Category Archives: Divrei 5778


Vayishlach וישלח

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Rivkah dies.

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

‘Tis a fearful thing

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

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

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

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

To remember this brings painful joy.

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

– Yehuda HaLevi







By Henry J Morgen, 8 September 2018

Shabbat shalom. It turns out that 30 years ago I shared my thoughts with the Library Minyan on this very parshah. After reviewing it, I’d say it’s still pretty good; however, I’d like to address something different today. First, though, I’ll paraphrase something that still holds true, and that is that it has been and continues to be an honor to be able to daven here. I especially appreciate the high level of learning and commitment to community that I’ve come to love and admire.

This morning I’d like to focus on how this parshah fits into our liturgical cycle. If you’ve been tracking the way our sages mapped the torah portions to the weeks in our year you’ll notice that Devarim always occurs just before Tishah B’Av. The seven parshi’ot of consolation always conclude with this parshah on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. If you think of the book of Devarim as Moses’ closing remarks to the people of Israel, then it’s a classic example of “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em. Tell ’em. Tell ’em what you told ’em.” Today’s parshah, Nitzavim, is the “Tell ’em what you told ’em” part. It’s the final words of wisdom our rabbis wanted us to hear just before we flip the calendar year and focus on renewing our commitments to ourselves, our families and our community to be our best selves. The balance of the book of Devarim is sort of transition from Moses’ leadership to Joshua, and Moses’ epitaph.

So, let’s look at this parshah a little more closely. It opens with an incredibly powerful paragraph that we actually got to read today, even though we’re on the middle third of a triennial cycle, because we got to read the whole parshah:

You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.[1]

There are some really important points in this opening paragraph: Everyone, male and female, young and old, high status and low status, part of the tribe and outsiders, and those that were present and their progeny are fully included in this covenant. This is a contract that is totally egalitarian for all that will reciprocate and be God’s people.

In the next few paragraphs God warns us to be faithful or He’ll be very angry with us. But, in the end, if we return to Him, He will take us back and bless us. I also want us to focus on the last part. Again, I’m going to quote extensively in English to point out a couple more things:

Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. … I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord your God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to them.[2]

Last week we read the blessings and curses associated with failing to adhere to the covenant. This week there’s an emphasis on how easy it actually is to adhere to the covenant. We’re being asked to acknowledge that Adonai, Sovereign of the Universe, has essentially committed to be a loving Parent to us. In exchange we must act with due appreciation and observe appropriate ethical and social norms. If we do that, all will go well for us; otherwise, we’ll be breaking this covenant and God will not be held to uphold it either.

So, are we individually going to be rewarded or punished for “bad behavior?” If you look at the Hebrew, it appears that we’re being addressed individually, but we’re also being addressed as the collective body. Therefore, I believe that we are individually responsible yet collectively rewarded or punished. Is that just? I can’t say, but it appears to be how the universe works. You can see this all around us all the time. Bad things happen to good people and visa-versa. Some governments terrorize their citizens to maintain power. Others war with each other displacing millions of innocent bystanders in the process. Our oceans are filling with plastic, and the temperature of our planet is rising thanks to collective lack of care for our environment. Here, in Los Angeles, hundreds of thousands of people are living with food insecurity and/or lack of affordable housing. What is our personal response to these communal and global problems?

We are in a season of reflection—both personal and collective. We will be spending a lot of time in the next few weeks focused on t’filah, or internal contemplation. What have we said or done when it would have been better to refrain from action? When would action have been more important that refraining from acting or speaking? What social and ethical norms should we focus on more acutely in the coming year? What should we do collectively to ensure continuity where it is waning or drive to change where we have veered off the proper path?

We call ourselves a “light unto the nations.” If we want to keep that light on and use it for good, we’ll need to work towards a time when the rest of mankind realizes that this covenant is available to them, too, if they act with due appreciation to God for our planet and observe appropriate ethical and social norms. Let us spend part of our time during these High Holidays reflecting on how we personally and collectively can start to be the change we want to see. Shabbat shalom. L’shanah tovah.

[1] Translation from P.379: The Torah—The Five Books of Moses ©1962 Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia

[2] Translation from Pp.381-382: ibid.



By Larry Herman, 14 April 2018

My Kosher Fetish

Shabbat Shalom.

Once again I dedicate this davar Torah to my friend and humanitarian, Dr. Ken Elliot, who was abducted by al-Qaida linked jihadists in northern Burkina Faso in January 2016 and remains captive, now 2 years and 3 months.

I also wish to acknowledge that as always, this drasha is a collaborative effort with Diane, who is skilled at making the incoherent comprehensible.

About thirty years ago we attended a bar mitzvah at a Conservative shul on the Shabbat of parsahat Shemini. The bar mitzvah gave a short davar torah on the laws of kashrut.  He explained that his study had inspired his parents to kasher their kitchen and begin to keep a kosher home. As he sat down and the rabbi took his place at the pulpit I thought, what a fat ball! How could the rabbi not take the opportunity to discuss kashrut and encourage his congregants to take inspiration from the young man and his family and join them in this manifestation of Jewish practice and identity?

But he did not.

  • Perhaps he felt that nothing more need be said.
  • Perhaps he felt that his community was not open to the pleading of their rabbi to become more observant.
  • Or maybe he had some ambivalence about the practice of kashrut.

I admit to ambivalence of my own. Although I grew up in a kosher home, and Diane and I have kept a kosher home from the beginning of our married life, I did not always keep kosher. My own personal standards of kashrut have varied over time. I have little tolerance for some of the stringencies that are practiced, such as Glatt Kosher lettuce. I think that kashrut is the most fetishized of all of our religious practices, something that discourages some from keeping kosher and distracts us from ethical prescripts, even as they apply to issues of kashrut.

I know that I’m not alone in these thoughts, even among those who identify as orthodox and are strict in their own practice.

I’m also bothered by how the observance of kashrut, which actually occupies a rather small part of the Torah, has expanded, become much more complicated, burdensome and expensive. Part of the problem is that the Torah is a lousy instruction manual. It reads like one of those crazy booklets that come with foreign manufactured products or Ikea assembly instructions. I know that Jewish practice requires professional interpretation. But when the instructions get so complex and seemingly illogical, it’s tempting to find shortcuts or to just ignore them entirely.

This week’s parsha which includes the basic rules of which animals we are permitted and forbidden to eat is a great example. The basic principle makes perfect sense: eating meat requires the taking of life and defiles us. Limiting the scope for taking the life of living creatures – and ritualizing the act of taking of that life – uplifts us, making something that is otherwise profane, at least a bit sacred

But I find the Torah instructions more confusing and perplexing than sanctifying. Why doesn’t the Torah just tells us which animals we can eat?

  • Ruminants,
  • Fish with fins and scales,
  • Chickens, and some similar birds,
  • And a few bugs.

Instead, it gives us a complicated and not very consistent set of rules, lists and criteria, sometimes telling us what is permitted and other times what is forbidden. At least the rules for mammals and fish are pretty clear. But birds are another matter.

Birds are the only species group for which there are no general rules. We are only given a specific list of what is forbidden. But which birds are these? I consulted three sources for English translations: Etz Haim, Aryeh Kaplan and Silberman and of the 20 varieties or groups of birds, they agree on only nine. Further, since there is no general rule it would seem that everything else is permitted. So if the little, great and white owls are all specifically prohibited does that mean the barn owl is permitted? And since there are about 10,000 species of birds in the world, that doesn’t make sense. I guess we best not think of eating our pet parakeets or parrots.

But it’s with insects that things get real confusing. We are told that

ALL winged swarming things that walk on fours are an abomination

Oh-oh. I know that insects have six legs so I’m already confused. But to add to my confusion, despite the “ALL” in verse 20, we have another rule that tells us that we can eat them if:

they have above-their-feet jointed legs to leap on the ground.

This is further qualified with a specific list of four varieties:

אַרְבֶּ֣ה       סָּלְעָ֖ם               חַרְגֹּ֣ל                 חָגָ֖ב

Our Chumash translates these as families of:

Locusts                 Bald locust           Crickets, and        Grasshoppers

On the other hand, Aryeh Kaplan translates these four as the families of red locusts, yellow locusts, spotted grey locusts, and white locusts. Kaplan really knew his locusts!

