Category Archives: Divrei 5776

Rabbi Harry Silverstein’s Bar Mitzvah

“My Legacy”

Rabbi Harry Silverstein’s Bar Mitzvah Speech, Sep. 17, 2016

I was born Saturday, August 21, 1926, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

My bar Mitzvah took place Saturday, August 26, 1939, Parshat Ki Tetze, six days before the Nazis invaded Poland.

Today – 77 years later – we celebrate my 90th birthday here at Temple Beth Am, as I just chanted the same Haftorah, Parshat Ki Tetze.

In 1935 we left Canada and came to Los Angeles. That’s when Boyle Heights was the heart of the Los Angeles Jewish community, and my father, Rabbi Osher Zilberstein, z”l, became the rabbi of the Breed Street Shul at a salary of $2,000 per year. I grew up and went to the public schools in Boyle Heights, Sheridan Street Elementary School, Hollenbeck Junior High School, and Roosevelt High School.

I graduated from UCLA and then the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

After being ordained, I served our country as a chaplain 1st Lt. in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Among my assignments, I served at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, MS. This was 12 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Other than on base, there was complete segregation. I did whatever I could to help the African American airmen, who at that time were referred to as Negroes. Their life in Mississippi was not an easy one.

Beginning in 1959, I became the associate to Rabbi Jacob Pressman here at Temple Beth Am. During the 32 years I served as Associate Rabbi and Director of Education of our religious school, I worked most closely with Rabbi Pressman who came to the Temple in

1950, along with Cantor Kelemer who joined our Temple in 1965 and Cantor Schimmel who came to the Temple in 1970. I miss all three of them very much. Wilma Schimmel, Cantor Schimmel’s wife, and Linda Kelemer, Cantor Kelemer’s wife, are here with us today.

I helped provide a Jewish education and Yiddishkeit to thousands of children, one of my proudest achievements. Several of my students became rabbis and cantors, and many became leaders in the Jewish Community.

In 1961, I met and married the love of my life, my wife Kay. We have been married for 55 years. No one could have a more loving, caring and devoted wife.

Our three sons, Alan, David and Robert, with their spouses and some of our grandchildren, are here today. Our oldest granddaughter just started at the University of California Berkeley and is studying there now. Our four younger grandchildren attend Jewish Day Schools. That is a way to go bankrupt, although we contribute to part of the tuition. Our sixth grandchild is due in about two weeks, and he is here, too.

Some Rabbis serve until the day they die. But Kay and I believe in the philosophy that there is a time to hold and a time to fold, and we are enjoying our retirement very much, although things are getting more difficult.

In the Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, it talks about the stages of growth: The 5 year old is of the age for scripture;

The 10 year old is of the age for the Mishna;
The 13 year old for the obligation of the Mitzvot; The 15 year old for the study of the Talmud;
The 18 year old for the wedding canopy;
The man of 20 is the age to pursue livelihood; The man of 30 has reached the age of strength;
The man of 40 the age of understanding; The man of 50 the age of giving counsel;
The man of 60 has reached old age; The man of 70 vulnerable of age;
The man of 80 has reached the old age of strength;
The man of 90 has reached the age of becoming bent over;
The man of 100 as though already dead and gone from the world.

Let me repeat: The age of 80 is of strength and the age of 90 of becoming bent over.

Several months ago Kay and I were in the desert and I started feeling very weak. We went to the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert and I was given a transfusion of 4 pints of blood.

The cardiologist who was treating me was not Jewish, and he didn’t know that I am Jewish or that I am a rabbi. He came in and told Kay: “Your husband was about ready to meet Jesus.” To which Kay responded, without missing a beat: “Oy Vey!”

When Kay told me about this, the words of the Psalmist came to mind:

Lo Amut Ki Echyeh V’Ani Asaper Ma’asay Yah.” “I shall not die but live and recount the works of the Lord.”

The Lord has indeed chastened me. But, he has not given me over unto death. I have had a good and healthy life and when G-d decides it is time for me to join him, I will be ready. But here I am.

I want to share with you a few of my favorite quotes and bits of wisdom:

  1. From Kohelet (Ecclesiastes):
    S’mach bocher b’yaldutecha.” “Rejoice in your youth, young man.” Or really, it can be understood as: Let’s rejoice in our lives while we have life.
  2. From Walden, by Thoreau:
    “The great mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Try not to be like that. Find meaning, purpose and love in what you do. Don’t lead a life of quiet desperation. Instead, as I just said, “S’mach bocher b’yaldutecha.” Rejoice in your life each day.
  3. From Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers:
    Aizeh hu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko.” “Who is a rich person?

