Category Archives: Divrei 5783



By Henry Morgen, May 13

Shabbat shalom. Fifty-five solar years, and a few days ago, I became a bar mitzvah. That year, my torah portion was Acharei Mot-Kiddoshim. Based on the solar adjusted lunar calendar we Jews live by, however, this week’s parshah should technically have been my bar mitzvah portion. Looking back on the d’rashot I’ve documented, it appears that this is my first attempt to tackle it, so I was looking forward to digging in. There are a huge number of things we could talk about in this double portion, but before I do, I wanted to lay a bit of ground work based on my current theology and understanding of what Judaism is about.

I don’t try to define G!d. G!d, by G!d’s very nature is beyond description and unknowable. That said, I hold the point of view that G!d is never ending. G!d exists independent of space and time. G!d was here before the “big bang” and will be here after the universe as we know it fades into emptiness again. As Adon Olam says: Hu Hayah, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yihiyeh b’tifarah (He was, He is, He will be eternally glorious).

To the extent we try to relate to G!d, we refer to G!d as a parent and a monarch. We are expected to emulate G!d in our actions. What kind of parent or monarch would you like to emulate? I suspect the parent we would most like to be is one with well-defined expectations and boundaries, that teaches us how to live ethically, and that is loving, understanding, and forgiving. Similarly, for a monarch I would anticipate we’d want to make laws that are just and equitable, holding all subjects to high ethical standards. Furthermore, we would want to lead by example, by living a life of high ethical integrity ourselves, judging with compassion and generosity where possible, and applying punishment only severe enough to fit the crime.

One more important point: our relationship with G!d is evolving over time. G!d even makes that point by declaring to Moshe: “E’hiyeh asher e’hiyeh” loosely translated as “I will become what I will become.”

Judaism got its start, so our origin story goes, when a fellow named Avram realized that there could only be one G!d in the world. The natural world seemed to behave in accordance with the rules established by that G!d. There was something special about how Avram understood this fact and how he chose to live his life. While he was less than perfect, G!d wanted him and his successors to share this truth with the rest of the world. At its core, this is what chosenness is about in our context today: to share the unbelievable awe we have that we human beings are able to even have a conversation about our very existence, on this tiny sphere, orbiting a star, on one of the arms of a spiral galaxy, in a galaxy cluster, in the vastness of space that has existed for 13.5 billion years or so thus far. And,  by realizing this, live our lives in a way that demonstrates our appreciation for this moment in space and time.

And there’s one other aspect of G!d that I also believe is key to understanding our torah. G!d “created” the universe in six days and ceased from creating on the seventh day. Without focusing on the word “day”, the message is that from that point on, G!d does nothing in the universe (from the torah’s perspective) without interacting with his final creation on earth: mankind. We human beings are unlike anything else G!d has created. We are partners in finishing, or at least continuing, the creation of the world. Everything after the first six days is an evolving experiment that G!d is working out based on how humans behave. I find this totally remarkable. Now we’re ready to look at a few lines of text from today’s parsha and see how that works.

Our opening few paragraphs describe the way we should treat the land during the sh’mittah or seventh, and yovel or jubilee years. The land must be allowed to rest, just as we need to rest periodically, to yield the best produce. We are to trust that G!d will ensure that the sixth year will produce sufficiently to get us through the uncultivated seventh year and the 48th year will even get us through the 49th and 50th year! Look at Leviticus 25:18-24

18You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; 19the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security. 20And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” 21I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. 22When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. 23But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. 24Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

Two really important things can be learned from this paragraph: First, the land is a living organism just like the animals. For it to yield its produce, it must also have time to rest. We moderns have attempted to coax more produce from our land with chemical fertilizers and insecticides to improve the yield. For quite some time, this appeared to be an effective way to produce more from the land. In recent years we’ve learned that this really isn’t resulting in the best produce and the healthiest land. I’m not saying that we should go back to biblical farming techniques. I am saying that targeted irrigation, with crop rotation, and much less dependence on toxic chemicals, appears to result in better quality produce, and a more sustainable way to farm, healthier soil, and far less pollution of our air and water. It’s also healthier for the farmers working the land.

The second point zeros in on the simple line “… the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” We truly don’t “own” the land we live on. Everything belongs to G!d in reality. Our very existence is a miracle as I pointed out earlier. We need to find a way to live in harmony with the natural world G!d has created for our benefit. We are seeing the results of human hubris, as our climate is rapidly changing. Perhaps in our personal lifetimes the change will be tolerable; however, without a concerted, proactive change in how we treat the land and use its resources, it will be a radically more inhospitable environment for those living a few generations in the future. I’m not planning to dwell on this today, but it is clear from the text that we’re not really following G!d’s plan, and we’re not being good partners with G!d as stewards of this little planet he provided for us to live on. In fact, we are the first of G!d’s creatures that could bring about our own extinction from many of our so called brilliant inventions.

During the second Temple period, the Rabbis decided that these economic models really weren’t workable in the long run, so they made some revisions to enable a more modern social structure to function and thrive. In other words, they acknowledged that our relationship with G!d needed to evolve with the times. Put another way, the experiment of continuing the creation needed to be tweaked.

Let me sum up what I’ve been trying to say in these past few minutes this morning with five points:

  1. Our very existence in the universe is miraculous.
  2. As Jews we should share this appreciation of the universe by living our lives as we would want a loving parent to live.
  3. We need to be better stewards of the planet that we are living
  4. We need to understand that different social or political structures may need to exist in the day-to-day laws that govern people at a local level and across time while still conforming to the universal laws that would allow all people to live in harmony.
  5. We exist for merely a moment in time in the vast experiment of creation. We have abundant insight from our sacred texts, that can be made current and fresh, to guide us in making wise choices in our daily lives. Let us reflect on how to best use this guidance to influence better outcomes in the creation experiment that is underway. That is what we have been chosen to do, and that is what we should choose to do in return.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, and shabbat shalom.



By Joel Stern, April 15, 2023

Who here has ever led a seder?

Think for a moment — Do you feel you did it right?

A seder is a religious service. And in our parasha today we read about two young priests who definitely did not get the service right. Of course I’m referring to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. For them, the consequences of not getting it right were, to put it mildly, severe.

Let’s take a look at the passage – Leviticus Chapter 10 verses 1-2:

וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before יהוה alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.

וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃

And fire came forth from יהוה and consumed them; thus they died before יהוה.

They were, quite literally, fired from their jobs.

As you can imagine, the rabbis struggle with the terrible punishment, and offer many different explanations for it. Here are some of them:

Interpreting their behavior negatively, you have these opinions:


They died only because they taught a halakha before Moses their teacher; they should have asked him for his ruling, but they neglected to do so.


Quoting Rabbi Ishmael: They died because they entered the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine. You may know that this is so, because after their death he admonished those who survived that they should not enter when intoxicated by wine.

And on the positive side you have these opinions:


They thought that they were doing something favorable before Him.


