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Journey Into The Shema

Journey Into The Shema

By Bert Kleinman, July 29, 2023

It was a warm summer night in New York. The 12 year old Jewish kid was on his knees at the edge of his bed, his hands in a prayerful position. He knew very well he was Jewish, though he wasn’t quite sure what that meant. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from the old country. His parents, though thoroughly secular, were culturally very Jewish, as were most of their friends, and all of his. He had no religious education, but desperately wanted to say something Jewish. So he recited 6 Hebrew words he knew… words that had come down to him through the ages. From the bottom of his heart the 12-year-old said: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad. The boy wasn’t quite sure what the words meant, but he said them anyway.

My journey from that bedroom in my parent’s house almost 70 years ago, to this bimah today, has been a long and complicated one. It’s a journey that led me away from Judaism in my late teens, and then back at the age of 40. It’s a journey that took me deep into prayer and the Shema, a journey that continues today.

I have little formal Jewish education, and I’m certainly not a scholar. So I won’t pretend to be able to tell you what the Shema ‘means’. But I can claim expertise in my personal, private, prayer life. And today I’d like to share a bit of it with you, in the hope that my spiritual journey into 6 words from this week’s parsha, might inform your journey and prayer life.

My return to Judaism began when I realized our tradition is more about questions, than answers… more about seeking, than knowing… more about covenant and conversation, than about one way communication from God. Then I learned that the Hebrew word for prayer, Lhitpalel, is reflexive… that in some way, prayer is more about something we do to ourselves, than something we do to God… that it may be more important that we hear our prayers, than that God does. In the words of AJ Heschel, prayer is  “not about form, it’s about what happens inside us when we pray.” So for me, the Shema isn’t so much a statement, as a meditation, an opening of doors. And each day, each time I say the Shema, it’s a voyage… a spiritual adventure.

It started as I set out to try to understand the traditional take on the Shema… as a statement. I asked what do those 6 words mean as a sentence? Why have those words been so central to the Jewish people for thousands of years… on our lips morning and night, on the lips of Rabbi Akiva and so many Jews at their moment of martyrdom… the frontlets between our eyes, the words posted on the doorposts of our homes and on our gates.

The pshat seems pretty simple, but it’s not. Is the Shema saying there is only one God — the classic statement of monotheism? Or is it saying there are other Gods, but YHVH, the God of the Torah, is ours and Supreme? Is it about God? Or our relationship to God?

In trying to understand the Shema as a statement, I read it aloud in different ways. Each way leading to a different nuance of meaning.

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יהֹוָ֥ה אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה  אֶחָֽד

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהֹוָ֥ה  אֶחָֽד

Each of these readings leads me down a different road… to a different place for exploration.

Then there’s the experience of saying the Shema, and what meanings that experience brings. It’s customary to close the eyes to concentrate when reciting the Shema. But one day in prayer, I held my siddur up close to my face and I had a new experience. I heard my own voice reflected back to me from the page, merging with the voices of the many generations of Jews who wrote the siddur. So I started holding my siddur to my face as a practice. And then when praying with a minyan, I noticed that the voices of my prayer-mates merged with the voices coming from the siddur, and my own. I experienced a one-ness with my people, my history, my friends, myself… and since the words were originally dictated to Moses… a one-ness with God.

A couple of years ago, my journey took a different turn. I heard a podcast by Rabbi Brad Artson talking about his inner prayer life. He said that sometimes in prayer he feels like he’s an airplane taking off, soaring towards heaven. Other times he prays very slowly, meditating on every word. I had experienced soaring. But not the deep dive into each word… looking at each word as a hyperlink to other worlds of meaning… finding in each word further questions on which to reflect and meditate.

So I looked at each of the 6 words in the Shema… in order. And each word gave birth to a series of questions and opened new doors.

Shema. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Saks says the word is not really translatable. He wrote that it could mean listen, hear, reflect on, understand, internalize, respond in action or obey. To quote AJ Heschel again, “Jewish prayer is an act of listening. We do not bring forth our own words. The self is silent. The spirit of the people Israel speaks. In prayer we listen to what the words convey.” Was I listening? Did I hear? Did I engage and reflect? Was I responding to the words?