For some reason, the instruction manual takes a break until verse 41 where it states

וְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ

All creeping creatures that creep on the ground (creepy reptiles and amphibians, apparently)

shall not be eaten, and then– among these creeps– those that go on their belly, walk on four legs, up to many legs also shall not be eaten.

Ok, I get it. I’m on the lookout for the two-legged creepers. Maybe they’re ok. Could be delicious with garlic butter.

Hey, don’t laugh. Rashi, benefitting from at least a millennium of rabbinic interpretation has his own linguistic and zoological take on what is included and excluded and why. I will only note as an example, that he interprets the seemingly redundant verse 23 to infer that that five-legged swarming things are indeed kosher, if one can find any such animals.

And I wonder what Rashi would say about the annual gorging on flying termites that we witnessed in West Africa as they hatch, breed, lose their wings and fall to earth in huge mounds over several days, to be scooped up and roasted for a high protein treat.

For me, the text raises a lot of questions besides the most obvious one of why.

Now I know that the traditional interpretation of “why” is that helps us to become holy as explained in verses 43-44 of our Parsha. But that didn’t stop us from coming up with all manner of other justification.

Philo (Yedidia HaCohen) thought that the laws of kashrut were intended to teach us to control our bodily appetites and to discourage us from excessive self-indulgence.

He also claimed that:

  • We are prohibited from eating carnivorous animals to teach us gentleness and kindness.
  • We eat animals that chew their cud to remind us that we must chew over what we have studied.
  • And we eat animals with divided hooves so that we learn to divide and distinguish good from evil.

The Rambam espoused similar views a millennium later and added the consideration that the laws of kashrut were healthy. Being a physician, who was going to argue with him? Well, Abarbanel for one. But the view persists to today among some Jews and even non-Jews that kosher food is healthier.

Of course we are all familiar with the claim that keeping kosher is a one of the things helps us to maintain our separate identity or to paraphrase Ahad Ha’am, “more than the Jews have kept kashrut, kashrut has kept the Jews.”

I haven’t forgotten the most fundamental and straightforward argument: kashrut is mandated by God, it is God’s diet for spirituality.

I don’t find these arguments compelling reasons to keep kosher:

When kashrut becomes a fetish it’s difficult to understand how we are made holy. Isn’t saying a bracha over all food a sufficient means of making the profane act of eating holy?

While practicing kashrut does entail a degree of self-control, casual observation would not lead one to believe that those of us who keep kosher are less gluttonous than those who do not.

As for argument that eating kosher food is healthier, I’m with Abarbanel. Most of those arguments have long been debunked. A diet heavy on schmaltz and grivenes is a fast track to a coronary.

Maintaining a kosher kitchen is expensive. Having separate sets of cookware, dishware and cutlery is wasteful. And putting hecksherim on bottles of water or disposable aluminum pans is just silly.

Still, kashrut is an important manifestation of my identity. It’s one way that I continuously remind myself and others that I’m a Jew. I want it to help me maintain my distinction as a Jew, but I still want it to make sense in the world we live in. Perhaps, just as my own practice of kashrut has changed over my life, our observance of kashrut as a people needs to change in response to changing times. To be more relevant and not just more stringent.

So now I get to the meat of the matter, as it were – the ethical aspects of being a carnivore, this being the focus of Chapter 11. Kindness in the selection, raising and slaughter of animals to be eaten is important, and is not consistent with factory production of veal and poultry or high speed mechanized slaughter. In fact, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef banned the force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras because it causes unbearable pain to the animals. The Israeli Supreme Court banned its production in 2003. And both Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi David Golinkin questioned the kashrut of veal because the young animals are fattened by severe restriction of their movements.

Animal welfare advocates argue that the reasons for refraining from killing animals are similar to the arguments against killing humans. While it is easy to mock the arguments for speciesism, it wasn’t long ago that arguments against racism or sexism seemed farfetched. Just as we look back on slavery and the subjugation of women and are appalled, I believe that sometime in the future, as we learn more and more about the sentience of species that we use for food, our children will look back on us and be appalled by our callous carnivorousness.

As for the ecological aspects of eating meat, the modern production of meat is highly inefficient in terms of natural resources and contributes to global warming. It requires far more grain, water, land and energy than a non-meat based diet. Livestock production is responsible for almost one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions. Meat production has a huge carbon footprint. It contributes to acid rain. It’s just plain bad for the environment.

Kashrut doesn’t mean that we have to eat meat. Kashrut doesn’t mean that we have to eat unhealthily. And Kashrut doesn’t give us license to harm the environment through our animal husbandry practices.

The Jewish Vegetarian movement is pretty strong and includes a lot of rabbis from across denominations; the website Jewish Veg lists 135 vegetarian rabbis, with many names that I recognize including Miryam Glazer, David Wolpe, Sharon Brous, and Lord Jonathan Sacks.

I don’t know how many of them actually argue that vegetarianism is a logical extension of kashrut but I do find the argument compelling. I’m struck by how many things that were not only permitted in the Torah but were regulated by Jewish law, are now forbidden. They were appropriate for that time but not for now. Slavery. Stoning. Sotah. Levirate marriage.

So perhaps that’s why the rules permitting us to slaughter and then eat meat were so complex and somewhat confusing. It was a step in the direction of limiting our biological and evolutionary cravings. The Torah recognizes that we couldn’t immediately suppress our natural human compulsions but had to be gradually weaned away from them. The real intent is expressed in the first chapter of Bereishit when the newly created humans and all the animals were instructed:

Behold, I have given you every seed bearing herb, which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed bearing fruit; it will be yours for food (1:29)

We weren’t ready for that then. I’m not sure that I’m ready for that now. But I’m pretty sure that it’s coming.



By Larry Herman, 18 November 2017


Shabbat Shalom.

What do you do when people you admire, respect, or even love, disappoint you?

My father used to use the phrase, “feet of clay” and I had a hard time understanding what he meant. The dictionary definition is a weakness or hidden flaw in the character of a greatly admired or respected person: But this hardly captures the full meaning embodied in the original source text, the second chapter of Daniel:

O king, as you looked on, there appeared a great statue.
This statue, which was huge and its brightness surpassing, stood before you,
And its appearance was awesome.

The head of that statue was of fine gold;
Its breast and arms were of silver;
Its belly and thighs, of bronze;

Its legs were of iron, [but] its feet part iron and part clay.

As you looked on, a stone was hewn out, not by hands,
And struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay
And broke them to pieces.

All at once, the iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold were crushed,
And became like chaff of the threshing floors of summer;
A wind carried them off until no trace of them was left.
But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain
And filled the whole earth.

Not only are the feet of clay the flaw of the great and powerful idol, they are the means by which the powerful will be crushed, taking all of their richness, beauty and value with it, and leaving the destroyer made of worthless stone all powerful.

What happens when the hidden flaws are revealed? We don’t have much difficulty when those flaws are evident in people and characters that we otherwise disapprove of. We are the first to point them out, even to invent them, and to use them to denigrate and even to destroy.

But when those flaws are revealed in our heroes, in our idols, in our champions, in our leaders and in our loved ones, we face a real dilemma. And when character flaws seem to be ubiquitous, pervasive, and even to be part of human nature, we have a real predicament.

Can we live with the contradictions? Or do we acquiesce to the tendency to ignore them, to deny them, to rationalize them, or even to justify them.

Are there flaws that disqualify our heroes from that status? Can we separate the clay – the condemnable behavior – from the gold silver and bronze – the individual’s merits and accomplishments?

These questions never seemed so relevant as today, and they are the questions that also scream out at us from this week’s parsha.

As I studied the parsha, I was overwhelmed by the image of “feet of clay,” by the consequences of denying moral responsibility for the individuals involved and for society, and by the lengths to which our sages and commentators go to explain, justify and whitewash what appear to me to be undeniable flaws and shameful acts by our biblical heroes while at the same time defaming those that we identify as the villains of our narrative.

On the face of it, the actions of our heroes Yitzchak, Rebecca and Jacob seem at best morally questionable, at worst indefensible. On the other hand, the actions of Esau, the villain in our story, seem understandable and perhaps even laudable, even if he is a bit crude for our sensibilities

Let’s briefly review the main elements of the stories, the actions of our heroes, what seem to be the obvious ethical inferences, and the traditional ways that we are taught to interpret their behavior.

