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By Rachel Rubin Green, May 5, 2021

I embrace the concept that God and the people Israel are partners in the maintenance and improvement of our world. In his current commentary on this week’s Parsha, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg cites a Rabbinic interpretation of Chapter 23 Verse 2 that supports this view. As an introduction to the holiday calendar, God says to Moses, “These are the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as Sacred Occasions, they are my fixed times.”  The Etz Hayim uses the term “Fixed times.” Rabbi Greenberg uses the term “Feast Days” instead.

As Rabbi Greenberg explains:

The Rabbis break up the Torah verse into three stages.

  1. Until Israel entered into covenant— literally, became God’s people, “the feast days… [of, or are set by] the Lord.” For example, the Shabbat was sanctified and ordained by God before the Jewish people even existed.
  2. Once Israel became people of the covenant, God said: “Which you shall declare [these] to be days of holy gathering.” This refers to the rabbinic courts declaring the date of the New Month (Rosh Hodesh) and thereby setting the dates of the holidays/feast days.
  3. By Israel’s actions, “these are [or become] My [God’s commanded] feasts.”

Rashi, in particular, asserts that, “From this verse we derive the law that (it is the responsibility) of the Sanhedrin (to) proclaim a leap year.” Rashi qualifies this assertion by explaining that, (it is) “for the sake of those living in the diaspora who have left their homes to go to Jerusalem for the festival but have not yet arrived.” Still, God requires the Rabbinic Court to set, and to update with leap years as necessary, the timing of our annual festivals.

This notion that scheduling and keeping the festivals is a human responsibility, part of our end of the divine-human partnership, is consistent with an interpretation of a difference in the Shabbat and festival Kiddush that I learned from our son Stevie some years ago.  On Shabbat, we say “Mekadesh HaShabbat” that God has made the Shabbat holy without us needing to do anything. On Yom Tov, however, we say “Mekadesh Yisrael v’ Hazmanim.” God made the people of Israel holy who in turn made the festival holy. The festivals remain holy only because we keep them. Rabbi Greenberg essentially states that God needs us as partners in all earthly activity, including, but not limited to, festival observances.

Later in this same commentary, Rabbi Greenberg quotes Rav Joseph Soloveitchik as saying,

(we as Jews), “received the Torah from Sinai not as a simple recipient but as a creator of worlds, as a Partner with the Almighty in the act of Creation.”

Rabbi Greenberg continues: “This partnership gives humans the task to apply the Torah in new or changed conditions. We have the responsibility to find new ways of living properly, as are necessary. This includes when there is new evidence and new understanding and the inherited Torah is having destructive effects, the human partner has the responsibility to adjust the Torah to make sure that it is (as it wants to be) on the side of life and world repair.”

Greenberg mentions his own efforts in keeping the Torah on the side of life and world repair. One project is that he works with leaders in other faith communities to increase mutual respect among members.  Another is to affirm the dignity and inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in Jewish life. In arguing for the critical role of human actions as God’s partners, Greenberg again quotes Rav Soloveitchik, “It is as if the Creator of the world Himself abides by man’s decision and instruction.” Rabbi Greenberg concludes this commentary with, “God and the Torah depend on later generations to be responsible partners. It is the partner’s task to ensure that the Torah is humane and life affirming in all its applications.”

In addition to Rabbi Greenberg’s commentary, there is another, more obvious, reason that I wanted to discuss the calendar section of our Parsha today.  Our Library Minyan community has not met in person for prayer in more than one entire holiday cycle. From just after Purim in 5780 until now, right after Lag b’Omer 5781, we have met online or as part of our greater Beth Am community, but not distinctly as the Library Minyan. I have missed you. Each of you and all of you.

Before going any further, I want to extend profound gratitude to all of you who work in the technology sector. Your professional expertise enabled us to connect electronically when it was medically hazardous to meet in person. We are forever in your debt.

How did you spend your Shabbatot during the pandemic? Maybe you davened with our Beth Am clergy online. Maybe you attended a small, socially distanced backyard minyan.  aybe you drash-surfed the internet, trying to hear as many different drashot and interpretations of the parsha as possible. Maybe you did something else entirely.

My pandemic Shabbat pattern became first; online Mishnah study, followed by a long walk with my friend and neighbor Hannah Kramer, usually returning in time to hear either Rabbi Kligfeld or Rabbi Schatz give a drash. Not bad, but I did feel something missing in this pattern. You. Each of you. And the moments of ascension I sometimes experience in the prayer space we create together.

One thing I learned about myself during the pandemic was that I learn well online. I loved learning online. The minimal commute time was great. Over the year, I attended classes and discussions provided by our Beth Am clergy and also by teachers at Hartman Institute, Hadar, JTS, RA, CA, The Forward, Limmud UK, Limmud North America, UCLA Hillel, and our own AJU, among others. My new best friends are Barbara Breger and Renne Bainvoll, who spend 4 hours each week in Zoom classes with me. The most emotionally satisfying online class was attending Kid’s Parsha Club, sponsored by Hadar and taught by Rabbi Aviva Richman, with my grandson Archer each week. All in all, my pandemic year was exceptionally rich in Jewish learning.

I also learned that the rich learning experience did not transfer into prayer. I found it difficult to reach towards God via my computer screen. Without the cushion and bounce of community energy, I felt that my attempts praying online highlighted my isolation, rather than relieved it. This was entirely different than what I felt and still feel while learning online. On the days I joined an online minyan for Yartzeit, I found the communal recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish helpful. But not the same. I still missed you, each of you and all of you. This community.

The contrast between what I feel learning online and what I feel attempting to pray online reminded me of one of my favorite of Rabbi Rembaum’s teachings. “My theology is my community.” Maybe I focused on that saying because I was feeling it’s inverse – that in the physical absence of community, I could not reach towards or grasp my theology.  In preparing this drash, I asked Rabbi Rembaum to elaborate on this particular saying.

Here is what he said:

“It is in the human interaction in a community that I see Tzelem Elohim manifest. We define God as loving, caring, compassionate, just, healing, and strengthening. When I see people acting out these essential elements of divine activity in their relations with others, my faith in God, creator of all creatures and eternally true principles, is affirmed.”

I agree.  And the qualities that Rabbi Rembaum mentioned continue to infuse our interpersonal interactions. For that, we continue to be intensely grateful. However, without seeing each other regularly, it felt like creating these interactions required additional effort, often more than I could summon.

In another 15 days, we will finish counting the Omer for 5781. The actual quantity of the daily Omer offering, which we recall in this annual Mitzvah of counting days, was small enough to not create an economic burden. This pandemic year has certainly been a year of counting.  How many times did you change flight tickets this past year? I think Norm rescheduled his flight to visit our New Jersey family 4 times. And now that they are moving to Arizona, the newest reschedule is to fly there instead. How many family simchas (smachot), or sadly, funerals, did you attend on Zoom instead of in person? How smachot were cancelled or rescheduled? And how many times? For much of this year, we counted days between a COVID test and seeing our results. In just the last few months, we counted the days until our age cohort or profession became vaccine eligible. We counted the hours we waited in line to get our shot or shots, and then the days after that until we felt it was safe to be in each other’s company.  We have had a great deal of practice in counting this year. Our routine lives have required immense patience.

I leave you with three challenges. First, in the model of Rabbi Greenberg, I challenge you to be full partners in creation of our post-pandemic intimate community and larger world. Second, in the model of Rabbi Rembaum, I challenge you to continue, or to increase the presence of Tzelem Elohim, the overlap of community and theology, in the way we treat each other. And lastly, as our time of counting concludes, I challenge you to do something small each day, like the Omer offering, to make yourself, and this community, count.

Shabbat Shalom.


Vayishlach וישלח

By Zwi Reznik  , November 24, 2018, 16 Kislev 5779

The journey continues. When we left Yaakov last week he was on the run again, as he had been for the last twenty years. In this week’s parsha he stops for a while. The parsha opens with his preparations for meeting his estranged brother Esau. Before they meet Yaakov has a wrenching nighttime encounter which transforms him into Israel. The meeting with Esau actually goes well and they agree to see each other again soon—but we all know how those kinds of plans often work out. This is then followed by a horrific tale of what happens to Yaakov’s daughter Dinah, the subsequent violent conduct of his sons and this story closes with Yaakov being rebuked by two of those sons. The text then returns to Yaakov’s journey, new blessings from God and the deaths of those closest to him. The parsha ends with a lengthy genealogy of Esau. Clearly my first task in preparing this brief drash was to get focused. So let’s get back to just Yaakov.

Yaakov knows he cannot keep running and avoid dealing with his brother and what he,  Yaakov, did to him. Recall that Yaakov had once taken advantage of Esau’s great hunger and managed to buy the elder brother’s birthright for a bowl of lentils. That was followed by following his mother’s guidance in a scheme to trick Yitzhak into giving him, rather than Esau, his blessing and his mother’s subsequent advice to run for his life. He can’t avoid dealing with this anymore. So he sends messengers to Esau to let him know that he’s been with their uncle, that he’s done well and (32:6) “…I send this message to my lord in hope of gaining your favor”. The response, via the messengers is brief, (32:7) “… he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him”.

