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Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha לֶךְ לְךָ

By Zwi Reznik, November 9, 2019, 11 Heshvan 5780

I don’t recall the exact date, but sometime this month will be the 70th anniversary of my arrival in the United States. Along with my parents we arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on a converted merchant ship along with a large group of refugees from Italy. While the destination may have been uncertain Europe was clearly someplace to leave.

About forty years ago I read a book by Chaim Potok titled “Wanderings”, a history of the Jewish people. The title itself was intriguing in suggesting that our peoples’ history was one of being unsettled and restlessly moving on from place to place. Yet growth and transformation is achieved by that wandering. I also read Potok’s “My name is Asher Lev”. I recall the description of how young Asher would create an art work. He would mark a point on a surface, then draw a line and then, without any further description, the art work would be complete.

I was reminded of young Asher’s artistry a few months ago when I was having a conversation with one of my learned Library Minyan friends who was describing how she approached composing a Drash. The process involved an initial thought and then allowing one’s mind to wander from that thought. Productive wandering does not necessarily involve physically moving.

So, when I started thinking of doing a Drash again I remembered all of the above and I arrived at Lech Lecha.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־ אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־ לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־ הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ *

12:1 And the LORD said to Abram, **”Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you”.

Chapter 12 opens with a direct command from God to Abram, who we have only just met. Noach ended with just a brief mention of him. Most of us learned a midrash story about Abram which told of Abram, as a child, smashing his father’s idols, refusing to apologize and challenging his father as to why he would pray to such objects. Yet here in the Torah the first story of Abram occurs ten generations after Noah and we can only make inferences to his earlier life. God speaks directly to Abram with a clear command (lech) לֶךְ, i.e. GO. Go is the second person imperative form of the verb ללכת-to go. The following word לְךָ (lecha) is not really necessary for the verse to have a clear message. However, adding lecha can give the two word phrase an enhanced meaning. Literal translations could be “Go to you” or the similar “Go to yourself”. In other words you must GO to become what you are supposed to be and not remain as you are. A commonly cited saying of Rabbi Zushya of Hanipol, which I think relevant, states: “When I get to Heaven, they will not ask me, Zushya, why were you not Moses. They, will ask me, why were you not Zushya?” With this first verse we can understand that Abram has been selected to begin a transforming journey to become his true self, and as we’ll see later that transformation will be marked by a name change. And what of God’s purpose? By ten generations after Noach something different had to be done other than saving one family and wiping out everyone else. A transformation was needed that will result in a new people being formed. None of that could happen without Abram first removing himself from the environment which had formed him and in which he did not fit. After all, smashing idols does not endear one to the neighbors.

At the beginning of Chapter 12 Abram is living in Haran—identified as someplace in South Eastern Turkey. He had previously arrived there from Ur of the Chaldees, somewhere in modern Iraq, with his father, Terah, his barren wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. Promises are made to Abram by God if he does what he is told. Without any questions or discussions by Abram he leaves at the age of 75. Now his wanderings begin in earnest. He leaves Haran with his still barren wife, his nephew Lot, and everything they had including their slaves. They arrive at Shechem which is north of Beth-El. From there they move on to the Negeb and a famine occurs. In a bit of foreshadowing they move to Egypt.

In Egypt Abram is seen to be less than a righteous person in relation to his wife Sarai. Fearing for his life he tells Pharoah that Sarai is his sister rather than his wife. Pharoah takes her in and Abram starts doing real well. 12:16—”And it went well with Abram on her count, and he had sheep and cattle and donkeys and male and female slaves and she-asses and camels”. Then in another bit of foreshadowing Pharoah suffers plagues because of Sarai and he has them both, and all their property and escorted out of Egypt. As you might imagine there has been ample discussion of this incident. As an example consider the commentary of Robert Alter regarding this: “17. plagues. The nature of the afflictions is not spelled out. Rashi’s inference of a genital disorder preventing intercourse is not unreasonable. In that case, one might imagine a tense exchange between Pharaoh and Sarai ending in a confession by Sarai of her status as Abram’s wife. In the laconic narrative art of the Hebrew writer, this is left as a gap for us to fill in by an indeterminate compound of careful deduction and imaginative reconstruction.”

What is the point of this story? Abram’s words to Sarai are disappointing. 12:11-13” 11 And it happened as he drew near to the border of Egypt that he said to Sarai his wife, “Look, I know you are a beautiful woman, 12 and so when the Egyptians see you and say, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me while you they will let live. 13 Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well with me on your count and I shall stay alive because of you.” There are a number of places in Torah where research shows that the details of a particular story can be explained by cultural norms that were contemporaneous with the patriarchal period. Apparently there were societies at the presumed time of Abraham where the social status of a sister surpassed that of a man’s wife. While that reality may have been a foundation for this story and would not make Abram look so bad it is not relevant. What we have is the story of a Patriarch who is an imperfect human being. What we learn is of the possibility of improvement in the future.

After Egypt the family, including Lot, return to the Negeb and eventually Beth El. They separate amicably and Abram speaks to his family member Lot with kindness which differs from the fearful Abram we just saw in Egypt and Lot went on to 13:12”…set up his tent near Sodom”. Abram moves on eventually to Hebron and God continues to affirm his promises to Abram. There is a poignant note that can be appended to one of the promises. 13:16” And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth—could a man count the dust of the earth, so too, your seed might be counted”. Alter adds the note: The great Yiddish poet Yakov Glatstein wrote a bitter poem after the Nazi genocide which proposes that indeed the seed of Abraham has become like the dust of the earth

At the end of the chapter God advises Abram to 13-17 “Rise, walk about the land through its length and its breadth, for to you I will give it.” Apparently this is an ancient manner of acquiring title to a parcel of land. So Abram has been promised the land and in the next chapter we find him playing an integral part of the international affairs of that land.

Chapter 14 seems out of place in this Parsha. There is no interchange at all between God and Abram. It is a story of the invasion of four Mesopotamian kings to do battle with five Canaanite kings. One could romanticize this “epic” and refer to this as the Battle of the Nine Armies—similar to a phrase occurring in the Ring Trilogy by Tolkien. There is ample scholarship to indicate that this chapter is an adaptation of a much earlier story or type of story. In his commentary Alter notes that “The dating of the narrative is in dispute, but there are good arguments for its relative antiquity: at least four of the five invading kings have authentic Akkadian, Elamite, or Hittite names.

The Mesopotamian invasion does not go well for the Canaanites. 14:10-11:” 10And the Valley of Siddim was riddled with bitumen(חמר) pits, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled there and leaped into them, while the rest fled to the high country. 11And the four kings took all the substance of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food, and went off.

The Mesopotamians looted Sodom and Gomorah, including their food, and also seized Lot and all his substance. Abram was informed of this 14:14: “14 And Abram heard that his kinsman was taken captive and he marshaled his retainers, natives of his household, three hundred and eighteen of them, and gave chase up to Dan”. (I think the movie version should be called “Abram and the Magnificent 318). So now we see Abram as action hero, assembling an army and attacks the Mesopotamian kings and their forces. He pursues them as far north as Damascus and rescues Lot and everyone else and all their substance. He is given a hero’s welcome by the Kings of Sodom and Salem (שלם)-now Jerusalem. The King of Sodom asks just for his people back and offers Abram everything else. Abram, in an act of magnanimity responds. 14-24: “Nothing for me but what the lads (נערים) have consumed. And as for the share of the men who came with me, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre, let them take their share.” (Note: Current usage defines נער as youth, adolescent, teenager etc. the term armsbearer also appears in my dictionary. These were not merely servants. They were trained soldiers). Once again, as in his dealings with Lot when they separated we see a new Abram. He seeks nothing for himself, only for the men who fought with him. Also, we see an Abram the Hebrew who is an integral part of the community of national groups in Canaan and appears to be the equal of their kings. I would conclude therefore that this portion of the Parsha, while clearly adapted from earlier sources, is an essential part of the story of Abram becoming Abraham.

Another new development in Abram’s character appears in Chapter 15. For the first time Abram engages God in conversation and actually complains about the lack of children. More conversations, and even argumentation, will be seen later.

I will stop my drash at this point. The story of Hagar and Ismael are deserving of their own drash.

*All Hebrew quotations are from Westminster Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew Tanak: Hebrew Bible Edition (Kindle Locations 699-701). Kindle Edition.

**All English Quotations are from Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Yom Kippur 5780

Yom Kippur 5780

Rabbi Jim Rogozen, October 2019
What Happened to the Dancing?

Years ago, when we had first moved to Cleveland, I was asked to lead overflow High Holiday services at a shul in Toronto. It was great: I could say whatever I wanted to…and then leave town, actually, leave the country. For some reason, they kept inviting me back.  I did it for 5 years in a row, until my wife and young children said they really wanted to be home for the holidays. Well, it’s been 22 years since I’ve spoken on the high holidays. It’s an honor to be asked. I am aware, however, that I don’t get to leave town after this. Or at least, I hope I won’t have to.

So let me begin with something clear, easy, and not in the least provocative. Ready?

I hate Yom Kippur.

I don’t like fasting

I don’t like sitting in shul for a long time.

And…I don’t always connect to the messages or language in the Mahzor.

But the real reason, and this might sound funny, is that on Yom Kippur, it’s all about me. Usually that would be ok…but not today.

Before I tell you why, let’s take a step back. For your literary and spiritual edification, I undertook a thorough and exhaustive frequency-of-use linguistic analysis of the Mahzor and determined that these are the top 6 Yom Kippur metaphors or themes:

    1. Sin
    2. Stain
    3. Debt
    4. Judgment
    5. Mercy, and
    6. Cleansing

And the top three action items for this day are:

    1. To Atone
    2. Repent, and
    3. Seek Forgiveness

If this were the agenda for a staff meeting at your place of work, I’m guessing you’d all call in sick.

Let’s go back and explore those metaphors and themes, and the thought process of the Mahzor:

Sin: According to our liturgy, we are all nosei avon. Sin is a weight that we carry, it stays with us, it’s a burden, it affects our thoughts and actions. This metaphor implies that, like a landfill, if you keep adding to it, you’ll run out of room, or, in our case, we’ll run out of strength to carry it all. So, as Professor Baruch Schwartz writes, we spend this day asking God to remove this burden.

