Category Archives: Divrei 5781

Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo, August 28, 2021

By Julia Knobloch

I recently visited family in Europe for the first time in three years. It was also the first time that I left the city by plane after my arrival at LAX pretty much to the day one year earlier, in the midst of a pandemic that has since somewhat abated but also returned – and had never really left to begin with. In all instances, I prayed that I’d be blessed in my going and in my coming.

The Jewish year is going out and a new one is coming, while the secular year continues. This Elul, I have been reflecting a lot on purposes and meanings of my own comings and goings, of my leaving New York and arriving in LA, of this one first year of Rabbinical School; whether I’m on a linear or cyclical journey, what is ending, what is continuing, what is beginning, again.

Judaism is all about cycles – for example, every seven years we have a Shmita year. Every 49 years a Yovel. And every year we’re being asked to imagine what it means to return to the days of old. In fact, what DOES it mean? Are we going forward or backward — eastward yet onward?

On a personal level, I’m old enough to notice that elements of my life keep repeating themselves. This past year DID bring many firsts — but I — and maybe some of you, too — often experience situations as if I were in a wheel, in a galgal. I’ll come back to that word in a bit.

One reason why I didn’t go to JTS was that I wanted to start this new chapter in a place where nobody knew me and I didn’t know anybody. But soon after coming here, many things seemed familiar, the clean slate sprinkled. The same hopes and disenchantments, the same systems to work. The same characters, if with different faces and different names. Certain conversations reoccurred on the same date as they had before. Chapters I thought had been closed back east were re-opened here, and closed again, with the same ending.

Probably it’s the poet, the former documentary filmmaker in me, who likes to assign significance and meaning to what others would call haphazardness, coincidence, not surprising. I ask myself: Am I coming or am I going? Have I been here before? Where am I headed? And: When are we all an archetype of sorts, and when are we living our own specific lives?

One famous line that we encounter often at synagogue entrances or in the Traveler’s Prayer stems from this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo.

בָּר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בְּבֹאֶ֑ךָ וּבָר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בְּצֵאתֶֽךָ׃

Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.

The Israelites are about to enter, to come into, the Land of Canaan. Moses is instructing the people how to behave, whom to worship – because there are consequences to following or not following the laws of God. In a memorable scene, half of the tribes stand on Mount Ebal and the other on Mount Gerizim, while the Levites proclaim the curses and blessings that can befall or benefit the people, depending on their choice of action. And one is the above quoted line.

Commentators give us a variety of interpretations for what this coming and going could refer to: Rashi’s idea is that it refers to dying and being birthed free from sin, Chizkuni’s take is that it must refer to going to and returning from war, and Ibn Ezra’s opinion is that it refers to basically everything, that it encompasses all our mundane routines, our daily businesses, our flying to Europe and landing safely back at LAX.

Arguably, there are two archetypical cornerstones to our Jewish trajectory – the ONE GOING: the Exodus, and the ONE COMING: Entering the Land.

The latter, which is about to happen in Tanach, the crossing of the Jordan (with echoes from crossing the Yam Suf), is not the first time that our ancestors enter that same land. Abraham and Jacob came and went and came again until Jacob, as it says in Parshat Yaveshev, was settled in the land where his fathers had sojourned and that his family will leave again — until the return of the Israelites after 400 years: Now.

Rashi describes the events leading to that very moment, when Jacob dwells in the land, as “turnings,” “rollings”: gilgulei — as a cycle, a wheel of coming and going — a magal, a circle, gagal, a wheel. Gilgal!

Gilgal is the name of the place where the Israelites encamp after crossing the Jordan and where they erect a monument of 12 stones with the words of the Torah inscribed on them: A spiral-like structure at the end of a non-linear journey that had but one delineated destination.

What does it mean to come to a place, knowing we might have to leave it again? Like we came to the place of vaccines and the promise of a summer in Israel, an unmasked semester start, carefree mingling inside the synagogue building, promising projects and new or reawakened friendships, only to experience it all move out of (close) reach again.

In times like these, when we begin again knowing that certain things will repeat themselves or end — when we return to the days of a new normal that doesn’t feel new anymore — it is important to reflect on the reassuring patterns, on the wheels that keep us going, and on what we imagine as the delineated destinations of our lives. Is only linear success a manifestation of being blessed? Or can we find blessings in our comings and goings, turnings and returns, in “a field of hills and of depressions”? Or, in reference to the book of Deuteronomy we’re in: Can we repeat and revise at the same time? What lessons do we learn from Heshbon HaNefesh?