In antiquity these are enough men to constitute an army. Then in (32-8) “Yaakov was greatly frightened…”. So he prepares. Rashii succinctly notes that he does so in three ways—“by war, by prayer and by gifts”. Specifically that is, firstly, with strategic planning by splitting all the people and livestock into two camps; secondly, with prayer. After reminding God that he’s on the move because of God’s advice, he then says—(32-11): “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly shown your servant; with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps”. In other words he’s gone from being homeless with just the clothes on his back to becoming wealthy. This is not just a prayer which is asking for things. It is emphatically a statement of GRATITUDE! Think about how much of our own prayer today, on Shabbat, is just saying Thank You. Something has changed in Yaakov after twenty years of servitude with Laban. He is no longer just the “cheat” or “usurper” that his name would indicate. Finally in preparation he prepares a huge gift for Esau. Five hundred and fifty head of livestock; in the gender proportions that would assure future exponential growth in this herd! Now it is nighttime. There is one more thing to do. He takes his wives, maid servants, his eleven children and all his possessions across the stream. Then, (32:25) “Yaakov was left alone,”. He is alone and in the dark!

We know what’s coming next but, I want to pause here for a moment. Why did he do that and leave himself alone. Was this some sort of protective act? That is, separating himself, the object of Esau’s hate, from his wives, maids and children. We’ll see him doing something similar to that the next morning. Or was it something as simple as wanting to be alone so he can be by himself and think about what is happening and how he got to this point. The last time he was home, twenty years before, his mother told him to run because his brother was coming for him. Now his brother is coming for him and with an army behind him! Now, back to(32:25)—“Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”.

We know how the fight turns out. This “man” is losing the fight and tries to prevail by injuring Yaakov. That doesn’t work and Yaakov demands a blessing to let him go. So Yaakov becomes Israel—one who strives with God. This is definitely an improvement over “cheat” and “usurper”.  Further, a name change is a clear acknowledgement of an overwhelming transformation of the spirit. We’ve seen that before with Avram becoming Avraham and Sarai becoming Sarah. However those were just a change of a single letter. Israel is a much more comprehensive change.

Now the commentaries of the Midrash do identify this man as an angel of a sort. This sometimes included this angel as being specifically Esau’s angel or guardian which would make this a fight between Yaakov and Esau. We must consider that the writing of the Midrash took place in the context of knowing what happens in the future between Esau-Edom and Israel’s descendants, as well as the period following the devastation done by the Romans. There are in the Midrash commentaries which are even critical of Yaakov and berate him for sending gifts and being conciliatory to Esau. A medieval commentary by Rabbi David Kimhi of Provence states that “God sent his angel to strengthen Yaakov’s courage; having overcome him, he need not fear Esau”.

However for a contrast we should consider Nehama Leibowitz. She notes some of these preceding commentaries but her comments take a different direction. Firstly, she states noting Yaakov’s fear, that “Yaakov’s fears were not indicative of lack of trust in God, but rather a lack of confidence in oneself, in one’s own worthiness and conduct”.  So suppose lack of confidence in oneself and in one’s own worthiness are at the root of Yaakov’s feelings of anxiety and stress as he waits alone and in the dark for Esau and his army. So, with that in mind let me explicitly state that Yaakov’s struggling with a man is Yaakov struggling with himself. That struggle to transform oneself and rid oneself of undesirable character traits can itself be the cause of great fatigue and even physical pain. Of course these are not new thoughts original to me and there are numerous contemporary commentaries which correspond to my own thoughts and that can easily be found. However let’s continue with commentaries that are both contemporary as well as traditional in outlook.

Rabbi Avraham Twerski, M.D, is both a Hasidic rabbi and a psychiatrist. He had a psychiatric practice that specialized in addiction treatment. He has a large body of work related to his medical practice. Much of it is addressed to general audiences and much of it is also addressed to Jewish audiences. One of those oriented to Jewish audiences contains short commentaries on each of the parshas in the Torah. The one for Vayishlach, titled “Changing Character Traits” includes the following: “ For Torah to transform one’s personality, the study of Torah in the abstract does not suffice. It must be studied with the intent to live up to what it teaches, and it must be implemented in daily living. The study must involve the ethical as well as the formal halachic aspects. Then and only then can we expect favorable changes in our personalities to occur.”

I also like the clarity and simplicity provided by another of Nehama Leibowitz’s comments:  “We have merely to try to understand the significance of the struggle and what the Torah wished to teach us through it.”

So if we accept the need to do so, as Yaakov did heading into that lonely night, a transformation of the spirit is possible.

Next the text informs us that with the break of day Yaakov sees Esau and his army approaching. Israel moves out ahead of his wives, maids and children so that Esau will see him first and that he is separated from the others.  We thus see again the protective move akin to what Yaakov had done the night before by separating himself from everyone and everything else. He bows seven times. Then (33:4)—“Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and he wept.”. (I have to note that this verse almost exactly describes my father’s description of seeing his brother the first time they met at the airport in Israel twenty-four years after separating in Italy. The only difference was they went to a men’s room first for some privacy). By the way, the Midrash which won’t cut Esau any slack, states that Esau was trying to bite him in the neck. Family is introduced, and after some back and forth Esau accepts Israel’s gift. Rashii notes that Yaakov saying “Please accept my present” is to be understood literally as “Please accept my blessing…”. Both of them know what Yaakov had done, but, with this conversation Esau seems to be saying “I’m doing fine as well, we’re OK!”. They separate and move on.

What happens to Yaakov-Israel next is one tragedy after another in this parsha and the ones to follow. I initially noted the tale of what happened to Dinah and the conduct of her brothers and I will not be talking about that. In the next chapter, 35, there is a seemingly out of place verse which reports that (35:8)—“Deborah, Rivkah’s nurse, died, and was buried…”. We have not seen this Deborah since a brief mention of Rivkah’s unnamed nurse (wet-nurse) who accompanies her on the way to meet Yitzhak. Both Rashi and Nachmanides state that this verse is here to note that Rivkah has died and that Deborah’s death and burial are when Yaakov finds out about it. Yet, Torah makes no specific mention of his mother’s death! I must leave it for others more learned than myself to comment on this erasure of one of the matriarchs. Nachmanides also goes on to comment that this, his mother’s death, is why in the next verse God reappears to Israel. God confirms his earlier name change and promises that a great nation shall descend from him and that the land assigned to Avraham and Yitzhak are assigned to him. However, there is nothing promised to Yaakov in the way of a tranquil life.

Then Rivkah dies.

In another one of his works Rabbi Twerski writes; “We should understand that absolute tranquility is not achievable and that realistic peace of mind exists with some stress and tension”. There are other learned commentaries in a similar vein. For myself I would prefer to close with a poem I first heard at the funeral of a young woman thirty two years ago. At that time I just heard sadness, however, with time I’ve learned it is comforting and provides some measure of hope.

‘Tis a fearful thing

‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

– Yehuda HaLevi





Fireworks and Wildflowers – Pinchas

Fireworks and Wildflowers

By Rabbi Ilana Grinblatt, July 10, 2020

As the sound of fireworks kept me awake at 2:00 am, all I could think about was August 2021.

My sister Mira told me earlier that day that she read an article in the New York Times that said the process of developing and distributing a vaccine for Coronavirus could be completed by August 2021. Mira meant to share this as encouraging news, but to me, August 2021 seemed like an eternity away. Having lived nearly four months in a state of isolation, stress and vigilance, I can’t imagine living like this for another 13 months. Could we dodge the disease for another 13 months? Can we live another 13 months without any guests entering our home and not entering anyone else’s home? How can we endure another 13 months of losing joy after joy, plan after plan?

On CNN, a woman named Maya Mckenzie was interviewed about a piece she wrote about being pregnant and black during the pandemic. She wrote “this virus hasn’t taken anyone from me. But I have experienced the deep grief of lost joy.” Indeed, in addition to taking loved ones, every day this virus steals more joy from all of us – the joy of summer adventures, birthday parties, or hugs of friends or extended family.

Or in other words, the Vav in our Shalom is broken. In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, God gives Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, a covenant of peace – but in the word Shalom (peace), the letter vav, which normally stands straight and tall, is broken. 

How fitting that Maya named her unborn daughter Paz (which means peace in Spanish). Even as the joy of her pregnancy was taken and replaced by anxiety about the Coronavirus, Maya dreams of paz. Somehow, in all different languages around the world, the virus is eroding our peace.