The heavenly fire originated in heaven. It traveled first to the Holy of Holies and from there to the golden altar in the Sanctuary, and there to consume the incense offered. In this instance, the heavenly fire did not stop there, but travelled beyond the boundary of the Sanctuary to the copper altar in front of the Sanctuary and consumed these two sons of Aaron there.

No matter the explanation for this tragedy, one thing is clear — anyone who hopes to serve as a sacred channel between the community and God has an important responsibility.

When it comes to leading a religious service, there are so many elements that contribute to “doing it right.” Of course, it’s subjective. One congregant’s spiritual experience is enhanced when the Chazzan davens, while another congregant is thrilled when invited to sing along. A bar mitzvah boy’s off-key singing will upset those with sensitive ears, but many are moved by his earnest efforts and sincerity.

Despite the subjectivity, there are those who have tried to describe objectively how to do it right, as well as how not to do it.

In 1965, Cantor Walter Orenstein of Yeshiva University compiled a book called the Cantor’s Manual of Halakhah, which contains a chapter called “Who is Fit to Stand before the Ark.” Here are some of the qualities he lists:

  1. One should be free of sin, and with a reputation that has not been defamed.
  2. One should be modest, with a pleasant disposition and a sweet voice. Where one not suitable is allowed to serve in merit of a pleasant voice alone, the Kadosh Baruch Hu does not accept the prayers.
  3. One should wear clean, full length clothing, be the first to enter the synagogue and the last to leave.
  4. If there is a choice between an ignorant elderly person who has a pleasant voice and is desired by the people, and a young person of but 13 who comprehends the words but whose voice is not pleasant, the young person is preferable.
  5. One who mispronounces the words should not be elected Shaliach Tzibbur.
  6. And note this: One who unduly prolongs the service puts an excessive burden upon the congregation.

In all these cases, a Shaliach Tzibbur who doesn’t measure up is simply not invited back or dismissed, a much less severe fate than what befell Nadav and Avihu.

I was fortunate to grow up in a Conservative shul in Omaha with a master Chazzan, Aaron Edgar, z”l, who was trained by the great cantors of Europe. He would chant, actually pray, every single T’filah with intensity and devotion, but also with profound humility. At a dinner honoring him for his many years of service to the shul, a tribute was sung to him to the tune of “Az Di Rebbe Lacht.” The words they used were:

When Cantor Edgar prays (2x)
Everybody feels holy
When Cantor Edgar prays (2x)
Everybody feels holy

I was also privileged to study chazzanut with Cantor William Sharlin, z”l, of Leo Baeck Temple, who founded the Department of Sacred Music at HUC and led it for many years. One of his colleagues noted in a tribute to him that, despite the fact that in his Reform synagogue he faced the congregation, spiritually he always faced the ark, as in a traditional synagogue. When Cantor Sharlin would start to sing, within seconds you felt enveloped within a holy space. My teacher imparted to me many things, but the most important was about leading a service:  I myself must be moved spiritually, in order for the congregration to have a spiritual experience.

When a Chazzan gets it right – everybody feels holy!

As for me… Every time I step up to the bimah to lead davening, I want to honor the congregation—and my teachers—by leaving the mundane behind and reaching a spiritual place. But also, as we learn from the story of Nadav and Avihu, it’s not only one’s intentions that are important; one also needs to pay attention to the details. I personally am not worried about being zapped by a divine fire (unless we’re holding services on Ziering field during a lightning storm), but I do worry about the following:

  • Will my vocal cords hold up through the whole service?
  • Which melody will I use for “El Adon”?
  • If we’re running behind, what parts should I “turbo-cantor” through in order to end on time?

And, if one is totally honest, one must also acknowledge that a cantor is also a performer. And with that acknowledgement there arises the occasional fantasy of belting out something like this on Erev Yom Kippur:

Start fillin’ the pews
I’m singin’ today
You’re gonna hear a lot of me
It’s Kol Nidre

😊 It’s also important that we not take ourselves too seriously.

I began this drash with a question: “When you led your seder, did you do it right?”

Well, let’s see…

Did you try to perform the rituals properly? Did you feel you were involved in something important and holy? Were you and your fellow seder celebrants uplifted? Were there serious moments, as well as moments of lightness?

If you answered “Yes” to these questions, then YES, you did it right.

Shabbat Shalom!



By Larry Herman, February 25, 2023 (5783)

Terumah Trauma

Shabbat Shalom.

I have a confession to make.

I suffer from a personality disorder.

It’s not all that debilitating. But it does cause me anxiety.

In truth, I’ll bet that many of you are also afflicted by it.

It’s called TTSD.

Never heard of it? I’ll spell it out. Terumah Trauma Stress Disorder.

Like most stress related disorders, the recommended treatment is to avoid the triggering events and environments. The problem is, that would pretty much mean not opening my mailbox or my email. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get at least one physical solicitation and several emails asking me to contribute to a wide range of worthy causes. In just the past couple of weeks I’ve received letters and emails from:

  • National Kidney Foundation
  • Natan Relief
  • PLeDGE
  • PBS
  • YimbiAction
  • Wikipedia
  • Schecter
  • Center Theater
  • Cedars Sinai
  • Sierra Club
  • City of Hope
  • Friends of the IDF
  • The Self Help Home
  • The LA Phil
  • Hirsch Mental Health Services
  • Alzheimers LA
  • HIAS
  • Searchlight
  • Children’s hospital (with a nickel)
  • Midnight Mission
  • LA Police Protective League
  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center
  • Peace Now
  • Kline Galland
  • Jewish Free Loan
  • New Israel Fund
  • Wags & Walks
  • Jewish Family Services

I open Sefaria and they ask for a donation even though I make automatic monthly contributions. I open Wikipedia and they want money even though I already give generously every year. Doesn’t matter. Their systems are designed for asking. In fact, the more you give the more they ask.

Give to most charitable organizations even once, however modestly and you’ve a pen pal for life.

And now there’s this thing called Giving Tuesday, which follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It is the self-described global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world. My description? It’s Shnor-zilla

And then there are the myriad other opportunities to contribute or at least be asked. I go shopping and they ask me if I want to make a contribution. On the way to shop there are several hands stretched out awaiting my generosity. Take a flight and I’m asked to donate my spare change. Turn on the television and someone is pitching me for a heart rendering cause.

[Pause] And I haven’t mentioned TBA. Annually there are dues, the facility fee, the security fee, and the building assessment. And you can add on sisterhood, Masorti, names for the memorial book. If you want to make a donation as a memorial or honorary gift there are 36 possible designations. Not to mention numerous special giving opportunities through the year.

It can be traumatizing. Am I giving enough? Which causes are most worthy of more and which are worthy of anything? Should I give a little to them all or concentrate my giving on just a few? What about this idea of effective altruism?

I want to do the right thing. I’m sure that many of you also wrestle with this question.

I thought that this week’s parsha might help. It’s the first time the term תרומה is used. It appears just three times in the second and third verses.

2  Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a donation from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation.