Yisrael. The pshat is both singular and plural. The listening isn’t just mine as an individual, but also as part of a people. What does it mean to be part of the people Israel? And what does it mean to listen as a Jew?  Yisrael is also the name given to Yaakov by God… a name which means one who wrestles with God. What am I wrestling with as I say these words? Do I need to win? Will I, like Yaakov, come away with a limp, and realize God was in this place and I didn’t notice? The deeper I dive into each word, the more questions and tentative answers emerge.

Adonai. Of course, that’s not what it says. The word is unpronounceable. Adonai is a vocalization of the tetragramaton YHVH. Adonai, Lord, is one of 70 traditional names of God in Hebrew. It’s one I’m not very comfortable with, both because of the anthropomorphic gender implication, and the King image. On the other hand, I am very comfortable with the traditional idea that Adonai represents God’s attributes of compassion, empathy, and mercy. The fact that Adonai is the first name of God in the Shema, speaks volumes to me about what God might be, and what I am listening to and worshiping. Beyond worship, this meaning of Adonai raises challenging personal questions: am I empathetic and compassionate with my family, my friends? With others with whom I may disagree? With myself? Huge challenges in a single word.

Eloheinu. The flip side of Adonai, Eloheinu reflects the traditional Godly attribute of strict justice. Should I hear Adonai OR Eloheinu? Mercy OR justice? Or should I hear Adonai AND Eloheinu? Mercy AND justice? How do I balance the two… with my family, friends, society and perhaps the hardest — with myself? Eloheinu is also in the possessive plural – OUR God not MY God. Who is the we? It’s a challenge to experience what it means to be Jewish. What “we” do I belong to? And normally, the word “our” means possession. What is it about God that I can or should possess?

Adonai… again. Usually in reciting the Shema, people pause before this word and end with Adonai Echad… implying that Echad refers just to Adonai. But what if I pause after the second Adonai and say Adonai Eloheinu Adonai together- kind of an Eloheinu sandwich — Justice surrounded by compassion on both sides?

Rabbi Artson has another take. He looks both Adonais through the lens of Process Theology. Rabbi Artson sees the first one as a reference to the moral potential of any action I might take. And he sees the second Adonai as the finality of each decision and action. What’s done is done. Questions abound: How do I make my choices? How do I deal with the implications and finality of my choices? In making my choices, am I taking a step towards God? Or away from God? Might God be a verb and not a noun?

Echad. If one looks at the word as following the Eloheinu sandwich, one could say it means the attributes of mercy and justice need to be united as one… two sides of the same coin. But that’s not the traditional take. In the Talmud the rabbis say Adonai Eloheinu, applies to the present, and Adonai Echad to the future. Jews are the ones who acknowledge God in the present, while in the future, the hope is that all humanity will. Rabbi Saks offers a number of other possible readings: There is only one God. God is a unity and indivisible. God is the only ultimate reality. God is one, despite seeming to be different things at different times in history. God alone is our King.

More questions… more ideas for exploration and reflection.

Hillel says in Pirke Avot 2:5: “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die.”

So my journey continues each day… as I confront the 6 words, and try to hear them and engage with them. Some days, I soar on the words, letting their flow transport me towards Heaven. Other days I dive deep into one word or two… exploring their significance, our Jewish tradition, and what it all means to me. Each day is different.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote “The world is full of the light of God, but to see it we must learn to open our eyes”. The Shema calls out for us to open our ears as well… to see the light, to hear the words… and sense the Presence and Potential of God in every moment… all around us.

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…




By Joel Elkins, September 24, 2022

I don’t usually put much stock in serendipity, but sometimes the universe conspires to try to convince me otherwise.

A while back I was given the assignment to give the dvar torah today on parshat Nitzavim. That same day, I had picked up from the library the book for my book club. I debated whether to start in on the book or to get a head start on the drash. I flipped a mental coin and the book won.

So I opened to the first page of Jonathan Sacks’ “A Letter in the Scroll” which begins with the story of a 15th Century Spanish rabbi named Isaac ben Moses Arama who was – I kid you not — preparing his sermon on parshat Nitzavim. Good one, universe. You’ve got my attention.So Rabbi Arama is sitting in his study and he fixates on the opening passage, where Moses gathers all the Children of Israel and says to them:

Atem Nitzavim, you are all standing here today to enter into the covenant of your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant not just with those standing here today, but also with those who are not with us.