I am reminded of two stories. The first was in a novel by Mitch Albom, called The Next Person you Meet in Heaven. This book tells the story of Annie, who while mourning for the death of her newborn son, decides to become a nurse. In describing her grief, Albom wrote, “She was broken open. But broken open is still open.”

The second story is one I read by P.J. Long, a mom who suffered a traumatic brain injury when she fell off a horse. In her book, Gifts from a Broken Jar, she recounts a story from India about a village boy who walked each day for several miles from the river to the village, carrying water in two clay jars, one of which was cracked. The man who bought the water would pay for one full jar of water, and one half full, since the water from the cracked jar had leaked.

One day, when the boy sat to rest on his walk, the spirit of the cracked jar apologized to the boy for leaking. The boy replied,

“Because of you, I am very lucky. A broken jar makes life beautiful. Come, let me show you.” Together they walked back to the river. One side of the path was bare and dusty. But along the other side, where water had trickled down from the broken jar, the way was strewn with wildflowers.

PJ Long saw the years of her life following her brain injury reflected in this story. Although her recuperation entailed tremendous struggle, she discovered unexpected gifts along the way. 

Indeed, there have been blessings over the last four months during the pandemic. My daughter learned to cook, we’ve taken up golf, my husband is home, and I’m writing more. But honestly, I would give them all up in a heartbeat for some peace – a day without fear and uncertainty, for a simple meal with friends talking about nothing in particular. I’d patch up the hole in the jar. I’d fill in the Vav to stand stronger again. I’d gladly fast-forward until the day that we are all vaccinated for Covid-19 – but I can’t. We can’t. All we can do is walk forward with our broken-open hearts and hope that wildflowers will grow beside our path.

In 1945, in a shelter in Cologne where Jews were hidden during the war, American soldiers found this inscription:

I believe in the sun—even when it is not shining.
I believe in God—even when God is silent.
I believe in love—even when it is not apparent.
Inspired by the story of the broken jar, I’ll add:
I believe in sunflowers, even when I can’t see them yet..

Lag Ba’Omer remarks

Lag Ba’Omer remarks

By Phyllis Zimbler Miller, May 11, 2020

My father, Albert Zimbler, and my mother, Ruth Fishman Zimbler, were born three days apart in 1924 – my father in Chicago and my mother in a small town in Indiana.

They met during WWII when my father was in the U.S. Army Air Forces and my mother was in nurses training at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago.

After the war my father was a CPA in the small town of Elgin, Illinois, where we lived from the time I was six months old and where three younger siblings joined the family.

In the last few years of my father’s life he wrote humorous short stories, many about love and sex. Most of the stories are published in his eight short story books on Amazon. He also taught senior improv and did stand-up comedy.

When he died March 19, three weeks before my parents’ 74th wedding anniversary, my mother said that she remembered reading in the newspaper about couples married 75 years and she wondered if she’d make it to then. She added, “I almost did.”

The last time I saw my parents Mitch and I were in Chicago in September for our 50th wedding anniversary. In December although I had plane tickets to see my parents, both of them were sick and I was sick, so my father said they would stay well until my spring visit.

I did have plane tickets for my usual birthday visit in March, but had to cancel because of COVID-19. If not for that, I would have been there for my father’s death in the hospital from sepsis. In a locked-down hospital my brother Jay stayed with my father for four days until he died.

Now my mother is about to start hospice in her senior resident apartment; she is eating very little and is down to 90 pounds.

In honor of both my parents, I’d like to read “180 Years of Advice” – the short words of wisdom that my parents shared with their family on their 90th birthdays in November 2014.

180 Years of Advice Link opens PDF, or click the image below.

May my father’s memory be for a blessing.

For Emor: The World’s Weirdest Mother’s Day

For Emor: The World’s Weirdest Mother’s Day

By Rabbi Ilana Grinblat

Mother’s Day is usually one of our busiest days of the year. We normally have brunch with my mother-in-law and extended family at a restaurant followed by swimming at their home and then dinner with my step-mother and extended family at another restaurant. Sometime over mother’s day weekend, I like to stop by the beach to enjoy its beauty. This year, since restaurants and the beach are closed and gatherings are forbidden, none of that is possible. Usually today, I would be at stores buying Mother’s Day presents and cards, but I doubt my mother figures would want me to risk my life to purchase gifts. I’m racking my mind to think of some joyful activity to celebrate Mother’s Day, but everything I can think of is not an option this weekend.

This Mother’s Day reminds me what a painful time this is, and I’m not alone. My mother died a few days before Mother’s Day eleven years ago, so I know Sunday will be particularly painful for all those who lost mothers or grandmothers to Covid-19 or other diseases in recent months. Surely many mothers and grandmothers are battling the disease right now – both the mothers who are fighting Covid-19 for their own life and those helping others on the front lines, including doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, and more. For healthy mothers throughout the country, this Mother’s Day will be a sad reminder that Covid-19 precautions preclude spending physical in-person time with their children and grandchildren. Many hugs and kisses will be missed.

This week’s Torah portion begins with a painful conflict between ritual and personal loss. The parasha, called Emor (Speak), begins with God instructing Moses to speak to the priests about how to handle this dilemma. The ancient priests who worked in the Temple were supposed to avoid ritual impurity (acquired by coming close to a dead body), but what should a priest do if they lose a loved one? The portion begins with God specifying that the priest should nevertheless make an exception for “his closest relatives: his mother, and father, son, daughter, brother, or sister.” In this conflict between work and family, the Torah says: family comes first.

Oddly, the priest’s wife doesn’t appear on the list, but the rabbis of the Talmud clarified that the phrase “his closest relatives” surely refers to her, too. In reading this passage, I was struck by the idea that the person he was presumably closest to — his wife — wasn’t mentioned explicitly but was taken as a given.

This textual omission reflects a tendency in life. In our busyness with the smaller things in life, we take the most important things for granted. I’ve often felt this way about Mother’s Day. To honor mothers, we create an event and we often focus on the restaurant, the gifts, and the flowers, but the true, spiritual lesson of motherhood is precisely the opposite. Motherhood is really about appreciating the non-events of life – the mundane moments which small children particularly relish. Kids often teach adults how to find joy in simple activities (like errands) that adults might otherwise find boring.

At its heart, parenthood is really about sacrificing one’s short-term, personal pleasures (like sleep) for the long-term health and happiness of one’s family. Indeed, this Mother’s Day, mothers throughout the world are forfeiting their celebrations for the safety of their families and others. In that sense, even without the flowers and fancy meals, this just might be the truest Mother’s Day of all.

Eighth Day Passover

Eighth Day Passover

By Bob Braun, 5780

A couple of months ago I asked our intrepid drasha coordinators if it were possible to give a drasha on Pesach. My children would be in town, and I thought it would be an opportunity to show off, and after a certain amount of negotiation, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity. Of course, it turned out to be the day after the holiday, which commonly referred to as the 8th day of Pesach.

I had a plan for the drasha, but since that time, the world has, as we all know, turned upside down. People desire people – even as we complain about it – and our desire to be with our family and friends grows during this holiday, when our family tables swell. And, of course, our desire to be with each other is magnified when we face adversity. It is an ironic turn that, at the very time we would like to be together and face this pandemic that we are prevented from doing so. As I think back of the adversities I have faced in my life – and I am so fortunate to have faced very few – I have always sought my family and friends for comfort and support. And while we all try to reach out to each other, make our concerns and affections known, even seeing each other from six feet away cannot take the place of an arm around the shoulders, a true face-to-face conversation.

So it is somewhat surprising that when I looked at my original notes for my drasha, they seemed to be appropriate for this day, and for what we face ahead.

As we know from the Haggadah, the Seder is a process and an evolution. During the arc of the Seder itself, we chart the transformation of our ancestors from enslavement to freedom, and transform ourselves from slaves to free people. And during the 7 days of Passover, the arc becomes more pronounced; as we live this special life without leaven, as we read Hallel daily, as we remove ourselves from at least some of our daily routines and adopt the habits of Pesach, we also find ourselves changed. The constant knowledge of the holiday changes our outlook, even as we look forward to the first piece of pizza at or about 8:10 pm on Thursday.

The transformation does not end, however, on Thursday evening. As you all know, beginning on the second night of Pesach, toward the end of the second seder, we begin the counting of the Omer, and that is what I intended to talk about a couple of months ago.

The Omer has a number of characteristics and meanings ascribed to it. As my cousin-in-law, an Iraqi kibbutznik, told me very matter of factly, it’s simple; it takes seven weeks for the grains to ripen, and we’re just counting. And it is true that the first harvest is concurrent with the length of the Omer. In fact, the harvests of Pesach and Shavuot are connected: the harvest of Pesach is the initial, lesser harvest; the harvest of Shavuot is the culmination and the greater harvest, the one that we depend upon.

But we also ascribe a great deal of mystical significance to the counting of the Omer. To count the Omer daily is considered an act of devotion and piety – although, since it’s pretty easy to download an omer counter on your smart phone, I’m not sure that it’s much of an accomplishment.