Stain: Sin clings to us, it stains our souls, it colors our view of ourselves and others. Isaiah refers to sinners as having “unclean lips” (Is. 6: 5). כִּ֣י אִ֤ישׁ טְמֵֽא־שְׂפָתַ֙יִם֙ אָנֹ֔כִי Even though there is no visual quality to it, we see it, and we imagine others see it in us as well.  It defiles us and leaves a stain on our character.

The Ramban says that all sins, even those committed inadvertently, “leave a stain on the soul and constitute a blemish on it, and the soul is only fit to meet its Maker when it has been cleansed from all sin” (Ramban to Lev. 4: 2).

Debt:  Our sins are also thought of as a huge pile of bills or IOUs. Just knowing they are there makes us miserable. While guilt can feel infinite and unmeasurable and insurmountable, a financial debt is limited and finite.  The good news? According to Jeremiah, sin is a debt that God can pay off on our behalf.

The first three metaphors describe our problem; the next three steps outline how we get to the solution.

Judgment: As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as good, or somewhat good, the Mahzor reminds us, in the Untane tokef  that time has run out:  “V’tiftach et sefer Ha’zikhronot” – God, you open The Book of Memories “u’may’alav yika’reh”  all the evidence, all the facts are in there, they speak for themselves, and “v’hotam yad kol adam bo” and every person’s name, everyone’s case file, is in there. Uvyom tzom kippur yechataymun, and on Yom Kippur final judgments will be made. Step one: we need to own that.

Mercy: Once we own our mistakes, we ask for mercy. Our hope on Yom Kippur is that God will take everything into account, and help us beyond what we deserve. What kind of God would do that? The Talmud in Berachot 7a asks “mayee matzlay?” – When God prays, (not if, but when God prays) what does God pray? Rav said:  May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger; may My mercy prevail over My other attributes; may I conduct myself toward My children with the attribute of mercy, and

ואכנס להם לפנים משורת הדין  May I stop short of the limit of strict justice, or, May I not exact the full penalty from them. Bottom line, God would like mercy to be God’s default setting, but God has to pray on it. That’s step two.

And, if all goes well…

Cleansing: Step three: Sins before God can and will be washed away, by God. Mikol hatotechem lifne hashem tithaaru  “from all of your sins before God you will be cleansed.”

I don’t know about you, but this is a lot to think about, too much really.

But here’s the thing: these metaphors don’t even express all the ways we can think about Yom Kippur just what’s in our Mahzor.

Here are two quotes, separated by 19 centuries that give us a wider range of what Yom Kippur was, and what it is like now:

The first is from Mishna Ta’anit 4:8

אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av (Tu B’Av) and Yom Kippur.

שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין

On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments (borrowed in order not to shame anyone who had none). The daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…  Don’t set your eyes upon beauty; rather, set your eyes upon family…”

So the women were out and about, hoping to find a spouse. But why were these young women out and about on Yom Kippur?  The Gemara in Taanit says:

בשלמא יום הכפורים משום דאית ביה סליחה ומחילה יום שניתנו בו לוחות האחרונות

Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it contains the elements of pardon and forgiveness, and moreover, it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.

The idea here is that God was so angry with the Israelites over the Golden Calf incident that he destroyed the first set of 10 Commandments. But He then decided to forgive the People, and give them a second set of tablets.

Forgiveness means another chance, and the freedom of a new start. Freedom means hope and opportunity, so yes, the young women went out, to find a spouse and look to the future. I’m just imagining it. A warm afternoon, up in the hills, people are dancing. What a great way to end Yom Kippur…and rather early in the day. Just saying…

Now, compare that image to comedian Lewis Black’s description of Yom Kippur: “The music of Kol Nidre is the basis of every Alfred Hitchcock soundtrack. You look around expecting bats to fly into the synagogue.”

Somewhere along the line the range of ideas and goals for the contracted and shifted, especially for Ashkenazic Jews.  It’s worth noting that the Sephardic Mahzor doesn’t include U’netaneh Tokef, nor the Eleh Ezkerah. That Mahzor has much less “trauma” and much more hope.

Yes, there are indeed sources that claim that Yom Kippur is the exact opposite of Purim. Purim focuses on a physical struggle, while Yom Kippur emphasizes a spiritual one…but it’s all about the struggle.

But some sources actually say that the holidays are quite similar:  Yom K’purim Yom Kippur is like Purim, because, in both cases, while lives are hanging in the balance, there is hope for a positive ending.  In the Purim story, people’s emotions went miyagon l’simcha, from sorrow to joy, but Yom Kippur these days seems to be all about the yagon (the sorrow) but certainly not the simcha.

Let’s put it this way: there is no longer dancing after Mincha.

If I were going to take the long history of Yom Kippur and do a factory re-set, what would be the main focus of the day? What’s in the zone? What’s the one thing I have to accomplish?

When I take all the liturgy, all the metaphors, all the customs, all the expectations of Yom Kippur, from the time of the Torah to today, and distill them all down to its essence, here’s what I think it is:

For 25 hours my job is to face myself – with brutal honesty – before God. I may be at my seat, surrounded by hundreds of people, but I have my job to do.

And, when the day is over, if I’ve done my job well, I can go outside, and, with an updated to-do list, step into a world filled with hope, and opportunity. After that shofar blows, I get to start writing a new page in The Book.

So, yes, today is all about me (and you, and you, and you), but…(you knew there was a ‘but’)… all of this takes work and it takes courage.

So how do we do Yom Kippur?

Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote that we usually hide from ourselves, but on Yom Kippur we must seek what is hidden. Yom Kippur is self-discovery in silence.

One thing we hide behind is the beautiful notion that our confessions are said in the plural: In the Vidui ­ we say Al chet she’chatanu lefanekha  – we committed these sins before you, and we say Ashamnu, bagadnu  – We have sinned.   What a People we are. We are so good, we’re all in this together. Now, I certainly didn’t do this sin, or that sin, but maybe someone else did, so I’ll pray for them. We’re a team!

Or, maybe it’s a way to call God’s bluff. “God, You want to punish one of us, you’d better be prepared to punish all of us!” It’s a nice thought, and there is definitely some truth to it.

But (you knew there was a ‘but’)… today is the day we shouldn’t hide. We each have to own the consequences of our choices. We know we’ve made mistakes – each one of us. We know we’ve hurt others. We know we haven’t lived up to our own ideals. As Rabbi Abraham Twerski puts it, guilt is to the emotions what pain is to the physical body – a helpful signal that something is wrong. Moral guilt makes us uncomfortable, and because of that, we’re motivated to change.

In order to make sure we truly face ourselves, to get un-stuck, our liturgy requires us to recite our sins out loud, over and over again. There is value in this repetition. It destroys our defenses. It allows us to admit things we’d rather keep hidden.

A story: In Cleveland, where I was a Head of School for many years, the local school districts provided free bus transportation to the private schools, including the Jewish day schools. On Halloween, one of my more adventurous students set off a little smoke bomb on the Cleveland Heights bus. The district’s transportation coordinator came to my school and questioned the top suspects, all 4th grade boys. I watched in awe as he quietly spoke to each one of them, asking them to tell their stories. Then he brought them back in, one at time, again and again, to compare their stories with the others. With each re-telling the list of suspects narrowed. By round five, one of the kids came in, put his head down and his hands out and said, “Cuff me, I did it.” I gave him credit for creativity, and a sense of drama.  Clearly, the constant repetition wore him down.

That’s why we recite the al het over and over again. Today we don’t hide from God.

We also don’t hide from our friends and family. Before Yom Kippur, we have to reach out to them and ask for forgiveness.

There is a fascinating discussion in halakhic literature about just how much detail you have to reveal when you admit or recite your sins.

In the Arukh HaShulchan:  Orach Chaim 606 we read:

ויש לו לפרט החטא שחטא לו.

A person who is asking his friend for forgiveness must provide details of exactly how he sinned against him

 אך אם חבירו מתבייש מזה – לא יפרט, אלא יבקש ממנו שימחול לו סתם

But if his friend would be embarrassed by this, there is no need to go into detail. Rather he should just ask his friend for blanket forgiveness.

If you are chanting the standard Vidui out loud in shul, especially if the Hazan is going to repeat it, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema, says you should not say the details out loud, because then it’s just a canned formula.

But when it comes to confessing one’s sins to God quietly, he says you have to provide details.

Underlying this discussion is a key question: Who benefits from these detailed confessions? It’s not God. God already knows the details. Clearly, it’s for the benefit (or the discomfort) of the person who is confessing.

This attention to the details of our sins reminded me of something I learned in my college statistics course, which was itself an entire semester of pain and suffering.

In the world of statistics and research, one way to show the range of responses on a test or a survey, is to use a bell curve. The center of the bell curve shows the mean – the average score. The term “standard deviation” is used to quantify the expected variation in that set of results. The results that fall beyond the expected “standard deviations” are the ones you want to pay attention to.

As we examine the details of the past year, we need to ask: what does our bell curve look like? Is it a narrow curve with all of our thoughts, words, and actions close to the mean, in line with our usual way of being in the world? Or is it spread out because some of what we said or did this year went beyond the standard deviation? In some cases, these variances can be good. We may have been nicer, or more helpful than usual. On the other side of the bell curve would be times we went off course, in a bad way.

When I learned orienteering by map and compass in the Boy Scouts, there were no GPS devices. So we were warned to be very, very careful as we plotted out our hikes. The saying was, “The more you go off course, the longer the walk back to camp.” When you’re traipsing through the woods, schlepping a heavy backpack, the walk back can be painful.

On Yom Kippur we ask ourselves: how far have I gone off course? And, how much work do I need to do to correct that?

I think these are questions we can ask about a community, and a country as well.

T’shuva is our attempt at re-alignment, it’s the way we come back, to way we get closer to the mean, and closer to what we already know is good.

As my classmate Rabbi Alan Lew, alav ha’shalom, wrote, “The great journey of transformation begins with the acknowledgment that we need to make it. It is not something we are undertaking for amusement, nor even for the sake of convention; rather, it is a spiritual necessity.”

