Category Archives: Divrei 5774


Parshat R’eih: Open Hearts & Hands

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, August 23, 2014: 27 Av 5774

Earlier this summer, the New York Times opinion section included an interesting social science piece whose title caught my attention: “Powerful and Coldhearted.” There’s something about the imagery of our human hearts being closed or open, soft or hard, that really moves me. By now, we know scientifically that emotions involve virtually our entire bodies, not simply our hearts. Still, the placement of our hearts at the center of our bodies, so close to that other vital zone of our spiritualized humanity, the lungs — from which our breath, our nishama, emanates — helps explain the power of this headline.

The article itself summarizes neuroscience research on empathy — how and when we feel the pain of others. Studies strongly suggest that people who are in high positions of power, or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful, are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive, or emotional perspective of others — compared to participants who are powerless, or made to feel so. Some psychologists explain that powerful people don’t attend well to those around them because they don’t really need them. Newer studies contend that when people experience power, their brains change, making them in effect less empathetic, at least temporarily.

This is not the place to follow those studies in detail. The Times article concludes thus: “The bad news is that the powerful are, by default and at a neurological level, simply not motivated to care. But the good news is that they are, in theory, redeemable.”

What is the purpose of Religion and Ethics if not to redeem us from our default, biologically-based positions? That is, to help us function — and relate to one another — at something beyond the neurological level; to give us genuine choices.

So it is at the outset of Parshat-R’eih in one of my favorite biblical openings: R’eh anochi noten lifnaychem hayom bracha oo’klalah: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.” The rhetorical power of this verse grabs us, focusing our eyes and our attention on a sharp dichotomy. The next verses present a seemingly clear choice: follow Adonai’s commandments toward blessing or turn away from that path to be cursed.

The commandments dealt with in Parshat-R’eih relate to proper versus idolatrous worship, the diet required for holiness, the festival cycle, and measures to protect the poor. It is the last of these topics that I’d like to talk about with you this morning.

It turns out that in its plain language — its pshat — the Torah’s view of poverty here is not so clear. Chapter 15 provides guidelines for the Shmitah 7th year remission or release of debts, which aims to prevent a permanent underclass within the community of Israelites. Etz Hayim explains that “such a condition would be unfair to human beings, fashioned in God’s image, and dangerous to society as a breeding ground for lawlessness and irresponsibility.” Thus, explains Chapter 15: “Every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord.”

Yet when the Torah pauses to reiterate Shmitah’s basis as a mitzvah, it seems to equivocate, even contradict itself. Verse 4 proclaims: efes lo yeheyeh b’cha evyon: “There shall be no needy among you.” (Etz Hayim does not translate the initial efes ki, but other translations offer “Save that” or “Nonetheless,” thus qualifying the proceeding statement.) Three verses later, verse 7 begins ki yehyeh v’cha evyon: translated by Etz Hayim as “If, however, there is a needy person among you” but by others more strongly as “When there will be an indigent one among you.” Through various modes of punctuation, sentence structure, and interpretation, translators and commentators have endeavored to reconcile these statements and provide guidance.

For Ibn Ezra, poverty will endure because Israel will simply not listen to God’s commandments. Rashi is more optimistic: “When you do the will of the Omnipresent [Ha-makom] the needy will be among the other peoples and not among you; but if you do not do the will of the Omnipresent, the needy will be among you.” Richard Elliott Friedman takes verse 11’s ki lo yech-dahl evyon mikerev ha-aretz to mean “There won’t stop being indigent in the land” — and explains that poverty will not just come to a stop on its own one day, without any action by human beings; the poor will not just disappear. This being the case, he envisions God’s commanding us thus: “open your hand to your brother, the poor, your indigent in your land. There will be no poverty only if people act to end it.” Or as Etz Hayim casts this: “Therefore you must build the solution to poverty into the social structure, and not rely on people’s generosity.”

Needless to say, this is a topic that remains relevant. Remission of debts was revamped by Hillel during the late 2nd Temple-period using the prosbul to protect those who needed loans. Over the centuries and into our time, Jewish institutions small and large have been addressing the need for food, clothing, and shelter within our community and beyond it. We in Los Angeles have Jewish Free Loan, Sova, Path, and many more fine organizations. But the problem of poverty continues, and even grows. What further can we draw from this parsha as we largely-privileged Jews try to live in a way that merits blessing, rather than curse?

Beyond the parsha’s opening, for me its most important statement comes in the second half of chapter 15, verse 7: ki tametz et k’vavcha v’lo tikpotz et yadcha may-achecha haevyon:“Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” (Tich-potz, translated here as “harden ” is not the same Hebrew word used for God’s hardening Pharoah’s heart in Egypt, but that doesn’t matter to the point here.) The shoresh koof-pay-tzadi conveys drawing or tying together, shutting, contracting, withdrawing. Just saying this list of synonyms makes me feel constricted — up-tight if you will! The desired alternative is patoach tif-tach et yadecha: “rather you must open your hand.” This coupling of heart and hand brings to mind Yehudah Amichai’s titles “Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers”: gam ha-egrof haya pa-am yad patuach v’etzbaot and “Open Closed Open”: patuach sagoor patuach.” Ashrai and Birkat ha-Mazon speak of Adonai as poteach et yadecha, ooh masbeah l’chol chai ratzon — and some of us open wide our hands when chanting this line, appealing to God’s generosity and also imitating it.

Both in our personal and our communal lives, it is difficult to refrain from continually making a fist, and even harder not to harden our hearts. Like neurological research subjects, we find that our empathy often declines as our power increases. Samson Raphael Hirsch notices that the Torah uses the singular in lo t’ametz et l’vavcha: “You shall not make your heart unfeeling” and also in ki y’heyeh v’cha evyon: “If there will be among you a needy person.” And yet, he explains, “The Law in this instance has in mind the community and the individual alike; the obligation to care for the poor is incumbent equally upon the community as a whole and on each one of its members separately . . . . Both must work side by side, if the goal set by the Law is to be attained.”

