Category Archives: Divrei 5775


Parashat Balak

By Bob Braun, 5775

As a child of the 60’s, television had a great impact on my life. I’m not sure that my children, who grew up with beautiful, high definition color televisions, vcrs and cable or satellite TV, recognize the impact that a 13 inch black and white TV had on those in my generation.

Part of the reason is that there wasn’t a lot of TV – a few channels, none of them 24 hours, and none of them solely sports. But part of the reasons was that I wasn’t allowed to watch most of it.

But one of the shows we were allowed to watch – and believe me, I have no idea why – was a particularly poignant and realistic view of modern suburban life. And that show was “Mr. Ed.”

It is a somewhat sad fact that in this crowd, there may be no one who does not remember Mr. Ed, but to recap for those who were incarcerated or not born, Mister Ed was a talking palomino, played by gelding Bamboo Harvester and voiced by former Western film actor Allan Lane. Many of the program’s story lines follow from Mister Ed’s tendency to talk only to his owner, Wilbur Post, and Mr. Ed’s skills as a troublemaker.

I lived a somewhat sheltered childhood, and it seemed rather plausible that your average architect would own a horse, and that the horse would talk. And I attribute part of that naivete to this parasha which, of course, features Balaam’s talking donkey. After all, if a donkey could talk in the Torah, who’s to say a horse could not on national television?

Now, all this is pleasant, and it certainly helps fill up the few minutes I will be annoying you, but in all seriousness, this parasha has a lot to do with television, and with all literary endeavor. Because what they do, and what this parasha does, is to show us not how we live, but the lives of others – which, I might mention, is a wonderful German movie that won the Academy Award a few years back.

Parashat Balak, until the very end – which itself is a prelude to next week’s parasha, at which time Joel Grossman will give a much more enlightening drasha – is not about Jews. It is about our enemies, or those who wish to be our enemies, or conceive of us as their enemies. Like a television show, or a play or novel, we find ourselves eavesdropping on their affairs, seeing how we appear in their eyes, what fears and emotions and actions we stir in them. We are part of the story, we are the object of the story, but we are not the story.

This Parasha is one of the few that allows us to see ourselves as others see us, and we are seen in an unflattering and threatening light – a people that covers the earth and that threatens to consume Balak and his country like an ox licks up the grass in a field.

What is Balak’s proof for this? How does Balak perceive us as a threat? The story is told in last week’s parasha that we asked – politely, I assume – for safe passage through Amorite territory, and we were turned back and attacked, and in self-defense, we destroyed the Amorites. But Balak only heard, or only chose to hear, the last part of the story. Balak twists the facts to feed his fears and emotions.

Our perception of ourselves and of others defines our relationships and our actions. We all know that we, and others, shade facts, and sometimes change facts entirely, to meet our needs and justify ourselves, whether to others or to ourselves. Every day, we see seemingly unassailable proof discarded because it doesn’t support a positions. I have an unholy trinity of news channels on my satellite radio – CNN, Fox and MSNBC, and I will, from time to time, rotate through them, just to find out how many different ways the same “facts” can be spun into entirely different stories. The facts, seemingly unassailable, can change. As Senator Sam Ervin once told my law school class, that to be a good lawyer, you had to salt down the facts, because the law was going to keep – the facts were going to change.

At this point, we should recall that Balak is not the only character, or people, in the Torah that is guilty of twisting the facts. Consider Shlach L’cha, just a few weeks ago, when the spies, all men of importance and character, scouted out the land and the inhabitants of Israel. And what did the spies say – “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants, and we looked like grasshopers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” This is matched by Balak’s hyperbole, when he says that “this people who came out of Egypt hides the earth from view.”

The consequences of misperception, of misinterpretation, was tragic for us – the entire generation that was redeemed out of slavery from Egypt died in the desert. And as far as Balak? Well, he slips off into obscurity; his function seems to have been to serve as Balaam’s entry into the narrative, and then Balaam’s foil, and then to disappear.

This parasha stands out from others – there are only two Torah portions named after non-Jews (3, if you count Noah), and this is the only parasha named after someone generally considered evil. Even more, the Gemorah give this parasha, along with Job and Dvarim, the almost singular importance of having been inscribed by Moshe Rabbeinu – there is something more here than a cute story about a talking donkey.

I think there is another lesson, and that is to remind us of the risk in substituting reality with an interpretation of reality. Just as Balaam, try as he might, cannot curse the Jews when God intends us to be blessed, facts can’t be changed quite so easily. Our interpretation does not change reality. God’s punishment of the generation of the desert reminds us that we cannot play so fast and loose with facts. Balak can ask, can demand Balaam to curse the Jews, but God’s substitution of blessings for Balaam’s curses stands. We are bound by proof.

We ourselves substitute perception for fact in many ways, large and small. A fender bender on the way to work becomes a major accident, excusing our tardiness. A non-committal nod becomes affirmative proof that you agreed with my position. Five minutes on the elliptical becomes a full workout. To paraphrase The Big Chill, rationalization is more important than sex – have you ever gone a full day without a rationalization?

But facts in large ways. Holocaust deniers rob us of history, communists revise the past to suit their current needs – we, ourselves, clothe the past to justify the present. Twisting the facts leads to war, to persecution, to violence and destruction. How often has Balak’s rationale been used to justify our persecution? And how often have we used, or misused, facts to justify unjust actions?

It is tempting to conform the facts to our pre-existing beliefs, but the truth, if there is a truth, is that we should do the opposite – we should seek to form our views from the facts. This is painful news when our sources of information are highly skewed to support the positions of readers, listeners and viewers, but we should recognize that we are an elite – we are an educated, diverse community that recognizes the value of beliefs and opinions contrary to our own. We should do no less with the truth.

Shabbat Shalom, and a happy independence day.


Shavuot 2015/5775

By Rabbi Susan Laemmle

A Loving Relationship

Dodi li va-ani lo, ha-roeh ba-shoshanim: “My beloved is mine and I am my beloved’s, who browses among the lilies.”  Many of us have walked down the wedding aisle and danced the hora to a musical setting of these words from the Song of Songs.  Our ketubot may include this and attendant verses, and sometimes the kallah puts a ring on her chatan’s finger with ani l’dodi v’dodi li.  This mining of Shir ha-Shirim to convey human love is natural, for it clearly is one of the world’s great love songs.  Its way of combining tenderness, and erotic nuance makes this book within the Jewish canon appealing to non-Jews as well.

Moving beyond the personal, we encounter Song of Songs as the scroll stipulated for the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach. The prophets rendered the theme of covenantal love between God and Israel in marriage metaphors, and the early rabbis built upon these metaphors to present the history of Israel as love dialogues between Am Yisrael and Adonai.  Their exegesis enabled the Song to enter the biblical canon & rabbinic literature as the religious lyric par excellence.

I still remember my first encounter years ago with an allegoricized Song of Songs — specifically the passage in Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah where the beloved’s breasts are identified with Moses and Aaron. Not yet having much sense of the tradition within which this identification fits, I was amazed — and amused.  Since then, I’ve grown accustomed to experiencing the Song on multiple levels.  And recently I acquired the wonderful new JPS Bible Commentary by Michael Fishbane, which opens up text and tradition like a ripe pomegranate. This gorgeous opening-up comes just in time for Shavout.