  • In the story of the sale of the birthright, Esau politely – using the Hebrew word נא or please, if crudely, – using the term הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי which refers to feeding animals, asks Jacob for some porridge. Most translations ignore the please and focus on the crudeness of the request.
  • Jacob then coerces Esau, taking advantage of his famished state and demands

First sell me your birthright

I doubt very much whether any of us, let alone a court, would consider this a fair exchange made by willing and equal parties.

  • Let’s turn to the story where Yitzchak tells the people of Gerar that Rebecca is his sister. As Rabbi Dorff explained two weeks ago in Parshat Va’yera in the case of Abraham, Jacob is guilty of Geneivat Da’at, of deception, perhaps even more than Abraham. Rebecca was Jacob’s wife and his cousin once removed; but by no means was she his sister. This is not even a half-truth. It was a tactic, mistakenly used by both father and son to protect themselves. But by doing so Jacob leads the men of Gerar into temptation and endangers his wife by making them think that she was available.
  • But it is the story of the stolen blessing that is especially problematic. Rebecca instructs Jacob to deceive Isaac in order to get the blessing intended for Esau. Was she not literally putting a stumbling block before the blind seeing as her husband was for all intents and purposes blind and knowing that her son would obey her?
  • Jacob protests that his father will discover the deceit and curse him, suggesting that he more concerned with being caught than with the immorality of the deceit.
  • Rebecca’s response is that the curse will be hers and not his and demands that he obey her. She is placing him in a position that no parent should ever put their child in, to choose between their two parents.
  • Jacob flat out lies to his father and says,

אָנֹכִי֙ עֵשָׂ֣ו בְּכֹרֶ֔ךָ עָשִׂ֕יתִי כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתָּ אֵלָ֑י

I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me

But many commentators parse the verse differently, to read:

I am the one who brings you food, Esau is your first born.

in clear contradiction to the obvious meaning of the verse.

  • When Isaac asks Jacob how he managed to succeed so quickly, Jacob invokes the name of God in responding to his father

Because Adonai your God granted me good fortune

Is he not taking God’s name in vain, committing blasphemy or hilul hashem?

  • When Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice, and gives him an opportunity to admit the truth by asking,

אַתָּ֥ה זֶ֖ה בְּנִ֣י עֵשָׂ֑ו

Are you really my son Esau?

Jacob answers


I am

Is he not being as absolutely deceitful as a son can be and showing the utmost contempt for his father? But again, some of our commentators use the defense that Jacob did not say that he was Esau, but rather “It is I.”

  • Neither is Isaac blameless. He acknowledges to Esau that it was Jacob who received his blessing, instead of simply blessing Esau, as he eventually does. Is he not creating, or at least exacerbating the conditions for a fraternal death feud.
  • And when Isaac acknowledges that Jacob came to him בְּמִרְמָ֑ה, in deceit, Rashi chooses instead to translate it as subtlety or cleverness.
  • Further, Isaac shows moral weakness in asking Esau

מָ֥ה אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּנִֽי

What, then, can I still do for you, my son?

As if it is the son and not the father who should find a solution to this horrible situation.

  • Rebecca then determines to send Jacob to her brother, whom she already knows to be a deceiver, without any warning. Can she expect anything more than what ends up happening next week when Lavan deceives Jacob regarding Rachel and Leah?
  • Neither does Rebecca take any responsibility for the fraud perpetrated against her husband and eldest son when she tells Jacob to stay with Lavan,

until your brother’s anger against you subsides—and he forgets what you have done to him?

taking no responsibility for her role in deceiving her husband and endangering her most beloved son.

  • Adding to the deception, Rebecca manipulates Isaac, encouraging him to send Jacob to Paddan-Aram, without revealing the enmity between the brothers and depriving Isaac an opportunity to attempt a reconciliation.

All of these demonstrate our Biblical heroes feet of clay.

But what of Esau, the wounded, and we might say “innocent” party in these stories? Look at how easily we find fault and ignore virtue.

  • At the end of Chapter 26 we are told that Esau, at age 40, marries two Hittite women which displeases his parents. Without basis from the text, Rashi compares Esau to a boar, and claims that he is rebellious. But do we have any evidence to believe that the parents, Isaac and Rebecca, advised him to wed a relative rather than a Canaanite? Did they suggest that he travel to Paddan-Aram to find a wife?
  • In the story of the stolen blessing, Isaac asks Esau to do a favor for an old man. Esau responds immediately with filial obedience, but it does not seem that he receives any credit for this in our tradition. In fact, Rashi finds fault by suggesting that Esau might steal an animal rather than bring his father kosher meat.
  • After learning of the theft, in respect for his father, Esau restrains his anger and delays his intended attack on Jacob while his father is still alive, rather than lashing out immediately.
  • And even after everything, Esau attempts to please and placate his parents by marrying his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael, again receiving no credit for doing so.

Many of our sages and contemporary commentators take great pains to rationalize and explain away the obvious moral implications of the parsha by means of Midrash and contorted justifications. Jacob and Rebecca were right to deceive Esau and Isaac because they knew that Jacob and not Esau would carry on the mission of Abraham and Isaac. Jacob was worthy, Esau was not, and Isaac was psychologically blind to the merits of the two sons. Thus the ends justify the means.

But this is not the only way to understand the story. This pattern of deceit and dishonesty led to more of the same and great strife in the life of Jacob. It deprived Rebecca of the company of her beloved son. And we can only guess at how Isaac felt during the last 57 years of his life, presumably blind and perhaps estranged from his family.

I am not a Torah scholar. I am not placing my simple understanding of the text and the commentaries above those who have studied them and are better placed to make judgements about their validity. But I’m struck by how easy it is for us to turn these stories upside-down and inside out.

Is the choice to ignore, deny or rationalize the clay feet of our heroes, past and present, on the one hand; or to smash their feet of clay and with it bring down their gold, silver and bronze, on the other. Or do we recognize their complexity and imperfections, acknowledge their flaws, draw appropriate lessons, and value the goodness that they have done and may yet do in the future.

These are difficult questions and not easily answered.

Shabbat Shalom

Acharei Mot-Kiddoshim

Acharei Mot-Kiddoshim

By Henry Morgen, 28 April 2018

Shabbat shalom. Today marks half a century since my bar mitzvah. It really doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. It also marks a bit over a year and a half since the last time I gave a d’rash here. Oddly, that seems like a long time. Isn’t it interesting how elastic our perception of time is? When I spoke last it was on Shabbat Ki Tavo and I focused on what I called “our place in the universe.” I’m going to stay somewhat connected to that theme as we explore today’s par’sha. The second half of our double portion today opens with Chapter 19. It is a very unusual section of the torah. It’s referred to as the holiness code. Most of the rest of the book of Leviticus that surrounds it is full of details about the sacrificial rite that the Levites and Cohanim were expected to conduct on behalf of the community. Chapter 19, though is an ethical code that is the basis of much of Western civilization’s legal code today.

To fully appreciate the significance of the opening lines, it’s important to look at the main message that the text is trying to convey. “Adonai spoke to Moshe saying: speak to the whole community of Israel and tell them, ‘you shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy.’” First, I want to point out the extra words in this introductory sentence. It’s not “speak to the community of Israel”, but “speak to the whole community of Israel and tell them.” This extra emphasis makes it clear that each and every one of us is being addressed. Here’s the bottom line up front, and the rest of my remarks are in support of this conclusion: God expects us to be responsible for finishing the world he created and bringing about a more perfect world in which to live as a result. That’s a “huge ask” in modern parlance, but it’s completely in line with the entire arc of the Torah, the prophets, the writings and the tradition as understood by all the brilliant minds that didn’t veer off course along the way.

As I walk us through the holiness code notice that each segment is punctuated by the phrase “I, Adonai, am your God,” or, “I am Adonai.” What then are the key expectations of this covenant?

