolution of our knowledge base, and shortcut some of our need to learn-from-scratch. Unfortunately, this power of communication also allows for the propagation of lots of misinformation. Furthermore, we have learned to use raw materials to develop tools and build vast, complex systems that permit us to live nearly anywhere on this planet. More recently we are learning how totally interconnected our environmental eco system is, and in some small ways many of us are finally starting to see that we’re not the “masters” of the planet that prior generations thought we were. We are in fact custodians, and we’ve made a pretty bad mess of the place we’re supposed to be maintaining. And again, unfortunately, not everyone has acknowledged that our poor custodial work has brought about, or at least enhanced, some of the destruction we’re experiencing around us. We are having a “Tower of Babel” moment in human development right now. Whether you attribute it to G!d or simply the way of the natural order of things, there’s a cosmic level shake-up happening on this little ball we call our home in the solar system. This acknowledgment that we’re not outside or above nature is a humbling experience and could be turned into a daily gratitude experience for being alive and aware of the amazing gift of life we have on this planet while we still have it.

But, there’s something different about this “Tower of Babel” moment that’s very powerful in my view: we have the knowledge and we’re developing the technology to change the outcome — if we have the will to do so. We can acknowledge that we’re living in a delicately balanced ecosystem, and we understand approximately how it all fits together. It’s possible for us to start making changes to how we live our lives, how we conduct our business, and how we prioritize the way our governments use our tax dollars. Temple Beth Am has initiated a Sh’mitah program to help us focus ourselves on living more in harmony with our planet. Individually we can take steps to reduce our carbon footprint and transition to a “reduce-reuse-recycle” way of living. We can encourage our government representatives to think about the global ecosystem as part of how they allocate funding … even if other countries or jurisdictions haven’t yet figured out that we’re all in the same row boat. There is nothing more powerful that leadership by example. The torah, and in fact much of the bible points this out over and over.

And regarding acknowledging that we’re not “beyond” the natural order of the universe, let’s allow ourselves to be awestruck every day that we are alive with the free will to do things that can make a difference, little by little, to restore balance in our world, and bring us back to the Garden of Eden that G!d originally envisioned for us to live in. Shabbat Shalom.


Bereishit 5782

Bereishit 5782/2021

By Judy Weintraub

Last month, I visited my internist for a routine appointment. He is young, very bright, and attentive. When my then-doctor retired a year ago, I hired him to take over my care because I was impressed by his aliveness—he was totally present, on top of things and he listened, really listened, which I know that you will agree is a crucial trait in a physician. In this appointment, though, my impression was that there was something different in his speech, and in his body language. He was leaning back and just didn’t seem the same. After my part in the appointment was done, I said, “So how are things going with you, how is your career?” He looked at me and responded, “I don’t know, things are a lot harder. I was talking with my wife the other day (she’s also a doctor) wondering about our lives, our life paths.” This from someone only five years in practice.

I asked him if he had a dream of what he would rather be doing and he answered yes but it would take a lot more study and it was a completely different career.

I relayed this incident to a good friend of mine, a physician retired for over a decade, and he said, “Tell me something else — if you ask any of the doctors at Cedars, I’m guessing about 80% would tell you they’re burnt out.” What is it about physicians that create such a high statistical rate of burn out? I know that in order to do their job many feel they have to distance themselves emotionally from the work and I think that’s a key issue, the fragmentation. That creates a low to more serious level of ongoing anxiety and that anxiety covers over the clarity of purpose that we need in order to derive meaning and a sense of wholeness from our work.

In his recently published book, Unwinding Anxiety, psychiatrist/researcher Judson Brewer discusses the culmination of a 5-year study at Brown University, spotlighting the burnout culture of physicians and healthcare providers in general. Even Before Covid (universally and euphemistically now referred to as “BC”) we’d all heard of stories, which, whether you are a physician yourself or not, you can relate to — the feeling of wanting to throw up your hands or throw in the towel. The pressures of dealing with incredibly difficult situations and the common response of disengaging, causes fragmentation. Is it any wonder that statistics report that 50 to 80% of doctors, and many others, experience burnout in their work? This burnout is the result of ongoing levels of unaddressed anxiety.