Rabbi Arama then asks the same question that countless commentators have asked before him: It just said everyone was standing there — men, women, children, tribal elders all the way down to resident aliens, woodchoppers and water bearers. Who then are “those who are not here”? And he comes to the same conclusion that many others, including Rashi, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra had come to before: this must be referring to future generations. The Talmud calls it “mushba ve-omed mi-Sinai” (already foresworn at Sinai). From the moment we exit our mother’s womb, for better or for worse, we are born into that covenant.

Later in his book, Rabbi Sacks asserts that the idea of a covenant between a people and its God is unique among the world’s religions. Ancient polytheistic religions believed that men were essentially serfs serving whatever god controlled the region. Christianity believes that man is tainted by original sin which only devotion to God can remove. Islam believes that man is called to absolute submission to God’s will. Judaism alone believes in a covenant, an ancient contract between the people and God.

But Rabbi Arama asks how future generations can be held to a contract that they did not agree to. The traditional answer is that the souls of all future Jews were present at that time, but they were not included in the “those standing here today” for the simple reason that they could not physically stand.
I’d like to offer a slightly different answer.

A little later on is the parsha’s most famous line:
הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ
I have put before you life and death
הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה
blessing and curse
וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃

Generally translated: “then choose life—so that you and your offspring will live”

Based on this translation, the whole process smacks of coercion. Follow my commandments and you will live and be blessed, do otherwise and you will be cursed and die. Like that famous midrash about God asking the people to accept the commandments while physically holding Mt. Sinai over their heads. Being bound to a contract which was forced upon you under pain of death is no way to go through life.

But perhaps there is another, more uplifting, reading. But for that, I will need to talk a little Hebrew grammar. In the Torah, there is something called vav ha-hipuch, a vav before a verb which changes a future tense verb to past and a past tense verb to future. Thus, yomar means “he will say.” Va-yomer means “he said.” Similarly, in the verse I just read bacharta means “you (singular) chose”; so u-vacharta – “you will choose.” But since Moshe is making a plea not a prediction, most translations change it to the cohortative “choose” — choose life.

But consider this: what if this is not an example of vav ha-hipuch, but rather a plain vav ha-chibur, the simple conjunction “and.” Then the verse would read “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse, and you chose life.”

In the traditional reading, life and death, and blessing and curse are seen as alternatives, choose (a) or (b). But in this alternative reading, as I will explain, they can be seen as two sides to the same coin.

In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a choice. You can abstain from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and stay forever in the garden with all your needs provided for, or you may partake of the fruit of the tree and be banished from the garden, live on earth, till the soil by the sweat of your brow and give birth in pain. As we all know, they chose life.

I like to think of this not as a creation story but as a parable, that every soul is given this choice: you can remain an ephemeral, lifeless being and exist forever in the cosmos, or you can choose to live on earth, with all its ups and downs, its blessings and curses, life and eventual death. And of all the untold number of souls given this choice, only a small minority chose to take the red pill, choosing life with all its highs and lows, freedoms and restrictions, adventure and mortality. By very definition, each of us here is one of those bold few.

Perhaps this is what God, through his servant Moshe, was saying to the people then and, through our reading of this parsha each year, to us today. You knew the consequences of the choice I set before you and you chose life on this earth. But with that great power comes great responsibility. The price of experiencing this corporeal life is the occasional misfortune and heartache. Sure, follow my commandments and I will lessen those for you. But they won’t go away. They are, after all, a part of life.

In Jewish literature and liturgy, God is variously described as a master and we his servants, or as a king and we his subjects, or as a father and we his children. But according to Rabbi Sacks, the metaphor most embraced by the prophets is that of husband and wife, a covenantal relationship created and maintained by mutual commitment.

Married couples make a lifetime commitment to marry “for better or for worse, till death do they part.” But every now and then they may find it helpful to renew those vows. We have that same opportunity. Every year about this time, we participate in an intense 10-day couples’ retreat. We admit our mistakes from the previous year and re-commit to trying to do better this coming year. We share with our partner what we expect from them and listen to their needs of us.