Those may be questions better asked of Kohelet on Sukkot, but Elul sets the tone for our long, yearly journey of returning, so I wanted to invite us to think about what we, individually and as a community, want to do with 5782 (and a continuing 2021):

From where are we setting out and to where do we hope to return?

What will we count as blessings?

What are you going to inscribe onto your personal stone monument after crossing the Jordan?

Shabbat Shalom!


Sh’lach L’Cha—שלח לך

Sh’lach L’Cha—שלח לך

By Zwi Reznik, By June 5, 2021, 25 Sivan 5781

I have a fondness for the work of Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, z’’l, a Hassidic Rabbi as well as a psychiatrist. In one of his brief commentaries I first read a sentence I took to heart. “There are four essentials for human life: Food and Water, Clothing, Shelter and someone to blame”. I’ll be getting back to Rabbi Twerski later, but in the meantime keep that sentence in mind.

Parsha Sh’lach L’cha begins with God commanding Moshe to send a group of twelve men to 13:2“… scout the land of Canaan…”. Moshe selects them and sends them on their mission. Among them are כלב and הושע who, significantly, Moshe renames יהושע by adding a י to his name. Moshe gives them instructions and sends them on their way. We can see the beginnings of a problem in verse 22 where the text refers to the  ”…offspring of the giant—ילידי הענק…”. I need to make a comment on translation here. The Jewish Publication Society translation and others use “…the Anakites…” instead of “…offspring of the giant…”. In his footnote to this verse Alter states “22. …offspring of the giant. The second Hebrew term here, ʿanaq, is understood by some modern translators to be an ethnic designation (“Anakites”). The words of the scouts, however, in verse 33, clearly place “offspring of the ʿanaq” in apposition with Nephilim, the legendary man-god hybrids mentioned in Genesis 6:1–4, and there is no indication elsewhere of an ethnic group called Anakites. (On the basis of this chapter,  ‘anaq’ in all subsequent strata of Hebrew is the standard term for “giant.”) The legendary scale of the bounty of the land, its “fatness,” is matched by the legendary proportions of its inhabitants. It should be noted that this representation of Hebron inhabited by giants swerves from the depiction of Hebron in Genesis 25, where the local denizens are ordinary, and commercially shrewd, Hittites. (Genesis 25 is at the end of חיי שרה where Avraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites is noted).

The scouting party moves on, grabs a huge cluster of grapes, as well as pomegranates and dates, and returns. They confirm that they have seen a land flowing with Milk and Honey and then ten of them horrify everyone with what else they have seen. כלב attempts to respond to the ten by referring to the land saying in verse 30 “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it.” However, the damage has been done and the chapter ends with Verses 32 and 33 “32And they put forth an ill report to the Israelites of the land that they had scouted, saying, “The land through which we passed to scout is a land that consumes those who dwell in it, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of huge measure. 33And there did we see the Nephilim, sons of the giant from the Nephilim, and we were in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”

Chapter 14 opens with the people in full panic mode. Finally, God has enough and threatens to kill off everyone with a plague. After substantial effort by Moshe, God relents and decides to just have them die off slowly in the Wilderness leaving only  כלב and יהושע of the generation of slaves to make it to Canaan. The chapter ends with the people now expressing regret and proceeding to mount an utterly useless and disastrous attack on a position held by Amalekites and Canaanites. The text is somewhat vague with the details.

I must note that I have not presented a Drash since November of 2019, about nineteen months ago. At that time I spoke of parshat לך לך. My choice for today sounds somewhat similar—Sh’lach L’Cha. The similarity is due to the fact that this parsha name begins with an imperative form of a verb. In particular God speaks directly to Moshe with a clear command (Sh’lach!)ְ, i.e. SEND!. שלח! is the second person, singular, masculine imperative form of the verb לשלוח-to SEND. The addition of the next word לך seems somewhat redundant. Translators and commentators have written of this two word phrase and its significance. There is also further commentary on the third word of verse 2, אנשים  MEN. In the English translation of the Midrash Tanchuma on Sefaria the translation “Send men for yourself…” appears. (Note that the Midrash Tanchuma was composed in Talmudic Babylon/Italy/Israel c.500 – c.800 CE and it was often cited by Rashii). In Alter the three word phrase is similarly translated as 2“Send you men…”,

So it is Moshe who is going to be organizing this scouting expedition! In fact a little bit later in Chapter 13 we see that it is Moshe, naming the members of the expedition. It’s not God doing it. It was God who had previously called out the names of the leaders of the military assemblage seen in Parsha במדבר. We see that the impending disaster of this twelve man expedition is being put on Moshe. In addition the character of these men is noted in Alter’s footnote to verse 13:3 “ …all of them men. Rashi, followed by several modern commentators, proposes that “men” has the connotation of men of stature. In the present context, that might mean military prowess—a trait that would make the fearful majority report of the scouts all the more shameful.”