One of the things I love about Judaism is its combination of idealism and realism — its facing human nature head-on, without sentimentality, even while continually challenging human beings to do better. Rashi glosses lo t’amaytz et l’vavcha v’lo tikpotz et yadcha: “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand” realistically but also with an eye to the ideal: “There are people who painfully deliberate whether or not they should give or not; therefore Scripture states ‘you shall not make your heart obstinate’. Then again, there are people who stretch their hand forth, showing a readiness to give — but then close it; therefore it is written ‘you shall not close your hand.’ Furthermore, the Torah teaches ki fa-toach tiftach: ‘You shall surely open your hand — even many times.’”

And yet, it is hard, very hard, to keep our hearts and hands open when facing even the poor of our immediate community — let alone the poor of our city, nation and world. It is difficult to keep our personal and family and professional and congregational lives in balance while also addresses the issue of poverty, along with so much other suffering here and elsewhere. I myself face a continual challenge, and that’s the main reason I’m volunteered to give this dvar Torah.

Fortunately for the Library Minyan and Temple Beth Am, Dianne Shershow quietly but insistently, always with a smile, reminds us that there is work to be done, and every little contribution — through giving money, material goods, or personal service — matters. Elliott Dorff continues to be our teacher in terms of contemporary Jewish ethics and morality, Aryeh Cohen has summoned the sources of Rabbinic Judaism in making a coherent argument for Justice in the City, and Miriyam Glazer is directing the talent and energy that made her a successful academic on behalf of American Jewish World Service. We are part of a Southern California Jewish community in which congregations and minyanim come together to distribute mishloah manot on Purim and provide pesachdik food on Passover. Furthermore, during the past year, teachers in the Social Justice Drashot Series provided larger perspectives.


VeEtchanan 5744/2014

by Meyer Shwarzstein

From Wikipedia I learned that the Shema is one of the sentences that is quoted in the New Testament.  I also learned that Justin Beiber says the Shema before each public performance with his manager Scooter Braun, who is Jewish.  So, clearly, it’s an important prayer.

The Shema teaches us the importance of listening.  I looked up quotes about listening.  Ernest Hemingway said, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” The Sefer Yetzirah suggests that indeed Love is Listening.My favorite is from John Wayne. “You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”

The tradition of closing our eyes comes from a commentary on the Gemara[1] regarding Rab Yehuda HaNasi.  His students would notice him pass his hand over his eyes when he said the first verse of the Shema.  It is said it was to help him concentrate.

When else do we close our eyes? When we cry and when we kiss. When we sing, when we sleep, when we pray and when we dream. When we sneeze and when we die.

We open our eyes and say, and you shall love your HaShem your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all me’odechah. (Me’odechah is often translated as might, but it can more broadly refer to that which we have in physical realm.)

All of your heart – might this include crying or kissing? All your soul – might this include transcendent activities like singing, praying, and dreaming? All your me’odechah – might this include sneezing and sleeping? Dying encompasses them all.

The Mishnah[2] points out that if it meant “with all your heart,” it should read B’chol Leebcha. The extra letter “bet” suggests a second heart or 2 innate inclinations – good and bad: the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer HaRah.  Is it by overcoming the Yetzer HaRah that we serve God? The Rambam suggests that the Yetzer HaRah isn’t “bad” as much as it’s worldly – the desire for food, drink, and other physical gratification can be realized in a manner that serves God.

One of the most beautiful commentaries in the Mishnah has to do with the word me’odechah. It suggests that it means – “B’chol Midah” – with whatever measure God metes out to you, “havi modeh lo” – you are to thank him. Midah b’midah – measure for measure.  You can only give from that which you have, but you are also obligated to give from what you have.

Those are all well and good, but there’s a curious question raised by the Shema. How can we be commanded to love anyone, let alone God?

I would suggest that even in moments when we’re unable to find a way to love God, this prayer has supreme merit as it defines our priorities.  First comes levovechah. For our loved ones, we’d sacrifice anything – even Nafshecha – our spirit or life. You may have heard the story this week of Lt. Eitan.  When he heard that Hamas kidnapped Hadar Goldin, Eitan defied orders and chased the captors thru a Gaza tunnel. Some people, things, values are worth risking our lives for. What comes last? Me’odechah.

All three are necessary ingredients for full life.  Without love, without self-respect and without the willingness and effort required to clothe and feed ourselves, we would be purposeless and homeless.

When we introduce God into the equation – or at least something greater than ourselves – we can look at the world with humility. Then, we are better positioned to help those who may be purposeless or homeless.

There’s a rabbi who said that the Shema is such an integral part of our service that all of the prayers which are said before the Shema in our service are pointed towards it.

“It’s the Yichud, the unification, a moment we’ve been building up to…Who’s saying these words?  Moses our teacher.  Listen Israel – you individual member, here and now, of an ancient God-wrestling people: Yah Eloheinu – the god you think of as your God; and all the gods that all the peoples of the earth imagine, each with their own imagery and language, as their gods – all those “our Gods” (eloheinu) are ONE. Unique. All-there-is.  In the heart of that yichud, that unification, we are all one.  I am not I, and you are not you.”[3]

Those are the words of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who passed away last month.[4]  Reb Zalman was raised a Hasid and found a way to fuse the essential Jewish thoughts with universal ideas.  He influenced many people including an Angeleno named David Zeller.


Parshat Naso

By Diane Roosth, May 31, 2014

The notion of brachot as gratitude for material, spiritual, and personal blessings is central to the priestly blessing and, I believe, also to blessing our children. The language of Thank you HaShem stands out as profound in this parsha, and coincidentally at this time, when we celebrate our seniors, as they graduate, and go off to college and on other journeys.

Parsha Naso is the 35th weekly Torah portion and the second parsha in the book of Numbers. Naso means to lift up, and is understood to take census and count an object. This story includes visual, tactile, and sensory images that might tickle a funny bone or two. Can you imagine the chaos involved in recruiting men for service or in separating those who have had contact with dead matter and those who have not? Can you imagine the life of the nazirite on a bad hair day with no opportunity to get a cut, especially during the Omer? Can you envision Moses having auditory hallucinations and those around him pondering what he might be smoking? Sounds like an episode worthy of the Twilight Zone or Saturday Night Live.