The gift of Yom Kippur is knowing we can do T’shuva, that we know we can return, no matter how far or disconnected from ourselves we’ve become. We’re not stuck, there is still a second, or third, or even a fourth act in our lives…and even more, if necessary.  Perhaps the words “v’eeneetem et nafshotechem” don’t mean “you shall afflict your soul.” Maybe it means “v’aneetem” this is the day when you respond to your soul – in the affirmative.

So, yes, I hate Yom Kippur because it is all about me. I am forced to take a hard look at myself. I can’t hide, I can’t pretend. But I do have to remind myself: today isn’t about doom and gloom and tears. It’s about getting back to the good in me, it’s about re-orienting myself. It’s about the gift of a new opportunity. After Neilah, when that shofar blows, a door will open and I will walk through it with a sense of hope and renewal.

I probably won’t start dancing, but I’ll have a lot to look forward to.

May we all have good things to look forward to, today, tomorrow, and in the year to come.        G’mar Hatima Tova.

Simchat Torah 5780

Simchat Torah 5780

By Joel Elkins, October 22, 2019

Welcome to Last Week Tonight. I’m John Oliver Shalom, sitting in for Carl Dodi.

Original Creation: It’s that thing you are forced to do when you’ve completely run out of sequels and reboots to make.

This week, the creator-in-chief was extra busy, creating time, space, the heavens, the earth, and sliced bread. We have high hopes for that last one, believing it will be the standard by which everything else will be compared.

The celestial senate acted quickly to approve the creations, declaring each to be “good” and, in the case of mankind, “very good.” Based on that, the creator-in-chief created and then tweeted the thumbs up emoji no less than 8 times over the course of the week.

However, the votes were strictly along party lines, the opposition calling each day’s creation either “flawed” or, in the case of mankind, “very flawed.”

Let’s briefly go over the events of the week. On day one, the creator-in-chief created light, and then separated the light from the dark, apparently so that they could be washed separately.

In order to do so, the creator-in-chief had to create water, which she immediately separated into two: hot (for the light) and cold (for the dark). (Later she would have to create a gentle cycle for delicates, also known as millennials, but that’s for another time.)

At this point the opposition tried to filibuster any further creation, but was unsuccessful because, alas, that had not been invented yet. So instead they did whatever was in their power to undermine them.

For example, on the next day the creator-in-chief created vegetation: fruits, vegetables, grains. In response, the opposition created peanut allergies and sensitivity to gluten.

Not to be outdone, the following day the creator-in-chief created the sun, the moon and the stars. In response, the opposition created Sun-yung Moon and reality TV stars.

Next, the creator-in-chief created birds to fill the sky, fish to fill the seas and crawly things to fill her moat.

And then all the other animals, male and female (or non-binary). The creator-in-chief told them to be fruitful and multiply. “Just up my alley,”  said the rare East African strawberry-flavored abacus monkey. And it was still all good.

Not leaving well enough alone, the creator-in-chief then decided to create mankind, in her image. Think about this, mankind was created in God’s image. This can only mean one thing: God must also have earwax. Hashtag: #godhasearwax

As with the animals, she instructed mankind to be fruitful and multiply, but also to subdue the earth and to eat of its blessings. The earth held a press conference to announce that it was not going down without a fight.

Then, the Torah says, and I quote:


וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם:

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱלֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה:

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַֽעֲשֽׂוֹת

So, apparently, at this point somebody, we don’t know who, made kiddush.

And the creator-in-chief’s week came to a close. All told, She created time, space, the universe and everything in it. In comparison, my week consisted of unsuccessfully arguing with a representative from Spectrum to get a refund for my cable service because the reason I had gotten it in the first place couldn’t protect a 2 run lead with 6 outs to go. So my week wasn’t quite as productive, but at least I didn’t create mosquitoes.

This is John Oliver Shalom, sitting in for Carl Dodi, until next week.

Ki Tetse

Ki Tetse — Dad’s 1st Yartzheit

By Meyer Shwarzstein, September 14, 2019, 14 Elul 5779

You see, the thing is…my father often like to start conversations that way. You see, the thing is…the 14th of Elul last year was Shabbat. Today is the 14th of Elul and it’s Shabbat. My father was in the hospital in Har HaTzofim in a remarkable place – one where Christians, Moslems and Jews are the doctors, patients, caretakers, friends, family…probably all praying separately together. I wonder if in heaven those voices sound like a chorus.

My father had been getting better the whole week and we’d been looking forward to moving him to another location the next day. He had many of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren visit him in small groups – giving him a gift he adored – we sang Zemirot to him. The next morning, he took a steep turn for the worse and that afternoon, he died.

The law to bury on the same day comes from today’s parsha. We had his funeral at 9 pm on Sunday and we buried him in Jerusalem – the birthplace of his father and his father’s parents.

His great-great-grandmother was born in Tzfat and his great-great grandfather went out – Tetse – from Hungary to live his people’s dream in the land of Israel. My father – Tetse – also went out – from Chicago to live the same dream.

In our parsha, the phrase Ki Tetse talks about men who went out to war. My father, the first college graduate in his family, never went to war – he went to work. He taught music at a public high school during the day, took a nap after school and went out at night and Sundays to teach Hebrew school. He did have his battles – mostly with a principle who made his life difficult for taking off all those dang Jewish holidays.

Growing up, I thought of Judaism as the religion of “no”. You see, the thing is, this parsha contains lots of mitzvot – 74 to be exacts – more than any other Torah portion. My father had a lot of rules too – I felt that he said “no” a lot. Indeed, when he said, “we’ll see”, we learned that that meant “no” too. He also had a very strong sense of what is “right” even though he couldn’t or wouldn’t always explain why.

Like the Torah laws themselves which are often not self-evident. Consider today’s parsha:

Why shouldn’t we have an ox and a donkey plow together? The commentators note that it’s unfair to expect a donkey to do the work of an ox. And, if they’re pulling a plow side by side, it may also be unsafe.

in the matter of dispatching a mother bird before taking her chicks (22:7), there are many reasons given including the idea that animals have emotions and rights. 800 years ago, the Ramban and Ibn Ezra pointed out that, if we kill the mother and child of a species, we may destroy the species altogether…and that’s what why we’re given this law.

To digress a bit, I read recently that the idea of burying our dead the way we do is more ecologically sound – not burning or embalming a body nor burying it in a casket that will not disintegrate naturally. It turns out that the Jewish way leaves the smallest footprint.

I’m not trying to over-idealize my father’s rationale for when he’d tell us yes or no though time does allow me to be more generous. Nor am I using this as a means to over-explain confusing passages in the Torah. But in there is a potential to find truth and meaning if one cares enough to give people and the text the benefit of the doubt.

Now, there were things that bothered me about my father. When I was a kid, I hated the fact that he wouldn’t vocalize his feelings and tell me what he really meant. When my parents were on a path toward divorce, my mom would say terrible things about him, and he’d be quiet. It drove me crazy.

We are reminded in this Parsha to learn from Miriam’s mistake. She suffered a physical rebuke after saying terrible things about Moshe and his wife behind his back.

I know my father took the laws regarding gossip quite seriously — but how could I get real information – the real skinny? I’d have long conversations with my father who would update me on the news of his friends and our family but he’d literally ignore the bad news and he would talk about certain people so he wouldn’t fall into lashan harah (gossip). It was one of those things that was both frustrating and yet admirable. It took such self-discipline to keep those thoughts to himself.

My father used his voice for a different purpose; singing, teaching, laughing and, most importantly, cracking bad jokes.

Our Haftorah says, rena vatzhali, “Sing aloud for Joy.” That’s how my parents met – he was a choir director in Detroit where my mother first landed in the US – They both loved to sing and that brought them together. Our Shabbat tables were filled with song. They also both loved to teach.

My father invited his high-school students to bring in the music they loved, and he broke the structure down for them. He told me about Pink Floyd before I’d heard of them. No wonder his students loved him.

I sang in a high holiday choir with my father since I was 9 years told – first, soprano, then alto, and finally bass.

After my father passed away, a man who sang in my father’s choir sent me a wonderful card. I called him and we reminisced – I sent him a scan of my father’s music – some of which my father composed. He wrote me back and told me he was sitting in front of his computer singing for at least an hour. He also told me how a friend of his who was also in the choir today use my father’s hand movements to signal to each other when someone davening should be stopped, and they signal the use of a tuning fork as a sign that someone is off key.

He also knew how to laugh, to enjoy the moment and to love.

When his 2nd wife, my stepmother, had lost much of her cognitive ability, he’d treat her like she could understand his every word. He’d sit next to her with her arms in his, tell her the recent news and looked at her as lovingly as he did when they first got married – maybe even more. I’d never seen a love like that before. He’d share with her information about his whole family – you see, the thing is, I no longer had one sister, I now had five.

He was also always proud of me and he showed it. Now I have to live without that.

Divorce is a subject of this week’s parsha too. My parents came from a difficult upbringing and weren’t able to see their relationship through, but they had hope and tried to improve their world. Maybe that’s why they named their children Meyer and Rena – light and joy.

In this parsha we’re also commanded to remember. That came easily to my dad. My father would remember each of you if he talked to you – he cared so much about people, about friends, and about family that he’d remember details you may have only mentioned once.

For one moment; imagine a world in which disparate people stand next to each other in an orderly manner and are forced to listen to each other before a sound comes from their mouths. That’s my father’s world. A chorus. His choirs were filled with joy and prayer.

He would take out his tuning fork, find the right key, look at each of us in the eyes, make sure we were paying attention, and lift his arms…

…we’d wait for him to drop them to signal us to start singing. This disparate group of people held our breaths ready to join together in harmony filling our world with song, order and blessings.

But now there’s only silence.

You see, the thing is…I miss him.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Eikev


By Larry Herman, August 24, 2019
Are we Listening?

Shabbat Shalom.

Diane and I just returned from a family cruise to Alaska to celebrate my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. It was wonderful. Seeing the massive glaciers as they meet the sea is breathtaking. I hope that those of you who have not yet done so, will have the opportunity soon. Don’t wait.

This trip left me exhilarated and filled me with awe and appreciation for the handiwork of God and nature. But it also left me just a bit more depressed, as I become increasingly convinced that my generation of that of my children may well be the last to experience these wonders.