The Midrash Tanchuma continues with comments on later verses דבורים from in 1:21-22. First the verses from Alter’s translation “21 See, the LORD your God has given the land before you. Go up, take hold, as the LORD God of your fathers has spoken to you. Be not afraid nor be dismayed.’ That’s what God has said! Moshe goes on: 22 And you came forward to me, all of you, and you said, ‘Let us send men before us that they probe the land for us and bring back word to us of the way on which we should go up and the towns into which we should come.’ From this Midrash, also quoted extensively by Rashi, we read: “Even though the Holy the Holy One, blessed be He, had said to Moses, “Send men for yourself,” it was not [the wish] of the Holy One, blessed be He, for them to go.13See Numb. R. 16:7. Why? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, had already told them [about] the superiority of the Land of Israel. It is so stated (in Deut. 8:7), “For the Lord your God is bringing you unto a good land.” Moreover, while they had been in Egypt, he had said to them (in Exod. 3:8), “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians [and to bring them up out of that land unto a good and spacious land].” And Scripture states (in Exod. 13:21), “And the Lord went in front of them by day.” So, blame Moshe.

Commentary in this vein continues to modern time. Moving ahead from the Midrash Tanchuma about 1300 to 1600 years, we come to a commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on שלח לך written prior to his death in November, 2020. It is titled “Confidence”. These commentaries are based Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks previous book Lessons in Leadership. It begins “It was perhaps the single greatest collective failure of leadership in the Torah. Ten of the spies whom Moses had sent to spy out the land came back with a report calculated to demoralise the nation”. He then goes on to quote several of the verses that I have already from the end of Chapter 13. Rabbi Lord Sacks seems to implicate Moshe in this failure of leadership. In addition the ten spies lacked confidence due to a lack of effective leadership! That lack of confidence led to the failure and condemned the people to forty years of wandering.  He does praise כלב and ,יהושעfor showing leadership, but notes that the ten did not listen. Rabbi Lord Sacks then compliments and paraphrases a commentary by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  Rabbi Schneerson’s opinion was that the ten were actually afraid of victory, regardless of what they reported back to Moshe and the people. That in fact they were content to remain in the wilderness where “they lived in close and continuous proximity to God”. If on the other hand they reported that they were in agreement with what כלב  had argued in verse 13:30 noted above—i.e. “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it.”, they would be faced with fighting wars, ploughing land, planting seed and so on in the land of Canaan. So we have moved on from blaming just Moshe to now including the ten for their share. I must admit that reading the entire Rabbi Lord Sacks’ commentary was oddly intriguing, which is why I have included it but, I am not entirely comfortable with it. In fairness, I would suggest that you find it online and form your own opinion. That said, I’ll go back to Rabbi Dr. Twerski now.

I have a collection of his brief commentaries on all the parshaot. He has titled the one on שלח לך “Misguided Humility”. I would like to quote from it. “In this week’s portion of the Torah we read of the tragic consequences of misguided humility. The saga of the spies sent by Moses to bring back a report of the Promised Land, which eventuated in the Divine decree that the generation of the Exodus must perish during forty years of wandering in the desert, represents both a lack of trust in God and a lack of faith in one’s self”. Then, after quoting the second half of verse 13.33, about feeling like grasshoppers in the presence of the Nephilim, Rabbi Dr. Twerski then quotes Rashi’s comment on the verse, “We heard them—i.e.the GIANTS, say about us, ‘There are ants crawling about in our vineyards, ‘ ”. In other words, since the ten saw themselves as grasshoppers, they would then think of themselves as being perceived as the even more diminutive ants in the eyes of the Nephilim.

Rabbi Twerski then concludes his commentary by bringing in the concept of the yeitzer hara and that it may try to confuse us by giving us “…the impression that we are in remorse for our sins, while the true fact is that the yeitzer hara is simply trying to paralyze us with depression”. The commentary concludes with the sentence “We have too much to accomplish to allow ourselves to be disabled by unwarranted feelings of unworthiness”.

I used to wonder about my affinity for Rabbi Twerski’s writings given the stark differences in our theological views. However, those disagreements are minor given what I see as the demonstration of the compassion of the true physician.

Finally, I’ll turn to one more commentary which I discovered which proposes a seemingly radical idea. Moses should have sent men! As noted above the three word phrase שלח לך אנשים  is best translated as “send men for yourself” or “send for yourself men”, or “send you men” and NOT just “send men”. The idea of sending women originated with Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz (1550-1619) who was the Rabbi of Prague. It appears in his 16th century  Torah commentary know at the Kli Yakar—כלי יקר. By definition a Kli Yakar can also be a person. That title originated from Proverbs 20:15—“15There is gold with abundance of rubies, but lips of knowledge are a precious vessel”.