3  And this is the donation that you shall take from them;

I took my translation from Robert Alter who translates תרומה as donation. But the JPS uses gifts. Aryeh Kaplan uses the word offering. Everett Fox uses the awkward term raised contribution the first time it’s used and then shortens it to contribution afterwards. Some other translations use tithe, voluntary gift, heave offering. The Art Scroll’s Stone Ḥumash has the most perplexing translation of all, portion. Not very helpful.

I know, or at least I think that I know what תרומה means in modern Hebrew. It’s a donation. In Israel it’s what the person who comes to your door asking you to give 20 shekels wants you to give. They even have a receipt with the word תרומה printed on it. It’s charity. צדקה. Or is it?

Terumah in the context of our parsha specifically refers to the voluntary contributions made by members of the entire community to support the construction of the Mishkan. A building fund.

From its shorash Terumah means something that is raised up or taken to a higher level. This giving helps to lift us up. Or as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “giving confers dignity”. Terumah should be for a sacred or at least uplifting purpose. And it must be voluntary. Does that mean that our synagogue dues should be voluntary?

But Terumah is not exactly charity or Tzedakah. We confuse the words Terumah and Tzedakah. We think of each as a form of charity, perhaps as payments that are tax deductible, if you can actually take a tax deduction.

But they are not really the same at all.

As one should do when struggling with questions like this I went Rabbi Elliot Dorff and he both helped and complicated my problem. He reminded me that Tzedakah comes from the word meaning justice, implying that caring for the poor is not an unusually good act, but rather simply what is expected of you.

Donating to the poor and to other social needs is not a [voluntary] act of especially generous people, but an expected act of each and every Jew. [Elliot Dorf as quoted by Mark Greenspan]

In other words, Tzedakah, unlike Terumah, is not voluntary. As Rabbi Mark Wildes puts it:

If we contribute to those who are less fortunate only when we feel like it, what happens when we’re not feeling like it? [Rabbi Mark Wildes,]

So I have been confusing Terumah with Tzedakah. Terumot are voluntary acts of giving that benefit a sacred purpose of the community. Tzedakah are obligatory acts of justice. The act is obligatory; the beneficiary and amounts can be discretionary.

Rabbi Dorff encourages us to make our own lists of why we should give Tzedakah, to whom and how we should allocate our Tzedakah spending.

And I’m thinking that my list ought to include both Tzedakah and Terumah.

So with the proviso that this is a personal list and a work in progress, I will share with you my own rules for giving, version 1.0.

  1. Distinguish between Terumah and Tzedakah. Tzedakah helps the poor and needy. Terumah includes shul dues (in all their various forms). And perhaps there should also be a category of secular Terumah includes support for the arts, educational institutions, medical research, etc. I think that Tzedakah should be at least as large as Terumah.
  2. Giving close to home is important – but so is helping others who are distant. Look for a balance.
  3. Try to maximize the effectiveness of your giving, but don’t sweat it.
  4. If your friends are committed to something it’s probably worth helping them. A three-way win.
  5. Giving shouldn’t just be monetary. For most of us, giving money is easy; giving time, caring and compassion is harder but important.
  6. Forget about taxes; give as if taxes don’t matter (then deal with your taxes as if giving doesn’t matter). Helping friends and family members in need may not be tax deductible but it is surely Tzedakah.
  7. Throw away and delete all solicitations. Make the effort to examine and select the causes you want to give to. [Take out those nickels!]
  8. Make giving a habit, an everyday habit. Easy if one is a daily davener.

That’s a start. I’ll let  you know if it helps with the trauma.


Parashat Bo

By Jim Rogozen, Jan 28, 2023

Words have power: they can enlighten; they can mislead. They can sustain old beliefs; they can also create new perceptions.

A verse in today’s parsha launched a thousand commentaries, two law-suits, a slew of anti-Semitic comments, and created a holiday for women.

At the burning bush, God gives Moshe a preview of coming attractions. He said, “I see your suffering, but know that I will take you out of Egypt. I will cause the Egyptians to see you favorably; you will not go out empty handed. People will borrow things from their neighbors and empty out Egypt.”

In our parsha, in Exodus 11:2 Moshe tells the people what had been predicted earlier and instructs them:

ְיִשְׁאֲל֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ | מֵאֵ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ וְאִשָּׁה֙ מֵאֵ֣ת רְעוּתָ֔הּ כְּלֵי־כֶ֖סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָֽב

“Everyone should borrow, each man from his friend and each woman from her friend, silver vessels and golden vessels.”

The Israelites do that, and when it was time to leave…

וַֽיהֹוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם וַיַּשְׁאִל֑וּם וַיְנַצְּל֖וּ אֶת־מִצְרָֽיִם

The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they borrowed from them, and they emptied out Egypt.

The verb שאל is tricky. It can mean to ask or to borrow.

The problem, though, isn’t really the word, but the intention. You see, Moshe misled Pharoah, telling him that his people were going out to the wilderness for a short holiday. Did the Israelites know it was for longer? If so, their request to borrow items was also misleading.

And if the Egyptians knew, then why would they happily hand over their valuable possessions?

Maybe it was because of what God predicted:

וַֽיהֹוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם

The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.

Did God exert some kind of mind control over them? Did God help them see the people in a different light?

Another question to answer is why God wanted the Israelites to take all this stuff.

The two most common explanations for gathering these objects are:

#1: this was compensation or reparations for the work the Israelites did.

This reason is backed up in Dvarim 15:13 which tells us what is owed to a slave who is set free:

דברים טו:יג וְכִי תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּךְ לֹא תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ רֵיקָם.

Deut 15:13 When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: 15:14 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you.

Reason #2: this was all part of a divine plan, way back in Genesis 15:14, when God explained to Avram that his descendants would be many, but at some point they would be enslaved. However …

וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.

Gen 15:14 But I [God] will execute judgment on the nation they [Israel] shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.

So asking/borrowing, even deceiving Pharoah and the Egyptian citizens? This was all part of a larger plan.

These two rationales – wages owed and divine plan- however, didn’t sit well with everyone.

In the commentary to Megillat Taanit we learn that in the time of Alexander the Great, Egyptians brought a lawsuit against the Jews, claiming they owed them for all the things they stole during the Exodus. The Jewish community was defended by a sage named Gevihah ben Pesisa, who argued the opposite:

“For 430 years, 600,000 Israelites were enslaved by you. You need to give each one of them 200 zuz per year [of service], which amounts to 860,000,000 zuz per person. Then we will give you back your property.”

And in 2003, Nabil Hilmi, dean of the law school at Egypt’s University of Al-Zaqaziq, prepared a lawsuit against “all the Jews of the world,” claiming the Israelites stole more than 1,000 trillion tons of gold during the Exodus. Hilmi, trying to be fair, said he was willing to amortize this debt over a millennium, so long as cumulative interest was calculated and paid.

Not in a trial, but in her commentary, Nechama Leibowitz countered by suggesting that there is no unfairness here because the Israelites most likely left property behind in Egypt, something that certainly happened in later expulsions.

So, the meaning or intention or ethical nature of שאל – taking possession of Egyptian stuff – has been, and will continue to be, seen from different perspectives.