On our Alaska cruise we visited Hubbard Glacier, the largest tidewater glacier in North America, stretching back more than 75 miles, 7 miles wide at its face, and 600 feet tall. This glacier flows at a rate of about 1,000 feet a year, that’s almost three feet a day. In fact it is one of the few glaciers that is growing. There are more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska and 95% of them are thinning, receding and shrinking, most of them at an increasing rate. It was shocking to watch the time-lapse video of the Mendenhall Glacier as it recedes and to see the maps showing the 65 mile-long expansion of Glacier Bay as its feeding glaciers have retreated.

This phenomenon is happening all over the world. Scientists predict that by 2070 Glacier National Park in Montana will be Glacier free.

Perhaps you saw on the news last week that a glacier in Iceland has disappeared. A lake now takes its place. It was a relatively small glacier, but scientists say that in 200 years every glacier in Iceland will follow suit due to climate change.

While in Vancouver we visited the Maritime museum there and saw the St. Roch, the first ship to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east in the 1940s. Now freighters and even cruise ships successfully sail through these once permanently frozen waters.

Just before we left for Alaska I saw a news story showing the accelerated melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, something that scientists thought would not happen until 2070. And then I saw another story about how scientists are concerned about a domino-like collapse of parts of the Antarctica Ice Shelf, by far the world’s largest store of fresh water

There is little dispute in the scientific community that all this melting and heating of the oceans will lead to accelerating rises in sea levels. To put this in perspective, since 1900, sea levels have risen by about 7 inches. Scientists now predict that by 2100 sea levels will most likely rise by three more feet, but that accelerated ice sheet melt could raise this to almost 9 feet. Miami, New Orleans, parts of New York, and Tel Aviv will be underwater or subject to massive flooding. This will happen in the lifetimes of your grandchildren.

Of course, loss of ice and rising sea levels are not the only effects of anthropogenic climate change. Scientists tell us that average temperatures will continue to rise, winters will get milder, rainfall and snowfall patterns will change, droughts and heat waves will be more prevalent and severe, hurricanes will become more frequent, intense, and longer.

We’re already experiencing the effects. While not every fire is directly attributable to climate change, who can doubt that the tragic fires last year in northern California or right next door in the Santa Monica Mountains weren’t exacerbated by global warming.

And speaking of fires, right now the Amazon is burning. This is important because the Amazon rain forest absorbs a huge amount of the CO2 that is a leading cause of global warming. While the fires are not directly the result of climate change, they can give us an insight into some of its causes, and perhaps an insight into some solutions. To explain, allow me quote at length from a Facebook posting by a Brazilian friend of ours, Gustavo Niskier. Gustavo and his family lived in Mozambique for about three years and were active members of our shul there. Gustavo wrote:

This post is for you who are outraged by the burning Amazon.

I am glad to see all this concern for the destruction of our forests. But it is curious that most of the public think that the Amazon is being destroyed for no reason by others, and that they have no responsibility for what is happening.

Sorry to ruin your appetite, but that’s not exactly true.

The Amazon is burning in order to open pastures and areas for grain production. It’s that simple. 60 to 70% of deforested areas of the Amazon are used for livestock, creating new pasture land. Even more disturbing, 50% of the world’s grain production is used for animal feed (mainly beef production). In Brazil this number exceeds 60%.

Do the math. The Amazon is burning to support your meat-eating habit.

It is not rational or logical to rage against the destruction of the Amazon and maintain a meat-eating habit that increases the demand for new areas for meat production.

It’s time for us to understand that we are accountable.

Gustavo continues:

Want to see the Amazon stop burning? Easy. Reduce the demand for animal products – especially beef. Reduce demand and our forest is saved. Nothing could be easier, nothing could be simpler.

With each meal you can make a difference. You have the opportunity to make daily choices that will lead to a true transformation in the way we take care of our forests. If you are not ready yet to make the transition to a vegan life, consider vegetarianism, pescatarianism, eliminate red meat from your diet, or even reduce meat consumption gradually.

Be part of the great transformation underway today and together we can reduce the destruction of the Amazon and forests elsewhere.

Interestingly, Gustavo’s words echo my own when I spoke about kashruth and vegetarianism in a drash on parshat Shemini last year. For the record, Diane and I are in the process of transitioning.

I’m happy to report that there is a Jewish connection to all of this. Countless sites and on-line articles refer to Jewish environmentalism, most of them selectively citing Tanach. My favorite text is from Psalm 148, lines that I recite aloud every morning to the annoyance of most of my fellow minyanaires:

אֵ֣שׁ וּ֭בָרָד שֶׁ֣לֶג וְקִיט֑וֹר ר֥וּחַ סְ֝עָרָ֗ה עֹשָׂ֥ה דְבָרֽוֹ׃

הֶהָרִ֥ים וְכָל־גְּבָע֑וֹת עֵ֥ץ פְּ֝רִ֗י וְכָל־אֲרָזִֽים׃

הַֽחַיָּ֥ה וְכָל־בְּהֵמָ֑ה רֶ֝֗מֶשׂ וְצִפּ֥וֹר כָּנָֽף׃

Fire and hail, snow and smoke, storm wind that performs His command,
The mountains and all the hills, fruit trees and all the cedars,
Wild beasts and all the cattle, crawling things and winged birds.

But let’s face it, you don’t usually associate environmentalism and concern for climate change with major Jewish social causes.

I was pleased to find a 2015 Rabbinic Letter on Climate Action, initiated by seven leading rabbis including our own Elliot Dorff. The letter was signed, at the time, by 425 Rabbis. It got a lot of press and you all probably know more about than I do – what can I say, I was in Mozambique.

The first thing that pleased me is that their first scriptural reference was to the very lines from Psalm 148 that I love so much. Hey, I’m in good company. I also especially liked the introduction of the letter:

We come as Jews and rabbis with great respect for what scientists teach us – for as we understand their teaching, it is about the unfolding mystery of God’s Presence in the unfolding universe, and especially in the history and future of our planet. Although we accept scientific accounts of earth’s history, we continue to see it as God’s creation, and we celebrate the presence of the divine hand in every earthly creature.

The letter goes on to explain the Torah connections to the natural world and man’s guardianship of it. It acknowledges clearly the science-based description and explanation of the problem. They ask “whether the sources of traditional Jewish wisdom can offer guidance to our political efforts to prevent disaster and heal our relationship with the Earth.” Their answer is “Yes” and they conclude that “justice and earthiness cannot be disentangled.”

They “call for a new sense of eco-social justice – a tikkun olam that includes tikkun tevel, the healing of our planet.” And then they suggest several ways for individual Jews and their institutions to address “our own responsibility” by moving our money from spending that burns our planet to spending that helps to heal it. They also advocate, rather softly political action.

I like it. It’s a bit too America-centric and not very concrete on the political action side, but I like it. If you haven’t read it, you should. If you have, read it again. And if our movement has an official position, let me know.

My goodness, I haven’t even begun to talk about the parsha!

It’s all there, in the second paragraph of the Shema. Chapter 11, verses 13 through 21 of this week’s parsha. You say it twice a day (ok, maybe once a week for some of you). But are you listening? I wasn’t, until perhaps 20 years ago Diane made me hear. More recently, I came across an interpretive translation really made me hear. I’d like to share it.

Shabbat Shalom.

והיה אם שמע

A Prayer in a Time of Planetary Danger

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

אִם שָׁמֹעַ
אֶל מִצְוֺתַי
אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם,
אֶת יְיָ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם
וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם׃

Im Sh-Sh-Sh-Sh’mo-a
If you hush’sh’sh’sh, truly hush’sh’sh’sh
To hear my Name, yes to hear and to listen —Adonai, the name;
If you Breathe in my quiet,
Interbreathe with all Life
Still small Voice of us all —-

מְטַר אַרְצְכֶם
בְּעִתּוֹ יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ,
וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ,
וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ:
עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ,
וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ׃

You will feel the Connections;
You will make the connections
And the rain will fall rightly
The grains will grow rightly
And the rivers will run
So you and all creatures
Will eat well in harmony,
Earthlings / good Earth.

הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם,
וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים
וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם לָהֶם׃

But if you break the One Breath into pieces
If you erect into idols these pieces of Truth,
Bowing down to Big Oil, to Big Coal –
If you heat my Breath with your burnings —

וְחָרָה אַף יְיָ
וְעָצַר אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם
וְלֹא יִהְיֶה מָטָר
לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ,
וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה
מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה
אֲשֶׁר יְיָ נֹתֵן לָכֶם׃

Then my Breath will flare up into scorching,
The corn will parch in the field,
The poor will find little to eat,
And my Breath, my Wind, Holy Spirit
Will become a Hurricane of Disaster:
Floods will drown your cities,
My Wind will tear down your Power.

וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה
עַל לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם,
וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל יֶדְכֶם
וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם:

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒
וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ
וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה
וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם
וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙
וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם
אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

What must you do?
Connect what you see with your eyes
To what you do with your hands.
Look with joy and respect
On the threads of connection
That you tie as fringes
On the edges of your self.
Smooth Mountains of Power
Into valleys of abundance.
Turn to sun and My Wind
To empower my people.
Make My breath amidst you
A Hurricane of justice —
Then the grass will grow,
The forests will flourish,
And all life will weave the future in fullness.

לְמַעַן יִרְבּוּ
יְמֵיכֶם וִימֵי בְנֵיכֶם
עַל הָאֲדָמָה
אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְיָ
לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לָתֵת לָהֶם,
כִּימֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם
עַל הָאָרֶץ׃

Then eysh and mayim,
Will join in shamayim:
Fire and water,
No longer in battle,
Will each find its place
In the balance of Earth:
The heavens will clear
And your lives will be lived
in heavenly joy.



Parshat Mishpatim (5779)

Larry Herman Davar Torah, February 2, 2019
God is in the Details

Shabbat Shalom.

And he who kidnaps a man and sells him, or he is found in his hands, is doomed to die.

וְגֹנֵ֨ב אִ֧ישׁ וּמְכָר֛וֹ וְנִמְצָ֥א בְיָד֖וֹ מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:

Mishpatim, Chapter 21, verse 16.