As far as I could tell Sefaria only has a Hebrew version of the Kli Yikar. What I’m quoting from is a translation that was posted by a Rabbi Joyce Newmark.

Our Rabbis said, the men hated the land and were the ones who said, “let us head back for Egypt” [Numbers 14:4] and the women loved the land and said, “give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen” [Numbers 27:4, the story of the daughters of Zelophechad, five sisters who asked that they be given the share of the land that would have gone to their father who died without sons]. The Holy Blessed One said, “In My opinion … it would be better to send women who love the land for they will not defame it. But you, (i.e. Moshe) according to your opinion that they are fit and that they love the land, want to send men. This is the meaning of ‘send for yourself men’ — according to your opinion, men, but in my opinion it would be better to send women.”

 I’ll end with a personal observation. I’ve shared with friends that I was once advised by a Hospice counselor that whether I wanted to or not I was starting a new life. As it turned out that involved choosing to move to Los Angeles. Clearly that was nowhere near as frightening as the idea of trudging across a desert and fighting Amelikites. The move has turned out well for me. Since its spring I will very much enjoy seeing the Jacaranda trees in bloom around my apartment building. I am also recalling that I’ve also seen Jacaranda trees in Israel, where my thoughts have been focused lately.

Shabbat Shalom

Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.



By Stevie Green, 29 May 2021

Imagine if you can a societal upheaval.  An international event that kills many thousands and terrifies millions more.  A cataclysm of biblical proportions that threatens our very ability to gather together for Passover as we were accustomed to.  Hard as it is for us to imagine, such was the circumstance approximately 2,750 years ago.

The 2nd Book of Chronicles, chapter 30, tells this story about King יְחִזְקִיָּ֜הוּ / Hezekiah.

The king and his officers and the congregation in Jerusalem had agreed to keep the Passover in the second month, for at the time, they were unable to keep it, for not enough priests had sanctified themselves, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem.

The book of Chronicles presents this lack of preparedness as the result of the abandonment of social norms, religious values, and basic decency during the previous political administration.  Again, hard for us to imagine today.  However, some modern scholars doubt the chronology as presented.  Dr. David Glatt-Gilad of Ben-Gurion University writes:

The Chronicler’s dating of Hezekiah’s cultic reforms and Passover celebration to the very beginning of his reign reflects a literary-theological convention aimed at highlighting the king’s dedication to the cult, and most likely does not preserve the event’s actual chronological setting.

Rather, he argues, Hezekiah’s purpose was to reunite the people after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire around the year 720 BCE.

In this week’s parasha, we read about a somewhat similar circumstance.

But there were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the passover sacrifice on that day                 [they go to Moses, Moses goes to G-d, G-d answers]     When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the LORD, they shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month,                    [skip a bit]           They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the passover sacrifice.

Both our Rabbinic interpretive tradition and contemporary academic bible scholars are unsure of how these stories are related.  At first glance, the text of chronicles “for not enough priests had sanctified themselves, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem” seems to correspond to being “defiled” or “on a journey”.  Unfortunately, the similarities basically end there and the differences are significant.

  1. Most obviously, Pesach Sheni seems to be a supplement to pesach rishon, for the people who need it only, not a postponement for everybody.
  2. More importantly, Pesach Sheni is a 2nd chance specifically for the Korban Pesach, the offering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan, not the week-long Chag HaMatzos that begins a few hours later at sundown of the 15th and which we still observe today. However, the story in chronicles explicitly includes both.
  3. Pesach Sheni is supposed to follow “all the laws of the Passover”, but Hezekiah allows those who are still unpure to eat from it – which seems to be the exact opposite of the basic purpose of pesach sheni.
  4. The book of Chronicles sometimes refers to Hezekiah as acting כְּמִשְׁפָּטָם כְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה “like the laws of the Torah of Moses”. In this case however, it is described as בְּלֹא כַכָּתוּב “not as it is written”.  In other words, the Chronicler seems to think of this event as a justified and necessary response to the time of need, what later rabbis would call בִּשׁעַת הַדְחָק , rather than a fulfilment of an existing law.

Recognizing these differences, the Mishna Pesachim 4:9 describes Hezekiah’s decree as עיבר ניסן בניסן, “he added another Nisan when it was already Nisan” – ie. He established a leap year somewhat retroactively and thus pushed off the holiday one month – thus straining the definition of “in the 2nd month”.  The Talmud in Sanhedrin 12b records the mishna’s opinion as the majority, but also gives voice to the suggestion that it was in fact Pesach Sheni.