Which leaves us to deal with this phrase: וַיְנַצְּל֖וּ אֶת־מִצְרָֽיִם

The Israelites emptied out or despoiled Egypt.

וַיְנַצְּל֖ו is from the verb נצל.

It’s tempting to think of it in its modern meaning: to take advantage. Or in the way this particular verse is most often translated – to empty out – but I’d like to introduce you to a very different understanding…

For that we jump to Exodus 32, the story of the Golden Calf.

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי:

Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them [those earrings] to me.” (32:2).

According to Tradition, the women refused to donate their jewelry to make this idol. Why?

In Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer 45:4 we read:

ולא קבלו עליהם ליתן נזמיהן לבעליהן אלא אמרו להם אתם רוצים לעשות שקוץ ותועבה שאין בו כח להציל

לא שמעו להם

“You want to make this abomination, this detestable thing that has no power to save you?! No way, no how!

Notice the Hebrew word in this quote – להציל – to save.

להציל – is the הפעיל form of the shoresh (or root letters) נצל which gives us the word וַיְנַצְּל֖ו

Some form of the root נצל appears 212 times in the Bible. In 210 cases it means to save. The other 2 cases are when the verb is in the pee’ayl form, which occurs 17 of those 212 times. In these two cases (Chronicles and Samuel) it does mean to take things, but these were cases when the soldiers redeemed the spoils of war that were taken from the Israelites, and in one of those cases it meant saving people as well as things.

So what about our verse in Shemot?

While almost all translations of  וַיְנַצְּל֖ו imply clearing out, as a negative action, it just doesn’t fit in with the dynamic and tone of “asking” or “borrowing”… especially given the good will of the Egyptians. Which is exactly, I believe, the backdrop to the Midrash about the women refusing to hand over their jewelry.

The women were not only rejecting the idolatry of the Golden Calf; they were also emphasizing that the jewelry they had collected in Egypt represented something very special: the good wishes of their Egyptians neighbors. Our Tradition backs that up with the Midrash that during the plague of darkness the Egyptians were helpless but no Israelite took advantage of them. Rabbi Shimshon Raphel Hirsch wrote that “the first foundation stone of the prosperity of God’s people was to be acquired through recognition of their moral greatness by those who had once despised them.” He even says the word וַיְנַצְּל֖וּ means that the Egyptians initiated the collection of their own treasures and gave them to the Israelites.

The women’s response was about acknowledging the redemptive nature of the Egyptians’ gifts, which led to a departure based on appreciation; not deception or resentment. It also ties in with the later commandment in Dvarim 23:8 not to hate the Egyptians.

So how did this amazing episode end up for the women?

Orach Chaim #417 Shulkhan Arukh

אראש חודש מותר בעשיית מלאכה בוהנשי’ שנוהגות שלא לעשות בו מלאכה הוא מנהג טוב

It is permissible to work on Rosh Hodesh, but the custom is for women NOT to work…this is a good custom.

In the Magen Avraham commentary we read:

:לפי שלא פרקוּ נזמיהם לעגל ניתן להם ראש חוֹדש ליוֹם טוֹב

Because they didn’t turn over their nose rings (to make) the Golden Calf, Rosh Hodesh was given to them as a Yom Tov.

Not only that, but according to Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer we read

נתן להן הקדוש ברוך הוא שכרן בעולם הזה
ונתן להן שכר לעולם הבא

…this reward continues in the world to come.

The prooftext? They (women) are destined to be renewed like the New Moons, as it is said, “He satisfies your years with good things; so that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (Ps. 103:5).

An updated view of history allows us to refresh the computer screens of the present. We can laugh at the ancient lawsuits, defend against negative interpretations of the story, and be reminded every Rosh Hodesh (if not every day) that women are so much wiser than men.

I’d like to suggest that there is even more we can do.

We can do more to ensure the rights and dignity of all women, throughout the world.

We can do more to recognize the well-meaning citizens who, living under oppressive rule, still helped Jews and others when they were being threatened.

We can do more to appreciate the rays of light in our society: good people, with good intentions, who are doing good things, even when surrounded by forces of darkness that aim to instill hate and fear.

Let’s remember that when we can recognize the humanity of others, and work together to connect and to heal, there will be a critical mass of people who have the  כח להציל  …the power to save, restore, and preserve humanity and the world.

Keyn yehi ratzon.

Jim Rogozen

Heiche Kedusha

Heiche Kedusha

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen, January 14, 2023

Good Shabbos.

You know that joke about the woman who calls her husband in a panic? She says “Dear, be careful. There’s a crazy guy on the freeway driving in the wrong direction!” He responds, “It’s not one guy. Everybody is driving in the wrong direction!”

Which leads me to the subject of how one does a heiche kedusha , which is what we call it when we shorten the time it takes to recite the Amida by eliminating the hazara, or Reader’s repetition.

Rabbi David Golinkin identified 7 different ways of doing this, but the two most popular ones are the…

  • The Sephardi Method: We all begin the Amidah out loud together, we do the kedusha out loud, then we finish the Amida
  • Then there’s the Ashkenazi Method: Only the shaliach tzibur starts out loud, then we, the kahal join in with the shaliach tzibur for Kedusha, then we, the kahal, start over from the very beginning of the Amida and we do the whole thing silently.

Over the centuries, the heiche kedusha was seen as a compromise, something that was only used when a group of people were running out of time (usually at weekday Minha). It’s interesting to note that people who would never consider doing a heiche kedusha on Shabbat started to do so during the worst of COVID as a way to limit exposure during outdoor minyanim.

Over time the heiche kedusha was put into play for one or both of the following reasons: One, because people thought davening was too long. Two, because the full repetition of the Amida, instituted to help non-readers fulfill their Amida requirement, was no longer necessary. The naysayers rejected both reasons, adding that using a heiche kedusha to shorten prayer made as much sense as asking Rabbis to do a heicha drash. Well, maybe that’s ok.

There are additional downsides to doing a heiche kedusha:

  1. People who don’t regularly hear most of the Amidah repeated won’t develop davenning fluency and accuracy
  2. People won’t hear Birkat Kohanim
  3. My reason: It reduces the opportunities for singing

So, we have the two basic, consensus methods: Sephardi and Ashkenazi. However, there is a general consensus that for Shacharit, it’s better to use the Sephardi method (everyone starts together, out loud), because of an opinion in the Talmud, Brakhot 4b that says

“איזהו בן העולם הבא? זה הסומך גאולה לתפילה”.

“Who is worthy of the world to come? She or he who links geula (redemption) to t’filla (another name for the Amida).”

How does that work? The siddur connects the reference to geula – redemption, leaving Egypt– found in the 3rd paragraph of the Shema, through a variety of verses, ending with the bracha (“baruch ata…ga’al Yisrael” – God redeemed Israel) that is right before the Amida. This connection led to the custom of lowering our voice at that bracha, and then going right into the Amida. That’s why if we do a heiche kedusha in Shacharit, everyone would need to begin the Amida together, Ashkenazi style.