As a two (rather than eight) day holiday, a holiday with few home rituals and one that comes at the cusp of summer, Shavout is as not as easily meaningful as the other two pilgrimage festivals, Succot and Pesach.  Also, its overlap with Simchat Torah can further diminish and confuse things.  Counting the Omer from Pesach on does help to concretize the link between the freedom of Egyptian exodus and the responsibility of Sinai.  Participating in a Tikkun layl Shavout that recreates our forebears’ anticipation of revelation can make a difference. Preparing and eating delicious blitzes and cheesecake, as well as picnicking in La Cienega Park with others from Beth Am, grounds the holiday in our bodies. Building on these important practices, the association of Shavout with the rabbinically expanded, allegorized and spiritualized Song of Songs has this year enabled me to take the holy day to my heart.  Hopefully my words will have a similar effect on some of you.

My heart has opened to the idea — even more to the feeling — that Sinai was an intimate, loving, reciprocal encounter between Am Yisrael and Adonai; between our particular people and the God of all the Universe.  To some of you, that will have long ago been obvious.  Others will be wondering how this portrayal fits with alternative images — like God holding the mountain over our heads in a threatening mode.  Clearly our texts contain multiple images, not all easily reconciled.  Within halacha, there typically must be a clear decision; but with midrash, alternative interpretations can co-exist, expanding the range of possibilities.  So it is that Adonai could have given the Torah to the Jews only after other nations refused to subscribe to its demands, hardly the act of personal, passionate love.  And at the same time, the giving of the Torah was like a nuptial ceremony, where bride and groom pledge themselves to the one person among all others whom they treasure.

Bringing the mutuality of committed romantic love and marriage into the Sinai encounter between God and Israel seems to me a daring thing to do.  Let’s leave aside the reality that love and marriage relationships have been and sometimes still are asymmetrical, not mutual; patriarchal, not egalitarian; destructive, not enriching. Beyond all this, the covenantal relationship also gets paralleled in other ways: sovereign and subject, master and servant, parent and child, shepherd and flock, vineyard and vintner. We know and love the litany sung forth joyfully on Yom Kippur in Ki Anu Amecha. For me, there is something dazzlingly special about including human lovers within that litany: ki anu rayatecha and atah dodaynu: translated in Machzor Lev Shalem as “we are your spouse and you are our beloved.”

Of course, all these parallels present God in anthropomorphic terms.  Envisioning God as a larger-than-life human being doesn’t seem right, but conceiving of God as an abstraction or a diffused process presents other problems.  This is not the time for an extended theological discourse; however, it has been my experience that opening mind and heart to a mutually loving Song-of-Songs-like relationship with God can be transforming.

Let me hastened to add a crucial qualification:  It is as part of the Jewish People that we stand in such a relationship to Adonai.  Of course, individual human beings throughout the world — Jewish or other, identified with a religious community or not — can experience themselves, and indeed stand, in relationship with divinity.  We Jews do not have exclusive purchase on existential connectedness, and likewise individual unaffiliated Jews persist in identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  But for those Jews who, like us, take their places within a Jewish religious community, there is the complex, profound, compelling possibility of feeling intimacy and solidarity, mutuality and protectedness at the same time. Essentially this is another way of playing out the particularism-universalism pairing that, to my mind, makes Judaism unique, difficult, and deeply rewarding.

The passage within today’s Torah reading that first stirred me to consider the theme of this drashah comes in Exodus 19:5, specifically where Adonai says that if Bnai Yisrael listen to God’s voice and observe God’s covenant, then heh-yee-tem li segolah mi kol ha-amim: “You will be a treasure to me out of all the peoples.”  It turns out that the root samech-gimmel-lamed carries a meaning of property possessed.  But it is the quality of endearment, of being treasured, that gets connected to the prophetic and then rabbinic notion of a loving, intimate, delight-suffused relationship.  To me there is no more poignant expression of this relationship than the verse from Isaiah that John and I placed on our wedding invitation: ooh-m-sos chatan al kallah, yasis alayich elohayich:  “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride so will your God rejoice over you.”  Poignant, because it is the loving human dyad that becomes the measure and model for God’s relating to the Jewish People.

To conceive of the Israel-Adonai relationship as mutual requires some stretching.  It is here that the giving and receiving of Torah concretizes the Covenant’s mutuality — more pointedly, God’s giving Torah and Israel’s committing itself to fulfilling the Torah’s commandments even before hearing them with  Naaseh v’nishmah.

Included among the Torah commandments is the self-referential, cycle-creating mitzvah to continually study Torah; not just Chumash or Tanakh, of course, but the rabbinic tradition that developed from these, and beyond.  Michael Fishbane connects the phrase “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (1:2) with Judaism’s culture of study.

So then, let’s take a deep breath and bring together within ourselves a number of Shavout experiences: (1) hearing the Torah portion from Sefer Sh’mot  withAseret Ha-Dibrot  at its center, chanted aloud;  (2) moving into the midrashic world of Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah and Michael Fishbane’s commentary, (3) remembering back to having lit candles and recited the festival Kiddush last night; to having prepared and eaten dairy dishes sweet as milk and honey; to having studied (or had spiritual dreams) throughout the night. Taken together, these Shavout actions and feelings reciprocate to Adonai — our loving covenantal partner — in a way that, despite the clear differences between us, mutualized, dignifies, and individuates our relationship.

And so we come to the Sinai moment — which the midrash takes to be “the day of his espousals when Israel were like bridegrooms” — and also when God says “Come with me from Lebanon, my bride.”  Whoever is the groom and who, the bride — however gender gets allocated and stretched — the main thing is the loving intimacy; the bringing of God down to earth without compromising God’s unity or universality. Quite an achievement — and quite an inheritance.

Chag Sameach!

And the old shall see visions

And the old shall see visions Parashat Va’ era

By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, January 17, 2015

And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions,
And our hopes shall rise up to the sky.
We must live for today; we must build for tomorrow.
Give us time, give us strength, give us life.
(Debby Friedman)

Parashat Va’era begins in the middle of a conversation – more like an argument, actually. The Egyptians have intensified their demand on the Hebrew slaves, and the people, in turn, have complained bitterly to Moses and Aaron – “May God punish you!” they cry out.  At the end of Shmot, the previous parashah,Moses himself cries out to God,

Oh Lord, why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me?

And our portion begins with the continuation of God’s response, and the recitation of the promises we return to each year at our Passover seders:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people:  I am YHVH,
I will free you from the suffering imposed by the Egyptians
I will deliver you from slavery to them.
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment
And I will take you as My people, and I will be your God,
And you shall know I am YHVH your God who freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.
I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… I am YHVH.

Dutifully, Moses repeats these promises to the people.  But they are too closed down, too depressed, too dispirited to even be able to hear Moses:  the Torah tells us they suffer from kotzer ruach.

Their spirits, crushed.  Constrained.  Not enough breath, not enough spirit, to breathe in the possibility of a new reality, a different truth, a possibility of change.

“They are not used to hearing anything other than the calls of their taskmasters and the groans of their own weary muscles,” writes Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg.   “This very inability to hear anything behond the very personal and immediate constricted quality of thir state keeps them enslaved, impervious to the possibility of an expansion of their awareness and their lives.”