He who is content with his portion.”

And “Aizeh hu chochom? Haroeh et ha’nolad.” “Who is a wise person? He who understands what is happening and can accept it.”

  1. From the British Lord Acton:
    “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Unfortunately, there is a tendency in human nature to pull towards the Yetzer Harah, the evil impulse. We must all fight that inclination within ourselves, and in our world.
  2. And on that note, from the Torah, Deuteronomy 16:20:
    Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.” “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.” The pursuit of justice helps give our lives meaning and makes our world a better place.

I am grateful to G-d for all the blessings he has bestowed upon me.

My sister Feigie and her husband Dr. Steve Bailey flew in from Jerusalem for this occasion. Originally, we were four sisters and two brothers. I was number four, and Feigie was number six. Our sisters Miriam, Freda and Mary, and our brother Aaron, are no longer with us. Many of my nieces and nephews are here today. Kay’s sister Nancy and her husband Ken, and some of our cousins, are here also.

Thank you for joining Kay and me and our family for this simcha.

Let us recite the Shehechiyanu together: Baruch ata Adonai, . . . shehechiyanu . . . . “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this occasion.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Ki Tavo

Parshat Ki Tavo

By Henry Morgen

Shabbat shalom. This morning I’m dedicating my d’rash to the memory of my father, Sidney Morgen. This is his first yartzeit, which I will observe this evening. Before I knew of the concept of tzim-tsum, which is the idea that God had to withdraw some of Himself to make space for the universe to exist, my dad taught me an interesting way to think about God. He said, “imagine God is always present and giving us hints about the universe we live in, but He’s always staying just barely out of reach. As we gain a new insight or develop a new understanding about our world, God smiles and backs off just slightly, so we need to reach out further to expand our knowledge of the universe.” I don’t recall how old I was when we started this conversation, but I know it was pre-bar mitzvah. I do recall that I wasn’t fully able to grasp the brilliance of this perspective at the time. I was a very practical minded guy, and I just couldn’t believe that there was a “god in charge” of the universe. And even if there was, I couldn’t see how that would involve any individual on a planet around a star in the Milky Way galaxy among all the many galaxies out there. You may be wondering this same thing. In fact, as a fairly scientifically minded adult, I’m even more certain that God is not paying attention to Henry Morgen per se. There are trillions of galaxies each having trillions of stars. The universe is over 13 billion earth years old, and earth is only about 5 billion years old. What does a spec of dust like me that lasts for less time than a blink of an eye mean in the context of the universe that Adonai, Elohiym Ha-olam, would even give note to for a trillionth of a blink of an eye? Great question. Let’s see what our parsha says. (You knew I’d get around to this at some point, right?)

Ki Tavo is known for two key things: It opens with some fairly famous words that we Jews share every Pesach at the Seder[1]. It concludes with a few blessings and a huge slew of curses. Before I link these together, let’s take a big step back to view this in the context of the Five Books of Moses and even the Tanah as a whole.

The name we use for God in parshat B’reishit is “Elohiym”. This is the Majestic God of the Universe. When God was busy creating the universe, the penultimate creation was the human being. (The Shabbat was the ultimate creation of space-time.) Do you recall the very first thing that God commands this male & female creature to do? Yes, “be fruitful and multiply” is the first half of the commandment that we all remember. It’s so easy to just half listen. The rest of the commandment was “fill the earth, rule over the it, and be stewards[2] for the fish, the birds, and everything else that lives on earth.” This covenant is pretty clear, yes? Our job is to take care of the world that God created. The entire rest of the Tanah shows that this creature, created in God’s image with free will, just doesn’t get it. When will we actually choose to do God’s assignment for us?

Given the etiquette and time constraints we have this morning I’m going to have to gloss over things pretty quickly, so here’s a quick reminder of what humans keep not getting:

  • Adam & Hava eat the fruit from the tree they’re told not to eat from. This gives them awareness that there are right and wrong decisions with real consequences. They’re banished from the garden as a result and have to toil to keep themselves fed and clothed. The new covenant is a good deal more difficult than the first one. God will no longer assure them that all their needs are being met; they are no longer infants. They have to explore their world and start thinking for themselves to survive.
  • Next their sons have a dispute that leads to one killing the other over perceived favoritism by God. Now humans become aware of mortality and the expectation of some sort of basic morality. Implied supplemental covenant: Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.
  • Mankind continues to do increasingly despicable things and not acknowledge God or his expectations, so God decides he’ll start over. Enter Noah. God guides Noah to take actions that save the animals and his family. At the end of this ordeal, He provides an enhanced covenant with some basic rules for civilization to live by.
  • Mankind continues to think they’re the big deal in this world and ignore God’s rules. They build a tower to heaven, so God scatters them across the planet. Remember that “fill the earth” part of the first commandment?
  • It appears that humans still aren’t grasping the basics, but one guy, Avram, seems to acknowledge that there’s one God in the universe, and he seems to behave better than his peers, too. Even his behavior isn’t ideal, but at least we can see that he learns from his errors. He also expects the God of the universe to behave ethically. As a result God provides him with “protectsia” and a promise that his offspring will get special “yichus.”
  • Avraham’s grandson, Yaakov, doesn’t seem to be such an upstanding fellow, yet compared to his brother Esav and others of his generation, he seems to be the best one to carry on his grandfather’s legacy. Unfortunately, his unvarnished favoritism for one wife over the others and one son over the others leads to more trouble for the clan and ultimately mankind. Never the less, God re-ups the covenant he had made with Ya’akov’s grandfather and father.
  • Israel’s sons are a truly motley group. Again, some of them seem to be quicker studies in ethical behavior than others. Some never get it. From a biblical perspective, there is yet another “punishment” for collective bad behavior that lasts many generations this time.
  • God recalls he’s not going to destroy the world again and that he committed to Avraham that his descendants would become a “great nation”, so he has to free the Israelites from that captivity he ordained. Once again, there is a human, Moses, who can act on God’s behalf in our world. Moses understands that he is merely the spokesman for God and is able to stand up to the Pharaoh who thinks he is god.
  • After bringing the fledgling nation out of captivity, God, through Moses again, spends years delivering guidelines and then teaching the people how to behave in a context that they would understand. “Be an ethical example to the other nations of the world” is just too abstract. Ultimately lots of layers of tangible rules are delivered, so they can experience what doing the right thing would be like in ways large and small. Still the people don’t seem to get it. They can’t believe that the wilderness will sustain them even if God is showing them the way. They want to be slaves again, or worship like all the other nations, or just challenge the guidance they’ve been given.

This brings us up to today’s slice of the story. In summary, God says in effect:

You’re going to be living in a land that I’m giving to you. After you’ve removed the squatters and settled it, remember how you received this good fortune. Bring a gift of your produce, and thank Me for recognizing the merit of your ancestors so strongly that your very sustenance is now beholden to that commitment. Furthermore if you walk in My ways, all will go well for you, but if you keep rebelling, we’ll have to go through another round of purging.

For those of you that have read ahead, we find our clan, and much of the people that inhabit this planet, continuing to “not get it.” It is clear that God seems to have a lot of patience for this human being he created, given how generation after generation it continues to behave “off the rails” so much of the time. But, let’s get back to the basic point here: People are supposed to spread out across the earth and be good stewards of it. According to our Torah, God thought it might be helpful for the rest of humanity if he designated a small band of people to be an example to the rest of them about what was expected. Since we’re claiming to be part of that small collective, how can we do this in the world we’re living in now? Remember, the universe, as we understand it is about 13.5 billion years old. The earth is about 5 billion years old. Humans, in the somewhat recognizable form we are today, are less than 50,000 years old. What have we done in this less than a blink of an eye with respect to the timeline of the universe?

In exponential fashion humans have mastered foraging, hunting, agriculture, construction, artwork, oral communication, written communication. We have developed incredible tools and unimaginable technology. We are truly unique and amazing beings among all the creatures on the earth. Yet, we have also behaved rather poorly on the fulfillment of the most fundamental covenant we were charged to uphold by our Source of Life: “… be good stewards of this planet.” The evidence is undeniable at this point that our planet’s mean temperature is ramping up now year by year, and the start of the ramp seems to be around the same time we started burning coal and dumping lots of carbon oxides and hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

I’m not quite headed in the classical tree-hugger direction that some of you may be expecting here. Instead I’d like to make the analogy that we need to grow up! What I’ve learned from my parents and other parents is that kids need to take more and more responsibility for their actions. For example, when they’re toddlers you pick up the toys they toss on the ground. Later they need to be responsible for cleaning up the toys they leave lying around. Then they gradually learn to be responsible for taking care of the house by clearing the dishes, making the bed, vacuuming, gardening, etc. They can’t just mess things up and leave it to someone else to own the fix. They also gradually learn to behave courteously by adding “please” to requests, and “thank you” when something is given to them. They learn how to have civil discussions and ideally how not to be a bully and how to confront bullying.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the same expectation of many of our corporations. We must expect them to clean up their mess as they go, or better yet not make messes in the first place. It has to be part of doing business. We need to be sure that resources are used wisely and whenever possible to minimize the impact to our environment. We need to ensure that human safety and dignity are at the core of any company’s operating principles. We must find a way to stop condoning de facto indentured servitude and allowing slavery to continue in the world. And we need to behave as individuals in ways that are consistent with these behaviors, too. We need to minimize our use of disposable containers and products. We need to recycle to the extent possible. We must use our natural resources such as water, and our energy sources such as gasoline and electricity, as efficiently as possible. We should make sure that we treat each other as the human beings that we are, created in the image of Elohiym. In fact, we need to treat ourselves this way being sure to maintain our bodies as healthfully as possible. We must expand our minds and share our knowledge to advance the collective knowledge of the world. And we need to support organizations that will help accomplish these goals in the world. I am confident that we humans can figure out how to deal with this mess we’ve created if we start to pull together and stop resisting owning the problem. In human history the strongest and fasted advances have come from collaboration not from fighting.

God’s clue to us humans from the beginning has been “take care of this planet.” From the perspective I learned from my dad, God is trying to get us to grow up and be responsible like any parent would. He continues to effectively step back and provide us with the free will to do more with the knowledge we gain every generation. If we want to have length of days as a species, say another few hundred thousand years, we should take a tip from God and act more responsibly. Oh, by the way, this parsha arrives in the middle of Elul. As we contemplate the year gone by and the year ahead, it could be useful to include some of this thinking in the process. When we address “Avinu Malkeinu” we’re speaking to our ultimate Parent, and Source of Life, the Majestic Eternal Ruler of the universe. May we all do what we can to be the kind of people that are a light to the world, and in so doing, help bring about the redemption of the world that Adonai has asked us to help make possible. Shabbat shalom.

[1] Deuteronomy 26:5-10 “…An Arammian nomad was my father, and he went down to Mizrayim, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Mizrim dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Mizrayim with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. And He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which You, O Lord, have given me. …”

[2] Technically the Hebrew word translates more accurately as “rule over”; however, the Ruler of the universe is God, and we’re being asked to serve in His stead. Therefore, this is more accurately a role of stewardship.


Parshat Hukkat

By Rabbi Susan Laemmle

Numbers, chapter 20 begins: Read Hebrew, then English.  With her two brothers, Miriam has led the people out of Egypt and through the dessert for nearly forty years, and now — in three words, vatamat sham miriyam —  she is dead. Later in this chapter, Adonai tells Moses that soon Aaron will “be gathered unto his kin, “ whereupon the entire community witnesses the transfer of priestly power to Eleazar and then Aaron’s passing, which they bewail in mourning for thirty days.  How has our tradition viewed the dramatic difference in the way in which these two deaths are experienced in the Torah?  And how do we view that difference today?

There is no denying the basically patriarchal slant of Israelite society, the Torah, and the rabbinic tradition.  And yet, within its boundaries, Judaism has all along chipped away to make room for women.  Indeed, we egalitarian Jews owe a special debt to commentators who seized upon textual gaps, connections, and oddities as opportunities for expanding women’s significance.

So it is that Miriam’s one named but fleeting appearance in Parshat Hukkat — where she appears only to disappear forever — gets connected to another elusive episode — chapter 21: verses 16-18, called the Song at the Well.  This rabbinic, midrashic connection yields a meaningful, even if not directly articulated, memorial to “the prophetess,” as she is called when taking up a timbrel to lead her sisters in dance and song.  The connection between these two passages supports itself on chapter 20’s textual juxtaposition with which I began this Drash  — Miriam dies and then the community lacks water.  Rashi and Ramban turn sequence into causation, teaching that it is because of Miriam’s merit and righteousness that the people have had water to drink throughout the forty years in the wilderness; and so with her death, the water supply ceases.

The surest source of fresh water in the desert would be a well. As everyone here knows, the patriarch’s are continually boring wells, often giving them names. But also women and wells are often linked in the Torah. Hagar encounters an angel and later hears God’s voice by a wellspring; Rebecca meets the emissary of her beloved by a well, as do Rachel and Zipporah.  And so it is that the rabbinic tradition, as it were, digs another well and names it after Miriam.  Doing this gives meaning to the juxtaposition of her death to the people’s thirst, and it also — and importantly — gives weight to her death, making it matter in a substantial way.  Not in the august and hierarchical way that Aaron’s death matters, but in manner than affects the very basis of life.

Furthermore, according to Mishnah Avot 5:9, the mouth of this well is one of the ten special things that God created on the eve of the first Shabbat, beyn ha-sh’mashot.  This Pirkei-Avot mishnah acknowledges the miraculous nature of an ever-present water source in arid land even while including it, and other such departures from the natural order, back into that very order; as Birnbaum puts this, all unexplained beginnings as well as everything supernatural resulted from the original cause — God.

This sense of awe before a desert well directly manifests itself later in chapter 21, after the pivotal episode at Meribah in which Moses strikes the rock, speaks roughly to the people, and receives his punishing sentence from God. At that point, the people pause in their continuing journey at a place named Beer, which of course means “well”, and we listen as “Israel sang this song” — az yashir yisrael et ha-shirah hazot — the very same words that introduce the Song at the Sea in Exodus.  This time, the people sing after God has told Moses: “Assemble the people that I may give them water.”

The song itself is short, elliptical, and unclear in its references. But its opening “Spring up, O well, sing to it” — ali v’aer, enoo lah — and its concluding “and from the wilderness a gift” — ooh’mi-midbar matanah — provide a basis for the midrashic interpretation that the well was gifted to them in the wilderness to serve their needs and accompanied them until it eventually entered the sea of Tiberias.  Nachmanides explains: “In the opinion of our sages, it was Miriam’s well, or some other well that came forth at Moses command by divine fiat, not something that the Israelities had asked for.”

Commenting on the first parsha of Sefer B’midbar, Midrash Rabbah speaks of what Moses, Aaron, and Miriam each contributed to the people during the desert period: “The well was due to the merit of Miriam, who sang by the waters of the Red Sea and by the waters of the well.” The linkage between the two passages is based on the analogous use of v’taan in the Song at the Sea and eh-noo in the Song at the Well, both words having the same root.  This midrash goes on to raise and answer a question: “How was the well constructed? It was rock-shaped like a kind of bee-hive; and wherever they journeyed, it rolled along and came with them.  When the standards under which the tribes journeyed halted and the tabernacle was set up, that same rock would come and settle down in the court of the Tent of Meeting and the princes would come and stand upon it and say, Rise up O well, and it would rise.”

Modern scholars regard the Well Song as an ancient poem that functions in the Torah text as a corrective to the grievous complaints about water in chapter 20 and earlier. In The Five Books of Miriam, Ellen Frankel takes an eclectic approach: “God teaches the Israelites how to summon up water with this incantation, after Miriam’s Well disappears at her death.  In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, this song was chanted every third Sabbath at the minchah sacrifice while Moses’ Song at the Sea was sung on the other two Sabbaths.” I pause to emphasize the last sentence from Frankel, based on Masechet Rosh Hashanah  31a —which I find dramatic and moving: repeat sentence.  It seems to me that the near-parity of these two passages can only be explained when the Song at the Well gets connected to Miriam.

Let me go even further — to another modern interpretation that surprised and enlightened me when I came to it in Profs. Tamara Eskenazi and Adriane Leveen’s The Torah: a Women’s Commentary:  “Many modern scholars conclude that the Song at the Sea was created and performed by women.  Beginning in the mid-20th century, a considerable body of literary, historical, sociological and musicological evidence has been amassed to suggest that the Song should be attributed to Miriam.  One ancient manuscript tradition calls it the Song of Miriam.  Also, songs of military triumph belong to a victory song genre typically composed and performed by women, not men, to greet victorious troops after battle. Thus the title “Song of Miriam” that is often used by modern interpreters for Exodus 15:21 might in fact be appropriate for this much longer passage as well.”

Before concluding, I pause to notice how far we’ve come — from a one verse mentioning of Miriam’s death to the suggestion that one of the two biblical portions for which we stand up in shul could well be attributed to her.  Having traveled that journey through writing this drash, I feel happy that John and I finally started placing Cos Miriam — a goblet of water — next to Cos Eliyahu at our family seder.  Perhaps others of you who don’t already include this representation of Miriam’s well on your Passover table will do after hearing this drash.  I would argue that this simple act helps open up our homes, hearts and communities — much as some rabbinic and modern commentators have opened up Torah to make it more welcoming of women’s experience.

One final word, taking us back to the dark side of this past Shavout — the tragedy in Orlando.  It turns out that several years before the ritual of Miriam’s Cup emerged in 1989, Professor Susannah Heschel had suggested placing an orange on the seder plate as a symbol of the need to include gays, lesbians and others marginalized within the Jewish community.  John and I plan on including an orange next year for the first time —because now we understand how vital it is to use every means at our disposal to open up and dig deep.

May the Orange of Inclusion nourish us, and may Miriam’s Well slake our thirst. Shabbat shalom.

Rosh Chodesh Tevet

Rosh Chodesh Tevet

By Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Dec 12, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom!



By Ethan Kaufman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!