When the Law Committee took up this issue in 2017 Rabbi Jeremy Kalmonofsky added a further complication. The Amida, when done with a hazara, includes both private and public prayer components. Rabbi Kalmonofsky questioned the status of the Hazan’s Amida in the Ashkenazic method.

If the Hazan is the only one who chants the first part of the Amida out loud, is that a t’filla yachid, an individual Amidah? What about the part he or she recites silently after the communal kedusha when others are praying the same thing? Is that now a public Amida? More to the point, if congregants start the Amida over from the beginning, does that retroactively make the Hazan’s initial individual prayer a Tfilla b’tzibur – a public prayer? The Sephardic method, he says, seems to be the best of both worlds, as it is clearly a T’filla B’tzibur.

Bottom line: while it’s preferable for a minyan to do a full hazarat ha’shatz, the RA opinion was to use Sefardi style, where everyone starts together, so it’s truly T’filla b’tzibur (public prayer) for everyone. 15 voted in favor, 4 abstained. One of those who abstained was our own Rabbi Gail Laibovitz, who felt that this issue fell into the category of minhag (custom) and didn’t need to be a settled legal issue.

I agree. I’m not advocating for a unified approach or a policy here in the minyan because it’s one of life’s great pleasures to look around and think: You do it your way, and I’ll do it the correct way.

Shabbat Shalom



Vayechi, Jan 1, 2023

By Rachel Rubin Green

Today I want to talk about the Amida prayer and the notion of Shabbat as a taste of the Messianic era.

I want to thank my Hevruta, Bert Kleinman, for his inspiration in developing my ideas about the Amidah. Bert’s comments have helped me focus my thinking.

The Amidah is the core of every prayer service – recited three times on weekdays, four times on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and five times on Yom Kippur. In our practice of Rabbinic Judaism, the Amidah replaced the sacrifices that were once offered at the Temple. Even though the other term for the weekday Amidah is the Shmoneh Esraey, the 18, it actually contains 19 blessings – 3 introductory, 3 concluding, and 13 petitionary prayers in the middle. On Shabbat and Yom Tov, those middle prayers are replaced by the blessing of the day.

The 3 introductory blessings are blessings of praise. For those of us who daven mostly on Shabbat and Yom Tov, these are the most familiar parts of the Amidah because we sing them aloud together both at Shacharit and at Musaf. The 3 concluding blessings, blessings of gratitude, are sung together only when we have a full repetition, usually at Shacharit, but rarely at Musaf, so some of us don’t know them as well. These blessings include the Modim prayer of thanksgiving and a prayer for peace. While the words themselves vary slightly from one service to another, these two groups of blessings remain the same thematically and are found in the same sequence every time the Amidah is recited.

Lord Jonathan Sacks groups the middle blessings thematically. The first three are for individual spiritual needs – Knowledge, repentance, forgiveness. Furthermore, knowledge of what is righteous behavior will lead one to repent, which in turn leads one to ask for forgiveness. According to Rabbi Sacks, these are the first 3 needs of an individual soul.

The next 3 brachot address the physical needs of an individual – redemption, Geula, from personal crises, healing, and prosperity – the blessing of the years. At the time these blessings were codified, blessing God for the passage of the seasons was indeed a blessing for prosperity, since all lives at that time depended upon agricultural abundance. That is still more true than many of us would like to think. Nevertheless, I personally like the idea of blessing God for the simple passage of time.

With the next bracha, the ingathering of the exiles, the requests in the blessings shift from individual spiritual and physical needs to communal physical and then spiritual needs. Gathering in the exiles, restoring judges, destroying enemies and humbling the arrogant are all aspects of a communal desire for physical restoration of a Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. The third of these blessings, about destroying enemies, is a reference to the destruction brought about by factionalism in the Jewish community during Greek and Roman times. It is an uncomfortable sentence, and perhaps can serve as a warning.

The last group of three addresses our communal spiritual needs. The first is a blessing praising the righteous and the scholars in Israel, who provide spiritual resources for the community. Then are two blessings praising God for rebuilding Jerusalem and for the salvation of the line of David, a not very subtle reference to a Messiah. These 3 together make up the last cluster of petitionary blessings.

The last blessing that we say on weekdays but not on Shabbat is Shema Kolenu – hear our voices. We pray that God will continue to hear us, and hopefully, or maybe, respond to what we ask. Rabbi Sacks adds that this is where in the liturgy individual prayers should be added

The middle blessings that I summarized together give us a path towards a more redeemed world. Meeting personal spiritual needs first, then personal physical needs, then communal physical needs, and lastly communal spiritual needs gives direction to our actions. Even taking away the layer of national ideology that permeates so much of our liturgy, these blessings list elements of a redeemed, or at least an improved world. Everyone has access to health and to sustenance, there are systems of judges, implying that laws and justice are part of the society, and there is respect for scholars. Repentance and Forgiveness suggest that individuals take responsibility for their actions. All these would be steps towards an improved, although far from messianic, society.

The familiar explanation as to why these blessings are not said on Shabbat is that we don’t ask for things on Shabbat. By definition, these prayers are requests, and are therefore inappropriate for Shabbat.

Another possible explanation, one I have just started to consider, is that if Shabbat is a taste of the messianic time, an almost tangible preview of the world to come, we have no need to say those brachot on Shabbat. Those needs and desires have been met, so making those requests is no longer necessary.

Sadly, the real world intrudes. The unhoused people I saw walking to shul this morning are stark evidence that even on Shabbat we do not live in a messianic or redeemed world.

Prayer is to inspire the person saying the words, we, the Kahal, need to hear the words we say. The petitionary prayers in the middle section of the weekday Amidah are to list for us work that still needs to be done in the world. So enjoy Shabbat, and then tomorrow morning, get to work on however you can best contribute.

Shabbat Shalom



By Joel Elkins, November 26, 2022

Emile Boirac was a French philosopher and one of the earliest supporters of Esperanto, who lived in the late 19th/early 20th century. He noticed that sometimes when he was in a place that he was sure he had never been to before, he would see a tree or building and swear that he had seen it before. He called this feeling déjà vu.

If you experienced that feeling today, you would not be alone.

After all, two weeks ago, in Parshat Vayerah, we learned that Sarah was having trouble getting pregnant, but eventually God gives her a child, Isaac. In today’s Parsha, Rifka is having difficulty conceiving but God hears Isaac’s prayers and gives her twins.

Back in Vayerah, we read about a conflict that developed between Avraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. Today, we read about a conflict between Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau.

Two weeks ago, Sarah favored Isaac over Ishmael and convinced Abraham to send Ishmael away so that Isaac can carry on Abraham’s legacy. In today’s parsha, Rivka favors Jacob and helps him get Esau’s birthright so that he could carry on Isaac’s legacy.