  • “A person must fear his mother and father and observe Adonai’s sabbaths.” That is, one must follow the rules and traditions from his most intimate teachers and from God.
  • “Don’t worship false gods.” This is a biggie in that some Jews have turned Judaism into their god. God is not bounded by Judaism. Otherwise He would not be Melech Ha’olam.
  • To paraphrase the next grouping it says, “When you make a peace offering, don’t turn this into a feast that lasts more than two days. When you harvest your fields leave the corners untouched and the fruit that falls to the ground where it lays so the poor and the resident alien can eat.” This is an admonition not to be ostentatious, not to be gluttonous, and to ensure that the less fortunate in our communities are able to sustain themselves.
  • Paraphrasing again it says next, “Don’t steal; don’t act deceitfully; don’t debase My name.” This sets a baseline of ethical behavior expected from everyone.
  • “Don’t coerce your neighbor. Don’t rob. Don’t withhold a day laborer’s wages. Don’t insult the deaf. Don’t obstruct the blind.” This is ethics taken to a higher plane. You must put yourself in the place of your fellow and be sure to treat him at least as well as you’d want to be treated if you were he.
  • This next grouping needs a lot of paraphrasing based on the translations I’ve seen. Roughly it says, “You shall not judge unfairly. Don’t favor either the poor or the rich. Judge your neighbor fairly. Don’t gossip. Don’t ignore or benefit from the pain of your neighbor.” In a community it is essential that everyone is treated fairly and with respect. Furthermore, it is important that when someone is suffering, we do what we can to help them mitigate it.
  • “Don’t hate your relatives. Provide constructive feedback to your neighbor, and don’t be led astray because of him. Don’t take revenge or bear a grudge against your relatives. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So far, we’ve learned that holiness means establishing a model society. Treat everyone with the respect they deserve. Don’t be led astray from doing the right thing. This is Adonai’s expectation for all of us. The chapter continues by addressing this long list of issues:

  • Don’t take advantage of unequal relationships
  • Allow trees to mature before harvesting them for food
  • Don’t eat blood
  • Stay away from divination, body mutilation or tattooing
  • Don’t degrade your children through prostitution
  • Observe Adonai’s sabbaths and revere Adonai’s sanctuary
  • Don’t worshiping the dead
  • You must respect your elders
  • Treat a stranger that resides in your land the same as a citizen; love him as yourself, because you were strangers in Egypt (remember)
  • Maintain one set of honest measures for all transactions

Finally, it sums up with “I, Adonai your God, took you out of Egypt. You will observe My laws & norms. I am Adonai.” This is God’s expectation for us as a nation of priests.

So, how are we doing? We seem to need a performance review every year on Yom Kippur. Some of us even have self-evaluations as many as three or more times each day.  What’s an imperfect being to do? First, we should be grateful that we live in a part of the world that allows us the opportunity to think about this very thing and not spend most of our thoughts and energy trying to simply stay alive. Then we should consider how we can individually and in groups invest some of our energy to helping to bring about this better world within ourselves, our family, our community, our country and our world.

To be a light unto the nations we must act on what we’ve heard. From the very beginning we learn that we must be good custodians of the planet that we have been given to live on. We are told to choose life and the blessings rather than the curses. We are assured that God’s rules are not far away and difficult, but they are very near to us and simple to follow. We must do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. We must pursue a just justice. We must not stand idly by when others are in need, but we must love the stranger as ourselves. Each of us is only capable of some small part of this enormous effort, but our tradition says we can’t desist from taking action.

I’d like to close with a poem that is outside our Jewish tradition, yet it has resonated with me since I first heard it. It is by Kendrew Lascelles, and I first heard it on a track on the album Chicago III:

When all the laughter dies in sorrow and the tears have risen to a flood
When all the wars have found a cause in human wisdom and in blood

Do you think they’ll cry in sadness? Do you think the eye will blink?
Do you think they’ll curse the madness? Do you think they’ll even think?

When all the great galactic systems sigh to a frozen halt in space
Do you think there will be some remnant of the beauty of the human race?

Do you think there will be a vestige, or a sniffle, or a cosmic tear?
Do you think some greater thinking thing will give a damn that man was here?

I have tried to live my life in such a way as to move the needle toward yes in answering that last line. That is what it means to strive to be holy. For those who haven’t thought about this in this way, I encourage you to join me.

Shabbat shalom.



by Rabbi Rachel Adler, January 27, 2018

Shabbat shalom. I am devoting this Dvar Torah to questions and observations about the two texts of the day. Shabbat Beshallach is an unusual occasion because both the parasha and the haftorah preserve very ancient victory songs. Biblical historians date both to the late twelfth or early eleventh centuries BCE. This would make them the oldest poems in the Tanakh. Another rarity is that both these compositions depict women leading and exercising authority. Both women are designated as prophets. Exodus15:20 refers to Miriam ha-Neviah. Judges 4:4 calls Dvorah neviah, prophet, and adds that she judged Israel. This term Shofet/shofetet designates the ruling authority in the book of Judges/Shoftim.

Throughout the ancient Near East, victory songs are a recognized genre for celebrating a military victory, and throughout the ancient Near East, they are a women’s genre. With the exception of Ex. 15, everywhere in Tanakh (and there are four other examples: two in Judges (5, 11:34), one in 1 Samuel (18:6-7), and one in Jeremiah (31:4), victory songs are made by women. There are, in fact, not one but two related women’s poetic genres found all over the ancient Near East: victory songs and laments. This makes sense, alas, because the two genres are two sides of a single coin: the occasion for one woman’s victory song is the occasion for another woman’s lament.

Both these genres were ancient forms of performance art, involving music, instrumentation and percussion, and a full-body enactment: in the victory song, dance, and in the lament, beating the breast and slapping the thighs. In both genres, women composed orally and maintained repertoires for repetition. In both genres, there is evidence of solo performances and of call and response, in which female leaders called verses and male and female participants called out the response. Our tradition for chanting Shirat Ha-Yam in this very kahal uses call-and-response. We see an echo of that mode in Exodus 15:20-21 “Then Miriam ha-Nevi’ah, sister of Aharon, picked up the tof (hand-drum) and all the women went out after her to dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing (plural imperative) to YHWH for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.” Surely this is an invitation to respond.

In the text of the Torah, this verse appears to be a postscript, drawing on words previously attributed to Moshe and the B’nai Yisrael. But, given that in every other case, the authors and leaders of victory songs are women, biblical historians have found this attribution of Shirat Ha-Yam rather puzzling. Since the mid-20th century, many of them have suggested that Shirat Ha-Yam was in fact the composition of Miriam. There is one ancient manuscript tradition that refers to the Song as “The Song of Miriam.” This is a difficulty we will not be able to resolve because the text of the Torah is the text. I would be satisfied if we simply allowed the question to haunt the text, that is, if every time we read Shirat ha-Yam, we wondered, ”Isn’t this Shirat Miryam?”

There are some other themes and motifs the two victory songs share. In both, the victory seems incredible to the stunned victors, who had been expecting a disastrous defeat. Other ancient Near Eastern victory songs do not share this theme. All the victors rejoice at winning, of course, but only these Israelite songs see victory as totally unexpected. This is a realistic assessment on their part. In Shirat ha-Yam, the Israelites are not even an army, merely a disorganized rabble of panicked, fleeing slaves. In Shirat Dvorah, they are a poorly armed, tenuously united, under-populated military confederation.

In both situations, they face highly professional armies with the latest and priciest military technologies: horses and chariots. The speed and mobility of horses and chariots allows soldiers to rampage all over the battlefield, trampling, slashing, eluding combat while cutting to pieces an army on foot. In the period of the Judges, the Phillistines have a monopoly on the making of iron, the hard metal that so revolutionized warfare, that the epoch of its introduction is called the Iron Age. More affluent kings like the Canaanite Javin can afford amass such weaponry. Iron can do immeasurably more damage than flint arrowheads or bronze swords. In both victory songs the Israelites are disastrously out-weaponed.

In both narratives, God intervenes via weather, wind and water, so that high-tech military equipment suddenly becomes a detriment rather than an advantage. Exodus 14:21, more naturalistic and less mythic in tone than Ex. 15, describes a hot, drying, chamseen-type wind blowing all night over the Sea of Reeds. This drying wind helps to create a temporary path through the sea. In Ex. 15, it is by direct divine intervention that Moshe is then able to hold out his hand and split the sea so the people can cross. When he lifts his hand again, much later in the day, the waters return and Pharaoh’s chariot army is inundated. The weather disaster that causes the downfall of Sisera’s army is a drenching rain that causes Wadi Kishon to flood, as wadis do in heavy rains. The battlefield turns to mud. The Israelites rushing down from the hills have the momentum, while the Canaanites struggle to extricate their iron chariots from the mire.