Starting tomorrow evening, we will all be Nitzavim, standing before God in that annual couples’ retreat. As you beat your chest and try your hardest to be remorseful, imagine God saying to you: I set before you all the terms of the contract, life and death, blessings and curses. And with full knowledge of the consequences, you signed on the dotted line, you gave your informed consent, and you got life. Now, keep up your end of the bargain, and live it, fully and honorably.

Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

Shabbat Shuvah — Who By Fire

By Melissa Berenbaum, Oct. 1, 2022

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.

If I were to recount a story about a man who runs away from his responsibilities, only to find there is no escaping those obligations, you would say you know the story. It’s the story of Jonah, which is read on Yom Kippur. The Book of Jonah is a parable, reminding us that it’s more or less impossible to ignore or turn away from God’s call and that God is merciful when we turn away from wrongdoing and evil and turn toward God.

But I do want to talk about another person, more contemporary, who may have thought he was running away from some of his commitments, but his running away was in fact running toward his responsibilities.

The year was 1973. The person is Leonard Cohen. He was then living on the Greek Island, Hydra, with a woman and their young child Adam, born in 1972. That life was already something of an escape for a man who grew up in Montreal in an Orthodox family at Sha’ar Hashomayim. His grandfather laid the cornerstone of the shul in 1921. At his bar mitzvah, Leonard Cohen was called to the Torah at Sha’ar Hashomayim – Eliezer ben Natan Ha-Cohen.

His life on Hydra, first with Marianne Ihlen (of the song Marianne) and then Suzanne (but not the same Suzanne of the song), was a simple, but hedonistic, life. He consumed a lot of drugs and created a lot of great music through the 1960’s. He was part of the same music scene that included Joan Baez, and he had achieved success and fame. But at 39, he was unsatisfied, unfulfilled and told people, including reporters that he was done with music and essentially had nothing more to say.

On October 6, Yom Kippur that year, Israel was attacked, as we all know, in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights. Israelis living outside the country scrambled to get home to join their units. And facing middle age, trapped by a family, blocked creatively and fed up with what the music business had become, Leonard Cohen made his way to Israel, to his myth home, as he called it. He intended to volunteer on some kibbutz that he knew would be in need of workers to replace the men who were being called into service. So done was he with music that he didn’t even bring a guitar with him.

Is he running away, or is he answering a call? Maybe he is more like Avraham… Hineni.

He had no specific direction when he got to Tel Aviv and went to a Café where he was recognized by some Israeli musicians – Ilana Rovina and Oshik Levy and they invited him to join as they were going to play concerts. He initially demurred, but after they requisitioned a guitar for him, he joined them.

We all probably have some familiarity with the USO shows that provide live entertainment to American troops serving abroad. These are lavishly produced entertainment spectacles that have been done since World War II. I remember them from the Vietnam era because they were filmed and then broadcast on American television.

Well, Leonard Cohen, Ilana Rovina, Oshik Levy and they were joined by Matti Caspi, were a long way from the USO shows. The first couple of concerts took place at air force bases, in a movie theater or similar auditoriums.

And almost from the start, Cohen’s inspiration and creativity were re-ignited. He began sketching out “Lover, Lover, Lover” on the first day he played and introduced it at the second show at Hatzor Air Base. Here are some of the lyrics:

I asked my father, I said “Father, change my name.”
The one I’m using now it’s covered up with fear and filth and cowardice and shame.
The refrain: Lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, come back to me.

Matti Friedman, author of Who by Fire – Leonard Cohen in the Sinai, speculates that this verse relates to the widespread practice of exchanging diaspora Jewish names for Hebrew names, as part of the process of integration and assimilation into Israel. We all know Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir.

And a later verse:

And may the spirit of this song
May it rise up, pure and free
May it be a shield for you
A shield against the enemy

Cohen wrote in his notes that he hoped that this song might offer protection to the soldiers about to embark on their missions. Did he really think a song could protect soldiers facing war? Or was he fulfilling his responsibility and obligation, as a Cohen, to offer the priestly blessing to the soldiers who were about to embark on life-or-death missions?


And the refrain…. Lover, lover, lover, lover (and a few more) come back to me. We don’t know exactly the context. It could evoke God’s presence as in Shir Ha Shirim, or a conventional expression of one missing another, as a soldier missing a girlfriend.