But what is more interesting are the customs associated with the Omer. During Sefirat HaOmer, we assume a form of gloom, acting as if we are in morning. This is attributed to the story that, during Sefirat HaOmer, 12,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died because they did not treat each other with respect, and we mourn today, both their death, and the reason for it.

But according to Adin Steinsaltz, the customs are not rooted in mourning, but in the need to prepare ourselves spiritually for the acceptance of Torah on Shavuot. We aren’t mourning so much as we are avoiding distractions, like getting a haircut, or shaving, or getting married, because of our focus on the further development of our spiritual lives for giving of the Torah at Sinai. The days between Pesach and Shavuot are an interim period, a period of our own internal change so that, at the end of the 7 weeks, we have achieved a different level of sanctity and purity.

In this way, Shavuot is the culmination of Pesach, and what gives meaning to Pesach. Freedom, alone, does not have meaning unless it is coupled with values. Were freedom the only goal of Y’tziyat Mitzrayim, we would be in anarchy; it is the combination of freedom and acceptance of Torah that creates something greater. It is Torah, combined with freedom, that creates the Jewish people. We can see this in the kavanah we read each day after counting the Omer:

By the merit of Sefirat HaOmer which I counted today, may whatever I have impaired in the serifa be rectified. May I be purified and sanctified with the heavenly holiness, and through this may a beneficent outpouring be effected in all worlds, to refine our lives and spirits so that they are free of defect, purifying us and sanctifying us with God’s holiness.

We are also in period of transition today. The difference is that we, like the Israelites who left Egypt, do not know whether this will last for six weeks – well, at least six weeks – or 8 weeks or 12 weeks or more. We do not know when or how we will emerge, and what we will discover. In so many ways, we are like the Jews in that first Sefirat HaOmer, heading on an uncertain course to an uncertain future.

And we are most certainly displaying the signs of mourning. Even as we seek to create a normalcy in these times, to reach out to one another, to meet at a distance, we are not celebrating weddings, B’nai mitzvot, birthdays. We are not commemorating even the sober reminders of our time – funerals without shiva, Yizkor without a minyan. We are living in a time that is unique from any other time. While we always are making the history of the world, this time, like the Israelites leaving Egypt, we are aware that we are living in history, that what we do, how we react to this world-wide, ubiquitous and universal disaster, will define us.

There are no answers, at least that I have. Tomorrow may find a vaccine, or treatment, or other event that allows us to return to the world we knew — although it is much more likely that are lives are, irrevocably, changed. But during the next six weeks, at least, let us consider the lessons of Sefirat Omer and consider how we can sanctify ourselves, so that when this period does end, we will be better people for it.



By Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, 3/27/2020

For some people, picking out the right gift is excruciating.  This may be why my wife wisely chose her own engagement ring. We have never gone on a trip which did not require an obligatory visit on her part to the tchotchke store in pursuit of the perfect gift for family and friends. To save time, I sometimes suggest a gift card or Venmo. To no avail.  In my worst moments, I protest that in essence this practice of exchanging gifts among a circle of friends is essentially shopping for oneself. As you can imagine, my heartfelt remonstrations always miss the mark.

As we begin the Book of Vayikra, I want to share wisdom from two of my favorite teachers–Moshe Halbertal and Martin Buber.  In his slim, exquisite work On Sacrifice (2012), Moshe Halbertal focuses on the anxiety and danger of offering gifts. Halbertal notes how it would be unseemly for a guest to bring “a sum of money equivalent to the giver’s estimation of the cost of the meal.” (26) “In bringing an object rather than cash to a dinner party…the giver (read: my wife, not me) expresses her attentiveness to the recipients tastes, which is the ultimate mark of care.”  (27) 

Halbertal begins with the Torah’s first account of an offering or minchah in the story of Cain and Abel.  

Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4: 2-5)

He notes how “the story stresses the expectation of the giver that his sacrifice be accepted, and the utter devastation that results from its rejection.” (8)  Surveying the commentaries, he notes that despite so many attempts, the question of “why Cain’s offering was refused is a mystery.” (9) He can see no “substantive reason” why Abel’s sacrifice is chosen over Cain’s.  The term minchah, an offering from one who is less powerful to one who is more powerful is connected to the anxiety of offering a sacrifice. The possibility of rejection is deeply connected to both trauma and violence.

When one thinks of the extraordinary detail of the various sacrifices found in our Torah portion, one can understand Halbertal’s argument that “adherence to detailed routine makes the passage from laying down [offering] to acceptance less fraught.  Ritual is thus a protocol that protects from the risk of rejection.” Like legal systems, ritual “imposes order while confronting the unreliability and capriciousness of emotional responses.” (15)

While ritual has the benefit of reducing anxiety and danger and enhancing safety, predictability, and control, other dangers emerge.  Ritual can turn into magic or manipulation of God, i.e., if you perform the proper steps in the proper order at the proper time, all will be well.  While sacrificial offerings are meant to bring the practitioner closer to God, the opposite may result. By closing “the gap between giving and receiving, thereby ensuring acceptance of the gift and leaving nothing voluntary to the recipient,” the result Halbertal notes “ is the exact opposite of intimacy.” (18)  

Given my anxiety that this offering or drash will not be accepted when my virtual 10-12 minutes are up, let me close with a few applications of Halbertal’s understanding of the anxiety of offering to other realms.  

God and Humans

We can apply Halbertal’s analysis of the danger of human offerings to God to the danger of God’s offerings to humans.  Halbertal compares God’s dilemma to what he calls the “rich husband syndrome.” How does the most powerful actor in the world know that (S)he is loved?  In Halbertal’s account, both the stories of Job and Abraham in the Akedah can be seen as tests of loyalty in which God needs proof that God is loved not instrumentally but for Godself.  From another perspective, we could ask: when God offers God’s greatest gifts to humanity and the Jewish people–life, free will, covenant–we can only imagine God’s anxiety if these gifts are not received or used well. When the human partner rejects God’s gifts (through ingratitude or disloyalty), God responds with rage and violence–destroying humanity with the Flood or threatening to destroy the Jewish people after building the Golden Calf.  

Buber’s account of Religion and Religiosity

Halbertal observes how the predictability of both ritual and law serve to make the world a more stable place.  We can compare Halbertal’s account of ritual as a response to the anxiety of bringing offerings to Buber’s contrast between religion and religiosity.  For Buber, religiosity is “man’s sense of wonder and adoration, an ever anew becoming, an ever anew articulation and formulation of his feeling that, transcending his conditioned being yet bursting from its very core, there is something that is unconditioned.”  Religion, by contrast, constitutes laws and customs, rites and dogmas which become ossified and unalterably binding. Buber’s fear is that religion (like ritual) instead of coexisting in dynamic tension with religiosity, will mobilize its endless rules and procedures to enslave and destroy living religiosity.   

Interpersonal Relationships:  Buber’s I-It and I-You

In his work I and Thou, Buber echoes this idea of religion and religiosity and addresses the anxiety of risking I-You relationships.  He describes how I-It relationships are orderly, instrumental, controlled. “The It-word hangs together in space and time. The You-word does not hang together in space and time.” I-It relationships, like Halbertal’s account of ritual, provide comfort, continuity, consistency and predictability.  In contrast, I-You moments require presence, participation of one’s whole being, mutuality, and openness. They “appear as queer lyric-dramatic episodes. Their spell may be seductive, but they pull us dangerously to extremes, loosening the well-tried structure, leaving behind more doubt than satisfaction, shaking up our security – altogether uncanny, altogether indispensable.” 

Buber concludes Part 1 of I and Thou:  “And in all the seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live.  But whoever lives only with that is not human.”

Without I-It, we lack structure and order, mastery, predictability and responsibility.  We lack the means to overcome the fear and anxiety of our natural dependency. In Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s words:  “Human existence is a dignified one because it is a glorious, majestic, powerful existence…Man of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity.  Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques and saves lives is blessed with dignity…” ( “The Lonely Man of Faith”)

And, at the same time, there is another equally urgent demand:  the longing for I-You relationships.

In The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:  “To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks.  The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time.  There is a realm where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.  Life goes wrong when control of space, the acquisition of things in space, becomes our sole concern.”

May we support one another in today’s demand for building reliability, mastery and responsibility.  May we have the courage to respond to Heschel’s call to face sacred moments together.

Shabbat Shalom



By Larry Herman, February 29, 2020

What’s Your Mishkan?

Shabbat Shalom.

Did you listen to the Torah reading today? Or perhaps read it? At least the forty verses that we chanted? Don’t worry if you missed the other 56 verses; it’s more of the same.

What’s going on here?

It’s actually quite simple. God is giving Moses the blueprint for the architecture and interior design of the Mikdash or Mishkan.

Commentators and scholars have a lot to say about the differences between Mikdash and Mishkan.