In both these victory songs, God is imaged as a warrior. The Hebrew in Shirat ha-Yam is even more shocking than the English word warrior. The Shir exclaims, “Adonai ish milchama!” To us, this description may even sound blasphemous, but we aren’t a hairsbreadth away from being dragged back into slavery. Those Israelites experienced God as an unprecedented sort of warrior: one who fights on behalf of the oppressed rather than on behalf of the power elite. There is a god-as-warrior trope in Sumerian and Canaanite myths as well. The warrior-god defeats chaos, which is usually imaged as the sea or some sort of watery mess, and triumphantly establishes order in the world. But only YHWH is an ethical warrior, a champion of the oppressed, who establishes not just order but justice.

The world that gives rise to these ancient victory songs is no less savage than our own. Shirat Dvorah describes the murder of the Canaanite general Sisera by the Kenite woman Yael as a kind of inversion of the usual reality of war in which men kill and rape and women are killed and raped. This is the reality in every war, every ethnic cleansing, every, genocide since the dawn of time. It is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar right now. But in these two victory songs, reasonable expectations are turned upside down. In the final vignette of her song, Dvorah imagines Sisera’s mother waiting for her son to return with his battle plunder, including captive women for slavery and sex. She envisions the aristocratic Canaanite lady brutally objectifying these other lesser women, describing them casually as “rechem, rechamtayyim l’rosh gever, “a uterus or two for each man.” But life is full of surprises. It turns out that an Israelite woman will sing the victory song. Sisera’s mother will be singing the lament.

I understand the desire to sing victory songs, although they trouble me. I love chanting Shirat Ha-Yam. I couldn’t imagine myself among those angels, whom God rightly forbids to join the Israelites’ song. And I have to confess that there are exploiters and oppressors in my own political landscape over whose downfall I could sing a victory song with relish and the sooner the better. Yet when I imagine the time of redemption, I imagine it as a time when the victory song will have no dark flip side because there will be only winners and no losers. May that time come swiftly and may we live to celebrate the deliverance of all, as we pray in the machzor “V’chol ha rish’a kulah k’ashan tikhleh, ki ta’avir memshelet zadon min ha-aretz.” “And all wickedness will disappear like smoke, when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth.”

Note to readers: Sorry about the transliterations. My program for inserting Hebrew words into English text is not working.


Parshat Miketz, 2017, 5778

By Joel Grossman

Imagine this: you are driving in your car, obeying all traffic laws when suddenly a police car comes up behind you, sirens blaring, and tells you to pull over. You pull over and the cops order you out of the car. They tell you that a car that looks just like yours was seen driving away from the scene of a robbery of a jewelry store. You tell them that you don’t know what they are talking about, you didn’t rob a jewelry store, you didn’t go into a jewelry store, you are just driving home from shul. The cops ignore you and search the car. Sure enough, they find a bag of precious diamonds in the glove compartment, a bag which they obviously had planted there. You argue, you demand a lawyer, you threaten to sue, but they handcuff you and throw you in the back of the police car. You keep arguing all the way to the police station, and all the way to the cell where you are locked up.

Now let’s compare this story with what happens at the end of our parsha, Miketz. If you want to follow along with me I am at Chapter 44 verses 12 and 13 on page 269 of the Chumash. Yosef had ordered his servants to place his special goblet in Binyamin’s bag. He accuses the brothers of stealing the goblet, and of course they deny it. Then, in verse 12, each brother opens his bag, starting with the oldest and ending with the youngest, Binyamin. Sure enough, the precious goblet is in Binyamin’s bag. In verse 13 the brothers tear their garments, in a show of mourning, as things will be bad for Binyamin. A couple of verses later Yehuda pleads with Yosef, and suggests that all the brothers be slaves to Paroh, not just Binyamin. Yosef replies, how could I do that—the man in whose sack the goblet was found will be my servant, the rest of you go home to your father. On that note, our parshah ends.

Spoiler alert—in next week’s parsha, Vayigash, Yehuda continues to argue with Yosef, and finally Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and all is well. But please note: during this entire event, Binyamin, the man who is accused of stealing the goblet, says nothing. Yehuda makes arguments on his behalf, but Binyamin says not one word.

Let’s go back for a little more context. As you know, this story begins when Yosef’s brothers –who first plan to kill him, sell him to a band of Ishmaelites, who bring him to Egypt and sell him to an Egptian named Potiphar. After Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses him of trying to sleep with her, Yosef is thrown in prison, but he correctly interprets the dreams of two of Paroh’s important men, the chief baker and chief steward. Two years later, Paroh has two dreams and is told that Yosef, still in prison, can interpret them. Yosef –with God’s help—interprets the dreams and Paroh is so impressed he elevates Yosef over all of his officers, and Yosef is not the number two official in Egypt in charge of distribution of food during the seven lean years.

Yaakov, back in Canaan here’s that there is food in Egypt. He sends his sons—with the notable exception of Binyamin—to go to Egypt and bring back food. The brothers go to Egypt and meet with Yosef. He recognized them but they have no idea that he is their brother Yosef. He accuses them of being spies, and while he lets them purchase food, he says that in order to prove they are not spies they must return to Canaan and bring Binyamin with them when they return.

So let’s pick up the story in Chapter 43, verse 3. The food from Egypt is running out and Yaakov asks his sons to go back and get some more. They then tell him that Yosef insisted that the youngest son—Binyamin—be brought to Egypt. Yaakov is surprised that they even told Yosef about the youngest son, but Yehuda explains that it was necessary since Yosef asked so many questions about the family. At first Yaakov refuses to allow Binyamin to go down to Egypt, but Yehuda talks him into it. Reluctantly, Yaakov allows them to take Binyamin with them, knowing that otherwise they would all starve.

What I find interesting is that this discussion is about Binyamin, but he plays no role in it whatsoever. You might expect Binyamin to say something like, “Dad, don’t worry so much, I will be fine, let me go with my brothers or we will all starve.” But he says nothing at all.

So the brothers return to Egypt, and come to Yosef, including Binyamin. In Chapter 43 verse 29 on page 267, Yosef sees his only full brother, the only other child of his mother Rachel, for the first time in many years, he asks, is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me, and then he looks at Binyamin and says “Elokim yachnecha b’ni,” “May God be gracious to you my boy.” Not bad, a lovely blessing from the number two guy in all of Egypt. But once again Binyamin says nothing to Yosef in reply.

Finally, let’s return to the story I started with. Yosef sends them off to their father with lots of food, but he tells his servants to put each brother’s money back in their sacks, and to put the precious goblet in Binyamin’s sack. When the brothers all open their sacks, and the goblet is found in Binyamin’s sack, Binyamin says nothing at all. Yehuda argues for him, but he himself says nothing.

Now let’s clear up one fact: Binyamin is indeed the youngest of the brothers, but he is not a little boy. He is a grown man with a wife and children. In fact, if you turn to Chapter 46 verse 6 at the top of page 281, the Torah says: “these are the names of the Israelites Jacob and his descendants, who came to Egypt,” and the Torah then lists each son and sets forth all of his children. In verse 21 on page 282 it lists the 10 sons of Binyamin. So no, he was not a little kid who needed protection. Yet it seems so odd that throughout our parsha Binyamin is in many ways right in the middle of the story, but he is in some way absent from the story. When Yosef demands that Binyamin come to Egypt, nobody asks Binyamin if that’s ok with him, and he says nothing. When Yosef blesses him, he says nothing. And finally, when the goblet is found in his sack, he says nothing.

Let’s go back to the passage where Yosef gives Binyamin a bracha, and says Elokim yachn’cha bni. As we noted, Binyamin –at least in the text of the Torah itself—makes no reply. But Yosef runs out of the room overcome with emotion. So the question troubling Rashi and the Rabbis in the midrash is this: why would Yosef run out of the room if Binyamin didn’t say anything? One would think that he must have said something that would affect Yosef.