And, indeed, as Rabbi Weinberg suggests, that description of “kotzer ruach” evokes a different kind of physical limitation as well – the sense of limitation that can happen to us too, as we age.  Our aches and pains can take over our attention; fatigue, in Rabbi Weinberg’s words, can
“lodge in our bones…”

Exercise, a healthy diet —  or even those more expensive options  botox…juvederm… and the rest of the plastic surgeon’s palette —  won’t mask the reality that

the old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be.   

Yet as Abraham Joshua Heschel has written, “The aged thinks of himself as belonging to the past.  But it is precisely the openness to the present that he must strive for.”

It is that message that our parashah comes so vividly to teach us.

How does it do so?

Let us go back to the story. The narrator interrupts the flow of the story to recite the long lineage of Moses and Aaron, and his recitation culminates with the words: “It is the same Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord said, Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt….”  But Moses’ response to God’s demand was to immediately cite his limitations – why he couldn’t possibly carry out God’s demand.

But God, of course, is unrelenting  – Moses and Aaron will do it, they will play their role in God’s plan to redeem the Israelites from slavery to freedom.  But then, telling us that God refuses to take “no” for an answer, the narrator goes on to add a most unexpected line (7:6):

This Moses and Aaron did as  YHVH commanded them, so they did.  Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83, when they made their demand on Pharoah.

What is the point of telling us their age?

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, noting that this is the only time that the Bible interrupts the flow of the narration to tell us the age of a prophet, explains:

“It attributes greatness to Moses and Aaron beyond all other prophets for only to them did God appear, only to them was the Torah given…while all other prophets either predict the future or chastise behavior in the present….”

In other words, by telling us their age, the Torah is suggesting how  elevated in stature the brothers Moses and Aaron are.  The Torah is paying tribute to them.

It is not the young prince of Egypt but the more wizened and “wise-nd”  80 -year old and his 83-year-old  brother who will lead us  across the sea from the narrow place of Mitzrayim, the land of constricted consciousness, of shortness of breath, of being stuck in our own old ways, of being fearful of change –  across the sea, which will miraculously cease to be a hindrance once we have the courage to step into it.

And who knows how old the even older sister of Moses, Miriam, was  – 86 years old? 90? 95? — as she led the women in triumphant dance with drums and cymbals on the other side!

There are many older men and women in America today. In 2010, 40 million people age 65 and over lived in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of the total population. 40 million in 2010. The oldest-old population (those age 85 and over) grew from just over 100,000 in 1900 to 5.5 million in 2010.  In  15 years, 2030, the older population is predicted to grow from 35 million to 72 million and representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.

One of the most beautiful psalms in our liturgy speaks to that elderhood:

The just are as fertile as a date palm
And like a cedar on Mount Lebanon, they grow tall.
Planted in the House of Adonai, in the courtyard of our God,
They blossom –

They are fresh even in old age,
Luxuriant –
Telling that Adonai is true,
My Rock,

The psalm’s meaning becomes even more beautiful when we realize the significance of that image of a “date palm.”  Date palms are signs of an oasis, of water in the desert.  No part of a date palm is unused: Their fruits provide nourishment full of healthy energy; their pits make camel feed; their branches make shelter, and baskets to carry goods….

May we too, like the date palm, remain fresh even in old age, fruitful, luxuriant, in the gifts we can offer others, open to the present.

In the words of a contemporary writer:

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished.  That will be the beginning.” (Louis L’Amour)

Parshat Vayechi

Parshat Vayechi

By Abraham Havivi, January 3, 2015

Read Gen. 48:1-11 (Dying Jacob receives Joseph, along with grandchildren Menashe and Ephraim, and blesses them)

What’s the obvious question about Jacob’s question in v. 8, Mi eleh, Who are these? (How could he not recognize his own grandchildren? He had already been living in Egypt 17 years!)

Possible answers:

Dimming eyesight (v. 10) (this seems to be the p’shat—Radak, ibn Ezra, Hizkuni)

Modern source criticism: Different sources (P and E)

Midrash (Tanhuma, followed by Rashi): Jacob prophetically foresaw some wicked descendants of E and M (idolatrous kings of Israel) (“How can I bless them, given that these wicked kings will descend from them?!” Then Joseph brings him back to the present moment.)

Midrash, although sounding fanciful to us, actually is in keeping with the overall theme of the parsha and highlights it: CONTINUITY/LEGACY—Jacob’s concern about that will happen after him, will his values live on in his descendants—the possibility of idolatrous kings throws him temporarily

What other aspects of the parsha are concerned with continuity?

Jacob’s burial request

Jacob’s adoption of E and M as equal is status to Joseph’s brothers

Blessing of J, E, M—Jacob hands down the blessings of his ancestors, Avraham and Yitzchak

Jacob’s “blessings” to his 12 sons

Jacob’s burial in Cana’an

Brothers’ self- humbling and final reconciliation with Joseph after Jacob’s death (family could fracture, but it doesn’t)

Joseph’s burial request—takes my bones out of Egypt when God delivers you (Gen. 50:25 pakod yifkod,, echoed in Ex. 3:16, 4:21)

Haftara—King David’s concern to settle scores and reward allies

What is this concern with continuity about? Important to our ancestors that their family, their tradition, their values, would be carried forward; this is a drive familiar to us all–people naturally want to feel that their values are being passed on to their children

BTW, in parsha we see the best proof of values passed on to children–(First example in the Torah of) grandchildren

How is continuity manifested? I suggest two ways: One—that the offspring, the descendants, carry on the same traditions as the parents; Two—that the children use the family tradition as a foundation, but then move on and create something of their own; (A framework for looking at this—the path of Isaac vs. the path of Jacob—Isaac repeated and consolidated what Abraham did and didn’t innovate, while Jacob evolved and went in new directions). Two models: Do the children and grandchildren duplicate that which came before, or do they innovate?

Now, this is a question that certainly feels pertinent here at LM. It is clear to all of us who have been around for a while that the energy in the room is diminished, the hair is grayer, and the pews are emptier—and sometimes, it feels a little sad. Where are our children? Where are the young people, the younger families? (I know there are a few here—but far fewer than 20 years ago.)

The same question, of course, writ large, is the question of the Conservative movement, declining in numbers—the Pew report simply confirmed what we all feel and see around us.

But, I think the sadness is misplaced. It’s like when I visit my old neighborhood in Queens–Laurelton—once Jewishly vibrant–3 shuls, now none. You could say, as some do, that the neighborhood “died”—but of course, it didn’t die—the Jews moved on and others moved in. The adults of my growing up years were raised on the Lower East Side, or Brooklyn; they themselves moved into nice little private houses in Laurelton; their children moved to the suburbs: and their grandchildren now are moving to—the Lower East Side and Brooklyn!—where their grandparents or even great-grandparents lived! As the geography went, so the religious affiliations as well—an old generation davened in little shtiblach, a subsequent generation built magnificent suburban edifices, and a new generation now meets in living rooms and independent minyanim.

So, one possible response to the room emptying out—“We’ve failed”—is simply wrong. Perhaps our style of community and davening won’t appeal to enough of a critical mass within the next generation, perhaps it will.