What do we do with feelings ranging from mild unease to downright dis-ease? When we feel completely fragmented inside, how do we cultivate a sense of Chochmat Lev, a wise-heartedness that can lead to a sense of wholeness allowing us to be fully present? What do we do to take care of ourselves so that we can serve in the way that we were placed here on this Earth to serve? What does our tradition have to offer on this?

The Ishbitzer Rebbe teaches that when it is written

חיזוק – -ברא בראשית ברא אלהים

the word “Barah” is an expression of the concept of Chizuk, that is to say just as a structure has reinforcements, there is an underlying foundation of chizuk. In this case, it is the foundation of the World, Heaven and Earth. Further, Heaven and earth is considered to be a metaphor for the human soul, including our mind and heart. We too are created with the foundational element of chizuk.

He also reminds us of the prophet Isaiah’s words that “the world was not created for chaos, it was created to be settled.” He derives this from the verse: So says God, Creator of the Heavens. [Is. 45:18.] God does not mean for a person to live in internal chaos. Settled implies ease and quiet of mind.

In this time of year, when we have commemorated the birth of the universe, we look to the Creation narrative and turn it around and around to learn from it. In verses 3 and 5 of Bereshit we are told of the creation of light – Yehi Ohr, Vayehi Ohr. First, a spiritual light, the light from Hashem, glowing throughout the universe and through each of us. And in the second, referring to the light of the sun, day – the separation of light from dark, the creation of day and night.

The Sefat Emet also teaches that the Book of Life is within each of us – that HaShem writes “CHAYIM!!!” on the tablets that are within us. Our job is to keep the schmutz away—the transgressions, the distractions, the guilt and the worries, so that we can be the best people that we can be while we are here. When we are out of touch with who we are, we cannot find our inner answers and are plagued by doubt, worry, and uncertainty. The Sefat Emet teaches that at this time of year, we do an accounting and just like the Shofar image the sound calls us to wake up and be present. Nachmonides defines Teshuvah as a great return– Return Again to what we are, Return Again to who we are. This is not a once a year process, but a daily practice.

Orah L’ Hayim offers that just as the Shofar, we are to consider ourselves as a mere trumpet and to understand that the good that we do and that we have comes from God. Arthur Green adds this: that God created and continues to create the world out of love. When we stop trying to compete with that love and accept that we are an echo of it, we will feel that spirit blowing through us.

We have just commemorated Rosh Hashanah. The fact is that, although the first day of the year is known as Rosh Hashanah, the Torah does not call it by this name but uses an entirely different one, Yom Teru’ah — the day of blowing. The blowing of the shofar is meant to jolt us out of our apathy, our ruts, and cause us to engage in the soul-searching needed to allow us to emerge worthy of going into the next year. Indeed, the very word “shofar” has the same root letters as “shipur“, which means “to improve”. It is as if the shofar is calling to us, “Improve yourself!”

In Exodus 34, we read of the 13 Attributes. There is a commentary that states that God caused the Israelites to sin with the Golden Calf incident so that the 13 Attributes would be written down for all future generations, to help us when we transgress. It was a message for all time that our ancestors were not perfect, and we should not expect to be perfect, but we can continue to redirect ourselves again and again, by looking at these attributes to model and guide us as to how we live our lives. This ties in with the concept that Teshuvah is a way of reshaping oneself for the better, so that we can then truly be wholehearted as we undertake the repairing of ourselves and of the world—Tikkun Olam.

It occurred to me that we can utilize a gift that Hashem had given to the Israelites following the sin of the golden calf. Just like any teacher of children knows, if there’s one behavior that needs to switch, it can’t be done in a void. You have to redirect by substituting another behavior. Our children, grandchildren, and even the children who live inside each of us, at times all need to be redirected.

We do that through God’s great gift … the Mishkan, a project where people could come together to create in community and then carry with them as they journeyed on their way. We too can use the Mishkan as we journey through our lives.

The Mishkan was the first great egalitarian project, a precursor to another egalitarian project— our Library Minyan — For the Mishkan, all could come and contribute and work to create something extraordinary, not for any Pharaoh, but for the Israelites themselves, and for God.

The Menorah reminds us that each of us is created B’tselem Elohim and that the light that was created in the story of Creation lives on within each of us.