It’s well documented that the concerts had a big impact on the soldiers. The music provided an escape – from the danger, the threat of death, the reality of death and injury. And Cohen was well known in Israel, having performed there in 1972 and through his albums.

Matti Friedman’s book recounts many of the concerts – none of which were filmed or taped. He tracked down soldiers – now grandmothers and grandfathers – who attended these concerts, most of which were in the Sinai, closer to where the battles were being waged. They were impromptu performances, with little equipment like speakers and lighting. Oshik Levy’s description of a typical concert – an officer takes them in the desert at night in a truck. “The front is close but he doesn’t know how close. They stop by a few big artillery guns clustered in the sand. Everything is completely black. Does anyone want to hear some music? Some dirty soldiers gather around.” He “builds a stage of ammunition crates and arranges a truck’s headlights for illumination. They start singing. Suddenly an artillery officer says politely, ‘Can you stop for a moment,’ and shouts ‘Gun three!’ The ground shakes and the air ripples with the force of a projectile. Everyone is deafened for a few seconds. They begin singing again.”

The memories of those who saw Cohen perform are sharp and precise. A soldier named Shlomi recalls an attack on the Africa side, after Israeli troops had crossed the Suez. An Egyptian plane overhead, firing at the soldiers below. One soldier manning a machine gun on an armored personnel carrier shot the plane down. Later Shlomi, after roaming through the desert looking for fuel cans returned to the improvised base camp and recalls hearing a voice. He said he felt like Moshe, hearing the voice and he walked toward it. He saw someone sitting on a steel helmet resting on the sand, with a guitar, singing – it was Leonard Cohen.

There could be much to say about the battles of the Yom Kippur War – 2600 lives lost. How perilously close Israel was to the precipice. And I’m sure many here (not including those in the 20s and 30s group, and I would add even those in their 40s) can remember where they were and how they learned that Israel was being attacked and what they did to offer help and resources to the Jewish state.

But this is about Leonard Cohen’s journey and the significance and impact his experiences in Sinai had on him and its relevance to this season of return and repentance. Cohen was reluctant to talk about his experiences in the Yom Kippur War, of being up close to war and its horrors, to see young men die. He did return to Hydra, to Suzanne and Adam, probably to appreciate the mundane and ordinary, which is what the war was waged to protect. They had another child and he began writing music again…. he had something to say. This rebirth gave us “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” and so many others.

So we come to Cohen’s version of the U-ne-taneh Tokef…. Who By Fire. He wrote it just months after his experiences in the Sinai. And it was released in 1974 on the first album following the war. Think about the prayer, recited on Yom Kippur and shortly after, Israelis learned the nation was under attack. From the shul to prepare for reserve duty – nothing could be more dramatic, more real than listing the ways peoples’ lives could end in the coming year and going off to defend your country.

Cohen, who grew up in an Orthodox synagogue and knew the prayer, its meaning and significance – all knowing God who inscribes and seals mortals for the coming year, who will die and who will be born, who will die in the right time and who will die an untimely death, who by water, who by fire …. And you know the rest.

He took that prayer with his experience in Israel, among soldiers, and gave us Who By Fire –

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?

Matti Friedman tells the story of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, that tragically lost 11 of its young men in the Yom Kippur War – the next generation of the kibbutz. This was a particularly secular kibbutz where the members didn’t really observe Yom Kippur. After the war, Yom Kippur became a day of mourning on the kibbutz. Some years later an Israeli songwriter, Yair Rosenblum, visited Kibbutz Beit Hashita where he wrote a new melody for the U-netaneh tokef. He combined European cantorial melodies, Sephardic tunes and modern Israeli music. That melody is used in many Israeli synagogues. And then Israeli singer Aya Korem translated Cohen’s song into Hebrew and layered it on to Rosenblum’s melody. Listen here.

Leonard Cohen seems like Jonah – in that he tries to escape. But his escape route brings him right back to his roots, to who he is. He had to go back out on the road doing concerts around 2009 when he discovered his manager had stolen his savings. He played in Israel, and if you go to the Anu Museum in Tel Aviv, you can see a clip from that concert at the end, when Eliezer Ha-Cohen raised his hands, parted his fingers and blessed the crowd with the Priestly Benediction and left the stage.

May our t’shuvah be meaningful and fulfilling. G’mar hatimah tovah. Shabbat shalom.