I think the more correct analysis is: We’ve succeeded. Our children—and when I say “children” here, I don’t necessarily mean our specific biological children, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you have your own biological children, I’m talking about the next generation that we as a village raised together, and mentored—our community’s children may not be here, but they have taken other directions—they’ve made aliya; they go to indie minyans; they’re peaceniks who study Arabic, they’ve become Modern Orthodox; they define their Jewishness culturally, they’re committed to social justice—in all these ways, they don’t duplicate precisely what we created here—they’ve used it as a foundation, and moved on in new directions; (or, of course, the usual analysis—they’re not in shul at age 25, but let’s have another look at age 35 or 40, when they have children of their own and are more likely to re-affiliate—I mean, how many people here were in shul at age 25?)

Of course, that’s how this minyan was started, by a group of people who “rebelled” against the norms of their community—a community marked by synagogue decorum, responsive English readings, paid professional leadership, a bima like Mt. Sinai—the mainstream synagogue experience of the 50’s and 60’s that was perfectly satisfactory for lots of Jews until, one day, it wasn’t, and a next generation created something new, that many of the older generation disapproved of at the time, and we know that R. Pressman was very forward-thinking in backing the LM at a time when the lay powers-that-be felt threatened by it. Many of our “sister minyanim” in other cities were forced to move out of synagogues, because their existence was seen to threaten the rabbi—but R. Pressman was prescient and backed us.

We in this room were part of a movement that created new forms and styles that may have been unfamiliar to our parents or grandparents—little kids running around, anyone takes a turn at drashing–it wasn’t their cup of tea. Maybe that’s yet another interpretation of Jacob’s question, Mi Eleh, “Who are these?”—for surely M and E, born and raised in Egypt, in a family with mixed parentage, were different, as younger generations always are—they don’t know Yiddish, or they keep eco-kosher but not kosher, or their only religious practice is social justice work, or they’re “spiritual but not religious”, or they became Haredi, or they can only daven with a rock band.

Look, it feels nice for us when our children, or grandchildren, like the same things that we do. It’s nice that some of our adult children show up here. But coming to daven in the same room is not the only form of continuity. Sometimes the next generation moves out, moves away, and moves on, and creates something that may or may not be our cup of tea, but still is rooted in values of serving God, building community, perfecting the world, and loving Torah—whether or not that is the vocabulary being used. Hopefully, we can recognize that moving on does not mean abandonment, we can appreciate new directions that we did not create, and we can admire a younger generation for their passion to evolve Jewishly in paths they forge for themselves, even as we forge a path for ourselves.

Our parsha reminds us that one of the main goals of adult life is to pass on something of ourselves. This something may be received as is, or may be transformed in ways that may be hard to recognize—“Mi Eleh”, “Who are these?” We pass the baton to a next generation, and try to recognize graciously that the baton needs to be passed–or, as Ya’akov Avinu says, we pass on to our children and grandchildren the blessings that our parents and grandparents passed on to us. We bless our children with the words Jacob used to bless Joseph and his children: Hamal’akh hago’el oti mikol ra y’varech et han’arim, v’yikare bahem sh’mi v’shem avotai Avraham v’Yitzhak, v’yidgu larov b’kerev ha’aretz. May God’s angel, all of God’s messengers who protected and sustained us, bless our younger generation, our children and grandchildren, and may you carry on the name—the essence–of your forebears, and may you flourish in the world and live a life of fullness and abundance.

The Avinu Family

The Avinu Family: A Tragedy in Ten Episodes

By Norm Green, November 15, 2014

In the first two episodes we have seen wars and upheavals, destructions of whole cities, a woman turning into a pillar of salt, cruelty to a servant, and the disruptions of Abraham sending a son and his mother away, and their miraculous survival, and Abraham coming within seconds of slaughtering his other son.

In the weeks to come, we will see strife among brothers, between spouses and between our clan and its neighbors, deceit and guile, sexual impropriety, strained relationships between parents and children and in-laws, a brother sold into slavery, and eventually our entire people descending into servitude.
But this week, we have a respite. In Chayei Sarah, a lot of people do as they ought, and we have a picture of a pastoral clan living among decent, respectable people, while yet keeping their own identity, practices and customs.

Before burying Sarah’s body, Abraham makes sure he has recognizable title to the property. Abraham realizes that Isaac is still traumatized and cannot seem to finish his intense mourning for his mother, and he figures out how best to comfort him, sending his servant Eliezer to find Isaac a good wife. God answers their prayers with Rebekah, and she is the perfect cure for Isaac. He loves her, they meet each other’s needs; she becomes the one matriarch to whom God speaks directly.

But we also have a tradition that Isaac wasn’t merely sitting around moping. Imagine Isaac and remember his past. He comes from a family that had servants. Surely he spent much of his young childhood in the care of his mother’s handmaiden Hagar and his older brother Ishmael. He was surely considerably younger than Ishmael, but he was not a mere infant when they were sent away. I expect that it was a traumatic loss when they left. Yes, his older brother teased him, but that’s not such a big deal, is it? And if his father could send his older brother away, Isaac might have become quite insecure, imagining that his father might banish him as well, should his mother ever turn on him.

Then comes the Akeidah. We are disturbed by the whole event, but we don’t have to live through it. Isaac did live through it. I expect that an experience like that damages the father-son relationship. The father may be, in some ways, dead to him. Isaac and his dad may still have lived in the same land, but the Torah does not place them in the same place, and we do not learn of their speaking with one another, during the remainder of Abraham’s life. They came up to Mount Moriah together, but Abraham goes down from there alone.

So where does Isaac go to find comfort after experiencing the Akeidah and losing his mother? Why of course, he seeks out his loving nanny Hagar and his brother Ishmael. To Isaac, they are family.

How does he seek them out? He goes to B’er Lachai Ro-i, called by Rabbi Shai Held “the place where God sees and hears those who have been cast out.” The well there was named B’er Lachai Ro-i by Hagar when she first ran away from Sarai, who had been cruel to her. God’s angel comforted her there and urged her to go back to Abraham’s household, for she was pregnant with Ishmael.

Isaac goes there to find comfort for himself, and perhaps to experience the side of God that comforts the afflicted, having had enough of the emanation of God that put Abraham to an inscrutable test and Isaac himself through terrible suffering.

The Torah tells us that Isaac is coming out from B’er Lachai Ro-i when he first sees Rebekah and then proceeds to marry her. In the very next verse after telling us of this marriage, the Torah informs us that Abraham marries Keturah. Our midrashic tradition tells us that Keturah and Hagar are the same person. The implication is that, even while Abraham was arranging a match for Isaac, so also was Isaac arranging a match for Abraham, with, inevitably, a reconciliation of the family. That is a reconciliation of Isaac with Abraham and between them and Hagar and Ishmael.

This reconciliation is corroborated by the fact that, when Abraham eventually dies, the Torah informs us that he is contented, and his sons are able to come together peacefully to bury him.

I long thought that Isaac might have been distinctly less impressive than his father or his son, with fewer significant achievements. But if he was able to transcend his personal suffering so as to empathize with Hagar and Ishmael and bring about a family reconciliation in that generation, and able to keep things together enough that his sons, even after all of their tsuriss, eventually come together peacefully, then that’s a pretty good record.

Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha

By Anthony Elman, November 1, 2014

Shabbat shalom everybody!

Some of you may not know me, though I’ve been a member for more than 9 years. But almost immediately after joining Beth Am and the Library Minyan with my wife Miriyam Glazer, I deserted her on the pews. I joined the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, first as acting rabbi, then full rabbi (on my ordination at AJR in 2007), then Spiritual Director.

Now I have retired! Very recently! In fact today is the first day of my new life. Discovering some months ago that this would be Shabbat Lech Lecha, how could I resist asking for the chance to explore here both what that call may have meant to Avram, and what this period at the Home has meant in my own life. This has been a major time of reflection, and I want to tell you how I got to the Home, and what I have got from the Home, for my nine-year sojourn at the Jewish Home has been so special to me – a highlight of my life!

So what was the path that led me to serve as rabbi at the Home? So many places I could begin. Shall I tell you about the gently Orthodox home I grew up in a town some 40 miles east of London?

How I spent a year teaching in India between school and university, and how that perhaps – who knows? – gave me an injection of compassion?

Or maybe how, after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University (a period in which I embraced the rational and turned my back on religion), I entered one of those professions beloved of Jewish parents – the law? (I hastened to add that it was not my parents who urged me into that profession, it was my own decision based on a belief in the importance of financial security and social respectability (aspects of life that I soon came to realize were really my parents’ values, rather than mine.)

I think my preferred start is how I left the law, and the successful firm I had started with a friend six years before. The words I uttered were: If I am going to spend my nights worrying, I would rather worry about something more worth-while than how much money my clients make from their contracts. I didn’t at that stage have biblical or “God-language” to understand that move, but now I would see it as a “lech-lecha” moment, as though God were tapping me on the shoulder and saying: time for a journey into the unknown.

My next step was to retrain and work as a social-worker – certainly a worth-while profession, but one in which I never really felt at home.

Along with my professional story, I also need to add in my health story, for it was around this time that I had my first diagnosis of – and treatment for – cancer in my eye.

Eight years after entering social work, I was off on my journey again, this time to a holistic centre for cancer patients, and a training in transpersonal (or spiritual) counseling. I was deeply affected by my work at the centre, but the major spiritual lesson was in my being fired by the medical director who experienced me as a rival. It was a colleague, a wise healer, who helped me trust that what appeared to be a nasty blow was in fact the right path, and I needed to trust that path.

This became a central principle for me, and has been a teaching of mine at the Jewish Home: when something bad (or apparently bad) happens, then, with an attitude of trust, we can make or find the positive we need in our new situation. In terms of the High Holy Day liturgy, it is our attitude that can lessen the severity of the decree that life has handed us. This has guided me through the ups and downs of my life.

What did happen to me after having to leave the cancer centre was indeed for the good. I undertook a psychotherapy training and entered a long period of private practice as a psychotherapist. Also during this period I felt a pull back to my Jewish roots, joined a synagogue (an orthodox one, not unlike the shul of my childhood), and eventually became president of it.

There were also, over a short span of years, three bad experiences (ones which after the initial shock, I could once again accept as for the good) – the return of my cancer, a divorce not of my own choosing, and the loss of my eye.

These events took me on a new journey, to aliyah (at the age of 60) and a new life in Jerusalem where I immersed myself in Torah study – until the real purpose of my aliyah became clear. (After all, if we follow a journey not by preconceived plan but by following where we are led by God, we do not know what surprises God has in store for us.) I met Miriyam, came to Los Angeles with her, married her, entered the Academy for Jewish Religion (thinking I was going to continue learning for its own sake – Talmud Torah lishma) and found that the place God had in fact led me to was a beautiful rabbinical training – not something I had ever intended.

I want to pause in my story a moment to ask: Who was this Anthony who was now studying to be a rabbi? The answer, I think, is much the same Anthony who had studied law 40 years before, though with different interests, knowledge and skills, and with a pleasure in Torah study that hadn’t developed when I was young.

I ask that question, because when I came to the Jewish Home a year or two later, I believe a more profound change in me began to take place. If there is one word that can sum up that change, it is love.

I had certainly known love before – I had loved, and been loved by, parents and brothers, wider family, the women and the children in my life, dear friends…. But the person who served the residents of the Jewish Home over the 8 or 9 years leading up to yesterday, found a whole new, and unexpected, part of himself – a gift from residents and a gift from God.

I have come to realize that what opened up in me, particularly at some of my services and classes, was a love that (I believe) made space for God. I had never before known such joy as I felt in this work, which I think of as holy work. I learned that God’s Presence comes about within the connections of a group praying or singing or learning together; and that there have been times when I may have had a role in helping to allow this Divine Presence.

But it is not just in those holy moments of prayer or learning that I discovered something new in myself: I felt a great love nearly all the times I was with residents.

People like to say to me that my previous professions of law, social work and psychotherapy prepared me for this work. I might nod in agreement, but in truth, I wonder how much this was true. My time in law may have aided clear thinking and an attention to detail (something that certainly came into play when I had to ensure the smooth running of nine simultaneous Pesach Sadarim). More importantly, psychotherapy taught me how to listen.

So perhaps the people who wanted to point to my previous professional experiences, as being the ideal antecedents which made me what I became as rabbi for my residents at the Home, did in fact have some truth on their side. But only partially so; and what I got from these professional antecedents did not go near the heart of what I became.

What interests me, particularly in the light of this parshah, is the urge to build, or elaborate, a pre-history to make sense of the present. (I smile at myself for saying this, as it does a little bit like what I used to do as a psychotherapist.)

So what was Abram before he got the call? Vocare, as Latin scholars among you will know, is to call, and a person who, like Avram, responds to the call, is following his vocation. Well, we all know he had been the young man who smashed idols in his father’s idol shop; he was the thinker who puzzled out that there must be an ultimate creator and master of the universe. But of course, these stories are nowhere to be found in the Torah.

Mainly I love what the Rabbis do to Torah. I love the story of Nachshon striding into the Red Sea. I am fascinated (and heartened) by the Rabbis softening some of the harshness of Torah law – and of God. On the other hand, I get irritated when Esav becomes Esav ha-rashah, when in the Torah story Esau is certainly not evil (yes I know the rabbis had their own reasons for showing the Edomites to be evil).

As for this added pre-history for Avram, yes of course this was a heaven-sent opportunity to fill the apparent gap with some teachings about monotheism and idolatry. But I also want to suggest it is a shame, as it twists the story of Abraham away from what may have been the more subtle intention of Torah. We may find a clue in the famous words of God in next week’s parsha, Va’yera. Very soon after Abraham has gained his new name and lost his foreskin (surely both signs of a new beginning) (this is 24 years after the original call of Lech Lecha), God says (to himself and to us) Ki yedativ l’ma’an asher y’tzaveh et banav v’et beito acharov v’shamru derech Adonai la’asot tzedakah u-mishpat… (part of Gen.18:19)

For I have made a loving relationship with him (isn’t that the best way of understanding yedativ?) in order that he may instruct his children and descendants to keep the way of Adonai and act with righteousness and justice…

A key word in this is le’ma’an, in order that. It’s a word that looks forward. Torah does not tell us of any prior reason why Abraham is chosen as God’s man. What it tells us is about the future; I suggest Abraham will be able to fulfill this mission precisely because God has entered into this loving relationship with him. There is no hint that Torah wants a prior story (as put forward by the Rabbis).