The incense altar, emitting a beautiful fragrance, helps us to remember that our actions are to leave behind a Re’ach Nichoach. Tough to do when we are stressed, but therein lies the real work.
The Mizbeach (altar) is the ever-present reminder of what our korbanot are today. And the utilization of our gifts and our acts of lovingkindness so that we can partner with Hashem to be of service and to continue the creation of this world.

And…the Ark. With both sets of Tablets — the whole and the broken. Just as with the broken Torah, we take with us our on our journeys what is whole and what is broken. We carry the jagged edges of what is broken with us, which may tell us exactly what we need to face and address in our lives. I encourage each of us, myself included, not to shy away from those jagged edges. They may point us to our most profound opportunities for growth.

The antidote to fragmentation, however, going toward who we truly are is the only way we can achieve a sense of wholeheartedness. Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson, in his book, Reclaiming The Self, describes Teshuva as returning to the person we were meant to be. This implies that there is a point of origin, and that point is one’s deepest self. He quotes Ezekiel 1:1 “And I was in the midst of exile.” We do have the capacity to take ourselves out of our own inner exile to once again realign ourselves.

So during those times that we need to redirect, to pull ourselves away from the unease and dis-ease that could escalate to downright fragmentation, let’s look to the first verses of Bereishit and the gift of the Mishkan to help turn us into a place of love, kindness, and at-oneness. ECHAD! Within ourselves, with our families, with our community, with the world, and with Hashem.


Sukkot Day 2

Sukkot Day 2

By Stevie Green

When I was in college, a visiting rabbi gave a lecture about the problems with external displays of over-piety.  For example, with disdain, he talked about the “chumra of the week” website – which still exists by the way – which every week sends its subscribers an obscure chumra – an obscure religious stringency that goes beyond the requirements of halacha.  For an extra fee, you can get a different chumra than anyone else gets, so you can one-up your friends even if they also subscribe.  Anyways, in the talk, he explained his strategy for purchasing a lulav.  He would go to a vendor and watch as “frummies” would pick up a lulav, examine it, and put it down.  Pick up another, examine it, and put it down.  Invariably, he would eventually see one pick up a lulav, examine it, then take out a magnifying glass and further examine it, and then set it down.  “That’s the one you want.” He said.  “If it passed the 1st inspection, then it’s good enough.”  This story was designed in part to make fun of the so-called “frummies”, but I intend to defend them – at least a little.

My freshman year of college I was away from home during my parents’ 25th anniversary party.  Some of you were there, but I missed it.  As a very sentimental anniversary gift, my grandmother flew me home for thanksgiving.  Because thanksgiving is such a crazy time to fly, my Thursday morning flight from DC to LA involved switching planes in Florida.  Not only that, but I somehow wound-up switching terminals and was thus outside in Florida for a few quick minutes.  The reason I remember this is that I saw something extraordinary.  Something which for an instant made me feel like I had already flown across the country instead of about to do so. Palm Trees.  I was not geographically substantially any closer to Los Angeles than before, but when I saw palm trees while on my way home for the 1st time since starting college, it felt like I had already made it.  To be clear, I hadn’t been feeling homesick or anxious, and had no specific personal attachment to palm trees aside from being a reminder of home.

So what does this have to do with sukkot?  It’s true that the palm frond is used for a Lulav, and in Los Angeles, palm branches are used for schach as well.  It’s also true that there are any number of ways that thanksgiving can be connected to sukkot.  But that isn’t it.

Just a few years ago, a guest of R. Elliot Dorff was with us at Beth Am for sukkot davening.  After services, R. Dorff introduced him as an employee of the cardinal and joked that he now has the difficult job of reporting to the cardinal that Jews are not in fact pagan.

So how do we explain the Lulav and Esrog?  How do we understand it ourselves?  Often we give answers that connect the four species with various body parts or with various kinds of people that we are symbolically bringing together.  Sometimes we explain that for one week we march around the Sefer Torah to show that it is our center, and then on Simchas Torah we take out all of the Sifre Torah and carry them around with us, to show our ownership of and responsibility for the Torah.  Sometimes we take a historical/anthropological approach and compare this ritual to ancient rain dances.