So the Rabbis filled in the gap. Rashi tells us of a beautiful dialogue between Yosef and his only full brother, Binyamin, that appears nowhere in the Chumash. According to Rashi’s commentary on Chapter 43 verse 30, and citing the Talmud in Sotah 36b, Rashi recreates this very moving conversation. Yosef says to Binyamin: “Do you have a brother from your mother?” Binyamin answers: “I had a brother from my mother, but I don’t know where he is.” Then Yosef asks him: “Do you have sons?” and “Binyamin says: “I have 10 sons.” Yosef asks Binyamin: “What are their names?” and Binyamin replies by naming the 10 sons, whose names appear in Chapter 46 verse 21, and tells him all ten names. Now get out your hankies, for here is the really moving part: Yosef asks Binyamin “What is the reason for each of their names?” and Binyamin answers “They all are named for my brother, and for the hardships that befell him, that is I gave each of them a name that connects to my long lost brother Yosef, and his travails. In the Talmud they go through each of the 10 names, and Binyamin explains how the name relates to Yosef. The first son is named Bela, and Binyamin says I named him Bela “she’nivla ben ha’umot,” he was swallowed up among the nations. The second son is named Becher, he was given that name in honor of Yosef who was the b’chor, the oldest child of Rachel. I won’t go over all ten of the names, and how each was connected, but let me just mention three more: echi, because of my brother, and Rosh, because he was leader. Most moving to me is his explanation of the name of his son Chupim—because I was not present at his Chupah, his wedding canopy, and he was not present at mine. Following this deeply emotional conversation the Torah says that Yosef ran out of the room ki nichmeru rachamav el achiv, because he was overcome with feeling toward his brother.

What astonishing words the Rabbis placed in Binyamin’s mouth. Though his only full brother had disappeared, he loved him so much, that each time he had a new son he named that son after his connection with Yosef. No wonder Yosef ran out of the room overcome with emotion and love for his brother.

While Binyamin doesn’t actually say anything at all in our parsha, this beautiful midrash is meant to teach us what it means to be a brother, or for that matter a sister. It means never-ending and unconditional love. No matter how far away Yosef was, or how long they were separated, Binyamin never forgot him for a moment, and the Rabbis imagine that he named each of his 10 sons after Yosef, in one way or another. Perhaps this pure love for his brother explains a verse at the very end of the Torah. In the last parsha of the Torah, Vzot Habracha, Moshe blesses each of the tribes. This is what he says about Binyamin, and if you want to follow along you can look at p. 1205, the book of Devarim Chapter 33 verse 12: L’Binyamin amar, y’did Hashem” he said to Binyamin, “you are God’s beloved, you rest securely beside God, He protects you always, and you rest between His shoulders.” What a beautiful blessing, to be called Y’did Hashem. Perhaps the Rabbis are telling us that to become God’s beloved, love your brothers and sisters fully, and forever, and never forget them. It was Binyamin’s incredible love for Yosef that let him to become God’s beloved.

Shabbat shalom.


Parshat Vayetzei

By  R. Susan Laemmle, November 25, 2017

 This week’s parshah, Vayetzei, is framed by opening and closing words that encapsulate its contents. The parshah begins with Va-yetzei Yaakov mi-Beer Shavah, and ends with Va-yikrah shem hamakom ha-ho machanayim. Let’s look at the distance traveled between these two words.

Va-yetzei: Jacob journeys forth from his parental home to the home of his kinsman Laban — where he will spend 20 years working, wooing, wedding, and fathering children with four women.  Eventually he annunciates to Laban his need to separate off his household and return to his native land — which gives rise to the graphic episodes in which livestock are genetically modified and household gods, secreted away.  Toward the end of the parshah, Laban proposes a pact of peace when he catches up with the fleeing Jacob; then he and Jacob formalize this pact with a stone pillar and mound. After Laban departs, Jacob encounters angels as he goes on his way, and he announces that “this is God’s camp: machaneh-Elohim.” After that, he formally names the site machanayim.

 That final word machanayim implanted itself in my consciousness many years ago — where it has continued to echo, stir, and perplex.  Way back then, I noted the seeming incongruity between machaneh-Elohim: God’s camp — in the singular — and machanayim, with its dual or plural form.  Where is the second, the other, camp, I asked myself?  It took some years for me to ask myself an additional question: Why does the prospect of there being two camps in the setting where only one of them is apparent, stir me? The lingering force of those two questions explains why I accepted Alisa’s invitation to drash on this parshah.

It’s interesting to see the way in which some commentaries — including our Etz Hayim — ignore the slippage between the singular machaneh and the plural machanayim. Others (including Speiser’s Anchor Bible Genesis and the JPS Torah Commentary) note machanayim but disagree as to whether it’s the special dual form or just one version of the ordinary plural. Both of these commentaries, and additional ones, connect machanayim in an unspecified way to sh’nai machanot (the “two camps”) formed by Jacob as he prepares to encounter Esau in next week’s parshah.

The actual geographic location of machanayim has apparently not been identified; but it does play a significant role in Israelite history, and it may have housed a sacred shrine, the founding of which was associated with Jacob in popular legend. With his usual attention to shades of Hebrew meaning, Everett Fox translates machanayim as “Double Camp,” rather than “two camps” — and unlike the prevailing tendency to leave the Hebrew word untranslated in English, he uses “Double Camp” as the proper-noun name of the place.

Going beyond the word or phrase itself, most traditional commentary takes the plural formulation in a midrashic direction that pivots on Jacob’s encountering God’s angels. Ibn Ezra writes: “the angels come to assist him on the way.  Only Jacob saw the camp of angels surrounding his camp.  He called the name of the place machanayim because of the two camps there, his and the angels.”  For Rashi, “‘Two camps’ refers to the one consisting of the angles ministering outside the Holy Land who had come with him thus far, and the other, of those ministering in the Land of Israel who had come to meet him.”

Translating the traditional focus on the angels into a modern idiom, Rachel Havrelock in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary writes: “In the company of angels, Jacob recognizes the place as ‘the camp of God’ and himself as a dweller in machanayim, ‘Two Camps.’  This encounter with angels indicates that he crosses the threshold between home and exile, as well as that between heaven and earth.”

I am taken with Havrelock’s idea of Jacob as “a dweller in two camps” — two worlds, as it were.  Home and exile seem to fit his situation, as do heaven and earth. A Christian commentary on biblical geography says this: “Machanayim reflects the contest within the mind of Jacob of two strong forces, natural guile and spiritual concepts . . . .Thus machanayim reflects the arena of conflict between things of the spirit and those of the flesh.” This commentary goes on to list the ways in which Jacob’s life is marked, and marred, by divisions, beginning with his sharing womb and home with his twin brother Esau.

Polarities and divisions do characterize Jacob to an unusual degree.  They complicate his life and challenge him to become his own person. This challenge culminates in next week’s justly revered wrestling with an ish: “a man” who — despite the clearly human reference of this Hebrew word — is generally taken to be an angelic being.  This is the episode during which Jacob emerges as Yisrael: the “God wrestler,” with whom Jews proudly, even if sometimes tiredly, identify.  After that encounter, Jacob is able to make peace with Esau and proceed with the rest of his life.

Looking back again to the last word of our parshah, what shall we say then about machanayim —the perplexing doubled or paired camps where common sense sees only simple presence?  For me, the parceling out of angels into Zion and diapora-based units distracts from the overall thrust of Jacob’s story. And Havrelock’s version of this as “home and exile” or “heaven and earth,” seems to stack the deck in a negatively dualistic way.  From such dualism, it’s a short step to the typically Christian antagonism between “things of the spirit and those of the flesh.”  Yes, Jacob’s life — like mine, and probably yours — is full of division. But does that necessarily mean that he, that we, must live in “two camps”? Must we choose between home and exile, between earth and heaven, between our bodies and our souls?  It’s not that these various midrashic approaches are wrong — Midrash doesn’t work like that. It’s more that other approaches could be more fertile and meaningful.

This is where it matters, I think, to take Machanayim as a dual form, not a simple plural.  The grammar of this is complicated and subject to scholarly disagreement that we won’t get into here.  But surely all of us who’ve delighted to learn the Hebrew for paired parts of our body can connect to Jacob’s experience:  raglayim, aynaim, oznayim, sefatayim — and even ofanayim: “bicycle.” These are pairs that yoke a twosome together in an intimate, interconnected, balanced, life-affirming way. Only in extreme and unfortunate circumstances does someone have to choose between one eye and the other, one leg and the other, or even one bicycle wheel and another.

As Jacob, and we, mature into adulthood and toward wisdom, if we are fortunate, we learn more and more to negotiate, even to embrace, complexity.  Whenever possible, instead of gravitating toward either/or  thinking & acting, we reach out for both/and.  Not all or nothing, not a zero-sum game. Rather, somewhat less for me perhaps, along with something for you — you whom the womb of the world birthed as it did me.