Back in Vayerah, Abraham finds himself in Gerar, a kingdom in the Negev, and tells people there that Sarah is his sister, because Sarah is very beautiful and he is afraid they might take her and kill him. When the King of Gerar finds out the truth, he says “why didn’t you tell me?” and bestows upon Abraham sheep and cattle and land, and Abraham prospers as a result. In today’s parsha, Isaac also ends up going to the exact same Gerar, also calls his wife his sister, also because she is beautiful and that he is afraid they might take her and kill him. And when the King of Gerar finds out the truth, he says “why didn’t you tell me?” and gives Isaac free reign of the land and as a result Isaac also flourishes.

So if you’re having a “where have I heard this before?” feeling, it’s perfectly understandable.

Now, there are many theories about what causes déjà vu. Sigmund Freud attributed it to, what else, repressed desires. Because the desire is repressed, it is blocked from our consciousness, but, according to Freud, a sense of familiarity leaks through to our conscious mind and results in the déjà vu experience.

Carl Jung, alternatively, suggested we experience déjà vu when we tap into the collective unconscious.

Some modern day scientists believe that it may be due to a short circuit in our brain which mixes up long-term and short-term memory so that new incoming information goes straight to long term memory instead of making a pitstop in the short term memory bank. Other scientists believe that it’s due to a false triggering of the rhinal cortex—the part of the brain that signals that something feels familiar—even without the memories to back it up.

And, of course, it could just be a glitch in the matrix.

So, what’s going on here? Why is Parshat Toldot so eerily similar to Parshat Vayera that we read two weeks ago? Is it simply lazy storytelling? They ran out of story ideas? It worked so well in the original; why not use it again in the sequel?

Or is there something we can learn from this?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the two versions of each of these stories. In the first pair of stories, Sarah desperately wants a child of her own. By the time three mysterious strangers come and tell her she is to give birth within the year, she is already an old woman. When Rivka, on the other hand, has trouble conceiving, Isaac intercedes on her behalf well before she reaches old age and so she gets pregnant sooner. Same predicament, but a different reaction. Avraham is passive in the face of his wife’s longing and as a result, she has to wait a very long time; Yitzchak actively advocates on his wife’s behalf, and gets a faster, more effective result.

In our second pair of stories, Sarah has an issue with Ishmael, and her solution is to send him away. When Rivka has a similar issue with Esau, she works behind the scenes to change the dynamic in order to get her favored son the birthright. True, not altogether scrupulous, but at least more humane than exiling him into the wilderness, and arguably just as effective.

In the two Gerar stories, both Abraham and Isaac both lie about their relationships, valuing their lives over their wives. But when caught in their lies, Isaac freely admits that he was simply scared for his life, whereas Abraham continues the ruse by claiming that Sarah was technically his half-sister. They end up with the same result, but Isaac at least salvages some honor by fessing up when the truth is revealed.

Isaac and Rebecca are the middle generation of patriarchs/matriarchs. And compared with the bookend generations, they don’t get nearly as much attention, either in terms of column inches or reputation. But perhaps they got a bad rap.

Granted, in each of these stories, they are far, far from perfect. After all, they show clear favoritism to one child over the other (Rivka to Jacob, Isaac to Esau), and Rivka even goes so far as to help her favored child cheat the other out of what is legitimately his. But, to her credit, she doesn’t send him out into the wilderness.

Then, Isaac lies about his marriage to Rivka for no other reason than to protect himself even though he knows it might put her in danger. But, when confronted he admits the truth.

Not great, but it does show small signs of improvement. So perhaps the defining trait of this second generation is “progress, not perfection.”

In life, we often find ourselves in difficult situations. For example, we or our loved ones are denied something we sincerely desire, say a child. We can sit idly by or try to do something about it.

Perhaps we are caught in a lie. We can continue to propagate the lie, or we can come clean, put our cards on the table, take responsibility for our dishonesty and let the chips fall where they may.

Perhaps we see a situation that we know in our hearts is sub-optimal or even unacceptable. For example, someone less qualified holds a position in place of someone we know to be better qualified. We can jump in and heavy-handedly upend the entire framework, or we can work within the system to achieve what we believe is the preferred outcome.

We are not defined by the situation we find ourselves in, but in how we react to that situation.

The parshah ends with perhaps the quintessential example of choosing to react differently to similar situations. Jacob, with the help of his mother, tricks his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, which leads to years of animosity and estrangement between him and his brother Esau. In Parshat Va-y’hi, which we will read in a few weeks, Jacob, by then an old man, crosses his arms so as to place his right hand on the head of Ephraim, even though he is the younger grandchild, and his left hand on the head of Menassheh, the elder. Despite this obvious slight, Ephraim and Menassheh choose not to let it sour their relationship. Tradition tells us that this is why to this day we bless our children to be like those children, not because of what they did, but because of how they reacted to the circumstances in which they found themselves.

Let us learn from Rivka and Yitzchak and aim just a little higher. When faced with similar situations, deciding to act differently, slightly more honestly, slightly more prudently, slightly more proactively, slightly more humanely.

Progress, not perfection.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Adonai Ho Nachalatam: El Maleh Rachamim

Adonai Ho Nachalatam:  El Maleh Rachamim

By Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Yom Kippur Yizkor, October 5, 2022

El Maleh Rachamim — in a few minutes, this beautiful Hebrew phrase, carried on its haunting traditional melody, will introduce a central prayer in the Yizkor service. Like the Hebrew, the English rendition — “God, full of compassion” — is soothing. Being soothed is most welcome, for losing someone we love bruises and diminishes us, rendering us less assured about ourselves and the world. Even remembering back to such a loss after a span of time can shake us to our core.

The three key components of the Yizkor Service are Mourner’s Kaddish, the particular Yizkor Prayers, and El Maleh Rachamim. Mourner’s Kaddish comes to reassure us that the God we struggle to understand is still there; things seem to be falling apart, but the Center holds. The particular Yizkor prayers are there to lift the deceased person’s name and memory aloft within the earthly world they no longer inhabit, like a Torah scroll lifted by the Hagbah. El Maleh Rachamim wraps the dead, and us, in an embrace that sweeps beyond time and space to hook onto Life’s enduring ground. Of course it matters whether our beloved person died last month — or one, five, twenty, fifty years ago.

And mourning those who perished in the Holocaust or within the Temple Beth Am community affects us less directly, less viscerally. But still, on Yom Kippur we recite Yizkor prayers and the Kaddish for all of them; and El Maleh widens its scope while retaining its intimacy.

Some years ago, I suddenly noticed that one sentence in this prayer comes directly from Torah. There this sentence specifies that the Levites’ priestly duties prevent their being allocated a tribal share in the Promised Land and so they are promised compensation that Numbers 18:20 formulates as ani chelkecha v’nachalatcha: “I am your portion and your share”; which appears in Deuteronomy 18:2 as Adonai hu nachalato: “Adonai is their (literally “his”) inheritance.” Commentary sticks close to the pshat, as in the 13th century French commentator Hizkuni’s amplification of Targum Onkolos’s 2nd century translation of the Torah into Aramaic, which reads: “the gifts I have given you are your share and your inheritance; thus you will need no other income and will be free to serve me.” It makes sense that the priests and Levites would receive Israelite tithes while also gaining a special relationship with Adonai.