Mikdash emphasizes the place of holiness, coming from the root kodesh, while the Mishkan calls to mind dwelling, coming from the root shachen which means to dwell.

But I’m not particularly concerned about the difference, especially since in our parsha, the term mikdash is only used once while Mishkan is used 19 times. God is instructing Moses to tell the people how to build the special space where they will gather and serve God. The space where they will fulfill their obligations as a people, affirm their commitments as Hebrews, and perhaps we can even project a bit and say reinforce their identities as Jews.

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

God wants to be with the people, and the people to be with God.

And there are a lot of instructions for what the place must be.

First comes the materials list in the first seven verses. No quantities attached, but the list seems pretty complete.

  1. Gold
  2. Silver
  3. Copper
  4. Blue Yarn
  5. Purple Yarn
  6. Crimson Yarn
  7. Fine Linen
  8. Goats’ Hair
  9. Tanned Ram Skins
  10. Dolphin Skins
  11. Acacia Wood
  12. Oil
  13. Spices
  14. Lapis Lazuli
  15. Other Stones

And then follows a verbal description of how the materials are to be assembled.

Altogether in our Parsha, by my count, God gives Moses the plans and designs for 18 separate components of the Mishkan:

  1. Ark
  2. Ark Poles
  3. Cover
  4. Cherubim
  5. Table
  6. Table Poles
  7. Receptacles: Bowls, ladles, jars & jugs
  8. Lampstand
  9. Cloth enclosure
  10. Planks
  11. Curtain
  12. Screen
  13. Alter
  14. Grill accessories: Pails, scrapers, basins, flesh hooks and fire pans
  15. Grating
  16. Alter poles
  17. Hangings
  18. Gate

But there is a very interesting verse that precedes the written description of each component:

כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔ אֵ֚ת תַּבְנִ֣ית הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן וְאֵ֖ת תַּבְנִ֣ית כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ׃ Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.

Note that God does not say “exactly as I tell you” or “explain to you” but rather that he is actually showing Moses the plan, the blueprint, the design.

In fact, in the final verse of the chapter, and the final verse that we read today, God basically repeats that:

וּרְאֵ֖ה וַעֲשֵׂ֑ה בְּתַ֨בְנִיתָ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה מָרְאֶ֖ה בָּהָֽר׃ Note well, and follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain.

It’s as though God is projecting an image or hologram on the mountain for Moses to actually be able to visualize the Mishkan. In fact, in verse 30 of Chapter 26 God tells Moses, “Then set up the Tabernacle according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain.”

Note that in our parsha Moses is only given the plans for the Mishkan. It’s not until parshat Va’yak’Hel in three weeks that it is actually constructed.

Let me ask you all a question: In hearing or reading the parsha, do you have a good idea of what the Mishkan was supposed to look like?

Do you have any idea of what it was supposed to look like?

Not me. I’m not an engineer or architect, but I can read simple building plans (at least for roads) and visualize them. But I really need that projection against the mountain that God showed to Moses.

We don’t have a Mishkan anymore. We haven’t for almost three thousand years, or perhaps two thousand years if you consider the Temple the Mishkan.

So what’s your Mishkan?

What’s the place where you are with God and God is with you?

What’s the place where you serve God?

The place where you fulfill your obligations, affirm your commitments and reinforce your identity as a Jew?

Is it here in Dorff Nelson?

Upstairs in the new Ganzberg Sanctuary?

Daily in Pilch Hall?

Is it all of those, any of those, or none of those?

Perhaps it’s not in a synagogue at all.

It could be a place of Jewish study, Jewish Center, or Labor Zionist Hall.

Perhaps it’s not one place or space but several.

Or perhaps it’s not a place at all, but rather an association or movement. A space where Jews come together to be with God and affirm their commitments as Jews.

A goodly number of our regulars are missing today, gathered in Washington for the AIPAC meetings. Maybe that place is their Mishkan or one of their Mishkans.

Perhaps one of your Jewish identities is an obligation to remember the Holocaust and honor its victims. Then Yad VaShem, the many Holocaust museums and memorials, and spaces where the Holocaust is remembered and studied may be a Mishkan for you; or rather for all of us.

All of these are possible. These places may not resemble the literal description or plan that we read today, and I seriously doubt if any of them contain any dolphin skins. But they are all possible spaces for some form of sanctity – Mikdash – and Jewish gathering and dwelling – Mishkan.

Spaces where we are moved to bring gifts, each and every one of us, as our hearts move us. Even if those gifts are time, our presence and our participation.

I have such a place, even though I’ve only been there twice. It’s the annual festival and celebration of almost all things Jewish that takes place in England.


Most of you know about it. Many of you have actually participated in it, either in England or in one of the Limmud satellites around the world.

In England it’s six days of wall-to-wall nonstop immersion in Judaism and Jewishness. This year it attracted almost three thousand participants, included five hundred presenters, one thousand separate sessions, and myriad opportunities to find your version of the Mishkan.

  • You want to pray? There were Orthodox, Sephardi/Mizrachi, Egalitarian, Partnership, Progressive/Reform, Family, and Meditation minyans, most of them three times daily.
  • You want serious traditional Jewish study: There were dozens of sessions, many led by renowned scholars, plus a non-stop Beit Midrash.
  • What kind of learning or experiences would you like? The list of categories barely captures the breadth and depth of what’s available:
    • Torah and Philosophy
    • Wellbeing and Spirituality
    • Arts and Culture
    • History and Politics
    • Modern Society and Social Change
    • Social Programming
    • Science and Technology
    • Performance
    • Shabbat and Chanukah
    • Family, Youth and Teen, and
    • Other

There were a series of sessions that dealt with environmental matters and naturally a large number of politically oriented sessions: plenty to both interest and outrage almost anyone at the same time. Sessions on Shtisel and lots of sessions that dealt with food.

I wish that I had the time to tell you about all of the fantastic sessions that I attended. Here are just a few:

  • I attended a Shabbat session on whisky given by an orthodox rabbi, complete with tasting.
  • And another session that presented an eye-opening history of Jews and booze.
  • Diane and I learned to dance Salsa at a session given by a Cambridge University biologist who also gave a session on the role of evolutionary biology on peace and cooperation.
  • We attended a rugelach-making session that had to deal with disaster when the bowl with the dough smashed on the floor.
  • An Oxford University professor of Medicine and amateur comic gave a three-part lecture entitled “Do our Genes Make us Jewish” that was so informative, entertaining and just wonderful that the rooms could not contain the throngs who came to see him.
  • I reconnected with a young man who used to live in Maputo.
  • Diane and I attended sessions and had lunch with the developer of Sefaria.
  • I studied Psalm 30, which I recite daily, with a dynamic young rabbi, and it has changed the way I relate to it.

I can honestly say that some of the sessions and experiences were life changing.

Two sessions on Tahara, the ritual cleansing of a Jewish corpse, and Hevrei Kadisha have rekindled my commitment to organize a lay Hevra Kadisha in our community. (Fortuitously, this coincides with just such an endeavor led by our clergy.)

  • I have been inspired to become more proficient in using Sefaria so that I can share that knowledge with others.
  • A session on the Musar movement and anger management is helping me get through this political cycle, at least I hope so.
  • But most of all, a pair of shi’urim by Rabbi Joel Levy, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, has perhaps, maybe, I’m not yet sure, changed the way I think about God.

At least it’s changed the way that I think about revelation, about text, and about narrative and experience versus writing and analytical thought.

In truth, this what I had intended to talk about all along. Rabbi Levy’s sessions were entitled “The Alphabetic Mind” based on a 1986 article of the same name by Eric Havelock. As far as I can tell, Rabbi Levy has not yet published on the topic yet. And I am not capable of doing justice to scholarship that he brought to the subject. To briefly quote him,

Writing was only invented a few thousand years ago… Judaism soon became a distinctly bookish tradition. … How was religion changed by the new technology of writing? ….how [have] early rabbinic traditions understood, conceptualized and prioritized the differences between Judaism’s spoken and written traditions.

Reading the written word is not only different from hearing, seeing and experiencing the same events and ideas, it also involves very different modes of thinking and understanding.

There is an irony in the way that we Jews have chosen to deal with our oral and written traditions. On the one hand, we have the Torah she-bi-khtav, the written Torah, and Torah she-be-`al peh, the Oral Law. But we are actually commanded to hear, not read, the written Torah, and we have not only written down the Oral law, but our homes, beitei midrash, and libraries are chock-a-block full of written commentaries on the whole of Torah. The transmission process that was once dynamic and experiential quickly became rigidified and analytical. It changed the way that we relate to Torah, to law, to history, to God, and to revelation.