Rather, Torah finds something new starting to manifest in Abraham, which we see immediately after God’s words about righteousness and justice: Abraham’s famous protest to God to uphold justice. Never before have we seen Abraham (or anyone else – certainly not Noah) argue for justice.

It is true that through our lives, we develop new skills, new capacities, new attitudes. We do this while remaining basically the same person as we always were.

But also in our lives we may discover that wholly new aspects of ourselves have come to the fore that we were never aware of before, that we had never allowed to develop, that we had never imagined in ourselves. Because some aspects of ourselves lie hidden, in the shadows, in potential, perhaps waiting to be allowed to emerge, perhaps never to emerge. (The Ishbitzer Rebbe, author of Mei HaShiloach, saw the call of Lech Lecha – to go to an as yet unknown place which God would show him, as a call for Abram to find that potential.)

This is my sense of what happened to me at the Jewish Home. For the love that I felt there is unlike anything I have felt before, and the person I was, leading services or other events, or teaching classes, or talking with residents, was a person I don’t recognize at all from my previous life – or even from my concurrent life outside the Home!

This way of being has given me such joy, such a touching of the divine – and I hope allowing others to touch the divine – that it is no wonder I have spoken sometimes about my feeling of being blessed and my gratitude for this opportunity to be more than I have been before, and more than I had ever dreamed of being.

I want to ask you a question: how often have you ruled out some new activity or study or practice or music, with the words: that’s not me. I’m embarrassed to admit I do that sometimes, though I am trying to let go of that habit. I now believe that “who I am” – “who each of us is” – is much less limited and narrow than we tend to think. There are all sorts of possibilities in us waiting to emerge, if only we choose not to think of ourselves as narrowly defined, and allow ourselves to discover the hidden aspects of who we could be.

In my work at the Home, I never accepted that residents, just because they are advancing in years, or have some disability, or simply by reason of their living in an institution, are stuck in their progress through life. Far from it! Pages of our personal book of life remain to be written, new chapters remain to be discovered. Rather than choose what should come next, I invite you (just as I used to invite my residents) to be open to allowing all sorts of possibilities. We can want and plan what we know about. But allowing is about letting aspects of who we are emerge that we may never have dreamed about.

I am going to paraphrase two popular figures in the Jewish story: God and Al Jolson.

First God, at this moment he selects Abraham to have a special role in the development of God’s scheme for humanity: Lech lecha, God said (and I say to you), don’t be locked in by what is familiar; go to a new place in yourself which you do not yet know but I will show you.

As for Al Jolson, he virtually ended the silent movie era and ushered in the era of the talkies, when he called to the orchestra, on screen in “The Jazz Singer”:You ain’t heard nothing yet!

Well, you tell your families and everyone who treats you as though you had stopped growing: You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Good luck on your journey!

Parashat Noach

Parashat Noach: The Ends Do not Always Justify the Means

By Rabbi Daniel Chorny

Shabbat Shalom.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A boy is visiting a local farm when he comes across a pig with only three legs. Having never seen such a thing, the boy asked the farmer “why does this pig have only three legs?”

“Oh, that’s no ordinary pig”, replied the farmer, “why, not even five years ago my daughter was having trouble with her math homework and, wouldn’t you know it, I come home and find the pig tutoring her on her multiplication tables.”

“Wow,” said the boy, “that’s amazing! But why does it only have three legs?”

“You don’t understand,” said the farmer, “a year ago our house caught fire while we were all sleeping. The pig smelled the smoke, carried us out on its back, and even went to the trouble of dialing 9-1-1”.

“I can’t believe it!” said the boy, “Is that how it lost its leg?”

“Oh no,” said the farmer, “you see, about a month ago, we were all having a good time around our swimming pool when my wife slipped on the deck and fell in, unconscious. The pig jumped in the water and pulled her out, and even knew to administer CPR!”

The boy looked at the farmer with wonder and shouted: “I get it, the pig is very special, but how did it come to lose one of its legs?”

And to this the farmer answered: “Well, you can’t eat a pig that special all at once!”


Our farmer is decidedly not Jewish (at least in my telling of the joke), yet the irony of his behavior resonates with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.

Personally, I like this joke because of the genuine affection that the farmer expresses for his beloved pig, while not losing sight of the reason he owns the pig in the first place. He appreciates that this pig is not like all the rest. He wants to honor his pig for its heroism and superior intellect, and he does it in a way that comes natural to him.

Our rabbis taught that the consumption of the limb of a live animal—אבר מין החי—is one of the foundational prohibitions that all of humanity, not just Jews, must observe as part of the covenant that God struck with Noah after the great flood. The so-called “Seven Noahide Laws”, which include “not blaspheming God’s name”, “not committing murder” and “establishing courts of justice”; are commonly taken as the basic rules for civilization to endure by avoiding the violence (חמס) that drove God to destroy the world at the start of our parashah.

I haven’t seen the new Russell Crowe movie about Noah yet, but I’m 99% sure that the rest of Noah’s generation is not portrayed very positively in that film. If you’ve seen it already, you can tell me if I’m wrong, but its a safe bet to assume that every last individual outside of Noah’s immediate circle behaves like the moral lovechild of all the worst “Bond villains”. That’s how we are conditioned to think about that generation. They were evil because they were evil. They woke up in the morning and, in the same breath that we now say “מודה אני לפנך מלך חי וקיים”, they would ask themselves “what is the most despicable thing I can do today? Who or what can I kill today? Who or what can I steal today? How can I defy God today?”

We picture Noah’s contemporaries doing terrible things because they want to be terrible. And the same is true for our own generation: our enemies conspire to kill us because they are evil, or our political adversaries think of ways to destroy our nation, our city; even our synagogue because it pleases them to do so. In 1920s film, villains wore black hats and handlebar mustaches if they were born with those features marking the darkness within them. Today, our society has replaced one caricature for another: our villains wear turbans and a long beards and, speaking with British accents, plot to destroy us because… well… just because.

But is that really what the “Seven Laws” are about? Remember our farmer. He does’t have any ill-will toward his pig or God or society. On the contrary, his intention is arguably very pure: “What better way to honor my pig than to let it live so I can enjoy it longer?”

The generation of the flood was not actively seeking the end of society. They were like you and me. They struggled each day to put a roof over their heads and food in the bellies. They loved, they fought, they had children and, according to last week’s parasha, even produced art and music. They employed whatever means necessary to ensure their survival, and there was no formal law preventing them from doing so. Would things have gone differently if God had established the covenant with whole of humanity before the flood, even if only to provide a “legal” basis for its inevitable destruction?

The covenant of Noah is a warning to us. Humans are complicated creatures. There are no רשעים גמורים, only people with good intentions who sometimes choose wrong actions. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting the same things that someone else has. But our parashah teaches us that it is wrong to take it from them, or worse, kill them for it. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking justice for being harmed; but God tells us we must not take that justice into our own hands.