Rambam has a much more direct explanation.  One that, in my opinion, gets to the heart of the matter rather than merely explaining some of the details.  Near the end of the “Guide to the Perplexed” Maimonides goes about explaining the holidays.  To explain the “arbeh meenim” – the four species, he quotes a verse that does not come from any biblical description of festivals, of harvest laws, nor of the city named Sukkot that the Israelites passed thru while leaving Egypt.  The verse comes from the Israelites complaining in the dessert:

Num: 20: 4-5: Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place without grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” After a long rant against taking midrash too literally, says the Rambam in full:

It appears to me that the four species are a symbolical expression of our rejoicing that the Israelites left (exodus’ed) from the wilderness, “a place without grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates, or water to drink” (Num. 20:5), to a place of trees that bear fruit and rivers.  We take as a memorial the fruit which is the most pleasant of the fruit of the land, branches which smell best, most beautiful leaves, and also the best of herbs, i.e., the willows of the brook. These four kinds also have those three purposes: First, they were plentiful in those days in Palestine, so that everyone could easily get them. Secondly, they have a good appearance, they are green; some of them, viz., the citron and the myrtle, are also excellent as regards their smell, the branches of the palm-tree and the willow having neither good nor bad smell. Thirdly, they keep fresh and green for seven days, which is not the case with peaches, pomegranates, asparagus, nuts, and the like.

So that’s the image.  Desert sojourners getting their first glimpse of fertile plant-life.  An exodus from the dessert into the land of Israel.  And why these four specifically?  Well, they are pleasant enough for several days, and, most importantly, plentiful, common, and easy to get in the land of Israel.  Now there is some pragmatism in using plentiful crops as we need to harvest a lot of them and would like to keep costs down.  But if that was the motivating factor, then we would all use local plants wherever we live, just as the vegetables used for Karpas and Marror have changed as Jews moved over time and space.  Rather, there is something deeper.  These plants are ubiquitous.  They aren’t special or prized.  Except once a year, we take the most ignorable of plants and remember the moment when they were stunning.  When the sight of them triggered celebration.  “There is green, There is life, There is hope, Halleluyah!”  …So we continued to take them to the temple for the biggest celebration of the year.  And when we didn’t have the temple, and no longer lived in the land of Israel, they took on even greater meaning.   When seeing these plants wasn’t a normal occurrence anymore, it became a special occurrence, a reminder of home.  Not unlike palm trees outside a Florida airport.

My first time in Israel was over sukkot.  It was the 1st or 2nd ever Shalhevet 10th grade Israel trip.  It was led by our own Paul Nisenbaum, was at the height of the 2nd intifada in 2002, and was almost completely funded by the Jewish Federation.  We left LA the day after Yom Kippur and spent 19 days in Israel – thus including all of sukkot.  I was being housed by a family with a 10th grader in Shalhevet’s sister school in Tel Aviv.  [I don’t remember the name of the school, anyone here know?]  This family didn’t purchase a lulav from a shul fundraiser or from a teenager on Pico Blvd. or Dizengoff St.  Instead, we drove out to some undeveloped land by a stream and collected what we needed for arbeh minim as well as for schach.  My memory isn’t totally clear, it may be that the lulav itself and the estrog were pre-cut for us, and/or there may have been some kind of fee.  I’m not sure.  But I do remember that the myrtle tree was at the top of an incline and the willow was down by the stream.  So I believe it – that these plants were accessible, forgettable, and familiar – save the esrog which only arrived in Israel in the middle of the 2nd temple period and used to be an olive branch.  After all, living in Egypt, Maimonides had accurate information about Israel, unlike most European rabbis of the time.

Consider again the image of trees and fruit to a population that had been born in and only ever lived in the barren dessert.  Maybe they were eager to study and to scrutinize each new plant.  Maybe, this one week a year, when we remember to treat these ordinary plants as extraordinary, we should personalize our selections, examine them – even under magnification, and protect them with plastic, bamboo, and Styrofoam.

One theme of sukkot is home.  We build and dwell in new symbolic homes and we celebrate with physical reminders of home.  But even more so, sukkot is about fragility.  We live in temporary structures.  We read Kohelet – the book of Ecclesiastes – which is about living in the present and letting go of the need to try to control the future.  And we celebrate our past together with our present by taking those things that we are accustomed to taking for granted and we remember how truly special they have been all along.

Moedim L’Simcha