I want to take you back to our parsha one more time. I know that it’s easy to forget, but what has just happened is that the people had heard the pronouncement of the Aseret Hadirbrot in a fantastic display of sound, visual effects and other physical sensations. Then Moses ascends the mountain to receive and presumably transcribe, that is, write, the rest of the law. The laws we read last week in Mishpatim, the laws of the Mishkan in T’rumah this week, the laws of the priests, their clothing and sacrifices next week in T’tzaveh, up to the moment in Ki Tissa when Moses descends with the written tablets. Objects, not experiences.

But clearly in our story, God did more than just hand Moses the equivalent of a book. We’ve already seen that he prepared something like of a hologram or Power Point presentation to show him what the Mishkan should look like.

Imagine now, when Moses descends and presents the tablets to the people and says, “This is the word of the Lord.”

The people would laugh at him. They would say, “Moses, we saw and heard and felt the word of the Lord at Sinai, and believe us, those tablets aren’t it.”

It would be as if God had performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, complete with celestial orchestra, choir, light show and more. And forty days later Moses comes down from the mountain with the written musical score and says, “This is what you heard.” The people would look at the squiggles on the page and say, “what the heck is that? It’s not what we heard and saw.”

And when Moses presents the plans for the Mishkan to Betzalel, I wonder if Betzalel didn’t respond, “Why don’t you just show me what the Lord showed you.”

The alphabetic mind, the mind that reads and writes, is a mind that is limited and locked in. The narrative and experiential mind is the mind that’s open to wonders and novelty. It doesn’t let the words get in the way of the ideas or experiences.

So what is your Mishkan? Does your Mishkan follow the literal plan described in the words of our parsha? Or do you try to imagine what gifts your heart moves you to bring in order to create a Mishkan beyond the words, a sacred place where you can dwell with the Devine, and where you can fulfill your commitments, obligations and identity as a Jew?

Shabbat Shalom.

A somewhat differently formatted PDF click on this image



By Melissa Berenbaum, Feb 22, 2020

Shabbat Shalom. Mishpatim. Is there a better parsha for a lawyer? This parsha can be described as a combined class in criminal law, property and torts – all in one. This parsha sets out the laws, intended to create a just and equitable society, and is referred to as the Book of the Covenant.

The laws are grouped together. The first section addresses wrongdoing that is redressed by courts, including treatment of slaves; behavior which for which the death penalty will be imposed; lesser offenses, causing physical injury to one person against another and injuries to animals and injuries caused by animals, which result in the imposition of damages or restitution; laws of theft and property damage, and the seduction of a virgin.

The second section addresses moral and ethical behavior, behavior not necessarily redressed by a court or government. These pronouncements are intended to set up norms – expected conduct and behavior – for society. We police ourselves when it comes to these commandments. And it includes directives on how to treat the less fortunate and the stranger. This section also includes the sabbatical year for fields and another reminder that the seventh day is a day of rest, as well as to refrain from invoking other gods.

The parsha also lays out the observance of the “shalosh regalim” – Feast of Unleavened bread (Pesach), Harvest (Shavuot), and Ingathering (Sukkot). Just as an aside – no mention of an extra set of dishes for Pesach… just saying!

The prescripts laid out in this parsha are meant for a people settled, living in a particular place. But the Israelites are not yet in the land that God has promised. The parsha includes a description of the road ahead – and what obstacles God will clear for them. And the parsha concludes with Moshe ascending Mount Sinai.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the second section of the Covenantal Code.

Chapter 22, Verses 20 – 26: (Robert Alter translation)

“You shall not cheat a sojourner and you shall not oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. No widow nor orphan shall you abuse. If you indeed abuse them, when they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their outcry. And my wrath shall flare up and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall be widows and your children orphans. If you should lend money to My people, to the pauper among you, you shall not be to him like a creditor, you shall not impose interest on him. If you should indeed take in pledge your fellow man’s cloak, before the sun comes down you shall return it to him. For it is his sole covering, it is his cloak for his skin – in what can he lie? And so, when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am compassionate.”

This is not the only time the God tells the Israelites not to oppress the widow, orphan and sojourners. It comes up in the next chapter, v. 9:

“No sojourner shall you oppress, for you know the sojourner’s heart, since you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

And again, in V’Ikrya, ch. 19, v. 33-34:

“And should a sojourner sojourn with you, you shall not wrong him. Like the native among you shall be the sojourner who sojourns with you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

And 4 times in D’varim: Ch. 10, v. 17-19:

“For the Lord your God, He is the God of gods and the Master of masters, the great and mighty and fearsome God Who shows no favor and takes no bribe, doing justice for orphan and widow and loving the sojourner to give him bread and cloak. And you shall love the sojourner, for sojourners you were in the land of Egypt.”

Ch 24, v. 14:

“You shall not oppress a poor and needy hired worker from your brothers or from your sojourners who are in your land within your gates.”

Continuing at v. 17-18:

“You shall not skew the case of a sojourner or an orphan, and you shall not take as pawn a widow’s garment. And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God” ransomed you from there.”

And as the Israelites are poised to enter the land, in Chapter 27, as the Levites are calling out the commandments to the people, in v. 19, they say, “’Cursed be he who skews the case of a sojourner, orphan or widow.’ And all the people shall say ‘Amen.’”

So why all the repeated references to protecting the sojourner – or stranger – the widow and the orphan? Why the constant reminder that the Israelites were strangers in Egypt?

Rashi comments on the verses of Mishpatim, regarding the giving of credit to a poor person, that God is reminding the people that the poor person is one of God’s people, too. And to look at yourself as if you are the poor person.

This is God’s directive that we have empathy and compassion for those around us. So we are continually reminded in the Torah that we were strangers, we knew how it felt to be at the bottom rung of society, and we should never forget that.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written:

Empathy is not a lightweight, touchy-feely, add-on extra to the moral life. It is an essential element in conflict resolution. People who have suffered pain often respond by inflicting pain on others. The result is violence, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, at times directed against individuals, at others, against whole groups. The only genuine, non-violent alternative is to enter into the pain of the other in such a way as to ensure that the other knows that he, she or they have been understood, their humanity recognised and their dignity affirmed.

Rabbi Sacks’ teaching continues:

But active empathy is life-changing, not only for you but for the people with whom you interact. Instead of responding with anger to someone else’s anger, try to understand where the anger might be coming from. In general, if you seek to change anyone’s behaviour, you have to enter into their mindset, see the world through their eyes and try to feel what they are feeling, and then say the word or do the deed that speaks to their emotions, not yours. It’s not easy. Very few people do this. Those who do, change the world.

Empathy and compassion begin with kindness. Before we can put ourselves in the shoes of another and try to understand their circumstances, we have to suspend judgments and open our hearts.

About 10 years ago, as Josh and Mira were at the age of middle schoolers and I began to realize that I didn’t have a window on all facets of their lives, I struggled to engage them in conversation. “How was school?” “What’s new?” “What happened today?” These were inadequate questions to draw them out into a meaningful conversation. So what did I do in this modern age – search the Internet! And I found some article that contained a variety of questions designed to elicit more than “yes” “no” and “fine” and “good” as answers. I realized if I posed these questions on a daily basis, my kids might never come out of their rooms. But I distilled them and thought it would be a good way to engage them at Shabbat dinner. And we ask 4 questions on Friday nights around our table:

How were you kind this week?

How were you brave?

Can you share a success with us?

Or is there something that didn’t go so well this week that you want to share, so we can support you?

They only have to answer one question, and many weeks the answer was simply a good grade on a test. But some weeks it was more – helping a fellow student with some work, giving someone a ride who needed one. And for their parents, it causes us to go through out week knowing we will have to provide an answer to one of the questions.

God commands us to never forget our experience in slavery – of being the other in a society, and to never treat a stranger the way we were treated, and to give special consideration to those who are less fortunate – the widow, the orphan, the poor.

If that is how God expects us to treat the less fortunate, what could God expect from us with regard to the people we know, the people with whom we share community? I believe the commandment has broader application than how we treat the stranger and the less fortunate.

First, we can’t always know what’s going on in the lives of those with whom have relationships: who may be dealing with the needs of a parent, or another relative, or a child. And we can’t necessarily know about the challenges someone may be experiencing at work, or a financial challenge. So in our interactions, it’s important that we be mindful of what we might not know about a person.

Second, is there any downside to being empathic and showing compassion? It may actually produce a better and more productive relationship. For example, during my time as Rosh (now really concluded!), a good part of my role was about working to make sure we had appropriate space to daven each Shabbat, making sure we had the right equipment, even the right chairs. I had to appreciate that while our space was the most important thing for us, those with whom I interacted had a lot of things they were juggling. And by my recognizing their responsibilities and obligations, I was more likely to be heard.

Another priority has been addressing the needs of those who need assistance with hearing. Steady persistence and consistent engagement may finally payoff, with the hearing loop being installed in the coming months.

I have tried to advocate for the Library Minyan, in the context of respecting the other stakeholders in Temple Beth Am and finding a means of accommodation, rather than confrontation. Co-existing in a mutually enhancing way benefits all of us and the larger Temple Beth Am community.