This is the frame of mind and character with which Jacob moves from machaniyim to Seir — Edom, his brother Esau’s territory.  Jacob’s sense of himself has enlarged to the point where he feels able to seek reconciliation. His initial openness suffers a setback upon hearing that Esau is right then approaching him with four hundred men, and so he falls back into his old habits by dividing his people and livestock into two camps — sh’nai machanot.  Then he prays to Adonai the god of his fathers to save him from his brother’s wrath.

In response to that prayer, it seems, come the awesome struggle from which Jacob emerges with a new name — but without having to give up his old one. As Richard Elliott Friedman points out, “Abraham and Sarah have their names changed permanently, but Jacob is still called Jacob many times after his name is changed to Israel.” Jacob’s continuing to answer to both names can reflect his dwelling in Machanayim — an ample, open-ended environment of growth and blessing.

Of course, life will present its challenges, and Jacob-Israel will not be a saint.  (We Jews don’t much go in for saints.)  He shows favoritism toward his youngest son Joseph, which leads to another creation of “two camps” — one in Canaan and the other in Egypt. And yet, this polarity was foretold to Abraham by Adonai at the Covenant of the Pieces; and it will lead on to the Exodus, Sinai, and eventual return to the Land. Jacob is buried by his sons in his native land, and Joseph’s bones are carried along on the Exodus. The Torah instructs us “not to abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” to the point that “children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation.”  It’s as if what starts as two antagonistic camps develops into machanayim.

Today we Jews and we Americans are arguably more polarized than ever. It’s easy to create and maintain two camps over against one another.  It’s also relatively easy to uphold a stifling, coercive unity.  Jacob has shown us a way toward machanayim — a place of complex, open-hearted, life-suffused blessing. May we journey and dwell there in wholeness.










Rosh Hashana Day 1

Rosh Hashana First Day

By Ilana Grinblatt, September 21, 2017

Every year, in preparing for the high holidays, I ask myself the same, simple question: Who or what most inspired me this past year? Was it something that I read? Was it a person who said or did something memorable? Was it a particular moment that occurred? What did I learn that I want to carry into this new year?

This year was a tough one. While I am grateful for the blessings of this past year, if I had to summarize the past year is one word, the word would be: Oy! When I look back on when I spoke to you last Yom Kippur, I was feeling hopeful – guardedly so – but hopeful. Some developments that I was wishin for last Yom Kippur didn’t come to be.

Instead, we witnessed a year of great divisiveness in our country – where our civil discourse was anything but civil. We faced many disasters – from the bomb threats on the Jewish Community Centers to the horrific hatred displayed in Charlottesville, to the recent Hurricanes. We were constantly reminded of our vulnerability to tragedies – natural, man-made, and a combination thereof. Yet even in year like this past year, there is inspiration to be found.

So what did I learn from this past year? Who inspired me?

This morning, I’d like to share with you the word, the sentence, and the moment that most inspired me most this past year that I want to carry with me into the coming year.

The word that I want to carry into the year to come is Hayom (Today). This word is found in the Hayom T’amtzenu prayer said on the Rosh Hashanah. This word is repeated many times in this prayer. In a common melody, the word Hayom is repeated 13 times per line, for some 9 lines – hammering home that word, again and again.

When I think about songs in English about days, the first that comes to mind is Yesterday by the Beatles.

Sometimes, we get stuck in yesterday. Something happened years ago, and we’re still there. They say that “time heals all wounds,” – which is a lovely idea, except that it isn’t true. Since I’ve had two surgeries on my toe in the past month, I can tell you that time is a necessary but insufficient ingredient for healing. Wounds require active participation to heal – including cleaning, wrapping, and antibiotic ointment. Likewise, our spiritual wounds require care to heal. Sometimes we get stuck in the past because we haven’t done the spiritual work to tend to old wounds.

One of the tricks that mind plays on us is articulated precisely by the lyrics of the Beatles’ song. “Yesterday love was such an easy game to play, now I need a place to hide away.” One of the tricks the mind plays on us is to romanticize that yesterday was easier than now which is so much more difficult. Perhaps yesterday was actually easier or perhaps not, but nonetheless, we can’t go back there and redo our decisions, so the Hayom prayer pulls us out of yesterday to focus instead on the choices that are available to us today.

When I think about songs about days, the second song that immediately comes to mind is the opposite song – “Tomorrow” from Annie. “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, I love you tomorrow, you’re only a day away!”

It’s such a hopeful song. I do in fact love tomorrow. The hope that tomorrow will be better than yesterday is what gets me through the hardest parts of my life. Overall, this song has been true for me. One of the perks of a tough childhood is that adulthood is an improvement. No matter what I’m going through, I hope that tomorrow will be an improvement.

Therefore, I was surprised by a sentence that I read in Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new book, Einstein and the Rabbi – “Be aware that the Yetzer’s most powerful weapon of all is one word, tomorrow.” Rabbi Levy explained how the yetzer hara (our evil inclination) tricks us with the promise of tomorrow.

If we’re scared to do something, the yetzer reassures us by saying: you’ll do it tomorrow. This idea sounds great because tomorrow is so soon. Except, that tomorrow, the yetzer tricks us again this way, and tomorrow always stays a day away.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that if we are afraid of something, our fears are not likely to get smaller tomorrow. In fact, our fears tend to grow. If there’s a painful conversation that we need to have, that conversation is not likely to be easier tomorrow than today. Actually, it’s likely to be harder because the distance between estranged friends or family grows a bit each day. The Hayom prayer calls on us to have that conversation today.

If there’s a project we’ve wanted in our heart of hearts to do but been terrified to begin, the task not likely to get less intimidating in the future. Rather, the longer we listen to yetzer’s whisper tomorrow, the prospect of starting steadily becomes more overwhelming. The Hayom prayer says: Start today.

This same phenomenon occurs in both our personal and global problems. Rabbi Arthur Waskow recently wrote a moving reflection entitled, “The World itself is Blowing the Great Shofar. Awake!” He referred to four events of the past months as four shofar blows:

  • Charlottesville as a wake-up call to Neo-Nazism,
  • the Hurricanes as a wake-up call for Climate Change
  • the hydrogen bomb and long-distance missiles tested by the government of North Korea as a warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and
  • the “efforts to wreck the lives of Dreamers and other immigrants, documented or not.”

However you would define the Shofar blasts, and our greatest global and personal challenges, the sad truth is that these problems don’t tend to go away on their own. In fact, if we stall, these problems tend to grow.

On both a personal and global level, the irony is that the hope that tomorrow will be better automatically can keep us from the making the scary, painful actions today which would actually make tomorrow better.

The Hayom prayer calls us to begin today.

Now, let’s look at another prayer which begins with the word Hayom. While the word that I want to carry into the new year is Hayom, the sentence that I want to carry into the new year is Hayom Harat Olam (which is sung after blowing the shofar). What does that sentence mean?

Hayom Harat Olam is commonly translated as Today the world is born.

However, Rabbi Naomi Levy learned from Dr. Tamar Frankel the true meaning of this sentence. The words “Harat Olam” are quoted from Jeremiah. In a moment of despair, Jeremiah wished that he had never been born, that his mother had stayed pregnant forever.

Therefore, Hayom Harat Olam actually means: Today is pregnant forever.

To me, being pregnant forever sounds like a nightmare – since I felt sick throughout my pregnancies. Being pregnant forever means never meeting the baby, never seeing the fruit of your labor, being stuck in suspended animation, about to jump out of the airplane but never taking the leap. Today is pregnant forever means today is filled with potential until you undertake the excruciating process of bringing something new into the world.

What are you pregnant forever with? What are you waiting to bring into this world but haven’t yet? Is it a professional or personal project that you’ve been scared to start? Is it a social justice issue that has been bothering you? Is it a conversation you need to have?

This Hayom prayer calls us to do so today.

Now that I’ve shared with you the inspirational word and sentence, I’d like to share with you the inspiration moment from the year. Part of my job at the Board of Rabbis is to plan the High Holy Days conference. At this year’s conference Rabbi Naomi Levy led a meditation. I’d like to do with you a shortened version of what she did, and share with you what happened to me at that moment.

Close your eyes.

Take a deep breath, and exhale.

Imagine that you are walking into your favorite sanctuary.

Enter the sanctuary… walk towards the ark… open the ark… take out the Torah… and listen…

Now close the Torah…close the ark… Slowly step back from the ark… and walk back to the door of the sanctuary… Kiss the mezuzah on the door of the sanctuary, step out of the sanctuary… and open your eyes.

When I experienced this meditation at the High Holy Days conference, I heard two words, “yehiyeh tov,” it will be good. At first, I felt a bit frustrated and wondered, what should I do so that it will be good. Yet, ultimately that is our greatest hope, that there will be goodness in our lives.

Thus, my hope for us for the coming year is: May we not be stuck in yesterday, may we not be stuck in tomorrow, and may we not be stuck in between. May we not be pregnant forever. May we make the tough choices today that will make our tomorrows better v’yehiyeh Tov – and may your year be filled with goodness.

Shanah Tovah.

Rosh Hashana Day 2

Rosh Hashana Day 2

By Joel Grossman, September 21, 2017

One of the pleasures of the High Holiday machzor is coming across prayers that we say only once a year, that were composed just for these special days. We are so used to the regular weekday and Shabbat prayers, that the once-a-year prayers such as Unetaneh Tokef feel special, even meriting that overused adjective “awesome.” We also have to add various phrases into the familiar Amidah, giving us a new awareness that these are not regular days, as we concentrate on not saying the familiar beginning of the Amidah by heart and remembering to insert “Zachreinu l ‘chayim” and the other passages.

By contrast, this is a reminder that we need to work hard during the rest of the year to have some level of kavanah, of intentionality, when we say familiar prayers. When we very familiar with a particular prayer we may rush through it, with our minds a million miles away. This is certainly true of a very familiar prayer which comes at the end of every single service, shacharit, mincha and maariv, the Aleinu. Originally Aleinu, written by Rav, was meant to be the introductory paragraph of the Malchuyot section of Musaf on Rosh Hashono. It is still the beginning of Malchuyot, but the Rabbis liked the prayer so much that they incorporated in all 3 of the daily services, so that we say Aleinu more than a thousand times a year.

Perhaps what is so remarkable about Aleinu is that it is a particularist statement, which contains  a statement of Jewish exceptionalism, which we will look at in a moment, and then it becomes a universalist statement with its instruction to us to repair a broken world. Let’s take a closer look, and please follow along in the Machzor on p. 130. The first two lines of the prayer appear to be universal: it is for us to praise the Ruler of all—adon hakol, not elokeinu v’elokei avotainu—not our God alone but adon hakol, the Ruler of all. The prayer next says that we should acclaim or give glory to yotzer breishit—the creator of the world. Once again, the world was created for everyone, not us. It doesn’t say the God who took us out of Egypt, but the God who created all humanking.

The prayer then takes a sharp turn. After saying we should praise the Lord of everyone, the Aleinu says –in its most particularistic passage—shelo asanu c’goyei haaratzot—God didn’t make us like the other nations, v’lo samanu kmishp’chot haadama, and he did not give us a destiny like other peoples. And this notion of Jewish particularism and exceptionalism is even more explicit if you follow a tradition that adds one more sentence at this point in the prayer: she’hem mishtachavim l’hevel va’rik l’el lo yoshia, they worship vanity and emptiness, a god who cannot save them. Some have the custom of spitting when they recite this verse. This added verse points out how other nations foolishly worship an empty god (lower case “g”) which is contrasted by the God whom we worship—anachnu korim u’mistachavim umodim—we bow to and worship and are grateful to God who is the king of all kings.

The remainder of the first paragraph of Aleinu praises God as the essential force of nature, who extends the heavens and establishes the earth, and who is God alone, en od, there is no other. The first paragraph ends with a quote from Dvarim, from parshat Va’etchanan obliging us to know that our God is the only God, in heaven and here on earth.

The second paragraph of Aleinu is an amazing change of direction, leaving the particularist aspect of God and setting forth a universalist statement of hope that not just Jews but all people will join in the sacred work of tikun olam, or repairing the world. We hope for a time when idols are destroyed as we are prepared for a new age, an age of tikun olam, an age when kol bnei basaryik’ru beshmecha, when all of humankind will call on you by name, because kol yoshvei tevel, all who live on this earth will know that all every knee must bend to you. Pause for a moment to recall the first paragraph in which only our people –anachnu korim umistachavim—only we bow to God, but in the second paragraph all people who live on earth will bend their knees  before God. Vikablu chulam et ol malchutecha, they will all accept the yoke, or the obligation of God’s kingship. We will no longer differentiate ourselves from the goyeh haaratzot, the other nations of the world, but we will join with them in bending our knee to God, the only God, who will be king over all the world. We Jews will no longer have a special, elevated relationship with God; instead we will be partners with all people in worshipping God and working together to repair the world.

I can think of other prayers that emphasize our special relationship with God, often with a reference to our forefathers, or to the Exodus from Egypt, or the special Amidah for yom tov that says atta b’charanu mikol ha’amim, you chose us from all other peoples, or the  final line of the kaddish –oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael, God who makes peace in the heavens, please bring peace to us and all Israel. There are also more univeralist prayers, such as ha’meir laaretz v’ladarim aleha, God illuminates the earth for all who live here. Or Psalm 8, on p. 42, which is the Psalm for Rosh Hashono which focuses on the idea that hayom harat olam, today the world was created, and speaks of God’s majesty being recognized throughout the world, even mentioning the birds who fly above and the fish who swim in the oceans, all recognize God’s majesty.

So while I can think of some prayers that speak to us as God’s chosen people, and some which speak of God’s majesty for all peoples and animals, I know of no prayer like Aleinu that combines these two somewhat contradictory notions. What was the author’s intent in doing so? I certainly don’t know. But I can guess that the author’s vision was a two-part process. First, we accept and worship God, and then we become an or lagoyim, a light to the nations, who follow us in this worship which becomes universal. But that second event cannot happen before the first; in other words only if and when we accept God’s kingship over us are we ready to spread that message to the rest of the world. That’s not God’s job. It’s ours.

Two contrasting texts show Jewish tradition’s acceptance of both universalism and particularism. The Torah begins with creation of all manking, not of Jews. Yet, the Torah ends with the words “l’eyney kol Yisrael, in the eyes of all of the Jewish people. Both are part of the Torah.

Similarly we can contrast the phrase kol yisrael aravin zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other, with a passage from the Mishna in Sanhedrin, found on p. 40 of the machzor. The Mishna asks why God created only one person at the beginning of Genesis. The answer is to teach us that if we destroy one person, it is as if we had destroyed the whole world, but if we can save one person it is as if we have saved the entire world. My father loved this piece of Torah, and spoke of it often. In fact, my father lived his life with this as his guiding principle, doing anything he could to save the life –or the soul—of a single person. He loved this phrase so much, and he lived by it, so we put it on his gravestone.

So let’s talk about another interpretation of the word Aleinu, outside the context of this prayer. The word literally means it’s upon us, or it’s our duty, or it’s up to us. A similar phrase can be found in Pirkei Avot, stating lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’i atta ben chorin l’hipater mimena—it’s not alecha—up to you, or your duty, to finish the work, but you are free to avoid it either. Aleinu –the word itself, not as used in the prayer—is about taking responsibility. Even though we cannot possibly do all the work that needs to be done, that’s no excuse for not doing what we can. Just as on Pesach we recite all the things that would have been enough, dayenu, on this Rosh Hashono let us think about all of the things that are Aleinu, that are up to us. As we perform a cheshbon hanefesh, as we examine our victories and our failures during the past year, and plan to do better in the year to come, let’s think about this very important word,  Aleinu—it’s up to us.

  • If the State of Israel needs our support, Aleinu.
  • If Temple Bath Am needs our commitment for the shul’s future, Aleinu.
  • If the Daily Minyan, or a hiva minyan needs people, Aleinu.
  • If refugees in Darfur need food and shelter, Aleinu.
  • If Jews anywhere in the world need our help, Aleinu.
  • If Syrian refugees need our help, Aleinu.
  • If there are poor and homeless people in Los Angeles who need our help, Aleinu.
  • If we can fight to preserve DACA and let people who came here through no fault of their own, stay in ouir country,  Aleinu
  • If those devastated by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the earthquake in Mexico need our help, Aleinu.
  • If white supremacists and neo-nazis seek to take away the rights of minorities,  Aleinu.
  • If women’s right to choose is threatened by the government, Aleinu.
  • If non-Orthodox Jews are not treated as full Jews by the Israeli rabbinate, Aleinu.
  • And finally, as long the world remains broken and there is a need for tikun olam, Aleinu.

Shana Tova