But how did this decisive statement make its way from the original elite, narrowly focused Levitical context to the memorial prayer El Maleh Rachamim, where it applies to any Jew who dies?

The custom of praying for the dead’s repose goes back to the 6th century, and martyrologies were formulated for victims of the Crusades. El Maleh Rachamim’s date of composition is not known, but it seems to have arrived at its prevailing form during the Cosack-led Khmelnytsky Massacres of 1648-54. There are different versions in various Ashkenazi European communities, and also El Maleh shares many phrases with the Sephardic Hashcavah or Ashkavta Prayer — including Adonai Ho Nachalto.

It is impossible to know who placed that particular Torah-anchored statement on nachalah near the conclusion of the prayer. But what we can know is how we feel upon being told that we will gain direct access to God even as we give up our animated physical presence on earth. And so too regarding the beloved person whose death removes them from the three-dimensionality of our lives and world. Just as the Levites are not dispossessed but instead possess differently so the dead person’s neshamah gains possession of God.

Back when that bold assertion in the El Maleh prayer jumped out at me, I felt immediately strengthened. At age 69, I was moving toward retirement, but in good health and full of possibilities. I was definitely aging but not yet old; aware of death but not yet like The Tempest’s Prosporo, who will “retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.” Several years earlier, the premature death of a younger study-partner colleague had shaken me toward focused thinking about mortality, which crystallized as something like this: The aspect of myself I most treasure is my inner life — the running discussion within my head and sense of being myself that reaches out to others and enjoys its own company. Surely this consciousness is bound up with my brain, which is part of my body, and so it could hardly transcend death.

From there, I reasoned that any existence beyond death must be im-personal, simply as part of the great web of life. Such speculative reasoning left room for a diffused connection to God, but it seemed very abstract and not very Jewish. Somewhat later, when beginning to do meditation, I strove to direct my ruach-breath toward the overall breath of life; to link my neshama-spirit with the Great Spirit. This often failed but the striving was still meaningful. The idea that Adonai will somehow be my inheritance when my time comes has helped me along, even when my sense of God wavers. I have emerged convinced, not rationally but intuitively, that if God exists, then we who are somehow made in God’s image must have an enduring existence beyond the grave.

When our family experienced death during the past year, I took great comfort in the final verse of Adon Olam, especially its opening line: B’yado afkeed ruchi: “In God’s hand I place my soul,” as well as in the idea that the departed would be “bound up in the bond of everlasting life.” But more than any other liturgical touchstone, El Maleh Rachamim helped me by proclaiming, loud and clear, that Adonai’s enduring presence comes to the dead person as a kind of delayed birthright, an inheritance that will endure into eternity.

As the year 2022 has continued, with Covid still a force and time moving relentlessly on even as our sense of time distorts, I have continued to reflect on mortality. I have come to believe that something like a soul exists within myself and others,

that these souls survive death of the body and its brain, and that souls released from physical boundaries may encounter one another beyond earth. I envision a baby emerging from the womb as containing soulful raw material that earthly living shapes into a personalized soul. The best expression of this idea that I know is in one of John Keats’ letters, where he writes: “Call the world if you please ‘the vale of Soul-making’.”

I pause now to articulate a question that may already have occurred to some of you: On this holiest day of the Jewish year, when we gather to confess and be renewed as a community within the Jewish People, why does Susan Laemmle present a largely anecdotal account of her personal spiritual development? Not merely to express myself I hope, but to speak out about how the death of people we love connects to our own eventual death — and how thinking through our views of mortality and immortality can provide both comfort and reassurance.

Of course, love and memory also matter. We remember the dead and hope to be remembered after we pass away. We hold onto the experience of loving someone even after their passing; it endures within us and influences us towards good. We give charity and do righteous acts with the dead person in mind. But loving memory is not everything. And for me at least, it is not enough. I need, and thankfully I have managed to find, a silken cord to hold onto — a cord woven from texts and inner experience and sources beyond explanation. I believe that such a cord is there for each of us, but we must weave it ourselves.

My library contains a good many books about these topics. It’s worth knowing how Jewish views of an afterlife have evolved and diversified over the decades and centuries; worth reading how saying Mourner’s Kaddish has been deeply meaningful for even unobservant Jews; worth learning how others have coped with loss through strengthened communal ties or Torah study or acts of Lovingkindness. I find such material interesting and sometimes helpful. But mostly in addition to Jewish primary sources, it’s poems that really help, especially in the dark hours. The best of them buffer loss with beauty, reassuring us in a way different from the Kaddish and yet fundamentally the same.

Let me end, then, with a poem. A very short poem whose nuanced slant on death and life doesn’t quite line up with

this Dvar Torah, but whose near-perfection nonetheless makes it a fitting companion piece to El Maleh Rachaimim.

Here is Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment”:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah, Shanah Tovah ooh’metukah.








Shabbat Sukkot

Shabbat Sukkot

By Joel Goldstein, October 15, 2022, 15 Tishrei 5783

Shabbat shalom, moa’dim l’simcha. 

I want to explore two problems: the timing of Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei and the lack of a festival to celebrate the culminating event of the book of Exodus: the building of the Mishkan. Using a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s on Song of Songs, I want to solve both of those problems and use that solution to reframe (no pun intended) Sukkot to give it some additional meaning.  

The timing of Sukkot is strange. I understand that it is a harvest festival – חג האסיף – according to its first two mentions in Exodus, one of which is included in today’s Torah reading. But in neither of those mentions is a date given for the festival. Further, once we get to Leviticus and the holiday becomes about the sukkot in which God caused us to dwell in the desert, there is no necessary reason given for the holiday to be in Tishrei. It should probably be in Nissan, in springtime. 

Sukkot should be in springtime because that is the moment when God first made us dwell in sukkot. Traditionally, there is a Rabbinic debate between Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Akiva (who has which position depends on the text) regarding these sukkot. One opinion, which notices that the first place the Israelites go after leaving Ramses in Egypt is “Sukkot,” sees this not merely as a place name, but actual sukkot, actual huts, the Israelites dwell in before being pursued by the Egyptians and crossing the sea.  The second opinion sees the place “Sukkot” as merely a place name and the “sukkot” we dwelled in in the desert as the protection of God’s Clouds of Glory. The Shulchan Arukh rules on this debate that these “sukkot” were not actual sukkot, but actually God’s Clouds of Glory. However, those Clouds of Glory first appear as the people leave the place Sukkot and head for the edge of the desert. Either way, God has us dwell in “sukkot” immediately after the Exodus before crossing the Reed Sea. So the holiday of Sukkot should be part of Passover! Every spring we should be eating our matzah and reclining under skhakh while nervously watching for rain. So why is Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei?

Before we deal with that question, I have a second question. If we look at the book of Exodus, there are three major, positive events in the relationship between God and the nascent people of Israel: the Exodus, Sinai, and the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. That these three are the major events in the God-Israel relationship is mentioned by Nachmanides in his introduction to his commentary on Exodus. The first has a holiday celebration explicitly in the Biblical text: Passover. The second has a holiday celebration with Biblical origins which is connected in Rabbinic texts to the Sinai moment: Shavuot. The third, the building of the Mishkan, a portable home for God, seems to lack a holiday, despite its seeming importance. Sure, we do give it a minor celebration by not saying Tachanun starting at the beginning of Nissan when the Tabernacle was completed and first put into service. But surely an event as momentous as building a home for God deserves a holiday! So why doesn’t it have one?