The themes in this parsha are many: taking another census (different from last week Bamidbar); removing anyone from camp defiled by a corpse or with an eruption or discharge; the ritual of a sotah if a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful; the vows of a nazirite to abstain from fruit of the vine, alcohol, and haircuts; Moses finishing the Tabernacle; the chieftains bringing offerings; Moses hearing the voice of G’d; and last but not least, the Priestly blessing.

What is the connection between the priestly blessing and the custom of blessing our children? Why do we use a version of the Birkat Kohanim to bless our children? I want to thank our congregational Rabbis, especially Rabbi Hoffman for internet sources, and other Rabbis in our community, in particular Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, for assisting me in identifying source texts. I also want to acknowledge that I used multiple internet sources. I will begin with an overview of blessing in general, a brief discussion of Birkat Kohanim, and then move to discuss sources regarding the blessing of children.

How do we understand the word Bracha? The Hebrew word berech, or knee, is close to bracha, blessing. Bowing is often connected to blessings, as a sign of respect, humility, and in the hope we will be “blessed” and find “favor” with our King, Hashem. The function of a blessing is in part to express thankfulness to Adonai and acknowledge G-d as the source of all blessing.

In its original form, the Kohanim are instructed to bless the people. The Birkat Kohanim poem is stylized on three lines, and contains six distinct blessings.

May Hashem bless you, and protect you;

May Hashem shine upon you, and be gracious unto you;

May HaShem’s face be lifted toward you, and bring you peace.

How might we understand these six blessings, in particular when our understanding is that G-d has no face? Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests that this blessing reflects the spiritual challenge each of us faces in our lives as one that can be transformed into a personal journey of finding healing and truth.

Jewish scholars through the ages studied and interpreted the Birkat Kohanim. In the 19th century commentary Ha’amek Davar, the phrase “May Adonai bless you” is interpreted as indicating a blessing appropriate to each person. For the student of Torah, the blessing might be success in his or her studies. For the business person, the blessing might be success in business.

Nehama Leibowitz, a 20th century Torah scholar, explained that the three sections of this blessing illustrate an ascending order. The lowest level is the blessing for an individual’s material needs. The next “rung” deals with spiritual wants. This is followed by a blessing combining both these factors and, finally and ultimately, there is a blessing for peace. Leibowitz based her comment that peace was the most important blessing on the Sifra, a midrashic collection on the book of Leviticus, which states: “Perhaps you will say” (commenting on the blessing in Leviticus 26:3-6: “And you shall eat your bread to the full, and I will give peace in the land”) “food and drink are important but are trumped by peace”. Leibowitz concludes, that since peace outweighs all else, the Torah states “and I will give peace in the land”. For a moment, think about what ways can we as individuals contribute to the blessing of peace in our family, in our school, in our community?

Why do we use or adapt the Birkat Kohanim for blessing children? Rashi, in Parshat Vayechi, in his discussion of Jacob’s blessing of Efraim and Menasheh, notes “one who comes to bless his children will use their blessing, and he will say, Let G’d make you like Efraim and Menasheh”. Rashi does not explicitly state that there is an obligation to bless the children. In spite of this, the blessing of the children was and continues to be a widespread practice in both Askenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities, with different customs and different understandings of these customs.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller told me that while it seems that this idea of blessing children is very old, the first mention of it is not until at the earliest the 17thcentury. The discussion is found in a book of mystical dissertations called Maavar Yabok, written by Rabbi Aharon Berachia of Modina, (died 1639) an Italian 17th Century Kabbalist, also known as Aharon Berechia, son of Moshe of Modina. We do not know where the custom of blessing the children originated. We do know that Rabbi Aharon was the first one to explicitly bring the custom of blessing children and talk about the symbolism of offering the blessing. This may have been a practice in the 16th maybe 17th century. It may have had Kaballastic significance, including the fact on Shabbat there is no reign to the evil side and it is a time when blessing flows. On Shabbat, there is a sense one can draw forth blessing from one’s self to one’s children, because the nature of the Shabbat Blessing is this overflow of blessing unto children, that the child will go on to dedicate themselves spiritually and religiously and intellectually in the proper way.

Rabbi Chaim says that according to Rabbi Aharon of Medina that another dimension to the symbolism is that parents put their hands on their children’s heads as the children receive their parents’ blessing. The hands have 15 joints and the Yivarechecha has 15 words. Some sources say you invoke just the priestly blessing, and there is also indication you offer your own blessing as well so there is an opportunity to add your own blessing

Rabbi Ally Ehrman is a former Rebbe at Yeshivat HaKotel and Netiv Aryeh and in Jerusalem, writes and has an online Yeshiva. Rabbi Ehrman quotes Rabbi Yaacovson in his book “Nativ Binah”, who, like Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, identifies the earliest mention of the custom of blessing children in the book “Maavar Yabok”, written by Rabbi Aharon Bercia of Modina, who died in 1639. Rabbi Bercia wrote: “One should place his hand on the head of a child who is being blessed, especially on Friday night. Based on the secret of the Shabbat the Queen and the extra soul that we have on Shabbat, the blessings will take effect on the one who is blessing and the one who receives it, because Satan and evil do not have any influence on Shabbat…There is a holy need to bless the children on Shabbat”.

Rabbi Ehrman cites another explanation by The GRITZ (Rabbi Yitzchak Zeev Soloveitchik), who wrote: “All the tribes were raised and educated by Yaacov in the Land of Canaan, and they were therefore privileged to be Divine tribes. But Menasheh and Efraim did not have this privilege, and …grew up in Egypt, a place of impurity, idol worship…In spite of this; they had the merit of achieving the status of the tribes. And this is the blessing that is passed on to every person in Israel – not to be influenced by the surroundings, no matter what they are, just like Efraim and Menasheh in the Land of Egypt”.

Shabbat HaGadol

Shabbat HaGadol

By Joel Grossman, April 12, 2014

Whenever I think of Shabbat hagadol I remember a special bar mitzvah that my family attended in Miami Beach about 15 years ago. This bar mitzvah took place on Shabbat hagadol, just a few days before Pesach. Now think for a moment about that—preparing for Pesach isn’t all that much work, so why not have a huge simcha right before Pesach starts? Anyway, this bar mitzvah of a boy named Dovid (not David or Daveed, but Dovid) whose family is very close to mine was at a very Orthodox shul. Shortly after Dovid read Torah, davened, and presented his dvar Torah, the rabbi of the shul spoke to him. Dovid, he said, this is such a special day. Today is Shabbat hagadol (the rabbi actually used the correct pronunciation—SHA-bbes ha GA-dol) and it’s so appropriate for this day of your bar mitzvah. Up until today you were a katan, a child, but today, you are becoming a gadol on shabbes hagadol.

What is most memorable to me about this weekend was how many other rabbis—that is rabonim—said exactly the same thing! One after another, during the service, at the Kiddush, at the reception, rabbi after rabbi said to the bar mitzvah boy that it was so fitting that the bar mitzvah was on shabbes hagadol because today Dovid was a gadol. I am quite sure that each of them had thought of this witty idea independently, and couldn’t wait to say this chochma, and didn’t let it trouble them that others had said it first!

So, aside from Dovid’s bar mitzvah, why is this Shabbat called Shabbat hagadol? Several reasons are given. First, in the haftora for Shabbat hagadol we find the pasuk from Malachi 3:23—hiney anochi sholeach lachem et Eliyahu Hanavi lifnei bo yom hagadol v’hanorah—for I will send Eliyahu the prophet to you before the great and awesome day. This use of the word gadol in the haftorah gives the Shabbat its name, similar to Shabbat Nachamu which takes it name from the haftorah.

Another interpretation: there was a custom that the rabbi of the community would give a thorough review of all of the laws of Pesach on the Shabbat before Pesach, and this very long dvar torah gadol gave rise to the nickname Shabbat hagadol. Let me assure you, that is not my minhag.

The midrash also tells a story about the Shabbat before the first Pesach. According to tradition, the exodus from Egypt—the first day of Pesach—was a Thursday, the 15th of Nissan. Working backwards, the prior Shabbat was the 10th of Nissan. Before going into the midrash, let’s take a very quick look at Shmot chapter 12 verse 3 (chumash p. 380) where God commanded the Jews as follows: on the 10th of Nissan each family was to take a lamb, and watch over the lamb until the 14th, in the late afternoon. As we all know, once the lamb was slaughtered the people were commanded to take some of the blood of the lamb and put it on their doorposts, so that later on that night, when God passed through the land of Egypt and killed every firstborn, He would know to pass over the houses where there was lamb’s blood on the doorposts.

The midrash says that when the people followed this command and starting taking lambs on the 10th of Nissan, the Egyptians started asking them exactly what the heck they were doing. The Jews answered that in a few more days they would slaughter the lambs, put a little blood on their doorposts, and then God would go across the land of Egypt and kill all of the firstborn of Egypt but pass over the Jews’ houses. Naturally this upset the Egyptians very much, especially the firstborn, and they went to Paroh and told him to let the Jews go immediately. Paroh, of course, refused, and there was a battle between the Egyptians’ firstborn and Paroh’s soldiers. Many of Paroh’s soldiers were killed, making it easier for the Jews to escape a few days later. The midrash has a proof-text from Psalm 136 verse 10, a psalm which we recite each Shabbat and holiday morning during psukei d’zimrah. It is the psalm where each verse has a short phrase praising God followed by the refrain ki l’olam chasdo, his lovingkindness if forever. You can find it in the siddur on page ___. Verse 10 says: l’makeh mitzraim b’vchoraihem, who struck Egypt through their firstborn. Now the verse could have said “l’makeh bchorei mitzraim,” to the God who struck all of Egypt’s firstborn, but instead it has a much more nuanced grammar—he struck Egypt with, or through their firstborn. In other words, the Midrash tells us, not only did God strike Egypt’s firstborn, God was able to get Egypt’s firstborn to strike the Egyptians, thereby making it easier for the people to fight off the remainder of the Egyptian army. And since all of this happened on the day that the Egyptians saw the Jews taking lambs into their homes — the 10th of Nissan, which was the Shabbat before Pesach– we commemorate this very fortuitous event by forever calling the Shabbat before Pesach Shabbat hagadol.

Let me offer two other thoughts on Shabbat hagadol. The first was inspired by my reading a wonderful book called Start-up Nation. As you may know, this book is about Israel’s high-tech industry and the phenomenal success of so many of its start-up companies. It is a very wonderful read, and I recommend it highly. Now as I read the book I learned a new Hebrew expression: rosh gadol. The authors use this term to describe some of the out-of-the-box visionary thinking of the high tech enterpreneurs. As the authors explain, there is a huge difference between someone with a rosh gadol—a big head, and someone with rosh katan—a small head. Now in English slang the term “fathead” is pretty derogatory, but the Hebrew idiom rosh gadol refers to someone who is able to see the big picture, who can see beyond the immediate field of vision of what is to what could be. Only someone with a rosh gadol—a visionary, you might say—could dream up some of the brilliant products which have made the Israeli high tech industry so incredibly successful.

As I was thinking about the meaning of Shabbat hagadol, I thought about what it means to have a rosh gadol, to see the big picture. And if you think that the current Israeli high tech geniuses who have created so many amazing inventions have a rosh gadol, how about the Jewish people who took lambs into their homes on the Shabbat before the first Pesach? Here were people who knew nothing but slavery, and submitting to their Egyptian masters. They knew that the Egyptians worshipped these very lambs whom God was asking them to slaughter. The one thing these people needed was a rosh gadol—an ability to see beyond their immediate surroundings, to envision a world where they were not slaves, and were free of the Egyptians. By taking this revolutionary step of taking a lamb into their homes in defiance of their masters they began to create something brand new—a new people free of slavery and free to worship God. This first Shabbat hagadol was the day of the amazing, gigantic leap of faith which only could be done by a people with a rosh gadol, a visionary mind. Now that’s what I call a start-up nation!

I have one last thought to share on the possible meaning of the term Shabbat hagadol. Up to now all of the interpretations have been about why this is the Great Shabbat. But there is perhaps another way to look at it. Instead of saying that Shabbat hagadol means that this Shabbat before Pesach is a great Shabbat, we might say that the words mean that of two different days, Shabbat is the gadol, the greater of the two. What is the other day? Pesach. So the term Shabbat hagadol might mean that as between Shabbat and Pesach, Shabbat hagadol, Shabbat is the greater one. This has both spiritual and practical meaning. First, it is easy to get caught up in the preparation for Pesach, turning your house upside down, shopping, changing the dishes, inviting guests or being invited to a seder. We can be so immersed in Pesach preparation that we might forget about Shabbat, not give it the attention it deserves each week. After all, remembering and observing the Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, and cleaning your house for Pesach is not.

On a practical level, we also must remember that Shabbat takes precedence over preparation for Pesach, even on those very difficult years when the first Seder is on Saturday night. No last minute shopping, cooking or cleaning on the Shabbat before Pesach. It is still Shabbat. Pesach is very important but as between the two of them, Shabbat hagadol, Shabbat is the greater.

Shabbat shalom, chag kasher v’sameach.


Parsha Metzorah

Barry Oppenheim, April 5, 2014

Hazing. Most of us are familiar with the concept of ‘hazing’. For those not – hazing is defined as the imposition of strenuous, often humiliating tasks as part of a program of rigorous physical training and initiation. Examples of hazing are seen around us daily – and can be as subtle as a new office hire who is required to bring donuts for his or her coworkers every Friday, all the way to the extremes of rookie football players, who have to stand-up in front of their new teammates, and sing their college fight song. Of course, there are even more extreme examples of hazing, such as what’s done to college students for initiation into fraternities. I’m not sure I’ll ever get my son Alex to tell me exactly what he had to do to join his college fraternity…..and I suspect that’s probably a good thing. A very good thing…..

When I inquired with the Library Minyan authorities about giving a drash (you know who you are), I sort of expected some hazing, after all, I was gone for 6+ years. In my mind, this hazing, in it’s basic form, is ‘You want back into this Minyan – you’ll have to earn it — the hard way’. But – and it’s a BIG but! – there’s hazing, and then there’s this week’s Parsha, Metzorah. I wonder if the hazing my son Alex went thru was any more painful than having to give a drash for this parsha. I suspect it might be close…

I recall the person who recently gave the drash for Vayikrah commenting on just how difficult THAT parsha was to discuss. Well – anytime anyone wants to compare their parsha to Metzorah, bring it on. Metzorah would have to rank in the top 3 ‘challenging’ parshas to give a drash.

And so — Let the hazing begin….

There are 54 parsheot in the Torah – Metzorah is one of the shortest, with 2 perakim, chapters, consisting of a total of 90 pesukim, sentences. It is most often read with Tazriah, but as we are currently in a leap year, we read each parsha individually.

Metzorah deals with diseases & various natural bodily functions, and how a person goes about purifying him or herself. It begins with details about the various sacrifices a leper must make before rejoining the community, and ends with rules regarding a man or woman’s bodily discharges. You can thank me later– since we’re relatively close to having Kiddush, that I’ll refrain from any discussions about bodily discharges. However, in the middle of the parsha, the Torah discusses the appearance of tzaraat – a plague, some sort of mold or rot – in a person’s home. When you read the pesukim, it’s rather difficult to take the text at face value: A homeowner notices that his / her house has a ‘plague’. The person notifies the Kohan, who does an inspection. Should the Kohan find a specific type of plague, one that goes ‘deep into the wall’, he then clears the house for 7 days (I sort of envision a biblical version of yellow police tape used to keep people out) before returning on Day 7. On Day 7, should the plague still be in evidence, the Kohan will require that the affected stones and walls be removed, and brought outside the city to an ‘impure place’. The local house contractor – Bob Vila came to my mind – is then called to scrape out any remaining ‘plague-infested’ material, and replace the impure stones with new stones. Should the plague return after this work, the Kohan will order the house torn down.

There are a couple of interesting points that caught my attention here:

  1. Since during the initial inspection the Kohan does nothing to remedy the plague, why would anyone believe that the ‘plague’ would not spread further over the next 7 days?
  2. To that point, the Torah mentions nothing that the homeowner can, or should do, to assist in the remedy of the plague.

Commentators have multiple opinions on this subject.

The Chafetz Chaim& Rambam suggest that Jews who had to dismantle their homes – homes that had previously been occupied by the Emorites – often found treasures buried deep within the walls. But this leads one to question the ‘gain’ of such a find versus the sin (gossip & slander) that brought about the plague of tzaraat in the first place. It seems incongruent to reward a person – a person who has sinned – with such treasure. One of the early pieces of Gemara that I learned – I believe it was 5th grade – stated that a stolen lulav can not be used to perform the Mitzvah of lulav & etrog – lulav hagazol, vhayavesh pasol. That concept – that a person who sins is not rewarded when performing a mitzvah with the result of that sin (Mitzvah habaa b’avera) – leads me to have difficulty with the idea here that a person who sinned via gossip or slander is rewarded with buried treasures. The Chafetz Chaim attempts to resolve this incongruence by stating that these Jews were indeed guilty of this sin – but were otherwise deserving of finding these treasures.

Many other commentators believe that the Torah should not be taken literally regarding an actual plague affecting a house. Rather, the Torah is referring to a moral plague of a person or persons within the house. And so – if the moral plague, caused by gossip & slander – is indeed remedied during the 7 day period, the Kohan will then pronounce the house ‘healed’. If during this 7 day period, however, this moral plague has spread, then significant additional work is required to remedy the problem. The Torah states that the affected walls be pulled out and replaced – which we can view as the internal work a person would have to do to reexamine and repair their own internal foundation. The lesson here for us is that we must all be vigilant in keeping our own homes – our own lives – free of this tzarrat, by regularly examining our own foundations.

Forty years ago – almost to the date (it was April 10, 1974) – I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah by reading this Parsha on a Monday, at the Moriah School, located in Englewood, NJ. Over the years – and rather circuitous route I took to be here – back here – in Los Angeles in 2014 – I have to admit to have picked up some ‘tzarrat’ along the way. I have participated in gossip, I have slandered people. I imagine others here today, over the past many years, have also had their challenges with this. It’s interesting – the Rabbis knew how much of a challenge this sin is – as we conclude the Amidah 3+ times per day with ‘Elohai Nitzor’, ‘My G-d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully’. We say this over 1000 times per year, and yet for most all of us, it’s still a struggle to refrain from gossip.

But as we experience the rebirth of Spring, the timing is perfect for change, perfect for our own growth.

Pesach is right around the corner. Many of us have already started preparations for the Holiday. In less than 10 days we will perform bedikas chametz in our homes, and in our apartments. This year, let’s expand our definition of Kol Chamira. Rather than just consider the bracha about chametz you can or can’t see, think about the internal chametz we have, the tzaraat, and strive to also remove it from our homes, and to eliminate it from our lives. When we burn our Chametz a week from Monday, let’s also burn this ‘tzaarat’ we possess. The time is right….the time is now.

Shabbat Shalom – it’s an honor to be back with you.


Parashat Vayakhel

Tom Fields-Meyer, February 22, 2014

I used to work in an office building where there was a security guard posted in the lobby, a man I’ll call Tony. It was what I’d call a medium-security office building, and you couldn’t get into the elevator in the lobby without having Tony wave his keycard to open the elevator door. So every morning on my way in, I’d see him and say, “Hi, how are you doing?” And he always responded the same way. If it was a Thursday, he’d say “Only one more day til the weekend!” Or if it was Wednesday, he’d say, “Hump day! Only two more days!” Sometimes I’d arrive first thing Monday and there was Tony with the same resigned grin: “Only four more days til Friday!”

I worked on the 18th floor, and I began spending my elevator rides speculating in my mind about two questions: First, what exactly was Tony doing all weekend? And second, how could I get myself invited?

Of course, it’s not just Tony. There’s a little of that in all of us. Maybe you’re in a meeting at work on Wednesday morning and you find yourself thinking: “I just can’t wait for Shabbat.”  Or maybe you have that moment Thursday afternoon:  You’re in traffic, cursing yourself for taking the 405 instead of the canyons, and you’re thinking, “I’m so ready for Shabbes.”

Parashat Vayakel offers some helpful perspective on those feelings. Almost all of the parasha is focused on the mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert. Moshe is passing along to the Israelites God’s detailed instructions for constructing the tabernacle. But before that there’s a brief passage that raises a lot of questions.

Moses says “Eleh had’varim asher tziva Adonai la’asot otam.” “These are the things that God has commanded you to do.” So the Israelites are poised and ready, and here’s the first thing on the list Moshe says they have to do: Nothing. Don’t do anything. On the seventh day, have a Shabbat of complete rest.

Let’s say you’re hiring a handyman to do some work in your house.  You put together a list: fix the light switch in the kitchen. Repair the leaky faucet. Take a look at that closet door in the bedroom. Oh, wait, I forgot the most important thing: Take a day off.

So this passage raises lots of questions for the m’forshim, the commentators. What’s this doing here? Why start this parasha by reminding the Israelites about Shabbat? After all, the Torah has already mentioned the commandment of Shabbat several times. It was one of the Ten Commandments. So why does the Torah need to mention it again here, right before the list of instructions for the tabernacle?

Rashi has an answer: This is here to let us know that Shabbat supersedes the work on the mishkan. And Abarbanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator, elaborated on that. He says, if this weren’t here, you would have thought that doing is more important than not doing. That “perfection lies in action – and doing something is more perfect than not doing anything.”

So this passage is here to let us know that resting on Shabbat is more important than building the tabernacle.

But what it doesn’t tell us is why? Why does Shabbat supersede the work on the mishkan?

The Torah doesn’t say.

But we can get some clues by looking at the laws developed much later relating to Shabbat — and those also have their basis in this very passage. When the text says what we are not to do work on Shabbat our parsha uses the term melacha, labor.  It does not say exactly what melacha is. But since this comes immediately before the instructions for the mishkan, the tabernacle, the rabbis derive from that that what is forbidden on Shabbat are any of the labors associated with building the mishkan. So from this parsha, we derive the 39 melachot, the 39 forms of labor: plowing, grinding, weaving, cutting, lighting a fire, and so on.

But, again, why? Why these things?

Dr. David Kraemer, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, points out that the Mishna lists all of these activities without offering a rule or a guiding principle to explain what is prohibited and what is not. The list of 39 melachot (39 kinds of labor) is its own form of commentary, and he suggests that it’s up to us to make meaning of this list. It’s up to us to interpret what it means. And, more important, what it has to do with our lives.

If you look at the list and ask what kinds of things are included, you can see a pattern. The list breaks down into three categories: This is a list of things you need to do to prepare food, to make clothing, and to build shelter. Essentially, these actions are the most basic requirements for maintaining human life: food, clothing and shelter.


Tetzaveh – What is Holiness?

by Salvador Litvak – Feb. 8, 2014 – 8 Adar I, 5774

Good Shabbos!

Eight weeks ago, Moses entered the Torah narrative when we read the first parshah (weekly Torah portion) of the book of Exodus. From that point on, his name appears in every parshah until the end of the Torah, with one exception: this week’s parshah, Tetzaveh.

Surprisingly, this parshah always falls out during the week of Moses’ birth and death. Traditionally, this coincidence is employed to teach that Judaism is not a cult of personality. We do not worship Moses, nor do we need him to intermediate between G-d and us.

That’s important to remember because what’s presently happening in the Torah narrative is that Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah, while down below, we, the children of Israel, are getting very nervous. We’re afraid that Moses will not return, and that the overwhelming Holiness we experienced just a few weeks ago during the Revelation will be our only channel to G-d in the future.

Recall that we said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” (Ex. 20:16)

That fear of being overwhelmed by G-d’s holiness is so strong that when Moses is just a few hours late coming down from Mt. Sinai in next week’s parshah, we panic and create a golden calf. We don’t create the calf to worship it; we create it to replace Moses as an intermediary between us and G-d’s Holiness.

What a tragic mistake that turns out to be.

And that’s why this week’s parshah is all about the proper way to approach holiness. The Hebrew root for holiness is spelled kuf-dalet-shin, and it appears 31 times in our parshah. Kodesh, kadosh, kedoshim, nekadesh, holy, sanctify, sanctuary – over and over we learn that our priests, our altar, our sacrifices, our tent of meeting, indeed our mission as the Jewish people is to pursue holiness.

When we reach Leviticus 20:26, this commandment will be made explicit: “You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am Holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine.”

Why are we so afraid of holiness? Why do we resent people who are holier-than-thou? How do we obey this commandment to be holy?

In other words, what… is… holiness?

It’s a confusing question because holiness appears so often in Scripture and Rabbinic literature. The kodesh root appears in the Talmud 9,324 times. There are only 2,711 pages in the Talmud, so that’s a whole lot of attention to this idea. The problem is that the word means different things at different times.

In our parshah, we learn that those who are both wise-hearted and filled with a spirit of wisdom are capable of making holy garments. These garments will in turn make the priests who wear them holy (Ex. 28:3).

Now, wouldn’t you think that the priests become holy first, and then they transfer their holiness to the clothes?

A few verses later, we learn that we must also anoint them with holy oil, create a holy altar within a holy sanctuary, offer holy sacrifices upon it, and place a gold band upon the high priest’s head that reads, “Holy to G-d.”



by Meyer Shwarzstein – Feb 1, 2014

In screenwriting class, I learned a term called Suspension of Disbelief. It means that your audience must be willing to ignore enough facts and logic to go along with a story. This Dvar Torah is going to require a lot of Suspension of Disbelief – I hope you’ll come with me on the ride.

I don’t think the desert is a very threatening place. I’ve been to Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Beersheba. They’re certainly not uninhabitable wildernesses. In fact, almost no place on Earth may provide that sense of wonder and foreboding, as the ancient Sinai desert did.

There’s a commentary that says the plagues in Egypt were not only for the benefit of the Egyptians. They were also used by God to convince the Israelites to leave their lives behind. If the Exodus were happening today, we’d have no trouble packing our cars and driving into the Sinai away from slavery.

What if we were told to enter a trip to outer space, and we weren’t coming back? Then, it may take 9 or 10 plagues to get us loaded on board the spaceship.

So, here it is, Exodus in Space.

Imagine that it is the year 2150 and the entire planet Earth is now ruled by an authoritarian government based in Egypt. Yes, I know it’s hard to imagine an authoritarian government in Egypt, but go with me here.

God frees a group of people on Egypt-controller Earth, the Israelites, from slavery. The Israelites, including the mixed multitude that accompany them, are chased by the Egyptians toward a spaceship that will take the Israelites on a journey to their new home planet. (Planetologists using the Keplar space telescope have already discovered dozens of planets in our galaxy that may be able to sustain life.)

Ok, we’re talking about 600,000 people on a ship living together. Most of them were slaves and they’re going to be traveling together for 40 years. How long can you and your family last on a car trip? Now, let’s add your relatives…and their relatives. And you’re going to be living together for 40 years. Feel like going back to slavery yet? Are we surprised that people complained about the food, the water, or the weather?

The Egyptians chase after the vessel as it spills across the asteroid belt, which opens a space for the vessel to glide thru. As you probably guessed, the space closes and the asteroids smash the Egyptian’s cool-looking transformer-like vessels. They don’t make it through.

Now, near the end of our solar system not far from Pluto is a semi-dwarf planet called Sinai. Why is this the first stop on the journey?

Because the most important thing that this people needed to make this long journey and make it to the promised planet is the Rule of Law. Without a code of civility and order, 600,000 unruly people may not last 2 weeks with each other.

That’s why Sinai is the first stop for these rescued people. Here they accept and are first given 10 laws. The Ramban gives a wonderful commentary on the Ten Commandments. He suggests that these laws are a sample not the most important laws; archetypes for the rest of the Torah’s commandments. He compares this sampling to the ones used by rabbis when they meet with converts. Rabbis give converts a sampling of the commandments, not all of them.

In fact, this is a mass conversion of the Israelites and the mixed multitude. Israel accepts the obligation to do whatever God commands them…and God makes a covenant with them…they thereby become a people to them and He their God. [1] The first commandment is exceedingly important for the journey. As any space traveler will tell you, the passengers and crew need to acknowledge the primacy of the captain. That’s the law of all ships – whether at sea or on the Starship Enterprise. Of course, this captain has his own GPS – God’s Pillars of Smoke.

As the ship is about to leave its position at this first stop at Sinai, the people are ordered to build a Mishkon. That is the subject of this week’s parsha.

Why do they need this building? Some commentators suggest that God didn’t think the Mishkon was necessary until the Golden Calf. People like to have a physical reminder of the existence of God.

Shmini Atzeret

Shmini Atzeret 5774

Jackie, the Jews, and Ethnicity in Post-War America

By Michael Berenbaum

Because Jackie was the first, he played for everyone who had been denied a chance, whose future was closed because of racism and segregation; he was the forerunner of the civil rights movement and the struggles by women and gays for equality that would follow. He would do anything to win.

I was but a toddler when Jackie broke in. My mother was often ill and my father, a decorated World War II veteran, struggled to make up for lost time in the post-war years. In 1945, the year I was born, he was 35 and just beginning his career, working all hours of the day and night – 24/6. So we had an African-American cleaning lady, Minnie—an intelligent, stately woman who in our era would have gone to school and become a professional, but in those days struggled to survive. Minnie loved me and she loved the Dodgers, and the Dodger she most loved was Jackie. My father loved Jackie too, and their admiration for Robinson was race blind, the great equalizer between men, women, and children of all backgrounds.

Robinson was chosen to overcome the weight of centuries. My father and Minnie understood his struggle. Orthodox Jew and underprivileged black, they both saw in his daily battle a mirror of their own life and the hope for future generations. If he made it, they could; if not them, then their children.

Pee Wee Reese was the Dodger Captain. Kentucky bred and almost a decade older than his teammates, he had come up before World War II and was a star before his career was interrupted by wartime duties. Reese was serving in World War II when he heard that the Dodgers were interested in Robinson as a shortstop, the next choice to replace him, and he was burning. The taunts of his fellow soldiers did not diminish his anger. But he decided then and there that if Robinson could beat him in competition for the job, then he deserved it. Combat, the defining experience of the “Greatest Generation,” was also a meritocracy. What you did earned the respect or the scorn of your comrades. So when Reese answered for Robinson,  when he braved the taunts of fans and the displeasure of his southern friends by embracing Robinson as a teammate, America took note.

Roy Campanella, the Dodger catcher, was all heart. In his every move one experienced the joy of the game, the love of baseball. Stocky and compact, Campy could be surprisingly swift on the base path and a stone wall protecting the plate. Campy would kibitz with the batters and the umpires. He was as masterful at banter as at handling pitchers, speaking to them not just with his mouth, but by pounding his fists, gesturing in every direction. Three times the National League’s Most Valuable Player, when Campy played well, the Dodgers would win.

Campanella was formed by his experience in the Negro Leagues. Prior to being signed by the Dodgers, Campy had played baseball year round. He reported to the Negro Leagues each spring; he barnstormed in the fall, and went down to Venezuela to play winter ball. His alternatives were few. With a bat in his hand, he would club his way to a future. Double headers were routine, and teams often played in two different cities during the same day. Negro Leaguers brought their own lights and polls to play nighttime baseball in unlit stadiums. Travel was by bus where players often ate and slept, denied entry into hotels in the segregated South and the inhospitable North. By the time he began his 10 year major league career, Campanella had played professional baseball for twelve long years. And until Robinson was signed, Campanella could not dream of a big league career. He forever remained grateful that he was given his chance just in time.

My father never spoke about his life in combat, never uttered a word about the enemy he faced and with two Bronze stars and a couple of Purple Hearts on his discharge papers, he must have fought the enemy fiercely and directly. But his children and theirs grew up hearing story after story about his pride in being Jewish and his refusal to let an antisemitic comment slide. Like Robinson — or so he taught us — you don’t put up with assaults on your pride or attacks on your people.

But that was not the only message told by father to son in the confusing 1950s.  In my New York Yeshiva on the tony Upper East Side, we were taught that a yarmulke was an indoor garment. Hats were to be worn in the street. Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, its formidable founder, wanted to show that Orthodoxy could be first rate, not only a practice restricted to poor accented Jews. Philip Roth was writing of Eli the Fanatic, the fearsome Jew who practiced his piety in public and embarrassed his assimilating neighbors. When our fathers also told us not to make waves, to celebrate how far we had come, to remember with gratitude the opportunities we had been afforded, we thought of Roy Campanella. Ever thankful, he could not be angry. So I did as I was told by my father; we flew the flag on Memorial Day or July 4th so the non-Jewish neighbors would know that Jews are patriotic, and I had to mow the lawn so that they could see that Jews are proud of manual labor.

First generation Jews, Italians, and Irish and other ethnics understood Campy. The talented sons of pushcart peddlers and small merchants, of factory workers mechanics and machinists, were grateful to get their chance to attend City College, let alone Harvard or Yale. So while my father and Minnie rooted for Jackie; more often than not, they played the racial and ethnic game like Campy. Jackie was respected, Campy was loved.

Our loyalty to the Dodgers was ethnic. We Dodger fans never understood how the Yankees could arouse anyone’s passion. They were the WASPs, the prep school kids, corporate types! When the rich get richer, there is no drama, it offers little inspiration. Rooting for the Yankees in the 1950s was like rooting for General Motors. You respected the pin stripers’ class, elegance and talent, but how could you get passionate about them? They were the men in the gray suits–cold, ruthless, efficient. We understood Bronx Jews who rooted for them, they had to cheer for their neighbors. It was expected that Manhattan Jews from “certain” neighborhoods and the Jews of Westchester and Connecticut would root for their own kind.

But Brooklyn was for those who aspired to greatness and were but one or two games away. The Yankees won five pennants in a row, not once but twice.  Brooklyn was two games away from greatness. Had they won the last games of the 1950 and 1951 season, they too, like the Yankees, would have won five pennants in a row, but they lost the last game of the 1950 season to the Philadelphia Phillies and Bobby Thompson hit. the “shot  heard round the world,” ended the Dodger’s 1951 hopes.

We learned Jewish theology from the Dodgers. Twice a year, at the end of Yom Kippur and the conclusion of the Passover Seder, Jews chant “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Each year – except for that magical year of 1955, pious Dodger rooters called out “wait ‘til next year.”

We learned tribal loyalty from the Dodgers. Brooklyn Jews thought of the Giants as the primitive goyim – not polite gentiles — evil men set for a pogrom. Dodger-rooting Blacks thought of the Giants — even with Willie Mays — as ”white,” ready to dominate, destroy, rape, pillage. Catholics thought of the Giants as Protestants, renegades, rebellious, destructive. The Giants knew no shame. When Walter O’Malley traded Robinson, traded a legend, to the Giants at the end of the 1956 season, Robinson walked away from the game. He retired rather than don the hated uniform – the man would not, could not, convert.

And we learned Jewish history from the Dodgers, who went into exile after the 1957 season. The Dodgers followed the population shift westward and made the National Pastime into a coast-to-coast game. Prior to their departure, the furthest west a baseball had to travel was St. Louis, Chicago,  or Cincinnati. The Dodgers were not the first to abandon their city, the Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee, the St. Louis Browns had gone to Baltimore where they became Orioles, but the Dodgers were different. They had been making money. The team had enjoyed fan support and, above all, the Dodgers were Brooklyn, inexplicably linked to the borough and its citizens.  It was betrayal, abandonment of the faithful.