Here’s a fun challenge for you next time you watch a horror movie or thriller: Try to imagine the plot from antagonist’s point of view. Quickly you will realize that the premises for such films depend on a degree of malice and precognition on the part of the villain that no real person can possess.

The same is true for the people in our lives who seem to be working against our efforts to do good. Ultra-Conservatives are not actively seeking to destroy the world by denying the reality of climate change. Ultra-Liberals are not seeking to enslave us by requiring all American’s to have health insurance. With very few exceptions, no one is “out to get you” just like you are not out to get anyone else. At every turn we must ask ourselves: “what is really motivating my actions?” how am I going about getting what I really want?”, “am I hurting others or myself?”, “can I find a better way?”

Shabbat Shalom.

Rosh Hashanah 5775

Rosh Hashanah 5775

By Miriam Elkins

Nearly every morning someone gently presses my front bell. I recognize the sound immediately – two short rings – I have come to expect it; after all, he has done this for several years (I can’t really recall how long it’s been). I open the door to Samuel who bids me good morning and asks what he can do for me today. I assign him a few modest tasks, since he refuses to accept money without as he puts it “being of service to the community.” My husband and I have settled on a daily budget for Samuel which we have from time to time adjusted in accordance with the rise in the cost of living. I usually go outside to hand him the money, but when I fail to do so he rings the bell to inquire whether the job has been done to my satisfaction. He accepts my offering with God Bless You as though it were an unexpected gift, as though his reward lay simply in having relieved us of some routine chores.

Like you, I am no fan of homelessness or poverty. I walk the streets of my neighborhood and am appalled at the level of degradation to which the wealthiest society in the world which claims to adhere to scriptural values has condemned its most powerless members. Like you I support relief agencies dedicated to alleviating their distress as well as public policy that would transform the economic and social conditions that generate unconscionable challenges to human well-being.

Yet, it is not easy for me to identify with Samuel. He is a stranger to me, radically and incomparably different. Not only is he male and African American and homeless. His life-story undoubtedly diverges from my own in ways I can hardly imagine. At the beginning I was curious about him; part of me still is. Where he is from, how it is that he came to own nothing more than the contents of his shopping cart. It was tempting for me, as a self-identified caring person, to somehow feel entitled to interrogate him, to press him for biographical details. Why has he not somehow managed, as I have, to secure for himself a tiny island of certitude in what the philosopher Emanuel Levinas has called the element, that vast spatial infinity of the unknown. I have learned to resist the temptation to inquire because I have come to realize that underlying it is the assumption that because he is on the outside, somehow he owes me an accounting, an explanation of his circumstance, while I, in turn, would consider it an invasion of my privacy to be forced to share the details of my own. Our only egalitarian point of contact is my doorstep where we first saw each other and where we continue to see one another each morning face to face.

According to the philosopher Martin Buber, my relationship with Samuel need not be asymmetrical at all. His concept of I-Thou can be described as a loving reciprocal embrace which may be why he has gained such widespread acceptance among non-Jewish thinkers: I-Thou, a momentary dissolving of our essentially superficial dissimilarities into a fusion of our common humanity. Are we not all kindred spirits under heaven? Do we not all share basic human physical and emotional needs and desires? And with enough generosity of spirit on our part are not these commonalities sufficient to engender feelings of empathy, compassion and charity toward the other? Perhaps.But empathy, compassion and charity do not constitute I-Thou relationships. In the context of the real world, those relationships are almost invariably grounded not in otherness but in affinity, in common experiences or cultural perspectives or class. All other relationships tend by their very nature, to be unequal, the less privileged being less powerful. In the real world Buber’s I-Thou is essentially aspirational, not descriptive.

Levinas grapples with the asymmetrical nature of our relationship with the other, and acknowledges my presumably not-unreasonable, but actually quite presumptuous urge, to appropriate knowledge about him. Since knowledge is power, knowing more about him than he knows about me would put me in a superior position, would give me a tool by which to exercise judgment or pity, uncomfortable as it is for me to admit it. Instead, Levinas performs a radical reversal of conventional behavior regarding those interpersonal relationships which are notoriously unequal. He draws his inspiration from our forefather Abraham, who, heavy with wealth and influence – one might say a Biblical one-percenter – did not wait for weary traveling strangers to come to him, but ran out to meet them in the desert heat, and bowed down to them calling them “my lord,” and who, the Torah seems to tell us, was beholden to them for having granted him permission to care for them. The story begins, And God appeared to Abraham. Rashi interprets this to mean that Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent waiting for needy passers-by who failed to arrive, so God himself took matters into his own hand, as it were, and sent him three angels disguised as men in order to introduce to the world a relationship to the other which Levinas calls the ethics of infinite responsibility.

God, though constantly audible throughout Torah, is reputed to be invisible except on very rare occasions, when someone like Moses is reported to have seen God face-to-face. According to Levinas, that face-to-face is not a private mystical epiphany, but rather a glimpse into the world of the infinitely unknowable – the world of the impoverished widow, orphan and homeless – represented by an infinitely unknowable God. In that face-to-face, God grants his human creatures the unique privilege of fulfilling an ethical obligation which like God himself is infinite.

Lately, between Samuel and me, a subtle shift has been taking place, hardly noticeable. Outwardly nothing has really changed – payment in return for services rendered. But these days when I open my door he informs me that, on his own initiative, he has already swept my walk and watered my garden, and invites me to inspect his work. Over time our roles have become reversed as Levinas predicted and hoped they would be. Samuel is no longer my suppliant whom I have the option to accept or reject, but rather my creditor to whom I am actually, rather than metaphorically, indebted. As Levinas puts it: “To welcome the other is to put into question my freedom; the better I accomplish my duty the fewer rights I have.”

To me Samuel is no sociological abstraction, but a contemporary trace of that face-to-face encounter between Moses, who handed down our basic required legal obligations, and God who opens our consciousness to an infinitely expanded vision of ethical responsibility.

Shana Tova.

Rosh Hashana 5775

Rosh Hashana 5775

By Joel Grossman

Wednesday night, yesterday at lunch and again last night, each of us dipped a slice of apple of a piece of challah into some honey and made a bracha asking for a sweet new year. We have all come into shul, both yesterday and today, wishing each other a good year, feeling happy, even festive as we greet the New Year. And yet, according to one story which came out of the recent Gaza War, a story which I must tell you is probably not true, this could have been the worst, most agonizing and depressing Rosh Hashono any of us can remember. According to a story printed by the Israeli newspaper Maariv in late July, as a result of the Gaza War Israeli intelligence uncovered a plot whereby hundreds of Hamas terrorists would mount a massive terrorist attack, using the tunnels they had built which led from Gaza to various places in Southern Israel. They would simultaneously emerge from all these tunnels and kill or capture as many Israelis as possible. The report said that this attack was planned for Rosh Hashono.

As it happens, I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who works in Israeli intelligence, who told the person I know that this story is probably not true. It is not clear how Maariv got this information or where it came from, as Maariv only cited anonymous Israeli intelligence sources. But the same person who told someone who knew someone who knew someone I know –while stating that the Rosh Hashono story is probably not true—hastened to add that the basic idea of Hamas terrorists using many tunnels for a simultaneous attack on kibbutzim, moshavim and towns in Southern Israel was in fact not a myth but highly likely. So even if this planned attack was not set for Rosh Hashono, had the IDF not destroyed these tunnels during the war, it is quite possible that such a coordinated attack could have been planned, and the consequences of such an attack would have been horrific.