It may be a variation on the theme of remembering the stranger when we take care in our interactions to respect one another. And I think the wisest Torah commentator was my mother, zichrona l’vracha, when she lovingly looked at my brother and me as we were fighting and admonished us to, “Be Nice.” In being nice – showing empathy and compassion — in our interactions with one another, we are doing God’s work.

Shabbat shalom.

Lecture by Steve Sloame

Lecture by Steve Sloame, Feb 8, 2020

It is generally known that the UN has been dealing unfairly with Israel. But the the details are generally not known. So before I turn to what my organization does, I think it would be helpful to give some history.

The UN was formed in 1945. Its basic purpose was to empower the cause of world peace. But after 1974 efforts were made to end the existence of Israel as a majority Jewish state through support of the so-called “right of return” and force Israel to accept the 5.5 million so-called refugees who call themselves Palestinians which would result in the end of the Jewish majority in Israel. The effort was also aimed to weaken the US position internationally by isolating it and Israel from the rest of the international community.

How would this be accomplished? In 1974 Fidel Castro, who was determined to weaken the US internationally, and Muammar Quaddafi, determined to eliminate the Jewish state, and who were both candidates for leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement, joined forces and succeeded in putting together a majority coalition in the UN General Assembly. It consisted of the Soviet bloc, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now known as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), and a majority of African states that were attracted by slogans of anti-colonialism and “Zionism is Racism”. Neither goal was achieved, but the UN support of the right of return remains to this day a major obstacle to the conclusion of a meaningful peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Further, the penetration of the UN Secretariat by anti-Israel operatives has had the effect of installing anti-Israel sentiments into a large part of the UN staff.

How was it done? One of the first steps was to invite Yasser Arafat to address the UN General Assembly in September 1974. He delivered a speech that lasted more than 2 hours. A few weeks later the GA adopted Res. 3236 in which it recognized “the inalienable right of hte Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted”. The resolution then declared that the UNGA “calls for their return”. In 1975 the GA took a critically important step. It created the UN’s central anti-Israel apparatus, which operates to this very day, by establishing the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP). The Committee’s work in getting the anti-Israel message out was undertaken by the staff with Cuban staff members in the lead. Two years later the organizers of the anti-Israel campaign took the critically important step of requesting the Secretary General to establish within the Secretariat a Special Unit on Palestinian Rights which would prepare studies and publications relating to the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. It annually holds 4 major conferences around the world to bash Israel. In 1979 its name was changed to the Division for Palestinian Rights, on the same organizational line of the Secretariat as the Europe Division, the Americas Division, the 2 African Divisions, the Asia and Pacific Division and the Middle East and West Asia Division. Its statement of purpose is to support the Right of Return. It has 15 people on the payroll with the task of spreading the anti-Israel message. Thus in violation of its charter, the UN has built within its system an apparatus designed to destroy one of its 193 member states. You have all heard of UNRWA, an agency of the UN whose purpose is to maintain a list of millions of people of Arab ethnicity whose mass migration to Israel the UN plans to sponsor. CEIRPP get the message out in support of this mass migration. The DPR uses the UN system to win international support of the cause which would destroy the state of Israel. The ultimate goal is to get the UN Security Council to sponsor the mass migration, ordering Israel to accept them. A US veto can, of course, prevent this. But the proponents believe that by attaining worldwide support they will ultimately cause the US to give in and allow the SC to adopt a right of return resolution which would enjoy the status of international law.

How can one expect a Palestinian leader to give up the Right of Return if year after year the UN endorses it? This is not known by most heads of state and therefore it is up to the US to get this message out. What can be done to minimize the harm?

My organization, AJIRI, was founded in 2005 with a strategy to combat the UN effort to delegitimize Israel, first by reducing the need for the US to veto anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council and over a longer period to reduce the about 20 annual overwhelmingly anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly. It is important to distinguish among those resolutions between those that are merely declarative (and do not have adverse operational consequences), and those that have such consequences, and thus are damaging to Israel. The vast majority of the annual anti-Israel resolutions are actually declarative only, in other words, “hot air”. Before getting to the 2 annual destructive General Assembly resolutions, I’ll turn to the Security Council where the resolutions have the force of international law. For years the US as a permanent member of the Security Council exercised its veto to protect Israel. For example between 1972 and 2006 the US cast 41 vetoes. This had the effect of making the US and Israel pariah nations against the will of the international community. And what if an American administration refused to veto an anti-Israel resolution? We saw that happen at the end of 2016.

The strategy was devised by former Deputy Ambassador to the UN Richard Schifter and currently the Chairman of AJIRI. It is predicated on the little known fact that quite a few countries’ UN ambassadors vote

without consulting with their heads of government. Decisions are made by their UN ambassadors or, in some cases, foreign ministries. It is easier and more rewarding for the UN ambassadors of countries with no dog in the fight to go along to get along. We also knew that for a Security Council resolution to pass, thereby forcing the US to veto it, it needed 9 affirmative votes out of the 15 members — 5 permanent and 10 non-permanent members representing regions and rotating for 2 year terms. When an anti-Israel resolution is proposed in the SC, Israel can generally count on the votes of the US, the UK and France and the 2 non-permanent EU members for a total of 5. This means that the proponents of the resolution need 9 of the remaining 10 members to vote in favor of the resolution and force a veto. But we only need 2 abstentions, not even no votes, to prevent the necessary 9 yes votes, and as a practical matter since votes are solicited and counted ahead of time the resolution would be tabled and no vote would be held.

So the questions we faced were how to identify and persuade the two members we needed to abstain.

First, we divided the total UN membership into 4 parts: friends of the US and Israel, enemies of Israel such as the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation sure to vote for anti-Israel resolutions, members that vote against the US and Israel for purely geopolitical reasons such as Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and until recently we hope Brazil, and members that are essentially neutral in that they have no major foreign policy differences with the US but vote along with the majority against Israel, generally in those countries where the heads of state pay no attention to the votes of their UN Ambassador. We examined the members of the latter group and identified those countries that receive US foreign aid.

Second, In 2006 Ambassador Schifter and I met with the two House of Representative whips, Democrat Steny Hoyer and Republican then Congressman now Senator Roy Blount, both staunchly pro Israel. We outlined our analysis and suggested they identify and give their blessing to members who are likely to play a role, especially those on the Foreign

Relations Committee which overseas the foreign aid budget. They agreed and brought to the meeting a number of like minded members who would agree to adopt a country, starting with those newly elected to the Security Council. The plan was that AJIRI would do the research, in part by examining the State Department’s annual voting coincidence report which tracks the votes of all UN members on the 25 annual resolutions the State Department deemed important and compares their votes with how the US voted. AJIRI would then draft a letter addressed to the head of state of the individual country which would be signed by the Congressman. The letter would start by reciting the friendship between our countries and the absence of major foreign policy differences. It would go on to point out that that the country had over the past 3 years voted, for example, 67% of the time against the way the US voted, and concluded by urging the head of state to request the country’s UN Ambassador to alert him or her the next time the ambassador learned that the US intended to vote against a resolution. (We always wrote about votes against the US, not Israel, as the resolutions often involved Israel anyway.) The Congressman would then invite to his office the country’s bilateral ambassador in Washington, whose job is to maintain good relations with the US and keep the money flowing. The Congressman would discuss the contents of the letter and then hand it to the ambassador for delivery to the head of state in the diplomatic pouch.

The strategy worked virtually every time. As proof, between 2006, when we started, and today the US has had to exercise its veto only 3 times. Let me give you a couple of examples and anecdotes of our success.

Columbia was consistently voting against Israel despite receiving the third most foreign aid after Israel and Egypt (to combat the cartels). In this case we involved a Senator. the late Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, who was personally friendly with Columbia’s President Uribe. The Senator called Uribe and the votes in the UN shifted more favorably. Uribe was unaware of how his ambassador voted.

A few years ago a small African country, Burkina Faso, which had just been elected to the Security Council, was consistently voting against the US and Israel despite having received from the State Department a Millennium Challenge Grant of $400 million, awarded to nations which had taken positive steps toward democracy, transparency and the rule of law, Northern Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf, now retired, volunteered. He called the Embassy and asked for the Ambassador. He was told that the Ambassador was back in the capital and suggested that the Congressman call the UN Ambassador. Frank blew up, exclaiming “What the hell do you people have an embassy for?” Within 48 hours the Ambassador was in Frank’s office together with the Secretary of the Cabinet. A month later the State Department reported that Burkina Faso had done an about face and was now voting with the US.