Once again I dedicate this davar Torah to the humanitarian, Dr. Ken Elliot, who was abducted by al-Qaida linked jihadists in northern Burkina Faso in January 2016 and remains captive, now for more than 3 years. Ken is in his eighties and one wonders how much longer he can survive. A deeply religious man and a physician, he dedicated his entire adult life to providing health care to one of the poorest regions in the world. Ken and his wife Jocelyn regularly hosted Diane and me in 1970s during our travels to northern Upper Volta as it was then called. He deserves to be freed and united with his family. May the day come soon.

Sometimes things take a turn in a direction you just don’t expect. Like opening up your Facebook and finding that your Rabbi has stolen your thunder. Well, it’s not all bad. If you’ve already read Rabbi Kligfeld’s parsha drash in the bulletin, go ahead and take your nap. On the other hand, maybe I have a slightly different take on the question of Rashi’s explanation of the vav in וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ at the beginning of this week’s parsha.

Rashi along with many other commentators wanted to link the lengthy list of laws and ordinances that occupies the majority of this week’s parsha to the dramatic revelation at Sinai that concludes last week’s parsha, Yitro. In brief, and perhaps not entirely fairly, the problem is to ensure that we recognize that these mishpatim were also given at Sinai and have the same status as the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments

As Rabbi Kligfeld explains, Rashi manages this by explaining that the vav in וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ connects the following verses with what came before, or as Rabbi Kligfeld writes “and these things, as well!”

Not to quibble with either Rashi or Rabbi Kligfeld, but I think that this explanation is somewhat problematic, because of what came directly before the וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ that begins this week’s parsha. In the text it was not the Aseret Hadibrot, as I’ll explain. But I do agree with their conclusion about the status of the 99 verses of Mishpatim in this week’s parsha, just not with how they both got there. Allow me to explain it my way.

Here we are, in the middle of a great long-arcing story. Five weeks of serial narrative that makes us thirst for more each week. Tons of drama and suspense. Fabulous description and grand themes. When suddenly, without the slightest hint or warning, we encounter a parsha that switches from narrative to code, from engrossing thriller to mostly detailed legislation.

But does it really?

It reminds me of two literary experiences. I remember reading Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s American classic about the sailor Ishmael’s description of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the great white whale, where the captivating narrative is interrupted by extended passages describing the minutia of cetacean taxonomy and whale boat construction.

Or Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, where Jack Ryan is chasing terrorists who are about to detonate a nuclear bomb when on page 615 Clancy launches into a very lengthy detailed description of exactly what happens in a nuclear warhead in the several nanoseconds that it takes for the warhead to actually explode.

Both Melville and Clancy go on for pages, thousands or tens of thousands of words interrupting their narrative. The reading can be a tough slog instead of an enjoyable long-distance sprint. One is tempted to skim or skip. But the intrusions are important parts of the story and if you read them as such, they are as thrilling as the narrative. Melville and Clancy resume their tales and your appreciation for what comes next is enhanced by their detour into the science and technology that are an intrinsic part of the story.

I think that the same can be said for the three full chapters and 99 verses of our parsha which appear to interrupt the text and suddenly and without warning thrust us into a rather dry and seemingly disorganized hodgepodge of rules and laws that Moses is instructed to set before the people. But to understand it as such, I think that we have to slightly rearrange the narrative.

In the handout that I’ve prepared, I’ve summarized the story of revelation in 15 scenes, beginning with Chapter 19 in parshat Yitro through to the end of our parsha. I’ve tried to pay special attention to Moses’ comings and goings, since I think that that’s one of the give-aways that the story is written out of order. One side of the page shows the order as it appears in the Torah and the other the order that makes logical sense to me, and in the process, solves the וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ problem.

To explain, let me review succinctly, in my own way, the narrative to this point starting from just after Moses’ father-in-law has helped him establish an administrative structure for governance. Note that at this point there is administration without established law.

In Scene 1 the Israelites come to the wilderness of Sinai and camp against the famous mountain, where all the subsequent action will take place. In Scene 2 Moses goes up the mountain for the first time. God instructs Moses to offer the people a deal: heed my voice and keep my covenant … [and] you will become for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (19:5-6). Who could refuse such a good offer?

In Scene 3 Moses descends, calls the elders and puts the offer before them (וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם) at which point “all the people answered together, כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה נַֽעֲשֶׂ֑ה, everything that Adonai has spoken we shall do (19:8). Both of these formulations are repeated in parshat Mishpatim.

In Scene 4 Moses brings the people’s words to God (2nd going up), but before he can tell Him, God speaks first saying, Look, I am about to come to you in the utmost cloud, so that the people may hear as I speak to you, and you as well as they will trust for all time.

Only then does Moses give the Lord that the people have already agreed. The deal is done so God gives Moses the instructions of how everyone is to prepare, including the warning against the people going up or touching the mountain.

In Scene 5 Moses comes down the mountain and prepares the people.

In Scene 6 the show begins, starting with verse 16: thunder, lightning, clouds, smoke and shofar blasts as the people advance to the base of the mountain as instructed. At that point there’s a peculiar statement:

Moses would speak and God would answer him with voice.

משֶׁ֣ה יְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים יַֽעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל:

Is this what God meant by so that the people may hear as I speak to you? Remember, Moses had not yet gone back up the mountain, he was with the people where they could hear him and God in the midst of all the tumult.

Up to now, I haven’t rearranged a thing. But in Scene 7 in the text Moses goes up for the third time, at which point God tells him to go back down and warn the people not to come too close. Moses tells God to chill, he’s already warned them as instructed. But God finds another reason for Moses to hike down the mountain, this time to bring Aaron, and to remind the people and priests anyway. So in Scene 8 Moses heads down the mountain and speaks to the people.

But why did Moses have to go up the Mountain a third time in the midst of the dazzling display?

Scene 9 in the text is the beginning of Chapter 20. Remember, Moses is down with the people. God speaks the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments in verses 1 through 14. But to whom is God speaking? Didn’t he just tell Moses to come back up with Aaron? There’s no specific record of exactly who heard what God was saying.

Scene 10 in verses, 15-18 is usually understood to be the people’s response to having heard the Aseret Hadibrot and witnessing all the pyrotechnics. They beg Moses to intercede for them and he agrees, calming them. Then Moses goes up for the fourth time.

In Scene 11 God tells Moses to tell the Israelites

You yourselves saw that from the heavens I spoke with all of you

אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם כִּ֚י מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי עִמָּכֶֽם

This is the only hint that the people may actually heard the Aseret Hadibrot even though the text clearly says that the people saw that God spoke to them, not that they heard him speak to them. Couldn’t He be referring to the previous unspecified conversation with Moses when he was with the people?

Continuing Scene 11 in the very last bit of Yitro, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites regarding not making gods of silver or gold, to make earthen alters on which to sacrifice, that if they do make alters from stone that they should not be hewn by sword, and that they should not expose themselves when they go up upon the alter. This placement is very peculiar. Especially since it is immediately followed by Rashi’s famous וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ introducing this week’s parsha. In other words, Rashi is connecting the 99 verses of laws and ordinances in Mishpatim to a prohibition against exposing oneself when mounting the alter, or more generously, to the specific requirements for construction of an altar.

But this is not what Rashi or Rabbi Kligfeld or the other commentators really want to do. They want to connect the Mishpatim to the Aseret Hadibrot.

And that’s exactly what I want to do by switching the chronology of what happened.

Say that upon experiencing all of the thunder, lightning, smoke and shofar blasts in Scene 6, the people ask Moses to intercede for them prior to hearing the Ten Commandments. In other words, Scene 10 follows Scene 6. Then Moses goes up and approaches the cloud and is instructed to warn the people not to get too close and for Moses to bring Aaron back up with him (the original Scene 7).

At this point, Moses descends and tells the people, i.e., Scene 8.

But now we have to jump to a scene at the end of our parsha in Chapter 24, Scene 13 in the original which reminds us that God had instructed Moses to ascend with Aaron, this time adding also Nadav, Avihu and the 70 elders. They all go up but only Moses approaches the Lord.

Only now in the rearranged order do we get to Scene 9, the first part of Chapter 20, with God speaking directly to Moses, starting with

God spoke all these d’varim

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֵ֛ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה:

Followed by the Aseret Hadibrot.

What comes next, without interruption is Scene 12, the beginning and major part of our parsha, with God still speaking to Moses, starting with,

And these are the mishpatim that you shall set before them.

וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם:

It makes perfect sense, God first transmits the main principles of faith and over-arching moral precepts contained in the Ten Commandments and follows this up with the details. Both are given at the same moment. The narrative is not interrupted by our parsha. Rather all of the law, devarim and mishpatim are transmitted without interruption to Moses who in turn, and as agreed by the people themselves, will transmit them to the people.

And what of Scene 11 in the original, this somewhat strange and strangely placed passage which in the original interrupts the Aseret Hadibrot and mishpatim? It now makes perfect sense, having given Moses the entire law in two parts, he instructs Moses to tell the people that they have seen that he spoke (which they did, it just wasn’t the Aseret Hadibrot) so they can rely on Moses’ report.

And now the instructions regarding the alter makes sense because it is required for the ceremony where the full covenant is ratified by the people.

In the penultimate Scene 14, Moses finally comes down. And what does he tell the people?

And Moses came and recounted to the people all the “divrei Adonai” and all the “mishpatim ”

וַיָּבֹ֣א משֶׁ֗ה וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר לָעָם֙ אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים

Moses transmits to the people both the Ten Commandments and the Mishpatim, one following the other, just as he heard it directly from God. Rashi’s vav in וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ makes perfect sense. First the Aseret Hadibrot and these Mishpatim as well.

Both the main principles of faith and the detailed laws originated from Sinai and have equal importance.

They are as an intrinsic part of our narrative as Melville’s whale taxonomy and Clancy’s nuclear fission description.

Except in our case, it’s God that’s in the details.

Shabbat Shalom.


Parshat Kedoshim

By Larry Herman, May 6, 2017
Holiness and Community

Shabbat Shalom.

קְדשִׁים תִּֽהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

This is the introduction to Parshat Kedoshim, when God instructs Moses,

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: YOU shall be holy, for I, Adonai YOUR God, am holy

Now my Hebrew isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to realize that here, as in many places in the Torah and the rest of the Tanach, the translation doesn’t do justice to the power, or even the pshat or simple meaning, of the original.