Thank God, those tunnels have now been destroyed. And it is ironic that it was Hamas –who forced Israel into this war by ceaseless missile attacks– ended up with no tunnels with which to carry out such a raid. As we have all read about and heard on the news, Israel did not know the extent of these tunnels, and was extremely vulnerable. If this war had not happened, and if Israel had not found all the tunnels and destroyed them, a terrorist attack unlike any we have seen before could well have taken place, God forbid. Maybe if the war had not happened that attack would have been yesterday or today, though I again must add that is probably not the case. But it probably is the case that such an attack could have been planned and could have been carried out if this war had not happened.

So let’s review briefly. Hamas forces Israel to war by sending rocket after rocket into Israel, with the hope that the rockets would kill or injure civilians. Israel defends itself by air attacks and then a ground war. In the course of the war, Israel learns how extensive the tunnel network was, and how many tunnels—50 or 60 perhaps—led to Israel itself. Whether or not this attack would have occurred on this Rosh Hashono is not important. What is important is that on this Rosh Hashono we pause and think about how close we might have come to a disaster. If there had not been a war, if these tunnels had not been discovered and destroyed, the consequences are unthinkable. Yet, we must think about them, and must focus on the fact that this nightmare scenario could have happened, and through luck and skill we barely averted a calamity.

The idea of narrowly averting a calamity is not a new one for Rosh Hashono. In fact, it is the essence of the Torah reading for today. We all know the story so I will give only a very general summary. God decides to test Avraham and orders him to sacrifice Yitzchak. Avraham and Yitzchak travel together to Har Hamoriah, the place God has chosen for the sacrifice to take place. Yitzchak seems puzzled that they have brought wood and fire but no animal to sacrifice, but he still walks with his father to the appointed place. More, he apparently allows himself to be tied to the altar—we can only assume that he could have overpowered his elderly father if he had wanted to—and Avraham takes hold of the knife to kill Yitzchak. You can follow along in the Machzor on p. 104. Verse 10 reads: “Vayishlach Avraham et yado, vayikach et ha’maachelet lishchot et bno; And Avraham picked up the knife to slay his son.”

And of course we all know what happened next, in verses 11 and 12: at the last second, a malach –a messenger of God calls to Avraham and instructs him not to harm the boy. Instead, he sacrifices a ram whose horns are caught in a thicket. At the last second disaster is averted. If we step back from the story a little bit, we get a greater sense of the disaster that nearly happened. Avraham and Sarah, of course, were the only two Jewish people in the world until Yitzchak was born, making 3 Jews. One way to look at this story—and there a thousand ways to look at this story– is that this could have been the end of the Jewish people. Avraham and Sarah were not likely to have more children, and if Yitzchak was killed, the future of their family and the future of the entire Jewish people could also have been cut off. So Rosh Hashono, which marks the beginning of a new year, a time of hope and joy and plans for great things in the new year is the time we tell the story of what might have been—Yitzchak’s death, and the end of the Jewish people.

I connect the Hamas tunnels and the Gaza war to the Akedah for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, there was at least one unconfirmed report of a massive terrorist attack to take place on Rosh Hashono, and the real chance that the tunnels from Gaza to Israel could have led to a disaster, a disaster only avoided because Hamas was foolish enough and brazen enough to start the war, just like the tragedy of Yitzchak’s death was averted at the last second when the messenger told Avraham to stop.

But there is another connection. The story of the Akedah has many meanings and interpretations, all of which merit close attention. One interpretation is that Judaism was created in order to be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations. At the time when Avraham and Yitzchak climbed that mountain together, child sacrifice was a part of some pagan religions. Having Avraham appear to be practicing this same custom, and then dramatically having God’s messenger stop him at the last moment, can be seen as a dramatic renunciation of child sacrifice. Not only Yitzchak, but no child should be sacrificed, and the Jewish people are instructed in the most dramatic way possible to reject child sacrifice for themselves, and to influence the other religions to do so as well. And when Israeli soldiers discovered the terror tunnels, the tunnels which were to be used to slaughter Jewish children, they destroyed the tunnels, and perhaps tens or hundreds of Yitzchaks were spared.

The real question is this: what does this image of near disaster, of a knife at Yitzchak’s throat, have to do with us and with our lives as we assemble on this Rosh Hashono? We Jews are always metaphorically living with a knife at our throat, hoping that at the last minute we can avoid disaster. As we say on Pesach, in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. As for our generation, the dangers are all too apparent. Besides Hamas, who may be restocking missiles and digging new tunnels even as we speak, there is of course ISIS, the new terrorist in town, who wishes to establish a Muslim caliphate and has already announced its plans to conquer Jerusalem. And speaking of a knife to the throat, what a chilling reminder we have with the recent ISIS beheadings of American journalists, one of whom was Jewish. And of course, Iran, whose work on a nuclear bomb continues. It is now very unclear how successful the negotiations will be, and we must of course be ready for any eventuality. We have a lot to be worried about on this Rosh Hashono, a number of people who want to put the knife to our throats, with no guarantee that a messenger of God will stop them at the last moment.

This all seems very remote, perhaps, to those of us living in Los Angeles, worrying about our own lives—how we will earn a living, whom will we love and who will love us back, and the myriad of concerns of daily life from getting the oil changed in our car to managing our stock portfolio or our fantasy football team or studying for exams. We have pressures, sure, every day, but a knife at our throat? Are we on the verge of disaster, hoping for a last-minute reprieve?

Perhaps this is one more meaning of the Akedah story. The knife was at the throat of one boy, and surely if he had died it would have been a family tragedy. But given that he was the embodiment of the Jewish people, and his death could have meant the entire people’s death, we need to pay attention. We need to pay attention to Hamas, to Iran, to ISIS, we need to do what we can to support Israel, by the power of our voices, with our money and with our own personal devotion. We may not all make aliyah, but we can visit Israel, and do so as frequently as we possibly can. We can join and support organizations that work for Israel’s safety. We can inform ourselves as to which members of Congress support Israel and do our best to support and encourage them.

Perhaps this is how to read the Akedah. We are not Avraham. We are not Yitzchak. We are not the poor ram stuck in the thicket. But each of us is or can be malach Hashem, a messenger of God. Each of us can and must try to find a way to scream out at the last moment “NO! STOP! DO NOT HARM THE CHILD!” We can be messengers of God and work to take the knife out of Hamas’ hands, work to take the knife out of ISIS’ hands and out of Iran’s hands and off of our people’s throat.

I want to conclude by reading a beautiful passage in our Machzor, from the same page of the Machzor that contains the Akedah. It is a passage by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who tells the story of when he was a seven year old boy and studied the Akedah in school:

“Yitzchak lay on the altar, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Yitzchak. Behold, Avraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard: Avraham lay not your hand upon the lad, for now I know that you fear God. And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. Why are you crying, asked the rabbi, you know that Yitzchak was not killed. And I said to him, still weeping, But Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late? The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.

An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and flood, may be.”

That is us, We are the messenger. We cannot be late.

Shanah tova