When the proponents of the anti-Israel Security Council resolution discover they don’t have the 9 affirmative votes to force the US into an embarrassing veto, the resolutions are tabled. Thus, for example, after Gilead Shalit was abducted in Gaza and Israel mounted an excursion, the UN Human Rights Council took up the matter and referred the infamous Goldstone Report to the Security Council with a recommendation to take action against Israel. No vote was taken. The same with subsequent Gaza wars. In 2012, however, Mohammad Abbas thought he had the votes for Palestinian Statehood and the Arab representative on the SC introduced the resolution. But to Abbas’ surprise, Togo and Nigeria abstained after heavy lobbying and the resolution failed to get 9 affirmative votes. The decision by Nigeria to abstain came in the final hour. Ambassador Schifter called a former Israeli ambassador to the UN who, in turn, called Bibi to point out that we were just a vote away from a setting in which no veto would be needed. Bibi called the Nigerian President, Jonathan Goodluck, who called his ambassador to the UN to instruct him that Nigeria should abstain.

The 2 annual General Assembly resolutions that are the most critically important are the resolutions that extend the mandates and the funding authorizations for the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, in which 26 UN member states are represented, and the Division for Palestinian Rights in the Secretariat. As I mentioned, these provide UN support for the claim of a “right of return” and with a massive population transfer of Palestinians end of the State of Israel as a majority Jewish state. As AJIRI sees the situation, there are indeed a number of UN member states that would favor efforts to end Israel’s existence. But we also believe that the heads of government of a significant number of the states that vote for the resolutions or abstain are simply not aware of the true meaning of these resolutions. (The Palestinian leadership, of course, understands the meaning of the resolutions very well.) The failure of many officials to understand the true meaning of the resolutions is due to the fact that their texts are cleverly worded so that the term “right of return” does not appear in them. Instead, the relevant texts use wording that needs to be carefully examined to lead the reader to recognize that the resolutions espouse the “right of return.” It is by making both diplomats and Members of Congress aware of the true meaning of CEIRPP and DPR that AJIRI has gotten the word out on the UNGA role in interfering with the efforts to attain an Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement.

CEIRPP and DPR resolutions were once again adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 3, 2019. There were a number of very favorable developments. We believe that the AJIRI effort played a role in important vote changes, brought about through the intercession of Members of Congress with Presidents and Prime Ministers directly.

Significant Change in the EU Voting Pattern

As you know, across the years the United States and Israel have been joined in casting No votes on CEIRPP and DPR by Australia, Canada, and a few Pacific Island states. A few years ago Congressional intercession helped by AJIRI paid off by adding Guatemala and Honduras to the No votes.

What really drew a great deal of attention on December 3, including highly positive statements from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, was the change in the voting pattern on the DPR resolution by European Union states, led by Germany. For many years the voting pattern of the 28 EU member states was the following: Yes — 2 (Cyprus, Malta), No — 0, Abstain — 26. In 2019 we saw a truly striking change: Yes — 2, No -12, Abstain — 14. I should add that the 2019 change was preceded by a slight change in 2018, when Hungary switched from Abstain to No. But Hungary was no longer alone in 2019. It was joined by 11 other EU member states.

We believe that Germany played a key role in this change in voting pattern. With the help of AJIRI, Congressman Steny Hoyer sent a letter to the Foreign Minister of Germany, Heiko Mass. We believe that letter positively influenced the vote of not only Germany, but 10 other EU members: Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania, and Slovakia. It should be possible to pick up additional European votes in 2020. In light of the UK election result we think the UK may be ready to vote No next year. We also hope that in 2020 the states that voted No in 2019 only on DPR would add CEIRPP, a committee of ambassadors from 26 states that meet periodically for sessions at which Israel is denounced and the Right of Return is emphasized. Hungary and the Czech Republic have already begun to vote No on CEIRPP as well.

Latin America

In 2017 it was Guatemala which was the first country to cross over to vote No on CEIRPP and DPR. In 2018 it was joined by Honduras. And in 2019 Brazil and Colombia made it four. Brazil is, of course, a country with significant worldwide standing. Colombia plays an important role in Latin America. In both states the political outlook of their respective Presidents played an important role, but it was still necessary to call their attention to the meaning of CEIRPP and DPR. Heads of government do not normally spend time focusing on UN resolutions. It is necessary to call their attention to the fact that certain UN resolutions contravene the basic policies of their respective governments.

The challenge for 2020 is to identify those states that can join the foregoing four. The other 15 Latin American states divide as follows on the CEIRPP an DPR: Voting Yes: Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Venezuela (10). Voting Abstain: Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru (4). Argentina (1) voted Yes on CEIRPP and Abstain on DRP. The states on which we have no chance are Chile (because of the influence of the Chile’s Palestinian community). and Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, now joined by Argentina (because of their unfriendly outlook toward the United States). The outcome of the Uruguayan election and the developments in Bolivia offer real opportunities for change.


The 14 Caribbean states are divided equally between those that vote Yes and those that are Absent. Voting Yes in 2019 on CEIRPP and DPR were Antigua & Barbuda, Belize, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Suriname. Absent were Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, St. Kitts, and Trinidad & Tobago.

We have to assume that Cuba plays an important role in the region, yet given the close economic relationship between many of these countries and the United States, it is important to stay in touch with most of them.


There are 54 states in the UN’s Africa Group. They can be divided between the 10 North African states, all of which are members of the Arab League, and the 44 states in Sub- Saharan Africa. AJIRI’s attention obviously focuses on Sub- Saharan Africa. Here we can note a significant change between voting patterns on DPR in 2018 and 2019: In 2018 28 states voted Yes, 6 Abstain, and 10 were absent. In 2019 21 states voted Yes, 7 Abstain, and 16 were absent.

Please note that in 2019 only a minority of the 44 Sub- Saharan African states voted for DPR. That, too, was the first time. In this context, let me offer an observation on the difference between an Abstain vote and an Absence.

An “Abstain” vote means that a state casting that vote makes it clear that it is “not for” the resolution, but does not feel strongly enough to vote No. An Absence, on the other hand, may in some cases mean that the delegation in question does not have an officer available to be present at the UNGA session. In many cases, however, it means something quite different, namely that the state is “not for” the resolution but wants to obscure that fact. (Ambassador Schifter tells the story that at the beginning of a session of the UN Human Rights Commission, at which he represented the United States, an Ambassador from one of the smaller countries came up to him and said the following: “I have been instructed to tell you that any time you don’t want me to be in the room, tell me that, and I won’t be in the room.”)

Summing Up

As you may know, the UN has 193 members. That means that a bare majority of the membership would be 97. At the current session, for the first time in decades, the Yes votes on both resolutions were less than a majority of the UN membership. That, of course, does not mean that the resolutions were defeated, because the No votes were still quite low, but it appears that a number of states are reached by the message that they should not vote Yes on these anti-Israel resolutions.

On CEIRPP the Yes vote was down from 100 to 92. The 2019 vote total was 92 Yes, 13 No, 61 Abstain, 27 Absent.

On DPR the Yes vote was down from 96 to 87. The 2019 vote total was 87 Yes, 23 No, 54 Abstain, 29 Absent.

Let us keep in mind that as CEIRPP and DPR raise budgetary questions in that their operations need to be funded out of the UN budget, the resolutions require, under the UN Charter, a two-thirds majority for them to pass.

As we look ahead to the 2020 session, we certainly need to identify again the Yes votes cast by states whose heads of government would not vote Yes if they understood the meaning of CEIRPP and DPR.

Finally, a few words about Israel’s and American Jews’ view of the UN. For a long time, Israel didn’t really care about the UN and it’s anti-Israel activities. In fact, David Ben-Gurion coined an expression to show where he stood: UM SHMUM. In colloquial English, it would mean UN? Forgetaboutit. But even General Assembly advisory resolutions are important. Resolution 181 in 1948 partitioned the British Mandate of Palestine into 3 parts — Israel, Palestine and an independent Jerusalem. But due to Arab opposition there was no Security Council vote.

Nevertheless that resolution triggered Israel’s declaration of independence. Then there was the case of South Africa. The GA passed a very strong resolution boycotting and sanctioning South Africa for its apartheid and set up an office in the Secretariat to track how each country implemented the resolution. Although the UK would not permit a Security Council resolution to pass, the GA resolution effectively brought down the South African government. Today, thanks in part to Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, Israel has since 2016 changed its view about the UN. Previously, Israel was content with having bilateral relations with as many countries as possible and would overlook the UN votes of those same countries who would wink and nod about their UN votes, For the first time, in July of 2017 at a summit with African leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu listed as one of Israel’s priorities in international affairs the changing of anti-Israel votes in the UN when he discussed how Israel could help other countries with agriculture, energy, water conservation and technology. AJIRI works very closely with Israel’s embassy in Washington.

As for American Jews, we have discovered that many feel that the UN is a lost cause. We don’t agree. We recognize the enormous damage that the UN can do to Israel, but we deny that it is hopeless and have seen a change for which we take a small modicum of credit. It is our mission, in addition to help change UN votes, to alert the Jewish community about both the dangers and opportunities.

Thank you and I welcome questions.