English lacks the distinction between the singular and plural forms of the pronoun YOU. It also lacks the specifically plural forms of verbs and adjectives. In the seven words of God’s initial instruction there are three words addressing the entire community, קְדשִׁים, תִּֽהְיוּ, and אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם, which make it clear that this instruction to be holy is for the community as a whole and not for the individual members of the community.

Older translations might have helped a bit with all their, Thou, Thee, Thy, Thine and Ye’s. So the King James translation reads:

YE shall be holy: for I the Lord Your God am holy

Now, if I still lived in South Carolina – more on that in a bit – I might rather translate it as:

Y’all be holies, for holy am I, Adonai, Y’all’s God.

There’s no further mention of holiness in Chapter 19. What follows in the next 35 verses is something akin to the Greatest Hits of the commandments. They contain 44 commandments, by my count, of which:

  • 25 are addressed in the plural while 19 are addressed to individuals.
  • 26 are ethical commandments, of which, 11 are addressed the community as a whole and 15 are addressed to individuals.
  • 18 are ritual commandments, of which 13 are addressed to the community as a whole, and only 5 are addressed to individuals

I’m sure that there are good explanations for these distinctions, and some of you will certainly enlighten me during Kiddush, if not before.

Chapter 19 also includes 15 reminders that Adonai is God, 14 of them interspersed with the various commandments. Of these, 7 are in the form of

אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם.

I am Adonai YOUR – read that as “Y’all’s” – God.

Seven other reminders are in the simple form of:

אֲנִי יְהוָֹה.

I am Adonai.

Only in verse 14 is the reminder specifically addressed to the individual.

לֹֽא־תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹֽה:

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You – THOU, the individual – shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

What to make of all this? If it’s so important for us to be holy as a community, why all the confusion about commandments that apply to the individual and those that apply to the community. Do we have to fulfill these commandments to be holy? If so, as individuals, as a community, or both? I think I know the answer, but first, I want to explain how I have come to that answer.

Today is the anniversary of my bar mitzvah. I shared a bar mitzvah with Marshall Gordon at Beth Shalom in Oak Park Michigan. Marshall’s father was the president of the shul so Marshall got a bit more of the spotlight. But I had my share. My father worked at the Detroit Free Press and arranged for the famous, at least in Detroit, photo-journalist, Tony Spina, to shoot pictures of my bar mitzvah preparations and then publish them in the Sunday Rotogravure. That’s what we used to call the magazine that came with the Sunday paper.

Oak Park was a great mostly Jewish community and Beth Shalom was a wonderful Conservative shul with a good afternoon Hebrew school and a great rabbi. Mordecai Halpern, z’l, a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan, was the first of many rabbis and teachers who have influenced me as a Jew. But it wasn’t until many years later that I actually read Parshat Kedoshim and decided that it was one of my favorite torah portions. Especially Chapter 19. Chapter 20, not so much.

Recently, I looked it up and found out that my bar mitzvah should have been the previous week, the double parsha of Tazria-Metsorah. To tell you the truth, I’m really happy that I ended up not getting afflicted with Tazria-Metsorah. But I had a long way to go before I would really come to appreciate Parshat Kedoshim.

Diane and I spent two years in Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, in West Africa in the mid-seventies. It was one of the two most transformative experiences of our lives. Ouagadougou, the capital, was a city without a Jewish Community of any kind, and pretty much a city without Jews. There were a few Jewish Peace Corps volunteers and I’m sure that there were a few Jews among the international community. For the first time we were forced to confront how to be Jewish in the absence of Jewish community. What we did we mostly did for ourselves. Having arrived with only our backpacks, we had Shabbat candle sticks made by the local bronze artist. We learned to bake matzah by ourselves. We did have the benefit of being able to buy challot for our Shabbat dinners from Charlie, the Jewish Moonie, whose recipe Diane still occasionally uses to this day. Professionally, culturally and in terms of our world view, Upper Volta laid the ground work for the people we are today. Jewishly, it taught us that we need community, and that if it did not exist, we somehow had to find a way to create it ourselves.

When we moved to Columbia, South Carolina, Jewish community entered our lives again. Beth Shalom was a traditional but not very observant southern congregation led by a European Orthodox Rabbi, Edward Kendal. We formed a havurah with some other young adults and helped each other learn and practice Judaism in a way that was meaningful for us. The Jewish Catalog was a big help. We were learning about community building. There were a few sparks of holiness there. But we were mainly focused on our own lives, our careers, and starting our family. We were not fully ready for the holiness of community to inspire us, and perhaps the community was not quite strong enough to inspire us in that way.

In the early eighties, we moved to Gambier Ohio, sixty miles from Columbus. We lived on the campus of Kenyon College which had a number of Jewish faculty and students. Services were held in the basement of the College’s Church of the Holy Spirit. The basement was drafty but not all that holy, and so we soon moved the services to the more uplifting Philomathesian Hall.

By then, we were better prepared for building community. And the Jews of Gambier were responsive. We led services and organized holiday celebrations, represented the Jewish community at College functions, and ran the College’s community Seder. During the ten years that we were there, that community grew and became more cohesive, especially after the arrival of Rabbi Leonard Gordon and his wife Lori Lefkowitz. But we still had to travel to Columbus and Tifereth Israel for Shabbat morning and holiday services, and to enroll our oldest son, Reuven, in their Sunday school. We were still struggling to find the holiness of Jewish community.

Our second transformative experience was our Sabbatical year in Jerusalem. It transformed us Jewishly, and that was due entirely to community. Not the macro-community of Israeli Jews, but the local micro-community in which we lived and learned. The Masorti Kehilat Moreshet Avraham, and a few families served as models of what rich and fulfilling Jewish life could be like. Our childhood friend Maureen Stahl and her husband Rabbi Marvin Richardson, z’l, were guides and mentors, as was the family of Noam and Marcella Zion. At Moreshet Avraham we benefitted from the teaching and leadership of Rabbis David Golinkin, Reuven Hammer and Benji Segal, and from many others who became life-long friends. But more important than any formal teaching and guidance was the modeling that living in a rich community of knowledgeable, thoughtful, and committed Jews did to inspire us. It wasn’t that we became more aware of and committed to mitzvot, as much as the fact that we were enveloped by a community of people who shared practices and values that gave their lives, and ours, meaning and a sense of specialness. Many of these people were and are surely Tzadikim, but as a community they were definitely Kedoshim, holy in the sense of being special.

When we returned to the States we wanted to find such a community. As much as we loved Gambier and our life and friends in rural Ohio, we decided to move to Columbus to find it. We sent our children to the community Jewish Day School, Torah Academy, whose faculty and families quickly and warmly welcomed us. We ended up joining an Orthodox shul, Agudas Achim, where again we were warmly embraced and found teachers, models and mentors, including Rabbi Alan Ciner. Now our community included the Torah Academy, Tifereth Israel, Agudas Achim, and our Kenyon community. We continued to grow as Jews, mainly because of these overlapping communities.

Our decision to make aliyah was a difficult one, as we loved our community in Columbus. But we knew that we also had a special community waiting for us in Jerusalem. In our years there we became members, participants and even leaders in Kehilat Moreshet Avraham. We had many years benefitting from and contributing to that holy community.

As many of you know, Diane and I ended up in Mozambique, leading a small and interesting Jewish community there for most of 16 years. Of all of the Jewish communities in which we lived, it was the least able to provide us with knowledge, instruction, and examples of Jewish life. The Jewish Community of Mozambique has existed since the end of the nineteenth century. It had a beautiful – although at the time, dilapidated – synagogue, and just a handful of people who used it. It was incumbent on us to provide the modeling, mentoring and instruction to a diverse group of people who had very limited Jewish backgrounds and understanding.

We were ready.

Over time the Jews of Mozambique coalesced into a true community and ended up supporting us even as we provided them with learning and leadership. By the time we left last summer, the Jewish Community of Mozambique had formally reorganized into Honen Dalim, restored the shul building, and provided maintenance and security for the historic Jewish cemetery.

More importantly, services were being held Shabbat evening and morning, and on Sunday mornings. Holidays were celebrated, the Torah was read regularly, and the community came together for life-cycle events including bnei mitzvah, a wedding, and supporting mourners.

The mourners included myself and Diane when we each lost our father. For us, that community was never as important, as special and as holy as when they stood with us and responded while we recited the mourners’ Kaddish.

When the time came to leave Mozambique we once again faced a difficult decision. Return to our home, life and community that we loved in Jerusalem, or move to Los Angeles to be closer to our children and families. Diane did the hard work, researching the shuls and neighborhoods of Los Angeles and determining that the Library Minyan and Pico Robertson was the place for us. She was right, of course.

We once again found ourselves in the midst of a community that could nourish us, spiritually, intellectually, and culturally. Unlike our lives in Ouagadougou, Gambier and Mozambique, we don’t have to be the ones to make community for ourselves and others. As in Oak Park, Columbia, Columbus and Jerusalem, we feel uplifted community. And to the extent that our abilities permit, we hope to contribute to the holiness of the community.

I don’t think that we would be the people or Jews that we are today had we not had the challenges and opportunities to try to build stronger communities where they were weak. We might have been more learned and capable Jews had we lived our entire lives in places like Oak Park, Columbus, Jerusalem, and Los Angeles. But we never would have appreciated in the same way what makes a community holy.

קְדשִׁים תִּֽהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:

So now I think I know the answer to the question of whether we need to fulfill the commandments in order to be holy. The commandments in this parsha and in the rest of the Torah are not prerequisites for holiness. Rather, we need to be part of a holy community that supports and inspires us to fulfill the commandments. Holiness is not an individual quality that follows out of one’s actions. It is, instead, a collective state that comes about when we join together to create an environment in which we can grow as spiritual and ethical Jews. And that makes us all better people, better Jews, and if we are fortunate, a bit holy.

Shabbat Shalom


Parshat Shoftim

By Diane Roosth, Saturday, September 7, 2019

This Parsha speaks to me not just as the anniversary Torah Portion of my Bat Mitzvah, but as one with relevant issues for our time. I lived through times where the pursuit of justice in legal and social spheres impacted what I read, the music I heard, and national military actions I witnessed both in the United States and in Israel. Shoftim speaks of legal and social justice in the context of our relationships with one another, in our local communities, and the larger society.

The Parsha touches upon the organization and basic principles of our legal system. Chapter 16:18 – 20 commands the appointment of “magistrates and officials” for your tribe who must judge fairly, show “no partiality, and not take bribes”. This is followed by the double emphasis of “Justice Justice shall you pursue”. But, as Rabbi Dorff asked in a Drash from September 2009, “How can we know God’s will on any specific question?” What happens when we don’t know what the words of the law mean, or how they should be understood? Who should we turn to? Who is entrusted with interpreting the law?

In Chapter 17:8 – 9, we are commanded to bring our legal questions to “the magistrate in charge at the time”. The sages understood “judge” literally as the translation of the word “magistrate”, explaining that every generation requires a Rabbinical court to apply Jewish Law to that generations particular circumstances. (Etz Haim, Torah and Commentary, quoting Bavli Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 25a-b). Today I wanted to touch upon two examples of how certain Rabbis today are applying Jewish law to pursue legal and social justice in our time.

An article from last week’s Jewish Journal told the story of Meir Kin, who separated from his first wife in 2007 and had a Civil Divorce. However, he did not issue her, and has continued to refuse, a get, placing her in the status of an “aguna”, or one who is anchored. Kin’s elderly mother recently died, and she was allowed to be buried in Israel with the understanding he would give his wife a get. He again refused to give the get and release her.

Eleven well known U.S. Orthodox Rabbis wrote a Letter to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, citing halachic rulings issued previously against the man in question, and asking that the “Chief Rabbi and Chevra Kaddisha” prevent the “erection of the tombstone” for his mother’s grave in Israel, until the son gives his wife an Orthodox Get and she is “released from her awful Aguna situation”. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is quoted in the adjacent article as saying, “this is a case in which Jewish law is being mocked, ridiculed, and dragged into the mud”.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Network, March 20, 2019 article by Marcy Oster, “The Beth Din of America, the religious court of the Rabbinical Council of America, surveyed the RCA’s membership ahead of International Agunah Day” in the current year before Purim. They found that “84 percent of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States require couples they marry to sign a prenuptial agreement that guarantees neither side can use the religious divorce, or get, as a bargaining chip”. This is a necessary and bold step taken by Rabbis of our time in interpreting and applying Jewish law in the pursuit of justice.

Another contemporary example is related to Kaparot, a customary atonement ritual dating back to the Middle Ages practiced by some Jews on the eve of Yom Kippur involving passing a live chicken over one’s head. The custom was originally meant to jolt people into recognizing their own mortality and to encourage them to transform sins into good deeds.

The Shamayim V’aretz Institute, also known as Shamayim – Jewish Animal Advocacy, lists almost 100 Orthodox Rabbis on their web-site who have come out opposing practice of using chickens for Kaparot. Other Rabbis in Los Angeles across all Jewish denominations have also come out against the practice.

The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, formed in 2010 as a project of United Poultry Concerns, comprises individuals and groups in The Yeshiva World, both Asheknazi and Sephardi, who seek to replace the use of chickens in Kaparot rituals with money or other non-animal symbols of atonement.

The law isn’t always just and, even when interpreted, doesn’t always lead to a just outcome. Law and justice don’t always go hand in hand – not when I was 13 years old, not today, and probably not in another 50 years. However Parshat Shoftim recognizes this, and reminds us of the importance of trying to continuously pursue justice by means of the law. This includes speaking out about the rights of Jewish women to get a religious divorce and not be held captive as agunot, and a more humane way to offer Kaparot with money for Tzedakah. I am certain that there are many more contemporary issues where Jewish law and American law can, and should, be interpreted to better pursue justice.

Our tradition, the torah and halacha, is a living tradition – an Etz Haim – filled with machlokot, disagreements, about how to interpret the law. Just as in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, so too today. There are rabbis who, for lack of a better term, are “loose constructionists” and rabbis who are “strict constructionists” when it comes to interpreting our tradition. However, we must, as Rabbi Dorff said in a 2009 drash, “develop a high level of tolerance for listening to opposing opinions and a high level of skill in analyzing their relative strengths and weaknesses”.

As we prepare to enter a new year and head into an election year, both in Israel and in the United States, may we pray for a peaceful new year where we can hear each other’s opinions with respect and dignity and agree to disagree. And may we, our rabbis, leaders, magistrates, judges, and elected officials find the courage to continuously interpret the law to better pursue justice. Shabbat Shalom.



Parashat Va’etchanan

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen

We’ve all had the experience of mishearing song lyrics. A classic is Elton John’s “Hold me closer Tony Danza.”  Or we hear things correctly, but misquote them later on, “Play it again, Sam” is actually “Play it, Sam.”  Sometimes, though, we hear or read things correctly but we don’t really understand them.

There is a famous pasuk that, I believe, is the most misunderstood verse in the Torah, and I am here to set things right!

Back in Exodus 24:7 (page 478) we read:

ז) וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃)

And he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant, and he read it aloud to the people; and they said: ‘All that God has spoken “naaseh v’nishma.”  How do we translate that? We will do and we will….? It’s a problem.

If you’re confused, don’t feel bad. While modern English has approximately 172,000 unique words, Biblical Hebrew had only 8,679 unique words, of which 2,415 were people or place names. Which is why many words in the Bible have multiple meanings.

An early Midrash, Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, says nishma simply means we will hear. It asks: “How do we know there were no deaf people at Sinai? ‘We will do and we will hear.’” According to the Rashbam, it means we will do and we will hear more later on.  Yet another translation: we will do, and then we will understand. Which means: “we agree to do these things, before knowing the reason.”

This last translation presents us with a rather difficult theological statement, but it has had pride of place in Jewish Tradition for centuries.

Where did this translation, and this belief, come from?

The earliest mention is in the Talmud, Shabbat 88a. Rabbi Elazar taught: When the People of Israel said “We will do” before “We will hear” a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, emerged and said to them, “Who revealed to my children this secret, which only the angels know? As it is written (Psalms 103:20) ‘Bless the Lord, you angels of His, you mighty in strength, that fulfill His word, listening to the voice of His word. At first the angels fulfill His word (oseh dvaro), without understanding it; only later do they actually hear the words (lishmoa bkol dvaro).’”   “oseh then shomea” “do, then hear” “naaseh v’nishma.”

It seems that Rabbi Elazar believed that saying “yes” before hearing or understanding, made the Jewish People just like the angels.

Centuries later Saadia Gaon added to this, saying that while some mitzvot are “sichliyot” – from the word sechel – meaning they make rational sense and we would have figured them out on our own, some are “shimiyot” – from shomea, meaning we had to hear them – as proclaimed by God – because we never would have thought of them ourselves. That’s what gives them their power, and, reasonable or not, we must obey them.

In the modern period, Orthodox writer Rabbi Eliyahu Safran doubled down on this belief when he wrote, “Today, there are Jews who have it backwards. They have to understand before they act.”   “Had these people been at Sinai,” he wrote, “I imagine they would have said, ‘prove it and we’ll consider acting.’ Hardly a divine statement of faith.”

So I have a question: Do our texts actually back up this line of thinking– that reason and understanding weren’t necessarily part of the deal? Let’s look at our verse again…

וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם

“And he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant, and he read it aloud (literally: within earshot) of the people.”

This first part of the verse points out that there were laws that God had already taught. In this case, it was the 10 Commandments, back in Chapter 19, as well as the laws in Chapters 21 to 24. Three and half chapters of laws!  It seems the people had heard plenty. They were not being asked to agree to things they had not yet heard.

If that’s so, what else could naaseh vnishma mean?

Consider the 2nd paragraph of the Shema (Deut 11:13), page 1052: v’haya eem shamoa – it can’t mean “if you perform the physical act of listening” all these great things will happen. God wanted more – a commitment: if you obey, all these good things will happen. But, if you don’t obey, well…good luck! When my doctor says that I need to exercise more, I always say, “I hear you”…trust me: that means absolutely nothing! So, in our verse: naase means, we will do, and then nishma – in this context, means we will commit, we will obey.

To lock this down even further, the Gemara on the same page as the Heavenly Voice story tells us an additional story: God held a mountain over the people and warned them: If you accept the Torah – good; if not – here you will be buried.”  The message of the Gemara is not about “hearing” but about making a commitment.  So Naaseh v’nishma means: we will do and we will obey.

Still believe the Torah asks us to observe, without hearing or understanding? Wait, there’s more!

Let’s leave Shmot and look at this week’s parsha… on page 1022. There’s a pasuk I like to call the Rodney Dangerfield verse – it doesn’t get much respect…but it should.

In Dvarim 5:24, as his life draws to a close, Moshe re-tells the stories of Shmot through B’midbar. When he recalls the giving of the Torah, Moshe reminds the people how it all went down:

קְרַ֤ב אַתָּה֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֹאמַ֖ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ

“You all said to me, you, Moshe, go closer and hear all that the LORD our God will say…and then you tell us everything that God tells you

וְשָׁמַ֥עְנוּ וְעָשִֽׂינוּ

…and once we hear it (or understand it) then we will do it.”

The words are not only in the exact opposite order of naase v’nishma, but they make our ancestors look like people who didn’t sign contracts until they’d read every word.

And that’s how it played out. God told Moshe: “Tell the people to return to their tents. You stay here with Me, and I will give you the whole instruction – the laws and the rules – that you will teach them.”

So Moshe teaches them, and then tells them:

וְשָֽׁמַעְתָּ֤ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְשָֽׁמַרְתָּ֣ לַֽעֲשׂ֔וֹת

You have heard, Israel, or, you now understand, so make sure you do all of this.

Hearing or understanding came before commitment. When the verb “nishma” comes beforenaaseh” we translate it as hear or understand, but when it comes afternaaseh” it means obey.

The Rabbis in the Midrash and Talmud were careful readers. They understood the various meanings of the verb shomea. So why did our Tradition give so much attention to naaseh v’nishma – we will do and then we will hear – when these other verses show the opposite?

Because some of the Rabbis had an agenda. I believe that they wanted to encourage a particular national theological narrative, some would call it a foundational myth, in which our ancestors had the highest level of faith and commitment, starting with Avraham and Sarah, and continued by those at Sinai, whose faith led them to accept a divine Torah unconditionally.

That’s the story they wanted to pass down, but not everyone agreed.

You see, Rabbi Elazar’s story may have another meaning, a crack in the narrative if you will, one that challenged this idea of the people’s perfect faith. Perhaps the voice from heaven who said “Who revealed to my children this secret?” – that naaseh comes before nishma – perhaps that Bat Kol didn’t say those words out of joy, but out of surprise, or even disappointment. Maybe Rabbi Elazar understood that God never expected the people to blindly accept the Torah in such a unilateral fashion. Take the law seriously? Yes. But blindly? No way. You see, the angels didn’t have free will. They had no choice but to be oseh, and then shomea, to do and then to understand, but people were given free will and open minds. As we say in the weekday Amidah: we thank God who, each day, is Honen Ha’da’at – granting us the ability to think and reason.

Free will and free thinking are good. But, the Rabbis knew that people are only human. What if they questioned too much? What if they weren’t inclined to start on this journey? Maybe that’s why the same page of Gemara relates the story of God holding the mountain over the people’s heads. It shows a different narrative, one that recognizes the tension between free will and compliance.

This tension shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After all, our longstanding covenant with God is told through stories that are absolutely filled with such tensions. It’s a narrative the Bible makes no effort to hide. Observance and monotheism vs rebellion and idolatry. Even today, we have a wide range of observances, understandings, and beliefs.  Sometimes we are naaseh v’nishma, sometimes we’re shamanu v’asinu, and sometimes were in the middle. Obedience, choice, free will, commitment. It’s confusing, to say the least. As one of my teachers said, “Sometimes religion is neither logical, nor illogical, but psychological.”

So what’s the good news in these competing narratives? It is this: in all of these ancient stories and texts, the verbs all refer to “us” – we will do, we will hear, we will obey. Whatever our individual beliefs and practices, we are all tied to God and to one another. We navigate these issues…together.

We will all soon enter an extended period -from Rosh Hodesh Elul, through Parashat Nitzavim, and on to Rosh HaShana – in which we focus on renewal and re-commitment- as individuals within a communal context. As such, it is appropriate, and grounded in our sacred texts, to respect and support the various paths by which we are Shomea and Oseh, in whatever order makes sense to us.

As we will read in Parashat Nitzavim:

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַֽעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֨יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַֽעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:

It (the Torah) is not in the heavens that anyone should say “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and recite it so that we may observe it.”  Notice the words:  Yashmiyenu (hear it), v’naasena – (then do it)  – nishma v’naaseh.

And then, moving from the collective to the individual:

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִלְבָֽבְךָ֖ לַֽעֲשׂתֽוֹ:

“Rather, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it.”

We all stood at Sinai to receive the Torah; we heard it then, and we continue to hear it today … with open minds and open hearts… each of us in our own way.

May this be a year in which we truly hear one another’s narratives, and respectfully learn from each other’s TorahNishma – First we understand and respect one another, and then naaseh, then we do. Naaseh v’nishma might work for the angels up in heaven, but Nishma v’naaseh is in each of our hands down here on earth.

Shabbat Shalom




Korach 5779

By Abraham Havivi

Korach—a gripping story:

“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben— 2to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. 3They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’”
(Numbers. 16:1-4, new JPS trans.)

Korach’s rebellion–prime example of “machloket sh’lo l’shem shamayim” (an argument not for the sake of Heaven)—M. Avot 5:21

Complicated story–joint rebellion by multiple factions joining together against leadership of Moses & Aaron; Rashi, following the Midrash Tanchuma, explains each had their own selfish their motivations—K upset that M & A (his first cousins)—both the political and the religious leader–were siblings from same family; and, that Elitzaphan was named chief (nasi) of Kehat clan (son of Amram’s youngest b., rather than the next b., K’s father); the 250 nesi’im (chieftains) were first-born—they were upset that Levites were appointed to serve at mishkan in their stead (“k’doshim”); Datan & Aviram from Reuben were jealous that Joshua was M’s 2nd in command, in line to be the next leader, from tribe of Ephraim, completing the process of House of Joseph supplanting Reuben, bypassing their first-born status

So—this was a coalition of people who all had their own selfish motivations, but rather than articulating them, they cloaked their challenge in the language of populism—“The entire congregation is holy”—the entire congregation is holy—but, in reality, they wanted to be the leaders, rather than M & A, and the kohanim and levi’im

 K seen by Jewish tradition as arch-example of a demagogue

What is a demagogue? Why is the word used so critically? (Should just mean “leader of the people”, no?) OED–demos signifies “people” as a mob—“A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests” –this is not CNN’s words– it’s the OED!

Interesting machloket about the machloket between 2 commentators about when the K rebellion happened. Ibn Ezra says these events happened about 3 parshas ago, when the people were still in the wilderness of Sinai—before the spies, before the complaining about food and the miracle of the quails, basically at the beginning of Parshat Naso—right after the census, and the organization of the camp, and the establishment of the Levites’ tasks; at that point, the entire leadership that the K group complained about was in place, so it makes sense to Ibn Ezras that that’s when they mounted the rebellion; (he adds that the tribe of Reuben encamped to the South, and the Levitical family of Kehat, K’s family was in the South, adjacent to Reuben, so there is a moralistic point he makes about living adjacent to a wicked neighbor)

Ramban (150 yrs. later) disagrees; he says that Ibn Ezra accepts the principle of “eyn mukdam u’me’uchar batorah” (one needn’t accept that the order of narratives in the Torah reflects the historical order of events)—this is an idea that first appears in the Talmud and midrashim, which not all Sages accept—that the Torah does not necessarily relate events in the sequence in which they actually happened; Ramban says that, with rare exceptions, the Torah tells of events in their correct chronological order; this disagreement is, apparently, a standing one between the two commentators; so, for Ramban, the K rebellion takes place now, after the account of the spies

But this then forces the Ramban to address the issue of, Why now? If the leadership parameters about which the K gang was complaining, had been set some time ago, and in an entirely different geographic location—they had since moved on to the wilderness of Paran–why did K and his band wait until now to mount their rebellion?

Here’s where Ramban’s comment gets interesting. He says: When the Israelites were back in the wilderness of Sinai, before they started to travel, if anyone had anyone tried to rebel against Moses’s leadership, they would have had no following—in fact, says the Ramban, the people would have stoned such rebels, they would have killed them. This is because Bnei Yisrael had total faith in Moses’s leadership; the only bad thing that had happened to them was their punishment after the sin of the Golden Calf; God had wanted to destroy the entire nation, M prayed to God on their behalf and saved them, because God retracted the threat, and only a small number of Calf worshippers died

However, by this point in the story, several other misfortunes had recently befallen the Israelites; they had complained about the boredom of the daily manna—remember, they missed the watermelons etc. of Egypt, that was 2 weeks ago, in B’ha’alot’cha—and both before and after God sent the miracle of the quails—they were punished twice, before the quails with a fire and after the quails with a plague; then, last week, in Shelach, we had the sin of the spies; God again threatened to destroy the entire nation except for Moses, and Moses prayed on their behalf—but, acc. to Ramban, he didn’t pray for full forgiveness, as he had after the Golden Calf, but only that God wouldn’t destroy the whole people; So, God listened to M’s plea, and didn’t wipe them out entirely, but—the whole generation was sentenced to die in the desert. So, according to Ramban, at this point, the people’s faith in M’s leadership flagged; he says, “Az haya nefesh kol ha’am marah”, now the whole nation’s spirit was bitter–people were dispirited. M had let them down, and bad things had happened, and they were suffering. So now K saw his opportunity—he and his band had been resentful before, since they had felt passed over, but they had no chance to whip up support, when the nation felt confident in their destiny and confident in their leader; now, when their leader had failed them, and when they were feeling battered—K seized his moment. When BY felt secure and well-led, they weren’t open to a demagogue’s appeal; when they were hurting, K knew that his opportunity had come.

Ramban’s insight, coming us to from across seven centuries, is strikingly contemporary.  This is what so many pundits, historians, and economists have been writing about the last few years. You’ve all read it many times, so I won’t belabor the point. We live in a time when many across the Western world have found a creeping authoritarianism appealing. Economies seem shakier, the immigrants keep coming—as Nicholas Kristof says, fleeing the world of disorder to find a toehold in the world of order—and people no longer feel confident that their leaders have the people’s interests at heart—“the elites are out of touch.” Ours is a time of insecurity and anxiety, when few of us believe that our children will have it easier and better as adults than we had it. And so, demagogues–would-be leaders who sense the peoples’ fear and disappointment, and know how “to appeal to the passions and prejudices of the mob”—remember the OED definition–see their golden moment. They are truly interested, in the OED’s words, in seizing power and furthering their own interests, rather than the true interests of the people. This is Korach’s time.

But perhaps Ramban’s insight also points a way forward for us. In his understanding, the main problem, it seems, wasn’t K. He was there all along, waiting for his opportunity. The problem was the nation’s spirit—nefesh ha’am. It was marah—bitter, or maybe, sour. Disgruntled. Disaffected. K was just looking for the right moment. So, maybe potential demagogues are always in the wings, waiting for their cue. It’s the people—the demos—that can allow K an opening, or can shut him out. Erdogan, Orban, etc., even Hitler—they all won popular votes, right?  Their people had the opportunity to keep them away from power. In the Western world, at least for now, still, the demagogues have to stand for election. If our leaders were to lead in a way that strengthens people’s spirit—the nefesh ha’am—then people would be more likely to feel optimistic and confident in their national life, and savor a sense of national destiny. Then the am would feel capable and stand strong. And, it’s not only on the leaders—in discussing this with my daughter before Shabbat, she made the point that the people need to recognize their potential for agency, regardless of how the leaders conduct themselves–it’s the obligation of the am to clearly see the demagogues for who they really are. Then, no one would pay Korach any mind.

Perhaps, as in our parsha, God will intervene to set things straight.  But maybe, as they say nowadays, the grownups aren’t coming to save us, and we’ll have to do it ourselves. May Hashem help us find the wisdom and courage to meet our challenges, and the vision to discern our choices clearly.

Shabbat Shalom.