Both of these questions are answered by a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s in his commentary on Song of Songs (1:4). He starts by mentioning my initial question: if the holiday of sukkot is about recalling God’s Clouds of Glory in the desert, why does the holiday take place on the 15th of Tishrei? Why not celebrate it in Nissan when the Clouds of Glory first appear? He answers that the Clouds of Glory left the Israelites at the sin of the Golden Calf, traditionally seen as occurring on the 17th of Tammuz. Several midrashim which add up the time it took for Moshe to clean up the mess of the Golden Calf, beg God for forgiveness, and spend another 40 days on Sinai receiving the second tablets, places God’s verbally forgiving the people and Moshe returning with the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur, the tenth of Tishrei. If you look carefully at the text, the Vilna Gaon points out, on the next day is when parashat Vayakhel occurs, when Moshe gathers the people to explain the building of the Tabernacle. Since the text tells us that the people brought their donations for the Tabernacle “בבקר בבקר”, “in the morning, in the morning,” he concludes it must have taken two days for the donations for the building project. (That’s a standard every shul wishes they could meet!) That brings us to the thirteenth of Tishrei. On the fourteenth all of the artisans who were working on the project sorted through the donations to ensure the proper amounts and weights. On the fifteenth of Tishrei, the first day of Sukkot, they began their project. According to the Vilna Gaon, it was only then, on the fifteenth of Tishrei, that the Clouds of Glory returned to protect the people in the desert. Which is why we celebrate Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei!

With this commentary, the Vilna Gaon has accomplished several things. First, he has connected our building temporary dwelling places for ourselves with our building a temporary dwelling place for God. And it answers my second question at the beginning of this sermon: we now have Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot each as a celebration of one the fundamental events in the God-Israelite relationship in the book of Exodus. 

What strikes me most about the Vilna Gaon’s suggestion is how he answers my first question. According to his interpretation, Sukkot is a holiday connected to a point towards the beginning of the process of reconciliation, but neither the beginning nor the end. It is neither the point when, midrashically, God verbally forgives us, nor the point of the completion of the Tabernacle when the relationship seems to be fully repaired. Instead, it occurs at the start of construction of the Tabernacle, a point when the Clouds of Glory return, a sanguine omen that there is hope for the future God-Israel relationship.

But the Mishkan is barely started and far from completed. This reframesSukkot. Sukkot is no longer, as I am usually inclined to see it, as the last holiday in the holiday cycle. Instead, it is the first physical manifestation of the hope that the relationships we broke last year and have spent time since Elul fixing, relationships which are just beginning to show the fruits of their repair, will remain unbroken. In that sense, the sukkah and the holiday of Sukkot become a celebration of hope that the newly restored relationships with God and with our fellow people will work out even though we don’t know that they will. We don’t know that all of the work we did over the High Holidays will last through the year. They may look good now, just as the return of the Clouds of Glory and the initial building of the Mishkan looked good for the Israelites and God.

But just as I suspect the Israelites and God (כביכול) did not know that their newly remanifested relationship would survive through the completion of the Tabernacle, we don’t know that our newly repaired relationships will survive until Passover. Likewise, every year we put up our sukkot not knowing if the weather, the bugs, or any other impediments will allow us to use them or God will chase us from them like a master throwing their drink back in a servant’s face. Nonetheless, every year we once again try to repair our relationships and we rebuild our Sukkot, just as the Israelites began building the Tabernacle not knowing how things will end. Even though this is a moment of unsurity, we make it into a moment to celebrate the beginning of possibility. And at this moment, I wish for all of you that your renewed relationships, with yourselves, with your fellow Jews, with your fellow humans, and with God will remain strong through 5783.

Shabbat shalom and moa’dim l’simcha. 


שמות פרשת משפטים פרק כג

(טז) וְחַג הַקָּצִיר בִּכּוּרֵי מַעֲשֶׂיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע בַּשָּׂדֶה וְחַג הָאָסִף בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה:

שמות פרשת כי תשא פרק לד

(כב) וְחַג שָׁבֻעֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ בִּכּוּרֵי קְצִיר חִטִּים וְחַג הָאָסִיף תְּקוּפַת הַשָּׁנָה:

ויקרא כג

(מב) בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת:

(מג) לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

במדבר סיני כד

(ה) מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:

ספרא אמור פרשה יב

למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים, רבי אליעזר אומר סוכות ממש היו, רבי עקיבא אומר בסוכות ענני כבוד היו, בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים, מלמד שאף הסוכה זכר ליציאת מצרים.

שולחן ערוך או״ח תרכה:א

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים”  וגו’ “כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל” , הם ענני הכבוד שהקיפם בהם לבל יכם שרב ושמש.

רמב”ן שמות הקדמה

וכשיצאו ממצרים אף על פי שיצאו מבית עבדים עדיין יחשבו גולים כי היו בארץ לא להם נבוכים במדבר וכשבאו אל הר סיני ועשו המשכן ושב הקב”ה והשרה שכינתו ביניהם אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם שהיה סוד אלוה עלי אהליהם והם הם המרכבה ואז נחשבו גאולים ולכן נשלם הספר הזה בהשלימו ענין המשכן ובהיות כבוד ה’ מלא אותו תמיד:

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת כי תשא

פסל לך, אימתי ירד משה מן ההר, אמר רבי יהודה בר שלום ק”כ יום עשה משה אצל הקב”ה כיצד בחדש השלישי לצאת בני ישראל וגו’ בששה בחדש נתן להם עשרת הדברות וכתיב בו ומשה עלה אל האלהים ועשה שם ארבעים יום כ”ד מסיון וי”ו מתמוז הרי מ’ יום, ירד בי”ז בתמוז ראה את העגל ושבר את הלוחות ורדה את הסרוחין י”ח וי”ט, וחזר ועלה בעשרים שנאמר ויהי ממחרת ויאמר משה אל העם אתם חטאתם חטאה גדולה ועתה אעלה אל ה’ וגו’ וכתיב וישב משה אל ה’ ויאמר אנא חטא העם הזה חטאה גדולה וגו’ עשה שם עשרה מן תמוז וכל חדש אב הרי ארבעים יום, עלה בר”ח אלול כשא”ל פסל לך והיה נכון לבקר וגו’ ויפסול וישכם משה בבקר ויעל, עשה שם אלול כלו ועשרה מתשרי וירד בעשור והיו ישראל שרוים בתפלה ותענית ובו ביום נאמר לו למשה סלחתי כדבריך וקבעו הקב”ה יום סליחה ומחילה לדורות שנאמר (ויקרא טז) כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר, ומיד צוה לו למשה ועשו לי מקדש…