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Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha

By Anthony Elman, November 1, 2014

Shabbat shalom everybody!

Some of you may not know me, though I’ve been a member for more than 9 years. But almost immediately after joining Beth Am and the Library Minyan with my wife Miriyam Glazer, I deserted her on the pews. I joined the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, first as acting rabbi, then full rabbi (on my ordination at AJR in 2007), then Spiritual Director.

Now I have retired! Very recently! In fact today is the first day of my new life. Discovering some months ago that this would be Shabbat Lech Lecha, how could I resist asking for the chance to explore here both what that call may have meant to Avram, and what this period at the Home has meant in my own life. This has been a major time of reflection, and I want to tell you how I got to the Home, and what I have got from the Home, for my nine-year sojourn at the Jewish Home has been so special to me – a highlight of my life!

So what was the path that led me to serve as rabbi at the Home? So many places I could begin. Shall I tell you about the gently Orthodox home I grew up in a town some 40 miles east of London?

How I spent a year teaching in India between school and university, and how that perhaps – who knows? – gave me an injection of compassion?

Or maybe how, after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University (a period in which I embraced the rational and turned my back on religion), I entered one of those professions beloved of Jewish parents – the law? (I hastened to add that it was not my parents who urged me into that profession, it was my own decision based on a belief in the importance of financial security and social respectability (aspects of life that I soon came to realize were really my parents’ values, rather than mine.)

I think my preferred start is how I left the law, and the successful firm I had started with a friend six years before. The words I uttered were: If I am going to spend my nights worrying, I would rather worry about something more worth-while than how much money my clients make from their contracts. I didn’t at that stage have biblical or “God-language” to understand that move, but now I would see it as a “lech-lecha” moment, as though God were tapping me on the shoulder and saying: time for a journey into the unknown.

My next step was to retrain and work as a social-worker – certainly a worth-while profession, but one in which I never really felt at home.

Along with my professional story, I also need to add in my health story, for it was around this time that I had my first diagnosis of – and treatment for – cancer in my eye.

Eight years after entering social work, I was off on my journey again, this time to a holistic centre for cancer patients, and a training in transpersonal (or spiritual) counseling. I was deeply affected by my work at the centre, but the major spiritual lesson was in my being fired by the medical director who experienced me as a rival. It was a colleague, a wise healer, who helped me trust that what appeared to be a nasty blow was in fact the right path, and I needed to trust that path.

This became a central principle for me, and has been a teaching of mine at the Jewish Home: when something bad (or apparently bad) happens, then, with an attitude of trust, we can make or find the positive we need in our new situation. In terms of the High Holy Day liturgy, it is our attitude that can lessen the severity of the decree that life has handed us. This has guided me through the ups and downs of my life.

What did happen to me after having to leave the cancer centre was indeed for the good. I undertook a psychotherapy training and entered a long period of private practice as a psychotherapist. Also during this period I felt a pull back to my Jewish roots, joined a synagogue (an orthodox one, not unlike the shul of my childhood), and eventually became president of it.

There were also, over a short span of years, three bad experiences (ones which after the initial shock, I could once again accept as for the good) – the return of my cancer, a divorce not of my own choosing, and the loss of my eye.

These events took me on a new journey, to aliyah (at the age of 60) and a new life in Jerusalem where I immersed myself in Torah study – until the real purpose of my aliyah became clear. (After all, if we follow a journey not by preconceived plan but by following where we are led by God, we do not know what surprises God has in store for us.) I met Miriyam, came to Los Angeles with her, married her, entered the Academy for Jewish Religion (thinking I was going to continue learning for its own sake – Talmud Torah lishma) and found that the place God had in fact led me to was a beautiful rabbinical training – not something I had ever intended.

I want to pause in my story a moment to ask: Who was this Anthony who was now studying to be a rabbi? The answer, I think, is much the same Anthony who had studied law 40 years before, though with different interests, knowledge and skills, and with a pleasure in Torah study that hadn’t developed when I was young.

I ask that question, because when I came to the Jewish Home a year or two later, I believe a more profound change in me began to take place. If there is one word that can sum up that change, it is love.

I had certainly known love before – I had loved, and been loved by, parents and brothers, wider family, the women and the children in my life, dear friends…. But the person who served the residents of the Jewish Home over the 8 or 9 years leading up to yesterday, found a whole new, and unexpected, part of himself – a gift from residents and a gift from God.

I have come to realize that what opened up in me, particularly at some of my services and classes, was a love that (I believe) made space for God. I had never before known such joy as I felt in this work, which I think of as holy work. I learned that God’s Presence comes about within the connections of a group praying or singing or learning together; and that there have been times when I may have had a role in helping to allow this Divine Presence.

But it is not just in those holy moments of prayer or learning that I discovered something new in myself: I felt a great love nearly all the times I was with residents.

People like to say to me that my previous professions of law, social work and psychotherapy prepared me for this work. I might nod in agreement, but in truth, I wonder how much this was true. My time in law may have aided clear thinking and an attention to detail (something that certainly came into play when I had to ensure the smooth running of nine simultaneous Pesach Sadarim). More importantly, psychotherapy taught me how to listen.

So perhaps the people who wanted to point to my previous professional experiences, as being the ideal antecedents which made me what I became as rabbi for my residents at the Home, did in fact have some truth on their side. But only partially so; and what I got from these professional antecedents did not go near the heart of what I became.

What interests me, particularly in the light of this parshah, is the urge to build, or elaborate, a pre-history to make sense of the present. (I smile at myself for saying this, as it does a little bit like what I used to do as a psychotherapist.)

So what was Abram before he got the call? Vocare, as Latin scholars among you will know, is to call, and a person who, like Avram, responds to the call, is following his vocation. Well, we all know he had been the young man who smashed idols in his father’s idol shop; he was the thinker who puzzled out that there must be an ultimate creator and master of the universe. But of course, these stories are nowhere to be found in the Torah.

Mainly I love what the Rabbis do to Torah. I love the story of Nachshon striding into the Red Sea. I am fascinated (and heartened) by the Rabbis softening some of the harshness of Torah law – and of God. On the other hand, I get irritated when Esav becomes Esav ha-rashah, when in the Torah story Esau is certainly not evil (yes I know the rabbis had their own reasons for showing the Edomites to be evil).

As for this added pre-history for Avram, yes of course this was a heaven-sent opportunity to fill the apparent gap with some teachings about monotheism and idolatry. But I also want to suggest it is a shame, as it twists the story of Abraham away from what may have been the more subtle intention of Torah. We may find a clue in the famous words of God in next week’s parsha, Va’yera. Very soon after Abraham has gained his new name and lost his foreskin (surely both signs of a new beginning) (this is 24 years after the original call of Lech Lecha), God says (to himself and to us) Ki yedativ l’ma’an asher y’tzaveh et banav v’et beito acharov v’shamru derech Adonai la’asot tzedakah u-mishpat… (part of Gen.18:19)

For I have made a loving relationship with him (isn’t that the best way of understanding yedativ?) in order that he may instruct his children and descendants to keep the way of Adonai and act with righteousness and justice…

A key word in this is le’ma’an, in order that. It’s a word that looks forward. Torah does not tell us of any prior reason why Abraham is chosen as God’s man. What it tells us is about the future; I suggest Abraham will be able to fulfill this mission precisely because God has entered into this loving relationship with him. There is no hint that Torah wants a prior story (as put forward by the Rabbis).

Rather, Torah finds something new starting to manifest in Abraham, which we see immediately after God’s words about righteousness and justice: Abraham’s famous protest to God to uphold justice. Never before have we seen Abraham (or anyone else – certainly not Noah) argue for justice.

It is true that through our lives, we develop new skills, new capacities, new attitudes. We do this while remaining basically the same person as we always were.

But also in our lives we may discover that wholly new aspects of ourselves have come to the fore that we were never aware of before, that we had never allowed to develop, that we had never imagined in ourselves. Because some aspects of ourselves lie hidden, in the shadows, in potential, perhaps waiting to be allowed to emerge, perhaps never to emerge. (The Ishbitzer Rebbe, author of Mei HaShiloach, saw the call of Lech Lecha – to go to an as yet unknown place which God would show him, as a call for Abram to find that potential.)

This is my sense of what happened to me at the Jewish Home. For the love that I felt there is unlike anything I have felt before, and the person I was, leading services or other events, or teaching classes, or talking with residents, was a person I don’t recognize at all from my previous life – or even from my concurrent life outside the Home!

This way of being has given me such joy, such a touching of the divine – and I hope allowing others to touch the divine – that it is no wonder I have spoken sometimes about my feeling of being blessed and my gratitude for this opportunity to be more than I have been before, and more than I had ever dreamed of being.

I want to ask you a question: how often have you ruled out some new activity or study or practice or music, with the words: that’s not me. I’m embarrassed to admit I do that sometimes, though I am trying to let go of that habit. I now believe that “who I am” – “who each of us is” – is much less limited and narrow than we tend to think. There are all sorts of possibilities in us waiting to emerge, if only we choose not to think of ourselves as narrowly defined, and allow ourselves to discover the hidden aspects of who we could be.

In my work at the Home, I never accepted that residents, just because they are advancing in years, or have some disability, or simply by reason of their living in an institution, are stuck in their progress through life. Far from it! Pages of our personal book of life remain to be written, new chapters remain to be discovered. Rather than choose what should come next, I invite you (just as I used to invite my residents) to be open to allowing all sorts of possibilities. We can want and plan what we know about. But allowing is about letting aspects of who we are emerge that we may never have dreamed about.

I am going to paraphrase two popular figures in the Jewish story: God and Al Jolson.

First God, at this moment he selects Abraham to have a special role in the development of God’s scheme for humanity: Lech lecha, God said (and I say to you), don’t be locked in by what is familiar; go to a new place in yourself which you do not yet know but I will show you.

As for Al Jolson, he virtually ended the silent movie era and ushered in the era of the talkies, when he called to the orchestra, on screen in “The Jazz Singer”:You ain’t heard nothing yet!

Well, you tell your families and everyone who treats you as though you had stopped growing: You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Good luck on your journey!

Parashat Noach

Parashat Noach: The Ends Do not Always Justify the Means

By Rabbi Daniel Chorny

Shabbat Shalom.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A boy is visiting a local farm when he comes across a pig with only three legs. Having never seen such a thing, the boy asked the farmer “why does this pig have only three legs?”

“Oh, that’s no ordinary pig”, replied the farmer, “why, not even five years ago my daughter was having trouble with her math homework and, wouldn’t you know it, I come home and find the pig tutoring her on her multiplication tables.”

“Wow,” said the boy, “that’s amazing! But why does it only have three legs?”

“You don’t understand,” said the farmer, “a year ago our house caught fire while we were all sleeping. The pig smelled the smoke, carried us out on its back, and even went to the trouble of dialing 9-1-1”.

“I can’t believe it!” said the boy, “Is that how it lost its leg?”

“Oh no,” said the farmer, “you see, about a month ago, we were all having a good time around our swimming pool when my wife slipped on the deck and fell in, unconscious. The pig jumped in the water and pulled her out, and even knew to administer CPR!”

The boy looked at the farmer with wonder and shouted: “I get it, the pig is very special, but how did it come to lose one of its legs?”

And to this the farmer answered: “Well, you can’t eat a pig that special all at once!”


Our farmer is decidedly not Jewish (at least in my telling of the joke), yet the irony of his behavior resonates with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.

Personally, I like this joke because of the genuine affection that the farmer expresses for his beloved pig, while not losing sight of the reason he owns the pig in the first place. He appreciates that this pig is not like all the rest. He wants to honor his pig for its heroism and superior intellect, and he does it in a way that comes natural to him.

Our rabbis taught that the consumption of the limb of a live animal—אבר מין החי—is one of the foundational prohibitions that all of humanity, not just Jews, must observe as part of the covenant that God struck with Noah after the great flood. The so-called “Seven Noahide Laws”, which include “not blaspheming God’s name”, “not committing murder” and “establishing courts of justice”; are commonly taken as the basic rules for civilization to endure by avoiding the violence (חמס) that drove God to destroy the world at the start of our parashah.

I haven’t seen the new Russell Crowe movie about Noah yet, but I’m 99% sure that the rest of Noah’s generation is not portrayed very positively in that film. If you’ve seen it already, you can tell me if I’m wrong, but its a safe bet to assume that every last individual outside of Noah’s immediate circle behaves like the moral lovechild of all the worst “Bond villains”. That’s how we are conditioned to think about that generation. They were evil because they were evil. They woke up in the morning and, in the same breath that we now say “מודה אני לפנך מלך חי וקיים”, they would ask themselves “what is the most despicable thing I can do today? Who or what can I kill today? Who or what can I steal today? How can I defy God today?”

We picture Noah’s contemporaries doing terrible things because they want to be terrible. And the same is true for our own generation: our enemies conspire to kill us because they are evil, or our political adversaries think of ways to destroy our nation, our city; even our synagogue because it pleases them to do so. In 1920s film, villains wore black hats and handlebar mustaches if they were born with those features marking the darkness within them. Today, our society has replaced one caricature for another: our villains wear turbans and a long beards and, speaking with British accents, plot to destroy us because… well… just because.

But is that really what the “Seven Laws” are about? Remember our farmer. He does’t have any ill-will toward his pig or God or society. On the contrary, his intention is arguably very pure: “What better way to honor my pig than to let it live so I can enjoy it longer?”

The generation of the flood was not actively seeking the end of society. They were like you and me. They struggled each day to put a roof over their heads and food in the bellies. They loved, they fought, they had children and, according to last week’s parasha, even produced art and music. They employed whatever means necessary to ensure their survival, and there was no formal law preventing them from doing so. Would things have gone differently if God had established the covenant with whole of humanity before the flood, even if only to provide a “legal” basis for its inevitable destruction?

The covenant of Noah is a warning to us. Humans are complicated creatures. There are no רשעים גמורים, only people with good intentions who sometimes choose wrong actions. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting the same things that someone else has. But our parashah teaches us that it is wrong to take it from them, or worse, kill them for it. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking justice for being harmed; but God tells us we must not take that justice into our own hands.

Here’s a fun challenge for you next time you watch a horror movie or thriller: Try to imagine the plot from antagonist’s point of view. Quickly you will realize that the premises for such films depend on a degree of malice and precognition on the part of the villain that no real person can possess.

The same is true for the people in our lives who seem to be working against our efforts to do good. Ultra-Conservatives are not actively seeking to destroy the world by denying the reality of climate change. Ultra-Liberals are not seeking to enslave us by requiring all American’s to have health insurance. With very few exceptions, no one is “out to get you” just like you are not out to get anyone else. At every turn we must ask ourselves: “what is really motivating my actions?” how am I going about getting what I really want?”, “am I hurting others or myself?”, “can I find a better way?”

Shabbat Shalom.

Rosh Hashanah 5775

Rosh Hashanah 5775

By Miriam Elkins

Nearly every morning someone gently presses my front bell. I recognize the sound immediately – two short rings – I have come to expect it; after all, he has done this for several years (I can’t really recall how long it’s been). I open the door to Samuel who bids me good morning and asks what he can do for me today. I assign him a few modest tasks, since he refuses to accept money without as he puts it “being of service to the community.” My husband and I have settled on a daily budget for Samuel which we have from time to time adjusted in accordance with the rise in the cost of living. I usually go outside to hand him the money, but when I fail to do so he rings the bell to inquire whether the job has been done to my satisfaction. He accepts my offering with God Bless You as though it were an unexpected gift, as though his reward lay simply in having relieved us of some routine chores.

Like you, I am no fan of homelessness or poverty. I walk the streets of my neighborhood and am appalled at the level of degradation to which the wealthiest society in the world which claims to adhere to scriptural values has condemned its most powerless members. Like you I support relief agencies dedicated to alleviating their distress as well as public policy that would transform the economic and social conditions that generate unconscionable challenges to human well-being.

Yet, it is not easy for me to identify with Samuel. He is a stranger to me, radically and incomparably different. Not only is he male and African American and homeless. His life-story undoubtedly diverges from my own in ways I can hardly imagine. At the beginning I was curious about him; part of me still is. Where he is from, how it is that he came to own nothing more than the contents of his shopping cart. It was tempting for me, as a self-identified caring person, to somehow feel entitled to interrogate him, to press him for biographical details. Why has he not somehow managed, as I have, to secure for himself a tiny island of certitude in what the philosopher Emanuel Levinas has called the element, that vast spatial infinity of the unknown. I have learned to resist the temptation to inquire because I have come to realize that underlying it is the assumption that because he is on the outside, somehow he owes me an accounting, an explanation of his circumstance, while I, in turn, would consider it an invasion of my privacy to be forced to share the details of my own. Our only egalitarian point of contact is my doorstep where we first saw each other and where we continue to see one another each morning face to face.

According to the philosopher Martin Buber, my relationship with Samuel need not be asymmetrical at all. His concept of I-Thou can be described as a loving reciprocal embrace which may be why he has gained such widespread acceptance among non-Jewish thinkers: I-Thou, a momentary dissolving of our essentially superficial dissimilarities into a fusion of our common humanity. Are we not all kindred spirits under heaven? Do we not all share basic human physical and emotional needs and desires? And with enough generosity of spirit on our part are not these commonalities sufficient to engender feelings of empathy, compassion and charity toward the other? Perhaps.But empathy, compassion and charity do not constitute I-Thou relationships. In the context of the real world, those relationships are almost invariably grounded not in otherness but in affinity, in common experiences or cultural perspectives or class. All other relationships tend by their very nature, to be unequal, the less privileged being less powerful. In the real world Buber’s I-Thou is essentially aspirational, not descriptive.

Levinas grapples with the asymmetrical nature of our relationship with the other, and acknowledges my presumably not-unreasonable, but actually quite presumptuous urge, to appropriate knowledge about him. Since knowledge is power, knowing more about him than he knows about me would put me in a superior position, would give me a tool by which to exercise judgment or pity, uncomfortable as it is for me to admit it. Instead, Levinas performs a radical reversal of conventional behavior regarding those interpersonal relationships which are notoriously unequal. He draws his inspiration from our forefather Abraham, who, heavy with wealth and influence – one might say a Biblical one-percenter – did not wait for weary traveling strangers to come to him, but ran out to meet them in the desert heat, and bowed down to them calling them “my lord,” and who, the Torah seems to tell us, was beholden to them for having granted him permission to care for them. The story begins, And God appeared to Abraham. Rashi interprets this to mean that Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent waiting for needy passers-by who failed to arrive, so God himself took matters into his own hand, as it were, and sent him three angels disguised as men in order to introduce to the world a relationship to the other which Levinas calls the ethics of infinite responsibility.

God, though constantly audible throughout Torah, is reputed to be invisible except on very rare occasions, when someone like Moses is reported to have seen God face-to-face. According to Levinas, that face-to-face is not a private mystical epiphany, but rather a glimpse into the world of the infinitely unknowable – the world of the impoverished widow, orphan and homeless – represented by an infinitely unknowable God. In that face-to-face, God grants his human creatures the unique privilege of fulfilling an ethical obligation which like God himself is infinite.

Lately, between Samuel and me, a subtle shift has been taking place, hardly noticeable. Outwardly nothing has really changed – payment in return for services rendered. But these days when I open my door he informs me that, on his own initiative, he has already swept my walk and watered my garden, and invites me to inspect his work. Over time our roles have become reversed as Levinas predicted and hoped they would be. Samuel is no longer my suppliant whom I have the option to accept or reject, but rather my creditor to whom I am actually, rather than metaphorically, indebted. As Levinas puts it: “To welcome the other is to put into question my freedom; the better I accomplish my duty the fewer rights I have.”

To me Samuel is no sociological abstraction, but a contemporary trace of that face-to-face encounter between Moses, who handed down our basic required legal obligations, and God who opens our consciousness to an infinitely expanded vision of ethical responsibility.

Shana Tova.

Rosh Hashana 5775

Rosh Hashana 5775

By Joel Grossman

Wednesday night, yesterday at lunch and again last night, each of us dipped a slice of apple of a piece of challah into some honey and made a bracha asking for a sweet new year. We have all come into shul, both yesterday and today, wishing each other a good year, feeling happy, even festive as we greet the New Year. And yet, according to one story which came out of the recent Gaza War, a story which I must tell you is probably not true, this could have been the worst, most agonizing and depressing Rosh Hashono any of us can remember. According to a story printed by the Israeli newspaper Maariv in late July, as a result of the Gaza War Israeli intelligence uncovered a plot whereby hundreds of Hamas terrorists would mount a massive terrorist attack, using the tunnels they had built which led from Gaza to various places in Southern Israel. They would simultaneously emerge from all these tunnels and kill or capture as many Israelis as possible. The report said that this attack was planned for Rosh Hashono.

As it happens, I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who works in Israeli intelligence, who told the person I know that this story is probably not true. It is not clear how Maariv got this information or where it came from, as Maariv only cited anonymous Israeli intelligence sources. But the same person who told someone who knew someone who knew someone I know –while stating that the Rosh Hashono story is probably not true—hastened to add that the basic idea of Hamas terrorists using many tunnels for a simultaneous attack on kibbutzim, moshavim and towns in Southern Israel was in fact not a myth but highly likely. So even if this planned attack was not set for Rosh Hashono, had the IDF not destroyed these tunnels during the war, it is quite possible that such a coordinated attack could have been planned, and the consequences of such an attack would have been horrific.

Thank God, those tunnels have now been destroyed. And it is ironic that it was Hamas –who forced Israel into this war by ceaseless missile attacks– ended up with no tunnels with which to carry out such a raid. As we have all read about and heard on the news, Israel did not know the extent of these tunnels, and was extremely vulnerable. If this war had not happened, and if Israel had not found all the tunnels and destroyed them, a terrorist attack unlike any we have seen before could well have taken place, God forbid. Maybe if the war had not happened that attack would have been yesterday or today, though I again must add that is probably not the case. But it probably is the case that such an attack could have been planned and could have been carried out if this war had not happened.

So let’s review briefly. Hamas forces Israel to war by sending rocket after rocket into Israel, with the hope that the rockets would kill or injure civilians. Israel defends itself by air attacks and then a ground war. In the course of the war, Israel learns how extensive the tunnel network was, and how many tunnels—50 or 60 perhaps—led to Israel itself. Whether or not this attack would have occurred on this Rosh Hashono is not important. What is important is that on this Rosh Hashono we pause and think about how close we might have come to a disaster. If there had not been a war, if these tunnels had not been discovered and destroyed, the consequences are unthinkable. Yet, we must think about them, and must focus on the fact that this nightmare scenario could have happened, and through luck and skill we barely averted a calamity.

The idea of narrowly averting a calamity is not a new one for Rosh Hashono. In fact, it is the essence of the Torah reading for today. We all know the story so I will give only a very general summary. God decides to test Avraham and orders him to sacrifice Yitzchak. Avraham and Yitzchak travel together to Har Hamoriah, the place God has chosen for the sacrifice to take place. Yitzchak seems puzzled that they have brought wood and fire but no animal to sacrifice, but he still walks with his father to the appointed place. More, he apparently allows himself to be tied to the altar—we can only assume that he could have overpowered his elderly father if he had wanted to—and Avraham takes hold of the knife to kill Yitzchak. You can follow along in the Machzor on p. 104. Verse 10 reads: “Vayishlach Avraham et yado, vayikach et ha’maachelet lishchot et bno; And Avraham picked up the knife to slay his son.”

And of course we all know what happened next, in verses 11 and 12: at the last second, a malach –a messenger of God calls to Avraham and instructs him not to harm the boy. Instead, he sacrifices a ram whose horns are caught in a thicket. At the last second disaster is averted. If we step back from the story a little bit, we get a greater sense of the disaster that nearly happened. Avraham and Sarah, of course, were the only two Jewish people in the world until Yitzchak was born, making 3 Jews. One way to look at this story—and there a thousand ways to look at this story– is that this could have been the end of the Jewish people. Avraham and Sarah were not likely to have more children, and if Yitzchak was killed, the future of their family and the future of the entire Jewish people could also have been cut off. So Rosh Hashono, which marks the beginning of a new year, a time of hope and joy and plans for great things in the new year is the time we tell the story of what might have been—Yitzchak’s death, and the end of the Jewish people.

I connect the Hamas tunnels and the Gaza war to the Akedah for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, there was at least one unconfirmed report of a massive terrorist attack to take place on Rosh Hashono, and the real chance that the tunnels from Gaza to Israel could have led to a disaster, a disaster only avoided because Hamas was foolish enough and brazen enough to start the war, just like the tragedy of Yitzchak’s death was averted at the last second when the messenger told Avraham to stop.

But there is another connection. The story of the Akedah has many meanings and interpretations, all of which merit close attention. One interpretation is that Judaism was created in order to be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations. At the time when Avraham and Yitzchak climbed that mountain together, child sacrifice was a part of some pagan religions. Having Avraham appear to be practicing this same custom, and then dramatically having God’s messenger stop him at the last moment, can be seen as a dramatic renunciation of child sacrifice. Not only Yitzchak, but no child should be sacrificed, and the Jewish people are instructed in the most dramatic way possible to reject child sacrifice for themselves, and to influence the other religions to do so as well. And when Israeli soldiers discovered the terror tunnels, the tunnels which were to be used to slaughter Jewish children, they destroyed the tunnels, and perhaps tens or hundreds of Yitzchaks were spared.

The real question is this: what does this image of near disaster, of a knife at Yitzchak’s throat, have to do with us and with our lives as we assemble on this Rosh Hashono? We Jews are always metaphorically living with a knife at our throat, hoping that at the last minute we can avoid disaster. As we say on Pesach, in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. As for our generation, the dangers are all too apparent. Besides Hamas, who may be restocking missiles and digging new tunnels even as we speak, there is of course ISIS, the new terrorist in town, who wishes to establish a Muslim caliphate and has already announced its plans to conquer Jerusalem. And speaking of a knife to the throat, what a chilling reminder we have with the recent ISIS beheadings of American journalists, one of whom was Jewish. And of course, Iran, whose work on a nuclear bomb continues. It is now very unclear how successful the negotiations will be, and we must of course be ready for any eventuality. We have a lot to be worried about on this Rosh Hashono, a number of people who want to put the knife to our throats, with no guarantee that a messenger of God will stop them at the last moment.

This all seems very remote, perhaps, to those of us living in Los Angeles, worrying about our own lives—how we will earn a living, whom will we love and who will love us back, and the myriad of concerns of daily life from getting the oil changed in our car to managing our stock portfolio or our fantasy football team or studying for exams. We have pressures, sure, every day, but a knife at our throat? Are we on the verge of disaster, hoping for a last-minute reprieve?

Perhaps this is one more meaning of the Akedah story. The knife was at the throat of one boy, and surely if he had died it would have been a family tragedy. But given that he was the embodiment of the Jewish people, and his death could have meant the entire people’s death, we need to pay attention. We need to pay attention to Hamas, to Iran, to ISIS, we need to do what we can to support Israel, by the power of our voices, with our money and with our own personal devotion. We may not all make aliyah, but we can visit Israel, and do so as frequently as we possibly can. We can join and support organizations that work for Israel’s safety. We can inform ourselves as to which members of Congress support Israel and do our best to support and encourage them.

Perhaps this is how to read the Akedah. We are not Avraham. We are not Yitzchak. We are not the poor ram stuck in the thicket. But each of us is or can be malach Hashem, a messenger of God. Each of us can and must try to find a way to scream out at the last moment “NO! STOP! DO NOT HARM THE CHILD!” We can be messengers of God and work to take the knife out of Hamas’ hands, work to take the knife out of ISIS’ hands and out of Iran’s hands and off of our people’s throat.

I want to conclude by reading a beautiful passage in our Machzor, from the same page of the Machzor that contains the Akedah. It is a passage by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who tells the story of when he was a seven year old boy and studied the Akedah in school:

“Yitzchak lay on the altar, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Yitzchak. Behold, Avraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard: Avraham lay not your hand upon the lad, for now I know that you fear God. And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. Why are you crying, asked the rabbi, you know that Yitzchak was not killed. And I said to him, still weeping, But Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late? The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.

An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and flood, may be.”

That is us, We are the messenger. We cannot be late.

Shanah tova

Rosh Chodesh Tevet

Rosh Chodesh Tevet

By Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Dec 12, 2015


I’m wondering who among you remembers the 1974 film Swept Away by Italian director Lina Wertmuller. It features a shipwreck that deposits an aristocratic female passenger and a lower-class male ship-hand onto a deserted island where, not surprisingly, initial conflict transmutes into emotional and sexual connectedness. “Swept Away” has endured in my memory all these years because of the way in ends: The pair see a passing ship and must decide whether or not to hail it. Should they remain on their island paradise or risk their loving relationship by returning to society? The woman favors leaving well enough alone by allowing the ship to pass by. But the man chooses to test whether their relationship can endure a shift that will put it under pressure. Needless to say, they fail the test.

Many possible lessons can be drawn from this film. For me, it cautions against unnecessary testing of ourselves and others. This is among the lessons also taught by the famous opening scene of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” where the aged king’s vanity leads him to pit his three daughters against one another by asking which of them loves him best. By the time this most painful and profound of the bard’s dramas reaches its tragic conclusion, the daughter whose integrity kept her from passing her father’s test is the one who stands by him even to the point of death.

Let’s shift focus now from a 20th century film and an Elizabethan play to the longest, most complete narrative in the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers —where we confront another testing situation. A series of misjudgments and crimes on the part of Joseph, his brothers, and their father Jacob have brought Joseph to Egypt. In this foreign setting, he has an opportunity to grow up and become his own person. He is persecuted for resisting Potiphar’s wife and languishes in prison even after helping the also-imprisoned chief baker and cup-bearer. But, mi-ketz — in the end — there comes an opportunity to put his dream-interpretation ability to benevolent, rather than self-aggrandizing, uses. Joseph explains Pharoah’s doublet dream by highlighting its wider, national significance, whereupon the ruler engages Joseph to be the viceroy who will enable Egypt to survive the coming seven lean years. Both Joseph and Pharoah sense ruach Elohim — the spirit of God — operating, and they lean in toward that spirit, forging an alliance that epitomizes the way in which Jewish resourcefulness has often enabled our people to survive, even thrive, while benefitting their host society. Such alliances have generally proven unstable, however. Eventually, there will arise a pharaoh who knows not Joseph — whose megalomania unleashes the drama of Exodus, Revelation, and Return to the Land. But before that, bnai Yaakov — the sons of the patriarch Jacob — need to become bnai Yisrael — progenitors of the twelve tribes and thus of Am Yisrael,the Jewish People. That physical and spiritual enlargement cannot happen until Jacob’s sons are reunited, and that reunion must be more than a mere coming back together.

At this season when families gather across meals and tables, most of us have at least one story of familial misunderstanding, even alienation. Hopefully, many of us also have experienced — or at least can hope for — a time of new understanding and reconciliation. In achieving reconciliation, often the best alternative is to conclude that “what has been, has been” and go forward without dredging up the past. But sometimes ruach Elohim and their own courage guide estranged family members toward a reconciliation of enlightenment and catharsis that enables them to grow as individuals and a group. This level of rapprochement usually requires leadership by a member of the group, and it is often galvinized when the group faces a challenge together.

The sons of Jacob confront such a challenge when the world famine predicted in Pharoah’s dreams drives them to Egypt for rations. Operating at cross purposes throughout this week’s parsha, the two camps of Joseph on the one hand and his 10 older brothers on the other would find it virtually impossible to just let bygones be bygones. They need a ritual of some sort to purge the bad feeling and bad faith between them. Both sides need an opportunity for the final stage of tshuvah — when the offending person faces the same situation that was mishandled before but this time does the right thing.

And so Joseph improvises a series of tests for his brothers, while in the process he himself continues to be tested. His knowledge and that of his brothers are asymmetrical: he recognizes them but they don’t know him. Their power too is asymmetrical, but in reverse from the past: as a boy, he had been at their mercy while now he is master of the situation within which they are suppliants. The whole situation is fraught with irony and pathos, especially as Joseph seeks knowledge of his father, who back home in Canaan, fears the loss of yet another son.

In all this, we join many commentators in questioning Joseph’s motives. Why didn’t he long ago send word to his father that he was alive and well? Isn’t he cruel to toy with his brothers in the cat & mouse game of grain sacks, hidden money, and planted goblet? In order to judge Joseph favorably, we need to be sure that what he puts his brothers through is not a protracted scheme of revenge but a necessary course of education. For the nineteenth century German commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch, the brothers’ coming to know Joseph’s true character requires their experiencing him in a position of power, where he can do with them as he pleases — but he acts for their benefit. Joseph himself can get past the ruthlessness with which his brothers ignored his entreaties from the pit only by having proof of their complete change of heart. When he overhears them connect his demand to bring Benjamin to him with their crime against Joseph years ago, he knows that repentance is doing its work. He feels sure that his tests are having their hoped-for effect. Had Joseph established contact with his father during the prosperous years, he and his brothers would almost certainly have remaining divided into two bitterly warring camps.

In chapter 42: verse 7, we read: ­­­­When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, and he knew them.” Ibn Ezra explains the seeming duplication of “recognized” and “knew” thus: “When Joseph first saw the group he recognized them as his brothers. He then looked at each one of them and knew them individually.” In his youth, Joseph had been unable to see himself as his brothers saw him, and they were unable to grasp his existence as an individual worthy of life and regard. As their reunion in Egypt develops, several of the brothers gain clear outline as individuals to the point that we can imagine the lines of relationship crossing from one to the next, creating a network of individual bonds as well as a common bond among all. This is important because testing other people runs the risk of depersonalization — of turning the other into an objectified instrument of one’s own purposes. At this point when bnai Yaakov are turning into bnai Yisrael, it is vital that each brother — each unique person who is also the progenitor of a tribal community within the Jewish People — be acknowledged in his individuality. The supreme test for Joseph, his brothers, and their father Jacob is determining if they can be united in a loving, life-affirming way while also respecting one another’s distinctiveness.

The testing of Joseph and his brothers comes to a positive conclusion for them, their father, and our fledgling People. Underneath the tests that Joseph imposes are the Divine purposes that first appeared to Abraham and Sarah — and are later manifest to Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The Torah sometimes presents people as directly tested by God; Abraham during the Akedah and also Job stand as the clearest exemplars. That kind of direct divine testing strains our theological understanding. Direct testing by either another person or God makes me uncomfortable; as here with Joseph, I feel strongly that such testing must earn its place. It is one thing for someone to be confronted with a testing situation that arises out of life, and quite another for someone else, even God, to set up a test in a manipulative way. In the case of Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away, the shipwrecked man’s test is created by the filmmaker’s artistic license. In the case of King Lear, the test created by the royal father for his three daughters is not one to which they should have been exposed: “which of you loves me best” is not a question that siblings should confront or parents, ask.

In our lives, we face implicit tests of our character at many turns in the road. Parents strive to rear children who will rise to the challenges they meet, acquitting themselves as human beings and Jews. The United States and other countries are being tested today with regard to climate change and the resettlement of refugees. Life is full of enough tests of our character that most of the time we don’t need — and should not set up — further tests of ourselves and others. Rather, we should draw upon Torah and other sources, including our relationships with people and with God, to meet the tests that cannot be avoided and to create a world in which, on the whole, people are tested to their limits as little as possible.

The Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, writes thus about Pharoah’s dreams in Parshat Miketz: “From this we learn to prepare ourselves well in days of plenty — in those times when holiness is apparent to us. We should fix that radiance firmly in our hearts, so that it may be there for the bad times when holiness is hidden.”

We celebrate this 6th day of Chanukah at an unusually bad time, when darkness threatens to obscure life’s holiness — a time when bonds of civility and trust have been pressed near the breaking point. May we summon spiritual resources shored up over time and space to meet the tests before us.

Shabbat shalom!



By Ethan Kaufman

Shabbat Shalom! There’s a popular saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. John Carder Bush believed that “a poem is worth a thousand pictures”. What makes art so special is that it is meant not only to stimulate the common senses, but evoke something deeper. Therefore, it doesn’t take that many words to have the desired impact.

My parasha, Ha’azinu, is among the shortest parashot in the whole Torah, at only 52 verses, or psukim, long. Yet, it is a poem, powerful and concise. In Ha’azinu, Moses, assuming the voice of God, addresses Israel as a nation – they have reached the point of entry, just outside Eretz Israel. Moses recites a poem that he himself composed, telling the Israelites about all the things God has done for them. He goes on to talk about Israel’s impiety in the face of Elohim’s graciousness, and how they will be be cursed for it. The poem concludes with a turn of tables, as God promises Israel’s redemption. After the conclusion of his poem, God tells him he must ascend Mount Nebo, look out over the Promised Land, and die. The next parasha, Vezot Ha’bracha, concludes with Moses’s death.

Recently, I was reading a very interesting Ray Bradbury story called “The Veldt”. It centers on a family who have built their entire lives around physical comfort, and in the process lose their sense of purpose in life. Eventually, the parents realize this lifestyle has inadvertently turned their children against them. The story ends with the children orchestrating their parents’ murder. While this is certainly a very macabre, extreme example it is oddly reminiscent of the ideas present in Ha’azinu.

In this parashah, and in fact, throughout the entire Tanach, the relationship between God and Israel is, for both better and worse, very similar to the attachment shared between parent and offspring. To quote the book of Hosea, “when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.” Throughout the entire Torah, God sees his “children” grow and mature, from the subjugated, persecuted horde that fled the shackles of Egyptian slavery, to a holy people that is worthy of a special relationship and covenant. Yet as this anointed congregation moves out to fulfill their destiny, they are met with a decidedly negative message – the poem that Moshe recites upon the mountain. However, at closer inspection, there is more here than meets the eye.

Moshe’s homily poses some interesting ideas. The oration goes something like this: Moshe recounts to Israel the way that God has created them, united them, turned them towards something greater than themselves, and placed them on a metaphorical pedestal of honor. He guarded them and took them under His wing, and gave them a land and a means by which to prosper. All the while Moshe is speaking in past tense. Then, suddenly, he begins speaking in present tense, about how the Israelites, His chosen people, will spit in his face and turn away from him, forget him, turn to other deities. A classic example of this behavior is the golden calf. And what does Moshe do – he gets angry. And he condemns his people , now in the future tense, saying “you forsook the God that made you, who brought you to where your are today, look what you’ve become.” And the list of accusations continues on and on, there seems to be no end. And just as the anger in Moshe’s voice peaks, he promises that God will redeem his people, vanquish their enemies, and restore them back to the place of honor that they deserve.

Ha’azinu is one of those parashot where the prose is truly cohesive, no particular pasuk stands out, but together, all 52 psukim paint a beautiful, vivid picture. Nevertheless, psukim 5 and 10, each in their own way, summarizes one of the main ideas of the parasha. Verse 5 reads “sheechet lo, lo banav mumam, dor eekesh uphtaltol, children unworthy of him, this crooked perverse generation, their baseness has played him false” This seems to shows that, in both Moshe and God’s perspective, there is little love lost between Israel and God, and that God sees Israel as more of a blemish on the world than a force for good. And yet, to close off the poem, Moshe tells his audience that, in the end, God will keep his covenant, vanquish and scatter their enemies, and that therefore, Israel will be brought back into a closer relationship with their divine parent.

It seems as though God’s love is both unconditional and conditional at the same time. In pasuk 9, He even claims that “His own portion is his people, Jacob His allotment,” meaning that God loves his people unconditionally. Then why, on this occasion does he speak to curse them as he does?

Haazinu is Moses’s valedictory speech, it addresses Israel at a crossroads, it is about to conclude its 40-year stay in the desert, and is about to embark on to conquer and settle a new and uncharted land. In addition to this, they will have to be under the guidance of a new leader, and be under the threat of attack from the native clans that already inhabit the Promised Land. These factors put together make Israel a very vulnerable people, who are at the mercy of their surroundings. Because of this, they are even more reliant on God than usual. And so, Moses uses poetry as a vehicle to negotiate this fundamental crossing place. Moses’s poem is a plea to his people, a warning telling them to heed their God, to respect him, because when it comes down to it, they are it his mercy, and they absolutely need to maintain a positive relationship with Him if they are to survive this next epoch in their history.

In “The Veldt”, the parents’ death is inadvertently a result of the way they treated their children. Because the children were badly spoiled and pampered by their parents, they lost touch with their humanity, and their relationships with their parents deteriorated. Finally, the two children decided that they valued their way of life more than their parents. In the context of Ha’azinu, this is exactly the type of situation that God is trying to avoid. As harsh as it may seem, God’s threats are a way to keep his children on track and on the right path. There are several incidents in the Torah where Israel strays, and each time God responds with great anger. As harsh as this might seem, this seems to say anger is a necessary part of being authoritative. If God had chosen to take the path of the parents in “The Veldt”, Israel might well have ended up as a group of twisted and perverse people, with few morals, and yet a sense of entitlement. Together, immorality and entitlement can form a dangerous, toxic pair. If a merciful God was desperate enough to try and scare Israel into righteousness, rather than let them fall from grace, so be it.

Ha’azinu is a message to stay true to your roots, and answer your calling. Judaism is not a religion that carries splendor and glory so much in the easily perceptible world – 2000 years gone are the days of the Temple, and the era of the prophets and grand miracles are even farther removed from our current condition. However, we can still look outward, but in a different way, a more subtle way, by nurturing our relationships.

The relationship that Israel shares with God is akin to our relationship with our parents. In the same way that God provided for his “children” when they were in need, raised them with values, and united them as people, with a definite purpose in this world, a good parent does the same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. And a big part of growing up is walking through those doors, negotiating those crossing places, venturing into those uncharted “Promised Lands”, where you can’t do it on your own, and you need a third party, whether it be God, or someone else, to help you through the doorway.

First and foremost, I want to thank my parents. Aba, you helped me through this simply by being there and helping me practice every evening, from my aliyot, to haftorah, to torah service. Eem lo ayita shama, lo ayita maspik la’asot et hakol. Mum, you’ve been absolutely amazing in every respect. You’ve put in so much time, and been so selfless in doing everything, I’ve truly been in awe. Throughout my life, we’ve had a very special relationship, and I want to recognize you for being there when I need someone to talk to. Nina, you were an absolute lifesaver. I couldn’t have possibly had a better tutor, who helped me learn and polish, and read with such precision and finesse. Also, my thanks to my aunt Nadine Frankel and Rabbi Ari Lucas for helping me on this drash. I want to thank Rabbi Chaim Turreff for being my Judaica teacher and spiritual mentor. Uncle Danny and Marie, thank you for being there when I need you and helping me with all the small things. Joseph, your bar mitzvah 2 years started my family and I on the path that brought me here today, to stand at this beema. For that we owe you. Also, I must extend love and gratitude to the Riches, especially Nora, the daughter of my mother’s identical twin, aunt Bonni, and best friend. And finally, thank you everyone, for being here to share, witness, and contribute your presence to my bar mitzvah. May we all step through the doorway together.

Shabbat Shalom!