Academics see no need to justify the delay beyond what the text of Chronicles tells us, “G-d heard Hezekiah’s prayer and healed the people” ie. G-d approved.  For critical biblical scholars, the Torah was something of a work in progress while Hezekiah reigned, and the book of Chronicles is unreliable having been written centuries later.  Therefore, it is not clear what historically occurred or how it influenced or was influenced by any written texts that became part of the Chumash.  What is clear, is that Hezekiah was reaching out to the population of the Northern Kingdom, either in anticipation of or in response to the Assyrian invasion.  The text continues:

The couriers went out with the letters from the king and his officers through all Israel and Judah, by order of the king, proclaiming, “O you Israelites! Return to the LORD God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and He will return to the remnant of you who escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.

And they go on to tell the people that G-d will reverse their misfortunes – concluding:

“The LORD your God is gracious and merciful; He will not turn His face from you if you return to Him.”

The text then tells us which tribes “laughed at and mocked” the couriers and from which tribes “some of the people came to Jerusalem”

Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in “The Bible Unearthed” describe the period immediately after the destruction of the North as “a sudden coming of age” for Judah.  They write:

“The royal citadel in Jerusalem was transformed in a single generation from the seat of a rather insignificant royal dynasty into the political and religious nerve center of a regional power – both because of dramatic internal developments and because thousands of refugees from the conquered kingdom of Israel fled to the south.”

They go on to estimate that the population of Jerusalem rose from about one thousand to about 15,000 inhabitants.  And that the total population of Judah grew from a few tens of thousands to 120,000.  While other estimates may be more modest, it seems sensible that Hezekiah was highly motivated to reach out to and accommodate the northerners.

What is also clear is that Hezekiah is the hero to the Chronicler.  In the following chapter, we read:

He acted in a way that was good, upright, and faithful before the LORD his God.  Every work he undertook in the service of the House of God or in the Teaching and the Commandment, to worship his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered.

Scholars date the writing of the book of Chronicles to sometime after the return from exile, probably during the early 4th century BCE.  The community that had returned from Babylonian exile was “too frum”, to put it mildly, for the local Jews – and was in power.  We also know that sometime later, there was a parting of ways between the Samaritans and the Jews.  So the book of Chronicles was likely written between those events.  The politics of that period are impossible to know in detail, but no doubt it was a time of great division.

Dr. David Glatt-Gilad writes: The Chronicler’s positive depiction of Hezekiah’s outreach to the northerners, even at the expense of setting aside strict adherence to Torah law, would reflect the premium that the Chronicler put on communal unity and cooperation as a bulwark for preventing any possible split in the community.  Sadly, the Chronicler’s ideal vision did not come to pass, as the Samaritan split-off … was only the first of many Jewish sects that were to characterize later Second Temple Judaism.

Today, we as a minyan and as part of the larger Jewish world are grappling with what kinds of accommodations to make for our community members who can’t or don’t feel comfortable to attend in person, and also those who don’t feel comfortable with some of the proposed technological intrusions into our sacred spaces.  Personally, my gut tells me that, at least on a national level, that the advocates for change, though they seem to come from a distance, are in fact powerful and may wind up causing schism like the returnees from Babylonia did with their authority.  I prefer the model of pesach sheni as described in the parasha, in which space is made for those who can’t attend normally, but not at the expense of the normal.  But I’m not going to leave you with my opinions.  I’d like to leave you with a Talmudic teaching based on another episode from today’s parasha.

Berakhot 34a

the Sages taught: There was an incident where one student descended before the ark in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and he was excessively prolonging his prayer. His students said to him: How long-winded he is. He said to them: Is he prolonging more than Moses our teacher did? As it is written: “And I prostrated myself before the Lord for the forty days and forty nights” (Deuteronomy 9:25).

There was again an incident where one student descended before the ark in the presence Rabbi Eliezer and he was excessively abbreviating his prayer. His students said to him: How brief is his prayer. He said to them: Is he abbreviating more than Moses our teacher? As it is written, “God, please, heal, please, her” (Numbers 12:13).

Hard for us to believe, but people used to complain about davening.

Seriously though, it is frighteningly easy to be kvetchy and judgmental.  If we are to avoid schism, we much choose to resist that tendency.

Shabbat Shalom




By Rachel Rubin Green, May 5, 2021

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

As Rabbi Greenberg explains:

The Rabbis break up the Torah verse into three stages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what he said:

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom.